Skin

Josef stood silently in the doorway, watching. Even the artificial breathing he did from habit, the deceptive rise and fall of his chest, was done with an absolute minimum of noise. Certainly Lucky, who was engrossed in scanning the contents of the large bookcase on the other side of the room, her back to the door, didn't hear anything.

She was looking for something to read, as far as he could tell, and uncharacteristically pulling out book after book, only to return each one to its place. Josef could recall many times seeing her walk to that bookcase, take a quick look and grasp the desired title. This indecision troubled him, as did the tension in the set of her shoulders. He moved across the room with his usual fluid grace, not thinking to alert her to his approach.

When she did become aware of his presence, it was as he skimmed his cold hands down her bare arms. She reacted, startled, and let out a little shriek. The she turned, her nose almost bumping into his chest. "Josef! You scared me, sneaking up like that. I nearly jumped out of my skin."

"That," he replied, "would be a shame. I've grown rather fond of your skin." In fact, his hands had never left her, except for an instant as she turned, and he stared down now at the cleavage generously exposed by the scoop neck of her tank top. "Why so touchy, sweetheart?"

Lucky shivered, a little frisson Josef found quite alluring. He loved seeing involuntary responses to his presence. Even after centuries, it amused him to know he had such powers. She, on the other hand, was looking dismayed. "I don't know. I'm just feeling edgy. Tense. I get that way sometimes."

Josef responded by looking hard into her eyes for a few seconds. She returned the gaze unblinking, and while he could feel the slightest beginnings of relaxation in her, the young woman still felt like a coiled spring under his hands. His expression grew thoughtful. With her reticent nature, she might not be willing to spell it out for him, but he was not unaware of the source of at least part of her distress. In truth, he was content not to have that conversation. On the other hand, he thought he knew of a way to take the edge off.

"I have an idea," he said, smiling.

Lucky couldn't help but smile back. "That's always frightening."

Josef lifted an eyebrow. "You're so kind," he said. "Seriously, I know just the thing."

"So do I," she murmured, knowing he would hear, but also knowing he would ignore it. They had an unspoken agreement to that effect. It was the only way she had of expressing some of her opinions, and he was usually interested enough in what she had to say that he allowed what some vamps would have viewed as impertinence.

"Get your purse, doll, and meet the car out front in ten minutes."

"We're going somewhere? Why?"

"You're going somewhere, and I think you'll like it." He smirked, looking unusually pleased with himself.

Lucky looked at him dubiously. "Josef—"

"Do you trust me?"

"Implicitly. But I don't like surprises."

He tilted his head down to look up from under his eyebrows at her, questioningly, and pulled his lower lip between his teeth. Lucky was torn between thinking her heart would melt at the sight, and recognizing how practiced the expression must be.

"Does that face work for you every time?" she asked.

"So far." He gave her an impish smile. "Now run along. I have to make a call."

She shook her head. "What are you planning?"

"Oh, she's got her stubborn face on. My sinister plot is bearing fruit already, I can see."

Josef gave a short imitation of an evil laugh, and Lucky rolled her eyes.

"Really." She shook her head. "Okay, I'm asking nicely. Please, Josef dear, what are you planning?" she simpered.

He dropped an arm around her shoulders, maneuvering her towards the door, and she walked along with him. "I'm thinking, therapeutic full body massage."

Lucky stopped dead. "No way."

Josef looked down at her, and stroked her arm reassuringly. "Come on, Luck'. I know you like to be—touched."

Her face flamed red; he could actually feel the difference in the heat thrown off by the blood rushing to her skin. Fascinating. He was more than half tempted to siphon off a little of the excess. "Not by some stranger," she protested. "Josef, I'd never be able to relax for—"

"Lucky. Do this for me."

She looked down, thinking about it. Then she nodded.

Lucky looked at the building in dismay, then at the driver. "Are you sure we're at the right place?" she asked. The exterior like a leftover set from the Babylonian part of D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, rearing plaster elephants and all, and considering the location, it very well could be. Whatever it was, it looked like some completely over-the-top slice of Hollywood decadence, and she was damned if she'd take the chance of being seen entering, or, God forbid, inside, such a place. It was hard enough on the best days to reconcile her personal dignity with what amounted to concubinage with a vampire. And now he'd had her delivered to—to this.

She sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. "I am so not getting out of this car," she announced.

The driver sighed and pulled out a cell phone. "Mr. Kostan anticipated that you might be less than pleased, and requested that I notify him if you, umm, objected."

"You've got to be kidding."

"No, miss. Mr. Kostan was very specific. Shall I call?"

Lucky's lips thinned as she pressed them together, but she unbuckled her seatbelt. And while she was unsurprised when the driver hopped out to open the car door for her and hand her out, she was basically astonished when he took her elbow to escort her to the door of the establishment. "Really?" she asked. "Is this necessary?"

The driver shrugged. "Mr. Kostan's instructions—"

"—were very specific. I get it." Lucky shook her head, rolling her eyes again, but made no resistance to being steered through the front door. She was struck immediately by the opulence of the interior, and suddenly felt underdressed in her spaghetti strap tank and blue jeans.

They were met by a very unctuous man wearing a surprisingly good suit and a broad smile. "Welcome, welcome," he said, "I think you'll find the arrangements we've made for you to be eminently suitable."

"Arrangements?"

"Oh, yes, Ms.—"

"Lucky."

"Ms. Lucky, we would never dream of providing a friend of Mr. Kostan's with anything less than the best." He didn't quite rub his hands together, but she could easily picture it. Lucky noted with some amusement that there was a fine dew of sweat on the man's forehead. Josef certainly knew how to throw the fear of—not God, but something, into people. Probably just the fear of Josef Kostan. Meanwhile, she was being ushered to a tastefully appointed room, decorated in shades of cream and gold, and spotlessly clean. It was about as far from the garish exterior as it could be, and screamed expensive, high-end spa. The maitre d', for lack of a better term, turned her over to a young woman whose immaculate uniform matched the décor.

"Good afternoon, madame," the woman said, smiling pleasantly. Lucky wondered momentarily what Eris or Allara would do in this situation, and had to smile herself at the thought, assuming the woman would be unfamiliar enough with her that any malice in her expression would pass unnoticed. The woman seemed momentarily distracted by the Bluetooth headset in her ear, but smoothly continued, "I'm Michelle. Since this is your first visit, we thought you might have some questions."

"Honey, you have no idea." Lucky paused. "So, are you my—masseuse?"

"Me?" Michelle seemed surprised. "Oh, no, madame, I'm just an assistant. A facilitator, if you will."

Lucky took a deep breath. "Well, then," she said, "what's the procedure?"

Michelle smiled again. It was getting annoying, Lucky thought. "If madame will disrobe," she said, indicating a screen in one corner with a graceful gesture. "You may wish to avail yourself of the shower. Many of our patrons find their enjoyment is enhanced by—freshening up. You'll find a complete selection of toiletries available, or we can provide whatever you wish."

Lucky rather doubted they'd have her brand, the special unscented one, and dreaded the thought of dousing herself in some overly strong perfume. Josef would hate that, and she'd have to spend hours scrubbing later. On the other hand, if she was going to have a stranger that close, she didn't want to be worrying about even a hint of sweat. "Hmmm. We'll see," she said, aiming for a supercilious tone.

"Once madame is ready, if she will lie on the massage table, face down, I'll summon the masseur, Philippe.

"Wait a minute. Masseur? Philippe?"

Michelle nodded, still smiling. "The men have much more strength in their hands, you know." She paused. "We do understand that some of our ladies are—shy—on their first visit. But there is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. And you need not think of the masseur at all. In fact, our—massage therapists—are not allowed to speak to clients. Madame will find it more private that way."

Lucky doubted that, but she took a deep breath and marched behind the screen. Her initial surprise at finding a set of her usual brand of unscented toiletries quickly turned into amusement. She should have known—the arrangements for "Mr. Kostan's friend" were very thorough indeed. Josef did have a nose for detail.

She was tempted to linger in the shower, where three jets sluiced hot water over her deliciously, but she supposed she should get on with it. She used two of the insanely luxurious towels to dry off, and twisted her wet hair back into its customary loose braid, steeling herself for the ordeal. When she emerged, wrapped as modestly as possible in a bath sheet-sized towel, and padded across the silky deep pile carpet, Michelle looked at her closely.

"Madame should remove her jewelry, also."

Lucky touched the ruby on its slender gold chain at her throat. Like hell, she thought. "This doesn't come off," she said. "Ever. He can work around it."

Michelle nodded, a mysterious smile playing across her full lips. "As madame wishes."

Lucky found herself being assisted onto the table, her towel relinquished as she stretched out on the comfortable surface. Her braid fell over her shoulder, and she wished she'd left her hair loose, so that it could serve as a curtain to hide behind.

"If you're ready, I'll call in Philippe," Michelle said.

"I'll be ready as soon as you throw a towel over my ass."

"But—"

"This is bad enough without being completely exposed to a stranger," Lucky said stubbornly. "Towel, or I'm out of here. And your boss can explain it to Mr. Kostan. Who has been known to comment that he treasures my modesty."

Michelle paled visibly, and the next thing Lucky knew, one of the softest towels she had ever felt was being draped across her hips.

"Thank you."

"Yes, madame. Oh, and you should expect the masseur to be using warm oil. Please relax and enjoy. If you require anything else, I will be within earshot." Michelle checked one last time to make sure her client was properly arranged, with her face firmly held in the headrest that blocked her vision of the room, then opened the door. "Madame is ready for you now," she said as she exited.

Lucky heard the door close, softly, but no footsteps crossing the room. Soft-soled shoes, she imagined, although it was unnerving not to be able to place the masseur in the room. Never having had a professional massage, she had no idea where he would begin, or how. Her skin already felt tingly and almost swollen, just waiting for the first touch. She twitched a little. The waiting was unbearable.

"Philippe?" she said, "where are you, please?" There was no answer.

Then she heard the softest scrape of glass against glass, and she could only surmise that the masseur had removed the stopper from a cruet of oil. There was silence, then without warning, a fat drop of the oil hit her between the shoulders. It was very warm, just short of being uncomfortably hot. She gasped, and another drop fell, an inch or so below the first. She could feel the oil spread over her skin, and tensed slightly in anticipation of the next drop. And waited. Nothing,

The third drop caught her by surprise. And was followed by a steady stream down her back, ending in a pool in the hollow at the base of her spine, just above the draped folds of the towel. He would have to begin to touch her soon. Soon, while the oil was still warm. She listened, and heard the liquid sound of more oil, imagined him pouring a little into his palm, rubbing his hands together to prepare them for his work. Being here, being so vulnerable to a stranger, was disturbingly exciting. The first touch had to come soon, and she began to shake in anticipation.

At last, at last a hand—or more specifically a finger—touched her back, and slid down the spine, mixing the oil drops together. He began to trace random patterns on her skin, drawing swirling glyphs with the oil. She swayed in place in rhythm to the flow, as though they were dancing to some unheard music, just the slightest movement under the masseur's hand. One at a time, he added more fingers into the dance, then his other hand, until he was rubbing her back with both hands, lightly, spreading the oil, using the lubrication to glide seamlessly over her skin.

Gradually, the pressure of his hands increased, and Lucky reveled in the feel of it. She'd always been so ticklish, and she'd worried she'd embarrass herself by flinching from this stranger's touch, but the warm oil, and his practiced hands, had removed all her trepidation. Josef had been right. This was relaxing. It was so like him to suggest it, tactile being that he was. So bound to his immortal body, so attuned to the physicality of his existence, he was always looking for ways to enhance his contact with humans, and this sybaritic indulgence was perfect for that, she thought.

She floated in a haze of contentment as the massage continued, down each arm. Even her hands came in for attention. The masseur seemed determined to touch every inch of her skin, and right at the moment, she was fine with it. His touch was so sure, so comfortable to her, she could almost imagine it was Josef whose hands moved over her. That would be heaven indeed. Ah, well, she could daydream. She began to understand the rule against the masseur talking…in her mind, he could be whomever she desired. She was almost drowsy, thinking of the cool touch of the vampire, mingling it in her mind with the hands working the warm oil into her skin.

Then, with a firm weight, the full hand rested for a moment, still, on her back, and something registered a last through the fog of sensation. Once the warmth of the heated oil had dissipated, that hand was markedly cool. Her eyes snapped open, and she started to raise her head.

She only caught a flash of black and white, dark trousers and a snug t-shirt, before the cool hand pressed her face gently down onto the cushion again, and Josef said, his tones amused, "I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to figure it out."

"What are you doing here?" If he knew what she'd been thinking, which he probably did...this was beyond embarrassing.

"Giving you a massage. Live long enough, you pick up a few useful talents."

Lucky wondered if she could find a way to sink through the table and into the ground. She squirmed and reached back for the towel across her hips, intending to pull it up to cover herself. Instead, she felt the towel whipping away, and Josef administered a light, stinging smack to her buttocks.

"Lie still. We're not done."

Lucky yelped, but held on to the table for dear life. "Okay," she said shakily, "but Josef, please, please let me have the towel back. Please."

Josef held the fabric in his hands, enjoying the silky feel of the fine cotton. Nice, but nothing to the sheer delight of the skin he had been touching. "You look," he said, "much better without it." He paused. "You can argue, if you'd like more of a spanking," he said, thinking that might be a very enjoyable thing. Somehow he thought she might agree, even if she'd never verbalize it.

It was astonishing, he thought…her blush was spreading over the whole of her body. And while looking was pleasurable, he was here for the touch…she was shaking again, but this time it was with emotion, not anticipation. He put his hands on her shoulder blades, rubbing gently as though the massage had never stopped. "Lucky," he said quietly, "does this feel good to you?"

"Yes." Her voice was almost a whisper.

He rubbed a little harder, using the heels of his hands to work out some of the tension in her muscles. "Do you want me to stop?"

There was a long pause, then, "No."

"All right."

He worked his way slowly down her back, reveling in the feel of her flesh under his hands. The heat of her skin rose into his hands, made his own skin feel more alive to him, more sensitive than ever. He knew he could have had this anytime, but somehow, the moment had never seemed right. And even now, with this excuse to touch her, it seemed like he was exploring forbidden territory. Every curve, every contour of her naked back was exposed to him, displayed for his hands to cover. The light oil had long since absorbed into her skin, leaving it like living, pliant silk under his fingertips. Once again, she was starting to relax, to enjoy the sensations. He could read it in her breathing, in her heartbeat, in the scent of her that swam just beneath the perfume of the oil he had used.

He moved back for a moment, taking in the sight of her full length, unencumbered. The scenery was distracting. He thought he could stand there enjoying the view forever. Maybe she was right, maybe the towel was a good idea. But not quite yet.

Josef moved to her feet, and starting with a little toe, worked methodically upwards, his hands kneading her slender ankles, the sleek curves of her calves, hesitating just a moment before laying his hands on the sweet firmness of her thighs. He could feel her blood thrumming beneath his fingers, and the subtle remembered delight of its flavor filled his mouth. He bit his lip, running his tongue over it slowly. He could feel the pulse deep in her femoral artery, and thought how very easy it would be, to bend his head down and take what he wanted. And how very easy it would be, indeed, satisfy those other urges that were stirring so strongly. He closed his eyes, imagining, and in the darkness behind his eyelids, pictured what could be, so easily. So very easily.

Lucky barely dared to breath, as he worked his way up her legs. She could feel her heart pounding, and knew he must be aware of her feelings. He had told her, so many times, that there were lines he chose not to cross, with his freshies, but she also knew that if he made the rules, he could break them just as easily. He was breaking several of them now, she thought, and a shiver ran down her body. Her very vulnerable body.

With some effort, he forced himself back to his task, telling himself he was there for the touch, for the feel of her satin skin against his hands. But he could not resist, and she did not protest, sliding those hands coolly over her one last time from ankle to shoulder. As he moved his hands up her legs, his thumbs grazed the inside of her thighs, drawing a small moan from her, her muscles easing under his touch. Then, despite his best intentions, he spread his long fingers wide to cup the firm round halves of her perfect bottom. He heard her take a long shuddering breath, and her heart raced, sounding like thunder in his ears. "Oh, Josef," she murmured.

She turned her head, finally, to look at him, tall and pale in his dark slacks, his tight white t-shirt showing off the strong arms and sculpted musculature of his upper body. He was looking serious, his brown eyes intense. "You know," she said softly, "you know you don't have to stop."

He smiled down at her, but his eyes stayed brown. "I knew that before I started."

"But?"

Josef moved his hand again, caressing her. "I always knew your skin was delicious…I've been missing the best part of it." He picked up the towel and draped it carefully. "I can't bite you today—it's too soon since the last time. And I'm not making love to a woman on a massage table."

"There's always the floor." She bit her lip, wondering if she'd been too bold.

He laughed at that, genuinely surprised, and amused. After a moment's hesitation, a moment's consideration, he answered. "No, sweetheart," he said. "Not on the floor. Not for you."

She propped herself up on her elbows slightly, and looked at him with open curiosity. "Why not?"

Josef leaned in and took her chin in one large hand, lifting her mouth to his. He kissed her slowly, carefully, his mouth exploring hers as he never had before. The sheer intimacy of it was almost frightening to her. She could feel the bare hint of fangs against her tongue, but now, as ever, he was in control. The chained passion would continue; the delicate game would go on. "Same reason you don't drink champagne out of a paper cup, babe," he said. "We both deserve better."