THE FLAME

Burning Up Anthology

July 2003
St. Martin's Griffin

ISBN: 0312311087

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Serenity So-Fine, curator for the Galactic Museum of Erotic Art, has traveled back in time from the year 2700 to retrieve the infamous erotic sculpture The Flame. But the work's sensual creator, Justin Hill, is about to take Serenity to places even she's never been.

Read Nina Bangs' novella THE FLAME in this spicy anthology!

 



 
READ AN EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Serenity So-Fine hoped the sex object was here, because she was not walking back down that mountain in the dark without it. During her five years as curator for the Galactic Museum of Erotic Art she’d never come home empty-handed, and she didn’t intend to start now.

She pounded on the massive door with her wooden stake. No way would she get anyone’s attention with just her fist. What kind of barbarian would live in this crumbling stone monstrosity? A doddering old eccentric sculptor. With no doorbell or knocker? A doddering old eccentric misanthrope. She sighed. Okay, so maybe this wouldn’t be as easy as she’d thought.

Serenity had raised the stake to pound again when the door slowly creaked open. No surprise. This was not a door anyone would ever fling open. Everything about this place said old, a fitting setting for the old man, no, old genius, who lived here.

Serenity pasted an I’m-thrilled-to-be-visiting-this-backwater-time smile on her face, drew in a deep breath, then lifted her gaze to the man in the doorway.

“Hi, I’m...” Uh oh. Major miscalculation. Museum records had put the sculptor at seventy-eight years old in 2005. Of course, in 2700 seventy-eight wasn’t old. But in this time it warranted some wrinkles and withering. She did a quick body scan. Nope, no withering. The records were a few years off.

Early thirties, tops. Attractive in a primitive sort of way. Sensual lips tight with anger. Gray eyes narrowed in warning. Fine, so he was more than just attractive. Maybe she should hold her breath so his pheromone attack wouldn’t flatten her.

“How’d you get here?” He glowered.

“By taxi.” By the World Time Travel Agency’s evening express. A half-truth. She’d gotten from the small town at the foot of the mountain to his gate by taxi. But even a half-truth made her uncomfortable. Everyone told the truth in 2700, and lying was only permissible when traveling through time because lies were acceptable in primitive cultures. The ancient philosophy of “When in Rome”.

“Bet he took you to the gate then high-tailed it back down the mountain.” The tilt of his lips would almost qualify as a smile. It didn’t reach his eyes.
She frowned. “He did seem overly anxious to leave.”

The only light came from the hallway behind him, casting the surrounding forest into deeper shadows. The wind picked up, lifting his tangled mass of dark hair from his shoulders and separating it into shining strands.

“How’d you get through the gate?” He clenched his fists, his brief stab at good humor obviously over.

Fascinating. This was the first time Serenity had ever seen a physical expression of anger. She wished she could take the visual back to her associates to share.

“The electronic components wouldn’t keep a child out.” Of course, she meant a child from 2700.

“What about the dogs?” He took a step forward.

Serenity took a step back. Intimidation. Another new experience. Humans in 2700 never used this primitive technique to get what they wanted. An effective technique, she had to admit. She gripped her wooden stake tighter. “I used a mind soothant.”

“What’s that?” He moved closer.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. She should’ve remembered that mind soothants were invented in 2100. He’d rattled her. No one had ever disturbed her calm logical thinking processes. No one had ever tried. She had to get to the point then return to her time.

“It’s not important. Are you Justin Hill?” A servant? Did they still have servants in 2005, or had robots replaced them? She couldn’t remember.

His nod was almost imperceptible. His anger was not.

“Lady, you’d better be here to warn me the world will end in five minutes, because anything less will really steam me.” He moved into her personal space, with no permission and no apology. A manners breach of major proportions in her time.

Then he leaned down.

He was so big. Serenity felt the first ripple of unease. Another new sensation. There was nothing in her time that could possibly make her feel uneasy. It was a time of undisturbed peace.

“And when I get steamed...” His voice was a husky murmur. “I get violent.”

Violent? Violent. The most dreaded of human traits. Extinct for almost three hundred years. Serenity didn’t know how to counter this kind of savagery. She wished they made soothants for humans.

She drew in a deep calming breath and regretted it immediately. His gaze dropped to the lift of her breasts, and her nipples hardened to sensitive pressure points in response. Very strange. She didn’t experience physical reactions to men. Never had. In 2700 humans had moved beyond the physical to the mental. The only things Serenity So-Fine lusted after were more sex objects.

You are one big hairy liar. What about all the times in the museum when—? Serenity slammed the door shut on that particular thought, but she couldn’t stop it from rattling the knob.

This whole experience was starting to...disturb her. Nothing disturbed her. If she stayed here much longer she’d regress to prehistoric grunts.

She drew herself up to her full height, which only reached to about his shoulder, and tried for a confident professional expression. “I’m Serenity So-Fine, and—”

His soft laughter mocked her. “Serenity So-Fine? You’re kidding, right?”

She stared at him, shocked. He was ridiculing her name. She’d never heard ridicule used before. It made her feel... She wasn’t sure, didn’t want to explore the feeling. “Serenity is a positive emotion, and positive emotions make excellent names.” Her last name was problematic. “The So-Fine name has a long respected history. It traces back five hundred years. Legend has it that when my ancestor first saw the woman he’d marry he said, ‘You are so fine, lemon drop.’ It was a quaint and archaic compliment, but in that time it was traditional to take as a last name the first compliment a man gave to his chosen mate.”

Perhaps her ancestor should’ve given more thought to his first words.

He raked his fingers through his hair and she followed the motion, noting the flex of powerful shoulder and arm muscles. She’d never seen a man with this much physicality.

“Five hundred years ago people didn’t run around telling women they were so fine.” His gaze dropped to the stake she still clutched. “So are you a reporter, a sales person, or a Buffy wannabe?"

She kept forgetting she was in 2005. Okay, so she was officially panicked. And he was bombarding her with so many new emotions she couldn’t keep up with them. She needed to tell him why she was here before he made her forget.

“I’m here for your sex object. And—”

He didn’t give her a chance to finish.

“Sure. I’ll just rip my clothes off, and you can go at it. I don’t believe you, lady.” His eyes had darkened to the angry gray of the approaching storm. A rumble of thunder punctuated his fury.

She blinked. His anger said he did believe her even if he’d misunderstood her. His anger made her nervous.

Her gaze touched his face. Hard, uncompromisingly male. She couldn’t hold his stare so she allowed her glance to hop and skip over the rest of his body. Total impression? Tall, muscular, scary. An alpha male. Extinct in 2700, but like the Tyrannosaurus rex, a subject of fascinated conjecture.

Well, no primeval testosterone-breathing dragon would stop her now. “I’m the curator of the Galactic Museum of Erotic Art.” Her baby. During her five years as curator, she’d sent her assistants throughout the planetary systems and back to Earth’s primitive past to acquire erotic treasures.

“What?”

“Don’t interrupt.”

His expression said no one talked to him that way.

“I’ve sent a total of three trusted assistants to purchase your sex object and none of them returned. Their messages? They were having too much fun. Fun? What kind of an excuse is that?” They’d been weak. Probably lost track of their purpose while they wallowed in the sensual hot-tub that was this time. Exasperated, she’d finally come herself.

“Galactic Museum? Never heard of it.” He moved closer, if closer was possible. Justin Hill was way beyond just invading her space. He overwhelmed her with his in-your-face maleness and the heated realness of his sexuality. It wasn’t anything he’d said; it was who he was. And even across the span of 695 years, the female in her recognized him.

She sighed. Of course she couldn’t tell him anything that would confuse him. He wouldn’t sell her squat if he thought she was crazy. First, she had to make it clear what she’d come for.

Stepping back, she raked him with what she hoped was a contemptuous gaze. Unfortunately, it grew less contemptuous as it drifted lower. When it reached his groin, it stalled altogether. Men in her time wore loose flowing garments that hid any proof of their gender. Of course, men in her time didn’t have much proof. But that was okay because sexuality wasn’t really important. The mind defined the man.

It was very clear what defined this man. “I’ve come here to purchase the greatest of all sex objects.” She speared him with her glare. “And you are not it.” A flash of lightning followed by booming thunder made her announcement a little more dramatic than she’d planned. A few drops of rain started to fall.

She didn’t intend to stand here getting wet while he decided whether to invite her in or leave her outside to wash down the mountainside. Serenity picked up her travel pack. “I’ll just step inside so we can discuss your monetary reward for handing over The Flame.” She stepped around him and into his home.

Serenity half expected to feel his fingers closing around her neck as he yanked her out of his hallway and heaved her into the stormy night. It would do him no good. She’d just pick herself up and offer him more money.

When she heard no sound behind her, she turned. He stood as if frozen while the storm broke around him.

The wind whipped his long dark hair into a tangled glory and plastered his sleeveless T-shirt against his broad muscular chest. Suddenly, the heavens opened and sheets of rain soaked him. Water ran down his bare arms making his skin gleam like the statue of some pagan warrior.

Serenity would’ve enjoyed studying the musculature of his thighs and legs as well, purely from an aesthetic perspective, but his hard stare held her prisoner.

She pushed a shiver of fear away and tried to deny her inner voice of truth. Its whisper reached her anyway. This was not one of her time’s gentle and supremely civilized men. Justin Hill looked at her from the eyes of one of Earth’s ancient predators. Did one enter the house of a predator? You did if he had something you wanted. And that was the bottom line for Serenity So-Fine.

“Umm. Maybe you should come inside.” After this, she could change her last name to So-Stupid.

He held her gaze as he strode into the house then pushed the door shut behind him. Even with his obvious strength, the door didn’t slam, but merely eased shut with an ominous click.

“Come in and sit down.” His voice made it plain this wasn’t a friendly invitation but a direct order. He walked past her and disappeared through one of the many doorways lining the long dim hallway. He didn’t look back to see if she followed him.

Serenity hesitated. All she had to do was reach for the time travel disk secured around her neck, press return, and she’d be safe once again in her sane time. Without The Flame.

She wouldn’t do it. Slowly, she followed him.

The room was an eclectic mix of comfortable seating and other furniture with a large blazing fireplace to take away the chill of the cool wet night. But that’s not what riveted Serenity’s attention. Scattered around the room, on tables, on the fireplace’s mantel, and even on the floor, were metal sculptures. Justin’s artistic DNA was stamped all over them. Emotional, energetic, and brilliant. But none of them were erotic. Where did he keep The Flame?

Serenity eased into the overstuffed armchair closest to the door then set her pack and stake beside her. Not that she’d have anywhere to run if she decided on a quick getaway.

He stood with his arm propped against the mantel, staring into the fire. “Now tell me what you know about The Flame.” He didn’t look at her.

Unease slid up her spine. His question didn’t make sense. The whole world knew about it. All the records they had indicated The Flame had caused a sensation in 2004 because of the innovative technique used to create it and the incredible emotion conveyed by the sculptor.

“Everybody’s talking about it. The Flame is probably the greatest erotic sculpture the world will ever see.” From her perspective in 2700, she could state that with some authority.

“And what year did I finish...The Flame?” He still didn’t look at her, but his fingers once again curled into fists.

Something wasn’t right here. What if he’d already sold it to someone else? According to the records, he still owned it in 2005, but old records could be wrong. His tenseness was a living breathing extension of the man. She squirmed in her chair.

“You finished it last year.” Serenity was on safe ground now. “And I’m here to offer you whatever you want for it.” She’d done her homework well. People in this time worshipped money, and she could afford to outbid anyone else who wanted the sculpture.

“When exactly was ‘last year,’ Serenity So-Fine?” He finally looked at her, and something frightening blazed in the depths of those gray eyes, something that reflected the fury of the storm now muted by the house’s thick walls. There was nothing muted about Justin Hill’s emotions.

Suddenly, what had seemed so simple as she sat in her comfortable museum office now took on sinister dimensions. Was he crazy? Maybe he’d sent the messages from her assistants. Maybe he’d murdered them and buried their bodies in the cellar. She shook off her mind’s overreaction. Museum records would’ve noted if he were a serial killer. He’d asked an easy question, she’d give an easy answer.

“Two thousand four.” Serenity willed herself to relax, but she wished the house wasn’t so silent. Didn’t anyone else live here?

He pushed away from the mantel and took a step toward her. Even that slight motion pushed her back in her chair, made her dig her nails into the arms as an anchor.

“The year is two thousand three, and the only place The Flame will probably ever live is in my mind.” His smile was no smile at all, merely a baring of his teeth. “How did you know what was in my mind, Ms. So-Fine?”

“Two thousand three?” Serenity widened her eyes until she felt her face must be one huge eyeball. How had the time travel agency made that kind of mistake? She closed her eyes, pictured herself scribbling the information on a note and giving it to her assistant, Tranquillity. She must’ve made her five look too much like a three. Why hadn’t she made the arrangements herself like she arranged everything else in her life? Too late now for should-haves.

“You may as well open your eyes, because you have some questions to answer.” His voice sounded close.

Too close. So close that his warm breath moved across her tightly closed lids. For the first time in her twenty-eight years, Serenity So-Fine wished she could curse. A curse wicked enough to shrivel his no-doubt oversized sexual organs. Unfortunately, no one cursed in 2700, because to use an effective curse, one had to have a worthy recipient.

She opened her eyes and met his silver stare framed in dark seduction. Where had that thought come from? Seduction wasn’t part of her normal word bank. But no other description seemed a fitting tribute to his gray eyes with those thick dark lashes. It was a good thing he didn’t live in 2700, because he’d disturb the calm even tenor of every woman’s life.

“What’re you thinking?” His voice was soft, controlled, but his eyes said something else entirely.

She swallowed past the boulder in her throat. “I was thinking that a vile curse might be appropriate for the moment, but I don’t know any vile curses.”

His lips slanted up in the first real smile she’d seen from him, and she drew in a deep fortifying breath. She’d never quite understood the true meaning of “lethal.” She understood now.

“I’ll give you a few you can use.” He bent closer, even as he planted his hands firmly on the arms of her chair.

Trapped. He was so close that if she chose she could lean forward and slide her tongue across his full lower lip. She frowned. Even during her two government-mandated sexual encounters, she’d never thought in terms of her mouth on any part of a man’s body.

The truth behind her mind’s closed door had given up on doorknob rattling and was now whispering through the keyhole. What about all those nights alone in the museum with only the paintings, the sculptures, and your imagination? You wondered about all the ways— Serenity stuffed the keyhole with her resolve not to think about those nights.

“Who the hell are you, and how do you know about The Flame?” His lips moved slowly, carefully enunciating each word.

Wonderful lips. If she lived in this time, she might even be tempted to taste those lips. Of course she didn’t, and she wouldn’t. “I’m still Serenity So-Fine, and I know about The Flame because its existence is recorded in the museum’s data base of erotic treasures.”

With a muffled oath she didn’t quite catch, he pushed away from her chair then raked his fingers through his tangled hair. “I know the names of all the major museums, and there is no damned Galactic Museum of Erotic Art.”

“I don’t care what the hell you know, but in my time there damned well is a Galactic Museum of Erotic Art.” She hoped she’d used the curses correctly.
“And what is your time?” He shook his head, and his wet hair shifted across his shoulders. “I can’t believe I asked that.”

A total disaster. Nothing else would describe this whole thing. Not only was she in the wrong time, but Justin Hill, aka The Savage, sounded like he might never create The Flame. Civilization couldn’t lose such a great work of art. Even though she wouldn’t be able to stay long enough to see him finish it, she had to make sure he started. Then she could send an assistant back to claim it in 2005. She’d choose a very old assistant this time, one who wouldn’t be tempted by the carnal nature of this time, of this man.

“I asked a question, and I don’t like to wait for answers.” His tone suggested that people usually didn’t keep him waiting for anything.

“Too bad.” Once again, she noted his startled expression. For the first time she wondered what happened to someone who talked back to him. Maybe she didn’t want to know.

She’d have to tell him the truth. This wouldn’t be so tough. The travel agency always prepared time travelers for this eventuality by sending along a list of major events that had happened within five years of the targeted time period. The list was supposed to convince skeptics who didn’t believe in time travel. It sounded great in theory. Then why was her heart pounding at about a thousand beats a minute?

Serenity took a deep breath. “I’m from the year 2700. Now before you tell me you don’t believe it, let me get you some proof.” Refusing to look at him, she bent down to her pack and rooted around in it. The list had to be here somewhere. If her hands weren’t shaking she could do a better job of searching.

Why wasn’t he shouting and threatening her with a mental health facility? She wasn’t going to look up and find out. At last her fingers touched the list. As she glanced at it, a sense of inevitability settled around her like a toxic cloud. The list spanned the years 2005 to 2010. Fat lot of good that would do.

Suddenly, he crouched down in front of her and put his hand on her knee. A large hand with strong blunt fingers. Not the hand of an artist. Not the hand of a man from her time. “Calm down. I believe you.”

“You do?” Why would he believe her? Everyone needed proof.

“I believe you because I’ve never talked about The Flame to anyone.” His eyes glittered with suppressed excitement, not the disbelief and panic she’d expected.

“Oh.” Her vocabulary seemed to shrink with every moment she spent near this man.

“Tell me about The Flame.” His fingers still lay on her knee, a warm reminder of her vulnerability in his house.

“The museum only has two views of The Flame, the back and one side. It shows a nude man and woman wrapped in a sexual embrace. They’re standing, and the man has the woman’s hands clasped above her head.” She’d always wanted to see their faces. Did their expressions mirror the passion of their embrace?

He nodded, and she had the feeling his thoughts were turned inward.

“And they’re surrounded by the symbolic flames of their desire.” His murmur was an affirmation of his inner vision.

She nodded. Maybe this trip had been worthwhile after all. Perhaps she hadn’t wasted all those hours spent studying the speech patterns and culture of this time. If she could give him the nudge he needed to create The Flame, then she would have done a service to mankind. The thought energized her.

“So why don’t you do it?”

He stood and for the first time seemed to realize his shirt was soaked. In one swift motion he stripped it off and dropped it to the carpet. “I don’t create on demand. The Flame is in my head. It doesn’t become real until it’s here.” He tapped his chest.

Serenity did the eye-widening thing again. Nudity didn’t cause embarrassment in her time because so much of the fixation on the sexual nature of the body didn’t apply anymore. A great mind was sexy, not a great body.

Of course there were bodies and there were bodies. She’d never seen a man’s body that was so...there. How could she concentrate on his mind when her senses had attached themselves to his tanned muscular chest like tiny immovable suction cups? He oozed elemental maleness on a scale she’d never experienced.

For the first time in her life, Serenity considered the possibility that her time might not have it all.

“What?” The wicked slant of his lips said he knew exactly what she was thinking.

Drawing in a deep breath of resolve, she dragged her senses kicking and screaming from the candy jar of their choice. “I’m here for you, Justin. I have three days to move The Flame from head to heart. Now what do I have to do?”

“Three days, huh?” He studied her, giving away nothing. “What do you know about me, Serenity?”

“Well, ...nothing. Museum records are pretty incomplete about your personal life. They even had your age wrong. I thought you were seventy-eight.”

He frowned. “Your records probably mixed me up with my grandfather. He’s done some impressive sculptures of the human body.”

Serenity searched her memory. “Evidently he didn’t do anything important enough for us to have records on.”

“I bet that would shock the hell out of him.” His lips were set in a grim line.

For a moment, she wondered about his relationship with his grandfather then pushed the thought aside. She was here for The Flame, not to get involved in the artist’s family life. “I’m dealing with a time limitation here. In 2700, every citizen on Earth is allotted a three-day trip through time. We’re only allowed one trip to keep time travelers from cluttering up the past. So I’ve got to make these three days count because I won’t get a second shot.”

He nodded, his gaze thoughtful. “You sound like anyone I’d meet on the street. Why?”

If it made him more comfortable with who she was, she’d answer his questions. “I studied the speech patterns and vernacular of this time.”

His expression didn’t change, but Serenity swore she saw a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “Is that why you called The Flame a sex object?”

She looked away. “I wanted to use terms that would convince you I was from this time, so I tried to use your slang. Not all slang terms are explained in our language program.” She sighed. “I thought the phrase ‘sex object’ sounded self-explanatory. I was wrong.”

“And the stake?” His amusement was open now.

Serenity didn’t know if she’d ever get used to being laughed at. It almost made her...mad. She frowned. Anger had never touched her. How would she handle it? “I stopped at a small store in Carlton to get directions, and the lady there sold me the stake. She said that no one knew who lived here now, but that legend said this was once the home of a vampire.” She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “I don’t believe in vampires, but in my society everyone must be polite to others, so I took the stake.”

“And now you’re going to help me create The Flame.”

His gaze assessed her, stripped her of all her pretensions, and exposed the doubt. The doubt that hadn’t existed before Justin Hill had opened his door to her.

“Yes.” She’d do whatever it took to bring The Flame into existence.

“You can try, Serenity So-Fine.” Challenge gleamed in his eyes. “You can certainly try.”

A lightning flash was followed immediately by booming thunder that seemed to shake even this house’s thick walls. Suddenly, the lights went out leaving them in darkness.

Serenity sucked in a breath of panic. Fear of the dark was a primitive trait. She was not afraid of the dark. So of course her shriek of terror when someone touched her arm came as a complete surprise.

“It’s okay, Serenity. I’m here.”

That’s what she was afraid of. Candlelight flickered into life beside her and in its glow she saw Justin. His incredible eyes, his face framed by his fall of demon-dark hair, all seemed disembodied within the circle of wavering light. The darkness shifted and moved, a living thing whispering night secrets. At this moment, vampires seemed a very real possibility.

“Come with me.” His voice was a soft murmur of sensuality.

“Where are we going?” Her question was meaningless because she’d follow him anywhere he led. She didn’t intend to be left alone in this dark room populated with the vampires-of-Christmas-past, the vampires she absolutely did not believe in. She picked up her pack and stake then stood.

“I’ll take you to your room, then go to start up the generator. The lights go out a lot up here on the mountain. You’ll find a flashlight in the drawer beside your bed if you need it.” He held the candle so she could see the flight of stairs as it wound up into the darkness. “So how do all the...sex objects you collect make you feel?”

She shrugged then remembered he probably couldn’t see the gesture. “If you mean do they affect me sexually, the answer is no. I admire them only on an aesthetic level.” In her mind, beady eyes peered at her from beneath the closed door. Accusing eyes. Lying is wrong, wrong, wrong. Serenity chose to ignore the eyes. “Our culture has progressed beyond the need for sexual responses.”

“Let’s hear it for progress.”

She chose to ignore his muttered sarcasm and concentrated on not tripping as he led her down a long dark hallway.

“Are you a virgin, Serenity?” He stopped at the end of the hall.

Virgin? An archaic word, but one whose meaning she knew from her study of erotic art. “Is that the usual question you ask guests?”

“No.” He didn’t hide his amusement. “But then you’re not anyone’s usual guest. So are you a virgin?”

“Of course not. The government suggests that we have two sexual encounters so we can make an informed decision about whether married life and parenthood should be included in our life plans.” She didn’t want to acknowledge the unease she felt discussing sex with him, even though erotic art was her life.

“Did you enjoy the sex?” A door clicked open and when he swung it wide she stepped into the room.

Where was he going with these questions? “No one lies in my time, and sometimes that creates...problems. After my first encounter, I explained to my partner that his foreplay technique needed restructuring, and he compared me to an Arctic ice flow. My second encounter didn’t even reach consummation. He left right after I suggested that a penis extension would make his sexual experiences more rewarding.” Uncertain, she glanced at Justin. “Should I have been less truthful?”

He laughed out loud. “Godalmighty, woman. In 2003 you’d be known as The Great Emasculator.”

Serenity was not amused. She was used to the admiration of others. People praised her for her cool and analytical appraisal of the erotic art in the museum. Her directness and adherence to truth were legendary. Now this barbarian was making fun of her.

She plopped down on the massive bed he’d led her to. She couldn’t see much of the room, but that was probably for the best. What she could see of the antiquated four-poster bed was enough.

He loomed over her. “You challenge me. And I haven’t felt challenged in a long time.”

Was that good? Did it mean he’d start on The Flame?

Justin reached out and drew a line of sizzling surprise along the length of her jaw. “You have a lot to learn—about life, about me.”

She could only swallow hard. As an afterthought, she realized she’d probably swallowed her voice along with her courage.

“Sleep well, Serenity So-Fine.” His wicked grin was made more dangerous by the candlelight’s pale glow. “And believe in things you never believed in before...” He strode to the door, then glanced over his shoulder. “even vampires.” Then he was gone and not even a soft click marked the door’s closing.

She was not afraid. Serenity stripped off her clothes and climbed beneath the covers.

She was not intimidated. She closed her eyes and willed sleep to come.

She did not believe in vampires.

She opened her eyes, leaned over the side of the bed, retrieved her stake, and shoved it under her pillow.

 

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