Della felt a tickle against her temple and went to wipe it away. Then the tickle hit the back of her hand.
Her eyes popped open with a start. The tickle was someone's breath, easy in and easy out, wisps of air.
And that someone was Steve.
Steve, asleep in bed with her. Steve, on his side, sharing her pillow.
Steve, not even the least bit ugly, with dark long lashes resting against his upper cheek. His equally dark brown hair lay scattered across his brow.
Asleep, he looked younger, except for his five o'clock shadow. She tried to remember if she'd felt any of that stubble when he'd kissed her last night at the restaurant. She hadn't. But she wanted to run her fingers across his chin now.
Her gaze shifted downward to her chest, to her not-so-big boobs. The sheet had slipped down around her waist.
Frowning, she snatched the sheet up and wondered if Steve had been privy to the view before he'd fallen asleep. Of course he had, she realized, he'd been the one to remove her bra and play doctor when he dressed her wound. A depressing thought hit. Had he been disappointed that she wasn't bigger?
She stared at the two slight mounds now pushing against the sheet-finding a bit of hope that they were a little bigger than they used to be. In the last few months, she'd actually started to fill out a B cup. Not that she aspired to get to a C cup like Miranda and Kylie. But a full B or B+ would be nice.
She glanced to her left side and lowered the sheet just a bit to see her bandage. It didn't look like a half-assed job. Shifting her shoulder, she realized it must have healed, because there wasn't even the slightest amount of pain. Then she looked at her arm where another bandage was.
She vaguely remembered Steve waking her up and making her drink blood two or three times. She also recalled him telling her yesterday that his mom was a doctor. Was he considering becoming a doctor himself? He should. The boy had what it took.
Reaching up, she loosened the bandage below her shoulder blade to see the wound. The cut still showed, but it was close to being healed.
"It looks good," a deep, sleepy voice said beside her.
She cut her eyes to the guy sharing the mattress with her and glared. "Get out of my bed."
He grinned. "Technically, it's my bed. I rented the room."
She frowned. "It's too early to be logical!"
He chuckled. "Actually, it's not early, either."
She sat up a little, holding the sheet to her chest, and vaguely recalled not being able to sit up earlier. "What time is it?"
He rolled over and looked at the clock on the bedside table. "Six."
"That's early," she said.
"In the afternoon." He ran a hand through his sleep-mussed hair and looked adorable doing it.
"Wait. It's six in the afternoon? Shit!" She sat up straighter. "I slept all freaking day? Burnett's probably livid. I was supposed to check in."
She frowned. "You told him I was hurt!"
"No, well I did, but I downplayed it-a lot. I had to tell him you had to fight because the whole burning warehouse and sightings of giant lions made the news."
She recalled him turning into a lion both at the warehouse with the rogues and to fight off the weres. "You were spotted?"
"A drunk in the alley, so it's not too bad."
"Sorry," she said, remembering he was a stickler about following the rules and not shifting in a public place. And yet he'd shifted because ... because she couldn't protect them.
"It's okay." His gaze went soft again, like he cared or something. "We got out alive. And we completed our mission. Now the FRU can go in and make some arrests in the gang."
She nodded. "I'm surprised Burnett hasn't been calling every fifteen minutes."
"I think he would have but he's got another problem on his hands."
"What?" Della asked.
"Supposedly Helen was attacked."
"Helen? Our Helen?" Helen was a bashful half-fae who Della couldn't believe anyone would hurt. "Is she okay? Who did that?"
"Burnett's been at the hospital with her. He said she was okay. I asked who did it, and he said they didn't know. But you know Burnett, he'll get them and when he does they'll get hell."
"Yeah, and I'd like to help him dish out that hell. Thank God she's okay." Della's stomach grumbled, embarrassingly loud, too.
Steve chuckled. "I think you're hungry." He bounced out of bed. "I'll get it for you."
Sitting up, she leaned against the bed's headboard and held the sheet to her chest. She watched him go to the small fridge and pull out a plastic bag with blood. But it wasn't the same blood she'd brought with her on this trip. That blood she'd left at the cabin.
Questions started floating around her head. "That's not my blood. Where did you-"
"My mom worked at this town's ER for a couple of weeks when we first moved from Alabama. There's a blood bank right down the street, that's why I chose this hotel."
His words bounced around her head. "You stole blood from a blood bank?" She shook her head. "You're never supposed to do that!"
"I didn't. Well, not technically." He moved to stand by the bed and handed her a cup.
She took the cup and stared down at it. The wonderful aroma filled her nose. "Is this O negative?" she asked, recalling how good it had tasted when she'd been semicomatose.
"Only the best for you." He sent her a crooked smile.
"I guess you can't take it back, can you? And if you try I might have to kill you." She took a big sip.
He grinned. "Drink up, and besides, I didn't exactly steal it."
She glanced at him from the cup's lip. He continued to stand there just looking at her. "What do you mean?"
"I went in to donate a pint and just left with it."
She licked the last drop of blood from her lips. "You're O negative?" No wonder he always smelled so good to her.
He nodded. With his grin now spreading to his eyes, he said, "You're welcome."
"I didn't say thank you."
"Yeah, but your appreciation was in your eyes."
She frowned, hoping to mask her appreciation. Then sitting up a little more, she drained the cup and set it on the bedside table. "Where are my clothes?"
"In the bathroom. They should be almost dry. I washed them out really good. But before you get dressed I need to put some more ointment on your cuts. One last time."
"I think I'm fine."
"Oh, you're fine," he said and smiled, "but your cut still needs one more dose of ointment." He moved back to the dresser and picked up a tube of something along with some other supplies.
He sat down on the edge of the mattress, put his supplies on the nightstand, and carefully removed the bandage from her arm. He squirted some medicine on a cotton swab and dabbed it on the cut. She studied the cut on her arm, and like the one on her chest, it appeared almost healed.
Then he reached up and nudged the sheet down. Not low enough to see anything, but low enough to hint at the breast below and to get to her bandaged wound. Gently, he pulled back the dressing and patted the medicine on the cut.
When she glanced up at him through her lashes he was staring at her. "You're beautiful, by the way."
She felt her face heat up. Okay, now he stared at her like a normal boy, thinking about how naked she was beneath the sheet. Yet, instead of being repulsed, she was ... She was relieved to know he didn't find her unattractive. And he'd obviously seen almost all of her, too.
"If you tell anyone you saw me naked, I'll kick your ass."
He dropped the cotton swab on the nightstand and then reached over and tilted her chin up with his index finger. "I wouldn't tell anyone." His voice came out a little deep, and he sounded completely sincere.
He ran his finger over her lips.
"You aren't going to kiss me," she said.
"We'll see about that," he said and then he did it. He kissed her.
How it went from a simple kiss to him stretched out beside her, the sheet down at her feet and his shirt off, was a mystery. A delicious one.
His mouth moved from her lips to her neck and then lower. She moaned, lost in how good it felt. But when his hand softly, seductively slid down below her waist, she grabbed it, and swallowed a big dose of reality.
"I'm sorry," she muttered and sat up. "I can't ... We can't."
She heard him inhale and she knew he was filled with want and desire just as she was. But supposedly it was even worse on a guy. It had always been hard on Lee before ... before she let things go all the way.
The thought of Lee had her breath catching again.
Tears filled her eyes and all she could think was how she'd gone down this road already. She'd given herself to Lee and look where that'd led her.
"Go take a cold shower." She gave him her back and pulled the sheet over herself.
He took several deep breaths of air, and after a few long seconds he said, "I didn't mean ... I was just going to kiss you. Shit," he said, his voice filled with self-loathing. "I never meant to take advantage of the fact that-"
"You didn't." She closed her eyes. "Didn't take advantage. I went there with you. But ... we shouldn't have ... gone there."
"To soon?" he asked.
"Too everything," she answered. Too good. Too real. Too much like it meant something really special. Too much to have to deal with losing later on. "If you're not going to shower, I am. We need to get back to Shadow Falls."
She hated the anger in her tone and hoped he understood it wasn't because of him. It was because of her. She simply couldn't let herself go down this road again.
In the shower she heard a phone ring and listened as Steve told Burnett they would be back in a couple of hours. He took a shower after her, and thirty minutes later, they got into a hotel elevator, one she had no memory of coming up in.
Had he carried her? She hated not knowing something. Hated knowing she'd been that vulnerable.
Once they arrived in the crowded lobby, he led her into the hotel's restaurant.
A complaint rested on her lips, but she remembered she'd eaten today and he hadn't. So she shut up and followed the hostess when Steve told her they needed a table for two.
He ordered a steak and baked potato and some sweet tea. She ordered French onion soup, about the one thing she could actually enjoy, and a Diet Coke.
When the waitress left with their order, Steve looked at her, still wearing an apology in his eyes. Yup, he felt guilty for things getting out of hand. But she didn't put all the blame on him. She could have stopped it. Should have stopped it.
"How's the shoulder?" he asked.
She reached up and touched where she'd been stabbed. "Completely healed," she said. Then she remembered something they'd talked about earlier. "Did you learn medicine from your mom?"
He nodded. "Sometimes she'd volunteer at different free clinics. I used to go with her on weekends. I'm a fast learner on some things."
She suspected he was a fast learner in all things. She hadn't seen it at first, but intelligence lingered in those big brown eyes. "And you don't want to be a doctor?"
"I didn't say I don't want to be a doctor."
"But you said ... I mean I got the feeling when you talked about your parents that you didn't want to do what they wanted you to do."
"She wants me to go into medicine for humans because that's where the money is. I want to train to treat supernaturals. That's where my skills will be the most useful."
She nodded. "I see." The waitress dropped off their drinks. Della twirled a straw around her glass and watched the bubbles rise to the top. "My parents wanted me to be a doctor, too."
"And you don't want that?" he asked.
"Hell, no. I want to go into criminal justice."
"No. I don't want to defend the law. I want to enforce it. Before I was turned, I was thinking FBI or CIA. Now I'm thinking FRU. Which is why I didn't want Burnett to know I'd screwed up."
He shook his head. "You didn't screw up."
"I got stabbed. That's pretty screwed up." She jabbed her straw into her drink.
"We were up against a whole gang of rogue vampires. The fact that we got out of there alive is a freaking miracle."
She gave the straw another race around her glass. "But you're the one who saved us. The one who came up with a plan, and then again with the werewolves."
"Yeah, but you were a little busy trying not to let that rogue were/vampire kill you in the ring. And when the weres showed up you were already stabbed and bleeding like crazy, but you still stood up."
"I didn't do shit when they came," she muttered, ashamed of herself.
"You stood up and faced them and let them know you weren't ready to be their dinner."
He looked down at his own glass for a second. "Honestly, I was totally impressed with you. The whole time, I'm freaking out inside. Hell, my knees were shaking and you were like this epitome of calm. I kept looking at you and thinking if you could do this, I could, too."
She let go of a deep breath. "I wasn't calm. I was freaking out, too."
He smiled. "Well, that's why you're so good at this, Della. You didn't seem scared. Not once. You can do this. I personally don't like the thought of you putting yourself in danger, but don't ever think you screwed up. You kicked ass in that ring."
His compliment felt like a big hug. And as she constantly told Kylie and Miranda, she wasn't much of a hugger.
Looking down at her drink again, the realization hit. She used to be a hugger, but now when anyone wrapped their warm arms around her it reminded her of how cold she was.
Suddenly, she realized when Steve had kissed her and touched her she'd forgotten she was cold. For the first time since she'd been turned, she'd felt normal again-felt ... human. Damn that felt good.
"Thanks." She looked up briefly and hoped he understood how much she meant it, because she didn't want to have to express it any more than just offering the word.
The waitress dropped off their food. Della spooned the French onion soup into her mouth, bypassing the cheese. But as the warm, tasty broth danced on her tongue, she couldn't help but think how good Steve's blood tasted. How good his kisses were. How it felt to be touched and not think about being cold.
When she'd showered, she'd noticed a hickey between her shoulder and left breast. She was glad he'd left his mark on her. But she was equally glad it wasn't permanent. It would fade in a few days. And that's the way it should be. Because once they were back at Shadow Falls this was over.
She simply couldn't put her heart on the chopping block again. Lee, along with her parents, had taught her how hard it was to love someone. How easy it was for them to disappoint you.
She didn't love Steve, not yet, but these last thirty-six hours had taught her how easy it would be to let herself go there. When someone was genuinely nice your heart welcomed them inside. Add the whole good-looking thing and him being such an awesome kisser to the scenario, and her heart had a welcome mat ready to toss down, a marching band, and banners with flashy letters reading, COME ON IN.
And that was unacceptable. She couldn't fall in love with Steve. Nope. No way. As soon as they returned to Shadow Falls, she was back to being the old Della. Solo. She had Miranda, and she had Kylie. As soon as Kylie returned.
Della didn't need a guy making her feel special, making her feel beautiful, making her feel ... human.
Steve picked up his knife and cut a piece of steak. "Oh, when I spoke with Burnett earlier this morning he mentioned that he went to see Kylie."
Della's heart swelled. "He knows where she is? Is she coming back?"
"He must know because he said he'd seen her, but he didn't say anything about her coming back. He just said to tell you that she was okay and that she asked about you."
That was Kylie, always worried about others before she worried about herself. The girl was an idiot. Well, not an idiot. She was just one of those really caring people. Sort of like the damn shape-shifter Della was having lunch with.
Della dipped her spoon into the onion soup. "Well, if he knows where she is, then I can just go and bring her back."
"Kidnap her?" he asked.
"If I have to, yeah. She belongs at Shadow Falls with Miranda and me."
Steve chuckled. "You're not serious," he said.
"The hell I'm not," Della snapped. "Kylie's coming home and that's all there is to it."
Home. Della felt it as she landed outside the fence at Shadow Falls about thirty minutes later. Funny, how the place had started to feel that way. Of course, maybe that was to be expected when she no longer belonged with her parents.
Steve landed and transformed. "We should go to the front."
"No." She pulled out her phone. "I'm calling Burnett and telling him I'm here, then I'm jumping the fence. I just want to go to my cabin and relax ... I don't want to be interrogated right now."
She wanted to have time to regroup in her head.
Burnett answered on the second ring. "Where are you?"
"We're here. Right outside the fence on the east side of the property."
"Good. We're having dinner now. Why don't you come over? There's a surprise."
"I'm tired. Not in the mood for surprises. I just want to take a shower and relax. Can we talk tomorrow?"
"Are you okay?" His tone grew dark, concerned.
"I'm fine," she growled.
When she hung up, Steve started walking over to her. She watched the way he moved, like a lion, lithe and with purpose. He stopped right in front of her and brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. "You know, I kind of don't want to go back. I liked it just being you and me."
She'd liked it, too. Too much.
She caught his hand and lowered it from her face.
Swallowing a lump of regret, she forced herself to say it. Part of her had hoped she wouldn't have to spell it out for him. But that was the coward's way out. And Della Tsang wasn't a coward. Plus, Steve deserved to know up front that it wasn't him. It was her.
"Look, I ... I enjoyed this. Everything. I really did, but ... it's over now."
He shook his head. "Why? It doesn't have to be."
"Yeah it does." Her heart suddenly grew heavy. Too heavy for her chest. "I don't ... I'm not ... I'm not ready for this." She waved a hand between them.
That look of apology filled his eyes again. "I told you I didn't mean for that to happen. I'm not going to pressure you to take it there. It'll happen when it's supposed to happen. I'll be patient."
She shook her head. "I don't mean just that."
Concern tightened his brows. "Then what do you mean?"
"I mean us ... period. Us being an item, us being an 'us.' I'm not up for that."
He shook his head. "Why? I thought we got along great."
"Why isn't important. It's just the way it is. I'm not going there. I'm completely happy the way things are, happy with me ... not being a couple." It was such a huge mistruth she could hear her swollen heart doing all sorts of erratic thumps, each one hitting against her sternum and calling her a lying bitch.
"No," he said, "I can't accept that."
"You're going to have to accept it. Because that's just the way it is, Steve. We went on a mission and we did great. We did what we were sent to do and thanks to both of us the world might be a little safer. But what happened between us needs to end. I'm not right for you."
He studied her. "Who are you right for?" he asked, sounding jealous.
"I'm not right for anyone," she said and her heart didn't race or mark that as a lie. She had loved already. Loved and lost. "It's over, Steve. Just accept it."
She started running and right before she leapt over the fence she heard him.
"We'll see about that." His words rang in her ears. A promise or a threat, she didn't know. But the idea of it being a promise chased away the biggest part of the pain she carried in her heart.
As she walked inside her cabin, she breathed in the scents of home-the smell of Miranda's fruity shampoo, and her scented candles. Della could even pick up the scent of Kylie's favorite lotion.
Standing in the living room, Della let herself feel the tiniest bit of pride that she'd completed the mission. The feeling reconfirmed that she wanted to pursue a career in catching bad guys.
Walking into her bedroom, she opened her bottom drawer and pulled out the pictures. Images of her and her family, and others of her and Lee. All captured moments with emotion. Memories that now hurt to think about.
She started to rip them all up, but then on second thought, she dropped the pictures of her family back into the drawer. Some things she couldn't give up on. But others ...
She tore the snapshots of her and Lee into little pieces and let the tiny specks of paper rain down into the garbage. Then she went to her bed and flopped down on her back and stared at the ceiling.
We'll see about that. Steve's words echoed in her head like the lyrics of a song-a good song, one that crawled into your head and replayed itself over and over.
She closed her eyes. Life might have thrown her some punches this last year, but Della Tsang didn't go down easy. She was just going to punch back.