Homecoming – Day 7

‘Still alive’ is what I send Miho the next morning, not expecting much of a reply, but I get one only a few minutes later.

‘And here I was ready to avenge you if necessary.’

‘Thanks, I appreciate the sentiment. But I only barely made it. Got attacked with eggs.’

My phone buzzes in my hands, announces a call and I grin, increase the volume and take the call.

“Poisoned eggs?”

Not even a greeting but I jump right into the conversation anyway.

“Nope. Sharpened into a makeshift knife.”

I tell her about Jake’s blunder and how I sat through the whole dinner in Ben’s casual wear and by the end of it she’s howling with laughter. At least one of us enjoys my misery from last night.

“But you survived and that’s all that matters,” she says when she can breathe again.

“For now,” I point out. “I’m invited to that fancy dinner party next weekend.” And Mom has made clear that I can’t get out of this.

“Really? What are you going to wear?”

This typical girly question takes me by surprise, my choice of dress for that night the furthest on my mind in face of the looming threat of whatever Jake could do to me.

“Oh shit, I haven’t even thought about that.” My suitcase holds nothing for such an occasion. Jeans or a sundress or my good blouse from ten years ago won’t help me to blend in when all those big shots gather in one place.

“You know what that means,” she coos. “Shopping trip!”

My epic groan can be heard in China but being in a small town also has its perks.

“It’s Sunday. The good shopkeepers are in church right now, nothing is open.”

“Not here, but the mall two towns over is always open. Don’t even try to get out of this now. I’m picking you up in half an hour so get your ass into some clothes and give me your address.”

 

The drive is short and we talk about everything and anything, it feels strange but right. Seeing her outside of the café turns out to be fun, just as much as hanging out with her waiting for customers. We mull over the outfit choice for that dinner and decide on a shift dress or maybe a cocktail dress. Not too fancy – my wallet doesn’t allow for anything extravagant anyway.

After a few shops and some price tags that make my heart stop in panic we decide to grab a bite to eat. The food court is populated but not too crowded, we get a bagel and something to drink when Miho freezes, curses and pushes her lunch into my hands and storms off. Due to a lack of alternatives I follow her, whatever is going to happen is hopefully entertaining.

She makes a beeline to the coffee shop, a franchise found in almost every city, and I spot him even before she taps his shoulder.

“How could you? You’re cheating on me?”

Jared’s confused face is almost as attractive as this tiny smirk he usually has when Miho hands him his coffee. But this cup is not from the café and Miho doesn’t wear her stare-down face.

“What?”

Not his brightest retort, I assume, but the best he can manage in this situation.

“You’re drinking coffee!”

I almost expect her to smack it out of his hand, but her accusing finger only trembles a few inches away from the cup.

“Miho?” He lags some seconds behind, is still befuddled when Miho chokes out: “I thought we had something special!” and runs off.

His helpless gaze finds me, I shrug, try not to drop the food I’m still holding.

“Don’t look at me, I thought that thing between you was very special, too.”

I leave him there to his confusion and run after Miho.

“You know that was really crazy, do you?” I find her slumped down on a bench, offer her the bagel.

“I have no idea why I did that,” she admits, takes a bite out of her bagel and furiously chews it.

“Low blood sugar?” I sit down next to her, take a sip of my orange juice.

“I will never be able to face him again, huh?”

I bump my shoulder against hers, start eating in my bagel. “You know, if he comes back to the café I guess that means he doesn’t mind you being nuts.”

“If he comes back to the café after this I guess he’s just as crazy.”

I can’t argue with that so I hum, take another bite of my bagel. Cream cheese but no salmon. That costs extra.

“I ruined the shopping trip, huh?” Miho sniffles but she’s not crying. There are hot peppers on her bagel – honestly, who does that? – and I can already see the blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks.

“Nah, I couldn’t fork over 80 bucks for a dress anyway. It’s fine, I’m going to hit the thrift shops in town tomorrow.”

She stares at me, long and hard, furrows her brow so the crease over her nose is showing.

“You can’t afford 80 dollars for a dress but come to get coffee every day?”

“Hey, a coffee is what? Three bucks? I can spend three bucks on myself each day just fine. But 50 or more for a dress I’m only going to wear once, that’s not happening.” Before she can pity me I get up, cram the rest of my bagel into my mouth and slurp my orange juice.

“C’mon, I think we’re done here.”

 

The town is dead on Sundays, too small to offer anything besides the public pool and a park. Only a handful of fast food joints and a store of that coffee franchise are open. So when Miho drops me off at Mom’s place after a ride in mostly silence I have no idea how to kill some time.

The mayor’s unexpected phone call is a welcome distraction and his invitation to tea one I gladly accept – after he tells me that neither Ben nor Jake will be there. At least I don’t need a fancy new outfit for this.

It’s Mom’s day off, she’s visiting Grandma today, and I find Mr. Rosenfeldt preparing tea and coffee.

“Jazz, dear, come in. There’s still cake in the fridge.”

I don’t even know exactly how old he is, but he looks in his late 50s, early 60s maybe. When Ben and Jake look like that in 40 years, their partners can be happy. They share the same facial features, but the mayor’s hair is grey already while his sons fit the dark, tall and handsome trope.

I grab the cake and some plates, follow him into the normal living room and sit down. We chat about everything that comes to mind, he asks about my studies and tells me about the latest developments in town.

“Oh dear, we need another plate,” he notices after I set the coffee table. “Madeleine will join us.”

Poker face, don’t fail me now!

“Sure, I’m going to fetch one.”

Maybe I can pretend I got an emergency call or just sneak out. Maddie bothers me more than Jake, I just can’t figure out what her issue is with me. We used to be in music classes together before I stopped my piano lessons. The tinnitus made it impossible for me to sustain a tone after my accident so I dropped out of classes. Ever since I also stopped hanging around with Maddie. As if the only thing connecting us has been the music.

And now she’s engaged to the guy I dreamed of for the longest time and although I don’t mind it’s frustrating how she always goes directly for my weaknesses. And knowing me as well as she probably does she has a lot she can attack.

With a third plate and another dessert fork I trudge back, give into my fate that obviously I can’t have one peaceful day in this town anymore. Maddie isn’t there yet so I just sit down on the couch next to the mayor and accept the cup of tea Mr. Rosenfeldt offers me.

“Now that you have graduated, what are your plans?” He stirs some sugar into his tea, puts the spoon down.

“I’m working at a project with some friends. We want to provide more SL options for museums and galleries. You know audio guides? Like that, only without the audio of course. The idea was to put QR-codes next to exhibits and a hearing impaired person can scan them with a smartphone and watch a video with additional information in sign language.”

“And why don’t they just read the exhibition texts?”

I turn to face Maddie who looks as thrilled to see me as I do. She forces a smile into Mr. Rosenfeldt’s direction, chooses an armchair across of us.

“Usually those texts are stripped-down to whatever fits on a small note. Plus, it’s one thing reading a text and another to actually talk to someone about something.” I explain it to her like to a child, slowly and with as much patience as I can muster. Which isn’t a lot, not even on good days.

“But you are not talking, not really at least,” she points out. Mayor Rosenfeldt’s eyes widen slightly and my blood is close to boiling.

“I am. Sign language is also a language, even if it’s not spoken with lips, tongue and vocal chords. And it’s a lot more personal to see someone sign than reading a text.” If I talk any slower I have to spell every word out for her.

“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Mr. Rosenfelt chimes in and smiles at me. “Accessibility should be standard and it’s more than just ramps and elevators for those who need a wheelchair or walking aids.”

“Exactly, thank you, sir.” I beam at him, it’s exhausting to have this kind of discussion over and over again without any acknowledgment.

“But if they are deaf they can still read,” Maddie insists, brows furrowed and lips curled into a pout.

“They could, but most museums and exhibitions don’t have the space to add all the relevant or interesting information on huge posters after all. And it doesn’t only have to be sign language. Adding an interactive source of information could benefit everyone. Imagine going into an art gallery, scanning a code and getting the history of origin of a painting or a sculpture in a short video. There’s sound for the hearing and sign language for the hearing impaired.” The concept isn’t that difficult to grasp, at least I think so.

Her expression morphs into a triumphant smile. “And the blind?”

I quickly glance to the mayor who closes his eyes and shakes his head briefly.

“They can still hear, you know? At least in most cases. So… sound would work just fine for them.” I want to scream but instead take a deep breath. There are situations I’m tempted to turn off my hearing aids just so I don’t have to listen to the stupidity of others. Now is such an occasion.

“But isn’t that too much of an effort for just the few deaf people who might or might not visit a museum or a gallery?”

I seek for help with the mayor, silently implore him to cut this conversation short or just kill me now.

“Maybe more hearing impaired people would visit those places if there were more accommodations for them,” he says and within the same breath he adds: “How about some cake now?”

“Sounds good.” My enthusiasm gets the words out louder than planned, Mr. Rosenfeldt flinches lightly but gets up and cuts the cake.

“Elias, you don’t have to do that. Jazz can serve the cake for us.”

“Jazz is my guest, just like you are, Madeline,” he curtly replies, wipes the smug grin off her face with just those few words. He hands me a plate with an apologetic look that I return with a smile.

“Thanks. You know, Maddie, even during my internship I wasn’t the one making coffee and going on donut runs. It’s hard to sign when you have your hands full after all.” That’s what makes conversations in sign language even more meaningful in my opinion. You can’t just have them on the side, you have to fully focus on them.

“So you worked for a company that employs several hearing impaired people?” Mr. Rosenfeldt lets out a small, appreciative hum.

“Not really. I was working in a typical marketing department of a big company, but somehow I ended up interpreting for one of their clients who needed a sign language interpreter. It was fun, but also a lot of work and I figured it would be easier to just have some pre-recorded videos, like text modules in written business conversation. That’s actually how the whole project started. One of my supervisors thought it was interesting and we brainstormed until we came up with the ‘guided tour for hearing impaired’ idea.” I stare into my tea cup, desperate not to think of Sam’s enthusiasm during the whole process.

“What are you doing for a living, Maddie?” Steering the conversation to a different topic seems like a good idea and the way her face lights up I know that talking about herself will give me a reprieve.

“I’m working at the medical center downtown. A very demanding and responsible position.” She takes a bite of the cake, gives me a second to do the math in my head.

“You’re not a doctor, are you?” For that she would still have to be in med school. A nurse maybe?

“No, I’m not a doctor.” The corners of her mouth twitch, her smile drops. Looks as if I hit a nerve. “But there are more people working there than just doctors. And it needs other, well trained staff to keep a medical center running, you know?”

“Yes, of course. Specialists and lab workers, nurses, management.” I nod along my list. “And what exactly are you doing there?”

Suddenly tight-lipped she takes a sip from her tea. “I take care of very sensitive medical data.”

Major Rosenfeldt clears his throat, a tiny smirk on his lips, but doesn’t say anything.

“Well, that sounds like an important task,” I cheerfully say, happy that she hasn’t brought up any of my flaws and weaknesses for two minutes. “And are you still playing the piano?”

Since it works I stick to the strategy of making Maddie the topic, rummage in my brain about the things she used to like. Well, at least those who are safe to discuss in front of her future father-in-law. Especially since I remember vividly how she gushed about one of his sons – unfortunately not Ben, but Jake. She had a thing for bad boys back then, not the sweethearts.

“I stopped playing after graduating school.”

The lull in the conversation makes me nervous.

“The piano is still where it always was. Just in case one of you wants to play,” the mayor suggests, turns to me again. “You used to play this one song over and over. I still remember it.”

I squirm, his fond smile doesn’t fit to my unease.

“I haven’t played in ages.” After the accident I lost a whole range of tones I can hear, but my fingers still remember the motions.

“Why don’t you try it? I bet you don’t have many chances to play on a real piano nowadays.” Maddie raises her eyebrow, the unspoken challenge not what I need right now. But I accept it anyway.

The piano is as familiar as the rest of the house, I spent hours and hours playing here whenever I could. Not a speck of dust mars its polished surface and my heart swells with nostalgia. I assume it’s tuned even if no one plays it, the mayor takes good care of his treasures after all.

Timidly I rest my fingers on the keys, wrecking my brain for the melody that I used to know by heart.

The first notes of ‘Bitter sweet symphony’ take me back to how I almost obsessively practiced the song.

“It’s meant as a duet,” I say apologetically over the music. “Hard to make it work on my own.”

“Allow me.” Mr. Rosenfeldt gets up, joins me at the piano. “It’s one of my favorites actually.”

I can’t help the surprised chuckle but tilt my head. “You want the lead?”

“No, I’m fine being the support act. If you are fine with doing most of the work, that is.”

Together we start from the top, it’s a bit awkward at first, trying to get into the same pace but we manage when the parts separate.

“I played the song so often, even the boys grew to like it,” Mr. Rosenfeldt mentions with a smile. “Imagine my surprise when you started playing it, too.”

I hum, but have to focus on the melody. Somewhere in the middle I stop, can’t remember the notes anymore.

“Sorry.” I exhale, rest my hands in my lap.

“No need to apologize, dear. It was fun, thank you.” He wraps an arm around me, pulls me in for a quick hug. “No one plays with me nowadays. Not sure if one of the boys even remembers the basics from their piano lessons.”

“I could play with you, Elias.” Maddie stands up, walks over to us. “We could pick a song we both like.”

“I would like that.”

She flashes me a grin and I huff a wry chuckle.

“Jazz, feel free to use the piano if you want to. I’m sure your mother would love to hear you play, too.” Mr. Rosenfeldt gets up, offers me his hand to pull me up, too. “I’m afraid I still have some work to do. Thank you for keeping me company. And don’t be a stranger. We all missed you here.”

How can a single person be so sweet? Again I wonder why Mrs. Rosenfeldt ever left him.

“Thank you, sir. I will make sure to drop by again as long as I’m in town.”

“And drop the ‘sir’. You are an adult now, it’s fine to call me Elias.”

I hear a sharp inhale from Maddie, ignore it and smile at Mr. Ro- no, Elias.

“Thank you. Elias.”

He nods, happy that he got his way again, and starts clearing away the dishes.

“Let me help you with that,” Maddie is quick to offer, but as soon as he vanishes into his study after saying goodbye she shoves the plates at me.

“Here, take that to the kitchen.”

“Yes, Miss Madeline,” I wryly reply in a mocked early 19th century maid way, brush past her without paying attention to her angry snort. My mind and heart is still full, reeling with that song I had never played again after the accident.

Homecoming – Day 6

Mom sends me on some errands on Saturday so I don’t go to the café in the morning. I only realize that I don’t even have Miho’s number when I consider sending her a text, but then again, we are only chatting a bit. It’s not as if she’s waiting for me to come and leech off her Wifi.

But I manage to drop by in the afternoon and find the place packed with people. To my surprise Miho isn’t alone behind the counter, a waitress helps her serving the guests. Looks like a student to me. When Miho spots me she grins, grabs a cup but I stop her.

“I can’t stay today, but I really, really need a good, strong coffee to get me through the day.”

“Sure.” She switches to the paper cups, prepares my coffee and leans against the counter while waiting for the machine to finish. “So, that dinner tonight?”

“Yeah, I’m not exactly thrilled to go there. Don’t get me wrong, the mayor is lovely, but my brain just stops when I see Ben and it doesn’t help that his fiancée used to be my friend until one day, she wasn’t. I get very hostile vibes from her.” The coffee cup is hot but I cradle it between my hands despite the warm day outside.

“People change.” Miho shrugs and prepares another order. “Maybe she’s not the same person that was your friend anymore. Maybe it’s just you feeling guilty because you lust after her guy. Anyway, when she poisons your food or throws a knife at you, you can be sure that she hates you. Until then just assume it’s as uncomfortable and awkward for her as it is for you.”

I gnaw at my bottom lip and hand her the money for the coffee. “I guess that advice is better than the last piece of wisdom you gave me. If I don’t show up on Monday, I have probably been poisoned and/or stabbed to death. Wish me luck.”

“Wait!” She rummages through a drawer under the counter and pulls out a piece of paper. “Here. It’s my number. In case of getting poisoned or stabbed, call me. I consider calling an ambulance, depending of the seriousness of your condition.”

“Thanks, you are too generous.” But I take the note and put it in my bag for later.

 

The moment I step through the door and enter the house of Mayor Rosenfeldt I wish someone would stab me. Poison would take too long to end my suffering after all.

Since Mom wants me to bring some ingredients for dinner I actually arrive way before 8pm and run directly into the other Rosenfeldt son. Jacob. The bane of my high school existence.

“Now look who graces us with her presence,” he drawls when he sees me, the bags with groceries still in my arms. “Jazz ‘too clumsy for her own good’ Mann.”

I freeze. He can’t have already set up some kind of prank for me, can he? Only if he knew that I would come and who would tell him? Mom. Mom would tell him, not even meaning any harm by it. But we are both adults now, certainly he has changed his stupid way of making fun of me. Right? Right?!

“Hi, Jake,” I icily greet him. Being polite doesn’t cost me anything after all, but I don’t have to be friendly with him. “Sorry, could you save the mocking until I set this down? It’s kinda heavy.”

I juggle two grocery bags and my keys after all, and Mom’s shopping list wasn’t exactly short.

“Who’s mocking? I’m just telling it as it is.” He steps closer, reaches for the bags. “Here, gimme that.”

“No, it’s fine, I can handle this.”

“Come on, let me help you at least.” He already tugs at the bags, disturbs the fragile balance I had so far. I tense, he pulls, my key slices open the bottom of one bag. Apples start pouring out of the slit, but Jake doesn’t stop fighting for the bags.

“Jake, no!”

He yanks the bags from my arms, causes the already damaged bag to give up completely. The box with eggs lands on the floor with a wet sounding smack. There’s egg all over my shoes, the floor and the carpet.

“If we had flour we could make an apple pie,” he dryly points out, hoists the bags up a bit and carries them towards the kitchen.

“Mrs. Mann! Jazz made a mess in the hallway!”

I want to kick him. I want to smush his face into the egg goo on the floor. I want to cry. Trembling with frustration I slip out of my shoes, ignore Mom who comes running and immediately starts fussing over the state of the hallway. My feet take me to the supply closet, I get a bucket and a rag, inwardly seething.

He did it again. Every single time.

Mom still goes on and on about how she has no time to clean this now and I try not to snap at her when I set down the bucket.

“I’m already at it, ain’t I? Go back to the kitchen, I’m taking care of this.” I scoop as much of the egg I can back into the carton, but it’s everywhere. The shell is sticking to my fingers and I curse under my breath while plucking pieces of it off the floor and the carpet.

“What happened here?”

Of course Ben has to walk on while I’m kneeling in goo, having egg on my hands, on my bare legs and probably everywhere else.

“Jake,” I grate, add this to my list of humiliations caused by that guy.

“Wait here.” Ben vanishes in the supply closet, comes back with a roll of paper towels and helps me cleaning most of the egg away.

“Thanks.” I’m sniffling but can’t wipe my nose, my hands are still covered in raw, mixed egg and shards of eggshell.

“You, uh, you got something there.” Ben’s finger hovers over my cheek but doesn’t touch me.

“Where?” I wipe my cheek at my shoulder, can’t use my hands for it after all.

“Wait, let me get it for you.” He grabs a fresh paper towel, carefully wipes my cheek clean. Not that it makes any difference, I’m covered in egg anyway. Dump some bread crumbs on me and I’m ready to get fried.

“Maybe you should take a shower after this,” he suggests and my heart beats furiously. He’s close enough for me to smell his cologne, fresh, soapy, manly.

“I would love to, but that would mean going back home. Like this. Only to come back here for dinner and having to sit at the table together with your brother.” My smile is probably crooked, wavers under his intense gaze.

“Don’t bother. You can shower here. There’s not much we can do about your clothes, though. Maybe we can find some of Mads’ stuff lying around.”

“No, it’s fine. I don’t want to cause any trouble. I can just wipe my dress off a bit. No big deal.” Running around in Maddie’s clothes isn’t a very appealing thought for me. I probably won’t fit into them anyway.

“Or I could lend you a shirt and some shorts. Will be a bit big on you, but it’s better than wearing your dirty clothes, right?” He’s still smiling, throws the last used paper towel into the bucket and sits up again.

“You know what? I think I rather go home.” There’s no way I can restore my dignity anymore, not even with a shower and a brand new designer outfit, so I better just excuse myself and end this here. “Tell your father I’m sorry.” To cut the discussion short I grab the rag and furiously scrub the carpet clean.

“You always do that. Jake pulls one of his stunts and you just bolt. Why do you allow him to treat you like that?”

His words hit a nerve, a raw one, directly connected to my tear ducts. I keep my head down to hide my trembling bottom lip, convinced that if he continues talking I will crack like the eggs earlier and just melt into a puddle of gross self pity. Not because of Ben or even Jake. Ben’s way of scolding me just now reminds me so much of Sam.

Sam, who always challenged me to become a better version of myself, but never patronizing or pushy. ‘Why do you let them treat you like that? You are worth so much more, love.’ It was always ‘love’, never ‘baby’ or ‘sweetheart’.

My feelings threaten to overwhelm me and I take it out on the carpet, don’t even look up when Ben calls my name and I hear footsteps coming closer.

“Benjamin, darling, what are you doing?”

Maddie looks down at me, both literally and figuratively, and I never before felt so much like Cinderella. Only that the prince is next to me on his knees, gawking up at his actual fiancée.

“I’m just lending Jazz a hand,” he’s quick to explain.

“Wiping the floor? Honey, we have servants for that.” She smiles sweetly at me, lets the word ‘servants’ roll off her tongue, slowly, savoring it like a piece of good chocolate.

“You know what?” I say and get up, drop the rag into the bucket so that the water and egg mixture sloshes out, some of it splatters in tiny droplets back on the floor, on Ben’s pants and Maddie’s shoes. “That shower sounds lovely. I’m waiting upstairs for you, Benny.”

With my head up high I saunter up the stairs, displaying as much swagger as I can muster while looking like a hobo. Behind me there’s a hushed argument, or better Maddie is hissing something at Ben who grumbles back. Not my problem.

The bathroom is just down the hallway, across from Jake’s room – of all places. But he’s still downstairs and the one following me upstairs is Ben. He rushes into his own old room and comes back with some clothes in his hands.

“Here, a shirt and some sweatpants. I don’t have underwear you could use, but if you go commando that’s totally your choice. I won’t tell anyone.” His wink puts me off, this is not the way he usually talks to me. Must be Jake’s influence.

“I don’t think the egg goo seeped into my underwear, so I should be fine. But thanks for the shirt.” With his clothes pressed against my chest I close the bathroom door behind me, shake my head at this strange exchange just now. But the shower is singing its siren song to me and the warm water feels so good, it washes my irritation away and leaves me clean, relaxed and happy. For the first time in this week.

 

Ben’s sweats are far too big for me and the shirt is not long enough to pass as dress, but too long and wide to be considered a shirt. I tie the belt of a bathrobe I found in the bathroom around me to keep everything in place and grab my own clothes to throw them into the washing machine. Hopefully they will be clean and dry by the time I want to go home again.

Downstairs an unexpected sight awaits me. Jake on his knees, wiping the floor. I bet Mom gave him a stern talking to when she learned what actually happened. She always held the boys accountable for their own mess. They learned quickly not to make her angry if they didn’t want broccoli for every single meal of a day – breakfast included.

“You look as if you could use a shower,” I quip in passing.

“Only if you join me.”

“Why? So you can try to drown me again?” One sentence and the light mood shatters, tension fills the room between us.

“You will never let me live that down, will you?” He gets up, glares at me and grabs the bucket.

“Sorry, some things just stick.” I tap my ear lightly, raise my chin and meet his gaze, dare him to talk back to me.

“Whatever.” He scoffs, breaks our eye contact but it doesn’t feel like a victory to me. No matter how I look at it, I will always be the loser in this conflict.

And Maddie is right there to remind me of it. During the whole dinner she drops comments on my outfit – ‘Looks cozy. Not exactly dinner wear, but how should you know that, right?’ – about my relationship status – ‘And? Do you have someone?’ – and my plans for the future – ‘Must be hard, looking for a job in this economy.’

It doesn’t help that Ben keeps grinning at me and Jake sneaks glances, probably planning my next humiliation. Mom carries the food in but declines Mayor Rosenfeldt’s offer to join us.

“I want to clean the kitchen now so I can go home together with my daughter.” Her bright smile, directed at me, gives me some strength to make it through this dinner.

The mayor is really good at diffusing tensions while keeping a light conversation going. I learn that Jake actually has his own business, management consultant for small start-ups. I can’t imagine him being serious about anything, even less the businesses of other people.

When Ben talks about his job as coach his eyes light up and he even forgets the food in front of him until Maddie jabs her elbow into his ribs to remind him of the actual purpose of a dinner – eating.

“And Jazz, will you stay until the big celebration?” the mayor asks me over dessert, ironically apple pie with ice cream.

“Yes, of course. Mom and I are looking forward to the fireworks already.”

“I remember that one time when you almost freaked out during the fireworks display,” Jake says, huffing a short laughter.

“Oh yeah? Was it that one time when you lit that cracker right next to me and ruined my pants with the sparks?”

I smile sweetly at him, ignore Maddie’s murmured: “Sure it wasn’t something else that ruined your pants?”

“Jake was a bit of a troublemaker as a kid, but he’s really responsible now.” Fatherly pride shines in Mr. Rosenfeldt’s eyes when he looks at his son, the complete opposite of what Jake invokes in me.

I pick at my pie, shove tiny apple pieces over my plate to make it look as if I’m eating. My appetite is gone now, the big lump in my throat makes it hard to breathe, let alone eat.

“I would like to invite you to the dinner party I’m holding next week,” the mayor keeps on talking as if nothing has happened.

“Oh, thank you, that’s very generous.”

“Elias, are you sure? I mean, Jazz has to go back to – wherever eventually, right? And we don’t want to keep her here longer than necessary, do we?” Maddie jabs Ben again, glares at him for support.

“Why don’t we let Jazz decide if she can make time for it or not?” Jake points out, scoops some ice cream on his spoon and hums at the taste of it. “Dammit, this apple pie is amazing.”

“Jacob, language.” Mr. Rosenfeldt shots Jake a stern glance that makes him duck his head lightly, a mumbled ‘sorry’ the most genuine apology I ever heard of him. The mayor turns back towards me.

“The invitation stands, and I would be really happy to see you there. Just let me know in advance if you’re coming or not. You can even bring a plus one if you want.”

And with that this topic is over. I somehow make it through the dinner, leave the house with Mom who tries to worm out of me why I am so grumpy after such a nice dinner.

Back in my old room I restlessly browse through my phone. Pictures of me and Sam, old messages, one or two video clips of us goofing around. Me teaching Sam some basic sign language. The first time I ever signed ‘I love you’ to a person and meant it. My High School crush is getting married to one of my former best friends and here I am, wallowing in self pity, stalking my ex on social media and staring at our pictures from happier times. I’m officially a pathetic loser. Tomorrow, I promise myself, tomorrow I will delete everything and start looking forwards. But tonight, after that humiliation and cruel reminder of who I used to be, I just want to curl up, cry until I’m empty and sleep.

Homecoming – Day 5

It’s more the habit that takes me to the café the next morning, I don’t even need the Wifi today. But there’s not much else to do and maybe I can catch Anna on Skype. My project is stagnating until I can get hold of Sam and so far there is no text, no call, no email. Nothing.

“Hey,” I greet Miho, trudge to the counter to take the cup of coffee she is brewing for me.

“Why the long face?”

I grunt, sip my coffee and slide onto a seat at the counter. “Small towns suck.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

The sound of my spoon stirring in the cup buys me some time to get my thoughts in order.

“You know why I always wanted to leave? Because everyone always got their nose in your business. You can’t tell anything to anyone without it coming back to bite your ass.”

She raises her eyebrow at me, leans over the counter with a grin.

“And what, pray tell, came to bite your derrière? Excuse my French.” She snickers, proud of her joke.

“That one was really bad,” I let her know, ignore the actual question in favor of keeping things light. “Was Jared already here today?” I say his name in a singsong voice, just to mess with Miho who promptly curls up her lips in a pout.

“No, he wasn’t. And I would be surprised if he came again after you tried to poison him with what you dare calling ‘coffee’ yesterday.”

“Hey, I know how to drink it, I don’t have to know how to make it. At least not with this abomination you call a coffee machine.”

We banter back and forth until the bell signals the arrival of a customer. To both our disappointment it’s not Jared, but some elderly lady ordering some cake for her birthday party next week. After that the mood has changed, sobered, so I decide to boot up my laptop and check my mails. Still no word from Sam.

Looks like I have to bite the bullet and ask Anna to contact Sam about the texts so we can get on with it. As if my life wasn’t hard enough already.

I’m still struggling with how to tell Anna when the bell chimes again.

“Good morning.”

I know that voice and glance towards the counter to see the same transaction like the last few days. Jared takes his coffee, Miho takes the money and he’s off. Before he can reach the door though he stops, sips from his coffee as if to make sure it’s good and nods. I would feel offended if he wasn’t right. Miho snickers and from my place I can see Jared grinning before he leaves for real this time.

Over an hour later and I still haven’t written the mail to Anna. How to tell her that I can’t get hold of Sam anymore? We are supposed to be lovers after all, at least that’s what our friends think. What I liked to think for a ridiculously happy time.

I groan, push those thoughts aside and myself up from my chair.

“I need a break,” I loudly announce, not that anyone but Miho can hear it.

“You want some cake? Or a cookie?”

“Don’t tempt me, coffee enchantress.” I feign a heroic pose but shuffle towards the counter anyway. “What have you got?”

“Apple pie, chocolate tart, vanilla salt cream pie. And lemon meringue.”

I mentally check the contents of my wallet. Usually I don’t spend money on needless things that I can get at home for less. Especially since I don’t even have a job.

“That meringue looks incredible,” I admit and with that my decision is made.

The first bite takes me right to dessert heaven, it’s sweet and sour, soft and a bit chewy.

“Wow, were did you get this?” It’s rude to talk with your mouth full but I’m so in love with this flavor, I don’t care for manners.

“I made it,” Miho casually answers and gets a slice for herself. “I make all my cakes. That way I can be sure they are exactly how I want them to be.”

“Control freak baker, huh? You won’t hear me complaining.”

We eat in comfortable silence and it’s hard to believe that we only started talking three days ago.

“So, it’s Friday today. Any plans for the weekend?” Miho keeps poking at her cake and I have to think about her question.

“Not really. Mom will have to work and I will need Wifi. Are you open all week?”

“No, I’m off on Sundays. You will have to find another place to leech of the Wifi there.” She grins and finishes her cake, but looks past me when the door opens again.

“Wow, that’s the busiest I saw this place so far,” I mutter but freeze when I turn to look at the customer.

“Hey, Jayjay!”

Two days in a row? Really? I have managed to avoid Ben for years now, but it’s like I’m cursed. I can’t just pretend not to see him, not after we had eye contact.

“Benny… wow, what are you doing here?”

He waves at Miho who looks back and forth between us and simply vanishes into the backroom.

“Mads wants some cake from here for the weekend. Figured I could pick it up for her.”

In his baseball jacket he looks like back in High School, leans on the counter like he has always leaned on the counter in the cafeteria. A strange déjà vu.

Miho comes back with a box in her hands, slides it over the counter.

“Here you are, blueberry cheesecake. Can I get you anything else?”

“Nah, that’s all. Thanks, Fujiwara, see you next Friday, I guess.” He flashes her a bright smile and hands her a 20 dollar bill, pats my upper arm.

“Jayjay, if you got time tomorrow, how about you join us for dinner again? Dad was so happy to see you last night and Mads kept asking me stuff about you. She wouldn’t shut up.” He chuckles, his hand lingers on my arm and my face explodes in a bright blush. One that doesn’t go unnoticed my Miho.

“I was really surprised to see her there, but I’m happy that you are happy. Together.” As if my red cheeks aren’t telltale sign enough, my voice is shaking, too.

“Yeah, she’s really great. Can’t believe I never noticed her in school.” He shrugs, his hand falls away from my arm and I can breathe again.

“Let’s be honest, you were pretty occupied with baseball.” I try to smile but my face doesn’t listen to my brain.

Miho’s snorted chuckle sounds like a ‘Ha!’ and I turn towards her, puzzled by the bitterness in her voice.

“Well, I still am,” Ben points out. “But honestly, have dinner with us tomorrow. There will be cake for dessert.” The box dances under my nose up and down.

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” My lacking enthusiasm doesn’t seem to register with him, satisfied he got the answer he wanted he nods and pulls the cake box back.

“Great. Dad and Mads don’t have much to talk about so I hope you will liven things up a bit. See you at 8, okay?” He waves and rushes out, leaves me feeling hung-over.

“So, you had dinner with the mayor and his family last night? Is that related to your ass being bitten by something you said to an earlier time?”

Miho’s smug tone rubs salt into the wound and I slump down on the counter, my forehead connects with the wooden surface with a loud thud.

“One of my former best friends dates my – former best friend,” I mutter.

“Best friend, my ass. Ben Rosenfeldt might be a lot but he never was any girl’s ‘friend’. The question is, did you bang him or did you only dream of banging him?”

Is there a use in denying? At this point I’m sure there’s not, so I admit it was the latter.

“But that was five years ago, I’m totally over him.”

“Sure, keep telling yourself that and maybe your face will get the memo next time and not erupt into 5o shades of red when he touches you.” She opens the register and puts the money away, doesn’t even pay attention to my frantic attempts of denying.

“It’s not like that anymore!”

Her annoyed sigh sounds as if she’s scolding a child for the umpteenth time about the same argument.

“Oh please! The problem with High School crushes is that you can’t get over them that easily. They have burned themselves deeply into your hormonal and emotional history and your body is unable to separate the guy from your physical response. Or in short: if he made your knees weak and panties wet with 16, he will also do so with 26 and probably even with 36. No idea how it is once menopause shreds the whole hormonal balance.”

My eyebrows shoot up, my jaw drops. “Wow, that is – a wild hypothesis. Any back up data for that?”

“Only rational thinking and the experiences of hundreds and thousands of women before us,” Miho lets me know and clears away my plate and cup. “But on the bright side, now you know what you will do this weekend.”

Homecoming – day 4

The third time’s the charm, people say, but people are liars, stupidly follow the strangest rules and beliefs if only enough others do the same. Lemmings.

On my way to the café I bump into one of the few people I really, really don’t want to meet. After two days without unpleasant encounters I must have gotten careless. That’s the only explanation for why I am staring at my phone instead of the road in front of me, and literally run into another pedestrian.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I rush to apologize to his chest before I look up. And freeze.

“Jayjay? Hey, since when are you back?”

Those hazel eyes, the dimples visible now that he smiles, the wonderfully thick dark blond hair that I dreamed of combing with my fingers so often – yep, it’s him. Ben Rosenfeldt, the son of the mayor, my high school crush and the younger brother of my former nemesis. And he can still make my knees weak with that smile and that body of an athlete and that voice like velvet and smoke.

“Bennie? Hey…” I’m so lame. Honestly, after five years you would think I gained some coolness, but I didn’t. I’m back to being the insecure high school girl pining for the star player of our baseball team.

“Are you staying with your Mom?”

“Yes, of course.” Where else should I stay? I wouldn’t be in this town if Mom wasn’t here after all.

“Well, I’m going to visit Dad today. Hey, how about you come over for dinner? We could catch up and I’m sure Dad would like to see you, too.”

Continue reading Homecoming – day 4

Homecoming – day 2

The next morning finds me tired and cranky. Mom has no coffee at home and on top no decent Wifi, so I’m off to find a coffee shop after washing up real quick. With my hair covering half of my face I feel safe enough to leave the house without checking my surroundings constantly.

At the coffee shop on the main street there’s a line a mile long so I turn into a side road, just around the corner and stop in front of an old fashioned café. When I was still in High School I often walked past here and wondered if anyone actually entered. But it looks cozy from the outside and a small sign in the window confirms that there is Wifi. The scent of coffee tickles my nose, bypasses my brain and lures me in. A small bell rings when I enter, it startles me briefly but the sound is muffled, reminds me that my hearing aids are still on my nightstand. Not that it matters much, I just want a coffee and check my emails. Although I graduated there are a few projects I am working on, replies from companies I applied at I’m waiting for. No personal mails, nope.

“Hi, pick a table, I’m with you in a minute.”

The woman behind the counter is battling a huge coffee machine, a monster of chrome and levers. I sit down at a table at the wall, with the door in view but away from the windows. My laptop is cooperative for once and boots without the usual string of updates and warnings. A few clicks and I can check my mails, completely focused when the coffee lady comes to my table and sets a menu down.

“What can I get you?”

Continue reading Homecoming – day 2

Homecoming – Day 1

As a child my home town seemed so big, crossing it once from the industrial area in the west to the shopping center in the east, just at the freeway, was like a trip around the world. Back then I couldn’t even imagine leaving much less for college which seemed out of reach for me anyway. Sometimes my parents couldn’t afford the basics and it only got worse after Dad left. No matter how much Mom worked, it just wasn’t enough.

It didn’t help my narrow horizon that we never could afford a proper vacation either, I mostly spent my holidays with my grandma who – surprise, surprise – was chronically short on money too.

But now, coming back here after having left for college, thanks to my scholarship and Mom’s hard work, it feels small. Suffocating.

I run my fingers through my hair, adjust it so it covers my ears a bit, and take a deep breath. The station looks exactly the same and so does the bus I’m boarding. I even recognize the driver, give him a short nod that he returns without any sign he’s recognizing me too. Fine with me.

Continue reading Homecoming – Day 1

Blood Spatter: Part 6

WARNING: This part contains smut.

Eyes turned to focus on them as Kiril urged Miho away from the table to where there was enough room to dance. This fictitious crowd bowed their heads respectfully, curtsied, before Kiril twirled Miho around.

“There have been many balls such a this,” he told her, their faces close.

“How are you controlling all of this in such detail and yet still able to form sentences?” Miho blinked, still preoccupied by their surroundings to pay too much notice to Kiril’s touch,

“You think women are the only ones able to multi-task?” he huffed, squeezing her body a little tighter against him. “The blood of a true vampire is very potent… among other things.”

At this, Miho sputtered out a laugh and accidentally trod on his toes, and their slight stumble saw them slide directly through a passing couple.

“I’m sorry,” she chuckled stepping back into the rhythm of their graceful path around the glittering space. “But that…”

“I wonder what potent thing you are imagining, Sparrow,” he grinned, knowing full well the innuendo he’d made.

“What’s with the nickname?” she asked on a different tangent, but it had been something she’d thought about on and off.

“Sparrows are small and delicate,” he replied easily, spinning her with the dramatic flourish of intangible cloth.

“Delicate? Me?” she snorted, somewhat proving her point.

“And you have this furtive awareness, always looking for danger,” he added.

“Ah, can you blame me?” she laughed, gasping a little when he leaned her back draped over one arm.

“No, I cannot,” he conceded, staring down at her with suddenly greater focus.

From her eyes, to her lips, his gaze then travelled to the extension of her neck, and as she noted this, Miho’s muscles tensed.

“You look hungry,” she exhaled quietly, her fingers clenching tighter against his jacket. “Should I be sensing danger?”

“Do not doubt I want to taste what Alex stole,” Kiril admitted, the hand not holding her reclined touching lightly to the line of her jaw before trailing slowly downward. “His trespass was unforgiveable.”

“Because he attacked me without provocation and that was wrong, or because the alpha male in you thinks my hunter blood should only be for you?” she breathed, but her eyes had narrowed sharply.

Slowly, maintaining eye-contact, he brought her upright, so close the tips of their noses were touching.

“Yes,” he told her quietly, and Miho was so transfixed, so consumed by the lush gleam of his eyes, that it took her several seconds to notice the orchestral music had ceased, as had the movement of bodies around them.

“I should kick your ass for that response,” she told him flatly, but he saw the continuation of her statement twitching on her lips.

“But?” he prompted.

“But I’d rather you kissed me,” she admitted, but Kiril still did not look especially moved.

“Why then, do you not kiss me?” he offered, challenge smeared across the slight upward tweak of his mouth.

Glowering, Miho lifted herself a little onto her toes and leaned forward, pressing against him with her lower body whiles her lip drew closer to him; then she smugly pulled back, just before their lips made contact – she made a point of showing him he was not the only one capable of playing games.

At this is was not pleased.

“Frustrating, isn’t i…” Miho began, but the air was crushed from her as he tightened one arm, and with the other slid his hand into her hair and brought her face to his.

 

It’s a ravenous kiss so fierce I think I might disappear inside him completely, sparking a fire almost beyond my control.  Every inch of my skin is suddenly singing a heavenly choir of rapture – and it’s terrifying just how ready I feel to face the apocalypse, if only to prolong this a little more. As my fingers dig into the taut muscles of his upper arms I can feel just how much he wants me too; I’m doing more than flirting with danger now, but whatever spell he’s got me under I don’t think I can resist it for much longer.

Even at the nip of his teeth against my lower lip, I’m still so caught up in the desire to taste his skin I ignore the potential of him biting down just a little too hard. Oh God, my head is spinning because I can’t remember the last time I took a breath – and I don’t care.

My gasp echoes around the hall, now empty but for Kiril and I, my panting a stark contrast to his complete composure. But his eyes are devouring me so indecently I cannot bring myself to move my face any further than I absolutely need to ensure I don’t pass out.

“See?” I grin in dizzy triumph. “You’re not the only one who always gets what he wants.”

“Is that all you want?” he inquires, the seriousness of the question dropping the floor from under my feet.

What he wants is obvious, and I simply cannot deny I want it too – trying to convince myself otherwise is now futile.

“Aren’t my thoughts loud enough for you now?” I volley, brushing my fingertips beneath the collar of his shirt.

“You told me not to intrude, Sparrow,” he points out, teasingly pecking at my cheeks, “so you are just going to have to be explicit.”

“Oh, explicit is exactly what I’m thinking,” I reply breathily, chasing his lips until he allows me to warm them with my own once more. “Distract me from this insufferable waiting, Kiril.”

“Is that what I am? A distraction?” he frowns, but the way he’s tugging me against his body by the waist tells me right now it’s highly unlikely he cares about anything other than getting me naked.

“Distraaaaaact me,” I hiss against his throat, before kissing up under his chin.

His reaction startles me at first, giving me a shove away, but his sharp bark at the pair of attendants to clean up precedes the equally as sharp snatch of my hand and the swift jerk of my body toward the exit.

 

There is a faint sense of travel, but the distance between the castle and my hotel is little more than a blur, pouring like molten liquid into the moment Kiril and I burst into my suite. The push and pull of emotions I’ve experienced since meeting him is full throttle forward – pull his jacket away, pull his shirt buttons free, pull his bare chest against mine.

The air rushes loudly from my lungs as I’m slammed against the door, and my legs wrap naturally around his waist; his tongue, cool and moist against the inflame of my skin, slithers maddeningly down my throat, across my collarbone and across my chest until his lips suck my left nipple into his mouth.

“Gaaaah,” I hiss as his teeth pinch, and a thrill of fear shakes magnitude 10 down my spine. “Kiril… wait…”

“Rrrrwhaaat?” he growls, lifting his head with a face full of fierce. “Do not tell me to stop.”

“No… not that,” I pant, helplessly drowning in his eyes, raking my fingers through his hair as I struggle to find more words. “No biting.”

“Are you afraid, Sparrow?” he whispers against my cheek, though his unflinching gaze doesn’t break contact.

A denial is derailed before I can voice it, the promising strain of his desire pressing between my legs.

“Yes,” I admit, a word frighteningly loud as even the sound of our heavy breathing vanishes.

“Good,” he praises, his wolfish grin at first suggesting a twisted satisfaction in my alarm, but then I see in the sudden stillness that’s gripped our bodies, it’s my honesty that has garnered his approval. “Trust me.”

“Take me,” I shudder out, and throw the last of my caution to the whirlwind that envelopes us both.

Thought gives way to pure sensation: the tearing of fabric refusing to give; the swimming intoxication of breath held far too long; the slick of perspiration and persistence.

Trembling in desperate anticipation, I welcome the weight of his body, frantic to smooth my palms over the sculpture of his muscles, aching for him to touch more than just the surface.

Begging like I have never felt lust before.

Teased from toe-tip to top, to the very limit of my frustration, until he can see the wildness, the agonising fracture lines of my libido chasing every caress.

And begging like I have never felt lust before – or perhaps once – I had the taste of him in my mouth and the heaving delight of him within; even though it wasn’t him, even when it was no more than the craft of my imagination and a warm substitute.

Now there is no need, but need for him, and had I sense of anything other than that, my pride might protest. But he is every bit as hungry as I am.

Ravenous, he drags me up, a puppet sobbing feverishly for him to end my torment. My body curls, back arches as he reaches around to dance his fingers against the throb of my suffering, and I can’t hold out any longer.

It doesn’t sound like my voice, but somehow it’s the most natural utterance I’ve ever made – a choking moan without meaning to be a word, just the pure expression of my body’s inability to comprehend anything other than the pleasure of Kiril tipping me over the edge.

The way he pulls back on my hair, the gratification of his teeth grazing my shoulder, that he is unrelenting even as I convulse, is finally punctuated by the surprisingly slow ease of him inside me. This delicious pressure from within, slow, measured strokes, causes my muscles to contract so tightly I may never unwind.

Who cares?

I’m a tense ball of yearning wanting more, rocking myself against him forcefully until I’m rewarded by his voice mingling with mine in incoherent harmony.

“Sparrow,” he grates out through his teeth, my earlobe bearing the brunt of his next assault in a stinging bite that draws close to breaking his word, but doesn’t.

“Don’t stop,” I breathe giddily, grasping for enough air to fill my lungs but light-headed regardless as another storm breaks over me.

Thunder rumbling at my very centre.

Lightning searing every nerve ending.

There is no way to distinguish between sweat and tears of ecstasy, but neither he or I care.

In a slight moment of terrible respite, my back hits the bedsheets and I peer up at Kiril looming over me with an ardent restraint I both hate and admire.

“What?” I swallow heavily, unable to keep from squirming as he poises at my entrance but moves no more.

“I want to burn that face you are making, into my memory,” he declares, and it’s now, now that he’s hovering above looking down at me I see his teeth, his fangs, the touch of his tongue tapping one point.

My chest stops moving; I am mesmerized.

“No,” he whispers, leaning slowly forward to frame my face with large hands, lying against me with a tenderness I do not associate with monsters, “not that face,” he continues, brushing my lower lip with one thumb before burying himself inside me again.

With his head nuzzling into the crook of my neck, his hands slithering up my arms to grip my wrists and hold them firmly down, I know there is nothing I can do to fight him – if he’s going to kill me, I’ll die.

It’s not death that’s bubbling in my veins though, not death tingling through every fibre of my body, nor are the screams Kiril smothers with his tongue cries for help – it’s a star gone supernova consuming everything in its path.

And if he stops now without filling me to the brim?

Perhaps that is death.

That is the face,” he groans, and I open my eyes to see his – wild and shameless – trying to fix me in his focus as I watch him come undone.

 

Kiril’s voice drifts softly to where I lie comfortably beneath the bed covers. Blearily, I try to blink away the tattered remnants of sleep and listen in.

“… control freak,” Kiril sniffs, standing by the window with bright of morning cutting a black silhouette out of the day. “Give me more time.”

There he pauses. I cannot hear who he’s talking to, but he doesn’t seem irritated or in any way put out.

Typical Kiril.

Though I make no attempt to hide my interest in his conversation, sitting up, my interest moves from his lips to the bare of his chest. There are no marks on his skin where last night my fingernails broke the surface in my ardour.

Our ardour.

Slowly, my eyes widen, because beneath the sheets I’m a mess, and I’m a mess because…

“Oh shit,” I gasp, suddenly scrambling to free myself of the tangle.

“Just do it, Narumi,” Kiril huffs, turning to fix me in his gaze. “I have to go.”

The hand holding his phone drops to his side, and I become motionless.

A naked, vulnerable example of intimacy without protection.

“I’m ahh… I’m going to…” I mutter.

“You look like death,” he smirks, amused as he makes absolutely no effort to hide his appreciation of my figure.

“Kiril… we… I’m…”

“Yes, a frightful reminder of the things I would very much like to repeat,” he grins, approaching.

“You need to tell me right now,” I demand in a fluster, pointing at him almost in accusation. “Can you get me pregnant?”

Kiril blinks, but his surprise is feigned.

“We could try I suppose,” he offers, spreading his hands and approaching with clear intent.

“This isn’t funny, Kiril, can a vampire get a human pregnant? Because I don’t want some needle-teeth horror chewing its way out of my body.”

“Then it is lucky I do not sparkle in the sunlight then,” he smiles, but I shuffle back before he can touch me.

“I am not joking!” I cry in agitated frustration, only to find myself swiftly backed up against the wall.

“And I am not laughing,” he hisses against my lips, our noses point to point. “Do I seem a man who longs for the complication of a child?”

“Just tell me you can’t get me pregnant,” I sigh, shivering as his fingers brush my bare hip.

“You and I, cannot have children,” he assures me gently, but his grin is teasing.

“And other things? Oh god, where was my head when I just…” I rush on, thinking about all the diseases one might catch from unprotected sex.

“I am not sure where yours was, but mine,” he chuckles, smoothing hair over my ear as he breathes against my cheek, “was somewhere deep, and dark, warm and beautiful.”

“I bet you say that to all the vaginas,” I stammer out, my fingers tensing against his sides, hankering to dig in.

“Those conversations do not usually last very long,” he admits, kissing one cheek lightly then moving to the other, “but I would definitely like to resume the discussion I began with yours last night.”

“Now you’re just being vulgar,” I snort, but a smile tugs my lips upwards as he lightly kisses them again.

What I’m doing – other than the obvious – I don’t know. What I do know, is being touched by Kiril is unlike anything else, and it’s utterly stupid how much I want him to never stop.

 

After running the water cold with activities other than cleaning, Miho dressed and sat on her suite’s balcony in the mid-morning sun. She’d been staring at her phone for some time before inhaling deeply and calling a number she had not hesitated to dial in the past.

It rang only once before Sebastian answered, and the image of him crouched over it, glaring, waiting for it to ring flashed in Miho’s mind’s eye.

“Have you any idea how worried I’ve been?” were the first words he said, and Miho rubbed her brow where a frown instantly formed.

If his concern for her was indeed so fierce, why had he not told her about the vampire in their midst? Why had he been so cryptic about his warnings to stay away from Kiril when he had to have known she would push back when not provided with a valid reason.

“Would you have accepted the real reason if he’d told you?” she wondered silently, finally responding loud. “I’m pleased to hear from you too, Sebastian.”

“Really? You know, if that were true, you might have responded to the fifty message I’ve left for you already,” he snapped.

“I’ve been running all over Prague looking for my missing best friend,” she volleyed curtly, her mood quick to darken. “Imagine Selina went AWOL,” she continued, leaning forward in her seat, “because that is how I feel right now, how I’ve been feeling, so I’m sorry if I’ve gone deaf to all your warning-warning danger Will Robinson over Kiril Lambert.”

A short silence ensued, during which time Miho sucked in a deep breath and flopped back; she hadn’t meant to be quite so savage.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” she sighed, rolling her eyes across the city. “I’m really exhausted, and Jazz’s trail’s gone cold.”

Why she was especially tired, she did not say.

“I don’t mean to badger you, Miho,” he responded, his voice also tempered by apology, “but that family are just so dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt anymore.”

“Then tell me everything at Pale is fine,” she replied, trying to muster up some positivity. “I hope you’ll manage to give Selina some of your time.”

“You know she loves the club,” Sebastian conceded, letting the matter of the Lamberts go – or the moment. “I actually think she was happier helping Mieke and I out than she would have been having boring old dinner with her boring old brother.”

It wasn’t the first time Selina Ross had visited and spent time at Pale, and though she was several years younger, Miho quite liked the girl. There was an infectious optimism about her that made being grumpy almost impossible, and patrons at the club found that incredibly magnetic.

Having her around was good for business.

“I doubt very much she travelled all that way to see the club,” Miho chuckled. “Boring old or not, kid sisters and big brothers have special relationships.”

As she spoke those last few words, Kiril stepped out onto the balcony behind her.

“Maybe,” Sebastian grunted, and there was another pause before he spoke again, during which time Kiril made it clear he wasn’t going to give Miho space to finish her call in privacy. “So, I meant Mieke and I can handle things here but, if there’s nothing…”

“I’m not coming home without her,” Miho stated flatly, staring up at Kiril whose lips began to part as if he meant to speak.

In warning, Miho sharply raised a finger and her stare became a glower. The last thing she needed was for Sebastian to recognise Kiril’s voice. Teasingly, he leaned closer.

“I know you love her,” Sebastian said somberly, “just, promise me you won’t destroy yourself in this search.”

“I’m a big gi…” Miho began, but Sebastian cut her off, his tone of voice absolutely serious.

Promise me,” he insisted, and hearing him, Kiril’s eyebrows twitched downward.

“You know I don’t like making promises,” Miho answered carefully, “especially ones I may not be able to keep, but… I promise I will keep my eyes open and my wits about me.”

A heavy exhale signalled Sebastian’s surrender.

“Okay, well, you know how to reach me if you need anything, so call me,” he added.

“I will,” Miho affirmed. “Say hi to Selina for me.”

“Will do.”

That ended the conversation, and Miho dropped her phone into her lap, chewing the inside of her cheek for a few seconds until Kiril’s shadow across her caused the bloom of a shiver.

“Mr. Ross seems very invested in your wellbeing,” he noted, and it might have sounded casual but for the slight scowl he was wearing.

“Friends usually are,” Miho shrugged, trying not to play into his looming broodiness.

“You and he…”

“Don’t finish that sentence, or question or thought,” she huffed, rocking to her feet and standing, but Kiril caught her wrist before she could slip back inside.

“Which question would that be?” he queried. “Whether you are in a relationship with him? Sleeping with him? I suppose that would go some way to explaining his hostility toward me.”

“Yes,” Miho replied ambiguously.

Kiril’s touch was warm – generally it was not, and it reminded her of the first time he’d heated his skin for her.

“That, and I imagine in large part because he doesn’t like the idea of a vampire making a meal out of his boss,” Miho added.

“Mmm, just his boss. Doubtful,” he asserted, walking his fingers up her other arm in a gesture Miho thought was absurdly cute – so much so she couldn’t help but laugh. “What?”

“And what if Sebastian and I are a thing?” she posed, teasingly, and Kiril’s expression became serious.

“One more reason to kill him,” he answered flatly, pulling her against him and trapping her in his arms with her back to his chest.

“Don’t you dare!” she hissed, struggling as he nudged her closer the balustrade and lowered one hand to the front of her pants.

“Or what, little Sparrow?” he smiled against the shell of her ear, his fingers burrowing into her underwear.

“Fuck you, Kiril,” Miho growled, squirming as he rubbed against her, but her declaration sounded less fierce as his name twisted into a moan.

“It is kind of you to be so explicit in your invitation,” he hummed against her throat, grinding against her even as she squinted at the street.

“Someone is going to see us,” she grumbled, fighting a losing battle with her self-restraint. “Damnit, why does this feel so good?”

“I have had a lot of practice,” he responded, delving into her with slow strokes – one, two, three fingers – until the volume of her encouragements grew conspicuous. “Sing louder, Sparrow,” he groaned into her hair. “Let all of Prague know how I make you feel.”

Clenching her teeth, Miho resisted that urge, trapping cries in her chest even as Kiril began to work free the buttons of her blouse.

 

Then his phone rang.

 

“Ignore it,” he snapped quickly, withdrawing from her so he could tend to his own pants, but this afforded Miho a moment of clarity.

“Kiril, answer it,” she panted. “What if it’s Arno?”

“Grrr,” Kiril snarled, standing straight and digging out the phone, barking into it the moment he answered. “What?”

With a hand on her chest, heart beating wildly beneath her palm, Miho stumbled into a seat. And her heart wasn’t the only thing pulsing – she was sure if there was any more friction, even if she just crossed her legs, she was going to lose it.

Instead, she tried to focus on what Kiril was saying. His expression had sobered, but his body was still tensed… everywhere.

“We made our agreement, and I will keep it if your information turns out to be accurate,” he said curtly shifting over to Miho, whose hand reached up to him without prompting. “We will head there now,” he continued, his lips pinching when Miho traced her fingers lightly around the front of his pants. “Mhm, ensure your people do not alert them.”

Grinding his teeth, he listened to his caller’s response while Miho palmed him, grinning up cheekily.

“Fine,” he grunted, then without bidding his caller farewell, he hung up and tossed his phone aside before grabbing Miho’s hand.

“Sparrow, you are asking for trouble,” he warned, dragging her back to her feet. “Here I have the location of our fugitives, but all I want is to tear your clothes off.”

“God, I can’t believe I want you to,” Miho shuddered, wrapping her arms around his neck. “But Jazz? They really found her?”

“According to Arno,” Kiril confirmed, his forehead lowered to hers. “But right now I do not want to leave this suite.”

“You deliver Jazz to me, and I’ll do whatever you ask,” Miho exhaled breathily, tapping her fingers against the swell in is pants for extra emphasis. “And I’ll even enjoy it.”

“Get your coat,” he dropped, before clicking his tongue and forcing himself to turn away from her.

In a flurry, Miho did as she was bid, the burning in her loins distracted by the prospect of finally seeing Jazz again. Kiril hadn’t said whether Arno described her physical state, but Miho assumed Kiril would extend the courtesy of preparing her for the worst if… if what they’d found was a corpse in a ditch somewhere.

In the cab she couldn’t keep still, fidgeting and twisting in her seat. Though Kiril sat beside her watching, her mind was elsewhere – what she would say to Jazz, how relieved she would feel, how to hold her tears back so she could yell at her for just up and disappearing.

“This waiting is unbearable,” she muttered, wringing her fingers until her knuckles cracked, until Kiril closed much larger hands around hers.

Immediately she sat up a little straighter, the touch of his flesh against hers like an aphrodisiac that made her thighs quiver.

“According to Arno’s people, both Konstantin and Jazz are located on the outskirts of Prague in a cute little cottage… playing house,” he explained, sounding exasperated.

“Playing house,” Miho repeated quietly to herself, gnawing on her lower lip before leaning back and looking up into Kiril’s face. “With a vampire? Is that even possible?

Immediately Miho could tell Kiril had heard her thoughts, but he said nothing.

Miho considered her feelings for Kiril more seriously now. If Jazz had run away to be with Konstantin…

“You were talking to Narumi earlier,” Miho stated out of the blue. “Is something going on?”

“Hmmm,” Kiril hummed thoughtfully. “Konrad is wondering where his favourite son has disappeared to, and doesn’t have his least favourite son to take it out on.”

“What does that mean?” Miho frowned. “Is he going to send an army to march on Prague and extract you?”

At this Kiril emitted a pithy laugh.

“For Konstantin, perhaps, but not for the like of me,” he expounded. “If his golden child does not return soon, he may indeed send agents in search of him. Better that he goes back of his own accord.”

“And is Narumi on your side, or your father’s?” Miho pressed, trying to distract herself with backstory.

This caused Kiril to chuckle.

“Konrad is a tyrant,” he asserted. “No one is truly on his side, at least not out of choice. Fear maybe.”

“Is he really that much of a monster?” Miho scowled, then continued. “So, if he found out I was a hunter?”

“That in and of itself is not enough to condemn you,” he explained, but lifted a hand to her cheek. “But treaties are tenuous things, Sparrow. It is best you tell no one about yourself, not even Jazz.”

This caused Miho to frown.

“Jazz and I don’t keep secrets from one another,” she declared, her lips quivering as Kiril’s thumb approached them.

“We both know that is not true,” he smiles slowly. “Or she would not have disappeared without your knowledge.”

“You’re assuming Konstantin didn’t force her,” she scowled, her stomach churning. “Kiril, if she is with him, if she has been with him all this time… could he… would he turn her?”

There was silence but for the rhythmic sound of the car.

“It is a possibility,” Kiril answered eventually watching her reaction closely.

“What will that mean?” she exhaled, leaning into his hand until her head slipped to his shoulder.

“Complications,” he replied, idly stroking Miho’s hair, “but nothing I cannot handle.”

“Complications how?” Miho persisted.

“My father has no love for the turned vampire,” Kiril explained, disdain thick in his voice. “In the hierarchy of influence, they are even less than humans; the turned are a bastardised form of pure vampire blood, stains he refuses to acknowledge as being of worth to his domain.”

Miho pondered this, but the brush of his fingers against her scalp made it difficult to think.

“If Konstantin has turned your friend,” Kiril continued. “If they fled together and Konrad finds out they are involved, he will kill her.”

“He’ll have to go through me,” Miho snarled, straightening, and Kiril pinched the back of her neck.

“He will kill you too, Sparrow,” he pointed out. “Especially you.”

“Narumi,” Miho scowled. “Whose side is she on?”

“Hmph,” Kiril snorted, his fingers slackening. “Narumi is in the unenviable position of being caught between her place in the aristocracy and Konrad’s law-keeper, and what she believes is right.”

“So if she finds out I’m a hunter?” Miho prompted.

“It would be a terrible shame if I had to kill her,” Kiril mused. “I actually like her.”

“You’d kill her?” Miho frowned, shifting her body a little sideways so she could look into his face. “For me?”

“Let us not dwell too much on hypotheticals,” he responded, leaving the question unanswered. “Soon we shall have the information we require to move forward, and prevent Konrad from becoming more of problem for anyone.”

 

Soon the city gave way the green countryside, and in the hills to the south of Stradonice, the car came to a stop at the entrance to a dirt road where a man stood waiting.

Fiercely biting into her lower lip, Miho approached him with Kiril at her side, watching and listening as the pair spoke in Czech. Impatiently she scraped her toe through the gravel, until the man turned to his own car.

“There is a cottage half a kilometre up this track,” Kiril reported, taking Miho’s hand and pulling her into motion. “According to our friend, Konstantin and Jazz are both inside.”

“How the hell did they find them out here?” she whispered, as much to herself as to him.

“I imagine Arno really wanted to avoid the consequences of not locating them,” Kiril answered, and continued. “When we reach the house, allow me to approach first.”

She didn’t question why. If they had gone to such lengths to disappear, then they may not be all that happy about being discovered. Still, Miho couldn’t imagine Jazz ever doing her harm, vampire or not.

At the sight of the cottage, Miho found herself barely able to breathe, and Kiril gave her hand a squeeze.

“Wait here,” he instructed, and after releasing her he pushed through the picket gate and began up the path to the front door.

“Wait here,” Miho sigh, resuming her lower lip attack until she couldn’t stand it anymore.

Kiril pulled back the tattered fly-screen door and knocked three times against the chipped paint of the wooden door beneath. He could sense Miho at his back, knew she wouldn’t listen, but focused his hearing on any sounds of movement.

Then he was gone, one blink and he had dashed away, leaving Miho blinking at the space where he’d stood. She could only think he’d hear something and rushed off to intercept it.

“Jazz!” she shouted, shouted with all the energy she had, and after stomping up onto the porch she turned the front door knob.

Beneath her palm it turned, and steeling herself, she moved into the dim interior of the cottage.

“Jazz?” she called again, this time a little more discretely, but her answer came not in the form of her best friend’s voice, but in a loud crash and the sound of splintering wood.

There was little time to wonder at how her reflex was to run toward the sound rather than away from it – before rational thought blossomed, Miho had sprinted through the unfamiliar house and burst out the back door.

“Do not run,” Kiril warned, pointing at where Konstantin was struggling from the hole in the side of the cottage he’d made with his body’s impact. “For the chosen son you are a real pain in the ass.”

“Jazz,” Miho dropped in a breathy whisper, and the blonde woman’s head snapped in her best friend’s direction.

“Miho?” she mouthed, barely a sound at all – just enough for Miho to hear, enough to break the dam that held back the tears.

But Jazz’s expression was a conflicted twist of joy and angst, and her eyes darted between the two brothers before returning to Miho.

“My life has nothing to do with you Kiril,” Konstantin growled, brushing off his shoulders.

“Do you have any idea…?” Miho wept.

“Konrad has tasked Narumi to find you…” Kiril volleyed.

“I didn’t want to hurt you…” Jazz murmured, taking a hesitant step toward her friend.

“No, Jazz!” Konstantin called out urgently. “If Konrad’s looking for us we need to get even further away.”

“Who do you think our father is exactly?” Kiril rumbled, stalking toward his brother again. “There is no place you can hide he will not find you.”

“I thought you were dead,” Miho sobbed, peering up from where she’d sunken to the ground, Jazz’s figure wavering through tears like a ghost. “Are you dead?”

“I’m…” Jazz began, but her sentence faltered.

As Kiril and Konstantin physically clashed once more, Jazz crouched down before Miho and lightly placed her hands on Miho’s knees.

“… it’s complicated now,” she finished, Miho’s raw pain cutting her deeply; but she knew she deserved it and more.

“Why couldn’t you tell me about this? About him?” Miho choked out, taking hold of Jazz’s hands tightly, wrapping warm fingers around cold.

So cold that her eyes widened.

“You… He…” she stammered, blinking furiously to clear her vision. “Did he force this on you?”

Miho stopped listening despite having asked a question. The answer had already formed in her mind – this vampire who had taken her best friend away, turned her into this thing against her will… she would kill him, and it was written all over her face as she rose.

“No, Miho!” Jazz exclaimed. “It isn’t like that.”

“Really?” Miho balked, swiping away Jazz’s attempt to place a gentle hand on her shoulder. “So he sat you down and asked you politely and you said, oh sure son of a vampire king who’ll kill us both for it, make me a vampire!”

“We… not exactly,” Jazz admitted, fixing her grip around one of Miho’s wrists and holding her back easily.

“I don’t care who he is!” Miho shrieked, fighting against Jazz tooth and nail, but both women were nearly bowled over when Kiril came tumbling toward them.

“You of all people should understand the desire for freedom, Kiril,” Konstantin glowered, his voice suddenly so much lower, his body inexplicably growing until his clothing strained and threatened to tear.

“Konstantin don’t!” Jazz shouted, as she jerked Miho back against her chest and folded both arms around her. “Just calm down, we need to, to talk to them!”

Kiril was picking himself up, his expensive clothing streaked with mud and grass, while Miho struggled, and he cut a glance to her and paused when Jazz lifted her head a little toward her friend’s neck.

“Miho, we need to talk,” Jazz said thickly, and the taller woman fell still, just a moment, before wriggling around in Jazz’s hold to hug her tightly. “Inside,” Jazz prompted, looking around Miho at the two brothers briefly, before sliding her hand into Miho’s and guiding her back toward the cottage.

Blood Spatter: Part 5

 

 

PART 5

Eyes and bodies turn; villain and victim peer through the dim at a figure leaning casually against the wall on the other side of the alley several metres away. Everything about him screams nonchalance – the setting, the setup, the characters, none of it seems to concern him.

Languidly, he tips his chin up, revealing an unnatural light in the green depths of his eyes.Everyone is unsure, except him.
The moment is his, the alley, the city, the night – all his, and this confidence dares anyone to disagree.

I take this moment of distract to attempt an escape, not wishing to let the opportunity slip by, but the back of my neck is snatched the moment I put this thought into action.
The world is a sudden blur of colour and sound, and I do not blink: not once.

Kiril’s cashmere coat flutters dramatically as he slides between the men, the cape of a hero pounding out great splashes of blood with his fist, driving teeth into flesh and ripping through veins until three men have fallen and do not move.

I do not blink: not even now, Kiril standing before me, his ludicrously stoic face a smear, his lips parted and stained.

“Now’s the part where you release her and beg for your miserable existence,” Kiril drawls, before the tip of his tongue touches the sharp point of a far too long canine tooth.

“That’s… not going to hap…” the remaining ‘man’ says, but his voice dies as Kiril sounds out behind us, even though he’s still plainly right before us.

“Wrong answer,” he whispers in the man’s ear, causing him to flinch.

And flinch again, tumbling me on hands and knees at Kiril’s feet.

Looking up – he’s there.

Looking back – he’s…

My mouth drops open in silent horror as Kiril squeezes his fingers tightly where they’re protruding from my attacker’s chest, his heart still in Kiril’s grip until it drops to the ground with a sickening splat. A few seconds later, the last body joins the rest, and I am alone with this monster wearing Kiril’s face.

His unhurried approach, perhaps designed to calm my obvious anxiety, explodes an energetic flight response. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast in my entire life, scurrying along like death was snapping at my heels – maybe it was?

Before I can exit the alley, however, I skid to a sudden halt in the face of a brick wall that hadn’t been there a moment ago.I think.

Panting and on the verge of hysteria, I spin into Kiril’s arms, drawn nose to bloody nose.

“Now might be a good moment for you to just accept my suggestion, and sleep,” he exhaled, holding my gaze with the fierce caress of green flame against my face.

“Let me…” I begin, wanting to struggle and shriek, but finding my limbs heavy and resistant.“Come on, Miho,” he breathes, paradoxical tenderness in the eyes of a murderer.

“Just sleep, and everything will be alright, I promise.”

“You… promise?” I hiss, but he’s holding all my weight now. “Don’t… don’t…”

 

I don’t remember finishing my sentence. Nothing makes sense, while maybe it makes sense now more than it ever did. Kiril’s face is so close to mine, pressed up against the wall somewhere in London, blood on his tongue – my blood – but his name is Alex, and Narumi shouts at him from somewhere nearby.

Teeth and eyes and blood.

So much blood – because of Konstantin? Because I chased him?

In the black, it falls into place.It’s so typical for me, to wander – no, charge – into a situation so blindly I don’t see the vampire for the trees; but for some reason I’m not nearly as surprised by this revelation as I should be.

The coldest part now, is realising Kiril is a bloodsucker, then Konstantin probably is too.

“Jazz.”

“Jazz!” I exclaim, sitting bolt upright in room I recognize.In bed, in my suite, I’m dressed in my nightgown, and the outfit I was wearing is hung up on the outside of the carved, wooden wardrobe.

“She’s not here,” Kiril says, and my head snaps to the chair beside the bed where I hadn’t even noticed he was sitting.

“Why did I even wake up?” I wonder, and though Kiril’s head tilts the slightest bit, his expression remains sombre.

“I have no desire to kill you, Sparrow,” he declares, unmoving as I slip out the far side of the bed: not that I think a simple piece of furniture could stop him from zapping in behind me and crush my spine. “Or crush your spine,” he adds, simply watching me. “Honestly, I don’t wish you any harm.”

“Oh really?” I spit, far more vehemently than I intend.

“Antagonising a vampire is hardly a good idea.”

Then I think about all the times we’ve been together alone, how I’ve acted and spoken to him.

“You remember now, don’t you?” he prompts, somewhat of a rhetorical question. “How is your head?”

“I just watched you slaughter four guys: slaughter,” I reiterate, my hands moving to animate my statements in macabre fashion.

He has washed and changed his clothing, and though he is no longer covered in blood, I can still see it patterning his pale skin.“And you’re asking how my head is?” I continue, exasperated. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Does it seem like I am?” he asks, so bland now it’s hard to resist the urge to smack some emotion into him.Which brings back the memory of me slapping him in that expensive café.

“That’s right,” he nods. “If I wanted to hurt you, you’ve given me ample motive and opportunity.”

“Stop that!” I snap, swiping my arm through their air. “Stay out of my head; I knew you were in my head.”

In long, agitated strides, I pace across the room and back again, and finally Kiril rises.

“That’s not the only place,” he adds simply, and I spin and point viciously.

“Don’t you FUCKING DARE pull that shit!” I roar, apparently losing all sense of self preservation. “You’ve been dangling Konstantin in front of me like a carrot since I met you, playing some sick game – why? What the hell do you gain from messing with me like that?”

Because you remembered,” he answers flatly, his single step in my direction bursting my bravado and sending me scooting back. “The mind-splitting headaches, flashes of a past events, of faces and names; something you shouldn’t have recalled.”

“Alex,” I shudder out. “He attacked me for asking about Konstantin and he…”

Kiril’s brows lift.

“He licked me,” I swallow, “and then he was…

“Hmph,” Alex grunted, leaned closer to Miho’s throat, inhaling deeply before slithering his tongue over the slowly oozing wound he found there.

Though Miho drove her free hand up under his chin, Alex tossed her aside, and she cartwheeled.

“Now that’s a nifty secret,” he snarled, about to pounce once more, when the back exit of the club opened abruptly, and a woman appeared in the doorway.

“I see,” Kiril nodded slowly, knowingly, and took another step forward.

“Just, stay right there!” I command, but my voice is trembling.

And Kiril is no longer before me.

Instead, his arms wrap around me from behind.

“Get off!” I bellow, wriggling and writhing like a mad cat, but at the same time my skin is suddenly singing.

“Stop struggling, Miho, you’re not in danger here,” he hisses, his cool breath tickling my ear. “Damnit please, relax.”

My body freezes, and it’s only half because Kiril’s entreaty actually sounds genuine. I watched him spit out a chunk of a guy’s neck, punch another’s heart right out of his body – I should be petrified, and I am – but at the same time, the clench of his arms and the pressure of his body against mine, the press of his face over my shoulder and his lips so close to my skin fires shocks of wanton anticipation all through me.

“What did you do to me?” I rasp, feeling his arms loosen a little. “You’re a murderer, you just…”

“I didn’t do anything to you,” he growls, one hand sliding up my throat to rest lightly under my chin, “but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more.”

“Kiril, let me go,” I plead, but the sensation of his exhale against my neck makes me shiver, and weaken my legs.

“In case the guys in the alley weren’t enough of a wakeup call, you’re in over your head,” he rumbles, turning me to face him. “Konstantin and Jazz are one thing, but you are in danger if you pursue this, more than you know.”

“Apparently I don’t know anything anymore,” I blink tearily, but Kiril’s expression isn’t sympathetic, it’s… pained?

“If they discover what you are, even Narumi,” he says softly, one finger stroking along the line of my jaw, “they will kill you.”

“They? And you?”

“If I did, you’d be dead,” he points out, and I have to concede the point; he’s right, he’s had plenty of chances, and yet his touch now is so gentle.

Of its own accord, my head turns into his touch, but my stomach is a violent, churning squall of conflicting emotion.

“Please, Kiril,” I beg, reaching out with my eyes, “just let me go – if what you say is true – I need space, and I can’t think while you’re…”

“That’s just it,” he frowns, but it’s not by me he’s confused. “I don’t want to let you go. I want to feel your warmth, hold it closely, hold it safe.”

Thankfully, despite his words, he steps back, rubbing at the back of his neck, while I find the edge of the bed to sit down on before I fall down.

“Vampires is a lot to drop on a girl,” I murmur, watching him pace to the window and then back to the middle of the room. “And the chosen one too huh? Brilliant.”

“Hardly the chosen one,” he sniffs, a sharp sound I can see he immediately regrets. “And I cannot be one hundred percent sure, not yet, not without…”

His expression is now imploring, but he’s also holding himself back: me too. I both want him to tackle me against the mattress, but need to him to stay away.

“Without…?” I prompt, but I already know I’m not going to like the answer.

“Without tasting you,” he answers plainly, honestly, and though his posture could be called relaxed, I see his eyes flicker with desire.

I know he’s talking about my blood – that is what vampires are about after all – but I cannot help but blush and squeeze my thighs together a little more tightly.

“And what would that prove exactly?”

“Every person tastes a little different,” he answers, his hands unfolding as he provides some crucial exposition, “and the older I get, the more I can tell about a person: intricacies of their health, hints of the genetic heritage, and whether they are human or not.”

An exhale explodes from between my lips.

“So, the vampire is telling me I’m not human?” I balk.

“I suspect, strongly, you’re not entirely human,” he agrees, hazarding to slowly move toward the bed at the far end. “As you have recalled, you were attacked,” he continues, sitting down a good five feet away, “by one of Konstantin’s friends, I suppose you could call him, and Narumi stopped him from killing you.”

“The woman from the police station,” I mutter. “She’s a vampire too?”

Kiril confirms this with a nod.

“And it’s her job to clean up mistakes like Alex made,” he adds.

“I remember being somewhere after that alley,” I admit, “and her voice.”

“We don’t go about killing people,” he says. “We will make you forget anything that might be problematic for us.”

“But I remembered.”

My lip bears the brunt of my bubbling anxiety.

“Regular humans don’t just shrug off power like Narumi’s,” he nods slowly. “It’s not possible.”

“Did you? Have you ever messed with my head?” I ask, and Kiril doesn’t look ashamed.

“I forced you to sleep last night,” he admits. “But if I had changed any of your memories, you would likely have remembered by now.”

“So you,” I inhale, “you didn’t make me…”

“Make you what?” he prompts.

“Ugh, make me want you so stupidly!”

And the moment after I think that ridiculously loud thought, I realise he’s been hearing the inner workings of my mind since we met.

Oh yeah, he’s grinning.

“Believe me when I say it is taking all my self-control to keep my distance,” he declares, turning a little. “But I will wait until you trust me.”

“Would you trust you?” I ask, swallowing the lump in my throat.

“To protect something important to me? Absolutely,” he affirms without a second of hesitation. “And knowing you, you will need protection.”

“Knowing me, huh?” I chortle. “When did we meet again? How much could you possibly…”

“I know you’re relentlessly loyal,” he interrupts. “Sassy and sharp-witted, tenacious and principled despite your ‘madam of the club’ façade, and a tactile, passionate woman, who has been haunting me for far longer than you think.”

“The hell am I supposed to say to that?” I think, and again I see Kiril’s lips twitch. “If you want me to trust you, you can start by staying out of my head,” I scowl reproachfully.

“You’re all but broadcasting,” he defends, “when you’re thinking about me.”

Burning – oh yeah, my face is flaming.

“I could try to teach you to be more guarded,” he offers.

“But I’m not a vampire… am I?”

Kiril shakes his head and rises again, making his intention to approach me clear before he does- and I let him; I know I shouldn’t, but I let him.

“You,” he says, looking down at me, his shadow casting cold over my exposed skin, while the light at his back makes him glow divinely, “are something I should kill right now, before you can become a real danger, to me, to my kind.”

My lips part to respond, in fright, in my defence, but the feathery touch of his thumb against me, silences the words before they can emerge.

“Fully awakened hunters are immune to the mind manipulation of many preternaturals – vampires included – and can detect our true identities no matter how human we look.”

“I didn’t,” I admit, but his thumb presses more insistently.

“Because you’re not awakened,” he clarifies. “And if I have anything to do with it, you never will.”

Gently, slowly, his thumb opens my mouth, and without even thought, just base instinct that somehow overwhelms that of survival, my lips wrap around it. The moist warmth of my tongue touches him tentatively, and for a second before the horror of my actions hits me, I suckle provocatively against the very tip.

My backward flinch is jarring, my eyes wide, and I’m shaking my head like that can dispel the pheromone laced fog controlling my actions.

“I’m sorry, I…” I shudder out, my body crying out for me to taste him far more, but my mind shrieking grave warning. “I hate this, I hate feeling like, like someone else is controlling me actions!”

Calmly, Kiril watches, his fully clothed legs brushing lightly against the dangle of mine.

“You can’t seduce me like this,” I growl adamantly, and it’s Kiril’s turn to shake his head.

“I told you, what you feel for me is my doing.”

Frustrated, I stand and shove him away so I can begin pacing again.

“What am I supposed to do now, huh?” I eject, throwing up my hands. “Lions and tigers and bears, and I want to just rub myself all over one.”

Clearly, Kiril was struggling not to smirk.

“Stop that!” I tell him once more, slashing the air with my hand. “I came here to find Jazz, not to get all tangled up in your bullshit.”

“Then that is what we do,” he asserts. “ The men who attacked you were locals, which means just as you did in London, your search for Konstantin aroused interest.”

“Well it’s a little late to ask them what they know,” I point out.

“They were asking you for information,” he points out, “which suggests they didn’t know he was here. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Prague’s gentry is unaware.”

“Given they attacked me, is said gentry likely to part with any information they might have?” I frown, but Kiril sniffs with arrogant confidence.

“Arno will deal with me whether he likes it or not,” he states, “I just need to make a call or two.”

 

Miho took a long shower while Kiril made his phone calls. She didn’t know or care who he was talking to; the last thing she needed to do was add to the mountainous pile of unbelievable she’d be blindsided with. Some of it she just knew, even though she didn’t know how she knew – a voice deep within told her Kiril was not lying, not about vampires and not about herself being an unawakened hunter. Surprisingly, it was the inexplicable attraction she felt toward Kiril – despite everything – that vexed her the most. As the warm water caressed her body, she replayed all the times they had been in close proximity – and shuddered, her hand sliding between her legs to press against the aching of her clit.

“Not good,” she sighed, her head leaning against the glass wall as she rocked against her hand.

Even as she relished the burgeoning, pleasure, a part of her remained deeply concerned by the mental image she’d created of Kiril nuzzled in behind her, his hands on her, in her.

And she really hoped he couldn’t hear her thoughts from the other room.

“Feel better?” Kiril enquired, when Miho finally emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed and preened.

Praying he took the flush in her cheeks as heat from the shower, she nodded, but her attention was soon drawn to the wafting scent of coffee and a tray of various consumables.

“Your stomach was growling,” he smiled, tipping his chin in the direction of the table.

“It was not,” she huffed, but moved to pour herself a mug just the same.

“Oh? Then I suppose you were growling for another reason?” he posed, one eyebrow raised provokingly. “Hm, perhaps not growling, maybe moaning is a little more accurate.”

Miho blinked, then rallied.

“Well, if I was it certainly had nothing to do with you,” she sniffed, casually filling her mug and grabbing a slice of fruit. “So, what’s the plan?”

Better to stick to business.

“We’ll walk right into Arno’s court and politely ask for his assistance,” he replied, not looking the slightest bit daunted by his suggestion.

“Is that really the wisest idea, considering you just killed four locals?” Miho asked sceptically, surprised by how good her appetite was considering the traumatic events of the previous night.

With a shrug, Kiril rose from his seat, thrusting his hands into his pockets.

“Arno is old,” he admitted. “That’s Europe for you, but the old world doesn’t hold nearly as much sway as it used to.”

“Okaaay,” she agreed, taking a sip before continuing. “But this we business. Before, you were all ‘Oh I should kill you because you’re a hunter and you need to be protected’, and now you’re suggesting I march down the throat of a vampire court? That doesn’t seem all that smart.”

“So long as you behave like you’re under my thumb, everything will be fine,” he told her, and now looked mighty pleased with himself.

“I am not under your thumb,” Miho ruffled, glaring at him over the rim of her mug.

“And this defiance is something I admire in you,” he nodded, “you never cease to entertain, but unless you want me to leave you here, you’re going to have swallow your pride for a little while and play like a good little pet.”

Grinding her teeth, Miho considered being stubborn by refusing to go, but it seemed she was getting closer to finding Jazz, and did not want to just leave it to Kiril.

“Fine,” she grumped.

“Understand, Miho, a false step here could me we both end up as little more than unrecognisable fragments of flesh,” he explained frankly, though he didn’t appear fazed by this prospect. “I can hold my own, make no mistake, but at the centre of Arno’s kingdom, he definitely has the advantage.”

“Kingdom,” Miho repeated. “So what? Vampires follow a monarchical hierarchy?”

“In some countries, yes,” he affirmed. “In others, it’s a matter of who has the most power and who can cling to it.”

“Not big on democracy huh?” she sniffed, finishing off her coffee and placing her mug back on the tray.

“Well, the human world messes that up enough for everyone,” he expounded with mild amusement. “And no matter how much power within our own we hold, we cannot help but be in some way influenced by the machinations of human politics.”

“And in the UK?” she prompted, taking another piece of fruit before moving slowly around the table to the other side; another piece of furniture between them.

“Monarchy,” he affirmed, but his lips remained parted as if there was more.

“And? Come on, the time for secrets is over,” Miho urged, emphasising her statement with a pointed look.

“And, do you remember when I warned you not to pursue my father?” he replied, not having to say much more for her to cotton on.

“Seriously?” she coughed, shaking her head. “Your dad is the king of the UK?”

“I’ll spare you the indignity of calling me you Highness,” he smiled. “At least in private.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she sighed shakily, casting her mind back to the business dinner and the whole thing with the man named Hardwick. “I feel like I’ve been walking around with my eyes closed.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s normal not to see that which defies the well accepted status quo,” he philosophised, glancing at his watch before looking back up. “Shall we go?”

With two loud cracks, Miho tilted her head from one side to the other, then levelled her gaze at Kiril – eyes brimming with determination.

“I’m ready.”

Continuing to smile, perhaps a little too genuinely for Miho to actually believe it was genuine, Kiril watched her snatch up her bag and head for the door.

“You’re going to need this,” he told her softly, and before she could look away from the door, she felt the light pressure of her coat folding over her shoulders, Kiril’s hands smoothing down her arms a second later.

The gesture caused her to shiver, made parts of her clench so tightly she’d leaned back against him like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Stop that,” she hissed, his thumbs stroking her upper arms, but she hadn’t straightened, nor reached for the knob… the door knob.

“This, whatever this is, is as difficult for me to resist as it is for you,” he whispered, then reached around her to open the door. “After you.”

 

Far from the pretentiousness of his usual limousine, Kiril has already called ahead to have a city taxi waiting for us out the front of the hotel. Like a gentleman he opens the door and sees me comfortably inside, before joining me in the back. I’m not stupid, I haven’t forgotten the things I’ve just learned or seen, but Kiril’s right – the attraction between us is unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and it demands I touch him, feel him and that I let him have the same of me. Fighting it is exhausting, even if my logical mind tells me I should not be putting myself in the path of a killer, a predator, all for the tingle of my nethers.

“It’s not just for that,” I tell myself sternly, as Jazz has always been my number one priority.

Denying how much I want Kiril to take me right there in the back of this cab, however, is becoming more and more difficult.

Our hands brush.

I blush like some ridiculous otome ‘heroine’ whose only exposure to grown men is her stern and uptight father. Trying so hard to rein in the raging fire in my face, I completely miss Kiril stating our location to the driver, but try to piece together our destination from what landmarks I’m familiar with.

“Relax, Sparrow,” Kiril instructs, leaning his shoulder against me a little, and it’s only when his hand touches mine again that I realise I’ve made tight fists. “You don’t want them to smell blood in the water.”

“If they do,” I hiss quietly, “it’ll be because you spilt it everywhere.”

“Do I win no points at all for saving your life?” he wonders aloud, and I think, I think, there is a hint of sadness behind a giant wall of irritability.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” I concede. “You’re bloody Batman, and you totally saved my ass from getting it handed to me.”

Surprisingly, he doesn’t press for more.

“Actually, you may just have given them a challenge,” he declares, and I turn my head to find his so very close to mine. “There is a part of you sleeping, yes,” he goes on, “but your instincts seem to be surfacing – the unnatural angle of one thug’s arm attested to that.”

“What’s an arm to a…” I grunt, but catch myself before saying the v-word. “It was a reflex.”

“Exactly,” he smirks. “Just remember to hold off on those when we are inside, and leave the talking to me.”

“With pleasure,” I agree, and look down when Kiril slides his fingers through mine – skin as cold as the grave. “Kiril,” I begin, slowly. “If Jazz isn’t dead, I mean, if Konstantin didn’t… if she’s been with him this whole time…”

My unspoken question terrifies me – as much as I want the answer, what it might mean could change everything.

“Let us make no assumptions,” he replies, a warmth of reassurance in that simple sentence that makes me forget the iciness of his flesh. “There is no going back for either of you, but this is hardly an end.”

Caught off guard by this tenderness, my mouth gapes, and I see Kiril’s eyes flit to my lips.

“Assuming he didn’t just kill her and flee the country,” I point out breathily, my heart a thundering rapid flush with adrenaline.

“Konstantin and I are worlds apart,” he reveals, his face inching slightly closer. “My brother is all heart.”

“And you?” I exhale, barely audible even as such close proximity. “What are you… all?”

For what seems like an eternity, all the sounds of the world beyond our bubble is hushed.

“Right now,” he answers, cool breath against the flush of my cheeks, “I am all self-restraint, Sparrow – and that is the only reason you are still clothed right now.”

There is a strange pressure behind my eyes as I try to break this spell I’m under, this quagmire that seems to hold me even stronger the more I struggle against it.

“I am not…”

“Liar,” he interjects, dipping his head forward, his forehead lightly pressed to mine, the tips of our noses touching, “and you cannot lie to me, or yourself.”

Taxi driver ex machina – the man clears his throat and I pull back to press myself against the window, while Kiril just chuckles.

“Do you always play so hard to get?” he queries lightly, running one hand through his hair. “That isn’t the impression of you I’d formed from watching you at Pale.”

“Are you saying you took me for a slut?” I scowl, but even I know this question is a defence mechanism.

“I am saying, it seems out of character for you to deny yourself something you want,” he ripostes effortlessly.

“What I want, is my best friend back,” I state clearly. “Nothing comes before that.”

“Not good with multi-tasking?” he laughs, giving my hand a squeeze, and it’s only then I realise he’s still holding it.

“Don’t make this any harder for me than it needs to be,” I grumble, but do not retrieve my captive fingers.

Kiril’s smile turns into grin.

“Hey, I believe that is my line.”

“Crude,” I snort, but the joke raises my spirits a little, unwinds a little of my tension – right up until the cab comes to a stop outside the Prague National Theatre.

I recognise its unmistakable architecture as Jazz and I have seen various shows there before, but I question why we’re here now. Kiril, meanwhile, exits and opens my door, offering me his hand.

“I figured he’d hang out in the Old Royal Palace,” I admit, as Kiril ushers me away from the closed main entrance of the impressive building, and around the corner to a far less obtrusive door.

“He has his own residences,” Kiril explains, glancing coolly about, nonchalance stamped on his countenance, “but here is where the king holds official proceedings and audiences.”

“So you booked an appointment with his secretary?” I ask, my stomach knotting as Kiril pounds an assertive fist against the tall wooden door beneath one of many stone archways.

“Something like that,” he grins, winking before adding one last reminder before the door opens. “Remember, Sparrow; here you are my subservient plaything – try not to think too loudly.”

“I’ll just focus on how absolutely you think I’m in love with you,” I volley quietly, before sobering up my expression at the appearance of a woman before us.

“Prince Kiril Lambert,” Kiril announces casually. “I am expected.”

The woman’s severe expression doesn’t alter, though she offers Kiril respectful bow from the waist. I’m sure some silence exchange takes place between them as she straightens, though she doesn’t so much as spare me a glance.

Trying not to allow my apprehension to show, I follow along behind Kiril as we’re led into the building, down a cool corridor and then to a brightly lit, plush room decorated in rich red and gold.

“If you would be so kind as to wait here,” we’re instructed, or more accurately Kiril is instructed – I may as well be invisible.

Questions bubble away behind my eyes, seeping through the cracks of my best intentions to seems focused on being Kiril’s ‘good little girl’, and I can tell because of the sharp look Kiril sends me.

“I will punish you,” he drops coldly, and I don’t have to feign how this threat – more like a promise – causes real fear to slither, to gather in my chest. “You are fortunate I deigned to bring you at all.”

“Of course,” I say quietly, lowering my head. “I apologise.”

Obviously dissatisfied with my nearly immediate transgression, he turns and pinches my chin.

“Do not embarrass me, Sparrow.”

It’s a performance, I’m okay with this, because in Kiril’s eyes I see none of the taunting arrogance I usually do when he’s teasing me.

“I would never,” I assure him, biting my lower lip, looking up at him from beneath my lashes.

Subservience is not my thing, but I’m no stranger to play-acting.

“See to it you don’t,” he sniffs, stepping away from me to the sound of a door opening at the other side of the room.

Though uninvited, Kiril strides confidently through into a much larger chamber, at the far end of which stands an ornate throne, upon which sits a lean man with a prominent hook nose, his thin hair silver at the temples.

In and of itself his physical appearance is unremarkable, but palpable waves of displeasure roll from the dais and crash into me; Kiril, however, remains as unaffected as ever.

“Thank you for granting me an audience as such short notice, King Arno, most honoured son of Josef Sovák,” Kiril greets in perfect Czech – not a word of which I understand.

Still, as he bows, I follow suit, lower and for longer than my ‘master’, and I so not seek eye contact.

Don’t want to make eye contact.

“If I did not know well enough of your family, Kiril Lambert,” Arno replies in English, though his accent is very thick, “I might consider some measure of truth in that statement. And you… despite your airs and graces, you are a wolf.”

I doubt very much his choice of language is for my benefit – perhaps more likely he wants to show Kiril he’s just as adept at English as with his native tongue – but this is merely conjecture.

“If only I could convince my father of as much,” Kiril smiled easily, while I want so much to cower.

Contemptuously, the Czech king grunts an undignified sound and points a thin finger directly at Kiril.

“Am I to believe you think me a fool?” he growls, grey eyes narrowing to nearly closed. “I should have you shipped back to your father in pieces for your brazenness, your audacity – to threaten me?”

What Kiril has threatened Arno with I am unaware, but can only think it has something to so with the phone calls he made before arriving. Whatever it is, everything about Kiril screams he is completely comfortable with his actions and in no way intimidated by Arno’s attempt to assert dominance in his own throne room.

“I’m making no threats,” Kiril disagrees, eyes forward still, even as doors on either side of the chamber open, and several figures enter, none of them looking all that pleased. “But I do have a grievance with you in need of recompense.”

You have a grievance?” Arno chuckles darkly. “I suppose that is why several accountants under my employ cried out suddenly in unison and proceeded to panic?”

“Yes, that would be why,” Kiril smiles thinly, reaching slowly out to curl his fingers around the back of my neck and give me a little nudge forward. “I sent this one to find my brother,” he continues, and though his voice is sure, growing more and more displeased, I exert what feels like the limit of my willpower not to tremble. “And in no less than forty-eight hours she is set upon by while strolling your streets, and threatened for the very information she came in search of; I will not ask your pardon for expressing my annoyance at such a gross breach of etiquette.”

Kiril’s fingers against my nape are tense, but his grip is not tight. As he speaks his thumb grazes my skin, lightness of his touch re-centres my thoughts on him.

“Do not talk to me of etiquette, Prince Kiril, when you entered my city and spilled blood on my streets before so much as a glance of acknowledgement for courtesy and tradition.”

“That is true,” Kiril nodded, slowly drawing him back against him. “But, had I done so, she would be dead, and you and I would be having a whole other… conversation.”

Those figures around us shift; none of them are stupid, so despite dancing a semantic game, everyone is well aware Kiril just rolled into the court of the Czech vampire king and started making threats.

Any second now they’re going to pounce us both, and I’m going to end up even worse than the vampires Kiril slaughtered; his arm slithers over my hip and rests there.

“Let me make this as easy for you as possible in order to save time, effort, and further bloodshed,” Kiril goes on, his free hand making slow sweeping motions as he speaks. “In recompense for the attack against my assistant, I want your network to find my brother and his partner, and report their whereabouts to me. Following that, the four of us will return quietly to the U.K. and bother you no more.”

Arno listens in silence, but he looks about ready to lurch from this throne and permanently end the conversation. Those around us don’t blink, don’t move, but I can feel their stares crushing my chest, stealing my breath.

“I want this over quickly, so I can get back to my own affairs,” Kiril adds. “My economic machinations are merely insurance that I get what I’ve come for – something which should cause you no great loss considering the hostility my little Sparrow met with at the mere mention of Konstantin’s name. I would sooner not interfere with the financial stability of the Czech Republic’s ruling house to get my way, but as you’re probably aware, I am very used to getting what I want.”

“All except your father’s approval,” Arno sneers, but his is the only expression that alters.

“Well, you’re at least half right there,” Kiril shrugs, but doesn’t clarify which part. “So all that remains is your cooperation, and we shall leave.”

If I stood in Arno’s position, I would no doubt like to tear Kiril’s head off, especially in front of his ‘subjects’ – if that’s what they’re called. He has to somehow save face, but it’s obvious from his hesitation whatever Kiril did with regards to his finances is no small matter. How, exactly, he’s managed to corner this man, a king and older than him by Kiril’s own admission, I don’t know.

“Do not think for a moment,” Arno says finally, rising and stepping slowly from the dais, “I will forget your audacity.”

“I would not expect you to,” Kiril acknowledges, his fingers beginning to drum lightly against my hip. “All things have a price. I am sure, however, should you require my considerable influence in the future, I could find my way to be of your assistance.”

At this, Arno chuckles, a sound that rattles around between his ribs for a little before spilling from his lips.

“You would be wise to not stray too far from the power of the old world,” he warns, coming to stand before us, no more than an arm’s reach away from me. “Your love affair with humans, these fragile things…”

His eyes linger on me.

“… may be your undoing,” he finishes.

“No doubt you’ll fully enjoy the celebration that follows,” Kiril grins. “I’ll leave arrangements to send you something suitable for such an occasion.”

“Keep your head down in Prague,” Arno commands coldly. “Leave details with Marika. If you are not out of the country within twenty-four hours of your brother’s location, I’ll kill you and take your little Sparrow for my plaything.”

“That sounds fair,” Kiril agrees, but his smile falters when Arno reaches out toward my cheek.

“You’d better hope…” he begins, but doesn’t finish before Kiril pulls me in behind him.

“But unless that eventuates,” he says frostily, eyes narrowed, eyes afire, “she belongs to one man, and he is most certainly not you.”

Amused, Arno tips his chin, satisfied at having apparently – finally – unsettled the intruder, but his eyes do not leave me. His gaze is nothing like Kiril’s, and in it I can read the desire to humiliate, to punish Kiril, through me.

Leaving floods me with the kind of relief that weakens my legs, and on the street with Arno’s court behind us, I lean against Kiril who has not let go of me since Arno’s approach.

“Did you really just bully a king by threatening to bankrupt him? In front of his people? In his throne room?” I sigh, my hands gripping his coat lapels.

“I never used that word specifically, but yes,” he answers, wearing none of the weariness I feel. “I do not want to linger here,” he continues, “as it is clear you cannot be trusted not to rush off in a frenzy screaming Konstantin’s name.”

Those last few words spoken, Kiril pauses to consider them – his brows twitching.

“Ensuring Arno had no choice but to help us locate my idiot brother was the fastest means to our desired end, so I can get you back to England,” he adds, smoothing his hands from my shoulders to my elbows.

Before even thinking, I’ve dropped my head against his chest and exhaled a long breath.

“Will this really work?”

“If Arno wants to avoid complete financial ruin and get me out of his hair as soon as possible, he will have his goons scouring the city and beyond,” he assures, gently sliding his fingers through my hair.

And it feels so good I could almost forget that with a twitch he could break me in half.

Feels too good.

“Well, thank you, for putting yourself on Arno’s bad-side for me,” I declare, but avoid his eyes as I step back out of his arms.

“I am unsure he has a good side to be honest,” he chuckles, and this forces a smile from beneath the tension I’d been holding since waking up.

“So what do we do now? Just, sit and wait?”

Almost unconsciously I take both cell phones from my pocket: the one with a local sim card and my regular one.

The latter has several missed calls and messages from Sebastian, one from Mieke – the former has none, and I cannot help but cringe a little.

“Something wrong?” Kiril queries, leaning a little closer again.

“I want you to be honest with me,” I begin, chewing the inside of my cheek a little because I’m not sure what it means if I get the answer I suspect I will. “Sebastian warned me to stay away from you, vehemently; does he know?”

“Mr. Ross and I are acquainted in the most basic sense of the concept,” Kiril responds, and it sounds like the words a politician might spout to avoid an uncomfortable truth.

“Okay, let me rephrase; I want you to be honest and clear,” I insist, narrowing my eyes at him, even as he moves to the curb to hail us a taxi. “Does he know you’re a vampire?”

“Yes,” he answers more in accordance with my guidelines. “He does.”

“No wonder he’s losing his shit,” I mutter, both sympathetic and irritated at the same time. “He knew there was a vampire in my club all this time and said… did nothing?”

“To be fair, Mr. Ross is in no position to reveal secrets,” Kiril says, and though the sentence itself literally attempts to exonerate Sebastian for his silence, the tone in which it is spoken conveys his disdain.

Turning this over in my mind, I just climb into the cab when Kiril holds the door open for me and we’re moving before I even know my destination.

“How?” I ask finally, shifting my whole body a little more sideways. “How does he know? Wait…”

It hits me.

“No way, Sebastian’s a…”

“No, he most certainly is not,” Kiril snaps back, glaring, and the sourness of his expression only deepens as I speak again.

“I suppose not,” I admit, reclining. “His hands are warm.”

And a split second later, Kiril has pulled off his dark leather glove and snatched up my hand.

Warm.

“This is new,” I note, as he threads his fingers through mine. “And now I know you don’t have to be so cold.”

He knows I’m not just talking about the temperature of his skin, but he doesn’t react adversely. Meanwhile, I – not being completely oblivious – note this revelation as an act of jealousy?

“So if he’s not a vampire then…” I begin again, but then Kiril untangles our fingers and places his hand against my thigh – even through my jeans the sensation threatens to chase away logical thought.

“I do not wish to talk of Sebastian Ross,” he states flatly, sliding his palm upward a little until I catch his hand and prevent its progress.

“You can’t end a topic by feeling me up,” I point out, but I’m simultaneously imagining the downward curl of his thumb riding further up between my legs.

“I am not ending a topic,” he argues lightly, “but beginning a new one, one your tensing muscles, your body, tells me you are aching to have.”

My fingernails dig into the back of his hand a little, but he seems to enjoy it.

“What a chauvinistic conclusion,” I huff, looking out the window at the passing city.

“But not untrue,” he points out with a smirk.

 

Resisting Kiril’s presence, his allure, required constant vigilance and willpower on Miho’s part, especially when it became clear he didn’t mean for them to simply wait in her suite for the phone to ring. Instead, he further occupied her mind with an all access tour of the city.

Together they viewed a private art collection, ate lunch at the most exclusive restaurant in the city, shopped places Miho’s credit card would never have permitted, and after night had fallen ended up at Prague Castle well after visitors were no longer allowed on the premises.

“I’d ask if it’s okay to be here,” Miho whispered, following along one step behind Kiril, left by the hand, “but it doesn’t seem you care much for rules. Visitors aren’t even permitted in this area, let alone at this hour.”

“Do not fret,” he said at full conversational volume. “I happen to know the owner.”

“Oh, I suppose you’re on a first name basis with the president,” she scoffed, but a second later realised that wasn’t too far from the realm of possibility. “What are we doing here?”

“Dinner,” he answered, as they entered the second courtyard and continued their journey.

“Now you’re just showing off,” she muttered, passing by the soft rush of water in Kohl’s Fountain.

“Hardly,” he chuckled, quickening his steps until they had crossed into the third courtyard and were swallowed by the deep shadow of St. Vitus Cathedral.

Miho had seen it before during the day – magnificent – but now its sharp gothic features were swathed in a cold that made its tall spires feel like looming giants poised to crush them both.

“You have an over active imagination,” Kiril noted, obviously amused.

“Oh really? Mr. Vampire?” she snorted, speeding up to fall in flush beside him. “I don’t think my imagination can afford to be active enough right now.”

“I suppose it is better you focus on that than other things,” he agreed, and it was only then Miho realised she hadn’t thought about Jazz since the morning, nor had she felt nearly as tense about the chances of finding her unharmed.

“Huh,” she murmured, freeing her hand in order to loop her arm around his, even as he so casually opened the doors of the Old Palace with his other. “Was all this, today, distraction by design?”

“Oh, getting you to let your guard down is plenty motive enough for me,” Kiril responded, closing the doors beside them and leading them through the dim building until a soft glow ahead peeked through the gloom.

Emerging into Vladislav Hall, a place for State gatherings, coronations and formal Czech affairs, Miho found a wide ring of grand golden candelabras creating a halo of orange light around a single, small table dwarfed even more so by the empty space of the high vaulted ceiling.

Suddenly breathless, she became unaware of Kiril’s attention gaze as they approached, two figures – a man and a woman dressed as waiters – standing motionless at attention nearby.

With a chivalrous flourish, Kiril separated from Miho and pulled out a chair at the table, upon which already sat fine crystal and gleaming cutlery.

“Sparrow,” he prompted, and with a quick nod, Miho took her seat.

“Kings have been crowned in this chamber,” Miho exhaled in awe, “and you arrange a private dinner like it’s nothing.”

“I would not say nothing,” he smiled, and for once there was no hint at all of smugness. “But what trouble it might have cost was well worth it for the expression on your face.”

“How am I supposed to survive this?” she sighed under her breath, glancing to the left of the waitress offered her the wine bottle’s label before pouring the near black liquid into an immaculately etched goblet.

What followed was a magical, dream-like dinner where everything was simply perfect. To Miho it seemed Kiril was on his best behaviour, effortlessly recalling the original construction of the Old Royal Palace in the ninth century.

“Ninth century?” Miho blurted. “You’re that old?”

Slowly, Kiril nodded.

“But that’s over…” she began, crunching numbers in her head. “Over eleven hundred years!”

“One thousand, one hundred and seventy-three to be precise,” Kiril corrected: no biggie. “I had reached the peak of my vampiric development by that stage, and was hungry to explore the world.”

“I can’t even fathom that,” Miho sighed as she laid her spoon in her empty bowl, and rested her chin on her hand. “All the things you must have seen and heard, the change.”

Nodding, Kiril smiled a nothing smile.

“Good and bad I bet,” Miho added, studying his expression.

“My upbringing was not like yours for a great many reasons,” he expounded. “Reasons I will not bore you with now.”

“Because I have so much on my plate right now,” Miho smirked, spreading her hands, but as she did, Kiril rose from his seat.

With his movement, a much greater light flooded the entire hall, and suddenly the empty chamber was bursting with life. Gaping, craning her neck to peer at men and women dressed in the finery of former centuries, Miho exhaled a small noise to express her puzzlement.

“One of my powers is to create illusion,” he explained, stepping around the table to offer Miho his hand. “Which is surprisingly useful.”

“Surprisingly?” Miho breathed, touching her fingers to the palm of his hand, and she quickly found her body hauled upward.

“Not everyone agrees,” he smiled, making a sweeping motion with his hand down the length of her body, and an immaculate gown bloomed around her like an opening flower. “Cinderella.”

“Holy shit,” Miho grinned, reaching out to touch the luxurious fabric, but her fingers passed right through to what she was actually wearing.

“Not real,” Kiril affirmed, pulling her forward against him to the swell of a grand orchestra.

Blood Spatter: Part 1

It’s the shrill and frantic screaming of a phone that abruptly interrupts the dreamless dark of my sleep. Thundering jackhammers valiantly try to drown out the sound with blinding pain in my head.

“Fuck, shut the fuck up,” I growl, pawing around wildly for the location of my phone until I somehow coincidentally manage to hit the answer button. “What?”

“Miho?” comes an urgent male voice that makes me cringe for more than one reason.

“Jesus Sebastian, stop yelling,” I hiss, covering my eyes with my forearm though the room is already dark.

“Maybe if you answered your phone when I call you, I wouldn’t have to,” Sebastian argues, his tone a blend of relief, worry and scorn. “Where the hell are you?”

For a moment I ponder this answer – I should be more concerned that I have to think about it.

“Home,” I finally determine.

“Are you sick?” he pursues. “Mieke, Kara and I opened the club without you, but that’s never happened.”

“Oh shit,” I curse, sitting up far too suddenly for the likes of my migraine. “Mmph, um… I’m sorry, I’ll…”

“Are you sick?” he repeats more seriously.

“No, I… um…”

I… um… struggling to answer that question – why am I struggling to answer that question?

“Some guy nearly hit me with his car,” I respond finally, the memory hazy. “I hit my head when I stumbled.”

“I’d ask if you’re all right, but clearly you’re not; I’m coming over,” he states, leaving no room for argument.

“Fine, you can drive me to work,” I conclude, pushing back the duvet and wriggling into a sitting position.

“We can discuss if when I arrive,” he grumbles. “Don’t do anything crazy in the meantime.”

Pfft, like I ever do anything crazy.

 

There is nothing interesting about my getting ready for work routine, except that my headache wanes a little. Still, I’m sloshing some aspirin around in a glass when he buzzes my intercom.

For a few seconds I look at him on the LCD screen, admiring the strong line of his jaw, the faint hint of stubble and the fall of several dark strands of hair that constantly fall across his forehead.

I’d be lying if I didn’t think there might be a better – more fun – way to get rid of my headache’s remnants.

“Are you going to let me in?” I hear his voice through the speaker, and I break from my lascivious reverie.

“Sorry,” I apologise, though he can’t even hear me, and in what seems like a far too short time, he’s travelled up several floors and is knocking on my door.

“I’m angry with you,” are the first words from his mouth, and though he’s frowning, he’s looking me up and down with an analytical eye.

“Thanks, Dad,” I mock, turning to get my handbag, but Sebastian takes my wrist and slowly forces me to straighten.

“I’m not done checking you over yet,” he grumbles, and there’s a pout in his voice though his expression remains stern.

His hands begin on my cheeks, large hands I always feel could crush my head and yet are so incredibly gentle as they graze my skin.

“Sebastian,” I whisper in complaint – but the downward intonation of his name, and the tilt of my head against his palm, betrays my alternate agenda.

“Don’t you Sebastian me,” he huffs, sliding his hands deliberately down my throat as he leans closer to examine a contusion on my left cheek. “You’re never late, never sick, never out of touch, and with… well…”

His sentence trails off, but I know exactly where it was going.

“I was afraid,” he admits, and I actually think he’s being serious.

This guy, who I feel has never been afraid of anything in his life, his brow is now creased, and my reflection in his sometimes-animalistic brown eyes wavers with genuine unease.

“I was afraid something had happened to you too,” he adds, shifting his weight, and when I cannot help but form a slight smile, I think I see him faintly blushing.

“As if,” I snort, slapping his chest with the back of my hand before scooping up my handbag. “I was an assassin in a past life.”

 

It takes a little more convincing to get Sebastian to allow me out of my apartment, but eventually he drives me to the club – on the provision I let him drive me home after closing. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. Though he’s come home with me plenty of times, our relationship has never been more than a mutually agreeable meeting of flesh and pleasure. The depth of his disquiet is surprising, and I’m not sure how to take it.

“Where the hell have you been?” Mieke glares, the moment we enter Pale’s foyer.

“Easy tiger,” Sebastian grunts in Mieke’s direction, then heads off to do the rounds.

“Overslept,” I tell her sheepishly, and it’s not really a lie.

“Oh yeah? Well I didn’t – I got here three hours early because Seb’s losing his shit about you not answering your phone,” she huffs, but I can tell she’s not actually mad at me. “Kara’s already doing rounds in the basement.”

“Sorry, I’ll get to work, Boss,” I smirk.

“You might want to start with Mr. Lambert in the lounge,” she suggests, and I know she sees the way I’m suddenly more focused. “Thought that’d get your attention,” she sniffs. “And tonight, believe it or not, he’s alone.”

“That’s weird,” I agree. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a harem.”

“Right?” Mieke nods. “Go and take advantage.”

No harm in buttering up a VIP.

The man is an immaculate specimen, the kind who conveys so much with his mere presence alone. His suit is easily worth as much as the entire contents of my wardrobe, clearly custom tailored to emphasise his best physical features: and god damn, those features. They’re a sonnet of masculinity, a rousing canticle of sculpted muscle in perfect proportion.

Intimidation is not something I’m used to submitting to, but every time I’ve had cause to interact with Kiril Lambert – billionaire CEO of KeepsGuard Risk Management and Insurance – I’ve had to struggle against a tide of uncertainty and doubt.

He makes me feel small: I hate it, but affix my best smile as I approach, and bury the instinct to act meekly behind a fortified wall of self-confidence.

“With compliments of the house,” I smile, placing the tray down on Kiril’s table, before taking the uncorked bottle of very old and expensive whiskey in hand.

“It’s my understanding, you are the house,” Kiril points out blithely as he adjusts his silk tie slightly, but for a few seconds I find myself enchanted by the nonchalant motion of his hand. “So it’s you I have to thank. Join me.”

It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, but for some reason, I don’t feel offended by his assumption; I am no stranger to this type of attention in my club – without being arrogant – but in this instance, I shock myself by acting completely out of character.

Compliant.

I put it down to my headache and try to cover a grimace with graciousness.

“It’s my policy not to mix business and pleasure, Mr. Lambert,” I tell him casually, but slip into the booth opposite him nonetheless, “but since you’re Pale’s resident celebrity, I’ll make an exception.”

“Is that the only reason?” he enquires, eyes fixed on my fingertips, apparently fascinated by the way they dig into the wax sealing the amber liquid behind crystal and begin to peel it away.

“What would you like me to say?” I ask, pouring carefully into his glass before pushing it toward him.

I sense my quip is a dangerous one, but simply can’t help playing his game.

“That you’ve finally given in to your burning desire for me,” he replies: so blasé, it almost doesn’t sound like the words of a consummate playboy.

Here is a creature blessed – sublimely handsome, connected and wealthy – oh he never wants for companions.

Normally, I would scowl at such a line, but he drops it so effortlessly I actually laugh.

Then regret it.

Grimacing, I resist the urge to rub at my temples and straighten my back.

“Something wrong?” he queries, slowly coiling his fingers around the whisky tumbler.

It’s such a simple gesture and yet I find it so incredibly sexy I nearly forget my pain.

The unusual green of his gaze pierces through my attempts to appear unaffected, and though I have reassurances on my tongue, I find myself barely able to inhale, let alone form words.

“Ah, it’s just a headache,” I finally manage, and frown at how breathless I sound.

“Late night?”

At this I scoff.

“I run a club, I’m practically nocturnal,” I point out, but thinking about the night previous makes the pain increase threefold.

“A woman after my own heart,” he chuckles, “but that doesn’t explain your obvious discomfort.”

“I had a run in with… with a…” I begin, then cringe when it feels as if my brain is expanding, threatening to burst from my eye sockets.

“You look like you’re in need of a medicinal dram,” he declares, turning his glass slowly by the rim, casually observing my growing distress.

“Hm, if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be from the top shelf,” I murmur, trying to blink away the stars sparkling across my field of vision.

“Then please,” he beseeches, though the two words again sound more like an instruction, “allow me to make you feel a little better.”

Men like that don’t beg.

Ever.

Used to being propositioned in my own club by drunken idiots, I totally take it in my stride – though I find my answer uncharacteristically more flirty than is routine.

“And how might you achieve that, Mr. Lambert?” I question, tweaking a crooked smile despite the continuation of heavy drums in my head.

Before his lips even part, his eyes flicker somehow more brightly, and again I find myself transfixed by the way emerald flames seem to dance within their depths.

“Kiril,” he corrects, “and I have myriad ways.”

His voice low – the brush of velvet across my skin, and that alone seems to dull the war raging between my ears.

“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to call one of London’s most successful CEOs by his first name,” I point out, not that I believe in elitism.

“This successful CEO is offering it to you,” he shrugs, it being his first name, not the lewd other it that suddenly invades my mind’s eye. “But for now…”

His fingertips are cool, smooth, as he turns my right wrist over onto his palm, and I flinch at the unexpected contact.

“Close your eyes,” he orders firmly, and before the thought can even register, I’m smothered in the darkness beneath my lids. “Just breathe,” he whispers, a breath I can almost feel against my cheek though I know he is still across the table.

A shudder ripples through me, tingling that begins at the stroke of his thumb against the pale underside of my wrist, and gathers momentum up my arm.

“And that’s just my thumb, Sparrow,” I hear him say, see his lips moving and the hungry blaze of his stare though my own eyes remain closed.

Sparrow? But did he even speak? I can’t tell, but I respond anyway.

“Oh really?” I sniff, wanting to smirk at the boldness of his allusion, but the deepening pressure of his thumb into my skin, the tendons, warns me not to.

“Shh,” he soothes, pressing against one point that for several seconds makes me feel dizzy.

Then the clattering discomfort of the marching band parading through my brain is silenced.

Everything falls silent.

The sweet jazz piano.

The quiet chatter of staff and other nearby patrons.

The clink of glassware.

Until a new rhythm emerges – faster and faster and faster, until the pounding of my heart is almost unbearable.

“How did you…” I exhale, finally opening my eyes.

Pain free, I meet him halfway, though the intensity of those penetrating meres threatens to cause my calm to crumble.

“Magic,” he smiles confidently, continuing to gently caress from my wrist, along the lifeline of my palm.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I struggle to the surface, swimming valiantly out of a verdant ocean to break eye contact and reclaim my hand.

“What the hell is going on?” I wonder, for I can feel him crawling across my skin, sliding to places hidden beneath my clothes.

I have seen him in Pale a hundred times, and while I’ve acknowledged his inexplicable beauty, always pausing in my rounds to perve discretely, I now feel an almost overwhelming magnetism that sticks me to my seat.

But there is someone else observing us; I can feel Sebastian’s scorn as surely as if he was waggling his finger disapprovingly in my face.

“Looks like your boyfriend doesn’t like me touching his property,” Kiril snickers, taking my other hand when I look in Sebastian’s direction. “Not one to share I take it.”

“He’s not my boyfriend, but I should…” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“Stay,” he commands quickly, a word from his mouth before he even thinks it over; he surprises even himself, as much written in the sudden – though fleeting – change in his countenance.

Because that makes it so much better.

“Excuse me?” I snap, and whatever hold he’d had on me shatters. “Pardon me, Mr. Lambert, I should resume my duties. Please enjoy your drink.”

He lets me go, regaining his air of self-importance, but I hear him as I walk away – am sure I am supposed to.

“I think I would, very much.”

“Fraternising with customers now?” Sebastian almost accuses, the moment I am within earshot, and I feel myself souring further.

“Any issues?” I redirect, but Sebastian has me caught in a purposeful gaze.

“Miho,” he levels. “Kiril Lambert is not someone you want to get involved with.”

“Oh yes?” I sniff, undaunted by the seriousness of his expression. “Successful, influential, wealthy, and not shy about spending his money here,” I add.

I leave off how hot Kiril is – no sense in provoking Sebastian.

Working his jaw, Sebastian stares at me, attempting maybe to transmit his disdain via telepathy.

“It’s already not my night,” I sigh, finally heading for the stairs. “Please don’t make it worse.”

Surprisingly he doesn’t follow to my office, which is just as well.

Still, it means I’m alone as I flop down behind my desk, and beyond, Jazz’s empty work station screams out her conspicuous absence.

It just doesn’t feel right without her, and it’s not just about the physical space she should be taking up – she means so much more to me than that. Her absence is like a hole, carved right through my perception of everything; we’re sisters in all but blood, and the only family either of us have left.

“What did he do to you?” I hiss to the room, but further ponderance of Konstantin’s involvement in Jazz’s disappearance is brutally shoved away by the feeling of someone driving an ice-pick through my skull.

But that isn’t the only sensation.

Against the lacquered wood I ball my fists, leaning forward like it might make the pain less severe, but my mind is tugged in the direction of a solid collision.

The ground.

Wet under my body.

In the darkness, afraid, and barely clinging to consciousness.

Vaguely I hear a question and a name.

“Alex?”

Groaning, I blink away the vision, and through clenched teeth I breathe moist patterns against the desktop. The images, the sensations, the emotions all feel so real.

Then it’s Kiril Lambert who floats into my mind; the gentle touch of refreshingly cool skin against the flush of mine lulls some of my present affliction. Desperately I want him to caress me again, and I realise it’s not just because of the way he so easily chased away my resurging migraine.

“And that’s just my thumb, Sparrow,” I hear him purr again, and though I hate the diminutive, I cannot deny the growing knot in my stomach and the tingling warmth in places I’d like to experience his other fingers.

Resisting the urge to allow my own hands to wander, I settle for some more aspirin and paracetamol, before heading back downstairs to work.

 

Adding to my pre-existing irritation, the sensitive throb of my nethers doesn’t fade as the night wears on, any more than my headache. Crossing the basement nightclub dance floor, nodding to Kara as I go, I’m afforded the occasional, incidental bump in the right spot and it sends a shudder of pleasure through my body – and though Sebastian and I have enjoyed each other’s company many times since he came to work at the club, it’s Kiril Lambert who flashes into my mind.

Avoiding him is suddenly not so easy when my feet seem to have a will of their own, but I stop in my tracks on the far side of the lounge, when I find he is now not alone.

“Of course he’s not,” I chide myself. “Come to the club and just sit there for hours alone? Him?”

No indeed. He’ surrounded by his typical entourage of slender beauties, who stroke down his lapel, touch his skin, murmur against it.

Perhaps he feels my gaze as it lingers too long, because he looks through his company at me; they don’t seem to notice he is no longer with them, as surely as if he’d gotten up and walked away.

“Feeling lonely, Sparrow?” he smirks, I see the question alight in those green pools that penetrate me so thoroughly.

And I don’t even think I mind, not that I’d ever admit it aloud.

”Ah, not lonely, something else?”

His smile grows wider with certainly as his gaze wanders down my body.

“Am I actually hearing him in my head?” I scoff at myself. “You have bigger issues to worry about than your libido.”

“Speaking of bigger things…” I hear him grin, as I turn away and force myself to shift toward the lounge bar.

Which is just as well considering the insolent flick of my hair causes a chandelier to drop and brain me: not literally, obviously, but that is certainly how it feels.

Clutching the edge of the bar, I lean against it heavily with my eyes tightly shut, and Morris the bartender is quick to show his concern – and he is not alone.

Faintly, I hear a woman yelp, then the touch of a hand against the small of my back.

“Still broken, Sparrow?” Kiril whispers into my ear, leaning a little over my shoulder.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” I gasp out, trembling and unable to open my eyes.

Though Morris puts a glass of water in front of me, I don’t notice, too busy shaking, too busy glaring into the face of someone I vaguely recognise and the way his teeth are bared threateningly.

“Where is she?” I hiss, losing my legs to slump back into Kiril’s arms, whimpering pathetically.

“What did you do?” Sebastian barks, and his voice rings in my ears as he rushes up to pull Kiril away by the shoulder.

Kiril’s response is to slap Sebastian’s hand away, but he neither confirms or denies his involvement in my debilitated state.

Had I not been just about ready to empty my stomach on any available pair of shoes, I might have wondered at the ferocity of their accusatory glares, that, and the origin of the prevailing notion in my mind – both a source of agony and truth.

“Alex knows where Jazz is!” I exclaim breathlessly, but the moment the sentence is from my mouth I want to curl into a ball. “Fuck me…”

“Another night, perhaps,” I vaguely hear Kiril murmur.

“Back up,” Sebastian commands savagely, and I feel his arms close in around me.

So warm, but there is something I suddenly miss about delightful prickle of cool skin, and from Sebastian’s embrace I blink away tears to fix my watery gaze upon Kiril once more.

“Where’s Alex?” I hiss, but my body is suddenly exhausted, and I collapse against Sebastian’s chest.

To this I get no answer, not that I could actually process it if I had.

All I want is for the evening to swallow me completely, to wrap me in darkness that steals away the terrible vortex of torment tear my brain to shreds.

 

__________

 

 

With refined detachment, Kiril watched Sebastian easily sweep Miho into a princess carry, but he found himself captivated by the limp swing of her arm when the other man stepped away. Crushing a surprisingly tenacious desire to snatch Miho away like a jealous dog over a bone, he instead watched Pale’s head of security disappear with his prize, without stirring further.

He was by no means oblivious to Miho’s amateur – though by no means insignificant – investigation into the disappearance of her business partner; he was aware she’d ruffled many feathers by shouting out the name Konstantin in places she was sure she’d be heard.

Oh, she’d been heard.

Smirking, Kiril didn’t even bid farewell to his vacuous company, and left Pale without a fuss, pressing his phone lightly to his ear.

“Ah cousin dear,” he drawled, his free hand in his pocket as he strolled down the street. “I love what you’ve done with that problem from last night.”

There was a short silence, before a female voice responded.

“Are you following up?” she queried and didn’t sound especially impressed about it. “You?”

“Pure happenstance,” he shrugged, even though his cousin could obviously not see him. “I heard the girl nearly got herself killed by one of Konstantin’s fanboys.”

“What’s your angle, Kiril?” she asked suspiciously. “Why the interest?”

“We both know full well she’s hunting for Konstantin because he’s abducted her friend,” he responded – because abduction was no big deal. “What I don’t know, Narumi, is why you didn’t erase her desire to find him.”

“You don’t think her sudden disinterest in the location of her business partner and best friend would be a little suspicious?” Narumi volleyed, and Kiril could tell she was annoyed – just as she always became annoyed when he challenged her. “Especially to the likes of Sebastian Ross.”

“Oh yes, and he is very interested in her, a real knight in shining armour,” Kiril chuckled, stopping at an intersection to wait for traffic.

“Don’t provoke him, Kiril, I don’t need the headache,” Narumi sighed, and Kiril got the impression of her rubbing her temples. “For once it’s Konstantin causing a stir, and unless you want Konrad on the warpath, just stay out of this and let me handle it.”

The mention of Konrad caused Kiril’s top lip to peel back in a sneer.

“Where is Konstantin and his little friend?” he grated between his teeth, stepping – no, stalking – across the road.

“I haven’t located them yet,” Narumi admitted. “He’s doing a remarkable job of concealing himself.”

“Remarkable, isn’t that him just all over,” Kiril huffed, abruptly taking the hand of a passing woman.

She looked at him quizzically, before smiling and staring wordlessly: starry-eyed.

“If you find him before I do,” he continued into his phone, leading the woman along with him, “tell him I said hi.”

“Just stay out of this,” Narumi warned. “I mean i…”

But Kiril hung up and tucked his phone away, focusing on his present company.

“Hungry?”

 

In the darkness of my apartment, I’m alone again with Sebastian. Murmuring a mixture of concern and how much trouble I am, he helps me to the bedroom and sits me down on the end of the bed.

“I’ll get you some water,” he says in a low voice, his hand still resting on my shoulder. “Think you can get undressed by yourself?”

There is nothing untoward about his question, not even a hinting undercurrent of lust; he could take advantage, but he doesn’t – that’s the kind of man he is.

“It’s not so bad anymore,” I reply, slowly sliding the jacket from my shoulders.

No sudden moves just the same.

“I’d say you’re working too hard, but I know that’s in your nature, so, what’s going on?” he questions, and though it’s dim I can see him frowning. “In the year and a half I’ve known you, you’ve never had so much as a sniffle.”

“There is the whole best friend missing and nearly getting run over thing,” I point out a little snappishly, but it’s a measure of my low tolerance levels rather than any actual anger I have toward him. “I’m sorry, Sebastian, I don’t know – I just have this terrible feeling something horrible has happened Jazz, that I’m so close to finding her but she’s just beyond me reach.”

Blinking, I find my cheeks wet again, and Sebastian gently wipes his thumbs across my cheeks.

“Do you want me to stay?” he asks, and though he’s a seriously impressive looking man, this inquiry leaves his lips unsure, tentative.

If I was able to think more clearly, I would certainly challenge him; though we care for one another as friends, he made it clear very early on our relationship beyond that was just physical: a way for us to relieve some of the tension in our lives without romantic entanglements and all the obligations that come with. He has never stayed and never asked to, always leaving when we’re both satisfied.

Saying yes might lead to something I don’t need, but I know right now I don’t want to be alone.

My chin drops forward before lifting again, and the warmth of his palm cupping one cheek is a reassurance I’m grateful for.

“Okay,” he smiles simply, crouching a moment to unzip my boots and slide them away. “Hop into bed, I’ll get you that water and be right back.”

Sighing, I undress to my panties and slip t-shirt on – normally Sebastian wouldn’t get to see such a thing, the Miho ‘home-body’ in her unflattering night clothes, but it’s not something I worry about.

What I want is to be held, and stroked, and told everything will be okay – that I’ll wake up tomorrow and Jazz will be back, no harm done, and this blasted headache will be long gone.

Wordlessly upon his return, Sebastian strips down to his underwear and joins me beneath the duvet, leaving me no time to appreciate the stirring cut of his physique. Instead, I settle for the strong coil of his arms around me, and snuggle against his firm chest, inhaling slowly.

“Just close your eyes,” he whispers into my hair, but it’s not his voice I hear.

Kiril Lambert.

His are the fingers weaving softly through my hair, his breath against the side of my head, his ankles entwined with mine. Just as it had, sitting across from him in the booth with my wrist in his grip, the pain my skull abates, and I am left with a slowly growing ball on tension in my stomach.

“You okay?” Sebastian queries, leaning his head back.

My answer is to kiss him, a slow and searching notion, probing for interest.

The tense of his body and then the smooth of his hands down to the small of my back is his response, but he ends the dance of our tongues.

“I don’t think this is what you need right now,” he tells me, but his body is already telling me what he needs.

“I don’t want to think,” I hiss, my voice a little hoarse, and his response to the trail of my fingers to the band of his boxer briefs and beneath. “So get naked and fuck me.”

These words are the kind of vulgar imperative I might use in a moment of passion to provoke him, not the kind of thing once says while vulnerable; but I can’t help it, I suddenly need it.

Also surprised he hesitates, but not for long when I palm him firmly and bite into his lower lip, at which point Kiril takes hold of the hem of my t-shirt and tears it all the way to my throat.

Yep.

It’s Kiril Lambert’s weight I feel pressing over me, and into me not long after, his shoulder-blades I’m digging my fingernails into and his hips my legs are wrapped around. Gentle at first, I feel he doesn’t want to hurt me but is definitely holding back – he needs encouragement, and my teeth sinking into the taut flesh of his shoulder and the arch of my body to deepen our contact provides this.

The night is a heavy blanket that hides us from each other’s sight, but through the fierce thrust and grab, and the heady thickness of panting breaths and desirous moans, I can clearly see the ravenous depths of Kiril’s gaze by which I am willingly consumed.