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Everything Clan Security Commander Achilles Stefanos had learned over the last few centuries told him that she was trouble. Gods, he got no satisfaction knowing his instincts were right. He was screwed. Well and truly screwed, and not in a way he'd have appreciated.
Remaining invisible, he perched on the window ledge outside the four-inch-thick windows of Genet-X Laboratories, scoping out a sterile white lab. Anyone glancing out the window would see only the top of Seattle's Space Needle against the last glimmers of a bloodred sunset. He watched as Dr. Rebecca Chamberlin lowered her rectangular black-rimmed safety glasses and rubbed at the worried expression on her forehead. Her wide, expressive hazel eyes narrowed as she peered at the row of small vials filled with a swirling dark greenish black liquid were in front of her.
Vampire vaccine. At least that's what he'd heard from very reliable sources. It seemed that she was a sort of genius freak when it came to anything biochemical and specialized in genetic engineering. Her curly auburn hair gave her heart-shaped face an even more youthful appearance. Too young and far too pretty to come up with something so potentially threatening.
Even through the glass, his ultrarefined senses smelled the glossy coating of cherry balm slicked over her full lips. She stretched, hands over her head, giving him a peek of her curvaceous breasts beneath an aqua-colored T-shirt and an open rumpled white lab coat. She hardly looked like the super brain he'd been told to watch by his clan's Trejan.
She looked more like a sweet diversion, the kind of woman that vampires aspired to make mortal playthings. Exactly the kind of mortal he would have picked if he had the time and inclination to indulge himself. A curl of desire started low in his belly, rippling into a full-blown flame. He forced his libido to take a hike. Focus, solider. Focus. She's merely an objective. Another mortal.
She was smart and beautiful, which meant she was even more trouble than his team had anticipated. Beware the enemy dressed in silk. The words of his Spartan commander echoed across the eons thumping like a war drum in the back of his skull. Once a warrior, always a warrior. Never surrender. Never retreat. A Spartan's duty, balanced with a Spartan's curseto live forever and never die in battle. Gods, what a sorry mess.
Itching to act rather than sit and observe her supple curved form, Achilles focused his attention on the wind blowing in from the water. Ozone from an incoming storm rolling across the Pacific tainted the breeze. He shifted his weight and rubbed his hands over his cropped dark blond hair, causing it to stick out in tufts and spikes. Not that it mattered. This decade's fashions encouraged the messed-up look, and he always did his best to blend in with the mortals. It made his efforts in providing security for the clan so much more effective and had helped him survive when others had not.
A buzzer sounded in the room, causing the beautiful doctor to cross over to the security panel by the door. What he wouldn't have given to be her lab coat, brushing against her derriere.
Is that your report? The voice of Dmitri Dionotte the clan's Trejan, and second in command of the Cascade vampire colony, interrupted his thoughts.
No. Merely an observation of the objective.
Her looks are immaterial. Tell me about the vaccine.
Our sources were correct. The vaccine is being created. Do you wish me to intervene and stop their work?
No. Continue to monitor the situation.
Sure. Why not. He was only standing on a window ledge six stories above the ground like a bird of prey. I'm on it.
Achilles. There was a long meaningful pause. You can be on it, I just don't want you in it. You are not to make contact with the researcher unless absolutely necessary. Any kind of contact. I'm saying this as both your Trejan and your friend. There's a rumor that if she begins to transition into a vampire because of her work with the virus that you'd be selected as her mentor. You don't want to start anything physical with this woman.
Got it. Right now, as far as I'm concerned, she's still the enemy. Achilles realized that if the council was once more willing to trust him with a female fledgling to mentor, he'd finally overcome some of the stigma attached to his reputation for the last three centuries. Not that the stigma was undeserved. It was. But he'd already paid dearly for his lapse in judgment and he was ready to move on.
He just prayed to the gods that his new female fledgling wasn't Dr. Chamberlain.
She was temptation enough, damn near his idea of a perfect woman brought into mortal form. As her mentor, he'd be linked to her for eternityand never allowed to enjoy her. Forever together, eternally apart. In other words, total hell.
"Access code?" Rebecca said into the speaker mounted onto the wall, interrupting his thoughts.
Another feminine voice, the tone more clipped than Dr. Chamberlin's, answered. "Vanquish."
The doctor pressed a code into the panel, her fingers elegantly long, her nails practically short. Had he been mortal, he'd have needed surveillance equipment to see exactly what she'd pushed. Being vampire had advantages, not the least of which was the ability to telescope his vision. His ability to move more quickly than any mortal made her rapid hand motion appear ultraslow to him. One-nine-seven-zero-six-two. He filed the information away and focused his senses on the people entering the lab.
Dr. Chamberlin stepped back a pace, nestling both her hands at the base of her spine. "Good evening, gentlemen." Her lips curved into a welcoming smile. Inside him an unfamiliar interest flared to life. Gods, she had an incredible mouth.
The three older men, two far stouter than was healthy for them, and the third painfully thin and tall, all nodded their greetings to her. They were followed by a slight young woman with dark hair shaped in a severe blunt cut. Where Dr. Chamberlin was all lush curves, the other woman was harsh angles.
The portly man with a shock of thick white hair, an impeccably tailored suit and a telltale black-and-white collar about his throat reached out to shake Dr. Chamberlin's hand. The scientist's hesitation was imperceptible, lasting the space of a mortal blink and at odds with the warm smile gracing her lips, then she stuck out her hand to reciprocate. Interesting. Perhaps she didn't like these newcomers any more than he did. Which wasn't much.
"Welcome to our laboratory, Cardinal Worcher, Reverend Evans, Pastor Snyder."
Cardinal Worcher stepped forward, his hands clasped behind his back as he surveyed the laboratory. "Dr. Rutledge tells us you've made substantial progress on the vaccine." Achilles couldn't stand hanging out on the ledge like a common pigeon any more. He phased himself through the wall, maintaining his invisibility, and sat down in Rebecca's office chair.
Dr. Chamberlin nodded at the cardinal, her voice holding the excited shimmer of a kid being handed a highly anticipated toy. "I think we've finally discovered the site in the plasmid that has allowed us to perform a cassette mutagenesis and ultimately alter the genetic material for replication."
"In plain English, darlin'?" the shorter man drawled, his brown suit a little more rumpled and matching the sparse brown hair combed over his shiny head. "I'm afraid all that scientific gobbledygook is a bit much for my congregation to understand."
She stiffened, the reaction imperceptible to everyone in the room, but Achilles. The light sweet throb of her particular heartbeat kicked up to a dull roar. If he'd had blood running through his veins, it would be running hot and fast as he listened to the rapid syncopation of Rebecca's heartbeat. His mouth watered.
Achilles stifled the elemental push as his fangs begged for release. Gods, he wanted to mentor a female again, but not her. Please not her. He shook his head. It was a nonissue. She wasn't transitioningyet. At this moment she was merely an enemy, an objective. A damn feminine, sexy one. And still very mortal.
* * *
Beck tucked her hair behind one ear and tried to shake off the feeling that someone, other than the three investors, was watching her. Clearly she'd been putting in too many hours at the lab to get this project off the ground.
"Sorry, Reverend Evans." She focused her gaze on the short man with the Southern drawl. "The easiest way for me to describe it would be that we've found the chemical key to unlock the padlock that holds the two chains of the vampire virus together. Now that we've got that key we can open that padlock, take off the part of the chain that makes it permanent and substitute it with the DNA chain we want to render the virus useless. No more virulent capability. No more threat." She glanced at the other men. Perhaps she needed to make it even simpler for them to understand. "Anyone who's been turned into a vampire against their will can return back to their human state in less than a week."
"Theoretically," added Dr. Margo Rutledge with a slight sniff. Beck stifled her desire to do bodily harm to her fellow researcher. Up until now Margo had been quietly gung ho on the project, putting in just as many late nights as Beck had. The other woman had seemed excited about how close their research was to finding a viable vaccine to combat the vampire virus circulating in national blood supplies. What was up with her sudden shift in attitude now, especially with the primary investors here in front of them?
"What do you mean theoretically?" Pastor Snyder's tight and edgy tone matched his thin frame and severe black suit. He looked like more of an undertaker than a prominent pastor of a church with tens of thousands of members. "We've given your company an awful lot of money to fund this research, ladies. We expect concrete results to battle this scourge of evil polluting our nation's blood supplies."
Beck's ire ratcheted a notch higher. Why was it that people thought that science had a miracle ability to speed up time? Research took time. Results took time. Results you planned to unleash on the public, well, that could take years.
"What Dr. Rutledge meant to say" Rebecca threw Margo a cool glance "is that we're at the stage where testing can begin. With a few clinical trials on actual subjects, we should know if our approach has been successful or if the formulation needs adjustment to improve the results." At least that better be what Margo meant.
Beck's good friend Kristin Reed had told her from the outset that she suspected Margo had a jealous streak in her. Beck had chosen to ignore Kristin's comment because she'd never seen anything to substantiate it. As a scientist, she didn't believe anything without proof. Four degrees, two of them doctorates in the sciences, had given her that view. As a woman, she didn't believe in judging the path others took until you had walked in their sneakers. Being the illegitimate daughter of a computer industry billionaire had taught her that. She'd lived her whole life having assumptions made about her and she wasn't about to do it to anyone else.
As far as she had observed Margo was competent, smart and hardworking. More importantly she was in tight with the megachurches and religious power brokers that formed the base of their primary research funding.
Beck refocused her efforts on producing a reassuring professional smile for Pastor Snyder. His thin lips had disappeared into a flat line bisecting his long face at Margo's comment. "We should be able to solicit for study subjects by the end of next week," she offered. And doing that would be a minor miracle in itself, not that she needed to reveal that to her uneasy investor. These men were only interested in one thingresults.
Reverend Evans clapped Snyder on the shoulder, the blow pushing the thin man forward slightly so that he had to readjust his footing, his expression turning even more dour. "We're going to need somethin' sooner than later, darlin'. Folks are mighty upset about all this vampire business. With those monsters on the loose, our followers want reassurance that they can seek protection from such damnation. Ain't that right, Snyder?"
"I don't see why you haven't already begun testing the vaccine," Snyder muttered, picking an invisible bit of lint from the flat black lapel of his suit jacket.
"We certainly understand your concern," Margo said, clearly trying to soothe his agitated state. She pulled at the crisp edge of her white lab coat sleeve. "But the government has certain regulations we must follow when testing an antiviral drug such as this before it can be released to the public."
The cardinal lifted his chin looking down his long straight nose. "This is of far graver concern than any flu virus. Vampirism is just as much a physical as a spiritual danger. Certainly the normal process can be bypassed for such a pandemic concern."
Beck eyed the trio of men before her. "That is our plan, of course, Cardinal. Once we have conclusive evidence that our formulation is effective, we'll try to fast-track its approval for the public."
"But, darlin', are you certain it'll work?" Reverend Evans asked.
Beck snatched up one of the vials from the test tube rack on her desk and held it out in front of her. "We believe we've found the key." Inside the vial the liquid agitated as if responding to their conversation, the swirling of dark green never seeming to mix completely with the black liquid around it.
"How is it administered?" Snyder leaned closer, a glint in his eyes.
"With an aspirator shot," Margo said. She lifted the stainless steel apparatus that looked like a high-tech gun from the future. The device had a small metal compressed-air cylinder attached to it. "The vial is inserted in the chamber here and a shot of compressed air forces the drug through thousands of microcuts in the skin directly into the bloodstream through this attachment."