<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> This was why I didn't do magic. Well, this and the fact that incidents like this wreaked havoc on my organic cotton-blend wardrobe. <p> I stood by while Nina perched on her desktop, hands on hips, teeth bared, dodging the singed-hair-smelling puffs of smoke that shot from Mrs. Henderson's scaled, flared nostrils. <p> Lorraine, the Gestalt witch and resident UDA Accounts Payable shark, was hopping from foot to foot, muttering a calming spell that made flowers bloom on the desk and then wilt under Mrs. Henderson's dragon-fire heat. <p> "Mrs. Henderson," I said, reaching out to soothe the eight-foot dragon. "I'm sure Nina didn't mean anything by her comment. If you would just let me help—" <p> Mrs. Henderson angled a surprisingly well-manicured claw at Nina and jabbed at the air in front of her. "That woman should not be allowed to deal with the public!" she spat, blowing a fireball from between pursed, candy-pink lips. <p> "Oy!" Lorraine yelped and scampered out the door, patting her smoking scalp while I watched Nina's small hands ball into fists, her dark eyes agape, glaring at the bowling-ball-sized hole burned into her hand-smocked blouse. <p> "This was an original!" Nina shrieked. <p> "Mrs. Henderson," I tried again. <p> Mrs. Henderson clapped a claw over her mouth, but I could still see the snaking smile on her thin dragon lips. "Sorry," she said. "That one really got away from me." <p> "If you think that I am going to change my mind, or wear"—Nina wrinkled her nose in disgust—"fire-retardant fabrics to deal with this, this—" <p> "Client," I offered. <p> "<i>Lizard</i>," Nina spat, "who can't hold her fire breath ..." <p> I cringed as Mrs. Henderson's eyes bulged. "Who are you calling a lizard, Nosferatu?" <p> I ducked just in time to miss a spout of fire that engulfed Nina and fizzled on her cold, marble skin. She sniffed, the charred remains of her singed dress falling off and crackling to the desk, leaving her stark naked, stiletto heeled, and completely bald. <p> "Why you—" <p> I watched Nina rise up on her toes, her sharp fangs pressed against her Resolutely Red MAC lip stain. <p> "Nina!" I stepped in front of her just in time to catch a blast of Mrs. Henderson's fire. It balled around me, the orange-yellow flames held an inch from my skin. They crackled, white hot, then fizzled out. <p> Mrs. Henderson frowned, her tail flopping on the floor and upturning my potted spider plant. "I'm sorry about that, Ms. Lawson." She shrugged, her slick gray-green shoulders hugging her ears. "I guess it's a good thing you're immune." <p> So, not only do I not do magic, magic can't really be done <i>to</i> me. So, exit zombie love-slave spells, demonic possession, and Disney princess movies; enter standing in between a stark-naked vampire and an eight-foot dragon on a Tuesday afternoon. <p> "Mrs. Henderson," I said, using my most calming tone. "How about if I personally handle all your paperwork from now on?" <p> Mrs. Henderson eyed Nina and then pinned me with a yellow-eyed glare. "<i>All</i> of it?" <p> I nodded, holding out my hand. "Every last form. I'm sure we can get this all worked out for you"—I smiled beguilingly at Nina—"with no further problems." <p> Mrs. Henderson slapped her paperwork into my open palm. "Okay," she said, the heat still in her breath. "But expect me to file a formal complaint with Mr. Sampson about her!" <p> She turned around, sashaying her large, scaled behind out the door, her tail slithering on the floor behind her. <p> Nina jumped off her desk and shimmied into a lemon yellow sheath dress she yanked out of her handbag. "I swear, that woman!" she muttered. <p> "Nina—" <p> Nina raised what remained of her left eyebrow and then rubbed it vigorously until the hair started to grow back. "This is not my fault," she said. "That woman was smoking. Smoking in my office!" <p> I sighed. "Mrs. Henderson is a dragon. She can't really help it." <p> "Oh. So I'm just supposed to sit here, breathing all that smoke for minimum wage? Oh, no." Nina crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Not in this lifetime." <p> She wagged her head, enviable locks of glossy black hair sprouting from her scalp, growing until she had a full head of waist-length hair. <p> I nonchalantly patted my Brillo Pad curls and lowered my voice, trying my best to offer a calming vibe. "Nina, you haven't breathed in one hundred and sixteen years. You're a vampire. And we don't make minimum wage." <p> Nina was unmoved. "You breathers are all so literal. Is it lunchtime yet?" She rose up on her toes and peeked over the counter that separated us—nonminimum-wage-making UDA staff—from them—the general demonic public. <p> "There's hardly anyone here," Nina said. "Let's take a long lunch. Abercrombie is having a sale. And all their male models are topless." She grinned. "And yummy." <p> I looked over the counter and did a sweep of the UDA waiting room. It was crowded, shin to shoulder, with the usual eleven o'clock crowd of minotaurs, gargoyles, Kholog demons, and trolls. I rolled my eyes at Nina, stepped up to the counter, and yelled "Next!" <p> "Ugh," Nina said, hopping up onto her stool. "You are no fun." <p> By 4 P.M. I had authorized the existence of two immortals, rubbed enough slobber off a hobgoblin's file to okay his power addition, and de-magicked a Salite witch who was caught trying to torpedo a Carnival cruise after she got salmonella at the captain's dinner. I glanced at the dwindling line of clients in the waiting room and then out the window, watching the gray of dusk replacing the gray of fall in San Francisco. <p> "Nina," I said, leaning over my station. "You're going to have to grab the rest." I nodded toward the window. "It's time to go up." <p> Nina blew out a sigh. "Kiss Sampson for me." <p> I slid a THIS LANE CLOSED sign across my desk, rummaged through my shoulder bag, and unwrapped a Fruit Roll-Up before heading down the hall toward my boss's office. <p> "Just another day in the life," I muttered under my breath as I skirted the microwave-sized hole in the linoleum where a wizard exploded six weeks ago. Really, could operations be <i>that</i> busy? <p> Like I said, I don't do magic. Hell, I don't even know how to program the DVR. I can't toss lightning bolts (so very witchy) and my flesh-eating abilities are limited to Popeyes Chicken and the occasional veggie burger. I don't have superhuman strength or immortality or X-ray vision or even a body that looks all that good in a leather bustier (a requirement for the vampire chicks). I have a goldfish named Tipsy (well, had—there was a run-in with a Llhor demon, but that's a different story) and an old Honda with a dent in the front. I can type eighty words a minute, make a mean pot of coffee, and chain up a full-grown man in thirty-four seconds flat. <p> That last one is important, since my boss is a werewolf. <p> I know what you're going to say: that werewolves don't exist. Only, they do. Werewolves, vampires, witches, trolls—pretty much everything you ever feared was under your bed? Yeah, they're real. But they're not under your bed. Generally, they're here: at the Underworld Detection Agency. We're kind of like the DMV for the demon world—long lines, lots of windows, forms up the wazoo. It's our job to get all the demons registered, documented, and legal and take care of any Underworld disputes. UDA is pretty forward thinking when it comes to demon life. We've got job counseling for the demon who has decided to leave the Underworld careers of terrorizing children and hiding under beds and move to something more permanent and substantial—like working the register at the Pottery Barn on Chestnut Street. We even offer a cutting-edge demon–human immersion program. It usually culminates with an exorcism on the part of the human, but still, it's a start. <p> What? You thought that demons were an unorganized bunch? Common mistake. Vampires are obsessivecompulsive. Witches are scatterbrained. Trolls are short tempered (and reek of mold); zombies can't be trusted for anything and are always losing their forms. Werewolves are organized—which probably explains why my boss, Pete Sampson, is not only the most respected man in the Underworld, but also one of the most respected men up there (that would be the so-called normal world). It also doesn't hurt that when he's human he's got warm, chocolate-brown eyes that crinkle when he smiles, a head full of lush, sandy blond, run-your-fingers-through hair, and a body that holds his Armani suits exceptionally well. <p> But, I digress. <p> The Underworld Detection Agency is located thirty-seven floors below the San Francisco Police Department—although most of the SFPD has no idea we're here. Though the regular world is pretty widely populated by members of the Underworld community, it's not something either world advertises all that much, lest Hollywood lose its stronghold on the demon-as-horrible-murderous-monster thing. And, there are a whole lot of Underworld inhabitants that solidly frown on dead–undead/human–nonhuman fraternizing. Something about warm blood and mortality weakening the demon gene pool. Those are the demons that spend most of their time in UDA lines, trying to force legislation that limits crossbreed marriage and touting the benefits of total world demon domination. They're <i>really</i> pushy. <p> Demon or not, every morning I pop into the elevator, and when the heavy metal doors open, it's just another day at the office of the undead. <p> Down here, amongst the demons, vampires, zombies, and stuff, I'm the anomaly. I'm five-foot-five while standing on a phone book, and I have a shock of red hair that makes me look a little like Kathy Ireland in her pre-K-Mart days or a lot like Carrot Top's kid sister. My eyes are lime Jell-O green and a little too small—when I was a kid I prayed for the bug-eyed look of a thyroid sufferer with no such luck. The only person in either world with skin paler than mine is my roommate's and that's because she's dead. Well, undead. That's why I'm the anomaly: short, redheaded, small-eyed, and non-demon. Flesh and blood. Alive. Nina calls us "breathers" or "norms," and every once in a while a clutch of vampire kids will break away from their sire and bet each other to touch me, shuddering when their cold, dead fingertips brush against my warm arm. <p> So I know you're wondering: What's a nice, redheaded breather like me doing in a place like this? It's a question I ask myself every day when I'm tucked behind my desk at the UDA, pushing yet another form over to a slobbering hobgoblin who's eaten the first one. <p> Well, for starters, my grandmother was a seer. Of the crazy-scarves, crystal-ball, palm-reading type. Which, by the way, made me immensely popular in grade school—as everyone's favorite kid to pick on. When other kids' parents were talking new school clothes and soccer uniforms, my grandmother was talking auras and past-life regression. And although I tried my best to distance myself from Gram and wear the stretch pants and BUM sweatshirts of my (fashionably misguided) generation, the giant neon hand with the palm facing out in our front window didn't exactly scream "regular girl." So, after growing up in a household where séances were the norm and intuition was gospel, spending forty hours per week with the legion of undead wasn't exactly a far stretch. Besides, UDA was an equal opportunity (live/dead/ undead) employer, and, with vampires making up forty percent of the office staff, dental benefits were amazing. <p> <p> I was halfway out of my desk when I heard the <i>ding</i> of the elevator and Nina growl, "Well, hello, sailor ..." <p> I turned and stopped dead in my tracks as the elevator doors peeled open and <i>he</i> stepped out. I blinked, taking in every inch of him in slow motion. <p> He was stunning in a dark blue suit, his shoulders broad, his tie smart and hanging against a trim stomach. His cobalt eyes were scanning the lines of demons, the centaur children milling about the waiting room, the staffers with curious heads poking through their own little glass cutouts. I sighed—then tried to hide it—watching as his dark hair curled sensuously over a strong forehead and licked at the top of small ears, perfect for nibbling. He sucked in a breath, his pink lips puckering gently, and my heart did a wild little tap dance and then sunk deep into the pit of my stomach. <p> "Hey," Nina said, strolling toward me. "Check out the norm!" Her ruby lips widened into a salacious smile. "He looks good enough to eat!" <p> I threw Nina an alarmed look because she's a vampire and if anyone looks good enough to eat, well, he could be dinner. <p> "I meant for you," she breathed, then patted her taut tummy. "I've already eaten." <p> The guy was tall—at least six feet—and I pegged him as a cop immediately as he assumed the tight stride of an officer on alert. Also, I could see his badge winking on his belt and a gun belt nestled against his waist. (Hey, if my instincts aren't as honed as they should be, at least my powers of observation are.) <p> His head was cocked and a U-shaped curl of glossy black hair fell over his forehead. I balled my hands into tight fists as suddenly all I could think about was running my fingers through that luscious head of wavy hair. <p> The cop's eyes locked on mine, and I sucked in an excited breath, and felt myself smooth my wild hair—and curse myself for another day of slept-late ponytail style. I straightened the hem on my black pencil skirt and dabbed on some lip gloss before I realized that I was primping. <p> "You love him," Nina hissed, her long black hair falling over one angular shoulder. She grinned at me, her eyes coal black and deep set, her mouth open, tongue playing with one razor sharp fang. "You <i>so</i> love him," she sang, twisting a red pen in her pale, slender fingers. <p> I rolled my eyes and fought to keep my grin welcoming and professional as the zombie at the front of the line frowned, checking her pockets for her paperwork. <p> "It was here a moment ago," she groaned. "I know it was. Ooh!" <p> "Pardon me," the cop said, his voice smooth and deep. "May I? I'll just be a minute." His dark eyebrows rose up kindly, and it seemed even the zombie went weak-kneed and stepped aside, offering her place in line. <p> "Yes," she said, nodding. "I can't seem to find my papers anyway. Sometimes I lose my head when it's not screwed on tight," she drooled, her milky white eyes locked on him. <p> "Thank you." The cop nodded to the zombie and then turned to me. "Hello," he said, inclining his head of dark curls toward me. "Do you know where I can find Mr. Sampson?" <p> I had an image of myself climbing up onto my desk, covering the cop's chiseled jaw and high, rose-colored cheeks with kisses, my fingers tangled in his mass of silky dark curls as my body pressed against his, fitting into the curves of his chest, of his trim, taut stomach, our hearts beating passionately as one.... <p> Instead, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I smacked it shut, blinking dumbly into the cop's kind—but confused—face. <p> Nina shoved me, her bloodless hands cold on my arm. "Sophie works for Mr. Sampson," she said. "She can take you right to him. She was just going there right now as a matter of fact. Weren't you, Sophie?" <p> I tried to glare at Nina, but she was already engrossed with a hobgoblin who was slobbering all over her desk. <p> "Yes," I finally forced, "I can take you to see Mr. Sampson." <p> I looked up into the cop's beautiful blue eyes, and although I had no idea what swooning was, I was pretty sure I was doing it. I started to think of the two of us, hands joined, spinning in a meadow somewhere while the theme to <i>Love Story</i> played in the background. <p> "Miss?" The cop blinked at me, and I felt my face flush. <p> I did a mental head slap and decided that I really needed a hobby. And a boyfriend. <p> The cop frowned and leaned closer. "Are you okay?" <p> That's the thing about redheads. That's the thing about having milky-white skin. Every time I blushed or flushed even faintly, I'd go tomato red from my toes to my eyebrows. Think third-degree sunburn. Not exactly the cute, pink-faced tinge of an embarrassed brunette. <p> "I'm fine," I whispered. <p> I took a few deep breaths to steady myself before going to join the cop on the other side of the partition. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>UNDER WRAPS</b> by <b>HANNAH JAYNE</b> Copyright © 2011 by Hannah Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.