(warning: contains graphic language and sex)
The cool night air hit Lily MacInnis’ face like a smack, a much-needed refresher after the stale smoke and crowded atmosphere of the bar. Thanks to the rounds of drinks her friends bought, her head swam. She’d pay with a nasty hangover tomorrow. The price of turning twenty-one, though she wouldn’t make drinking a habit.
Bryn stumbled, her pink-tinged spiky blonde hair bobbing as her grasp on Keb’s waist slid lower. When he caught her, she lifted her head to meet his kiss. “Let’s hit another club.”
Keb slung a lazy arm around Lily’s shoulder, overdeveloped biceps thick around her neck. “Birthday girl’s choice.” Pitched higher than most men’s, his voice contrasted his dark brown skin tone, leading others to think him less of a threat. Lily knew better.
“Dancing again?” Lily danced every day, the main reason men flocked to the Polaris.
Beyond the sidewalk, figures moved within the shadows, shades of black on black. Lily barely lent the activity a glance.
Until one silhouette pulled away from the wall and stood in their path, thick as the darkness inside a cave and shaped in the silhouette of a man taller than Keb, less bulky, but well built.
Whoa, that’s new. Probably an aftereffect of mojitos. Lily shook it off, and made a mental note to steer clear of the potent drink.
Bryn came to a wobbly halt and peered up. “Who the hell are you?” Her grip tightened, forcing Lily to an abrupt stop.
She sees him? Prickles ran across Lily’s nape. She gave the figure her full attention.
As if approaching from the depths of the cave, the man’s features grew visible. Soulful dark eyes appeared below quirked brows. Dark brown hair fell above the collar of his black knit shirt, which his broad shoulders and chest filled out, long legs in jeans cinched by a belt at his narrow waist.
“We dumped all our cash at the bar.” Keb eased in front of them. “Be on your way.”
Keb sees him, too! “He’s not a mugger.” Lily pressed her lips together. It slipped out.
If they spoke to him, they saw him. Apparently they’d missed his grand little entrance from the dark side. No one of his kind would cross over for a simple mugging.
“No,” the guy said, his low voice like a wind across the desert. “I’m not.”
Keb stepped back, his outstretched arms forcing Lily and Bryn further away.
“Then what do you want?” Bryn’s hiccup stole any threat she attempted to make.
The guy fixed a bemused stare at Lily. “I want to wish you a happy birthday, dearest Lily.” He held out a single lily. Pure white lent it a glow in the dimness.
Her breath returned, ragged. Then she did what she always did in bad situations, and made her face a mask of apathy. All the better to keep the ball of control in her court. In this case, the bad situation spurred confusion tinged with spine-tingly wariness.
“Thanks. But no thanks.” Whew. Her voice hadn’t wavered one bit.
Accepting even tiny trinkets gave guys like him too much encouragement. Handsome as he was, she had no room in her life for psychos from anywhere along the reality spectrum.
The slightest twitch of his eyes indicated displeasure, maybe surprise, and he suddenly gave off a dangerous vibe.
Oh shit. Instinct braced her muscles, poised for fight or flight, she wasn’t sure which. No, she wouldn’t abandon Bryn and Keb.
Instead, he tilted his head and clucked his tongue. “Lily.”
One word. Her name.
Worse than any physical attack. He’d lowered her defenses with a single utterance that wound through her head, breaking down her defenses. When he spoke it, it was as if he’d reached inside her, touched something deep, his voice striking sharp as lightning. He’d placed the word in her mind; she couldn’t explain it. She’d heard it clear enough, and at the same time, heard it in her head. That was the sensation she got.
Irritation bubbled up. How dare he use her first name like an old friend? Who the hell was he anyway? She had no idea, and was fine with leaving it that way.
“We have to go.” She grabbed Bryn’s arm, to rouse her from her stupor as much as move her forward.
“I understand.” The guy ducked his head and stepped aside soundlessly.
Too easy. A glance at Keb told her he had the same suspicion. Keb gestured Bryn ahead and strode forward, wide hand at the small of Lily’s back, a barrier between her and the stranger.
All her senses switched to high alert. Tough as he was, Keb might not be equipped to deal with this guy.
In passing, she fought the compulsion to look. She lost.
Head bowed, amusement lit his eyes as he held her stare like they were playing a kid’s game of chicken. Irritation slowed her pace. She wanted to slap that quirked brow, knock the mocking look from him.
They cleared him without incident, easing her worry. She glanced back. Tension stiffened her again when she saw him still watching.
“Lily?” he called in a casual tone, as if he’d done it a million times before.
Something about his voice, his head raised in defiance, ground her to a halt.
“You’re not my type. Get lost, will you?” True, he had a strangeness about him, a mystique that appealed to her deepest senses, too close to the bad boy types she had such trouble breaking away from. The kind that spelled trouble and regret.
The kind that infested her world.
“To every soul is given the key to the gates of heaven,” the guy said, twirling the lily like a kaleidoscope. “The same key opens the gates of hell.”
The saying she remembered from her childhood. Who used to say it? Not her adopted mother, Jean; she was certain. “Where did you hear that?”
And why did his words hang in the air like an accusation? They wormed inside her head, reawakening long closed-off doors of her mind.
After slipping the lily behind his ear, he strolled away. “If you need help, call and I’ll come.”
“You didn’t give me your number.” Confusion diluted her sarcasm.
He stopped only long enough to say, “Just call Bodie. I’ll be there.”
Bodie? Her brain raced to find some trace of recollection. “He is from the club, right?” She never paid attention to the faces in the audience, not wanting to see their leers. Even as she said it, she knew his face had never been among those men.
“Doesn’t look like any guy I remember,” Bryn slurred. “And I’d have remembered him. He’s hot.”
“Too many assholes a day to remember just one.” Keb’s arm went around her waist, and drew Bryn close to his other side. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah.” Bryn leaned into Keb.
“Okay.” Lily let him lead them in the opposite direction down the street, and looked over her shoulder.
From the same place he’d emerged, the stranger melted into the shadows. Bright as if illuminated by a spotlight, the lily hung suspended in the air, then winked into darkness.
Lily’s shudder dug into her bones. “You’re right, Bryn. We need to hit a dance club.” And stay there all night, so her imagination didn’t freak her out every time a car’s headlight moved shadows across the walls of her loft. The one place the shadow people didn’t follow.
Maybe it was time for a new occupation. A nice, nine-to-five job with benefits and people who pretended respectable fronts, even if they snuck away from sleeping spouses to visit Polaris. The mere thought made her cringe with boredom. Too bad the ambition to be “normal” didn’t dog her the same way as bad luck.
I’m used to fighting the odds. She had plans. They’d win out over bad luck or any other barrier thrown in her path.
Bodies swayed beneath the flashing lights, silhouettes anonymous in the darkness. People crammed everywhere, each table and barstool. Standing room only tonight.
Keb leaned between them. “I’ll get the first round.”
Bryn beamed up at him. “You know what I like.”
“Oh yeah, baby.” He gave her rear a playful slap, then turned to Lily. “One for you, too?”
“I guess another won’t hurt.” Only one. She needed nothing more than the music. Already, it twined through her veins, pushing away the tension. Yeah, Bryn suggested coming here because she knew Lily’s sole weakness: nothing got her off like letting the music wind through her, her body responding in the deepest, most primal way. When the rhythm got inside her, she felt complete freedom. The world, like her inhibitions, fell away.
The otherworld, too. Usually. Tonight, the shadows extended onto the dance floor, mingling with people, slipping between couples.
She narrowed her eyes and peered at the strange scene. That never happened before either. She half-expected to see Bodie emerge through the tangle of bodies pulsing to the rhythm.
And half-heard his voice, warning her. Oh, that voice got inside her too, deeper even than music. Remembering its timbre sent a shot of heat through her veins faster than tequila. And more dangerous. The heat ignited to a wildfire. Made her wish he were here. Yeah, she’d love to show him her moves, and love to watch his reaction.
Sheer craziness. What had gotten into her?
“You okay?” Bryn’s scratchy voice shocked her back to the present.
“Fine. Let’s dance.” She grabbed Bryn’s wrist and tugged her to a space on the floor. Not a very big space, but others would make way.
A man once told Lily watching her dance was like watching an Olympic athlete perform. Her moves so precise and graceful, she stirred appreciation as well as passion.
She only knew how dancing made her feel: at one with herself, and with the world. Both sides of it.
The moment her boot touched the floor, it hit her. Bangle bracelets jangled down her arm as she raised them above her head, hips swirling in a slow, mesmerizing circle. A head taller than Bryn, Lily instantly captured the attention of everyone nearby. Closing her eyes, she blocked them from her consciousness like she did at work, where her sensual acrobatics at the pole teased and taunted men to wave bills in the air, inviting her to allow their touch, only long enough to slide the bills inside her g-string.
When strong hands grasped her hips, Lily snapped open her eyes, ready to roar like a lioness at whoever disturbed her.
The stranger who stared back silenced her with his dark, smoldering gaze, teasing and daring her with his sexy half-smile. Black silky linen jacket cut across his wide shoulders and tapered to his slim waist as if custom tailored, accentuating his black layered hair falling across his forehead. Strikingly handsome as Bodie. Weird, it was almost like looking at a negative image, darkness edging him. As if he drew it toward him.
His eyes gripped her. Black as ebony, and rimmed with thick lashes. Maybe the flashing overhead lights made them appear deeper. Lily had to steady herself from falling into their depths. As if sensing her sudden vertigo, his grip tightened.
No, you don’t. She never let anyone touch her. She lowered her arms, ready to break free.
He released her, raising his arms, and twisting lower in front of her. He moved like one who’d trained to dance. Only long, grueling practices could allow him the muscle control to move with such incredible finesse. He exuded sensuality and power. His legs scissored around hers, never touching, leaving a trail of disappointment in his wake as he undulated. Now she understood how the guys in the audience felt, watching her.
The heavy beat of the club music thrummed through her, and her body responded to the rhythm as it pulsed like a heartbeat, blotting out everything except her release through dance. She whirled away and fitted her back near the guy’s chest, her ass grazing his crotch, and ran her fingers through her hair. With every sway of her hips, she sank into an unfamiliar place, dark and filled with unseen tendrils reaching out. Each step robbed more of her self-control.
A whispered warning rushed up from the recesses of her mind. What the hell was she doing? She never dirty danced with a stranger, never tried to seduce a guy in public, let alone one she’d not even spoken to. Nor had a guy ever tried to seduce her this way, letting his body make the invitation. And in such a tempting way, she found it hard to resist.
A harsher whisper urged, Stop. The sobering image of herself with this man, sexy though he was, opened her eyes. Stop playing at things you don’t know.
Don’t know? Dancing was all she knew. What she knew best.
Black figures flitted between people, nearer and nearer.
While a girl, she used to give in to fascination and blatantly stare at those shadowy forms, and imagine it a parallel universe populated by silhouettes. Like a barely remembered dream, she’d hear murmurs, nothing else. Never audible words. Occasionally one or two might stop and seem to turn in her direction, causing her to still like a rabbit spotted by a hawk. Then they’d go back to their business. Sometimes she wished she could step through the veil to see their true forms, to understand exactly what their business was. Over time, the notion faded. The shadow people never did.
Tonight, finding them so close – so much more real than normally – threw her off guard. Get away. Go find Keb. She turned to excuse herself from the man’s company, and met only the stares of strangers. Not the one she expected.
“Where’d he go?” Asking out loud made her feel foolish. Still, she scanned the faces all around.
Gone. Disappointment warred with relief. The second time tonight a guy had made a hasty exit.
Lily found Bryn dancing alone, so immersed in the music, it was the only world she knew. The place Lily had wanted to go.
She touched Bryn’s shoulder and called over the heavy beat, “Hey Bryn, I think I’ve had enough.”
Too much, if her strange encounters were any clue. If that’s what alcohol did to her, she’d never touch it again.
Zeveriah scanned the swath of dwellings and businesses that stretched as far as he could see beneath his balcony. His sharp nails dug into the marble railing.
Worthless, all of it. A century ago, he’d have given his right horn to stand where he stood now, and know that because of his hard work, it encompassed his realm. Hades Section Six. As archduke, every resident fell under his command. Subjected themselves to his will. Followed his every order to the letter. Hades hinted strongly Zev was in line to become his CFO, the dream of a thousand lifetimes.
Yet it meant nothing.
Not after meeting her, albeit anonymously. Not after seeing her flawless beauty at close range. And especially not after touching her.
In his silken boxers, his cock burned for relief, engorged to the hilt at the first brush of her hips. And the way she moved, so beautifully, yet so primal and raw... Hell, he could howl. He almost had at the club. Thank Hades he had enough sense to get out while he could. It might have ended in a bad scene.
Definitely not the way he wanted to introduce himself to her.
He paced, the hot breeze rifling through his layered hair, cut so perfectly no matter which way it fell, he caught the attention of every being with a libido.
First objective achieved. He could pass for a present-day rock star, with the attributes he’d acquired.
Italian soles thudding against gleaming marble, he strode the length of the balcony – what in human terms amounted to half a football field – yet it only increased his anxiety. He spun on his heel and walked again.
He should have researched further. Her pet likes, pet peeves. What chocolate did she like, or did she not like any? What wine? What fashion?
He threw his arms out, fists whirling as he released his frustration in an anguished cry. Godforsaken fool. He’d known this night was coming. For decades. Yes, he’d looked forward to it, in an abstract way. It ranked among his spoils, the earnings rightfully due an archduke who earned The Prince more than nine hundred percent above projections. Ruthlessness had its rewards.
Yet it had no bearing on anything since inhaling her tantalizing scent, a spicy orange that made him want to peel away her layers to taste it. Since seeing her long dark hair fall like a silken curtain, making even a hard-ass shrew like himself yearn to comb his fingers through it. And oh Hades, since he’d seen the sway of her slim hips, how her muscles rippled when she danced, yet her flesh looked so soft, perfect for yielding to his hardness.
For the past decades, he’d vaguely imagined The Destined One’s first visit here. And he’d been stupid enough to delight in imagining her reaction. Many of her predecessors rejected the notion of having relatives in Hades. Shocked, it always took awhile to fully absorb the truth, oh the awful truth of realizing she was related to The Prince of Darkness. That she must adapt to a new set of rules, so complex they appeared to the ignorant as chaos. That she must marry into The Realm.
And this time, The Destined One would marry him. Archduke Zeveriah. The Prince had promised. Eons of grueling work, dedication and increasing the bottom line of profitability had earned him the right.
Any female should be honored.
Zeveriah gnawed at his pinkie claw. Something told him this girl would not see it that way. Would not succumb to him so easily.
And for once, the idea of rejection stung too bitterly to accept. His hand fisted tight and his nails dug into his palm. I must make sure she wants me.
He forced his fingers to spread wide. Relax. Play it cool. He’d built his reputation around it. His laid-back demeanor belied the intensity beneath, the furious drive to succeed propelling him through millennia.
I’ll woo her. Yes, ridiculous as it sounded, he would stoop that low. Charm the girl into loving him, as The Prince had with Persephone.
The Prince had no angelic counterparts to thwart his plan, however. Bodiel had been a thorn in Zev’s side for too long. The Ruling Angel of the Sixth Heaven better stay the hell out of this, or he’d meet his counterpart face to face. Sword to sword.
A knock sounded at the chamber door.
“Enter.” Though he’d rather be alone with his thoughts of her, it wouldn’t do to meet her in his present condition. The image of her dancing like the goddess she didn’t know she was – oh sweet licks of flame, it burned into his mind.
He had to purge it, bit by bit, slave girl by slave girl, until he could sate his desire with Lily.
“Sir.” Elistair bowed.
Behind his manservant, a wide-eyed woman slipped in on soundless steps. The scent of an unfamiliar tension filled his nostrils. His groin tightened, his erection already at full tilt straining against his silken boxers.
“Thank you, Elistair. Lock the door on your way out.” He loved tossing that in to ratchet up the terror.
The woman’s gaze flicked from him to his manservant, and back. Rather than fear, she exuded something more palpable. Confidence? No, wait. The brittle tang in the air signified something much closer to passion. Anger?
Oh yes, she would do nicely tonight.
Elistair gave the slave a shove in his direction and hissed a warning at her before pulling the heavy metal double doors together in his backward retreat. Zeveriah had to restrain a grin. If he was a rock star, Elistair was his roadie, attuned to his wants and needs, always ready with the right tweak. In this case, using fear and wonder to make the slave wet with anticipation so Zev could bang the hell out of her, leave her shaky and begging for more.
He made a mental note to give Elistair a bonus. He sprawled on the immense sectional sofa and emitted a low, menacing grunt. “Let me see you.”
The woman glanced up, long enough for him to see the wicked gleam in her eye. The look that revealed desire and need, the yearning for seduction. The musky scent permeating the air signaled the woman was primed.
He’d make her suffer for it. As much as he suffered every moment awaiting The Destined One.
When she padded to the far edge of the sofa, he commanded, “Stop.”
Uncertainty crossed her face, though she kept her head lowered.
Biting his nail, he scrutinized her. Average build. Dark hair to the middle of her back, pulled into a single ponytail high on her head. Pretty enough face. He didn’t linger on her facial features. Other features interested him more.
“Turn,” he ordered. “Slowly, so I can look at you.”
Beneath the spandex band circling her breasts, nipples pressed against the surface. Her feet shuffled as she executed a crude whirl. Not the most graceful wench. Eh, how much grace did she need on all fours?
The image heightened his impatience. “Dance for me.” Her hesitancy made him bark, “Dance.”
Her knees buckled.
Zev braced to catch her, should she faint. When she curtsied, clumsily, he eased down again.
She heaved a breath, staring at the black marble floor. For what, inspiration? Did the wench need a boot in the ass?
She closed her eyes and rocked her hips.
Yawn. He settled back and tucked his elbows behind the top of the sofa. Maybe he should just fuck her and be done with it, before she left him completely flaccid.
Her arms lifted, and her hips swished. Yeah, that’s more like it. If she had a hoop, she’d keep the thing circling on those hips, undulating in hypnotic rhythm. His cock perked to attention again. Swirling her hands over her head, she swayed, her breasts keeping time.
His sneer became a half smile.
With one long tug, she drew her tube top over her head, sending her ponytail cascading. Against instruction, she met his gaze, eyes half closed, the glow of heat unmistakable.
So, Elistair had found him a little vixen this time. He stifled his smile. She wouldn’t rob him of control.
Her movements grew sharper. Evoked power. Her ponytail whirled as she spun, always returning to him as a focal point. Each spin brought her nearer.
At his feet, she halted and ran her hands down her breasts to her hips. Swiftly, she dropped to her knees, settling her hands beside his thighs and dragging herself up, nipples grazing his legs.
Her breath heated his cock through his boxers. It answered by stretching to full length, engorged and aching.
He grabbed her ponytail and held her head in place. No bitch would tease him like that.
One glance told him she understood. And wanted to please him.
With careful strokes, she freed his cock. Thumbs at the base, she worked her hold upward, kneading till she reached the head.
Ah, heaven. Right here in Hades. The irony of such bliss in hell satisfied him almost as much as her mouth, taking him in by excruciating small measures.
Oh, fuck this. One push filled her mouth with him. And her throat.
His breath hitched. So good. With each gag, a delicious squeeze. He kept her head in place until her eyes rolled, then nudged her away. No fun in fucking an unconscious wench.
She landed against the marble, legs awry, panting.
“Get up.” He flicked off his sandals, stood to remove and fold his boxers, then sprawled back and gestured to his stiff cock. “Have a seat.”
Her eyes lit up. She scrambled to her feet, fumbled off her short skirt and panties and reached a knee toward the sofa.
“No. Face that way.” He had no wish to see her bite her lip, heavy-lidded eyes glazed, a dim witted attempt to seduce his affection. Nor did he wish her to witness his pleasure. He’d take his fill and then some, a purely physical need to relieve himself.
Her expressions might anger him. Remind him he wasn’t fucking the one he truly desired.
Stance wide, she shuffled backward until her hands found his cock and guided him inside.
A tiny yelp, and she rocked her hips to take him in. Oh, that had to hurt. She kept bucking, his very own cowgirl riding him like he was a wild mustang. Never one to disappoint a peon needing a challenge, he stabbed deeper. One moment of braced muscles, and she resumed impaling herself with renewed gusto.
When the flood of release finally came, shudders careened him upward, close enough that her hair brushed his cheek. Coarse hair, not fine and silky. Not Lily.
He collapsed against the back of the sofa, arm braced against her spine so she wouldn’t relax against him.
She massaged his balls, milking the last from him. “Oh yes, that’s good.”
Very good. She might prove herself an asset.
The Prince swirled into the sitting room, lavishly appointed yet tastefully understated. “Is all in readiness?”
Persephone glided to his side and smoothed his shirt across his chest. “For hours now. You doubt my hostess skills?”
His arm clenched her waist. “Never.”
A thrill shot through her. After all this time, his touch still excited her. “Then what?” She drew back to study him. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous.” She’d have thought it impossible, yet the slightest gleam of sweat traced his brow.
“I trust you implicitly. You know that.” Others might interpret his clenched jaw as irritation with her. Persephone knew better.
“Of course.” She cupped her hand to his cheek. “It will be fine. It always is.” She wouldn’t admit that uncertainty fluttered through her. Why now, after so many before her? She’d be the first to admit the transition was not easy, but all resolved to it in the end. Many even came to love it, as she did.
His cheek pulsed beneath her hand. “Not this time, my love. I sense her forthcoming resistance. It could signal the end.”
The end of the line? Was such a thing possible? “Please don’t worry, darling. Remember, she is of our lineage. Our blood.” She kissed his cheek. “Our love.”
He heaved a breath and slid his gaze to hers. “You always know how to soothe me. This time, however, I fear even your diplomacy may not convince the hardheaded girl.”
“Give her time. The patience you showed me paid off, didn’t it?”
The hint of a smile curled his lips. “More than I’d dared to hope.”
“We will plan for the worst. Then we’ll have more cause for celebration when she steps into her role with the required dignity and humility.”
A low grunt accompanied his long exhale. “What time will she be here?”
“Soon, love. And every detail’s finished. So we have time to relax.”
“What if I don’t want to relax?”
She tipped her head toward his. “There’s time for that, too.” Her husband’s amorous attention always took top priority.
Lily scanned the second floor of the building – her loft – as she trudged to the outside door.
With Bryn nestled into his side, Keb called from the sidewalk, “Want me to check inside, to be sure?”
Might be prudent, on such a strange night, even though all appeared normal. “Nah. It’s fine.”
The shadow world bustled with activity, maybe a little more than usual, but then, it was getting close to Halloween. The other-world inhabitants seemed to celebrate the holiday more than humans.
“Right.” Bryn nudged him. “She’s a black belt, remember?”
Keb mock-frowned at Bryn. “Then why isn’t she the bouncer?”
Lily wanted to kiss them both for lightening her mood. “Because I’m too fabulous a dancer.” She couldn’t claim the best, not in front of Bryn anyway. She’d never hurt her friend’s feelings like that.
“No one would argue with that.” Keb’s teeth flashed in a smile. “Be safe.”
“And call if you need anything,” Bryn added. “Happy birthday, baby.”
Keb joined in with Bryn, and they sing-songed the last, making Lily laugh out loud. “Go home, before my neighbors hate me.” She waved and went inside, flipping the light on as she shut the door.
A gold envelope gleamed on the floor.
She bent to retrieve it, fingering the raised gold seal on the back. A symbol, maybe a rune, flourished within the circle. Not a design logo. Definitely not any language she knew. Who would have slipped it under her door?
A chill passed over her. Someone had entered her loft building. A mistake?
She flipped the envelope over. Her name appeared in script, as illustrious as the seal.
So, not a mistake. Unless they meant another Lily? Don’t open it. Right. It couldn’t be for her.
The longer she held it, the more reluctant she grew to let go of it. Tossing it in the trash became unthinkable.
The faintest whisper issued, and she could swear it came from the envelope. Lily.
“Oh, this is ridiculous.” She delved her nail behind the gold seal and it popped open, a four-fold self-sealing letter. Flakes of gold fell. Gold leaf? Seriously? Who used such expensive invitations these days?
Her limbs grew leaden as she read:
Happy birthday, darling Lily.
We would be delighted if you would join us at midnight for a champagne toast.
Look for a black limousine outside.
Her thoughts raced. Champagne toast? No one she knew would plan such an event. Who on earth would invite her to an exclusive party?
No one – on earth.
“Now you’re really being ridiculous.”
A flash of red caught her eye. The answering machine flashed, signaling a message. Glad for the distraction, Lily pressed the button.
“It’s your mother, Lily.”
The familiar voice shocked her to her senses. “Adoptive mother,” she snapped at the machine. Jean had never let Lily forget it.
Jean continued, “I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. Sorry I can’t be there.”
I’ll bet you are. I’m not. Lily reached to delete the message. The next words stunned her to a halt.
“You’re going to receive an invitation, Lily. It’s very important that you go.”
Important to whom? Lily turned the envelope over in her hand and fingered the strange seal. Who were these people?
“Have a good time, and be polite. The limo will take you there and back.”
Right, the limo. How had Jean known? Curiosity drew her to the window, the letter clutched in her hand.
On the street below, the roof of a long black limousine reflected the street light.
A limo. Against all reason, it made her giddy with joy. She’d always wanted to ride in one. To sink into the plush seat, tell the driver, Home, James.
Jean continued, “Whatever you do, don’t keep them waiting. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Of course she would. To check up on Lily, make sure she followed instructions. One good reason for not going through with it.
The invitation grew heavy in her hand. Such a beautiful design, and it looked familiar. There was only way to find out why.
A glance at the wall clock sent a rush of dread through her. Eleven forty. If she was going to attend, she had to change, fast. Into what?
Snide little bitch. Someday she’d silence her inner critic, or whoever the hell she was. Now she was determined to prove the snide voice wrong. In fact, starting tonight, she might get her chance. This high-class event could open doors, the escape from her life she needed.
She hurried to the closet and rifled through her clothes. Work outfits, no way. They hardly qualified as clothes. Go casual? No, not for a champagne toast. That left two dresses. A shimmering red slinky thing she reserved for New Year’s Eve, and a little black number she’d worn to her friend’s wedding, in protest of the marriage. She’d been right; the couple split up faster than the latest celebrity disaster wedding.
Black sheath it was. Topped with a jacket, it would lose its sexiness. Mostly.
In a quick change rivaling her top speed of outfit switches at work, she almost looked elegant. Except for her bare feet. A shuffle through shoes found only black stilettos. They’d have to do.
Her large hoop earrings stayed. A personal statement.
Was it her imagination, or did the shadow people seem to be checking her out?
Careful, don’t let your ego grow bigger than the door.
Nervousness fluttered through her as she reached for the door knob. This couldn’t be right. Things like this didn’t happen to her.
“I have no way to respond, so I’ll simply have to go and find out.” Did you say ‘simply’? What a pompous ass.
Right. Be yourself. If it was a mistake, they’d send her home again.
The door closed behind her with a click so loud, it halted her. She turned to stare at it. Don’t go.
Miss a champagne toast? In her honor? “Oh, I’m going all right.”
She sauntered down to the limo and stood beside the rear door. The driver got out, a tall man in a black uniform, and reached to open the door. He moved with sharp precision, like a soldier. She peered up at him, straining to see any features. Nothing. Must be the way the light fell behind him, and his cap obstructed his face.
“Thank you.” No answer, not even a grunt of acknowledgement. Must be trained not to speak. She slid onto the leather seat and sighed with relief. For a horrific moment, she feared someone, or something, waited for her inside. Don’t be a dweeb.
The driver got behind the wheel and the limo surged ahead. He didn’t even check for oncoming traffic. She glanced out the rear window. The glass was tinted so darkly, no light shone through.
Really weird. An odd sensation crawled across her, like fire ants dancing on ice.
“Where are we going?” she called. In answer, the engine roared, and the car veered sharply left.
Hadn’t he heard? “How soon will we arrive?”
The driver reached forward and pressed a button.
A panel opened in front of her, and a minibar presented itself. “How lovely.” Freaking awesome. “Thank you.” A gasp of delight escaped. Champagne. The good stuff. She filled half a flute and settled back to savor it.
One sip made her close her eyes in bliss. Oh yes, definitely the good stuff. The kind she’d likely never have again, even at her own wedding. Her inner bitch snorted. Like you’ll ever get married.
Before she knew it, the flute was drained. Better keep your head. No more. She eyed the bottle longingly. Why the hell not? Might as well avail herself of the goodies, before they realized their mistake and snatched them all away.
She refilled the flute. To the top. With deft movements, she slipped two of the tiny bottles into her purse. If she had brought a larger bag, she’d have taken them all.
After two more glasses, the limo might have been sailing. It glided to a stop, and Lily cursed herself. What a stupid ass, arriving half drunk. The flute clattered to the shelf on the minibar, and she reached to steady it.
The door opened, and a warm glow flooded the interior. She peered out, mouth agape. “Seriously?” The driver gestured toward the huge brownstone, understated yet elegant. Such places cost a bundle, Lily knew that much.
“Are we in New York City?” Impossible. It would have taken hours, and they hadn’t been on the road more than fifteen minutes. Had they?
She gathered her purse and stepped onto wobbly stilettos. Whoa, Lily. Get hold of yourself. Mustering all the control she could dredge up, Lily forced herself to take slow steps up each stone stair to the landing.
A doorman, also dressed in black, stood to one side as he held the door for her.
She nodded her thanks. No sense embarrassing herself with slurred words. Damn, I wish I’d had more sense. Self-control was her forte. Normally.
In the lobby, her heel slipped, and she scrutinized the floor. Marble? How gorgeous. In black, which made its decadence more obvious. A crystal chandelier hung above the spacious area. Against the wall sat a long gilded table topped by two impossibly large crystal vases holding pungent black flowers, and a gold leaf mirror hanging in between.
In a quick once-over, she inspected herself for major flaws. Finding none, she headed for the elevator. Odd there were no other doors.
The flourish spanning the elevator doors was a larger version of the seal on the invitation. She’d come to the right place, apparently.
She pressed the elevator button. A car immediately appeared. Stepping inside, her nerves tightened. Only one selection on the panel – the penthouse. Easy peasy. And again, so strange. What about the other floors? There had to be twenty in this building.
The car glided upward. She clutched her bag against her. Who had sent for her? This all seemed like a freaking fairy tale. The only such things that ever happened to her were more like the fairy tales of old, the stories where the innocent falls victim to the villain, and the ending came as a gruesome scene, horrific and serving as a warning for all not to follow in the innocent’s footsteps. Do anything stupid like… get in a limo if you had no idea who sent it?
The elevator dinged.
Terror froze her as the doors slid slowly open and every head in the immense room turned her way.