DISHES CLATTERED against metal, adding more noise to the shouts and jabbering of the catering staff. Noah sidestepped a waiter on their way out, ducked under a platter that came at his head, and grabbed a fresh tray of drinks. The champagne barely swished as he took hold of the silver tray from the prep table and twisted back toward the door. He navigated through the chaos without tipping a glass or ramming into anyone.
Once out in the hall, the staff had plenty of room to maneuver, and the raised voices from the kitchen were abruptly muted by an enchanted archway. Heaven forbid the high-and-mighty mages heard the staff bickering or saw them scramble to complete a task. Their world was like an undisturbed sea, motionless and weightless. Everyone outside their circles existed only to serve—or like Noah and other warlocks, simply weren’t meant to exist at all.
Noah took a deep breath and adopted a neutral expression. Step one was almost over. After step five, he’d be the rich bastard who insisted on having his whims fulfilled.
The massive ballroom glittered from the mages’ finery and the dust dropped by the fey who chose to mingle among the elite mortals. In the center the young, the beautiful, and the eligible did their best to display grace, poise, and expensive dance lessons. Count the attire and jewelry along with the price of that education and Noah would have been set for three lifetimes if he continued living on the cheap.
So tempting to lift a few high-end accessories as he moved through the crowd. But these were mages of the Enduring Circle. Any piece worth taking would have a locater enchantment. The last thing Noah needed was some pissed-off mage showing up at his apartment and dropping him in the Chicago River. Besides, he had a mission, and Felix Hughes did not tolerate fuckups.
Keeping his hands to himself, his tray up, and blank face on, Noah distributed the bubbly flutes until the last piece of crystal disappeared. Finally the party swelled to a few hundred people, and the security guards didn’t notice as he bypassed the kitchen hall for the restrooms. Noah grinned as he pushed open the door to the men’s room. Step one done, on to two.
In a low, quick sweep, he ensured the two stalls were empty. No one had followed him down the hall, so he had at least a few precious seconds. He hopped onto the marble counter and lifted the large round mirror away from the wall by an inch. Ostentatious taste worked in his favor, as the frame perfectly concealed the serving tray. Noah eased the mirror flat again before sliding back to the floor. He ducked into a stall and locked it just as two men entered.
“Greer isn’t going to change his damn mind. We need Snyder,” a nasal voice said. “We need proof of a threat.”
“Pendragon is running that neighborhood. That’s proof enough,” a gruff man complained.
Noah undid the buttons of his white waiter’s jacket and flipped it inside out in near-silent motions. Sliding on the now-black tuxedo jacket and fussing with the collar, he cocked his head to the side as the men continued talking. No one else at the party had mentioned Pendragon, his master. He slipped tiny wand cufflinks into place and worked on his red-and-copper bow tie.
“Anytime we talk to the warlocks, Pendragon is absent,” Nasal Wonder said. “We can’t afford to storm their territory of who-knows-what for no result—or worse.”
“They’re a bunch of pissants,” Grumble replied. The dual sounds of zippers and accompanying bathroom noises made Noah want to swear. These assholes had to leave the bathroom before he completed his disguise. “A real show of force, and the warlocks would trip over themselves to get away.”
“Pendragon was set to become a magus.”
“From a weak house.”
“You haven’t seen the way these warlocks fight.”
“I have,” Grumble said. “No honor and in packs, like rats. Maybe we should get a good dog. Snap some necks.”
“You’ll never convince Snyder with that kind of talk. If we move without him and it backfires, Greer will oust Hyde from the Council, and then it’s you and me against three. Knowing Greer, he’ll bring Pendragon on and start making those warlocks legitimate.”
“Annoying upstart bastard.”
Greer was a rarity. Noah had never heard of any mage, other than Pendragon, willing to stand up for the warlocks. He’d chosen the Warren House colors for the sake of his master, but maybe he should have done a little more research.
“What we need is an assassin,” Grumble continued. “Pendragon dies and the rest will scatter. The whole ‘community’ will go underground.”
Nasal Voice laughed, a skin-crawling sound. “They’d go back to teaching themselves useless parlor tricks, crying that they really do have power.”
Noah rolled his shoulders, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. These assholes weren’t going to distract him from the mission. He only had to keep his calm a few more minutes, and they’d leave. Sounds of rushing water and grabbed paper towels were a freaking blessing at this point. The men started up some other conversation, but their voices faded as they left the bathroom.
Finding the headspace to meditate on his magic was hard with the conversation echoing through his thoughts. Wounded pride made for a poor anchor. Spite, on the other hand, cemented his will. Noah lightly grabbed his spell’s focus item, a brass ring on his left index finger, and dove into the mental space where his magic waited. A plunge like into water, though breathing became easier. His magic was a chilled bath, soaking him down to the bone. It wanted out, to shape reality to his desire. When his bones had that familiar ache, he murmured the spell’s quick chant.
His scalp tingled—a good sign—and the smell of burnt ozone filled the air. That was why he’d done it in the bathroom. No one would suspect an unpleasant smell in there meant someone had cast magic. After all, only a warlock thief who needed to change his hair from brown to blond would be bold enough to perform a spell at a party. Everyone might carry a wand, but like so many other things at a mage’s celebration, they were all for decoration.
Noah opened the stall door and caught his reflection in the mirror. He played with his blond hair a little to recapture the tousled style. His illusion held up under a slight touch. Good. He’d be able to move through the crowds without worrying about the strength of his spell.
“Take that for ‘useless parlor trick.’”
Affecting a practiced sycophant’s smile, he headed back to the party. He grabbed a crab puff and a champagne flute. Step two finished. Three was trickier. He had to engage in the party without sticking out. Just another face in the crowd.
Though these faces weren’t forgettable. Mages produced an endless line of handsome men. Noah resigned himself to updating his mental catalog of fantasy material, rather than risk flirting. The less information he gave away, the less likely anyone would remember him. Rewards would come after the job. He’d buy a whole case of the champagne he didn’t dare drink. Maybe two if he continued behaving himself.
Mages refused to show that level of restraint. Women wore extravagant gowns in their houses’ colors. The dresses were more amazing upon closer inspection, but Noah’s gaze kept wandering over the men. Coldwell blue and gold dominated many of the ties while Greer gray, Hyde brown, and Snyder black and silver were interspersed among the crowd. No surprise the Coldwells had such a showing. This mansion was the seat of their power in Chicago. Elias Coldwell, their magus and head of house, was the one throwing this expensive party.
Noah swirled the champagne. Just out of reach was the brightest gold bracelet he’d seen all night, and the owner didn’t seem particularly sober. If he nabbed it, he could get a couple hundred bucks, easy. And the diamond ring on that man’s hand could net over a thousand with the right fence.
Looking wasn’t the same as taking. He could evaluate all night. Better than the fantasies about the men since he didn’t get quite as riled up over jewelry.
“You must be one of Victor’s friends,” a smooth male voice said in Noah’s ear. Intimately close, the man’s breath played along Noah’s hair and over his neck, as if a kiss would follow.
The resulting involuntary blood rush downward was so quick that Noah shivered. His tingling scalp—meaning the illusion of blond hair was still holding—didn’t ease the teasing sensation. He replastered his partier’s smile on his lips and turned around to politely tell the man to fuck off.
Holy pentacles, what a man. Just over six feet, broad shouldered, and brown eyes so warm Noah swore some part of his heart thawed, the handsome stranger was every bit the model for the Enduring’s wealthy and attractive. He had a bright, shining smile and a strong jawline. His tie was Coldwell blue and his tux impeccably tailored to his perfect form. Noah wondered if he was as muscular as he seemed, or whether that was another of the night’s deceptions. If they were both naked and Noah was pinned up against a wall, begging in anticipation, he wasn’t sure he would care.
Suddenly his throat was too dry, his well-cut pants too tight, and he couldn’t make his mouth move. Shit. Gawking would draw more attention. He downed the champagne. Bubbles burned the back of his throat. With a wince he set the glass on a passing tray and prayed the gorgeous man beside him hadn’t seen the micro moment of pain. Mages probably drank like that all the time. He needed to act like he belonged, not like some lusty teenager discovering his first glorious porn image.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Makes sense. I don’t see Victor or any of his friends trailing after you. Where are you visiting from?”
“Endless or Immortal?”
Double shit. The Warrens didn’t belong to either of those East Coast circles. Either this was a test, or the man was ignorant.
Noah grinned to cover the nerves crawling in his stomach. “Golden Light.”
“I thought the Endless absorbed them last year.”
A mild panicked voice in the back of Noah’s mind looped warning signals. He had been discovered. However, the man wasn’t hauling him out yet. He couldn’t bail after a few potentially wrong words.
“There’s always talk,” Noah said. “I think Hyde assumed they would because of the wedding two years ago.”
“Were you there?”
“Didn’t think so. I would have remembered bumping into you.” The gorgeous stranger flashed a grin. “What drags you to our humble abode?”
Humble. Sure, in some places four giant chandeliers in the ballroom alone would seem humble. “The unveiling of the legendary Ross Weldrick collection, of course.”
“It’s brought more people than I anticipated. I hear mages have come from as far as India tonight.”
“A magus rarely reveals his treasures in such a public setting,” Noah replied.
“What else would you do with the original master’s collection but gloat?” The man took two champagne flutes from a passing waiter and held one out to Noah.
Refusing a gift in this company was almost as bad as slapping them. Noah grabbed the drink, and his fingers brushed against the stranger’s. His magic rushed to the surface. The warm bath pulled him under, deeper, wider. He was dropped into a lake—no, an ocean of comforting confidence. Warm and willing.
The crash of magic continued as Noah took the glass and broke physical contact. Maybe the man’s eyes were keeping him under. He bit his cheek and lowered his gaze, metaphysically breaking his head above the water. Magic ruined the world as much as it made life worth living. His companion was attractive. He didn’t need his magic to be compatible with him.
“I didn’t catch your name,” the man said.
“Noah.” For once he was glad of a mage custom. A good practitioner could mimic a cadence after hearing a full name once. To prevent foes cursing them, mages only shared first names and dressed in their house’s colors to show family. “And you are?”
“You’re a local?”
“You must be proud of your magus and his collection.”
“Oh, definitely,” Ben said as though the collection was about as interesting as three weeks’ worth of laundry.
When Noah brought his gaze back, he found Ben staring at him like Noah were the Most Interesting Man. Their height difference bordered on comical, but it gave Noah an excuse to stop looking directly into those beautiful brown eyes while he finished his drink. Someone else must be willing to plaster themselves against that broad chest. He glanced around to discover they had somehow gotten a small bubble of personal space.
Noah swallowed the rest of his drink, then set the empty glass on a passing tray. The waiter frowned and studied him for a moment too long, as if trying to place him. So much for blending in. At his current rate, Noah might as well rip the pearls off the elderly woman standing nearby and wave them around like a lasso.
“I’m not used to splitting attention when I’m flirting with someone,” Ben said.
“I bet you aren’t.”
“Handsome men hitting on you must be commonplace.”
“Come on, have you seen my ass?”
Ben had a glorious deep chuckle. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it.”
Damn it. This guy wasn’t going to move on. Noah could try for boring, but he doubted that would shake him. He took a deep breath, preparing some bullshit line in a dull voice, and made the mistake of glancing up into Ben’s eyes.
When their gazes met for the second time, magic pulsed over him. Stories whispered late at night mentioned reactions this strong, but that possibility was too terrifying to entertain. And completely implausible. Ben must have cast a charm spell, except his eyes widened in surprise as well.
Distancing conversation. Right. Noah slid his hands into his pockets. “I heard the Enduring is having trouble with Pendragon.”
“Only because the Council gets a perverse kick out of picking on the less powerful. If we leave him alone, he’ll do the same for us.”
Hot and a warlock sympathizer. Damn Lady Luck for bringing Ben into his life on this particular night. Screw being forgettable or pushing him away. Noah deserved a little fun. “Does your Circle really power itself through orgies?”
Ben laughed, a loud, bright sound that was better than the previous chuckle. “Been a while since anyone brought that up.”
“No one has done that for a long time.”
Ben leaned closer still. He smelled of sandalwood and something sweet, honey or syrup. His voice was a caress against Noah’s ear. “Would a visualization help?”
That was a welcome invitation. Noah couldn’t help himself. “Wonder if it’s as big as your ego.”
“Amazing that your movement isn’t hindered.”
“Let me show you how graceful I can be.” Ben held out his hand.
Crap, he moved fast. Ben was a Coldwell and probably knew the mansion well enough to find a place for a quick screw, but out-of-bounds territory was risky.
Turning Ben down went against every hopeful fiber in Noah’s body. Hell with it. He couldn’t pass this up. He put his hand into Ben’s.
Swifter and surer, his magic rose again. If touching was this strong, screwing might drive him insane. Noah’s pulse raced, and he tightened his grip. A single note of music pushed through him, then another, so that Noah wasn’t sure if their magic was singing at each other or the orchestra was striking up a waltz.
Instead of leading them through some door, Ben drew him farther into the party, lightly pulling him into the dancing masses. Somewhere along the line, he disposed of his champagne flute and placed his free hand on Noah’s waist as they joined the other dancers. They eased into the pattern, which meant the music was external. Good, though Noah was still breathless.
Mages taught their students ballroom dancing as a form of concentration and meditation. Trust, tempo, balance, and environment were the important elements to completing a spell. Pendragon instituted the same practice in his makeshift school, and Noah was one of the few students who caught on early in his studies and enjoyed learning.
That had to be why he fell into rhythm with Ben despite being caught off-guard by the dance. With muscle memory, Noah took the part of follower, engaged far more with Ben than watching where they were going. Maybe it was the magic, maybe it was having a hot man look at him with something other than immediate lust in his eyes, but doubt over Ben’s ability to lead never crossed his mind.
Noah was not lovesick for a man he just met. No one swept him off his feet. He changed the step at the start of the next dance. If Ben couldn’t follow every once in a while, he wasn’t worth the effort. Instead of fighting, Ben switched fluidly, without a word, and matched Noah’s every move. They swapped again at the start of the next song.
Noah’s vision never strayed far from Ben’s face. He switched his hold over and over, confirming that, yes, that was firm muscle under the fancy tuxedo. Ben’s touches remained as chaste as the dances allowed, only making Noah want to grind upward more. He fought to keep his face and touch as relaxed as Ben. The harder fight was keeping himself from falling for the handsome man.
If mages felt this powerful and wanted all the time, no wonder they looked down on the rest of the world so much.
The music ended, and the room erupted into applause. Ben broke off contact to clap. Noah’s head spun from the sudden lack of his presence, and he fumbled to keep his hands at the same pace as the rest of the room. He checked his watch. Forty minutes had passed. Holy crap.
“You’re good,” Ben murmured in his ear.
Noah turned toward him again. A kiss wasn’t too bold after a dance like that. He slid his hands along Ben’s chest and gripped his lapel, ready to lean up—for once unashamed he’d have to roll onto his toes if he was going to meet a tall man’s lips. Ben tilted his head down.
An older man clapped his hand on Ben’s shoulder, actually dragging Ben back a step. The interloper was a merry drunk, judging by his pink cheeks and unsteady hand. He didn’t appear to notice, or care, that Ben and Noah were having a private moment. He had a self-confident smile only the truly wasted managed.
“Benny! I have been searching for you all night.”
“Uncle David,” Ben said with a curt note. “I thought you weren’t able to make it.”
“No one in Seattle wanted me to mediate after all. Didn’t want to miss all the hard work you and your sister put into this fete.” David grinned at Noah. “Fair warning, little Warren, Elias is a picky bastard when it comes to partners in our family. Magus Coldwell insists on the brightest and most talented, especially for his progeny.”
The blood drained out of Noah’s face, from every part. He was pretty sure it was evaporating straight out of his body and into nothingness because sweet perfect pentacles, he had been dancing with one of Elias Coldwell’s children. Noah had seen Alyssa, the daughter, which made Ben the son. The one the staff whispered and giggled about. The heartless playboy who had banged his way through the Enduring’s eligible—and a few times not-so-eligible—men. Out of all the people at the party, Noah had been dancing the best moment of his life with Number Four of his Do-Not-Engage list.
Noah stepped away and hid the shake of his hand. “Excuse me, I think I see—”
“Noah, wait.” Ben pushed David’s hand off and reached for Noah.
Another touch and he would be caught under the swell of their magic. Noah slipped away into the crowd and resisted the urge to run for the nearest exit. He still had a job to do and a boss he couldn’t afford to disappoint.
But God, he should have known better than to spend time with Ben. He should have stalked social media until he found a picture of every family member instead of shrugging it off and counting on the large crowds. Lady Luck was a fair-weather friend. He never should have trusted that one in six or seven hundred was decent odds to avoid him.
Familiar with overpopulated streets and busy train stations, making his way through the party was no challenge. By the time Noah reached the hallway leading to the bathrooms, he had gained a sizable lead. He rammed through the bathroom door and slammed each stall door open. No one inside. At least luck hadn’t completely forsaken him.
Noah pulled a pendant from under his shirt and clasped his hand around it. An invisibility spell would take too much energy to maintain, but the focus was good for a look-away spell too. His pulse pounded in his ears. He dropped the spell for blond hair, getting a small rush of comfort at seeing his natural brown. He needed to be himself now, not the flirt who managed to get the attention of the absolutely wrong man.
One breath, two, three. The easy tempo of a waltz. A step in a dance through his power. Ben’s hands on him. Wrong thought. Noah cleared his mind and called on his magic, expecting the shallow dip.
His power crashed over him, nearly choking at first. Mentally he twisted with it, finding the course in the metaphysical tides. He channeled the next wave into his look-away spell. After one chant, he felt the magic coat him. He opened his eyes. Usually a thin film settled over his senses, as if he had to experience the world through gauzy fabric. This time he had no more than a spiderweb’s disturbance, light and airy.
Touching Ben had made him stronger. People in the neighborhood whispered about this kind of power. Some practitioners said the response was more than simple compatibility. This was something else, something older.
But he could wonder about its meaning later. With the supercharge running through his magic, he wasn’t weary or fatigued by the ongoing spell. A minor consolation since he might be giving up his soulmate to steal some old dagger.