"All the good men are taken," Daniella Delaney said. "The rest are vampires."
As soon as she spoke the words into her iPhone, the hairs at the back of her neck prickled and a shiver slid down her spine. They really had the air-conditioning cranked up in this Chicago bar and grill. The place was almost as cold as her pink fridge back home. Sure, it was a warm Indian summer October day outside, but come on.
Tugging her thin black sweater tighter around her, Daniella continued her phone conversation with her good friend Suz Beckman. "I'm telling you, they're vampires. Sucking the energy and enthusiasm right out of you. So don't hook me up with any more blind dates. And you know who else is an energy suck? The head of the local business association. I have no idea what they have against me opening my cupcake shop in this neighborhood, but he's sadly mistaken if he thinks he can get rid of me. I've worked too hard to let anyone stand in my way. I'm meeting him here in a few minutes, and if he thinks he can push me around just because I'm wearing a sweater set, he's in for a big surprise." She'd no sooner said the words than a man appeared at her side seemingly out of nowhere.
"Can I help you?" His deep, smooth voice startled Daniella.
He had a tall rangy build and was dressed all in black. His dark hair was on the long side, and he had the thickest lashes she'd ever seen on a man. His eyes were a surprising shade of wickedly stormy gray. Radiating toughness and sex appeal, he had Mick Jagger–like chiseled cheekbones and fierce yet almost poetic lips.
She'd never been a Rolling Stones fan, however. She preferred her men polished and polite. Dangerous bad boys weren't her cup of tea.
"Gotta go," she quickly told Suz before ending her call and turning her attention to the man standing beside her. "And you are?" she said.
"The manager of this establishment."
"Oh. Well in that case, perhaps you can help me. I did try to order some food when I first arrived but was told that wasn't possible. It's strange having a bar and grill that doesn't serve meals."
"The regulars don't come here for the food. They come for ... the ambience," he said.
It was all Daniella could do not to laugh as she studied her surroundings—the moose head over the bar, the plastic mackerel beside it, the Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey lopsidedly stuck to the wall with duct tape. "Right. Because the place has such great ambience." She shook her head in disbelief. "Look, I don't mean to cut our conversation short but I have an important meeting scheduled to take place here with—"
"Me," he interrupted her. "Your meeting is with me. I'm Nick St. George."
Great. The man wasn't just the manager of the place. He was the owner and the head of the neighborhood chamber of commerce. At least she hadn't called him a downer vampire during her phone conversation with Suz as she'd been tempted to. "You couldn't have said that sooner?"
"I could have," he acknowledged, "but I chose not to." He sat in the chair across from her.
"Well, it's nice to meet you at last. I'm Daniella Delaney, but you must already have figured that out. Anyway, I won't take up much of your time. I'm sure you're a busy man. I wanted to meet you face-to-face so that we could go over what exactly your objections are to my opening my business."
"I don't object to you opening your business. Just to opening it around here."
"I'm going to change your mind." Daniella reached into her tote and pulled out a folder with photos of chocolate-frosted cupcakes on it. "My business will be a powerful addition to the neighborhood, improving the local ambience ... which is clearly needed, I might add. I'm going to spruce things up and offer yummy cupcakes. Come on, what's not to like about that?" She didn't give him a chance to answer—just kept going. "I made hard copies of some of my promotional ideas for my business. Flyers, coupons, that sort of thing. Or I can show you the entire presentation on my laptop if you'd rather do it that way. Which would you prefer?"
"Whatever brings you the most satisfaction." His voice rolled over her like warm honey.
She frowned at him. Why was he staring at her so strangely? Was the man flirting with her? Why? She was hardly a raving beauty. Not even close. She was pretty nondescript. Brown hair, brown eyes, an okay nose and mouth. Nothing special.
She'd chosen to wear a professional outfit of black pants and lightweight sweater set with a string of pearls. Again, nothing special.
Was he deliberately trying to throw her off her stride? "You know what would give me the most satisfaction?" she said. "You stopping your protest about me opening Heavenly Cupcakes."
"You don't really want to open your store in this area." His words had an almost hypnotic rhythm to them.
"Yes, I do."
He frowned and stared directly into her eyes. "No, you don't."
"Yes," she said emphatically. "I do."
His frown deepened, and those stormy gray eyes of his narrowed.
She laughed. "You seem surprised," she said. "Did you really think you could get rid of me that easily?"
"I believe you may turn out to be more challenging than I expected," Nick said slowly.
"I'm sure I will," she said cheerfully. "A lot more challenging."
* * *
Nick couldn't believe how difficult this was becoming. He might look like a regular bar owner, but deep down he was very different. He was a vampire struggling to stay under the radar. He'd overheard her talking about vampires on her phone. At first his concern had been that he and the rest of his friends had somehow been found out by this cupcake maker.
He no longer thought that was actually the case, but there was still something strange about her. He supposed it was ironic that he, the vampire, was calling her, the human, strange. But the truth was that he didn't know what to make of her.
His job as a leader was to protect his clan and keep her out. The more that humans hung around the area, the bigger the chance was that their vampire community would be discovered. He had no doubt her business would be a success, but he couldn't allow that to happen. It was much too risky.
When Nick had first set up this meeting, he'd thought it would be an easy fix. His buddy, fellow vamp and body artist Pat Heller from Pat's Tats next door, had even mockingly kidded him that it would be a piece of cake. All Nick had to do was use every vampire's favorite weapon—mind compulsion—and Daniella Delaney would obey him.
It hadn't worked. He'd never had a human resist him before. She was supposed to respond to his vamp thrall by agreeing to do his bidding. All the others had for centuries.
He'd established direct eye contact and done his vamp thing. But instead of surrendering, cheeky Little Miss Cupcake had laughed. She'd actually laughed.
Like all vamps, Nick had a superior sense of smell. He could tell by her scent that she wasn't a vampire herself. But there was something about her ...
"Do you have a cold?" she suddenly asked him. "Allergies?"
"You were sniffing."
Nick glared at her. Daniella eyed him suspiciously. And so she should. He could eat her for breakfast.
Okay, so he didn't actually eat humans. He only drained them of their blood. And only when they really aggravated him.
She finally looked away. "I, uh, brought something that's sure to change your mind about me joining your business community. I brought you..." She carefully lifted a sturdy cardboard box from an oversized bag and opened it with obvious pride. "My cupcakes."
Studying her closely, Nick was more impressed by her great breasts even if she was hiding them under that prim sweater. Too bad vamps didn't have X-ray vision like Superman. Still, they did have supernatural hearing, and he could hear her heart beating faster.
Good. He must be having an effect on her after all.
But her focus remained on the box full of elaborately decorated cupcakes with little bats and spiders on them in honor of Halloween in a few weeks.
His focus remained on her. She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Not even close. But she had a passionate nature and a luscious mouth. And she got to him. Big-time.
"Try one," she said.
"No thanks. I don't like cupcakes."
She gently shoved them a little closer. "They're my specialty. Red velvet."
He eyed them. She'd gotten the red color right but the ingredients wrong. There was no blood in these cupcakes.
"Come on. Just take a bite," she said.
Nick could feel his fangs starting to emerge. Hell, yes he wanted to take a bite. Of her.
Damn. He hadn't been this tempted in ages. Literally ages. Decades certainly. An entire century maybe. He was no raw teenage vampire unable to manage and suppress his desires.
"Just one little tiny bite," she said. "It can't hurt."
He leaned closer. He could see the pulse beating in her throat. He was dying to take a bite. Well, not dying, since vamps were immortal. But shit, she was tempting him. Was she doing it on purpose? Daring him?
If so, Little Miss Cupcake was definitely playing with fire. The problem was that vampires could get burned by fire. Garlic and crucifixes didn't bother him. But fire could destroy.
Was she a witch? A demon? All Nick knew for sure was that she was a problem, and he didn't like problems he couldn't solve. He prided himself on being in total control of all situations. In total control of his emotions and his needs.
Exerting his willpower, he was able to overcome his need to feed. For now.
"Come on," she coaxed him. "I can tell you're tempted."
"Lady, you're pushing your luck," he growled.
She sat back and blinked at him in surprise. Good. Maybe now she'd pack up her freaking cupcakes and get the hell away from him.
Instead she said, "If you're a diabetic, I have some sugar-free cupcakes I can offer you."
"I don't want anything you have to offer." His voice was werewolf-rough.
She blushed. Blood rushed to her face. Her heart rate was elevated, her pulse pounding. His undead vampire body responded accordingly. Shit.
Daniella said, "I wasn't trying to seduce you or anything."
It was the "or anything" that worried him. Hell, that wasn't true. Everything about Daniella Delaney worried him. He had to get away from her.
"This meeting is over." He stood and quickly turned away.
"Wait," she called after him. "Does that mean you'll drop your protest over my store?"
"I don't need your approval," she told him. "It would be nice to have, but it's not a requirement."
Nick turned back to her, his scowl forceful enough to send fearless warriors running for their lives. Run, little cupcake maker. Run. He sent the mental order with all the considerable power at his disposal.
"I'll just leave these cupcakes here in case you change your mind," she said with her customary cheerfulness. But she did grab the rest of her things and head for the exit. "'Bye now. Have a nice day."
A nice day? Nick didn't have a nice bone in his entire body ... his painfully aroused vampire body.
He glared at the bumper sticker fastened to the wall above the bar. LIFE'S A BITCH AND THEN YOU DIE. For humans maybe. For vampires, life remained a bitch forever. And no amount of red velvet cupcakes could ever fix that.
The bottom line here was that the cheeky cupcake maker seemed immune to his mind-control powers, which meant that Nick had to figure out some other way to get rid of her.
He could do that. After all, he was a vampire and she was only human.
Or was she? Hell, Nick didn't know for sure. But he'd needed to find out fast whether she was going to be a threat to his existence or merely to his peace of mind.
Getting to know her better might be a tough job, but some vampire had to do it. Might as well be him.
Copyright © 2013 by Cathie L. Baumgardner