Harper took turns walking the club with Alec and Conner. She listened to them talk, but her focus kept straying to the dance floor. She'd point out people who didn't look human to her, and one of them would question them. It did little good; nobody knew anything… or nobody would admit to it.
On their third round through the club together, Conner paused at the bar and ordered a screwdriver. He offered it to Harper with a dramatic flourish.
"You remembered," she said, taking it.
Conner grinned. "One thing about me, Harper, I never forget a lady's drink. I thought it was about time I got to buy you one. Double shot of vodka, figured you could use it after the day you've had."
He waited until she'd taken a drink before continuing. "Your apartment, you can't go back there. Not after what happened. They'll have demonic eyes on it at all times, waiting for you to show."
"Don't treat me like that," Harper said, raising her eyebrows. When Conner spoke, she talked over him. "You know what I mean. You bought me a drink in hopes I'd be more compliant. Agreeable. I'm not stupid, though. I know I can't go back."
"Well, good," Conner said. "And I'm sorry about that. You're new to this, but you're right. You're not stupid."
She took another drink.
"And I know you said to forget it, about earlier, but I shouldn't have… frightened you like that," Conner looked away, looking uncomfortable. "You're right about that, too. That woman would have died if she'd left with the vampire."
Harper thought about it, then smiled. "Thanks."
He smiled back, then snatched her drink from her hand. He put it on the table, then offered out his arm. "Come on, let's dance."
"What? I don't bite."
Harper didn't know if she should accept, and this was furthered when he shimmered, and she saw him in his full form. The moment lasted only seconds, but she couldn't stop seeing the horns and tattoos. So fierce… and attractive.
She took his hand. "You're a demon, aren't you?"
He put a hand on her waist and pulled her closer as the song tempo slowed. "Yes. Are you scared of me?"
She ignored the question, putting her hands on his shoulders. "Why aren't you one of the bad guys?"
He was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. "Everyone has to make a choice, Harper. Not about what they are — I was born an incubus — but about who they are. When I was six or seven, I saw my true form for the first time while looking in the mirror. I wish I could say it terrified me, but the truth was, it exhilarated me. I was special."
"For years, I hid who I was from everyone, knowing I wasn't the same. I used my powers for whatever I wanted. I made it sound fun, didn't I? But that wasn't entirely true. It was dark and intoxicating. Imagine the ability to make anyone fall in love with you, even just for a moment. The ability to choose someone — anyone — and create an obsession. Enter their dreams, infiltrate their subconscious. Control their desires, make them do anything for you, be anything for you.
"I can't tell you how many women I've seduced. How many fantasies I've lived. For years, I wallowed in the deepest, darkest caverns of the human mind."
He looked down at her, then gave a quiet laugh. "Then I met Chloe and Alec. They showed me something different. They told me I didn't have to run, and I didn't have to hide. I could embrace my demonic self and still be… well, human. So that's why I'm not one of the bad guys. Because I used to be, and I changed."
Harper thought about this while her body pressed against his. "Even if you wanted to, you can't use your powers on me."
"No, I can't," Conner agreed.
The song ended, and Harper pulled back. They returned to their drinks, and she gulped hers down.
"Thirsty?" Conner teased.
"A little, it has been a long day after all," Harper flashed him a smirk.
He nodded, then glanced upward. "I can walk you back upstairs if you'd like. You can try to get some sleep."
"It's early," Harper told him. "I can go all night. Take me around again; let's see who we see."
Before they got far, Harper's phone dinged. She ignored it, and it sounded again. Then twice more.
"You're popular," Conner said.
"One sec," she told him. She rummaged for her phone while he waited, arms crossed. The messages were all from Brittney. They were all about the fire.
Harper felt her face flush. She quickly sent a message back, letting her best friend know she was safe. After a pause, she added she was at Afterlife if Brittney wanted to join her.
After putting her phone away, she said, "I invited a friend to drop by."
"She's worried about me," Harper explained. "She saw the news. I'm allowed to have friends, aren't I?"
"You are," he said, though he sounded annoyed. He led her through the club once more, then pointed at a table. "There's Alec. Go join him for a while. I've got stuff to do."
She watched as Conner strode away, confused. Then she shrugged off his quick exit and joined Alec. "Anything?"
"No," he admitted, frustration lacing his voice. "I saw another vampire, though. Told her to stay out of my club, or I'd break her neck. Other than that, nothing. We need an alternative plan."
"Do I look like I have all the answers?" Alec demanded. He sounded even more irritated than Conner had appeared.
She gave him a leveled look. "I'm going to get another drink."
He scowled, then waved Chloe over. "You're not doing it alone. Chloe, stay with Harper, keep her safe."
She rolled her eyes at Alec and looked at the fairy. "Come on, Chloe. You can keep me safe while we get a drink or two."
Chloe followed Harper to the bar. "What was that about? You sound pissed."
Harper shrugged. "I don't — well, I do know. Conner stormed off when I invited Brittney — my best friend who's worried about me — to come to Afterlife. And Alec bit my head off for asking if he had another plan in mind."
"Huh. Well, they're both hard to read sometimes," Chloe said. "I'll order the drinks. The perk of being an owner? Free shots. What do you want?"
Harper almost said she wanted a screwdriver but then thought of Conner giving her one. "A margarita shot?"
"Good call, I'll have one too," Chloe said, her eyes twinkling. She went to the bar, chatted with the man behind the counter, flashing him a smile, either not noticing or not caring about the flush on his face. He was taken with her, Harper surmised.
She took her phone out and checked her messages. Brittney was on her way.
Finally, someone normal.
She idly checked her email, then stuck her phone back when Chloe returned with their drinks.
"You're taking it better than most. If my apartment burned down, I'd be doing double shots all nights, not mixed ones," Chloe said, handing over the flavored tequila. "Ready?"
"Ready," Harper agreed, though her apartment was only half the reason for her irritation. She didn't like feeling dismissed by the others. She downed the shot.
Chloe did the same, then made a face. "Ugh, should have stuck with gin. I'm sorry we haven't found anything yet, Harper."
"We will, though."
Chloe nudged her. "So, I saw you and Conner dancing. You looked pretty engaged. Did he give you the 'I'm a good guy now' speech?"
"He is," Chloe said.
"I didn't think otherwise," Harper said, though she wondered. How much had Conner shared with her? Did Chloe know about how he'd used and discarded people? Suddenly, she flushed again, a deeper color this time. Of course, Chloe would know — she was his friend. Harper was just someone he was taking care of.
"Speaking of which, where'd he go?" Chloe asked.
"He said he had business to take care of," Harper said.
Chloe swept her gaze around the club, then back to Harper. "Huh. Hey, your phone is ringing."
Harper grabbed it, but the missed call icon lit up just as she tried to answer it. It was Brittney. She redialed just as a text came in, letting her know she'd arrived.
"Oh good, Brittney's here."
"Are you sure you should be bringing someone here?" Chloe asked.
"Why not?" Harper asked, shrugging. "You're here, so are the others. If something happens, any of you will be at my side in seconds. I'll be fine, Chloe. Thanks for the drinks."
Chloe didn't look happy. "Well, all right. Hey, take her to the VIP section. How's that? It'll be easier to watch you there, and she'll like the treatment, I'm sure."
"Sure," Harper said.
She went toward the entrance, feeling warm from the last shot. She glanced back at Chloe once and saw that she'd joined Alec. He was annoyed again, judging by his expression, and Chloe kept making hushing motions with her hands.
For a moment, she wondered if their attitudes were fair. They were risking themselves to help her after all. She was paying them back by inviting a friend to dance and drink. But then she envisioned Patrick's burning down, the green-bleeding demon driver, and her apartment and everything inside.
"I deserve a break," she muttered.
A moment later, her break arrived in the form of Brittney Goodwin. Dressed in a short, black dress and matching heels, she looked ready to enjoy her evening. Her hair was a salon-colored red that hung in loose curls, and she was wearing the silver hoops that Harper had given her in the sixth grade. Good-look earrings, she called them.
"Wow!" Harper said, stepping up to her. "Brittney, you look amazing. As usual."
"Thank you," Brittney said, beaming at her. She pulled Harper into a hug, then pushed her back and gave her a careful scrutinization. "It was good to hear from you. I was so worried after hearing about your apartment. Are you doing okay?"
"I've been better," Harper admitted.
"I bet," Brittney said, sounding sympathetic. "I loved that apartment, and I know you did too. Have you heard anything about what happened? Did the police talk to you yet?"
"Not yet," Harper said. "I haven't talked to anyone. Hey, come here."
Harper led her back to the VIP area, flashing a smile at one man watching those entering. He recognized her from her time with the owners and didn't stop them.
"Woah," Brittney said, impressed. "VIP, Harper? Who'd you have to sleep with to make that happen?"
Harper rolled her eyes but felt a momentary surge of satisfaction. It was almost always Brittney who was getting special treatment.
"Maybe the universe just feels sorry for me," Harper told her, dropping a wink as a server approached and asked about drinks.
"Screwdrivers," Brittney said before Harper could.
"Actually, I'll take a water this round," Harper said. "I need a break first. I already had a few tonight."
"Coming right up."
Once the server went to get their drinks, Brittney turned back to her. "You had insurance, right?"
"Some," Harper said. "It was something Mom wouldn't budge on — she insisted I stay on their policy for renter's insurance. Smart move, after all."
"No joke," Brittney said, eyes wide. "Well, you'll have the money for a new place once they cut a check. Until then, you want to crash on my couch? I can help you house hunt. It'll be fun. We can find you something with a huge front window, bottom floor, I'm thinking. I hated climbing your stairs in heels."
Harper shook her head. "Thanks, but I've already got a place to sleep. A friend offered their guest room, and it has its own private bath."
"That beats my couch," Brittney said, laughing. The server arrived with their drinks, and Brittney tipped him after taking both. She handed the water bottle to Harper and said, "Wait, which friend? Not Monica. She moved in with her mother, you know. Can you imagine… twenty-five and living at home? Not that I can blame her, she just lost her job, but still… and Jessica is getting married… She and Brad just bought a place…"
"Jessica? Married?" Harper blinked. Then she waved a hand. "Whatever. No, you haven't met him."
"Him?" Brittney gave a mock gasp. "Harper Hawthorne, did you go and get yourself a boyfriend in the… three days we haven't seen each other? I'd be offended if I wasn't so intrigued. Who is he?"
"It isn't like that," Harper said, thinking of Alec's sour expression.
"Too bad," Brittney said, giving a long, dramatic sigh. But she was still grinning. She drained half her glass and winced, nearly gagging. "Wow, they're strong back here. That's got to be a triple, at least. Promise me you're not driving after I buy you your next drink."
"No, I'm not driving — Alec's apartment is above the club. He's an owner."
"You're dating the owner of Afterlife?" Brittney stared at her.
"I'm not dating him," Harper said. "And one of the owners, there's four of them. He's just a friend, Brittney."
"Just a friend," Brittney repeated. "A friend who's letting you stay in his apartment. Uh-huh. Well, fine. But you've got to point him out. Who is he? The cute blond over there?"
"I… no. I don't know who that is." Harper drank down the rest of her water, then looked around. She spotted Alec over where she'd seen him last, still talking to Chloe. "There he is."
"Oh, okay, the other cute blond," Brittney said, grinning. "He's a little pale, I think. That aside, he's pretty good-looking. If you're not dating him, can I?"
"For real, introduce us," Brittney said.
She hesitated, unsure that she wanted to mix her life with Brittney — her normal, human life — with this new, supernatural one.
Then Brittney grabbed her arm, pulling her in that direction. They reached the duo. "Hi!"
Alec just looked at them.
Chloe smiled at both, though, her eyes twinkling. "Hello there! Oh! You must be Harper's friend… Brittney, right? That's an adorable dress, Brittney. Where did you get it? I had one like it, but I can't remember where from…"
Brittney's face lit up. "I bought it online. I know what you're thinking. What a risk, right? But it was on sale. Sixty percent off, how could I resist? It was some dress place, Lily's or Liam's, or something."
"Lilac!" Chloe exclaimed.
"That's right," Brittney said. "What was your name?"
Alec raised his eyebrows at Harper. She raised her own back and then said, "This is Alec, by the way."
When Brittney looked at him, he turned on a heel and walked off.
"Wow, what's his problem?"
Chloe shook her head. "Don't worry; it's not you. He's in a bad mood, couldn't find someone he was looking for. Forget it. Do you enjoy dancing?"
"I do," Brittney said.
She reached out and plucked the drinking glass from Brittney's hand. She drank it down herself, then set it aside. "Come on, then."
She led the way onto the dance floor, and Brittney followed. Soon, they were both in the spirit of things, dancing along to the music. It seemed louder than before, and Harper didn't join in. She watched them instead, realizing she felt jealous. She'd wanted Brittney to join her for a sense of normalcy, and this definitely wasn't that.
That wasn't how she wanted to spend her evening feeling, though, so she shook the feeling off and joined them. The three made quite the show together, and soon a half-dozen men were smiling, whistling at them, and making suggestive remarks. Harper ran a hand through her hair, grinning. This was better.
She moved with the music, forgetting her troubles. Soon they were all three playing into the crowd, putting on a show. Then Conner was there. He put a hand on her shoulder.
She moved against him, her face flushed. "Conner."
He moved away but kept close, reaching for her arm. "Harper, hi. Let's get you some water."
"I don't want water," she said, throwing her head back to laugh. "I want to dance!"
"And you can, after you get something to drink," he promised. He led her toward the bar with the other two women following. He motioned at the bartender, and he handed over some waters.
At the sight of the water bottle, Harper realized her mouth was dry. Really dry. She twisted the top off and drank down half before putting it down, leaning against the counter for support.
"I need a shot," she said.
"Excuse me!" Brittney called out. "Two double shots of tequila over here! Wait, make it four!"
The bartender set the shot glasses down and filled them. Brittney flashed a smile, then handed out shots. When she got to Conner, her smile turned into a sly smirk. "And who are you?"
"I'm Conner Kingsley. And who are you, beautiful? I know you're Harper's friend, but that's not enough."
"Brittney," she said. "How do you know each other? You and Harper, I mean. We've been best friends since preschool, and she's never mentioned you before."
"It's a recent acquaintance," he told her. He reached out, touching her arm. "You have a beautiful smile. Has anyone told you that?"
Brittney's cheeks flushed a pretty pink. "Thank you. Would you like to dance?"
"I'd love to."
He shot a look at Chloe, nodded to Harper, then he and Brittney went to the dance floor. Harper watched with narrowed eyes as he put a hand on her best friend's waist.
"I think you've had enough," Chloe murmured, taking Harper's shot glass from her hand. She set it toward the back of the bar. "Let's go sit in the back for a bit."
"I'm fine," Harper said. "Besides, we can't leave Brittney with him. You know what he is."
"I do," Chloe said. "He's my friend. Harper, she's safe with him. He doesn't hurt people. He just flirts."
"I don't know that," Harper said, lifting her chin. The music banged in her head, and her stomach lurched with anxiety. "I don't know anything. You could all be lying to me. Maybe you're the ones who want me dead. You could have burned down my apartment."
"That's ridiculous," Chloe said.
Harper knew she was right but kept pushing it anyway, feeling vindicated in Chloe's discomfort. "Is it? You're not normal, Chloe. Anyone can tell that. You're not even human; how could I trust you?"
Chloe's face burned. "Harper, come on. Let's talk somewhere private."
She shoved Chloe's hand away when she reached for her and stomped onto the dance floor instead. Everything seemed to come at her in a rush of images and sounds. It took too long to find Brittney and Conner, though they were only a dozen feet away. "Hey! Leave her alone!"
"Harper, what's wrong?" Brittney asked. "We're just dancing."
"Just dancing?" Harper shook her head, as everything since Patrick's seemed to hit her at once. "You don't understand. You don't know what he is, what he can do. He could be—"
Conner stepped up to Harper, putting both hands on her arms, his touch light and comforting. "You're upset. But it's all right, Harper. You're—"
But she could see him for what he was, his true form. His tattoos seemed to pulse more vibrantly than before, and the horns she'd seen earlier looked more potent, more dangerous than ever. She shoved his hands away. She rounded on Brittney. "You can't trust him. You can't trust any of them."
"What? Why not?"
"Come on," Harper said, snagging her hand. "I'll tell you everything."
"You're not going anywhere this angry," Conner said.
"You don't get to decide that," Harper shot at him. "You're not my babysitter. Come on, Brittney, we're getting out of here."
"But I've only been here for a bit," Brittney said, sounding torn. She kept looking at Conner. He radiated charm and confidence, Harper knew that. It didn't affect her, of course, but it might change the way Brittney felt. She had to get her away so she'd listen.
"You're my friend, right?" Harper demanded.
"Yes, of course."
"Then let's go."
The two of them pushed through the crowd together. When Harper looked back, she could see Conner and Chloe staring after them, both looking concerned. They were speaking in hushed voices. She could see Chloe for her true self, too. In fact, everyone in the club who was supernatural stood out. There were over two dozen with auras or changed appearances.
When they got outside, the cool air hit Harper like a slap in the face. She breathed in, grateful for it, and her head cleared some. For a moment, she reconsidered what she was doing — running away? Was that really her style?
"I'll come back," she murmured. "Just a little walk to cool down."
"Huh?" Brittney asked.
"I said that I need fresh air," Harper told her. "I can't handle Conner anymore tonight. He's too charming. And Alec with his face. God, what was that look? He was so rude, too! And Chloe—"
"I liked her," Brittney said. "She was very cheerful."
"They're not what they seem," Harper said. They started down the street together.
"What's that mean?"
"You'd think I was crazy," Harper said. "I don't know where to start."
She was quiet for a minute, thinking about how to try. She knew she was overreacting to Alec's irritation, Conner's flirtation, Chloe's concern, a car crash, demons out to kill her… well, overreacting might be the wrong word.
Brittney broke the silence as they rounded the corner at the end of the block. "You didn't drink too much, did you?"
"No. It's not that. Did you?"
Brittney laughed. "No, but I'm not the one yelling at people."
"Today's been something else. I feel a little better. The air helped. Come on. We should head back inside. I can show you where I'm staying. If Alec's not too pissed at me to let me in…"
"He looks more likely to pout at you," Brittney laughed.
They turned to head back down the block, but before they could, a creature stepped from the shadows. It was taller than anyone she'd ever met, broad-shouldered, and gray. Spikes were protruding from its shoulders, and its teeth were long.
Harper yelled out in shock.
"What?" Brittney demanded. "Can't you see we're walking here? Get a life, loser."
Harper realized her friend couldn't see the demon for what it was; it must look human to her. She didn't know what to do, so she reached for her purse, meaning to grab her phone. She could have texted Chloe, but her purse wasn't there.
She cursed, then glanced at Brittney. "Come on, let's get out of here."
"Neither of you are going anywhere," the demon hissed.
"Excuse me?" Brittney said, drawing herself up. Her voice was cultured and arrogant. "We are way out of your league, pal."
Unlike Harper, she had her purse. She started to reach inside when two more of the creatures joined the first. They all grinned in unison.
"What do you want?" Harper asked.
"You're coming with us," one said.
Another reached out and took Harper's arm. "Don't fight us, not here. There will be casualties."
"Harper? What's happening?" Brittney demanded as one grabbed her. "Don't touch me! Let me go!"
Both of them were struggling now, Harper's heart beating fast in her chest. Neither of them had the strength to fight the demons, and when one of them put his hand over Harper's mouth, a strange mist shot out of his hand and floated up into her nose. Her eyes glossed over as she looked at Brittney, then she saw no more.