Once Bitten, Twice Shy


By Jennifer Rardin

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I’m Jaz Parks. My boss is Vayl, born in Romania in 1744. Died there too, at the hand of his vampire wife, Liliana. But that’s ancient history. For the moment Vayl works for the C.I.A. doing what he does best — assassination. And I help. You could say I’m an Assistant Assassin. But then I’d have to kick your ass.

Our current assignment seemed easy. Get close to a Miami plastic surgeon named Assan, a charmer with ties to terrorism that run deeper than a buried body. Find out what he’s meeting with that can help him and his comrades bring America to her knees. And then close his beady little eyes forever. Why is it that nothing’s ever as easy as it seems?


Liliana's Voice Hit the Air Like a Jet Engine.

I am not just going to kill you!" she screeched. "I am going to tear your chest open and drink the blood directly from your beating heart!"

"That's just gross, Liliana. Didn't your poor, dead mama ever teach you any manners?"

I slipped to another section of the roof as she tracked my voice. Hopefully I could play mouse to her cat long enough to find the twin to the door she'd just destroyed. Then I'd run some more. The thought made me want to break something.

I could confront her, of course, maybe even smoke her if she wasn't too fast or too strong. If my aim was true. But I realized, though I wanted to kill her, I couldn't. Vayl should be the one to finish her.

I found the door, framed by hanging baskets, and gently depressed the handle. Nothing happened. It was locked. Okay, Jaz, you are now trapped on top of an eight-story building with a homicidal vampire. Time for Plan B.


Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Another One Bites the Dust

Biting the Bullet

For Kirk, my inspiration, my joy, my love.


Fear sucks. Because you never know when it will attack. Sometimes it sneaks up behind you, giggling like your best girlfriend from seventh grade. Then it whacks you on the back of the head, takes you straight to your knees before you realize what hit you. Other times you can see it coming, just a dot on the horizon, but you're like a canary in a cage. All you can do is hang in there and hope you don't get motion sickness and puke all over the newspapers.

I already felt pretty queasy as I perched on the single wooden folding chair my boss, Pete, kept for visitors to his office. In fact, I hadn't been this scared since I'd started working for him. Not even when, about ten hours into my first mission, I'd walked into my hotel room to find a vampire standing beside the bed, holding a crossbow. My crossbow. The one I'd meant to use to eliminate him.

Unlike that scenario, this was not a case where I could just go away and try again later. Or, as I had actually done, kick both shoes into his face to throw him off balance, blast his kneecaps with the .38 I wore under my skirts for insurance, then finish him off with the crossbow he'd dropped when his bones shattered. In this instance I was forced to sit absolutely still and try not to ralf all over the top-secret files stacked in rows two and sometimes three deep on Pete's green metal desk. Because, despite the fact that I'd successfully completed every mission he'd assigned me so far, Pete was about to fire my ass.

There could be no other explanation for this call-in. The man, notorious for his penny-pinching, had phoned me at 3:00 a.m. direct from Ohio to London for the express purpose of informing me I should buy a first-class ticket back to headquarters as soon as my job there was finished. He was probably looking at the receipt now, along with all the other expenses of my latest trip abroad. He ran a hand across his head, making his three remaining dome-hairs stand on end as he studied the open file in front of him.

I couldn't bear it any longer. There is only so much you can take of staring at blank turquoise walls, rows of black metal file cabinets, and white slatted blinds that have never been opened (which would explain the dead plant sitting on the table by the window). I sat forward, the chair creaking alarmingly beneath me. No doubt about it, I am the only item in this office under the age of fifty.

You wouldn't know it to look at my clothes, though. I'd come straight from an American Airlines flight during which an aviophobic widow had wadded various handfuls of my blouse and jacket into her fists the entire trip. I looked like a homeless woman. Holy crap. If I lost this job I'd soon be a homeless woman. And that was the good news!

"Look, Pete, I know you told me to cut out the car hits. The repairs are too expensive. You told me that. So I stopped. I haven't caused an 'accidental' crash in three months—you know that! But this last one just couldn't be avoided."

"I understand you took out my counterpart in MI5."

"Well, yeah, but only because his driver was in on the plot. He'll be fine. You heard that too, right? His back will heal in, like, six weeks."

"I heard there was a bomb."

"It didn't go off."

"But it could have."

I shrugged. "Better there than at the coronation." Wait, that sounds a little casual for somebody who should be begging at this point. "But I am sorry about the car. I took out extra insurance."

"This has nothing to do with the car. In fact, I'm glad you put that bastard in traction. Self-righteous twit. No, you're here because I have a new assignment for you."

Thank you, God. I still have work! I nearly relaxed. Which, considering my current state, would've sent me right to the floor. But Pete had started cracking his knuckles. In my time with him I'd seen pencil chewing, furniture kicking, file throwing, and a short bout with scented candles. But the knuckle cracking was new. I sat back carefully and waited.

"You've heard of Vayl?" Pete asked.

"Well . . ." Only whispers. You could almost call them rumors, their subject matter seemed so implausible. If you bought the stories, Vayl had built himself a legendary career, and not just because he'd become one of the 15 percent or so of vampires to gain acceptance among humans. He was also supposedly the best assassin our department had ever fronted.

"I'm partnering you with him." Pete's eyes darted away from my face, so I guess I wasn't hiding the What the hell! very well. Long silence during which I tried to make my head stop spinning and Pete cleared his throat a few times.

"Pete, I . . . When you hired me, you promised I could work alone." My previous job had involved an entire crew, of which I had been the leader. It had ended badly.

"Jasmine, Vayl has requested a partner. You fit his specifications. You're smart, tough, resilient . . ."

My lips had gone numb. "Uh-huh. And?"

He sighed. "And increasingly dangerous." He rushed on before I could interrupt, which was a good thing, because I think my first response might've ruptured his eardrums. "You've been taking bigger and bigger risks. You're a loose cannon out there, and I'm starting to think I can't trust you to work alone."

Bullshit! Stop feeding me lines from cop movies, ya wanker! I know when I'm being jerked around!

He rushed on. "I know how furious you must be—"

"I don't think so! I've kicked ass all over the globe for six months, Pete. I haven't botched a single assignment. Not one. Show me another agent with that kind of record."


"Needs me like he needs a suntan!"

Pete gave me a get-hold-of-yourself stare that worked like looking in a mirror. Shit, was I actually frothing at the mouth? "Do you recall the job in Cuba?" he asked.

I'd hit Castro's most trusted adviser, a general named Miguel Santas. In the middle of a crowded market. In broad daylight. Within arm's reach of his lieutenants. But I'd gotten away clean. Didn't that count for anything?

"And the one in Colorado?"

Aaah, sweet. A pedophile named George Freede had started a church called International Brothers of the Light. Their main focus seemed to be kidnapping children from the United States and selling them to the highest foreign bidder. I'd tracked him to a resort and pushed him off a mountain. Okay, we'd both fallen off, but I'd landed on my skis in nice, fluffy powder. He'd dropped on a rock.

"It's my responsibility to make sure my agents survive," Pete informed me.

"So you got me a babysitter."

He laughed, deep in his belly where it sounded the most real. "Hell no. I hooked you up with a guy who's been alive nearly three hundred years. I was hoping some of his levelheadedness would rub off on you."

It was the laugh that got me. I took a breath, then another. I thought, Okay, maybe he's right. Maybe I have crossed the line a couple too many times. And he doesn't even know about the blackouts. Plus it was kind of nice to be looked after, cared for. I had only been alone a little over half a year. But it had felt like thousands.

I sighed. "You said he requested me? Why?"

"He's got his own reasons, which he says he'll reveal to you in his own time." Pete and I shared a cynical raising of the eyebrows.

"Quite a mysterious character, isn't he?" I noted.

"When he wants to be," Pete agreed.

"So what can you tell me about him?"

Pete pulled a two-inch-thick folder off the top of a short pile and opened it. "He's been with us since the early 1920s. Full name is Vasil Nicu Brancoveanu. Born November 18, 1713, in Mogosoaia, Rumania, which is near Bucharest."

"Oh, for chrissake, can we skip the birth certificate and get to the dirty laundry?"

Pete shook his head at my impatience, but he closed the folder and gave me an indulgent smile. "He's a power, Jaz, and I thank God every day he chose our side. I've read this file four times and still don't think it covers all his abilities. I can tell you he's got pretty well-developed hypnotic powers. He's a helluva swordsman, skilled also with ranged weapons but prefers to fight up close and personal. Vampire strength and speed, of course, along with a finely honed ability to just disappear."


Pete nodded. He knew I was waiting for the biggie, the core power around which the others revolved. "He's a Wraith."

So the stories were true. His touch could actually freeze a man to death.

We talked for a while longer, which was when Pete revealed that, while he wanted me to stop taking crazy chances, his bosses appreciated the fact that I was willing.

"Our government looks at Vayl as a national treasure, Jaz," Pete said. "On paper you're his assistant. In reality, you're his bodyguard. You've met the members of our oversight committee."

And how. Senators Fellen, Tredd, and Bozcowski had pretty much cured me of ever wanting to vote again.

Pete went on. "They've asked me to drive home the importance of your primary mission, which will always be to make sure he comes back in one piece."

I'm five-five. I weigh one-twenty when I remember to eat, which isn't regularly. No question this guy Vayl could snap me like a twig anytime the urge hit him. Plus, you don't live that long without honing some major survival skills. I laughed. "Pete, lay off the bullshit, will you? Vayl needs a bodyguard like I need a pet poodle. You and I both know you're not being straight with me about this deal. But you know what? I'll go along for now. Because I'm curious." And because, God save me, I loved the job. It had kept me alive. It had kept me sane, after . . . after.

Pete looked embarrassed enough that I thought I'd give it one more push. "Come on, boss, really. Why me?"

He smoothed those three hairs and dropped his hand to the desk. "Because Vayl wants you. And around here, what Vayl wants, Vayl gets."


Six Months Later

Get outta my way, you old bat," I muttered under my breath as an elderly woman who shouldn't have been driving a golf cart much less a Lincoln Town Car at this time of night putt-putted down the street in front of me, her blinker announcing she meant to make a right turn sometime before she reached the ocean.

"Are we a little testy tonight, Lucille?" Lucille Robinson is my usual cover and my alter ego: a gracious, sweet girl who always knows the right thing to say. Vayl invokes her when I step out of line. I nearly flipped him off, but since he's still got one foot mired in the 1700s, I thought better of it and stuck my tongue out at him instead. I wasn't sure he'd see me making faces at him in the rearview, but of course Vayl sees everything. I realized I'd come to count on that as much as I sought his approval which, at the moment, had ditched me.

"Do not be distracted by menial events," he reminded me in his stern baritone. "We have a job to do."

"But if you'd just let me ram this old biddy into the next electric pole I'd feel much better."

"You would not."

I sighed. Six months. Scary how much Vayl had learned about me in such a short span. In my defense, given time he could worm the true ages out of the entire cast of Desperate Housewives. Still, the only living person who knew more about me was my sister, Evie, and she was just that nosy.

"It's New Year's Eve for chrissake," I grumbled. "There's supposed to be snow on the ground. It's supposed to be freezing." I guess the natives of Miami would've disagreed. And to be honest, all those palm trees would've sent me skipping around in circles if I'd been on vacation. But we Midwesterners have a thing about winter holidays and snow, and this year I had yet to experience either one.

Vayl went still, a sight that will creep you out big-time if you've never seen it before. He sort of resembles a statue anyway, as if da Vinci had chiseled his square forehead, high cheekbones, and long, straight nose from smooth, pale stone. His curly black hair was cut so short that right now I'd almost swear someone had painted it on. The temperature inside our silver Lexus suddenly dropped ten degrees. A breeze ruffled my red curls, playing them across my shoulders as if they were harp strings.

"You make it snow inside this car and I swear I'm going to park your butt in the middle of the next retirement village we come to and take the first plane I can find back to Ohio," I warned him.

Strange to think of Ohio as a base for any operation more dangerous than cataract surgery. But that's why we're still doing the government's business. Of course, people know we kill bad guys. They just don't want the gory details. But if you asked them in a dark room where their neighbors couldn't hear, they'd tell you we're not nearly as proactive as they'd like. Witches, vamps, weres . . . some would vote to throw them all on a gigantic bonfire and have done. But there's good sorts among those others who have earned—and deserve—the same rights and protections we humans get.

Vayl is one of them. And after six months of partnership, I was glad I hadn't pulled a diva and stomped out of Pete's office when he'd suggested our pairing. We'd clicked like checkers from the start. At this point I couldn't imagine working without him. But he did have his eccentricities. And, okay, some of those quirks made me want to dangle him from the Terminal Tower from time to time. His intense interest in my so-called Gifts. The fact that he'd flunked out of the School of Positive Reinforcement. And especially his adept avoidance of any subject related to the why of our hookup sometimes annoyed the hell out of me.

He sort of came alive again, catching me off guard, as it would if, say, I was strolling through a botanical garden and the cherub in the fountain suddenly started flapping its wings. He sat forward, his smile just a twitch of the lips.

"How can you miss your sleepy little state when I have brought you to one of the most exotic spots on earth?"

"Okay, I know you're too old to be taking lessons from a young punk like me—"

"Jasmine"—(he pronounced it Yaz-mee-na, which gave me the biggest thrill, though I'd never let on)—"while I agree that twenty-five is quite young, you can hardly call yourself a 'punk.'"

Yeah, but nutcase is just too close to the truth. "Dammit, you old fart, would you turn right already!" The white-haired wonder leading what had to, by now, be a blocks-long parade must've turned on her hearing aid. Because she finally pulled into the United Methodist Church parking lot, praise God, leaving the rest of us free to party until some other octogenarian found it necessary to take to the streets after dark. In Ohio, old folks know better than to drive at night. Yet another reason Cleveland rocks.

We drove straight to our very old, very exclusive hotel. Called Diamond Suites, it towered above the pink stucco wall that surrounded it and its gardens, rising nearly twelve stories before reaching its peak with a steep, red tile roof. The windows all wore black metal bars, decoratively scrolled top and bottom. The gated parking lot required a key card for entry. We'd retrieved ours along with the car we now drove, part of the privacy policy with which Diamond Suites attracts its reclusive, generally famous, clientele.

Vayl's eyes were the icy blue of an Alaskan husky as he took in every detail of the scene before him, his brain cataloging it for future reference. Parking lot full of high-end rentals. Check. Automatic, key-card entry door with bulletproof glass. Check. Lobby full of complimentary goodies from fluffy white towels to imported shampoos, all graciously displayed on the shelves of antique armoires. Check. Not a single soul in sight. Excellent.

His hands full of bags, Vayl leaned over and whispered, "According to legend this inn is haunted."

I snorted. An unladylike habit, I know, but one which, like swearing, has its place. "Probably your old poker buddies waiting around to even the score." This was not as far-fetched as it sounded. Rumor had it Vayl had won his cane and his first gold mine in a game of five-card stud.

Vayl's lips twitched again. Not for the first time I thought, If he ever truly smiles his face is going to shatter. But I tried not to think it too loud. On the plane he'd overheard the flight attendants discussing the pilot's stun gun from the back of the plane as he sat beside me in the front row. A man with that kind of ability only needs to listen slightly harder to hear my harsh thoughts.

Vayl had reserved the penthouse, so we took elevator 6A to twelve. At that point I did a little soft-shoe—the semi-claustrophobic's version of the I-gotta-pee dance—until Vayl figured out which way to slip our key card into the metal slot on the elevator's control panel so the door would open. After I'd leaped out and regained a somewhat steady pulse, I took stock. We stood in a small enclosed entryway decorated with a massive flowery mural that involved all four walls, including the elevator doors, and half of the ceiling. Tiles in the pastel pink so common to Florida covered the floor.

I wrinkled my nose at the color. Something about pink makes my stomach churn. Maybe it's the resemblance to Pepto-Bismol. Personally, my taste runs toward bolder colors. That's why I currently wore an emerald-green silk shirt under my black jacket. Unlike Vayl's coat, which reached his knees and looked like it could comfortably hide a shotgun, or a sword, or possibly a small pony, mine stopped just below my waist and, because it had been tailored to mask my shoulder holster, fit superbly. My black slacks felt a little loose, probably because I'd missed lunch all month. And since the Weather Channel had warned of a cold spell hitting Florida at the same time we did, I'd worn my new boots. Hopefully they'd hold up longer than the last pair, which had fallen apart the first time I'd stepped in a puddle of blood.

I tugged my trunk through a set of white French doors that opened into a sunken living room furnished with flowered couches and chairs, glass tables, and Pepto-pink carpeting. On the opposite end of the room, next to ceiling-to-floor curtains in Elvis velvet, sat a bigger glass table surrounded by chairs. I noticed it mainly because the chairs had rollers, which keyed a memory from my childhood.

My brother, sister, and I were staying with our Granny May at her farm for the summer. Her kitchen chairs had wheels, so we spent part of each day either pushing each other around the room or having spinning contests to see who fell off first. Good times. I felt a throb of homesickness for those few golden moments when my sibs and I were friends, teammates, and coconspirators. Why couldn't it have lasted forever?

"Never mind," I whispered. "It's over now. Move on. Move on. Move on." I caught myself in the litany and clamped my lips shut, imprisoning the words before they could betray me.

Still carrying a suitcase, our laptop, his garment bag, and cane, Vayl strolled into the room and took inventory. His eyes rested momentarily on a cut-glass vase full of white orchids and moved on to a silver bucket filled with ice and a bottle of champagne.

"Nice," he said, nodding with approval.

"Yeah, it's uh"—I struggled to put some of the expected enthusiasm into my voice—"grrreat!" I skirted the rim of the living room bowl, rolling my trunk after me. I liked it because it looked the way I felt most of the time, battered and old. Right now it appeared sorely out of place, and if the furniture could talk I was sure it would shame my low-class luggage right out of the building. The pack on my back wouldn't score any points either. Despite the fact that it dressed in basic black, it too had seen better days. But it worked, carrying my weapons in well-padded pockets along with my ammunition and cleaning cases. So rather than run to the nearest Motel 6, I just kept walking, taking my most treasured possessions toward another set of French doors to my left, which no doubt led to a grossly sumptuous bedroom.

"Come now, Jasmine," Vayl chided me. Already across the room, he set the laptop on the table and moved to the curtains, which I expected him to stroke like a pet panther. Instead he flicked them back, peered out the window. Satisfied, he looked over his shoulder at me. "I bring you to the most exclusive hotel in Florida and the only reaction I get is your Tony the Tiger impression?"

I felt like slumping against the wall, at which point I would bang my head repeatedly until I passed out. But no, the bell had dinged, forcing me back into the ring for Round Fourteen of the Never-Ending Battle. Nope, no blows traded, damn it all. Our struggle was just a continuous conversation during which Vayl tried to figure out how I'd grown to adulthood without acquiring the slightest refinement, and I continued to be baffled that a man old enough to remember when bathrooms were windowless shacks built above deep stinkin' holes could be fooled into thinking that ugly flowers and crappy-tasting liquor meant something.

"Look, Vayl, we've got a really big night ahead of us. Can't we just agree that I'm a cretin and you're a snob and move on?"

For a minute I thought he was having convulsions. Then I realized he was laughing. Depositing his stuff on an end table, he collapsed on the nearest couch and heaved with barely suppressed merriment. He looked . . . Now, why would the word "yummy" come to mind? Under his coat he wore a dark blue sweater that hugged his torso as if they'd been reunited after a long separation. On the plane he'd mentioned his gray slacks had been tailored by a guy named Nigel Clay who spoke with a lisp and sewed like a savant. His shiny black shoes had come straight off the shelf—in Italy. Since he'd assumed the identity of a high-end antiques dealer named Jeremy Bhane, his elegance was called for. It baffled me that such a thing could come so naturally. Or that I should find it so . . . delectable.

What is the deal with these food metaphors, girl? I asked myself. Miss too many entrées, did you? Or are you hungry for something a little moreno, no, no, don't you dare go there. For damn sure not with your badass vampire bossman. He could never replace Matt anyway. No one could.



"Are you all right? You suddenly look . . . haunted."

"Oh, yeah. I mean, no." Short, fake laugh while I fished for something to say. "I was just wondering why you don't smile more. And I thought maybe it's because your fangs would show."

"Would that bother you?" he asked sharply.

"Not at all. We had two vamps on my Helsinger crew. Stellar people." Now dead, dead, dead . . . Feeling a guilty sort of pride that I'd been able to say that last bit without breaking down, I opened the bedroom door. Surprise, surprise, it had a huge round bed with a fuscia duvet and a mirrored headboard. I'd call the carpeting a nauseating mix of Pepto-pink and cherry-flavored NyQuil. I liked the Whirlpool tub in the next room though, and the shower was big enough for me and the cutest six guys I could round up on short notice.

"I suppose you find this room a bit over the top," said Vayl, making me jump and squeal.

"What is the deal with you tonight?" And how come you keep showing up just when I'm trying not to think of how long it's been since I've had sex?

He shrugged. "I am, how do you say, feeling my oats, perhaps?" He'd let a trace of his original accent creep into his voice. His left eyebrow moved upward a couple of notches. I forgot to breathe as I wondered just how many women had lost themselves in those emerald-green eyes. Over nearly three hundred years? Don't make me laugh. And don't think about him that way anymore. You're his assistant. Period.

I sighed, feeling a whole new level of bummed. "Well, I'm not. I was supposed to hang out with my sister tonight, not hop a flight to Miami. She's already mad that I missed Christmas, and if this trip triggers her labor I'm never forgiving myself. Or you. So can we just start the briefing? The quicker this is over the faster I can crawl home." And grovel. At the knees of my kid sister. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

He checked his pocket watch. "All right," he said. "The party is in two hours and, knowing women as I do, it will probably take you at least half that time just to get dressed."

I knew Vayl wasn't complaining, but since I already felt vulnerable, the comment cut me. And when I bleed, I get pissed. It's like he's implying a tough girl like me needs a miracle to transform herself into a beautiful lady and, as we all know, miracles take time. What an ass!

His touch, bare fingertips on my cheek, startled me. I could tell by his feverish warmth that he'd eaten when he woke at sunset. The decent vamps, the ones who were trying to blend, all fed without killing. Many had willing donors. Others bought their blood from one of two government-licensed suppliers. More would likely pop up as vamps like Vayl made obvious the advantages of integration.

He said, "I have offended you."

"Actually, yeah, you have." I shook my head to dislodge his hand. It felt a little too . . . nice. "It's okay, though," I said, my anger deflating somewhat in response to his stricken expression. "People ought to be able to point out the truth, or at least give it a nod on the way past without other people getting all freaked out about it."

"I have no idea what you just said."

"Good. Now, let me unpack and I'll meet you in the pit, um, living room in five minutes."

He left me alone to empty my trunk. I didn't. I sat on the bed, fished a pack of cards out of my bag, and began to mix them. Blend, bend, bridge, over and over I shuffled the dog-eared pack until Evie's tears, my ghosts, Vayl's unintended insult, and the immense suckage of the holidays, which I'd spent equally between blacking out and melting down, receded beneath the steady thrum of the cards.



On Sale
Oct 8, 2007
Page Count
320 pages

Jennifer Rardin

About the Author

Jennifer Rardin began writing at the age of twelve. She penned eight Jaz Parks novels in her life. She passed away in September 2010.

Learn more about this author