Della felt the embarrassment seep out of her as something else seeped into her. And it wasn't just Steve's tongue. It was ... passion. It was the feeling of being alive. It was hope that her sad little life wasn't over. Since being a vampire, since she'd lost Lee, she'd thought she couldn't feel this anymore. Or maybe she just thought she wouldn't feel it anymore.
Someone cleared their throat. Realizing the familiar disapproving sound came from Lee, she put a hand on Steve's chest and reluctantly pulled back.
She met Steve's eyes briefly. She knew he'd kissed her to save her ass, but she also knew he'd enjoyed it as much as she had. The evidence was there in his warm brown eyes. Even with one of those eyes bruised, she saw the just-been-kissed heat in his gaze.
She turned to Lee. Only to realize she still didn't have a clue what to say to him. "Uh, hey. I..."
"What are you doing here?" Lee asked. "Besides making out in the middle of a restaurant?"
Hadn't he just been kissing his date?
As crazy as it was, Della saw something in Lee she hadn't seen before. Her dad. Or at least his disapproving attitude. Had Lee always been that way and she just now noticed? Or had he changed?
"What's wrong? Can't you talk?" he asked.
His words ran amok around her head and she couldn't decide how they made her feel or how to respond. And if she did decide she wasn't sure her tongue could take speaking orders, it was still in shock at having just had company-Steve's tongue.
"We were having dinner," Steve answered for her. "Actually, we're celebrating our three-month anniversary." His gaze went to Della.
"Three months?" Lee asked as if annoyed she'd started dating so soon. But hell, the guy was engaged. Where did he get off thinking ... She opened her mouth to say something again but Steve jumped in first.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I didn't introduce myself. You must be an old friend of Della's. I'm Steve...?"
Lee ignored Steve and looked at Della. "I thought you were at that school."
That school? Could he not even remember what school she'd been attending? "I am." She finally got two words out. "We ... just slipped out."
"So you met him at school?" Lee asked and damn if he didn't sound upset. Anger started to spark inside her again. He had no right to be upset. None!
Steve spoke up again. "Love at first sight." He glanced at her and ran his warm hand around the curve of her waist and pulled her a little closer. His gaze shot back to Lee. "Still don't know how I got so damn lucky." If so much honesty didn't resonate from his voice, it might have sounded false. For a second she wished she had listened to his heartbeat-another little vampire talent. Had Steve been interested in her at first sight?
Lee's fiancee rose from her chair behind them and stopped at his side. Della couldn't help but notice how pretty she was-pretty in a very traditional Asian way. Her hair was longer, sleeker, and blacker than Della's. Her facial features were doll-like. Beautiful and perfect-a tiny nose, a bow-like mouth, and slanted black eyes that sparkled with intelligence. No doubt, Lee's parents had chosen well.
Or had Lee chosen her? Had he planned to break up with Della all along? He'd seemed pretty happy sitting next to her until Della showed up.
Not that he looked too happy now. He frowned when the girl slipped her arm through his, but he did the right thing and introduced them. "Mei, this is Della, and her ... friend." The word friend came out sounding like a four-letter word. "Her friend who obviously likes to fight, if his black eye is any indication."
Della tensed, ready to tell him that Steve got that black eye standing up for her. Something she suddenly realized that Lee had never done. Not even with his parents.
"Actually," Steve spoke up again, "we were just wrestling around in bed and Della got me in the eye with her elbow."
Lee's shoulders tightened and all Della could think was, Go Steve.
Mei looked up at Lee and seemed to see his reaction. A tightness pulled at the girl's brow as she glanced back at Della. Della recognized that tightness as plain ol' jealousy. She'd felt it tug at her own brow every time she thought of Lee with someone else. Oddly, now Della felt ... What did she feel? Angry. Hurt. Sad. But she didn't feel jealous. That meant something, Della knew that, but now wasn't the time to contemplate it.
"We should..." Her words got hung up when she met Lee's eyes again. The sad feeling swelled in her chest and she realized a better name for that emotion. Grief. She had loved Lee. Loved him with everything she had. And she'd given him her all-her heart, her body, her mind. Now she'd lost him. And now she grieved for what used to be.
"Go. We should go," Steve finished for her. "I already took care of the bill." Steve let go of her waist and held out his hand to Lee. "It was a pleasure to meet you."
Lee didn't take it. Which was super-awkward and not like Lee. He normally wasn't rude. Or was he? Had she missed that about him, too? Della nodded at the couple and when Steve's arm found its way back around her she let him guide her away.
They left the restaurant and it took a few seconds of the cold fall air hitting her face to realize she was still holding onto Steve. Holding onto him as if the ship of her life had been capsized. As if he was the only thing floating in the stormy waters to cling to.
The sense of weakness, feelings she could easily drown in, washed over her and sparked another flicker of anger. A big one this time.
She pulled away. Confusion bounced around her gut. The grief clung to her heart as tightly as she'd clung to Steve just a few minutes ago, but then the anger she'd experienced earlier returned. She opened herself up to that emotion. Anger she could handle, anger she could run with. So she let it roll around her, washing away the other emotions that made her feel weak and vulnerable.
She looked at Steve, who appeared happy, just the opposite of how she felt. "You followed me," she accused him.
The slight smile in his eyes dimmed. "I was obeying orders," he said. "We were told to stay together at all times."
"Damn it! I don't give a shit about orders. I don't like to be followed." A heaviness filled her chest and she recognized it as guilt. Guilt for ...
"Then don't run away again," he said matter-of-factly and started walking to the back of the restaurant.
Damn it. Guilt for acting like an idiot with the person who'd just saved her.
She caught up with him. "I'm not finished talking!" she seethed.
He came to a quick halt and swung around. "But I'm finished listening. You can get mad all you want. I was trying to help." He took off again.
"I said I wasn't finished!" She flashed forward and shot in front of him, putting a hand out to stop him. When her hand met his warm chest, it reminded her just how cold she was and she pulled it away. She glanced up at him, he looked about ready to give her hell, but she spoke first.
"Thank you!" she growled.
His mouth opened as if to say something, but nothing came out. No doubt he was shocked at her declaration. And damn it, but she knew how he felt. She hadn't meant to say that-not that he didn't deserve to hear it, he did, but ...
"Wow." He finally spoke. "I don't think I've ever heard anyone express gratitude in such a pissed off, angry tone."
"That's because I am angry. I'm furious. You followed me. Then you ... you kissed me, with tongue, in front of everyone."
His brown eyes lit up with a smile again. He leaned in a little closer. His warm breath stirred against her forehead. "And it was really good, wasn't it?"
She glared at him and took a step back.
"Okay, if it's not for the kiss, what are you thanking me for?" he asked, sounding puzzled and yet interested.
Once again she shared his feeling, the puzzled one, that is. "I don't know," she seethed. But then instantly the answer dawned on her. He'd saved her from looking pathetic, from looking like a heartbroken ex-girlfriend.
"You are a real piece of work, Della Tsang." He reached out as if to brush a strand of hair from her cheek.
She didn't know if that was a compliment or an insult, but she slapped his hand just in case.
He laughed. "It really wasn't bad for a first kiss, you know. Usually they're kind of awkward. But that ... that wasn't awkward. It was hot."
She thought about the kiss, the warmth of his mouth, the feel of his tongue. How he had tasted. "I'm glad you liked it, because it was your last," she snapped.
She turned to fly off. Her feet weren't all the way off the ground when she heard his reply.
"We'll have to see about that."
She gritted her teeth, continued toward the cabin, and fought the fear that if she wasn't really careful, he might be right.
And that would be wrong.
* * *
Three thirty couldn't have come any slower. The new sheet, pillowcase, blanket, and Lysol helped, but she kept waking up every few minutes. With the cabin out in the woods, the only noises were a few animals. It should have been a fine place to get a good night's sleep. However, being a vampire and basically nocturnal, she never slept well at night.
Last night she'd blamed most of the tossing and turning on the thought of bedbugs. Funny how the idea of bedbugs kept shifting to Steve's kiss. Then Steve's kiss led her to think about her mixed-up, crazy feelings about Lee.
Was she over him? If so, why did it still hurt? But if she still loved him, why wasn't she jealous of Mei? Then Della's thoughts went to her mom and dad and sister playing board games without her. For some reason thinking about Lee and her parents helped block out the thoughts of the kiss.
Still in bed and staring at the stained ceiling, Della heard water running, which meant Steve was taking a shower. Before she'd gone to bed she'd given the shower a good spray of Lysol, and took a quick stand beneath the spewing water herself.
When she'd left the shower, Steve had been sitting on the sofa, staring at the bathroom door. Staring as if he hoped she'd be wearing something sexy.
Poor guy had been disappointed. Or she had thought he'd been for about two seconds, until his gaze had lowered and then traveled up again as a slow sexy grin appeared in his eyes.
"You were right," he'd said. "And you were wrong."
She liked the part about being right, but...? "Wrong about what?"
That seductive smile shifted to his lips as his gaze lowered again, and stopped on her bare feet. "Right that I have a foot fetish. Wrong about me never seeing your naked feet."
She used those naked feet to run off to the bedroom. The second after she slammed the door, he'd called out that they needed to talk about the mission. She called back that they could do it in the morning. Then she'd dropped into bed.
Even five hours later, remembering the way he'd looked at her-at her feet for God's sake-made her feel all fluttery inside. Now, as the sound of water from the shower filled her head, so did images. Her mind went to him standing under a steamy spray of water. And she had the oddest desire to see his naked feet. And other things.
She groaned and pressed her palms into her eyes. Why couldn't he be ugly?
Taking a deep breath of resolve, she told herself to get over it. Besides, today was a new day. Slipping out of bed, she brushed her hair, and adjusted her bra. Feeling a tiny bit more in control, she went into the living room to wait her turn in the bathroom. She needed to brush her teeth, and they had to go over the plans for their mission. Then they needed to go do what they had to do. Catch themselves some bad vampires.
She didn't have time to think about how hot Steve was, or how his kiss had melted her insides like butter on a steaming ear of corn. It was time to think about kicking rogue vampire butt, not Steve's cute butt.
Drumming her fingers on the top of her knees, she saw the file they had to go over with their instructions sitting on the sofa. She really didn't need to review it. She'd read it a dozen times and memorized it. Because vamps could read a lie in a person's heartbeat, they'd come up with a form of the truth that hopefully wouldn't read as a lie. She, Della Tsang, had been turned vampire and was sent to a special boarding school. She wasn't big on the school's rules, so she and her friend Steve the shape-shifter had run off. But due to the known difficulties of obtaining blood for her, they had decided to join a gang.
The bathroom door squeaked open, and Steve walked out. He was ... he was half naked, and bam, she was back to thinking about his cute butt. And ... her gaze lowered. He had socks on.
For some odd reason, she recalled that someone had told her that Steve was already eighteen. He looked eighteen, probably a year older than Della. Muscles rippled over his chest and arms. She knew he worked out, but most of what he had appeared natural.
Her breath caught in her throat for a second. She'd seen him swimming and without a shirt, but something about seeing all that bare skin and him being freshly showered brought back the flutters. Brought back the memory of his kiss and of how his warm hands had felt in the curve of her waist.
He met her gaze and smiled as if somehow reading her mind. Moving to the chair, he slipped on a dark green T-shirt. Thank goodness.
"You ready to go over everything?" he asked.
"Need to brush my teeth." Need to find my self-control and I'm pretty sure it's in the toilet. She popped up and ran to the bathroom. When she came back three minutes later, she'd taken her frustration out on her teeth. There wasn't a speck of plaque on her pearly whites. And while she didn't find her self-control in the potty, she'd given herself a good talking-to about not acting like some hormone-crazed teen.
Sure she was a teen, and probably hormone crazed, but she didn't need to act like it.
Steve had the open file in his lap when she moved to the living room. She sat down on the opposite side of the sofa and he started going over the info.
She didn't tell him she already knew it because he might need to hear it. Five minutes later, he closed the file. "Okay, the thing to remember is if they insist I leave, I'll shift and hang around. I won't leave you."
Della cut her eyes to him. "Heartwarming, but if they insist you leave, I'll be fine. I can take care of myself. Besides, they know you're a shifter, Steve. Don't do anything that will ruin this."
"I won't do anything to ruin it. But I'm not leaving you." His tone came out determined, protective. "I'll be careful. They won't realize it's me."
"Yes they will. What about them knowing you're a shifter don't you get?"
He stared at her a long second before speaking. "So they're smarter than you, huh?"
She tightened her eyes at him. "What's that mean?"
"You didn't know I was there last night. You saw me twice."
She studied him, feeling puzzled. "I don't..."
"I was your neighbor's dog and then I was the kitten. If a shifter is careful what they become, we blend into the environment and are never suspected. Why do you think we're one of the most powerful of the supernaturals?"
First, they really weren't one of the most powerful supernaturals, vampires were, not that this was a competition. Then all of a sudden her chest tightened and her face heated remembering her short interaction with the neighbor's dog. Hadn't she said something about him not smelling her crotch?
"Don't do that to me anymore." She stood up, went to the door, and glanced back over her shoulder. "It's time to go."
* * *
Della and Steve landed in the designated spot of the state park five minutes later. A clearing, secluded from any road or human life, and surrounded by trees. A place where anything could happen and there'd be no witnesses. Della scanned the area, seeing only tall pines mixed with a few oaks and tons of thorny underbrush.
She didn't like it.
From just looking, one would think the area was abandoned. Only a few stars lit up the night sky. But one good nose of air told her the truth. They were here.
But for what?
And while her nose couldn't count, she sensed there were more than three of them.
Did the gang somehow know Della and Steve were assisting the FRU? Or was this just the way the gang welcomed all potential new members?
A sense of danger brushed over her skin. As exciting as it was, fear crowded her chest. She remembered the pictures of those who had died at the hands of suspected vampire gangs. A mother and a child. An elderly woman. If this was the gang advocating murder for initiation, who had taken innocent lives, they needed to be stopped and the risk was worth it. Sure, Burnett didn't believe this was the gang, but he had to have doubts or he wouldn't have sent them on this mission.
"They're here," Steve whispered.
"I know," Della said.
A stirring of underbrush sounded to their right and then one to the left. And then behind them. Della spotted another vamp coming out from the trees right at them.
They were surrounded.