“What’s that for?” she questioned, wrapping her arms around his shoulders again.
Angel gave her a suspicious glance. Did she mean the bite? “Uh, what’s what for?”
“The guilty look, dumbass.”
Calling him a dumbass after he’d laid claim to her seemed to be letting him off easier than expected. “I didn’t mean to bite you. It just happened.”
Frowning at that answer, Cordelia asked sounding suddenly irate, “You didn’t mean it?”
“No,” Angel denied, shaking his dark head. “I meant it. Trust me, Cor. That bite isn’t just a set of fangmarks. It was just unplanned.”
Her fingers crept along the sore skin, “I’m assuming you didn’t suddenly feel like snacking, though I’ve gotta say you worked up my appetite. Kinda hungry now.”
Joking. She was joking. Angel figured that was either very good or a sign that she was trying to avoid what he needed to tell her. He moved onto his back, fingers raking through his hair as he tried to figure out how to say it. Cordelia curled up against him and he tucked his arm around her, holding her close.
“That bite, Cordy,” he began. “It’s not just a bite; it’s a mark.”
“Doesn’t that make me yours?” Cordelia’s eyes were sparkling with mischief as she stared down at him. “My Sunnydale education includes a lot of vampire lore. Think I read about that somewhere.”
Angel looked panicky in response. Then strangling his own doubts, he cupped her face and pulled her down to kiss her forehead leaving her lips tingly and devoid of his attention. But only for a moment. He met her mouth with a tender sweep of his lips across hers, the gentle pressure increasing until her lips opened. Gliding softly, their mouths melted into each other, increasingly passionate until Cordelia sounded out a little cry of complaint as Angel broke the kiss.
“Yes, you’re mine, Cordy. In nearly every way I can have you and want you, you’re mine,” Angel told her, his eyes unwavering from her own.
Tugging at her lower lips with her teeth, Cordelia latched onto the one part of that statement that left a little doubt. “Only nearly?”
After a moment of hesitation, Angel admitted, “I’ve marked your body, but I can’t control your feelings.”
Cordelia’s fingers strummed on his chest as she let out a long sigh. Apparently, he was skilled in taking wide detours around important subjects. “Just ask me, Angel.”
The question came out even before she finished saying his name, “Do you love me, even a little?”
“The sex was great. Wow, in fact. Double wow, actually,” Cordelia corrected trying to keep the grin from spreading across her face, “but my feelings for you have been around for a long time. I wanted you because I thought I could have you back in Sunnydale. Chalk that one up to harsh lessons. Then you became my friend and I loved you for the way you dove into your mission, for the way you helped people, for the way you protected me.”
Then she admitted, “I’ve had some rather naughty dreams starring you lately, but would it sound very bad if I told you that I think I’m in love with you and have been for about a minute?”
“No, because I think I can beat that by five minutes,” Angel smiled as he tucked her hair behind her ear, caressing the curve of her cheek. “I love you so much, Cordelia. It just crept up on me until it was just there and I had to act on it.”
An irrepressible smile of brilliant proportions lit her face, then she teased, “Well, this bite better work both ways, buddy.”
“Technically no,” Angel hedged on answering, but did so after she poked at his chest, “but if you want to think of it that way, we can bend the rules.”
“Pfft! As if I’d leave any guy of mine that kind of loophole,” Cordelia narrowed her gaze and despite the mischievous lit dancing in those hazel depths, swiftly straddled his waist, grabbed his head and sank her teeth along the cord of his neck.
Angel let out a grunt of pain, “Ow! I think you drew blood.”
Sitting back, Cordelia licked at the red liquid spread on her lips. It wasn’t really any different than sucking on your finger after a paper cut, she thought. With a smirk of pure satisfactions, she quipped, “Guess that makes you mine.”
“Guess it does,” Angel answered with a playful growl, pulling her back down into his arms.
Wesley crept down the corridor, his steps silent on the burgundy carpeting lining the hall. Electric sconces along the wall were dimmed as the hour was quite late. No sign of any guards, he noted, but that didn’t mean security wasn’t aware of his presence on the floor.
Keeping to the shadows, he hoped that any hidden cameras would also miss his approach.
The talkative masseuse, Tasha, revealed quite a lot. He learned of that the servants spoke of a secret room on this level accessible through a piece of fake paneling, that contained Vandemere’s personal works of art. Believing that he might find a clue, Wes was determined to locate that room.
He did so in short measure, his Watcher’s training coming in handy. What he found overwhelmed him. From a purely artistic standpoint, the paintings that lines the walls from floor to ceiling were masterpieces of their kind. One theme was instantly clear.
All were of women. Most of them nude, though posed quite tastefully or draped in the sheerest cloth. He counted all eleven victims amongst the women depicted on the walls.
Catching a movement from the corner of his eye, Wes turned his head, but saw only the painting on the other wall. The female subject was beautiful, as were the others, her russet hair tumbling over her shoulder. Her pale skin almost touchable with its flawless beauty.
Eyes of emerald green held Wesley’s attention. They held him fast, staring deep, almost pleadingly into his.
Blinking, Wesley turned his head away for a moment and then slowly lifted it again. This time, the eyes were turned away. In fact, the woman with russet red hair was posed in a completely different manner.
“Eureka!” Wesley exclaimed aloud, then cupped a hand over his own mouth to quell the excited noises threatening to gurgle from his throat.
Turning on his heel, he stared at another of the paintings. Then another. The images moved. Close inspection showed that they consisted of paint, not flesh, but the light in those eyes belonged to living beings. Wesley scowled as he realized the extent of Clay Vandemere’s involvement with the disappearances of the women in Cordelia’s vision.
After painting them, Vandemere had used powerful magick to draw their lifeforces into the canvas. A wall of living images resulted, their beauty immortal, never fading, and all for his eyes.
This revelation couldn’t wait until morning. He needed to tell Angel and Cordelia now before she walked straight into Vandemere’s trap.
One last time, Wes looked up into the emerald eyes, planning to promise that this would all end here. Only the soft plea was replaced by intense fear and it was only when Wesley felt the presence looming behind him did he realize too late that the look was meant as a warning.
A dull object crashed into the back of his head and Wesley fell to the ground unconscious.
“I can’t be bothered with you tonight, Wyndam-Pryce,” stated Clay Vandemere as he stared down at the prone form of the Englishman. “My strength and magicks must be conserved for the morning. After I have what I want, expect me to deal with you and your vampire appropriately. Until then, enjoy my beauties. I treasure each and every one of them.”
Exiting, Vandemere locked the door, closing the hidden panel behind him.
“What if I told you I don’t want you to go?” Angel leaned up against the table as she lightly buttered her toast.
Cordelia paused, silently pointing out that it was too early in their new relationship to play the you-have-to-do-what-I-say card. “We went over this yesterday. This is all part of the mission. I’m going.”
Grumbling, Angel commented that he didn’t want Clay Vandemere looking at her and thinking about sex. To which Cordelia countered, “I don’t care what he thinks, pervy man that he is. I don’t care about him. I love you. That’s the difference.”
Conceding that he wasn’t going to get his way, all Angel could do was plan to protect her if things got bad. Who knows what Vandemere did in his private studio. All of the models went home safely. It was afterward that they’d disappeared. That was what they were trying to discover.
“Where is Wes?” asked Angel, suddenly realizing that they hadn’t heard from him all night.
With a shrug, Cordelia swallowed her bite of toast. “Haven’t seen him. Wasn’t he going to come by this morning?”
Glancing at the bedside clock, Angel’s face darkened grimly. “He’s an hour late.”
“Wes is never late,” Cordelia rose from the chair in a hurry.
A knock sounded on the door followed by a voice announcing, “I’m here to collect you, Ms Chase.”
“Already?” Cordelia realized it was earlier than planned. Calling out, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Dammit,” Angel cursed low so that only Cordelia heard it. “You’ll have to go. Just be careful. I’ll look for Wesley. Something tells me this isn’t good.”
Cordelia grabbed onto Angel’s arms, staring worriedly into his eyes. “Look where?”
“Vampire senses go a long way when it comes to tracking down people,” Angel told her encouragingly. He didn’t bother to add that the trail might already be cold.
Sharing one last lingering kiss, Cordelia and Angel parted at the door, the servant blushing under the passion burning in that intimate caress. “This way, miss.”
Angel waited until they vanished around the corridor before heading up the back stairs to the third level of the mansion. He crossed over to the far wing believing that this was the area Wesley had been searching earlier in the day.
After a few minutes of random searching, he picked up the familiar scent of Wesley’s aftershave and the other combined scents that were unique to his friend.
He stopped in the hall. Wes was close. He could sense it, but there was nothing here. No doorway, no indication of a room. Unless it was well-hidden. Angel experimentally tapped on the wall panel, a hollow echo sounding back.
A satisfied glint lit his eyes and Angel was about to turn the paneling into kindling when he discovered that he was no longer alone. Three burly security guards were standing at the end of the hall, armed with nightsticks and brass knuckles. “Nice to see you boys. I haven’t had my morning workout,” Angel quipped and waited for their attack.
Seconds later, the guards were piled up at his feet.
Angel broke the paneling into pieces, tossing it on the ground and revealing the hidden door behind it. Flexing his leg, he aimed one powerful kick at the door. The lock broke and the door flew off its hinges sliding across the floor and stopping just inches away from Wesley who was sitting on the floor holding a hand to the back of his head.
“Are you okay?” Angel asked as he rushed in to help his friend to his feet.
Wesley nodded and winced in pain. “I will be. Where is Cordelia?”
“We’ve got to stop him,” Wesley said, eyes wide behind the rims of his glasses. “He’s using magick to transfer the lifeforce of the models to the paintings themselves. Just look them.”
Following Wesley’s direction, he looked to the painting he was pointing at. Realizing that this was what Vandemere intended to do to Cordelia, to trap her in canvas for his own visual pleasure, he felt his demon pulling at his restraints.
“Lucky for us that he can’t produce a painting even if he does manage to convince Cordelia to remove her clothes.”
“Angel,” warned Wesley who had all night to examine the rest of the room, “some of the framed art appear to be preliminary drawings. As if the models sat for him, but changed their mind about posing for the final painting. How long does it take to sketch one of those?”
Wesley stared after him as the vampire darted out of the room faster than he could follow. He realized the answer to his own questions was ‘not long’ and cried out to Angel who was already rounding the corner, “Wait for me!”
It didn’t matter where Vandemere had his studio. Angel knew he could find it with his eyes closed. Cordelia was there and that was all that it took to show him the way.
“You can remove the robe anytime, my dear,” Clay Vandemere offered smoothly. “I don’t bite, you know. Unlike your lover. I see you’ve been marked since I last saw you.”
Cordelia had discarded her clothes behind a large silk screen, taking her time doing so and donning an ivory robe that was draped over a chair. “Sorry if that ruins my flawless skin. Vampire thing.”
“On the contrary, Cordelia, that raw spot of flesh will give my painting a uniqueness that is solely you,” he told her waving a hand toward the chaise set up in one corner of the room.
She must have made a face, because he laughed, telling her, “Did your Angel think that by marking you, I would not want to look upon his property? I assure you that I find you just as beautiful. It will be a pleasure to paint you, to keep you as my own.”
“Just my image,” Cordelia tried not to snap at him. She was supposed to be stalling, not making him angry.
Fortunately, Clay Vandemere appeared as cool as a cucumber. Dressed simply, head to toe in white, he crossed the space between them and took hold of Cordelia’s arm, leading her to the chaise lounge at a slightly faster pace. She settled on it, feeling the soft seat give way to her slight weight.
Taking a seat across from her, the artist explained, “We’ll do some quick sketches to get started. After I decide which pose will be best, we’ll begin.”
Giving herself a silent pep talk, Cordelia kept telling herself that she could do this. It was part of the job. Later, she’d have a little discussion with the Powers that Be about her job description, but right now, if the mission required it, she’d do what had to be done.
As she reached at an infinitesimal pace toward the tie of the ivory robe, Cordelia looked around the room. It appeared to be full of props for the paintings. Objects both modern and medieval filled shelves lining the walls. Various drapes and materials hung in organized fashion in an open closet while several yards of sheer fabric were laid out across a table as if he had been making selections.
Cordelia stood, turning away from the watchful gaze of Clay Vandemere. The robe fell loose and she pulled back slowly so that it slipped off her shoulders, baring her back.
The door flew open, rattling against the wall with sheer force, and Angel burst through. “Get away from her, Vandemere. I know your game and you won’t be victimizing anyone else in the future.”
Closing and knotting the robe around her waist, Cordelia whirled around greeting Angel with a bright smile and then telling the painter, “You are so gonna get your ass kicked.”
“I am hardly defenseless,” warned Vandemere as he stood facing Angel. Words of magick sounded on his lips even as the vampire moved closer. Angel went flying into the wall, crashing into an old set of armor and knocking it to the ground along with a stack of books piled up on the bureau next to it.
Vamping out, Angel grabbed the stray sword knocked free of the armor and flipped to his feet, “Neither am I.”
As Vandemere prepared another spell, a ball of fire appeared to be growing in the palm of the hand held close to his heart. Cordelia saw the flames and knew the permanent damage that could result if they touched Angel, worse turning him to dust.
She picked up a small metal urn on the table next to the chaise, one of the props Vandemere had set in place prior to her arrival, and struck out at his head.
Angel aimed the sword and threw it at the same moment, passing through the flames and sending Vandemere to the ground, his clothes afire, a screaming death stare and defeat lighting his now unblinking eyes. With his death, the mystic flames petered out.
Finally arriving at the artist’s studio, Wesley entered the room to the scent of slightly charred flesh and the sight of Cordelia and Angel kissing madly in the center of the room. Rubbing the knot on the back of his head, Wes closed his eyes, waited ten seconds and then opened them again. No, still kissing.
Clearing his throat, Wesley commented, “With Vandemere dead, his hold over the spells cast upon his victims has vanished. I presume that his private viewing area is now full of confused, frightened young women. Not to mention a house full of guests and such.”
Angel didn’t immediately answer. He swept Cordelia up into his arms eliciting a soft laugh from the brunette who wound her arms around the vampire’s neck as he made a move toward the door.
Pausing next to Wesley, he leaned close to say, “You should handle the details, Wes. Cordelia and I have things to do.”