An unclothed man crouches in an alley off Bourbon Street. He has just escaped captivity, having been held as a blood slave for the past ten years by a female vampire called the Queen. His name is Dante and he’s desperately hungry, but what he craves isn’t food—it’s blood. He makes his way to a nearby hospital and raids the blood bank. As he’s getting his fill, in walks Erin Hamilton, a nurse, and despite the shocking sight of a stranger covered in blood, she doesn’t turn him in. In fact, she feels powerfully drawn to him.

This is the magnetic opening of Hardt’s Unchained, the first volume in her new series, the Blood Bond Saga. Hardt, a bestselling author of contemporary and historical romance and erotica, has won many fans with series such as the Steel Brothers Saga and the Temptation Saga. But with Unchained, the romance takes a paranormal turn. “I’ve been able to really push the envelope as far as content,” Hardt says. “I’ve unleashed my imagination and had a lot of fun with it.”

Although Dante is a vampire, Unchained isn’t a conventional vampire novel. Hardt has introduced a few unique twists on the traditional vampire formula. “I knew I wanted my vampires to be different, and what made the most sense to me was to have them existing in plain sight among humans,” says Hardt. “Due to circumstances that I don’t want to give away, the two species have been interbreeding since they’ve been in existence, and in the present, humans largely outnumber vampires.” The vampires in Hardt’s world have a slightly longer life span than humans, can move faster than humans, and possess heightened senses. In short, they’re mortals who pass for humans. Except, of course, they require blood for survival.

Unchained features plenty of intriguing story lines, including a mystery at Erin’s hospital and the dying out of Dante’s lineage; his grandfather is the oldest male pure vampire alive. But the heart of the novel is the chemistry between Dante and Erin, which is immediate and apparent to both of them. “The mark of a good romance is the steamy back-and-forth,” Hardt says. “In both of their points of view, I focused a lot on sensory detail. This was especially exciting to do with Dante.” The physical side of the relationship between the two develops almost instantly, but at first Dante worries that he won’t be able get through sex without taking Erin’s blood. “Because Dante’s senses are more acute than Erin’s,” says Hardt, “he can feel her blood underneath her skin, and he can smell her unique scent.”

Hardt believes there’s a reason why vampires have been such enduring figures in imaginative literature and why they’re a good fit for romance. “Anyone who has read my work knows I love a dark and tortured hero,” she says. “A vampire fits perfectly. I think readers, especially romance readers, are drawn to vampires because they’re a sexy mixture of strength and vulnerability. They are stronger than we are, and immortal in most series, and yet they are vulnerable because of their need for our blood. Oh, and they have fangs!”

As with her other novels, Hardt approached Unchained with an initial premise and developed it as she wrote. She’s not the kind of writer who maps out her plots and details in advance. “Beginning a new series is always difficult for me,” Hardt says. “It takes me a while to ‘feel’ it, if that makes any sense. Once I get to know the characters, though, it gets easier.”

Unchained marks an exciting new direction for Hardt while maintaining everything her fans love about her books: emotional acuity, sharp characters, and thrilling romance. “Seriously, even though this series is about vampires, I hope readers will leave emotionally satisfied and with a better understanding of what it is to be human and in love,” Hardt says. “That is my goal with all my series.”