Flirting with Danger
Maybe someone up there was answering vampire prayers after all because finally, finally, his own personal fortress of solitude belonged to him again. Angel felt relaxed for the first time in over a week. It was a little strange at first, which surprised him. He had gotten used to having Cordelia in his space causing random acts of havoc as she examined one of his keepsakes from days gone by, borrowed weapons to use as kitchen utensils, or forced him into conversation.
There were still traces of her presence here and there. Every time he thought he had rounded up all of her things there would be one more found in the bathroom, under the bed, or tucked away in his closet. It was not just her belongings. Cordelia’s unique, perfumed, womanly scent lingered in his bed, where it was far more tantalizing than he wanted to admit to himself. Angel did not want to start thinking about the reasons he decided not to change the sheets today like usual.
He walked over to the bookshelf and let his finger trail over the bindings until he found one that appealed to him. Getting comfortable on the couch, he opened the book to its first page and began to read, thankful that it was quiet at last.
Hours later, Angel read the conclusion of the story, just as satisfying an end as when he had read it the first ten times. He sat up, looked around the empty living room and smiled at the fact that he had it all to himself. It had been a while since he read an entire book uninterrupted.
Closing his eyes he leaned back in his chair tuning his senses in to the world around him, enjoying the soft buzz of electricity from the corner lamp, the distant hum of the traffic from the street level above, and myriad other background noises as he turned his focus upon them until they were crystal clear. Everything was as it should be. All in order. No enemies lurking in the tunnels nearby.
He was hungry, he realized, but paused on his way to the kitchen to return the book to its proper place. When he opened the refrigerator, he saw much to his surprise that there was a fresh container of blood on the top shelf. Someone had stopped by the butcher shop…Cordelia, presumably. Doyle might bring over a six-pack or a bottle of his favorite malt, but not blood.
Angel had tried to be subtle about his diet with Cordelia living there. No drinking blood in front of her. Making sure there were no splatters in the microwave before she heated up her leftover Chinese food. Eating scrambled eggs or lo mein noodles even though the taste was rather bland just so she wouldn’t have to eat alone, and he could feel a little less like a monster.
For all of her irritating habits Cordelia Chase had never pretended he was anything other than a vampire. She did not shy away from it even when humanity was nowhere in sight. Girls like her might get a little jaded after a Sunnydale education, but this surprised him. Whatever the reason for this spontaneous act of kindness—and he wasn’t going to rule out her efforts to finagle that extra set of Egyptian cotton sheets—Angel decided he would thank her for it.
The metal door between their apartments was already closed. He often had to pull it shut after he returned from patrol each night and he found it comforting to imagine that she wanted to be certain he made it home. Bizarre that he would even think that considering the way Cordelia insisted on her own privacy. She always shut that door when she came downstairs from the office, crossing through his place to get to hers. Finding the door open probably meant nothing more than her looking for something she had accidentally left behind at his place. It was incredible just how much stuff she had tucked away in nooks and crannies or under his bed after just a few days.
Angel rapped his knuckles on the door listening to the hollow sound as it echoed briefly. Before it dissipated, he realized why it was much too quiet. Her now familiar heartbeat was absent. She was not at home.
Strangely disappointed, Angel went back to the kitchen to resume his dinner plans. A glance at the wall clock told him that it was 2 a.m. What was she doing out this late? Many possibilities popped into his head. He hoped she was safe. That she was out having fun. Young people needed fun. Reluctantly, he also conceded that it might not just be a matter of what she was doing, but whom she was doing.
An image crystallized in his head: Cordelia at the Bronze. Moving to music with a sensuous beat. Dancing with someone he never officially met, that one-time boyfriend of hers, the singer in Oz’s band, the walking hormone who had a following of pretty girls trailing after him willing to give it up just to say he was the one. That guy reminded him of himself back in the days before Darla ended his life and made him a vampire. Liam. Chasing after every pretty girl in the village and seducing them into lifting their skirts for a quick ride.
The comparison made him tense up. He hoped that cocky little bastard had not been her first. Anger burned like a flash fire, white-hot and raging, and snuffed out just as fast. It was none of his business if Cordelia had taken a lover.
Rethinking that for about a second, he decided that he hated the idea. It certainly felt like his business. Maybe the proximity did it. As long as she was here under his roof, he somehow felt responsible for her safety. That gave him the right to be concerned.
A derisive laugh left his throat. Try explaining that to Cordelia. Neighborly concern taken about ten steps too far would not be appreciated and would most likely result in her giving him a tongue-lashing, and not the kind he was likely to enjoy. The errant thought caught him by surprise, but he blotted out the world by closing his eyes and let the images take over. Cordelia’s mouth closing around his cock, warm, velvet tongue sliding slowly down his length as she closed over him, dragging back up, cheeks hollowing, sucking hard, her fingers gripping, moving with a rhythm that would drive him mad with the urge to thrust back.
Angel pressed a hand to his forehead, threaded his fingers through his gelled hair, and followed through to his nape where the tension started to knot. This was crazy. What was he thinking?
The blood when he gulped it down did not quench his thirst or the hunger for something much more physical. It seemed to make it worse, taking his body captive, making his loins heavy with unwanted arousal at the thought of Cordelia with a lover.
Not just any lover.
That settled it. Time to get out of here for a few hours. Stalk something. Find something to kill. That would take his mind off the idea of Cordelia out on the dance floor with some stranger, finding a dark corner of the club, or the back of a parked car, a motel. He did not think she would rush into something, but he really didn’t know her that well yet or her taste in men, except that she had always found him attractive.
That much he knew with certainty.
Deep down even though he did not want to admit it he was glad that had not changed. She might say that her schoolgirl crush was a thing of the past, but there was no denying that he did not even have to lay a hand on her to arouse her. The other day she had been so damned tempting trying to hide it from him even though it did not take vampire senses to detect the fact that he was not the only one who was turned on.
Angel grabbed his black duster and swung into it as he moved toward the back door. The corridor outside led to the basement level of the parking garage, but he changed his mind about the car almost as soon as he was there. It was already getting late and this excursion might take him out past sunrise. In addition to the metal hatch in the floor of his living room, there was also a parking garage service entrance to the sewer system tunnels that stretched out beneath the city.
Just as he reached the door the distinctive clack of high heels on cement signaled Cordelia’s arrival. Her slurred singing was interrupted by her own laughter. He did not recognize the song, but even from this distance, it was clear she had been at a club and had been drinking.
She was alone and could not seem to walk in a straight line. That or she was still dancing to whatever tune she was humming. Angel thought about how easy it would be for someone to pull her into the shadows and take what they wanted. He did not like seeing her vulnerable this way. As she stumbled down the corridor toward her apartment door, Angel followed planning to ensure that she made it home safely even if it was only these last few yards.
The keys in her hand jangled and fell from her grasp. “Oh, shhhit!” she cursed staring down at them as if trying to decide if there was more than one set of keys on the ground.
Moving forward to help Angel saw Cordelia whip around faster than he thought her capable in her current state, a can of mace in her hand. “Back off, sleazeball!” A human assailant would have had a face full of the pepper-spray. Angel had only a fraction of a second to dodge the mace cloud, pull them both out of its reach, and rip the offending can out of her grasp.
Plastered between him and the wall, Cordelia’s eyes widened as she recognized Angel. “Hey, you. Did you get him? He was big and blurry.”
“Yeah, sure,” Angel answered, amused by her assumption that he had come to her rescue. “Kicked his ass. He won’t be back.”
“Good.” She flung her arms around his neck and squeezed, head nuzzling against his shoulder and her breasts pressing deliciously into his chest for all of a few seconds. Long enough to feel her warmth seeping through his shirt. “Doyle bought me mace. Don’t leave home without it.” For some reason that made her laugh. “Cheaper than jewelry, I suppose.” Then she was pushing him away, creating space between them so she could squeeze out, away from the wall.
Angel put his hands in the pocket of the duster and stood watching as Cordelia rummaged through her purse. A little whine sounded. “My keys. I can’t find my keys. That bastard stole my keys!”
Scooping them off the ground Angel held them out to her. “Hey, those are mine! You rescued my keys, too. For a vampire you’re…you’re…umm…what was I saying?” Her beautiful face scrunched up as she tried to snag them and missed.
Barely able to stand up straight there was no way Cordelia could navigate a key into a lock. He took her hand in his threading his fingers through hers. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”
A soft, drunken smile curled the corners of her mouth as she rested her head on his arm, looking at him through heavy-lidded, hazy eyes. “Are you walking me home? That’s sweet. Jude Law would walk me home.”
Angel’s brow scrunched up at the man’s name. Who the hell was Jude Law? The name was vaguely familiar.
“I am not being sweet,” he denied gruffly. Mad at himself for enjoying the contact of her soft skin and her for putting such trust in him, he pulled away, only to have to catch her when she stumbled forward, inadvertently bringing her back into his arms. “You’re drunk and I just want to get you inside out of harm’s way.”
The words poured from her lips like smooth burgundy. “So take me inside.” It was the alcohol talking, Angel reminded himself, as her warm breath puffed against his throat. He swallowed hard making his Adam’s apple bob reflexively.
Hell, she was tempting without even trying to be. He had to get used to that. Learn to ignore it. Cordelia was here for the duration, or until she had a breakthrough in her acting career, or an obnoxiously wealthy bachelor promised her a life of luxury. Angel shoved the key into the lock thinking about how he found her at Russell Winters’ mansion and what kind of existence she might have accepted just to achieve the life she aspired to. It pleased him that Winters was dust and could no longer put Cordelia or anyone else in harm’s way.
Angel opened the door, stepped across the threshold and left Cordelia braced against the doorframe. He kept his back to her while she stumbled inside and shut the door. Goal met. She was home safe. There was still plenty of time to patrol. He should go.
Deciding to do just that, he offered up some advice and a reprieve. “Drink some water. Get some sleep. You can come in late tomorr—”
The stereo came on full blast even before Angel could finish talking. He swerved around hardly believing that Cordelia could find the button to turn on the device. “It’s late. You sh—”
“Come dance with me,” she tossed her head back and laughed. Cordelia swayed in time to the music matching the beat. “Oh, riiiiight. I forgot. Mr Two Left Feet.”
Angel frowned at the remark brusquely sounding out in his defense, “I can dance.”
Twirling around him in a circle that sent her long hair flying around her, Cordelia snorted and giggled. “Since when did you ever dance with Buffy at the Bronze? Ooh! Dizzy. That was a rush.” She swayed to a halt behind him, both hands grasping the loose folds of his coat, her cheek pressed against his back as she steadied herself. “Vampires have natural rhythm. You’re stealthy. Light on your feet. Y’know, the way you move in a fight . . . it’s so . . . ah . . .kind of a turn on.”
He stood frozen to the spot as he tried to interpret Cordelia’s words. Was she admitting that he turned her on, or that vampires in general . . .?
“Except of course the blood and guts and demon goo part. That is sooooo not sexy,” Cordelia shuddered against him and added a disgusted, “bleh!”
Cordelia started tugging on his coat, pulling it off his shoulders. “A little help here, big guy.”
“Cor—I was heading out to patrol.” That was an excuse. A good one, he thought. “Someone might need me.”
“Yeah, she’s standing right here, dumbass.” The snarky tone melted away into a soft plea, “Just one dance.”
Oh, no. He was not going to fall for that sweet, doe-eyed routine. Angel pulled his duster back into place and strode over to the stereo. He jammed the power button sending the room into silence. He expected an angry screech, but she smirked as she joined him. “I can push buttons, too.”
The music was on again. Loud. Pounding. Base. Rhythmic. Bringing to mind something he did not equate with dancing, not unless it was done skin to skin.
“C’mon, Angel. I’m celebrating…ah, something…whatever. Pretend just for a few minutes that you’re not such an old fuddy-duddy.”
Maybe it was the demon in him that rose to the challenge, or just the man at his core being who took offence at her words, but he was not thinking about consequences when he pulled her close and started to move. Cordelia went wide-eyed, surprised because even in her drunken haze she had not really expected him to take her up on it. Angel felt the shudder pass through her as their bodies connected, and then she grinned, a triumphal gleam in her too-bright eyes.
Just because he kept away from crowds, ignored the temptation of grinding bodies and heated arousal did not mean he never watched humans get caught up in a dance. He’d never really felt it before, not exactly like this. Cordelia pissed him off so much. With her tempting curves and her sweet lips and that scent that was driving him closer and closer to the edge. This was not his kind of music. At this point, he wasn’t sure he cared. If she wanted to dance, he would show her how.
Out of sync at first they moved in an awkward rhythm contrary to the beat. A herky-jerky routine Cordelia was laughing through as she critiqued his style. She slipped free of his hold sliding both hands up his chest until she curled her fingers around the back of his neck. Her touch branded as it fired up something equally hot inside him.
From the moment she swayed into him, breasts teasing across his chest, her skirt grazing across pants, he needed no further direction. Need held him tight in its grip, a desire to prove something— even if he was not certain what that was. Tomorrow he could go back to keeping his distance. Right now, he had no choice but to respond to this insane whim.
Angel forgot about the music. All he could hear was the rhythmic pulse of her blood roaring through her veins. The softer sound of her breathing came laced with sensuous little tones every time they touched making it difficult to ignore her soft, full lips. His head dipped down, mouth hovering, teasing them both with the notion of a kiss, and not just a sweet, friendly peck on the lips. Resisting the urge, he sensed it would be dangerous, too inflammatory to allow. Not that any of this was very wise. The urge to crush her mouth beneath his, to plunder hers softly, roughly, was a craving he had to ignore.
If he couldn’t taste, he had to touch, but the tease of his fingertips wandering places they shouldn’t failed to sate the desire for more. Cordelia might be just drunk enough not to care that he was the one turning her on. Leaning into his touch, she moaned softly as his thumbs skirted the curves of her breasts, telltale arousal evidenced in her response, arching into him for more. Wanting to palm her breasts, imagining their full weight in his hands, exposing them to his view, to his mouth, Angel’s heavy groan signaled his determination to let go just enough to enjoy it.
Insane though it might be he needed Cordelia to know he was still capable of feeling and not some emotionless eunuch. This wasn’t the time for it. Not when she was still so buzzed she would probably never remember it in the morning.
Didn’t matter, he convinced himself, riding the edge of lust like a tightrope. Now was all that mattered.
Moving together, they swayed to the pulse of the music. His hands skimmed her waist, roving down to narrow the space between them without restricting her movements. Innocence dance moves edged toward erotic in the wanton way her body followed the to and fro of his, soft curves brushing against hard angles.
Desire coiled through him, but Angel still had a shred of self-control. Not much. Just enough to remember that Cordelia was not entirely in her own right mind, and that taking this further might cause him to lose his.
Cordelia nuzzled his neck, kissed the sensitive spot where his neck met his jaw, her lips hot against his skin. He felt a growl rise up in his chest wanting her teeth on him, too.
Angel could not seem to get close enough despite the contact. Sweeping his hands beneath her skirt, he filled both palms with her luscious round cheeks noting the lacy fringe of tiny panties brushing against his fingers. With a swift turn toward the closest wall, he pressed her up against it. A jolt of lust unfurled itself as her legs came up to encircle his hips pressing her against the thick bulge in his trousers.
This was beyond dangerous. The rational part of his brain acknowledged that much, but he wanted to fulfill the throaty plea Cordelia made against his cheek, “I want—” Words failed her as Angel’s hips thrust forward, his head nuzzled between her neck and shoulder as he rubbed his erection against the hot core of her body. Her panties were damp with arousal as she ground against his hard rod.
Wet for him, he acknowledged smugly, wanting a taste, and so much more. Angel imagined her tightness as he moved inside her, their bodies naked, sweaty, coming together again and again. Fuck, his thoughts echoed in complaint lecturing himself not to think about it, but it was precisely the right word.
This was Cordelia. Cordelia. Insanity. What was he doing? Yet, he could not stop now, not without giving her something, and maybe getting a smidgen of pleasure too. What was so wrong with that? She clutched his body close. Hot breath on his skin as her voice turned throaty with incoherent pleas.
The music had changed long ago. Another song blared from the stereo, but they moved to their own beat as Angel kept up an untiring momentum of grinds and thrusts, teasing rubs and hard bangs riding Cordelia with a frenetic rhythm that kept her on the edge, building up until she begged him for release.
Cordelia might have gone out tonight planning to have fun, hoping to get laid, but she’d come home to a cursed vampire who suddenly felt the need to fill the lonely, empty place inside him with the girl next door. There was no illusion of love. Cordelia did not love him. Not any more than he loved her. Sure, he cared. The thought that someone else might be here in his place made him lick at her salty skin and drag his blunt teeth against her throat feeling more possessive than he thought possible.
That idea alone should have forced this to a halt, but he could not stop now. He wanted to see what she looked like when she was not in complete control, which was ironic because he needed to maintain his. This was just a dance and he was giving it to her.
“Come on,” Angel panted against her ear enjoying the passionate way she moved against him. Any second now he was going to lose it. “That’s it, Cordy. Come for me.”
Flushed skin, eyes clenched closed, mouth open, her heartbeat drumming in his ear. God, she was beautiful, so damned beautiful and she deserved much more than this, something she probably would not even remember in the morning. Though he wanted to reach down between them to slip his fingers inside her tight heat and stroke the sensitive little nub that would bring her instant relief, it was safer this way, fewer temptations.
Cordelia’s fingernails curled into his shoulders. Lusty little mewls sounded in his ear, her breath hot against it. He wanted to watch as she came, pulling back just enough to see her clench her eyes closed, her mouth forming a soft O as her body tensed with cresting pleasure. A short, piercing scream emerged as her orgasm hit hard— just before she passed out in Angel’s arms.
Nearing his own release, he bucked against her twice before realizing something was wrong. “Cordelia?” Slack against him, she nearly caused him to lose his balance. Sliding a hand under her ass, he held her up securing her safely against him.
Leaning into her for a moment, he closed his eyes, feeling the insistent pressure of his stiff cock and the painful ache in his balls. An expletive jerked from his throat as he realized that he was not going to get relief anytime soon. He groaned out of frustration, and let out a gruff, self-derisive laugh. No doubt, he deserved this for taking advantage of a drunken friend because his ego got in the way.
Dancing? Not exactly the waltz. Responding to her challenge was not supposed turn out this way.
That music was dangerous. Someone should check it for subliminal messages.
Blaming the music was the easy way out. Guilt was already rearing its ugly, but familiar head. He had no explanation for his own behavior. Yes, he was lonely, and apparently more than a little jealous of the idea that she could sate her desires with any stranger she wanted. That did not change the fact that Cordelia was off limits.
She was here to make a difference, to help him with his mission, and needed him to provide her with a job and a salary. He was her boss. Her friend. He had no idea how to get out of this one. Stolen moments of pleasure were something he could not afford, especially if it endangered people that he cared about.
Gently, he pulled back so that he could scoop her up into his arms. Carrying her through to the bedroom, Angel lay her down on top of the coverlet. He watched her breathe noting the rise and fall of her chest to be easy and without distress. The least he could do was cover her with a blanket, but he realized that she was still wearing her snug little black dress and sexy shoes.
Since he was already going to catch hell in the morning, Angel decided that he could not just leave her like that. At the very least, he should take off her shoes. They were strappy little high-heeled sandals, black like her dress. The little buckle was pretty straightforward, though small for his fingers to manipulate. He slid her shoe off, placing it carefully on the bed, and gently laid her foot down before reaching for the other. Her legs were smooth as silk as his fingers drifted down her calf toward her ankle, and he tried not to notice because he felt guilty enough about what he had already done that anything more when she was completely out of it would be unconscionable.
Angel carried her shoes back over to her closet. Considering that their business had not been up and running that long Cordelia’s wardrobe had expanded significantly. It was not difficult to guess why she could not afford a better apartment. There were only two other dresses, one of which he had seen the night they met at that party, and again when he rescued her from Russell Winters. She would not want to ruin this dress by sleeping in it all night, but he couldn’t risk taking anything else off. He doubted there were any layers underneath besides those lacy panties.
He wanted to hook his fingers into the edge of her panties and slide them down the length of her legs. Pocket them. Save them for hard times. Like now. He was still hard and they would be soft and silky rubbing up and down his engorged length, as he pretended she was the one fisting him tight, spreading her scent across his skin.
He had already been to hell and back. Denying himself even a few perverse pleasures was not going to change a damn thing. Still, he ignored the urgings of his body and thought about Cordelia instead. She deserved a friend at a time like this, and he was being a lecherous ass. Although he had not wanted her here in this apartment, he hoped this did not drive her completely out of his life because she seemed to be the one bright light in it at the moment.
Cordelia normally had a very strong sense of self-preservation, and this might be enough to cause her to run screaming. Even worse, she might make a phone call to Sunnydale. Imagining the content of that conversation made Angel go cold and suddenly the erection problem no longer seemed to be an issue.
Taking a folded throw blanket from a nearby chair, Angel gently covered Cordelia up. She stirred at his touch, muttering softly, her eyelids heavy. “Still here?”
A little smile played across her mouth, her eyes drifting closed, and her words barely audible as natural sleep started to pull her into its waiting arms, “Kiss me goodnight, Jude.”
Hit by a jealous burst, Angel decided he did not like this Jude Law person. Not one bit. He definitely didn’t like the idea Cordelia wanted his kisses. Not after tonight. Angel pressed his hands into the bed on either side of her, leaned close, watched her drift to sleep, and resisted the urge to wake her with the kind of kiss her dreamboat Jude could never muster if he lived to be one hundred.
Several minutes passed as he thought about it and the consequences of such an action, and his plan to avoid any such entanglements again. Determined to start now, Angel left immediately securing her door on the way out.
All About Jude
“Don’t get all huffy about it,” Cordelia did not see why Angel was making such a big deal about such a little thing. “Neighbors borrow stuff all of the time.”
Geez, he was in a mood today. If anyone had the right to be grumpy, it would be her. Hangovers sucked. This was not the first time since coming to L.A. that Cordelia had more to drink than she should. Hollywood parties did not exactly require the use of her fake I.D. and getting buzzed made it easier to forget that she was there on her own. There was never a shortage of men to dance with and it was fun, sexy, exhilarating.
Even with her senses a little fuzzy, Cordelia could read them like a book. Most of them thought they had hit the jackpot. Couldn’t blame them for that, hello, but they were wrong. Besides, she most definitely had a type and they all failed to make the cut even if they could dance. No stranger to getting out of unwanted entanglements, anyone who stepped a little too far into her personal bubble was likely to regret it.
Something was different about last night. There was lots of dancing. Drinking. Having of fun. Cordelia couldn’t quite remember anything after getting off the bus. The rest was pretty hazy. Music. Dancing. Hot dreams. Sexy lover. Waking up this morning still wearing her black dress from the night before Cordelia had no idea how she had gotten into bed.
“We discussed that you should ask.”
“No we didn’t. You told me to ask. I decided not to wake a sleeping vampire. Which one makes more sense to you?”
Angel had no response, which meant he did not want to admit that he was wrong. It was not like she borrowed his favorite coat or his broadsword.
“I found this beautiful old trunk collecting dust in the corner of the basement. You obviously don’t need it, so I thought I would put it to good use until I can get some more furniture. It looks antique, very classy.”
Angel walked around the trunk and sat down on Dr Folger’s tangerine colored couch. Comfortable enough, if verging on the tacky side, it was bright and cheerful. Cordelia could work with that.
“That trunk is an antique. Probably older than I am.”
“Wow! That’s really old.”
Angel’s look soured. “Thanks, Cordelia.”
Kneeling down on the living room rug, Cordelia ran her hands across the smooth wooden surface reassessing the wooden trunk. Now that she had cleaned away the cobwebs and rubbed it with orange oil, it looked almost new. “Antiques can be good investments. You’ve got a lot of stuff for someone who lived on the streets—according to what Doyle told me.”
“Not so much on the streets as living off them. Rats, stray cats, anything not human,” he confessed in a tone suggesting he did not want to say much more about it. “I kept a place here in the city for decades until moving to Sunnydale.”
“Oh. I was hoping for long-term storage. Y’know, a few Ming vases or Van Goghs gathering dust you might have forgotten about.”
Angel’s blackened mood seemed to fade away. Mildly amused by her hopeful tone, he asked, “What else did Doyle tell you?”
“Nothing I didn’t already know; that first vision from the Powers That Be. How he got you involved with the mission.”
Weirdly, Angel looked almost relieved, as if he expected Doyle would reveal something new. Cordelia put that on her mental list of things to ask the next time Doyle cornered her for one of his little chats. He was sweet and attentive in that goofy way that reminded her of Xander when they first started dating.
“About the trunk . . .” Cordelia redirected the conversation back to where she wanted it. She had hoped that he might let her keep it, but realizing that it was probably worth something she suggested that she try to get it appraised. “We could use new filing cabinets for the office and some other necessities. Maybe a video camera so we cou—”
“It belonged to Darla,” he cut in now staring at the trunk as if it brought back memories he would rather leave buried.
“Darla? Oh, her. The one who . . .”
“Made me a vampire.”
“Okay, then,” Cordelia wanted to change the subject before Broody McBroodsalot sank into another gloomy depression. Bringing up former blonde girlfriends probably wasn’t the safest of subjects and she had mentioned two in the last couple of minutes. “Let’s just forget about this old thing.”
Angel readily agreed. “Probably for the best.” He did not want her to sell it, which made her wonder if it was just another example of his need to hoard everything he ever owned or if the reason had to do with its former owner.
“So…” Cordelia started getting curious and forgot about her reason for trying to drop the subject. The trunk was not empty. It had taken quite an effort to drag it from the back of his apartment into hers. “What’s inside?”
He sat back, his arms stretched out on either side of him along the back of the couch, one ankle hooked over his knee, looking more relaxed than she might have expected. Sounding resigned, he nodded a go-ahead. “Open it.” Either he knew exactly what was in there or he figured she was going to find out eventually.
Moving around to his side of the couch she knelt down next to him to open the box. “I thought it was locked.” It had a small knob that turned and sank into the surface of the chest like a puzzle box. The lid opened smoothly revealing layers upon layers of items organized in a style that could only be recognized by someone who had been in Angel’s closet. The trunk and its contents might have belonged to Darla, but he had been through it on more than one occasion.
Now she felt like an intruder delving through private stuff, but he had given his permission. Curiosity won over. There was a box of letters tied up in worn red ribbons their color quite faded. The letters had no envelopes, but were written on delicate folded paper once closed by wax seals. “Love letters from Angelus?”
Evading a straight answer, Angel told her, “Darla had quite a taste for collecting suitors.”
Cordelia glanced up at him trying to figure out what he was trying to hide. One scenario came to mind. “They weren’t just would-be-lovers,” she guessed and dropped the letters back in the box. “They became her victims. These are trophies.”
A hint of fear crossed Angel’s face as his guard slipped and a sinking feeling bottomed out inside her. Though he said nothing, she managed to get the gist of it all the same. “Oh. Her lovers. Your victims.”
He did not deny it. “I— Angelus didn’t like it when other men thought they could have what was mine—his.”
Turning at an angle, she placed a hand on his knee urging him to remember, “The past is the past, Angel. You don’t have to talk about yourself in the third person.”
A pained expression settled into a frown. “Sometimes it’s better that way.”
“I guess that explains it, though,” Cordelia let out a deep sigh, now propping her chin in her hand as she leaned against the couch.
Suspicious, Angel asked, “What?”
“Why you won’t let me borrow your stuff. You’re the possessive type. You don’t like people touching what’s yours.”
A grunt of acknowledgement sounded. “Not without permission.”
Cordelia drummed her fingers against her cheek as she thought about what he said. “So that applies to grappling hooks, too, I suppose.”
“That one?” Angel pointed toward the corner of the room where she was temporarily using his smallest hook as a hanger for her Boston fern.
Geez, he did not miss a thing.
This time he looked more amused than angry, so she turned back trunk to continue exploring its contents. The center section seemed to be clothing wrapped up in protective fabrics and tied up with silk bows. A dozen jewel tone and pastel scarves lined the first package. Layers of beautiful things made Cordelia sigh at the memory of her walk-in-closet with its built-in-shoe racks and the never-ending shopping sprees that kept it full of designer dresses and shoes.
Letting her fingers slide over the folds of a silk dress admiring the intricate stitching and beadwork, Cordelia begrudgingly admitted that Darla had good taste. “Back in the day I bet this was spectacular, but I’m glad that I was born now instead of then. I just don’t see myself as a corset girl. Too much trouble getting in and out of them.”
Dead silence fell between them as Cordelia realized what she had said and one thought popped up.That’s what your lover is for. It was far too easy to imagine Angel standing behind her, his deft fingers working the stays, his actions pulling her against the hard length of his body.
Except Angel was probably thinking about Darla, about their torrid past, and not about her at all, which made that little fantasy shrivel up like a dried prune in the hot sun. Fine. She should not be thinking about that stuff anyway, not with Angel playing a role. That was all kinds of wrong despite the fact that it made her hot to think about having his hands on her.
Muttering to herself, “Jude is so not around when I need him,” she covered up the dress and tied the little bow with fingers that were suddenly shaky.
“What? Oh.” Cordelia had no intention of discussing her fantasy life with her boss, friend and neighbor though he might be, especially since Angel kept creeping back into it.
“You mentioned him last night,” Angel reminded causing Cordelia to rack her brain for any memory of having a conversation with him after getting home from the club.
The night was a blur for the most part. “I did—mention Jude Law? Forget whatever I said. Um, what did I say?”
Angel squirmed in his seat before answering. “Something about him walking you home.”
“Oh, hahahaha! I thought I might have said something about jumping his bones.” Cordelia clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes wide as she stared up at Angel whose expression was growing thunderous each passing second. She was giggling behind her hand because Angel clearly had no clue who was starring in her little fantasies, or that they were fantasies at all.
He planted both feet on the ground next to her, leaning forward so that his elbows rested against his knees, and steepled his fingers across his mouth as if to hold back whatever he was going to say. Then asked her anyway, “When do I get to meet this new boyfriend of yours?”
Lowering her hand, Cordelia decided she did not like his tone. “Let’s say never! Cut that crap out right now. I am not Darla and you’re not my—well, whatever—father, big brother, or boyfr—.”
Angel launched himself to his feet now towering over her. “No, I’m not. I’m your friend,” he barked the words with such intensity it seemed to startle both of them. “Los Angeles isn’t Sunnydale. The underbelly of this city is pervasive. Demons. Men. They are all tangled up in a dangerous web, and you have already been caught up in it once. Next time you might not get so lucky.”
“What exactly are you saying, Angel, that I should bring home every guy I want to date for the Angel stamp of approval? Pfft! Or better yet, just hole up in my apartment, in the dark, like you? Never go out? Live like a nun? You can get that craptastic idea out of your head right now.”
Just as she made a move to stand up, Angel’s big hand closed around her arm tugging her to her feet so fast that she crashed into him. Spitting with anger, Cordelia squirmed until he gave her some breathing room, enough so that the rise and fall of her chest no longer heaved into his. Given an inch she shoved her hands into the space between them and pushed hard at his chest, but she might has well have been trying to move a wall.
“Stop that,” Angel grabbed her hands and held them behind her. His voice softened as he chastened her, “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“You’re the one hurting me, dumbass.” Cordelia felt him let go the instant the accusation was out of her mouth. She blew off the apology the instant he said sorry. He was not sorry. She knew it. Not unless she ended up with a bruise and then he would probably brood about it for a week.
Cordelia walked away from, stretched her arms as if testing their freedom, and paced back again to stop at the edge of the open trunk. “This is ridiculous! We are arguing about a relationship that does not even exist. Jude is an actor.”
Genuinely confused, with a right to be, Angel brought up her acting class. “Someone you met there? You said that you go clubbing with the group. He was there last night dancing with you.”
“Not exactly.” Embarrassed about the whole argument, Cordelia confessed that there was not much she could remember about last night, but she could guarantee that Jude Law was not involved. “He’s a famous actor, not my date, or my boyfriend. We’ve never met. He’s handsome and has gorgeous eyes and that adorable British accent. What’s not to like?”
She felt certain that Jude Law had just dropped off her fantasy roster. How could she ever look at a picture of him again without thinking about the awkwardness of this conversation? “Don’t you dare make fun of me!” She checked to see if he was doing that subtle smirk thing that meant he was probably inwardly laughing his ass off.
“I’m not.” For a moment she thought that was all the response she was going to get until Angel added gruffly, “Fantasies are all I’ve got at the moment, Cordelia. I would never laugh about yours.”
“Oh. I didn’t think about your lack of a love life, but you’re right. Yours is much more depressing. There has to be a way around that whole curse thingy, a loophole to the loophole. You’ll figure it out someday,” Cordelia consolingly patted his shoulder.
“No problem,” she shrugged deciding that they needed to put this topic behind them. “Jude is forgotten. Erased. You have never heard the name. Got it?”
Angel said nothing, but his mouth quirked just a bit.
“This is the tiny problem in the sewer?” Angel hardly needed to call Doyle’s attention to the humongous demon protruding through the damaged ceiling. Broken bricks littered the floor having fallen from the opening above where its king-sized leathery underbelly lay exposed.
Doyle tried to equate what he was seeing with the images from his vision. “My sense of scale might have been off a bit. It really didn’t look that b—”
Bricks and mortar pulverized instantly as three gigantic tentacles burst through from different points on the tunnel walls sending them into defensive mode. Doyle screeched and plastered his thin body against the closest wall while keeping a tight grip on the beer he was still carrying around. This was supposed to be a quick little mission, just a good excuse to stretch his legs and have a little half-demon to vampire chat with Angel about their favorite Girl Friday.
“I’ll keep it busy,” Angel called out as he dodged the closest tentacle with athletic ease. Executing a roll under another before bounding back to his feet, he ordered, “Head back to my place. Grab my sword.”
Doyle was all for getting out of there, but . . . “Easier said than done.” He was trapped between two writhing seven-foot long tentacles and did not exactly have the skill to leapfrog over the things much less with the same pizzazz. “Next time remind me not to tag along.”
“Fine by me,” Angel let out a low grunt and took a stab at the beast with a dagger, the only weapon he thought necessary after Doyle’s faulty description. The creature seemed to sense the danger and moved the tentacle out of the way. “Fewer lectures.”
“Friendly advice,” Doyle corrected as he crouched low hoping to sneak past, but the beast still had him pinned back as if it knew his position exactly.
Vampiric speed and dexterity allowed Angel to keep up with the beast’s movements using slicing arcs rather than stabs. Even with Angel’s strength behind the blows, they did only superficial damage cutting through the tough, leathery skin to the flesh below enraging it into letting out a high-pitched wail that stopped them both in their tracks.
The vision headaches seemed more like a tickle compared to the painful shriek. Instinctively, Doyle lifted his hands to cover his ears trying to block out the sound that pierced through them like shards of glass. Angel was equally incapacitated, hands clapped across his ears, his balance suddenly unsteady as he stutter-stepped back.
“Could you kill that thing a little more quietly?” he quipped despite feeling drained of energy. “Blasted thing made me drop my beer.”
Angel sent him a wry stare before jumping back into the fight this time without the dagger that had dropped to the ground. Well, it seemed this might take a while and since he was trapped and Angel obviously wasn’t going anywhere this was just as good a time as any to finish that little chat. “Cordelia called me this morn—”
At the mention of her name Angel paused mid bob and weave to question, “Why?”
“To talk. Friends do that sort of thing,” Doyle quirked his brow meaningfully. “Occasionally we gripe about the boss. Behind you!” Just before the sneaky tentacle could knock him over the head Angel jerked out of the way. “That was a close one.”
Angel tried something different by pounding at the tentacle with his fists, but it only seemed to swat back at him as if the heavy punches were an annoyance. So Doyle got back to telling him about the phone call putting his own dramatic twist on the news. “Y’see, our girl needed to share her tale of woe.”
“What tale of woe?” Angel stopped mid punch as he realized Cordelia had been upset about something. “The auditions,” he grasped onto the idea. Mixed emotions were evident as he concluded, “They turned her down.” Angel’s smug expression suggested that was the outcome he wanted, but it faded quickly as worry took over along with confusion as to why he was the last to know. “She could’ve told me.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he delivered the bad news while Angel went back to bobbing and weaving around the tentacle that was trying to grab onto him, “but her auditions are today. By the way she’s pissed off that you forgot to wish her luck.”
That date had been circled on her calendar in red ink. “That explains it.” The proverbial light bulb flickered on as Angel elbowed the creature as it closed in. “There was a note on the fridge. ‘Make plans for tonight.’”
Doyle groaned. “So go on. Tell me.” Sucking in a deep breath, he held it waiting for Angel to describe the fancy candlelight dinner or night on the town he set up. “What’s the plan?”
Throwing another elbow kept the tentacle momentarily at bay. “Tackle the weapons cabinet. Clean and sharpen. Get organized. Good plan.” Or so he had thought.
Snorting at the idea, Doyle nearly stepped into the demon’s path. He leapt back to the safety of the wall. “What happened to offering a girl dinner before asking her to polish your sword?”
The crass joke lacing the question was automatic as was Angel’s defensive response, “I find it relaxing,” which completely avoided the point.
After listening to Cordelia’s complaints this morning Doyle felt sideswiped by the notion that Angel’s behavior was something more than just protective concern. Cordelia felt smothered by it and complained accordingly. He listened because it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
Angel looked like he had no clue. “What’s wrong with the weapons cabinet?”
“Nothing if your girl happens to be a Slayer.”
Taking instant advantage over the distracted vampire the demon sideswiped Angel with enough force to send him flying. Doyle ducked out of the way as he crashed into the brick wall sliding down onto the damp, sticky floor. His leather coat provided a bit of protection, but there were scrapes across his cheek and hands where the broken brick dug into his flesh.
Doyle crouched down beside him. “That looked painful. What I have to say won’t feel any better.” The tight-jawed glare made him gulp, but he pressed on. “Cordelia needs some normal in her life, just like you need a little normal in yours.”
The gruff response, “I know that,” only suggested that Angel was on the wrong track. “I want her to have that. It’s just . . .”
The demon made its presence known again with another roar, this one lower-pitched, and more annoying than painful. Angel picked up the broken beer bottle by the neck and launched it at the tentacle blocking the tunnel leading back to his place. The beast curled the tentacle up in an effort to remove the glass shards.
Taking the opening he was given, Doyle slipped through to the other side. “I get it, Angel. You’re a vampire. You’ve got this whole possessive side that doesn’t like to let go.”
“It’s your fault,” Angel said just before leaping dexterously onto a moving tentacle trying to squeeze the beast into submission. The bulk of its body was out of reach, but it obviously was not going down without a fight.
Taken aback at the gruff accusation, Doyle held up his hands gesturing his innocence, “And what did I do might I ask? I’m not the broody medieval guy with the nanny complex.”
Even though Angel was being whipped back and forth as the demon tried to shake him loose, he still heard him quoting Cordelia’s morning phone call. “She said that?” He plopped to the ground face first only to be grabbed by the leg and held aloft. Blood dripped across his forehead.
Flinching at the sight, Doyle stepped up to help, but was smacked down the moment he made a move. The huge grey tentacle tracked him as he scrambled back to his feet swaying back and forth in the same direction. “I think I should go get that sword.”
Before he could make a move Angel had already flexed his body up to pry himself loose. He fell, but landed in a panther-like crouch on all fours quickly rebounding to his feet. Striding over, Angel batted the tentacle out of the way, grabbed Doyle by the leather collar of his jacket and dragged him back into the middle of the tunnel. They seemed to be at the one point where neither tentacle could reach them.
“The sword can wait,” snapped Angel who released his hold yet stood so close that Doyle had to crane his neck up. Quite intimidating from that angle it gave him a pretty good idea how those goons felt when Angel got them off his case.
“Don’t kill the messenger.”
“Cordelia has never had a problem telling me anything. Why start now?”
“Telling you wasn’t exactly her idea. I thought it might earn me a few points if I got you to lighten up on the whole overprotective routine.”
“Oh, you know . . .”
Angel looked like he knew exactly what Doyle was hinting at, but growled, “No,” just so he could make him say the words.
“So that I could get in her good graces before asking her out,” Doyle clarified with a grin.
Completely ignoring the thrashing demon behind him Angel stared down at Doyle with such intensity that he wondered if the vampire had suddenly changed targets. There was a war raging behind that brooding forehead. The tight-lipped expression had nothing to do with his natural stoicism or with the apparently false impression that Angel was just looking out for Cordelia like any caring boss, family friend or overprotective big brother. No, it looked a lot more like jealous rage.
Recoiling back a bit from the nasty aura, Doyle was taken aback. “What’s this now? We had this conversation. You told me to ask her out.” Flummoxed, he tried to recall Angel’s exact words that day.
“Well, no. I was working up to it.” The news did not seem to ease any tension. Maybe there was more going on than met the eye. “Just how long has this been going on? First you don’t want her living anywhere near you and now you’re acting like you’ve got some kind of claim.” Doyle’s eyes widened. “Do you? I thought you didn’t mind if I—”
Pressing a hand against Doyle’s chest he pushed him back an inch until he was crowded up against the brick wall. “Shut up, Doyle.” It was a warning, not a plea for silence. “You’re the one who moved her into my place. Blame yourself if I feel…protective. Cordelia is not my mate, my girlfriend, or my pet, and there’s no official claim to stop you.”
Doyle took the fact that his head was still attached to his shoulders as a good sign. “So this friendly chat is your way of giving me the green light?”
Proceed with caution was more like it. “Interpret it any way you want. But just for the record . . .I mind.”
“Mind what?” Cordelia asked as she approached from the far end of the tunnel with Angel’s broadsword slung over one shoulder. “I’m the one who minds having to carry this thing all the way down here. It’s super heavy.”
The moment Angel released him Doyle straightened up and brushed off his jacket. “Good timing. I’d ask how you knew we needed it, but—,” the deafening roar of the demon cut him off.
“Yeah, these tunnels echo,” Cordelia cringed at the noise. Angel was instantly at her side shielding her from the swiping tentacle that honed in on the newcomer. He took the sword, stared down at her for a moment silently questioning, Doyle knew, whether or not their echoing voices had given away the content of the conversation.
With the right weapon in hand Angel dealt with the demon in a matter of moments. Evading the thrashing tentacles, he made his way to a spot on the floor directly beneath the creature’s chest. Fast and true, he thrust the sword directly into its heart. Its death knell accompanied the uneven thump of its lifeless tentacles hitting the walls and floor.
“Well that’s some carcass for City Public Service to deal with.” Doyle imagined the trouble they would have getting rid of it. Someone had to be assigned to that sort of thing otherwise there would be a whole lot more enlightened people out there when it came to demon kind.
Cordelia laughed and hugged him tight. Something Doyle reminded himself was usually reserved for the big guy. “You’re a funny guy.”
Doyle noticed that Angel wasn’t exactly amused by the way Cordelia kept her hands on him, even it if was just to wipe off the brick dust.
“I couldn’t wait to tell you!” Cordelia beamed happily as she told him about her audition. “I did it. I’m in.”
No matter that there was a dead carcass in the background and an undead vampire looking on, Doyle grabbed her into a hug and swung her around. “That’s fantastic, princess. I knew you’d do well.”
“I did!” A delighted squeal sounded, but before Doyle could get too comfortable about having her in his arms Cordelia practically bounded out of them as Angel walked up beside them. She stopped short of hugging him too, confusion written on her face, and the excitement dimming in her eyes.
Hands resting on the leather lapels of his jacket, Cordelia reminded Angel, “My audition was today. I’ve got the part. The director said I was perfect. Isn’t that great?”
As if all of his energy had drained away during the fight, Angel’s words sounded lifelessly hollow. “Yes. Great. Congratulations.” Cordelia’s smile faded completely making Doyle want to beat some sense into the vampire. He could be a cold hearted bastard at times.
Angel handed Cordelia the broadsword. Her arms sagged under the weight. “I’ve done my part here tonight. You two can clean up.”
“Not exactly the way I planned to celebrate,” Cordelia called out after Angel who kept walking down the tunnel without a backward glance. “Go figure. Guess I can always count on Broody for a good buzz kill.”
Thinking about Angel’s response, Doyle realized there was more to it. “You didn’t tell him that this was just a short term run, did you? Four weekend matinees, I think you said. He probably thinks you plan to quit.”
Cordelia did not deny it. “This could be my lucky break. Fame and fortune could be right around the corner.”
Doyle wanted her move toward the center of the tunnel stepping gingerly over a tentacle and avoiding the congealing pool of blood. She picked up the dagger that Angel had dropped during the melee. “So when are you planning to tell him that his favorite Girl Friday isn’t handing in her letter of resignation just yet?”
“We’ll see,” she laughed conspiratorially. “Maybe I can convince him to give me a raise to stay?”
“That’s not exactly fair play,” Doyle thought he might be rubbing off a bit.
Cordelia only rolled her eyes. “Be serious. Pfft! Like we can afford that right now.”
“What’s this for?” Doyle asked as she handed over the dagger.
Nodding in the direction of the dead demon, Cordelia let out a long sigh. “Welcome to the Angel Investigations Clean Up Crew. Demon Dismemberment 101 brought to you courtesy of the high school at the Hellmouth.”