Authors: Ashley Meira
I overslept today and had to practically rush out the door to arrive at the party on time. Rather, fashionably late, which to vampires was only five minutes off from rudely late; it was a tightrope I didn’t enjoy walking in neck-breakingly high-heels, especially when below me were bloodsucking monsters. I’d walked from my place to the hotel, hoping the cold air would wake me up enough to get through a night of politicking that would put even the Energizer Bunny to sleep. It worked…until I actually stepped into the ballroom.
A loud clanging rang out from a nearby alley and I froze, whipping my head toward the direction of the noise. Big, green eyes peered up at me as a tabby crossed my path, her mismatched tail swishing along with each step. Great, now I was on edge and I missed Rowan. The Council – governing body of the Hunter Order – had made her the interim head of the Maxwell family in lieu of appointing an official figure. Instead of being bitter over not being offered the post and having my partner taken away, I decided to be mature and see it as a sign that the Council wanted to wait until I was older and wiser, and that keeping Rowan away from me was their way of helping me grow as a person.
I really missed her. Rowan and I were always together. On the rare occasion we had to split up, we were never apart for more than a few days. Now, I hadn’t seen her in over a month. Without her, it felt like I’d lost my center, like there was a hole I couldn’t fill. I was still able to do my job, but it wasn’t the same. Being able to keep on working without impairment was great from a career perspective, sure, but it did nothing for my cat withdrawal.
My thoughts strayed from Rowan to Alex, carving an even bigger hole into my chest. It was as if my days of being an independent woman had been nothing more than a fanciful dream. I knew missing the man I loved – a word I was still getting used to saying without cringing – wasn’t a sign of weakness, but I was still coming to terms with having finally entered a committed relationship – with a hunter no less. Two things I swore I’d never do. What the hell happened to me? I was happy, though, current loneliness aside. I figure that was good enough for now. It was better to focus on how I felt rather than the fact that I’d broken all the rules I’d set for myself.
But now we were doing this long-distance thing, apparently. Didn’t that stuff end horribly, like, ninety-nine percent of the time? I had no idea. Having romance and all that stuff in my life…It just felt weird.
Somewhere out there is a therapist I could be making rich.
I decided to think it all over tomorrow. Even better, I’d purposefully avoid thinking about it for as long as possible, and go pick up some hooch at the 7-11 near my place now. Yeah, that’s a much better idea. Plus, it was more along the lines of what the old me would’ve done. It’d be good to go back to at least some of my old habits.
Sterile white lights flashed in welcome as I approached the convenience store. The warmth upon entering was both comforting and revolting; it was a stark contrast to the winter chill but brought with it the stench of hot dogs and weed. The cashier didn’t even look up as I walked by like an expensive popsicle, my pale – now probably blue – legs shivering with each step. The heat only really kicked in when I reached the back, but was immediately chased away when I opened the cooler doors. It wasn’t until I looked over the rows of bottles and let the icy air wash over me that I realized getting something chilled was pointless since I could use my magic to frost it up later. Also, I wouldn’t have to carry cold bottles to the register, which was great considering I’d just gotten the feeling back in my fingers.
A gangly boy with oily black hair that fell in waves over his face was drumming his fingers absentmindedly against the drab, grey counter as I came up with as many bottles as I could hold. Which, considering I was barely five foot two (sans heels) wasn’t very much. He didn’t even raise a brow as he scanned the horde of bottles, announcing the price in a dead voice before handing me three full plastic bags. It was only a problem if you got hungover, and my regeneration abilities didn’t allow me to do that. It did, however, allow me to get pleasantly sloshed and pass out into a dead sleep.
My place was just around the corner, and I kept up as brisk a pace as possible in six-inch heels, wanting nothing more than to put on some comfy clothes and sit in front of my electric heater. That was another thing I missed about Haven: having a fireplace.
Alas, my trip didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped. It was less than a minute after I stepped out of the 7-11 that the familiar feeling of being watched slithered over me as I kept my pace – letting my voyeur know I sensed something was off would either spur them to attack, or cause them to run. And fighting in a cocktail dress in the cold, pitch-black streets was not on my bucket list. Nor was chasing down some dude while wearing these deathtraps the fashion industry labeled "couture."
I only sensed one pair of eyes on me as I slid a hand over to my clutch before pulling it back with a mental curse. My gun wasn’t in my bag, which was strange – who didn’t bring firepower to a black tie event? However, considering the darkness, my crap aim, and the speed of supernatural creatures, I was better off relying on my magic than anything else. Having the gun around still made me feel better. Magic was comfortable – it was as much a part of me as the blood flowing through my veins – but it was intangible. A gun was a solid, heavy, physical object I could hold. Or use to bash in someone’s skull.
I turned into an alley around the corner and walked straight ahead, stopping in front of a pair of double doors. Home sweet home. My home in Manhattan was a small loft, nestled in a dark pocket of obscurity, but I loved the solitude it provided. It wasn’t until I pulled the key out of my bag that my tagalong decided to reveal himself.
“I would be most appreciative if you didn’t turn around just yet, Miss Maxwell.” The stranger’s voice was smooth and deep, like rich caramel. There were also traces of an accent – Indian, maybe Arabic – hidden underneath his husky words, an inflection he seemed to want to hide.
“And I would be most appreciative if you explained yourself.” I really needed to set aside some time to work on my witty repartee.
“Fair enough,” he said casually, as if speaking to someone’s back in a dark alley was part of his every day routine. “I’ve come on behalf of my employer. He finds himself in a rather precarious situation and would very much appreciate your assistance.”
“And I’m speaking to a door because…?”
“Truth be told, the wind has messed up my hair something awful, and I consider it an absolute sin to be seen in less than perfect condition by a beautiful woman.”
I couldn’t fight the small smile his honeyed words conjured up. “It’s late and I’m cold. Get to the point.”
“My employer wishes to speak with you, but due to his circumstances, he is very much concerned with anyone discovering his location. Would the lovely lady be so kind as to wear a hood while I escorted her to our destination?”
Over my dead body. Which will be soon, because I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get out of these heels.
“What’s your boss’ name?”
The sound of shoes shuffling against asphalt sounded behind me as my mystery guest held his tongue. After a moment of deliberating, he finally replied.
Alex, and almost anyone who spent more than a few minutes with me, said I had a bad habit of always wanting to know everything – curiosity, cats, and all that. It was that same habit that had me telling the mysterious stranger to wait while I kicked these heels off before I would come with him, hood and all. Wearing a cocktail dress with Ugg boots probably wouldn’t nab me any “Best Dressed” awards, but my feet no longer felt like two lumps of fiery hot pain, so I could live with that. Y’know, assuming I don’t end up murdered and thrown into the nearest ditch.
The car ride took less than a half-hour, but I was so glad to be off my feet, that I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have. If I really needed to, I could drop my bracelet or something at our destination and track my way back with magic later. Regardless, Marcus was going to get a stern talking to when we arrived. We’ve known each other too long for him to be pulling this hinky shit with me. I guess it was hard to know whom he could trust under the current circumstances, but I wasn’t one to let common sense stop me from being salty.
The man who came to get me wasn’t part of Marcus’ regular crew. Freelance, most likely. Loyal only to money. Marcus had plenty of that, at least. He came unnecessarily close to place the hood over my head. When he did, I noted he wasn’t breathing. Vampire, then. He smelled of expensive cologne, with a smoky undercurrent of incense. I almost took him for an angel – God’s little helpers always carried with them a heavy scent of incense – before he’d thrown out the former king’s name. The smell reminded me of his accent: a part of his true self he tried to hide under a layer of superficiality.
Or maybe I was just imagining things. After all, I knew nothing concrete about this guy. Sometimes though, it was the little things that gave a person away, a minutiae of smaller parts that made up the whole of someone, no matter how much they tried to repress it.
I felt the car stop, and the stranger’s voice echoed throughout the space. “My hand is right in front of you, my lady.”
His hand was calloused, as if he’d spent most of his life doing labor, a fact that contradicted the persona he projected. The way our footsteps echoed told me we were in an underground parking lot, and the elevator he led me into told me this was probably an apartment building. Marcus had a mansion in the suburbs, but preferred to keep a penthouse or two on-hand since he spent most of his time in the city. I don’t know why I expected to be led to some decrepit factory where Marcus was hiding in squalor; his idea of roughing it was having to go somewhere without a driver. This was why he should be worried: his hiding places were too predictable. Then again, maybe this hood will come off and reveal some obscure fortress. And maybe I’d grow wings and fly around throwing rose petals down on the residents of the city.
Soft piano music was playing when the elevator doors dinged opened. I was led forward a few feet before the man let go of my hand, his fingers caressing my wrist before pulling away completely.
“You can take that off,” Marcus’ voice called as I heard the door behind me close.
The room was decorated with antiques and screamed “money.” The walls were dark green with mahogany accents and the carpet under my feet was a deep crimson. An inviting fire crackled in front of a three-piece seating arrangement, and I found myself gravitating towards it, my hands reaching forward to absorb as much warmth as I could.
Marcus was lounging on the settee, looking every bit the bored aristocrat. But there was a heaviness in his eyes and a slump in his normally straight shoulders that betrayed his laissez-faire posturing. None of that detracted from his handsomeness, something that was only further enhanced by his nearly symmetrical features. I’d call it inhuman, but I was already way past my threshold of severe understatements for the year.
From what he once told me, Marcus had been turned when he was twenty-four, and his youthful appearance reflected that. His hair, styled in an overpriced cut, was midnight black and gleamed in the firelight, every follicle practically shouting “Wall Street.” An Ermenegildo Zegna Bespoke suit adorned his body, the light grey material stretching perfectly over his fit form, and polished Testoni dress shoes covered his feet. A Rolex was wrapped around his wrist, which rested over one crossed knee before he raised it to gesture at the couch in front of me, his piercing eyes looking at me expectantly. He looked every bit the billionaire entrepreneur, and I tried to ignore the fact that what he had on could pay someone’s college tuition in full as I took the offered seat.
“Morgan, darling.” Marcus gave me a polite, if not entirely sincere, smile. “You look lovely, though apparently there’s a new footwear trend I’m unaware of.”
“That’s because I just started it. Give it a day or two, then you’ll see everyone wearing fur boots with their party dresses. I had heels on,” I added, immediately kicking myself.
There was something about Marcus that made me want to impress him. I’d seen other people act this way around him, too, so I chalked it up to his supernatural charm. If only because it made me sleep better at night knowing I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time not channeling their inner schoolgirl in his presence.
His full lips tugged up into a more natural smile. “Of course, dear. I’ve seen how well you can clean up, and I’d expect nothing less than a perfect appearance for the inauguration of King Flavius,” he said, a bite in his tone at the new king’s name. “Would you like anything to drink? Coffee? Tea?”
Whiskey. Vodka. Both in a fruity cocktail with a fancy straw.
“How are you Marcus? I haven’t had a chance to see you since I got back.”
“Well, you’ve only been back a week or so. And we’re here now, aren’t we? As for me, I’ve been a bit busy.” He waved his hand toward the windows, which composed the entirety of the wall opposite us. I assumed there was a million dollar – literally – view past the curtains, but the thick velvet obstructed any chance I had of seeing it. “But I’m sure you knew that already. You’re looking well. It seems a few months off your feet was exactly what the doctor ordered.”