Hidden within the lush branches of the towering tree, Trixie crouched low to avoid hitting her head on a dangling clump of pinecones. This had been her usual spot ever since Chelsea moved in a year ago, but those freaking pinecones always got tangled in her hair. Uncomfortable as it was, this location gave her a clear view into the kitchen and family room of the tiny house. The thick scent of the pine needles filled Trixie's nose as she sat motionless amid the branches, unnoticed by the human woman inside the little white clapboard cottage.
Trixie's throat tightened with emotion. With her enhanced hearing, she picked up Chelsea's tuneless hum as she washed dishes in the small sink. She seemed content and peaceful. A combination of pride and sadness swirled inside Trixie-but not regret. That was one emotion she never allowed herself to entertain. Everyone made hard choices; living with the consequences of some choices was harder than making them.
She shouldn't be here. But she couldn't manage to stay away either. Not for long, anyway. Trixie could go maybe two or three months without checking on the girl, but then the nagging pull of worry would drag her back.
Was Chelsea safe? Was she happy?
Those were the only two questions that Trixie ever wanted answered. Based on the satisfied, wistful smile on Chelsea's sweet face, the answer to both right now was a resounding yes.
Trixie adjusted her position on the thick branch, the treads of her combat boots digging into the rough bark. It hadn't always been that way. There had been difficult times. Times when Trixie hadn't been able to stop herself from intervening. She had only wanted to give Chelsea a gift-an anonymous gift-but when Olivia found out about it, she was freaking furious. The vampire community did not look fondly on meddling in human lives. But that didn't matter to Trixie.
All that mattered was making sure that Chelsea was okay.
The alarm on Trixie's cell phone vibrated in the pocket of her jeans. She swore under her breath and pulled it out before quickly shutting it off. The club would be opening soon, and she had to go back to get the bar stocked and ready. She glanced at Chelsea one last time before shooting into the night sky. Maybe tomorrow after the party she would come back for another quick visit.
As long as no one found out, what could it hurt?
Trixie couldn't remember the last time she went to a little girl's birthday party but it certainly wasn't since becoming a vampire.
Olivia and Doug might be two of the world's most powerful vampires, but they had also become the first vampire parents in recorded history. Today was their daughter Emily's second birthday and they were throwing her a big old party, complete with birthday cake and balloons.
Trixie had gone back and forth all day about whether or not to attend.
Being around little Emily was bittersweet on a regular day, and the birthday celebration would only heighten Trixie's struggle. But choosing not to go would have been selfish. Trixie's personal drama wasn't Emily's fault, and she didn't want to disappoint the adorable redheaded cherub. Not only that, but Emily was Olivia's daughter, and since Olivia was Trixie's maker, that made her family.
Not showing up would have been rotten.
Olivia would have understood if Trixie bailed out; she knew her better than anyone else. But Olivia's bloodmate, Doug, wouldn't understand her absence from such a celebrated event. Neither would the other members of the coven.
Nope. Trixie decided to do what she always did. She'd put on a smile, make a wiseass comment or two, and act like nothing and nobody bothered her.
A familiar voice pulled her from her thoughts as she strode down the stone hallways of the Presidium's underground facility, buried deep beneath Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters in New York City.
"Well, smack my ass and call me Sally."
The deep Texas drawl echoed around her, stopping Trixie dead in her tracks. A shiver of lust whispered beneath her skin as it usually did when he was nearby, but she swiftly shoved it aside.
"Okay, Sally." Trixie rolled her shoulder and fought the buzz of attraction. "But you can smack your own ass."
"What's the matter, darlin'?" Soaked with that twang, the rumbling baritone of his voice drifted over her shoulder, but she didn't spare him a glance. Trixie continued toward Olivia and Doug's apartment door, forcing herself to put one foot in front of the other. "Don't I even get a hello?"
"Hello, Dakota," she said with a roll of her eyes.
Coming to this little gathering for Emily was difficult enough, and his arrival only ratcheted her anxiety up a notch. Damn it. Why wasn't he out on patrol? Over the past few months, the cocky and admittedly gorgeous sentry had become more and more present in her little corner of the universe.
Trixie fiddled with the box in her hands, the one she'd wrapped carefully with the pink-and-white skull-and-crossbones paper. She didn't even bother to put a card with it. Everyone would know who'd brought it. She was the only coven member with bright pink hair and a penchant for skulls and crossbones, after all.
"That your present for little Emily?" he asked. "You wrapped it real nice."
He got closer by the second.
"No." Trixie snorted. "I just like carrying around a gift-wrapped box for the hell of it. You know, for shits and giggles."
She was being a snot, but she couldn't help herself.
Trixie kept her gaze pinned to the mammoth mahogany door at the end of the hallway and tried not to notice that he'd sidled up next to her, his stride matching hers.
Dakota Shelton-the newest sentry for the Presidium, the vampire government-was not an easy man to ignore.
His six-foot, two-inch broad-shouldered frame towered over her easily, but there was something else about him that set her on edge. It was the way he carried himself. He moved effortlessly and casually, as if he was just the good old boy from Texas he claimed to be.
But Trixie knew better.
He was a sentry, a member of the elite vampire police force, and he was anything but good. Beneath that easy breezy charm lurked an executioner who could kill her, and anyone else nearby, in the blink of an eye. Dakota was deadly, stealthy, and full of swagger-and that was probably why she found him undeniably attractive.
She never could steer clear of dangerous men.
If Trixie La Roux had one talent in this shitty, crazy world, it was picking the wrong guy. As a human, her poor choices in men had constantly gotten her into trouble. When Olivia had found her in the abandoned subway tunnels of Manhattan, Trixie had just had her heart stomped on by yet another guy. He'd betrayed her and tossed her aside like she was nothing.
They did and said anything to get what they wanted.
They made promises that were never kept.
In the end she was always alone.
She was powerless...until she became a vampire.
Once Trixie was turned, she slipped easily into the strength and independence that came with immortality. Being a vamp was clear and uncomplicated. There was no guesswork about how to navigate the world, and better yet, there was no addiction. She had finally been freed from the drugs that had kept her prisoner as a human.
She refused to be addicted to anyone or anything ever again.
"So what's in the box, darlin'?" He inched closer. "I bet it's real nice."
"Quit calling me that, would ya?"
"Why?" His grin broadened. "What would you prefer? Sweetie pie? Honeybee? Or maybe sugar?"
"As if!" Trixie snorted with a laugh. In spite of how sexist it was to call her or any woman by pet names, she found herself surprisingly amused. "How about if you try using my name? Like, I totally have one, thank you very much. Jeez, get with the program, cowboy. Don't you know that it's chauvinistic to refer to a woman by names like that?"
"Come on now." He sighed. "I'm just bein' my normal self is all, Miss Trixie."
"Not Miss Trixie," she said with waning patience. "Trixie. Okay? Like, just plain old Trixie."
"Girl," he said through a laugh, "you are anythin' but plain."
"And you are anything but normal." She chuckled and sent a sidelong glance in his direction. "Sally."
"Why are you always lookin' to pick a fight with me?" Dakota asked, stopping in front of the czars' apartment door. "Were you this feisty as a human?"
"I guess you'll never know." Trixie stuck her tongue out at him. "I'm all vampire and being feisty is totally my thing, man."
"Damn, woman. If you ask me, Olivia should train you as a sentry and put some of that fire in your belly to work. Maybe we could get you out there and kickin' a little ass. Y'know...let you blow off a little steam."
Trixie had been about to knock on the door. Her fist stopped an inch from the mahogany surface, and irritation mixed with anxiety flickered up her spine. She dropped her hand to her side and turned slowly toward the man who was quickly becoming a total pain in the butt.
"Is that so?" she asked in a deceptively sweet voice. "You think I should kick some ass?"
He shifted his body so they were now toe to toe. Trixie's gut instinct was to step back and increase the distance between them, because getting too close to him was dangerous-for many reasons. But she held her ground even though it went against her better judgment.
Backing down wasn't her style, at least until she met this guy. He made her want to run to him and run away from him at the same time. It was more than a little confusing.
Dakota's arms hung at his sides, and even though they were always hidden beneath his long leather sentry coat, she had a hunch they were thick and well defined. His pale blue eyes, which sometimes glinted almost silver, crinkled at the corners as a grin curved his firm-looking lips. He leaned closer and his scent, a mixture of sandalwood and leather, filled the air around them.
In spite of the warning bells that went off in her head, the heat of desire pooled in her belly.
But beneath the thick scent of lust lay the pungent aroma of silver from the heavy arsenal hidden within his coat. The reminder of who he really was broke the spell.
You're playing with fire, she thought.
"Yes, ma'am." His grin widened as he looked her up and down in one slow, lazy pass, lingering briefly on her breasts before finally locking his gaze with hers again. "You look like you were made for it. In fact, if you ever wanna learn the ropes, I'd be happy to teach you a thing or two."
If Trixie didn't know better, she'd swear the man was flirting with her and egging her on. She let out a short laugh and shook her head slowly. He had no idea who he was dealing with. If Dakota wanted to play this game, he was no match for her. In the field of battle he would be the undeniable victor, but flirting was her specialty.
She shouldn't feed into his taunting, but Trixie never did know when to quit. Besides, there was something about this vampire that kept her coming back for more.
"I doubt that there's much you could teach me, cowboy." Trixie kept her voice low, barely above a whisper, and moved closer so their bodies were mere inches apart. His eyes widened slightly as she met his challenge. "And if I'm going to kick some ass...I'm totally gonna start with yours."
"That so?" Dakota pulled a lollipop out of his pocket before quickly unwrapping it and popping it into his mouth.
"What kind of vampire sucks on human candy?" Trixie arched one eyebrow. "What's with that, anyway? That is, like, way weird."
"I enjoy the way they taste. That's all."
"Yeah? Well, it's strange." She tilted her chin defiantly. "I should kick your butt for that offense alone."
"Easy there, darlin'." He slid the sucker from his lips and pointed it at her. His voice dropped to a low rumble as he leaned closer and murmured, "Your threat sounds more like a promise. If you're not careful, I'll have a mind to make you keep it."
The sweet scent of cinnamon filled her nose and mingled with the dizzying buzz of lust, which was why Trixie barely noticed that the door to the apartment had opened. She blinked and stepped back, suddenly and acutely aware of her body's intense reaction to the nearness of his. When she finally tore her gaze from Dakota's, she found Doug holding the door open and looking at her and Dakota suspiciously.
"I thought I heard you two out here." Doug stepped back and gestured for them to come in. "We were waiting for you before we brought out Emily's cake. Come on in and let's get my baby girl's party started."
"Right." Trixie cracked the knuckles on her right hand and handed him the present. "I was just about to knock."
"Uh-huh." Doug glanced back and forth between them and nodded slowly. He'd been a homicide detective in his human life, which made getting anything past him more than a little difficult. "Well, no need to knock. You two are family. Come on."
Doug took the gift and headed into the apartment. Before Trixie could force her feet to move, Dakota slipped past her and whispered, "I'd say that round goes to me. Wouldn't you?"
Trixie opened her mouth to respond but snapped it shut when her sibling Maya came running over and wrapped her up in a bouncy hug. Maya's long blond hair obscured Trixie's view as Dakota strolled casually into the apartment.
"I'm so glad you're finally here," Maya squealed. She must have noticed how annoyed Trixie was because her giddiness faded quickly. Maya glanced over her shoulder at Dakota before stepping into the hallway and closing the door behind her. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Trixie lied. She tried to get past Maya to the door but her sister blocked the way. "Come on, Maya. It's nothing. Let's go inside."
"Yeah, right," Maya said with a roll of her big blue eyes. "Are you gonna tell me what's happening between you and Dakota or not?"
"There is nothing happening." Trixie placed both hands on Maya's shoulders. "Other than the fact that he's freaking annoying me. Now move it."
"Mmm-hmm. I knew it." Maya's eyes narrowed and a smile curved her pink lips. "You like him," she said in a conspiratorial whisper. She poked Trixie in the chest. "Ha! I knew it. You're so full of it."
"Shut up." Trixie slapped a hand over her sister's mouth, but Maya shoved it aside. "Not so loud."
"Sorry," she said in a barely audible voice. "But you two have been flirting forever! Why don't you just sleep with the guy and get it out of your system? I mean, seriously, everyone knows you two have the hots for each other. Why not just go for it? I mean, let's be honest, it's not like you're shy. You've gotten it on with a bunch of human guys, so why not give a vamp like him a chance?" She arched one eyebrow. "You have to admit, he's a hottie."
That was an understatement. Dakota was a tall, gorgeous vampire with a naughty twinkle in his eye and a jacked body, but all Trixie said was, "Not gonna happen. It's too complicated."
"Because I can glamour a human, okay? I can't sleep with him once or twice and move on. He's a vampire, and you know we can't glamour another vamp. The human dudes never remember me or what happened. There's simply pleasure for everyone. No muss, no fuss, and nobody gets hurt. That is the only kind of sex I'm interested in."
"I think you're shortchanging yourself...and him." Maya tucked her long blond hair behind her ear before fiddling with the ends of the platinum strands. "Maybe he only wants to have fun too. Aren't you being kind of presumptuous to think he'd automatically want a relationship?"
"Maya, Dakota is a sentry, okay? The guy isn't going anywhere. He will be patrolling this city for at least the next fifty years, and since I have no intention of leaving, there is no point in risking an awkward situation for a few nights of hot sex."
And Trixie had no doubt it would be hot.
"Whatever," Maya said flippantly. "But I still think you're full of it."
Before Trixie could respond, her sister spun around and opened the door to the apartment.
"Let's get the party started." Maya clapped her hands excitedly. "Game on!"
Dakota captured Trixie's gaze the moment she stepped into the room and her stomach fluttered. Damn it all. He winked and that cocky grin slid across his face.
"Oh, it's on," Trixie murmured. "It's on like Donkey Kong."
And she sure as hell wasn't talking about the party.