Upstairs in her bloodred bedroom, Cormia couldn't shake the conviction that by going outside, she had triggered a chain of events, the culmination of which she couldn't begin to guess at. She only knew that destiny's hands were moving things around behind her stage's velvet curtain, and when the two halves opened again, something new was going to be revealed.
She wasn't sure she trusted fate to have the next act in the play be one she would enjoy. But she was stuck in the audience with nowhere to go.
Except that wasn't entirely true, was it.
Going to her door, she cracked it open and looked down the Oriental runner to the head of the grand staircase.
The hall of statues was off to the right.
Every time she came to the second floor, she caught a glimpse of the elegant figures in their windowed corridor and was fascinated. In their formality and their frozen bodies and their white robes, they reminded her of the Sanctuary.
In their nudity and their maleness, they were utterly foreign.
If she could go outside, she could go down and see the statues up close. She absolutely could.
Whispering down the runner in her bare feet, she passed the Primale's bedroom, then Rhage and Mary's. The king's study, which was at the top of the stairway, was closed off, and the foyer far below was empty.
As she rounded the corner, the statues stretched out for what seemed like forever. Positioned to the left, they were illuminated from above by inset lights and separated one from another by arching windows. On the right, opposite every other window, there were doors that she assumed opened into more bedrooms.
Interesting. If she had designed the house, she would have put the bedrooms on the window side so they would have enjoyed the benefit of garden views. As it was now, if she had triangulated the layout of the mansion correctly, the bedrooms overlooked the opposite wing, the one that bracketed the far side of the front courtyard. Attractive, true, but better to have architectural landscapes in hallways and vistas of gardens and mountains in bedrooms. At least, in her opinion.
Cormia frowned. She'd been having odd thoughts like that lately. Thoughts about things and people and even prayers that weren't always of an approving nature. The random opinions made her uneasy, but she couldn't stop them.
Trying not to dwell on where they came from or what they meant, she made the corner and faced off at the hallway.
The first statue was of a young male¡ªa human male, going by its size¡ªwho was draped in rich folds of robing that ran from his right shoulder to his left hip. His eyes were trained on the middle ground, and his face was composed, neither sad nor happy. His chest was broad, his upper arms strong yet sleek, his belly flat and ribbed.
The next statue was similar, only his limbs were arranged differently. And the next was in yet another position. The fourth as well... except that one was fully nude.
Instinct made her want to rush by. Curiosity demanded that she stop and stare.
He was beautiful in his nakedness.
She looked over her shoulder. No one was around.
Reaching out, she touched the neck of the statue. The marble was warm, which was a shock, but then she realized the spotlight up above was its heat source.
She thought of the Primale.
They had spent one day in the same bed, that first day she was here with him. She had had to ask if she could join him in his room and lie beside him, and as they had stretched out beneath the sheets, awkwardness had been a blanket of thistles over them both.
But then she had fallen asleep... only to wake up to a huge male body pushing into her, a hard, warm length against her hip. She had been too stunned to do anything but acquiesce as, without words, the Primale had stripped her robing from her body and replaced it with his own skin and the weight of his strength.
Indeed, speech was not always necessary.
With a slow caress, she ran her fingertips down the statue 's warm marble chest, pausing at the nipple on its flat base of muscle. Down farther, the ribs and stomach were a lovely pattern of undulations. Smooth, so smooth.
The Primale's skin was just as smooth.
Her heart beat hard as she reached to the statue's hip.
The tingling heat she felt wasn't about the stone in front of her. In her mind, it was the Primale she was touching. It was his body that was beneath her fingers. It was his sex and not the statue's that called her.
Her hand drifted down farther until it hovered right on the top of the male's pubic bone.
The sound of someone bursting into the mansion ricocheted up from the foyer.
Cormia jumped back from the statue so fast she tripped on the hem of her robe.
As heavy footfalls stormed to the stairway and pounded up to the second floor, she took cover in a window's alcove and peeked around the corner.
The Brother Zsadist appeared at the head of the stairs. He was dressed for fighting, with daggers on his chest and a gun on his hip¡ªand by the hard set of his jaw it looked like he was still in combat.
After the male stalked out of sight, she heard knocking on what had to be the doors of the king's study.
Moving silently, Cormia went down the hall, pausing at the corner next to where the Brother was.
There was a barking command, and then the door open and shut.
The king's voice resonated through the wall she leaned against. "Not having fun tonight, Z? You look like someone 's shit on your front lawn."
The Brother Zsadist's words were dark. "Has Phury been home yet?"
"Tonight? Not that I know of."
"Fucking bastard. He said he was going home."
"Your twin says a lot of things. Why don't you four-one-one me on the current drama bomb?"
Flattening herself in hopes of being less visible, she prayed that no one came down the corridor. What had the Primale done?
"I caught him making California rolls out of lessers."
The king cursed. "I thought he told you he was going to stop."
There was a groan, as if the king were rubbing his eyes or maybe his temples. "So what exactly did you walk into?"
There was a long pause.
The king's voice dropped even lower. "Z, my man, talk to me. I gotta know what I'm dealing with if I'm going to do anything about him."
"Fine. I found him with two lessers. His leg was knocked off, and he had a burn mark around his neck like he'd been strangled with a length of chain. He was leaning over a slayer's belly with a dagger in his hand. Goddamn it... he wasn't aware of his surroundings at all. Didn't look up at me until I said something. I could have been another fucking lesser, and if I had been? He'd either be getting tortured right now or he'd be deader than dead."
"What the fuck am I going to do with this guy?"
Z's voice took on a tight tone. "I don't want him kicked out."
"Not your call. And don't look at me like that¡ªI'm still your boss, you hotheaded SOB." There was a pause. "Shit, I'm beginning to think your twin needs to be airmailed to a goddamned shrink. He's a danger to himself and others. Did you say anything to him?"
"We'd just gotten jacked by the CPD¡ª"
"There were cops involved in this, too? Christ¡ª"
"So, no, I didn't gum-flap."
The voices grew muffled until the Brother Zsadist said more loudly, "You consider what that would do to him? The Brotherhood is his life."
"You're the one who brought this to my attention. Use your head. A week off rotation and a little vacay is not going to be enough to fix this."
There was another silence. "Look, I need to go check on Bella. Just talk to Phury before you burn his house down. He'll listen to you. And give him this back."
When something heavy hit what was likely a desk, Cormia ducked into one of the guest rooms. A moment later she heard the Brother Zsadist's heavy footsteps as he went down to his room.
Danger to himself and others.
She couldn't picture the Primale brutalizing their enemy or putting himself in harm's way because he was careless. But why would the Brother Zsadist lie?
Suddenly exhausted, she sat on the corner of the bed and idly looked around. The room was done in the same shade of lavender as her favorite rose.
What a lovely color, she thought, letting herself fall back against the duvet.
Lovely, indeed, though it did nothing to soothe her agitated nerves.
The Caldwell Galleria was two stories of Hollister, H&M, Express, Banana Republic, and Ann Taylor, located in the exurbs of the city. With JCPenney, Lord and Taylor, and Macy's anchoring the ends of the floor plan's three spokes, it was solidly in the middle tier as malls went, and the crowd it drew was three parts teenage and one part restless soccer mom. Food court had McD's, KuikWok, California Smoothie, Auntie Anne's, Cinnabon. Kiosks down the center aisles sold knitted shit, bobble-head dolls, cell phones, and animal calendars.
The place smelled like stale air and plastic strawberries.
Holy shit, he was in the mall.
John Matthew couldn't fricking believe that he was in the mall. Talk about your trippy full circles.
The place had been given a surface upgrade since he'd last seen it, the shades of beige having been replaced with a pink and ocean green Jamaican theme. Everything from the floor tiles to the garbage cans to the fake potted plants and the fountains screamed, We be jammin'.
It was kind of like a Hawaiian shirt on a fifty-year-old man. Cheerfully and unattractively out of whack.
God, how things changed. The last time he'd been here, he'd been a scrawny orphan tagging along behind a bunch of other unwanted kids. Now here he was, with fangs in his mouth and size-fourteen shoes and a big body that people didn't want to get in the path of.
He was still an orphan, though.
And speaking of orphans, man, he could remember so clearly those field trips here to the mall. Every year, St. Francis had taken its charges to the Galleria before Christmas. Which had been kind of cruel, as none of the kids had had money to buy any of the shiny, pretty stuff that was for sale. John had always been afraid that they'd get kicked out or something, because no one carried any shopping bags to validate the group's use of the bathrooms.
But that wasn't going to be a problem tonight, he thought, as he patted his back pocket. In his wallet was four hundred dollars he'd earned working in the training center's office.
What a relief to have green to burn and to belong amid the strolling masses.
"You forget your wallet?" Blay asked.
John shook his head. Got it.
Up ahead by a number of feet, Qhuinn was in the lead and moving quickly. He'd been in a rush since they'd walked in, and as Blaylock paused in front of Brookstone, the guy looked at his watch with bracing impatience.
"Let's hustle it, Blay," he snapped. "We've only got an hour before closing time."
"What is your damage tonight?" Blay frowned. "You're tight as hell, and not in a good way."
They walked faster, passing groups of tweens that hung together like schools of fish, each by species and sex: Girls and boys didn't mix; Goths and preps didn't mingle. The lines were very clear, and John remembered exactly how all that worked. He'd been on the outside of every group, so he'd been able to watch all of them.
Qhuinn stopped in front of Abercrombie and Fitch. "Urban Outfitters' too core for you. We're going to A-and-F your flow."
John shrugged and signed, I still don't think I need a ton of new clothes.
"You have two pairs of Levi's, four Hanes T-shirts, and a set of Nikes. And that fleece." Fleece was pronounced with the same enthusiasm as fresh roadkill.
I also have workout sweats.
"Which will abso put you on the cover of GQ. My b." Qhuinn headed into the store. "Let's do this."
John followed along with Blay. Inside, the music was loud and the clothes were crowded in tight and the pictures of the models on the walls showed lots of perfect people in black and white.
Qhuinn started flipping through rows of hanging shirts with vague disgust, like the shit was something his grand-mother would wear. Which made sense. He was definitely an Urban Outfitters man, with a thick chain swinging from the blue-black jeans and the Affliction T-shirt with the skull and wings on it and the black boots that were big as your head. His dark hair was spiked up, and he had seven gunmetal studs in his left ear running from lobe to upper cartilage.
John wasn't entirely sure where else he was pierced. Some things you just didn't need to know about your buddies.
Blay, who fit in at the store, branched out and went over to the distressed-jeans section, which he seemed to approve of. John hung back, less concerned with the clothes than the fact that people were looking at them. As far as he was aware, humans couldn't sense vampires, but man, the three of them were getting a lot of attention for some reason.
"Can I help you?"
They turned around. The girl who'd asked was tall as Xhex, but the comp between the two females ended right there. Unlike the female of John's fantasies, this one spiked way high on the feminine scale and suffered from hair-related Tourette's, a condition that manifested itself in incessant head jerks and an evidently irresistible urge to fondle her brunette frizz bomb. But she had skills. Somehow, she managed to handle all that hair play without tipping over into a T-shirt display.
Frankly, it was kind of impressive. Although not necessarily in a good way.
Now Xhex would never¡ª
Fuck. Why the hell was Xhex always the standard?
As Qhuinn smiled at the girl, plans of the on-all-fours variety flared in his eyes. "Perfect timing. We totally need help. My buddy here needs a vibe injection. Can you hook him?"
Oh. God. No.
When the girl glanced over at John, her hot stare made him feel like she'd grabbed him between the legs and sized up his cock with a squeeze.
He took cover behind a rack of brand-new, old-looking button-downs.
"I'm the manager," she said, her drawl all about the bump and grind. "So you're in good hands. All of you."
"Niiiice." Qhuinn's mismatched eyes traced down the girl's smooth legs. "Why don't you get to work on him? I'll watch."
Blay stepped up beside John. "Whatever you pick out, I check first, and I'll bring it to him in the dressing room."
John sagged with relief and signed a quick thank-you to Blay for coming to the rescue yet again. The boy's middle name was buffer. For real.
Unfortunately, the manager just smiled even more widely. "Two for one sounds good to me. Check it, I didn't know we were having a sale on man candy tonight."
Okay, this was going to be horrible.
An hour later, though, John was feeling better. Turned out Stephanie, the manager, had a good eye, and once she got into the clothes she chilled out on the come-ons. John got jacked into some sweet ragged jeans, a bunch of those deconstructed button-downs, and a couple of tight muscle shirts, which even he had to admit showed off his guns and his pecs like they were worth seeing. A couple of necklaces were pushed on him, and so was a black hoodie.
When it was done, John went up to the register with the shit draped over his arm. As he put the clothes down, he glanced at a bunch of bracelets in a basket. Within the tangle of leather and shells, there was a flash of lavender, and he weeded through the pile to get to it. Pulling out a woven bracelet with beads the color of Cormia's rose on it, he smiled and surreptitiously put the thing underneath one of the muscle shirts.
Stephanie rang him up.
The total was over six hundred bucks. Six. Hundred. Dollars.
John wigged. He only had about four¡ª
"I've got it," Blay said, handing over a black card and glancing at him. "You can pay me the rest later."
Stephanie's eyes bugged at the sight of the plastic, then narrowed on Blay as if she were changing the price tag on him. "I've never seen a black AmEx before."
"It's no big." Blay started poking through a bunch of necklaces.
John squeezed his friend's arm then knocked on the counter to get Stephanie's attention. He spread his money out, but Blay shook his head and started signing.
Pay me the rest later, okay? I know you're good for it, and let's face it, do you really want to come back here and pick up the shit you can't cover? I don't.
John frowned, finding it hard to argue with that logic. But I'm giving the rest to you, he signed after he handed his four over.
When you have it, Blay returned. Just whenever you have it.
Stephanie whipped the card through the machine, punched in the amount, and waited with her fingertips on the slip. Seconds later there was a chattering sound, and then she ripped the paper off and handed it over to Blay with a blue Bic pen.
"So... we're closing now."
"Are you." Qhuinn leaned a hip against the counter. "And exactly what does that mean?"
"It's just going to be me here. I'm a great boss. I'm letting the others go early."
"But then you'd be all alone."
"I would. It's true. All by myself."
Shit, John thought. If Blay was the buffer, Qhuinn was the king of complication.
The guy smiled. "You know, me and my boys wouldn't feel right about leaving you here on your lonesome."
Oh, yes¡ªyes, they would, John thought. Your boys would feel just great about that.
Tragically, Stephanie's slow smile sealed the deal. They were going nowhere until Qhuinn got into her cash register.
At least he worked fast. Ten minutes later, the store was empty and the chain-link security curtain had been pulled into place in the front. And he was getting pulled by the jeans chain into a lip-lock.
John held on to his two big bags while Blay got busy looking at shirts he'd already looked at.
"Let's go into a dressing room," the manager said against Qhuinn's mouth.
"We don't have to go alone, by the way." The girl looked over her shoulder, her stare landing on John. And staying. "There's plenty of room."
No way, John thought. NFW.
Qhuinn's mismatched eyes sparkled with trouble, and behind the girl's back he signed, Come with us, John. It's time you did this.
Stephanie picked that moment to take Qhuinn's full lower lip between her white teeth and his thigh between her legs. A guy could just imagine the things she was going to do to him. Before he did her.
John shook his head. I'm staying here.
Come on. You can watch me first. I'll show you how it's done.
The fact that Qhuinn was issuing the invite was not a surprise. He regularly had sex in pairs. He'd just never asked John to join in yet.
Come on, John, come back with us.
A dark look came into Qhuinn's eyes. You can't always be on the sidelines, John.
John looked away. It would have been easier to get pissed at the guy if the same thing didn't occur to him on a regular basis.
"Fine," Qhuinn said. "We'll be back in a while."
With a lazy smile, he slid his hands onto the girl's ass and picked her up. As he walked backward, her skirt rode up so she flashed pink panties and white cheeks.
When the pair was in a dressing room, John turned to Blay to sign something about what a man-slut Qhuinn was, only to stop his hands. Blay was staring off in the direction the two of them had gone with an odd expression on his face.
John whistled low to get his attention. You can go back, you know. If you want to be with them. I'm cool here.
Blay shook his head a little too quickly. "Nah. I'm hanging."
Except his eyes went back to that dressing room and held steady as a moan drifted out. Going by the tenor of the sound, it was hard to know who had made it, and Blay's expression got even tighter.
John whistled again. You okay?
"We might as well get comfortable." Blay went behind the locked cash registers and sat on a stool. "We're going to be here for a while."
Right, John thought. Whatever was bumming the guy was off-limits.
John hopped up on the counter and let his legs dangle. As another moan sounded out, he started to think of Xhex and got hard.
Great. Just fab.
He was pulling his shirt out of his waistband to cover up his little problem when Blay asked, "So who's the bracelet for?"
John signed quickly, It's for me.
"Yeah, right. That thing wouldn't fit your wrist." There was a pause. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
Honestly, it's no big deal.
"Okay." After a minute, Blay said, "So, you want to go to ZeroSum after this?"
John kept his head down while he nodded.
Blay laughed softly. "Thought you might. Just like I'll bet if we go tomorrow night, too, you'll be okay with it."
I can't tomorrow night, he signed without thinking.
Shit. Just can't. Have to stay home.
Yet another moan came out from the back, and then a muffled, rhythmic pounding started.
When the sounds stopped, Blay took a deep breath, like he'd been running intervals and had just finished the workout. John didn't blame him. He'd just as soon leave the store, too. With the lights down low and no other people around, all the hanging clothes seemed sinister.
Plus, if they got to ZeroSum ASAP, he had a good couple of hours of Xhex sightings to look forward to, and that was...
Minutes ticked by. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty.
"Shit," Blay muttered. "What the hell are they doing?"
John shrugged. With their friend's predilections, it was anyone's guess.
"Yo, Qhuinn?" Blay called out. When there was no answer, not even a grunt, he slid off the stool. "I'm going to see what's up."
Blay went up to the dressing room and knocked. After a moment, he put his head in through the door. In a rush, his eyes flared and his mouth opened and he blushed from the roots of his red hair all the way to his palms.
Riiiiight. The session was evidently not finished. And whatever was doing was worth seeing, because Blay didn't turn around right away. After a moment his head went back and forth slowly, as if he were answering a question Qhuinn had posed.
As Blay returned to the register, his head was down, his hands deep in his pockets. He stayed quiet as he eased back onto the stool, but his foot started going a mile a minute, tapping up and down.
It was obvious the guy didn't want to hang around anymore, and John could totally get that.
Hell, they could be at ZeroSum.
Where Xhex worked.
As that happy little obsessive thought hit him, John wanted to bang his head into the counter. Man... clearly, the word pathetic had a new spelling.
And it was J-O-H-N M-A-T-T-H-E-W.