I was surprised that I didn’t have to remove the gorgeous diamond necklace and earrings Kira had loaned me, or my wedding ring, before I went through that machine. Another Secret Service agent did have me empty out my small clutch bag, though, revealing lipstick, pressed powder, and my cell phone. I smiled as I accepted the bag back from him before linking my arm through Bones’s.
Sure, we were here to kill someone, but we weren’t going to be obvious about it.
Then we proceeded onto the main floor of the Grand Ballroom. The extravagant, three-level white-and-gold room was bathed in a soft blue glow that slowly changed to purple, orange, then pink as we made our way past the ornately decorated tables. Tall stands with candles and roses interspaced them, their shape reminding me of Dr. Seuss’s fabled Truffula trees. The flowers and chandeliers reflected the different hues of the continually changing lights, adding a beautiful luminescence to the already elegant ambiance.
We passed a couple senators and congressman I recognized from C-Span, but aside from a polite nod and smile, I didn’t pay any attention to them. I also tried to tune out their thoughts since the betterment of their constituents wasn’t foremost in their minds. What slipped past my barriers were different variations of the same who are you and what can you do for me? theme, with some jealousy, hatred, and lust thrown in.
Instead, until Trove arrived, I chose to focus on my husband. Bones’s suit was charcoal gray, and his tightly cropped, curly hair was back to its natural deep brown shade. I was glad he’d gotten rid of that shock of white; it brought back too many bad memories. Instead of being clean-shaven, he’d allowed a thin layer of stubble to shadow his chin and jawline, giving a rugged edge to his perfectly chiseled features. No one might know who he was, but his biggest drawback was being unforgettable once you saw him.
As a token disguise, I’d also dyed my hair, choosing black in honor of my dark intentions. It was swept up in a complicated knot that had taken the stylist at this hotel an hour to achieve. Blue contacts covered my gunmetal gray eyes, and my dress was whisper pink, the liner and overlying lace only a few shades rosier than my pale skin. The demure color didn’t match my mood, but I was trying to blend in, not stand out by wearing I’ll-kill-you-dead red.
Waiters passed around wine, champagne, and fancy hors d’oeuvres. Dinner wasn’t for another hour, and Trove hadn’t shown up yet, so Bones and I sipped champagne while we chatted with whoever approached us, giving our cover story of being a wealthy couple newly transplanted from London. No one asked why Bones was the only one with an English accent. In fact, I was barely spoken to aside from having my looks complimented. My feminism was outraged while my practicality was thankful. It was hard to see vacuous arm candy as a threat.
Our plan had been to mingle our way over to Richard Trove once he arrived, maneuver him into one of the private alcoves, green-eye him into telling us if he had any other secret facilities, then have Bones telekinetically squeeze his heart until he fell over. No muss, no fuss, and an autopsy would show a plain old cardiac arrest. Happens every day, nothing to see here, folks.
Problem was, there turned out to be more to Trove than the video had revealed.
As the ballroom filled with hundreds of guests, perfumes, colognes, and aftershaves overlapped with the scent of food, body odor, alcohol, and smoke from those who indulged. The result was a chemical cornucopia that became so thick, I didn’t notice the other smell right away.
Bones did. His whole body tensed right before his aura slammed shut with enough force to drop-kick me out of his emotions.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
His reply was low, resonant, and filled with icy hatred.
When I followed Bones’s stare, my pessimism wasn’t surprised to find it ending at Richard Trove. That familiar, disgusting wave of sulfur penetrated through the other scents as the polished older man with the Jack Kennedy looks began strolling in our direction. The people around Trove didn’t seem to be aware of the smell emanating from him, and he must have hidden the pinpricks of red in his gaze under contacts.
Part of me was savagely amused that a demon had managed to fool Madigan into believing he was human this whole time, but the rest was wondering what the hell we were going to do. Demons couldn’t be mesmerized, and I had yet to meet one that would agree to come quietly.
Trove noticed my body first. His eyes lingered over it as though my dress had suddenly become see-through. When he finally dragged his gaze up to my face and saw that what he was doing hadn’t gone unobserved, he smiled in a charmingly roguish, “you caught me” sort of way.
Then his smile faded as he stared at me. His eyes narrowed, and he mouthed one word I didn’t need to hear to know that he’d recognized me.
So much for doing this the no-fuss, no-muss way.
Faster than a striking cobra, Bones’s power flashed out, wrapping around Trove. The famous politician stopped in his tracks, an odd expression creasing his features. Then Bones squeezed that invisible grip around him with all of the loathing he had for demons. Considering that one had possessed him last year and almost forced Bones to murder me, that was significant.
Beneath that punishing, full-body vise, Trove shouldn’t have been able to draw a breath, let alone take a step. Yet he did both, and his strange expression turned into one of near rapture.
“That tickles in all the right places,” he purred in his good ol’ Texas boy drawl.
My jaw dropped. From the power seething off him, Bones wasn’t having performance issues. How was Trove still coming toward us? Bones must have been wondering the same thing. He doubled the dose he leveled at Trove.
The subsequent blast of energy was like a bomb going off. Humans in the room might not have felt it, but it rocked me backward with enough force to send me crashing into the waiter behind me. We landed in a pile of champagne and broken glass, and still, Trove kept coming.
How is he doing this? my mind screamed. Bones had used less power when he levitated a dozen guards through a laser net!
Trove was only a few feet away now. I grabbed a hunk of broken glass out of instinct to reach for any weapon available. Then I dropped it. He didn’t have a heartbeat, so he was a corporeal demon, not a demonic spirit who’d possessed a human. As such, only one thing could kill him—demon bone stabbed through his eyes. And we didn’t have any.
“You seem to have taken a nasty spill, young lady,” Trove said in a conversational tone. “Let me help you.”
The demon extended his hand, leaning down. Before his skin brushed mine, Bones hauled him back. For some unfathomable reason, his telekinesis didn’t seem to affect Trove, but his grip worked just fine.
“Don’t. Touch. Her.”
Each word hissed out with na**d enmity. People around us started to whisper behind their hands. Muscular men with wires taped to their ears began to push through the crowd. Undercover Secret Service agents, no doubt. Trove flashed a smile at them, holding up his hands as much as Bones’s grip would allow.
“Everything’s all right, fellows. As I used to say when I was young, it’s not a party until something gets broken.”
Then lower, to Bones. “If you don’t want me to start killing innocent bystanders, you’ll let go of me.”
Bones smiled back but didn’t loosen the grip he had on Trove’s arms.
“A roomful of politicians? Have at it.”
I got up, pulling the waiter with me without taking my eyes off the two men. “Don’t.”
Aside from not every politician deserving such a fate, their families were here, too. So were hotel staff, and besides that, reporters. If things took a lethal, supernatural turn, it would be all over the news before we could begin to contain it.
“I think I had too much champagne,” I said in an abashed way, twining my arm through Bones’s. “Darling, take me for some air?”
He was so tense, his flesh felt like steel beneath my touch. I tried to discreetly tug him, but he didn’t budge. The Secret Service agents, who’d started to walk away at Trove’s mollifying statement, turned around. From their thoughts, they were about to take action.
“Not here,” I whispered, when Bones still didn’t move.
Then louder, to Trove, “Won’t you accompany us?”
The demon smiled, showing off teeth so white, he must’ve had them professionally bleached.
Then he glanced at the grip Bones still had on his arms, raising a single gray brow. At last, Bones released him, his answering flash of teeth too brief to be called a smile.
“After you, mate.”
We went up the stairs to the second level of the Grand Ballroom, where far fewer people were gathered. Trove impatiently waved away a Secret Service escort that tried to accompany him, making my wariness increase. Sure, he had no idea that we knew how to dispatch a demon, but why did he seem almost in a hurry to get us alone?
Only one reason I could think of: He intended to kill us. Ballsy of him to pick a public place to do it. He knew what we were, and vampires only died the messy way, not that I had any intention of dying tonight.
Once we were clear of most prying eyes, Trove’s mask of genial charm slipped, and I caught a glimpse of the real person beneath. To say it was like looking into the eyes of a beast was an insult to animals.
“Hit me with more of that delicious power, would you?” he said to Bones in a sinuous voice. “Felt so good, I almost came.”
“What kind of demon are you?” I asked over Bones’s snarl.
“An Ornias,” Trove replied, surprising me. I hadn’t really expected an answer.
Bones let out a harsh snort.
“That’s why my power doesn’t work on you. Your kind absorbs energy and feeds from it.”
I hadn’t known that power-absorbing demons existed, but then I’d only had experience with a few. The first had branded Denise, the second possessed and nearly killed Bones, and the third had tried to get me to pawn my soul in exchange for information. To say I disliked their kind was an understatement.
Trove shuddered in what looked like blissful remembrance.
“I have to drain the life force from over a dozen humans to absorb one-tenth of what you just doused me with. I want to feel that again, which is one of the reasons why you’re still alive.”
“Think you can kill me?” A dangerous little smile curled Bones’s mouth. “You’re welcome to try.”
Below us, the affluent and the powerful continued to mingle, unaware of how close to death they were. If Trove shed his human act and went for Bones, no one would be safe in the ensuing fight. We didn’t have any demon bone, and Bones’s powers only made the creature stronger, but I wasn’t about to let him harm my husband. From his words and the coiled rage leaking out from Bones’s shields, neither was he about to wave the white flag.
“Why did you back Madigan in his attempts to create tri-species supersoldiers? Normally, our kinds don’t mess in each other’s business.”
My voice was brisk. Either the demon would answer or he wouldn’t, but it cost me nothing to ask.
Trove took his amber gaze off Bones long enough to flick it over me in a way that made me expect a trail of slime where it landed.
“You know how much I hate vampires?” he asked in a conversational tone. “The only things more disgusting are flesh eaters, and though your races came close once or twice, you just won’t go the distance and destroy each other.”
I tried not to show my shock as understanding dawned. Madigan had had no idea what he was risking by blending vampire and ghoul DNA into a human to create a new subspecies. Trove, however, knew exactly what would happen. The resulting war had been his intention all along.
Bones let out a low, mocking laugh. “And you thought you’d found a way to solve our peace problem? Sorry to disappoint.”
“My people were here first.”
Trove’s voice lost its smooth Texan twang, revealing a guttural intonation and an accent I’d never heard before.
“Then your races came,” he spat. “Humans were easy to dominate, but not your kinds. And how you protected your precious food from us! You drove us nearly to extinction, forcing us to hide for millennia, until neither side could remember how close it had come for my people. The only reason I know what happened is because I was there.”
I wondered why he was telling us this. Demons didn’t care if we understood their motivations. What was he up to?
“Finally, in the fourteen hundreds, ghouls and vampires began rising against each other,” Trove went on. “Such a surprise to realize all it took was a half-breed French girl and the threat of change she posed. Pity Joan was sacrificed so quickly. She nearly caused your races to annihilate each other.”
“And over six hundred years later, another half-breed showed up,” I summarized. “You must’ve thought hell had been granted a Christmas.”
Trove smiled in a way that seemed genuinely amused.
“Along with the advances in science, I did. When I heard that Don had discovered another half-breed, I dropped everything for you, Catherine Crawfield. Poured money into the department your uncle founded and made sure that Madigan was still busy experimenting with your genetic material even after Don fired him. How else was I going to ensure my success if you, like Joan of Arc, died before its fruition?”
His revelations were starting to remind me of the classic movie villain trope: monologuing. From the suspicion edging Bones’s emotions, he was concerned by it, too. Trove had to have an ulterior reason for this. Was he stalling, waiting for demonic reinforcements to arrive?