I suppose I’m not a very experienced fainter, because I didn’t remain unconscious for long. I think I woke the moment I felt someone—Lysander, I knew—pulling my boots off one by one. But I suspected it was best to keep my eyes closed for the time being.
“Damn, Lysander,” came a voice I didn’t recognize. “You’re a busy guy, huh? A pregnant wife and a side piece, and I had no idea.”
“Miss Blackwell is my former employer,” Lysander said stiffly. Was that all I truly was to him…? If I weren’t pretending to be asleep, I would tear Byron limb from limb for poaching my butler and keeping it a secret. Perhaps that’s why he felt it necessary to keep it a secret.
“So which one’s your favorite—wife or side piece?”
“I have neither a wife nor a side piece.”
I slowly—very, very slowly, to avoid suspicion—rolled over to face the speakers. I thought it best to open my eyelids ever so slightly to gauge the situation. And what a lovely situation it was.
“That’s no way to talk in front of your wife, Lysander…” Byron said.
“My wife, Master Byron?”
“Penny—the woman carrying your baby!” Byron was unusually fierce tonight. Where had his spine been all these centuries? “If you won’t take responsibility for your wife and child, I will. Or we could give the baby to Bianca, because it’s half yours and Bianca is kind of obsessed with you, you know?”
I immediately sat up. “I am no such thing!” It was then that I noticed that Byron was wearing…something he would never wear under any circumstances, which clearly meant I was still feeling faint and was currently hallucinating.
“I guess now’s a good time to tell you I’m not his wife,” the blond human said.
“Of course not,” I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. “You’re Benny, his secret and beloved younger man—and possibly his butler protégé.”
“But Penny’s too pretty to be a boy,” Byron blurted. Poor, silly Byron. “She’s soft and she has all those face-spots and her hair smells like fried human food…no wonder she’s always having passionate man-woman relations with a man like Lysander.”
The blond looked from me to Byron and back again. “Okay,” Lysander’s young lover said. “Serious question time: Are you all fucked in the head?”
“Language, Penny.” Lysander turned on his heel to face…
“Penny?” I repeated, even though Lysander’s pronunciation was always flawless. It was one of the things I admired about him, along with his substantial…substance. “Not Benny?”
Lysander exhaled through his nose for a good three heartbeats before he addressed me directly. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible misunderstanding, Miss Blackwell. This is Penny—formerly Lissette—Lyons, my younger sister.”
“Your sister,” I murmured. “I’ve always longed for a sister…”
“That’s not true,” Byron said. “You’ve said every night for the last two hundred and fifty years that you wished you were an only child.”
“Well, sisters are entirely different,” I said.
Byron was already looking at Penny. “So you’re sure you’re not pregnant and married to Lysander? I know a lot of royal human relatives used to marry each other back when Bianca was young.”
“Byron, you’re only a century younger than me. A century.”
“Pretty sure,” Penny said. “He’s not my type anyhow, even if he weren’t, you know, my brother. Too uptight.”
Lysander frowned. “Uptight, Penny?”
“I’m loose,” Byron said eagerly. “The loosest.” And then he looked away with the oddest expression on his face.
“I feel faint,” I announced with a dramatic hand to my forehead. My brother wouldn’t steal attention that rightfully belonged to a recovering invalid, as he’d stolen my butler.
Lysander was at my side in an instant. “Are you thirsty, Miss Blackwell?”
I thought it might not be best to admit that I’d so recently dined on not one but two handsome human butlers who weren’t him. “I believe I only need to sit for a time,” I said softly—weakly. I slowly moved to the other side of the bed—away from Byron and Penny—and sat on the edge. “Please sit beside me, Lysander. I’m in far too delicate a state to look up at you as we speak–and we must catch up on so very many matters of importance.”
“Yes, Miss Blackwell.”
“It’s been far too long, hasn’t it?” I said once he had taken a seat beside me. “It’s almost strange, to see you again…”
“I trust you’ve been well in my absence? Master Byron tells me you wasted no time in finding my replacement.” There was an unusual note in Lysander’s voice that I couldn’t quite decipher. “I was relieved to hear that my disappearance didn’t inconvenience you for long.”
I looked down. I wasn’t certain what I was supposed to say…why did I suddenly feel guilty when he was the one who had abandoned me? And Thaddeus…I didn’t care if Thaddeus was his father; I wouldn’t speak of him tonight.
Perhaps it was best if I looked up—after a heartbeat or two. “I’ve been…well enough, Lysander,” I said softly, though it was still difficult to look at him. “You weren’t easy to replace. Not in the least. If I’d had a choice…”
“The choice wasn’t mine to disappear, Miss Blackwell. I’m afraid I was abducted, quite unexpectedly.”
I raised a brow. “Abducted? By whom?”
“Fairies, Miss Blackwell—if you would believe such a thing.”
“I would believe anything you told me, Lysander.” I offered him a small smile. “If I’d known…I would’ve rescued you myself.” Perhaps that wasn’t a very feminine thing to say, even if I were far stronger than a male human. “Or at least snapped a few wings off of a handful of fairies—their wings have a wide number of uses when ground into a fine powder.” Including as an aphrodisiac when administered to male humans, but he couldn’t know that.
“It all worked out for the best, Miss Blackwell,” Lysander said quietly. “I was able to be reunited with my sister after a great many years apart. I might never have found her otherwise…” The genuine fondness in his voice somehow sent thorns deep into my unbeating heart. Well, at least he had found happiness without me.
“I’m so very happy for you,” I lied. “I was remiss in thinking you were an only child all these years. She seems like a lovely girl. Lovely—and rambunctious.”
“She is, Miss Blackwell.”
The conversation stalled. It had played so very differently in my mind, our grand reunion…I would fall into his arms in a passionate embrace, and…and all would be right with the world. Instead I felt as though I were confronting a stranger. A stranger whose face nearly made me weep with loneliness.
“And Byron?” I pressed on. “Has he been well?”
“He almost got himself toasted alive,” the girl—Penny—said from somewhere behind me. “Toasted undead. Whatever.”
“Byron almost perished?” My premonitions of certain doom had been infallible as usual!
“I can assure you that he has made a full recovery, Miss Blackwell.”
“This time, perhaps.” I sat up straighter. “Of course I know exactly what I must do—Byron, I hope you have room for your favorite sister in this pit of squalor.”
“I really, really don’t,” Byron said.
“Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll just need to do a bit of shopping, and then I’m certain I’ll be able to survive here for the foreseeable future. Yes, I’ll be miserable surrounded by filth in a building stuffed with noisy, smelly humans, but if it means being able to look out for my poor, flammable younger brother…” I pointed at the blonde—Penny. “Come,” I commanded.
She slowly walked over.
“We’re going shopping,” I told her graciously. “You and I, like sisters. No men allowed.” Let Lysander see how generously I took his beloved sister under my wing: a poor young girl without any mother figure to speak of. I knew altogether too well what it was like to lack a proper mother for guidance, but fortunately I’d had centuries to accumulate my wisdom on my own.
“I hate shopping,” she said, but she must’ve been joking in that rambunctious ragamuffin sort of way.
“Please accompany Miss Blackwell, Penny,” Lysander said, to my surprise. “She’s in very unfamiliar territory, and I trust you to keep her safe.”
“Okay, I guess.”
We set out together a short while later, a pair of two modern city women. Or at least one modern city woman and her adorable charity case street urchin.
“I’m more knowledgeable about the city than your brother believes,” I told Penny as she guided us through the dark, human-clogged streets. “This shop came highly recommended to me by a man of unimaginable wealth.” She didn’t have to know that he had far less sense than simoleons. “He assured me that it would suit my every need perfectly.”
We stopped in front of a rather elegant, inviting building.
“Uh. You sure this is the place?”
“Of course,” I said. “I remember the name—it’s rather strange. Only a single letter: B. I wonder if they couldn’t afford more than one letter when they first opened; I hear the rent in the city is quite exorbitant.” I pushed opened the door and went inside; she had no choice but to follow me.
“Hey, do you know what kind of place this is…?”
“It’s a shop,” I said impatiently, removing my sunglasses. What kind of girl didn’t understand the very basics of shopping? “It sells all sorts of things, including clothing.”
She shrugged—a habit I would have to train out of her later. “Sure. That’s one way of putting it, I guess.”
Despite Penny’s misgivings, I knew right away that I’d come to the right place. The first male store employee I came across was dressed in a fashion very pleasing to modern city women and the décor made me feel just a touch nostalgic.
I was especially impressed by just how many of the products for sale were available in black.
The place seemed to cater to both modern men and modern women. How very…modern!
I couldn’t say why—perhaps the vibrant color in a shop surrounded by my usual black—but a certain ensemble immediately caught my eye. “What do you think of this, Penny?” I asked. “Do you suppose it would suit me?”
“I think I can safely say that is a thing. That you can wear. On your body.”
“I feel the same,” I admitted. “I didn’t pack a change of clothing since I wasn’t expecting to stay for long…and a little shopping never hurt anyone, did it?”
“I kind of think a lot of crap in this place can hurt people,” Penny said, but I ignored her strange humor. She would have to learn to grow out of that phase, but I was patient.
“It’s so very youthful,” I murmured.
“So, like, are you gonna buy something or what?” a feminine voice interrupted.
The female human employee looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Humans tend to all blend together after a time.
“I think she kind of wants to buy that,” Penny said, pointing at the outfit I’d been so admiring.
“Oh my god, Reed loves that one,” the female employee said. “Sometimes I wonder if maybe he loves it a little too much? But yeah, totally a fave.”
“Of course I’ll need to try it on first,” I said. Modern female humans were always trying things on when they didn’t have their own personal tailors.
“No prob. Anything for you?” She looked at Penny.
“Ignore her,” I said immediately. “I’ll pick out something for her to try on as well.” I smiled graciously at Penny. “And I’ll pay for it, of course, if it fits well.” She had a very boyish frame, the poor creature. I truly couldn’t be faulted for mistaking her for “Benny.”
Penny took the lead into the changing room on the floor below.
“You must be eager to try on something new,” I said. Perhaps there was a girl in there after all—a girl who knew that a world outside of ratty, masculine clothing awaited her.
“Nah,” she said. “I guess I just prefer to get the whole ‘walking into strange, creepy basements’ thing over with as soon as possible. Reflex.”
We were going to change together, like two modern city women. Or at least one modern city woman and one modern city ragamuffin.
“I…seriously don’t think I can wear this,” Penny said, looking down at the neatly folded clothing.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, you poor thing. Not every woman can have my figure.”
No matter how much Penny protested, I refused to take no for an answer. I ended up purchasing an outfit for each of us, and together we walked out of that charming little shop in brand-new clothing. I probably walked back to Byron’s disgusting apartment a bit faster than strictly necessary—Penny had to struggle to keep up.
“We’re home,” I called once we entered. “Don’t we look modern?”
Byron and Lysander broke off their conversation and turned to greet us.
I don’t know what kind of look I expected on Lysander’s face, but it certainly wasn’t that.