I walk up the street past the fancy, high-end cars to the brightly lit house, trying to fit in with the other couples also heading in the same direction. I would fit in better if I was with a date, but I was hoping to be in and out quickly. I only have to stay long enough to retrieve the Samuels family necklace from their cousins who were using it to attach themselves to the Dallas Verger House. They’d given me an invitation to the party so that I could get in. I pulled it out of my purse as a I reach the temporary doorman who is acting as the gatekeeper for the evening.
“No plus one?” the gatekeeper asks with a sense of subtle disdain while he examines the invitation.
“No, I’m alone,” I smile brightly, tucking some of my honey blonde hair behind an ear. As I look into the house I spot Morgan DuBois. She’s the one that convinced Colin Samuels to give her the necklace as a pre-engagement gift just a few days ago. Once she’d had the necklace in hand, she’d dumped the gullible kid. It was a Samuels family heirloom and they understandably wanted it back. I duck my head down, hoping she doesn’t spot me. We’d had an unsuccessful conversation at her school yesterday and I got the impression she didn’t like me.
The sudden pounding noise of a teenage girl running in heels across a travertine floor interrupts the gatekeeper before he can wave me inside.
“Not her.” Morgan speaks sharply, with more harshness than a newly turned 18 year old girl should muster. “That’s not her invitation. That’s for the Samuels family.”
The gatekeeper examines the invitation and then cross references it with a list set unobtrusively in front of him. He frowns. “How do you know?”
“She was at my school,” Morgan answers and, thanks to the stairs, she’s easily able to look down at me the whole reason I’m here sits brazenly visible around her neck. “She’s some sort of tacky private investigator.”
I’m tempted to mention our company's affiliation with Montgomery International Investigations. This family wasn’t powerful enough to do business with the same circles, but they’d probably try and report me for trading in on their good name.
“I’m sorry, miss,” the gatekeeper admirably manages to recover his manners with a deep breath before turning back to me. “This is a private party”
“Yes, that’s why I brought an invitation.” I wave the cardstock in my hand lightly, but I can tell from his closed-off expression and Morgan’s triumphant smile that I’m not getting in. I flash a thin smile before stepping aside. Not a high-end enough party to have outside security. I go to wait outside the gate to evaluate my options and call Bernard.
“I can’t get in,” I explain in frustration when he answers the office phone. “Bad timing and then Morgan spotted me.”
Silence fills the other end of the line, followed shortly by the sound of someone slamming their hand down over the microphone and a very muffled conversation.
“Is this the DuBois party?” Bern asks slowly. He seems slightly preoccupied.
“You know it is.” I’m surprised he’s asking – he’d done the background research for me, after all. “I got dressed up for this and now I’m going to climb a wall. Can you confirm security for me so I don’t set off an alarm?”
Climbing walls in expensive dresses and heels was not really a strong suite of mine. However, with Augustine and Mad Rogan trying to get me to work for them, cases had been thin on the ground-and we needed the money this case would bring. They both wanted me exclusively, and they’d been driving off clients. This case had come in via Catalina’s friendship with Colin Samuels, who had the regrettable honor of being Morgan’s ex-boyfriend. He’d given her the necklace, and had been planning on an early engagement. Morgan’d had a different plan.
“There is another option,” Bern says slowly.
“Is there?” I don’t like where this is going at all. Bern isn’t usually hesitant when offering other plans.
“You could go as my date,” a new, confident male voice enters the conversation. I realize I’ve been on speakerphone the whole time. “Then you can stroll in through the front door.”
I decide to skip all the arguments about how Morgan had already told their hired gatekeeper not to let me in. Mad Rogan wasn’t wrong; it was fairly well known that he had recently re-settled in Houston. No one knew why, but no one was going to deny him entry to a party. Especially not a family trying to get admission into Verger House.
“I can climb the wall,” I decide. Sure, the dress might get ruined, but it would be better than dealing with Mad Rogan. I could already see some nice vines and toeholds. Colin had thought there should be about 100 people at this party. I could blend in long enough to get behind Morgan and lift the necklace.
“Yesterday I would have agreed with you. However, it seems that you did make an impression on Morgan, and the family has spent the day upgrading their security,” Bern informs me. “They’re serious about being the cousins that get chosen by the Verger House.”
“Who wants to upend their life and move to Dallas?” I scan the wall looking for additional security measures. “Are you sure, Bern? I’m not seeing anything.”
“It’s all magical,” Bern explains. “They pretty much called in all their Houston favors to keep that necklace.”
“I can be there in 30 minutes,” Rogan cuts in and I’m sure he looks like a giant cat on the hunt. “We’ll walk in the front door, eat their food, and walk out with the necklace.”
“What’s the catch?” I question. Mad Rogan wants things from me, and his actions are always carefully calculated to try and get those things to come about.
There’s a brief silence and then some scuffling and I hear Bern’s generally disgruntled rumblings about being kicked out of his own office before a door closes and I’m left speaking only to Mad Rogan. “You will say yes to that date I’ve been asking for.”
“Have you been asking though?” I ponder aloud. “I think the phrase you’re looking for is “demanding”. And now you’re trying blackmail?”
“No, now I’m trying a trade.” As always, Mad Rogan sounds like he is only keeping a tenuous grasp on his temper. “But I’m not adverse to blackmail if you say no to the trade.”
Bern wouldn’t lie to me, even if Mad Rogan was standing with him. Which meant Bern really doesn’t think that I can get past the security to do the retrieval. The longer the DuBois have the necklace, the harder it will be to get back, or to even establish it was stolen. I have to do this tonight.
“We could split the fee?” I propose in a desperate attempt not to end up on a date with someone I already had so much trouble saying no to. I wasn’t sure how we were going to get through the night, even, since Mad Rogan had decided that he wanted us to be in a relationship, he’d been very single minded.
“I don’t need the money.” Mad Rogan sounds almost bored now, like a big cat that’s just playing with its food. “Do I get in the car or not, Nevada?”
“I’ll meet you behind the house,” I agree sourly and hang up the phone. I’m probably going to pay for that when he gets here and is tempting in person. And apparently at dinner next week. If I didn’t honestly believe a relationship with him would destroy me, it would be easier to deal with.
It’s been 30 minutes exactly when Mad Rogan steps out of his Audi wearing another one of his perfectly fitted suits. Well, on the bright side – he’s going to be very distracting to the other guests.
“So why doesn’t this count as our date?” I’m hoping he didn’t notice the moments of silence during which I’d been taking in just how attractive he looks, but judging from the somewhat smug look on his face, he did notice and he’s pleased with himself.
“Because you’re going to be distracted trying to get the object, and I’m going to be distracting. I’m doing you a favor. Putting up with families trying to get closer to a House is not my idea of a fun Friday night,” Mad Rogan points out. He stalks closer. I can feel the electric energy between the two of us building and I decline to ask what he’d rather be doing. I couldn’t handle the answer. “Let's go, Nevada.”
The truth was that it had been a dumb move to talk to Morgan at her school. If I hadn’t tried to talk her into giving Colin the necklace back, I wouldn’t have had any trouble getting into the party without Mad Rogan. But I guess you have to live with your choices. I wait until we were just outside the gate and loop my arm through one of Mad Rogan’s. What was intended to throw him off a bit really just threw me, as a familiar heat raced up my arm and through my body. While it certainly added believability, it was also a bad idea. I knew as soon as his arm brought me closer to his side that he was enjoying it.
Instead of lingering on the feelings I didn’t want to acknowledge I hand him the Samuels invitation which does allow for two people. I couldn’t wait to see the gatekeeper try and tell Mad Rogan that he couldn’t come into their party. That would certainly make the Verger House unhappy.
With the presence of Mad Rogan the gatekeeper hardly paid attention to me. Although it had been over two months since Adam Pierce had nearly burned Houston to a crisp, many people still recognized Mad Rogan from the massive amounts of media coverage. The gatekeeper did do a bit of a double-take after waving us through, realizing who I was at the last minute, but he was hardly in any position to object to what a Prime wanted.
Mad Rogan knew how to work a party, and there was no mistaking that as soon as he walked through the door he was in work mode. The grip on my arm became tighter and heads turned as they followed his gliding movement through the crowd. Some hidden sense of self preservation in the guests made them part and allowed Mad Rogan to walk us up to the hosts.
Mad Rogan introduces himself to a fawning Amaury and Samantha DuBois. They seem somewhat surprised to see him, but they’re too pleased to ask why he’s even there. Instead of thanking them for an invitation which he didn’t receive, he just comments on their nice house. It is nice, and they’ve clearly spared no expense for the party.
I work to get through the crowd unobserved. Morgan is surrounded by a group of her peers, who are all congratulating her. I think I recognize some of them from the school. I need an excuse to bump into Morgan and lift the necklace. I’d been practicing this with Bern and Catalina for days. I try to stand unobtrusively by the table full of appetizers and finger food that has been provided for the party. Given the friends who never seem to leave her side, though, I’m not going to be able to get close enough to steal the necklace. Her friends are oohh-ing and ahh-ing over it enough that even if my plan was successful they’d notice almost immediately. I load a plate with a food and make my way back to my supposed ‘date’.
I would like to say that I didn’t feel anything when I started approaching Mad Rogan and found a woman fawning obnoxiously over him. It would be a lie; it would also be a lie to say I didn’t want to pry her hand off him and bend it backwards.
But Mad Rogan was more than capable of defending himself and getting rid of unwanted attention. I had seen that in painful detail when he interrogated Harper.
Instead, I reangle my approach so I come up to the side of him that this woman isn’t monopolizing. I hold out the plate of food. “Stuffed mushroom, baby?”
Both Mad Rogan and the woman turn to look at me with identical looks of confusion. The woman has a fair amount of irritation on her face too. “Who is this?”
“A friend.” I introduce myself before Mad Rogan can call me his date or give my actual name. Some things really do not need to make the paper. “And I’m afraid I need to borrow him for a few minutes.”
“Of course.” And with a smooth shrug of his shoulder Mad Rogan is free of her clutches, taking one of the proffered stuffed mushrooms and walking away, following the steady pressure of my arm as I direct him to an empty hallway where we can plan. “This case is really beneath you.”
My talent pings telling me that at least he believes he’s telling the truth. I’d ask what he thinks I should be doing instead, but I know what he’ll say and this is not the time or the place to go into the eighth argument about working for him that we’ve had in two weeks.
“I can get close to her, but there’s no way to get out with the necklace,” I explain in a hushed voice as I turn my back to the room. “She should be in the far right corner with a group of friends.”
“Yes, she keeps playing with the necklace,” Mad Rogan confirms. He tries stepping even closer but I ease back.
“Can you get it and get out?”
“And what are you going to be doing?”
“Distracting her from the fact that it was you who took it.”
I know that if the necklace goes missing and Morgan sees me I’m going to be the first suspect. If Mad Rogan leaves right away no one will even get to search him for the necklace - not that they would dare accuse a Prime of stealing. And I won’t have it, so they’ll just kick me out. The DuBois family also won’t be able to publicly admit that they’ve lost a necklace they stole to get in with the Verger family.
“I don’t know, Nevada, it just feels like you’re using me.”
I am. I really, really am. It’s a solid plan though.
“Neither she nor her friends will be thinking about that necklace if you’re talking to them.” Not just because Mad Rogan was a Prime, but also because he was ridiculously attractive. Most of the women in the room were tracking him either due to his power, his looks, or both. The only reason Morgan and her friends hadn’t clocked him yet was that they were in the corner, and teenagers can be oblivious. “Besides, she’s the birthday girl. You should probably go and say congratulations.”
“You don’t think I’m actually going to flirt with a teenager, do you?”
“You don’t have to flirt with her,” I tell him. He’s eyeing me like he needs more incentive. “Go up and say hello, and that’s all you’re going to have to do. She’ll either tank at talking to you, or try and show off for her friends. Either way it’s distracting.”
“So you want me to let a teenager flirt with me?” Now I get the sense that Mad Rogan is just trying to be difficult.
“No one in their right mind would flirt with you,” I reply sourly eating another mushroom. I can see I’ve made a mistake from his slight change in expression. The air takes on an electric charge and his eyes take on a glint that I think means trouble. I barely have time to brace myself before his magic is caressing my arms, wrapping me in warmth, and reminding me just how much I am attracted to this man. It’s a reminder that I’ve done more than flirt with him, and that he thinks we should do even more.
“Nevada we’re going to have to talk about your problem with the truth,” Mad Rogan croons as his magic strokes my arm one last time. “Maybe during our date?”
I’m speechless in a combination of warmth and outrage as he steps away and heads towards the girls in the corner of the room.
I don’t know what he says to them, but he has their undivided attention from the time he says hello. Well, I assume he says hello. He talks to the girls for maybe five minutes. None of them manage to flirt but they engage in conversation. Several of the adults including Moran’s parents are watching, too. If I hadn’t been watching like a hawk while finishing off the surprisingly good food I wouldn’t have noticed the necklace go missing. None of the girls do. Mad Rogan excuses himself easily.
A few minutes later, I come up behind Morgan and stumble into her. All in all it would have been considered a very low quality brush pass. I make sure to specifically hit her shoulder, catch myself on her friend and let go immediately. I apologize to her friend.
“I am so sorry,” I insist even as I keep my back to Morgan. I’m counting on her recognizing my voice. I don’t stall anymore and move towards the door. They’ll either stop and search me or they won’t. If they don’t I’ll let Rogan keep the necklace for a night so that when they inevitably call the police I don’t have a ‘stolen’ item in my possession. But I’m counting on not even making it the door.
Unsurprisingly there is a commotion behind me by the time I reach the foyer. The wait staff must be well trained, because they step in front of me at some signal from behind my back.
There’s a steady click of approaching heels and an enraged teen who is trying not to stomp in public.
“How did you get in here?” Morgan’s volume starts loud but sinks into a hiss at her mother's sharp look.
“We’ll discuss this in the study.” Amaury DuBois maintains a smooth composure even as he gestures down the hall, but wisely doesn’t take my arm. Once we’re in the study they close the door firmly.
“I believe my daughter asked you a question?” Samantha DuBois asks as she looks at her daughter. “I see her necklace is missing.”
“Her necklace?” I ask trying for confusion. I probably miss. I move onto a direct question. “Doesn’t it belong to the Samuels family?”
“No,” Morgan shrieks looking down at her neck. She grabs my handbag, which I don’t try to avoid, and starts searching through it. “What did you do with it?”
“I don’t have the necklace,” I tell them patiently. Amaury is now helping her daughter look. “Even if I did, I’m here to retrieve it. If I’m not able to retrieve it, the Samuels family is going to bring the police into the matter.”
“They wouldn’t,” Samantha looks aghast at the very proposition. “Police don’t get involved in house affiliated conflicts.”
“Neither of you are house affiliated,” I point out helpfully. If news of this incident gets back to Verger House at all it’ll scrap their deal completely. “The Samuels have come to the decision that if it disqualifies them from Verger House to get their heirloom back through police intervention so be it.”
“It was a gift,” Amaury objects handing me back by handbag as they’ve determined the necklace isn’t it. “I’m searching you for the necklace.”
“Colin loves me,” Morgan argues. “He knows how important this is to me.”
I give her a look of disbelief as her father pats down my arms and legs. He’s smart enough to do it quickly and professionally. “I think he gave up on his feelings once he realized you were using him, and broke off the engagement.”
“Verger House thinks that necklace is ours,” Samantha points out. “It was going into their inventory. They won’t be happy the Samuels have it.”
“I don’t have your necklace,” I repeat firmly. “If there’s nothing else I think I’ll just be on my way.”
Amaury and Samantha exchange looks and Morgan pouts, but they realize they can’t hold keep me in their house. I would throw a fit if they even tried and it would make them look bad. Amaury DuBois escorts me all the way to the gate of their property. Somehow, as I leave, I feel like I only finished the easy part of the evening.
I swing open the door into the garage. It’s not too late at night but Grandma Frida isn’t there working on anything. In fact, things seem suspiciously silent. I head into the kitchen living area where I am hopeful that Bern is waiting with the necklace. I’m not that lucky. The kitchen is empty. Empty, at 9:30 on a Friday night. This is an event practically unheard of in the Baylor household, and it stinks of bribery.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, I kick off my heels and pad on silent feet to the office. Mad Rogan had better be waiting there, or I’ll be throwing these shoes at him, necklace or no necklace. My bedroom is off limits for a number of reasons.
The office door is propped open and Mad Rogan is leaning back in the office chair with his feet propped on another chair watching our security feeds. So he knew I was back, hopefully he hadn’t read anything into my pause in the kitchen. I close the door behind me, and it makes a firm click I deeply regret my decision.
“I will never understand what prompts people to want to join a House,” I sigh as I sit in my own office chair. Rogan looks at me with those pale blue eyes and though his expression doesn’t change, I feel distinctly like prey that has served itself to a predator. Time to try and settle this. “Thank you for your help.”
“We work well together,” Mad Rogan doesn’t comment on my dig at houses or my offer of thanks. “I hope you realize we can do more if you’d stop fighting about working with me.”
“I’m not having this argument with you again,” I try to keep my voice even as I feel my shoulders go tight. It’s already been a long night, tomorrow I have to go and deal with the Samuels. I don’t have the energy to keep fighting this fight with Mad Rogan. “I already said thank you, I even agreed to your blackmail date.”
“Do you want the necklace?” Mad Rogan dangles it from his fingers. It’s just a lure to get closer.
“So much trouble for such a simple heirloom,” I muse as I watch the light glint off of it. I don’t make any move to get up or take it. I know the point of his display is to get me within arm's reach.
“You’ve been very honest about why you think this relationship won’t work.” Mad Rogan sets the necklace down on the desk, then drops his feet and leans forward until I make eye contact with him. “But you’re lying to yourself about how spectacular it would be.”
This is another argument I’m not interested in having. “Do you think you can just announce to the world or to your House that you choose me and have it be that simple?”
“Yes,” Mad Rogan says, and the strength of his conviction beats at me. “I can make it that simple.”
I try not to roll my eyes at him, so far that has made him more interested. Mad Rogan is one of the most powerful Primes in the world, but he can’t change society, and his House would only give him so long to live out a relationship with a magical dud before they took care of me.
“You have our date next week to convince me a relationship would work.” I try to distract him with future opportunities to beat me over the head with how much he wants this.
“I’ve changed my mind about dinner,” Mad Rogan responds, standing suddenly. The room feels much too small.
The fact that he’s going to get up and walk out hits me like a slap to the face. I remind myself that this was what I wanted. That I’ve been trying to get him to back off for weeks. But a small part of me that I’ve been working hard to suppress is really going to miss the potential. Rogan has unfortunately, become the best kisser I’ve ever experienced.
I recover and hope it doesn’t sound too stilted when I add, “I’ll make sure you get your part of the recovery fee, then.”
Mad Rogan smirks and moves closer. His magic slides over my skin and I shudder and stand, hoping that I can meet the oncoming dragon. His fingers trail down my arm, followed closely by the warm velvet sensation of his magic. “You still owe me a date. But we’re not going to go out for dinner.”
“Dare I ask what you think we’re doing instead?”
I’m backed awkwardly up against the desk, and if I lean back anymore I’m going to end up sitting on it. That’ll to give him too much control, and I’m done giving him control. I step forward until I’m flush against Rogan. He wastes no time in wrapping one arm securely around my waist, keeping me in place.
“Circles.” Mad Rogan looks smug. “We’re going to practice your circles. Because I bet Morgan could draw better circles than you.”
My temper gets the better of me and I’m poking him the chest before I can think twice about it. “There’s nothing wrong with my circles! They’ve always done just what I needed them to do!”
I don’t need circles to do much. Mad Rogan looks down at my finger, which was still pressed against his very firm chest, and smirked. “I know what I want, Nevada, and I can see my current approach isn’t working. Consider this a change in strategy.”
For some reason that makes me nervous. “Your change in strategy is to have art class?”
“I’m told art is very sexy.” He lifts my finger to his mouth and his tongue sweeps out slowly over it as he makes eye contact. “It can be messy. Feel free to bring clothes you wouldn’t mind having to take off.”
I can feel my resolve weakening. His tongue is very talented and his eyes have taken on a heat that I can feel. I feel my body softening against his, and I’m leaning forward. Our lips meet in the middle, but I find myself needing some leverage without shoes. One arm goes around his shoulder, even as he grabs a hold of my butt firmly. I find myself doing the same.
I’d like to say that I kept the kiss brief, and that I’m the one who came to my senses first, but that would be a lie. Rogan pulls away looking like the cat that got all the cream.
“Don’t look so smug,” I try to object. “So you’re attractive -- I never said you weren’t.”
“Your hand is still on my butt,” he tells me, smirking. I’m probably bright red as I hastily let go and try to step back. He lets me go easily, even though his magic continues to caress my arm. He steps further away and heads towards the door. “Don’t forget to bring your chalk.”
I watch him go and have to admit to being intrigued. I don’t use magic circles for much, but they’d definitely been found wanting during our last crisis. His decision also reflects some thought on one our first arguments about our relationship. If he’s actually planning and not just throwing himself at me until I say yes, I should probably be concerned.
I scoop up the necklace from the desk and deposit it in our safe. I have a whole week to be concerned over Mad Rogan’s plotting. Until then I have real life to live, and a job to finish.