“In other words, you’d kill me, so I couldn’t punish you for your betrayal.”
“ ‘Kill’ is such an ugly word. I’d simply make sure that I was out of your reach.”
I shook my head. He was hopeless. “What woman wouldn’t jump on that offer?”
“I would never lie to you, Kate. It’s one of the perks I offer you.”
“I’m overcome with gratitude. Have you ever loved anyone, Saiman?”
This was a pointless conversation. “I know a man who is in love with my friend. He loves her absolutely. The only thing he wants in return is for her to love him.”
Saiman arched his eyebrows, imitating me. “And?”
“You’re the exact opposite of him. You lack the capacity to love, so you want to smother mine as well.”
He laughed. His laughter rang inside the vehicle, an eerie soundtrack to the crumbling city.
FORTY MINUTES LATER SAIMAN PULLED INTO A parking lot before a large mansion. We’d climbed north, far into the affluent part of Atlanta, but this house made “affluent” sound like an insult. Too large for its lot, the building sprawled, rising two oversized stories into the night and edging its southern neighbors out of the way. When Atlanta’s rich built new houses, they typically imitated antebellum Southern style, but this monster was decidedly English: redbrick, huge windows, dark ivy frosted with new snow, and a balcony. All it needed was a fresh-faced English miss in a lacy dress.
“What’s this?” I eyed the windows that spilled yellow electric light onto the snow.
“Bernard’s.” Saiman sank a world of meaning into the word, which whistled happily over my head.
I glanced at him.
“It’s a party house.”
“I hope for your sake it’s a very tame party.” If he had taken me to some sort of sex orgy, he would fly right through one of those pretty windows, headfirst.
“Not that kind,” he assured me. “It’s a place where Atlanta’s rich and influential gather to be seen and to be social. Technically it’s a restaurant, but the patrons are the real draw, not the food. The atmosphere is informal and most people mingle, drink in hand.”
Oh boy. Rich and influential. Precisely the crowd I wanted to avoid. “And you brought me here?”
“I warned you that you would be on display. Please don’t grind your teeth, Kate. It makes your jaw look more square.”
Saiman parked at the end of the lot.
“People who patronize Bernard’s rarely relinquish control of their cars.”
I slid Slayer between the seats and opened my car door. Getting out without catching the heel of my shoe on my hem took a moment, and by the time I had accomplished this feat of dexterity, Saiman was there with his arm and his smile.
Why did I agree to this again? Aaah yes. Because I had no choice.
I let Saiman walk me up the steps. Above us a couple on the balcony laughed at something. The woman’s laughter had a slightly hysterical pitch.
We negotiated a vestibule and a luxurious staircase, and Saiman escorted me to the second floor, where a number of small tables dotted a wide room. A smiling hostess in a tiny black dress led us to a table. I sat so I could see the door and surveyed the crowd. Expensive women and expensive men traded pleasantries. A few glanced at us. No hired help. Odd.
“Where are the bodyguards?” I murmured.
“Bernard’s is a sanctuary,” Saiman said. “Violence is strictly prohibited. Should someone break the rule, the entirety of Atlanta’s elite would rise to bring him down.”
In my experience, when the violence broke out, the entirety of Atlanta’s elite scattered and ran for its life.
Saiman ordered cognac, I ordered water. The drinks arrived almost immediately. Saiman picked up his heavy crystal glass, warming the amber liquid it held with his palm. Déjà vu. We’d done this song and dance at the Midnight Games.
“Just so you know: if a rakshasa shows up, I left my sword in the car.”
Saiman’s affable expression gained an edge. “It was a dreadful affair. Thankfully it’s behind us.”
He drained his glass. In seconds he had another, emptied that one as well in a single swallow, and was brought a fresh one.
I leaned forward and nodded at the cognac about to chase its fellows down Saiman’s throat. “What’s the rush?”
“It’s simply sugar.” He shrugged and emptied the glass. “I exerted myself earlier today and need to replenish my resources.”
The waiter flittered by and deposited a huge square bottle of cognac on the table. “With our compliments, sir.”
Saiman nodded and splashed cognac into his glass. His hand shook slightly. Saiman was nervous. I scrutinized the set of his jaw. Not just nervous, but angry. He was psyching himself up for something and fueling it with liquid courage. Not good.
He noticed me looking. Our eyes met. His lips curved in a smile. Unlike the self-satisfied smile of an expert taking pride in his accomplishment, this was the smile of a man looking at a woman and fantasizing.
I gave him my flat stare. Down, boy.
“You look so surprisingly striking, Kate,” Saiman murmured and gulped cognac down like it was water.
Saiman leaned forward. “I would buy you a new dress every weekend just for the privilege of sliding it off of you.”
Not in this lifetime. “You’re drunk.”
“Nonsense.” He poured more liquor. “It’s my third glass.”
He studied the amber liquid. “Do men often tell you you’re enchanting?”
“No. Men often tell me I hit very hard.” Hint, hint.
“Every woman should be told she’s attractive. Men are seduced by their eyes, women by their ears. I would tell you every night and every morning.”
He was just going and going. “That’s nice.”
“You would like it.” Half of the cognac was already gone. Even with his racehorse-on-crack metabolism, he had to be wasted. “You would like the things I would say. The things I would do.”
“Sure, I would.” Maybe if Mr. Casanova drank himself under the table, I’d get the waiter to help me carry him down to the parking lot and we’d call it a night.
Worry nagged at me. I’d never seen Saiman drunk. Drinking, yes, but not drunk.
I glanced behind me. At the far wall sat a large table full of hors d’oeuvres. If I couldn’t prevent him from drinking, perhaps I could distract him with food.