What exactly does a bomb smell like?" Phineas asked.
"Trouble." Phil strode through the parking lot outside Romatech, sniffing each car to make sure the Malcontents hadn't planned a surprise for the Vamps.
"How did you learn how to do it?" Phineas followed him. "Did you train with the canine unit at NYPD?"
"Very funny." Phil gave the young black Vamp a shove. "The lot is clear. Let's go back inside."
They headed for the front door. Because of the party, the door was unlocked and anyone could walk in. The guests had been instructed to drive to Romatech, so they were first vetted by the guard at the entrance station. Then Connor checked everyone in the foyer. Howard Barr was in the security office watching the monitors to make sure no one teleported onto the grounds.
Phil and Phineas had taken turns roaming the grounds and the facility. So far, everything had gone smoothly.
Phil had reserved a conference room close to the banquet hall. He'd called the priest earlier in the day to explain his theory about Vanda's past, and Father Andrew had wanted to see the DVD of Vanda's interview. He was in the conference room now, watching it.
Phil strode into the foyer. "All clear," he reported to Connor.
"Good," the Scotsman replied. "Ye can take a break now." He gave Phineas a stern look. "Doona drink too much, lad."
"Aye aye, Captain Connor." Phineas saluted him, then dashed into the banquet hall.
Phil strolled into the noisy hall and glanced at the far corner where he'd discovered Vanda earlier. He smiled to himself, remembering how beautiful she'd looked in her silver dress, how sweet with a baby cradled in her arms. She had so much love to give, if only she could get over the pain from her past.
"Hi, Phil," a happy voice greeted him.
"Lara." He gave Jack's fianc'ee a hug. "How are you?"
"Exhausted." She brushed her golden red hair over a shoulder. "It must have taken an hour to meet everyone. My jaw is aching from all the smiling, and now I can't remember half the people's names."
Phil nodded. "You will, in time."
"Jack said there was some real food around here somewhere."
"Over there." Phil pointed to the far corner.
"Good. I'll grab a quick bite while Jack dances with LaToya. Did you meet my roommate?"
"Not yet. I've been on guard duty."
Lara cast a nervous glance toward the dance floor. "LaToya refused to be my maid of honor until we told her the truth about Jack, so we told her last night. Jack wanted to be there in case she went completely berserk and needed her memory erased."
Phil spotted Jack on the dance floor with a young black woman in a red dress. "Is she okay?"
"She's…a little freaked out. She always knew there was something different about Jack. But she thought he was a superhero, so now she's disappointed. Of course, I think he is a superhero."
Lara leaned close. "I didn't tell her about your secret."
"Well, I'd better get some food." She hurried off and waved at Phineas as he returned with a glass filled to the brim with Blissky.
He took a long drink of the synthetic blood and whiskey mixture and winced. "Damn, that's good."
Phil shook his head, smiling. "Connor will know."
"Not if I have one of these afterward." Phineas showed him a roll of Vampos, then slipped the mints back into the pocket of his black trousers.
Phil knew the vampire after-dinner mint got rid of blood breath, but he wasn't sure it could erase the smell of whiskey. At any rate, it wasn't his problem. He glanced over at the corner where he was supposed to meet Vanda in five minutes. "Any news on Max the Mini Member?"
Phineas snorted. "You renamed the bastard. I like it. But no one's found him yet." He drank more Blissky. "I'm happy to keep going to the Horny Devils to make sure the ladies are safe."
"Like those two women last night?"
"What can I say? The ladies love to hang with Dr. Phang." Phineas adjusted his bow tie. "I look like James Bond in this tux, don't you think? I'll be looking sharp for my date tonight with Lisa. She thinks I'm a super spy."
"Which one was Lisa? The blonde?"
Phineas frowned, considering. "I think so. Or she could be the brunette." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. The Love Doctor is an equal opportunity babe magnet, and one hot babe is just as bootie-licious as another."
Phil snorted. "One day you'll eat those words." He pictured Vanda in his mind. "One day you'll meet someone special, someone who can cut you off at the knees with a simple smile. Someone who can capture your very soul with just one glance of her beautiful eyes. And in one fell moment your entire world will tilt on its axis to point only at her. And you'll know you have met your fate."
Phil jerked back as Phineas's glass shattered on the floor, shards glittering in a pool of Blissky. The young Vamp's hand was frozen in the air. He looked stunned.
"Phineas?" Phil touched his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
He remained stiff, his eyes wide-open and unblinking.
"Phineas." Phil shook him, but it had no effect. The young Vamp seemed completely paralyzed.
Nightshade? For a shocked second Phil wondered if someone had slipped the paralyzing drug into Phineas's drink. Was there a Malcontent lurking in their midst? But no, it couldn't be Nightshade. That would have made Phineas fall on the floor before paralysis set in.
"Who?" Phineas whispered so faintly Phil wasn't sure he'd heard it. This was a good sign, though. If Phineas had been dosed with Nightshade, he wouldn't be able to talk.
"Who…who is she?" Phineas whispered.
Phil followed the Vamp's line of vision. The dance floor.
There were several couples on the dance floor. Shanna was dancing with her husband. Jean-Luc was dancing with Heather. Gregori was dancing with the fashion model, Inga. And Jack was dancing with…"LaToya? The girl in the red dress?"
"La…LaToya?" Phineas stared at her.
"She's Lara's roommate."
"She's a goddess."
"She's the maid of honor."
"She's an angel," Phineas breathed.
"She's a police officer."
Phineas blinked. A shudder visibly shook him, and he turned to Phil with an appalled expression. "I–I don't do well with the po-po. I have an outstanding warrant."
Phil winced. "That could be a problem."
Phineas's gaze drifted back to LaToya, and his brown eyes widened with a look of awe. He squared his shoulders. "Nothing will stop me." He stepped forward.
When his shoe crunched on glass, Phil pulled him back. "Wait a minute." He motioned to a waiter to clean up the mess.
Phineas stiffened suddenly and grasped Phil's arm. "Did you see that? She looked at me!"
Phil glanced at the dance floor, and sure enough, LaToya was checking Phineas out.
"I'm in love," Phineas whispered.
That was fast. Phil suppressed a grin. "What about your date with Lisa?"
"Lisa. The blonde…or brunette. They're both Vamps like you. LaToya's mortal." Even though a lot of male Vamps were falling for mortal women, Phil knew the guys deeply regretted the fact that they would have to turn their wives at some point, or lose them to the ravages of time.
Phineas sighed. "LaToya is La-One. La-angel."
"All right, Pepe LePew, but you haven't actually met her yet."
Phineas stepped back as two waiters approached with a dustpan, pail, and mop. "I'll meet her now." He popped a Vampos into his mouth, then stuffed the roll of mints into his trouser pocket. "I need to act cool, man. Turn up the mojo. Impress her with my savoir faire and debonairness."
He unbuttoned his tuxedo jacket to reveal a bright red cummerbund. "The Love Doctor is in the house. Come on, bro. You can be my assistant. Make me sound good."
"I'll do my best." Phil accompanied the young black Vamp to the dance floor.
Phineas had one hand pressed to his cummerbund and was suddenly walking like John Wayne.
"What are you doing?" Phil whispered.
"This is my pimp walk. The ladies can't resist it."
"Are you sure that's the right approach to take with a police officer?"
"Oh yeah." Phineas smirked. "It's working, bro. She can't take her eyes off me."
"I'm not sure that's a good thing," Phil muttered.
The music stopped, and Jack spotted them. "Phil, Phineas, how are you? Have you met Lara's friend, LaToya?"
Phil shook her hand. "A pleasure to meet you. And may I introduce Phineas McKinney, a valued member of the MacKay Security and Investigation team."
"And head of the special Malcontent Terrorist Task Force, but I can't discuss that." Phineas waved a dismissive hand. "Top secret stuff, you know."
Jack gave him a wry look. "That is a well kept secret."
LaToya frowned. "Are you for real?"
"Of course." Phineas took LaToya's hand. "Don't worry, sweetness. I won't frighten you with the gruesome details of my missions as super spy, code name Dr. Phang."
"Fang?" LaToya jerked her hand away and leaned close to Jack. "He's a vampire?"
"He's a good Vamp," Jack whispered. "Like me."
"The jury's still out on that," LaToya muttered.
Jack sighed. "And he has excellent hearing."
LaToya turned back to Phineas and huffed when she caught him ogling her. "Don't go looking at my neck, sucker."
"He drinks synthetic blood like the rest of us," Jack said.
Phineas executed a gallant bow. "I could drink in your majestic beauty for an eternity."
"You're not drinking anything from me," LaToya said, then turned back to Jack. "I saw those holes on Lara's neck when she came back from that undercover mission. I didn't realize what it meant at the time, but if you ever do that again—"
"It couldn't be helped," Jack interrupted. "I was posing as a Malcontent, so I had to act like one."
"I'm just warning you." LaToya waved a finger at him. "If I see any more bite marks on my friend, I'm coming after you like a gator on a dead chicken. And you—" She turned to Phineas. "Don't think you can pull any of that super mojo on me. As far as I'm concerned, you're just another dead carcass trussed up in a fancy tuxedo."
"I'm the Love Doctor, sweetness. I've got the cure."
"You're a dead doctor. I don't care how handsome you are. I'm not interested!" LaToya marched off.
Jack winced. "Sorry, old boy. She's a bit sensitive about vampires at the moment."
Phil patted Phineas on the back. "Maybe she'll come around in time."
Phineas smiled slowly. "She said I was handsome. Did you hear that?" He smoothed back his short hair. "Dr. Phang strikes again. The chase is on."
"You should take it slow," Phil warned him, but the Love Doctor took off, following LaToya.
Phil sighed. He couldn't even take his own advice. Now that he knew Vanda was genuinely attracted to him, he was pursuing her as fast as he could. He congratulated Jack, then hurried off to the conference room to make sure Father Andrew was ready.
And then, somehow, he needed to get Vanda there for the meeting.
As it turned out, Vanda didn't need to get in line to meet Jack's fianc'ee. After she and Maggie retrieved two more glasses of Bubbly Blood, they returned to the corner behind the mortal refreshment table and found Lara there.
Lara filled them in on the wedding plans, then Maggie shared her family photos and described the ranch in Texas. Vanda sat, sipping her Bubbly Blood, while she waited for Phil to return. Not that she was in any hurry to see him. She was still peeved about his snooping around in her past.
Constantine came back, wanting more cookies, so Maggie distracted him with photos of her ranch.
"Can I go?" Tino asked. "I want to ride a horse."
"I would love for you to visit." Maggie gave him a hug. "I'll ask your mom about it."
Lara filled a plate with boiled shrimp, then drizzled some hot sauce on top. "So tell me, Vanda, what do you do for a living?"
"I run a—" She glanced at the little boy. "A dance club."
"Can I go?" Tino asked.
"No," Vanda and Maggie both answered quickly.
"But I like to dance." Tino skipped over to the table to snatch a cookie.
"It's just for adults," Maggie explained, then her eyes widened. "Lara, it would be the perfect place for a bachelorette party."
Lara's eyebrows shot up. "It's that kind of place?"
"Exactly," Vanda replied. "But with male Vamps doing the…dancing."
"I want to dance," Tino said.
Lara sighed. "It sounds interesting, but I don't know if we can get my maid of honor to agree. She's a little—"
"I told you to stay away from me!" A loud voice interrupted Lara. "You come after me again, and I'll sucker punch you into next week. You got that?" A young black woman in a red dress strode into the corner area. "Lara, that Blackula dude is stalking me."
"Who, Phineas?" Lara waved at the young Vamp, motioning for him to stay back. She lowered her voice. "LaToya, he's a nice guy. I think he looks like Denzel."
LaToya crossed her arms with a huff. "A dead Denzel."
"He was one of the Vamps who rescued me from Apollo's compound," Lara continued. "He helped rescue all the girls. He's brave and loyal—"
"I don't care," LaToya grumbled. "He's still one of them. I don't know how you can stand to be around them."
Lara winced. "LaToya, this is Constantine, Maggie, and Vanda."
LaToya smiled at them. "Hey there." She patted Tino on his head. "Aren't you a cutie? Did you come here with your mommy?" She glanced again at Maggie and Vanda as if she were trying to figure out which one of them was the mom.
"Yes," Tino said. "Do you want a cookie?"
"Don't mind if I do." LaToya grabbed a plate and circled the refreshment table, helping herself. "Thank God I found the place where all the normal people are hanging out."
Vanda set her empty glass on the floor underneath her chair. "So what do you have against Vamps?"
"Oh, the usual." LaToya popped a grape into her mouth. "They're dead and slimy, probably stink during the day—"
"That's not nice." Constantine frowned as he grabbed the last cookie.
"LaToya, cool it," Lara whispered. "I'm in love with a Vamp."
"I know." LaToya grimaced as she tossed shrimp on her plate. "And now you want to quit the police force and work for that stupid vampire company."
"MacKay Security and Investigation," Lara said. "I can work alongside Jack."
"I like Jack." Tino stood close to the table, watching the women argue.
"Whatever." LaToya drizzled hot sauce on her shrimp. "All I know is, I came to New York to be a police officer with you, and now you're quitting. I might as well go home. At least there I wouldn't have to deal with a bunch of creepy vampires."
"Where is your home?" Maggie asked.
"New Orleans." LaToya stuffed a shrimp in her mouth.
Maggie covered her mouth to hide her grin, but Vanda wasn't that polite.
She snickered. "No Vamps in New Orleans?"
"Dammit." LaToya set her plate down. "There's no escaping those monsters."
"They're not monsters," Tino grumbled.
"You're right, sweetie." Lara tousled the little boy's curls. "They're real people. And they have real feelings." She gave LaToya a stern look. "You're hurting Phineas's feelings. He doesn't deserve that."
"All right. I'll let Blackula know just how sorry I am." LaToya walked off.
Lara watched her go, then turned back to Vanda and Maggie with a confused look. "That seemed a little too easy. She's usually more stubborn than that."
"Maybe she's had a change of heart." Maggie stood up to survey the crowd. "Where is she?"
"There." Lara pointed to a bar. "She just picked up a Vamp drink."
"Maybe she's taking it to Phineas," Maggie suggested. "It would be a nice gesture."
Vanda walked over to the refreshment table for a closer look. "I don't think she's giving him a peace offering. The hot sauce is gone."
"The red stuff?" Tino asked. "I saw her take it."
Lara gasped. "I've got to stop her." She ran after her roommate.
"We should warn Phineas." Maggie searched the crowd. "Do you see him?"
Vanda scanned the room, then looked down when something tugged at her skirt.
Constantine clenched her skirt in his fist, his eyes wide with worry. "Is something bad going to happen? Why doesn't that lady like Phineas?"
"She just doesn't know him," Vanda explained. "Once she gets to know him, I'm sure she'll like him."
"I see him." Maggie pointed at the dance floor. "He's over there by the band."
Vanda quickly poured a cup of punch and pressed it into the little boy's hands. "Can you take this to your mom? She gets very thirsty."
"Okay." Tino headed back to the dance floor, carefully holding the cup of punch.
Maggie gave Vanda an appraising look. "You really are good with children."
Vanda shrugged. "Come on, let's get to Phineas before LaToya does."
She and Maggie skirted the table, but came to an abrupt halt when Corky Courrant made a grand entrance into the banquet hall. Her cameraman followed, the camera perched on his shoulder as he recorded the scene.
"Oh great," Vanda muttered. "Who invited her?"
"She reports on all the big parties." Maggie pulled Vanda behind a potted plant. "If she sees you, she'll start screeching at you."
"So? I'm not afraid." Vanda moved back into view.
Maggie pulled her back. "She'll try to provoke you into a fight. She wants everyone to think you're violent."
"I am violent." Vanda stepped out.
"You don't want to start a scene." Maggie tugged on her arm. "It would ruin Lara's engagement party."
Vanda spotted LaToya on the dance floor, handing Phineas a drink. "Looks like someone else is going to ruin it first."
Meanwhile, she didn't have to worry about Corky seeing her. A group of well-dressed Vamps had gathered around the reporter, no doubt hoping they would appear on her next show.
"Don't crowd me," Corky hissed at them. She wore a glittery black dress with a low bodice that displayed her augmented bosom. The shimmering black skirt hit just below her knees.
Vanda recalled that one of the brassieres she'd sabotaged was black. And she'd altered some black underwear, too. She gave Maggie a sly grin. "Corky might be giving a bigger expos'e than she planned."
Maggie frowned. "What do you mean?"
Corky posed in front of the camera and spoke into a microphone, her voice drowning out the low roar of others. "This is Corky Courrant, reporting for Live with the Undead. Tonight, I'm attending the posh engagement party of Giacomo di Venezia, known as Jack to his close friends, like moi. Recently, some rumors have surfaced. I know the truth, of course, so I will confirm that Jack is actually the son of that famous libertine, Giacomo Casanova."
Corky assumed a tragic face. "I'm afraid the other rumors are true, as well. It grieves me to tell you this, but Jack is, indeed, illegitimate. And not only is he a bastard, but he's fallen for a common mortal. Once again, a rich and eligible male has brought shame upon Vamp society by marrying far beneath himself."
"That's enough!" Jack pushed through the crowd to confront the newswoman. "I won't have my future wife insulted."
"Jack!" Corky grinned maliciously. "How kind of you to grant me an inter—"
"Aargh!" a hoarse voice shouted. Glass shattered on the dance floor.
The crowd turned to see what was happening. Phineas had fallen to the dance floor, his hands grasping his throat as he squirmed in agony. Lara kneeled beside him, while LaToya hurried away, circling the crowd to reach the entrance.
"He's been poisoned!" an onlooker yelled.
Jack pushed through the crowd to reach Phineas. Jean-Luc and Roman met him there. Lara whispered to them while murmurs of poison spread quickly around the room.
"We're under attack!" a male Vamp shouted. "Sound the alarm!"
"It's the Malcontents!" another Vamp yelled. "They'll poison us all!"
Glasses dropped all over the banquet hall, the sound of shattering glass accentuating the squeals of fear. Frantic Vamps stampeded toward the foyer.
Connor blocked the entrance, his broadsword drawn. "No one leaves the premises till we find the person responsible."
Vamps screamed at him, demanding to be allowed to leave. Others huddled in groups, shrieking and glancing wildly about.
Vanda shook her head. What a bunch of cowards. She considered going over to Connor to tell him what had happened, but noticed Jack headed toward him.
Corky positioned herself close to a group of wailing Vamps and smiled gleefully at the camera. "Pandemonium has broken out! I've never seen such a disastrous party in all my life!" She waved her arms at the scene behind her.
"Sweet Mary and Joseph," Maggie whispered. "Corky's going to talk about this for weeks."
The newswoman gestured toward Phineas, who lay writhing in pain on the floor. "Will this poor Vamp die? Stay tuned after these messages from my sponsor, Vampos, to find out!"
"Can I hide here with you?" someone behind Vanda whispered.
She turned to find LaToya crouched behind the potted plant.
"Shame on you," Maggie fussed at her. "Phineas is in pain."
"I didn't know it was going to hurt so much." LaToya set the bottle of hot sauce on a nearby chair. "I just wanted him to leave me alone. And now that Scottish dude has the entrance blocked and I can't get out."
"You should tell Connor what you did," Maggie said. "Everyone thinks we're under attack from the Malcontents."
"I think Connor knows." Vanda motioned to where Jack and Connor were whispering to each other.
"Damn." LaToya frowned at Phineas, who still lay on the floor. "I didn't think it would hurt him so bad. I mean, he's already dead. How could it get any worse?"
"We can be more vulnerable than people think," Maggie said. "Poor Vanda nearly died the other day when a snake attacked her."
LaToya's mouth dropped open. "You mean, you two are…?"
Vanda gave her a big smile that showed her fangs.
"Oh shit." LaToya rubbed her brow. "I've really done it now."
"And we're back!" Corky's voice filled the room as she spoke into her microphone. "As you can see, the poisoned Vamp hasn't died…yet. But hope springs eternal."
"Miss Courrant." Jack stepped toward her, and the cameraman swerved to record him. "Let me state for the record that this is not a Malcontent attack. One of our guests has accidentally swallowed a little hot sauce. That's all. We expect a quick and full recovery."
Corky eyed Jack with a dubious look. "And if it was a Malcontent attack, would you admit it? Tell me the truth now. Doesn't your disastrous engagement party predict an equally disastrous marriage?"
Jack stiffened. "Of course not!"
Corky sneered. "The evidence is clear. Your marriage is doomed!"
Corky jumped as one of her bra straps popped out from her bodice. She looked down just as the second strap broke loose and slapped her in the face. Her heavy breasts sagged down. "Ack!"
The crowd, which had been cowing in fear a moment earlier, now erupted with laughter.
"Stop that! I'll see you all ruined!" Corky attempted to cover her breasts as she glared at the cameraman. "Cut!"
Maggie gasped and turned to Vanda. "What did you do?"
Vanda grinned. "I booby-trapped her." She stepped forward for a better view. "And if we're lucky—"
"Aagh!" Corky's black panties fell to her ankles. Her face turned red with rage as she scanned the snickering crowd. "Someone sabotaged me! I'll find out and make you pay!"
A strong arm grabbed Vanda and pulled her back.
She stumbled. "Phil! What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing, Vanda?" He glanced at Corky, who was now hurling insults at individuals in the crowd. "Don't let her see you. She'll know it was you." He dragged her back.
"I'm not afraid of her. And where are you taking me?"
"There's an emergency exit behind the stage."
Vanda tried to dig her heels in, but her stilettos merely wobbled. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
He shot her an amused look. "Afraid of me?"
"Hell, no." Hell, yes. Whenever she was alone with him, she lost all self-control and ended up kissing him.
He pulled her through some swinging double doors into a deserted hallway. "This way."
"Don't even try to kiss me again. It's forbidden. I could tattle on you and get you in big trouble."
"Or I could give you such mind-blowing sex, you would beg for more."
"Ha! I never beg for anything."
He stopped abruptly and pulled her into his arms so fast, she slammed into his hard chest. The air was knocked out of her and her heart rate jumped into high gear.
He leaned forward, his breath hot against her brow. "Never say never, sweetheart. You like kissing me."
"Do not." Oh God, he felt so good.
His lips skimmed along her cheekbone. "You were forbidden years ago, and I obeyed the rules. I was young and foolish. Not anymore." He nuzzled her neck.
"Phil," she whispered, and pressed against him. He was so strong and warm.
"We don't need the rules. We're rebels." He suckled her earlobe.
"Yes." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Kiss me. Now."
He leaned back, his mouth curling. "Are you begging?"
"No." She glared at him. "I'll make you beg."
He chuckled. "I thought I was. But first we have some business to attend to." He led her farther down the hall.
He opened a door and ushered her inside. "Your first anger management class."
"My what?" She gasped when she spotted her image frozen on a television screen.
"Good evening, my child." Father Andrew stood next to a conference table.
Phil had shown her interview to the priest? How could he do this to her? Rage shot through her.
She picked up a chair. "You want some anger? I'll give you some anger! Manage this!"