She exhaled impatiently. It was nippy. "I'll kiss you, but only if I'm freed completely from the bet. Not just for tonight."
"Then you have to French kiss me. Not a peck on the cheek."
There went that plan.
"Very well. But I don't exactly know how to begin." Would he be inwardly laughing at her inexperience? Comparing her to Imatra?
Holly wished she were a better kisser than that demoness.
"You won't be needing this," he said, tugging her bag off her shoulder to set it on the bench behind him. "Now, you're going to have to go on tiptoe to reach me."
"You won't meet me halfway?"
"You are kissing me, remember?"
She placed her hands on his shoulders for balance, then rose up on her toes.
"Even on tiptoe, you'll need to pull my head down to yours. Cup the back of my head."
When she accidentally touched the tip of his horn, he groaned. She quickly moved her hand higher, but he said, "It feels good when you touch them."
"You really can feel with them?" she asked, recalling what he'd said about her behavior in the bar.
"Of course. Male demons love to have their horns stroked."
She filed that away for later.
"Next you're going to put your opened lips against mine, then lick my tongue. And once you've gotten to that point, you just do whatever feels good for you."
She swallowed, unable to tell if she was giddy or nervous or both. Then on her toes, she drew him down, putting her lips to his.
As if to encourage her, he gave one flick of his tongue to hers. Then he let her take over, never rushing her as she began to explore him with tentative licks. Finally, he met her tongue again, but allowed her to control the pace, slowly tangling it with hers.
The kiss was languid, but unmistakably carnal. She couldn't seem to stop herself from deepening it -
Girls' giggles sounded in the dressing room next door.
Holly broke away with a gasp, trying to quiet her panting breaths and gather her wits. But then her brows drew together as she gazed at Cadeon's face.
His eyes had gone black, and his horns had straightened and thickened. Just like each time they'd been intimate.
Yet she'd seen none of these reactions when he'd kissed Imatra.
Was it because he'd already been satisfied? Or not at all?
"There." She ducked out from under his arm. "I've done it."
His voice hoarse, he said, "That you did. Glad I brought this." He donned his hat. That weather-beaten, leather one that made her heart thud. Once his eyes had cleared, he said, "I'll sneak out now. To go and sit like the other perplexed males who don't know how they got here."
"Wait!" She pointed at his pocket.
He chose to misunderstand her. "It's at - your - service, m'love."
She rolled her eyes and mouthed, "My panties."
He handed them over with a shameless grin. At last, she had the dressing room to herself. Yet as she zipped up a pair of three-hundred-dollar jeans, she stilled. I can hear the whispers from the girls next door.
Holly could tell they were whispering right at each other's ears, likely with a cupped hand, but she could clearly distinguish their words: "He's frigging hawt. Like the hawtest ever. Go act like you're getting me another size and see for yourself."
And Holly could hear their hearts clamoring each time they returned from walking past him.
Which meant he could hear them as well. No wonder he knew he was gorgeous.
"Come out so I can see," he called.
She checked herself out in the mirror and hardly recognized her reflection. She hadn't worn jeans since she was in her early teens. Because her chignon kept falling down as she tried on the turtleneck sweaters, she'd ended up plaiting her hair in two braids that would cover her ears. She wore no glasses, because she didn't need them. Her cheeks were pink, her skin seeming to glow - like Nïx's had.
She pursed her lips, hating to admit that there were advantages to being a Valkyrie.
"Come on, then."
"Just a minute!"
And then he was just outside her door. "Getting greedy to see you, pet."
At that, one of the girls in the next room sighed.
"The jeans don't fit." Though the waist was gaping, the back was too tight. She turned in the mirror, frowning over her shoulder. She'd never really noticed how big her backside was. No wonder Cadeon was always riveted to it!
"Then I'll get another size," he said.
"No, they're too big and too small."
"Let me be the judge of that."
"Fine." She opened the door.
His lips parted. "Turn around." Once she made a self-conscious circle, he said, "Well, then. I'd thought your ass in one of your skirts was earth-shattering, but your ass in jeans tops even that."
When the girls next door giggled anew, she glared. Undaunted, he reached past her for her computer case, then started dragging her out. "What are you doing?"
"But they don't fit," she insisted.
"We'll get you a belt."
"Wait, this is only one outfit!"
"None doing. We're getting you five pairs of these earth-shattering jeans, and that sweater in every color, and then we're finished, yeah?" Out in the store, he said, "Damn, that was close. I got you out of there just in time."
"What are you talking about?"
"You were about to claw out the girls' eyes for their interest in your demon. It was imminent - lives held in the balance."
"You're not my demon."
"No? You sure kissed me like I was."
"Ooh!" she muttered under her breath.
He snagged a black leather belt, coiled on a display table. "Try this." He looped it around her waist, taking his time with his arms around her, lingering. Ten to one odds said he was smelling her hair.
"It's fine," she said, so he got her a few more, then set about collecting all the jeans and sweaters.
When it was their turn to pay, Cadeon told the lady at the register, "Good evening, dove."
The woman stared speechlessly at him, unable to do more than fuss with her hair.
"Ma'am," Holly prompted, more sharply than she'd intended.
Once she snapped out of her daze and began scanning the tags, Cadeon murmured at Holly's ear, "Another close call. These silly chits flirt with death."
Holly kicked his shin. In response, he gave a deep chuckle.
When they'd finally gotten their bags and had taken the tags off the clothes she wore, he told Holly, "Go try on some hiking boots downstairs." He handed her a Centurion American Express card.
Apparently the demon was rich. "You need some expensive ones that you don't have to break in. With Gore-Tex for snow."
"Where are you going?"
"Getting a coat and some things. Stay in this store till I get back...."
In the shoe department, she picked out two types of boots. One pair was sturdy, with a Gore-Tex coating, because she needed them. Yet she also chose a pair made of sleek, black leather with higher heels - because her claws were curling for them and she was helpless not to.
When the saleslady returned with her size, Holly tried them on, walking around the area. Did everyone walk differently in boots? Maybe with a little more strut?
Holly bought the two pairs, wearing the black ones. Her task complete, she sat and waited for Cadeon to return. With no activity and no one to talk to, her mind began mulling recent developments....
She'd officially been unfaithful to her boyfriend. And that just wasn't her way. She'd never cheated on a test, had never even broken a promise. Tim was too nice a guy to deserve this -
How well do you really know Tim?
The thought came out of nowhere, making her frown.
He was perfect for her, a steady, even-tempered guy, who was incredibly driven in his career. As driven as she was. He was tall, slim, and handsome in an affable, non-intimidating way. And as she'd told Cadeon, Tim would make a great husband and father.
Which was more than she could say for a male like Cadeon, who would be unfaithful to her and most likely an absentee father to any children he might have.
Yet earlier with Cadeon, she'd had a realization. There were things about a man that could be learned so much more easily when in a sexual situation, when the walls were down.
Cadeon's eyes had been lustful, hungry, but his touch had been tender, almost as if he'd been savoring or even...awed.
Holly hadn't expected that gentleness from the rough mercenary and never would have seen it if not in bed with him.
What would she discover about Tim in a like situation? She tried to imagine doing the same things with him. Yet she couldn't - because she kept seeing the demon.
No, no! This was a perfect example of her new, foreign thought processes taking over. The ones that reason why mutual petting with a demon makes sense: because I can learn - wink, wink - about him. As a person.
She was doubting Tim only because she wasn't herself. Not because of any faint suspicion that she clung to him as a personification of her old life - the one she feared leaving...
Her thoughts went blank when she spied Cadeon coming for her, his long-legged stride eating up the distance, his shoulders back, cocky half-grin in place.
Maybe Cadeon had a good point, she thought dazedly. Maybe she should have one last adventure before her normal, ordered existence resumed. A little sexual experimentation, a little excitement...
When he reached her, he swooped down and gave her a kiss before she could react. "You missed me, didn't you?"
She was sputtering, having been kissed for the first time in public. "Hardly."
"Huh. Then I wonder why your eyes went all silvery when you caught sight of me."
"They did not!" Her gaze darted. "What if someone saw? Oh, God - "
"Relax, halfling. Humans will just think it's a trick of the light. If you brazen it out. Now let me see what you've got."
He raised his brows at her new boots. "Very nice. But you only got two pairs? I was expecting credit card abuse and retaliatory shopping from you."
"Sorry to disappoint." He had several bags. "What did you get?"
"I'll show you over dinner."
"Dinner? Do we have time?"
"I have to nourish my halfling, else she grows irritable. Besides, it'll take us five hours to drive, tops, and it's only six o'clock."
"What do you expect me to eat in a restaurant? You know I have to have things prepackaged."
"I've already put in an order. Just trust me."
For fifteen years, Holly had been overdressed for fairly much everything. Now the demon had put her in jeans, then taken her to a posh restaurant.
As they sat waiting for their food, she wondered what he'd ordered for her. A tin of green beans? Maybe fruit cocktail? Or since this was a seafood restaurant, she'd probably get a can of tuna.
"So check out my loot," Cadeon said as he dug into one of his bags. He'd removed his hat, shaking out his hair to cover his horns, and now looked insufferably gorgeous.
"Here." He handed her two packages. "I got you a watch. You used to have a nice one."
He'd noticed even that small detail?
"I got one, too," he said.
Oh, yes, because he'd pulverized his in his fist earlier. "They're not...matching or anything, are they?"
"Holls, I'm a demon; I'm not a tool."
"Oh, of course." She accepted the box, raising her brows. Cartier.
She'd always steered clear of that brand because many of the watch styles were diamond-intensive. Not so good for her since she'd get entranced with each glance at the time.
When she opened the package, she almost smiled. Not a diamond in sight. Platinum, simple but elegant. Why was he being so...thoughtful? "Cadeon, it's lovely, but really, this is too nice. I can't let you pay - "
"I'll expense it. Now, close your gab, and open the next one."
She glowered, but did. Inside were...her glasses. Smitten Kitten. She blinked at him. "You're giving me my own glasses?"
"I had the lenses changed to clear. You said you couldn't think without them on, and you were getting headaches."
Her lips parted as she donned them. Who was more supportive? Tim, who verbally encouraged her, or Cadeon, who made her work possible?
Stop comparing them! Tim also didn't go and doff bar owners of the sexually insatiable demoness variety.
"They feel perfect. But, Cadeon, I'm turning back. My eyesight will go bad again."
"Then get them changed again later. But for now, you've got work to do," he said, adding gravely, "Holly, it's not like codes write themselves." He handed her another bag. "Now, check out the coat I got for you."
Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a small, formfitting ski jacket. "It's red."
"It should be. You don't own anything red." Again, he'd noticed.
She was surprised by his good taste, but still said, "It doesn't look very heavy."
"New technology, halfling. This will keep you warm when it's twenty below. Just trust me. Besides, you're not feeling the cold as you used to, are you?"
"No, I guess not...."
The server came with their drinks then: a beer for Cadeon, and for her a chilled bottle of Perrier - unopened per Cadeon's request.
Once the man left to check on their order, she said, "Why are you always concerned about me eating?"
Cade exhaled, hating this part. Because I'm not a good man, and I'm about to betray you in the cruelest way imaginable....
It seemed to him like every moment of satisfaction with his female cost him another lie, digging himself deeper, ensuring there could be no forgiveness.
Block it out. "Maybe your transition can be slowed if you held onto some human traits?"
She sighed. "I'm hungry less and less. I could easily see myself forgetting to eat altogether."
"The change has already taken a foothold in you. I don't think you even realize how much stronger and quicker you're getting."
She grew quiet for long moments, folding and refolding her napkin with her thin, nimble fingers. The ones that had been wrapped around his shaft mere hours ago. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"What's on your mind?"
"I was just wondering...what's it like to live forever?"
Wearying. Without a mate and family, it was so damned wearying. But he answered, "Living forever has it perks. Such as the not dying part. Are you thinking about signing on for immortality?"
"I don't know how to answer. I definitely see advantages to being a Valkyrie. But I don't want to be the Vessel. I don't want to be dead or bred. And I don't know how I'd reconcile my current life with the change. What if I flashed an ear in class?"
"You'd be amazed how many Lorekind live among humans, and they never know it."
She tilted her head. "Honestly, I'm not certain that I'd want to live forever...." She trailed off when the server returned with their dishes.
For Cade: a twenty-ounce porterhouse. For her: bananas unpeeled and boiled eggs with their shells intact, accompanied by plastic ware, still in the wrapper.
She looked from her meal to his, her expression growing forlorn.
"You want some of my steak, don't you?"
She shook her head hard, clearly wanting some of his steak. "I still have...issues."
"I know, I know. You like things untouched and still packaged."
She frowned when the server returned with another plate for her, filled with lobster tails and uncracked crab legs.
When they were alone again, Cade said, "Behold, the ultimate in untouched and packaged foods. You can crack the shells yourself without any transference, then eat the meat with the plastic fork."
She blinked at him. "Do you know how long it's been since I've had fresh seafood?" Then her lips curled into a smile.
Score another one for the demon.
"I'm a good date, aren't I?"
"If only you weren't so modest," Holly replied outside the restaurant. In truth, he had been a good date, creatively working with her quirks. And the dinner had been phenomenal.
He crossed to a garbage can, throwing the watch boxes away. From that distance, he turned and tossed something to her. "Think fast!" he said.
Was it shining?
A diamond ring.