The Merzetti Effect

by Norah Wilson

About The Book

Delano Bowen has been a medical doctor for a very long time. More than 170 years, in fact. For much of that time, he’s been searching for a way to reverse the curse foisted on him by a vampress who sought to own him. With the emergence of medical technology, he now also aims to develop a vaccine to protect the vulnerable from predation by rogue vampires. After a century of searching, he thinks he’s found the key to his vaccine – a surviving descendent of the Merzetti family. The Merzettis were virtually hunted to extinction over the years by rogue vampires who feared the anti-vampirism properties in their blood.

A foundling, nurse Ainsley Crawford has no idea that she carries a genetic gift, and Delano aims to keep it that way. He must keep her close, and ignorant, for he can leave nothing to chance. He manipulates events to ensure her unwitting cooperation. But when Delano’s arch enemy Radak Janecek mounts an all-out assault to destroy Delano and the fruits of his research, Delano is forced to draw Ainsley even closer to protect her. Inevitably, the attraction that has sparked between them from the first flares hot and urgent. Ainsley sees no reason why that attraction shouldn’t be consummated, but Delano knows succumbing to it is not just ill-advised; it could literally be the death of him.



Get Up To Speed

At this point in the book, Dr. Delano Bowen has placed out-of-work OR nurse Ainsley Crawford in the path of a rogue vampire as a field test to see what effect, if any, her blood has on the vampire before coming to her “rescue”. (He suspects she carries the “Merzetti Effect”, a genetic anti-vampire mutation, rumours of which date back centuries.) When Ainsley later recovers full consciousness in a well-equipped treatment room in Delano’s fortress of a house, he helps her deal with the shock that vampires are real and that she’s been bitten. But he lets her believe that the rogue’s feeding might have infected her even though he knows it did not, because he needs to secure her cooperation. He dares not tell her the full truth, lest she refuse him access to her blood for his experiments. He tells himself that ridding the world of rogue vampires is worth violating his oath and her right to informed consent.

Leaving Ainsley to rest in the care of ex-military nurse/soldier Eli Grayson, he goes in search of the rogue who bit her to see how he is faring.

NOTE: Ainsley does not yet know that Delano is a vampire himself.


The Hook

Chapter 3

DELANO’S PULSE pounded as he strode down the darkened street. Not from exertion, and certainly not from fear. His pulse pounded because he couldn’t get that picture of Ainsley Crawford out of his mind.

He’d watched her writhe in her sleep, knowing her dreams were sex-drenched. Watched for long minutes as she touched her breasts and arched her body, until decency finally reasserted itself. He’d been about to wake her when the monitor alarm had gone off, saving him the trouble.

And saving her some face, no doubt.

Had he woken her himself, there’d have been no hiding his awareness of her arousal. In which case he would’ve had to explain her state was literally a chemical by-product of her vampire encounter. Powerful, inescapable, but fortunately temporary. Indeed, it was clearly fading as they’d spoken.

Too bad he couldn’t quell his own reaction quite so easily.

He shook the thought away and focused on the task. To his annoyance, he found he’d overshot his target. Cursing under his breath, he retraced his steps and turned down the correct boulevard. Two more turns and he stood before Edward Webber’s lair. Of course, he’d staked the place out three weeks ago, so finding it again tonight was no difficult feat.

Delano found the place unlocked. Carelessness or arrogance?

Arrogance, he decided. Webber was a mere 50 years old, 21 of those years natural ones. He was a veritable infant among his kind. Short on guile and long on brutality, was our Eddie.

Eddie was also on death’s door. Delano found him prostrate on the Oriental rug in the living room.

Closing himself to the smell of fear and impending death, Delano carefully set up his blood centrifuge on the marble-topped table near the spot where Webber had collapsed. Then he knelt beside the vampire to examine him.

Respiratory distress was patently obvious. The nasal flaring was a dead giveaway, but it was the way Webber’s chest, abdominal and neck muscles labored for each breath that spoke to the depth of his distress. Delano pressed two fingers to Webber’s carotid artery and was not surprised to find the pulse far, far too rapid.

It did not look good for young Edward.

Delano opened his medical bag, retrieved the materials he needed, and quickly drew blood for his tests.

“Bowen…?”

“Ah, he wakes.” Finished, Delano removed the tourniquet and lifted his gaze to meet Webber’s. Eyes fevered and glassy. Another symptom for his mounting list.

“Have you … come … to finish me … off?”

Yes, Webber was not long for this world. No wind at all to get his words out. “No.”

“Good. Gotta say… feel like shit. Be a sitting duck.”

“Small wonder you feel bad.”

Delano stood and crossed to the table, where he slipped a tube of blood into the centrifuge and turned the machine on. Then he returned to Webber’s side.

A tremor shivered through Webber’s frame. “What’s wrong with me?”

Delano dragged a blanket from the unmade bed and draped it over the dying vampire. No, correction: dying man. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you for sure.”

“What do you think is wrong with me?”

Webber had to pause after every word or two. Bowen was tempted to tell him to save his breath, but there was little point. He wasn’t getting out of this room alive.

“What do I think? I think you ate something that didn’t agree with you.”

A harsh growl. “Fuck you, Bowen.”

“Indeed.”

The centrifuge stopped, and Bowen went over to retrieve the tube of blood.

“What is it?” Webber called. “What … are you doing?”

Delano lifted his eyes from the tube of blood he’d extracted. It was all he could do to contain the exultation that rose in his chest. None of it showed in his voice as he held up the tube.

“I just fractionated your blood, so we can get a clear look at your plasma, your white blood cells and your red blood cells. See that severely red-tinged layer on the top? That’s your plasma, the liquid portion of your blood.”

“What about it?”

“It’s supposed to be yellow.”

“Jesus,” Webber croaked. “What are you … saying? Goddammit, Bowen … what have you … done to me?”

Delano bared his teeth in a smile. “It’s not what I’ve done, Edward. It’s what you’ve done.”

“What do you mean?”

“You picked the wrong woman to make a meal of.”

“Wrong woman?”

Webber lifted his head. He looked like he was having trouble focusing. He’d be dizzy, no doubt. Probably nauseous, too.

“Which one?”

Delano sucked his breath in through his teeth. “You fed again? After I drove you away from the woman?”

“Had to. Felt weak…”

Dammit. This clouded the matter. “Did you kill that one, Webber? Hmmm? Did you drain her and leave her to die in some alley?”

He shook his head. “Got away. Too weak to—”

A mighty spasm wracked the vampire’s body, dragging an agonized groan from deep in his chest.

Delano watched, crushing the emotions that rose in his own breast. This rogue didn’t deserve pity. He’d slain hundreds — no, thousands — of humans. He’d left a trail of corpses from Halifax to Miami, from Vancouver to Mexico City, and points in between, for nearly 30 years. He was an unrepentant predator, and he richly deserved his fate.

Delano’s mind slid away to another time, another place, another rogue to whom he’d given the benefit of a doubt. A creature who rewarded his act of compassion by going on to slaughter legions of defenseless men and women.

“What in God’s name … have you done?”

“God’s name?” Delano lifted an eyebrow. “Not a bad idea to invoke it now, if you’re ever going to, Edward Webber. Because you’re dying.”

Webber bared his fangs in a threatening hiss that normally would have made Delano leap back, but this time he made no attempt to move out of range. The vampire, or what was left of him, was too weak to threaten a kitten.

“Fuck you, Bowen.” Webber’s chest rose and fell rapidly, abdominals pumping ceaselessly like a fish trying to breathe on dry land. “You’re crazy.”

“I’m afraid you’re the one who’s fucked, as you so crudely put it. The first one you fed on — she was the bad choice. She carries the Merzetti blood.”

“No!” Another shuddering spasm, another sustained, guttural groan. “No,” he rasped, when he had breath enough to talk again. “That’s a fairy tale. Told by long-tooths like you to keep the rest of us in line. Won’t work.”

Slow as that message had come out, Webber had to pause a moment to recover his breath, signaling with an upraised finger that he wasn’t finished.

“They’re prey, Bowen,” he said when he could continue. “Prey! Food is all they are. And we’re at the top of the food chain.”

“Not anymore, Edward. Not you, anyway.”

“Shit.” Another shudder, this one weaker. “Merzetti Effect … it’s real?”

Delano nodded. “As real as the genetic mutation reversal that’s going on inside you right now.”

“Reversal? Jesus Christ. I’m really … going back?”

“Yes.”

“Sucks, but I don’t … see why it means … I’m dying.”

“Trust me, Edward. You’re dying. Of acute hemolysis, to be specific. But thanks to your feeding again, I don’t know whether this attack on your red blood cells is being mounted by the Merzetti blood or whether it’s your second victim’s blood that’s killing you.”

“Merzetti bitch… Had to be.”

“Not necessarily. The mutation reversal might already have begun when you infused yourself with your second victim’s blood. Maybe she just wasn’t your type.”

“My type?”

“Your blood type, Edward. You could be suffering from a simple but catastrophic ABO incompatibility.”

“No!”

“I’m afraid so. You’re having an acute transfusion reaction. The mutation reversal would leave you open to it.”

“Jesus!”

“For what it’s worth, the Merzetti woman’s blood was your type, or at least what your type used to be, pre-mutation. I hoped it would reverse the mutation, but I didn’t know what else it might do. Now, thanks to your muddying the waters with your second meal, I still don’t know.”

“You picked me! Motherfucker! You lured me … with her … as the bait.”

“Guilty as charged.”

Webber made a weak lunge. Delano didn’t even bother to retreat.

“Kill you! Rip out your heart while it’s still beating … suck it dry.” The fight slowly went out of Webber as he realized the futility of his threat. “Must be something … you can do!” He clutched at Delano with clammy hands. “For God’s sake … Bowen … have mercy!”

Mercy? Delano felt his face harden. He removed Webber’s hand from his arm.

“First, Edward, you’d do better to ask for God’s mercy. I have none to give you. And secondly, you’re too far gone for my help. You were too far gone before I drew that blood. Even if I wanted to, I can’t offer you the support you need here. I just don’t have the tools. And you’d never make it to hospital, even supposing they knew what to do with you when you got there.”

Another tremor. “Then don’t leave me.”

Delano arched an eyebrow. “To die alone, you mean? Like you left every one of your victims to do?”

“Please … I’m sorry.”

Black-hearted sonofabitch wasn’t sorry. He’d do it all over again if he had the chance. But he was dying and he was frightened and he was human, dammit.

Bowen sat on the nearby bed. “I’ll stay.”

Chapter 4

AINSLEY JERKED AWAKE. The room was dark but for a pool of yellow light cast by a small reading lamp in the corner, but she felt none of the usual waking-in-a-strange-room confusion. She knew instantly where she was. And she knew he was there.

“Dr. Bowen?”

A soft laugh. “You have extremely keen night vision, Ms. Crawford.”

She angled her head in the direction of his voice. There. A shadow, to the left of the door. “I don’t know about that. Pretty average, I’d say. But I could sense you in the room.”

He stepped into the light, or at least his black-clad legs did. Rather long legs, she noticed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to check on you.”

“I’m feeling much better. Stronger.”

“So Eli told me.”

Another step carried him further into the circle of light. Lean hips, the gleam of a belt buckle, the first two buttons on a black shirt, hands hanging loosely at his sides.

His hands…

A memory flickered in her brain, shrouded and diffused like sheet lightning pulsing behind a bank of clouds. Those hands … she’d felt them cradling her head, lifting her torso, felt his lips pressed hotly to her throat…

God, what was wrong with her? Fantasizing about her rescuer again, for pity’s sake. It was that damned dream. It had been so vivid.

He took a seat beside her bed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. The light spilled over his face then. A sharp thrill — half fear, half fascination — shot through her. Oh, man!

A few strands of wet hair fell forward from that widow’s peak she’d admired before, suggesting he was fresh from the shower. But his jaw was still darkened by the shadow of beard stubble. Had he had that earlier tonight?

Yes. She’d felt it when he’d carried her. Or at least, she thought she remembered it. And his eyes still burned with all the intensity she remembered. She found herself wishing he’d take off the glasses.

A panther. That’s what he reminded her of. Powerful, glossy, breathtakingly vital. And extremely dangerous.

She swallowed to moisten her mouth. “The vampire?”

“He won’t trouble you again.”

She couldn’t quite suppress a shiver. “He’s dead?”

A slight pause, but no flicker of expression. “He’s dead.”

She digested that, or rather, she tried to.

Her first reaction was profound relief. It flooded every available brain receptor like a blast of narcotics. Relief that the beast who’d come so close to taking her life had paid with his own life, damn him. Relief that the creature that might have infected her — goddamn him again! — would infect no one else.

But her relief was followed immediately by horror. Horror at her own reactions. Horror at the actions of the dark Dr. Bowen. If he were right, if vampirism was a blood-borne pathogen, then her attacker was just a man. Granted, he’d treated her as though she were little more than a walking Tetra Pak, but he was nonetheless afflicted and in need of curative treatment.

And what of her? What if she were to develop this mutation? Would Dr. Bowen dispense with her as easily as he had her assailant? Would his brow be just as unruffled afterward? God, she’d seen Botoxed newscasters with more expression in their foreheads than this man was displaying. And this after admitting to a kill. Or at least, not denying it.

A kill.

She wet her lips. “I was thinking, if I’m feeling this good tomorrow, I’d like to go home.”

His eyebrows shot up. Expression at last.

“Impossible.”

Impossible? The single word caused a fist of tension to close around her stomach. Impossible because he didn’t judge her well enough, or impossible because he refused to let her go?

“What, am I a prisoner here or something?”

“Of course not.”

Another jolt of relief. “Then I want to go home.”

“Have you forgotten you may be infected? I’ll have to monitor you. We’ll need frequent blood checks. No, you must stay here.”

She propped herself up higher in the bed. “Of course I haven’t forgotten my exposure, Dr. Bowen. But I don’t see why I can’t go home. Send Mr. Grayson over as often as you like. Or send him over to stay with me. I just need to go home.”

“Why?” He leaned closer as though he genuinely wanted to know the answer. “There’s no one waiting for you there. No husband, no children, no pets, no dependents. Why do you need to go home?”

Pain, raw and unexpected, sliced through her. Is that how he saw her, alone, lonely?

“Thank you for highlighting so succinctly what you consider the barren nature of my life. But it just so happens that I believe there’s more to life than marriage and children. Like career. Like making a difference in people’s lives.”

“Ah, yes, your career.” He sat back in his chair, raking back the strand of hair that fell on his forehead. “I understood it was dealt a serious blow last month when you resigned from the hospital authority under a bit of a cloud. A charting episode?”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Her heart lurched, then thundered. How did he know that? How the hell did he know it? Who had he been talking to?

She paled as another thought struck her. How did he know about her domestic living arrangements? How had he known she lived alone?

That eyebrow again, lifting eloquently. “What, no comment on the charting debacle?”

Anger surged, choking coherent thought. “The circumstances of my leaving the hospital are nobody’s business but mine!”

“You don’t think a prospective employer should be permitted to investigate a potential employee’s track record?”

“Who did you talk to?” she demanded.

“I hardly think that’s relevant.”

“It sure as hell is relevant. They agreed to give me a clean, if not particularly enthusiastic, reference.” She found the hydraulic lever on the side of the bed and raised the head of it while she talked. “That was the deal, in exchange for my leaving. That’s all they wanted, to get rid of me. The allegations were bogus and they knew it, but they didn’t care.”

“So you were framed?”

“Yes, I was framed, dammit!” She paused a few seconds to bring herself under control. When she continued, her voice sounded more like her own. “Okay, I know that probably sounds pretty lame, but it’s true. They saw me as a whistleblower, not a team player. So when these allegations were raised, they jumped at the chance to get rid of me.”

“I know.”

“This all happened because I reported an anesthetist’s gross criminal misconduct. But I had to! Those surgeons, or at least some of them, had to have known about his drug problem, yet no one would come forward. Sooner or later, someone would have come to harm, maybe even died, and—”

“I know. You did what you had to. I wholeheartedly approve of your decision.”

That brought her up short. “You know about all this?”

“Of course. When I pay as much for information as I did in this case, it has to be comprehensive.”

She blinked. “You paid for information on me?”

“You should be pleased to know the personnel department is keeping up its end of the bargain. Your reference is clean enough, for anyone making a conventional inquiry.”

“But that wasn’t good enough for you?”

He shrugged. “As you can see, my research is a little sensitive. I need people whose discretion I can trust absolutely.”

She snorted. “You found it reassuring to learn that I was a whistleblower? I would have thought that little detail would be a deterrent. What, for instance, makes you think I wouldn’t rat you out? Something tells me your research might not be in strict compliance with the Tri-Council’s ethical standards for research involving humans.”

He smiled. It started slow, then spread until it suffused his whole face. And oh, Christmas, he was gorgeous when he did that. Which was the absolute last thing she should be thinking. This man had violated her privacy!

“Okay, what’s so funny?”

His smile faded much quicker than it had appeared. “You are a fearless little thing, aren’t you?”

Her neck prickled. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been sitting in that bed, thinking what an unprincipled rogue I am, what a disgrace to the healing arts. You’ve wondered about your own safety, about the wisdom of staying here under my care. Indeed, you’ve wondered whether I would let you leave. Even now, I can see you second-guessing whether the hospital might be a better bet, after all. And yet you dare to raise the specter of reporting me to Health Canada for regulatory breaches. You are, Ms. Crawford, quite a piece of work.”

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Dammit, she’d let her mouth run on again. When would she learn? Ignoring the heat that rose in her cheeks, she tilted her chin.

“If that sounded like a threat, I apologize. I hardly know enough about your research to even speculate about compliance issues. And I would certainly not reward you for saving my life by jeopardizing either your livelihood or your research. As I’m sure your investigation revealed, Dr. Bowen, I have trouble staying silent in certain situations. Which begs the question again, what made me look like a desirable employee for such a … delicate project?”

“Your financial situation.”

Ainsley gasped. “You investigated my finances?”

“I believe I mentioned I expect a thorough job when I commission an investigation.”

Of course! That’s how he knew about her domestic situation. Did he know about Lucy and Devon?

She schooled her face into what she hoped was an expressionless mask. “So, what did that highly illegal investigation tell you, Dr. Bowen, to convince you that I was the candidate you wanted?”

“It told me that until you left your employment last month, you earned very good money. That you’d been working as many extra shifts as you could safely work without compromising your patients’ safety. That you live in a modest bachelor apartment and drive a vehicle that was bequeathed to you by an elderly patient, a vehicle that is sadly past its prime. You take very little vacation, and spend virtually nothing on yourself, and you have no drug habits to support. Yet you have a significant appetite for money. Money which barely has time to hit your bank account before it gets transferred offshore.”

For the second time in the last ten minutes, her heart hammered against her ribcage like a wild thing. Which made it hard to keep her face impassive. “Again, you viewed this as a good thing?”

Another smile, this one tight and controlled. “Quite definitely. You need immediate employment to keep the dollars flowing into that bank account. And despite your former employer’s agreement to stay mum on that little cloud over your head, your employment opportunities are limited unless you’re prepared to relocate, which takes time and money. Just as obviously, you need your employment to be lucrative, stable and predictable. All of which augured well, I thought, for a mutually beneficial relationship. Your need for cash, my need for discretion…”

“And did your impeccable source tell you any more?”

“About the money? No. Certainly I could have pursued it further. I’d have had to switch channels, but I assure you, the information could be had. Information is the one commodity that can always be purchased.”

“So … what? You decided you’d already spent too much money on your little investigation?”

“Hardly little. And money was not the issue, you may be sure.”

“Then why not pursue it to the bitter end?” Her voice broke and she had to pause. Goddamn him. “Just think — my humiliation could have been complete.” She blinked rapidly to forestall the tears that burned the backs of her eyes and tickled her nose. “You could have fed my Big Secret back to me and watched me sweat even harder.”

“Humiliate you?”

His face turned thunderous and he came to his feet.

Despite herself, she shrank back, just the merest of movements, but he detected it. And it seemed to infuriate him further.

“Ms. Crawford,” he said through thinned lips, “as hard as this may be to comprehend, I couldn’t give a damn about what your so-called big secret is. You could be using your money to bankroll an insurgence in Haiti or to establish a training camp for white supremacists in Arkansas for all I care. The only thing that matters to me is that it exists.”

“But you had me investigated.”

“I did. And if you want to accuse me of exploiting your situation, I guess you could make a pretty good argument. But I will not wear the mantle of your torturer. If you believe that, I’ll have Eli drive you home tomorrow, or to the hospital, or wherever you wish to go, and you can take your chances on your own. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been up all night. I’d like to get a little sleep before we take this conversation up again.”

He turned on his heel and strode toward the door.

“Wait!”

He’d moved outside the circle of light cast by the lamp, but the room was already beginning to lighten with the approaching dawn. A new day on the way. A day she would live to see because of his intervention. He’d stopped just short of the door. Though he didn’t turn, he did angle his head as though to listen.

“I’m sorry. You saved my life. I know that. And I know I must sound ungrateful. It was just such a shock, hearing you talk so … knowledgeably about my employment situation and my finances. I just—”

“Do you still want the job?”

She’d sensed him angle his body toward her a little more, but she could tell by the way his voice bounced off the wall that he hadn’t completely turned around.

Did she want the job? Oh, man, crunch time. Could she take the leap of faith? Did she have any choice? She wet her lips. “What are your terms?”

He turned fully around to face her and named a figure that surpassed her annual income last year by a good margin, even with the crazy extra shifts she’d logged.

What on earth was he expecting for that princely sum?

“I won’t have to do anything … illegal?”

“Not even close.”

His answer came without hesitation, but just like before when she’d intuited his plan to hunt down and destroy the vampire who’d attacked her, she detected the space between what he said and what he thought. What he actually thought was he’d take care of any shady stuff himself.

That knowledge should have sent her running for the hills, but she found it oddly reassuring. He clearly didn’t know — or maybe he just didn’t care — how transparent his thoughts were to her. Certainly it would make a refreshing change from the minefield of politics, ego and subterfuge she’d had to navigate every day at the hospital.

“You said there’d be a phlebotomy element?”

“Yes.”

“These subjects I’d be drawing blood from … would they be human or vampire?”

A sigh. “I thought we’d agreed vampires are human.”

Whoops. “Sorry.” She chewed the inside of her cheek a moment. “So they’re vampires, then? Infected, mutated, however you want to describe them.”

“Yes, they’re vampires. But they pose no threat. They’re nothing like the rogue that attacked you. These people are civilized. They come voluntarily, and they have a vested interest in the continuation of my research.”

“They want to be turned back, you mean?”

The room had lightened sufficiently for her to see him shrug. “Some hope for that outcome. Others are quite happy with their lot, and just come for the free lunch.”

Free lunch? She laughed, a short, startled sound. “You supply them with blood?”

“Think of it like a Methadone clinic. If opiate addicts can get their regular dose of Methadone at a clinic, they stay off the streets and out of trouble. They lead productive lives instead of engaging in round-the-clock criminal activity to support their addictions. Vampires are no different. If these people can get human blood through a legal, or at least not out-and-out illegal source, then everyone wins.”

She felt her forehead crease into a frown and immediately lifted her hand to smooth it. God, she had to stop doing that or her forehead would look like a roadmap. Or rather, more like a roadmap than it already did.

“Aren’t they worried about what you’ll use this research for?”

“Oh, I make full disclosure. I’m working on a vaccine to protect the very high-risk populations — the homeless, the drug-addicted, the mentally ill who roam our streets. The prime targets for the predators like the one who attacked you. Still, I’ve had to work hard to gain their trust, particularly those who don’t embrace a so-called cure. They have to trust that the vaccine won’t be turned against them, or used to deprive these peaceable citizens of viable sustenance.”

Her mind whirled and spun. In a world where pharmaceutical policy decisions were dictated by the bottom line, how could he hope to control the fruits of his labor?

“In all conscience, can you offer them that assurance?”

“I have offered it, so let us hope I can deliver it.” He cleared his throat. “Now, shall we discuss the hours of work? As I suggested when we talked by telephone, we’re a dusk to dawn operation here. Now you understand why.”

As she’d told him on the phone, day or night made no difference. She was quite accustomed to shift work. What she wanted to pursue was the sunlight thing. “It’s true, then? The mythology about vampires and daylight?”

He laughed, a low, amused sound. “Yes and no.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“No, vampires don’t explode into columns of fire, nor are they instantly reduced to a pile of ash. But they do have a severe photosensitivity.”

“Like a sun allergy?”

“Precisely. But more profound than anything you’ve ever seen in one of your ERs.”

She called on her memory to dredge up what details she’d retained. Somehow the immune system started treating the sun-exposed skin as “foreign,” triggering an allergic reaction. She’d even seen a few cases in the emergency department over the years.

“How profound are we talking?”

“Acute solar uticaria.”

Hives… “How acute?”

“Very. If it were a hand or a forearm that got exposed, and if the exposure were brief, it would probably be manageable. Anything more is deadly. Full-on anaphylactic reaction.”

Her stomach clenched. What a way to go. Lips swelling, airway closing… She shook the mind-picture away. “Why don’t they just carry an EpiPen?”

His face had gone flat, expressionless. “Usually the poor bastards are caught out in the open, without shelter. A single-dose injection of epinephrine isn’t going to save them in that instance, even supposing it operates the same on a vampire, given their genetic mutations. Which we don’t know for sure. Understandably, no one wants to volunteer for that particular trial.”

She let her breath escape. “That really sucks.”

“Yes, it does.”

“I’m not much of typist or a filing clerk.”

He laughed. “That’s okay. I’m not very good with dogs.”

She laughed, too. A dizzy, giddy, flirting-with-hysteria kind of laugh. Man, she must be tired. “You know what I mean. For the job. The clerical component. I’m a great charter, but I’ve never had much to do with that other stuff.”

“Ah, of course. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be better than me. You certainly couldn’t be any slower.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay you’ll take the job?”

She ordered her twanging nerves to settle down. “Yes, I’d like the job.”

“Excellent. I think we’ll deal very well together.”

Deal very well together? Sometimes he used the strangest turn of phrase. “When do I start?”

“I think we’d better put you on the payroll immediately,” came his wry reply. “After all, you wouldn’t be lying there if you hadn’t come for the interview.”

Immediately. Thank goodness. An infusion for her desperately dwindling bank balance. “It could be a day or two before I’m up to scratch,” she cautioned.

“There’s no hurry,” he said. “You need to recuperate. And remember, we’ll have to do frequent blood work to monitor your situation. In fact, I’d like you to stay here for the immediate future so we can keep a close eye on things. Would that be agreeable?”

A shiver went through her at the reminder of her exposure, which she’d almost managed to forget for a few minutes. And once again, he was right. It made sense to stay here while she needed close monitoring.

Whoa, Ainsley! Ten minutes ago, she’d been ready to fight her way out of here. What had changed?

Well, number one, despite his slayer routine, he seemed genuinely devoted to helping the vampire community co-exist peaceably with the broader community.

God, had she just framed the thought vampire community?

She forced her thoughts back to why she felt better disposed to staying here.

Well, he’d actually asked this time, more of an invitation than a decree. She didn’t feel so much like a prisoner.

Plus her future didn’t look quite as gloomy as she’d assumed. Worst case scenario, if she were infected and Delano … er, Dr. Bowen were unable to halt the progression, it didn’t mean she’d automatically turn into a ravening predator like her attacker. Clearly, there were kinder, gentler vampires.

“Ms. Crawford?”

“Ainsley,” she said. “If we’re going to work together, I guess you’d better call me Ainsley.”

“And you can call me Delano.”

“Delano.” She said his name experimentally, surprised at how easily it rolled off her tongue. “Okay, Delano, if I’m going to stay here, I’m going to need some things from my apartment. Can we make a trip over there tomorrow?”

“I’ll have Eli do it. Just make a list of what you’d like to have and he’ll see to it.”

“Thank you.”

“And now, I really must snatch some sleep. Vampire hours and all that.” With that, he left as quietly as he’d come.

Vampire hours.

Suddenly, the fundamental, frightening paradigm shifts she’d been forced to make in the last hours caught up with her. Finding the lever, she lowered the head of the bed so she could lie prone again, adjusted her pillow and closed her eyes. She’d think about it all tomorrow.

No, not tomorrow. Tonight.

Vampire hours…

Chapter 5

CRAZY. FOUR DAYS, and he was going quietly crazy.

Currently, she was in a completely different room, and still she tortured him. She saturated his senses, aroused every lustful hunger he possessed. He hadn’t counted on that when he’d hatched this plan.

That damnable scented soap she used. Oh, it was very subtle; most people probably wouldn’t even notice it. But it had wormed its way into his olfactory system, right into his permanent memory. His scientist’s brain had catalogued the component parts insofar as he could distinguish them: sandalwood, vanilla, soft musk and some spice or other — nutmeg? Saffron, maybe? God help him, he could tell how far or how near she was from her scent alone. For pity’s sake, he could all but hear the blood in her veins. Surge and whisper, surge and whisper…

Four short days and the frustration was a living thing under his skin. Last night, for the first time in decades, he’d been tempted to take to the darkest, most desperate streets of St. Cloud’s underbelly in search of a rogue. As restless and raw and as he felt, it would have been hugely therapeutic to pull a rogue off a victim and dispatch him straight to hell.

Except that’s what he paid professional hunters to do. He couldn’t afford to indulge himself by engaging the rogues at that level. If a hunt went south, the research would die with him. Like it or not, his place was here in the lab.

Besides, he knew from experience the therapeutic effect would be short lived. Hunting was better left to those with a genuine appetite for it, like Aiden Afflack. Handsome, smiling, easy Aiden. The man could dispatch a rogue without ruffling his evening wear, then head out to seduce his newest conquest with an equally unruffled conscience. Or maybe RJ. One part laconic, one part cryptic and two parts pissed-off. The man had been on the payroll forty years, and Delano still didn’t know what “RJ” stood for. Those men were natural hunters.

You could visit those dark streets in search of something else…

For a moment, Delano actually let himself consider the idea. Maybe with a stranger, a prostitute… Perfunctory, impersonal, detached. Maybe it would be safe.

No! Not safe.

He pushed the subversive voice back into his subconscious.

Not. Safe.

He lifted his head, nostrils flaring. She approached!

Quickly, he bent to press his eyes once again to the viewer of the electron microscope. Not that there was anything especially fascinating to see yet; after all, it had only been a few days. But he needed some time to collect himself.

“Dr. Bowen?”

“A moment.” He made several superfluous adjustments, completely destroying the focus. When he’d taken a grip on himself again, he lifted his head, brushed his hair back from his face and replaced his eyeglasses. Glasses he wore not to correct his vision, but because it helped him fit the mold people expected. They civilized him, masking the intensity of his eyes.

“Sorry,” he said. “How went the clinic?”

She slid a hand under her hair to lift it from her collar and gave it one of those very female flips, causing a resultant wave of fragrant warmth to billow toward him.

“Great,” she said. “Although it was kind of creepy, going back to your building after having been attacked outside it.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. But you understand, I can’t have the clinic in my house. The traffic coming and going…”

She grinned. “Of course. Your neighbors would have the police investigating you for suspicion of trafficking in something else entirely.”

“I trust Eli’s presence helped allay your concerns?”

Another flash of white teeth, which drew his attention to her lips.

“I’ll say! People literally cross the street to avoid us when he puts his game face on.”

Focus, Bowen. He lifted his gaze back to her eyes. “The blood samples?”

“All squared away. The paperwork, too.”

Efficient. Of course, he’d known she would be. Pity he didn’t have more real work for her. At this rate, he’d have to drum something up just to keep her busy enough to make a full-time position plausible.

“And what about your clients? They were all well-behaved? You didn’t feel threatened or frightened?”

She smiled. “You know I didn’t. I heard you checking in with Eli. I figure that’s why he hovered over me the whole time.”

He shrugged. “After what happened on your first visit, I wanted to make certain your first clinic was as anxiety-free as we could make it.”

“Well, thank you. I appreciated it. I think I fully relaxed when I recognized the fifth donor.”

“Someone you know?”

“Yeah. Well, sort of. I don’t know know him, but I recognized him from the all-night video rental spot on Arcadia Boulevard.” She shook her head as though she still couldn’t get over the wonder of it. “That’s when it hit me. They’re everywhere, aren’t they? Doing all kinds of night work. Running gas pumps, re-stocking shelves…”

“Yes, and DJ-ing at radio stations, hosting late-night call-in shows, driving taxi cabs. And there are still more working from their homes. Telecommuting has been the biggest lifestyle improvement for these people since the all-night diner.”

“Wow. They’re everywhere.”

“Not everywhere, but more commonplace than you might imagine.”

“It was strange, though. Doing a venipuncture and thinking, this guy is probably thinking about what my blood would taste like. And then thinking, no, he’s probably thinking how I’m thinking that he’s thinking about what I’d taste like, and what a rube I am for thinking it.”

He laughed, a short bark of hilarity that surprised him.

“Ah, you were right the first time.”

“Oh, my Lord!”

“Just think of it the same way you would a regular male patient. It’s as instinctive to a vampire to speculate about sampling your blood as it is for a normal man to think about what it would be like to have sex with you.”

She goggled at him. “Men really think about that when I’m sticking a large-gauge needle into their veins?”

A red-blooded man would be thinking about sex with Ainsley Crawford even if she were preparing to slice into their flesh with a scalpel without benefit of anesthetic, but he thought better of sharing that thought. “I’m afraid so. Blame it on the power of the male drive to procreate.”

“Procreation…” Her brows drew together. “Is that something vampires do?”

He sobered quickly. “No.”

“They don’t have sex?”

Christ, how had this discussion gotten started? “They don’t produce offspring. They are physically incapable of conception, whether you’re talking vampire on vampire, or vampire on non-vampire.”

Her frown deepened. “That is so sad.”

“No,” he said. “No, actually it isn’t. A vampire infant doesn’t bear thinking about.”

She pulled back. “Why not?”

“For a vampire, the thirst is constant. The men and women you met tonight, it takes extraordinary discipline for them to live their lives the way they do. The call to feed, to take what they want from their relatively weaker, vulnerable human brothers and sisters … it’s unimaginably hard to resist. As is the idea of their own superiority. They are infinitely stronger, faster, more physically vital.”

“Okay,” she conceded. “I see what you’re saying. We must look like dumb cattle. Or maybe sacrificial lambs, tied to the stake.”

“To some, yes. But not to the ones you met tonight. The difference between them and the creature that attacked you is that they cling to their humanity. The hunger is no less powerful, but the discipline is there. A child vampire, however … well, let’s just say that in the world of vampires, it’s completely taboo to turn a child. An adult vampire needs to feed enough to maintain himself or herself. They need to take in enough blood to sustain them and to fight off the day’s aging. But a child … their needs are phenomenally heavy, given the burden of growth, and they lack the self-control to be integrated into the shared world. They are both innocent and deadly.”

“Omigod, it’s true. Vampires don’t age!”

God, there she went again with the Hollywood stereotypes. “They most definitely do age. They just do it in a profoundly slower manner than un-mutated humans.”

“Like turtles, you mean? Negligible senescence?”

He managed a tight smile. “Yes, like turtles. And rockfish and sturgeon and bivalves. Once they reach physical maturity, the aging process is all but halted. And just like those species, vampires typically succumb to accident or predation long before they would meet their natural end from old age.”

Her eyes shone. “This is so exciting! Just think of it, Del, if you could bottle that…”

Del? He was Del, now? He didn’t know whether to be honored or horrified. He’d been Lane once, briefly, an eternity ago, but never Del. He chose to ignore her use of the diminutive.

“Believe me, there are R&D companies trying to extract that mutation as we speak. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to separate that characteristic from the compulsion to gorge on human blood.”

She goggled at him. “You mean every other bio-pharm company knows that vampires walk among us?”

He laughed, a cold, cynical sound. “Ainsley, sweetheart, you don’t even want to know what they know and aren’t telling. You could keep Senate committees busy for years if they knew the whole of it.”

“I can imagine.”

She chewed her lower lip a moment, and all he could think was let me do that.

“So, do they do it?”

He shook his head, but the words didn’t realign to make any more sense. “Does who do what?”

“Do vampires have sex? You’ve clarified they don’t procreate, which apparently is good because baby vamps are voracious, conscienceless blood leeches. But you didn’t say what they do about sex.”

He cleared his throat. “They are more than capable of sex.”

“With each other?”

God, the woman’s curiosity was boundless. As was her temerity. “Very rarely.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Mainly because it’s not very satisfying. Typically, vampires have no appetite for vampire blood.”

This time her eyebrows soared. “And vampire sex involves the exchange of blood?”

“Most definitely. But with human/vampire couplings, it’s one way, human to vampire. Otherwise, the vamps would have converted your ranks pretty swiftly.”

She scoffed. “That’s presuming there are ranks of females just waiting to be bitten. ’Cuz speaking as a card-carrying member of the once-bitten, I can assure you the experience would not be high on the must-do list for most females.”

“Ranks of females?” He shook his head. “There you go again with the generalities. For your information, some male vampires prefer male partners. And female vampires take their share of partners, too, thank you, from both the male and female ranks. Basic sexual orientation isn’t altered by this mutation.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

He held up a hand to forestall her. “All I’m saying is that if every time a vampire had sex with a non-vampire, they opted to turn said partner, then the food supply would have been exhausted long ago. The vampire ranks would swell until there were no un-mutated humans left to feed them. Presumably, that’s why vampires have evolved in such a fashion as to not be sexually attracted to other vampires.”

She grinned. “Securing the food supply. Smart.”

“And again, for your information, it’s not an unpleasant experience for a woman. Or a man, for that matter, or so I’m told. Quite the opposite. It’s quite an extraordinary experience. So extraordinary, in fact, that certain people engage in relations only with vampires.”

Her jaw dropped. “Vampire groupies?”

He couldn’t suppress a smile at her expression. “If you want to call them that, I suppose it’s fair enough, at least in your view of the world. But I assure you, they have a very different view of themselves.”

“What would you call them?”

“Me?” He pushed his hair back. “I don’t know. Holy women?”

Her eyes widened, fascinating written in their violet depths. “Holy women?”

“Or men. Let’s not be sexist here.”

“Wow.”

“Think about it: why wouldn’t they be revered? They provide sustenance, comfort, pleasure, companionship, all at the same time.”

“Why indeed? Shoot, I want me one of them.”

That surprised a laugh out of him. “Sorry. You don’t qualify. Mutant variants only.”

Her face got very still. Uh-oh.

“What?” he said.

“I was just thinking about what you said … does that mean there are circumstances when it’s safe to be bitten? When there’s no risk of infection ensuing?”

Stupid, Bowen. Real stupid. What now?

He decided to stick with the truth, or at least enough of it that the lie could be in the omission.

“Absolutely.” He leaned back in his chair, the picture of relaxation. “The vampire controls the exchange. Obviously, in the sex situation, he — or she — wants to keep their partner not just alive and well, but uninfected. However, in your case—”

“In my case, he was doing his damndest to drain the very last drop of my blood, so he probably wasn’t being too particular about whether or not he infected me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. And he was. A sorry sonofabitch, that is. “Don’t think about it. Besides, I told you no harm would come to you, and I meant it.”

She held his gaze, her violet eyes shadowed, and Delano felt another lash to his conscience.

“You’re right. No point worrying about it. My blood work has been fine so far, right? No abnormalities?”

He nodded. “Definitely normal, and no post-transfusion reaction.”

“I still can’t believe you typed and crossmatched me so quickly. If I’d gone to the ER, they’d have started me on O-neg while they were waiting for the lab.”

He gestured to the equipment around him. “As you can see, there’s not much I don’t have at my disposal, and no competition for the resources. Not to mention lots of blood.”

“And speaking of blood, isn’t it time for me to roll up my sleeve again?”

He checked his watch. Two o’clock in the morning. Precious as those vials were for his research, he hadn’t planned on drawing any more until at least four.

She rubbed the back of her neck. “I know it’s a little early, but I wouldn’t mind turning in for some rest, if we’re done here. I’m feeling a little wiped.”

The last thing she needed was an iron deficiency, which wasn’t out of the question the way they’d been harvesting samples. By rights, he should postpone the next draw until she got up. But he had a solid four hours left in the lab tonight, if he had new samples to work with. And her hemoglobin was fine… “Sure, we can do that. I’ll just buzz Eli.”

“Oh, don’t do that,” she protested. “He’s been on call pretty much around the clock since I came here, and he only just got to bed. Let the poor guy sleep.”

“Very well.” He inclined his head. “We’ll take the next specimen tomorrow. I’ll ask Eli to wake you for it.”

She laughed. “No, I didn’t mean postpone it. I meant you could do it. You did run the clinic by yourself before I came, right? Or you and Eli.”

Good God! Draw her blood?

In a flash, he saw himself tying off the tourniquet, swabbing that warm patch of skin on the inside of her elbow, probing the delicate blue veins, introducing the needle…

Bad idea. Very bad idea. He cleared his throat.

“Eli is paid very handsomely to do what I ask of him. He certainly won’t mind being roused for this. He’s as anxious as I am to find … to know that you’re going to be all right.”

There! She wasn’t imagining it. Ainsley blew out an exasperated breath. For some reason, he was completely loath to touch her. She’d been here for days, under his direct care, and he’d yet to lay a finger on her. Well, apart from carrying her here that first night.

What exactly was his problem?

He sure as hell wasn’t a germaphobe — hell, he’d performed countless venipunctures on vampires. Creatures who were capable of visiting a blood-borne, gene-warping, physiology-altering pathogen on their victims, at will.

So if it wasn’t disease or germs he feared, it had to be her.

“Why are you afraid of me?”

He snorted. “Afraid of you? Ms. Crawford, believe me when I say there’s very little in this world that frightens me.”

His words rang with the authority of a man who dealt with deadly forces every day, but dark patches of color now rode his cheekbones.

Interesting.

She smiled. “I don’t doubt your ability to hold your own in this … underworld. But I was thinking … maybe it’s the fairer sex that scares you?”

His forehead, which had been pleated in a fierce frown, relaxed, and he laughed. He actually laughed, dammit.

“Ummm, how shall I put this? No. Women hold no terrors for me, Ms. Crawford. Not even women as smart, attractive and driven as you.”

Her smile suddenly felt strained. Yes, she was smart. Yes, she was attractive, in a blond ambition kind of way. And damn right she was driven. But somehow when he put all those attributes together — all attributes she happily owned up to individually — the picture didn’t feel terribly flattering.

Ignoring the stiffness in her face, she let her smile broaden. “Then you won’t mind drawing this little bit of blood.”

A slight hesitation, long enough to make her rethink pushing the issue. What was she doing anyway, aggravating her new employer like this? The man had literally saved her life, then handed her a job that solved all her problems, and here she was baiting him. She really did need to learn when to keep her mouth shut.

He shrugged, as if it were of no import. “Certainly. If that’s what you want.”

Huh? What was he up to now, with the sudden acquiescence? Because despite the six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-another attitude he currently projected, she’d lay strong odds he wasn’t nearly that blasé about it. She couldn’t have misread him that badly. She angled her chin in a challenge.

“Great. It makes infinitely more sense than waking Eli.”

He nodded agreeably. “Then by all means, I’ll do it. I thought only to keep the employer/employee relationship as straightforward as possible. You may be my patient for now, but I hope you’ll be in my employ much longer than you will be in my care.”

That rat! With his reasonable tone and his plausible explanation, he’d turned the tables on her.

Well, she refused to feel like she was being unreasonable. It did make more sense for him to do it than to rouse poor Eli, who seemed to be on call 24–7.

Plus, she knew his rationalizations were just that — rationalizations. She’d felt his reluctance like a palpable force between them.

She lifted her eyebrows. “Oh, but we’re both professionals. I hardly think either one of us is going to get confused if you draw my blood this one time.”

“You’re the boss,” he said, his voice loose, a little mocking. Casual, casual. “Just sit tight and I’ll get the kit.”

He left the room to retrieve the phlebotomy supplies.

Ainsley wilted immediately. God, she was a fool to antagonize him. And he was antagonized. As smooth as he was trying to play it, he was pissed. No question about it.

She didn’t have long to flay herself about it; he was back in under a minute. Plunking the kit down, he readied the materials and donned fresh sterile latex gloves.

He looked up, his eyes cool, thoughts purposely shrouded. “Left arm?”

“Seems to work best.” She extended her arm, having already rolled up her sleeve.

He tied the rubber tourniquet off, then reached for an alcohol prep pad, which he tore open. Grasping her arm, he swabbed the inside of her elbow efficiently. Then, with every bit as much practiced ease as Eli displayed, he probed for the best vein, introduced the needle and quickly filled the requisite number of tubes, each with a different colored cap. Though she watched his face carefully, he didn’t betray by so much as a twitch any untoward emotion.

Stranger and stranger. Had she been that far off base? Had she completely imagined his ambivalence?

“There. All done.”

He applied a gauze pad to the site and withdrew the needle. Automatically, she took over, applying steady pressure to the site while he released the tourniquet.

Okay, Ainsley, you’re an idiot. A vain, self-centered jerk. You pose no more of a threat to this man’s composure than a gnat circling his head.

Then he stood so abruptly that his chair shot backward, careening into the wall where it left a small but definite dent in the drywall.

“You can run off to bed now. We’re done here.” With that, he left the room, samples in hand.

Ainsley watched him thoughtfully, wondering when it would strike him that the samples had to come back to this lab.


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