A vampire walks into a bar and sees a werewolf sitting there…
I know what you’re thinking but that’s not the start of a bad joke. It’s my life—or it was about to be if the vampire in question showed up. Which means that I’m the werewolf in this little scenario.
Not that it does me any good since I can’t change at the full moon. Or any other time for that matter. Non-shifters, as the rest of the were population calls the rare were who can’t summon forth his or her animal side, aren’t very popular. In fact, we’re about as welcome in the were world as a leper at a tea party. That’s why I ended up working for a mostly human law firm instead of sticking with my own kind. Which was how I met the vampire I was waiting for at the bar in the first place.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning when I first met Jude Jacobson, one of the most powerful and feared vamps of the greater Tampa Bay area. And let me tell you about the deal he offered me.
A deal with the devil.
It was a hot and sultry night and not in a good way. The dog days of August were on us and you could cut the humidity with a knife. I noticed that the lighted digital display on the bank across the street read the temperature at eighty-eight degrees. Eighty-eight degrees and it was nearly nine o’clock at night. I knew if I stepped outside it would feel as if I were walking through tepid soup so I didn’t step outside. Instead I waited, trying to catch a glimpse of the VIP client who was already supposed to be here. He was the reason I wasn’t already home in my ratty bathrobe watching reality show reruns.
Dawson, Levine and Taber, the law firm where I worked, handled some minor celebrities from time to time, both human and supernatural, and they prided themselves on accommodating their star clients. Accordingly, instead of closing up shop at five o’clock, we had remained open for DLT’s new client, Jude Jacobson.
I say “we” but it wasn’t like the entire law firm was there. It was just me and Derek Banner. Derek was one of the senior attorneys at DLT, which was why he’d drawn the plum assignment of working with the new star client. I was only there for backup—I’m just a lowly paralegal.
When I say backup, I don’t just mean that I was there to assist Derek—although that was part of my job. I was also supposed to protect him if things got a little rough. Vampires are generally polite to a fault, at least when dealing with the human world, but every once in a while one of them gets a little bloodthirsty—literally—which can be a problem. Since Jacobson was a VIP, the powers that be at DLT had decided an armed guard would look tacky and probably piss him off. But they thought nothing of making their only supernatural employee stay unreasonably late hours without even offering me time and a half to compensate me for acting as both a bodyguard and a legal assistant.
You wouldn’t think I would be a very effective bodyguard if you saw me. I’m five foot three in my stocking feet and I weigh just a little over a hundred pounds. Thank goodness I’m curvy where it counts, though—I don’t have a problem attracting men although none of them wants to hang around once they find out my situation. No self-respecting were male would date or mate with a non-shifter for fear of passing on the abnormality to their offspring and not many human men are willing to go out with a woman who could beat their bench press numbers cold.
Despite the fact that I can’t change, I still have the strength of a were—which is roughly three or four times human normal. Of course, I didn’t know how effective I’d be against a hundred-year-old vampire if Jude Jacobson got out of line. But when I’d expressed those doubts to my supervisor he’d just patted me on the shoulder and murmured something about doing my best.
I didn’t get much respect around DLT and I was getting sick of it. But the economy sucked and there weren’t a lot of jobs out there for a wannabe lawyer that had failed the Bar exam twice. Okay, three times but who’s counting?
It wasn’t that I didn’t know my stuff either—I’d been top of all my classes. It’s just that I have crippling anxiety issues. When I say that I don’t just mean I get a little nervous. I mean, hyperventilating, sweating-bullets, chewing-pieces-out-of-the-desk anxiety. It’s bad. I can control it when there isn’t too much riding on the test—I was even okay during finals at law school. But whenever the test is really important and life changing, watch out—I’m down for the count. I’ve thought about seeing a doctor for it but anti-anxiety drugs don’t work on weres, meaning I could take a truckload of Xanax with no effect. And I’ve never been able to do that self-hypnosis shit. So I was pretty much stuck—which was how I’d wound up in such a crappy job in the first place.
When I’d first come to the firm of DLT I was fresh out of law school and they planned to make me a junior attorney as soon as I passed the Bar. I was going to be on the fast track for partner and they were glad to get me. After all, how many human firms could say they had a real live were on staff? We usually stick to our own company almost exclusively so hiring me was a real coup for them. None of the human partners gave a damn that I couldn’t change, of course, and I fulfilled two other hiring requirements as well—I was a woman and a minority. Not that I think of my heritage much—my family is as white bread as they come even if our last name is Velez. But it looked great on paper.
Anyway, it was all good until I failed the Bar. And then failed again. And again. Pretty soon it became obvious I was never going to be more than a paralegal and the partners stopped nodding at me in the halls and just looked through me like they did the rest of the help. I was just the legal assistant who also happened to be a were and mostly nobody ever remembered my other status until something like tonight’s assignment came up.
I sighed and leaned my throbbing head against the cool glass. A woman in her late twenties with big dark eyes and long, curly black hair drawn back tightly into a bun looked back at me from the reflective surface. I guess I looked my Latin heritage even if the only Spanish words I knew were the dirty ones. I wished the stupid vampire would show up already. It was late and I was tired. Plus Derek Banner—or Derek Boner as most of the support staff referred to him since he was perpetually horny—was a real dick. He knew I was there to protect him in case there was trouble and he resented the hell out of me for it.
As a big, beefy guy of six-one with slab-like arms and the beginning of an impressive beer gut, Derek naturally thought he should be able to take care of himself. He thought it was ridiculous of the partners to leave a “pretty little gal” like me to get his back. Of course, that was just his pride talking and everyone knew it—including Derek. He’d made a pass at me when I first started at DLT and I had nearly broken his hand so he knew I could take care of business. But he didn’t like to acknowledge it and he’d protested to management vigorously when they assigned me to him for Jude Jacobson’s visit.
Derek had been overruled, so to compensate, he was being extra condescending to me that night. After his fourth or fifth sexist remark, I’d finally walked out of his office to go wait for Jacobson in the lobby. It was either walk away or put my size-four spiked heel up his stupid bloated ass and I needed my job too badly to risk losing my temper.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered to myself, taking a quick glance at the cheap but reliable watch I wore on my wrist. “I have to be back here at seven in the morning, damn it.”
As though my muttered words had drawn him, there was a sudden tap on the glass door right above my head. I started and jerked upright to see the tall form of the vampire on the other side of the door.
I took a deep breath and put a hand to my racing heart. Only a moment ago the street in front of the DLT building had been completely empty and now, here he was. I knew vampires were supernaturally fast and strong like weres and that they could be either born into a vampire family or converted from human, but that was about as far as my knowledge extended.
Though weres and vamps are both paranormal creatures, we tend to avoid each other like the plague. In fact, it wouldn’t be too strong a statement to say that we hate each other. Think the Montagues and the Capulets on steroids and you have a pretty good idea of vamp-were relations. Given that history, I wasn’t exactly feeling any warm fuzzies as I unlocked the door and let Jude Jacobson into the DLT lobby.
He was a tall drink of water—six-three or -four at least, which meant he dwarfed me even in my four-inch heels. Dark blond hair was pulled into a tight club at the back of his neck and darker brows arched over pale green eyes that reminded me of a cat. I don’t usually like blond men but I have to admit this one was hot—for a fanger. He had the whole vampire-Viking thing going on—broad shoulders, square jaw with some sexy stubble, even a little cleft in the chin and a dent on the right side of his mouth that might become a dimple when he smiled. If he ever smiled. And he was wearing a suit that would probably pay the rent on my crappy apartment for a year.
“Jude Jacobson?” I said, just to be sure as he stepped inside, bringing a gust of hot, damp air with him.
“In the flesh, dear lady.” He gave me a courtly, sweeping bow that would have been appropriate a hundred years ago. Well, at least he didn’t want to shake hands. I had no interest in touching a bloodsucker, no matter how good looking he was.
“This way,” I said shortly, turning to lead him toward Derek’s office. The sooner we got this over with the better.
“Wait, please.” His voice was far behind me and when I stopped and looked back I saw that he was still standing in the same place, just inside the doorway.
“Yes?” I tried to stifle a sigh of pure annoyance. “Are there more, er, people, in your party?”
“No, I am alone this evening.” He made it sound like a perpetual state, as though he was alone every evening, I thought. Then I wondered why I’d gotten such an idea.
“Well, then, if you’d come with me, Mr. Jacobson—”
“Not until I learn your name, please.” His eyes flashed dangerously and he gave me a charming smile that showed just a hint of his elongated canines. Sure enough, the dent in the right side of his mouth turned into an adorable dimple. “It’s not every night that I am greeted by such a beautiful woman,” he continued, raising an eyebrow at me.
Oh, for God’s sake, he was flirting. This was the last thing I needed right now—a come-on from a horny vamp. I just wanted to be home in my bathrobe with my feet up and a big bowl of strawberry Special K watching Gordon Ramsay sweat and swear and scream at the Hell’s Kitchen contestants. And instead, I had to let this guy down easy since he was a star client.
“Look,” I said stiffly. “I appreciate the compliment but you might as well know right now, I’m a were.”
He nodded. “I can tell. There is an energy around you that practically shouts it to the world.”
I frowned at him. “If you know I’m a were then why the interest in my name?”
“Common courtesy.” His eyes flashed again—looking almost red for a moment. “I know your people and mine don’t get along but I intend to conduct business here and I would prefer to know who I am conducting it with.”
I felt a brief stab of shame. Vamp or not I was being rude and that wasn’t the way I had been brought up. Reluctantly, I walked back to where he stood. “Well, I’m not the attorney assigned to your case—I’m just a paralegal. But I’m Luz Velez.”
“Jude Jacobson, as you are already aware.” He stuck out a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt and I noticed that his fingers were long and artistic and his nails were short and neat. I always notice hands on a man.
There was no way I could politely refuse his offer so, though I was still reluctant to touch a vamp, I extended my hand and watched as it was swallowed up in his much larger one. His grasp was firm and dry which surprised me a little. I’d been sure it would be cold and clammy—like touching a dead fish. He didn’t smell like old blood either—in fact, all I caught with my sensitive were nose was a whiff of warm skin and expensive aftershave. Nice.
I realized that I had been letting my preconceived notions of vampires color my judgment. In my defense, it was difficult not to when I’d been taught to believe that they were about one step above the devil. In fact, what we were doing was kind of like a Shiite Muslim shaking hands with an Orthodox Jew. I reminded myself firmly that my prejudices had no place here. Like it or not DLT was a human firm that just happened to cater to the supernatural crowd on occasion and I should treat Jude Jacobson with the respect I would offer any other client.
Then he ruined it.
His green eyes widened and then narrowed and he said, “You’re a non-shifter.”
I tried to yank my hand away but to my surprise, I couldn’t break his grip. “Let me go. How do you know that?”
“No wonder you have so much energy around you,” he said, not answering my question. “It’s never been tapped. How extraordinary.”
“Look, buddy,” I said evenly. “You’re about two seconds from a knee in your balls unless you let go of my hand.” To hell with treating him like any other client. No other client I’d ever met had started blurting out my most personal and embarrassing secrets when I shook their hand.
“Forgive me,” he said smoothly, releasing me at last. “I was just startled. Your kind is very rare.”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered, clenching the hand he’d released into a fist at my side. “I never heard of a vamp who could tell it just by touching someone though.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It’s a peculiar little talent of mine. I know things about the people I touch. Not everything, just a few minor details of their lives.”
“Remind me never to touch you again, then,” I growled. “And that is not a minor detail.”
“Forgive me,” he said once more and there was real regret in his deep voice. “It was rude of me to say it aloud. I suppose being in your situation would be like one of my kind being allergic to blood.”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” I said with as much dignity as I could manage. “Would you please follow me? Attorney Boner—I mean Banner—is waiting.” I could feel my cheeks flaming as I turned on my heel and marched toward the elevator. It’s never fun having your weak points brought up and to have a complete and total stranger, a vampire at that, throw my non-shifter status in my face was almost intolerable.
He was quiet on the ride up to the fifth floor where Banner’s office was located but he seemed to fill the entire elevator with his presence. Or maybe it was just that he was so big. I had an idea that some major muscles were lurking under his beautifully tailored charcoal gray suit and I couldn’t help but remember the strength of his grip on my hand. I tended to stay away from my own kind and after living exclusively among humans for so long, it seemed strange to find someone who was physically stronger than me.
Not that I go around flaunting my physical power or anything but I was used to being careful around the fragile people who surrounded me. I’d forgotten my own strength once to disastrous circumstances—but I preferred not to think about that. And I was really glad Jude Jacobson hadn’t seen it or heard it or whatever the hell it was he did. That particular dark secret was worse than failing the Bar exam and my status as a non-shifter put together. And I was fairly certain I would have done more than growled at Jacobson if he’d mentioned it. There was nothing worse he could have known about me except— I cut off that line of thought abruptly. No point picking at old wounds, especially ones as ancient as that one.
To my relief we got to Banner’s office without any further conversation. I nodded the vampire inside politely and prepared to take a seat to the attorney’s left, beside his desk. Besides acting as a bodyguard, I was supposed to be taking notes and assisting him and believe me, Banner needed the assistance. I had looked over the case thoroughly before Jacobson arrived and I knew all the particulars. Unfortunately, I didn’t think the same could be said of the attorney. Banner had gotten a big head the moment he’d been given a corner office and a nod toward partnership and he’d been coasting on his reputation for a while now.
But as I was about to sit down, the attorney frowned at me and shook his head. “That’s all, Velez, you can go.”
“I was told to stay,” I said as neutrally as I could, still hovering over the chair.
“And I’m telling you to go,” Banner shot back. “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
“Fine.” I stood up and turned toward the door. Let the asshole fend for himself—both legally and physically. If Jude Jacobson decided he wanted a little midnight snack, that was just too damn bad.
“I would prefer it if Ms. Velez stayed,” the vampire said quietly before I could even take a step.
“Well, now, we don’t need to bother this little gal anymore.” Banner pasted a big, fake, shit-eating grin on his face. “I mean, she’s just an assistant, really. It’s not like she knows anything about your case.”
Asshole. I bit my tongue, fuming silently. I was willing to bet my next paycheck I knew the case better than Banner.
Jacobson gave him a level look. “She is here for your protection, not mine, Mr. Banner. I advise you to let her stay.” There was a hint of danger in his voice—the barest glimmer of his predatory nature showing through the smooth outer façade.
Banner’s grin slipped for a moment but he recovered quickly. “Well, whatever makes the client happy, I always say. Sit, Velez.”
I did a little more silent fuming at being treated like a trained dog but somehow I managed to hold my temper and sit down.
“Now then, maybe we can get down to business. Derek Banner, at your service but you can call me DB if you want.” Banner leaned across his desk and offered a hand.
Rather reluctantly, I thought, Jacobson took his hand and shook it exactly once before releasing it. “Jude Jacobson,” he said.
“All right. And can I call you JJ?” Banner was big on the whole Southern hospitality, just-folks bullshit and he always spread it on thick with the VIPs. But this time it didn’t work.
“I think not,” Jacobson said shortly. “Mr. Jacobson will be fine.”
Banner’s smile slipped another notch. “Well, all right then. Let’s get down to business.”
“Please.” The vampire made a slightly impatient gesture with one large hand as though to say that he had been waiting to do that exact thing.
Banner shuffled the papers on his desk and cleared his throat. “So. You’re interested in buying a piece of property that is currently owned by another, er, non-human person—”
“You may say vampire if you wish. I won’t be offended.” Jacobson’s composure was complete but somehow he managed to convey a subtle displeasure. Maybe it was the fact that his green eyes were glowing slightly, but whatever it was, it seemed to make Banner nervous.
“Er, yes, thank you.” He cleared his throat again. “So you want to buy and develop this land, as I understand it.” He waited for the vampire to nod before he moved on. “Well, I’m happy to tell you that we’ve checked into it thoroughly and there are no living relatives of this other, um, vampire around so we can move ahead with the deal.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Excuse me,” I murmured to Banner, as discreetly as I could. “Can I talk to you outside?”
There are a lot of weird laws governing vampire acquisitions, especially property. They’re so slick and powerful and downright scary the human powers that be are afraid they’ll take over everything. So one of the rules is that they aren’t allowed to buy property from another vamp—one who’s been turned into a vampire by a bite anyway—if there are any human relatives of the seller still living. That makes sense if you think about it. Otherwise vampires could just bite anybody they wanted to and influence them to sell their property—not so good in the grand scheme of things. For the humans, anyway.