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A Fire in the Blood by Amanda Ashley (1)

Chapter One
Ten Years Later
Vampires. Tessa Blackburn shook her head as she scanned the front page of the Cutter’s Corner Gazette.
It was hard to remember how it all started. The first hint of trouble had been a brief story on one of the major news networks. At the time, it hadn’t made much of an impression on the citizens of Cutter’s Corner, since none of the victims had been residents of the town. Gradually, as stories of people disappearing closer to home, of bodies drained of blood, appeared in the headlines more and more often, the people of Cutter’s Corner began to pay attention. It soon became the main topic of conversation at the bank where Tessa worked. Speculation appeared in local blogs, on Facebook and Twitter. Such postings were frequently accompanied by lurid photos of the deceased and inappropriate comments.
At first, no one in town wanted to say the word out loud, but then, one reporter on a popular cable channel boldly stated that Cutter’s Corner had a vampire problem.
Once the word was out in the open, people really began to sit up and take notice.
Had it only been six months ago that the word had first appeared on the front page of the Gazette in boldfaced type? At the time, Tessa’s immediate reaction had been Are they kidding? There were no such things as vampires. Everybody knew that. Vampires were nothing but a myth, scary stories told to frighten children and gullible adults. A staple of old TV shows and spooky tours in New Orleans. Vampires were the villains—and sometimes the heroes—of numerous movies and books. They sold cereal, and taught kids how to count on Sesame Street. But real? No way!
Since then, every newspaper and magazine across the country—both print and digital—carried warnings for the public to stay inside after dark, and to never, ever invite a stranger into your home. And at least once a week, the news sources were plastered with a list of the various ways to identify a vampire, as well as the quickest and most efficient ways to destroy them.
Thus far, Tessa counted herself fortunate that, if the creatures did indeed exist, she hadn’t run across one. At least, she was pretty sure she hadn’t. After all, she was still alive.
No one knew how many vampires were in Cutter’s Corner, what had drawn them to the city, or where they slept during the day.
The city council had issued a bounty of one thousand dollars in gold for every vampire destroyed, so it wasn’t surprising that the population of Cutter’s Corner had doubled in the last few months as self-proclaimed vampire hunters and greedy tourists armed with wooden stakes and bottles of holy water flocked into town, determined to rid Cutter’s Corner of its infestation while collecting a tidy reward.
“Infestation,” Tessa muttered. As if the creatures were no more dangerous than a colony of ants.
She turned to the last page of the Gazette and, sure enough, there were the familiar lists.

How to spot a vampire: hairy palms, pale skin, fangs, an aversion to sunlight, crosses, and holy water
How to destroy a vampire: a wooden stake through the heart, beheading, incineration
How to repel a vampire: holy water, any blessed artifact, pure silver, wooden crosses

“What if the vampire’s Jewish?” Tessa mused aloud. “Or Hindu? Or an atheist?”
With a shake of her head, she folded the paper and tossed it on the table, then lifted a hand to her neck, her fingers sliding over the thick silver chain she had taken to wearing whenever she left the house. It was a recent acquisition. Even though she doubted anything would repel a genuine vampire, if such creatures really existed, she had decided to err on the side of caution. The chain was pretty and if it wasn’t effective, well, she still liked it. She’d considered getting a wooden stake, thinking it might come in handy if she could bring herself to use it. Had she been Catholic, she would have considered carrying a vial of holy water, as well.
Glancing at her watch, she quickly downed the last of her coffee, grabbed her handbag and keys, and headed out the door.
Vampires or no, she was a working girl who couldn’t afford to be late. Mr. Ambrose was pretty easygoing, as bosses went, but he insisted on punctuality from his employees.
* * *
Tessa smiled as Jileen Hix plopped down in the chair across from hers in the cafeteria. They had started work at Milo and Max Savings and Loan on the same day and had quickly become friends. Tessa worked in the loan department; Jileen was a teller. They made an odd pair—Tessa standing five foot five and slender with long, blond hair and dark brown eyes; Jileen shorter and plumper, with spiked, black hair and bright blue eyes.
In spite of their physical differences, they shared a love for Starbucks’s Cinnamon Dolce Lattes, strawberry shortcake, root beer floats made with chocolate ice cream, Lady Antebellum, Steven Wright, and anything starring Chris Hemsworth. Between them, they had seen Thor at least fifteen times. They met for lunch almost every day, sometimes eating in the company cafeteria, sometimes going out.
“Have you seen the latest headlines?” Jileen asked, as she sprinkled lemon juice on her salad.
“No, and I’m not sure I want to.”
“Mrs. Kowalski is the latest victim.”
Tessa’s heart sank. Mrs. Kowalski had been the first person Tessa had met when she moved to town three years ago. “Why would anyone want to kill her? I mean, she had to be eighty if she was a day.”
“I know,” Jileen said. “She was always so sweet to everyone. Even Eddie Sykes, and you know what a bully he is.”
Tessa nodded. “Are they sure it was a vampire that killed her?”
“Yes. According to the article in the paper, she had bite marks on her neck and—”
“I don’t want to hear any more,” Tessa said, adding a pack of sugar substitute to her iced tea.
“I guess it’s not a very good topic for lunch, is it?”
“No.” Tessa pushed her turkey sandwich away, her appetite gone. “This is a small town. There can’t be that many vampires running around or they’d be bumping into each other. And what about all those hunters? There must be ten or twenty of them. As far as I can tell, most of them spend their time at Hanson’s Tavern, guzzling beer and swapping stories that can’t possibly be true.”
“I met one of them here at the bank yesterday,” Jileen said. “He was really cute.”
Tessa shook her head. She loved Jileen like a sister, but the girl fell in love with a new guy every week. Last week, it had been the FedEx deliveryman. The week before, it had been the mechanic who worked on her Mustang.
Glancing at her watch, Tessa said, “Listen, I have to go. I have a client due in about five minutes. I’ll see you later.”
* * *
One thing Tessa loved about living in a small town was that, aside from knowing almost everyone, she could walk to work. But lately, she’d had the eerie sensation of being watched. And tonight, walking home alone in the dark, she wished she had taken her car.
She assured herself there was nothing to worry about. How could there be, with all the hunters stalking the streets? But the constant talk of vampires left her feeling vulnerable. She was sure there was a vampire lurking behind every tree or watching her from the shadows. She told herself she was just being foolish, that she needed to stop reading the newspapers and blogs, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being followed.
She glanced over her shoulder time and again, certain someone was creeping up behind her, but when she looked, there was no one there. No suspicious footsteps.
Just that creepy feeling.
Of course, it was October and every house she passed was decorated with ghouls and goblins, witches and tombstones. But that didn’t account for all the other times she had been sure someone was following her.
Nearing home, Tessa quickened her pace. Then, feeling foolish, she ran the last two blocks. Heart pounding, she raced up the stairs to her apartment, thrust the key into the lock, and hurried inside. Slamming the door shut behind her, she shot the bolt home, then stood there, gasping for breath and feeling utterly ridiculous for letting her imagination get the best of her.
* * *
The vampire paused in the shadows outside the woman’s house. The word was out, spread by a fledgling who had heard it from a gypsy fortune-teller: There was a woman in Cutter’s Corner whose blood made new vampires stronger—something every fledgling would kill for.
His nostrils filled with the tantalizing scent of her blood.
Her fear.
He had missed his chance at her tonight.
He would not miss tomorrow.



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