CHAPTER 4

Shalott glanced uneasily between Rosalind and Chris. The tension was palpable, and Shalott could almost see Rose reaching her boiling point.

"So, you don't think there is anything wrong with having another woman drop you off when you are going to meet your girlfriend?" Rosalind was so angry she was seeing red.

"You are overreacting, Rosalind. First of all, the 'other woman' is my cousin. Second of all, even if I did have an intimate relationship with her, Shalott and I have always had an agreement about other women. Isn't that right, Shalott?"

Shalott nodded, although she wished that the agreement that Chris spoke of was only a figment of his imagination. That facts were that when Chris and she had met in the hospital where Shalott's father was having his chemotherapy, Shalott had nearly tripped over him in the stairwell, sharing passionate kisses with a young nurse. It had been enough of an event to incite Chris' interest in Shalott and although she'd been a bit turned off at first by Chris' brash attitude and conceit, he had been kind to Shalott's sick father who had liked Chris in return. When Shalott and Chris had agreed to date, Chris had been very up front about the matter of his liking women. All women. With his sultry good looks, bronzed skin and surfer physique, Shalott could hardly blame any woman who threw herself at Chris and was very easily convinced that their "agreement" was for the best.

Now, she sometimes wondered what she had been thinking. More than once, when Chris seemed particularly uncaring, Shalott had tried to end things with him. Chris always managed to get her to rethink her decision, not that it was very difficult. Shalott enjoyed being with him, especially after her father's death, when the creeping loneliness pressed in too close.

Rosalind, however, could not understand Shalott's feelings in the matter. What Rose saw was an arrogant playboy who was using her friend as a backup plan when things with other women didn't go his way. He had caught Shalott at her lowest point and now Shalott was too tied up in his lies and she couldn't see the truth. Watching Chris casually sling his arm over Shalott's shoulder while ogling a teenaged girl from the corner of his eye was too much, and Rose hit her boiling point.

"I saw that, you jerk. You're worthless, Chris, total scum. Shalott, I am not going to be around him any longer and I am leaving. Will you come with me, please?"

Shalott looked in horror between the two. She hadn't seen Chris in almost a week, but she did not want Rosalind to leave angry. She opened her mouth to reply but Chris cut her off. "I will take Shalott home, Rosalind. I want to show her something, first".

Rosalind was so furious that Shalott was afraid she would hit Chris, but Rose just turned and stormed away. Shalott looked after her, worriedly. Chris smiled at Shalott but she couldn't find it in herself to smile back. He eyes twinkled when he told her, "Come with me to Tiffany's. I want you to see this."

Chris lead her to the jewelry store and directly to a case of rings. The hollow in the pit of Shalott's stomach filled a bit when she saw they were not engagement rings, but instead a beautiful selection of stylish right-hand rings. She looked over them in appreciation.

"I was thinking that since your birthday is coming up, you might be interested in one of these." Chris smiled his lopsided smile at her, the one that made Shalott's knees weak. She laughed.

"My birthday was two months ago, silly. You forgot it."

His smile grew. "I am just making sure I get it right next year."

Shalott laughed again and turned back to the case. In the upper right hand corner, something caught her eye and her breath hitched in her throat.

"See something you like?" Chris peered over her shoulder.

"Well… that one. See there?" Shalott tapped the glass above an ornately pattered ring. "My father used to wear a ring like that. It was a memento; a gift from my mother."

Chris eyed the ring. "It is not the prettiest. You would really like something like that?"

Shalott stared at it, transfixed. "Hmm? Oh, no. I was just thinking that I had forgotten all about that ring. My father used to own jewelry shops, you know? Right before he started getting really sick, the store he was working in was robbed. The attackers held a gun to his head and tried to cut the ring off of his pinkie finger. He only escaped because the proprietor of the shop next door came over to investigate the ruckus, and that man brought his shotgun."

Tears welled in Shalott's eyes and Chris looked at her in alarm. "Are you going to be Okay?"

"Yeah." Shalott smiled at Chris, albeit weakly, and wiped her eyes. "It is just silly, because after the robbery attempt, Dad put the ring away to keep it safe."

"He hid it? Where?" Chris' eyes were fixed on her face and Shalott blushed. "I don't remember. Dad told me, once, and said that someday we would go and get it together. That was the last time we ever talked about it. Dad passed away soon after. I guess he never brought it up again because he never did like talking about my mom or anything to do with her, and she gave the ring to him."

Chris' brow furrowed, then smoothed again. "That's too bad. I am sure you would like to have such an important heirloom from your parents."

Shalott shrugged, wiping away another errant tear. "I don't really remember my mother, so that part does not bother me, but it would be nice to have something that Dad actually loved and kept close. Oh well, c'est la vie." She smiled at Chris.

Christ searched her face for a moment longer. "See anything you like here?"

Turning back to the case, Shalott gave it another glance. "Not really. You know, I am really tired, Chris. I feel like I've been hit by a truck. Can you just take me home now?"

He nodded, but as Shalott walked away a flash of rage marred his features. This outing hadn't gone to plan at all.

Somehow, Shalott wasn't surprised to see the flash of silver hair just inside her apartment complex entry as Chris dropped her off. Turning to her boyfriend with a smile, she kissed him. "Are we going to lunch tomorrow?"

Chris glanced at his watch and sighed. "Shal, I'm sorry but I need to go to Rio for business. I am leaving tonight and won't be back until next week."

Shalott's face fell. "Oh. Is your cousin going, as well?"

He frowned at her. "No. What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing, Chris. Have a nice trip, call me when you get home."

Shalott stepped from the car and Chris took off with a screech of tires and no goodbye. She watched him for a moment and was ready to turn to go inside when a voice be her elbow caused her to jump.

"Nice guy. Friend of yours?"

"Geezus!" Shalott screeched. "Would you quit doing that?"

Azrael studied her. "Quit doing what?"

"Sneaking up on me! It seems like…" She trailed off when she realized that she couldn't remember Azrael sneaking up on her before. It just seemed as if he had.

Sea-green eyes studied her intently and Shalott blushed. "Well if you must know, yes. I am friends with him." She kicked herself mentally even as she said the words, wondering why she didn't announce Chris as her boyfriend.

"Ah." Azrael didn't take his eyes from her face and Shalott's blush deepened. Crossing her arms defensively, she couldn't help glaring back. "What do you even want?"

"I was getting Auntie's mail when I saw you pull up. I thought that since we are neighbors we should get to know each other."

"Uh huh. That sounds plausible."

Azrael laughed, a rich laugh that made Shalott's toes tingle. "Plausible, eh? Wow, I am having a good impression."

She huffed. "Listen, I don't like guys like you. Guys who think that just because they are attractive and charming and mysterious they can get any girl they want."

"You think I am attractive?" his eyebrows rose, but Shalott wasn't to be interrupted.

"All you want is a warm body and that makes me sick. I have no interest in being your booty call. You're the type of guy I dislike the most!"

Azrael looked at her intently. "But you like guys like him?"

Speechless, Shalott tore her eyes away from him, but she couldn't help glancing in the direction Chris had driven away. Azrael took her elbow and in a kinder tone said "Let's go inside. You look tired."

Shalott allowed him to lead her indoors and waited patiently with him at the elevator. She didn't say anything about the fact that Azrael still had his hand on her arm, but she spoke up when he pushed only the button for nine and not fifteen. "I don't need an escort to my door, but thanks."

Azrael glanced at her from the corner of his eyes and dropped his hand. "I was going to offer you dinner. Home cooked. I'd like to change your impression of me."

Shalott couldn't help a snort. "Why does it matter what I think of you?"

"Well, for one thing, we're neighbors. For another, I don't know anyone here in Las Vegas and I had hoped we could be friends. My aunt has me pretty tightly wound around her finger, so outside of this building I don't think I will get the chance to meet people my own age."

There was a frankness in his voice that appealed to Shalott. Lowering her guard a bit she replied, "Good luck with that. Most of the inhabitants of this apartment building moved in when it was new. The only other tenants under forty are Jennifer and Bryan on three, and they have two kids and a whole set of their own problems."

Azrael leaned close to Shalott's ear and let his voice take on a purr. "Well, then I guess we will have to get to know each other very well."

Shalott practically jumped out of the opening doors of the elevator. "Oh here I am! Okay, thank you, good night."

Azrael chuckled and followed her. "I make you uncomfortable."

"Well, I already made clear why I don't like guys like you. Isn't that enough?"

"No. I am certain you have an arsenal of ways to shut down creeps, yet you haven't said a thing to me. Have I done something to make you dislike me?"

Shalott sighed. She remembered Madame St. Sauveur telling her that her nephew was impetuous, but a good boy. Shalott had believed her, but somehow standing in front of Azrael, all she could feel was suspicion and a distasteful undercurrent of something else. Something akin to desire. Shalott was half certain that the reason she disliked him was because she was afraid of her own reaction to him. Inviting him to her home just seemed like it was asking for trouble.

"Tell you what. I have an appointment tomorrow morning, but how about in the afternoon we get coffee? Say, around one?"

Azrael's smile almost undid her resolve. "Perfect. I will be at the Olympus all day with Aunty, but they have a great bistro there. I will meet you then, ma cherie."

Shalott gave him a little wave and then made a break for her apartment. She kept telling herself that she was being nice to Azrael because she owed Madame for her kindness, but somehow, the words felt like a lie.


Author's Note: Hi! I actually have quite a bit of this fic written, and I am forgetting to upload new chapters constantly. Being able to play with these characters and put these ideas down on paper has been really helpful - I am currently working on a novel intended for publication someday. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read my silly little pet project!