“Are you ready?” he asked from his seat on the floor.
Rhea was staring at herself in the mirror, but she shifted her eyes and saw Rico’s reflection looking back at her. He was leaning against the wall, long legs stretched out against the beige hotel carpet. His tuxedo jacket was missing, his tie was loose, and his shirt sleeves were pushed up to reveal tattooed forearms.
“Almost,” she said softly. She tightened her grip on the make-up brush in her hand. “Sorry.”
“It doesn’t make a difference to me, topolina,” he said mildly. “But we got our five minute warning ten minutes ago.”
“I know.” Rhea took in a deep breath and let it back out on a count of one–two–three.
She raised the brush to her neck and pressed firmly. The glamourie applied itself instantly, smoothing the shiny, purple scar tissue on her throat into delicate ivory. She twisted her head from one side to another, but the illusion remained perfect.
When she looked behind her, Rico was standing only a few feet away and looking into the mirror along with her.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he murmured, forehead furrowing. Rhea smiled tremulously and turned around to face him, soft pink skirt swirling around her feet.
“I know,” she repeated. “I just don’t want people looking at me. More than they already will.”
“Because you let a vampire escort you,” he said, a frown tightening his generous lips. Rhea stepped forward without thinking, laying a hand gently on his shoulder.
“Because I am Lady Cassandra’s acolyte,” she told him. “Because this is the first celebration since the peace. Because the covens all see me as their… their mascot, and because I’m not wearing white…"
“And I chose a vampire to escort me,” she reminded him, quirking an eyebrow at him.
“I know you hate the spotlight. You could have accepted that posh jackass of a mage–Nigel, or Rupert, or whatever his name was…”
“Timothy,” she interrupted, pursing her lips.
“…and no one would have batted an eye."
"I would have been miserable.”
“And you aren’t going to be miserable now, with everyone whispering behind our backs?"
"Now you’re beginning to sound like me,” Rhea said, laughing in spite of herself. She ran her hand down his arm until she gripped his fingers in her own. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous, Rico.”
“There are some things I can’t protect you from.”
They stood in silence while Rhea squeezed his hand and he squeezed it back. She tilted her head to one side, studying his face.
“I think I’m in love with you. And I’m terrified,” she said slowly and clearly. “But not because I care what anyone thinks. Because I’m–I know I’m practically a child to you, and I can’t be what–”
Rhea stopped speaking because his mouth was on hers, firm and gentle, and his lips were exactly as delicious as they always looked. Her hands suddenly had a mind of their own, bunching into the front of his shirt, and he deepened the kiss–-
There was a thunderous pounding in the hallway and Rhea practically levitated away from Rico’s chest.
“I swear to all that is holy, y'all better stop canoodling and get down here right! Now!”
Tami’s voice rang with the power of a woman who had raised countless teenagers.
Rhea tried to calm her breathing, staring wildly up at the vampire. He licked his lips. Then he winked at her.
She burst out laughing.
“You heard the lady,” Rico said, letting just a note of regret linger in his voice. “I’ll grab my coat."
Rhea glided into the foyer on Rico’s arm, her fingers resting ever so lightly on his coat sleeve. Her mask of serenity was back in place: eyes large and liquid, cheeks relaxed, mouth arched in a delicate, frozen, almost-smile. The perfect initiate.
Tami was sharp and slick in a long, purple sheath dress. Her braids were wrapped in a perfect spiral atop her head. She was tapping her toe on the marble floor. And she was alone.
"Where’s Cassie?” Rhea asked, craning her head back and forth.
“I’ll give you one guess,” Tami said dourly. “If they aren’t here in sixty seconds, I’m sending Fred in there with a bucket of–”
“I’m here, Tami!” Cassie bellowed, flying down the hallway and half-dragging Pritkin by the hand behind her. Her voluminous skirts frothed around her as she jogged forward, her red-gold curls bounced freely around her shoulders, and her cleavage jiggled precariously against the strapless top of her gown. By contrast, the war mage was uncharacteristically composed: freshly shaved, hair lying flat, trousers crisply ironed. He wore a crimson sash under his jacket, the result of compromise after a lively argument. As it turned out, there was no traditional regalia for a prince of hell. They had to invent one.
Cassie’s eyes shown bright blue as she surveyed her companions. She nodded in satisfaction and not-so-subtly adjusted her bodice.
“Great. Let’s kick some ass, guys.”
She flounced out the door and the others followed. Rhea slid her eyes over to her escort.
“No one’s going to pay attention to me at all,” she muttered, a grin beginning to stretch across her face. Rico elbowed her gently in the side.
“I will,” was his reply.