They all looked at her.
She felt sick at her own stupidity. “I forgot Tiyana’s present back at my house. Oh, I can’t believe I was so—” she stopped as Darling held it up for her to see.
She smiled at him. “Thank you. You guys really are on top of everything, aren’t you?”
Darling flashed a charming grin. “It’s what we do, princess.” He winked at her.
A few minutes later, Jayne pulled up across the street from Tiyana’s high-rise. She got out and headed inside while they stayed in the car and Darling set up surveillance. Kiara sat forward as he programmed small probes that he released onto the sidewalk. They skittered like bugs in different directions.
“What do those do?”
Darling pulled out a slim, tiny laptop and entered information into it. “They scan conversations, looking for key phrases. If they hear one, it’s transmitted to me for review. If it’s a threat, I forward it to Nyk and Syn.”
“How do they know where to go?”
“It’s programmed.” He showed her a column on his computer. “I can also make adjustments here.”
Nykyrian pressed his earpiece. “Jayne’s inside. Our turn.” He got out first, scanned the street, then held the door for her and Syn. It was so strange to see him play a subservient role, when it was definitely not in his nature to submit to anyone.
Kiara tucked her hand into the crook of Syn’s elbow as he led her up to the top floor where Tiyana’s party was being held in her lavish apartment, which took up the entire floor.
She and Tiyana had been classmates and best friends at several academies while growing up, and as adults they both danced for the same company. When Kiara had first started looking for her own place to live, Tiyana had insisted she live close by so they could continue their lengthy gossip sessions and late-night food binges whenever they were between shows.
Nykyrian stepped in front of them to ring the bell, then stood with his back to the wall so that he could watch the hallway while they waited.
Tiyana opened the door, her beautiful face beaming as she recognized Kiara. “Sweetie!” she exclaimed, drawing Kiara into a fierce hug. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t come.”
Kiara smiled, pulling out of the hug before Tiyana broke her ribs. Tiyana was everything she’d always wanted to be—tall, blonde, voluptuous, gorgeous, and sophisticated, not to mention strong. “How could I miss it? It’s not every day you turn twenty-six.”
Tiyana shuddered and put her finger to her perfectly rouged lips. “Don’t say that so loud,” she whispered, looking around to make sure no one heard them. “I’ve told all the promoters I’m twenty-two. If they ever found out how close to thirty I am . . .” She held her hand up to her head like a blaster and pretended to pull the trigger.
Kiara laughed at the gesture. “Do me the same favor and we’ll call it even.”
“Done.” Tiyana pulled her into another hug.
At least until she realized Kiara wasn’t alone. Tiyana stiffened as she swept a curious glance over Syn. “Who’s your . . . friend?”
Syn oozed charm as he took Tiyana’s hand into his and placed a debonair kiss on her knuckles that made Tiyana visibly shiver. “Sheridan Belask, miratoi. It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve been an admirer of yours since that brilliant interpretation of Terigov that you did three years ago. It was stunning, as are you.”
Tiyana preened under the praise. “Oh, thank you . . . um, Mister . . . or Lord Belask?”
“Please, call me Sheridan.”
“Sheridan.” Tiyana’s gaze went to Nykyrian and widened in trepidation.
Syn waved a dismissive hand in a way any nobleman would envy. “My bodyguard and servant. I hope you don’t mind? I find that in my position in life there are those who are always looking to take a shot at me. I’m sure you understand.”
“Absolutely. Please, come in.” She stepped back so that they could enter.
Tiyana grabbed Kiara close as soon as they were inside and whispered in her ear. “Oh my God, girl! He is the hottest thing on two legs.”
“Who else! You have been holding out on me.” Kiara glanced over to Nykyrian, who scanned the crowd with precision. True to his word, he stood back, but not so much that he couldn’t get to her in a heartbeat if need be. Then she looked at Syn who was pulling two glasses of wine off a passing tray.
Yeah, he was choice, but compared to Nykyrian . . .
He just didn’t compete, in her mind.
Kiara smiled as he offered her a glass. She handed the present to Tiyana before she took the proffered drink. “Thank you.”
Tiyana shook the box. “Let me guess, clothes?”
Kiara rolled her eyes. “I hate when you do that.”
Tiyana laughed. “That’s what friends are for. Let me go toss it on my loot pile. I know I’m going to love it. You always have the best taste.” She looked around the huge crowd. “I think you know everyone here. If not, just give me a wink and I’ll introduce you.” She then pulled Kiara to her and whispered in her ear, “Paulus is here and he’s drunk off his arse, so be warned.” Tiyana wandered off in the crowd.
Syn gave her a wicked grin. “He’s not the only one flagged off his ass.” He downed the wine in one gulp before he grabbed another glass.
“Why do you do that?”
“Cause it’s easier to keep a buzz going when it’s in place than to have to start from scratch once you’re sober. Not to mention, if you keep drinking, you don’t have to contend with a hangover.”
Kiara shook her head at his reasoning.
Syn scanned the crowd with the same precision Nykyrian used, except she noticed the way his gaze would pause on particularly nice jewelry as if mentally calculating its value. As well as pause on any attractive woman and her ‘assets.’ “So who is this Paulus dick?”
Kiara cringed in distaste. “He’s a walking nightmare. His father made a fortune with their media company before becoming an art sponsor and, as a result, Paulus thinks he should have the privilege of sleeping with any dancer who catches his eye.”
“I can tell you love him.”
“Yeah, like a boil in my nether regions.”
Syn laughed out loud. “Nether regions, huh? I’m going to have to remember that one.”
Kiara searched the huge gathering for friendly faces. So much for Tiyana’s comment that she’d only invited a “few” friends and associates. It looked like everyone Tiyana had ever spoken with was here.
She glanced back at Nykyrian. At least he was a friendly face.
Well, given his lethal glower as he watched everyone around him, maybe friendly was stretching it a bit. But he was familiar to her. She sipped at her wine while Syn downed another glass, then moved on to something harder.
Kiara spun around to face Elfa Dicuta, her understudy and worst enemy. Ugh, did she have to be here?
I should have stayed home. Had she known Elfa was invited, she would have.
And even though she wanted to snatch every strand of dark hair out of the woman’s head, she had to be nice to the little toad. “Hi Elfie,” she said, using the nickname she knew the backbiting woman hated, “how are you?”
Elfa gave her one of her notorious fake smiles. “Just fine, sweetie. I can’t tell you how sorry I am you had to pull out of the show. I feel just terrible about it.”
I’ll bet. “So how’s the show going?”
This time, Kiara suspected the smile might be real. “Great. Absolutely great. They say that it’s making even more money now than when you were the star.”
Probably because they weren’t having to pay Elfa the same amount of money . . .
Elfa’s eyes drifted to where Nykyrian stood with his back to a wall. “Didn’t you come in with that Andarion over there?”
Kiara tightened her grip on her glass, wanting to toss it in Elfa’s face. “Yes, I did.”
A scheming look crossed Elfa’s face. “The promoters might not like that. Andarions are a controversial thing.” Kiara detected a hopeful note under the girl’s tone. “Have you been hooked up with him long?”
Syn stepped forward with a snide grin. “She’s not hooked up with him, love. He’s my bodyguard. I, on the other hand, am the one she’s here with.”
A calculating look darkened her eyes as she took in the expensive shoes and suit Syn wore. Her smile turned flirtatious. “And you are?”
“One of the reviewers who wrote that you were a piss-poor substitute for Kiara and that the entire system is saddened by the loss of her from the show. I was just telling her that if she doesn’t return soon and they leave your clumsy ass in, the show’ll be closing prematurely for sure.”
Elfa’s nostrils widened. “You’re a pig!”
Furious, she stalked off.
Kiara tsked at Syn, even though she was grateful for what he’d done. “You are so wrong.”
“Always, my love. Always. I hate conniving, insincere people. My father used to say you have friends for a reason and friends for a season. That bitch there is definitely the kind you have for a reason and that is only if it’s serving her.”
Kiara saluted him with her wineglass. “It amazes me how quickly and accurately you and Nykyrian sum people up. Terrifies me what you must think of me.”
“There’s only one word for you.”
She cringed at the thought. “And that is?”
This time, she scoffed at the preposterousness of that. “Hardly.”
“Trust me, princess. You are what we affectionately call a snap.”
“Easy to fool and to lead astray. But don’t worry. It’s not an insult by any means. I envy you that ability to look at people and not see the ugliness inside their souls.”
“I’m not as blind as you think.”
He downed his glass of whisky. “Yes, you are. Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me. You’d know better.”
She swept an appreciative gaze over his tall, handsome body. It was so hard sometimes to reconcile these people with the reputations she knew they carried. “You’re not as bad as you think you are.”
“Trust me, this suit hides a lot.”
“Perhaps, but I still remember the man who refused to leave me for dead on that ship. You could have saved yourself, but you didn’t.”
“I was too drunk to know better.”
She shook her head. “Keep lying to yourself, Syn. I know the truth.”
“No, love, that you most definitely don’t. The truth would horrify you. The gods know, it horrifies me most days and I’m the poor sap who lived it.” He knocked back another drink.
She opened her mouth to speak, but her words were cut off by the sound of another dear friend.
“Ooo honey, leave it to you to show up with the two finest pieces of ass at the party!”
Her face heating up exponentially, Kiara cringed at Shera’s words as Syn laughed, then moved to a more discreet distance so that they could talk.
“Shera! Finally a friendly face in these shark-infested waters.”
“Girl, you know it.” Shera pulled her into her arms for a quick hug. Her dark skin was a stark contrast to Kiara’s paleness. Beautiful and sweet, Shera was the first friend she’d made at her dance company. The head costume designer, she was always good for a laugh and quick pick-me-up. “Now don’t wrinkle me.” Shera pulled away. “Some of us have to work at looking good.”
Kiara laughed. “Please. I’ve seen you in the morning. You always look gorgeous.” She squeezed Shera’s hand. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Shera popped a piece of shrimp in her mouth as she surveyed the crowd. “Like I had a choice. Tiyana threatened my life if I missed this.” Turning serious, Shera pulled Kiara off to the side, away from Syn and the nearest group of people. “Please tell me you’re making a sandwich in your bed at night with those two men.”
Kiara shook her head at her friend. “No.”
“Are you insane? If I had that, I’d be at home doing a serious sheet dance.” Shera looked over at Nykyrian and made a purring noise. “You think he wants a drink . . . and a little me in his lap?”
“I don’t think he’s interested.”
Shera’s look turned serious and predatory. “Oh, honey, I’m willing to find a way to make him interested.”
For some reason the idea of Shera coming on to Nykyrian seriously irked her.
Kiara narrowed her eyes at Shera. “You are incorrigible and he told me he has a boyfriend.”
Shera made a noise of supreme aggravation. “Figures, and I always say incorrigibility is good for the soul, but sex is infinitely better.” She glanced back at Nykyrian. “Any chance he might be a switch-hitter?”