he bartender cut me and my fellow brethren off after our eighteenth drink. “I'll call you a ride,” he said, placing a cup of coffee in front of me. I shrugged, nearly falling off the bar stool. Maybe I did have one too many. I grinned at the black sheep with her tongue in my ear. “Hold that thought,” I said and rose from the stool. “I've gotta take a leak.”
“Baaahhhh,” she said in response.
I was shitfaced, literally, as I'd just slipped on a wet paper towel in the bathroom and landed face-first in a suspicious trail of brown sludge on the floor. Stomach rolling, I rubbed away the smelly substance from my cheek and shakily got to my feet. I turned on the bathroom faucet, waiting for the water to heat enough to boil my skin. After all, how would I explain a sudden case of E. coli of the cheek, let alone explain a bout of mad sheep disease?
My eyes glanced into the mirror and I shivered. “Mirror, mirror on the wall ... ,” I began.
“What the fuck do you want?” the mirror asked. I stumbled backward, smashing my head against the stall door. “Well?” the mirror asked again. “I haven't got all night.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Wrong fairytale.”
I staggered for the door, bouncing off the bathroom walls like a pinball. It took me a few minutes to find the exit, but once I did, I ran at full drunken stumble for the bar.
“Dudes,” I said. “You're not gonna believe this!”
“Hey.” I shook Cross-Stitch's shoulder. “Wake up. You won't believe what just ...” Cross-Stitch's head lolled to one side, blood leaking from his blue lips. “Ummm ... Cross-Stitch? Are you dead?”
I didn't expect an answer from him or the other two villains, each with ten inches of arrow sticking out of their chests. Pink feathers littered the bar floor.
Fuck. Natasha's killer was back, out there waiting in the dark. “Call the sheriff,” I yelled to the bartender. He ran out from the office, fuzzy black patches of sheep wool coating his bare chest.
“What happened?” he screamed. “Did you shoot them?” His eyes widened and he ran to the pay phone behind the bar. “Stay back,” he warned me, the phone at ready.
“I didn't do this.” I shook my head and took a step toward him. “It wasn't me.”
“I swear it.” I stumbled closer. “Someone else killed them. The same person who killed Natasha.”
“But you killed Natasha. The
New Never News
said so.” He nodded to the newspaper lying on the bar top. Sure enough, the front page read, H
“Come on,” I said. “Do you believe everything you read?”
Fair enough. I stepped forward, intent on grabbing the phone in the bartender's hand and calling the damn cops myself. Two feet away, my foot slid in a puddle of what I hoped was only blood. I flipped in the air, landing on my head. The blow and too much booze knocked me out for a few seconds. Little pink birds swirled around my head, and my vision faded to black.
When I came to, the bartender still stood behind the bar, the phone clutched in his hand. He was dead, though, a pink-tipped arrow through his throat. A pink-tipped arrow meant for me. My clumsiness had saved my life. And not for the first time. Dumb luck, sure, but luck nonetheless.
I staggered slowly to my feet and limped to the phone. “Nine-one-one. What's your emergency?” the operator asked through the static of the phone.
I lifted the receiver. “No emergency. Not anymore.” My eyes searched the shadows of the bar for a killer only to settle on Asia's pale face in the window.
She raised her hand and waved.
ome on,” Asia said, pulling me from the bar and into the dark night. One lone star shone down on us, making Asia glimmer like a diamond freshly mined by a dwarf. She paused in our escape long enough to brush a lock of my hair from my face. “We have to get you out of here before the sheriff arrives.”
“Why?” I rubbed my aching head.
Asia shook her head. “So you don't get arrested for murder, stupid!”
“Sweet talk's not going to work.” I grabbed her hand. Her skin felt cold against mine. “Why'd you do it? Those villains had nothing to do with us. Why kill them?”
“What?!” She shook her head. “Are you insane?”
“Not that I know of, but maybe you are. That would explain a few things.”
“Thanks a lot.” She smacked me in the arm. “But I didn't kill anyone. Mary called me to pick you up, so I did.”
“The bartender. Mary. Short for Marion.” Asia paused at my blank expression. “As in Marion had a little lamb?”
From what I could tell, Marion also had a little sheep on the side. But who was I to judge?
“When I arrived I saw you through the window and waved.” She leaned closer. “How drunk are you?”
“Not drunk enough to hallucinate four dead guys.” Yet drunk enough to believe Asia. Sure, she wanted me dead, and on occasion, had attempted to kill me, but why kill the other villains? Her aim wasn't that bad. “You did see them too, right?”
She nodded, her face pale in the moonlight. “Were they killed because they knew something about Cindi's death?”
Huh, I hadn't thought of that. It made sense, I supposed, or as much sense as anything else about this case did. Natasha knew Cindi's killer, and the villains knew Natasha.
A siren bellowed in the distance. Asia's face grew even paler. “Please hurry.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the street. “We have to get out of here.”
“Okay, okay.” I let her drag me to the king's bright blue moped, which sat parked at the curb, the engine still warm. I raised my eyebrow. She shrugged. “The cops haven't found my car yet. They're waiting for it to turn up in some villainous pork-chop-shop.”
I winced, picturing all the vehicles I pilfered in the last ten years. And the two years prior to that I spent backpacking through Europe. “Asia,” I began. “I'm so sorâ”
“Shhh.” She handed me a blue helmet that smelled suspiciously like the king, sort of a mixture of old man sweat and rotted meat. “We'll talk later. But right now, we have to get you out of here.”
“You're the boss.” I unsteadily straddled the bike.
Smiling, Asia threw her leg over the moped, nearly gelding me in the process. “Try to remember that,” she said before slamming the bike into gear.
We jerked forward at the top speed of fifteen miles per hour. Rather than falling to the concrete below, I wrapped my arms around Asia's cold flesh and held on for dear life.
At ten minutes before midnight I stumbled from the shower, my wet hair plastered to my head and a towel wrapped around my hips. The cold water had acted much like a gallon of coffee on my intoxicated soul. I could now slur my words at an amazing speed.
“Asia?” I staggered to Cinderella's pink bedroom. I half expected it to be empty, but when I pushed the door open, Asia sat on the edge of the bed like some Victorian maiden, her arms wrapped around her chest. She glanced up at me through veiled eyes, her lips parted.
“Hi,” she whispered.
She patted the quilt next to her. “Want to sit down?”
I wanted that and so much more, but I stayed where I was. Too much was at stakeâmy life, for one thing. “What's your game? I sit down and the bed explodes? A poison dart sticks me in the butt?”
“That wasn't quite what I had in mind.” Her lips curved into a wicked smile. More beautiful than a stolen diamond and just as costly, she made risking my life worth it.
My eyes trailed down her fiery hair, past her slender neck, and into the rich round swells hidden beneath her shirt. The towel around my waist suddenly tightened. Asia shot me a knowing grin.
Fuck it. I ran to the bed, snatching Asia up into my arms, never wanting to let her go. Mostly out of fear she'd try to kill me if I did. “I've missed you,” I said against her neck. Her skin warmed under my lips. I kissed a trail down her throat, to the slope between her breasts. She tasted as wonderful as I remembered, like the holidays. The good ones. Not the ones you had to spend with family.
“I want you,” I said, pulling away to stare into her eyes.
“I wasn't sure you still would.”
I gave a short, painful laugh. Not want her? I woke up every day for the last week wanting nothing more than to see Asia's face. Wanting to hold her in my arms. To kiss her red-stained lips.
Insecurity rose within me, partially from the booze, but mostly from years of mistrust and loneliness. I swallowed hard, brushing a finger over her parted lips. “Tell me you want me too.”
Rather than waste her time with words, she yanked my towel free. Her fingers stroked the length of my erection, teasing and tempting me to lose control. But I wouldn't make that mistake. Not tonight. Not ever again.
I grabbed her wandering fingers. “Does this mean I'm forgiven? No more assassination attempts?”
She pushed at my chest, knocking me back against the bed, and straddled me. “Would you believe me if I said yes?”
I looked into her eyes, nearly losing myself in their depths. “Would you be telling the truth?”
“I guess we'll have to wait and see.”
Using her body as leverage, I flipped her on her back and leaned over her. My fingers burrowed under her shirt, stroking the warm flesh of her breasts. Her breathing deepened. “I'm a patient man,” I said, moving my hand lower. “But just so you know.”
“Yes?” Her voice caught.
“Your time's up.” My mouth took possession of hers, our tongues jockeying for position. Win, lose, or draw, the orgasm was worth the risk.
ying next to me in bed, Asia ran her finger along my sweat-slicked chest. My breathing had just now returned to normal, yet my heart still pounded like the tortoise following accusations of doping. Like birds of a feather, we lay flocked together, our bodies entwined. As great as the sex wasâand trust me, it was mind-blowingly naughtyâlying here with Asia in my arms was heaven. Or as close to heaven as a blackhearted villain like me would get.
“RJ,” Asia began.
I gave her a small squeeze. “Hush, sweetheart. I know what you're going to say.”
I nodded. “You don't have to apologize. I messed up too. I should've told you the truth about who I was at the beginning. I can't blame you for being mad... . Trying to kill me, on the other hand ...”
“Pardon me?” Asia pulled away, her eyes searching my face.
Warning bells rang inside my head. What did I say? I was being gracious, damn it. “Baby,” I cleared my throat, “what's in the past is in the past. We both made mistakes.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “For your information, my only mistake was sleeping with an arrogant villain like you.”
Shoving the covers away, Asia launched herself from the bed. She jabbed her finger into my chest. “I wasn't going to apologize, you idiot. I was going to ask how black wool got inside your ear.”
Shit. I dug inside my ear canal and pulled out a ball of fuzz. Asia frowned at the lint ball, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“It's not what it looks like,” I said. “You see, I ...”
“Forget it.” Asia shook her head. “I should've knownâ”
The palace clock gonged, interrupting Asia's rant. Her face paled slightly as the clock continued to ring.
“What time is it?” she yelled.
I glanced at my watch. “Seven minutes after midnight. Why?”
“Shit,” she said as she ran from the room, her naked body gleaming in the moonlight.
“Asia, wait,” I yelled, but it was too late. My lovely, naked, and annoyed princess vanished down the corridor. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of her on my pillow. She smelled faintly of danger and pumpkin spice. I smiled, my skin still burning from her touch.
For a brief moment tonight, I found my happily-ever-after. Now I just needed to convince Asia of that fact.
My first thought upon waking was Asia finally succeeded. I was dying, and nobody could save me. My head felt like a lead weight, and my stomach seconded that assumption. Bile crawled up my throat, burning my esophagus with even the slightest of breaths. “Hungover” was too nice a word for what I felt. Even the toe jam between my little piggies hurt. I suspected, given half a chance, they would go wee wee wee all the way to rehab.
“Aaaaahhhh.” I opened my eyes, praying for death.
“Morning, dear,” a voice said from the bed next to me. I shook my head, not surprised to find yet another Maledetto family member in my bed.
“My lady,” I said to the queen, ignoring the ringing inside my brain. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
The queen twirled the end of one of her red curls. Dressed in a morning gown and slathered in age-defying makeup, she should've looked fresh as a daisy. Instead, the queen appeared as haggard as Baba Yaga after a rough night. Her face held a greyish tint and deep circles marred her eyes. A red pimple protruded from the tip of her nose, as did a few stray black hairs. Suddenly I noticed Dru's resemblance to her mother. Not a pretty sight.
“Where is he?” asked the queen.
“The king.” Her voice hitched. “He never came home last night.”
Right. I forgot the king's extraâbachelor party activity. The thought of him and the stripper sent waves of sickness throughout my body. Either that or the bottle and a half of booze I'd consumed the night before.
I sat up in the bed, holding my head and groaning. I vowed never to drink again. Since my liver doubted my sincerity, the bile filled my throat. I ran for the trash can by the door, missed, and ended up yakking on my bare feet. My eyes slowly rose from my naked toes, up my calves, to the nude juncture between my thighs.
“I guess what they say about villains is true.” The queen motioned to my naughty bits. I blushed, quickly covering myself with my hands. Or trying to, because the queen was right, us villains had smaller than normal hands.
I crabwalked back to the bed and lunged under the covers. The queen smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.
“My lady,” I began.
She held up a hand. “Just tell me. Is she prettier than me?”
“The skank my husband is with, you dolt!”
I shook my head. “My lady. Your husband loves you.” If by love I meant “wishes you were dead.” “He would never break his vows.” The ones in which he swore to love, honor, and murder you in your sleep, I wanted to add, but given the crazy look in the queen's eyes, I refrained.
“Are you sure?”
I nodded, not sure about anything, let alone the old king's fidelity. He had left with the old stripper, after all. Then again, even the king of Maledetto could do better. Not much better. But a little bit better nonetheless.
“Well, in that case,” the queen bounded from my bed and hurried to the door, her skirt tangling around her ankles, “I must prepare a âspecial' breakfast.”
“One fit for a king?”
She shot me a wicked smile and closed the door behind her loud enough to rattle my already aching head. I considered puking again, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Instead I relaxed against my pillow and sighed.
A cool breeze swept underneath my door, and a familiar scrap of paper danced around before quietly falling to the floor.
Son of a witch.
Head pounding, I slowly rose from the bed and knelt next to the paper. Coffee stains and lipstick frayed the edges, but the signature was easy to read: Nigel de Wolfe. My missing receipt. The one Miss Muffet had stolen from my pocket.
What was it doing here? I snatched up the receipt. Had the queen dropped it in her hurry to murder the king? Or had it fallen from Asia's gown last night?