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Chapter One

The needle slid into Jackie’s arm without resistance. Despite her friend’s skill, she nearly bit through her lip while she squeezed her eyes shut. It was an old phobia, the needle alone didn’t bother her but its presence woke her worst memories. Even with her eyes closed she could see a man wearing a white lab coat coming towards her with sharp things, wanting to cut into her skin and stick gloved fingers where they never belonged. She could remember the heavy flow of blood against her legs and how the pain had kept her awake, fighting off the haven unconsciousness offered.

“You can open your eyes, Jackie. I’m finished.” She did so reluctantly, glancing at the round Band-Aid covering whatever damage the needle had left behind. “See? Was that so bad?” Her eyes narrowed.

“It was a few seconds in my own personal hell. Maybe I should pick out a few spiders from the barn and let them crawl on you, Izzy. Give you a sense of perspective.”

Izzy, also known as Isabelle, didn’t bother to hide her shudder. “Okay, I get it. No more needles.”

Jackie nodded, opting to allow the smooth, cultured tones of her friend’s voice to soothe some of her ruffled feathers. She then left the state-of-the-art stainless steel and granite kitchen to get some air. Isabelle Watts had a beautiful loft just down the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the city of Los Angeles. It was the perfect location for Izzy, a woman who valued style and glamour. She believed in the classic lines of a spiral staircase, the Old World charm of a Victorian loveseat. Izzy thought everything should sparkle, be it diamonds or wood. Jackie walked barefoot across cherry wood floors shined to a high polish, looking up to see the Swarovski crystal chandelier illuminating Izzy’s living room. She’d always wondered when Izzy would marry some rich businessman and move all her furniture into the mansion where they belonged.

“You never told me how it worked out with that publisher,” Jackie called over her shoulder, idly rubbing her scarred elbow and taking a seat in front of Izzy’s fireplace.

“A dead fish would have better kissing skills so I dumped him.”

Jackie rolled her eyes. Somehow she knew it would be something like that. “You’re too picky. He was handsome, genuinely interested in you and he had a good job. Plus, you said you could talk to him for hours.”

“I want to be able to do more than talk, Jackie,” she pointed out as she left the kitchen holding a delicate vial of blood.

“Not everyone is a naturally gifted kisser.” She stared at her blood sloshing against the glass container. It was a little horrifying although not nearly as bad as what would come next. “Maybe if you stopped letting your boss stick his tongue down your throat you wouldn’t be so reluctant about getting an actual boyfriend.”

Izzy smirked. Jackie was about as subtle as a blow to the head. “Most of my actual boyfriends weren’t as good at it,” she told her, heading up the spiral staircase to her bedroom. She kept her bags of emergency blood in the mini fridge and that was where she intended to keep Jackie’s blood until she could get it to her employer. Her feet sank into the thick white carpet as she walked past the canopy bed to the fridge she kept near her walk-in closet. “Besides, at least I’m getting a few kisses.” And considerably more, she thought.

“I’m single by choice!” Jackie shouted up at her. She wouldn’t admit that she sometimes agreed with Izzy’s perspective. Sex wasn’t the most important thing in life. But it was in the top five. The closest Jackie had gotten to an orgasm during the last three years was indulging in strawberries and marshmallows. For her, a satisfying orgasm came with a person attached. Solo work led to the most random thoughts. Once she’d had to stop because she’d been convinced she’d forgotten to buy tomatoes at the store and it drove her nuts not knowing. The mood had died a quick death after that. Since pleasuring herself was out and relationships that included sex came with certain risks like falling in love and getting her heart broken, Jackie stuck with fruit and sugar.

Izzy came back down the stairs. “Are you done trying to avoid what we came here to do?” Jackie opted to stare at the rich burgundy walls and her friend rolled her eyes. “Why are you so nervous about it? Seriously, it’s just an easy way to make some extra cash.”

“There is nothing easy about volunteering to have some random guy bite you so he can drink your blood,” she muttered.

“My boss is a really good guy. He takes care of his own,” Izzy promised.

“I won’t be his,” Jackie corrected. Her deep voice tended to be all the more jarring when she snapped because it was made more for soothing animals than raising hell.

“Of course not,” Izzy agreed, realizing her mistake. “I just meant he looks out for the people on his payroll. And he’s really generous to his, uh, the girls.”

“That’s another thing. I don’t want him thinking this is going to be a personal relationship. He can have my blood but I’m not going to share anything else.” Izzy tried not to wince. He wasn’t going to be thrilled about that prospect. He got pretty girls for a reason. All of them were compensated financially and physically for their donations. Every single one of them agreed that the physical compensations would be enough.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to work that out with him,” Izzy said, even though she felt highly dubious about the idea. In fact, she was worried about whether he would want to hire her or not. Izzy’s boss knew what he liked and she’d never seen him deviate. Jackie glanced up to see her friend studying her with a discerning eye.

“What? Do I have horse slobber in my hair again?”

“No, no, I was just thinking… Maybe we should go shopping before you meet my boss. I know this great hair stylist. We could go see him, too.”

Jackie frowned. “Why this sudden interest in my looks?”

Izzy shifted from foot to foot. “Well, it’s just that my boss likes a certain type of woman and you’re a little different.”

Jackie stood up and Izzy winced internally at the height difference. Izzy was nearly a head shorter than Jackie and that was about where she came to on her boss as well. The fact was that none of his girls were the same height as he was.

“What type of woman does he like, Izzy?” she asked, a dangerous tension in her jaw.

“He always goes for… well… delicate women. You’re not exactly delicate,” Izzy said as gently as she could. Jackie sighed. There really was no way to argue with that statement. She’d been overweight until high school when she’d shot up to six feet. Then all the fat had been redistributed as muscle and hips. Unfortunately, only some of it had gone to her chest. That had turned out for the best, however. Even with her modest attributes, trotting on a horse occasionally verged on jarring. God bless sports bras.

“Which is why you’re bringing him a sample. That way he can get hooked on my blood before he meets the source,” Jackie said. “Is there anything else I should know about his preferences?” Izzy took a step back.

Jacquelyn Chase had a very strong Scottish background passed down from her father’s side, which included high cheekbones, a straight nose and pale skin. She always stood with her back perfectly straight and wouldn’t look unnatural with a Claymore in hand. Jacquelyn worked in the sun on a daily basis; the brown tan on her arms that ran from a little above her elbow to her wrist was evidence of that. Those arms were slim but firm with muscle as were her legs. No, this wasn’t a woman her boss would choose.

There were some bonuses, though. Both tanned and fair skin glowed with health. Her mouth was small, lips soft and a naturally perfect shade of pink that was attractive if she wasn’t mouthing off. Jacquelyn’s eyes were the precise shade of whiskey with sunlight shining through it. Her hair was short, unfortunately, barely going past her shoulders when it was down. At least it was a rich shade of brown with pretty gold highlights that were a natural product of all the sunlight. All in all, Jackie wasn’t ugly. In fact, in the right light she was even beautiful.

“Just, uh, try not to glare at him. He’ll probably try to provoke you but you have to remember that he’s like that with everyone,” Izzy said. Jackie took a long look at her friend. Petite, curved in all the right places, she even had a delicate, almost doll-like face. Her hair was jet black and fell into a perfect wave around her face and shoulders. This was the kind of woman her boss preferred. It wasn’t an encouraging observation.

“I need him to like me,” Jackie murmured. “I’m scrambling here, Izzy. If I can’t get out from under this debt then I’m going to lose my ranch. I’m going to lose everything I’ve worked for.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Izzy said, unwilling to admit how much it freaked her out when her steady, always dependable friend trembled and showed her human side. “You will not lose your ranch. You’ll keep all your horses and your crazy dogs and your antisocial cat. I promise, okay? He’ll like you. I wouldn’t be surprised if he fell in love with you on the spot!” That was stretching it but Jackie laughed anyway, which had been the point.

“I don’t need him to love me. I just need him to pay me well for doing very little.”

Izzy smiled and squeezed her friend’s arm. “He’s more than capable of that. Trust me.”

Jackie nodded. “You know, since I’m going to work for him, it would be nice if you finally told me his name.”

Izzy had never revealed his name since it would be a disaster if anyone else found out. He was a prominent businessman and a vampire. The human world only needed to know about one of those details and it wasn’t the latter.

“Good point,” she said. “His name is Liam O’Connor.”

 

The next day Jackie heard about the woman who had been found discarded by the side of the PCH with her throat slashed. She felt a moment of sympathy as the particulars were rattled off on the morning news but had mostly forgotten it by the time her phone rang with a very important call. If the details of the report had included the whiskey color of the victim’s eyes, she might not have been so willing to involve herself in vampire business.

ANIMAL INSTINCT will be released October 21, 2017

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