Authors: Nina Bangs
NEW YORK CITY
“Say what you have to say so I can get out of here.” She wouldn’t think about the possibility that Sparkle might not intend to release her. But just in case, she scanned the area for a weapon. Whips, chains, and a bunch of other torture implements. Hmm. She could do some damage with that small ax.
Sparkle laughed. “Give it up, Cinn. The only real things in here are the chains keeping Dacian from trying to suck us dry.”
Cinn slanted a quick glance at Dacian. Who knew that eyes so black could look like they were burning? She swore she could almost see the flames behind his enraged glare.
“So here’s the deal. Yes, vampires do exist, along with lots of other nonhumans. Edge and I are cosmic troublemakers. My specialty is creating sexual chaos throughout the universe. Edge is the cosmic troublemaker in charge of death. You can guess what he does. Bain is a demon, and yes, Holgarth is a real wizard.” She held up her hand to stop Cinn from interrupting. “Let me finish.”
Cinn had no intention of interrupting. No way could she talk with her jaw dragging on the floor.
“I sense a kindred spirit in you.”
For Brenda and Billy Trapani, my awesome neighbors. No need for me to go to Vegas, because I won the neighbor jackpot when I moved in next to you. Thanks for being the best.
“Pain in the ass.”
Ganymede punctuated each comment by heaving another shovelful of hard-as-concrete West Texas dirt over his shoulder. What the hell was he doing here when he should be home watching whatever crappy movie was on TV and finishing off that carton of Rocky Road ice cream?
“She couldn’t send me out to dig up his undead carcass on a warm sunny day. No, it had to be in January in the middle of a bitchin’ blizzard.” He hauled back his foot and kicked the empty coffin waiting by the open grave. It flew through the air and landed among a pile of boulders a hundred yards away. Snow immediately started to cover it. “The hell with a coffin. I should just drag him out of his Motel Dead and dump him into the light. Then I could warm my toes by the bonfire his burning butt made.”
A really entertaining thought, but not doable. Sparkle wouldn’t see the humor when he brought back a pile of ashes in her nice new coffin.
He went back to digging…until he broke his third shovel in the hard ground. He hurled the pieces after the coffin. He was the most powerful cosmic troublemaker in the universe, and damn it, cosmic troublemakers
did the grunt work. They had magic or minions for that. But here he was, in human form and digging this guy up.
“How’d you do it, Dacian?”
Night feeders didn’t dazzle with their awesome supernatural skills. They were the pissants of the vampire world. So where did this one get the mojo to keep paranormal power from working near his hidey-hole?
“You’re testing my kind and generous nature, bloodsucker.” By now he was snarling each word. If it weren’t for Dacian’s damn protective ward, he could sit at the top of the hill and blow a football-field-sized crater right here and wipe out the problem along with any evidence he had ever existed. The thought of violence made Ganymede feel all warm and fuzzy for a minute, and then he exhaled deeply as he picked up another shovel.
And all for a woman. But what a woman. She’d owe him for this. Big-time. He smiled at the thought of how he’d collect. Then he yanked his hood forward to block out more of the driving snow and dug faster.
Finally, he stopped to glance at his watch. Plenty of time before the bloodsucker rose. Even ancient night feeders—not that many of them survived long enough to qualify—couldn’t rise before full dark.
He leaned on his shovel. Damn, he was sucking wind. He’d gotten soft lying around the Castle of Dark Dreams, watching TV and chowing down on chips and dip.
Okay, only a few more shovelfuls and he’d be able to jerk Dacian’s undead ass out of his grave. He went over to retrieve the coffin. Once the vampire was inside, he’d nail down the lid so he wouldn’t have to put up with any crap on the way back to Galveston.
A minute later, with a final grunt of effort, he flung the last shovelful of dirt out of the hole he’d dug…
And found himself staring into the wide-open eyes of one really pissed bloodsucker.
“We’re all about team at the Castle of Dark Dreams, Cinn.” Sparkle seemed to think that needed an explanation. “A year ago those words wouldn’t have passed my lips. I only cared about sex, clothes, and manipulating other people. I was a ‘me’ kind of person.” She smiled wistfully. “Those were the good old days.” She stopped smiling. “Forget I said that. Anyway, then I almost lost the love of my life, Mede. Something like that changes a person. I decided he deserved a honey who was more caring, less self-absorbed, someone worthy of him. So now I’m totally committed to the team, and I’m as happy as I can be.”
Cinn could’ve sworn Sparkle forced that last sentence through clenched teeth.
“You’re one of us now, so it’s time you met the team managers.” Sparkle glanced at her watch. “The guys will be here any moment. They make sure the castle runs smoothly. Of course, I’m the team owner, so I have the final say.” She sipped her drink as she watched the entrance to Wicked Fantasy from her perch on a bar stool. She crossed her legs and her short black dress rode higher on her smooth thighs. Every man in the club inhaled at the same time.
Cinn tried not to think too hard about the weirdness of having a boss named Sparkle Stardust. She concentrated instead on the ordinary. This was a small intimate club in a fake castle. The fake castle was part of an adult theme park dedicated to fulfilling fantasies. There
were a pirate ship, a Wild West Main Street, and a bunch of other settings that encouraged role-playing. It was just a Disney World for grown-ups. A clever marketing idea, but it didn’t wander far from ordinary.
While she contemplated the complete
of her new job, three men entered the club. Two of them were so gorgeous they could bring tears to the eyes of the most dedicated man-hater. The third? Not so much. His blue robe decorated with gold moons, stars, and assorted other celestial bodies matched his tall conical blue hat. The hat added about a foot to his height, so he didn’t look too much shorter than the others. Okay, she got it. The castle was for role-playing, so he was either a customer who liked to live his role or the castle’s resident wacky wizard.
She forced her attention back to Sparkle and the team thing. “The team concept is great, but come on, I work with plants, Sparkle. What’s the point? Plants don’t have team spirit. We’re loners. We don’t do group activities.”
Sparkle raised one perfectly shaped brow. “Now you’re scaring me, sister.
Please don’t tell me you’re one with your plants.”
“No, but what I meant was that I won’t be working with anyone. It’ll just be me and my plants out there in that little greenhouse you set up. Oh, and thanks for connecting it to one of the kitchen doors so I don’t have to run between the raindrops in bad weather.”
Sparkle’s amazing amber eyes widened. “Wherever did you get the idea that you’ll be working alone? I’m sure lots of people will be fascinated by your plants. They already love Jessica and Sweetie Pie.” She slid the tip of her tongue over her full bottom lip as she reached back with both hands to run her fingers through her heavy fall of red hair.
The bartender’s Adam’s apple bobbed at warp speed as he watched the lift and thrust.
“The castle is a hotel as well as a place to role-play. Hordes of guests will be interested once they find out what your plants can do.” Sparkle grew thoughtful. “I bet mobs of tourists will sign up for a tour of your greenhouse. You can give them a brief rundown of your plants’ talents.”
“Hordes? Mobs?” Cinn went into panic mode. “Wait. I thought I was just here to develop a few plants with interesting traits for the castle. I didn’t think I’d have to
Sparkle’s expression hinted she was doing a few mental eye-rolls. “I told you that Jessica and Sweetie Pie were huge hits. Everyone will want plants like them in their rooms. Get over your hermit complex, for heaven’s sake. You’re brilliant. Revel in it. Milk it for all the attention you can get.”
Damn. Cinn opened her mouth to argue over her job description, but before she could get a word out, the three men she’d seen enter a moment ago reached the bar.
“Let’s go somewhere a little more private.” The one with the thick tawny hair jerked his thumb toward an empty corner table.
The guy was big. Toe-to-toe, Cinn would have to look up a long way to meet his gaze. Not that meeting his gaze was on her to-do list. His eyes were the same shade of amber as Sparkle’s and had the same predatory gleam. But that was where the similarity ended.
Cinn would bet that Sparkle hunted men for a whole different reason than the guy staring at her now. He wore a short-sleeved T-shirt that exposed a grim reaper tattoo on one muscular bicep. It fit. She wouldn’t want him hunting
Sparkle didn’t argue. She slid from the bar stool and motioned for Cinn to follow her. Even though her boss hadn’t said a word, Cinn got the feeling that Sparkle wasn’t a huge fan of Mr. Big-Bad-and-Scary. Strange. She’d swear it wasn’t team spirit zinging back and forth between these two.
Before Cinn could slide from her stool, strong hands lifted her and placed her firmly on the floor. She gasped and turned to look at the man beside her. “Thanks, I…” Forget the first man. Now
was wicked in its most basic form.
He smiled, a flash of white teeth in a face otherwise dedicated to darkness. She didn’t know why she thought that. His eyes were deep blue, framed by long sooty lashes. His mouth was a sensual treat. She didn’t usually notice men’s mouths, but his was hard to ignore. And his face…What to say about it? His features were beautiful, and all that smoky-dark hair framing his face made it…not real? Dumb thought. Of course it was real. She was staring at it. But something hungry crouching behind all that beauty made her uneasy. Evil wearing that face would be deadly.
“You’re the plant lady.” His voice was warm and welcoming with a touch of sinister hiding in the bushes.
As she let him guide her to the corner table, she decided that his voice could convince sane women to do insane things.
Once seated, Cinn watched all of them watch her. The wizard leaned forward. She’d bet he intimidated lots of people with his narrowed gray eyes and long pointed gray beard.
“You, madam, are a pervert.” He glared at Cinn.
“Oh, stuff it, Holgarth.” Sparkle sounded more resigned than shocked.
The wizard didn’t back off. “You take perfectly nice plants and turn them into cheap voyeurs feeding on sleazy sex.”
Okay, he’d gone too far. Cinn didn’t look for trouble, but an attack on her plants brought out every one of her maternal instincts. “Now I know why you wear that hat. It’s the only one that’ll fit your pointy head.” Fine, so she was acting immature, but this man triggered her inner brat. “If you knew anything, you’d know I expand my plants’ horizons. I give each plant more options in life than just growing and dying.” She dismissed him with an angry huff. “Some of them probably have higher IQs than you, but then that wouldn’t be much of a stretch.”
“Sleazy sex?” Sparkle hadn’t gotten past those words yet. “I can’t believe you said that, Holgarth. I’ve experienced some amazing sleazy sex.”
Holgarth sniffed. “I’m sure you have.” He turned his attention back to Cinn. “As the attorney for Live the Fantasy, I’ve advised Sparkle against turning mutant plants loose in the park. They’re a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
plants?” This guy was Sparkle’s
“Exactly. Leafy savages capable of inflicting mental anguish on unsuspecting guests. And I wear many
hats, Ms. Airmid. I also oversee the managing of the castle.” The threat was implicit—
Work here and I’ll make your life miserable.
“Look, we’re wasting time.” The guy with the grim reaper tattoo glanced at his watch. “Someone, somewhere needs to die, and I have to make sure it happens. So let’s get the intro over. I’m Edge.”
He reached across the table and offered his hand. Cinn automatically took it even though she was still trying to make sense of what he’d just said. His large hand
engulfed hers. A little more pressure and he’d snap a few bones. He evidently wasn’t in a bone-snapping mood tonight, because he released her. She dropped her hands into her lap, where she tried to rub away the numbness.
“Sparkle will fill you in on the details.” Rising, he strode from the club.
“I’m Cinn…” Her voice trailed off. He couldn’t hear her. She turned to Sparkle. “What did he mean by—?”
“That Edge, always joking.” Sparkle’s laughter sounded forced.
Doubts poked at Cinn’s determination to make this job work. The offer had seemed like a great idea when Sparkle made it. With her family all in Oregon, Texas seemed like the perfect place to escape from their constant visits. She was tired of fending off demands that she abandon her experiments and fall in with family tradition. Airmids had always worked with plants, but not the way she did. Generations of Airmids had become horticulturalists, run landscaping businesses, and owned ordinary greenhouses.
Cinn was the exception, the only one who dared to tweak Mother Nature’s nose by developing plants that went beyond accepted plant behavior. Mother Nature would eventually bring her hammer down, or at least that’s what Cinn’s family thought.
“Well, now that you’ve met Edge, we can move on to Bain.” Sparkle’s determined cheerfulness was fraying around the edges.
Bain smiled, and Cinn’s train of thought derailed.
“Unlike Edge, I don’t have places to be and things to do.”
The sensual twist of those lips promised that if he did have things to do, they’d be a lot more interesting than what Edge had in mind.
Cinn grasped at something she understood, something familiar. “Intriguing name. The baneberry is an herb with poisonous berries. That’s why
means something that causes death or destruction.” And here she’d promised herself she wouldn’t bore people with plant stuff. But she refused to feel guilt. She’d bet this man could turn most women into babbling idiots.
He seemed to be giving her comment serious thought. “Different spelling. I spell my name with an
. Death and destruction, huh?” The idea evidently amused him, because his smile widened. “I like your spelling better.”
What did he mean by that?
He leaned back in his chair. “I think your name’s a lot more interesting than mine, though. How can a man resist a woman named Sin?”
If any other man handed her that line—and they had—she’d pencil him into her uncreative-jerk column. But there was something about the way the word
rolled off his tongue, as though it were a gooey chocolate treat, one that he’d savor slowly and then lick off his fingers so he wouldn’t miss one drop. It was that kind of feeling. She took a deep breath and tried to wipe the image from her mind. You couldn’t tell anything about a man from the way he said one word. Could you?
She handed his answer back to him. “Different spelling. I spell my name with a
“So Cinn is short for…?”
“Cinnamon.” She wanted to relax and smile, but she was having trouble doing both, with the chocolate image still clogging up her brain.
Sparkle tapped an impatient rhythm on the table with one shiny red nail. “Fine, so you’re both named af
ter herbs or spices or whatever. Awesome. Let’s move on.”
Cinn chose to ignore her. She was still focused on Bain. His lips and eyes weren’t on the same page. Once again she was sure those gorgeous eyes hid darkness, a darkness completely separate from the polite interest he was showing in her. “My parents named my sisters and me after healing plants—Ginger, Belladonna, Willow, and me.”
He tilted his head to study her. “Belladonna? Nightshade. Deadly.”
“And also a medicinal extract.” For the first time during this little meet-and-greet session, Cinn managed a sincere smile. “Many things wear two opposing faces.” And if he took that personally, so be it.
His gaze sharpened and then his smile widened into the real deal. No hidden messages or sensual signals. “Very perceptive, Cinn. We’ll get along fine.” He glanced at his watch. “I lied. I do have someplace to be. I’m acting in the first fantasy.”
Sparkle nodded absently, not even bothering to watch as he left. She was staring at Holgarth. “What’s wrong? Only a few halfhearted insults? So not like you.”
Holgarth took a moment to straighten his hat before answering. “You’re right, of course. I have more serious things to think about than a woman who grows plants that feed on sexual energy.” He exhaled wearily. “I’m considering retirement, Sparkle.”
Sparkle sighed as though Holgarth was heading down a well-worn path. “You just won’t let it go. Get this through your head: Ike wasn’t your fault. This was a hurricane so huge it almost filled the Gulf of Mexico. Even you can’t stop a force of nature that massive. You did what you could.”
“That’s precisely the point. I couldn’t do enough. I saved the castle, but I couldn’t help Bolivar Peninsula.” Holgarth closed his eyes as if in pain. “I couldn’t save the Balinese Room. All wiped away.” He shook his head. “I heard Frank Sinatra sing at the Balinese Room.” His hat slid to the side, but he didn’t straighten it. “It was my pride. I thought I could do it all. I should have called in Ganymede to help. I’m too old, too weak to carry on my duties as the castle’s wizard.”
Okay, this was officially too far out there even for Cinn. This guy wasn’t joking. He thought he was a real wizard. She wondered about the contract she’d signed. Maybe she should’ve read it a little more closely. Was there an escape clause?
Sparkle reached across the table to put her hand over his. “Of course you’re not too old. The castle would be so much less…dynamic without you.”
From the little she’d seen, Cinn thought the castle would do a happy dance if Holgarth left. But that was just her.
Holgarth opened his eyes. “No, you’re not changing my mind. Starting tomorrow, I’ll begin interviewing possible replacements—a nearly impossible task—for my job.” Pushing his chair back, he stood, wrapped his robe more tightly around him, and swept from the room.