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Purity 9: Subterfuge

Chapter Text

:October 20, 2065:

:Columbia University:

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

She's free, she's no one’s pet—beautiful, intelligent,
You absolutely must respect the way, she's right as rain.
There's a part of her you're never gonna change…’

 -Bonfire by Warrant

 

 

The throbbing music permeated every inch of the boarding house just outside the campus of Columbia University, pulsating in the cold air wafting through the cracked window like a living, breathing thing. Two bodies enveloped in a fine sheen of sweat, locked together in a dance of rhythm and motion . . .

Moans and shudders; the stifled whimpers and half-cries of want and need . . . the combustion of heat and darkness; of sound and energy . . . No words, no names; simply an understanding that transcended the desire to clutter it up with inane comments and perfunctory speech . . .

The odor of the smoke was thinner in here, closed off from the rest of the place as it was. Still, the lingering effects of the marijuana cloud that had inundated him the moment he’d entered the party house was clinging to him despite his best efforts to shake them off. His senses were a little duller than they should have been . . .

“H-harder,” she whispered, arching back to meet his thrusts, her body trembling under the firm hold he had on her hips.

He let a roughened growl slip from him as he jerked her back against him: flesh to flesh, the crack of skin meeting skin a delicious draw in the staid air. Delicious tremors erupted up and down his spine as the hazy light from the huge bonfire burning in the middle of the college’s main quad illuminated the world outside the window in a violent glow. Her body convulsed around him, her pussy tightening and tensing as a cry of orgasm spilled from her lips. Holding onto the chipped wooden frame of the bed, she rotated her hips, ground against him as he reached around, stroked her with deft fingers, rode her hard as she writhed below him.

He’d been drawn to her. As though she’d been the moon in a starless sky, she’d captivated him from the moment he’d stepped inside. Standing near the open window with a slightly dazed, if not completely beguiling innocence, she’d drawn him in, captured him without a fight. The smoke-hazed room reeked of incense meant to cover the stench of burning joints and other things. It hadn’t taken long for him to feel the effects of the drugs on his system, either; a comfortable lethargy, an ethereal brilliance . . .

Someone shoved a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. He’d slugged it down in one fluid gulp, discarding the bottle on a cluttered table without breaking his stride as the liquid heat of the booze burned a path straight to his stomach. Realizing somewhat vaguely that some giggling girls were trying to get his attention, he’d ignored them, moved toward her without deviating from his destination. The pounding music echoed in his ears, the heavy beat of the drum goading him further, drawing him closer . . .

Owlish eyes peered at him in the semi-darkness, tinged by the haze of smoke that lent a dream-like quality to the entire affair. Someone tucked something his hand, and with a surprised quirk of an eyebrow, he slowly lifted the lit joint to his lips, ignoring the remnants of the lingering conversation that replayed in his head.

“Come on, man . . . lighten up!”

“I swear to God, if you leave this room, I’ll hunt your ass down and skewer you to the nearest wall . . .”

“Idle threats, Mikey . . .”

“If you really think so . . .”

And then, violet eyes—serious, sober . . . “I don’t know . . . you’ll get yourself into trouble . . .”

“I’m always in trouble. Besides, I’m bored as hell . . . and he’ll get over it. Who the fuck does he think he is? My fucking father . . .? Got one of those already, thanks, and he sucks ass, too . . .”

He slipped between a boy standing nearby and the girl—his target. She was staring out the window, her honey blonde hair falling over her shoulder, hiding her face—the one he saw in the reflection of the pane of glass—distorted, watery . . . beguiling. He wanted to smell her but couldn’t rightfully ascertain her scent. Lost in the stronger odors that permeated every breathing inch of the house, she stood before him like a ghost hovering over the water . . .

Slipping his arms around her waist, drawing her back against his chest, he ground his hips against her ass as his hands slipped up to grasp her breast, squeezing, kneading, demanding.

She stiffened against him but didn’t turn around, her body tense but not unwelcoming. He teased her breast, the pads of his thumbs rubbing gently over the distended nipple below the rougher yarn of her sweater. Her skin puckered, extended, and she let out a sharp breath, melting against him, her defenses gone.

‘Fate . . .’

The word reverberated in his head, and with a low growl that only she could hear, he leaned in close, his lips brushing her ear. “Fuck me,” he said . . .

I . . .” she trailed off with a ragged sigh as he let go of her, trailing his fingertips over the softness of her cream colored angora sweater, down the swell of her breast, down the delicate curve of her side, along the smooth line of her hip . . .

She shivered as he slipped his hand up under the sweater, pressing his palm against the shocking heat of her flat belly. Pressing his cock against her ass, letting her know exactly what he wanted, he nipped at her ear and whispered his demand one more time. “Fuck. Me.”

She nodded her acquiescence, her breasts swelling, nipples hardening as he slowly, deliberately pinched one between his fingertips . . .

She ducked her head and let him take her hand, willing to follow him anywhere, wasn’t she? The thought had almost made him smile.

He’d pulled her through the house and up the stairs, paying a couple of college kids a hundred bucks to get out of the first room he found. She had his pants down around his ankles, fucking him with her mouth before they even closed the door behind them. She was clumsy, her motions jerky, but it didn’t matter. He came almost immediately, staggering away from her as his semen arced into the air—pearly droplets of absolute sin. If he’d ever wanted another woman as badly, as desperately, as he wanted her, he couldn’t remember. Leaning heavily against the wall as his breathing came, stunted and shallow, he closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them again, she was naked, lying in the middle of the already rumpled sheets, her hands buried in the shadowed curls between her legs. Pumping her fingers into her pussy with a ravenous abandon, she whimpered, moaned quietly, her pleasure a greedy thing. Gorgeously rounded breasts thrust upward as she arched her back and writhed, she panted harshly, her body trembling, pulsing, calling out to him. He uttered a sharp growl, unwilling to allow her to get herself off, unreasonably jealous of the nimble fingers that slipped in and out of her with unabashed ease, shining softly in the moonlight as the sounds of her arousal—the deliciously wet slap of her hand against her pussy—echoed in the room.

He knelt beside the bed, grasping her legs behind her knees and dragging her to him, spreading her legs and burying his tongue deep inside her as the first jolts of orgasm rocked through her lithe body. He showed her no mercy, no quarter, devouring her time and again, savoring the taste of her on his lips, on his tongue. The smell of her was dizzying, inebriating, lingering in his nostrils like the crisp wind of a winter’s gale . . . Grasping her knees, spreading them wide, he pushed gently, opening her further, lifting her bottom as his tongue flicked out, teasing the puckered flesh around her ass as a roughened cry spilled from her, as absolute shock, undeniable pleasure, rocked through her body . . .

“Oh, God,” she gasped, her voice failing her, the abrupt whispers echoing in his head like gunfire. She trembled, slipped against him as their sweat drenched the sheets. Her pussy sucked him in, held him tight in a quivering vise. He’d lost track of how many times he’d gotten off, couldn’t tell how long they’d been locked away in the darkened room. He wanted to possess her in every single way, wanted to show her that her body belonged to him—a startling realization, and yet . . .

The harsh throb signaled the rapid approach of yet another orgasm; the tightening in his balls that sent shivers up his spine left him feeling frantic, wanton. As though she sensed it, too, she reared up, reaching back to wrap her arms around his neck as he tumbled forward, bearing her down against the bed. She lifted her ass, braced her knees against the mattress, fucking him back as hard as he was driving into her, meeting his thrusts with her own. Her screams echoed off the walls, her fingers clenched around fistfuls of the sheets as he nipped at the curve of her throat, as he licked away the sweat that formed on her petal-soft skin . . . Her pussy tightened around him, convulsing as she keened, uttering nonsensical sounds, broken words that made no sense. It was too much. Gritting his teeth, his growl mingled with her breathless pants, and he rode her hard, rode her fast, willing her to understand that she, alone, had shattered him . . .

He collapsed against her, his body still throbbing from the force of his orgasm. She convulsed a few more times; residual twinges that she couldn’t help.

After what seemed like forever, he rolled over, dragging her with him, flush against his side, his cock still deep inside her, and while common sense told him that he needed to get the condom off, he couldn’t quite bring himself to let her go. She felt so right, so perfect to him despite the slight thickness that gathered around the edges of his conscious.

Her breathing was still ragged, and she moaned softly when he shifted her to the side, letting his penis slide out of her. He was still hard, and he knew damn well he could easily go another round or two, but she was tired—exhausted, really—and he smiled in the darkness as he carefully pulled the condom off and chucked it into the small trash can beside the nightstand.

Her body seemed to meld against his when he laid down, and she heaved a tumultuous sigh as he kissed her lips, her cheek, and as he held her close, the stirrings of a new song blossomed in his mind.

.

“‘The still of the night brings you to me,
“‘The whisper of angels and a promise to be . . .
“‘If I traveled the world to find a woman like you,
“‘I’d keep searching time over if you just asked me to . . .’”

 

.

“Mm,” she moaned in the near-silence that belied his soft humming. “Pretty song . . .”

“Yeah?” he asked, unwilling to speak much louder than a whisper; unwilling to break the trance.

She nodded vaguely, her breathing evening out, slowly as sleep beckoned her.

He yawned suddenly as a comfortable lethargy ebbed over him. “What’s your . . . name . . .?” he heard himself ask as his eyes drifted closed seemingly of their own accord.

He heard the murmur of her voice, but couldn’t make out her reply.

S’okay,’ he thought as the last feeble strands of coherence grew taut then broke. ‘I’ll . . . find out . . . in the . . . morning . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

:April 4, 2073:

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

I hate the rain and sunny weather,
And I—I hate the beach and mountains too—boo hoo;
And I don’t like a thing about the city, no, no
And I—I—I hate the countryside too!
And I hate everything about you ...'
'... Everything about you!

-Everything About You by Ugly Kid Joe

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Zel Roka—age thirty-two—current occupation: professional musician—hair color: varies—eye color: varies—height: six-feet, six-inches . . .’

Wrinkling her nose as she slipped the paper behind the eight-by-ten glossy print of the man in question, Valerie Denning reached for her iced tea and slowly shook her head as she frowned at the mocking smile. ‘Gorgeous? Certainly,’ she allowed with a decisive snort as she took in the carefully contrived mussed tangle of black hair, the vaguely amused glint in his jewel-like eyes. Even the series of earrings he wore around the outer edge of his ear didn’t detract from the overall effect, and Valerie slowly shook her head. ‘Aren’t all rock stars drop-dead gorgeous? The beautiful people? Pretty boy . . .’

Dropping the photograph onto the table as she sipped the iced tea and flipped through the manila file, Valerie couldn’t stave back the disgusted half-growl as she read the five-plus pages of past incident reports. ‘How the hell can one man get into this much mischief?’ she wondered as she shook her head slowly, eyes narrowing in shocked incredulity. ‘Drunk and disorderly, inciting a riot, public intoxication, lewd and lascivious behavior, resisting arrest, indecent exposure, assault and battery, possession of narcotics, possession of illegal substances . . . Can he even dress himself in the morning without getting into some sort of trouble?

Setting the glass of tea aside as she groped around, stubbornly refusing to look, for the black vinyl folder that the waitress had silently slipped onto the table, Valerie cast a cursory glance at the tab and slipped a twenty dollar bill into the padded folder before standing it up for the waitress to collect.

Not for the first time, Valerie had to ask herself just why she bothered. Not one of the glamorous people who wandered through the office doors where she had just been made junior partner gave a rat’s ass about what they’d done to begin with, and she’d long ago given up on the idea that even one of them actually possessed a soul. They didn’t care, one way or another, as long as they got away with whatever it was that they’d allegedly done wrong. Something about the entertainment business sucked the conscience right out of them. It seemed to her that she would be better off changing her field of law from her specialty of pandering to the stars in an attempt to keep them out of prison to something far more fulfilling—like swimming in a tank filled with live piranhas.

That’s not even half of it this time, and you know it,’ she told herself sternly. ‘Madison asked you to meet with him, remember?

She made a face and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. That was true enough. If it weren’t for Madison Cartham all but begging her to see the man, she wouldn’t have thought twice about taking his case.

Ugh, she owes me, and she’d better not think for a second that I’ll forget about it. She owes me, big . . . huge . . . massive . . .’

Please, Val?” Madison begged—an odd thing from the Madison that Valerie knew best.

Valerie caught the phone receiver between her shoulder and her ear as she scowled at the packed appointment calendar on her desk. “I’ve got a full load now, Maddy. I don’t have time to take on another case, especially one that is a lost cause.”

I know . . . that’s why he needs your help! You know I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. Come on, Val . . . he’s in way over his head.”

I’ve already looked into his case,” Valerie remarked a little coldly. “He was wasted—completely wasted. The toxicology reports indicated that he had enough alcohol and drugs in his system to kill a horse.”

Madison sighed. “But the accident wasn’t his fault. You’ve read the reports, right? You know it wasn’t his fault. He never should have gotten arrested, in the first place.”

Valerie wrinkled her nose as she tossed her pen onto her desk and sat back in the thickly cushioned chair. “Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that if one tests positive for illegal substances, one is automatically held at fault for accidents, and you know it. He’s damn lucky they let him bail out of jail.”

Yeah, I know . . . thing is, he’s not a bad guy. He didn’t seem high. The police only tested him because of who he is.”

Rubbing her temple furiously, Valerie shook her head, realizing too late that her friend wouldn’t be able to see the gesture. “That doesn’t matter, either. He submitted to the test voluntarily.”

They trapped him.”

Doesn’t matter.”

Well, it should.”

Doesn’t he already have a lawyer? He’s a rock star, for God’s sake, and his rap sheet is about a mile long.”

Yeah, and that’s why he doesn’t have an attorney now. The last one told him that if he screwed up again, he was on his own.”

And you want to pawn him off on me? Thanks, but no thanks.”

You’re not really going to make me beg, are you?

No,” Valerie insisted.

“. . . Please?

Madison—”

Valerie . . .”

No.”

So you’ll do it?

No.”

Please?

She heaved a heavy sigh, massaging her temple just a little harder as she felt the first waver in her resolve.

Madison must have interpreted it correctly because she giggled. “Thank you, Val. I promise I’ll tell him that he’d better be on his best behavior.”

The only opening I have is tomorrow at one, and if he’s late—”

He won’t be late. You’re such a doll.”

You owe me,” she grumbled.

Sure, sure . . . Put it on my tab, will you?

Oh, I absolutely will,” Valerie promised as she dropped the phone into the cradle. ‘Zel Roka? Oh, God . . .’

Then she dropped her face into her hands and slowly shook her head . . .

Muttering a few choice words as one of the papers she’d been looking over slipped off the table onto the floor, Valerie leaned down, stretching out her fingers to reach it. With a grimace as she struggled to extend her fingers just a little further, she managed to snag the errant paper between her index and middle fingers. Sitting up again, she checked her watch before glancing around the dimly lit restaurant.

The glint of faux candle light from the table decorations caught her eye, and Valerie frowned, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Veiled in the dusky shadows in a booth toward the back of the dining room, all she could see was the yellowish glow of the electric candles reflecting off the pale hair of the booth’s occupant. It was clipped short and tidy, and he didn’t seem out of place in the restaurant, yet there was something about him—about his presence—that seemed to fill the spacious room. He had his face buried behind The Wall Street Journal, but he seemed to sense her perusal. Darkened eyes slowly rising, locking with hers for the briefest of seconds, he nodded curtly, the candle light shining off his wire-rimmed glasses before lifting the paper once more, covering his face more completely as he reached around the paper to retrieve the cream colored, bone china coffee cup.

Who . . . is he?

Rolling her eyes as she jerked back against the thickly cushioned seat, Valerie hurriedly stashed the papers away and stuffed the file into her attaché case. ‘Who cares? This is New York City. You see thousands of strangers every day, and you never stop to ask who they are,’ she reminded herself sternly.

Gathering her things as she tried to brush aside her irritation, Valerie snatched up her things and stalked through the restaurant.   She was being stupid, wasn’t she? ‘Who is he, indeed . . .? And why does he seem so . . . familiar to me?

Her stride faltered for a moment, and she nearly turned around as the strangest sense that she was being watched assailed her. Turning her head just enough to glance back out of the corner of her eye, Valerie scowled as she forced her feet to move on. The man was still hiding behind that newspaper, but she still couldn’t quite shake the feeling . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

“Ms. Denning will see you now.”

Evan Roka Zelig—better known as Zel Roka—peeked up from the People magazine he’d been leafing through and casually tossed it aside without taking his eyes off the young receptionist and pasting on a tolerant little grin. “Thanks, honey.”

Michael Murphy started to rise, too. Zel waved him away as the receptionist—he’d forgotten her name—blushed and giggled before hurrying off. “I think I can handle this,” he remarked mildly when Michael opened his mouth to argue.

“Sure, you can, Zel,” he agreed dubiously.

Zel shot him a bored glance as his smile disappeared. “I can. Have a little faith, will you? I’m not an entirely lost cause.”

Michael’s gaze darkened. “Well—”

“Forget it,” he stated. “I don’t need you to watch my p’s and q’s.”

Michael didn’t look like he was buying it, but he didn’t gainsay Zel, either, glaring pointedly at the errant rock star before slowly sinking down into the thickly cushioned chair once more. “Make sure you behave. She’s your last chance. No one else wants to touch your case.”

“Right,” Zel remarked tightly before striding toward the nondescript cherry wood door bearing the hopelessly boring plaque: V. Denning, Junior Partner.

He didn’t bother knocking. The woman glanced up from the file open on her desk and seemed surprised for a moment as she slowly rose to her feet, eyes narrowing as though she recognized him—not his face, but him—though he didn’t really have time to think that over before she opened her mouth to speak. “Mr. Roka, I presume.”

Zel grinned and shook his head as he flopped into the chair across from her desk. ‘Oh, well, damn,’ he mused, struggling to hide the incredulity in his expression before she could discern it. ‘She smells good, don’t she . . .?’ He pasted on a lazy, lopsided grin. “Mister Roka?” he repeated with a rather self-deprecating laugh. “Fuck that. I’m just Zel, thanks.”

She sat slowly, her full lips twisting into what he figured was her version of a business smile. “Mr. Roka will suffice.”

Zel rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Whatever. So you gonna get me out of trouble, baby?”

The smile disappeared as she pressed her lips together in a thin, white line. “I haven’t decided whether I’ll take your case or not, no,” she replied, adjusting the thick, clunky frame of her oversized glasses as she leafed through the open file on her desk.

“Oh, I get it.”

She blinked, glancing up at him and slowly shook her head. “Get what?”

“Yeah, this game. Okay, tell me. Tickets to a show and backstage passes?”

“What?”

“You want to see me in the recording studio?”

“Excuse me?”

He grinned almost lazily. “Or you just want a really . . . good . . . fuck.”

She gasped, pale cheeks paling even more seconds before they blossomed in indignant color. “Wh—? I-I . . . No!

Deliberately letting his eyes travel from the top of her light brown hair—the color somehow didn’t suit her—pulled back a little too severely into a tight knot at the nape of her neck, over the deep hazel eyes still burning with absolute outrage, past the high contours of her still ruddy cheeks as he judiciously ignored the drop-mouthed expression on her face, he nodded slowly. ‘Definitely doable,’ he decided as he scowled slightly at the boxy cut of her entirely too-clinical business suit. She was hiding her figure on purpose, probably from dogs like him. Taking a moment to commit her scent to memory, he chuckled. “Yeah, I could fuck you,” he decided at last, his tone playful despite the light of challenge that had ignited behind his gaze. “Definitely an eight out of ten on the bone-ometer. You’d be a nine-and-a-half, easy, if you lost the uniform.”

“I don’t think you’ll—That’s entirely inappropriate!” she spat as she drummed the end of her pen against the open file. “If that’s how you’re going to be, I suggest you find yourself another attorney because I—”

“Okay, okay . . . No need to sic the bitch on me.”

She drew a few deep breaths, obviously to curb her desire to tell him off, and cleared her throat before speaking again. “You’ve been charged with something very serious, Mr. Roka. You realize that, right?”

Zel snorted, propping his feet on the desktop and crossing his ankles. “Yeah, well, it ain’t like he’s dead or nothing,” he grumbled.

He really hadn’t thought that it would be possible for her to look any more irritated. He was wrong. “You don’t really get it, do you, or do you just not care? Because of your actions, a man is laying in the hospital—a man you put there with your reckless behavior, and that man isn’t going to ever walk again.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, babe. It ain’t like I meant to do it. I’m not a bad guy, and anyway, it wasn’t my fault.”

“Not your . . .? Are you serious? Wait . . . if you so much as try to say something like the devil made you do it, I swear, I’ll—”

“I was bored,” he cut in. “I always do stupid shit when I’m bored. I can’t help it; I swear!”

She sighed and shook her head. “So you were bored, and because you were bored, you chose to smoke a couple joints and slam your car into Mr. Matthis’ truck, and that makes it not your fault.”

“You savvy pretty well, baby,” he drawled as he slumped a little lower in the comfortably cushioned chair.

“No.”

“Oh, come on! You can’t really think I’d have done that otherwise.”

“Honestly, Mr. Roka, I can’t say that I think one thing or another. I don’t actually know you, do I?”

“I’m not that big a dickweed, V.”

“V?”

“That’s what it said on your door.”

She looked completely chagrined. He nearly laughed. “Be that as it may—”

“What’s it stand for?”

She didn’t look like she wanted to answer him. Straightening her back, she stubbornly lifted her chin a notch. “Valerie.”

He considered that for a moment, nodding vaguely as another lurid grin broke out. “Valerie? That’s nice . . . I like ‘V’ better, though.”

“I shudder to ask but . . . why?”

He grinned. “Valerie’s too nice. V sounds a lot more . . . sexual.”

Her cheeks reddened a little more, but she didn’t back down. “It doesn’t to me.”

He shrugged. “Sure it does.” Leaning forward, he nabbed the pen out of her hand and grabbed a blank notepad. She watched as he drew a large ‘V’ and turned it around for her inspection.

“What’s this?”

Chuckling again, he tossed down the pen and sat back, drawing his feet up on the desk once more as he grinned lazily at her. “It’s you . . . flat on your back with your legs spread for me, and I’ll bet anything that you taste as good as you smell.”

“You’re disgusting,” she gasped, ripping the paper off the tablet and tossing it into the trash can as her cheeks darkened from ruddy to crimson.

“Wanna hear what I’d do to you if you spread your legs for me like that?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

“Rather feel it, wouldn’t you, baby?”

“You’re nasty.”

“Damn straight. I’m about as nasty as they come. ‘Course, you already knew that, didn’t you? I’d eat your pussy until you were red and raw and begging for me to fuck the hell out of you. Tell me something, V . . .?”

She didn’t look like she was going to take the bait. She also looked mad as hell, and he stifled the desire to laugh outright. She was spirited, he’d give her that much, and he had a feeling that she just wouldn’t be able to help herself, either. “What?”

Slowly, deliberately, he leaned forward, his mocking grin quickening her pulse. In the absolute silence, he could hear the blood singing in her veins, and the smile widened. “Do you swallow?”

“Swallow?” she echoed, shaking her head in confusion.

He chuckled softly—huskily. “Yeah . . . if I shot my load into that pretty mouth of yours, would you spit it back at me or swallow it?”

Her gasp was all the more startling in the quiet. He chuckled as her eyes brightened, snapping angrily as her cheeks shot up in violent flames. “That is none of your business, Mr. Roka,” she bit out. “Just who do you think you are?”

Relenting with a soft chuckle. Zel slouched back in his chair. “So you gonna help me, V?”

“I don’t think I should.”

“Why not?”

Her eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “Give me one good reason.”

He chuckled. “You said you didn’t want to hear it.”

Heaving a sigh and shaking her head, she drummed the end of her ink pen against the desk blotter and narrowed her eyes on him. “You know, I don’t really care if you rot in prison for the rest of your natural born life.”

“Ouch.”

Her answer was a strategically arched eyebrow.

“Will you come see me in the big house?”

“And why would I?”

“Conjugal visits, of course.”

“Pig.”

“I prefer dog.”

“Definitely a pig.”

“Woof.”

“If you want my help, you have to do exactly what I say.”

“Ah, bondage? Haven’t tried that, but I think I would with you.”

“Mr. Roka—”

“Zel.”

She ignored his interruption. “Judge Lister doesn’t like rock stars. I don’t think he’d have a second thought about locking you up for the maximum sentence allowed by law.”

He grimaced. “All right, let’s hear your terms.”

Satisfied that he was going to listen to her—at least for the moment—Valerie sighed and pushed her glasses up once more. “You have a preliminary court date in three weeks, though I’d advise that we have that delayed. It’d be in your best interests if we allow enough time for the press to find something else to chew on. That said, until your court appearance and sentencing, should it progress that far, you need to be on your best behavior.”

“I can do that.”

“Can you?”

He nodded.

She rolled her eyes. “That means that until then, you need to be a model citizen . . . In simplest terms: no parties, no alcohol, no drugs, no women.”

Snorting in disbelief, his eyes widened in surprise as he waved his hands to cut her off. “Hold on, honey. The parties and drugs, fine. The booze and women? Have a heart, will you?”

“And home by ten every night unless you’ve got prior obligations.”

“Come again?”

“Those are my terms. If you don’t like them, feel free to find another lawyer.”

Zel heaved a sigh. “Don’t you think you’re being just a little—”

Those startling hazel eyes narrowed dangerously. “A little what?

He grinned. “Bitchy.”

“No, I really don’t think I am.”

“You can’t really expect me to follow those rules,” he grumbled.

Valerie sat back and shrugged. “This isn’t a comparatively petty deal like the time you flipped off the police when they tried to give you a speeding ticket.”

“I didn’t do that,” he pointed out. “I was rubbing my eye.”

She arched an eyebrow and opened the file again. “Indecent exposure?”

“I had to take a whiz, and there wasn’t a fucking john.”

“Lewd and lascivious?”

He grinned wolfishly. “She swallowed.”

“Ugh,” Valerie uttered, her expression showing exactly what she thought of his behavior. “What you did this time was serious. Driving under the influence of illegal substances isn’t something that you’re just going to get a hand slap for. You had a ten ounce bag of marijuana in your car with you, and according to the officers on site, you weren’t only stoned, but you were drunk, too. Are you listening to me now?”

Evan heaved a sigh and nodded once. “All right; I hear you. The straight-and-narrow, huh? Fine, fine . . . Can I think about this?”

“Those are my terms. Take them or leave them; I really don’t care.”

“Are you going to babysit me, honey?”

“Of course not.”

“But I told you, right? I get in trouble when I’m bored.”

She looked like she was teetering on the brink of losing what little control she had over her temper. “Then I suggest you find a hobby.”

Evan stood up and shrugged. “You just outlawed all my hobbies,” he informed her.

“Then I suggest you find yourself some new ones.”

“Damn, V . . . you’re sexy as hell when you’re mad,” he informed her with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s Ms. Denning, Mr. Roka—not babe or honey or V—Ms. Denning . . . Do we understand each other?”

He chuckled. “Absolutely, Ms. Denning.”

She didn’t look like she believed him, but she finally nodded as she rose to her feet. “Good. You need to make another appointment. There are a few more things we should discuss before the preliminary hearing—that is, if you want my help, and if you agree to my terms.”

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie heaved a sigh of relief as the door closed with a soft click.

She’d figured that Zel Roka was going to be just as bad as the other entertainers she’d represented before. She had been wrong. Zel Roka was much, much worse.

Wrinkling her nose in obvious distaste as she frowned at the photographs that were supplied with the file of his various crimes, she couldn’t help the disapproving little growl that escaped her. He looked dangerous, didn’t he? Despite the almost boyish charm of his features, the soft angles and hollows, there was a certain air of unpredictability to him.

Valerie snorted. Then again, maybe it was the multiple piercings . . . Lip, left nostril, both ears—the left one with a series of holes that ran around its perimeter—and right eyebrow made up the metal menagerie, and each of those holes had silver loop earrings of varying sizes hooked through them. If the piercings weren’t bad enough, he also had a series of tattoos running down the length of both arms, across his chest and abdomen, and, from what she had seen in pictures before, he had even more on his back. Add the ever-changing hair and eye colors, and, well, it seemed as though the man were trying to be a chameleon. ‘The classic bad boy,’ she supposed. Guys like him were nothing but jokes.

A soft knock on the door broke through her otherwise dark assessment. “Come in,” she called without looking up.

“Ms. Denning? Do you have a moment?”

Glancing up from the photographs, she nodded as Michael Murphy slipped into the office and closed the door behind him. Pacing around almost nervously, the slick manager seemed troubled, nervous. She’d met him briefly a few days ago when he’d made an appointment to ask that she help Zel Roka. Valerie swept all the papers back into the file and set it aside. “Yes, but only a minute. I’m expecting another client, so if you could cut to the chase?”

Mr. Murphy nodded and sat down, drumming his fingertips on the arm of the chair. “Zel told me that you gave him certain . . . restrictions?”

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Listen, Mr. Murphy, you asked me to represent him, and I will, but only if he agrees to behave himself. If you’re here to tell me that I’m overstepping my boundaries, then I’ll have to ask you to find someone else to take his case.”

“No, no . . . not at all. What you’ve asked of him isn’t really that terrible. He needs someone to curb him. He’s not a bad guy, you see . . . When he gets bored, he gets into trouble.”

“So he’s said. If he can’t control his own impulses, then he’s not going to go far in getting out of this mess.”

Mr. Murphy sighed. “Look, I’ve been Zel’s manager for years. He’s a good kid.”

Valerie snorted. “Hardly a kid. He’s well over thirty years old—definitely old enough to know better.”

“Sure, sure, even still . . . Maybe if he had someone nice to hang out with—someone with a level head on her shoulders . . .”

Valerie wasn’t sure she liked where this was going. Slowly shaking her head, she reached for the bottle of water on her desk and downed half of it before speaking again. “I don’t have time to babysit a rock star, Mr. Murphy. If you’re so concerned about him, then you do it.”

“Think I haven’t tried? Zel won’t listen to me on this. I’m just his manager, after all.”

“And you think he’ll listen to me?”

Mr. Murphy nodded. “I think he will.”

“I’m just an attorney. I’m not interested in being his social worker.”

“Better than half of Zel’s problems are caused by his choice of friends.”

“Then tell him that.”

“Just don’t let the act he puts on fool you. The real deal is nothing like the guy you met today.”

“You’re sure of that?”

Mr. Murphy nodded. “It’s all a show to him: part of the image, if you will.”

For some reason, she felt as though she were fighting a losing battle, likely since the music manager wasn’t acting like he was really hearing her, at all . . . “Why me?”

“You’ll be his attorney. Why not you?”

No doubt about it, she really didn’t like the confident tone in Mike Murphy’s voice. “I don’t have time for this.”

“All I’m asking is that you try.”

“Try to do what? Show up on his doorstep and offer to hang out? No thanks.”

Mr. Murphy grinned. “Well, no, of course not. I just have a feeling that Zel’ll be by to see you eventually.”

“And why would you think that?”

The grin turned a little mysterious as he stroked his goatee with nimble fingers. “Call it a hunch.”

Why didn’t she like the sound of that? Valerie shook her head. “Guys like him are a dime a dozen. It’s added stress that I don’t need, Mr. Murphy.”

“Of course you don’t,” he agreed. “Then again, if you’re going to represent him in this case, don’t you think you’d be better off knowing the real Zel Roka?”

“I don’t have to know or like him to represent him.”

“Maybe you don’t, but you’d feel better if you did.”

Valerie sighed. “It’s nice that you’re so devoted to your cause, but I’ve got other clients, too. Am I supposed to just drop everything to . . . what? Save Zel Roka? From who? Himself?”

“Just think it over; that’s all that I ask.”

Valerie didn’t answer as Mr. Murphy stood up and headed for the door. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Denning. Have a nice day.”

She watched him go without another word as she tried to make sense of everything he’d said. “Forget it,” she mumbled as she reached for her next case file. The greater distance she kept between Zel Roka and herself, the better. That man was nothing but trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

‘ ‘Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars,
And live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars,
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap.
We’ll all stay skinny ‘cause we just won’t eat …’

-‘Rockstar’ by Nickelback

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

“I don’t think this is such a good idea.”

Zel Roka, also known as Evan Zelig, rolled his eyes and held out his hand. “Yeah, yeah . . . you think I care?”

“Seriously, Zel, think about it. Your attorney advised against doing this sort of thing, didn’t she?”

“Of course she did. She’s an attorney . . . a damn fuckable attorney, but still an attorney . .. Just hand it over, will you?”

Michael Murphy sighed and grimaced, but dug the bag out of his pocket. Tapping it against his palm for a moment, he seemed to be trying to make up his mind. Pinning Zel with a dark scowl, he slowly extended the baggy and shook his head at the same time. “Don’t be stupid, okay?”

Zel took the bag and grinned at his manager, flashing the multi-million dollar smile that had helped to make him famous. “Stupid? Me? That hurts, man . . .”

Mike didn’t look like he was buying. “Sure, Zel, sure. I’m serious, all right? Don’t piss that broad off, okay? She’s the best shot you’ve got at the moment. Aw, hell, she’s the only bet you’ve got at the moment. You screw with her, and she could nail your balls to the wall.”

“Sounds like fun,” Zel quipped, stowing the marijuana into the inner pocket of his leather jacket.

Mike heaved a heavy sigh and affected an even more austere stance. “Just keep that stuff at home, okay?”

“Don’t get all upper-ass-crack on me, Mike. I have a mother, remember?”

She’d nail your balls to the wall, too, if she knew what you have in your pocket,” Mike predicted.

Zel shot him what could only be described as a ‘shit-eating grin’. “Nah. My mama loves me. I’m her baby boy. Anyway, I’d be more worried about what my mama would do to you if she found out since you’re the one who bought the shit for me. That weapon of hers isn’t just for show, you know.”

Mike made a face, having seen the weapon in question once when he’d accompanied Evan in a quick trip to Maine. Gin and Cain Zelig had been practicing in the back yard. To be more precise, Gin was practicing, targeting apples sitting on wooden blocks with the razor-sharp kusarigama—a scythe-like blade attached to a twenty-five-foot chain that extended at will with a heavy lead ball on the other end—while Cain sat back and made borderline-lewd commentary to his diminutive wife.

“Your parents are something else,” Mike remarked. “I’ve never seen people like them before.”

Zel stiffened and slowly turned to eye his manager. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mike shrugged, missing the blatant irritation in Zel’s expression. “They still act like a couple teenagers. It’s interesting. Hell, my parents haven’t ever acted like that . . . probably didn’t even do it when they were teenagers . . .”

“They’re happy together.”

“That’s a new way to say it.”

Zel snorted. “What are you implying?”

“Well, after meeting them, it doesn’t surprise me that you act like a horny kid all the time.”

“Horny, maybe. Kid? Do I look like a fucking goat?”

Mike rolled his eyes but grinned as he lit a cigarette and leaned against the hood of his late-model Corvette. “Teenager, then.”

“Pfft! What the hell ever, man. Anyway, thanks for the shit. Forced celibacy, my balls.”

“Evan—”

Zel cut his manager off with nothing more than the tell-tale arching of one eyebrow. “Zel, remember?” he grumbled under his breath. Mike rolled his eyes as Evan went on. “The partying and drinking, I can live without. I can even go awhile without this stuff. The pussy? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I don’t think she was kidding.”

“Look, Mike . . . I promise I’ll keep my nose clean. I won’t go out of my way to get any, but it if should happen to offer itself . . .”

Mike sighed. “You have the most perverted way with words, Roka.”

“Besides that, I have a date with twins tomorrow night. You don’t seriously think I can pass that up, do you?”

“Twins?” Mike echoed, smiling slightly despite his resolve not to encourage Evan in any way, shape, or form.

Evan nodded. “Oh, yeah . . .”

“Can’t say that I blame you for not wanting to miss that,” he admitted.

Evan chuckled and waved as he loped over to his motorcycle and revved the engine. Mike yelled something—probably telling him to put his helmet on—and Evan took off, leaving a loud squeal of rubber on asphalt and the stench of gas fumes in his wake.

Zel Roka . . . Evan Zelig . . . they were one in the same, weren’t they?

Sure they were, and yet, they weren’t; not at all.

Revving the engine again as he waited impatiently for the traffic light to change from red to green, Evan sighed and scowled at the asphalt under the tires of his Harley.

It used to be so easy, didn’t it? Being Zel Roka the rock star was simple: act stupid . . . be loud and obnoxious . . . fuck lots of girls . . . make music. He’d lived with both sides of his personality for years, and outside of his family, precious few knew who he really was: five that he could name off the top of his head. Michael knew. He’d been introduced to Mike through Ben Philips, Evan’s father’s business manager and the head of Cain Zelig’s generals. Though Evan knew damn well that Mike would be stupid to pass up a chance ingratiate himself to the current North American tai-youkai, he didn’t delude himself into believing that that was the only reason that Mike would offer to oversee Evan’s musical career. Evan had insisted that he wanted his family kept out of any sort of limelight; wanted to protect them from any scandal that might happen in the life of a rock star, and Michael had worked hard to bury the trail that led back to Evan Zelig and his family in Maine. Bone, the head of Evan’s personal security team, knew the truth. Bugs, the flamboyantly gay owner of the Bunny Hole Lounge—the club where Evan had been ‘discovered’ by Wicked Soundsations Records’ talent scouts—knew it, too. Dieter also knew it. It was hard to hide something like that from other youkai, after all . . .

And then there was Madison.

He’d grown up with Madison. She was one of the few people he actually called a friend. Her mother, Kelly had been lifelong friends with Evan’s older half-sister, Belle. Madison, too, was youkai, and her father was one of Cain’s primary hunters, a rough and gruff polecat-youkai that everyone called by his last name: Cartham.

They’d first met when Kelly had come over during one of Belle’s visits to Maine. Evan had been four at the time. Madison had just turned three. They’d hit it off immediately—if one could call Evan stealing Madison’s doll and heaving it into one of the hulking oak trees that lined the driveway ‘hitting it off’. She’d started to cry, and Evan had climbed the tree to retrieve the toy, only to get stuck in the top branches. His father had to rescue him, chastising him the entire time for teasing girls, and Evan had given back the doll with a red face and a mumbled apology.

They’d been friends ever since, and while Evan liked to think that Madison was the main instigator, he had to admit that they’d both been in their fair share of trouble over the years, and it was his fault as often as it was hers.

He grinned. ‘You just never forget that first fuck, do you?

And Cartham would have your balls for dinner if he ever found out you screwed his daughter, Evan . . .’

Which is why neither Madison nor I will ever, ever tell him.’

True enough, they’d been each other’s firsts. Never mind the entire experience had been rushed and clumsy, and never mind that he and Madison disagreed about the actual first time since they’d tried once before that, but Madison asserted that Evan hadn’t actually gotten it in. He knew damn well that he had—at least, that was what he always told Madison whenever the subject came up. In truth, though, he knew well enough that the real first time had been later—the time that Madison acknowledged. Evan doubted he’d actually thrust more than a time or two before he hit his orgasm, and then he’d been absolutely beside himself when he discovered that he’d made her bleed. Hell, he’d barely gotten the damn condom rolled on, if he remembered correctly—the anticipation, he figured, at actually getting to have sex, to start with . . . He’d gotten much better at it over the years, and he’d certainly paid Madison back for the terrible first time; probably a thousand times over. They weren’t exactly lovers; just good friends who had a healthy respect for each other’s bodies, he supposed. It was something that they both wanted, and they both knew that there was nothing in it other than mutual satisfaction.

Back then, he’d still been Evan Zelig, youngest son of the North American tai-youkai and famous artist, Cain Zelig, and his mate, Gin Izayoi Zelig. His grandfather on his mother’s side was the notorious ‘angry hanyou’ of legend, InuYasha, and his grandmother? Well, she was very likely the most powerful miko in the world. His great uncle was the Inu no Taisho, Sesshoumaru Inutaisho, while his mother’s cousin, Toga was the reigning Japanese tai-youkai . . .

His uncle—or brother-in-law, depending on who he was speaking to—was one of the most celebrated youkai surgeons and clinical researchers in the world, Kichiro Izayoi. The confusion came into play because Kichiro was his mother’s brother but was married to Evan’s half-sister, Bellaniece, too. It was always a source of irritation between Gin and Cain since Cain refused to acknowledge that Dr. Fill-In-The-Blank was married to his daughter from his first marriage, while Gin stubbornly insisted on pointing out just how happy Belle and Kichiro were, and that Cain should be happy that his daughter found a mate who adored her.

The oldest of his mother’s twin brothers, Ryomaru had carved out quite a name for himself as one of the best youkai hunters in Japan and then some, and his youngest uncle was a corporate attorney. Evan didn’t doubt for a second that Uncle Mikio would excel in his chosen profession, too—if he could keep himself alive that long. He was the biggest klutz that Evan had ever seen . . .

And then there were his siblings.

Evan sighed and gunned the engine as he sped down the street, grinning just a little and shaking his head at the catcalls he got from women he passed on his way. ‘Only in New York City . . .’

His siblings . . .

It hadn’t really helped, being born nearly ten years after his brother, Sebastian—Bas, for short—and even worse, Bas was damn near perfect, right down to his absolutely gorgeous wife and mate, Sydnie. Never mind that Bas was in line to be the next North American tai-youkai, the older brother was, by all accounts, smarter, tougher, stronger, and basically exactly like their father with the only real exception being that Sebastian, unlike Cain, didn’t possess even an ounce of humor in his upper-ass-crack body.

Chuckling to himself, he slowed down as he noted the traffic light ahead changing from green to yellow.

All right, so that was a little harsh. As much as the brothers bickered and fought, Evan had to admit that, as a child, he’d absolutely idolized Sebastian. He used to follow Bas everywhere which never ceased to irritate the living bejesus out of Bas, and yet . . .

And yet, as much as it had to irk him, Bas had never really tried to shake Evan off, either.

Of course, in Evan’s opinion, everything had pretty much leveled out between them through the years. After all, Bas might well be in line to be the next tai-youkai—as if Evan had ever really wanted that dubious distinction—but Evan was far, far better with the ladies . . .

Then there was Jillian, and Jillian, it was safe to say, was everybody’s baby.   Most people thought that Jillian and Evan were twins, and Gin and Cain had let people think it. She, like Evan, had silvery white hair like their mother and blue eyes like their father though Jillian’s were more of an icy aqua than the deep sapphire hue that Cain and Evan shared. Only those close to the family had known that Jillian was adopted, and the world at large knew the girl as one of the highest paid cover girls of all time.

Evan snorted. ‘Black sheep, my ass.’

Maybe that was the real reason that Zel Roka had been created. In the perfect world of the Zelig family’s little empire, Evan, the youth who’d spent days and nights on end, hammering out little songs in the soundproofed basement of the Zelig mansion where he could make as much noise as he wanted without disturbing the more straight-laced members of the family, had grown up feeling as though he existed on the very fringes of the seemingly-perfect world. Always dreaming about that one song that could define his entire life, reaching for the newest sound, the latest groove, Evan hadn’t ever been like anyone else . . .

Or maybe he was the most like his father, after all.

Cain was an artist. Reclusive with shy tendencies that had lessened over his years with Gin, deep inside, Cain was still the quiet dreamer, the artist who could create or destroy a universe with the simple stroke of a brush; with paint on canvas or carved in clay or stone, and maybe in that, Evan was more like his father than even Sebastian could ever hope to be . . .

In any case, he was both, wasn’t he? Zel Roka, the rock star, and Evan Zelig: the son, the brother, the screw-up.

The trouble was that the disguise and the security that had come with the ability to don one persona or the other . . .

It was wearing thin.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

“How was it?”

Letting go of the door, Valerie made a face and stepped back, shuffling aimlessly into her living room as she tried to think of a diplomatic way to tell Madison that she thought Zel Roka was a complete and utter ass. “It . . . was . . .”

Madison sucked in her breath. “That bad?”

Valerie snorted. “He calls me, ‘V’.”

“V?”

“Yes, V.”

“I hesitate to ask but . . . why?”

Sparing a dark glance over her shoulder before flopping onto the sofa with a grunt, Valerie covered her eyes with her forearm and sighed. “Because he’s a jerk.”

“No, seriously . . . why ‘V’?”

“He drew it on a piece of paper and showed me and said it was me, flat on my back with my legs . . .” Trailing off as she considered the rest of what he’d said, she growled and waved her hands as though to disburse whatever mental image the words had created in Madison’s head. “Oh, it doesn’t matter what he said. He’s a jerk. There’s no way I’m representing him, so forget it.”

“Said, what?”

Flipping her feet around as she sat up, Valerie shook her head and heaved another sigh. “Never mind. It’s not worth repeating.”

“Really? So why are your cheeks all red?”

Valerie grimaced. “Because it’s hot in here.”

“It is not.”

“Well, I say it is.”

“All right, then . . . I’ll just ask Zel.”

“You do that.”

“You’re really not going to represent him?”

The grimace shifted into a groan. “Are you nuts? Of course not. He’s unsalvageable, you know. Even if I wanted to, I can’t. I have a full workload now, and I’ll tell you the truth: Zel Roka doesn’t need an attorney; he needs a nanny.”

Madison laughed, waving her hand as she brushed off Valerie’s condemnations. “He’s really not so bad,” she asserted. “Zel’s just a little misguided and a little . . .”

“Obnoxious?” Valerie asked with a pointed quirking of her brow when Madison faltered.

Madison rolled her eyes and waved Valerie’s condemnations away. “Maligned.”

Maligned? Ri-i-ight . . . so he’s not a reprehensible, womanizing, foul-mouthed, narcissistic, spoiled rotten, putrid cesspool of super-inflated male ego?”

“We can overlook all that,” Madison said, her lips twitching as she struggled not to laugh.

Valerie sat back, crossing her arms over her chest as she uttered a coquettish ‘hrumph’. “Why would we want to do that?”

“Because he has a really big dick,” Madison replied seconds before dissolving into a fit of laughter.

“Oh, my God,” Valerie moaned, chucking a throw pillow at her friend. “He’s dirty!

“But he’s damn good in bed.”

“Mad-i-son!

“So I’ve slept with him . . . we’re just friends. No strings attached; just phenomenal sex . . .” She sighed happily. “I could come just thinking about it . . .”

Valerie groaned and slowly shook her head. “And I used to think you were such a nice girl, too . . .”

“I’m nice enough,” Madison allowed, extending her hand and thoroughly examining her fingernails. “Besides, he was my first.”

Valerie blinked and narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Really?”

“Yep. I was his first, too, so I suppose you could say we perverted each other.”

“And you’re still friends?”

“Of course we are! We have a mutual understanding: hot sex, and lots of it with no strings and no guilty feelings.”

“I think I’d rather abstain than share my boyfriend with the world.”

Madison sighed and propped her feet up. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s never been my boyfriend. It’s never been like that: not ever.”

Valerie shook her head. “It just sounds . . . weird, Maddy. Sleeping with someone without any real feeling?”

Madison waved her hand and giggled. “I never said I don’t have feelings for him,” she contradicted. “I adore him. I always have. There’s just never been that . . . that . . . spark, you know? That churning in the belly just from seeing him—all that jazz . . . he’s comfortable; he’s familiar . . . I love him. I’ve just never been in love with him.”

“I suppose you’re right . . . True love and all that . . . It’s completely over-rated,” Valerie scoffed, striding off toward the kitchen and rummaging around in the fridge. “Just look for someone who’s dependable; that’s what I say.”

She didn’t have to look to know that Maddy was making a face. “Like Marvin, you mean?” she grumbled.

“Yes, like Marvin,” Valerie agreed, twisting the engagement ring on her finger. “He’s the most reliable man I know. That’s why I’m marrying him.”

Madison snorted loudly. It wasn’t the first time they’d had this particular conversation, and as much as Valerie would like to think otherwise, she was pretty sure it wouldn’t be the last, either. “You know, Valerie, you buy a car because it’s reliable. You don’t marry someone because they’re reliable.”

Valerie heaved a sigh and waved a hand dismissively. “No, no, you’re putting words in my mouth. Marvin’s great. He’s got a good personality, a great temperament, and I do love him, but he’s also reliable, and that’s what I need.”

Madison rolled her eyes and slowly shook her head. “You’re right, Valerie . . . you can depend on good ol’ Marvin. You can depend on him to delay your wedding yet again. You can depend on him to be away all the time, and you can depend on him to be a completely self-centered bastard in bed. I mean, if you’re going to marry someone as dull as dishwater, the least you can do is get a good fuck out of it. You’re not even getting that, sweetie . . . I think you should just kick him to the curb and tell him to step the hell off, and don’t think for a second that I didn’t make note of the fact that love was the least of your concerns.”

“Okay, at moments like this, I swear to God, I don’t know you,” Valerie grumbled.

“And now you know where Zel gets it, hmm? Come on, V . . . the point here is that, like it or not, Marvin is just not good enough for you. You’re young, right? Live it up! Sleep around, play the field, and when you’re old and your boobs start to sag, then you can marry someone as lifeless as Marvin-The-Insanely-Dull.”

Valerie shoved the refrigerator door closed and strode over, handing Madison a Corona Extra and flopping down in a chair. “He’s not insanely—did you just call me ‘V’?”

“Yes, I did,” Madison remarked as she carefully twisted the cap off her beer.

“Mad-dy!

Madison blinked innocently. “Let’s face facts, V. You’re hot. Smokin’. If I were a lesbian, I’d be all about getting into your panties. Zel’s right. You with your legs spread? I can see why he’d want to see that . . . Hell, I’d like to see it, myself . . . Bet you have a really pretty little puss-puss . . .”

Fighting down the livid blush that stained her pale skin crimson, Valerie shook her head and rolled her eyes, draining half of her beer in one long gulp. “You’re just as nuts as Zel is,” she grumbled just before she broke into a catty grin that peeked out around the edges of the beer bottle neck. “Would you really?”

“Yes, I would.”

Valerie laughed and collapsed against Madison’s shoulder. “I love you, Maddy. I just question your choice of friends.”

Madison laughed, planting a loud, sloppy kiss on Valerie’s cheek. “So how’d you rank?”

“Rank?”

Madison wiped away the lipstick that she’d behind. “On the bone-ometer.”

Valerie snorted, her expression darkening just a little more. “An eight.”

An articulated eyebrow arched in silent contention. “An eight?”

“Yes, though he did say something about my clothes . . .”

“Oh, the uniform? Not surprising. Did he score you without the uniform?”

Valerie rolled her eyes and sighed, wrinkling her nose as she set her empty beer bottle on a thick cork coaster. “Nine-and-a-half.”

Madison shook her head. “You’d be a ten if you flashed him your tits.”

“You think so?” Valerie asked grudgingly.

“Oh, honey, I know so! Zel Roka is a breast-man . . . and a thigh man . . . and an ass man . . . He loves the total package . . . Oh! I know! Stand up!”

“What for?” Valerie asked as Madison shoved her forward and stood up, grabbing Valerie’s hands and pulling her off the sofa. “Maddy! What are you—?”

“Strip!”

“What?”

“Strip! Strip!”

“Wh—? I—No!

“Oh, come on! I just got a new cell, and I can get a quick snapshot of you . . . bet Zel would cream his jeans if he saw your breasts! I swear to God, you have the best nipples I’ve ever laid eyes on . . . Please?”

“Absolutely not! I’ve let you talk me into some really bizarre things in the past, Madison Cartham, but I am not—am not—bearing my breasts to give some jaded rock star something to stare at while he . . . defiles himself!”

Madison laughed but let go of Valerie’s hands. “All right, but just so you know? I’ll bet he’s home right now spanking the monkey while he’s remembering you.”

“Oh, I feel so violated,” Valerie groaned, leaning forward and burying her face in her hands. She peeked up a moment later and slowly shook her head. “Did you say ‘new’ cell?”

Madison snapped her mouth closed as her cheeks pinked just a touch. “Yeah.”

Valerie sighed. “You lost your other one, didn’t you? How many cell phones have you lost this year so far?”

“I don’t know,” Madison grumbled, waving a hand in blatant dismissal. “Four? Five?”

“Probably more like nine or ten,” Valerie muttered.

“Kick me while I’m down, why don’t you?” Madison pouted.

Valerie smiled despite herself. “Seriously, Madison, you lose more stuff than anyone else I’ve ever met.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she rejoined. “It started with my virginity and just went downhill from there.”

“Oh, Maddy, you poor baby . . .”

Madison suddenly shot her a sly smile, and Valerie had a feeling that they were about to change topics again. “So tell me the truth: I swear to God that I won’t tell Zel . . .”

“I don’t want to talk about him,” Valerie insisted with a stubborn shake of her head. “What’s your question?”

“Would you do him? If you weren’t engaged to Marvin, and if you just met him somewhere . . . would you?”

“No!” Valerie insisted.

“Uh hu-u-u-uh . . .” Madison drawled as she flopped down and rubbed Valerie’s back. Valerie opened her mouth to protest her innocence, but Madison relented, waving a hand to stave off whatever Valerie was about to say in self-defense. “Okay, okay . . . I’ll drop it for now . . . Let me take you out to dinner to make up for it.”

“Hrumph,” Valerie muttered without uncovering her face. “Italian?”

“Italian, huh?”

“. . . Yes.”

Madison laughed. “You got it, V. Whatever you want.”

“And you’re paying,” she reminded her.

Madison grabbed her hands and pulled them away from her face with a giggle. “Absolutely.”

“. . . Okay.”

“You won’t regret it, V. Now let’s go have some fun.”

Valerie’s answer was a low groan, but she let Madison drag her toward the door just the same. Why was it that whenever Madison said that she wasn’t going to regret something, she normally did . . .?

“Lighten up a little,” Madison remarked as Valerie grabbed her purse off the table by the door. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Valerie snorted indelicately as she followed Madison out the door. “Don’t say things like that, Maddy . . . please don’t say things like that . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They call us ‘problem child’,
We spend our lives on trial.
We walk an endless mile,
We are the youth gone wild…’

-Youth Gone Wild by Skid Row

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan moaned softly and rolled his shoulders, slipping his arms around the slender shoulders of his unseen bedmate without bothering to open his eyes. “Mornin’, Bugsy,” he murmured, teetering on the brink of falling back to sleep. “How’s my best girl?”

“You’re a horrible tease, Zel Roka,” Bugs accused.

“Damn me to hell, right?”

“If I damned you to hell, who would I snuggle with in the morning?”

“True enough,” Evan agreed. “Don’t suppose you’d make me coffee?”

Bugs heaved a melodramatic sigh and cuddled against Evan’s shoulder. “I’ll think about it,” the flamboyantly gay rabbit-youkai asserted. “Convince me.”

Evan chuckled. “Oh, yeah? And just what kind of convincing are we talking about here?”

“Hmm . . . we-e-ell . . .”

“Can’t think of anything?”

Bugs waved his hand dismissively. “I could think of more things if you’d just break down and admit that you’re gay,” he pouted. “There’s no shame in it, you know.”

“I know,” Evan agreed as a slow grin twitched on his lips, “but I gotta tell you . . . I’m still kind of attached to the breasts . . .”

Bugs snorted indelicately. “Those things are just nasty!” he pointed out in a plaintive whine. “They’re nothing but fat! I mean, have you seen how much some girls jiggle? And they do it on purpose, the trollops! Ugh! Puh-leez . . .”

Grin widening, Evan lifted his hand to muss Bugs’ hair—a gesture that very few could actually get away with. “Now, now, Bugsy . . . I completely respect the jiggle . . .”

Bugs shook his head in complete dismay. “You’re breaking my heart, Zel,” he accused.

“Yeah . . . I’m sorry, doll-baby,” he remarked as the distinct sound of high heels clicking on the hardwood floor of the hallway drifted into the room. Evan’s grin widened. “Speaking of the jiggle . . .”

“And she’s one of the worst offenders,” Bugs pouted, nestling closer to Evan in a completely territorial sort of way. “Go away, Maddy! He’s mine this morning!”

“You know, there’s more than enough of me to go around,” Evan quipped, finally forcing his eyes open as Madison sauntered into the room. “Ah, Maddy . . . just the woman I was hoping to see.”

She giggled at him and sat down on the opposite side of the bed while Bugs rumbled out a pathetic sounding warning from low in his throat. “I’ll just bet,” she said amiably enough before letting her violet gaze shift to meet Bugs’ more belligerent expression. “Morning, Bugs.”

Bugs wrinkled his nose and uttered a terse ‘hrumph’. “I know what you’re up to,” he accused, “and it’s not going to work. Zel Roka is mine. I’ve got dibs on him.”

“So I suppose that means that we can’t share him?” Madison drawled, arching an eyebrow and pinning Evan with a secretive little smile.

“You look like a shameless hussy,” Bugs pouted, eyeing her slowly up and down.

Madison turned and grasped the mock fireman’s pole that Evan had installed a year ago. “Do I?” she drawled.

“Yes,” Bugs decided with a curt nod. “Can I borrow that skirt?”

“As long as I’m not in it,” she quipped, giving the rabbit-youkai a saucy wink as she sauntered around the foot of the bed.

“C’m’ere, Maddy,” Evan murmured, pulling her down on his other side.

She giggled but complied, resting her head on Evan’s shoulder while Bugs snorted and shot her a narrow-eyed glare. “I guess I could go make that coffee for you,” Bugs breathed with a shake of his head. “Will you miss me, Zel?”

Evan planted an obscenely loud kiss on the rabbit-youkai’s cheek but didn’t try to stop Bugs from scooting off the waterbed. He was giggling madly as he hurried out of the room.

“I think he’s got more sway in his hips than I do,” Madison commented as she watched Bugs’ hasty retreat.

Evan chuckled, wrapping his arms around Madison’s waist and pulling her closer as he buried his nose in her hair and inhaled deeply. “Yeah,” he agreed, his voice muffled. “Too much woman for me, I think.”

Madison laughed and snuggled closer to him. “I can’t believe you let him crawl into your bed,” she mused, idly tapping her index finger against his bare chest.

“Aww, Bugs is pretty savvy. He knows damn well I’m straight, even if he likes to try to think otherwise.”

“Hmm . . .”

“You, on the other hand . . . didn’t anyone ever tell you that you shouldn’t be wandering into men’s bedrooms early in the morning . . .?”

Rolling her eyes as his hand slipped under her blouse to casually stroke her breast, Madison laughed but didn’t push him away. “You have a one track mind, Evan,” she chided.

“Yeah,” he agreed, burying his face in the satin blouse covering Madison’s chest as he rolled over to pin her against the mattress. “Just in time for a nice, long morning fuck . . .”

“Oh, I’m sure that Bugsy would be more than happy to service you,” she said though her voice had grown a little throaty.

“Sure,” Evan allowed, biting a nipple through the fabric as a distinct shiver passed down Madison’s spine as he ground his hips against her, his penis throbbing painfully, fully aware that Madison rarely wore panties. “Too bad he ain’t got a pussy.”

“Behave yourself, dog,” Madison said with a heavy sigh as she shoved lightly at his shoulders.

Evan made a face and uttered a curt whine to let her know just what he thought of the idea of ‘behaving himself’, but he flopped onto his back, setting off a reverberation of waves in the mattress below them. “Heartless, Maddy,” he complained, pinning her with his best ‘pity me’ expression.

Madison leaned on her elbow and grinned down at him. “I didn’t say no, but I want you to listen to me first.”

Evan snorted, rubbing his knuckles up and down the shallow vale in the center of his chest. “You know, I have a much better attention span when I don’t have a fucking hard-on,” he grumbled.

She reached over and tugged his hair. “You’ve always got a hard-on, Evan,” she pointed out with a shake of her head that completely contradicted the amused glint in her eyes. “Now listen to me, will you? I have an . . . offer that you can’t refuse.”

Evan arched an eyebrow and shifted his gaze to the side, his interest quirked. “Going Godfather on me now, are you?”

She spared him an impish grin that showed off her deep dimples to an advantage. “Listen to me,” she said in a very bad affectation of Marlon Brando.

“Keep your day job, Maddikins,” he said but grinned, idly rubbing her firm ass through the tease of a skirt she wore.

“Here you go, Zelicious,” Bugs said, sweeping back into the bedroom with a steaming mug of coffee. “Hot and black . . . just like you like it,” he announced then giggled. “Come to think of it, I don’t mind hot and black, myself . . .”

“Oh? So that means you’re going to go hit on Bone?” Evan drawled, sitting up and reaching for the mug.

Bugs twittered quietly, waving a hand in front of his slightly flushed face as the satin sheet that had covered Evan slipped down to pool around his hips. He didn’t bother to pull it up, either, taking the coffee mug and slugging back the drink in one long gulp. “Thanks, Bugsy,” he said with a wolfish grin as he leaned over to thump the mug down on the nightstand.

“Yes, well, someone has to take care of my Zel.”

“You mean you don’t think I can take care of myself?” Evan drawled, flopping back on the bed and gazing up at Bugs through heavily lidded eyes.

“I told you, didn’t I? The night we met I told you to stick with me, and I’d make all your dreams come true.”

Evan chuckled—a warm sound that added a certain brightness to his deep blue eyes. “Yeah, I guess you did,” he allowed.

Bugs nodded emphatically. “That’s right! I knew you were going to be a star, didn’t I? And that’s ‘star’ with a capital ‘ess-ss-ss-sah’!

True enough, Evan figured. Whether he’d been smitten by Evan’s looks or if he really did think that he had talent, Evan had gone from being the house performer at Bugs’ little club, The Bunny Hole to having a standard-level contract offered to him within months of his initial meeting with the rabbit-youkai who, at the time, had been balling the premier talent scout for Wicked Soundsations Records. After a little whining and a lot of schmoozing, Bugs had talked his lover into coming to see Evan perform one night. Barely a week after his college graduation, and he’d landed himself his first record deal—with Bugs’ help, of course.

“You certainly did, doll-baby,” Evan agreed, pushing himself up on his elbow as he groped around on his nightstand for the butt of a half-smoked joint. “I suppose I owe you, don’t I?”

Waving his hand dismissively, Bugs blushed and emitted a high-pitched giggle. “One of these days, I’ll take you up on that offer,” he warned, casting Evan an exaggerated wink.

“Anything for you, Bugsy,” Evan replied.

Bugs heaved a sigh and shook his head, his mouth puckering in a petulant little pout. “As much as I’d love to stick around, I have to go,” he said, his expression registering his irritation at having to leave Evan alone with Madison. Hurrying over, he leaned in to kiss Evan’s cheek before narrowing his eyes on Madison and uttering a cute little growl. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, my darlings!” he called over his shoulder, tossing the long end of a bright yellow scarf over his shoulder.

“Well, that leaves it pretty well open,” Evan approved with a chuckle. “Bye, Bugsy.”

“Are you calling me a ho?”

“Now, would I say something like that about my best girl?” Evan countered with a wolfish grin since it was a well known fact that Bugs really was quite the slut.

“You would,” Bugs asserted then shook his head and snorted, his footsteps echoing as he made his way down the hallway. “Ta-ta!”

Madison laughed and reached over to tug a tissue out of the box on the other nightstand and grasped Evan’s face to wipe away the crimson lipstick left from Bugs’ kiss.

“Hmm, so how about it, Maddikins? Up for a damn fine game of Fuck-the-Roka? Winner gets a homemade milkshake . . .” Evan drawled, leaning over to bite one of her nipples through the thin fabric of her shirt. He felt her shiver—he’d known that she would.

“Back off, dog,” she commanded, slapping his nose and pushing him back.

“Suck my dick, Maddy.”

She rolled her eyes but smiled. “Will you listen to me if I get you off?”

“Why don’t you fuck me and find out?”

She laughed softly, reaching out and slowly stroking his cock. He moaned and shuddered as she ran her hand down, her fingers curling around his balls and squeezing gently. “Sh . . . shit . . .”

“You have to promise,” she purred quietly.

Evan’s arms locked around her waist, and she fell on top of him, rolling her eyes when he shuddered, lifting his pelvis against hers. “Oh, come on, Maddy . . . you know I can’t function with a damn boner . . .”

“Aww, poor baby,” she retorted in a mocking sort of tone. “If you listen to me, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

“You’ll fuck me?”

She sat back, regarding him with an entirely too-thoughtful expression as she slowly nodded. He had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like whatever it was that she was considering, and he took his time lighting a joint before glancing up at her. “I want you to agree to Valerie’s terms,” she finally said.

Evan grimaced. He’d had a feeling that it would be something like that. “No fucking way,” he grumbled, taking a long drag and closing his eyes as the smoke started to infiltrate his system. “You realize, right? She wants to shut down the H-Evan Express. You’d hate that, you know.”

She snorted indelicately, leaning in to steal the joint and deliberately taking her time as she puffed it. “I’d get along just fine,” she teased.

He shook his head and dropped onto his back once more. “So you say,” he grumbled.

“Besides, it’d do you some good to abstain for awhile.”

“Bite your tongue, Madison!” he gasped in mock horror. “It’d shrivel up and fall off if I didn’t get any, and then where would I be?”

“Even then,” she interrupted, letting him take the joint from her so that he could take the last drag. “It’s just for a little while, and she’s got a point . . . if you made an effort, the judge might take it into consideration . . . at the very least, it wouldn’t look bad on you, don’t you think?”

“Like I give a fuzzy rat’s ass,” he shot back, tossing the sheet aside and rolling out of the bed. “No sex? Keh!”

“All right, if that’s how you feel,” she said, sounding more triumphant than she should have by rights. “How about a deal then?”

He stopped mid stride to peer over his shoulder at her, narrowing his eyes and feeling distinctly discomfited by the almost smug expression on her face. “A deal,” he repeated. “What kind of deal?”

Pushing herself onto her hands and knees, Madison laughed softly, crawling toward the end of the bed as the Cheshire-cat-like smile widened enough to make Evan wonder briefly whether or not he was in serious trouble. “Well, see, I crashed at Valerie’s last night,” she nearly purred.

“Oh?” he parried, struggling to keep his tone neutral.

She nodded, letting her legs slip out from under her as she kicked up her heels, crossing her ankles and affording him a damn fine view of ‘her girls’ beneath the filmy fabric of her blouse. “Mhmm,” she drawled, pulling her cell phone out of her purse and pushing buttons as that smile widened. “We drank a little too much wine, I guess . . . You know, that girl really can’t hold her liquor to save her soul . . .”

Evan grunted. “Like you’re much better,” he mumbled.

“Better than she is,” she commented. “Anyway, I’ve gotta tell you, that woman has some damn fine breasts. Nicest I’ve ever seen . . .”

That got Evan’s attention quickly enough, and he barely controlled the impulse to whip around to face Madison. “Oh?” he asked instead, slowly pivoting on his heel, his arms crossed over his chest stubbornly.

“Mmm,” Madison intoned, slowly tapping one of the buttons on her phone with her thumb. “Incredibly high nipples—large nipples, considering . . . a beautiful shade of rosy pink . . . just gorgeous . . .”

“Sure they ain’t fakes?” Evan asked, mostly to be obnoxious.

Madison laughed. “Fakes? God, no! Nothing fake at all about her . . .”

He snorted. “And why are you telling me all this?”

The look she shot him was downright scary, no doubt about it. Violet eyes alight with a mischievous glow, she looked like the cat that ate the canary and the blue jay, too . . . “Well, see, I got these pictures . . .”

“. . . Pictures?”

“Yep . . .”

“Did you tongue her?”

She giggled, rolling onto her back and clasping her phone to her chest. “No, I didn’t . . . I might have if I’d had a couple more glasses of wine, though . . .”

He quirked an eyebrow at her since he knew damn well that Madison preferred cocks to kitties.

“I told you, right? We got a little tipsy at dinner, and when we got back to her apartment, she wanted some more wine, and she was trying to kick off her shoes as she was carrying it into the living room, and she ended up spilling it all over her blouse. So she took it off, and I told her that she had fabulous titties, so she—being drunk, of course—figured she’d show me, and since I’d just gotten this cell—” she held up the phone for his inspection, “—I took a few pictures. It’s got a fantastic camera on it, did I tell you?”

“V’s titties?” Evan deadpanned, reaching for the phone and snorting when Madison smashed it against her chest before he could get his hands on it.

She threw a pillow at him. “No, honey; my new phone!”

“You’re gonna show me those pictures, right, Maddikins?” he asked pointedly as he crawled back onto the bed.

“I could,” she said, her voice shifting from liquid velvet to spun silk in a single heartbeat, “if . . .”

“Aw, here it comes,” he grumbled, knowing damn well what she was about to say but stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it.

She shook her head and scooted off the bed. “All right, if you say so . . .” she said, sashaying toward the doorway. “See you, Evan. Bugs’ll be deliriously happy about it since you’ll be used to ass-banging by the time you get out of the big house . . . Hope you like prison-stripes . . .”

Groaning as he made a face of abject disgust as he sought to ignore the bitter bite of curiosity that he couldn’t repress, Evan uttered a frustrated growl and hurried out of the room in Madison’s wake. He was intrigued, no doubt about it. He’d known her forever, hadn’t he, and he knew well enough that she certainly wouldn’t be bragging on Valerie unless there was something legitimate to brag about . . .

Oh, come on! You’ve seen one rack, you’ve seen them all, haven’t you?’ his youkai voice piped up.

Yeah, yeah . . . that’s right . . .’

So what’s the big deal?

Evan shook his head, refusing to quantify that with an answer as he loped down the stairs two at a time to cut Madison off before she could reach the front door. What was it about Valerie? he wondered. He hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind for more than a few minutes at a time since he’d walked into her office. She’d gone to some pretty outrageous lengths to hide her figure and her face, downplaying her looks with those ungodly large framed glasses and the boxy business suit. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? He simply wanted to ascertain that she really was as hot as he figured she’d be. That had to be it. After all, why else would he even care, right?

He frowned. ‘Right . . .’

He caught up to Madison in the living room. She was heading for the door, and while he was pretty sure that she was just teasing him, he wasn’t about to let her walk out, either, damn it; not without showing him those pictures . . . “Where you runnin’ off to, Maddy?” he asked, his signature lazy drawl back in place.

She gave him a very pointed once-over then rolled her eyes. “Wow, you didn’t even bother with pants. That interested, are you?”

Satisfied that he’d stopped her for the time being, Evan let go of her arm and fairly swaggered into the huge kitchen. “Well, you seemed so set on showing me those pictures that I figured, what the hell? Why not play along?”

She followed him into the kitchen and accepted the mug of coffee that he offered. “So it’s for my benefit, is it? Don’t do me any favors, big boy. After all, I’ve seen V naked . . .”

“Tits are tits,” he countered mildly, peering over the rim of his mug at her.

Madison shrugged a little too nonchalantly. “And peckers are peckers,” she retorted.

“That’s not what you say when we’re fucking,” he pointed out.

She laughed—a low chuckle that felt like a caress rippling over bare skin. “That’s entirely my point . . . tits may be tits and dicks may be dicks, but that doesn’t mean a thing if one has no idea how to use them.”

Casting her a sidelong glance, he leaned against the counter, one arm wrapped over his stomach and rested his elbow on his forearm, the mug hovering mere breaths away from his lips. “Spoken like a true deviant,” he relented.

She hefted her mug in silent salute. “Absolutely.”

Evan heaved a sigh and shook his head, turning abruptly to rinse the mug before depositing it in the sink. “I dunno, Maddy,” he said dubiously. “Seems like a hella high price to pay just to see a few measly pictures.”

“She’s got a tattoo, did you know?”

Tossing aside the towel he’d used to dry his hands on, Evan shrugged. “So do I. A few of them. Big fucking deal.”

Madison nudged him aside with her hip and rinsed her mug, too. “Yeah, you’re right . . . but I have a picture of it, too . . .”

Rolling his eyes, he strolled out of the kitchen and through the house to retrieve the newspaper that Bone had brought in for him earlier. “So given that you know damn well that tattoos aren’t really a big deal, what’s so special about V’s?”

“You didn’t ask where hers was,” she prodded as she rummaged through her purse.

“So where’s hers?” he asked grudgingly.

Madison paused long enough to wink at him. “On her snatch.”

His chin snapped up. “Oh?”

“Yep . . . very cute, too. It’s a little heart . . .”

“And you have a picture of it?”

She laughed again. “I did tell you she was bombed, right?”

He snorted, tossing the paper onto the coffee table before he flopped onto the sofa. “Does she know you’re pimping her pictures?”

“I mentioned it,” she said, fluttering her fingers dismissively.

“So she doesn’t,” he concluded.

Madison rolled her eyes. “No, she does. She said that she’d take your case if you agreed to her terms, and I told her that the pictures would be fantastic leverage.”

Narrowing his eyes, he snorted. “Keh! You don’t really expect me to believe she said you could show them to me.”

She shrugged offhandedly. “Well, she was drunk when I mentioned it, but she didn’t say ‘no’.”

“What did she say?”

“I believe her exact words were, ‘Hmm, okay . . .’.”

He grinned. “So she knows.”

Madison nodded slowly. “So how about it? You want to see her tattoo?”

He shook his head, telling himself that he didn’t care, not at all. He was just curious; that was it. “If it’s on her snatch, how did you see it?”

“Oh, she waxes.”

“You wax,” he pointed out.

“I don’t wax quite like she waxes,” she contradicted, pointing an emery board at him before she zipped her purse closed and stepping around the sofa. Knocking his feet off the cushions, she sank down beside him and shot him a lazy grin. “I like my little bush, thanks.”

“Like she . . .?” Evan sat up straight, eyes narrowing as he searched Madison’s face. “No-o-o-o . . .” he breathed almost reverently.

She nodded, carefully examining her claws and pausing now and again to file a nonexistent rough spot. “Oh, yes,” she remarked lightly. “She says that it’s . . . cleaner . . .” Pausing there, she tapped the emery board against her chin thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’s the word she used: cleaner.” She laughed at that, as though she found the word amusing.

“No shit,” he half-moaned.

“She has a very pretty little pussy. If I were into women, I’d totally be all up in her business,” Madison went on casually, as though she was talking about the weather, “but you’re not interested in the pictures, are you?”

“Does it look like I’m interested?” he snapped, gesturing at his crotch—and his painfully throbbing boner.

Madison’s smile widened dangerously. “If you agree to her terms, I’ll send you some of the pictures. How’s that?”

He grimaced. “Some of them?”

She nodded slowly. “How about a teaser?”

He grunted.

Twisting her body and pushing herself onto her knees to reach her purse on the table behind the sofa, she dug out her cell and took her time scrolling through the images stored on the device. “Here,” she said, flipping her phone so that he could see the display. He reached for it, but she pulled it back before he could grab it.

Evan growled in protest but narrowed his eyes to get a better look: a picture of a pouting Valerie, her hair all mussed and tangled, and while her shoulders were completely bare, the image was cut off just below the rise of her breasts . . . She was leaning forward, it seemed, and the shadows that touched her face lent her an air of mystery. Hazel eyes so deep and soulful, as though she was begging for something, and while her expression brought to mind a petulant child, there was nothing childish about the fullness of her lips, pursed slightly, her cheeks flushed, her skin glowing in the warmth of the ambient lighting of her living room . . . The sternness of her at-work persona seemed to have all but disappeared to the point that he had to wonder if the woman really was the same one he’d met in the stuffy attorney’s office.

“Mm, she’s a hottie, isn’t she?” Madison piped up.

Nodding absently, he couldn’t take his eyes off the picture. “Talk about letting your hair down,” he mumbled, shaking his head in abject disbelief.

“So you want more pictures, Evan?”

He nodded again.

“And you’ll agree to her terms?”

He snorted but didn’t answer. Madison sighed. “Evan,” she said, her voice taking on a more serious tone, “promise me that you’ll at least consider it, please . . . I was there, remember, and you know as well as I do that you weren’t even—”

“I was,” he cut in coldly, narrowing his gaze for just a moment before he relented with a shake of his head. “Just drop it.”

She sighed again. “Please.”

Dragging his eyes off the picture, he made a face at Madison. “She wants to cut off my balls,” he grouched. True, he didn’t like the prospect of ending up in jail, and he’d even considered giving in just because of that, but he wasn’t about to admit as much to Madison, damn it, not when she was offering to bribe him into submission . . .

“Abstaining for a couple months is hardly cutting off your balls,” she pointed out.

“Close enough,” he grumbled.

She heaved a sigh and shook her head. “Okay,” she allowed slowly. “That would suck, wouldn’t it?”

He nodded emphatically, taking advantage of the moment to crawl over and lay his head in her lap, doing his best to give her his version of ‘The Look’. She rolled her eyes and tugged on his hair but didn’t shove him away. “You’d hate it, too, you know,” he added for good measure.

“Oh? You think you’re the only person I can get a good lay from?” she challenged.

He wrinkled his nose and leaned up to nip her breast. “I meant you’d hate it, too, if you were me.”

She considered that, idly stroking his hair, and he couldn’t help it as his eyes drifted closed. He’d always been a sucker for that, he supposed . . . “Point taken,” she allowed. “How about this? You agree to her terms, and I agree to service you whenever you feel the need?”

He considered that, wrinkling his nose in an effort to show Madison exactly what he thought of Valerie Denning’s ‘terms’. “Lemme see that picture again.” She held up her phone for his perusal again, and he sighed. Damned if he wasn’t a sucker for a woman with those pouty lips . . . and those soulful hazel eyes . . . “So you’ll do me whenever I want?” Still . . .

“Yes.”

And you’ll send me the pictures?”

She nodded.

Heaving a sigh, Evan could feel himself relenting, but he stubbornly held his ground. “Including the picture of her tattoo?”

“Just say the word, and I’ll email them straight to your computer.”

“I don’t know, Maddikins . . . I’m not sure I’m ready for a committed relationship,” he drawled.

“Idiot.” She shoved him away but laughed. “She’s a good attorney, Evan—a damn good one . . . better than you deserve, anyway. If anyone can help you get out of this mess, she can.”

“I gotta be nuts for even thinking about it,” he informed her.

“So do we have a deal?”

“Service me now?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes but reached out, letting the tips of her claws drag gently over the head of his cock, and he sucked in a sharp breath as the first droplet of semen squeezed out of him. “Ah, God,” he breathed as she smeared the liquid over him. “Damn . . . damn . . .”

Opening his eyes in time to see Madison suck her fingers into her mouth, he groaned quietly when she pulled them out with an obscene popping sound, the appendages gleaming with her saliva as she broke into a smile and wrapped her hand around his shaft, idly pumping him hard enough to draw a growl from him but not nearly hard enough to make him come. “Fucking damn it, Maddy,” he rasped out.

She chuckled huskily. “Do . . . we . . . have . . . a . . . deal . . .?” she asked, emphasizing each syllable with a definitive squeeze.

He gritted his teeth together for a moment, lifting his pelvis to aide her hand movements. “Shit,” he hissed quietly.

Madison let go of him and pushed him off her lap, rising to her feet to pace the length of the floor. “You answer me, and I’ll see what I can do for you,” she countered brazenly.

Heaving a sigh, he sat up, rubbing his hands over his face before answering. “All right,” he agreed grudgingly. “I’ll do it, but only as long as you’re available . . . starting tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?” she challenged.

He grinned wolfishly at her—at least, as wolfishly as he could manage since his groin was protesting the loss of her attentions. “I got a date with twins tonight—identical twins.”

Madison groaned then laughed. “No, I don’t suppose you’d want to miss that . . .”

“Absolutely not,” he agreed. “Now send me those pictures, will you?”

“Already on it,” she informed him as she lifted her cell phone and pushed a few buttons.

Evan waited until she lowered the device, indicating that she was finished. Before she could speak, though, he reached out and grasped her wrist, jerking her to her knees before him as he leaned back against the sofa and pushed her head down. With a sigh and a marked rolling of her eyes, she opened her mouth, her tongue darting out to flicker over his cock as he raised his hips, as she sucked him in deep . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I want to love you but I better not ouch (don’t touch).
I want to hold you but my senses tell me to stop.
I want to kiss you but I want it too much (too much).
I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison…’

-Poison by Alice Cooper

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

“Good God,” Evan croaked, groping for the water bottle without taking his eyes off the computer monitor as he scrolled through the images that Madison had sent him. He’d always known that Madison was a one of the hottest women he’d ever met. With her golden blonde hair and deep violet eyes and her kick-‘em-in-the-balls body, there wasn’t a question about it. What he hadn’t bargained for, exactly, was the shock to his senses at seeing the stoic Valerie Denning devoid of her boxy, frumpy business suit and in, well, nothing . . .

Madison giggled as she rolled onto her stomach, propping her chin on her hand and kicking her feet idly in the air. “I told you she’s hot,” she remarked mildly.

Wincing as the sharp pang of need shot through him again, Evan sighed. Damn it, he’d just gotten done balling Madison, and he was already hard again? ‘Fuck . . .’ Swallowing hard as he stared at a picture of Valerie, spread eagle in the middle of a thick white fur throw rug, he downed the contents of the water bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He’d thought she’d have a nice body under that bullshit business suit she’d worn, but damn it . . .

I want to fuck her,’ his youkai piped up.

I . . . yeah . . .’ he thought, lifting his hand, tracing the tiny heart tattoo that was, indeed, etched into the delicate skin of her beautifully bare pussy.

Long legs—shockingly long legs . . . perfectly toned thighs . . . a tiny waist . . . breasts that he wanted to titty-fuck . . . Her hair fanned out around her, her eyes were half-closed. Cheeks tinted with a drunken flush, she looked like she was waiting for him to—

“Hard? Just from those pictures?” Madison teased. From her position on the floor, she could easily see under his desk, and he spared a glance at her only to find her staring at his erection with unmasked amusement.

“You fucked her, didn’t you?” he asked, ignoring her observation.

Madison sighed and pushed herself off the floor as she reached for the blouse that he’d tossed aside. “No, I told you.   I didn’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

She laughed at his surly question. “Because, you idiot, I happen to like penises, for starters.”

He snorted and clicked the ‘next’ button. Same position but she had her knees bent demurely to the side, her pussy lost in shadows, her arms crossed under her very generous breasts, squeezing them together as she pouted prettily at the camera. “For starters?”

The soft clink of her decorative belt punctuated her movements. “And she’s engaged.”

“She’s what?” he hissed, his gaze flashing away from the monitor to Madison’s face, scanning her features for a hint of a lie.

“Engaged,” Madison replied, completely nonplussed.

“Well, fuck-fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck,” Evan mumbled, flopping back in the chair and shaking his head as he idly stroked his cock. “What’d she go and do a hella stupid thing like that for?”

“If it makes you feel any better, she doesn’t love him—” Cutting herself off abruptly, Madison shook her head and shrugged before she continued her slow work of getting dressed. “At least, she doesn’t love him like she should. I have very little doubt in my mind that she loves him in a . . . platonic sort of way, but . . . well . . . She says he’s dependable, which is a great, big fucking laugh and a half. Little troll . . .”

He grunted something entirely unintelligible as he clicked through the pictures again. Leaning back in his chair with a half-sigh, half-moan, he looked entirely discomfited—an expression that Madison certainly did not miss. “What a waste of a damn fine pussy,” he muttered, leaning forward and moving the trackball to close out the image files.

“Wait,” she blurted, drawing his attention away from what he’d planned to do. “Weren’t you listening to me?”

Rolling his eyes—he really was irritated, wasn’t he?—he shook his head slowly. “Damn it, yes, I was listening to you. She’s fucking engaged to a fucking troll and is going to spend the rest of her natural born life ruing the day that she went and did something so hella-fucking-dumb.”

“Careful, Evan . . . you’re sounding smarter than you like to,” she couldn’t resist pointing out with a wink.

Evan snorted and shook his head again. “All right,” he relented with a long-suffering sigh. “What did I miss?”

Madison chuckled. “She doesn’t love him in a romantic sense, even if she does say otherwise. Don’t you think it’d be a shame if she wasted her life with a man that she doesn’t love?”

Sapphire blue eyes narrowed dangerously, and Madison had to bite back a laugh. He was onto her, but then, she hadn’t really thought it’d take him too long to connect the dots . . . Evan Roka Zelig was nobody’s fool, after all . . . “I get the feeling I’m not going to like where you’re going with this,” he drawled.

Her immediate answer was a husky laugh.

He groaned. “Maddy—”

She held up a hand to cut him off. “She needs to learn that there is more to life than feeling comfortable with a little dickweed like him . . . and you, Evan Zelig, are the man to do it.”

His reply wasn’t entirely expected. Instead of the flaring eyes and the absolute indignity of his rebuttal that she’d actually expected, the man let his head fall back as a deep swell of his rich laughter filled the air instead. She didn’t say a thing as he continued to laugh, and she wasn’t entirely surprised when the amusement slowly wound down. When he finally managed to squelch the sound though the grin remained, he lowered his chin and stared at her. “That’s cute, Maddikins. For a second there, I could have sworn you said that you thought that I was the man to do it.”

She didn’t blink. “I did.”

This time, his eyes did flare wide, and he shook his head as he opened and closed his mouth a couple of times as the power of words failed him. “Aha . . . no fucking way,” he stated flatly in a tone that left no room for argument.

“Oh, come on, Evan! Think of it as your good deed for . . . a few years—maybe fifty . . .”

“Cain would fucking rip my damn balls off,” he intoned, slumping lower in his chair with his head propped on the back of it. “Don’t mess around with another man’s mate . . . remember?”

“If you say that too loudly, then other people are going to hear you, and they’ll know that you actually do possess some morals,” Madison remarked. “That aside, since when have you cared what your father would say?”

“I don’t,” he argued, staring at the ceiling. “He can suck my left nut.”

Madison’s lip twitched as she tried not to smile. He liked to talk big, she knew. She also knew that the subject of his father was a sore spot for him. “I’m not asking you to make her your mate, you know. Just show her that there’s more to life than her stuffy, boring fiancé.”

“Maddy . . . in case you weren’t paying attention . . . she hates me—loathes me. I actually think she wants me to die. That woman would dance at my funeral and piss on my grave—and while the chase might be fun enough, if you actually think that I have the time or inclination to—”

“Another deal.”

He blinked and shifted his gaze to the side, staring at her for a moment though he stubbornly refused to turn his head toward her. “Another deal?” He sighed. “What?”

“I have another picture,” she drawled quietly. “One I didn’t send you—yet.”

Evan heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Ain’t no picture worth the seven kinds of hell ol’ Cain’d bring down on me,” he predicted.

“So you say; so you say . . . this one is definitely worth it.”

He didn’t answer out loud, but he did grin just a little.

“It’ll make you come.”

That got his attention fast enough. Sitting up straight, he leveled a look at Madison and laughed. “I haven’t come without a pair of lips or a pussy wrapped around me in . . . hell, in years,” he reminded her. “Not even a damn wet dream.”

Madison laughed, mostly because she knew damn well that the picture in question was much hotter than the actuality of the situation at the time. In reality, they’d been watching a movie—damned if Madison could remember what one—and Valerie had been sitting between Madison’s legs while Madison brushed her hair—Valerie was a sucker for that. Madison had commented on how soft Valerie’s hair was, and Valerie had giggled, turned, and given her a quick kiss on the lips—the friendly kind, nothing more. That the phone had been set to take a picture hadn’t been more than coincidence, and that they’d both been naked at the time? Well, that was just because they were both feeling a little drunk, too . . .

“I know damn well that you jack off, Evan Zelig,” she reminded him.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head but his grin didn’t diminish. “Well, hell, yeah! That ain’t the same thing, you know. Every man alive practices the art of Hairy Napalm, whether he wants to admit it or not—and if he says he don’t, then he’s a fucking liar, too.”

“All the same,” she went on with a fluttered hand to shut him up, “if it makes you come, you have to do it . . . Agreed?”

Rolling his eyes again, his cheesy grin fairly dripped with absolute male ego. “Yeah, yeah,” he replied with a shake of his head. “You make me cream, and I’ll return the favor for her.”

Madison laughed, casting Evan a victorious little smile as she sent the picture to his email.

A moment later, the soft chime from his computer announced that he’d received the file intact, and with a completely smug expression, he clicked on the attachment to open it.

That smile faded very slowly, much to Madison’s amusement. “Sh . . . shit,” he muttered, leaning forward to get a better view as Madison sauntered around the desk to lean on his shoulder.

She had to admit that it was a hell of a picture. Captured the moment that their lips had touched, Valerie had her hand on Madison’s cheek, her eyes closed with her long lashes fanned prettily above her slightly flushed cheek. Breasts pressed together—completely visible despite Madison’s arm that traversed the shot, she didn’t have to be brilliant to know that Evan would just assume that she had her fingers buried deep in Valerie’s business when, in reality, it was curled around the hairbrush that was just out of view. The hazy glow of light that shone through the smallest space between their lips lent an entirely erotic feel to the image—a steamy quality that Madison knew that a dog like Evan Zelig wouldn’t be able to resist.

“Oh, shit . . . you did fuck her . . .” Evan murmured, his voice strangled and reaching.

Madison chuckled softly but didn’t deny it. Whatever he thought at the moment was fine with her, wasn’t it? Sure, he might have reservations about what she wanted him to do, but . . .

But she also knew damn well that they’d both thank her for it later. After all, she was Evan’s best friend, wasn’t she?

With a loud, longsuffering moan, his hand disappeared under the desktop. Maddy looked down in time to see him grab his cock and squeeze. She knew that stance, didn’t she? Though it’d been years since she’d last seen him do that, she knew well enough what it meant. He was trying to hold it in, literally, and as the first drips of come seeped out of him, tracing a thin, ragged trail down the head of his penis, only to disappear into the tiny seam between his fingers and his cock, she smiled, grasping his elbow and tugging hard—tugging until he let go. She laughed outright as a powerful arc of semen shot up, showering down on his stomach. Two smaller sprays followed in close order as Evan jerked and groaned and panted. “Shit . . . shit, shit, shit, shit—shit—shit—shit—shit!

She was still laughing as she sauntered off toward the bathroom to grab a wash cloth.

“Make it a fucking towel, Maddy,” he hollered in her wake.

She did as she was told, nabbing a thick, white towel off the stack on the shelf. She was even nice enough to make sure that the water was warm before she stuck one corner under the tap as her smile turned just a little catty.

Ah, Evan,’ she thought with a little laugh. ‘Your fate is sealed . . .’

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie groaned and rubbed her face, shivering slightly under the light blanket that didn’t offer nearly enough warmth as she stubbornly tried to ignore the incessant knocking on the door.

It didn’t work.

She heard the door open and close, followed by the distinct tapping of heels. “Aww, sweetie . . . you’re still sleeping? It’s almost five!”

Groaning as she slowly opened her eyes, Valerie blinked as Madison Cartham’s face swam in and out of focus. “I’m never drinking wine again,” Valerie pouted.

Madison laughed, mostly because Valerie always swore the same thing, and she always drank it, anyway. “You poor baby,” she crooned, sitting on the edge of the sofa. “What can I do for you?”

Valerie uttered a terse grunt as she rolled over and clutched the blanket a little closer. “You could cuddle with me. I’m freezing,” she complained.

Madison laughed and sat back, patting the sofa beside her. Valerie muttered and grumbled but scooted toward her and crawled onto the furniture, huddling beside Madison, who wrapped her arms around Valerie and smacked an obscenely loud kiss on the woman’s forehead.

“Ooh, you’re so warm,” Valerie said, her voice muffled by the blanket.

“Hmm, am I?”

Valerie nodded.

“I just came by to tell you that I got Zel to agree to your terms.”

Valerie leaned back far enough to stare incredulously at Madison. “Really? How’d you manage that?”

“I have my ways,” Madison drawled then giggled, waving a hand in blatant dismissal. “I told you, I gave him those pictures.”

Valerie’s brow furrowed as she considered that. “What pictures?”

Madison rolled her eyes but dug her cell phone out of her purse, taking a moment to scroll through the images still stored in memory. “These,” she said, handing over the phone for Valerie’s perusal.

“Wh . . .? Aww, Mad-dy!” she whined as she slowly scrolled through the images. “You gave him these?

“Well, it worked, didn’t it? He’ll be as good as gold—with a couple of exceptions.”

Valerie winced, sitting up though she was careful to keep the warmth of the blanket wrapped around her as she flipped to the next image. She wasn’t completely nude in it, but she was well on her way. She grimaced and hit the ‘next’ button. “I can’t believe you—Oh, hey . . . I like this one. Send it to me.”

Madison laughed. “Okay.”

She sighed and shook her head. The next picture was a lot more compromising, and she shook her head at the sight of her own nipples displayed quite openly. “Why’d you give him these? You know, I don’t even want to think about what he was doing to himself when he looked at these . . .”

“He didn’t really do anything to himself,” Madison assured her with a grin. “But he did have a solid boner the whole time . . .”

“E-e-eww-w-w-w,” Valerie breathed, her face registering her abject disgust. “I wouldn’t have said that it was okay to give those to a pervert like him!” she complained, scrolling through images that should probably make her blush a little more than they actually did. Even the image of her tattoo didn’t actually bother her nearly as much as the idea of exactly who had seen those images did . . . “I can’t believe you’d do that to me! He’s nasty! He’s disgusting! He’s vile! He—” Cutting herself off abruptly, Valerie’s eyes widened as another groan slipped from her. “Oh, God! I did say you could, didn’t I?”

Madison nodded slowly.

Valerie sighed and shook her head as she continued to scroll through the pictures. “You know . . . as much as I hate the idea that he has them . . . these aren’t half bad . . .”

“That’s because you’re a hottie,” Madison quipped, kissing her temple again.

Valerie heaved another sigh. “Send them all to me,” she decided. “Still . . . ohh, I feel so dirty . . .”

Madison laughed.

Valerie paused with her finger poised above the arrow button, her eyes widening as she stared at a picture of the two of them getting ready to kiss. “Oh . . . wow . . .” she breathed. “I love this one . . .”

Madison leaned to the side to see the image that Valerie was staring at. “Hmm, yeah . . . how hot is that, right?”

“Mmm . . .” Tearing her eyes off the cell phone, Valerie wrinkled her nose.   “You didn’t give him this one, did you?”

Madison laughed, the devil. “He came all over himself,” she admitted.

“O-O-Oh, ew-w-w-w,” Valerie moaned. “Disgusting! I don’t even want to think about that!”

All over himself . . . He hasn’t done that in . . . years . . .”

Valerie didn’t look impressed, but she couldn’t help the slight twitching of her lip as she met Madison’s gaze, either. “. . . Really?”

Madison nodded, her lips twitching, too. “Really.”

Valerie was about to point out that she wasn’t too pleased with the idea that a man like Zel Roka knew what she looked like underneath her clothes when something else Madison had said popped into her head. “What do you mean, a couple of exceptions?” she demanded dubiously.

Madison waved a hand dismissively but shrugged. “I mean that he said he’d abide by your terms starting tomorrow . . . and provided that I am his . . . umm . . . call girl, so to speak.”

“What?”

Madison fluttered her hand again. “It’s not a big deal,” she assured her. “I just told him that if he should feel the need, he could call me. After all, it’s not like we don’t fuck, anyway, so it’s nothing new.”

Valerie’s mouth fell open in complete disgust. “No! He’s not going to do that to you! That nasty pig! If he thinks—”

“Relax, V. I don’t mind, really. He gives as good as he gets, you know.”

“No, Maddy! No, no, no, no, n—Why starting tomorrow?”

Madison blinked and looked completely lost for a moment, as though she wasn’t sure what Valerie was asking. Jerking suddenly—she must have gotten the question—she raised her eyebrows and laughed. “He has a date with twins tonight—identical twins, or so he says. I doubt even an offer to spend the night with his mama would come between him and his twin fetish . . .”

“Oh, absolutely not!” Valerie fumed, stumbling to her feet and kicking the bottom of the blanket out of the way as she stomped around the room. “He’s already got those pictures of me, and he wheedled that promise out of you! He doesn’t need twins, damn it, identical or not!”

“Now, now, you can’t hold this one against him,” Madison began in a placating sort of tone. “He’s always had a thing for twins. He thinks it’s hot when they go down on him.”

“That’s because he’s loathsome,” Valerie shot back. “I’m going to march right over there and tell him,” she muttered, stomping out of the living room and down the short hallway, “just as soon as I find my clothes . . .”

“It’s too late,” Madison pointed out as she trailed along in Valerie’s wake. “They’re already over at his house. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that he’d agreed to your terms.”

“Where are you going?” she demanded, sticking her head into the hallway to eye Madison cautiously.

Madison laughed as she stood up and keyed in the information to send all the pictures to Valerie’s email account. “If you really want to know, I have a date.”

“A date? With who?”

“A hopelessly boring accountant with a really tight little ass . . . He came in for a trim, and I offered to give him the ‘Madison Special’. Ta!”

“Bye,” Valerie called out, giggling despite herself. In all of one’s life, she figured that one only met a person like Madison once. She was just lucky enough to become her friend. Outrageous, maybe, and even a little misguided . . . Still, there wasn’t a thing that Madison wouldn’t do for someone she considered a friend, and while Valerie knew that her uncanny ability to attract the strangest friends—just look at her relationship with that miscreant rock star—had gotten Madison into her fair share of troubles, she also had to admit that she wouldn’t want the impetuous and impractical woman to be anything other than exactly who she was.

In fact, the idea that Madison had given Zel Roka those pictures didn’t really bother her nearly as much as the idea of what he might be doing with them, or at least, what he might be doing to himself while he was looking at them, anyway. After all, she was a modern woman, right? She absolutely believed that the human body was a beautiful thing, and she worked more than hard enough to ensure that hers was as good if not better than most models these days. She had nothing to be ashamed of. She simply didn’t like the idea of Zel Roka desecrating himself while he looked at them . . .

And Madison had asked, never mind that she’d been drunk at the time and likely would have agreed to just about anything.

I’m just going to march right over there and tell that pervert a thing or two,’ she told herself as she shoved her closet door open. ‘If you think that you’re getting away with this kind of crap, you’ve got another thing coming, Mister Roka . . .’

After all, her terms were clear enough, weren’t they? There wasn’t any room for his kind of negotiations, and she’d be double damned if he thought he was going to use Madison for his sick pleasure just because Madison was too sweet and kind to tell him to go fuck himself . . .

Then again . . .

Maybe she ought to see for herself, exactly what sort of mischief that deviant was getting into. What was that old saying? ‘Ah, yes: ‘know your enemy’ . . .’ she thought as she reached for a pair of sleek black pants and a black turtleneck blouse.

Twins, my ass . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Can you help me I’m bent,’
I’m so scared that I’ll never,’
Get put back together,’

You’re breaking me in,’
And this is how we will end,’
With you and me bent …’

-Bent by Matchbox Twenty

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Hidden deep in the shadows near the northeastern perimeter two-foot thick, ten foot high brick wall that surrounded the obscenely large property belonging to one Zel Roka, Valerie Denning scowled up at the grappling hook that had gotten lodged between the perfectly set bricks—very good for aiding her plight of scaling the wall. Not so great when she needed to retrieve the equipment in her backpack. After a moment of deliberation, she shook her head and stifled a sigh before grasping the stout rope once more to rescale the wall.

At least she’d still had the thing, which had surprised her. She’d tried mountain climbing a few summers back but had figured out quickly enough that it wasn’t really her thing. Oh, it was all right, and she hadn’t minded the physical workouts, but she’d signed up for the course after her fiancé had mentioned that they ought to take up a hobby like that—not entirely surprising since he had been talking to an investor who had mentioned that he climbed and that maybe Marvin ought to accompany him sometime . . .

Not that Marvin—Valerie’s fiancé—was the kind to do any such thing, and she’d known that at the time. Still, she’d rather hoped that he’d take a liking to it, but when it became obvious that Bill Blackman had no real interest in underwriting Marvin’s research, Marvin’s interest in the sport had all but dissolved, too. That was just before Marvin had decided that he needed to broaden his network. Having already approached most of the better known philanthropists in New York City and the outlying areas, he felt that he’d have better luck if he took his proposal on the road, and like the dutiful fiancée, Valerie had smiled and agreed.

It didn’t really bother her so much—something that Madison had never understood, not that Valerie could blame her. It was hard to explain to someone like her, why it was that Valerie wasn’t too upset with the arrangement. True, she sometimes went weeks or even months without seeing Marvin, and most of their conversations were fairly short in duration, but it wasn’t like Valerie was sitting around, doing nothing but pining herself away, either. After all, she had a career of her own—a career that kept her quite busy, too.

Sparing a minute to catch her breath once she reached the top of the wall, she crouched there for a moment before carefully tugging the grappling hook loose and methodically stowing it in her knapsack. She’d have to let herself drop to get back down again, a prospect that she had to admit was a little daunting. She’d be all right, she figured, as long as she didn’t try to land on her feet—and as long as she didn’t land on that knapsack.

She dropped the bag off to the left so that it wouldn’t be in the way when she hit the ground. That done, she turned over onto her belly and lowered herself over the side once more. There was a slight ledge, so she was able to hang onto that, at least for a moment, as she drew a deep breath and pushed off just enough so that she wouldn’t hit her head on the way down.

Landing flat on her back in a thick bed of lush grass, she lay perfectly still for several seconds as she struggled to catch her breath again. Nothing was broken, she decided as she cautiously moved her arms and legs. If the wall had been any higher, though, she would never have tried to get down that way.

It had surprised her, she had to admit. A man as spoiled and pretentious as Zel Roka had comparatively little in the way of security installed around his home. There were a handful of cameras along the wall, but most of those were on the outside at about fifty- yard intervals. Gross negligence, in her opinion, especially since the area where she’d climbed over was pitch black in the shadows. Rolling her eyes as she sat up slowly, she had to wonder if her opinion of him could possibly get any worse . . .

Don’t be stupid,’ she told herself grimly as she pushed herself to her feet and retrieved the knapsack. ‘Of course it could.’

The next problem was crossing the wide expanse of yard. Bathed in the bright light of the full moon, there was nothing to provide any sort of cover, and even if she skirted around the perimeter, sticking to the shadows, she’d still have to chance crossing the yard somewhere.

Face scrunching up in a frown of concentration, Valerie shook her head and started moving. She was his attorney, for God’s sake! She had every right to be here, and if he didn’t like it, well, then he was free to find someone else who was willing to put up with his ration of crap, wasn’t he?

Yes, he certainly was, and maybe some small part of her even wished that he would.

Giving herself a mental shake, Valerie heaved a heavy sigh as she asked herself yet again if there wasn’t really something incredibly wrong with her for putting herself through all of this. After all, Zel Roka didn’t seem at all contrite and even thought that the entire situation was funny, didn’t he? Maybe sitting in the big house for a little while would be good for him. At the very least, it could serve as a wakeup call for his overinflated ego . . .

Focus, Valerie. Crucifying your client in your own mind isn’t necessarily a good way to approach a new case, is it?

This time, the sigh that slipped from her was resigned, at best and outright hopeless at worst.

That meant she needed to get moving.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the relative cover provided by the shadows falling around the mansion. The arrogant man didn’t even have security cameras out here, and she wrinkled her nose as she carefully pushed her way through the thick branches of the bushes outside the windows. She figured that she’d be better off to make sure that he really was misbehaving before she stomped in there with all guns blazing.

The living room window was open, and what was meant to be a quick glance stopped her short as her mouth dropped open, as a livid flush shot to the surface of her skin as she stared in almost comical horror at the debacle unfolding inside.

“Oh, my God,” she muttered, pressing a hand to her mouth as her eyes widened in complete disbelief at the scenario laid out before her. Sure, Madison had told her what he was doing, and yes, she’d certainly believed it—at least she thought she had. Maybe, she realized as she tried to make herself back away, maybe she hadn’t honestly believed that even he could be that completely debased. Seeing it happening, though . . . ‘I-it’s like a train wreck,’ she thought wildly. Good Lord, she just couldn’t look away . . .

Bottle blonde identical twins, all right, with extremely large, extremely fake-looking breasts, damn it. One was bouncing up and down on the disgusting man’s penis while the other was straddling his head, keening like a puppy as she writhed and fondled her breasts. “Ooh, yeah; ooh, yeah,” she squeaked. Zel was sprawled on the floor—his hair was jet black today—lifting his hips in a steady rhythm, though how he could possibly keep it up was beyond Valerie. The woman on his face leaned forward, licking at the other one’s nipples as her breasts bobbed obscenely. It was completely disgusting, wasn’t it? Completely, utterly, insanely . . .

“Don’t give yourself a black eye, honey,” Valerie grumbled under her breath.

He was moaning and groaning and carrying on, too, which only managed to add to Valerie’s overall disgust with the entire affair as the other twin leaned forward, as the women felt up each other’s breasts, their tongues flicking out to lap at each other. “That’s it . . . suck those titties, baby . . .” he murmured. Valerie smashed her hand over her mouth to keep from snorting out loud despite the marked flush that she could feel burning her skin.

Zel reached up, burying three of his fingers into the nearest twin. She squealed and bucked wildly, showing absolutely no shame as she rocked against him. Valerie thought that she heard him chuckle but wasn’t sure since it was hard to make out anything over the din the women were making. The girl riding him leaned back, bracing herself on her hands while the other one jiggled her palm against her twin’s clitoris to make her come. “Oh, baby! Oh, Zel! Ooh, you’re so big! So huge! I’m gonna come! I’m gonna—I’m gonna—I’m gonna . . .!”

She crumpled to the side, her breathing labored and harsh as she huddled on the floor. The girl Zel was fingering yanked the condom off of him, drawing him in completely as Valerie shook her head in disbelief.

Dear God, he is huge!’ she thought, unable to repress the complete astonishment that the woman was actually able to take him in completely. Something like that couldn’t possibly be natural, could it? Had he had some weird surgery to make his penis larger or something? And why wouldn’t she put that past him, anyway?

Even as she wondered that, though, he unleashed a loud growl, lifting his hips and thrusting himself deeper into the poor girl’s mouth, and she swallowed fast as he jerked her head down hard. From her vantage point, Valerie could see dribbles of semen escaping the woman’s lips despite her efforts to swallow all of it. With one last, long groan, he collapsed on the floor, stroking the blonde’s hair as she and her sister licked him clean.

Her twin, finally having recovered from her own orgasm, nudged her aside to help clean him up. Valerie clutched her stomach and narrowed her eyes. ‘Hussies!’ she thought with a mental snort. ‘No wonder he didn’t want to . . . Oh! Eww! Eww, eww, eww! You’re sisters! That’s entirely the reason that men are still no better than dogs! What does he think this is? A porno?

But they did. Sidetracked, maybe, by the taste of come on each other’s lips, the girls were on each other like white on rice. Zel chuckled and stood up, retrieving a glass of wine off the table where the remnants of dinner had been abandoned, and he stood back, watching the girls as they writhed on the floor. One of the girls had her face buried between the other’s legs while the one being serviced whined and squeezed her own breasts. “Ooh, yeah! Ooh, baby!   Ooh, yeah!” she squeaked, bringing to mind a really bad porno. “Right there, Cassie! Fuck me, fuck me! Ooh!”

Rolling her eyes, despite the vivid flush that was darkening almost painfully with every second that ticked away, Valerie glanced at Zel again, half afraid of what she’d see. He stopped beside the girls long enough to ruffle Cassie’s hair before wandering over to the cold steel bench sofa nearby. He slumped on it, legs out straight before him, stroking himself with a slight grin—completely smug—gracing his lips as he sipped the wine and took in the scene. He shifted his gaze toward the windows once, and Valerie nearly gasped as she ducked, squeezing her eyes closed as her knees protested the landscaping rocks under the bush. Slowly, slowly, she peeked in the window again. Zel was busy watching the girls’ antics, and he didn’t look like he’d noticed her. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she told herself, pressing her hand against her chest as her heart hammered against her ribcage. ‘He’s got the lights on in there, and it’s dark out here . . . he can’t see me . . .’

“Here,” Zel said, setting the glass onto the table beside him and tossing a neon pink double ended dildo on the floor beside the girls. “Let’s see what you can do with that.”

Face contorting in absolute horror as her mouth dropped open, Valerie couldn’t help the disapproving grunt that slipped from her, either. The twins were more than happy to oblige him, arranging themselves in a strange mass of writhing bodies and limbs as the obnoxious sounds of their puppy-panting filled the air and rang in her ears. The longer she watched, the more appalled she was, and yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to look away, either. Zel drained the last of his wine and sauntered over to the girls. Somehow, they managed to fuck each other as they sat up, one of them latching onto his penis as the other lapped at his balls. It didn’t take them long to coax him back to hardness, either.

Nasty, nasty . . . He’s just disgusting,’ Valerie fumed, shifting slightly as a dull throbbing registered in the back of her mind. She wasn’t turned on by what she was seeing; God, no . . . It was the single most deplorable act she’d ever born witness to! Men like him should be dragged out at dawn and shot, damn it! Still . . .

Still, as much as she hated to admit it, there was something kind of erotic about it, too . . .

With a roughened growl, Zel pulled away from the girls to retrieve an unopened condom off the floor. The girls whined in protest, but the porno-whiner didn’t waste any time pushing her twin down to reciprocate. In a dazed sort of horrified fascination, Valerie watched as the girl buried both her tongue and her fingers inside her sister.

With a chuckle, Zel knelt behind Porno-Whiner and jerked her back hard, unleashing a shriek from her even as Zel shoved her head back into Cassie’s crotch. Fucking her so hard that the crack of skin meeting skin managed to drown out the mewling whines of the girls, he also managed a stream of dirty talk that was bad enough that Valerie could feel her own face flaming, and as much as she hated to admit it, she felt as though her body was unraveling, a series of tiny explosions that only served to set off a deep-rooted ache.

She was breathing heavily, herself, her hands shaking as she stared through the window. The girls were screaming in earnest now, each of them driven forward by Zel’s thrusts like a really twisted perpetual motion machine, and Valerie gasped, jumping back only to collapse against the side of the house when she saw it: his eyes staring directly into hers with an unfathomable expression on his face as he continued to fuck the twins.

Oh, God . . . I have to get out of here . . .’ she thought, pressing an icy palm against her forehead. Too bad her legs wouldn’t move. ‘He saw me, didn’t he? He saw . . .’

Of course he didn’t see you, you goose,’ her conscience piped up. ‘How could he have seen you? Think about it: it’s dark out here, you know. Besides that, why in the world would he have been looking at you when he’s got those two in there?

That reminder drew a loud, albeit inward, snort from her. ‘He’s such a pig . . .’

A hot pig,’ her conscience agreed. ‘A really, really hot pig . . .’

She heaved a disgusted sigh, crossing her arms over her chest as her expression darkened. Women like those two were the kind who based their worth on how many guys they slept with, weren’t they? That they would degrade themselves in such a way was proof enough, as far as Valerie was concerned. ‘Just wanted to sleep with the rock star, huh . . .?

You know, you were almost that bad when you were younger,’ her conscious pointed out reasonably—too reasonably.

Valerie wrinkled her nose and stubbornly shook her head. Her wild days were well in her past now, and even though she would be the first to admit that she’d done more than her fair share of really stupid things, she also knew damn well that she had entirely too much self-respect to denigrate herself like that now. Leave it to a man like Zel Roka to single out and prey upon girls like those—girls who hadn’t yet learned that there was more to life than just being some rock star’s plaything . . .

Now you sound completely preachy,’ the voice in her head stated.

Maybe she did, but still . . . as disgusted as she was by the appalling display, she couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for those girls, too.

The front door opened a few minutes later, and Valerie ducked. The sounds of the women’s voices were easily discerned, and Valerie scrunched down a little more when the flicker of headlights approached.

“Are you sure you have to make an early night of it?” one of the twins asked, her pout obvious in her tone.

Valerie shifted slightly so that she could see through the network of branches, and she smothered a gasp as she slowly shook her head. Zel laughed, the jerk—the very naked jerk. He didn’t even have the decency to get a pair of pants on before he’d strolled outside, and dark or not, that was just a damn stupid thing to do, in her opinion. His property wasn’t nearly as secure as it ought to be, was it? What if some paparazzi had scaled the wall like she’d done? That’s all the idiot needed—his penis, plastered all over the morning’s papers . . . “Sorry, ladies . . . I’ve got an early morning interview tomorrow. Gotta be my best, right?”

A very large, very tall, very intimidating looking black man got out of the car but didn’t shut it off, loping over to the group with a wide, broad grin as he chuckled under his breath. “Need somethin’, Roka?” he drawled, revealing a very thick southern twang and not much in the way of stereotypical African-American accent.

Zel chuckled as his girls whined a little more. “Ladies, this is Bone. He’ll take you home. Hell, he’ll even check out your place to make sure no one broke in and is lying in wait to molest you while you were gone.”

The one named Bone chuckled, too. “Take them home, eh?”

“Please.”

One of the girls uttered a small, ‘hrumph’. “Can we stop and get some beer?” she asked in a plaintive tone.

“Oh, I think that could be arranged, ya,” Bone replied. “Roka, you know about that, right?”

Zel nodded once. “Yeah, I knew about that.”

Bone shrugged. “I figured . . . Now, ladies . . . y’all ready to go?”

They seemed reluctant to leave, of course, but they did, linking arms with Bone as the latter led the way to the running car. The girls stopped long enough to blow kisses at the miscreant rock-star before ducking into the vehicle. Bone gunned the engine, swinging the car in a tight circle before screeching out of the driveway, leaving a lingering stench of burned rubber in the balmy night air.

Zel didn’t move to go inside, though. Standing on the porch until the car sped through the gates and out of view, he heaved a sigh and slowly shook his head. “So, V, you gonna stay in my bushes all night or you want to come inside?”

She squeaked out an indignant yelp that she cut off abruptly as she shrank back into the shadows as far as she could. He couldn’t know that she was there, could he? Of course not! That was ridiculous, wasn’t it?

He sighed and shuffled off the porch, taking the few strides necessary to separate himself and her before he reached out, grabbed her wrist, and tugged her out of the foliage. “You suck at black-ops,” he pointed out with a lazy grin.

“I wasn’t spying,” she blurted suddenly, glad that the darkness hid her blush from his entirely too-perceptive eyes. He stood in a shaft of moonlight, though, and damned if the bastard wasn’t grinning from ear to ear.

“Yeah, you dropped something, right?” he supplied helpfully.

“I-I—Yes!

He nodded. “How’d you get past security?”

She snorted, clutching her knapsack against her chest. “What security? Your so-called security is sorely lacking, Mr. Roka! What if I’d been some tawdry photographer out for a good scoop?”

He laughed. Threw his head back and laughed . . . “Bone would have caught ‘em . . . Bone’s a Bone of many talents, if you know what I mean.”

“He didn’t catch me,” she shot back, raising an eyebrow in contention.

“Oh, he caught you. He also knew that you’re my attorney, so he let it pass. By the way, why don’t you just use the front gate next time?”

She snorted in a completely irritated sort of way. “For your information, I was testing your security, Mister Roka! Otherwise I would have used your—your gate!”

He wasn’t buying it, and she knew that he wasn’t. That didn’t stop her from straightening her back proudly, tossing her head in a completely defiant way full of bravado that she was far from feeling. “That still don’t answer why you were hiding in my bushes,” he pointed out calmly.

“I wasn’t hiding,” she shot back, narrowing her eyes in a fulminating glower. “I dropped my . . . my . . . my earring!”

He arched a black eyebrow. “Oh, well, if that’s the case, let me see if I can’t help you find it, V.”

She heaved a sigh as he stepped past her and knelt down to inspect the area for the earring that was still fastened to her ear. Remembering that a moment too late, Valerie made quick work of unfastening the left one and dropping it in what she hoped was a discreet manner. “I think I’ve told you, Mr. Roka, my name is Ms. Denning, and I’ll thank you to remember that, please.”

“So don’t thank me,” he said, holding up her earring. The small diamond glinted in the moonlight. She stared at it for a moment then snatched it out of his hand, pausing long enough to blow it off before she pulled the backer off again and stuck it through the hole in her lobe.

“You know something?” he said as he stood up and brushed off his hands.

“What?” she asked grudgingly.

“Well, assuming that I let it slide that I noticed that you were wearing both of those before I started looking, if it just fell out of your ear, then you’d better be a little more careful. I mean, if the hole in your ear is big enough to let the entire thing with the backer still on slip through . . .”

His grin was downright gloating as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you calling me a liar?” she squeaked angrily, though if she were completely honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she was angrier that she’d been caught than because she’d lied to him, in the first place.

“No-o-o-o,” he crooned then laughed when she uttered a low growl.

Valerie heaved a frustrated sigh then turned on her heel, prepared to make a grand exit by stomping away in a complete huff. Zel was faster, slipping an arm around her waist and drawing him firmly against his chest. “Give it up, V . . . I know damn well that you were watching . . . and I know damn well that you liked what you saw . . .”

She froze, unable to move, unable to think as a completely unfamiliar and savage jolt of desire shot through her. “Wh-What?” she breathed, swallowing hard to force down the sudden thickness that was blocking her windpipe.

He chuckled in her ear—throaty, soft—vastly disturbing. “You know, I never would have thought that you’d be so fucking hot under your business suits,” he went on. “I can’t believe that Maddy didn’t fuck the shit out of you . . .”

With a gasp as he ground his hips against her back, she jerked back to throw him off balance then yanked herself out of his grasp, whipping around to glower at him. “You’re disgusting!” she bellowed, her anger igniting once more. “Nasty, gross, sick! Let me tell you something, Mr. Roka: women were not put on this earth just to fornicate with you! You have to be the vilest, most loathsome bastard alive, and—and why the hell are you laughing?”

And he was laughing—laughing so hard that no sound was actually coming out of him. Shoulders shaking, body quaking, the only sound that gave testament to his obnoxious behavior was the airy breaths that escaped with every guffaw that rattled out of him.

Valerie was in the middle of contemplating the idea of beating him senseless when his hand shot out again, and he turned around, heading for the house and dragging Valerie along behind him.

He was still laughing when he closed the door and slumped against it inside. She might have protested a little more, but the huge poster mounted on the short wall across from the door had drawn her attention. Zel Roka in nothing but a pair of underpants that he was holding down just a too low, he wasn’t smiling in the picture, but he didn’t have to be. All the muscles—she’d have thought that the image had been airbrushed if she hadn’t seen him with her own eyes—all the rises and ridges . . . and the way he was posed, the underpants didn’t actually cover him, either. Half of his penis was showing, the other half was delineated so well in the tight undergarment that absolutely nothing was left to the imagination, and for several seconds, Valerie stood, transfixed, caught somewhere between abject disgust and a deep appreciation of the artistic quality of the photograph . . .

“Ah, the one and only time in my adult life that I’ve ever worn a pair of those,” he quipped. “Wanna see my house?”

She blinked at the incongruous statement and question, still a little too bemused to object when he took her hand again and led her to the left.

The wall the print was mounted on wasn’t as tall as the room and wasn’t as wide, either: an open air foyer, she supposed. He led her down four steps into a small alcove. The length of the room was nothing but a configuration of windows that ran from floor to ceiling. A number of plants were displayed around the room, and in the middle of the darkly stained hardwood floor—teak, maybe—were two off white chaise lounges, richly upholstered in padded velvet. They looked comfortable—really comfortable. Zel chuckled again but didn’t bother turning on a light. “I meditate in here,” he said.

She shot him a quick glance and shook her head. “You meditate? Ri-i-ight . . .”

He chuckled again and shrugged. “No, I do . . . I’m a real mess if I don’t.”

She snorted but didn’t answer as he took her hand and dragged her up the steps into the main living room again. Wrinkling her nose since she’d seen quite enough of that particular room through the window, she was vaguely surprised to see that the room had been straightened up though the remnants of dinner still sat on the table nestled in the far corner near the window where she’d watched.

This room, too, had the same hardwood floors though a huge plush area rug covered a lot of it. Rich burgundies and greens with accents of blues and golds, the rug was Oriental in style and undoubtedly very, very expensive. A thick light brown fur rug graced the hearth near a gigantic fireplace. On the far side of the room near a wall that seemed to be nothing but a configuration of windows flanking two huge lead glass doors stood the strangest looking metal sculpture she’d ever seen. So chaotic that it appeared to be little more than wires and strips in no real order, she stared at it. The longer she stared, though, the more her perception of the piece changed. There was an understated quality to it, almost erotic, very evocative . . .

“Cool, eh? A friend of mine made that,” he said, staring at the sculpture in a wholly appreciative way. “Want a glass of wine or somethin’?”

Shaking herself out of her reverie, Valerie turned away from the sculpture and shook her head. “No, thank you.”

“Suit yourself,” he replied, stopping at the table beside the steel bench sofa to retrieve his wine glass before sauntering off toward the table to refill the glass.

Lip curling as she thought of those women eating dinner with him before they took turns being used by the odious man, Valerie was abruptly reminded exactly why she’d come over here. Taking a deep breath and interrupting Zel’s babble about the different things that took up space in the large room, she whipped around to face him, only to stop short when she remembered a moment too late that the unsalvageable man was still very, very naked.

“Mr. Roka, will you please put some clothes on?” she demanded.

He blinked and glanced down at himself before casting her a cheeky grin. “I could, or you could just get naked with me,” he suggested a little too hopefully.

Valerie sighed and counted to twenty then on to fifty for good measure. “I don’t think so,” she replied icily. “I didn’t come over here for a . . . social call.”

“Right, right,” he agreed indulgently. “You came over to crawl around in my bushes.”

Sucking in a breath so sharply that it whistled, Valerie resumed the mental count before she dared trust herself to speak to him again. “I came over here so that you could read and sign my contract,” she insisted, digging into her knapsack for the papers that she’d grabbed almost as an afterthought.

He chuckled again but moved away, swiping up the tattered jeans that were carelessly tossed on the floor. He tugged them on but didn’t bother to fasten them. Valerie figured that was as much of a concession as she was likely to get.

“I still don’t see what the big deal is,” he said as he moved toward her again. “I’m at home, for fuck’s sake . . .”

“Don’t make me add a naked clause to it,” she shot back.

She sighed. She was really starting to hate that sexy grin of his; damned if she wasn’t . . . “I got it; I got it . . . you sure you don’t want to see the rest of my house first, V?”

“I just want you to sign the contract,” she pointed out. “Now if you’ll just—” Cutting herself off abruptly as he tilted her chin and dabbed at her cheeks with a tissue—she’d forgotten that in one of her more inspired moments, she’d smeared black greasepaint under her eyes for the mission. Fingers warm and infinitely gentle, he didn’t smile as he worked, but he did look amused. “Your eyes are brown,” she murmured.

He blinked, his gaze slowly coming to rest on her. “Yeah, so?”

“They were green the other day.”

He smiled a real smile—a true smile—a smile that lacked the hint of a smirk or even the slightly mocking overtone that she’d caught glimpses of before. The effect was astounding, and for several moments, all she could do was stare. “Contacts,” he admitted with a shrug, letting his hands drop away.

“Afraid to let people see you as you really are?” she challenged.

He chuckled. “Let me see that contract, V.”

She shook her head, wondering if she hadn’t struck a little too close to home.

He glanced at it, flipping the pages so fast that she knew that he hadn’t read them. Narrowing her gaze, she crossed her arms over her chest, ready to growl at him the moment he said something stupid.

To her surprise, he shuffled over to the large desk near the wide French doors and scrawled his signature on the last page. “Here you go,” he said, refolding the docket as he ambled over to her once more. “Signed, sealed, and delivered . . . I’m assuming you didn’t want me to sign it in blood . . .”

Caught off guard—she really hadn’t expected him to give in without an argument—she took it and stashed it into her knapsack again. “Look, I understand that you’re used to a . . . more decadent lifestyle,” she began. He opened his mouth to say something, and she held up a hand to stop him. “Do you really have to drag Maddy into this, though?”

Zel shrugged as though it were of no real consequence. “She offered,” he said simply. “Besides, it ain’t like fucking me is really that bad a deal . . . but I guess you saw that for yourself, huh?”

Valerie heaved a sigh, snapping her mouth closed on her retort. It didn’t really matter what she said, did it?   Something told her that Zel Roka wasn’t about to listen to reason.

“I tell you what,” he said suddenly, his eyes lighting with suspect inspiration. “If you don’t want me to fuck Maddy, fine . . . if you’re willing to do the job for her.”

Valerie’s mouth fell open in complete shock. Just when she’d thought that he couldn’t get any worse, that he couldn’t be more outrageous, there he went and proved her wrong. Reacting before she thought it through, she took the few steps that separated them, hauling her arm back and cracking the palm of her hand across his cheek. “You’re the sickest, foulest, most miserable bastard I’ve ever, ever met, Mr. Roka! I don’t care if you rot in prison! For that matter, I hope to God you get slammed with the maximum sentence allowable by law! Forget the contract, damn you! Find yourself another attorney, because I quit!”

He didn’t say anything as she stormed out of the house, despite the slow smile that spread over his features as he slowly, methodically rubbed his cheek. She hated him, didn’t she? Really, really hated him, and for reasons that he couldn’t explain, the idea that she hated him . . . was intriguing. Oh, maybe she honestly believed what she said, but he knew the truth, didn’t he?

She’d wanted him. He knew she did. Her scent had been more prevalent in his mind than the twins he’d been fucking at the time. Hell, he’d known the very instant she’d managed to scale the fence, and even though it did bother him on a certain level—how the hell had he gotten so accustomed to her in just one meeting?—he didn’t question it, either . . .

“Valerie Denning,” he murmured to himself, lifting the cloth he’d used to wipe her cheeks clean to his nose, breathing in the scent of her as he closed his eyes for a long moment, as his smile widened dangerously. “Game on . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They can see no reasons
‘ ‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?’

 

Tell me why? I don’t like Mondays
Tell me why? I don’t like Mondays
Tell me why? I don’t like Mondays
I want to shoot ... The whole day down …’

-‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ by the Boomtown Rats

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie strode into her office in a fine temper. Thanks to that no-account, overgrown delinquent, she’d stomped all the way home—no small feat since he lived practically on the other side of the city—only to realize once she’d gotten there that she’d been so angry that she’d left her car parked on the street outside Zel’s estate. By the time she’d called a taxi to take her to pick it up and drove home, she’d had a hell of a time getting to sleep the night before, and consequently, she’d overslept this morning, meaning that she’d had to take what amounted to a five minute shower. Unfortunately, the water heater in her apartment building had broken and wouldn’t be fixed until later today—a message that she hadn’t received until she was standing there, shivering as she gulped down a scalding hot mug of chamomile tea.

Since she hadn’t had time for breakfast, she could also add being ravenous to that list—yet another thing that she could blame on that damned Zel Roka.

Heaving a sigh, she rubbed her temple, rifling through the pencil drawer on her desk for the small bottle of Tylenol that she kept there for dire situations.

Blast him, anyway. Intolerable miscreant that he was, she knew that agreeing to be his attorney would be the worst choice she ever made. At least she’d been able to make the best one, ever, too, in dumping the damned fool, and while the smallest, tiniest voice whispered in her head that he’d probably never find anyone else stupid enough to take on his case, she refused—absolutely refused—to let herself feel bad about that, either.

He had his chance, didn’t he? She’d given him very explicit terms—terms that anyone could understand and that would only benefit his situation, but no. No, no, a thousand times, no . . . He honestly possessed the unmitigated gall to be offended and even put upon that she would inhibit his lifestyle, even if it wasn’t permanent, and even if the constraints might even benefit him in the end.

Shaking out two pills into the palm of her hand, Valerie frowned at the dosage then shook out two more for good measure. Her hands were still freezing from that stupid shower. ‘Idiot rock star,’ she fumed as she downed the pills with a couple slugs of water before taking a deep breath and flopping into her chair.

She had just started reviewing her list of meetings for the day when the door opened, admitting an absolutely smug-looking Zel Roka. “Mornin’, babe,” he greeted between bites of cream filled, chocolate covered doughnut. “Wan-a-bite?”

“Ugh, no,” she muttered, waving a hand dismissively. “What are you doing here, Mr. Roka? I could have sworn that I said everything that I needed to say to you last night.”

Why, oh why, did he have to grin at her like that? She stifled a sigh, determined not to let him see how horribly he’d already managed to crawl under her skin in the span of a few seconds.

“Well,” he drawled, sauntering over and settling himself in the chair across from her, “I had an appointment with your boss—the Xavier Bainey, esquire, himself.”

“Did you?” she asked mildly, reaching for the file on top of the neat stack in the tray. “He gave you the doughnut, I take it.”

“Yeah,” Zel remarked, wiping his fingers on his tattered jeans. When she made no move to question him further, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he continued to grin at her. “Not going to ask me what about?”

“Nope.”

“O-O-Okay,” he drawled with a breathy chuckle.

“I have an appointment in ten minutes, so if you could just leave . . .” she suggested when he made himself comfortable once more.

“So what are you? About a ‘B’?” he asked suddenly. “I’d have guessed a ‘C’, easy, after seeing those pictures, but damn, I can’t see how you manage to hide them so well, if that’s the case . . .”

Valerie glanced up, blinking in confusion since she wasn’t entirely sure exactly what he was talking about—until she saw where he was staring and until she noticed that he was holding up his hands as though he were juggling a pair of breasts . . . Uttering a harsh growl born of abject frustration, Valerie shot out of her chair and started around the desk, intent on telling Zel Roka exactly what he could do with his brand of perversity when the knock sounded on her door.

She spared a moment to pin him with a warning look that even he couldn’t possibly mistake before stomping over to yank on the handle. “Yes?” she snapped.

Van Delainey, another attorney who had been hired in about the same time she had, blinked and stepped back, his friendly smile faltering though it didn’t disappear completely. “Morning, Valerie. I just need the Norton case file . . .”

She blinked in surprise, then shook her head and frowned. “That’s my case.”

Van opened and closed his mouth, his cheeks pinking slightly, then shrugged.

“Valerie, Valerie! Just the girl I was meaning to talk to! Right this way, right this way! Van, I’d imagine that file’s on her desk, so why don’t you help yourself?” Xavier said as he strode over, one of his patent-lawyer smiles in place. He leaned to the side to look around Valerie and waved at Zel. “Ah, Mr. Roka! We’ll just be a minute. Shall we?”

Valerie clamped her mouth closed as she followed her boss down the long hallway to the posh office at the end, and Xavier didn’t speak until after he’d closed the door. “Doughnut?”

“Oh, no thanks,” she said.

Xavier held one out to her, anyway, then took a huge bite when she shook her head. “Mr. Roka came by this morning to let me know how thrilled he is that you’re taking his case.” He chuckled, looking positively like the cat that ate the canary. “Well, of course you know that, considering he’s sitting in your office right now, eh?”

“What?” she blurted before she could stop herself or even spare a moment to at least modulate her tone. As it was, she could only assume that Xavier was either so absorbed in what he viewed as a small victory or he had simply chosen to ignore the harshness in her tone.

Xavier set the doughnut on a napkin and grinned, showing far more teeth than the standard-seven that he normally flashed on a regular basis. “He’s very pleased with you, Valerie! Whatever you’ve done, you’ve managed to make a hell of an impression on him!”

“But I haven’t—”

“Anyway, anyway, he was a little concerned that you wouldn’t have enough time to devote to his case with your current workload, and I agree, so I’ve asked some of the others to take a few of them off your hands for you.”

“A few of them?” she echoed dumbly.

Xavier grimaced and nodded. “Well, more like all of them—except for Mr. Roka’s of course.”

“Those are my cases,” she interrupted with a shake of her head. “My clients trust me, and some of them have rapidly approaching court dates! Surely you cannot mean—”

He chuckled and clapped her on the shoulder in a completely good-natured sort of way. “From what I understand, Mr. Roka gets into trouble when he’s bored, so I think it is in his best interest that you handle his case exclusively. You understand the exposure that a client of his caliber can bring in, right? We may not be able to get him off the hook completely, but if you can just get him a drastically reduced sentence, then it’ll really bring in the clients! Word of mouth, Ms. Denning! You can see the big picture here, can’t you?”

“Th-The big picture?” she stammered, shaking her head as she struggled to grasp Xavier’s reasoning. “The man is a walking, talking parasite!”

“Be that as it may, that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have the right to adequate legal representation,” Xavier went on, spreading his hands wide in an effort to help Valerie ‘see the light’.

She heaved a sigh and rubbed furiously at her temples as the throbbing in her head broke into a full-out jackhammer. “I . . . I can’t . . .” she very nearly whimpered, more to herself at the prospect of having to deal with the likes of Zel Roka.

“Sure, you can!” Xavier insisted. “Listen, Valerie, I didn’t want to mention this until things were a bit more official, but Halsey is leaning toward retirement soon . . . The little woman wants to travel the world while they’re still able to enjoy it, and he’s never been able to tell her ‘no’, you know . . . So if you can help to bring in that kind of business, well . . . ‘Denning’ would certainly look good on the company letterhead, don’t you think?”

Valerie heaved a sigh and scrunched up her face. “I’m really trying not to,” she muttered.

Xavier chuckled. “Look, Valerie, whatever you have to do, just keep him out of trouble. If that means you have to babysit him, then babysit him!”

“Why me?”

“Mr. Roka specifically said that he wanted you to represent him—you, and no other. Think about the publicity! He is extremely high-profile. I mean, this case is huge!” He paused here to cast Valerie a bright, broad grin. “I have a good feeling about this!”

That statement only served to draw another low moan from her. “He’s completely unsalvageable, and he doesn’t give two cents for propriety. Just a spoiled, pampered rock star that got caught doing something entirely stupid—something that any normal person wouldn’t be able to get away with. Forget about saving him from getting what he deserves—he’ll be lucky if he isn’t hung out to dry by the judge.”

“It doesn’t matter if he’s acquitted or not. No one actually thinks that he will be, but if he’s happy with his representation, then he’ll recommend us, and that is worth its weight in gold!”

Stifling a sigh as the dull realization that she just wasn’t going to win this battle started to sink in, Valerie heaved a sigh. The real problem with men like Zel Roka was that everyone was too quick to cater to his every whim, and this just emphasized that point, as far as she was concerned, and now she was being basically ordered to pander to his whims, and that really didn’t sit well with her, at all.

Xavier, sensing that he’d won, leaned back against his desk and smiled happily. “You don’t have to like him,” he added almost as an afterthought. “Just keep him out of trouble.”

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie stomped back into her office a few minutes later after having taken a long time returning, mostly because she needed to calm herself down after Zel Roka’s latest show of highhandedness. She’s been hoping in the back of her mind that he’d gotten bored and left. No such luck, she realized as she stopped short, her eyes narrowing dangerously. Sitting behind her desk, he wasn’t even attempting to hide the fact that he was snooping through her drawers.

With a very loud snort, she stomped over, slamming the drawer closed so abruptly that he barely had time to yank his hands back. “Get out of my desk,” she gritted out from between clenched teeth.

That he grinned at her was not surprising, all things considered. Actually, he was bordering on gloating, damn him. “I’m hungry,” he said as though the thought had just occurred to him. “How about some real breakfast?”

“I have business to take care of, Mr. Roka,” she replied. “Now, move.”

Zel waved a hand at her as he opened another drawer. Pulling out the expensive leather planner that she’d bought herself as a college graduation present, he actually had the audacity to open it up and scan the pages. “‘Dinner with Brekradge: six p.m.’,” he read. “Who’s Brekradge?”

She tried to snatch it away but missed when he jerked to the side. “One of my clients,” she informed him.

“Lucky bastard,” he muttered, flipping through a few more pages.

“Can I have that back? Please.”

He ignored her, of course. “‘Meeting Marvin . . .’ Marvin? Who the fuck is Marvin? Who the hell names their kid ‘Marvin’?”

Pressing her lips together into a thin line, she crossed her arms over her chest and slowly counted to twenty. “None of your business,” she said.

“He a client?”

Twenty-one . . . twenty-two . . . twenty-three . . .’

“No, and there’s nothing wrong with that name.”

“Yeah, if you’re the fat kid,” he retorted with a cheesy grin.

“He’s a very nice man,” she bit out stiffly. “It’s a lot better than being named ‘Zel’.”

“I’ll give you points for the effort,” he remarked mildly. “Not nearly as insulting as it could have been, though.” He grinned lazily—that dangerous smile that she had a feeling she was going to come to despise. “So who’s Marvin?”

Letting her arms drop, Valerie stomped across the room and yanked open the cabinet, rifling through the active case files to locate Zel’s. “If you must know,” she began in a haughty tone, yanking the file out of the drawer and shoving it closed—hard, “he’s my fiancé. That’s right, my fiancé. My fiancé is named Marvin, and it’s a very strong name that means ‘eminent marrow’, possibly Welsh in derivation.”

Wo-o-ow,” he drawled, slowly shaking his head as he leaned to the side and propped his elbow on the back of the desk chair. “So you really hate it, huh? Can’t blame you. Reminds me of little green men . . . in skirts . . . with vaporizer guns . . .”

“For your information, I happen to like the name ‘Marvin’, and I looked it up because I wanted to know what it meant.”

“You sure about that? The only time someone gets that defensive about something like that is if they didn’t like it to start with, and they’re just trying to convince themselves that it ain’t really as bad as it sounds . . .”

“Yes, well, that shows how very little you know, Mr. Roka. Anyway, Marvin’s none of your business, all right? So drop it.”

“How can a woman as hot as you be engaged to someone named Marvin?” he went on, completely disregarding her warning that he’d do well to let it alone. “I gotta tell you, the only ‘Marvins’ I’ve ever met had really small peenies . . .”

She couldn’t staunch the flow of blood that shot into her cheeks at his unwelcome commentary. “Not everyone is as obsessed about size as you seem to be, you know, and not that it matters to you, but I’ll have you know that Marvin certainly isn’t . . . small . . .!”

“Okay, so you’re engaged to the one Marvin on earth who has a reasonably sized cock. So what’s this paragon of pecker-tude’s last name? Do I know him?”

Gritting her teeth as she reminded herself a few times that she absolutely was not going to lower herself to Zel Roka’s level, she strode over and tossed the file onto the desk before pinning him with a completely blank expression—no small feat, all things considered. “There’s no way in hell that you know him,” she remarked. “Now will you leave?   I need to look through your file, and I can’t do it while you’re trying to start a fight with me.”

“All right; all right, I’ll lay off your darling Mervie.”

“It’s “Marvin’, Mr. Roka—Marvin.” Stifling the urge to roll her eyes, Valerie tried to grab the planner again. “Didn’t you ever learn that it’s rude to snoop into other people’s things?”

“What? This? This is just a planner, V. Ain’t like it’s a diary or nothin’.”

Heaving a sigh at the deplorable nickname that he seemed to have adopted for her, she tried to remind herself that she was supposed to be working for him, even if she’d rather be stranded in Antarctica without a coat. “Look, Mr. Roka, I’m a very busy woman. I have things that I have to get done, and I can’t do it if you’re hanging around here, pestering me. Why don’t you go find something else to do? Preferably far away from here . . . Go play on the Interstate or something—just go away . . .”

Snapping the book closed between his hands, he let it fall harmlessly on the desktop as he shot her what could only be described as a completely petulant pout. “But I’m bored!” he whined.

Valerie snapped her mouth closed on the retort she’d been forming as her chin snapped up to stare at him. “Oh, my God! What are you? Five?”

The pout didn’t wane. If anything, it became more pronounced. “Well, you didn’t have to take that tone with me,” he muttered.

“I take that back. I was being too generous. I’ve met five year-olds who weren’t as infantile as you.”

Zel wrinkled his nose and got to his feet, still obviously pouting. “Why you gotta do me like that?” he protested.

Valerie let her face fall into her hands then rubbed it for good measure, her sigh echoing against her palms as she struggled to retain some measure of control over her rapidly skyrocketing irritation. “Can you just go find something else to do?”

“O-Okay,” he drawled, sounding entirely suspect. “Guess I can take a hint . . .”

She rather doubted that he could but said nothing as he stood up and headed for the door. Digging his cell phone out of his pocket, he dialed it as he reached for the door handle. “Hey, Maddikins . . . I don’t suppose you’re free . . .?”

Eyes flaring wide as a slow comprehension dawned on her, Valerie ran across the room, smacking her hand against the door that had just started to open. Zel shot her a cursory glance as Valerie yanked the cell phone out of his hand. “He’ll call you back,” she growled then clicked it ‘off’. “You are so not going to do what you were thinking about doing!” she informed him. “Madison is a nice girl! I’m not going to let you use her!”

He actually looked vaguely irritated at the verbal set-down. Staring at her for a long moment, he squinted slightly as though he were trying to figure out exactly what she was thinking. She shook her head slightly, mostly because of the icy shade of gray his eyes were today, but stubbornly stood her ground.

Suddenly, though, he laughed. The lightning-fast changes in his mercurial mood were going to take a bit of getting used to, she supposed. “I’m really hungry,” he finally said, dragging his fingers through his currently-light brown hair. “That doughnut just wasn’t ‘breakfast’ . . . So how about it?”

She opened her mouth to tell him that she certainly wasn’t hungry, but her stomach rumbled ominously, which only served to further his amusement. “God, you sound like you’re gonna eat me,” he remarked as he reached for the handle again. “’Course, if you wanted to eat me, I’d be more than happy to let you . . .”

Shaking her head since she was starting to wonder if he really didn’t realize when he was saying entirely inappropriate things, she hesitated for a moment before retrieving her purse from the cabinet near the door. “All right,” she allowed almost grudgingly. “We’ll consider this a business lunch. I’ve got a few things that I need to clarify with you, anyway . . . and since it’s a business lunch, then I’ll allow you to pay for it.”

He held the door open as she ducked under his arm in passing. The husky sound of his laughter was enough to shake her senses just a little, and he followed her out of the room. “I think I can handle that,” he agreed amiably enough. “Does this mean I get to choose the place?”

“Absolutely not,” she informed him brusquely as she stopped beside the receptionist sitting just outside her office. “Anne, forward my calls to my cell, please.”

“Are you sure?” he continued, sparing a moment to wink at the receptionist who blushed deep crimson in response, “because I know this great little seafood place . . .”

Valerie sighed and led the way to the elevator, unable to shake the nagging feeling that she was sorely going to regret taking on Zel Roka’s case . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Everybody needs a little place they can hide.
Somewhere to call their own - Don't let nobody inside.
Every now and then we all need to let go.
For some it’s the doctor - For me it’s rock and roll.

For some it’s a bottle - For some it’s a pill.
Some people wave the Bible, ‘cause it's giving them a thrill.
Others point their finger if they don't like what they see.
If you live in a glass house, don't be throwing rocks at me.

We all need a little shelter - Just a little helper to get us by.
We all need a little shelter - Just a little helper ooo, and it’ll be all right …’

 

-“Shelter Me” by Cinderella

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

“Let me make a few things clear, Mr. Roka,” Valerie stated as the waitress hurried away to bring their drinks. “This is strictly business. That means no questions regarding my personal life, no inappropriate commentary of any kind, no untoward gestures, no sexual innuendos, no double entendres, no referencing body parts, no body noises or secretions—either voluntary or otherwise—and no—let me repeat, no—touching of yourself in any manner that might cause an old woman who is innocently passing by to blush or to enlist the assistance of the local, state, or national authorities. Do you understand?”

Zel ran his fingers through his long light-brown hair and grinned unrepentantly. “Well, hell . . . what are we s’posed to talk about, then?”

“As little as possible, I hope,” she muttered, swiping up a laminated menu and jerking it up over her face.

“And what if my balls itch? You sayin’ I should just sit here and squirm around and hope that they stop on their own?”

She leveled a completely unimpressed glower at him before lowering her gaze to the menu once more. “Not my problem. If that should happen, I suggest you get up and go find the restroom.”

He chuckled, his bright gray eyes sparkling with obvious mischief. “That ain’t very friendly. Why don’t you scratch ‘em for me?”

“Do I need to remind you of the rules I just stated when we sat down, Mr. Roka?”

He waved a hand, lounging back against the bright red vinyl bench, draping his arm along the edge. “I don’t think there was a damn thing sexual about itchy balls,” he remarked.

Valerie opened her mouth to argue then snapped it closed and shook her head. What was the point, anyway? He was impossible—completely impossible. She might as well give up before he drove her completely insane . . . “Why do you always have to be so obnoxious?” she mused, more to herself than to him.

Zel broke into a lazy grin—a sexy grin, damn him. “I dunno, V . . . why do you like to hide in my bushes?”

Indignant flames shot into her face at the blatant reminder. “W—Th—I-I-I wasn’t hiding!” she blurted. “I told you, I dropped my . . . my . . .”

“Earring?” he supplied helpfully.

She snorted and fluttered her hand in blatant dismissal. “Yes, my earring! I was not hiding! Hiding implies that I had no right to be there, and I did! I was just—”

“—enjoying the view?” he cut in with a wider grin and a helpful tone.

She narrowed her eyes and sat up a little straighter. “—bringing the contract over for you to sign,” she bit out from between clenched teeth.

“Oh, right, that,” he drawled, winking at the waitress as she set a pilsner of beer on the table in front of him. Valerie heaved a sigh and shook her head as the woman set her ice tea down and snapped her gum. She’d reminded him that beer wasn’t allowed, according to their agreement. He’d laughed and asked her if she’d ever gotten drunk off it. She’d conceded his point but shot him a pointed glower as he shot her a shit-eating grin and ordered it, anyway.

“You know what you want or you need another minute or two?”

“Aww, I know what I want,” he said. “You figure it out yet, V?”

Valerie stifled a sigh along with the rising desire to kick him hard under the table. “A chef salad without ham with low calorie ranch on the side, please.”

The waitress clicked a few buttons on the electronic order pad and nodded. “You want rolls or buttermilk biscuits with that?”

Valerie held up her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Neither, thanks.”

The waitress nodded before turning back to Zel once more. “The usual?”

He grinned. “You know me a little too well, Peaches.”

Valerie couldn’t help but roll her eyes as the woman laughed and hurried away. “Peaches?” she echoed when she was certain the waitress was out of earshot. “You call her ‘Peaches’?”

He laughed again—an entirely pleasant sound that, under ordinary circumstances, might not have gotten onto her last nerve. Too bad that everything about him got onto her very last nerve . . . “That’s her name,” he finally said. “Hell, she’s worked here for as long as I can remember . . .” Leaning forward, he offered Valerie a conspiratorial sort of wink as his laughter trailed off into a soft chuckle. “She told me way back when that I was going to be a star.”

“Did she tell you that you were going to be a pain in the ass, too?” she asked dryly.

“Nah, she must’a forgot to add that part . . .”

Valerie sighed and dug the slim-file she hadn’t bothered to pull out of her purse the night before. “Mr. Roka, we really need to discuss your preliminary hearing,” she explained as the slim-file booted up.

“Eh-h-h-h, I don’t wanna talk about that,” he complained, stifling a yawn with the back of his hand. “’Sides, that’s what I’m paying you for, right? To take care of that stuff?”

“And I will,” she replied in a very brusque, businesslike tone. “But you’re still going to have to be there, and you’d better listen to what I tell you before hand.”

He cocked his left eyebrow. “Are you going to coach me?”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘coaching’, no, but I am going to tell you that you’d better not say a damn thing if you know what’s good for you.”

“Now, what could I possibly say that could get me into more trouble than I’m already in?” he asked with a chuckle. “Hell, from the way you talk, I’m already buried up to my left nut.”

Valerie sighed and rummaged through her purse for a bottle of Advil. “You will be if you say anything stupid.”

“Stupid?”

“Yes, stupid.”

“Define stupid.”

She spared a moment to glance at him before resuming her quest for the Advil. “I mean stupid, like telling him that you were bored or something.”

“Oh, well, I wasn’t bored that night,” he admitted.

“Really?”

He shrugged. “Nope . . . I was on a beer run.”

Dropping her purse, she contented herself by draining half of her iced tea before she dared to answer. “And that would be a stupid answer, too.”

“But it’s the truth!”

“Mr. Roka . . .”

He held up a hand in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, I hear you. Zel no speak-ie; I got it.”

Shaking her head and wondering why she honestly didn’t think that the man knew how to ‘no speak-ie’ to save his life, she tapped through the file. Police reports, toxicology . . . emergency hospital room reports . . . pages and pages of doctor reports from Mr. Matthis’ slew of physicians . . . She really, really couldn’t understand how one solitary man could possibly get into that much trouble . . .

“How did you cut your forehead?” she asked absently as she surveyed the image of a particularly nasty-looking bruise on the right side of Zel’s temple.

“Looks bad, doesn’t it? Nearly broke my moneymaker,” he teased.

Valerie rolled her eyes but smiled just a little. “The ER report says that you had a mild concussion and that you checked out of the hospital against doctor’s advice.”

Zel snorted, downing his beer and waving at the waitress to bring another. “They only wanted to keep me there because I’m a big ol’ rock star,” he assured her. “Where the hell’s my food? Damn, I’m starving . . .”

“You poor thing,” she remarked, her tone lacking any real compassion.

Zel grinned. “You know, V, I . . . da-a-a-amn . . .” he cut himself off, letting out a long sigh in the form of the last word.

Valerie glanced up from the file with a frown. Eyes wide, lips quirked with just the barest hint of a somewhat dangerous grin, he was staring in awe toward the glass doors at the front of the small restaurant. Almost afraid to look, Valerie followed the direction of his gaze anyway, only to shake her head slowly as a disgusted scowl surfaced on her features.

Long black, blade straight hair that reminded Valerie of Morticia Addams from the old, old movies and television shows—she’d seen pictures in magazines over the years but had never actually seen the shows—the woman who had entered the establishment wore a stretchy lycra shirt that barely contained her massive chest—those really had to be fake—and a matching micro mini that almost didn’t cover her at all . . . five inch stiletto heels that were held to her feet via a configuration of thin black laces . . . She looked completely and utterly trashy. ‘Right up his alley,’ Valerie thought with a derisive snort. “No.”

He only chuckled at her staunchly uttered word.

“I mean it, Mr. Roka: absolutely not.”

“Do you know what a girl like that could do with those tits?” he complained, proving, at least, that he’d heard her.

“They’re fake,” she pointed out, disgusted that he couldn’t tell that for himself. “Just look at them! You can tell they’re implants!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, dragging his eyes off the woman at last. “Damn fine lookin’ implants.”

Valerie shook her head. Why wasn’t it surprising that he would say something like that, anyway? “God, you’re disgusting . . .”

“Oh, come on! You’re tellin’ me that you think that I ought to ignore it when they’re presented so damn nicely?” he countered.

“Yes!” she snapped then drew a deep breath as she rubbed her temples with a weary hand. “Mr. Roka—”

“Excuse me . . . are you Zel Roka?”

His grin widened into a very lazy, very lecherous sort of expression as he leaned back a little further and let his gaze roam up and down the woman’s frame. “That’d be me. What can I do for you, honey?”

The woman giggled as Valerie shook her head in complete and utter disgust. “Oh, I’m such a huge fan!” she gushed.

Zel’s eyes dropped to her chest as that grin of his widened. “Oh, I can see that,” he drawled.

“Can I have your autograph?”

“Sure,” Zel remarked without taking his eyes off the woman’s fake breasts. “Got a pen, baby?”

“No-o-o-o,” she pouted, pursing her blood red lips that shimmered and shone with the mass amounts of lip gloss that she’d obviously so painstakingly applied.

“Awww, well, let me see what I can do,” he offered.

She giggled again, half hopping around from one foot to the other as her chest jiggled precariously. ‘Oh, I’m going to be ill,’ Valerie thought with a mental snort.

“Hey, Peaches, you got a pen on you?” he asked as the waitress set another glass of beer on the table in front of him.

Peaches grinned and dug a fine point Sharpie out her apron pocket. “Here you go.”

He grinned and pulled Peaches down to kiss her cheek. “Thanks!”

Valerie blinked as Zel got to his feet, struck once more by exactly how very tall the man really was. He had an overwhelming presence, didn’t he? Something inherently dangerous—almost animalistic—despite the friendliness in his expression.

Shaking her head at her own capricious thoughts, Valerie wrinkled her nose and sat back, crossing her arms over her chest as she watched the debacle unfold.

Everything he does is like a massive train wreck!’ she fumed. The woman apparently didn’t know what paper was, and she laughed rather obnoxiously as she tugged her already disturbingly low top even lower. Valerie wasn’t sure if it was worse that Zel was quite used to such a display or that the woman started moaning low in her throat as his hand brushed over her skin when he started to write.

“What’s your name, sweetness?” Zel asked as he continued to write.

“Candy,” the woman replied with a sickeningly cute giggle.

“Candy,” he repeated with a quick wink. “You as sweet as your name, Candy?”

“I’ve been told I am,” she replied. “You want to find out for yourself?”

He chuckled nastily as Valerie gritted her teeth. Everyone in the restaurant was staring quite unabashedly now. Some of them were whispering to each other and pointing. Valerie wondered how long it’d take before more of Zel’s fans moved in.

It didn’t take very long. A couple girls a few tables over stood up and wandered over, looking entirely embarrassed but hopeful as they stared at Zel with expressions akin to hero worship on their faces. Seeing the other two line up, a few more joined the growing queue. “So much for a working lunch,” she muttered sourly as she reached for the slim-file.

“Well, look at that. I ran out of room,” Zel commented in a low, husky tone that Valerie didn’t doubt that he normally reserved for the bedroom.

The woman twittered and leaned forward, tugging the front of her shirt down even further. “I don’t know, Candy. Still not very much room there . . .”

She laughed and started to adjust her shirt a little more. Valerie snapped the file closed and cleared her throat loudly. “This is a family establishment,” she hissed at Zel. “If she pulls that shirt down any farther, things are going to fall out.”

Zel laughed and shot Valerie a completely unrepentant sort of grin. “I don’t see a damn thing wrong with that,” he pointed out.

If he were closer, she would have been hard pressed not to kick him. Narrowing her eyes, she sat up a little straighter. “Mr. Roka . . .” she began in a warning tone.

“Sorry, Candy. My attorney, here, doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll finish my autograph later . . .?”

Candy blushed deep crimson but her smile widened.

“No,” Valerie stated once more.

Zel heaved a melodramatic sigh and shrugged as he straightened up to kiss the woman’s cheek. “There you go. Nice to meet you,” he said, sounding much more sincere than Valerie would have ever thought possible.

Candy looked like she might pass out just before she threw herself against his chest in an exuberant hug.

Valerie pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. At the rate he was going, he’d be signing autographs all day long.

But it didn’t take nearly as much time as she figured it would. All in all, about a dozen or so people stepped up to get his signature, four of whom were men. Zel was as attentive and just as polite to the last one as he had been to Candy in the beginning—something that Valerie had to grudgingly admit was nice, considering the man’s food had come during the second autograph and was likely now completely cold since he didn’t mind, standing around, making a bit of small talk with each and every one of them, too.

When he sat back down, though, he grinned at her, digging into the food on his plate without seeming to notice that it wasn’t even warm. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said between bites of his huge cheeseburger.

“That was nice of you,” she admitted as she sipped her ice tea.

Zel shrugged and grinned. “Nah. Hell, they’re the ones that buy my shit, right? Gotta be nice to ‘em.”

She didn’t comment. That wasn’t exactly the truth, and she knew it. Lots of stars weren’t nearly as magnanimous as he was, especially when they were out doing things that ordinary people took for granted, like trying to eat lunch. “It doesn’t fit your spoiled persona,” she pointed out with the barest hint of a smile.

Zel glanced at her then looked back again, blinking as his eyes flicked over her features. “Damn, you got a helluva smile there, V,” he said with a wink.

Valerie blinked and shook her head. “You’re hopeless,” she said with a heavy sigh though her tone lacked any real censure.

“So they tell me,” he muttered. “Bet your fiancé thinks the same thing.”

She was a little surprised that he’d said as much without any trace of rancor or sarcasm. “I suppose,” she replied. In truth, she couldn’t recall Marvin ever commenting on her smile before, not that it mattered. She knew well enough that Marvin really did think that she was attractive.

“When’s the big day?”

“Spring of next year,” she replied, unsure why she was telling him anything of the sort. She supposed that it was because he was actually being conversational instead of outrageous.

“That far away?”

Valerie shrugged, nodding at the waitress when she set another iced tea in front of Valerie. “We’re both very busy.”

“Mm,” Zel intoned as he polished off his burger. “I guess . . . He a lawyer, too?”

“No. He’s a medical researcher.”

Zel made a face but grinned. “Sounds boring,” he pointed out between piles of fries that he was stuffing into his mouth, two-and –three at a time.

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Not at all. He’s researching childhood cancers—well, he wants to. He’s got some theories that he’d like to prove.”

“Wants to? What’s that mean?”

Shrugging offhandedly, Valerie dug into her purse for her lipstick. “It means that he’s currently trying to garner funding for the project.”

“Oh, you mean like begging for handouts?”

She snorted. “Hardly. It’s a good cause—a worthwhile cause. It’s not begging.”

“You don’t think so? Running around with his hand stuck out? Sounds like begging to me.”

She sighed, wondering how she’d been able to forget, even for a second, that Zel Roka really as a complete ass. “Do you know how many children are diagnosed with cancer every day? Do you know how many of those cases are forms that many people have never heard of? I fail to see how wanting to figure out how to help or even prevent such cancers isn’t worthwhile, and—”

He held up one hand in mock-surrender. “I get it; I get it. You’re right: it’s a sad thing.”

“You’re such an ass,” she muttered, her cheeks pinking with indignant color. “You can try to belittle him all you’d like. A man like Marvin is ten times the man you’ll ever be!”

Her statement didn’t even faze him as he reached for his drink while still chewing a huge bite of burger. “Where is he now?”

“Come again?”

He rolled his eyes, wiping his fingers on a clean napkin. “I said, where is he? You make it sound like he’s running all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

“At the moment, he’s in Phoenix. There’s a gentleman here who is known for undersigning research projects, especially when it pertains to children. Marvin thinks that he’ll have some luck there.”

“Phoenix? Damn, that’s pretty far . . .”

“He travels a lot,” she admitted with a frown, unsure why she was telling Zel Roka any such thing and hating the hint of defensiveness she could hear in her voice.

He nodded slowly, pushing his plate away. His gaze lit on the ring on her left hand as she reached for the new glass of iced tea, and before she could grasp it, he caught her fingers to inspect the ring. “What the . . .? This your engagement ring, V?”

Jerking her hand away, Valerie stuck them under the table, away from Zel’s curious gaze. “Yes, it is,” she replied stiffly.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

Heaving a sigh—she figured he’d say something obnoxious like that—she pressed her lips together in a thin, tight line. “An eighth of a carat is hardly something to scoff at,” she informed him.

“Absolutely not,” he agreed easily—too easily.

“Look, it’s the one I wanted,” she snapped, pinning him with a formidable glower. “It doesn’t have to be big enough to choke a horse, and Marvin liked it when he saw it, too.”

He frowned at her, his expression taking on a suspect glow. “You make it sound like you bought it and showed it to him after the fact.”

Valerie shrugged. “He’s busy,” she reiterated. “We both are.”

The incredulity on Zel’s face slowly faded, only to be replaced by a completely dumbfounded expression—one tinged with the barest hint of something much darker. “Shit, V . . . what the hell kind of relationship is that?”

Stuffing the slim-file into her purse, she stood abruptly. “What do you know about relationships, Zel Roka?” she bit out.

“I know well enough that if I were in some kind of relationship, I sure as hell wouldn’t let her pick out her own engagement ring. Hell, I’d get her the biggest damn rock I could find.”

“That would be gaudy,” she remarked, “and a woman would be a fool if she were stupid enough to fall for a guy like you.”

Something amused him as he slowly shook his head. “A guy like me? What’s that mean?”

“I think you know damn well what I mean,” she hissed.

“Quick to assume, aren’t you, V? Do you really think you know me?”

“I know enough,” she insisted. “You . . . You snap your fingers, and you think that women should just fall at your feet, don’t you? That’s why you can sit there with that grin on your face and pretend that you’re so much better than anyone else when you don’t really know the first thing about relationships. You’re a rock star, and that’s what you’re good at. Everything is just a part of the show to you, right?”

He didn’t answer right away, but he did smile. “Damn, you do know me,” he allowed.

Valerie sighed and shook her head, tamping down the misplaced feeling of pity that his words inspired in her. Forcing a tight little smile, polite at best, she nodded once and straightened the sleeves of her jacket. “At any rate, Marvin and my relationship is none of your business, you know, and this lunch is over. Good day, Mr. Roka. Try to stay out of trouble, won’t you?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife
So for my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you …’

 

-‘If You Wanna Be Happy’ by Jimmy Soul

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

You know, she’s gonna rip your balls off and feed ‘em to you for dinner if you don’t straighten up and stop deliberately trying to get her goat.’

Baa-a-a-a-a-a-aah,’ Evan thought with an inward snort.

Oh, you’re such a hella funny guy! And that was a sheep, you idiot . . .’

Okay, so he could behave a little better . . . maybe. Then again, it was entirely too much fun to see exactly how irritated V got, wasn’t it? Of course, if she figured out that he thought that, he was reasonably certain that there’d be hell to pay . . .

You’re more perverted than I originally thought . . .’

Yeah, and unfortunately, that comment only made his grin widen, anyway.

Glancing up only to find the woman in question dealing him one of the most suspicious looks, bar none, Evan almost chuckled—almost.

Shoving her square glasses up her cute little nose, she shot him a ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ half-glower as she deliberately opened the black slim-file. “For the pretrial next week, you will wear a suit.”

Evan blinked and grinned. “A wha-a-a-at?” he drawled.

She really wasn’t amused. “A suit, Mr. Roka. Slacks, dress shirt, tie, jacket . . .”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t have one of them,” he said with a lazy wave of his hand.

She wasn’t impressed. “And underpants.”

He made a face. “I really ain’t got none of those.”

She didn’t look especially surprised. Evan wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. “Then get some,” she replied evenly.

She was doing a damn fine job of not letting him get to her. He had to give her that, at least. If he looked really closely, he might be able to see steam escaping from her ears, though . . .

“All right; all right, I’ll see what I can do,” he muttered but spared her a surreptitious look. “Hey, V . . .”

She heaved a sigh, probably at the deplorable name he insisted on using for her, he figured. “What, Mr. Roka?”

He was actually rather proud that he managed to keep a straight face as he asked his next question. “Where do I buy underpants?”

Those incredible eyes of hers slowly flicked up to meet his, narrowing just enough in a ‘fuck-you-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on’ expression. ‘Damn, she’s fucking hot,’ he mused.

“At the store, Mr. Roka,” she gritted out from between clenched teeth.

“Aww, baby, why you gotta play me like that?” he complained.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head before tapping the slim-file against her palm. “Anyway, you do have to be there, so I advise you for your own sake not to say even one word. Do you understand?”

He blinked and grinned widely. “Yus!” he exclaimed.

She heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Trying to talk to you is like trying to talk to a kindergartener . . .”

Ze-e-e-e-eli-i-i-i-icious!

Evan blinked but was not surprised to see Bugs dash around the wall that separated the living room from the foyer with tears in his eyes and a very recognizable brown envelope in his hand. Today, he was decked out in an obscenely short black leather micro mini and a white mesh, long sleeved jersey along with a pair of black fishnet stockings—he could see the rabbit-youkai’s black satin garters holding up the top edges—and what had to be six inch stiletto ho-boots. All in all, vampy, trashy, and completely fuck-me, which was probably the look he was going for . . . “Whazzamatta, Bugsy?” Evan crooned as Bugs threw himself onto the sofa and buried his face against his chest.

He sent me a letter!” Bugs announced breathlessly—dramatically—as he waved the envelope under Evan’s nose.

Cocking an eyebrow, Evan slipped an arm around Bugs’ shoulder and smacked a deplorably loud kiss on his forehead. He intercepted Valerie’s raised-eyebrow-ed look and winked at her. “Doesn’t he send you letters all the time?”

Bugs nodded earnestly. “Uh huh, uh huh, but this one is different! I can feel it!”

Evan nodded slowly. “Okay, so what’s the big guy got to say this time?”

“Well, he—” Cutting himself off abruptly, Bugs sat up straight and turned to cast a seething glower in Valerie’s direction, slowly letting his gaze travel up and down her frame before he turned to Evan once more. “What is that?” he demanded, poking a finger over his shoulder, ostensibly indicating that he objected to the lawyer’s presence.

“That’s my lawyer,” Evan pointed out. “Ain’t she fuckable?” She narrowed her eyes at him as she crossed her arms over her chest, nostrils flaring with her silent indignation.

Bugs considered that then uttered a terse ‘hmph’. “That is going to keep you out of the big house?”

Evan nodded again.

Bugs wiggled his nose—a quirk of his whenever he was considering something that he thought was important. “It has breasts,” he pointed out coolly.

Evan’s grin widened as he slowly looked her over, too. “Oh, yes, it does,” he agreed. For a moment, he thought that maybe she really was going to walk over and beat him, and he could only hope that she really would . . . Valerie’s expression didn’t change, aside from the pointed quirking of an articulated eyebrow. Evan nearly laughed but thought better of it.

“It has to go,” Bugs stated. “I cannot talk about him if that is sitting there, staring at me . . .” Whipping around to face the woman, Bugs leaned forward to waggle a finger in her direction. “Take a picture, honey, ‘cause it’s the closest you’ll ever get to my Zelicious!”

Valerie opened her mouth to say something—probably something completely cruel, but Evan was faster. “V, would you mind . . .?” Evan drawled, jerking his head toward the kitchen.

He really didn’t think she was going to comply, but she finally rolled her eyes and slowly uncrossed her legs—Evan about died. ‘Would it be so bad to get a glimpse of her panties?’ he railed silently. Then she stood up and stalked out of the room.

Bugs heaved a sigh of relief as Evan tried not to be too obvious as he swung his head around to watch her departure. ‘Damn, that ass . . .’

I wanna bite that,’ his youkai said.

Evan sighed, long and loud, shifting slightly since he’s actually been decent enough to pull on a pair of ratty jeans before he’d let her into his house. ‘Me, too . . .’

Zel!” Bugs grouched, waving the letter under his nose once more. “I’m having a crisis, and you’re eyeballing some woman’s cookies!

“But I like cookies!” he protested then sighed when Bugs pulled a pout. “Okay, Bugsy . . . I’m all yours.”

“I wish,” Bugs muttered. Drawing a deep breath, he held the letter out to Evan. “I can’t! I just can’t! You do it!”

Nodding solemnly, Evan took the letter and poked the claw of his index finger into the crease in the flap that sealed it closed.

“Wait!” Bugs screeched, slapping a hand over the envelope to stop Evan. Closing his eyes and drawing a few more breaths, he pressed the palm of his hand against his chest to center his chi, or so he’d say if Evan asked, he opened his eyes and nodded. “Okay.”

Evan stared at him for a moment longer. He was quite used to this particular little scenario. It always happened whenever Bugs got, what he called, ‘The Letter’. When Bugs rolled his hand impatiently, Evan nodded and started to slit the top once more.

“Wait!” Bugs howled, waving his hands like a lunatic—or a little girl. “What if it’s good news?” he whined. His eyes widened in a completely appalled sort of expression. If he weren’t wearing a ton of makeup, Evan had to wonder if the rabbit’s skin had paled at whatever scenario he’d concocted in his head. “What if it’s bad?

“Why don’t you open it, doll-baby?” Evan coaxed, holding out the letter.

Bugs pushed his hand away and shook his head staunchly. “Oh, no! No, no, no, no, no! That would jinx it, Zel Roka, and you know it!”

Evan heaved an exaggerated sigh and shrugged. “Do you want me to open it?”

Bugs considered that then nodded once.

“Do you really want me to open it?”

Bugs nodded again, a little more vigorously.

“And you’re sure?”

“For the love of gays, Zel, yes!

Evan chuckled—then he ripped the envelope open before Bugs could stop him again.

“Oooh,” Bugs whined, hunching forward with his hands balled into fists, thumping against his knees as he shook his legs impatiently. “Read it!”

Casting the rabbit a sidelong glance, he quirked an eyebrow. “You want me to read it?”

“Yes!” Flopping against the back of the sofa, Bugs draped his forearm over his eyes. “I can’t bear to read it myself.”

Evan grinned and nodded vaguely. No, he never could, could he? He pulled out the letter, letting all the other stuff fall onto the floor at his feet. It only took a moment to scan it over, and he slowly shook his head.

“Well?” Bugs demanded, his face contorting from the sheer torture of waiting.

“I’m sorry, Bugsy,” Evan replied. “They just want you to buy some magazines.”

“Those bitches!” Bugs gasped, snatching the form letter out of his hands. He looked it over then heaved a sigh. “And here I thought that this was the big one,” he whimpered as big fat tears welled in his eyes. “Ed McMahon should be shot!”

Evan chuckled and slouched back. “Sorry to tell you, sweetie, but that dude’s been dead for years.”

Bugs heaved a sigh and snuggled against Evan’s chest. “But I don’t like any of their magazines,” he pointed out, his bottom lip quivering.

Evan nodded. “Well, they do have A Bug’s Life,” he pointed out.

Bugs wrinkled his nose and snorted. “But that’s about bugs not Bugs . . . A shame, though . . . a magazine about me would be so too-too, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, it would,” he agreed without batting an eye.

Bugs tensed when Valerie strode back into the room once more with a glass of iced tea in hand and a completely blank expression on her face.

“Aww, you didn’t bring me a beer,” Evan complained.

“Drop dead,” she retorted mildly as she sat back down in the overstuffed chenille recliner she’d commandeered shortly after her arrival. When he’d asked her if she wanted to stretch out on the sofa, she’d only narrowed her eyes and told him that she’d rather be buried in a wooden coffin full of termites. He wasn’t sure if she was objecting to the stretching out part or the fact that the sofa in question was forged out of a huge block of metal . . .

Bugs leaned away long enough to hiss at her, which she also ignored as she calmly continued to sip her iced tea, much to his chagrin. “I don’t like it,” he pouted at Evan.

But I do,’ Evan thought then shook his head since he was relatively sure that V wouldn’t really appreciate his commentary at the moment. “Now, Bugsy . . . don’t be catty.”

Bugs snorted and moved in even closer against Evan’s side. “I can’t help it. I’m channeling my inner bitch.”

“Put the claws away, doll-baby. She’s got to get my nuts out of the D.A.’s vise before you can have at her . . . ‘Sides . . . I’m pretty sure that she could easily kick your ass and mine at the same time.”

Oh, she really did almost smile, though she managed to hide it easily enough.

Bugs heaved a sigh designed to let Evan know exactly what he thought of that, but didn’t get a chance to respond when the sound of the door opening filtered through the house. A moment later, his newest visitor sauntered into the living room with a bright smile, a definite jiggle, and her bouffant ash blonde hair in full bloom.

“Mo-o-o-orning, Zel! How is that absolutely fantastic aura of yours today?” Stopping short, she shook her head and crossed her arms over her very ample bosom. “Why are you wearing clothes?” she asked as if it were the most natural question in the world.

“That was my question, too,” Bugs huffed.

“Bugsy! Those boots are just fabbie! Has Maddy seen them?”

“That huss can get her own,” Bugs replied, fluttering a hand dismissively. “But aren’t they just beyond yummy?”

“I could floss my teeth with them,” she assured him with a wink of her false eyelashes. “Now, Zel, we’ve talked about this. Clothing inhibits the flow of our chi, especially when we’re in our own homes. You don’t want to inhibit your chi, do you?”

“Of course not!” he insisted. “Some people just don’t understand.”

“Hmm . . . it’s very bad for your creativity,” she said slowly. “Inhibited chi is responsible for all the sappy love songs ever written.”

Evan chuckled and started to sing. “‘You'd think . . . That people would have had enough of silly love longs . . . But I look around me and I see it isn't so . . . Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs . . . And what's wrong with that ? . . . I'd like to know 'cause here I go again . . .’”

She laughed. Bugs clapped. Valerie rolled her eyes.

Grinning widely, he leaned forward to kiss the air beside his visitor’s cheeks as she returned the favor then grabbed one of her very provocatively displayed breasts for good measure. She swatted him away with a giggle then held her blouse open and shook her shoulders to give him a good look before leaning over to kiss the air beside Bugs’ cheeks, too. From the other side of the room, Evan didn’t miss the very definite snort coming from Valerie’s direction.

The latest arrival didn’t seem to notice, however, as she carefully wiped the smudge of bright red lipstick off Evan’s cheek. Bending over with her hands on her knees, her breasts nearly falling out of the filmy faun colored blouse she wore, she stared directly into his eyes. “O-o-o-oh, sweetie . . . your chi is blocked, isn’t it? Didn’t you get your morning nookie?”

It was Evan’s turn to pout this time. Casting Valerie a very pointed look, he shook his head slowly. “She won’t let me,” he said, jerking his head toward Valerie.

The woman turned to see who Evan was talking about and blinked. “Oh . . . my . . . God!” she breathed as she slowly circled the table.

The attorney blinked when the Zen-guru grabbed her hands and tugged her to her feet, making no bones about giving her a critical once-over as a huge grin surfaced on her California-tanned face. Dark brown eyes sparkling as she smiled at Valerie, she let go of her, only to close her eyes as she moved her hands over Valerie’s silhouette without actually touching the puzzled attorney, who shot Evan a questioning glance only to narrow her eyes when she saw the smirk he was struggling to hide. “Your chi is completely constipated, darling, but it has the potential to be so lovely!” She gasped suddenly and blinked as her eyes widened. “Are those real?” she asked suddenly as she reached out and grasped one of Valerie’s breasts.

Valerie’s face turned about ten shades of red as she stammered and stuttered. Knocking her hand away, Valerie stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Who the hell are you, and why are you feeling me up?”

The woman laughed, clapping her hands as she bounced up and down a few times, her enormous breasts jiggling in a way that normally made Evan groan. “Oh, she’s just precious!” she said, leaning to the side as though she were just speaking to Evan, who nodded and covered his mouth with his hand to hide the grin that he couldn’t hold back. Valerie glanced at him then narrowed her eyes, her nostrils definitely flaring as her temper rose. She was looking more and more irritated by the second, and he had to wonder if she were more irked with him or with his Zen guru at the moment . . .

“I’m so sorry for not introducing myself properly!” she gushed as she turned back to face the livid attorney. “I’m Bitches!”

Valerie’s expression blanked as her gaze shifted back to the woman who had just introduced herself. “Come again?”

Bitches giggled. “Bitches!” she repeated. “I’m Zel’s Zen guru.”

“Your name is Bitches,” Valerie repeated, her hazel eyes darkening just a touch.

“Well, it’s a nickname,” Bitches explained as she reached up and fondled her own massive breasts. “These are the bitches, you see, so the name kind of stuck. This one’s Chi-chi,” she said, wiggling her right breast. “And this one is Cha-cha,” she added, wiggling the left one. “And you are?”

Valerie’s eyes narrowed slightly, her cheeks pinking just a touch when Evan choked out a smothered cough. She really, really didn’t like Bitches, did she? And just why, exactly, did that amuse the living shit out of him? “Valerie,” Valerie intoned. “Valerie Denning.”

“That’s such a nice name! So pretty! It has the potential to be wide open,” Bitches remarked.

Evan choked on a snort of laughter. Fortunately, Valerie didn’t seem to have heard it or she’d have beaten him, for sure.

“So tell me, Valerie, are you busy tonight?” Bitches went on.

“Busy?”

The Zen guru nodded as she tucked a long strand of ash blonde hair behind her ear. “Mm . . . We could go out to dinner . . . maybe some dancing . . . then I’d be more than happy to help you . . . cleanse your aura . . .” She winked. Evan choked a little more. Bugs smacked him with the back of his hand, his eyes on the women and obviously quite enjoying the entire display.

Valerie frowned as she stared at Bitches. Evan could almost hear the gears turning in her head. “Are you . . . asking me on a . . . date?” she asked.

Bitches nodded happily.

“A—Uh—W—No!” Valerie croaked, sounding a little less like her usual self. “I’m engaged, sorry.”

Evan snorted. “Yeah, to a guy named Marvin . . .”

“Oh, dear . . .” Bitches said, fluttering a hand near her lips but not close enough to smudge her lipstick. “Would he ever consider changing that? Marvin is such a repressed name . . . because the open ‘v’ is being stifled with the letters on each side; you see?”

“Forget it, toots,” Bugs said as he kissed Evan’s cheek then stood up, wiggling his legs to force the skirt back down. “Come on . . . We both got the shaft, and not in a good way . . . let’s go get some tea, hmm? Oh, and then you can take me wherever you got that delicious belt!”

Bitches giggled as Bugs grabbed her hand and headed for the door. “I’ll be by to check your Zen later, Zel!” she hollered over her shoulder then winked and blew a kiss at Valerie. “Nice to meet you Valerie! Zel’s got my number, should you change your mind!”

Valerie didn’t move until after the front door closed, and then she heaved a sigh of relief and slowly shook her head. “I feel so violated,” she muttered, her cheeks pinking up again.

“What? You didn’t like Bitches?” Evan couldn’t resist asking as he draped his arm along the top of the sofa.

She snorted indelicately and pinned him with a look. She looked like she was considering something, and whatever it was she didn’t seem to like whatever conclusion she’d reached. “Bitches gots to go,” she stated flatly.

Evan blinked as his mouth dropped open. “But she’s my Zen guru!”

“So find another one,” she shot back. “One who doesn’t have her dogs loose and running all over the neighborhood.”

“Why?”

“Do you fuck her, too?” Valerie demanded.

Evan blinked again, but then he broke into an entirely cheesy grin. “Jealous, baby?”

She snorted. “Hardly, and I’m so not your baby.”

He chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly shook his head. “But to answer your question, no, I’ve never fucked her. Tried, of course, but she’s a lesbian, and she totally was all up in your stuff . . . not that I blame her, ‘cause, well, you’re hot as shit, V . . .”

She shook her head, as though she couldn’t believe she was actually having this particular conversation with this particular man. “Get rid of her,” she stated once more.

Evan made a face. “You’d make me dump my Bitches?” he muttered. “That’s so cold, V . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, bite me,” she shot back, rolling her eyes, then shook her head then suddenly turned to narrow her gaze on him. “What did she mean by ‘cleanse my aura’?”

Evan couldn’t help but grin at that. Standing up so that he could get a beer out of the kitchen, he shrugged. “She meant she wanted to fuck you. If you change your mind, can I watch?”

Valerie groaned then choked. “I think I’m going to go die now.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, V,” he called as he grabbed a beer and popped the cap. “I’ll tell Bitches that you’re my bitches, and then she won’t try to grab your bitches again.”

Her answer was a long, long sigh and something muttered under her breath that he was probably better off not hearing.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'I would swallow my pride.
'I would choke on the rhines.
'But the lack thereof would leave me empty inside.
'I would swallow my doubt turn it inside out find nothing but faith in nothing.
'Want to put my tender heart in a blender.
'Watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion.
'Rendezvous then I'm through with you …'

 

'Inside Out' by Eve6

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie pushed her glasses up with the back of her knuckle and read through the papers she'd just had faxed over. The DA was offering Zel a deal, of sorts. For pleading no contest to two of the charges, the third one would be dropped, and he'd be allowed an abbreviated sentence of one year counting time served plus community service, restitution, and court costs: much better than she'd actually thought he'd be offered, really. Still, she didn't doubt for a moment that he wouldn't like it, stubborn man that he was.

She rubbed her head and spared a glance at him. Half sprawled on the steel sofa—how that thing could possibly be comfortable was completely beyond her—with his feet kicked up and an acoustic guitar on his chest that he was idly strumming, she honestly didn't think he'd actually heard a damn thing she'd said to him all day . . .

Not entirely surprising; not really. He had the attention span of a flea or worse, and she had serious doubts that he could actually wrap his brain around the charges that had been levied against him, in the first place . . .

"Mr. Roka, I need you to look over these," she said, swatting his foot with the papers as she stepped toward him.

"'Is you is or is you ain't my babeh'," he sang with a very pronounced twang in his voice.

Valerie rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh. "Come on," she insisted, waving the papers under his nose.

He shot her a saucy grin and the song somehow managed to blend into a completely different one. "'She's a dancer, a romancer . . . I'm a Capricorn, she's a Cancer . . . She saw my picture in a music magazine . . .'"

"Are you listening to me at all?"

Zel glanced up from strumming the guitar. "Of course, V," he insisted as he resumed his playing.

She crossed her arms over her chest and stifled another sigh. "Somehow, I just don't believe you."

Zel shot her a completely innocent sort of look—one that was wholly out of place on the man's features since Valerie was relatively sure that he didn't know what that word even meant. "I totally am," he argued. "You know, though, men tend to listen better to shirtless women."

"Really."

"Proven fact, V. They did a clinical whoseewhatsis on it once. Read about it in Playboy. They took a hundred well-boned guys, stuck half of 'em in a room with a talking woman, stuffed the other lucky bastards in a room with a talking shirtless woman, and the ones exposed to boob therapy did better with remembering all the stuff their woman told them—on a related side note, the shirtless woman couldn't walk right for about a month. Saddle sore, you know?"

She stared at him for an entire thirty seconds before she rolled her eyes. "You're so full of shit, you stink."

He shot her a shit-eating grin. "Yeah, maybe just a little. That story's worked before, though, I swear to God."

Valerie shook her head. "Absolutely unsalvageable."

"Hey, V, you really should get naked. Don't wanna constipate your chi any more than it already is, right? I swear, I'll be good."

"You don't know how to be good," she shot back, judiciously choosing to ignore the rest of his commentary.

"That's not what my women say," he retorted as his grin widened.

Valerie sighed and held out the docket once more. "Here. Read this, and I advise you to sign it."

"What's that?" he asked, staring at her hand.

She counted to twenty-five in her head. "It's a plea agreement. I already told you. The DA's office faxed this to me this morning. They're offering to drop the reckless endangerment if you'll agree to plead guilty to possession of illegal substances and driving under the influence. In addition, you'll agree to do five hundred hours of community service, serve one year for each charge, concurrently, and, of course, the prerequisite fines and whatever restitution amount they deem fair."

Zel shot her an incredulous look. "A year? A year? That's . . . that's like . . . a year! No fucking way!"

"Your powers of reason are just . . . frightening," she muttered, rubbing her forehead as a throbbing pain stabbed her right behind her eyelids. "Let me explain something to you, Zel Roka. This is the best offer you're going to get! Reckless endangerment and public menace carries a mandatory sentence of no less than three years if you're convicted—that's three years that cannot be served concurrently with any other sentences. Do you understand me?"

"Blah, blah, blah," Zel pouted, waving the document in the air. "Bare the boobs, V, or forget it."

"Read it now, Zel Roka, or you'll miss the balls you used to have."

That gave him pause long enough to grin at her yet again. God, she was really starting to hate that particular grin . . . "Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout, V . . . So how did you plan on removing them?"

She shook her head. "Just read it."

"I prefer your teeth . . ."

Pressing her lips together in a thin line, she stared at him for a moment—then pressed her lips together tighter because that boyish, hopeful look on his face was almost—almost—enough to make her laugh. "Read. It."

He made a show of sitting up, letting the guitar fall off his lap as he shuffled through the ten page docket. He scanned it for about a minute then dropped it on the coffee table. "Tell the DA to shove that so far up his ass that he feels it tickling his ivories."

Valerie slowly shook her head. "You didn't even read it."

"Eh, I got the gist of it," he drawled.

"Mr. Roka—"

Her tirade was cut short when the sound of the door opening and closing again echoed through the house. A moment later, a very pale, very scrawny, very tall man strode into the living room with a very pronounced scowl on his impossibly angular face. His black leather biker's jacket looked like someone had dragged it behind his motorcycle cross-country, his black tee-shirt was ripped and faded, and his jeans—if one could call them that—were frayed at both the top and bottom, the knees worn so thin that it was amazing that they were still holding together. For the love of God, one of his black leather boots was held together by duct tape wrapped around the toe . . . He shot Valerie what could only be described as a hostile glance before literally throwing himself into one of the steel cage chairs that was suspended from the vaulted ceiling by industrial chains. He looked like a vagrant, didn't he? But Zel didn't seem to think there was anything odd about his sudden appearance—in fact, the man was grinning from ear to ear—so Valerie figured that he had to be one of his friends.

"Get your ass booted again?" Zel asked pleasantly as he reached for the guitar again, sparing a moment to wink at Valerie.

The stranger snorted, sort of. It was more like an actual snort might have been too much work for him.

Valerie cleared her throat.

Zel glanced at her and grinned like an idiot. "Deet, this is V, my attorney. V, this is Dieter Reichardt."

Dieter echoed the first noise once more.

Valerie shook her head and grabbed the plea agreement. She wasn't done harping on him about it, no, but she had a feeling that he wasn't going to listen, especially while his friend was there. Straightening up, she glanced at Zel, only to find him leaning halfway off the sofa, quite blatantly staring at her ass. She narrowed her eyes and turned on her heel, managing to 'accidentally' whack him over the head with the court docket. The man had the gall to grin at her.

"Miss kick you out again?"

Dieter shrugged. "She's being a bitch," he muttered.

Valerie shook her head, unable to grasp exactly how the two of them could possibly be friends. What kind of conversations did they really have, after all? Dieter didn't seem at all interested in speaking, and Zel? If he could actually speak about anything that didn't have to do with tits, ass, or anything else that could even loosely be described as genitalia, she'd eat her cell phone.

Zel nodded. "Yeah, but she's your bitch." He turned to face Valerie, who was stowing the plea agreement into her attaché case again.   "Deet's an artist—and my part-time bassist," he told her. "Made that." He nodded at the hulking metal sculpture. "How's the new one coming?"

Dieter made that first sound once more.

Valerie set the case down and headed for the kitchen for a bottle of water. No doubt about it, she was starting to think that Zel's friends were the strangest lot that she'd ever seen before . . .

Stepping into the bright kitchen, she frowned. It had struck her yesterday when she'd first seen the room, just how well-appointed it was. It was very industrial looking, just like the rest of his house that she'd seen—a collection of brushed steel and chrome, black marble flooring, wrought iron pan rack hanging over the center island and the huge gas range that was more like a grill than a stove . . .

Even his refrigerator was surprising. It wasn't actually a refrigerator, per se, though it looked like one on the outside, albeit a very large one. When she'd opened the door yesterday, she'd blinked when she'd discovered that it opened into a long, narrow cold room. Everything was arranged right, too, which was really odd, considering. All the fruits and vegetables that should be kept cool but not cold were arranged on the shelves near the door in expensive wicker baskets. The eggs and dairy were close, too, and further back were the things that needed to be cold but not frozen. Her curiosity had gotten the better of her, though, and she had peeked into the freezer side. She hadn't gone in that one, of course, but she had noticed that the shelves were quite full—packages of meats wrapped in white butcher paper. Every one of them was carefully labeled and tagged, too . . .

'Big hairy deal,' she told herself as she strode into the walk-in refrigerator for a bottle of water. Stowed far enough back that it was still liquid, she knew from prior experience that bits would solidify into a slushy-like consistency when she opened it. 'So he's got a cook or something—a personal chef. Not really surprising, is it? He's got more money than God . . .'

Interesting, though, she had to admit. This room had plants placed generously throughout, and with the exception of his meditation room, she hadn't noticed an abundance of those before, either. In here, though, there were some quite beautiful ones: vines spilling over the planters, trailing their tendrils almost to the floor, and the breakfast nook situated in the far corner and surrounded by windows had a planter box built onto the top of the benches with what looked to be herbs growing thick and lush.

Striding out of the kitchen, she frowned. The two men were standing at the base of the sculpture, staring up at it as though they were trying to figure something out. A moment later, Dieter caught hold of one of the upper spikes and pulled himself up onto the piece. Valerie's eyebrows raised. Just what the hell were they doing?

Dieter reached up to catch the thin cable that supported the top of the piece, and to Valerie's surprise, he managed to shimmy up, using his hands to catch and tug himself higher and higher, end over end. "What the hell is he doing?" she demanded in a hissed whisper directed at Zel.

Zel didn't blink as he stared up at his friend. "Just making sure that the cable's all right. This sculpture was a little top-heavy, so I had to reinforce it. Dieter thought that the attachments looked a little off, was all."

She shook her head, narrowing her eyes on the rock star. "What if he falls?"

Zel grinned at her. "Eh, he won't. Never does."

It didn't really help, did it? His allusion that they did this sort of thing before . . . There was always a first time for everything. What if he really did fall? Visions of another lawsuit danced through her head, and Valerie stifled an inward sigh. If Dieter fell from that cable—if it broke or something and Dieter ended up as a blotch on Zel's floor . . . Oh, she was so not representing him again, and she didn't care whether or not she ever got that damned promotion if it meant that she'd be babysitting an idiot like Zel for the rest of her miserable life . . .

"So how is it?"

Dieter shook his head and descended the cable the same way he'd climbed up. A couple minutes later, he dropped off the sculpture, safe and sound. "It's fine," he muttered under his breath.

Zel nodded, as though he'd expected as much. "I'm gonna go grab a beer. Want one, Deet?"

The man shrugged as Zel sauntered away. Valerie screwed the cap back onto the bottle of water, staring at the bottle but watching Zel out of the corner of her eye. There was something entirely wrong with that man, wasn't there? After all, it shouldn't be possible for one man to look that damn good all the time, should it? She scrunched up her face for a moment, silently berating herself for ogling the walking, talking train wreck.

'Oh, but he's a damn fine train wreck . . .' she thought with a soft sigh.

'Uh, no! No, no, no, no, no! He's not a damn fine anything! Stop that!' she told herself sternly.

That just figured, didn't it? She was losing her mind; that had to be it . . .

But it really just wasn't right, was it? She sighed again and sat down, pulling out her cell phone to check her messages.

The first one was from Madison—a reminder that Valerie had a 'hair date' tomorrow morning. One call was from her dentist to remind her that it was time for her to make an appointment for a thorough cleaning. The third was from her bastard of a boss, calling to make sure that she was behaving, and to remind her that she was to keep Zel Roka happy, no matter what. She cleared her messages, muttering under her breath about spoiled rock stars and idiot bosses and that they could basically hold hands and skip on off to hell together, for all she cared . . .

She cleared her messages and snapped the phone closed. When she looked up, though, it was to find Dieter scowling fiercely in her direction. Standing with his bony arms crossed over his chest, he had his chin lowered, his eyes glowing from the confines of the murky shadows cast by the straggly lines of his unkempt black bangs. He looked like the classic 'brooding artist', the misunderstood genius who would work for days on end, neglecting everyone and everything around him as he let himself become a slave to his muse—but, no doubt about it, his intensity was more than a little disconcerting, and she had to keep herself from fidgeting as she waited for him to say something, do something. Hell, it'd even be all right if he just moved, but no. Nope, he just stood there, staring, turning it into an impromptu game of chicken.

"Attorney, right?" he finally said just when Valerie had been about to break.

She blinked and nodded, her knees oddly weak as a surge of relief washed through her. "Yes. Why?"

"Zel don't belong in jail," he muttered under his breath. "Makes you mean . . ."

"I'm doing what I can," she replied, unsure as to why she was bothering to try to reassure the man, in the first place.

The devil himself strode back into the room with three bottles of beer and a broad grin. The fluidity in his every movement struck Valerie, and she couldn't help but stare at him for several seconds. She'd never noticed before, had she? The way the human body seemed to work in a lethargic sort of symmetry . . . or maybe it was simpler to notice in Zel since he tended to parade around shirtless, as he was now . . . Or maybe . . .

Maybe it was the man, himself . . .

"Here," he said, handing a bottle to his friend.

He held one out to Valerie, and she shook her head. "I'm working," she informed him brusquely.

"It's just a beer, V," he intoned though he set the beer on the coffee table without trying to get her to take it. "You two having a meaningful conversation?"

Dieter dropped into the chair he'd first occupied, leaning forward with the beer held between his knees as he popped the cap off.

Zel grinned, as though he found something of sovereign amusement. "Don't mind him. He's practicing his moody artist spiel," he told Valerie.

She shook her head, unsure what to make of either one of them, really.

"Ask him about his boy," he whispered, stretching out on the sofa to lean in toward her and batting his eyes in a completely idiotic sort of way.

"You have a boy?" she asked, wondering if that weren't a huge mistake.

Suddenly, though, Dieter broke into a wide, engaging smile, his turbulent gray eyes taking on a certain sparkle, and she shook her head when she realized that he had the deepest, cutest dimples dug into his cheeks. The smile seemed to diminish the stark contours of his face, and he set the beer aside as he got to his feet, digging around in the back pocket of his dilapidated jeans for his wallet. "Aw, man! My kid's the cutest thing you ever saw!" he insisted, shuffling toward Valerie as he jammed the electronic photo display under her nose. "That's him . . . adorable, huh? Looks just like his mama."

She blinked at the almost boyish quality of Dieter's smile, just like a child who had managed to make the ugliest macaroni art picture frame that his mother claimed to love best. "H-His name's Daniel . . ."

"Oh, he is cute," Valerie said, unable to mask the surprise in her voice. It wasn't that she disliked children, of course, but she she'd seen more than her fair share of them that really weren't what she'd consider, 'cute'. Strange, really. Dieter seemed to believe that the child really didn't look like him, but he did—large gray eyes, midnight hair—and deep dimples in his cheeks, too.

Dieter laughed. "He's got his mama's nose . . . and her toes . . . and her laugh, too . . . but you can't really see that in these, huh?" He reached over, pushing the little button to scroll through a few images. He stopped on one of the boy and a very pretty blonde woman. Dieter's almost bashful smile widened. "That's Miss—uh, it's short for Mississippi."

Valerie smiled. "Oh? Was she born there?"

Dieter looked puzzled. "No . . . she was born in Kentucky."

She blinked and stared, then shook her head since that didn't really make any sense to her.

Dieter shrugged. "Well, her mama told her she got knocked up while she was working at a club called the Mississippi. Her mama was a stripper."

Valerie snapped her mouth closed. "I . . . I see . . ."

Dieter flipped to the next image. "That's Daniel's second birthday. He got that whole piece of cake in his mouth, too. Didn't make a mess at all. He's smart—really smart." Dieter shrugged, his cheeks pinking slightly. "Smart like his mama."

"He's adorable," Valerie agreed with a smile.

Dieter grinned happily as he stowed his wallet away in his pocket once more. "Oh, hey! I gotta go. I'm supposed to be at the gallery to talk to Fawn about the exhibition."

Zel wiggled around on the sofa until he was lying flat on his back. "You know she wants to fuck you, right?" he remarked almost nonchalantly.

To Valerie's amusement, Dieter's slight blush darkened considerably. "Aw, don't tell Miss that, okay? She already had a fit about Fawn earlier . . ."

"So that's why you came over . . ."

He shrugged then turned around, holding out a hand as he leaned on his right leg in a bony display of angular lines. "I'll tell you what I told Miss: I says, 'Miss, you know damn well that I'm a 'one-mother-fucker'.'"

Zel blinked. Valerie bit down on the inside of her cheek. Hard. "You . . . You told her that?" Zel asked blandly.

Dieter scratched his head and frowned. "Yeah . . . it didn't sound right then, either . . ."

Zel laughed and shook his head. Valerie snapped her mouth closed and very casually slipped her hand up to cover her twitching lips.

"We still good for tomorrow night?" Dieter asked as he headed for the door.

"Sure . . . you get it figured out?"

Dieter nodded. "Yeah. The security guards change shifts at ten, and the two crews always seem to stand around and shoot the shit for a little while, so we can sneak past 'em then."

"Nice," Zel replied. "Later."

"Later!" Dieter called.

Valerie slowly turned to narrow her eyes suspiciously. "What are you plotting?" she demanded.

Zel shot her a wide-eyed stare. "Nothing," he drawled innocently—too innocently—as he reached for the Bad Ass magazine on the table.

"Oh, no," she insisted, swiping away the publication. "You tell me what you're planning."

He made a face. "It's not a big deal," he stated again. "An annual ritual—that's all, baby . . . I swear! Cross my hard-on and hope to fry."

She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot impatiently. "What sort of annual ritual? Zel . . ."

He shot her a really, really cheesy grin that really, really worried her.

"I mean it, Roka. I'm not leaving until you tell me what you've got planned."

That cheesy grin widened.

Valerie heaved a longsuffering sigh.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Yeah, I … I got to know your name,
'Well and I … could trace your private number, baby,
'All I know is that to me,
'You look like you're lots of fun,
'Open up your lovin' arms,
'I want some—want some …'

 

-'You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)' by Dead or Alive.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie tapped her foot as she waited for Zel to try on the clothes she'd bought him.

"The pants are too fucking tight," he hollered from upstairs.

She sighed and shook her head. She figured she was ahead of the game, really. At least she'd been able to talk him into changing upstairs instead of down here, which he'd tried to do . . .

Honestly, working with him was like working with a child. The DA had given her the smuggest look when she'd met with him earlier, too, which just figured. The man was one of those types with the luxury cars, the wife who regularly checked into and out of rehab for recurring dependence on sleeping pills and Prozac, two perfect children, both in law school, all set to take right after Daddy, and a smile so thin that one could shine a flashlight through it.

Rubbing her forehead, she flicked her wrist to glance at her watch. Nearly seven o'clock, and that man had yet to tell her exactly what it was he and Dieter were planning, damn it.

"V, this just don't feel right . . ."

Blinking quickly as she lifted her face to watch as he descended the open metal staircase, she gaped as her mouth dropped open, as her hazel eyes took on a menacing slant. Oh, he'd put the suit on, all right, and from what she could tell, it fit him decently though the jacket did seem to be a little tight across the shoulders. No, that wasn't the problem. The odious bottom-feeder was wearing the underpants she'd brought him over his slacks . . .

"Oh, my God," she muttered, burying her face in her hands.

He made a face as he bowed his legs as far apart as he could and continued down the stairs, rather resembling a cowboy who'd been in the saddle too long . . . or Frankenstein . . . "Too . . . tight . . . cutting . . . off . . . cir . . . cu . . . la . . . tion . . ."

"What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded, peering at him from between her splayed fingers and viciously biting back the desire to laugh.

Zel cast her what had to be the most pathetic sort of look, ever, and she had to bite down hard to keep from heaving a sigh and giving in. What was it about that man that made her forget her most stringent resolve . . .? "Have a heart, V! I can't wear these things! I'm suffering nerve damage in my balls!"

"You can wear them for one day," she countered mildly, lifting a cup of coffee to her lips in an effort to keep him from seeing the small grin tugging at the corners of her lips. "Didn't your mother make you wear underpants?"

Zel snorted, tugging injudiciously at the crotch of the offending undies. "Hells, no," he pouted. "Said it'd stifle my creativity."

"Oh? And is your mother a Zen-master, too?"

He shot her a completely cocky grin. "Somethin' like that."

"I'll bet she is," Valerie muttered. "Will you stop tugging on those? If anyone causes nerve damage, it's going to be you," she insisted.

Zel's face scrunched up in a pained grimace that only served to make Valerie roll her eyes. "Sorry, V," he half-whined as he reached for the zipper and shoved the pants down before she could blink or form any real protest. "You know, if you were nice, you'd apologize to my boys, here," he said, making the most hideous show of cradling and rubbing his testicles in his hands.

Valerie could feel her skin go up in flames as she quickly forced her gaze away. "Would you put that away?" she hissed, pressing the back of her icy cold fingers against her burning cheek. "You have absolutely no sense of propriety, do you? What's the matter with you? Did you get dropped on your head when you were a baby or something?"

That damned cheesy grin widened. "Entirely possible, V. Dunno. I never asked."

"Completely unsalvageable," she muttered under her breath.

"Ah! Feel the Zen flow!"

She slowly closed her eyes and counted to twenty seconds before she dissolved in a fit of helpless laughter. She couldn't help it, damn it. The man was entirely too incorrigible for his own good . . .

Lilting sideways in the chair, she couldn't control the escalating fit of giggles. Every time she tried to stop, she only managed to laugh a little harder, and by the time she finally wound down and opened her eyes, it was to find him staring at her with the strangest sort of expression on his face . . . like he . . . like he . . . but . . . 'No-o-o-o . . .'

"Wh-What?" she stammered, sitting up straight and clearing her throat, trying to pretend that she didn't just suffer a momentary lapse in her sanity.

Zel chuckled softly—a different kind of chuckle than she'd heard from him thus far. Warmer, smoother, infinitely more personable . . . it was the kind of sound that sent an entirely too-nice shiver right down her spine . . .

"Marry me, V."

She blinked, eyes widening as she wondered if her ears had just failed her. "Huh?"

He grinned that boyish grin—the one she'd seen before . . . the kind of smile that could completely disarm her if she weren't careful. "Marry me," he said again.

For one dizzying moment, Valerie felt as thought he entire universe had flipped upside down, tossing her belly straight up in the air along with it despite the knowledge that nothing at all had really changed. For that one instant, she'd almost thought that he was serious, and for reasons that she didn't dare consider, every inch of her body was shivering, too . . . "D-don't be stupid," she muttered, abruptly reaching for her briefcase to rummage through it in an effort to alleviate the overwhelming tension that had sprung up around her. "Very funny, Mr. Roka. Can we get back to business now?"

"I was being serious," he pointed out with a shrug. "Even the class clown can do that every once in awhile, can't he?"

She glared up at him, only to stop short and shake her head, realizing a moment too late that he was still naked from the waist down as he flopped onto the sofa. "Please put some pants on," she gritted out.

Zel blinked at her a few times then heaved a longsuffering sigh though he did actually reach for a pair of tattered jeans that he'd slung over the arm of the sofa earlier. "All right, then," he agreed airily as he tugged the pants on. "You do know, right? When we're married, you'll have to see me nekkid at some point or another."

"We're not getting married, so I don't really foresee any problems with your keeping your pants on."

He chuckled a nasty little chuckle—entirely too soft, entirely too seductive. "But how will we do the dirty deed, V?"

Valerie bit her lip, refusing to let the current discussion continue. "Suppose you tell me what you and Dieter have planned for ten o'clock tonight?" she asked instead.

"Not a thing, V," he lied.

"I know damn well that you're up to something," she replied. "Tell me."

He offered her an entirely insincere grin. "It's a guy thing," he told her. "We do it every year, so it's no big deal, right?"

"Wrong," she countered, arching an eyebrow in challenge. "Spill it, Roka. I'm on to you."

"I wish," he muttered.

"What was that?"

"Eh, nothing, V. Nothing at all . . ."

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan sat back in the orangey-red vinyl-covered bench seat and grinned across the table as Valerie tried for the fourth time to get the waiter's attention. "Give it up, V," he remarked. "I told you: they don't have silverware here, anyway."

She shot him a droll sort of look. "What do you mean, they don't have silverware? Of course they have silverware. Even fast food joints have silverware. Why wouldn't they have silverware here?"

He snorted and leaned in just a little. "You don't get out much, d'ya, V?"

She narrowed those stormy hazel eyes on him, a light flush of righteous indignation flaming below the smooth surface of her skin. 'Wonder if she'd look like that when I'm fucking her . . .?'

His youkai only groaned.

"I get out just fine, Mr. Roka. Why don't they have any forks here?"

"Sorry, babe," he replied insincerely as he reached for the icy cold bottle of Budweiser.

She wrinkled her nose and reached out to snag the beer out of his hand. "No liquor," she reminded him.

"It's just a beer!" he argued.

Leveling a look at him, Valerie shook her head. "It's liquor. No liquor."

Rolling his eyes, he shot her a slightly lopsided grin. "You let me have one the other day with lunch," he reminded her.

"Yes, well, that was then; this is now."

It was on the tip of his tongue to protest just for kicks, but he fell silent when the woman tipped the bottle to her lips and sucked it down in one long series of swallows. Her eyes drifted closed, her lips poised on the rim of the bottle . . . Watching the gentle swell of her throat, rising and falling as she drank the beer down was almost more than he could stand . . .

Leaning back, he stared at her in silence, wondering exactly how hard she'd smack him if he slipped and voiced any of his thoughts . . .

She tipped the bottle all the way up, swallowing the last of the beer before slamming the bottle down on the table with a very satisfied sort of expression on her gorgeous face. 'Damn . . . she's hot,' he nearly whined.

Again, his youkai only sighed in agreement.

"You know, you're supposed to drink beer when you eat crab," Evan pointed out with an arched eyebrow.

"No liquor, Mr. Roka," Valerie insisted, balling her hand into a fist to cover her mouth as she stifled a petite little belch that brought tears to her eyes, probably because of the carbonation in the beverage. She rubbed her nose and blinked a few times to clear her vision.

Evan smiled. 'God, she's cute . . .'

"Now, remember," she said with a shake of her head, "you promised that you'd wear the suit and underpants to court in exchange for dinner."

"Okay, all right," he agreed. "I agreed I'd wear a suit and under-fucking-pants; I know; I know . . ."

The one and only waiter that Evan had ever seen in the place hurried over with two banged-up tin pails heaped full with steaming crabs before striding away again.

Valerie's eyes widened as she slowly shook her head. The kid—Mark, he'd told Evan his name was once before—returned with a bowl of clarified butter and a wire basket of baking soda biscuits wrapped in a threadbare old white napkin, two wooden mallets, two small paring knives, and a couple more beers.

"How do you eat these?" Valerie finally, grudgingly, asked, motioning at the crabs.

Evan grinned. "Well, first, you yank off his legs," he instructed, demonstrating on a crab from the nearest pail.

Blinking as she watched him, she slowly shook her head, her face registering a quiet sense of disgust. "Positively barbaric," she muttered.

Evan rolled his eyes. "Maybe, but absolutely delicious. One of my favorite things." Cracking open a leg, he pulled the meat out and extended it to her. "Just try it."

She looked dubious, at best, but gingerly reached for the hunk of meat. "That's . . ." Her gaze brightened as the suspicious air that had been clouding her expression faded away. "That's good. . ."

Evan chuckled and popped a lump of crabmeat into his mouth with a wink. "Almost as good as pussy."

Valerie heaved a sigh and shook her head but didn't even try to correct him. 'Score one for the Roka,' he thought with an inward chortle. Slowly, carefully, she pulled a huge crab out of the bucket in front of her.

She didn't do too badly, either. Stubbornly refusing to ask him to show her again, she resorted to watching him as he pulled his crab open. He took his time and actually reached for the knife since she was watching, making sure that she saw the parts that weren't to be eaten as he scraped them out and pushed them away.

"You gotta dip it in the butter," he told her when she managed to pull a hunk of meat out of a crab leg and popped it into her mouth with a very self-satisfied sort of smile on her face.

"I don't eat butter," she replied almost by rote.

"What do you mean, you don't eat butter?" he countered with a raised eyebrow as he dipped a nice hunk of meat into the butter and leaned forward to catch the butter dribbles with his tongue.

She looked up from the crab she'd been working on in earnest and blinked in a rather vacant sort of way. "What? You've never heard of someone making a conscious choice not to eat something?" she remarked.

He shook his head. "Not butter," he retorted. "I mean, it's butter!"

Scowling at her hands for a moment since she didn't have a napkin handy, she made a face. "I don't eat butter," she reiterated slowly.

"Why not?"

She shrugged, as though it were of no real recourse. "It's fattening," she said.

He snorted and dipped another hunk of crabmeat into the butter. "Everything's fattening if you eat a ton of it."

"Maybe, but just the same, I find it easier just to avoid it completely."

"Wo-o-ow . . ." he drawled with a shake of his head. "V, I gotta tell you, butter is a necessity when you're eating seafood."

"Maybe for you, but not for me."

He let it go for a moment and reached for a biscuit, instead. It took him all of two bites to realize that she was staring at him again, but this time, she was doing it in such a way that he knew damn well he wasn't supposed to notice. Head lowered as though she were looking at the crab in front of her, she was picking delicately with the tip of her paring knife, but he could tell from the tilt of her head that she was, in fact, eyeing him. 'Huh . . . no biscuits, either, I guess . . .' So he did what any man like him would do: he slathered on the butter and made a huge display of eating the damned biscuit . . .

"V?"

"Wh-What?" she blurted, her cheeks pinking just a little.

He'd flustered her? Just by saying her name? 'Nice . . .'

"Want some?" he asked innocently, holding out the last bite of his biscuit—a bite thick with slathered butter.

She swallowed hard and stared at the offered bite, then suddenly, quickly shook her head. "N-no, thank you," she managed in a very tight little voice.

Evan chuckled and shrugged off-handedly. "All right," he agreed, popping it into his mouth. "But damn, it's good . . ."

She blinked, staring at him in a completely chagrined sort of way. When she met his gaze, he grinned at her, and she rolled her eyes. "So where did you learn to do this?" she asked, frowning in concentration as she smacked the crab's claw and jerked away when some juice squirted out.

"Grew up in Maine," he told her with a shrug as he reached over to grab the crab to finish laying it open for her. She returned the favor by nabbing his beer and draining it dry. "You don't grow up there and not know how do crack a crab or lobster."

"So you aren't completely useless, then," she teased.

Evan broke into a wide grin. "You don't think?"

She didn't move her head as her eyes flicked up to meet his. The laziness in her gaze was enough to send a delicious shiver right down his spine.

'Shit . . . I need to fuck the hell out of that woman,' he thought as he swallowed hard.

'Shit . . . I need to marry the hell out of that woman,' his youkai replied in a pained, strangled voice.

'Y . . . yeah . . .'

'Which one?'

Evan's grin widened as she proceeded to down the third beer on the table. '. . . Both . . .'

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan put his finger to his lips and tried to shush Valerie as he held onto the Styrofoam cooler they'd picked up at an all-night convenience store just off the docks. "You're so totally gonna get us busted, V," he remarked.

Valerie giggled unmercifully, waving her hands at him to shut him up. "C'mon, Roka. You promised we'd free the fishies, right?"

"Well, I suppose I did," he agreed, peering over his shoulder to see if they were in any danger of being caught. "I swear to God, this has to be the most expensive non-date I've ever been on . . . and I'm not even gonna get laid for it."

"Aw, you poor baby," Valerie crooned in between fits of laughter. "Hurry up! It's cold out here!"

Evan snorted as he tugged the lid of the cooler off. "Hold on, V. I gotta get these bands off or they'll be nothing but hella expensive fish bait . . ."

Luckily for him, not only was it dark, but she was also more than a little tipsy from the beers she'd slugged down. He shook his head as he snapped the bands on the first lobster he pulled from the cooler. He'd spent damn near a thousand dollars, give or take, buying every lobster they could find in about ten restaurants along the stretch, and all because she'd very nearly jumped out of her skin about an hour and five beers into their dinner. A couple at a nearby table had ordered lobsters from the live tank nearby, and Valerie hadn't been prepared when they'd 'screamed' when dropped into the pot of boiling water. Evan had assured her that it ws just air escaping from under their shells. She'd sworn up and down that it was their last, dying shriek, and he'd blinked when tears had sprung to her eyes, muttering about the inhumanity of it all . . .

"I swear to God that it doesn't hurt 'em," Evan tried to console her as she dabbed at her eyes with the last clean napkin on the table.

She sniffled and shook her head, unwilling to believe him. "I suppose I'd scream, too, if you dropped me into a pot of boiling water . . ." she allowed, her voice muffled by the napkin.

"They don't have vocal cords," he pointed out gently. "They can't scream without those."

"Don't you tell me what I heard or didn't hear, Zel Roka!" Valerie fumed. The sparse patrons in the restaurant stopped and stared at Evan curiously, but thankfully, no one bothered to approach. "They were screaming . . . because they'll never get to see their poor families, ever again!"

". . . Poor families . . .?"

She snorted at his indelicate reply and spun around in the booth, pushing herself up on her knees—she had to hang onto the back to keep from swaying—to glower at the people who had ordered the lobsters. "You're lobster murderers!" she accused loudly. "Home wreckers!"

Evan shot to his feet though he couldn't contain his amusement as a chuckle slipped from him, and he gently grasped Valerie's shoulders to get her to sit down once more. "It's okay, V . . . Tell you what. If you swear to leave the rest of the people alone, I'll never try to get you to eat lobster, ever."

She looked irritated for all of a second, but her eyes widened when she caught sight of the live lobster tank. "Those lobsters . . . someone's going to eat them, aren't they?" she whimpered.

Evan grimaced when he saw what she was staring at. "Well . . ."

She leaned toward him, grasping his hand in both of hers, her gaze pleading as she stared at him as she slowly broke into a very pretty, very tipsy smile. "Zel? We've got to save them! For their little lobster-y babies . . .!"

It was because she'd smiled at him, damn it, showing off those absolutely adorable dimples of hers. That smile was dangerous, wasn't it? It added a sparkle to her eyes, a brightness to her entire being that was entirely too inviting to him. Hell, it was because of that smile that Evan had said the most ridiculous thing of his life, wasn't it? "Marry me, V . . ."

He made a face as he stole a glance at the woman in question. Leaning over the railing—she'd fall in if she weren't careful—she was trying to see the first of the lobsters that Evan had dropped into the water. "Buh-bye, little lobster! Don't get caught again!"

Evan chuckled despite himself. Okay, so he wasn't entirely sure why he'd up and asked her to marry him, and he wasn't sure if he was more irked that he'd done it in the first place or that she'd been so damn quick to discount it. He supposed, in hindsight, that it was a little bit of both.

"So tell me something, Mister Roka," Valerie said, holding onto the railing as she turned her face to gaze up at him. The weak but warm light from the security light high above cast her face in harsh shadows. "Zel is short for something, right?"

"Guess you could say that," he remarked, dropping another lobster over the side. 'Only about twenty-five more to go,' he thought with a disbelieving shake of his head. 'Yup . . . completely fucking nuts . . .'

"So . . .?"

Four more lobsters plopped into the water. Evan shot her a cocky grin. "What do you want it to be short for, V?"

She rolled her eyes and grasped his arm to hoist herself upright again. "I should have known I wouldn't get a straight answer out of the likes of you," she pouted. "Fine, fine, fine . . . You just be that way, why don't you?"

"There," he said, dropping the last of the lobsters into the water. "What do you want to do now?"

She giggled, wrapping her hands around his arm and tugging him away from the safety rail. Evan grabbed the cooler and let her drag him along, pausing beside the large trash barrel standing nearby to break the cooler into pieces and toss it into the can. "I want some wine," she announced suddenly. "This is a special occasion, right? We single handedly freed the fishies—"

"Lobsters," he corrected.

She slapped at his arm. "Don't interrupt me. Anyway, we freed the fishies—err, okay, the lobsters . . . It was a humanitarian act . . . That calls for a celebration, right?"

"I dunno, V . . . I think those beers did you in."

She snorted indelicately, letting go of his arm, only to spin around, poking him in the center of his chest with her outstretched index finger. "Let me tell you something, Zel Roka! I'm not drunk, just so you know!"

He grinned unrepentantly and slowly nodded. "Of course you're not," he agreed.

She straightened her shoulders proudly, sputtering loudly in an effort to blow the strands of hair that had escaped the severe knot at the base of her neck out of her face. "Oh, fuck that," she grumbled, grasping the knot and giving it one good yank to dislodge it. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders in a wave of liquid silk, and she shook her head quickly, scrubbing at her scalp with her fingertips. "There . . . That's better . . ." She frowned. "Now, what was I saying?"

Evan almost laughed. He didn't, but it was a close thing. She looked entirely befuddled as she chewed on her lower lip. Damn, he wanted to kiss her . . . He heaved a sigh, reminding himself yet again that she was drunk, and even if she weren't, she was also very, very engaged . . . "You were saying that you wanted to celebrate," he reminded her against his better judgment.

Her eyes flashed open wide, and she giggled again. "That's right! Aren't you clever, Zel?"

"Ev—" he started to say, almost automatically. He caught himself in time and frowned. Why did it bother him? Hearing her call him by his stage name . . .? That kind of thing had never bugged him before, had it?

"Look . . . there's a liquor store. Buy some wine, Mr. Roka. Oh! Oh! Oh! We can go drink it in Central Park!"

That brought him back to his senses quickly enough. Central Park at night was a fairly dangerous place—at least, it would be to a human, he supposed. It was a bad idea, and he knew it. Opening his mouth to tell her as much, he gave up with a sigh and smiled instead. "All right; all right, but only if I can have some, too," he prodded.

She snorted then rubbed her nose. "Well . . . Since you're with me, then I guess it might be okay . . ."

"So you're saying that as long as I'm with you, I can drink?"

She thought about that then slowly nodded. "Just a little bit," she allowed.

Evan grinned and veered toward the doors of the liquor store.

"You're buying," she told him.

Evan rolled his eyes and pulled the door open, standing back so that she could go in first. "Yes, ma'am," he muttered. "Whatever you say, V . . ."

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Do you have cold toes?"

Evan blinked and shifted his gaze from the stars high above—he could only make out a few of the brightest ones because of the glow of the city around them—to the back of Valerie's head. She was sitting up with one hand hugging her legs—damn, she had fine looking legs—and she idly gestured with the wine in her other hand.

"Do I have cold toes?" he repeated. "Not that I know of."

She giggled a very girlish giggle. "Marvin has cold toes," she ventured.

"Does he?"

"Mm . . . and a cold nose, too."

Evan made a face. She didn't see it. Damn it, he really, really didn't want to talk about Marvin . . . "You don't say."

"Oh, I do," she countered. "Always so cold . . . You know, sometimes when I wake up, he's got all the covers, too! And I'm freezing . . ."

"Poor baby," he crooned, only half-joking. The other half of him . . . He snorted inwardly. He had no idea what the other half of him was thinking, did he? Not really . . .

"I know!" she agreed with another giggle. "Poor me!"

Silhouetted in the filmy dimness of Central Park by the weak and wan light of the lamp burning beside the path above them on the low rise, there was something altogether earthy about her—touchable yet entirely unattainable . . .

She rubbed her arms suddenly through the thin white cotton shirt—she'd left the no-nonsense gray tweed blazer at his house earlier.

"You cold?"

She nodded absently then uttered a smallish laugh—one that seemed almost a little sad, almost a little sheepish. "Marvin tells me I'm always cold," she admitted.

"Yeah, well, you can't be nearly as bad as Maddy," he remarked. "That woman's always got a cold ass . . ."

"That's right . . . Madison said that you're always warm," Valerie said suddenly, her voice taking on a mild intrigue.

"If you ask my father, he'll tell you that that's why he kicked me out of my mama's bed," he said with a nostalgic little smile. "'Parently, I toasted ol' Cain right outta bed."

She drained the last of the wine and flopped back with a wince and a full-body shiver that Evan certainly couldn't miss. A moment later, she rolled toward him, crashing against his side with a little gasp of delight. "Oh, you are warm!" she exclaimed happily. "Really, really warm!"

He grimaced, mostly because the of the shock of her body so very close to his. 'Da-a-a-amn . . .'

"Why are you so warm?" she demanded suddenly, her voice muffled slightly by the side of his chest.

"I dunno, V," he mused, slipping his arm up and over her, stroking the side of her arm in an idle sort of way. "Just lucky, I guess."

"How come you're being so nice?" she asked.

He chuckled. "Am I? Guess I make it a habit to be nice to drunk women," he teased.

"I'm not drunk," she declared but didn't move. "I'm . . . mellow."

Shifting his gaze to the side, he wasn't surprised to see that she had her eyes closed. "Mellow."

She nodded just a little. "Yes, mellow."

'Which means 'drunk',' he thought with an inward sigh. 'Damn it . . .'

'Evan?'

'Huh?'

'. . . We're gonna die . . .'

Evan heaved a sigh and smiled wanly. 'Well, if I gotta go, this is a helluva way to do it.'

Valerie heaved a contented sigh and snuggled a little closer to him. "Why didn't I think of this before?"

"What? Camping out in Central Park?"

She giggled. "Yes!"

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure that there's probably an ordinance or some damn thing against it," he remarked.

"Oh, poop! We're not sleeping; we're star-gazing . . ."

He laughed again, noticing not for the first time that having Valerie so damn close . . . It was nice—almost too nice . . .

"You know, you're not such a horrible person," she ventured with a shake of her head, as though she couldn't quite believe that he wasn't actually the bastard she wanted to think that he was. "A little . . . oh, what's the word?" she asked, snapping her fingers, or at least trying to.

He shook his head though his grin didn't wane. Valerie had already been tipsy enough, just from the beers she'd drunk during dinner. After the boxed wine, though . . .

He chuckled. Boxed wine. Who'd'a thunk it? A woman like Valerie had actually chosen boxed wine. She'd said that it was 'sweeter' . . .

"Sexy as hell?" he supplied hopefully.

She wrinkled her adorable little nose and waved a hand in blatant dismissal. "Ornery! That's the one!" She giggled. "Anyway, anyway . . . You going to tell me what you and Dieter were going to do tonight?"

"Is it really important?" he countered with a shrug. "I mean, I didn't do it, did I? I was hangin' out with you all night, instead."

For some reason, that sent her into another fit of laughter. "We're hanging out? Really?"

Evan rolled his eyes but grinned. "Well, aren't we?"

"I thought it was more like babysitting, myself," she replied.

"Oh, yeah? So who's babysitting whom?"

She blinked and shook her head at him. "You know the difference between 'who' and 'whom'?"

"Yes, V, I know the difference between subjective and objective," he retorted mildly.

"So you're not completely stupid . . .?"

He snorted but grinned. "Well, hell, of course I'm stupid! I'm a rock star, right?"

She shot him a calculated sort of glance but was sidetracked when she heard a noise nearby. "Zel . . .?"

"Hmm?"

Valerie lifted her head just a little with a marked frown. "There's a very large black man over there, poking around in those bushes," she whispered.

He laughed but didn't move. "Uh-huh."

Pushing herself up on her elbows and narrowing her eyes, she slowly shook her head. "Zel . . .?"

"Hmm?"

". . . Is that your very large black man?"

He chuckled again. "'Course! That's the Bone. He's just checking for paparazzi."

She frowned and leaned back but didn't lie down again right away. "They're a problem for you, aren't they?" she ventured quietly.

He shrugged. "Dunno about problem," he confessed. "They can be a nuisance, I guess . . ."

She laughed suddenly and flopped onto her back. "Like when you're trying to free the fishies, you mean?"

He grinned. He couldn't help it. Something about her laughter was just infectious. "Yeah, something like that."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Wanna tell ya a story that happened to me.
'There was this old man started chattin' with me.
'He sat by himself on the side of the road.
'A cowboy hat and them pointed toes.
'He said, hey son what do ya do.
'Ya better pay attention when I'm talkin' to you.
'I've been around here for a long, long time.
'Could have bought this land for damn near a dime ...'

 

-'Old Man' by Slaughter.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"You know, there's a damn good chance that she's gonna hang you by your balls for that . . ."

Evan shot Bone a cheeky grin. "You think so? That'd mean she'd have to touch 'em, you know."

Bone Brauerton slowly shook his head. The huge man was the head of Evan's security team—as though he actually needed one—but he was a rock star, and he had to keep up appearances, didn't he? And Bone took his job seriously, or at least as seriously as a guy nicknamed after the physical state of his penis could, anyway . . . "Gotta tell you, Roka, I really don't think that you'd like it nearly as much as you seem to think you would."

"Eh, it's all good," Evan argued with a shrug. "How do I look?"

Bone rolled his eyes. "Like Hugh Heffner," he said, removing the bright red pimp's hat he always wore—the one with the snowy white ostrich feather sticking out of the stark white silk band. "God rest his immortal soul . . . May a little bit of Heff live on in each and every one o' us sinners . . ."

Evan's grin widened. "Yeah? You think?"

"Yeah. You about ready? You're supposed to be there in an hour, and it's on the other side of the city . . ."

Evan heaved a sigh and idly scratched his silk-clad ass. "All right; all right. Jesus, Bone . . . Quit nagging me already . . ."

Bone tilted his shoulder and flexed his huge arms. They'd met years ago when Evan was still in elementary school. Back then, though, Bone had gone by his real name—something that Bone would probably break Evan's legs for mentioning now, and that was all right. It was Evan's considerable opinion that 'Bone' fit him much better, anyway . . . Bone's parents had just moved to Maine from Idaho or some odd shit. The entire family was buffalo-youkai—very large buffalo-youkai—and Evan had thought that Bone was the funniest guy he'd ever met . . . "Don't fuck with me, little man—Oo-rah!" he warned seconds before he broke into a wide grin. "Whatcha think?"

Evan chuckled as he fussed with the gaudy paisley fuchsia cravat. "Ni-i-i-ice . . . been working out again?"

"Eh-h-h," Bone drawled. "C'mon, Zelig. Get a-movin', will ya?"

Evan heaved a sigh and adjusted his shoulders under the black silk brocade smoking jacket. "I dunno. I look respectable, don't I?"

Bone snorted but didn't answer as he led the way out of the house.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie tapped her foot and glanced at her watch as she waited outside the courtroom for the miscreant rock star. She'd called him twenty minutes ago, only to be told that he was on his way. It wasn't much of a consolation, all things considered . . .

'If he's late, I swear I'll kill him . . .'

She sighed, refraining from rubbing her forehead in a completely exasperated sort of way.

Bad enough she'd had to spend nearly every waking minute of her time with him since she'd taken the case a few weeks ago, but somehow that man had managed to talk her into having dinner with him, too, and then the whole free the fishes incident?

Valerie almost smiled—almost. 'Okay,' she reluctantly admitted, 'so that was fun . . .'

Of course, it wasn't nearly as much fun the next morning when she was rudely awakened by the prodding of a police man's nightstick against the small of her back. They'd actually fallen asleep in Central Park, much to her embarrassment, and if that weren't bad enough, she'd had a hangover to beat all hangovers, too . . .

And Zel, bastard that he was, just laughed and told the cop that he hadn't been sleeping at all, so she was the only one who had actually broken the law on that count. That the glib rock star was able to talk the cop out of giving her a citation for it . . . well, that just figured, too, didn't it?

She sighed and checked her watch again. 'If he's not here in the next two minutes, I swear that I'll—'

She heard him long before she saw him, and no small wonder, really, considering he was being escorted up the wide marble staircase by a full entourage of security, including the really huge black man that Valerie had seen a few times, most recently during the Central Park incident, as she had started referring to that night—his manager, the woman she'd briefly been introduced to as Dahlia, his press secretary, and about twenty-five reporters and photographers who were snapping pictures left and right and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The documents she'd looked over had expressly forbidden the press from having access to the courthouse. Apparently, security hadn't gotten that message, though . . . Then again, considering who it was, she couldn't say that she was surprised, either. As much as she hated to admit as much, Zel Roka was probably the biggest rock star on the planet . . .

'Oh, God, it's a three-ring circus . . .' she thought with an inward groan.

And then she caught sight of what he was wearing, and her temper exploded. Black silk pants, white socks with black thong-slippers, an obnoxious black silk brocade smoking jacket with electric blue lapels and tied belt, and the most hideous fuchsia paisley silk cravat, of all things . . .

"Mr. Roka, were you under the influence of anything illegal when the car you were driving struck Mr. Matthis' truck?" one reported yelled over the din.

With a sigh, Valerie strode forward, shoving her way into the midst of the throng. "Mr. Roka won't be answering any of your questions. Thank you," she stated in a tone that broke no room for argument.

"Well, hey, baby!" he greeted happily.

She glanced at him, then did a double take. Aqua eyes today, and flaming red hair. She sighed and shook her head, wondering why she'd ever honestly believed him when he'd promised—promised—that he'd wear what she'd told him to wear . . . "What the hell are you wearing?" she hissed in his ear.

That damned grin of his widened. "It's a suit, sweetheart."

She narrowed her eyes and wondered if he could see steam escaping her ears . . . "It is not a suit, you odious man. It's—"

His soft chuckle—how could she hear it over the din the reporters were making, she'd never know, but she did—cut her off. "I told you that I'd wear a suit," he said. "But that one you brought me was too fucking small . . . By the by, V . . . Did you reconsider my proposition?"

She rubbed her forehead. "What proposition, Mr. Roka?" she asked, only paying half-attention since she was having unpleasant visions of the headlines that were bound to appear after that man's perverse display.

He snorted but laughed. "About marrying me, of course!"

She blinked and shot him an incredulous look. "Don't be stupid!" she snapped.

"Aw, fine, but you coulda played along until after the hearing, don't you think? If I break into a torrent of heartbroken tears in there, they might get the wrong idea," he teased.

She heaved a sigh and wondered if the judge would remove her from the case if she beat the hell out of her client before they entered the courtroom . . . Given Zel Roka's disrepute, she highly doubted it . . . "All right; I'll bite. Where the hell did you get that . . . that . . ." she trailed off, waving her hands at his alleged 'suit'.

That damned grin widened. "Well, Bone, o' course! Loaned it to me."

She snorted indelicately as Mike and Dahlia shooed the reporters away though in actuality, they weren't listening to the two nearly as much as they were being forced to retreat by another force, entirely. 'Bone' was standing with his very broad back to them with his arms outstretched as he slowly moved forward, effectively herding the reporters back, though if he weren't careful, he'd likely walk them right down the stairs the hard way . . . The odds that the 'suit'—and she used that term very lightly—was Bone's was entirely laughable since it fit Zel well enough, and he was a good foot shorter than the man in question—and quite a bit less bulky on the whole, too . . . Of course, she might just consider herself lucky that the blasted man hadn't borrowed the head of security's hideously red hat, too . . . "Mr. Roka—"

She was cut off when the courtroom doors opened and the bailiff leaned out, glancing around until his gaze found Valerie. "Counselor Denning? Judge Lister's ready for you."

She winced inwardly. Sparing a moment to glance at her client, the wince shifted into a low groan of absolute despair.

Why, oh why, did she just know that this preliminary hearing was going to be one of the biggest fiascos in the history of common law . . . ever . . .?

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan bit the inside of his cheek and tried—really tried—not to laugh outright as he followed Valerie out of the courtroom, only to be greeted by a bevy of reporters that had managed to elude the courthouse's security. The frazzled attorney spun around faster than he could blink, slapping him in rapid succession in the center of his chest as the very precarious rein she'd had on her glorious temper, snapped.

"Damn you; damn you; damn you; damn you!" she growled, her face growing redder by the second as he broke down in helpless laughter. "What the hell is wrong with you? Can't you take anything seriously?" she blasted.

Evan tried to curb his laughter; he really did. It didn't work, but he did try . . . "S-S-Sorry, V," he choked out, vaguely aware of the camera flashes that were chronicling this very inopportune moment. "But you asked if there was anything else that I needed to tell you—"

She heaved a sigh and opened her mouth to continue her gripe-fest, only to stop short when she realized a moment too late that the photographers were having a field day, snapping pictures of Zel Roka, being attacked by his lawyer. After muttering a few choice curses, she grabbed his arm and dragged him straight through the paparazzi with all the authority of an army general, herding him into a small meeting room nearby.

"Hell, that was pretty good," Evan drawled as she closed the door. "You want a job on my security team?"

"Shut up!" she snapped, gripping her forehead in her fingertips and rubbing furiously. "Why—why—can't you be normal?" she almost whined.

Evan pressed his lips together since he highly doubted that she'd appreciate his amusement at the moment . . .

Okay, so he probably should feel a little bad for flustering her. Thing was, well, he didn't. Who'd'a thought that a woman like her would get rattled just because he'd casually mentioned that he wasn't wearing underpants, anyway? Hell, she really should have known that, shouldn't she?

'That's not what did it, dumbass,' his youkai pointed out in an almost lazy sort of drawl. 'It was that you kept brushing her ear with your lips when you told her.'

He really couldn't help the little grin that surfaced at that. Damn, she'd smelled too fucking good not to lean in closer . . . 'Course, he'd nearly whined when he did get a good whiff of her, but that was completely beside the point . . .

She intercepted the smile and narrowed her eyes dangerously. Evan tried to make it go away. Damned if it worked, though . . .

"If you laugh again, you can find yourself another attorney," she gritted out.

Somehow, he managed to choke back the chuckles. "You know, I really had nothing at all to do with you asking the judge why he wasn't wearing underpants," Evan pointed out innocently—too innocently.

She growled. She actually broke into a throaty little growl that was just sexier than all hell, in Evan's estimation. He had half a mind to tell her so and to pull the smoking jacket back enough for her to see that the simple little noise was more than enough to send him straight to boner-hell, but he figured that she wouldn't appreciate it at the moment, given the situation . . .

True enough, she'd muttered to him as the proceedings got underway if there was anything else that he thought she ought to know, and Evan, who wasn't sure exactly what she meant, had leaned in to tell her that he wasn't wearing underpants. Unfortunately, Judge Lister—Evan found out quickly enough that the man didn't have any sort of sense of humor in any part of his upper-asscrack body, either—had just asked Valerie if the defendant had any questions regarding his rights when she stood up and demanded to know exactly why 'he' wasn't wearing underpants.

So, Judge Lister, after turning about ten shades of red that bordered on purple, had informed the Counsel for the Defendant that it was—quote—none of her business, what sort of undergarments the judge was wearing, if he was wearing any, at all—end quote—along with a dire warning that Valerie was toeing the line, as far as he was concerned, with facing charges of her own in the way of contempt of court . . .

She let out a deep breath and sank into the nearest chair, planting her elbows on the table as she continued to rub her forehead. "Please . . . please . . . can't you please at least pretend that you have an ounce of common sense? This judge isn't a joke, Mr. Roka. He will lock you up and throw away the key—then have a party to celebrate."

Evan wrinkled his nose and heaved a thoroughly put-out kind of sigh. "No one understands me," he whined.

Valerie rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't even go there, Zel," she muttered.

He shot her a very petulant little pout. It didn't work, but then, he hadn't figured that it would.

"And another thing," she went on, slapping her hand on the table as she shot to her feet, the light of irritation sparking in her gaze yet again.

'God, God, God, she's so fucking hot, I can't stand it . . .'

'Down, boy,' his youkai reprimanded.

'Aw, hell . . .'

"If you're ever tempted to speak in court again, please remember not to do it!"

He really couldn't help the grin that broke over his features at that reminder . . .

"Were you driving the car, Mr. Roka?" Judge Lister had asked just after he'd read the charges levied against him.

"Well, if that's what the fuzz said, then I musta been," he replied before Valerie could stop him.

"Then why are we here again?" the harried judge had asked.

Evan shrugged off-handedly and lifted his feet to rest on the table. Valerie knocked them off a second later. "I dunno, Your Judge-ness," he'd said in a slow drawl. "Probably for the same reason that my lawyer was crawling around in my bushes . . ."

She heaved another sigh and slowly shook her head. "Okay, Mr. Roka. I want you to go straight home—do not stop to talk to any reporters; do not stop for photographs. Got it? Straight home, and do not leave that house unless I tell you that you can."

"But—"

"I mean it."

"All right, but—"

"No."

"V—"

"No means no, Mr. Roka."

"Sure, sure, but—"

"But what?" she growled, rounding on him yet again to glower up at him.

He grinned. "Well, see, I got this gig tonight . . ."

She stared at him for several minutes before finally letting out a deep breath and shaking her head. "What time?" she demanded in a completely defeated tone of voice.

Evan chuckled. "I gotta be there for sound check in about . . . an hour."

"And you swear that you're only going there? Nothing else? You promise?"

He nodded, figuring that he'd do well to let her off the hook for once. "Swear."

For some reason, she didn't look all that relieved, either . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'How dare you say that my behavior is unacceptable?
'So condescending unnecessarily critical,
'I have the tendency of getting very physical,
'So watch your step 'cause if I do you'll need a miracle …'

 

-'Harder to Breathe' by Maroon 5.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

"I'm looking forward to seeing you this week," Marvin said in his normal, enthusiastic tone.

Valerie smiled, tapping the cap of her pen against the desk calendar. That was one of the things she really liked about him: his fathomless energy, his overwhelming zeal. "Me, too," she agreed, glancing at her watch. "Do you want me to pick you up at the airport?"

"Oh, you don't have to, Val. I can get a cab."

"Okay . . . You'll be here in time for a late dinner?"

"Assuming the flight's on time," he allowed. "Anyway, when are you leaving? You've got that conference this weekend, right?"

Her smile dimmed just a little at the mention of the conference, but she brushed the sense of trepidation aside. "I got a flight out Friday night, but I should be back on Sunday."

Marvin chuckled warmly. "That's a short one," he said. "I'm due back here on Sunday, anyway. There's supposed to be a big meeting with Hendricks Frontham. He asked me to bring over all my research so far. If I can impress him, he might underwrite some of the costs."

"Really? That's great!" she exclaimed, her momentary lapse of enthusiasm gone.

"Yeah, keep your fingers crossed." In the background, Valerie could hear the PA system announcing a flight out to Dallas. Marvin sighed. "Listen, Val, I'd better go. Figured I'd grab a paper to read on the flight."

"All right. Have a safe trip."

"Absolutely. See you in awhile."

The line went dead, and Valerie snapped her cell phone closed, a little smile still lingering on her face. Hearing Marvin's voice was just what she'd needed today, wasn't it?

She sighed.

The conference.

She'd almost forgotten about that . . .

It wasn't a conference, exactly, no, but when Marvin had assumed that was what she was planning on attending, she hadn't actually corrected him, either. At the time, she'd just thought that it'd be easier that way. She'd do what she had to do and fly right back: no muss, no fuss, right? Right.

'Conference, indeed . . .'

No, the truth of it was that she was planning on flying to Kentucky to see her baby sister's middle school graduation. She'd read online that Kaci Lea was graduating at the top of her eighth grade class in the 'commencement' ceremony to be held Saturday at Bluegrass Middle School, and she really wanted to go just to see it. With any luck, Valerie could slip in just before it started and slip out again without drawing notice. That's what she wanted, anyway. Maybe, if she were lucky, she'd catch a glimpse of Garret, too . . .

She bit her lip, leaning over unlock the bottom drawer of her desk to retrieve the small picture frame she kept there. Two children, a boy and a girl: the boy wearing bright green shorts with white stripes up the sides of the legs and threadbare gray t-shirt that was about two sizes too small. The peeling yellow writing on the shirt couldn't be discerned, and the girl was clad in a faded but clean orange terry-cloth sundress with her cornsilk blonde hair caught up in a messy ponytail . . . He was about three, she might have been around one and a half in that picture. It was the last time Valerie had actually seen them . . .

'How much different do they look now . . .? Would I recognize them if I passed them on the street . . .?'

She sighed again, the pad of her thumb softly caressing the glass that covered the snapshot.

A terse knock on the door drew her attention, and Valerie was just tucking the picture away when the door opened and Xavier Bainey strode inside and closed the door behind himself. "Ms. Denning, I'd like to have a word with you," he said in a completely brusque tone as he dropped a copy of the New York Times onto the desk. "Have you read that this morning?"

"Uh, no," Valerie allowed with a shake of her head. "Should I have?"

Xavier stuffed his hands into his pockets and pinned her with 'The Look'. "You made the front page."

Drawing and holding a deep breath, Valerie slowly flipped the folded paper over. It didn't take her long to find it. Just under the article about the latest NATO talks was the picture—a picture of her, beating on Zel Roka's chest just after they'd exited the courtroom, along with a nice, large headline that read, 'Roka's Attorney Attacks Client'. The air rushed out of her in a loud whoosh, and she gritted her teeth as she forced herself to read the article.

Of course, that wasn't even close to being the worst of it, either. Apparently the DA, jackass that he was, had immediately taken the opportunity to suggest that Zel find himself a decent defense attorney; one that knew how to conduct herself in a court of law instead of demanding to know whether or not the judge was or wasn't wearing underpants, among other things. He'd all but called her inept, citing that she could not control her client, and with the gravity of the charges that Mr. Roka faced, wouldn't it be a better idea to find himself another lawyer instead of choosing one based upon the physical beauty of her face . . .?

"Must I tell you how . . . negatively this entire situation reflects upon our firm?" Xavier asked after Valerie refolded the paper and set it aside. "This article was released on the UPI . . . Every national—for that matter, every paper in the world—is likely to run a version of it in their papers today." He slowly shook his head, as though he were gravely disappointed. "I am vastly disappointed in you, Ms. Denning."

She could feel her face burning, as much from outrage as it was from just plain embarrassment. That damned Zel Roka had caused all of it, hadn't he? But no, she was the one being lectured by the old windbag . . . "Are you going to remove me from this case?" she demanded in a tight, clipped voice.

Tugging off his wire-rimmed glasses, he shook his head. "Do I need to?"

She gritted her teeth. Even if she wanted off the case, she couldn't back down now; not with her very reputation on the line. If she quit now, she'd never, ever find another job as a lawyer. It was entirely too high-profile. He was entirely too high-profile. Everyone—everyone—would know about this, and she didn't even try to delude herself into thinking otherwise. "No, sir," she managed to choke out.

He shook his head. "Why were you . . . beating on Mr. Roka?"

She sighed and counted to twenty. "You have no idea what that man is really like," she said in a steady, even tone. "He delights in saying and doing outrageous things, just to see if he can get under my skin. I went out of my way to buy the man suitable attire for his court date, and he completely undermined my advice on the matter. He never listens to what I have to say, and he doesn't show any desire at all to get himself out of this situation—a situation that he brought entirely upon himself. The things he said to me in court were just another example of that. Sir," she added, almost as an afterthought.

At least Xavier seemed to be listening. He stared at her for several moments, his eyes slowly losing the irritation that he'd walked into her office with, and leveled a no-nonsense look at her. "After this, everyone will be watching you—paying attention to how you conduct yourself—and how you represent this firm. I trust that we will not have any more incidents like this one?"

Hating the feeling that she was little better than a child with her hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar, Valerie shook her head. "No, sir," she bit out.

Xavier didn't look like he believed her completely, but he finally nodded. "I've taken the liberty of having our press department draw up an official statement of apology for this. I would like for you to sign it when it's brought to you."

She pressed her lips together in a tight line until after the man had let himself out her office, and only after the door closed did she give in to the urge to let her face fall into her hands as she heaved a longsuffering sigh and uttered a quiet little groan.

Damn that Zel Roka. This was his fault. He was the one who just couldn't say anything normally, the one who always—always—had to make inappropriate commentary . . . He was the one who had instigated everything, and somehow he was coming out of it, looking like a saint.

All she could do was regret the very day she'd ever met anyone as asinine as that man, but he wasn't going to get away with his bad behavior, damn it; not if she had a say in it . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"So you'll do it, right?" Evan asked, batting his eyelashes as best as he could while Madison teased his hair.

"Hmm, Saturday? Sure . . . What's the occasion?"

With a chuckle, Evan reached for the newspaper. "Well, my mama, of course!"

Madison rolled her eyes but laughed. "Ah, silly question, hmm? Who else would you 'get respectable' for?"

"That's right," he drawled.

"I didn't know Gin was going to be in town."

Evan shrugged. "Eh, they both are, but Mama's got a benefit Saturday night, and apparently good ol' Cain's got something else going on—bet it's a woman on the side."

Madison snorted indelicately and gave a tug on his hair. "You know better. Your father adores your mother."

"Yeah, yeah, so much so that he knocked her up just so that she could have me," he retorted dryly. "Fan-fucking-tastic."

She sighed but didn't argue with him, not that it would do any good, anyway. Evan was nothing if not stubborn as hell, especially when it came to the subject of his father. "So you're actually going to escort your mother to that gala? You? Zel Roka?"

He grinned, partially because she'd dropped the subject of Cain Zelig without a fuss, and partially because the idea of spending any time with his mother was always enough to make him smile. "That's right . . . I get to show off my hot mama. Reminds me. I sent over a dress for her, just for the occasion. Ol' Cain'll never know what hit 'em . . ."

Madison grimaced. "You didn't."

"Oh, but I did," he replied happily. Of course he had. It was completely innocent, of course. He had been walking down Fifth Avenue yesterday, just out prowling, when he'd seen the perfect dress for his precious mama, prominently displayed in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue, so, being a good son, he'd marched right in and bought it. He'd also left explicit instructions that they were to make sure that it didn't need to be altered before they left it with her, but that was beside the point. Then again, the salesgirls in there were quite hot . . .

"So, you going to tell me why V was beating the hell out of you in this morning's paper?" Madison asked casually—too casually.

Evan grinned. "I have no idea, Maddikins," he lied.

She rolled her eyes, her expression stating quite plainly that she didn't believe a word of it. "They say that you only hired her because she's gorgeous—Well, they didn't say 'gorgeous', but it was implied."

Evan snorted. "Shit . . . Why else would I have hired her?"

She cocked an eyebrow. "According to the DA, you just wanted to add her to your 'pretty thing' collection."

He grinned like an idiot at that. "I have a 'pretty thing' collection? Seriously?"

Madison hit him on the shoulder but giggled. That giggle died away, though, and when Evan peeked up at her, he had to stifle the urge to sigh at the seriousness in her gaze. "Evan . . ."

"What?"

She grabbed the curlers he was trying to pin together and dropped them in her kit, out of his reach. "Maybe . . . Maybe you should tell her . . ."

He stiffened, all traces of humor gone. "No."

"But—"

He shook his head and batted her hands away from his hair. "I said no."

She heaved a sigh and crossed her arms over her chest, her features showing her irritation at what she perceived to be his own show of stubborn idiocy. "You're going to go to prison, Evan," she tried again.

He shrugged—belligerence or mock bravado, he didn't know and didn't rightfully care, either. "Leave it alone, Madison," he replied in a deadly serious tone.

Biting her lip, she looked like she wanted to argue it further. He was quick to cut her off before she could begin. "I don't have anything to lose, do I? Now leave it alone."

She slowly shook her head, her gaze dropping to the floor. The contentious silence that filled the room was deafening, but finally, she heaved another sigh and forced a tight little smile that looked more like a grimace, her eyes filled with a suspect sheen as she willed her smile to brighten. "So do you want the full rocker pouf or the flat rocker grunge look?"

Evan chuckled softly, content to let the subject drop, glad that Madison was willing to do the same, at least for the moment. "Hmm . . . how about the full rocker pouf? I haven't done pouf in awhile, right?"

She didn't comment as she finished working on his hair, and that was good enough for Evan, too. "There," Madison said, stepping back to give Evan a healthy coating of hair spray.

"Thanks," he said, getting out of the chair as he rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, scrunching up his face a few times to keep himself from sneezing. "Oh, nice. Contact high . . ."

Madison laughed and started packing up her gear.

"Hey," he said, spinning around to face her.

"Hmm?"

"Could you do me a huge favor?"

She cocked an eyebrow but shrugged. "What's that?"

"Would you tell Bone that Mama should be stopping by sometime today to drop off my babies?"

"Sure thing."

Evan strode over to Madison to kiss her cheek. "Thanks, Maddikins."

Pointing a brush at him, she shook her head. "So will you do something for me?"

Reaching for brand new Zel Roka t-shirt that they'd dropped off for the photo shoot, Evan shook it out and held it up for inspection: the profile of a naked woman with a gothic-looking winged demon floating over her with his signature scrawled across the bottom. "Aw, hell, they put the 'R' right over her tit!" he grouched then heaved a sigh. "Damn censors . . . Ah, well, what can you do? Maddy, toss me a pair of scissors."

She dug a pair out of her makeup case and sauntered over to him. Evan grinned, appreciating the fluid way the woman moved. She was like water, wasn't she? Every part of her body was in perfect synchronicity, even the little smile on her face . . . He'd always adored that about Madison Cartham . . . She held out the scissors but pulled them back when he reached for them. "Listen to me first, okay?"

Evan rolled his eyes but nodded. "Yeah, okay," he agreed, holding out his hand.

She tapped them in the air but didn't hand them over. "Take it easy on V today, will you?"

"Did I tell you about our date?" he countered instead.

Madison heaved a sigh. "Yes, you did, about a hundred times, and I'd hardly call taking her out for crab a 'date', Zelig. Now . . . Promise me you'll behave yourself."

"All right, all right," he relented. "Jesus, you're a slave driver, aincha?"

She laughed and handed over the scissors. "Don't mess up your hair."

He snorted, making quick work of relieving the garment of its collar and sleeves—and half of its sides. "Yes, ma'am."

"Why didn't you just have them send over a tank top?" Madison asked as she took the scissors back and moved to pack them away.

Evan pulled the amended garment over his head, though he was careful not to ruin his hair. "Nah . . . only geeks wear those—geeks trying to be . . . hella cool."

Madison snapped the case closed and pulled the long leather strap over her shoulder, giggling since he was still leaning to one side, snapping his fingers in a completely un-hella-cool sort of way. "I have to run. I've got Sanna Ton coming in for a one o'clock . . ."

"Sanna?" Evan repeated, his chin snapping up at the mention of the international supermodel—the one with the really long legs and really huge tits that he'd fucked between sets at a show in LA last year. She sucked damn good dick . . . "Really . . ."

Madison laughed and kissed the air beside his cheek. "Too bad you're celibate, huh?"

Evan heaved a longsuffering sigh as Madison headed for the door, her laughter lingering in her wake . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie very nearly whimpered as she pulled her feet up closer and held onto the cupboard above her, gathering all of her courage before leaning over to peer down at the floor. She nearly screamed when the two beasts bared their teeth at her, their gawping maws hanging open, their tongues lolling out . . . 'They're going to eat me . . .'

'Oh, stop that! They aren't going to eat you . . . that little one isn't big enough,' her conscience pointed out.

She made a face as futile tears filled her eyes, and those tears only served to tick her off a little more. "G-Go away!" she squeaked, unable to control the trembling in her voice.

Those beasts tilted their heads to the side and stared at her. She could see it in their eyes, couldn't she? They wanted her to fall off the damn counter—wanted to devour her for dinner—or at least a midday snack . . .

'Get a hold of yourself!' she told herself sternly, biting down hard on her lip, hard enough to draw blood. Twisting her hand to tap along the shelf above her, she grimaced. She'd already thrown everything she could get her hands on in a vain effort to make those two monsters go away. They'd ignored everything else, quite possibly because they couldn't get into the cans of food she'd thrown, and while rational thought told her that she was being stupid when she'd thrown them, she couldn't help hoping that they'd chase the cans, anyway . . . Grasping something smooth, flattish, and cool, she pulled it out of the cupboard and nearly cried. Sardines, the kind with the key lid . . .

Her hands were trembling terribly as she caught the end of the key and began to turn it. Nasty sardine oil spilled over the freshly exposed rim and ran down her fingers as the stench of the canned fish made her stomach roll.

The dogs stood up, padding anxiously along the floor beside her. She didn't dare look at them and cringed when the bigger one unleashed a loud, echoing bark. It unnerved her so badly that she fumbled the flat can. It slipped out of her hands and crashed onto the floor. The sounds of the dogs, greedily licking their chops and tearing into the fish rang in her ears. The big one licked his chops and half-growled at her. 'You'r-r-r-re next,' he seemed to be saying.

Valerie whimpered and pushed with her feet, scrunching herself back further into the corner . . . The trill of her ringing cell phone that she'd left in the living room mocked her, and she whimpered a little more.

Damn it . . .

She'd come over here just after having her ass handed to her by Xavier Bainey, set to give one rocker in particular a very large piece of her mind, only to realize once she's gotten there that he was out—a photo shoot, the itinerary that his manager had faxed over to her, had said. Still, she hadn't figured that it'd take him that long, so she'd gone into the kitchen to get a drink of water, only to be accosted by those two beasts that had come running around the corner from whatever was beyond the kitchen like the hounds of hell. She'd barely managed to save her feet from those miserable monsters, scrambling up onto the counter just as quickly as she possibly could, and she'd been stuck there ever since. If the clock on the wall was right, then it meant she'd been stuck right there for the last four hours . . .

In the distance, she heard the unmistakable sound of the front door open then close, and she nearly cried. Those damned beasts didn't move, even when Zel's voice rang out. "Munchies! Mimi!"

She squeaked out a strangled little squeak and smashed her hands over her ears when the dogs erupted into a very loud chorus of barks, and she'd just managed to force her eyes open when Zel sauntered into the kitchen, his coppery hair looking suspiciously like something had exploded under it. Still, for that moment, he was a welcome sight.

At least, he was . . . until the bastard blinked, stared at her for a moment, then tossed his head back in laughter.

"Oh, shut the hell up!" she snapped, her anger quickly nudging aside her fear. "Just call them off!"

They attacked him. Valerie shrieked, glancing around wildly for something—anything—to throw at them as they lunged at Zel, yapping their fool heads off. It took her a moment to realize that he was still laughing—laughing and hugging those monstrosities . . .

"Aww, did you miss me, babies?" he crooned, grabbing the huge dog's cheeks and shaking his head from side to side. The dog retaliated by trying to taste Zel. He sputtered but laughed and gave the dog a good, sound slap on the hind quarters as the tiny dog leapt into his arms. "I know, I know . . . I'd be happy to be home, too, if I had to stay with that damned Cain, too . . ."

'He . . . He likes . . . it . . .' she slowly realized. The knowledge didn't make her feel any better. "Z . . . Zel . . .?"

She had to call his name a few times before he finally looked at her again. Damned if he wasn't still smirking, either . . . "Hey, V . . . uh, what the hell are you doin' up there?"

"They attacked me! They were trying to eat me!" she screeched, knowing somewhere in the back of her head that she sounded like a damned lunatic—knowing but not caring, at least for now.

He blinked and stared at her for a long minute then slowly looked at his dogs. "You two can't eat her till I've gotten to sample her first," he deadpanned.

Valerie grabbed a towel—it was the only thing within reach—and heaved it at him. It didn't go far, and the dogs, thinking that she meant for them to play with it, started an impromptu game of tug-of-war.

Zel chuckled. "All right; all right, you two. Out." The dogs tugged on the towel for another moment then dropped it before careening around and tearing back around the corner the way they'd come, to start with. He chuckled again. "There weren't three?"

Valerie, who had started to swing her foot off the counter, jerked it right back up again. "Th-Three?" she whispered, her eyes widening as the color she did have in her skin leeched out again.

"Yeah, three . . . I have three dogs." Zel waved a hand and touched the cell phone he had hooked over his ear. "Call Cain," he said. "Hey, sexy . . . What are you doin' answering his damn phone?" he greeted in a teasing tone as a very real smile spread over his features. "Yeah, I was wondering about that . . ." He chuckled that same breathy chuckle that made Valerie's knees feel a little weaker. "I see . . . well . . . All right, but just for a little while . . . Uh huh. Of course . . . Do you? Nice . . . 'Kay, I'll see you then. My lawyer's here, so . . . Yup . . . You, too . . . Bye." He touched the earpiece again and yanked it off, tossing it onto the counter behind him as he crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a look at Valerie and then at the stash of cans she'd tossed all over the kitchen. "You can come down now," he told her as he leaned down to retrieve one of the cans. "They'll stay outside till I tell 'em they can come in."

Valerie wasn't sure whether or not she believed him. Still, she had to admit that they had listened when he'd told them to go outside . . . Maybe they were better trained than she'd thought . . .

He sighed though he was still smiling as he held out his arms. "C'mon, V. Let's get you down from there."

She blinked and stared at him for a moment, but let him pull her off the counter. He set her on her feet with a soft chuckle as he let his arms linger around her a second longer than necessary before he let go and stepped back. "You know, I think they just wanted to meet you, was all," he drawled as he scooped up the rest of the cans and set them on the counter.

She rubbed her arms, telling herself that her heart was just thumping so erratically because of the dogs; that it had nothing at all to do with the feel of Zel Roka's arms around her.

"They . . . They can't come in here again, can they?" she asked, glancing around nervously, half-expecting those terrors to come tearing around the corner yet again.

Zel snorted. "Nah, they'll stay out . . . You're not really afraid of them, are you?"

She shot him a very dark look—as dark as she could muster, anyway. "I don't like dogs," she replied in a tight, clipped tone.

"But they're just babies," he argued. "They'd never hurt anyone."

"They were trying to taste me!" she insisted once more.

He rolled his eyes but laughed. "They were trying to greet you, V . . ."

She snorted and shook her head stubbornly, glancing out the window over the sink to satisfy herself that the dogs really were outside. Both of them were sprawled out under the leaves of a wide tree that was off to the right of the huge pool. It wasn't nearly as far away as Valerie might have otherwise liked . . . "Look, I just don't like dogs, okay?" she snapped.

"Why? Everyone likes dogs."

She rubbed her forehead, all the anger she'd managed to garner for her last statement having ebbed away from her. "I don't like them," she reiterated. "Can we just leave it at that?"

Zel considered that then shrugged. "Lemme guess: a dog attacked you when you were little?"

"Something like that," she allowed grudgingly. "It used to lunge at the fence whenever I walked past going to school, and one day, it broke the fence and bit me." She shivered.

He sighed. "I'm sorry. I swear my dogs are much better mannered than that."

She didn't answer since she had serious doubts regarding his claim.

"So you gonna tell me why you were up there on the counter, anyway?" he asked, apparently appeased with her explanation.

She had to force herself to concentrate on his question. "Did you . . . Did you see the paper today?" she demanded though her tone lacked any real irritation.

"Oh, tha-a-a-at," he drawled. "Yeah, I'm sorry about that."

She snorted. He didn't sound sorry. Still, she just didn't have it in her to be overly irritated with him; at least, not at the moment. He'd saved her, didn't he? Never mind that he was the one with the damn obnoxious as well as scary as hell dogs . . .

"Give me a sec. I need to go wash this shit out of my hair," he called over his shoulder as he strode out of the room, leaving Valerie with no choice but to follow him. "If you want to bitch at me some more, I'll let you do it after that."

She shook her head and wondered if further 'bitching' would make any difference at all to him. Something told her that it wouldn't; not really. "Will you at least try to behave next time?" she asked wearily.

He stopped long enough to cast a little grin at her over his shoulder. "I swear," he replied.

She heaved a sigh as he disappeared up the stairway. Somehow, his reassurances just didn't really make her feel any better, did it?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'The cowboy kills the rock star
'And Friday nights gone too far
'The dim light hides the years
'On all the faded girls …'

 

-'Broadway' by The Goo Goo Dolls

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"So, V . . ."

Valerie sighed and slowly, pointedly, turned a rather bored stare on Evan. "Have I told you lately that I really don't like it when you call me that?" she asked.

He waved a hand dismissively and frowned as he touched the key on the baby grand piano. His frown deepened as he hit the key a few more times, pausing a moment to listen to the note that lingered in the air. "Ah, damn it . . ."

She blinked as the papers in her hand tilted back, forgotten. "What?"

Letting out a deep breath, he dragged his long fingers through his now-blue-black hair. "Needs fucking tuned," he complained.

She smiled almost snidely. "You mean you can't do that, yourself?"

He shot her a somewhat droll sort of look despite the hint of amusement in his eyes. She was in rare form, wasn't she? Then again, she always was, wasn't she? "I can, but it's a pain in the ass. Rather just pay someone to do it."

"See? That's entirely your problem, Mr. Roka," she said, turning her attention back to the document she was reading.

He wandered toward her, draping himself over her shoulder. Her back stiffened almost instantly. "What is?"

She had to clear her throat before she spoke. Evan didn't miss it, either. "Y-You . . . You don't do anything for yourself; you just pay other people to do it for you."

He chuckled at the absolute breathiness in her tone. Damn, she smelled good. There was just something about her, wasn't there? Something innately . . . sexy as all hell . . . "Oh? You know, V, I'm a very busy man. I don't have time to sit around here, tuning my piano. What's wrong with paying someone else to do it? Doesn't the other guy deserve to make a living, too?"

She spared him a chagrined sort of look. "And you're trying to tell me that's the reason you won't do it yourself?"

He shrugged. "You know, that peeved look of yours is hella hot . . ." He shifted his gaze downward and grinned. "Speaking of 'hella hot' . . . I can see down your blouse, too."

She rolled her eyes and smashed her hand into the center of his face, shoving him back abruptly as she got to her feet. "You're just foul," she muttered, unable to hide the blush that stained her cheeks a pretty shade of pink. "Why are you so foul?"

He really did try not to laugh. Seriously, he did. It just didn't work. "I dunno, V. Why were you in my bushes?"

For the briefest of moments, she actually looked like she just might hit him. Suddenly, though, she smashed her hand over her mouth and laughed. "Jerk," she managed to choke out between giggles.

He hopped over the back of the chair and landed neatly in the seat. "Yeah, but life'd be boring without me, right?"

She snorted and shook her head though her smile had yet to fade, which, in Evan's considered opinion, made it all worthwhile . . . "Anyway, I have to get going."

Narrowing his eyes as she started stashing things into her attaché case again, he wasn't entirely sure that he liked the idea of her leaving . . . "Why?" he asked in a thoroughly neutral tone of voice.

She didn't answer right away. In fact, he was starting to think that she wasn't going to answer, at all, when she finally shrugged and uttered a brisk little sigh. "I have dinner plans," she told him.

Little alarm bells started sounding in his head. It might have had something to do with the altogether smug little smile toying with her lips. "With whom?" he asked. 'Score for me . . . that sounded neutral enough, too . . .'

Oh, he really didn't like the way the smug little smile turned slightly coy . . . "My fiancé."

He snorted. Loudly. "Oh, ri-i-i-ight . . . what was his name? Irwin?"

Those gorgeous hazel eyes narrowed menacingly. "Marvin," she corrected.

He waved a hand in blatant dismissal. "You don't say . . . So, where are we going?"

She blinked. "We are not going anywhere, Mr. Roka. Marvin and I are going to dinner, yes, but you are staying here, out of trouble. Do we understand?"

He pasted on the most tolerant little smile he could muster. "But it'd only take me a minute to change . . . Aw, hell, I just need a shirt . . ."

"No," she stated flatly, crossing her arms over her chest to pin him with a no-nonsense glower. "Absolutely positively not."

"But I want to meet this pillar of society," he assured her.

She rubbed her forehead in a completely exasperated sort of way. "Just stay here and be good, can't you?"

He grinned tightly. "V, baby, I'm always go-o-od."

She snorted. "You don't know the meaning of the word, 'good'."

The grin took on a lazy sort of tilt. "Well, depends."

"On what?" she shot back.

"See, there's 'good' and then there's 'go-o-o-od' . . ."

She stared at him for a long moment, completely nonplussed. "Hmm, then let me clarify: tonight you will be 'good'."

He chuckled at the way she held up her hands and pinched her thumb and index fingers together with both hands to emphasize her point. "Good's no fun, but go-o-o-od . . . That's all right." She slowly shook her head. "Want a demonstration?"

She reached for the case.

"Tell me what's so fantastic about a guy named Moravin," he countered.

"Mora—It's 'Marvin', you doofus," she retorted hotly.

Evan grinned. "Yeah, whatever, whatever. Tell me what's so great about him."

She rolled her eyes, and for a moment, he seriously thought that she wasn't going to answer him. "Well, unlike you, he's a nice man, a good man."

"Nice is overrated," he countered with a grin. "Is he tall?"

She shot him a completely chagrined sort of look. "What does his height have to do with—?"

Evan leaned forward on the back of the chair to leer at her. "Is he a big man?"

A flash of comprehension flared to light behind her gaze, and she narrowed her eyes as her cheeks pinked prettily. "The biggest man," she shot back. "Huge."

Evan chuckled mercilessly. "Huge, huh?"

"Bigger than you," she retorted airily.

"Ah, come on, V! I wanna meet Mervin!"

"Marvin."

He wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, yeah, him!"

"No."

"Why?"

She stopped, her head snapping up, but she didn't turn around to look at him right away, either. "Oh, my God, you sound like a child," she muttered.

"But if I don't come with you, I'll get bored," he warned her.

That didn't really work, not that he figured it would. "Why do you want to come with me, and don't give me that bullshit story about wanting to meet Marvin, either," she said as she whirled around to stare at him once more.

Evan snorted. "But I do want to meet him to make sure you don't meat him, because it's just not cool if my fiancée is out meating other men, savvy?"

She blinked, her cheeks pinking yet again, mostly because of the accompanying hand gestures that Evan had made to emphasize his point about 'meating' Marvin.

"I am so not your fiancée," Valerie bit out.

Evan grinned. 'Okay, so maybe the gestures weren't what she took exception to . . .'

"And you are not coming with me."

"All right, but tell me one thing, V."

She was dangerously close to losing her temper, if the flash in her eyes meant anything at all . . . "What?"

"Hypothetically speaking, if Mork—"

"Marvin."

"—Yeah, him—were to walk out in front of, say, a bus and bite the big one, would you marry me then?"

'Any more pissed off, and I just might see steam escaping from her adorable little ears . . .'

". . . No."

"V—"

She snatched up the attaché case and stormed toward the foyer, stopping just outside the doorway to swing around and glower at him once more. "I mean it, Mr. Roka. You aren't to leave this house for any reason at all! You cannot afford to get into any more trouble than you're already in, so stay put! I mean it!"

He heaved a sigh as she stomped out of the room. Moments later, the resounding echo of the front door slamming preceded the vast wash of emptiness that always seemed to accompany the woman's departure, and Evan frowned.

Everything about the situation seemed wrong, didn't it? Valerie . . . She didn't belong with this 'Marvin' guy, no matter how 'great' he was, damn it. Even he could see that much. The thing was, he wasn't sure how he could convince her. He'd never had to do something like that before . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie followed the maitre d' through the restaurant to the small table beside the huge windows that looked out over the crowded street. It was a special place to her, and she couldn't help but smile as the man pulled out her chair to seat her. "Thank you," she murmured, flashing a bright grin at him.

Marvin stood up and hurried around the table to brush a chaste kiss over her cheek before sitting back down. "Everything okay? You're a little late . . ."

She waved off his concern. He knew well enough that Valerie prided herself on being punctual, but she didn't feel like talking about the reason she'd been late, to start with. After all, it'd taken her drive across town as well as a half-hour shower before she had calmed her irritation at the damned man enough to get ready for her date with Marvin, in the first place. "I got a little tied up," she said. "I'm sorry."

Marvin smiled in the endearingly sweet way that he always did. "It's okay," he assured her. "I had a call, anyway . . ."

"Anything important?"

He shook his head. "Well, Winston Levine—you remember? I told you about him . . ."

She frowned as she considered the name. "Oh . . . San Francisco, right?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Right! Anyway, he didn't flat-out say so, but I think that his group is seriously considering offering some financial assistance on the project."

"Really?" she blurted, her eyebrows lifting as a smile surfaced. "That's fantastic!"

Marvin flinched and shrugged. "It's not official, of course, but . . ."

Valerie shook her head. "If anyone deserves it, you do, and I'm sure that they know it, too."

He smiled though he didn't look entirely convinced. "Anyway," he breathed with a little chuckle, "I'm starving!"

She laughed and glanced at the menu out of habit. She always had the same thing, at least in this restaurant. "M-Marvin . . ."

"Hmm?" he intoned without glancing up from his menu.

"I'm glad you chose this restaurant," she said.

He peeked up at her, his expression blank for a moment before he smiled. "It's a special place for us, right?"

For some reason, his words made her unaccountably happy. That he remembered it like she did . . . 'Okay, so maybe he's not as . . . as exciting as Zel Roka, but he's reliable . . . dependable . . . and he remembers things that are important to me, too . . .'

Marvin laughed again. "This is the place where we were the first time anyone called to have me come out to give a presentation to get funding."

She blinked, her smile fading slightly, and when she lifted her gaze to meet his, he'd already looked at his menu again. "Yeah," she ventured, shrugging off the momentary disappointment in his answer. "It's also the place where you asked me to marry you."

Marvin shot her a quick smile. "Well, that, too," he agreed. "Seems like this restaurant is good luck for us, huh?"

Valerie nodded. "Y-Yeah . . ."

"Evening, folks. Do you know what you'd like or do you need a little more time?"

Valerie smiled politely at the waiter and handed him the menu. "I'd just like grilled chicken breast salad—may I have the chicken on the side?"

"Sure," he said, punching her order into the electronic transmitter. "And you, sir?"

Marvin stared at the menu for another minute then finally smiled at the waiter. "I'd like the grilled pork loin, please."

"Baked potato or fries?"

"Baked potato, thanks."

The waiter smiled. "Okay, and to drink?"

"Iced tea," Valerie said.

Marvin nodded. "Sounds good."

She turned her attention back to Marvin as the waiter hurried away. "I'm glad you're in town," she said suddenly.

Marvin looked a little surprised but chuckled. "Me, too. I missed you, Val . . . You know, I was thinking . . . I mean, I know the Fourth of July is a few months away, but Hayes Mayward was telling me that he has this great place out on Cape Cod, and he mentioned that there'd be room for a couple guests this year out there . . . He always has guests, and they spend the day on the yacht, watching the fireworks from the water . . ."

"Really?" she asked. "That sounds like fun."

He shot her the boyish grin that she knew so well. He rather reminded her of a happy child that had just been praised by the teacher for being the only kid in class to score a hundred on his spelling test. "I thought you'd like it." He laughed suddenly and shook his head. "I'll just have to remember to get my Scopolamine patch prescription filled so I don't end up seasick."

She laughed, too. "Good idea," she replied.

"I told him I'd talk it over with you, but if you don't mind . . ."

"I'd love that," she assured him. Glancing up, she started to say something else about it, but frowned when she caught the disapproving gazes of a couple at a nearby table. They looked away quickly, the woman leaning across to whisper something to her date, who looked at the newspaper he was holding. A moment later, they both peeked at her again, and she lifted her chin proudly and slowly turned away.

Marvin shifted his eyes from Valerie to the couple and back again. "So . . ." he drawled slowly, his tone a little overly cautious. "That article in the paper . . . Did you really hit your client?"

Gritting her teeth together, she tried to force a little smile. "That was . . . taken completely out of context," she replied, "and he deserved it."

Marvin nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "You . . . you hit the Zel Roka?"

"Marvin . . . He's obnoxious, okay?" she muttered. "And what do you mean, 'the Zel Roka'? You don't even know who he is, do you?"

Marvin laughed and shrugged. "Just because I don't listen to the radio a lot doesn't mean I've never heard of him."

She sighed and rubbed her forehead.

"Okay, okay," he relented quickly, sitting back as his little smile widened just a touch. "I'm sorry; I'm sorry . . . You . . . You're not going to hit me, are you?" He laughed. "Oh, hey . . ."

Still a little irked, she tried unsuccessfully to hide her pique. "Yes?" she asked.

Marvin grimaced at her clipped tone. "Uh, nothing," he hurried to say.

"What?" she prompted, forcing a smile as she tamped down her irritation. 'Stop it, Valerie. You're not really even mad at him, remember?'

Marvin shot her an apologetic half-smile. "Well, I just wondered . . ."

"Wondered what?"

He leaned forward slightly, his normally ruddy complexion deepening in hue. "You remember when I told you about the investor from Denver?"

She frowned in concentration, trying to remember the man's name. "Oh, um . . . the newspaper guy, right? Owns the Denver Daily?"

Marvin's grin brightened considerably. He was always inordinately pleased when she could remember specifics about the investors that he talked about. "Yeah! Gus Johnston!"

Valerie smiled, too. "Right . . . What about him?"

The self-consciousness seeped back into Marvin's green eyes, and he spared her a half-grimace, half-smile. "W-Well, he's got a sixteen year-old daughter—Justina—a huge Zel Roka fan . . . and I thought . . ." He winced, as though he believed that Valerie wasn't going to like whatever it was he had been thinking. "See, when I mentioned that you were his lawyer, she asked if you could . . . could get his autograph for her . . ."

Valerie smiled and shrugged. "I'll ask him," she promised. "I can't guarantee anything. It may depend upon his mood," she cautioned.

It was enough to satisfy Marvin, though. "Thanks, Val. You're the best!"

Her cell phone rang. She ignored it, reaching over and tapping the 'off' button to send the device into standby without so much as glancing at the caller ID, but Marvin's phone rang, too. "Oh . . . um, it's Hayes Mayward—you know, the guy on Cape Cod? Let me tell him that you like the idea of visiting them over the Fourth of July . . ."

She nodded and smiled at the waiter as he set her salad on the table. Her cell rang again, and she answered it without bothering to check the number since Marvin was still talking on his. "Valerie Denning."

"Hey, baby! Whatcha doin'?"

Closing her eyes, she rubbed her forehead, wondering why she'd ever thought that she'd actually be able to get away from that man for more than a few hours . . . "Is there something you needed?"

He chuckled—airy, breathy, entirely too familiar. "Well, funny you should mention that, V. See, there's been a bit of a . . . I guess you could call it a misunderstanding . . . Don't suppose you could come on down here and help a brother out?"

"Misunderstanding?" she echoed, groping for her purse. "What kind of misunderst—? Come down where?" she demanded suspiciously.

"Now, sweetheart, before you get all pissy—"

"Try again, Roka. I'm well beyond 'pissy' . . ." she warned, trying in vain to use one hand to pop the lid off the small bottle of Advil she'd taken to carrying around the same time she'd been coerced into taking on Zel Roka's case.

"Hurry it up, Roka. You know the rules. Five minutes."

Valerie's eyes flared wide as she lowered the phone and glanced at the caller ID. 'NYPD . . . Oh, Zel . . .'

"Yeah, okay," he drawled. "So how 'bout it? Come down here and pop me from this joint?"

"What did you do?" she demanded in a deathly quiet tone.

"I'm tellin' you, it was just a misunderstanding," he maintained stubbornly. "Anyway, I'm at the 19th, and the cops are pretty tight today.   I'm guessing their favorite doughnut shop was closed down or something . . ." In the background, she heard a dull 'thump' followed in close order by Zel's exclamation. "Ow! You hear that, V? Police brutality!"

"Yeah, well, if that's your attorney, Roka, then it's no big thing. According to the papers, she beats on you, too."

Valerie stifled a low groan and furiously rubbed her forehead. "I hate you," she muttered, heaving a sigh. "I hate you, hate you, hate you . . ."

"I know; I know," he muttered then chuckled again. "Come on, V! I don't wanna stay here all night!"

She had better than half a mind to let him do exactly that. Too bad she simply couldn't . . . "Isn't there someone else you can call?" she asked pointedly.

"No," he said. "Attorney only."

"Fine," she said, slapping the phone closed as she snatched her purse off of the table. "Of all the idiotic, stupid, moronic, retarded . . ."

"Val?"

She blinked and glanced at Marvin. "I'm sorry," she said with a shake of her head. "My . . . client . . . has been arrested. I've got to go down to the 19th Precinct and pick him up."

Marvin's eyes widened. "Oh, uh . . ."

Forcing a smile to reassure him, she shrugged. "We can finish this back home, right?"

He smiled and nodded as he stood up and came around to squeeze her hands, tugging her down just enough to kiss her cheek. "Sure," he told her. "Take as long as you need."

She turned and headed toward the doors, her gaze darkening with every step she took. Why—why—couldn't he ever do anything without getting himself into trouble? She should have known, shouldn't she? He caused an uproar whenever he went anywhere, didn't he? And he just had to go out when she'd expressly forbidden it, didn't he?

Well, no matter. That damned man was going to listen to her, whether he liked it or not. She'd get him out of jail, take him home, and lock him in there if she had to; just see if she didn't . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"So, you want to tell me what that was all about?"

Evan shot Madison an overly-innocent look and shrugged. "I dunno what you're talkin' 'bout, Maddikins."

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Don't even try to give me that," she countered mildly enough. "V looked mad enough to spit, and I suppose you had something to do with that."

He snorted and flopped onto the sofa. "You're giving me far too much credit, you know. Besides, V's always mad at me."

"All right," she relented easily enough as she sauntered over to sit beside him. "So why did she have to pick you up at the 19th?"

He shrugged. "Madison, did you know that there's an ordinance or something against public performing without a permit anywhere in New York City?"

Her lips twitched. "Is there?"

He grinned. He couldn't help it. "Oh, yeah."

She giggled. "Don't you have a permit for that? I mean, you do gigs in New York City all the time . . ."

He snorted. "Apparently, that's different, too. If you're performing on, say, a street corner, you have to have a vendor's permit, and that aside, did you know you're not allowed to perform on any street corner on Madison Avenue? Go fucking figure."

"So you were hauled in for that?"

Evan actually grimaced. "Well, no . . ."

"Oh?"

"Well, for that I was fined five hundred bucks, but apparently they were a little worried about my welfare since there were about a hundred or," he coughed indelicately, "or maybe a few more kids hanging out with me . . ."

Madison covered her mouth but couldn't contain her laughter. "I see . . ."

"And . . . Well, those kids had traffic stopped for about two blocks."

Madison's lips twitched a little more, but she said nothing.

He shot her a longsuffering glance and shrugged offhandedly. "I need a smoke. Got one on you?"

"Hmm, can't say I carry that sort of thing around with me," she allowed.

Evan leaned forward and pulled open the drawer under the coffee table, grabbing the bag of dope that Mike had given him just after his first meeting with Valerie Denning. "Hey, get in that table beside you. I think I got some papers in there . . ."

Madison did as she was told and scowled. "Why's it so hot in here?" she asked suddenly, wrinkling her nose.

Evan frowned as he concentrated on rolling the joint on the table. "Ah, the air's on the blink. They'll send someone out to fix it tomorrow, they said."

"Ugh," Madison muttered. She got up and wandered over to the living room control panel, fiddling with the settings. A moment later, the electric buzz kicked in, and the hulking windows retracted, letting in a slight breeze that didn't really help as much as it teased them.

Dropping the rest of the bag into the drawer once more, Evan reached for his lighter and slumped back against the sofa again. "Damn," he muttered, taking a long drag off the joint.

"I think it's going to rain . . ." Madison said. She'd ventured out onto the patio and was staring up at the sky.

He made a face. "You know something, Maddy?"

"What's that?"

Evan smiled a little sadly as he stared at the smoldering end of the joint. "Have you met this Marvin of hers?"

Madison heaved a sigh and wandered back into the house. "Officially? No, but I have talked to him on the phone a couple times."

Evan cocked an eyebrow, holding out the smoke in a silent invitation. "And?"

She shrugged, taking it from him and pulling a deep drag. "And . . ." she shook her head. "Well, he's not a bad guy, per se," she allowed though she didn't sound entirely pleased with it, either.   "I mean, Valerie's not stupid, you know? If he were shitty to her or something, maybe it'd be easier, but . . . I don't know. It's not that he doesn't care; it's that he doesn't care enough . . . Does that make sense?"

Sitting up, Evan tugged his shirt off and tossed it on the floor, followed in close order by his pants. "That's better," he breathed, stretching out on the sofa again, bare-assed naked. "So you mean he's got his priorities fucked up."

Madison considered that and nodded. "That sounds about right."

He took the joint back, dragging off it as he contemplated Madison's words. "She'll always be second or third with him, you mean?"

"The first time I met her, she'd sort of just wandered into my shop off the street. Starr had started to tell her that we were by appointment only, but . . . but she just looked so . . . sad . . ." Madison waved a hand and started to peel off the tight black cotton dress she wore. "Anyway, that was the second time good ol' Marvin pushed off their wedding date," she said, carefully laying the dress over the back of a chair to keep it from getting wrinkled. She laughed suddenly, shaking her head as though she were remembering something good. "I fixed her all up, and we went out that night. Went to the Bunny Hole and got her completely plastered with just two house specials . . ."

"Oh, yeah?" Evan asked with a lazy smile. "Damn . . ."

She turned on her heel and headed outside again. Evan figured that she was going to take a quick swim to cool off, but he didn't follow her.

It bugged the hell out of him, didn't it? Why in the hell would a woman like V put up with that kind of bullshit? It didn't make any sense; not to him. A woman like her should be pampered and coddled and given the best of everything . . .

And maybe . . . Maybe he was the one who could show her that . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'And just like the ocean under the moon
'Well that's the same emotion that I get from you
'You got the kind of lovin' that can be so smooth
'Gimme your heart make it real
'Or else forget about it …'

 

-'Smooth' by Santana featuring Rob Thomas.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan walked into the brightly light gallery amid the flash of camera bulbs, sparing a moment to flash a broad smile and wave at the photographers while ignoring shouted questions that, even if he'd wanted to answer, he couldn't since he couldn't rightfully discern one voice from another.

It was insane, really, and something that had been making him laugh for awhile now. It seemed goofy. He was still just Evan Zelig, the screw-up son of the North American tai-youkai, wasn't he? Nothing special, right? Right . . .

Yet everywhere he went—at least when he went out in full Zel Roka regalia, anyway, people seemed to lose what little common sense they had, didn't they? 'Screwball wabbits,' he thought to himself as he waved off the girl who offered to take his leather jacket.

He spotted Dieter right away. Standing off to the side, he kept glancing around almost nervously, and Evan had a feeling that his youkai senses didn't really help. He was listening to everyone's comments—comments that he wasn't exactly meant to hear—the unofficial critiques of his hard work. It was something that Evan had learned to ignore a long time ago, but Dieter . . . Well, it was safe to say that he tended to be a lot more sensitive than Evan did in that regard.

"Hell of a turnout," Evan remarked as he sidled up beside Dieter.

Dieter shot him a dark glance then snorted. "You ditched me, man."

Evan grinned and shrugged. "Sorry 'bout that. Got caught, you know. Couldn't escape the talons of my keeper for the night."

Dieter snorted. "I waited for you till almost midnight, dude. Miss got really pissed at me, too." He suddenly grinned. "Hey, that rhymed . . ."

"I tried to shake her off; I swear," Evan said. "She was stuck to me like white on rice, and not in a good way."

Dieter made a face. "M-Maybe you should tell her," he said, leaning toward Evan and letting his voice drop to a near-whisper.

Evan snorted and waved a hand in blatant dismissal. "Don't worry about that," he breezed with a lazy grin.

He didn't look entirely reassured. "The papers say you're gonna fry," he pointed out, his brow furrowing in obvious concern. "Say you're gonna do time for it."

"Eh . . . What's a rock star without some time spent in the big house?" he insisted.

Dieter opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off short when Fawn Mantrall hurried over and grabbed his arm. "Dieter, darling! I have someone you absolutely have to meet!" she gushed.

"W—I—"

Fawn rolled her eyes and paused long enough to wink her false eyelashes at Evan. The damn things even had rhinestones stuck to the tips to add a touch of bling for effect. "Oh, if it isn't Zel Roka," she purred. "Looking totally glam, as always."

Evan grinned. "Is that right, Fawn?"

She laughed, her smoke-rusted voice husky and dark. "Isn't it?"

"Well, damn . . . and here I thought you didn't waste your time on bastards like me," he quipped.

"Stick around, gorgeous. I can always spare a moment for you," she promised.

Evan chuckled. "We'll see, baby," he replied.

"Oh, uh, Zel, can you find Miss and tell her I'll be back?" Dieter called over his shoulder as Fawn dragged him away.

He raised a hand to wave.

"If he isn't careful, she'll have his pants around his ankles quicker than he can say 'Fawn's Crab Shack' . . . skanky-assed bitch . . ."

Evan chuckled again as he slipped an arm around Madison's waist. "Eh, he wouldn't let her do that."

Madison shot him a droll look. "You don't think?" Sipping the glass of champagne in her hand, she slowly shook her head. "She's not the kind to ask permission."

Evan shrugged. "Maybe not, but Deet's not stupid."

"He doesn't have to be stupid to fall into her trap. That hussy has fucked more men than Para Ho."

"The porn star?"

Madison snorted indelicately.

"Madison, you sound absolutely cynical."

"I'm hardly cynical," she shot back mildly. "I just know a nasty fuck hole when I see one, and that woman has one of the nastiest. Careful, Roka, or she'll try to suck you in, too—and youkai or not, I'm pretty sure you'd catch something off of the likes of her."

"Oh, hey, Maddy . . . Still got time to do me this weekend?"

She giggled and winked. "Hmm, I might . . ."

He grinned and nodded. "Always time for a lost cause?"

"Something like that . . ."

Evan's commentary was cut short by the sudden, high-pitched holler directed at him. "Uncle Roka!"

Evan grinned as Daniel darted through the milling crowd to grab Evan's leg.

"Hey, squirt. Where's that hot mama of yours?"

"I dunno." Daniel giggled and held out a hand to show Evan a new Ollie Owl stuffed toy. "Daddy got it for me!"

"There you are! Sorry, Zel . . . He ran off about the second we got inside," Miss apologized as she hurried over to reach for her son.

Evan laughed. "It's all right. Dan was hanging out with me, weren't you, buddy?"

"Yeah," Daniel announced happily, waving a hand at his mother to keep her at bay. "Hangin' out!"

Miss rolled her eyes, her eyes sparkling softly. She really was a pretty little thing, Evan thought. Dieter must have bought her the dress she was wearing, though. Tasteful, sure, but the short, black sheath dress showed far more cleavage than Miss tended to present . . . Or maybe she'd bought it on purpose, knowing that Fawn Mantrall was going to be here. Miss really, really didn't trust that woman, not that Evan could blame her. Madison's assertions weren't too far off . . . "You didn't come here to watch him, though, did you?" she said.

Evan shrugged. "I dunno. I mean, he's pretty damn cool."

"That's right! I'm damn cool!" Daniel proclaimed proudly.

Miss smiled, though Evan noticed how her eyes kept darting around, looking for Dieter, he supposed, but knowing Miss' jealous streak—completely unfounded but there, nonetheless—he figured that he'd do well to distract her before she saw her mate, being dragged along by the art director . . . "Hey, Miss . . . Why don't we go find something to drink?" he offered.

She bit her lip and forced a tight little smile. "Oh, uh, I'm okay . . ."

"M-Miss! Listen!" Dieter said as he stalked back over and shot Miss a hesitant smile. "Fawn said there's a guy over there that wants to buy one of my sculptures for, like, a lot of money!" he marveled.

"Really?"

He nodded. "Yeah, and another woman over there? She said she wanted a different one, but she'd pay more if I delivered it, myself."

Evan choked back a chuckle as Miss' expression darkened. "Oh, she did, did she?" she demanded tightly.

Dieter didn't notice his mate's foreboding air. "Fawn told her that I don't deliver, myself though . . . Hell, how could I? Those things weigh a ton, easy . . ."

"Hello, Miss," Fawn drawled, slipping her arm around Dieter's waist. If the artist noticed, though, he gave no indication. It was Evan's considered opinion that Dieter had a habit of overlooking most everything. Daniel wiggled around, leaning toward his father. Dieter grinned and took him, stepping away from Fawn in the process, much to Madison's undisguised amusement.

Too bad Miss looked like she was ready to light into poor ol' Deet. Evan grabbed Fawn's hand and pulled her against his side. "Now, honey, you can't possibly get away from me that easily," he quipped.

Fawn laughed, batting her eyelashes in such a way that made Evan wonder how the damn things kept from getting stuck together. "Mr. Roka, are you coming on to me?" she murmured in an entirely catty sort of way.

Madison shot him an amused glance over her shoulder as she steered Dieter and Miss away from Evan and Fawn. Evan merely smiled. It was all for a good cause, after all, wasn't it?

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Marvin turned on the television and dropped the remote onto the sofa as he tugged on his necktie then meticulously rolled up his sleeves. "Wow, that was a really good meal, wasn't it?" he mused as Valerie kicked off her sensible black pumps and reached up to remove her earrings.

"It was," she agreed with a smile.

He yawned but shot her a wide grin. "Do you want a glass of wine?"

"Sure," she replied as she headed down the short hallway to her bedroom to change clothes. Dinner and a movie had been exactly what the good doctor had ordered, really. For the first time in a few weeks, she felt entirely relaxed for once, and that was a damn good feeling . . .

'See? Marvin is good for me,' she thought with a soft laugh as she pulled the light cream colored sweater over her head and reached for the shapeless gray sweatshirt she tended to wear to bed more often than not. Sure, she had some very pretty nightgowns, most of then given to her by friends over the years, but they were just too cold, and she much preferred the warmth of the sweats, even if they weren't particularly pretty . . .

Grimacing at a strained tightness that had settled into her lower back, she braced her hands against the sore area and leaned back to stretch. It was all that damned Zel Roka's fault. She hadn't gotten to go for her normal morning jog more than a couple times since she'd had to start 'babysitting' the man, and for reasons that she couldn't completely comprehend, he actually tended to get up ungodly early—a fact she'd discovered a few days ago when he'd unceremoniously waked her up at the proverbial crack of dawn, demanding over the telephone that she meet him for breakfast since he was bored.

Well, she was going jogging in the morning whether he liked it or not, and if he got in trouble while she was out, then she'd beat him, no doubt about it . . .

Tugging the barrette out of her hair that held it at the base of her neck, she dropped it onto her dresser in passing, scrubbing vigorously at her head to alleviate the feeling that lingered as she padded back toward the living room in a thick pair of slouchy socks.

Marvin was setting two glasses of wine on the table behind the sofa when she wandered into the room, and he smiled endearingly at her when he saw her. "Got a couple messages," he told her absently.

"Oh? What were they?" she asked as she reached for her glass.

He shrugged. "I didn't have time to check them," he replied. "I can if you want me to, though . . ."

"No, it's fine," she said with a smile, hitting the button to retrieve them. The first was the building maintenance department, reminding her that they would be working on their annual maintenance check as well as replacing a few things over the next week, and that they'd try to keep any outages to a minimum. The second was a courtesy call from the car rental agency in Louisville, confirming her reservation for the weekend. Glancing at her watch, she frowned. It was too late to call them back, but she'd give them a ring in the morning before she left for the airport . . .

Marvin's cell phone rang as she deleted the messages and shuffled toward the computer. She ought to be packing, but she felt so restless. Besides, it really wouldn't take more than a few minutes to do that. She would only be there for a couple days, and even then, it wasn't like she'd actually be seeing anyone while she was there, either . . .

Sinking down in the thickly cushioned sofa, she almost smiled to herself. She'd taken her time in selecting the things that surrounded her, and everything in her home was accompanied by a sense of utter satisfaction. She'd gone to great lengths to make sure that all of her things were the best and most economical that she could manage, spending countless hours researching online or shopping around for the best deal on the item she'd chosen, and as she grabbed a fluffy throw pillow and hugged it against her chest, she sighed.

Reaching for the remote, she raised it to change the channel, but stopped and hit the volume button, instead.

"And in entertainment news, infamous shock-rocker, Zel Roka was spotted at L'Attitude, the ultra-hip art gallery that hosts only the trendiest and most cutting edge artists, tonight, showing his support for his long-time friend and bass guitarist, Dieter Reichardt. Sources say that the always colorful musician showed up without a date, not that it was a problem since he was seen leaving the high-profile art gallery with Fawn Mantrall, the owner of L'Attitude . . ."

Narrowing her eyes at the footage, she snorted indelicately. It was Zel, all right, leaving the gallery with a very buxom woman hanging on his arm amid the flash of camera bulbs. She didn't look like the owner of an art gallery—nope, she actually looked a little more like a fifty-cent whore, complete with her overly-teased, very bouffant hair, her low cut dress that barely covered her breasts, and those trashy false eyelashes . . . That damned dog had his hand on her hip and a completely lecherous sort of grin on his face, and he actually had the nerve to tell the reporters that they were heading to a 'private party' . . .

And she very nearly reached for the telephone to call Zel and remind him that they had a deal when Marvin hung up the phone and hurried around the sofa to grab her hands as he sat down on the edge of the cushion. "Val! Fantastic news!" he blurted.

Valerie blinked, requiring a moment to make the transition in her head from Marvin's boyish excitement to her own marked lack of enthusiasm. "W-What?" she muttered, shaking her head since she honestly had no idea what he was talking about.

Marvin laughed and squeezed her fingers. "Well, you see, there's this huge gala this weekend—I mean, bigger than huge, really! It's kind of a fundraiser, but there'll be a lot of investors there, not to mention the ones hosting it! I-It's the most fantastic thing, and I never really thought I'd ever manage an invitation to it, but Carson Meadows—You remember him, right?" He paused long enough to take another deep breath before waving his hands and plunging on. "Well, his mother-in-law is pretty sick, so he and his wife won't be able to attend, and he called just now to offer us their tickets! He said he'd send them over by courier tomorrow, and . . . Val, you know, I think you'll love it. It's a black tie thing."

She shook her head slowly, unable to get the entire gist of what he was saying since he was talking so fast. "Wait . . . When?"

"—This is so great!" Marvin went on without actually hearing Valerie's question. He was so excited that he just wasn't listening. "I mean, I've told them all about you, of course, and now you'll finally get to meet a lot of them, and—"

"Marvin," she interrupted, raising her voice enough to be heard over his happy chatter. "When is this thing?"

"Oh, uh, Saturday night."

She frowned. "I won't be here," she reminded him slowly.

He grimaced suddenly, as though he'd just remembered that she'd already made plans for the weekend. "Geez, I'm sorry, Val . . . Man, I forgot . . ." He brightened up suddenly and smiled. "Yeah, but it's just one of those boring lawyer conferences, right? I mean, every time you go to one, you tell me what a drag it was, don't you? So why don't you skip this one?"

"Marvin . . ." She sighed and shook her head, trying to decipher exactly why the expression on his face made her feel so damn guilty. "I already made reservations," she explained slowly, trying to temper the slight irritation that swelled up inside her at the ease with which he'd discounted her plans.

For the first time since he'd gotten off the telephone, his smile wavered. "I-I know. It's just . . . But you always say that you get bored at those conferences; that you never really understand why you go to them, in the first place . . ."

She forced a tight little smile, reminding herself that she really hadn't told Marvin what her true plans were. It wasn't that she worried what he'd say. Marvin would just have told her that she should do whatever she felt she should do. Truthfully, she wasn't entirely certain why she was keeping it a secret, in the first place. She supposed that it had a lot to do with the entire history of it all, and maybe even the feelings that she wasn't sure she wanted to face . . .

"I . . . It's too late to get my money refunded," she went on, fully aware of exactly how lame she really sounded.

Marvin laughed suddenly—one of those laughs that always sounded forced and never failed to make her feel like a complete and utter bitch. "That's okay, Val. It's fine. I mean, it's not like I actually expected to be invited to this, and you're right. You already made your plans. I . . . I'm sorry."

And the kicker? He sounded sincere, didn't he? He really was sorry that he'd assumed that she'd drop everything for his little soiree . . . Rubbing her forehead, she heaved a sigh. "It's just a fundraiser, right? It's not like you are going to give a presentation or anything . . ."

Marvin shrugged and smiled, though the smile held a tinge of disappointment. "You're right. It's just that I'd talked you up so much to a lot of these people that I wanted them to meet you, but it's not a big deal. I mean, maybe . . . Maybe we'll be invited next year . . ."

She glanced up and frowned. She just had to look, didn't she? She had to look up to see the doubt in his gaze. He knew damn well that the odds that he'd be invited back to the annual fundraiser were slim and none, and he simply didn't want to make her feel bad, and she knew it. That was the hell of it, wasn't it?

"It means a lot to you, doesn't it?" she asked quietly, shoving aside the prickle of irritation that she felt with herself for being irked, in the first place. How selfish was she, really? After all, it was just one party, right? And the work Marvin was fighting to get funding for was important—really important—much more important than a family that Valerie had chosen to break ties with years ago . . .

"Oh, well . . ." he hedged, unsure whether or not he really ought to answer her truthfully.

She shrugged and deliberately kept her gaze averted. "I-It's just such short notice," she murmured.

Marvin laughed softly, a cautious sense of optimism brightening his gaze. "I should be able to rent a tuxedo, I think . . . Heck, it's such a big thing, though . . . Maybe I should see about getting a better one. You . . . You could wear that black dress of yours: you know, the one with the matching jacket? Classy yet businesslike . . ."

Valerie almost snorted. "I don't know, Marvin. That dress isn't exactly 'black tie', I don't think, and I've got time tomorrow. Maybe I'll go shopping."

He chuckled and nodded—she had a feeling that he'd agree to just about anything, at least at the moment. "Sure, sure . . . You look good in anything. Oh, I need to make a few calls; see if I can't find out who all might be there!"

She sighed as he stood up and skittered away. The feeling of irritation didn't go away completely, even though she tried to ignore it. Untangling her legs, she stood up, grabbing her glass of wine as she shuffled over to the desk to check her email. When she sat down, she bit her lip. Clicking on her internet browser, she frowned. It opened to the last site she'd looked up: Kaci Lea's blog. She's made a new post about the dress her mother had bought for her just for her middle school graduation, and she sounded really excited.

Valerie read the post and clicked on the corner to close it as the soft sound of Marvin's excited voice droned on in the background . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'So take me as I am
'This may mean you'll have to be a stronger man
'Rest assured that when I start to make you nervous
'And I'm going to extremes
'Tomorrow I will change
'And today won't mean a thing …'

 

-'Bitch' by Meredith Brooks.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie plodded along the path that led through Central Park, drowning out the sounds of the city with the steady tones of Crystal Ladders, one of the newest and most cutting edge bands to rise up from the new music scene based in St. Louis. A curious mix of folk and blues and rock, Crystal Ladders, along with the few other bands that had come to light recently, had adopted the tag of 'fu-blues'—fusion blues—to describe their collective and distinctive sounds.

She sighed but kept running, savoring the slight tickle as sweat dripped down her neck, only to be absorbed into the neckband of her tank top. But the normal sense of peace that the exercise inspired was missing, wasn't it? She'd gotten up early, unable to get back to sleep after Marvin's tossing and turning had awoken her a few hours ago . . . She was having entirely too much trouble dealing with her emotions, and while she knew somewhere deep down that she really had no one to blame but herself, she couldn't help the irritation that she really had let Marvin talk her into changing her plans.

With a sigh, she quickened her pace. All right, so that wasn't entirely fair, either. Marvin hadn't changed her mind. He hadn't even really tried. Still, she'd seen it in his face: had seen exactly how much the whole thing meant to him. She knew that, didn't she? And yet . . .

And in the end, she'd felt bad—felt horrible, actually. Somehow, he'd managed to make her feel like the world's worst girlfriend with just a simple look. Marvin's research . . . It could change the world, couldn't it? At least, he could change it for a number of families who were still struggling, wish and hoping for a cure for neuroblastoma—a rare form of childhood cancer that, in the later stages of development, tended to be fatal. Marvin's younger brother had died from it, and he'd devoted his entire life to trying to find a cure for it.

In fact, it was Marvin's absolute devotion to his cause that had first drawn Valerie to him. She'd met him during her junior year of college. He was giving a student lecture for childhood cancer awareness in one of the free lecture halls, and a friend of hers—a medical student—had talked her into going along.

She'd been mesmerized by Marvin's passion, his dedication, and after the lecture, she'd asked him to have coffee with her . . .

And maybe he wasn't exactly the most charismatic man in the world, but he was a good man. Maybe he wasn't as tall and good looking as Zel Roka, but he always came off as entirely approachable: warm and affable, with a friendly smile and an enthusiasm that couldn't be denied.

So maybe that was the real reason that she'd felt so bad when she'd realized that this precious fundraiser of his was happening the same weekend when she'd already made plans to do other things. Marvin was right. Every time she went to one of the lawyer conventions she sometimes attended, she did complain that they were boring and almost a waste of time, so really, how would he have known any different?

Slowing to a walk, Valerie dug a bottle of water out of her fanny pack as she strode around the wide area where she always took a moment to cool off before heading back along the trail once more.

Why hadn't she told him? Why hadn't she bothered to explain to Marvin that she wasn't going to a conference? Why hadn't she just said where she really had been planning on going? Marvin would have understood. Marvin always tried to understand, and even if he didn't particularly care for the idea of her going to her younger sister's middle school graduation, he would at least have told her that, if it was important to her, then it was important to him, too . . .

Still . . .

It was just hard for her to talk about; that was it. It always had been. Her story was so much different from Marvin's, and while he tried to understand, she knew deep down that there were parts of it that he didn't, and how could he when she didn't, either?

Marvin's parents had died, and he and his younger brother had ended up in the custody of the State, he'd told her. Sometime in the commotion of being moved and settled in with a few different families until he'd found a family who had kept him for most of his youth, his brother's symptoms had been overlooked, not purposefully, no, but in the chaos, what one family might have noticed, another one had missed . . . It wasn't that they didn't care: it was more that they just hadn't realized: that's what Marvin had said, and at first, they had trouble placing the boys together, as well, so he hadn't really noticed much, either, in the few instances when they'd have visits together. Finally, though, they'd found a permanent placement with a very sweet older couple, but by then, his brother's condition was a lot worse, and he'd died less than a year later.

Marvin had continued to stay with the couple—the Robbins. That couple had raised him until the husband died. By then, Marvin was seventeen, and he'd stayed with the wife until he'd graduated from high school. She died of a heart attack, complicated by pneumonia when Marvin was in his last year of college . . .

But Valerie's story? It was much, much uglier than that, and maybe that was the real reason why she was loathe to talk about it, and while she'd told Marvin quite a bit of it, she certainly hadn't told him all of it. It was just something that she didn't want to talk about much, anyway, so the bits and pieces that Marvin knew only served to show him the parts that she, herself, understood . . .

And maybe that was part of the reason why she'd wanted to go on that trip; part of the reason why she hadn't told Marvin—hadn't told anyone—her true destination, and while she tried not to be upset with Marvin for inadvertently making her feel badly for wanting to go, she couldn't quite help herself, either.

She took a deep drink from the water bottle and sighed. When she'd left her apartment, Marvin was still sleeping, snoring lightly. That was it, wasn't it? She'd just had to get out of there before she let her emotions overwhelm her . . .

Letting out a deep breath, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed Madison's number. She'd meant to call her when she'd gone out to jog, but it was too early then, and while it was still early enough, at least she wouldn't feel so badly about waking her up . . .

"Hello?" she answered, sounding oddly 'awake', given the relatively early hour.

"Hi, Maddy. I just wondered if you could fit me in to do my hair on Saturday?"

Madison shuffled some papers around, probably looking for her planner, and very likely unable to find it, either. "Saturday? Wait . . . I thought you were going to be out of town this weekend . . ."

Valerie grimaced since she was planning on that and had told Madison and Zel exactly that the other day when she'd unceremoniously found the two of them, curled up together on Zel's sofa—naked. She'd been furious, of course. How dare that manipulating, conniving, odious man coerce Madison into going along with whatever nastiness he had in mind . . .? That he'd just grinned that intolerably smug grin of his and told her that nothing had actually happened was arbitrary. She didn't doubt for a moment that he'd done something bad, and she'd told him as much, too—after she'd tossed a glass of icy cold water on the two of them, anyway . . .

"I was. I'm not now," Valerie replied curtly.

"Oh, that didn't sound like a happy thing," Madison drawled. "What happened?"

Heaving a long sigh, Valerie shook her head. "Marvin got a last minute invitation to some fund raiser thing," she admitted.   "Anyway, he really wanted me to go with him, so I told him I would."

"Fund raiser thing?" Madison repeated.

"Yes, some black tie thing . . ."

Madison suddenly groaned. "Oh, no! Tell me you're not wearing that perfectly awful sack you call a dress."

Valerie rolled her eyes but finally managed a little smile. "It's not that bad," she argued.

Madison snorted indelicately. "It's not bad," she agreed mildly, "it's awful, and if you're planning on wearing it, then you can forget about me fixing your hair."

"Actually," she cut in before Madison could really get herself worked up, "I was wondering if you've got time to go shopping with me, too."

"New dress?" Madison mused.

Valerie sipped the water. "Yes."

"And new shoes?" Madison pressed.

"Ma-a-aybe . . ."

". . . Can I pick the shoes?"

Valerie laughed. "Within reason," she allowed. "I don't like heels . . ."

Madison sighed. "You love heels, V; you're just engaged to the world's shortest man."

Valerie tried not to laugh outright. She did smile. "He's not that short," she argued.

"Short enough," Madison rejoined.

All right. She had a point. It didn't bother her, though—at least, not that much. Sure, Marvin was about four inches shorter than her. Still, what he lacked in height, he made up for in personality . . . "You know, many of the world's greatest leaders weren't particularly gifted with height," she pointed out. "Look at Napoleon. Look at James Madison . . ."

Madison didn't reply right away. Valerie figured she was staring at the phone receiver or something. "I'd hardly put Marvin on par with any kind of military leader," she muttered.

"All the same," she maintained stubbornly, "I was going to go shopping, anyway . . ."

"Ah, what the hell?" Madison blurted suddenly. "Count me in!"

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Cut, cut, cut!" Buzz Marleighvaughn interrupted with a heavy sigh, waving his hand in an irritated sort of way, nearly catching what was left of his frizzy brown hair on fire with the cigarette dangling limply between the knuckles of his third and forth fingers. "What the fuck was that, Roka? Sounded like utter shit!"

Evan didn't comment as he offered a shrug and grabbed his balls in a gesture meant to let Buzz know what he thought of the interruption.

"Yeah, whatever. You gotta grow some, first," Buzz muttered. "Anyhow, take it again from the top, and this time, try to sound like you wanna be here, you little cocksucker."

He rolled his eyes but grinned.

"'You tell me that you want me,
'It don't really mean a thing . . .
'If you tell me that you need me,
'Then you just tease me . . .
'So get down on your knees and pray . . .'"

 

Heaving a sigh, Evan yanked off the headphones and tossed them aside.

"What's the matter?" Mike asked through the intercom.

"The matter?" he echoed with a nonchalant shrug. "Easy. I don't fucking like that song."

Mike blinked, exchanging glances with the legendary producer. ". . . But you wrote it."

"Yeah, well, I changed my mind. I don't like it. Forget it."

Mike shook his head. "Zel . . . We're on a fairly tight schedule here," he reminded the rock star. "We really need to get these tracks down—"

Evan headed for the door of the sound-proof studio and pushed into the hallway just as Mike stomped out of the mixing booth. "Listen, Roka—"

"I'm just not feeling it, Mikey," he replied. "Give me a week or two to do some rewrites—hell, I might just scrap that one entirely—dunno."

Mike sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his face—not entirely surprising since they'd been in the studio for nearly fourteen hours now. "Wicked Soundsations isn't going to like this," he predicted slowly.

Evan snorted and scratched at his head. "What are they gonna do? Drop me? Big deal. Even if they did, I'd have another contract in less than a week."

Which was true enough, and Mike knew that, too. To be honest, Evan highly doubted that they'd be too upset over the delay, anyway, all things considered. It wasn't as though he gave them a lot of trouble, as far as meeting deadlines. In fact, this would only be the second one he'd pushed back in his career with them—a far cry from some of the other 'artists' who threw hissy fits constantly because their underwear was bunched up a little too tightly.

Without another word, he headed for the stairwell, foregoing the elevator since he really didn't like those things in the least.

Stopping between floors long enough to peer outside, he grimaced. It wasn't surprising in the least that his presence must've been leaked to the press since there were a handful of reporters outside, but he didn't feel like hanging out, for once. True enough, normally, he rather enjoyed taking a few minutes or longer to chill with the fans that had managed to track him down. It never ceased to amaze him, how crazy-insane his fans tended to be, and talking to them was always damn funny, if he didn't have any prior obligations.

Today, though . . .

Today he had other things on his mind: most importantly, someone in particular that he was anxious to see . . .

So he turned on his heel and headed upstairs, not stopping until he stepped onto the roof of the recording studio.

It only took about thirty minutes, give or take, of sprinting and jumping to reach the roof of the townhouse, and, satisfied that he wouldn't be seen, he dropped into the alley beside it.

"I see . . . Oh, no . . . I understand. It can't be helped, right? Of course not . . . Just get better soon . . . Okay, absolutely!"

Evan lounged casually in the doorway with a lazy smile on his face as he waited.

Gin Izayoi Zelig heaved a sigh and set the cell phone onto the table beside her, her shoulders slumping, her absolutely adorable little hanyou ears drooping.

"What's wrong, Mama?" he drawled without straightening up.

Gin sighed and shook her head, opening her mouth to say something. Suddenly, though, she snapped her mouth closed as her eyes widened, as she stared at him for several calculating moments. "Oh, it's awful! Terrible! Horrible!"

"Aww, I'm sure it's not that bad," he remarked.

She heaved a louder, longer sigh and rubbed her forehead. "It is," she countered. "I just don't know what I'll do!"

"'Zat so?"

She nodded dramatically. "It's so so!"

Judiciously hiding his amusement, Evan shrugged. "What happened?"

Gin twisted her fingers together in an exaggerated slow of impatience. "We-e-ell," she drawled.

Evan chuckled. "Now, Mama, you can tell me," he assured her, rather enjoying her feigned reluctance to voice her problems.

"You see," she finally said, "it's about the bachelor's auction . . . David Vanderwahl—otherwise known as 'Eligible Bachelor Number Ten'—broke his leg yesterday while he was waterskiing."

"That's too bad," Evan remarked.

Gin's eyes grew round, and Evan chuckled. At moments like that, it was simple to see how his father succumbed to a woman like her . . . "But it's for charity, you know, and ten bachelors would have brought in so much more money than just nine, and Mr. Vanderwahl was really the best looking of them all . . . He was People magazine's fifteenth most eligible bachelor last year." She trailed off and tapped her chin thoughtfully. "My goodness, who was number one on that list, again . . .?"

Evan's grin broadened since he knew damn well where his mother was going with this. To be honest, it rather amused him. "People magazine? Don't recall reading it . . ."

"Oh! That's right! You were the most eligible bachelor last year! My boy!" Gin exclaimed proudly.

Evan chuckled. "I wasn't," he argued with a shake of his head. "Zel Roka was."

She waved a hand as though it was of no real consequence. "Same thing; same thing," she insisted as she wandered over to finger a lock of his bright, copper-red hair. "So . . . Do you suppose you'd do your mama a favor? It's for a good cause . . ."

"I don't know, Mama . . ."

"Please?"

He grinned again. "What about Bubby?"

Gin laughed and kissed Evan's cheek. "Your brother's married, and I don't think Sydnie would like it if I were to auction him off!"

Evan made a face. Unfortunately, there was a lot of truth in that . . . "Yeah, you wouldn't get so much out of him, anyway. He's too anal to impress the ladies—unless he flashed 'em his weenie. That might get him some attention."

Gin giggled, her cheeks pinking up prettily at the mere thought of the aforementioned 'weenie'. "Oh, I don't think that'd be in good taste, do you?"

Evan shrugged. "I dunno, Mama. Women seem to like my weenie all right . . ."

The twitters of laughter escalated. "Oh, well . . . It was just an idea . . . You're so busy, anyway, but maybe I could talk your father into letting me sell him . . ."

The aforementioned 'father' walked into the room, glancing up from the papers in his hands with a somewhat quizzical look on his face. "Sell me?" he echoed.

She giggled and hurried over to her mate, slipping her arms around his waist and giving him a quick squeeze. He retaliated by kissing the top of her head, eliciting another round of giggles from her. "I know; you're busy, but I just lost Eligible Bachelor Number Ten," she informed him, her eyes wide and blinking. "I thought Evan would be a suitable stand-in, but he's so busy . . . I mean, you're just a tai-youkai, after all, not an internationally famous rock star!"

Cain snorted indelicately, likely at her allusion that he was 'just a tai-youkai'. "Um, Gin, you're selling bachelors," he pointed out.

"That's right, Zelig-sensei."

He stared at her for several long moments. ". . . But I'm married, baby girl—very married."

"We could market you as 'Semi-Eligible Bachelor Number Ten—brooding unknown artist," Gin went on.

Cain chuckled and shook his head. "Maybe, but everyone there knows damn well that I'm your husband," he reminded her, "and I don't really brood . . ."

"Horse piss," Evan shot back. "How'd they know any such thing when you're not even going with Mama, Cain?"

"Well, you do brood a little . . ." Gin went on.

"Is there something you wanted, Evan?" Cain asked, making a point of ignoring Gin's commentary, at least for the moment.

Evan shot his sire a cheesy grin. "I just came by to check on my hot date," he quipped.

Gin giggled, unable to control her humor. "You're such a sweet boy!"

Evan chuckled. Cain rolled his eyes. "Just make sure that damned Wayne Buchanan stays the hell away from her, understand?"

Evan scowled in concentration, turning his gaze upward as he considered the name. "Buchanan . . . Buchanan . . . Oh, that old bastard with the house in Malibu who's always trying to lure Mama down for a visit?"

Cain grunted, his expression darkening just a little more.

"Oh, he's harmless!" Gin insisted.

"Yeah, well, he can keep his harmless ass away from you," Cain muttered, flipping the long end of his ponytail over his shoulder. "How's court going?"

Evan tried to hide the grimace that surfaced on his features. It didn't work so well. He didn't have a doubt in his mind that good ol' Cain already knew damn well, 'how court was going': he had too fucking many spies at his disposal not to know. Still, he forced a small smile and shrugged offhandedly since his mother's pleased expression had taken on a much graver note. "Fine," he told them both. "Nothing to worry about. Got the best lawyer money could buy."

Cain cocked an eyebrow. "And that's why she was beating on you in the paper the other day?"

Evan really did grin at that reminder. "Well . . ."

Cain heaved a sigh. "Take it easy on her, will you?" he admonished.

Evan chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Cain. I got it all under control."

"Of course you do," Gin insisted with an encouraging smile. "Don't worry, Cain. Evan's a good boy, and they'll see it, too."

Cain didn't look nearly as confident as Gin did, but he did manage a tight little smile. "If you say so, baby girl."

"Don't lose sleep over it, Cain," Evan went on airily. "Zel Roka ain't got nothin' to do with the precious office of the tai-fucking-youkai."

"Evan . . ." Cain began in a warning tone.

"What do you think, Zelig-sensei?" Gin asked suddenly, giving her mate a reassuring squeeze as she shifted from one foot to the other, feeling the tension tightening over the room. "Bachelor Number Ten fell through, and I was trying to convince Evan, here, to fill in."

"Sounds about right," Cain remarked with a shrug. "Besides, it is for charity."

Evan snorted but grinned. "I don't know, Mama," he drawled slowly.

"Then again, Bas did sell for, what? Seven-hundred-fifty thousand the year he let you talk him into it?" Cain mused.

"Oh, that's right! That was the year before he met Sydnie, wasn't it? He was our biggest money maker," she told Evan, as though he didn't already know that.

"Like I give a shit how much you sold Bubby for," Evan scoffed.

Cain nodded slowly. "I suppose it would be a pretty big blow to the ego if Evan couldn't raise as much money as Bas."

"Could, too," Evan muttered under his breath. His parents didn't seem to have heard him. "Fine, fine, I'll do it," he said, injecting just enough boredom into his tone to let his parents know exactly what he thought of the entire affair, "but it isn't because Bubby did it."

Gin squealed and clapped her hands happily as she bounced toward him to hug him tight. "I knew you wouldn't let me down," she insisted.

Evan smiled and kissed Gin's cheek. "'Course not, Mama . . . Seven-hundred-fifty, you say?"

Gin nodded and laughed once more. "That's right."

Evan's smile widened. "Not a problem," he told her. "Not a problem, at all . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'R-E-S-P-E-C-T
'Find out what it means to me
'R-E-S-P-E-C-T
'Take care, TCB …'

 

-'Respect' by Otis Redding.

 

 

-Madison-

 

 

"So, what, exactly, are we going for here?"

Evan chuckled. "Aw, respectable, right?"

Madison arched an eyebrow, pausing as she pulled some of her gear out of the quick tote bag she'd packed for the occasion. "Respectable, huh?"

He nodded as he pulled the immaculate black tuxedo from the dry cleaner's bag.

She eyed the garment and slowly shook her head. "Dragging out the Vonderosi?" she quipped, making reference to the tux' designer. Gianni Vonderosi was one of the most expensive lines in the world, and no wonder since every last one of them were made to order according to measurements, and every last one of them was made by hand by the aging designer. That Evan's was fashioned from a lightweight silk that was brushed to remove much of the signature sheen—it could easily be confused with a sturdier cotton or even linen, Madison knew damn well that it was likely the most expensive thing that the man actually owned . . . "You weren't kidding, were you?"

"What do you expect? I'm accompanying the most gorgeous woman in the known universe tonight," he replied with a wink. "I gotta look the part, don't I?"

"Hmm," she mused, unable to hide her smile. It never failed to amuse her. The ultra-hip, ultra-popular Zel Roka was the biggest mama's boy on the face of the planet, and the idea of spending an entire evening as her escort? He'd blown off the chance to do a gig at the newly reopened Stone Pony—a venue that she knew he'd been dying to do ever since they closed it down some twenty years ago . . . A lot of great rockers back in the day got their start at that club . . .

"So what are your plans for the night, and don't tell me you don't have any," Evan said as he plopped onto the small stool where he always sat whenever Madison cut his hair.

She heaved a sigh. "Well, believe it or not, I'm going to hang out with Bugs."

Evan blinked and shot her a quizzical look to see whether or not she was joking. She didn't appear to be . . . "Hanging out with Bugs? Since when?"

She shrugged. "He came in to get his weekly hair treatment yesterday, and he was all kinds of upset over his latest boy-toy's defection, then Alicia pointed out that I didn't have plans tonight, so . . ." She trailed off for a moment then sighed again. "I really should fire that girl . . ."

"So you're going out with Bugsy? Sounds fun," he teased.

Madison shot him a droll look. "Oh, it shouldn't be too bad. He said I could pick the place."

Evan chuckled as Madison made the first cut with the hellaciously sharp scissors. "Hmm . . . well, don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"That leaves it pretty well wide open, doesn't it?" she remarked. "Oh, what do you think of my new dress?"

The grin widened when Madison stepped back and posed prettily for Evan's perusal. He held up a hand and twirled his finger. She complied, pivoting so that he could get the full effect. "Nice," he replied with a wink, smiling brightly at the black leather dress that clung to her body as though it were molded to fit her as she fiddled with the black metal zipper pull that dangled between her breasts. "C'mere, Maddikins."

She laughed and sauntered toward him, watching with a bemused smile as he caught his claw through the small hole on the end of the pull and tugged it down a few inches. "That's better," he approved. "Hell, if you got the tits, might as well show 'em off, right?"

"Is that right?"

He nodded. "That's right."

Madison stepped over once more, reaching for the comb she'd set aside a few minutes before. "Hmm, I have a good feeling about tonight," she ventured as she lopped off another long strand of hair.

"Oh, that's not the half of it," he told her with a broad grin.

"It's not?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Mama asked if she could auction me off."

Madison paused long enough to shoot him a very amused smile. "Is that so?"

Evan nodded. "Yup. Apparently 'Eligible Bachelor Number Ten' hurt himself, and being the good and devoted son that I am . . ."

"You let her talk you into it, of course."

"Of course."

Madison shook her head and quickly finished cutting Evan's hair. Heck, she'd done it so often that it wasn't even a thing she had to think about anymore. Every so often, he'd ask her to do it so that he could escape; so that he could wander the streets without anyone recognizing him. It was an interesting thing, really, as far as she was concerned. He adored the attention that he garnered as shock-rocker Zel Roka, but even he had moments when he just wanted to be 'normal'.

But then, Evan had always been that way, ever since she could remember. He loved to shock people; to give them 'the show', but he also had his introspective times, and while they tended to be few and far between, she knew damn well that there were moments when he'd tell his family one story or another, only to grab her and disappear deep into the forest or wandering the vast Maine coast for a day or a week. During those times, Madison was the only person he ever had taken along, probably because he knew that she'd be lost without him, and when they were younger, that was true enough.

When Evan had moved to New York City a year before she'd finished high school, she'd seriously thought that she'd go insane. Sure, she had other friends, and some of them were really close to her—friends like Jillian Zelig, now Jillian Jamison, but as close as they were, there were still things about Madison that she doubted that Jillian would understand, even if she tried.

Evan was the only person who'd ever really 'gotten' her: gotten her without question and without having to have it explained. It was as though the two could look at each other and know what the other was thinking, and she knew well enough that she'd probably never find anyone else who understood her quite as fully and completely as Evan Zelig did, and while it made her a little sad, she had to be thankful that she'd found him, in the first place.

And everyone had assumed, growing up, that there was something between the two of them, too. Maybe that was the real reason that neither of them had really ever found a significant other for any length of time.

Of course, that didn't mean that they didn't get into their fair share of mischief over the years, either. They had, and it was a lot of fun. It hadn't taken Evan long to figure out that women just loved him, but maybe that was the real problem, too. He was too good-looking, wasn't he? Movie star looks and a killer smile . . . The girls had been a little daunted by him, and Evan? Well, he'd reveled in the attention. The thing was, none of the girls ever seemed to take him seriously, either. Maybe he was just too good-looking. Girls automatically assumed that he'd never be anything more than a playboy, and he'd conformed. Not many people knew the Evan that she knew: the sensitive guy who really just wanted nothing more than to find the one woman meant for him.

Not that it stopped him from looking or playing. Hell, no . . . He rather enjoyed his 'fun', and as long as he wasn't hurting anyone, then where was the problem?

Madison smiled as she carefully brushed the excess hair off Evan's shoulders. "I suppose that'll be about as 'respectable' as you're going to get," she said a little dryly.

He turned his head from side to side as he eyed his reflection in the small portable mirror he'd grabbed off the table beside him. Hair cut very short and tapered in the back and sides, his bangs were a little longer. Silver hair gleaming in the stark afternoon sunshine filtering through the wall of windows that overlooked his back yard, he shot Madison a smile of approval. "It'll do," he told her with a grin.

"You know, it's been so long since I've seen your regular hair color, I was starting to forget what it looked like," she mused as she slipped her shears into the hard plastic case.

He chuckled and stood up, balling his hands into tight fists as he leaned back and stretched. "Yeah, it's a little weird, innit?"

"All the same, you look nice, though I don't doubt for a moment that your mother isn't going to be too pleased that you went and cut off your hair for the night."

He wrinkled his nose and reached for the pristine white Jordane DeSalvio shirt, narrowing his eyes as he gave it the critical once-over. "Nah, she'll dig it."

"Well, there you go," she said as she packed up the rest of her gear. "I gotta run."

"So soon?" Evan asked with a blink.

Madison nodded as she tugged the strap of the nondescript black leather bag—her to-go kit—over her shoulder. "Yep. The life of a hair executive, you know."

"You did Mama's hair, right?"

"Just before I came over here," she said. "I saw the dress you bought her. Has Cain seen it?"

Evan grinned. "You think I'd be taking her if Cain had seen it?"

Madison giggled. "Good point," she said with a wink. "You know, your mama doesn't have a clue, how hot she really is."

Evan's grin turned a little goofier. "Yeah," he admitted. "Makes you wonder why she settled for an ugly old dog like Cain, doesn't it?"

She rolled her eyes and shook her head since she knew damn well that Cain Zelig was hardly an ugly old anything. "I don't know . . . If I had been around when your father was still single, I might have tried to get into his pants."

"Ugh," Evan grunted, making a face of absolute disdain. "Ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh . . ."

Madison laughed and headed for the door, pausing long enough to blow a kiss over her shoulder at him. "Bye, Evan . . . Have fun . . ."

His soft laughter trailed after her, lingering in the air long after she'd closed the door behind her.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie bit her lip as she frowned at the dress she'd bought on impulse. She'd been so irritated at the time that she'd let Madison talk her into it, despite the tiny voice in the back of her head that kept insisting that Marvin wouldn't like it; not in the least.

She sighed and rubbed her forehead, cradling a steaming cup of coffee against her chest. Marvin wanted to present a more businesslike appearance, and she had to admit that there was nothing at all 'businesslike' about the dress she'd purchased . . .

To be honest, she hadn't started to feel too bad about it until earlier today when she'd finally started to put things into perspective. After all, her changes in plans weren't really Marvin's fault. He hadn't known what she was planning to do, and if she had told him, he would have insisted that she go, and she knew it. So why had he made her feel so badly when she'd insisted that she wanted to go to her conference, anyway?

Marvin's work was important, and she knew it. It would mean a lot more than trying to get a rock star out of trouble that he thoroughly deserved. She was being selfish and terrible, wasn't she? And then . . .

Face shifting into a grimace, Valerie shook her head and set the cup aside. It was too late to go to the store and find another dress, but she still had the black one—the one that Madison hated. She winced. She'd heard of the Zelig Foundation fundraisers. They were the absolute talk of the highest of society, weren't they? The guest list was always relatively small—only about five hundred or so—and every last person was normally exceedingly wealthy, to boot. How Marvin had gotten an invitation was entirely beyond her, and because she knew just how exclusive it was, she'd wanted to buy a new dress so that she wouldn't look completely out of place amongst the beautiful people . . .

'It'll have to do,' she thought with a stubborn lifting of her chin. The black dress wasn't cheap, by any means, and yes, she'd worn it a few times, but it wasn't even close to up to the standards of the women she'd see tonight, was it, and even then, it was more the kind of dress that one wore to a semi-formal day function, not a full-out gala hosted by one of the richest families in the world. She let out a deep breath and tried to tell herself that it would be just fine. Given the situation, she supposed that it couldn't be helped, either. Damn her rash decisions, anyway . . .

"Valerie!"

She let out a deep breath and headed toward the closet. "In here!" she called out.

"Finally! I tell you, I've done nothing but house calls all day," Madison said as she sauntered into the room. "I guess it's understandable, given the occasion, but I swear, I should double my going rate for this kind of thing."

"Have I told you lately how much I adore you?" Valerie muttered half-heartedly.

"What are you . . .?" Madison trailed off then gasped when Valerie tugged the stand-by black dress from her closet. "Oh, no! No, absolutely not!"

Valerie sighed and shook her head stubbornly. "I can't wear that one," she said, jerking her head toward the dress that had just been delivered.

Madison snorted. "Of course you can," she argued. "You can put it on and walk out the door, and if Marvin doesn't like it, then even better, I say."

"Madison—"

She was cut off by the trill of her cell phone, and she heaved another sigh as she snatched it off the nearby table. "Hello?"

"Oh, uh, Val? Hi . . . You okay?"

Darkening her scowl as she shot Madison a warning look, she turned away. "Yes, fine, Marvin. Shouldn't you be coming home to get ready soon?"

"Yeah, well, that's the thing," he said in a slow, almost uneasy sort of tone. "I got to talking to Dane Candlor, and he said that he's got a place right next to the Faaustin Garden, and he wanted to hear a little more about my research, so I figured that I'd just change over there."

Valerie blinked and shook her head. "But you just went to pick up your tux," she said. "I thought we were going together . . ."

Marvin laughed a somewhat nervous little laugh. "Just catch a cab, Val, and I'll meet you there. How's that sound? I mean, by the time I got back there, I'd have to hurry to change, and then it'd be a little silly, wouldn't it, driving back across town again? Is it really such a big deal?"

Valerie could positively feel Madison's irritation rising, as though the woman could hear what Marvin was saying, which was entirely impossible. "Sure, it's fine," she said, unable to keep the clipped tone out of her voice. "I'll see you there, then."

She hung up before Marvin could say anything else. She didn't need to look at Madison to know that the woman was likely getting ready to lambaste Valerie's fiancé.

Glancing at the boxy black dress that more resembled a suit than a party frock, she snorted, herself, and jammed it back into the closet once more. Why was it that she could normally overlook such things as this? After all, Marvin did it all the time, didn't he? He'd make plans with her, then change them at the last moment, and why did it feel so odd, the idea of showing up at this function alone?

"I'm sorry, Val, but he's really, really interested in funding at least part of the research . . . I know you wanted a summer wedding, but fall's just as nice, right? I mean, with the changing leaves and all that . . . Heck, it might even be prettier . . ."

"Uh . . . Yeah, you didn't order the invitations for the wedding yet, did you? It's just that Henry Montgomery invited me out to his place that weekend, and he said there'll be a lot of would-be investors there, too . . ."

"Earth to Valerie . . . Are you all right?"

Valerie blinked away the lingering echo of Marvin's words, pasting on a bright smile that didn't quite reach her eyes as she whirled around on her heel to face her friend. Madison looked concerned, and for once, she didn't bash Marvin, either—something that Valerie could appreciate. "You know," she said, rubbing her hands together in a completely conspiratorial sort of way, "you have a bottle of that color remover in your bag, don't you . . .?"

Madison's eyes widened since Valerie had been quite adamant about leaving her hair brown for the occasion despite Madison's insistence that she ought to wash out the color rinse and let her true colors be seen, so to speak. Still, she didn't comment as she dug the bottle of Maddikin's Striptease—a signature creation that removed temporary and semi-permanent color without stripping the hair of its natural oils and without harming the original color of one's hair—out of her bag and handed it over.

Valerie's smile brightened, her eyes flashing with a determined sort of light, as she took the bottle and headed for the bathroom . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'I walk alone in the darkness of the city
'Got no place to call home
'I might be dyin'
'But you can't hear a sound
'Midnight rain is comin' down
'I'm just a stranger, a stranger in this town
'I mean no danger, I'm a stranger in this town …'

 

-'Stranger in this Town' by Richie Sambora.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie stood in the bright and airy lobby outside the Grande Ballroom on the seventy-sixth floor of the Faaustin Garden Hotel, trying her best to seem nonchalant as she tried to find Marvin amidst the milling crowd.

It was worse than she'd first imagined, though if she had ever bothered to watch any of the entertainment news programs, she'd have realized that it would be akin to a three-ring circus.

She hadn't realized that most of the major news outlets would be covering the arrivals. The convergence of flashbulbs was daunting, though most of those stopped when Valerie had stepped out of the taxi she'd called to deliver her. After all, she wasn't a big name, and if that wasn't enough to daunt her, then the limo that pulled up behind her was. It had apparently belonged to Sesshoumaru Inutaisho—easily the richest man on the planet. Valerie had stood in complete and utter awe as the impossibly tall and absolutely intimidating great-grandson of the late 1900's high-tech mogul and founder of Inutaisho Corporation had stepped out of the jet black vehicle. They'd barely spared Valerie a glance as he escorted his absolutely gorgeous wife past her on the red carpet that had been laid out for the occasion.

A few press boxes were set up inside the lobby, vying for the attention of the various celebrities arriving for the fundraiser. Valerie lifted her chin a little higher and fought to tamp down the rising irritation—irrational irritation brought on by the feeling of being completely alone and wholly out of place. Gritting her teeth, she cast around a surreptitious eye and stifled the urge to sigh.

"Valerie! Valerie!"

She started and turned around, a surge of giddy relief shooting through her when she spotted Marvin. A moment later, though, the rise of irritation was back, mostly because he looked entirely awe-struck, and she was still trying to deal with the feeling that she just didn't belong there . . .

He was so excited that he could barely contain himself, his face a happy flushed shade that spoke louder than words. "Stargazing, Val?" he quipped as he grasped her arm and tried to look everywhere at once. "Oh, wow! There's Karyn Comstock!"

Valerie followed the direction of Marvin's gaze, glancing at the aging starlet, better known for her advocate work for autism awareness ever since her beloved nephew was diagnosed with the disorder a few years ago.

"I told you that you'd love this!" Marvin insisted. He shot her a quick smile, only to hesitate as the smile faltered. She arched an eyebrow. "Something wrong?" she asked as pleasantly as she could.

Marvin quickly shook his head, forcing a much more exuberant laugh than was necessary. "Oh, uh, n-nothing," he insisted.

She tugged her arm out of his grasp and leveled a rather cagey sort of expression at him. "No, what is it?"

He looked distinctly nervous. "Well, it's just . . . I mean, I thought you were going to wear that black dress; that's all."

She blinked a few times. "I told you that I was going shopping," she replied a little too reasonably in the same tone she'd have used to cross-examine a witness.

"O-Oh, it's lovely," he hurried on to say. "Just a little . . . flashier than I thought you were going to get." He blinked and shook his head in confusion. "Did you bleach your hair? It looks different."

Valerie raised her other eyebrow in an expression of absolute incredulity.

"Not bad or anything. Just really different," he explained with a little laugh. "Anyway, come on! I want to introduce you to Dane Candlor and his friends."

He took her hand and almost clumsily tugged her through the milling crowds toward a bunch of very uptight-looking men.

She stifled a sigh and let him pull her along. She was blonde when they'd met, too, and while he'd mentioned once or twice after she'd started to use the brown rinse on her hair that he was "glad she went back to her natural color", she'd told him more than once, as well, that she actually was a natural blonde . . .

'Come on, Valerie . . . Think about something else or you're going to ruin tonight for Marvin . . .'

"Dane! Hey! This is my fiancée, Valerie Denning," Marvin said in the exhilarated tone that only Marvin could manage without sounding completely insincere. Valerie smiled and shook the older man's hand—it was rather dry, like old paper.

Dane Candlor smiled cordially and inclined his head as he patted the back of her hand before letting go. "Ah, a lawyer, right? Marvin said that you were pretty, but he didn't mention that you were quite so stunning. Very nice to meet you, m'dear."

"Likewise," she replied.

Marvin positively beamed at her. "Sorry, Val. I guess I was bragging on you," he murmured.

She laughed, wondering idly if it sounded as forced to them as it had to her. It must not have, though, because the men only chuckled as Marvin fired off a round of names, pausing between each one to allow Valerie time to shake all their hands.

Dane's watery blue gaze narrowed as he tilted his head back slightly and regarded her thoroughly—so thoroughly that Valerie had to temper the urge to fidget. "You're representing that reprobate rock star, aren't you?" he suddenly asked.

She stifled a sigh and gritted her teeth for a moment. "Zel Roka, you mean?" she corrected gently. "Yes, I am."

Marvin chuckled. "If anyone can help him out, my Valerie can!" he insisted.

There was a series of polite chuckles, and every last one of them grated against Valerie's already raw nerves. She forced a polite little smile and tried her best to look interested as the conversation shifted to politics. Ordinarily, such a conversation would have interested her, especially since she had a few things that she didn't mind saying about the republican that had been elected in 2072. At the moment, though, getting into a debate with men who thought that Robert Wentworth was doing a fantastic job, and Marvin's friends, at that, just wasn't exactly high on her list of priorities. She was working on one hell of a killer headache, among other things, and she murmured a few words to Marvin before excusing herself to scoot off to the nearby lavatory in hopes of downing a pain reliever or two before the festivities got underway.

It wasn't entirely surprising when the bathroom door slid back, seemingly of its own accord. The Fauustin Garden was touted as being one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world since it opened its doors less than a year ago.

Crossing the floor—the tiles lit up when one stepped on them—she dug in her purse to locate the small bottle of Advil she'd hurriedly stuffed into the small bag she'd chosen for the night. It had been almost a second thought back then. Now she was glad that she'd done it.

A very pretty woman in a very electric blue silk dress stepped into the bathroom. She looked vaguely familiar, probably a model or something. She spared Valerie a momentary smile: one of those perfunctory ones that seemed to become second nature to those constantly in the limelight. Stepping over to the long counter to check her makeup in the mirror, she pulled a small compact from her purse and fiddled with the powder inside.

Valerie's hands were shaking as she fumbled with the child-resistant lid and popped it open. She managed to dump two capsules out of the plastic jar and popped them into her mouth. She took her time, swallowing the pills as she recapped the bottle and dropped it into her purse. The bathroom door—there were individual, soundproofed rooms to reduce embarrassment, Valerie supposed—slid open, and Charo Gucciano slipped out of the stall. "Ramona! I thought you said you couldn't make it!" she said to the other woman in the room.

'Ramona?' Valerie thought with a frown. 'Oh, that's right . . . Ramona Consuela, the super-model-turned-actress . . .'

"Oh, I wasn't going to until I found out that Dave broke his leg," she replied with a bright smile.

"Hmm," Charo remarked with a censuring shake of her head. "What that boy did to you was just wrong . . . Weren't you about to be married?"

Ramona nodded. "Not exactly, but . . ." she shrugged, as though it were of no real consequence. "Don't worry. He'll get his," she predicted with a little shrug. "That girl he's been seen out and about with? She's nothing but a gold digger, anyway."

Charo giggled, rinsing her hands and dabbing at her eyes with the tips of her wet fingers. "Did you see the new programs?" she went on, looking at Ramona in the mirror.

"No, I didn't."

"Well, it looks like they've found a stand-in," she remarked lightly. "There's just a little snippet about him, so he has to be fairly interesting . . ."

"Interesting," Ramona echoed with a thoughtful frown though not one deep enough to cause untimely wrinkling. "I don't know . . ."

"I'm telling you, though; I've heard another interesting rumor . . ."

"Oh?"

Charo nodded and leaned toward Ramona. "I heard that her son's here."

"Her son?"

"Yes! Remember? A couple years ago or so, he escorted her? The songwriter . . .?" Rolling her eyes when Ramona shook her head in obvious confusion, Charo nudged her with her elbow. "You know! That sexy as hell one? The one with those blue eyes . . .?"

Ramona's eyes flared wide. Valerie nearly snorted out loud. There were probably seventy-five men out there with blue eyes. She fiddled with her lipstick, instead.

"Oh, my God! You're kidding!"

Charo's smile turned downright nasty. "Wouldn't ol' Dave be upset if you hooked up with him?"

Ramona laughed and smiled. "Well, now, I think I'm glad I changed my mind about coming," she decided.

Valerie dropped her lipstick into her purse and headed out of the lavatory. She just couldn't understand people like that: people who changed significant others kind of like real people changed their underpants. Zel was one of those people, wasn't he? The kind of guy who got fixated on one woman or another, only to change his mind in the morning with the rise of the sun . . . She'd met others like him, and she knew damn well that those types just didn't change.

Marvin was still standing with his group of new friends, laughing heartily at whatever they'd said, and for just a moment, she wondered if he'd find them as humorous if they weren't disgustingly rich.

'Stop that!' she scolded herself sternly, ashamed of her own catty thoughts regarding her fiancé. Marvin was a good man; he really was, and he really hadn't meant to make her upset by changing their plans at the last moment, either. It wasn't that he didn't care, and she knew that, too. It was simply that Marvin tended to be a little absentminded about things that might distract him from his ultimate goal.

The immense, fifty-foot in diameter clock mounted above them on the ceiling struck the hour just as the looming doors, crafted of a very heavy marble and painstakingly etched, opened, inviting the guests inside. Marvin gestured at her to follow them, and since she saw no other recourse, she did.

It was bright; it was light; it was beautiful. There was a wide stage off to the right with an orchestra warming up in the smallish pit to the left of the stage, almost hidden in a slightly darkened alcove, and the obsidian dance floor was lined in gold trim with inlaid mother-of-pearl that shone iridescent in the light of a myriad of floating fiber optic lights that dangled from the vaulted ceiling, swaying like stars high above. Tables were arranged in the runways on either side of the dance floor, covered in fine ivory silk cloths embroidered with 'ZF' in a shade darker thread with fresh ivory roses and Oriental lilies with sprays of greenery and baby's breath arranged as the centerpieces. The flowers' petals were still dampened with dew. The entire place was aglow with artificial candles and ambient lighting, and Valerie was so absorbed in taking in everything around her that she scarcely noticed whether or not Marvin was there.

"Valerie, honey, here you go."

Valerie blinked and dragged her eyes off the painting being displayed on an easel nearby. Cordoned off by royal blue velvet ropes dangling between shiny brass poles, a single spotlight was trained on it. The rear view of an indistinct woman holding a floppy straw hat in place as the wind blew her as she wandered along the beach with a small child running beside her; the picture was painstakingly rendered with a warmth that Valerie felt, just staring at it. "Y-Yes?" she stammered, unable to recover from her momentary lapse.

Marvin chuckled. "That's rumored to be a real Cain Zelig original that Mrs. Zelig's husband has decided to auction off tonight to benefit their foundation," he told her. "Should bring in a small fortune."

"Oh," she said, smiling just a little. "It's beautiful."

He laughed and nodded. "Hey, I'm going to go see if I can find out who Mrs. Zelig is," he said. "I'll be right back."

"Marvin, I—" Valerie gave up with a sigh and a shake of her head as she watched him weaving in and out of the gathering.

It was so like him, wasn't it? Part of the exuberance that she'd first noticed about Marvin back in college . . . Back then, it had been endearing, and now? She let out a deep breath, wandering toward the painting. Now . . .?

She still loved that about him, of course. She still enjoyed the fact that he was so enthusiastic, but sometimes . . . sometimes she wished that he'd stop and just listen to her every once in awhile.

"Evening, Ms. Denning."

Valerie's eyes flared wide at the sound of that voice, and she whipped around to face him, only to frown and shake her head at the man before her: a man she didn't recognize . . .

Or did she . . .?

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Wo-o-ow," Gin breathed as she let her golden gaze roam from the top of Evan's head to the toes of his immaculately polished black shoes. She clapped her hands and gave a happy little squeal. "I'm going to the gala with the most handsome boy in the world!"

Evan chuckled and shook his head. "No way, Mama. You're far hotter than I'll ever be," he assured her. "I mean, look at you! Has good ol' Cain seen you in that?"

She heaved a sigh and shook her head though her smile didn't diminish. "Your father's been in meetings all day," she said simply. "But he did tell me to have a good time tonight, and he gave me a handheld Taser gun in case you didn't behave. I have no idea why."

Evan's chuckle escalated into a full-out laugh. "Is that so?"

Gin rolled her eyes and nodded at the table near the door where the aforementioned Taser gun lay. "Come on. Give us a spin, will you?"

Gin giggled and held her hands out to her sides as she spun around to give Evan the full effect. The slinky little silver satin dress hugged her curves nicely and was easily lower cut in the front than Gin's normal purchases, but the way it accentuated her lithe little body was enough to make any other man drool, Evan knew. The dress was held up by spaghetti straps that hooked around the back of her neck. Hell, he could see it, himself, even if she was his mother. He caught her hand and held it up, twirling her around a couple more times. She stared at him for another long minute then slowly frowned. "Did you have to cut your hair off, sweetie?" she asked with a disapproving shake of her head.

"I wanted to look respectable," he told her with a wink. "Don't worry, Mama. It'll grow back."

"You always look respectable," she countered with a shake of her head.

He grinned and glanced at his watch. "Not to rush you, but we should probably get going," he told her. "You did want to make sure that everything's in order before you open the doors for your guests, right?"

She giggled and nodded and grabbed the small silver-threaded purse off the stand beside the discarded Taser gun then let Evan escort her out of the house and down the street to the silver stretch limo waiting for them.

"I feel like one of your women," she insisted as she settled into the vehicle, scooting over to let him sit beside her as the chauffer closed the door.

Evan leaned forward to pour Gin a glass of sparkling water. "Like one of my women, eh?" she teased. "You know, Mama, you really should go on tour with me sometime. You'd like it."

She twittered happily and waved a hand. "Your father wouldn't like that, I'm afraid," she said.

"That's because he's got that weird overprotective thing going on," Evan countered, offering her the glass.

Gin took it and carefully sipped. "Could you check the painting when we get there? Security said that they'd set up an unobtrusive barrier around it, and I really didn't want to post guards to watch it—I thought that'd look a little severe, given that it's there to be auctioned off, you know . . ."

He slipped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry, Mama," he told her. "Nothing's going to happen to it."

She heaved a sigh and nodded. "I know," she replied. "All the same . . ."

"Don't worry. I'll make sure that nothing happens to it," he told her.

It didn't take long to reach the back of the hotel where they would be able to enter the establishment without having to deal with the hubbub and madness that was already starting at the front entrance. Evan whisked her out of the limousine and into the hotel without any incident where the concierge was waiting to escort them to the top floor of the facility where the gala was to be held.

The caterers were already there, arranging the champagne fountain and seeing to the service staff: inspecting uniforms, making sure that everyone had all the equipment they'd need for the duration of the evening. The orchestra members were just arriving, and the head of the security team was checking the various alarms they'd set to assure that the guests felt safe enough to enjoy themselves. Gin hurried off to speak with the florist who, apparently, was having some sort of crisis regarding the centerpieces for the tables.

Evan wandered over to the painting that had been set up off to the side. Arranged on an antique easel that Evan recognized as one of the ones that Cain always used in the mansion back home, the lighting tech was fiddling with the spotlight that was trained on it, and while Evan knew that there were laser security wires in place, he wondered, as his mother had, if that really was enough. After all, it was a heretofore 'undiscovered' Cain Zelig original, and while Evan knew that the painting was probably done in the last thirty or so years, the rest of the world thought that it was one of the heirloom pieces that the reclusive artist had created before his death years ago.

He smiled just a little. It was a painting of Gin and Jillian, wandering along the shore near the mansion, but it was done in such a way that one couldn't rightly discern the subjects, hidden as Gin was under a huge and floppy straw hat, and it was from the rear, so their faces weren't showing anyway, but Evan knew. Cain rarely considered giving up his work when it featured his wife or family, and that he was willing to part with this one in the name of charity spoke volumes about exactly how guilty he felt for ditching his wife tonight, in Evan's estimation . . .

He frowned. He could hear the gathering people outside in the lobby though it was very faint, enough so that human ears would never have discerned it. Sparing a moment to give the painting another once-over, Evan turned on his heel and headed toward his mother, who was busy giving last minute instructions to the orchestra's conductor.

"Oh, this is my son, Evan," she said happily, leaning to the side to slip her hand under Evan's elbow.

Evan nodded. "Pleased to meet you," he said with an easy smile, extending his hand in welcome.

The conductor grinned and shook his hand. "The pleasure is mine. Your charming mother was just telling me that you're a songwriter."

He chuckled and shook his head. "Mama brags on me a little too much," he quipped.

The conductor laughed and nodded as he turned back to his orchestra to lead them through a few warm up drills.

"Gin? Are we ready?"

Gin turned to smile at Haley Comstock, her secretary for the Zelig Foundation. "Oh, I think so," she said, glancing quickly at Evan.

Evan gave his mother's hand a reassuring squeeze and shot Haley a lazy grin. The woman blushed and giggled. "You ready for the madness?" he asked.

She shrugged and smiled. "Sure. I hear you're our mysterious Eligible Bachelor Number Ten."

"Well . . ."

She winked as she turned to go. "Flash 'em those baby blues of yours, and you might just break your brother's record."

Evan sighed and shook his head, shifting his gaze to meet his mother's as Haley hurried over to open the hulking doors. "Ready, Mama?"

Gin laughed and scrunched up her shoulders. "I have a good feeling about tonight," she told him.

He smiled. "Do you?"

"Yes! And you know, I don't think I'm wrong about this."

Evan chuckled and started to shake his head again, but stopped abruptly at the one scent that reached out to him through the tangled mass: the scent he'd know anywhere, no matter what, no matter when or how or why.

His chin snapped up as his gaze raked over the influx of arrivals. Fast on the heels of the scent was the presence—her presence, and he frowned. 'She's here . . .? But . . .'

Closing his eyes for a moment, he focused on the scent of her. It was unmistakable. The warmth of her, the very proximity . . . 'Valerie Denning . . .'

His frown deepened as he opened his eyes once more. Gin was busy talking to some men that Evan didn't recognize. "Mama," he said, touching her hand. "Excuse me a moment."

She smiled up at him and nodded. "Don't forget that you promised you'd dance with me," she reminded him.

He chuckled and nodded. "As if I'd forget that," he told her.

She kissed his cheek and laughed as he turned away. Making his way through the crowd, his senses intent upon her, and unsure exactly why the hint of anxiety in her aura was enough to make him hasten his step, he let his gaze sweep over the crowd, ignoring the few greetings called his way as he continued to make his way through.

Why couldn't he see her?

As he moved through the throng of people, he frowned. A rather small man was talking to a blonde in a red dress, and while he might have ordinarily ignored them since he didn't recognize either of them upon first glance, he stopped, eyes widening, as he slowly started to understand.

'V . . .'

"Valerie, honey, here you go."

The blonde stopped and quickly turned around, and Evan felt his heart lurch wildly, painfully. It was her, wasn't it? The dress that clung to her drop-dead gorgeous figure, the swell of her breasts rising provocatively above the low rise of the sleeveless slip of a garment . . . Blood red satin that clung to her in a perfect symmetry of motion, flowing around her body like the froth of waves on the ocean . . . The color emphasized the light tan of her skin, the delicate shadows of her collarbones . . . the honey golden hair that was piled atop her head, only to cascade down from the pearl clips that secured the mass of loose curls in place, touching her skin in an intimate brush of softness, closer than any man would dare. The delicate curve of her ankles, wrapped in the flirty straps of the blood red slippers with the four inch spike heels . . . That she could walk on them without any trouble at all was amazing enough, but the entire effect was almost more than Evan could take . . . Those hazel eyes, the vulnerability that she was fighting to hide, and maybe she could from someone else—anyone else—but Evan . . . he could feel it, couldn't he? "Y-Yes?" she stammered. Evan nearly groaned.

The small man beside her couldn't seem to contain his enthusiasm, and for the briefest of moments, Evan had to wonder if he was going to wet himself or something. "That's rumored to be a real Cain Zelig original that Mrs. Zelig's husband has decided to auction off tonight to benefit their foundation. Should bring in a small fortune."

Valerie shook her head and forced a little smile. "Oh . . . It's beautiful."

The little man nodded vigorously. "Hey, I'm going to go see if I can find out who Mrs. Zelig is," he said. "I'll be right back."

"Marvin, I—"

Evan's eyes widened. 'Marvin? That's Marvin . . .?'

'Oh, my God,' his youkai voice chimed in.

Evan nodded vaguely. 'Oh, your God,' he agreed. 'Oh, damn . . . Exactly why did I choose to be respectable now . . .?'

She turned away, staring at the painting with a very definite sense of longing in her gaze. Evan stuffed his hands into his pockets, trying to get his raging senses back under control as he continued to gawk at her. He wanted to touch her, damn it. He wanted to touch her, to yank her into his arms and—

'Knock it off, you damned fool!' his youkai voice chided sternly. 'Remember, will you? You're Evan Zelig, for God's sake! And you're here for your mother!'

He winced at that reminder. He'd almost forgotten, hadn't he? It was enough to temper the emotions that were running through him unchecked. Reaching over to snag a glass of champagne off the tray that the waiter hurrying past held, he took a moment to clear his throat, to move in just a little closer—close enough that he could feel the emotions that resonated within her. "Evening, Ms. Denning," he said.

Her back stiffened upon hearing his voice, and she whirled around to face him, her eyes flaring wide as a gentle flush of color rose to stain her cheeks, and she slowly shook her head, her confusion evident despite the hint of recognition that lit her gaze from somewhere deep within . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'You cried, I died ...
'I should have shut my mouth, things headed south in ...
'As the worlds slipped off my tongue, they sounded dumb ...
'If this old heart could talk, it'd say you're the one ...
'I'm wastin' time when I think about it ...'

 

-'Misunderstood' by Bon Jovi.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

"Z . . . Zel . . .?"

The man shot her a deprecating grin and a halfhearted shrug. "Zel?" he echoed, apparently deciding on playing the 'dumb' card.

She narrowed her eyes, glowering at the man in question. "Don't feed me that, Zel Roka . . . What the hell did you do to your hair?"

"My hair?"

She snorted. "Yes, your hair."

He looked blank for a moment then shrugged. "I cut it."

"You . . . You what?"

He rolled his eyes. "It's just hair, anyway."

"Just hair," she echoed with a shake of her head. "Why on earth would you cut it?"

"Because I wanted to look respectable."

She snorted again. "Yeah, well, it'll take more than a haircut to accomplish that, Mr. Roka."

"You look like you could use a drink," he said, pointedly ignoring her question as he offered her the untouched glass of champagne.

She eyed it but didn't take it. "Just what do you think you're doing?" she hissed from between clenched teeth, mindful of the other guests, some of whom were migrating over to stare at the painting.

"I assure you, Ms. Denning, my actions are strictly on the up and up," he told her with a reassuring smile. That smile, damn it . . . She'd seen it before, and if there had been any doubt in her mind as to who, exactly, he was, it was gone.

"My ass," she growled. "Listen, Mr. Roka—"

"Evan," he interrupted.

She snapped her mouth closed and blinked at him. "What?"

He chuckled and slipped a hand under her elbow to gently lead her over to the side, effortlessly shielding her from being jostled by the milling crowd that was drawing closer. "Evan," he stated once more.

She stepped away from him, her eyes flashing as she glowered up at him. Hair so light that it seemed almost silver in the light—that had to be her mind playing tricks on her—he stared at her with such a strange intensity that she felt an odd, fluttering sensation deep in her chest. Standing off to the side where they were, though, she couldn't rightfully see his eyes; couldn't discern the color . . . A strange sense of vulnerability lurked just beneath her carefully constructed calm: a vulnerability that she was fighting desperately to hide.

And just why did this man seem entirely familiar to her, as though she'd seen him somewhere before, Zel Roka notwithstanding . . .?

Her mind was too befuddled to think, though, too clouded and confused to make sense of anything in particular as everything about the man overwhelmed her. That he didn't seem to realize exactly what he was doing didn't matter. She did, and that was more than enough to send her hackles right back up. "Need I remind you of the conditions of my representation of you, Mr. Roka?" she gritted out, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.

Something flickered behind his gaze as he casually pushed the wire rimmed glasses up with his knuckle. It was gone before she could discern it. "I regret to inform you that there is no 'Mr. Roka' here tonight, Ms. Denning," he said, leaning toward her close enough to say it without having to raise his voice much over a whisper. "Besides, I'm here on a very special date."

Valerie very nearly growled at the fierce irritation that shot to the fore at the mere mention of his 'date'. So special that he would jeopardize her representation of him, was she? Valerie snorted indelicately, tossing her head in a completely haughty sort of way. It wasn't that she cared who the woman was. Of course not. What Valerie did care about, though, was Zel Roka's avant-garde attitude, especially when it came to things like whether or not he wanted to listen to her. He could not ignore her, damn him, and the sooner he figured that out, the better off he'd be . . . With that in mind, though, she leveled a no-nonsense look at him and slowly shook her head. "I don't care if you escorted the Queen of England here tonight, Zel Roka. Must I remind you of the terms of our agreement?"

His chuckle was husky and dark, almost like a physical caress. She rubbed her forearms to chase away the rise of gooseflesh that surfaced on her skin. "Evan, Valerie. My name is Evan. It's not that tough, you know. I'm reasonably certain that you can say it, can't you?"

Caught off guard by the near playfulness in his quiet tone, Valerie blinked and didn't reply.

"So tell me . . . that . . . gentleman you were talking to . . .? Am I to assume that was the illustrious Marvin? The man who is . . . how did you put it? Ah, yes . . . bigger than me."

That snapped her out of her reverie quickly enough. "Marvin," she repeated, unable to keep the suspicion out of her tone.

Zel—Evan—nodded. "Yes, your fiancé."

Valerie bristled at the condescension she heard just below the conversational tone, though if she were being completely fair, she'd have to admit that it could have just been her imagination, too. Too bad she wasn't feeling particularly fair. "Of course," she said. "He was invited."

He nodded, but he didn't comment on whether he believed her or not. "Here," he said, slipping the glass of champagne into her hand with a smile.

Valerie opened her mouth to protest but heaved a sigh, figuring that it would be damn near impossible to get him to listen to her, anyway. "Look, your act is pretty convincing," she said slowly, carefully, "but you know damn well that you're violating the terms of our agreement."

He rolled his eyes, and for the briefest of moments, she almost saw a hint of the Zel Roka that she'd come to know. "Can't you just make one exception?" he prodded.

She shook her head. Give a guy like him an inch, and he'd run with a mile . . . "No, I can't."

He sighed. "Then I'm sorry, Valerie. I guess I'll have to violate your terms. Punish me tomorrow, if you want."

Gritting her teeth, she counted to ten before she dared respond to him. "What I'll do is drop your case," she bit out quietly. "This is not negotiable."

"Neither is this," he insisted with a shrug. His tone was light, but she could see the definite stubbornness set into the lines of his body.

"Why is she so important?" Valerie demanded, resisting the urge to grasp her forehead in her hands and rub like crazy, unable to grasp exactly why the stubborn man was being so adamant about the situation.

He chuckled again. "Suffice it to say that she means the world to me."

Valerie snorted loudly. "Oh? Is she that good in bed?" she snapped.

She could feel him tense beside her. "I suppose you could say that," he replied tightly.

She shook her head. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" she muttered. "Zel—"

"Evan."

"Whatever!" She drew a deep breath and leveled a pointed look at him. "No women, no booze, and no drugs. Ring a bell?"

"You forgot the home by ten o' clock thing."

"This is not a joke!"

He was laughing at her, damn him. He really was. "I know the terms, Valerie," he told her calmly—too calmly. "I promise I'll follow them, too—tomorrow."

"You will not pick and choose when you'll listen to me," she insisted. "I mean it!"

He ducked his chin and so that he was peering at her through his bangs. "So do I, V."

That was enough to give her pause, and for some reason that she didn't really want to consider, the use of the hated nickname was somehow reassuring, too. "So where is your hussy?" she demanded instead, ignoring the voice in the back of her head that told her that she was being catty for no good reason.

That stiffness was back in his stance. "My date, you mean?" he corrected indelicately.

She gave a derisive laugh. "Potatoes, potahtoes," she spouted back.

Zel—Evan—narrowed his gaze slightly but shifted enough to scan the room. Then he chuckled. "See that flock of poor bastards over there? It's safe to say that she's in the middle of that."

"Poor bastards," she echoed, arching her eyebrow skeptically. "And why's that?"

He chuckled again, a strange sense of warmth entering the depths of his stare as he watched to catch a glimpse of the woman in question. Something fierce and vile twisted Valerie's stomach. "Because," he said simply, the affection in his voice a nearly humbling thing, "she's going home with me tonight."

"You are not—not—violating the terms I set down, Zel Roka—"

"Evan."

"Shut up!" she snapped. "You're not! And you're not taking that floozy home with you, either! Do you hear me? If the press got a hold of this, they'd crucify you, and the last thing you need is more bad publicity right now!"

He pinned her with a fierce look that made her hesitate just for a moment. "Be careful, Valerie," he warned her coldly.

She recovered her composure quickly enough and glowered at him. "Truth hurt, Evan?" she snapped.

"Valerie . . ."

"If the judge hears anything else negative about you, you won't have a chance in hell, and you should know that, too! Just keep it in your pants until after your trial, can't you? No woman is that important."

"That's a matter of opinion," he muttered.

The crowd of men parted, and Valerie blinked. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't the tiny slip of a woman clad in a pretty silver satin dress. That it barely covered her was arbitrary. Somehow, Valerie hadn't really expected anything else from someone who'd be stupid enough to catch Zel Roka's wandering eye, and she didn't think about the surge of irritation that frothed inside her, either, when she also realized that the woman was absolutely stunning, too. "Hmm, no wonder she's surrounded by men," she scoffed.

"Valerie—"

"They're all hoping that she falls out of that damned dress—or bends over . . . So what is she? A stripper? Some groupie that gave you a good fuck after a show? Playboy Bunny of the Month?"

"Stop it."

Valerie snorted again and shook her head, not bothering to take her eyes off the woman in question. "Women like her are a dime a dozen, aren't they?"

"Jealousy doesn't really become of you, he growled quietly.

Indignant color rose in her cheeks as she sputtered a few times. "Wh—You—I—Don't even flatter yourself, damn you! I am not jealous."

He shrugged candidly. "Might I suggest that you keep a tighter rein on your tongue before you say something you regret?"

She snorted, ignoring the blatant warning as she waved a hand at the woman—Zel's date. "So what's so special about that one?"

"Special," he repeated in a deadly quiet tone of voice. "You want to know what's so special about her?"

She finally glanced at him and stopped short, the next round of her tirade dying on her tongue. His expression was carefully blanked, yes, but his absolute rage lent an unearthly glow to his gaze.

"That woman is everything—everything—that most women could never, ever be. She means everything to me. There's nothing in this world that I wouldn't do if she asked me to. She asked me to escort her here, and I said that I would. If she asks me to go home with her, well, then I'll do it. If she asks me to sleep with her, then I guess that I'll do that, too. I would die for her, Valerie. Tell me: would your precious Marvin do that for you?"

She blinked and stared as he turned on his heel and stalked away. Only after he was gone did she realize that her knees felt like rubber, and her burgeoning headache had blossomed into an all-out migraine . . .

"Valerie!"

Gritting her teeth, she managed a wan smile as Marvin scurried over to her with a shiny smile on his face. He was quite obviously having the time of his life.

'Well, at least one of us is,' she thought wryly. 'Zel . . . Evan . . . What in the world . . .? And why is he acting so . . . so weird . . .?'

"I found her!"

Shaking her head in confusion, Valerie felt her feigned smile falter. "Found who?"

He rolled his eyes and laughed as though he thought she was trying to be funny. "What do you mean, 'who'?" he hurried to say. "Mrs. Zelig, of course!"

"Oh . . . right . . ."

He sidled up next to her, leaning one way then the other in an effort to see through the crowd. "There! See her!" he whispered loudly, pointing and shaking his finger in his excitement.

Valerie blinked and shook her head. "Where?" she asked, unable to see the woman in question.

Marvin laughed again and shook his hand to emphasize his point. "Right there! See her? In the silver dress . . ."

"That's not Mrs. Zeli—" she began.

"Sure! They said she was here with her son tonight!"

Valerie felt the room grow about fifty degrees hotter, or so it seemed, as her throat went dry; as Evan's words rang in her ears . . .

"That woman is everything—everything—that most women could never, ever be. She means everything to me. There's nothing in this world that I wouldn't do if she asked me to. She asked me to escort her here, and I said that I would. If she asks me to go home with her, well, then I'll do it. If she asks me to sleep with her, then I guess that I'll do that, too. I would die for her, Valerie . . ."

She swallowed hard. "H-H-Her . . . son," she stammered.

Marvin didn't notice Valerie's sudden pallor. "Yeah! They say he's a songwriter. Wrote a song for Bethany Lane last year that was number one for about six weeks . . ."

Valerie didn't ask Marvin how he knew that. No, she was having a difficult enough time trying to keep the room from spinning around her . . .

"That must be him!"

Valerie grimaced, unwittingly following the direction of Marvin's gaze. 'Mother and son . . .?' Why hadn't she noticed that before? They looked quite a bit alike, even from a distance: the same silver colored hair . . . Maybe it was because she was so used to seeing him with various hair colors that it hadn't struck her, but . . . "Oh, God . . ." she moaned under her breath. No doubt about it; she was going to owe him an apology, wasn't she . . .?

"Come on! Let's go introduce ourselves!"

Valerie uttered a terse little squeak as Marvin grabbed her hand and barreled forward. She tugged on his hand to gain her freedom. It didn't work. "Marvin! Marvin, wait!"

"They say she's really, really sweet—sweetest lady you'll ever meet!" Marvin went on, ignoring Valerie's pleas, or maybe he just didn't hear her.

"Marvin . . .!"

It was too late.

"Hello, Mrs. Zelig! I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, his cheeks reddening as he shot Evan an apologetic but enthusiastic smile. "I wanted to thank you for inviting us—well, actually, an associate of mine was invited, but he couldn't make it. I'm Marvin Pinkle."

Valerie couldn't even meet Evan's gaze though she could feel it boring into her skull. "I'm sorry. I didn't catch that," he said.

Marvin laughed. "Pinkle. Marvin Pinkle."

The diminutive woman's eyes rounded in wonder, and she giggled. "Oh, you mean like kosher dill?"

Marvin chuckled again. Evan leaned toward his mother. "No, Mama, not pickle: Pinkle."

Mrs. Zelig's cheeks reddened as her hands shot up to cover her mouth. "I'm so sorry! Please forgive me!" she insisted, making a low bow along with her apology.

"No, no! It's quite all right," Marvin insisted. "Happens all the time."

Evan smiled just a little, though she could hear the trace nastiness in his tone, even if she were quite sure that no one else would actually discern it. "I'm sure it does."

Valerie wondered if she stomped on his foot whether it would offend him more than she already had.

"Pinkle," Mrs. Zelig repeated, her face scrunching up in concentration. "Pinkle, Pinkle . . . Okay, I've got it now!"

"Anyway," Marvin went on with another smile, "thank you so much for your hospitality, Mrs. Zelig."

The woman smiled. "Oh, you're welcome, Mr. Pinkle, and please, call me Gin . . ." Her gaze shifted to Valerie, who couldn't contain the blush at the things she'd just said about the bubbly and sweet woman. "And who is this?"

Marvin glanced at Valerie almost vacantly, as though he'd forgotten momentarily that she was with him. "Oh! This is Valerie Denning."

Gin reached out and took Valerie's hands in both of hers, giving her a warm squeeze. "Pleased to meet you," she said before turning toward her son. "Evan, have you . . .?"

He shot his mother that lazy little smile that made Valerie grit her teeth—why had she thought that he'd only made that smile for her . . .? Brushing aside the irritating thought, she forced a wan smile. "We've already met, Mama," he assured her.

Marvin blinked and shot Valerie a questioning look. "You have?"

"Just a few minutes ago," Evan went on with a tight little smile. "Enjoy your evening." He slipped an arm around his mother and abruptly headed her toward the dance floor. "Come on, Mama. You promised me a dance."

Gin giggled and tugged her son down to kiss his cheek. "Such a darling little man!" she said as they moved away. "You could fit him in your pocket!"

Marvin laughed and turned to face Valerie. "I didn't know you'd met him already!" he said.

She waved off his excitement. "I-I didn't know . . ." she replied weakly.

Marvin's smile widened as he quickly squeezed Valerie's icy fingers. "I have a good feeling about tonight, Val. Something great's going to happen; I can feel it."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Wider baby smiling you just made a million ...
'Fuses pumping live heat twisting out on a wire ...
'Take one last glimpse into the night I'm touching close I'm holding bright, holding tight ...
'Give me shudders in a whisper take me up till I'm shooting a star ...'

 

-'Girls on Film' by Duran Duran.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

His head was throbbing, intensified by every single thing around him, or so it seemed. Too many people in the vicinity, too many eyes watching him, too many emotions that he just wasn't used to hiding . . .

Making quick work of punching in a text message to go with the image of Gin that he'd just taken with his cell phone, Evan fired off a quick note to Cain Zelig and stuffed the device back into his pocket again.

His gaze sought out the blonde haired woman for what had to be the umpteen-millionth time thus far, and when he found her, he couldn't reconcile himself with the surge of anger that roiled up inside him. He couldn't quite make sense of the bitter wash of disappointment, either. He understood that, on some level, he'd really wanted her to love his mother just as much as he did, and while he was hard pressed to comprehend the why of it, the truth was that it bothered him terribly. Hard enough to deal with the unkind things she'd said—hell, she hadn't even been that abrasive when she talked about him, had she? Somehow, the outrage that anyone, especially Valerie, would say such things about Gin Izayoi Zelig . . . Well, it just didn't sit right with him; not at all . . .

It didn't make sense, damn it. No one could dislike his mother, and he knew it. Gin was very likely the sweetest woman alive, just like Kagome, Gin's mother—Evan's grandmother. All it took was a simple glance at her to see it. He knew that, but . . .

"They're all hoping that she falls out of that damned dress—or bends over . . . So what is she? A stripper? Some groupie that gave you a good fuck after a show? Playboy Bunny of the Month?"

"Stop it."

"Women like her are a dime a dozen, aren't they? So what's so special about that one?"

He gritted his teeth, unable to deal with the blackest rage that frothed just below the surface. Anger wasn't going to help him, but he couldn't control it, either. Valerie . . . God, he'd thought that she was different, hadn't he? Or maybe he'd just wanted her to be . . . The kind of woman who didn't put all of her worth in how she looked but who still gave a damn about her appearance, too, using her beauty to enhance what she was, overall, instead of relying upon it to get her places . . . The kind of woman who pulled no punches, who understood who she was and accepted herself for it. The kind of woman who could see through him if she really wanted to . . .

So why . . .?

Erupting in a low growl that he didn't quite realize that he was making, he narrowed his eyes as that tiny little shit she called 'Marvin' scurried over to her side. He was talking rather animatedly—waving his arms around and looking entirely like an overinflated balloon, ready to pop.

'I'd like to pop him . . .'

'Easy, Zelig. Do that, and your mother would be mortified,' his youkai pointed out though not in a pleasant tone of voice.

'Keh!'

"Hi . . . I'm Ramona . . . Ramona Consuela."

Evan blinked away the debilitating thoughts and turned to meet the darkened gaze of the woman addressing him. He almost smiled. She was an international supermodel, and she was introducing herself to him? 'Interesting . . .'

He sighed. Not nearly as interesting as he might have liked it to be . . . Oh, she was pretty enough—damned gorgeous, really. Too bad she had that rather predatory look in her eyes: the one that told him louder than words that she wasn't looking at him, she was looking through him at whatever else it was that she thought he could give her. "Evan Zelig," he said, pasting on a rather tolerant little smile.

"Oh, I know who you are," she said with a flutter of her hand and a husky laugh meant to be sexy as she batted her smoky eyelashes at him and shot him an entirely rehearsed and very coy glance. "Care to dance with a lady?"

Mindful of his surroundings, he knew his part entirely too well, didn't he? The son of the great and powerful Cain Zelig? He knew the role—the one that he always rehearsed for these public appearances. It wasn't as though he cared whether or not he embarrassed his father, no, but he'd never do a thing to embarrass his darling mother, and for her, he'd learned the absolutely perfect manners; everything that was expected of him, and while he tended to misbehave at family functions, out here, in the public, when his mother was under the scrutiny of the world at large, he would damn well remember who he was and what it meant.

And with that in mind, he slipped his hand onto the small of her back and escorted her to the dance floor, reminding himself not for the first time that he really, really was better off to stop thinking about Valerie Denning . . . and her damned Marvin . . .

"I hear you're a songwriter," Ramona commented as Evan pulled her into his arms and slowly swayed to the classical waltz—The Blue Danube, composed by the younger Johann Strauss.

He smiled rather stiffly. "I guess you could say that," he replied.

"If you can write songs, why don't you perform them, yourself?"

He shrugged offhandedly. "I can't sing," he lied.

"Hmm," she drawled, leaning in a little closer, letting her body brush against his despite the rigidity of the dance. "Tell me why I've never met you before," she prodded.

He chuckled politely. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Valerie trade an empty champagne flute with the waiter for a fresh one. Another surge of anger hit him, and he gritted his teeth. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I guess I tend to stay close to home."

She giggled prettily, tilting her head just so. Evan had seen it all before: giving herself the best angle, or so she thought, making certain that he only saw the parts of her that she wanted him to see. "You seem like the kind of guy I could spend some time, getting to know," she remarked.

He shrugged. "You think so?"

"Absolutely."

He didn't respond to that, one way or another. What was it worth, anyway?

She was dancing with that little pipsqueak she called a fiancé, damn it. Restraining the urge to growl in abject frustration, Evan couldn't stand the upsurge of absolute rage. "Excuse me," he said abruptly, stepping back and bowing curtly as he started to offer excuses. "Perhaps we can finish this later."

The quick flash of irritation crossed her pretty features, but she managed to cover it up just about as quickly as it surfaced. Evan didn't miss it, though. "You'd better," she purred.

Evan held the perfunctory smile until he'd turned his back and started to walk away. He sighed. Somehow, it felt as though the night was dragging on longer and longer and longer. He just needed a moment away, didn't he? Just a moment to reclaim himself . . .

Striding through the stifling crowd, he headed for the doorway that led to the balcony that overlooked Central Park. Drawing a deep breath as the brisk night air ruffled his hair, he stepped over to the railing and tilted his head back to try to find the moon . . .

Nothing had been right from the moment that he'd realized that she had come. From the very moment he'd smelled her, sensed her, he'd realized that it was just no good. She wasn't there for him; she wasn't there with him. She was there with a little mole of a man who looked about as wrong for her as Zel Roka was . . .

"Women like her are a dime a dozen, aren't they . . .?"

Jaw clenching as he dug his claws deep into the polished teak railing, he shook his head. Damn it, it pissed him off . . .

'Damned if you do; damned if you don't,' his youkai remarked glumly.

Evan let out a deep breath and slowly shook his head. 'Sounds 'bout right . . .'

'And if you think she was bitchy now, just wait till she finds out about the fucking auction.'

He grimaced. Yeah, he'd somehow managed to forget about that, hadn't he? 'Well, suck my nuts . . .'

"What are you doing out here, young one?"

Evan didn't turn to face the owner of that particular voice. He didn't really have to, but he did offer a little shrug. "Nothing much, Uncle," he lied. Damned if he hadn't been doing that a lot tonight, too . . . "Just getting some air."

"Your mother looks exceptionally lovely this evening," Sesshoumaru Inutaisho remarked as he stepped up beside Evan.

"'Course she does," Evan rejoined. He could feel the Inu no Taisho's signature bored stare, and he knew well enough that Sesshoumaru didn't believe his excuses. Still, stubbornness reigned, and he sighed. "Mama always looks exceptionally lovely."

"I never said that she did not," he replied. "Kagura tells me that you are to be . . . sold at auction?"

The overall disdain in Sesshoumaru's tone was more than enough to make Evan grin. "Well, you know," he drawled. "I told Mama that she ought to try to talk you into it, but she was afraid that you wouldn't draw enough money. Something about that patented 'I sucked a lemon' look of yours . . ."

Sesshoumaru didn't respond right away. "This Sesshoumaru would not deign to demean himself to the selling of his person . . . though I assure you, I could bring more money than the lot of you if I were of a mind to do so."

Evan chuckled. "Of course. So how 'bout it? Gonna let oba-san bid on some young stud? I hear Eligible Bachelor Number Four is hotter than hell . . ."

Sesshoumaru managed to blank his expression even more. "I think not," he replied tersely.

They didn't speak for awhile, and that was just fine with Evan. He was doing an admirable job of not looking back inside to find Valerie, though he had to admit, at least to himself, that it was taking every last ounce of his willpower not to do so.

"And how are things progressing with the charges that were levied against you?" Sesshoumaru finally asked.

Evan figured that was the real reason that Sesshoumaru had followed him outside, anyway. "Just fine," he assured him.

Sesshoumaru didn't look like he believed that, either. "I have an acquaintance here in the city that tells me he would be happy to speak with you regarding your case."

Evan's gaze dropped to the flickering lights of the city below. "I've got an attorney," he said in a quiet voice, unsure why, even now, even knowing exactly how angry he really was, that he simply couldn't let go of her, either.

"The reports I've heard have not been overly complimentary as to her skills, Evan," he pointed out. "Surely you understand the seriousness of the charges?"

"The reports were wrong," he bit out quietly, carefully. "She's a damn good lawyer, Uncle. Thank you for your concern, but I don't think it's necessary."

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes and slowly shook his head. "Recall who you are, if you will—not the son of the North American tai-youkai, and not my great nephew . . . not even the grandson of my baka half-brother. If you recall nothing else, you remember your mother. It would break her heart should you continue to demean yourself as you have been."

Evan winced inwardly. Sesshoumaru was entirely too good at figuring out exactly how to make his point, wasn't he? "I know that," he muttered.

"I do not presume to tell you anything that you do not already know," he went on.

"Did Cain put you up to this?"

Sesshoumaru stared at him for a long moment without blinking. "No, he did not."

"Then who did?"

An enigmatic little glimmer surfaced behind his calm façade, but it was gone before Evan could interpret it. "Your brother."

"Is that a fact?" he mumbled, shaking his head since that was the last answer that Evan had really expected.

"That's a fact," Sesshoumaru replied as he turned to go. "I trust you'll consider what I've told you?"

Evan nodded, slipping his hands into his pockets, listening to the sound of his uncle, retreating inside to rejoin the festivities.

"Hey, Zel . . . You're outta beer . . ."

"Am I? Shi-i-i-it . . ."

"Check the rack in the kitchen. He's got some wine in there."

"Tch! Wine's for pussies."

"Keh! Come to think of it, a pussy would make an awesome wine goblet . . . C'mere, Maddikins . . ."

Evan frowned as the memory faded, shaking his head and letting out a deep breath. Thinking about it wasn't going to change a damn thing, and even if it could, what did it really matter?

'Bubby . . . Hell, he's just worried about how it makes him look, ain't he? He doesn't give a great goddamn if they lock me up forever and throw away the fucking keys . . .'

'Wishful thinking, Evan. No matter what you want to believe, he really isn't that much of an ass.'

He snorted and frowned but didn't argue as he rubbed his forehead.

"They're all hoping that she falls out of that damned dress—or bends over . . . So what is she? A stripper? Some groupie that gave you a good fuck after a show? Playboy Bunny of the Month?"

Why couldn't he just brush off her words? When she'd made her scathing assessments of him, he'd let them roll right off his back, hadn't he? So why couldn't he do it now?

'Because what she says about you is true . . . those things she said about your mother . . . They're not . . .'

He considered that then nodded. He supposed that there was some truth there. The thing was, he had earned the reputation that she disparaged, and he'd done it his entire life . . .

It hadn't taken long for him to figure out that girls dug him. The thing was, none of them ever actually thought that he was the kind of guy to be taken seriously, either. Good enough to fuck, but that was about it, and Evan . . . that had been all right with him, too, hadn't it?

The memory of his first glimpse of her, standing there in that gorgeous red dress with her cascade of honey blonde hair . . . the vulnerability in her eyes . . . was enough to heighten his confusion. To be honest, he hadn't expected the overwhelming overload to his system that she'd presented. All he'd wanted to do in that one moment was to slip his arms around her; to shelter her from those emotions he'd felt in her aura, and he might have; he really might have . . .

Until she'd opened that pretty little mouth of hers, that was . . .

Those things she'd said—hateful, ugly, judgmental things . . .

Maybe he had deserved them. Gin certainly had not.

His jaw tightened as a steely glow ignited behind his gaze. Valerie had stepped over the line; damned if she hadn't . . .

"Evan? Your mother's looking for you."

Pivoting slowly, he nodded once and moved to follow Kagura. "Sorry," he said, offering his elbow to escort her back inside.

She smiled demurely and slid her hand under his arm. "I heard that you suggested I trade Sesshoumaru for Eligible Bachelor Number Four," she said.

Evan smiled and patted her hand. "Well, hell yes . . . Oji-san's not quite as young as he used to be," he teased.

"Hmm, he wasn't my type," she replied, casting Evan a sidelong glance. "Now move it. I think your poor mother is running out of stall tactics."

He stepped back with a small bow before turning on his heel and navigating his way through the crowd.

Gin spotted him and smiled, looking quite relieved. "And now, I'm happy to introduce you to our final bachelor for the evening! He's very, very special, as I'm sure you ladies will agree! He's a composer who has written songs like, 'The Deeper End of Love', performed by Thane Farland; 'Bits of Me', performed by Kennedy Bissette; and 'A Man', performed by Will Prescott—a song that also was won the Grammy for Song of the Year! Those are just a few examples of work, but the very best part is that he's not only my date for the evening, he's also my baby boy! Eligible Bachelor Number Ten, Evan Zelig!"

Evan smiled as he walked up the steps onto the stage, sparing a moment to take Gin's hand and kiss the back of it. There was a loud murmuring in the crowd as he took his place beside her.

Gin giggled. "All right, Mr. Zelig. Tell me: where will you be taking your special date?"

Evan laughed. "Oh, well, Mama, you know . . . I think . . . I think that it should be the lady's choice."

The ladies seemed to appreciate that answer, if the favorable ripple that surged through the crowd meant anything.

"Okay, ladies! We'll start the bidding at ten thousand dollars! Can any—?   Ooh! Yay! I see a lot of bid paddles! And let me take this moment to remind everyone that since this is a charity auction, all bids will be binding!"

"I like paddles," Evan quipped.

Gin giggled and waved a hand to fan her pinkened cheeks.

"Fifteen!"

"Twenty!" a man's voice called out.

Evan nearly frowned. That voice . . . It had sounded like Valerie's fiancé, hadn't it? Just what the fuck was he doing? Spending more of her money?

"Sorry," he said with a shrug. "I am not really into guys . . ."

"No, it's for her," he called back from the hazy darkness.

The amassed crowd laughed. Evan forced a chuckle, sure now that it really had been Marvin, after all. What the hell was he thinking? Damned fool . . .

"Thirty!" someone else called out amid the laughter still lingering from the men's verbal exchange.

"Seventy-five!"

"Oh, I heard seventy-five thousand!" Gin exclaimed. "Do I hear one hundred thousand?"

"Yes!" a woman in the back called.

"One twenty-five!"

"Two hundred thousand!"

Gin laughed. "You know, I'd pay much more for my Evvie," she remarked then leaned forward, cupping her hand near her mouth. "He can cook, ladies!"

Evan chuckled, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he ambled the length of the stage and back, shaking his head as the bid climbed higher and higher.

"Six hundred thousand! Anyone else?" Gin called out. "Anyone?"

No one raised their paddles despite the marked murmurs of approval that he could discern.

Gin skittered over to him. "Oh, I know! Take off your jacket, sweetie!"

Evan shot her a quizzical glance and chuckled. "My jacket, Mama?"

She nodded enthusiastically.

"Now, Mama, I don't think that these fine, upstanding ladies can be swayed by something as base as an impromptu strip show," he drawled.

"Sure, we could, honey!" someone called. Twitters of laughter broke out, and Evan smiled.

Slowly shaking his head, he relented, unbuttoning his jacket and shrugging it off.

"Seven hundred thousand!" someone hollered.

Gin giggled again. "I wonder how much you'd get if you took off your shirt . . .?"

Evan laughed and blinked at the abbreviated wolf-whistled that broke out. Not nearly as raucous as his shows, certainly, but rather impressive, considering the crowd. He quirked an eyebrow but reached up to tug his tie loose.

The women clapped their hands and waited as the murmuring in the crowd escalated. With a melodramatic sigh, he worked the mother-of-pearl buttons and slowly discarded the shirt.

The audience grew quiet for a moment before it roared to life again, apparently surprised and maybe a little fascinated by his tattoos.

"Eight hundred thousand!"

"Nine hundred!"

"One million dollars!"

Evan blinked and chuckled, shaking his head at the commotion. Wandering over to Gin, he reached for the microphone and slipped an arm around her. "I tell you what, Mama. Since people are being so generous tonight, I'll match the winning bid with a matching donation, too."

Her eyes grew wide and round just before a delighted squeal slipped from her. "Really? Yay! Such a sweetie!"

"One million, two hundred fifty thousand!"

Gin smiled brightly and shot Evan an affectionate smile. "Okay, I heard one million, two hundred and fifty thousand! Anyone else . . .? No? Okay, going once . . . Going twice . . . sold to Arabella Gascony for a grand total of one million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, all to benefit the Zelig foundation, along with a matching donation from my son, Evan! Why don't we give him a round of applause . . .?"

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'You're running through my veins you feel like a freight train,
'I'm trying everything to keep my hands off of you.
'Just give me something,
'Please just give me anything,
'Cause I want you.'

 

-'Give Me Anything' by The Maine.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie sipped the glass of champagne as she glanced once more at the man—the one she knew and yet, she didn't. Zel Roka? Evan Zelig? Just who the hell was he?

Currently dancing with his mother with that thoroughly besotted expression on his face, as though he had won the greatest prize of them all, he smiled down at the woman with absolute affection, unquestioned devotion, and his words made sense . . .

"That woman is everything—everything—that most women could never, ever be. She means everything to me. There's nothing in this world that I wouldn't do if she asked me to. She asked me to escort her here, and I said that I would. If she asks me to go home with her, well, then I'll do it. If she asks me to sleep with her, then I guess that I'll do that, too. I would die for her, Valerie. Tell me: would your precious Marvin do that for you?"

She meant everything in the world to him because she so obviously adored him. Even Valerie could see it, shining in the woman's eyes every time she looked at him: her son. A sad little smile twisted her lips; one that didn't even come close to reaching her eyes. 'What is that like, really?' she couldn't help but wonder. To have such a doting mother . . .? He'd been raised by that kind of woman? No wonder he had such a devil-may-care attitude . . .

Valerie had been sorely mistaken, and she knew it. Thing was, the couple of times she'd tried to approach him since the altercation to apologize, he'd turned away, pretending that he hadn't seen her when she knew damn well that he had.

And she deserved that, too. There wasn't a question about whether or not she did; she knew she did. Still, all she wanted to do was apologize for jumping to conclusions. If he'd just let her, that was . . .

The song ended—an old-fashioned waltz—and Valerie clapped politely along with everyone else. Out of her peripheral vision, she saw Marvin, engaging one of his associates in some sort of banter, and it felt like some sort of messed-up dream.

Still, there was an odd sense, too, that she'd seen him before, wasn't there? A sense that she knew this Evan—he was a stranger, and yet, he wasn't. She'd seen him before; of that she was certain . . .

The glint of faux candle light from the table decorations caught her eye, and Valerie frowned, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Veiled in the dusky shadows in a booth toward the back of the dining room all she could see was the yellowish glow of the electric candles reflecting off the pale hair of the booth's occupant. Clipped short and tidy, he didn't seem out of place in the restaurant, yet there was something about him—about his presence—that seemed to fill the spacious room. He had his face buried behind The Wall Street Journal, but he seemed to sense her perusal. Darkened eyes slowly rising, locking with hers for the briefest of seconds, he nodded curtly, the candle light shining off his wire-rimmed glasses before lifting the paper once more, covering his face more completely as he reached around the paper to retrieve the cream colored bone china coffee cup . . .

An audible gasp slipped from her, as her gaze unconsciously darted around to locate the man in question. That was . . . was him? That day in the restaurant . . .? 'B . . . But . . .'

It was just too much to take in, too much to make sense of. First things first, though, she really needed to apologize to him . . .

"Val! Hey, Valerie!"

Turning abruptly, she couldn't even summon a token smile as she spotted Marvin heading for her. Still too angry over the entire auction incident—he'd spent a lot of money a little too impulsively, in her estimation—it was just something else to add to her growing list of reasons why she'd have been better off to stay in bed today.

"You having a good time?" he asked as he grasped her elbow gently and gave her an affectionate little squeeze.

She nearly choked. "Uh, fine," she lied. If he hadn't noticed that she most certainly wasn't having a good time, then she wasn't going to point it out, either.

He grimaced. "Look, I'm sorry about the auction," he admitted sheepishly. "I just figured that it was for charity, right, and we always donate to charities, anyway."

Valerie waved a hand, unable to trust herself to respond to that. "Marvin, I think I might go home," she blurted, unsure exactly where the sentiment had come from but understanding that she meant the words as soon as they left her mouth.

"Wh-What? Why?"

Stifling a sigh, she managed to summon a weak smile. "Nothing. I just, um . . . I have a headache . . ."

"Did you take some Advil?" he asked, concern evident in the depths of his gaze.

"Yeah, I did," she said. "It's not helping much . . ."

"O-Oh . . ."

The sigh she'd been trying to stave off slipped out, and she shook her head as his expression registered his disappointment. "You could stay," she told him with a little smile.

He shook his head and shrugged, trying to put a good face on whatever he was thinking. "It's not that," he told her.

"Then what is it?"

He forced a smile and shook his head again. "Uh, nothing."

"Marvin . . ."

He grimaced, hearing and interpreting the tone in her voice for what it was: a warning. "I was just thinking . . . I mean, you've met Evan Zelig, right? He seems like a pretty decent guy. He participated in the auction, so he has to be all right. So I was just thinking that if you could dance with him, you could, you know, put in a few good words for me."

"I-I don't think—"

"The Zelig Foundation is huge, Val, and they love to donate to anything that helps children especially. If they knew about my research, maybe they'd help underwrite it—heck, they might fund the entire thing, they're that big . . . And then . . . and then I could come home, and we could get married, and . . . and that's what you want, isn't it?"

She grimaced, hating the hesitant tone in Marvin's voice—hating herself for making him feel as though he had to walk on eggshells around her. He was a good man—a very good man—and he didn't deserve her antagonism. "Of course I want that," she told him, her smile finally genuine even if it were a little weaker than usual. "You know I do."

Marvin perked right up. "Yeah? So what do you think? You look good—well, you look fantastic. How could he possibly say no to you, right?"

Her smile faltered slightly. "R-right . . ."

"It can't really hurt to ask him, can it? I mean, just ask him to dance. Anything; anything . . . just get him to talk to you, maybe."

It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she really didn't think that Zel—Evan—would go for it, but he looked so hopeful, so pleased, that she simply didn't have the heart to put a damper on it for him.

"That's my girl!" he said as she nodded and turned to walk away.

"And then . . . and then I could come home, and we could get married, and . . . and that's what you want, isn't it . . .?"

She winced inwardly. 'It's not that simple, Marvin . . .'

And that was the entirety of the problem, wasn't it? Absolutely nothing had been 'simple', not since the day that Zel Roka had walked into her life . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Will you be staying in the city long?"

Evan chuckled and shrugged noncommittally as he danced with a woman who had introduced herself as Mina Brannigau. "Unfortunately, not too long," he said. "The city's a bit too crowded for my tastes."

She frowned in a pretty moue, twisting a long lock of kinky-curly yellow-blonde hair around her finger. "Oh, that's a shame," she told him. "I love the city! It's so exciting!"

"Is that what you call it?" he teased. "I can think of a thousand things I'd rather be doing."

"Oh? Got anyone in mind to do those . . . things . . . with?" she asked rather breathlessly.

Evan smiled. "Not at the moment."

He could sense her approach long before she made her presence known, and for once, he wasn't inclined to make things easier for her, either. But with every passing second, her ambivalence grew, reaching out to Evan and nearly making him falter—damn her for making him feel bad when she was the one who had jumped to conclusions—when she had been unwilling to even listen as he'd tried to tell her . . .

She finally cleared her throat. "Um . . . hi . . . excuse me. I wondered . . . I wondered if I could . . . could cut . . . in . . .?"

Flicking an entirely calculated, cold look over her, Evan deliberately took his time in answering. "I'm a little busy right now, if you please," he informed her brusquely.

She blushed but stubbornly refused to back down. "Just—Just one dance, please," she said, lowering her voice to a near-whisper.

Evan neatly shrugged off the hand that she'd placed on his forearm to stop them. "Maybe later . . . Ms. Denning, was it? Or would you prefer . . . Mrs. Pinkle?"

Her blush darkened furiously and she nodded jerkily. "Just . . . just Valerie is fine," she added for good measure.

For some reason, her reaction was enough to put a sore strain on the already temerarious hold he had on his temper. 'So she wants to play it like that, does she?' He snorted. "I don't believe that I have anything to say to you," he replied tightly. As far as he was concerned, that should have been warning enough.

"Zel, please!" she hissed, grabbing his arm again as he started to turn away.

He narrowed his gaze on her, shifting from her face to her hand that was clutching his sleeve and back again. She must've figured out that her actions were entirely out of line, and she yanked her hand away though she still made no move to back down. "Excuse me a moment, Miss Brannigau?"

The woman didn't look pleased, but she nodded and forced a little smile as Evan turned to face Valerie. "I've told you, Valerie. There is no Zel Roka; not really. I'm Evan—Evan Zelig."

She flinched but nodded. "O-okay, Evan," she amended. "Please. Just one dance—please."

He slowly shook his head. "And why would I want to do that?" he countered quietly.

She didn't respond right away, but her gaze did slip to the side for just a moment—toward the little man who was standing in the small circle of men admiring his mother. Evan's eyes widened. "Is that so . . .?" he muttered. "I guess I should have known that it had something to do with him."

Valerie sighed though she neither confirmed nor denied the charges. "Just one dance," she murmured just loud enough for him to hear her though he doubted that anyone else dancing nearby could. "Please . . . I'll do your laundry for a week or a month or . . . or I'll . . . I'll owe you." Seeing the impassiveness on his features, she blundered on. "Just one dance . . . I'll . . . I'll do anything . . . just please . . ."

He cocked an eyebrow and frowned at her. "Anything? Is that your offer or his?" he asked, jerking his head toward Marvin.

She understood his question and grimaced, wringing her hands a little in her nervousness. "Mine," she blurted quickly—too quickly.

An entirely familiar sort of irritation ignited deep inside him; one that he'd thought he'd gotten over years ago—irritation spawned by the unintended feeling that he was never good enough, that he was just being used for his face, his body, for whatever reason and whatever rhyme . . . and that Valerie had brought that back to him now, of all times, and in this place . . .

"Anything," he repeated flatly. "Is that right? For just one dance, you'd promise me anything."

She nodded emphatically, ignoring the foreboding tone in his voice and latching onto his words, alone. "Yes, that's right," she agreed.

"Well," he replied stiffly, angrily, "how could I possibly refuse an offer like that?"

Valerie said nothing as Evan pulled her into his arms, hating himself for the momentary satisfaction that ebbed through him as her acute anxiety abated. She was turning him inside out, and she didn't know it—and at the moment, he highly doubted that she'd even care . . .

'Anything . . . Anything . . .'

What was it about that word that pissed him off? He clenched his jaw tighter. Because she made the offer just to satisfy that little fucker she was engaged to, wasn't it . . .?

She tried to talk to him. He could hear her voice, but her words were blunted by the anger that just kept growing deep inside him. She couldn't reach him . . .

"Well, you know, I just broke up with Mitch . . ." and a week later, "Oh, we got back together . . . uh, Evan? Could you, you know, not mention last weekend to him . . .?"

"Evan Zelig? Oh, he's a great guy, but he's just not 'boyfriend' material . . . Who'd be dumb enough to be his girl? Guys who look as good as he does? They're never faithful . . ."

"Oh, come on . . . I'm sure if you got her tickets and backstage passes, she'd give you a good fuck for them . . ."

It was harmless, right? It was all in good fun, and no one got hurt. Everyone knew from the start, didn't they? Just a good time, and no strings attached . . .

And somewhere along the way, he'd just accepted it, hadn't he?

'Damn . . .'

The song ended, and Evan stepped back. Valerie started clapping politely, along with the rest of the people on the dance floor. He didn't wait for her to stop. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her through the crowd so quickly that she nearly stumbled, catching herself on the back of his jacket. He didn't stop moving, either.

He could hear her voice, calling out to him. She didn't understand where he was taking her, did she? Evan didn't really think about it too much, either. All he knew was that he couldn't stand it; couldn't take that one last insult on top of everything else; not tonight . . . Dragging her along the perimeter of the room until he located one of the side rooms, he pulled her inside and let go long enough to close the door.

"Zel . . .?" she squeaked, rubbing her wrist where he'd held onto her.

Evan slowly turned to face her, careful to keep his expression completely blanked as he stared at her. "Evan," he stated once more.

She swallowed hard. He could see her throat move. "E-Evan . . . What—?"

His scathing glower cut her off abruptly. "Anything, Ms. Denning—your word, right? Anything?"

She blinked and shook her head, unable to grasp his meaning though he could feel her trepidation climbing higher. "I-I-I don't . . . understand . . ."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he shrugged, affecting a bored stance, a monotone. "Anything, by literal definition: noun—at least, in this case—meaning any thing whatsoever, any such thing, no matter what, according to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. Your word, correct?"

She shook her head again, playing dumb or really confused; Evan couldn't discern which and didn't really give a damn.

"Come now, Ms. Denning. You're really not that stupid. Or rather, your fiancé isn't, is he? I mean, he is the one who put you up to it, right? To garner my support for his cause?" Her cheeks paled, and he chuckled nastily. "I see."

"M-Marvin's research," she stammered, her cheeks pinking with acute embarrassment at having been found out so easily. "He's trying to find a cure for neuroblastoma—a rare and often fatal form of childhood cancer," she blundered on.

Evan narrowed his eyes slightly though his expression remained impassive. "Save the speech, Valerie. You sound like some pamphlet I've already read before."

She flinched but fell silent as the tension inside her rose just a little higher.

"So now that you've made your pitch, I suppose I ought to tell you that the Zelig Foundation is my mother's cause; not mine. I just happen to share the same last name; that's all. Now, about Marvin's offer . . . Willing to sell you cheap, isn't he?"

"He didn't sell me," she argued though her tone lacked any real conviction.

Evan's eyebrows shot up in a mock display of feigned surprise. "'Promise him anything, Val—anything' . . . Isn't that what he told you?"

"That's not what he—"

"I hardly think that you possess the ability to read one's mind, do you, Val? How could you possibly know what it is that he meant? 'Anything' . . . That was the word you used, so I will assume that it's the one he used. 'Anything'."

He could see it on her face, couldn't he? He was right, and she . . . "You're taking it out of context," she blurted, her cheeks reddening as she struggled to rebuff him. "That's not—"

"Anything for just one dance," Evan repeated, narrowing his eyes. "Well, I did dance with you, didn't I? So now it's time to pay the piper."

She swallowed hard and forced herself to meet his gaze. "What . . . What do you . . . want . . .?"

He chuckled. "Maybe you are a bit stupider than I thought," he replied with a mocking shake of his head. "What, indeed?"

She shook her head, her eyes even darker next to the stark pallor that had leeched her skin of color.

"A blow job, Valerie, and given that your . . . fiancé . . . is so lenient with you, I would suppose you're probably pretty damned good at giving them, right?"

She sucked in her breath sharply, recoiling as though he'd struck her. Evan steeled his resolve, his anger growing instead of waning . . . "N-No!" she choked out.

"No? Really."

"N-No," she insisted once more.

He chuckled nastily. "Oh, so you really expect that you can demand that people do what you say when you cannot make good on your own word? Rather hypocritical, if you ask me, Ms. Denning," he said.

"I never said I'd . . ." she swallowed hard, her eyes brightening as a very definite air of panic ignited. "I didn't say that," she whispered.

"Oh, but you did," he argued. "You said 'anything'. Well, my idea of 'anything' is a blow job—nothing personal. Nothing that means anything at all. You do it, and I promise you, neither it nor you will mean a damn thing to me an hour from now."

She flinched at his derisive tone, and she shook her head again. "I . . . I can't."

"Sure you can," he told her coldly. "You can, and you will, and do you know why?"

She smashed her hand against the bottom of her nose miserably.

Evan ignored the dull hum in the back of his mind; the one that gained momentum like a freight train. "Anything, Ms. Denning. Those were your terms. I didn't twist your arm, now did I? Unless you're not a woman of your word, in which case . . . Can you really expect anyone else to abide by your terms?" he goaded.

"I-I'm trying to keep you out of trouble," she pointed out though her voice lacked any real conviction. "This isn't—"

"Think of it as a business deal," he interrupted coldly. "A verbal agreement is no less binding than an actual contract; am I correct, Ms. Denning? You're the lawyer. You tell me."

She nodded once, her eyes filling with just a little more worry; a little more trepidation. "Y-Yes . . ."

He considered that and finally nodded slowly. "You wanted something from me—to dance with me so that you could pimp Marvin's research to me, right?" He held up a hand to silence her answer. "So you bought that dance with the promise that you'd do—and I quote—anything."

She opened her mouth to argue with him. He narrowed his eyes, effectively silencing her protests, and she jerked her head once in a nod. "Y-Yes . . ."

"That's right," he agreed thoughtfully—mockingly. "Now I've decided that I want a blow job as your payment. Now get on your knees and do what it is that you willingly promised to do. After all, all I'm interested in are whores and hussies, right? So I suppose that you'll have to do, Ms. Denning."

That barb struck home, didn't it? He could see it in her eyes. Tears washed into her gaze. Evan gritted his teeth as she slowly, clumsily, sank to her knees. When she did nothing else, though, he sighed. "It's just a blow job, Val—think of it as repaying a debt. I'm not going to help you."

She sniffled as the scent of her tears hit him hard. Evan scowled. "Stop it," he commanded quietly, rage seething just below the surface of his contrived calm. "This is what you wanted, Valerie. I never asked you to offer me 'anything'. Do it your damn self."

She choked back a sob as her cheeks reddened again, as she slowly, shakily, reached out to unfasten his pants.

Evan bit down on the inside of his cheek hard and shook his head. It's what she wanted, wasn't it? 'Anything . . .'

"Just one dance . . . Please . . . I'll do your laundry for a week or a month or . . . or I'll . . . I'll owe you . . . Just one dance . . . I'll . . . I'll do anything . . . just please . . ."

She started to tug on his belt. He yanked away for a moment. "There's really no need for that, is there? Just pull it out and suck it. No big deal, right?" he scoffed.

She bit her lip, as though she were gathering her courage. Just why did that piss him off even more? Her icy fingers slipped into his pants, faltering as she grasped him, and for one excruciating moment, he closed his eyes, hating the fact that his body was responding to her, hating the scent of tears: hating himself—and just for the moment, hating her . . .

She pulled his penis out of his pants, blinking quickly, blinking back tears that rose to the surface. Lips quivering as she forced herself to open her mouth, she rose up slowly, leaning toward him, her cheeks reddening even more with every passing moment . . . The heat of her stunted breaths baiting him even as he knew somewhere deep down that it was wrong—this was wrong.

She choked on a sob that she was struggling to hold back, as two fat tears seeped out of the corners of her eyes and slipped down her ashen cheeks. Somewhere deep down, Evan could feel something within himself breaking wide open, as though the last bit of decency he had was somehow obliterated in the space of an insular heartbeat . . .

And then he pushed her hands away and stepped back, zipping his pants as he started for the door.

"Zel . . ." she murmured between quiet sobs.

Evan paused with his hand on the door but didn't look back at her. "On second thought, I don't think I want or need your fiancé's whore."

And he slipped out of the room with the sound and the scent of her tears digging into his soul . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Take a photograph ...
'It'll be the last ...
'Not a dollar or a crowd ...
'Could ever keep me here ...'

 

-'Rain' by Breaking Benjamin.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie didn't know how long she sat in that room all by herself after Zel had left her there. Struggling to get her tears under control, she covered her face with her hands, hating everything about him, about Marvin, about the entire night—but about herself the most.

The headache she'd been fighting all night was back with a vengeance, and she wanted to go home, wanted to be alone, wanted not to think about anything. She wanted to forget . . . She just wanted to forget.

Drying her eyes with the back of her shaking hands, she cast a despondent eye around the room and spotted a utility sink near the door. At least something was working for her . . .

She rinsed her face with water, uncaring whether or not she'd mussed her makeup. There was a small mirror above the sink, but, given the circumstances, she just didn't feel like messing with it. Drawing a few steadying breaths, she fished a tissue out of a box on the small table and dabbed at her face.

How ironic was it, really? She didn't look like she'd been crying—at least, that's what she told herself. Taking a moment to smooth her dress, she squared her shoulders and wondered how difficult it'd be to get out of the building without having to face anyone . . .

And she tried to skirt around the perimeter of the ballroom without drawing notice. She figured that she could pull over a waiter and have him tell Marvin that she'd gone home. An entirely humorless smile broke over her features, and she slowly shook her head. She'd arrived in a taxi, hadn't she? She could damn well take one home, too . . .

Or she could take her car and let Marvin take a taxi . . .

She sighed and shook her head. No, she really, really didn't feel like driving . . .

She just wasn't that lucky, she supposed. Before she could make her escape, she spotted Marvin, moving through the crowd. He hurried over to her and smiled. "Hey, Val! How did it go?"

She blinked and rubbed her forehead. Her hand was still shaking. "Oh, uh, fine, fine," she lied. "Marvin, I'm going to go on home."

His smile faded, only to be replaced by a late show of concern. "But I thought we were having fun," he argued.

She shot him an incredulous look that he managed to miss completely. "I have a headache," she told him weakly.

He glanced back at the party that was still going on strong. "Well . . . okay . . . Let me just say goodnight and thank Gin . . ."

She grimaced. "No, no," she said hurriedly. "Why don't you stay? I'll just get a taxi . . ."

His smile was back full-force. "If you're sure . . ."

She waved a hand and tried to smile. It felt more like a wince, but it was enough to fool him. "It's fine," she said, realizing as the words came out that it really was.

"Okay, but maybe you should at least go thank them," he prodded.

"Why don't you do it for me?" she muttered. Her head was pounding worse with every passing moment, and the very idea of talking to him again . . . She just couldn't do it.

He blinked and shot her a completely befuddled sort of look.

Shifting her gaze over his shoulder for a mere moment, she froze. Though he was standing across the room from her, Zel's eyes were locked on her, his expression completely impassive.

She felt her face redden, and without another word, she turned on her heel and fled the ballroom as another wash of tears filled her eyes, clouding her gaze as she hastily retreated.

She was so intent on her escape that she didn't see where she was going, gasping quietly when she smacked against an unforgiving form.

"Oh, I'm sorry," a man's voice said as she barreled into him in the blessedly empty foyer. He held onto her arms and gently steadied her. "Are you . . .?" He sighed. "Of course you aren't," he said quietly. "Were you leaving?"

She couldn't even speak as she nodded miserably, hating herself for her deplorable lack of self-control.

"Here . . . Let me help you," he offered, leading her toward the elevator.

For some reason, the gentle compassion in his voice only served to make her feel just a little bit worse.

But she let him escort her downstairs, anyway, as she struggled to control her emotions. She'd gotten a grip on the sobbing, but not on her tears by the time the cubicle stopped and they'd stepped out of it. "Do you have a ride home?" he asked her.

She shook her head, dabbing at her eyes with the fine linen handkerchief he'd given her as the elevator doors closed. "I was going to take a t-taxi," she stammered.

"All right," he said, slipping a hand under her elbow and leading her outside.

A myriad of flashbulbs disoriented her as they stepped onto walkway. The paparazzi had not waned at all. To her dulled surprise, the man slipped an arm around her shoulders, turning her just enough so that the cameras wouldn't get a good angle of her face, maybe, as he hurried her past the glaring cameras and reporters, who were calling out questions that she just couldn't discern.

But he said nothing as he stepped onto the curb and raised a hand, careful to keep her shielded from the press the entire time. A passing taxi pulled to a stop, and he opened the door for her to get in. "Take her wherever she wants to go, please," the man said, dropping a few folded bills through the window.

The cab driver picked up the money and chuckled. "No problem, sir!" he called out. "Where to, Miss?"

She didn't remember giving him her address though she must have. A moment later, the man—her savior—stepped back, smacking the roof of the cab a couple times, and the cab pulled away from the curb.

 

 

-Cain-

 

 

Cain Zelig stuffed his hands into his pockets with a thoughtful frown as he watched the cab merge into traffic. That poor woman . . . He sighed, waiting until the cab turned the corner and disappeared from view before turning around to head back inside.

It never sat well with him; women having to travel alone anywhere in the city. It was too dangerous a place, and a woman who was already upset? That was worse, in Cain's estimation. He let out a deep breath as he turned to go back inside. She'd get home all right, wouldn't she?

He ignored the reporters who called out to him; ones asking him about the 'mystery woman' he'd just seen off. He made a habit of ignoring them, and since he'd arrived via the back entrance in an effort to avoid this sort of thing, it was more than a little nerve-wracking.

But the trip back up to the top floor didn't take long, and by the time he'd reached the foyer, he managed to brush off the unsettling feelings. Digging his cell phone out of his pocket, he pulled up the picture that his youngest son had sent him: a smiling Gin, replete in a shimmering silver dress that was much, much slinkier than anything she would have chosen for herself, surrounded by a gaggle of besotted-looking fools who were trying to gain her attention . . .

And it wasn't surprising to find her still surrounded by those damn men, either. He frowned and stalked toward his mate.

Her eyes flared wide as he approached, and with a happy squeal, she hurried over to meet him. "Zelig-sensei! You did make it!"

Cain smiled and kissed her cheek. "I told you that I'd try," he replied.

Evan wandered over, his hands in his pockets and a strange expression on his face—anger, at least at first, but Cain could also sense an underlying anxiety that the pup was trying his best to hide. For some reason, the woman he'd just put into the cab flashed through his head, and he had to wonder whether Evan knew her—whether Evan had something to do with her upset . . .

"I take it you got my message," Evan remarked in lieu of a proper greeting.

Cain nodded. "Of course I did," he replied. "Hey, Evan . . . There was a woman who just ran out of here pretty upset. Could you make sure she gets home all right?"

A flicker of recognition lit his gaze, and the younger man shot his father an almost nervous sort of glance. "Where'd she go?"

Cain shrugged, sure now that Evan did know something. "I paid a taxi to take her home."

Evan nodded. "All right." He kissed Gin's cheek. "Breakfast tomorrow, Mama?"

She giggled. "Absolutely!" she said.

He forced a little smile and nodded at Cain before striding past him and out of the ballroom.

Cain watched him go and sighed, unsure what to make of the whole situation and completely unsure whether or not he really needed to know anything. He finally sighed and shook his head, letting his gaze shift back to his wife as she giggled and slipped her arms around his waist. "I'm so glad you came, Zelig-sensei!" she whispered.

He cocked an eyebrow and very deliberately let his gaze roam up and down her frame. "Is that so, baby girl?"

She nodded.

Making quick work of scanning the area, he didn't miss the doors situated off to the side of the room. Cain leaned to the side and cleared his throat. "Gin?"

She was watching the crowd, enjoying their party and didn't notice the odd glimmer that had entered his gaze. "Hmm?"

He chuckled. "One."

She gasped, eyes flashing open wide. "C-Cain!"

"Two."

"But why?" she argued.

"Do you have to ask? Three."

"I-I think I do," she countered, glancing around nervously.

"That dress, Gin. Four."

"But we're in public," she reminded him though her tone was quite breathless.

Cain chuckled again. "Five."

She tried to protest for all of thirty seconds as he slipped an arm around her waist and deliberately led her off toward one of those back rooms—the closest one . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Staring up at the building she called home, Valerie rubbed her bare arms to chase away the lingering chill that had set in when she'd stepped out of the taxi. She'd had every intention of coming home and hiding away, nursing her bruised pride and trying to forget that she'd ever gone to that damned fundraiser, to start with. In the end, though . . .

She just didn't want to go inside, did she?

Turning on her heel, she wandered down the street, ignoring the odd looks she garnered from passers-by. She blinked rapidly as yet more tears clouded her vision. Those things he'd said . . . Damn him! He'd known well enough that she hadn't meant that. He'd known . . .

Yet her anger wasn't convincing, either. As though she simply didn't have the right to maintain it, it lessened despite her resolve, and as she moved along, she couldn't help but listen to his words—hurtful yet containing a certain truth, even if she wanted to ignore it . . .

She'd been unfair, yes. Her harsh assessment of his mother deserved an equally scathing rebuttal. But the things he'd said to her . . . The things he'd said . . .

"On second thought, I don't think I want or need your fiancé's whore . . ."

She stumbled as a fresh sheen of tears glossed over her vision. Those words . . .

"It can't really hurt to ask him, can it? I mean, just ask him to dance. Anything; anything . . . just get him to talk to you, maybe."

Was . . . was that what it was? Had Zel—Evan—been right . . .? Maybe not in whole, but in part—in theory . . .?

Stifling a low groan with the back of a shaking hand, she shook her head and kept walking.

"Hey, sister. Can you spare a dime?"

She didn't respond to the bum hunkered in the filmy shadows, blundering further along the street, past the darkened windows of stores and businesses as the ramble of traffic and the cadence of nameless, faceless people merged into the white noise.

"Lookee here . . . Hey, pretty lady! Out lookin' for a party?"

"There's a party in my pants, honey. Wanna come?"

Unconsciously quickening her pace, she paid them no mind as she kept moving. The sharp rush of footsteps in her wake stopped abruptly. She was too deep in her own thoughts—her own private hell—to register it.

"On second thought, I don't think I want or need your fiancé's whore . . ."

'But . . . but it's not . . . not true . . .'

Too bad she knew deep down that it was, and while she knew that Marvin didn't mean it that way, what did it matter when the end result was the same . . .?

Wandering deeper and deeper into the city—the buildings blending into a murky haze—she couldn't feel the chill in the night air anymore, yet the welcome numbness in her body didn't alleviate the gnawing ache that tormented her very soul, either.

The consuming sense of sadness was an overwhelming thing. The agony, the pain . . . It grew larger and deeper and uglier . . .

'M . . . Marvin's . . . whore . . .'

She flinched, suddenly collapsing onto a bench that was cracked and weathered and peeling layers of paint.

A dull sense of realization ebbed over her, obliterating the anger that had been driving her onward as a low, bitter surge of loneliness shot to the fore. Absolute desolation—that's what she felt. How was it possible to feel so entirely isolated in one of the largest cities in the world?

It wasn't the first time in her life that she'd felt that way, and she was pretty sure that she'd feel it again, too. Still, she couldn't quite shake the emptiness that settled over her, either—the underlying knowledge that her entire life was nothing but a huge sham, and while she'd tried so hard to hide those things in her past, those things that were best left forgotten, they were never very far away . . .

She really wasn't any better than a whore, was she? Whether it was by accident or design, did it really matter when the end result was invariably the same? Marvin . . . he hadn't said that he expected her to do any such thing; of course he hadn't. That didn't really change a thing, did it? Zel . . . Zel was right, and as a lawyer, she knew it. She should have realized it at the time, shouldn't she? 'Anything': that was what she'd said, wasn't it? 'Anything . . .'

The spring air was chilly with a certain misty quality that loomed thick around her. For the first time, she blinked and frowned as she glanced around herself. She vaguely recognized the area though she couldn't rightfully say she knew where exactly she was, either. Ramshackle buildings that were decaying slightly with age—a tired part of the city that never appeared in tourist guides or anything like that, but the area still held onto a quiet dignity that was lost in those areas most commonly considered 'slums': not the best part of town by any means, but certainly not the worst.

'Kind of like . . . me,' she thought wanly as a humorless little smile twisted her lips. Kind of . . . almost . . .

'Valerie . . .'

Her name floated to her from somewhere deep inside, and she blinked, shaking her head, she turned to look around, knowing deep down that she wouldn't see the owner of the voice she'd heard, unable to place it, though it sounded entirely familiar, too . . .

But it was that voice that gave her the resolve to stand up once more, gave her the will to turn back the way she'd come, and to put one foot in front of the other and walk . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan crouched in the shadows cast by the looming apartment complex, completely hidden from view as he watched the woman quietly moving around inside. He'd followed her from the moment she'd decided to take an impromptu walk after the taxi that his father paid had dropped her off.

Damn it, it wasn't supposed to have been like this; not at all, and even though he'd been there the entire evening, Evan still wasn't entirely certain, just what had happened, in the first place.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. She'd caught him by surprise in her overly harsh assessment of Gin, to start with, and he knew well enough that nothing else she might have said would have made any difference at all, in the end. He hadn't wanted to listen to her. He was too angry to be unbiased, and . . .

He winced, letting out a deep breath as he wondered for the thousandth time or more just why he'd wanted to lash out at her so badly. That's exactly what he'd done, wasn't it? He'd hurt her because he'd wanted to—lashed out at her in an attempt to completely humiliate her, to hurt her because she'd hurt him, first—and that was absolutely inexcusable.

She strode back into the living room from the short hallway—he figured she'd gone to change clothes, and she had. Somehow, the oversized, pale pink sweatpants and baggy sweatshirt she was wearing was a little more welcome than the figure hugging dress she'd just removed—now dangling limply from her hands, along with the shoes she'd worn, and he wasn't entirely surprised when she stalked through the living room into the open air kitchen, where she dumped the both into the trashcan next to the counter.

He'd seen her the very moment she'd stepped out of the back room where he'd left her. To be honest, he'd started feeling bad about it before he'd ever managed to get out of there, in the first place. Seeing her on her knees with those damned tears in her eyes . . . It was just a little more than he could stand.

The long and short of it was that he'd acted like a complete and utter bastard, and he knew it. After all, she hadn't known that she was inadvertently insulting him, had she? No, all she'd wanted was one dance, and it didn't really matter, what her reason was. He knew that, too. Still . . .

And he'd just stood there, watching as she hurried toward the exit, only to be intercepted by that little fucker she called a fiancé. Evan wasn't sure if he was just that dense or just that uncaring, because the miserable shit hadn't even noticed her upset, had he? It hadn't taken Evan long to figure out that Marvin didn't seem to notice much of anything unless it involved his project, which was the main reason that Evan himself wasn't too keen on recommending him for any such thing. Maybe he was just as smart and everything that Valerie had claimed, but there were other things that were important, too, and the main thing there being one's fiancée.

But no, Evan had only watched as Marvin had conversed with her, and while he wasn't close enough to overhear what was being said, Evan wasn't stupid, either. He'd been trying to talk her into staying, even knowing that she obviously didn't want to be there, and as much as it bothered him since he was the cause of it, her mood didn't seem to register at all to the one man who should have given a great goddamn.

He shook his head. If that hadn't been enough, the little fuck had squared his shoulders, staring after her as she'd hastily dashed out of the ballroom with a perplexed sort of expression on his face. Then he'd turned around, pasted on an idiotic smile, and had proceeded to continue annoying the other guests with his very presence.

He sighed. All right, so that was a little unfair. Marvin had seemed personable enough, and Evan might actually have liked him all right had he not showed up with Valerie—and had he not been a complete and utter douche bag, in Evan's estimation, too.

So, Evan had followed her all over the city during her impromptu walk with her little red satin purse in hand. She'd forgotten it in her rush to leave. Evan had checked on a whim as he'd headed out to follow her, and he was glad that he had when the cloakroom attendant had returned with the tiny red bag. Of course, it hadn't really interfered too much, even when he'd had to put the smack-down on a couple of punks who thought they'd follow her, too. He'd slammed one against a wall then tossed him at the second one, and they'd both decided that they'd do well to find someone else to bedevil. It hadn't been until he was watching them run off down a narrow alley that he'd remembered the purse that was still hanging off his arm . . .

And if regret and recrimination were hard things to swallow, the absolute misery that had cloaked her as she slumped onto that rickety old bench was even worse, reminding Evan all too clearly that he was the reason she felt like that—his anger and his indignity . . . As her feelings deepened, he'd leaned against the wall, hidden in the deepest shadows of a nearby jewelry store, closing his eyes and wishing that he could have those hours back; that he could change everything, just for her—only for her.

So he'd reached out with his youki, let it brush over her, to soothe her, even if she didn't really understand what it meant, telling her without words that she really wasn't as alone as she thought she was, and while he knew damn well that he was just being a coward, maybe . . . Maybe that was all right, too.

Even now, he knew well enough that she was safe, and yet he still couldn't leave her. She'd washed her face and masked the lingering hurt that he could feel despite the closed windows and manmade materials that separated them. The despondence in her aura, though . . . 'I'm . . . I'm sorry, V . . . I'm sorry . . .'

The door opened as she was filling a glass with wine, and that little wanker strolled inside. He, of course, was nothing but smiles and excitement, waving his arms like a damned lunatic while he told her what she missed after she'd left. A violent surge of rage welled up inside him, and Evan grimaced, digging his claws into his palms, issuing a low growl that was cut off abruptly when the stench of his blood hit him. Forcing himself to loosen his grip, he drew a deep breath and slowly shook his head.

If Marvin-the-Great noticed Valerie's mood, he made a damn good show of ignoring it. She said nothing, nodding now and again in a half-hearted show of feigned interest. He talked for a few minutes before pushing up the sleeve of his rented tux and grimacing at the hour. He kissed her on the cheek and hurried down the same hallway, which only served to draw another low growl from Evan at the very idea that the two of them might actually share the same bedroom.

She slowly drank the wine and rinsed the glass, setting it, upside down on a clean towel beside the sink. After a moment, she wandered over to the touchpanel near the door, securing her home for the night, before following Marvin down the hallway and out of view.

Evan gritted his teeth. He had to see her, didn't he? He had to see her, to know that she was going to sleep. Creeping to the edge of the balcony, he scowled at the narrow fire escape nearby. The light was on inside, making it impossible for Evan to move over there just yet since the light spilling out of the window was too bright to keep him safely hidden, and after what seemed like forever, he muttered a low curse when the light was finally extinguished. The leap to the escape wasn't far, and he settled himself under the window with a marked scowl. She'd left the window cracked open. He could hear the rustle of the couple as they got comfortable for the night.

"Did I tell you? That painting sold for a hundred and seventy-five million," the little snake said in a hushed tone.

"Did it?" Valerie echoed in a mildly interested way.

He laughed then yawned. "Totally worth it," he went on. "I mean, I don't know much about art, but if it benefits charity, then that's even better, right?"

"Mm."

Gritting his teeth hard when he heard the definite sound of a very chaste kiss, Evan tried to remind himself that it was perfectly all right to kiss one's fiancée. It didn't work too well as his anger grew.

"You looked really pretty tonight, Val," Marvin said.

"M-Marvin . . . Not tonight, all right?"

More rustling that grated even more on Evan's nerves. "Okay," Marvin said in mid-yawn. "Night."

For reasons that he didn't want to consider, the surge of relief that shot through Evan was welcome and almost pleasant.

'You know why,' his youkai muttered.

Evan nodded slightly. 'I guess I do.'

'. . . We could go home now.'

'We could,' Evan agreed, though he made no move to stand up.

No, he'd rather just sit there under the window, trying not to think about why Valerie had the power to harness such control over his emotions . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie lay in bed, listening to the sound of Marvin's breathing, listening to the sound of herself as she blinked in the stifling quiet. She'd left the window open a crack since the sounds of the city tended to lull her to sleep most nights. Why was it so quiet tonight, of all nights?

Glancing at the glowing numbers on the clock beside the bed, she bit her lip. Nearly four in the morning, and she was still wide awake, still berating herself for her part in the night that she wanted so desperately to forget.

She sighed. Marvin had rolled over and gone right to sleep after she'd fended off his advance. Why did it just make her a little angrier?

Pushing the blankets aside, she swung her legs off the bed and stood up, unable to stay there any longer. Pausing in the living room just long enough to turn on her computer, she headed for the kitchen once more, sloshing more wine into the glass she'd rinsed out before trying to go to bed.

She owed Zel an apology, didn't she? Her behavior was absolutely intolerable, and really, after the things that she'd said about his mother, she couldn't really blame him for being nasty to her, could she? She didn't have an actual excuse, either, aside from the idea that he'd just seemed so very different tonight, so completely unlike his normal self. To be honest, the man she'd encountered tonight . . . He was a little intimidating, wasn't he? And Valerie . . . She just didn't know how to deal with him; not like that. Too used to his outrageous flirting and joking, the standoffish and aloof man who had called himself Evan Zelig . . .

But she'd brought it all on, herself, hadn't she? Why?

Rubbing her face as she wandered over to her desk with a glass of wine in hand, Valerie let out a deep breath. She knew why. It was because . . . because she had to keep him at a distance. Zel Roka . . . she'd met guys like him before—pretty boys who thrived on the wild lifestyle, who insisted that spontaneity was everything, professing their undying love and passion one moment, only to decide a week or a month or a year later that they had to have their freedom . . . She'd tried it before, and maybe that was the real reason why the security that was Marvin appealed to her so much. She'd had more than enough instability in her lifetime, hadn't she? After all, that had been her entire existence for the longest time.

And maybe it was that sense of restlessness that made her type in the website she wanted, clicking through links until she found the page she was looking for. She'd missed the junior high commencement ceremony, but they'd uploaded it to their website, too.

Sipping the wine as the media player opened and loaded the streaming video, she leaned back in the chair and waited . . . She hadn't been able to make it, but at least she could see it, anyway, and that helped to make her feel just a little better, though not very much.

She never noticed the darkened figure lingering just outside on the balcony.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'"Everybody needs a little time away," I heard her say, "from each other ..."
"Even lovers need a holiday far away from each other …"
Hold me now
It's hard for me to say I'm sorry
I just want you to stay …'

 

-'Hard to Say I'm Sorry' by Chicago.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie bit her lip as she slowly, hesitantly, raised her fist to knock on the door. She couldn't bring herself to do it right away, though, and she shook her head.

No, she had to do it. She really did owe him an apology for her behavior, and she knew it. There was nothing left but for her to swallow what was left of her already tattered pride and do it, right?

She hadn't even bothered to try going back to bed. It was almost six in the morning by the time she'd finished watching the recording of the commencement ceremony. Marvin had hurried out of the bedroom fully dressed with his suitcase in hand, paused long enough to kiss her cheek, and then had rushed off to catch his plane. She'd gone for a run then had cut over to see Madison just after seven.

It didn't surprise her that Madison was still in bed, no, but what had surprised her was that the normally vivacious woman had looked very much like she'd just been caught in a windstorm or something, and her low groan that greeted Valerie was more than a little strange; strange enough that Valerie had ignored her reasons for stopping by in lieu of demanding to know what had happened to Madison, instead. "Maddy? Are you all right?"

"Coffee," the woman croaked, rolling over in the large bed and huddling a little deeper beneath the covers. Valerie hadn't said anything as she'd hurried off to the kitchen to retrieve a cup, though she was surprised that the coffee in the pot was still very, very hot. She made quick work of filling a mug and dumping a couple sweetener packets into it before carefully hurrying back to the bedroom once more.

Maddy sat up and reached for the drink with a low groan and a rather spacey-looking smile. "Much, much better," she approved after she'd slurped down about half of the coffee. "Thanks."

Valerie shook her head as she sank down on the edge of the very rumpled bed, rubbing her arms against the chill in the morning air that blew through Madison's opened windows. "So are you going to tell me why you look like you were hit by a Mack truck?"

The enigmatic little grin on her face widened as she tipped the cup of coffee to her lips once more. "He was a helluva Mack truck," she murmured.

Valerie's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "He?"

"Hmm," Madison intoned with a secretive little smile as she flopped back on the bed and heaved a contented sigh. "I have been well and truly fucked," she said.

Valerie laughed despite herself. "But I thought you were going out with Bugs last night," she remarked with a shake of her head.

"I did," Madison agreed, tugging the sheet up over her still-naked body. "It didn't last long. Of course, I'd have been surprised if it had."

"Why's that?"

Shifting her violet eyes to the side to meet Valerie's gaze, Madison giggled. "Because Bugs is never that interested in me, lovey. He found something that caught his attention more—he was probably wearing really tight pants or something—and he ditched me."

Valerie's lips twitched. "You don't sound like that was a bad thing," she pointed out.

Madison shrugged. "It wasn't. He ditched me with one of the sexiest men living and breathing."

"Oh, really?"

"Oh, really," Madison quipped.

Valerie shook her head again, but couldn't help her smile. "Do I know him?"

A strange sort of expression filtered over Madison's features, and she laughed. "I don't think so, but you may know of him."

"Oh? Who?"

". . . Gunnar Inutaisho."

"The Gunnar Inutaisho? As in, the filthy rich Gunnar Inutaisho? Really . . ."

She nodded then made a face. "V, swear to God you won't tell Evan," she insisted.

"Oh, I won't tell—wait . . . You just called him 'Evan'."

Madison rolled her eyes and waved a hand. "Of course I did. That's his name. I mean, you did see him last night at the gala, right?"

Valerie narrowed her gaze as the vivid reminder of the events of the night before inundated her with a ferocity that nearly made her blush. "So you knew that he was going to be there, too? Why didn't you warn me before I stuck my foot in my mouth?"

"For the same reason I didn't warn him," she retorted airily. "How much fun would that have been, I ask you?" She sat up suddenly, her eyebrows drawing together in a marked scowl. "What do you mean, 'before you stuck your foot in your mouth'?" Valerie grimaced. Madison winced. "That bad?"

Valerie sighed. "Worse, actually," she admitted quietly, unable to meet her friend's probing expression as her eyes fell to her hands, folded in her lap. "I . . . I i-i-i-insulted . . . his mother . . ."

Madison gasped. "No, you didn't . . ."

"Yeah, I so did."

"But . . . But Evan . . . loves his mama . . ."

Valerie heaved another sigh and shot Madison a scathing glower. "Well, I know that now," she grumbled. "I didn't know who she was last night, and he was all, 'She's special; I adore her', and I was all, 'Why? Is she that good in bed?', so he said, 'I suppose you could say that', and not once—not once—did he say, 'Oh, by the by, she's my mother'!"

Madison's lips twitched despite the otherwise seriousness in her expression at Valerie's impromptu and horribly bad impersonation of the man in question. "Does Evan really sound that stupid when he talks?" she deadpanned.

"Maddy!"

"How could you not know she was his mother? He looks just like her—well, he does have his father's eyes, though . . . Sexier than holy hell, if you ask me . . ."

Valerie snorted then sighed, effectively putting an end on her own tirade. "And just how was I supposed to know that? The woman didn't look old enough to be his mother! She looked like she might have been his sister—his younger sister, damn it!"


She laughed again then finally groaned. "So you're telling me that you two didn't have a good time last night?" she asked, a hint of very definite worry creeping into her tone
.

"Oh, don't worry," Valerie muttered, scowling at the toe of her running shoe. "Zel—Evan—whoever . . . He got back at me in spades . . . and I completely deserved it, too," she added quietly.

Madison grimaced and sucked in a harsh breath. "Oh, no . . . What did he do?"

Valerie gave a little shrug, as though the situation didn't bother her nearly as much as it really did. "He . . . Well, see . . . Marvin, he . . . He wanted me to dance with Zel—you know, after he figured out that he was Mrs. Zelig's son, you know? Wanted me to sort of . . . I don't know, put in a good word for him about the research and stuff . . . So, I told Zel that I'd do . . ." she trailed off for a moment and swallowed hard, blinking fast to stave back the tears that still rose whenever she thought about that awful moment. ". . . A-A-Anything . . ."

Madison shook her head in confusion. "Oka-a-ay . . ."

Valerie sighed and bit her lip. "After we finished dancing, he . . . He tugged me into this side room, and he . . . he said that he wanted a . . . a blow job."

"He say wha-a-a . . .?" Madison demanded, a spark of complete incense in her demeanor— incense at Zel for having said any such thing. "That little dick! I swear to God, I'll—"

"No!" Valerie interjected quickly. "Maddy, no! He . . . He was right. He was . . . Marvin told me to do 'anything', and Zel was right. I should have . . . I should have thought about what I was saying—offering. I didn't, and I deserved it after what I'd assumed about his mother . . ." She tried to smile. It looked more like a grimace. "He was right. I . . . I was Marvin's whore."

"The hell he was right," Madison growled, her eyes flashing with indignant fire. "He's never right, damn it! Valerie—"

She let out a deep breath and managed a trembling smile. "Seriously, Madison, he was, and even then, I . . . I do owe him an apology."

"Okay, fine. Apologize to him for what you said about his mother, but you make sure that bastard apologizes to you first! You are no one's whore, and even if you were, you'd be mine, not his!"

Valerie laughed weakly and shook her head. "I'm going to go over there," she said, inflicting a lot more resolve into her tone than she was actually feeling, given the circumstances.

Madison snorted but didn't try to stop her. "Fine, then, but I'm serious. Just because you made a mistake doesn't mean that he had the right to be so shitty with you . . . and don't you dare tell him about Gunnar, either."

Valerie felt a little better, though she would have been hard-pressed to put a finger on why as she stood up to leave. "Why's that?"

Madison finally smiled, though the expression held a little more animosity toward her friend than Valerie could credit. "Because he's Evan's cousin," she replied simply.

"He is?"

Madison gave a quick nod and rolled her eyes. "Evan's mother's Gunnar's father's cousin."

And just why didn't that little gem surprise Valerie at all, either . . .?

And which was neither here nor there. Shaking herself out of her reverie, Valerie let out a deep breath, garnering her courage before it fled her completely. Telling Evan she was sorry—that was far more important at the moment, and she wasn't really one to procrastinate, anyway. No, best to just get it over with, wasn't it? Of course it was . . .

'Just do it, Valerie. Swallow your pride and do it. The worst he could possibly do is close the door in your face, and if he did that, then at least you'd know that you'd tried to apologize. Just do it. Just do it . . .'

The sound of her knock echoed through her head, and she grimaced, but the doorbell had been just a little more than she really could manage at the moment. Wishing that he'd just open the door while the smallest part of her hoped to God that he wasn't home, she waited for what felt like an eternity before she turned on her heel and started to go.

The door opened behind her, and she swung around with a smothered yelp of surprise, her heart thumping erratically in her chest as she glanced at him—and stopped short—every breath, every thought, every last bit of her sanity fleeing her in that instant.

Lounging in the doorway with the rumpled white shirt he'd worn under his tux hanging open and his bowtie undone and dangling from the tabs of his collar, his face still held onto the slow sleepiness of lingering dreams. Eyes heavily lidded, a light sheen of silvery stubble clinging to his cheeks, he stared at her for a moment as though he just didn't recognize her before the slightest of smiles quirked his lips. "Oh, hey, V," he said, stifling a yawn with the back of his hand.

Of all the receptions she figured she'd get, that simply hadn't been one of them. Still caught up in her absolute bemusement, though, she could only nod when he stepped back and gestured for her to come inside.

"I, uh . . ."

"Shit . . . What the fuck time is it, V?" he interrupted, idly scratching the shallow vale in the center of his chest.

She swallowed hard, blatantly staring at the exposed flesh that somehow seemed that much more intimidating when she saw him up close, especially when coupled with the overly sleepy drawl that could be discerned beneath his words. "T-Time?" she squeaked.

The scratching hand moved from his chest to the back of his head as he yawned again. "N'er mind," he mumbled.

Forcing her gaze off his chest, she cleared her throat, her hands shaking pitifully as she drew a deep breath. "I . . . I just wanted to apologize a-about last night," she blurted quickly, unable to staunch the flow of blood that surged into her cheeks. "I never should have said those things about your—your mother, and—"

"Don't worry about it," he said with a shrug. "Guess I never told you that she was my mama . . . Yeah, I shoulda told you she was, huh?"

Valerie shook her head, feeling just a little worse since he was being so damned nice about everything. "All the same, you were . . . were right . . . about a lot of things . . ."

Evan snorted and rolled his eyes, but his smile widened and remained good-natured. "Don't say tha-a-a-at . . . I'm never right . . ."

"No, you were right. I should have known exactly what I was saying, and you . . . I'm really sorry, Ze—Evan," she corrected before he could.

He blinked and stared at her, a very slow smile quirking his lips as he carefully regarded her. "Stop apologizing, will you? No harm, no foul, right?"

She heaved a sigh and shook her head. "No. I . . . I still owe you a favor, don't I? So . . . So, just name it."

She couldn't quite help the trill of foreboding that rumbled through her, either. Unable to do much more than fidget and wait, she chanced a surreptitious peek at him, but blinked when she saw that he wasn't even really paying attention to her. Rummaging through his pockets for something, he seemed intent on his mission instead of what she'd said to him. "Evan? Are you listening to me?"

"Yeah, you owe me, blah blah . . . V, you don't owe me shit. If anyone owes anybody anything, it's me. I was just being an asshole last night, and I'm sorry. Forget about it."

She narrowed her eyes and stubbornly shook her head. "No, that's just it. You were right. You really were, and—"

He stopped and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back just a little as he carefully regarded her. "Is this gonna take awhile?"

"It wouldn't if you'd just let me speak," she muttered.

Evan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, okay. Know how to use a knife?"

She shook her head in complete confusion. "What?"

He yanked off his shirt and chuckled as he grabbed her hand and started toward the kitchen. "Mom and Cain are coming over for breakfast, so if you wanna keep apologizing when it's not necessary, then the least you can do is chop while you're doing it."

She snapped her mouth closed on whatever she was going to say, caught off guard by the thing he was suggesting. "You . . . You really can cook?" she asked, remembering a moment too late that his mother had said as much during the bachelor auction.

"'Course I can! Almost as good as my mama . . . almost."

The idea bemused her enough that she said nothing else as he led her into the kitchen and let go of her beside the long counter in the middle. She watched in silence as he sauntered over to the shelf where he kept some fruit that he hadn't put into the refrigerator. "Knives are in the drawer beside you," he said, grabbing three good sized melons and tossing them into the air to juggle them. "Catch, V."

She barely had time to react, catching the first of the melons with a low 'oof' before he launched the next one. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with your food?" she muttered as she set the last one aside and pulled the drawer open.

"Sure," he told her with a wink. "But who do you think taught me how to juggle, anyway?"

She smiled despite her still self-conscious thoughts as he pulled open the refrigerator and disappeared inside. He was back a few minutes later with his arms laden with a few butcher paper wrapped parcels and some other odd items.

She worked carefully, but efficiently as he headed out of the room again, reasonably pleased with her own culinary skills. She wasn't a chef, by any means, but she knew how to handle the knife well enough, and she was about midway through chopping the second melon when he strode back into the room a few minutes later, having changed out of his dress pants into a very ragged pair of ripped and faded blue jeans. The snap was actually missing, she noticed as a foreign sort of warmth seeped into her cheeks. "So, who's Cain?" she heard herself asking as she forced her attention away from Evan's well-shaped ass.

"Cain? Oh, he's my father," Evan replied, reaching high overhead to pull down a very large frying pan that he spun in the air and caught with one hand as he turned on and adjusted the flame on the cooktop with his other one.

"You call your father by name?"

He shrugged. "It's the nicest of my names for him, sure."

She shook her head and rinsed her hands in the nearby sink. "I need a bowl," she told him.

"In that cupboard," he said, nodding at the row of them in front of her as he pulled a couple of the wrapped packages open, dumped the ground sausage into a bowl and reached for a plastic container of some kind of unlabeled spice mix and proceeded to mix it all with his hands before forming them into patties at a speed that made her blink.

She found a bowl easily enough and carefully scooped the cut up melon into it. "Wouldn't it be easier to call him, 'Dad'?"

"Maybe," Evan agreed with a careless shrug. "Who the fuck cares?"

She watched as he quickly placed the patties into the pan and grabbed the bowl to dump it into the sink before washing his hands. "Anyway, your mom . . . She seems really, really sweet."

The grin he shot her made her catch her breath for a dizzying moment. As though he'd just won the greatest prize of them all, he absolutely beamed at her in complete and utter boyish delight. "Yeah? You think?"

She opened her mouth to reply but snapped it closed as she narrowed her eyes. She'd been so preoccupied in her own upset that she hadn't noticed it before, but . . . Without a second thought, she reached out as he passed her, grabbing a fistful of his long hair and yanking to bring his head down to her level so that she could inspect it.

"Ow-w-w!" he exclaimed, his back bending severely when he didn't stop walking quite fast enough. "Attached, V! That's attached!"

"How did your hair grow back so fast?" she demanded incredulously.

He snorted and carefully straightened up when she finally let go of his hair. "Haven't you ever heard of a wig, woman?" he countered.

She snorted. "I saw your hair last night, Zel Roka. That couldn't have possibly been a wig."

"It totally was a wig, V Pinkle. Shows what you know, dunnit?"

Her mouth fell open at his retort, and she quickly shook her head. "That is so not funny," she argued, chagrined in the extreme that she couldn't quite hold back the little grin that surfaced on her face. "Besides, I never said I was taking his last name when we get married."

He snorted, too. "Yeah, I wouldn't either, if I were you . . . but I know damn well I told you that my name's Evan Zelig."

"Whatever, whatever. Don't you try to derail the topic, Roka. I'm on to your tricks."

"Hmm," he drawled with an enigmatic little shrug. "I had Maddy do it last night after the party," he said.

"Impossible!" she scoffed.

"What? It doesn't really take that long," he argued.

"It's impossible because last night Maddy was busy doing someone else, not you."

He sighed and rolled his eyes but kept smiling. "Then I guess you'll have to buy my story about wearing a wig."

"A wig," she echoed, her voice rife with dubiousness.

"Tha-a-a-at's right, baby. Like it or lump it, but you'll have to accept it."

She heaved a sigh designed to let him know exactly what she thought of his claims. "So when are your parents going to be here?"

He mashed his hands into a bowl of flour and what looked to be . . . lard . . .? "In an hour or so," he replied.

She made a face. She really ought to apologize to his mother, too, shouldn't she?

Evan must have seen it on her face, though, and he sighed softly. "V . . . I said, don't worry about it, okay?"

She shot him a reluctant glance but didn't reply.

"Look, it was as much my fault as it was yours, maybe more. I really should have told you that she was my mama. I just figured you'd know it when you saw her. It's all right."

She shook her head then shrugged, reaching into the bowl of fruit stationed in the middle of the counter and carefully paring a strawberry. "All the same, you were right. A promise is a promise, and I did tell you 'anything' . . ."

For the briefest of moments, he actually looked irritated before he managed to mask the emotion behind a half-hearted smile. "Aw, forget about it. You don't have to—" He cut himself off abruptly as an altogether worrisome sparkle ignited behind those deep blue eyes of his. "Well, I mean, if it would really make you feel better," he began slowly.

Valerie shifted her gaze to the side to give him the critical eye. Yep, definitely something going on in that brain of his, and for reasons that Valerie didn't really want to think about, it frightened her a lot. "Wha-a-at . . .?"

He stepped around her to wash his hands off in the sink before turning an entirely too-innocent look on her. "See, it's like this . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'My darling believe me
'For me there is no one but you
'Please love me too
'I'm in love with you
'Answer my prayer …'

 

-'I Say A Little Prayer' by Dionne Warwick.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"See, it's like this . . ."

No doubt about it, she definitely looked nervous. "What's like what?"

Evan tamped down the surge of guilt that he really was about to suggest what he was thinking. "You have to understand that my mama—my wonderful, lovely, brilliant, gorgeous mama—Well, she has a problem."

Valerie shook her head. "A problem?" she echoed. "What kind of problem?"

Evan shrugged and dumped a half of a bottle of buttermilk into the biscuit dough he was making. "Not so much a problem as an . . . unhealthy preoccupation, if you will . . ."

"Cut to the chase, Roka," she demanded. "And how do you get 'Zel Roka' out of 'Evan Zelig', anyway?"

He grinned at her. "Evan . . . Roka . . . Zelig," he told her.

She shook her head. "What? Did your parents want to make you into a rock star before you were even born?"

He laughed. "Roka is Japanese. It means 'white crest of the wave'."

"Japanese," she repeated.

He nodded. "Mama's Japanese, not that you could really tell, right?"

Valerie sighed and shook her head then waved her hand quickly. "Never mind that. Just tell me what kind of favor you want."

He smiled to himself, unable to hide his amusement at Valerie's impatience. "Oh, yeah, that . . . See, Mama likes to visit, and, while I love her visits, she has a rather bad habit of regaling me with the current list of eligible bachelorettes she knows, and I . . . Well, I'm not ready to be tied down just yet, right? But I hate to hurt her feelings . . ."

Valerie was either trying not to understand or just really didn't get it. Either way, she shook her head and frowned in confusion. "And . . .?" she prompted when he trailed off.

He chuckled. "And so it would help me out a lot if you were to—I don't know—be my girlfriend for the day."

She blinked and stared at him for about thirty seconds before her hazel eyes took on an entirely suspect glow, and she shook her head. "Your . . .? Oh, no . . . That is such a bad idea . . ."

Evan shrugged. "Yeah, you're right . . . Besides, I already told you that it doesn't matter, didn't I? Don't worry about it."

She stiffened. He could feel it, and he could appreciate her dilemma, even if he didn't rescind the offer. On the one hand, she really did feel as though she owed him. On the other? He almost laughed—almost.

"Just . . . Just for one day, right?" she finally asked, suspicion rife in her voice.

Evan nodded. "Yeah."

She looked like she couldn't quite believe she was actually considering it. "No funny business?"

"Totally serious boyfriend," he quipped.

His response didn't seem to make her feel any better, and she heaved a sigh. "And then we're even?"

"Even-Steven."

She sighed again. "And you really think your parents will buy it?"

"Well, it would help, maybe, if you grabbed my ass from time to time."

She snorted but giggled, tucking a wayward lock of honey blonde hair behind her ear. "Don't push your luck, Roka."

"So you'll do it?"

She heaved a longsuffering sigh and stared at him for a moment. "All right," she agreed, "but remember: no funny stuff."

"No funny stuff. Got it." Evan grinned. "Hey, V . . ."

"What?"

He shot her a sidelong glance and chuckled softly, appreciating the way the morning sunlight shone in her hair. "Is that your real color?" he asked quietly.

She looked startled for a moment, but her cheeks pinked prettily as she shot him a fleeting smile and ducked her head back toward her task again. "Y-Yes," she mumbled, paying an inordinate amount of attention to her fruit cutting. "Why?"

"It suits you," he said.

"Oh, does it?" she countered, a hint of amusement in her tone. "And you? What's your real hair color?"

He chuckled. "You're looking at it."

She did a double take at that, narrowing her eyes as she slowly shook her head. "Okay, seriously," she insisted.

"I am being serious," he countered. "This is the color I was born with."

She still didn't look like she believed him, but she must have figured that he was going to keep insisting that it really was his natural color. "Okay, fine, if you really don't want to tell me," she breathed in feigned resignation.

"Yeah, yeah, if you don't believe me, just ask my mama when she gets here," he quipped. "Anyway, why the fuck would you color your hair brown?"

She shot him a droll sort of glance and shrugged. "I don't know; why would you?"

He laughed. "Easy," he told her. "I don't want people to recognize me; that's all. Is that what you're doing? Hiding your deep, dark past?"

Hardly," she retorted. "I'd just rather that people listen to me instead of drawing the conclusion that I'm an airhead because I had the misfortune of being born blonde."

"Nothing wrong with being born blonde," he argued. "So where did you grow up?"

"What is this? Twenty questions?"

"Well, it stands to reason that I ought to know a few things about my girlfriend, right?"

She snorted. "Kentucky."

He glanced at her, pressing his lips together in a thin line. "Oh? So you're inbred."

Her knife paused in mid-chop. "I am not!" she insisted.

He laughed. "I thought everyone in Kentucky was their own grandpas."

She turned and whipped a blueberry at him. He caught it in his mouth and grinned unrepentantly. "You're kind of a jerk, did you know?"

"Yeah, I've been called worse," he replied. "Okay, so you're from Kentucky, and you're not inbred. Got it. Any brothers or sisters?"

"Do you have any?"

Evan shrugged. "Yep . . . got an older half-sister, Bellaniece—she lives in Japan with her husband, an absolutely perfect older brother, Bas, and my baby sister, Jilli."

"Perfect? How so?"

He shrugged as he cut the biscuits and arranged them on a baking sheet. "Aww, you know: perfect—perfect son with his perfect wife and their perfect kids. Perfect."

She frowned. He could feel her staring at him even if he didn't turn to verify it. "And you're not?"

He laughed. "Hell . . . I'm the fuck up . . . You couldn't tell?"

"Hmm, you're the black sheep; is that what you mean?"

"You savvy pretty well, babycakes," he replied.

She snorted then giggled, pressing the back of her wrist against her mouth to stifle the sound. "All right, then . . . Did you graduate high school?"

"Yup . . . Well, I tested out early, if that's what you mean."

She blinked in obvious surprise, unable to hide the incredulity on her face at his claim. "Really? Then . . . Then you're smart."

"Nah," he scoffed and shrugged, making quick work of cracking about a two dozen eggs into a clean bowl. "I just really hated school."

She shook her head. He could feel her gaze still locked on him, and again, he didn't turn around to verify it. "No . . . You have to be smart to test out early," she said. "I've seen the test before, and I know I couldn't have passed it if I'd had to."

"Yeah, well, you can 'pass' just about anything when your daddy's filthy fucking rich," he quipped.

She didn't believe him. The intensity of her stare was enough to convince him of that easily enough. "So you really do read the Wall Street Journal."

Evan shot her a coy grin and rolled his eyes. "What? Oh, that?" he said, catching sight of the newspaper that was lying on the counter exactly where Bone had left it for him yesterday. "That's not mine. It's Bubby's."

"Bubby?"

"My perfect brother, remember? Bubby. Jesus, V, no one's going to believe you're my main squeeze if you can't remember that much."

"I can remember just fine, you know," she argued. "You hadn't mentioned this 'Bubby' before—at least, not like that. Anyway, why are you getting his newspaper?"

"Ehh, he doesn't live here in the city, but he doesn't like to cancel his subscription, either, since that's kinda a pain in the ass."

She really wasn't buying his explanation. It amused Evan more than he cared to think about. "'Sides, I only like newspapers like the Star. You know, it's got pictures."

"The Star is hardly a newspaper," she argued with a very loud snort. "It's a gossip rag that isn't worth the money spent to buy it."

He chuckled. "You're right," he agreed. "So you didn't answer me about siblings. You got any?"

Her answer was a bit long in coming, but she finally shot him a vague sort of nervous little smile. "I've got a brother and a sister. They're a lot younger than I am, though."

"Ni-i-i-ice . . . Is she as hot as you are?"

That earned him a decisive snort, but she blushed and quickly shook her head. "She's too young for you, you nasty debaucher."

"Ahh, the words of true love," he breathed.

She rolled her eyes and laughed.

'Damn, I love that laugh of hers,' he thought with a grin as he set the bowl of beaten eggs aside and reached for the spatula to flip the sausages.

'Absolutely,' his youkai intoned. 'That woman . . . Girlfriend for the day, eh? That kinda blows . . .'

Evan was inclined to agree. 'One thing at a time . . . One day for now . . .'

"So how long have we been dating?"

Blinking as he snapped out of his reverie, Evan grinned. "We-e-ell . . . lessee, here . . . At least a month or you wouldn't be my girlfriend," he suggested.

She shook her head, frowning in concentration as she examined the bowl of fruit. "No more than two months or they'll ask why you haven't mentioned me before . . ." She whipped around suddenly, waving the paring knife in the vicinity of Evan's chest. "Why haven't you told your parents about me? Are you ashamed of me? Are you? Are you?" she demanded.

"Of course not, bay-bee," he drawled. "And have you told your inbreds—I mean, family—about me?"

Her face shifted into a strange sort of grimace, but she laughed and shook her head. "Hell, no," she retorted lightly. "I am ashamed of you."

"Now, V, that smarts," he pouted.

She giggled and dropped a sliced peach into the fruit salad. "Well, you are a long-hair."

"List'n here, girly . . . When I 'uz a youngun, we all knowed how to wear our hair and be respectful toward our elders, nnn? We didn't wear no no-account clothes with our asses hangin' out fer the almighty God an' sundry t' see, you hear? Waitaminnit whiles I gets me m' cane . . ." he spoofed.

Valerie's giggles escalated into a full-blown laugh. "You're so bent. Why are you so bent?"

"Life on the straight and narrow never was my thing," he commented, enjoying the way her eyes lit up when she laughed. "All right, so, where did we meet?"

"I don't know. I think we probably ought to play it close to the truth, don't you think?"

"Okay, so, we met when you came up to me on the streets of downtown Manhattan and grabbed me by the balls, right?"

She giggled but groaned. "When pigs fly."

"Hmm, look out there. They're sprouting wings."

She tossed a towel at him, and he laughed. "I met you when you barged into my office and demanded that I save you from yourself."

"Or that," he agreed with a shrug. "And our first date?"

She got the barest hint of a smile on her face as her cheeks pinked just a little. "We freed the fishies," she murmured.

That gave Evan a moment's pause. It had more to do with her expression than it had to do with what she'd said, really. 'Our . . . Our first . . . date . . .' For some reason, that thought pleased him. "Oh, yeah . . . That was a date?"

"Close enough," she replied with a shake of her head. "Besides . . . I had a lot of fun that night."

"Me, too," he allowed quietly.

She turned her head to stare at him, and in that moment, he could almost read her thoughts. For that one instant, she was entirely unguarded, wasn't she? And just for that instant, he could tell. Somewhere deep down, and even if she didn't really understand it, herself . . . She wanted more, didn't she? She wanted as much as he did . . .

But a moment later, the expression was gone, hidden by the brusque façade that she tended to favor. "So . . . anything else I should add to this?" she asked, changing the subjects, both spoken and unvoiced.

Evan stifled a sigh and let her have her way. "Nah, looks good. 'Sides, I doubt anyone but you'll eat that, anyway. Speaking of eating, here."

"What—? Oof!" She grunted as he shoved a hunk of sausage into her mouth and grinned. "I 'on't eat 'au'age," she mumbled.

"That whole weight thing again?" he scoffed, making a show of leaning back to admire her ass. "Hell, you could stand to gain a few pounds in the ass-end, if you know what I mean."

She shot him a scathing look that dissipated as she slowly chewed the sausage. "Oh . . ." she breathed, her eyes flashing open wide then slowly closing as she gave up and savored the bite. "O-Oh-h-h-h-h-h . . . Mmm . . ."

He swallowed hard and tried very desperately not to think about the fact that she was moaning and groaning in near-ecstasy. "Good?"

She nodded slowly but didn't open her eyes. "Oh, my God . . . This is better than sex . . ."

"Keh!" he snorted as he scooped the sausages out of the pan and onto a plate. "Depends on who you've been having sex with."

The tolling of the doorbell preempted whatever Valerie had been about to say, and Evan shot her a cheesy grin before loping out of the kitchen and toward the foyer. "Mama!" he greeted, grasping Gin Zelig and swinging her around in an exuberant hug. "How's my best girl?"

Gin giggled and held on, lest he should lose his grip. "My baby!" she gushed. "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse!"

"Your mother isn't a toy, Evan," Cain pointed out with a frown as he grasped Gin around the waist and pulled her out of Evan's arms.

"Morning to you, too, Cain," Evan greeted pleasantly. "I made something special for you," he informed his mother.

"Oh? What?"

He grinned. "Peanut butter cup pie."

She squealed. "Really?"

Cain grimaced since he was closest and had taken the brunt of the sound attack. "Pfft, son. You shouldn't have."

"Bite your tongue, Cain! Mama loves her peanut butter pies."

"Oh, I know it, Evan, and would it kill you to call me, 'Dad'?"

"Come on," he said, ignoring the chiding in his father's voice as he headed back toward the kitchen. "There's someone you two need to meet . . . Well, Mama met her last night, of course . . ."

Valerie wiped the palms of her hands on her faded blue jeans and smiled a little reluctantly. Evan could tell that she'd probably hurriedly washed her hands and ran her fingers through her hair, and he could discern a trace nervousness in her demeanor. He stepped over to her and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "This is my girlfriend, V. V, this is my mama—you met her last night—and Cain."

Cain shot Evan a chagrined sort of scowl as he stepped forward to shake Valerie's hand. "I'm Evan's father," he said. "You're feeling better, I take it."

She blinked and stared at Cain for a moment, and as a slow sense of recognition came to her, so did a very livid blush. "Oh, uh . . . Y-Yes," she stammered. "Th-Thank you."

"You were there last night, weren't you?" Gin suddenly exclaimed as she reached for a sausage patty. "With that darling little man . . . Mr. Pickle, right?"

Evan chuckled. "Pinkle, Mama."

"Dear God," Cain said before he could stop himself. "His last name is 'Pinkle'?"

Gin snapped her fingers and grimaced. Valerie casually jabbed Evan in the ribs to keep from making any disparaging remarks regarding Marvin's last name. "Oh, that's it. I'm sorry."

"Yeah . . . V went with him. He's an old friend of hers, you know," Evan went on. "I mean, after I told her that I was going to escort my mama, she figured she'd go with him so that he didn't have to show up alone like a complete and utter loser."

He didn't miss the warning glance Valerie shot him.

Gin smiled and hurriedly hugged Valerie, who looked rather shocked at the exuberant welcome but recovered quickly enough to hug Gin back. "Oh, you have to tell me how the two of you met!" she exclaimed, grabbing Valerie's hand and tugging her off toward the other side of the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

Valerie shot him a reluctant sort of glance. He nodded at her.

Cain was silent for a moment, watching the women as Gin started launching questions at the poor woman. "Evan, tell me something."

Evan didn't take his eyes off Valerie, who was doing her best to answer the rapid-fire inquiry. "Hmm?"

"Were you the reason she ran out of there in tears last night?"

"She had a headache, Cain," he replied.

Cain considered that then slowly shook his head. "How'd you get her to pretend to be your girlfriend for the day?"

Evan shrugged offhandedly. "Call it a favor."

"But isn't she your lawyer?"

"Is that really a problem?" Evan countered mildly.

Cain narrowed his eyes and sucked in his cheeks as he thought about it. "It could become one, couldn't it? I mean, if she really were your girlfriend."

Evan shrugged. "Mama thinks she is."

"Of course she does. You told her she is. Your mama always believes whatever you tell her."

He didn't miss the hint of warning in Cain's voice, though for once, he didn't antagonize him for it, either. "That was the plan."

Cain let out a deep breath. "Evan?"

"Yes?"

"Don't make her cry again."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'"If you like Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain ...
'If you're not into yoga; if you have half-a-brain ...
'If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape ...
'You're the love that I've looked for; come with me and escape ..."'

 

-'Escape (The Pina Colada Song)' by Rupert Holmes.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Evan leaned against the closed door and shot Valerie a lazy grin, head tilted back, eyes half closed. "They liked you," he said simply and in a tone that implied that he'd figured that they would.

Valerie rolled her eyes but blushed just a little. "They were nice," she told him. "You have your father's eyes."

A strained little smile quirked his lips, and he shrugged. "Yeah, well," he drawled then shook his head. "It's about the only thing I got from good ol' Cain."

She frowned and slowly shook her head. She'd known, hadn't she, that their relationship was a little tense, and to be honest, she'd really thought that Evan's father would be a jerk or something. He wasn't, and that confused her even more than Evan's strange behavior in regards to the man, to start with. No, in her opinion, Cain Zelig was warm and friendly, and, while his sense of humor seemed to be a little understated, just from having had breakfast with the man and his wife and son, Valerie had seen enough glimpses of it to know that he had one and that it was almost—almost—as off the wall as Evan's was.

It also hadn't taken her long to figure out that Gin Zelig . . . Well, she was even sweeter and bubblier than Valerie had thought. The woman was completely amazing, and Valerie just couldn't quite understand how such a kind, almost naïve woman could have possibly given birth and raised the miscreant she'd come to know, and to see Evan interacting with his mother? Valerie sighed and almost smiled. It was quite obvious that he absolutely adored her, and no wonder when it was doubly obvious that the woman positively doted on her boy.

At one point, Gin had started singing one of Evan's songs—bad, if one thought about it since all Zel Roka's songs were blatant vocal porn—and Evan had laughed. The thing was, Gin had used much, much different lyrics—must cleaner lyrics—which had greatly amused Valerie. Cain hadn't bothered to correct her, but Evan had, and Gin, in her wide-eyed sort of way, had asked what certain phrases meant. Evan had somehow managed to explain them in such a way that Gin obviously hadn't understood the sexual innuendo, and when Valerie glanced at Cain, he'd peeked at her and smiled a little shyly. "It's not really bad . . . yet," he'd said in explanation as to why he wasn't trying to stop them.

No, Evan's parents really were great, and even though she knew damn well that they were some of the richest people on the planet, to boot, she couldn't say that there was really anything even remotely stuffy about them. They were cute, they were fun, and it was obvious, too, that they adored one another.

It was strange, though. Neither of them looked old enough to have a full-grown son in his thirties, and even then, Evan had said that he had an older brother and a half-sister, too. If she hadn't known better, she never, ever would have thought that they were his parents, not by a long shot. Gin just didn't look like she was more than maybe twenty—maybe—and Cain? His demeanor was that of an older guy, sure, but looks-wise? He looked like he might have been around twenty-five, tops. She frowned. Then again, Evan didn't look like he was in his thirties, either. 'Talk about good genes,' she thought to herself.

And as the morning had progressed—she still couldn't quite believe the sheer amount of food that both Evan as well as the really tiny woman, his mother, had ingested—Valerie had felt increasingly bad for her negative assessment about her, to start with. Still, Evan had winked at her whenever she caught his eye, and he'd prodded her into eating far more than she really ought to have, and that, coupled with her marked lack of sleep the night before, had her yawning despite her best efforts not to.

Evan intercepted the yawn and smiled gently as he pushed himself away from the door and held out his hand. "C'mon, V."

She blinked at his hand and shook her head. "Where are we going?" she asked a little dubiously.

Evan chuckled. "Nowhere untoward. I'm tired. Big breakfast, you know," he said.

"Tired?" she echoed dumbly.

He nodded and grasped her hand, tugging her along behind him, out of the foyer and toward the staircase. "Yeah, tired. I want a nap, and you look like you could use one, too. By the way, remind me. I've got your purse."

She stopped short, tugging her hand out of his grasp and frowned at him when he stopped, too. "Why do you have my purse?"

He shot her a rather apologetic little grin that sent a shiver of something altogether nice right up her spine. "You forgot it last night," he told her with a shrug. "V . . . About what I said . . ."

She waved a hand, knowing that he was going to apologize again. Knowing that he felt bad . . . it unsettled her. "If I don't have to apologize anymore, then neither do you," she said.

He stared at her for a long moment as his smile widened into something far more dangerous. "Yeah?"

She nodded. "Yeah."

"Okay. Now can we go take a nap? I'm exhausted," he maintained.

She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't think—"

"Keh! You're my girlfriend for the day, right? It'd be perfectly normal for me to take a nap with said-girlfriend after a hellaciously large meal like the one we just enjoyed, so come on . . . I'm exhausted, wench."

She blinked, bemused by his choice of words as he grabbed her hand again and started tugging. "Wench?"

He nodded. "It's a term of endearment in my family," he told her.

She wasn't entirely sure that she believed him, but she did let him drag her off toward the stairs. "I like your family," she mused, stifling another yawn with the back of her hand. "Are you sure you're not going to try anything funny?" she pressed.

Evan rolled his eyes and shot her a chagrined sort of look. "Nothing funny, swear to God," he promised again. "Anyway, don't tell me you're not tired, because I won't believe you, anyway."

"Hmm . . . You know, right? I have a black belt in taekwondo, so if you do anything even remotely bad . . ." she informed him.

He chuckled. "Do you, really?"

She grinned despite herself, proud of her achievement. "Yes, I do. They said I had . . . anger repression issues when I was younger, so they thought that I should channel them into something more constructive."

He laughed outright. "Anger repression issues? Aw, hell . . . Isn't that just a nice way of saying that you have a helluva temper?"

She blushed but laughed, anyway. His laughter seemed to be infectious. "Something like that, I guess."

"You? A temper? You don't say," he teased.

She rolled her eyes and pushed him with her free hand. He turned long enough to shoot her a cheesy grin before pulling her along behind him down the hallway. "You're kind of a jerk, Zel Roka—Evan Zelig."

That grin just widened. "Yeah, maybe a little." He pushed the door at the end of the hallway open and gestured inside. "The den of iniquity."

Valerie stepped past him, only to stop short as she looked around the room. Den of iniquity fit the description quite well, all things considered. She slowly shook her head. "Oh, my God . . ." she breathed, unable to wrap her head around exactly what she was seeing.

She wasn't sure what was worse: the stripper pole in the center of the room, the ninety inch television that was flattened against the ceiling—it dropped down when he wanted to watch something, she supposed—the mirrored floor and ceiling, the disco ball that bespoke strange lighting effects from the myriad of tube lights that ran the perimeter of both floor and ceiling, or the heart-shaped, luridly red silk covered waterbed with curtains that extended around the fattest part of the heart. The headboard of the bed was a mirror with Zel Roka's likeness etched into it, and she could only shake her head in utter disbelief at the small wetbar that rose out of the mantle surround just under that.

"You're kidding, right?" she couldn't help asking, frowning at the soft black suede that covered the walls on the three sides that sported huge windows and a glass door that led to a balcony, she supposed. The windows were currently half-covered by equally appalling red velvet vertical blinds. Not surprisingly, the solid wall was mirrored, too.

"Wicked, huh?" he asked her proudly.

Valerie shot him a quick glance to see whether or not he was joking. He didn't seem to be, and that was even more disturbing, really. "This is the tackiest thing I think I've ever seen," she mused.

Evan laughed outright at that. "Nah, it rocks!" he insisted, grabbing a remote control out of the basket hanging on the wall beside the door just underneath the house monitoring station. "You want to change into something a little more comfy for sleeping?"

She glanced at him and slowly shook her head. If she thought this was a bad idea before, she really was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, she ought to haul ass for the front door. "Evan . . ."

He turned around and grinned at her, poised with the remote control raised at the wall of mirrors. "I like it when you say my name," he murmured in a low, gravely tone that made her heart skip a beat for one dizzying moment.

"I-I think I'm okay," she said, unable to contain the blush that filtered into her cheeks, though she wasn't entirely sure if it was because of the entirely appreciative way he was looking at her or because of his tone of voice.

He snorted, completely shattering the idyll she'd been trapped in. "Oh, come on, V . . . Who the hell can sleep decently in jeans and a blouse like that?"

She blinked and glanced down at her clothes. She'd ran back home long enough to shower and change before she'd come over, and she was just wearing a regular pair of jeans and a pretty blouse, nothing fancy. Still, considering she normally wore sweatpants to sleep in, she supposed that she couldn't really argue with him. However . . . "You swore—" she began dubiously.

Pressing one of the buttons on the remote control, Evan cut her off with a chuckle. "That's my closet, V. I'm sure I've got something you can wear in there."

She stared in surprise as the middle sections of the mirrored wall drew back, opening up to reveal a 'closet-slash-dressing room' that was easily bigger than her living room. Completely arranged in very neat order, Valerie wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, really. 'Evan Zelig is nothing but one surprise after another, isn't he?' she mused as she shot him a quick glance then headed toward the walk-in closet.

No sooner had she stepped inside then the closet doors slipped closed behind her. She jumped and looked back, almost afraid that he'd managed to lock her in. After a moment of inspection, though, she realized that there was a release button hidden in one of the panes of glass, and she smiled.

And ordinarily, she might have just picked something at random, too, but for some reason, the idea of looking at Evan's clothes . . . Well, it was just too good to pass up, really.

Sure, he had the prerequisite rock star garb—torn t-shirts, flashy button down shirts, ripped jeans, and, of course, the all-important leather pants . . . Leather jackets and boots and a pair of really obnoxious hot pink suspenders. No doubt about it, he was a bit of a strange one, wasn't he? Her gaze narrowed as she moved down the line. Nondescript dress shirts? Neat and tidy jeans, and a couple of Hawaiian shirts thrown in for good measure . . .? She snorted indelicately. Damn that man, he actually did have a couple suits—not many—two to be exact—but they were very nice ones, too: an Armani and a Gieselolm . . .

All in all, his collection was fairly eclectic, but it was the contents of the large bureau's top center drawer that drew a low snarl from her as she eyed the very eclectic collection of women's underpants with a very, very menacing scowl. "That dog," she muttered, slamming the drawer closed as a bright flush stained her skin, as much from having been snooping as it had to do with the very idea that the man collected that sort of thing.

It didn't take long for her to snatch a very large un-torn Zel Roka tee-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants that were likely to be a good three sizes too big off a hanger, and change clothes. Her irritation was still riding high when she pressed the button to let herself out of the changing room.

Evan was fiddling with the house monitoring panel when she finally reemerged, tugging at the drawstrings of the pathetically large pants to secure them. "You're so gross," she muttered in lieu of a proper greeting. "Why are you so gross?"

"Gross?" he echoed with a raised eyebrow. "Gross: slang, meaning 'nasty' or 'disgusting' or German for—" the idiot grinned, "—really, really big?"

She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest and refusing to let him have the satisfaction of making her laugh. "Disgusting applies," she insisted.

"Oh?"

She nodded stubbornly. "Yes . . . Is there a reason you're collecting women's underpants?"

He chuckled. "They're not just underpants, V. Consider them . . . souvenirs of the places where I've been."

"Ugh . . ." she moaned, pinching the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. "You really are sicker than I thought . . ."

He laughed, of course. She'd have been surprised if he hadn't. "Tell me something, V," he drawled, cutting her off before she could demand that he get rid of his sordid collection. "How warm do you like the bed to be?"

She opened her mouth to demand that he stop trying to change the subject but was completely derailed by his frank question. "You . . . You can adjust that?" she ventured slowly, grudgingly moving in closer to peer around his broad shoulders.

"Yeah," he replied with a shrug, as though it were of no real consequence. "You get cold, right?"

Somehow, the heart-shaped, tacky as hell bed had gained a few notches of respect in her estimation. She didn't like it, of course, but . . . but climate control was a very nice thing . . .

He adjusted the setting and shot her a grin. "C'mon," he said, grasping her hand and tugging her toward the bed. "You lie down and get comfy while I go change."

"Into what?" she demanded in a slightly tighter voice than she'd meant to use.

He grinned. "Sweats, V. Have a heart, will you?"

She snorted but gave a curt nod, eyeing the bed a little warily as he headed for the closet to change. "I don't know," she called out, unable to completely let go of the idea that maybe, just maybe, this was a really bad idea. "If you have a guest room . . ."

"Sure, I got one," he replied, his voice muffled by the closet though he hadn't bothered to close the door. "But my babies use 'em, so I can't be held responsible if you wake up with, you know, dogs all over you. That and they haven't been cleaned in a while, either, come to think of it . . . I don't usually ask the cleaning lady to do much to them aside from the usual unless someone's coming to visit." He shrugged, as though it were of little real consequence. "I don't know that any of the beds are even made up—well, aside from the one the dogs use the most."

She didn't miss his wink as he strode out of the closet, clad in a pair of heather gray sweatpants. It didn't really reassure her, though. "You mean to tell me that you live in damn near a mansion, and you don't have a guest room other than the ones that you've let your little monsters take over?"

"You can go look if you want to," he told her with a shrug. "Just don't open the first door on the left or you might be sorry, and it won't be my fault because I warned you. 'Sides, I swear, I'll be the most chivalrous boyfriend, ever. Cross my hard-on and hope to fry."

She sighed and shook her head, figuring that if he were really willing to let her check out the rest of the rooms, then he probably was telling the truth. 'Well . . . he did promise . . .'

Evan saw the reluctance on her face, and he sighed. "Girlfriend for the day, and I agreed to your terms that I would behave, remember?" he said gently. "Now, come on . . . I'm done in."

Valerie bit her lip but watched in silence as Evan tossed back the covers and crawled into bed. He seemed innocent enough, didn't he? He seemed almost . . . 'Don't finish that thought, Valerie,' she told herself sternly. Even still, as much as she couldn't help the feeling that she really was letting the whole 'girlfriend for the day' thing go a little too far, she really was tired, and though the bed looked entirely garish, it also looked damned comfortable . . .

So she slipped into the bed on the other side, curling up on her side and facing away from Evan. Nervous, maybe, but she had to admit that it was even more comfortable than it had looked . . . and it was warm—heavenly warm, really—so comfortable, in fact, that she couldn't quite help the happy little sigh that slipped from her as her eyes drifted closed.

In a vague sort of way, she felt Evan pull her close, and while it registered somewhere in the back of her mind that she really ought to stop him, she just couldn't summon the will to do it, either. The sleepless night before . . . the complete chaos and upset . . . It was all finally catching up with her . . .

And as she drifted off to sleep, she smiled. She thought she'd felt the brush of lips on her temple, but she just might have been dreaming, too . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

'Damn, she's beautiful . . .'

Evan heaved a sigh and smiled to himself in an entirely self-satisfied sort of way as he stared at the sleeping woman cuddled against him. 'Yeah . . . yeah, she is.'

Funny, really. Evan couldn't remember ever having thought that a woman in oversized sweatpants and an overly large tee-shirt was sexy as hell, but he thought so now. Then again, maybe it had more to do with the idea that Valerie was wearing his scent like a second skin that did it . . .

Go figure.

Or maybe it was Valerie, herself . . .

Entirely possible, really. There was just something about her, and after having seen how she interacted with her mother and Cain? Well, it was kind of like icing on the cake, so to speak.

Gin really liked her; damned if she didn't, and Valerie? Well, he could tell that she'd liked Gin, too, which was exactly how it should be, wasn't it?

She sighed in her sleep and huddled a little closer.

What was it about her that made him feel so . . . so good? Why was she so very different from the other women he'd met?

It didn't make sense, not at all, and yet there really was something, wasn't there?

He stifled a yawn with the back of his hand. He was tired, too—just as tired as she was, probably. Having spent the night outside her window, he'd followed her when she'd gone for a short run, and he hadn't left her until she'd disappeared into Madison's building, where he figured she'd be safe enough. Only then had he headed home, where he'd stopped long enough to kick off his shoes and lose the jacket before crashing out on the sofa to catch a few z-s before his mother and Cain showed up. At least, that had been the plan. In the end, though, he'd only dozed fitfully, realizing in a dazed sort of way that he wouldn't be able to sleep in his clothes but too damned tired to do anything about it aside from unbuttoning his shirt. Somehow, though, he must've managed to actually fall asleep, because the next thing he knew, she was knocking on his door . . .

So why couldn't he go to sleep now?

He snorted to himself and shook his head. That was an easy question, wasn't it? He couldn't sleep because she was there, with him, beside him, and he . . .

All he could do was stare at her, to savor the feel of her—the absolutely perfect way that her body seemed to mold against his. The familiarity that whispered to him, even if he didn't really understand it . . . She was the one true thing that he knew, wasn't she? The one—the only one . . .

'My mate.'

His youkai didn't respond though Evan could feel the reassuring peace that resided deep inside him and figured that was good enough.

She wasn't wearing makeup. Then again, she didn't have to. Eyes fringed in sooty, dark lashes—thick and lush as they fanned over the tops of her rosy cheeks in her sleep . . . Lips blood red and slightly parted as she breathed softly . . . Even her hair that spilled around her in the softest blanket of liquid gold seemed to glow in the sunshine spilling through the half-opened windows . . .

Her skin seemed to invite his touch, and without a second thought, he did, brushing the backs of his knuckles over her cheek. She uttered a low moan and turned toward him a little more, her sandy brows furrowing just for a moment before they smoothed out of their own accord.

The beat of her heart beckoned him, drawing him closer than he'd ever been before. In those moments, it was a beautiful thing, and in those heartbeats, he couldn't help but understand the whispered promise of it.

'What about Marvin?' his youkai chimed in, breaking through the pleasant inebriation of his very proximity to her.

Evan deliberately tried to brush that off with a mental shrug. 'What about him?'

'Well, for starters, they're engaged.'

Evan frowned and concentrated instead on gently touching Valerie's face, needing to imprint the very feel of her somewhere deep in his mind. 'He's not the right one for her,' he maintained stubbornly.

'Maybe not, but that hardly matters when she's engaged to him, not you.'

'You're just a barrel of laughs, aren't you?' he grouched, leaning down to brush the softest kiss over her closed eyes.

'Aww, come on, Zelig. I wanna fuck her as badly as you do.'

Evan pulled her a little closer and sighed. 'She'll figure out that she belongs with me, not him,' he thought.

'Yeah, maybe. So how do we help her figure that out?'

Evan's optimism wavered slightly, but he brushed the worry aside. Better to concentrate on the here and now, wasn't it? Better . . . and a lot more interesting . . .

Because what it came down to was that he wanted to show her everything, wanted to present her with the world, all wrapped up in a neat little package with a pretty yellow bow on top. Somehow he'd make her understand, and then she'd realize that what she'd been looking for was the same thing that Evan wanted, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'He drinks a whiskey drink
He drinks a vodka drink
He drinks a lager drink
He drinks a cider drink
He sings the songs that remind him of the good times
He sings the songs that remind him of the better times …'

 

-'Tubthumping' by Chumbawamba.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Zel Roka."

"Please be advised, Mr. Roka, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

He grinned at her and shrugged offhandedly. "Hell, I don't remember. Oh, wait . . . I was getting shitfaced with my buddies."

"Mr. Roka, could you please keep in mind that I'm conducting an inquiry here, and in the interests of your case, I'd appreciate it if you'd answer the questions as plainly and concisely as you can."

His grin widened as he slouched down a little lower. "Damn, you're hella sexy when you're tryin' to be all strict," he drawled.

Valerie sighed and shook her head. "Can you name everyone at your house on the night in question?"

His expression shifted into one of exaggerated thoughtfulness, and he shrugged. "Well, lessee . . . I was there . . . Maddikins, of course . . . Bone, Dieter, Bitches—she and her main squeeze had a fight, I think—and Bugs. Yeah, I think that was about it."

"Is that right?" she asked, making notes on the computer touchpad. "Was anyone else there?"

"No one important."

She leaned back in her desk chair and slowly nodded. "All right. Tell me what all was going on, please."

"We were drinking beer and all that good shit . . . I smoked a couple-few joints . . . nothing major."

"And whose idea was it that you go out to acquire more beer?" she asked almost absently.

Evan shrugged again and tried to look duly attentive. Still exhausted from the weekend before, he wasn't doing a very good job of it, judging from the look on Valerie's face.

She'd gone back to her regular brown hair rinse, much to Evan's chagrin, and when she'd called him earlier to ask him to stop by her office, he had to admit that he'd been hoping for something a little more interesting than the current line of questioning. Still, he had to hand it to her. She was a damn smart woman, and even if he didn't care what the hell the court really did to him, he could appreciate that she seemed to. "I don't rightly remember," he said with a shake of his head.

"Okay, so you and Madison Cartham decided to go on a beer run; do I have that right?"

"Ye-e-e-e—yes!"

She scribbled something else down. "And no one else was with you?"

He cocked an eyebrow at that, his grin returning in cheesy abundance. "Nope."

She peered over the rim of her glasses and nodded slowly. "But you did not cause the accident."

"So they say," he replied.

"But you were under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol."

"They say that, too."

"And you realize that because you were found to be under the influence, the accident is your fault."

"They say a helluva lot, don't they?"

She frowned at him, willing him to play it her way for once, and Evan nearly relented. "Mr. Roka, do you understand the seriousness of the charges levied against you?"

Leaning forward, he steepled his fingertips together between his spread knees and nodded. "Yes, Ms. Denning. I understand completely."

She actually seemed a little taken aback by that. Blinking her surprise away quickly enough, she pressed her lips together and sighed. "Good . . . Now . . . Could you please tell me if you were injured in the collision?"

"Eh, a few scrapes; nothing big."

"And how did you incur those scrapes?"

He sat back and shrugged. "Hit my head on the window, was all. Didn't hurt the ol' moneymaker, if that's what you mean."

"The windshield or the side pane?"

Evan rolled his eyes and let out a deep breath, designed to let her know that he was rapidly tiring of her line of questioning. "The side pane."

"And was your passenger injured?"

"Maddy? Nope. She was sleeping in the back seat."

Valerie wrote another note and nodded. "All right, Mr. Roka. That's all the questions I had for you at the present time. I do, however, reserve the right to ask you to come back in, should I think of anything else."

"Right, right," he replied, slowly getting to his feet. "Hey, V? You still filming me?"

Valerie blinked but nodded. "Yes, why?"

He grinned yet again. "Good, good . . . Will you marry me?"

"When donkeys fly," she intoned smoothly and without as much as batting an eyelash.

Evan chuckled and headed for the door, wondering why it was that he thoroughly enjoyed hearing her refuse him—almost as much as he'd enjoy it if she were to suddenly agree to it. That was all right, too, wasn't it? After all, the best things in life were definitely worth waiting for, weren't they, and Valerie Denning? Well . . . somehow he knew damn well that the wait would absolutely be worth it.

'Game on, V . . . game on . . .'

 

 

-Madison-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Madison Cartham."

"Please be advised, Ms. Cartham, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

Madison chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully as she considered the question. "March eighteenth? Hmm . . . I was hanging out with Zel Roka."

"And could you define 'hanging out', please?"

Madison smiled. "Oh, you know . . . Just relaxing and having a good time."

Valerie nodded slowly, tapping the end of the stylus pen between her teeth as she pondered her next question. "Who all was there?"

"Well, I was . . . Zel was, of course . . . Hmm, let me think . . ." She tapped a long, tapered claw against her cheek and considered the question as Valerie jotted a few notes on the computer touchpad. "Bone was—he's always at the house. Head of security, you know. Umm . . . Bitches was there, looking fabulous, as always . . . Dieter was there . . . He'd just gotten out of the big house a week or so before, and if I remember right, we were celebrating his parole . . . Oh! And Bugsy. Yeah, I think that was all of us . . . I mean, there might have been a couple girls there, but no one that I'd remember . . ."

"So it was just a small gathering, then," Valerie intoned, frowning at her notes.

Madison nodded slowly. "Yes, that sounds about right."

"Hmm . . . Okay . . . Ms. Cartham, do you recall whose idea it was to go on the beer run?"

Leaning to the side in the comfortable chair across from Valerie, Madison mulled over the question. "Whose idea was it . . .? I don't recall exactly whose idea it was, but Dieter was the one who mentioned that Zel was out of beer."

"I see . . . Dieter . . . all right."

"Is that important?"

Valerie shrugged in a slightly offhanded sort of way. "Everything's important. Did you accompany Zel Roka to the liquor store to buy beer?"

Madison smiled. "Yes, I did."

"Did anyone else go with the two of you?"

Shifting slightly, Madison took a moment to examine her well manicured nails. "I don't recall. I fell asleep in the back seat of the car."

"But you walked out to the car of your own volition, yes?"

She nodded. "Yes, that's right."

"But you can't recall whether or not anyone else was with you?"

"Yes, that's right, too."

Valerie scowled but nodded, taking a moment to write down a few more things. "Thank you, Ms. Cartham. You've been quite helpful."

Madison stood up and winked at Valerie. "No problem, sweetie."

 

 

-Bitches-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Bitches."

Valerie blinked and pressed her lips together in a thin line. "Your legal name, please."

"I changed my name to Bitches about four years ago, all legal and whatnot."

"Please be advised, Ms . . . Bitches, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

"We-e-e-ell . . . If memory serves, I spent that evening at Zel Roka's house."

"And how do you know Mr. Roka?"

Bitches giggled and fluttered a hand at the attorney. "Zel and I go way back," she replied almost evasively.

"How far back?" Valerie asked.

"Oh . . . ten years? More? We met just after he moved to the city. Such a sweetie, but such an outrageous flirt."

The attorney seemed to grit her teeth, but it might have just been her imagination, too. "I see. It's my understanding that aside from you and Mr. Roka, Bone, Bugs, Madison, and Dieter were there, as well. Does that sound right to you?"

"Yes, it does—Madison had the most delicious boots on—said she got them on sale at Cavenaughs on Fifth Avenue."

"Is that so?"

Bitches giggled. "That's right."

Valerie nodded slowly. "Were you privy to the conversation about Zel having run out of beer?"

"Hmm," she intoned, shifting her eyes toward the ceiling. "No, can't say that I was."

"And why weren't you?"

"Well, I was playing strip poker with Bone."

"Is that right?"

She nodded. "Yes."

Valerie made a few notes and sat back, frowning in concentration as she watched Bitches closely. "And do you remember who all left to go get more beer?"

"You know, that completely slipped my mind," she replied smoothly.

The woman narrowed her eyes as Bitches blinked innocently. "Really."

"Sorry," she apologized with a bright smile.

Valerie didn't look as though she believed Bitches' story. "You're telling me that you cannot remember who all left to go get beer, but you can remember the shoes that Madison Cartham was wearing?"

"Honey, a woman never forgets a pair of Vaz Gordon patent leather thigh boots."

A completely chagrined sort of expression filtered over Valerie Denning's features. "I see. Thank you," she remarked. "If I have more questions, I'll call you."

Bitches stood up and winked at Valerie. "You know, darling, I could work wonders in here," she said as she glanced around the entirely too-businesslike office. "Open your Zen right up."

Valerie smiled rather tolerantly and slowly shook her head. "I think my Zen's just fine, Bitches."

She smiled then laughed and let herself out of the office . . .

 

 

-Bugs-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Burney Bugstaff, but everyone calls me 'Bugs'."

"Please be advised, Mr. Bugstaff, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

"Hmm, oh, ah . . . let me see . . . I have such a busy schedule, you know . . ." he drawled, waving his hands in an airy gesture. "March eighteenth? Was that the night that my Zelicious got into that dreadful accident?"

"Yes," Valerie clarified. "That's the one."

"Yay for me!" Bugs gushed, clapping his hands quite happily. "That's easy, hon. I was at Zel's house, of course!"

"Was Mr. Roka throwing a party?"

Bugs leveled a no-nonsense look at her. "Honey, ain't no party a party without me."

"What do you remember about the party, Mr. Bugstaff?"

Bugs rolled his eyes and scrunched up his nose. "The party . . . the party . . . Well . . . hmm . . . Oh-Oh-Oh! I remember that Bone and Bitches were playing strip poker—and I remember that she was winning, more's the pity . . ."

She blinked but didn't smile. "That's a pity?"

Bugs giggled, waving a hand in front of his heavily makeup-ed face. "Listen, V, if you'd ever seen the man naked, you'd know why he's called 'Bone'."

She stared at him for a moment, and Bugs had to wonder exactly what a man like Zel Roka could possibly see in such a cold fish. "I see. Did you overhear the discussion regarding Mr. Roka running out of beer?"

"Hmm," he intoned, pouting just a little as he thought about the question. "Oh, yes! Dieter said that Zel was out of beer, and Maddy said that he had wine, so Dieter said that wine was for pussies, and Zel said something about pussies making good wine goblets or something—you know, I so don't get that! I mean, who doesn't like wine?"

For the barest of moments, the attorney's lips twitched, but she didn't smile despite the idea that Bugs figured that she might. In the end, though, she cleared her throat and slowly shook her head. "And did you see who, exactly left the house?"

Bugs sat back and held his hands up at his sides. "Sorry, honey. I just . . . can't really remember."

Valerie stared at him for another moment then slowly nodded. "You don't remember," she repeated.

"Nope."

"Okay, I see. Thank you for your time, Mr. Bugstaff. I'll call you if I have any more questions."

 

 

-Dieter-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Dieter Reichardt."

"Please be advised, Mr. Reichardt, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

"Don't 'member," he muttered, slumping a little lower in his chair.

"But you were at the party that Zel Roka was throwing that night, weren't you?"

"Guess so."

"Do you recall the discussion in which you informed Mr. Roka that he was out of beer?"

Dieter scratched the back of his neck and scowled at the desk. "Yeah."

"Could you elaborate on it, please?"

He shrugged. "I said, 'You're out of beer'," he replied almost sullenly. He hated lawyers' offices. He hated them with a passion, almost as much as he hated courtrooms and police stations . . .

Valerie stared at him for several seconds before jotting some notes down. "How's your son?" she asked without looking up. "Daniel, isn't it?"

He blinked and broke into a wide grin. "Aw, he's the best!" he replied. "His birthday's coming up, you know? So I wanted to get him one of those Jeep things that runs on a battery? But Miss—she's my girl—she said that they're too dangerous, so we're going to get him an indoor swing set, instead."

She smiled at him and nodded. "Sounds very nice."

Dieter grinned and leaned forward a little. "You know, I bet I could build one better than those ones you can buy."

"You probably could," she agreed. "So about the night in question—is there anything else you remember? Anything at all?"

He considered that then nodded. "Yeah . . . Bitches had a fight with her girl, I guess. I just remember because she was crying. It was scary."

"Scary? How so?"

He shrugged. "Well, Bitches never cries, and . . ." He grimaced and slowly shook his head. "I don't like it when women cry."

Valerie nodded. "No, I don't suppose you do. Mr. Reichardt, did you see who all left with Mr. Roka when he went on his beer run?"

He frowned and shifted his gaze to the floor once more. "I . . . I don't remember."

Somehow, Valerie didn't seem surprised at all by his answer. "Right. Okay, you can go. I'll call you if I have any other questions."

He nodded and started to stand up, striding quickly toward the door, but he stopped with his hand poised on the knob. "Uh, Ms. Denning?"

"Yes, Dieter?" she replied in an absent tone of voice. She was writing on that tablet again . . .

He clenched his jaw for a moment then cleared his throat. "Zel . . . you can keep him out of jail, right?"

She paused. He could hear the slight scratch of the stylus pen stop. "I doubt it," she replied quietly. "But I can see if I can get him a reduced sentence."

Dieter nodded slowly. "He . . . He shouldn't have to do time," he said. "I mean, it was just an accident."

She hesitated before responding. "Of course it was."

Dieter nodded once more and let himself out of the office.

 

 

-Bone-

 

 

"Please state your name."

"Bone."

"Is that your legal name?" Valerie asked, not willing to assume anything after her questioning of Bitches.

"That's all you need to know," he drawled, settling back in the chair and casting her a very wide grin.

She stuck her tongue in her cheek and shook her head, figuring that she might as well get the deposition over with before she figured out whether or not Bone should be asked to take the stand. "Please be advised, Bone, that I am recording this meeting regarding the circumstances occurring on the night of March 18, 2073. Could you please tell me what you were doing that night?"

"Aw, you know: a little bit of this, a little bit of that . . ."

"Anything in specific?"

He shrugged. "Nothing that was legal."

"You work for Mr. Roka; am I correct?"

"Yep."

"In what capacity?"

"Head of security."

She nodded. "And as head of security, you have to pay attention to details a lot, don't you?"

"Guess so."

"And on the night in question? Were you working or were you enjoying a night off?"

He chuckled. "I enjoy my work," he replied simply.

"Okay . . ." She took a moment, scanning through her notes. "What do you remember about that night?'

Settling back in his seat, Bone shrugged offhandedly, crossing his ankle over his knee and shaking his foot in a release of nervous energy. "What do I remember? Hmm . . ." He suddenly grinned. "I remember seeing Bitches' bitches."

"Her breasts, you mean?"

He nodded. "Hell, any red-blooded man would remember seeing those," he remarked.

She didn't look entirely amused by his assertion. "Were you privy to the discussion about Mr. Roka running out of beer?"

Bone shook his head. "That? Nope."

"And did you see who all left the residence to go for beer?"

He thought that over, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Leavin' . . .? Nope, can't say that I did."

For the briefest of seconds, she honestly looked like she might well explode. He couldn't rightfully blame her for that. He had a feeling that she hadn't gotten far with that particular line of questioning with anyone . . . "Sorry, V," he said with an unrepentant sort of shrug. "That it?"

The woman let out a deep breath, her expression completely dubious. "You know, I find it incredibly ironic that all of you can remember the majority of the night in question with so much clarity, yet not one of you can remember seeing who left with Zel Roka, either. Tell me, why do I get the feeling that you're keeping something from me?"

Bone forced a grin and shrugged candidly. "Dunno."

"You do realize, right? Mr. Roka is going to go to prison for his carelessness that night. Covering for him won't really help him."

Bone nodded slowly and then pushed himself to his feet. "An' you're forgetting that Zel's a big boy now. Ain't no one can change his mind once it's made up . . . Leastawise, not none of us. Now you have a nice day, Ms. Denning."

He tipped his hat to her and let himself out of the office.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie rubbed her temples as she stared at the notes she'd jotted during the meetings she'd held with each of Evan's closest friends, as well as with the errant rock star, himself.

'Just what the hell did I think I was going to prove here?' she fumed. 'Just what did I think I was going to find out?'

She sighed. She thought she could get some answers, hadn't she—something to explain exactly what had happened that night.

That was what she'd hoped, wasn't it?

And maybe she'd hoped to gain a better perspective of it all. Sure, people made stupid mistakes all the time, but . . .

But Zel Roka—Evan Zelig . . . He wasn't nearly that stupid, now was he?

She'd come to a strange sort of understanding about the man—he wasn't nearly as dumb or as uncaring as she'd wanted to think, to start with. His treatment of her was proof enough of that, wasn't it? After all was said and done, he really had been sorry, and she knew it. She knew it.

'A stupid mistake . . .'

There was more to it, and maybe she didn't have proof, but she did have a feeling. Still, if there really was more to the story than he was telling, why was he hiding it? Why didn't he just say so?

Tapping the end of the stylus pen against the touchpad, she let out another deep breath.

'Or maybe . . . maybe you're letting your own feelings cloud the facts . . .'

With a frown, she slowly shook her head. No, that wasn't it, at all. Granted, it was entirely unsettling, waking up in the man's bed last evening after such a long 'nap', and the distorted sense of reality had been hard to comprehend at the time. She wasn't sure what had woke her up, though she suspected it was the marked lack of warmth that had lulled her to sleep, in the first place. He wasn't in the bed with her, and she'd discerned his voice slowly fading away as he moved off down the hallway, so she had a feeling that might have been what had initially woke her up, to start with.

Still, she wasn't sure what to make of it; not really. It was easier to berate herself for her lapse once she was well rested. How she'd ever let him talk her into napping with him was completely beyond her, and yet . . . and yet more disturbing than that was the very thought, however unwelcome, that she hadn't really minded it nearly as much as she probably should have.

And fast on that was the sense of guilt; guilt that she'd allowed herself to give in so easily, knowing somewhere deep down that it had been entirely too welcome. After all, what about Marvin?

'But . . . Marvin's the reason I'd said 'anything', wasn't he?'

She frowned. It occurred to her that she sounded like she was trying to absolve herself from any sense of guilt that she was feeling.

That wasn't it; not at all. Marvin and she . . . They understood one another. Both of them were driven—working on their careers before anything else, putting their own goals in the forefront, and that was what they both wanted. Marvin had his research, and Valerie had her ambitions to become a junior partner, then partner, and finally to have her name on the letterhead at her firm. It was something that had always been understood—neither of them 'needed' the other to feel a sense of fulfillment, and they really did enjoy each other's company. Maybe that wasn't something that was easily understood—God only knew that Madison never had—but for her, their relationship gave her a sense of stability—something she'd always lacked in her life.

With a frustrated sort of sigh, she shoved those thoughts aside and tried to focus her attention on the notes she'd taken during the interviews. 'Maybe I'm reading too much into this,' she thought suddenly. 'Maybe that's really all there is . . .'

All there was . . . A stupid mistake on one insular night . . . and if that's all there was . . .

She frowned, staring dully at the latest offer faxed over by the DA's office earlier. It wasn't really any better than the first one, and the attached letter stated that it would be the final one Evan would be offered before the case went to trial. Too bad she knew damn well that he wouldn't even consider it. The man was entirely too stubborn for his own good, wasn't he . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Unforgettable, that's what you are
'Unforgettable though near or far
'Like a song of love that clings to me
'How the thought of you does things to me
'Never before has someone been more …'

 

-'Unforgettable' by Nat 'King' Cole.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Where are you going?"

Evan pulled his hair out of the collar of his shirt and flicked a glance at Valerie in the mirror without pausing. "Sorry, V. Some things are just private."

"Private?" she echoed? What do you mean, private?"

He chuckled and slowly worked the closures of the rust-colored button-down shirt. "I mean 'private'," he stated, shaking his head at her as though he couldn't believe her preoccupation. "Don't worry; I remember the terms," he said before she could try to remind him.

She felt her cheeks heat in a painful blush but stubbornly held her ground. "I wasn't done talking to you," she pointed out with a shake of her head.

Evan tucked in the shirt and shot Valerie an apologetic sort of grin. "Sorry, baby. It's not really something that I can get out of. Anyway, you can stay here as long as you want, but I gotta go. And don't try to follow me 'cause I'm too fast for you to see," he warned, almost as an afterthought. Sparing a moment to wink at her, he slipped out the door and onto the porch.

'That was kind of ass-ish,' his youkai pointed out indelicately as Evan loped down the steps, across the yard, and slipped out of the side gate that led into an alley between his property and his neighbors.

'Maybe. I could lose her if I wanted to.'

'Well, why would we want to do that?'

He grinned. That was true, wasn't it? 'Why, indeed . . .?'

Deliberately slowing to a fast gait, he checked his watch as he stepped onto the street. He'd left a little early; he had plenty of time to get there. Still . . .

'Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . Ah, there she is . . .'

He was so attuned to her that he didn't have to turn around and look to see if she was following him or not. He could feel her, sense her, and he'd known damn well that she wouldn't be able to leave well enough alone. Oh, no, not his V . . . She was entirely too damn curious for her own good, wasn't she?

And so he slowed his pace, wandering along the sidewalk toward the one of the more modest areas of this part of the city. It was a decent walk, but he liked to do it. It gave him time to clear his mind before he got there, and it gave him an opportunity to put Zel Roka back on a shelf for awhile. Once, he turned to look over his shoulder, only to see her duck behind a grocer's cart in an effort to elude him. He almost smiled but managed to keep his expression blanked as he kept walking.

He stepped into a small flower shop he knew well enough, blinking for a moment as he let his eyes get used to the dimmer light of the ambient little place.

"Afternoon! They're all ready for you—the usual, right? Thirteen white carnations?"

He smiled at the middle aged woman named Kathy and nodded. "Well . . . could you add one more to that, please?"

Kathy winked and nodded, hurrying away to wrap up the extra flower before returning with fourteen white carnations, each one nestled securely in bright green tissue paper, and a nondescript brow paper sack. "How's that?"

"Add it to my tab?"

She chuckled and waved a hand in his direction. "Such a charmer," she scolded as he headed for the door again.

"See you next week," he called as he stepped back out onto the street once more.

Valerie was holding up a newspaper, pretending to read it at a nearby stand. Evan almost laughed as he stared walking once more.

'Damn, she's cute,' he thought as he kept moving.

'You know, you could have just told her what we were doing.'

'Sure, coulda . . . Wouldn't have been nearly as much fun, though.'

His youkai chuckled. 'True 'nough.'

Rounding the corner, his grin widened as he caught sight of the kids playing basketball behind the chain-link fence of the YMCA. Slipping through the open gate, he set the bag and flowers on a nearby bench. "Hey! Looks like you're one short," he called.

The three boys stopped in their tracks and grinned at him. "Aww, but you suck, Mr. Z!"

Evan laughed and held up his hands to catch the ball that came whizzing at his chest. "Well, then, I suppose that it'll be a short game, eh? First team to score thirty?"

The boys glanced at each other, and Malcolm, the unspoken leader, nodded. "All right," he said. "Bring it in, man."

Evan tossed the ball to Avery—better known as Corky in the neighborhood—and dashed in, bumping Malcolm with his hip and getting bumped back in return . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie hid in the long shadows of the building beside the fenced yard, biting her lip as she watched Evan play with the children. Of all the things she'd expected him to be doing, this just hadn't been it . . .

She frowned. All right, to be completely honest, she'd expected him to be trying to sneak off to meet some woman or something like that. Stranger, though, was that those kids . . . They knew him?

It didn't take long for the game to end. Evan hadn't scored a point, though she had very little doubt in her mind that he could have if he had wanted to. No, she had the distinct feeling that he was participating without actually doing anything to hinder the boys' game.

By the time it ended, all the children in the yard—there were about thirteen of them—were gathered around Evan, and all of them seemed to be talking at once. Children of all ages, ranging from a couple little girls who looked like they might be about five, to the oldest boys that he'd just finished playing basketball with—teenagers, certainly—maybe fourteen or fifteen, and Evan? He laughed and smiled and joked with them all, catching the smallest girl around the waist and tossing her into the air, only to catch her and flip her upside down where she landed on his shoulders with a very loud giggle.

"Okay, I hope you guys practiced," Evan commented as he nodded at the things he'd deposited on the bench. "Malcolm, can you grab those for me?"

Malcolm loped over and retrieved the parcels as Evan led the way toward the front door of the youth center.

Valerie waited until they'd disappeared inside before skulking out of the shadows. Taking a moment to debate whether or not she really ought to follow him inside, she snorted. Sure, she could wait for him outside, but . . .

But curiosity was gnawing at her insides, and with a resigned sort of sigh, she quickly slipped through the gate and hurried up to the building.

"Hey, can I help you?"

Valerie nearly shrieked when the man called out behind her. She'd barely gotten through the door and was trying to close it as quietly as possible. Grasping at her chest, she quickly turned to face the man who had spoken. Leaning out of what looked to be the office, he shot her a friendly smile.

"Uh, yes," she blurted, hoping that the man didn't sense her discomfort. "I-I just moved here recently, and . . . and I thought I'd check this place out."

"Oh? You looking for family plans or just you?"

She blinked, ready to tell him that she was alone, but remembering the children that Evan had met up with, she hesitated. "Well, my . . . my daughter and me."

The man's grin widened. "How old?"

Valerie shook her head. "I beg your pardon?"

"Your girl. How old is she?"

"Oh-h," Valerie exclaimed quickly. "She's . . . she's seven."

He nodded. "They're fun at that age. Mine are twenty-five and nineteen."

Valerie smiled uncomfortably. "Would you mind if I took a look around?"

"Nope, not at all. In fact, I think there are a couple classes going on right now. I'm sure that the teachers wouldn't mind if you looked in on them. Just stop back by here if you need anything," he told her.

She nodded and heaved a sigh when he turned and headed back into his office again.

Grimacing since her heels resounded like gunfire on the clinical linoleum floor, she bit down on her lip and tried to step a little quieter, even as discordant sounds of someone tapping on piano keys echoed through the hallway from somewhere just ahead. She could see what looked to be a gym at the end, but along the short corridor were a few doors. One of them stood open, and she paused beside it, leaning to the side to peer through the doorway.

Evan sort of half-sat, half-sprawled in a bright orange beanbag chair near the piano with the rest of the kids in similar fashion as one little boy—maybe ten or so—plunked the keys. Beside Evan was the little girl who had sat on his shoulders. She kept glancing at him and smiling. Valerie almost smiled, too.

"Okay, Marc. Let's see if you practiced," Evan said.

The boy shot him an entirely cocky grin and played the opening of a song that Valerie thought she ought to know but couldn't place. It was slow and a little clunky, but not bad for a child.

"Good, good," Evan remarked when the boy was finished. "You did practice!"

"I can play more," he replied.

"Can you? Okay."

The child played a little more then swung around on the bench before the upright piano and grinned.

"Ni-i-ice," Evan approved. "How about you practice the next page or two for next week, then?" The boy nodded happily and hopped down. Evan dug a candy bar out of the bag and tossed it to Marc. "Don't forget your flower," he said when the boy started to flop down in a vacant beanbag. With a happy laugh, the boy ran over and snatched up a tissue-wrapped flower and plowed back for the chair again.

"I'm next," Malcolm said, pushing himself to his feet and fairly swaggering forward. He shot Evan a cheeky grin as he sat down to play.

She didn't recognize the song that he played, but it was unmistakably jazz. Evan nodded as the song ended, tossing a candy bar to him, too.

"Man, I don't need no flower," Malcolm muttered when Evan held one out to him in passing.

Evan laughed and tossed it into the boy's lap when he'd sat down again. "Don't be dumb, Malcolm," Evan drawled, leaning on his elbow. "You trying to tell me that your mama doesn't like the flowers?"

Malcolm snorted but carefully set the flower before him on the floor.

Evan chuckled again. "What about you, Trista? Did you practice?"

The little girl smiled and slowly, bashfully nodded. "Yeah," she whispered loudly.

"Oh? You want to show me?"

She pondered that then nodded, standing up and reaching for Evan's hand. "You gotta work the pedals for me, Mr. Zelig," she informed him in a high-pitched, sing-song voice.

"Absolutely," he agreed, sitting on the piano bench and pulling Trista into his lap. "Ready whenever you are."

She shot him a look full of childish admiration and giggled.

Valerie couldn't help but smile when the very familiar sound of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' chimed in the air. It faltered a couple times, but there were no mistakes, and Evan chuckled when the song ended. "Wow, Trista. That was fantastic. You really did practice, didn't you?"

The girl nodded and seemed to snuggle closer to Evan's chest.

"Well, you keep that up, and you'll outshine everyone at the recital next month," Evan remarked.

Trista's round cheeks pinked as she hopped down and skipped back over to her beanbag chair again.

Valerie wasn't entirely sure what to think. Every time she thought that she had him figured out, Evan changed the rules, didn't he? Just when she thought that she understood something about him, he'd do something entirely different; something entirely unexpected.

She watched the rest of the music lesson in something akin to awe. He was good with kids—damn good, really—and she hadn't expected that, at all. They all tried their best, too, and Evan made sure that he praised them all, even when he had to correct them. He had a way of making them feel as though they'd accomplished something without belittling them or making them feel bad or singled out.

She smiled, crossing her arms over her chest, content to observe the lesson.

One of the boys—the one who had told Evan that he sucked at basketball—played surprisingly well, and though Valerie didn't really know much about music, she could tell just from hearing the piece that it was a more difficult one. After the boy was finished, though, he shook his head, his cheeks reddening as he frowned at the floor. "I don't want to play the piano," he finally said when Evan asked him what was wrong.

Evan blinked and nodded. "Okay . . . is there something else you want to try?"

The boy shrugged, his ears reddening, too. "I want to play the guitar," he finally admitted.

Malcolm snorted. "You just wanna play guitar 'cause you think you'll get a girlfriend—Shoot, Corky, a guitar ain't gonna get you no girlfriend—you're too dang ugly!"

Another basketball player laughed and the two slapped hands. Corky's face reddened a little more.

Evan rolled his eyes. "All right; all right. Shut up, you two. Tell you what, Corky. You want to learn how to play guitar? I'll bring in one of mine next week—and don't listen to them," he remarked with a grin and a wink. "Playing guitar does get you girls."

"I-I don't want a girl!" Corky insisted hotly, though his expression did seem to lighten up just a little.

Evan chuckled and tossed Corky a candy bar. The boy loped over and grabbed a flower before heading back to his chair.

Valerie shook her head but smiled.

'Evan Zelig . . . what am I going to do with you . . .?'

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan stepped outside the building, holding onto Trista's hand as the other children hurried on ahead. The sun was disappearing, leaving everything veiled in a smoky grayish hue. The boys called back their hurried goodbyes as they ran out of the yard and down the street. A couple of the girls ran toward their rides, waiting beside the curb while the rest of them were met by parents who had arrived on foot to pick up their charges. Within minutes, they were all gone. Trista sighed and shuffled her feet in the dirt beside him.

"Mommy working late again today?" he asked gently.

Trista shrugged and shot him a sad sort of look. "I don't know," she replied.

"You want to give her a call?" he offered, digging his cell phone out of his pocket and holding it out to the child.

She shot him a bright smile and took it, making quick work of dialing the number and waiting. "This is Trista. Is my mommy busy?" she asked.

He waited while the child paused, then greeted her mother. "Hi, Mommy . . . Mr. Zelig's here with me . . . Yeah . . ." She covered the end of the phone and frowned up at him. "Mommy wants to talk to you," she said.

He chuckled and took it. "Hey. How's it going?"

"Uh, hi . . . Listen, I'm sorry. I got held up here. We got a rush order, and the boss kind of demanded that we stay and finish it."

"That's okay," he said. "I'll walk her home and all that jazz."

"Really? I'm so sorry . . ."

He laughed. "Nope, it's fine. Don't worry about it."

The woman sighed. "Thanks so much. You're a life saver."

He hung up the phone then grinned down at his young charge. "How 'bout it? Feel like hanging out with me for awhile?"

Her little face lit up as her cheeks pinked, and she giggled. "You're going to walk home with me?"

He nodded. "Sure . . . Do you want to swing or something first?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the bright green painted swing set nearby.

She dropped her book bag and took off at a run. "Push me!" she hollered happily.

"You know, this is pretty one-sided," he complained jokingly as he picked up her bag and followed her. "You're always the one who gets to swing, and I'm always the one doing the pushing."

Her little face scrunched up in a thoughtful scowl, and she hopped off the swing. "I can push," she insisted finally.

Evan chuckled again and set her bag down, along with the last flower that he hadn't given to the children. "Oh, yeah? You think you can push me?"

She nodded and sped around behind him as he sat in the swing. His legs were ridiculously long in the child's contraption, but he let Trista give him a good shove, holding his feet out to the sides to keep them from dragging in the dirt. That lasted all of five minutes, tops, before Evan hopped out of the swing and caught the chain to stop it. "Okay. Your turn."

She giggled and hopped up into it. Evan waited until she had a good grip on the chains before giving her a very good shove. She screeched in laughter, pumping her feet to keep the momentum going. Evan watched her for a long moment before letting his attention wander just a little.

He grinned and shifted his gaze to the side. Valerie, it seemed, was trying to hide in the shadows behind a few very tall bushes just outside the YMCA. She honestly thought that he didn't know she was there? He cleared his throat. "V . . . what is it about bushes that you like so much?" he drawled.   "Lemme guess: you dropped your necklace this time?"

He heard her suck in a sharp breath seconds before she scooted out from behind the bush, her face a lovely shade of red that bespoke her acute embarrassment at having been caught spying. For the vaguest of moments, she seemed to be trying to decide what she really should tell him. She must have decided that she didn't need to explain herself, because she quickly shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest in a blatant show of stubborn defiance. "I don't know what you're talking about," she retorted haughtily. "I was just making sure that you weren't out . . . getting into trouble or something."

He chuckled and nodded slowly. "Okay, I'll give you that one," he allowed. "You wanna meet my girl, here?"

Valerie blinked then rather grudgingly stepped forward. Evan reached down to retrieve the final flower. "So you found me out, did you?" he teased, holding out the tissue-wrapped parcel.

She stopped short and stared at the impromptu gift. "W-What's this?" she demanded, her reluctance echoing in her voice.

"It's a flower, V. Hasn't anyone ever given you a flower before?"

She continued to stare at it then quickly shook her head. "N-No."

Repressing the surge of anger that shot up inside him, Evan forced a smile. It didn't matter, though; not when she was still eyeballing the flower instead of looking at him. Her damned darling fiancé hadn't ever bought her a flower? He snorted inwardly. "Aww, take it," he coaxed gently.

She swallowed hard but reached for it, gently folding the tissue back before smiling just a little as she buried her nose in the blossom. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Who's she?"

Evan chuckled as he turned in time to see Trista's little scowl as she eyed Valerie. "Trista, this is a friend of mine, Valerie. V, this is Trista. She's my girl."

Valerie glanced at Evan but smiled. "I heard you playing. You're really good."

Trista smiled bashfully. "Is she your girlfriend?"

"Yes," he said before she could answer. "One day, she's going to marry me."

Trista's eyes grew huge and round, and Evan wasn't stupid enough to think that Valerie wasn't going to try to beat him for that one later. "My mommy was married to my daddy," she said with a solemn little nod. "My daddy's in heaven, but my mommy says that he loves me."

"He was a security guard. Killed in a hold-up before she was born," Evan murmured just loud enough for Valerie to hear.

"Oh . . . I'm sorry," she said.

Trista smiled. "It's okay. He went to heaven; mommy said."

Valerie smiled, too, though hers looked a little strained. "I'm sure he did," she allowed quietly.

Trista suddenly giggled. "You can push me, too!" she decided.

Valerie laughed and obliged the child while Evan stood back with a little grin on his face and watched. 'She's good with children,' he thought as he observed.

'A natural, huh?'

Evan chuckled. 'Something like that . . .'

Valerie pushed her for another few minutes before grabbing the swing when Trista hopped off to dart over to a couple girls who had just come outside from the art class that was also letting out. "She's sweet," she commented, watching the girl talk with her friends.

"She is," he agreed easily enough.

Valerie smiled. "You're good with kids."

He shrugged but didn't really comment.

"You know," she began, her gaze taking on a peculiar little sparkle. "You should let the press in on this."

He blinked then glanced at her to see whether or not she was joking. She didn't appear to be. He snorted. "No."

"Why not? Zel Roka, doing a good deed? They'd eat it up with a spoon, and it'd be great for your image right about now," she pointed out reasonably.

He shook his head. "For starters, Zel's got nothing to do with this. I'm Evan, V, and secondly . . . no. The minute you drag the paparazzi into something, it gets ugly, and if that's the only reason you've got for doing something good, then you're not really doing a damn thing, are you?"

His response seemed to give her pause, and she frowned as she contemplated it. "I guess you have a point," she allowed though she didn't sound entirely pleased about it.

He let out a deep breath and slowly shook his head. "V . . . I do this for me; not to show off or to say, 'look at how good I am'. I do it for me . . . and for the kids. Most of their schools have cut funding for band and choir and even music in the elementary schools, so for them, this is about the only chance they've got. I made damn sure that the lessons I give here are free, and just what do you think would happen if it got out that Zel Roka came down here every week to teach these kids?"

"I get that," she replied at length. "But you know, your reputation could stand a little polishing."

He shrugged. "Nah . . . If I did that, I wouldn't be the fuck-up anymore."

He shot her a grin then started over to get Trista. He could feel Valerie's gaze following him, though.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'All day starin' at the ceilin' makin' friends with shadows on my wall
All night hearing voices tellin' me that I should get some sleep
Because tomorrow might be good for somethin'
Hold on – feelin' like I'm headed for a breakdown
And I don't know why …'

 

-'Unwell' by Matchbox Twenty.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Shit."

"Where?"

Heaving a sigh, Evan glanced up as Dieter strode into the room with a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette hanging from his limp fingers of the other one. He'd come over to drop off the painting that Evan had commissioned, and, while Evan had every intention of looking it over better, at the moment, he was trying to fix a song that had been haunting him all evening. "Smart ass," he muttered, pulling the acoustic guitar over his head and leaning it against the empty rack nearby. "You look a little peeved."

Dieter shrugged and slumped onto a box amp. "Aw, it's nothing," he said.

Evan nodded. Dieter looked like he had something on his mind, and Evan had a feeling that he already knew what it was. If that was the case, he didn't want or need to hear it, did he? "Let me play something for you," he said suddenly, reaching over to hit the 'play' button on the small recorder he'd been tinkering with.

Dieter scowled as he listened to the song Evan had been working on, thoughtfully puffing on the cigarette as he considered it. He didn't comment until it had ended. "Dude. That sounded like a ballad or something."

"Yeah, kind of," he admitted. "Figured I'd add a 'Zel Roka' twist, though."

"It was all right," Dieter remarked almost apologetically, "just . . ."

Evan grinned. That was high praise coming from him . . . "I don't know," he said slowly, scratching the back of his neck. "I thought maybe it was a little too . . . commercial for my tastes."

Dieter shrugged again, downing half of the beer without coming up for breath. "Maybe. So sell it."

"Well, I thought about that, too, but if I did, I'd have to rewrite the lyrics, and that would sort of defeat the purpose, don't you think?"

"So let the critics shit their drawers. It isn't the first time you've pissed 'em off."

Evan's grin widened since he rather enjoyed doing exactly that himself. They loved to try to label him, and Evan? Well, he liked to make them sorry that they tried.

Dieter straightened up quickly, his gaze flashing as sudden inspiration hit him. "Wait . . . You know, it could start off like that then, get heavier . . . Gimme that guitar."

Evan started to hand him the acoustic guitar he'd just set down. Dieter stuck the cigarette between his lips and waved a hand with a grimace. "No, man, the Strat."

Rolling his eyes, he reached for the old-school black and white Stratocaster and handed it over, instead. It was already plugged in, and after making a few minor adjustments, Dieter shot Evan a grin and began to improvise.

It didn't take long for Evan to figure out where Dieter was going with the song, and he chuckled as the sound reverberated around him. He had to admit that most often, he did the writing of songs by himself, but it was good—damn good, and he reached for the acoustic guitar, mimicking the riff that Dieter had first played so that he could memorize it.

Dieter grinned as he smashed his fingers over the frets to staunch the sound. "Not my best, but you know, something like that."

Evan played the riff a couple more times, just to get the flow of it down. "I like it," he said. "Why don't you play it in the studio?"

With a snort, Dieter shook his head. "Nah, I'll stick to the bass," he mumbled.

"Thanks," Evan said with a grin.

Dieter shrugged it off. "So . . . How's it going?"

Leaning over to erase the notes he'd scribbled onto the music composition paper he'd been working on, Evan frowned. "Not so bad," he replied almost absently. "Why?"

"Uh . . . no reason," Dieter replied though there was a certain hint of ambivalence in his tone. "Maddy said you got another court date next week?"

"Yeah . . . Got some shows comin' up, and I have to ask them if I can cut out of here for them."

Dieter cleared his throat. "Your attorney . . . She, uh . . . She said that you . . . You'll have to do some time."

"Did she?"

"Zel . . ."

Evan straightened up and grinned at Dieter. "Hey, don't worry about it. It's all good."

He didn't look relieved. Tugging on the white v-necked tee-shirt he wore, he chewed on his bottom lip and slowly shook his head. "It's not right," he finally stated, quietly, almost as though he were concerned about Evan's reaction. Shifting his feet, he fiddled with the Stratocaster, his gray eyes darting around in a nervous sort of way. "I mean, hell . . ."

"Nah, it's fine," he lied with a shrug. "'Sides, at this point, it'd look pretty damn convenient, don't you think?"

That earned him a darkened scowl as Dieter adamantly shook his head.

Evan set the guitar aside once more and pushed himself to his feet. "C'mon, man. Let's get outta here and do something," he prodded.

Dieter looked irritated at the abrupt change of topic, but he stood, too. "Like what?"

Evan grinned at the unwilling interest in the artist's tone. "Hell, I dunno . . . We could do what we were planning on doing before . . ."

"Fucker! You mean, before you ditched me for your attorney?"

Evan's grin widened since he recalled that particular night fondly enough. 'Free the fishies . . .' He shrugged. "Something like that."

Dieter pondered that for a moment, as though he didn't particularly want to go along with the idea but was compelled to do so anyway. "All right," he finally allowed.

Evan didn't figure that he would get that much of an argument out of him. He grabbed his leather jacket, foregoing the shirt since he rather disliked wearing them and shrugged it on as the two of them headed for the doors.

"We could call Maddy," Dieter suggested as he stepped up beside Evan on the wide porch.

Evan shook his head. "Nah . . . You said before that this was a guy thing, and Madison lacks the one crucial bit that makes a guy, a guy."

He felt Dieter smile more than saw it. In the inky light of the half-formed moon that was barely visible under the hazy glow of countless city lights, he could hear the hum of traffic, could feel the current of electricity that rose off the millions of inhabitants of the city. It still invigorated him as much as it had when he'd first moved here years ago. He'd been so young then—just a pup, really—and he'd thought that he knew it all . . .

They set out at a sprint, leaping onto the roofs of nearby houses, lighting on the thick edges of high privacy fences as they made their way across the landscape. Evan's cell phone beeped in his ear. He ignored it as the two kept moving.

The night was brisk despite the underlying smells of the city that just never quite went away—clean and as clear as it could be—better than it had been years ago, or so he'd been told. Ordinances against pollution were strict but effective, and the overall glow of the city added a certain ambience to the night. He felt as though he were balancing on a precipice, staring down over the origination of everything in the world. Dashing past the cars dotting the bridge, he deliberately let his mind clear, leading him away from everything in the world; letting it lead him away from the pressures of his life, of his choices.

Dieter ran beside him and at times, slightly behind him as they crossed the bridge, leaving the perplexed humans in their wakes. They thought that maybe they'd seen a blur of something; a flash of motion, and maybe they felt the unnatural breeze created by the moving bodies, but they couldn't be sure, and in the end, they'd believe that it was just a sudden gust off the water far below, if they thought anything at all. The artificial lights seemed both gentle and completely harsh at the same time, yielding blacker shadows than the moon, lending a fake sense of warmth that was little more than illusory.

It was the night that welcomed him, invited him—called to him in the quietest of voices. Something about the millions of people who called the city home lent him a feeling of excitement. As though he could feel all of their emotions, as though he were taking them into himself and making them his very own, the surge of abandon that raced through him was exhilarating and entirely frightening, all at the same time.

Dieter suddenly laughed beside him, glancing at Evan with a sparkle in his gaze that Evan understood. Dieter felt the same way, didn't he? It was one of the things that Evan had noticed way back when the two had first met: there was something inherently similar in Dieter, and while they weren't the same by any stretch of the imagination, they were in complete sympathy with one another.

"The idiot savants," Madison had once joked. Evan understood what she'd meant. Evan strove hard to obtain and create the illusion that best suited him: the ne'er-do-well son who got bad grades, not because he was stupid, but because he chose to. Dieter? Dieter just hadn't ever really been interested in those things that made up the fabric of conventional education, and if it didn't interest him, he wouldn't be able to retain the knowledge. But Dieter excelled in art, using sculpting as a release for his emotions while Evan's vice always was and probably always would be his music.

Still, the two of them were friends, and that was the bottom line. Friends did whatever they could for one another. That was the way of it, and Dieter . . .

"Sometimes," Dieter said, silvery eyes aglow, as the two of them leapt to the top of a nearby building and scanned the city mapped out before them, "I feel like a king or something," he murmured.

Evan nodded slowly, his gaze taking on a knowing sort of light as the sounds of the streets so far below drifted up to meet them. "I know what you mean," he agreed quietly.

Dieter grinned then shrugged, as though he thought that whatever he was thinking wasn't worth stating out loud. "I brought Miss up here awhile back," he admitted at length. "She . . . She couldn't believe the view."

"Yeah, I can get that," Evan allowed. "It's pretty fantastic, isn't it?"

"Hey . . . You sure you like that painting?"

Evan's grin widened as he glanced at Dieter then back at the city below. "It's awesome," he said. "I swear to God, I'm going to hang it over my bed."

Dieter grimaced though Evan could feel the resonating sense of happiness at Evan's high praise. Dieter normally didn't have the patience to paint too much, and that he did it this time spoke volumes, as far as Evan was concerned. "Yeah? Well, I don't know about that. Doesn't seem quite right; not really."

Evan chuckled. Okay, so that was probably true. Of course, he could always hang it in the living room . . . "I think it rocks."

Dieter opened his mouth to say something, but his cell phone rang, and he scowled as he glanced at the illuminated screen. "Uh, I'd better take this," he said almost apologetically. "It's Miss."

Evan gestured for Dieter to do so as a brisk breeze lifted his hair—a nice, hideous shade of bright carrot orange. Up as high as they were, the smells of the city were less invasive, and he could even make out the underlying mineral scent of the water.

"Hey, baby," Dieter greeted.

"Dieter? Where are you?" she asked. The artist had the volume of his phone turned up enough that Evan could hear the conversation, too.

"Oh, I'm just runnin' around with Zel."

". . . Oh . . ."

Evan's eyebrows lifted at the very real disapproval in the woman's tone.

"What's the matter?" Dieter asked.

She sighed. "Well . . . I just . . . Dieter, do you remember what today is?"

"Uh . . . W-Wednesday . . .?" He covered the phone receiver and shot Evan a rather panicked sort of look. "It is Wednesday, right?" he hissed.

Evan nodded. "Yup."

Dieter nodded and uncovered the phone. "That's right. It's Wednesday, Miss."

"I-It's our anniversary," she mumbled. Evan had to strain to hear it.

He grimaced inwardly. Dieter grimaced outwardly. "W—I—Y-Yeah, I know," he lied, scratching his head as he cast a feverish eye around and winced. "I was just . . . uh . . ."

"Don't tell her, man, or you'll ruin the surprise," Evan drawled, thumping Dieter on the back for good measure.

"Oh?" His eyes widened when he intercepted the slow nod from Evan. "Oh! Yeah! Ruin it!"

Evan stifled a sigh. 'Poor bastard,' he thought as he dug out his own cell phone and punched in the fourth number on speed dial. "Just tell her to be watching for a delivery, and when it gets there, tell her to get ready, and you'll be home in awhile to pick her up."

"Hello?"

"Jilli-bean!" he greeted, artfully stepping away so that Miss wouldn't hear what he was about to say. "How's my girl?"

"Evan!" Jillian Zelig Jamison gushed. "I haven't heard from you lately!"

"Well, you know how it goes," he breezed. "The life of a rock star, right?"

Jillian giggled. In the background, Evan could hear the blipping sound of a video game and figured that his baby sister was probably enjoying an evening, snuggling on her mate's lap while he was absorbed in gaming. "Sometimes I think you're avoiding me," she pouted.

"Never," he insisted then chuckled. "Hey, I got a favor to ask you."

"Anything for my Evvie!"

He grinned. "Well, see, it's like this. Dieter forgot his anniversary tonight, and I was wondering if you knew someone who could hook her up with something nice for a night on the town?"

"Hmm," Jillian considered then snapped her fingers. "I know! I just met this woman—Brittani—who is going to be the next Jioni Raphaella, or so they say. I'll bet she has something perfect, and she did say that if I ever need anything at all . . . Dieter's wife, Miss? What is she? About a zero? Size one?"

Evan considered that then shrugged. "If the design runs small, I'd say a one. Otherwise, I'd say she's a zero, easy."

"When do you need it?"

"As soon as possible."

"Okay," she replied then giggled. "How positively Cinderella!"

Evan laughed. Leave it to Jillian to think as much. "Let me give you their address."

She waited long enough for Evan to send over the address via text. "All right, I got it," she told him. "I'll have her send over something that'll be absolutely perfect! All my love to Dieter!"

Evan hung up and shook his head with a smile. After a quick succession of calls, a few favors that he had to pull, and a couple minutes of general schmoozing, everything was in order, and Evan pocketed the cell phone with a satisfied smile after he answered a final call from Jillian, who wanted to let him know that the dress was on its way.

"Hey, Deet," he called as he wandered over to his friend. "Listen, okay?"

"Shit, shit, shit, shit!" Dieter muttered, shaking his head, scratching nervously at the back of his neck as he paced the rooftop. "I can't believe I forgot something that important! I just can't believe it! I'm a fucking moron! Shit, shit, shit!"

"Knock off the histrionics, will you?" Evan drawled, catching Dieter's shoulder and pulling him back around to face him. "Now, listen to me. Jilli had a friend of hers send a dress over for Miss, so you swing past Della Contessa's Flowers to pick up a dozen or so roses and go home to get her. I sent Bone over with the limo, and he'll meet you there and take you for your night on the town. Got that?"

Dieter blinked slowly. "Flowers then home . . . Got it." He started to grin then quickly shook his head. "What about Danny?"

Evan chuckled. "Danny's gonna hang with Bitches tonight."

He brightened up instantly. "Miss likes Bitches all right," he allowed. "But—"

Evan rolled his eyes and gave Dieter a little shove. "Don't worry 'bout it." He smiled a little sardonically. "At least the Zelig name's good for something."

"You're the best," Dieter insisted. "I owe you."

"Are you kiddin'? You didn't charge me for that portrait."

Dieter made a face. "Yeah, well, that was kinda . . . fun . . ."

Evan laughed as Dieter sprinted away, traversing the rooftops that would bring him to the flower shop—his destination—in a matter of minutes instead of the half-hour or more that it would take if he'd caught a cab, instead.

He watched him go and heaved a sigh. To be honest, he'd been looking forward to hanging out with Dieter since the two of them didn't really get a chance to do that much anymore. Never mind that they were fully intending to hang their bare asses from the highest point on the Statue of Liberty for all of New York City to see . . . Of course, he knew damn well that there was a good chance that one Ms. Valerie Denning, esquire, might not have thought too highly of the venture, but it was all in good fun, and besides: they'd never actually been caught doing it before, now had they . . .?

Still . . .

'Taking care of his mate is far more important than waving the white orbs for the delectation of the city,' he decided with a wry smile. 'If I had a mate . . .'

'If you had a mate, you'd drag her along to hang her assets for the world to see, too.'

Evan pondered the truth in his youkai voice's claim. 'Yeah, okay. I'd do that.'

'She's gonna kill us . . . if she can find us,' his youkai remarked almost wanly.

He smiled since he'd seen that the phone call he'd missed during the sprint over the bridge was, in fact, the lawyer in question. 'She won't kill us,' he retorted airily. 'Well, maybe she'll maim us . . . a little bit.'

His youkai snorted indelicately, probably because of the hint of relish evident in Evan's thoughts. 'Damn, she's hotter than fuck when she's mad, isn't she?'

'Damn straight, she is.'

They both heaved a collective sigh as Evan checked his watch. 'A quarter till nine . . .'

Slumping onto a nearby cinderblock beside the low ledge of the roof, Evan shifted his gaze over the craggy outline of buildings, windows illuminated like a thousand fireflies. Somewhere far away, he heard the pronounced yowl of an alley cat . . .

He could call Madison—or not. With a grimace, he remembered just a little too late that she'd gone back to Maine to attend her mother's birthday party. Of course, Bugs was always around, but as much as Evan liked him, he had to admit that he just wasn't in the mood for the rabbit-youkai's silly antics, either. He considered dropping by Jillian and Gavin's apartment, too, only to discard that idea a moment later. Those two, as much as he adored his sister . . . Well, they were just too fucking happy for his comfort, weren't they?

No, really, he supposed that he was well and truly dumped for the night: a rare thing for Evan Zelig and an even more unprecedented thing for Zel Roka . . .

And the next thought that crossed his mind was almost an afterthought: one that normally landed him in more trouble than he'd like to think about . . .

"Damn it . . . I'm bored . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'I don't know just what to do with myself
I don't know just what to do with myself
Baby, if your new love ever turns you down
Come on back, I will be around
Just waiting for you
I don't know what else to do …'

 

'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself' written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

The strangest sound woke Valerie from a semi-catatonic sleep: an odd sort of buzzing-slash-rattling-slash-shaking that almost became an earthquake in her slumber-hazed mind. With a quiet, albeit plaintive moan and a muttered curse, she tried to bury her face deeper into her pillow in an effort to evade the sound.

It didn't work.

The buzzing-slash-rattling-slash-shaking somehow managed to grow louder, and to her dismay, it sounded as though it had sucked a sheaf of paper into the shuffle, to boot.

'It's . . . my phone . . .?'

She reached out, groping for the device—she'd set it on 'vibrate' before she'd gone to bed, hadn't she? With a tumultuous sigh of complete exasperation, she grabbed the phone and blinked rapidly as she tried to make out the caller ID. 'The . . . what . . .?' she thought, shaking her head as she blinked again and forced her eyes open a little wider. 'The hEVAN', it said—little 'h' and capital 'E-V-A-N'.

She snorted and flipped open the device. "This had better be good, Roka," she snarled, glancing at the clock and stifling an inward groan since she was quite sure that the numbers read '1:56 a.m.'

"Well, hey, V! You still awake?"

She considered chucking the phone across the room, but figured she'd regret it—eventually. "Why does my phone say 'The hEVAN' when you call?" she demanded.

He chuckled. How the hell he managed to sound that sexy at such an ungodly hour was entirely beyond her. She snorted at her own ridiculous thoughts. "I fixed it when you left it on my coffee table," he replied a little too innocently.

"Oh, my God," she half-moaned, half-whined. "You're demented."

"So . . . whatcha doin'?" he asked suddenly, his voice dropping an octave to a husky drawl.

Valerie shivered, telling herself that it was because of the slight breeze filtering through the two-inch crack between her window and the frame. "Sleeping, Evan, and you're not invited."

Damned if he didn't chuckle again. "Well . . . I've got a . . . little problem . . ."

She stifled a sigh. "You've got big problems," she corrected mulishly. "I'm tired!"

"Yeah, but it won't take long . . . See, I got a little bored . . ."

"Oh, God . . ."

". . . And, well . . . Hey! Why don't you look out your window?"

"Because I'm in bed. Sleeping. Alone. And I don't want—" She sat up suddenly, her eyes flashing open as another thought intruded. "Why do I want to look out my window, Evan?" she demanded sharply.

And, of course, he chuckled yet again. "Did I mention that I got bored?"

She grimaced, uttering a strangled little whine as she tossed the warmth of the blankets aside and stumbled out of bed and slowly padded toward the window.

She frowned. All she saw was the brick wall of the apartment building beside her; the darkened and opaque windows of her neighbors. As she approached the window, she could feel her own sense of foreboding rise. "There's nothing out—A-a-a-ah-h-h-h-h!" she shrieked, springing back, waving her hands, her feet pistoning up and down as she felt her heart stop for one dizzying second before it slammed back into overdrive when the blasted idiot sprang up on the other side of the pane of glass.

He was laughing—almost crying, actually—as he wedged his fingers through the crack and forced the pane up then crawled inside. No sooner did his feet hit the floor than she stomped forward, smacking him with the flat of her palms against his back: a barrage of hits that didn't even faze the man. "What are you doing? Why are you such a jerk? How did you get up here? Do you know how far off the ground this is?" she hollered.

Evan tried to stop laughing, which only irritated her more. "So-Sorry, V," he gasped out, wiping his eyes as he grinned unrepentantly at her. "Holy Jesus God, your face!"

She growled low in her throat as she glanced around wildly for something—preferably something heavy—to heave at the odious cur. Then she spotted her cell phone, lying in a broken mess near the wall where it had impacted when it had flown out of her grip moments ago. "Oh, I hate you!" she snarled.

He pushed the window closed once more then suddenly made a face at her. "Ugh, V . . . How fucking hot is it in here?"

She sniffed haughtily, lifting her chin a notch in defiance. "It's only around seventy-eight degrees," she replied. "I like it just fine."

He snorted. "Keh! It's enough to boil your balls off."

"Good thing I don't have balls, then, isn't it?" she retorted rather dryly.

Evan grinned, jerk that he was. "Well, damn, baby . . . Spoken like a true smart ass. Nice."

She didn't take the bait. Rubbing her face rather furiously, she indulged in a moment to count to twenty before leveling a formidable glower at him. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.

She didn't miss the way he stared around at her bedroom, either. "Simple. Elegant. Totally you, V," he finally said with a satisfied grin.

"What are you doing here?" she asked once more, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her toes in a completely expectant sort of way.

"Relax," he told her with an offhanded shrug. "I was just out, bummin' around, and I figured I'd stop by to see why you were calling me."

Valerie blinked and slowly shook her head since she'd called him hours ago, mostly to make sure that the deviant was at home, like he was supposed to be. He wasn't, but she'd given up when he hadn't answered his phone, mostly because she really didn't have a clue where to find him, anyway. "Are you kidding?"

He shrugged again. "Nope."

"How did you get onto my balcony?"

Planting his hands on his hips, he frowned in a completely exaggerated sort of way. "I climbed," he deadpanned.

"Climbed?" She shook her head. "Climbed what?"

"Your fire escape, V."

Letting out a deep breath, she could only stare at him. "The fire escape is a good fifteen feet away," she pointed out.

He grinned. "So I jumped."

"Have you lost your mind?"

"I don't know. Have you lost your earring in my bushes again?"

"Evan, I'm serious!" she hissed. "You could have fallen! Don't you ever use your brain?"

Evan laughed. "Have I told you how hella sexy you are when you're being all pissy?" he countered.

Furious that he simply wasn't going to acknowledge the kind of risk he'd so carelessly taken, Valerie still couldn't help but blush at his words. "Why can't you listen to me?" she grumbled. "You just don't think about anything at all, do you?"

She gasped suddenly when he stepped forward and drew her against his chest into a warm hug. "It's okay, V. I'm fine. Sorry if I worried you."

"You . . . You jerk!" she snarled, shoving against his chest in an effort to put him off. He didn't budge, and that only served to irritate her even more. "I wasn't worried, damn you! Let go of me!"

Evan swept her off the floor and into his arms before moving off toward the bed, effortlessly ignoring her struggling to regain her freedom. Only when he'd reached the bed did he let her down long enough to settle himself next to her before pulling her down beside him. "If you keep wiggling around, I'm not going to promise to be good," he warned her in a somewhat husky tone.

She craned her neck to glower at him. He had his eyes closed, as though he were trying to concentrate on something that she was better off, not considering. "Get out of my bed, Evan Zelig," she insisted through clenched teeth.

"I'm tired," he replied, tossing a leg over hers for good measure. "Night, baby."

'One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . .' She heaved a sigh and shoved at his arms, to no avail. "I'm not your baby, and I don't think—"

"I think I'll really like this sort of thing once we're married," he continued in a slow drawl.

She snorted and tried to shove him away again. "We're not getting married," she bit out.

He smashed his hips against her butt with a low groan and an unmistakable shiver. "Sure, we will," he murmured quietly, huskily, in her ear. "It's just a matter of time."

She heaved a sigh and grimaced, entirely too aware of exactly how close his body was to hers—and entirely too aware of the fact that, unlike Marvin, Evan had the power and the stature to make her feel just a little vulnerable. She was almost six feet tall, and she had to admit that it wasn't easy to make her feel blatantly overwhelmed or even remotely fragile. So what was it about Evan Zelig that had the ability to do exactly that, and then some . . .?

'Don't be stupid, Valerie,' she told herself sternly. 'It doesn't matter what his real name is. He's Zel Roka, remember?'

"You smell nice," he remarked, burying his nose in her hair and inhaling deep.

She heaved a sigh, as much from the trill of indefinable emotion that roiled through her as from the haze of his breath on her ear. "Evan . . . you need to go home."

"You are my home, Valerie," he replied.

Valerie shook her head and gave one last push against the soft but complete hold he had on her. "This could be considered forced entry," she pointed out reasonably, calmly, despite her tumultuous thoughts and trying in vain to ignore the impropriety of it all, given the fact that she was only wearing the oversized sweatshirt she'd worn to bed and a flimsy pair of silk panties.

Evan chuckled. "It could be," he agreed easily enough. "But I'm warm, right?"

She sighed again: a longsuffering sigh designed to let him know that this particular discussion wasn't over; not by a long shot. Too bad he was right: he was warm, and that warmth . . .

It was entirely too welcoming.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

'She feels . . . perfect . . .'

Evan smiled wanly, pulling Valerie just a little closer—as close as he dared—and breathed in the scent of her. 'Yeah . . . she does.'

'Do you think she noticed that we were staring at her? Actually, more like leering at her . . .'

He shrugged inwardly. No, he really didn't think she had noticed that, not at all, especially since she was busy screaming her beautiful head off at the time. But the memory of her, standing there in that ungodly large sweatshirt—it was either gray or light purple or something—he couldn't rightfully tell in the shadowy darkness—was enough to make him want to moan. Damn, but the woman had a hell of a shake to her . . .

He'd tried to stay away from her; honest, he had. Wandering the streets of the city, he'd ended up standing outside her building about five times before he'd finally given into the urge to see her. There was something about her that just compelled him, wasn't there? Something that he simply couldn't ignore . . .

'Better redirect those thoughts, Zelig,' his youkai pointed out ruefully. 'If you don't, there's a good chance that she's going to try to maim you for real.'

Evan grimaced, carefully shifting just enough to keep from poking the woman in the ass with the very blatant result of the memory. 'Point taken,' he allowed. "So tell me something, V," he murmured, his eyes drifting closed as the absolute silence, broken now and again by the intermittent sounds of the city that managed to permeate the quiet, lulled him, "why did you want to be a lawyer?"

She sighed quietly. "For the money. Why else?"

He chuckled. "You mean you didn't want to change the world or some odd shit?"

"Hardly," she replied. "If I wanted to do that, I certainly wouldn't be working at a firm that caters to spoiled rock stars, now would I? Besides . . . I'm not nearly as noble as all that."

"So you're in it for the money?" he reiterated.

"Isn't that as good a reason as any?" she countered mildly, almost defensively—and quite groggily, too. "Why did you want to be a rock star?"

'God . . . she really does feel perfect . . .' he thought with a wince and the sudden realization that he had never, ever felt quite this way before. Every contour, every angle of her body fit against him perfectly: absolutely completely. "Wasn't so much that I wanted to be a rock star," he remarked with a shrug. "I just wanted to play my music."

She snorted half-heartedly. "So it wasn't for the women or the money or the legions of fans?"

"Well, those are more like perks," he quipped. He could feel her pulse resonating through him, and he smiled just a little. "Nah, I wanted to change the world and all that happy shit."

"You're so full of crap," she chided. Her voice was staring to take on the hazy fog of sleepiness.

He chuckled quietly, unable to resist rubbing his cheek against the downy softness of her hair. "Yeah," he allowed. "I am."

"I don't understand you," she ventured at length, unconsciously snuggling a little closer to him.

"What don't you understand?"

She yawned and burrowed a little deeper into the warmth of the blankets and his arms. "Anything about you," she replied as though it was the simplest thing in the world.

"Me? I'm easy to figure out," he said.

"You're not," she countered. "You're . . ."

He smiled as her voice trailed off, the unmistakable sleepiness in her voice hard to ignore. "Go to sleep, V," he told her.

She frowned slightly, as though she were fighting off the side-effects of sleepiness. "Evan . . .?"

"Hmm?"

"Did you . . . Did you sing to me before? When I . . . was sleeping . . .?"

His smile widened, unaccountably pleased that she remembered the last time she'd fallen asleep with him: the day she'd pretended to be his girlfriend . . . "I suppose I did," he admitted.

"Mm," she intoned. He could feel her slipping away as waves of sleepiness crashed over her. "Nice . . ."

"Nice," he repeated, leaning in to kiss her temple. He could feel her breathing, could sense her unabashed surrender to the welcoming oblivion. "Yeah . . ."

The darkness invoked a quiet sense of awe, a lethargic sort of magic that clung to her and shrouded her in a timeless beauty, and somewhere in those moments, he could feel himself slipping further away, into her, around her, until everything converged deep within, and the song that rose to his lips was little more than a hushed promise that would fade away with the first rays of the sun's light.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Doing it all for my baby ...
Because she's as fine as she can be.
Doing it all for my baby ...
For everything she does for me ...'

 

'Doing it All for My Baby' by Huey Lewis and the News.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan ran a hand through his freshly cut hair with a grimace and a sigh as he glanced at his watch and headed for the stairs. Running late was never his idea of a good time, and it didn't sit well with him that he'd gotten delayed in a meeting—a meeting that he hadn't actually wanted to attend, in the first place—when he had other things on his mind, to start with. After all, what did he care about the business side of the music industry? He didn't, damn it, and wasting a whole afternoon, sitting around with a bunch of old bastards who lived with the illusion that they weren't really as old or bastardly as they wanted to think just wasn't his idea of fun, after all.

Besides that, he was finding it increasingly difficult, not to point out the obvious to them: they were old, and they weren't cool, and the only reason that women tended to flock around them was because they liked to flash their net worth on their sleeves, as it were, and honestly, how much were women like that really worth, anyway? Even so, the bigwigs in those meetings were always chuckling nervously, telling Evan that he 'sure knows how to get attention' while wagging their fingers in abject disapproval with their hands on their wallets, greedily pocketing the cash that Evan brought in for them, in the first place. After that had come the lecture—the overdue chastising for his recent legal problems. The powers that be were worried that Evan was going to end up in the brig for an extended stay, thus adversely affecting his recording contract. Mike had talked fast to reassure them that there wouldn't be a problem, but Wicked Soundsations wasn't entirely sure that they bought into it, either.

Normally, he tried to avoid those meetings like the spawning grounds for the Plague. Damn that Mike for tracking him down before he'd had a chance to escape . . .

Madison had even started to give him the third degree when he'd finally wandered into his house a little while ago. He'd told her to be there no later than four p.m., and he was the one who had been late. Good thing it hadn't taken her long to cut his hair. Still, the damned meeting was more than enough to rankle his nerves, and the last thing that he wanted to do was to start off the benefit date on a bad foot, so to speak.

But he'd agreed to the date, hadn't he? And all because of his sweet and precious Mama . . .

Evan let out a deep breath and slapped his hand against the panel that opened his closet and stomped inside, grimacing at the very idea of willingly donning one of those obnoxious suits that he so abhorred. "Respectable, my ass," he muttered.

He'd just finished pulling on a pair of slate gray slacks and a white button down shirt when he heard the unmistakable voice call out from downstairs. "Evan?"

He broke into a slight smile as he grabbed the matching dinner jacket off the hanger and stopped long enough to grab a pair of black leather shoes and thin nylon socks before heading out of the closet and toward the hallway once more.

"Hey, V. Sexier than hell, as always," he greeted as he loped down the stairs.

She didn't even glance at him as she stared with abject horror at the painting that had just been hung over the sofa in the living room. "Oh, my God," she murmured. "What the hell is that?"

"Oh, you like that? It's called 'Death of a Rock Star'." He chuckled and dropped the shoes and socks onto a nearby chair, slinging the jacket over the back as he sauntered over to stand beside her. She was eyeing the painting with a very real air of disgust. Evan supposed he could see why, given the subject matter . . . "Wicked, isn't it?" he said, his grin widening as he took in the visage of Dieter's painting once more.

She spared him a rather menacing glance and sucked in her cheeks as though she were pondering something. "You're not serious," she asked slowly.

Evan shrugged. "Hell, yeah! It's me!"

She snorted and waved a hand to shut him up. "I know it's you, you dork! You're . . . you're . . ."

"Dead?" he supplied when she faltered.

Valerie nodded and waved a hand at the painting in question. "Yes!"

He laughed. "Yeah, I am! It totally rocks!"

She affected a shudder. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded, though her tone had taken on a more plaintive twang. "Why on earth would you want to hang something that . . . that . . ."

"Awesome?"

Her hazel eyes narrowed dangerously. "That disgusting in your living room?"

Evan sighed dramatically and slowly shook his head. "Why you gotta be such a ball-buster, V?"

She blinked at him, snapping her mouth closed on whatever it was she'd been about to say, then let out a deep breath. "Do you really want your mother to see something like that? Don't you think that it'd give her nightmares or something?"

Taking his time as he worked the buttons on the front of his shirt, Evan shrugged offhandedly. "My mama would think it's fantastic," he replied glibly, knowing damn well that Gin probably wouldn't think any such thing, but unwilling to concede, either. "She's very liberal, my mama."

"No mama is that liberal," she argued, turning away from the masterpiece with a very loud snort. Only then did she frown at him fully since she'd finally gotten a good look at him, he supposed. "What did you do to your hair?" she blurted.

Evan glanced up from his cuffs to cast her a quizzical glance. "What do you mean?"

"It's short again!"

"Well, yeah," he replied, smoothing the long sleeve of the shirt with his fingertips. "Benefit date, you know."

She snapped her mouth closed, the wind apparently taken right out of her sails at that. "Oh, that," she muttered, shaking her head as she strode over to the table where she'd deposited her attaché case earlier. The fact that she still looked less than mollified did not go unnoticed, though Evan did manage to hide his amusement before he laughed outright and ended up getting his ass kicked for the trouble. "Arabella Gascony, right? Don't do anything to give the old woman a heart attack."

He laughed. "I dunno, V . . . Older women, you know . . ."

She almost smiled—almost. "She's old enough to be your grandmother," Valerie pointed out reasonably.

"I could dig them old family jewels," he quipped.

Valerie didn't look like she found him nearly as amusing as he did. "What does that mean?"

Evan rolled his eyes as he tugged on his slacks and sat down to don the socks and shoes. "I mean that there's something special about every woman, and it doesn't matter if she's old enough to be my grandma or not—By the by, V, I'll have you know that my grandma is hotter than hell, too . . ."

"Ugh, you can't take anything seriously, can you?"

He shot her a wide grin. "And where would the fun be in that?"

Valerie sighed. "Twisted," she muttered under her breath as she turned back to eye the painting yet again. "God, that's just hideous . . ."

"I kind of like that I'm lying in a pile of trash," he ventured.

She sighed again. "With about fifty needles sticking out of your arms . . . Seriously, Evan, that's enough to give me nightmares . . ."

"Aww, V, so you really do care."

And she snorted yet again. "In your dreams, rocker-boy."

"You know, if you asked Deet nicely, bet he could do one of you, too."

"Why would I want a picture of me, lying dead in an alley?" she countered.

Evan wiggled his eyebrows. "I could be your Angel of Death, baby," he offered.

Valerie shook her head and made a show of blustering, but not before Evan had discerned the hint of a blush that had filtered into her cheeks.

'I love that woman . . .'

'Me, too.'

"Will you marry me, V?"

"No," she replied without missing a beat. "Why don't you quit asking?"

"Ah, you don't really want me to do that," he insisted airily.

"You know, even this benefit date goes against your agreement with me," she pointed out.

"Oh, come on . . . It's for charity," he replied. "V?"

"What?"

"Are you jealous?"

"Wh—I—Y—No!"

Ah, her irritation was certainly a sight to behold and definitely worth the mischief she could direct at him, Evan figured. Eyes sparkling as indignant color blossomed in her cheeks, she was positively seething in all her haughty glory, and because of that, he just couldn't help adding, "Don't worry about it, V. I'll still come home and sleep with you."

She buried her face in her hands at that reminder, mostly because she was the one who had been completely wrapped around him this morning, lured close by the warmth of his body, he supposed. "You're such a jerk," she complained, her voice muffled by her hands. "Why are you such a jerk?"

"I don't know, V. Why were you hiding in my bushes?"

He barely managed to duck in time to avoid being hit by the remote control she'd snatched off the coffee table and launched at his head in one fluid motion. His laughter did nothing to alleviate her frustration, and in the end, he had to grab his jacket and make a break for the foyer, dodging whatever the woman managed to find to throw at him. "Later, V!" he called, slamming the door behind himself as Bone pulled up with the limo . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

It occurred to Valerie that this was probably not her brightest moment as she carefully lifted her gaze and shifted it around the dimly lit bar. It wasn't the best place to be, but it was as close as she could get since the restaurant where she'd followed Evan and his date was completely booked—for the next month. They did allow her to sit in here, though, which was good enough since she could see the table where the undercover rock star was.

'That liar!' she fumed, narrowing her gaze on the couple seated in the posh restaurant. 'Old woman, my ass!'

It didn't matter what Valerie had thought, the woman seated with Evan was anything but 'old', and for some reason, that irritated her even more. If the girl was more than twenty-five, Valerie would eat her purse, and judging from the way the woman kept staring at him, she wouldn't have a single complaint, no matter what Evan suggested that the two of them did after dinner . . .

"Are you jealous?"

The very memory of that question was more than enough to elicit a low growl from her, and Valerie gritted her teeth. 'Jealous? Really . . . That's just . . . just stupid,' she fumed, grabbing the glass of white wine in front of her and draining it in one gulp.

'Yeah, but if you're not jealous, why are you following him?' her conscience prickled.

Valerie snorted inwardly and motioned at the waiter to bring her another drink. 'I'm making sure that he behaves himself; that's all. God only knows that he can't be trusted any farther than I could throw him . . .'

'Admit it. He's really not that bad.'

She tapped her fingernails on the small, high table where she sat. Evan leaned to the side and said something that made the ditzy looking ash blonde laugh prettily, which, in turn, made Valerie grit her teeth harder.

He was completely insufferable, wasn't he? Okay, sure, he had his moments when he even bordered on sweet, but after last night, Valerie had to wonder. The man had climbed the fire escape and leapt to her balcony because he was bored? Just what on earth had he been thinking? She lived on the twenty-fifth floor of a thirty-story building. If he'd slipped or fallen . . .

And that was the crux of it, wasn't it? He never did think, never stopped to consider what his actions might mean. Too impetuous and far too handsome . . . She'd dated a couple guys like him a long time ago, well before she'd met Marvin. Selfish: that was what they were, and it wasn't because they were necessarily bad people, either. It was purely because they'd always been given exactly what they'd wanted whenever they'd wanted it because no one had ever told them otherwise, and they'd always thought that women would just go along with whatever they wanted, just because of the way they looked.

Never mind that he'd actually put on a real suit for this occasion, too. Valerie tried to tell herself that she didn't care, that she understood that it was because he was out representing his family, and that was the difference. Still, if he could stand to wear that sort of thing for this so-called date, why couldn't he wear one to court where it might help to make a difference?

All in all, she just didn't understand him. The same man who could be so entirely infuriating could also be soft and gentle—she knew that from last night, and as much as she was loathe to admit it, she knew well enough that there really was more to him than she'd initially thought.

Frowning as he stood up and reached for the woman's hand, Valerie couldn't help the rise of irritation as he led his date toward the dance floor. There was nothing untoward in the way that he held her, either; nothing even slightly less than upstanding at the attentive way he listened as she spoke to him. He'd pulled out her chair to seat her, had stood up when she'd excused herself to use the powder room, and there wasn't a doubt in Valerie's mind that the man actually possessed impeccable manners, and yet . . .

And yet, something unsettled her, too: something about the cut and trimmed visage he presented. The last time she'd come face to face with that man, in particular . . . well, she didn't really care to dwell on that; not at all. Even so . . .

There was an entirely unapproachable quality to him when he looked like that, wasn't there? The kind of self-assured aloofness that she couldn't quite understand. He wasn't two different people, and she knew that well enough. Just how good was he at hiding the one persona or the other to fit the situation at hand? Which one of them was truly the real Evan Zelig, anyway?

Biting her lip as she ran her fingertips lightly around the edge of the fresh glass of wine that the waiter had silently delivered, Valerie was no closer to making sense of him than she had been at the very beginning. She'd thought that he was easy enough to read back then, and maybe things would be simpler if he'd continued to be the obnoxious rock star that had swaggered into her office in the beginning.

There was more to him than that, wasn't there? The sweet man who smiled like a little boy whenever his mother tousled his hair . . . the man who spent one afternoon each week teaching children how to play the piano . . . the man who said outrageous things simply because they occurred to him . . . the man who sat in a quiet and darkened corner of a small New York City eatery buried behind the Wall Street Journal with a cup of herbal tea . . . the man who sported more hardware on his person than anyone else she'd ever met . . .

And what was it about all of those things that seemed so very contradictory and yet somehow in accordance with the overall personality of Zel Roka and Evan Zelig?

She didn't understand him. She rather thought that she never would. Then again, she didn't really have to, did she? No, she just had to represent him in court . . .

The thing was, the more she looked over the information she'd been able to gather regarding the night in question, the more it didn't make sense. Okay, so he was a self-professed reprobate, and maybe he was a little loud sometimes, but . . .

But Evan wasn't an unkind person, and even after the fiasco of a fund raiser, she knew instinctively that his reaction hadn't been calculated or contrived. It was instinctive, she supposed, the way he did everything in his life: spontaneous and maybe a little cruel, but then, she'd been cruel to him first, hadn't she? As much as she hated to admit it, she was a royal bitch that night, and Evan's response, however cold, was entirely deserved.

The couple returned to their table in time for their dinners to be served. Valerie heaved a quiet sigh and checked her watch. She had no idea how long this 'date' was supposed to last, but she didn't like it; not at all. Evan might be behaving, at least for the moment, but that didn't mean he'd continue to be as upstanding as the night wore on, and even if it did, what, exactly, was she supposed to do? The man didn't want to have his wayward tendencies curbed. He'd protested them mightily enough.

She snorted indelicately as she stared at the two sitting at the table, casually enjoying their meal. She knew damn well that Arabella Gascony was an old woman. She'd seen her at the fund raiser. She had to be at least seventy-five, and that woman sitting with Evan? That most certainly was not her.

In fact, the only thing that had saved Valerie's temper from soaring right off the charts was the very real look of surprise on Evan's face when the door to the stately townhouse in downtown Manhattan had opened to reveal this girl. Unfortunately, Valerie hadn't been near enough to actually hear the explanation that Ms. Gascony had given when she'd gently pushed the girl closer to Evan. He'd recovered from his apparent shock quickly enough, sparing a moment to kiss the old woman's hand before offering the girl his elbow to escort her to the waiting limo.

"You know, don't you think you're being a little obvious?"

Valerie jumped and glanced up in time to catch the very broad grin on Bone's face as he slipped into the high stool across from her. "Oh, uh . . . I-I was just having a drink," she lied.

Bone nodded though the expression on his face was one of complete disbelief. "So you weren't out spyin' on Zel?"

Casting a surreptitious eye around to make sure that no one else was listening, Valerie shrugged and leaned forward just a little. "Of course not," she barked. Did her voice really sound that rough and edgy? She certainly hoped not . . .

"Eh, he ain't interested in her," Bone said, nodding toward the dining couple. "It's all for charity; that's all."

Valerie barked out a terse laugh as her cheeks shot up in flames. "I don't care!" she retorted. "I just wanted a glass of wine!"

"Yeah, anyway, he won't do anything that might look bad on his mama, you know," Bone pointed out.

Valerie wrinkled her nose. She'd figured as much. Then again, if she'd known that, just why had she followed him? 'Don't answer that.'

The bodyguard gestured at the waiter and pulled out a platinum credit card. "Coke," he said, handing over the plastic, "and put all the lady's drinks on this, too, would you?"

The waiter nodded and hurried away. Valerie shook her head. "Really, Bone, you don't have to do that."

Bone chuckled and shook his head. "Sure I do," he argued mildly. "Orders from the boss, after all."

"That's ridiculous! I have money! In fact, I—" Cutting herself off abruptly as her eyes widened, Valerie gasped as the underlying meaning of Bone's words sank in. "He knows I'm here?" she almost squeaked.

Bone shrugged though his grin widened. "Not much gets past him," he replied. "He also said that you should probably order something to eat, too, because you don't hold your liquor well, especially on an empty stomach."

Valerie's mouth dropped open as indignant color flooded her skin. Snapping her mouth closed, she snorted loudly. "I can hold my liquor well enough," she argued haughtily. "Tell your boss that he can drop dead."

Bone only laughed at that as Valerie grudgingly reached for a package of Saltine crackers nestled in a small wire basket in the center of the table. "They serve damn good wings here," Bone offered.

Valerie opened her mouth to tell him that she wasn't at all interested. A moment later, though, her stomach growled, and she gave up with a longsuffering sigh. "How good?"

Bone slipped off the silly hat he always wore and set it on the table. "Baby, they could make your mama cry for shame."

"That good, huh?"

He nodded. "I tell you what: if you insist on following Zel around all night, the least you can do is let him pay the bill, right?"

For the first time that evening, Valerie broke into a very small smile. "Right."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Oh, signs, signs, everywhere there's signs
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
'Do this', 'Don't do that', can't you read the sign …?'

 

-'Signs' by Five Man Electrical Band.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Mr. Roka, let me begin by telling you exactly how reprehensible this court finds your actions to be: not only those in relation to the charges that you face—very grave charges that you simply refuse to take seriously—but your actions on the whole. Being seen out cavorting with art gallery owners and generally flaunting your person in the public is, quite frankly, in poor taste. Let me remind you that you are facing very serious charges, and you do not seem to care in the least that everything about you is being scrutinized, not only by this court, but by the world at large. If you continue to behave in such a deplorable manner, I can and will revoke your bond and have you remanded into custody of the State until such time that your trial is over. Do I make myself clear?"

Evan blinked at the old man presiding over the court and shrugged a little self-consciously as Valerie stood, completely sober, beside him. "Yeah, okay," he mumbled.

Judge Lister narrowed his eyes menacingly, drawing himself up straight in the high-backed chair atop the raised dais in the middle of the head of the room. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough. Mr. Roka, you will start showing this court more respect, and you will show the victim of this entire misadventure the proper respect, as well."

"Absolutely, your judge-ness," Evan muttered, trying his best to look at least a little contrite.

The judge didn't look like he believed Evan's half-assed promise, but he slowly nodded.   "Counselor Denning, as for your motion to allow your client to leave New York for his . . . rock and roll tour . . . I will allow him to travel to destinations relevant to this tour, providing that he seeks written and sworn affidavits from the proper authorities in every city that he remains in for longer than twenty-four hours—in person, mind you. He may not send someone else to get the required affidavits for him. Is this understood?"

Valerie nodded, pushing her glasses up with one hand and jotting notes onto the legal tablet in front of her with the other. "Yes, Your Honor," she replied without looking up. "And about the international dates provided in the motion?"

Lister glanced at the paperwork and shook his head. "Mr. Roka is most assuredly a flight risk, and so saying, I will not grant him leave to cross US borders."

"Understood, Your Honor," Valerie said smoothly.

Evan snorted. Valerie shot him a warning glance that he summarily ignored.

"Furthermore, Counselor Denning," Judge Lister went on, "I will grant that Mr. Roka be allowed to tour, however . . . because of his track record of blatant disregard for authority figures, I will impose one more condition. You will accompany him on this tour, and I highly suggest you do your level best to curb his negative behavior—and ensure that he does return here for any and all court appearances."

Evan perked up at hearing that particular clause and absently wondered whether or not the good judge had any idea just how much he'd just helped Evan out. A few weeks on a mini-tour with V? 'Ni-i-i-ice . . .'

Valerie, on the other hand, didn't seem nearly as impressed by Judge Lister's edict. Sparing a moment to glance at her, he wasn't surprised to see the completely dumbfounded expression on her face, and to be completely fair, he had a feeling that she was trying to figure out exactly how to voice her objections to the arrangement without finding herself in contempt of court. "Your Honor," she began in a paper-thin voice, "I hardly think that Mr. Roka needs me to babysit him."

Judge Lister cocked an eyebrow. "Are you questioning my judgment on this?"

"No, sir," she replied. "I do think that it's a little simplistic to believe that Mr. Roka would behave himself better if I were with him than he would otherwise, and his fans—"

Lister nodded as he considered that. "Should you choose not to accompany him, then he will not be permitted to leave the state under any circumstance, and his tour will have to be cancelled. To be blunt, I don't rightfully care about Mr. Roka's 'fans'. That is my decision."

Valerie snapped her mouth closed on whatever she'd been ready to say as a completely chagrined sort of expression slammed down over her features. The last thing she wanted to do, Evan supposed, was to accompany him on his tour, but . . . but she also felt bad for those who had already purchased tickets to every one of Evan's shows that had sold out in record time.

'Playing on her conscience? That guy's almost as big of a jackass as you are,' his youkai pointed out.

Evan nodded sagely. "I don't have a problem with that," he piped up.

Beside him, Valerie groaned quietly.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Tossing her purse onto the table with a very loud sigh, Valerie pivoted on her heel to glower at Evan, who was already in the process of stripping off the hideously purple crushed velvet smoking jacket he'd been wearing when he showed up for court.

"That old man really hates me, doesn't he?" he drawled almost mildly.

Valerie gritted her teeth, dangerously close to losing her temper. "You think?"

"If I didn't know better, I'd think he wanted me to fuck up so he could toss me right into the big house."

She slowly shook her head, fighting a futile battle for control over her rising irritation. "Zel?"

He shot her a quizzical, almost lopsided little grin. "C'mon, V. I thought we were past all that 'Zel' horseshit."

She wasn't about to be sidetracked. Crossing her arms over her chest, she shook her head again. "Just so you know: I'm so not going on tour with you."

Evan's eyes widened, and so did that damned grin. "Aw, now, V . . ."

"Don't you 'V' me, Zel Roka! I'll have you know that I am far too busy to run off for . . . for God only knows how long—"

"Four weeks," he supplied pleasantly.

She nodded once. "Thank you. Four weeks, then. That's still too long. I have responsibilities, and—"

"You really gonna make me cancel the tour?" he drawled quietly, frowning as he pondered the very idea.

She narrowed her eyes on him, her cheeks blossoming in healthy color. "Listen, buddy. My life is a lot more complicated than yours is. Unlike you, I don't get to play all day, every day."

"Play?" he countered almost incredulously.

She waved a hand at him to shut him up, ignoring the fact that he'd already removed his black satin shirt, too, at least for the moment. "I have to work like a grown up—you know: a big person."

"I'm a grown up," he told her.

She snorted. "Anyway, as much as I'd love to just drop everything to gallivant all over the United States with you—" Her sarcasm made him smile. "—I can't."

Planting his hands on his hips, the idiot rock star shot her a superior grin. "V . . . Are you saying that you don't think I actually work?"

"Hmm, yeah . . . Something like that."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, that's so."

"Hmm . . ."

She suddenly heaved a loud sigh and grimaced, her knees buckling as she flopped into a nearby chair and covered her face with her hands. "Why didn't you wear one of your real suits to court?" she demanded in a plaintive wail that was muffled by her hands.

He chuckled. He actually chuckled, blast him. She could hear him moving around though she didn't bother to look to see what he was doing. "I don't think it'd matter if I showed up in a suit, Armani or birthday. That old bastard isn't going to cut me any slack, or didn't you notice?"

"But you don't know that," Valerie insisted, letting her hands drop to her lap as her shoulders slumped in defeat. Despite his playful tone, there was something else there; something belying his words: darker, jaded, completely cynical. "You just assume, and . . . and you draw the wrong conclusions."

"V, I've dealt with enough people like old man Lister to know I'm right. They see a guy like me, and they hide their sons and lock up their daughters. That's just how it goes. Besides . . ." He managed a very thin smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Didn't you do the same thing?"

Letting out a deep breath, Valerie frowned at him. "No, I didn't. You walked into my office with that rock star persona you have in place. You showed me nothing but your absolute worst, and you expected me not to pass judgment on you? And isn't that exactly what you did to me? You looked me over, and you made up your mind about me, all in the space of a moment, and the one thing that you have never, ever taken into consideration is the idea that I am here to help you."

"Is that it?" he asked with a candid shrug. "So we judged each other; that's what you're saying."

"Maybe I am," she allowed. Why did the look on his face bother her? There was a certain sadness that lingered beneath his bravado: a sadness she'd sensed from him before that she just couldn't quite comprehend. "Why don't you just try?"

He glanced at her, his dark brown eyes giving nothing away beyond the starkness of his gaze, and suddenly, viciously, Valerie missed the blue eyes she'd seen a precious few times—eyes that didn't hide much, and it struck her once more exactly how easy it was for Evan Zelig to hide the very essence of who he was behind the mirages and illusions that he'd mastered long ago. "I'll cancel my tour," he finally said, "if you admit that your schedule isn't the reason you don't want to go; that the real reason you're objecting is because you're afraid of spending that much time with me."

She blinked quickly and stared at him. "Wh—What?" she barked incredulously.

Plopping down on the nearby sofa—the one situated beneath the ghastly painting of him, lying dead in an alley—Evan shrugged. "You like me," he said simply. "You don't want to, but you do, and you hate to admit it. Hell, you like me more than you like that wussy little Morgan—"

She narrowed her eyes. "Marvin."

"—But you're so damned stubborn that you refuse to admit that you do," he finished without missing a beat.

"You're so full of yourself," she shot back. "I'll have you know that I don't—and you're just being obnoxious."

He went on as though he hadn't heard her outburst at all. "What I can't figure out is why? Why is a woman like you with a little worm like him? I mean, I could get it, maybe, if he were at least . . . I dunno . . . hung like a fucking horse or something, but I've seen him, V, and I gotta tell you, I have to admit that I feel kinda sorry for him and his puny little . . . Pinkle."

"For your information, Marvin is a very good man," she retorted hotly. "And it's not the size; it's how you use it, or haven't you heard?"

Evan snorted. "Yeah, and whoever said that very obviously had a tiny piss-pole, too."

"Oh-h-h!" she fumed, shooting to her feet and stomping over to retrieve her purse. His laughter followed her, taunted her, as she strode out of the room and through the foyer, and it lingered in her head long after she'd slammed the front door of the mansion closed in her wake.

Haughty exit or not, though, the nagging feeling remained as she tossed her purse onto the passenger seat of her car and started the engine. She didn't feel at all as though she'd won that round; not in the least . . .

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"What do you mean, you're not sure whether you can do the US tour or not?"

Evan made a face at the entirely irritated tone in Mike's voice. "Look, it's not my fault," he argued calmly enough. "The old bastard said that V has to come with me or it's a no-go; that's all."

"So convince her to come along," Mike insisted.

"Yeah, well, I'm trying," he said. "Cut me some slack, will you?"

"Hmm, now I realize that it's all just fun and games to you, Roka, but this is business to me. Cancelling your European tour is bad—really bad. You might not give a great goddamn, but I do, okay? You need to consider stuff like this before you do something else really stupid. Capische?"

"I get the message, Mike," he muttered, shaking his head as he stalked around the living room. "I'll do what I can, but she swears she won't go."

"You know, forget about it. I'll give her a call, myself," Mike retorted. A moment later, the connection died, and Evan tossed his cell phone aside with a very pronounced grunt.

All right, so he should have known that good ol' Mike wasn't going to be very pleased with the idea that Evan might well have to cancel the entire tour instead of just the European leg of it, which, because of planning that had been done months ago, accounted for the majority of the planned dates. Then again, it wasn't like Evan was trying to back out of them, either. He'd much rather be out there than stuck here. Of course, he'd much rather that a certain lawyer was stuck with him. That wasn't really the point, though, was it? Everything would work out in the end, right? After all, it couldn't really get much worse . . .

'Mike's gonna be a whole lot more irritated if you don't convince V to come along on the US tour, you know,' his youkai pointed out reasonably.

Evan nodded. There was that, too . . .

'So . . . Any ideas on how you're gonna do that? I mean, she made it pretty clear that she didn't wanna spend that much time out on tour with you . . .'

'Hmm, let me give it some thought.'

He sighed, dragging his fingers through his hair as he stomped over to the doors that overlooked the back yard of the property.

"I think it's a bad idea."

Evan didn't answer as he continued to methodically tune his guitar.

"Come on, Evan. It was an accident, right? Accidents happen."

"Eh, it'll be fine, Maddy. You'll see," he replied mildly.

"You make it sound a little easier than it is," she pointed out almost tentatively.

"And you make it sound a helluva lot heavier than it is," he countered.

She heaved a leaden sigh in response but didn't say anything else, but he could feel her gaze weighing on him for a long, long while . . .

"Zel?"

Snapping out of his reverie, Evan slowly turned in time to watch as Bitches and Madison stepped around the divider wall. The two were a welcome sight for him, and he managed a little smile. "He-e-ey," he drawled, making a concerted attempt to shove the far less pleasant thoughts aside, "so, what are you up to?"

Madison grinned and winked at him. "Barnham's was having a sale."

He chuckled since he knew well enough that Barnham's was one of Madison's very favorite shoe stores. "Find anything good?"

She nodded. "Of course! An absolutely gorgeous pair of Van Kleins that are absolutely to die for!"

Bitches frowned, leveling a no-nonsense scowl at him as she crossed her arms over her very formidable chest and slowly shook her head. "Zel Roka! Why is your chi so convoluted? Haven't you been meditating?"

He couldn't help the cheesy grin that surfaced. "Well, no," he admitted with a shrug. "Been feeling it, too."

She wrinkled her nose and gave a quick toss of her head though not nearly hard enough to muss her hair. "Come on," she said, extending a hand toward him and rotating her wrist in a tight circle. "We simply must open you up."

Evan made an exaggerated face, designed to let her know that he was merely humoring her—which, of course, was a complete and utter fabrication. "If you insist . . ." he drawled as he unfastened the leisure slacks and let the fall to the floor.

Bitches shot Madison a long-suffering sort of look. "If you please, Maddy . . ."

Madison giggled but made quick work of shedding her clothing, too, as Bitches stripped off the gauzy dress she'd chosen for the day. "I suppose it's all for a good cause," she allowed.

They sat cross-legged on the floor, with their feet on their knees, backs straight, hands resting on their feet, eyes closed. Well, the women closed their eyes, and Evan did, too, at least for a moment. Midway through their round of cleansing breaths, though, he gave in and cracked one eye open just enough to peek. True enough, Bitches' girls were absolutely fantastic and definitely deserving of a good, long look . . . and Madison's? Well, Madison's breasts were second to none—with the notable exception of one Valerie Denning, anyway . . .

He heaved an inward sigh, trying not to think about the answer to the obvious question: just why wasn't he even remotely turned on? He ought to be, right? Four fantastic mams, and not even a slight stirring in the nether regions . . .

He sighed again. 'Don't think about it . . .'

"Concentrate on the cleansing," Bitches said quietly. "Breathe . . . breathe . . ."

They did. Breasts rose. Mountains fell broken. The world shook, and Evan? 'Absolutely nothing,' he thought mournfully.

"Feel the air purging your body of all things polluted and unnatural . . ."

He let his eye slip closed again. As novel as the idea really was, it was also enough to make him just a little sad. Was it the end of an era? The epilogue to a really great novel? The final leg of the Tour de France?

'Talk about melodramatic horseshit,' his youkai snorted indelicately.

'Shut up before you constipate my chi even more.'

'Oh, ri-i-i-ight . . .'

Evan's cell phone rang, and he considered ignoring it for a few moments—at least, until he realized that it was the ringtone he'd programmed in just for Valerie, anyway. Leaning back, he nabbed the device off the coffee table where he'd tossed it after he'd talked to Mike, but he didn't miss Bitches' disapproving scowl, either. "Sorry," he told her with a grin. "Hey, V. What's up?"

"Cut the crap, Roka. Was it your idea to make Mike call me?" she demanded.

He almost laughed, but managed to keep from doing so. "'Course not," he replied honestly since he didn't do any such thing. "Just told him what the ol' judge said."

Valerie sighed. He figured that if she wasn't gripping her forehead yet, she wasn't far from doing it, either. "You'd better start being a little more respectful toward Judge Lister," she warned. "Didn't you hear what he said?"

"Yeah, yeah. If I left it up to that old bastard, he'd lock me up and throw away the key," Evan pointed out.

"It'd be no more than you'd deserve," she informed him. "Now, listen—"

"Zel, you need to put the phone down and concentrate," Bitches interrupted brusquely. "Cleansing your chi is a very important process."

"I know, Bitches. Just a minute, okay?"

"What's she doing there?" Valerie demanded sharply.

"Aww, she's just cleansing my chi. Didn't you hear her?" Evan asked.

Valerie heaved a very loud sigh. "I'll just bet she is," she muttered.

"There's something blocking your flow," Bitches went on with a thoughtful frown. "Has your creativity been stunted?"

Evan grinned. "Well, maybe just a little," he allowed.

Bitches considered that then nodded. "I see . . . Madison, maybe you could help him."

"A blow job?" Madison asked.

"A hand job might do it," Bitches replied, but only after considering it.

"I love opening my chi," Evan quipped.

"There will be no opening of chi, Zel Roka! Do you hear me?" Valerie growled.

Madison quite obviously heard Valerie's comment because she winked at Evan and shot him a conspiratorial grin. "Just a hand job? I suppose I could do that . . ."

A moment later, the phone connection died, and Evan chuckled as he set the device aside. Somehow, he had a feeling that it wouldn't be long before Valerie came storming into his house . . .

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

"You know, I thought Madison was your friend. How can you treat her like that?" Valerie demanded, pacing the floor in front of him with all the rigidity of a drill sergeant.

"She is my friend," Evan replied, lounging casually on the sofa, content to listen to his attorney's tirade.

She snorted indelicately. "And that's how you treat your friends? Turning them into your own personal sex slaves?"

He rolled his eyes but grinned. "You make it sound like fucking me is a fate worse than death."

"Sounds about right," she shot back. "Madison's such a nice girl! How the hell did she get messed up with someone like you?"

"Madison's not nearly as nice as you'd like to think," Evan informed her with a shake of his head. "Did you have to make them leave?"

She stopped abruptly and pivoted on her heel to glower at him. "Yes, I did," she said flatly.

Evan heaved a sigh.

True enough, Valerie had demanded that the self-proclaimed Zen guru get dressed and get out, though maybe not in those exact terms. When she'd walked in, only to find the three of them—Evan, Madison, and Bitches—bare-assed naked and sitting on the floor—she'd clapped a hand over her eyes and demanded that they all get dressed, despite Bitches' assertions that Valerie ought to join them. "In fact," Bitches had said, suddenly struck by inspiration, or so it would seem, "why don't you two make love? It'd help the both of you open up your chi!"

Evan, of course, had been on board with that idea. Valerie had nixed it very quickly, very adamantly, and with a very, very red face.

"You know, V, just because you don't understand Maddy and me doesn't mean that it's wrong," he pointed out reasonably, almost seriously. At least she'd been able to talk him into pulling on a pair of faded and frayed blue jeans, even if he had refused to button them more than halfway up.

She narrowed her eyes at him, as though she were trying to discern what he was thinking. He wasn't stupid; she knew he wasn't. Why couldn't he seem to understand that what he and Madison did just wasn't right? Sex . . . it should mean something, shouldn't it? It wasn't something that should or could just be broken down to self-gratification, no matter what he might like to believe. There was no real fulfillment in such an empty act, and Valerie knew that from her own personal experiences. "Evan . . . all you're doing is using her," she said quietly.

He stared at her for a few moments. "Not really," he replied.

Valerie sighed and shook her head, rubbing her forehead in a completely exasperated sort of way. "Just because it doesn't mean anything to you doesn't mean that it is like that for her," she explained, wondering absently, exactly why she was bothering, in the first place. "I realize that all your excesses come easily to you, but you have to understand that you're the exception, not the rule. You might not think that you're hurting anyone, but are you sure? Do you think that Madison would tell you, even if you were?"

He considered that, but finally shook his head, a strange look filtering over his features as he stared at her—that same sort of sadness she'd sensed in him before. "I'd never hurt Maddy," he said quietly, "and Maddy . . . She probably knows me better than anyone. Anyway, you're wrong. There aren't many people who have ever understood me or even tried to. Maddy's one of the few."

"I don't know why I bother to even try explaining things to you," she muttered. "You just don't want to see anything that goes against what you want to believe."

"Maybe," he agreed with a shrug as he stood up and headed toward the kitchen. "Then again, maybe you're the one who doesn't want to admit that maybe you're wrong, after all."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'The devil bowed his head
'Cause he knew that he'd been beat
And he laid that golden fiddle
On the ground at Johnny's feet …'

 

-'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' by The Charlie Daniels Band.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Here," Evan said, handing a cold soda over Valerie's shoulder as she concentrated on the open file in her lap. She took it without a word and held onto the can while he quickly and efficiently popped the top for her.

"Thanks," she murmured, reaching up with her free hand for the glass of ice that she knew well enough he'd have for her.

He grinned and handed that over, too. "Welcome," he said nonchalantly.

She set the slim-file aside and shook her head. "Just so you know, I'm not buying this whole thing."

"What whole thing?" he countered mildly, twisting off the cap of the beer bottle in his hand.

"Why won't you really tell me exactly what happened that night?" she countered smoothly.

Evan chuckled and shrugged as he dropped onto the sofa. "I did, V. You're the one who keeps insisting that I'm not, but honest Injun, I am."

She blinked quickly, those magnificent hazel eyes of hers flicking up to meet his gaze over the top of the slim-file. "Did you just say 'honest Injun'?"

He nodded slowly since he had a good idea as to what was coming next. Good ol' V and her PC-ness.

"You realize, right, that if you said that in public, you'd be offending anyone with Native American ancestry."

He rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, tipping the beer to drip into his waiting maw before forcing a somewhat pathetic belch and slamming the bottle on the table. "It's just a phrase, Miss Manners. Give it up, will you?"

She snorted and shook her head in complete and utter dismay. "Whatever, Roka." Pausing, she shot him a studious glance before continuing with her line of thought. "You know, it occurred to me, the judge might like you a little better—and I do use that phrase loosely—if you were to do something to show contrition."

"Like what?" he challenged, reaching over to spin the bottle in place.

"Like going to see Mr. Matthis in the hospital? Like telling him how sorry you are about the accident? Of course, you'd have to make it look like something you chose to do instead of something that your lawyer browbeat you into, but if we could keep your visit from seeming like a press-circus, then it would look entirely genuine . . ."

Evan snorted loudly and shot Valerie a rather condescending sort of look. "What? Hell, no! He ran the red light! He can damn well be sorry!"

She was pissed. He could sense it in her aura, and he didn't need to glance at her to verify it. He did anyway and almost laughed out loud. Eyes narrowed, skin burning with an entirely indignant flush, she was holding onto the slim-file so tightly that her knuckles and fingertips were leeched white. "Why are you fighting me? You say you want my help, but you don't. You act like you'd be just as happy to go straight to jail, but then you say you've been set up! Do you want my help or not?" she demanded.

Evan stared at her for a moment before swinging his legs off the sofa and pushing himself up, trying his hardest to look at least somewhat contrite. Judging from the look on her face, though, it didn't seem to be working so well. "That damned old bastard isn't gonna like me, no matter what you do. Hell, you could wrap me up in pink paper and slap a bow on my head for his birthday, and he still won't like me. No matter what I do, it wouldn't be enough to change his mind, and even if it were, then it'd be the wrong reason for doing it, in the first place."

"And what does that matter if the end result is that you come out looking less like a spoiled brat and more like a compassionate human being?"

"Listen, if I wanted to go see him, I would, but I certainly wouldn't do it just to make nice to a grouchy old man who sorely needs to get himself laid."

Valerie snapped her mouth closed, and for a moment, Evan had to wonder if he hadn't pushed her just a little too far. A moment later, though, she cleared her throat conspicuously, looking very much like she was struggling to keep her humor in check. Shaking her head when she intercepted the knowing look on his face, she let out a deep breath. "You're entirely incorrigible."

"But that's why you love me," he countered.

She snorted but didn't comment.

"Hey, V?"

"What?"

He grinned. "Will you go on tour with me?"

She didn't even glance up from the slim-file. "No."

"But—"

"No."

"Why?"

She slipped her eyes to the side, staring at him for several moments before she deigned to respond. "Because you're a pain in my ass. No."

He heaved a longsuffering sigh. "That's not really an answer, V."

She heaved a sigh very much like the one he'd just done. "Look, Evan, I realize that you really don't understand the concept of 'working', but I do, and I have to. Not everyone makes a living by playing all day, and I happen to like going to work in the morning and doing my job—at least, I do when it doesn't involve digging you out of trouble that you brought on all by yourself."

He started to laugh then thought better of it since she'd probably start removing crucial bits of his anatomy for the slight.

"Needless to say," she went on airily, "I'm too busy to drop everything, just to go running around the countryside with you."

"'Listen, honey, can you see? Baby you would bury me . . . If you were in the public eye . . . Givin' someone else a try' . . ." Evan said rather earnestly.

Valerie blinked and stared hard at him for a moment. He had the distinct feeling that she was trying to figure out whether or not she recognized those words. He schooled his features for good measure. "Wh-What?"

He cleared his throat. "'And you know you'd better watch your step . . . Or you're gonna get hurt, yourself . . . Someone's gonna tell you lies . . . Cut you down to size' . . ."

She snorted. Loudly. Then she rolled her eyes and uttered a terse little 'hrumph'. "You're such a jerk," she muttered under her breath.

"Are you sure you don't want to tour with me? Could be lots of fun," he coaxed, waggling his eyebrows for good measure.

Snapping the slim-file closed with a decisive motion, Valerie dropped it onto the table and took a very long sip of her soda. "Listen, rocker-boy," she said as she placed the glass back on the coaster and turned her attention to him, "I would be bored stupid if I went on tour with you," she predicted, fluttering a perfectly manicured hand in his general direction.

"You think so?" Evan couldn't resist asking. "So you get in trouble when you're bored, too?"

She narrowed her gaze just for a moment at him. "Hardly, Roka. I have more than enough real work to keep me busy—unlike some people I could name, but won't."

He chuckled. "V?"

She reached for a Hit Parade magazine and started to leaf through the pages. "Hmm?"

He stuck his hand out, smacking it down dead center on the page she was trying to read. "You couldn't keep up with me; not in a million years."

Brushing his hand aside, she laughed: not just a giggle, either, but a full-blown belly laugh—one that sent Evan's senses into a whirling tizzy. "Oh, ri-i-i-ight, because you do so much all day, every day," she countered, sarcasm fairly dripping from her words.

"Sounds about right," he agreed earnestly.

"Oh, please! In the length of time I've known you, you haven't done a whole lot of anything! Not. A. Damn. Thing. Roka."

He grinned. "Well, that wasn't entirely my fault," he told her with a shrug. "Mike's been dealing with Wicked about a few things, but those are straightened out now, so no sweat. Didn't you look at that itinerary you demanded from Mikey?"

She rolled her eyes yet again, but fished out the document in question. "Oh, so you're recording this week. Big hairy deal. You go in, and you sing for a little while. How tough can that be?"

He stared at her and slowly shook his head. "Uh huh . . . Okay, V, if you think I'm such a joke, then I contend that you could not deal with my schedule for a week."

"A week? Is that all?" she tossed back carelessly.

"Be careful, V. You might hurt my feelings."

She tossed her ink pen at his head. He caught it in his teeth and spit it out on the table. "And just to make things interesting, if you are able to keep up, then I swear, I'll be nothing but good from here on out—and I'll take a full page ad out in the New York Times, proclaiming that I'm a lazy, good for nothing bastard. How's that?"

Her eyes were sparkling though she looked dubious, at best. "Who said anything about me actually following you around for a week?"

"What's the matter, V? Chicken?"

She knew he was goading her, and quite childishly, too, if her expression meant anything at all. Too bad that Evan could also see very well that she hated—hated—to be called 'chicken'.

"I'm not chicken. Don't be stupid," she grumbled, her cheeks pinking at the perceived slight.

"And if you lose and have to admit that you cannot keep up with my schedule, then you have to take out a full page ad where you will admit that you—Valerie Denning, esquire—are a wuss and that you were wrong—you really hate to admit that you're wrong about anything, don't you, V?"

She snorted again. "Like it'd happen," she countered. "Keep up with you, Roka? I could run circles around you."

He grinned. "And . . ."

She shook her head. "And?" she prompted when he trailed off.

"And . . . you'll also agree to do the mini-tour with me. Wouldn't want to let my fans down, would you?"

She stared at him somewhat blankly for a moment before she let her head fall back in laughter. "That's it? That's your deal? If I can keep up with you—and I assure you, I can and will quite nicely—then you'll leave me alone about the tour?"

"Cross my hard-on and hope to fry."

She snorted. "Can I get this in writing?"

"You sure you want to commit this to hard copy?" he goaded.

"Oh, you're so on, rocker-boy. Better start drafting that full page ad because I want you to make sure that it runs in the Sunday edition."

Evan chuckled rather ominously and very deliberately checked his watch. 'Four p.m.,' he read with a mental shrug. "All right, then. If you're sure."

"I'm sure," she retorted, a certain level of competitiveness rising in her gaze. "This is going to be too easy."

Evan let her enjoy her perceived victory for a few minutes, content to sit back and watch as she laughed and positively crowed to herself. He almost felt sorry for her—almost. Then again, she didn't have to accept his challenge, either, now did she?

"Hey, V?" he said at length after her humor had finally wound down.

"What?"

He cleared his throat and tried not to look too smug. "You should probably go home and get in some sleep before my day starts."

She stared at him rather incredulously. "It's only four in the afternoon," she told him.

He shrugged, the absolute picture of innocence. "All right," he drawled, "but don't say I didn't warn you, because I totally did."

"Of course; of course," she said, though her expression remained overly confident. "You're just trying to psyche me out, and you know, it's just not going to work."

Evan grinned and slowly shook his head. "All right, but don't blame me when that pretty little ass of yours is dragging tomorrow."

"Oh, please! You're so full of it! What time do you have to be at the studio?"

"Four," he replied.

She paused just for a moment. "Four?"

"Yep, four. Oh, that's a.m., not p.m. . . ."

She pressed her lips into a thin line as she considered that, probably trying to decide whether or not he was just trying to pull her leg. She even tugged the itinerary out to verify what he'd told her. "So you've got to go into the studio tomorrow for what? A couple hours? Not a problem. Then what? Oh, an interview. Wo-o-ow . . ."

Evan let her have her moment, ignoring the pang of guilt that assailed him. He watched in silence as she gathered her things, stuffing them into the attaché case she seemed to carry with her everywhere. "Okay, Roka," she called over her shoulder as she headed for the door. "Do you think I've got time to schedule some spa time tomorrow afternoon?"

Evan didn't answer, but he did smile at her. That smile faded when the emptiness that seemed to engulf his home whenever she left flooded over him.

He couldn't figure her out. Well, he could, sort of. Just not as much as he'd like. She really did believe that he didn't do much of anything, didn't she, and while it was true that he hadn't actually done a lot since he'd met her, that was only because Mike had cleared most of his schedule so that he could deal with the lawsuit. Of course, Mike had also hoped that Evan could get the entire thing cleared up before he started laying down tracks for the new album, too.

Letting out a deep breath, he pushed himself to his feet, retrieving Valerie's glass and his empty beer bottle before heading toward the kitchen.

Okay, so he really wasn't playing fair, and he knew it. Valerie really didn't have a clue, what the life of a rock star really did entail, and he knew that, too, and while he should be glad that he'd just assured that his US tour would go on, he couldn't help but feel just a little, well, mean.

Hell, how many times had he been told that his schedule was hard for anyone to keep? Madison had bitched about it often enough, back in the days when she used to travel with him almost everywhere. The last couple years, though, she'd been so busy with her shops that she hadn't been able to do that, and while he missed her when he was away, she was pretty good at showing up here and there, and she had hand-picked her replacement hair specialist who toured with him, but whenever he was home, he preferred to have Madison around, instead.

Jillian had traveled with him for a little while, too, years ago, and she'd remarked more than once that she didn't know exactly how he could stand it, which was pretty funny since she was pretty high profile herself. Now a retired super-model, Jillian knew the constant pressure of public scrutiny all too well, and it wasn't at all surprising that she much preferred the relative quiet that her retirement had afforded her.

Yeah, he knew well enough that his life wasn't for everyone, but it was something that he loved. The business side of it was a joke, of course, but the shows and the fans? That made it all worth it. The electricity he felt every single time he stepped out on stage . . . that was the rush he craved, equaled only by the absolute satisfaction that he felt whenever he nailed down a new song, when he created a three minute masterpiece that could either be beautiful or completely mortifying.

But V . . .

He had to hand it to her. The girl had bravado in spades. That wasn't really going to help her out much. She really had no idea just what she'd agreed to, and if he weren't desperate to gain her compliance with the impending tour, he might not have stooped to such a low.

Then again, having Valerie all to himself for a month on the road? He'd be damn stupid not to go for that, now wouldn't he?

'Now if I could just convince her that her damned Marvin wasn't worth the time she spends on him . . .'

'Yeah, but that might not be as simple as it sounds. For some reason, she thinks she belongs with that little dickweed . . .'

Evan frowned, making quick work of washing out Valerie's glass and setting it on a dishtowel to air dry. 'But it doesn't make sense. A woman like her could have any man she wanted. Why's she settling for him, anyway?'

It didn't really make any sense, no matter how Evan considered it. That little fucker . . . what, exactly, was it about him that made a woman like V think that she had to settle for the likes of him? 'Damn it . . .'

'So first you convince her that that little runt-fucker isn't nearly good enough for her, and then . . .'

A determined little grin surfaced on Evan's features. 'And then I convince her that I am, right?'

'Something like that . . . At least, you could pretend that you're good enough for her, anyway.'

'Pretend, huh . . .?'

His youkai voice chuckled. 'Sounds about right . . .'

Now if he could just figure out exactly how to convince her of that, he'd be one step ahead, wouldn't he? Or maybe . . .

He was going to get to her, one way or another. It was just a matter of time . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Follow me – everything is all right
I'll be the one to tuck you in at night
And if you wanna leave, I can guarantee
You won't find nobody else like me …'

 

-'Follow Me' by Uncle Kracker

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

She was dying. She knew she was.

'Just . . . put . . . one foot . . . in front of . . . the . . . other . . .'

Oh, it sounded like good advice, didn't it? Not even two hours into it, and she already wondered if she hadn't bitten off more than she could chew, so to speak.

But no, it couldn't possibly be this bad all week, could it? It was just the ungodly hour that was making the jog to the recording studio seem endless . . .

As if it weren't bad enough that she'd awoken with that despicable man in her bed—he'd let himself in through the window, much to her chagrin—he'd rather unceremoniously announced that it was time to head out. She'd glanced at the clock with a groan since it was only two a.m., and had opened her mouth to tell him exactly what he could do with that idea when he'd grinned—damn him—and reminded her that if she refused to go, then she'd be calling it quits and that he'd appreciate a nice scroll-y border around her full page ad, thank-you-very-much.

He had to be joking; there was no other logical explanation. He was just being an ass and trying to make her cry uncle. Her brow furrowed belligerently as she quickened her pace a little. 'Yeah, that so isn't happening, big boy . . .'

And if that weren't enough, then, too, were the pants, or rather, Evan's hideous choice of jogging attire. Neon orange, skin tight shorts with a white upside down triangle, complete with red reflective border and the word, "yield" written across his rear end . . . Those damned shorts were downright indecent and entirely appalling, and that man only grinned when she'd insisted that she wasn't going anywhere with him wearing those. That he wasn't wearing shoes or a shirt was arbitrary, at best. No, her main complaint was those ungodly shorts—and his incessant goading, too.

Then he'd made it quite clear to her that he would consider her reluctance to be seen anywhere near him as a forfeiture on their wager, and didn't that just figure? He was trying to embarrass her, and she . . . She had no choice but to go along with his brand of insanity.

And she desperately wanted to believe that the jogging thing was just his way of being a jerk; she really did. Too bad that she couldn't ignore the voice in the back of her head that kept insisting that he was entirely too physically fit for it to be a fluke, after all. If he had broken a sweat yet, she'd eat her jogging shoes . . .

Sure, she tried to jog every day, and yes, she was rather proud of being in shape.   Then again, she wasn't used to running around anywhere at this time of day, either. There was a certain level of clammy moisture in the spring air that was compounded by the darkness, settling in deep as a chill within her very bones that she just couldn't shake off. Unable to concentrate on the steady rhythm of her feet hitting the pavement as she did her level best to ignore whatever commentary that diabolical hoodlum was tossing back over his shoulder at her, she found that the very sound of her movements was drowned out by the soft but steady hum of the limo that was trailing just behind her, complete with flashing lights and a widely grinning black man behind the steering wheel . . .

"You know, V, if you'd rather, you could just hop into the limo with Bone and follow me to the studio," Evan called, turning around and running backward without missing a beat or slowly his pace.

She lifted her chin a little higher and doggedly increased her pace in response. "Turn around and keep moving, Roka," she managed without sounding too out of breath.

He chuckled, the noxious cur . . . "But the view is mu-u-u-uch nicer this way 'round."

Under the weak and watery lights of the sporadic lamps that lined the bridge they were running over, she could see his face well enough to know that he'd just let his gaze fall to her breasts and resisted the urge to reach up to cover them. "You're an ass," she very nearly wheezed. 'Jogging, nothing! This is more like a morning sprint . . .'

"Well, if you're cold, baby, why don't you get into the nice, warm limo?"

She bit down hard in an effort to keep from literally growling at him. "Turn around before you run into a pole," she gritted out.

He chuckled. "Hardened nipples are such wonderful things," he quipped with an exaggerated wink. "Shit! Running with a boner—not comfy!"

She heaved a sigh as she fought down a very livid blush, but he turned around at last, making a show of hunching forward and altering his gait to a half-lurch, half-stride in a very pronounced effort to get her to feel bad for him, or so she figured. 'Like that would ever happen,' she scoffed and kept moving.

"'If you want my body, and you think I'm sexy, come on, sugar, let me know . . .'" he sang. "'If you really need me, just reach out and touch me; come on, honey, tell me so, tell me so, baby . . .'"

Valerie gnashed her teeth and recited her mantra a few more times. 'I hate him; I hate him; I hate him; I hate him . . .'

Later, she would have sworn that the route to the recording studio had taken forever, and she couldn't rightfully remember too much about the last half of the 'jog'. By the time they'd reached the state of the art facility just over the border in New Jersey, she was dripping with sweat—odd, since she was still feeling quite chilled—and ready to drop, not that she'd ever, ever admit as much to Evan, who, for the most part, still didn't look like he was even breathing slightly hard, much less broken a sweat.

"Roka, where the hell have you been?" Mike demanded as he pushed through the retracting glass doors and stomped down the steps to glower at Evan.

Evan shot his manager a cheeky grin. "Took my time today," he explained.

"Ever heard the phrase, 'time is money'?" he asked pointedly.

"Ever heard the phrase, 'go get fucked?" Evan challenged with a good natured chuckle.

Valerie was still trying not to wheeze as she struggled to regain her breath.

"Anyway, why don't you send someone to Klein's for some breakfast?"

Mike did a double take. "Breakfast?" he echoed dubiously.

Evan nodded. "Yup, and make sure that they get lots of fruit, right, V?"

Only then did the manager seem to realize that she was standing just behind Evan, and he slowly nodded, as though something made sense to him. "Fruit, eh? All right . . ."

"Coffee," Valerie rasped out, not trusting herself to try a complete sentence as yet.

"Coffee, eh? There's some inside," Mike said. "Anyway, Dieter's been in there for the last hour and a half doing his tracks and bitching up a storm. You'd better get in there before he has a conniption."

"Eh, Deet's fine," Evan drawled with a shake of his head. "I'm gonna take a shower first."

Mike stared at him for a long moment then finally nodded. Valerie had the sneaking suspicion that Evan wasn't acting quite like he normally would, though she had no idea why. Even so, Mike didn't comment on it as he slowly turned to eye Valerie once more. "Zel," he finally began in a warning sort of tone, "I know she's your attorney and all, but you don't usually let anyone in the studio when you're laying down tracks."

"Figured I'd make an exception this time," he said, taking the wide steps two at a time. "C'mon, V. I'll show you where you can get cleaned up."

She couldn't help the loud sigh that slipped from her as she stubbornly reshouldered the gym bag she'd packed earlier when she was still half-asleep. Her pride almost made her say that she was just fine. She tamped that down quickly enough since she knew damn well that she really needed that shower, even if she did hate to admit it.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Fucker! Where the hell have you been?"

"Mornin', Deet," Evan said when the artist-slash-bassist stomped into the dressing room with a thorough scowl on his face and a completely nonplussed air about him.

"Don't you 'morning' me, fucker," Dieter grumbled, shaking his shaggy hair as he continued to frown at Evan. "I been here since four! If I'd have known that you weren't gonna show your ugly mug till now, I'd have stayed at home in bed."

"Now, Dieter . . ."

"Yeah, fuck off, Zel . . . Aren't you the one who hates being late?"

Evan grinned as he pulled a ragged pair of jeans out of the closet. "All right; I get your point."

Dieter snorted. "Damn slacker . . . I work for a damned slacker . . ."

Evan chuckled as Dieter stomped out of the room. Besides, Dieter wasn't really as irritated as he sounded. Evan knew damn well that the only reason that he was pitching a fit was because he really would rather be at home in bed with his mate, not that Evan could blame him. Even then, Dieter had never been what one could call a morning person, either, and even if Evan had been on time, there was a good chance that the bassist would be in a bad mood, anyway.

But the percussion tracks had been done last week, and Evan would be working on the guitar and vocal tracks this week. Dieter was the only studio musician that Evan ever brought in, and it was more because it guaranteed Dieter a paycheck than because Evan needed him. Nowadays, it didn't matter as much. Dieter's art was drawing critical acclaim, and he was well on his way to fame, in his own right, but it used to be that the studio work and the off and on touring lent him a steady income—enough to offer his mate and son a much better life than Dieter had growing up.

All in all, Evan figured that Dieter wouldn't be working 'for' him much longer, and that was all right, too. Then again, as much as he bitched and moaned about the ungodly hours, Dieter did enjoy making music, so maybe he'd keep on working, just for shits and grins.

Making a face at the atrocious orange shorts he'd worn just for the jog in this morning, Evan swiped up the offending garment and chucked it into a nearby trashcan as he strode out of the room and down the hallway.

White Wave Sound Station was a small facility, but it sported state of the art equipment, and though Evan had built it for himself, when he wasn't using it, Mike rented it out to other acts that he managed. In fact, this was only the second release that he'd have done here since it had taken so long to build the place, but if there was one thing that Evan had learned over time, it was that doing something half-assed just wasn't worth doing, at all. It was widely known in the business and the time slots were pretty coveted, as far as that went. Mike had even suggested building onto the studio. Evan had refused, maintaining that something was lost every time something went too commercial.

He was surprised to see Valerie sitting in a chair off to the side in the small sound booth. She was sipping a cup of coffee and wearing a very comfortable looking pair of jeans and fleece sweatshirt, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, he figured, and looking completely adorable in the process. He caught her eye, and she narrowed her gaze just a touch. He figured that it had something to do with the grin he shot her, but then, he couldn't be positive, either . . .

'I think she might be considering whether or not she'd be in trouble if she scooped out my liver and ate it with a spoon . . .'

'Mm, just add salt.'

He heaved a sigh. 'I'd eat her raw if she'd let me . . .'

His youkai laughed. 'Down, boy.'

Evan grimaced. No one seemed to notice, and that was probably for the best. 'In more ways than one.'

"Oh, so you did decide to grace us with your presence today," Buzz Marleighvaughn remarked dryly.

Evan grabbed a Styrofoam cup of coffee and flipped the renowned producer the finger as he headed for the doorway that separated the booth from the studio.

Buzz uttered a gravely, rumbling laugh as he pulled a slightly smashed cigarette from a rumpled pack of Marlboro Reds. "Bend over, sweet pea."

Evan drained the coffee and chucked the cup toward the trashcan nearby before grabbing the headphones off the music stand and yanking them over his ears. "Those things'll kill you, Buzz. What a damn shame . . ."

Buzz's voice was distorted by the speaker situated high up in the corner of the room. "Yeah, yeah, pretty boy. Workin' the intro to 'Wide Open' whenever you're ready, Your Highness."

Evan shot him a shit-eating grin as he pulled the electric guitar—a replica of the great Eric Clapton's classic Fender Stratocaster—over his head and waited for the sound cue.

About five bars into it, though, he let his hands drop from the instrument and turned a scowl at the mixing booth. "Hey!" he called, effectively putting an end to the playback in the earphones.

"Something wrong, Roka?" Buzz drawled.

"The bass is off," he replied with a shrug.

Dieter's head snapped up on the other side of the glass. "What?"

"It's off," Evan stated once more.

"The fuck it is!" Dieter grumped, lumbering to his feet and shoving through the doorway. "You're off, fucker!"

Evan chuckled at Dieter's disgruntled tone. "Nice comeback," he intoned.

Dieter snorted, jamming his cigarette between his lips as he reached for the bass he'd set aside. He played the first few bars before casting Evan what could only be described as a smiting glower. "Just like that!"

"Yeah . . . if you were playing 'V', but you're not. It's like this," he said, playing a mock-up of the bass line on the guitar in his hands.

"The hell it is," Dieter argued, shaking his shaggy mane of hair adamantly. "That's just how I . . ." Dieter's eyes widened. "Oh, well, fuck . . . I guess you're right."

Evan laughed and clapped Dieter on the shoulder before pulling off the guitar and setting it aside since Dieter would have to record his part all over again.

"You don't have enough bass in that mix," Evan remarked as he pushed through the door.

"I'll tweak it later," Buzz promised without looking up from the sheet music in front of him.

Evan nodded and shot Valerie a quick grin, only to pause when she hefted an articulated eyebrow at him. "'V'?" she questioned in a completely nonplussed sort of way.

He grinned at her. "Well, sure!"

She looked a little alarmed. "You didn't . . ."

His grin widened. "Oh, but I did."

She groaned and slumped to the side, propping her elbow on the arm of the chair and letting her face fall into her hand. "I hate you!" she whined.

Evan's grin widened even more. "Yeah, I know, baby."

She groaned again, and to his credit, Evan really did try not to laugh.

It just didn't work.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

He did it.

He really did it.

He'd actually written a song called 'V', and to her absolute horror and chagrin, it was completely, wholly, unequivocally about nothing but sex: raw, raunchy sex.

By the time he'd finished recording the guitars and vocals to that one somewhere around six in the evening, her face had been scarlet red since he'd made damn sure that everyone in the mixing booth knew that she was the 'V' in question, too. The jerk had even gone so far as to tell Buzz, the producer, that she was his—quote—bitch.

'I'm so going to kill him,' she thought as she tried to sink a little lower in her chair when Buzz turned to stare at her yet again. The way the man kept looking her over, one might think that she'd sprouted an extra head or two . . .

"Now stop your staring, Buzzy-boy. You're making V nervous," Evan said, his voice echoing in the room through the speaker situated on the sound board. "Yes, yes, she likes to ride the bony-pony. Jesus, ain't you ever seen a straight woman before?"

Buzz laughed and shook his head, though he didn't seem at all embarrassed for having been caught blatantly staring. Valerie only wished that she could say the same for herself. "Ain't that, Roka," Buzz drawled lazily. "Just can't feature how a classy woman like her would waste her time on a hoodlum like you."

"Well, see, she likes my big, fat dick."

And she'd actually thought that she couldn't be any more embarrassed than she already was . . . She'd been so very, very wrong . . .

'He is so-o-o-o dead . . .'

The miscreant intercepted her murderous scowl and laughed.

'Beyond dead . . .'

Of course, if she hadn't been so damned mortified, she'd have to admit that the entire recording process was quite interesting to watch.

Buzz punched a button and played back a portion of the song with a thoughtful frown on his face. "Hey, Roka. The last pass of the chorus isn't bad, but why don't you do it one more time? It's a little too . . . clinical, maybe? Too clean."

Evan snorted indelicately, probably at the allusion that the song in question was in any way 'clean'. "Too clean," he repeated. "Right."

Valerie grimaced as Mike sat down next to her.

"You know, not many people can say that Zel wrote a song for them," he remarked, looking suspiciously like he was ready to burst out laughing.

"Hmm, and somehow, that's just not nearly as flattering as it probably ought to be."

"You don't think so?"

 

 

"'V, V, she's comin' for me . . .
'She's screaming my name . . .
'She's down on her knees . . .
'She's a closet bad girl . . .
'Bitch of my dreams . . .
'An angel's smile . . .
'And a shaved pussy . . .
'You just have to love her . . .
'Baby darling bitch V . . .'"

 

 

She grimaced as Evan sang, and she could feel her already acute blush deepening even more. "Uh, no," she muttered from between clenched teeth. "No, I don't . . ."

Mike cleared his throat despite his twitching lips. "I'm going to assume that he doesn't really know whether or not you . . . err . . . shave."

She didn't deign to answer that, either.

"So I guess I shouldn't tell you that this is the title track for the album," Mike remarked.

Valerie groaned. Somehow, that just figured, didn't it?

Mike grinned at her. "Okay, I guess you're not nearly as flattered as he was hoping you'd be—not that I don't understand. I do. I really, really do . . ."

Valerie just sighed and asked herself yet again, exactly what she'd ever done to deserve this kind of torment.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'She's a dancer, a romancer
I'm a Capricorn, she's a Cancer
She saw my picture in a music magazine …'

 

-'C'mon and Love Me' by Kiss.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie groaned and rolled over in bed, unconsciously migrating toward the radiant warmth that compelled her. So warm . . . too warm . . . too incomprehensively inviting . . .

"V . . ."

She stubbornly tried to cling to the last lingering remnants of sleep that was fast slipping away, no thanks to that rotten Zel Roka. That was his voice, wasn't it? She uttered a whine of protest. Damned if he didn't chuckle, miscreant that he was.

"Come on, V . . . We've gotta get moving."

It was absolute desperation that brought her arm out from under the covers to swing madly, wildly, in the general direction of both the welcome warmth as well as the very unwelcome voice. "Shut up—shut up—shut up!" she half-whimpered as she smashed her hand over his overzealous mouth.

Evan chuckled and grasped her wrist in one of his hands. His fingers were long enough to curl over his thumb as he gently tugged her hand away. "All right; all right," he agreed quite amiably. "Don't worry about coming in with me. Tell you what: I'll catch up with you later," he offered a little too smoothly.

"R . . . Really?" she breathed, managing to pop one eye open to cast him a very blurry eye.

"Sure," he agreed with that damned lopsided grin that she was really starting to despise. "And I think I want a nice, big border around the full-page ad," he quipped. "Maybe some dynamite or something. That'd rock . . ."

She sat up abruptly, shoving the covers aside despite the wave of cooler air that hit her point-blank. "I'm up!" she exclaimed, fighting to hide the tumultuous shiver that the loss of warmth had inspired.

He really laughed at that, which just figured.

She glanced at the clock and stifled a low moan. It was a repeat of yesterday, wasn't it? 'Two a.m.? He . . . He can't do this every day . . . can he?'

"Listen, why don't you just ride with Bone today? You can catch some z's in the limo on the way," he offered, sounding completely sincere.

She snorted. She had very little doubt in her mind that it was just a ploy: his way of tricking her into complying, only to be told later that it was against the terms of the bet or something. "Just give me a minute," she ground out from between clenched teeth as she stumbled out of bed and toward the dresser, determined to wear whatever she laid hands on first.

His laughter trailed after her as she scooped up what she thought was sweatpants and an oversized sweatshirt and stomped off toward the bathroom.

It was unfathomable, wasn't it? After they'd finally left the recording studio for the night around seven, they'd headed straight to one of the local radio stations where Evan was doing a live interview for WTPE, and sometime during that, Bone managed to send someone off to a nearby deli to pick up a few sandwiches that the two of them had hurriedly eaten as the limo had sped them across town for another interview for Music Mania TV—Evan had graciously agreed to speak to them for a Zel Roka 'shockumentory' that was supposed to chronicle the rock star's life thus-far. Of course, Valerie had to wonder how much of the supposed 'background' was made up, since the musician strictly refused to discuss his family and therefore went along with whatever story his manager had tossed out there. According to the 'facts' given, he was the only son of a single mother whose father had died in a freak accident somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia—a concoction that had made Valerie roll her eyes as Evan had told the interviewer that he 'preferred not to talk about it' in a completely choked up tone of voice.

"Can't really tell 'em the truth, now can we?" Mike had commented as he slipped into the chair beside Valerie. They were back in the shadows, out of the way of the cameras that were filming away: two of them, probably to get various angels of the rock star. Valerie wrinkled her nose when the interviewer—she looked entirely familiar though Valerie had no idea what her name was. "It's all a game of smoke and mirrors, anyway."

She nodded silently.

"I think he gets off on the idea that he's telling everyone that his father's dead," Mike went on in a hushed tone.

"Isn't that a little twisted?"

Mike shrugged. "Maybe. Then again, there's a history there, you know. I don't think they've ever seen eye to eye about anything."

She shifted her gaze to the side long enough to consider Mike's words. There was something behind the manager's tone, wasn't there? A sort of resignation, maybe . . .? "So you know his parents, too?"

"Don't know if you could say that. I'm familiar with them, sure. Can't manage their baby boy without having met them, right?"

She nodded slowly. That made sense, she figured, especially after having seen exactly how much his parents seemed to care about him, no matter what he wanted to think. No, that one brunch with them had been more than enough for her to see it, first hand.

All said, Evan hadn't dropped her off until nearly midnight with a smile and a wave—and a promise that he'd see her tomorrow that had sounded more like a threat than something to look forward to . . .

And she still had to think that as she followed along behind him as the two of them jogged along the same path that they'd taken yesterday morning. Sure, she was in good shape, but the lack of sleep was wearing on her more than she wanted to admit.

She heaved a sigh and shook herself out of her reverie, narrowing her gaze on the man jogging in front of her. Barefoot and wearing a pair of ragged, frayed jeans that looked like they were about ready for the trash, he didn't even seem to be breathing heavily, and that just figured. As much as she hated to admit it, he really was in phenomenal shape . . .

Still, she kept telling herself that he had to be putting on an act for her benefit, making things as difficult for her as he possibly could. There was simply no way that he could possibly do all of this stuff every single day . . . was there?

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

'God, you're such a fucking bastard.'

Forcing his gaze off Valerie, who was trying her damndest not to fall asleep in the comfortable chair in the corner of the sound booth, Evan flubbed the recording for the tenth time in as many takes.

"Sorry," he called out with a simple shrug. "My bad."

Mike shot him a nonplussed sort of glance. "Right, right, Roka."

Buzz Marleighvaughn heaved a sigh and tossed his headphones down on the soundboard with an air of complete disgust. "Why don't we take five and see if the real Zel Roka's gonna join us any time soon?"

Rubbing his eye with an extended middle finger, Evan didn't even try to stifle a yawn, preferring to allow his body to do the talking for himself.

"Oh, real mature, Roka. You're such a little prick," Buzz muttered.

Evan chuckled and shot the producer a wide grin as he headed for the doorway that separated the two rooms. "Hey, Mikey, would you send someone out to get some chow? I'm dyin' here!"

"I ought to tell you to wait till you actually do something productive first," Mike complained but stood up. "The Crab Shack?"

Evan grinned, but caught sight of Valerie. She was blinking rapidly, forcing her eyes wide open as though she were afraid that they'd drift closed if she didn't. "Aww, why don't you just get something light?" Evan drawled, earning himself the strangest looks he'd gotten in a long while from the other people in the booth.

"No way, fucker!" Dieter commented as he shook his head and hunched forward in his chair. "Light is for pussies. I want meat."

Evan chuckled and held up his hands. "All right," he relented. "Meat for the men, but pick up something light for V, would you?"

"Wh-What? I'm awake," Valerie piped up suddenly, stumbling to her feet at the mention of her name.

Evan pushed Mike out of the way as he hurried over to Valerie's side when she tripped against the leg of the chair. "It's all right, V. Just sit back down for awhile," he told her in a gentle tone.

She gripped his forearm and lifted her sleepy gaze to meet his. She really wasn't used to keeping hours like he did, and it was starting to show. For the briefest of moments, Evan almost forgot about the others in the room as he stared at her. Yeah, he could definitely get lost in those eyes, couldn't he? The tired slant to them was nearly enough to make him groan out loud.

"All right: meat and light. Got it," Mike muttered as he pushed a button on the board to summon one of the studio grunts.

Evan stifled a sigh, silently cursing the fact that they were surrounded by far too many pairs of eyes that were all rather avidly watching, and he forced a little grin as he helped Valerie into the chair once more. "Don't worry about it, V. We're just breaking for lunch now."

"Lunch? Already?" she murmured with a rather confused shake of her head that Evan found completely disarming and absolutely adorable, besides. He'd watched her through the window all morning—long enough to have noticed that she'd kept dozing off in the chair where she sat, and while he'd pretended not to have seen it, he had to admit, at least to himself, that she was the reason he'd kept flubbing the takes.

He chuckled. "Yep," he told her with a glib grin. "Just doing some last takes on a couple things, and then we'll be ready to start mixing."

She nodded rather vaguely, and he didn't even try to delude himself into thinking that she had a clue as to what he was talking about. That was all right, too, though. She was getting a crash course on the recording industry, wasn't she? That was, when she could stay awake, anyway . . .

She rubbed her arms and shivered a little. She'd changed into a pair of jeans and a light sweater after her shower, but she was always cold, and he knew it. Nabbing a dark blue blanket off a shelf nearby, he shook it out and dropped it over her with a rather wolfish grin. "Wouldn't want to see you freeze, baby," he told her when he caught her rather dubious expression.

She snorted loudly, but her cheeks pinked up as her gaze cleared fast. "I'm not your baby," she reminded him tightly, unable to keep herself from glancing from one side to the other to see whether or not anyone else had heard him.

His grin widened, and he winked at her before turning on his heel and heading for the doorway once more.

It only took about twenty minutes to finish recording the retakes, much to Buzz and Mike's collective relief. Valerie had buried her nose in a magazine in an effort to keep herself awake, but her eyes kept straying off the publication to watch him, which was more than enough to keep him on track for the duration. There was something altogether exciting in knowing that she was so into what he was doing. He could tell by the way she was looking that she was absorbing absolutely everything, and for reasons that he didn't quite understand, that pleased him, too. That she found his work interesting was just an added bonus, he supposed. He caught the almost perplexed expression on Mike's face and ignored it. The poor bastard was having a hell of a time, trying to figure out just what Evan was thinking and doing, and Evan wasn't about to explain it to him, either.

No, it had been a gift that Mike hadn't really questioned Valerie's presence in the studio when Evan had never allowed outsiders in while he was recording. He knew damn well that the old manager desperately wanted to get him alone, to pose those questions to him in the hopes that Evan might actually answer them. Too bad he had no intention of doing so. After all, he worked for Evan, didn't he? Evan didn't really need to answer to him.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

"And what do those do?"

Evan chuckled and tilted his head back to stare up at Valerie. She'd wandered over after she'd given up on trying to eat the gargantuan salad they'd brought in for her. To her surprise, he had yet to eat a thing despite the mountain of food that the kid, Brett, had toted in not long ago. After he'd finished recording, he'd sat down promptly, grabbed a pair of thick headphones, and started messing around with the buttons and sliders on the large panel that spanned the length of the room beneath the window that separated the recording booth with the room they were gathered in.

"These?" he asked, waving a hand at the softly glowing amber sliders. "These main ones control the recording tracks. You can make them louder or softer . . . and those—" he indicated some smaller ones further up on the panel, "—alter the overall sound of each track." He shot her a rather calculating sort of look and grinned seconds before he snagged her around the waist and hauled her into his lap.

"Let go, Roka," she insisted, pushing against him as she tried to regain her freedom.

Evan groaned. "Wiggle all you want, baby. Please."

She heaved a sigh but stopped squirming when he lifted his hips and ground them against her. "You're reprehensible," she pointed out, craning her neck to pin him with as scathing a glower as she could muster.

"Only for you, baby," he quipped.

"Smooth as sandpaper, Roka," Buzz muttered under his breath as he lifted a mug of coffee to his lips.

"Yeah, she's just shy and hates to sweet talk me around you bastards," Evan shot back without taking his gaze off her.

Figuring that it simply wasn't worth the effort to argue with him, Valerie heaved a sigh and gritted her teeth as she forced her attention back to the lights that were blinking harmlessly at her.

"Gimme another set of headphones," Evan said, leaning to the side long enough to slap Buzz' arm.

Buzz rolled his eyes but grabbed an extra pair off a shelf near him. Evan chuckled as he plugged them in and settled them carefully on Valerie's head. "Now here's what the raw sounds like," he said, punching a green button just to the left of the main set of sliders.

She frowned, concentrating on the song that she'd heard him sing but hadn't really grasped as an entire work until that moment. He'd called it the 'raw', but it sounded damn good, even if she really did hate to admit as much to him.

"If you want to hear, say, just the vocals, you can hit this button here, and it'll stop playback of the other tracks so you can tinker with it. If you want to add a few seconds' pause or adjust the treble or anything, you can do that, too. Just remember that if you adjust timing, you'll have to readjust it afterward, too, or the rest of the track will have that delay throughout."

She nodded vaguely and started to reach out to push one of the buttons with a masking tape label underneath that said 'lead guitar' in permanent black ink, but she jerked her hand back before she could push it. "I'm not going to mess up anything, am I?"

Evan chuckled then shook his head, his dark gray eyes—she missed his blue ones—taking on a lazy sort of glow. "Nope. All the tracks have already been downloaded onto hard storage, so do what you want, V."

It was more fun than she'd have thought. It also wasn't nearly as difficult as she might have believed before, either. She figured out how to alter certain parts of the recordings without actually changing the entire track, lowering the volume of the guitars in places while bringing them up in others. There was a very catchy sort of groove to the overall song that she couldn't help but love, and even if she never told Evan as much, she'd have to admit to herself that she really thought that this one was one of her favorite Zel Roka singles.

She also had to admit that it was rather fun, playing around with the track and fussing with this and that. She was even rather proud of the mix she was creating, and yes, she even thought that there was a certain level of satisfaction in having put the thing together. Almost absently, she noted the fact that he was slowly, almost idly, rubbing the small of her back, and she considered saying something to him to make him stop, but in the end, she was enjoying herself a little too much to ruin the moment.

'Okay, so maybe it isn't as great as a professional mix . . . but it isn't bad,' she decided at length as she listened to the end result with a critical little scowl. Evan was saying something to Buzz, but she couldn't really make it out since, and she was busy, anyway. Out of the corner of her eye, though, she could see Dieter leaning in the doorway with a thorough frown on his face. Head tilted forward far enough that his shaggy bangs fell into his eyes, she couldn't rightfully discern the expression, and to her irritation, it unsettled her.

"Can I listen now, V?" Evan asked quietly, tugging one of the earphones away from her head.

She slapped his hand away and straightened her back proudly, doing her level best to ignore Dieter's ardent appraisal. "In a minute," she told him. "I want to tweak this."

"I wanna tweak somethin', too," he drawled, letting his gaze slip down to her breasts as an entirely lecherous sort of grin broke over his features.

Valerie rolled her eyes and pushed him back. "You've been good up until now, Roka. Let's keep it that way; shall we?"

He chuckled. "You ruin all my fun, V."

"I-I want to paint you."

Valerie blinked and glanced at Dieter, caught completely off guard by his blunt statement. Was that why he was staring at her? She shook her head. "Me?"

He nodded and grabbed a metal chair, flipping it around so that he could straddle it. He sat down and crossed his forearms on the back of the chair and pinned Valerie with a very intense stare. "Yeah, sure! You could be part two of my death series!"

She clamped her mouth closed as an unwelcome flush stained her cheeks. She didn't exactly want to hurt the artist's feelings, no, but she wasn't about to pose for a portrait of herself, lying dead somewhere, either. "I don't think—" she began.

Evan cut her off with another chuckle. "V's not into the death scenario," he supplied easily.

Dieter scratched his head as though the very idea didn't make any sense to him. "She's not?"

"Sadly, no."

He considered that for a moment then shrugged. "Did you show her the one I did of you?"

Evan's chuckle escalated into a full-blown laugh. "Yeah, yeah, she saw that, all right . . ."

Dieter waved Evan's words off impatiently and held out his hands as though he were trying to get Valerie to see his vision. "But you'd die in a different way, like . . ." His eyes suddenly brightened as he sat up a little straighter. "Like you could get hit by a car or something . . . or the subway . . ." He shook his head quickly. "Nah, not the subway. Too damn messy. Saw this guy once, you know? He musta been pretty fucked up because he just sorta jumped out in front of the three-fifteen heading uptown? Man, there wasn't nothing left of that poor mother fucker!"

"Deet," Evan interjected with a slow shake of his head. "I'm not too sure that Valerie, here, wants to hear the grim details."

Dieter made a face that Valerie supposed was meant as an apology of sorts. "Sorry. Just that I think you'd look real good, all leeched out and that sort of silvery color that a corpse gets after rigor mortis sets in . . . Like a . . . gruesome sort of beauty, right?"

She didn't bat an eyelash, but she did take a moment before answering. "So . . . you think I'm . . . grossly beautiful?"

Dieter's grin widened. "Y-Yeah!"

"Dude!" Evan cut in quickly, leaning forward and shifting Valerie to his off knee, further away from Dieter. "Stop before she rips off your balls!"

Dieter blinked, his expression blanking. "Was it something I said?"

"No way, man. Not at all," Evan quipped, wrapping his arms a little tighter around her waist despite the resistance she was trying to offer. He casually let go, only to catch her arms under his, and effectively ending her struggle.

Then he winked at her.

Damn him.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Evan glanced into the wide mirror that spanned the length of the room, not surprised to see Valerie sitting on the plush black velvet chair near the door with her earbuds in and a brand new silver ice Medialis that he'd downloaded her mix of Wide Open with the strict rule that she was absolutely not allowed to leak that song anywhere for any reason until after the release date for the actual album. She'd rolled her eyes and demanded to know if there was something she had to sign in blood or the like, and he'd tried to whip down his pants . . .

But she was extremely proud of her mix, even if she wouldn't admit it. She ought to be, all things considered. She did a pretty decent job with it—good enough that Evan had teasingly told her that she could have Buzz' job if she wanted it. She hadn't believed him, of course, but that didn't mean that she wasn't entirely pleased with his reaction.

And, well, he might as well face it: if it pleased Valerie Denning, then it pleased him, too.

Glancing at her again, he frowned. Stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, she looked like she was about ready to doze off in that chair, and while he knew damn well that she'd made the bet willingly, he couldn't help but feel just a little bad, too. She really wasn't used to keeping up with someone like him, and even he got tired from his schedule. Being youkai helped a lot. He didn't need nearly as much rest as a human would. Still, there were times when he needed a break, too, and God forbid if she actually found out that he'd cancelled some of the things going on this week so that she could sleep for even a few measly hours at night.

This one, though . . .

He couldn't cancel tonight, anyway. He'd promised Bugs he'd stop by long enough to introduce the newest house band, Scrotia. It'd be nice to unwind a little after the last few days, anyway.

"What are you doing?"

Evan shot a quick glance over his shoulder and grinned as Valerie wandered over. She had that rather vacant sort of expression in her eyes, as though she wasn't entirely able to focus but was trying damn hard. "Putting on my tattoos," he said, holding up the largest one. It spanned the width of the small of his back just above his ass.

"Fake tattoos? You really are a poser, aren't you?" Valerie couldn't help goading.

He grinned. "Nice, but entirely unnecessary," he told her with a grin. "Remember, if you will, that I'm also Evan Zelig, and Evan Zelig doesn't have wall-to-wall tattoo-age, if you know what I mean."

She reached over and plucked the tattoo out of his hands. "Which way is up?" she asked with a frown.

He chuckled and turned it over for her before letting go. "That side is up. One dot on top, two on bottom. It's a tribal, so you gotta be careful."

She considered that and nodded. "Okay, so how do I do this?"

"Peel off the sheet of plastic and position the print on my skin, but you have to start in the center and work your way outward. When you've got it pressed down, spray on the activator, wait two minutes, and you're done."

She snorted but carefully positioned the tattoo. "Seems like an awful lot of work just for show. How long do these tattoos last?"

He frowned as he stared in the mirror ahead of him and positioned a mirror behind his back to watch what she was doing. "It's not so bad. They stay on for about a month unless I remove them myself, but I normally redo them after about three weeks so they stay real-looking."

"All part of the show," she mused.

He chuckled. "I've told you before, right? You savvy just fine, baby."

She heaved a sigh and shook her head but suddenly broke into a very cute round of giggles.

"Was it something I said?" he couldn't help asking.

She waved a hand in front of her face and held out her other one for the next tattoo. "Where does this one go?"

"Over the one on my shoulder. You position it so that the tree is covered up, but the guy under it isn't. Just line up the dots with the outline of the tree, and it'll be fine."

"I see," she replied, falling silent for a moment as she eyed the fake tattoo critically. "Anyway, I'm not your baby, and I'm going to beat you," she remarked as her laughter wound down, "just as soon as I'm coherent again."

'Trading a beating for her laughter . . .? I can do that . . .'

He grinned. "Is that a promise, V?" he leered.

She shoved his shoulder so that she could position the tattoo. "You're so twisted," she pointed out though she sounded like she was pretty close to laughing once more.

"Only for you, V," he said quietly, almost reverently, unable to control the slight tremor that raced down his spine as her nimble fingertips smoothed the tattoo into place. "Only for you . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'I've become so numb; I can't feel you there
Become so tired, so much more aware
I'm becoming less
All I want to do
Is be more like me
And be less like you …'

 

-'Numb' by Linkin Park.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Smacking the front door open with the flat of his palm, Evan stomped into the house, his teeth ground together to in an effort to keep his temper in check. Straight through the foyer and into the kitchen, he didn't stop moving until he'd grabbed a bottle of beer out of the cooler under the sink, twisting off the lid with a vicious yank and tossing the paltry bit of metal in the general direction of the trash can as he drained half of it in one very long gulp.

"E . . . Evan . . .?"

Whipping around at the sound of that voice, he could feel the rage burning deep within him suddenly falter, only to spark back to life hotter and brighter and far more volatile when his eyes met hers. She almost gasped. She did take a step back as though she needed a buffer between him and her, and maybe she did. All Evan saw was the mottled discoloration, the livid reminder that he . . . "Goddamn it," he growled, slamming the half-empty bottle onto the counter with a heavy thud. Beer foamed up and spilled over his hand. He ignored it. Valerie flinched at the violent outburst.

Evan pinned her with a furious glower as he strode past her, back toward the foyer once more, wrenching open the door and slamming it back out of the way when it bounced off the wall with a resounding shudder that shook the windows.

"Bone!" he hollered, knowing damn well that the head of security was still nearby. "Get your fucking ass in here. Now!"

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

'The club isn't one of those places that one might expect to find a man like Zel Roka,' Valerie thought as she slowly glanced around. It was rather amusing, really. When she'd woken up from the unexpected but very welcome nap he'd insisted upon after they'd left the studio around noon, he'd mentioned that he'd be doing a small gig tonight at a local club, she had automatically pictured the place in her head as being a low-brow dive, crawling with almost scary-looking grungesters or worse.

What she hadn't expected was the posh and even classy Bunny Hole. Sure, it was owned by one of Evan's friends, the flamboyantly gay Bugs, and yes, she'd been told that he used to be the house act at the club years ago. Still, she hadn't been able to help the surprise or the smile that graced her lips when he'd shot her that sexy-as-hell slightly lopsided grin of his when the limo had pulled up behind it.

There were quite a number of people milling around the establishment, and she'd been there a few times with Madison, and the crowd, she had to admit, was just a regular one for a Thursday night. Most of the tables were occupied, but there were still a handful of empty ones. Would those fill up when it became apparent that there was going to be an international rock star performing here?

It had been explained to her that Evan had a habit of showing up for unannounced shows here, especially whenever he was trapped in a recording studio for days on end. She supposed that it was a bit of a release for him, and she even thought that she might be able to appreciate it. It wasn't that he minded being the rock star or the work involved in cutting a new album, but . . . But she had a feeling that he hadn't been lying before when he'd told her that the shows were what he loved about being a rock star: the immediate satisfaction of knowing that people appreciated what he did.

Even still, she couldn't deny the trill of excitement that raced up her spine as she watched a couple of the club's employees carefully push back the panel walls, opening the room and basically doubling the size of it. The stage was pretty much in the center of the one large area, and it was even more amusing, she decided, as she watched Evan, his black-for-the-day hair tucked up under a camouflage print baseball cap and wearing an ugly, shapeless gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over the cap hiding who he was quite effectively as he moved from instrument to instrument, tuning and fussing and adjusting volumes and generally tending to things that she figured he usually didn't have to deal with and without anyone suspecting, even for a moment, that he was the Zel Roka . . .

And yet, even where she sat about ten feet from the front of center stage, she could sense his excitement, his overwhelming anticipation. It was a palpable thing, wasn't it . . .?

As much as she didn't want to admit it, she was really looking forward to seeing this show, wasn't she? Seeing Zel Roka—Evan Zelig—doing what he did best? Of course she was. She wasn't entirely certain what to expect, but something told her that it was going to prove to be interesting.

He'd also told her that Bugs never actually promoted Evan's little shows, either, partly because he didn't want Evan to feel badly if he couldn't make it when he said he might, and partly because of the drama that it caused. Bugs loved to say that one never knew who would show up at the Bunny Hole, and it didn't hurt the mystique in the least.

Evan loped off the stage, sparing a moment to look around, catching Valerie's gaze and casting her a quick wink and a little grin, before disappearing in the shadows.

Okay, so she had to admit that maybe there was more of a work ethic behind the playboy smile of his than she'd first thought. In the last four days since she'd taken up what he'd been calling the Roka Challenge, she'd barely been able to keep up with him, or so it seemed. Just this morning, she'd seriously considered throwing in the towel after being woken up after a mere two hours of sleep. In the last few nights, she might have garnered a grand total of six hours of sleep, if that. At least he hadn't wanted to jog to the studio this morning, as he had the last three. He said that he was a little tired, and while she had to wonder about the validity of that claim, she was grateful enough not to question it, either.

In fact, if Evan had accomplished nothing else in the last few days, he had done one thing: he'd completely confused Valerie: all of her preconceived notions, all of her prior beliefs about him . . . and yet he still maintained that he was nothing more than the deviant rock star, the icon that was entirely too recognizable.

And yet there was a quiet side of him, too; one that he tried to play down, one that he sought to hide. She'd seen it, hadn't she? As she'd helped him with his fake tattoos, she'd seen it . . .

"So tell me about this guy under the tree," she asked as she carefully positioned the camouflaging tattoo under it. It was a strange sort of depiction, she thought. A man dressed in billowing red clothes that seemed somehow Asian in deviation, somehow a little archaic, but the man had long white hair that was very reminiscent of Evan's natural color, and for a moment, she'd thought that maybe it was a caricature of him. But the man had what looked like little dog ears atop his head.

Craning his neck to look over his shoulder at the ink in question, Evan grinned. "Him? Oh, he's my jiijii—my grandpa."

Her lips twitched. "Your grandpa? Really."

He nodded. "Yep . . . InuYasha Izayoi, possibly the greatest being on earth."

"And why's that?"

Offering a little shrug, his grin widened. "He's just done a lot of things in his lifetime."

"So why does he have animal ears?"

Evan chuckled and shrugged offhandedly. "Why not?" he countered carelessly.

"But it seems a little . . . well, weird, to be honest."

"Why? Because men don't have those, you mean?"

She nodded.

Evan sucked in his cheeks for a moment as he considered that then shrugged again. "It's an old legend," he told her simply, as though it ought to explain everything. "There was once a hanyou—a Japanese word meaning half-human, half-magical creature—who saved the world from the evilest entity of his time, a being known as Naraku. That hanyou was half-dog-youkai, and he was said to have had ears just like those."

She laughed at the oddly fanciful thought and shook her head slowly. "Is that right?"

"Sure . . ."

Taking a moment to smooth the fake tattoo in place, Valerie tried to ignore the unsettling sense of electricity that she had to be imagining. To feel something like that just from touching someone? That was insane, wasn't it?

But it was there, and she could sense it: a certain underlying tension that hummed in the air, crackled under her fingertips; an undercurrent that she reveled in despite the hint of warning being whispered in the recesses of her mind . . .

And maybe she let her hands linger on his skin just a moment too long. Evan chuckled and peered back at her, that playful grin of his firmly in place. "Something wrong, V?"

Shaking herself, she tried to hide the fluster that the wide expanse of his bared skin had caused. "Wh—? Oh, no; no!"

His laughter rang in her head as the memory faded.

"Well, well, well . . . Just look at what the cat dragged in. Mee-ow."

Valerie blinked and glanced up as Bugs slipped into the vacant chair across from her. "Hello, Bugs," she said calmly, the hint of an amused little smile quirking the corners of her lips.

Bugs picked a bit of lint off his black velvet dinner jacket just before his eyes slid over her as though he considered her to be a rival. He must have decided that she wasn't a viable threat, though, because suddenly, he smiled and reached over to pat her hands. "Oh, I'm so excited! My Zelicious! Here! Tonight! How win is that?"

Valerie couldn't help the burble of laughter that slipped from her. "Well, to be honest, I've never seen him perform before," she admitted.

Bugs gasped, his eyes widening dramatically, and while he had foregone the women's garb and makeup for the evening, he was wearing very long, very thick, very black false eyelashes that only added to the over-dramatization. "You're funning me, right? You've got to be, right? You've never seen Zel live? And you call yourself a fan?" he gasped.

She nearly laughed louder but contained it. "I'm his attorney, not his fan," she pointed out.

Bugs rolled his eyes and fluttered a hand dismissively. "Oh, puh-leez! You're a woman, aren't you? And there ain't a woman or woman at heart alive who isn't that man's biggest fan, honey!"

"Is he that good on stage?" she couldn't resist asking.

Bugs broke into a titter of laughter, fanning his face with his hands in a furious sort of way. "Zel Roka is the total package, V: flash and glam and glitter and grunge with just the right amount of shimmy and shake. He can work a crowd like you've never seen and have them eating out of the palm of his hand with nothing more than one of his sexy-as-hell smiles. He's bigger than Elvis and the Beatles, combined. He might just be bigger than God."

"Bigger than God," she repeated, carefully lifting the glass of sparkling water she'd been sipping. "Is that so?"

Bugs nodded knowingly. "You'll see, V. He'll make a believer out of you, too . . ." His complacent little grin faded, only to be replaced by a completely suspect sort of expression. "Just don't get any weird ideas, hussy. Just because he's fascinated with you at the moment doesn't mean that you'll be more than a notch on his bedpost when it's all said and done."

She could feel her back stiffen at the implications of Bugs' words as the familiarity of her defenses rose. "I'm engaged, Bugs," she pointed out in a clipped little tone.

He sucked in his cheeks and regarded her for a long moment. "That's what they all say, isn't it, lovey? Just you remember that and keep your puss-puss away from him, hmm?"

She was saved from commenting. The house lights suddenly dimmed though they didn't go out completely as a single spotlight flickered to life, trained on the center of the stage.

Valerie blinked, narrowing her eyes at the man squatting down on a large amplifier in the center of the stage. His face was hidden by the brim of a very wide cowboy hat and wearing a strange sort of faded black poncho-like thing. Even the acoustic guitar he held on his lap looked like it had seen better days, and Bugs giggled madly at the spectacle.

"Who the hell is that?" Valerie heard someone at a nearby table demand.

But . . . But it didn't look like Evan. Too squat, too diminished . . . none of the rock star hair . . . Even the presence that he possessed intuitively was lacking. She frowned, glancing at Bugs in a rather circumspect way while the flamboyant man clapped and looked completely dazed.

The man on the stage strummed a few notes, taking a moment to pluck the strings and listening to them fade away as the general hum in the air grew louder, more restless.

The song that he started to play, though, was familiar, something she'd heard before, and yet there was something entirely foreign about it, too. It took her a minute to figure it out, and when she did, she almost smiled.

It was one of Zel Roka's earlier songs, but the reason she had such a difficult time recognizing it was because of the conspicuous lack of the very loud electric guitar that had been replaced by the gentler tones of the acoustic guitar. It was a little slower in tempo, and while she was far from an expert on such things, it didn't take a genius to realize that the mastery of the instrument was most certainly on display.

A rustle seemed to ripple through the crowd; no one knew quite what to make of the lone man on the stage. To be honest, she wasn't even sure what to think. She almost thought that maybe Evan had brought someone in with him to get things going, and yet that just didn't seem like something he'd do. After all, he'd gone to the trouble of introducing her to every member of his road band. Wouldn't he have introduced her to the guitar aficionado, as well?

She shook her head in confusion when the man started to sing. Low, dry, whispery, like dry leaves skittering over the ground, his voice wasn't the same as the man she'd come to know; the one who had a habit of singing under his breath, even when he didn't realize that he was doing so. Evan's voice was rich, almost more of one that she would liken to that of a Broadway star. This guy . . .?

Just who the hell was he, anyway?

"Hey, old timer!" someone off to the side in the shadows beside the stage hollered. She recognized that voice, didn't she?

"Dieter," she murmured. It was lost under the general noise of the club.

The man on stage didn't miss a beat, and whether or not he'd heard Dieter was negotiable.

"Fucker, acoustic guitars are for pussies!" Dieter yelled.

A second later, an electric guitar flew through the air directly at the man on stage. In a deceptively fast motion, he dropped the acoustic guitar and shot to his feet, kicking the instrument toward the other side of the stage in the motion and neatly catching the electric guitar in one hand. Somehow, in the space of about five seconds—conveniently enough, a five second pause that was written into the song he'd been playing—the man whipped his free arm up, yanking off the nondescript black poncho and the cowboy hat and tossing them away, too.

In the fluid motion of a breath, he flawlessly, effortlessly picked up the song on the electric guitar with a very cheesy, almost snide, grin that he flashed at the audience as his hair fell from where it had been gathered up under his hat—ripped jeans that she recognized since he seemed to favor them despite their deplorable state; no shirt, whatsoever . . . A definite sway in his lean hips as a round of high-pitched screams erupted from the women in the crowd, and in the space of a breath, he had them eating out of the palm of his hand with a flash of a smile, a catty little smirk, the heavy thump of his heel on the wooden stage below him . . .

And the ripple in the crowd was viable, the change in the general atmosphere a palpable thing. The laid-back ambience was gone, replaced by an audible buzz that sizzled in the air. Beeps from cell phones coming to life as people called their friends became a white noise beneath the steadily throbbing guitar. The backup band members dashed onto the stage with instruments ready to go as the drummer—a very stout guy who Evan had introduced as Frankie—slipped onto the stool behind the barebones kit, spinning his drumsticks as he waited for his cue. Dieter hunched low over the bass guitar, his hair falling over his face, looking ghastly and spindly and almost anorexic—completely 'rock'—right down to the half-burned cigarette dangling between his knuckles as he strummed the bass guitar. A guy with another guitar—Evan had called it a 'rhythm guitar'—stood on the other side, his hands at his sides as he swung his hips behind the instrument to the beat of the music.

She saw all of this in a matter of moments before her eyes shifted back to the lone man in the spotlight, struck by the ease with which Evan held it, somehow seeming larger than life in the space of an instant—Zel Roka, the rock star—a complete stranger from the Evan Zelig that she had come to know . . . In that moment, in that place, the unbidden knowledge that he had somehow been lifted above her, just out of her reach, was understood, but why that idea bothered her, she had no idea; not really . . .

People got up from their tables, moving in closer to the stage. Valerie stood up, too, her eyes absolutely riveted on Evan. There was something about him; something that drew her to him, something that couldn't be seen or touched, but she could feel the immense draw. Could everyone feel it? Was that why he was so insanely popular? Was it more than the music, after all? 'The . . . The man . . . behind it . . .' Something about him was able to reach out to every member of the audience, fooling them into believing that every little grin was just for the individual: a rare gift that she'd never actually seen before—an earnestness that came through in everything he did.

That was his magic, wasn't it? That innate ability to touch people; a warmth that he never, ever tried to hide. Even onstage, there was a certain level of openness, as though he were laying every single thing in his heart and soul out there for the entire world to see. As he strode to the edge of the stage without missing a beat, as he leaned down to clasp hands with as many people as he could reach—the rhythm guitarist had picked up Evan's riff for the duration of the unspoken greeting—as the craziness that spun in the air grew and spread like wildfire in a dry heat . . .

Women screamed, men cheered, and with every second that passed, more and more people squeezed into the club. The healthy crowd had doubled within the space of a minute, surrounding the round-robin stage. A sense of frenetic energy rose as bodies squeezed closer together. The first song came to an end, and Evan heaved a deep breath and slowly glanced around as his grin widened. "How the hell are you?" he finally called out, absently adjusting the earpiece microphone without breaking his stare or his smile.

The din that rose in response to the question was deafening. Valerie nearly smiled. That feeling . . . It was intoxicating, wasn't it . . .?

"Promised an old friend that I'd drop in. You know: do a few songs tonight," he went on, reaching for a clear plastic bottle of water that was hidden behind one of the stack amps. "So make sure you guys buy a drink or ten from the bar to thank Bugs for me, all right?"

He laughed as the audience called back.

"I love you, Zel!" someone screamed over the buzz of the crowd.

Evan leaned back, quickly scanning the audience for the face behind the voice. "Oh, yeah? Was that you, baby?" he asked, leaning forward and pointing into the darkness.

The woman giggled.

"Hey, hey! Help her up here, will you?" he said, gesturing for the crowd to make room for her to pass. They did, and the woman ran up to the edge of the stage. Evan held out a hand for her and tugged her into the spotlight. "Well, da-a-amn," he breathed, holding her hand up and letting her do a turn under his arm. He whistled. "Love me, huh?"

"I've always loved you," she said, her face as red as the dress she wore.

"Is that so?" Evan queried. Valerie rubbed her arms, idly stifling the goosebumps that rose to the surface of her skin. That drawl in his voice—she knew it well enough. Even if it wasn't directed at her, she could still feel it, just the same . . . "Gimme some sugar, baby, and you see the big guy over there?"

She turned to look in the direction where Evan was pointing. Bone waved. "You go talk to him, and he'll see if he can't hook you up with some good shit."

The girl looked like she just might cry—or pass out—as Evan slipped an arm casually around her shoulders, much to the delight of the crowd. All the same, she still managed to kiss him on the lips before bursting into tears—uncontrollable sobs brought on by her overwrought emotions. Evan kissed the girl's forehead before letting Bone slip an arm around her and lead her off the stage.

He watched her go before turning his attention back to the audience once more. Leaning back slightly, he threw his hands out to the sides and shook his head. "I dunno, people," he drawled slowly, "I realize it's only a fucking Thursday night, but . . . Whaddaya say we have a big damn party right here, right now?"

The crowd roared.

Evan laughed and called over his shoulder. "C'mon, Frankie. Lay some skin."

Frankie complied, executing a flawless drumroll before launching into a steady, unfaltering rhythm. Evan stomped his left heel. "You know the drill, guys. Get a lady on your shoulders, and let's see what you're made of!"

Valerie blinked. General chaos, maybe, and somehow not surprising at all as men lifted their girlfriends on their shoulders, as men who had arrived alone grabbed single girls to do the same. "Uh, no," she said, raising her voice to be heard above the dull roar as a man she didn't know turned to look at her almost expectantly.

The sudden feeling that she was being scrutinized made her stiffen, and she lifted her gaze in time to see Evan's eyes locked on hers, a secretive little grin on his face, and she knew—knew—that he really was looking directly at her.

Then he turned back to face the audience again. "All right, ladies! Shake 'em if you got 'em!"

She very nearly clapped her hands over her ears despite the smile on her face when the women broke out in another round of screaming. Hands in the air, the collective mass of them like putty in his hands. It occurred to Valerie in a vague sort of way that he could have commanded them to do just about anything, and they would have. They really would have. It was hysteria. It was chaos. It was amazing.

It was Zel Roka.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"Thank you," Evan said, catching a towel that Dieter tossed him and sparing a moment to dry off his face before chucking the bit of cloth into the surging crowd. "Let's hear it for the Philansoclantes, my backup band!"

The noise of the crowd rose in volume as he waved a hand toward his road band, and he couldn't help grinning as the mad scramble to catch the used towel broke out, followed by a shriek of "Oh, my God!" from the lucky woman who managed to come up with the prize.

"That song makes you wanna go home and fuck the hell out of someone, doesn't it?" he asked. Then he chuckled and shook his head. "Well, if you're a guy, anyway. If you're a woman? Just go make someone's day. Give some lucky bastard a handjob on the freeway on the way home tonight . . . or in the subway, if you gotta . . ."

"Yeah!" someone hollered loudly amid the chorus of assent.

He chuckled. "Should I play one more?"

The roar from the crowd was absolutely deafening.

He shook his head. "I dunno," he mused noncommittally, turning long enough to wink at Valerie, who was standing off to the left side, her cheeks pinked though whether it was because of the pervasive heat in the maximum capacity club, or because of her enjoyment of his show, he wasn't sure, even if he did want to think that it was the latter. "I'm not too sure that I'm feelin' it . . ." The crowd combined into one low protest. "Maybe you can help me out. You know: gimme some inspiration . . ."

"Anything!" someone else yelled—someone female.

Evan grinned. That was the response he'd been hoping for. "Well . . . C'mon, ladies! Show me how much you want it!"

And he wasn't at all surprised when blouses fell away, either. First one, then another and another . . . His grin widened. 'God, I love my job . . .' he thought. "All right," he agreed. "Check it out, guys! Mountains will crumble! Oceans will dry up! Breasts will heave!" The women whooped. "And I think . . . I think I got my groove back . . ."

Whipping around, he waved a hand at Frankie, who fired off a three count and launched into 'Overdrive', one of Evan's first hit singles.

Bone loped onto the stage and grabbed Evan during the long intro. "Man, it's chaos out there," he said without preamble.

Evan nodded, pressing the 'mute' button on his earpiece mic and shot Bone a look. "No extra security?"

"The cops sent in a handful of off-duties, but not nearly enough. Kress says that traffic's backed up about five blocks perimeter. Chief Cole called to tell me to get you outta here ASAP."

Evan considered that then nodded again. He'd wanted to do about eight or ten songs, minimum, and so far, they'd only done three—four counting 'Overdrive'. "All right," he said, seeing no way around it. "Get V outta here first; will you?"

Bone nodded once and headed for the side of the stage once more as Evan unmuted his mic and fairly bounced back into the spotlight again.

 

 

"'She don't like to tease . . .
She just likes to please . . .
She likes being on her knees . . .
Cuz she loves it long and hard . . .'"

 

"'In overdrive . . . overdrive . . .
In the night she comes alive . . .'"

 

 

The electric feeling in the crowd was enough to make Evan feel almost giddy . . . He hated to leave and cut the show short, but damn it . . . If anyone got hurt at one of his gigs, he seriously doubted that he'd ever be able to forgive himself.

He'd lost track of Valerie in the confusion. He wasn't too concerned, though. After all, Bone was damn good at what he did. He'd find her and get her out of there safely.

It was a frenzy, wasn't it? The roar of the crowd, the unseen energy that flowed, only to lift him higher and goad him further.

Damn, but he was having a good time. Live shows always had been his bread and butter: the things he thrived on, and as much as he loved doing the road trips, too, he had to admit that the experience of playing in smaller venues was vastly different—better. In the larger arenas and such, there was always a wall between himself and the people—not a real one, no, but one created by a barrier of space. Rarely were fans allowed to squeeze against the stage—safety codes, of course—but it had never ceased to amaze Evan that he could get the same rush of excitement from a club with two hundred people as he could from an arena that seated fifty-thousand . . .

And he could see faces, too. The pretty girl in the front row who just kept sobbing because she'd never expected to be this close to him—overcome by the moment or something . . . The guy—little more than a kid who didn't actually look old enough to be in the club—maybe he'd sneaked past security at the doors—a couple rows back who looked like he'd died and gone to rock-star heaven . . . And the intensity of a certain woman's gaze that he'd felt all night long . . .

'V . . .'

So why was it that the very thought of that woman was enough to send him into an absolute tizzy? Hands playing the notes of the song as though by rote, his eyes scanned the crowd . . . Insane to miss her that much when he knew damn well that Bone was doing his job by getting her out of there before him . . . Yet he could sense an underlying emptiness that had only come when he couldn't see her anymore.

Turning on his heel, he ran over to Dieter. "Gotta call it early, man," he muttered as the bassist executed a solo without incident. "Old man Cole didn't send in enough security."

"Fuckers," Dieter muttered, shaking his head since he, like Evan, lived for the live rush.

Tay Nash snorted indelicately as he strummed the rhythm guitar. He'd ventured over soon enough to catch Evan's statement. "Hundred bucks says it was intentional," he grumbled.

"Whatever, whatever," Evan mumbled with a half-assed grin. "Let's just wrap this up."

A minute later, and it was all over. Evan lifted his fists, punching the air in a silent salute to the audience as they whistled and cheered and stomped their feet. The air reeked of clean sweat and booze and there was an overall balmy feel to it. He committed it to memory as he grinned at the standing room only crowd. "Sorry, guys, but we gotta call it a night," he said when the noise had died down a little.

The boos were not unexpected, and he had to wait for them to subside, too.

"Anyway, don't let me ruin the fun! Why don't you all hang out for awhile? Show Bugs your appreciation? You guys have been great! Thanks for hangin' with me tonight!"

And he waved once more before he loped off the stage, followed by the rest of the band. Hal Menkin and Pete Henley, a couple more of Evan's security team, were on the right side of the way with a couple other guys on the left, pushing back the crowd as the musicians hurried through.

"Thank you, Zel!" someone off to the left yelled.

"You rock so hard, man!" someone else hollered.

"Zel!" someone on the right called out. "Don't go! Please!"

Evan grinned but didn't stop to chat as he made his way toward the black lacquered doors that bore a sign that read, 'Authorized Personnel Only'.

"That was an awfully short set," Valerie commented dryly as Evan pushed into the comparative quiet of the exclusive area. He stopped abruptly and glanced at her, but grinned when he saw the sparkle in her eyes that she just couldn't hide. She really had a good time, didn't she? "Good thing I didn't have to pay, or I'd have had to register my complaint."

He chuckled at her teasing and reached out to grab her into a hug—he always wanted to hug someone when he got offstage. She'd just have to deal with that, wouldn't she? She made a face and pushed against him, probably protesting his sweat-soaked chest. He only grinned wider. "I'll give you a private show later, baby," he offered.

She snorted and waved a hand, finally succeeding in dislodging his arms as she stepped away, though not before he could discern the trace pink in her cheeks that had nothing at all to do with irritation for once. "I think you need a shower before anything else," she commented.

"Yeah, first things first," he quipped.

"Come on, Roka. The cops are afraid that the crowd's not gonna go home unless you're gone, so they're insisting," Bone remarked as he strode into the area, letting go of the earpiece hooked over his head as he pushed the button on the belt pack strapped to his hip.

"Oi, I thought I told you to get her out of here already," Evan commented as he reached for his leather jacket and jerked his head toward Valerie.

Bone nodded then shrugged. "Had some trouble finding the little lady," he confessed. "Anyway, I had one of the guys bring the car around. All things considered, I figured that it'd be better to leave from the front. If the kids see you go . . ."

Then they'd leave, too, or so the cops hoped. Evan slipped the jacket on with a grimace—leather on sweaty skin was not exactly something that he cared for—and grabbed Valerie's hand. "Stay close to me, V," he said as he followed Bone toward the door on the opposite side of the room that led to the small hallway that ran around the back of the club. "Don't let go of my hand, okay?"

For a second, she looked like she was going to argue with him, and he didn't miss the tug on her hand, firmly held in his. As he increased his speed, though, she fell silent. He could feel the reverberations of the crowd, even through the cinderblock walls: the steady rhythm of the music playing over the stereo system in the club, the lingering electricity of the assembled people, and he glanced back at Valerie to see if she could feel it, too. Her pretty face looked a little pale, her eyes wide as she shifted her gaze from side to side. She could, and while she might not know exactly what to make of it, he could tell that she was a little leery of it, too. Four more security guards fell in step behind her, and Valerie unconsciously quickened her pace a step.

And yet, as misplaced as it was, Evan couldn't help but squeeze her hand a little tighter, trying to convey his pride at having her with him without actually saying a word. When he'd mentioned that he was going to be doing an impromptu gig, she'd stared at him for a long moment before asking him just what she ought to wear, and while he had been inclined to reply that she'd do well to show up in her birthday suit, he figured that he was already pushing it, as it were, all things considered. Still, she'd chosen a black skirt—too long to be a micro-mini; too short to be considered 'work' clothing—that wasn't at all uptight and a form fitting white silk blouse that she'd left untucked. The hem just barely brushed the waist of the skirt, with her hair cascading loose and freely around her face—dirty blonde since the brown rinse she normally used was something that she'd been forgetting to use the last few days. He'd have to admit that she really didn't look much like a lawyer these days, and the clunky, four inch heeled, strap-ankle black sandals that she'd chosen to go with the rest of her outfit? 'Holy damn, she's hot . . .'

"We're ready," Bone said into his headset as he reached for the handle of the door that led to the side opening of the building. Not exactly out the front door, but close enough to allow for his exit to be seen, Evan figured.

Bone waited for a moment then shot Evan a grin. "Broadcast news, Roka," he said.

Evan nodded dutifully and pasted on 'the grin' as he followed Bone out the door.

The din of the crowd was deafening, growing steadily and rapidly louder as Evan stepped outside. Raising his free hand to wave as he shot the masses a wide smile, he pulled Valerie a little closer as the security guards closed ranks around them.

That was a good word for it. Screams and catcalls, sobs and incoherent jabbering all combined into one low resonance not unlike the roar of the ocean. The security team had set up barricades to allow about a ten foot walkway between, but those barricades were being pushed in fast despite the twenty or so security guards watching them. It happened every time, didn't it?

The crowd seemed more ardent, more desperate than usual, though, and that didn't sit entirely well with Evan. He could feel them pressing in on the right side, closer and closer.

"Zel! Just your autograph, please!" one girl screamed as she was being forced back by one of Bugs' very burly bouncers.

Ordinarily, he probably would have stopped and indulged the girl, but somewhere in the back of his mind, Evan realized that the situation was a little dangerous: a throng of kids as far as he could see, swarming the block around the club as the traffic lights flashed. The city authorities wouldn't stand for this kind of disruption for long, and he knew it. Best to get into the car and get the hell out of there . . .

"Sorry, honey. Maybe next time," he called, casting the girl an apologetic smile that he hoped would make her feel a little better.

"Get the fuck back!" one of the guards yelled, giving one of the barriers a warning shake as a swarm of kids fought to push against it. The man pulled out a straightstick and raised it, his meaning clear.

Evan scowled at that, letting go of Valerie's hand and smacking Bone's arm. "Stay with her!" he yelled to be heard over the din.

Bone glanced at Evan. "What?"

Evan didn't stop to wait for an answer as he pushed one of the bodyguards aside and reached out to grasp the man's wrist. "What the fuck are you doing, man?" he demanded.

The guard didn't look at all impressed by Evan's question. "They won't stay back," he replied carelessly.

"You trying to turn this into a damn riot?" Evan parried.

"Roka, goddamn it, you're gonna get yourself into even more trouble if you're not careful," Bone growled, grabbing Evan's shoulders and pulling him back. "C'mon!"

Evan shot Bone a fierce glower at the interruption then suddenly blinked. "Where's V?"

Bone shook his head. "What do you mean?"

Evan reacted without thinking, grabbing the huge buffalo-youkai by the front of the shirt and giving him a hard shake. "I told you to stay with her, damn it! Where the fuck is she?"

But no sooner were those words out of his mouth than the faintest trace scent caught in his nose: a bitter coppery sort of smell that he knew without having to verify it. No, it was the underlying scent that was carried with it that caused his heart to stop for one painful and dizzying second, and he shoved Bone away as he glanced around wildly.

And then he spotted her. No more than five feet away with three massive bodies of hired security guards between them—those sons of bitches were pushing her away from him—she was being forced back behind the barricades. In the chaos, she must've slipped or tripped. Either way, he could see in that momentary glimpse of her . . .

Shoving people aside—people who stood between him and Valerie, he couldn't think, could only keep moving, desperate to get to her. He could feel her rising panic as the security team ignored her pleas. With a frustrated growl, Evan shoved the remaining body aside and grasped Valerie's hand to pull her out of the crowd and ignoring the disappointed hisses coming from different directions around them. "Come on," he said, not trusting himself to say more to the guard who was staring at him from where he stood, slumped over the barricade, stunned. A moment later, he pulled off his jacket, carefully draping it over Valerie's shoulders as he reached for her hand and bit down hard on his cheek, clenching his jaw to keep his temper in check.

He pulled her through the obstacle course of people toward the waiting car, and he didn't stop as he brushed Bone's hand away as the youkai reached over to open the back door, opting instead to do it himself before shielding Valerie as she crawled inside.

He didn't dare look at her on the ride back to his house. If he did, he'd lose what was left of his temper, and he knew it. He'd told Bone to stay with her, hadn't he? And even if he hadn't, Bone ought to have known better. So why the hell had he left her?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Half the time the world is ending
Truth is I am done pretending
Too much time, too long defending
You and I are done pretending …'

 

-'Love Remains the Same' by Gavin Rossdale.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

"Bone! Get your fucking ass in here. Now!"

Valerie flinched and bit her lip, wondering what, exactly, had happened. Yes, she was there. Yes, maybe she ought to know what had set Evan off, but the truth was that she really didn't have a clue. After all, he'd seemed happy enough after his gig, hadn't he?

It was easy to think that the threats made by the one security guard when he'd raised his bobby-stick at the crowd was the culprit, and yet she didn't really believe that, either. The thing was, she wasn't entirely sure what was bothering him, though, and that was even worse, really. Was he angry at her? And if that were the case, why? She hadn't done anything wrong—at least, she didn't think she had . . .

Against her better judgment, she followed him slowly, but stopped in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room. Evan was literally prowling the length of the room, opening and closing his hands as though he were fighting desperately not to come completely unglued. A moment later, she heard the front door open and close quietly seconds before Bone walked into view.

For once, the man wasn't smiling. He stared at Valerie for a long minute, then nodded tersely, as though he understood something that she really, really didn't.

Evan didn't turn to look at his head of security, though he had to know that Bone was there. Quickly, he strode over to the sliding French doors that led to the back yard, raising his arm, propping his elbow on the frame and leaning his temple against his forearm. "Give me one fucking reason that I shouldn't rip you the hell apart," he finally said in a low, gravely tone.

Bone didn't even flinch. Valerie did.

"I'm sorry, man," Bone said calmly and completely seriously. He offered no excuses.

"Sorry doesn't cut it, Bone," Evan growled, his anger spiraling outward: thick and heavy and ugly.

"Look, it was an accident," Bone went on in a rather placating sort of tone. "I didn't mean—"

Evan whipped around so fast that Valerie had to smother a gasp. Eyes positively glowing, snapping with an anger that she didn't understand and hadn't realized that he was capable of, Evan looked like he was about two steps from snapping completely. "I don't give a great goddamn what you meant to do, Bone! What the fuck were you thinking? You're there night after night! You know damn well what could have happened!"

Bone's stance shifted as he crossed his arms over his chest, as his expression hardened. "It was a mistake. What do you want me to do about it now?"

"Damn it!" Evan exploded, slamming his fist back against the door. Valerie couldn't help the strangled cry that slipped from her as the tempered sheet glass cracked with an insanely loud 'pop' and shattered, raining down on the marble floor with a deafening crash. It didn't faze him. The crunch of his boots on the shards of glass was like nails on a chalkboard. Evan stomped across the room, pausing for a moment to glower at Bone before heading into the kitchen once more. Valerie ducked back into the kitchen, smashing herself against the wall and making herself as unnoticeable as possible before he ran her down. He stalked over to the cooler once more and retrieved another bottle of beer before returning to the living room in the same fashion as he had when he'd left it a minute before. "What do I want you to do about it?" Evan repeated, but only after quaffing down nearly half the bottle in one go.

Bone didn't back down. "Yeah, that's what I asked."

Evan snorted, draining the rest of the beer in another fluid gulp. "I want you to start with swearing to God you'll do your fucking job the next time!"

"I did my fucking job," Bone countered mildly as Valerie dared to peer around the doorframe again.

"Oh, you did?" Evan challenged.

"Yeah, I did. My job is to protect you."

"Keh! Your job is to do what I tell you to fucking do!" Evan contended, "And I told you to stay with V!"

"And I didn't hear you," Bone went on with a shake of his head.

"So fucking what? You should have known—"

"Should have known, what?" Bone countered. "Look, man, you don't even know which way your ass is pointing, and yeah, maybe I should have known. Everything happened so fast, and my instinct was to make sure that your ass didn't end up in a sling again because you didn't stop to think before you reacted."

The beer bottle that flew out of Evan's hand barely missed Bone as it whizzed past him, only to shatter when it hit the wall behind him hard. A moment later, Evan advanced on the head of his security team, intent on some sort of physical mayhem, if the expression on his face meant anything at all. It was an ugliness that Valerie hadn't realized that Evan actually possessed, and she didn't like it; not in the least.

And somehow, Valerie had seen enough. Her feet didn't make a sound as she darted out of the kitchen. She didn't stop to think things through as she dashed over, planting herself between Evan and Bone, placing her hands in the center of Evan's chest to stave him back—a silly notion, if she had stopped to consider it. He could easily have pushed her aside if he'd wanted to . . .

But he blinked and suddenly glanced down, the anger—the rage—that she'd seen on his face dissipating fast, only to be replaced by something far worse in her estimation: something far more troubling . . .

Eyebrows drawing together as a trace sheen of moisture illuminated his gaze, he grasped her wrists, but didn't try to move them, his eyes roving over her face in a completely miserable sort of way as they came to rest on the bump on her cheek that was very likely starting to discolor just a little. "Baby, I'm sorry," he whispered, the thick twinge of guilt lending a certain huskiness to his tone.

'He . . . He's mad about . . .? But . . ."

Shaking her head, she tried to smile but failed, late relief making her knees feel weak as she tried in vain to reassure him. "But I'm fine, you know? And Bone . . . He was just doing his job, right?" she murmured.

Evan closed his eyes for a moment, shook his head almost sadly. "Bone's job," he said just as quietly, "is to protect you when I can't."

"Evan—"

He shook his head stubbornly. "Like tonight. I'm used to that shit. You're not, and . . . and you got hurt . . . because of me . . ."

Valerie didn't know what to say. There was an underlying hint of something in his voice; something that she didn't understand; like he was trying to tell her more than what he was saying, but she couldn't quite grasp the meaning behind it. Her confusion must have showed on her face, because he heaved a sigh and gently pulled her toward the sofa, sitting down and tugging on her hands until she relented and sat, too.

"Anything else?" Bone asked a little reluctantly.

Evan glanced at him, but his anger didn't return. "Just make her your priority the next time," he said.

Bone nodded and turned to leave.

"Let me see," Evan remarked as the front door opened and closed once more.

Valerie rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to tell him again that she was fine. The look on his face stopped her. He really was feeling badly, wasn't he? She sighed and let him inspect her wound.

Stupid, really. In the madness of that moment and the rush and electricity of that crowd, Evan had let go of her so quickly that she'd stumbled—easy to do with so many feet so close to her. She really hadn't been prepared for that magnitude of the masses, and she'd ended up bumping her cheek against one of the metal barriers. The guard who had been facing the assembly, had though that she was crawling over it, she supposed, and he was trying to force her back behind it when Evan had caught her. But the incident had stung, and only when they were in the car had she realized that she'd suffered a smallish scratch, and that scratch had bled a little bit, too.

"You know, I've been banged up worse than this when I was taking martial arts classes," she pointed out, tamping down the feeling that she was just a little girl having to explain how she'd gotten a bump or bruise to her teacher.

He touched the inflammation with gentle fingers. She sucked in her breath in a sharp hiss, and he jerked his hand away with a flinch. "Sorry," he murmured.

"Uh, no . . . I'm fine," she said once more.

Evan let out a deep breath and reached for his leather jacket. She'd draped it over the back of the sofa after she'd followed him into the house. Digging out his cell phone, he shot her a worried sort of glance. "I'm going to call my mama," he told her as he dialed the phone and held it to his ear. "She's got a recipe for a really good salve—a miracle salve, really . . ."

Valerie opened her mouth to argue then snapped it closed. It wouldn't matter, would it? That man was far too stubborn for his own good . . .

"Hey, Mama . . . It's nice to hear your voice, too . . . The benefit date? It was fine; very nice . . ." He stood up and started to pace the floor. He really couldn't sit still long, could he? "Listen, Mama, I was wondering if you have the recipe for that salve? The one you used to make up for Kurt after his training sessions . . .? Yeah, that one . . . Oh, nothing big. V got a little scrape, but I wanted to make sure that it doesn't scar . . . Right, right . . . Wicked! Let me get a piece of paper . . ."

Valerie let out a deep breath and relaxed back against the sofa. It was strange, just how comfortable the furniture really was, considering it was constructed out of solid steel. Then again, the thin pad that covered it kept it warm enough, she supposed, so it didn't really feel like she was lying on metal . . .

She watched as he strode off toward the kitchen again, probably to mix up this 'miracle salve' of his mother's. A wave of sleepiness crashed over her, and she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. In the wake of the day's excitement, she had managed to forget for a time that she was utterly exhausted, but her body was reminding her of that quite clearly.

'Three more days . . .' she thought with an inward grimace. No, it wasn't that she was having a bad time with Evan: far from that, in reality. Watching him put together the tracks for his new album was a fascinating process, she had to admit. She'd never really stopped to consider exactly how much real work was involved, and she knew that, too. She'd also like to know where Evan found his boundless stores of energy, as well. It seemed to her that he never really got worn out the way she did . . .

Just yesterday, she'd watched, mesmerized, as he sat in the sound booth to re-record a section of guitar that he hadn't liked during the playback. Situated between Mike and Buzz, she'd stared while he played the riff a time or two to 'get the feel of it' before nodding at the producer for the go-ahead. Buzz had given his approval, and Evan had played it once more, only this time, it deviated at the end—easy enough, she supposed, to cut the part that they needed, but . . .

But in her estimation, it'd be a shame to do that when the rest of the five minute piece he played was harsh and cynical, yet completely poignant and beautiful, too; full of raw emotion that she might not have believed one could hear in the voice of a musical instrument. Evan had proved her wrong. She'd glanced at Mike about midway through it, only to find the manager sitting back with a completely relaxed sort of smile on his face: one that Valerie wasn't used to seeing from him. When he caught her eye, his smile widened just a touch. "He's improvising," Mike had remarked, leaning to the side and speaking softly, as though he were afraid that he'd interrupt a rare and wonderful thing if he spoke too loudly.

Valerie hadn't completely grasped that. Sure, she knew what it meant to improvise, but there was a strange sense of utter contentment on Evan's face. Eyes closed, head tilted just slightly to the side, he seemed to be in a trance or something; as though his music had the power to draw him away, ensconcing him in a realm where no one could touch him, no matter how hard they tried, and Valerie had suddenly felt a little sad, a little lost, and maybe even a little lonely. It made no sense, did it? After all, he was right there, and she . . .

Frowning as she sat up a little straighter, she bit her lip as she tried not to finish that thought in her head. As though putting any sense of reason to it might make her feelings a little too hard to deal with, she stubbornly refused to do anything of the sort.

And still . . .

She really couldn't quite fathom just how one solitary person could possess that much emotion, could make others understand it and feel it, too, and she knew as surely as she'd ever known anything in her life that right or wrong, Evan Zelig was a rare being.

"Here, V," he said as he strode back into the room with a small plastic container of some really suspect-looking gray pasty stuff and an ice pack wrapped in a kitchen towel.

"What . . . is that?" she asked, trying not to wrinkle her nose when she caught a whiff of the concoction. It smelled like feet . . . or death . . . maybe dead feet . . .

"It's good stuff," he assured her with a half-hearted smile that she could see right through. "Works wonders. You'll see."

"Oh, no," she argued, pushing the container away when he held it under her nose for her inspection. "It's just a little scrape. It'll be fine."

"Come on. Mama swears by this stuff. Never leaves a scar, you know," he continued.

Valerie snorted, leaning away from him when he stuck the tip of his index finger into the jar and started to reach out toward her. "Your mama can swear by it all she wants," Valerie asserted. "It stinks!"

Evan rolled his eyes and tried again. She avoided him, but he was persistent. "Humor me."

"No way."

"Just a little?"

"Not even for your mother."

"Break my heart, why don't you?"

She snorted indelicately. "Why's that? Because I won't let you put that gunk on me? Laying it on a little thick, aren't you, Roka?"

"I'm trying to," he agreed with a shrug. "You won't let me."

"It smells like . . . like dirty armpits!" she complained then shook her head. "No, wait. That's just you. You absolutely need a shower, you know, but that stuff really does reek . . ."

"Not surprising, considering what's in it," he mused with a shake of his head.

Valerie narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What is in it?" she hesitated to ask but forced herself to, anyway.

He opened his mouth to tell her then snapped it closed and shrugged offhandedly. "A . . . lot of stuff," he finally replied.

"Don't think I don't know that you were avoiding the question," she accused mildly.

Evan finally grinned, much to Valerie's relief. "You really don't want to know, V," he admitted. "Anyway, I'll take a shower after you let me put this on your cheek."

Valerie heaved a sigh designed to let him know how sorely put upon she felt, but she sat up straight and rolled her eyes to indicate that it was the most compliance he was likely to get from her.

His smile faded as he leaned in, carefully dabbing the nasty paste onto her cheek with the tip of his finger. He winced when she sucked in a sharp breath and jerked involuntarily. "It may sting a little," he apologized. "Sorry."

'A little' didn't really cover it. Whatever was in that salve was potent stuff, and it stung a lot, in her estimation. To her own credit, though, she gritted her teeth and endured it.

"Here," he said, handing her the ice pack after wiping his hand on his tattered jeans. "Put this on your cheek, too."

She waved him off and reached for his hand. He shot her a quizzical glance that she summarily ignored as she inspected the fist that he'd smashed into the glass door. There was just the smallest scratch traversing a jagged path down the side of his hand though the damage might have been a lot worse had the glass not been tempered. Even still, she frowned at the disfiguring mark and, against her better judgment, she gingerly dipped her fingertips into the grayish goo.

He said nothing as she carefully applied the salve; just held still and allowed her to administer to his wound as though he understood her desire to make sure that he was all right, too. Giving the abrasion a thorough once-over, she finally let go of his hand and sighed. "You really shouldn't let your temper get the better of you," she pointed out rather acerbically.

He uttered a soft chuckle. "Probably not," he agreed easily enough before sticking the ice pack under her nose. "Now be a good girl and put this on your cheek, will you?"

For a split second, she considered arguing with him since she was never fond of putting anything cold anywhere on her person. Then she sighed, figuring that she might as well save her breath. For some reason, Evan seemed to think that her injury was his fault, and she knew well enough that he'd never listen if she tried to tell him otherwise. So she gingerly pressed the pack against her cheek and leaned back.

Apparently satisfied that she'd keep it there while he ran off to take a quick shower, Evan nodded then pushed himself to his feet. "I'll be back in a minute. Just relax, all right?"

She watched him go with a resigned sort of expression on her face. Easy for him to say that this stuff was good. He wasn't the one who felt a little nauseous every time he smelled it, was he?

With a scowl, she reached for the container that he'd set on the table before he'd headed upstairs to take a shower. No doubt about it, the paste was truly gross. It even looked gross. The grayish paste was speckled with tiny greenish-brownish speckles with a very strong odor of something fermented, and miracle cure or not, she really wasn't sure why she'd even let him put that stuff on her, in the first place.

Heaving a sigh, she dropped the ice pack onto the table and slowly shook her head before reaching for her purse and rummaging around for the small compact that she kept inside.

The damage wasn't that bad; not really. Okay, so there was a little swelling where she'd slipped against the barrier. Her cheek was slightly discolored, and the scratch was quite visible, but she had to admit, all in all, that it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Evan was overreacting, of course. Still . . .

A small smile quirked the corner of her lips, followed in short order by a slight wince since the contortion only served to twinge just a little. He'd just felt responsible for it because she was under his care, so to speak, and that she could understand. It made sense, didn't it? She was at his gig because of that bet she'd made with him, so it stood to reason that his feelings had a lot to do with that, right?

'Right.'

And yet the absolute rage that she'd witnessed . . . The memory of the shattering window was enough to send a cold chill straight down her spine as surely as it had when she'd seen it happen. It replayed over and over again in her head—the shiver of the surface just before it gave, followed by the spindly lines akin to spider webs that spread from the central impact of his fist . . . The groaning crack that sounded more like a wail than it did like something shattering . . . Impossible to ignore, wasn't it? The entire thing, and the seething sense of the vilest emotions . . . and she honestly hadn't realized that a man like Evan Zelig was even capable of such things . . .

Snapping the compact closed, she let out a deep breath as she dropped it into her purse once more. Her head hurt, likely from trying to think too much though she didn't doubt for a moment that it was partially due to the ache that had lingered in the back of her head for the last few days, brought on by the lack of sleep, she was certain.

She'd spent the bulk of the day, feeling as though she'd been trapped inside a strange sort of dream where her senses were always two steps behind, and had it not to been for the bit of a nap that Evan had allotted her earlier in the afternoon, she'd been in a sorry, sad state now, she was sure. Over the years, Valerie had discovered that she simply wasn't one of those people who could operate well on very little sleep, so the toll the week was taking on her was higher than she suspected it might be for someone else. If she didn't get at least seven hours of sleep a night, she felt out of sorts for weeks afterward, and she could only imagine exactly how badly this last week would impact her overall schedule. With her luck, it'd take her six months to readjust herself.

Well, that would be rectified soon enough, too—just as soon as she managed to string together more than a few hours' sleep at a time, that was . . .

And with that thought in mind, Valerie curled up on the sofa with her hands tucked under her good cheek and let her eyes drift closed.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

"But I'm fine, you know? And Bone . . . He was just doing his job, right?"

Evan shut off the shower taps and shook himself vigorously, sending a fine spray of water droplets all over the bathroom. Sure, he'd tried the traditional 'toweling off' method when he was younger. He had also found that it just didn't do as good a job of shedding unwanted moisture as a good, hard shake.

Still, the sound of Valerie's words still echoed in his head. Making excuses for Bone, was she? He sighed and slowly shook his head. Of course she was. That particular woman might not feel any qualms about jumping all over him when he stepped out of line, but she really hated it if she perceived that she was the cause of any real contention. She was kind of like his mother that way, wasn't she? And while that thought might normally have made him smile, in this case . . .

But every time he saw that cut on her cheek, every time he thought of how much worse it really could have been, it was enough to make him panic inside. He'd heard stories now and again about tragedies caused by overwrought crowds waiting to see their favorite celebrities, and he'd always been proud of the fact that he'd never had any such things happen at any of his shows or appearances. That Valerie might have been the one injured, in any capacity at all . . . Well, it was enough to make him sick to his stomach quite literally . . .

And the truth of it was that Bone, being who he was and, more importantly, what he was, should have realized that Valerie's safety was the most important thing to Evan, too. Sure, Bone was Evan's head of security—a post that Bone had always taken very seriously—but Bone also knew well enough that Evan really didn't need protection. After all, he was youkai, and even then, he was the son of the North American tai-youkai, even if he didn't need or want that particular reminder. He knew damn well how to protect himself. Years of training had taught him as much. Valerie, however . . .

She was human. She was fragile. She was very, very breakable, whether she believed it or not. Bone should have known that, and even if he hadn't, he should have realized how much Evan cared about her wellbeing. Bone had always been pretty good at reading Evan, after all. He had to have understood that much.

To be blunt, Valerie's safety was more important than anything else in the world, and had Bone stopped to think about it, he would have realized that, too.

No, there simply was no excuse. Bone knew the chaos that followed Evan around, especially whenever he appeared somewhere as Zel Roka. He ought to have known damn well that Evan would want to make sure that Valerie was protected from things like that what had happened tonight.

With a sigh, he grabbed a pair of black hakama out of the small closet where he kept the clothes he normally wore after his shower and made quick work of tying them around his waist. The pants, however, were more of a modified style, more in line with his infamous grandfather's fire rat hakama that were bound at the ankles instead of hanging loose. They were the design he tended to favor whenever he was meditating or practicing—both of which he'd been neglecting a little bit of late. He could feel it, too, those things he'd overlooked. He knew well enough that he tended to feel a little restless whenever he skipped them. If there was one drawback to recording, that was it. He never had enough time for everything he normally did when he spent hours upon hours there . . .

But, considering Valerie's unnatural aversion to letting him run around naked, he didn't really have much of a choice, did he, and in it was his considered opinion that the hakama were almost as good as being naked, anyway.

At least his mood was somewhat improved as he headed out of the bathroom and through the master bedroom, down the hallway toward the stairs. The anger that he'd carried around with him for the last while was finally loosening its hold on him, which very likely had more to do with Valerie than it did with Bone's half-assed apology. There was just something about that woman that kept him from being able to hold onto his anger, anyway, though God forbid that she ever figured that one out . . .

It just wasn't good to let one person control one's emotions, or so he'd always thought. Well, sort of. He wasn't nearly as jaded as his cousin, Gunnar who seemed to believe that letting a woman get that close was some sort of weakness. Evan had never discounted the idea of eventually finding his mate. In fact, he'd always wondered what that would be like, and he'd rather looked forward to it, too, but then, he'd never imagined that he'd ever find someone quite like Valerie, either, and while a part of him wished that she'd just wake up and realize that they really were meant to be, he couldn't help but wonder about how much fun it might be to see what else lay in store before they reached that end—or beginning, depending on how he wanted to look at it. In any case, he couldn't complain. She was just way too entertaining to ignore, wasn't she?

He stopped short in the living room, a tender little smile tugging on his lips as he stood back, crossing his arms over his chest and watched the sleeping woman. Hair tangled and mussed, spilling around her, she lay, curled on her side with her hands tucked under her cheek. It was a little disconcerting, just how much he enjoyed watching her as she slept. Then again, maybe that was one of those simple things in life that he'd just never taken the time to notice before . . .

Expelling a deep breath, he let his arms drop as he wandered toward her. He seriously doubted that she'd wake up if he moved her, and sleeping on that sofa all night just couldn't be comfortable. Glancing at the clock, he grimaced. Nearly midnight now, and he'd planned on going into the studio in the morning for a few hours before his nine o'clock meeting with Wicked Soundsations . . .

He started to reach for his cell phone to call Mike and tell him that he wasn't going to make it to the studio, but he stopped. No, as much as he hated to do it, he really had to get Valerie to agree to go on the mini-tour with him, and the only way to do that was to stop deviating from his set schedule, even if it did bother him to put her through so much. She'd get a few hours' sleep, and that'd have to be good. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure that she was going to cave in. If anyone had said at the start of the week that Valerie would still be holding on now, he would have thought they were insane, but holding on, she was, and doing a damn fine job of it, too.

If his mini-tour didn't depend upon it . . .

He shook his head and gently lifted her off the sofa. She didn't stir, though she did cuddle against his chest, letting out a contented little sigh as she buried her face against his bare skin. Evan sighed, too, though his was caused more by her proximity than anything else, and he turned and headed toward the stairs again.

And she didn't wake up as he carried her up to his bedroom and shoved the blankets back with his knee. She uttered a little moan of protest when he laid her down, probably because the bed was a little cooler than she'd like it to be. He took his time adjusting the temperature control on her side then secured the house and turned off the lights from the terminal beside the door before he stepped over to the bed.

'She . . . she feels 'right' here, doesn't she?'

'Hmm . . . Yeah. Yeah, she does.'

'. . . Do you think . . . You suppose she realizes it yet?'

His youkai snorted. 'If she realized it, would we really be having this conversation?'

Evan sighed. 'Yeah, I guess not . . .'

'But . . . she did enjoy the show, you know? I mean, she really dug it.'

That thought made him grin. Like a fool, come to think about it. His youkai was right. She really had enjoyed herself immensely, which pleased him more than he cared to think about.

But that smile faded when his gaze came to rest on that damned scratch. Okay, so it wasn't very big, maybe a half inch long, if that, and it really was more of a scrape than a real cut. Still, it bothered him more than he cared to think about. That she was in any kind of pain was absolutely intolerable, and the sooner that mark was gone, the happier Evan would be. The salve would help, of course. Gin's remedies—recipes she'd learned in her youth from her mother, Kagome—were absolutely the best things around, and on the rare occasion that Evan had hurt himself when he was younger, this was the one she'd used on him.

Of course, he was youkai, and that made a huge difference. If he had been the one scratched, it'd probably be gone by now. But Valerie . . . She was human, and therein lay the crux of Evan's concern. After all, the last thing he wanted was for her to experience any kind of discomfort, and humans on a whole took forever to heal, or so it had always seemed to him . . .

It wasn't even a concrete thought, really. No, it was more of a sudden and overwhelming instinct. Leaning down carefully, he lowered his lips over the injury and flicked out the tip of his tongue, bathing the area to soothe it, to clean it, ignoring the bitter taste of the herbal salve he'd just applied. The smooth warmth of her skin blocked out every other conscious thought in his mind, and he closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her as she snuggled a little closer to him in her sleep.

Only then did Evan lie down. Only then did he feel the first loosening of the unsettling emotions that had plagued him since the concert had ended start to subside, and only then did he start to feel the first waves of utter exhaustion filtering into his body and mind.

'V . . .' he thought as he pulled her nearer. 'You'll be just . . . fine . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'And I know who you are
It wasn't that hard
Just to figure you out …'

 

-'Figured You Out' by Nickelback.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

'Ma-a-an, you know there's a damn good chance that you're gonna burn in everlasting hellfire for the rest of your days.'

Evan blinked slowly as he stared at Valerie, who was dozing rather fitfully, huddled in the corner on the far side of the limo's back seat. At least the darkened circles under her eyes had disappeared shortly after he'd waked her up. Otherwise, she was starting to look just a little vampy. 'Yeah, probably.'

Day Six, and Valerie still hadn't broken. To be honest, he wasn't entirely certain that she was going to, after all. Despite the fact that she'd zonked out during the ass-long meeting yesterday and had, in fact, ended up snoring loudly enough to draw everyone's collective attention, she'd really done well to keep up with him as long as she had, and for that alone, Evan would be eternally impressed.

It hadn't really helped matters, either, that he really hadn't been able to allow her much more than a catnap last night. Having spent the bulk of the day in that infernal meeting, only to end up in the studio where he'd had to record a few more tracks for the bonus DVD release that would coincide with the album, The Voxumentary, as it was tentatively called—he wasn't sure who came up with these titles, but he was pretty certain that they needed to be fired—they'd been there so long that, in the end, Evan had just stretched out on the sofa in his office upstairs with Valerie and had managed about a twenty minute power-nap before duty called once more.

If the photo shoot that was scheduled bright and early this morning hadn't been so damned important, he might well have cancelled it just to allow Valerie to sleep, but the delays in the recording sessions had cut the entire process a little close, especially if they wanted to release the new album before the tour dates scheduled in a couple months. He needed to do the cover, and while he had a few ideas, he'd given up creative control on the artwork for this one when he'd realized just how crunched for time he was going to be.

Of course, the main problem was that he wasn't entirely certain just how he was going to top the last one. The cover of Shock Knocker had featured an extreme close up of a woman's nipple. He'd thought it was fantastic, especially since the censors hadn't actually figured out what it was until months after its release, and by then, so many units had been sold that it made no sense to reissue it because of the cover art.

Because of his legal troubles, compounded by the delays that had already plagued this album, the bigwigs had told him that he would do well to try for a more 'conventional' cover this time around, and while that might ordinarily encourage him to do just the opposite, he also had to admit that they had a point regarding the release and just what having to postpone it might do to potential sales.

No, the biggest bone of contention yesterday was the song, V. The bosses thought that the single had real market potential, but they wanted Evan to record a 'clean' version of it—something that Evan flat-out refused to do. Even if he wanted to, that would call for drastic re-writes, considering the song was most certainly about nothing but fucking. True, as they said, it could reach a broader audience if he did it, but he couldn't tolerate the idea that he'd be compromising his integrity as an artist if he gave in to their demands.

So they'd spent the better part of six hours arguing over that one, which was more than enough to irritate the living, breathing hell out of him. Valerie had actually been the one to have the final say in that, much to his amusement. She'd woken from her impromptu nap around lunchtime and had listened to the majority of the argument without comment. When the frustrated men had started to try to tell Evan that he had to do what they wanted, she'd cleared her throat quite loudly and informed them in no uncertain terms that they had no real legal grounds on which to base the assumption that Evan had to do whatever they wanted just because they desired it to be so. Citing a few landmark cases from the last few years where musicians had won out over their labels in the matter of creative control, she hadn't batted an eyelash as she'd sat back once more and pinned each of them with a very cold, very stony stare, and Evan had relished every moment of it.

'Don't fuck with an attorney,' he thought with no small measure of pride as he watched the woman huddle a little deeper into the apparently comfy corner. With a grimace, Evan bit his lip, reaching over to tug her over since she was turned just enough that she was leaning heavily on the wall instead of the back of the seat, and that had to be uncomfortable. She didn't notice the sudden shift as she snuggled against his side, drawing a rather goofy grin from him as he indulged himself in watching her sleep.

"Can't believe she's still hanging in there," Bone remarked without taking his eyes off the road ahead of them.

Evan grunted in acknowledgement. "She's tougher than you thought?"

Bone chuckled. "Something like that."

"Yeah . . . She's pretty damn amazing, isn't she?" Evan mused, grabbing a bottle of water situated in the holder on the narrow ledge across from him without disturbing the snoozing attorney.

Bone nodded slowly, allowing a comfortable silence to fall. It was a welcome change from the slight sense of unrest that had tinged the entire day yesterday whenever the two men were in the same vicinity. Bone finally cleared his throat. "Hey, Roka . . . I'm sorry about the other night," he finally remarked.

Evan nodded, too, as he considered Bone's words. "Yeah," he said then shrugged. "She's fine now, right?"

Bone suddenly chuckled. "Not much like Sydnie, is she?"

Evan grinned. True enough. Bone knew damn well that Evan had always maintained that he wanted a woman—a cat youkai just like his sister-in-law. Of course, that was more of a joke, really, and mostly designed to irritate the living, breathing hell out of his brother, Bas, but there was a measure of truth to it, too. The first time Evan had met Sydnie, he'd about creamed his jeans; damned if he hadn't. That woman really was something else . . . Talk about walking, breathing sex . . . How she'd ended up with someone as uptight as Bas was entirely beyond Evan, and as far as the latter was concerned, it was akin to a gross miscarriage of ultimate justice . . .

And, true, it had irked him to no end that Bas—lucky bastard that he was—had managed to snag such a prime piece of proverbial pussy. Even worse, Sydnie had always thought of Evan as little more than a 'baby', never mind that by the time he was fifteen, almost sixteen when he'd met her, he'd fucked more girls than his father and brother had in their lifetimes, combined . . .

But that was neither here nor there. Sydnie and Bubby were damned happy these days, and she'd just given birth to their second child—a daughter they'd named Olivia—last year to prove it. If Evan considered it, though, he would have to admit that it wasn't necessarily Sydnie that he had lusted after, but a woman like her: one who was drop dead gorgeous and enjoyed a nice romp in between the sheets, too.

Sipping the water with a thoughtful scowl, his gaze returned to the sleeping attorney. Okay, so he really ought to wake her up. After all, she had to reach the point where she'd admit defeat if he had any hopes of keeping the mini-tour on schedule. Something stopped him from doing it, though. Maybe it was the absolute warmth of her body against his. Maybe it was the look of complete contentment on her face.

He heaved a sigh and slowly shook his head, resisting the urge to reach for her and pull her against him.

"You're a sucker, you know," Bone commented.

When Evan glanced up, it was to see his friend-slash-security guard staring at him in the rear view mirror. He was grinning, too; damned if he wasn't. "Am I?"

"She's never gonna cave if you let her get away with napping all the damn time," Bone remarked, completely ignoring Evan's question.

Evan didn't make a move to rouse her, though. "Eh, we're almost at the location, anyway. Might as well let her alone till we get there."

Bone slowly shook his head. "Whatever you say, boss . . ."

Ten minutes later, the limo pulled to a stop in front of the nondescript building where the photo shoot was to scheduled, and Evan rather reluctantly gave Valerie's shoulder a little shake. She jerked and started, blinking furiously as she shot a somewhat wild glance around, her disorientation a very viable thing. Evan smiled. "Come on, V," he prodded gently. "Don't wanna give out on me now, do you?"

It took another moment for her to discern what he'd said, and when she did, she snorted. "Right, Roka," she retorted though her voice still held a groggy lilt. "Let's go."

He chuckled as he got out, sparing a moment to wave to the paparazzi that always tended to follow him around before reaching back into the limo to help Valerie. Stifling a wide yawn, she stumbled. He caught her, wrapping his arms around her, and for the briefest of moments, she allowed him to pull her against his chest, entirely too sleepy to put up a fuss over their close proximity. "All right there?" he murmured into her ear.

She nodded though she didn't open her eyes. "Mmhmm," she murmured.

His grin widened as he reluctantly steadied her on her feet and let go of her. "C'mon, V. Time to take some pictures."

"Hmm," she intoned, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand as he dragged her toward the studio. "I like pictures . . ."

Ignoring the questions being rapid-fired at him by the reporters anxious to get the 'inside' scoop as well as the flash and 'snicks' of cameras, Evan hurried Valerie through the doors and breathed a good-natured sigh of relief when the quiet of the enclosed foyer blocked out the insanity.

"Looks like Cassie's put on a couple pounds," Bone mused, glancing out the glass door at the ragtag assembly—most notably, one of the paparazzi that had followed Evan around for years.

Evan grinned. "Oh, yeah? You gonna go out there and tell her that?"

Bone snorted but grinned, too. "Hell, no! She'd probably boot me in the 'nads with those pointy-assed shoes of hers." Crossing his arms over his chest, he turned to face Evan. "You'd better get her somewhere so she can lie down," he warned. "Want me to carry her up?"

"Keep your damn hands to yourself, Bone," Evan warned mildly. "Come on, V. Ready to go?"

"He can carry me," she slurred, waving a hand in Bone's general vicinity.

"Oh, no, he really can't," Evan quipped. "Not unless he wants his hands broken."

She stopped and shot him a truly baffled sort of look. "Who's going to break his hands?"

Evan rolled his eyes. "Me."

It took her all of fifteen seconds to digest that, and when she did, she dissolved in a helpless round of laughter. "You? Against Bone?" More laughter—so much that tears were spilling down her cheeks. "That'd be like . . . like a sumo wrestler going up against a baby . . ."

"Ouch, V . . . that's my ego you're stepping on," he mock-pouted.

She leaned against him. "I'm sorry," she relented though she didn't actually sound at all 'sorry'. Intercepting the thoroughly blasé expression on his face, she cleared her throat and tried a little harder to convince him of her sincerity. "Pictures . . . pictures . . . Yours or mine?"

He chuckled again. He couldn't help it. Valerie tended to be rather random when she was tired. "Mine. Album cover and promo shit."

She brightened considerably at that. "Does that mean I can sleep while you're posturing?"

He snorted. "I don't posture."

"You're a rock star. Of course you do."

He didn't really have a comeback for that, so he grabbed her hand instead and dragged her over to the elevator. "Sure, you can," he relented, sparing a moment to cast her a cheesy grin as he waited for the doors to open.

"I can?"

"Yup," he said, "as soon as you admit defeat."

She gasped loudly, her eyes flashing open wide as she stared at him. "That's so devious!"

He laughed and dragged her into the elevator. "Save it for the jury, woman. All's fair in dares and touring."

She uttered a sound suspiciously close to a whimper but remained silent. Another twinge of guilt assailed him, and he brushed it aside. True enough, he wasn't exactly playing nice, but hell . . . "Like I'd ever give you the satisfaction of losing to you! This is nothing—nothing—and—" She paused to yawn again. "—I'll prove it to you, buddy!"

"Just as soon as you catch up on your sleep, right?" he teased.

Her hand stilled as she carefully wiped her misting eyes. "Oh, I don't even have the energy to tell you to go to hell," she grumbled.

"Sorry, baby," he replied, sounding anything but sincere.

She heaved a longsuffering sigh designed to let him know exactly what she thought of his tongue-in-cheek rebuttal. "Jerk," she muttered, slumping against the wall of the tiny compartment. "Urgh, I hate elevators . . ."

It lurched to a stop. Valerie clutched at her stomach and groaned as the doors slid open. "Let's go, Private. Don't give up on me now," Evan encouraged, slipping an arm around her waist and savoring the way she sort of slumped against him as he escorted her out of the cubicle.

"Ze-e-el!" Zaundra Kirkpatrick greeted as she swept across the studio to greet him. She'd shot the last three album covers for him, and when Mike had told him that she'd agreed to work with him again, Evan had grinned. Known for her risqué style and provocative eye, she was the perfect complement to Zel Roka's outrageous music.

"Hey, Zandi," he said as she leaned up to kiss the air on either side of Evan's cheeks.

"Just look at you . . . you look like you just tumbled out of bed," Zaundra mused with a disapproving shake of her head as her sooty gaze flickered over Valerie's face. "Oh, I see why, don't I?"

Chuckling at the suggestive tone behind the teasing, Evan couldn't help but to go along with her. "Well, hells, yes! I mean, she's hot, isn't she? And not just hot, right? More like damn . . . fucking . . . hot."

Valerie yawned and blinked as she tried to look around the studio, her normally sharp gaze blunted by the effects of sleepiness she was still fighting. If she heard the exchange, she didn't react, and that was probably for the best, too.

"Just see if you can't hold onto this one a little longer than you normally do," Zaundra said, arching one of her eyebrows to emphasize her words.

Evan laughed and steered Valerie toward the curtained off areas where wardrobe, hair, and makeup were being done. Her sharp gasp stopped him in his tracks as she tugged on his hand to gain his attention. "Evan!" she squeaked incredulously. "Look—look—look—look—look! A bed! A real bed . . . Oh, and it looks so comfy . . ."

Following the direction of her gaze, he chuckled softly. True enough, there was a bed set in the center of the white screen backdrop. It was obviously for the shoot, but she looked so entirely bewitched that he figured he'd wait to point that out to her.

"Finally! You're late," Madison said as she planted her hands on her hips and pinned Evan with a disgruntled arching of an eyebrow. That expression dissipated, though, when she glanced at Valerie. "What have you done to my V?" she demanded in a completely flabbergasted sort of tone as she tugged Valerie away from Evan's side and coddled her. "Aww, you poor baby!" she crooned.

"I know!" Valerie whimpered against Madison's shoulder, nestling her face against Madison's neck.

Madison slipped her arms around Valerie's shoulders and crooned in her ear. "Poor V!"

Valerie sniffled in response.

"You two do that anymore, and I'll come in my pants," Evan warned, only half joking. Two of the hottest women he'd ever seen, basically snuggling right in front of him? Hell, he'd have to be a eunuch not to notice that, now wouldn't he?

"You'd better go get changed, Zel Roka," Madison warned, idly stroking Valerie's hair. "Come on, sweetie. You can stay with Maddy."

"I love my Maddy," Valerie muttered vaguely.

Evan rolled his eyes but grinned. "All right," he grudgingly relented, "but no sleeping—unless you're doing it together, and if you do, I'd better get a copy of the video."

Madison threw a bright orange hair clip at him, and he laughed as he sauntered away.

Ducking into the makeshift wardrobe area, Evan spotted a girl he'd never seen before standing off to the side, fussing with a pair of shockingly white, patent leather pants. "Hey," he greeted with a grin. "Never seen you before . . . I'm—"

"Zel Roka!" she gasped, freckled face paling noticeably as her already large blue eyes widened dramatically. Blowing her unruly bangs out of her face, she shook her head, her impossibly kinky red hair bobbing almost comically as she stared at him in something akin to hero worship. "Wow . . ."

He chuckled and gave a little shrug. "So they tell me," he quipped. "And you are?"

"Uh, Trixie," she blurted with a nervous laugh. "Trixie Lee—I'm the wardrobe mistress."

"So I gathered," he said. "Whatcha got for me?"

Trixie opened and closed her mouth a few times like a fish out of water then squeaked out something akin to a squawk as she carted around and grabbed a pale pink . . . blouse . . . off a rack and shoved it out toward him. "Zaundra said she wanted 'fresh' and 'innocent', so . . ."

Evan snorted before he could stop himself as his eyes widened at the appalling garment. Pale pink was the right way to describe it, certainly, and even if the color weren't bad enough, the damn thing had a v-neck framed in full ruffles, billowing sleeves, and cuff ruffles, to boot. "Nice joke," he said. "Now seriously, where's the gear?"

"Oh, and these," she said, yanking the white patent leather pants around for his inspection.

There were so many things wrong with those pants that Evan wasn't sure where to begin. They looked like they were about four sizes too small—not a horrid thing, really, but they made him cringe and want to cover his balls just looking at it, and even if he were inclined to wear white—white—leather pants, he sure as hell would never, ever be caught dead in patent leather ones. The damn things snapped up the sides, but that didn't matter, did it, when he had no idea just how they thought he'd be able to squeeze himself into those without giving himself a hernia . . .

"The shirt was specially made for you by Bettista Romanov, and the pants—well, they just make the outfit, don't they?" Trixie asked, obviously very proud of the spectacle she was trying to create. "They're made out of the very latest in leather—stretch leather." Her very round eyes widened even more, lending her an owlish, almost spooky sort of expression. "They breathe."

Evan snorted. "Yeah, sweetheart, that's just not happening."

Trixie frowned, quite obviously in a great deal of distress. "I didn't bring anything else," she lamented.

"Fuck," he muttered, turning on his heel and stomping out of the area, intent on finding Zaundra to find out if she'd somehow managed to lose her damn mind. "Zaundra!" he hollered, striding straight toward her when he spotted her, checking her equipment.

The photographer glanced up and actually had the audacity to smile at him as he headed toward her. "Something wrong, Zel?" she deadpanned.

"Wrong? Hmm . . . Zaundra, have you seen what your wardrobe mistress brought in for me to wear?"

Zaundra's smile widened. "Isn't it just scrumptious?"

He considered that then slowly shook his head. "That's not exactly the word I had in mind," he muttered. "You realize, right? There's no way in hell I'm wearing it."

She didn't look like his bald statement surprised her. It shouldn't have, all things considered. Crossing his arms over his chest and tapping his foot on the utilitarian concrete floor, he pinned Zaundra with as formidable a glower as he could muster.

She sighed and slowly shook her head. "It wasn't my call, Roka," she explained in a slightly weary sort of tone. "Ramón called me and said in no uncertain terms that Wicked Soundsations wanted a clean cover—wholesome, I think they said . . ."

Evan snorted. "I'm about as fucking far from wholesome as you can get," he growled. "But I ain't wearing that outfit."

"Well, there's a little more to it than that," she went on, setting her camera aside to give Evan her full attention. "He mentioned that he'd promised Bettista that he'd use that shirt—I think he's trying to fuck her or something."

"Ramón can bite me," Evan grouched. "I am not wearing it."

Zaundra heaved a long, drawn out sigh and rubbed her face. "Let me call Ramón and see what he says," she said slowly.

Somewhat satisfied, Evan whipped around on his heel and stomped off toward the makeup area again.

"So why are you raising Cain?" Madison asked as Evan tossed the curtain aside and strode inside.

He planted his hands on his hips and snorted once more. "Have you fucking seen the shit they think I'm gonna wear?" he asked hotly.

Madison blinked and held up a finger in front of her lips, jerking her head toward the uncomfortable chair where Valerie was settled. Leaning on a table with her elbow propped up and her cheek cradled in her hand, the attorney looked like she was about ready to zonk out. Evan rolled his eyes. "Have you?" he demanded again.

"Well, no," Madison admitted with a little shrug. "But I do know what colors they ordered for your makeup . . ."

Something in her tone made Evan want to groan. He didn't. "What?" he drawled instead.

Madison's smile was very tight as she popped open her utilitarian case and tilted it so that he could see for himself. All pastels, it looked like—pinks and blues and purples. Evan shook his head. "Fuck, no," he stated flatly.

"Oh, he'll be pretty," Valerie giggled vaguely.

Evan grunted. "Go to sleep, V."

She yawned. "Okay . . ."

"I just do what I'm told," Madison quipped airily, waving a hand in the general vicinity of the makeup chair she'd toted along.

True, he didn't have anything against said makeup. One couldn't be in the entertainment business and refuse to wear makeup. It just didn't work that way. The thing was, he didn't mind it when it helped to add to the show—just look at the past masters like Kiss—those dudes did better when wearing the makeup than they did after they showed their ugly-assed mugs, didn't they? And Zel Roka didn't mind that, either, but when you took those damned colors—the pinks and shit—and added them to the outfit that they thought they could get him to wear? 'Yeah, when donkeys fly . . .'

"M-Mr. Roka!" Trixie exclaimed as she burst through the curtain, very nearly colliding with a scowling Evan who still reached out to steady her on her feet, lest she go sprawling across the floor. "You've got to get changed," she insisted, her face reddening enough that the generous sprinkling of freckles were paler on her skin than the living blush. To emphasize her point, though, she thrust the hangers, complete with the absolutely unacceptable clothes, at him.

He waved a hand to flick them away. "I told you, I'm not wearing that," he explained brusquely but calmly.

Madison clapped a hand over her mouth as her eyes widened in abject horror. "Oh . . . my . . ." she squeaked.

Evan shook his head. "You're wasting time, Trixie. You should be running downtown to find something better."

Trixie bit her lip and looked entirely uncomfortable. He could understand her dilemma. She really didn't want to be labeled as 'the one who argued with the famous Zel Roka'. Too bad he wasn't about to give in to make her life easier, either. "But . . ."

A sudden eruption of high pitched giggling cut Evan off before he could retort, and against his better judgment, he glanced back at Valerie, who was staring quite intently at the hideous garb. "Zel Roka, the pretty pink Pirate of Penzance!" she choked between guffaws.

"Oh, ha ha, V," he grumbled. "I thought you were going to sleep."

"I was blinded by the pinkess," Valerie retorted, waved a hand in front of her rapidly reddening face as she struggled to breathe. "That looks so . . ."

Evan narrowed his eyes but remained silent. Valerie missed the expression completely.

". . . Gay! Zel Roka, the gay pretty pink Pirate of Penzance!"

Heaving a sigh, Evan gestured at Valerie as he turned to pin Trixie with a full-on glare. "See?"

Trixie swallowed hard. "I-It's not th-that bad—"

Too bad she didn't sound like she believed that, either. Evan grunted. "That is so far away from 'rock' that I don't even know what to do with it," he shot back. "Forget. It."

Trixie looked like she was ready to sob. "Zel, why don't you go take a quick shower, and we'll talk it over with Zaundra," Madison nearly purred. Evan glanced over his shoulder at her, only to curl his lip up in a marked snarl when he noticed the way Madison's cheeks were puffing in and out in her own herculean effort to keep from dissolving in laughter.

"You can all go straight to hell," he grumped as he strode past Trixie and headed for the bathroom.

The explosion of female laughter that taunted him as he slammed the door closed did nothing to pacify him, and Evan heaved another loud sigh as he yanked off his shirt and slapped his hand against the water control beside the door before reaching for the buttons on his jeans.

If they were smart, they'd have figured something else out by the time he got out of there or he was leaving, and if the label didn't like that? "Too damn bad," he snarled to no one in particular. It didn't really make him feel any better.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

The shower actually did serve to calm his irritation, at least a little—enough so that he didn't feel the insane urge to stomp out there and wreck something. Pausing a minute to stare at the clothes he'd left on the floor, he wrinkled his nose and grabbed a thick white towel instead, draping it around his hips and tucking in the corner to secure it. With any luck, they'd have figured out something else since he was sure he'd made it abundantly clear that he wasn't going to wear that outfit, come hell or high water . . .

'Gay pirate, indeed,' he thought with an inward snort as he extended his arm to thump open the door.

Zaundra was standing near the bed in the middle of the studio, adjusting some lights and frowning at the sensor in her hand.

"Figure anything out?" he asked without preamble as he strode over to Zaundra.

The photographer glanced at him before going back to her task. "Yep," she replied with a rather enigmatic little smile. "All set."

Somehow, he wasn't sure he liked her tone . . .

"You'd better go hit makeup," Zaundra went on airily. "We're already behind."

Evan still wasn't entirely certain that he trusted her, but he figured he might as well let it alone, at least for now. To his surprise, though, Madison and Valerie weren't in the makeup room, but Codie, one of Madison's assistants, was, and she smiled broadly as Evan stepped into the area. "Where's Maddy?" Evan asked.

Codie waved a hand dismissively. "She'll be back," she replied, patting the stool, indicating that Evan should have a seat.

Glancing at the clock on the wall, Evan slipped into the chair. True enough, the shoot that should have started about an hour ago was running sorely late, and at this point, he just wanted it to be over with.

Someone must've gotten the message, though, because the colors that Codie had out were definitely more along the lines of Evan's usual, and for the first time since he'd seen that God-awful outfit, he started to relax just a little.

"You win, Roka," Mike said as he slipped into the partitioned off area with a shake of his head. "Spoiled brat . . ."

Evan shot his manager a questioning look since he hadn't expected to see him today. "Gay pink pirates are bad for the rocker image, don't you think?" he asked pointedly.

Mike heaved a sigh and shrugged. "Yeah, I told Ramón you wouldn't go for it. Shows what the hell I know, right?"

"Oh, so you knew about all this?"

Mike grinned. "Not nearly as much gets past me as you seem to think," he rejoined. "Get off your ass and get moving, will you? You've got an interview in a couple hours, or did you forget?"

Evan pushed himself off of the stool and winked at Codie before following Mike through the curtain again. "So what am I supposed to wear?"

Mike didn't answer as Evan stopped short, his breath whooshing into his lungs in an almost painful gust when he spotted Valerie, standing near the bed and wearing that God-awful pink shirt that somehow didn't look nearly as bad on her as he knew it would have on him and those white patent leather pants. They were way too long for her, but that didn't matter since Trixie was on her knees with a pair of shears, mercilessly hacking off the extra length as Valerie yawned, trying to hold still as Madison touched up the pale pink lip-gloss she'd just applied.

"What the fuck is going on?" Evan hissed, grabbing Mike by the shoulder and spinning him around to face him.

Mike half-grimaced, half-grinned. "Well, Ramón just said that he wanted the blouse in the shoot; he didn't actually say who had to wear it . . ."

"V isn't a model, Mikey," Evan pointed out tightly.

Mike shrugged. "Maybe not, but she is hot, don't you think?"

Evan snorted. "Of course she is, and that is hardly the point."

"Don't worry about it, Roka," Mike went on, shaking off Evan's hand as he headed toward the gathering in the center of the studio, leaving Evan to catch up with him. "She signed the release."

Grinding his teeth together, Evan shook his head stubbornly. "And she's half-asleep, or didn't you notice? Goddamn it, she never would have signed it if she weren't, and you know it!"

Mike's expression shifted into one that Evan knew: pacify the rock star, was it? He snorted. Mike held up a hand. "Look, she said that she thought the blouse was pretty, and she said that she'd wear anything if she could lie down on that bed. Besides she's completely dressed, right, and—"

"And you don't think that she's gonna object about the minute she figures out that you've totally manipulated her, never mind she'll automatically assume that it was my idea, anyway . . ."

"I didn't do any such thing," Mike rebuffed. "They did."

Evan snorted since he was waving in the general vicinity of Madison and Zaundra—both of whom were next on his list to hear what he thought about the entire situation. "Give me the fucking release, Mike."

"I don't think that's a good idea," he began slowly.

"Oh, yeah? You like getting paid? Then you'd best remember who the hell signs your paycheck!"

Mike cleared his throat delicately and almost grinned—almost. "Your accountant does."

"Mike—"

The sudden and almost obscene sound of the snaps that held the pants together, giving way, thundered through the studio with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. A moment later, Zaundra tossed the pants aside, nodding in approval of the sight of Valerie's insanely sexy legs. Trixie yelped and dove for the pants before scooping them off and darting off toward the wardrobe area while Evan stifled a groan and reminded himself that he was supposed to be arguing with Mike, not staring at Valerie, no matter how hot the woman was . . . 'Her legs . . . oh, da-a-a-amn . . .'

"All right; so she was completely dressed," Mike amended with a slight grimace.

"Give me the release, Mike," Evan demanded, holding out his hand as he strode after the insane manager.

"Zel—"

"She won't be recognized, I swear. Zaundra's going to use special filters to give the images an overall hazy effect, so if that's what you're worried about—"

Evan's loud snort cut off the frazzled manager. "Fuck that, Mikey. I'm more concerned with my body and my balls becoming passing acquaintances."

"It won't be that bad," Mike assured him, "and if it is, they do miracles with reconstructive surgeries these days."

"Keh!"

Valerie started to rub her eye with a balled-up fist. Madison caught the limb and gently held it down. "Now, V, you don't want to mess up your makeup, right?"

Valerie didn't open her eyes. "Hmm . . . Can I lay down now?"

Madison giggled. "You go right ahead, sweetie."

Valerie stumbled off toward the bed. Evan heaved a sigh as he dragged his eyes off Valerie. "The release, Mike. Now," he growled.

Mike sighed, too, though for entirely different reasons, and dug the blue backed release from his attaché case. "Just think about it, Roka. If you tear this up . . ."

"What are you doing?" Zaundra demanded, yanking the release form out of Mike's hand before he could hand it over. "Are you nuts? That girl's golden! She's perfect for the shoot!"

"Well, maybe, but Zel—"

Rolling his eyes as he tried not to look at Valerie, all curled up on that damned bed and looking entirely too damn hot to ignore, Evan started to reach for the document.

"Evan?"

He stopped and blinked, unsure for a moment, whether he'd actually heard Valerie say his name or not.

She frowned slightly and tried to curl herself into a tighter little ball in the center of that bed. "Cold . . ." she whispered.

Unable to stop the grimace that surfaced on his face, Evan let out a deep breath and snatched the release form out of Zaundra's limp fingers since she was still in the middle of arguing with Mike and didn't actually notice that he'd gotten a hold of the damn thing, anyway.

'She's gonna chop off your boys, toss 'em into a blender, and serve 'em to you as a power shake,' his youkai warned as he strode around the bed to slip in behind her. Before he could, though, Madison reached over, grasping the edge of the towel and giving it a good yank. He shot her a glower. She lifted her eyebrows, as if to tell him to lighten up. Giving up for the moment, Evan shook his head and crawled onto the bed. The second Valerie felt the movement of the mattress beneath her, she scooted back against him, drawn to the warmth of him, and she relaxed. Evan stifled a groan. Too much skin and too little clothing, sending his senses into overdrive as his brain struggled to play catch-up . . .

'Yup.'

'Then she's probably gonna slap a lawsuit on you so fast that it'll make your head spin.'

The shirt that reached mid-thigh on her when she was standing had ridden up, exposing her hip, all the way to the thin lace strip the held her thong panties in place. Evan winced as he stared at the exposed skin, fingers shaking precariously as he slowly reached out to touch her.

'Yup.'

'Need I point out how bad an idea this really is?'

Dragging his eyes off the spectacle that was Valerie, Evan let out a deep breath and scowled at the release form. 'Shut up. I'm reading.'

His youkai offered a frustrated sigh.

Standard, of course, with a fifteen thousand dollar offering for said signee, regular statement of release pertaining to any intellectual copyright, real or implied, of any images that would be created during the photo shoot . . . Evan snorted and held out a hand. "Hey, Maddy . . . you got a pen?"

Madison dragged her eyes off of the warring factions still facing off nearby. "A pen? Oh, sure . . . hold on . . ."

A moment later, she handed him the writing utensil and watched as he crossed out the amount, only to write another one above it. In the margin, Evan scrawled a few more changes, though the rest of the release was a standard one and fairly straightforward. After he'd finished looking it over and changing it to suit him, he handed the pen back to Madison. "Initial those changes, will you?" he asked her.

Madison did as he asked, then took the release and sashayed over to Mike and Zaundra.

Evan sighed, propping his head on his hand as he gazed down at Valerie—already sleeping beside him. Golden blonde hair spilling around her in wanton disarray, her cheeks tinged with just the barest hint of pink as her long, thick lashes spilled over her cheeks . . . Evan smoothed her hair before pulling her closer, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that was telling him over and over that he really ought to get the hell away from her before it was too late . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'And all of your weight; all you dream
Falls on me; it falls on me
And your beautiful sky; the light you bring
Falls on me; it falls on me
Aah, aah, aah …'

 

-'Falls on Me' by Fuel.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Day Seven.

Evan glanced at the clock and made a face. Eight a.m., and he should have been up and gone hours ago. Mike had already called a few times—Evan had shut off the ringer on his phone the first time. Beside him, Valerie sighed contentedly and snuggled just a little closer. He smiled. Okay, so he knew damn well that she wouldn't be doing any such thing if she were coherent, and if she weren't completely exhausted. After the photo shoot yesterday, he'd spent a few hours at the V-ROK studio, taping an interview that they'd cut the hell out of and splice together to suit their purposes, not that he really gave a great goddamn. From there, they'd had an appointment at one of the local music stores. Funkatronic was holding a midnight event to celebrate the single release from the upcoming album, and Evan had actually gotten the chance to attend it, spending about two hours signing autographs for the kids who had hung out to buy the first copies.

By the time they'd reached his house, Valerie was near comatose, and he had given up on taking her home, opting instead to carry her up to his room, where she'd promptly snuggled against him and fell right to sleep.

And now?

He grimaced. He couldn't do it. He had a whole slew of things that he was supposed to get done today, but he just couldn't do it—couldn't wake her up and make her move, bet or no bet.

'You'd better,' his youkai pointed out a little too reasonably. 'Your tour depends upon it.'

Closing his eyes, Evan wrapped his arms tighter around her. 'There'll be other tours.'

True enough, right? The surge of adrenaline whenever he stepped out onto the stage . . . The feeling that there was nothing on earth he'd rather be doing as he fed off the energy of the crowd. In that one insular moment, he knew what it meant to truly be alive, and that was the lure of it, wasn't it? It was the greatest rush he'd ever known.

At least, it had been until he'd met her.

When had it happened? When had her well-being become more important to him than his career? The same things that used to hold so much meaning for him . . . What did any of it matter if it meant that she was suffering, or worse—that she had to be broken in order for him to keep up the mirage that had somehow become his life . . .?

He sighed and tried not to think about it too hard. It didn't work. There had to be a balance in there somewhere, didn't there? That Valerie wasn't nearly as opposed to him as she was to her perceived notions of who he was, he knew, and her fiancé? He was nothing but a security blanket, at best. Evan might not be the smartest guy on earth, but it didn't take a damn genius to realize that her feelings for Marvin were based on mere illusion at best.

But she was just too exhausted to go on, and he knew it.

The display on his cell phone blinked again, and he made a face. Mike was going to give him five kinds of hell when he got around to talking to him, not that it would make a difference. He'd already made up his mind.

As if in answer to Evan's unspoken musings, Valerie snuggled closer, unconsciously gravitating toward the warmth of his body—something that never failed to make him smile, after all. Damned if she didn't have a way of making him feel special without even trying, even when she was all pissed off and giving him hell . . . To be honest, he rather liked that, too. It was almost perverse, he supposed, just how amused he was whenever she leveled 'that look' at him . . .

With a yawn, her entire body tensed, her feet extending downward under the blankets, her arms emerging, only to retract in a rigid reaction as she arched her back, effectively smashing her breasts against him as she stretched. She didn't open her eyes, moaning quietly as a riot of goosebumps erupted on her arms seconds before she yanked them back under the covers and burrowed closer against him. "W-What time . . . is it?" she murmured between a series of yawns.

Evan chuckled and wrapped his arms a little tighter around her. "Little after eight," he told her in a quiet tone so that he wouldn't disturb her too much.

"That's nice," she murmured, only half-listening. It took a full minute before it actually seemed to penetrate her brain, but when it did, she leaned back, her gaze still bleary from sleepiness that just wouldn't let go of her. "Shouldn't you be somewhere?" she demanded in a much sharper tone than he could rightfully credit, given that she'd just been sleeping so soundly a minute before.

"Nah," he lied. "Gotta take some time off now and then, right, V?"

She blinked a few times, but whether it was to clear her vision or because she wasn't sure if she believed him or not was debatable. "R-Really?"

He nodded and tugged her against him again. "Yep. You won. Nice job. I'll lick your toes now, if you want."

She snorted. "Stay away from my toes, Zel Roka," she insisted. The stern effect she was after was ruined a moment later when she yawned again and relaxed in his arms. She did, however, manage a rather triumphant little giggle. "I won? I did? You know, I—" With a sharp gasp, she sat up straight, her eyes flashing open as she leaned over to slap her hands against Evan's hip playfully. "I won!" she positively crowed. "I won, which means you lost! That means you have to take out that full page ad, and you have to be good!"

Evan cracked an eye open a little wider and couldn't help the grin that surfaced on his face. "Yeah, yeah, don't rub it in, V." Heaving a sigh, he started to sit up and toss the blankets aside, grimacing since he'd gone to bed last night fully clothed. He might have been able to get by with losing the shirt, at least, but he didn't quite trust himself, either, not after the photo shoot yesterday. No, he still remembered all too vividly, what it had felt like to have nothing but a pair of very flimsy panties separating their bodies, and that memory was just entirely too hard to ignore, so the bottom line was that, if he had a hope in hell of putting up any kind of resistance against her, he hadn't had a choice in the matter . . .

She blinked and frowned, catching his arm before he managed to get out of bed. "Where are you going?" she demanded.

Evan rolled his eyes but shot her a grin. "To call the paper, V. A deal's a deal, right?"

She considered that then wrinkled her nose. "Later," she stated, tugging on his shoulder until he gave in and stretched out again. "It's freezing in here!"

"It's not that cold," he retorted mildly, pulling her against him anyway.

"Hmph! Easy for you to say. You're a living heat generator," she uttered as she snuggled closer. Her eyes drifted closed, and she was asleep again within minutes.

 

 

-Valerie-

 

 

Valerie pulled the baggy sweatshirt over her head and grimaced as she reached for a towel to wrap up her hair, savoring the warmth the garment provided. When she'd opened her eyes a little while ago, it was to find Evan gone, and after whining a little at the coolness that had set in around her, she grabbed the thick, white plush robe—she'd never seen it before and really wasn't sure if it was Evan's, but at that time, she didn't care, either, considering that it looked like it'd keep her more than warm enough. The clothes she'd worn yesterday were wrinkled and looked like they'd seen better days. No matter, she had figured. At the moment, she had bigger fish to fry—like just where had the miscreant rock star disappeared to, and if he was off getting into more trouble, she'd make sure he was sorry; just see if she didn't . . .

She'd found him downstairs, sitting in the middle of that sun room that she'd scoffed at when he'd told her that he used it for meditation. Lingering in the doorway, however, she'd watched as he sat in a patch of sunlight, head titled back with his eyes closed, back straight and proud, forearms resting on his knees, bared chest rising and falling as he'd breathed slowly. It struck her again, just how quickly she'd jumped to conclusions about him in the beginning, and maybe he really could appreciate something as spiritual as meditation.

There was something about him, though—something entirely unapproachable: the same sense that she'd understood when she'd seen him onstage . . . She frowned. No, that wasn't possible. The Evan Zelig that she'd come to know seemed to thrive on touching, and not just when he was trying to be outrageous, either. As though he really didn't know how often he really did it, he was just one of those people who could and did touch others, and somehow, he managed to keep it from feeling oppressive or conspicuous. Instead of making anyone uncomfortable with it, he possessed the innate ability to put people at ease with his easygoing smile and a pat on the arm or shoulder.

Maybe that was the real secret behind the phenomenon that was Zel Roka.

Biting her lip, Valerie backed away from the room. As far as she could tell, he hadn't realized that she was there, and that was all right. Besides, she really, desperately needed a shower . . .

She'd just reached the top of the stairs, too, when a voice stopped her, and against her better judgment, she turned around to listen.

"Roka! There you are! What the hell do you think you're doing?" a very agitated Mike demanded as he strode through the living room toward the doorway where Evan was meditating. For some reason, it bothered Valerie to no end, that anyone would dare to interrupt Evan when he was obviously deep in thought.

She could make out the soft sigh and shuffle as Evan stood up, even if she couldn't see him. "Mind keeping it down, Mikey?" he asked dryly.

Mike uttered a terse sound—testament to the manager's irritation. "I've been trying to get you on the damn phone all morning," he said, though his voice was much lower than it was. "We're already behind, and—"

"Aww, come on, slave driver. I deserve a day off now and then, don't I?" Evan drawled. His tone had been neutral enough. Still, Valerie could sense the underlying warning in his words.

"A day off? Is that what you're calling it? We're down to crunch time in Level Zero, and you're taking a day off? Bullshit, Roka. You haven't taken a day off in years! What the hell's going on?"

Evan didn't respond right away. Sauntering out of the meditation room, he crossed the living room floor to retrieve his cell phone off the coffee table as he continued on his way toward the back doors. He gave a sharp whistle, and Valerie flinched when the floor rumbled under her feet as the huge tank of a dog—Munchies—galumphed through. "Go play with Mimi and Momo," he said, pushing the door open and grinning happily at the crazy-huge beast. The dog half-whined, half-barked, his body absolutely quivering in excitement as he lumbered outside and took off at what could only be described as a gallop. Valerie shrank back into the shadows of the hallway and pressed her hand against her chest to steady her wildly fluttering heart with a grimace. She hated dogs. She really, really hated dogs . . . "Hey, Bone . . ." he said after dialing a number and waiting for an answer, "feelin' lucky?"

Mike followed Evan, propping his hands on his hips as he slowly shook his head. "This isn't a joke, you know. Ramón's already pissed as all hell at you, and we were supposed to have the rest of the tracks ready by the end of the day. Now you want to take the day off? To do what?"

"Look, I'm sorry, man. Just reschedule stuff, will you?" Evan said as he snapped the phone closed and tossed it onto the table again.

"We're already on a tight enough schedule as it is. We've got two months to get things shored up here before you leave on the mini-tour, and—"

"Yeah, about that," Evan cut in. "Cancel it."

Stunned silence greeted Evan's words, and it took a few long seconds before Mike responded. "Do what?" he asked almost flatly.

"All right, little man. You asked for an ass-whoopin'?"

Neither Mike nor Evan looked at Bone as the big man loped into the living room. "What the—? Shit . . . that's why you blew off today? Because of her?" Mike demanded. Valerie recoiled at the vehemence in the man's tone, and maybe partially from the implication of what he was saying.

"She didn't have a damn thing to do with it. It's my choice," Evan growled, his voice dropping an octave as his eyes flashed dangerously. She'd seen that expression before, just once—the night that he'd lit into Bone because of . . . of her . . . "I made a bet with her, and I lost. Just cancel the goddamn tour."

"The hell I will," Mike shot back, stomping after Evan when he headed for the back door, jerking his head to indicate that Bone should follow. The door slipped closed behind the men, though, and whatever else Mike had been saying was lost to her.

Heaving a sigh, Valerie frowned at her reflection in the plate glass mirror that extended from floor to ceiling. She'd thought she'd won that bet? But if she'd been completely coherent at the time, she might have known better, wouldn't she? It was clear to her after hearing the discussion between Evan and his manager that the rock star actually had chosen to let her win, but why when the stakes were that high—his mini-tour, to be exact? He was willing to give that up just so that she thought that she'd won the bet? And how dare he, anyway? She wasn't so pathetic that he had to hand her a victory, now was she? What was it about the assumption of pity that always—always—ticked her right off? She'd had plenty of time during her shower to mull that one over, and the conclusion she'd reached? He had done exactly that, hadn't he? He'd given up because he felt pity for her, the jerk . . .

"Stupid," she muttered, shaking her head, yet unable to staunch the twinge of guilt that twisted her insides as she yanked on the oversized sweatpants she'd found in his dresser. They looked positively awful, but they'd just have to do. "All right, Roka," she muttered under her breath as she tied the string around her waist, "it's on . . ."

The mansion was still quite empty, almost eerie feeling, as she ran lightly down the stairs, pausing only long enough to roll up the bottoms of the pants legs when she stumbled over them. She'd just turned toward the glass doors that led to the back yard when the piercing screech of metal scraping against metal drew her up short, and when she looked through the windows, she gasped.

Evan fell to the ground, flat on his back as a very long though thin sword flipped out of his hands, end over end until it disappeared from view. Her gasp surged into a strangled cry as Bone swung an equally real-looking sword at the prone rock star. Without stopping to think about it, she sprinted forward, yanking viciously on the polished brass handle of the door and shoving it open impatiently, one thing very clear in her head: that idiot was going to have his head cut off if he wasn't careful . . .

"Hey, look out!" Mike growled, grasping Valerie's arm and jerking her back.

"Let go! He's going to kill him!" she bellowed as she tried in vain to get him to regain her freedom.

"Be quiet and watch," Mike insisted, nodding at the men.

She started to tell him to go to hell, but the words died on her tongue when she finally deigned to watch, even if it was only for a moment. Evan swung his leg, catching the flat of the blade with the soft sole of his bare foot and shoving it aside without much effort. Rolling to the side, he propelled himself forward, retrieving the sword he'd lost seconds before. Suddenly, he was back on his feet again, casting Bone a condescending grin as he flipped the sword over his shoulder and caught it, rotating his wrist to spin the blade in a flash of sunlight. "Nice try, Bone," Evan commented, "but you'll have to keep trying."

"You got to understand the plan, little man," Bone taunted back. "R-E-S-P-E-C-T—Now that's what it's all about, you dig?"

Evan's grin widened, and Valerie narrowed her eyes suspiciously as he raised his arms high over head, pointing the sword straight up in the air. "Bo-o-one . . . I am your fa-a-a-ahtha-a-a-ah . . ." In one fluid motion, he let it drop, parallel to the ground directly before him as he stood, legs splayed slightly, his grip firm but loose on the hilt . "It is your destiny!" The last bit was punctuated by a very loud, rather obnoxious hiss of air and subsequent expulsion of breath as the strange black pants he wore—she'd thought for a moment that it was a skirt—billowed around his legs.

"Who's your daddy, Roka?" Bone shot back, lunging forward on his right foot, raising his sword up and back as his other arm came up, looking every bit like a very large, very bulky samurai. Flipping over his free hand, he curled his fingers once, twice, indicating that Evan should, well, 'bring it'.

Evan's answer was a rather arrogant chuckle as he dashed forward, tossing his sword into the air. It spun around, end over end, rising up higher as the blade whistled. It reached the top of the projection, suspended there long enough to complete another couple full rotations before tilting downward. All the while, the man dashed toward Bone, and his gait didn't falter as he reached out behind his back with seeming effortlessness, wrapping his hand around the hilt of the sword and bringing it around in a circle, only to be met head on by Bone's weapon.

"You're all flash and no action," Bone goaded with a wide grin as he disengaged the clashing blades and swung again.

Valerie cringed at the visible reverberation. If Evan felt it, though, he didn't give any indication. In fact, his own grin broadened as he wrenched his wrist, bringing the sword in a tight loop. Bone managed to hang on, albeit just barely, hopping back and tossing his sword from one hand to the other before leveling it at Evan once more.

"Shit . . . I've gotta get going," Mike said suddenly, checking his watch with a shake of his head. "Tell Zel that I'll call him later, will you?"

Valerie nodded without taking her eyes off the combatants as Mike turned to leave.

"Yeah, well, not all of us were born as big as you were," Evan tossed back. "Jesus, Bone. It's a wonder your mama is still able to walk."

"Leave my mama outta this," Bone retorted good-naturedly, cleaving a wide arc directly at Evan's shoulder. "She's a very healthy woman, and you don't have room to talk. Your mama birthed a damn Mack truck."

"Bubby ain't a Mack truck," Evan muttered, evading Bone's swing by jabbing the point of his sword into the ground and using it to catapult himself backward. "Bubby's more like a fucking mountain . . ."

"Is that right?"

Valerie blinked and turned in time to see a very, very tall man—taller than Bone though not by much—cross his ridiculously huge arms over his chest as a thorough scowl drew his golden bronze eyebrows together. His coloring reminded her of Evan's father—in fact, everything about him brought Cain Zelig to mind—only bigger—a lot bigger—and a lot more intimidating, too, if she were to think about it, and if she were in the habit of letting anyone intimidate her, which she most certainly wasn't. Golden eyes—were they really golden? Of course they were . . . like Evan's mother's eyes . . . But the eyes that looked so warm and gentle on the woman added a fierce sort of light to the man's gaze, instead . . . 'Mountain? Yeah, that sounds about right . . .'

"Bubby!" Evan greeted. He started to drop his sword into the scabbard strapped to his hips.

'Bubby' snorted loudly. "Keep that out, Evan," he insisted almost mildly. "You're going to need it." Evan's answer was a wide grin—Valerie was starting to wonder if someone had hit him on the head a little too hard—as 'Bubby' strode forward and held out a hand to Bone. "May I?"

"Only if I don't have to clean up the mess," Bone joked, extending the weapon.

"Beat him, Daddy!" a tiny voice hollered excitedly.

Valerie glanced down and smiled at the boy. She hadn't seen him—not surprising since he was so little that he was easily hidden by his father's massive size—and he looked just like his father, too, though instead of the intense golden eyes, the child had vibrant green ones, instead. Hopping from one foot to the other, his excitement was a viable thing. Bone loped over and grinned, scooping up the boy and settling him on his wide shoulder. "Bailey, my man! How's it going?"

"Daddy's gonna pound Uncle Evan," the boy insisted happily and very proudly, "because he says Uncle Gunnar's too easy!"

"I beg your pardon?"

Valerie didn't miss the absolute irritation behind that question, and she glanced over her shoulder at the back door, only to stop and look again while Bailey erupted in a round of high-pitched giggles. The man . . . Good God, there really wasn't a good way to describe him, was there? Incredibly tall with the kind of looks that brought the word, 'pretty' to mind—maybe even 'beautiful' . . . Much leaner of build than Evan's brother, and where the latter just seemed to look a little foreboding, this one? He was the kind of man that made women stop and stare, even if they didn't dare approach him . . .

But he seemed to notice her standing there, which was a far sight better than 'Bubby', too, and he inclined his head just slightly, as though to indicate that he saw her. "Gunnar Inutaisho," he said, sparing a moment to glance at Evan, who was too busy showboating with his sword to pay much attention before turning to eye her once more: a long, slow look that she was quite sure tended to melt most women upon impact. "And you are . . .?"

She blinked and quickly shook her head. He hadn't surprised her—well, not in that way. What had surprised her was the sudden memory that had flashed through her mind, instead . . .

"Do I know him?"

A strange sort of expression filtered over Madison's features, and she laughed. "I don't think so, but you may know of him."

"Oh? Who?"

". . . Gunnar Inutaisho."

Biting down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing outright—no wonder Madison didn't want her to tell Evan who she'd slept with that night in question—Valerie carefully schooled her features before answering. "Valerie Denning. I'm Evan's lawyer."

A sudden look of complete comprehension crossed his features, and Valerie figured that it had something to do with the curious way he'd been looking at her, as though he couldn't rightfully understand why a woman like her would be hanging out with someone like Zel Roka, in the first place. "I see," was all he said.

"You can't hit what you can't catch," Evan taunted. "C'mon, Bubby!"

The elder brother stood his ground, holding the sword in his hand though he made no move to assume any kind of real fighting stance. That seemed to suit Evan just fine, and he dashed forward, bringing his weapon out in a wide arc at waist-level. With a quick flick of his wrist, he let go of the sword and caught it with the same hand behind his back, effectively building up momentum based upon what had to be the considerable weight of the object without losing sight of his intended target.

Evan's first blow was easily deflected by the flat side of his opponent's blade followed in short order by a terse shove that wasn't necessarily meant to send Evan flying, but was intended to throw him off balance. It didn't. Evan was a little too agile for that to work. Beside her, Gunnar snorted quietly. "Bas is just playing with him," he muttered under his breath.

"Bas?" she echoed with a shake of her head.

Gunnar's eyes didn't leave the fighters, but he did nod toward the larger man. "Bas—Sebastian."

"Oh . . ."

"He can beat the crap out of Evan any time he wants to—if he can catch him, that is."

"He's that good?" Valerie asked, unable to quite reconcile herself to that idea when Bas had yet to move much yet.

Gunnar chuckled dryly. "It doesn't really have anything to do with 'good', but yes, he is," he replied. "Let's just say that if Bas manages to hit you, you know it. For days."

She supposed she could believe that. After all, Bas was, well, huge, and considering that his hands were as big as baseball mitts, it made sense that they might hurt—a lot.

Evan just seemed to dance around Bas, though, neither causing much in the way of damage nor taking any, either. Every time he got close enough for Bas to swing at him, Valerie cringed inwardly. The sheer, brute strength behind the blade caused a ripple of wind that hit her where she stood, and just what that might do to Evan if Bas should happen to connect was rather disconcerting.

Still, Evan laughed and goaded his brother—not exactly what she'd consider to be sound advice, given his distinct weight and size disadvantage. She knew damn well that Evan wasn't a small man, but he looked like one, at least next to his brother. It was like a lion taking on a mouse . . .

"It's like the Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," Bone muttered.

"Bas is getting irritated," Gunnar mused.

"Get 'im, Daddy!" Bailey yelled, hopping up and down on Bone's shoulder.

Valerie gritted her teeth together and said nothing.

The beep of a cell phone drew Bone's attention, and he carefully balanced the boy on his shoulder as he dug the device out of his pocket and frowned at the caller ID. "Duty calls, buddy. Hop on down, will you?"

Valerie sucked in a sharp breath when the toddler sprang off of the huge man's shoulder, straight into Gunnar's arms, and she was certain that it was only Gunnar's impeccable reflexes that kept the boy from falling to the ground. Bailey grinned up at Gunnar, though, completely oblivious to the near-mishap. "Remember what your father told you before, Bailey?" Gunnar reminded the child with a slight scowl.

Bailey grimaced and stopped fidgeting almost instantly. "I don't jump on people," he replied in a somewhat practiced tone.

Gunnar nodded but made no move to put the boy down, either. "That's right."

"But you always catch me, Uncle Gunnar," he pointed out.

"That's because I have fast reflexes," Gunnar remarked.

It didn't take long, though, before Bailey started to bounce a little in his uncle's arms. To Valerie, it seemed to be an almost absent-minded sort of motion since the child was intently watching the fight that appeared almost choreographed in Valerie's estimation. Every time Bas would advance on Evan, the latter would spring away, just out of reach, only to leap forward to poke and prod at his brother before backing off with a laugh or a taunt. If it weren't obvious to her before, it was now. The longer that it went on, the more irritated Bas grew with the standoff. Evan was just too fast, and Bas was just too damn big . . .

"Bailey, be still or I'll put you down," Gunnar warned.

Bailey uttered a sound akin to a whine and instantly stilled.

"The problem with fighting that one," Gunnar mused, almost more to himself than to Valerie as he nodded his head toward Bas, "is that it doesn't matter how agile you are. Eventually you get tired while you're trying to avoid those ham hocks he calls fists, and, well, he's got more stamina than just about anyone has. You get tired, you get sloppy, and—" His eyes narrowed momentarily when Bas came dangerously close to slicing through Evan's right thigh. Evan, idiot that he was, just laughed and hopped back about a foot. "Well, there you have it," he finished dryly.

Valerie swallowed hard, unconsciously smashing her hands against her heart to contain the nearly painful pounding in her chest.

Evan darted forward, still playing the court jester, or so it would seem, as he jabbed at Bas a few times, the blade flashing past the older brother's ear on his right side, then his left, then his right again. A few strands of golden bronze hair fluttered down like sparkling rain, and that, apparently, was more than enough, as far as Bas was concerned. In the blink of an eye, Bas tossed the sword in his hand aside, unleashing what could only be described as a growl that seemed to rumble up from somewhere deep down as he slapped Evan's sword away. It sailed, end over end, out of his grasp and away, embedding itself, point down in the grass a good twenty feet away. The growl escalated as Bas' arm—no more than a blur of color and motion, shot out, grasping Evan by the throat, and he jerked him forward as he snapped out his other arm, catching Evan in the center of his chest. He let go of Evan, and Valerie flinched as the rock star's body flew through the air—was he laughing?—only to land with a huge spray as he hit the surface of the water in the pool and sank like a rock.

"And that would be 'Defeat by Dumbass'," Gunnar muttered.

"Yay, Daddy!" Bailey hollered, squirming down from Gunnar's arms and dashing over to his father.

"Oh, my God," she hissed under her breath, anxiously watching the pool where Evan had landed. He didn't surface right away, and she started to dart over there.

Gunnar caught her arm and pulled her back. "Stupid, yes, but perfectly fine," he assured her.

"Are you crazy?" she yelled, yanking against his hold. "Do you know what a hit like that on the heart could do?"

Gunnar stared at her for a moment, the condescension in his expression deepening just before he gave her a curt nod and let go, shoving her back a step though not harshly, as he strode around to the far side of the pool where Evan had yet to surface. Standing on the edge, looking down as he slowly and rather deliberately rolled up the long sleeve of the fine linen white shirt he was wearing, he seemed to be calculating something. She heard him sigh as he hunkered down and plunged his arm into the pool, hanging on to the safety edge with the other hand. A moment later, he yanked Evan up out of the water by a fistful of sodden silver hair. The idiot was laughing.

"Shit, bubby!" he complained, rubbing his chest as Gunnar gave him a curt shove and let go. "That almost hurt!"

"Baka," Gunnar muttered, shaking his hand in obvious disdain as he stood and stalked away from the pool.

"It'd take more than that to get rid of a cockroach like you, Evan," Bas retorted mildly.

"Daddy! I wanna go swimmin'!" Bailey said, currently perched in his father's arms. He tapped his shoulder rather animatedly to get his attention.

"What the hell is wrong with you? Both of you?" Valerie blasted, interrupting whatever smart-ass comment Evan was about to make. "Were you trying to maim each other?"

Bas blinked and stared at her for nearly a full minute, taken aback by the very apparent outrage in her expression. "W . . . I wasn't actually trying to hurt him, no," Bas explained slowly, almost apologetically.

Valerie narrowed her eyes. Bas shifted uncomfortably and started to open his mouth again.

"Give up, bubby," Evan said as he hauled himself out of the pool. "V just don't understand brotherly love."

"Brotherly love, my ass," Bas grumbled with a shake of his head and a light blush that had been inspired by Valerie's tirade.

She snorted and crossed her arms over her chest, pivoting on her heel to glower at him, too. Too bad that the sight of him, dripping water from head to toe, the sight of the tiny rivulets coursing down his skin, the strange pants that were now clinging to his legs as the weight of the water dragged the waistline precariously low on his hips completely distracted her. A moment later, however, the illusion was broken as the man dropped to his hands and knees and affected a full-body shake akin to a dog that had just come in from the rain.

With a gasp and a strangled little shriek, she threw up her hands to cover her face and tried to turn away from the frigid spray.

"Use a towel, Evan," Gunnar growled, dropping one on Evan as he strode past before handing another to Valerie. He'd nabbed them off out of the small wooden cabinet that stood near the pool.

Evan stood up and draped the towel around his neck. "Sorry, V," he said, sounding anything but contrite.

She wiped her face on her towel and rolled her eyes, sparing a moment to shake her head before she spun on her heel and stalked back toward the house once more. It wasn't just Evan who was insane, was it? No, she had a feeling that his entire family just might be, too . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'When I'm tired and thinkin' cold
I hide in my music, forget the day
And dream of a girl I used to know
I closed my eyes and she slipped away
She slipped away …'

 

-'More than a Feeling' by Boston.

 

 

-Evan-

 

 

Chuckling low in his throat as he started toward the doorway of the music room, Evan swigged a bottle of beer. He wasn't entirely sure where Valerie had disappeared. He'd expected her to light into him about the moment that Gunnar and Bubby had left, but she didn't. He could tell that she was nearby, of course, but she had yet to show herself. Grimacing slightly—damn, Bas hit a little too hard sometimes, didn't he?—Evan rubbed the soreness in the center of his chest as he reached for his favorite acoustic guitar, ignoring, at least for the moment, the unpleasant clinginess of his still-damp hakama.

'All that ballyhoo just because he wanted to ask you to watch Bailey and Olivia tomorrow?' his youkai huffed indignantly. 'A simple 'please' would have done nicely enough.'

Evan grinned since he was pretty sure that the thing that had set Bas off was the 'mountain' comment. Still . . . 'Aww, I don't mind. Been awhile since I got a decent workout. I think Bone's going a little soft . . .'

'Yeah, and about that . . . He's your head of security. I don't think that's a good thing, now do you?'

'What? Bone? I don't think it's anything like that . . . Where do you suppose she took herself off to?'

His youkai heaved a sigh, irritated, he figured, that he wasn't about to get into a philosophical debate on Bone's arguably declining skills.

Besides, he was still feeling a little restless. True, the morning meditation had helped that, as had the impromptu sparring with Bone and Bas. He had a feeling that the cancellation of his mini-tour had something to do with it, but if he were to be completely honest? Yeah, he supposed that it had everything in the world to do with the photo shoot yesterday . . .

No doubt about it, if he could just get the feel of her body and the overwhelming knowledge that she'd trusted him on a level that she, herself, might not have understood, he'd be a far sight better off. Too bad he couldn't. They'd always said that he had an overactive imagination . . .

Settling on the edge of a ratty old puke green sofa—the first bit of furniture he'd ever acquired when he moved to New York City years ago—he took his time adjusting the strings, strumming notes to test the instrument. It wasn't out of tune by much, and the actual task was more of a ritual for him instead of something that needed to be done. Much like the meditating that he'd been missing lately, the simple act helped him to focus, helped him to relax.

"Okay, Roka. Let's see it."

Evan reluctantly lifted his gaze off the guitar, only to smile as Valerie strode into the room with a no-nonsense expression on her face. She looked like she was mentally prepared for the siege to end all sieges, and as she crossed her arms over her chest, spreading her feet shoulder-width apart, she leveled a look at him and waited for him to comply.

"Well, if you insist, V," he drawled, setting the guitar aside and slowly rising to his feet.

She snorted and rolled her eyes when he went for the ties holding the hakama in place, slapping his hands away before he could actually loosen them. "I meant your chest," she informed him.

Wrinkling his nose, he waved her off as he turned away. "Hell, it'd take more than that to hurt me," he bragged.

Valerie strode around him, reaching for the towel that still hung around his neck and effectively hid the top of his chest from her perusal. "You realize, don't you? A solid hit to the chest like that could stop your heart . . . Don't look at me like that. I'm serious."

"You're right," he agreed quickly since he could feel her temper rising. "Bet he wishes that he'd hit me a little harder." She wasn't even slightly amused by his tongue-in-cheek attempt at joking. He sighed. "It's fine, V, I swear."

He knew well enough that she'd heard him. He also figured that she'd chosen to ignore him, too. Yanking the towel away, she flinched, her face paling just slightly as she stared in unabashed horror at the shadowy beginnings of a healthy sized bruise in the center of his chest. "I think you should go to the doctor," she muttered, her voice little more than a rasping whisper.

"For this? Are you joking? Think of my rep, woman! I'm Zel Roka, you know, and Zel Roka does not go to the doctor for something as minor as a stupid little bruise."

She was going to argue with him. He could tell from the expression on her face. Evan held up a hand to forestall her. "Listen, it's fine. Just a bruise. Happens all the time, you know? Besides. I did cut his hair. Can't say that that's ever happened before . . . at least, that I know of."

She uttered a frustrated growl, holding up one finger in his face, her mouth opening to grumble at him. She must have thought twice about it, though, because she let the hand drop as she whipped around on her heel and stomped out of the room again. He considered following her, intrigued that she was so obviously irritated by his stubborn display, but she was back before he could, and this time, she held an ice pack in her hand. "Here," she said, the gentleness in her hands a stark contrast to the aggravation on her face.

"I'm fine, V, I swear," he told her, taking the ice pack and holding it against his skin, figuring that if it would pacify her, then it was all good.

Letting out a deep breath, she slowly shook her head, collapsing onto the sofa with her shoulders hunched forward as she buried her face in her hands. "What am I going to do with you?" she lamented, her resigned voice muffled by her skin.

"Well, I could think of a few things," he deadpanned.

She let her hands drop and lifted her gaze without moving her head. "Evan . . ."

He grimaced inwardly. It sounded a little too much like she was getting ready to say something to him that he really wasn't going to like. "Hmm?"

"I wanted to tell you . . ."

"Aww, V . . . it's too early in the day to be using that tone, don't you think?" he complained, unable to stomach the sudden and overwhelming feeling that she was about to apologize for some perceived ill or something equally humbling. In fact, the idea appalled him . . .

She ignored his outburst. "I underestimated you," she went on. "You . . . You work a lot harder than I gave you credit for."

He shot her a half-hearted grin intended to be taken as cheeky but likely appeared more contrived than anything else. "Nah . . . I just get paid to play around. Lucky little bastard, huh?"

Her eyebrows drew together as she frowned at him—one of those penetrating sort of stares that he felt all the way down to his bones. "All the same," she continued with a somewhat stubborn shake of her head, "I think . . . I think that it'd be nice to go on your mini-tour with you. I'd like to see a little bit more of what you do." She shrugged as a small, vague, rather contrite smile quirked the corners of her lips. "I'd like to see one of your real shows—more than just three songs."

"Y-Yeah?" he said, his expression brightening by degrees. "You would?"

Her smile widened just a little, and she nodded. "Yeah."

"It's because I'm just irresistible, right?" he couldn't help goading.

"You're something, all right," she muttered with a resigned sigh that was followed in short order by a little giggle.

'That sound,' he thought with a satisfied sort of grin, 'I could stand to hear that . . . forever . . .'

Valerie stood up, her attention skittering away as she frowned in concentration at the unchartered territory she'd happened into. Since her immediate concern over his well-being seemed to be as done as dinner, she finally realized that she had never been in this room, and her curiosity was a viable thing—or it would have been if Evan had been paying attention instead of thinking about the sound of her laughter . . .

"Bagpipes?" she said, her voice cutting through his idyll.

Evan blinked and broke into a little grin. "Sure."

She picked it up, turning it this way and that as she inspected it. "Do you actually know how to play it?"

He rolled his eyes. "Of course."

She gave it another good look before shoving it against his chest. "Show me."

Never having been one to back down from so blatant a challenge, Evan winked at Valerie as he took the instrument and arranged the long pipes over his left shoulder and grasped the bag under his elbow. He'd checked all the plugs recently, so that wasn't an issue, and he almost laughed when Valerie cocked an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest. The interruption was enough to shift the steady, low groan of the instrument as the air he blew into it escaped evenly through the pipes, and the resulting screeches made her grimace. "That's awful!" she said, plugging her ears and affecting an exaggerated grimace.

He played the first few bars of Amazing Grace before she reached for the instrument, and when he didn't give it over right away, she waved her hand impatiently. "Let me see!"

With a sigh and a shake of his head, he let her take it, though he did step around her to position the bag and pipes. "Here . . . this is where you finger the notes," he told her as he wrapped her hand around the chanter near her waist.

"I 'an't 'ee 'em," she muttered around the blowstick in her mouth.

Evan grinned. "Da-a-amn! Do you have any idea how hot it is to see you with your lips wrapped around that?" he couldn't resist asking.

She rolled her eyes and snorted, but not before a hint of pink blossomed in her cheeks. "'Oh 'oo hell, 'Okah."

He chuckled. "Just blow, V. If you can do that, then you can worry about making notes."

And blow she did. To her credit, she did manage to inflate the bag, at least to a degree. When her entire face darkened to a crimson hue, however, causing her eyes to bulge just slightly, he winced and reached over, flicking the blowstick out of her mouth with an exaggerated shake of his head. "You're going to pass out if you keep it up," he told her mildly.

"Ugh, I feel dizzy," she admitted, pressing her hand to her forehead as she swayed slightly.

Evan took the bagpipes and hurriedly set them aside. "Maybe you should leave those alone," he suggested.

She nodded then sighed, sparing a moment to glower at the instrument, apparently irked that she couldn't quite muster enough hot air to sustain it.

"You should probably sit down a minute," he said, quickly reaching out to steady her elbow when she swayed slightly on her feet.

"Nuts to you, Zel Roka," she scoffed though she still appeared a little flushed. "Oh, my God . . . You have one of those . . .? Those . . .?"

Following the direction of her fluttering hand, Evan chuckled. "Alpenhorn?"

She wrinkled her nose as she continued to stare at the eight-foot horn. "Let me guess: you can play that?"

He nodded.

She snorted. "You're so weird," she muttered. "What's this?"

Evan grinned as she gingerly touched the base of another instrument situated on a wooden pedestal nearby. "It's a kalimba," he told her. "An African thumb piano. Check it out."

She touched one of the keys and winced since she didn't seem to know exactly what to expect. Her eyes widened, though, at the very dulcet tone that sounded not unlike a tap on a xylophone. "Oh!"

He played a short piece for her; one that he'd learned from the old villager who had given him the instrument a few years ago when he'd taken a trip to Zimbabwe. The man was blind, but there wasn't a damn thing wrong with his ears, and the songs that he'd played for Evan had been emblazoned in his brain forever.

When he looked at Valerie, though, it was to find her staring at him in something akin to awe. As the last notes died away, so did that expression, but the gentle smile that lingered was enough. "So you're telling me that you know how to play all the things in this room?"

Sparing a moment to glance around, he shrugged, feeling unaccountably bashful for some reason. "Yeah, I . . . I guess."

"Idiot rock star, indeed," she scoffed. Wandering away from him, she paused long enough to look over his collection of guitars before dismissing them as unremarkable. She did stop to look at the tonkori that he kept housed in a glass case mounted to the far wall. "So pretty," she breathed, her fingertips lightly brushing over the glass.

Evan chuckled as he drew up behind her. "Of course," he said with a simple shrug. "Legend has it that it was designed in the shape of a woman's body."

She didn't take her eyes off of it. "Is that so?"

He closed in behind her, his hands itching to reach for her. He stopped himself and grimaced. "Yep . . . See the way it's been carved? The curves there . . .? The way it narrows there . . .? And . . . there's her heart."

She leaned against him, probably without realizing what she was doing, and he could hear the beat of her heart in the silence of the soundproof room. "Beautiful," she whispered.

"You have no idea," he grumbled. "You know, the parts are named for the corresponding parts of a woman's body."

"Hmm," she demurred, only half listening him. "Have you ever played it?"

Dragging his attention off the gentle arch of the back of her neck, Ev