The first was pathetic. So much so that it took John a moment. But his body seemed to be ahead of his mind, because he felt his face flush and his hand clench on the door to his suite while a blonde in a slinky satin gown simpered at him. She had red-gold curls done in an artfully mussed style, bright blue eyes gunked up with mascara, and a feather boa, of all things, sliding alluringly off one shoulder. The absurdity of it was the only thing that saved her.
He slammed the door in her face.
The second was better. The second was much better. He was fairly sure the first was just his father being a cunt. John wouldn’t sleep with the bevy of beauties he kept sending? Wouldn’t help the family business? Wouldn't, as his father had memorably remarked, get his head out of his ass and grow up already?
Fine. Then send him a reminder of what he'd lost. Of what he would never see in the flesh again.
But, in that split second of confusion, John must have given some sign of exactly how deep that particular knife had dug. Or perhaps the night of drunken despair that followed and the trashing of his well-ordered suite had given Rosier a clue. Because, when everything else proved fruitless, his father tried again.
And, this time, it almost worked.
Even the scent was perfect, John thought, as she grabbed his biceps. Not the perfumed musk of the first Cassie-clone, but a lingering freshness from purloined Dante's toiletries, panicked girl-sweat and an underlying sweetness that was all her own. Addictive, Pritkin thought, breathing it in.
Until she shook him, and even that was familiar.
"We need to get out of here!"
"There's no way out," he heard himself rasp. "Not for me."
"Don't say that." She looked up at him, tears shimmering in her beautiful blue eyes. "I can help. I have transport, and supplies. We can make it --"
"Back into the desert."
"And to the portal."
"And back to earth."
A couple of tiny teeth bit her bottom lip appealingly. "Not yet. The demon council still has a price on your head, if you leave this place. But we could hide, discuss what to do. I have supplies for weeks --"
And, for a moment, he actually let himself think about it. Weeks in the desert under star strewn skies. Weeks of nothing except the two of them, away from any possibility of interruption. Weeks with a few guards showing up, to lackadaisically search the area, giving them some pulse pounding excitement for a moment or two.
Before they went back to their tent and found another way to raise their blood pressure.
His eyes closed, but he felt his hands clench on her arms. And if he'd needed confirmation that she was not who she appeared to be, that would have done it. That grip would have bruised a bodybuilder, yet she never so much as flinched. But when he opened his eyes, hers were even bluer: suddenly, impossibly, inhumanly blue.
Yes, he knew what she was.
Yet still he just stood there.
She nodded, missing the undercurrent in her eagerness. "Yes! I've thought of everything." She took his hand. "But we have to go now or your father will find me --"
"He already found you." John knew his voice was harsh, even cruel. He didn’t care. "Tell me, was it a street corner or a bordello?"
The blue eyes flashed dangerously for a second, before the deceptive sweetness flooded back. Along with enough power to make him blink. No wonder that barb had hit home.
"What are you?" he demanded, pulling away. "Not Rakshasa. They’re not this strong."
"I'm Cassie, your Cassie --"
But this time, the illusion didn’t work. A sudden flood of rage swamped it. "Not on your best day," he snarled, and slammed the door before he did something stupid.
And then he did it anyway, taking a bottle of whiskey out to the balcony.
It was almost nightfall. Dark ribbons of orange and pink and red played around the horizon, and back lit the desert-colored buildings and craggy mountains beyond. He fell into a chaise and plunked his bottle onto a handy table, without even checking to see that it was there. He just knew it would be, just as everything else a man could want or need, every physical thing at least, had been thoughtfully provided.
Especially company, John thought, with a twist to his lips. But the spell that had dragged him back here, to the world the incubi called their own, couldn’t force compliance, could it? It could deprive him of the life he'd chosen, could force him away from everyone who mattered, could destroy any chance he'd ever had at happiness. But that wasn't enough for the old man. Who hadn’t waited hundreds of years and coaxed his son back from the demon council for the pleasure of his company.
He wanted a return on his investment, and there was only one way to get it.
But the parade of lovelies his father had sent to tempt him hadn’t worked, so Rosier had decided to get tricky. It didn’t matter who John coupled with, after all. Not now. The big clients would come later, after his son had remembered his place in the natural order of things, and sloughed off the myriad rough edges that made him who he was.
After he'd become the clone of himself that Rosier had always wanted.
For now, it was enough to get him feeding again, as his father's people did, to remind him of the added power it gave, to make him crave it . . . .
And anyone would do for that.
Anyone at all.
Well, anyone who could break his resolve, that is. Anyone whose face he saw in dreams every night, and missed every morning when she wasn't there. Whose absence had made him feel loneliness, true, aching loneliness, for the first time since . . . well, possibly ever. He had felt many things for his dead wife: anger, regret, guilt. And they had lasted, for there was no getting closure from a dead woman, was there? But loneliness?
No, he'd never felt that. Because how did you miss someone who'd never existed, except in your imagination? The real woman he'd known remained a mystery, one skilled at eliciting the desired reactions from men and bending them to her will. But Cassie . . .
Yes, Cassie he missed. More even than he'd thought possible, and he had expected it to hurt. But not like this, not like a part of him had been carved out by an exceptionally dull blade. Leaving an ache that went on and on, unlike anything he'd ever known, save for that horrible time all those years ago after his father first pulled him from earth, and introduced him to his personal little corner of hell.
John poured himself another drink.
So, yes, this imposter had had a real chance of success. Because his biggest fear was that the real madcap blonde he knew wouldn’t leave well enough alone, but would try some damned fool rescue that would only put her back into danger--serious danger--yet again. Despite the fact that he'd just sacrificed his life to get her out!
It battled with his other fear, one that grew bigger as day slid into long, interminable day: the idea that maybe she wouldn’t. Because why the hell should she? The real Cassie Palmer was Pythia now, chief seer of the supernatural world, with responsibilities and petitioners and factions clawing at her every day, not to mention a war against gods to fight. She had plenty to do and plenty of people to make sure she did it, and that she forgot all about him --
A sudden image of shrewd brown eyes rose up in front of his vision, ones in a darkly attractive face. Her vampire mentor, as smooth and suave as any incubus and twice as deadly. John's hand clenched on the bottle. He wanted to hurl it over the balcony, wanted to scream, wanted to fight--for her. More than he'd ever wanted anything in his whole, misbegotten life. Wanted to get her away from all of them, Circle and Senate alike, before they succeeded in tearing her apart like dogs fighting over a particularly meaty bone. Wanted --
He poured himself another drink.
So yes, it might have worked. Because this imposter had been smarter than the other, arriving not in silk clad finery but in denim shorts and a simple tee, a smear of something dark on one slightly pinker than normal cheek, and her breath coming fast and panicked. "I found you," she'd said, throwing herself into his arms. "Oh, God, Pritkin! I've missed you so much!"
And, for a moment, it had worked. For a moment, he'd felt his arms tighten around her, felt the soft, warm body mold itself against his, felt a wave of emotion start to swamp him. And then she'd pulled his head down into a kiss, one full of passion and fire, igniting almost as hot as his own.
But it had none of the hesitancy, none of the internal conflicts writ large in clear blue eyes, none of the bundle of emotions that Cassie, the real Cassie, somehow managed to hold all at the same time. Ones that mirrored his own snarl of jumbled feelings that, until he came here, he'd never had a chance to sort out. But he'd had nothing else to do for six months, and there was no more confusion now, but it didn’t matter because it wasn't her.
It would never be her.
He tried to pour another drink, but he was drunk and his hand slid on the wet glass, leaving him fumbling for it awkwardly. He gave up and set the bottle down on the tiles between his feet, and put his head in his hands. And wondered, briefly, why he hadn’t run off with her as she'd asked.
How long would it be before he took someone else up on the offer? Until he believed because he wanted to believe? Because if he didn’t there was nothing else but this, long nights and regrets and endless what-ifs, and alcohol that wasn't nearly strong enough to blot out the memories that amounted to torture now.
I should have told her, he thought for the hundredth time, watching the whiskey throw strange shadows over the tiles.
He was still in the same place an hour later, the glass held slack in a trailing hand, the stars well up and the night air growing cold, when he heard it. Bells, a few at first, then more and more, loud, insistent, and then almost frantic, pealing from every corner of the city. He looked up, bleary eyes blankly registering the fires spotting formerly quiet streets, and people screaming and something exploding --
He shot out of his chair, his heart hammering as it hadn’t since he came to this infernal city. And then he all but ran back into his room, in time to see the door slam open and a wild-eyed vampire spill in, with that half-crazed look that only one person in the universe could inspire. And lurch in his direction, babbling something John couldn’t hear over the damned bells and didn’t care about anyway.
"Is she here?" he demanded, snatching the creature down to him. And despite the fact that Casanova had at least three inches on him, the man looked terrified.
"This isn’t my fault!" he kept babbling over and over. "They kidnapped me! They made me march through the scorching desert until my feet bled, they --"
"More than that will bleed if you don’t answer me!"
"Yes, all right? But you don't under--"
"I don’t know where she is!" the vampire shrilled. "Rian took off and left me once I started fighting her, but by then we were halfway across --"
"You brought her here and left her alone?" Pritkin heard himself roar, before shoving Casanova back through the still open door. And smashing a fist into the creature's face as he bounced off a wall, only to hear --
He looked up, his vision tunneling and his ears ringing. Because it was her, standing at the end of the hall in a ridiculous outfit like the ones the dancers wore in the souk, with no makeup and dirty feet and her hair everywhere and slightly smoking. And her expression --
He'd never seen her look that furious.
A moment later, they were back in his room, and she was glaring at him for no reason he could see. He was the one who had the right to be angry; angry that his sacrifice had meant nothing, angry that she'd come here. Angry now that doubts were creeping in.
"I knew it was you," he told her, even as he wondered if it was. His old friend Caleb was with her, or someone who looked just like him. And that ridiculous Casanova. And Cassie, barefoot with terribly chipped toenail polish that looked like it had been through a war or two. It was all completely believable . . . .
But maybe that was the point. To send an obvious fake, and then almost immediately follow it up with an illusion so good, he couldn’t find a crack or a flaw. Maybe this was how his father finally won, when she threw herself into his arms, proclaimed her undying love, said all the things he wanted to hear, but never had and never would because she was fake, fake like the others, and he had been a fool to hope, even for a moment --
She slapped him.
"You son of a bitch!"
And then her face wrinkled up and he was holding her, unsure whether to laugh or scream, fear clutching his heart like a vise, but a strange, ebullient joy flooding his veins.
Everything since had been a blur. The escape from the city, the battle with his father, the demon council imprisoning him again as he'd known they would. They'd wanted him dead for centuries, deploring the potential power of the hybrid creature his father's ambition had created. And now they had the perfect excuse.
What chance was there that they wouldn’t take it?
Yet Cassie couldn’t see that. And, frankly, John was having a hard time concentrating on it himself. They were in a bar somewhere in the Shadowland, the demon world where the council met, waiting to be summoned. At which point he would come face-to-face with the fate he'd avoided all these years, and with the terrifying creatures chomping at the bit to dole it out to him. Yet, none of it seemed to matter next to the thought that kept ringing in his head.
I should have told her.
And now he could. She was right there, glaring at him again, and fighting with his father, because the fact that Rosier was a member of the demon high council seemed to matter exactly fuck all to her, and it was glorious. But not as much as the look in her eyes, the expression John could swear he saw now and again, slipping past her formidable defenses. Only he couldn’t trust himself. He couldn’t trust himself about anything anymore, much less to parse reality from his desperate desires, desires she might share.
Only she didn’t.
John stared up at her in a mixture of bewilderment and resentment and anger and terrible affection, and, yes, that was it, the snarl of emotion he remembered so well. The snarl that wanted him to jump up and shake her and slam her against the nearest wall and kiss her quiet. Because she didn’t get this, didn’t understand that, no matter what she or some dead goddess said to the council, it wasn't going to work.
Only maybe she did understand, because she was suddenly looking miserable, too. Like some of the hard truths he'd been telling her were finally getting through. As if perhaps she was finally realizing just how bad the odds were.
He already had, but he still didn’t care. Wouldn’t have even if they'd been worse, even if they'd been certain, because death might be preferable to the alternative he faced at his father's court. He found he only cared about one thing, that thing, and suddenly, she was looking unsure for the first time since she broke into hell to free him, with only a terrified vampire and a crusty war mage at her side.
Suddenly, she was looking very worried indeed as he started backing her around the table. And for some reason, that had John's heart feeling lighter than it had in months. Maybe because it was accompanied by more of that odd expression again, the one that had his pulse pounding and that odd rushing sound flooding his ears, which was inconvenient because he wanted to hear her say it.
"Then give me a reason," he said, watching her face. She'd just claimed that he couldn’t leave with his father because she needed him. What he needed was for to realize why.
"I . . . there's so many." She almost tripped over a chair.
John took no mercy. "Name one."
"I can name a hundred--"
"I didn’t ask for a hundred; I asked for one. And you can’t give it to me."
"Yes, I can!" She was looking angry again.
"Then do it!"
He heard the anger in his own voice, and the almost pleading, and the edge that dared her, for once, to face her emotions head on, and put a name to what they had between them, and say it.
But she couldn’t. Because she hadn’t had those months, all the interminable days and endless nights, all the silence and loneliness, all the time, an endless ocean of it, stretching out as far as the eye could see in all directions, none of which contained her. He'd broken before the first month was out, in realization of what he'd lost, and despair at what he'd never have again.
But now he did, and he could push it, could make her see . . . .
But she wasn't there yet, if she'd ever be, and all he was doing in his desperation and hopelessness was making her miserable. Was making her cry, and he'd never wanted -- God!
"I don’t know how to say it right," she sobbed. "I don’t know what you want. I just know I need you. I need you, I can’t do this without you --"
“Oh, spare us,” Rosier said, sounding disgusted. For an incubus, he had always had a serious lack of sentiment.
But his attempt to pull John away had an effect, just not the one he'd intended.
Because Cassie suddenly went from misery to something that looked like panicked terror. "No! You can’t go! You can’t!”
He gripped her hands harder, because she looked like she was about to pass out. “Cassie—”
“Just try. You just have to try.”
“It isn’t that simple. Even if—” He stopped, trying to come up with something, anything, to wipe that look off her face. But, like his father, emotions weren't his strong suit. He didn’t know what to tell her, how to make this easier, just as he'd never managed to make anything easier for her. He'd told himself it was for her own good, everything he'd put her through, that she had to toughen up in order to survive. But, looking back, all he could remember was how cruel he'd been, the things he'd said, the way he'd pushed her --
God. Maybe this was for the best, after all. Maybe his father was right, and she'd be better off without him.
But how to make her see that?
“Even if what?” she demanded, staring up into his face.
“Cassie," he forced himself to focus. He'd been thinking about himself long enough; it was time to think about her. To make her understand that she had to leave. "The council . . . it isn’t like a human court, with rules and procedures and some semblance of justice. They are arbitrary and capricious at best, and at worst . . . they’re the definition of chaos.”
She blinked up at him, and the panic abruptly cleared. Her pleading, tear- streaked face became calm, and quietly brave. Just as she'd always been the bravest damned soul he'd ever known.
“Mother said chaos is like jumping off a cliff," she told him softly. "Not knowing what’s at the bottom. But she didn’t seem to think that was so bad. I didn’t understand what she meant then, but I think . . . maybe I do now. Sometimes there are no guarantees. Sometimes, if you want something badly enough, you just have to jump.”
He stared at her for a moment. And, suddenly, it really was just that easy. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if she felt the same, didn’t matter if he was going to survive this, didn’t matter at all. Because he simply couldn’t leave. Not and wipe that look of hope off her face, or go back to that sterile room, to a life that had never been his and was almost obscene now.
Suddenly, he couldn’t do anything but jump, right along with her.
And, for the first time in months, John Pritkin smiled.