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"I ain't a groomin' service," I said, wishing I could still smoke Marlboros. Becoming a vampire cured me of most vices. If I couldn't breathe, I sure as hell couldn't inhale and exhale cigarette smoke. I wanted a donor who smoked, so I'd get a nice fix every time I had a pint. Unfortunately, the Consortium-which was in charge of our little piece of Oklahoma-didn't hire donors who abused their bodies. Yet, I hoped for the day I'd find me some nicotine blood.
"You give such good shampoo massages, Patsy," said Darrius, who was a fine-looking male. He could shape-shift into a big, black wolf, too. In either form, Darrius was hard to resist. He'd talked me more than once into a full-body shampoo.
"I own a salon service for people, not mutts."
"If you added animal grooming to your offerings," he said. "You'd make more money."
"You think so?" I liked money almost as much as I liked cigarettes. I couldn't smoke anymore, but I could spend money. I hadn't been jewelry-shopping in a dog's age. I looked at Darrius and cackled. Dog's age. Wasn't I hoot"
His green eyes filled with calculation. He sidled closer to me and draped a muscled arm around my shoulders. Oo-wee, I loved it when handsome men flirted with me. Gave me a thrill, it sure enough did. I was forty-years-old (and would be forever, by God) and not above enjoying the titillation offered by Darrius. Look at him, all cute and wily.
"Oh, all right. But this is the last time." Of course, that's what I said every time Darrius and his ornery brother Drake talked me into a wolfie shampoo. Too cute for their own good, both of 'em.
"You know how I feel about watching that shifting bullshit. Go in the back room."
Darrius took two steps before his cell phone rang. Cursing, he plucked it from the holster on his hip. "Ja?"
After listening a moment, he sighed deeply. He shut the phone and re-inserted it into the case. "I must take a rain check, Liebling. Damian says there is an emergency, but with him, everything is an emergency."
Damian was the third brother; the oldest, by eleven minutes, of triplets. He was head of the Consortium's security, and he protected the borders of Broken Heart fiercely. He never asked for a shampoo.
Darrius kissed my cheek then tapped my nose with his forefinger. "I will be back, Patsy. Then you can rub me all over."
"Promises, promises, stud."
He grinned widely and turned around. I slapped that tight butt so hard my palm stung. He laughed and sauntered out of the salon. Looking at that fine posterior almost made it worth digging out the wolf hair from my tub.
As Darrius exited, cold air gusted through the door and brought with the promise of snow. Well, what can you do? It was the first week of November, after all. Then again, Oklahoma weather was as fickle as my sister at a half-price shoe sale. Yesterday, the temperature had been a balmy sixty-six degrees.
I turned the sign on the front door to "Closed," then I grabbed the broom and started sweeping the clean floor. I'd been feeling off-kilter lately. You know that prickly feeling you get when a storm's coming, but the sky is clear? Whatever-it-was teased the horizon just enough to keep me clutching my umbrella.
My thoughts drifted to Darrius's suggestion. Grooming services, huh? We had enough lycanthropes around these parts that I could make some extra money as an animal groomer. Business wasn't exactly brisk thanks to ousting most of the original residents. Anyone who wasn't a paranormal being or a human donor found themselves elsewhere in a hurry.
I used to have two employees, but they were given new jobs in Tulsa, as part of the Broken Heart citizen resettlement program. My nail girl Linda got re-assigned as an assistant to scientist Dr. Stan Michaels. She was mightily in love with that man, but wouldn't admit it.
Anyway, Broken Heart wasn't exactly a hopping town before the undead took over. Less than a year ago, the only thing that had saved my salon from closing had been the strippers from the
Barley and Boob Barn, which had been shut down and razed in June. Aw, hell. I missed those girls. They were fun and raunchy and tipped real good.
I was "life-challenged" because of Lorcan O'Halloran. Diseased by the Taint-a nasty illness that only affects vampires-he'd attempted a radical cure. The cure turned him into a two-legged, hairy, stinky beast. He romped around ol' Broken Heart and killed eleven of us single parents. Oh, now, don't worry. He's back to being a vampire. He married my friend Eva, Broken Heart's only teacher. She was obviously the forgiving sort, but I still felt uneasy around Lorcan.
The night he attacked me, I'd been outside my shop smoking a cigarette. If I'd known that was the last smoke I was ever gonna have, I would've enjoyed it a lot more. Anyway, I died. Wham! Knocked down, knocked out, and snacked on. Next night, I woke up on a steel table in a white room feeling more alive than ever-only to be told I wasn't. And I figured out real quick that I had gained a few new tricks.
It wasn't all bad. My crow's feet, cellulite, age spots, and the ol' saggies went bye-bye. I had clear, wrinkle-free skin, but no amount of vampifying could rid me of my height, a couple inches shy of six feet, or what my son called "fluffiness." Eva said I reminded her of a Valkyrie, which was some sort of Viking chick who kicked ass. I liked that description, I'll tell you.
The Consortium bought my place and gave it to me lock, stock, and barrel, and they paid all bills associated with it and my double-wide, which was twenty feet behind the salon. I didn't have much to do with the money I made, except abuse my credit card on the Home Shopping Network.
"Good evening, Patricia."
The man's voice startled me, but I kept my cool. One thing I'd learned from my ex-husband was that offense was the best defense. "Do you ignore all the signs you read, or just the ones on doors?"
I turned around and leaned on the broom. A man I'd never seen stood inside the doorway, staring at me. And he was built, honey. Mm-hmm. I saw the muscles bulging underneath the crisp white shirt opened at the collar. He also wore a pair of tight black jeans and ... I'll be damned. He had himself a pair of black Prada Croc Sneakers. I liked boots and didn't wear much else. Wilson had shown me a magazine ad with those Crocs and said he wanted them. Even though our existence was no longer hand-to-mouth, I couldn't justify buying a pair of shoes that cost twice as much as my mortgage payment.
What was a guy wearing thousand-dollar pair of kicks doing in my shop? Shoot. What did it matter? Most of the paranormal beings running around our fair town were richer than God. He didn't seem to mind I was looking him over. As I took his measure, he took mine. His long hair was so white it looked like captured moonbeams. It was drawn into a queue at the back of his neck. If that hair wasn't enough to make the hairstylist in me slobber, then his golden eyes made the woman in me go mreow. Those mesmerizing amber orbs reminded me of the sunsets I would never see again.
Damn. He was temptation itself. I was a celibate as a nun because of vampires had a hitched-for-hundred-years sex clause. My last marriage lasted eighteen years and that was seventeen years, three-hundred-and-sixty four days longer than it should have. I swore I wouldn't walk down the aisle ever again, much less fall in love. No, thank you.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"My name's Gabriel." He smiled, but it wasn't a nice smile. It was more like an I'll-eat-you-up grin. I shivered all the way to my toes. "Damian sent me. His orders are to secure your beauty shop and to walk you home."
"Why? Are more Wraiths sneaking around or something?"
Wraiths were vampires who thought they should rule the world, being the superior race. Hah. They'd attacked Broken Heart twice and hadn't accomplished much more than pissing off the residents.
He shrugged. "I do what the boss tells me."
I clutched the broom handle, suddenly uneasy. Handsome as he was, I'd never seen him before. Drake and Darrius were always showing up 'round here for one thing or another, but it didn't make a lick of sense for Damian to send me a guardian.
The man seemed to sense my distress. "You want to call him and ask?" He unclipped his cell phone from his belt and extended it toward me.
I looked at the phone and then at him. If he was willing to let me call Damian and check up on him, then surely he was legit. Yeah, right. I may be blonde, but I ain't stupid.
"I have him on speed dial." I dug my phone out my back jean pocket and flipped it open. The only weapons I had were the broom, my vamp skills, and my charming wit-none of which would disarm him.
I hit the button and put the phone to my ear. Damian picked up on the first ring. "Ja?"
"I got a tall drink of water over here who says you sent him."
"You have a what?"
"You are so clich-challenged," I said. "There's a guy here who wants to hold my hand and walk me home. Did you send him or do I have to whack him with my broom?"
He sighed. "New policy, Patsy. Every Turn-blood has a guardian until ... well, I say so. Consider him your new shadow. And do not whack him with anything."
Damian hung up. He wasn't much for hellos or good-byes. I put my phone away. "I guess you're my new best pal. Wanna tell me why?"
"You should ask Damian."
"Yeah. It's easier to catch a greased hog than it is to pry information outta that man."
Gabriel's lips turned up into an almost grin. Mm-mmm. My stomach did a little mambo. Handsome wasn't a good enough word to describe him.
All the same, I felt trapped. I didn't particularly like being bossed around, especially by Consortium puppets. I pretended that him standing there looking all big and powerful and yummy didn't bother me.
"It makes no never mind to me what you do," I lied. "I gotta lock up now."
I finished sweeping up then turned off the lights. I had to bolt the front door, which meant getting awful close to Gabriel. Heat emanated off him, like an invisible fire raged around him. His gaze caught mine; the look in his amber gaze made my stomach jump. Lust zinged through me and he knew it. His lips curved into a feral smile.
I put on my lambskin jacket then headed out the back door. Gabriel followed and leaned against the wall, watching me lock up. As soon as I was done, I whirled around and hurried across the high grass toward my double-wide. I didn't want the luscious Gabriel within my orbit for too long. I was prone to make bad decisions around men like him.
Behind me, I heard a whoosh, and then I heard Gabriel yell. Whomp. Thud.
Fear spun through me, but I turned around. And screamed.
The massive creature was at least eight feet tall. He had marbled gray skin and completely black eyes. His hairless head gleamed in the moonlight. As he took as step toward me, the ground shook. He grinned at me and revealed double rows of needle-sharp teeth.
I didn't see my bodyguard anywhere-until I fell ass over teakettle over him. I landed way too close to the monster's clawed feet.
I scrabbled backwards, right into the unconscious form of Gabriel. Some guardian he turned out to be! I scooted over him, knelt by his head, and shook his shoulders. "Hey, you! Get up now!" The creature watched me in amusement. Dread snaked through me. Gabriel's moonshine hair spilled onto the ground. I detected his shallow breathing and the steady beat of his heart.
"Your boyfriend can take a punch," he said. His voice sounded like thunder. He crossed his huge arms, his expression grim. "Usually that move kills lycans."
Fear chilled me even more than the frigid air. The storm threatening my horizon was here and damned if I didn't have my umbrella.
"What do you want?" I asked, my voice quivering.
Horror kept me wielded to the ground. I couldn't move. My gaze was glued to the ugly thing bending toward me over Gabriel, who was trapped between us. He enjoyed my terror, the bastard. His curved claws grazed my shoulders as he tried to grab me.
That's when I remembered I was a vampire.
I swung a right hook at his jaw. Pain jolted down my arm on contact, but the strength of the punch made him stagger back. He looked as shocked as I felt.
The growl surprised us both.
My gaze switched to Gabriel. He was awake, his gold eyes filled with fury. He pushed onto his hands and feet. His body arched, his flesh rippling. I heard the snap of bones and the snick of muscles realigning. His clothes and his expensive shoes shredded and fell to the ground. His face elongated into a large snout filled with sharp teeth. His long hair flowed down his back and joined with the white fur sprouting over every inch of skin.
Snapping and snarling, the white wolf lunged for the monster.