Head aching and throat dry; parched vocal cords threatened to spasm when he tried to swallow. His tongue felt swollen; the thick, fleshy organ too bloated to fit inside the cramped space of his mouth. The strange anomaly reminded Angel of the long-forgotten hangover. It was once a familiar causatum after endless nights of drunken debauchery, and now an irritating nuisance after nearly two and a half centuries free of human ailments.
For the most part, the sordid details were a hazy blur; but the one recollection Angel wanted buried in the murky haze pushed its way to the forefront. It had been a few years since he had engaged in meaningless sex. His ill-fated pursuit of a normal relationship with a slayer, the predominate incentive for curbing natural male urges. But, it was another realization that chilled him to the bone. Until last night, more than a century had past since enjoying the forced submission of a conquest. The span of that achievement was now restricted to less than twenty-four hours.
With a gentle tug on the pillow scrunched under his head, he tucked his chin further against his chest, cursing the painful undertaking when it failed to drown out the muffled chatter from the first floor.
Even if he were physically capable of maneuvering his dead weight off the bed, nothing good would come from joining his friends downstairs. Angel was certain that questions waited for answers; and equally certain that in his incapacitated state, the contradiction of truths and lies was too risky.
Not yet ready to face Cordelia with half-truths, he made his decision. Rolling over with a heavy grunt, Angel pulled the pillow over his head, and forced his mind clear of the night before and the dreaded conversation that awaited him tomorrow.
There had been only two phone calls in the last six hours, neither from a hopeless, nor from a paying customer. And since only Wesley was excited at the prospect of having National Geographic delivered right to their door, both had been a waste of time.
Her bottom lip pushed out in an unflattering pout, Cordelia blew a loud, discontented sigh and dismissed any idea of pretending to work. Instead, she discretely shifted her eyes to the upper floor for the umpteenth time. Where was a vision when a girl needed one? The Powers weren’t shy about sending skull-crushing messages during her personal time; but let Angel need to catch up on a little sleep and they were quiet as a church mouse.
“Wesley, maybe you should-”
“You don’t even know what I was going say.”
Wesley had devoted the better part of his day to translating the millennia-old text while simultaneously ignoring numerous and persistent interruptions. He had failed miserably at both endeavors. A scowl twisting his usually docile expression, he accepted inevitable defeat and lifted his head just enough to peer over his glasses. “Please; give me some credit.”
“You know,” Cordelia returned, matching him scowl for scowl, “no one likes a know-it-all.”
“Cordelia, let the man rest. Angel has suffered more than his fair share of hardships recently, and he needs our understanding.” His reasoning delivered with an air of confidence, a haughty wave splashed across Wesley’s face; then just as quickly washed away. Evidently, logic was not sufficient cause to terminate the laborious discussion of their employer’s sleep pattern.
“He’s suffered?” Throwing up her hands, Cordelia hunched her upper body across her desk, and mouth gaped, stared wide-eyed in utter amazement. “What about us?”
Or perhaps, Wesley reconsidered; righteous anger was a more accurate summation of Cordelia’s reaction. Either way, he had opened a proverbial can of worms; and the last thing he wanted was to bait Cordelia Chase. “I only meant-”
“I went on a road trip with voodoo man, and you were blown up. Or don’t you remember lying in a hospital bed while clinging to your life?” Cordelia challenged, giving Wesley a few swift jabs of an index finger to make her point. “But Angel gets to go on a date!” Her voice rising to a shrilling pitch, Wesley cringed while Cordelia remained oblivious to likely repercussions, or so it seemed. So what if she woke the snoozing vampire? At least then, he might make an appearance, if only to complain. “And-and…and now he’s too tired to even come downstairs and spend time with us? Oh yea,” Cordelia huffed, her eyes delivering a sarcastic roll, “that’s suffering.”
“Cordelia, please; keep your voice down.” Wesley implored. Hopes of completing even a page of translation abandoned, he refocused his ambition on not being trapped in the middle of another argument between the two. “The events you spoke of happened nearly a month ago. Angel’s da-good Lord-it wasn’t a date.” He insisted, regaining a morsel of lost confidence. “Angel was on a case, and might I remind you, a case you insisted he take.”
“Obviously, you weren’t paying attention.” Lips pursed and eyes scrunched in aggravation, Cordelia glared a warning not to make her repeat herself again. “Know-it-all is not attractive on a man.”
The only rationalization obvious to Wesley was that when dealing with Cordelia, there was no rationale. Angel and Cordelia had managed to find a harmonious balance that worked for them. Often ruffling one another’s feathers, they had become masters at soothing explosive egos.
Although, upon examining Cordelia’s current state, Wesley wondered if he might have misinterpreted his friend’s agitation. There was only one way to be certain; and with tense fingers methodically stroking his chin, he cautiously made his move. “Cordelia, are you jealous of Miss Lowell?”
“Of course not!” Cordelia sprung from her chair, her hands slapping against her hips in obstinate denial. “I’m jealous of Angel.” She admitted without shame. “Why should he get to go to premieres with famous celebrities? The man doesn’t even like to have his picture taken.”
The premiere. There would be hell to pay for that unfortunate slip of the tongue. Wesley cringed at the upcoming conversation. The sometimes gruff, always monocratic vampire that paid his salary, meager as it was, would be furious.
Too much sleep had left him on edge. Or maybe, his strange anxiety was nothing more than a lingering effect of the drug. Either way, his uneventful patrol just before dawn had done little to alleviate the eerie feeling. A vigorous fight might have done him good, but instead, Angel paced his suite and listened to the unusual quiet downstairs.
Only one heartbeat reached the upper floor, unfettered by the constant hum of idle chatter.
Wesley was alone, which meant…
Cordelia… He needed to see her, know that drug-induced fantasies had not marred their friendship, and prove to himself that everything would be like before. Angel spun on his heels, making another slow trek across the room. Wherever Cordelia was, he wasn’t going to find her while hiding out in his room. Another heavy spin and Angel made his way to the bathroom. One more shower and he’d be ready to go downstairs. He’d find Cordelia. They’d talk, probably argue. Then, like always, Cordelia would smile, he would shrug, and the awkwardness would pass.
Unnoticed from his place at the bottom of the stairs, Angel watched as Wesley, basking in the rare solitude, studiously huddled over his latest obsession.
“Morning,” he husked; his throat still strangely dry despite the second helping of a liquid breakfast.
Startled by the unexpected intrusion, Wesley’s back stiffened, a small but unmanly yelp swooshing from his lips.
Moving closer, Angel folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorjamb, mumbling a feeble, “uh, sorry,” to the floor.
Wesley tugged at his collar; then dismissing what appeared to be a poorly concealed smirk on the vampire’s face, adjusted his glasses and returned a guff, “afternoon Angel.”
“So,” Angel hesitantly began, waiting for the right order of words to form. “The case is finished.”
“You apprehended the culprit in one night? My, that was expeditious.”
His oratory skills weren’t notable; but based on Wesley’s response, his simple taciturn style was getting the job done. “Yea…about that. The case wasn’t actually a case.”
As boss of their agency, his offer of expanded details was a choice. And tossing his explanation onto Wesley’s desk, Angel chose a briefer route.
“Spent shells?” Wesley asked, inspecting the bent pieces of metal. “They appear to be…”
“Blanks,” Angel finished. Dealing with Wesley was easy, but he doubted his conversation with Cordelia would be as simple. “The stalker was part of some publicity stunt arranged by Rebecca Lowell’s agent.”
“I was going to say inferior quality.” Wesley corrected, holding one of the fragments up to the light; then realized the certain backlash of their situation. “Cordelia will be crushed to find out the woman hired you under false pretense?”
Analyzing cause and predicting effect was Wesley’s true calling. And without fail, his employee had given Angel the perfect way to limit Cordelia’s knowledge of unfavorable details. “That’s exactly why we can’t tell her.”
“Are you suggesting that we lie to Cordelia?”
“No. I’m suggesting that we don’t upset Cordelia. For both our sakes,” Angel clarified, confident of Wesley’s agreement.
“Good thinking.” Wesley agreed, sharing a wink as though he and his employer had just created a secret handshake for their small men’s club.
Angel flashed a modest grin; then moving on to more important matters, casually kicked at the small rug laid out at his feet. Cordelia had purchased the rug for Wesley’s office. It was one of her inventive bargain-basement finds. Chic, not cheap, she had insisted, explaining that accessories with a personal touch made the hotel feel more homey.
It had taken Angel all of five minutes to inquire of Cordelia’s whereabouts. Though barely capable of making it through the day without a quarrel, neither seemed content without the other. A vampire with a soul and a poverty-stricken socialite fighting for redemption and saving the hopeless; their relationship was a strange anomaly in itself, and one Wesley had given up trying to understand.
“She’s at The Center.”
The Center, resounded in Angel’s head but the question came out loud and clear. “Wasn’t she just there yesterday?”
“Actually, that was day before yesterday.”
“Uh, right.” Yesterday had been spent avoiding and procrastinating; and with renewed interest in the second-hand rug, Angel diligently studied the colorful thread count. “So is she coming in later?”
“She didn’t say.” Determined to maintain his translating momentum, Wesley ignored the discontent vampire looming over his desk to no avail. “Angel, if Cordelia is needed at the office you could ring her cell.”
Did Cordelia really need to be at the hotel or was he just anxious to get that dreaded first conversation out of the way? The latter was most likely true. However, Angel rationalized, it was unfair for Cordelia to expect a salary when she didn’t even bother to show up for work. Who was he kidding? The financial aspect of their relationship was based on the principle of him earning the money and Cordelia spending it. And on the rare occasions he protested their lopsided arrangement, her argument was solid as a rock. Why should she be punished because in two hundred and fifty years he never developed an investment portfolio.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll talk to her later.”
“We’re gonna need another one of those, uh…” Cordelia eyed the sewn on name patch, “Al. One for out here and one for the office.”
“This package only comes with one emergency alarm button. I’ll have to call the boss.” The burly man scratched a sweaty head of hair, his stooped over position presenting Cordelia with an exposed crack that would put the liberty bell to shame.
“Uh, let’s not bother Mr. Stipple, he’s done more than enough donating all this equipment. Don’t you have another one of those little, red buttons in your truck?” Cordelia asked flashing her best flirty smile and gagging down a giant ewe when Al graced her with a big grin that exposed two snaggled rows of yellow teeth.
“I was gonna have my lunch when I finish up here; whatcha say to joining me in my truck for a liver mush sandwich?”
“Well isn’t that sweet, and mushed liver too. A girl can’t get enough of that. Thanks for the invite Al but I won’t be having lunch today.” I’ll be barfing while I pass out from BO and your three day old splash of cheep cologne.
“Maybe another time then.” Al offered, lumbering to his truck in search of liver mush and a spare red button.
“Oh absolutely, I’ll call you.” And we’ll ice-skate in hell.
Cheeks dimpling as a feigned smile stretched her lips, Cordelia beamed at her admirer until he passed through the exit. Then let loose of two days of pent-up frustration. “God! Isn’t it enough that I’m the poster child for good Samaritans? Do I have to endure being orally molested too. Eewwwe!”
Her stomach churned from the icky choice of words, and becoming aware of the roomful of rejects and losers staring at her like she’d grown a second head didn’t help. Ashamed that she’d insulted the poor slobs, Cordelia waved off their stares, muttering for them to get a real life as she searched out a less crowded space.
A moment of solitude found inside a storage room in dire need of organization and a good scrubbing, Cordelia took a deep calming breath and redirected her anger to those responsible.
First and foremost, this was Angel’s fault. Instead of talking out whatever was going on with them, he was hiding out in his room; and in turn, stifling her need to meet the problem head-on, and ease her gnawing irritation with a little ranting and raving.
Then there was Wesley. Time away from the office might help gain perspective, he had said. Sometimes she wanted to reach up the man’s nostrils and yank out that snooty intellect. “Yea right,” Cordelia mumbled, “he just wanted a little peace and quiet.”
But anger and a heavy dose of embarrassment aside, she had to admit, a day of inner reflection and helping those less fortunate were helping her too. And that realization brought Cordelia full circle.
Blaming the ornery vampire might be easier; but the truth was, this was her fault too. Excited by the lure of possible stardom, she had poked and prodded, and nagged, until Angel agreed to help Rebecca Lowell. But Rebecca hadn’t called to set up the lunch meeting she’d promised, and from there things only got worse. Angel was avoiding her like the plague. Maybe he had decided that a friendship with her wasn’t worth the price tag; Cordelia conceded with heavy regret.
They had said cruel things to each other. Things Cordelia wished could be unsaid. And she wondered if Angel felt the same remorse. Hindsight is a bitch, Cordelia realized; and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Her thoughts interrupted by a hand clamping down on her shoulder, Cordelia let loose a violent squeal. “Damn it Gunn, you shouldn’t sneak up on people!”
“Whoa girl; what’s got you so jumpy?”
“It’s nothing. Short, bald and dumpy just asked me out.”
“Ewe.” Scrunching his face, Gunn mimicked a parody of an often seen reaction.
“Exactly, but we can’t be insulting the hired help, not when the help is free.”
“Tell me again; just how did you get Stipple Security to donate this equipment?”
“I simply appealed to the man’s charitable side.” Cordelia replied; and turning away, finished with a barely audible mumble. “And promised him we’d refer all our clients to his firm for their security needs.”
“All your clients huh.”
“Yes, they’ll be clients…eventually. And we’ll refer them.”
“You did good Barbie. Anne’s thrilled with the added security and I know I’ll sleep better knowing the place is locked up tight. Oh, Anne asked if we wanted to stay for lunch.”
“Sure. That is as long as there’s no meat by products involved.”
“Come on girl,” Gunn swung his arm around Cordelia, leading her to the dining room, “Let’s eat.”
Glossy red lips stretching into a cheerful smile then narrowing to a naughty pout, Cordelia spun an enchanting tale. A melody of laughter rose up from their close huddle as graceful gestures and intimate expressions awed her captive audience.
Angel watched, feeling the familiar swell of envy. One by one, they had slipped inside Cordelia’s private world. First Doyle, then Wesley, and now Gunn, while he remained fixed in his dim spot, drawn to the warm glow but always resisting.
Practiced discipline faltering, he stepped back into the shadows of dark wood and aging wallpaper. Images flashed. Her body, damp with sweat, writhed beneath his. Angel shook his head, dispelling the passionate illusion; and pulled the warm, stale air into his lungs, forcing carnal desires back into the dark recesses of his mind where they belonged.
The playful scene returned, friends talking and laughing, staving off the loneliness of a lonely world; and Angel felt reasonably prepared to join them.
“Someone want to let me in on the joke?” He had intended his entry to be casual, maybe express the more laidback air Cordelia had tried to teach him. Given the pissed-off glare narrowed in his direction, Angel doubted he had delivered anything close to lackadaisical.
“Afternoon Angel,” Wesley offered, followed by a “Dawg,” from Gunn; and then the dreaded, “Well I guess the sandman didn’t kidnap you after all.”
Wesley retreated to his office while Cordelia made busy work out of the clutter on her desk. Taking his cue that fun and frolic were over, Gunn called out, “See you guys tonight,” as he headed out the door.
Undaunted by discipline’s heavy hand, envy pricked at his spine again, and ignoring the advice of better judgment, “Tonight?” tumbled from his lips. “Did you have a vision? Is a demon attacking?” His questions came in a hurried succession, hardly giving room for an answer in between. A vision would redirect attention to the impending attack, and away from questions Angel wasn’t ready to answer; and a night of fighting demons would take priority over previous plans.
“You know, not everyone sees me as their personal closed-circuit TV.”
It was a clear accusation that he viewed Cordelia as private property. From a purely vampire perspective, she was; but since he wanted to live long enough to earn his shanshu, Angel refrained from sharing that particular point of view and instead countered the allegation. “I don’t deserve that. I’ve always treated you with respect.”
After a day of soul searching, Cordelia was anxious to mend their friendship, but instead, anger had reared its ugly head. “You’re right. Sorry.” She genuinely conceded, even though some part of her held onto the belief that Angel was to blame.
Cordelia’s concession only reminded Angel that he had put his friends in danger, and that his redress would be cloaked in secrets and lies. He could retreat to the safety of isolation, dwell on his mistake, and allow it to taint their friendship even more. Or he could let it go, remain with his friends, and focus on mending bridges while they were still crossable. “So… not a vision. We have plans then?”
The stapler hit the desk with a resounding crack. “We?” Cordelia snapped, agitated by Angel’s seemingly aloof attitude. “As in you, me and Wesley? Or you as in you and…”
His face becoming sullen, Cordelia realized she’d misread Angel’s signals. It was obvious now that Angel wanted to end their strange rift as much as she did; but the miscommunication was hardly her fault. Reading the socially-inept vampire was harder than deciphering Wesley’s Latin gibberish. And unsure of how to undo her defensive retaliation, Cordelia did the next best thing.
“Damn it, wait.” Angel huffed, briefly reconsidering solitude before trailing Cordelia’s angry retreat to the kitchen.
Cups and utensils clanged against one another as Cordelia vigilantly scrubbed them clean. “You know, we really shouldn’t leave these for you to clean up.” Her heart racing, the spluttered words cracked into the air. “You are the boss after all.”
Eyeing the muscles in Cordelia’s back nervously twitch, Angel contemplated his options. He could let her annihilate their few pieces of dishware, or offer a less assertive choice. “I thought you might want to make the deposit.”
Cordelia whipped around, drops of soapy water slinging from her hands. “We’ve already been paid?” She asked, studying the thin, rectangular paper pinched between Angel’s fingers. “Does that mean-”
“The case is over.” Angel finished, feeling a sense of deja vu. “You asked me to help her, and I did. And now we don’t need to see Rebecca Lowell again.”
“Neither of us?” Cordelia wasn’t sure if she was upset that her connection with the actress had somehow been severed, or relieved to know that Angel wouldn’t be seeing her again.
Pulling the check from Angel’s hand, her eyes widened as the sequence of numbers came into view. A one and a zero followed by three more zeros, then finally, a decimal point.
Her neck twisted, slowly rolling her head up in Angel’s direction. Brow arched and eyes alit with question, she stared for several long seconds. “Rebecca Lowell paid you ten thousand dollars to be her body guard for one night?”
Precious seconds would either garner a right answer or one that would send the generous compensation to an unholy place. There was fine line between coloring the truth for the sake of their friendship and feeling like a bad-behaved child trying to avoid his punishment. One edge of that line he would readily tread, and with little remorse.
“Our client hired me to get rid of a stalker. She doesn’t have a stalker now.” Angel offered, his gruff tone insisting Cordelia accept his explanation.
Suspicions mollified and the premiere temporarily forgotten, Cordelia beamed a bright smile. Silly, she inwardly chastised. Angel would never risk his soul for a movie star. Probably, if she concentrated hard enough, she’d realized this was the result of Wesley’s over-analytical imagination. “Can you believe I actually thought that you and…” Laughing out loud, Cordelia pressed her hands over her mouth, the damp and wrinkled check sticking up over her nose. “But that could never happen.”
Things had taken an unexpected turn. Cordelia was a step away from belittling his virility …again. Angel wanted this case and its ramifications put to rest, but not at the expense of his manhood. He had spent the last twenty-four hours locking away immoral desires, and he wasn’t going to play the neutered puppy now.
Suddenly hovering over her, Angel tilted his head down making sure Cordelia felt the cool breath of his vindication flutter across her skin. “It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of taste.”
This intimately close proximity of flesh whispering against flesh was reserved for the rare occasions of patching wounds. And her lingering attraction to Angel’s gorgeous face and a body with muscles bulging in all the right places, reminded Cordelia of just how wrong this moment was. A sheen of sweat dotted her upper lip, the salty aroma mingling with the heady scent of her discomfort.
“Uh…yeah, of course…taste. I get it.” Cordelia stammered in a breathless whisper. “She’s bony but not blonde, and no freakish strength in those skinny arms.”
Leaning against the counter, he pinched the bridge of his nose, staving off the dull ache that still thrummed inside his head. It wasn’t the conclusion Angel was hoping for; but given the choice of Cordelia thinking he was brooding over an ill-fated love or lying about a lascivious sexual encounter, a broken heart was definitely the lesser of two evils.
Pain and disappointment contorted his handsome face and guilt squeezed at Cordelia’s heart. Incapable of having a thought without voicing it, she had reminded Angel of what he couldn’t have.
“Don’t be sad.” The warmth of her plea whispered against his cheek as her hand gently slid up and down his arm. “I know it’s not the same, but we love you.”
Cordelia’s trust, her unconditional faith and devotion, overshadowed the scant traces of arousal seeping into his senses. “Cordelia,” Angel whispered, his voice falling silent under the heavy weight of her honesty. “Never doubt how much…” She was offering comfort while he struggled to conceal secret yearnings. Unable to look at her, Angel closed his eyes. “I need you.”
“Then you’re not sad?” She asked, her bright smile returning when Angel shook his head. “Good, cause holding all this money is making me tingle.”
Her body moving to a beat that fell on tone-death ears, hips swayed in a frenzied wiggle while breasts jingled inside the snug restraint of unyielding fabric. The air heated inside the narrow breadth that separated them, and distance suddenly became imperative. Not enough to arouse suspicion, Angel reasoned, but enough to protect their friendship and the innocent girl that had become a cherished part of his life.
His appeal barking like a rigid demand, Cordelia froze mid gyrate, confused by the stark change in Angel’s disposition. “Why? It’s a happy dance.”
“I don’t happy dance.”
“Well excuse me for trying to lighten the mood.”
Angel had meant only to stop Cordelia from walking away again, but as the warmth of her skin radiated inside his hand his grip unconsciously tightened. Her arm flinched against his firm hold, and feeling the slight burn of her gaze, his fingers relaxed but remained in place.
The pictures dancing inside his head had made his words sound harsh, and Cordelia had responded in kind. Angel wanted to tell her she wasn’t to blame; that they were victims of a selfish scheme, but he couldn’t. “I’m sorry.” He offered instead, because any attempt to explain risked divulging truths that had to remain hidden.
His whispered apology diminishing Cordelia’s anger as quickly as it had risen, she shrugged off the alarm prickling up her spine. The strange flicker in the dark eyes narrowed on her had been so fleeting, Cordelia questioned if it had even happened.
“We’re friends again; right?” She asked hesitantly. A subtle appeal that whatever misunderstandings had stood between them could now be laid to rest.
“Always,” Angel whispered; and letting her arm fall free of his grip, turned and walked away.
Wesley flipped through the pages, heaved a disappointed sigh then tossed book after book aside. Not only was he making a cluttered mess of the front counter, having to watch his endless and boring cycle was bordering on mental abuse. But Cordelia was more interested in the magazine clutched behind her back than the dust and must gathering on her waxed-shiny countertop. She just needed to divert Wesley’s attention from demon to centerfold.
“Okay, if we’re frugal, we’re financially sound for the next two months.”
“That can’t be right. What happened to the money you deposited yesterday?”
“Glad you asked.” Cordelia grabbed her opportunity and slapped the magazine down, spreading the fold-out pages across Wesley’s books. “I was thinking we should set money aside to rent this boat.”
“A boat?” Wesley exclaimed then zeroed in on the larger than life advertisement. “My word, that’s huge.”
“No, not huge…spacious.”
Intrigued by Cordelia’s interpretation of size, Wesley leaned in to give the pages a closer inspection. “And pray tell; why do we need to rent a sailboat?”
“Because it’ll be fun, and besides, we should celebrate.”
“Well,” Cordelia flashed a sly smile, “Neither of us have almost died this month.”
“That’s true.” Wesley conceded, straightening up from his uncomfortable stoop over counter.
“But more important, Angel and I have called a truce, and I want to celebrate before the money runs out.”
Wesley pondered the viability of Cordelia’s proposal. As ideas go, this one wasn’t necessarily bad. And it would be nice to take a break from the preternatural activities that filled their daily lives. “Oddly, I’m not entirely opposed to the idea. However, convincing Angel is a different matter.”
“You leave stuffy pants to me. Once I show him this picture and explain how good I’ll look in my new sailing clothes, he’ll say-”
“We’re not renting a boat.”
Bad initial reaction aside, Cordelia was optimistic. She had gained Wesley’s alliance without even chipping a nail, and now had the force of two against one. “Good, cause it’s more like a yacht.”
“Then we’re not renting a yacht.” Angel forged ahead, widening his stride as pictures of Cordelia in swimwear began to dance across his mental view.
“But Angel, I’m only talking about the weekend.” Unwilling to be discouraged and refusing to be ignored, Cordelia followed, quickening her pace when Angel attempted to flee. “We could even write it off as a company expense. You know, say we were entertaining clients.”
“Yea, me bursting into flames will be entertaining.”
“That would probably raise our insurance premium. We’ll find you something to do below deck.”
His less than favorable response failing to deter Cordelia’s determination, Angel doubted he’d make it to the kitchen without her hot on his heels. He stopped mid-stride, immediately regretting the hasty decision when their bodies collided and a breathy oomph blew against his back.
Cordelia’s body pressed against the broad span of Angel’s backside, the coolness of his skin seeped through layers of fabric, blending with her body’s natural warmth. Drawn to his strong frame, her head lowered, nuzzling her cheek into the narrow dip of his spine. His muscles rippled under the light squeeze of her fingers.
Wesley cleared his throat, the raspy scrape of dry vocal chords clearly indicating the pair’s prolonged entanglement was inappropriate.
But the subtle intrusion came too late. Succumbing to the dreamscape already taking form, Angel had sent one employee on an errand while he taught another the repercussions of fondling a sexually depraved and equally sexually dissatisfied vampire.
A low, steady growl rumbled, its intensity vibrating against Cordelia’s face as another ahem sounded out behind her. Still obviously uncomfortable; but this time resonating more force, it broke into her trance. She jolted back, her eyes searching out a dark corner to hide her embarrassment.
“We have a visitor.” Wesley announced. His tone disapproving, he rolled his eyes at their strange behavior.
“Excuse me for intruding,” their nervous guest stammered. “I’m Howard Jenkins. I uh… I need of a private investigator.”
Blocking out the warmth spreading through his body and the deafening sound of Cordelia’s unusual silence, Angel stepped forward, interrupting Mr. Jenkins before he could continue. “Wes, you can handle this. I’ll be in my office.”
His jaw tight with tension, dark eyes narrowed on his employee; and with a voice raspy and gruff, Angel delivered instructions that dared to be contested. “Earn your keep. Just find out where I need to go and what I need to do.” His retreat was barely more than a blur of motion, the office door slamming shut almost in unison with his disappearance.
Wesley looked over at Cordelia, and finding her back turned to him and their guest, could only assume she was busy counting the water spots marring the far wall. “Mr. Jenkins, please forgive our…” At a loss to explain why they needed forgiveness, he instead, dabbed a handkerchief at the perspiration dotting his forehead. “Please, just accept my apologies and tell us how we can help you.”
Angel leaned against the door, his fists opening and closing as he concentrated on taking in slow, steady breaths. Failing to regain any semblance of calm, he moved further from his source of distraction and settled into the chair. Head tilted back and eyes closed, his chest expanded then deflated as air entered then left his lungs. But the other physicality remained unchanged. Angel cursed the unfairness, his legs spreading wider to accommodate the persistent bulge.
Sailing on the high seas… Freedom to satisfy wanton desires… Thoughts began to drift, despite the warnings tailing them. Stars glimmered in the clear night sky, the wind blowing against his back as the waves lazily lapped against the boat. Only the most vexing of virtues covered until her midnight swim, the sheer white fabric became translucent, giving up the last of her secrets. And a roguish smirk tugged at his lips.
Minutes ticked by as Wesley collected preliminary information on their new case. Mr. Jenkins’ wife was cheating, or so he suspected; but without sufficient proof of her adultery, their prenup meant losing half in the divorce settlement.
“We will begin our investigation straight away, Mr. Jenkins.” Wesley assured, then reluctantly questioned whether now would be a safe time to breach Angel’s privacy. “Cordelia, could you inform Angel that our client is leaving?” He asked, reasonably certain that the earlier strangeness had passed. “And leave the office door open.”
Cordelia cringed at the idea of going anywhere near Angel. Unable to face Wesley, or the stranger that had caught her molesting their boss, she had retreated to her desk, leaving Wesley to deal with the client.
Taking a deep breath, Cordelia knocked, but getting no response, eased the door open and tentatively made her way to Angel’s desk. Slumped in his chair, eyes closed and head leaning back, Angel appeared to be asleep. Maybe a bad dream, she mused when his hands fisted his shirt, clutching and releasing the fabric then beginning again as he squirmed within the snug confines of the chair.
His hands slid down her body, taking the swimsuit in their slow sweep. He tossed the gossamer fabric aside then retraced soft curves until reaching her breasts. Cupping the soft mounds, he gave them a gentle squeeze, and Cordelia moaned, throwing her head back against his chest.
Leaning down until her mouth hovered just inches form his ear, Cordelia whispered, “Angel?”
Her voice faint to avoid startling the sleeping vampire, it morphed into a strident yelp as strong arms laced around her. One large hand pressed against the small of her back while the other squeezed into her hip.
Cordelia struggled, but her lack of compliance unnoticed, Angel’s head dipped, nuzzling his face into her hair. “God you smell good,” blew against her throat in breathy husk.
The panicked shriek mobilizing the two men for action, they burst into the private office; then stopped dead in their tracks.
Cordelia draped across Angel’s lap, his faced buried in the crook of her neck. Oblivious to the intrusion, Angel continued to suck and nibble the soft flesh while Cordelia thrashed about inside the arms holding her in place.
Rescue within reach, Cordelia screamed a sarcastic, “Personal bubble-personal bubble.”
Spurred by the fear, Cordelia had failed to conceal, Wesley ignored Mr. Jenkins’ stammered, “Maybe I should go,” and sprinted to his friend’s aid.
Shouting, “Good God man, get a hold of yourself,” Wesley grabbed Angel’s shoulders, furiously shaking the vampire until he loosened his stronghold enough for him to pull Cordelia free.
It had been a long afternoon of hurt feelings and angry accusations, followed by begging for forgiveness and promises of reparation. Every time Wesley looked at Angel, the color drained from the man’s face. Cordelia, however, found a way around that particular problem. She refused to even glance in the vampire’s direction.
Crossing off the fifth item on his atonement list, Angel fired up the incinerator. Cordelia would be getting a new blouse, because reattaching the buttons wasn’t good enough. Charging that the ruined garment was tainted with bad karma, she demanded that it be burned; possibly while tied around a rather unruly appendage. And he was in no position to challenge either request of death by fire.
While Angel spent the rest of the day in coerced private reflection, Wesley had struck out on his own to began the initial investigation of their new case. And too distraught over her harrowing ordeal to bear the burden of office drudgery, Cordelia took the afternoon off with a generous bonus tucked inside her purse.
Wesley shuddered as Angel’s cutting words echoed inside his head. The immediate intimidation he’d felt earlier fading when anger, goaded by a touch of resentment, rose up in its place. He was, after all, the only investigator currently earning his keep. Due to an unsavory turn of events, Cordelia was working through frustrations with the assistance of overpriced boutiques while Angel dealt with personal issues in the privacy of his basement.
He had followed their suspect for most of the afternoon, boredom being the prevailing mood of his assignment. A series of snapshots gathered as he trailed Mrs. Jenkins’ seemingly aimless itinerary, Wesley was prepared to give up, and report to their client that he had possibly been mistaken about his wife.
Then, fortune smiled. Camera poised and ready, he captured his first piece of evidence. The embrace was brief, but the kiss was undeniably passionate. Much like the intimacy Angel and Cordelia had shared earlier. Wesley shuddered again, and then quickly dismissed the idea. Angel had assured them; it was an isolated incident and meant nothing. Imagination allowed to run amuck would slow the healing process. Best to put the ordeal behind them, he reasoned again, hoping that less eventful days were on the horizon.
Careful to conceal his activity, he moved closer to his target. The only sound, a precisely aimed snap of his camera. Rivaling the great Holmes himself, Wesley infiltrated their position until the hushed conversation was within earshot. Now all he had to do was wait for his next opportunity.
Angel paced the confines of his cold and dingy exile. His blunder with Cordelia costing him a small fortune was the least of his regrets. With no way to explain the assault on his friend, he had purposely let insinuations slip, mumbled innuendos about forced separation and overwhelming loneliness. And when Cordelia mistakenly theorized he had been lost in a fantasy about Buffy when attacking her, he had let her believe the terrible lie, grabbing hold of her sympathy like a lifeline.
Regardless of her reluctant understanding or compassion for his personal hardship, they were far from reconciled. Cordelia was adamant that Angel not show up at her door before receiving an invitation, adding that future invites were on hold indefinitely.
Everything Angel had worked for since arriving in LA was at risk. Anger surged as his left fist rammed into the punching bag. He could lose Cordelia over this. Fear swelled and his right fist slammed hard, the bag bouncing off the wall before swinging back for another punch.
Even now images of her naked body writhing beneath his filled every thought. A rapid succession of blows pummeled the fist-worn leather.
Flesh slid against flesh. Skin glistening with a dewy sheen, they glided effortlessly.
Angel stumbled forward, clutching the bag between his hands.
He pushed inside her. Soft, round hips thrust up eagerly meeting his and wrapping him inside her warmth.
Two bodies became one… One heart… One soul… Contentment… Surrender… Rapture…
Emotionally and physically exhausted, Angel groaned. Slumping to his knees, his labored breaths snorted against the sweat-slick leather.
They had arrived almost an hour ago to set up their surveillance. The mood tense, suffocating; they struggled to find familiar ground, finally settling to speak only when absolutely necessary.
Angel, positioned behind a planter, watched Cordelia move around the patrons of the hotel’s restaurant. The yellow fabric was bright against her suntanned skin. Although, Angel mentally noted, the skimpy outfit didn’t cover much skin.
Cordelia took a couple’s order, giving a discreet nod to Wesley and Angel before moving to the next table. Just her luck, the hotel was packed, and the table of rowdy conventioneers was in her section.
Receding hairlines, pot bellies and cheap suits; someone had scraped the bottom of the barrel to find this motley crew. Keeping in character, Cordelia readied her pad and flashed a flirty smile that said, tips pay the rent. “What can I get you boys?”
“I don’t think it’s on the menu, honey.” The attempt to mimic her flirty repartee fell short, instead, sleazy coming to mind when a hand brushed across her bottom.
Back stiff, the growl rumbled before he could stifle it. Cordelia’s head slightly jerking in his direction the only reason Angel muzzled his natural response.
Without skipping a beat, Cordelia diffused the situation. Two fingers pinched the naughty man’s wrist, lifting his hand from her bottom and placing it onto the table. “Why don’t I just give you a few more minutes. When you’re ready to order from the menu, I’ll be over there.” She pointed to a location well outside of arm’s reach, and giving the playboy want-a-be one last teasing smile, left him to find a more attainable playmate.
His hands clamped onto the bar, Angel had waited patiently for Cordelia to move out of the line of fire; and now his path was clear.
“You folks enjoying your stay?” He eyed each man then scanned the bustling activity of a half dozen waitresses gliding from table to table. “The uniforms are nice; yea?”
“Oh yea, very nice.” The culprit answered.
Angel hovered over the unsuspecting diner, the scribbled tag identifying only his first name. “There’s only one problem, Joe.” He whispered; taking a dinner roll from the basket and slathering it butter.
The men had assumed the stranger was hotel management, but the dark eyes and a jaw so tense it cracked when he spoke; they quickly rethought their assumption.
Angel cocked his head in Cordelia’s direction then rasped, “That one’s mine,” against Joe’s ashen face.
An eerie silence fell, each man diverting his eyes as fingers nervously fiddled with their utensils. Technically, they were strangers, having only just met at the convention. And even if they were lifelong friends, no one was willing to argue with the angry man looming over their table.
“So the next time you think that cute little uniform is calling out to you, pet me I’m a whore; do yourself a favor.” Angel shoved the roll into Joe’s gaped mouth, a thick layer of butter oozing over his lips. “Remember that she’s talking to me.” He straightened up, handing the man a napkin. “Enjoy your meal gentlemen. It’s on the house.” Having made his point, Angel returned to his position behind the potted plant.
Seeing Angel end his intrusion of the men’s meal, Wesley released the breath he’d held the last few minutes. Cordelia had missed the odd scene, and grateful for that morsel of kindness, Wesley offered his sincere gratitude to whatever power might be looking over them.
Mrs. Jenkins and her companion entered as if on cue, and Wesley smiled at their timely arrival. His surveillance had paid off, giving them the information needed to secure their last bit of evidence.
Wesley motioned to his associates, wondering when he had become head of this operation. Perhaps, he considered; it was when Angel and Cordelia squared off. One insisting they drop the case and return Mr. Jenkins’ retainer while the other challenged that not everyone can shop at the local pig market. Giving his head a weary shake, Wesley motioned to Cordelia again. This time prompting her to approach their target.
“Welcome to Le Salon. My name is Gigi, and I’ll be serving you this evening.” Cordelia winked at the couple. She was stuck with this assignment, so she might as well try to have a little fun with it. “Can I get you something from the bar?”
The couple didn’t look very hungry, at least not for food; so once she delivered their drinks, her part would probably be done. Jotting down their order, Cordelia headed to the bartender, anxious to have the case over with. Angel staring at her like he wanted to bite was giving her the heebie-jeebies and the only bright spot was that the grabby-hands conventioneers had become perfect gentlemen.
Their surveillance was going rather well, almost too good. Claire and Marty had spent the better part of a half hour drinking, flirting, and most important, talking. Then downing the last of their drinks, they prepared to retire for the night.
One last snapshot of the cheating duo entering their hotel room, and the agency would have sufficient evidence to close the case and collect its fee. Both Wesley and Cordelia heaved a relieved sigh while Angel remained tense and uneasy.
“Claire, hold on.” Wesley gulped and Cordelia huffed as Angel stepped out, blocking the couple’s exit.
“Do I…know you?” Claire asked, uncomfortable being recognized at the hotel with a man that wasn’t her husband.
“I’ve been listening and recording you two while my associate take pictures.”
Wesley gulped again, his eyes widening when catching Cordelia’s glare. Her expression clearly promising she planned to kill the idiot vampire.
Swinging his arm out, Angel stopped her before she could reach the surprised couple. Then sliding his arm around her waist, eased Cordelia behind him.
“Your husband knows. Go home. Tell him the truth. Work it out or leave. I don’t care. But life is too short. Even if you have eternity, you run out time.”
“Angel what are you doing?” Cordelia demanded, pushing his arm off her. “We have a client to think about.”
“Is it the client or the yacht that you’re worried about?”
“Don’t.” Her hand shaking, Cordelia jabbed her finger accusingly in Angel’s face. “Don’t you dare treat me like I’m still that spoiled little rich girl.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” He regretted the insinuation. Didn’t really even mean it; but then, Angel didn’t have any idea what he meant, any more than he understood what he was feeling.
“Then what did you mean?”
“Just that… Not everything is worth getting paid for.”
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
Their voices getting louder with each rebuttal, Wesley moved to intervene. “People please. I implore you.” His appeal ignored, his determination intensified; but in his haste to jump between the two, missed his mark, and instead, piled into Cordelia.
Unprepared for the body slam, Cordelia fell into Angel’s arms, but before he could set her back onto her feet, she shoved him away; the momentum of her push sending her tumbling back into Wesley.
“Can it Wesley. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Cordelia, it is wrong.” Angel corrected, hoping beyond hope that he could express his feelings without screwing up. “Sometimes a man does things, but not with his heart. It happens and then it’s too late to take it back. But it was just cheap sex, it wasn’t love.”
Cordelia stared for several long seconds, trying to workout what Angel was saying. “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is happening…again.” Eyes widening as realization hit, she slapped her hands against her cheeks. “I know you’re hurting. And I wish I could make it better. But I can’t.” Angel’s face twisted with pain, anger began to subside a small degree as compassion swelled inside her. “Angel, listen to me. Life does go on after Buffy. You just have to want to be a part of it.”
Consequences be damned, Angel didn’t intend to play out the farce again. If he had to, he’d tell Cordelia everything. At least when the dust settled, they could rebuild with a clean slate. “Not everything is about Buffy, Cordelia.” His voice rough and dry, the words sounded almost cruel, causing Cordelia to shrink back from the angry scowl peering down on her. “But you go ahead and believe that. As long as we blame Buffy, we don’t have to face the hard stuff.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Cordelia practically screamed, slapping Wesley away when he tried to shush her.
“I’m talking about-”
“You know what?” Cordelia cut him off, not wanting to hear anymore of Angel’s excuses. “I don’t care. I just don’t care.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Before Angel could attempt to fix his screw up, the hotel manager appeared, demanding they leave at once or he would call the police.
Wesley started to protest, but changed his mind as two large, burly security guards flanked the smaller man. “You mean besides us looking like bloody fools?”
Cordelia stormed off toward the front door, Angel making his way to the sewer entrance at the back of the kitchen.
Wesley, accepting that their reputation as private investigators was unsalvageable, ushered Claire and Marty out of the restaurant. And having failed their client, saw no reason not to offer the couple a piece of little friendly advise. “I suggest you avoid Hyperion Avenue when planning future rendezvous, and the Silver Lake area for that matter. In fact, Acapulco is rather nice this time of year.”
“Come on Marty.”
“Come on where?”
Claire spun around, determined to escape the overcrowded hotel. She grabbed Marty’s arm, dragging him behind her. “To the airport, you schmuck. These people are crazy!”
Walking the city for hours until certain uncomfortable paths wouldn’t cross, Angel returned to the empty hotel. And now standing at the threshold of his suite, he listened to the deafening sound of loneliness. The familiar darkness beckoned him to step inside and accept his fate; the low hum in the far corner dared him to reach inside and break free.
Angel swung open the small door, blinking against the dull glow silhouetting his face. It would be so easy if the soul just gave in and let the demon decide. Life was simpler when nights, never encumbered by need, held one endless ambition. Until his vengeful executioners made him remember the softness and warmth known only to the living.
The promise of peace called out to him, and he gripped the bottle in his hand. The chilled glass a cold disparity to the warm flesh he’d cradled just hours earlier. Not sure when he had moved, Angel hovered over the sink; the dark red evidence of his fall from grace staining the white ceramic.
Nothing would ever be enough to make up for the wrongs he’d committed. His grip tightened then relaxed at the slight crack of glass threatening to shatter. Another hundred years and atonement would still be an aspiration, with no one to share it. He lifted the bottle to his mouth, the balmy liquid slid down his throat.