Music thrummed through the walls, and Kiki bobbed in time to it. Sprawled on the bed of her cell, she flipped through a fashion magazine. Jeannie’s latest care package included a variety of cosmetics, magazines and a dozen DVDs of movies Kiki never heard of before.
“Whatcha doing?” Minion bounced into the room and flung herself onto Kiki’s back. The little imp’s tail tickled her spine as the imp clambered up to peer at the magazine over her shoulder. “Ooo! Pretty!”
“I know, right?” She reached up to rub the red-skinned imp’s ear affectionately. “I like this one.” Kiki tapped the black lace dress. It hugged the torso, flaring at the hips, and featured strategically placed circles baring the shoulders and elbows.
“This one.” Minion thumped the opposite page’s sheer red and black evening dress where flames hugged the breasts and covered the hips and juncture of the thighs.
“Yeah, not thinking Heidi would go for that.” She laughed, imagining their Rubenesque stage manager in such an outfit.
“Ha!” The imp rolled on her back laughing. “For me!” Her tail started to flick in time with the music. “Who is this?”
“Maroon Five.” Kiki flipped the page. The way the dresses emphasized bare skin like an erotic flirt continued to fascinate her. “Jeannie sent them.”
“Jeannie!” Minion squealed and then flopped over onto her back in dramatic pause. “I miss Pandora.”
“Me too.” A curious disappointment tugged at her insides. Pandora’s relationship with the vampire Malcolm provided her with an escape. An escape Kiki admired and envied in the same breath. She understood the admiration—but not the envy.
“Britta is having a party.” Minion’s abrupt subject changes took some getting used to, but like all the other dancers in the Midnight Mystery Lounge, Kiki indulged Heidi’s demon companion.
“I hear that. Did you want to go to the party?” She flipped to the next page. The cars seemed different than what she—she didn’t really remember cars, so why they seemed different she couldn’t explain. However, the model, not the car, captured her attention. The man leaned against the driver’s side door, arms folded in front of his chest, head turned away from the camera. The rakish black hair feathered over his forehead and down over his ear. He looked stunning in a tuxedo.
“I want to go!” Minion bounced on the bed. The action jarred Kiki, and she let the magazine fall. Snagging the imp, she pounced on her and started tickling. The little beast squealed with laughter and they tussled onto the floor. Wiggling, the imp fled out the door. With the theatre closed for the night, the dancers indulged themselves with mani-pedis, pizza, music and a private party—just for them.
Of course, the theatre only closed because Rose?tre, their headliner, and Anthony, her scrumptious man candy, were off to Eastern Europe and Turkey to meet with their respective families.
Peppermint bumped hips as she padded past, a slice of pizza in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. “Come party, girl. Hiding in your room is just not you.”
She pasted on a smile and laughed. “No, but I thought I would try on something different—you know, sedate, scholarly—thoughtful…”
Peppermint stared at her, hazel eyes widening. They both burst out laughing at the same time, and Kiki danced forward to give her a hug. Outside her cell, the music pulsed around them. Britta grabbed her hand and pulled her into the dancing throng. Dayna held out a glass of wine. Kiki took it and tossed it back. She thrived on these moments, the wild party atmosphere—the dancing, the playing, the squeals of laughter.
She was on her third glass when Heidi beckoned her with a simple gesture. Heidi was the stage manager, the mistress of the Midnight Mystery Lounge, matron and enforcer… The woman served many capacities. More than a little tipsy, Kiki held her arms up and weaved a path through her friends and hugged her. “Heidi!”
The stage manager gave her a small squeeze, guided her down the hallway and around the corner. The music continued to pulse, but the noise level decreased. “You need a drink.” Kiki glanced at her own glass. “Speaking of which, so do I.”
Heidi stopped Kiki’s pivot with a hand to her arm and shook her head. “No, we just need a moment to chat. We’re going to launch a new show this week—a little extemporaneous thing—like the drunken debauchery debutante ball you have going on here.”
Kiki leaned against the wall and laughed. “Drunken debauchery debutante ball?” Her lungs squeezed from the laughter and she wheezed. At Heidi’s hard stare, she sobered with a sigh. “Fine. Why do we have to do some extemporaneous thing?”
“Because Rose?tre and Anthony won’t be back until the end of the week, and we can’t stay dark that long. So what I want you to do—”
“Argh. Heidi. You’re killing me here…or at the very least you’re killing my buzz.” The dancer dropped her chin to her chest and faked a moan. “Night. Off.”
“Why yes, I am aware, but since you can’t actually die, suck it up.” The stage manager’s dry response sent another titter of amusement through Kiki. “Tomorrow night. It will be extemporaneous for everyone—”
Kiki’s teeth ached—which was stupid because the last thing any of the dancers ever worried about were medical issues, much less dental. The spells that tied them to the theatre locked them in at the age they arrived, their lives dedicated to every performance—not that they didn’t have time for fun occasionally like tonight. But it didn’t matter where a dancer came from. Once her soul was bound, she remained bound for the duration of her contract.
Her mouth probably hurt because she’d ordered fake fangs and forgot to take them out before the spell swept over her during daylight. Who knew where the damn things were now.
The hum of Heidi’s words coupled with the throb in her gums dried up her buzz. “Oh my God.” She snarled. “I got it—why are you bugging me with this now?” She clapped a hand over her mouth, as if trying to shove the words back in, but they’d already escaped.
The stage manager’s expression chilled, and her gaze became positively glacial.
“Ooo—someone’s gonna get it.” Minion danced a jig around their legs and then scampered up to Heidi’s shoulder.
“Go away.” Heidi told the imp without looking away from Kiki.
“Now.” One word. A single tone. The imp literally vanished with a
“I am telling you because you will be acting as lead for the next six nights. The girls will follow you. They will improvise their performance from yours.” The arctic breeze slicing through the words cut Kiki to the bone.
Her mouth opened, but words failed her.
“Don’t be late—or hung over.” The manager left, but the frozen tundra of her presence left Kiki rooted to the spot.
She blew out a breath, awareness creeping up the back of her neck. Turning, she spotted Cerveau standing in the doorway to her own cell.
“What?” At least that word came out exasperated rather than furious. The agitation surging up in her blood surprised her. Her skin itched. The music throbbed in her ears. Her mouth hurt. She was the party girl, not the killjoy. She left that job to everyone else.
“Nothing. You seem distressed.” Like Rose?tre, Cerveau was an Amazon. But the similarities between the women ended at the statement. They were tall, strong, well defined and athletic, but where Rose?tre’s presence commanded attention, Cerveau virtually faded into the background. It was like her two-dimensional reflection stood next to them—an old photographic negative.
Kiki shook her head. The throb in her teeth made her head ache too. “Just need to go track down the party spirit and shove it back in the bottle. I’m heading up for a bit.” Her black mini dress and combat boots were hardly high fashion, but she wasn’t going out to be noticed.
“Wait…” More scholar than warrior, Cerveau caught her arm in a surprisingly hard grip, and Kiki’s eyes burned. She whirled, a grimace pulling her lips back. To the academic Amazon’s credit, she didn’t retract her hand. “We’re not supposed to go out alone.”
“And I never do.” She struggled to smile—a real struggle because the heat in her belly bled into the rest of her system, and the fingers on her free hand curled into a fist. The urge to strike rode through her, a wild storm blasting through common sense and courtesy. “See you later, darling!”
She pulled herself free and trotted down the hall toward the theatre steps. The closed lounge opened onto the main lobby, and from there she could access the rest of the casino. The dressing area lights were off, a relief for her eyes. Her headache receded with every step away from the music. Where she would normally clomp noisily up the stairs, she virtually prowled.
Hunger gnawed at her belly.
The hunger and an indefinable need twined through her, urging her onward. She was halfway across the stage and descending the steps to the lounge when the drive became a pull. Movement to her left sent her crouching into the shadows. She touched three fingers to the floor and stilled. Nostrils flaring, she caught the scent of nothingness. Not just empty theatre where the scents of human, shifter and vampire lingered amidst the ghosts of alcohol, food and perfume.
Stan appeared at the top of the stage, his normally bland expression grim and serious. His gaze swept over the empty lounge as he studied it. Kiki didn’t dare breathe, but her muscles were tensed, coiled and ready to spring. The sentinel was the guardian to all the women serving as showgirls in the Midnight Mystery Lounge. He escorted them when they stepped out of the safe haven of their cells and he protected them—but he was also a jailor.
Tonight, Kiki refused to be caged.
The lure calling to her increased, but she ignored it. Better to wait the guardian out than allow impulse to get her caught.
She’d made that mistake before.
A ripple of awareness shivered through her. The elusive thought trickled through her mind and vanished before she could capture it. Seconds became minutes, and Stan turned—finally—and vanished toward the back of the stage. Kiki remained frozen until the whisper of the door closing and the definitive echo of the sentinel’s shoes on the steps reached her ears.
The pull tugged her again, but still she waited. When a full five minutes passed and the sentinel didn’t return, she rose and drifted through the shadows until she reached the main doors. A quietly as they allowed, she slipped out into the blast of light and a cacophony of noise. Her eyes narrowed, and she squinted against the fluorescent overheads and beaming crystals reflecting onto the marble parquet lobby floor. Clusters moved through—coming and going—in groups of two, three and twenty.
Cheerful alarms rang up winnings. Cards shuffled. Men swore. Women laughed. Alcohol flowed. A woman sauntered past wearing the musk of sex and a satisfied smile. A man followed behind her, adjusting his tie. A couple in the corner all but rode each other through their clothes, while a grandmother smacked her husband in the back of the head and shooed him out the main doors.
It took her minutes to filter through the overwhelming barrage drowning out that nascent push-pull sensation driving her from the safety of the theatre. Striding across the lobby, she turned away from the all-seeing sphinx and the waterfall-fed wishing pond. She circled away from the elevators and down the steps into the casino proper.
The pull beckoned.
Irritated with the constant jerking tugs, she slowed her pace and drifted through the gamblers. She paused to enjoy one woman’s victory over the slots and again near a blackjack table—where defeat hung like a shroud over the players, but they tapped their fingers expectantly as if their luck would be found with the next turn of the cards.
The stronger scents of perspiration mixed with desperation on the casino floor. Her gums throbbed again. The twisting, squeezing of her belly rumbled. A waitress passed, and Kiki snitched a glass of wine so smoothly the succubus never noticed. The fruity grapes carried the tang of copper, and she drank it down swiftly. The alcohol eased the cramps in her stomach, and a flutter of euphoria stretched out inside her like a lazy cat batting at the air.
She traded her empty glass for another, this one a darker red with a far heavier metallic taste. The one-two shot of wine settled her jitters, and she resumed her prowl toward the mysterious lure all the way across the five-thousand-square-foot maze of gaming tables and slot machines to a dark and smoky lounge she had never entered before.
Unsurprising considering how many lounges the Arcana Royale featured—from sex clubs to bloodletting to dancing djinn and more. The Royale catered to every creature and their deepest desires.
She recognized the masculine pull three steps into the darkly lit bar. Her eyes adjusted slowly, but she didn’t have to search. He walked straight toward her, a smile curving his sweet lips.
He was why she was here. He was waiting for her.
His nearly jet black eyes were like velvety pools of darkness after someone stole all the stars away. He wore a beautiful suit, black-on-black silk. If someone carved out the night and gave it human form, it would have been this man. Wrapped in the scents of patchouli and sandalwood, she barely processed his arms closing around her—the whisper of his lips feathering along her jaw to her ear.
Head tilting back, she saw the light above kaleidoscope. His teeth grazed her throat.
“Darling, I didn’t know where you were.” The words, so drenched in need and affection jolted her from the lethargy stealing over her body. He pulled back, and she met his gaze. He closed the distance, head tilting and mouth open.
She slammed her forehead into his. He swore, but she snapped her arms out, breaking his hold and caught him by the shirtfront. “Who the fuck are you?” Fury blossomed in her like a match dropped into a can of kerosene.
“Kristina.” His voice shuddered with command, the hum of it draped over her like misty netting, and she rebelled.
With a fling of her arm, she knocked him three feet back into a table. The occupants squealed and fled. Her teeth hurt so badly she wanted to scream, but the man was on his feet and coming for her. She braced herself.
If he wanted a fight, she would give him one.
But deep below the anger, a savage thrill sent a grin to her lips.
She really hoped he wanted a fight.
Richard rebounded to his feet. The sluggish beat of his heart surged double time. Adrenaline flooded his body, and his blood caught fire.
On borrowed time, he’d called to her the moment he set foot inside the casino. Her blood sang to him—his blood running through her veins—his lover, his wife.
He slid a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her to him. Defiance shone in her expression, but he easily caught her hand before the next blow landed. Shackling her wrist, he brought her fist to his lips and kissed the knuckles. Her lips parted, and she exhaled a startled little sigh.
“Hello, my darling Kristina.”
“No one calls me that.” Her chin came up, curiosity warring with the rebellion in her gaze. His Kristina was a creature of impulse, a delightful assault on all proper etiquette and expected behavior. She loved to laugh, dance, drink and surrounded herself with others as carefree as herself. Her wicked sense of humor and unabashed wonder at the world filled his dark and lonely nights with welcome distraction.
Sad how easily he slipped back into old habits without her.
“I have always called you that.” He kissed another knuckle. Around them, waiters cleaned up the destroyed table and the bar’s patrons gradually drifted back to their own pleasures. The two men he’d been allowed to bring with him distracted the other voyeurs, affording them a modicum of privacy for this most public reunion. He studied her, hungry for every detail. She seemed leaner, as if all the soft curves had been erased. Her face, always angular and exquisite, was even more refined—like fine porcelain—perfectly pale and unblemished. Her lips were a rosy red, lacking her normal darker lipsticks and cosmetics. Oddly, she wore almost no makeup at all and yet seemed to shimmer from within.
His heart fisted in his chest. He turned her hand and slid his thumb along the pulse point in her wrist. The blood responded to him, drumming as if pumped by his own system. He kissed the soft skin just above the pulse point. The flutter of it tingled against his lips.
“Who are you?” Unlike her earlier antagonism, this question echoed through him, shattering his bliss. Malcolm told him she didn’t remember, but she had answered the blood call. She had come straight to him. Her gaze had locked on him the moment she entered the lounge; he didn’t mistake that.
“My name is Richard, and I am here for you, Kristina.” He watched her eyes, looking for any glimmer of recognition, but despite the liquid heat in her black eyes, no spark of recognition ignited.
“Richard.” She rolled the name around on her tongue, as though testing it. “I like that. My friends call me Kiki.”
“Do they?” This was not how their reunion should go. Stroking the hair back from her cheek, he tucked a lock behind her ear. “Come sit with me, Kristina.” He drew her deeper into the private lounge. The Bloodletter Bar seemed appropriate considering the first time he’d met her was in a rowdy little tavern in Vienna.
She hesitated, sucking her lower lip into her mouth. His eyes narrowed.
“I don’t think I can.” Her wince softened the rejection, but he was not in a mood to be denied. Not after this many years.
“Why do you think that?” Controlling the urge to whisk her out the door and into his waiting car took every ounce of effort. Malcolm briefed him on the plane ride via conference call. Kristina’s binding to the casino meant he couldn’t just steal her—not without damning her. He sent word ahead to the Overseers with a five-million-dollar offer to buy out whatever contract they held over her.
Kristina flicked a look left and right before leaning in toward him. “Do you want to know a secret?”
Glee filled her eyes and drew a reluctant, if genuine smile from him. “Always.”
“I snuck out.” She mouthed the words, but this close, the whisper of breath carried the words to his ears. “If they catch me…”
They would take her away. Richard lifted his gaze from his bride to sweep the area. Malcolm had given him the codes for his private apartments. “Then let us go somewhere private.” He released her wrist and offered his arm.
“I don’t know you.” An amused smile quirked the corner of her mouth, her head tilted and her gaze roamed him from head to toe. “Do I look like the type of woman who is just going to walk out of a bar with some strange man at his invitation?”
Melancholy and delight stabbed him. “Yes. You look exactly like the woman who will join me this evening.”
Her grin grew and her eyes lit up. “Well, considering I’ve already hit you, we know I can do that again, right?”
“Oh yes. Without a doubt.” The thrill of the hunt thrummed through him. This conversation mirrored their first so closely he could almost imagine the coach waiting just outside the doors ready to whisk them away to his castle.
She sidled up to him, threading her arm through his and glancing around. “Then I suggest we go now—or we won’t have time for any fun.”
In wholehearted agreement, he led her from the bar. His men fanned out before and after him. Kristina snuggled against his arm and the hole in his heart began to knit. She stiffened next to him and slid behind him, hiding. He went still. His fangs began to elongate, and he stared at the crowds of partygoers flowing through the maze of the casino. His men closed ranks, and the three of them shielded Kristina in the triangle between them.
“Kristina?” He breathed her name softly.
“Salt and pepper, four o’clock. He’ll make me go back.” Her fingers dug into the back of his jacket.
Richard located the man, nondescript and unthreatening, Richard would have dismissed him. He folded his hands together, one over the other and waited. The vampires he chose for this—Anton and David mirrored his pose. The man took his time. He examined every face, studied every walk and finally took another path.
Nodding to his men, Richard took Kiki’s arm and they moved through the casino to the lobby and blockaded her again at the elevators. He maintained vigilance until they were inside. Kristina bounced when the elevator doors closed.
“That was so exciting!”
He gave her an indulgent smile. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“So,” Kristina leaned back against the elevator wall and glanced from Richard to his guards and back. “Do I get to have all three of you?”