The music pressed against the inside of his skull, a melodic migraine pounding out a deadly rhythm in his head. Murmur resisted the urge to just let go, to free his songs, to stop their ice-pick notes from jabbing at him. Pain-free seemed like a good place to be.
He clenched his teeth against the agony. “I need to do a pressure release before my head explodes. I don’t think vacuuming up demon brains is part of the maid’s job description.” Even pacing this hotel room would work off some of the tension buzzing in his brain, but moving hurt too much, so he simply sat as still as he could in the chair facing Bain.
“Control it. If not, they’ll kick you out of the castle, and I need your help.” Bain leaned back in his chair and watched his friend from hooded eyes.
Murmur took a deep breath. “I never lose control. So to keep my record intact, I’ll have to take my show on the road. Where can I go to defuse?” The castle-slash-hotel might specialize in fantasy role-playing, but Murmur didn’t think they were ready for what he’d deliver.
Music was his power, but it was also his weakness. If he kept it captive for too long, the pain crippled him. And at some point it might even drive him crazy. What the world did not need was a mad music demon.
Bain shrugged. “It’s late, so I’d try the beach. No one there to hear you. But if some of your music does creep back into the castle, no big deal. Remember, I saw you in action here a few weeks ago. You pissed me off with that compulsion you laid on everyone, but we all danced and had a good time. No harm.” He shrugged. “And sure, you were a little scary in the final showdown with Ted, but all demons ramp up the terror.” His grin promised he could take scary to a whole new level. “It’s what makes us beloved by all.”
No harm because I stopped the dance in time. But I didn’t want to stop it. I wanted it to go on and on and on... Murmur knew his smile was bitter. He winced. Damn, even that small use of facial muscles upped the agony. “Don’t be an ass, Bain. You know what would happen if I lost control, so don’t act as if it’s nothing.” He stood and walked slowly to the door, each tortured step sending new vibrations rattling around inside his aching head.
“Fine. Do your thing.” Bain’s tone said he still didn’t get it. He glanced at Murmur’s music system. “This is a pretty fancy setup for just a hotel stay. Maybe you should turn it on and relax with some mellow tunes instead of dragging yourself to the beach.”
“I have a ‘fancy setup’ because I need the music.” He and the other demon had been friends for millennia, but that didn’t mean they knew squat about each other. Demons weren’t social creatures, and being friends simply meant they didn’t try to tear each other apart when they met. Alright, so Bain and he were a little closer than that, but Bain had only experienced Murmur’s music on a small scale. He’d never really seen what happened when Murmur got serious.
Bain heaved an exaggerated sigh and rose to follow him. “Then I’ll leave you to your midnight concert. I’m due for my last fantasy performance of the night in about ten minutes. Give a shout if you need me.” He paused before heading for the winding stairs leading down to the great hall. “And thanks for sticking around. I appreciate it.” Then he was gone.
For a demon, Bain’s words were the same as a big hug and a sloppy kiss from a human. Demons didn’t display emotions. Most of the time, they didn’t have any to display. Okay, so maybe there were occasional outbursts of rage leading to mass destruction. But that was about the limit to their softer feelings.
Murmur took the elevator. No way would he survive the explosion of pain as each foot landed on those stone steps. From there he staggered out of the castle, his hands over his ears, trying to block all those human voices adding to the din in his head.
He stumbled across Seawall Boulevard and down the steps leading to the beach. This was all Bain’s fault. The other demon had asked Murmur to help with some as-yet-to-be-explained plot. That had been a few weeks ago. Since then Murmur had been stuck on Galveston Island, unable to find a place far enough away from people to free his music.
Sure, he could’ve abandoned Bain. But Bain was a friend. His only friend. And wasn’t it pathetic that Murmur actually cared? Not a positive demonic character trait. He’d have to shore up his I-don’t-give-a-damn wall of indifference.
Right now, though, he needed to stop the pain. When he’d put some distance between himself and the Castle of Dark Dreams, he glanced around. Not far enough away from humanity to cut loose completely, but he could at least siphon off some of his music and relieve the agony for a while.
A moonless night, but there was some light filtering down from the streetlights across the road. No one on the beach. That’s all he had to know. The pain was almost to the point of exploding from him. That would be a bad thing for everyone in Galveston and for him. He wasn’t ready to leave the castle yet.
Drawing in a deep breath, he allowed his music to escape in a slow, controlled flow of sound. It mirrored his mood of the moment—dissatisfied, confused, and even a little sad. Murmur let the intertwined melodies build to a crescendo of angry frustration. Why the hell was he feeling these emotions now after so many thousands of years?
He closed his eyes at the remembered bliss of times long past. Times when he released the fury of his songs on entire villages, watching as everyone within the sound of his music died screaming. Or, if he was in a more playful mood, they’d die dancing, unable to stop until their puny human hearts gave out.
Murmur hadn’t done that in a long time. He wasn’t ready to examine the reason why.
Ivy stepped onto the beach and wandered toward the waterline where gentle waves lapped at the sand. The Gulf was quiet tonight. The lights from the street didn’t do much to help her see where she was going. Symbolic? Maybe. Because three days ago she’d made the first impulsive decision of her adult life.
She’d taken a job at Live the Fantasy, an adult theme park where people could unpack their dreams of being more than they were, dust them off, and play the part for a half hour. Tomorrow she’d meet her boss for the first time. Ivy glanced back at the castle. Still time to run.
Before she could begin to obsess about the insanity of accepting a job as the personal assistant to someone named Sparkle Stardust, she heard the music.
It came from everywhere and nowhere. The melody wrapped around her, tendrils of compulsion that seeped into her soul and made her—she widened her eyes—want to dance.
Ivy didn’t dance. Ever. She had no rhythm. But she was okay with that. Dancing didn’t further her life’s goal—a solid, well paying job so she could build her own white picket fence around a home in suburbia. She’d never depend on a man to do her picket fence building.
But suddenly, for no apparent reason, she wanted to dance, had to dance. Without her permission, her feet began to move with the throbbing beat. Closing her eyes, she let it happen. If she really concentrated, she could almost hear words—of futility, frustration, need.
Ivy realized she was dancing further and further away from the castle, but she couldn’t seem to care. All that mattered was the music. Its bass pounded out an ever more frenetic message of anger and so much need it brought tears to her eyes. She swirled and leaped on waves of emotion, even as the Gulf’s waves curled around her ankles before retreating.
The person she’d always been—logical, grounded in reality—screamed, “What the hell are you doing?” But nothing mattered. Everything she was floated away on the compulsive rhythm urging her to dance and dance and dance...
And then she saw him. He stood in the darkness, waiting as she danced closer and closer. At first he was only a shadow among many shadows. But as she drew nearer she saw him more clearly. Tall, elegant, with broad shoulders and a body that she imagined would be powerful and lean-muscled beneath his black boots, black pants, and what looked like a black silk shirt open at the throat. All that unrelieved black only served to lead her gaze upward to...
Her heart was a frantic drumbeat, her breathing a harsh rasp in her throat, and it had nothing to do with exertion.
His face. She gathered all of her willpower and forced her body to still while she studied him from only a few feet away, too close for safety.
Shining blond hair fell in a smooth curtain to halfway down his back. He watched her from eyes framed by thick lashes. She couldn’t see the color of those eyes in the darkness. The angles and planes of his face cast shadows highlighting male beauty that seemed impossible, but obviously wasn’t. Her gaze drifted to his lips, full and so tempting that...
He smiled. Ivy felt that smile as an ache that started in her chest but moved rapidly south. This was not good. She glanced away and tried to recapture her sanity along with her breath. “I wonder where that music is coming from.”
He ignored her comment. “Dance with me.” His voice—husky, compelling, but with a harsh rasp of some emotion she couldn’t identify—hinted that unspeakable pleasures awaited anyone who danced with him.
No. She didn’t dance with strangers she met on the beach. It absolutely wasn’t going to happen. “Sure.”
And so they danced. Together. Touching. Not what she thought she’d ever enjoy, because with his arms around her she’d have to follow his lead. Ivy knew from experience that she couldn’t match her steps with a partner, not in any aspect of her life. But she did.
It was like floating. She swayed in time with her silent partner as he swept her into the dance. Everything seemed supersized. The sand felt deliciously cool beneath her bare feet. When had she kicked off her shoes? The water sparkled. There was no moon, so how could it sparkle? When she tipped her head back to allow her hair to float in the sudden breeze, she saw a sky filled with millions of glittering stars. Not real, couldn’t be real. But the impossibility of all those stars didn’t bother her. Only the man and the dance mattered.
He’d pulled her close, and she felt the realness of him as surely as if he wore nothing—the hard planes of his body, the pounding of his heart where her head rested against his chest. And when he cupped her bottom to tuck her between his thighs, she had proof that the dance was affecting him in the same way it was her.
Desire clenched low in her stomach. Shock made her miss a step. She drew in a deep calming breath and tried to recapture the magic of the dance. But she couldn’t. This wasn’t her. Ivy didn’t go around wanting to throw men to the ground and then ride them until a screaming orgasm shattered her. She pulled away, and it was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
The music stopped. Ivy just stood there breathing hard. Exertion or hyperventilating? Didn’t matter, the result was the same. She felt lightheaded.
“Thank you.” His words were cool, his tone distant. He turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Ivy stood staring at the water that no longer sparkled. When her dizziness finally passed, she found her shoes, and then walked slowly back to the Castle of Dark Dreams. Aptly named, as it turned out. If anyone qualified as a dark dream, her unknown dance partner did.
She felt strange, all shiny and new, younger. But that was impossible. Ivy was twenty-seven, and a brief dance with a stranger shouldn’t make her feel nineteen again. Go figure.
She decided to wait until she got back to her room before thinking about what had just happened. There was always a logical explanation for everything. Except when there wasn’t. Ivy pressed her lips together. Of course there was an explanation. She just had to find it.
Ivy paused before entering the castle. For a moment, she thought about going around to the great hall entrance and taking a look at the ongoing fantasy. No, she didn’t need another shot of make-believe after what she’d experienced on the beach.
Was he staying at the castle? Would she run into him again? Ivy narrowed her eyes as she strode through the door leading into the hotel lobby. He didn’t matter. What did matter was her new job. She needed to concentrate on that.
She stepped into the elevator still wrapped in thoughts of what tomorrow’s meeting with Sparkle Stardust would bring. Someone stepped in with her. Ivy dragged her thoughts away from her new job long enough to notice the man sharing the elevator.
She blinked. He was short and squat with dark hair that stuck out everywhere and looked like steel wool. He had a nose that seemed to swallow his face, and his wrinkled skin was the color and texture of a walnut shell. He stared at her from beneath bushy brows the same color as his eyes. Black. Did anyone really have shiny black eyes? He didn’t look friendly. She prayed the elevator door would open and spit her out onto her floor.
“You took my job, human.” His voice was a dark threatening rumble.
Human? Ivy stared gape-mouthed at him. “Your job?”
The elevator door slid open. But shock rooted Ivy in place.
“I would have made a better assistant than you. What do you know about the needs of a person of power?” On that contemptuous snarl, he stepped from the car and the doors silently closed behind him.
Okay, that was just bizarre. Ivy took a deep fortifying breath before pressing the button to open the door again. She stepped out. Thank God, the strange, and yes, disturbing man was gone. He must have a room on her floor, though. That made her uneasy.
Trying to shake off the encounter, she unlocked her door and stepped inside. She sighed her relief as she turned on the light. And froze.
Her room was crawling with spiders. Thousands of them. Big, fat, ugly spiders. They crawled over her bed, up her walls, and across the ceiling. They watched her from gleaming eyes that oozed malice.
Another woman might have screamed and run. Ivy just muttered a few curses as she strode to the phone on her night table. She swept spiders from the receiver before making her call, even as she mentally chanted her personal mantra: no black widows, no brown recluses, no fear. Then she went back to stand at the open door and wait.
She tried not to think, to conjecture, to panic. Ivy had built her entire life on the premise that any problem could be solved if approached in a calm and rational way. There was always a logical explanation for things. Okay, so the man on the beach was an anomaly.
At least she didn’t have long to wait and stew. She heard steps behind her and turned.
A wizard? Would the weirdness never end? He was about the same height as her, and she wasn’t tall. Thin, gray-haired with a matching long pointed beard, his narrowed gray eyes promised that she’d be sorry if she’d brought him here on a fool’s errand.
She scoped him out from head to toe and thought of the spiders to keep from chuckling. He was a walking stereotype. His gold-trimmed blue robe was decorated with glittering suns, moons, and stars. He wore a matching tall conical hat. It added almost a foot to his height. And he carried a strange-looking staff.
“Holgarth, I presume?” It had better be, since that’s who she’d demanded to see when she’d called the desk. Ivy moved aside so he could step into the room. “Unless you intend to beat them to death with your staff, I’d suggest you call in the exterminators.”
He pursed his thin lips, his cold stare saying that she wasn’t amusing him. Ivy decided that not much would amuse this guy.
“How unfortunate.” He sounded as though a plague of spiders was nothing more than a minor irritation. “I’ll get rid of them and then you can—”
“Uh, no, to the rest of what you were going to say. I mean, you can certainly get rid of them, but I won’t be here to see the miraculous event. I want another room and...” She thought about the man in the elevator. “And I want one on a different floor.”
Holgarth sniffed. “Hired help used to know their places.”
Ivy widened her eyes. “Oh, I absolutely know my place. It’s in a new room not infested with spiders.” Was she trying to get fired? Maybe. All the weirdness that had happened so far didn’t bode well for her new job. “You’re the one who hired me. I’d think you’d want me to be happy.”
“I did not hire you.” He seemed bitter about that. “I wanted someone more tractable, but Sparkle insisted that you were right for the job.”
“Tractable? Does anyone even use that word in everyday speech? Well, if wanting a room where I won’t wake up every ten minutes imagining spiders two-stepping across my face makes me intractable, then so be it. I want out of here.”
He pressed his lips into a thin line of disapproval. “Come with me.”
She frowned as another thought surfaced. “I never spoke with Ms. Stardust, so how did she know I was right for the job?”
For the first time he looked as though he approved of something she’d said. “Exactly the point I tried to make.” He glanced at his watch. “Enough useless chatter. My time is valuable.”
“What about my things?” She moved into the hall and stopped to wait for him.
“Someone will bring them to you.” He lingered in the doorway, mumbling something to himself.
And just before he joined her, closing the door behind him, Ivy got a peek into the room. The spiders were gone. She blocked the sight from her mind. The unexplainable was piling up at an alarming rate, and her brain couldn’t handle it all at once.
Holgarth led her down the winding stone steps. “I prefer to avoid the elevator. It performs in an erratic manner when I use it.”
Hey, Ivy understood completely. She’d probably perform in an erratic manner too if she spent much time around him.
He didn’t stop when they reached the great hall, but took another flight of stairs down. Pulling out a bunch of keys on a large ring, he used one to open a door. “Your new room, madam.” He didn’t try hide his sneer.
Ivy had a few questions. “There aren’t any windows on this level. And the sign over that door across from me says dungeon. Why am I on the dungeon level?”
Holgarth raised one brow. “You’re not on the dungeon level. You’re on the vampire level. The dungeon just happens to be here. We use it in our fantasies.” He paused for effect. “Except when we’re using it to hold a recalcitrant creature.”
She glared at him. “Now you’re just being annoying. Fairy tales don’t scare me. You didn’t answer my question. Why am I here?”
His lips twitched. She had a feeling this was Holgarth’s version of a belly laugh.
“A fairy tale? Yes, the fae sometimes visit us. But we haven’t had to incarcerate one yet.” He looked thoughtful. “They would present some unique difficulties.” Then he widened his eyes. “Oh, but you asked about this room. The hotel is full right now. You could, of course, return to your old room.” He looked hopeful.
He’d like that. Ivy prided herself on being even-tempered, but Holgarth totally ticked her off. “Fine. I’ll stay here.” Not waiting for his reply, she walked into the room and shut the door in his face. Then she leaned against it and closed her eyes.
Finally, she sighed and walked over to one of the chairs in the small sitting area. The big four-poster bed called to her, but if she gave in she’d be out as soon as her head hit the pillow. She had to stay awake until someone delivered her things.
She tried not to think. Attempting to figure things out when she was so tired wouldn’t work. Tomorrow morning, when her mind wasn’t a mushy banana, would be time enough to think about the weirdness.
Instead, she studied the room—dark period furniture, a stone floor covered with what looked like oriental rugs, and jewel-toned tapestries on the wall. Hello, Texas-gothic. The only thing missing was an open window with white sheers blowing gently in the night breeze and the scent of honeysuckle. Okay, so maybe that was southern gothic.
The knock interrupted her thoughts. She pried herself from the chair and opened the door. Holgarth stood there beside a man loaded down with her things. The wizard watched as the man dumped her clothes on the bed, her shoes on the floor, and everything else on the coffee table in the sitting area.
Love the five-star treatment here. But Ivy didn’t voice her thoughts because she wanted Holgarth to answer a question for her. She waited until the man left.
“I was on the beach tonight and I heard music. I don’t know where it was coming from, but it seemed...” What? Tempting, arousing, compelling? “Strange. Then I met a man—tall, long blond hair—and he asked me to dance with him.” This was dumb. Holgarth would just make fun of her. “I danced.”
She watched Holgarth’s face, expecting to see his usual disdainful expression. “Do you know if he’s staying in the castle?” Not that Ivy really cared. Okay, maybe she did care. A little.
The wizard stared back at her from eyes that gave nothing away. “If you hear the music again, cover your ears. And never agree to dance with him.” He sounded completely serious.
“Why?” There’s always a rational reason for everything.
Holgarth’s gaze speared her. “Explanations would be useless. Remember, you don’t believe in fairy tales.” He turned and walked away.
Well, that was totally unsatisfying. She closed the door and got ready for bed. After searching under her pillow for spiders, she relaxed enough to fall asleep.
And dreamt of the man, the music, and the dance.