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.
“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.
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.
Banner was aware of all this and he’d had a thorough check of the property done. But I guess he’d only read the preliminary report and thought it was good enough. The final report, which had come in just that afternoon, clearly stated something else entirely. Whatever the case was, he was not happy about my interference.
“Velez, if I want your opinion I’ll ask for it,” he growled out of the corner of his mouth before turning his attention back to the vampire. “Now, as I was saying, since there are no living relatives in question—”
“Mr. Banner, if you could just give me a minute out in the hallway,” I said, still hoping to save face even though I was pretty sure vampire hearing was acute enough that Jacobson would be sure to hear what we were saying.
This time Banner completely ignored me and just kept talking to the vampire as though I didn’t exist. “We can move ahead with the deal. Now I have some paperwork here—” He started to shove a sheaf of papers toward Jacobson but the vampire held up a hand.
“A moment please. I would like to hear what Ms. Velez has to say.”
Banner’s face began to turn red. “As I said before, Mr. Jacobson, she’s just an assistant. She doesn’t have any idea—”
“A living relative has been found,” I cut in, my voice flat. “Mrs. Ida Delong. She’s currently a resident at the Restful Shores nursing home up in the panhandle. She’s eighty-five and has Alzheimer’s but she is still alive.”
“So it appears that the sale cannot go through at this time.” Jacobson’s voice was neutral but his eyes were flashing and a hint of fang was showing beneath his sensual upper lip. “I must say, Mr. Banner, I think you could have informed me of that over the phone instead of wasting my time tonight.”
“You…I…you…” Banner seemed at a loss for words.
The vampire’s eyes were glowing coal red now and I felt a shiver go down my spine—the night might end in a bloodbath yet. It was obvious that Jude Jacobson wasn’t used to dealing with incompetence.
I was pretty sure I was no match for him but this was part of my job. Standing on shaky legs, I took a step toward the angry vamp. “Dawson, Levine and Taber regrets this error, of course, Mr. Jacobson,” I said, trying to sound apologetic instead of scared to death. “If you’ll give us a chance, I’m sure we can make this right for you.”
To my mixed feelings of relief and terror, Jacobson focused on me instead of Banner. His eyes flickered from red to green and he seemed to relax. “The one good thing about this incident is that I was able to meet you, Ms. Velez,” he said, giving me a slow, lazy smile that seemed to make something inside me clench. “For that happy accident alone I will forgive Mr. Banner his utter ineptitude.”
“Hey, now! I resent—” Banner began to bluster.
“It’s regrettable that we had to end like this,” Jacobson cut him off. The vampire rose to his full height soundlessly. “Goodbye, Mr. Banner. I believe I’ll consult a different law firm for my needs in the future.”
“Wait!” The lawyer was on his feet but the vampire had already turned and walked out of his office. Banner turned to me, his face scarlet with fury. “You little cunt! How dare you contradict me in front of a client?”
I couldn’t believe his ingratitude. “I just saved your ass, Banner—literally. Or did you not notice he was about to rip into your worthless hide?”
“Everything would have been fine if you had just kept your mouth shut,” he snapped.
“Oh sure.” I put a hand on my hip. “Fine for now. But what about a week from now when Jacobson found out you’d screwed up his deal? You’d be getting a midnight visit from a very pissed-off vamp. It’s better he found out now before he signed the paperwork and tied up his money in useless red tape.”
“I’m telling you, I had it handled. I didn’t need your fucking interference—especially in front of the client!” This seemed to be his main point—as though it was all right for him to be an idiot as long as I didn’t point it out to anyone.
“I tried to get you to come outside the office with me,” I said, hanging on to my temper grimly. “If you’d read the final report—”
“I know my business,” he snarled.
“Apparently not. Or you wouldn’t have given the client erroneous information.”
“He only listened to you because you’re like him—a freak,” Banner spat at me. “Well, let me tell you, Velez, I’d rather be normal and human any day.”
Now he was getting into dangerous territory. “Being human isn’t exactly a recommendation in your case, Banner. If I were you I think I’d rather be able to brag that I was a competent attorney.”
He got a malevolent light in his beady little eyes. “At least I am an attorney, unlike you. How many times did you fail the Bar exam, Velez? Four? Five?”
“That’s it, I’m leaving.” I couldn’t take it anymore. I could feel my temper boiling over and I knew I had to get out of there now or do something I’d regret. Turning on my heel, I started for the door only to feel Banner’s pudgy fingers gripping my shoulder.
“Don’t you turn your back on me when I’m talking to you, bitch,” he growled.
At that point I did a little growling of my own. There was a full moon overhead outside and just because I couldn’t change didn’t mean I couldn’t feel its pull. “Take your hand off me now,” I told Banner. “Or I’m going to break your fingers.”
He knew I could do it but he was either too stupid or too angry to listen. Instead of letting me go he spun me around to face him. “Now listen to me—”
“I’m done listening,” I said. “I’m done with this whole fucking place including you.” To hell with losing my job. I ripped his hand off my shoulder, gripped three of his fingers in my fist and squeezed.
I could feel the small bones inside his fingers grinding together as I pulverized them but I didn’t let go. I’m not normally a violent person but a red rage like nothing I’d ever felt before was on me and I couldn’t stop. It almost felt like I could change then and there and rip out his throat, the way a real werewolf would have.
Banner’s face turned a dirty yellow shade of pale and he let out a high-pitched shriek that died off into a sick-sounding gurgle. The noise disgusted me and I let go of him abruptly. He staggered and fell to his knees, holding his useless hand out in front of him. He looked up at me. “You…you…”
“I told you I’d do it.” I nodded at his hand. “Consider that my notice.” Turning, I stalked out of the office and took the elevator down to the DLT lobby for the last time. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do for money but there was no way I was ever coming back here again.
To my surprise, Jude Jacobson was waiting for me when I stepped out of the elevator.
“Ms. Velez,” he said smoothly.
“Excuse me.” I brushed past him and headed for a chair. I probably should have still been afraid of him but the adrenaline high I’d experienced during the confrontation with Banner was fading and I was beginning to feel sick and shaky. It was a bad combination and I tripped over my high heels and would have fallen if the vampire hadn’t intervened.
One moment I was falling and the next I was being held in his arms like a child. I looked up into his face dizzily, thinking that he had the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. Then I came to my senses.
“Put me down.”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “What did he do to you? Did he hurt you?” His eyes flashed dangerously.
I laughed but it came out sounding more like a sob. “I’m afraid I’m the one who did the hurting. Look, can you just let me go? I swear I had nothing to do with your deal being screwed up so please—”
“I have no intention of harming you. You don’t need to fear me.” His voice was soft and reassuring and the way he was looking at me made me feel flustered all over again.
“Well…thank you. And thank you for catching me. But I’m fine now.”
“You don’t seem fine to me.” He carried me out the front door and down the steps of the building with no apparent effort. “Where is your car?”
“In the lot, in the back. But I left my keys and my purse—everything inside the building.” I nearly slapped my forehead in frustration. “And Banner is probably going to be calling the police any second now. If he can still dial a phone, that is.”
“No, he won’t.” Jacobson sounded so certain of himself that for a moment I almost believed him. Then I came to my senses.
“You don’t know him like I do—he’s a vindictive son of a bitch. Plus I pretty much pulverized his hand.”
“No more than he deserved if he touched you in anger,” the vampire said calmly. “I would have done much worse to him if he had somehow managed to harm you.”
“But…” I looked at him in confusion. “You don’t even know me.”
“But I want to. I want to know you very much.” He was giving me that look again, the one that made my insides feel tight.
“I-I don’t know what to say,” I said helplessly. I’d spent years hearing about how evil and manipulative and controlling vampires were. But no one had mentioned how attractive they could be. I suddenly felt like a moth flitting around a dangerous but irresistible flame.
“Then just listen,” he said smoothly. “I have a proposition for you, Ms. Velez, but we can’t discuss it here. I have a car waiting for me. If you’ll allow the driver to take you somewhere we can meet and talk afterward, I’ll be more than happy to retrieve your things and make sure Mr. Banner has nothing to say to the police.”
“You’re not planning on killing him, are you? I mean, not that he doesn’t deserve it but I’m already in enough hot water as it is.” It seemed beyond strange to be having this conversation while he was holding me in his arms on the curb outside my work—excuse me, former work—but what else could I do when he refused to put me down?
“Not at all. I think further bloodshed is unnecessary but I have ways of getting what I want.” He smiled in a way that would have scared me senseless if it was directed at me.
I shivered. “And you’ll do all this just because you want to go talk somewhere? With me?” I still didn’t understand his motivation.
“Yes.” His luminous eyes were steady as he looked down at me and I suddenly felt faint all over again. It’s just the heat and humidity, I told myself with irritation. There was no way I was feeling swoony over a vamp. No way in hell.
“I will tell you everything if you agree to meet me. Perhaps we could go to the Saffron Room at the Hilton? I believe it’s not far from here.”
“No, it’s just down the road.”
“Then you’ll agree to let my driver take you there and wait while I settle this matter?”
I thought about it. Either I could go back into the DLT offices and rummage around to get my things while hoping I could beat the paramedics and police that were doubtless on the way. Or I could go sit in comfort at a swanky hotel bar and let someone else handle the whole mess. Normally I clean up after myself but then again, normally I don’t go around breaking people’s fingers. In this case it was a no-brainer. Whatever the vamp had to say to me, surely listening to him was worth getting away from the scene of the crime. I wasn’t sure if he could really keep Banner from calling the police but the longer I debated the longer the wounded attorney had to learn to dial with his left hand.
“Yes,” I said at last. “I could use a drink right about now.”
He smiled, showing a dangerous hint of fang. “As could I.”
So that’s how I came to be sitting in a bar waiting for a vampire.
I had chosen a quiet, plush leather booth in the far corner of the elegant, dimly lit bar and ordered myself a drink. I was wondering if he would really show and then decided he’d better since he was supposed to get my purse and keys. How was he going to find them, anyway? Could he have picked the location of my desk out of my head along with everything else he mysteriously knew? Then I speculated on what he was going to do with Banner to keep him from running to the police. That didn’t bear thinking about so I took a drink of my piña colada with extra rum and wondered what he wanted to talk to me about, anyway. What was this “proposition”?
I didn’t have very long to conjecture. He came striding into the bar not thirty minutes later carrying my purse and a cardboard box that appeared to have the entire contents of my desk in it.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, putting the box and purse down in front of me. “Your car is parked out front. I got the distinct impression that you were planning on not going back.”
“You’re absolutely right about that.” I took another sip of my drink and looked at the silver framed picture on top of the box. It had been thoughtful of him to clean out my desk. “How is Banner doing?”
“Resting comfortably in the back of an ambulance. He’s under the impression that there was some kind of accident with the elevator doors.” Jacobson frowned. “Unfortunately he might get other ideas if he sees you again. It’s difficult to erase a traumatic incident completely from a human brain without doing permanent damage.”
I nodded. “That’s okay. He’s never going to see me again. I don’t ever want to go back. I only took the stupid job in the first place…”
“Because you were going to be promoted to attorney?” Jacobson finished for me when I trailed off.
I frowned at him. “Don’t start that again. I was just beginning to like you—even if you are a vamp.”
“I apologize.” He nodded at the picture in the silver frame. “Your husband or lover?”
“My brother,” I said and added, “I’m single.” Then I mentally kicked myself—why would I tell him a thing like that? As if he’d be interested or I’d be willing to go with him even if he was. A vamp and a were out on a date—what a laugh.
But Jacobson looked pleased. “I was hoping you were.”
“You mean you didn’t already know from shaking my hand?” I took another drink.
“I got brief impressions of the things you were recently thinking when we touched and only because you were thinking about them so hard.” He shrugged. “Sometimes it happens but usually only when the person I am touching has a very forceful personality. Truly, I’m not much of a mind reader, Ms. Velez.”
I sighed. “Call me Luz.”
“Luz, then.” He smiled, careful not to show fang. “And I would be honored if you’d call me Jude.”
I nodded. “Fine, we’re officially on a first-name basis. Now would you mind telling me what you wanted to talk about? What is this proposition?”
Jacobson—or Jude as I supposed I should think of him now—took a deep breath. He looked at me carefully, as though trying to gauge how I would take what he was going to say. “I want your blood,” he said at last, apparently deciding that the most direct route was the best.
“What, all of it?” I asked. “Because I’m kind of using it right now.”
He smiled. “Of course not. What I am saying is that I want to drink from you.” His voice got deeper and his gaze was suddenly very intense. “I want to drink from you more than any other female I’ve ever met.”
I shivered at the hot look in his eyes. I don’t know much about vamps but I do know that when they take blood it’s not just about getting nourishment. They often combine their dining practices with…other things. Things I had never considered doing with a vampire, that was for sure.
And I’m not considering them now, either, I told myself firmly. “Why me?” I said, giving him a level look to let him know I wasn’t impressed.
His gaze never wavered. “As a non-shifter the supernatural power in your blood has never been tapped. It would be like drinking a fine and extraordinarily rare vintage of wine—one I might never get a chance to try again.”
Well, good—at least he wasn’t trying to come on to me.
“Also you’re a very, very beautiful woman,” he continued, dashing that idea to smithereens. “The very thought of holding you in my arms, tasting your skin while I bite you…it’s intoxicating.”
His eyes met mine and he held me trapped in his gaze for a long, long moment. Long enough that I felt my heart pounding crazily against my ribs and the gathering heat and dampness between my thighs. He’s a vampire, I reminded myself sternly. You’re a were. You can’t date a vamp! But no matter what I told myself, the fact was, it had been a very long time since a man—any man—had looked at me like that.
Finally I tore my gaze away and took another hasty gulp of my melting piña colada. “And why should I let you? Bite me, I mean?”
“I can make it worth your while to submit to me,” he said and I definitely got the impression he was talking about more than a quick nip on the neck. “There are many things I can offer.”
“Such as?” I asked, trying not to look at the intense gaze that was still aimed at me like a spotlight.
“Well, I could help you get rid of that pesky virginity that’s been bothering you.”
I felt my cheeks heat with a sudden rush of blood. So he had picked that out of my brain along with everything else, the bastard. My deepest, darkest secret. My ultimate shame. Well, except for… I pushed the thought away and looked up at him.
“So you think I’m so desperate I’ll have sex with a vamp?” I put every ounce of scorn I could muster into the words.
“I think you are, yes,” he said, mildly. “Your virginity bothers you greatly and you wish to be rid of it by any means necessary.”
“Not by any means,” I said, but I was just trying to save face and we both knew it. The truth of his words made me wince with shame.
Since no self-respecting male were will date or mate with a non-shifter, I had been single for years. But just because there were none of my own kind available to me didn’t mean I didn’t want a man. I listened to other women talk about their sex lives and I burned to be touched and taken and held. I wanted it so much that finally I had stooped to dating humans. And one night I let one of them take me home. What I hadn’t counted on was my panicky response to being held down. When he spread my legs and climbed on top of me it was just too much. To awful…
“I broke his pelvis in three places,” I murmured, lost in the memory of that awful night.
“You didn’t mean to.” Jude’s deep voice was curiously gentle.
I looked up at him. “How much do you really know about me? Are you reading my mind right now?”
He shook his head. “I swear I’m not. I only know what was at the top of your mind when we shook hands. You were thinking about your perceived failures. Your status as a non-shifter, the Bar exam…and buried under all that, so deep you probably didn’t even know you were thinking about it yourself…the other.”
“All my most embarrassing secrets,” I said dully. “Must be nice to be able to pick things like that out of someone else’s brain. If you ever get tired of being a rich and powerful vampire you can have a whole second career in blackmail.”
Jude frowned. “Please don’t imagine I would ever try to coerce you into giving yourself to me, Luz. If sex isn’t your payment of choice we can certainly move on.”
“Move on, then,” I said, making a gesture with my hand. “No offense but I’m not having sex with a vamp, no matter how desperate you think I am.”
“Very well.” He nodded. “There are other, more prosaic things I can offer you. Money, for instance.”
I cleared my throat. “This may sound weird but I think that would make me feel even more like a whore than if we had sex.” I couldn’t believe I was still discussing this with him but somehow I couldn’t just get up and go. His intense gaze wouldn’t let me.
“Consider this,” he said, steepling his long fingers in front of him. “You saved me a considerable sum tonight. If I had signed those papers your foolish colleague was offering me I would have been legally committed to a very expensive and useless project. What if I gave you the amount you saved me tonight in return for the right to drink from you on several occasions?”
“And how much is that?” I said, taking another sip of my watery piña colada. Wow, it was almost gone. I needed to slow down.
He named a sum that made me take another drink despite my internal decision to go easy on the alcohol. What he was offering was enough to keep me going for the next two months at least. Rent, groceries, car note—that amount would pay it all. I could stay home and study night and day for the Bar exam which I had been stubborn enough to sign up for again. It was tempting but…
“That’s still money,” I reminded him. “And a freaking big bunch of it at that.”
Jude looked frustrated. “Money that I would have lost if not for you. Also, you were kind enough to punish that idiot Banner, which saves me the trouble of paying him a visit later on tonight.” His eyes gleamed and I felt a shiver go down my spine. No matter how polite he was, there was an edge of darkness in him that peeked out every once in a while and reminded me of what he was.
“I didn’t exactly break his hand because I was upset that he screwed up your case,” I pointed out. “But I’m sure if he’d been given a choice he would prefer what I did to anything you might dream up.”
He smiled dangerously. “I am certain you’re right. So…back to our deal. What if I offered you something else besides the money? Something that would help you solve your problems—or what you perceive to be problems, anyway?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “What—you’re going to give me a copy of your latest self-help book? Solving Your Problems the Vampire Way? Or maybe, Men are from Mars and Vampires are from Venus?”
He laughed softly and shook his head. “No, in exchange for your blood I will give you…my blood. Some of it, anyway.”
I looked at him blankly. “So we’d do a blood exchange? Isn’t that some kind of a vampire sex ritual? And what purpose would it serve?”
“It doesn’t have to involve sex,” he murmured but the intense look was back in his eyes again. “And as for the purpose, my blood will help you overcome the obstacles between you and the things you want.”
“Explain.” I pressed my thighs together tightly under the table, trying to ignore the heat that was building there as I remembered the lurid rumors I’d heard about vamp sex rituals. The thought of him biting me didn’t excite me—did it?
Jude leaned forward and took my hand. I tried to pull it away but he didn’t let me. After a while I relaxed and let him hold it. What the hell—he already knew so many embarrassing facts about me there didn’t seem to be any point in fighting. Almost nothing else he could learn from touching me was as bad as the fact that I was a twenty-seven-year-old virgin. Almost.
“Has it ever occurred to you, Luz, that the reason you can’t shift and the reason you can’t pass the Bar exam are connected?” he asked, eyeing me intently. “That the panic and fear you felt when you tried to have sex were related to the anxiety you felt during those other two determining events in your life?”
“I-I…” I shook my head, at a loss for words. As a matter of fact, it hadn’t occurred to me. But when I thought about it, when I remembered the way I’d felt every time I attempted to shift, each time I’d tried and failed the Bar exam, and the one disastrous time I’d tried to have sex, it all made sense. Test-taking anxiety? I had life anxiety. “My God…” I ran my free hand through my hair. “I don’t know why I never thought of it like that.”
At least Jude didn’t say I told you so. “My blood can help you,” he said looking at me intently. “It will give you confidence and allow you to stay calm under pressure.”
“Really?” I looked up at him. It seemed too good to be true.
Jude nodded. “I swear it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Weres aren’t susceptible to anti-anxiety drugs, you know.”
“I know. But this is different. It’s not a drug—it is the essence of me. You may have noticed that I am a very calm person. By taking my blood, you’ll be taking some of my attributes as well.”
“Mmm-hmm. So will I suddenly have the urge to bite people?”
One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Hardly. Taking my blood will give you my attributes—not my appetites.”
It was like making a deal with the devil and I knew it. But the thought of becoming the person I wanted to be—the person I always should have been if the stupid fear and anxiety hadn’t gotten in the way—was too much. I found myself nodding my head almost eagerly.
“Where and when?” I asked. I was ready to do almost anything to get what he promised.
“My house would be best—if you think you’d be comfortable there?” He raised an eyebrow at me.
For a moment I balked. Was this really smart? Agreeing to go to a strange vampire’s house to let him bite me? This man is stronger than me, I reminded myself. He could do things to me that human men couldn’t. He could…force me. I couldn’t allow myself to think the word rape but the memory of being held down by the drunken human was very strong in my mind. And there was another memory, one that was buried even deeper and almost forgotten. If only I could forget completely… No! I pushed it away before it could rise to the surface of my mind like a bloated corpse floating to the top of an algae-encrusted pond.
Jude must have known what I was thinking about. “This is a business proposition, Luz. I am bargaining for your blood, not your body. I won’t take anything that you don’t offer me freely.” His voice was dry and no-nonsense but his eyes were strangely gentle.
I could feel myself blushing again. “It’s just…I’ve been in the human world a long time so I’m not used to being with anyone stronger than me. It’s…a little scary,” I forced myself to admit.
“I understand. But I would never use my strength to hurt you. I’ll give you some time to think about it.” Jude sat up straighter and released my hand. I realized he was about to go. “But let me be clear about the terms. You will come to my house at least three times and allow me to drink from you. In return I will give you some of my blood each time as well as the money you saved me tonight.”
“That…sounds straightforward enough,” I said.
“There’s one more thing you should know.” He looked me in the eyes, making sure I understood him. “I don’t intend to drink from your neck or your wrist, beautiful one.”
“Your inner thigh.” He gave me a slow, hot smile that seemed to melt me from the inside out and I had a sudden flash of him kneeling between my thighs, his broad shoulders holding my legs apart as he leaned in to bite. Was I really so desperate that I was getting turned-on by a vampire? Apparently so. I could feel my pussy getting hot and wet and I suddenly wondered if he knew about my arousal. The idea was terribly embarrassing, yet somehow intriguing as well.
“I…” I swallowed hard, my mouth suddenly dry. “I understand.”
“Good.” He nodded and stood, fishing a card out of the inner pocket of his immaculately tailored suit. “This is my address. Please be at my door this time next week if the arrangement suits you.”
“All right.” I looked at the plain white card that had his name and address embossed in curving black script.
Jude smiled at me, his eyes glinting dangerously under half-closed lids. “I hope to see you there, Luz. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to tasting you.”