Authors: Christine Pope
Other Paranormal Romances by Christine Pope
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
Copyright © 2013 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
Revised 2013 edition. Originally published by Pink Petal Books, August 2010.
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Playing With Fire
Samael stood on a rooftop and watched the people on the street below as they milled about, each intent on his or her destination. So busy. So preoccupied.
He hadn’t chosen this particular downtown roof for any real reason. One seemed as good as another. To the west, beyond L.A.’s sprawl and its famed beaches, the sun lay buried in a haze of smog and smoke. The hills above Malibu were burning again. The scene reminded him too much of Hell, and he returned his gaze to the streets below.
Something just as fiery caught his eye. He sharpened his focus, narrowing in on the slender form of a young woman who had paused outside one of the businesses across the street. Copper hair glowed bright against the simple dark clothing she wore. The color could have come from a dye bottle; in this city of artifice, such things were to be expected. But somehow he thought hers was natural.
The business was a bar or nightclub. Smartly dressed men and women, most in their twenties or thirties, were entering the building, although Samael noticed they tended to go in one at a time, not in couples.
Even from this distance he could see the young woman’s obvious diffidence. She held something white in one hand — a piece of paper, he thought. Then she shook her head, shoved the paper in her pocket, and went inside.
Intrigued, he moved to the edge of the roof and stepped off. A normal man would have smashed his brains out on the pavement, but Samael was far from a normal man. The night air buoyed him up, and let him descend to street level at a pace of his own choosing.
No one noticed, of course. He wrapped darkness around himself, shielding his actions from curious mortal eyes. It was a talent all his kind possessed, one that made their work possible.
Not that he was on duty tonight. Friday nights could be busy, and if some gangbanger started shooting up a party, he still might be called in. For now, however, his time was his own. His fellow demon Abigor could manage on his own — and so could the City of Angels.
Samael felt his mouth twist at that thought. City of Angels. Quite the joke when one considered the fact that the last angels had left this city some time ago. Now, only Hell’s lieutenants watched over its populace and guided its unquiet souls to the afterlife.
Not all, of course. Even a town as corrupt as this one had as its majority those who led quiet, mostly virtuous lives. Their eventual fate was none of his concern.
But the murderers, the drug dealers, the rapists and the arsonists and the ones who made punching bags out of their wives and children — those specimens had earned themselves a one-way ticket to the underworld. Samael would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that he took great personal pleasure in dumping those transgressors head-first into a lake of boiling blood.
The only thing Dante got right
, he thought. Hell would actually be a much more interesting place if it followed the Italian’s model closely, but in reality it consisted of the aforementioned lakes of blood, vast plains of blowing ash and fire…and not much else. Little wonder its attendant demons did everything in their power to get assignments topside. Taking on a human form was a small price to pay in return for all the distractions the world had to offer.
His latest distraction was currently inside the bar across the street. He could wait for her to re-emerge, but he decided there would be little fun in that. Besides, he could use a drink.
Grinning, he shoved his hands in his coat pockets and stepped forward, intent on locating his prey.
• • •
I can’t believe I let Lauren talk me into this
. Felicia McGovern risked a quick glance at her glass of cabernet. Half of it was already gone, and she’d only been inside for ten minutes. Typical that smooth-tongued Lauren, her agent, had somehow managed to convince Felicia that coming here tonight was actually a good idea.
From across the room came a tinkling sound as someone tapped a spoon against a wine glass. She sighed and picked up her own wine, then moved to the right. The next prospect took his place across from her, and she tried not to groan.
Speed dating. Whoever had dreamed up this particular social activity could probably trace a direct line back to the originators of the Spanish Inquisition.
“Hi,” said the stranger across from her, who had middle-management written all over him, from the medium-blue dress shirt to the carefully inoffensive tie. “I’m Trent.”
“Felicia,” she offered.
His eyes widened a bit behind wire-rimmed glasses. “That’s unusual.”
“It was my grandmother’s name.”
“Ah,” he said.
An uncomfortable silence followed. Felicia guessed he wasn’t terribly taken by her own appearance; she hadn’t bothered with dressing to impress and had ignored all of Lauren’s advice as to skinny jeans, slinky tops, and high heels. She’d made sure her clothes didn’t have any paint daubs on them, and that had been about the extent of her preparations. No point in selling a false bill of goods — the last time she’d had on high heels had been at a friend’s wedding two years ago, and the memory was painful enough that tonight she’d slid into her usual black flats without a moment’s hesitation.
“So what do you do?” Felicia asked. She knew this wasn’t going anywhere, but she thought she might as well try to limp the conversation along for their allotted three minutes.
“I’m an IT specialist at an investment firm here downtown.”
Of course he was. What else could he be, with that tie?
“And you?” he inquired.
“I’m an artist. Portraits mainly.”
“Really?” Although his tone sounded surprised, his expression was not. She could almost hear him thinking,
Well, that explains the outfit
She quelled the urge to leap to her own defense. In this town, “artist” was usually code for
“waiter” or “barrista.” But she couldn’t think of a way to tell this baby-faced computer guru that she’d had her first gallery show at twenty-four, or that her latest commission, for a well-known studio exec, would net her upwards of fifty grand once she finished it. She hadn’t waited a table since she graduated from college.
“Yes,” she said. “I never was much of a nine-to-five type.”
She really hadn’t meant it as a dig, but his smile suddenly looked a little strained. He lifted his bottle of Pacifico and took a swig. “Must be nice to not have to worry about responsibility or any of that other annoying crap.”
Her eyes widened, and she forced herself to bite back a retort. Just because she painted full time didn’t mean she didn’t know all about personal responsibility. She’d never missed a deadline. She got up and painted every day, whether she felt like it or not. Some people might have the luxury of only having to worry about themselves, but she had her mother to take care of, and Carrie still with two years of college ahead of her --
Luckily, the now-familiar clink of the host’s spoon against its companion wine glass kept her thoughts from heading into places she really didn’t want to go. She mumbled an insincere, “Nice meeting you,” and grabbed her purse and cabernet, then hurried off to the next station.
She’d just taken a sip of wine when the next victim slid into the seat opposite hers. As she looked up to see what she was being inflicted with next, she stopped, wine glass lowered a few inches from her mouth.
This new somebody was the polar opposite of the IT guy: tall, with a head of wavy overlong black hair. Black leather jacket, but not biker style — it was sleek and seemed to mold itself to his broad shoulders, and he wore a dark collared shirt underneath. A small red stone glinted from his left ear. Normally Felicia wasn’t much for earrings on men, but somehow this one seemed to suit him, gave him an almost gypsy-ish air that went along with the inky hair and swarthy skin.
“F-Felicia McGovern,” she blurted.
He smiled. “I’m Sam.”
Such a prosaic name for an exotic specimen of a man. “Sam what?”
“Let’s just go with Sam for now.”
Fine. She knew the event organizers had everyone’s pertinent information, so if she wanted to let them know she was definitely interested in this Sam-whatever, she didn’t think they’d have too hard a time figuring out which Sam she meant. There weren’t many six-two black-haired Italian underwear models in this lot.
Not that he really looked like an underwear model. He wasn’t pretty enough. His features were on the rough side of handsome, and when he smiled, lines showed in the skin around his eyes. She liked his looks no less for that. In fact, she liked them better. The planes of his face made her fingers just itch to pick up a paintbrush.
She decided it was probably better not to dwell on what those shoulders and broad, capable hands did to other parts of her anatomy…
“You ever been to one of these before?” she asked.
“No.” He shot a quick glance around the crowded room, at the well-dressed men and women and the faint air of desperation that seemed to cling to each one of them. “I’m guessing you haven’t, either.”
“Am I that obvious?”
“Let’s say you don’t really fit in.” His own drink was a shot of tequila or vodka; he lifted it and consumed its contents with a neat, practiced flip that told her he’d done that sort of thing a time or two before. “But that’s all right. I don’t, either.”
That was for certain. He stood out like a Chinese crested rooster in a clutch of white hens. “So why did you come?”
Those dark eyes caught hers. He had amazing lashes, sooty and thick as his hair. “I was looking for something different.”
Her agent Lauren probably could have come up with a witty reply to that. Felicia forced herself to hold his gaze and said, “So have you found it?”
He didn’t blink. “I think so. Tell me, is your hair color natural?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d been asked that question, but for some reason she could feel the heat rise in her cheeks. Damn that whole redhead-skin thing anyway. “I suppose you want to know my age and weight, too.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that it’s quite…unusual.”
So are you
, she almost said, but she managed to keep the words from slipping out. No point in getting quite so personal just two minutes after meeting the guy. She shrugged and replied, “Irish on both sides of the family. Mom and Dad were both redheads. I just got it double barrels. So what about you?”
“Neither of my parents is a redhead.”
She lifted an eyebrow.
Another one of those white-toothed smiles. She noticed that his canines were slightly sharper than normal. “Actually, I’m part Irish, too. Black Irish, though.”
She wondered if he were teasing her. It was probably best to ignore the teeth; it would be just her luck to have the hottest guy in the room turn out to be a vampire or something. Keeping her tone dry, she said, “I would never have guessed.”
Of course the event’s host chose that moment to tap his spoon against the glass. It figured. The conversations with the guys she didn’t care about dragged on forever, and this one felt as if it was over before it even got started.
Sam didn’t seem inclined to move, however. He gazed at her thoughtfully, then said, “Why don’t you and I get out of here?”
“I know I don’t need to meet anyone else. How about you?”
From the corner of her eye Felicia saw the pair who were supposed to occupy the table next standing off to one side. Neither one of them looked exactly thrilled to find her and her companion still occupying their spot.
“Well, it doesn’t really work that way — and I think we’re supposed to move — ”
He stood then, unfolding all six-foot-plus inches of his imposing frame from his chair. A shake of his head, followed by, “Tell me, Felicia — do you always follow the rules?”