Blood will out.
That is what they used to say whenever a noble bastard was discovered. From afar, people would watch the child grow, all the time tittering behind their hands at the idea that the cursed bundle might evidence some tic, some telling something that would reveal its unfortunate heritage. Nobody would ever reach out to these illegitimate children of the aristocracy, of course. In my day, progeny were meant to be seen and not heard and, with few exceptions, bastards were to be kept strictly on the wrong side of the sheets.
Blood will out.
So never in my two centuries of life did I imagine that I would be sitting, watching from afar in the hope that this particular bastard-of-a-bastard-of-a-bastard would show some sign, reveal some tic that I could verily call my own. It’s not difficult to find things, really, because she and Patrick both inherited my father’s eyes, nose, and—if I’m not mistaken—mouth. Somehow, the Declan blond found its way down the line as well, although the color she’s wearing right now isn’t quite the trademark.
And then there is Xaine…
Blood. Will. Out.
I knew, of course. Knew, somehow, that Lourdes and Xaine would find each other, find perfect harmony, find balance in a way that makes my blood boil. It’s karma, really. Kismet in the most appropriate fashion. History repeating itself as I watch my worst enemy seduce the last of my bloodline centerstage at Scion with a thousand screaming fans as witnesses to the desecration.
You always knew it would come to this.
Maybe not here. Maybe not assaulted by thumping basslines and pyrotechnics. Maybe not in the lair of the enemy. All that is owed to the fact that Fate had a little help, a tiny push in the form of Mireille Reece. I know why she did it; it’s really no secret. Hell hath no fury and whatnot, and I can understand the desire for vengeance. I can even admire her moxie, but nobody screws me and walks away without paying the toll. I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out a way to keep Lourdes out of the fray, but watching from afar didn’t work the last time, and it’s definitely not going to work this time. Not when her face is already being splashed across magazine pages, the internet, and entertainment television.
I wonder, in passing, if Mireille has taken a single moment to think it all over. A single moment to regret it.
And if she hasn’t?
I swear to god, she will.
“Good evening, Mr. Declan.”
The sound of a chair being pulled away from the table calls my attention back to the present, and by the slightly surprised—slightly impressed—expression on the face of my visitor, I know that I forgot to mask my anger before turning. She snuck up on me, though, an unusual achievement. In the blink of an eye, the lines of my face return to their usual benign arrangement with the exception of the silent question posed by the high arch of my brow. It doesn’t matter anyway, because now my unwanted guest’s attention is focused downward. The blinking of stage lamps casts a myriad of colors across her skin and glints off the lenses of dark-framed glasses.
“Lourdes lives down the hall from me, you know.” The newcomer’s lips press into a thin line. “I suspect she was the one who gifted our entire apartment complex with flowers and food. Well, they got flowers and food.” Iridescent eyes rimmed with long lashes turn toward me. She’s the picture of dry sardonicism when she adds, “I got dicks. Five dicks, to be exact.”
“That is quite the collection.” I don’t so much as crack a smile, although I am vaguely bemused by the prospect.
“‘Dicks on Doorsteps.’ Your next big business venture. Oh, and pie, because apparently that’s the perfect side dish to an,” she pauses to give it some rumination before she comes back with, “All-American Whopper, nine inch, with bullet… black.”
“Have you forgotten that we’ve only just met?” I ask dryly, letting my gaze settle on her face. Receiving my full attention is generally enough to shrivel the teabags of even the most stalwart men, but this woman seems wholly unperturbed.
“Oh, dear, I suppose that would be an awkward opener, if modern entertainment hadn’t desensitized me to the point of indifference.” She waves a hand, dismissing the topic outright before she changes the subject. “I must admit, Caspian, you’re an easy man to find but a very difficult man to get close to.”
“I don’t do autographs.” I return my focus to the stage.
“Oh, I’m not here for your autograph, I’m here for your soul.” When my head swings around, she’s quick to add, “Not today, because we both know that I can’t take it today. But someday…” She doesn’t bother to finish. Instead, she settles into the chair opposite with a sigh of relief and peers at me through those thick but likely unnecessary black frames. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Bridget Delacourt, and I am your reaper.” She reaches across the table as if she’s going to shake my hand, then amends, “Or rather, I was supposed to be your reaper, but I’m afraid that you’re the one who got away.”
My glance passes over her hand, but I make no move to clasp it. For all her flippant tone, I doubt she’s joking. Because I know about the reapers. I know about a lot of things. Once upon a time, a drunk idiot told me a story that’s stuck with me all these years: that they would come for me. As I drew my final breath, there would be someone there, watching, waiting, taking me from where I was to wherever I was destined to go.
Alas, Roman Scipio had different plans.
“I’m going to have to respectfully decline the handshake.”
“Understandable. Happens all the time.” As if being a veritable pariah is a non-issue, Bridget drops her purse onto the table and reaches inside to withdraw a black book, gilded at the edges and well-worn. Licking one thumb, she skims through it until she finds a specific entry, then she puts the book down and pushes it at me. “You see? Right there.”
I follow the curves of her face down across her neck, her arm, and eventually reach the end of one chewed-to-a-nub fingernail. Bridget taps her index finger against the page, and I’m forced to lean forward to see that which she is endeavoring to bring to my attention.
Caspian Edward Declan, fourth day of June, 1820.
Easing slowly back into my chair, I rest my elbows on the arms and give Bridget the once-over. She’s plump in all the right places: hips, thighs, chest. It’s the sort of body that nearly every man would wallow in, grabbing handfuls of soft skin, fingers digging into the curve of her rear. Her face is a pleasing set of features all put together to affect a marmish look, one that can’t be accomplished by expression alone. She wears a turtleneck and a pencil skirt. Her legs are crossed primly beneath the trendy if not especially stylish black-and-white striped fabric. Sensible heels complete the ensemble, more loafer than pump, and her shapely legs are clad in opaque black stockings that leave just about everything to the imagination.
“Well,” I say carefully, “if someone had told me that Death looks like every man’s sexy secretary fantasy, I might not have fought so hard against it.”
The look she gives me in return is priceless, as is the sigh that follows the eye-roll. “This isn’t funny. You skipped out on your celestial bail.”
“And you’re the bounty hunter sent to track me down?”
“Actually, yes,” she says, nodding. “Don’t suppose you’ll just come quietly?”
“Dearest, Bridget, I almost never ‘come quietly.’”
She winces. “I really didn’t need to know that.”
“Just as I am not entirely sure I needed to know about your collection of cocks, madame.”
An awkward silence settles between us, one that I end by inquiring, “Can I buy you a drink, Miss Delacourt?”
“No,” she tells me. “I don’t drink.”
“Live a little, as you never know when Death might drop by.” I don’t know why I’m teasing her, but I am, because who better, really?
Her expression conveys an air of dismissal and derision all at once. “Fine, buy me whatever you’d like. I’ll hold it for a while, if it’ll make you happy.”
A wave to one of the cocktail waitresses puts a drink in Bridget’s hand posthaste. Servants don’t dawdle in places like this, with people like me; they know better than to keep us waiting. Miss Delacourt accepts a glass and a napkin and, true to her word, she cups the beveled crystal carefully in her hand, settling back in the chair as if this might be a lengthy stay.
Once the waitress leaves, I return my attention to my friendly neighborhood reaper. “In all seriousness, if I’ve already skipped my celestial bail, then why even bother? It’s been one hundred and ninety-eight years to the day, so what’s the point of bringing me in now?”
Bridget purses those lips in a way that’s becoming very familiar, very quickly. “I’d be doing you a disservice if I left you here. Your soul is past its expiration date. It’s rotting inside you. Your body is a cage that Roman Scipio trapped you in. Don’t you understand? Every year that you live, it’s going to get worse. Eventually, you’ll do more bad than good. Eventually, all your nobility and philanthropy and duty will fall away like skin from bones. Worms and decay. Because that’s all you really are inside.”
“Well, that’s comforting.” And because there’s always the other side of the story, I ask, “And you? What does it matter to you, if I am, as you say, expired?”
“Every vampire has a reaper who is permanently earthbound.” She stares back at me, the color of her irises shifting, ever-changing. “Some of us would eventually like to leave, you know.”
“So, you’re still fighting the good fight, are you?” I ask, and judging by the expression on her face, she’s not indifferent to the irony of that statement.
Slowly, so slowly, she reaches out and hooks a finger beneath the too-tall collar of her turtleneck, tugging it downward until she exposes the column of her throat, the curve of her shoulder. Without thought, my attention follows the gesture, skimming across the smooth expanse of olive skin that’s been marked with delicate, looping designs, like henna.
“My heavenly indenture,” she says. “For every soul I’ve reaped, there is a mark. But every day you’re alive, Caspian, I’m alive. Irrevocably tied to you because you defied the laws of heaven.”
“I defied no one,” I tell her.
“Roman, then, but it still equates to the same end result,” Bridget says, releasing the fabric of her shirt. “Time stopped with you. I haven’t aged in two hundred years. I haven’t been given a single new mark. The names, the reaps, they just keep coming, but now I’m working for free.” She pauses, tapping her fingernails against the tabletop in a slow, percussive wave. “Would you work for free, Caspian?”
“That would depend upon the cause.”
“Would you do it forever?” she amends. “Even for a good cause, eternal slavery isn’t something to which any man would aspire. There’s nobody watching, Caspian. No celestial babysitter. The cat is, as they say… away. Personally, I’d like to be well gone from this place before it comes time to pay the piper.”
She has a point, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree to go quietly into the night just to soothe her tortured soul. There are tasks left to be accomplished in my life, so much more to be done, so many questions left unanswered. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Legacy’s underworld; I only know how they came to find Lourdes, and that they took her to send me a message. Whatever happened after that is still a mystery but half-solved.
“I have unfinished business,” I say, seeking out the perfect, platinum head of my only living descendant. “I won’t go until things are settled.”
Bridget snorts gracelessly. “You’ll go the second I figure out how to get your stupid soul out of your idiotically pretty body.”
It’s a serious conversation, but I can’t help the smile that sneaks up before I realize it. Who knew Death would be this entertaining?
“What of the other reapers?” I ask.
Bridget looks impressed I thought to ask such a thing. “Few are coping as well as I am. Most are spiraling, using their invincibility to game the system. I’m sure you’ve met one or two of my comrades.”
“More than one or two,” I murmur. Feeling uncharacteristically curious—which might have something to do with the unusual company, the unusual subject of conversation, and the Scotch—I ask, “Miss Delacourt, how many years have you gone to sleep dreaming about my face? And do be honest. You won’t damage my ego in the least.”
“Now that I believe.” She rolls her eyes again, but I get the truth when she says, “One hundred and ninety-eight years, give or take a few months. It got worse, though, after… well, after Elizabeth.”
Her words wipe the smile from my face. “You reaped my sister.”
Bridget gives a small nod. “Wherever we are, the names come, and I am a creature of habit, Mr. Declan. When I get a name, I make a plan. When the time comes, I take the soul. I have watched the pages of history as they’ve been written. I have seen the battlefields of blood, laid my hands upon the dead and dying, but more than that, I’ve laid to rest many a mother, father, brother, or sister. I very rarely get to see them live, but I always have to watch them die; it’s my penance.” One deep breath later, her voice tightens, and her expression is painted in grim shades. “She haunts me, too. Much the way she haunts you. Haunts Xaine.”
Drawing in a slow breath, I lift my glass to my lips to take another sip only to realize that the tumbler is empty. I shouldn’t be drinking it anyway; human sustenance in any form is hell on the vampiric digestion, and what an old fart I am for indulging like this. With that in mind, I put up two fingers, waving down the waitress for a refill. She returns with due haste, and I sip the warm liquor slowly, considering.
“Go ahead,” she says, as if plucking the thought straight from my mind. “You’ve been waiting as long to ask as I’ve been waiting to tell you.”
When I glance at Bridget, she’s watching me through those black frames of hers. I don’t imagine that any immortal would be so unfortunate as to be nearsighted, but then again, Patrick St. John carried his color blindness into eternity, so anything is possible, I suppose. With Bridget, though, I fancy that it’s part of the disguise. A way of hiding in plain sight. Nobody asks questions. Nobody notices the little oddities. Nobody pulls off that neck-to-knees outfit to find all those too-strange-for-a-librarian reaper marks underneath.
Nobody at all.
“Where did my sister go?”
“That’s not the right question.”
“Was she loved?”
“So very loved.”
I’m not sure how to feel. I suppose I should be happy. I suppose I should feel closure or vindication or something, but at the heart of it all, there’s the same vague spark of jealousy that I felt when I watched Xaine steal Lourdes Chase right out from under my umbrella of protection.
Eventually, I manage a nod. “Good.”
A deep heaviness settles upon my chest, then, a weight that I thought would be lifted but somehow just became worse. Someone else gave my Elizabeth the things that I couldn’t. That I wasn’t ever allowed to give her. It simply wasn’t done, in my day. Affection was considered a weakness, infatuation was all it took to beget a marriage, and relationships were all just one new farce after another. I’m glad to know that Elizabeth’s soul is still out here, swimming around in the aether, but knowing that doesn’t change the way she lived.
Or the way she died.
“I understand, just so you know,” Bridget cuts into my reverie. “You feel for them, for the humans. And because you couldn’t save your sister, you’ll spend the rest of forever trying to atone by shouldering the world’s burdens. It’s a noble cause, if a little stupid.”
“It’s not stupid.” Down below, Xaine and Lourdes launch into another song, screaming lyrics at one another through a sound system that drills it all right into my brain. When I look at Lourdes’s smiling face, there’s a tightening pull in the vicinity of my chest. In life, there were very few things I’d truly wanted, and one of those things I never even knew I had.
“You can’t save her, you know,” Bridget tells me. “Not from him. And it’s not your responsibility.”
“Of course it is.” The words are louder than I intended. “It’s always my responsibility.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Bridget says. “There has to be a way to shake you out of that shell.”
“If I knew it, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“What, exactly, are you living for?”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out; I don’t even want to say the word aloud.
“This isn’t over,” I say instead. “There’s too much left undone.”
The look on her face softens, full of pity, sympathy, empathy, whatever it is that makes her expression go maternal. Bridget opens her mouth, those pretty lips of hers parting on some final, killing, blow, but then—
“’Eyo, bitches! It’s my fuckin’ birthday, motherfuckers!”
Whatever she was about to say shifts to a quirk of the lips. “It seems that Mr. St. John has arrived.”
“Indeed.” Another blast of music from the stage elicits a small wince. “A familial shortcoming that none of us arrive or depart quietly.”
Clearing her throat, Bridget smoothes a hand over the chevron pattern of her skirt as she uncrosses her legs and makes to stand. It’s not until she’s upright, feet firmly planted upon conservative heels that I realize she’s actually rather tall for a woman. Despite the fact that there’s a raucous crowd greeting Patrick by the door, Bridget’s focus doesn’t stray from my face. She’s still wearing that slightly sad, mostly resigned expression that she came in with, except now there’s less levity. Less strength.
“You have a year to put your affairs in order, Caspian.”
“That’s an oddly specific deadline, given that you don’t know how to reap me, Miss Delacourt.”
“You’re right,” she says, “but this isn’t over.”
Something in the way she says that raises the hairs at the back of my neck. “Care to be slightly more specific?”
“I think… there’s going to be a war. I don’t know all of it, but a lot of people are going to die, and things are going to go very badly for everyone.” She shakes her head solemnly. “And I can’t bear to watch. Not again. What’s left of my soul just can’t take it.”
I frown at her. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I don’t know,” she says, pressing her lips together again. “I think maybe you can help. You and your brothers, sisters. Jax Trace. Lourdes, and the like. Hell, even Xaine…”
“Call it a hunch,” she tells me, “but I think maybe you lot are the sorts of souls that heroes are made of.”
Leaning over, Bridget carefully lays down her napkin and sets her untouched drink atop it. Stretching back to her full height, she looks down at me from her higher vantage. She swallows once, lips parting as if she’s going to say something else, but then she just smiles wanly and dips her head in acknowledgement.
“Goodnight, and happy birthday.” Then she gathers up her bag, tossing her Little Black Book into it and moving toward the door. I watch her leave, noting that the crowd around Patrick is growing, gaining in number and noise, and I scan the crowd for the one thing I’m hoping to see.
It doesn’t take me long to find her, because all I have to do is follow Patrick’s gaze. It zeroes in on Teresa Nicolae as quick as anything, although it bounces away just as swiftly. I stare at her cherubic face and corkscrew curls, taking in the soft curve of her cheeks, the small dimple right at the center. Then I return my attention to the stage, to the singers, to the tall girl with the platinum blonde beach waves.
To her partner, my enemy.
Bridget’s words sit heavy, an oppressive weight upon my chest.
Something is coming.
I am no fool; I know exactly what that death ledger was meant to show me, to tell me. Reapers aren’t supposed to share glimpses into the future with those of us who are not privy to its secrets, but the plot becomes infinitely clearer when I consider just who is slated to die a year from today. I’m still mulling it all over when a shadow obscures my vision, blocking out the flashing stage lights for a split-second. Matthias drops into the seat that Bridget so recently vacated, his hand going immediately for the glass of abandoned Scotch.
“Don’t touch it,” I tell him.
He shifts his leather-clad shoulders. “Why the fuck not?”
“Because it doesn’t belong to you.” When he opens his mouth to argue, I cut him off with, “If I give you money, will you go away?”
His glance darts across the room, latching onto a certain someone before he comes back with, “Six grand.”
“Done.” I reach into my pocket and retrieve my phone. Matthias fidgets, his knee bobbing, and he keeps wiping his palms on his pants as if they’re sweating. Eyes that are a clear and canny shade of green skim over my hands, watching my fingers as I pull up the transfer application. “What are you up to?”
“Me?” Again, his attention flickers off to the side long enough to land again on one particular redhead, but he affects a casual tone. “Nothing. Just got a craving for a little top-shelf Bourbon Daisy.”
As soon as I have the payment information punched in, Matthias reaches out, ready to bump his phone against mine. I pull back before the transfer can complete.
“Stay away from Miss Nicolae. She’s got no interest in you.”
“Yeah? And Trick’s got no interest in her. Your little social experiment is a failure.” Matthias follows that with a snort. “And besides, ‘the grass is always greener,’ at least that’s what you assholes are always tellin’ me. Well, my grass has got to be greener.” He leans forward to tap his phone to mine, waving it around before he adds, “Especially now that I got six grand in my pocket.”
I’ve spent little time in Teresa’s company, but it was more than long enough for what I’d needed. “She’s smarter than that. Smarter than you.”
“But perfect for that dickbag and don’t hold my breath?” Matthias finishes before bounding out of the chair with a little salute. “Thanks a lot, asshole.”
“My pleasure,” I tell him. “Would you be so kind as to send Patrick in my general direction?”
“Why should I?” he asks, tapping at his phone screen with one finger.
“Because I don’t pay my butler half as much as I just paid you,” I say, “and he gets the job done in a fraction of the time with none of the flagrant disrespect.”
“Whatever.” Matthias huffs and turns his back, but he heads in the direction of the crowd. Despite the fact that he’s a fifty-year-old man with the personality of an inconsiderate teenager, I can almost sympathize with his plight. And considering the fact that we’re all slated to die soon anyway, I won’t live long enough to miss that six thousand dollars.
And with Armageddon apparently on the horizon, I find myself wondering if Mireille is here tonight. I sincerely hope so; I have a lot of affairs to put in order and she…
Well, she’s first on the list.