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John Brittain slapped the shot-glass onto the bar and stared into the empty glass until it started to blur. He pushed it away and waved off the approaching bartender. He'd had enough. He stood and headed for the door.
Outside, he shivered in the crisp air. The street was darker than usual. Whether he liked it or not, the cop in him never completely dropped his guard. Streetlights were out on the whole block. Not a good thing in a shadowy, criminally active neighborhood like this one. He'd report it anonymously when he got home.
Next to the brick wall on his right, something triggered his peripheral vision. His footsteps slowed, senses switching to full alert. Like velvet in the night, a woman came out of the shadows and brushed past him.
"Hello there, handsome," she said, her sultry voice invading his senses.
"Not interested," he muttered and continued down the sidewalk.
Dressed from head to toe in skintight black leather, looking like someone straight out of his long-ago teenage fantasies, the dark haired beauty leaned into him. She pressed her firm breasts against his chest and suggestively licked her delectable red lips.
If she was a hooker, this neighborhood was looking up.
"Looking for a good time tonight?" she asked.
"You're kidding, right?"
Even though he tried not to touch her with his hands, too many other body parts were tingling on contact where her body touched his. Until he bumped into the wall behind him, he didn't even realize she had him on the retreat.
With her hands propped on the wall on either side of his head and her mouth inches from his, she positioned herself so her pelvis madeintimate contact against his. "I'm in the market for a man. Are you up for it?"
He sucked in a ragged breath and squinted at her, wishing for the second time tonight he hadn't been drinking. Of course he was interested! He was a living, breathing male with libido fully intact. And right now every part of him was revved up and ready to rumble. As much as he didn't want to do it, he let his gaze move down to the mounds of flesh crushed against him.
Once again the urge to touch became overpowering. He gritted his teeth. He, of all people, didn't deserve a woman who looked like her. He had a self-prescribed penance to pay, and hooker or not, she was too much of a prize. He placed both hands on her arms and moved her gently away from him. "Look somewhere else, honey. I'm not in the market for little girls, no matter how pretty."
She laughed. "How old do you think I am?"
His gaze traveled up her trim thighs. Then to her exquisite milky white skin where her cleavage tantalized him. With an exaggerated sigh he tore his gaze away and tried to focus on her dark eyes, but a sliver of pain shot through his left temple. He looked away. "Not old enough."
"You might be surprised." She ran two fingers along his jaw. "But, you've got ethics. That's always good."
"Honey, why don't you go home and get your mother to tuck you into bed."
"We'll meet again." She stepped away from him.
He turned to say something equally pointless but she'd disappeared into the shadows. He stared into the dark and squinted, but there was no one there. How the hell had she vanished so fast?
The next evening Britt wiped the last of the shaving cream off his face with a towel and slapped on a palmful of aftershave. Pressed against the edge of the bathroom sink he stared hard at his reflection. He looked like hell. Since he'd been kicked off the force, he'd been through hell. For that matter, he felt as if he was still in hell.
Had it been two years since he'd made the mistake of confronting his partner about taking bribes on the beat? Randy had slugged him in the jaw, and he'd responded by punching Randy in the gut. In the gut!
If only he could take back that moment.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, clenching his teeth. How many times had he wished for that one favor? One miracle in a good cop's lifetime?
Good cop? He made a derisive noise in the back of his throat. Good cops don't kill their partners.
He tried to push the memories away, but he couldn't. They'd been stirred up again because yesterday, out of the blue, his former captain, Drake Abbott, had telephoned him. He wanted Britt to meet him at the precinct, but he wouldn't explain why. Britt had reservations about going. Cop killers should never hang around police stations. But Drake was a good guy. One of the few Britt respected. He had no choice but to agree. He owed his friend that much. Drake had stuck by him when everyone else had turned their back on him.
On the way to the Police Station, Britt convinced himself he was happy enough. It had taken over two years, but he had made peace with his transition from cop to cabby. Even so, he couldn't forgive himself for what he'd done to deserve this life.
Now, here he was, walking down those familiar corridors again. His gut clenched at the sights and smells inside the building where he'd spent more than ten years of his life. He shouldn't have come. He didn't need reminders of how his life could have been if he hadn't screwed it up.
When Britt reached the office, Drake rose from his chair and hurried across the room to greet him. "Glad you came." Drake grabbed his hand and pumped it hard. "Just a second. I'll close this door then we can talk."
Britt saw the woman immediately--long, luscious legs in dark hose led up to a short skirt. Shoulder length sable hair, flawless skin and full lips that instantly elevated his blood pressure. He swallowed before he said, "Hello."
She didn't speak, just continued to stare at him, sizing him up like it was her God-given right.
Britt groaned inwardly. Drake better have a damned good reason to bring him here, because the way this lady was eyeing him made him feel extremely uncomfortable. Strike that. Extremely aroused and uncomfortable.
"Okay." Drake rubbed his hands together as he sat behind his desk. "Let's get down to business right away."
"Aren't you forgetting an introduction?" Britt tipped his head toward the eye candy in the corner.
"Right. This is Jess Vandermire, Lieutenant of our new unit. Jess, I'd like to introduce you to one of the best cops I've ever worked with, John Brittain."
Britt started to ask Drake what new unit he was talking about but cringed instead as Drake added the last. Even though he felt honest-to-God gratitude at Drake's statement, guilt surged through him. He didn't deserve that kind of praise.
"Mr. Brittain." Her voice slipped over him like silk. Crazy as it sounded, he felt as if she'd physically caressed him--with her tongue!
He shivered. Embarrassed by his reaction to her, he mumbled something hopefully unintelligible, before dragging his gaze back to Drake. He had a sinking feeling Drake was going to ask him to do bodyguard duty or something equally distasteful. He'd decided a long time ago that he'd never stoop to that type of job. He'd been one of the best cops in the city, and if he couldn't be a real cop, he sure as hell wouldn't settle for the next best thing. That's why he'd become a taxi driver. Driving a cab was about as far from being a cop he could get.
"Before you say anything, Britt, listen to what I have to tell you." Drake screwed up his leathery face. "Fact is, I'd like to offer you a job with the police force."
Britt felt as if a sudden weight had fallen on his chest and was affecting his breathing. "Not funny, Drake. You know that's not possible. Hell, I'd give my eyeteeth to be able to come back. But not with my partner's death hanging over my head. No one will accept me, and I don't blame them."
"Did you say eyeteeth?" Drake said.
The lady's eyes sparkled dangerously at Drake. Talk about giving him the "you'd-better-watch-yourself look."
Drake suddenly went a sickly pale and said to the woman, "Sorry, Jess. That was in bad taste."
What the hell did Drake mean by that? Britt stood and scraped the chair back with his legs. "Never mind. I'll just pretend you didn't ask me to return. I'm leaving."
"No! Hear me out first."
Britt glared at Drake and raked a hand through his hair in frustration. "I'm a freaking outcast, man! I'll never be able to come back. And, to be honest, I can't believe you'd even suggest I could, even if I was innocent. Which we both know I'm not. So stop yanking my chain."
As far as ticked expressions went, Jess Vandermire's registered at least an eight on a scale from one to ten. Apparently, she didn't like the way the conversation was going. "This offer is legit," she said. "The real deal. You'll be a New York City Cop again with full pay and benefits."
Britt threw his hands into the air. Christ! Didn't these two understand the word no? "If you think I'll work with some private company, I'll tell you right now, I'm never going to work as a damned bodyguard. Not even if you call me a cop in the process." His shoulders slumped. No way could he tell them how much saying those words hurt; how much he still wanted to be a cop.
"Nah, it's not like that at all," Drake said. "I'd never ask you to be a bodyguard. You'll be a New York City Police Officer again. Your record will be expunged."
Even though Drake's voice emphasized the "expunged" part, he looked squeamish as hell. Britt didn't miss the fact that his eyes kept darting toward Jess.
Britt bit his bottom lip and squeezed his hands into tight firsts. "Can you expunge the fact that I killed my partner?"
"No. I wish I could." Drake at least looked repentant.
"So do I, Drake. So do I." He looked at his shoes and swallowed.
Suddenly, Jess Vandermire said, "The unit I run is a top-secret operation. Absolutely no one outside the Special Ops team can know about it. Before I can give you any details, you have to decide if you want in." Her soft, velvet-smooth voice was about as erotic as a voice could get.
He gaped at her. Didn't she just hear what he'd said? And, damnit, as much as her voice affected him, he was too irritated to be distracted by her. Did they think they were talking to a rookie, for Christ's sake?
"Isn't that slightly backward? If I don't know what the job is about, how am I supposed to make an informed decision?" Britt countered.
"You're not. You have to decide if you want in without knowing the full details. You should know, however, that this unit isn't for wimps. It's a dangerous job. People will die. If you accept the position, your life will be on the line every night."
"And that's different from being a cop how?"
"Cops aren't necessarily in constant physical danger. You will be."
Jess watched John Brittain frown, saw the rigid jaw muscle flex. His eyes registered anger and could probably instill fear about as efficiently as anyone she'd ever met. Of course, she wasn't afraid of him, but that look could come in useful if he accepted the job. Yeah, he was tough all right, but could he handle the whole truth?
She leaned forward. "Now's the time to ask yourself if you want back on the force bad enough to risk dying for it. Only the strongest and smartest cops will make it out of this alive. We need you, Britt. We need the best we can get. I wish I could tell you more, but right now isn't the time."
"What are you going to do, infiltrate a biker gang or something?"
"That, Mr. Brittain, would be a cakewalk compared to what this unit will have to do."
"Is that so?" He put his hands on his hips.
"And then some," Drake added.
Jess looked at Britt. He looked plain haggard, though she liked his hazel eyes, the firm line of his mouth. She'd bet he wasn't the kind of man who'd back down in the face of danger. She could smell fear from Drake, but nothing from Britt. He wasn't in the least affected by what they'd just told him. His expression remained deliberate, calculating. She was impressed by his cool demeanor. He'd be an asset on her team.
Britt shoved his hands into his pockets. "The best I can tell you is I'll consider your offer."
Drake wouldn't accept a negative answer right now, and Britt knew it. Jess marveled at how men could interact with each other without saying a word. Drake nodded his head and let him go.
Later, after Britt left to think their offer over, Jess crawled into the chair he'd been sitting in. No use trying to absorb the former occupant's warmth, he'd been out of the chair for too long. "Do you think he'll say yes, Drake? He looked pretty indecisive when he left."
"I'll admit he's been through a lot the last couple of years, but he was never a man to jump in without weighing his options. That's what made him good. He thought quickly, but he also made sure he took the time to make good decisions when time allowed. I'd sure as hell like to know what happened with his partner. It still doesn't feel right. I guess everyone has some evil in them, but Britt--he's not a killer."
"If that's true, he won't do very well on my team. I need killers. The best killers in the game."
"I'm not sure if he's the killer you're looking for, Jess, but there's one thing I do know. I'd stake my pay check on John Brittain's loyalty. If you can gain it, you can trust him with anything you ask of him."
The next evening, Britt waited for Jess at a table in the back corner of the bar. She noticed he'd chosen a spot where he could see everyone coming and going, his back to the wall.
"Nice to see you again." He stood and pulled a chair out for her. Though obviously not exuberant about being here, she sensed he was pleased to see her.
"Let's get one thing straight, Brittain. I'm a cop just like you. I'm not a lady, so don't stand up every time you see me. And don't ever hold my chair for me again." She'd seen the appreciative way he'd looked at her. It wasn't as if that had never happened to her before. In fact, it seemed as if she got the eye more now that she was dead than she did when she was alive. Even so, her physical response to him surprised her. He was the first man who'd made her think about sex for a long time.
A momentary frown scuttled across his forehead. "Fair enough. I shouldn't have done that. But don't compare me to you. I'm not a cop anymore."
She sat across from him. Saw the way he looked her over, the open appreciation in his expression. For an instant she felt that old ache returning. The loss. She pushed it away.
"Care for a drink?" He raised one hand to hail the waitress.
"No. They don't carry my brand here." She looked at the two empty shot glasses on the table. By the smell of booze on Britt's breath they weren't the first two he'd had. "I take it you've decided you're not going to accept the offer after all?"
"What makes you think that?" His thumb and forefinger rasped across his unshaven chin.
"It looks to me as if you'd rather be drinking than having a serious job interview."
Eyes narrowing, he sat straighter in his chair and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Let's just say I don't see much future in working undercover for the police force. I don't know what kind of game you've got going, but keeping the regular cops out of the loop worries me."
"Really." She tapped her long fingernails on the tabletop. She could tell it irritated him, so she continued doing it. "Of course it's absolutely essential for the so-called 'regular' cops' safety that we keep them uninformed. If they find out what's going on they'll be in grave danger. It's as simple as that. Only the toughest men and women can handle this information, those who have their wits about them." She looked at the shot glasses then at his watery eyes. "I don't need an alcoholic on my team. Fact is, you wouldn't last one night."
"Hey! I'm not an alcoholic." He slammed a hand onto the table, making the two empty shot glasses clink together.
"Really? Smells like you've had at least four shots before I got here."
His eyes widened. "That's some sniffer you've got."
She picked up her purse and rose from her chair. "Yes--something you might do well to remember in the future."
"What are you doing? Is the interview over?"
"It never began," she said.
She hesitated only because she saw determination in his eyes. "I haven't got all night, Mr. Brittain. Either you want the job or you don't. I've told you it's dangerous. You have to be at the top of your game if you want to survive. Being anesthetized with alcohol will only help you die quicker. I don't have time to waste on people who won't make it past the first night."
"I'd sure as hell like to know what this is about before I give you my answer. What happens if I say yes, then don't like the job afterwards?"
"You could quit, but I wouldn't recommend it. We won't have time to protect you if you drop out. Our mission isn't to be bodyguard to cops who can't cut it. And believe me, you'd be better off staying with the unit. There's safety in numbers."
"God almighty, just what the hell are you people up to?"
"Believe me, God has little to do with it. I do believe He's on our side though." Jess watched Brittain carefully.
Trying not to think about him as a man with needs she'd like to satisfy, she turned her thoughts to how he'd ended up as one of her recruits. He wasn't like the rest of the misfits and criminals, the dregs of society, she normally recruited to her team. She could tell Britt had been a decent cop just by looking at him. He was tough, but she had no doubt he had loved his job and performed it to the best of his ability. She understood that kind of thinking. Even a woman in her position had her standards. And she believed her standards were high considering what she was up against.
She looked at him again. His eyes burned into hers with the determination of someone who wanted to believe in himself but had been knocked down a few pegs. He had the stuff to be a cop again. He'd be a good man to have on her team. He knew about man's inhumanities to man. But he had no idea there was another level of inhumanity out there, darker and more sinister. And much more inhumane.
How would he take the news that they were hunting vampires?