March 2006
Avon
ISBN 006085409X


Take a pair of sexy vampires from Kim Harrison...

Add a sultry shape-shifter by Lynsay Sands...

Plus a werewolf unlike any other from Kelley Armstrong...

Toss in a demon hunter by Lori Handeland...

And you have an unbelievable night of

DATES FROM HELL.



I got an e-mail from my editor at Avon one day asking me if I’d be interested in being part of an anthology called Dates From Hell. Kelly Armstrong, Kim Harrison and Lori Handeland were to be in it. She said I could do whatever I chose; vampires, witches, whatever... Well, the idea of writing with Kim, Kelley and Lori was pretty darned tempting. Besides, I’d had this idea for shape shifters, but didn’t think it was enough for a full book, so I sat down at the computer and the story poured out. As a point of interest, Claire originally had a different name and I didn’t have a title. It was my brilliant editor who suggested changing her name to Claire and calling it The Claire Switch Project. I liked it. Still do.


Dates From Hell
The Claire Switch Project
Chapter One

A bunny.” The disgust John Heathcliffe poured into those two words made Jill Beckett roll her eyes as she rinsed out and refilled the water bottle from the rabbit cage. He wasn’t finished with his bitching however, and continued, “I don’t know why we can’t--”

“You do know why, John,” Kyle Lockhart countered with what Jill considered the patience of a saint. The blonde man didn’t raise his head from the report he was reading, but added, “Because we have to follow safety procedures. We test it on animals to ensure that it’s safe before we let it anywhere near humans.”

Jill glanced toward John as she moved back to the rabbit cage, noting the irritation that flashed across the dark-haired man’s face. John, apparently, didn’t appreciate Kyle’s patience, but then she suspected there was little John appreciated about Kyle. Jill knew he resented Dr. Cohen putting Kyle in charge of the lab. John felt he should be. Both men were in the last stage of attaining their doctorates and it made their relationship somewhat competitive, at least on John’s part. Kyle didn’t seem to have the same issues, but then he was the one in charge.

“We’ve already checked it on a dozen mice and rats and now three bunnies,” John pointed out impatiently as Jill reset the water bottle in the rabbit cage.

“Yes,” Kyle agreed. This time he did glance up from the reports as he added pointedly, “And the first couple of those animals ended up a puddle of mush.”

John waved that away as unimportant. “Only the first few, and that was because we were giving them too much juice. We fixed that. We now know the amount needed per pound. We--”

“We are testing it on the rabbit, John,” Kyle said firmly. “And then we’ll test it on a bigger animal, like a--”

“Yes, yes,” the other man said impatiently. “We’ll test it on half a dozen bunnies, then half a dozen cats, and then another half a dozen dogs, and then monkeys, and then, and then, and then… I’ll be an old man before we test it on an actual human. If I’m still alive,” he said with disgust. “What use is it testing it on these animals anyway? They can’t tell us what it’s like. They don’t understand what we’ve done to them, and they can’t follow commands and try to change. They--”

“They can tell us if it’s physically safe by surviving the procedure,” Kyle countered shortly. “They can tell us what damage – if any – the procedure does to them physically by our following and testing them over the years.”

“Years,” John muttered. “Stupid, safe science.”

“Yeah,” Kyle said dryly as he closed the file and got to his feet. “Sucks huh?”

Jill bit her lip to keep from laughing and raised her eyebrows in question as Kyle turned his sky, blue eyes her way.

“Jill, I need to go give Doctor Cohen the latest test results of our subjects. Would you mind getting Thumper out of his cage and strapping him into place while I’m gone? We’ll start him when I get back.”

Yes, Kyle.” Jill turned back to the cage as he headed out of the lab, but her eyes immediately found him in the rectangular mirror on the wall over the cage. Her gaze dropped over Kyle in his long white smock. He looked so sexy in the smock. Like the doctor he would soon be. She wouldn’t mind playing doctor/patient with him, she thought, then her eyes moved to her own reflection and she sighed as she took in the familiar features under the mop of red hair she had scraped back into a ponytail. She’d been told she was pretty more than a time or two in her life, and had a certain amount of confidence in her looks, but they didn’t seem to matter to Kyle. He treated her more like a buddy, or kid sister than a woman.

“Yes, Kyle,” John mimicked nastily. “Thank you, Kyle. Bend me over the counter and--”

“You are such a jerk sometimes, John,” Jill interrupted as she reopened the rabbit cage. She managed to use bored tones despite her irritation and embarrassment. If the man knew he was getting to her, he’d be like a dog with a bone. She knew that from experience. John had become increasingly rude since she’d refused his invitation out to dinner two months ago. He’d decided her refusal was because she ‘had the hots’ for Kyle. Which was true, but Jill had no idea how he knew that.

“Come on Thumper,” she cooed, scooping the white rabbit out of the cage. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“Right,” John agreed as he moved to the panel that controlled the destabilizer. “We’re just going to zap you with a molecular destabilizer that will turn you into a puddle of goo.”

Jill glared at his back as she closed the cage door, then turned her attention down to Thumper. Petting the rabbit soothingly, she said, “Don’t listen to him. You won’t be turned into a puddle of goo. That hasn’t happened for a long time. Not since we figured out we were using too much juice. You’ll be fine.”

Jill continued to whisper soothing nonsense to the rabbit as she carried him into the experiment chamber. It was a small room, built in the centre of the wide back wall of the lab. The chamber was only ten feet square, it’s front and side walls made of protective glass to allow viewing. This was where the molecular destabilizer waited. It looked like nothing more interesting than an xray machine, but it wasn’t photons of electromagnetic interference that this machine shot out.

The automatic door shushed open for Jill, then closed behind her with the same soft sound as she carried Thumper to the table under the destabilizer. Setting the rabbit on the surface, she began to strap him down.

For some reason, this part of her job always bothered Jill. She didn’t like strapping the animals down. Of course, they always panicked and began to struggle at this point, but she couldn’t blame them, she wouldn’t like to be strapped down either. Then too, they were probably picking up on some of her nervousness. As she worked, Jill found her eyes flickering nervously up to the funnel shaped projector the destabilizer beam came out of. She was always nervous around the thing, afraid it would suddenly start spitting its beam at her, which of course it couldn’t do. Someone would have to turn it on for that to happen.

That thought made Jill glance over her shoulder and through the glass to the control panel. John was there, frowning and muttering to himself as he worked out the necessary calculations for the proper amount of power to use with Thumper. It was a very weight specific process; needing a specific amount of power per pound of the animal. Too little and nothing would happen, too much and you risked turning the animal into a puddle of ooze, but as Jill had reassured Thumper, that had only happened with the first couple of trials.

Sighing, she turned back to Thumper and continued fixing the straps, making sure they were firmly in place, but not so tight they’d harm him. Despite her reservations about working so close to the destabilizer itself, Jill enjoyed her job. This was an exciting field to work in, this experiment on the cutting edge. They had used research on Chameleons, as well as various changes natural in nature such as gas turning into liquid when under pressure, and liquid to solid when cold. Putting it all together they had created their destabilizer, hoping that it would bring about cellular changes that would allow other animals to effect tonal changes that could act as camouflage. In effect, creating a Chameleon rabbit, or a Chameleon mouse, rat, dog and -- eventually -- a Chameleon human.

Finished with Thumper, Jill turned to head out of the room, pausing when John’s voice came over the intercom.

“Jill, Thumper isn’t aligned under the projector. Go back and fix it.”

Frowning, she turned and moved back to the table to peer at the rabbit. He looked to be in the right position to her.

“Are you sure?” Jill asked, knowing John would hear her through the open intercom. “He looks right from here.”

“The camera is only showing his lower half.” She could hear the irritation in his voice, then he said, “Maybe it’s the camera that’s off kilter.”

Jill glanced up now, peering at the destabilizer itself.

“The camera is on the far side of the projector,” John announced. “Take a look at it for me, will you?”

Jill frowned. As far as she could see, there was no way to get to the far side of the projector without crawling over the table.

“The table slides back,” he said helpfully. “Just slide the table backward, then crawl under the projector and look up on the other side for a small camera. It should be aligned with the projector. If it isn’t, I’ll need Kyle to pick up some special tools on his way back from Dr. Cohen’s office so I can adjust it.”

She pushed gently on the table Thumper was strapped to. As John had said, it slid easily backward, leaving the floor under the destabilizer clear. Jill stared at the space, reluctant to fill it. She really didn’t like the idea of climbing right under the projector. It would put her in the direct path of the destabilizing beam.

“Which is perfectly safe so long as it isn’t on,” she assured herself.

“Hello! I’m waiting here,” John’s said testily.

Sighing, Jill dropped to her knees and crawled into the space where the table had been. Once under the projector, she raised her head and peered up. Jill spotted the camera at once, but it didn’t look out of line to her.

“It looks fine,” she said with a frown. “It--”

The words died in her throat as a white beam suddenly shot out of the destabilizer’s projector. It hit her with a jolt and Jill suddenly found herself unable to move or even scream. It felt like what she imagined being hit by lightning would be like. A quick crack of agony shot through her, hitting seemingly every nerve ending, then she went numb and unconsciousness claimed her.

***

“Jill?”

The voice sounded urgent and upset, but it took a moment before Jill could move or open her eyes in response. When she did, it was to find herself staring up at Kyle Lockhart. His blonde hair was endearingly tousled, something she’d rarely seen since high school. His sky blue eyes were crinkled with concern, and his mouth a firm line in his chiseled face.

“Kyle?” Jill breathed.

“Oh, thank God.” He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them just as quickly and straightened. “Come on, let’s get you up.”

Jill peered around as Kyle helped her to her feet. They were still in the experiment chamber, but by the front wall, as far from the molecular destabilizer as possible. The white beam that had shot such teeth jarring pain into her was still pouring from the projector.

“This way.” Kyle began to usher her to the door, but Jill glanced back toward the beam as they went and frowned as she recalled what had happened.

“The destabilizer went off somehow while I was checking the camera.” Jill said as he urged her out of the room. She shuddered at the recollection of the beam jolting through her body.

“John is the ‘somehow,’” Kyle said grimly.

“John?” Jill asked sharply as he led her to a lab chair and eased her into it. “You mean he deliberately zapped me?”

“Yeah. The bastard was determined to try his human trials and must have decided you would be the test subject. The jerk.”

Kyle placed a hand on her forehead and used his thumb to pull one eyelid up. He peered into her eye for a moment, then shifted his hand to the other side to repeat the process on the other eye.

“Your eyes are a little dilated,” he said with a frown. “How’s your vision?”

“Fine,” Jill assured him. The moment he removed his hand from her forehead, she turned her head to glance toward the control panel, looking for John. The dark-haired man was out cold on the floor in front of the machine.

“What happened to him?” she asked, more out of curiosity than any real concern. It was hard to feel concern for the man after what he’d done.

“I knocked him out,” Kyle muttered as he took her pulse.

Jill’s eyes shot to his face in surprise. The man was six feet tall and handsome in his own way, but he had the body of a scientist, long and lean. He also had the studious nature of a scientist and wasn’t the kind of guy who ran around getting into fights

Kyle shrugged uncomfortably under her startled glance.

“I came back in and saw what he was doing and punched him,” he said almost apologetically. “Then I ran in to the experiment chamber to pull you out from under the beam.”

“You punched him?” Jill asked, still marveling over the fact.

“It was just…instinct,” Kyle explained with embarrassment. “I was…upset.”

“Oh,” Jill said huskily. “Thank you.”

Kyle shrugged and avoided her eyes by staring at his watch as he took her pulse, but then his lips twisted with displeasure and he said, “It’s my fault. I should have realized John would try a stunt like that. He’s been crabbing about the animal trials from the start and insisting we need to do human trials.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jill said quickly. “I’ve heard all his complaining, but didn’t expect him to pull a stunt like this either.”

Kyle nodded, but she could tell he still felt responsible.

“Your pulse is a little fast, but not alarmingly so.” He straightened and peered at her. “How do you feel?”

Jill paused and considered. She felt a little shaky, but then she’d been knocked out by the beam. Other than that, however, she felt pretty much normal.

“I feel fine,” Jill said at last. “I don’t feel different or anything.”

Kyle hesitated, his gaze moving around the lab, then asked, “Do you think you’re up to walking?”

When Jill nodded, he urged her back to her feet, saying, “Come on, then. This has been more than enough for the day. Let’s get out of here.”

Jill couldn’t have agreed more. She felt fine, but didn’t want to stay in the lab. And she definitely didn’t want to be there when John woke up. If he said a single word to her, Jill might be tempted to commit bodily harm on the jerk. He could have killed her with that stunt.

Kyle took her arm, eyeing her closely as they walked to the door. He was just opening the door, when Jill suddenly recalled the poor rabbit still strapped to the table in the experiment chamber.

“Wait.” She paused and turned back. “What about Thumper?”

“Oh.” Kyle glanced toward the glass walled room. After a hesitation, he said “wait here” and hurried over to the control panel to switch off the destabilizer, then continued on to the small room.

Jill watched him unstrap the animal, smiling as she saw his lips moving as he petted and soothed the rabbit. Like herself, Kyle tended to murmur and coo nonsense to the lab animals, and she knew he got just as distressed when something went wrong. It was only John who treated them like blocks of wood.

Thoughts of the other man drew her attention to his unconscious form and she scowled. John Heathcliffe had done some rotten things in the time she’d known him, but today had taken the cake. It wasn’t just that she could have been killed, but who knew what effects the destablizer could have on her?

The door to the experiment chamber opened with a soft swish, and Jill glanced over, relieved to be distracted from her thoughts. Kyle was quick about putting Thumper in his cage and then he hurried to join her at the door.

“What are we going to do about him?” Jill asked, nodding toward John’s still form.

“Leave him. I’d call security, but…” Kyle hesitated, then admitted, “I’m worried about Dr. Cohen’s reaction if he learns you were exposed to the molecular destabilizer.”

It was all he had to say. If anyone found out, Jill could expect to be kept here in the lab in her very own cage – though it would probably be a sterile white room rather than an actual cage. She would be subjected to hundreds of tests, most of them probably unpleasant and even painful. She’d also be asked a million questions every day to see just how her mind had been affected by exposure to the destabilizer.

No, thank you. Jill didn’t know what effect her exposure would have on her, but no matter what it was, she’d rather not be locked up while it happened.

“You don’t think John will tell?” she asked anxiously.

“And risk being banned from the scientific community?” Kyle asked with a snort. “Not to mention being arrested for assault, because that’s what it was.” He shook his head. “No. He’ll keep his mouth shut.”

Relief soaking through her, Jill nodded and allowed Kyle to take her arm and lead her out of the lab.

They didn’t run into anyone on the way down to the parking garage. Jill was so unsettled by the whole adventure, that they were in Kyle’s car before she remembered her own vehicle.

“What about my car?” Jill asked as Kyle started the engine of his little red car.

Pausing, he glanced in the direction of her parking spot, a small frown playing about his lips, then he shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be driving just now. In fact, I don’t want you to be alone. I was planning on taking you home with me so I could keep an eye on you for at least tonight, preferably the weekend. But, if nothing happens and you continue to seem fine, I’ll bring you by to pick up your car tomorrow morning.”

When she nodded her agreement, Kyle added, “Fortunately, it’s Friday, so you’ll have the weekend to recover before we have to decide what -- if anything -- to tell Dr. Cohen about this.”

“I thought we didn’t want him to know?” Jill asked with a frown. “I mean, if nothing has happened…”

“I don’t want John to get away with this,” Kyle said solemnly. “We could tell Dr. Cohen that he tried to turn the destabilizer on you and I arrived as he did it and knocked him out. That you managed to throw yourself out of the way when you heard it power up.”

Jill blinked with a sudden realization.

“What is it?” Kyle asked.

“I didn’t hear it power up,” she said slowly, perplexed by the fact. She should have. Jill had always heard it before. Usually the soft hum started while she strapped down the animal, then built to a high pitched whine as she left the room.

“He must have powered it up before you went in,” Kyle said thoughtfully and his expression became even more forbidding. “The bastard must have planned to try this all along. He was just waiting for a time when I was out of the lab.” Kyle cursed. “I never should have--”

Jill placed her hand over his on the steering wheel and patted him soothingly. “You couldn’t know. It’s fine. Let’s just go.”

Blowing his breath out, Kyle nodded and shifted the car into gear, then backed out of his parking spot.

“You’re okay with staying over tonight?” Kyle asked once they were out of the parking garage.

“Yes.” Jill nodded. “To tell you the truth, if something’s going to happen, I’d rather not be alone.”

Kyle gave a nod, then concentrated on driving, leaving Jill to worry over what might result from the experiment. Nothing much had appeared to happen yet to the animals they’d tested it on. If put in front of a white background, some of them lightened in color, like a chameleon taking on its surroundings, but it didn’t happen to all the animals and it didn’t happen regularly. This didn’t bother Kyle. He was just happy it happened at all. As John had pointed out, the animals didn’t understand what was done to them so simply might not be utilizing their full abilities. She did understand, however, and supposed that was why John had broken all the rules and exposed her to the destabilizer.

Jill peered down at her hands, the only part of her body that wasn’t covered by clothing and that she could see at the moment. She stared at where they rested in her lap, but they looked the same as always to her. Her skin wasn’t suddenly lightening to match the white smock she wore. For a moment, she considered trying to make them lighten, but then changed her mind. She was almost afraid to find her exposure had had some effect.

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