Not that he found “more easily tolerated” something to look forward to.
He didn’t find anything to look forward to.
And seeking out that waitress did not count as optimism. It was a compulsion that bordered on being psychotic.
He needed to cut that shit out.
* * *
Back at Sal’s, Therese crossed the main dining room with a pitcher in one hand and a damask napkin in the other. As she approached the male vampire who was sitting by himself in front of the hearth, he looked up, and she nearly tripped on the carpet.
Which was what you might expect when someone saw a unicorn. Out in the wild. About to have dinner at a four-top by himself.
The male was so unusually handsome that her eyes had trouble processing the full sight of his facial features. His coloring. His incredibly big body. He had blond hair that was thick and seemed natural, not colored. His cheekbones were high and hard, balanced by the blunt cut of his chin. And she refused to even look at his lips, her peripheral vision providing her with enough of an idea of what they were like that she felt as if, were she to get a full view of them, it would be akin to staring at a naked ass that was spectacular.
“Hi, my name is Therese.” As her voice squeaked, she cleared her throat. “I’ll be your server tonight.”
She leaned over his table, put the folded napkin on the rim of his water glass, and tipped the pitcher so that a deluge of ice and water went tumbling in. The manager, Enzo, required that all servers do the napkin trick, and at first, she’d thought it was incredibly pretentious. A couple of pours in, however, and she was grateful for the splatter shield.
“Are we waiting for others to join you?” she said as she straightened. “Perhaps a cocktail for you to pass the time—”
Therese froze and stopped talking. Her one customer of the night was staring at her with wide eyes, like someone had slapped his incredible face with a cold fish.
She glanced over her shoulder in case the good-looks police were coming to take back some of his handsome as a violation of the natural order. Or maybe it was a demogorgon from Stranger Things. Nope, no one was behind her. Maybe there was something wrong with her uniform? She looked down at herself to make sure everything was in proper place still, not that any kind of untucked could explain the expression of shock he was showing.
Refocusing on her customer, she held her pitcher closer to her body. “Is there something wrong?”
The male shook himself. Looked away. Looked back. Continued to stare.
Okay, so this guy might be a good tipper, she thought, but he was going to make her earn the extra money just being around the weirdness—
“I’m sorry,” the male said in what was, of course, a gorgeously rich and deep voice. “You just—you remind me of someone I know.”
There was no reason to get braced for some kind of pickup line. For one, he was too extraordinary to need them. She was quite certain he could sneeze and women and females would come running just on the outside chance that he needed a tissue. For another, going by what he looked like, you could roll every supermodel from Dovima to Gigi Hadid into a single, incandescent vision of femininity, and a guy like him would probably only muster a casual hi-how’re-ya.
The male blinked a couple of times. “Yeah, sorry. It’s uncanny.”
“Well, there are a lot of females around with long dark hair?”
“Yeah.” Abruptly, he smiled, as if he were determined to change tracks in his head. “I’m Rhage.”
As he put out his hand, Therese stared at it. Then, thinking of tips and her desire to move out of the rooming house on her own nickel, she figured, what the hell.
Shaking what he offered, she said, “Therese.”
“You work here long?” he asked as they dropped palms.
“Just a little bit.”
“You from Caldwell?”
“Nope. Moved here recently.”
“Where’s your family?”
“Back home.” She cleared her throat. “So are we waiting for some more people? Or are you eating alone?”
The handsome male shook his head. “I’m waiting for my shellan, actually.”
Okay, wow, Therese thought. Two beautiful people on his level in this dining room? They were liable to collapse gravity and suck everyone in the restaurant, maybe this whole part of town, into a black hole full of Tom Ford suits and Stella McCartney dresses.
“Well, would you like a cocktail while you wait?”
“Just this water will be—”
His unbelievably blue eyes shot to the side, and the smile that came over his face transformed that which had been gorgeous into something that defied any description with any infinite number of words. And it wasn’t just his face that was affected. His big body got up as if it were operating independently and without his knowledge, his knees bumping into the lip of the table, rattling the glasses, sloshing the water that had just been poured.
Therese shored herself up as she turned to see what the shellan looked like. Undoubtedly, the female was going to be the kind of thing that made other carbon-based life forms of the ovarian persuasion feel like shutting themselves in a room in the dark with absolutely no mirrors and seven thousand pounds of Hershey’s chocolate—
Therese recoiled. What had entered the dining room, and was taking off a rather practical wool coat, was… normal-looking. Like, not unattractive, but not knock-your-socks-off gorgeous. The female was small, with brown hair that was sensibly cut, and she had an open, makeup-less face that, even without knowing a thing about her, made Therese feel like she could be trusted with anything and everything.
And she wasn’t a vampire. She seemed sort of human, and yet there was something else going on, although it was hard to suss out what exactly it was.
Taking a step back, Therese watched as the beautiful male walked forward and enveloped his mate in his massive arms. As he curled his body around her, you would swear they had been separated by a decade of wartime.
“I missed you,” the male said.
“I just saw you an hour ago,” the shellan murmured with a laugh.
“I know. It’s been hell.”
Therese dropped her eyes out of respect as the two of them said quiet things to each other and sat down at the table. The male took his shellan’s hand and just stared across the glasses, the china, the silverware. It was clear that he didn’t know where he was and didn’t care, because wherever she was was his home. And his love transformed the quiet, calmly attractive woman into something even more beautiful than he was.
Therese watched them for a moment, struck by what love can do. How it could transform. How it could connect. How it could elevate even those with the best looks and the purest hearts.
She had never thought much about matings. Lifelong relationships. Males in particular. And not because she was a born cynic. She’d just been too busy living life to spin fantasies about her future. Now, though, she had the sense she was staring at a miracle.
And the only thing that came to her mind?
Which made no sense whatsoever—
Abruptly, she became aware that the shellan half of the couple was staring up at her with exactly the same surprise that Mr. Perfect had.
Therese looked back and forth between them. Then she half-heartedly raised her hand in greeting. “Um, hi. I’m Therese, I’ll be your server?”
The shellan blinked a couple of times. “Of course you are. I mean, thank you.”
“Can I start you with a cocktail?” Do you need to see my ID so you know I’m not a missing person? “Or perhaps the menu?”
The woman’s smile was sad for a reason that Therese couldn’t begin to guess at. “I’d love a glass of white wine. And what did you say your name is?”
shAdoWs was every club in America. You had dark corners, random lasers, booming music, and plenty of booze. The sex and drugs were BYO, and for the most part, Trez left his clientele alone on those fronts. There were two reasons for this: One, the less you hassled them, the more often they came back and dropped their cash, and two, he really didn’t give a shit—and that had been true well before he had loved and lost his queen.
Staring down at the churning crowd from his second-floor office, he watched them through the kind of one-way glass that psychologists used to monitor the interviews of insane people. And this made sense. The men and women below, stimulated and stimulating each other, were not on the normal bandwidth, and that was why they came to his establishment. Most of them were young, but they were all out of college if they had gone to one, the twenty-one-year-old age requirement for drinking in New York weeding out the underclassmen. Most had low-level jobs, ones that were above menial but not by much. Most were renters in bunches of two and three. Most had STDs or were going to get them as soon as they jumped into the one-night stand pool on the dance floor.
All of them were desperate for a break from the stress in their lives.
Yeah, ’cuz there was nothing like getting away from your mistakes by making new ones.
Trez should know. After his two decades of being a pimp and an enforcer in Caldwell, nothing had changed, just the faces on those young bodies and maybe some of the politics. And for a long time, he had been down there with them, and not only in terms of security or sales of sex or drugs. He too had partaken of the women and the females. It had been a nice distraction, whether it was the sex workers who he provided a safe environment for or the women who came to dance and see what they could pull. He had always been a sure thing, and not just at the club. Everywhere. He had had sex with real estate agents, lawyers, tax accountants, personal trainers, landscapers, laundresses, mechanics, hairdressers…
And in spite of that track record, as he looked over the crowd, he saw nothing of interest. There were plenty of good-looking women down there, most of them half dressed and double-jointed, with willingness written all over them. But to him they were another species, and not just because they were mostly human. He’d no more have sex with them than he would a wolfen or a mailbox.