And Now, A Sneak Preview from “The Demon That Is Dreaming”: Elaine Makes a New Friend

“Not a party person?”

Elaine jumped, and then mentally kicked herself for it. Even with the noise of the party (mercifully muffled by the stairs) she should have heard someone coming, sulking or not. At least the voice wasn’t anyone she knew. Turning around, nor was the face. The man who’d spoken was a stranger–sandy-brown hair, friendly smile, not too tall (though possibly Alan was skewing her perception there), a slightly crooked nose that kept his face from seeming too boyish, and hazel eyes that crinkled at the corners with the grin. The obligatory tuxedo he wore looked like another rental with some hasty tailoring, and someone had tied his tie just barely lopsided. Somehow, on him it worked.

“Not really, no.” She kept her back close to the wall, not that she’d be able to run if she had to, but she couldn’t quite imagine a would-be kidnapper, rapist, or other opportunistic criminal would have paid the ticket prices just to troll for victims. She noted the two wine glasses, not champagne flutes, he was holding, both filled with something red. “Lose someone, or are you a two-fisted drinker?”

“Neither.” The smile was, if anything, more charming. “Hoping to find someone thirsty so I wouldn’t have to drink alone.” He held one out. “You strike me as woman who could use a drink.”

That was almost too uncannily accurate to be a coincidence. Still, she took the glass, not taking a sip. “You appear to think I’m stupidly trusting, too.”

“There’s nothing in the wine, I promise.” He took a sip of his own, not that that was reassuring. “Including much in the way of quality grapes, but then I suppose one can’t be too picky.”

“It can’t be as bad as the champagne they’re serving.” She didn’t try it.

“I can’t imagine you’re hiding up here with red eyes because of bad champagne.” There was just the faintest softening of his voice. He was still smiling, but that had a gentler edge now, too.

All of which cut off her instinctive response, which was to tell him to go and do something obscene with himself. “No. I just . . . this isn’t my sort of crowd. And I think I’ve put my foot in it with someone whose good opinion I value, no matter how much that annoys me.”

“Annoys you that you stepped in it, or that you value his opinion? I assume it’s a he we’re talking about.” From Val, that gently teasing tone would have been irksome, and she couldn’t imagine Alan teasing her at all, but somehow she couldn’t read this as malicious. “I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”

“Really? I’m not. And it’s my own stupid fault for thinking I knew someone when we’ve really never spent that much time together.” The irony of that statement, made to a total stranger, wasn’t lost on her, but even without touching the wine she felt uncharacteristically like purging. “Of course it’s all more complicated than just bad personal judgement, so I can’t really walk away, either.”

“Always is, isn’t it?” Something in the stranger’s tone said he knew from experience. “Still, we all make mistakes when getting to know someone. I’m sure if he’s at all a worthwhile sort of person, he’ll forgive you. Though you do seem like you need that drink.” He obviously could see what she was thinking, and took the glass back and took a healthy sip before handing it back. “See? Not poisoned, not drugged. And I can promise you, I don’t have anything catching.”

In spite of herself, Elaine felt a giggle creeping up her throat. “You are pretty damn confident you’re charming, aren’t you?”

“You’re laughing, aren’t you?” He raised his glass in salute, and she caved, returning the gesture and taking a sip. All things considered, if he was playing her, being drugged might be the highlight of her evening.

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