Torture had long been one of my favorite pastimes. However, the exquisite pain from this particular torture was beyond any I had ever experienced or inflicted in my centuries of existence.
My recent attempts at seduction—another favorite pastime—had been less than successful. But why? Few women refused me, hopelessly drawn to my looks or my wealth or my charm, if not all three. My alabaster dove was the exception, but she was special: an ivory rose among the dandelions.
This…this insect was no such thing. What reason did she have to prefer swine to my shining, smooth, resplendent glory? Hirsuteness couldn’t possibly be such a bargaining chip, could it? ‘Tis true that I had attempted to seduce Saul a handful of times over the years myself, mostly for the amusement his reactions provided, but I had found little appeal in his actual appearance. I prefer sharp, cold beauty to…slovenly, warm hairiness, or whatever he apparently has on offer.
Well. There was only one person of my acquaintance who knew more of the inner workings of women than I—and fortunately, that person was currently easily accessible.
“Shouldn’t you be back in Forgotten Hollow with your tone-deaf uncle?”
“Mama,” I said again. “Won’t you help your only son?”
“You’re far too old to come running to your mother over every little problem you have, Graham. You ought to know this by now. And I’m working.”
“But this is a big problem, Mama.”
“Let me guess—it involves a girl.”
“Worse,” I said sadly. “A fae.”
“Oh—that one you dragged around the other night? I liked her. Quite a bit, come to think of it…”
“Mama,” I pleaded. “This is a matter of both great urgency and importance.” Much like her only son, she was frequently distracted by unwholesome thoughts. What else was there to appreciate in lives as long as ours…?
She sighed. I followed her as she sat down at one of the dressing tables, taking it as a tacit invitation to join her. It had taken me almost two centuries to learn how to interpret her many silences and many more threats, but Mama and I got along quite well now.
“Be quick about it,” she said. “This production is already over-budget and behind schedule, and one of my lovely leads managed to sprain her—well, that doesn’t matter.” My dearest mother, always so rough with her toys.
“I want her,” I said. “My fae, that I found and paid for with my own money. But she says she hates everything about me.”
“The others loathed you as well. What makes this one so different?”
“Because they offered me their bodies regardless. And she won’t.”
She expelled a long breath through her nose. “The world doesn’t belong to you, Graham, no matter how long or how far your footsteps have traveled across it.”
“But I want her to belong to me.”
“Have you considered using your powers…?”
“After the first three excruciating nights, for a moment I considered—”
She smacked the side of my head too quickly for me to evade her. “I taught you better than that.”
“Yes, Mama,” I said meekly. “I only considered it for the briefest of moments, at the very peak of my…frustrations. A game unfairly won is no true game at all.”
Her expression softened into something vaguely less murderous. “I’m unsure that a fae wouldn’t be immune anyhow. But she’s still a woman, Graham. She’s entitled to her own tastes and preferences. And have you considered that she might not even enjoy the taste of men…?” Her lips revealed more of her fangs as they curved into a smirk.
“But I saw her with another man,” I whined. “A particularly hirsute one. She seemed to enjoy the taste of him well enough.”
Mama shuddered. “I never did understand the appeal of sweating, heavily fur-covered bodies.” Her eyes narrowed in thought. “Well, I suppose that makes matters simpler—the problem, as usual, is you. You never consider what the objects of your infatuation want, Graham—only what they can give you. It’s all about a particular need they can satisfy, an itch they can scratch, some hole they can fill.”
“I like to do the filling, Mama.”
She sighed again. “Thank you for sharing, Graham.”
“So what do I do, Mama? How do I get what I want this time?”
“You don’t. Or you learn to consider what she wants and hope that behaving like an attentive gentleman instead of a spoiled brat will help her warm up to you. Think of courtship rather than lust, though the latter reigns in modern times. Still, even the sturdiest farmgirl enjoys sweet words before being led into her father’s barn…” She cleared her throat. “Farmgirls were never my type, though I did like to sample widely in centuries past. Hopefully your fae will as well, despite your deficiencies. You’re certainly handsome enough—you inherited that from me—but you’ll have to make more of an effort this time, Graham. If you don’t see something newer and prettier on the horizon and lose interest first.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Not until I’ve won.”
“You never change, Graham.” Bee liked to tell me the same thing. She pushed her chair back from the dressing table, so I followed suit.
“It isn’t your unbirthday.”
“Fine. Just this once.” That’s what she always said.
“Thank you, Mama. I love you.”
She muttered something in response before severing our mother-son hug—the instant my allotted five seconds had run out, as always.
“Don’t give up,” she told me as I made to leave. “You’re a Straud, whether I like it or not—and a Straud always gets exactly what they want eventually. Well, aside from the Blackwell girl.” She had wanted her too, though Bee had managed to remain entertainingly oblivious to her advances over the centuries. Mama and I are so much alike.
“Yes, Mama.” I took some time to tour the old theater on my own. It reminded me so much of my mother, even without the naked or scantily clad women upon the stage.
I was in high spirits when I returned to the hotel room I shared with my insect. In weeks past, she had never stopped asking when we’d return to Forgotten Hollow, but she asked in a way that made me think she didn’t much care about the answer. I frequently caught her playing with her dirt in a bowl in the bathroom—an activity she enjoyed doing in the nude, whether I was present or otherwise. Even when she had caught me looking, she only shrugged at me.
And I was always looking.
She appeared to have noticed that I was less likely to join her in bed the nights she slept au naturel, as she did so more and more often.
On those days, I had no choice but to sleep elsewhere and tend to my exquisite agony in private. I refused to reveal that her wingless insect self had the least effect on me whatsoever. She was no Bianca Blackwell, this fae with neither wings nor magic—nor taste in men. She was little more than the dirt she played in with such frequency.
And still, I wanted her. Solely, of course, to win. And to see a look on her face other than contempt and annoyance, though I was so very fond of both on my alabaster dove’s frigid countenance.
“Enough with the creeper eyes,” my insect said, after I’d tracked her down to a bench just outside the hotel. “You remind me of one of my obsessive old fans. He was arrested for stalking, in case you’d like a look at the restraining order.”
By Saul? I wanted to ask. Is that how they met? Had she offered herself to him the moment he saved her from this maladjusted cretin, who was not at all like me and likely reeked of body odor and orange-colored artificial cheese powder?
“I enjoy crushing bugs beneath my thumb,” I said instead.
“Spoken like a true serial killer.”
“I am responsible for thousands of deaths, you know. Tens of thousands. Perhaps hundreds.”
“Lucky for you that your crimes are probably outside of the statute of limitations, then. They are, aren’t they? Otherwise I’d feel compelled to report them.”
“To Saul?” I said, far too quickly. I couldn’t help myself.
She smiled. Smirked, more like. “Maybe. He’s easier to deal with than most cops.” She gave me a pointed look. “And most men.”
I wasn’t most men. I was Graham Straud—and it was time she learned that. “I have something for you, sweet fae.”
“Don’t want it.”
“It’s a gift.”
“My mother thought you would like it.”
A flicker of interest. “Fine.”
She said nothing as I led her through the city. I had showered my past wives and lovers with a multitude of gifts, though I was particularly proud of this one. It suited her.
“We’ve arrived,” I announced.
“Where is everyone? You know you’ve had plenty of opportunities to kill me without an audience, don’t you?”
“I do know, sweet fae.” Ah, how often I’d considered it, merely to get the buzzing gnat out of my head…
I led her to the balcony on the highest floor, and gave her a small amount of time to take in the view. “The Sugarplum Theater,” I said grandly.
“It’s…nice? And empty.”
“It’s for you.”
“A gift for you, sugarplum. Don’t you like it? It’s deliberately…on the smaller side in keeping with your preferences, but we wouldn’t want to start you off with more than you can handle. You’ll surely work your way up to much greater things, hm?”
“What am I going to do with a theater?”
“Act. Play in the dirt. Dance in the nude onstage, with or without an audience. Whatever you like—it’s yours.”
She approached me far faster than I expected—and far closer. “Straud.”
“Yes?” I would’ve held my breath then, were it not completely unnecessary.
“I will never, ever waste a night on you,” she murmured, “no matter what gifts you so generously toss at my feet. I’m an actress slash model, not your pet or concubine. Pay me to act or have the courtesy to fire me.”
She strode out the nearest door before I could reply—damn her long actress slash model legs.
Well. So I had miscalculated this time—I would have other chances to catch my bug in a jar.
I had eternity, if nothing else.