THREE DAYS LATER I WAS STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF JEREMY's OFFICE wearing nothing but a black lace push-up bra, matching panties, and black thigh-highs. A man I'd never met was fishing down the front of the bra. Normally, I have to be planning to sleep with a man before I let him fondle my breast, but it was nothing personal, just business. Maury Klein was a sound expert, and he was trying to fit a tiny wire with a tiny microphone under my right breast where the underwire of the bra would keep Alistair Norton from feeling it if he brushed his hand across my ribs, or breast. He'd been fiddling with the wire for about thirty minutes, fifteen of that trying to find the best place to hide the wire in my cleavage.
He was kneeling in front of me, the tip of his tongue bitten between his teeth, eyes behind the wire-frame glasses staring fixedly at his hands, one plunged almost out of sight inside the cup of the bra, the other holding the material of the bra away from my breast so he could work better. By pulling the bra out, he'd exposed my nipple and most of the rest of my right breast to the room.
If Maury hadn't been so obviously oblivious to both my charms and our audience, I'd have accused him of taking so long because he was enjoying himself, but he had that inner stare that said he wasn't really aware of what he was doing, except for the job part. I understood why he'd had complaints from female undercover people before. The complaints had been why he insisted on not doing all this in private. He wanted witnesses that he hadn't overstepped the bounds. Though frankly, if all the witnesses had been human, they might have been on my side anyway. He'd poked, lifted, and otherwise manhandled my chest as if it weren't attached to anyone. What he was doing was very intimate, but he didn't mean it to be. He was the proverbial nerd or maybe the absentminded professor. He had only one love, and that was his hidden mikes, hidden cameras. In Los Angeles if you wanted the best, you went to Maury Klein. He put in security systems for Hollywood stars, but his true passion was undercover work. How to get the equipment even smaller, better concealed.
He'd actually at one point suggested that the wire might be best hidden inside my body. I'm not shy, but I vetoed that idea. Maury had shaken his head and muttered, "Don't know how the sound quality would hold up, but I wish someone would let me try it." He did have an assistant, read "keeper," and probably emergency diplomat.
Chris-if he had a last name, I'd never heard it-had cautioned Maury not to be so rough or so indelicate. He'd hovered until I assured him I was fine. Now he stayed near Maury like a surgical nurse ready to hand him whatever esoteric piece of equipment he needed.
Jeremy sat behind his desk watching the show, fingers steepled, an amused smile on his face. He'd shown polite heat in his eyes when I first took my dress off and stripped to the lingerie, but after that he'd just tried to keep from laughing at Maury Klein's total lack of heat. Jeremy had complimented me on the amazing contrast between the perfect white of my skin and the blackness of the lingerie. You're always supposed to say something nice the first time you see someone in a state of undress.
Roane Finn was sitting on the corner of Jeremy's desk, feet kicking in the air in a soft unconscious movement, as he, too, enjoyed the show. He didn't have to compliment me. He'd seen me naked last night and many nights before that. His eyes are the first things you notice about him, huge, liquid brown orbs that dominate his face like the moon dominates the night sky. Then it's a toss-up whether you notice his dark auburn hair, and the way it clings to his face, rolls down the back of his collar, or his lips, which are a perfect red-tinged pouting bow. You'd think he used lipstick to get the color, but he doesn't. It's all natural. His skin looks white, but it isn't really, or not pure white. It's as if someone took my own pale complexion and added a drop of the red-brown of his hair. When he wears brown or other autumn colors, his skin seems to darken.
He was my height exactly, and it made him appear delicate at first glance, but the body that showed under the black clothing he'd donned for tonight looked firm and muscular. I knew for a fact that he wasn't just strong. He was limber. I also knew that there were burn scars along his back and shoulders, like white calluses on the smooth silk of his body. The scars had been caused when a fisherman burned his sealskin. Roane was a roane, one of the seal people. Once he'd been able to don his sealskin and become a seal, then slip the skin and be human, or rather human form. Then a fisherman had found his skin and burned it. The skin was not just a magical device for shape-shifting. It wasn't even just part of Roane. The skin was as much him as his eyes or his hair. Roane is the only seal person I've ever heard of that survived the destruction of his other self. He survived but he could never again change form. He was doomed to be forever land-bound, forever denied the other half of his world.
Sometimes at night I'd find the bed empty. If we were at my apartment, he'd be gazing out the window at nothing. If we were at his place, he'd be looking out at the ocean or vanishing into the waves as I watched from the balcony. He never woke me and asked me to join him. It was his private pain, not to be shared. I guess it was fair because in the two years we'd been lovers, I'd never dropped my glamour completely. He'd never seen the dueling scars. The injuries would have marked me as someone intimate with the sidhe. I might have been hopeless at offensive spells, but there were few better at personal glamour in all the courts than me. It helped me hide, but not much else. Roane couldn't breech my shields, but he knew they were there. He knew that even in that moment of release, I held back. If he'd been human, he would have asked why, but he wasn't human, and he didn't ask, just like I never questioned him about the call of the waves.
A human wouldn't have been able not to pry, but a human lover also wouldn't have been able to sit calmly while another man fiddled with my breasts. There was no jealousy in Roane. He knew this meant nothing to me, so it meant nothing to him.
The only other woman in the room was Detective Lucinda - call me Lucy-Tate. We'd worked with her on several cases where the perpetrator wasn't human, and their decoys were getting bewitched, bewildered, or killed. In fact, having Jeremy and the rest of us as temporary police had been the first time the Magical Dispensation Act had been stretched to include police work. But we'd all met the criteria of having magical abilities that made us ideal for the job, which meant they could waive all training that a nonmagic cop would have needed and just put us straight on the job. Sort of like emergency deputies. The Magical Dispensation Act is how I got to be a detective fresh off the bus, so to speak, with none of the hours and hours of training that you normally need to get your license in California.
Detective Tate leaned against the wall, shaking her head. "Jesus, Klein, no wonder you've got sexual harassment complaints against you."
Maury blinked as if having to draw his attention back from a long way off. It was the way people looked at the end of a powerful spell, like they were just waking and the dream hadn't finished yet. You couldn't fault Maury's powers of concentration. He finally turned to the detective, hands still in my bra.
"I don't know what you mean, Detective Tate."
I looked at her over Maury's kneeling head. "He really doesn't," I said.
She smiled at me. "Sorry about the manhandling, Merry. If he wasn't the best at what he did, nobody would tolerate him."
"We don't use sound equipment and hidden cameras much," Jeremy said, "but when we do I like to pay for the best."
Tate looked at him. "The department certainly couldn't afford him."
Maury spoke without turning his attention from my chest. "I've done free work for the police in the past, Detective Tate."
"And we really appreciate that, Mr. Klein." The look on her face didn't quite match the words -a more mischievous twinkle in the eye and cynicism in the face. Cynicism seemed to be an occupational hazard. The mischievous twinkle was pure Lucy Tate. She always seemed to be laughing softly at everything. I was pretty sure it was a defense mechanism to keep the real her hidden, but I still hadn't figured out what she was hiding from. None of my business, but I will admit to a certain amount of very unfeylike curiosity about Detective Lucy Tate. It was the very perfection of her camouflage, the fact that you never saw beyond that faintly amused shield, that made me want to breech it. I could see Roane's pain, so I could leave it alone. But I could see nothing in Lucy, and neither could Teresa, which meant, of course, that Detective Tate was a psychic of considerable power. But something had happened at an early age that made her hide her powers so far under that even she didn't know she had them. None of us had explained this to her. Detective Tate's life seemed to work well. She seemed happy. If she tore the scar open that had forced her powers underground, that could all change. It might be something traumatic enough that she'd never rebuild from it. So we left her alone, but we wondered about her, and sometimes it was harder than it should have been not to poke at her with magic or psychic feints, just to see what would happen.
Maury leaned back, hands to himself at last. "There, I think that'll do. I'll put just a touch of tape to make sure it doesn't shift, and you're set." Chris handed him some small bits of tape on his hand all ready to go, anticipating the need. Maury took the tape without comment. "You've seen what I had to do to put the mike in. Well, this guy will have to do the same thing to find it." He actually had me hold the bra out so he could tape with both hands. It was the kindest thing he'd done in the last forty-five minutes.
He stood and moved back. "Fix the bra the way you'd normally wear it."
I frowned at him. "This is the way I normally wear it."
He made a small motion with his hands at about chest level. "You know, fluff that one, so it matches the other one."
"Fluff," I said, but I smiled because I finally understood what he meant.
He sighed and moved forward. "I'll show you."
I held a hand out. "I don't need help." I bent over and shook my right breast into the cup of the bra, having to use my hand to get everything into place. The bra was push-up enough that my already nice chest looked positively obscene, but when I ran my hand over the area where I should have felt the mike, all I could feel was the underwire and material.
"It's perfect," Maury said. "You can strip down to this, just keep your bra on, he'll never know." He cocked his head to one side, as if he'd just thought of something. "I've taped the mike to the bra so if you have to you can take it off, just leave it within a five-foot radius. Closer is better. If I make the mike more sensitive, we'd start picking up your heartbeat and the cloth moving. I can filter it out, but it's easier to do after the tape's made than before. I'm assuming you want to be able to hear tonight, in case your bad guy gets out of hand."
"Yes," Jeremy said, "it'd be nice to know if Merry needs help." The sarcasm was too mild for Maury.
"We might have been able to tape the mike to the elastic top of the hose, but I couldn't swear that the hose wouldn't roll down and flash the mike. If you take the bra off, make sure and roll the cloth so the mike doesn't show."
"I don't plan on taking it off."
Maury shrugged. "Just wanting to give you all the options I can."
"I appreciate that, Maury," I said.
Maury nodded. Chris was already picking up the bits and pieces that had gotten scattered on the floor.
Roane jumped down from the desk, lifting my folded dress from the top of it. He held the square of black cloth out to me. I'd had to buy a black dress on the advice that it was easier to hide things in black than in lighter colors. I never wore unrelieved black if I could help it, even though it was a color that looked good on me. It was the color favored by the Unseelie Court because it was their queen's favorite color to wear.
Roane let the silk dress unfold from his hands, holding it by the shoulders, then he began very slowly, very deliberately to roll the dress up in his hands, watching my face the entire time he did it. When the dress was just a thin black fringe hanging from his small strong hands, he knelt in front of me, holding the dress open so I could step into it.
I placed my hand on his shoulder for balance and stepped into the circle of cloth. Roane began to let the dress slide from his hands, raising his hands at the same time so the dress fell around me like a theater curtain coming down. When his arms were raised as far as they'd go kneeling, the dress was to my waist. He stood, hands resting lightly on my hips. The movement put him kissably close. His eyes were exactly at the same level as mine. There was an intimacy to the eye contact that I'd never had with anyone else. I'd never been with anyone as short as I was before. It made missionary position unbelievably intimate.
Roane raised the dress until I could slip my arms through the sleeves, then he raised it over my shoulders, moving around me until he was at my back and could pull the last of the silk into place. He began to zip the dress up in back. The dress tightened as it zipped, like it was slowly constricting across my waist, my ribs, over the breasts. The neckline was a very daring V, which was another reason for the uplift bra. It was the only one I'd found that you could wear under the dress and not flash the bra. The dress was sleeveless and fit like a shiny second skin, leaving my flesh very white against the dark fabric. I'd chosen the tightness very deliberately. The bodice looked like it was barely there and all it left was a view of my breasts, but if you tried to slide your hand into the top, you couldn't do it without risking ripping the dress. If Alistair Norton wanted to play with my breasts, he'd have to keep his play to the exposed tops, unless we were planning a rape scenario, and according to Naomi the rape fantasies had only come out at two months or more. The first month had been a perfect affair. Since this was the first date, Alistair would probably be on his best behavior. I'd have to take the dress off for him to have a chance at finding the mike, and I wasn't planning on taking the dress off.
Roane finished zipping me, fastening the small hook at the top. He traced his thumbs over the bare skin of my upper back, the barest of movements, then stepped away from me. He actually ran his thumbs over the scars on my back that he could neither see nor feel. I was confident enough in my abilities that the dress would have shown the scars, except for my glamour. They were like ripples in the skin, frozen forever. Another sidhe had tried to change my shape during a duel. Many of the fey can shape-shift, but only the sidhe can change the form of others against their will. I can't change my shape or anyone else's, another mark against me in the courts.
"How do you do that?" Detective Tate asked.
The question startled me, made me turn to her. "Do what?" I asked.
Chris was glancing up as he repacked equipment. Maury was already fiddling with a medium-sized transmitter, working at it with a tiny screwdriver. The rest of us might as well not have been in the room.
"You stand there for nearly an hour in nothing but your underwear with a man fondling your breasts, but it's not sexual. It's like an R-rated comedy routine. Then Roane helps you on with your dress, never touches your bare skin, just zips you up, and suddenly the sexual tension in the room is thick enough to walk on. How the hell do you do that?"
"Us, as in Roane and me, or us, as in..." I let the thought trail off. "Us as in the fey," she said. "I've seen Jeremy do it with a human woman. You guys can walk around buck naked and make me comfortable being in the same room with you, then fully clothed you do something small and suddenly I feel like I should leave the room." She shook her head. "How do you do that?"
Roane and I looked at each other, and I saw the same question in his eyes that I knew was in mine. How do you explain what it is to be fey to someone who is not? The answer, of course, is you don't. You can try, but you rarely succeed.
Jeremy tried. He was, after all, the boss. "It is part of what it means to be fey, to be a creature of the senses." He rose from his chair and walked to her, face, body neutral. He took her hand and raised it to his lips, laying a chaste touch of lips to her knuckles. "Being fey is the difference between that and this." He took the same hand again and raised it much slower, eyes on her face filled with that polite heat that any fey male might have given to the tall, attractive woman. The look alone made her shiver. He kissed her hand this time, a slow caress of lips, the upper lip catching just a little on her skin, as he drew back from her. It had been polite, no open mouth, no tongue, nothing rude, but color had spread up her cheeks, and from across the room I could tell her breathing had deepened, pulse quickening.
"Does that answer your question, Detective?" he asked.
She gave a shaky laugh, holding her hand with the other hand, cradling it against her body. "No, but I'm afraid to ask again. I don't think I could handle the answer and still work tonight."
Jeremy gave a little bow. Whether Tate knew it or not, she'd just given a very fey compliment. Everyone likes to be appreciated. "You warm the cockles of this old man's heart."
She laughed then, high and delighted. "You may be a lot of things, Jeremy, but you'll never be old."
He gave another bow, and I realized something I hadn't before. Jeremy liked Detective Tate, liked her the way a man likes a woman. We all touch humans more than they touch each other, or at least more than most American humans touch each other. But he could have chosen other ways to "explain" to Tate. He'd chosen to touch her in a way he'd never touched her before, taken a liberty with her, because she'd given him the excuse to do it without seeming forward. That was how the fey flirted when invited. Sometimes it was just a glance, but the fey do not go where they are not asked. Though our men will make the same mistake that human males make sometimes, mistaking a little flirting for sexual advance, outright rape is almost unknown among us. Our version of date rape on the other hand has been popular for centuries.
Funny how the thought of date rape brought me back to the job at hand. I went to the desk where I'd left my shoes and slipped into them, gaining three inches of height. "You can tell your new partner that he can come back in now," I told Lucy.
It was an insult to insist on modesty in a nonsexual situation among most of the fey, certainly among the sidhe. That's why the audience. To send them away would imply lack of trust, or outward dislike. There were only two exceptions. The first was if the person couldn't behave in a civilized manner. Detective John Wilkes had never worked with non-humans before. He didn't blink when Maury asked me to disrobe, but when I took the dress off without warning or clearing the room, the detective had spilled hot coffee down his shirt. When Maury plunged his hand down my bra, Wilkes had said, "What the hell is he doing?" I asked him to wait outside.
Lucy gave a low laugh. "Poor boy, I think he got second-degree coffee burns when you took off your dress."
I shrugged. "He must not see a lot of naked women."
She smiled, shaking her head. "I've dealt with fey, even a few visiting sidhe, and you're the only one I've met that was humble."
I frowned at her. "I'm not humble. I just think that if seeing me strip to my underwear is enough to make your partner nearly swallow his tongue, he must not be very experienced."
Lucy looked at Roane and Jeremy. "Does she not know what she looks like?"
"No," Roane said.
"I think, though I don't know, that our Merry was raised somewhere where she was considered the ugly duckling," Jeremy said.
I met his eyes, my pulse thudding in my neck. That one comment was a little too close for comfort. "I don't know what you guys are talking about."
"I know you don't," Jeremy said. There was a knowledge in his dark grey eyes, a guess that was close to a certainty. In that moment, I knew he suspected who I was, what I was. But he would never ask. He would wait until I was ready to talk, or the question would remain forever silent between us.
I looked at Roane. He was the only fey lover I'd known had not come to my bed to further his political ambitions. To him I was just Merry Gentry, a human with fey ancestry, not Princess Meredith NicEssus. Now I stared into that familiar face and tried to read his expression. He was smilingly blank. Either it had never occurred to him that I might be the missing sidhe princess, or he'd guessed long ago, but would never be rude enough to bring it up. Or had Roane known from the first? Had that been why he'd come to me? Suddenly, all the security that I'd built up with these people, my friends, began to crumble around me.
Some of it must have shown on my face because Roane touched me. I drew back from him. His face showed the hurt, confusion. He didn't know. I hugged him suddenly, hiding my face from him, but I could still see Jeremy.
As the look on Roane's face had reassured me, so the look on Jeremy's frightened me. All it would take was my true name being mentioned after dark, and it would float back to my aunt. She was the Queen of Air and Darkness, and that meant that anything said in the dark was hers to hear, eventually. The fact that spotting the missing Elven American Princess had become more popular than spotting Elvis helped. Her magic was always chasing blind leads. Princess Meredith skiing in Utah. Princess Meredith dancing in Paris. Princess Meredith gambling in Vegas. After three years I was still a front-page story for the tabloids, though the latest headlines had been speculating that I was as dead as the King of Rock and Roll.
If Jeremy spoke my name aloud to my face, the words would resonate, and when they finally floated back to her, she'd know I was alive, and she'd know that Jeremy had spoken my name. Even if I ran, she'd question him, and if polite methods didn't work, she'd use torture. I am told she is a creative lover. I know she is an inventive torturer.
I drew back from Roane and gave them part of the truth. "My mother was the beautiful one."
"How do you know that?" Jeremy asked.
I looked at him. "She told me so."
"You mean your mother told you you weren't beautiful?" Lucy asked. It took a human to be that direct.
"Don't take this wrong, but what a bitch."
To that there was only one thing to say-"I agree, now let's get out of here."
"We wouldn't want to keep Mr. Norton waiting," Jeremy said.
"I still wish we were going after him for proof on the attempted murder," Lucy said.
"We can't guarantee proof that will stand up in court about the death spell," I said.
"But," Jeremy said, "we might be able to prove tonight that he is using magic to seduce women. Magically aided seduction is rape under California law. We need him in jail away from his wife, and this is the surest way to do it. He won't get bail on a felony charge that includes magic."
Lucy nodded. "I agree that the plan is great for Mrs. Norton, but what about Merry? What if this guy pulls out the magical aphrodisiac that he's used on the other mistresses, the ones who just couldn't get enough of him like Naomi Phelps?"
"We're counting on it," I said.
She looked at me. "What if it works? What if you start panting over the microphone?"
"Then Roane breaks down the door playing the jealous lover and drags me out."
"If I have trouble getting her to leave, then Uther will come in as my friend and help me take my woman back home."
Lucy rolled her eyes. "Well, what Uther wants, Uther gets." Uther was thirteen feet tall, with a head that was more pig than human, and two curling tusks on either side of his snout. He was a jack-in-irons, but he was named Uther Squarefoot. He wasn't much good for undercover work, but he was hell on wheels when we needed muscle.
Uther had excused himself from the room when he realized the dress was coming off. He'd said only, "It's nothing personal, Merry, don't make more of it than there is, but seeing any attractive female nearly naked is not good for a man when there's no hope of relieving the thoughts that spring unbidden." It wasn't until he made for the door, stooping his great shoulders low enough to squeeze out the doorway, that I realized something I should have known before. Uther is thirteen feet tall, the size of a large ogre or a very small giant, and there aren't many females his size in the Los Angeles area. He'd been here nearly ten years. That was a long time to be without the touch of another naked body. How terribly lonely.
If no one guessed who I really was, and if I didn't get bespelled out of my mind by Alistair Norton, I'd see about fixing Uther up with someone. Uther wasn't the only giant-sized fey wandering outside the courts, just the only one in the immediate area. If we couldn't find someone his size, we might be able to come up with other solutions. Sex doesn't have to mean intercourse. There are women on the streets that will do just about anything for a couple of hundred dollars, especially if twenty is their going rate. If I were truly fey down to my toes, I'd do Uther myself. That's what a real friend would do. But I was raised outside the court, out among the humans, from age six to sixteen. It meant that no matter how fey I was, some of my attitudes were human.
I can't be human because I'm not. But I can't be completely fey because I'm not that either. I am half Unseelie Court, but I am not one of them. I am part Seelie Court, but I do not belong among the shining throng. I am part dark sidhe, part light sidhe, and yet neither side wishes to claim me. I have always been on the outside looking in, my nose pressed to the window, but never welcomed inside. I understood isolation and loneliness. It made me hurt for Uther. Made me regret that I wasn't comfortable helping him with a little friendly, casual sex. But I wasn't, and I wouldn't. As usual, I was fey enough to see the problem, but too human to fix it. Of course, if I'd been pure Seelie sidhe, I wouldn't have touched Uther at any price. He would have been beneath my notice. The Seelie do not fuck monsters. Unseelie sidhe... well, define monster.
Uther wasn't a monster by Unseelie standards, but Alistair Norton might be. Either a monster, or a kindred spirit of the dark.