I enjoyed feeling more like a cat than a bug. Graham Straud was no different from a multitude of men of power and influence who considered women their playthings—and who were so easily led around by the nose. Well, maybe not the nose, exactly, but I had little interest in seeing anything below his face.
A theater. I didn’t want anything from a vampire, and even less from this vampire in particular…but the Sugarplum Theater (charming despite its name) was a small, historic building suitable for modest stage productions.
Darius, Penny and I had always traveled lightly. Few things belonged to us, and never for very long. But now I had no Darius and no Penny…would it be a terrible thing to have something that was entirely mine—something that would stay exactly where I left it?
If only it didn’t come with strings attached—strings attached to the most insufferable man I’d ever met, human, vampire or fae. At least Orlando had had nice hair to go with his awful personality. Graham Straud had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
I stood alone atop the stage that was mine by rights (temporarily, at any rate), enjoying the quiet and solitude despite how little I’d enjoyed either lately. I wasn’t sure how long it was until a voice broke through my wandering thoughts.
“Hey. Little bird told me I’d be able to find you here.”
“Little birds seem to tell you an awful lot about me. Seth, was it?”
“…Saul. Moving up in the world, looks like. The theater deed was registered in your name—fake name?” Humans concerned themselves far too much with what was real and what was fake. It didn’t matter, in the end.
“As real as anything else about me. And I’m not keeping it. I’m only…savoring it until I give it back.”
“…Right. Look, I wanted to talk to you about something—something I can only talk to you about. Don’t want the boss getting involved. Trying to respect my, uh, client’s confidentiality and all that.”
“I prefer to involve him as little as possible in every aspect of my life.”
“You’re not alone.” He scratched at the stubble at his jaw. I liked his jaw: square and distinctly masculine. I wondered if it was hereditary. “So you really weren’t shitting me when you and the boss said you were a fairy?”
Hopefully his somewhat disappointing level of intelligence wasn’t hereditary, or was at least recessive. “You can never trust him, but I can assure you I am a pure-blooded fae. Or was, once. Now…” I sighed. “I live life as a human.”
“But how much do you know about, uh…fairy magic?”
“More than any human possibly could. Or vampire.”
“You feel like answering some questions about it for me?”
I gave him a disdainful look. “How exactly do I benefit from this exchange? Fae don’t take kindly to their secrets being shared, particularly with humans.” Nor did the fae give anything away for free; it simply wasn’t in our nature.
He attempted an easy smile, but I could tell just how forced it was. “Don’t feel like helping out an old friend out of the goodness of your heart?”
“You’re not my friend. And any goodness has long since died.” Or had it only died with Darius? No, he wasn’t dead—only sleeping, or so he promised me. But he was as good as dead until I saw him again… He would’ve tried to help, I knew. But no good ever came from helping humans—hadn’t I learned my lesson?
He rubbed at the back of his neck. “Hell, what do you want that I have? Whatever it is, it’s yours. I need whatever info I can get—fast.”
I was on him in an instant. “I’m so glad you offered.”
“Please don’t talk. It’s more efficient—and enjoyable for me—if you don’t.” His grunting, however, was permissible.
“I didn’t come here for—”
“Shh. I can’t touch the metal on your belt unless I want to deal with a first-degree burn.”
“I could use my magic to deal with it if you prefer. I don’t like to waste it when I have so little, but if it makes things more efficient…”
“Hold up, lady—Isla. I’ve kind of got a thing going on right now.”
“Some sort of disease? I’m probably immune to it.”
“Ha—hell…not a goddamn disease…”
“You seem to be a more than willing participant at the moment. Am I wrong? I won’t force you.” I’d never had to coerce a man in my life; if he didn’t want me, I could have my pick from a number of others. But he suited my purposes well enough and was currently on-hand. …In hand?
He grunted and fumbled at his belt. “Hell, it might not be a thing. But it could be, after…” He shook his head. “Look…just this one last time? If you’ll answer…every last damn thing I ask.” He looked—and sounded—somewhat desperate. Why did he want to know about fae magic so badly? I would enjoy finding out, once I had my fill of him.
“A fair bargain,” I murmured. I would take far more from him than he knew, but he wouldn’t miss it. He would never even know it was gone. A luxuriously thick blanket of fur met my fingers when I slid my hand up Seth’s—Saul’s—unconstrained shirt…
“Defiling the stage I gifted you so soon?” Graham hissed from behind me. “And here I thought you had no use for it. It was meant for serious stage productions—this is a historical building.”
I sighed and retracted my hand. Couldn’t I enjoy this part of the bargain in peace? “I’m giving it back, Straud.”
“Well, now I don’t want it back. You ruined it.”
I turned so that he could watch me roll my eyes at him. “…What exactly is stuck to your face?”
He stroked at the dead animal that was apparently glued to his jaw. “It’s called a beard, insect. I thought you liked those.”
“That is not a real beard. That is a crime against humanity—and the fae.”
“…I can come back later,” Saul said.
“This is a business transaction,” I told Graham, ignoring Saul.
Graham glared at Saul and then me. “Is it?”
“I’m sure you’ve closed a number of deals this way in your time.”
“…Perhaps. But I fail to understand what sort of deal you’re making with the Hirsute Hog Horror.”
“…Seriously, boss? Look, I just wanted to talk to her in private.” I sighed as I heard the sound of Saul’s belt sliding back into place. Humans could be so ridiculous about their bare flesh being exposed. Did Saul think he was much different from any other human male?
“I can see that.”
“Not like that, boss.”
“I’ve seen exactly what sort of things you two do in private, my friend.”
“I was only using him as breeding stock,” I said bluntly, hoping to put an end to their pointless conversation. “In exchange for a favor.”
Saul choked on his own breath. “Wait—what?”
I lifted one shoulder in response. “I decided I wanted a child, and I felt you would make for a decent enough stud. Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Yeah, it ain’t going anywhere near my head ever again, lady,” he managed. “It’s true what they say—the crazy ones are always best in the sack.”
“That aligns with my experiences as well,” Graham offered, his expression more thoughtful than angry. “Tell me, insect…would you find my body any more appealing if I offered it alongside his? A sort of…package deal, so to speak.”
“What in the fresh hell are you trying to sign me up for?”
“You seem to enjoy rutting like the wild boar you are. And perhaps I’ll begin to properly understand your appeal once I become better acquainted with it personally. Her presence alone might manage to make it more palatable.”
“…Yeah, I’m outta here. Neither of you is coming anywhere near me ever again unless I’ve got a bodyguard.”
“Don’t forget who pays your salary, my friend.”
“I would if I could.” He exited, stage right.
“I liked him,” I muttered when Graham and I were alone. “He probably would’ve produced strong, square-jawed sons.”
“Their future lovers might appreciate that.”
“If they manage to secure any lovers at all.”
“They would be my sons—of course they would. But not for a very long time.” I could almost picture them—like smaller versions of Darius’s human glamour. They would never ask about their father, not when they had a mother like me. I would be enough. We’d move away from the metal and concrete of the city, me and my children, where grass grew unchecked and flowers bloomed in every color…
Graham’s voice, when he spoke, was unusually soft. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile, insect.”
“You give me absolutely no reason to smile.”
“I gave you a theater,” he said defensively. Sometimes Graham Straud struck me as more boy than man. He was a little like Darius that way—and only that way.
“You call me insect.”
“It’s a term of endearment.”
“It’s degrading.” My hands briefly clenched into fists. “They liked to call us things like that—the other fae. The ones with wings and magic. The one who believed themselves to be nothing like us.”
“Us, sweet fae?”
“My brother and I. He’s gone…and I’m still here.” I turned away at his expression—one with the barest suggestion of compassion. “I don’t need a snake’s sympathy. Or a theater.” Even if I was already fond of the latter…
He approached me from behind, laying a hand on my shoulder for a moment before he realized just what a poor idea it was. “What do you need? If it’s in my power to give, I shall—without any expectations of reciprocity. You have my word…Isla.” His words, oddly, sounded sincere—more so than any that had left his lips before. It was a shame the effect was ruined by the rustling of that wretched fake beard.
“I don’t need anything from you,” I said automatically. “Or anyone else.”
“Then what do you want?” A bargain without a price…could I really trust Graham Straud to honor it?
I opened my mouth—and was surprised by my own answer.