Golden eyes. Silver teeth. And blood.
Golden eyes. Silver teeth. So much—
A strong slap to the face interrupts the looping nightmare. “Get up, kid.”
It’s pretty crap in the introduction department, but I can’t help the overwhelming relief that accompanies waking up. Breathing hard, heart pounding in my chest, it takes me a few blinks to bring everything into focus.
His eyes are blue; that’s the first thing I notice. Blue, clear like a cloudless sky, and so bright that it hurts to look at them. Beyond that, the stranger’s got dark hair and a square jaw with enough stubble on it to contradict the gel-shell on top of his head. Everything is classic: lips, jawline, nose. Hell, the guy’s probably packing a fig leaf in the expensive jeans belted neatly around his classically narrow hips.
Belted with a diamond-studded, shield-shaped buckle… that’s got a silver cross on it.
“What the fuck?” I can only mumble. “Where am I?”
Because I don’t know, and when I do a mental backtrack, there’s nothing in my sketchy recollections but hazy snippets and blurred lines.
Yeah, those kind.
“You’re in Vegas,” the stranger says. “You smoked crack and married Noah Carmichael.”
“Bullshit,” I tell him, rubbing at the grit in my eyes. “Noah Carmichael will never get married.”
“But you’d smoke crack, huh?”
I frown as I look this guy up and down, trying to place him in the gaping hole that’s last night. A second later, the sudden rumbling vibration of the air conditioner kicks on, and I swear the temperature drops twenty degrees in two seconds flat. It’s the nipple-scrunching chill that knocks my brain into gear, and then my current situation slams home.
“Oh, my god.” Jackknifing upward, I prop an arm behind me on the bed and wince at the sudden head rush. There’s a haze over my thoughts, a thin veneer of slime coating every sensation currently coursing through my veins. My body aches in a haven’t-worked-those-muscles-in-a-while way that tells me that, for at least a portion of my evening, I wasn’t alone in this bed. I curl my hands in a set of crunchy sheets and clutch them against my chest. “I’m naked.”
“What tipped you off?” the stranger grunts over his shoulder. “Was it the cool breeze shooting up your ass, or the fact that your underwear are hanging from the ceiling fan?”
I glance up, heat rushing to my cheeks when I catch sight of the scrap of pink fabric slowly spinning around and around with each revolution of the fan blades.
At least it looks like I had fun.
As my wake-up call digs underneath the bed, fishes out a shoe, and collects my jeans, I let my eyes wander, desperately trying to recall last night. My gaze flickers outward, upward, all around, taking in the shiny off-white walls, the paint-by-number pictures tacked to them, and the old-as-hell television perched atop a cheap dresser that looks like a relic from 1974. On the periphery are ice-block glass windows and yellow-brown shag carpet with several unsavory stains that I don’t even want to consider.
“Come on, kid,” the stranger says, chucking a pile of clothes at my head. “We need to get the hell outta here.”
The legs of my jeans end up wrapped unceremoniously around my skull, threads of ripped-up denim catching on my nose ring. After I disentangle myself, I’m right back to staring my newest friend right in his impatient ass as he forages for lost articles of clothing. Face-slapping aside, I don’t feel especially threatened by Fig Leaf. Quite the opposite, I almost feel relieved that he’s here. Like I woke up and, boom, there’s my dad, glaring down at me with equal parts disappointment and concern. It’s the same expression I got the day I left home, so similar it’s eerie, which would make it really awkward if me and this stranger—
“Did I… um, did we…?”
Fig Leaf stops moving around the room, his dark brows pulling together and his face scrunching up in confusion. I lift one hand and make a gesture that encompasses the both of us. Me and him.
Him and me.
Abruptly, his features twist into an indecipherable expression. “No, we didn’t.” He fishes my other shoe from behind the television set. “You’re not really my type. I tend to prefer them a little…” He thinks about it for a second before finishing with, “sluttier?”
I can’t help but gape at him. Waking up in some cheap motel with a complete stranger isn’t exactly my usual MO, but according to Fig Leaf, naked on a strange bed, with a strange man, in a very strange situation, somehow equates to not slutty enough.
“Do you remember anything from last night?” he asks, sounding as if he already knows the answer and wholeheartedly disapproves.
“Not so much,” I hear myself saying, “but maybe if I sit here and stare at your stupid butt-chin for a while, it’ll come back to me—”
“Heya, blondie.” His voice is low and pleasing, tinged with the arrogance of someone who thinks they’ve stumbled upon a sure thing. “Come here often?”
“Often enough.” I take a sip of my free post-show beer without shifting my eyes away from the act that’s currently playing O’Reilly’s pitted stage. “Also, worst pickup line in the history of ever, dude.”
“Not the worst,” he says, laughing when I snort a little. “I could have asked if you fell from heaven.”
“I did. It hurt.” I lift the bottle to my lips for another swig before the heavy glass base hits the bar again. “A lot.”
“Aren’t you exhausted?” he asks. “Because you’ve been running through my mind all day.”
“Nope.” I slide my finger around and around the ring of condensation on the bar. “I don’t run. If I ran, I’d knock myself out with my own boobies.”
“I dunno,” he says. “The Baywatch babes managed it, somehow.”
“Thanks for the mid-nineties newsflash, Hasselhoff.” I roll the bottle between my palms. “What do you want?”
“I want to have a good time,” he tells me, and I feel the soft brush of fingers across my shoulder, my neck, hot breath in my ear that raises goosebumps all over me. “I want to strip you naked and take all your nightmares away.” His voice seems distant, like it’s echoing down an empty hallway in my head.
“You’ve got it all wrong, buddy.” When I pull myself out of his grasp, everything tilts a little, sliding sideways, and the next words are slurred. “I’m not that kind of girl.”
When I try to get up, I nearly fall off the stool. The bartender, a face without a name, reaches over the bar and grasps my arm so I don’t fall down. I grip the wood, trying desperately to steady myself, but all I can manage is a white-knuckled cling.
From far away, the stranger says, “Looks like you’ve had a little too much to drink, Lo. We should probably get you home.”
His hands are on me again, holding me up, and all I can see of his face are a pair of silvery eyes. The rest is a blur, and a second later, it all just slips away.
“Earth to Lourdes.”
The hotel comes back in a flash. Fig Leaf is standing at the foot of the bed, hands on his hips.
“Want to get a move-on? I mean, unless you want me to pack you out of here naked.”
One hand to my forehead, I stare at the wad of clothes in my lap, straining to remember the rest. I had a little bit, for a moment, but then it all went blank, and when I try to reach for it—
“Could you wait a minute?” I say, and hold up one finger. “I just need like… two seconds.”
“We don’t have a minute. Or two seconds, for that matter.” He hucks the other shoe into my lap with all the rest. “Up and at ’em.”
“Well, what about them?” I say.
Jabbing one finger upward, I watch those blue eyes tilt toward the ceiling, taking in the pink flag of my panties as they whirl around at top speed. The distraction buys me the precious seconds that I need to slow my heart rate, to take a breath, to swallow, to mentally regurgitate a few of the mantras they used at the institution. I don’t pray, because I’m pretty sure there is no God, but the doctors taught me a thing or two about managing my reality.
After a second of consideration, Fig Leaf looks back at me, his face etched with irritation. “You don’t need them.”
“Am I being kidnapped?”
“If I say yes, will you move faster?”
My gaze flicks toward the hotel door as I assess my odds of escape. “Probably not.”
“Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, Lourdes,” he counters. I raise my brow at that, because it’s like every curse word and none of them all rolled into one. “Get the fuck up and put on your clothes.”
“Cheese ’n’ rice, Fig Leaf, take it easy.” Climbing from the bed, I shake out my jeans. “What’s the damn hurry anyway?”
“You’re late, and I’m your ride. Or do you want to miss your audition at Scion?”
My heart jumps into my throat as my head swivels, eyes seeking out the standard issue digital clock on the hotel nightstand. I am late, or I will be if I don’t get the hell out of here right now. Underwear be damned, I start pulling on clothes as fast as I can, bra inside-out, shirt backwards, but none of it matters because the girly bits are covered.
“Shit, my laptop!” Panic on top of more panic. I had it with me when I went to O’Reilly’s yesterday evening. Needed it for the gig. I try to retrace the steps, following everything backwards to the last place I saw the laptop alive.
At the pub. After my set. Before… before what?
Fuck. Fuck. What the crap happened last night?
“I could have asked if you fell from heaven…”
When I spin around, Fig Leaf is there, the strap of my computer case already slung over his shoulder, and I don’t even have the grace to wonder where he found it. Behind the TV probably, or in the bathtub. It hardly matters, considering I’m not even sure where I am or how I got here or who I was with. Or who the hell he is, slapping me awake and throwing clothes at me like he’s my fucking dad.
It’s happening again.
Fig Leaf stares at me with no little bit of concern. “You okay, kid?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Except, I’m not; I’m one hyperventilation bag away from a complete freak-out, and he seems to realize it a second later. Strong hands come up, smooth palms meeting the bare skin of my jaw. He starts nodding and keeps at it until I follow suit. The words tumble out of him, chased by thoughts that are clear as those damn eyes of his.
“It’s all right, kid.” Take a breath. “I’ve got you now.” I can’t change the past. “It’s going to be fine.” But we’ll see about the future. “Okay?” Together.
“Okay,” I find myself repeating. A shiver runs down my spine, but it seems to take all the angst and trepidation with it. I don’t know what kind of motivational mojo Fig Leaf is packing, but whatever it is, it’s powerful stuff.
“Okay. Great. Awesome. Fabulous. Now, we need to get the fuck outta here.” One of those capable hands curls around my bicep and hauls me toward the door before I’ve even managed to put my shoes on. Apparently I’m out of time, because the next second he slips a smooth gold disk into the palm of my hand with a curt, “Hold onto this for me, will ya, kid?”
I stare down at the coin settled in the dip of my hand. It’s like some sort of magic trick prop, the smooth surface manifesting the image of a bird: a dove maybe, or something similar. No time to study it, because Fig Leaf drags me toward the exit like so much baggage. He pauses only long enough to close his other hand around the knob before he wrenches it open—
And draws up short because another man’s standing there.
“Jackson,” the newcomer murmurs, betraying not a speck of surprise.
Fig Leaf tightens down on everything until I can practically feel his butthole pucker. Bachelor Number Two behind Door Number One has eyes so dark that I can’t even distinguish between the pupils and irises. Black hair falls in gentle waves to his shoulders, so that even the ultra-clean lines of his suit feel the tiniest bit Old World. The leather gloves, though, they’re the same bright red as Dorothy’s ruby slippers and twice as out of place in the Los Angeles heat. The whole effect weirds me out a little, raising the hairs on my arms and sending a tiny chill racing down my spine.
“Dickhead,” my chaperon fires back at him. “Perfect timing, as usual.”
“Still the epitome of class, I see. It’s been a long time, old friend.”
“I’m not your friend. Now, move.”
I glance between the two of them, feeling like the filling in some kind of hangover sandwich. “Of course you know each other. Of course you do. Am I being punked?”
Both men ignore me in favor of glaring holes into one another.
“How long has it been, Jackson?” Red Gloves arches one black brow. “Couple of decades, at least. You must be feeling a bit old these days.”
My blue-eyed companion—the man named Jackson—shoots a glance my way, like he’s checking to see if I’m paying attention. He doesn’t look old to me. There isn’t a stray white hair on his head, not a single wrinkle on his face beyond a few laugh lines at the corners of his mouth. Forty, tops.
He tightens his grasp on my arm, tugging me to his side “You’re too late.”
Those dark eyes are deadly calm when Red Gloves says, “She’s mine.”
“Not anymore.” Jackson’s grasp slides down to my wrist, and he raises my hand to eye level to display my fingers still clamped down on the gold coin.
I don’t know what it means, but my eyes are drawn to the little tic of a muscle in the other man’s jaw. He stares impassively at my fist, but the tension is palpable.
“I could take her alive,” Red Gloves says.
“Yes, but then you’d have to take her,” Jackson shoots back. “And no fight between us has ever ended well for you.”
“Whoa, whoa!” I blurt out. “Nobody’s fighting anyone!”
“Shut up,” Jackson barks.
Panic bubbles up in my chest. I don’t know either of these men. My blue-eyed kidnapper seems to know a few things about me, but whatever squishy feelings I was entertaining back on the bed fly right out the window in the face of the strange, electric intensity crackling between the two of them.
Jackson returns his attention to the other man. “Unless you want to wipe the slate clean?”
He uses my hand to offer the coin to Red Gloves, peeling back my curled fingers to expose the golden disk. I swallow a little thickly, because I get the feeling that I’m witnessing something huge here. Something epic. Something earth-shattering.
Red Glove’s stoic expression betrays nothing in the way of emotion. It’s not until I see him swallow, until I actually witness the slow bobbing motion of his Adam’s apple that I realize something.
“Yeah,” Jackson says with a smug smile as he closes my fingers again. “That’s what I thought.”
He doesn’t speak the word out loud, but I can hear it all the same, a tiny unspoken thing that pings between them.
Challenge not accepted.
Red Gloves draws himself up and fixes Jackson with a stony stare, pride ruffling all his feathers. “Your time is coming, sooner rather than later. And when you’re gone—”
“Whatever, asshole.” Jackson cuts him off, hauling me around the other man as if hell is on his heels. “Better luck next time. Call me when you find your balls.”
Then I have two options: I can either follow him or get dragged like a recalcitrant cat on a leash. It takes a few steps on sharp pebbles to register the fact that I’m still barefoot. Hopping along behind Jackson, I manage to get one ballet flat on, and good thing too, because the entire parking lot is nothing but gravel and broken glass. I shove my other foot into the second shoe, but the exercise was enough to leave me slightly winded when I demand, “Who are you?”
“Consider me your guardian angel, kid.”
“What does that make him?” I jerk a thumb at the man standing in the hotel room doorway.
“The goddamn devil,” Jackson answers bitterly, leading me toward a gunmetal-grey Audi parked next to the glittering swimming pool.
It’s a joke, but a really bad one. Vampires might be mainstream now—amazing what a couple hundred years and scientific proof that they’re simply one rung up the evolutionary ladder can do—but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t looking over their collective, fragile, human shoulders and wondering what’s next?
“Yeah, right,” I scoff as I give him the once-over. “He was way more polite than you, and you swear too much for an angel.”
“You talk too much for a woman.”
“Oh, my bad, are the slutty ones usually quieter?” I can’t help the small, vengeful grin that hits my face.
Jackson doesn’t answer, just opens the door of the Audi and shoves me inside so abruptly that I almost bang my head on the roof. He drops the computer case into my lap, and I hug it to my chest. Slamming the door closed behind me, he marches around to the driver’s side and plops into the seat next to mine. The moment he’s in, he leans back against the dark leather, taking a moment to breathe.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to talk to strangers?” Jackson asks on the exhale as he starts the engine, shifts into reverse, and backs out of the parking space.
“Well, yeah,” I say, tightening my arms around the laptop case, “but they left out the part where a strange man breaks into my hotel room, demands that I put on my clothes, then offers to drive me to my preferred destination. You’re doing this whole kidnapping thing a little ass-backwards, you know, but I guess I’m glad you sorta super-suck at it?”
“He sorta super-sucks at everything,” pipes a cheerful voice from the backseat. A second later, a hand appears in front of my face holding a colorfully packaged sucker. “Blow Pop?”
I reach for the candy, but Jackson slaps it out of my hand before I even have the chance to get the wrapper off.
I shoot him a slightly boggled glare. “Sonovabiscuit, Fig Leaf, and what the hell?”
“Candy from strangers,” is all he says, concentrating on the road.
“Fig Leaf?!” The voice manifests between us as a lot of neon-orange hair and clear, silver eyes. The girl hanging over my seat looks like a twelve-year-old Japanese anime character come to life, from the Union Jack tank dress to her six-inch platform boots. “Well, that’s a new one,” she giggles, leaning in until I catch whiffs of cherry from her sucker. “This boy’s about as far from Adam as it gets. Jax here wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a leaf unless it had a designer label on it. And if there was some post-apocalyptic deep-woods action happening, he’d be the fucktard folding poison sumac over his balls—”
Jackson lifts his hand from the gearshift long enough to put one big palm on her face and shove her rather unceremoniously back into her seat. Classic big brother maneuver, except they don’t look related. He flicks a quick glance at me, then refocuses his eyes on the road.
“Why don’t you take a nap or something?” Then he tacks on, “Give your mouth a rest.”
All I can really say at this point is, “Worst. Guardian Angel. Ever.”
It’s probably a good thing we’re all talking theoretical theology anyway, because if he really was my guardian angel, I would have earned myself a lightning strike from the heavens for that one. Spinning around in my seat, I disregard his annoyed glare, holding a hand out to the girl whose chunky boots are rapping a sharp staccato against my chair. “Hi, I’m Lo—”
But just like with the Blow Pop, Jackson’s hand swats mine away, grabbing me by the wrist and tossing my own limb back at me like my fist is a damn baseball. “Turn around and sit down.”
“Better listen to Figgy, Lo,” says the girl in the backseat. “He’s using his serious voice.”
“Shut your head, Tam,” Jackson tells her. “And no hanky-panky in the Audi. I just had it detailed.”
“My whole head?” she asks.
“The whole Audi?” I add.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” He rakes a hand through his hair, breaking the gel shell in his frustration. “God save me from smart-assed women.”
Tam snorts. “Pffft. Keep dreaming.”
“If only this were a dream,” he mutters under his breath, “then maybe we could all wake up.”
The moment those words fall out of his mouth, I can’t help but feel a little something for Jackson, even if I don’t know him at all. That sympathy, empathy, whatever carries over to Tam, because we both go completely silent at the exact same moment, the smiles wiped from our faces.
“Sorry,” I mutter, turning around in my seat, facing forward and staring out the windshield.
“Don’t mind him,” Tam chirps over my shoulder, her chin digging into the seat back. “He hasn’t gotten laid in a really long time.”
“Tam!” Jackson snaps at her, but she only leans forward a little more, inhaling deeply and breathing out a little expletive.
“Phew, you reek of Benny, Lo.”
I frown at the name, then I get a flash of—Hi, I’m Benicio—but she’s still yapping away.
“Gross, Lo, it smells like he rolled all over you.”
“He did.” The words rumble out of Jackson. “Then he left her there for you know who to find.”
“Voldemort?” Not what I’d planned to say, but it’s like I can’t help myself right now. Like being a smartass is my last defense against all the things that I don’t really want to think about. Against all the weird that’s happening at this very moment.
“The Dark Lord?” Tam sputters out. “Close enough!”
Jackson darts a glance in the rearview, conveying some silent message to his friend that kills the conversation and leaves another trailing silence in its wake. When he shifts his attention to the front window again, the tension slowly eases its way out of his shoulders.
“Thank you,” I say, and he turns those crazy-blue eyes toward me for a second. “I think.” Then I pause, frowning a little. “Unless this really is a kidnapping…”
Jackson heaves a beleaguered sigh and rolls his eyes. “Nobody’s kidnapping you, kid.”
“Well, then. I guess the ‘thank you’ still stands.” I offer up a reconciliatory smile and offer my hand to him in truce. He stares at it grimly for a moment before transferring his scrutiny to my face. “C’mon, Fig Leaf, I can wait you out. I could do this all day.”
He snorts through his nose, but he takes his hand off the wheel long enough to grasp mine. Warm and solid and reassuring, on the scale of handshakes, it’s at least a nine-point-five. When he finally lets go, that hand ends up on his knee instead of the steering wheel.
“All day and then some,” he agrees, casting me a few short sidelong glances. “And you can quit calling me ‘Fig Leaf.’ My name’s Jackson Trace. Call me Jax.” After that, he pokes a thumb in the direction of my backseat BFF. “That’s Tamsyn.”
The look he gives me then is a little sour. “Just ‘Tamsyn.’”
After that, the ride gets quieter, but probably not quiet enough for Jax. Tamsyn chatters jovially from the backseat, asking a million and one questions and generally yapping my ear off all the way back from the Valley. Whatever and whoever happened last night, I managed to end up in a fleabag motel out in Van Nuys, so I guess I’m lucky I didn’t wake up face-down on a porn set.
Or in a gutter.
Within minutes, I know a little too much about my elfin friend, her shiny new shoes, her choice in smokes, her love of pancakes, and the pretty waitress at The Diner on the West End. It’s calming, in a weird way, and that calm sticks with me until Jax pulls over next to the towering blue water feature in front of Scion. The second the car comes to a full stop, my anxiety returns, bubbling up from my stomach and lodging in my chest. Suddenly, I don’t want to leave the car. I’m plagued by a dark sort of dread that has me dragging my feet. I get that feeling again, the one I had back at the motel. That epic, earth-shattery one.
It’s not safe out there. Not anymore.
“Look, kid,” Jax says, interrupting my inner meltdown. “You don’t have to go in. I’ll take you home if you want.” He throws a casual arm over the headrest on my chair, but his tone is dead serious. “Fame’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. There’s something to be said for being… anonymous.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” I peer at the trademark glass structure that forms the front of the building. “I’ve been begging Mireille Reece for an audition for months.” Absolutely no need to tell him that speaking with her is infinitely more important than a chance on the Scion stage. “Up until a few weeks ago, she wouldn’t even give me the time of day.” I shake my head, adamant. “No, I need to do this.”
“Suit yourself,” he says, then adds, “but do me a favor and try not to get in the habit of following strange men to seedy motels, huh?”
I frown, because really, that’s never been a habit of mine. I am not that girl. “I won’t.” Then, I tack on, “’Cause if I got any sluttier, Fig Leaf, we might have a problem.”
At his skeptical grunt, I grin, climb out of the car, and sling my laptop case over my shoulder. Trading the Audi’s air-conditioned interior for fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk afternoon heat is like stepping into an oven. I slam the door shut and head toward the building, but a moment later, there’s the sound of a power window rolling down.
When I spin around, Tamsyn’s orange head is hanging out the opening, her outstretched hand flapping a business card at me.
“Fig Leaf’s digits,” she chirps as I take it. “Just in case. Oh, and steer clear of—”
Without waiting for her to finish, Jax puts the car in gear and pulls away from the curb. I watch until the Audi’s gone, procrastinating mostly, then I turn toward Scion, staring ever-upward at that gargantuan water feature. The club is the Emerald City of hot spots in Los Angeles, the be-all end-all of vampire playrooms. I’ve never been inside. Hell, I would guess that only one percent of the one percent actually makes it past the velvet ropes, but two days ago I got a call from Mireille Reece, representative of one particular rock star, looking for one particular opening act.
You get the call. You take it.
“Here goes nothing.”