Authors: Sarah J. Maas
Bryce snorted, and through the crowd she spied the Fae lord at one end of the beer pong table on which he’d painted an image of an enormous Fae head devouring an angel whole.
Ruhn stood at the other end of the table, both middle fingers raised to his opponents, his lip ring glinting in the dim lights of the foyer. “Pay up, assholes,” her brother said, the rolled cigarette between his lips bobbing with his words.
Bryce reached a hand for Hunt, fingers grazing his downy soft
wings. He went rigid, twisting to look at her. Angels’ wings were highly sensitive. She might as well have grabbed him by the balls.
Face flushing, she jabbed a thumb toward her brother. “Tell June and Fury I’ll be there in a sec,” she called over the noise. “I want to say hi to Ruhn.” She didn’t wait for Hunt to reply before wending her way over.
Flynn let out a cheer as she appeared, obviously well on his way to being smashed. Typical Tuesday night for him. She considered sending a photo of his wasted ass to his parents and sister. They might not sneer so much at her, then.
Declan Emmett appeared slightly more sober as he said from Flynn’s side, “Hey, B.”
Bryce waved, not wanting to shout over the crowd gathered in what had once been a dining room. It had recently been transformed into a billiards and darts room. Absolutely fitting for the Crown Prince of the Valbaran Fae, Bryce thought with a half smile as she sidled up to the male beside her brother. “Hi, Marc.”
The towering leopard shifter, all sleek muscle beneath his dark brown skin, peered down at her. His striking topaz eyes sparkled. Declan had been seeing Marc Rosarin for a month now, having met the tech entrepreneur during some fancy party at one of the big engineering companies in the Central Business District. “Hey, Princess.”
Flynn demanded, “Since when do you let Marc get away with calling you Princess?”
“Since I like him better than you,” Bryce shot back, earning a clap on the shoulder from Marc and a grin from Ruhn. She said to her brother, “
A small get-together
Ruhn shrugged, the tattoos along his arms shifting. “I blame Flynn.”
Flynn lifted his last beer up in acknowledgment and chugged.
“Where’s Athalar?” Declan asked.
“With June and Fury in the living room,” Bryce said.
Ruhn waved his greeting to a passing partier before he asked, “How was the ballet?”
“Awesome. June killed her solos. Brought the house to its feet.”
She’d had chills along her entire body while her friend had danced—and tears in her eyes when Juniper had received a standing ovation after finishing. Bryce had never heard the CCB so full of cheering, and from Juniper’s flushed, joyous face as she’d bowed, Bryce knew her friend realized it, too. A promotion to principal was sure to come any day now.
“Hottest ticket in town,” Marc said, whistling. “Half my office would have sold their souls to be there tonight.”
“You should have told me,” Bryce said. “We had a few extra seats in our box. We could have fit them.”
Marc smiled appreciatively. “Next time.”
Flynn began reracking the beer pong cups, and called to her, “How are Mommy and Daddy?”
“Good. They fed me a bottle of milk and read me a bedtime story before I left.”
This earned a chuckle from Ruhn, who had once again become close with Ember. Her brother asked, “How many interrogations since they got here last night?”
“Six.” Bryce pointed to the foyer and living room beyond. “Which is why I’m going to go have a drink with my friends.”
“Open bar,” Declan said, gesturing magnanimously behind him.
Bryce waved again, and she was off. Without Hunt’s imposing form, far fewer people turned her way. But when they did … pockets of silence appeared. She tried to ignore them, and nearly sighed with relief when she spied a familiar pair of horns atop a head of gracefully curling hair tucked into Juniper’s usual bun. She was seated on the stained living room sectional, thigh to thigh with Fury, their hands interlaced.
Hunt stood before them, wings held at a casual angle as he talked with her friends. He looked up as Bryce entered the living room, and she could have sworn his black eyes lit.
She reined in her joy at the sight as she plopped onto the cushions beside Juniper, cuddling close. She nuzzled June’s shoulder. “Hi, my talented and brilliant and beautiful friend.”
Juniper laughed, squeezing Bryce. “Right back at you.”
Bryce said, “I was talking to Fury.”
Juniper smacked Bryce’s knee, and Fury laughed, observing, “Already acting like a prima donna.”
Bryce sighed dramatically. “I can’t wait to see June throw temper tantrums about the state of her dressing room.”
“Oh, you’re both horrible,” Juniper said, but laughed along with them. “One, I won’t even
a dressing room to myself for years.
“Here we go,” Fury said, and when June made a noise of objection, she only chuckled and brushed her mouth over the faun’s temple.
The casual, loving bit of intimacy had Bryce daring a glance toward Hunt, who was smiling faintly. Bryce avoided the urge to fidget, to think about how that could so easily be them, cuddling on the couch and kissing. Hunt just said, voice gravelly, “What can I get you, Quinlan?” He inclined his head toward the bar in the rear of the room, barely visible with the crowds mobbing the two bartenders.
“Whiskey, ginger beer, and lime.”
“You got it.” With a mockery of a salute, Hunt stalked off through the crowd.
“How’s the whole no-sex thing going for you, Bryce?” Fury asked wryly, leaning forward to peer at her face.
Bryce slumped against the cushions. “Asshole.”
June’s laugh fizzled through her, and her friend patted her thigh. “Remind me why you two aren’t hooking up?”
Bryce peered over the back of the couch to make sure Hunt still stood at the bar before she said, “Because I am a fucking idiot, and you two jerks know that.”
Juniper and Fury snickered, the latter taking a sip of her vodka soda. “Tell him you’ve changed your mind,” the merc said, resting the glass on her black leather-clad knee. How Fury could wear leather in this heat was beyond Bryce. Shorts, T-shirt, and sandals were all she could endure with the sizzling temperatures, even at night.
“And break our bargain before Winter Solstice?” Bryce hissed. “He’d never let me live it down.”
“Athalar already knows you want to break it,” Fury drawled.
“Oh, he totally knows,” Juniper agreed.
Bryce crossed her arms. “Can we not talk about this?”
“Where would the fun be in that?” Fury asked.
Bryce kicked Fury’s leather boot, wincing as her gold-sandaled foot collided with unforgiving metal. “Steel toes? Really?”
“This is a veritable frat party,” Fury said, smirking. “There might be some asses to kick if someone makes a move on my girlfriend.”
Juniper glowed at the term.
Bryce didn’t know what the Hel she was to Hunt.
seemed ridiculous when talking about Hunt fucking Athalar. As if Hunt would ever do anything as normal and casual as dating.
Juniper poked Bryce in the arm. “I mean it. Remind me why you guys still need to wait for solstice to do the deed.”
Bryce slouched, sinking down a few inches, her feet sending the empty beer cans under the coffee table clattering. “I just …”
That familiar buzz of power and maleness that was Hunt filled the air behind her, and Bryce shut her mouth a moment before a plastic cup of amber liquid garnished with a wedge of lime appeared before her. “Princess,” Hunt crooned, and Bryce’s toes curled—yet again. They seemed to have a habit of doing that around him.
“Do we get to use that term now?” June perked up with delight. “I’ve been
“Absolutely not.” Bryce swigged from her drink. She gagged. “How much whiskey did you have the bartender
in here, Athalar?” She coughed, as if it’d do anything to ease the burn.
Hunt shrugged. “I thought you liked whiskey.”
Fury snorted, but Bryce got to her feet. Lifted the cup toward Hunt in a silent toast, then lifted it to June. “To the next principal dancer of the CCB.”
Then she knocked back the whole thing and let it burn right down to her soul.
Hunt let himself—just for one fucking second—look at Bryce. Admire the steady, unfaltering tap of her sandaled foot on the worn wood floor to the beat of the music; the long, muscled legs that
gleamed in the neon firstlights, her white shorts offsetting her summer tan. No scars remained from the shit that had occurred this spring, aside from that mark on her chest, though the thick scar from years ago still curved along her thigh.
His fierce, strong, beautiful Bryce. He’d done his best not to gape at the shape of her ass in those shorts as they’d walked over here, the sway of her long hair against her lower back, the ample hips that swished with each step.
He was a stupid fucking animal. But he’d always been a stupid fucking animal around her.
He’d barely been able to focus on the ballet earlier—on June’s dancing—because Bryce had looked so … delicious in that blue dress. Only her parents sitting a few feet in front of him had kept him from thinking too much about sliding his hand up her thigh and underneath that gauzy material.
But that wasn’t part of the plan. Earlier this spring, he’d been fine with it. Aching for her, but fine with the concept of getting to know each other better before sex entered the equation. Yet that ache had only gotten worse these past months. Living together in their apartment was a slow kind of torture for both of them.
Bryce’s whiskey-colored eyes shifted toward him. She opened her mouth, then shut it at whatever she beheld in his expression.
The memory of those days following Micah’s and Sandriel’s demises cooled his rising lust.
Let’s take things slow
, she’d requested.
I feel like we tumbled into all of this, and now that things are getting back to normal, I want to do this right with you. Get to know you in real time, not while we’re running around the city trying to solve murders.
He’d agreed, because what else could he do? Never mind that he’d come home from the Comitium that night planning to seduce Quinlan within an inch of her life. He hadn’t even gotten to the kissing part when she’d announced she wanted to hit the brakes.
He knew more lay behind it. Knew it likely had something to do with the guilt she harbored for the thousands of people who hadn’t been saved that day. Allowing herself to be with him, to be happy … She needed time to sort it out. And Hunt would give it
to her. Anything Bryce wanted, anything she needed, he’d gladly give it to her. He had the freedom to do so now, thanks to the branded-out tattoo on his wrist.
But on nights like these, with her in those shorts … it was really gods-damned hard.
Bryce hopped up from the couch and padded over to him, leaving Juniper and Fury to chat, Fury busy reloading the arts page of the
Crescent City Times
for the review of Juniper’s performance. “What’s up?” Hunt said to Bryce as she took up a place beside him.
“Do you actually like coming to these parties?” Bryce asked, gesturing to the throng, firstlight glow stick around her wrist gleaming bright. “This doesn’t disgust you?”
He tucked in his wings. “Why would it disgust me?”
“Because you’ve seen all the shit that’s happening in the world, and been treated like dirt, and these people …” She tossed her sheet of hair over a shoulder. “A lot of them have no idea about it. Or just don’t care.”
Hunt studied her tight face. “Why do we come to these parties if it bothers you?”
“Well, tonight we’re here to avoid my mom.” Hunt chuckled, but she went on, “And because I want to celebrate June being a genius.” She smiled at her friend on the couch. “And we’re here because Ruhn asked me to come. But … I don’t know. I want to feel normal, but then I feel guilty about that, and then I get mad at all these people who don’t care enough to feel guilty, and I think the poison-testing pill you no doubt put in my whiskey had some sort of sad-sack potion in it because I don’t know why I’m thinking about this right now.”
Hunt huffed a laugh. “Sad-sack potion?”
“You know what I mean!” She glared. “This really doesn’t bug you?”
“No.” He assessed the party raging around them. “I prefer to see people enjoying their lives. And you can’t assume that because they’re here, it means they don’t care. For all you know, a lot of them lost family and friends this spring. Sometimes people need stuff like this to feel alive again. To find a kind of release.”
Wrong word. He sure as fuck hadn’t found release recently, other than by his own hand. He tried not to think about whether Bryce had opened the drawer in her left nightstand, where she kept her toys, as often as he’d jacked off in the shower.
Four months left until Winter Solstice. Only four.
Bryce nodded, her mind clearly still on the conversation at hand. “I guess I just … Sometimes I catch myself enjoying a moment, and worry I’m enjoying it
much, you know? Like something could come along and ruin all of this if I let myself have too much fun or get too accustomed to feeling happy.”
“I know the feeling.” He couldn’t stop himself from letting his fingers curl in the ends of her hair. “It’s going to take time to adjust.”
He was still adjusting, too. He couldn’t get used to walking around without a pit in his stomach as he wondered what horrors the day would bring. Being in charge of himself, his future … The Asteri could take it all away again, if they wished. Had only let him live because he and Bryce were too public to kill—the Asteri wanted them to lie low forever. And if they didn’t … Well, Rigelus had been very clear on his call to Bryce months ago: the Bright Hand of the Asteri would kill everyone Bryce and Hunt cared about if they stepped out of line. So lying low it would be.
Hunt was happy to do precisely that. To go to the ballet and these parties and pretend that he’d never known anything different. That Bryce didn’t have the Horn tattooed into her back.