THE CLUB WAS alive, filled to capacity with a bizarre mix of goth kids and pagan metal heads. Aegis’s band attracted an oddly diverse audience, from the hampires—humans who desperately wanted to join the fangster set—to the audiophiles who loved the mix of Celtic folk and darkwave metal. They came together in a startling meetup, dancing and drinking from the first song to the last encore. It didn’t hurt that Aegis’s voice was heady, deep and rich and reminiscent of a certain “Lizard King’s” voice. Or that he was more than easy on the eyes.
Up on stage in his black leather pants and jacket, his open-to-the-navel silk shirt, and shit-stomper boots, Aegis was the living embodiment of sex on legs. His jet black hair hung down his back in smooth waves and his natural glamour gave him a dangerous, intoxicating allure.
I was sitting at a table to the left side of the stage, nursing a drink, watching as the Boys of Bedlam rocked the house.
The Vulture Underground was a new club in Seattle. With a capacity of five hundred people, it was one of the largest clubs around. The guys had managed to pack it, making the manager happy. Word about their music was starting to spread, and they were getting more and more calls from events wanting to book them for gigs.
Ferris Parks, their rep from DreamGen Productions, was sitting beside me, watching them with a critical eye. She jotted down notes as they played. Part of me wanted to sneak a peek over her shoulder to see what she was writing. It was bound to be something nasty. I didn’t like Ferris, and she didn’t like me, but we did our best to coexist because I sure as hell wasn’t going away, and unfortunately, neither was she.
A woman ran up toward the stage. Before security could catch her, she had scrambled onto the raised dais and was yanking off her underwear. The bouncers managed to catch her but not before she had tossed her panties in Aegis’s face. I let out a groan and rubbed my head.
Lovely. Just lovely.
Aegis swatted them away, managing to finish the song without a glitch. Then, grabbing the mic, he raised his hand for attention. “We’re grateful how many of you came out to cheer us on tonight. Thank you, Seattle, for an awesome reception! Remember, rock on! You can find the Boys of Bedlam merchandise tables out in the hallway. Good night!”
Amid cheers and whistles, and cries for another encore, the guys exited the stage as security escorted the panty-less woman through the exit.
Ferris glanced at me. “That was a good set. I have a page of notes for the guys, but overall, not bad.”
I stared at her. “Not bad? I thought they were brilliant. They set the room on fire. Couldn’t you feel the energy of the audience? They were begging for more.”
Ferris arched her petite, exquisitely groomed brows. “I wouldn’t expect you to see the imperfections. It’s a professional thing. Just nuances, places where they could have made the audience cream themselves had they taken advantage of it.”
I gave her a long look. The heat they had set off in the club hadn’t touched her at all. She was still dewy fresh and polished. Then again, Ferris never looked ruffled. That was only one of a number of things that bothered me about her. She could have passed for one of the Winter Fae, she played the ice queen so well.
“True enough. Focusing on minor imperfections seems to be your job, doesn’t it?” Without skipping a beat, I was out of my chair and headed backstage.
THE CLUB WAS more than just a hole in the wall. The Vulture Underground actually had a dressing room, as well as a green room. Aegis had already changed into dark jeans and a V-neck sweater. The other band members were in the middle of shedding their stage clothes as well, but I didn’t blink an eye. Nakedness wasn’t an issue, at least not for me.
“Great job, guys. You brought the house down.” I slid into Aegis’s outstretched arm, nestling against him. His body was cool, even though he had been playing nonstop for two hours under stage lights. He never sweated. Vampires were always crispy cool, like cucumbers.
I had gotten used to it, though now and then I missed snuggling with somebody who generated actual body heat. But I produced enough for the both of us, given my proclivity with fire. If I got too cold, I just raised the temperature of the air around me by a couple of degrees. I couldn’t hold it for too long, but it was enough to keep me from freezing. If I happened to get lost in the snowy woods for days without the fuel to start a fire, I’d slip into hypothermia, but otherwise, I could take the edge off the chill enough to make myself comfortable.
“You think so?”Aegis gave me a quick kiss.
“I know so, regardless of what her majesty’s going to tell you.”
He sighed. My ongoing feud with Ferris both annoyed him and yet seemed to comfort him, most likely because I always took the band’s side against her.
“She had some issues with the gig?”
“Apparently, you didn’t make the audience cream themselves enough.” I zipped my lip as she walked through the door.
Ferris’s gaze bounced briefly onto Aegis, then flickered over Keth and Jorge, but lingered on Sid. I squinted, staring at her for a moment. There was a subtle shift in energy as she watched the bass player. That cold exterior slipped ever so slightly, to one of a tiger waiting to pounce. Could Miss Prissy Pants have a thing for Sid? If so, bad news, since he was married with five kids and Sylvia, a wife who adored him.
Aegis seemed to sense the shift too. He frowned and gave me an ever so subtle nudge, pressing against my side with his fingers. I gave him a curt nod. We had worked out our own form of silent communication, and it seemed to be growing stronger every day.
“I have some notes for you.” Ferris glanced at me, as though she expected me to interrupt.
Ignoring her, I yawned and wandered over to Aegis’s stage wear, folding the leather pants and tucking them into the duffle bag, along with the slinky shirt.
“Aegis, you’re stroking the audience but damn it, man, when a woman throws you her panties, acknowledge the offering. As long as they don’t belong to a blimp, or aren’t grandma panties, whirl them around your head or take a sniff. Just do something to show you appreciate the gift from her pussy.”
I froze. For one thing, none of the band members ever looked at their audience as meat. For another, her crudity made me wince.
Aegis cleared his throat. “The only underpants I’ll ever be likely to smell belong to Maddy. I’m not in the habit of flirting with my fans.”
“It’s all about flirting with your fans, and you’d better get used to it,” Ferris said, her mouth folding into a frown. “At least acknowledge the gift.” She turned to Jorge, the weretiger in the group. “You ever thought of shifting into your tiger shape on stage?”
He stared at her like she was crazy. “For one thing, I’d have to strip and I’m not showing my bits to the audience. For another… Just no. No, no.”
“You don’t have to get snotty. A simple, ‘No, Ferris, but thank you for the suggestion’ would do. I thought it might be fun. You could shift and go around the room, let people pet you—” She stopped as he let out a low growl. “All right, it seems my suggestions aren’t going over well tonight. Keth, you’re next. The horns—will they ever grow out? You ever thought of getting them extended?”
Keth was half-satyr. Satyrs were always male. When a satyr mated with a human, their sons were half-satyr, their daughters, full human. When satyrs mated with wood nymphs, their sons were full satyr and the daughters were full wood nymph. Keth’s mother had been human. As a result, the residual horns on his head would never grow longer. He was heavily tattooed with a Mohawk and had a trippy, freakster vibe to him. All the men in the band were gorgeous, though.
Keth finished pulling on his sweater. “Woman, you have a lot of balls asking that. Are your boobs ever going to grow? Have you thought of having implants?” Sweeping up his pea coat, he glanced at Aegis. “I’m going to warm up the bus. Come on, Jorge. Help me? The guys should have broken down our equipment and loaded it by now.”
The Boys of Bedlam had bought a used school bus, and they were now using it to haul the equipment to their gigs. They had found an artist who had done a film noir-ish painting of the band on the side.
Ferris let out an exasperated sigh. “Don’t get your balls tied in a knot. DreamGen is doing its best to get behind you. We just need you to cooperate. You’re a great band, and we wouldn’t be backing you if we didn’t believe in you. But you have to meet us halfway. If you ever hope to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, you have to get with the program.” She shook her head. “Go ahead. Hey, Sid? Can you stick around for a moment? I want to talk to you. I have some detailed notes for you. The rest of you can leave.”
Sid looked uncomfortable. “All right, but we should hit the road soon or we won’t be home till dawn. Aegis has to get home.”
“You’ll make it in time.” She hustled the rest of us out of the green room.
I conveniently left my purse on the chair next to me as I exited the room. Jorge and Keth had already headed for the bus. I pulled Aegis off to one side, watching until they left.
“What the hell is going on with her and Sid?” I was friends with Sylvia. They had five kids and with the exception of a few glitches along the way, they were happy, in love, and all about their family.
“I don’t know,” Aegis said, glancing back at the door. “Sid hasn’t said much, but he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the gig tonight. That much, I do know. I wish I had an excuse to go back in there.”
“I don’t need one.” I strode over to the door before Aegis could stop me. As I opened it, I said loudly, “Forgot my purse.”
Sid was leaning back on the sofa, with Ferris looming over him. She had one knee on the cushion to his left, and looked about ready to straddle his lap. Her clipboard was on the table, and she had taken her hair down from the chignon she wore it in. He was holding up his hand as though he were trying to ward her off.
“I can’t—” Sid was in the middle of saying.
“Looks like I crashed an impromptu party,” I said. “I forgot my purse. Sid, we’re waiting in the bus, if you’re done here.”
He flashed me an incredibly grateful look. I was surprised. It wasn’t at all the look of someone angry I had interrupted. Sid shifted around Ferris so that he could stand up. Ferris, on the other hand, looked like she wanted to kill me.
“Here’s your purse, Maddy.” Sid grabbed my bag off the chair. “I’m ready. I’ll walk you out.” He glanced back at Ferris and his voice dropped into a mumble. “Thanks for the…notes.”
As I hustled him out the door, I whispered, “What the hell is going on?”
“Wait till we’re on the bus,” he whispered back. “But thank gods you came in when you did.”
Aegis was staring at the two of us, a perplexed look on his face. But he turned and followed us as we made a beeline for the bus. Jorge was driving—he was good with big vehicles—and we buckled ourselves into the cushioned seats the boys had retrofitted the bus with. Without another word, we pulled onto the street and Jorge pointed the bus north as we headed home to Bedlam.
I WAITED UNTIL we were underway, then swiveled around to look at Sid. “You have something you want to tell the band?”
“What’s going on?” Aegis asked.
“I think Jorge better find a parking lot because this is something you all need to address. Isn’t it, Sid?” I knew what was going on.
He blushed, but nodded. “Maddy’s right. Jorge, find us a place to park, please.”
Five minutes later, we turned into the parking lot of a Target store and parked near the end of a row. Nobody was out at this time in the morning, save for the homeless, the night owls, and whatever vampires might be roaming the streets. October in Seattle was blustery enough, but we were into a strong La Niña season, and the weather had shifted to extremely cold and wet. The sky was dark, not a star to be seen, and the clouds hanging thick and heavy, ready to burst at any moment.
I glanced out the window at the street running past the store. I didn’t miss living here. In fact, while Seattle was one of the best big cities I had lived in, I was far happier living in Bedlam. Too much congestion, too much traffic, too many sirens blaring along the dark, concrete streets.
“All right. Tell us what’s going on,” Aegis said.
Jorge joined us, but only after making certain the bus doors were locked. “Yeah, I want to get home before it’s morning and I know Aegis wants the same. So what’s up?”
The guys were all good friends, but after a gig, they were all a little wound up and snippy. But beneath all the snark and jostling around, they had forged a bond that was all but unbreakable. I just hoped Sid’s news wouldn’t shake it.
Sid blushed, staring at the floor. Finally, I decided to take the reins.
“I found Sid on the sofa. Ferris was coming onto him so hard I thought she was going to rip his clothes off. Sexual harassment, plain and simple. Isn’t that right, Sid?”
He blinked, then nodded, looking miserable. “I’ve tried to ignore it but she’s been getting more and more blatant. Tonight, well, that’s the farthest she’s gone. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come back for your purse, Maddy.”
“What would have happened is you would have told her to go fuck herself with a dildo if she’s so hard up.” I was angry. Sex was a wonderful thing, but not when it was coerced.
“Is this true?” Aegis asked Sid, the bewilderment on his face turning to understanding.
Sid nodded, still looking miserable. “Yeah, Ferris has been trying to…seduce isn’t even the right word. She’s been pushing me to fuck her for weeks now. Ever since we signed with DreamGen. I was hoping that she was a temporary rep and that they’d replace her, but when she told us last week that she’d be traveling with us on tour, I knew things were going to get ugly. She knows I love Sylvia, but she just keeps badgering me.”
“Why the hell didn’t you say anything, man?” Keth looked pissed. “She’s been a thorn in our sides ever since she started working with us. I can’t stand the bitch, to be honest.”
I knew why Sid hadn’t said anything. “Guys, he didn’t say anything because he saw this as your big chance and he didn’t want to muck up the works. Am I right?”
Sid nodded, staring at his feet. “We might never get another chance. Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. I didn’t want to screw things up by complaining.”
Aegis closed his eyes for a moment, looking pained. “You thought that you had to put up with her crap just for the band? Listen, nothing’s worth harassment like that. Nothing. Not the band. Not a gig. Not a record deal.”
Jorge cleared his throat. “Well, as long as we’re all being honest, I’ve missed just…being us. I mean, we were going to put out our own album, our own way, weren’t we? Now, we have to change our act to please DreamGen. We’re not a bunch of drunken idiots, but that’s what Ferris and DreamGen want us to be. I don’t know about you, but I liked the way we were. I’m not having fun anymore.”
“What exactly are you trying to say?” Aegis slumped back, his gaze flickering up to the guys. “Do you want to kill the contract? I think we can, but if we want to go back to being an indie group, we’d better do it now before they can claim we owe them a fuckton of money.”
Sid slowly raised his hand. “I think, if my marriage is to survive, I have to quit the band or quit working with DreamGen. If we complain to them about Ferris, you know they’ll laugh off my concerns.”
Keth shrugged, tossing his drumsticks on the floor. “We were doing fine before we signed with them. We’ll do just fine without them. I’m up for going back to being a garage band.”
Aegis straightened his shoulders. “All right, then. We’ll break the contract with DreamGen. But if we do, we do things our way from now on, because a bigger company would be even worse. I guess it’s hard to find a producer who isn’t out to screw over the band in one way or another, isn’t it?”
“Or, in Ferris’s case, just screw the band,” I said. “Seriously, guys, you have a sound that’s hard to match. You start slanting it the way she’s pushing you to, and you’re going to sound like a canned act. You’ve got a solid audience and you can build your way up doing things the way you want. And that doesn’t include encouraging groupies to throw their panties on stage or fucking your handler because she can make life miserable if you don’t.”
Sid paused. “Do you think they’ll try to sue us?”
Aegis grinned and shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out, now, isn’t there? We’ll look over the contract and figure out how to break it at our next meeting.”
And with that, Jorge returned to the driver’s seat, and we headed back to Bedlam.
AEGIS AND I hopped out of the bus and waved as Keth drove off toward his place. He lived with his mother and father on ten acres just outside of town. There was plenty of space to park the bus there.
I glanced at the sky. It was four-thirty and we still had almost three hours till sunrise. Aegis stretched, bringing his arm down to wrap around my shoulders. As we headed toward the kitchen slider, it occurred to me just how lucky we were.
The town of Bedlam was located on the island by the same name. Located off the northern edge of the San Juan Islands, Bedlam was overlooked by most humans. We didn’t exactly cloak the town, but rather, used some of the magical energy that permeated the area to keep ourselves from being noticed. The town had been founded by my kind—witches—and had a population of around six thousand permanent residents. A quirky, old-fashioned charm surrounded the area, and truly, it was beautiful here. The foliage was much like the rest of the west coast of Washington—with tall firs and wide, drooping cedar trees, and juniper and other evergreens that kept their needles year-round. Intermingled with the conifers were oak and maple trees of all varieties. Birch, black chestnut, and alder dappled the heavy forests, and the ever-present scent of moisture filled the air.
Bedlam experienced about sixty-five cloud-free days a year. The rest of the time the sky was partially or fully overcast, with a silvery sheen that soothed the heart and emotions. Rain was ever present, whether in drizzles or in downpours. We received more precipitation in terms of rain and snow than the rest of the San Juan Islands because the magical energy of the island and its inhabitants acted like a magnet for storms, drawing them in. So here, rain shadows were few, and we could always expect snow during winter and the gales of autumn to blow through.
A ferry ran from Bellingham over to Bedlam, docking once per hour most of the night. On weekends, it ran later, which was good for us or we would have had to find a vampire-safe hotel over on the mainland.
The Bewitching Bedlam—my bed-and-breakfast—was an old house. It had been built over two hundred years ago. We knew that because our house ghost, Franny, had been born here in 1791. She had died in 1815. I wasn’t sure how much older it was, but the foundation was solid, even though the weathering stone walls showed their age. The house had been abandoned when I found it, falling apart on the surface but with good bones. I had restored it to its original beauty on the outside, and had fully modernized the inside.
The Bewitching Bedlam had room for four guests, if I counted our private guestroom. The house had fifteen rooms, not counting the bathrooms, and was two stories, not including the basement and the attic.
As we unlocked the slider leading to the kitchen, I made sure Bubba and Luna weren’t poised to run out. Sometimes they would lie in wait, then pounce when I opened the door. Bubba was my massive red boy of a cjinn, and Luna was his girlfriend, a lovely calico who didn’t seem to mind that she was “dating” a magical creature.
But Bubba and Luna were nowhere to be seen. I flipped on the light, and Aegis immediately headed toward the fridge.
“You must be hungry. They didn’t have any food at the club. At least, nothing substantial.”
In addition to being one hunka hunka burning vamp, my boyfriend was also an excellent cook and baker. He loved mysteries and jigsaw puzzles, and had an intense fondness for kittens. When he found out I had taken in Luna, he had been delighted.
My stomach rumbled. “Actually, I am. I was going to just go to bed. It’s been one hell of a long day, but I don’t know if I can sleep if I don’t eat first. Leftovers are fine.”
He poked around. “There’s some chicken left from lunch yesterday. And some macaroni and cheese. That work?”
“Yeah.” I yawned again, my eyes heavy. “I’m so tired. Just nuke them.”
The chicken was from my favorite chicken joint—Chicken Chicken. It kept crisp after being reheated, and the breading was so good, just thinking about it made my mouth water. As Aegis fixed a plate for me and popped it in the microwave, I let out another yawn.
“So, what did you make of the way Ferris was acting toward Sid?”
“It pisses me off,” Aegis said. “Nobody harasses the people I care about. I don’t care whether you’re male or female, you don’t get a free pass to force yourself on anybody else.”
“Sylvia would freak if she knew. They’ve been working out some relationship issues and this wouldn’t help at all. I think we should keep quiet about it unless Sid decides to tell her. After all, you guys have decided to stop working with DreamGen.” I paused. “How do you really feel about it? I know you had a lot of hopes pinned on this.”
Aegis shrugged as he set my plate in front of me and handed me a fork. He slid into the chair next to me, a beer in his hands. Vampires could eat and drink all they wanted without ever being affected by the food, but blood was still their actual sustenance.
“Disappointed, I won’t lie about that. But I refuse to work with someone who pressures one of my boys to go against his wishes. Sid doesn’t even like Ferris. After the initial rush of signing the contract, he told me that she made him uncomfortable.”
“Ten to one, she was working on him even then.” I bit into the chicken and scooped up a forkful of mac ‘n cheese. The creamy, salty taste melted in my mouth and I let out an audible sigh, relaxing as the food slid down my throat. I hadn’t realized just how hungry I had been.
“You’re probably right. Well, I’ll talk to DreamGen after the guys and I go over the contract. Even if I have to pay a penalty to break it, that’s fine. I won’t ask the guys to chip in. I know none of them can afford it.” He watched me eat for a moment, then reached across the table. “I want to thank you. I wouldn’t have gone in there, and Sid would have been screwed over, in more ways than one. Thanks for recognizing a problem that I hadn’t put my finger on yet.”
I smiled and patted his hand, still eating. Once I finished, I carried my plate to the sink to rinse it off to put it in the dishwasher. Once I got to the counter, however, I paused. There was a sack sitting there. It hadn’t been there when we left in the morning. I opened it and froze. Inside, was an urn, with an envelope beside it. I opened the letter and read it, then set the paper down and backed up a step.
“What is it?” Aegis asked.
I couldn’t answer. I hadn’t thought this would affect me so much, but now that the time had actually come, my heart rose into my throat. Pressing my lips together, I turned toward Aegis, feeling a thousand years old.
“Maddy, what’s wrong?” Aegis took a step toward me.
I tried to answer, tried to form the words, but they didn’t want to come out. It was as though my lips were frozen and, no matter how much I wanted to say something, they wouldn’t move.
“What the…” Aegis paused by the counter and stared down at the urn. He slowly picked up the note. “May I?”
I gave him a faint nod. He picked up the paper and began to read aloud.
“Dear Ms. Gallowglass:
We wish to express our condolences in your time of sorrow. We have enclosed the urn with your mother’s ashes in it, as you requested, and you will also find a copy of her death certificate. We are the legal team representing your mother’s posthumous wishes. She asked that her remains be returned to you for dispersal, and that all her personal magical effects and family photographs and documents be sent to you. In accordance with her will, we will be packaging her magical supplies, photographs, and papers, and mailing them to you shortly. Everything else will be sold and the proceeds will be remitted to you after payment of any outstanding debts, according to her instructions. If there’s anything else we can do, please ask.
Midas, Timmons, & Smith, Solicitors”
I stared at the stone urn as though it was going to jump up and bite me. Zara, my mother, had died a few weeks ago, and now she was home with me. I had spent a lifetime despising her, and only in the last months of her life had I come to understand—if not exactly love—her. We had parted as friends, as mother and daughter rather than antagonistic relatives. But seeing her remains on the counter brought home, once again, the realization that we had been robbed of nearly four centuries together, thanks to my grandmother and my father. My mother had been forced into living a lie most of her life. For that, I would never forgive them.
I reached out and slowly took the urn out of the sack as Aegis watched me, a cautious look on his face. Finally, I slid my fingers down the cool stone and over the name they had etched on it: Zara Malina Gallowglass. She had kept her mother’s family name, as had I even though I had been married for a time.
Trying to navigate the minefield of emotions that were waging war in my heart, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Welcome home, Mother.” And then, slowly, the tears began to fall.