Saturday, Jillian woke up beside Flair, having conceded that it would be stupid to go home and come back. Together they made breakfast for three, and by the time it was ready, Min joined them in the dining room to eat.
“Well, there’s a gorgeous sight,” Nikandros said appreciatively from the hall doorway.
“How so?” Jillian said sceptically. She was only wearing Flair’s fuzzy peach robe, Flair was as usual naked, and Min was in a short lightweight robe of shimmery red and black and gold with dragons on it, hiding her upper half but leaving exposed the long tail coiled loosely around the legs of her chair.
“Are you kidding? My personal top three sexiest women, all less than dressed so I can fantasize tossing any of you right back into bed? Or onto the table, or whatever other position comes to mind?” Currently, he was in his satyr form, and it was probably inevitable that he was therefore wearing no more than Flair was. Jiliian tried very hard not to think the things she immediately found herself thinking.
“Good morning, Nik,” Min said, smiling. “This is early for you.”
“Well, that’s the idea.” He leaned down to give her a quick kiss, then dropped into the chair next to her. More or less, since the somewhat different lower-body configuration wasn’t entirely compatible. “I thought maybe I’d see if I can sweep the three of you off for the day. A repeat customer sent me four tickets for the Thousand Islands river cruise. How does this sound? A three-hour lunch buffet out on the water, on a tour boat with a fully accessible main level. That leaves at twelve-thirty so we need to be there not much past noon. I made supper reservations for six-thirty, and if we’re still feeling bouncy, I know a nightclub with a great live band tonight. Everything’s my treat.”
Flair had told Jillian that Min’s family had little regard for Nikandros and believed she could have done better—a fae with more power and higher status. However they measured these things, her family considered it a drastic mismatch on multiple levels. That opinion was even held by their son, though not their daughter.
Flair’s opinion was that it was ridiculous. Nikandros was with Min because he wanted to be, not because it was advantageous for a pair of aristocratic families. If he tended to support her un-aristocratic protective inclinations towards humans, that wasn’t the source of them, only gave her a sympathetic partner in it. And he made her happy. That was, at the moment, unmistakably obvious in the way she was looking at him.
Hadn’t Jillian heard something somewhere about melusines liking water?
“That sounds wonderful,” Min said in delight. “Jill? Flair?”
“Oh, yes, please,” Flair said excitedly.
“I’ll have to drop by home for clothes,” Jillian said. “But I honestly don’t know whether I have anything to wear if we’re going somewhere that needs reservations.”
“We’ll find something if necessary,” Min said. “It’s early September and it’s warm in the evening still. We’re no longer living in an era that requires multiple layers of floor-length skirts regardless of the weather, thank goodness. And if I know Nik, it isn’t a place so formal they expect ties and tiaras.”
“Perish the thought,” Nikandros said. “Too much formality is no fun at all. Well, unless it’s completely superficial and I get to watch someone squirm trying desperately not to let on what’s going on underneath. That’s so much fun it’s worth putting up with the rest. But anyway. This place is certainly not formal—nice but not demanding. The reservations weren’t really necessary, I’m just making sure we have a table waiting. If you’re heading home, Jillian, suppose I pick you up at eleven-thirty, and then swing over this way?”
“That works,” Jillian said. “Thanks.”
“Feel free to dress sexy for the cruise, treasure, but above all, make sure you feel good about yourself.” He got up, stole brief kisses all around, and wandered off.
“So I guess I’m eating relatively fast,” Jillian said, “then scooting home to change.”
“Keep in mind,” Min said, “you’ll be with Nik and I both, and that collar you’re still wearing gives us quite a lot of freedom to be protective. No matter what you choose to wear or do while we’re out, you’ll be safe. This includes everything from sunburn to social disapproval.”
“What are you expecting me to do? Wait. Satyr. Forget I said that.”
Min chuckled. “Sex in the middle of the dining room would be rather extreme even for him.”
Jillian finished breakfast, went back to Flair’s room to find her clothes, and started for home. The walk wasn’t all that long and it helped clear her mind a bit. Was this going to be a mistake? Was she going to end up inadvertently cheating on Gary, after a full day too close to a satyr?
Spending so much time with Flair and Min had been helping to distract her from both the dissatisfaction of that relationship and the subtle feeling that none of her clothes fit right—or maybe it was her own skin. She wanted… what did she want? She wanted a solid human relationship that could, at least intermittently, make her feel alive and lost in the moment and feverishly turned on, even if it was unlikely to approach the euphoria she felt when she was being Jewel. But then, Jewel was frightening anyway, and possibly dangerous to her well-being, and probably shouldn’t exist. She wanted to figure out who she was and how to express that in the way she dressed, although that was still alarming. She couldn’t tell what was innate identity and what was her frustrated sex drive when she looked in her closet in the morning and tried to tone down her first impulses into something appropriate for work.
Right now, she didn’t have to tone anything down.
She got home, stripped on the way to the ground-floor bathroom to clean up, and went up to her bedroom wrapped in her own bathrobe. What to wear? Min said bare skin wasn’t a problem even though probably she’d be in the sun part of the time. With the breeze from the water and probably air conditioning in the dining room, overheating shouldn’t be a major risk.
She experimented, and finally went with something simple: a stretchy grey knee-length dress with a moderately low rounded neck and no sleeves, with her black panties and bra, camisole and corset, under it. She skipped the garter belt and stockings, but fastened her wide stretchy black belt over it to emphasize her waist, and chose a pair of black strappy sandals with three-inch wedge heels. A long necklace of black and silver chain drew the eye downwards, and she slipped matching dangly earrings into place while she thought about makeup. She lined her eyes black and highlighted them with iridescent white and silver-grey shadow, and turned her lips deep cherry red.
She heard a knock while she was still transferring things she might need today from her everyday larger purse to a smaller black one. She paused long enough to open the door.
Nikandros had switched to his human form, of course, and looked entirely too appealing. Leave it to a satyr to turn something as simple as jeans and a t-shirt into something that sensual. The jeans, despite being deep black, had a scattering of distressed areas that allowed glimpses of skin, and they must be partly spandex to fit like that while allowing him to move that freely. The t-shirt was partially a slightly shiny solid black, and the rest was black fishnet. He was wearing that Capricorn pendant again, bright against the black, and a gold ring in one ear.
“Almost ready,” Jillian said, backing up to let him in.
“Take your time. I’ll just admire the view.”
She felt herself blush a bit, but even the most overtly sexual comments from him didn’t feel remotely the same as the remarks Brett had made. She hastened back to the table to finish sorting through the odds and ends that lived in her purse.
Nikandros leaned against the wall, no more than three feet away from her, his gaze on her and not on the table. That was quite close enough for her to start feeling that satyr influence, her thoughts drifting towards sex, and what he might be wearing under those jeans, and how long it would take to get her own panties out of the way. Her body remembered how he’d felt, down her throat repeatedly, inside her ass once, and it made her squirm a bit, aware that she was starting to get wet.
She zipped the smaller purse shut. “All set.” With any luck, being in public would help her keep her composure at least somewhat. Being conscious of what was making her hormones buzz seemed to make only limited difference, but she was not going to just give in.
“Good.” He left the wall and came closer, one hand curving around her cheek to tilt her head for a light kiss. She felt her heart speed up, and instinctively shifted her weight towards him. “Do one thing for me, treasure? Try not to let yourself get in the way of your own fun today. I promise not to mess with you deliberately, so you’re going to have to figure out ways other than that to not overthink things. Try to remember that the odds of running into anyone you know are very low, and why should it matter what strangers think of you? Disapproval is frequently envy repressed and hidden behind self-righteousness, I’ve seen that more times than I can count.” He let his hand fall, stepping back and turning towards the door. “Shall we?”
There’s nothing wrong with feeling good. There’s nothing wrong with other people knowing you’re feeling good.
Jillian snatched up her purse, fishing out her keys on the way to the door. Maybe if she refused to acknowledge that her breathing was a bit rapid and her skin felt flushed, it would stop more quickly.
Of course, she was about to get in a car with the cause.
What on earth am I getting myself into this time? What’s going to happen with a limited number of people on a boat for three hours with a satyr present? They pretty much can’t escape being in proximity to him. And I’m going to be in closer proximity than anyone but Min, and it doesn’t affect her, and Flair, who’s so used to it that the involuntary effect isn’t that strong anymore. Even if he isn’t playing games with me, I’m still going to feel it.
How much of today am I going to spend with a wet spot on my skirt? I probably should have thought of that and dressed for it, instead of thinking of what would feel good and look sexy.
Um, isn’t that exactly the kind of thought he just said not to worry about?
Do I need to do what he says, really? Even if what he says is actually quite reasonable?
With a small sigh, she locked the door and followed him to the car.
Not a sportscar, though it was black with coppery highlights when the sun caught it. It was, in fact, a relatively practical new-looking four-door with a hatchback—probably the back seats could fold forward to make considerable cargo space. Possibly one could sleep, or do other things, as well.
But it was going to be easier for Min to get into and out of than Dagrun’s van or a low-seated sportscar, and her chair would fit easily in the back. It honestly would not surprise her if that was a large part of his reasoning.
Flair and Min were waiting outside the building. Flair looked entirely normal now, of course, in a summery dress of pale pink and burgundy and sky blue that fit her torso closely but the short skirt flared out. Min was wearing denim shorts that reached halfway to her knees and a shimmery white belly-baring halter with a short-sleeved sheer red top over it, her long blonde hair in a neat braid lying forward over one shoulder.
Figuring Min got the front seat, Jillian hopped out as soon as they stopped, as Min and Flair approached the edge of the sidewalk.
Nikandros circled the car quickly to offer Min a hand to her feet, which she accepted graciously, allowing him to steady her across a few steps of space and into the car. She probably didn’t strictly need it—Jillian had seen her walk farther before she got shaky. She’d also seen Min get impatient with people who assumed that she needed their help. From Nikandros, the gesture just looked gallant. Or maybe like an excuse for physical contact.
Flair folded the chair deftly, and Nikandros took it to tuck it away in the back, while the two human women slid into the back seat.
From there it was only a short drive to the parking lot of the cruise line, a short wait in line to board, and a short pause before the ship pulled away from the dock, putting them in a small isolated floating world for the next three hours.
In a rather charmingly old-fashioned gesture, Nikandros drew back chairs for Jillian and Flair, holding them while they seated themselves, and repeated it with Min with more contact, steadying her as she moved from wheelchair to chair and then folding the former neatly before taking his own seat. Nor did Min have to move to visit the buffet, since Nik filled a plate for her before fetching his own. Although that was normally Flair’s job, she just smiled and left him to it.
While they were eating, four separate people drifted towards their table from nearby ones, clearly at a loss for what to say. Nikandros redirected them gently and politely. Only one resisted; Min cleared her throat, laid a hand on Nikandros’ arm, and gave that one a sufficiently pointed look to send her back to her own seat.
“My protector,” Nikandros said in amusement.
“You said no. Bedazzled or not, she comprehends the word. I have no patience for those who simply choose not to accept a refusal.” She leaned over to give him a quick kiss. “For the moment, I want your attention on us.”
“As though anyone could be any competition for that.”
After quite a good meal, though not as good as Flair’s cooking and paling compared to those moving-day sandwiches, Min sent Flair and Jillian to the upper deck, insisting that they should at least check it out.
It was fairly crowded with people admiring the islands they passed, jutting masses of huge glacial rock and thriving trees, some of them with houses or cottages on them, some of them with historical significance along with the simple beauty. What would it be like to live on one? Inconvenient in many ways, the practical part of Jillian’s mind said. You’d have to use a boat to reach land even just to go to the store, let alone for any emergency. Delightfully private and romantic, the other part of her mind said. You wouldn’t need to worry about anyone annoying dropping by to preach their religion or try to sell you Girl Guide cookies at a time when you were less than completely dressed and not in the mood for intrusions, and there’d be no neighbours close enough to hear most sounds.
They spent the rest of the tour on the main deck, where the view was less impressive but they could be with the two fae. Jillian kept finding herself smiling at Min’s undisguised delight in the water around them, at times on her feet so she could see it better and feel the spray, with Nikandros’ arm around her waist to support her. But then, she thought some snakes were able to swim quite well, even if they weren’t specifically aquatic, and maybe the comparisons she’d heard between melusines and mermaids were because they had more in common than a tail in place of legs.
So it seemed like a shame when the tour boat brought them back to the dock, but it might be just as well, since the frequency of people approaching Nikandros had been starting to go up even outdoors.
Nikandros surveyed the parking lot. “Since we’re in no hurry, maybe a walk along the water while we wait for some of the congestion to clear?”
“That sounds greatly preferable to sitting in the car waiting to escape the parking lot,” Min agreed.
Nikandros gestured, with half a bow.
The walkway was comfortably wide, but not enough so for four people; Flair and Jillian dropped back a step, behind the two fae.
“I was going to suggest Sati’s gallery,” Nikandros said, as they strolled along the paved path that followed the shore. Large blocks of limestone had been dumped along the water’s edge, slowing the erosion. The water had already softened the edges, giving them the look of having been there much longer than a few years. “But apparently they’re closed today, changing the exhibits. Sati would let us in anyway, but what’s the point? One of these days, though. It might be just as well doing it on a day we have all the time we want, since Jillian hasn’t been there before.”
“It’s always worth a visit,” Min said. “Sati’s a gifted artist, and she finds gifted artists to support and encourage.”
“Just how much of the art is alive?” Jillian asked.
“That depends,” Nikandros said. “Usually there are at least a few. She currently has three more or less permanent pets, and nine others she has various arrangements with. No one’s ever forced, but most eventually take a turn, sooner or later.”
Jillian contemplated that, wondering whether she’d get in trouble for asking, but she really needed to know. “Did they end up with their parents bargaining them off too?”
“Not one, and Sati and I have been friends since we were very young so I’d know. She looks for artists who are underappreciated or don’t have access to the resources they need to bring their gifts to full potential, so kids aren’t really her thing any more than they’re my thing. There are lots of roads besides that one.”
“Maggie,” Min said, “who died a couple of years ago, made two bargains that concerned her safety. The third she made as a desperate alternative to suicide, which would have been a dire step for a woman born in the eighteen-nineties who already feared she was damned by things she’d done to survive. She asked for a way to permanently escape the world that had always treated her so harshly. The best way I could do that was to bring her into my home.”
“Maggie loved Mistress,” Flair said, “way more than I can explain. She told me lots about her life, and she always said she was much happier living with Mistress than she ever was before that.” She sounded sad. Jillian caught her hand and squeezed, and Flair’s hand tightened in return.
“I hope she was,” Min said. “One day, if you like, I’d be happy to tell you about Maggie, with Flair’s help, and about Eugenie who was with me when Maggie came, and about all the others before. I miss them, but they deserve to be remembered. The women who have chosen to live with me have often preferred that option to the others open to them. Occasionally they have had children already. The children did not belong to me in any sense, though I have tended to feel responsible for their wellbeing. I suppose I was in the position of fairy godmother.” That last sentence had a humorous tone to it, and Flair giggled, distracted from her thoughts of Maggie.
“The one pet who lives with me permanently,” Nikandros said, “is there because she is honestly too dangerous to be free and I can’t fix her because something is missing, not broken. She is a highly intelligent and extremely attractive woman with absolutely no empathy or remorse. The damage and pain she caused was absolutely appalling, until finally someone bargained with Henry to get her out of commission. In my villa, she’s safe but she can’t do any harm. The ones who come and go all have different stories. A fair number are sex workers of one sort or another, some of them because they want to be and some because they ran out of other options. They leave either really good at what they do or with a way to do something different, their choice. There are a few I watch out for that have more-or-less independent lives.”
“You met Rachel and Clara and Phoebe,” Flair offered.
Nik glanced back and nodded. “I think it’s fairly obvious they all chose freely. Sati’s current crew, I know more than I can actually say, because everyone’s entitled to privacy. Every story is unique, but every one of them is with Sati by choice and can leave if they want to. Three are indefinite commitments. Another will probably not leave for a long time, if ever, now that person has a safe haven to concentrate purely on art, away from a very unpleasant history.”
“Under some circumstances,” Flair said, “what otherwise looks like just a way to pay a debt is the solution or the goal in itself.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Jillian said. That was certainly a perspective-changing approach.
“Try to have some faith, dear,” Min said. “Anyone I consider a friend has no interest in randomly terrorizing, tormenting, or abducting humans. They would not otherwise be my friends. Any humans with my friends, to any degree and on any terms, are there by their own free consent other than rare extraordinary circumstances, such as Gloria’s or Flair’s.”
“I don’t not consent,” Flair said. “Or something. I like my life. But I do know what you mean.”
“When you get the chance to see the gallery, you may feel free to enjoy it without guilt that you are condoning slavery or abuse.”
Jillian sighed. “Just checking.”
“I know. That you care about others isn’t a bad thing, and you haven’t had long to learn the rules or the countless variations.”
“So when you have questions, you get answers,” Nikandros said. “No one wants you worried, treasure.” He eyed the rocks beside them. “Here we are. Stop here.”
“For what?” Min asked.
“I checked. There’s a rock you can get to and sit on if I help, and it reaches right out into the water. I suggest you leave the shoes here.”
Min laughed, wheeled to the edge of the walkway and locked the brakes on her chair, and leaned down to unfasten her sandals. “Are you sure about this?”
“What’s the worst that happens? I misjudged and we have to convince a few humans they didn’t actually see a lake monster. We’ve done worse.”
Min set her sandals on the pavement and accepted Nik’s hand to help her stand up. He wrapped an arm around her waist, supporting her.
Jillian took a step forward, instinctively, to be on Min’s other side; Flair laid a hand on her arm to get her attention and, when Jillian glanced at her, shook her head. Flair backed up a few steps to sit on a bench, no more than five feet from Min’s chair.
“Let them be,” she whispered, when Jillian joined her. “Just give them a few minutes. Trust me.”
With misgivings, Jillian shrugged and stayed there. Presumably Flair could read something about the situation that Jillian was missing. A few minutes to sit down, with a little distance from satyr influence, was probably helpful anyway.
It took several steps to reach the rock Nikandros had in mind. A couple of those steps were short jumps, only mildly precarious for a healthy human, but Jillian worried every moment that Nik’s support wouldn’t be enough and Min’s weak hips would fail to take her weight. Min clearly had no such concerns, and was giggling breathlessly by the time he carefully helped her sit down on a large protruding rock. He perched on the next one, legs crossed, watching with a smile as she lowered her bare feet down in the water. It was chilly even in summer, Jillian knew from experience, but Min just sighed happily and held out a hand to Nik; he closed his around hers. Jillian got the distinct impression that even without words, they were very much communicating. Or maybe communing.
“A year isn’t much against a fae lifespan,” Flair whispered to Jillian, “but they still experience it as a year, more or less, and for most of it, they’ve been together a lot less than they’re used to. They can go back and forth but a lot of everyday life doesn’t happen in villas, it happens out here, and that gets complicated. Nik’s too nice to not include you and I, but this is all about making Mistress happy, I’m sure of it.”
“The tickets came from a repeat customer,” Jillian murmured, “but that customer might have suggested a few possibilities or just asked outright what he’d like as a thanks? And Nik saw a chance?”
Flair nodded. “You’re getting the idea. The house’ll be done soon, last estimate was late October. I don’t think Nik really has much he needs to be there in person for regularly in BC anymore. I bet as soon as the house is ready, he moves in with us.”
Min said something quietly to Nikandros, who answered her, though Jillian could make out none of it. Whatever it was, it made Min laugh, and Nikandros grinned.
What Flair was saying certainly seemed plausible, given what they were seeing. It didn’t seem to particularly matter whether they were human or how old they really were or whether it translated to ‘in love’ the way she understood it. They were simply a couple very much enjoying a moment together, the rest of the world temporarily unimportant.
“You’re smiling,” Jillian said quietly.
Flair turned that smile fleetingly on Jillian before her gaze went back to the two fae. “I like it when they’re happy. She defies her whole family to do the things she thinks is right, which is usually being kind. Sometimes that’s hard. And Nik is a lot more kind and generous and sympathetic than you’ve probably really seen yet. There are, Idunno, hundreds of thousands of fae in the world, all over it, even in places humans can’t live, and there are lots that are good to at least their own humans, but of all of them, I think we got lucky enough to belong to the best ones ever.”
“I haven’t got enough of a sample size for a very solid conclusion, but I think I have to agree.” All the weirdness could easily have been far more intrusive and traumatic, instead of being presented to her and letting her go at her own pace. More or less. And there was Zipporah and her aggression, and the other less pleasant fae she’d seen only during her first bargain.
“I know a lot is still really new and you’re unsure about a lot. I really want to find ways for you to meet more of the other humans who are beholden to Mistress’ friends, Sati’s and Nechtan’s and Hyld’s and Nik’s, and more time with Rachel and Clara and Phoebe.”
“God knows, I need friends. Just gotta get a grip on my life.”
“To me, it’s absolutely amazing that you keep functioning as well as you do, but I sorta have a different threshold for stress.”
“It’s just as amazing to me, y’know, the things that you just accept as normal without batting an eye. To me, my life’s pretty ordinary. Well, maybe getting less so all the time. But I think that’s a good thing overall.”
They waited in companionable quiet until the two fae had enough and made their way back to the walkway. Min slipped once on a water-slick rock, and Jillian’s heart skipped a beat, but Nik was right there to take her weight. A moment later, Min was settled safely back in her chair.
Flair darted over to drop to one knee and help her put her sandals back on. Min smiled and ran a hand over her hair.
“Thank you, cherie.”
Jillian joined the others, less hastily.
“Thank you for being patient,” Nikandros said.
“Why, are we in a hurry?” Jillian retorted. “It’s a nice place to sit and look at the view and talk.”
“Yes,” Min said. “It is. I’d like to clean up and perhaps change before we go out, and the parking lot seems quiet now.”
“None of us need to change,” Nikandros said, waiting while Min turned her chair back the way they’d come, then falling in step beside her. “The place I have in mind isn’t all that formal. The nightclub, if we decide to go, is moderately upscale, with quite a nice eighties retro theme. They might object to full-on grunge or something, but the eighties were rather diverse and they aren’t excessively fussy.”
“These shorts are comfortable but extremely casual,” Min said firmly. “Jillian and Flair are probably fine, but I’d prefer something a little dressier. While I’m relieved that the fashion of changing one’s clothes several times a day has passed, some clothes are simply more appropriate for some situations. Also, conventional makeup can suffer from sun, sweat, spray, eating, and physical activity like dancing, but Echo’s work does not.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jillian said.
“So, Nik, if you want us at our best…”
Nikandros laughed and spread his hands, careful that the near one wouldn’t strike Min. “Would I ever argue with you? I’m all for anything that allows all three of my devastatingly gorgeous companions for the evening to feel as sexy and confident as possible.”
Back at Min’s apartment, Nikandros lingered only briefly, then he left via Min’s villa, promising to be back in plenty of time.
“Dressing room,” Min said. “And let’s see what we can do for all three of us.”
They got cleaned up in the bathroom, rinsing away sweat and lake spray. With Echo’s assistance on makeup and hair, all three got ready. Min changed to a knee-length dress with a high neck and short sleeves, though it bared her shoulders, of a metallic green-black, and added heavy-looking gold jewellery that had deep green stones in it.
Jillian’s plainer jewellery had been swapped for retro neon that, with Echo’s bolder and more colourful makeup, transformed the whole look with no need to change her grey dress: a collection of thin flexible gummy bracelets in a rainbow of colours, heavy neon-yellow hoop earrings, and three strands of small neon beads braided together, pink and blue and yellow. Apparently they actually belonged to Min’s daughter, but both Min and Flair insisted that Sophia wouldn’t mind.
Flair, also at Min’s urging, tied a burgundy lace scarf around her neck and added dangly triangular earrings. She swapped her sandals for frilly ankle socks and pink heeled pumps, and put on fingerless pink fishnet mitts.
“Very nice, girls,” Min said approvingly. “That looks good anywhere for dinner, and we’re all set for afterwards. Let’s go find Nik. Thank you, Echo, you do beautiful work, dear.”
Min’s reflection in the full-length mirror waved, smiling, then went back to simply reflecting the room and its occupants.
“Someday,” Jillian muttered, “I’m going to start asking questions about her and this whole mirror thing. Presumably she has some kind of existence outside mirrors.”
“Of course she does,” Min said serenely, on her way to the door. “But she can be shy and self-conscious. That’s common for fae of her kind. I see no reason to push her towards anything that makes her uncomfortable.” Since they’d left the door open—Jillian was a little surprised Nikandros hadn’t tried to sneak looks at them changing—she simply wheeled her way through and down the hall. Jillian and Flair hastened to catch up.
Nikandros was waiting in the outermost room, the huge bright entryway that had doors to Min’s villa and Min’s apartment and a third door Jillian hadn’t yet seen in use. He was lounging casually in a chair, legs extended in front of him with his ankles crossed, but he rose immediately, smiling, when they joined him.
“With you looking like that,” he said, “it’s going to be a challenge making sure no one steals any of you away before we come home later. I hope I’m up to it.”
Flair giggled. “Is there anything you aren’t up to?”
He winked at her. “Not that I’ve found yet, cutie.”
“I think,” Jillian said, “part of the trick is going to be making sure we don’t lose you to hordes of admirers.”
Nikandros laughed. “You have no competition, treasure. Shall we?”
He parked the car in a small municipal lot, and they walked a short distance to a side-street off the main one, and a block down it.
“That’s a pet store,” Flair said suddenly. “I didn’t know there was one here.”
“Would you like to see if they have anything your cats don’t already have?” Min asked indulgently.
“I… um, I do, but I don’t want everyone to have to wait.”
“Nik? Suppose you and Jillian go ahead, and Flair and I will join you in a moment? This shouldn’t take long.”
Nikandros sketched a kind of bow. “Two doors down. I’ll refrain from ravishing Jillian while you’re out of sight.”
“Please do. And also refrain from allowing her to ravish you.”
That made him laugh. “That too. But she’s pretty strong-willed when she’s not choosing to give in.” He winked at Jillian, and offered his arm. She slid a hand around it.
Of course, that did bring her into even closer proximity. Not for the first time, she felt her thoughts skipping tracks onto fantasies of much closer contact. There was a narrow gap between buildings right there, out of sight, and it wouldn’t take much space to get his jeans unbuttoned and hike her short skirt up high enough…
No. Just, no.
At least on the water, they hadn’t been in constant proximity. She was less sure about the rest of the evening, and how long she could keep ignoring how damp her panties kept getting and the images that slipped into her mind.
Beside the pet store was a small gift shop. Beyond that, Nik opened a glass door set in a grey limestone storefront, or at least the limited amount that wasn’t deep-set windows was limestone, and ushered her in.
The interior felt cool and clean, the walls painted a very pale blue with a scattering of framed paintings that seemed to involve water often. Jillian saw warm golden wood and deep ocean blue vinyl padding, matching the curtains and the darker floor tiles scattered among the paler blue ones. Only three of the dozen or so tables were occupied. The kitchen area was divided from the rest only by a fairly high counter, rather than being in a separate room, though a hallway with several doors suggested that there was an area that was out of sight regardless.
A woman of around her own age approached without haste from the far side of the room. She wore black yoga pants and a white tank-top, her dark blue hair braided smoothly back and her throat circled by a narrow black leather collar with a ring at the front, a tattoo down one arm of a green and brown and grey horse erupting from blue waves.
“Any preference for where we should sit, treasure?” Nikandros asked, surveying the room. “Hm, how about over there? Not too far from the kitchen, far enough from the occupied tables for some privacy, and we can tuck Min’s chair in the corner where no one will trip. Sound good?”
“Hi, Nik,” the blue-haired woman said casually. “Did you forget how to count to four?”
“The other half of the party’ll be along in a minute,” Nikandros laughed. “How about you grab us a bottle of Rhonda’s sweet rosé and four glasses?”
“You got it.” She walked away, towards the small bar that adjoined one end of the open kitchen, and Jillian heard her call, “Nik’s here,” to someone.
“You don’t even live in this city yet,” Jillian said, sitting down. “How are you already on a first-name basis with people?”
That made him laugh again. “Being friendly isn’t that hard, treasure, just smile and be open. But mutual friends make it easier.”
It wasn’t the blue-haired woman who set a bottle of wine and four wine glasses on the table, it was someone male in a white coat with two rows of buttons.
“Seriously, Nik, are you trying to lay claim to all the attractive, charming women in the area before the rest of us even get settled in?”
Jillian looked up sharply, startled, recognizing the voice. Ethan?
“Not mine,” Nik said. “Min’s. You could’ve mentioned that there’s a pet store so close by, Flair got distracted.”
“Not precisely the conditions I had in mind.” Ethan began to fill the wine glasses. “But since I wasn’t sure that you’d choose to call at all, I’m good with this.”
Nikandros gave Ethan a questioning look, though he accepted the basket of bread rolls from the blue-haired woman as she dropped by just that long, and set it on the table.
“We’ve met,” Jillian said. “I… was mostly trying to figure out how to work going out for coffee into everything else. And whether it was a good idea to risk any more friendships with anyone I have to hide things from.” That was clearly not the issue she’d believed it to be.
“Always a bit chancy,” Ethan admitted. “On the other hand, I found Cindy and ended up introducing her to the boss, so sometimes it works out okay.”
“The boss?” ‘The boss’ must be fae… one of Min’s friends, considering how comfortable he was with Nik. Water imagery everywhere. She could rule out most for various reasons, which left… “Nechtan?”
“Yep, he owns the Seahorse. And the staff, to varying degrees.” He offered Jillian a glass of wine.
“You made those amazing sandwiches he brought the day we moved. Having something wonderful and healthy and filling to eat really helped.”
“Glad to hear it, although I’m even more sorry we couldn’t make it to be extra hands. Fish okay? Atlantic cod, specifically.”
“Um, sure. Sounds great.” Considering what he’d done with sandwiches, what did he consider a real meal?
“Allergic to anything, or anything you can’t stand?”
“No, not really.”
“Willing to trust me?”
“Definitely,” Nikandros said. “Go do that magic you do. Did you do fish today because you knew Min was coming?”
Ethan laughed. “I’ll admit to nothing. Four, then?” Jillian wasn’t quite sure why it was at all surprising that Ethan leaned down to give Nik a quick kiss before he went back to the kitchen.
“Should I ask?” Nikandros asked, picking up his wine.
Jillian shrugged. “Laundromat. He was very polite and respectful and friendly, didn’t even ask for my number, just gave me his. I told him I was involved with someone and he still wanted to go out for coffee sometime. Something he said reminded me of you. It was right after a couple of brats were rude—Echo took care of them—so it was a really nice contrast. But, y’know, complicated. Does Min know what this place is?”
“Nope. They only opened the doors yesterday, and they’re doing an official grand opening next week. My surprise. Which apparently was a bigger surprise than I expected. It’s not likely to ever be a mainstream kind of place. Ethan’s a bloody genius, but he gets bored. He likes preparing everything himself, start to finish, instead of managing a big kitchen, and he does everything from scratch. There’s frozen meals too,” he nodded towards a bank of glass-fronted cabinets. “But those and the current menu are never going to be consistent, it’ll always be whatever he could get fresh and whatever he woke up in the mood to make. On the other hand, anyone with half a brain will just tell him if they’re allergic to anything and then eat whatever he hands them, because it will never be a mistake. You’ll see.”
The small bells on the door chimed.
Not two heartbeats later, Jillian heard Flair squeal, “Cindy!” and saw her bolt across the floor to give the blue-haired waitress a ferocious hug, warmly returned.
“Heya, sweetheart,” Ethan called, though he was clearly busy. “Save me one of those hugs!”
“Only one? Why didn’t you tell me you finally got here?”
“It’s been a tad hectic,” Cindy said ruefully. “Most of the work was done, but we still had some to do, and Ethan gets seriously twitchy when he can’t feed people. I’ve only been able to grab a couple of hours with Jake, even. The plan was that tomorrow, we’d announce a big closed family party Thursday night, and then we’d do an official grand opening on Saturday, and maybe after that we can start letting life calm down a bit.” Her gaze went to Min, waiting quietly with a faint smile nearby. “Madame Min! I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”
“It’s all right, dear,” Min said. “It’s wonderful to see you, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever that wizard you have over in the kitchen is magicking up.”
“I’ll do my best not to disappoint,” Ethan said, ducking his head in a sort of bow.
Cindy waited until Min had moved to one of the chairs at the table, and neatly whisked her folded wheelchair to the corner, safely out of the way.
“You didn’t tell me we were coming here!” Flair said to Nikandros, barely able to sit still in her chair. “Or that they were in town!”
“I only found out yesterday,” Nikandros laughed. “I could’ve told you, but I couldn’t resist the surprise. I didn’t know Jillian had managed to run into Ethan already. Or maybe vice versa.”
Flair stopped, a hand around her wine glass. “You did? When?”
“I had no idea who he was,” Jillian said. She told them about the laundromat, the annoying boys, Echo’s rescue, and Ethan’s approach.
“You would be perfectly safe with Ethan,” Nikandros said, “if you were alone with him in the middle of nowhere, stark naked plus handcuffs, and too drunk to walk or remember anything.” He paused to reflect. “Now, if he does have genuine consent, things can get seriously interesting in a hurry.”
“I have a boyfriend,” Jillian reminded him. Possibly she was also reminding herself.
“Ethan’s worth being any kind of friends with,” Flair said firmly. “Cindy and Rill, too. Rill’s probably in the back, staying out of sight. Hope I can sneak back and say hi.”
“No one’s likely to stop you from going anywhere, cutie,” Nikandros said.
“So the city’s being gradually infiltrated by a surprising number of people with fae connections?” Jillian said.
“There were already fae around, treasure, and humans beholden to them. We just aren’t all willing to associate with each other. But as far as I know, our particular extended family is done moving. Everyone who’s coming is here. Everyone else decided to stay or, in one case, to start travelling. Our daughter Sophia’s helping with getting settled in Sri Lanka before she moves on.”
“We can come for the party, right?” Flair said to Min entreatingly. “Please?”
Min laughed. “Of course we will. Jillian? I hope you aren’t busy Thursday evening.”
“I’ll make sure I’m not,” Jillian said.
“Good,” Flair said happily. “Then you can meet lots of humans who chose to bargain with fae.”
“And lived to tell the tale,” Nikandros joked. “And even came back again.”
“Heads up,” Ethan said cheerfully. He and Cindy each carried a plate in each hand; deftly, they set a plate in front of each of the four at the table. Ethan backed up a step; Cindy left to answer a call from another table.
Part of the plate was plump rice tinted faintly yellow, mixed with several kinds of vegetables chopped small. The rest was a small salad of fresh vegetables on a nest of bright green lettuce leaves, and on top of that was a filet of grilled fish, already neatly cut into strips. She could see the juices from the fish dripping down onto the vegetables below.
“Oh, that smells good!” Jillian said.
“That’s a start,” Ethan said.
“It’ll taste better,” Nikandros assured her, fork already in his hand. He separated a bit of fish, speared a small piece of fresh tomato that was under it, and took a bite. “Mm. You definitely didn’t lose that magic touch anywhere on the trip here.”
Flair, her mouth full already, nodded enthusiastically.
Curiously, Jillian did much the same, though the fish alone. It was flaky and tender, not at all dry, and the scent tantalized her nose as she raised it to her mouth.
A tang of lemon, but a cascade of other flavours too, savoury and sweet, none of them overwhelming the rich flavour of the fish itself but modulating it and enhancing it in perfect harmony. She closed her eyes, reluctant to swallow and let the bite become only a memory.
“That,” Ethan said in satisfaction. “Being able to see that look, right there, knowing I did all of it. That was worth trading absolutely everything for.”
“And we are extremely grateful that you feel that way,” Min said. “This is as wonderful as ever, Ethan, thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. Enjoy your dinner.”
By the time Jillian pulled her thoughts back together and opened her eyes, he was halfway back to the kitchen.
“Oh my god.”
Nikandros laughed. “Yep. That boy has a hell of a talent.”
“Why isn’t he making a gazillion dollars in a five-star Paris restaurant or something?”
“Ask him. He bargained for this, not that, which might give you a hint.”
Jillian tried a bite of the rice. It was seasoned, but the flavours in it meshed with the flavours of the fish without discord despite being different. The vegetables in it weren’t a generic frozen mix, they couldn’t be, they had texture and taste. “Am I allowed to enjoy food this much?”
“As much as possible, treasure.”
“Am I going to have to give up my apartment to eat here as often as possible?”
Min smiled. “Keeping the prices in a range the average person can afford was part of the bargain.”
“Good, because I really have no idea how ordinary food is going to taste after this.”
“You can always pick up frozen meals too,” Nikandros said. “But I bet if you called him in the throes of withdrawal, he’d arrange something. Artists need to feel appreciated.”
“And we all try to make sure he knows how much we appreciate him,” Flair said.
Cindy stopped by the table. “All good?” she asked, but her tone was just a little too innocent to be believable.
“You know it is,” Nikandros laughed.
“How can something this, well, simple, taste so amazing?” Jillian asked.
Cindy chuckled. “Ethan would tell you, anyone can drown mediocre ingredients in spices, and that the trick is to seduce, not club someone and drag them off by the hair. Next time he does cod, he’ll do something different with it, whatever inspires him that day. Doesn’t work well in a commercial kitchen, and sometimes customers get cranky about the menu always changing, but there are always people who know better than to argue. Yell if you need anything.”
“Possibly, a mop, once Jillian’s done melting,” Nikandros said. Cindy laughed and left them to eat.
“I sort of don’t want to finish it,” Jillian said. “Like not wanting Christmas morning to be over, or something.”
“Understandable,” Min said. “However, he’s forever making something new and equally delicious. You could think of it as a matter of trust. You may not get what you expect, but it will be just as good. And now that we have him in reach…” She trailed off, but the expressive palm-up gesture with her hand said it all.
They enjoyed the rest of the meal with minimal conversation, attention largely on the food. Jillian saw Cindy gently turn several people back towards their own tables before they got anywhere near Nik; only one made it past her for him to deal with personally, while she was busy at another table. Cindy met Jillian’s gaze with a smile, a small shrug, and a shake of her head as she shooed one back to his seat.
Otherwise, they were able to eat the delicious meal in peace, the conversation wandering primarily through the day so far.
When Cindy returned to clear the plates, Nikandros asked, “So what did he concoct for dessert?”
“Chocolate-lemon meringue pie.”
“Hm. I think pie all around?” He glanced around the table, then back to Cindy. “All four.”
“You got it.”
Ethan delivered it personally.
“Good so far?” he asked Jillian.
“I know where I’m coming for lunch anytime you’re open from now on, even if it is a bit farther than the old place.”
“Thursday through Sunday, we’re here. Later on Friday and Saturday. Give us a call and tell us you’re coming, so you won’t have to wait as long. Of course, if you do that, you’ll probably just have to live with whatever I hand you when you get here.”
“I’m good with that.”
The pie looked like a really appetizing but fairly standard lemon meringue pie… other than the shreds of dark chocolate sprinkled on top, and a thin dark layer between the crust and the filling.
There were, she discovered on her first rapturous bite, also shreds of chocolate between the filling and the meringue. Not enough to be overwhelming, but the two flavours flowed into each other better than she would ever have expected. The dark layer was melted dark chocolate, keeping the crust flaky instead of soggy.
“Oh god.” She closed her eyes, savouring it.
Ethan chuckled. “It worked out well, I need to do that one again.” He glanced back as the door opened and a trio came in; Cindy, unhurried but attentive, headed in their direction. “Back to work. That invitation to go out for coffee whenever you have time is still open, no hurry. Or some Thursday or Sunday, hang around after closing time, so I actually have time to sit down and talk.”
“It’s probably just as well you don’t know what I’d probably be willing to do for food like this.”
Ethan laughed. “What, and get Madame Min mad at me? Not a chance. Hey, Nik? Going to come check out my new place? One big old house, three apartments, Cin upstairs and Rill downstairs and I’ve got the main floor with the original farmhouse kitchen. Still a bit of work being finished, like a laundry room and upgrading the kitchen, and still unpacking, but it’s going to be great.”
“I’ll call you,” Nik said. “And we’ll figure out a good time.”
“Works for me. I can give you the address, and I’ll pass the date on to Cin and Rill, they’ll probably want to show you theirs too.” Ethan leaned down for a not-so-brief kiss, one hand on Nik’s shoulder; Nik slid a hand around the back of his neck to steady him. Jillian blinked, distracted. That was completely unlike the blank confusion of strangers or co-workers responding to satyr attraction. Ethan knew exactly what he was doing and what he was inviting, and that made it drastically different somehow.
She wasn’t sure it was entirely satyr influence that made her mind fill with vivid fantasies of sex with both at the same time. It was an effort of will to not start squirming, and to try not to think about whether her skirt was going to show the sudden dampness.
When Ethan straightened, he licked his lips, smiling, then winked at Jillian and walked away with a quick wave.
“Still up for awesome music?” Nik asked, as they left the restaurant.
“Absolutely,” Jillian said, and Flair nodded, practically bouncing in place.
“Lead on,” Min said.
This was definitely not the sort of club that was filled wall-to-wall with horny university students hoping to score for the night while sweating and grinding to the newest dance remixes. That was obvious even from the entranceway, while Nikandros was paying the cover for all four of them and they were getting their hands stamped.
The decor was all 80s, right down to the bold geometric colours and the album art on the walls. The staff were dressed the part—there was a lot of hairspray in use there—as were some of the customers, but definitely not all. A group of musicians were still getting set up on the stage, while around them on the dance floor, a dozen or so restless souls were already dancing to the hyperactive track playing over the sound system. One of the musicians looked oddly familiar, but Jillian dismissed it after a brief moment’s thought. She couldn’t place him, and it was probably only an indication of how successful they were at looking like a genuine New Romantics-type band. With the makeup and the frilly shirt, she wasn’t even a hundred percent certain ‘he’ was the correct pronoun, although as she recalled the 80s, it was highly probable.
While there were a few of the usual standing-height tables along the edge of the dance floor, and a scattering of high stools to go with them, there were normal-height tables with chairs back from that, and booths along the walls.
Nikandros claimed a table for them that was about midway between the extremes, one that would give them a good view of the stage.
A waitress stopped to ask them what they wanted to drink. While they waited for her to return, Jillian studied the band.
“I keep getting the feeling I know him.”
“I doubt you’ve met him personally,” Nikandros said, though he sounded amused. “They don’t live around here.”
“I suppose you have, though?”
“I meet a lot of people, treasure. No one ever tells me I’m not on the guest list or I don’t belong somewhere. Good thing I have an excellent memory for names and faces and personal details.” His forehead furrowed thoughtfully. “Although less of a memory for where and when, I admit.”
“Where and when are often not intrinsically a part of who someone is,” Min said. “And what interests you is always, above all else, who.”
“Satyr tendency. You won’t mind, will you, if I can lure Jill and Flair out to dance?”
“Of course not. I’d expect nothing else.”
“I haven’t been out dancing in a while,” Jillian said. “No promises I was ever any good.”
Nik chuckled. “Does it matter? Just have fun. That’s exactly what everyone else here is doing.”
They lingered over the drinks, enjoying the company and the atmosphere, while the band got themselves set up and went through the usual band chatter. Jillian didn’t recognize the name of the group, and concluded that she was imagining similarities.
They really were a very good band, though, and their musical choices were centred heavily around only three well-known 80s bands with occasional other covers.
Jillian didn’t resist when Nik urged her and Flair both to their feet and out to the dance floor. Between the excellent music, alive and passionate and reminding her of what it felt like to be a teenager, and the shameless satyr who was just too sexy, and Flair’s playful high energy, it was easy to forget everything and everyone else, to just be right here and let her body move any way it wanted to.
It wanted, above all else, to move into closer contact with that too-sexy satyr, to gain and hold his attention.
She moved closer, sliding a hand around his waist to his back, where she could hook her fingers into the waistband of his jeans. That gave her an anchor to step closer still, pressing the length of her body against his and using her free hand to trace out the contours of his back through his t-shirt.
He wrapped both arms around her, linking them at the small of her back, and gave her an annoyingly chaste brief kiss. “Nice to see you having fun,” he said, close to her ear. “But we need to not ignore Flair.”
He had a point. That was enough to make her hesitate, re-evaluating.
On the other hand, Flair was still moving blissfully to the music, eyes closed. At least two men were sneaking peeks at her, but then, she was graceful and attractive and lacked any self-consciousness at all. Even Jillian had to admit that the combination was strikingly sensual, though not exactly sexual. Like her cats, Flair seemed to simply revel in her own body’s movements and sensations. For the moment, she wasn’t going to feel left out.
And Jillian was so tired of fighting the desire to get closer, to invite his touch and to touch him and then some. On the ship and at the Seahorse, there had at least been distractions—but since they’d left Min’s apartment to go out for supper, she’d rarely been more than a few feet from him. He’d called her strong-willed, but how long could that last? Especially in a situation like this one?
How long did she want it to last?
Weren’t there reasons to keep fighting, to monitor her own actions and keep herself under control?
Probably there were.
Min was right there. Min wouldn’t let anything bad happen. And that included Nikandros, who wanted Min happy and wanted humans to feel safe.
She nuzzled the side of his throat, pressing gentle kisses above his t-shirt. That scent triggered associations that tumbled all over each other, but the overwhelming emotions were intertwined arousal and fear and pleasure.
“Mmhmm?” Moving together made her whole body feel like it was humming, feeding the aching desire for more, but even that, she welcomed.
He sighed, smiled, and kissed her forehead. “Nevermind, treasure. I’m genuinely impressed that it took this long. You don’t need to think about anything but feeling good. Min and I will look after everything else.”
“Mm… does that mean I can just… do this?” She slid her spread hand down over his backside, exploring muscle and shapes.
“I suppose it does.” And he was certainty responding, she could feel it. All these layers of fabric were in the way. Was his penis a different shape when he was in his human form? Did his precum still have that slightly anaesthetic effect that had made it possible for her to get him all the way down her throat without gagging? She was tired of asking questions. It would be much more satisfying to investigate for herself. But when she reached for the button of his jeans, he gently caught her wrists and brought her hands up to his chest. “But not that. Clothes stay on.”
Other than that, though, he went along with anything she did. He was an excellent dancer, too, even when his attention was wandering, or was divided between Jillian and Flair.
Satyr influence was more intoxicating than alcohol. The longer Jillian spent within arm’s reach, dancing or sitting down with Min for a drink, the harder it got to keep track of, well, anything, in a blur of arousal and giddiness and frustration.
By the time her mind cleared, she was lying in Flair’s big bed, in the nightshirt she’d left here, with the lights off.
“Hm?” Flair sounded sleepy.
“Did I seriously kiss you?”
Flair giggled. “Yes. I don’t mind. And Nik was right there, so don’t worry, I didn’t take any of the things you said you wanted to do too seriously.”
“I don’t remember most of what I said.” She remembered the kiss with crystal clarity, her hand around the back of Flair’s neck to hold her, and Flair not resisting at all, returning that kiss with enthusiasm. She was fairly sure that she hadn’t stopped at a kiss, that her other hand had gone wandering—at the very least. That was all a bit troubling, since Min had told her satyr influence only strengthened and exaggerated desires that already existed.
“You aren’t used to satyrs, and I was right there and familiar and easy to associate with some things. It’s okay.” Another giggle. “You kiss nice. I was pretty hyper too. I haven’t been to nightclubs very often.”
“Didn’t Nik get the band to play a couple of requests?” She gazed into the darkness. “Did I see him kissing the lead singer when he asked?”
“Yes, they did two requests, one for you and one for Mistress, and yes, there was definitely kissing involved in that, too. It was a really friendly kind of evening.”
“And I spent most of it all over Nik.”
“As far as he’d let you. You didn’t do anything any more extreme than some other people I saw. Jill, it’s okay. That happens to humans around satyrs. A lot of humans start reacting a lot faster than you do, even. But it drops off fairly fast with exposure. The best way to develop some resistance is spending a couple of nights with a satyr, but that’s not an option so, just time. Until then, well, we all understand.” Flair yawned hugely. “We had an awesome day and it ended with wonderful music and dancing and fun. We’re home safe and sound, Mistress and Nik are in Mistress’ room and you and I are right here and everything’s good. Stop fretting about it and go to sleep.”
That was probably excellent advice. With the adrenaline wearing off, her body felt tired and heavy, and trusting her companions to look out for her made it harder to get herself too worked up over what she might have done.
“Yeah, it was an awesome day. Good night.”
Next time: Jillian encounters unexpected consequences of the day’s outing.
Copyright 2019 prysmcat/Steph Shangraw If you share it: 1) I’ll be thrilled and flattered and grateful, since word of mouth is the best publicity, and that means you consider it worth sharing; 2) Please include the link back to the source or, alternatively, to my writing site below; 3) Don’t post the full text on other sites without my permission, don’t claim you wrote it, and don’t include it in any paid collection. For more of my work (novels and serials, fantasy and urban fantasy), more about me, or other ways to contact me, check out Prysmcat Books at http://prysmcat.com