PLAYING POKER with the Faerie gang was like taking candy from a unicorn. Smith chuckled as he stepped into the chaotic swirl of the Interstitial portal, his pockets chinking with gold, silver, and the odd jewel or two. He’d been having such a run of luck that he’d delayed leaving until the last moment. As a result, to get to work on time, he had to cut through the Vegas Interstices, one of his least favorite places in all the realms.
Vegas was an Interstitial hub—gates opened from all the realms directly into it, probably because, like its Earthside counterpart, the Vegas Interstices catered to every self-gratification, amusement, and vice that any entity could desire, regardless of their supernatural roots.
Smith hated the damned place even worse than he hated the demon realm where his mother still lived.
Before he’d signed on as Enchanted Occasions’ tech guru, he’d worked as a dealer in a casino here. The ILE—Interdimensional Law Enforcement—had a real stick up their collective ass about what they allowed demons to do, and the Vegas Interstices was one of the few places they relaxed their uptight rules.
The hours had suited him, anyway. Smith was not a morning person, and mornings weren’t any more popular here than in Earthside Las Vegas. Plus the endless buffet meant that he was never without the overdone meat that he needed to sustain his defective inner flame. But the edge of desperation that clung to everyone who stopped at his blackjack table was more than he could take.
And since the casino was demon owned and operated, the bets at his table weren’t cash, precious metals, or gemstones. They were pieces of the players’ souls.
The pit boss had called him on the carpet when Smith refused to collect the last soul crumb from an elderly satyr. During their argument, the guy found out Smith wasn’t a full demon: he was a HAH—a half-and-half, aka aitcher, someone who was a mixture of human and one or more supernatural races. The boss’s lip had curled in disgust, and he’d fired Smith on the spot.
It wasn’t until Smith signed on with Enchanted Occasions that he was judged not for his heritage, but for his skills and character. For that, he owed Mikos, EO’s owner, anything he cared to ask.
Even when that meant showing up for a gods-forsaken 6:00 a.m. meeting in the Athens Interstices.
The Athens Intergate was on the opposite side from the Faerie portal, so Smith cut through the grounds of the Twilight Carnival, a sprawling amusement park in the heart of the Interstices. The crowds were sparse enough at this hour that he could see the place was seedier than the last time he’d visited. Apparently the Carnival management didn’t share EO’s dedication to turning out a superior customer experience.
Along the midway the barkers made only a cursory attempt to lure him in to their games of chance. Half the light bulbs chasing around the painted sign over the ring toss game were burned out. The banners over the sideshow tents sagged on their guy ropes, their lurid pictures faded and grimy, and the door of the laser tag labyrinth tilted crazily on broken hinges.
Smith wondered how long it would be before the Interstices copied the Earthside Las Vegas pattern and wiped the whole thing out to start fresh.
A lackluster fanfare announced a sideshow bally, a teaser meant to draw the sparse crowd into the main tent. The talker, a hulking guy in an overdecorated red tailcoat, had a reasonable patter, but he needed to tone down his glare if he didn’t want to scare all the rubes away.
Still, as an exotic, seductive flute melody drifted over the substandard public address spell, Smith found himself swerving from his intended path. Would the act be as uninspired as the surroundings? Too often the performers ended up being aitchers, those who couldn’t find more self-respecting work elsewhere. Smith knew all about that—that’s why he’d been working in the damned casino.
As he approached, the curtains at the back of the bally platform parted, and someone stepped out. The shallow stage wasn’t very high, so the performer’s head was the only thing visible over the onlookers who had gathered to watch.
Smith got the impression of wavy, shoulder-length dark hair before the performer thrust a muscled arm into the air. A man, then. His smooth brown skin was encircled at the wrist by the gem-encrusted metal gauntlets that all the Carnival workers sported, and he held a flaming torch in his fist.
Fire. Totally my thing. Smith quickened his pace and shouldered his way to the middle of the audience. The performer was facing the rear of the stage. He wore loose white pants gathered at the ankle and held up by a wide maroon sash. He wasn’t wearing a shirt—just a short, heavily embroidered vest that fell several inches above his waist, exposing a wide swath of more smooth skin, just a shade lighter than Smith’s own. The music tempo increased as the performer tipped his head back, his hair rippling in the artificial breeze.
Smith’s neck prickled, and he clenched his fists in the pockets of his jeans. Something about that hair, the set of the shoulders, the texture of the skin—no, it couldn’t be. His hair was dark red, not black.
The performer slowly twirled the torch, then lowered it toward his opened mouth with excruciating slowness. Any human fire-eater depended on speed to avoid being burned. That this man could go so slowly… slowly… Lucifer’s balls, when would he extinguish the flame?
He’s got to be a fire demon.
When he finally closed his lips around the flame, red streaks shot through his hair.
Smith tensed, and he ground his teeth together. Not a fire demon. An ifrit.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the alarm skating up his spine. There are other ifrits in the realms. It doesn’t have to be him. Despite the need to get to Athens on time, Smith could no more have torn himself away than he could dive for pearls.
The barker handed the fire-eater two more torches, one for each hand, and this time, he danced with them first, drawing patterns in the air, undulating his body in a sinuous wave, keeping his back to the audience.
Then he twirled, flame flowing around him like a living scarf, and stopped in profile.
That nose, those cheekbones. His hair might be longer and the wrong color, but it’s him. Hashim.
Heat burned through Smith’s belly, chest, and throat as though he’d been the one swallowing flames, anger and hurt and resentment building at the sight of the man who’d betrayed him. The man he’d trusted enough to whisper his true name.
The man who’d left him.
Hashim continued his dance, his performance, his act. Yeah, he was good at acting. He’d had Smith fooled, hadn’t he? Poor beleaguered Hashim, forced against his will into the Consort Race, the competition for the hand of Prince Reyner of Faerie. Smith had comforted him as he would any distressed client, because hells, it was his fucking job, wasn’t it?
But with Hashim nestled in his arms, Smith’s impersonal pats had turned into way personal strokes, the buried fire in Hashim’s body lighting Smith up in a way he’d never experienced with any other lover. Usually he avoided any but the most necessary skin-to-skin contact—and forget kissing—because hookups with any partner who didn’t have a core of fire were too dangerous for the other guy.
With Hashim he hadn’t had to worry about that.
Like all fire-based races, if Smith’s inner flame died, he would too. His human genes prevented him from recharging it himself, but his body needed it, craved it, demanded it. And Hashim’s fire, the warmth of his skin, the heat of his mouth, the molten perfection of his spend, had filled the missing piece of Smith’s demon nature.
That night, for the first time, he’d been whole.
So like an idiot, he’d let himself hope, and fallen head over horns for a Pure.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Smith was supposed to be the smart one. The problem-solver. The go-to guy. He wasn’t supposed to sleep with a client, for Lucifer’s sake, no matter how incendiary their chemistry.
And now here he was, just as mesmerized by Hashim as he’d been six months ago when they’d spent the best night of Smith’s centuries-old life together.
Only to have Hashim betray him in the worst possible way for a demon, then abandon him without another word.