“The hell wrong with you, Sam? Never mind — trick question. But how you gonna blow up my boy’s spot like that? X ain’t been to school all week on account of you snitchin’.” Hot air and noisy spittle crackled the line as Dougie fumed on the other end of the phone.
I dropped a folded pair of jeans in my bag and glared at the phone by the nightstand. I had Dougie on speaker while finishing the last-minute packing I should’ve done last night. Angie insisted that I wouldn’t need anything, but if I was going to stay at a strange place for a whole weekend, I wanted to be prepared. The operation required two free hands, thus allowing this grown-man hissy fit to commence in stereo.
“Dougie, real talk, do you have any white friends? I mean any? In regards to your argument, you guys knew each other a month and now you act like you lost a soul mate. And let’s not forget that ‘your boy’ was a plant sent to spy on you!” I stressed the last bit, hoping logic would sink in quicker.
“But why would he think that, though? I’m not one of you.” The way he said that made me think of how my Grampa would refer to Dad as one of “them people.” Though two different issues, both annoyed me for the same reason.
“And what’s that supposed to mean, Douglas?” I stuffed extra underwear in my suitcase. “Oh, we’re cool to hang out with, but you wouldn’t want to be one, right? You like the swagger, but none of the ugly that comes with being what we are.”
“No. What I don’t like is someone playing puppet master with my body,” he snapped. “What are you even talking about?”
That was a good question because I didn’t know anymore. “Look, if Xander’s gone, then that must mean you checked out okay. He might move on to a new suspect. Or he might show up to school on Monday, business as usual. At least now you know what’s up.”
“Man, this is some BS!” Dougie’s petulant whine reminded me of a kid picked last to play kickball. “First Caleb, then that Olivia chick and now Xander. Whenever I meet a new friend they end up being a demon—”
“Hey, watch it with the D word.” I cut him off. “We’re Cambions. It’s not the same thing.”
“It’s close enough. Where’s your boy anyway?” he asked.
Using my elbow, I dropped down on the bag in a body slam, which scored me an extra inch of room. “Why you ask? You miss him?”
“No,” Dougie answered a little too quickly to be believed. “Just wondering why you’re breathing so heavy.”
I stared down at the luggage on my bed, stuffed with three days’ worth of clothes and calculating my next move. “I’m trying to close the zipper to my suitcase. I’m leaving in a few minutes and I don’t have time to repack.”
“Try sitting on it then zipping it up. Works for Mia when she over-packs.” He suggested.
To my surprise, the trick actually worked. “Thanks, Dougie.”
“Yeah.” A long, awkward pause occupied the line before he spoke again. “Listen, I gotta go. Have fun at your monsters ball. Try not to eat anybody.” He hung up. No goodbye or anything. Typical. Dougie and I still had a ways to go, but we were making progress. At least he was calling, even if it was to chew me out.
I tucked my phone in my pocket, did a quick scan of my room, and then took a final inspection in the mirror. The black curls piled on the top of my head were a battle I’d lost hours ago, and it was best not to disturb that sleeping beast unless absolutely necessary. Since I’d be around Cambions all weekend, I saw no reason to rock the brown contacts I usually wore to school. Lilith, ever-sensitive to eyewear, was grateful for the reprieve. My tan sweater was a cashmere, off-the-shoulder number that Mia bought me for my birthday and it probably cost more than my entire wardrobe. It made for a better first impression than the hoodies and jeans that were my uniform. But I was ashy as hell and needed lotion.
While slathering on half a jar of cocoa butter, I felt that familiar tingle on the back of my neck. It traveled to the base of my skull and hovered with the light pressure of a kiss on that very spot. The unearthly twinge started late this morning, right around the time Caleb’s plane touched down on Virginian soil. Then, it had been just a faint hum, the booming sound system from an approaching car. But now, Lilith vibrated on a supersonic frequency that gained intensity upon Caleb’s approach. It activated all my senses at once and streamlined into a singular craving. I needed to touch, smell, taste, and hear him.
I grabbed my suitcase and dragged the load downstairs. Mom must’ve heard all the clunking noises and she met me at the bottom, ready to share her latest paranoia straight from the headlines. There was little time to hear the impending cautionary tale. Caleb was close, less than a block away now. I could feel his thumbs tapping his steering wheel, his eagerness a mirror reflection of my own.
Like a kid who’d heard the ice cream truck, I dropped my luggage in the foyer, ran passed Mom, and flung open the door just as his black Jeep rolled to a stop at the curb. It took all my physical strength to keep cool and not run to him. Cambion-mate or not, Samara Nicole Marshal hadn’t completely lost her mind over a boy.
Who was I kidding?
As soon as his head appeared over the roof of his car, my feet sprouted wings. He stepped around the side of the Jeep, looking tired from his travel. Weary eyes likely hid under those dark shades, but his smile, my morning sun peeking over the horizon, was on full display. His pace quickened with mine until our collision stopped us in the middle of the yard.
He caught me in his arms and I wrapped my legs around his waist. I snatched the shades off his face and kissed him for all I was worth. My fingers sank into his soft brown hair, messing it up even more. We were a hot pretzel of lips and limbs for what Caleb would later tell me were five minutes, but time didn’t exist when you’re this far gone. The slight trimmer of Caleb’s body told me he felt the same way, but he was better at playing it off than I was.
“I don’t think I can make it to the car like this, Sam.” Caleb chuckled between kisses.
“Try,” I murmured with my mouth planted to his.
Between hooded lids, pale lavender light slid through his thick lashes, courtesy of the homesick spirit within. Capone was hyped for our reunion as well, and Lilith preformed her own lightshow for her mate.
We heard a throat clear in the distance and soon realized we weren't alone in the yard. Mom had stepped out of the house with my suitcase in tow. Caleb ambled to the porch with me latch to his torso like a koala cub.
“Hello, Ms. Marshall. You look beautiful,” he told her.
“Uh-huh,” Mom replied with a guffaw. “What color is my dress?”
Caleb loosened his hold and set me back on the grass, keeping our bodies connected on the way down. His stare never left mine as he answered, “Green with gold flecks.”
“Her dress is beige with white flowers,” I corrected him.
“I'll take your word for it.” Caleb pulled away then jogged up the porch steps to collect my bag.
As expected, Mom ran down her list of safety measures, but thankfully kept the weeping and baby talk to a minimum. If I hated the whole party idea before, seeing Mom’s watering blue eyes sealed the deal. She’d occupied the front row of every ceremony and award I’d ever received and now the right to witness my biggest achievement was stripped from her. Angie promised she would send Mom pictures, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close.
“Try not to worry, Ms. Marshall. She’s in good hands.” Caleb gave her shoulder an assuring squeeze.
In a blink, her expression changed from happy housewife to rabid mama bear. “You have more at stake if something happens to her than anyone else does. I don’t need to warn you what carnage will ensue if Samara is hurt? We’ve done this dance before; you don’t need a refresher, do you?” she asked with deadly sweetness.
“No, Ma’am.” Caleb cleared his throat and backed away from the porch slowly. “I will protect her with my life.”
Mom nodded in approval. “I’m counting on it.”
After loading the car and a final round of hugs, Caleb and I high-tailed it north on the interstate. For two hours, we fought over the satellite radio stations and discussed school drama, work, Xander, and my argument with Dougie, which he found amusing. Like Ruiz, Caleb wasn’t shocked by the follow-up visit from a Santiago. “It’s all protocol. They’re anal like that,” he’d said with his eyes trained on the road.
The only topic off limits seemed to be his sister’s wedding. He made a flippant comment about the drunken deejay and getting forced to do the Chicken Dance, but withheld any detail that signified a pleasant trip. Clearly, things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I wouldn’t pry the details out of him, either by memory extraction or good old fashioned nagging. Cake Boy had more issues than Cosmo, of which he would reveal to me in his own sweet time.
I wasn’t the only one picking up on bad moods, because from out of nowhere, Caleb said, “I get the feeling that you don’t want this party. Any reason why?”
“I can give you five off the bat.” I nestled back into the head rest and ranked each issue based on annoyance. “Number five: I don’t know these people. Number four: I really, really hate being the last to know stuff. Number three: the party’s for me, but none of my friends and family are invited and I have no say over the music selection. Number two: I don’t have a fancy dress. And taking the number one spot for ten consecutive months is…” I tapped the dashboard for drumroll effect. “Whenever there’s a celebration with us involved, something bad happens. It’s a given at this point.”
“Yeah, I thought of that, too.” Caleb agreed with a furrowed brow. “But it’s too late to cancel now, and I’m sure Evangeline will help you out in the wardrobe department. Whatever you wear, it has to be jade green.”
That struck me as odd. “Well, it is my favorite color.”
“It’s also Lilith’s signature and your eye color. All the Petrovsky females will be wearing green. The Cambion families will be color coordinated the same way.”
I leaned away and gave him a good once over, imagining him rocking a purple suit. That alone was worth going to the party. “So what was your debut like?” I asked. “Maybe you could give me some pointers on what to expect.”
“I didn’t have one,” he replied.
What surprised me more than his answer was that I didn’t know that already. Then again, not all of our memories transferred through feeding and not all of them remained once the energy wore off. For that reason, I pounced on the chance to learn something new about him for a change. “Why not?” I asked.
Instead of an answer, he tucked light brown strands behind his ear, drawing attention to his dire need of a haircut. The longer his hair grew, the wavier it got and it now hung at his neckline, brushing his shoulders.
“Our family isn’t part of the inner circle,” he said finally. “That sort of celebration is for the flaky upper crust. My family’s influence is basically zilch in the Cambion circuit. And thanks to all this crap with my father and the Santiago justice league, our stock has taken a nose dive.” He rubbed his face as if to clear his mind. “We’re bottom rung, Sam, and I can guarantee that if you weren’t my mate, my brothers and I wouldn’t have been invited.”
Damn, Cake Boy just couldn’t get a break, forever on the outside of something, dancing in that in-between where you’re neither and both. Yeah, I knew the lyrics to that song by heart, and having another outcast by my side made the music a bit more tolerable.
I took his right hand from the steering wheel and held it in mine. Brown and pale white fingers fastened together like teeth on a zipper. “Well, I for one am proud to be with you. Even in public, in broad daylight.” I smiled at him.
Keeping our fingers locked, he brought my hand to his lips and kissed the wrist.
The GPS alerted us that we reached our destination, but only forest and empty road lay ahead. The Jeep took a sharp left onto a path you could’ve easily driven past if you weren’t looking for it. Hidden from the main road, a tall iron gate capped with gold emerged from the foliage.
Caleb rolled down his window, pushed the intercom then announced our arrival. A moment later, the gates parted and we cruised up the mile-long path of Downton Abbey. Acres of green rolled out before us, sectioned in quads by four garden mazes. Water fountains stood inside each maze, their spray arched high over the spade-shaped trees that lined the paved drive. Then there was the house itself, a stone giant with outstretched arms ready to engulf visitors and pull them towards its chest. Its head was a gold-plated clock braced on the shoulders of stone cherubs. More gold dripped from the roof onto the top windows and balconies like melted wax. At the top of its lungs, the place screamed Old World decadence, further proving that this party wasn’t a chips and dip sort of gig.
“Intimidated?” Caleb asked, his eyes glued to the narrow path ahead.
“A bit,” I admitted, wondering if I needed a corset and a powdered wig to enter the place. “I never knew we had palaces in Virginia. Just mansions and old plantation houses.”
“It’s actually a French chateau. Some rich tycoon modeled it after the Palace of Versailles and went bankrupt a third of the way through construction. The place stayed on the market for years before the Santiago’s bought it on auction.”
“A third? There was more to this place?” I asked. The building alone was the size of two football fields and made my grandpa’s mic-mansion look like a double-wide. I was definitely out of my element.
“Have you ever seen the real Versailles?” He saw the annoyed look on my face then said, “Never mind. It’s a like a small city. Maybe I’ll take you to France one day as a belated birthday gift.”
“Nah, you being here is gift enough. And those kickass headphones you gave me. And the balloons. And the ten free slushies coupon,” I added.
He smiled at that, his dimples sinking into his cheeks. “You’re so easy to please.”
“Depends on if you know what I want.” My statement hung in the air as a challenge.
He answered with a heated leer that promised we would settle that score later.
The path fanned out to a wide rectangle where several expensive vehicles were already parked. Caleb pulled into the space by the entrance then climbed out. I joined him on rubbery legs that had fallen asleep during the long commute.
Servants in white poured out of the tall glass doors to assist with the luggage. With a lot of bowing and curtseying, they instructed us not to lift a thing while on the property. As one of the butler people took Caleb’s keys, I noticed the man’s eyes were a deep Crayola green, the color of fake grass.
“He’s a Cambion too?” I whispered to Caleb on our way up the stone steps.
“Everyone here is. Non-Cambions are prohibited at these gatherings.”
I got that much, but were they relegated to wait staff? “Wouldn’t they be guests as well?” I asked.
“Only the thirteen families are guests. Everyone else is a civilian. They’re not good enough to attend, but good enough to serve,” Caleb replied, and the bite of his words revealed more about his lowly status than the worker’s.
We stepped through the vestibule, taking in the Phantom Of The Opera vibe of the interior. The curved staircase owned the room, a mythical serpent with two heads branching toward opposite ends of the second floor. The high ceiling revealed five stories, and curious eyes peered down at us from theater balconies.
More domestics in white greeted us in the lobby, their heads bowing as they addressed us by name. They moved about in a hurry, carrying bouquets and chairs toward an open room where I assumed the festivities would take place.
“You’re late. I was beginning to believe you wouldn’t show. I should be so lucky.” A heavily accented voice spoke nearby.
Like twins, Caleb and I groaned in unison and turned toward the archway on our left. Olivia Petrovsky, Cambion ‘soul sister’ and queen of Resting Bitch Face, leaned against a pillar, looking bored and unimpressed with life. Wearing a white button-down shirt and a gray pleated skirt, she appeared to have been dragged out of her private school to come here. She was the spitting image of Nadine: a tall, captivating blonde who owned a death stare that would make Medusa look away. Olivia even wore her hair in the same messy braid over her shoulder as Nadine had. On sight, Lilith whined in remembrance of her former host and longed for the sibling comradery she once shared with Olivia. Too bad reconciliation wasn’t in my list of priorities. The girl was prickly on a good day and intolerable the rest of the time.
Caleb bowed his head. “Olivia.”
“Caleb.” Her emerald eyes darted to him in the briefest of acknowledgements. “Mama is in a meeting with the Santiagos, so she wanted me to show you around. That is if you’re not too busy.”
“Aw, I always have time for you, sis.” I gave her a nasty grin, which she returned with venom only her reptilian kind could produce.
“We’re having dinner at eight with the family. In the likelihood that you don’t have formal attire, clothing will be provided for you. Come along.” She glided toward the open mirrored entryway that held all the commotion. “We will have rehearsals in the morning and then a last-minute resizing for your gown.”
“This is beginning to sound more and more like a wedding,” I said and turned to Caleb for backup. He nodded and quietly surveyed our surroundings.
“In many ways it is. The celebration has a dual purpose, a political statement of sorts,” Olivia explained. “In order for Caleb’s family to be acknowledged as part of the Petrovsky line, your bonding has to be publicly declared. Since all the families will attend the event, it will be set in stone.”
It all came off as some outdated feudal system, but I rolled with it.
Caleb and I followed her to what I’d forever refer to as the “Hall Of Stupid Money”. It ran the length of an airplane runway and hit every item of the bourgeois checklist. Bleached marble paved the flooring below, crystal chandeliers hung from above with naked, chubby babies painted on the ceiling. Wall mirrors galore, gold plated everything, and curly-Q antique furniture that was once owned by Louis the whoever. I’d need a map to find my way out of the place, or at the very least, a golf cart. By the time we reach the third floor, I wanted to punch out the idiot builder who forgot to install an elevator.
Olivia led us through yet another frou-frou hallway and announced, “This wing is where the guests of honor reside. Mama and I are down that hall and the two of you are at the opposite end.”
Her voice faded in the background when I noticed Caleb lagging behind. He faced the wall to our right and stared, transfixed at what I’d dismissed as funky wall paper. Under closer inspection, it was an eight-foot-tall mural that ran the length of the entire corridor. After examining the figures inside the desert landscape, realization hit me square in the gut.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked Olivia and marveled at the masterpiece.
She joined our side, and for the first time since we’d arrived, a smile brightened her face. “Yes. It is the Origin Tale in living color. The Santiago’s commissioned Mama to paint it. It took her two years to complete and required seven men to transport it to the estate.”
That made sense. The Petrovskys were the historians of the race, and Angie’s paintings were sought by private collectors around the world. Seeing her brush work up close, I understood why she was in such high demand. The grains of sand, the tiny huts; the expressions of each character had been captured with haunting detail.
Touching the mural’s bumpy surface, we charted the sequence of events down the corridor. Scenes I’d read in Angie’s journals preformed a reenactment on canvas: the celestial event, the birth of the inhuman child, its bewitchment and terror upon an entire village, the villagers’ retaliation, the brutal execution of the creature, and the curse that rose from the flames and plagued mankind for centuries. It was all there, our history blending in with the rest of the gaudy décor, hiding in plain sight.
“There are no known records of a name, but the ancient ones referred to the being as ‘The Crux’, the root of us all,” Olivia supplied with the grace of a museum tour guide. “They say that the being had no gender and grew into an adult in a year’s time. Its beauty was so profound that gazing into its eyes would cause seizures.”
Caleb stopped at a depiction of an ancient victory dance around a bonfire. “Did the villagers really chop the body into ten pieces before burning the remains?”
As a hardcore fan of the morbid and macabre, Olivia traced fingers along the pyre’s black smoke in a manner of worship. “Yes. This is why there are ten original families. The other three are byproducts of the ten.”
“Byproducts? You mean like a spinoff of the original series? How does that work?” I asked.
Olivia blinked out of her momentary trance then backed away from the mural. “Consult a mirror and your own experience for that answer, Samara. You are not the first offshoot among our kind and you won’t be the last. You are simply the most recent to date.”
I poked out my bottom lip. “Aw, shucks. And here I thought I was a rare and special snowflake.”
“You would. This way.” Olivia slinked down the hall, her long braid wagging behind her.
My hands enclosed the space in front of me as I imagined it was Olivia’s neck. A warm hand settled on my lower back and eased me away from the wall-sized picture book.
“Leave it alone, Sam,” Caleb mumbled out the corner of his mouth. “She’s being civil, all things considered. Remember, we’re outsiders encroaching on her turf.”
Olivia spun to a stop in front of a set of double doors. “Your suite is through here and Caleb’s is right across the hall.”
Caleb snapped to attention and blurted out, “Suites? As in plural?”
“Yes, Caleb, Plural. The Santiagos are very conservative. Perhaps if you two were legally married, you could share a suite, but for now we must remain respectful to our hosts.” She flung open the doors and we entered the Fabergé egg that was my new lodgings.
All the extravagance should’ve been old news by now, but as I pivoted in the middle of the floor, wonderment returned in an emerald and gold color scheme. A four-post bed covered with embroidered pillows took up most of the room.
I was tempted to dive in, but I paused on sight of the black cocktail dress and matching flats lying on the bed. There was no need to check the size—I knew it would fit. The same way I knew that all my things had been unpacked and put away by some low-ranking Cambion turned house elf. I would’ve never picked out that getup on my own—not my style and nowhere near my price range. I suspected the dress code was one of many ways the Santiagos threw their weight around, and more shot-calling would likely accompany tonight’s dinner.
Caleb leaned against the door frame with his legs crossed at the ankles. Wearing a reserved, almost blank expression, he regarded the fresco painted on the ceiling. “This is some honeymoon suite. Separate but equal.”
I rolled my eyes. Of all the things to gripe about, Caleb chose the sleeping arrangements? “Funny, ‘cause I don’t remember us getting married,” I told him.
He slid his hands into his pockets and drew deeper into the room. All his focus, all his energy was centered on me with an intensity that emitted a violet glow from his eyes. “You don’t remember New Year’s?”
Fighting the urge to blush, I said, “Vividly. But I wouldn’t constitute that as a wedding. You should know what one of those look like. Didn’t you just leave one?”
“I did, so I can say in all confidence that it pales in comparison to what we have.” His throaty reply made me painfully aware of the king-sized bed sitting three feet away.
“If you two are quite finished,” Olivia cut in. “I need to get ready for dinner before I lose my appetite. Perhaps after the ceremony and you complete the consummation rite, the family will reconsider the sleeping arrangement.”
Whatever I was about to say took a back seat to Olivia’s announcement. “I’m sorry—the what?”
“The consummation rite. It’s an act to show everyone you are a mated pair,” she clarified.
“What kind of act?” I asked, taking the defensive. “It sounds like the Cambion A-list is getting dinner and a show. I’m not getting naked in front of a bunch of strangers.”
“Trust me, no one here wants to see that. I certainly don’t,” she said dryly. “Anyway, the Santiagos hate to wait, so you’ll need to arrive downstairs at eight sharp. There’s a phone and a directory by the bed if you need assistance.” She went for the door, but I blocked her path.
“Not so fast. Let’s back up to this consummation thing. Why am I just now hearing about it? How do we prove that we’re mated?” I asked.
Olivia peered down at me with a wicked quirk of her lips. “Wy musicie krwawić w oczach świadków.”
Say what? Language wasn’t the problem, but what the words meant for me and Caleb. I pushed out my hands to stop the crazy train from moving any further. “You wanna run that by me again?”
“You are fluent in Polish, yes? There is no need to repeat myself.” She stepped around me and sauntered to the door. “As amusing as your imagination is, it is not as bad as you might think, Samara. It’s just a formality.”
I wasn’t convinced, and Mia’s comment about rituals and chanting sounded less farfetched. By the time I recovered from that little bombshell, Olivia had disappeared. “Wait—hold up. Olivia!” I called after her, but she was already gone.
“What did she say that’s got you so worked up?” Caleb asked. “Whatever we have to do can’t be that bad.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind opening a vein in front of—” I turned and found Caleb laying spread eagle in the bed with his eyes closed. I didn’t need empathic powers to feel his fatigue from across the room and I didn’t have the heart to send him to his own suite. But we were at the mercy of our hosts, in more ways than one.
Caleb’s head lifted from the pillow and shook the fog from his brain. “What did you say?”
I froze to the spot, unsure how to translate psycho cult activity into Standard English. He was just as clueless as I was about the ceremony and he had a right to know what was in store for us. I took a deep breath and my next words ruined whatever rest he’d planned on having tonight. “In order to prove we’re legit to everyone, we’re gonna have to bleed.”