1955, Las Vegas, Nevada

Angeline swayed on her feet, twirling in circles as the lights of Sin City spun around her, her head thrown back in a giddy laugh. When she stopped, the lights kept spinning, turning into long, wispy snakes hissing and flying around her head. She made her own hissing sound back at the apparition and giggled as her fangs snicked back into her gums.

The woman now lying at her feet had been on mescaline and the trip had made it all the way to the vampiress. Her gaze was caught by a church, glittering in psychedelic glory in the distance. It rose out of the ground like a sign to Angeline, glowing and shaking and warping and moving, asking her to join the dance.

The drug expanded her awareness, and she felt there was nothing she couldn’t know. Her future mate was in that building. He was there, waiting for her to turn him and open his world to all the possibilities she held in her hands. She held the world in her hands. Or maybe that was the mescaline talking.

Angeline stumbled over the body in the alley, then righted herself, straightening her black, Victorian-style dress. Her manner of dressing occasionally drew stares in other cities, but she didn’t care. Here in Vegas, people assumed she was some type of performer and didn’t look twice. She could blend while keeping in use a wardrobe from her last favorite era.

She grabbed a sober man off the street and pulled him into the alley, drinking deeply of his blood to rid herself of the effects of her last victim. Then she made her way to the formerly glowing church that now stood austere in simple gray stone.

It had been centuries since she’d been inside a church. Would she burst into flames when she crossed the threshold? She imagined walking through the door and catching on fire to the shock and fright of all the assembled faithful. Of course she was being silly, she’d risen inside a church in the arms of her sire. She hadn’t combusted back then. As long as she didn’t touch any crosses or holy water, she’d be fine.

If I have any humanity left, I’ll be fine. She was well aware it was only her human side that could keep her safe, a side she’d spent the better part of the last several centuries suppressing.

She’d just reached the steps when the church clock began chiming out the midnight hour in ominous greeting. She jumped when the door swung open.

“Miss, are you here for the midnight service?”

A deep, graceful baritone. Angeline’s heart almost stopped. He was so damn beautiful. So tall—at least six foot five, and broad. He filled the entire double doorway with his presence. He was the one. She could feel it. Still she just stood there, unable to speak and partially afraid to go in.

He extended his hand to take hers. “I’m Father Hadrian. We’re just about to start. You’re welcome here.” His hands wrapped around hers were so warm.

The invitation took away the last of her fear of the place. Although vampires didn’t need invitations to get into human homes, a church felt more dangerous, as if the demon half of her could condemn her. Surely his invitation as well as her partial humanity would protect her. She glanced up at him through a fringe of lashes, overtaken with a sudden bit of shyness as she stepped inside the church.

What was wrong with her? She didn’t get shy around men. She moved to an empty pew and sat, her gaze moving back to him, tracking his every movement. She couldn’t help it, he was the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. Hadrian. She rolled his name over in her mind. She was a great fan of etymology. Her name, of course, no longer fit—she was far from an angel. Hadrian meant dark one.

His looks matched. In addition to being tall and broad, he was swarthy, with dark hair and eyes black as coal. Everything in his image screamed danger, but the kindness he projected was warmth and light. The contrast fascinated her. She wanted to tease out the dark edges, to have a partner in crime, but she also wanted someone she could trust.

In its own way, the church was a welcome retreat—familiar. It was dark—almost sinister—illuminated only by candles. The ornate Our Lady of Guadalupe statue glowed in the candlelight, as did the crucifix over the altar. In the dark it looked like a scene from a horror film rather than a symbol of hope and forgiveness.

Angeline reached absently inside her bag, clutching the beads of the old rosary inside. She let out a sharp hiss as her hand accidentally brushed the cross, leaving a condemning burn in its wake. She quickly composed herself, looking around to see if anyone had noticed a visible change in her demeanor. Had her eyes glowed? Had her fangs popped out? If either of those things had happened, no one noticed before her human mask fell back into place.

She looked at her hand as the red mark faded and the cross-shaped scar disappeared completely, the healing process completed in a matter of seconds, since she’d just consumed so much fresh human blood.

God didn’t want her anymore. Well fine, fuck him anyway. She’d carried this anger for a long time now, and yet, she stubbornly kept the rosary, carrying it around with her like a tarnished ticket into heaven.

Every time it burned her skin it was a reminder the ticket was no longer valid. It was of little consequence how faithful she’d been in her human life. It was that faithfulness that had ultimately killed her. If she hadn’t been at church that night…

Angeline brushed the stray tear off her cheek, pulling the wall up high around herself. It was easier to be the monster than the woman. The woman was still too vulnerable. She turned her attention back to the priest and the liturgy that was so familiar and yet so alien now.

She didn’t participate; she merely sat and observed the standing, sitting, kneeling—rote repetition that carried her off into another experience more quiet, but no less profound than the drugs that had moved within her earlier in the evening. The priest’s voice held a trace of an accent, but she couldn’t place it.

Occasionally his eyes drifted to hers. It took everything in her not to enthrall him, not to put suggestions into his head. She wanted to observe him in his natural state, like a researcher in the savannah watching a wild animal. She wanted to know who he was, not who she would mold him to be. That would come later.

His hands were mesmerizing, strong, and sure. Compared with her strength he was feeble right now, but he would become an awesome force of nature, like a tornado that couldn’t be contained. Her shyness had evaporated inside the cocoon of the church. Now she was only a predator watching her prey.

She licked her lips almost unconsciously.

The congregants began to stand and form a line to receive the bread and wine. She felt Father Hadrian’s eyes burn through her and looked away. He must have noticed she didn’t take part in the service. She felt exposed, and wanted to leave. She wouldn’t turn him tonight, but she remained in her seat. Angeline wanted to feel his warm hands over hers again and didn’t want to wait a week for the experience.

Hadrian had tried to keep his focus on the Mass, yet he couldn’t stop looking at the woman he kept thinking of as the dark angel. He’d seen human nature in all its intriguing, delightful, and disappointing forms, but this woman was a study in contrasts he couldn’t quite unravel.

His gaze lingered on her lips, which were painted a lush red that invited him to taste her. Her skin was a smooth, milky white that contrasted sharply against her long dark hair. Her glittering blue eyes offered an additional contrast to her shiny brown locks.

Given the style of her clothing and the smallness of her waist, Hadrian wouldn’t be surprised if she was wearing a corset underneath the dress, a corset painstakingly laced and tied by the hands of another. A lover perhaps? He imagined her flushed after a hurried coupling, leaning against the bedpost, sucking in a breath so the corset could be cinched just a little tighter.

She seemed barely real, and he feared she might disappear into the dark, cold night from whence she came, never to be heard from again. As he moved to the next parishioner kneeling at the bench, he glanced again at the dark angel.

Don’t leave.

Her eyes rose to his immediately as if she’d heard his thought. Her face was a mixture of hope, pain, and longing. He quickly dropped his gaze. He knew that look. With his face and physique he’d been the object of many female sexual desires. This woman was fire.

He tried to ignore her and focus on the rite, the guilt curling inside him that he wasn’t fully present for what was supposed to be Holy Communion. Hadrian passed through the rest of the service by habit, the part of his brain familiar with the exercise taking control while he waited for it to be over.

The midnight service was lonely. There was no choir or other participants, just him, offering a scaled-down version of the Mass for those who felt more comfortable in the dark. These were the people who needed him the most, and yet he didn’t know who was worth saving, who could change and find redemption and who couldn’t.

He’d grown weary of having faith in people, praying for them and hoping they’d change, only to see them fall further, many dying in despair, leaving the world worse than when they’d entered it. It was wrong to think such things, but he couldn’t help it. He’d seen too much—both human and otherworldly. He could no longer look at the world as the fresh-faced youth entering the priesthood. That had only been five years ago when he’d had a brief mystical experience, his own Damascus Road. But it felt like forever, like he’d aged centuries. He was far too jaded for thirty-five.

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