by Teresa Cain
"I have a proposition for you."
I stiffened, grabbing my upper arms in a fierce grip as Jade came back into the room. Damn, and Aerael had gone off to find me some clothes too. That liar had sworn she wouldn't come out of her room until I left, yet here she was, slinking in with tail twitching. She stopped about five feet away, looking me over, then narrowed her eyes and smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. Anything with teeth that long and sharp could never have a nice smile.
"How would you like to be me, little shape-shifter?"
"Thanks, but I'm perfectly happy being myself. I just don't think I could pull off the hair." Smart ass to the end, huh? "On you it looks good, though."
"No, no. How would you like to be my human self? Emily was doing it, but Aerael ran her off." She sighed and shoved her hair away from her face. "Unfortunately, Emily was playing my human self, so now the woman identified with my money has disappeared, and there's only so long I can keep up doing business over the phone and through e-mails."
"Sucks to be you."
"Might suck even more to be you if you don't shut up and let me finish," she growled. She suddenly shoved a newspaper clipping in front of my face. "Can you take this shape, little doppleganger? Or are you limited to your human and your fae shapes?"
"I - I dunno," I stuttered, looking at the picture of a blond woman in her early thirties. "I've never tried to be anyone else. I'm scared enough to do my, er, fae shape."
"Why don't you try?"
"Why should I?"
She tilted her face upwards as she considered this. "How about... because I'll rip out your large intestines and play jump rope with them if you don't?"
"Hey, that's a pretty darn good reason!" I said brightly, jumping to my feet. "Where's a mirror?"
Minutes later I was standing in front of a large mirror in what had to be Aerael's room. There were black feathers everywhere. The incubus must have been molting or something. Plus the whole room had that smell of winter I was really beginning to like.
I knew it was going to be hard shifting my shape voluntarily, and shifting into a shape totally alien to my genetic code wasn't going to make it any easier. And trying to shift voluntarily into a shape alien to my genetic code with a female demon posed behind me really wasn't helping any. But the image of her skipping merrily around the room with my large intestines, singing, "Cinderella, dressed in yellow" was pretty much all the incentive I needed.
I looked down at the picture again, taking in the woman's high cheekbones, little nose, little mouth, and slight body. Then I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying to picture myself like that. I found it helped to think of my body turning to Play-Doh. Shove the cheeks up like this... pinch the nose... smoosh in the mouth like so... oll out the arm and legs... pinch in the waist... a little yellow Play-Doh spaghetti on top for the hair.
"Hey, not bad, kid!"
My eyes snapped open, and I looked into the mirror.
The woman from the picture looked back.
Jade slapped me on the back, grinning widely and she looked me up and down. "You got her down pat. Well, you might have missed a couple of things, but nothing no one you'll be doing business with will notice. And to think I thought Aerael was a total idiot for picking you up. That boy toy has better instincts than I gave him credit for, but tell him I said so and I'll do really nasty, horrible things to you. Is that comfortable? Do you think you can hold that shape?"
"Uh, I don't know," I said uncertainly. "It... it feels okay. But I haven't said anything about doing this for you."
She was circling me, grinning like a very demonic Cheshire Cat. "Oh, I don't think you'll refuse once you think of the advantages."
"Like your allowing me to keep on living if I agree?"
"Well, there is that," she agreed. "And there's the fact you'll be allied with a very mean demon and an incubus that is a good fighter when he's provoked enough. Pretty good protection should your 'father' come looking for you, don't you think?"
Damn, she had me there. Of course, I hadn't exactly seen Aerael fight... but hearing him had been bad enough. Still, I'd also seen Eli fight. If the two of them ever went at it... ugh. The visuals were enough to give me nightmares. But was I afraid of Eli enough to accept the protection of these creatures?
"Plus, you'll be able to stay rent-free in a penthouse, eating better than you ever have, dressing better than you ever have, be escorted by gorgeous young blue bloods to various functions and events... and I'm willing to pay you, oh, something in the six figure range a year. Interested?"
"I don't know anything about business or society!" I wailed, beginning to panic. Demons and dark faeries I could handle, but this was too much. I'd never seen more than a hundred dollars at one time in my whole life. And now I was being offered at the very least eight thousand dollars a month to imitate a demon's human persona!
And I was only seventeen!
"Plus I can introduce you to various other preternatural creatures that might be able to help you hone your abilities," she added. "Keep you from slipping into your fae shape by accident. That could get embarrassing in some situations."
"But I don't - "
The society part is nothing, hissed a voice in my mind. And as for business, well, all you have to do is listen. I'll tell you what to say, what to do. All you have to do is sit there and be my body, my voice. A paltry thing for such rewards, yes?
Well, Jade's voice in my mind was pretty damn creepy. Still, for protection from Eli, for eight thousand dollars a month (at the least!), and for training in my abilities that I had been running from for five years... I could handle a little creepiness.
Jade was scary, but Aerael seemed nice... and I had been lonely. If I accepted this, I wouldn't be alone anymore. A damn sappy reason, I know.
I straightened up, face firming as I made my decision. This was the only way to go.
"No way in hell."
"No way in hell," I repeated, then grinned maniacally at the stunned look on her face, "not for under a quarter of a million a year, anyway."
"Why you little merc - " She cut off and waved one hand, a small smile curving her lips. "Forget it. It's pocket change. Do we have a deal?"
"If it'll keep you from playing kiddy games with my intestinal tract, sure." I glanced back into the mirror and forced myself back into my own shape. "Besides, this place looks like it'll sleep better than a subway car."
Her smile widened into that unsettling grin of hers, and she stuck out one hand. "Shake?"
"What, no contracts signed in my blood?"
"Nah, it tends to make the notary nervous. Besides, I think the vision of me tearing into your bowels is much more binding than any contract, yes?"
"Damn straight," I muttered, grasping her hand and giving it a firm shake. Yuck. It felt like touching a python - slick and cool. I really had to refrain from asking if she was any relation to the guy back in Eden. I didn't think she'd appreciate the joke. Or maybe she would have. But I wasn't going to test her sense of humor just after I got her back into a good mood.
"All right, what did I miss?"
We both turned to look at Aerael, who was standing in the doorway with a wary look on his face. It was the look that most guys get when they've just walked in on a conversation with two women. The one that says, "Whatever they're talking about, it won't mean anything good for me, I'm sure." Wuss.
"The kid here has just agreed to play me out in the world," Jade said, leaping to my side and draping an arm around my shoulder. Ew, the python phobia was coming back with a vengeance. "I bow to your superior taste in women, Aerael. She turned out perfect for me after all. I owe you."
"Really?" he asked doubtfully.
"Yeah. I think I can forget about those dirty dishes in the sink now."
"You're too kind."
"But about the underwear on the couch - "
"I told you, it wasn't mine!"
"Oh, right, like I wear silk briefs." Jade patted me on the head and started out the door. "Welcome to the family, kid."
Aerael stepped out of the door to let her pass, then shut it behind her. "She talked you into it, eh? Which threat did she use?"
"Making a jump rope out of my large intestines."
"Really?" He handed me a bag and frowned. "Lately it's been 'before I make origami swans out of your skin.' I thought it was more original myself. Here, I found some clothes. You're a size 5, right?"
"Yeah... look, you two don't even know my name, and yet I've been sucked into this game in just under two hours. That makes me believe it wasn't quite the coincidence you'd let me believe. So what's going on, Aerael? I'm willing to believe she doesn't have a clue, but I think you know a hell of a lot more than you're letting on."
His lower lip pushed out into a pout, which on him did not look silly. "Does it show?"
"You knew something, didn't you?"
"Well... perhaps I did know about your being a shape-shifter," he admitted reluctantly, becoming very interested at the tiles on the floor, "and perhaps I have been watching you for the past five nights, waiting for my chance. But about your father, no, I didn't know that. I just saw a young half-breed trying to struggle along in a world not her own, and I thought I might lend her a hand while getting Jade off my back as well."
He suddenly grinned and shrugged. "Incubi are selfish creatures at heart, dear. There really is no such thing as an altruistic motive with us."
"Carlie," I muttered, pulling out a pair of jeans and a black sweater from the bag. "Not 'dear,' not 'child,' not 'kid.' Carlie."
"Your name is Carlie?"
He sounded so pleased that I had given him my name that I actually felt a little guilty. "Well, not my real one. But I hate my real name. It only shows what a true bitch my mother really was. I mean, running off and leaving me with Eli was bad enough, but naming me what she did."
He sat down on the edge of the bed, his face alight with curiosity. "Really? What did she name you?"
"Roselyn? But that's a lovely name...wait. Roselyn Thorn? Your mother named you Rose Thorn?"
"What a bitch," he said wonderingly. "Right. Carlie it is, then. Well, Carlie to us, anyway. To the rest of the world, you've just become Ophelia Dark."
"Gee, she didn't make that name up for effect, did she?"
"Jade? Don't be ridiculous."
Then the name hit me. Ophelia Dark. Multi-billionaire Ophelia Dark who had her finger in so many pies that there weren't many areas she didn't have money sunk into. I'd just become Ophelia Dark.
...whom Eli Thorn had discovered days before my escape to be a creature of darkness.
"Oh, shit," I breathed, dropping the clothes and swaying backwards. In a flash Aerael had jumped the space between us and grabbed hold of me, steadying me.
"He's going to come after me," I wailed, leaning into his chest. "Eli knows Ophelia isn't human. He won't mean to come after me, but it'll be me he'll be after now! Two birds with one stone, and he won't even realize it. Oh, hell in a handbasket."
"Are you sure?" he asked gently, wrapping his wings around us both. I think it was a gesture of comfort on his part, and it was working... sort of. It reminded me that at least I had protection now. And it just felt really nice.
"Positive. He was making arrangements to start hunting her when I ran away five days ago." I sighed and rested my cheek against hard pectoral. "This'll teach me to jump into something without asking more questions. Now what do I do?"
"You do what Jade said. You stay with us, you play Ophelia, and we protect you. Simple as that."
I gave a desperate laugh and pushed away so I could look into his face. "Look, you may have heard about what Eli is capable of, but you've never seen him work, Aerael. I have. It's - horrible. It makes you feel sorry for the demon. And do you know why he hunts them? Oh, he may spout a bunch of shit about good and evil, but the real reason Eli Thorn hunts is because he is a psychotic bastard that loves a hard kill. You'd never make him realize that, but - come on, he's never set foot in a church other than to steal the holy water. He's crazy, Aerael, and now he'll be doubly after me. And you think I'll feel better to have one hormonal faery and a rich demon looking after me? I could be hiding behind the devil himself and not feel safe!"
"So don't be yourself."
He rested his hands on my shoulders and smiled down at me, eyes shining with affection. That surprised the hell out of me. "Hasn't it sunk in yet? You're a shape-shifter, Carlie. If he comes after you, then be someone else when he finds you."
"But if he goes after Ophelia...?"
"Is he crazy enough to make an attempt on your life while surrounded by people?"
"He's crazy, but he's not stupid. No, of course not."
"Then never be by yourself. And if you know you'll have to be by yourself, then don't be yourself. You keep saying you're not a child, Carlie, so stop acting like one. Yes, he's crazy, and yes, he's dangerous, but when it comes down to the bottom line, he is just a human... and he can be killed."
Dammit, I hate it when people make sense around me. And I really hate it when they come up with ideas that are so simple that I should have thought of them myself. I pulled away from him and turned my back, pouting. "Yeah, well."
But I couldn't think of any good argument, so I just turned my head, stuck out my tongue, and blew him a raspberry. Hah, argue with that.
"That was mature," he said dryly, heading for the door. "Tell you what, talk to me again in three months after you're officially an adult."
"Oh, you're just mad because it's impossible to fight with a raspberry!" I called cheerfully as he shut the door. But my good mood evaporated as suddenly as it had come, and my body sagged wearily.
Still, things were looking up. I'd known from the moment that I ran away that I'd have to deal with Eli eventually. I'd just thought I would die when he finally caught me. But at least I would have had a few brief moments of freedom.
I sighed and took off the robe, then slowly pulled on the jeans and sweater. He'd remembered most of the important stuff. Still, I was going to have to ask for an advance and go buy myself some underwear. Figures a sex faery wouldn't think about that.
I borrowed a brush from Aerael's dresser to tame my wild locks and tried to sum up the whole bizarre situation. I was now living with a rich demon female, whose human persona I would be imitating in exchange for beaucoup money and free room and board, and a dark faery guy who feeds on lust, of which I would probably be providing by the ton... which bothered me. And these two would be protecting me from a lunatic monster hunter that I'd called "Dad" until he started putting hot coals on my back. Plus I'd found that I could change into forms other than my human one and the... fae one, which meant I had one more weapon in my arsenal... bringing it up to a grand total of one.
Wow, a light at the end of the tunnel.
But I knew an oncoming train when I saw it.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Bargains ©2000 by Teresa Cain
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