Chapter One: Going Nowhere
The only thing worse than having your thirtieth birthday was celebrating your thirtieth birthday alone. There was just something about turning thirty that was depressing enough in itself, where sitting at home alone all night wasn’t an appealing option. Especially since I’d been invited to attend an art gallery opening in North Myrtle Beach on the arm of bad boy estate attorney, Marco De La Zahn, who regularly moonlighted as the dark angel of death, Mazriel. He’d be there since one of his high-powered clients was playing hostess and had apparently insisted he attend. He’d sent me the invitation knowing I was only a hop, skip, and a jump away and because of the art factor. I didn’t think he knew it was my birthday.
I figured, why not? Since I hadn’t seen hide or hair of my guardian angel, Pershabael, who moonlighted himself as my beloved husband, it looked like spending the night at an art gallery on the beach with Mazriel was my only chance to halfway salvage the remainder of my day.
At least there’d be lots of free-flowing champagne, I told myself, wiggling into the every girl’s standard little black dress. I pinned my hair up off the nape of my neck and dabbed on a layer of mascara and some smudge-proof red lipstick. It was too hot out for hose, so I simply strapped on a new pair of high-heeled sandals and grabbed my bag and car keys.
On the drive there, I wondered if Maz even knew I was coming. Maybe, considering our metaphysical connection to each other, but other than that, I hadn’t RSVPed the invitation, called, or emailed him. As it was, this was a kind of last minute decision on my part. He’d sent me other invitations to meet up with him for one reason or another over the past six months, but I had more or less ignored them. I just hadn’t wanted to see him even though he’d been behaving himself like he promised he would and he hadn’t gotten into my head or influenced my thoughts even once lately. I think he knew Pershabael and I were not about to tolerate any of that anymore. After his last attempt to ruin my life had failed, we had made sure he knew if he wanted to be allowed to keep seeing me, he needed to walk the straight and narrow as far as attempting to influence me was concerned. Apparently Maz did want to keep seeing me because so far, so good.
I decided he probably wasn’t expecting me to show up for this invite either and I couldn’t wait to see his face when I actually walked through the door. I knew he’d be pleased to say the least. It would be like a reward for all his good behavior and it would make me feel good to do this for him, so my birthday wouldn’t be a complete washout--despite the fact I was more than disappointed I wouldn’t be spending it with the one person I truly longed to spend it with.
My GPS system got me right to the gallery’s doors in just under twenty-five minutes, but I was still a good ten minutes late. There was a valet service, but I opted to park out on the street and walk a bit to give myself the chance to calm down and decide if I really wanted to go through with this or not. The closer I got to the gallery, the more I wondered if this was really such a good idea.
In minutes I knew it was a bad decision on my part to walk anyway, as my new shoes proved in minutes they were not actually made to be walked in. I could feel every tiny bone in my feet crying out for mercy with every step, but luckily, it took my mind off my growing apprehension about being alone with Mazriel all night.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t up to it, it was more along the lines of why tempt fate? Why even give Maz the chance to test my faith? Maybe the only reason he’d been good so far was simply because I had stayed away from him for six months now. Out of sight, out of mind so to speak. Maybe having me right under that perfectly straight nose of his would prove too much a temptation in the end. Let’s face it, he posed as an estate attorney, but corrupting people was his real job. Shaking up their faith was what he was supposed to do. I couldn’t really expect him to go against his very nature now, could I?
The doorman greeted me, asked for my invitation, and even though I was still trying to decide whether or not to go on inside, I handed it to him and that was that. He gave me a folded promo pamphlet and a V.I.P. pass of entry--Mazriel’s doing, I’m sure. He smiled, welcomed me again, and then held the door open for me. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the throng and glanced around, still feeling a bit nervous.
As far as galleries go, this one was decorated a bit too French Provincial for my tastes and the ornately framed pieces of art featured were probably the most hideous things of modern geometric abstractions I’d ever seen. So much for first impressions.
Luckily the champagne was good, I concluded, and downed my second glass. Liquid courage and all that. Clearly this was a case of all money and no real eye for true art. But then, I was sure there were artists out there who thought the same about my own art gallery, Purple Passions, and my penchant for surreal depictions of supernaturally beautiful men.
Speaking of, it wasn’t hard to spot Mazriel, despite the number of people he had buzzing around him. He stood a good head taller than anyone else in the room and just seemed to have such a prestigious air about him, he made everyone else in the vicinity seem like peasants.
Setting aside my third glass of champagne, I fixed my eyes on him, giving myself a moment to appreciate the sight of him. Needless to say, my apprehension evaporated right along with it. I had to admit, there wasn’t a whole lot more aesthetically appealing things on the face of the planet--and especially in the midst of this room--than Mazriel decked out in a tailored black tuxedo. He’d also tethered his long, dark hair into a rather sophisticated ponytail down the back of his neck and sported two small glinting diamond studs in his ears adding an overall wow factor to his already elegant look.
I smiled in spite of myself. No wonder I’d been crazy infatuated with him when I had first met him. He was gorgeous. It made me wonder too, if anybody else who knew him ever stopped to think how unreal he looked. Of course, it was more than obvious to me now because I knew he wasn’t real.
I decided to turn the tables on him a bit, and took advantage of our mental connection to steer the dark angel’s attention this way. I called out to him in my mind, knowing he’d hear me loud and clear. He once heard me think about him over three hundred miles away. This was just going to be from across the room.
Yoo-hoo, Mazriel! Your date is here. Why don’t you come over and say hello?
It was like a scene out of a movie. Watching his face, I could clearly tell the moment he heard me. His whole expression changed. For a moment, his eyes searched the room and when they locked onto me, we might as well have been the only two people here. Despite having been engaged in conversation with the people around him, he stepped away from them without hesitation and moved towards me, adeptly snagging two flutes of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter with one hand. He smiled at me, flashing those perfect white teeth of his. I couldn’t help but smile back. I had been right. It seemed as if I had just made his night.
His warm brown eyes twinkled with delight as he leaned over and brushed his lips across my cheek.
“Mya!” he exclaimed, handing me one of the crystal flutes of champagne. “You actually came.”
He was so clearly pleased to see me, I kind of felt bad I hadn’t accepted any of his other invitations.
“You deserved it,” I told him, though the whole idea of me rewarding him with my company seemed so arrogant when I thought about it. “You’ve been very good these past six months.”
His smile slipped a bit and he emitted a little growl that sounded half-frustrated, half-resigned. An instant later, he smiled at me again.
“The chance I’d be given just such a moment as this kept my eye on the prize,” he told me, his unplaceable accent sounding a little thicker than usual tonight. Maybe he’d already indulged in his fair share of champagne as well. His gaze swept over me now with obvious appreciation. “You look absolutely beautiful.”
I blinked up at him over the rim of my glass. “Look who is talking.” I gave him my own appraising once over. “You definitely look a hundred times better than the last time I saw you. If I had known you looked this…spectacular in a tux, we’d have done formal a lot more when we were dating.”
The dark angel narrowed his eyes at that. “If you remember, I tried. You weren’t exactly up to it at the time. It was hard enough just getting you to wear something more feminine than jeans.”
I grinned and shook my head. “Well, I’m thirty now. I’m gonna have to start dressing more like a grown-up.”
I could tell by the look on his face he initially thought that was an odd thing to say, but then he caught my drift.
“When did you turn thirty?” he asked, swallowing down the last of his champagne. He motioned to one of the waiters with the trays. He replaced the empty flute with two full ones and handed the second one to me even though I hadn’t finished my last one.
I hurried to down that, gave my emptied glass to the waiter, and then touched my new full one to Mazriel’s in an impromptu toast before answering him.
“Today,” I said and pouted. “It’s my birthday today.”
Mazriel shifted his weight to one hip. He looked at once, both exasperated and thrilled.
“Happy birthday!” he declared. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken you someplace nice to celebrate.” He gestured around the gallery with his eyes. “Well, anything would have been better than this.” He leaned closer to me. “I would have liked to have gotten you something.”
“Oh good grief,” I muttered, regretting even mentioning it. That’s what I get for feeling sorry for myself. “No, now stop it! You don’t have to get me anything, for crying out loud. I’m not twelve.” I took a long gulp of champagne and regretted that too, especially when I burped, but it made him grin again. It made me grin too. No wonder champagne was so popular at these types of events. It was the only way anyone could make it through them.
“I truly feel flattered now knowing you chose to spend your special day with me,” he said, looking insinuatingly smug.
That hit a particularly sensitive nerve in me however and I shot him a look of warning. Of course, he had every right to gloat, but I didn’t want him going on about Pershabael’s negligence to me however.
“Just keep in mind, you weren’t my first choice, okay?” I snapped, sounding a tad harsher than I had intended to and I saw a little of that sparkle dim in Mazriel’s eyes.
He inclined his head as if to concede to my point. “I will,” he murmured with a sigh. He angled his body away from me now, making it obvious I had more than put him back in his place.
This made me feel bad I’d been so snippy. I downed the remaining champagne in my glass and set it aside. To make amends, I reached out and laced my arm through his, partly because my feet were good and truly killing me at this point and partly because I wanted to reassure him.
He looked over at me now as if I were just taunting him, daring him to mention the fact I was touching him.
“Since when are you so thin-skinned?” I said, lightening my tone. “I am here, aren’t I? Why don’t you introduce me to some of your friends?”
He made a face, almost like he winced. “Friends, hardly,” he admitted. “Co-workers, clients, media. The usual set for this sort of thing. You should know. I’m sure you’ve attended your share. I’ll be happy to introduce you to them if you’d like.”
I nodded. I had attended enough of these very same functions to know exactly the kind of people he was talking about. I glanced around the room, amused by the sea of black milling around. Too many artists and collectors seemed to think you had to walk around in black all the time to be taken seriously. Of course, I’d chosen to wear black tonight as well, so I really couldn’t comment.
The waiter zipped by and I stopped him to snatch up another flute of champagne. I looked up at Mazriel and grinned. So what if I was stuck at a boring gallery opening on my birthday. At least I was also at a boring gallery opening with good champagne and someone who had made it very clear to me he was pleased to have me here. It was always nice to be appreciated. The least I could do was try to make the best of it.
Mazriel led me around the gallery, introducing me to no one in particular to him it seemed. We tried looking at the art, but both found it too off key. Finally, we retreated to the bar for more champagne. It gave me the chance to crawl up on one of the bar stools and rest my aching feet.
“So, what’s been going on with you? How’s the estate attorney business?” I asked him, just to strike up a polite conversation. It wasn’t like I could really talk to him about the other aspects of his life here.
“Lucrative,” he answered simply and took a sip of champagne. He wasn’t looking at me when he said that however, and when I followed the direction of his gaze, I realized he had his eyes fixed on an attractive, older woman in a green dress at the opposite end of the bar from us.
He was grinning at her, but she certainly wasn’t grinning back at him. In fact, she was glaring at him for all it was worth, so I knew he wasn’t hitting on her. It was more like he was taunting her. And when she turned her glare on me, her expression grew even more hateful.
I leaned closer to Mazriel, my curiosity getting the better of me. “Who is she?” I whispered to him. “She looks like she wants to go for my throat.”
The dark angel turned his attention fully on me now and gave me one of his 100 kilowatt smiles. “That’s Mrs. Tolliver. This is her gallery opening. Would you like to meet her? Since you’re both artists, I’m sure you’ll more than hit it off.”
I knew he was being sarcastic. I frowned at him to let him know I didn’t appreciate it. “No thanks,” I mumbled. “I’ll pass.”
Mazriel faced her again. “She’s also one of my wealthiest clients.” He set his champagne aside and licked his lips. “She’s probably looking at you that way because of me.”
I glanced back at her and then faced him again. “She’s your client? You’re handling her estate?” I asked, still not understanding why that should earn me her hatred. “So, what’s her problem?” She was really taking the whole if-looks-could-kill thing to another level.
Mazriel turned his head completely around, putting his lips in very close proximity to my ear. Probably just to egg his unhappy client on, but he also clearly needed to tell me something he didn’t want anyone else to hear.
“She’s most likely jealous because I’m paying more attention to you than her tonight. She’s more or less claimed me for herself, you see.” He took the time to nuzzle my hair and touch his warm lips to my temple. “You smell very lovely, by the way.”
Great. An obviously psychotically jealous ex-girlfriend. A confrontation with her was all I needed to top off my night. I jerked away from Mazriel.
“Well, I don’t like you using me to tease her, so stop.”
He merely chuckled. “Don’t worry, baby. When her time is up, she’s going straight to hell. She’s a liar, a thief, a cocaine addict, and she cheats on her husband every Friday afternoon at three-thirty when he goes to the golf course.”
My eyes widened and I gaped up at him. He was starting to make my skin crawl. “How do you know all that?” I couldn’t imagine her telling him such things. I dared to glance her way and could have sworn she actually hissed at me.
Mazriel looked at me as if surprised by my question. He turned his head slightly. “Because she’s cheating on him with me,” he admitted outright.
I looked back at him, completely thrown. “Ugh. That’s vile--even for you.”
The dark angel merely shrugged. “Maybe. But she’s so loathsome I almost enjoy myself with her. Our little trysts have also insured me a very, very substantial chunk of her estate when she dies. With her consent, I’ve reworded the language in certain documents to make it all viable, legal, and legitimate. No one will question it.” He sighed. “She’s not my lover by choice, but I can more than tolerate ten minutes of physical revulsion every week to keep my name safely in her last will and testament for another two months, sixteen hours, and fourteen minutes.” He paused and flashed a rather wolfish grin.
I was getting way more information than I wanted at this point, but was too morbidly fascinated by what he was saying to change the subject.
“What is that? Sixteen hours, fourteen minutes?” I asked, keeping my voice as low as I could.
Mazriel looked at me, his expression the picture of nonchalance. “She’s going to overdose on cocaine that night. She’s going to kill herself. Imagine her…surprise, when she sees who comes to collect her soul.”
For a moment, all I could do was stare back at him. I couldn’t move or speak. I was so utterly sickened by what he had just told me, I was all but paralyzed by it.
Mazriel stared back at me and I could tell when he realized he’d just altered our rapport for the night. His expression reflected his anger, as well as his remorse.
“Don’t tell me I’ve shocked you?” he more or less growled.
That kind of snapped me out of it. I shook my head, turned away from him and snatched up my purse.
“You know what, thank you,” I began, trying to keep my voice even. “For shaking me awake. For reminding me why I shouldn’t be here, why I don’t keep casual company with you, and why I need to get the hell out of here.” I slid off the bar stool I’d been perched on and nearly dropped to my knees when my feet hit the floor and seized with pain from the impact.
Mazriel grabbed my arm, but I wasn’t sure if it was to help steady me, or to keep me from going anywhere. He pressed his body against mine, dipping his head to once more whisper in my ear.
“You know what I am. You know what I do,” he said through his teeth, lowering his voice to a whispery snarl.
I yanked my arm away from him and swayed precariously on my shoes. “Yeah I do,” I snapped back. I wished I hadn’t chugged all that champagne now. It wasn’t exactly helping me find my sea legs and I think it was adding to my nausea. I needed some air. “That’s why I want to leave.” With newfound determination, I started for the exit.
I didn’t get very far however. Mazriel’s large hand clamped around my upper arm again, stopping me so abruptly, I almost toppled into him. I glared up at him.
“I’m gonna give you exactly three seconds to get your hand off of me!” I hissed through my teeth, trying to keep my voice as low as possible so I wouldn’t be making a scene.
Mazriel chose to ignore me and worse, he headed into the midst of the crowd, more or less dragging me after him. He weaved his way up to a stout, gray-haired man wearing a bolo tie with his tux.
“Mr. Remy,” Maz greeted the man, coming to stand in front of him. He was careful to keep his hold on me, digging his fingers into my flesh every time I so much as squirmed. I recognized the name as one of the senior partners of the law firm from when they were handling Daddy’s estate.
Mr. Remy was kind of peeking around Mazriel at me now. He studied me a good minute, then faced his associate and raised his bushy eyebrows with a clearly inquiring look.
The dark angel offered him a cordial smile. “Please extend my apologies to Mrs. Tolliver, but I must see to my friend. She’s a little…too impaired to make it safely home on her own.”
I frowned, wondering how he’d come to that conclusion. Granted, I was staggering around, but it wasn’t because I was flat out drunk. I was a little buzzed at the most, but I knew better than to try to drive anywhere feeling the way I did. Right now, I just wanted to get out of the gallery and get away from Maz.
Mr. Remy shot me a wary look again and then nodded. I guess I must have looked ‘impaired’ to him.
“Ever the gentleman, eh, De La Zahn?” he all but gushed in a thick Georgian accent, obviously beaming with pride that his associate was so very responsible. He even clapped him on the shoulder in encouragement. “Don’t you worry about Mrs. Tolliver. I’ll let her know. You go on. See to your lady friend there.”
Mazriel inclined his head, but didn’t waste time with replying. He all but turned on his heel, hauling me along behind him through the gallery’s main floor to the exit doors. He didn’t release me until we were well outside.
“Gentleman?” I spat, swaying precariously on my shoes. “Boy, do you have him fooled!”
Shooting me a glare, Mazriel snatched my purse from me and dug out my car keys. Then he shoved them into his pants’ pocket before handing me back my bag.
“Just how much champagne have you had tonight?” he asked, giving the valet his key tag.
To be honest, he did sound a little worried. I sighed. “For your information, my feet hurt, okay? It’s why I can barely walk. I should have never worn these shoes.”
He continued to stare at me. It was making me uncomfortable.
“All right. I lost count after six glasses,” I confessed.
“Mmm hmmm,” he acknowledged and licked his lips. The dark angel faced away from me then. He loosened his tie, tore out the tether holding back his hair, and shook it out. It poured forward around his face like a cascading shadow.
Watching him brought to mind some really inappropriate memories I hadn’t realized I was still hanging onto of him lying over me, his face poised between my legs, his hair falling that exact same way as he lowered his head to go down on me. It made me all but panic. I backed away from him.
“Forget it. I’m not going anywhere with you,” I stated firmly.
“Yes you are,” Mazriel shot back, his tone leaving little room for arguing. “I’m not about to let you drive. I don’t care how disgusted you are with me right now.”
I made a face at him. “I wasn’t going to drive! Not yet anyway. I just wanted to get out of there. I was only going to walk around a bit to clear my head.” Though I couldn’t imagine walking very far the way my feet presently felt.
“Alone?” Maz questioned. He rolled his eyes. “Mya, do you truly think wandering the streets, at this time of night, dressed as you are, and as inebriated as you are, is better than staying with me? You might as well be carrying a sign saying ‘victim, come and get me’.” He shook his head. “Where the hell is your angel? Why isn’t he watching over you like he’s supposed to?”
I was mad now, but I wasn’t sure who, or what, I was mad at.
“Because he’s obviously got better things to do tonight,” I grumbled under my breath, but then regretted it an instant later. “Leave him alone, all right?”
Mazriel only smiled. “I won’t say another word. It’s no skin off my nose.”
“No, it’s not,” I agreed, feeling petulant.
The valet parked a silver BMW convertible in front of us and hopped out, tossing Mazriel the keys, which he seemed to effortlessly pick out of the air.
“Get in,” he more or less commanded me, opening the door for me. He gave me a look that dared me to defy him.
Since I didn’t see any other way of getting my car keys back, I trudged on over to the other side of the car and climbed in. He closed the door after me and strode back to the driver’s side.
Climbing in beside me, he gave me a rather devilish-looking smile, gestured at my unfastened seatbelt as if telling me to buckle up, then turned the key.
For the most part, I was too busy sulking to bother to ask where exactly we were going and it wasn’t until we were pulling up in front of one of the nicer beachfront hotels that it occurred to me how far away from the gallery we were.
“Hey, how am I supposed to get my car now?” I belatedly asked, peering out of the car with a growing sense of uneasiness. I wasn’t even sure how things had progressed to this point and that made me even more wary.
Mazriel only huffed like such things were inconsequential to him in the grander scheme of things. “It’s not going anywhere, believe me,” he mumbled, pulling the BMW into a covered parking garage. “I’ll have one of my assistants drive you back to the gallery in the morning.”
I raised my brow at that. He was traveling with assistants and this wasn’t even a business trip per se. He must have gotten promoted or something these past couple of years to entitle him to an entourage.
He found a spot close to the elevators and once again, in keeping with his reputation as a gentleman, opened the car door for me. He extended his hand towards me to assist me out.
“Hold on,” I grumbled, reaching down to pull off my sandals. I didn’t think I could stand another minute in them.
“Don’t start undressing yet, my lovely,” Maz teased in a low, sultry voice. “Wait until we get into the hotel.”
I glowered up at him, getting out of the car of my own accord, leaving his empty hand just hanging there.
“You can get that thought--and anything even closely resembling it, right out of your dirty little mind,” I told him.
With a rather humorless laugh, he pressed his hand against the small of my back, urging me towards the elevators.
“Don’t presume to know what I’m thinking,” he said, sounding a little irritated now. “You obviously don’t.”
I sighed and shook my head as we stepped into the elevator together.
“You know, I just don’t get it,” I admitted. “What’s the attraction? What…hope are you clinging to? There’s nothing left between us, Maz.”
“Nothing? I think you’re lying.”
I looked up at him. “You think? You don’t know?”
Mazriel pursed his lips. Then he sighed. “Not for certain.”
I grinned. “Why don’t you crawl inside my head and find out?”
That earned me a scowl.
“Give me a break, baby, okay? You’re not going to trip me up that easily.”
I feigned innocence. “Would I do that?”
Mazriel looked down his nose at me and let his hand slide from my back. He seemed to study the elevator floor numbers, delving his hands into his pants pockets, and frowned deeper.
“Well at least one of us can see the humor in all this,” he said, his voice low.
Now I felt bad for teasing him about that. He claimed to be in love with me, and was even willing to prove it a time or two, but I couldn’t seem to muster up much beyond sympathy for his unrequited love for me. And then, like earlier tonight, he’d do or say something that’d all but make me want to throw-up.
“I’m sorry, okay?” I murmured, bowing my head.
The angel’s eyes glanced my way. “Don’t apologize. But at least you feel sorry. That’s something.” The elevator stopped on the eighth floor and he motioned me forward. “Come.”
I balked, my mind finally registering the fact I was about to be shut up in his hotel room for the night.
“I…don’t think this is such a good idea, Maz,” I pointed out, forcing him to have to hold open the elevator doors for me. “Why don’t you have one of your assistants just drive me home right now?”
Mazriel sighed as if with infinite patience and then moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, hinting at the possibility of apprehension.
“It’s your birthday, Mya,” he said, his deep, sexy voice becoming breathy and soft. “You came all this way. The night is still young. At least let me buy you a cup of coffee and a slice of cake before you go.”
Now I sighed, fixing my eyes on my bare red-painted toes just poking out of the elevator. It was my birthday, damnit, and I wasn’t about to get to celebrate it much beyond this. I was already here. And it was still early. I could just go in for a few minutes. Have cake.
Mazriel seemed to know what I was thinking even though I believe my hesitation told him all he needed to know.
“How about this? If you get to the point where you feel uncomfortable,” he began evenly, “just tell me and I will call my assistant to drive you home. Does that sound fair?”
I looked up at him then. He was giving me that same look he gave me six months ago when his very freedom depended on me trusting him.
I had to admit, I did trust him now. He’d yet to go back on his word and he’d actually been a gentleman for the most part tonight. Maybe I should give him a break.
“All right,” I agreed, finally stepping out of the elevator. “Lead the way.”