Qhuinn, son of Lohstrong, entered his family’s home through its grand front door. The instant he stepped over the threshold, the smell of the place curled up into his nose. Lemon polish. Beeswax candles. Fresh flowers from the garden that the doggen brought in daily. Perfume—his mother’s. Cologne—his father’s and his brother’s. Cinnamon gum—his sister’s.
If the Glade company ever did an air freshener like this, it would be called something like Meadow of OldMoney. Or Sunrise Over a Fat Bank Account.
Or maybe the ever popular We’re Just Better Than Everyone Else.
Distant voices drifted over from the dining room, the vowels round as brilliant-cut diamonds, the consonants drawled out smooth and long as satin ribbons.
“Oh, Lillie, this is lovely, thank you,” his mother said to the server.
“But that’s too much for me. And do notgive Solange so much. She’s getting heavy.”
Ah, yes, his mother’s perma-diet inflicted on the next generation: Glymera females were supposed to disappear from sight when they turned sideways, each jutting collarbone, sunken cheek, and bony upper arm some kind of fucked-up badge of honor.
As if resembling a fire poker would make you a better person.
And Scribe Virgin forfend if your daughter looked like she was healthy.
“Ah, yes, thank you, Lilith,” his father said evenly. “More for me, please.”
Qhuinn closed his eyes and tried to convince his body to step forward. One foot after another. It was not that tough.
His brand-new Ed Hardy kicks middle-fingered that suggestion. Then again, in so many ways, walking into that dining room was going into the belly of the beast.
He let his duffle fall to the floor. The couple of days at his best friend Blay’s home had done him good, a break from the complete lack of air in his family’s house. Un-fortunately, the burn on reentry was so bad, it made the cost/benefit of leaving nearly equal.
Okay, this was ridiculous. He couldn’t keep standing here like an inanimate object.
Turning to the side wall, he leaned into the full-length antique mirror that was placed right by the door. So thoughtful. So in keeping with the aristocracy’s need to look good. This way, visitors could check their hair and clothes as the butler accepted coats and hats.
The young pretrans face that was reflected back at him was all even features, good jawline, and a mouth that, he had to admit, looked like it could do some serious damage
to naked skin when he got older. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Hair was all Vlad the Impaler,spikes standing up straight from his head. Neck was strung with a bike chain, and not one bought at Urban Outfitters—he’d taken it off his twelve-speed. All things being equal, he looked like a thief who had broken into the mansion and was prepared to trash the place looking for sterling silver, jewelry, and portable electronics.
The irony was that all the Goth bullcrap wasn’t the most offensive part of his appearance to his family. In fact, he could have stripped down, hung a light fixture off his ass, and run around the first floor playing José Canseco with the art and antiques and not come close to how much the real problem pissed off his parents.
It was his eyes.
One blue. One green.
Oopsy. His bad.
The glymera didn’t like defects. Not in their porcelain or their rose gardens. Not in their wallpaper or their carpets or their countertops. Not in the silk of their underwear or the wool of their blazers or the chiffon of their gowns.
And certainly not EVER in their young.
Sister was okay—well, except for the “little weight problem” that didn’t actually exist, and a lisp that was going to be dealt with through oral surgery—oh, and the fact that she had the personality of their mother. And there was no fixing that shit. Brother, on the other hand, was the real fucking star, a physically perfect son prepared to carry forth the family bloodline by reproducing in a very genteel, non-moaning, no-sweat situation with a female chosen for him by the family.
Hell, Luchas’s sperm recipient had already been lined up. He was going to have to mate her as soon as he went through his transition—
“How are you feeling, my son?” his father asked in a gentle voice.
“Tired, sir,” a deep voice answered. “But this is going to help.”
A chill frog-marched up Qhuinn’s spine. That didn’t sound like his brother. Way too much bass. Far too masculine.
Too . . .
Holy shit, the guy had gone through his transition.
Now, Qhuinn’s Ed Hardys got with the program, taking him forward until he could see through into the dining room. Father was in his seat at the head of the table. Check. Mother was in her chair at the foot of the table opposite the kitchen’s flap door. Check. Sister was facing out of the room, all but licking the gold rim off her plate from hunger. Check.
The male whose back was to Qhuinn was not part of the SOP.
His brother was twice the size he’d been when Qhuinn had been approached by a doggen and told to get his things and go to Blay’s.
Well, that explained the vacay. He’d assumed his father had finally relented and given into the request Qhuinn had filed weeks before. But nope, his sire had just wanted the defect out of the house because the change had come to his brother.
Had Luchas laid the chick? Who had they used for blood—
Their father, never the demonstrative type, reached out a hand and gave Qhuinn’s brother an awkward pat on the forearm. “We’re so proud of you. You look . . . perfect.”
“You do,” Qhuinn’s mother piped in. “Just perfect. Doesn’t your brother look perfect, Solange?”
“Yes, he does. Perfect.”
“And I have something for you,” Lohstrong said, in a voice that got husky.
The male reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat and took out a small, black velvet box.
Qhuinn’s mother started to tear up and dabbed carefully under her eyes.
“This is for you, my son.”
The box was slid across the white damask tablecloth, and Luchas’s now-big hands shook as he took the thing and popped the lid.
Qhuinn could see the flash of gold all the way out in the foyer.
Luchas just stared at the signet ring in silence, clearly overwhelmed, as their mother kept up with the dab-dab, and even their father grew slightly misty. And Solange snuck a roll from the bread basket.
“Thank you, sir,” Qhuinn’s brother said as he put the heavy gold ring on his forefinger.
“It fits, does it not?” Lohstrong asked.
“Yes, sir. Perfectly.”
“We wear the same size, then.”
Of course they did.
At that moment, their father glanced away, like he was hoping the movement of his eyeballs would take care of the sheen of tears that had come down over his vision.
He caught Qhuinn lurking outside in the foyer.
There was a brief flash of recognition. Not the hi-how’re-ya kind or the oh-good-my-other-son’s-home stuff. More like when you were walking through the grass and noticed a pile of dog shit too late to stop your foot from landing in it.
The male looked back at his family, locking Qhuinn out sure as if he’d closed an actual door.
Clearly, the last thing Lohstrong wanted was for such a historic moment to be ruined—and that was probably why he didn’t do the hand signals that warded off the evil eye.
Usually, everyone in the household performed the ritual when they saw Qhuinn. Not tonight. The head of house didn’t want the others to know who was in their midst.
Qhuinn pivoted and went back to his duffle. Slinging the thing over his shoulder, he took the front stairs to his room. Usually, his mother preferred him to use the servants’ set, but that would mean he’d have to cut through all the love in there.
His bedroom was as far away from the others’ as you could get, all the way over to the right. He’d often wondered why they didn’t take the leap completely and put him in with the doggen—but then the staff would probably quit.
Closing himself into his quarters, he dumped the duffle onto the bare floor and sat on his bed. Staring at his only piece of luggage, he figured he had better do laundry soon as there was a wet bathing suit in there.
The maids refused to touch his clothes—like the evil in him lingered in the fibers of his jeans and his T-shirts. The upside was he was never welcomed for formal events anyway, so his wardrobe was just washn-wear, baby—
He discovered he was crying when he looked down at his Ed Hardys and realized that there were a couple of drops of water right between all those buckles and leather. Qhuinn was never getting a ring.
Ah, hell . . . this hurt.
He was scrubbing his face with his palms when his phone rang. Taking the thing out of his biker jacket, he had to blink a couple of times to focus.
He hit send to accept the call, but he didn’t answer.
“I just heard,” Blay said across the connection. “How are you doing?”
Qhuinn opened his mouth to reply, his brain coughing up all kinds of responses: Peachy fucking jim-dandy. At least I’m not “fat” like my sister. No, I don’t know if my brother got laid.
Instead, he said, “They got me out of the house.
They didn’t want me to curse the transition. Guess it worked because Luchas sure looks like he came through it okay.”
Blay swore softly.
“Oh, and he got his ring just now. My father gave him . . . his ring.”
The signet ring with the family crest on it, the symbol that all males of good bloodlines wore to attest to their value to their lineage.
“I watched Luchas put it on his finger,” Qhuinn said, feeling as if he were taking a sharp knife and drawing it up the insides of his arms. “Fit perfectly. Looked great. You know, though . . . like, how could it not—”
He began weeping at that point.
Just fucking lost it.
The awful truth was that under all his counterculture fuck-you, he wanted his family to love him. As prissy as his sister was, as scholar-geek as his brother was, as reserved as his parents were, he saw the love between those four. He felt the love among them. It was the tie that bound them, the invisible string from one heart to the others, the commitment of caring about everything from the mundane shit to any true, mortal drama. The only thing more powerful than that connection . . . was what it was like to get shut out from its expression.
Every fucking night of your life.
Blay’s voice cut in through the heaving. “I’m here for you. And I’m so damned sorry . . . I’m here for you . . . just don’t do anything stupid, okay? Let me come over—”
Leave it to Blay to know that he was thinking about things that involved ropes and showerheads.
In fact, his free hand had already gone down to the makeshift belt he’d fashioned out of a nice, strong weave of nylon—because his parents didn’t give him money for clothes and the one proper buckle-and-strap combo he’d owned had broken years ago.
Pulling the length free, he glanced across to the closed door of his bath.
All he needed to do was tie the thing to the fixture in his shower—God knew those water pipes had been run in the good old days when things were strong enough to hold some weight. He even had a chair he could stand up on and then kick out from underneath him.
“I gotta go—”
“Qhuinn? Don’t you hang up on me—don’t you dare hang up on me—”
“Listen, man, I gotta go—”
“I’m coming over right now—” Lot of flapping in the background like Blay was getting his shit together.
“Qhuinn! Do not hang up the phone—Qhuinn . . . !”