Just as Cadeon had heard, Imatra was a great beauty. And the woman obviously knew it. She wore a crimson silk robe over a leather miniskirt and a black bustier that pushed up her sizable breasts precariously.
Holly had on a twinset and a Burberry skirt.
Imatra sauntered around him, lazily trailing a finger along his shoulders. "Such a stunning male you are." She barely spared Holly a glance, then her attention was back on him. "You need to come with me to the back."
When Holly followed them, Imatra turned and said, "Just Cade. We've business to attend to." She winked at Holly.
Cadeon looked like he'd protest - Holly wanted him to. But Imatra whispered something in his ear, and he said, "You stay at the bar, Holly. Don't interact with anyone. Just sit and stay quiet, or yell for me if you need me. I'll be back in fifteen minutes."
Then they were gone. And she didn't know how she felt about that stunning demoness flirting with Cadeon so aggressively.
Exhaling a breath, she sidled up to the bar and took a stool. This place reminded her of the Tatooine bar scene from Star Wars. What was the name of that place? Oh, yeah. The Mos Eisley Cantina. I am such a geek to know that.
"What'll you have?" the bartender asked her. One of his three eyes was missing. Three not complete or two not nullified. Either was bad. She tried not to stare, but the potential for three should be three!
She delicately cleared her throat. "W-water would be fine, thank you."
As she arranged the napkins stacked nearby in perfect squares, all around her males closed in. Oh, yes, Cadeon. Don't interact, and I'll be dandy.
"What business have ye here, Valkyrie?" the apparent leader asked.
She sensed a vague threat from these males. They were testing her. She recalled the last time she'd felt this way - her first day of class with thirty-three Tulane football players. She'd donned a façade of utter confidence, tolerating zero disrespect.
What were demons compared to freshmen jocks?
"I'm here enjoying the area," she said blithely. "Tell me, do you reside along the water?"
They all went wide-eyed. "Why do ye want to know where I live?" the leader asked. "To take my head whilst I sleep?"
"Aye, Deshazior," another interjected, "that's the way of the Valkyrie. Creep in when you don't expect it, then, bam" - he slammed the bottom of his fist on the bar - "you're headless."
Be calm. Slow the heart. "While that might be the case, gentlemen, I was actually thinking that flood insurance must be a nightmare for you guys."
"She talks like a human," this Deshazior said. The demon, who himself talked like a Central Casting pirate, motioned to the bartender, and a shot glass appeared in front of her. "Drink, Valkyrie."
"I don't imbibe."
"It's rude to be turnin' away demon brew when it's offered to ye."
"Nonetheless, I never drink - "
"And bad luck to boot."
"Bad luck?" Her hand swooped up the shot glass. A random occurrence that doesn't go your way. "What can one drink hurt, yeah?" Great, now she was even talking like the oaf.
With her free hand, she collected a napkin, giving them a pained smile as she polished an area on the rim of the glass. To the accompaniment of Jimmy Buffet crooning, "They say you are a snuff queen, honey, I don't think that's true...." she placed the drink to her lips, then turned it up.
The liquid burned like nothing she'd ever ingested, and she coughed, eyes watering. She placed the glass on the bar with its opening down, so they didn't try to refill it.
"How'd that treat ye?" Deshazior asked.
She couldn't yet speak, so she gave the only polite gesture that was applicable: a thumbs-up sign.
Everyone cheered, while someone slapped her on the back, much too hard.
"She'll have another!"
They lined up a second glass.
Oh, no. One down, one up. She would have to drink this and then one more to get to three....
At number six, she felt surprisingly sober and wasn't as miserable as she'd thought she'd be, taking turns doing shots with demons in a sandbar bar. Indeed, she was quite relaxed.
And Deshazior was turning out to be a hoot. The storm demon had been a bona fide pirate, yet he text-messaged on his Sidekick faster than even she could. He was handsome in a grizzled way, and he also had an interest in mathematics since he'd been a navigator.
He'd told her the shots would hit her harder with each hour of the night. Holly was strangely looking forward to it.
She squinted at the Budweiser wall clock. Forty minutes had passed. Get in and get out, Cade had said.
"What is taking him so long?" she absently murmured.
A few demons smirked, and one said, "Imatra's a demanding one."
Demanding? We're here for directions. What did being demanding have to do with how long Cade was taking with the gorgeous demoness?
She scratched her head, got aggravated with her falling bun, yanked it down.
Her eyes widened. Holly, you're an idiot. Two demons in a back room, with their three-times-a-day needs...
"And it ain't like Cadeon the Kingmaker's not up for the challenge," another said.
Cadeon was back there having sex with Imatra.
All of the sudden, Holly understood why people cursed. Sometimes the emotion inside couldn't be vented with any known combination of tame words.
At least he was right about one thing. She was a preachy tight-ass and a hypocrite - because as she sat here getting increasingly drunk, all she wanted to do was utter the vilest oaths she could come up with.
He was an untrustworthy demon. She knew that. What had she been thinking even to imagine more with him?
Earlier, just before Imatra and Cadeon had gone back to her room, Imatra had flashed Holly that superior look, as if she'd taken something from her. In fact, Imatra had given her something.
Perspective where Cadeon was concerned.
Holly liked things ordered. Cadeon's bedding a sexy demoness the same night he'd made a play for Holly forever removed him from her consideration. By this act, he'd been nullified.
Yes. She'd wanted not to be tempted. To be unafraid that she might forsake her old life.
No demon, no temptation, no dark side.
Pasting a smile on her face, she asked the group, "Whose turn is it?"
I'm only here for business, dove," Cade said when Imatra poured drinks for them.
"You know it's bad luck to turn down demon brew. And it's rude to keep your sword on, like we're enemies."
He took the glass, none too subtly glancing at his watch. Ten minutes had already dragged past as she'd asked questions about the other factions out for Holly.
"Just need my directions, and I'll be off."
Cade couldn't imagine how Holly was faring out there. But he also had confidence in her, assured that she'd use that head of hers to stay out of trouble. He'd been impressed at the good job she'd done masking her amazement in the face of so many new Lorekind.
There'd been fey, demons, and Lykae, but fortunately, there were no Valkyrie. He knew all his plans could come tumbling down the minute she found out there was no turning back to human.
"Why the rush, Cade? Would it be so terrible to have a drink or two with me?" Imatra let her robe slink down her shoulder.
Cade believed most would think Imatra was beautiful, but he found her overblown and lacking compared to his halfling. "My asset's out there in a roomful of demons. She was human two days ago. There's a time element here."
"No one would dare hurt her."
No, but they might frighten her. "Then I'm keen to get to the next checkpoint, which should please your master."
"He wishes to inquire about the health of the Vessel."
Cade hated to hear Holly talked about that way, so impersonally. Groot would never see past what she could provide to discover what she was like.
"We didn't expect you to be traveling alone with her."
"Wouldn't be. 'Cept for the fact that Groot and Omort's sister Sabine, that little bitch, captured my brother."
"We hadn't known if you were aware of that."
The idea of Rydstrom's imprisonment seethed inside Cade, but he strove to block it out, realizing that negotiating this checkpoint might not be as simple as he'd anticipated. Imatra seemed capricious. She could make trouble. He didn't want to blow this deal because he got impatient with her.
Imatra said, "I suppose everyone will know soon enough with the way Sabine's been bragging about her new plaything."
Cade ground his teeth. "Where is Rydstrom?"
"You expect me to tell you when you won't even take off your sword or share a drink in politeness?"
He dutifully shrugged from his sword sheath, laying it on a chair, then lifted his glass.
With a pleased smile, she sat on the edge of her desk, making sure the slit in her skirt rode up to her hip. This female was trying to be sexy - it was her whole persona, but it wasn't natural. She had to work at it.
And she still couldn't hold a candle to Holly, who couldn't care less if males found her attractive.
"Where's my brother, Imatra?"
"Likely in Tornin, but we can't say for certain. I'm sure more information will come to us - information we might share if this transaction goes smoothly."
"Why wouldn't it?"
"How can we know you won't sleep with the Vessel?" Imatra asked.
Good question. "The same way my clients have known I'd never fuck with whatever asset they've entrusted to me. Bad for future business. Besides, the chit is absolutely not my standard fare." My standard fare was shite compared to Holly.
The demoness studied him, as if determining whether he were lying. Were they suspicious? If so, how? No one but Rydstrom, Nïx, and Rök knew what Holly was to him.
"If you decide to get clever and try to have the sword and the girl, you will fail," Imatra said. "First of all, Groot is an incredibly strong mind-reader. You might be able to block his probes, but she'd have no chance. Secondly, the exchange will be made within Groot's fortress, which is mystickally protected, rigged with traps, and guarded by revenants. A forest of Wendigo surround it. You'll get her killed if she runs with you."
Cade hadn't realized until this very second that trying for the sword and for Holly had been an option in the back of his mind.
A favored one.
Now he felt his hopes plummeting.
"A lot of obstacles," Cade agreed. "How can I be sure that I'll even get out alive?"
"Groot has vowed to the Lore that you'll have safe passage. If you vow as well that you will never reveal his location."
Swearing to the Lore was the most abiding vow an immortal could make. Even an evil sorcerer would feel compelled to keep it. "I vow it."
"Also, my master wants the Vessel fertile for immediate breeding. You have to ensure she continues eating," Imatra said, testing him, analyzing his reaction.
Cade just stopped himself from gritting his teeth. "Not here to play nursemaid."
"If she's not in the condition he wants her, then maybe your sword won't be as you'd prefer it."
Bugger all. "The Vessel has a mind of her own, but I'll give it a go with the food."
"One more thing - if she's not there by midnight on the next full moon, the sword will be tossed back into the forge, lost forever."
Cade had heard that Groot possessed a forge of unearthly heat in his hidden fortress. "He wouldn't want to give it to someone else who might kill his brother for him?"
"The weapon was forged for one of the Woede," she answered. "It would be useless to another."
"Understood. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like the second set of directions."
"I'll tell you...but only after you kiss me."
He narrowed his eyes, anger simmering. "Groot wouldn't like you imposing conditions to stymie me."
"He also wouldn't like to think that you and the Vessel are becoming involved." She slipped off her robe completely to pool on the floor. "Would it be a chore to kiss me, Cadeon?"
As a matter of fact, yes. Before he'd met Holly, this type of blowsy female would have appealed to him. He'd have kissed her and done a good deal more.
Now he'd only kiss her if he had to.
Had to? There was no future with Holly, and the sooner he got that into his head, the better. "Fine, dove," he grated. "A kiss for my directions."
"Just join me over here," she said, slinking to the bed, tossing the cover down with a practiced, sensual smile.
"None doing, Imatra." He grabbed her hand, pulling her back.
"So aggressive," she purred. "We'll have to do it standing, then."
"Whatever." He bent down and kissed her.
And it left him cold.
I better get used to this, he thought as he went through the motions. Cold is all he'd ever feel again without his own female -
"Excuse me," Holly said from the doorway. He broke away from Imatra. But Holly had seen.
His heart thundered as her gaze flickered over the unmade bed, then over Imatra's robe on the floor and his sword laid on a chair.
Ah, fuck. Now I've done it. His fated female had seen him kissing another. He'd never heard of this happening to a male of his kind. Because no one was this stupid.
But I can't have her anyway!
"I'd really like to get back to the hotel, but I don't wish to interrupt you two," Holly said breezily. She wasn't taken aback - or upset - whatsoever. The easy confidence was in force. Even Imatra seemed surprised. "Cadeon, I'll just catch a ride." She turned toward the door.
"Catch a ride?" he said in disbelief, striding the distance between them to snare her wrist. "Who the hell is going to give you a ride?"
Just then a chorus of males called that it was the Valkyrie's turn to do another shooter.
Her hair was free and curling about her shoulders, her glasses in her pocket. Her cheeks were pink from alcohol. Under his breath, he said, "Why's your hair down?"
"Because I'm in a bar?"
"You're astute. Now, really, I didn't want to disturb you. Just letting you know that I'm leaving."
Imatra donned her robe, straightening her clothes in an exaggerated manner. The bitch was trying to make it look like they'd slept together, and he couldn't deny it without appearing to give a damn about Holly.
"You're going with me," he told Holly, frowning at how utterly she didn't care about what she'd seen.
He'd thought she'd been attracted to him. Maybe even a bit proprietary after they'd kissed.
"Fine. I'll be waiting outside." With her little heels clicking on the rough-hewn floor, she sauntered out, leaving him confounded.
"I wondered about you two," Imatra said. "Now I can clearly see that Groot has nothing to worry about. You couldn't be more beneath her notice." Somehow the demoness had known Cade felt something for Holly and had suspected the reverse as well.
Then she'd been proven wrong by Holly's indifference.
"The directions?" he prompted.
"You'll be heading to Michigan."
"The exact directions?"
"In time, demon...One more drink first."
Cade heard male cheers as Holly entered the bar again. It was everything he could do not to charge out there and start brawling.
When Holly returned, Deshazior pulled out the seat next to him for her. With his brows raised in question, he made an okay sign and ran his other forefinger through it.
"Oh, yeah," she said, still unsteady. Just as she'd expected, Cadeon had been back there bedding Imatra, who'd relished being caught, giving her that superior look again.
No, this world wasn't for Holly.
But drinking might be. Secure in the knowledge that she wouldn't be led astray again, she decided to enjoy this very temporary vacation. She would get her old life back - ergo, she could do shots with demons in this new one for a bit.
"Did you see anything good?" Deshazior asked in a hopeful tone.
"No, I believe they were just finishing up."
"You think they'd only be doffing for a couple of rounds? I heard that Cadeon's a ladies' man."
"Oh, really?" she asked, her tone bored.
"I'm surprised he hasn't been sniffing around you," he said. "Demons love Valkyrie."
"Ah, but do Valkyrie love demons?"
"Aye. 'Cause we're the only ones ye won't kill in bed-sport."
High-fives got thrown all around for that one. She forced a smile. Funny that they would touch on a fact that she'd just tonight put together for herself.
Afraid Deshazior would see something in her expression that surely wasn't there anyway, she asked, "Do you have a dollar for music?"
He handed her some currency she'd never seen, and she scuffed to the jukebox. Her mood improved exponentially when she found a Stevie Ray Vaughan album on tap.
This time when she returned, Deshazior patted his lap for her to sit. He wasn't hard on the eyes, even with his huge horns. She considered what the old Holly would do.
Determined to enjoy this bizarre night, she did the opposite, delighting the big demon....
When Cadeon finally emerged from Imatra's lair, she was perched on Deshazior's knee, whispering in his ear, swaying to "Pride and Joy."
Her glasses were on Deshazior's nose, she believed she was wearing the pirate's sword belt, and she had a sinking suspicion that one of the smaller male demons was sitting on the floor beside her, lovingly rubbing his face against her free hand.
Cadeon's wide jaw bunched at the sides, and his eyes flooded with black.
In the background, Stevie sang, "You mess with her you'll see a man get mean."
My female's in another male's lap, her lips to his ear....
Deshazior noticed him and jerked his chin in greeting.
And I can't kill him. The storm demon had made no move of aggression. Their breeds weren't at war. Hell, Cade thought he'd gotten drunk with him before.
If Cade did anything, everyone would know it was over a female. Through gritted teeth, he told her, "Up - now." She'd seen him kissing another and had seemed almost amused. Cade had merely seen her flirting with another, and he wanted to slaughter something.
"Problem, Cadeon?" Deshazior asked, studying Cade's face.
"That's my charge, and we're leaving."
"I'm going, I'm going." Holly stood unsteadily, removing a sword belt from her waist. Once she'd collected her glasses from Deshazior, she briefly patted his horns.
More than one male groaned, while she was oblivious, having no idea that for a demon, she might as well have fondled his crotch. "Perhaps I need one for the road - "
Cade hauled her over his shoulder. "Party's over, pet."
The others eyed him as if he was crazy for manhandling a Valkyrie, yet instead of growing furious, Holly blew her entourage loud kisses with both hands all the way out. "Mwah! Text me, Desh!"
"Cadeon, where are we headed?" she asked once they were back on the road, cruising down a dark, isolated highway.
He'd been silent for miles. As if he were mad at her. Without a word, he handed her a slip of paper that read:
The Laughing Lady Bridge on the Bloodwater River, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A contact will be on the bridge at midnight on three consecutive nights beginning Friday.
"What the hell were you doing in there?" Cadeon finally said.
"I was just having fun while you were in the back, doffing Imatra."
"I don't have to explain myself to you."
"Certainly not." Leaning her head against the window, Holly gazed up at the sky. Stars. Brighter than any she'd seen in Orleans Parish in decades. Neat.
Cadeon said, "It's not like we have some kind of arrangement between us."
"What is this?" he demanded. "Some kind of reverse psychology?"
She sighed. "Cadeon, is it so incomprehensible that I'm not upset about this, because I'm not interested in you like that?"
"That's bullshite. You know there's an attraction between us."
"Attraction? You're kidding, right? I have hypersensitivity. You diagnosed it. Seems I'm not as discerning as usual. Even you can start to look like an option."
"Even me? What the hell does that mean? Women don't find me hard on the eyes."
"Nor conceited." His words brought to mind what the others had said about Cadeon - the ladies' man. "Those are women who probably have a thing for horns and fangs. I don't."