How did your meeting go with Ruby? Was he satisfied with your answers?” Katie asked.
Nick sat in the Mustang in the Ruby Promotions parking lot talking to Katie on his cellphone. “Yeah, he was fine with all of it. I’m surprised. The guy’s usually a real control freak. I think he’s preoccupied with the last-minute details for his VIP party tonight.
“I’m glad the meeting went well for you. I know you were worried.”
“So, how about I pick you up and we’ll go check out my new apartment?”
“Yeah, it’s available for me to move in today. Why, did you have something planned?”
“Tara scheduled a spa day for me at the salon she worked at before she became a nurse. A very expensive salon. She’s getting me in for free. I’d hate to turn her down after the trouble she went to.”
“What’s a spa day?”
“Massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, the works. Plus, Tara’s going to do my hair.”
Nick pictured Tara’s multi-colored, choppy hair. He wouldn’t put it past her to purposely ruin Katie’s long, beautiful hair. “Babe, do you think that’s a good idea? Tara’s hair looks like something chewed on it—”
“Oh, stop. She’s a talented stylist. She showed me a picture in a magazine of this sophisticated up-sweep. It will look great with the new dress.”
“This is going to take all day?” Nick asked.
“Well, yes, I wanted to look nice for you tonight.”
Nick pushed back his disappointment. “Okay. Enjoy your spa day. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“You plan on moving today? How will you have time to move and get ready for the party tonight?”
Nick laughed. “Cause all I have to do is take a shower and get dressed, like any other day.”
“Must be nice being a guy. Can I see the apartment after the party?”
“Plan on it. Pack an overnight bag, okay?”
“I will. Love you.”
Nick put the phone on the passenger seat and pulled out of the parking lot. It was a short drive from Ruby’s office to the high-rise apartment building.
The building’s lobby had white marble floors, linen wallpaper, and live trees housed inside massive ceramic urns. He rode the elevator to the fourth floor. The doors silently parted revealing thick taupe-colored carpeting and walnut wainscoting. Elegant brass wall sconces illuminated the corridor.
Turning the key in the lock, he swung open the door. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He walked across the polished, hardwood floor and stood in the center of the open-plan suite. To his right was a kitchen and small dining area. Gleaming stainless-steel appliances coupled with rich cherry wood cabinetry gave the room a warm yet modern look. He ran his fingers over the glassy surface of the black granite counter tops and imagined cooking a gourmet meal for two on the high-end gas range. The cabinets and drawers were well-stocked with dishes, glasses and flatware.
Across from the kitchen, the room expanded into an L-shaped living area. A dark walnut desk stood in front of a picture window overlooking a park below. Richly grained brown leather chairs and a matching sectional sofa created a cozy seating area in front of a gas fireplace. A huge flat screen television hung above the sleek stone mantle.
“So, what do you think?”
Nick turned to see Stephanie standing in the doorway grinning at him. She wore skinny blue jeans, a tee shirt and tennis shoes. Without make-up and her long red hair pulled up into a ponytail, she looked more like a twelve-year-old peddling Girl Scout cookies than a receptionist for a prestigious international agency.
“It’s fantastic. I can’t believe Ruby’s letting me live here. He must be losing a fortune in rent.”
“Are you moving in today?” Stephanie’s ponytail bounced as she walked toward Nick. “I can help. Well, for a couple of hours, then I have to get ready for the party.”
Nick laughed. “It’s only ten-thirty. The party’s not till eight tonight.”
“I have appointments to get my nails, hair and make-up done.”
“Yeah, I get it.” Nick smiled. He walked down a hallway, directly in line with the front door to another door.
“Must be the bedroom.” Nick turned the knob.
“Uh, huh, this apartment has the same layout as mine.” Stephanie tagged along beside him. “Bathroom’s over here.” She pointed to an open door to the right of the bedroom. Floor to ceiling earth tone-colored tiles surrounded a glass-enclosed shower that took up the entire width of the room.
“Nice.” Nick looked over Stephanie’s head. “You’re shorter today.”
She giggled. “I’m wearing flats. And I’m not short, you’re just really tall.”
Nick entered the bedroom. His shoes sank into the steel-grey colored carpet. “That’s a big bed.”
The platform bed formed the centerpiece of the room, piled high with decorative pillows and dressed in silver and burgundy satiny fabrics. The right wall of the room had two floor-to-ceiling windows and double French doors that opened onto a small balcony. The left wall featured an enormous walk-in closet, with built-in dressers and shelving units.
“My bedroom doesn’t have that.” Stephanie pointed upward.
“What the hell?” Nick looked up at the huge ceiling mirror above the bed. He laughed. “Did Scarface used to live here?”
Stephanie fiddled with a panel on the upholstered headboard. The overhead mirror dimmed, then lit up with different colored lights as she pressed the various buttons. “Interesting.” Her pale cheeks flushed red. She walked over and looked out the doors to the balcony.
“The mirror’s a little over the top for my taste.” He strolled back into the main living area.
Stephanie followed. “Do you have a moving van outside? I’ll help you bring your stuff upstairs.”
“No, I stopped by to see what I’d need. But this place has everything, like a luxury hotel. I’ll run home and grab my laptop and clothes. Should fit in the Mustang.”
“That’s it?” She rolled her eyes. “I’d need a semi just to hold my clothes and shoes.”
“I have some specialty kitchen stuff, too. I like to cook. And I’ll need to do some grocery shopping and buy a coffee maker. Can’t write without coffee.”
“Well, if I don’t see you later, I’ll see you tonight. Don’t forget, the party officially starts at eight, but Mr. Ruby wants his clients there at seven-thirty. The press isn’t allowed in until later.”
“I’m not looking forward to the press conference. Or Janis Ford. Hey, Steph, do you know why Janis was snooping around my girlfriend’s apartment yesterday?”
“Girlfriend?” Stephanie’s smile faded. “No, I don’t. You never mentioned you had a—” Her cell phone interrupted her. The Ring Of Fire ring tone played. “Hello? Yes, sir. I told the caterer. I’ll call and confirm now.” She slipped the phone back into her pocket. “Gotta go. Mr. Ruby needs me to make some calls. See you tonight.”
Nick returned an hour later with his things packed inside the Mustang. He would have returned sooner, except he had to tell Nonna he was moving out. He knew she wouldn’t be happy, which is why he had waited to tell her. He put a box of cannoli and a foil container of ziti she insisted he take with him into the refrigerator. Despite his reassurances he would visit often, she worried he wouldn’t eat enough.
A gift-wrapped box sat outside his apartment door when he returned with his second load from the car. A small card taped on top read, Welcome to the neighborhood! Luv, Steph.
He tore off the wrapping and found an elaborate coffee machine inside. He set it on the kitchen counter along with its packet of attachments. The thick manual that came with it boasted the machine brewed espresso and latte as well as regular coffee.
By early afternoon, Nick had all of his personal belongings moved in. He hung his cooking pans and utensils on the copper pot rack in the kitchen and placed the case of professional chef knives his grandfather had given him on the counter.
His clothes looked lost inside the cavernous bedroom closet. The ‘Ruby-approved’ wardrobe hung on one side and his regular clothes on the other.
The massive desk in the living room dwarfed his laptop and inkjet printer. He sank into the high-backed leather chair and gazed out the window at the picturesque view. He grinned, putting his hands behind his head he thought, so this is how it feels to be a successful author.
He decided to go grocery shopping so he would have food and drinks in the house for when Katie stayed overnight. He hoped to convince her to move in permanently. The thought of never having to deal with Tara again made him smile as he wheeled the cart up and down the aisles of the supermarket.
As he paid for his groceries, he realized his bank account had dwindled substantially since he deposited the ten-thousand-dollar check. Ruby indicated at this morning’s meeting a larger check would be forthcoming soon. He hoped Ruby wasn’t being overly optimistic about his future book sales.
After putting away the groceries, Nick checked the clock on the kitchen wall. Only three-fifty. He thought about calling Katie, but she never pampered herself and he didn’t want to interrupt her spa day. He smiled thinking about her saying she wanted to look nice for him tonight, he couldn’t imagine her ever not looking beautiful.
He grabbed a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and sipped it while he wandered around the apartment, taking in the luxurious surroundings. The beer helped settle the butterflies building in his stomach. He tossed the empty bottle in the trash can and opened a second. The party worried him. On one hand, he felt excited knowing his book would be debuted tonight and in stores by Monday. Yet, the thought of giving a synopsis of his novel in front of an audience made his stomach quake. Reporters asking him questions made it even worse. He set his cellphone alarm for five-thirty, removed his shoes and stretched out on the bed. His feet didn’t hang over the edge of this mattress, like they did in his bed at home. Looking up at the ceiling, he laughed out loud and wondered what Katie’s reaction would be to the immense, shiny voyeur looming above the bed. He felt certain she wouldn’t like it.
The smell of buttered popcorn wafted outside when Tara opened the door. She looked him over from head to toe. Nick braced for an onslaught of crude innuendos.
“You look hot, Nick. Katie’s almost ready.” She turned back to the kitchen table, tore open a bag of microwave popcorn and emptied it into a bowl.
Katie’s bedroom door opened. Nick gaped as she walked toward him.
“Do I look all right?”
“All right? You look amazing.” He walked around her taking in every inch. The dress, the shoes, and her glowing face and eyes. “I like your hair like that.”
“Isn’t it cool? Tara styled it.” Katie jerked her head toward Tara and raised her eyebrows.
“Very nice job, Tara,” Nick said.
“Thank you.” Tara beamed at him as she munched popcorn. She turned to Katie. “You’re wearing your cross?”
Katie touched the delicate gold chain and tiny cross that hung around her neck. “I always wear it. It’s the only jewelry my mom had left. She had to pawn everything else.”
Tara shook her head. “It doesn’t go with the dress. I have some necklaces if you want to borrow one.”
Nick saw the frown on Katie’s face. “It’s fine, babe. It’s gold, like the dress.”
Tara shrugged. “Whatever.” She carried the popcorn over to the couch and sat. “Have fun.”
“Tara’s in a pleasant mood for once.” Nick held the car door open for Katie.
“She’s not a bad person, Nick. All of the services at the spa were free because she performed them. It would have cost me a fortune otherwise. She’s happy she has the next two days off. She can stay up late and watch the VIP party. I didn’t realize how big a deal this event is. Tara said it’s televised on three cable entertainment channels. She’s recording it for us.”
“Televised?” Nick pulled away from the curb. “That helps my nerves.”
The valet opened Katie’s door and helped her out while Nick walked around to hand him the keys. Onlookers gathered in designated sections cordoned off with velvet ropes. Huge monitors hung facing the street audience. Video crews bustled around stringing cables and setting up equipment. Camera flashes went off like a wave of silent fireworks as the two walked the red carpet into the lobby of the Grande Plaza Hotel.
Nick handed his invitation to a young man in a tuxedo who led them to a bank of elevators reserved for party guests. A uniformed man inside the elevator greeted them and pressed the button for the rooftop.
Katie stepped from the elevator onto the rooftop expanse. “It’s breathtaking!”
Three sides of the open venue contained round dining tables and chairs. Metallic silver cloths with black lace overlays and tall vases of black orchids adorned each tabletop. Shimmering scarlet and silver curtains covered a stage in front of the railing near the edge of the roof. Beyond the steel and Plexiglas railing, lights from the city sparked to life as twilight darkened into night. Overhead, white lights entwined in a fine mesh stretched across the roof. The midnight blue sky camouflaged the dark mesh, creating the illusion of thousands of low-hanging stars. The twinkling lights reflected from a glossy black, dance floor in front of the stage which looked like a dark pond of rippling water.
“Not many people here yet,” Nick said. “Want to get a drink?”
“You don’t need to be drunk when they call you up on stage,” Katie chided.
Nick laughed. “Yes, I do.”
“Relax, you’re going to do great tonight.” Katie kissed his cheek. “I’m so happy for you, Nick. And you look so handsome. The silk scarf is a sexy touch.”
“Steph picked it out. I would have never thought of wearing a scarf indoors.”
“Hmm. Steph has good taste. Is she here yet?”
“I don’t see her. But, look, there’s Joseph Cullen! I recognize him from the pictures on his book jackets.” Nick nodded toward a slim, gray-haired man dressed in a black tuxedo. He stood alone by the railing, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette.
“He’s the author that inspired you?”
“Yup, that’s him. I’d give anything to be like him. A best-selling author and a multi-millionaire.” Nick grinned and grabbed Katie’s hand. “C’mon, let’s go meet him.”
Cullen leaned against the railing staring out at the skyline.
“Excuse me, Mr. Cullen?” Nick called a third time. The author finally turned his head.
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir. I’m Nick Teravelli. This is Katie Harrington.”
Cullen’s gaze flitted past Nick’s outstretched hand and settled on Katie. “Hello, beautiful swan.” He flicked his cigarette butt over the railing and reached for Katie’s hand. Closing his eyes, he brought her hand to his mouth. Cullen slowly moved his lips across the back of Katie’s hand as if he were in a trance. Nick cleared his throat. Cullen pressed his mouth against Katie’s hand and lingered there.
Katie jerked her hand away and moved closer to Nick.
Cullen studied them with glazed eyes while he took a long drink from his glass. He wavered on his feet and grasped the railing with his free hand to steady himself.
Nick wasn’t sure if it was alcohol or age affecting the famous writer’s behavior. His patience thinned when Cullen’s leer settled on Katie’s cleavage.
He attempted to distract Cullen with conversation. “I was recently signed by Ruby International Promotions. I have my first book coming out next week. Thirst, a vampire novel. It’s the first in a trilogy.” As he talked, Nick eased his arm around Katie’s waist and turned to face the railing. The subtle movement blocked Cullen’s view of Katie. “One of my all-time favorites is your Veiled Secrets trilogy.”
Cullen leaned sideward and peered around Nick. “Are you a writer, Katie?”
“No, Mr. Cullen, I’m a nurse.”
Draining his glass, Cullen glanced up at Nick and commented, “So, you’re the new meat.”
“Victor always likes to have the young ones in place before the old ones rot and die.”
“Mr. Cullen, you’re still writing bestsellers. I can only hope to achieve half the success—”
“Katie.” Cullen interrupted Nick. He scuttled along the railing for a better vantage point. “My next novel is set in a hospital. Your knowledge of the field would be invaluable. Perhaps you would come by my apartment for an interview?”
“My work schedule is so hectic, I’m afraid I . . . couldn’t.” Katie’s tone sounded polite but strained.
“I’d love to talk to you sometime about writing horror. I’ve been a fan of your books for years,” Nick said. “Mr. Cullen? Stop staring at my—”
“We have to go now,” Katie blurted. Nick felt her fingers dig into his side. “Nice to meet you.”
“Do give us a call.” Cullen fumbled inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a white card. He pressed the card into Katie’s palm, then turned and staggered off toward the nearest bar.
“What a rude asshole,” Nick said. “Staring at you like that.”
“I knew you were getting upset,” Katie said. “That’s why I told him we had to go. And, I have to find a rest room.” Katie’s eyes flashed with anger.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked.
“The disgusting pig licked my hand.”
“I pulled my hand away because I could feel his tongue and his slobber . . . ugh.”
“Are you sure? He’s pretty hammered and he is older, you think maybe he just drooled?”
“You couldn’t see it, but I could feel it.” Katie laughed despite her annoyance. “And, no, he wasn’t drooling for God’s sake, he’s not that old. He’s a drunken old lech. Every time he looked at me, I got the chills.”
“I’m not letting him get away with this.” Nick spun around.
Katie grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To find Cullen. I don’t care who he is, or how drunk he is, there’s no excuse for licking your hand.”
“Nick, please.” Katie tugged on his hand. “Let it go. He’s not worth it. A scene will only make you look bad on your big night.”
Nick took Cullen’s card from Katie and slid it into his wallet. “All right, but I will pay the old bastard a visit when he’s sober. So much for my inspirational author.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, babe.”
“It’s not your fault. I wanted to slap him, but I didn’t want to make a scene either. Let me go wash my hand.” She shivered. “I feel like I need a shower.”
“I saw rest rooms next to the elevators. I’ll wait here.”
Despite Katie’s plea, Nick walked the perimeter of the rooftop searching the growing crowd for Cullen. Not finding him, he ordered a beer to quell both his anger and his nerves. The first icy glass went down quick. He ordered a second.
A steady stream of guests poured from the elevators and filled the rooftop. Nick sipped his third beer, as he waited for Katie and watched outrageously dressed guests pass by. The women’s outfits ranged from elaborate ball gowns covered in sequins and feathers to skimpy leather bikini tops and skin-tight shorts. Many of the men sported tuxes, while others wore eighteenth century period suits and Dracula-inspired red satin-lined black capes.
Nick spotted Katie winding her way through the crowd toward him. He smiled and waved. She glowed like an angel. Her blond hair and the shimmering pale gold dress stood out in the sea of predominately dark clothing. Stephanie walked by her side. The two talked as they approached.
“Hey, Steph.” Nick raised his glass in greeting. “I see you met Katie.”
“Yes, Katie’s a lifesaver! I had a wardrobe malfunction. She helped me fix my dress in the lady’s room.” Stephanie wore a floor-length strapless gown in a silky black material with thin red pinstripes. The low-cut dress clung to her thin frame. Two side slits exposed her pale legs from mid-thigh down to her red high heels. Her eyelids drooped at the corners from the weight of false lashes caked with silver glitter.
Katie smiled at Stephanie. “Glad I could help.”
“I’d better check in with Mr. Ruby. I feel like I’ve been stuck in the bathroom forever. I’ll catch up with you guys later. Thanks again, Katie.” As Stephanie hurried away, Nick noticed her dress exposed her milky-white back down to her waist.
“Is it me, or does Steph look like a little kid playing dress-up?” Nick asked.
Katie sighed. “She’s trying to look glamorous and older.”
“What was her wardrobe malfunction?” Nick grinned.
“I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Not even me? I won’t say anything.”
“Let’s just say thanks to the roll of magic boob tape Tara lent me, and lots of toilet paper, all is well now.” Katie smiled.
“Magic boob tape and toilet paper?”
“Never mind.” Katie laughed. “You’re right about Stephanie. She’s naive, but very sweet.”
“Yes, you did, but I’m right, too. She has a huge crush on you, Nick. Her eyes lit up every time she talked about you. Not to mention her shocked expression when she saw my engagement ring. And did you notice her dress matches your scarf? I doubt it’s a coincidence.”
“No, I didn’t. I had a hard time getting past all the make-up. But now she’s met you and she knows we’re engaged. She’s got to know I’m not interested in her romantically.”
“Be careful what you say to her. She could easily get the wrong idea.”
“I will.” Nick touched Katie’s cheek. “Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?”
“Thank you.” Katie looked around. “Compared to these women I feel plain, even in this dress. They all look like super models. Some of them are practically naked.”
“I didn’t notice.” Nick ran his hand down her bare back.
“Hmm, half-naked women everywhere and you didn’t notice.” Katie rolled her eyes.
They both looked up when they heard their names. Across the room, Stephanie sat at one of the numerous mini bars waving her hand above her head and calling for them to join her.
“Oh, God. Look at that creepy-looking character with Stephanie,” Katie whispered to Nick as they made their way through the crowd. A tall, spiky-haired man stood talking to Stephanie. His white face, black-ringed eyes and deep red lips gave him an evil, vampirish look.
“He’s that guy from the metal band, Blood Lust,” Nick said.
“I hope that’s fake blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. If the normal-looking old guy in a tux licked my hand, I can only imagine what this freak might try.” Katie tightened her grip on Nick’s hand.
“If he does, I’d have no problem punching him. He’s more my size and age.”
“Hey guys! I wanted you to meet Chris Turner, aka Ian Slaughter, lead singer of Blood Lust,” Stephanie said. “Chris this is Nick Teravelli, aka Nick Tera. He’s a writer and our talent contest winner. His first horror novel will be released tomorrow. And, this is Katie, Nick’s fiancée.”
Nick accepted Chris’s handshake.
“Congratulations, mate. I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of your new book,” Chris said.
Katie hesitated when the rocker offered her his hand. He gently shook it and said, “Lovely to meet you, Katie.”
“Your accent sounds Australian, is it?” Katie asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Born and raised in the ol’ Down Under. Of course, I’ve been in the states for about fifteen years now.” Chris’ teal-colored eyes twinkled when he smiled. “By the way, I recognized the expression of horror on your face when you looked at me.” Chris winked at Nick.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. It’s stage make-up, um, right?” Katie stammered.
Chris’ laughter cut her off. “No, I meant I saw the same look of horror in the mirror when I was getting ready for this little soiree. Glad I did theatre in college. It helps with my stage act. Trust me, dressing like a vampire is not my idea.”
“Let me guess, it’s Victor Ruby’s?” Nick asked.
“Yes, but not entirely as he wanted. If I let the little bast—,” Chris nodded at Katie, then Stephanie. “Pardon me, ladies. If Ruby had his way, I’d have permanent two-inch fangs cemented to my ivories and glowing red contact lenses glued to my corneas.”
Nick laughed. “Guess I got off easy. I’m forbidden to get a haircut or a close shave.”
“Which suits you,” Stephanie chimed in. She sat on a bar stool between the two men with her eyes open as wide as her heavy eye make-up would allow. She swiveled back and forth as each spoke.
“My roommate loves Blood Lust,” Katie said. “I’ve heard some of your CDs.”
“It’s heavy metal, not everyone’s taste. I prefer softer rock myself,” Chris said.
“Chris writes beautiful ballads.” Stephanie beamed up at him. “He has a phenomenal voice.”
“Thank you, Love.” Chris tousled Stephanie’s hair. “Unfortunately, I can’t convince Ruby to let his record company release any. Doesn’t fit my image, he says.”
“He can be pretty stubborn about the image thing,” Nick said.
“Yes, but don’t let him bully you when it comes to your principles, mate,” Chris said. He leaned closer to Nick. “Tell him to shove his infernal contract where the sun doesn’t shine. I did. Tonight is likely to be my last gig with Blood Lust.”
“Chris, don’t say that! Ruby will renegotiate your contract,” Stephanie said. “He’s got to, the band would be nothing without you. Everyone knows that.”
Chris sighed. “I’m not holding my breath. Besides, I’m sick of reading the twisted lies in the tabloids. Ridiculous headlines like Ian Slaughter Has Meth Lab Backstage or Ian Slaughter Performs Blood and Sex Rituals With Unsuspecting Virgins.” He laughed. “Like there’s any virgins floating about this God-forsaken city. Oh, what was the latest one, Love?” Chris looked at Stephanie.
“Ian Slaughter Sucks The Blood Out Of A Kitten On Stage.” Stephanie shook her head.
“I don’t need my daughter hearing that rubbish. At least she’s too young right now to understand. Now my wife, let’s just say that kind of publicity is not conducive to a happy marriage.”
A female bartender in a glittery red bikini top interrupted to ask if anyone wanted a drink.
“Another ginger ale, please.” Chris handed her his empty glass.
The bartender winked at him. “Can’t I get you something stronger?”
Chris shook his head. “No, thanks, alcohol wreaks havoc on my vocal cords.”
“I’ll take a draught,” Nick said.
“Nothing, thank you,” Katie said. “Nick, go easy, you just had a beer.”
“I’m fine.” Katie would be appalled if she knew how many beers he’d downed tonight. Yet, despite not eating the entire day, the alcohol didn’t calm his jittery nerves.
“A Bloody Nightmare, please.” Stephanie grinned when Katie, Chris and Nick looked at her. “What?” She giggled. “It’s a drink created especially for the VIP party.”
Katie turned to Chris. “So, you have a daughter?”
“Brittany, my pride and joy. She turns four today. Which reminds me.” Chris took out his cell phone and held it up to show off his daughter’s photograph. “It’s party time on the west coast. Pardon me, will you?” He walked a few feet away and made a call.
As the bartender placed their drinks on the bar, the three turned to listen to Chris softly singing Happy Birthday to Brittany.
“He does have a nice voice,” Katie commented.
When Chris returned to the bar, Stephanie raised her glass. It was a tall glass with alternating layers of red and blackish colored liquids, adorned with a red plastic pitchfork sticking out of the top. “To Ian Slaughter and Blood Lust. May they make music together, forever!”
As Nick and Chris reached over to touch their glasses against Stephanie’s, an unusually tall woman sporting black feather wings on her back pushed between them and leaned against the bar. Her left wingtip hit Stephanie’s glass, nearly knocking the drink from her hand.
“Hey!” Stephanie said.
The woman ignored Stephanie and slammed her fist on the bar. She yelled at the startled bartender, “Tequila, straight up!” Standing several inches taller than Nick, her toned, sculpted body looked like bronzed marble in a bikini top and thong bottom. Taut, narrow triangles of black leather strained to contain her breasts. Her shiny, black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail secured on the top of her head. It hung in a straight line down her back, between her feathered wings.
Grabbing her drink, she spun around, brushing both Stephanie and Chris with her massive wings.
She smirked at Chris, then strutted off into the crowd.
“Who was that?” Katie and Nick asked at the same time.
“Talon,” Stephanie said, glaring at the woman’s back.
“Talon?” Nick asked. “Like a bird’s claw?”
“She’s more like a big, nasty toenail,” Stephanie muttered.
“Is she an actress?” Katie asked.
“I’m not sure what she’s supposed to be,” Stephanie said. “I saw her for the first time yesterday at Ruby’s office. She was rude then, too. Walked right by my desk and into Mr. Ruby’s office without even knocking. A minute later he calls me on the intercom and says he doesn’t want to be disturbed.” Stephanie’s cheeks blushed redder beneath her make-up. “I heard the door lock. Then there were all these . . . noises. You know, like they were doing it in his office. Gross.”
“I’m six four and she made me feel short.” Nick laughed. “Ruby must have been standing on his desk.”
Chris laughed. Katie rolled her eyes. “Nick!”
“Obviously you haven’t met Victor Ruby, Katie,” Chris said. “He’s a short little bugger.”
“When she finally came out of his office, she blew right by me and out the door. Then Ruby comes out and tells me to put her name on tonight’s guest list.” Stephanie wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue.
“Did you see her tattoo?” Nick asked. He referred to a colorful snake on her left leg. The tip of its tail began at her ankle and wound around her long, shapely leg up to her hip. The top portion of the serpent encircled her abdomen and ended with the snake’s head pointing downward below her navel. Her tiny thong hid the tip of the snake’s tongue.
“That was a tattoo? I thought it was body paint,” Katie said.
“Must have taken days to do all that ink.” Chris grunted. “And hurt like hell, too.”
Katie sighed. “She has a perfect body. I guess you’d have to if you walk around basically naked.”
“I can’t imagine her and Mr. Ruby—” Stephanie began.
“Shush, Love. Speak of the devil.” Chris nodded toward the crowd. Ruby strode through the throng of guests. Despite his short stature, he exuded an aura of power and the crowd parted in waves to let him pass. He curled one finger at Stephanie as he approached. Jumping down from the stool, she hurried to meet him. Ruby glowered at her and spoke in a tone too low for the three at the bar to hear. Stephanie stared at the ground in silence. He left her standing alone and strolled to the bar.
“Nick, Ian! Are you enjoying the gala?” he asked.
“Quite a spectacle, as usual, Victor,” Chris answered.
“Yes, sir, everything’s amazing,” Nick added.
“Mr. Slaughter, show time approaches. Get your band together and check the set up on stage.”
Chris shook Nick’s hand and squeezed Katie’s. “Fun talking to you both.” He patted Stephanie on the head as he walked past.
“And, who is this lovely young lady?” Ruby cocked his head and smiled at Katie.
“Katie Harrington, sir. My fiancée,” Nick said.
Ruby’s thin black eyebrows arched. “Fiancée? Well, well, Katie, it’s my pleasure.”
He extended his hand and bowed his head slightly.
Katie’s eyes widened when he brought her hand to his lips. He kissed and released it.
“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Ruby,” Katie said. “Your party is spectacular.”
“I’m pleased you’re enjoying yourself. Though, I do hate to be the bearer of bad news.” Ruby flashed his white, toothy smile. “I need Nick to accompany Stephanie for a few minutes to familiarize himself with tonight’s program. My apologies Katie, I neglected to tell Nick there would be work tonight.”
Nick looked at Katie. “Will you be okay waiting here?”
“If Katie will allow me, I’d be honored to keep her company while she’s waiting.” Ruby held out his arm. Katie looked at Nick, and then back to Ruby. “Yes, thank you, Mr. Ruby.” She slipped her arm into his.
“Call me Victor.”
Ruby motioned to the bartender. “Two Champagnes.”
“I’m not much of a drinker,” Katie said.
“Just a sip, I insist.” He handed her a glass. “We must toast to your engagement and to Nick’s debut tonight.” He clinked his glass against Katie’s as he escorted her into the crowd. “Let me introduce you to some of my guests.”
Nick followed Stephanie across the rooftop. He scanned the crowd as he walked and caught sight of Ruby gesturing and smiling as he led Katie around on his arm.
Stephanie opened a door near the elevators. Inside, a small storage room housed surplus folded tables and stacks of chairs. She plopped into a chair at an opened table and put her drink down next to a clipboard and pen.
“Tonight’s program is pretty straight forward,” she said. “Excuse me.” Turning her back, she pulled a length of toilet tissue tucked inside the neckline of her dress and dabbed at her eyes.
“Something wrong?” Nick asked.
“Glitter in my eye.” She turned away again. Nick saw her narrow back trembling. He put his hand on Stephanie’s shoulder.
“Did Ruby give you a hard time about something back there?”
Stephanie looked at him with tears running down her cheeks. “I screwed up. Again. He said if I don’t do better, he’ll fire me.”
“Why, what happened?”
“I lost track of the time. I’m supposed to be working. He said I should have gone over the program with you five minutes ago.”
“He threatened to fire you over five minutes?”
Stephanie nodded and blew her nose. “Staying on schedule is important to him. I need this job and the apartment. I don’t know what I’d do if he fired me.”
“Don’t cry,” Nick rubbed her shoulder. “You do a great job, Steph. Like all the arrangements you made for this incredible party. Ruby’s not an easy man to work for. Don’t let him upset you. I’ll make sure I tell him how well you handled everything you did for me.”
Stephanie jumped up and flung her arms around Nick’s neck. Her sudden embrace surprised him. He instinctively hugged her and then remembered Katie’s warning about giving Steph the wrong impression. Letting his arms drop, he lightly patted her bare back.
Stephanie released her hold and returned to her chair. “I’m sorry, I—” She looked down and rolled the pen on the table. “Needed a hug. Thank you, for the sweet things you said.”
“No big deal.”
She took a deep breath and picked up the clipboard. “Mr. Ruby will host tonight. He’ll introduce his top stars, Joseph Cullen, the television and movie actors, Chris and the band. You’re last. There’s a small corridor behind the stage where everyone will wait until their name is announced. That’s your cue to go on stage. Mr. Ruby will talk to you about your book. You’ll give your synopsis. Then he’ll open the floor to questions from the press. They’ll take turns asking everyone the prepared questions. That’s it.” Stephanie grinned.
“That’s it, huh?” Nick paced around the room running his hands through his hair. “I wish I could relax. I’ve lost count of the beers I’ve had, yet I barely feel a buzz.”
“Here,” Stephanie held up her glass. “You can have this, if you want. I only took a sip. It’s a lot stronger than I thought.”
Nick hesitated, then took the glass. “Why not. Thanks.” He chugged it down and then laughed. “I need a Bloody Nightmare to get me through tonight.”
“Do you see Katie?” Nick searched the crowd when he and Stephanie returned to the party.
Stephanie craned her neck to look past the tall, red devil horns on one of the male guests’ heads. “No, but here comes Mr. Ruby.”
“Nick, bad news I’m afraid,” Ruby said. “Katie suddenly became ill. She had to leave.”
“Ill? But she was fine a little while ago. What happened?”
Ruby shrugged. “She said she felt sick and excused herself. I had one of my waitresses check on her in the rest room. She reported back that Katie wished to go home. She said she felt terrible about leaving on your big night, but she needed to go.”
“Go home, how? I drove her here. I have to find her—”
“Calm down, son,” Ruby said. “I had my driver take her home. He has instructions to escort her to her front door. And, I had the same waitress accompany her in the car, to make her feel more comfortable.”
“Thank you, but why didn’t you come get me?” Nick reached into his pocket for his cell phone. “I need to call and make sure she’s all right.” He patted his jeans and jacket pockets. “My phone’s gone. I must have dropped it. Is there a phone I can use?”
“No time, Nick. The program starts in five minutes. Call Katie after the press conference. Stephanie, take Nick to the waiting area backstage.” Ruby motioned for them to hurry.
Stephanie took Nick’s hand and they wove their way through the crowd toward the stage. “Maybe you dropped your cell in the storage room, or by the bar,” she said. “I’ll look. Or, you can use mine later. It’s in my purse, locked in a room downstairs we’re using as a temporary office.”
They saw Ruby directing reporters and a video crew to a cordoned off area in front of the stage. Nick recognized Janis Ford among the group.
Stephanie stopped at the entrance to a narrow corridor hidden behind the stage where a line of people waited and chatted in hushed tones. Nick checked his pockets again, hoping somehow he had missed his phone the first time he’d searched.
“Relax.” Stephanie squeezed his hand. “The press conference will be over before you know it.”
“You’ll look for my cell?”
“I’ll go and look now.”
“Thanks, Steph.” Nick ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath. He worried about Katie. She probably called his cell and wondered why he didn’t answer. A blast of guitar chords and drumbeats rang out followed by a burst of applause. Everyone in the back-stage corridor fell silent as Victor Ruby’s amplified voice boomed across the rooftop.
“Welcome to the Ruby International Promotions third annual VIP gala! As you know, this is the event where we celebrate the horror industry, in film, video, music and print. I’m proud to represent an extremely talented group of movie and television actors, musicians and authors this year.”
Ruby waited for the applause to subside. “Let me first introduce the infamous Ian Slaughter and Blood Lust!” On Ruby’s cue, the band played a short instrumental and drew loud cheers from the audience.
“I have an announcement I’ve held especially for tonight. Not even Mr. Slaughter is aware of the news.” Ruby paused, letting anticipation build. “As of yesterday, the band’s second album, Blood Sacrifice, has sold over one million copies, making it their first platinum record!”
The thin back wall of the stage vibrated with the audience’s thunderous ovation and the band’s celebratory drum solo. Chris Turner’s smooth voice congratulated his fellow band members and thanked their loyal fans for the honor.
When the hand clapping and cheering died down, Ruby resumed his announcements. “And the distinguished gentleman sitting on the stool to my right is, of course, the king of horror, best-selling author, Joseph Cullen.”
Nick snorted. The audience probably presumed they put a chair on stage in deference to Cullen’s age, but he knew it was because Cullen was too drunk to stand upright. Ruby informed the crowd that Cullen’s newest novel would be released this fall. He asked Cullen what the book was about. Nick couldn’t understand the author’s slurred reply. Ruby’s voice took over, describing the book as another terrifying tale from the horrific mind of Joseph Cullen. “A terrifying story set in a hospital, The 13th Ward, will be the forty-ninth bestselling novel of Mr. Cullen’s long and illustrious career!”
If the book would be on the shelves by fall, Nick knew Cullen’s invitation to interview Katie had been a cheap ploy to get her to his apartment. Any admiration he once felt for the author turned to disgust and renewed his desire to call Cullen out for his appalling behavior toward Katie.
Ruby introduced eight teen-aged actors who sprinted up the steps onto the stage in pairs to a warm reception from the crowd. They were the stars of two new hit television series, one featuring werewolves, the other vampires. Their departure from the backstage waiting area placed Nick third in line. His stomach knotted tighter and he wished Katie were in the audience.
Ruby introduced two more actors, a young man and woman, as the stars of a new horror movie, Night Birds, to be released next spring. After expounding upon their acting skills and on-screen chemistry, Ruby told the crowd some scenes in the movie were so graphic, the Motion Picture Association couldn’t agree on a rating for the film. The audience responded with approving shrieks.
“Lastly tonight, I have a special announcement. This is the first year Ruby International Promotions has held a talent contest. I focused on upcoming, unpublished writers in the horror genre,” Ruby said. “I wanted someone fresh with an edgy writing style and youthful appeal.”
Nick climbed the three steps leading to the stage. His legs felt rubbery as he waited behind the curtain. Closing his eyes, he prayed he would remember his book synopsis and the answers to the press questions he had memorized.
Ruby continued his speech. “The response to my contest proved incredible! So many talented authors came forward, making it difficult to choose only one. The final decision fell to me . . . of course.” Ruby’s unabashed tone sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd. “I am proud to introduce the winner, my personal choice, Mr. Nick Tera!”
Nick parted the black curtain. A spotlight temporarily blinded him as he walked onto the stage. Chris Turner stood a foot away holding his guitar. As Nick passed by, he slapped him on the back. “Smile, mate. You’ll do fine.”
Nick stopped at the only opening left on the crowded stage. The audience applauded. He clasped his trembling hands behind his back and tried to muster a natural-looking smile.
“Nick Tera’s debut novel, Thirst, will be in bookstores tomorrow. Nick, this is the first novel of a trilogy you’ve written, is it not?” Ruby asked. “Tell us about your story.”
Nick swallowed to moisten his throat and leaned toward the microphone stand. “Thank you, Mr. Ruby. Yes, the trilogy begins in 1813 with the first volume, entitled Thirst, where I introduce the protagonist, Julian Rentworth, and his fiancé, Caroline. Although deeply in love, and engaged to be married, a series of dark events upset their plans. Julian is seduced by Diana, a beautiful, but evil vampire. In a fit of jealous rage, she turns Julian into a vampire, ending any hope for his marriage to Caroline.
“The three books chronicle over two hundred years of Julian’s immortal life and the constant conflict between the vengeful woman who made him a monster and his search for his reincarnated lost love, Caroline. Julian’s thirst is a metaphor for his hunger for human blood as well as the spark of humanity inside him which longs for a soul. He is forced to make a critical choice, and then he must face the dire consequences of his choice.”
Applause erupted from the crowd, surprising Nick. He let out a long breath, relieved he had delivered his synopsis smoothly.
“Excellent, Nick. I predict all three books will be bestsellers!” Ruby proclaimed above the clapping. “Nick has other merchandise available in stores and online.” Ruby waved his arms indicating two huge monitors on either side of the stage displaying the poster of Nick and the two models. He chuckled. “Ladies, I’m sure you’ll want a poster or perhaps a tee shirt.”
Female voices screamed ‘Nick’ from the darkened sea of bobbing heads in front of Nick.
“Thank you all for coming tonight,” Ruby said. “I’ll turn the floor over to our media guests. After the press conference, Blood Lust will entertain us. Drink, eat, dance, and enjoy the night!”
A female reporter shouted, “Nick! How did you feel when you heard you won the Ruby Promotions contest?”
“On top of the world,” Nick answered. “Being a published author is my dream. Having Victor Ruby represent me is . . . well, it’s making my dream come true.”
“Ian! Ian!” A male reporter waved his hand. “Is it true you’re leaving Blood Lust to pursue a solo career?”
Chris stood stunned for a moment, then struck a deafeningly chord on his guitar and leapt to the front of the stage. “My mates and I have just gone bloody platinum! Leaving the band? Are you insane?” Boisterous laughter rose from the crowd.
Reporters took turns questioning the young television stars about each of the show’s story lines and rumors of real-life love affairs between the cast members. The youthful exuberance reflected in their answers sparked spontaneous rounds of clapping from the party guests.
Another string of questions focused on the movie actors and the band. Nick’s tension eased. The abundance of alcohol and the knowledge the press conference neared an end filled him with relief. The effects of the alcohol kicked in. He hoped the reporters were finished questioning him.
“Nick Tera!” A male voice called to him. “Who or what inspired you to write horror stories?”
After meeting Joseph Cullen, Nick edited his rehearsed reply. “Mostly the classic gothic horror writers, Stoker, Lovecraft, and a few of Joseph Cullen’s earlier works.”
“Hey, Nick!” The female voice shouting out his name sounded louder and closer than the other reporters. He squinted into the bright lights. Janis Ford’s silhouette stood right below him.
“There are rumors about your personal thirst, as in the long list of women you’ve seduced. Are these lurid affairs truth or fiction?”
The audience reacted with whistles and hoots. It wasn’t one of the rehearsed questions.
“That isn’t true,” Nick said. His voice didn’t carry. The microphone wasn’t working. He saw movement from the corner of his eye and the crowd broke into wild cheers. The two models from the poster, Rachel and Ebony, walked up on either side of Nick and grabbed his arms. Rachel, the taller blond, yanked his scarf jerking his head down close to hers. She planted her lips on his mouth. Her clip-on microphone recorded her loud moans to the delighted screams of the onlookers. Ebony unbuttoned Nick’s shirt and ran her hands across his chest. She yelled, “We know all about Nick’s thirst, don’t we, Rachel?”
Nick tried to push Rachel away. She wound his scarf around both her hands and pulled it tighter. Aware of the cameras aimed at the stage, he fought to keep both his balance and composure. Ebony clutched at his open shirt and laced her legs around his. She shimmied up and down, egged on by lewd comments from the crowd. Shocked, humiliated, and unsteady from alcohol, Nick attempted to extricate himself from the pair without physically hurting the women.
“Give the man some air, ladies!” Chris’ voice blared over the microphone. A guitar played. “Start the song. Now!” Chris yelled. A driving drumbeat muffled the crowd’s rowdy jeers. The spotlights shifted from Nick and the models to the band. Rachel released her death grip on his scarf. The women each latched on to one of Nick’s arms and escorted him off the stage as Blood Lust played their first number.
Nick shrugged off the models as they exited the back-stage curtain. He shouted over the music, “What the hell was that all about? Who told you two to come on stage?”
Ebony’s lips formed a pout. “What’s the matter, sweetie, don’t you like us?”
Rachel ran her long blood-red fingernails through his hair. “Victor hired us. To help you sell posters.”
“Screw the posters!” He pushed past the two women and hurried along the narrow backstage corridor.
When he emerged from behind the stage, he blinked to refocus to the darkness around him. The rooftop lights had been dimmed to accentuate the bright stage. Between the poor lighting and the drinks he had consumed, he had difficulty navigating through the swaying throng of guests. Dancing bodies blocked him in every direction. Peering over the heads in front of him, he searched for Stephanie or Ruby. He didn’t see either. Women screamed his name. Several tried to kiss him, and others tugged at his clothing. Bursts of light popped in the darkness. Reporters called to him, then blinded him with camera flashes when he turned his head.
The energy in the room accelerated. The guests were inebriated, loud and aggressive. They screamed over the music, bumped against each other and spilled their drinks. Costumed women danced suggestively, pressing their bodies against him and the other guests.
Rachel and Ebony emerged from the unruly mob surrounding him. “We’ll help you, sweetie,” Ebony said. She threw her arms around Nick’s neck and hoisted herself up, wrapping her legs around his hips. When he yelled for her to get down, he felt her tongue push hard into his open mouth. A bitter tasting pill lodged in the back of his throat. Nick staggered in a circle as he tried to pry her arms from his neck. The bright camera flashes and the constant, deafening drumbeat made him dizzy. He fell backwards and landed in a chair. Rachel sat close to him holding a glass to his lips. Ebony straddled his lap and danced to the loud music. She poured a shot glass of fiery liquid into his open mouth when he attempted to speak. Tequila washed the bitter residue down his throat.
The heavy metal music stopped. A mellow drum rhythm with rich guitar riffs started. Nick heard Chris’s voice ring out. “Here’s something different. A medley of new ballads I’ve written.”
Chris sang the lyrics to the love songs in his deep, smooth voice. Couples paired off on the dance floor. Others gravitated back to their tables, sat and swayed in their chairs in time to the music. The slow, hypnotic melodies blended from song to song. Nick felt dazed but welcomed the calm after the previous chaos. He stopped resisting the two models who hung on him and fed him drinks. The liquor they poured into his mouth masked the bitter taste lingering in his throat.
Nick focused on Chris’s soothing voice. He felt light-headed. His body relaxed and his mind drifted. He wanted to leave to check on Katie and escape the chaotic party, but he couldn’t maintain the thought long enough to make himself stand up. His eyelids involuntarily drooped shut and he kissed the soft lips pushing against his. Katie? He embraced her and opened his eyes to see Ebony’s dark eyes staring into his. She licked her lips and kissed him again.
Applause thundered as Chris ended his last ballad with a soft flourish of guitar strings. The mood in the room suddenly changed. The guests stopped clapping. They shouted and pointed at the stage. Nick forced himself to look up. A mythical-looking creature with huge black wings strode to the front of the stage. The tall, winged woman shoved Chris with both hands. He lost his balance, fell and crashed into the drum set behind him. Women screamed. Cymbals clanged as he pulled himself upright.
“Enough of your pathetic bawling! Let’s make some real music and take this party back!” Talon shouted to the raucous crowd. Chris stormed off the stage. The band hesitated, playing random drumbeats and awkward guitar twangs.
“Play the damn song!” Talon’s screech ricocheted across the rooftop like the scream of an eagle flying over a canyon. The drummer pounded out a loud beat and the rest of the band joined in. She loomed over the audience waving the microphone stand above her head and shrieked out lyrics to their heavy metal accompaniment. Her voice didn’t soothe like Chris’s had, it assaulted Nick’s eardrums.
Although her mouth still moved, the volume faded. Farther and farther away, until it became a muted, tinny sound. The enormous snake wound around Talon’s leg mesmerized Nick. Its iridescent scales rippled and changed colors under the lights. The snake’s movements fascinated him. Its eyes flashed yellow and its long, forked tongue flicked against Talon’s taut lower belly. It wriggled, slithered and undulated, yet never loosened its tight grip on her flesh as she strutted back and forth across the stage.