All’s Fair in Love and War . . . and Stakeouts as Cordelia takes on a case to prove a point.
- CONTENTS: C/A in AtS Season 1
- RATING: PG13 or Light R
- LENGTH: Short Story / 12,000 words
- STATUS: Completed
- CHALLENGE CREDIT: Stakeout plot by Pleth? MelBelle? Somebody?
- FICPIC CREDIT: Lysa
Cordelia scribbled a last minute Post-It note to Angel: Audition. Borrowed car.
This wouldn’t be the first time she had borrowed his precious Plymouth Belvedere GTX. After a lengthy discussion on the pristine state of his classic convertible, the dangers of L.A. traffic, and a poker-faced reminder that scratching his favorite new toy might come with some reprisals, Angel had agreed to let her take it out when necessary—with one nonnegotiable condition.
“Stop calling it the company car.”
Men liked the car and seeing her in it, so Cordelia considered it a perk to drive it around the city on errands for work, or taking it to auditions. It might not be a flashy red Corvette with Queen C on the plates, but it felt like freedom. Most of her trips were during the daytime hours when Angel slept, so there was rarely a chance that she would be using the car when he needed it for a mission, so she hoped that would not be the case tonight since it was already almost six p.m.
Staring at the red marker ink scrawled across the yellow paper, Cordelia felt the tiniest twinge of guilt. There was actually no audition tonight, but there was a mission of sorts. More of a job than a mission, she supposed, since this was a legitimate business venture with a cash advance. Unsanctioned by Broody the Disapproving One, this little job would hopefully be the first of many for the team. All she had to do was prove there were more Pros than Cons when it came to growing a stash of petty cash by taking a few routine cases.
Grabbing her tote bag packed with stakeout gear, Cordelia swung it over her shoulder and then scooped up the car keys. Satisfied that Angel would see the sticky note plastered on the door jam of his office if he came upstairs before her return, she made a start for the door. Turning and instantly crashing into someone standing right behind her sent her heart rate skyrocketing. A male hand grabbed her elbow for purchase causing both of them to nearly topple to the floor.
The bright red and blue tropical motif shirt gave away Doyle’s identity even before she saw his face. Curtailing her instinctive tendency to scream, she hissed instead, “You nearly scared me to death! Have you been taking lurking lessons from our resident vampire?”
“Can’t say that I have. You were a bit wrapped up. . .,” Doyle sounded out the words as if through a time warp. So slowly that there seemed to be a pause in between each syllable. Finally finishing his thought, “doing whatever it is you’re doing.”
Noting that Doyle looked and sounded a bit rough around the edges today, she came to a quick conclusion. Hangover! It wasn’t her place to be judge-y about it. Although, what he got out of hanging around the pubs as he called the local bars was anyone’s guess. Not exactly her scene.
A quick glance at the wall clock reminded her that time was ticking away. She really needed to get on the road now in order to make it to the Lethbridge office building to follow Mr Cheater McCheater to his sleazy love nest. Mrs L wanted photographic proof of her husband’s extramarital affair. If tonight was a bust it meant more than just trying again. She would have to eat crow when she came back empty-handed. Angel might not seem like the I-told-you-so type since that actually involved verbal communication, but a long memory and the ability to string out a torture session seemed right up his alley.
“Um, yeah. Things to do. Gotta jam.” Making a break for the door, she shuffled around Doyle who was not exactly moving out of her way.
“What’s this?” Scrunching his eyes as if the lights were too bright, he muttered, “Strange time for an audition.”
Cordelia’s eyes went wide realizing she’d been caught. “Don’t go around reading other people’s notes. That’s for Angel. If he asks, I left ages ago. I’m at an audition.”
Doyle winced along with his chuckled response even that effort causing him pain. “Oh, I can spin a tall tale or two,” he assured her that he knew how. “He’ll see right through it. Angel’s no slouch when it comes to detecting blarney.”
Squeezing his arm, she pleaded for a little cooperation. “Forget all about the note. Just let him find it on his own.”
Giving her hand a conciliatory pat before strolling over to prop himself on the edge of her desk, he joked, “Can’t put the beans back in the bag once you spill them.”
Quipping back, “Five second rule!” Her cheeky grin kept her response light even though her cover story was totally blown. “C’mon, Doyle, just a little help. Only until I get back. You can hold off the interrogation until then. Better yet, go home. He won’t look for you there.”
Doyle stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest. “Time to spill those beans,” he pushed for answers. “All of them.”
Having planned to tell Angel everything as soon as she got back to the office, Cordelia let Doyle get away with being nosey. The faster she filled him in the faster she could get this stakeout started. Hopefully, he’d agree to cooperate. “Okay, so there’s no audition. It’s a job.”
The question breezed from his mouth ever so casually, “Not a date?” He looked confused.
Cordelia eyed her own carefully selected lightweight and comfy black on black stakeout attire, then stared back. “Dressed like a cat burglar? Not on my kind of date. Plus, he’d be the one picking me up in his car.” Gone were the days of having to schlepp Xander Harris types around.
The look on Doyle’s face melted into one of concern, his expressions shifting as he visibly tried to work out what she would want to hide from Angel. “Tell me you’re not doing something I’ll regret knowing about.”
“Technically, you already know about it,” Cordelia revealed that her secret wasn’t really a secret at all. Not all of it, anyway. “We were talking about the Lethbridge case yesterday.”
“All’s fair, is it? Angel wanted nothing to do with that case.” Doyle stared at her as if she was planning to wave a red flag in front of a raging bull. Their talk might have been more of a strongly worded disagreement. “He won’t like this one bit.”
“Thanks for pointing that out, Captain Obvious,” Cordelia snapped back. “Too bad he got out-voted. You agreed with me, remember?”
Doyle held up his hands. “Don’t be so hasty, Princess. You push buttons Angel doesn’t know he has, but I’d rather not test those vampire instincts. When you two fight, just consider me the neutral party.”
Rolling her eyes at that one, Cordelia knew he was trying to backtrack. “Pfft! You were so on my side.”
“Angel feels uncomfortable asking the people he saves for money,” Doyle reminded her unnecessarily. “He looks on this as a path to redemption.”
Cordelia got that. She really did. Maybe the Chase family business gene was buzzing an alert in her head because it seemed very clear. “Redemption doesn’t exactly pay the rent. Even charities have to be funded.”
“So you said yesterday.”
“I know! Angel still wouldn’t listen.”
“Don’t make me out to be the bad guy,” Doyle pleaded woefully. “I’m just the innocent bystander around these parts.”
Cordelia snapped back, “Donald Lethbridge might not be a supernatural threat, but he’s a sleazy cheater whose wife wants to prove it. Bad enough in my book. Why shouldn’t we make a few easy bucks to offset the cost of doing business?”
Angel had thought he had won the argument simply by refusing to take the case. Just a little too smugly, he had reminded her that he was the boss of Angel Investigations while she was not. Basically, whatever he said was law. Ohhh, he was so wrong about that, and would comprehend soon enough that Cordelia Chase would never be so subservient as to let him put his proverbial foot down without stomping on it.
He might be playing the role of boss, but she was an associate of Angel Investigations, a partner, not just his Girl Friday. This was supposed to be a business built to sustain his mission, not just a string of charity cases. For that, they were going to need money, and taking on routine cases made a hell of a lot of sense, even if Angel did not like it.
Besides, she could totally handle this all on her own. Stealthiness and sheer determination would get her the necessary evidence to prove what Mr L was doing after hours. No fangs or supernatural skills required.
“Maybe I should come.” Doyle started to stand up, but winced at the light shining in from the window and wavered on his feet. “Or not. I could just hang out on the couch until you get back.”
Even though Cordelia was antsy about getting started, she had been around Doyle long enough to recognize that this was not a regular hangover. For one thing, he did not smell like a brewery. “A vision? Is that why you’re here?” Doyle was usually a little moody, sensitive to changes in light as if the visions lingered on replay, and headachy. Nothing that couldn’t be cured by rest and Tylenol.
“Nothing apocalyptic,” he assured her as she took him by the arm and led him to the leather couch in Angel’s office. “It’s a minor demon. Should be fairly routine.”
Cordelia put down her tote bag in order to take care of Doyle. He was useless like this. Couldn’t even handle a little headache on his own and needed coddling. Something else to add to her list of duties, right along with patching Angel up after a fight. Normally, she didn’t mind at all, even when her usually chatty friend lingered around the office for no good reason.
“You know you could have called with the details.”
“Thought I would stop by. See how things were shaping up.”
Cordelia’s eyes narrowed into a slit. Instantly suspicious, she knew he had zero interest in how their office was organized. As long as he had a comfortable place to schlump down while he recovered from the minor side effects of his visions, Doyle usually ignored the office décor.
Mentally calculating how many traffic lights she would need to speed through to get to the office of her client’s husband before he left for the day, Cordelia ushered Doyle onto the couch. “Take these.” She handed him a couple of Tylenol and a cup of water. “Take a nap. Angel will be up soon enough. I—ah—have to get going.”
Doyle looked as if he was undecided about covering for her. A sick expression settled on his face. His shoulders tensed up. “What if something happens?”
“All I am going to do is take a few photos. Sheesh! You are just as bad as Angel. Both of you can drop the protective big brother routine.” A subtle flinch jerked against her palm as she patted his shoulder. “Relax. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
A woeful groan followed. “It’ll be my neck if it does.”
“What Angel doesn’t know can’t come back to bite you,” she counseled jokingly while edging toward the door. “I’ve gotta get going.”
“You know he’ll be pissed off if I let you go.”
Irritation started to stir. Cordelia tried to keep her voice down, but it was difficult not to snap. “You’re not letting me do anything. This is my decision. Just because Angel doesn’t feel the need to take on routine cases like this does not mean we have to miss out. Some of us have basic human needs that require cash.”
“Would that be the spa session you were daydreaming about?”
A flash of heat rushed to her cheeks. “Office supplies would be good, too.”
“Right, well maybe I should tag along on this little caper.” He started to get up again, but she held up a hand to stop him.
“No way! Besides, don’t you have to talk to Angel about your vision?”
Point won, Cordelia made her escape.
The drive to the Lethbridge office building went far more smoothly than predicted even though she was late heading out. Parked just down the block, Cordelia had a terrific view of the main door. Camera at the ready, she snapped a few shots of the office personnel leaving for the day. Several people emerged from the building, including the woman Mrs Lethbridge suspected might be her husband’s mistress, an attractive woman in her late twenties with bottle blond hair, nice figure, and pseudo-stylish off-the-rack clothes.
Glancing at her cheap shoes as she walked past her, Cordelia could tell his assistant was not using Donald Lethbridge as a sugar daddy. “Someone definitely needs a raise.”
Not that she had the right to be critical at the moment considering the depleted state of her own wardrobe. All of her designer clothes had been sold off item by item to pay the rent at her tin can of an apartment. The jewelry the IRS did not claim was long-gone, too, having been pawned off. It sucked that she knew the pawn shop guy on a first-name basis.
One day soon, after her big break, or a few more cases like this one, Cordelia figured she could start building her collection back up again piece by piece. In the meantime, she got a discounted rate on this cool almost new camera, which would definitely be itemized as a business expense.
Lethbridge’s assistant walked directly toward the nearest bus stop, presumably heading for home rather than catching a ride with the boss. Mrs L had to be wrong about that one, which meant this case might get a little more complicated. Unless someone was meeting Lethbridge at his office for a little wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am encounter on the couch, this might take longer than expected.
Raising the camera up she practiced focusing the lens on the window where Lethbridge was still working. Having planned to follow him from the office to catch him meeting up with his mistress and take a few condemning photos, she was quickly growing bored. What was taking so long? Mrs L had been certain her husband’s clandestine rendezvous always took place on the same night of the week. For someone with a hot date, he didn’t seem that eager to get out of the office.
The last glimmer of sunlight vanished as Cordelia waited for her target to emerge from the building. Now that it was dark outside, she could see him pacing the room through the open blinds. Every now and then he would pause by the window, tug down on one slat to stare outside, and then return to his pacing. She slumped down in the seat hoping that he did not see her sitting there.
Slowly, the street emptied out. A few of the streetlights were broken creating large voids where nothing discernible could be seen. The park across the street that looked inviting only an hour before was almost completely black from this angle. The outer cobblestone walkways disappeared behind rows of trees and bushes creating a wall of darkness. It was a little creepy, but nothing Cordelia couldn’t handle having packed for trouble.
There was one mistake she had to admit making. Leaving in a hurry, she had forgotten to put the top up on the Plymouth. This was a stakeout, after all. Kind of necessary to stay undercover when trying to be sneaky about spying and taking pictures. Being in an open convertible at night was also risky, and that was just because of the human element, much less local vampires and demons.
Cordelia wondered if it was too late to put the top up now or if her actions would just call attention to herself if Lethbridge looked out the window again. Deciding to chance it, she opened the door, edged out of the seat, and then back toward the office window where he now seemed occupied with something on his desk. Satisfied at having made the right call, she got to work.
The manual release for the vinyl roof was tricky and she had only watched Angel raise it one time without actually paying much attention. He made it look easy. Flip this. Move that. She tried a different angle, adding more pressure, and a few random curses, but it would not budge. The top was not going up tonight.
“Fine,” she groused. “Stay that way.”
Normally, there would be no conceding defeat. There might even be a crowbar stashed in the trunk that might pry the latch loose, but she reconsidered it knowing that she needed to keep an eye on her quarry. Cordelia glanced toward the window again noting the light was no longer shining from inside. Time to get things going! Lothario Lethbridge was on the move, but—what was that? Something else far more concerning caught her eye.
Fear crawled its spidery legs across her skin as first instincts urged her to run, or at least get in the car and hit the gas. She reached blindly for the door handle as shadows clinging to the brick building shifted into an imposing dark outline, a man—or vampire closing in. Desperate thoughts flashed to her second hand gently used designer tote, armed with both mace and a stake, propped on the passenger seat on the other side of the Plymouth. Too far to reach.
A scream started to curl up in her throat, her breath stuck, as a broken streetlight blinked to sudden life on the corner sending the shadows skittering away to reveal something far worse than she had imagined. A raging madman lurked in the flickering glow ready to make the rest of her night a living hell.
Angel! Annoyance peaked so quickly the relief she felt at not being the next victim of a killer vampire / serial killer barely registered. What was he doing here? This might ruin everything, especially her plan to rub his arrogant nose in the sweet smell of her success. This was going to be her triumphant first case, and he had no business causing trouble.
Heart hammering against her ribs, Cordelia watched the distance between them closing in step by step. Conveying his intensions with a weighty stare, Angel was clearly not here to help, but to stop her. Too many feelings grabbed at her all at once. Anger, pricking like needles, sharp and painful, because he could not trust her to do this one thing to prove a point. A remnant of fear trickling along her spine. A chord resonating something deeply primitive making her antsy with anticipation, hungry for the conflict to come. Even without a word Angel somehow had a palpable effect on her in a way that had nothing to do with fear of reprisal.
Every time they hit her differently, these new and surprising reactions to Mr Off Limits himself. Pathetic much? Feelings just happened uncontrollably sneaking up uninvited. Sometimes so subtly, with a warm rush when she saw him, or a zing when they touched. Friendship, admiration, even basic appreciation of a handsome face might explain most of it, but not this bodyslam of mixed emotions that pulled her focus away from anything else.
As often as she ribbed him for the black-on-black theme he wore it well. Watching him step out of the shadows, gorgeous and menacing at the same time, made her breath hitch. A deeply human instinct caused every muscle to tighten up preparing her to take flight from the predator coming her way. Ignoring that basic urge kept her on edge. As loudly as they had argued yesterday, Cordelia had never considered their fight might get physical, but talking about it seemed like the last thing on his mind.
A switch flicked somewhere inside abruptly turning her trembling, adrenalin-pumping desire to run into defiance. Challenging his presence with an obstinate query, “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” she asked stubbornly tilting her chin up a notch.
Doyle had given fair warning that Angel could read him like a book. So maybe it was not a total shocker. That did not mean she had to like or accept him showing up uninvited.
One more step brought him close enough to see the fury blackening his gaze. Typically, Angel let the silence speak for him, which only irritated Cordelia even more. “Nobody asked you to get involved—not after you refused to listen to reason.”
Fully prepared to rehash their argument, she sensed Angel was past verbal sparring. Short of physically tossing her into the back seat of the Plymouth and driving her out of there, Cordelia figured she was not going to let him get away with making her give up and go home. “Did you try this intimidation routine with Doyle, too? No wonder he blabbed.”
Lashing out at Doyle finally caused Angel to bite back, “No, Cordelia. He was concerned about you. Think about it.”
How could she think when he kept inching closer? It was difficult to stand tough when he was crowding her against the car and leaning in just enough to keep her off balance. “The big brother routine is getting old,” she snapped only to hear a low grunt that might have meant anything. “That’s close enough!” She held up one hand to stop his forward motion pushing hard against his soft black shirt and the unyielding muscle beneath.
Another hard shove did nothing to budge him out of the way. “Are you trying to ruin this case for me?”
After a long pause, he conceded, “No, but you shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.”
“Let’s agree to disagree on that one.”
He pressed his lips together keeping whatever thoughts he had to himself, but Cordelia knew him well enough to figure out that he thought she should stick to the phones and filing. Doing something safe. “This is the ‘90s, Angel. Women do more than stay home and knit.”
Angel’s hand lunged forward drawing an outraged gasp from her a second before she saw that he was just jerking the door open. Realizing that she believed he was going to force her to move only pissed him off. “Get in the car, Cordelia,” he ordered tersely. “You’re putting yourself at risk for no good reason.”
“Say that to Mrs L’s face.” Refusing to budge, she argued, “Things were just fine before you showed up. Why can’t you tru—“ Words forgotten, she saw Lethbridge standing right over there. “Oh geez! Look what you’ve done now.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Angel glowered at the man on the steps. Cordelia palmed his face, “No, dumbass! Don’t actually look.” Turning his focus back on her, she whispered angrily, “He’s coming this way. You’re going to blow my cover!”
A low growl that made her insides quiver. “Good idea,” Angel threatened.
Before he could make a move to say something to the man strolling at a quick pace down the sidewalk, Cordelia propelled herself forward slinging her arms around Angel’s neck and pressing her lips firmly over his effectively preventing him from speaking. Only—what next? He was frozen in place like an ice sculpture with an attitude just as cold as his motionless lips.
Shutting him up had been her first and only thought. No plan beyond waiting it out until Lethbridge walked away. Except, inconveniently, he took up position under the flickering streetlamp a few feet away openly watching them. Having a witness to this embarrassing lip lock was bad enough, but Lethbridge wasn’t even supposed to know she was there, much less turn his beady little eyes in her direction.
Let go and Angel might tell Lethbridge everything just to spite her. Worse, he might think she was crushing on him again. So not true. Compared to the fantasies she had envisioned back in Sunnydale, this first—and last— kiss was utterly pathetic. After this it would be easy to remember that Angel was a sexless, untouchable, broody guy who just happened to look great for his age.
Only a few seconds had ticked by feeling more like an eternity with each one notching up her irritation that Angel could not even her help out by faking a kiss. Fine! Deciding to let him make like a statue while she did all the work, Cordelia made him pay for being a jerk by kissing him again. He didn’t have to like it any more than she did.
Lethbridge would lose interest soon enough and this torture session could come to a halt.
Slow, soft kisses teased at the edge of his mouth, across the slant of his cheek. Cordelia trailed warmth across his cool skin, her touch sliding down the line of his jaw, around to the nape of his neck, unintentionally exploring. Each kiss lingered a little longer than the last stimulating a path of fire thawing his icy demeanor.
Angel’s lips nudged hers. Not really a kiss. More like he tried to avoid one. Cordelia took that as a challenge curling her nails into his neck to show her frustration. Deep enough to mark half moon indentations palpable as she unfurled her fingers to smooth way the pain. Angel half growled, half grunted at the sensation, the sound making her quiver and reach up to make him do it again.
At least it was a response.
Cordelia barely had time for a nibble when Angel’s hand tangled in her hair tugging back just far enough to let the moonlight wink between them. A jolt of awareness hit when her gaze connected with his. Eyes darkened to obsidian, Angel was equal parts pissed off and turned on, and that last realization shocked her to the core. His furious glare said it all. He was finished playing games. This was war—and he had more than enough weapons in his arsenal.
Invigorated instead of terrified, Cordelia grasped the lapels of his coat urging him on and refusing to allow him to let her go. This was wrong and she knew it. One touch of his lips and it was as if he had set her on fire. There was nothing soft about the way Angel kissed her now. Practiced technique had no place here. It was a duel for dominance shaking them to their foundations. All because he was stubborn and needed to be annoyingly right all of the time. She kissed him back just as furiously, gasping when he didn’t play fair, and tried her damnedest to do the same.
Questions popped up and got lost in the red haze of anger clouding her head. Angel might be hot for this too, but he didn’t want it. Was this a trick? Some kind of twisted payback? Strategy or not, Cordelia quickly lost the ability to think and kiss at the same time, and suddenly only one of those things seemed vital. Sizzling kisses followed. Hot, fast, and furious carrying a taste of mutual fury. Bursting like firecrackers burning on a short fuse.
Their fake kisses turned all too real careless of the audience or his leering interest. “Get a room,” Lethbridge muttered without either of them noticing. Lighting up a cigar, he took a few puffs, one last look at the hot couple, wondering if they would make it into the back seat of the car before ripping each other’s clothes off, and then casually stepped off the curb. Unless he could bottle that up and take it with him, he had somewhere else to be.
Conveying anger and frustration, each infuriating touch of their lips wakened something else. Pausing between each fiery caress to glare accusingly at one another, neither was ready to stop. Confounded as their kisses turned wild. No holds barred. Her pliant mouth opened up beneath his. Toes curled at the sweep of his tongue inside her. The rough lick flicking against her throat made her imagine the sting of fangs; feeling instead a hot flare of lust.
Cordelia crushed herself even closer into Angel’s tight embrace glorying at the way his hands traced across the thin layer separating his skin from hers, cresting over her curves making her arch into his touch. Wanting his mouth on her bare skin, or his hands. She had to touch him, too. Couldn’t think about it, really. Just did it. Her hands slid between the layers of his shirt and coat. Enjoying his strength, and the way his muscles tensed up as she raked her nails down his back, eliciting a gruff sound deep in his throat.
Friction drove them on as clothing rubbed against their heated flesh, frustrating barriers against contrasting hard planes and soft curves desperate for closer contact. Touching in a way they shouldn’t. The intensity of their kisses left her lips lush and red, too tempting a target whenever he allowed her a respite she didn’t want, even though she nearly felt like blacking out from lack of oxygen.
Coming up for air stole a moment away from the insanity. Long enough for an undeniable truth to claw at her raw feelings. One perfect kiss would never be enough, not even a million of them. She wanted everything. That desperate realization resonating in her head made Cordelia snap to her senses. Wanting Angel was not an option—but maybe, somehow, it was okay to have this.
In the midst of her delirium, she knew there was a reason kissing Angel was a bad idea. A guilty little moan escaped as her anger dissipated. Acquiescence altered his kisses into something far more addictive, lingering kisses that went on forever. Delicious ones that let her savor the taste of him and left her wobbly kneed. Nothing could convince her to push herself away except reality crashing down around them.
The driver of a car blared as he sped past on the otherwise deserted street. Reeling back from the last of their mind-numbing kisses, Cordelia blinked in momentary confusion, feeling almost stuck out of place and time. Still caught up in Angel’s arms, she automatically raised a hand to his cheek. He looked thunderstruck, unnaturally pale even for a vampire. Standing rigidly, shoulders locked, muscles tensed, and still rampantly aroused, Angel’s shock faded fast leaving him looking even angrier than before. She reached out again trying to sooth his nerves because this was about as awkward as it could get.
Whatever wild tangent they let their war of kisses take them, Angel clearly blamed her. Through the slow grind of his teeth, Angel demanded answers. “Cordelia, what the hell was that?”
A cringe followed as he jerked away from her touch clawing at her pride. Did he think he was the only one allowed to ask for explanations? “You’re the one who kissed me back!” Catching her bottom lip between her teeth drew Angel’s attention. Eyes flecked with gold flicked back up to hers. “All I was doing was shutting you up. A distraction. Stopping you from telling that jerk I was following him.”
Not denying he had considered it, Angel pounced on her excuse. “Hell of a distraction,” he growled back. “A dangerous one. Much more of that and I would have—”
Lost your soul—not likely.
Called out for Buffy—don’t make me sick.
Made me yours, forever—in my pathetic dreams.
Cordelia cut him off before his words could match the most likely scenario. No way was she invoking his ex-girlfriend’s name tonight, and if Angel knew what was good for him he wouldn’t dare bring her up. Dangerous didn’t cover it if he said that name right now. No, he was trying to scare her into calling it a night.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Angel! I’m not going to quit this case just because we made out. A few kisses can’t possibly be soul-shattering. Relax. My neck will remain an Angelus-free zone.”
Brutally clear, his words slammed into her, “Who said anything about Angelus?”
Jerking back, Cordelia stumbled toward the open car door, but he caught her easily, one hand around her waist pulling her back to safety. Appearing aloof was an impossibility knowing he could sense the rapid pulse at her throat, beat of her heart, the quick pace of her breathing. Simultaneously agitated and aroused, she shook her head in denial, tendrils of her hair catching the wind, tickling at her already sensitive throat.
Angel was making this into a big deal—and it was—but she couldn’t let him know that. Absently, she brushed away the strand of hair, only to have him catch her by the wrist as if the sight presented too much of a distraction, but her pulse pounded steadily beneath his grasp. With more of a plea than a lecture, he groaned, “Don’t do that, Cordelia.”
“Never take the curse for granted. Knowing about it might make it impossible to lose my soul again—,” he tagged on as if the news was common knowledge, “but I can’t prove it. Trusting me this way is dangerous.”
Cordelia’s head was spinning at the idea that Angel might not be as untouchable a she had believed. When did he come up with this? Out of the blue during a brood session down in the basement, maybe, or after a complex discussion with Giles. Whatever the reason, it had to be something more than guesswork.
One thing had to be made clear. “Angel, I do trust you even if you do come with a sharp set of fangs. Those kisses were fabulous—just meaningless in the grand scheme. Not real. We can wake up tomorrow and pretend it never happened.”
His jaw tightened. “Just like that?”
With a casual shrug, she tucked her hair behind her ear, and tried to ignore the sickening feeling pooling in her stomach at the thought of pretending any such thing. “Uh huh. No guilt or brooding required. Kissing me doesn’t make you a cheater.” Emphasizing it with a little scowl, “It’s not like you and Buffy are together anymore.”
That name resounded like a heavy gong clanging between them.
They both flinched at the stinging statement. Cordelia couldn’t believe she had been the one to say that name, much less remind Angel of his angsty separation issues. Imagining he might make negative comparisons to the soul-stealing kisses of Buffy Summers, she was desperate to get out of this conversation. There had to be something she could do, an excuse not to listen.
This was Angel. Vampire. Boss. Cursed one. Kissing god. Those lips could never get near hers again. Nope. Even if her insides went a little melty just thinking about it. No matter that he had dreamt up some loophole to the loophole. Especially if he uttered one word to suggest he liked someone else’s kisses better than hers.
Turning her back on him she climbed into the front seat kneeling across it to grab her tote back. Then spent a minute moving the stuff inside around in an effort not to look back at his face. The silence behind her built up until it was palpable. Cordelia was no match for Angel’s practiced patience. She could feel him waiting.
Fine. Let him say it, Chase. Just suck it up and get back to business.
Cordelia flipped around in the seat to face Angel having deemed herself ready to hear it. Mid-turn, something caught her attention. Something vital was missing. How could this happen? This ruined everything! The world’s biggest mistake just happened on her watch—or would have if she had actually been watching.
Desperation turned her thoughts inward, panic setting in, trying to figure out how to fix this without looking like a fool in front of Angel. Agog, she felt a little sick as she stared up at him, doing her best not to puke in his car because that would really be the last straw. As if the subject of Buffy wasn’t already enough to turn her stomach, Cordelia had more pressing matters on her mind.
Angel’s struggle to speak weighted his words down almost gutturally. “We’re not.”
“Right!” Cordelia had no clue what was right having never actually registered what Angel saying. Talking more to herself than him, she vowed, “We’re not letting that bastard get away with this.”
“What bastard?” Angel’s confused query sounded more like one of the unseen adults in a Peanuts holiday special emerging as a series of indecipherable sounds: wah, wah, wah, wah, wah. “Wait. Am I the—?”
Just how much of their argument had Donald Lethbridge overheard? Cordelia’s memory was fuzzy on the details, but they weren’t exactly whispering about Angel stomping all over her case. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the leering lawyer to figure out that he was the target of her stakeout.
The flickering glow of the broken street lamp was hazy with cigar smoke, but the man in question was nowhere to be seen. Kissing Angel had wiped away any thought of her case. Allowing Lethbridge to get away. This stakeout was disaster! A failure. A total flop. There would be no photographs tonight, no check to pad the petty cash stash—still nonexistent thanks to a certain stubborn vampire who was determined to blow her case to bits.
Eyes narrowing, Cordelia fixed him with an accusatory glare, putting pieces of a theory together that made a hell of a lot of sense to her rattled brain. Angel wanted this case to fail. He didn’t want to get involved. Their business was saving souls—his, no doubt, and helping the helpless. Not catering to a housewife’s whim just to pick up a fat check at the end. Just how far was Angel willing to go to stop her from proving that it would be worth it to respond to anyone who sought out their help?
“He’s gone!” Gesturing wildly toward the empty sidewalk that Lethbridge had occupied, Cordelia realized she had no actual sense of how much time had passed by since he took up position under the streetlamp. “You really don’t play fair, do you, Angel,” she felt the sharp twinge of betrayal when realizing just how far he had been willing to go. “Was that why you kissed me back. . .to distract me. . .to let Lethbridge get away?”
The firm line taking form across his mouth told her the accusation had hit its mark. Angel was just playing her. Infuriated, she wriggled out of the car despite that he was blocking her way. “Bet you thought I wouldn’t figure it out! Points for effort, but Cordelia Chase does not quit that easily.”
Reaching back into the car, she slung the camera strap over her head and grabbed the tote bag. She slammed the door shut as hard as she could before pushing past Angel. “Mr Late Night Rendezvous didn’t go very far. That’s his car.” There was only one obvious place he could go. “The park! This case is not over yet.”
Angel was stone-faced again, except for a random tick along his jaw. Back to being mad at her. Fine with her. “Lethbridge is getting away. Are you going to help or not?” Stay focused, stay focused. Then blurting out those thoughts, “We should stay focused on the case.”
Angel gave her a hard stare and paced away as if being within neck-wringing or spanking distance was too tempting. It was hard to read those vibes. For a moment she thought he was actually going to disappear back into the shadows again leaving her there to go after Donald Lethbridge alone. That had been her plan in the first place, but a strange sense of disappointment churned in her stomach as she watched him stride away.
In the space of a heartbeat, Angel had whirled back around, coat billowing around him as he closed the distance between them radiating intensity, looking scary and sexy all at the same time. “Is that really how you want to play this?” he snarled.
“It’s a job,” she reminded trying to steady her voice and her nerves, “not a game.” He was the one playing around.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, with the tension between them ramping up second by second, Angel gave a clipped monosyllabic response. “Fine.”
Cordelia nodded once, “Fine,” making a concerted effort to mirror the steely eyed, poker-faced thing he did so well. Anything to prevent him from realizing her nerves were shot, and the only thing that she knew would steady them was being back in his arms. And that was all kinds of wrong considering he had been toying with her all along.
Camera in hand, she darted across the street looking frantically down the diverging paths leading into the park trying to find Lethbridge who had disappeared fast enough once no one was watching. The trail of cigar smoke dissipated too quickly for her to determine the direction he had taken. Fortunately, Angel’s sniffer was far better than her own. She was refused to credit his vampire senses this time. Not when it was his fault they were needed in the first place. If not for him and his mind-bending kisses, she would never have let the odious Mr L slip out of sight.
“I’ll handle things from here.” Cordelia suggested he hang back. Obviously, Angel could sneak up on Lethbridge in a heartbeat, but this was still her case even if she was letting him tag along.
The furrowed brow shadowing his eyes was a telltale precursor to brooding thoughts and over-protective tendencies. For a moment, she thought he was about to argue. Standing in front of her, blocking the path to Lethbridge, shoulders looking about a mile wide, Angel dragged the tip of his tongue across is lips as if that action swept away the words hanging there. Without saying anything, he shifted his stance and made room for her to walk by.
A triumphant little thrill zipped along her spine at Angel’s acquiescence making her squee inwardly. A little victory in the Cordelia Chase column of wins. The only thing better than helping Angel until fame and stardom came her way was making him see things her way. Despite his tactics carrying them both a little too far, she had been right there too, and had started off the whole thing. Only in a less nerve-shattering manner, and certainly a lot less tongue. Neither one of them had a clue that their little game of distractions would actually turn them on, but it was just chemistry, right?
Broody, silent mode had now overtaken the anger that drove Angel to take command of those kisses. While she hoped that meant he was contemplating how to make things up to her, with a bonus check or an apology gift, maybe, Cordelia wasn’t counting on it. Odds suggested he might only be worried Buffy would find out that he had been unfaithful to the memory of their cursed, undying love.
Pfft! Like Cordelia would put that in an email and send it. Not. No one in Sunnydale had any business keeping tabs on them. Nosey interest, sure. Only natural. Which was how she knew that Angel’s ex was already trying to get on with her life and had stopped whining about his decision to leave Sunnydale. Having kept that potentially painful tidbit to herself, she realized that was probably a mistake. Maybe he had the right to know, so he could. . .God, what—be free to make out with her instead?
Bristling in annoyance at the possessive feeling tingling inside as her glaze blinked back to the tempting line of his mouth, Cordelia ignored the urge to steal a kiss for luck, or for no good reason at all except she wanted it. Touching him out of pure need to do so, she raised a hand to his chest, her fingers spreading out at the sensation of the dense muscle beneath. Quick-fire need sprang up at that simple touch. Pathetic, much? Yeah, sure, but Cordelia doubted anyone could resist Angel’s appeal, especially after being so thoroughly kissed by him. While she might not have two centuries worth of experience, it had been more than enough to make him enjoy his dastardly distraction.
Practically daring him to refute it, Cordelia stubbornly tilted her chin up a notch. “You liked kissing me.”
Silently, Angel reached up to curl a finger around one wavy strand of hair tracing its length down to its curling tip. It bounced upon release brushing against the bare skin of her arm tickling slightly, making her skin tingle everywhere. His brooding stare was impossible to read clearly, brown eyes bottomless, flickering with conflicting emotions he was working hard to hide.
Lust. Confusion. Fear. Maybe what she was seeing was just a reflection of her own crazy feelings, Cordelia worried, the smug smile fading from her lips as memories of her old crush flooded back. Falling for Angel again was definitely out of the question. Right now he was probably wishing he had never laid eyes on her at Margo’s party, saved her from that creep Russell Winters, or allowed her to talk him into forming Angel Investigations.
Cordelia had totally missed what he said to her a few minutes ago, allowing herself to be distracted by Donald Lethbridge’s sudden disappearance, and that missing little tidbit of information kept nagging at her. Angel had tried to say something important, and now she had to know what that was. “Not what?”
It took Angel a moment to connect the dots back to her harsh reminder about the status of his doomed relationship with the slayer. Now he seemed almost reluctant to remind her. Grudgingly clarifying it, he said, “Together.”
A whole flight of butterflies took off in her stomach at the notion that Angel might be acknowledging it was over between him and Buffy. Quickly countering that, she figured he was just talking geography.
“Mmm hmm. You’re here, she’s there. Tough noogies. It’s a raw deal, and it may suck to be apart, but you made the decision to leave Sunnydale.” Cordelia’s reminder came off a little more harshly than intended. Still, it was the truth, and that’s what mattered. “You’re here in L.A. for a reason, Angel. The PTB sent Doyle to you here, not there. Your mission is here, not there. I’m—”
Her little tirade stopped short just before Cordelia said something she was likely to regret. “I’m just being honest.” Mostly, she tagged on silently. “Believe in yourself and the new start you’ve been given. You’ve got a life—of sorts—so start living it.”
Angel dragged her hand away from his chest, and quickly dropped his hold as if it burned him. “I can’t.” Glaring down as if she had crossed some uncrossable line with the advice, he tensed up head to toe again as if she had struck a blow he needed to repel.
Defiantly, she snapped back, “No. You’re afraid you can’t. There’s a difference.”
A dead silence fell between them holding them both in its inexorable grip. Their stubborn streaks won out, both beating out the mutual urge to respond on a physical level. Cordelia could see the hurt flashing in his eyes, darkening anger, and however unwanted a feeling, even desire. Certain that he could read the same, she never bothered to try to hide it from him. It was too painful to think that Angel might want her, but could not, or worse, simply would not, do anything about it. For whatever reason or reasons might apply.
Although it hurt to wait it out, Cordelia held her tongue, the need to say more practically impossible to ignore. The burning triumph she felt when Angel spoke first was quickly doused when he ignored the fact that she had called him out on his cowardice about living his life instead of brooding about past sins and lost love. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
Snapping out of the angry whirlwind spinning in her head, Cordelia was struck by a sense of déjà vu. “Right. Lethbridge.” Angel just wanted her out of his sight, she realized. Nice excuse, Mr Avoidance Tactics. Props for that one. “Fine. I’m going.”
Eyes on him, Cordelia took two slow steps back, the last one catching her heel between the cobblestone path and grassy ground cover edging on is borders. This time Angel did not budge letting her catch her balance on her own—or fall trying. Flashing a surprised look, while she wondered if he would really have let her take a tumble, she tilted her head up, and flipped her hair over her shoulder as she turned in pursuit of Donald Lethbridge.
Fortunately, she could see that her quarry had reached the center of the park and was now pacing back and forth in front of the stone fountain. It was a gorgeous spot for a moonlit tryst with his bimbo, hidden away by the trees lining the road, decorated by park benches, rosebushes thick with blooms, and the burbling fountain at its center.
No doubt Angel was hanging back just far enough to stay out of sight, but close enough to respond to whatever trouble he imagined might follow her here. Darting from behind one tree to the cover of another, Cordelia paused to snap a few establishing shots of the area with Lethbridge waiting for his date to arrive. Every now and then she glanced over her shoulder looking for Angel, but the moonlight did not penetrate through the trees in that direction.
Somewhere, lurking in the shadows, Angel was watching her every move. Why did that make her hot, bothered, creeped out and irritated all at the same time? She had no time to contemplate the matter. Lethbridge was no longer alone.
Approaching from the opposite end of the park was a lone figure. Not exactly what Mrs L had described as her husband’s type, which was all too typically voluptuous and blonde. Cordelia kept snapping photos as Lethbridge handed over the envelope he had been carrying. This was looking more and more like some kind of illegal business deal than a lovers’ rendezvous. Moving to get a better vantage point, she raised the camera and focused the lens again, only to gasp upon seeing that the butch gal in the leather jacket was neither female nor human.
More like a humanoid demon, she realized. The short-cropped hair teasing the jacket’s collar was not hair at all. Tiny little tentacles hanging in rows clung to his scalp. His scaly complexion was not simply a sign of bad skin care. Instead, it was almost iridescent in the moonlight reflecting the colors of the park. That face was one only a mother could love—assuming this was not a species that tried to eat its young.
Cordelia’s contemplations ended when Angel appeared at her side. She refused to meet his gaze knowing that he might be justified about finding danger anywhere. Suddenly, this case was looking a lot less routine and more like one of Angel’s missions. Then it clicked that this might actually be one. Dreading his answer, but suspecting it all the same, she asked, “Is that demon from Doyle’s vision?” having never gotten the details.
Angel was too busy watching the increasingly violent exchange between Lethbridge and the demon. An argument had broken out that worsened by the second. Shouting led to shoving, and the slightly pudgy lawyer was outmatched by an opponent with speed and strength on his side. The demon was toying with him.
Still waiting for her answer, Cordelia automatically snapped a few more photos, growing more and more worried for poor Mr Lethbridge. “That’s the one.” A strangely ironic note sounded as if he was a bit surprised. “Vague vision. Water, roses, a demon fighting a man. Nothing specific.”
“Why is it always the Cliff Notes version?” Cordelia figured Doyle needed to find a way to demand better visions. Details, details, details. Or maybe his brain was just too hazy from beer and malt liquor to interpret them properly. Automatically snapping a few more photos, she expected Angel to join the fray for some demon bashing, but he was still at her side.
Something else occurred to her that felt a bit unsettling because she wasn’t certain which answer she wanted to hear. “Did Doyle’s vision bring you here, and you just happened to find me, or were you l—”
Cutting her off, Angel quickly answered, “Looking for you.”
Cordelia could tell that Angel had something else to say to her, but his attention was split between her and the demon who had finally knocked Lethbridge off his feet. He might be a scumbag lawyer with connections to L.A.’s demon underground, but somehow he was still worth saving in the eyes of the PTB. Plus, it was unlikely that his wife, who believed him to be a cheating lowlife, would actually want him dead.
“Go on, Dark Revenger,” she gave Angel a nudge with her elbow. “Save the day.”
Angel’s mouth twitched at the corner as if he was reluctantly fighting a smile. He took off at a pace faster than any human could match racing down the cobblestone path coat billowing like a cape behind him. Cordelia made a mental note about advertising and snapped a couple more pictures. Using the edge of the marble fountain as a launching pad, leaping through the air, Angel tackled the demon to the ground, rolled to his feet and kept fighting.
Stunned by the sneak attack, the demon barely stood a chance. Angel was giving him the same treatment he gave Lethbridge. Intimidation tactics and just enough pain to terrorize the hell out of him. A single punch dropped him to the ground where he scooted back on his hands and feet trying to get away. Grabbing him by the front of his jacket and hauling him to his feet, Angel made a few demands that Cordelia couldn’t quite hear.
Curiosity brought her out of the shadows closer to the fight. She was so focused on Angel that she completely forgot about Donald Lethbridge who slammed into her in his effort to escape. Cordelia hit the cobblestone path, the air whooshing from her lungs with the hard knock leaving her momentarily breathless. Loose stones dug mercilessly into her skin as the man standing over her tried to shove her body aside to get by.
Lethbridge stopped suddenly to look back at her, his face a mask of horror. “You’ve got a camera!”
Fortunately, one that had not been damaged in the fall. As he leaned down to grab hold of the camera strap wrapped around her neck, Cordelia . “Say cheese!” she quipped as she turned on the flash and zapped him.
Lethbridge shouted, threw his arm up to block the light as he stumbled back into a nearby rosebush. The thorns must have pricked him as he fell. Another shout followed, “Bitch! Why are you spying on me?”
Back on her feet, Cordelia let his foul-mouthed curse roll off. It was hardly the first time she had heard that term and tended to see it as her own personal mantle. Heavy is the head that wears the crown—or whatever that saying meant. It involved a crown, and she liked those. “Ask your wife. Seems she was wrong about the reason you stay out late on Wednesday nights, but her instincts are pretty good.”
“Sh-Sh-Sheila sent you?”
Cordelia’s eyebrow quirked meaningfully. “That’s right.”
“No! Oh, no. This was all for her, damn you.”
She had no idea what Donald Lethbridge was doing with that demon, but she had it all on film, one Kodak moment at a time. Suddenly, he went pasty, color draining from his face so fast she thought he might pass out, but quickly realized it was not the fear of spousal reprisal scaring him to death.
Lethbridge raised a finger to point over her shoulder babbling incoherently at the sight of something or someone approaching from the other side of the fountain. Cordelia sensed she had nothing to fear, but glanced behind her to confirm Angel was giving Lethbridge his first good look at a vampire. Terrified, he fled back down the path in the direction of his office building, stumbling, picking himself back up, and screaming along the way.
Ignoring him, Cordelia immediately turned to focus on Angel. A glance told her there was no dead demon body stuck in the fountain. “What’s with letting the demon escape?”
Angel approached slowly, his face morphing from the ridged brows and sharp fangs into the smooth, handsome face that sometimes still frequented her dreams. A small gash on his left cheek, a darkening bruise, and raw knuckles were the only visible marks from the fight. Reaching for his hand, Cordelia assessed the damage, smoothing her fingers around the edges to ease away the pain. “Nothing peroxide and Neosporin can’t cure.”
Angel had told her more than once that he healed faster that humans. Cuts and bruises as superficial as these would be gone by morning. Still, it had to help the healing process, as well as make it feel a little better.
When she let go his hand, still waiting for the explanation about why he let the demon go free, Angel suddenly seemed distracted. He frowned, sniffed the air, then growled in the direction Lethbridge had escaped. “Wh—?” Eyes back on her, he cupped her chin in his hand, preventing her from questioning his actions as he examined her for injuries.
“You’re hurt. I smell blood.”
“Just a couple of scrapes.” Cordelia had barely noticed them. She bent her arm to show him her reddened elbow. The small gash was already clotted, but had left a thin trail of drying blood down her forearm. “I’ll survive.”
Looking back toward the edge of the park, Angel muttered a threat. “Lethbridge might not. He practically tackled you to the ground.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Oh, that was just an accident. He was trying to run away and didn’t see me standing there.”
“He hurt you!”
She shrugged it off as being no big deal. “He wanted the camera. I couldn’t let him have it. Duh! It’s got the evidence—and possibly our new advertising campaign.”
Angel’s anger at Lethbridge settled back on her, his words grinding. “You shouldn’t have been here in the first place, Cordelia. I told you we weren’t taking the damned case.”
“Well, I took it,” she yelled back. “Because I did you saved Donald Lethbridge’s life tonight. You never would have found this park if you weren’t skulking around town looking for me!”
He went silent for a minute squaring off as if he was ready to put up a fight. She was so not going to be intimidated by such an obvious move, but it was hard to stand her ground when he leaned in close. “What would have happened if I hadn’t been here tonight?”
“Nothing.” She probably would have snapped a couple of pics of Lethbridge exchanging that envelope for whatever it was he stuffed into his pocket, and then left. “Except that I’d probably already be headed home for well-deserved bubble bath, which sounds like a fantastic idea.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve come to save someone else and found you in the middle of it.”
Cordelia gasped at the inference that she was a magnet for trouble. True, there was more than one occasion that Angel had rescued her from the worst kind of danger. Admittedly, getting swept up in his strong arms during an adrenalin-filled escape was actually kind of hot. Not that she was about to say so to him.
“That demon. . .or even Lethbridge,” Angel sneered at the sound of the name. “Either one could ha—”
“Don’t get so worked up over something that never happened. Take it as a sign that cases like this are part of the mission,” she pointed out that her plan had PTB approval. Victory was all hers. So, so hers. “You’re not alone in this, Angel. Tonight was proof of that.”
Angel’s jaw twitched as he clenched it shut.
“We’re in this together, you and me, and Doyle. We don’t have to cheer you on from the sidelines. Ultimately, you have to, ah, do that kickass thing you do, but we’ve got your back.”
“Tonight was proof that you take risks, Cordelia. I don’t want you hurt in the process.”
Strangely, it felt almost like Angel was talking about other kinds of risk-taking, and hurt feelings, as much as he was getting injured during a fight. Either way, she sensed that he was going to stew about it for the rest of the night. Brood, brood, brood. Trying to resolve the easier issue, she asked, “If the demon was so bad, why’d you let him go? Tell me he’s not out there starting fires, or robbing little old ladies to celebrate his freedom.”
“No. He’s harmless really,” Angel said, although she thought Mr L might think otherwise. “A broker selling black market items.”
Cordelia blinked at the news wondering if they had good deals. “What kind of items?”
Relaxing a little, Angel looked amused, “Nothing with a designer label. Demonic potions, mystic stones, products that can’t be found in the usual places.”
Her curiosity piqued, Cordelia had to ask. “What was he selling to Lethbridge? Why were they fighting about it?”
As she suspected, Angel had persuaded the demon to give up the details. “Tonight was the final payment. There was a disagreement over the volume of product. Some kind of special tonic to enhance. . .,” Angel’s explanation stopped suddenly as if he realized it might not be appropriate to say more.
Actually, Cordelia had heard enough to guess, and it turned out that her imagination was pretty much on target. “Don’t strain yourself. I get it. Sheesh! How ironic, huh? Mrs L thought her husband was cheating, but he’s out buying demon…” she raised both hands and made air quotes, “love potions. Geez, why a potion? They should put it in a pill and sell it wholesale.”
“Demon extracts can be powerful aphrodisiacs,” Angel explained matter-of-factly as if he knew all about it. Something she was in no way surprised about, fairly certain that, when it came to sex, Liam, Angel, and Angelus had tried just about everything. “Not everyone can handle it.”
With a naughty grin, she teased, “And you know this, how?” Not really needing any sort of explanation, a little bell rang clearly in her head. Hello—-vampire. No potions needed. Angel was a walking aphrodisiac all on his own.
Refusing to indulge her with a response, Angel turned her back toward the park exit, his hand gently pressing into the small of her back. “Let’s go home.”
That little phrase made her wish Angel meant something else instead of just heading back to the office. After everything that went on during tonight’s stakeout, Cordelia was more than ready for that hot, relaxing bubble bath. “I’ll wait until tomorrow to tally up Mrs L’s bill.”
Scowling, Angel apparently thought this was going to be a freebee now that her case coincided with his mission. “You still expect payment?”
“Duh! Of course.” Cordelia was just being practical about it. “Mrs L hired me to find out what her husband was doing on Wednesday nights.” She had been oh-so wrong about him having a mistress, which should be a plus. “My photos prove it. I’ll get them developed tomorrow. Case closed.”
She looped an arm through his, nudging him as they walked. Teasing again, “Unless you still think the PTB sent you to save me instead. In that case, we’ll just call it an associate health benefit.”
Grinning, she turned toward the car. Angel fell into step beside her glowering in silence as she reviewed the list to be charged to the Lethbridge account. “Hmm, works out even better than I planned. We’ll get to bill for prime services. Two associates. Camera and equipment use. Film development. Gas and mileage. One demon encounter. Oh, and a manicure. I think I chipped a nail.”
“Saving his life—you forgot about that. Is there a degree-of-difficulty charge?”
Giving him an odd look, she wondered if he was joking or as serious as that poker face implied. “Don’t be tacky. That’s the real mission. We don’t charge for that.”
As he shook his head, and rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension there, Cordelia was reminded that he was still in need of some patching up. “My bubble bath will have to wait. I stashed a First Aid kit in the trunk. I sh—”
“Not here,” Angel cut her off.
Not in front of Lethbridge’s office, she assumed, or out in the open. A glance told her the place was still dark, and she saw that his car was no longer parked along the curb. No one should be around to bother them. It wasn’t like he had any injuries that would require him to take off his pants. The thought that instantly segued into something else.
Cordelia ignored the little stab of lust at the idea of stripping him down, and agreed to go. “Okay. We’re closer to your place than mine. I’ll have you patched up in no time.”
Angel held out his hand for the keys, which she turned over without any fuss. After all, it was technically his car. Asking as he held the car door open for her, “Will Doyle still be there?” caused his brow to furrow as if he hadn’t considered that possibility.
“I don’t know.”
Once he had rounded the Plymouth and gotten into the driver’s seat, she mentioned that it was typical of Doyle to wait around with her until Angel returned. “He usually keeps me company while you’re off doing the hero thing.”
Angel started the car and kept his eyes on the road as he said coolly, “So he tells me.”
Trying to make conversation since she knew Angel wasn’t as chatty as their Irish friend, she asked, “Did you know Doyle’s a pretty good storyteller?”
So much for him opening up and sharing something Doyle might have said to him. “He’s funny, too,” Cordelia prompted telling him something their new friend has said just the other day. Settling back into the leather seat, she let out a little snort. “Nice guy.”
“A real corker.”
Confused by the term, Cordelia assumed it had something to do with Irish humor, or drinking, which might be appropriate. Angel’s irritation about the subject of Doyle just pointed back to his anger about her taking on the Lethbridge case. He was taking it out on poor Doyle the same way she had when he snitched to Angel about it, which reminded her that she had a thing or two to say to the Neutral Party in all of this. Neutral, hah!
Why was Angel so angry about Doyle when Doyle was clearly on his side in the matter of her handling a case or two on her own? He gripped the steering wheel as if he was trying to choke it to death, and seemed determined to make it back to the office in record time. Speeding was the least of it. Two red lights went ignored on the way back. The first one seemed like a fluke, and no other vehicles were around.
Horns honked and tires screeched on the second causing Cordelia to do some screeching of her own. “Do you even have a driver’s license? Gah! I would like to make it home in one piece.”
By some miracle, the Plymouth made it back to its usual spot in the underground section of the parking garage attached to the building despite the lead-footed vampire driving it.
Cordelia slammed the car door shut after getting out and practically stomped toward the back entry that led to Angel’s basement apartment. She tugged on the door handle despite knowing it was locked. Shaking something just made her feel better even if it would not budge.
Angel walked up behind her, so close he brushed up against her as he reached out to slide the key into the lock.With a click the door was opened and she dashed inside. The need to put some space between them suddenly seemed vital. Now that the case was over some of what Angel had said filtered through her jumbled thoughts.
Dumping her bag on the kitchen table without really looking caused her to misjudge the distance sending it toppling over. The contents spilled out hitting the floor around her in a hailstorm of objects. Only Angel’s lightning reflexes saved the camera from crashing. As Cordelia crouched down to pick up her stuff, she did so slowly, not only because she still felt a little stiff from her fall, but because she was trying to work out what Angel had said to her just before she realized Lethbridge was missing.
Tracing the pattern on the old linoleum floor, she absently wondered if it covered up any original wood. Angel gave her an odd look when she shared her suspicions. “Thanks for the tip.” He helped her to her feet, taking the bag and placing it in the center of the table away from harm.
Cordelia heard herself chattering about the things they could do with their much-needed check from the Lethbridge case simply trying to fill the otherwise awkward silence that kept cropping up every time she was forced to pause for a breath. They had complicated something that had been quite simple a few hours before. She was confounded as to how they were supposed to bottle up what happened and pretend that it never happened since he so obviously wanted it that way.
Deciding that she would just get this First Aid business over with and demand to borrow the car in order to drive home, Cordelia headed straight for Angel’s bedroom only to hear him call out, “Where are you going?”
“Obvious, much? I’m already here.”
She noticed that he was on his way to that clap-trap elevator. There was a small First Aid kit upstairs used mainly for the occasional boo-boo. The injuries they sustained tonight were hardly serious, but the bag containing the bulk of her supplies was just a few feet away in Angel’s bathroom. Plus, it was easier with access to water.
Cordelia waited as Angel walked up to face her with only the door jam between them. He lifted his arms up pressing against it as if wishing there was an invisible barrier blocking the way. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. Do you?”
The meaningful note danced around a topic that Cordelia very much wanted to get into, yet she didn’t want him to be vague about it. Responding as if she misunderstood, “Just take off your shirt and get on the bed,” she promised, “I won’t get anything disgusting on it. You’re not covered in oily grime or demon goo this time.”
All without touching her, Angel stepped forward into her space somehow maneuvering her so that her back pressed up against the door sending a million tingles zipping in all directions. “Dammit, Cordelia! You’re not that naive.” Despite his nasty tone, he touched her with the greatest gentility, his hand stroking a path to her face.
Admitting it with a simple, “No,” she flushed hot as his thumb swiped the lower curve of mouth making her wonder if it was possible to die of spontaneous combustion at such a simple caress. “Are we going to talk about this or what?”
Not one for talking, Angel dipped his head and kissed her until the sun shined, and made a promise never to stop trying for that one, perfect kiss.