Death was Lucien Dupree’s life.
Or it had been for more years than he could count. But then, once a grim reaper, always a grim reaper. Retirement didn’t really exist, not in the human sense of the word, anyway. The powers were permanent and dependable.
At least, they were supposed to be.
As it turned out, they weren’t, and he’d been forced into retirement. He’d accepted it, yes, but there had been no other option. His most important power had become unreliable, and that made him unreliable. So the job he’d given up his human life for centuries ago was gone.
Just. Like. That.
He’d bowed out of all future assignments with the understanding that if things changed, he could return to work.
Things hadn’t changed. Not in decades. He no longer had hope they would.
Because of that unexplained shift in his abilities, his life now was a more self-imposed exile than the easy, carefree days the word retirement conjured up. What else could it be? He was a reaper who could not control the most important of his abilities.
Something he’d discovered in the most horrible way possible.
He squeezed his eyes shut at that memory and leaned his head against his chair, ignoring the book in his hands. He wasn’t really reading it anyway. He’d tried, but there wasn’t much that could distract him from the pit of despair he quite often sank into.
Tonight was one of those nights.
He was, in a word, miserable. But why use one word when there were so many others that did the job equally well? Despondent. Wretched. Morose. Hopeless.
“Lucien, stop moping.”
He didn’t need to open his eyes to know his grandmother had entered the room. Her words, kind as they were, only served to worsen his mood.
After all, she was the ghostly proof of how broken he had become.
But being the good grandson he was, he opened his eyes, fixed a smile on his face, closed his book, and brought his gaze to hers. “Yes, Mémé.”
She peered at him, the hallway behind her visible through her translucent form. “I was going to bed. But I could sit up with you for a while if you want. Talk a little, maybe?”
Her kindness widened his smile effortlessly, and he shook his head. She was such a good woman. “Thank you, but I’m fine. I need to go check on things at the club.” He didn’t. The club almost ran itself. But it was the escape he needed.
She pursed her lips. “You don’t look fine.”
“I was just thinking about Kora.” That was only a half-lie, and an easy one to tell because it was so believable.
Hattie sighed with understanding. “That child. Where is she now?”
He shrugged. She was nearly impossible to keep track of, but the last he’d heard, she was in Istanbul. Hopefully staying out of trouble, but that was unlikely.
“Are you going to send Greyson after her again?”
“Only if she asks for my help. Which she hasn’t. I’m not sure she will again after Rome.”
“But you saved her life.”
He stared at his hands. At the hands that wielded unpredictable death. “Technically, Greyson saved her life.”
“And you paid for his efforts, so that allows you to take credit.” She shook her head. “She needs a spanking.”
He snorted. “Best of luck with that.” But he admired that Hattie was fearless even in the face of the willful vampire who was his daughter. He put the book on the chairside table and stood. “I love you, Mémé.”
“I love you, too, Lucy.”
Only Hattie Dupree could get away with calling him that. It was one of many things she could get away with. Like the lace doilies and dishes of hard candy in the living room. If she asked him for the world, he would have bankrupted his vast wealth to get it for her, but she’d never asked for anything, except to live with him after…the incident.
He would have thought she’d have asked for her life back, even knowing it couldn’t happen, but she didn’t seem to hold that against him. Maybe because he’d managed to return her soul to her? He wasn’t sure, but they never discussed it. She just went about her life as if she’d always been a ghost.
As if he wasn’t responsible for her undead state of being.
Grandmothers were interesting and wonderful that way. Now more than ever, she had become his heart. His soul. The one good thing in his otherwise bleak existence. “Sleep well, Mémé.”
“You, too. Good night, sweetheart.” She floated away down the hall toward her quarters in the enormous underground levels that made up their home.
He almost sank back into his chair, but tonight the club really did call to him.
Insomnia was the business that had helped occupy him in the years since they’d moved to Nocturne Falls. It was an exclusive, supernaturals-only hotspot that gave him some leverage in town. He didn’t need much. Just to be left alone. The club’s popularity bought him that. So did some of his other financial contributions in town. The cost was worth it to him, though. And highly effective. In fact, only a handful of people knew he owned the club or that he resided in Nocturne Falls. That’s exactly how he wanted it.
Of course, the Ellinghams knew, but he didn’t mind. They were the family who owned the town, and they were a reasonable bunch of vampires. He had deeply conflicted feelings about vampires. There were some very good ones, such as the Ellinghams and Greyson Garrett, the vampire who worked for him on an as-needed basis. Then there were some dreadful ones, such as his ex-wife.
His lip had curled without him realizing it.
He sighed out the bitter taste in his mouth and took solace in the fact that Pavlina was no longer around to torment him. And not because of anything he’d done. His hands were clean of that death. She’d just made too many enemies and had paid the price. But he wasn’t going to dwell on her. That would only drag him down deeper.
Tonight, he needed to be lifted up. He needed to sink into the energy of the one thing he would never have again. Humanity.
Because, despite serving only supernaturals, the patrons in his club still had a great deal of their human sides left. The vampires not as much as the shifters, for sure, but the witches were essentially just humans with very special gifts. The fae looked mostly human if you didn’t focus on the ears.
In his club, he could inhale the warm breath of life, revel in the laughter and joy of his patrons, and remind himself that there was still good in the world. He could imagine that he too was human again.
He wasn’t. He never would be. But even a reaper could dream.
His mood made him reckless. He had so little to lose. Most nights, he was content to lurk in the secret hallways that surrounded the club and watch the patrons through the one-way mirrors that lined the walls for that very purpose. But tonight, watching wasn’t going to be enough.
So after throwing on a dark suit, a dark shirt, and a thin pair of black leather gloves, he slipped through a passageway that led from his home to the always reserved area of Insomnia’s VIP section.
It was always reserved because no one was allowed in it but him. Even if he only used it once a year.
The music’s pulsating thump vibrated through his bloodstream, forcing him to be present. Forcing him to let go of the past. It was a good thing to lose himself like this sometimes. To forget the past and live in the moment. Too hard to do often for someone like him, but he needed this tonight.
He walked to the railing that separated the elevated platform from the club a few feet below, but kept slightly behind the sheer silk curtains that hung from the corners of the private box.
The place was busy. That pleased him. He didn’t need the money, which was part of the reason he paid his employees so well, but he wanted the popularity. He wanted the power that gave him to remain secluded. And he wanted to see the people who made up this curious town.
Especially because he almost never left his home. It was in everyone’s best interests that he not mingle. He was too dangerous, too unpredictable.
And he didn’t want another unintentional death on his hands. Literally.
He gripped the railing, letting the pulse of the music flow through the metal and into him. He didn’t dance. He had no idea what rhythm was, but the throb of the club music felt like a heartbeat, and that he understood.
He liked it. Better that thump, thump, thump than the deafening silence of nothing.
The lights strobed and flashed over the crowd of dancers. He imagined the colors, but it had been so long since he’d actually seen them he had no idea what they might actually look like. The ability to see color had been stripped from him when he’d gotten his first assignment as a reaper.
His division was known as the War Angels. It was partially a misnomer. They weren’t angels at all, but merchants of death. But the war part was correct. He and his fellow reapers swept the battlefields of the world, taking the souls of the casualties, both soldier and civilian.
All of the War Angels had been stripped of their color vision. It was supposed to be a mercy, to prevent the burnout from seeing so many wounded. So much blood.
He would have liked the chance to choose for himself, but that was an old wound and not one he spent much thought on anymore. What was done was done.
A server approached. Trina, a fae woman who was one of the shift managers. She was also one of the few who had permission to engage with him. “Good evening, sir.”
“Shall I get you the usual?”
He paused a moment. His usual was a single glass of good cognac. Tonight, his usual didn’t feel like it would be enough. “Bring the bottle.”
“I’ll be right back.” She was familiar enough with him that her expression showed no shock or surprise.
If he wanted to drown his sorrows, that was his business.
He watched her work her way through the crowd and back to the bar, but she was only partway there when another woman caught his eye.
The woman was very, very pretty. Even without his ability to see color, he understood that her dark hair and dark eyes made for a mesmerizing combination. The men around her seemed as captivated as Lucien was.
She was standing with a group of female friends near the edge of the dance floor. He recognized a few of them as regulars. They seemed to be trying to persuade her to dance with them. She kept shaking her head and laughing off their requests.
At last, her friends gave up and went off to dance without her. She stayed where she was, arms crossed defensively in front of her, making eye contact with no one. The smile that had been present for her friends left when they did.
He understood. They’d already talked her into coming to Insomnia tonight. This wasn’t her usual place. He would have known. He would have remembered seeing this particular woman before.
She seemed to want to leave but acted like she felt some kind of obligation to remain. Maybe it was one of her friends’ birthdays. Or hers? No. Not hers. She wouldn’t celebrate like this.
Trina returned with his bottle of cognac and a single glass. She poured for him, but left the glass on the small table. She’d been trained well. “Can I get you anything else, sir?”
He tipped his head toward the woman across the dance floor. “Do you know who that is?”
Trina stepped closer to the railing and followed his line of sight. “I don’t recognize her. I can ask around.”
“No, it’s not important. Is she drinking anything?”
“She asked for tea, but that’s not on our menu.”
Tea? What sort of woman came to a nightclub and wanted to drink tea? His curiosity was aroused. “We don’t have tea.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Trina answered him anyway. “No, sir.”
“We serve coffee.”
She sort of wobbled her head back and forth. “Yes, but that’s because we can’t make Irish coffees without it.”
He snorted softly. “Stay here.”
It only took a minute to return to his apartment and raid the kitchen for a tin of his best Assam loose leaf. He entered the VIP box again and set the tin on the table. “Make her a cup of that.”
Trina nodded, took the tin, and went to do as he’d bidden.
He left the railing and sat on the plush white leather sofa where he could stretch out his long legs. Tea. How odd. Almost as an afterthought, he remembered his cognac. He tugged his gloves off so the liquid could benefit from the warmth of his hand and lifted the glass, holding it up so the light shone through it.
He knew the color of good cognac. Hadn’t seen it in ages, but it wasn’t a color he was soon to forget. He imagined this cognac had that deep amber hue. A sip confirmed that it was his usual, but the bottle already displayed that it was a very fine brand. The liquor’s burn lit the length of his throat with a pleasant heat, and for those few moments, he thought he remembered what normal felt like.
But just thinking that brought back all the reasons why he wasn’t normal.
He frowned and tossed back the remaining cognac. That was no way to treat such a fine beverage, but correctness was the last thing he cared about. A recklessness came over him. Why should he care what was proper?
He poured himself another.
Obliterating part of his brain, now there was a thing to focus on. He lifted the glass, but reason returned and he made himself sip it. He wasn’t an animal. He was just a miserable sot of a being who had no real reason to carry on.
Save for his grandmother.
An outsider might guess his daughter would be reason enough, but Kora had been poisoned against him by her mother to the point that his child regarded him as a bank account and not much more. He knew Kora blamed him for her mother’s untimely end, but he’d had nothing to do with it, despite his deadly touch.
Besides, Kora was an adult, no matter that he considered her still a child. Had been for nearly a hundred and fifty years. She was a vampire to boot, one of the rare few born that way, but that had only served to make her even more her mother’s daughter.
Lucien blew out a thick breath. His life was a complete and utter dung heap.
Save for his grandmother.
He lifted the glass, filled a third time now, in a toast to her. And stopped dead.
Standing at the entrance of his private VIP area was the beautiful tea drinker.
She lifted the cup in her hand, one of the clear mugs used for coffee by the looks of it, and nodded. “Very kind of you.”
Her voice held the slight lilt of a foreign land, but not one he could immediately place.
Before he could answer, Trina came rushing up the steps. “Ma’am, you have to leave. This is a restricted—”
“It’s fine, Trina.”
She glanced at him, her expression at last showing surprise. “Yes, sir.”
She retreated, leaving him with the woman.
The woman smiled, glancing at her tea. “You must be someone very important.”
He shook his head. She smelled like night-blooming jasmine and sandalwood, and this close, he realized how wrong he’d been to think her merely pretty.
She was staggeringly beautiful. Unreal, almost. More perfect than he’d imagined. She had to be supernatural to be that flawless.
“No,” he said, astounded he could find the capacity to craft a response in her presence. “I’m no one.”
She laughed, a sweet, joyful sound. “That’s not true at all, is it?”
Was she playing with him? Or did she know the truth? His lack of interaction with anyone besides his grandmother, and occasionally Greyson, had left him deficient in reading people. And he wasn’t one of those reapers who could see a person’s aura. A War Angel didn’t need to know how good or bad a person was, and there was no time for that assessment on the battlefield anyway. “I…” But he was at a loss as to how to answer.
She took a few steps toward him and sat on the far end of the couch where he was. “I’m being forward, I know, and I sincerely hope you don’t read anything into this, but the crowd is…” She sighed and looked toward the dance floor, her smile fading.
Then her gaze returned to him. “The tea is very good.”
“It’s Assam.” He understood about the crowd. He wasn’t a fan either, mostly out of necessity.
She smiled again. “I know.”
What was she? Not a vampire. No fangs. No pointed ears, either, that he could see. A witch, then? A supernatural of some kind, for sure, because nothing about her seemed exactly human. And humans weren’t allowed in Insomnia. His gaze dropped to the glass in his hand. Perhaps he’d had enough to drink.
“I’m Imari, by the way.”
“That’s a lovely name.” Imari. He knew that name somehow. She worked here in town, but he couldn’t quite place her.
“Thank you.” She stuck her hand out. “And thank you very much for the tea.”
Maybe it was the cognac. Maybe it was because of how off center she’d knocked him by speaking with him so boldly. Or maybe being this close to this much beauty had rattled him. But for some inexplicable reason, he reached out and took her hand in his.
Without a glove on.
The second their hands touched, his world imploded. Fear. Panic. But she held on to him, oblivious to the danger. Yes, his gloves were off, but she remained very much alive. How was that possible?
He peered into her eyes, trying to ascertain that he wasn’t reaping her soul in that very moment, and froze. How was this possible? He was seeing something he shouldn’t.
Namely, Imari’s eyes. And they were the same deep, rich golden brown of the cognac in his glass.