"Do not put yourselves in any jeopardy. Your job is to infiltrate the gang by showing interest in joining, find out if they're using murder as a rite of initiation, and then get out. Alive."
"That's my plan, too." Della Tsang answered with sass looking up at Burnett James, one of the Shadow Falls Academy owners who also just so happened to work for the FRU-Fallen Research Unit-which was basically the FBI of the supernatural world.
"We don't want you to bring anyone in. We don't want you to take care of the bad guys." Burnett continued staring right at her.
Afternoon sun poured into the window of the Shadow Falls office behind him. The crystals sitting on shelves caught the light and cast rainbow-colored mirages on the wall. They danced and shifted as if magical. And maybe they were. Crap like that happened all the time here.
"Actually, Burnett said, drawing Della's attention back to him, "we don't think this is the group, but if it is, with your testimony, we'll have enough proof to get a search warrant and we're pretty damn positive we should find all the evidence we need to convict."
Burnett, six feet plus, with dark hair and eyes, was a hard-ass who worried way too much, but being a vampire like herself, Della respected him and his hardassness.
She just wished the respect was mutual. Seriously, didn't he trust her? Didn't he know she could friggin' take care of herself? Did he really have to go over this again?
"I understand, sir." Steve, the brown-haired, brown-eyed, great-bodied guy sitting next to her spoke up when she didn't. For the first time, Della noticed his voice held a hint of a Southern accent that wasn't just Texan.
Della glanced over. Steve gave Burnett his complete attention. What an ass-kisser.
Steve was evidence that Burnett didn't trust her. Why else would Burnett insist Steve go with her? She didn't need the shape-shifter. He was just going to slow her down.
"Wait," Burnett said, pacing across the office again. "Let me rephrase that. I don't want you to just get out alive. I want you to get out just the way you went in. Not wounded, not bruised, and for God's sake, don't leave any dead bodies behind. You got that?"
"Now you're taking all the fun out of it," Della smarted off.
Burnett growled. "I'm not joking and if you can't take this seriously then get your vampire butt out of here, because I'm not playing around."
Della slumped back in her chair, knowing when to shut her mouth. She really wanted to do this assignment for the FRU. Wanted to win Burnett's respect. Everyone needed someone to impress. And since impressing her parents wasn't an option anymore, she'd settle for Burnett.
Not that impressing anyone was the only reason she wanted to go. Even before she'd been turned into a vampire, she'd considered a career in criminal justice-something that allowed her to kick butt. Of course, her parents had frowned on that. They had her earmarked to be a doctor. They had her earmarked to be a lot of things.
But not a vampire.
Not that they knew what she was. The way Della figured it, if they went bat-shit crazy just because she'd stopping eating rice-which after being turned tasted like curdled toe jam-how the hell were they going to accept that she was a blood-drinking vampire? The answer was obvious. They wouldn't, couldn't accept it.
Lucky for her, she'd been accepted into Shadow Falls-a boarding school for supernaturals-and didn't have to worry what her parents thought about her choice of careers, or whether she ate her rice or not. And yet ... now Della couldn't help but question if they ever thought or worried about her at all. Did they sit down to eat dinner and notice her chair was empty? Did her mom ever forget and set an extra plate at the table?
She doubted it.
Yes, they came to the parents' day visitations, but they were always the first to leave, and eager to do it. Especially her father, the man Della had spent her entire life trying to impress.
A daddy's girl, her mom used to call her.
No doubt her sister had taken over that role.
Turning vampire hadn't been Della's choice. It was one of those things life slapped on your ass and you just had to accept it. Which meant she'd had to accept that her family would never be able to accept her. Not that it really bothered her. Not anymore.
She was so over it.
"Am I making myself clear?" Burnett asked, yanking her back to reality.
"One hundred percent," Della said, working hard to keep her attitude from spilling over.
"Yes, sir." Steve nodded.
Yup, an ass-kisser.
"Okay, you got your orders?" Burnett said. "You know where to go and what your cover is? They expect you to meet them at four in the morning. Don't be late, don't be too early. Don't let them lure you back to their compound. The policy, if they follow their own policy, is that three of the members will meet with you to talk. You get the information about joining, you get out."
"Got it." Della held up the brown envelope. And you've gone over this ten times.
"Then go get your things." Burnett eyed Della. "And please, don't make me regret sending you on this."
"You won't," Della said.
Della and Steve stood to leave.
"Steve," Burnett said. "Give me a few minutes."
Della looked from Steve to Burnett. What the hell did he need to talk with Steve about that couldn't be said in front of her?
Burnett shifted his gaze to Della and then cut his eyes to the door.
Frowning, Della shot up from the chair and left. She stopped about fifty feet from the porch, holding her breath and not moving a muscle. Hoping Burnett wasn't still listening, she tuned her own vampire hearing and waited to discover what the hell was up. The afternoon sun spilled over the trees, casting shadows on the ground as she stood frozen in one spot.
"I'm trusting you to keep Della safe," Burnett said.
Della inwardly growled at Burnett's chauvinistic approach and fought the need to rush back in there and give him some lip. I'm the one who's gonna have to protect his butt!
"I do not believe this is the gang we're looking for." Burnett's voice carried well. "Or I wouldn't be sending you two. This is just a clearance check. But that doesn't mean this group isn't dangerous."
"Don't worry," Steve's deep voice answered. "I'll keep her in my sight at all times."
Like hell you will. She already had a plan of doing a little side trip, and she didn't need Steve tagging along.
* * *
At six that evening they arrived at the cabin the FRU had rented them right outside the vampire compound. To call the place a dump would have been like calling one of those roach-coach vans fine dining.
Of course, she and Steve were supposed to look like a couple of supernatural teen runaways. She supposed it would have looked suspicious if they'd rented anything with even part of a star attached to its reputation. But damn, this was supposed to have been a fun trip.
She wasn't a prima donna, but sleeping on a mattress that was more dust mites than filling, with sheets that looked as if they hadn't been changed in a year or so wasn't her idea of fun. The bed's covers were half on and half off the mattress, and the pillow sported an indented greasy spot in the center as if someone with not-so-clean hair had slept there.
Or maybe died there.
As disgusting as that thought was, one even worse hit. Someone had probably done the humpty dance on that bed.
She could probably get a disease sleeping on it.
Walking back into the tiny living area, she found Steve staring at the sofa with about as much distaste as she had while gaping at the bed.
"Come to think about it, I'll take the sofa," she said. "And I don't want to hear any shit. There ain't no one going to get past me."
They had flown here. Not on a jet. Him as a Peregrine falcon-which meant he was fast-and her as a, well, a vampire-which meant she was faster. Vamps and shape-shifters being the only two species who could really fly. Well, an occasional witch, but Miranda, her Wiccan roommate, swore they really didn't travel around on brooms.
However, Steve and Della's mode of transportation also meant they really hadn't spoken since they'd left Shadow Falls, with the exception of when they'd first walked into the cabin and he'd insisted she take the bed. And why? Because if someone came through the door he would stop them.
That downright pissed her off. She almost called him on being a complete chauvinistic pig, but then realized that if she wanted to sneak out later, she wouldn't want him traipsing into the living room before morning and finding her gone.
Since he came across as the type with manners, and morals and stuff, who wouldn't come into a girl's bedroom-at least not without an invitation-she'd kept her mouth shut.
Face it, she'd take the odds of him finding her gone to the odds of those mattress germs finding her body, hands down.
Steve cut his soft brown eyes to her and a knowing smile spread his lips. He ran a hand through his brown hair, which he wore a tad longer than most guys. The strands fell right back into place, looking instantly styled. She doubted he went to some professional salon to get that look, but it almost appeared like he did.
His smile widened and he tucked one hand into his jeans pocket. The stance made the muscles in that arm bulge. "So what you're saying is that the bed is worse than the sofa?"
"I didn't say that." She tried not to laugh, but something close to it slipped out of her mouth. She tried not to stare at his crooked smile and what it did to his lips and eyes. Or how his muscled arms looked like a safe place to fall. She'd give anything, even half a bra size to make him ... ugly. And unlike her two roommates at Shadow Falls, she didn't have much bra size to offer.
She continued to stare at him. She could have dealt with an ugly guy much better than one who looked like he'd just walked off of some men's soap advertisement. And hell, she thought, breathing in his aroma, you'd think after spending the last two hours as a bird, he wouldn't smell like he used some spicy-smelling men's soap, but he did.
He smelled ... awesome, and that ticked her off, too.
If she were a witch like her bigger-boobed roommate, Miranda, she'd change him into a repulsive fowl/foul-smelling guy. And she'd also make him less ... nice. She didn't like nice.
The only nice person Della had grown fond of was Kylie. And she was so nice, even Della couldn't hate her. Well, right now, Della did hate her. Hated her for leaving. And if she didn't get her butt back to Shadow Falls soon, Della was going to drag her friend back kicking and screaming. Sure, Kylie had gone to meet her newly discovered grandfather and learn more about her species, but plain and simple, she belonged at Shadow Falls. Someone had to keep Della and Miranda from killing each other. And no one was better at that than Kylie.
"We could both sleep on the sofa," Steve said, and damn if he didn't sound serious.
"Not even in your dreams, bird boy!" she snapped.
"Ouch," he said and chuckled. "I only meant your head at one end and mine at the other. Only our feet would be touching."
"So you've got a foot fetish, do you?" she asked before she could stop herself.
Humor brightened his eyes. With him positioned right in front of the bare window, and the last rays of the setting sun beaming in, she got a good look at those eyes. Were those flecks of amber and green in his brown pools?
His gaze lowered to her Nike-covered size sixes. "I don't know, I haven't seen your naked feet."
Hearing him say the word naked with what sounded like a deep Southern accent, deeper than Texas, made her stomach flutter like she was twelve again and had never been kissed. Good Lord, what was wrong with her? Since when did she find a Southern accent seductive?
She stuck one foot behind the other. "And you won't see them naked," she snapped, not liking that they'd been here less than five minutes and they were already ... flirting. At least it felt like flirting.
And Della Tsang didn't flirt.
His gaze rose from her feet. "We'll see about that," he said.
They stood there staring at each other for a second. Then he spoke up. "You want to go grab a bite to eat?"
She frowned. "I brought a couple pints of AB positive with me in my bag." Which she needed to put in the fridge. While most vamps preferred their blood warm, Della liked it better cold. When your core temperature was 92 degrees, you appreciated things colder than yourself.
"Yeah, but I need food. Something hot and greasy. Nutrients for whatever the hell is gonna go down tomorrow morning."
Steve had been set up to play as her shape-shifter boyfriend, a guy she'd met after running away from home. They didn't allow anyone but vampires into the gang, but if she got accepted, and he could prove his worth to them, he would be brought in as an "extra." Basically someone they sent out to do their dirty work. Which was part of the reason it pissed her off that Burnett insisted he come. Extras were considered expendable.
"Don't worry, I'll protect you," she said.
"That just warms my heart." He put a hand over his wide chest. "Come on, go with me to grab a burger."
He made it sound like a date or something. Frowning, she was about to call him on it when she remembered seeing a Walmart not far from there and close to some fast-food joints. She could pick up a set of sheets, a blanket, and some extra-strength Lysol spray and maybe be able to sleep on the bed. That meant she could skip out on the foot-loving, Southern-speaking Steve. She wouldn't be gone long. She only needed a peek. A peek at the life she'd been cheated out of.
"Fine." She lit out of the room.
He lit out with her, and within seconds had transformed into a hauling-ass Peregrine falcon. She wasn't certain, but she thought she'd heard this was one of the fastest birds that existed. It wasn't a half-bad-looking animal, either. Its feathers were a blend of browns, tans, and black. Its eyes were striking, round, with large black pupils that seemed to take everything in. And when it stretched out its wings, it almost looked like it had leopard spots.
Della didn't know a whole lot about shape-shifters, but she'd heard once that one sign of their power was they could shift quickly. He'd shifted into a bird pretty damn quickly. Not that she was impressed or anything.
Sort of like flirting, Della Tsang didn't get impressed. Not about guys.
Not since she'd turned vampire, turned cold, and had her heart shattered into tiny little bitty pieces by the guy who was supposed to love her forever.
* * *
Della landed with a thud on the pavement in the back of Walmart. Steve, still a bird, landed elegantly beside her. His wings stretched out wide.
Immediately, he started turning back into human form, and as always when a shifter turned, sparkly bubbles began floating around. One of his transformation bubbles lingering in the evening air popped on her arm and sent a tiny electric current up her elbow, zinging like she'd walked on carpet and then touched something metal.
"What are we doing here?" Steve asked, looking confused.
"Bedding and disinfectant." She brushed off her elbow then looked up. The sky was darkening, and the stars hadn't yet come out to play. Lifting her nose in the air, her vampire sense of smell caught the hint of werewolf under the strong scent of motor oil.
"Something wrong?" Steve asked.
"A few werewolves, but not too close."
He frowned. "Damn, let's grab what you need, snag me a burger, and get the hell back."
She smirked. "You scared of a couple of werewolves?"
"Scared, no. But we don't need any trouble right now." He started walking.
She moved with him. "Sometimes trouble is fun."
"Yeah, but let's save our energy for any trouble that finds us tomorrow."
"Anyone ever accuse you of being boring?" she snipped.
"No, but I'll admit, I'm more of a lover than a fighter."
She kept an eye on the dark shadows, making sure something didn't lurk there. "Please, that's so lame."
"Lame, but true." Humor sounded in his voice.
"I'll stick with lame," she muttered.
She imagined him smiling again, but afraid she'd be pulled into his smile, she didn't chance looking at him. Hearing the laughter in his voice gave her stomach flutters. Or was she just hungry and needing some blood?
Entering the store, they made fast work of buying two flat sheets, a couple of pillowcases, two blankets, and some disinfectant. And Steve tossed in a bag of chips. At the fast-food place next door he got his burger to go, but he wolfed it down as they left the joint to find a desolate spot for him to transform so they could head back.
He'd finished the burger when they started down a dark alley behind the strip center. She noticed he stuffed the sandwich wrapper in his pocket. The guy didn't even litter, never mind the alley was covered in trash. They only got about ten feet down when they heard a scream.
A life-or-death-sounding scream.