At Shade, lively music pumped through the speakers while bodies gyrated to the rhythmic beat on the dance floor, colorful lights catching the iridescent lily stamps marking the nightworlders. Fae speckled the clusters of humans, but vampires and demons also stalked the crowd. Even a few shifters mingled amongst the masses of Chicago.
No witches, though—except me. I was the only one brave enough to enter a club owned by the Unseelie king.
Or stupid enough, depending on how you looked at it.
Mist crawled over the floor and twisted around tall stools and tables, eerie in the way that it clung to the clubgoers’ legs as if it wanted to yank them into the murky depths. Trees lined the walls and constructed the private VIP sections. The moss and vines that dripped from branches moved with the heightened energy in the cavernous, two-story area while twinkling lights glowed in the rafters like stars.
The entire club could have been an enchanted forest ripped out of Faerieland.
Humans overlooked the abundance of otherworldly details, mostly because of glamours. They didn’t see the gossamer pixie wings, glittering skin, pointed ears, or fae magic. Flashes of vampires’ crimson eyes or demons’ terrifying true forms never registered in their minds.
Even without the glamours, humans were probably too intoxicated by the atmosphere to care who they partied with.
And nightworlders loved to party.
“Did you forget how to make that drink again?” Tressa, a cocktail waitress, gave a contemptuous sneer while her long finger pointed at the half-filled highball glass on the stone bar in front of me. The jewelry on her pointed elf ears changed colors as the pulsating lights swung in our direction.
I studied the ticket she’d thrown at me a few minutes ago for an order in a VIP section. Damn it. I sucked at bartending almost as much as waitressing. Still, I wouldn’t admit defeat.
“I know what I’m doing.” I flicked my hair behind my shoulder, grabbed a bottle of vodka from the shelf, and poured it into the glass. A splash of cranberry went in next, followed by a touch of lemon juice to finish it off.
She rolled her eyes. “What about the tequila shot? You forgot the lime wedge.”
“I didn’t forget. I wasn’t finished.” I grabbed a lime wedge from beneath the bar and stuck it on the edge of the shot glass.
“Sure, like you didn’t forget how to make a mojito.”
“I thought basil would taste better than mint.” Total lie. “Besides, the girls I served them to liked it.”
She propped her hand on her narrow hip, accentuated by the gold bikini top and filmy white skirt. “They were drunk.”
Hellfire and Hecate, why did I think getting a job at a fae club was a good idea?
Oh, right. The grand witch was still hunting me, and after spotting a venator slinking around Chicago, it was best to stick to enemy territory where I was less likely to be found. But deep down, there was another reason I’d sought employment at Shade, no matter how much I wanted to deny it.
The dagger of Astrix was here. And it still called to me.
A shiver rippled over my spine despite the heat of the club. The last time I used my death powers, I’d killed the necromancer, and that left a massive stain on my soul. Ever since then, that evil side continued to claw at my surface, craving freedom. While the demon dagger had been in my possession—before I reluctantly gave it to Lachlan—its power throbbed and begged to be used.
That blade was hidden somewhere in this high-rise, and just the thought of it had me remaining here like a recovering addict, waiting for the slightest push to fall off the wagon. Temptation was everywhere in Shade, and I wasn’t referring only to the dagger or the wicked urges of the death raker.
“You’re taking too long.” Tressa’s haughty voice pulled me back to the chaotic atmosphere of the club. “When you’re done, you can take the drinks to that VIP section.” She jerked her thumb to an area in the back shrouded in moss and ivy vines.
“Fine.” I grabbed a glass to start on another beverage from her ticket.
The corners of her glossy lips hitched into a smile. “Have fun with those customers.” She spun and sashayed back into the crowd.
Oh, great. They were probably a bunch of rich, arrogant douchebags who liked to get handsy. Luckily, Lachlan let me wear whatever the hell I wanted to. I wasn’t about to don one of those skimpy gold bikinis and sarongs. My jeans and tank top at least provided a little protection.
The king only allowed me such freedom so I’d remain at Shade under his watchful eye. He would love the opportunity to have the death raker under his thumb again.
After finally finishing the drinks—I was seventy-five percent sure they were correct—I zigzagged through the crowd, balancing the tray on my palm. The swarm of heightened emotions pulsated more vibrantly the deeper I traveled into the center of Shade. If I could feel it this acutely, the fae would no doubt be getting high on it, which was their intent. Shade was like one giant emotion factory that the fae, especially dark ones, reveled in. They sucked it up like a vampire chugging blood.
My fingers wrapped around a layer of moss and pushed it aside to enter the VIP section Tressa had pointed out. As soon as the occupants were unveiled, an invisible fist slammed into my gut, and I almost dropped the tray.
Here was another source of dangerous temptation.
Most of the time, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to smack the prince or jump his bones. Right now, though, the urge to pulverize that cocky smirk tingled through my veins. Caleb Blackwood lounged on the end of a smooth leather couch with his arm around a giggling redhead. When he noticed me, the arrogance in his expression doubled.
The night the necromancer unleashed those ferals, things had gotten seriously steamy between us. We’d almost torn our clothes off in a dirty alley and then again in my room. Caleb had been determined to see me after I moved back to my apartment, but as soon as I returned to Shade for a job a few weeks ago, he’d morphed into an absolute prick.
If he wasn’t throwing his latest conquest in my face, he was taunting me relentlessly. Two days ago, the tension between us had gotten so bad, I broke his nose. It healed within hours, but that satisfying crunch and howl of pain did bring me joy for a while.
“Hello, Rose Thorn.” He ticked his head toward the blue-eyed skank snuggled against him, ruffling his shock of midnight and silver hair. “Candi had the Buttery Nipple shot.”
Of course she did. And her name was Candi?
I shoved the tray at them and used a flick of magic to tip the shot onto Candi. Unfortunately, the prince’s reflexes were too quick, and he used his air magic to force the small glass into an upright position before it spilled.
“You’re a little clumsy tonight, aren’t you?” He ran his tongue over the hoop piercing in the center of his plump bottom lip while his wintergreen gaze searched me from head to toe.
My powers slithered out again and tilted the glass while Caleb fought back with air magic. The others in the VIP section faded as the two of us indulged in another stare-off.
A line of sweat leaked down the back of my neck as the prince’s eye twitched. Neither one of us was at full power so we didn’t have to glamour the humans. Keeping our strength from growing was more of a challenge than anything, though.
When my long hair started to sway from his elemental air magic, someone cleared his throat and plucked the shot off the tray.
“You two should really go somewhere and work out your issues.” Jasper, Caleb’s best friend, smirked as he passed the Buttery Nipple to a very confused Candi. “I’m tired of breaking up your little spats.”
I handed him his overly sweet fae cocktail. “There’s nothing to work out. Caleb’s a dick.”
The man in question scoffed. “And you’re—”
I slammed the tequila shot into his chest before he could call me whatever colorful name he considered clever. “Don’t strain that brain of yours, Tinkerbell. You might pop a couple of blood vessels.”
The tall, willowy girl next to Jasper snickered as she took her drink. “Tinkerbell? Why would you call him that?”
“Because he’s a faerie.”
“Thorn,” Caleb snapped, his jawbones hardening to sharp plains across his handsome face.
The two girls glanced at each other with puckered brows.
A silky laugh spilled from a guy I didn’t recognize sitting at the other end of the couch. “Jasper told me you liked to bust Cal’s balls, but I thought he was exaggerating.”
The twinkling lights around the VIP section danced on the guy’s dirty blond locks while he gave a charming smile. The pale, flawless complexion screamed vampire as did the way his aquamarine eyes glimmered.
He was still a tall drink of hotness, bloodsucker or not.
“Busting Tink’s balls fills me with happiness.” I tucked the empty tray beneath my arm. “If only there were more hours in the day to annoy him.”
“Don’t you, like, own this club?” Candi whisper-yelled to Caleb. “Shouldn’t she be nice to you, since you’re her boss?”
I couldn’t stop the manic laugh from bursting out of my mouth. “He’s not my boss.”
“You sure about that?” Caleb asked while settling back on the couch again, spreading his legs as he dominated the space.
Jasper stood and polished off his drink. “Sorry to bail, but I’ve got to get back to work.”
The other girl pouted. “I thought we were going to hang out.”
He licked the sugary cocktail from his lips and winked. “Some other time, Richelle.” Jasper turned his attention to the prince. “Stay firm on that marriage thing. Your dad will never let up if he thinks there’s a chance you might fold.”
“Marriage?” I peered at the two faeries, a sour taste filling my mouth. Surely, they weren’t talking about Caleb getting married.
The prince gave a casual shrug. “My father’s just being his usual controlling self, but no one—not even him—will make that decision for me.”
A million thoughts sped through my mind as their words sank in. Was the king seriously trying to force Caleb into an arranged marriage? With who? Another fae in Nightworld?
Jasper appeared directly in front of me to hand over the empty glass, cutting off my spiraling thoughts. “Don’t worry, Thorn, the only way the prince is going off the market is if you’re the one taking him.”
I ignored the thrill his words gave me and scoffed. “Sure thing.”
As Jasper disappeared, Caleb watched him with a furrowed brow. He obviously hadn’t heard him.
“Next time you order drinks, I’ll make sure to have someone else bring them.” I placed the empty glass on the tray.
Caleb’s husky chuckle made my stomach flip. “Where’s the fun in that?”
I saluted him with my middle finger and spun on my heels. As I slipped out of the VIP section, the prince’s voice followed.
“Where are you going?”
At first, I thought he was talking to me until someone appeared by my side.
“I need a drink.” The vampire’s full lips pulled into another charming grin. “I didn’t get a chance to order earlier. Could you make me one?”
“Sure.” He would regret it, though. I came around the bar as the guy leaned on the other side across from me. “What can I get you?”
He bit his bottom lip in thought before answering. “I’ll take a vodka and crimson.”
Crimson was code for blood. “You got it.”
“My name’s Sterling, by the way,” the vampire said as I grabbed a lowball glass. “And you’re Rose?”
“Thorn, actually. Caleb likes to call me Rose Thorn to annoy me—because, like a rose, I can be a little sharp and stinging.” To the prince anyway.
Sterling tilted his head as he studied me intently from across the bar, colorful lights bouncing on his hair. “You seem pretty sweet to me and much more beautiful than a rose.”
A light blush coated my cheeks at his compliment, even though he was a vampire. The last time I had anything to do with those immortals, most of them came to an untimely and gory demise in the morgue of a funeral home.
“How do you know Caleb?” I asked to redirect the conversation to less dangerous topics, fighting back a shudder while I poured blood into the glass.
“Through Jasper. We’ve been friends for years.”
That made sense. Jasper had dated demons, so hanging with vampires wasn’t a surprise. I poured vodka into the glass and then handed it to Sterling. “Here you go.”
He downed a sip and choked back a cough. “It’s good.”
This vampire was full of shit.
I reached for the drink. “Let me put more crimson in it.”
Sterling snatched it out of my range. “No way. I like it just the way you made it.”
“Liar, but that’s very sweet of you to torture yourself for me.”
Scarlet flashed over his irises as he took another sip of his bloody cocktail. “I’d do more than that to get a chance to know you. I’d even risk pissing off the prince for talking to you.” When my brows puckered, he ticked his head to the left. “He’s standing at that table, looking like he might march over here and drag me away from you.”
I peeked over Sterling’s shoulder, and sure enough, Caleb loomed at an empty cocktail table, his arms crossed and a severe expression cutting into his face. “He’s just annoyed I’m talking instead of working.”
Sterling released another soft laugh. “Sure, that’s it.”
Did Caleb really think I’d swoon into Sterling’s arms if he flirted with me a little bit? He was a vampire, for witch’s sake.
But he was a sexy vampire.
The shadows residing around the remainder of my soul stirred from their slumber and leaked into my thoughts. What would it be like to have a tryst with a vampire?
Exciting? Tantalizing? Dangerous?
“So, Thorn, that’s a pretty badass name.” Sterling’s voice shattered my hazardous reverie, and the shadows receded.
I grabbed a towel and began drying a glass to give myself something to do other than drool over him. “I’m not that much of a badass.”
He leaned his cheek into his hand as he studied me. “Somehow, I doubt that. If you’re brave enough to refer to Caleb as Tinkerbell, you must like living dangerously.”
My head tilted back as a laugh broke free. “Maybe.”
A guy was suddenly shoved into the bar a few seats down from Sterling, knocking over two stools. The glimmering lily on his hand marked him as a nightworlder, but the ruby-red flooding his eyes made it damn well obvious he was a vampire.
“You stay away from my sister.” Another guy approached, his body full of thick, dense muscles. As he bared his teeth, his upper and lower canines began to grow.
Shit. Definitely a shifter. Where was a bouncer when you needed one? If a fight broke out between them, humans might notice their preternatural strength. And if the shifter transformed, someone would have to glamour a lot of people.
“Braxton, no!” A girl sporting the same bronzed skin and dark curls as the shifter ran forward, putting herself in between the two males. “Charlie didn’t do anything wrong. Just leave us alone.”
Charlie, the vampire, pressed one hand on the bar and the other on the girl’s shoulder, moments from pushing her aside so he could charge the male shifter.
Sterling darted out of the stool and grabbed Charlie’s bicep before he could make a move. “Let’s all calm down.”
“Stay out of this, bloodsucker.” Braxton angled toward Sterling, and my pulse spiked.
I checked for security, but I couldn’t see shit over everyone’s head. Why did I have to be so damn short, especially compared to most fae?
“No can do.” Sterling remained surprisingly calm as the wolf shifter gave a fierce glower. “You guys can’t fight in here. You know the rules.”
Charlie huffed and straightened the T-shirt framing his lean form. “He started it all because I’m hanging out with his sister. Trisha’s a big girl. She can make her own decisions.”
Sterling uttered something under his breath to Charlie that made his shoulders hunch like a kid who’d been reprimanded. “Go home.” He tugged the vampire away from the bar and propelled him toward the door.
Trisha wiggled her fingers at her vampire boyfriend. “I’ll call you later.”
He gave a curt nod, flicking his golden-brown locks, and then vanished into the crowd.
I stopped drying the glass and set it on the bar. Did Sterling have some kind of authority with vampires, or was he a lot older than I’d thought?
Braxton’s muscles loosened a fraction as he scrutinized his sister. “You can’t hang around those bloodsuckers.” He didn’t even bother to hide his disdain. “They’re bad—”
She lifted her hand to cut off the rest of his words. “Just leave, Brax. I can find my own way home.”
After several moments of glaring, Braxton finally stormed off, and a few tears leaked down Trisha’s cheeks.
“Are you going to be all right?” Sterling asked her as he put his arm around her shoulders and drew her to a stool. “Do you want me to get you a cab?”
She sniffled and wiped the moisture from her face. “That would be really great.”
The shifter could probably bench press me, but the sadness weighing on her made her strong, solid appearance seem so vulnerable.
“Of course.” He gave her a warm smile and then retrieved his phone from his pocket.
Not all vampires were evil, bloodsucking fiends, just like not all witches wanted to curse others with dark spells. Maybe Sterling was one of the good guys.
After he called a ride for Trisha and walked her outside, he returned to the bar and silently sipped his drink as if he hadn’t gone all chivalrous.
“Are you really going to pretend that didn’t happen?” I motioned my finger to the spot the guys had almost fought.
He gave a casual shrug. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
“What did you say to Charlie to make him leave so easily?” I asked, drying another glass when I should have been paying attention to the customer on my left trying to order a drink.
Sterling finished the rest of his blood cocktail and licked his lips. “I just reminded him not to break the rules. I’d like to continue coming to Shade, especially now that you’re working here.”
“Thorn!” Tressa’s high-pitched voice shattered the moment between Sterling and me, and she slapped a piece of paper on the bar. “The king has ordered these to be brought to his office.”
I scanned the list of various liquors and fae wines. “Why me?” Lachlan made a hobby out of creating new cocktails—for humans and nightworlders—so it wasn’t a surprise that he wanted all of this toted to his office.
“Exactly my thoughts.” And with that, Tressa whipped around, flipping her hair before flouncing off.
I turned to Sterling and waved the list. “Duty calls.”
He fished some cash from his pocket—way more than necessary—and laid it on the bar. “It was nice meeting you, Thorn. Hopefully, I’ll see you again soon.”
After the vampire disappeared into the crowd, I gathered the items Lachlan wanted and shoved them into a box. No way in hell was I going to balance a dozen bottles on a tray and hoof it all the way to his office.
I went to the service elevator, punched in the code Lachlan gave me, and rode to the top floor. The opulent halls were empty as I headed to the king’s office. I opened the door without bothering to knock, expecting Lachlan to be sitting at his giant desk.
But Lachlan wasn’t there.
Instead, Jasper stood in front of a wooden stand behind the king’s desk, the dagger of Astrix resting in the center, ripe for the taking.
The darkness in me surged forward, and a toxic urge to bound across the room, shove the fae aside, and snatch the knife sped through my veins.
I wanted that damn dagger. And I was going to take it.