Chapter 222

               “Someone knows how to clean up well,” Nick said. This was a cardinal sin of understatement, as Alice could have caused a wreck if she strode through an intersection as she appeared when stepping out of her car. Pink dress, high-heels, and styled hair along with actual make-up had transformed a woman who was already beautiful into something truly spectacular. It helped that Alice carried herself with the sort of confidence owned only by the brilliant, the bold, and the battle-hardened.

                She smiled at Nick, admiring how well the suit he wore hung off his lean frame. He grinned back at her, and for just a moment they were simply two stupid college kids that were excited about testing the romantic waters of something new.

                “You know you start this date with one strike already since I had to pick you up,” Alice pointed out.

                “I thought we all agreed that me keeping my distance from Melbrook was for the best,” Nick countered.

                Alice walked across the parking lot and gave him a hug of greeting, one that lingered a bit longer than their normal embraces. “So what? You’re Nick Fucking Campbell; don’t tell me you couldn’t have come up with some way to pull it off if you really needed to.”

                “Maybe, but then you’d have had to hide in the bushes and signal me with a flashlight, and I think we both know there’s no way the princess is willing to dirty her shoes for little old me.”

                “Ah, first date has barely started and you’re already being a dick.” Alice wrapped her arms around one of his and leaned against his suit-covered body. She let herself take a second and enjoy the sensation of pressing against him, of letting her mental armor down for a few moments.

                “Alice… is everything okay?”

                “Not really. I had a very long afternoon, and there’s more stuff on my plate because of it, but I don’t want to think about that right now.” Alice begrudgingly pulled herself away from the lean, though she kept his arm ensnared by hers even as she straightened her posture.

                “Anything I can do?”

                “Just keep being a douche,” Alice replied. “Right now I need to laugh or I’m going to dwell. Besides, I’ve waited a long time for this date. I expect to be wowed.”

                “That much I can certainly promise,” Nick said. “How do you feel about strip clubs and steak buffets?”

                “Like you’ll be getting kicked in the junk.”

                Nick chuckled, though he took the threat somewhat seriously. “I suppose I do have a back-up plan or two…”

*             *             *

                The date wasn’t actually all that different than how things were than when they normally hung out. Vince was not a person with a great many layers, after all. It wasn’t in him to change who he was or how he acted just because the social context of their time together had changed. That was, in fact, one of the many thing that Camille loved about him.

                Italian might have been a bit of stretch when Vince described where they were going; pizza and spaghetti hit the mark much closer than the word that conjured ideas of fancy pastas and white table cloths. The food was good though, and after the first few minutes Camille realized she was glad that Vince had picked such a casual place. It made her feel more comfortable and at ease, whereas if they’d gone somewhere upscale she’d have felt all the more pressure about the fact she was out, on a date, with Vince.

                He was nervous too, that much was apparent, but it was the sweet kind of nervous that led to him knocking over a parmesan shaker and stumbling over his words a bit. Even that faded after the first hour they spent together. The two of them had been friends for some time, and once the jitters went away they remembered that they knew perfectly well how to be around, and enjoy, each other.

                The date didn't fundamentally alter them, or their dynamic together, and Camille wouldn’t have changed that fact for any price in the world. After all, she loved how Vince normally was. She didn’t want some overly careful or suave version of him.

                She simply wanted to spend dinner with the man she loved.

*             *             *

                “Mr. Evers?” The large man was covered in muscles and tattoos, yet the slightest quiver of fear entered his voice as he stood in the doorway and interrupted his boss. It wasn’t Nathaniel himself that scared him, though those orange eyes were certainly more than a little disconcerting. It was what he represented, and who he was connected to, that truly put this mountain of a man ill at ease. He’d worked for dangerous people before, jobs where he knew he put his life on the line by showing up. The people Nathaniel had aligned himself with weren’t like that. They’d never be so kind as to simply kill him.

                “What is it?” Nathaniel didn’t even bother looking up from the laptop he was studying intently, those eerie eyes darting across the screen.

                “It’s just that you wanted us to tell you whenever Nicholas Campbell or one of those kids from the dorms was out in the open. He and the blonde left his apartment a few minutes ago, and the silver-haired guy was seen riding somewhere with the short girl that hangs out there a lot.”

                “Brazen.” Nathaniel spat the word like a curse, barley concealing the snarl that lingered upon his face. “I set the last place he went to have fun on fire, and he decided to go on a date. Even after everything that he’s seen, all the clues I’ve left for him, Nicholas Campbell still refuses to take me seriously.”

                “Should I send out some guys to ruin their night?” The thug held his breath, hoping dearly to be told no. He didn’t know a lot about this guy that Nathaniel had them watch, but there was word on the street that he was smart, dangerous, and connected in a very bad way.

                “That won’t be necessary,” Nathaniel replied. “If we make a move every time he steps out of the house then he’ll begin to expect it, and that would let him set a trap for us. Better to keep him guessing. Besides, I still need to recruit more assets to the cause if we’re going to have our big to-do. Tell the men to stand down. Tonight they get a free pass. I certainly hope Nicholas makes the most of it. Once we have enough troops, he’ll be dead in the ground and no one in Vegas will be able to tie it back to me, so I’d like to think he’s squeezing the last vestiges of joy from his life. While he can.”

                The thug let out the breath he’d been holding, then hurried back down to where the other workers were staying. Most of them were like him, local muscle that someone had hired at way above the going rate. Some of the others though, they were scary. They had the dead eyes and careful demeanor that he’d long ago signaled a life spent with blood on one’s hands. Even worse, most of that lot seemed to be Supers. No one knew exactly what Nathaniel was planning, at least none of the local guys did.

                All they knew was that it was going to be bad, and at this point they’d rather be on his side than against it.