The mob of hot bodies and cold camera lenses surged toward me. A storm of blinding flashes. Microphones threatening to smack me in the nose. And a clamor of voices that made it difficult to hear my thundering heart.
Nope, it wasn’t one of those “Crap, I’m naked” dreams. I was currently acting as an undercover poison taster for the darling of the entire Western world: Zachariah Hill. Of course, since I was undercover, the people behind the cameras and microphones didn’t know my true purpose. If any of them bothered to ask, they’d be told I was Zachariah’s spiritual food guru. One he’d hired to help him get through his tragic breakup with the other darling of the entire Western world: Alyssa Hill.
While the adoring masses held warm, fuzzy, sympathetic feelings toward Zac, I felt none of that. The bastard had insisted I walk with him on the red carpet and I wasn’t going to forgive him for it just because he had good intentions.
He’d been sure I was playing coy when I told him I didn’t want to go anywhere near his fancy crimson doormat. He was wrong. My wish list held items like: earn enough money to fly home to Australia, and keep the cockroaches out of my cookie container. Cameras and carpets weren’t a priority for me.
Why was the silly thing red anyway? If the tradition dated back far enough, it probably had something to do with stepping on the blood of your defeated enemies or something.
Trying not to scowl in case any of those cameras accidentally included me in their pictures, I trailed along half a step behind Zachariah—the benevolent jerk—letting him take the brunt of the attention.
We weren’t at the Oscars or anywhere like that. It was just some film premiere. But so soon after the news of their break-up, Zachariah and Alyssa were even more popular with the paparazzi than usual.
“No date tonight?” asked a particularly pushy reporter.
Good to know even dressed to the nines I wasn’t about to fool anyone into thinking I was A-list date material.
“Not for a long while, I think,” Zac answered beside me, managing to sound both mournful and humorously self-deprecating at the same time.
“Do you still love her?”
I saw Zac smile in my peripheral vision.
“A part of me will always love her.”
If it was possible, the cameras flashed brighter, and I could imagine fans swooning on their couches at home. So romantic. Personally, I thought it was sad. Sad if it was true and yet his love wasn’t enough, or sad if it was only the party line they’d agreed on before announcing their separation to the world.
The woman herself stepped onto the impractical outdoor carpeting. With ash-blond hair, power brows, and a silver plunge dress showing off perfect skin—a lot of perfect skin—Alyssa Hill was the kind of person you couldn’t help but stare at. Both men and women alike were captivated by feelings of longing and fear at her passing.
She sashayed over to Zac, forcing me to jump back to prevent one of her spiked heels from skewering my toe, and kissed him on the cheek amid a frenzy of lights. She posed there for long moments allowing the press to get their fill then turned on them with a dazzling smile. I took the opportunity to position myself farther away, where I’d be hidden from the lenses.
When the strobe lights finally died down, Alyssa Hill whispered something in her former lover’s ear and sauntered to her waiting limo. Judging by the stiffening of her former lover’s posture, he didn’t appreciate what she’d had to say. When Zac failed to move after a further thirty seconds, I stepped up beside him and surreptitiously dragged him toward our own waiting car.
At last, we made it to the end of the oversized red doormat and a waiting valet handed Zachariah his keys. I clambered inside the refuge without pausing for the valet to open my door and waited impatiently for Zac to drive away.
He seemed to be moving with exaggerated caution. But perhaps it only seemed that way due to my own haste. I stopped my fingers tapping on the armrest and reminded myself that this was a good gig. Zac was a nice guy and an undemanding client. The only downside was his fame, but I guess it would be unkind of me to hold that against him.
Still, it was easier to be kind when you hadn’t just tottered down a red carpet, narrowly missed losing your toe to his ex, and weren’t running late for the thing you’d been hanging out for all week.
We only made it a block before he stopped the BMW 3 Series sedan beside the curb.
“Would you mind driving? I have a migraine coming on.”
Abruptly, I felt ashamed at my selfishness. Here I was wrapped up in my own little world when my poor client was being attacked by a migraine. An excruciating one if the strain on his face was anything to go by. His main trigger was stress, which didn’t make sense since he’d seemed like his calm and charismatic self all evening. Unless Alyssa had said something truly atrocious to him just before… I could ponder over the cause after I’d dealt with the immediate consequences though.
“Of course. Can I do anything to make you more comfortable first?”
“No. Thanks. Just get me home.”
The last time I’d driven a celebrity’s car, the celebrity had been pointing a gun at my stomach warning me a bullet through the gut was one of the most painful ways to die. Oh, and telling me his clever plan to shoot me at the end of our journey and make it look like a random accident.
This drive was much more relaxing. Except for the niggling worry that this sudden onset of a migraine after a pleasant evening seemed unusual.
I did a quick mental inventory of my vitals the way we’d been taught to check for any early warning signs of poison. Everything felt normal except for a slightly elevated heart rate and accelerated breathing which was likely due to my concern for Zac. But the results didn’t put my mind at ease. Poisoners could choose substances uniquely tailored to their intended victim that might not affect another person, and my gene mutation meant I was less susceptible to harmful substances. That was how I’d landed this job in the first place.
I pulled into Zac’s garage at Cheviot Hills—the place he’d moved to after separating from Alyssa—and helped him up the stairs. There was yet another gift basket by the door. Ever since the break up he’d been receiving dozens of them. They all had words like “deepest sympathies” and “so sorry to hear” somewhere on the card, but most were thinly disguised variations of “Oh, you’re single now, maybe we should hook up.” This one was different. There was no card, rendering it anonymous, and nestled amongst the chrome-colored shredded paper was a $200 bottle of Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Who left a $200 bottle of wine on someone’s doorstep?
I glanced up at Zac thinking to ask who it might be from, but my words died on my lips when I saw how ghastly he looked. I unlocked the door for him and picked up the basket. “Go to bed,” I whispered, aware that every sound I made was like a dentist drill to the skull. “I’ll get you some water and your prescription meds.” I had to taste both before he could consume them anyway. A potential murderer could tamper with someone’s tablets almost as easily as their food.
Keeping noise to a minimum, I retrieved his meds from the bathroom cabinet and went through the taste testing routine. Blergh. Tasting medication was definitely less pleasant than tasting the average meal. I washed it down with water, tasting that too.
As I went through the motions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might have missed something in the numerous appetizers we’d eaten tonight. The meds I tasted now though were clean, and I’d never missed a poison since I started working as a Shade. There was no reason to think I would’ve slipped up. Unless the poison was new or highly unusual. I shook the thought away.
Poor Zac was already in bed with the light off. “Does this migraine feel normal?” I whispered as I handed him the tablet and water. “Anything unusual about it?”
“It’s textbook.” The words came out with a sort of tortured patience.
The textbook answer was somewhat reassuring, but my niggly feeling didn’t take the hint and vanish. That left me with a dilemma. I didn’t feel right about leaving him alone, but I had a special reason to leave tonight. One I was loathe to give up. “You told me stress was your trigger, but I didn’t think you were stressed,” I tried again.
“Alyssa,” he rasped, then sighed and closed his eyes. “I’ll be fine. Go and have fun.” He knew I had plans tonight.
Shoving off my trepidation and guilt—unwarranted trepidation and guilt, I told myself—I compromised by promising to check on him later and followed his advice.