The Good Word
“Well,” I said, staring at the white stretch limo that sat at the curb. “At least you didn’t get the one with the hot tub.”
“Only ’cause it was booked,” Lindsey said. She’d worked soft waves into her hair and squeezed into a short black bandage dress that looked absolutely phenomenal on her. She glanced at me, gestured with anger in the air. “This was a good call.”
We all wore black dresses—that was the rule Lindsey had set for us—and I’d been decked out in a knee-length number with a square neck and cap sleeves. The fabric was snug and stretchy and left very little to the imagination. Thank god for my forgiving vampire metabolism, since dealing with Helen and my mother, who’d become the united front for a “sophisticated” wedding, had me raiding the kitchen’s chocolate stash a lot more than usual.
We were sharing the limo with Margot, the House chef. Margot had dark hair and plenty of curves, and she’d opted for a fit and flare dress.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” There was clipping down the sidewalk as a petite woman with blue hair ran toward us. “I’m late!”
Mallory’s LBD was knee-length, sleeveless, and flowy, which she had the petite frame to pull off. She’d styled her ombre blue hair so it curled across her shoulders, and wore enormous silver earrings in the shape of flowers.
She reached out and squeezed me, smelling faintly like lavender and herbs. Probably something she’d concocted in her craft-slash-magic room. “Happy Darth Sullivan Eve!”
I couldn’t help but snort. “Is that the official title?”
“It is,” Mallory assured me, and pulled a satin sash out of her tiny clutch purse. It read Future Mrs. Darth Sullivan in glittery letters.
I’d been prepared to say no to any “Future Mrs.” or “Bride-to-Be” sashes, but I decided I couldn’t pass up glitter and snark together, so I let her pull it over my head.
“Oh, that turned out nicely,” Lindsey said, hands on her hips as she surveyed it, then smiling at Mallory. “Is your house just covered in glitter now?”
Mallory stepped back, adjusted my sash carefully. “It’s every-freaking-where. It’s probably the perfect vector for worldwide contagion, should any bad guys figure that out.”
The tall, lean, liveried driver walked around the car, raised two fingers to his strawberry blond hair. “Ladies, I’ll be your chauffer for the evening.”
“Hi, Brody,” said those of us from Cadogan House to the guard who’d also become our occasional transporter. He had solid moves behind the steering wheel.
Lindsey’s gaze narrowed. “You weren’t on the list as driver. Are you playing hall monitor?”
Brody held out his hands, and his expression looked innocent enough. “I’m just here to drive. I’m not a nark.”
Lindsey stepped up to him, gave him her fiercest look. Which was actually pretty fierce. “If word one of what happens tonight gets back to anyone, I will know that word came from you.”
“And that would be bad.”
Lindsey’s eyes gleamed silver. “It would be the most possible badness. Did I mention Merit and I have been practicing with the throwing knives?”
Brody swallowed visibly. “Are you good at it?”
She smiled, showing fang. “Very.” Brody wasn’t the newbie he’d been before, and he didn’t look as fazed by Lindsey’s hazing as he once would have. But she still outranked him, so he nodded.
“You’re the boss.”
“Damn right,” she said with a cheeky grin, and gestured to the door. “Ladies, if you please, we can get this show on the road.”
Since she was the boss, I maneuvered carefully on ice-pick heels from curb to car and climbed into the limo.
Margot slid into the seat next to me. “Thanks for the invite. It’s nice to get out of the kitchen.”
“How’s that going?” Margot refused to allow us to hire a caterer for the wedding, much to my mother’s chagrin. Since my mother’s pick would have resulted in shrimp foam at our wedding, I was fully behind Team Margot.
“It’s going,” she said. “Total Bridezilla situation. ‘I don’t want shrimp foam. Don’t give me shrimp foam.’”
“Can you blame me?”
“I really can’t. And that’s why the mini Italian beef sliders will be a huge hit.” She gave me a good looking over. “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?”
I watched Lindsey through the window as she and Mallory talked very seriously about something. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Mallory checked her watch. Maybe the entertainment was running late.
“About what Lindsey and Mallory have in store for tonight?” I asked, trying to read their lips.
Turns out, I did not have that skill. I did recognize excitement on Lindsey’s face and worry on Mallory’s, but she hadn’t said anything to me about something bothering her. And now that I was looking, there were dark circles beneath her eyes. I’d have to ask her about that later; I hoped the wedding wasn’t the reason for it.
“About the wedding,” Margot said with a laugh.
I smiled, glanced back at her. “The marriage, no. The wedding, a little,” I admitted.
She winked, patted my knee.
“Where are we going?” I asked, when Lindsey and Mallory settled along the back wall and Mallory began passing out champagne flutes.
“To celebrate your last night of freedom!” Mallory said. “Now, stop asking questions and relax. Everything is in our hands.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
# # #
I’d spent the last month—when not patrolling the House or attending fittings—trying to figure out what Mallory and Lindsey were planning. I’d checked off all the stereotypical ideas—strippers, barhopping, rounds of half-drunk karaoke. None of those were me, and I didn’t think they were particularly us. But that left me stymied. Lindsey was plenty full of flirty bravado, Mallory of wicked creativity, and I was stuck in the middle between them, hoping my evening wouldn’t involve squealing, feather boas, and body shots.
The alcoholic kind, anyway. I wouldn’t say no to a good, sweaty round of sparring.
Brody drove north toward downtown, the lake a shadow to our right, away from Hyde Park and toward downtown Chicago. It figured that we’d head toward the city’s center, which offered pretty much any activity a girl could want—from boat rides to museum tours to really good blues. So it didn’t give me a single clue.
When Brody pulled the limo in front of a small slip of a building, I had to reassess. It was modern in design, with a tall, narrow window and offset door in flaming red. There were no signs, no names on the door, not even an address number.
Intriguing. “What is this place?” I asked.
“My half of the party,” Mallory said as we climbed out of the limo one by one—and then tugged our dresses back into place. “A little something for you and for me.”
She walked to the door, pressed a small buzzer.
After a moment, a thin woman with dark skin smiled out at us. “Merit party?” she asked with a smile.
“Merit party,” Mallory agreed.
“Welcome to Experience,” the woman said, and held the door open so we could walk inside.
The door opened into a long, narrow room with gleaming wood doors and a long, dark table in the middle. The walls glowed pale amber behind crisscrossing pieces of the same wood, like they burned from the inside. Rectangular sconces hung above us at varying heights. Jazz played warmly in the background.
There were women already in the room with champagne flutes in hand—including my sister, Charlotte.
“Hey, baby sister!” Charlotte said, walking forward and em- bracing me. Like me, she had my father’s dark hair and pale blue eyes. She wore a sleeveless black dress with a flared skirt and patent flats with bows on the toes. She smelled like lilacs, the same perfume she’d worn since she was a teenager.
“Hey, Char,” I said, squeezing her back. “How’s my favorite niece?”
“Being quite the two-and-a-half-year-old, Olivia believes she is a debutante and is very disappointed she can’t go to her aunt Merit’s party tonight. But she is very excited about being a flower girl. And she’s been practicing.”
“Oh my god, I bet that’s adorable.”
Charlotte put a hand on her heart. “granted, she’s my kid, but yes. It is quite possibly the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m sure she’ll toss those petals with aplomb.”
Charlotte nodded. “If she remembers to toss them, yes. So far, it’s been more of a petal-free sashay.”
Sounded entertaining either way.
The woman who’d opened the door, who wore a tunic over dark leggings, walked to the table and pulled out the center chair. I glanced back at Mallory, who nodded.
“Go for it, sister,” she said and, when I was seated, took the chair next to mine.
“We’re having dinner?” I asked her. I’d actually grabbed a bite before leaving the House, to lay the foundation for what I assumed would be ample champagne.
“Not exactly,” Mallory said, and gestured toward the doorway that led to the back of the building. The moment we were all seated, a bevy of waiters in black button-downs and jeans walked through, domed trays in hand. With the perfect timing of practiced dancers, they each walked to a spot at the table and simultaneously placed the trays in front of us, leaving the domes in place.
“The first course,” the hostess said, hands clasped in front of her, and the waiters whisked away the domes, revealing gleaming white plates dotted with a rainbow of fruit around a pretty cube of chocolate cake, a small dish of what looked like chocolate mousse, and some kind of lacey and delicate cookie.
I glanced at Mallory as the women around the table oohed and aahed. “You got me chocolate.” My heart lifted, sang. I should have trusted that these two would do it right.
“It’s a chocolate-tasting table!” Mallory said, hands clasped together at her chest like a kid with a burning secret. “Five full courses!”
I wiped away an imaginary tear. “I love you guys.”
“Damn right you do.” Mallory lifted her glass. “To my immortal sister from another mister, and the future wife of the hottest damn vampire in the United States.”
“To Merit!” Lindsey said, and everyone raised a glass. “Now, for god’s sake,” she said. “Let the girl eat!”
# # #
I had to give the chefs credit—and sent my compliments back. I’d had my own chocolate stash once upon a time, but I still hadn’t realized how diverse chocolate could be in the hands of a talented person. There was chocolate soup, chocolate foam, drinking chocolate, smoked chocolate. Chocolate with pistachio cream, chocolate with Scotch bonnet peppers, chocolate with bacon (a personal favorite), raspberries injected with chocolate, and a dozen more.
Somewhere near the bottom of the fifth inning, I decided even my immortal body couldn’t hold any more chocolate. I spent a few minutes chatting with the guests and watching Mallory. The worry I’d seen earlier hadn’t dissipated. Either they hadn’t managed to work out the kinks in tonight’s plan, or something else was bothering her.
I didn’t like thinking about what might be worrying my oldest friend and talented sorceress—and the woman who’d outmagicked Sorcha Reed. But I also knew that she probably wanted the break and release of a party as much as the rest of us. So I decided I’d bide my time—and interrogate her later.
The hostess returned with a large silver tray of mints, fruit, and cheese.
“Please, sir,” I said, hand over my stomach. “I do not want some more.”
“With you,” Mallory said, waving off the tray when it was offered to her. “That mousse-cake square did me in.”
“It wasn’t the half dozen before it?” Margot asked dryly, chocolate hangover clear on her face.
“I didn’t eat six mousse-cake squares.”
“I think you had eight,” Lindsey said, licking chocolate off her thumb.
Mallory looked a little horrified, and a little nauseous. “It’s all good,” I said, patting Mallory’s hand. “Special occasion.” “Says you. I can actually gain weight, vampire girl. Still, though . . .”
This time, when she looked at the empty plates in front of most of the women at the table, there was pride in her eyes. “We did damn good work here tonight.”
“To us,” Margot said, and lifted her glass. “And to Merit, and Darth Sullivan, the sexiest Master vampire in the history of the world.”
“Hear, hear!” Mallory said. And then she burped. Which seemed appropriate.
# # #
Still a little chocolate drunk, we were whisked back into the limo and shuttled to our next stop, which I hoped was a place of quiet contemplation of my bellyful of seventy-five percent bittersweet.
“My turn!” Lindsey said. “And be warned—I am hopped up on sugar and chocolate.”
“Oh good,” I said. “Because you’re usually so quiet and reserved.” That got the chuckle it deserved. “What’s next?” I asked. “We’re going to do the party a little more Cadogan style,” she said. By Cadogan style, she’d meant at Temple Bar, Cadogan’s official watering hole. It was located in Wrigleyville, a neighborhood north of the gold Coast and also home, as the name hinted, to Wrigley Field.
We pulled up in front, Sean holding open the door and his brother and fellow Irishman, Colin, ringing the brass bell behind the bar.
“Merit is on the premises!” he yelled out, to the applause of a crowd of vampires. There were plenty in the packed bar I didn’t recognize, but all of them were women.
Our table was near the front of a make-do stage at one end of the long, narrow bar. Maybe I was getting a stripper tonight, although I couldn’t imagine wanting to see anyone naked as much as I did Ethan. His long, lean form was pretty much a continuous delight.
The vampires dispersed among the crowd to chat with the others in the room. Lindsey grabbed drinks from the bar, gin and tonics all around, while Mallory sat beside me, checking her phone with a worried expression. Even when Lindsey brought an armful of sparkling gin and tonics for us, she didn’t seem to perk up.
“I’ll be right back,” Lindsey said, kissing the top of my head. “Just need to check on something.” She disappeared into the back of the bar.
“Everything okay?” I asked Mallory when we were alone. “Why wouldn’t it be?” “Well, for starters, you’re in bar full of vampires, which a year ago you’d have been crazily happy about. You’re practically famous after Towerline, and every Comic Con in the country wants you as a guest sorceress, which is apparently a thing now. But you don’t look very happy about it.”
She put a hand over mine. “I am happy.”
“For me,” I said. “And I appreciate that. But there’s more to it. What’s going on?”
Mallory shook her head as if to clear it. “Nothing. This is your bachelorette party, and we are not going to worry about me.”
I used the same look I’d given Helen, stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Mallory Delancey Carmichael Bell.”
“Nothing, Merit.” “Mallory.” She tipped back her head, let out a frustrated sound. “It’s just—I feel weird.” “Weird? What’s wrong? Are you sick? Are you sleeping? You look tired.” “I’m not sick, and I’m not pregnant, since that seems to be the other frequently asked question.” She shook her head. “I have . . . a malaise?”
I frowned. “About the wedding?”
“Oh Lord, no. You and Ethan were made for each other, even if he did have to wait four centuries to find you. Which, if you ask me, is probably good for him.” She winked. “Makes him more grateful.”
“Then what kind of bad feeling?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just this vague magical feeling. A kind of unease, I guess?”
“From what? From where?”
“I have no idea. There’s nothing specific in it. Not even a spec of what I could call a thing, or a threat, or a looming damn cloud.” Her words picked up speed with the rise of her frustration. “Just unease. Catcher’s being supportive, but I know he doesn’t feel it. And that makes me feel like I’m being paranoid.”
“So, let’s assume you aren’t being paranoid. What could be bothering you? Not You Know Who.” That was as much as I wanted to mention the woman who’d tried to control us.
“No,” she said. “It’s been four months, there’s been no sign of her, and the city’s warded even if she did come back. Other than that, I don’t know.”
Mallory looked at me, and the concern in her eyes was even deeper than I’d thought. Whatever this was, she wasn’t done with it.
“What if I can’t do happy, Merit? I mean, I’m married, and you’re getting married, and with the exception of the world’s most idiotic ghost hunters, no supernatural drama. No River nymph in-fighting. We haven’t been thrown to the wolves by the mayor or anyone else looking to use us for political fodder. I should be freaking thrilled. Instead . . .” She sighed, shrugged.
I took her hand, squeezed it. “Mal, you are the happiest person I know. The brightest person—except when you were evil.”
“Except for that.”
“And even then, you crawled out of it. So if you tell me something’s off, I believe you. Have you talked to the Order about it? I thought you guys were on better terms.”
“They already think I’m crazy.”
“Well, what about Gabriel? Maybe the Pack’s felt something similar.” Although I hoped Chicago’s resident shifter alpha would have come to us if he’d believed something was wrong.
“I don’t even know what I could tell him. ‘Gabe, I know you’re busy being hot and wolfy and all, but all this peace and prosperity is making me antsy’?”
“Then I’m officially out of ideas.”
“So you think I’m crazy, too?” She must have heard the rising panic in her voice, as she held up a hand. “Sorry. I’m sorry. This is just wearing on me.”
I put an arm around her, squeezed. “We’re going to be ne, Mallory. Everything is going to be ne. I’m going to get married, and Ethan and I are going to have a wonderful week in Paris.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right.” She shook out her hands, her shoulders, obviously trying to loosen up. “What’s going to hap- pen is going to happen, and there’s no point in worrying about it now. Let’s just have fun.”
“Let’s just have fun,” I agreed, and clinked my glass against hers.
Because, paranoid or not, the other shoe was bound to drop. It always did.
“All right, ladies!” Lindsey said, standing on a chair in her bare feet, ringing her glass with a spoon. When the crowd quieted, she glanced around the room. “We’ve reached the, ahem, climax of tonight’s Bachelorettetravaganza!”
“How many names does this thing have?” I whispered to Mallory.
“I think seven? We threw out ‘Merit Does Chicago’ and ‘Sullivan Two: The Resullivaning.’”
“Colin,” Lindsey said, gesturing to the bartender. “If you would?” The overhead lights dimmed, but the spot on the small stage in front of us brightened on a single black chair that sat in front of a microphone. Music began to play, a jazz song with a playful, flirty rhythm.
As Lindsey sat down to join us, a man walked out of the back room, onto the stage.
Tan skin, dark hair, dark beard, his hair in a very well-executed knot at the top of his head. His eyes were green, his lashes as thick and dark as his beard, his mouth a long line that turned up at one corner. He wore jeans, boots, and nothing else. The terrain of his body was all smooth skin and hard, curving muscle, his left arm marked by a complicated monochrome tattoo.
The room went absolutely silent.
“Well,” Margot said quietly. “He is . . . rather attractive.”
“Attractive,” Lindsey said, tilting her head as she stared at his biceps. “And well-defined.”
“A dictionary couldn’t do it better,” Mallory said, eyes glassy as she stared at the man.
I glanced at Lindsey. “I can’t believe you hired a dancer. Ethan is going to kill you. Or me. Or both of us.”
“Oh, honey,” Lindsey said. “He isn’t here to dance.”
Regardless, with the grace of a dancer, the man spun the chair around backward, took a seat, and pulled a thin, worn paper- back from his back pocket. He looked up at me, smiled. “Your party?”
I nodded, suddenly nervous. “Cool. Lord Byron work for you?” I actually felt my face warm. “Sure?”
Beside me, Lindsey snickered, the sound full of satisfaction. He nodded, thumbed through some pages. “Ladies,” he said, meeting our gazes. And then, looking down at the page, he began to recite.
“She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
Every single woman in the room sighed.
I wasn’t sure if he was a grad student, poet, actor, stripper, or brilliant combination of all those things. But the man knew Lord Byron, and he knew words. He knew the rise and fall of sentences, the way to pause, the moment to look up, catch our gazes, smile. He knew emphasis and speed, pacing and clarity. He was a prince of poetry, and he had us mesmerized.
Champagne was uncorked and dunked into gleaming silver chalices of ice, then poured into tall, thin glasses while we listened, legs crossed and perched forward in our chairs.
“Is it better if we’re objectifying his body and his brain?” Margot asked, lifting the thin straw in her gin and tonic for a sip. “I don’t much care,” Mallory said. “He gives good word.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
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