He half turned and gave me a sweet, sad smile. "In case you haven't noticed, you're not a normal person. And if you get yourself into trouble, you could give away what you are. Once that happens, you're no longer safe."
"Because I could get claimed."
The smile died and went somewhere bad. "Exactly."
David had been claimed twice that I knew about. Neither had been pleasant experiences. His last owner and operator had been . . . well, a former friend of mine-and before that he'd been at the mercy of a sweetheart of a guy named Bad Bob Biringanine. I knew from personal experience that David had done things in Bad Bob's name that would turn anyone's stomach. He'd had no choice in that. No choice in anything.
It was the horror he was trying to warn me about.
"I'll be careful," I said softly. "Come on, if you had the chance to see your own funeral, wouldn't you take it?"
"No," he said, and turned back to whatever view there was outside of that window-being New York City, probably not a hell of a lot other than buildings. The sunlight loved him. It glided over planes and curves, over smooth skin, and glittered like gold dust on soft curls of hair. He reached out and leaned a hand against the window, reaching up toward the warmth. "Your human life's over, Jo. Let it go. Focus on what's next."
There were so many people I'd left behind. My sister. Cousins. Family-by-choice from the Wardens, like Paul Giancarlo, my mentor. Like my friend Lewis Levander Orwell, the greatest Warden of all, whose life I'd saved at the cost of my own. We had a long and tangled history, me and Lewis-not so much love as longing. One of the great precepts of magic, that like calls to like. We'd gravitated together like opposite magnetic charges. Or possibly matter and antimatter. If not for David . . .
I realized, with a jolt of surprise, that I wanted to see Lewis again. Some part of me would always long for him. It wasn't a part I ever wanted David to know about.
"What's next is that I let go of that life," I said aloud. "Which I can't do without some kind of ... good-bye. It's as much a memorial for me as of me, right? So I should go."
"You just want to eavesdrop on what people are saying about you."
Duh, who wouldn't? I tried bribery. "They'll probably have cookies. And punch. Maybe a nice champagne fountain."
It was tough to bribe a Djinn. He wasn't impressed. He kept looking out, face turned up toward the sun, eyes closed. After a few moments he said, "You're going with or without me, aren't you?"
"Well, I'd rather go with you. Because, like you pointed out, it might not be safe."
He shook his head and turned away from the window. I could almost see the glow radiating off of him, as if he'd stored it up from the touch of sunlight. The fierce glow of it warmed me across a small ocean of Berber carpet, through a white cotton duvet of goosedown.
I felt the surrender, but he didn't say it in so many words. "You can't go out like that," he said, and walked over.
"Oh." I blinked down at myself and realized I hadn't the vaguest idea of how to put my own clothes on-magically speaking. "A little help . . . ?"
David put his hands on my shoulders, and I felt fabric settling down over my skin. Clothes. Black peachskin pants, a tailored peachskin jacket, a discreet white satin shirt. Low-heeled pumps on my feet. He bent and placed a warm, slow kiss on my lips, and I nearly-literally-melted.
When I drew back, he was dressed, too. Black suit, blue shirt, dark tie. Very natty. The round glasses he wore for public consumption were in place to conceal the power of his eyes, even though he'd dialed the color down to something more human.
David was very, very good at playing mortal.
Me . . . well, there was a reason I hadn't tried to dress myself. I wasn't even good at playing Djinn yet.
He produced a pair of sunglasses and handed them over. I put them on. "How do I look?"
"Dangerous," he said soberly. "Okay. Rules. You don't talk to anyone, you don't go off on your own. You do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you to do it. And most of all . . ."
"Don't use any magic. Nothing. Understand?"
He offered his hand. I took it and unfolded myself from the bed, setting the empty coffee cup aside on the mahogany nightstand.
"This is such a bad idea," he said, and sighed, and then . . .
. . . then we were somewhere else.
Somewhere dark. It smelled of cleaning products.
"Um-" I began.
"Shhh." Hot lips brushed mine, delicate as sunlight. "I'm keeping us out of their awareness, but you need to stay out of the way. People won't see you. Make sure you don't run into them."
"And don't talk. They can still hear you."
"And don't touch anything."
I didn't bother to acknowledge that one. He must have taken it as a given, because the next second there was a crack of warm lemon yellow light, and a door opened, and we stepped out of a janitor's closet onto a mezzanine. Big, sweeping staircase to the right heading down to an echoing marble lobby-a vast expanse of patterned carpeting that cost more than the gross national product of most South American countries. Lots of rooms, discreetly nameplated in brass. Uniformed staff, both men and women, stood at attention. They had the brushed, polished, pressed gleam of being well paid in the service of the rich.
David walked me across a no-man's-land of floral burgundy. Past the Rockefeller Plaza Room and the Wall Street Board Room and the Broadway Room. At the end of the lobby, a narrow hallway spilled into a larger anteroom. Burgundy-uniformed security guards to either side. The babble of voices rising up like smoke into lightly clove-scented air.
Suddenly, I had a desire to stop and reconsider this plan. Suddenly it was all very . . . real.
"Oh man," I murmured. David's hand on my arm tightened. "I know. No talking."
"Shh," he agreed, lips next to my ear. I swallowed, nodded, and put my chin up.
We strolled right in between the two guards, who stayed focused somewhere off into the distance. David had explained to me once how much easier it was to just redirect attention than to actually become invisible; he'd demonstrated it pretty vividly once, in a hot tub in Oklahoma City. I wished I knew how he did it. Just one of the thousands of things I still needed to learn about being a Djinn.
The anteroom was large enough to hold about a hundred people comfortably, and it was at capacity. At first glance it looked like an office party, only people wore more black and the noise level was two decibels lower than normal. Big floral display at the polished mahogany doors at the end of the room, chrysanthemums and lilies and roses. A guest book next to them. Lots of people standing in line to sign.
David steered me expertly out of the path of a tall, thin woman in black I barely recognized-Earth Warden, Maria something, from the West Coast. She was talking to Ravi Subranavan, the Fire Warden who controlled the territory around Chicago.
Everywhere I looked, people I knew. Not many were what I'd call friends, but they'd been coworkers, at least. The cynical part of me noted that they'd shown up for free booze, but the truth was most of them had needed to make arrangements to be here- naming replacements, handing over power, enduring long drives or longer plane rides. A lot of hassle for a free glass or two of champagne, even if it was offered at the Drake.
I kept looking for the people I was hoping to see, but there was no sign of Paul Giancarlo or Lewis Orwell. I spotted Marion Bearheart sipping champagne with Shirl, one of her enforcement agents. Marion was a warm, kind, incredibly dangerous woman with the mandate to hunt down and kill rogue Wardens. Well, killing was a last resort, but she was not only prepared to do it, she was pretty damn good at it. Hell, she'd almost gotten me. And even with that bad memory, I still felt a little lift of spirits seeing her. She just had that kind of aura.
She looked recovered-well rested, neatly turned out in a black leather suede jacket, fringed and beaded. Blue jeans, boots. A turquoise squash blossom necklace big enough to be traditional in design, small enough to be elegant. She'd gotten some of the burned ends trimmed off her long, straight, graying hair.
Shirl had cleaned up some of her punk makeup and gone for an almost sober outfit, but the piercings had stayed intact. Ah well. You can take the girl out of the mosh pit... No sign of Erik, the third member of the team who'd chased me halfway across the country. Maybe he wasn't feeling overly respectful to my memory. I'd been a little hard on him, now that I thought about it.
David reversed course in time to avoid a collision with an elegantly suited gray-haired man, and I realized with a jolt that my little shindig had drawn the big guns. Martin Oliver, Weather Warden for all of the continental U.S. Not a minor player on the world stage. He was talking to a who's who: the Earth Warden for Brazil, the Weather Warden for Africa, and a guy I vaguely recognized as being from somewhere in Russia.
My memorial had become the in place to be, if you were among the magical elite.
David tugged me to the right to avoid a gaggle of giggling young women eyeing a trying-to-be-cool group of young men-did I know these people? Weren't they too young to have the fate of the world in their hands?-and we ended up walking through the mahogany doors into a larger room, set up with rows of burgundy chairs.
My knees threatened to go weak. All the place needed was my coffin to complete the scene, but instead they had a huge blown-up picture of me, something relatively flattering, thank God, on an expensive-looking gold easel. In the photo I looked . . . wistful. A little sad.
She's dead, I thought. That person is dead. I'm not her anymore.
There were so many arrangements it looked like a flower shop had exploded-lilies were a theme, and roses, but it being spring I got the rainbow assortment. Purple irises, birds of paradise, daisies of every shape and size.
It hurt and healed me, thinking of all those people laying out time and money for this incredible display.
We weren't alone in the room. Two people were sitting at the front, heads bowed, and I squeezed David's hand and let go. I walked up the long aisle toward the eerie black and white photo of myself, and the two men I'd come to see who were seated in front of it.
Paul Giancarlo was sitting bent over with his head cradled in big, thick-fingered hands. Not crying-men like Paul didn't cry, it was against the whole tough-guy code of ethics-but he was rocking back and forth, chair creaking, and I could feel his distress like heat from a stove. He wasn't fat, but muscular, and he stressed the structural limits of the sharp hand-tailored suit he was wearing. I'd never seen him in a tie before. It was strangely sweet. I wanted to put my arms around as much of him as my embrace could reach. I wanted to sink into his bear-hug warmth and never come out again, because one thing about being with Paul, he made you feel safe.
Funny, considering his heritage was something straight out of The Godfather.
"Should've done something." His words were muffled by his hands, but he was talking to the man who sat next to him. "You fucking well should have done something, Lew. What's the use of being the biggest swinging dick around if you can't save the people who matter? Answer me that!"
He slapped the question at Lewis Levander Orwell. Lewis might actually be the most powerful human on the planet, but next to Paul he looked like wallpaper. Tall, rangy, with puppy-dog brown eyes and a reasonably handsome face, he could have fit the part of an ad executive, or a lawyer, or any of a hundred normal white-collar jobs. He didn't look like a guy who could command the weather, fire, and the very power of the earth itself. But the things I'd seen him do, the sheer force I'd felt him wield . . . incredible. Humbling.
"Being the biggest swinging dick around? It's not much use at all," Lewis said. He had a low, warm tenor voice, just a hint of roughness around the edges. He was staring down at his hands-long sensitive fingers, the hands of a pianist or a sculptor- as they pressed down on his thighs. His suit was not nearly as nice as Paul's-serviceable, generic, forgettable. He never had been much of a fashion plate. "I tried to save her. You have to believe I tried. It was just . . . too much."
"I guess I don't have any choice but to believe you, right? No witnesses." Paul sucked in a breath and sat up. His face hovered on the border between brutal and angelic. Gray salted his temples these days, which I hadn't noticed before. He was ten years older than me, which put him close to forty, but the gray in his hair was the only indication he'd aged a day since I first saw him. I'd been eighteen, scared and irrationally arrogant; he'd been twenty-eight, and arrogant for damn good reason. He'd saved my ass then, when Bad Bob Biringanine had tried to stop me from becoming a Warden.
I couldn't believe he was blaming himself for not saving my ass five days ago. I wanted to smack him one and tell him it was okay, I was right here, that the Joanne he'd known might be gone but most of her-maybe the best of her-lived on. I actually did reach out, or start to, but then Lewis's eyes focused on me.
Unmistakably seeing me.
Oh. Well, of course he could, he'd seen me before, at Estrella's house, when I was new-born into Djinnhood. Lewis could see, well, everything when he wanted to. Part of the legacy of who and what he was.
I shaped a silent hi. He half closed his eyes and smiled. Not surprised to find me here at all. Hi yourself, he mouthed, and the warmth in his expression made me tingle all over. Yeah, it's like that between us. Always. Nothing either of us could control, no matter how much we wanted to.
Holding the stare, Lewis said, "She's okay, Paul. Believe me. She's in a better place." About three feet to his left.
"Yeah? You got a fuckin' pipeline to heaven these days? I knew you were supposed to be some kind of god, but I didn't know you had the all-access pass." Paul's bitterness was scorching. He wiped his face and sat back with another creak of the chair. "Whatever. Look, she never said so, but I know she had a thing for you."
Lewis broke eye contact with me to blink at Paul. "She what?"
"Had a thing." Paul shrugged. Only Italians could put so much into a shrug. "One night we got drunk and she told me . . . about college. That time."
"Oh." Lewis looked thrown, but not as thrown as I felt. I'd told Paul? About me and Lewis doing it on the floor of the Storm Lab one rainy afternoon when I was a freshman? I'd told Paul about Lewis being my first guy? No way. Although I dimly recalled a night four or five years ago, with blue agave tequila and strip poker . . . hmmm. Maybe I had. Wouldn't be the first indiscreet thing to pass my lips.
Paul was still talking. "So she wouldn't want you to be here."
"Given the circumstances," he finished.
Lewis glanced at me. I shrugged to indicate I had absolutely no idea what Paul was talking about. "Don't worry, I'm not going to stay," he said, as much to me as to Paul. "Seeing that the Wardens Council and I had that little disagreement about my Djinn. As in they wanted them back. So low profile seems to be the dress code."
The Wardens Council, unhappy with Lewis? About Djinn? Oh. That. There had been a time a few years ago when Lewis had busted out of confinement by the Wardens, and stolen three bottles of Djinn on the way. Why three, I don't know; I don't even know if he had a particular reason to take the three he did. But whatever the case, it hadn't made him popular with the Wardens. In fact, he'd kind of been on a most-wanted list ever since. I'd figured that they'd kissed and made up, since the last time I'd seen him he seemed pretty buddy-buddy with Martin Oliver, but maybe I'd overestimated the prodigal son factor. Evidently, they still wanted Lewis to return the Djinn he'd taken. Which I knew he couldn't-and wouldn't- since he'd set all three free.
Which made, what? A standoff? Lewis versus the entire Wardens organization? Not that it wasn't even odds . . .
Paul grunted agreement. "Steer clear of Marion and her gang. They're still under orders to bring you in for questioning."
"Thanks. I will." Lewis started to get up. Paul reached out and grabbed his arm, pinning him in place. Lewis looked pointedly at the offending hand, and continued, ". . . unless you want credit for bringing me in yourself . . . ?"
"Don't flatter yourself. I don't give a damn whether you stay out in the cold or make yourself emperor of the world. I got something to say before you go."
It took him a few seconds to work his way up to it, and then he said, bluntly, "She loved you. I knew that even if she didn't. And you were a fucking idiot not to realize it when you still had the chance."
Lewis deliberately didn't look my way. There was a bitter sadness in those dark-chocolate eyes. "Oh, I realized," he said. "What do you want me to say? That I loved her back? What difference does it make now?"
Shit. Djinn or not, that hit me in undefended places. If he'd said that even two weeks ago, things would be different now. Far different . . .
I felt David react, even across the room, and shifted my attention away from Lewis and Paul back toward the entrance, where David was standing. Still in human disguise, still gorgeous, but with the flaring powerful aura of a Djinn spreading around him like wings of fire. At first I thought it was a response to what Lewis had said, but no ... There was somebody walking in front of him, drawing the full fury of his stare.
Not a Djinn, a woman. I didn't know her. She was tall, leggy, wearing a dress that met only the most lax funeral style conventions-it was at least black- but I was pretty sure that not even I would have worn a low-cut, high-slit lace dress to somebody's memorial service. I seriously envied the stiletto heels, though. They looked lethal.
Apart from that, she had cinnamon hair worn long and in loose waves, the kind of satiny sheen to it that you only get in commercials and very expensive salons. A face that blew past pretty on the expressway to beautiful. Wide-set eyes and a full-lipped, pouty mouth outlined in pearl pink shine. Her only jewelry was a diamond pendant that flashed to the power of at least a carat.
David looked ready to kill. In fact, I thought for a second he wasn't going to drift out of her way as she walked forward-that would have been quite a shock for her, running into something that wasn't there-but he moved at the last second and pivoted to follow her with eyes so bright and focused they should have set her hair on fire.
I didn't need to make any pantomime to Lewis; he'd already seen the newcomer, and his face had gone . . . still. Expressionless. Paul turned to look, too.
"Gentlemen," she said, and she had a soft Southern accent, made the word into a complicated, caressing drawl. "I was hoping to catch up to you, Paul."
"Having a private moment here," Paul said. His voice was flat, cold, not at all the warm purr he usually reserved for beautiful women. "Wait outside, will you?"
She was tough, I had to give her that. The warm, inviting smile didn't waver. The big doe eyes-up close, they were a particularly interesting shade of moss green-took on a brighter shine. "All I want is a minute, Paul."
"Can't have it right now. Out."
Lewis said, "I don't believe we've been introduced."
"And you're not going to be," Paul said flatly. "Yvette. Out."
She held out a delicate, perfectly manicured hand to Lewis and notched the smile up another few degrees on the seduction scale. "Yvette Prentiss," she said. "I work with Paul."
"No, she works for Paul, and she's not going to be working for Paul much longer if she doesn't turn her ass around and march out of here." Paul's tone had gone dangerously dark, with a hard New York edge. "Get the point?"
"Sure." She let her eyebrows form, a comment, lowered her hand and held the smile-and eye contact with Lewis-ten seconds too long for my comfort. "I'll be outside, then."
The two men watched her walk away, hips swaying, graceful and sleek and sexy. Paul's expression was murderous. Lewis's was still blank, like he'd been hit by a very large truck.
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