Gene escorted me to his apartment in the Victorian house. I sank into his comfy, leather couch, holding my middle and urging my body to settle while he swept the living room, partial kitchen, and bedroom before settling in front of me.
“Coffee or blood?”
“What?” Queasiness curdled deeper.
“For your stomach, which would you prefer, coffee or blood?”
My choices warred with each other, simultaneously appetizing and revolting. I couldn’t decide, so I leaned into his shoulder instead.
Warmth engulfed my sides and back as his hand generated circles.
One of our cycles. Me queasy or puking. Him unsure what to do for me. We’d already discussed the possibilities of needing fae blood, and as sick as I was of being ill, I didn’t want to bring up that discussion again. There was no point to it.
The vanilla, honey, and almond scent of him took the edge off, so we spent a lot of time in close proximity, especially in the mornings when it was worst.
That meant a lot of sleepovers and cuddling.
Intimacy bloomed between us, and I struggled with it.
It sent us in another routine of warm, cold, hot, too hot, cold, and around again.
Demanding and pronounced taps struck his front door, pulling us apart.
Visitors made a habit of separating us. Unannounced threats.
Gene paused to brush my bangs from my face and drop a kiss on my mouth before he helped me upright. Whoever showed up probably meant to gain something from me—an upper hand, information, fear. Being tired and aware of it didn’t keep it from happening.
I braced myself behind him, peeking around his shoulders.
He opened the door to Scarlet.
That prickling I used to get when Felix’s power crawled over my skin returned, but the threat was far more perilous.
A tug at her gloves and a brief touch to her pearls, Scarlet nodded to acknowledge us both. “Do I get the offer of coffee or blood? I almost always take blood, whether offered or not. Almost.”
The quirk of her mouth disturbed me.
Gene’s shoulders tightened under his suit jacket.
“I find it strange. You two have retired here five of seven nights this week.”
“I do not see how our nightly routine or where we retire is of interest to you or how it is any of your business.”
A shift in her stance read offense. “I heard you were one to follow rules and protocol, and here I am still standing in the hallway like some kind of beggar.”
Scarlet didn’t force her way in the way Felix or Vincent might. Instead, she smoothed down the fabric of her bodice and sighed. “You think just because I lost the ability to flay someone with my bare hands keeps me from enjoying the use of a blade? That I don’t have any other abilities? It was easy enough to gain power with it, but keeping influence and position brought new challenges. Different attention. More subtly. I have a new way of dealing with obstacles now.”
“How’s that?” Gene moved to block me once more.
“Why, I deal in secrets. And you’re teeming in them.” Her gaze found me anyways. “The both of you are.”
Gene and I exchanged a look, clearly dismissing me from the room. I didn’t want to leave him there alone with her, but I’d learned to trust him.
“I didn’t say she could leave.”
“You’re not our queen, and etiquette says you’ll deal with me as our hierarchy dictates.”
“It may be in your best interests not to send me after her when you’re not present, especially since she enjoys spending so much time with that pack of humans. Hierarchy would not serve her well then.”
I met her gaze fully. A challenge to her authority.
Even though I am not the highest amongst them, depending on who was present, they were powerless against her, and she’d force me to break protocol anyways.
My hand braced Gene’s elbow. He broke his protective barrier between us.
“So, what do you want from me? The more specific you can be, the better,” I said.
Her lips and brows quirked. “I see why you tend to conduct the meetings, but I am not surprised. Her attitude proceeds her. Generating a mythos of her own, spreading wide, and once it’s penetrated too far, you’ll not be able to contain or control it.”
I fought not to roll my eyes. Didn’t I say to be specific?
“Ria.” Gene gave me a shot of magick to chide me.
I crossed my arms and waited.
Scarlet met my challenge with a practiced ease. “Your secrets, renegade. I want your secrets.”
A deep sigh jangled her pearls, and she wiped her hands down her bodice once more.
My fingers tightened around my biceps. She’d have to wait in line.
“Not right this moment, mind you, my reputation doesn’t include my sense of patience, but I know when to utilize it if I must.” A few curious blinks, and she acknowledged us both individually before turning from the door. “Not forever, though.”
Adrenaline shook my hands and shoulders, so I gripped myself harder as Gene closed the door.
“You shouldn’t goad her. She might not be our queen, but she has enough power to slaughter scores of her own people and ours.”
“It’s like you have a death wish.”
“Why do you challenge her then?”
“Because she’s the epitome of authority, and you know how I am with that.”
Gene mimicked my stance, arms folding across his chest. “Quite intimately, but I do not find that to be an adequate answer.”
A tilt of my head shifted his stance in response. His tendency to lecture me came from a good place, so I sighed.
“How about because I’m sick of every other creature looking at me like an anomaly, like my secrets are the answer to whatever power struggle they’re entangled in, like I’m some prize to cash in on. I am a person. Not property—”
Gene cleared his throat, reminding me that I wasn’t quite right. He didn’t need to, but that didn’t mean I agreed with how this society pinned me as such.
“—to be used as some type of magickal talisman. I just want to be left alone.”
“I do not disagree with you, but you will have to give up the pipedream. Reality is ruthless, and the sooner you understand that, the safer I can keep you.”
Another dose of adrenaline sucker punched me right where I was sensitive. My arms unfolded, and I cradled myself for the jog to the bathroom.
I cursed life as an immortal the entire time. How could I be this sick as a vampire?
I missed how easily Boden’s touch tended to soothe this pain.
Gene came in after, a glass of water at the ready.
Thanking him, I swished and spat before I flushed.
“Coffee or blood?”
Exasperated, I couldn’t refrain from the eye roll. “Coffee.”