Chapter 1: Happy Birthday
“Will you be open Valentine’s Day for pick-up? I want to get my bouquet while it’s fresh,” a older man asked Rose who was already busy speaking with another customer about placing an order for white orchids.
“Just give me one moment, sir. I'll be with you shortly,” Rose replied, sliding an order form across the counter for the other customer to fill out.
“I mean it’s a simple yes or no question,” the man said, his arms crossed. Rose noticed the rings of sweat forming under the man’s arms. It dotted his forehead as well.
The damn A/C was busted again. It hadn’t been an issue really the week before, but it was so hot now. It may as well have been the middle of July. The City of Mayhem was normally full of heavy rains this time of year and icy winds. It was times like these that Rose really found herself missing Southern California.
After another half hour of taking orders and bundling bouquets, Rose rounded up the last of the stragglers and had Flint close the register. Candi slumped against the door and swiped at her brow with the back of her hand.
“Thank God,” Candi breathed, “Why does everyone wait until the last minute to do this? Valentine’s Day happens the same time every year.”
“Will this random heat, everyone’s in a pissy mood too,” Flint added with an amused smirk as he counted the money. Most of the transactions had been made with cards or online.
“It’s our busiest time of year aside from Mother’s Day, and it’s what’s gonna pay the bill for air conditioning, so I’d complain a little less if I were y’all.” Rose chastised as she swept up a variety of petals from the wooden floor.
As far as she was concerned, all customers were good customers so long as they were paying customers are this time of year. Candi looked as though she might say something smart, but Rose watched as the women bit her lip and busied herself with organizing shelves and fixing the displays. Normally she’d be following the last customer out, but it was Saturday and her son Zack was with his grandmother. Flint only worked part-time, mostly helping to close except on the weekends when he worked all day. He was still in high school, but he fit right in at the little flower shop. Besides, Rose would never tell the boy this, but he reminded her of her little brother with his sweet smile and skin the color of midnight.
“Any plans tonight, ladies?” Flint asked as he shrugged a backpack strap over one shoulder.
“Horror movie marathon tonight. Zack's in another genre phase,” Candi laughed as she rustled around in her purse for her car keys. She glanced at Rose leaned against the counter, her fingers massaging her brown temples. “He’s really disappointed you’re not joining us, you know.”
“I sweat so much today it feels like I slicked my hair down with oil,” Candi groaned.
“Well at least you get to go home and unwind. Tell Zack I'll have to catch a movie marathon after the holiday. Tonight, I'm hanging out with my cousin.”
“Well, you’re basically ditching him at the alter in his mind at this point,” Candi pouted. The ten year old boy had a huge crush on his mother’s boss. Before Candi had come to work for Rose, they had already been friends and Rose had spent more than a couple weekends babysitting while his mother worked a long shift.
She grabbed her purse and double checked the doors before heading toward home. Normally she’d drive for safety reasons, but she wanted to save every penny she could to replenish her savings and pay for renovations on the store. Downtown wasn’t the shadiest part of the city, but it never hurt to be cautious. Especially when there were dangerous parts that not even the cops bothered to patrol…or so she’d heard.
Queenie: don’t b late hoe
Queenie: u better get cute
Rose bit down on her bottom lip, a nervous habit she’d developed as a kid. Her cousin was probably already at The Lounge, a popular and very exclusive club at the heart of downtown. It wasn’t that Rose wasn’t a social butterfly, or that she didn’t like to go out. She was sociable when she needed to be, and quality time with Queenie was nothing short of entertaining. The problem was the occasion. He knew she’d be working all day on her birthday and wanted to celebrate early by guzzling tequila shots and making her the center of attention in front of strangers.
Rose: Just made it home. I'll shower and be there in less than an hour.
Her apartment complex was nothing impressive. It was another rectangular block with rectangular windows and painted beige on the outside like so many others in the city. It was cheaper than the luxury apartments across the street with their long list of amenities, but this was the best she could do on short notice. On the plus side, it was a rather large studio with decent carpet and a nice kitchen that boasted granite countertops and a dishwasher Rose oly ever used as a dishrack.
She removed her shoes at the door and placed them on the shoe rack along the wall where a flatscreen tv was propped on a cheap stand she got from Walmart. On that side was the living area and to the right was the kitchen. A small cushioned loveseat of velvet gold fabric was propped a few feet from the tv, her full-sized bed behind it facing the tv with the headboard against the wall. The couch and bed were separated by a partition as a divider between bedroom and livingroom, the frame of it painted gold to match the couch.
Rose made a beeline to the bathroom passing walls lined with storage spaces where she kept towels, bedding, and extra supplies like toilet paper. As soon as she climbed into the clawfoot tub, the hot spray of water hissing from the showerhead, she let out a groan of relief.
Cada watched as a pretty girl with red hair topped off his comrades’ drinks and placed another bottle of water onto their table. She smiled at him, her eyes meeting his through false lashes despite two other women pressing into him on either side, both equally as attractive face remained stoic, almost bored. He’d have rolled his eyes if he cared enough. He was present because he had to be.
“Anything else for you gentlemen?” the cocktail waitress asked the booth of three plus the women trying for their attention.
“When are you off?” Kai asked smoothly, his body relaxed in the seat as he swirled his glass before knocking the brown liquor back. The waitress giggled and leaned down to whisper something in his ear before bounding off with more pep in her step. Cada shook his head, his expression still stony. Kai raised a brow, amused. “Being here on business doesn’t mean I can't have a little fun once we’re done here.”
Percy, sitting to Cada's left, frowned. His eyes scanned the crowd, forehead wrinkled with tension. He was in his late thirties, but still handsome enough to garner the attention of some of the clubbers. The music was loud yet relaxed. The Lounge served as a bar, restaurant, and of course a lounge on weekends. The restaurant crowd had some booths packed. It was fairly early, but he had no doubt the place would be full of dancing youth dressed expensively, high and drunk, in no time.
Another clan would also be lurking in larger numbers in the crowd tonight. For now, their assignment was to simply scope out the populations present. They had to be sure none of the human civilians would be put in harm’s way by their own or another clan. Things like that are what started wars and cost a shit ton of cash to keep under wraps.
“I’ve ready counted three in the last hour. Carlos sure has some fuckin' nerve showing his ugly mug on our turf,” Kai said with a low growl.
“Well, with the treaty still intact, he has the right to be here. The problem is, how many of them will show up?” Cada's eyes flicked across the room where a vampire sat on a human women’s lap, her slightly protruding teeth grazing the skin at the base of her neck. “The question is why? It’s not as though they don’t have their own spots to gather. And this isn’t exactly their scene.”
“Well, I'm certain we’ll know before midnight,” Percy said before picking up his drink and taking a long sip, “Until then, keep your eyes and ears peeled. The staff has already been notified. We’ll know who comes through every door, supernatural or otherwise.”
After ignoring them a while longer, the two women on Cada shifted their attention to Kai whom welcomed their advances shamelessly. Cada sat quietly, his focus on the task at hand. Smaller bodies of people left as larger bodies of people replaced them. Young women who were human and supernatural clad in tight clothing, sequins, neon hues, heels, and makeup poured in followed by men in suits and semi-formal attire.
Cada felt the shift in the atmosphere before he knew what was happening. The hair on his arms rose like someone had dragged a balloon across his skin. He straightened in his seat; his eyes widened at the energy that drifted from across the room. Kai and Percy took notice of their comrade’s response, their own senses marred a bit by the alcohol. Percy placed a hand on Cada’s shoulder, concern in his dark eyes. Whatever they were sensing, they weren’t the only ones to take notice in the club.
Cada shrugged Percy off and stood, his golden eyes dilated and his muscles tense. What the hell was this feeling, he wondered. He hadn’t realized he was making his way across the club until he heard Kai call after him for the third time, but he didn’t look back. How could he when something so strong propelled him forward. There! He froze not twenty feet from the booth where two witches, a siren, and a human occupied a large booth. There were a few bottles, some empty, on the table. A couple of gift bags spewing tissue paper sat atop the table as well.
The witches sat beside each other, likely of the same coven. They looked human, but any being with the sight knew better. The siren, an unearthly beauty with blue hair and pale pink skin stood to let the human in the middle exit the booth. He wore what Cada could only assume was a bright red wig. He couldn’t tell if this was the guy’s regular attire, or if he was a drag performer. He wore more glittering eye makeup than the women in his company and an emerald silk button down and black dress pants. The shirt was open to the middle of his chest and tucked into his belted pants, an expensive looking pair of emerald crushed velvet loafers on his feet.
His skin was ebony, his brows and beard trimmed. He stood out from even some of the supernaturals in The Lounge. Cada wasn’t sure if anyone else was as well-dressed either. He watched the man slip out of the booth to draw the creature of Cada’s interest into his arms. He couldn’t help but stare. Didn’t realize he was staring until Percy’s hand was on his shoulder again. Even then, he couldn’t turn away from the two embracing.
“Carlos…,” Percy hissed into Cada’s ear, the grip on his shoulder tightening.
Cada stared a moment longer at the girl. She was a head shorter than him even in her heels, the rich red of her quarter sleeve dress wrapped around her curved frame. She had a pretty face, although Cada could only see her profile from where he stood. Her curly hair was cut extremely short and dyed a warm shade of honey blond. She took a seat with the rest of her party.
Cada forced his gaze to the right where Carlos stalked through the crowd, his eyes also locked onto the girl. She couldn’t have been human, could she? Cada moved with ease to cut Carlos off. His dark eyes met Cada’s, a soft growl escaping his throat in warning.
“Out of my way, Halfling.” Carlos attempted to brush past him, but Percy flanked him as well.
“These aren’t hunting grounds. Turn around. Now.” Percy flexed his fingers, his claws already protruding and his canines bared.
Carlos rolled his eyes. “Who said anything about hunting?” His eyes pinned to the girl once again, hunger in his eyes. Cada knew that look better than most, being a half demon himself, though not low in rank like Carlos. “There aren’t any rules that state I can’t mingle with the women here.”
Percy clenched his teeth. Technically, he hadn’t done anything to cause trouble. Yet. But Cada knew that if he was so drawn to the girl in the red dress, Carlos would lose control the moment they turned their eyes away from him. His reputation wasn’t a positive one, and his track record for harming humans for pleasure and to feed was lengthy and current.
He shouldered past Cada toward the booth, several other supernaturals watching the scene unfold with curiosity. Some of them were also demons, others equally dark creatures. Cada wondered if what they were sensing was purity or something more powerful rolling off the girl in waves.
Rose hadn’t meant to fall asleep after her quick shower. She’d come out of the bathroom and sprawled out on her bed to rest her eyes for just a moment. That moment had been nearly two hours. Her cousin had sent her a string of texts cursing her out as well as a slew of missed calls and voicemails. Guilt settled in her stomach as she’d called Queenie back to explain herself as she rushed to get ready to meet him and his friends at the posh spot that was The Lounge.
She was surprised to find a long line down the block to get in just before nine, but Queenie texted her to skip the line and give her name that was on the lost. She felt so fancy and a bit overwhelmed after she entered. There were so many people at the bar and only a few at reserved booths that must have cost a few hundred dollars. She glanced around the club for a familiar face, her cheeks warming at the feel of eyes landing on her.
Uncomfortable, Rose made a beeline for the booth, almost running in her chunky heels to avoid hands that graze her waist and tried to pull her in to dance. She hated the fact that she had to cross the dance floor just to get there. The music was loud and nothing she would pick for a playlist to dance to, but the beat was decent though repetitive.
“It’s about damn time, RoRo,” Queenie exclaimed as he pulled her into a hug and then drew back to drink her in, “You look so good in the dress!”
“It’s more comfortable than I was expecting. You know I love an oversized sweater,” Rose replied sliding into the booth before her cousin.
He introduced each of his friends: the two women sitting close together as Selma and Tracey, and the woman now sitting next to Rose as Veronica. Selma wore a sleek black jumpsuit, her black hair straight and slicked into a low ponytail. Tracy wore a lavender blazer and white t-shirt, a pair of lavender chino pants on her bottom half. There was a hoop through her septum and her hair was bleach white, cut short, and combed to the side.
Veronica reminded Rose of one of those supermodels she’d seen in luxury brand perfume commercials. Her willowy frame was in a simple nude dress, her dark hair draping her shoulders. Her lips were set in a natural full pout, slanted eyes peering at Rose curiously. According to Queenie, they'd all met through their company, the biggest local fashion magazine in Mayhem City.
“Sorry for keeping y’all waiting,” Rose said sheepishly.
Selma waved a hand dismissively, already pouring another round of drinks for the table. “It’s your night to celebrate, and we’re just getting started.”
“Exactly,” Tracy agreed as the table clinked their glasses, “It’s nice to finally meet you. Queenie mentions you all the time.”
“All good things, of course,” Veronica chimed in.
They all threw their drinks back. Rose couldn’t help but grimace at the taste. It was probably the smoothest tequila she’d ever had, but she really such a whim when it came to drinking. The taste usually made her cringe unless it was mixed with something sweet. Queenie laughed, picking up the bottle to refill her glass when a man stepped to their table, his eyes fixed on Rose.
Rose noticed Veronica stiffen in her seat, her kind smile flattening into a pursed line. The rest of the table seemed only slightly less concerned, but their expressions were different. The man looked Hispanic, his face handsome and his frame short but broad at the shoulders. He gave Rose a charming smile, but for some reason, the hairs on the nape of her neck stood up and a cold chill ran down her spine.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I saw you from across the room. You were too stunning not to say hello,” his eyes were intense as he offered his hand which Rose took, her face warm with embarrassment, “Dance with me?”
Rose swallowed the lump in her throat. There was a firmness in his grip that wasn’t exactly friendly, and an edge to his tone that felt more like a command than a question.