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S. W. Vaughn
Skin Deep Copyright © December 2009 by S. W. Vaughn All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the purchaser of this e-book ONLY. No part of this e-book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without prior written permission from Loose Id LLC. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions. eISBN 978-1-60737-505-0 Editor: Morgan Fayne Cover Artist: Anne Cain Printed in the United States of America
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since his human lovers tend to go insane when they discover his true nature. a traitorous Fae who tries to divide them. male/male sexual practices. he can't help his lustful reaction to Will when the radio host visits The Grotto. His studio. seductive tattoo artist Cobalt. violence. banished to live among humans. Cobalt is a Fae. With sexy. He hosts a popular GLBT relationship radio show. Though he's given up on relationships. violent rage. it's lust at first sight. but his own affairs have been rocky and abusive. and an ex-lover with inhuman powers who'll stop at nothing to take Cobalt back…including going through Will? Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content. Unfortunately he's already involved…until that night. Can their powerful attraction—and phenomenal sex—overcome an abusive closeted cop. broken Will at his door. The Grotto. with Cobalt's name on his lips. and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Anal play/intercourse. is both a hot spot for the NYC body art crowd and a haven for other Fae seeking protection. . but is compelled to get involved when a cab deposits a battered. He tries to dismiss it.About this Title Genre: LGBT Urban Fantasy Paranormal Will Ambrose knows everything about love—except how to find it himself. when his late arrival home sends his cop partner into a jealous. graphic language.
“No. Will. Was still laying them. He needed a cigarette. every time he rolled over and took Lyle's increasingly brutal displays of tough love. Will was going to walk out. a disaster.” “Stop it! Stop making excuses for him. She knew he couldn't. “Will.” He sucked in air through clenched teeth. She was looking at the bandage and the makeshift sling that supported his sprained left wrist. But Tess wasn't looking at his ass.Chapter One If Tess didn't stop looking at him like that. And he sure as hell didn't feel qualified to dispense relationship advice when his own was…well. He had a headache. I'm in a hurry. He should know. Got a show to do.” Her tone was soft. He didn't want to go on the air tonight anyway. “He didn't mean it.” “I fell. and Adrian. and the tracks never ended.” “Don't insult me. you need to go to a hospital. There. And you need to leave that crazy-ass bastard before he kills you. His love life was one long fucking train wreck. Lyle Thomas was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He'd laid them himself. He glared at her. Besides Brett. thanks.” . She was looking straight through his stupid excuses and directly at the ugly truth. “Are you going to give me the prod notes or not?” “Sit down. and oh-God-put-the-knife-down Yvan. He'd admitted it. at once daring and heartbroken with concern. His ass was still sore enough to ensure he'd do this show on his feet.” He couldn't look at her. Will. Tess. Again. remember?” “He hurt you.
” he said to Tess. I'm serious. Ha-ha. Yeah. “Lyle is my partner.” .” I think.” He tried to crush a frisson of doubt with logic.” Will managed to light up one-handed and deposited the rest of the pack on Tess's desk. He'd been appropriately apologetic.2 S. W. “Shut up. They didn't have plans tonight. I fell off my bed. And if I want to go out and have a few with my slightly overconcerned friend. clumsy me. you haven't been smacked around enough. then. even tender. Vaughn “Hospital. “I'm a grown-up. not my keeper. “If I'm overconcerned. He was probably asleep already. Or a cemetery. you should go home and tell him all about it.” She knew just as well as he did how pointless it would be. Tess laughed a little.” “Fag-hag. He's just…a little rough. Lyle had insisted he didn't know how tight his grip had been when he threw him on the bed. “I saw that. “Look. afterward. Mr. We'll go out for drinks or something. How did you hurt yourself. Filling out a restraining order against a cop—especially Lyle—would only ensure him a nice. as much to remind himself as to reassure her.” A frown graced the corners of her mouth. Ambrose? Oh.” “Okay. I can. Fuck it. Will. He pulled a half pack of smokes from his back pocket and winced at the resurgence of pain the slight contact caused. I'll do that after the show. Fire me if you want. okay? Don't make me fall apart right before airtime. comfy spot in a cell. And Will—stupid. despite a cold suspicion that Lyle knew he'd pushed it and just didn't care. Right. forgiving Will—accepted his advances. Let's just call the police—what's that? Oh. Lyle had just said he wanted to crash at Will's place because it was closer to work.” Tess whispered. “Promise? Because if you tell me you have to go home to him or else. He hoped. into a couple of fists. You want to finish me off?” “Tease.” “It's not like that. your boyfriend is a cop? Well. I'm calling somebody. just give me the notes.
But we're going to talk about you. And I'm Oprah Winfrey. “I never do that. took the pages she fanned at him. He cleaned up the mess and glanced over the prod notes. Open-question shows made things easier for him. a story that covered the occasional bruise or scrape better than any tone of foundation.” “Yes.” Will tipped an imaginary hat. leaking crumbs everywhere. since the callers did most of the talking. And they said men were slobs. A wrinkled wrapper lay on the edge of the console. Tess knew the truth because she knew him. or your cabana boy?” “Get out there and do your show before I fire you. He pushed the boom mic up a few inches to accommodate his standing position and shoved the stool away to prevent taking an unconscious seat during the show.” He flashed an innocent expression. . Sometimes Tess demonstrated moments of psychic foresight that astounded him. A couple of familiar riffs to fill gaps. They were brief—just his standard intro and a few lines inviting callers to phone in and spill their guts on the air. “Fine. and she always left some remnant of whatever excuse for dinner she'd grabbed at the corner store behind. flipped three lines open. like tonight. The ready light flashed a two-minute warning. She hosted Lovin' Ladies in here from six to eight. No twisting the conversation to make me spill my guts so I'll forget about you spilling yours.” “Right. and left her office before she could lapse back into mother mode. when the last thing he wanted to do was struggle through a monologue and then defend his so-called expertise when the crazies started calling. At least he wouldn't have to try explaining himself again to the rest of the staff. Will queued the intro track. He made the short trip down the hall to the studio without bumping into anyone and slipped inside.” “Does that make me your fashion designer. ma'am. if he had any. cabana boy. We'll go out for drinks. and jammed the cans on. No doubt courtesy of Liza Jewel.Skin Deep 3 “Will!” She colored prettily and pushed back from her desk. He'd managed to convince most of them that he'd taken up skateboarding. Will switched on the midlevel lights and sighed.
Question. Vaughn He passed two minutes not thinking about his throbbing wrist.” “Great. The man was in obvious pain. Question or confession?” “Confession.” Will jumped into the flow over the fading strains of exit music. A little sketchy. Will nudged the in-volume down to four. “Yes. my friend. His radio instincts deemed this call golden.” He switched over to Tess. you're on. curious or tri. Got any more winners?” “Line three. but try it. His finger hovered over the disconnect.” He held the kill switch. “Line one. You available?” Definitely a dud. hot stuff.” The husky. “Hello…anybody in there? You're on The Truth. I'm not talking to a recording…” “No way.” Tess came through his ear.” The guy giggled. to preempt any wiseass retorts. you're on. “Not for you. . “And we're taking your calls tonight from all across the city. Two for two. “I saw your picture on the Web site. then.4 S. since the callers couldn't be scripted or edited. sweet cheeks. Someone shouted something in the background. “You called that one. question or confession?” “Sorry.” and opened the first line. “Whether you're gay or bi. and he'd been on all of sixty seconds. baby. I'm live and in person. This is really Will Ambrose? I mean.” He opened three. he rolled the intro. restrained voice sent a shiver through him. said. When the on-air light came on. W. “Hey. “You're on the air. and said. I'm a one-horse cowboy. He cut the call first. “Sounds like he'll need a little coaxing. I want your questions and confessions. dismissive.” Will forced cheer into his tone and rolled his eyes. But thanks for asking. Got something to say?” “Oh. only half listening to the snippet he'd long since memorized. Terrific. He gave it one more shot. which started with a bass-infused beat and ended with a welcome to The Truth Will Out. This one seemed like a dud already.” She was brisk. Live call shows always ran the risk of drag. but his empathy cringed at letting it through. All three lines lit within seconds. Question or confession?” “I am?” A high-pitched and jumpy voice squeaked through the headset. Question or confession?” Silence greeted him. No fill tonight. “Gotcha. “What'll it be.
“Why's that. even Lyle. Don't punish yourself.” “Yes. “I'm cursed. I'm listening. and he won't charge you for it.” A scant breath sketched the words. or do you hurt them? Bet you're a real heartbreaker. No one knows who you are. true love is only an insecure slob away. There's a man out there waiting for you to save him from the big empty. man.” “I shouldn't have called.” He spoke gently. you know? So tell me your troubles. Attraction is not my problem. I've plenty of offers.” the caller insisted. Trust me on this. Tears pricked his eyes.” “It is my fault. He . I'm no Casanova myself. He couldn't have scripted it better. He tried to stay professional.” He almost hung up before the caller said. “Do they get hurt.” The hesitation was exquisite. Try lowering your standards. desperate to rectify his own goading.” Gold. “I pay men for sex.” Cursed? That was a new one. you can. Those final words had seemed so personal. Will. the show. Will floundered for something sane to say. the hotlines.” Will reflexively rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I can't. Hoping to let the caller off the hook. “You just haven't found Mr.” “Wait. Ratings be damned. and I tear you down. He could go a few different ways with this. “Let it go.Skin Deep 5 “Go ahead. “Unburden yourself. perfectly timed. darlin'? You got a face made for radio?” “If only. and for a moment he forgot Tess.” “What?” Something in the delivery tore him apart. “Sorry. The caller's tortured confession filled his being. Whatever happened to your lovers.” A shuddering breath. Let me confess something to you. friend. Take your time. I doubt it was your fault. You call me looking for comfort. Will practically heard a thousand listeners sitting up straighter. he chose the lighter route. Right yet. keep it on the easy track. Another God's gift. “Maybe it's that oversized ego of yours. But hey. Not even me.” A sliver of disgust chipped at Will's empathy. “Men who love me get hurt. The caller hung up. center-of-the-club drama queen.” “Good-bye.” Will almost whispered.
Your nine o'clock's early. no matter how bizarre it seemed. Apprenticing Malik had been one of the few things he'd done right. Why had he called? Stupid. Right. W. Most shops had turned down the youth because of his age—a barely legal eighteen—but in just a few weeks Malik had become indispensable at the Grotto. “I don't want to know how you found me. “Don't punish yourself. Of necessity.” “It was not difficult. Will shook himself. On with the show. He hadn't planned to degrade himself with a whore tonight. The damned phone mocked him with silence. but curiosity prompted him to pick up with a brusque “yes. “You got it. None would ever be. and healed. Vaughn wanted to be the one he'd told the caller to look for—Mr. A commitment to him spelled disaster. true love. ***** Cobalt glowered at the lump of plastic in his hand. Cobalt set strange rules. Leave me alone. Have you found satisfaction?” Cobalt closed his eyes against the needle of familiarity that lanced his belly. Cobalt. It was just a call. A knock at his door bled the contemplation from him.6 S. He wanted to be hurt. None of them were strong enough. He debated not answering. by the owner of that haunted voice. and there were more waiting. He would have neither.” Cobalt smiled despite his lingering bitterness. he craved release. without question. He could not risk discovery.” . And tell her to buy a watch. It rang.” Easy enough for Will Ambrose to say. He frowned. no charge. He reached for the phone. He followed every rule. And to heal his doubt in return. to believe a voice he found pleasing would bring him comfort or salvation. Cobalt sighed and ran a hand through his hair. No one had his private number. Want her to wait?” “Yes.” Malik retreated into the shop. But how could he not hold himself responsible? He'd driven two men to insanity and one to his death.” “Ciaràn. but after his foolish indulgence in self-pity. “Hey. These human devices are simple enough. Will? Perhaps the radio host with the irresistible voice had lied about not knowing who he was—or at least where he was calling from.
Skin Deep 7 He almost hung up then. Eoghann couldn't touch him as Cobalt.” He clenched the phone so tight. Is that not enough for you?” “You know it is not.” His heart stammered. Regardless of his plans. Eoghann. his touch. An urge to destroy the device that had wounded him twice tonight came and left. “Let me come to you. he feared he'd break it. Frigid as a winter wind. Time meant nothing in the Fae realm. I have changed. Invite me inside. “No. No other Fae could enter the Grotto without an invitation from his lips. and he dropped the phone on his desk. Ciaràn no longer existed.” He disconnected. Eoghann. He'd realize that soon enough and give up wasting his time. And Eoghann was too shallow and self-absorbed to expend much effort in the pursuit of one worthless plaything when there were so many he could choose to break instead. Ciaràn. and still you deny your place. A thousand decades won't change my mind.” “Ah. He would be safe. “Everything you denied me. “My answer is the same. How close was he? At least the Laws still held. “Ten years submerged in human filth. After a decade of forgetting.” “Things have changed. contact with the Fae who had orchestrated his punishment after he'd left the bastard threatened to overload his senses. Perhaps he'd just been feeling nostalgic and another decade would pass before he bothered to torment him further. It took everything he had to reply.” A shudder wormed through his core.” The reproach in his tone was unmistakable. Why now? After ten years. the Unseelie queen's consort should have found another lowborn wretch to amuse himself with. I'll not see you. He'd forgotten how cold Eoghann could be—his voice. “Don't contact me again.” “I'm banished.” Eoghann's voice softened to a purr. Eoghann. . “What do you want?” he made himself say. How much further must you be punished?” “I'll not play this game with you. I won't be yours.
Or something. “Two more Jäger bombs. “You need another one too. 'bana-boy. May it rate. Just two adults in a stable relationship. with a little rough stuff on the side. Tess. She grinned. “Last one. He had to know that when he got back. One in the morning. May your ratings…rate. “To The Truth. there would be no shouting or accusations.” she said. he'd take Tess home and drag himself to his apartment. Please. Tess grabbed hers. but he needed to prove that he wasn't a kept man.” “No.” Will sighed and uncovered the glass.” No use questioning that little factoid. W. After this.” At least the alcohol dulled his aches.8 S.” “Drink. telling him he'd be late. She laughed. Lyle would've expected him to come home two hours ago. He watched the bartender flick liquid into glasses with practiced ease. He lifted his glass. Did you know?” “Yep! So're you. And sleep until tomorrow night's show. I don't.” “Yes I am.” “Rate?” Will raised an eyebrow. Vaughn Chapter Two Will put a hand over the glass on the bar and blinked blearily at the bartender. You're dry.” Tess leaned over and nearly fell off her stool. Jäger tentacles crept through the outer ring of Red Bull like the sweet poison it was. “Wuss.” “Yes I do.” They downed the bombs in tandem.” she insisted. Her glass clinked on the bar half a second before his. “You're drunk. then glanced at the neon clock behind the bar. Promise. Finished drinks materialized on the bar. Move.” . sloshed a little. “She really doesn't need another drink. “To The Truth. He'd debated calling after the show. “Let's drink to you.
aware of his own delirious intoxication. y'know. No way.” She shook her head.” He formed the words carefully.” Tess slid from the stool and into him.” “Yes.” Tess blinked.” . “C'mon.” Her eyes narrowed.” She snorted laughter.” “Better than sleep?” “Way.” Will held up a finger.” “You definitely make fans beat off. splayed a hand on his chest. The last bomb was hitting hard. there is. “How many offers you get tonight?” He staggered a bit. “You do not. He had just enough presence of mind to turn away while he winced. stud. “It's thou shill…that word. “I've always wanted a tattoo.” “Reprobate. Beating off fans with a stick. “Nobody gets in there. And you're famous. “I got a better idea. you're wasted. there's the eleventh commandment. dug in his pocket. In the morning. and came up with two twenties to slap on the bar.” He grabbed her arm and tried to help her down from the stool.Skin Deep 9 “Boozer.” “You're crazy.” “Will. Besides. Can't find my dictionary. “One. My brother's roommate works there now. “Stop.” “And?” “There's no place open. There's a three-month list.” “Killjoy. Tess.” She smiled. That jerk doesn't own you. I can get us in. “Y'mean screw drunk. “What's that?” “Dunno. I've got to get home. Thou shalt never tattoo drunk.” He pushed his empty glass forward.” “Huh-uh. Two”—he stared at his hand until another finger joined the first—“it's one. remember?” “Sure.” A crooked smile lit her face.” “Screw the tattoo. Never screw drunk. that's me. I'll take you home.” “Close enough. Really. She didn't budge. They rhyme. “No. The Grotto. seriously.
Not even Tess. Maybe we can get something pierced.” Even as he protested. He cursed and hurried after her. and nothing else. W. He was wrong for him on so many levels. “You know me. which was fine with him. Unfortunately. Hated everything that Will loved about his life. hated drinking. William? Chains a little snug tonight?” Something inside Will hardened.” He slung his good arm around her and steered her through the crowded bar. “Whatsa matter. even if they somehow got in. ***** Will tried calling Lyle from the cab. Will had passed the place a few times—it was twenty blocks or so from his apartment in Chelsea. It didn't even look like a tattoo parlor. He couldn't let her go through with it. The front was unremarkable enough. grinning like a conspirator. he knew it was. A stamp pad and an open notebook lay on the table. She stumbled along beside him. No answer. But from what he'd heard. The cab deposited them outside the Grotto. like sticking a hot poker up her ass. Absent the flash art and neon signage.” Will stifled a groan. Lyle would be pissed. it was the inside that really set the Grotto apart. Tess's on-again. “Let's go see how much clout your brother's roommate has. windowless door could have been anything.” she said.” A sharp pain in his chest suggested his heart had started on the plan without him. He figured he must be asleep. Vaughn “It's not him. He hated the radio admirers. Cool night air combined with anger and self-disgust had contrived to sober him more effectively than a cold shower. He really didn't want to face Lyle shitfaced and late after a night with Tess. hated Tess. “The Dub got his septal done at this place. . this plain brick building with the single wooden. Said they'd never do me. it hadn't done the same for Tess. Beyond the door was a room with a wooden table and chair. Before he could suggest a less scarring alternative. off-again boyfriend and the occasional bane of her existence. The Dub referred to Double X. She must have gone in there. she threw the front door open and barreled inside. So this was a revenge tattoo. “Always wanted to come here. She'd definitely regret it in the morning. They're exclusive. I like it rough. Right now he was off.10 S. Muffled music entered the room through another door at the back.
“Will!” She shouted above the music.” The excuse slipped out automatically. He tried to relax and get a better feel for the place. Strange. Live entertainment. One image in particular caught his eye: a male torso with impressive musculature.” he said.Skin Deep 11 He slipped through. Intricate knot work formed the center of the symbol. Three immense panels stood spaced apart at the far end of the room. snacks. energy drinks.” A whisper of cultured accent flavored his words and made him sound older than he looked. peep-show-style windows that showcased the artists at work. He looked up and forgot what he'd been about to ask when he finally realized what set this shop apart. and single-serve OTC drugs served as silent bartenders. Samples of work done at the Grotto. Maybe it was the name of the pattern. a Goth's dream of darkness shot with red and amber lights.” Malik favored Tess with a grin. attached to the center with heavy chains. Nice to meet you. His initial assessment hadn't been too far off. he spotted her to his right. and tendrils radiated from the knot to twine gracefully around the edges of the points.” The boy laughed. Cobalt. Tables with cushioned chairs dotted the spacious room. and his eyes shifted to the sling. Three vending machines stocked with vitamin water. His first impressions consisted of dark and nightclub and where-thehell-is-Tess. because the design didn't contain any blue. “Malik. novelties. a tall and imposing artist worked on his subject with a knife. A seven-point-star tattoo sprawled across the chest. and waved him over. . The page bore a single word below the photo. “What happened to your arm?” “Crashed my board. In another. velvet-bound books graced each table. One contained a completely nude female having her back inked. Will watched a nearby patron open a book.” Will shook quickly. much louder in here. “Hope we're not interrupting. held a hand out. Milk. Thick. But it was center stage that grabbed Will completely and refused to let go. one arm slung companionably around a slight. dusky-skinned pretty boy who sported a bemused smile. an older man grimaced through a Prince Albert piercing. “You must be Will Ambrose. I've heard a lot about you. “Yes. It looked like a nightclub in here. When he joined the pair. It was full of photographic images—tattoos and piercings from ordinary to erotic. “This is Frank's roommate. After a panicked few seconds.” “Not at all. she said. Behind the glass.
The rest of us generally bask in his glory. Can you walk. Malik caught him staring and smiled. Give me just a minute.” “I'll help you. “Gonna sit down. And it hurt. “Right.” He held his breath and hoped she wouldn't protest. “Tess. Dick.12 S.” “Jesus. Popular with the BDSM crowd.” “No. we have to get going.” “I'll take that as a no. Still. He seemed completely sincere.” he said.” he said gently. And that artist was a piece of work himself. and braced Tess with his good arm around her waist.” Will looked at the kid. “Ready?” . Vaughn He knew a little about scarification. it's okay. trying to decide whether he was being sarcastic. W. No Tom. He'd even considered it himself.” Will crouched beside her and touched her shoulder. hon?” “Unngh. “Yes. Will flexed his injured wrist. He slid the knotted end of the bandanna sling off his shoulder. and I'll get her out of here. he'd heard nothing negative about the Grotto. C'mon. the method had recently gained some popularity in the general public. Tess would be mortified enough as it was. Will longed to see the face that went with the body. He should've insisted on not coming here. Even from a distance. That's his name?” The idea struck him as intensely sexy.” He sighed. He really didn't want to drag her out. stuffed it in a pocket. She blinked a few times at the mention of her name. if this little story got back to her brother. glanced up at Malik. I think I should take Tess home now. “Up we go. At once. “That's Cobalt. since he'd need both arms to move her. “Well. He owns the Grotto. the man exuded sexuality in the curve of his stance and the fluid grace of his hands. The pain wasn't as bad as he feared—a good thing. but there were few skilled artists and too many risks involved. “Sorry about this.” she murmured— and promptly slid to the floor. or Harry for this guy.” he said. darlin'. “Damn.
We're closing. and the throbbing burn of his embarrassment. tuned out his lurching stomach. He forced away the shock. turning it inside out. I'll clean this up. He peeled it off. At least she'd mostly missed his jacket. and attempted to mop the thick puddles on the polished wood floor with his shirt. the rapidly cooling liquid soaking his shirt and pants. I don't mind taking care of it. he turned and walked toward the back of the room. “Oh. then lifted his soiled shirt up his back and over his head. “My friend wasn't feeling too good.” “Don't bother. If you have a mop. Will stood frozen in place for a moment.” he said.” he said with hollow cheer. The stench of half-digested food and alcohol mingled with bile. “What are you doing?” The voice behind him didn't belong to Malik.Skin Deep 13 She didn't reply. He scooped Tess away as though she weighed nothing. He rose slowly. Will stiffened. He bunched the sopping shirt as best he could and slowly got to his feet. bearing her up with awkward jerks. At least they were just wet. As exotic as his name suggested. “So I'm playing nurse. He knelt.” There wasn't a trace of anger or disgust in Malik's voice. leaned her head on his shoulder. “Oh God. determined to salvage what he could of his dignity.” The harsh words were knives twisting in his chest. Tribal tattoos graced the sides of his neck and caressed his jawline. the artist possessed waves of blue-black hair and dark blue. He hadn't expected her to. Sensations battered him: the hot gazes of staring patrons. Malik will clean that up. And vomited all over him. “Honestly. he shrugged back into the jacket and gave the front of his pants a futile swipe.” Will fought the violent urging of his stomach to follow her example. She moaned. and finally straightened with a grunt of effort. and guided her to a nearby chair. He'd never seen a more beautiful man. “I'm really sorry about this. He would never live this down. golden-skinned face. or…” He turned to face the angry voice and immediately wished himself dead. glittering eyes in a sculpted. One ear was studded . grateful for the darkness that hid his flushed face and neck. Once he'd settled her in. shit. That done. Cobalt. I'm so sorry. Can she just…?” “Let me take her.
He became vaguely aware of Malik's shepherding people out the front door. “Most of the time. The thought of Cobalt's hands on his body consumed him. I tried to talk her out of it. A lower lip piercing.” He made a lame gesture in the direction of her unconscious figure. “She got a little drunk and decided she wanted a tattoo. “What are you doing here?” “I…” Making an ass of myself. . And I don't tattoo intoxicated people. He shuffled in place. “Do I…know you?” “You're Will Ambrose.” Cobalt glanced beyond him.” He hadn't tried very hard. Will felt like a pile of shit.” Anger returned to Cobalt's face. “Will?” The whispered word sent shudders through him. slumped and snoring gently in the chair. and then his features relaxed in surprise. I'm sorry. Recognition buzzed a few synapses in his addled brain and promptly fizzled away.” Somehow. and his lustful thoughts shriveled. “And what about yourself? Are you interested in body art or just humoring your friend?” He swallowed hard. Fresh shame coursed through him as he felt them blaming him for cutting their entertainment short. left him semierect.14 S. so he left the kid out of it.” “I know. looked natural and stunning on him. Freezing wetness at his crotch reminded him that he was standing there covered in vomit. a shake of his head. Next to this dark god. firm mouth set in such a deep scowl. But tonight I'm just an asshole wrecking your place. Probably smelled like one too.” Another glance beyond. into the shadows. Vaughn with hardware from upper edge to lobe. “My friend.” “I'm done for the night. W. Especially with his full. Cobalt's brow furrowed. a position Will had always found slightly repulsive. I followed her. Tess. “I don't take walk-ins.” “I see. When would he stop letting people walk all over him? Something told him Malik would be in trouble if he mentioned their acquaintance. He tried to shrug. You don't have to close because of me. under any circumstances. the statement was an accusation. while the other sported a single silver hoop. though. “She just barged right in.
“Get Mr. “That sounds great. “Thanks. after the stunt he and Tess had pulled? “All right.” Cobalt's gaze shifted again. until a slight figure glided past him from behind and moved to Cobalt's side. sputtered and died. “Tomorrow. Come with me. but what emerged was. Make a note.” A speculative look eased across his features. Lyle. even a little. But considering the disaster he'd inflicted on the man's business.” The brief idea that Cobalt liked him.” he said weakly. “I thought you had a mile-long list…” A smirk teased those beautiful lips. He wasn't sure if it worked. Of course it was about business—and how could he refuse. And Lyle would kill him if he had it done.” That gave him around twelve hours to come up with a viable excuse for not going through with it. Mr.” “Stop apologizing. Will opened his mouth to say not really. “Trystan. with a lithe and compact body showcased in tight black vinyl.m.” he said.” “Of course. Malik. “Malik. He didn't think he could stand to let this man touch him for long. Thank you. Three p. and he called.” Tomorrow? Will's eyes bugged after Malik as the kid scurried off to follow orders.” Cobalt waved the kid over. You'd make a great advertisement for the Grotto. “I didn't know you were into scarification here. and hail them a cab. “Yes. “I do.” He almost said no. shorter than Will. he was going to be pissed. The young man was in his twenties. waiting for an answer. I'll make you a consultation appointment. But you're a local celebrity. “Tomorrow at three. A walking billboard. I'm sorry. Pale blue eyes stared apathetically from a cherubic face fringed with corn-silk hair.Skin Deep 15 Cobalt inclined his head. . Three months would be plenty of time to call and cancel. “If you're considering it. I'll assume you plan to take your friend home?” It took Will a minute to realize Cobalt had addressed him. Ambrose a bag for his shirt. Jesus. “Hold on.” He tried to cover the defeat in his voice. he decided to at least feign interest.” Confusion washed over Will. No way in hell could he ever show his face here again. Ambrose.” Cobalt nodded.
” Silently. As if Will needed a sign to know he was taken. He couldn't endure another minute of this humiliation—and he couldn't leave without Tess. . It didn't matter. Finally. Marking his territory. He knew he hadn't met Cobalt—he damned well would've remembered him—but something about him seemed painfully familiar. “Tomorrow. I won't. and he turned his attention to Tess instead. Had he seen his work before? Heard someone mention his name? His exhausted brain refused to concentrate.” Once again a tickle of recognition teased his mind. After he made his excuses tomorrow. anyway. “Don't forget. He paused once to glance over his shoulder. he'd never see the man called Cobalt again. Vaughn Cobalt draped a possessive arm around the vinyl-clad angel. he willed Cobalt to take his beautiful lover away.” he said. W. the man steered Trystan toward the back of the room.16 S. Will. I mean. “Good-bye.” “No.
He couldn't bear to douse another spark of human life—particularly one so bright. and invited the delicious Will Ambrose back to the Grotto. Will in person possessed a kindness and inner strength that made him glow. But he could never become involved with Will. Frustration fueled his hunger. The image failed to capture his amazing body. watching Trystan watch him from the corner of his eye. For a one-on-one consultation. He would have claimed him then and there. Now. waiting. After all. Cobalt experienced a carnal thrill that eclipsed all previous lust. He also realized the photo on the station's Web site didn't begin to do him justice. “Undress. Perhaps not even as a client. But Cobalt couldn't bring himself to take Trystan. He rose from the bed and stripped himself. He was completely clean and unmarked. When he'd mentioned scarification with such casual ease. and had come to torment him with the knowledge. His favorite whore knew his preferences and would stand there all night unless he was told otherwise. his would rival the golden summer sun. He stood there. . silent and still because Cobalt hadn't told him anything yet. More than that. Not after meeting Will Ambrose. Trystan complied without a word. were it not for the company. His for the taking. But he'd realized almost instantly that the story of placating his drunken friend was the truth. Cobalt had compounded his earlier mistake of calling.” he said. Will didn't even sport a single stud. he truly hadn't seemed the type to commission body art. He supposed he'd expected the man to refuse. His first thought had been that the radio host knew he'd called after all. If humans had visible auras. His presence here had been mere coincidence.Skin Deep 17 Chapter Three Trystan stood in the center of the bedroom. naked.
” In comparison. are you sure—” “Leave me!” To his credit. W. He sounded calm. Vaughn In his mind. cringing when the click of the lock resounded like a hammer through his head. The one that craved Will Ambrose. Will tried to blink the spots away from his eyes. relieved that gnawing beast in his loins. . He was wearing his uniform. He didn't bother with the bed. and composed. it wouldn't be fair to make Lyle sleep next to him like this. Check your cell. Cobalt went to him. In reality. “You must've lost your phone. he saw Will's body. Lyle stood. Will.” Fuck you. “I tried to call. That's disgusting. I'm going to bed. I went out with Tess. “What is that stench? Did you roll around in a gutter?” A flush scorched his cheeks. and got four steps across the floor before he noticed the silhouette sitting on the couch. His face crinkled. If he even planned on going to sleep. and we lost track—” He cut off with a wince as light flared from the lamp beside the couch. He wanted nothing more than to strip. The retort refused to pass his lips. he turned his back on Trystan. quiet. “Go take a shower. Will's face. ***** By the time Will dragged himself into his apartment. Just pressed him against the wall and ravished his body. crawl into bed—hopefully without waking Lyle—and forget this night had ever happened. “Jesus Christ. it was after four in the morning. stopped. “Tess threw up on me.” Lyle's voice unfurled in the stillness. “Are you going to work early?” “No.” “Cobalt. He closed the front door. as though his stink were contagious.” Lyle stepped back.” His lover offered no explanation.18 S. He approached with measured steps. Will sounded like he'd swallowed gravel. “Leave. In his mind.” he muttered. “I'm sorry. Despite his exhaustion. Trystan didn't even ask for payment. That was not a good sign.
He considered kissing him on the cheek. “Look. He stripped as fast as he could with arms that weighed a hundred pounds. He'd just met the most beautiful man in New York—and he'd been drunk. If the embarrassment didn't kill him. slid the shower curtains aside. Maybe he wasn't upset after all. I'm really sorry. He'd still have to deal with Cobalt one more time. He shut the water off. Instead.Skin Deep 19 He wasn't completely decked out for work yet—no gun or CB or any of his other cop paraphernalia on his belt. he moved through the living room without a word and stumbled into the bathroom. Well. To cancel the damned appointment. So much for Will Ambrose. smelling like a used toilet. He closed the door and waited. The other shoe wasn't going to drop. technically today. Nothing. The next time Tess had a bright idea. That almost sounded like a threat. He moaned and pressed a wet fist to his mouth. half expecting a latent explosion from his partner.” “I know you won't.” Will blinked at him. I won't forget to tell you next time. He would look up the number and call. a sober eyeful of the beautiful artist might. like they'd been discussing the weather or the subway instead of Will's sneaking in six hours late. The warmth of the shower sloughed most of the fatigue from him. but decided he couldn't take Lyle flinching away from him. and he'd double wash the whole basket in hot tomorrow. radio stud. No way in hell was he going to risk being within a block of the Grotto ever again. He fumbled for the soap and washed quickly. his thoughts shifted to Cobalt. at once more exhausted than he'd been when he got home. and gate-crashing. Maybe their relationship really wasn't as bad as he thought.” he finally said. he'd let her immolate herself with it instead of dragging him into the flames. filthy. Maybe after a few decent hours of sleep. The smell would fade in time for Lyle to get ready for work. a wordless punctuation for the apology. With renewed clarity. Relief drew a sigh from him. he could face the rest of his life. He settled for burying them in the hamper. and briefly considered burning his soiled jeans. Just his cuffs. And came face-to-face with Lyle. But he still seemed relaxed. “All right. . Not even footsteps or furniture creaking.
He could fall asleep right here. draped it around his shoulders. he told himself. He stiffened and stood straight.20 S. “Lyle…” Will lifted his head. “What the hell—” It was all he got out before Lyle seized his arm and hauled him to the empty towel bar. expressionless.” he said. “Lyle. made his eyelids heavy. Nothing weird about that. He reached over and grabbed a towel from the bar near the door. “Please tell me what's going on. but no sound emerged. “Much better. Lyle stood motionless. “What is it. “Why are you wearing your uniform?” He didn't answer. Lyle unfolded the towel. W. Gently. Not now. “Come on out. “Is this a joke? Because it's not funny. Warmth spread through him. the one that was already injured. babe?” Will hesitated.” Lyle moved his hands.” he murmured near Will's ear. Shock prevented him from reacting immediately. Vaughn “Jesus!” Will lurched back and almost fell in the tub. A metallic clink sounded in the damp air. Something cold nudged his wrist. It was the air on his wet skin. Sensually. not the eeriness of Lyle's creeping into the bathroom to stand in silence until he'd finished showering.” Will surrendered to his partner's ministrations. The towel moved down. Will's lips moved. Within seconds Lyle had forced his hands out and cuffed his other wrist.” Will shuddered. He was still in uniform. “Mmm. Tired. The towel fell away. Lyle had snapped one of his cuffs on him. Dull pain flared through his arm. “What are you doing. he wanted to say. “Just thought I'd help you dry off. and a chill raised gooseflesh on Will's skin. He rested his head on Lyle's shoulder. trying to kill me?” A small smile appeared on Lyle's face. Hands cupped his ass through terry cloth and pressed his groin against an arousal. Will glanced down. securing him to the bar. and started rubbing. He stepped out. Maybe he would. But he had to know something first. At last he forced his tongue to cooperate. This time he couldn't blame it entirely on temperature.” he whispered.” .
you've got two hands. “You can't do this. The short chain clanked against the towel bar. “Let me go. “I'm going to punish you. and he stumbled against the wall.” He faced the wall again.” he said in a flat tone.” The frigid tone lodged in his gut. “Jesus.Skin Deep 21 “I'm not laughing. I didn't—” “Shut up!” He swatted again.” he whispered. “I can. Lyle clamped a palm over his mouth and pushed back. “You can't be serious. I'm going to bed.” In response. He put both hands on the wall. holding his head against his chest. Lyle drew back and smacked his ass hard with an open hand. “If you can't be quiet. After this little stunt. and his wrist screamed. Lyle. harder this time.” “Not until I'm done with you. Will yelped. forced himself to breathe through his nose.” A wave of sick fear coursed through him. and leaned his head down. until Lyle finally dropped the hand from his mouth.” he said through clenched teeth. “Shut up. “You're crazy.” His head throbbed madly.” Another stinging smack left him too stunned to make a sound. Lyle would have to jerk off a lot more often. You asked for this. unable to look at the bastard anymore. Lyle!” He jerked back. He fought the panic urging him to struggle. Will.” he said. Use them. No way he was going to sleep with him for a long time.” Will swallowed against the metallic dryness coating his throat. “You've been begging for this. “I'm not going to fuck you. Ever since I met you.” Lyle moved closer. Will turned his head and glared at the stone-faced man behind him.” “Damn it. and I will.” “Are you stupid? I'm not in the mood.” His voice simmered with steel-edged malice. Will's breath hitched.” “No. “Take them off. This is not happening. everything you do”—he slapped the . Will drew a shaking breath and tasted bile. I'll gag you. “Open the goddamned cuffs. “Right now. bracketing Will beneath him. Will. If you need to get off. His legs weakened. “Unlock these fucking things. you're not. Endless seconds dragged. Everything you say.
Let's just go to bed. danced aside. cried out when the chain snapped taut and sent agony flaring through his wrist. “Fine. He thrashed back. “Hold still.” Will sobbed. Stop it. “We'll do this the hard way. In front of him.” Lyle grabbed him around the waist and lifted him off the floor.” The hand smacked him again and again in steady rhythm that throbbed progressively worse. a madman. The gag muffled a string of cries and curses.” . “I'm going to spank you. He wasn't going to stop.” “Oh God. okay? I'm sorry about the hand thing. just STOP! A heavy sigh sounded from behind him. So I'm going to give you what you need. and looked wildly from side to side. You deserve it. And you're going to learn to behave. and kicked the door.” Lyle growled.” “Fucking open the fucking cuffs!” Panic surged over him. He tasted vinyl. raised a leg. he sat on the edge of the tub and hauled him over his lap. a tiled wall—behind him. He couldn't help it. A strap tightened around the back of his head. “I warned you to be quiet. He gripped the bar with his good hand and tried to wrench it from the wall. trying to escape the punishing blows. Door to the left. Something splintered. Stop stop stop stop damn it please stop… His ass felt like it was on fire. let me go!” Lyle reached around and shoved something hard in his mouth. “You're only making this worse for yourself. Tucking Will under an arm like so much laundry. “Goddamn it. It shuddered and held shut. “I'm not… I don't… Please. Lyle. It didn't budge. A ball gag. Tub and shower to the right. His breath wheezed and stuttered around the obstruction. please…” He was babbling now. He lunged left. Vaughn statement home. ignoring the new pain in his foot. and he choked on a scream. eliciting a choked sob—“says you need to be punished. And Tess. mashing his tongue back. W. toward the shower. but he couldn't tell whether it was wood or bone. The cuffs scraped along the towel bar. He had to make this stop. Will.” Will didn't want to know what the hard way was. even. sick bastard. He stood still. He walked back and to the right. his breath coming in shuddering pants. Will twisted and squirmed.22 S. He kicked again. “Enough. Lyle struck him square in the center.” Lyle said. We can—” “You're six hours too late to apologize.
then came loose. it took Will a minute to realize he wasn't being hit anymore. “Are you going to behave?” Will shook his head fiercely. But it didn't matter anymore. He'd never known you could feel red. A hand came to rest lightly on his burning ass. At some point Lyle had unpinned him. All he could do now was take whatever punishment Lyle decided to give him. The strap on the gag tightened. tears leaked from his eyes and snot drizzled over his top lip. head hanging. because he was panting against the gag. He was here. Hell no. right.Skin Deep 23 Will bucked and kicked. jackass. The pain jarred his spine with every smack. Fresh tears doubled his vision. he couldn't even hold up his head. Will spat the ball out and drew a gasping breath. meaty slaps forged a silence that echoed in his skull. The heat had become an inferno. Should've listened to Tess. “Anytime you want to stop struggling. torso angled up and deadened arms stretching to the bar. Lyle spanked methodically—left. After fifteen. He lay spent and shaking across the man's lap. Lyle shifted beneath him and slung one leg over both of his. “Fine. no taunts or insults. His ass still throbbed. He decided to forget the gag for now and concentrate on kicking. He switched to breathing through his nose and tried to calm his racing heart. Harder and harder. left. Saliva flooded his mouth and ran down his throat. half choking him. He focused on the . When Lyle finally stopped. let me know. After five minutes. The absence of rhythmic. stupid fuck. He wasn't getting any oxygen. Sluggish pain pulsed through his groin at regular intervals like a heartbeat. You stupid.” You fuck. and I'll move my leg. His entire body trembled. Dried tears and mucus coated his face. There were no pauses between blows this time. Fingers brushed the back of his head. right. He flinched. seeped into his mouth around the gag.” He sensed the arm rise. and closed his eyes just before the first swat landed. pinning him in place. punctuated with ragged snorts of air whistling through his nostrils. Black spots burst and spread across Will's vision. He pushed at the gag with his tongue. he couldn't escape. He held the bar with his good hand as best he could to keep his weight from pulling on his wrist.
leaned over him. “You're going to need this again. “You haven't learned anything.” he whispered. When no blows came. Lyle brought an arm up and backhanded him. glistening in a layer of saliva flecked with blood. Whatever you want—” The ball smothered the rest of his pleading. Vaughn damned gag. Before he could scramble away. “Lyle. and he could only stare at the beast he'd taken for a lover. have you?” “Fuck you.” Lyle stepped back with a grim smirk. Will's head bounced off the wall.” The loaded statement drained every ounce of bravado from him. In and out. he said. Lyle grabbed him by the hair and yanked him to his feet. “Let me go. He landed hard. W. “Maybe next time you'll listen to me. “I told you before that you were making things worse for yourself. Behind him.” “No! Please. Lyle cinched the gag tight. He concentrated on breathing. And moved away. Now you're about to find out why. No more…” Lyle shook his head in mock sympathy. Lyle was removing his belt. please.24 S. shaking hard enough to rattle the short chain of the handcuffs.” Will spat. Will stiffened. When the ominous gurgling in the back of his throat eased.” he whispered. Once again. There were teeth marks in its bright red surface. A scream wrenched from his throat as pain tore through his arms. He tasted blood. “I swear to God I'll…” “You'll what? Are you trying to threaten me?” Before he could react. he turned his head slowly. “You'll learn. Lyle pushed him to the floor.” He bent and retrieved the gag. “I want you to learn your lesson.” He barely recognized the rasping croak that was his voice. Now. . in and out. “No. words failed him.
it had felt like being raped with a baseball bat. he'd puke. A startled cry ended when nausea won out. When it focused. She'd dragged him to the Grotto. He didn't want to open them. Will remembered passing out. After his first go with the belt. Maybe he would just lie here until he died. To Will. The bastard must have unlocked the cuffs so he could take them to work. and pain sank burning claws into him. and he ejected half a quart of hot acid from his lips. remembered getting drunk with Tess. still chained to the towel bar. Lyle had decided to fuck him after all. He . And her deciding she wanted a tattoo. Nausea filled his pores and clogged his throat. He'd taken him raw and dry. half-blind with pain and humiliation. His body recalled the beating. He shuffled back through memories. Tears dissolved some of the crust from his eyes. He clenched his jaw and tried the arm again. At least he didn't have anything left to throw up. naked and covered with bruises and welts from Lyle's hands and Lyle's belt. Did he have a hangover? Probably. he stared at the blood and vomit and God knew what other bodily fluids splashed across the floor. The pain was half a shade lighter this time. One of them popped open. His eyes stayed closed because they were gummed shut. He was cold because he was still lying on the bathroom floor. The movement sent ripples of pain through him.Skin Deep 25 Chapter Four Will couldn't figure out why it was so cold. vomited all over him— At once the rest of the night flooded back. sometime during round three. Must've been a wild night. The bed seemed as hard as cement under him. If he moved. Light lay heavy against his closed eyelids. He risked shifting an arm. but a few dry heaves slowed his progress. But Lyle would come back eventually. and he didn't want to be here when that happened.
How psychoneurotic of him. Better. He planted his forearms on the floor and slid himself back in short bursts until a foot touched the bathtub. Note to self: don't shower after a beating. He dried his face and arms but couldn't bring himself to touch anywhere else with the rough terry cloth. When the water level reached his back. He let the dirty pink water out. he could barely move. pale crimson tendrils infiltrated the water. After a moment. and found the cotton robe he hadn't worn in months. The water felt like nails being hammered into his back. Still. Slowly. The welts were bleeding. turned the faucet off. Maybe a quick shower would loosen enough of his cramped muscles to let him stand. The tap stuck for a moment and gave him time to study the angry red abrasions circling both wrists. Will ducked his head under and tried to work out whatever had dried in his hair. and stood. He raised his right arm. Maybe he could handle a bath.26 S. He slipped it on and tried to ignore the renewed fire in his backside when the material brushed him. Screamed. he flipped on the shower. W. He'd have to stay on his stomach. reminding himself that soap and shampoo were out. When the water warmed. He drew a shaking breath. He clambered over the side. He flicked the tub plunger down and watched water pool in the porcelain dimple of the drain. . pain escalated to a brief screaming pitch and subsided slowly. Vaughn managed to rise as far as hands and knees—then wavered and went back down. The wet warmth soothed his skin and cleared some of the fog from his head. Lyle had hung the towel back on the bar. Instead. And slammed it off. and knelt in the middle of the tub. braced his hands on the edge of the tub. propped it on the edge. Two or three minutes. He remained submerged as long as he could stand the steady burning against his torn and exposed skin. He had to get up. From what he could see without lifting his head. He cupped his hands under the flow from the faucet and washed most of the gunk from his face. dripping everywhere. He waited while the tub filled. This was not good. careful not to let his ass touch anything. the shower was behind him and to his left. It wasn't long. A few more pushes put him alongside the tub. and levered to his knees. It would work for now. he regained control of his breathing and scuttled forward. he limped to the closet across the hall. A cracked sob left him.
He dreaded putting clothes on. souvenirs from the ball gag. Until he remembered that his boyfriend had just beaten the shit out of him…and since said boyfriend was a cop. His eyes were glassed over. His eye caught the clock. but he felt a little better when he was done. If it weren't listed under tattoo parlors. Especially underwear. empty. How could he cancel an appointment if no one answered his call? He gave it another five rings and hung up. would at least be cool for a few seconds. he glanced in the mirror. which read 2:25. He'd been passed out on the bathroom floor for at least eight hours. He would call and tell him… What? Sorry. He grabbed the landline phone on the nightstand and dialed. The one he planned to cancel. A stranger looked back at him. he couldn't report it to the police.Skin Deep 27 Will headed for the bedroom. Because it would keep him from having to make another decision for a few minutes. It wasn't like the man would remember him for long. Hell. so I don't need your services after all. Rough patches decorated with flecks of dried blood marked the corners of his mouth. found the Grotto. The vague idea that he was supposed to be somewhere soon prompted another search of his fuzzy memory. He wore something that resembled his face—if it had been stripped from his skull and then stapled back on. he might even be glad that Will the . He'd just let Cobalt wonder briefly why he didn't show up. He realized the phone had rung at least twenty times and no one picked up. It came to him fast: Cobalt and his three-o'clock appointment. he thought. Damp hair had plastered against his skull in stiff. His cheekbone was bruised where Lyle had backhanded him. He couldn't go to Tess either. I can't come in. Maybe longer. Dressing proved excruciating. with graphics and slick slogans. He flipped to the yellow pages. uneven spikes. When it started ringing. no one would know what the place was. but it was just a simple two-line entry. He expected the listing to be bigger. Damn it. he told himself. The Grotto and the number. He finally settled on silk—boxers and shirt—with an oversize rayon undershirt that hung past his wrists and loose cotton pants. What would hurt his battered ass less—silk or cotton? Silk. he shuffled over to the dresser and pulled the phone book from the top drawer. Forget it. Lyle knew where she lived. My partner just tattooed me with his belt.
Under any circumstances. Vaughn Uncouth failed to make a return appearance. Except maybe throwing himself in front of a subway train. Ridiculous. he'd not take the chance. he could see the luminous outlines of the seal he had placed on the entrance door. His gaze strayed to the clock on the wall. Not that he'd minded being banished. and sound. Or a purgatory. He stood and paced the front room. or a happy one. He'd never understood why Eoghann had chosen to take his pleasures with him. he knew. The windowless room was not the most cheerful of places during nonbusiness hours. He sure as hell couldn't sit through it. Without Malik here to screen calls for him. What reputation? He couldn't do the show tonight. even without his Amazing Vomiting Friend. W. It wouldn't be enough to quench the flames he'd ignited. Half past two. but it might have to suffice. The perfect prison for a banished Fae. Excuse me. Being a lowborn fatherless bastard didn't exactly afford him an easy life. and added mirrored sunglasses. There was not much of the Fae realm he missed. hesitated. If he concentrated. it became a limbo of sorts.28 S. Will opened a drawer and rifled through it until he found a plain black bandanna he'd picked up a while back. His business wouldn't suffer from a few missed phone calls. And he didn't see how he'd ever be able to offer advice to anyone again. Devoid of life. He would not allow himself to get involved. Perhaps he should simply let Will do the talking and listen to that golden voice of his. he headed out with no particular destination. light. Cobalt resumed a seat behind the stamping table. before he had changed his mind about buying a motorcycle. He tied it around his head to hide his ruined hair. but he didn't want to risk encountering Eoghann again. Nor did confessing that he wanted to use that beautiful body for a canvas and never let another artist touch him. With a stop in the spattered bathroom for his jacket. ***** Cobalt held his breath until the phone stopped ringing. Will Ambrose would be safe from this curse. It hadn't been necessary—the Law held itself with spoken words—but still. Will would be here soon—and then what? He still didn't know what he would say to the man. But there was his reputation to consider. but I'd like to bend you over my desk and screw you just didn't seem professional. he felt .
Especially since Eoghann's magic was stronger—he was Unseelie and had lived five centuries longer. His cell this time. If Eoghann were close enough. Eoghann.” “I beg you.” Anger twisted in Cobalt's gut. in fact. until the room was bathed in blue-white brilliance. “Haven. He was not the only outcast of the realm. But this magic felt wrong. It targeted the Unseelie.” A magic-amplified voice penetrated the room. A long hesitation. infusing the words with just enough magic to filter outside. the seal should… Glow. he had no intention of granting him haven. traitor of traitors. he'd been tempted to agree. But it was also not Seelie. to invite him inside. “He means to kill me. He opened the door. “Who are you?” he called.” he said flatly. The tall figure outside wore a hooded cloak clutched about his frame with one hand. “Knew you'd…see it my way. As though his reflections had summoned the world he'd left behind. but curiosity won out. Face-to-face.” That was not Eoghann. Cobalt froze.” The voice grew ragged.” “Let him. He could not face Eoghann in the flesh. the seal had a more specific purpose. he wouldn't stand a chance at refusal. He willed the presence outside to leave. He stood and stared at the door. Uriskel. While the Law prevented any Fae from entering without his permission. instead of the desk phone. The knocking sounded again. Someone knocked on the door. Light pulsed from the lines of the seal. Cobalt felt a whisper of magic penetrate the walls. It could have been any of the handful of Seelie he had granted haven to. frozen over. A deep frown etched itself on Cobalt's mouth. “There is no haven for you here. for whatever reason. Another Fae was near. then.Skin Deep 29 safer for having it there. planning to explain to Uriskel that since hell had not. Darker. “Uriskel. “Go and crawl back into your hole. A phone rang. Even as a voice on the phone. Blood drizzled down his leg from somewhere inside the covering and pooled beside one bare foot. “Please…help me. “Haven?” .” he muttered under his breath. Why would an Unseelie seek haven from him? He debated not answering. growing stronger. He wore no shoes. Ciaràn. The distant ringing stopped.” Uriskel said with a gasp.
” he said. He drew a long breath.” “How observant of you. “By the way. the face rippled and distorted. Uriskel. Vaughn “Damn. My place is sealed.” “Wonderful. revealing a glimpse of torn and glistening flesh beneath tattered fabric. he shook himself and straightened. He moved aside and said.30 S. He almost felt bad about the caveat. even an Unseelie snake. Cobalt closed the door and crouched beside the stricken Fae. Can't wait. I'll invite you in.” “Ye-es. “I am sorry about that. Gods.” He pushed the hood back. The fit lasted longer. so when you step through. “Come in. The hand holding the cloak shut fell away and the material parted. “but you understand why I've done it. Did you just notice?” “Sympathetic as ever. “All right.” “It'll wear off in a minute. “I'm bleeding. as though he was glancing over his shoulder. Call me anything else and I'll not answer.” “That's it?” the Unseelie muttered.” “Lovely name. “Hurry?” Cobalt nodded. Cobalt couldn't help staring.” Uriskel coughed again. or do you plan to feed all of New York's rats with your blood?” “Coming. The illusion flickered like bad television reception. but you're not staying long. and just when it seemed he'd never stop. Didn't know you…had it in you. I go by Cobalt here. and the Unseelie's true face showed in snatches: pale blue skin. “No archaic words. He managed four steps and dropped to his knees. As he watched. I see.” He almost removed the hood but thought better of it. He pitched forward and thrust a hand out to stop himself from hitting the floor. to bleed to death. Not even Gaelic…” “Are you coming. Really. Luminous green eyes glowered at him. angled insectile . He twisted to one side. it's going to hurt. He stepped through.” Cobalt caught his lip with his teeth. Understand?” The figure nodded within the hood.” Uriskel shivered. Ciaràn. W. “One more thing. “That's potent.” Uriskel coughed and wavered on his feet. He couldn't leave anyone. Uriskel's glamour rendered him beautiful—probably to compensate for his horrific natural appearance.” Uriskel stumbled forward and hesitated on the threshold. A hoarse cry heaved from his lips. Burnished auburn hair framed a tanned and chiseled face. which tended to frighten grown men.
“Nothing.” “I'm sorry. but they formed a recognizable pattern—an intricate Celtic knot that would have been beautiful if not for the manner in which it was made. He maintained the spell for five or six minutes before he stopped. Cobalt suspected the Unseelie had only lived because of the Law that forbade any Fae from killing another in the human realm.” Cobalt shuddered. “He's hexed you. “Let's have a look. In every instance.” Uriskel spread the cloak apart. Branded the center of Uriskel's mutilated chest with his sigil. He felt the wounds resisting. gasping for breath. Most of the Unseelie sported claws in their true forms. and called on his magic. Teeth like needles. “Come on. Cobalt. And he never even asked me anything.” “Lying snake. “I'll do what I can. “I did nothing.” He held a hand flat and splay-fingered above the worst of the damage. The spiteful thought came and left. He'd signed it. He couldn't hold even a simple spell. Hours. There were too many to count. “Spare some magic?” Uriskel wheezed. I don't know why. You've not changed at all.” “If you insist. deep slashes scored his chest and stomach beneath the raveled remains of his shirt. At least the gashes appeared less angry.” . “This hurts. Cold black eyes ringed with gold. settled him down. Long. bared in a grimace.Skin Deep 31 features.” Good. Eoghann must have enchanted them.” He glanced down and sighed. four cuts ran parallel to each other.” Cobalt eased an arm under him and helped him to his feet. “All I have for now. but this—he had changed. Like claws. Cobalt sucked a harsh breath. He'd gotten worse. At least in daylight. The claws of a cat instead of a tiger.” he said. He guided him to the room's sole chair. then. He wants me dead. “Took his time with this. He'd known Eoghann was cold and unfeeling. He forced harder and was rewarded when Uriskel's skin began to reluctantly knit itself back together.” Uriskel's eyes narrowed. It was slow going. “What did you do?” Cobalt blurted. No wonder he'd worn a hood. The glamour solidified again. but this was definitely Eoghann's work.
S. W. Vaughn
“I know.” Uriskel drew the cloak around him. “Thank you.” Cobalt arched his brow. “That must've been hard for you.” “What?” “Thanking me.” “You have no idea.” His head dropped back against the chair. “I can stay?” “For a while. Not long.” “Good. Where can I sleep?” “Right there.” Uriskel glanced down at the plain wooden chair. “What, on this?” “Yes.” Cobalt consulted the clock again. Five to three. “I'm waiting for someone, and he'll be here any minute. I'll bring you upstairs later.” “Well, aren't you the gracious host. Got a pillow up your ass?” “Uriskel, shut your mouth.” “Fine.” The Unseelie leaned forward and laid his head on folded arms. “Don't mind me. I'll just sit here and bleed.” “You do that.” Cobalt released a pent breath and stared at the door. Any minute now.
Will wasn't sure how long he'd been walking. He'd passed Central Park a while back, and now he was approaching Harlem. He wanted nothing more than to drag inside the nearest bar and drink himself into oblivion, but he couldn't sit. Hell, he wouldn't be able to stand much longer. And he still hadn't called Tess. At least he'd managed not to jump in front of a train. The trick, he discovered, was to keep from thinking too far ahead. He had gotten this far by choosing a destination—the next block, the next junk tourist shop, the next Dunkin' Donuts or drugstore or subway entrance—and reaching it, then picking something else. His current goal was the next street that ended in th. He stopped at the corner of 124th. Where to, Mister? He stared down the teeming sidewalk, oblivious to the occasional jostler or honking cab. A goal. Something simple. Maybe the next street vendor… A solid surface crunched against his knees. His breath whooshed out, and white flashed across his vision. He stared dully at the sidewalk, which was suddenly two or three feet closer. His legs had given out. Now what? No one stopped to help him. He wasn't surprised—dressed like this, he didn't look very approachable. He could just stay here on his knees and wait for something to happen. Maybe he'd get mugged, or shot, or crushed by a curb-jumping taxi. Will, you need to go to a hospital. The voice in his head was Tess's. And she was right— but he couldn't. Even if he could somehow get past the humiliation of having to explain how his ass had turned a solid shade of maroon, and what made those bruised and bloodied welts on his back and thighs, they'd make him file a report. With the police. He had a feeling if he did that, Lyle would do everything in his power to get hold of him again. And next time he wouldn't stop with his belt.
S. W. Vaughn
Maybe he could check in to a hotel somewhere. A few hours of sleep might let him think in longer terms than five minutes ahead. But first he had to find one. He used the street-sign pole to pull himself to his feet and clung to it until the light changed. One step at a time. He could make another block. By the time he hit the next curb, his legs vibrated like electric razors. He marked progress in sidewalk cracks. Made it to one, another, the next. He had to stop twice and catch his breath. When he finally reached the corner, he wasn't sure he had the strength to stay conscious. But he managed. This block looked exactly the same as the last one. Had he actually moved, or just imagined moving? Nothing resembled a hotel. His vision blurred, doubled, and for a few seconds nothing resembled anything. When his surroundings resolved, he felt cool wetness trickling down his back. It was raining. No, it wasn't. He was bleeding again. Forget walking. A cab. He'd hail a cab, and go… Where? A hotel. Right. But he wouldn't be able to stand long enough to check in, much less walk to a room. Tess… She'd be at the studio. He didn't have a key to her place. A taxi swung to the curb. He didn't remember waving for one. The passenger window hummed down. “You going? Going?” an accented voice called. “Yeah.” Will rattled the back-door handle and popped it open. He climbed in on his knees. Gravity shut the door. He heard it click behind him. “Where you going?” the cabbie called back. Hospital. Hotel. Hell in a handbasket. “The Grotto,” he said without thinking. “Ninth and…something. Midtown.” The cabbie nodded. And Will blacked out before they hit the first light.
Cobalt locked Uriskel in an upstairs guest room. The Unseelie wouldn't cause any trouble—for a few hours, at least. By the time he'd given up waiting for Will, Uriskel had all but fainted. He could deal with him in the morning. Tonight, it would take everything he had not to think about Will Ambrose.
Shade shifted her gaze. who stared toward the back of the room with the expression of someone who'd just caught wind of fresh skunk. for just a moment. After all. Cobalt had hoped for the chance to convince him to try. Shade.” He wouldn't tell them about Eoghann.” she said. love. Even if he could never have him as anything more than a client. “You've a new guest. “Cobalt. Pookas. Did we miss anything?” “Not really. And it's temporary. “He's Unseelie.” he said. “Never turn your back on him.” “You didn't!” Nix switched to Fae. They'd only been open an hour.” “No. he knew the man didn't look the type. “Boring.” Cobalt held back a sigh. He's injured. isn't he the one who—” “I've told you not to talk like that in here.” he said. He regarded his pale companion. He should have known Shade would sense the Unseelie.” Nix nudged her. But this odd pairing had come here for freedom and found humans to their liking. “Nix. In the Fae realm. Besides. Lots of sheep. “Don't worry about him.” . A familiar couple occupied a table at the back. He headed down to the studio. They were Seelie. it was a rare match made between a Pooka and a Sluagh. But he'd been so animated. “I granted haven to Uriskel. “How are things in lovely old Eire?” He flashed a bright smile. mate. when he had asked about scarification.” Cobalt admonished. His first appointment wasn't until seven. Flat gray eyes stared coolly at him. Something feels wrong in here. she's right. “Stop being so dramatic. Two hours to kill. The Sluagh preferred the company of the dead. shape-shifters.Skin Deep 35 He shouldn't have been surprised that Will never showed up. Her kind was attuned to dark magic. were carefree types who spent most of their time communing with nature. but the place was already full. “Nice to see you too.” Shade kept her eyes on the stairwell entrance. Cobalt made his way to them and waited until the male looked up from the BlackBerry in his hands.” I hope. frequent guests at the Grotto—and different as night and day.” “I won't. “I hope you know what you're doing.
” He stepped outside.” Malik went back into the front room without waiting for an acknowledgment. “You take him? Pay fare. “It doesn't sound like he's going to leave. You not take him.” Cobalt started to dismiss the idea. The driver had gotten out of the cab and was leaning in the open front window to blast the horn. “This looks important.” “Later. it might be someone you know. I have to call cops. “Excuse me. interesting people you bring in. Another long blast sounded. Outside. A figure lay slumped in the backseat. strident note. A ripple of disquiet shivered through his chest. I thought. I looked when he started doing that with the horn. Shade merely nodded.” . The sound paused for a few seconds and began again. “Do you hear that?” Malik moved toward the entrance. and I think he's trying to wake up whoever's in the backseat. Something about it looked familiar. returning greetings from the regulars with nods and single words. then a series of rapid and insistent bleats. Cobalt followed and closed the door behind him. He shook his head. but he couldn't make out anything beyond a vague shape.36 S. The feeling grew when he reached Malik and took in the boy's wide eyes and set mouth. “Whoever it is must have asked to come here. The back passenger door stood open. with all the…er. Cobalt weaved around tables. He won't wake up. He turned to find Malik in the entrance at the front of the room. “You. gesturing frantically for him. “There's a cab sitting at the curb. W. That's you. I'll deal with this. You work here?” “Yes. Vaughn Something behind Cobalt drew the attention of the other Fae. He ask for the Grotto. forming awkward angles. a car horn blared a long.” “So?” For an instant Malik showed his age in a flash of pure teen exasperation. “I think you should come out here.” The cabbie gestured at the open door. The driver moved in front of him.” he said to the couple. “What is it?” he asked softly.” “Maybe he's customer of yours.” Nix replied. It's been there at least five minutes.
He hadn't expected one. “I get you change. Or both. He brushed it aside. Eleven forty. The back of his shirt was tacky with blood.” Cobalt shifted to one knee.” Cobalt glared at him. Mirrored sunglasses lay on the carpet beside him.” The cabbie tapped his arm. and the shirt Will wore slipped down and exposed his lower back. Will. turned toward the seat—as though he'd crawled in on his knees and passed out. “You know him.” “You got it. It was a fifty. Fury roared through his mind at whoever was responsible for hurting him. The driver snatched it. “Who's done this to you?” Will didn't offer an answer. “Will!” Was he drunk? Maybe serious drugs. “Here we go.” he murmured. He worked slowly. he recognized him instantly. and his upper half hung upside down in the floor well. He shifted him a few inches away from the seat. Deciding against causing a scene. Just give me a minute to get him out.Skin Deep 37 Cobalt barely heard the cabbie's stream of complaints.” “Keep it. Touched his shoulder. he fished a bill from his pocket and held it up. he was in bad shape. He brushed the man aside and crouched at the edge of the curb to peer inside the taxi. Maybe he wasn't drunk. There was no way to extract him without hurting him. But he didn't wake up.” he whispered. “Oh. hesitated. “Pay fare. The unconscious form's legs were flung against the back. A black bandanna was fastened around his head. It wasn't hard to tell what had made those marks. Whoever this was. Cobalt reached out. Fever heat radiated from his slack body. Carefully. The sound was pure pain. . he reached his free arm inside and curled it beneath Will's waist. His breath quickened at the familiar sandy brown hair obscuring the face. Will flinched and moaned. with one arm around his shoulders and the other under his knees. At last he managed to maneuver him halfway out and lift him in an awkward cradle. Even in shadowed profile. He slid an arm under Will's torso and winced when the unconscious man cried out softly. Cobalt's throat convulsed at the sight of the wide blue-black stripes adorning his bloodied skin.
“Will. It was distinctly male. “Cobalt…” “Yes. A soft something beneath him. ***** A tantalizing scent teased Will's nose. No one here needs to see him like this. but it wasn't quite that. Cobalt turned and strode back to the building. The smell invoked these images. maddeningly sexual. Consciousness bled into him and brought more sensations. Don't panic. Malik opened up. Asleep again. “What…?” “Move. I've got him. A country summer breeze. “Do you…need help?” “No.38 S. and they lit hell with candles.” Malik nodded. Flickering light dancing beside him. His body grew heavy.” he mumbled thickly. “All of them?” “Yes. The dull pain permeating every inch of his body. Unless he was dead. “Cancel my appointments tonight.” Cobalt didn't wait for the boy to reply.” he said. “Grotto.” Malik scuttled aside. The boy gaped at them. “I'm here. Will.” Malik didn't ask unnecessary questions. Wood smoke and river water. Inviting and delicious. Will stirred. W. Vaughn Cobalt straightened and backed away from the curb.” His voice broke on the word. Cobalt walked in and waited until the boy closed the entrance. just outside the reach of his awareness. “Thank you.” “No problem. He'd smelled smoke. nuzzling his head against his chest.” A soft sigh escaped Will's lips. Fire! He opened his eyes with a gasp and saw candles.” . He moved to the side door and opened it to the hallway leading to the access stairs.” His eyes burned briefly. “I'll be taking him through the back. He kicked at the door. Within seconds. You're safe. That didn't make sense.
“Will…” Cobalt's unsteady voice poured over him like fire. He squeezed them shut. I live upstairs. Cobalt's bed. Eventually Cobalt would notice the bruise on his face. I'm leaving. or walking inside. tried to curl in on himself. He was naked.” “Inside…where?” “The Grotto. “How…?” “No one's seen you.” A hiss and a flare sounded. If shame could kill.Skin Deep 39 The low voice came from the gloom beyond the cluster of flames. preparing to push up. Then he'd caught a cab. There would be questions he didn't want to answer. Then he remembered the man who usually shared this bed—the angelic Trystan—and pushed the feeling away. “My clothes. You… Why?” “I had to. “I hope you don't mind that I brought you inside. I'd not wanted to leave you on the street. “Give me my clothes. the sores on his mouth. “Cobalt?” “Yes.” . He couldn't stay here. He tensed and dragged one outstretched arm toward him. Now. “I need to leave.” he croaked. He smelled sulfur. he would have died right here.” Should've just let me die. If he hadn't already. but it hurt too much. Tears formed in his eyes. A strangled cry wrenched from his throat. He must've told the driver to take him to the Grotto—but then what? He didn't remember arriving. Will closed his eyes and tried to think. a shiver of lust raced through him.” It took him a minute to process what had happened. He remembered trying. Despite his wretched condition. The soft light around him brightened a bit.” The silhouette drifted to the right. He was no work of art. out of his line of sight. He convulsed. The sensation of cotton sheet against his skin stopped him cold. and failing. to find a hotel. enough to reveal the bed he was lying on. Cobalt had seen far more than his bruised face. Will squinted and made out a tall silhouette.
I…had an accident. “Please let me help you. “Onto a belt?” “Oh. You can't even walk. . or something.” “Or something?” “I can handle this.” Cobalt's voice was unflinchingly tender.” He tried again to rise. so I'm the next best thing. you'll just pass out again. Pain slammed his tailbone and shot up his spine.” Will turned his head to the left. If you go out there. All I want to do is help you. “Just leave me alone. you can't leave. But he couldn't stop himself.” he whispered finally.” The longing in his voice—real or imagined—sent a shudder through Will. strong features. Vaughn “Damn it. I fell down some steps. Only dark hair. You don't. “I run a tattoo parlor. My job is cutting and poking people. Will. Cobalt arched an eyebrow. Why did he have to be right? “I'm sorry. gestured vaguely. “I'll not pass judgment on you.40 S.” Jesus.” Pathetic. I know how to treat injuries like this. And Cobalt seemed to understand. “Please.” Will's stomach cramped hard.” His gratitude extended beyond the offer to treat his injuries. focused his gaze on Cobalt. “All right. I won't even ask any questions. “Cobalt…thank you. I can't…” “Listen to me. W. God.” He sensed Cobalt moving closer to the bed.” Will tried to speak. His tongue refused to cooperate. I'm sure you don't want to go to a hospital. He couldn't make out much in the candlelight. where Cobalt's voice had come from. You can tell me as much or as little as you want—even if what you want to say is nothing. and shadows he knew were tattoos.” He swallowed. I know how you feel—” “No. “Look. He gasped. “And whoever finds you next won't be as discreet as me. With my board. Will.
” Will's breathing evened. He was drifting off again. Cobalt circled the bed and headed for the adjoining bathroom. At least he'd drawn the sheet over the worst of the damage.” “Okay. heal his wounds…and send him on his way? The beating he'd suffered had to come from someone he knew. Gods. was jealousy. he would heal him completely with magic— assuming he had any left after his earlier session with Uriskel. He shut the door. “You may want to close your eyes. “I won't be a minute. If he thought it possible without exposing himself. Just like every other human Cobalt had tried to bond with.Skin Deep 41 Chapter Six So much for not getting involved. Done. “I'll need the light. chances were good that he'd return to his abuser. so personally. Soon he'd have to put his hands on Will's naked body—and it would hurt both of them. But what came next? Tend him. “I'll have to get a few things. claim him for his own. Cobalt had to turn away. He held in a breath. Gangs or homosexual haters would not have bound and beaten him so methodically. If he let Will go. he realized with self-revulsion. . He'd wanted to mark Will. and switched on the bedside lamp.” he said. Still. A frustrated groan formed in his throat. the marks visible on his shoulders and around his wrists kindled fresh rage.” The relief was short-lived. Will was bound to lose his mind or his life. But not like that. and he shoved a knuckle against his mouth to keep it from escaping. before those eyes of Will's bored straight into his soul. Part of the feeling. how could he do this? He'd no hesitation over treating Will's injuries. He wanted to kill whoever had put them there. If he stayed. Yet a relationship with him was out of the question.” “Mmm.” he said. reached down.
” . I'll do it.” “I assume it's to say you won't be working tonight. At the moment. and accepted the phone. I just—oh. There would be time to berate himself later. He would attempt a small dose and resort to codeine if necessary.” Will clenched his jaw. Vicodin would be the best choice.” “Shit!” He winced visibly. You're not giving me stitches.” He set the bowl on the nightstand. Lidocaine to ease the irritation of the unbroken skin… …where he had been battered mercilessly with an open hand. Something like that. over and over. Cobalt smiled. quarter to eight.” The edge in his voice could have sliced solid rock. What time is it?” “Seven thirty. “Tess'll shit kittens if she doesn't hear from me. Call. where some of the bruises were finger shaped… Bacitracin to stave off infection from the cuts… …where the belt had bitten him.” Will smirked. Will needed him—or at least needed the services he could offer. Anything that would offer the slightest relief. It's more of a thread thing. Unless you'd like me to—” “No. Vaughn He relaxed a bit and moved for the medicine cabinet.” “Uh…yeah. “Not really. He expected to find Will unconscious again. Probably will anyway. Can't exactly sit in a booth. “Nervous?” “Depends. I have to call Tess. W. but some did not react well to morphine-based medication. propped himself on an elbow. You've a problem with needles. no. Or ibuprofen. hard enough to draw blood… And something general for the pain. “Don't tell me. “The show. Cobalt produced his phone. “Here. But when he returned to the bedroom. He filled a cup with water and gathered everything in a small bowl from under the sink. are you?” “No stitches.42 S. He pulled the mirrored door open and tried to study the shelves with a clinical eye. Will watched his approach with guarded interest.
Will frowned at the phone. “Look. I don't need—” He sighed. hon. He caught his lower lip with his teeth. shook his head. he reminded himself. No! He's just—I'll tell you later. Tomorrow. If Will told him anything.Skin Deep 43 Cobalt turned and walked a few paces away. Now…do you want me to explain what I'm going to do?” “I guess. I want to have you take some pain medication. shook out two pills.” Will sounded resigned already. Tess…don't antagonize him. We're not banned. they don't hate you.” he murmured. “I'm at the Grotto… Yes… No. After a pause. once. or he'd resent him forever. Yes.” Fingers drummed lightly on the sheet. “Anytime. he offered the water.” He picked up a bottle. It's the strongest I have.” The words trailed to a whisper. then. because a tinny. but it's morphine based. “No. I'm fine. “If only you were a man. you're not gonna like this.” Indifference. unintelligible voice reached Cobalt's ears. he said in strained tones. Have you taken morphine before?” “Yes. Can you swallow pills?” “Think so.” “All right. okay? Yes. “Then you shouldn't react to it. and held them out.” Cobalt approached him and settled on the edge of the bed. Fussbudget. “First. “Yes. “Hey. darlin'. No. Don't ask questions. Tess. At least it wasn't fear. Will blinked at the cup. it would have to be volunteered. He returned the phone to his pocket. “Okay. Shit kittens. Perhaps it was unique to Will's vocabulary. Thank you. . Breathe. At the hospital. “Tess.” When he said nothing further. careful not to jostle too much. “What did you tell him?” Another pause. Just play dumb.” He opened the bottle. Mother hen. but I can't come in—” She must have shouted her response. “Vicodin. “Tess. But then…” He stopped. I—yes.” His breath caught. at the pills. Drama queen… G'night. When Will took them. to give some semblance of privacy and to hide his bemused expression. Lunch at Nick's. Cobalt turned back. I'm—no. we're through. “All set?” he said. He hadn't heard that particular expression before. really.
or not say.” Cobalt grasped the edge of the sheet. He managed not to moan. then drank a bit more.” Will lowered himself onto the bed and propped his chin on folded arms.” Will nodded.” “I'll make no assumptions.” he replied as evenly as possible.” His voice threatened to crack. A faint smile lingered on his lips.” he corrected with a growl. I've two kinds. Ex-partner. waited until Will opened his mouth. Will raised the cup to his lips. He took a breath. “They should work fast. composed himself. “Take the water. Gods. “What's the hard part?” “Cream. “Thank you. “The other is antiseptic. but he was strong. so you can swallow fast. He stared at the headboard. Will turned his head.” Cobalt's blood ran hot with the declaration. His eyes were closed. Again. . He hesitated. “That bastard is never touching me again. I'll put these in your mouth. well it's…something I should've said a long time ago. At last he said. He eased out a breath. “It was my partner.” Will remained silent for a long moment. He swallowed and paused.” “It matters that you say it now. “I guess I don't really need to explain. “Ready?” Will faced the headboard again.” he said quietly. You can say. W.44 S. “Why haven't you asked me about…anything?” “I promised no questions. “Yes.” “You don't have to keep thanking me. man. But not Will Ambrose. his expression unreadable. “Yeah.” “Oh. Most people in his situation would already be making excuses. “That'll work. Will. Now. we've come to the hard part. Cobalt held the tablets. You'll want to lie down.” he whispered. anything you'd like. The pads of his fingers brushed the surface as he withdrew—and his body reacted with a flash of heat. Sounds fun already. He willed the slight tremble in his hand away and gently placed the pills on his tongue. Vaughn “Here. to clean cuts and prevent infection.” Will's mouth firmed. It's obvious. One is a topical anesthetic—a numbing agent. Color rose in his cheeks. saying the monster who hurt them didn't mean it. “That's good to hear. though.” Cobalt scooped the small white tablets from his palm.” he said hoarsely. for the irritation.” Cobalt took the cup back.
“The dose you've taken may wear off before then.” He cringed at the word magic. Though it seemed to take aeons. I've stopped.” he said softly. He forced himself to look closely so he could assess the damage and decide where to begin. Barely an inch of skin had been left untouched between his neck and his knees. “I feel almost human again. Just a touch. He soon realized it didn't matter. Easy. You have magic hands. The heat from Will's tortured skin practically burned his fingers. Will…” He spread the stuff in gentle circles. Dried blood crusted around his opening. His body stiffened in anticipation. His backside bore hectic blossoms of deep red set in bruised flesh. Despite his care.” Will let out a shuddering breath. Everywhere was bad. Some of the marks licked around his ribs and his waist like poisonous tails. “I'm afraid I just have better drugs than most. He retrieved the lidocaine and squeezed a generous amount on his fingertips.” “Four hours?” Will shifted on the bed. As he worked. Cobalt didn't trust himself to speak. he finished applying both lotions in minutes. the tap scourged his body through—but he would suffer a few moments of pain to take some of Will's away. “I'll have to touch you. He touched the cream to his backside. Will flinched and sucked air through his teeth. but I'll not have you poisoning yourself. his voice hoarse. he called on his ebbing magic to enhance the healing process. “There. It will hurt. What emerged was a choked sob. “Any better?” “Actually…yes. Depleted as he was. “I thought…” “No.” He opened the Vicodin again and deposited two pills beside the rest of the water.” Will nodded.” he said.” he said. Don't try to get up. “All right. now. There were even welts on his upper arms. he still heard Will attempt to stifle a gasp.” .” Cobalt whispered. “I'm sorry. The beast had raped him too. He capped the tubes and wiped his hands on his jeans. “You'll have to wait four hours for these. “It's all right.Skin Deep 45 Cobalt lifted the sheet up so it wouldn't touch his skin while he pulled it back. You need rest.
Those long. Vaughn “But you're done. “Do you think you could eat something? You'll need the strength. The gesture was unbearably sensual. leave.” He smiled back. The pain was diminished but present. I mean. “I'm sorry. Will quirked a smile. And what he'd experienced when Cobalt touched him—despite the pain.” “Don't you have people waiting on you? For tattoos. I'm starving. in his bed. until I return. You're safe. But there it was. God.” Cobalt laughed before he could stop himself. You didn't have to do that. “You're staying right here. a rush of pleasure sweeter than honey—was definitely real.” “Now that you mention it. How he could even think about sex at a time like this was beyond him. and be rewarded with the ecstatic moan he knew Cobalt would release. He had granted haven to Will— yet he could offer no more than that. I'll get you some food. It was a torment worse than any death. I canceled all my appointments when you turned up. anytime. “You are welcome here. . Here was Will Ambrose. “I'd thank you.” “Wonderful. But the sensations felt real enough. and his fevered mind invented this to keep him occupied.” The irony struck him before the words emerged. W.” Cobalt caught his gaze and held it. I thought I should…well. He'd wanted to suckle them. but you told me not to. He would not sleep tonight. in an alley or a gutter. “Rest. At least he'd no need to mourn the loss of his bed. Wherein the dark and beautiful god took pity on the pathetic and broken mortal.” The urge to kiss him good-bye nearly overcame him.” “Not tonight. take them in deep. and take nothing.” Will bit his lower lip again.” He stood and carefully drew the sheet back over Will's ruined flesh. He'd passed out somewhere. He could ask for no more.” “You're welcome. graceful fingers in his mouth had almost been too much to bear.” “Oh. ***** Will decided he had to be dreaming. The Cobalt Fantasy. and he could do nothing but look at him.46 S.” “I don't mind. He had the erection to prove it.
tried to ignore the sick wave of anguish that shot through him. Refraining from pointed questions. He took it down. Tending to his injuries without a hint of disgust or condemnation. though. Sometime later. He wouldn't just forget the whole thing. An unfamiliar male voice shouted. He could try to avoid him. Will debated staying put. Blast it? He'd puzzle that one out later. so every kindness Cobalt had shown served to shock his system. Three doors—one under siege. The sound repeated twice. another a bathroom. Maybe with good reason—whoever was out there sounded pissed. “Cobalt! I know you're in there.” . His thoughts fled the uncertain future for more stable ground—here. his inappropriately timed lust was the least of his worries. not so much sleeping as floating on the promise of being welcome and safe. Lyle never had been the passive type. He struggled to his knees. Making sure no one else saw his shame. but when the banging started again. For now. It was. I want a word with you. Cobalt must have locked it. Cobalt had told him to rest until he returned. A deep blue silk robe hung from a peg on the back of the door. He'd have to hope he could find the strength to keep his convictions the next time he encountered Lyle. he would indulge himself. then. He closed his eyes and drifted. now. Open up. make sure no one he knew told Lyle anything. “When you said I could stay. bang. It'd never happen. Preferably without the aid of another beating to remind him why it was over. and studied the room. I didn't think you meant as a—oh. Most of all.” The doorknob rattled. Lyle had called the station looking for him. That sounded like a good idea. He slid off the bed and managed to stay on his feet. then headed for the probable closet.Skin Deep 47 Unfortunately.” There was a brief rattle. You're not Cobalt. a metallic click. As though he belonged here with him. I'll do it. reacting as though sending him away had never crossed his mind. but sooner or later he'd have to face him. That was the real fantasy…belonging to Cobalt. The third was probably a closet. He'd expected nothing that happened tonight. a loud bang startled him back to consciousness. bang. “Blast it. Open this door!” Bang. he decided to look for cover in case the door failed to hold against the assault. slipped it on— “Fine.
I want you.” “I was sleeping. Not wood and water. half expecting the beautiful blond. and the redhead stood before him.” Will tied the robe shut. But this was different. It wasn't a question. he was gorgeous as sin. Won't he?” The redhead moved farther into the room. . “Don't mind me. “Get out. Cobalt could have gone anywhere to get food. “Were you. this man was bronze. Instead of an angel. Where Trystan had been alabaster.” The man changed course and took a casual seat on the bed. Will shook himself and looked for their source. “Any chance you might tell me where he is?” “I don't know.” Snarled words dispelled the haze.” Will wasn't sure how to respond. Go ahead. a thick curtain.” Will felt those green eyes taking him in. aiming that smile at his soul. All at once.” Yes. A chilling smile surfaced. And staring straight at him. wearing fury like a glove. now. His body shook with the effort he'd expended to move so fast. The thought refused to become a word.48 S. “Ah. Cobalt stood in the open door.” he said. Vaughn “No.” The man turned slowly in his direction. as though he'd done it a hundred times. Go back to whatever you were doing.” It was the truth. But the man in the doorway was a green-eyed redhead. Closer to Will. He turned to regard the intruder. “You won't mind if I wait for him. Sorry. You. assessing him. Dangerously sensual. “How fascinating. but he'll be back. W. Commanding. He found it soon enough. Trystan. Stronger…and darker. “Sure. but earth and fire and incense. a phantom aroma like the one that had teased him from sleep descended around him. Will thought with helpless abandon. He blinked. “Good.
Why did you… Oh. I'll not be long. It finally dawned on Will that he wasn't the cause of Cobalt's fury. He'd never seen anyone this angry. He grabbed the redhead by the arm and frog-marched him to the door. though.” He propelled him through the entrance. He had. At last. Will didn't hear him. Don't touch anything. damn. “Eat. “Speak one word in this room and you're through.” He placed a gentle hand under Will's elbow. “Don't talk to anyone. Will.” If the other man responded.” He headed for the door but stopped just . I think. only looked at Will as though he'd slapped him. He stood frozen for a moment before his arm fell limp at his side. Metaphorically speaking. Will jerked away. Will felt like he'd been shot. Cobalt drew himself together. he didn't feel inspired to relax. Not even Lyle—and that was saying a lot. but it had a profound effect on Cobalt.” Cobalt took a step toward him. stopped. His expression shattered. if you like.” He crossed the room to him. Cobalt's outburst had frozen his senses. “I must deal with him. and Will struggled not to cringe like a dog. gesturing to the bag he'd brought in. “Come on. Wait there. He strode across the room. He said nothing. I'm so sorry. “What did he say to you? Wait. “Will. “Are you all right?” His voice seemed to come from a hundred miles away.” he said. If you've—” Cobalt cut himself off with effort. The reaction was instinctive. “I swear. don't tell me. I'll find out.” He directed a fierce glare at the doorway. Cobalt deposited the white paper bag he held on a chair by the door. “Yes.” “That arrogant.Skin Deep 49 Chapter Seven For one endless moment. ungrateful—” He grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. For some reason. “You don't look all right. You should be in bed.
His head pounded with the effort to seize a reasonable explanation. Now I'll have to explain you to him. Did Cobalt want him to leave. I'll never take that from you.” “I can't lie to him. “Know that you're not being forced into anything. then Cobalt was his Lyle. “You've already done enough damage.” “Because I knew you'd cause trouble!” “You might have just said something to me. you know. Brothers. And right now. Your will is your own. you bastard. but he couldn't bring himself to lie down. I'll not touch your pretty human. ***** “You disgust me. “I've done nothing to your precious Will. he wasn't sure he wanted to find out.” “I should not have had need to stop you. after the risk I've taken for you?” Uriskel leaned on the back wall of the guest room and folded his arms. why was he here? He could have been another lover. “There's no need to pen me like an animal. That should sound about right. Uriskel.” “You know his name! How?” “You left the door open while you comforted him. Vaughn inside. Will stared at it and tried to make sense of his scattered thoughts.50 S. Maybe he'd have to leave after all. He shuffled back to the bed. He knew nothing about the man who called himself Cobalt. “Then tell him the truth. “You should be pleased. Won't that go over well…Cobalt?” .” Cobalt fought to hold himself in check. Tell him you're not human. Or failed to.” The door closed. “Did you not think the door was locked for a reason?” “Perhaps the same reason you locked me behind this one. I did exactly what you demanded of me. his eyes flashed fire. Nothing fit.” Uriskel sneered.” “Well. or was he just reassuring him that he could? Who in the hell was the red-haired man—and if Cobalt hated him so much. depending on the point of view. But if that were the case.” A strange look flickered across Uriskel's face and disappeared. Tell him we're family.” Though his tone was light. How could you do this. W. then.” Cobalt refused to let him force guilt.
” he said. He set the bag aside.” Cobalt's hands clenched in tight fists. After a moment. for instance.” He closed the door and picked up the untouched bag. I'll tell you now. When it opened.Skin Deep 51 “Damn you. as long as you do it in here. An old customer? A lover?” He almost choked on that one.” “Shock does tend to destroy my appetite. “Not hungry? I suppose I don't blame you. Lock picking. He still wanted one to exist. However. In fact.” Will hauled himself up and slid from the bed to stand beside it. Tough break. Uriskel. but with his head pointed toward the door.” “What?” Confusion knit his features.” The Unseelie offered a bitter laugh. “Who is he?” Cobalt paused for just a beat. I'd no time to tell you about him. Don't look at him. “Stay away from Will. before his control could desert him.” he added under his breath.” The comment made Cobalt flinch. He's from out of town. “I'm truly sorry for that. “You think I'm… Oh. Apparently he's acquired some new skills. “He'll not bother you again. What am I supposed to do?” “I don't care what you do. He'd gone back to lying down. he gave a mocking bow. visiting for a while. Don't speak to him. Not without at least trying for a reasonable explanation. “Skelly. ***** Will couldn't bring himself to leave.” Cobalt turned and left.” “Fantastic. don't leave this room tonight. I believe you're also damned at the moment.” Uriskel stiffened. Will. “Yes. impossible as that seemed. Or him about you. really? To you. . I mean. “Since I neglected to mention it before.” “It's not him I'm worried about. he closed his eyes. he didn't hesitate. “As you wish. “Who is he. It's not like that. After a second.
52 S.” Cobalt nodded. The parallels to his own situation were impossible to miss.” “Fine. Will felt ridiculous wearing Cobalt's robe. “Thank you for that. Absolutely not. he let himself out. Once he's mended. “Only let me wash them for you. Like a pathetic groupie. “I shouldn't have. Or maybe he did and just didn't care.” He almost regretted the words when Cobalt winced at them. “He needed a place to hide for a while. But he couldn't stop now. “Good-bye. “Skelly is a fugitive.” Cobalt looked exquisitely miserable. “You want the truth.” Without waiting for a reply. reached for the door. “I'd just like to be ready to leave in the morning.” Cobalt said stiffly. I let him stay only because he's hurt.” A shade of the anger he'd exhibited earlier darkened his face. He turned his back.” he whispered.” “Of course. Almost. touched fingers to his temple. I'll not stop you. Silent tears dripped from his eyes and soaked the sheet. after all. if it's still okay with you. “The truth. He'd been nothing special to him. W. Will. Will managed to wait several minutes. Thank you. until he was sure Cobalt had gone.” Chills shivered down his back. Eventually. They'll need it. I'll leave them here by the door. Vaughn “No.” He shook his head. before he collapsed on the bed. You'll have it—and should you want to leave when you've heard.” Cobalt gave a bare nod. exhaustion stole him away. ***** . He came to me because he doesn't know anyone else here. Maybe he didn't want to know. “Let's hear it. At least it explained why he'd handled Will showing up the way he did so well. the bastard's on his own. “Can I have my clothes?” “You're leaving.” Something inside Will shattered.” At once. but Cobalt didn't seem to notice. He had experience taking in strays. It's cheaper than a hotel.” he said slowly. I wouldn't mind staying tonight. “Actually.
He must have sounded exactly as he felt explaining it—like a shallow cad with a dirty secret. Uriskel. he felt sorry for Uriskel. He'd transfer Will's clothes to the dryer. Give him to me. Eoghann. Cobalt headed for the access door. a glittering blanket laid beneath a clouded night sky.” He snorted. return them to his room. He would not come back. At least he wouldn't return to the beast who'd battered him body and soul.” “How sporting of you. a black expanse edged with twinkling lights.” Cobalt didn't want to think about the implications of that statement. though he knew it was a futile effort. He hadn't thought it possible. Yes. he could never erase Will Ambrose from his heart. I won't be part of it. that would solve everything. “Whatever is between you.Skin Deep 53 The city spread around him. From the roof. Tell him the truth and watch him descend into madness. Though he hadn't spared the matter a thought since Uriskel stumbled bleeding through his front door. Will would leave in the morning. Excellent idea.” “No. Eventually. he would feel the same. Tell him you're not human. If their positions were reversed. He answered. If only he could drown himself in it. Ciaràn?” “I told you not to contact me again. However. He is mine. but it hadn't been enough.” For the second time that day. But I won't tell you when. He'd come as close to the truth as he dared. Then he would begin the process of forgetting.” “Send him away. he knew exactly who it was. Such a breathtaking sight. Cobalt could see the river. “Tell him the truth. Watching Will's trust vanish in an instant had broken him. No matter how many centuries passed. A clean break. Perhaps it was better this way. Or take his own life to escape the knowledge. So be it. “I will. Of course it hadn't. I have no wish to wait. “Are you harboring spies now. He'd gotten three steps when his cell phone rang.” . He shuddered and told himself it was the brisk night air.
Send Uriskel away.” Eoghann's voice grew infinitely colder. Vaughn “You are part of it. Perfect. You'll just have to catch him on your own. Now his life was on the same thin line as Uriskel's. Cobalt thumbed the phone off. He'd only refused the demand to keep from doing what Eoghann wanted.” “Very well. “Then you will share his fate. “I will tell you only once more. You offered him haven!” True. He closed his eyes and rubbed a temple.54 S. But he wasn't going to let a minor detail get in the way.” The line went dead. . He'd have to let the arrogant bastard stay. where his head pounded like a drum.” “I won't.” Eoghann paused. The black depths of the river seemed more inviting than ever. W. He would lose Will and gain the Unseelie who'd forced him away. “I'll not help you.
When it dissipated. This last prescient kindness stung. Beside the chair. It was a scene he might have conjured for the brief fantasies he'd indulged in last night.—C. Only he wouldn't have been alone. It didn't take long to orient himself. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and turned his head. The pain was no longer searing. Orange juice. stubble shading his cheeks. his stomach clenched like a fist. Cold ham. He saved a bit of the juice and used it to wash down two Vicodin. Will— Take these with you. An oversize Danish. He maneuvered his legs over the side of the bed and straightened slowly. eating what probably would've been breakfast in bed if he'd been able to sit. The bottle of Vicodin still stood on the nightstand. He'd eaten nothing in over twenty-four hours. He stretched tentatively. He found them folded neatly and stacked in a chair with his jacket hung on the back. then borrowed Cobalt's bathroom to clean his hands and face. but his hunger overrode the petty notion. He'd bring it. His hair looked terrible. He wanted to hate Cobalt for it. Strawberries and whipped cream cheese. and there was a note propped against it. His cheek and mouth matched the . And a small card with a single word printed on it: eat. but almost bearable. He stumbled in the general direction of the door. throbbing in the worst places. a folding table held a tray of food. He ate standing there. Cobalt had said he'd leave his clothes there. hair tousled. A wave of dizziness washed over him.Skin Deep 55 Chapter Eight Will woke to sunlight streaming through unfamiliar curtains. Stiff and sore. Walking out of here was going to be a challenge. dimly aware that he looked like a morning-after cliché— wearing Cobalt's too-long robe. Pride—or whatever it was driving him to leave—wouldn't stop him from taking advantage of medication he couldn't get otherwise. Two every 4 hours. He was in Cobalt's bedroom—but not for long.
He wasn't sure what to expect outside the door. Probably a cell. through a stark utility corridor. It was his tattoo. The hot weight in Will's groin suggested he should leave before he did something stupid. Wearing tight dark shorts and nothing else. He'd never slept this late in his life. more there. Tall. Will considered ripping it up anyway. He turned it over. He wet his hands and finger combed the mess on top of his head. then consulted his phone for the time. Marginally better. Even the arches of his feet possessed a seductive quality. Did Cobalt actually think he was still interested in getting a tattoo? He picked up the card and nearly tore it in half before he realized there was something handwritten on the back. but the sight he encountered was one of the last. A striking black furniture set was arranged on the polished wooden floor of the loft—and Cobalt sprawled on the couch. Cobalt hadn't prevented him from leaving. his immaculate body. hung it on a hook over the bathroom door. No alarms sounded. True to his word. A phone number. he'd written anytime. Should be in his jacket pocket. but he didn't see a clock anywhere. Will tried not to look at the massive bulge in those shorts and concentrated on sculpted muscle beneath velvet gold skin. Eleven thirty. opened the door. He went to the chair with his clothes and noticed the small off-white card sitting on them. He tore his gaze from the sleeping vision and followed red EXIT signs down two flights of stairs. The bedroom opened to a balcony hallway overlooking a loft. Somehow he looked more real. . Vaughn theme. and out a solid metal door that emptied behind the building. Beneath. Not an ounce of fat or an overdeveloped ripple in sight. Knowing the time would help. W.56 S. The Celtic star tattoo on the perfect chest Will had seen in the studio book wasn't just Cobalt's work. and returned naked to the bedroom. He'd only thought as far ahead as lunch with Tess. Tess was still going to flip out. He encountered no one. asleep. He dressed as quickly as possible. arched windows with a view of the East River lined the far wall. than anything else in the room. different from the business phone on the front. but he couldn't do much about that. and stepped from the room before he could change his mind about leaving. He'd check his phone. The perfection of Cobalt's form was stunning. He slipped the robe off. He changed his mind and tucked it in his jacket. Unbelievable. At least he wouldn't be late for lunch. It was a business card for the Grotto.
Skin Deep 57 That was probably a good thing. He'd take lunch standing.” he murmured.” Tess lowered her hand. He could make that. If he'd tried. Convincing himself to sit down wasn't easy. but he ignored it. When she caught sight of him. Tears welled in her eyes. Trying to decide where he would go made his head pound. She sat at their usual table. He made his way to the street and waved for a cab.” She grabbed her purse and moved past him. Yesterday's walk hadn't inspired him to try thirty blocks on foot. “Come on. She sniffed once. and you don't want me to do it here. “Where are we going?” “My place. “Thanks. she stood and waved. I really don't feel like sitting here today. God! Will…what's he done to you?” He shook his head. Lyle would be at work right now. One of them was Tess. A small inner voice urged him to refuse going. because she gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth. “We're leaving.” Tess lived six blocks away.” He looked at the table with its hard plastic chairs and sighed. It screamed by the time he reached the restaurant. He paid the driver and made his way inside. “Please don't.” He followed her out. He climbed in and hovered over the seat while he gave the address for Nick's. We'll order in. “Don't make a scene. He could tell when he got close enough for her to see the bruises. “You know. one pulled over. “You look like shit. Will maneuvered around tables and approached her slowly. After a few false slowdowns. . He just wouldn't stay at her place long. in case Lyle showed up. A smile tried to force itself across her face. Will wasn't sure he would have resisted.” she said. and for a while his ass merely hurt. He did. Let's eat at the counter.” “Good enough.” “Oh. okay? Promise you will. I need you to stay calm for me. He'd think about that later. Nick's didn't hop until dinner. She didn't even attempt to hug him in greeting.” “Why?” “Because I'm going to fall apart. so he wasn't surprised to find only a handful of patrons there. chewing a thumbnail the way she did whenever she faced impending disaster.
Waited while she keyed them in. Will. “Not like I could tell by the way you're walking. It's not that bad—” “Damn it. . hon. more worried she'd blow something off herself. don't lie!” Her voice shrilled like a siren. the bizarreness of Lyle dressed in his uniform. He confessed to the handcuffs. When the hell did you get a gun?” “The Dub gave it to me. I swear to God…” She pulled out something black and heavy looking. ran a hand through his hair. “How about a pizza?” “A pizza.” “Tess!” He walked over to her.” “No. He tried to smile. Sure. Tell me what happened. the belt lashing. He didn't mention the rape. “That bastard.” Her breath came in harsh hitches. “I'll fucking kill him.” Tears flowed in earnest now. Tess.” He looked away. By the time he finished explaining. A handgun. Tess had gone from crying to cursing. She was shaking like a subway grate.” Her eyes blazed behind a sheen of tears.58 S. and a tear slid down her face. but he got the idea across. Will.” he said gently.” “Yes I can. For protection. Right now. “I can't. She caught a breath and swiped at her eyes.” “Come on. Sick motherfucking piece of shit. I'll—” Will laid a hand over hers. You can't. couldn't bring himself to say he spanked me like a schoolkid. “I'm gonna blow his fucking nuts off. “Put it down. “Talk to me. “Put that thing down. “Goddamn sick fuck. Stayed silent when they entered her building. “You know you can't do that. He left out the gory details.” “Jesus Christ.” Her lips firmed. walked the hall to her apartment. rode the elevator to the fourth floor. You know how he is.” He told her.” She crossed the living room to the stand she kept her cordless on and opened a drawer. “With a side of tell-mewhat-the-fuck-happened. Vaughn He didn't try to talk on the way. waved him through. W. watching him shower.” “Can't we eat first?” “Sit down. and shut the door. She stared at him. The one holding the gun.
” he said. Will.” “Fine. it's over. “Aren't there cops higher than the NYPD? We should call the sheriffs or the state troopers. Get that son of a bitch arrested. They'll gun you down in the street. He's at work. But some part of him insisted he could take it and spare himself the humiliation of admission.” He was beginning to see how the cycle of abuse perpetuated.” She picked up the cordless and thrust it at him. Intellectually. and knew he was with Tess—he didn't want to think about what might happen to her.” she whispered. “But he can. He'd rather let Lyle beat him again than expose himself to a bunch of cops so they could photograph his blackand-blue ass. blinking against tears of his own.” Besides. If Lyle actually decided to come after him. he knew that was stupid. Rock-hard ones.Skin Deep 59 “Okay. Her fingers still curled around the gun.” She shuddered hard. “Look. “He's a goddamn cop.” . went still. “You can't shoot a cop. He can't hurt me anymore. “Oh. Okay? It won't hurt to call. I told you. “I'll call him tonight.” Will's stomach shriveled and tried to crawl into his chest.” “Hold on. Then who would I drink with?” She stared at him and burst into sobs. Maybe you can. but I won't let you.” “Promise?” “Swear on a stack. And he's already looking for you.” He rubbed her back in slow circles.” “Not now. She let go fast and snatched her hand back. “Officially break it off. “Call.” Her throat worked silently.” He pushed down until the gun rested in the open drawer. he didn't want to use her phone.” “Are you fucking mental?” Probably.” “A stack of what?” “Abs. Trade broken bones for broken pride. He might leave me alone. “He did?” “We have to do something. babe. He sighed. “Maybe I should talk to him first. “He left two messages at the station this morning. “It's all right now.” She glanced down. let me just call him.
If she'd actually seen what Lyle had done to him. “You're the best.” He could sort everything out by Monday. Even if he'd somehow miraculously changed his mind. “Yeah. I've already got Leonard covering your slot for the rest of the week. W. but he wouldn't be able to stand the prolonged contact. He wanted to hug her. Uriskel pointed to it without looking up. right now. He hoped. Not something he looked forward to. Great. do I?” “Doubt it. it would only be that much harder to let him go later. ***** Cobalt hadn't been asleep when Will left. Better to get it over with now. I figured that.” he said and grinned. she would've called herself. He settled for kissing her cheek. but Uriskel sat cross-legged on the bed with a deck of battered playing cards lain out before him in a traditional Celtic cross tarot spread.” She blew out a long breath.” “Yeah. and closed the door. The jack of spades crossed the center card. I'm going to need a few more nights off. though he hadn't dared try and talk with him. convinced him to stay. He moved down the hall to the room he'd left Uriskel in. “A strong male influence in your life forebodes dark times. He looked inside his bedroom first. Cobalt swallowed. And if he doesn't sound like he's going to fuck off. He raised his head. babe. Monday it is. and he'd taken the pills with him. Vaughn She giggled. Think you can pick up on Monday?” A rush of gratitude filled him.60 S. we're calling the troopers. backed out. He'd even tried to make the bed.” “I don't want to hear this. He had to speak with Uriskel about Eoghann. “Okay. “Wonder which one that could be?” “Uriskel—” . “Tess… I have more good news.” He couldn't summon much conviction. no matter what lame excuses he gave. Will had eaten. The knob turned smoothly when he tried the door. He was also faced with a more immediate concern. expecting to find the Unseelie gone. It would be hard to sleep in this room for a while. stud. He bristled.
” For once he agreed with the bastard. No need to dredge up ancient history. but I can't stomach any more grousing. You're going to stay awhile. and I happened to provide one. are we?” Uriskel leveled a cold gaze at him. snake. I've no desire to examine your love life.Skin Deep 61 “I know.” Uriskel shook his head. Told me to send you away. headed for the door. or would you like to blame me for everything else too? Perhaps I'm responsible for global warming and the decline in the blue whale population. Shut your mouth. “Why?” “Because I despise you. “I'll not discuss Will with you.” He brushed past.” “I refused.” He swept the cards in a neat pile and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Ah. “I'd thank you. Uriskel. “Did you come to me for a reason.” “You don't have to stay in the room. “Humans are fickle creatures. but I'll not send you knowingly to your death. “Am I to be released for good behavior?” “No.” Part of his anger was fear that Uriskel was right.” “I've a reason. You can't keep me locked in here. How touching. come on. “Eoghann contacted me last night. I mean.” “I see. “And you're going where?” .” “Done enough of that.” “Oh.” “And?” “He demanded you.” “So you've come to see me off.” “Fine with me. have you?” Uriskel's expression hardened. Perhaps he just needed an excuse. He left you.” Uriskel stood and crossed his arms.” “You did?” Every trace of malice vanished from his voice. Good-bye. Ciaràn—Cobalt.” “Don't you dare.” “Because of you!” “Sure about that.
but I'll not send you knowingly to your death.” “Enough!” He whirled around. He fell silent for a long moment.' he said. The twisted bastard still cares for you. Gods know I merit that.” His smile was hard.” Cobalt managed a faint smile. “Nor you.” “So you are still a coward. “I'll not take another insult from you. 'Give him to me. I respect that. For an instant his glamour evaporated completely. Vaughn Uriskel stopped without turning.” Cobalt nodded and tried to banish the idea that Uriskel had changed after all. But if it seems he's taken the advantage. almost to himself.” Uriskel closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. eventually. no one's ever accused you of being gracious. “I'll stay. fury blazing from him. bastard-born fledgling. But don't presume to know me.” “Yes. “You'll not be a martyr for the likes of me. “What.” “Well. brittle. and said you were his. he'll kill you. “I told him I would. “You've steel in you yet. Still.” “He'll try. if backhanded.” he snarled. Keep your loathing. At last he said. You know that.” “Keep them. A single selfless.” “If I do that. exactly.” An involuntary shudder slid through him at the recollection. But he'll not reach me. “I've no use for platitudes. he could probably . if you stay. Uriskel. “He'll come. did he say?” “He told me to send you away.” Uriskel uttered a violent curse in Fae. W.” “Perhaps not. As you will. And when I refused him a second time. He broke off and looked hard at Cobalt. He morphed back and drew forward. then stopped inches from Cobalt. declaration did not erase decades of treachery. but he didn't want to wait. he promised I would share your fate. “Go or stay.” he said.” “Uriskel.” Cobalt almost clasped his shoulder in customary farewell but thought better of it. His true form radiated dark light.” Cobalt returned his stare.62 S. Why would you do such a thing?” “Because I despise you. you must send me away. “Away. You have my apologies. Ever. He'll spare you then.
“Perhaps I have. “Well then. I assume you've not eaten.” Uriskel arched an eyebrow. “You'll have to settle for pig.” He cracked a smile.” he said. Be sure that you count your humans carefully.” He didn't intend to.” Cobalt surprised himself by laughing. Cobalt. Shade's warning had lodged in his gut and refused to abate. Uriskel had to be kidding—but just in case.” “Pity. I'm fresh out of human. “We may as well despise each other over breakfast. he'd watch him closely around humans. “Never turn your back on him. Bring on the pig. I'm partial to white meat.Skin Deep 63 stop antagonizing the Unseelie for a while.” Cobalt led him from the room. then. “Another time. . Not for a moment.
Despite the painful warning his body provided with the action. along with the change of clothes she kept there for him in case of emergencies. Easier to stand in a train than a cab. or whoever might have been waiting for him. Or Yvan's. He shrugged carefully from his jacket. He decided to stay on his feet long enough to call Lyle. Habits died hard. there'd be no more relationships for him. He exited at Forty-second and walked the two blocks to the Econo Lodge he'd stayed in a few times before. he wouldn't be accessible. He took a minute to hang the DO NOT DISTURB tag on the outside door handle. He left it running low for the noise. Dead battery? He usually kept the charger in a pocket too. he came close to sitting down on the bed. it would take him a long time to fall asleep. The last thing he wanted right now was complete silence. But Tess wouldn't let him leave her place without the goddamn gun. when he'd been too drunk to even consider going home. clean. then dropped the backpack on the floor and turned the heater down. That way. He didn't plan to use it. Someone had left the heater on. a little too warm. It was a single-bed unit. if Lyle reacted badly when he called. But a quick search of them turned up . His phone was still in his coat pocket. W. Problem solved. He rode the subway uptown. Just for the night. or Adrian's. How did he always manage to get involved with closet sadists? It didn't matter now. Will had finally decided to check in to a hotel. He pulled it out and discovered a blank screen. He'd relented to calm her down and packed the thing in a borrowed backpack. get it over with. Once he disentangled himself from Lyle. Vaughn Chapter Nine Tess made him take the gun.64 S. He checked in with his credit card and plodded to the room he'd been given. If things didn't go well. Even then he'd been avoiding Lyle's temper.
I went a little overboard. “You're angry. babe.” “I know. babe. and a chill swept through his veins.” “What?” He was too stunned to say anything more.” There was a pregnant pause. Will. “You can't. “Come on. He hadn't expected to be able to hold a lucid conversation with his soon-to-be ex-partner.” “Say what? That we're through?” He closed his eyes. He kept his snide comments to himself. He checked the incomingcalls log. “You liked it. It might have fallen out in the bathroom at home. you've just won the Understatement of the Year Award. Let me make it up to you. “Will! I've been trying to call you all day. “My ass looks like ground beef. Lyle. “Never mind that. Don't say that.” The bastard sounded as sincere as a funeral. and the phone flashed to life. You didn't. I've got more stripes than a goddamned zebra. Will… I'm sorry. he stared in disbelief at the message it offered him.” “A little!” Make that Understatement of the Century. When the screen resolved. All ten calls had been from Lyle. Must have accidentally turned it off. “Persistent son of a bitch. “How could you think we're not?” “I made a mistake. And I told you to stop.” “Oh. “Your cock says you liked it. A spate of anger suspended his worry. Lyle answered on the first ring.” . aren't you?” he muttered.Skin Deep 65 nothing.” The normal tone of his own voice surprised him. long enough for him to punch in the number. So we're through.” Lyle gave a deep sigh.” “How'd you guess?” Congratulations. Concerned. “Lyle. You were hard as a rock. “Where are you?” The question was gentle. I need to tell you—” “Wait. (10) Missed Calls Ten? There weren't even ten people who had his cell number. He held the On button.” Will said flatly. Lyle.
” “I won't. Will. he spotted him sitting alone at a table. but he turned it off in case the bastard called back. So convincing. “If you change your mind. where Poets of the Fall flowed through the speaker system and floated above the chatter. He left his office and made his way into the busy studio. he really didn't recall much of anything. The cards fanned obediently in a perfectly spaced line. Just as . He would've been grateful to Lyle for that.66 S. I'll leave you alone. but he had hoped to hear his voice. Somehow he managed not to throw the phone across the room. Don't come near me. Like he was humoring a child. His first impulse was to seek out Uriskel and ensure the Unseelie was keeping his promise to behave. Perhaps another night. The last one appeared to jump into his hand.” He disconnected before Lyle could feed him any more smooth-talking bullshit. except pain. Things had been good once. At least he wouldn't have to call the state cops. “Give me another chance. He'd suspected as much. He didn't recall having an erection—but then. Cobalt approached slowly. But Lyle sounded so sure. “I…” “Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. On the empty space before him. or anyone else. Christ…had he really gotten off on that? It wasn't possible. and Lyle always managed to make it seem like they could be again. we're through. Lyle.” His voice emerged smooth and reasonable. “Are you sure that's what you want?” “Yes!” No. W. “All right. Tender with care.” Another pause.” Still gentle.” “No.” Will found his tongue at last. to the right. with the fluid grace of long practice. Uriskel seemed to pay no attention to him. if he didn't want to see him burn in hell. Please. Uriskel shuffled the playing cards he'd used earlier. He placed the deck facedown on the table and passed a hand over it. As “Sleep” gave way to the Indigo Girls. Vaughn Will's stomach gave a funny little twist. His hands moved blur fast. A studio book lay open and pushed back to the opposite side. You're not ready yet. though…you know where to find me. I'm so sorry. And humiliation. “Damn it. ***** Cobalt turned the radio off when it became apparent Will would not grace the airways tonight.
The cards vanished almost instantly. “Fascinating trick. What have I done now?” “Nothing. “I may have neglected to mention this. have you?” He sighed and lowered his arms.” “Sounds delightful. Out of everything he owned. outside of a few fashion offenses. a Celtic knot that bore a striking resemblance to his own chest piece—and the marks scoring Uriskel's. The line remained ruler straight. “We'll get you something better tomorrow.” “Skelly. Uriskel teased it free with a barely perceptible flick and flipped it. He stretched his arms behind his head and grimaced briefly. you can't use your name.” “You did. I plan to tour Vegas. “Have you considered dinner performances?” “Absolutely.” Cobalt stifled a smirk.” Cobalt glanced down at the studio book. he passed over them to the left and flipped them all faceup. “Anything else you neglected to mention?” “Nothing comes to mind. then. but he sensed nothing emanating from Uriskel—save for perhaps faint disdain that bordered on loathing. dropped it back with its mates.” . At last he looked up and noticed Cobalt watching him. Even if that someone was Uriskel. “So.Skin Deep 67 quickly. the Unseelie had chosen the outfit he'd worn last Halloween—a navy blue sailor suit. It lay open to a scarification piece. He scowled at it.” Cobalt pulled out a chair and sat down. “And I suppose now you'll tell me what I'm to call myself.” Uriskel leaned back in the chair.” “Given it a lot of thought. One card near the center of the line had remained facedown.” “These are your clothes. What's wrong with them?” “They don't suit you. The notion that Eoghann may have copied his work in order to torture someone sickened him. but while you're here.” Uriskel gave him a dry look. At least he hadn't put on the hat. Still hurting. The jack of spades. His performance exhibited all the dexterity of a human illusionist. Cobalt suspected actual magic.
and said. No more offending our gracious.” Uriskel said with a barely concealed groan. Nix and Shade wandered inside.” A half smile lifted her mouth. “Nix. “I'm Nix. He waited until the Seelie couple reached them. Such a nasty aftertaste. “Point taken. “Anyone want to offer a definition for haven?” Shade settled her gray eyes on him. “Who is that?” Cobalt followed his stare and saw only Malik.” “Care for a demonstration?” Nix snatched his hand away. “You're excused. “You've a need for rabies testing?” “Oh. Cobalt smiled and lifted a hand in greeting. It may take all night.” “All right. won't you?” Before he could demand an explanation. That's Shade. “Really.” Cobalt sighed and glanced at the clock.” he said. “Lies. Like a nice. You're one of them. children. But I'll let you buy me a local brew…sailor. “Especially the Sluagh. cat-man. Vaughn “Well.” Shade's smile grew a fraction.” Uriskel muttered.” Shade snorted. Cobalt. You'll let anyone in this place. “I don't drink foreign brands. That explains it. “Don't call them over here. He had a center-stage appointment in five minutes. Ignoring the black look from his mate. I like him. We should get to know Cobalt's new friend. Uriskel faced her with an arid expression.” “And I'm a rat. but certain kinds don't react well to my touch. host. apparently. be sure to—” He bolted upright. His gaze fixed on the entrance door and narrowed. he circled Uriskel and stuck a hand out. But when you've seen one rat…” Shade left the words hanging in the air.” He stared at the outstretched hand. “Perhaps the Sluagh would care for some refreshment. W.” “Mind your manners.68 S.” He turned away and slouched in the chair. “My shop assistant.” . if somewhat gullible.” Cobalt stood. “Why?” “I sensed… Oh. steaming bowl of my blood.” Nix laughed.” “No. “I don't think you've met Skelly. “You'll excuse me for being rude.” “Fantastic.
” “I'll bet you will. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he wouldn't see Will's tortured flesh every time he closed his eyes. Tomorrow the empty ache inside him would diminish a bit. “Go on.” He shook his head. The first day. But not today. . he told himself. “This is going to be fun. would be the hardest. Cobalt.” He pulled out the chair next to Uriskel. We'll be fine here. turned away. or the look on Will's face for the moment he trusted him—like the sun breaking through clouds.Skin Deep 69 Nix doubled over with a howl of laughter. and headed for the center booth.
“Damn it!” He rolled over instinctively. And fell off the bed. His back arched and fell. Both Tess. Will wasn't interested in the role of fawning fanboy. Not great—he still throbbed in places he'd never even realized had nerves before—but better. You didn't call last night. and Tess finally picked up with a sleep-slurred “this'd better be Will. Actually healing.” “What if it's not?” She groaned. “Don't mess with me. He dialed her number. The man already had enough wounded strays and beautiful lovers. His fingers brushed plastic. Maybe he really would leave him alone. For a moment he didn't move. Cobalt was off-limits. and laughed.70 S. Vaughn Chapter Ten He'd only meant to grab a quick nap. “Phone. He jolted sideways.” he muttered aloud. 'S too early. he bolted upright—and his ass reminded him that was a bad idea. and laughed some more. The phone rang too many times. W. When he finally got himself under control. a mental image of himself flopping around on the bed like a beached fish set him off again. Every time he thought he'd stop. No. But when Will woke. Shock gradually gave way to incredulity…and then he laughed. Maybe there had been some kind of magic in Cobalt's treatment.” . he felt okay. “Where's the goddamn phone?” He flung an arm on the bed and prospected through twisted blankets and disheveled pillows. Cursing again. Two missed calls. it was to sluggish sun behind the thick curtains of the hotel-room window. He landed on his knees with a bone-jarring thud. Pain slapped him and brought tears to his eyes. He grabbed the phone and turned it on. feeling strangely relieved that Lyle hadn't tried to call back.
“I know.” He shifted to take some of the pressure off his knees. “I fell asleep. Sorry, hon.” “Thought you might have. Only reason I didn't call the cops.” Will smiled. “There you go again, being psychic.” “Yeah.” Bedsprings creaked in the background. “Hold on, 'kay?” She didn't wait for him to affirm. A muffled thump said she'd put the phone down. He waited and after a minute, he caught himself humming. Providing his own Muzak. He didn't recognize the tune. Must have heard it somewhere recently. “You there?” Tess sounded marginally awake now. “No. I'm headed to Florida. This is a recording.” “Things must've gone well last night, wiseass. Unless—hold on.” Her voice slid to a warning cant. “You did call that slimy bastard, didn't you?” “Yes, Mother.” He chuckled at her annoyed growl. “I did. And he's going to leave me alone. I told him we were through, and he accepted it.” That was the important part. He didn't need to tell her the rest. “You better be sure about that. He didn't threaten you? Say anything stupid?” Oh yeah. Lyle had said a lot of stupid things. But they weren't threats. “Nope,” he said. “No yelling. No vows for revenge. Actually, he apologized.” “Not fucking good enough,” Tess said through her teeth. “That's pretty much what I said.” “You liked it.” Will shivered and pushed the phantom thought away. Regardless of his body's reaction—and he still wasn't convinced of that—Lyle was an asshole. And permanently gone from his life. “So, I'll definitely be back on Monday.” “Good, because I'm starting to like Leonard in your spot.” “Ha-ha.” “I'm serious.” He could almost hear her teasing grin. “No gallons of fan e-mail to delete, no phones ringing off the walls, no underwear in the mail. It's nice and peaceful at the station.” “Must be exciting.” “Terribly.” She paused. “Is it Monday yet?” “Tess, I think I love you.”
S. W. Vaughn
“You'd better.” She cleared her throat, and her tone grew serious. “What are you going to do now?” Good question. He knew what he had to do but didn't want to think about it. Time to pick up the pieces and move on. Again. “I guess I'll head home and…clean up.” He managed not to choke on the last words. He'd have to face the mess in the bathroom. “Want some help?” He wanted to scream. The last thing he wanted was to walk into his apartment alone, much less spend a few hours scrubbing caked blood and vomit from the floor, the tub, the wall behind the towel bar. But he couldn't let Tess see how bad things had gotten. She might do something stupid—like try to shoot Lyle after all. “No, it's cool,” he said in what he hoped was a normal voice. “I just need to relax for a while.” “All right. You up for going out tonight? I'll buy you a drink. Or five.” He laughed. “You're on. By tonight, I'll need it.” “I'll call you after wrap-up.” They hung up, and he stared at the phone for a minute. One bar left. Another reason to get home—his charger had to be there. Will got to his feet and padded into the bathroom. While he relieved himself, he looked longingly at the shower. No way he could stand it. The showers in this place had jet-intensity pressure. Good for sobering up or soothing a hangover, bad for massive bruising. He settled for running his head under the tap. On his way back to the room, another unpleasant thought occurred to him. The clothes in the bathroom hamper would stink beyond salvation by now. He'd lose his favorite jeans and two of his best shirts, at least. He decided to stop at the Asylum on the way home and pick up a few things. He hadn't been there in a while. They probably had new stock. Besides, he didn't really want to go back home yet. The ghosts were waiting.
The Alternative Asylum carried everything from Levi's and Raw Vibes to slave collars and vampire teeth. They kept the place dark at all hours and pumped heavy synth music through the speakers. An occasional dramatic hiss from the back of the store announced a fog machine going
off in front of the Romper Room. Will edged past a display of multiflavored condoms and headed for the jeans. Halfway there, the smell hit him. Smoke and water and sultry summer air. Cobalt. He stumbled in place. The scent was real enough to taste. For a moment he didn't understand why it was hitting him now—and then he saw the two men standing by the shirt racks. Their backs were to him, but there was no mistaking either the tall, dark-haired one or the barely shorter redhead. Cobalt and his reluctant refugee. Some part of him insisted on getting out of there before he was noticed, but he couldn't make himself move. Just being near the man sent him into heat. Not good for his determination to refuse to join the legion of Cobalt worshippers. Two men don't make a legion. Will told himself to shut up. He wouldn't be a third. Hell, he wouldn't even be an only— not for a long time. Not after Lyle. What he would do was get the jeans he'd come for and get out. Before he took a single step, Cobalt froze in the act of shunting a shirt aside. He turned slowly. Shock registered on his face and slid into controlled blankness. “Will?” “Yeah. Hi.” Busted. “I didn't know you shopped here.” “Not often.” The redhead, Skelly, glanced over at Will and smirked. “You know, I've a need for a new coat,” he said. “Think I'll go and have a look at them. Have fun with your little friend.” With a bare nod to Cobalt, he cleared the rack and walked toward the back of the shop. Cobalt glared after him for a moment, then lapsed back to polite neutrality. “You're better, then.” “Getting there.” Will hooked a thumb in his pocket. “Thanks. For…you know. Everything.” “It wasn't a problem.” “Yeah. Well. See you around.” Cobalt simply nodded. As though Will were a passing acquaintance who hadn't been naked in his bed two nights ago.
Vaughn It was an effort to start moving. He wanted to scream. He hadn't wanted to go back to the Grotto at all.” He tried to sound casual about it. Asked Malik to bring it.” he said. Will couldn't stand playing the forced-distance game anymore. But no.” Damn. Wasn't like he'd actually drop by sometime.” At once. “Fine. that was fine with him. He just wouldn't invite him inside. He would not let that son of a bitch see how much he'd hurt him. “Yes. “Any chance you might do something about that seal of yours?” . but he managed. ***** Being around Will Ambrose was bad for Cobalt's reasoning—because he lost it every time.” He almost didn't. He'd chosen to torment himself further. he could have simply mailed the thing or paid a courier to deliver it. so if you could…” “Yes. If Cobalt wanted to forget it.” At first he thought maybe mind reading was one of Cobalt's many talents. But it was just as likely the man didn't want him at his place. of course. Save him the trouble of getting over it. Of course it'd be something he needed. “I could bring it to you. “I'm going home after this. W. A cell phone charger. it's mine. even. Anything to erase that awful blank expression. he just nodded and walked away. “What?” “I have something at the studio that I think belongs to you. throw something. It would undo every resolution he'd made to let the man go and therefore spare his life. He could take him up on it—but did he really want Cobalt to know where he lived? It probably didn't matter. if you'd like. offering to bring the damned charger to him? He knew. slap Cobalt right in the face. Damned if he would stand there and pretend nothing had happened. I'll bring it directly. He couldn't bear to have Will return to the Grotto. “Mind if I come by and pick it up? My phone's just about dead.74 S. But since he didn't want to cause a scene. Thank you.” He gave his address and added. What was he thinking. “Will…wait. Still.
” He unlocked the door. I'll not be long. as Uriskel had demonstrated when he arrived at the Grotto.” he said. I'll not discuss him with you. He'd not risk allowing Eoghann to find a way around the Law and inside his sanctuary. the invitation held unless Cobalt chose to revoke it. this death protection was negated.” “You should not—” Uriskel cut himself off.” “Marvelous. then. “I'll need to leave for a while. “I'm sorry—” “Save it. He made no sound. “I am sorry. then? I'll need my hands free to break my fall. But he could do nothing for the pain. only a weary resignation. “Plans with your pretty human?” “I've told you. “You know I can't remove it. The Laws prevented the Fae from killing one another in the human realm—though it did not stop them from cutting and torturing. and he realized they'd almost reached the building. But when the moon showed its face. he could not risk straying from the security of the Grotto for long. At least Uriskel could come and go as he pleased— once invited. “I assume you'll return before dark.” Cobalt nodded. it was no longer safe to venture out at night. “Would you take this. fine.” Uriskel glanced at the bag in his hands. but—” “Yes. The windows too.” . Uriskel only paused an instant before he crossed the threshold. but it wouldn't seem sincere. More than one Fae had been murdered by moonlight here. Uriskel smirked.” Cobalt thrust the bag at him. Now. and waited. but it was a full minute before he moved again. He managed five steps this time and collapsed predictably on hands and knees. Uriskel.” “And the same to you. Just suffer. walked inside.” Cobalt said after the Unseelie got to his feet. I'd wish you good fortune. “Very well. “Feel free to amuse yourself as you see fit.” “It's sealed.” He sighed and stared at the door. Nothing I'm not used to. Cobalt tried to ignore a stab of guilt.” “Yes. with the lunar cycle approaching its zenith.Skin Deep 75 Uriskel's voice pulled him from his thoughts. “All right.” There was no anger in his tone. “I don't suppose there's a back way in. took the bag.” With Eoghann's threat hanging over them.
Not that he could blame the man. risk unlocking the door. fenced by a wooden border. Damn. locking up again behind him. Still nothing. Spare but wellmaintained bushes lined the front of the building. or he'd decided not to let him in. no doubt. and his eyes fixed on the ground while he waited for Cobalt to move. No response.” He turned. or simply leave. Cobalt had deliberately kept his distance. and a few worn spots near ground level marked places where graffiti had been patiently sanded away. A brief ride brought him to a walk-up brownstone in decent condition. He retrieved the charger from his office and headed back outside to hail a cab. He followed the sidewalk to the entrance. from fighting the effects of the seal. Not Will. He tried to ignore a twinge of empathy. “'Scuse me. held the button a bit longer this time. He clutched a bag from a video-rental store in one hand. Vaughn Cobalt entered the studio. The man gave him a hesitant glance. Fire stairs with minimal rust zigzagged the exterior on the left side. Will had seemed reserved. His clothing fluttered loosely on his frame. Cobalt climbed in and gave the address Will had told him. You're that tattoo guy. He'd managed not to think about their encounter until now. “Sorry.76 S. vaguely aware of Uriskel trailing behind him. “No prob—hey. the Unseelie headed for the stairs at a weary plod. Cobalt. W. To the left. He took a breath and pressed 3-C. The man on the sidewalk was pale skinned. right? From the Grotto. labeled buzzers lay in a row beneath a speaker. It had almost worked—until he'd foolishly invited himself to see him again. gaunt to the point of sickliness. As he stood there debating whether to wait a while. a voice behind him muttered. Either Will hadn't gotten here yet. Once inside.” Cobalt stepped aside. Drained. The recessed door sported a dull brass pushbutton combination lock. Before long. hoping to reinforce the idea that he could never involve himself with Will.” . He waited a full minute. A knit cap clung to his head like a second skin.” “Yes. and more than a little angry. He tried again. a taxi pulled over.
” “Most people wouldn't say that either. “Name's Jared. Our most famous resident. you won't rob anybody or anything. “So. Not my business.” Cobalt's heart wrenched. “I've got HIV. “Always meant to get it finished.” Cobalt took it without hesitation. Who're you here to see?” He hesitated.” Jared smiled.Skin Deep 77 “Right. Got this done there. you can come in with me and try knocking. you're good. Right?” . Instead. “Can't be getting my blood all over people. “Not having any luck with the buzzers?” “Not really. “Damn. “Will Ambrose. “Most people'd be backing up like I just spit on them and running for the next train.” His lips barely moved.” “Ah.” “You don't mind? I'd rather not get you into trouble.” He gave a light laugh and punched a code into the lock. A litany of typical sympathetic phrases danced across the tip of his tongue. “Besides.” He held out a hand. “And you know mine.” He pushed up a baggy sleeve to show an elaborate cross entwined with snakes. I been to your place before. What brings you to this pretty little urban oasis?” “I'm supposed to meet someone here. Inked.” he said. When Cobalt didn't wipe his palm on anything or stammer a hasty excuse and leave. “Why's that?” Cobalt asked.” “Don't need you for that. but it's too late now. He looked away.” “Customer or friend? Don't answer that. he said.” Jared dropped his hand and watched him warily. he smiled and said. “If you want.” Jared stepped back and studied him for a minute. The expression banished some of the sickness from him and revealed a hauntingly attractive face. but he didn't doubt this man had already heard them in spades.” “They don't work half the time anyway. the radio boy. “Have you considered airbrushing?” The man blinked at him a few times—then threw back his head and laughed. man. “A pleasure.” A strange thing to say. but only partially colored.” he said.
stop by anytime. W.” Jared waved and made his way down the hall. Easy as plucking his own eye from his head. For believing I'll not rob anyone. I'll make sure you get in. He'd simply hand him the charger. wish him well.” Jared smiled. At last he mounted the stairs. “By the way.” He nodded toward the stairs. “I just hate to see a fine piece like that go to waste. Hey. I might take you up on that. man. listen…thanks for treating me like a human. Cobalt watched him for a moment. waved him inside. “You don't have to do that. I don't get that much anymore.” Cobalt said. “But thanks. If you'd like to get that finished.78 S.” “It's not sympathy.” Jared stepped through. heavy with sorrow. He should not have come. Vaughn “Right.” he said to the floor. There's no elevator. “Yeah. I'm serious about the airbrushing. he told himself. . though the motion seemed weary now.” Cobalt waited while the man opened the door.” “Sure. “I'm on the first floor. Ten years among humans and he still mourned the frailty of life—and marveled at the strength of those who faced death with such courage and acceptance. his thoughts turning to Will. and leave. so have fun climbing two flights.” “Thank you. It would be easy.
Skin Deep 79 Chapter Eleven The third-floor hallway was not empty. Here was where his partner had beaten him.” “All right. “What's wrong?” The swaying stopped. “This is not an offer.” “You're not all right. Can you help me up?” Cobalt straightened and held a hand down. a figure crouched awkwardly by the wall—swaying on the balls of his feet. “Thanks.” At first Cobalt wasn't sure what he meant. “B-bathroom. He strode the length of the hall and knelt beside him. he couldn't just leave Will like this. “Can't go in there. He levered himself to his feet.” Cobalt's heart ached for him. Near the end.” He nodded at the door across the hall. Then: “I'm all right. Will raised his head and stared with red-rimmed eyes. and now he fought the memories that would surge against him when he laid eyes on the aftermath. if you'd like. “I'll come with you. kept his gaze averted. but I could use a friend. “Jesus. You can just leave the charger. “It won't be pretty in there.” he murmured. Will had struggled—of course he'd struggled. “Is your…anyone else inside?” Will shook his head. A pause. Okay. but understanding hit him soon enough. and his features grew resolute. “I can't…” He closed his eyes. his head bent. . Will took it with both of his. “What's happened? Let me help you. He hadn't yet cleaned up the mess. “Will. I'm sorry.” he stammered.” Will stared at him for a long moment. Cobalt didn't need to see his face to know who it was.” he said. and a long breath stuttered from him. his voice broken and rasping. At last he seemed to reach some decision.” he said gently. “Can't do it.” Despite his best intentions.” he said.
and unlocked the door. and the smell emanating from the opening curdled his stomach. Will moved away from the fan and headed uncertainly across the room. He had to assume the beating had taken place there. Though the place could have been painfully neat.” Cobalt let himself study the room and waited for Will to choose his actions at his own pace. Cobalt followed him and found him headed across the living room at a determined gait. Cobalt could practically smell the spent emotions. W. with black or silver accents. “Did I mention it won't be pretty?” he said without turning. Like part of Will had died in there and lay decaying for as long as he'd been gone. . stared outside. When he didn't look back. Which was even worse. desperation. Nearly everything was shades of blue. It was ajar. his voice barely carrying the few feet to where Cobalt stood. and turned on the light. the occasional spot of casual disarray suggested that Will lived alone. “Can you…?” “Of course. sour air poured into the hall. but outside. I think I would. “Sorry. At last. Will closed his eyes.” “It's not bad.” Cobalt went to him and followed him to the first door on the right.80 S. reached in. he studied Cobalt's face. underscored with old salt and metal. Will hadn't moved from the window. To the right lay a shadowed alcove. “You did. “Is it as bad as I think?” he whispered. He stood with a hand on the knob for a moment. Cobalt looked—and immediately wished he hadn't. Something dark flickered in his face. He stopped by the hall. “Stinks in here.” he muttered. and shame had forged a dark signature. Sweat and blood. Vaughn Will sighed and raked his hair. crossed the hall. Nothing appeared disturbed in the main room. and he held his breath while he opened the door. He stopped before a window and switched on the box fan mounted there. a hallway. When he opened them. and beyond that an open area marking the border of a narrow kitchen. Thank the gods for small favors.” But it was—and not just the rank odor of sickness that had settled into everything. He reached up and idly twitched a curtain. “Down here. Will recoiled and plunged inside. Hot. Will had said bathroom. Fear.” he said. showroom perfect.” He produced a key from his pocket. “Yeah. He would have thought the bedroom would be hardest to face.
” Will turned his head and fixed him with a glittering gaze. “I took a shower when I got home.” He reached out. When the retching subsided to choked gasps.” “Mm-hm. Dark handprints clung to the rim of the tub like dead spiders. knelt.Skin Deep 81 Outside of the blood. lifted the lid. in the hamper. “Oh.” Will nodded. I was just going to throw them away.” Will closed his eyes with a sigh. He dared not touch his heaving shoulders. how he wanted to kiss the torment from those drawn lips. it was impossible to tell what had been spilled. “My clothes. “I'm going to hate myself for this…but okay. “Go on. but he pivoted to face the room and stood motionless for a long moment. And abruptly vomited. and let me take care of this for you. then. The color drained from him. he approached the toilet. He blinked a few times. “You shouldn't have to do this. “He's a cop.” he said. They're hopeless. “All right. turned a slow circle.” he said gently. though he doubted any of it was toothpaste or shampoo.” Cobalt helped him to his feet and guided him to the door. but he rested a hand on the back of Will's head and stroked his sweat-damped hair. Gods. I can't ask you to do that.” Will stared dully beyond the doorway. Will. I mean.” “But—” “Let me help you. smoothed Will's hair back from his brow—and instantly regretted the unconscious gesture when an ache settled in his groin. Long.” he said.” “You're welcome. I'll take you up on it. “It's worse than you think.” “Yes. wavering tracks smeared through the unspeakable mess suggested that something—someone—had been dragged across the floor. he folded a hand over Will's trembling one. then. caught a breath. Cobalt hurried in and dropped beside him. His features appeared serene. I'm offering. He walked inside with careful steps. And thank you. “No. turned. With calm precision. and he…he came in here. I'll take care of it. “You've seen. .” “You're not asking. Lyle. Now go and rest. Dried splatters and droplets formed a grotesque pattern on cold gray tile. I'll assume you have something in here to clean with?” “Under the sink.” Will shuffled into the hall. and made a tired gesture.
Not because he was attracted to him. ***** Will gripped the edge of the sink and glared at the drain as though it were to blame for all his troubles. Anything at all. He would not throw up again. That was why he'd taken him up on the offer. Anyone with more than two brain cells drooled over Cobalt. settled. The truth was. No surprise there. He'd known it would be bad—but Christ. wrenching sob. He'd take the thing down and get rid of it. Focusing on Cobalt seemed to help drive away the demons. and perhaps the most.” He lurched away. In that moment. On its heels came a single. He grabbed a glass. breathing through his nose until the feeling passed. he could do for Will. Would not. he'd been there just when Will couldn't refuse his assistance. I can't. no more. W. a fist pounding a flat surface. A moment later. but it was the wall that had thrown his guts into reverse overdrive. willing the ghoulish replay to leave his head. he probably wouldn't have been able to come back inside his apartment alone. a thump sounded from the vicinity of the kitchen. filled it with water. The floor looked awful. This was the least. It helped a little. I didn't even hear him. He stood perfectly still. He spat and triggered a gag reflex that threatened to bring on another round of heaves. He handcuffed me to the towel bar…” His words ground to a hoarse stop. Instead he opened the cabinet under the sink and gathered what he would need. he would have done anything to ease that devastated look in his eyes. . It took forever. when he could stand looking at it. Cobalt fought the urge to go out now and hunt down this Lyle. Vaughn waited for me. he didn't think it would look like someone had slaughtered a pig in there. stumbled around the corner. Jesus. He stood there a minute longer. No. and Cobalt was the only one he could deal with to accompany him. The greasy slick in his throat slithered away and left a dull sour-metallic taste. “I'm sorry. though. His stomach hitched. He'd already seen what Lyle had done. and tried to rinse the awful taste from his mouth. And the damned towel bar.82 S. It was like having a crush on a rock star. The man had uncanny timing. His blood on the wall. to snap his fragile human neck with his bare hands. Three times now.
thought about a smoke.” Will pushed up and settled cautiously in a seated position. Will stole a moment to watch him back. He probably would've assumed the same thing. There was a rawness in his voice. by the door. No one had ever done that for him. He might even manage to sit for a while tonight. He looked through cabinets until he found a fat.” Cobalt smiled. He wanted to lick the lower-lip stud and find out whether it was hot or cold. However. not Tess. part of him rather than tacked on. a pained look in his eyes. I'll have to work in a few hours. Maybe it would help to cut some of the stink in here. Thank you. Cobalt already had plenty of groupies. He lay on the couch. “I've left your charger on that table there.” . With that thought in mind. He'd take Cobalt's suggestion and rest for a while.” he said. Cobalt shifted and leaned forward in the chair. Fierce. Will shook himself and moved away from the sink. Unfortunately. “Of course. Once the candle was lit. on his side. and decided against it. When he opened his eyes again. scrubbing blood and puke from his bathroom floor. Once again he was struck by the artist's pure sensuality. First. Not a single one of his lovers.Skin Deep 83 A rock star who was currently on his knees.” Will tried to ignore the suggestion that he was a drunk. He set it on the short counter closest to the living room and found a lighter in his jacket. fluid tattoos. he eased the jacket off. watching him. vanilla-scented candle. for now. He glanced at the watch on his wrist and said. Just in case. Cobalt sat on the chair across from the couch. Dark hair and flawless skin. but would you like a drink? Unless you want me to come over and clean your bathroom sometime. Even his piercings blended with the curves of his face. He made them both vanish and said. he drifted without dreams. “It's done. he made sure the front door was locked and chained. and found it didn't hurt as much as he'd expected. I can't have anything alcoholic. also like a rock star.” “I was thinking coffee. when he went out with Tess. Tolerable. “I can't repay you the same way. yes. Not even his own mother. Who'd held his head unflinchingly while he emptied his guts in the toilet. “A drink would be fine. though. Had to remember to call her so she wouldn't freak out.” “Thank you.
To prevent infection. He had to say no. Apparent indecision froze him there. and brought the pot to the sink. W.” Will turned to face him and smirked. was a bad idea—especially when it involved someone who was already attached. Vaughn Will levered himself to his feet and walked to the kitchen. fire. “All right.” An answering laugh died in his throat when he realized there was no trace of amusement in Cobalt's face. you'll want to at least use the antibiotic. “How are you feeling. “That's good. I'd just been thinking that perhaps I should have given you more supplies. Only desire. soft with concern. exchange pleasantries. “Will. “Don't sneak up on me. Jesus. Maybe if he wasn't looking at Cobalt. Then again.84 S. moved to the coffee machine. and put this interlude behind them both. Cobalt closed the distance between them. I guess. “You just want to get my shirt off again. anyway. and lifted. Cobalt's hand rose. You need to take care of your—Well. he could think a little more clearly. licked his lips.” He moaned. what the hell made him think Cobalt would want a relationship with him? He had to stop fantasizing. and got it started.” He filled the pot halfway. It was everything cleansing and purifying—water. the scent Will had come to associate with him filled the room. Cobalt was probably anxious to get back to his studio. He had to keep in mind that any relationship right now. wind. He couldn't let this happen. Considering. he was going to kiss him. settled under his chin. And Will wasn't going to stop him. Will?” He almost dropped the pot.” he muttered and turned the water on. At once. Cobalt lowered his head. Will swallowed. Sweet and dangerous. and Will tried to come to his senses. The man overloaded his senses. and those long fingers brushed the side of his face. filled his being. even a fling. Make coffee. move away. before— . came from a few feet behind him. He stuffed a fresh filter in the machine. He opened his mouth but couldn't think of a thing to say. scooped grounds.” “Perhaps I do. Cobalt's voice. his mouth inches away.
” “Oh my God. “Yes. Pretty little blond dressed in black. I am doing a favor—” “Yeah. It was in the way he'd said his name—the same way the troubled caller had addressed him at the end. “Trystan is not my partner. but…” He let out a sigh. I meant Trystan. and his gaze dropped to the floor. and approached the fridge with no particular intention outside of putting some distance between them. jolting him all the way down.” Will eased out from between Cobalt and the counter. He wanted more. “I've told you. Logic finally penetrated his hormones. and made himself look back.” Memories of that night filtered back through the obliteration Lyle's beating had imposed. Subject closed. The one who'd said “I pay men for sex. You're letting him heal. But Cobalt didn't seem inclined to drop it. Confusion and hurt played across Cobalt's face. The contact was electric hot. I do remember. The guy you were hanging all over when I brought Tess to your place. looked up. Skelly and I are not lovers. as if he'd never heard the name. but only managed a pathetic whine. This was a bad idea. right?” This time he couldn't keep the frustration from his voice. “Mostly it's because you're involved. You're hurt. Will pulled back firmly and turned aside. Just like you did for me. or at least firm.” “Please. He's a prostitute.” . His body cried foul.” he said. Seconds ticked by in silence. I don't do multiple partners.” He tried to sound angry. “I'm the one to apologize. He knew he'd recognized something about Cobalt. “I'm sorry. Remember?” Cobalt flinched. and the neutral stare he'd displayed earlier returned. and pure lust washed the thoughts from his head.Skin Deep 85 Then Cobalt's lips were on his. No. He blinked. At least he'd said it now. “I wasn't even talking about him.” “Besides. Trystan.” “It's not that. straightened.” he said.” “Trystan?” Cobalt repeated. That is. but he ignored it. raw power. “I was inappropriate. Tongue and teeth and naked flesh. He crossed his arms tightly in front of him. He is nothing like you.” Will said. “So why should there be any difference between him and me? I'll bet we're not the only strays you've taken in. A bare taste of the man reminded Will of his scent…clean. I know. “No.
listen to me for a minute. and he said. I am cursed.” “Well.” “I don't believe that. “Good-bye.” “It has to be something else. it's the multiple-partner thing that concerned me.” he said. “What you must think of me now. To death. . This wasn't working the way he wanted. “Please. “Yes. Will. I meant what I said. I won't trouble you again.” He walked around the corner and headed for the door. I'm not supposed to know—I didn't know. There's no such thing as a curse. Cobalt. I'm sorry.” “No? Perhaps you should visit the Kerner Clinic in Lower Manhattan. “I'll be going. turned away.” “Shit. Like I said. “I have driven men to insanity.” Will blurted.” “I should not have—” Cobalt stopped himself. Cobalt raised an eyebrow. Or the Heywood Cemetery.” “And this knowledge changes things for you?” The pain he'd heard on the call came flooding back. Vaughn A bitter smile stretched Cobalt's lips.” He shook his head and backed toward the living room. “Not really. “I must.” “It was you.” For an instant Will thought he would deny it. I don't like swingers.” Cobalt stood rigid and motionless. Don't leave. At last. until just now. “What was?” “You called my show. and once again Will found himself desperate to comfort him. he said in a rasping voice. W. But his gaze unfocused. The night I went to your place. Not you. it should. then.86 S. I did. Will.” “Wait!” Will caught his lower lip in his teeth. You will believe.
And he definitely should not have kissed him. “I'd like to stay a bit.” He turned. Come on. though the view was not much. and set a cup on the table in front of him.” Cobalt wrapped both hands around the warm mug. Still. he would have gone then. “Thought you had to go. Cars in cages. Had he really thought Will would never know he'd called? He should not have confessed—it would have been easier for both of them if he'd simply let Will assume he and Trystan were lovers. it was better staring at a window than a wall. you were. His hand fell away from the door. managed a smile. and to leave now would be cruel.” “Thank you.” If there had been any trace of hostility in Will's voice.” . milk. and powdered shit. “I believe I owe you an explanation. “How do you like it?” he said. Just the back of a stacked parking service. Then he could have walked away. milk and sugar will suffice.” He followed Will back to the kitchen and took the seat he was offered. But there was only concern and a touch of sadness. But he couldn't make himself leave. Will opened a cabinet and extracted two mugs. “I've got sugar. without revealing his true nature.Skin Deep 87 Chapter Twelve Cobalt got as far as putting a hand on the doorknob. Somehow. “As appetizing as powdered shit sounds. What a fool he was. The table rested against the wall beneath a window.” Cobalt smirked. if you'll have me.” “Yeah. “I was promised coffee. he had to explain why things had to end here.” “You got it.” Will poured and prepared both coffees the same. “One shit-free coffee. Yet it was done.
he came after me with a knife. And you know about Lyle. You end up with guys who're severely depressed. He knew how to hit without leaving marks. They were.” “So you'll want to hear my troubles now. Do you think I'm cursed?” Cobalt shuddered at the wave of empathy Will's litany brought on. Look at me. After a minute. “Very well. I guess I expected a common theme or something. If it's supposed to be a curse. then.” . Each of them lost his mind and attempted to end the relationship by committing suicide. indeed. jagged scar on the underside of his forearm.” he said. “I am the common theme. and I've not taken another since.” he said. “Is that it?” “Is that not enough?” “I'm sorry. That was four years ago. I've had three lovers. “But I think you could use an ear.” People. and maybe some advice. or be attracted to. I'm a magnet for closet psychos with violent streaks.” Will stared at him.” He looked. so he simply answered the question. He glanced at the other wooden chair but didn't sit down. he said. “Shall I bore you with my sordid affairs?” “That's what I do. “This was Yvan. Then came Brett. The third succeeded.” “How? I see plenty of similarities. and I listen. “I don't know if you do. People talk. W. Vaughn Will moved closer to the table. “My circumstances were different. yes.88 S.” Cobalt closed his eyes. He thought I planned to get famous and sleep around. How could one man endure so much? He wasn't sure how to respond. But he was not one of them.” “But it's your fault that your lovers were suicidal?” Damn it. After him was Adrian.” He ran a finger along the rim of the mug. Will held an arm out to reveal a long.” He pushed up his right sleeve to reveal the Gaelic names he'd had tattooed there. You could not have been at fault. an absent motion.” “Cobalt. “When I told him I'd gotten my own show. certain types. “Of course not. “People tend to attract. who had six or seven lovers on the side and broke my leg when he decided I'd given him syphilis.” Will set his mug down on the table and crossed his arms. It's just—well. “In ten years.
How could he explain that they only descended into madness after they discovered he was Fae? He'd have to lie. And you didn't destroy them. and it maddens me. intoxicating.Skin Deep 89 “You don't understand. More. The sensual gesture spurred flames in Cobalt's groin. “I did. he would have crushed the man . Gods. “Ah. Like leaving food out for starving strays. The theory made sense— for a human. claiming his mouth once more. He tried to move slowly. His hand slipped to the back of Will's head and held him in place while he pressed his mouth to his. Will stood before him. Were it not for the injuries. and brushed a finger along his lower lip.” “From…” Cobalt fisted his free hand.” he said. practically glowing with concern. even little things. They destroyed themselves. but raw passion swept tenderness aside.” A smile tugged at his mouth. “You were good for them. “You bite it.” Will frowned and caught his lip with his teeth. “It can't be your fault. The word reverberated through his mind and overruled all thoughts of stopping. Hands settled on his waist and sent a jolt to his throbbing cock. A light touch on his arm brought his focus back. He'd never desired any man more than this. The nails dug hard into his palm. “Cobalt? You didn't hear a word I said. felt Will shiver against him. He deepened the kiss. He probed with his tongue. But must you do that?” “Do what?” “This.” he groaned.” An invitation was more than he could bear.” “Then don't stop. and Will parted for him. and that should have been the greatest reason to leave him alone. “From kissing you again. You anticipate needs. It took every bit of control he had to keep from touching him. Will. The taste of him was divine.” Everything inside him drew taut. But Will would know if he did. he should have left when he had the opportunity.” He stood. I'll not be able to stop myself.” Frustration brought Cobalt to his feet. The needy ones. reached out. “It's the way you are that attracts men like that. He wanted to protect Will from those who would harm him—including himself. He moaned.
Will drew back. Will closed his eyes and groaned deep in his throat—with Cobalt's fingers still in his . touched him everywhere. “You feel that. A frustrated sound escaped him. He wondered idly why smoke failed to pour from his mouth. though… I'll not hurt you. Cobalt's breath exploded from him. His erection rubbed Will's hard cock. splashing Will's shirt. He arched his hips. Your back. his hand. An inarticulate cry fell from Cobalt's lips. Please…” “God. “Let me touch you. “It's warm.” “Allow me. Will's eyes blazed at him.” Will moaned. drew the zipper open. “So sweet. then kissed it. His touch burned. he braced one hand against the wall and used the other to draw Will's face to his. squeezed once.” Cobalt unfastened them. His sac tightened and convulsed. Then he took two in his mouth and sucked hard. made him gasp.” Will hissed. and his palm beat an erratic rhythm on the wall. Will fumbled with the catch on his jeans. then. The heat sank into Cobalt's flesh and shot to his core. pumped faster. Will tugged everything down at once and wrapped a hand around his shaft the instant it sprang free.” His voice emerged ragged.” “You leave nothing cold in me.” He could barely get the word out. He leaned forward until they were nearly pressed together. His seed spurted. “Shit. Right?” Cobalt made a low. and slid a finger into his mouth. As the heated grip began to stroke. “Let me. Fingers brushed his crotch.” he whispered. “Not cold.90 S. He nipped lightly at his lower lip. But I need your touch.” he whispered. “Will. “More. I need to feel you. Vaughn to him. animal growl. W. Cobalt. “How does this thing work?” he said through his teeth. He drew back to catch a breath and to navigate better. All of you.” Will's hands slid lower to frame his ass and draw his hips forward. I want you against me. “Will. vibrating at the edge of release. With his free hand he reached up and grabbed Cobalt's wrist. the floor.” Will pushed against him and forced him back until he met the wall.” “Yes. His tongue darted out and caressed the stud in Cobalt's lip. He drew the arm forward. His tongue trailed along the underside of Cobalt's finger. But he had to see where his hands fell.
His tongue demanded entrance. God. The rest of him didn't give a shit what his sensibilities thought. And perhaps a bit more.” “Yes. How could any man smell like that? Cobalt slid the fingers of both hands between fabric and flesh and bent to Will's mouth again.” he whispered. “You should let go now. He gasped when cool air flowed around his inflamed cock. notch by notch. and cupped the bulge in his pants.” Will released him slowly. and his cock twinged in Will's hand. “I guess you are getting my shirt off again.Skin Deep 91 mouth. fingers and shaft. which seemed to grow stronger when he was aroused.” His cock strained against the fabric. He entwined his fingers with Will's. Cobalt…” “I thought you might. “Unless you'll be wanting another go. “I don't want to hurt you. with aching slowness. Part of him wanted to stop now. Will didn't even realize he hadn't expected reciprocation until Cobalt pulled his zipper down. Damn.” He had no trouble unfastening Will's jeans. The ache there eclipsed his sore ass. He fell back panting against the wall. like some kind of pheromone. love. pulled him forward gently. Will took him in with a soft moan and held his head in place while Cobalt worked the jeans down.” he rasped. “Oh. “You'll let me return the favor…won't you?” Will bit his lip. The vibration sent aftershocks of pleasure through him. Jesus. He glanced down and smiled. . Cobalt ran a thumb along the inside of his waistband and stopped at his hip. drove away every other sensation except Cobalt's thumb on his flesh—and that intoxicating scent of his.” Cobalt covered himself again with a swift tug. he'd never been this hard in his life. “You'll only hurt me if you stop. while he still had a chance to end this before he went off the emotional deep end. he was really going to touch him.
The pace increased. Will groaned at the fire spreading through his groin. sucking him off. But the sensations were too powerful to be imagined. “Will. He thrust his hips forward. leaking fluid. Ease back…” .” Cobalt dipped his head and swallowed him in a single thrust. I want you in my mouth. His blazing-hot. “Let me taste you. Fingers dug into his bruised flesh. His tongue flicked the engorged head. Will cried out. He was going to come just thinking about Cobalt's mouth on him. But he had no time to be disgusted at his apparent welcome of pain. He was practically vibrating. Pain entwined itself with pleasure.” He plunged a hand into the dark. “Christ. A hot mouth and a silk tongue clamped around his cock. “Gonna come. silken hair.” “Yes. Calling him love. It left him breathless and aching for more. Will's body clenched and shuddered. Now. and Cobalt had barely touched him. a sensual dance like nothing Will had ever felt before. The grip on his wrists loosened. He braced his hands on Cobalt's shoulders and drew breath through gritted teeth.” Cobalt smiled.” he said hoarsely.” Cobalt murmured against his lips. “Cobalt. yes.” Will ground out. driving him with dizzying speed toward release. W. “Please…” “Yes. spreading his thin. strong hands bracketing his hips. held them as he sank down and knelt on the floor. and the hands on his hips squeezed harder. hard muscles rippling beneath his palms.” “Tease. Ecstasy spiraling through him. Fucking him with his mouth. all the way to the base. wet mouth. Cobalt drew back slowly. His mind insisted this was a new level in the fantasy—the dark god on his knees in front of him. His balls were drawn tighter than Fort Knox. “Look at you. Cobalt ran his hands down Will's arms and settled them on his hips. a silent plea for the full contact he craved. Vaughn A finger rubbed his opening and trailed the throbbing vein on the underside of his shaft. lapped a glistening bead from the slit like a bird tasting nectar.” he breathed before his brain could process the demand. love. Fit to burst. He reached up and caught Will's wrists.92 S. “So swollen. slid forward.
he'd fallen in love a little. Will's legs weakened. indicating with the pressure of his hands that he wanted Will to finish right where he was. “Shit!” The word was torn from his lips. His body went rigid for what seemed like an eternity. None of his partners had ever wanted to pleasure him after they'd gotten what they wanted. He sucked hard. love. He finally understood the term mind-blowing orgasm. twice. “That was… Thank you. too spent to say more. When Cobalt asked permission to touch him. Okay. I wanted it just as much—and the sounds you make are thanks enough. something he'd never realized before. poised on the brink of release.” Will nodded. and then sank to his knees with a shuddering breath. His head still spun.” Cobalt smiled and brushed a thumb across Will's mouth. “You.” he gasped. He struggled to stay on his feet until Cobalt released him. He felt the convulsions in Cobalt's throat as the man swallowed his cum. He cradled Cobalt's head. His reaction to Cobalt wasn't purely physical. “You've no need to thank me. and his hips jerked once. Damn. Maybe a lot. . And he also understood something else.Skin Deep 93 Cobalt made a delicious little sound of expectation and thrust his head forward. At last he climaxed with an explosive cry. taking Will's cock completely in his mouth.
One: acknowledge that sex had happened and explore the possibility of a relationship. “Coffee's probably cold now. Not the conversational direction he'd expected. his hands. He had no idea which one he wanted to happen. “You know. “Sorry about that. You liked it. Me neither.” Cobalt gave his hand a brief squeeze. Cobalt had come up directly behind him and stood staring at him with an expression that reflected the desire he still felt. had he? Even now the memory stirred something deep in his gut—the . Will swallowed hard. not really. “I find I've no appetite for coffee anymore. I've yet to get your shirt off again. could recall instantly and completely the sensation of the belt drilling his flesh while he stood there. What if Cobalt didn't want a relationship? What if he did—would that make him the rebound guy? The only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted more of Cobalt. Christ.” he said. Now what? Generally. there were two ways this could go. W. He could still feel the shape of the welts. and Will nodded toward the table while he clothed himself again.94 S. “Yeah. Two: make awkward small talk until Cobalt excused himself for work. bound and helpless.” “Good. Will nodded. Vaughn Chapter Thirteen Cobalt helped him stand. I was going to try for a shower later. believe me. Everything. “You must take better care.” Will broke away and wandered toward the living room.” “Will…have you been treating your injuries?” Will blinked a few times. He turned away and held his breath while Cobalt lifted his shirt. Guess I should change. May I?” He fingered the hem of Will's shirt. His tongue. he almost tripped himself. self-conscious all over again.” Cobalt shook his head. his body.” “A shower. “Uh.” Will turned so fast. which would probably happen quickly if they went the small-talk route. You'll not enjoy an infection.
leaving Will cradled loosely in front of him. defensive posture and had tried to move away. when I…had blisters on my feet.” Will tried to ignore the idea that Cobalt might attempt to exact revenge. Do you have a clean cloth?” .” Christ. half-drunk and terrified to come home. “A bottle of Advil and half a box of Band-Aids.” For an instant Will was terrified he'd voiced his thoughts. but it needs cleaning.” “Pirates. straightened. he'd forgotten about that. But he must not have—because if he had.” The amusement in his voice reflected in his face as he came around and placed the bunched shirt on a chair. love. He'd experienced it on a deeper scale when Cobalt had pressed on his ass.” Cobalt said quietly. he didn't ask about it. the beating would have come then. But I'll be sure you have antibiotic ointment. “What do you have here for medical supplies?” Will laughed. he'd spent an entire night walking around the city. Because he'd done a live-event broadcast. “Is it bad?” “Bad enough. “Warm water for now. With pirates on them.” The anger in Cobalt's voice made him flinch.” His tone gentled. Can we get this off?” “All right. “There's no infection. and more than one had kissed him quite publicly. “I'm afraid pirate bandages won't be sufficient. If Cobalt noticed the hesitation in his statement. “You've no need to be ashamed. and there had been fans. much as I'd love to see them on you. in case Lyle was there waiting. Tess got them for me. Then he realized he'd tucked himself into a stiff. Did he actually enjoy pain? “Relax. for the next few days at least.” Cobalt eased the shirt up and over his head and slid it down his arms. “It's the beast who did this to you who'll be sorry. For some reason he'd convinced himself Lyle had seen or known about it. but the man's next words reassured him. I'll just—” “I'll help you. A while back.Skin Deep 95 whisper of a thrill.” “Stop apologizing. Utterly outside anything he felt toward Lyle.” “Yep. “I'm sorry. He stepped back. and forced his muscles to unclench.
Well. like laundry and moldy take-out food. but he managed to settle into a shallow rhythm. wet and wonderfully warm. Cobalt crossed the floor and pulled out a slim. but… Oh.” Strange. It didn't help. the pain enhanced his pleasure. like his selfpreservation instincts or his common sense.” he whispered. “Too much?” .96 S. Yes. A shiver worked its way up from his toes to end in his throat.” “Mmm. plastic-wrapped package of light blue terry cloth. Closer to the sink. “Breathe. “There's a package of dishcloths in the drawer there.” He nodded and let out the breath he'd been holding.” Will smiled. What was wrong with him? “Ready?” “Yes. and Will could practically feel him dislodging an image from his mind. Probably both. he thought. “Very much. I apologize. and Cobalt directed him to lean on the counter. The cloth slid sideways and rubbed along one of the welts with slow.” Will approached him. Will tensed without thought. Will. that Cobalt was ordering him around like Tess. Vaughn Will half turned and gestured at the sink. Anyone else would've gotten a dose of fuck you and there's the door. The position was sensual enough to kindle fresh lust.” he said. He let out a soft whimper. But I'd like to help you. if you'll let me.” A deep frown settled into his mouth. there was a gentle sloshing and a fast patter of drips. The fabric touched unbroken skin first. There was a pause. steady pressure. Once again. Will. Water drizzled down his side and pooled in his waistband.” he said. He forced himself to think non-sex thoughts. please. shook one free. “This should do. Maybe the mind-blowing orgasm had shorted something vital. Drawing another eluded him for an instant. “I'll not tell you what to do. Cobalt froze. I haven't opened it yet. W. and he wasn't bothered in the least. anticipating the touch of the cloth. Water ran in the sink.” Cobalt closed his eyes. “I'd like you to help me. his back facing him. After it stopped. “Come over here. Damn. Apparently Cobalt could also read his mind like Tess. He opened it. “It'll be a bit rough.
” he heard himself say. Maybe it was. Damn it. But he couldn't deny that something was happening here.Skin Deep 97 “No. This wasn't the reason he'd been consistently attracted to men who hurt him time and again. Please. “May I ask you something odd?” Cobalt's voice sounded thick and unsteady. He closed his eyes and tried to force the idea from his mind. If he asked whether he was a masochist. That sounded harsher than he meant.” “What's it to you?” Shit. He came back and moved down to the next welt. wiping to the other side of his back. No no no. applied the same steady pressure—and Will felt himself growing hard again. “Before I answer.” He paused. He did not enjoy pain. part confusion. “Sure.” “I didn't know there was a type. I suppose. “Why?” “I…suspected you were interested. “I mean. wrung the cloth out again. When we first met. it seems important to you. “I'll understand if you no longer are. and he sure as hell didn't want Cobalt to beat him with a belt. “What makes me seem like I wouldn't want it?” “You're clean. “Curiosity. Like the coffeepot. “Keep going. He knew he hadn't enjoyed what Lyle did to him.” Something in his tone tore at Will's heart. Just like Will felt. Cobalt hesitated. can I ask you something?” “Of course.” “And people who get scarified don't shower?” . Once.” Will held his breath while Cobalt made another pass with the cloth. This was nuts. Will thought he wouldn't reply. “Have you given any more thought to scarification?” The breath he let out was part relief. and I'd like to know why. And throw something heavy. You hadn't seemed the type.” Jesus. At last he said. Will was going to scream.” Cobalt paused for so long.” Cobalt obliged. All of it. I'm a freak. The faucet ran briefly. would not seek it out.
“I promised Tess I'd drink with her tonight. “Sure. “I would do it again.” Before he could think through the consequences.” “Wow. I don't think anyone's accused me of that in…ever. Only he'd rather have skipped the beating that brought him to Cobalt's bedroom. “Want to join us? Tess won't mind. Vaughn Cobalt laughed softly.” A small flicker of disappointment kindled in his gut. and he realized he hadn't been taking Cobalt's interest seriously. You are a virgin. I might still be interested. “Well. Will. “We'll not be able to begin right away. Timing. Consciously or not. An artist's dream. He shivered against the counter.” Will decided he would too. A beautiful. Tomorrow night?” The question took Will aback. not sex. She's worried. Typically.” “Ah. “I can't. “You are a blank. he'd filed it away under small talk after sex.” “How about tonight?” Yes.” “Every artist?” “Mine. then. you've no tattoos. sponged a few errant dribbles from his lower back. Cobalt was talking scarification.” “Oh.” he managed to say after he banished a searing memory of Cobalt's mouth on him. Now. “Unfortunately I'll be needed at the Grotto tonight. “Well. no piercings. Design. scarification is a next-level process. he added. W.98 S.” The cloth rubbed over the last of the welts. What time?” . believing that Cobalt might want him and him alone.” Cobalt's hand rested on his waist for an instant and left. empty canvas begging to be filled. but I'd like to discuss the process with you. without hesitation.” Had Will imagined the possessive note in his voice? It was still too much. I've neglected my duties there too long.” he said. placement. “What I mean is.” he said in hoarse tones.” Cobalt hesitated. Not that I regret for a moment what took me away from them. “You want me to come to the Grotto?” “Of course I do. “In that case. I can do that.
if you ask me. firm lips drew back with reluctance. The dark god returning in full glory.Skin Deep 99 “Eleven.” A quick smile and the dark god left.” As the words left his mouth. “She doesn't mean it in a bad way. He's a cop. an eternity.” Cobalt whispered. Cobalt groaned. and the odd thought was driven from his mind on a fresh wave of heat. “Tomorrow night. claimed his mouth.” Nodding. See you then.” “Yes. Will. King of the shit heap. If you want me to. he promised to leave me alone. Will didn't move until he heard the front door open and close. And he's in the closet. I'm glad for that. he almost managed to convince himself. Too much attention. A touch of anger. “Will. The best of the worst. especially with me.” He was babbling again. I'm a shit-heap celebrity.” He shook his head for emphasis. The sight arrested his tongue. a heavy dose of heat and desire.” Cobalt wrung the cloth out and hung it over the divider between the sinks.” He smiled and shrugged. . and his teeth found his lower lip. I told him we were through.” “A what?” Will laughed. “He won't risk being outed. For the same reason—he's a cop. Will turned to find an intense expression on Cobalt's face. “Gods. I'll never be Tom Cruise—and honestly. Deejays don't hit the same level as film stars. “You may have your shirt back now. his ability to speak having fled with the kiss. It took him a few minutes to realize he still held the shirt crumpled in his hands. Besides. He made himself stop. He slipped it on and barely winced when it slid down his back. “You're all right. Cobalt's ministrations seemed to heal him far faster than they should. “That's a Tess term. I always finish early on Saturday nights. You'll be my undoing yet. “It's dangerous to fuck with Lyle.” Gods? Cobalt lowered his head. then?” He nodded. It's kind of a radio joke. and the full. “I must go. A few seconds.” “And you're certain he'll keep this promise?” “Yes. This man who hurt you. I'll…” “No.
He made his way to the intercom and pressed in. . He couldn't exactly shower or dump in the kitchen. On impulse. Will jerked. More of those hot lips. Vaughn Maybe it was psychological. He'd been smacked around by love enough for several lifetimes. “Yeah?” “Will Ambrose. so who was to say Cobalt would be any different? But damn. and his stomach twisted a bit. and he had no clue where to go from here.100 S. Will headed back for the kitchen and shifted his mental gears to the Cobalt position. He'd never felt anything as amazing as Cobalt's touch. “I'm not going to fuck you. rocking that timeless rhythm until they both exploded with pleasure. he grabbed the cloth and dropped it in the trash. No trace of his brutalization remained. He wanted it all—Cobalt inside him. delicious scent. At this point he'd rather relieve himself in the sink than enter the bathroom. filling him. that impossible. He supposed eventually he'd lose the urge to purge every time he looked in there. Another relationship—assuming Cobalt even wanted one—was just a bad idea. Good thing he didn't have to piss or anything. Sparkling floor. the voice unfamiliar. Cobalt? Maybe he'd forgotten something. And all his other partners had seemed normal and sane in the beginning. Just as it hit bottom. male. I'm going to punish you. Once there.” A bored monotone. he pushed the door open and stared. Walls and floors could be washed—but who was going to scrub his mind? The notion of setting so much as a foot in that room brought back his nausea. Hopefully. rinsed and set them in the drainer.” He shuddered and stepped back. he wanted more. He carried the untouched mugs to the sink and dumped the cold coffee. no matter how desperately he tried to justify it. This didn't bode well for future toileting needs. He drifted toward the bathroom without realizing his intended destination. Not a hard thing to do. The cloth Cobalt had used to wash him lay over the divider. that firm flesh. The man had barely left his mind since he'd met him. Now they'd been intimate. Maybe. Pristine tub. His heart gave a few rapid thuds and settled back. W. the door buzzer cut through the apartment like an angry hornet trapped in a window. A few faint red-brown smudges showed on the surface.
producing a few crumpled bills. Just in case. . freakish turtledoves. not wanting to give a stranger access to his apartment. Thinking of you. in fact.” He cradled the vase in one arm and dug in a pocket. “I'll come down.” he muttered. “Terrific.” “FTD. He kicked the door shut behind him and started up the stairs. Still frowning. Congratulations-on-ditching-the-bastard flowers. arranged in a fat black vase. white orchids. he'd tell her exactly how amused he was with a hilarious dose of salt in one of her drinks tonight. Will barely noticed. so it looked like the flowers were talking. he teased the flap open and extracted a small cream-colored card. Federal tax department. He opened the door. Love. a slab of a specimen who looked like he'd be more at home repossessing cars than delivering flowers. most likely. I just drop 'em off.” He blinked. He found a small envelope with Will across the front in neat cursive writing—the florist's hand. Babe. “Ambrose?” The bouquet. Yellow and black tea roses. “Who sent them?” “Read the card.” Will accepted the vase in slow motion and got a glimpse of the FTD guy. “Thanks. I'll be waiting. “Here you go. “That's me. almost hungrily.” “Mm-hm.” The flowers lurched toward him.Skin Deep 101 “Yes. The black roses made his brow furrow. Or maybe it was some other FTD. If this was Tess's idea of a joke.” The delivery guy took the cash and lumbered off without another word. was big enough to hide the delivery person. A huge bunch. sorry if I hurt you. lacy sprigs of baby's breath. buddy. FTD… Wasn't that a flower-delivery service? Maybe Tess had sent him something as a joke.” he said into the speaker. flowers. Delivery for you. L. A look through the spy hole in the front building door revealed that it was. shifting stems in search of a card.
It thumped and rolled back down the stairs. Before he went out with Tess tonight. he was getting the lock changed. And he wasn't going to risk coming back here drunk to unwanted company. Lyle still had a key. spilling petals and stems and whole flowers in a colorful spray that looked more macabre than cheerful. W. .102 S. Vaughn He dropped the vase like it was full of snakes.
the harder it would be to let him go.” Malik flashed a crooked smile and started another table. I'll get the floor in a minute. “This is likely the cleanest tattoo parlor in New York. How had he gotten so lucky? Whistling. He also wiped down the antitheft chains and ensured the books were returned to the centers of the tables.” “You're the boss. Forever until he'd see Will again. thanks to you. I've nothing better to do. “I should give you a raise. who was cleaning the tables with a soft rag. Malik adjusted one of the chairs at the table he'd just finished and headed for the next one. admiring his attention to detail.” “That's all right. He kept going anyway. “I didn't even hear you come in.Skin Deep 103 Chapter Fourteen It was six o'clock when Cobalt returned to the Grotto. Cobalt watched him for a moment. He'd no choice in letting him go. He should have left Will's apartment when he'd gotten as far as the door. Cobalt made a few passes with the broom but turned up little in the way of dirt.” he said when he recovered. One taste of him and Cobalt wanted more.” he said. The main room was deserted save for Malik. Needed more.” Cobalt smiled and grabbed the broom leaning on the wall. A hard worker who didn't ask questions and never pried into his personal life. The longer he allowed himself to believe he and Will could be together. where the boy normally placed it for use after he finished the tables. He could not destroy Will the way he had the others. An hour before opening. He caught sight of Cobalt on the way and let out a slight gasp. The boy actually lifted the sample catalogs and cleaned under them rather than going around the massive books. The man was addictive.” “I insist. “When did you get back?” “Just now.” . “I'll help you. working toward the display booths at the back of the room.
You've proven yourself. I forgot to lock up behind me.” “I see. he leaned the broom against the wall. Vaughn Malik laughed. Cobalt. No need to embarrass the boy further.” Cobalt smirked.” “Our place. He would have teased a bit. to count the hours until tomorrow night.” Frowning. It looked like graffiti or something. “What's wrong?” he said.” The hesitant summons ripped him from images of Will. They returned to work in companionable silence. “After I came in. It means cool. He glanced across the room. He could still feel the heat of Will's lips against his and taste the salty sweetness of his seed in his throat. None came to mind. and a broad grin broke on his face. “That'd be what.104 S.” A flush crept up the back of his neck. but Malik was already uncomfortable. and the front door was…glowing. Cobalt forced himself not to watch the clock. made out of light.” His heart seized. “There's something you should know. waiting to be let in. Something…weird. “My roommate says it all the time. fumbling for a lie. Really?” His eyes glittered. “I want your place to look great. Gods. So I went back. Malik. I'm trying to be more American. “That is so…sweet!” “Not at all. not that sweet.” Damn. Malik had stopped wiping and stared at him with a concerned expression. earlier—” Malik swallowed and breathed out hard. W. He half hoped Uriskel had gone out and was skulking around outside.” “Interesting. “You've earned your keep. Malik raised an eyebrow. “Yes. “The Grotto is as much yours as mine. we can start your apprenticeship anytime.” “Oh. Awesome. though it didn't quite take. “I suppose if—” .” He tried a smile.” he said. I think. As far as I'm concerned. “Just doing my job.” “What?” Cobalt leaned on the broom. “You're not concerned?” “Not yet. It was better than the alternative.” he said. what bliss. “Glowing?” he echoed stupidly. then?” “Well.” “No. “Cobalt. There's nothing sweet about it.
“Charmed. “I apologize for my guest.” he said. What will we do tonight? Perhaps you're up for a round of cards. “Enough.” He grabbed the broom and thrust it toward the Unseelie. Betrayal.” His green gaze settled on Malik for an instant.” Cobalt hissed at Uriskel.” Uriskel oozed from the shadows around the stairs. ***** . I've brought my deck. it must have been Eoghann.” He strolled over and took the handle.” He made the name a warning. To Malik. Master Cobalt? Shine your shoes. “Anything else I can do for you.” The sound of Uriskel's voice skewered his hope. “Taxes. In dark belted jeans and a formfitting black shirt adorned with straps and buckles. Muttering under his breath. I'll be sure you can eat from your floor.” The boy smiled.” “There's a lot we don't believe in back home. then. kiss your—” “Skelly.” “I'll be working. the Unseelie looked every inch the sensual predator he was. Skelly isn't from around here.” Malik's eyes narrowed and sizzled with instant dislike. “Skelly. but a glance in Uriskel's direction had him scowling again. he said.” he said. Cobalt left them to their uneasy peace. Uriskel moved as far from Malik as possible and started sweeping. Cobalt shook his head. “Can you handle things in here. “So you're the shop boy. “Very well. Organized sports.” “You'd know if I were.” Uriskel's lip curled in a snarl. “So.” Uriskel said. “Make yourself useful.” “You've got to be kidding. a cold smile on his features. “I need to make some calls.Skin Deep 105 “I've been here all day. I'm beginning to think they don't believe in manners back home. If that's what you're thinking. The silver Celtic pendant was a nice touch. Malik?” “Of course.” he said in forced casual tones. but he relaxed it instantly and let out a mock sigh. “Have you met Malik?” “Haven't had the pleasure. then moved lazily to Cobalt. I've a business to run. He had more pressing problems—because if Uriskel hadn't been the one to activate the seal.
” she said. It was a joke. W.” “Then why're you sitting at the bar?” She gave him a sloppy smile full of gleaming white teeth. “I'll buy. babe.” Tyler grabbed her hand.” She cupped her pendulous breasts and pushed up until they almost spilled from her plunging neckline. I mean. He rolled his eyes and glanced at Will. “Get away from me. I'm sorry. the stools were padded thickly. Unfortunately. as though he'd been waiting for her. look at these. and the bouncers would only break one arm instead of both legs if you caused enough trouble. Apparently Tyler felt the same way. He had no desire to throw down with Tyler the Tank. “I'm drunk.” Will shook his head slowly. She gets like this. You do it.” . swinger?” “I didn't tell you. You get plowed and take advantage of me.” Will grimaced. “C'mon. thick-necked college boy dressed in laundry-day casual made his way over. “How can you say no to these? They're perfect. “I don't swing your way.” “Everybody swings my way. They kept the music balanced enough to be loud on the dance floor and just below conversation level at the bar. man. not deaf. “Sorry. “Do you do it?” He smirked. And another drunk sorority single had decided Will looked lonely. Tyler. I'm talking to… What's your name again. Do what?” “Drink!” She straightened and slapped a hand on the bar top. “Probably not.” The girl tossed her head. The drinks were priced fairly. you know?” “Asshole. with heavy slippage on the sibilants. sweetheart. Vaughn The K Factor wasn't a bad place to have a few drinks with a friend. “So. and a flushed. they needed a separate zip code—slid onto the stool next to Will and propped an arm on the counter. And eligible. the K attracted mostly straight clientele.” “I know.” Sissa said.” He raised a hand in surrender.” “Sissa!” A male voice parted the crowd.” “Okay. Thinks everybody talks to her chest instead of her face. “I'll bite. The brunette and her knockers—they were so big. “Come back out and dance. A lot of college kids.106 S. “Come on.
he sighed and said. kissed her cheek. And they said gays were exhibitionists. There weren't many guys confident enough to let their significant others flirt openly with strangers—or caring enough to recognize and deal with their body-image issues. Still. “I'm gay. The resultant cheer was louder than a Yankee Stadium home game. people! I have an announcement. and smelled female. He didn't bother looking up. Finally.” “Say it. he had to admit that couple would probably work out. okay?” “Just great?” “Sissa. and shouted. Eventually the place settled down to a normal roar. okay?” One corner of her mouth lifted. He leaned over.” Relief accompanied his smile. Doesn't she have the most amazing boobs?” Whistles and catcalls erupted from the male portion of the patrons—and a few of the females too.” . “You're not freakish. please. cupped his hands to his mouth.” “Uptown!” “In the city. Will dropped his head in his hands and waited for the drama to subside. You're great. Somebody was sleeping on the couch tonight. “Why'd you wanna dance with me? I'm freakish. Then she stood on the stool and flashed the entire bar. “You have the best boobs in Uptown. yeah!” one guy shouted. Will heard someone take the stool next to him.” The bar noise dialed back a few degrees.Skin Deep 107 She pulled away. Ask her. “Hell. and whispered in her ear. Ronie has normal tits.” “This is a news flash?” “Tess. “Don't ever leave me alone here again. “You wanna trade her?” Will cringed. “'Scuse me.” Tyler's face darkened. “This is my girl. and he spun her on the stool to face the crowds. Grinning. In the whole damn world.” He stepped away. Sissa gave her tit-praising man a sloppy kiss.” The boyfriend flashed Will another apologetic look. “You mean it?” “Hold up.
“When's Will coming back? I miss Will. “What's going on with you and Cobalt?” “Nothing. that felt good. my ass. He hadn't meant to bring up that subject. Like wander into the Grotto and beg Cobalt to fuck him. Will.” “Seriously?” “Would I lie to you?” Tess grinned and watched the bartender set the drinks out.” “Deal.” “Crazy is the new black. She picked up a shooter.” Unfortunately. “Here's to radio-humping fans. “I'm all right. whyare-all-the-sexy-ones-gay tattoo artist at the Grotto?” “No. No point speculating about it with Tess when he didn't even know what was going on there. that's all. I'm a lot better. Besides the fact that he couldn't go five minutes without longing for the man's touch again. Tess never missed a thing. and he smiled to try and soften things. “Poor baby. Damn. I hump my radio every night when Will comes on.” It came out sharp. “By Cobalt. Vaughn She laughed. he might do something stupid.” Will grabbed his shot.” He groaned and tried to dislodge the image of Sissa's tits hovering above him like fleshy blimps. If he got too drunk. W.” She screwed her face and mock whined. He almost ordered another one but decided it'd be better to pace tonight. “Has Leonard ruined my slot and killed my audience yet?” “Oh my God.” Her features went somber.” He sighed into his beer. “So.” .” “Uh-huh. You didn't let me finish. He started on the beer. Cobalt—” Damn. and tossed back. I'm thinking about getting a piece done.” Tess got a bartender's attention and ordered them both shooters and draft chasers.” Will said. You wouldn't believe how many calls I'm getting.108 S. “Drop it. I'm still getting over the last love of my life. I was gonna dye my hair blue. “Drink. Tess. Have we been hit on by the fairer sex?” “Fair. “What about you? Are you…?” “I'm fine. Will is the sexiest man alive. Cobalt or azure?” “Will!” She tapped his shoulder. Now. “Really. you mean that smoking-hot. “How's Tess tonight?” “Peachy. clinked the glass with hers.
But you tell me immediately if he does anything stupid. “It's not going to come to that.” She put a hand on his arm.” “Oh shit.” “More like deluded. “Speaking of the world's biggest asshat. Dub. “We're comparing nail salons. “How's it hanging?” “Long and loose.” A frown creased her brow. and shot a mildly surprised glance at Tess. I'm sorry. Or I'll start giving out your cell number to your biggest fans. and he squirmed on the stool. “I don't think the sheriffs are going to arrest him for that.” “You mean like radio shop or girlie shop?” “Girlie.Skin Deep 109 “Damn. I will. “Tessie's pulling out the big guns.” Tess tried to pout.” “All right.” You liked it. and she pounced. Right?” He hesitated too long. I'll bring it to the studio on Monday. A shiver whispered up his spine. “Hey. Dub.” Will said. If you're sure…” “Positive.” “You are not going to—” “Hell no.” A male voice sounded behind Will. but it didn't quite erase her smile. “If I ever suggest otherwise. “How'd you piss her off this time? Leave the toilet seat up at work?” “It's Friday. and she offered a guilty little oops shrug. you have permission to blow my brains out with the Dub's gun.” Will turned to find the Dub himself grinning at them around an unlit cigarette.” “He sent me flowers. He says he's waiting for me to come back to him. if you don't call the sheriffs.” He put an arm around Tess and squeezed.” He shook his head. Her cheeks went pink.” “Flowers? Jesus. “You want to keep the gun? Just in case. Me and Will are talking shop.” “Okay. almost lifting her off the stool. “I knew it! What's he doing now? I swear to God.” Will mumbled reluctantly. He really is psychotic. The he's-forgiven-for-the-moment signal. he's still leaving you alone.” .” he said. “I said we'd go out Saturday.
“Oh.” Will lifted a wave and headed through the crowd for the exit. what are you doing here?” she said. It was more than a lot of people bothered to do.” Tess gave him a grateful smile.” The brief sparkle in Tess's eyes went out.” His smile insisted he really didn't mind. Just misinformed.” “You kids behave yourselves.” “Yeah. I need to crash. “I don't wanna break up the fun here. dude?” The Dub got his socially expected protest out first. “Night. I'll let Tessie pass it on for you. Take Will if you want. despite the edge of disappointment in his voice. Might as well vow to give up that pesky breathing addiction.” “I scored tickets to the Pit show.” Then. You have to save Manhattan from Leonard. He'd go home and straight to bed. Sorry. right. You guys go have fun. unable to resist. “Seriously. It's been a long week. Yeah. Leonard can have him. “Nah.” He flourished two rumpled squares of paper. Will knew the man wasn't exactly homophobic. “You want one too?” Another almost-forced laugh. “I expect you at the top of your game come Monday. He couldn't take sitting on a plastic train seat yet. Tess rolled her eyes and mouthed.” He'd almost said. Everybody but the radiophile. That wouldn't have gone over well with Tess. The relief of pressure on his still-sore ass confirmed this was the right decision. “It's a bitch getting Pit passes. He wouldn't think about Cobalt. He grinned and patted Tess's hand. “Thought you might want to go. “You sure.” “You definitely need rest.” “No. .” Will nodded. Sometimes he tried too hard to prove that he didn't have a problem with gays—but at least he tried. he turned to the Dub and said. “Really. anyway.” Will slid down from the stool. Definitely a cab kind of night. “I told you I was hanging out with Will tonight. with only a little extraneous force. Vaughn The Dub laughed. Later.110 S. babe. man. But thanks. Get some shopping done. you're not.” He pecked her cheek. W. I'm beat. “Gonna have to pass. I'm…exhausted. man.
And what he found there stunned him so thoroughly. “Release him.Skin Deep 111 Chapter Fifteen Saturday could not have come slower if the gods had halted the rotation of the planet. I'll not stand for this. Thirty minutes before opening. “What… You. locked in an embrace. You—” “Skelly. then moved to his ear.” Cobalt said through his teeth. The Unseelie had a knack for ruining relationships. “We must talk. Cobalt snarled and let go. breedling.” He shot Uriskel a poisoned glare. palms spread in surrender—or warning. He reached the main room.” He grabbed the Unseelie's arm and pulled him toward the stairs. Uriskel's back faced the stairs. Malik sighed softly and rested his head on Uriskel's bent shoulder. He dug his fingers into the snake's neck and shook hard. boy. Cobalt headed downstairs to ensure things were ready. “I don't want your help. and his head bent to the boy's neck in a tender nuzzle. Thus far he'd refrained from mooning about like a love-struck fledgling—if only to keep Uriskel from making harsh comments about the situation. “Release him. .” His voice simmered with dark promise. He whispered something. Uriskel and Malik stood by the wall. The boy's eyes shone with the glossy blankness of a seduction spell. “Bastard!” Cobalt ran to them and ripped Uriskel away. Malik shuddered and blinked rapidly. Now. “Take your hand from me.” Uriskel raised his arms.” “Fine.” “You'll not have it. Leave me alone. he could not move or speak for a full minute.” Uriskel waved a hand. Now.
” His eyes flared. “Much like your reasons for turning me in to the Seelie Court.” “Coward. Uriskel!” He gripped a shoulder and spun him around. And my employee. “I can handle him. I just felt like…being near him. “Watch yourself.” . “I'm leaving.” Leaving Malik to finish his preparations. “I've not forgotten how to walk. He moved around Cobalt and walked across the loft. “He'll not bother you again.” he said.” “Yes. “I'm tempted to deliver you personally to Eoghann. All of a sudden. staring out at the glittering night. “Having a bit of fun. The rage burning in Uriskel's eyes forced him back a step. Much like those. “Don't.” He turned on a heel and stalked up the stairs. traitor.” Cobalt glared at him.” “I see.” “Damn you.” “He's practically a child. “Disgusting rat.” “Why were you seducing Malik?” He turned slowly. He has that effect on people. I should not have stayed.” Cobalt snapped. Ciaràn. Uriskel stood by the loft windows.112 S.” His tone was barely restrained. then turned to Malik. “I'll save you the trouble. he took the stairs fast.” Malik shuddered again. Vaughn Uriskel twisted from his grasp.” Cobalt glared into the shadows. then. “I don't know what happened.” “Yes. “Uriskel.” The Unseelie stopped by the rail. fledgling.” He measured his words with care. He made no acknowledgment of Cobalt's arrival. W.” “Do it. “I'll be back soon. as though he had a limited supply and could not use too many. Cobalt watched him.” Cobalt crossed the loft in four strides and stopped just behind the motionless figure. “My reasons are not for you to know. “What in the name of the gods were you doing?” The Unseelie shrugged.
you are among scant company.” “I want the truth. Was. But Uriskel wasn't finished. to anyone if it suits his purposes. And then. For a decade he'd wondered why this snake had not only spied on his affair with Eoghann but gathered the evidence of it and presented it to the court.” “Really.” he said. castaway Unseelie—were attempting to bring the queen's consort to justice in the high court? Forgive me while I decline to believe you. “You are Unseelie. as if the words were ripped from him. “You should be…” . he said. Without understanding his sudden empathy.” Uriskel quivered in place.” “You know nothing. “Please.” he said. We've a common enemy. His gaze fastened to the floor and stayed there. I could have surmised that much on my own. His fingers clenched the arms hard enough to dent the leather. “My mother is. Why did you betray Eoghann—your own kind?” “Is that what he told you?” “Even if he hadn't. he said. to the Unseelie queen. Uriskel moved to a chair and dropped into it. “Blast you. and his flesh rippled as though his true form was fighting its way out. Most beings wish my death on a regular basis. “Halfling. Fortunate bastard that you are.” he whispered. I'm certain you know the Law.” Something in his tone pierced Cobalt's heart.” Cobalt's jaw loosened. “I'll not explain this to you. “If that's so.” The lie was so bold.” Uriskel spat. Cobalt couldn't deliver a response.” “Believe what you will. and I truly have no wish to see you killed. “Particularly if you believe Eoghann above lying—to you. “I am not Unseelie.” Uriskel snorted. Why should the dalliance of a lowborn Seelie have mattered to you?” “Fool! It was not you I sought to expose. you'll not suffer under the weight of truth. please.Skin Deep 113 “Why?” Cobalt couldn't stop himself.” “I'd not believe Eoghann incapable of lying.” he said. “But you are still Unseelie. A weary note of surrender shot through with bitterness. “But my father is Seelie. Help me understand.” Instead of answering. He'd already ended things himself when he was summoned and sentenced.” he said. “Uriskel. You—a bottom-crawling.
by Seelie Law.114 S. Uriskel shot from the chair. “They'd not have punished a highborn for such an affair. “Explain this to me.” He moved away. I am the perfect spy. “Wretch! I saved your miserable life!” “Put me down.” Cobalt said. “These other Seelie. I can move freely among the Unseelie.” “It's not permitted. “How. suggesting that he'd already experienced these penalties firsthand. Not yet. and he tried not to direct it at Uriskel. never belonging to either. exactly. burning with rage.” Anger kindled in him. to garner the Court's interest. They must have been. “Why do you not leave the realm? There are many Fae here who stay to escape the Laws.” A cold weight settled in Cobalt's chest.” Uriskel relaxed his grip with an animal grunt and turned his back. did you save my life?” “Never mind that.” “Uriskel…” “No. You'd best continue blaming me for everything.” Uriskel raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “I'll not take your pity or your feigned concern.” Cobalt's fingers dug his palms. There are penalties for my disobedience. W. I suppose they were highborn. . Vaughn “Dead.” In a blink. His stomach gave an odd little twist.” Uriskel shuddered. Why?” “Because you were not the only Seelie to have fallen into his web. nearly lifting him from the floor. The perfect assassin.” Cobalt touched his shoulder.” “Yes. “I was spared in exchange for my life in service to the high court.” Cobalt frowned. He flinched and whirled on him. What hell Uriskel must have been through— playing one side to serve the other. “The court sent you to expose Eoghann.” “You bastard. then. “The Seelie Court enjoys their games. You threw me to the wolves to save your own hide.” “I see.” He closed his eyes. They'd not be amenable to losing their favorite pawn. Killed at birth. “You gave me to them because I was lowborn. He grabbed a handful of shirt and jerked Cobalt forward. I lied.
“What have I done to merit such kindness from you?” “Do not accuse me of being kind. The rest of the court agreed. Cobalt couldn't speak. What games they play with the lives of Faekyn.” “You'll eat those words. “You mentioned cards. Or his ale had soured. “Why?” “Perhaps your face displeased him.” A slight smirk lifted his lips.” Uriskel almost laughed. I asked that you be banished instead.” “Thank you.” For a long moment. Work awaited. but he could not help feeling there was more to the situation that had not been confessed. Will Ambrose. And don't thank me.” His teeth ground audibly.” “I am that. “He called for your execution. How about a round before work?” Uriskel shot him a narrow-eyed stare. Guilt over his shabby treatment of Uriskel gnawed at him. “So now you're attempting to befriend me?” “No. Come on. breedling? It's more your speed. at last. “I've a reputation to uphold. “The Seelie king ordered me to testify against you. Finally he said. So here you are. Who knows why the nobles act as they do?” Uriskel let out a rush of air through his teeth. I simply want to humiliate you at nine-card don.” Cobalt led the way to the stairs and wondered how he could have been so wrong. and a vein throbbed in his temple. Thirty minutes before opening.” He glanced at the clock on the wall.” The twist became a vise clamping his gut. You. “Sure you'd not rather play fish. . Ciaràn of the glen. He pushed it aside for the moment. And then. Not even Eoghann. Cobalt. and here you'll stay.” “You're deaf as you are thick.Skin Deep 115 “Sheltered whelp! You've no idea what goes on in the court. and no one else. or the sky was gray that day.
W. A rash of some kind on his face and arms. “It's about quarter to eleven. And there was something wrong with his skin. expecting to be propositioned for change.” he said. “Do you have the time?” Will was already digging quarters loose when his brain processed the man's words. “Excuse me. A late-night jogger overtook him and left whispers of music from her iPod in her wake. “Oh. There weren't many people out on this block. This is not a date. For Christ's sake.116 S. He patted his pockets automatically. Sure. headed in the opposite direction. Scarified tattoos. a block away from the Grotto. He'd spent most of the day sleeping. At least he hadn't gotten drunk before he came here.” He nodded. he reminded himself firmly. Will thought. A couple holding hands passed him without a glance. hands stuffed in his pockets. The leaning man looked up when he passed. What he'd taken for a rash was actually tattoos.” he said. “No prob—” A quick. Just ahead. He would not make a fool of himself. but the markings had been made with obvious skill and care. staring at his feet. a lone man leaned against a utility pole. They weren't . Homeless. Cobalt wanted to talk body art and nothing more. The man's appearance should have been repulsive. Vaughn Chapter Sixteen The cab dropped Will off twenty minutes before eleven. The raised lines appeared on every bit of his exposed flesh. and the rest shopping for something to wear—and feeling like the stereotypical gay man the Dub thought he was. and the patterns suggested they continued elsewhere. he'd actually considered getting a manicure. sharp breath cut him off.” “Thank you. He appeared to be talking to himself. He'd talked himself out of that before some overzealous nail jockey could convince him that real men wore pink nail polish or some such bullshit.
His hands. So much that once they ran out of skin to mark. “Are you all right?” “Sure. “Nice to see you again. they'd go back and start getting cover-ups.” “That's it. though.” . uh…” “Malik. sat behind the table in the entrance room. he'd taken addiction to a whole new level. Shades of red. That's where I'm going. and sometimes even the pain. “Oh. Will had to wonder what kind of man would submit to being cut this much. “Will you be getting your own.” Will resisted a strange urge to thank the man and hurried the rest of the way to the Grotto. “Mr.Skin Deep 117 monochromatic either. Did Cobalt do your pieces?” “Some of them. “Um. reading a paperback book. The artist had somehow elicited a range of colors.” Another smile.” The man smiled. “Sorry. “How do you—wait.” “Yeah. then?” “Huh?” “You look to be headed there. I'm bad with names. Ambrose. He finally realized he was staring.” “Of course you don't.” The guy was starting to creep him out. The kid Tess had introduced him to the first time here. I'd better go. Browns. and for a moment he forgot why he was out. “I…” “Cobalt.” Will shook his head. her brother's roommate. Dark blues. “Look. from deep maroon to pale scar pink. Even some black.” He pointed toward the Grotto. or have the older tats removed to make room for new ones. “He's quite talented. He felt better once the door of the Grotto was between him and the scarred creep. Sorry. Nice work you have. Yes.” he blurted. even his fingers. Breathtaking as it was.” he said.” he said. If that was the case with the guy back there. He'd heard of tattoo addicts—people who craved the experience.” Will pulled himself together and smiled. He looked up with a smile that faltered when Will slammed the door shut a little too hard. “Don't want to miss my appointment. His mind felt foggy.” The name brought his focus back. of the tattoo process. were marked with scars.
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“It isn't an easy one to remember.” Malik closed the book, stood, and opened the inner door. Music rolled out—mellow indie rock, vaguely familiar. “Go right in. You're expected.” “Thanks.” Will entered the darkened room. For a business that was a few minutes from closing, there were still plenty of people hanging around. Most of the tables were occupied. A few stragglers stood alone or in small groups. No one looked ready to leave. He looked toward the glass booths at the other end of the room and spotted Cobalt in the center one, talking to a shirtless woman with a fresh tattoo on her chest. Cobalt appeared to be holding gauze bandages in one hand and a tube of ointment in the other. Will grinned. Apparently the man couldn't help spreading the Gospel of Wound Care. He headed for an empty table to wait. On the way, someone called his name. He looked around. Didn't see anyone familiar. “Your name is Will, isn't it?” This time he saw the speaker. The redheaded fugitive. Skelly. He moved toward the table where Skelly sat with two others, a Goth girl and a guy in a cable-knit wool sweater and Dockers. Skelly grinned at him. “Cat got your tongue?” “Funny,” the sweater guy said. The girl silenced him with a look. “Hey.” Will put his hands in his pockets. “I'm just waiting for Cobalt. Planning a piece. You know.” He had no idea what to say to any of them. Cobalt never mentioned why this guy was a fugitive. Hopefully not because he was a mass murderer. And he'd never seen the other two—though they seemed odd. The three of them together didn't quite fit the scene, but Will couldn't put a finger on the problem. “Wait with us, then,” Skelly said. “We'll not bite…though I'd watch the girl.” The girl in question narrowed her eyes at him, then favored Will with a disinterested stare. “I'm Shade,” she said. “That's Nix.” “And you're Will.” Nix patted the empty seat between him and Skelly. The gesture should have looked prissy and ridiculous, but it put Will instantly at ease. “Have a seat. We were about to ask Skelly to show off his card tricks.”
“Were we, now.” Shade frowned. “I could think of more interesting activities. Watching paint dry, for example.” Nix gave her a brilliant smile. “Want some help with that stick in your ass, love?” “No. It's quite comfortable, thank you.” “It should be. It's been in there for years.” Nix winked at Will. “I hope you'll forgive my wife. She's a bit antisocial.” “And water's a bit wet.” Skelly produced a rumpled deck of playing cards and shuffled them with the rapid perfection of a Vegas dealer. He fanned them facedown on the table. “Choose a card, Will.” “Okay.” He teased one out, pulled it toward him, and picked it up. The jack of hearts. Skelly collected the cards with a practiced flick and split the deck one-handed. “Drop it in there,” he said. “Don't let me see it, now.” Will obliged, curious in spite of lingering reservations about the man. Skelly closed in the card with a snap and shuffled the deck so many times, Will expected the spots to fall off them. He spread them across the table again. Lifted the last card by a corner and ran a finger along the fanned deck to flip the cards faceup in a graceful ripple. When he reached the end, he reversed direction and turned them back over. A single card remained faceup in the line. Skelly slid it free. The jack of hearts. Will couldn't hide his amazement. He smiled. “That's the one.” “Well done!” Nix clapped a few times. “You must tell me where you've learned this.” A dark, pained expression shadowed Skelly's face. He gathered the cards and made them vanish. If he'd put them in a pocket, the motion had been too fast to follow. “I'll not reveal my secrets.” He spoke lightly enough, but his eyes held a warning that Nix seemed to understand. “If I'm not mistaken,” Shade said, “our host approaches.” Will looked toward the back of the room and spotted a tall figure, unmistakably Cobalt, making his way to them. But Shade sat facing the front, and she hadn't turned around before she made the announcement. A disquieting shiver licked at his spine. How the hell did she know that?
S. W. Vaughn
Shade smirked. “Woman's intuition,” she said, as though she'd read his mind. “Eyes in the back of my head.” The unsolicited explanation didn't exactly make him feel better. Before he could drive himself crazy with speculation, Cobalt was there. His blue eyes fastened on Will, and his sexy smile seemed meant for no one else. “I hope my friends haven't put you out much,” he said. “They've a knack for frightening my customers.” “Hello, Cobalt. Nice to see you, Cobalt.” Nix grinned and winked at Will again. “I think that's our cue to exit, love.” He stood and stretched. “Skelly, we're off to catch that new horror flick. Join us?” Skelly groaned and slouched in his chair. “Fabulous,” he said. “Is there likely to be much drying paint?” “To be sure, we'll drop you in an alley. You can watch the graffiti.” Shade rose to her feet like a ghost drifting from a grave. Worry rippled her slack features for an instant. “There's a foul wind out.” Cobalt frowned. “Perhaps you should stay in tonight.” “No need. We're three, and the cloud cover is thick.” “Very well.” He glanced at Skelly. “Stay with them.” “Oh, I wouldn't dream of leaving their side for a moment.” “How fortunate we are,” Shade said drily. Will followed the bizarre exchange in silence. It was like being stuck in some low-budget experimental sitcom. Conversations Overheard in the Mental Institution. Cobalt banished his unease with a grin. “I've set things out upstairs,” he said. “If you're ready? Malik will close up down here.” The lights came up as if Cobalt had given a signal. The remaining customers came to life, standing from tables, collecting jackets and cell phones and personal items. Conversation levels rose and fell, and a general sprawling shuffle toward the exit began. Will roused himself from the chair, intending to make the appropriate social noises. Goodbye, nice to meet you, see you around. He breathed in—and Cobalt's scent filled him,
“It's…imported. “Where have you been all my life?” he said with a grin. he'd be under observation while Cobalt put his hands on him—and he wasn't sure he could control himself. The bottle had no label.” “Alcohol I've never heard of.” He cut his gaze away. “I need to hook up with your supplier. He locked gazes with the artist and refused to look away. It was silky and sweet with a smooth bite. though. He blinked to clear the spell and turned to the table with good-bye on his lips. Cobalt came around the couch. “I'm not working now. rested on the coffee table in the upstairs loft. Will followed him. Will stared at it and wondered if he'd have the guts to go through with scarification. More than that.Skin Deep 121 overpowered his senses. no markings at all. so I hoped we could have that drink we missed yesterday. bearing a tray with two long-stemmed glasses and a corked blue bottle in an ice bucket. The idea that he might enjoy the pain worried him. thicker and more battered than the sample catalogs downstairs. “We should…” “Upstairs. I'm impressed.” Will struggled to keep his voice even and watched him pour.” Trying not to read anything into that suggestive statement. “Will?” Cobalt sounded as breathless as he felt. those lips. velvet red.” he said anyway. “Good-bye. Ambrose. ***** A leather-bound book. The memory of where they'd been yesterday throbbed in his stiffening cock. Cobalt smiled.” He sipped and damn near moaned in pleasure. “Come.” Way to not make a fool of yourself. He set it next to the book. Cobalt corked the bottle and handed him a glass. like sugared raspberries blended with a dash of exotic spice and a hint of chocolate. Right. God. Skelly and the odd couple were gone.” he said. “Elderberry wine. “Shiraz?” he guessed. pulled the bottle out. That tongue.” . “Interested?” “Sounds great. His tongue wanted to run off and marry the stuff. I've looked forward to this. and the liquid it contained was a dark. This is amazing.
” he said.” “And custom is original stuff?” Cobalt nodded and flipped to the center of the book. Stock designs. someone I know.” He opened the book to the first page.” “Oh. W. Cobalt laughed. I see. though that's usually ink work. A line of scorpions snaking down a spine. I've had clients who've sketched their own ideas or worked with freelance artists. It calls for a greater commitment.122 S. I can recommend one if you like. Woman's ankle with flower. I don't want the same thing a hundred other people have. and I'd rather work with…well. Man's arm with star.” “Now we're getting somewhere. How much thought have you given to your piece?” “Uh…” Damn. “If I'm going to have something permanent on my body. You're welcome to a bottle or three. An artist creates the design from scratch. Tribal and Celtic patterns are commonly done. “So. and popular in appeal. Will turned the page.” . You'll need to work with someone on the design. “All right. It's perfectly fine.” Smiling. Things were blurry after that. Most stock are simple. I don't know any artists.” Will bit his lip without realizing it. “I think I'd like a custom piece. Here was a dragon wrapped around a man's thigh. I think I would. The Superman shield. “Custom involves more extensive work. He hadn't gotten further than Cobalt touching him in front of a live audience. You may want to start there. “Me?” “Yes. This decision should not be rushed. I can render from photos. raised his glass in the air. a fish. You'd not believe how many adults still want to be Superman. “These first few are smaller pieces. and there are multiple rendering sessions. “Can you design one for me?” Cobalt went still. or a snake. a star. A single rose. Nicely done but unimaginative.” Cobalt sat beside him and pulled the book closer. Vaughn “I've a full case. unobjectionable. And then there's custom design.” “What's a stock design?” “Preset images made for multiple reproduction.” Cobalt leaned back. “Much.” Will decided he'd imagined Cobalt's voice catching on the last word. a photo of a woman's arm marked with a trinity eye. “What's the alternative to stock?” “There are a few. and took a sip.
I'm not upset or anything.” Cobalt closed his eyes. “I do. So I'll offer it—if you truly want to take it.” . I don't know if I'm ready.” Cobalt's voice barely rose above a whisper.” He definitely hadn't imagined the catch this time. but…” “It's all right.” he said. And the last one broke my heart. Will. I'd be giving you part of myself. But before he could think through the stupid mistake he was about to make. “It's fine. “You must understand something.” “Will. really. “For me. though. “I've created designs only for a few. “I've not created designs in a very long time.” He smiled.” Disappointment soured the sweet aftertaste of the wine in his mouth.Skin Deep 123 “Oh.” “I want to. Those I cared for in deeper ways. but it wasn't a happy expression.” A breath shuddered from him. I render them. “I should probably hold off on this anyway. creation is commitment.” For a moment Will forgot how to breathe. “No. he heard himself say.
He'd done so with Eoghann. And there'll be other concerns outside of the design itself. He'd not add Will's name to that list. “I can imagine which ones. Will.” he said. “How rude I've been. and death. Vaughn Chapter Seventeen If ever there were a moment Cobalt wished himself dead. “We'll not need this. and I've blathered on about cutting you. this was it. W. trying to sound casual.” Will blanched and looked away.” he said. “I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to have you cut me. Somehow he would have to take this promise back. Certain areas are more tender than others and will cause more pain. The words were hammer blows. He'd come as close to the truth as he could with his explanation.” He managed not to ravish Will with his eyes. “Forgive me. then. envisioning the body beneath the clothes.” “Such as?” “Placement. aware of Will's gaze on him. Some other time. when Will was not sitting beside him catching that luscious lower lip and driving his blood to boil. Cobalt forced all thoughts of bonding and claiming Will's body from his mind. But just now. hoping—expecting—to be turned down.” Will hitched a smile. All Fae bonded with marks of their own design. the three humans he'd condemned to nonlife. from simple cuts to elaborate patterns and images. for one. “Sensitivity is a consideration there. “It will take some time to decide.” .” he muttered. Commitment was the last thing he should have with Will. He reached over and closed the book. He could not design a piece for anyone without bonding with them. Your injuries have yet to heal. Waiting for a response. Will watched him. he couldn't bear to disappoint Will again. Find a way to change the situation. He would work things out. He knew it would be wicked of him to continue this charade. And of course.124 S.
“I didn't mean to hurt you. Their bodies impacted.” Cobalt stood and extended a hand. He overcompensated and pulled Will to his feet harder than necessary. “See? No gritting. I forgot what it's called. Will. You'll not take advantage of him.” Will nodded. lightning struck and traveled through his arm. I'm sitting down and hardly gritting my teeth. I'll—” “Relax.” Cobalt shook his head and returned the expression.” “How do you mean?” “Healing me. “Oh. it's working. then. Having Will ask so directly to be marked nearly unhinged him. I mean. “But the physical side of things still needs tending. You'll not suffer a moment longer than you have to because of that monster. Have you applied anything today?” “I. “Actually. We'll remedy that now. was a physical pain. I'll not begin the actual process until you're healed.” Will ducked his head a bit. Lust in his gaze. A quick hiss escaped Will's lips. uh.” He swallowed a moan and shifted against the stirring in his groin. “Come with me.” “You're hurting? You should have told me. So…I guess the answer's no there. Without thinking. Not many could joke about such monstrous abuse in so short a time.” “Well. Cobalt threw his free arm around his shoulders to catch him. “Whatever you're doing with your cleaning and your tubes of gunk.” Hoarse words. Letting go.” He smiled. When Will took it. My room… It'll be easier. The fire in his eyes banked but didn't go out. you're helping that along nicely. I'm sorry. Of course.” “Well. You can lie down.” “We will?” “Yes. “At the least. It was a joke. straight to his cock.” Will drank the last of the wine in his glass with obvious pleasure.” he said. Will bounced back and stumbled. showing all his teeth. amazed once again at his strength. forgot to get the stuff.” He moved his arm away.” “You didn't. stepping back. . “But we're a ways from that yet.Skin Deep 125 “Yes. Please. your emotions have healed a bit.
“I'll be quick about this. He opened the medicine cabinet. Vaughn At last Cobalt had to look away. And waited until the bed creaked under Will's weight to return to the bedroom. and gestured. “All right. W. Cobalt forced his hands not to linger on Will's ass. black and blue. The lidocaine took longer. He'd been beaten like a mangy cur. But it looked so much worse. A gruesome kaleidoscope patchwork covered him from shoulders to thighs—red and orange. He failed. And laughed. He tried to steel himself for the sight he knew awaited him. turned on a light. Just be a minute. But should you change your mind…” He crossed to the bed and sat down. less than a week ago. “You'll need your clothes off. isn't it?” “No. He gripped the sink. yellow and green. There was more ground to cover. Will.” Damn.” “Thank you.126 S. The bloody welts were puckered and stiff.” Cobalt swallowed bile. grabbed the bacitracin and lidocaine. taut. as though it pained him. Cobalt slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. They don't give gays conjugal visits in prison. and he shoved a knuckle in his mouth. Will's muscles fluttered and clenched beneath his fingers. I'll be glad to snap his neck like a twig. “Done?” Will nearly choked out the word. Police officer or not. Firm. His eyes burned. The bruised flesh was hot.” “All right. Why did he have to agree so readily? It would be impossible to leave him alone. Of course it did.” He applied the antibiotic first. afraid Will could hear the pounding of his heart. He led him into the bedroom. It was healing. The fading bruises had spread and blossomed with awful colors. but he didn't make a sound.” His throat tried to close as he added. “Pretty. He knew that. Will disrobing— slowly.” Cobalt stared at him. listened to the rustling from the next room.” “Please don't. Will stirred and looked over his shoulder. . “Say the word. “I'll get what I need.
No. “I haven't even gotten yours off once. Gods help him. “Yes. Gods. . Will had so much more strength than the others—than any human he'd met. Please. “Fair now?” “No. It's… What?” “This is the third time you've gotten my shirt off.” He walked into the bathroom without looking back and closed the door.” Cobalt obliged. But none of these things came out. Climbed up and knelt beside Will. God. He sat on the bed. “Would you like…more…wine…?” Will hadn't dressed.” Groaning. He'd not risk Will's life for a possibility. tugging his shirt over his head and down his arms. I know it stings. Perhaps he was strong enough to face the truth and keep his sanity. “Will…” “Cobalt. and he shouldn't touch him ever. then?” “Yes.” “Mmm. cupped his hands around his face. Brushed his mouth with his lips. The bed creaked.” Half tease. He waited another minute and came out. “No. “Now?” he breathed. But he couldn't touch him now. “I'll put these back so you can get dressed. Yet part of him insisted it could work. He bent to Will. I'm sorry. He mustn't. then his tongue.” He could wait no longer. He wanted Will more every moment. Heat flowered in his groin. slid them and his underwear down. Kicked his shoes free. You're not.” A slow smile worked its way across his face. Sweet elderberry wine and sweeter flesh.” Will reached out and brushed the bulge in his jeans. “I'm naked. It would surely destroy them both. yes. he unfastened them.” He wanted to say that he couldn't. “Shall I make it fair. He let it fall between them.” Cobalt twisted the caps back on the ointments. “It's not fair. the sheet pulled to his waist.” “Will. Waited. He came to the bed. the heat. Yanked the rest off.Skin Deep 127 “Yes. half longing. What had happened. He wanted to warn him again what would happen.” he said.
” “You won't.” Will's whisper tickled his lips. And Cobalt was a god—dark and wild and perfect. struggling for the surface.” The husky voice dragged him from his visual feast. “Wait. “It's the sexiest damn thing. “You've not answered me.” . “Fuck me.” Desire threaded his voice. Strength. W. I guess.” Will pulled back. “I'll hurt you. Refusing to fuck him because he wanted to worship him instead. Will had such strength. “I'll not fuck you.” He swallowed. “I need all of you. It was nearly impossible for a human. Will could pick up his mating scent. Vaughn “Cobalt.” he murmured. “Answer what?” “May I worship you?” “Um. Will shivered against him.” “Good. You deserve to be loved. “Let me touch you. Will. naked and in bed with him. Gods didn't bow to acolytes.128 S.” The demand drew a gasp from him. He'd heard of it only among the strongest empaths—those who felt the emotions of others as truly as their own.” he grated.” He placed a kiss on his forehead. Here was the most incredible body he'd ever seen.” A low laugh. “Stay here.” Will decided he'd died. For a moment he couldn't do anything but stare. “Let me worship you.” “No. “Does it matter why?” he finally managed to say. worshipped. “No. Please fuck me. “I can't.” He kissed him again.” Something deep inside him writhed and strained. deeper. Lyle must have killed him.” “Cobalt…” He tipped his chin with a finger. It's not as bad as it looks. You deserve better. Wind and water. I'll be just a moment. “Why do you smell like that?” “Like what?” “Wood smoke. And heaven was Cobalt.
That thick cock of his was going to be a tight fit.” Will took a breath. He could no more say don't have sex with me to Cobalt now than he could go find Lyle and say please beat the shit out of me again. Did he mean now? Never? Will didn't care anymore. “Good idea. waited. “You've got gunk for every occasion. “Please…” . It won't be tonight.” “Huh?” Cobalt guided him back to the mattress. “Not like this. If Cobalt didn't touch him soon.” he said. Cobalt mounted the bed. He approached and held the tube out for inspection. He wasn't supposed to get involved with anyone.Skin Deep 129 Will watched him climb down and walk naked to the bathroom. slid the sheet down. stopped with his mouth a few hairs from Will's. Will understood the meaning of the word swoon. Beautiful.” Will murmured through a rush of heat. before he fell more in love than he already was. “That would be fucking you. Warm. What an ass. “I'll not be able to turn back from you.” At once. “There'll be time and place for that.” Smiling. he reached aside and turned a dial set on the wall. don't you?” “Of course. “No.” He smoothed Will's hair back. directing him with his hands to lie on his back. he would shatter. He had a tube. Astroglide. Damn the consequences. Second thoughts tried to cool him down when Cobalt was out of his sight. And there wasn't a chance in hell he'd be able to write this off as a one-night stand. One he looked forward to immensely. Cobalt leaned down. The lights dimmed.” Cobalt whispered. from the stylized ankh tattooed just above his split to the chiseled muscle that flexed when he moved. He should stop now before the worship started. Not happening. Will failed to suppress a laugh. trailed a finger down his jaw. Cobalt returned. and rolled on his side. He rose to hands and knees. love. “You're sure I'll not hurt you?” “Yes. There should be poems written about Cobalt's ass. firm hands bracketed his hips. It was a Very Bad Idea.
Cobalt broke away slowly. He positioned himself over Will and pressed his lips to the hollow of his throat. An answering gasp had him reaching. His groin arched in response. Cobalt. every time his heart beat he thought it would split. Cobalt hummed his pleasure.” he begged in a ragged whisper. probed him. His cock was so hard. his cock delighting equally in the sight and sensation of Cobalt's mouth clamped on it. and his tongue found the back of the stud through his lip. moving up and down with short. love. “Ah. The silk tongue retraced the path up his cock. “Yes. eliciting a gasp.” Smiling. I need…” Smoldering blue eyes lifted to meet his. leaving a line of liquid fire. Will shuddered. Electric heat surged through his mouth. Firm lips on his flesh. He closed his eyes and gave over to pure sensation—the heat of Cobalt's body.130 S. Cobalt's tongue opened him. then shifted and gave his attentions to the other one. A hand came to rest on one knee and trailed slowly up his thigh. A tongue flicked his nipple. Worked himself back until he straddled Will's legs. threading fingers through dark hair. Will panted like an asthmatic. Will thrust back. His eyes flew open. firm strokes. “Touch me. “Christ. Naked desire burned in his gaze. He scraped his teeth on the soft skin. Cobalt licked again and gave him a gentle nip. “So sensitive. holding on while he drowned in the kiss. sending him sliding into the heated sheath of his throat. He clutched handfuls of sheet and groaned through clenched teeth when Cobalt drew his balls into his mouth and sucked.” he breathed. He was going to come already.” Cobalt moved down. trailing kisses down his chest.” Will's eyes fluttered back in their sockets. He felt hot breath just before Cobalt's tongue lapped his head and slid down the underside of his shaft. his scent filling everything. He tickled the hardened nipple for a few seconds. He raised his head to watch. As do I.” “Then don't. sucking. He didn't want to end it yet. “Uhnn. “I'm afraid I can't wait much longer. W. Vaughn Cobalt completed the circuit. Cobalt reached the top and opened up. and the vibration ripped a gasp from Will's lips. “Wait…” Cobalt released his cock. Will. kissed his stomach. and he cried out. Will tensed in anticipation. Bent to Will's engorged cock. circled the peak with his tongue. looked up at him. Jesus. I want you in me. Will's breath left on a moan.” .
Will felt every inch of flesh glide through. Fingers smoothed cool. He arched up. pumping his ass full with hot. “Oh-God-please-Cobalt-now. “Will. wiggled his ass. “More.Skin Deep 131 He made a strangled sound and fumbled for the lube. Will obliged with a moan. as he knew it would be.” he whispered. demanding. The pain was there. repeated.” “Yes.” “Yes.” he groaned. screaming climax. Grabbed a pillow and slid a hand under Will's ass. Will's cock twitched and throbbed in time with his heart. Fingers dug into his flesh. desperate. “Cobalt. Dropped it beside him. “Need you. You'll be the death of me. “Lift. his cum spurting with jet intensity to spray Cobalt's chest. Will's hands sought his back and clung there. He pushed in slowly. until his breathing settled to a ragged crawl. curled his body down. His balls were tighter than a virgin's ass. Sensations swirled and spiraled through Will's body. “Tight. I'm gonna come. Will's breath came in snatches and gasps. The hands on his hips convulsed. Cobalt positioned the pillow under his hips.” Cobalt rocked back.” he gasped. He kissed him once. His head nudged the sweet spot with every thrust. A languid pace. love.” .” “Mmm…” Cobalt drew out farther. Christ. The waves became hurricanes. broke harder. wet bursts. His cock tapped Cobalt's stomach in time with the increasing frenzy of thrusts. “Faster.” A fiercely sensual growl ripped from Cobalt's throat. eased in. small breathless noises torn from his lips. Still inside him. Now. The sensation brought Will to hoarse. like the opening measures of a love song.” Will urged. building in waves that crested higher. Cobalt cried out and shuddered. Cobalt held his hips and placed his swollen head against him. Cobalt lowered himself onto Will and held him tightly.” On his knees between Will's legs. Finally. Again. but sheer pleasure eclipsed it. At his touch. pushed his legs gently apart. Cobalt buried himself completely and let out a trembling breath. “Harder. thick wetness on his opening. “Ah. shifted from rocking to pumping. He plunged deep inside.” Will bucked against him.
love.” “Oh.” “About what?” “That I'll not be able to turn back. You're amazing. God…” “Is that a yes.” Cobalt didn't bother going slow this time. growing hard again. “Not if you kill me first. W.132 S. “I'll not tire of having you. . And I did warn you. then?” Will shivered and gave an eager thrust. Renewed lust kindled him like lightning. and Will felt his cock stir inside him.” He shifted his hips. “Damn. “Yes.” A small smile.” he murmured. Vaughn The words penetrated from somewhere inside a hazy cocoon of ecstasy. As long as you'll have me still. “You are divine.
The back of his black shirt glistened with moisture. leaving the door ajar in case Will awoke and wondered where he'd gone.” . It's Santa Claus. “Who's there?” he demanded. and Will hadn't yet recovered physically from his trauma. “You don't intend to put the light out. But the rest of him didn't appear wet. “Do you need the damned light?” Cobalt frowned and moved around the front. he inched away and rose as evenly as he could. He'd eventually plead exhaustion himself to save Will from having to admit defeat. “Uriskel?” “No. What pure bliss. then. Sighing. and he could not continue lying to him. Will didn't stir. his face buried in a cushion. A low snarl drifted from the vicinity of the couch. and soon his restlessness would disturb Will. But he'd damned himself now.Skin Deep 133 Chapter Eighteen The warm weight against his side made Cobalt loath to leave his bed. And what hours they had been. Something would have to give. “Drowning your sorrows. You seemed through with it. Toward the end. One hand trailed on the floor. Perhaps it had rained. are you?” “Didn't think you'd mind much. and the wine bottle—empty now—lay a few inches away. and squinted through it. But sleep would not come. Merry Christmas. He could no longer imagine life without Will. Uriskel lay facedown on the couch.” He turned his head until one eye surfaced. He was likely exhausted—their lovemaking had lasted hours. He walked down the few steps to the loft and turned up the lights. He slipped a robe on and left the bedroom.” His voice sounded muffled and thick. Cobalt sensed his strength flagging even as his words insisted he could go on.
“Besides. “How went the evening? Shade's intuitions are unfortunate but sometimes true. “Blast. “Fool. “Uriskel?” A heavy thump shook the floor.” Cobalt slid a hand under his shoulder. even as his heart ached for the halfling. wasn't it?” “'Course it was.” He closed his eyes. “That hurts. “Told you not to touch me. I worried. winced.” He smirked. you'll not.” Cobalt picked up the bottle and carried it back to the case. “I'll sleep here.” Uriskel muttered.” “Don't touch me. I've not been here long. Cobalt.134 S. “Stubborn ass.” “Sure you've only had the one bottle?” He crossed the room and knelt next to him. Cobalt's brow furrowed. “Come on. “It was him. Uriskel had fallen and landed in an awkward sprawl with one leg still resting on the couch.” No response.” A breathless grunt. Cobalt whirled.” .” “Take my hand. Truly. “Perhaps I'll go to bed after all. Vaughn “No.” “Take my hand. “Fetch me a blanket.” “No.” Uriskel took it and let Cobalt help him up.” He strained to move.” “Why did you not tell me?” “I'd no wish to interrupt your tryst. “What's the matter?” “Nothing.” Ice crept through Cobalt's veins.” His gaze slid from the outstretched hand to Cobalt's face. “Why do you not turn me out? You understand he'll kill you for it. W. will you? I'll just bleed on your floor.” he said.” he repeated. I'll help you to bed. Uriskel hissed and jerked away—but not before Cobalt felt the wetness on his shirt and pulled his hand out streaked with blood.” “You've a death wish.
Not as bad as the first time Uriskel had stumbled through his door. “What?” “He knows things.” He peeled off his shirt. “Better?” Uriskel nodded without turning. “He can't… How could he? If you've not told him. the depth varying from scratches to heavy gouges. At least the bastard didn't draw it out this time. he knows about your Will.” Cobalt waited while he put the bloodied clothing back on. Two separate symbols scored each shoulder—septagrams inside circles.” he said. did you?” “Uriskel.” “No. he's no fool. One inside another.Skin Deep 135 “Let me heal you. the lines jagged.” Uriskel straightened the shirt. how could he know?” . flinching when it cleared his shoulders. “How did you escape him?” “He underestimates my capacities. Unfortunately.” He turned away. “Cobalt. “He'll not do so again.” he gasped. though.” He shook his head.” “He's asleep. “I've not told him anything. over and over.” “Isn't your human still here? You'll risk him finding out. But…” The ice returned to his blood. Seven-point stars were carved into his back. “By the gods.” “You don't say.” “Yes. but hexed enough so that he couldn't heal the wounds completely. as though the reinforcement would render it a lie. It was sloppy work.” Uriskel faced him but wouldn't meet his eyes.” Cobalt whispered. yes.” He looked up. so he couldn't kill me.” Shivering. “I rather liked this shirt. stiffened. “Shame. “All right.” “Do you know yet what he wants from you?” “Information. Shutting my mouth. Cobalt held a hand near his back and summoned his magic. He sent healing into them until his spark was nearly gone. “He's lost his mind. There was resistance. “The clouds never cleared.” “Wore him out. and there was true regret in his face.
“And you must let him go. With five fingers left over. . so he was probably used to being up through the small hours. And it had seemed like more than a fuck. but it went a hell of a long way toward healing other things. Drops and spatters of water decorated the outside of the glass. though. Damn. Like his battered emotions. just enough to reveal shadows and shapes. W. No one answered. Worshipped. He headed for the loft. And there were no windows to help with a guess either. City lights glittered and stretched to the shores of the river. He'd certainly claimed to be. He couldn't have been asleep too long—it didn't feel like morning yet.136 S. but a smudged gray band across the dark horizon proclaimed the approach of the sun. Phenomenal sex might not cure bruises. washed his hands and face. Cobalt might have gone out to his loft or something. Will knocked at the bathroom. relieved himself. The bathroom door stood open. Where was Cobalt? He might've considered the possibility that it really had been a dream. He went in. Uriskel was right. Your human won't. Despite the open door. Vaughn “He knows. I'll survive Eoghann's torments. The continued silence bothered him.” Uriskel reached out briefly. Sore in all the right places. The view from the windows confirmed it was still late—or early. The lights were on low. and so did the door to the bedroom. And alone. drowsy. It was raining. He should have been exhausted. Cobalt had to be there. So maybe Cobalt was a light sleeper. and at first he thought it was empty too. then changed his mind and lowered his arm. depending on which end of the day the approach took.. What time was it? He remembered looking for and not finding a clock the last time he was in this room.” Cobalt's eyes burned.m. That's what Cobalt called it. Will could count the number of partners he'd had who paid that much attention to his needs in bed on one hand. Will climbed out of bed and got dressed. The Grotto usually stayed open until two a. ***** Will woke sated. He sat up slowly. if it weren't for the impossible-to-mistake physical sensation of having been fucked for hours. he silently corrected himself. For once in his life. He stretched and smiled in the lowered light of Cobalt's room.
” “Really.” Unforgiving green eyes glared at him. Have you seen Cobalt?” “Yes.” “I don't mean you. “But he always comes to his senses eventually. “Knock it off.” His teeth practically chattered. “Cobalt?” “Not exactly. “Poor fool. I'll just wait.” Will waited. I don't know. Skelly shook his head.” The figure turned. “Where is he?” A wicked grin surfaced. No. “He's busy.” he said. He took a step forward. They all believe that at some point.” Will ran a hand through his hair and tried to feel as confident as he sounded. “You…you're lying. he said.” . “The distractions.Skin Deep 137 Finally. now?” “I want to hear this from Cobalt. Don't mess with me. “Do you think you mean something to him? That you're special?” Yes. When the redhead offered nothing further. that's cool. “Skelly.” The warning note in his words made Will's skin crawl. when everything he needs is here?” “Funny. Will noticed the tall figure to the left of the windows. And he has no desire to see you again. watching the rain. You can't be that stupid. a languid stroll that screamed self-possession and dismissal. Will. “Er. The ones he uses to try and make me jealous.” “Why would he go out. His stomach twisted and churned like he'd swallowed a washing machine. “Maybe. “If he went out. hating the quaver in his voice.” “Am I.” A whisper of discomfort chased his disappointment.” Skelly started across the room.” “They?” He couldn't seem to spit out more than one word at a time.” “Come on. He's already apologized.
It contained nothing but the cold truth. W. then. “Why would Cobalt want you. “Do you need proof? Here. “We're a matched set. and incense. Earth. when the man made himself right at home. you see.” Images raced through Will's head. when he has me?” “I…” Dimly. half-blind and hurting more with every step. fire. . The redhead flashed another condescending. The churning in his stomach intensified. Skelly was gorgeous and exotic. Ice in his words. His gaze was drawn to Skelly. Will turned and stumbled for the stairs. A strong wave of scent plowed over him. He'd thought no one could ever cause him more pain than Lyle. then. and it was all he could do to keep from puking right there. Will.” So cold. Exciting and perfect. The indulgent dismissal exhibited at the Asylum when Skelly left him to his “little friend. A hundred times more man than he could ever be.” The familiarity with Cobalt's other friends. Destiny and fate and all that.138 S. with a striking resemblance to the one Cobalt had in the same place. The tears deepened his shame. “I have to go. “Honestly.” “Good-bye. territorial smile. The way Skelly had entered Cobalt's bedroom the first time he'd met.” He lifted his shirt. Vaughn Skelly arched an eyebrow. Jesus. and Cobalt's obvious concern for Skelly's welfare when he'd left. His chest bore an elaborate scarified Celtic knot. and relentless thoughts battered him. Will realized he was crying. He knew better now. The impression of a lover's spat when Cobalt dragged him out.” No one could disagree with that voice. Sensual.
The sun rose. Tess called twice. He slept late on Monday. agonizing blur. juice. Provided suicide wasn't an option. Finally. In the fridge. if he'd been forced to choose between Lyle and Cobalt.Skin Deep 139 Chapter Nineteen Sunday passed in a slow. The sun set. to think a man as beautiful and perfect as Cobalt would want to be with him. In fact. Oranges. despite every stiff. He showered. The new pain had eclipsed the old one so thoroughly. They'd gone suicidal when they found out the truth. He opened it and drank everything inside straight from the can. Stupid. He didn't care. He managed to stand and shuffle out to the kitchen. He begged off talking. Maybe Cobalt hadn't been completely lying when he claimed he'd driven other men to insanity and death. He felt no residual fear or haunting memories when he walked inside. And why hadn't he seen through that lame-ass fugitive story? As if Skelly could have been anything but the perfect lover for the perfect man. Cobalt didn't call at all. The water carried his tears away almost before he realized he was shedding them. he barely registered what had happened in here. Will stayed on the couch. . Didn't check for a message. he found half a quart of expired milk. he'd take Lyle and let him beat his ass every day. claiming a cold. sore muscle in his body protesting movement. and an open box of baking soda. He didn't answer the phone. How stupid he'd been. Only a cramped reminder from his stomach that he hadn't eaten a damned thing the day before got him moving. a head of wilted lettuce. a couple of seeds. Almost. Who gave a shit? With his snarling stomach settled to a dull ache. Will kept the door locked and barely moved from his couch. he grabbed a can of mandarin oranges he'd intended to use for a salad. He opened cabinets with just about the same success rate. She didn't buy it. he headed for the bathroom. Lyle called once.
roasted nuts. hailed cabs. For a while he noticed nothing. headed east. he returned to the kitchen and heated water in the microwave for a cup of instant-cappuccino-like substance. He had several hours before the show. but the certainty that she'd make him spill his guts left him cold. But neither of them were Lyle. and he wouldn't feel like coming back here before the show. He picked a random direction and walked. At the next corner. He could see what Tess was doing. he checked the street sign. cheap jewelry and books and women's accessories. He didn't want the damned thing. He'd just go out and walk around. Spending them here. Well. He was in Midtown. Outside. didn't appeal to him. Cops in a Starbucks. stopped. He didn't want to talk about anything. he wasn't about to carry a purse. Sirens wailed. and waited while she ordered a mile-long drink with half this . he decided on a light windbreaker with big zippered pockets. Especially Cobalt. and spotted a familiar green sign on the next block. He turned on Seventh. Inside the shop. Life went on without Will's participation. People walked. hot dogs. talked on cell phones. Street vendors sold pretzels. Finally. the world remained maddeningly normal and unchanged. The sun had evaporated all evidence of yesterday's rain. Who wouldn't give a flying fuck if he looked like someone had murdered a puppy in front of him and then forced him to eat it raw. he glanced around. Even if he didn't find anything to do. at least there'd be plenty of people around to distract him. he gave up. It took him a minute to puzzle out the logistics of carrying it around. Big shocker.140 S. damn it. Since he was neither a woman nor flaming. marginally less sore. Two sips in. People he didn't know. Horns blared. he lived in New York. He barely tasted them anyway. Vaughn Dried and dressed. who wouldn't remind him of anything. He'd promised Tess he would bring her gun back tonight. W. sitting alone and torturing himself with his thoughts. They were stale. Eventually he decided a cup of decent coffee might bring him closer to feeling human again. and he settled back to whocares mode. and his heart skipped when he caught sight of two men in beat-cop black at the side counter. He found half a pack of cigarettes in a drawer and smoked three in a row. Starbucks every couple of blocks. He got in line behind a rail-thin woman with acrylic nails and a bad bleach job. He started out. allowed no thought to form in his mind.
a girl called out his order. Finally.” he murmured. At last. The young male barista caught him and gave him a thanks-for-the-sympathy grimace. the more you have to pay.” His easy smile conveyed the joke. “Go to college.” “Perfect. got back a few coins.” “With that extra dollar. Have you been sick or something? The station never said why you were off the air last week. please.” “Thanks. “That's me. Hope you feel better soon. Reverse consumerism.” “Sick. He went down.” Will fished out a five and a single. Yeah.” The barista frowned slightly. “You sure? We're having a sale on social mobility. Will snorted annoyance. and hot liquid drenched his back when . pointing at one of her cups and complaining loudly. Avoid human-relations fields. “Think I caught the flu. “You do look pale too. The bottle blonde still stood at the other end of the counter. He was going to make Tess take his picture off the Web site. the bottle blonde was shuffled aside to wait for her faux-pretentious coffee.” Concern edged into the barista's face. It almost made it.” “Your show is great. and Will stepped up. and dropped them and the single in the tip jar. I can afford Juilliard now. Have you been here before?” “Probably.” The barista laughed and hit buttons on his register. and a smile tried to surface.” Will managed not to snarl at him. “Got it. Will nodded.” Please get my coffee and shut up. His own coffee hit the floor just before he did. You're Will Ambrose.” “That's rough. “Hold the snobbery.Skin Deep 141 and double that and light foam but not too light and could you make that extra roasted and put it in two cups? Will rolled his eyes. “Venti caramel macchiato. He paid with the five. He grabbed his coffee just as the woman whirled with indignation—and plowed straight into him at full speed. then snapped his fingers. “You look familiar. spilling the scalding contents of both cups on his chest.” he said. She shrieked and wobbled. The longer your coffee order takes to place. and he moved along to pick it up.
But his legs convulsed and caught the blonde at the ankles while she tried to teeter away on spiky. so he couldn't be accused of refusing to cooperate later when they figured out he was gay. This was so not happening. one hand on the butt of his piece. “Keep your arms out. Will could see the headline now: GAY RADIO HOST ARRESTED IN STARBUCKS FOR ASSAULTING WOMAN. Slowly.” A thumb unsnapped the holster. It didn't take long to find the gun.” Will closed his eyes. white-faced and staring. Get up slow. They'd probably started moving with the perv comment. W. Somehow he managed not to scream. BARISTA REVEALS ALL.” Son of a bitch. the cop slammed him against the counter and cuffed his hands behind his back. “Take your jacket off and put it on the floor. As though the god of fuck you had choreographed the entire incident. Fingers wrapped around the handle of the gun. An earsplitting scream erupted in his face. “Oh my God! Is that a gun? He's got a gun! He's got—” The cops were already there. The friendly barista stood far back from the counter. When he finished. The bastard was actually going to draw on him. “Let go of me. spitting and jerking like a wet cat.” “I said get up. One of her flailing hands gripped the pocket of his windbreaker as she tried to right herself. She shrieked again and fell right toward him. He got an arm up. she managed to insert one of her tits right into the palm of his hand and pin his arm between them. trying to break her fall—or at least keep her from breaking his ribs. Tess was gonna kill him. . Will complied. she ran into me.” The cop reached his free hand out and patted down the side with the lumpy pocket. Now.142 S. I didn't do anything except fall and get burned. “Hey. Vaughn he landed hard. One of them hauled her up and maneuvered her back. ***** At least they didn't strip-search him. Will stifled a groan and staggered to his feet. pal. The other stood over Will.” “Jesus. she—” “Shut up. you perv!” she shouted. He kept his arms as far out as he could without falling back down. I'm-so-fashionable heels. “Look.
Cobalt would've probably had some gunk for the burns.” he said. He stared. He could feel raw patches on his chest and back where his skin had blistered and peeled off. He didn't want to drag Tess into this. it was definitely unlicensed and unregistered. knock him around a bit. Didn't something always itch when you couldn't move? He tried to will the sensation away. he was a dangerous criminal. In fact. What they had done was bring him to an interrogation room. He'd never been arrested for anything before. Spikes stabbed his gut. When that didn't work. it seemed like the arresting officer already knew—like he and his partner had been listening in on his conversation with the barista and waiting for him to do something even slightly illegal.Skin Deep 143 They found out fast who he was. No dice. God knew where the Dub got the damned thing from. Lyle shouldn't have been here.” . he attempted to rub his nose on his chest. And Lyle walked in. “What the hell are you doing here?” “Your name came over the wire. “It's not mine. “Then whose is it?” Will shrugged. “No. He'd just decided to scratch it on the edge of the table in front of him when the door opened. Of course. and tell him to wait while they checked the gun. This wasn't his precinct. The human body wasn't constructed to let that happen. Thank you. shut it.” Lyle shut the door with a frown. Damn. And of course Will didn't have a permit to carry. Knowing the Dub. Who probably needed medical attention. for making your coffee so hot. “Let me guess. Starbucks. He'd be fined up the ass if they didn't throw him in jail for assault. “What were you doing with a stolen gun?” He opened his mouth. But they hadn't even given him a phone call. shuddered. Will felt sick all over again. This has something to do with Tess. After all. They'd left his hands cuffed.” Will hesitated too long. He concentrated on the sweat dripping from his temples and the fact that his nose itched unbearably. Cobalt was the last thing he wanted to think about right now. Which was ridiculous.
I don't want to see you get hurt.” Bullshit. They'll know you're famous and gay. “Just let me get you out of here. When he didn't respond. “Yes.144 S. After a minute and a few deep breaths.” Will looked down at his lap.” He lowered his gaze. okay?” “Yeah? And what do you think you're getting for this favor?” “Nothing.” . all right? I'll drop you off wherever you want. It was on the tip of his tongue.” Lyle shook his head and sat down across the table from him. the color faded and he looked at Will. Go away. Will. Jesus. Lyle sighed. “You're attractive. W. “I said I was sorry. Lyle?” “No.” Christ.” He lowered his voice. teeth gritted. Raped. You'll be competed for. And they'll never leave you alone. An ugly flush crept over his face. Right. but he didn't say it. I promise.” Lyle actually looked hurt. “When are you going to learn that she's no good for you?” “She's my friend.” “Unless it's you hurting me. Lyle. Vaughn “I should've known. that sounded pathetic. I never meant to hurt you.” “Do you want that?” He leaned forward again. but it's going to be a pain in the ass for me. fought over.” “Why don't I believe that?” “Come on. “There's not enough sorry in the world. “Look. “And it's not hers.” Will suppressed a scream. “I just don't want to see you do time. I can get you out of here.” Lyle closed his eyes. “And you'll never see me again.” “Promise?” Lyle flinched.” “Friends don't give friends stolen weapons. He leaned forward with a concerned-father expression. “Got any idea what's going to happen to you if you end up in jail?” “I can guess. Lyle.
“Okay. anyway. Once I get you into my district.” Will definitely didn't like the idea of going anywhere with Lyle in handcuffs. He was through being anyone's bitch. “Only thing is.” It wasn't the best option. we're going to have to leave the cuffs on. Not even for a night. but Lyle was right about one thing. Burns and bruises belted out a few bars of renewed ache. Just until we clear the building.Skin Deep 145 “All right. He didn't want to go to jail. I can make you disappear—well.” he said. “Lead the way. But it wasn't like Lyle could sneak off with him.” . Lyle pushed back in the chair and stood.” “Why?” “I have to make it look like I'm transferring you. He stood. your arrest record. They were in the middle of Manhattan. There was no such thing as a deserted street here.
146 S. But only a little. “Where am I taking you?” “The studio. really. you know. He'd stopped giving a shit somewhere between the first black eye and the last round with the belt. He bit his lip and looked around the car with an eye for a fast exit. “I've got to make sure this looks convincing. Mostly work stories—busts.” He did feel a little guilty about Lyle risking his job for him.” Lyle told him in a low voice. graffiti-covered area that he thought was Uptown but couldn't be sure. Wasn't going to happen.” “Yeah. Like a regular squad car. Eventually Will realized he didn't recognize the neighborhood outside the windows anymore. he started talking. other cops. The idea of being a cop had seemed so exciting. Lyle climbed in the front and started the engine. where are you going?” he demanded.” Will said.” There was an edge to his voice that Will didn't like. A metal grate separated the backseat from the front. Will. But he had no interest in Lyle's life anymore. W. Will tried to sound engaged. Had Lyle been talking to distract him? “Damn it.” “All right. “Relax. Or being put in the back of the car with the cuffs still on.” he . “Lyle. He used to care. Traffic's bad around the park. way back in the beginning. I'm just going around. They were moving through a run-down. The cons are a lot harder on cops in jail. Vaughn Chapter Twenty Will hadn't counted on an alley. “I'll be lucky to make it on time for the show. “It's just for show. cases he'd been handling. the back doors had no interior handles or locks. Or an unmarked car.” The minute Lyle pulled out into traffic. He offered the occasional mmhm and wow.
you're not making any sense. Don't do anything stupid. he'd have no witnesses. Once the car stopped. Will made himself breathe. He turned the car down a narrow one-way street and punched the gas.” he said. let me out. urging him to scream.” Play along with him. and his shaking hands rattled the cuffs behind his back. No sign of life. “There's cabs everywhere. Orange-and-white-striped sawhorses blocked the entrance. excessive graffiti.” “I'm sorry. “Okay. kick. gnawing at him with tiny. Then a hoarse. and grated blue-white security lights instead of overhead neons. “Stop it!” The panic was an animal now. Turned and drove into a parking garage. “Lyle. okay.Skin Deep 147 said carefully. “Jesus. Somewhere nice. “Nobody's following you. so we can talk—” . Lyle drove over them.” He slowed to a crawl. he just sat there. “Look.” Will repeated. He could taste his own fear. Crumbling concrete. break glass. What they do to gay cops…” “What the hell?” Will blurted. “Okay. sharp teeth. Gripping the wheel. Will's heart drummed at a furious pace. far from the entrance. just pull over and let me out.” Panic swelled through him. “Lyle!” “Cab sniffing around back there. Whatever Lyle planned to do. Find a way out of this. trying to quell rising panic.” More silence. you crazy son of a bitch. Nasty little cock-tease. I'm sorry. Wood dragged on pavement. “Come on. There wasn't a single other car.” Lyle muttered.” “They can't find out. okay? I'll take a cab back. Lyle parked in the back of the place. “Please. crunched under tires.” “It's your fault. “You bitch. “Bastard's following me.” The ragged voice sounded nothing like Lyle's. shuddering sob. “Lyle?” he whispered. pressed himself into a corner as far from Lyle as he could get. what are you doing!” He scooted along the seat. it's my fault.” Lyle didn't answer. Just let me out. Let's go somewhere else. Lyle.
” .” “You what?” Will made himself look up. The gun. Nobody knows.” “Liar. like it would explode if he didn't.” Lyle held something up in front of the grate. He inched across the seat. Why couldn't you just learn your lesson?” Another sob. But that would only get him killed faster. “I haven't decided yet. Wild. So he didn't say anything.” Will's bladder grew hot and heavy. fighting for time to think. It might be suicide. Sneaking around like that. Or maybe I'll frame the bitch. He swallowed and dropped his gaze.” “What?” “It's registered to Tess. “Get out.” A finger curled around the trigger.” He motioned with the gun. But he thought there was a glimmer of hesitation in them. Lyle's eyes were moist. “I can't let them find out. “Hurry up. “You were right. It was his only chance. Vaughn “Shut up!” Lyle held his head in both hands. Lyle said. or even regret. “Over by the wall. “I liked it.” he said. Will climbed out awkwardly and stood.” “Lyle. Lyle. And…I did deserve it. “That gun wasn't stolen.” “I won't get caught. “You told Tess. But it's stolen now. “You'll be in jail a lot longer if you kill me.” Oh God. W. I can't go to jail.” Will's first instinct was to refuse. He'd wrapped a bandanna around the handle—probably to keep his prints off.” The word fell flat. holding the frame for balance. Temporarily. holding the gun in one hand.” he managed to say.148 S. It took everything he had not to piss his pants. “I liked it. He came around and opened the back door. Maybe he could talk his way out of this. Had Tess said something to him. “You deserved it. a ratcheting breath. denying it would make things worse.” “Wait…” You liked it. or was he just speculating? Either way. reddened. “I don't want a mess in there. After a minute. please. Lyle got out of the car. I'm a cop.
” “I knew it.Skin Deep 149 Lyle's eyes narrowed. Lyle. Do you really mean that?” “Y-yes. He could not have been that cruel.” Despite his best efforts. He desired only the one thing he could not have. companionship—he wanted none of it. Cowardly of him. Could barely sleep at all. If you behave. Buying time. But Will refused to leave his mind. He'd no idea what Uriskel had said to make him leave. Playing the game. “I wasn't ready before. he didn't care. Was he really doing this? “Anything you want. He'd not asked for elaboration. Will. He could no longer sleep in his bed. So when Uriskel told him that he'd ensured Will would no longer speak to him. drink. I'll learn my lesson. He had to go through with it. Whether or not Will survived the night.” If his heart beat any faster. his customers would stop coming and he'd no longer have a business. he had let his heart break—and let it go. though. yes. it would explode. Food.” “Oh. I am now. “Eventually. he was getting another beating. He couldn't do it. At last he managed a choked drawl. ***** If Cobalt continued to cancel his appointments. He doubted anything would matter to him for a very long time. Couldn't say any more.” His smile was absent. Damn it.” “Never. do you want him to kill you? His mouth moved without sound.” Shaking again. “Please…” His breath hitched. Or so he'd thought. . rest. But he hadn't wanted to drive Will away himself. At the moment.” “Ask for it. a mewling cry escaped Will's throat. “Can you please take the cuffs off?” Lyle's eyes flashed dark. Right now.” “How?” Jesus. “Please punish me. And out of his life forever.” he stammered. “I knew we could be happy together. but he still wasn't stupid. haunted. “Prove it. And you won't tell anyone about us. He wasn't taking chances. Lyle might have lost his mind. Will would be safe. He gulped in breath after breath in a desperate bid to keep from hyperventilating.
Malik had protested his cancellations and nearly begged him to attend to one appointment he'd rescheduled when Will had arrived injured. needing reassurance that he was real and alive.” Cobalt frowned and accepted it. Malik thrust a cordless phone at him. I don't. Waiting to hear Will's voice.” His throat tightened. “Yes. Shit!” Something clunked in the background. Everything seemed pointless. almost angry. “Is this Cobalt?” An unfamiliar female voice. He'd done nothing about either situation. He'd thought the problem to be in the studio. it didn't matter. “Leave me be. “No. and the cloud in his mind evaporated. “Who is this?” “It's Tess. He sat locked in his office behind the booths with the radio on. Someone pounded on the door. A phone call could have been returned later. “Please tell me he's with you. “Any idea where he might be?” . And whoever was causing trouble might respond better to him than his assistant. “Here. “It is. “She's going to call the police.” “Cobalt. He turned his back on the ruffled boy and lifted the damned phone to his ear. Five more minutes and he'd have it. He should have simply closed the shop tonight.” he managed to say. dreading the answer: “Why?” “Because he's not here. And he should be. He opened up. Vaughn He was vaguely aware of potential problems.” Whatever it was. Then.” he intoned. he got to his feet and reluctantly approached the door. you've got to take this.” Sighing. The business line. and the moon was near-full—meaning Uriskel could be killed if Eoghann found him. It wasn't fair of him to burden the boy with so much of the business. W.” Malik sounded breathless. Darkness had fallen.” Desperation and the beginnings of fear edged her words.150 S. “No. he'd resisted retiring to his loft. Uriskel had gone out earlier and not yet returned. “Not now.” “Where's Will?” Shock doused his blood with ice.” he called. I'm his producer…his friend. At the least.
He'd start with Will's apartment. and Shade. Nix. “Please call me when you do.” Tess said again. until he found him. And now Will's not here. he'd scour the city. “Look. looking for Will. “Do you know about Lyle?” The bastard who'd beaten him.” he whispered. And if he discovered nothing there. Damn the moon and Eoghann.” But he did have an idea. Will wouldn't tell me much. the world. everyone who hailed him. and he's not answering his phone. Only Will mattered. stalked through the studio.” Her voice dropped.” “Thank you. “I do.” “Yes. Ignored Malik. His mouth went dry as cotton. “I'll find him.” Cobalt dropped the phone without bothering to turn it off. He left the office. . Damn the Grotto.” No.” There was no relief in her voice. but I know you guys have a thing.Skin Deep 151 “No. One he didn't like at all. “Well. “Shit. that son of a bitch's been calling. I think…I think something might've happened to him.
“I'll ask again. Babe. At least the bastard hadn't taken his pants off. W. throbbed. Yes. He tasted salt with every harsh breath.” he finally rasped. Lyle had skipped using his hands this time and gone straight for the belt. Still playing the game. Have you had enough?” Deep breath. No…” More. Yet. knowing Lyle expected a response. All the better to see where he was hitting and to watch Will writhe and contort with the blows. Will. His ass and his thighs burned.” Lyle moved closer. Lyle had used the cuffs he already wore. He was a monster. No more. “You really do like this. and his own set. Lyle wasn't a sadist in overdrive. he tried to add. Vaughn Chapter Twenty-one “Had enough. Tears and mucus puddled under his cheek. to attach his wrists to the side mirrors. “Nnnnn. don't you?” “Yes. He lay on his stomach across the hood of the car. But his tongue wouldn't cooperate. Please no more. Will screamed. . gummed his skin to the metal it rested against.152 S. Play along. heavy with lust. It had to end soon. Please stop. “No? You want more? How brave of you. He'd also stuck a floodlight on the roof and turned it on. “That wasn't an answer. Will could only sob.” Will whimpered too late.” His voice. “Please. babe?” Lyle's voice rang hollow in the garage and in his pounding head. had enough. Learned my lesson. Didn't it? Leather whistled and snapped. turned Will's stomach.
felt the heat of him. He couldn't turn enough to see what the bastard was doing.” Will nodded. Just make it stop.” Lyle moved out of his line of sight. It hadn't felt like a distraction. It was too easy to envision her tears when she found out what he'd gone through. and something moved in the shadows beyond the glare of the floodlight. And the more deeply Lyle dug into this twisted fantasy of his. “I want you to count these. Lyle freed the button. Cool garage air collided with his heated backside.” Closer. and his head buzzed sickly. do what you're told. Will's body tensed. Worried too. and I'll unlock you after we're done. He gagged. He sensed Lyle leaning over him. biting back sobs while Lyle tugged his jeans and underwear down. But we have to stop soon. Will concentrated on the shadows. He couldn't think about her. . The doubled belt dangled from his hand. “Yes.” Lyle rubbed the bulge in his pants. and he said.Skin Deep 153 “All right.” Oh God. Fresh tears slipped from Will's eyes. A tall silhouette. Behave yourself. Not once. Cobalt.” Lyle was behind him. Hands slid under his waist and fumbled with the button on his jeans. He could barely speak. Tess was probably furious right now. Anything. Hallucination. a snake ready to strike. Of course he was going to rape him. Will couldn't even scream anymore. though. But his will to survive won out. “You'll get ten more. But Will had just been a distraction for him. lowered the zipper. “I'll tell you what. The hallucination approached the light. Had he ever really cared? Twice he'd offered to kill Lyle for him. Had to be. Why wasn't Lyle hitting him? “There's one more condition. He couldn't do that. so I can…make it up to you. a way to relieve his frustrations with his real love. He stared to the side. a shadow against shadows. the harder Will's subconscious resisted.
now?” It happened fast. like knuckles cracking underwater. “Cobalt?” “Get out of here. watched Cobalt help him inch his clothes painfully back in place. Leather on pavement. Silent.” Lyle came around. Cobalt saved him. If Lyle could see him. Will's heart seized. draw strength from it while Lyle beat him. Saw him die. Cobalt murdered Lyle.” Bastard-bastard-bastard. babe?” Fuck you. Get it over with. stood between Will and the not-quite-hallucination. While he tried to remember how to count to ten. wet snap. Vaughn “My God. “You killed him!” His chest hitched hard. He's a cop.” “Is it. ignoring the pain. “Ready. “You killed him. Utter confusion. The sudden loss of support sent him sliding down the car. Cobalt moved in a blur. . W. Do it. Cobalt caught him. Dead. Lyle dropped in a heap. He watched himself struggle to stay upright. This must hurt like hell. Produced a sickening. A listless slap behind him. Shuffling steps. Will. Lyle positioning himself. Still beautiful. expressionless. He unlocked Will's wrist. He was going to let me go. Christ. Will would watch this vision.” Hot white flashes exploded behind his eyes. Cobalt. twisted hard. Game over. “You can't. He grabbed Lyle's head.154 S. He moved to the other side and repeated the process. Watched as he wavered and dropped to his knees in front of Cobalt—and then he returned to agonizing awareness. then he wasn't a hallucination. “Yes. I had things set up. Will. Cobalt wasn't speaking. felt like he'd been forced out of his body. “This is police business. wrapped in a cocoon of shock. pain and relief. they'll shoot you like a dog…” Cobalt bent to the body and came back up with Lyle's keys. “Who the fuck?” Lyle snarled. He heard Lyle's neck snap. “No!” Will jerked and tugged at his bound wrists.” The hallucination left the shadows. Snap.
Now. “Go home. In a daze. Overwhelming. Confused.” “Indeed we do. The missing lower-lip stud. But it wouldn't click.” Cobalt held a hand out. passed him. weaving in and out of traffic.” The redhead came up behind Will. Go home. Hurting. “Will. What the hell was going on? “I'd drop that if I were you. sarcastic tone. “Run along now.” Will recognized that dry. I'd like to take you…away. “You. “No.” Cobalt said. and Will staggered back.” Will shuddered. The blankness in his eyes. Cobalt's eyes narrowed.” Even his voice seemed wrong.” Skelly had said. Fury blazed from Skelly's features. Almost…ridged. No questions. He released Will's hand with a quick frown. He obeyed without thinking. “Following me?” “Seems that way. Losing his mind. But hallucinations couldn't kill people. “You are a bold one. Something about seeing the two of them together screamed wrong.” he said.” Skelly shivered—or had Will imagined it? Cool green eyes turned in his direction. Will huddled in the backseat.” he said. Like he was a machine and Skelly had programmed the order into him. Run. His grip felt strange. Cobalt and I have…business to attend. powerful and demanding. . “Where?” “Away. Fear? Will stared. Will took it. Master Will. The grin that spread on Cobalt's face was not pleasant. ***** The cab sailed along. along with something else.Skin Deep 155 Will looked up at him and got a sense of…wrongness. Detached. The odd set of his jaw. Skelly. “Come with me. A compulsion came over Will. and stood next to Cobalt. unfamiliar. Cobalt helped him to his feet. Maybe he was a hallucination after all. No protests. The silence. He didn't look back. I'm a fool. And he went.
A tiny spot of yellow on industrial gray carpet stuffed in the top corner of the first riser caught his attention. Will limped to the door of the building. The cab pulled over. But in the garage. He shifted on the seat. Vaughn And Cobalt. handed it over. He remembered noticing it at the Asylum. He shuffled down the hall. Got out. and stood at the foot of the stairs. He'd go in and collapse. He glanced at the digital display on the dashboard up front. Hadn't even broken a sweat doing it. He blinked at it. The way they'd been at the Alternative Asylum. He found a twenty. Lyle was dead. and the driver was telling him the fare. Implied intimacy. W. and the movement made his eyes water. Had at least an inch on him. Just snapped his neck. He still couldn't believe Cobalt had killed him. with no more effort or emotion than opening a can of soda. eyes burning and watering.156 S. Nothing made sense. his legs were throbbing lumps of jelly. Will hadn't even realized where they were. There was his building. He wouldn't get any more flower deliveries. He'd been clothed. It hit Will hard. but his heart cried foul. side by side. pushed it open. At least the beating hadn't been as bad this time. Eight or nine something. A flower petal from the sorry-I-beat-your-ass bouquet Lyle had sent him. It was the first time he'd seen Cobalt act like there was something between them. Skelly had been taller—by two inches. if he made it that far. Cobalt was taller than Skelly. What bothered him about it? The two of them. But maybe Cobalt was too. head bent. Skelly standing next to Cobalt was the key to his disconcerted impressions. Jesus. . Did he have an evil twin? Will's eyes acknowledged that was him. It was shorter. Lyle was a monster. By the time he reached the third floor. blurred with pain and exhaustion. couldn't make the numbers pull together. It seemed to take him a week to climb the stairs. Yes. looking at shirts. Maybe he just hadn't accepted the relationship with Skelly. Then he wouldn't have to think about this madness anymore. maybe a little more. Something was wrong back there. He keyed in the code. On the bed. His apartment door was open. Maybe he'd die. His eyes.
What's happened to you? You're hurt. Couldn't be Lyle—he was dead. Maybe the burglar had a gun and would shoot him. The floor rushed up. At least he sounded like Cobalt now. Will. “Was it that bastard Lyle? I swear. . Maybe he was being robbed.” All the warmth and tenderness he remembered. The remaining shreds of his sanity ran screaming for the nearest exit. But he didn't care. Will. That wouldn't be so bad. He dragged himself inside and closed the door just as a tall figure stalked into the living room from the bedroom hallway.” Will barely heard him. At least then his head wouldn't feel like it was splitting in half. even terrified. “Thank the… Oh. But he couldn't possibly be here. give me your word and I'll kill him for you. He should have been nervous. “Will!” The voice brought him halfway back. Cobalt. and blackness swooped down.Skin Deep 157 The lack of surprise on his part bothered him in a vague way.
“Not here…” “All right.158 S. Lips moving without sound. “Tell me what's happened. A fresh bruise on his cheek. knelt beside him. clutching himself like a babe in the womb. Will shivered.” He called on his magic almost without thinking. no.” he said in shattered tones. Clenched and relaxed with a sigh. W. the certainty that someone—Lyle or Eoghann—had gotten to Will. “Oh. “Please come back. He'd not make that mistake again. stroked his sweat-drenched hair. and brushed the hair from his face. but Cobalt could think of nothing else to do.” he murmured. I can't lose you. He rushed to him. after he'd turned his back on him. Moving him likely wasn't what he'd meant. “You're not here. was a hot knife in Cobalt's gut. “Come back to me. Not Will. whimpering. Will curled instantly on his side. not here. “Will. Will jerked and cried out. cringing when he sobbed and stiffened against him. barely conscious. Dark circles under his eyes.” A long. He carried him to the bedroom and laid him gently on the mattress. shuddering exhale.” Will was feverish. Cobalt settled beside him. the other beneath his thighs. not here…” Slipping away. he should never have let him go. Let's get you off the floor. Just a breath. He slid an arm under Will's shoulders. Please. Vaughn Chapter Twenty-two Cobalt's relief at finding Will died violently when he crumpled to the ground. love. love. Sliding into madness. Cobalt lifted him. Please come back to me.” he whispered. What've they done to you?” Gods. enough to break the fever and restore awareness. “No. “Not here. love. eyes closed and fluttering beneath his lids. .” The idea.
“Somebody who looked a fuck of a lot like you killed Lyle.” Something deep inside Cobalt cracked and bled. Of course. “I got arrested. Will managed a few sips. He shook his head. and he was beating me because I told him I liked it so he wouldn't kill me. “It's a long story.” His eyes opened. but his gaze was clear and direct.” Torn between relief and dread. no stunned repetition or rocking.” Cobalt started.” Will scrubbed his hands down his face. “Your friend Tess called me looking for you. and brought it back to him. And then you—” He stared hard at Cobalt. “I didn't.” he said slowly. no shifting eyes. They were bright. “Thirsty.Skin Deep 159 “Will. “You killed him.” He sat down.” Cobalt touched his face with trembling fingers. Angry. Lucid. “No. filled a coffee mug with tap water. “What the hell's going on. “Talk to me. But there were no wild gestures. love. His eyes were still red. Will struggled to sit up. held the mug to Will's lips. Only you weren't you…” Will buried his face in his hands. Let me help you. “You can't kill him for me again. like the others. Snapped his neck. I talked him into beating me instead. Be still. then slid back down.” he said. “Shit. Water sloshed in the mug. He closed his eyes again. when you didn't come for your show. Cobalt put the mug aside with a frown. The short version is Lyle basically kidnapped me. Will truly believed whatever he'd seen. “Lyle was going to kill me. You arrived a few minutes after me.” he croaked. Cobalt went to the kitchen. Will.” he said.” Will grimaced. Cobalt couldn't articulate a response. then?” Not insane. He was going to let me go when he was done.” . shot with red. “What?” “Lyle. “Perhaps there is an explanation. knowing it would do no good. How could you not be you? How did you get here first?” It should have sounded like the ramblings of a madman. I'll get you a drink. and then you showed up and broke his neck. I left the Grotto and came straight here. “Yes. You already did that. Hallucinating. almost spilling.” “Jesus. He was about done. He was mad. “Do you have a twin?” The question was so bizarre. “Tell me what happened. Just like you said you would.” Will pushed himself up to his knees.” “No.
But he's not. you said my name. there was no mistaking Eoghann's intentions. “You do?” “Yeah. the ruthless Unseelie would not leave him be. “I've a confession for you. indicating the labret piercing. You're taller.” Will said. Uriskel had been trying to protect Will. He drew a long breath. at the risk of his own life.” I hope. W. And that meant he must tell him the truth. Will stared at him.” “There was a lot of not right. And Cobalt had done nothing to correct the halfling's falsehoods.” “Skelly was there?” “Yeah.” Cobalt closed his eyes. But he'd not succeeded—apparently thanks to Uriskel. He'd not allow further harm to come to Will. Will. “He told me about the others. I'd not thought he'd said such hurtful things.” “Eoghann. so he could get close to Will. “Skelly and I—” “I already know about that. Will. I mean.” He pointed to his own chin. in his own insincere and twisted way. That's the big one. “So you do have a twin?” “No. Whether he stayed with Will or left him. but…there must have been something not right. Vaughn “There is no one—” Cobalt cut himself off with a gasp. but it was like you were reading it from a name tag. Told me to run along. right?” “Yes. And there was the thing with Skelly.” He scowled.” “Great. Would he dare? “Will. Still. The bastard must've formed his glamour to imitate him.” . The thing is. Said I was just a distraction for you. Just as he'd unbelievably done tonight. “I'm so sorry.” “That snake.” “So it's true. “You didn't know me. though. he was taller than you there. Skelly told me you two were soul mates. and you were using me to make him jealous.” Will cut in sharply. In no uncertain terms. “You didn't have this. He sent me home. Why did you doubt it was me? I'll assure you it was not.160 S.” Cobalt ground out. so the blame was as much his. And things'll make sense after you confess. looked away. You were so…blank. He'd no need to—” Cobalt stopped himself.
“Fairies.” Cobalt's eyes flashed.” Will's expression suggested he'd no intention of believing that.” “Then you're full of shit. “And so am I. we've been enemies for a very long time.” “I can't. Impossible.” . he had to confess the truth. but he fought it away.” A sneer tried to surface on his face. then? Aliens?” “We're Fae. Not human. “I'll bite. The Good People?” He slumped. He is not my lover.” Will laughed. most ridiculous excuse he'd ever heard in his life—or the tiny part of him that believed Cobalt instantly.” he said.” he whispered.” Will couldn't figure out if his shock stemmed from the biggest.” He met Will's eyes. No. “What you see of me is an enchantment. A glamour.” “Will…” “Oh.” The glimmer of belief in him returned. and his skin appeared to turn an impossible shade of glittering green. What a crock.” “His name is Uriskel. In fact.” Will rubbed his eyes. Cobalt. But this was crazy. stronger this time. It would be the only way to protect him from Eoghann. What are you. what a coincidence. “It's not true at all. “Skelly and I are not human. and muttered. Am I supposed to know what that is?” “The Fair Folk. How long since you escaped from the nuthouse?” Cobalt stood abruptly.” “Fairies. “All right. “Show me. “What I'd meant to say was this. “Soul mates? With him? I'm surprised he's familiar with the concept. Few humans react well to an eyeful of Faekyn. My true form is…not human. “Hey. Cobalt sighed.Skin Deep 161 He laughed bitterly. “I can handle you and Skelly being lovers. “Did you just change color?” “Yes. I'm too old to believe in fairies. Regardless of whether he'd lost what he shared with Will. He is Fae. It was gone in a blink. come on. “Blast it. And I'll not drive you to insanity. I'm a big boy. because you'll lose your mind.” he said.” “Uh-huh. Will! I can't show you. I'm a fairy too.
“You're not mad?” . Beautiful. Or he's telling the truth. It started with his eyes. W. Will shook himself. “I'm sorry. He was impossibly beautiful. then. The lines of Cobalt's face shifted. I promise I won't go white-haired and drooling nuts on you. Fingers too. ethereal. At last he stepped back and straightened with sorrow in his gaze. He forgot how to breathe. Vaughn Jesus. forming narrow and graceful angles. And the tattoos along his jaw remained the same. Three joints in each of them. He'd either practiced it a hundred times. Tiny points protruded from the sides—the tips of his ears. Two in his thumbs. but I can't believe you unless you show me. If this was a lie. “Ciaràn.” In seconds. His nails were thorns. then?” No. You have to admit it sounds crazy. or he actually believed he was a real. lengthened. The corners turned up slightly.162 S. honest-to-God fairy. They looked like vines. Ciaràn the Fae became Cobalt the Artist. it was a well-constructed one. but the flesh was forest green. “Look.” he said. Will's stomach fluttered. Pale golden green was the nearest Will's mind could come to grasping a shade he'd never seen before. all right?” For a long time. Green flecks surfaced in widening irises.” “Seen enough. His head cocked like a bird's. magical. Streaks of green tangled in his coal black hair.” “Ciaràn. Cobalt didn't reply. and gold rings formed around them where the whites had been. “I believe you.” He blinked. more natural now than before. “What's your name?” Will said.” he said. His lips kept their sultry shape. Wild. Will ached with the effort of looking at him. “Yes. “I'll hold you to that promise.” Speaking it aloud sent a warm shiver through him. Dark lashes thickened. The deep blue darkened to black. Fierce and fluid. His skin changed. His arms and legs were longer. “Your real name.
And I let him. Will. “Never mind. baring teeth. Not drooling in my drawers. Both of you. He'd deal with it later. he attempted to use Uriskel to get to me. “Banished?” “A tale for another time.Skin Deep 163 “No. he decided.” He held his thumb and forefinger apart.” He smiled. When I refused him.” Cobalt shook his head.” Will frowned. I wanted you safe. Like Tinkerbell. “It seems he's decided to desire me again. I thought fairies were this big. One step at a time. and I thought if we'd nothing between us. And they're nothing like your Tinkerbell. I'd never have gotten involved with Lyle. you would be.” “That you did. I was his.” Will went cold. before I was banished from the Fae realm.” “Oh. Eoghann loves no one but himself. is testament to your strength. with little wings. apart from the size.” A curtain of disgust drew across Cobalt's features. “At least.” His lip curled. “Those'd be sprites. He hadn't quite wrapped his head around the Fae thing yet.” “Yeah. Right now he had a thousand questions that he wasn't sure should be answered. I've no idea what he'll do with you. and are still whole. he had almost said—then decided he didn't want to know that yet. “Not exactly what I expected either. Not angry. so Eoghann wouldn't harm you. Will. “So who's the guy that looks just like you?” “His name is Eoghann. “You know. You're beautiful. but I'll not let him have the chance. If I did. “Why didn't you just tell me the truth before?” . “The bastard's mimicked my glamour to get to you. “I don't think so.” “The lover thing?” “Yes. Eoghann was…my lover. and asked the most important question first. “He tried to drive you away. You've such strength in you. Or rather.” Cobalt said with a sad smile.” Will crumbled the whole abuse subject into a mental ball and shoved it in a corner of his mind. or any of those other bastards. And…that's why Uriskel said what he did to you.” “Are you…?” Serious.” Cobalt dropped his gaze.” Will snorted. right. And now he's on about going through you. I'm forced to assume that was he.
S. W. Vaughn
A bitter smirk. “Would you have believed me?” He almost said yes. Thought about it. Tonight, after watching Lyle die, after experiencing things that warped the fabric of reality—yes. He had no problem accepting that Cobalt was a fairy. Hell, he'd seen the evidence. But yesterday, when he was still wrapped in the afterglow from the best sex of his life and more than willing to believe a man like Cobalt would never actually want him, that his attention had been a fluke? “No,” he finally said. “I wouldn't have.” Cobalt moved toward him with burning eyes. “Come to the Grotto with me,” he said. “Please. You'll be safe there. Eoghann can't enter the building.” Will started to refuse. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, and wanted nothing more than to sleep for a week, and maybe get good and drunk when he woke up. But then he remembered the wet crunch of Lyle's neck breaking, the cold expression on the face of the killer. He didn't want to be next in line. “All right,” he said. “Let's go.”
Will called Tess from the cab on the way to the Grotto. After she stopped screaming, he explained, as quietly and with as few words as possible, that Lyle was dead, and he was going to stay with Cobalt while they worked some things out. She cried. Made him swear to take care of himself and call her tomorrow. He promised he would. They hung up, and he tucked the phone reflexively in his front pocket. The awkward movement sent pain screaming through him from the waist down. Tears pricked his eyes, and he managed to turn the startled cry that formed in his throat to a closedmouth grunt. The adrenaline of the last few hours must've dampened his nerves for a while. But he was crashing now, and his ass let him know it. Beside him, Cobalt flinched. Alarm suffused his face. “Will,” he whispered urgently. “What's happened?” “Nothing new,” he said through gritted teeth, trying to shift and take some of the pressure from his backside. “I'll live. Be better when we get there.” “Oh, love.” Without asking, Cobalt seemed to understand his desire not to mention anything about beatings in front of strange cabdrivers. He turned sideways on the seat and reached out. “Come here.” Will shuffled toward him, not sure what he meant to do. Before he could ask, Cobalt gripped his waist and lifted him onto his lap. His surprise gave way to heat and badly timed desire. Public displays of affection, even for an audience of one disinterested cabbie, had never been part of Will's relationships. And something in him, something he'd refused to acknowledge, always insisted it was his fault. He wasn't good enough, and they'd been ashamed to be seen with him. Cobalt put an arm around his shoulders and drew him down to rest against him. “Better?” he murmured near his ear.
S. W. Vaughn
“Mmm.” Will slid down a bit and laid his head on his chest. Cobalt's ragged gasp when he brushed what was definitely an erection had him practically drooling. Briefly, he entertained the fantasy of fucking Cobalt in the back of a cab. But his ass wouldn't take it right now. “Won't be long, love.” Cobalt's low voice vibrating under him soothed better than a hot bath. “I'll fix it for you.” Will smirked. “More gunk?” “Perhaps I've something better.” The husky promise in the words almost burned him. Will let himself relax as much as possible. Cobalt's warmth, his slow breathing, and his arm curled protectively around him conspired to leach consciousness from him. He knew nothing until Cobalt shook him gently and whispered, “We're here.” Will climbed from the cab, blinking and bleary. The Grotto stood dark and silent. Either they'd closed the place early without Cobalt there, or it was later than he'd thought. He let Cobalt lead him inside, through the dim and deserted main room, up the stairs, and into his bedroom. Cobalt closed the door. “How bad is it?” Will shrugged. “Not as bad as the first time. He didn't… Well, I had clothes on.” Until the end. But he wasn't going to think about what could've happened. “If you have any more of those drugs, a couple of them'll probably knock it down.” Cobalt drew a breath, like he was about to say something he'd regret. “I can heal you. If you'll let me.” “What? How?” “Magic.” Will resisted the urge to push his own jaw back into place. “You mean like real magic?” “Yes. We've healing abilities. Some of us, anyway.” He moved closer. “But I'll have to see your injuries to heal them. And I'll understand if you'd rather I didn't.” “Well, you've seen me worse than this.” Will's mouth twisted. “It won't do anything weird to me, right? I mean, since I'm…uh, human.” A pained look came over him. “No. Nothing strange.” “All right.”
“He's burned you. working his shoes off first. He'd have to strip. hesitated. “And I'm glad it wasn't you that killed him. He tensed in anticipation.Skin Deep 167 Will turned away.” he said.” Will swallowed. pushed everything down. the tingling flared to white-hot intensity. and made the lines of his body rigid. Okay. Just as Will thought Cobalt had changed his mind. He'd gone pale and sat with bowed head. The feeling cascaded down his body like hot oil.” Cobalt murmured. It's done. “Cobalt. The sensation cooled and erased the last of the aching from him. The mattress dipped as Cobalt sat beside him.” “Yes. easing the pain from him by degrees. When it reached his backside. But magic? He tugged his shirt over his head. Cobalt groaned. Fine. Will looked at him. arms propped on his thighs like he was about to collapse. “No. The silence behind him was frigid. For a moment nothing happened. “It's done now. getting arrested barely registered as important.” He'd just about forgotten the Starbucks incident. Will. “Cobalt?” Will turned his head. Maybe both.” Fury tightened his voice.” Cobalt blinked and relaxed visibly. The bed rocked. He had green skin and pointed ears and triple-jointed fingers. a warm and tingling pins-and-needles sensation blossomed in his shoulders. “This was Lyle's contribution.” He unbuttoned his jeans. “Lyle was fortunate to encounter Eoghann instead of me. So Cobalt was a Fae.” he said. And did he really just agree to let Cobalt magic his injuries away? Maybe he had gone nuts. Lyle didn't do that. He gestured to the bed. crackled from his eyes.” Will wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed.” “What… Oh. “Breathe. “If you'll lie down…” Nodding. soothing. After everything else. “I'll not have to touch you for this. He squeezed his eyes shut. Will stepped from the rest of his clothes and stretched out facedown. “I would not have been so merciful as to simply snap his neck. Some self-important bitch spilled hot coffee on me. Cobalt gasped. or puke. You okay?” .
powerful and hungry. “It's my mating scent. There wasn't even residual soreness. “But you'll not want me now.168 S. W. I'll leave you to it. Will breathed in deeply and let out a moan of pleasure. I'll die of curiosity. That is enough for me. “If you leave now. “Finding out magic is real doesn't happen every day. Will. Healing exhausts me.” “By the gods. I'll ask for nothing more. You astound me. Vaughn He stirred and sent a tired smile. Will bit his lip. All the Fae have one. Will. but I'll recover.” Will sat up and stretched. you know. How do you feel?” “Amazing. Like…heaven. That's the sexiest fucking thing I've ever heard. Even when they're aware of our existence. “I'm not able to stop it.” “Jesus.” Will grinned and patted the mattress. I may not be able to have you. a tangled field of wildflowers carried on a breeze over a rushing waterfall. stood. then.” “Are you kidding? I couldn't sleep right now if you paid me. Reluctantly.” Cobalt faced him with an unspoken question. but I doubt you'd be able to explain it. but I know you'll be safe from Eoghann here. Particularly when I'm near you.” “So you do that when you're turned on?” He gave a slow nod.” “And you'd be right there. “I imagine you'll be wanting to rest. “I won't?” “You know I'm not human. Wind and water and smoke. No part of him throbbed or twinged.” . but it's rare for humans to detect. “Tell you what?” “Why you smell like that.” Cobalt sat.” Cobalt swallowed hard. closed his eyes.” Cobalt looked like he'd been sucker punched. “Can you tell me now?” he whispered. “Yes.” “Very well.” His smile wavered.” he said. “I'd ask how you did that. He turned away.” He tensed. “I'll not force myself on you. Summer heat. “What's wrong?” “Don't…” His scent pounced like a jungle cat.
” Will rasped.” “Never. sure movements. the way you really are. Will groaned.Skin Deep 169 He was too stunned to respond. Your glamour. His eyes flashed black. “You've no need to lie and spare my feelings. Look at me. You'll never beg for what's yours. stepped back.” His cock twinged at the thought of touching Cobalt in that beautiful. “I don't care.” “Ah. How you tempt me. “You're beautiful. I want you so bad it hurts. Cobalt—beautiful. God. A shade darker than the rest of his skin. still thick. “Will…” “Do it. Please. He moved up.” He started walking away. “Does it look like I don't want you?” Cobalt made a strangled sound. pointed pixie features. He brushed a thumb over his lips. then blue again.” When he turned.” Cobalt complied with quick. “Promise me you'll tell me if it's too much. curled around the shaft like vines. exotic form. Will climbed from the bed.” Cobalt peeled off his shirt. “Cobalt. “Let me prove it.” . his tattooed jaw.” “How—” “Take everything off. “Let me have you. Lithe and slender body. Skin like silk. The cock jutting from his groin was still long. He stood to leave. caught up with him. But…” “But nothing. Finger-width veins stood out. I want you. Cobalt seemed to take his silence as an affirmation.” “Shut up and strip. Will nodded down at his erection. Will let his gaze wander over him—gold-ringed black eyes. Your clothes. and grabbed his wrist. touching the hollow of his throat. rounded at the top with a seamless head. “Wait. almost too damned perfect— thought he wasn't good enough for Will? He wondered whether it was snowing in hell right now. “No. His skin quivered. Will reached out and traced the scarring on his chest with his fingertips. sweet. filling the room.” His scent rose again. dark green lips.” Brief hope lit his eyes and fizzled. Will. “Don't make me beg you.” He loosed his grip. He could feel Cobalt's heart hammering just beneath the surface.” He changed in a blink.
silken tangles of hair. “Bed's too far. lifting and pulling. Vaughn A low rumble simmered in Cobalt's throat. steady thrusts. Will worked his hips faster. firm and hot and demanding. Cobalt climaxed seconds after him. Cobalt carried him a few steps.” he panted. teasing. “Oh. Lips met. They burned.” “Yes. Hands cupped his ass.” Black and gold eyes opened.” he whispered. Whimpering. Tongues entwined. He reached out and stroked the thick. “Always. “Easy. “I have you. Shudders racked them both. impaling himself on the thick. Now. paused.” “Yes. Can't wait…” “You don't have to be gentle all the time. Dizzying heat filled him head to toe. love. lifted him. W. Sweet pressure.170 S. “Fuck me. In a heartbeat. Will's cock throbbed painfully. “Look at me.” Will clenched his legs tighter around Cobalt and bent to his mouth.” he groaned. The pressure built too fast. spreading something warm and wet. Will hooked his legs around Cobalt's waist and kissed back.” Cobalt whispered. “Will. and he came with a cry that wrenched his gut and left him breathless.” Will arched against him. Cobalt closed the distance between them. Animal sounds—his. eyes fluttering under closed lids. the arc increasing. faster.” Fingers brushed his entrance. Cobalt's. crushed him against his chest. full dark lips. rock-hard shaft that filled his ass so perfectly. grinding Will's name from his lips like a prayer. Still beautiful. slipping and thrusting. The world spun around him. Through a haze of bliss he stared down at the slender face. He pinned him to the wall. “Here. God. He wrapped his arms around Will. Hands on his waist. thrusting deep. Not human. Will gripped his shoulders and rocked with him. everything right. “Cobalt.” . Cobalt tasted of everything beautiful and wild in the world. Cobalt steadied him. Lips pressed his mouth. didn't care. pressed him against the wall.” Will curled into him. entered swiftly with an explosive groan. Will didn't ask where it came from.
Will would remain a target. Seven digits. He got his cell phone. But he'd try anyway. The line rang. He'd not be able to shelter Will forever. If he could dissuade Eoghann from pursuing him. A thought came to him that was so simple. believed.Skin Deep 171 Chapter Twenty-four Will slept. But Will would be vulnerable to Eoghann every time he left the safety of the Grotto. If Eoghann could manipulate a phone to call him. the taking had been rough. Cobalt had been certain he'd die of ecstasy. Even with as much restraint as he could muster. he and Will would be free. When Will had asked him to drop his glamour. Even if Will agreed to stay. to take him in true form. human or Fae. Never in his life had another being. He'd accepted. Summoning his magic. to be caged here and kept like a favored pet. but the torments he'd already suffered at Eoghann's hands suggested otherwise. How would he go about finding Eoghann? He moved through menus to the incoming-call log and scrolled to one he knew had been the Unseelie. Ghostly tones drifted from the phone's keypad. Eventually he rose and made his way to the loft. content to revel in the aching thrill his reaction to the truth had caused. because as long as Eoghann continued attempting to have him. The lingering warmth in him chilled as he forced himself to face the facts. it could not possibly work. How had the Unseelie come to desire him so badly? It was a question he had to answer. he willed the device to reopen the circuit it had already known. turned it on. Cobalt watched him for a time. Unknown caller. stirred him so strongly. And then he'd ask the bastard about his fixation. He wanted to believe Uriskel could care for himself. then he could do the same. whispering a deal of death for any Fae cruel enough to take it. . and stared at it. he'd no desire to keep him that way. The moon displayed its cold face above the city. Uriskel had not yet returned. demanded to be immersed in it.
and the reason you'll return at my side. Eoghann.” “Why me? Why now? I've been gone a decade. “Your father. and I'll be free of his cursed spies. “Are you. A spate of weak. Ciaràn. A dull thud.” Cobalt closed his eyes. lung-rattling coughs.” “Perhaps.” Another dull thud.” “Who's this he. Ciaràn. W. Voluntarily or not. then?” “Ciaràn.172 S.” Weight settled in Cobalt's stomach. why he's never told you?” .” “Ah.” “What?” “I'll tell you this. not understanding a word of his raving. Any Fae in the realm would be honored by your attentions.” “I will. He died before I was born. slick and dull. the line clicked open. “Your father is very much alive. How fascinating.” “You'll not have me. appeal to the Unseelie's immense ego. There's one other who knows what I know.” Cobalt couldn't help wondering who he'd been expecting to call.” “Ask.” Eoghann's voice. since what's mine has come back to me. certain the backdrop sounds had been Uriskel. “Have you changed your mind?” “No.” Eoghann's laughter cut to his bones. Don't you wonder. He'll not dare say a word about your return. Ciaràn.” He decided to attempt a bit of flattery. “I've a question for you. After three rings. “And that matters not where I'm concerned. “You're powerful and attractive. you'll return to the realm with me. You've been lied to. I reserve the right not to answer. Uriskel. You are mad.” “Are you mad? I'm banished. His tone shifted to mocking pleasantry. “No time for an old acquaintance.” A grunt in the background. “I'm occupied. But it's you I'll have on my arm. tight with annoyance. “My father is dead. now. Vaughn Cobalt held the phone to his ear and waited. then?” Cobalt blurted.
working shirtless on a scarified back piece for a pretty. either.” “Perhaps. and that the asshole who'd copied his glamour and killed Lyle would hunt Will down. a traitor. And he despises you. “But he's no love for you. . dark-haired girl. Right now. it was just another New York murder. he will die. Most of the audience here were fans. Cobalt wanted him to stay here forever. I'll take him. He didn't want to think beyond the moment. I'll hurt him.” Cobalt said quietly.” He finally managed to speak the halfling's name. Ciaràn. And if you still refuse to return with me.” More chilling laughter. “Keep your precious human close to you. “Let him go. He'll pay for that as well. Eoghann.” “He's told me nothing. talked. It would fade soon. but Tess insisted on his taking a few more nights off. I've no idea what you're talking about. But Will wasn't jealous. He felt more than a little guilty not doing his show tonight. and he had to agree that they should at least wait for the news to blow over. the place was near full.” “Bastard! If you—” His threat fell on an empty line.” “Why the concern. I'll not wait much longer. not customers. broken only by the occasional reminder of Cobalt's concerns that Uriskel still hadn't come back. It wasn't hard to figure out the main attraction—Cobalt. Within half an hour of opening. Perhaps he has told you. center stage. It was a dream. that was fine with him.Skin Deep 173 “Uriskel. “Ah. She was convinced watching Lyle die had scarred him for life. They had stayed in. Made love. then? He is a snake. Besides. if it's me you want. and Cobalt was playing to them tonight. He'd planned on it. He'd spent the day with Cobalt. At last Eoghann said. That place was reserved for Will. ***** Will sat at the table nearest the entrance and watched the Grotto come to life. After all. then.” There was a long pause. Making up for his absences. Cobalt had made sure he didn't doubt his feelings. none of the fans would be sleeping in Cobalt's bed.
” “You're touched. She smirked a greeting.” . Nix.” He grinned. “Welcome to the lot. anyone paying particular attention to him. You've not had an easy time of things. “Something's different about you tonight. What a treat this is. After a moment. “you smell of sex. “I was getting to like him. “Practically a line running from here to Cobalt's booth. silent as a locked room. And frankly. that.” Will frowned.” “You'd know best.” Will stared at her.” Nix said. if you're still in possession of your faculties.” she said. “Of the dark variety.” she said. “He knows! Bloody hell. mate. For some reason. Will.” He leaned back and folded his hands on his stomach. “Where's our friend Skelly. and then his impish smile returned. Before he could say anything.” For half a second Nix looked serious. love?” Nix leaned forward and waved a hand in the air near Will's head. Shade cut in. love. “I'd trust your instincts. A moment later. Master Will. The sensation that he was being watched. his mouth gaped. “Stay in tonight. a chair scraped across the floor close to him. Shade had already taken a seat. I feel for you.174 S. Nix furrowed his brow. he thought but didn't say. Shade tipped a grimace.” she said. “Hey. He looked around the dark-lit room but didn't see anything out of place.” “Is that it?” Shade actually smiled. “Can you find it. Strange. Most times he's the trouble himself. it was impossible to hate Nix. He heard Malik's cultured tones as the shop assistant chatted with someone in the front room. “Are you…?” Psychic. is it. “Yes.” Something unsettling passed through Will. Vaughn Will closed his eyes and listened to the music that pulsed from the speakers and wound through the conversations around him.” he added in a conspiratorial whisper. He cracked a glance and blinked at Nix. Nix?” “Not hard to miss. It was a little creepy. Glad to see your gourd's not flipped.” “Thanks. who was in the process of sitting across from him with a wide grin. I think. W.” “Poor bugger. then? We've not driven him off. “Trouble.
“No need for that. complete with a prolonged girlish yelp that was supposed to represent Cobalt's reaction. Okay.” “Appreciate it. Almost indulgent. She acknowledged it with a nod. but she spoke of his skilled artistry and his fierce loyalty and dedication to those he cared for. Will learned that he loved the ocean. Your private thoughts are still yours. “All right.” Will blinked and shook himself. Will sensed a gentle warning beneath her words.” she said. Cobalt's wrapping up.” Nix gave a dramatic shudder. “Already!” Laughing.” she said.” “There's a nasty thought.” “Right. “We've been hours. Cobalt glanced up and smiled before returning to his task. She nodded. It's just a little weird when you answer me before I ask anything. From Nix. “I can only read what you intend for me to hear. He pantomimed zipping his mouth shut. Time passed. “I'll try and let you get a word in now and again.” . Shade glared at him. love?” “Leaving already?” Will said. Nix pointed at a clock on the side wall. mate.” Will said. boring thoughts. “Damn. Place is clearing out. “Not to worry. then. Guess it has. Will looked across the room to where Cobalt worked. Shade was less forthcoming.” He cleared his throat and tried to think bland. “Though I do enjoy the look on your face.” A corner of her mouth lifted. isn't it. Her expression for Will was kinder. “I know his heart's safe with you.” Always. “About time we nipped off. loved New York.” Nix intoned.” “Tell me about it.Skin Deep 175 “Oh. and hated spiders. until eventually Nix stretched and yawned. The conversation turned to Cobalt. As though he'd felt the attention. The story he told about a time one of Cobalt's customers had brought a pet tarantula to the studio. Like you've a sprite caught in your pants. got Will laughing until his stomach ached.
the same place as Tess's brother. He didn't look hurt.” The kid acted like he was seriously strung out on something. laughing. Cobalt would be pissed. and hoped he was just exhausted. He bolted upright. This is my place too. They're…” Will frowned. After a minute. turned back to Malik. He was being watched. put a few things away. I think there's something wrong with Malik. “Out there. Eyes looking through the walls. “Malik.” he said with a smile.176 S. Someone grunted in pain. If that were the case.” “Um. “I stubbed my toe. Tonight there was only Cobalt. Cobalt still in the booth.” “Where is he?” Will pointed toward the entrance. hoping he hadn't just gotten the kid fired. Tonight he'd relax and pretend that life was good and there were no crazy fairies out there looking for him. “Cobalt. not sure what to do with himself. Come in… He couldn't make out the rest. “Hey. really. and came out. He vaguely recalled something about Malik being in college. He didn't need anything else.” Cobalt's brow furrowed. yeah. He seemed decent enough. W.” Will said. On the table.” Cobalt said when he reached the room. “What was that?” . “Everything all right?” “Yes. A dull thud sounded. Malik in the entrance room. but at least his eyes had lost that weird blankness. Vaughn They said good-byes. Malik was alone in the small outer room. Glanced out. He seems kinda…well.” His smile sank. But at least Tess couldn't blame this one on him. Being near Cobalt calmed him some. “How do you mean?” “I don't know. Still slow to react. Will's skin crawled. Watched. Unable to shake his unsettled feeling. Cobalt held a finger up. the customer emerged. Right. blank stare. “Things are fine. People in various stages of leaving. Will made his way to the booths. He stood and walked to the entrance. murmuring something. talking to his customer. “I see Nix and Shade have taken to you.” Cobalt strode off. He shot a glance at Will.” He looked a little better. stoned. “Huh? Oh. standing by the table with slack features and a glossy. Will followed. “You okay?” Malik's head swiveled in his direction. and Will settled in to wait.
” “I'll second that.” Cobalt said slowly. Locked. “Alone at last. “Sex first. I suppose…I must be tired.Skin Deep 177 Malik blinked and shivered. “I'll do that.” “And you're not?” Cobalt kissed him hard. Will shook his head. Yes. Get some rest. Everything all right?” The kid's apparently unconscious echo of Cobalt's words creeped Will out almost as much as Shade.” “Yeah.” Will reached the stairs first.” The boy nodded.” Cobalt moved past him and went to a door at the side of the room that Will had never noticed before. “To my loft.” “I see. Wine later. You're insatiable. He headed straight for the bedroom—and froze when a slight movement in the living area caught his eye. He closed the door and locked it. Good night. with Cobalt a few steps behind.” Concern clouded his features.” “Mm. He tried the handle. The lights were on low in the loft. “Excuse me. The scarified creep he'd seen outside stood beside the couch.” Cobalt blinked and faced Will. love?” “Yes. A slow smile spread across his lips. Malik. The . “Cobalt. “They're fine. “Sorry about that. I hope everything's okay with him. one hand clutching a kneeling. Care for some wine. Do you have the time?” Impressions registered like lightning. “Perhaps you should go home.” Cobalt came back into the studio and moved aside to let the last few people out. “And you?” “Yes.” He walked outside. Among other things. “That was…unusual.” “Ah. “Where does that other door go?” Will asked. hooded figure beside him by the back of the neck. Will.” “You've no need to apologize.
W. Vaughn other hand held a small wooden box. . whispered something. balanced on his palm like he was offering a gift. The box opened and unleashed hell. The creep grinned.178 S.
Move any closer to your human.” he said in a cracked whisper. You've a job to do. “I'll warn you now.Skin Deep 179 Chapter Twenty-five Cobalt barely registered the fact that Eoghann had managed to gain entrance to the Grotto before the bastard released a swarm of sprites.” “Bastard! What do you want from me?” “You know what I want. “Still resisting? How utterly tiresome. His bared needle teeth glistened crimson. “Call them off. and I'll set them to him. dark streaks on blue skin. enveloping him in a cloud of buzzing wings and gnashing teeth.” Cobalt said weakly. looking from Uriskel's crumpled form to Will. they'd be on him. his forehead. Blood lined his lips and drizzled from his mouth.” . Yet. he'd be crippled with the injuries they could inflict. “No!” He glared at Eoghann.” Eoghann shoved the figure huddled beside him. And a full sprite attack could easily drive a human mad. He turned and spat a mouthful of blood in Eoghann's face. So far Will hadn't moved. his voice splintered and raw. “Kill me.” Eoghann swung the wooden box hard against his face and shoved him to the floor.” “I won't.” Eoghann yanked the hood down and clamped Uriskel's neck with one hand. “Halfling worm! Tell him. Oozing claw marks raked his cheeks. You know what'll happen if you don't. “Up. Ciaràn. The nasty little creatures headed straight for Will. At the least. but if he tried to run. His glamour was gone. dog.” Uriskel. “I won't.” “They'll not harm him. Uriskel rose in jerks and spurts. He couldn't save them both.” “Stop. surrounded by a pulsating skin of sprites. His fingers dug into the flesh.
So far. but he couldn't hold it. He opened his mouth. but you've not heard the best of it. One of many rules. however minor. Eoghann had. the boy's affections are not returned.” he croaked. “And so was I.” Uriskel's eyes rolled in his head.” . He thought of Malik. Ciaràn of the glen. Displaying concern for his feelings. for the breaking of which I can be put to death. believing it gibberish borne of exhaustion.” Eoghann grinned. except for that one. He hadn't driven his lovers insane. They crumbled like dust.” “What devilry is this?” Cobalt snarled. You're not clear of it yet. I'll not believe it.” he said.” Cobalt had thought little of the statement.” “I'm forbidden to tell you. “He did indeed.” “You…” “Broke your toys? Of course. “Malik invited you in. “Why should you be permitted to enjoy being banished?” Cobalt couldn't even speak. “Ah. And I'm told it will be slow in the coming. The enormity of the revelation. Vaughn Cobalt closed his eyes. racking his body with shudders. of his strange behavior and his unresponsive stare. burned in his throat and cauterized it closed. “Tragically. the rage of it. “You were fathered by the highest of nobles. When it stopped. “Tell him we're family. W. The Seelie king himself. “This is my place too. How in the gods' names had the Unseelie managed to enter the building? He certainly hadn't been invited. “Part of my…terms of service. Uriskel's urging him to speak with Will. But hadn't he told the boy to consider the Grotto as much his place? His stomach dipped.” He gestured at Will. Not you. That should sound about right. “Tell him. he'd have told me if we were…brothers. Brothers. His own swam with defeat. “But not lowborn.” A sneer half formed on his lips. The words he'd said.180 S. then gave a mocking bow.” Uriskel flinched again. A gesture forced the halfling roughly to his feet again. and a fit of coughing seized him. Traitor or not.” He lashed out and kicked Uriskel. looking to Eoghann.” He flinched as though he'd been struck. Likely while wearing his stolen glamour. “Bastard you are. “You're forcing him to lie to me. But it's likely that he's beyond caring by now. he drew a great gasping breath and met Cobalt's eyes.” The word emerged a whisper as a memory surfaced.
shivering. Hurry. And should your dear brother attempt to interfere with the high court again. before the floor started vibrating like an earthquake under his feet. He reached into the swarm. and almost dropped it in revulsion. “I rather enjoy you alive. And that Cobalt had agreed to go somewhere with Eoghann so he'd call off the creatures. The last thing he heard. “Now. Everything is perfect. In exchange for a quick death. black-skinned things flying around him. then. “But you've just told me. Kill me. “Now do it. Cobalt was right. Call off your sprites. and Cobalt hadn't known. Will heard snatches of the conversation between the Fae. Sprites didn't look anything like Tinkerbell. He'd thank Uriskel later.” The smile on Eoghann's face was cold as the ages. no way in hell he'd let Eoghann take Cobalt from him because of a bunch of oversize bugs. Eoghann sliced another gesture in the air. and I'll return with you.” Eoghann started toward Cobalt. “Destroy him. That Uriskel was Cobalt's brother.” A wounded-animal cry filled the room.Skin Deep 181 Cobalt's heart shattered. “You'll return to the realm with me.” Nodding once. he'll be granted a long and painful death. It did have arms—four of them. Uriskel turned to face Eoghann. The creep would have to do better than that. He understood that Malik had let Eoghann in. grabbed one. Its face was mostly mouth stuffed . “Your Will can handle a few insects. “Very well. Your pretty human pet will live out his short. claw-toed feet.” The last shreds of hope in him died. Cobalt.” Insects. Eoghann.” Before Uriskel could react. Was that what these things were? In that case. Cobalt called on his magic.” he whispered. passing Uriskel without a glance.” Twitching. pinning him to the floor.” he said through his teeth. Cobalt felt ripples from the surge of power that knocked the halfling flat. jointed like a praying mantis—and two thick legs with tiny. Through the mad buzzing of the leathery.” “Yes. pathetic life. you preening backbiter. Your Will can handle a few insects. Uriskel launched himself at the Unseelie and bore him down. “Destroy us both if you have to. came from Uriskel. “I'm yours.
Jesus. pulsating chunk of muscle. Two on one arm. His gut churned every time with the squelching sensation of burst flesh. The thing burst like an overfed leech. One of them skittered across his shirt. He did it again. It hurt like hell. He swatted it hard. latching onto his arms. his back. He clenched his jaw and kept going. He could hear it sizzling. Double sets of clear dragonfly wings sprouted from its back. but he could take the pain. one after another. W. Fucking fireflies from hell. dry. The little bastards were using his blood for the scalding stuff.182 S. grunting in pain when it popped and sprayed him with fiery liquid. The bites stung. one on the other. Cringing. their bloated bodies hanging from his flesh. looking for a place to sink its teeth. Vaughn with teeth. He'd welcome it. Will reached out and scooped as many as he could in both arms and crushed them to his chest. With a startled cry. scarlet under black-veined flesh. smacked them. He liked it. but he felt their teeth in him. It squirmed and shrieked in his grip. a small. if it meant killing these awful things. Teeth sank into the meaty part of his palm. still dozens more circling him in a chittering frenzy. with a slit nose and eyes like drops of oil. Their guts. dripped down and left blackened rivulets etched in his skin. Not all. One landed on his shoulder and bit his neck. though. pounded them flat with fists. his chest. He couldn't reach the ones on his back. A teaspoon or so of liquid splashed his hand and burned him on contact. he wiped his hand on his shirt—and watched a hole smolder through the fabric. Some of them managed to bite. He crushed it—and it didn't burn him. a flash of intense pain. This one-at-a-time shit took too damned long. Its flesh was hot. A massive insectile abdomen bulged behind the distorted humanoid form. A fresh bunch attacked. He batted them off. Will closed it in his hand and squeezed. or whatever the stuff was. And there were still more. It wasn't glowing. the burns throbbed. Its abdomen swelled and glowed. Tendrils of smoke rose from his skin. A handful of sprites left the swarm and dived for him. .
” Cobalt managed a smirk. Will dropped the shirt and stomped it flat. Shuddering. They kept diving.” Will nodded at Eoghann. Please. Will guessed this was his true form. pulsating abdomens stretched like balloons—golf-ball sized. They crumbled to dust. “Finish him off. The last one in the air went straight for his throat. inviting it. brought it around to look. But the back of his shirt felt heavy. fierce concentration etched on his face. breathing hard. Not too smart. He looked like he'd been rammed headfirst into a paper shredder. Two sprites clung to the fabric. Stopped and stared. Two rough black circles blossomed and sent smoke spiraling up from the sprites' remains. and only a handful remained. Cobalt stumbled back with a gasp. kept biting. you mongrel breedling?” “Shut up and die.Skin Deep 183 A few more passes.” . a grasshopper-shaped face. Blackness and rot seeped through them. holding back bile.” Uriskel said. “I'm all right. He stood still. “You dare strike me. Cobalt stood over him. Black and gold eyes like Cobalt's. If anything was going to drive him insane. He gestured. He glanced in Will's direction. teeth like curved bone needles. Their glowing. and waited until it landed to pluck it off and pop it in one hand. Or not. The earthquake he'd felt had apparently been floorboards coming to life and tearing free to wrap themselves around Eoghann and hold him down. No more buzzing. He kept swatting and crushing. holding a hand palm down. Light blue skin. Eoghann let out a gurgling hiss. He pulled it over his head and off. sprites. He raised his chin. A series of snaps burst from them like fire. Another floorboard ripped itself out and curved across the trapped Fae. He held one of Cobalt's wine bottles upraised and smashed it on Eoghann's head. Now he could help Cobalt. acidized stolen blood swirling just beneath the taut surface. this would be it. And then he saw Uriskel. The boards trapping Eoghann began to creak and pop. “Stay back. Will lurched away from the carnage.
“Really. “Pull the place down on us all. Thick boards and beams pulled loose from the walls. Anger replaced it quickly. who still hadn't moved. Uriskel slid down and collapsed in an abrupt heap. The monster wavered—but it moved forward.184 S. He gestured again. he ran over and dragged Uriskel to the far side of the couch. through it. The thing kept coming. Eoghann displayed a split second of confusion. he held his arms out like Moses parting the Red Sea. sloughed away from beams. I'd expected better of you. slowly spreading. knotted itself together. Eyes blazing. The impact shook the building. Vaughn “Blasted human!” Eoghann shook free of the debris and shot to his feet.” Eoghann folded his arms and regarded Cobalt with an indulgent sneer. It formed a skeletal creature. bent. and black rot blossomed in the ogre's legs. Whatever he did. it lifted Uriskel a foot from the floor and flung him across the room to crash against the far wall. Plaster cracked. Cobalt screamed something in a language Will didn't understand. The mass shambled toward Eoghann with a dull. Will trusted Cobalt. groaning roar. “Fascinating strategy. The wood flexed. splintered joints and sheared points at the ends of its clublike arms. Whatever he planned to say was lost in a scream when a splintered stake plunged into his chest. A groaning sound rebounded from the walls and filled the room. Eoghann's reaction was too fast for Will to follow. The rot spread faster through the creature.” Eoghann raised his arms and gestured. ignore the pain. Will wasn't surprised that he failed to die. step by ground-shaking step. It wouldn't be long before it fell apart completely. Blood soaked his shirt and bubbled from his mouth. I'll wait until you're through.” The urge to bolt passed quickly. Uriskel flew at him. Bits of wood crumbled away. . Faint metal pings peppered the breaking sounds—nails raining on the hardwood floor. At least then we'll be rid of the human. He glanced at Uriskel. Eoghann opened his mouth. Steeling himself to move fast. W. and saw the plaster breaking apart from the wall above him. They danced and clattered and floated together. coalescing like they were magnetized. Ciaràn. but his arms kept moving in frantic gestures. crumbled. a wooden ogre with creaking. pinning him down.
“Fae…powerless. Will snatched it away from him. Need you…safe. The first swing hit home and drove four of the nails in between his shoulder blades. Not fair. shithead. “I'm tapped.” “Please. He waited until Eoghann turned fully away. “Will…” Uriskel's voice barely carried past his lips. and smoke rose from the edges. Cobalt might die anyway—and he'd probably die too. toward Cobalt. Will bent closer to him. Reptilian features. “I've seen worse. Will pounded the other fist into his stomach without hesitation. grabbing every nail he could find. A living.Skin Deep 185 Cobalt groaned and sank to his knees. He sank down and curled in a steaming ball at Will's feet. His glamour fell away. Blue-black skin.” “What?” Uriskel's hand stirred debris until he found a nail.” he snarled. “You'll return to the realm as a corpse. He risked a glance at Eoghann. “Cold iron. Will stuck nails between his fingers and formed tight. “Not me. You. Heart pounding like a pile driver. his furious gaze riveted to Cobalt. There had to be another choice. No. He held it in his palm. If he left.” “Right. He couldn't even lift his head. . Guaranteed insanity. Can't stop him.” he panted. Most of the wooden ogre lay in a crumbling heap. Then ran at him.” “I'm not leaving you. Eoghann started to stand. Eoghann whirled with a hiss. spiked fists.” Will shuddered. Will. “Can we do anything?” he whispered. “Get out. Fangs and claws. “I dated a cop. If he stayed. Cobalt shivered in place. Cobalt would die.” The shock on Eoghann's face stiffened to a rigid mask. breathing nightmare.” Will scurried across the floor on hands and knees.” he snapped. It was cold to the touch.” Uriskel murmured. His flesh scorched.
deaf dolt. Attend to your Will. Vaughn Chapter Twenty-six Cobalt watched Eoghann fall. “Y-you want him spared?” Cobalt stammered. But how had Will known to use these against Eoghann? It mattered not.” “Uriskel…” He waved a dismissive hand. If the decision were mine. for Will. The Unseelie was poisoned. paralyzed. For no other reason than he was a monster who did not deserve life. Somehow. “I'll not stomach any grousing at the moment. W. He struggled to his feet and prepared to deal a death blow.” He froze.” “Cobalt. for the anguish he'd heaped on Uriskel. At last he saw the nails skewering the Unseelie's back and understood.” A haunted grin crossed his bloodied lips. Uriskel was kneeling beside Will in a posture echoing his earlier subservience to Eoghann. “Thick. “Don't. Cold iron. “I'm to bring him back alive. The Seelie king has a lengthier punishment than death in mind for him. This building was old. and piss on his grave alongside you. Will had brought the bastard down.” Will said.” Uriskel snorted. I'd let you have at it.186 S. Kill him for the humans he'd tormented and condemned to madness. A nail-shaped burn scored his palm. but still alive. Cobalt would kill him. “I think we're going to have company. Stay your hand.” “Thank you. “Bastard thought I'd die in the attempt. “No.” . Cobalt.” “I am that. erected long before drop-forged nails became the standard.” Uriskel rose to one knee. Won't he be surprised to see me. winced. his eyes refusing to believe what they'd seen. you thick dolt.
I'd see you face the bastard who calls himself king on your feet and not your knees.” he said.” “Be quiet. hands in his pockets. without her cutting tongue. maybe Shade would hear me.” Somewhere downstairs. “We've enough to heal one of you. Her gaze landed on Eoghann's frozen form.” He stopped. Fearless. “You've known for a day. And nodded. After a moment. he said. “Odd. and her eyes widened. and then he laughed. “I see someone's had a bit of a row with sprites. “Will…” Will shook his head. clear eyed and focused.” Uriskel lurched to his feet. “Keep the Sluagh away from me. Told you they were nasty buggers.” Cobalt said. a door banged open.” Shade seemed to materialize at Nix's side. Brother. the debris-scattered room. Gods. Take care of Uriskel. Shirtless. “Easy. with Nix right behind her.Skin Deep 187 Cobalt looked at him. Nice to see you're still drawing breath. Who's the worst of it?” “I'm only just drained. “Company?” “Yeah. “You've a journey to make. you daft bit.” Footsteps on the stairs.” “What?” “You called me brother. Cobalt's jaw went slack. So I think they're on the way. and already you're better than I at handling the Fae. Cobalt rushed after him and caught him just before he toppled. “I'll live. how he loved him. tipped his head at Will. low enough for only Uriskel to hear. Shade came up first. I kinda thought we might need help.” .” Shade raised a cool eyebrow. “I'd fire the decorator. “Bloody spectacular mess!” Nix came around her and strolled toward them. I've enough wounds already. “Blast the lot of you! I'll not be handled like a spoon-fed fledgling.” Uriskel let out a groan. and I figured if I thought loud enough. that. Uriskel. covered with oozing bites and sprite burns and plaster dust. She stopped and stared at the torn walls. turned his back. and managed a few wobbling steps. And I've not been cast into the fiery pits of hell.” Uriskel stiffened. Wood and plaster crunched under his feet.
if my alternative's you holding me like a wilting female.” he said.” he said. Will returned the gesture. who reacted with all the grace of a cornered tiger. “I'll come back for these.” Cobalt knew it was the closest he could come to thanks or acknowledgment. and enough for the moment.” Despite his best efforts. unable to keep the slight tremor from his voice. At last.” “Why…” Cobalt wasn't sure he wanted the answer. “I suppose you'll stay in the realm.” A shudder racked him. He blinked back tears. “I've a question for you.188 S. While Nix and Shade attempted to heal Uriskel. Cobalt said. Vaughn Cobalt's eyes burned. Uriskel sighed.” Cobalt grinned and went to deliver the message. He swiped them away.” Will looked up at him. and they stood without speaking for long moments. Call the Sluagh and her pet shape-shifter here.” “Ask it quickly.” Brow furrowed. A deck of playing cards nestled inside the pack. “Why did you follow Eoghann. Don't lose them. Cobalt led Will as far from the destruction and Eoghann's still-smoldering form as possible and embraced him hard. W. knowing Uriskel would despise seeing them. if it's all the same.” “Perhaps I wanted to die. Uriskel took a step away and turned with a smirk. None of what that asshole did is your fault. “I must apologize to you.” Cobalt eased back.” . Ciaràn of the glen. “And perhaps I've too few brothers who are not mincing noble scum to let one of them get his foolish self enslaved by that sadistic piece of filth. “Don't even think about it. Tell her I'd prefer to keep what blood I've left inside my body. then. “Here. “Well met. A lifetime of hatred couldn't be overcome in hours. Great softhearted fool. “All right. Cobalt lifted the flap. He reached in a pocket and produced a small leather pack with a flap closure. a few scalding tears escaped Cobalt's eyes. “Can you stand?” “I damn well can. but he had to know. pressing it into Cobalt's hand. when he went after Will? He might have killed you.
” He caught his lip. I'm not going anywhere. and he was going to kill somebody the minute he hung up. love. “Though I'd gladly have done so myself. “Probably. “I can live with that. Creepy. Eoghann killed Lyle. with an interesting take on the psychology of relationships.” The memory of Will's torment burned through him. I'd have gone back to him. “I guess we're even.” “You did. Your strength is boundless. And you defeated Eoghann. you'll not leave my bed for a month. “I did kick some sprite ass.” His smile was the sun.” He shrugged. “And that was Doctor…uh. “Do you suppose it'd be rude of us to retire to the bedroom?” Will grimaced. had you asked me. You saved my life. The guy sounded like being on the air was the last thing he wanted to do.” “I've not saved you. “Ready?” Tess in his ear. You've got questions.” “Ah.” Three lit lines. for one. Doc. And I'd be dead right now.” “Right. Will. He's a breather.” “But that's why you did.” “What?” “Never mind. and you respected that. That's not the reason.” Cobalt groaned and leaned down to murmur in his ear. “Bring it on.” “Line two. We're open for calls.” Cobalt brushed a curled finger along his jaw. people.” He gave himself a mental pat on the back for saying interesting. “Without you.” Will flashed a lopsided smile. instead of a few other words that had come to mind.” Will said. I should join the circus or something. Will rolled a sweeper and repositioned the mic.” ***** Will cut the line. “Fade your in-vee.Skin Deep 189 “No. I've got answers. “I told you no. Even though you didn't like my answer. Will. But I can guarantee a rain check. “I've underestimated you.” Tess said. then. He smiled. though.” “If I've my way. Maybe he'd lost a bet or something. Jay.” . “All right. Thanks for your time.
“That's right.” “You mean my pubes?” No. you're on The Truth. The guy was practically panting. I got a question?” Some breather. don't worry about it. pal.” Will paused for a beat.” Tess blipped in.” Tess told him. it's nice to be missed. I'm just a guy with a mic. you could try turning the lights off. sloppy breath. Question or confession?” “Uh. “Thanks. buddy. darlin'?” “Everybody in the place. or you wouldn't've called me.” “Well. thanks. Better yet. So I want to look bigger? How do I do that?” “Well.” A wet. and I sucked him off last time?” “Way to go. right? It's our third. You're great. “Three. hi. “Somebody slipped her a happy shot. Love means never whipping out the ruler. The caller mouth breathed again. Who's we.190 S. If he has a problem with the meat.” “Squealer?” “Giggler.” Will tweaked the volume and opened the line.” Will rolled his eyes. Your pits. What a genius. “You're on. “Seriously. Hope you brushed your teeth. Thanks for calling. Will! We all missed you last week. “What's up?” “So I got this date tomorrow.” He cut the breather. W. What've you got for me?” “Hi.” “Fun. Vaughn “Oh. Oughta be a bumper sticker.” He hit three. Will. “Nice one.” “Yeah. man. Yeah. sweetheart. you're gonna want him to shop another store anyway.” “Sounds painful. I work at Body Pop on Fifth. “Hey. “So he says he'll do me this time. Shaving makes the tree stand taller. “I figured you did.” Will turned toward the studio camera and stuck his tongue out. shave. outside of surgery.” . But he's bigger than me?” “Ouch.” “Nah.
” he said. you know?” “I don't know about everybody. That is so hot!” The girl covered the phone.” “Wow. “Told you so. all those people who had their sex drives amputated back in the sixties. everybody in New York wants that guy. There's gotta be someone out there who doesn't want him.” Will said.” She let out a contented sigh. tongue girl?” She took a deep breath. But with his audience. yes.” He shook himself. no fear that Cobalt would fly off the handle. “Shit! Oops. On the bed. We are. Peej! You owe me a shot. a high-pitched. “Will. but her next words came through anyway. in the shower. Dead air. on the floor.Skin Deep 191 She giggled.” Tess barked.” He felt no shame in saying it.” “Make sure you send me one. “We do piercings and stuff. Congrats. “Oh. nervous sound. “Is it true about you and Cobalt from the Grotto?” The question threw him off. were they ever.” Will bit down on his lip as the words invoked a different image than what she'd had in mind—Cobalt fucking him right here in the studio. maybe not. God. what's your question. Can I say that?” “You can say anything you want. Together in more ways than Will had ever thought existed. That'd probably be terrible for ratings. “In other words.” “Are you guys…you know. “I'm totally doing that. “Thanks for calling. tongue girl. but he recovered fast. darlin'. on the couch. My. Will. “That's so awesome. Dragging ass.” “Bye. Will!” . while the whole city listened.” Damn. you know? I'm the tongue girl. I'll look for that card.” “I'd recommend taking it orally. So.” “I hope that's on your business cards.” More laughter. You know. I mean. “DA. “That's a big ten-four. Together.' sweetheart. “That depends on what you mean by 'it. “Are you gonna have Cobalt on the show?” “That'll be up to him.” “Oh my God!” Another giggle.
” The fill faded. Query away. Will punched the line. “I'll take one more.” he said. “Well. “Tell him the truth.” he said slowly.” He snapped on the closing roll and killed the lines. Good night. yeah?” Will rolled a thirty-second fill. and knock-you-flat?” “I'm drooling.” “Yeah. but weird. Will.” Will glanced at the clock. and I fear I'll do him more harm that way. folks. good luck. “Maybe.” “I've a problem that I've not been able to solve. “There's some hot guy here looking for you.” No way in hell he'd explain things to Tess right now. The voice was unfamiliar. shuddering breath. Possibly dying. dark. You're calling me.” . “I've a partner. And trust me…real love is worth saving. Definitely Fae. and I'm out.” “Gotcha.” Will frowned. and we'll be in touch tomorrow.” The caller hung up before he could disconnect. How can I fix your bitch?” “This is Will Ambrose. and I hear you've particular experience. But I'd have to confess certain things. He pushed his initial how-the-fuck reaction aside. this is Will Ambrose. “That was extremely weird. and every other Fae he'd met. but the guy's cadence sounded like Cobalt. “Line two. it's about that time. We—” He stopped himself before he could say humans. “Hey there.” There was a pause. W.” Will's heart thrummed in his ears.” “Oh. “I won't know until you ask.” “No. Welcome to The Truth. “Tall. Vaughn Tess came through again. and Uriskel. any way you can do it. “I may be able to…help him. “So where's my visitor?” “Right outside your door. “I love him more than life. maybe not.” A pause. “Touching. And he's quite sick.” “Thank you. Will let his breath out slowly. “He can probably handle more than you think.” Tess said in his ear.” A quick.192 S. The on-air light flashed off. She wasn't nearly drunk enough.
” He smirked. Did you happen to hear that last call I had?” “I did.” The reserved note in his voice made Will look hard at him.” “You are wicked. . I'm not the mischievous kind. “We'll go set something on fire. “Come on in.” “Great. “And I guess you don't have any idea how he knew that I…well. “It's cool. his sessions would be private.” “Come on. Just have to take care of a few things. love. “Hey.” “Perfect.” Will shook his head. “I believe I can help you with that. I think I'll need more…experience. Now every Fae in New York's going to call me with their problems. Let's get started.” He smirked. Will took the cans off and headed across the studio. know?” A teasing grin slanted his lips. “But if I'm going to give out sexual advice to the Fae.” He knew Cobalt had finalized the design for his scarification piece. I'm anxious to show you. Will had a feeling he wouldn't be able to keep from jumping Cobalt right in the booth. “He means well enough.” “Nope. love. “I've a suspicion. “Be quick.Skin Deep 193 Grinning. hot and hard.” He was surprised the studio didn't burn down on the way out. no matter who was watching.” Will grabbed his hand. I'm just a guy with a mic—and the hottest lover in New York. “My lover is hotter than yours. I can deal with it. I'm thinking backseat of a cab.” A visible shudder worked through Cobalt. He opened the door. But it wasn't me.” “Nix. By mutual agreement.” Cobalt stepped through with a smile. He ducked and kissed him. “I've not counted lately.” Will groaned. anyway?” Cobalt offered a slow shrug. How many of you guys are there.” “I can't wait. Will.
W. Vaughn Skin Deep .Loose Id(R) Titles by S.
collects movie posters. Vaughn lives and writes in upstate New York. Vaughn S. a nice place to visit during the two months it isn't snowing. When not writing. W. W. . and the occasional possum or visiting horse from next door.S. and double-checks the dark corners of the house with a flashlight for mice. snakes. Vaughn spray-paints graffiti art on the walls of the writing cave. Vaughn works in multiple genres but prefers urban fantasy and erotic romance.
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