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The stench of rotting garbage filled my nostrils as I scoured the dark streets of San Antonio for something to take the edge off. I definitely needed it--this was one of those nights where I felt less than human. No reason, really, except tomorrow was my eighteenth birthday, and tonight, everyone else my age was having a good old time at Homecoming, watching a stupid football game and going to some lame dance.
But not me--no, the home-schooled freak wasn't invited. Not that I cared. They had no idea what went on in the real world, no idea what horrors prowled the night streets. Horrors like me.
A stifled cry came from a dark alley to my right. It sounded promising, so I checked it out. Sure enough, some dude had a young Emo punk pinned against the brick wall, his head buried in the kid's neck. Either they were indulging in some heavy necking, or a vampire was having an evening snack.
Given the wide-eyed fear in the kid's eyes, I was betting on the latter. Either way, he was going to have one serious hickey tomorrow morning.
I stepped up to the vamp and tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me?"
He whipped around, looking shocked, fangs gleaming in the meager light. "Looking for trouble, little girl?" he growled.
I grinned. It had been a long time since anyone had made the mistake of calling me a little girl. "As a matter of fact, yeah. You up for it?"
The kid whimpered. The guy let go of him and I stepped back into the small pool of illumination formed by the streetlight. Not only so I could see better, but to give the kid an opportunity to run for it.
Smart guy--he took it, stumbling off into the night as the vamp stepped into the light. Tall andmuscular with long blond hair, the vamp wore skin-tight black leather. As a fashion statement, it was a bit too obvious. He must think he was a real bad-ass.
He looked me up and down and his lip curled in a sneer.
At five feet, seven inches tall, I look pretty innocuous, with an average build and average brown hair that goes with my average olive complexion. Wearing jeans, heavy boots, and a down-filled vest over a long-sleeved T-shirt, I could be any girl stupid enough to wander the dangerous part of the city in the wee hours, alone.
I could be, but I wasn't.
The vamp's gaze was feral--hungry, yet wary. I'd obviously caught him off guard, and he hesitated. He raised one eyebrow in contemptuous query when I didn't cringe. "You think you can handle me?"
I shrugged. "I don't see why not."
He seemed taken aback. "Who are you?"
My name wouldn't mean anything to him, but what the heck. "Val Shapiro."
"Val?" he jeered. "As in Valentine?"
Yeah. So what? But all I said was, "Bite me."
"Love to." He snarled, his fangs gleaming briefly in the lamplight, then charged at me with inhuman speed.
Predictable. I side-stepped just as quickly. He flew past, missing me by inches. I cuffed him in the back of the head as he went by, and I grinned.
First round to me.
He stumbled to a halt, and his hand went to the back of his head as if he couldn't believe I'd touched him. He whirled around to glare at me, totally outraged.
Enjoying this more than I should, courtesy of my inner demon, I placed one hand on my hip and used the other to wag a finger at him. "You've been a very bad boy." Munching on kids was so not cool.
"Bad? You haven't seen bad yet," he growled.
I felt a tickling in my head--he was trying to control my mind. Good. Just what I'd hoped for. Now that he'd opened a line between us, I could read his mind. His name was Jason Talbert, and he was a truly evil vampire. But he was nowhere near strong enough to control me.
Obviously believing he had me in his thrall, the vamp rushed me again.
The part of myself I kept suppressed broke free with a burst of elation, and lust for the game fizzed through my blood. Time to play.
I braced myself and met his rush with a sharp left jab, snapping his head back. The surprise factor slowed him, but only for a moment. Baring his fangs, he tried to use his huge fists to batter me into submission, but I blocked his flurry of blows before any of them could land. It was easy when the mental connection allowed me to read his intentions so clearly.
He broke off to stare at me in surprise, circling me warily. I've been told my eyes flash a harsh purple, like the color of a black light, when the succubus within me--I call her Lola--comes out to play. From the look on his face, my eyes had done just that. "What are you?" he demanded. "A slayer?"
I rolled my eyes. "The name's Val, not Buffy. Do I look like a blond cheerleader with questionable taste in men?"
"Then what are you?"
My mouth quirked into a smile. "Just a girl looking to do some community service by cleaning up the city."
He didn't respond, and didn't telegraph his intention mentally, so he caught me off-guard as he slammed into me. I lost my balance and we both went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Annoyed with myself for letting him surprise me, I head-butted him right in the fangs and scrambled upright.
Good--I needed a real fight.
He jumped me again, but this time I was ready for him. We fought furiously, Jason determined to sink his teeth into my neck and rip my throat out, and me just as determined to stop him. Unfortunately, he liked close-in fighting, and I couldn't get enough space to reach the silver stake I had tucked into my back waistband.
I grabbed his throat and squeezed, but he wrapped me in a vise hold and wouldn't let go. He slammed me up against a brick wall, intent on crushing me. Trapped. Worse, the power I tried so hard to keep confined was able to reach him through my energy field in these close quarters and I could feel the lust rise within him as he ground his hips against mine. Pervert.
Though I was able to hold off his slavering overbite and incredibly bad breath with one hand, my other hand was caught between our bodies. He couldn't get to my neck, but I couldn't get to my stake either.
Time to play dirty. Remembering even vampires had a sensitive side, I kneed him in the crotch.
He screeched and let go of me to bend over and clutch the offended part of his anatomy. That took care of the lust. I hit him with an uppercut so hard that he flew backward, landing flat on his back on the sidewalk. Whipping the stake from its hiding place, I dropped down beside him and stabbed him through the heart in one well-practiced motion.
His body arched for a moment, then he sagged and lay motionless--really and truly dead.
Now that my prey had been vanquished and Lola's lust sated, I could feel some of the aches and pains he'd inflicted on my body. It was worth it, though. And I healed quickly, so I wasn't likely to feel them for long.
But adrenaline pumped once more when I heard a car door open down the street. The light was dimmer here between streetlights, but I was still visible--and so was the body I crouched over. "Who's there?" I demanded.
"It ... it's me."
I recognized that voice. Annoyed, I rose to glare at my younger half-sister. "Jennifer, what are you doing here?"
She got out of the back seat of the beat-up Camry, white-faced. "I told you I wanted to come along."
"And I told you not to."
She shrugged, displaying defiance and indifference as only a sixteen-year-old could. "That's why I hid in the back of the car."
Stupid. I should have checked. I usually drove my motorcycle--a totally sweet Honda Valkyrie--but on nights when I went hunting, my stepfather let me borrow the old beat-up car since it had a convenient trunk. Unfortunately, it was too easy for my little sister to creep into the back seat and stow away there. Obviously.
Trust Jen to try something like this. I'd made the mistake of telling her about my little excursions, even giving her some training on how to defend herself in case she ever encountered one of the undead. She'd been eager to learn everything she could, but Mom had gone off the deep end when she found out, especially when Jen had come home sporting a few bruises.
Mom had forbidden Jen to talk about it again and had threatened me with bodily harm if I even mentioned vampires around my little sis. Lord knew what Mom would do if she found out about this.
Jen stared down at the dead vamp and grimaced. "I've just never actually seen one of them before."
"A dead vampire?"
"Any dead man."
Was that censure in her voice? "Dead vampire. That's what he was," I said defensively. Mom was right--Jen was far too young and innocent for my world. I had to find a way to keep her away from all this. "I don't stake innocents."
"I know. I saw."
"Jen, you idiot, you shouldn't have come. It's dangerous." And if one hair on her pretty little head was harmed, Mom would have my head on a platter.
"Yeah, well, we can't all be big, strong vampire slayers," she said. She tried to make it sound sarcastic, but it came out sounding more wistful than anything.
I sighed, recognizing jealousy when I saw it. I knew Jen envied my abilities--my specialness--with all the longing of a girl who wanted to be something extraordinary herself, never once thinking of the cost. Of course, it was Lola, the demon inside me, that gave me advantages she didn't have. All of my senses were enhanced far beyond normal, including strength, speed, agility, rapid healing, and the ability to read vamps' minds when they tried to control me. Unfortunately, my little sister had no clue as to the price I paid for those advantages.
And she also had no idea how much I envied her. Fully human, with All-American blond good looks and plenty of friends, she had everything I had always wanted and could never have--true normalcy, not just the appearance of it. With my Jewish-Catholic, demon-human background and the melting pot that went into my heritage, I felt like a mongrel next to a show dog. My lucky half-sister had managed to avoid the bulk of my confusing heritage since we shared only a mother.
But I couldn't say any of that--she wouldn't believe it. "Help me get the body in the trunk," I said tersely.
I usually had to do this part by myself, but why not take advantage of Jen's presence? Besides, participating in the whole dirty business might turn her off for good. I unlocked the trunk and opened it.
She hesitated. "I thought--"
When she broke off, I said, "You thought what? That he'd turn into a neat little pile of dust?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
"I wish it were that easy." I took pity on her. "And he'll be dust soon enough--when sunlight hits him. Come dawn, I'll make sure his ass is ash."
Jen grimaced, but I wasn't going to let her off that easily. It had been her decision to tag along--she'd have to pay the price. I grabbed the vampire's feet. "Get his head."
She stared down at Jason's fangs and the small amount of blood around the stake in his heart and turned a little green. "Can't you just leave him in the alley?"
I could, but then Jen wouldn't learn her lesson.
Well, crap, I sounded like Mom now. Annoyed at myself, I snapped, "We can't just leave him here for someone to trip over. What's the matter? Too much for you?"
She shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. "No, I just thought Dad might not like it if you got blood in his trunk."
"He's used to it." Besides, the blood would disintegrate along with the rest of the body when sunlight hit it.
Jen gulped, but I have to give her credit--she didn't wimp out on me. I'd expected her to blow chunks at the least, but she picked up his shoulders and we wrestled the body into the trunk.
Jen wiped her hands on her jeans and stared uneasily at him. "Is he really dead?"
"Mostly," I said, then grinned to myself when Jen took a step back. There was still the remote possibility Jason could heal if the stake was removed from his heart. But for that to happen, his friends would have to rescue him before dawn, tend him carefully for months and feed him lots of blood. Not likely.
I shrugged. "But the morning sun will take care of that." I closed the trunk.
Just as I locked it, the headlights from a car blinded me and a red light from its dashboard strobed the street.
"It's a cop," Jen said in panic.
Not good. But it didn't have to be bad, either. "Relax. Let me handle this."
The plainclothes policeman exited the unmarked car. "Evening, ladies," he said, obviously trying to sound friendly, though he came across as wary and suspicious.
"Evening," I responded.
He might only be in his mid-twenties, but he had the watchful alertness of a seasoned pro. He hooked the thumb of his right hand in his belt, making it easy to draw a weapon from that bulge under his left arm.
As he came closer, I could make out his features. He was about six feet tall with short brown hair, a straight commanding nose, and a solid bod. Totally hot. I might even be interested if he were a little younger and lost the suspicious attitude.
Lola agreed, wondering what it would be like to enthrall him, get him all hot and bothered, feed on all that lovely energy. That was the problem with being part lust demon--ever since I started noticing boys, Lola had been lying in wait, urging me to get up close and personal, wanting to compel their adoration, suck up all their energy.
I'd given in once, and the poor kid had almost died. But not this time. Not again. I beat back the urges, which was pretty easy since I'd just satisfied the lust by taking out the vamp.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, Officer...?"
"Sullivan. Detective Sullivan." He flashed his badge at me.
I smiled, trying to look sheepish. "My little sister snuck out of the house to meet her boyfriend, and I was just trying to get her back home before Mom finds out."
"In this part of town?"
"Yeah, well, she doesn't have the best of judgment. That's why she had to sneak out."
Jen gave me a dirty look, but was just smart enough to keep her mouth shut.
He didn't look convinced. "Got any ID?"
"Sure--in the car." I gestured toward the front of the vehicle to ask permission and he nodded. Shifting position so he could watch both of us, he asked Jen for her ID, too.
I retrieved my backpack and handed my driver's license to the detective along with Rick's registration. He glanced at them. "Your last names are different."
"Yeah--we're half-sisters. Same mother, different father. We have the same address, see?"
He nodded and took both IDs back to the car to speak to someone on the radio.
"Ohmigod," Jen said in a hoarse whisper. "What if he finds out there's a body in the trunk? We'll go to jail. Mom and Dad will be so pissed."
"Just relax. Everything should come up clean, so there's no reason for him to even look."
Sullivan finished talking on the radio then handed our IDs back.
"Can we go now?" I asked with a smile. "I'd like to get Jen home before Mom finds out she's gone."
"Sure," he said with an answering smile. "Just as soon as you tell me what's in the trunk.".
Oh, crap. Busted.
"Nothing," Jen said hastily, the word ending in a squeak as she backed against the trunk and spread her arms as if to protect it. "Just, you know, junk and stuff. Nothing bad."
Oh, great. Like that didn't sound guilty.
Still casual, he asked, "Would you mind opening it for me?"
Yes, I did. Very much. Swiftly, I mentally ran through the options. I couldn't take him out--I didn't hurt innocents. Besides, he'd just called in our names so they'd know we were the last to see him. Taking off wasn't an option, either--he knew who we were and where we lived.
You could take control of him, force him to let you go, a small voice whispered inside me.
Heaven help me, for a moment, I was tempted. But I couldn't do that. I couldn't take advantage of humans like that. I'd promised the parents--and myself--that I'd never do it again.
My only choice was to do as he asked and hope he'd give me time to explain. Crap. This was so not going the way I planned.
Gently, I moved Jen aside, unlocked the trunk, and braced for the worst.
He lifted the lid and stared down inside. He didn't even flinch. Good grief, was the man made of stone? Expressionless, he asked, "Vampire?"
This was so surreal. I relaxed a little, hoping I might even be able to come out of this without getting into major trouble. "Uh, yeah. The bloody fangs are a dead giveaway."
He gave me a look. The kind that said I wasn't out of trouble yet and he didn't appreciate smart-ass comments. "Why did you stake him?"
Why? He was staring down at the dead undead and he wanted to know why?
Jen blurted out, "Because he was drinking some guy's blood." She shifted nervously. "I saw it all."
The cop nodded. "So did I."
I gaped at him. "You did?"
"Yeah, I was just calling for backup when you waltzed up and tapped him on the shoulder."
Crap--I'd been so self-involved I hadn't even noticed the unmarked car. Note to self: pay attention!
"And you didn't offer to help?"
He shrugged. "Thought about it. Looked like you didn't need it."
True, but his earlier words suddenly registered. "Backup?" I repeated. "Since when do you cops even know vampires exist?"
He gave Jen a wary glance. "Why don't you go sit in the car?"
She looked ticked off, but went to do as he said, and we moved slightly away from the car as he lowered his voice. "The Special Crimes Unit has known for a long time."
"Yeah, you know ... supernatural, paranormal, weird. But the policy of the San Antonio Police Department is that these things don't exist. At least not officially. No sense in panicking the population. That's why we have the SCU."
"You're a member of this Special Crimes Unit?"
He nodded. "But I'm not dumb enough to take one of these guys on by myself." He gave me a penetrating stare. "Yet you didn't seem to have any problem at all. What's up with that?"
I shrugged, not willing to tell him that I was part demon, just in case he might consider me special enough to merit the SCU's attention. I had enough troubles as it was. "I keep in shape, eat my Wheaties."
His eyes narrowed. "Cut the crap. How do you do it?"
"Natural ability and lots of training." When he looked skeptical, I sighed. "Does it matter? There's one less bloodsucker out there. One less monster for you to worry about."
"So it wasn't just a fluke, a lucky kill?"
"I get lucky a lot."
"Look, I don't care how you do it, but maybe you could share--"
An ambulance wailed up just then, lights flashing. It stopped in front of the cop's car. I moved to shut the trunk lid, but Sullivan stopped me. "It's okay," he said. "It's the SCU pick-up unit. They'll take care of him."
The pick-up crew gave Jen and me curious looks, but must have been trained to keep their mouths shut, because they didn't say a word--just efficiently took charge of the body and drove off.
Curious, I asked, "Where are they taking him?"
"To a special morgue designed for the purpose."
"Really? I just let the sun take them."
He quirked a smile. "This one has a skylight, but the SCU likes to document these things first. Plus, it's a bit messy just to leave them lying around on the street." His eyes strayed to my car. "Or in trunks."
"Yeah, well, I didn't want to leave him in an alley, and I don't have some fancy ambulance at my disposal."
"Do this often, do you?"
"No, not really." Only when the succubus part of me threatened to get out of control. When Lola lusted for an outlet, she could be appeased by channeling that energy into a vampire kill. For awhile, anyway.
He stared at me for a moment. "If you ever want to share a few of your secrets, just call me." He handed me a business card.
Not happening. I didn't need anyone else knowing about the demon inside me. But to get rid of him, I stuck the card in my vest pocket and said, "I'll do that."
"All right, you're free to go."
I drove home, annoyed at how late it was. I had to get Jen in her bed before our parents learned she was gone. But just as we got out of the car, Mom and Rick came out of the house.
Crap--just what I needed. I groaned and Jen turned as white as the vamp.
We were in for it now. In resignation, I turned toward them, but Jen backed up, trying to hide in the shadows of the garage.
It didn't work.
"Stop right there, young lady," Mom ordered. Looking part worried, part pissed, she hurried up the sidewalk. Jen looked like a hybrid of her mother and father--all three Andersons were big-boned, blond, and beautiful. It always surprised people when they could see nothing of my pretty mother in my face. Evidently, my father's strong demon genes had overwhelmed all my mother's blond ones.
"Where have you been?" Mom asked Jen. "When we found you missing from your bed, we were so worried."
"I was helping Val," Jen said in a tone that was half sulky, half proud. "We staked a vampire."
We? Yeah, right.
Fury flashed over Mom's face as she turned on me. "How dare you take her with you!"
Whoa ... intense much? "I didn't," I said, hating how defensive I sounded. "She hid in the car."
"She wouldn't let me come," Jen muttered peevishly.
"Sharon--" my stepfather began.
But Mom wasn't about to be appeased or soothed. She turned on Jen. "Go to your room, young lady. We'll deal with you later. We need to talk to Val. Alone."
Jen looked stubborn, but her father nodded sternly toward the front door and said, "Go on, now."
Jen went, but expressed her indignation and reluctance in every movement of her body. I knew how she felt, but right now, I wished I could go to my room and skip this whole scene.
Before Mom could repeat her demand, I said calmly, "She pestered me to come along but I said no. I didn't know she'd snuck into the back of the car. You know how she is." She'd always been a willful brat.
"You should have known," Mom said, her eyes still flashing anger. "You put her in danger."
Okay, she had a point. I should have checked. Maybe. But the rest was all wrong. Since when was I responsible for Jen's idiocy? I glanced at my stepfather, Rick, for assistance, but met only an impassive expression. Apparently, he had decided to stay out of the fray. As usual. Though he'd raised me as if I were his own, he let Mom have her way when it came to me. Sometimes he stuck up for me, but it didn't look like today was going to be one of those days.
"I didn't put her in danger," I said in annoyance. "She managed to do that all by herself. Besides, she stayed in the car the whole time."
"That's not good enough," Mom insisted. "I told you before that I don't want her involved in anything like this."
A little ticked now, I asked, "Why? You think I'm a bad influence?"
"Well, if I am, you helped make me this way."
Mom sighed and visibly calmed herself. I would have appreciated the effort if I didn't suspect she wanted to pacify me and ensure the big bad demon didn't get loose.
"It's three o'clock in the morning," I said. "Do we really need to do this now?" Night time on the dark streets of San Antonio was my territory. My family belonged in the bright light of day. Mixing the two made me uncomfortable.
"Yes, now," Mom insisted. She paused, as if searching for just the right words. "For you, hunting vampires is necessary. To take care of ... that part of you."
"The demon?" Mom would never say it, as if thinking if she didn't voice the word, it would disappear somehow. Unfortunately, it was an irrevocable part of me.
"Yes," Rick said. "The succubus."
My stepfather wasn't afraid to say it. And luckily, he understood and respected Lola. He was careful not to let our energy fields overlap, thank heavens. That would be just ... wrong.
But he was the one who had helped me realize that if I didn't want to end up insane and suicidal like my father, I had to give in to the demon within occasionally, not fight it. Luckily, the lust of the hunt usually satisfied it enough to keep the other kind of lust from breaking out and breaking men's wills.
Unfortunately, though only one-eighth of my ancestry was demon, it took all the other seven-eighths of me to control it. Was that what they were still worried about? Trying to be patient, I said, "You taught me how to keep it in line. Now that I let it out periodically, I can control it. I would never hurt Jen."
"Not physically," Mom said. "Not deliberately." And her face was set in stubborn lines that I knew all too well. Mom had more to say and wasn't going to stop until she had spewed it all.
"What are you saying?" I asked in exasperation. "That my little sister should be afraid of me?"
"Your half-sister," Mom said. "She doesn't have the same ... curse you do."
As if I needed a reminder. "I know. No one does." Apparently, I was unique. Lucky me.
Mom's eyes shifted away from my accusing gaze. "Unfortunately, she looks up to you, wants to be just like you."
"Yeah, well, she's obviously not very bright."
Mom shook her head. "I knew it was a mistake to let your sister grow up knowing how different you are."
Yeah, right. Like she wouldn't have noticed. "C'mon, Mom. Jen's not that stupid--she knows she can't be like me." Though Jen's obsession lately had run to finding out as much about vampires as she could, under the theory that she was helping me by feeding me all the information she picked up.
"Yes, but she's young and rash. At that age, they all think they're invincible."
Not to mention she thought she could help save the world by helping me. It wasn't flattering, it was annoying, especially since I did nothing to encourage it, knowing how much it bothered Mom. "Okay, so I won't let her follow me."
"No, that won't work. You said it yourself--she'll find a way to do it anyway, then she'll get hurt."
Why was Mom being so unreasonable? "I'll protect her." Then ream her butt for following me.
"You can't protect her and do ... your thing at the same time. We have to make sure she doesn't go with you."
"Fine. I don't want her along anyway, but how am I going to stop her from following me? That's your job, isn't it?"
I'd meant that to sting, but was surprised when Mom took a deep breath and said, "Yes, it is. That's why we've come to a decision."
Uh-oh. Why did I suddenly have the feeling I wasn't going to like this? "What decision?"
"For Jen's sake, it's better if you move out."
"How will that help? She'll still see me at the bookstore."
Mom's face set in stubborn lines. "We'd like you to find another job, too."
My face suddenly turned ice-cold, like someone had just doused me in cold water. Then heat flooded in and nausea followed close behind. I glanced at Rick. He was usually my champion, but in this, his expression showed he sided with his wife. "You're firing me?" I asked in disbelief. How could they do that? I had never even conceived the possibility I wouldn't be working in the family's new age bookstore.
No, that wasn't exactly true. Subconsciously, I'd been expecting this all my life, knowing I wasn't like the rest of them, knowing I couldn't pass, knowing they would one day reject me for it. Apparently, that day was today. My eighteenth birthday. Happy freakin' birthday, Val.
"Oh, I get it," I said bitterly, my voice sounding thick with the huge lump in my throat. "You're kicking me out of the family."
"Not out of the family," Mom said. "Just out of the business. Only for a while. If Jen doesn't see you around for a while, maybe she'll give up on this unhealthy obsession, or grow out of it."
I shook my head mutely, afraid to let my many emotions emerge, afraid to let the demon out.
"This is important," Mom insisted. "It's the only way to protect her."
"By throwing me out?" I wailed. How could they do this to me?
"We're not throwing you anywhere," Rick said. "We love you."
Yeah, right. They loved me, but only parts of me--the human parts. The small piece of me that was demon they didn't even like. Or understand. Unfortunately, I couldn't rip that bit out ... or stop it from holding sway over my emotions. I'd tried. Oh, I'd tried.
And I was tired of being made to feel less than human for something I couldn't help. Shaking my head and trying to keep my pain and fear tightly under wraps, I knew there was nothing I could say. I turned away from their judgmental faces and walked off.
"Val, wait," Mom called. "We'll help you--"
Hell no. Ignoring her, I half-walked, half-ran to the motorcycle I had left waiting at the curb. Mom said something else, but I didn't catch it. I was too busy putting on my helmet, starting the Honda Valkyrie's engine, and peeling out of there like the fiends of hell were at my heels.