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Rhapsodic: Chapter 11

January, seven years ago

I lay back on my bed and play with my bracelet. “Do all your clients get bracelets?” ask the Bargainer. I smirk at the thought of some criminal with his dainty string of black beads.

Leaning his back against the foot of my bed, Des flips through the Magic & Science magazine he picked up from my bedside table.

“Nope.”

I hold my wrist up to the light, twisting it this way and that, trying to get my overhead light to reflect against the polished beads; it seems instead like the beads absorb the light deep into them.

“What do your other clients get?” I ask.

Des flips another page. “Tats.”

I sit up. “Tats? They get tats?” Absently my eyes move to the two Venetian masks hanging on my wall that Des and I picked out in Venice—one with the beaked bill of a plague doctor and the other with the painted face of a harlequin.

“Why didn’t I get a tattoo?” I ask. The bracelet that a moment ago I thought was so cool now seems like a lame substitute.

The Bargainer closes the magazine and set it aside. “Do you want a tattoo instead?”

“Of course,” I say absently, missing the warning note in his voice.

A tattoo would be so much edgier than a flimsy bead.

Des turns himself so that he’s facing me at the foot of my bed.

And then he climbs onto it.

The Bargainer is prowling up my bed—and up me while he’s at it.

I can’t breathe. I legit don’t think I can breathe.

The dangerous look in his eyes shuts down all coherent thought. This might be the moment when our relationship goes from a strange sort of friendship to something more.

I’m so frightened of that possibility. I’m so eager for it.

He straddles my waist, his powerful, leather-clad thighs trapping me between him. Leaning down, he takes my hand, the one that isn’t wearing the bracelet.

My heart’s going to escape my chest. It’s galloping away like crazy. I’ve never been this close to Des. And now I’m pretty sure I’m never going to be satisfied until it’s natural to be this close with him.

My skin begins to glow, and Des is kind enough to ignore the fact that I’m pretty much turned way the hell on.

He runs a palm along my wrist and my forearm. Beneath his touch, inked tally marks appear on my skin, rows and rows of them. “You would rather have this than beads?” he asks.

I drag my attention away from Des to get a better look at the markings.

They’re … ugly. Vile in a way I’ve never considered a tattoo to be.

“You can wear my ink on your skin,” he says, his voice coaxing. “Just say the word, and I’ll transfer it all over. It won’t even cost you a bead.”

Des waits for me to answer. When I don’t, the markings fade until they disappear altogether.

“That’s what I thought.” He releases my hand and pivots himself off of me. Resituating himself against the foot of my bed once more, he picks up the magazine and resumes flipping through it. “I’m not going to mark you up like some common criminal,” he says over his shoulder, “and you shouldn’t want that anyway. The Politia looks for that kind of thing. They’d have an aneurism if they saw a teenage girl with over a hundred marks.”

“Why?” I ask, holding the wrist he just touched. “Is that unusual?”

He doesn’t answer for a moment, but I can tell by his stillness that he’s no longer reading.

Finally, he tosses the magazine aside and stands. He runs a hand through his hair, avoiding my eyes. “I need to go.”

That’s all the warning I get before he turns on his heel and heads to my door.

“Wait!” I scramble to my feet and grab his arm. As usual, a small thrill runs through me at the contact. “Don’t go, please.” Without meaning to, I’ve begun to glow in earnest now, my glamour accidentally slipping into my voice.

Des’s eyes are on my hand, my hand that’s really fucking enjoying the feel of his corded arm.

“Cherub, you’re surrounded by over a thousand people your age. I need to work and you need to get better friends than me.”

“I just want to be around you.”

“Why?” he says, his eyes searching mine.

Because I can’t control you. Because you know my secrets. Because you make me feel normal.

Because in spite of all logic and reason, I think I might be in love with you.

“Please,” I say.

But it’s not enough. Gently, Des pries my hand off his arm, and then he’s gone.


Present

Just when I think the Bargainer is going to proclaim his true feelings for me, his face shuts down.

He leads me inside, the two of us tense. I’m rattled by Eli, by this evening, but most of all by Des.

I walk ahead of him, plopping down on one of his barstools. “So, I’m staying here for the night?”

Des saunters in after me, leaning against one of his cupboards. “Unless you’d prefer I drop you back off at the dog run your house has turned into.”

I just give him a look. He returns it, his heated gaze moving over me. His wings are still out. The siren in me really likes that. So does the woman.

I slide off the barstool and open his refrigerator. “So, when are we—” I let out a little noise, distracted by the food in the fridge.

The thing’s filled with all my favorites—samosas, pizza, pasta, pie, fried rice, macaroni salad. Out of curiosity I open the freezer.

Ice cream, mini quiches, ice cream cake—what?—taquitos.

I throw the Bargainer a squinty glance. “You so prepared for this.”

He lifts a shoulder, but his eyes are laughing.

I turn back to the fridge. “You’re going to fatten me up like a Thanksgiving turkey,” I mutter.

Seriously though.

I grab the container of cookie dough ice cream and pull it out, setting it on the island bar. “Spoon?”

He opens the drawer next to him and tosses it to me. I barely manage to catch the thing before it takes out an eyeball.

I’m about to scoop out a bite of the ice cream when I catch sight of a white paper bag next to him.

No. Effing. Way. “Are those … ?” I can’t even ask it.

“French macaroons from Douglas Café,” he finishes for me.

Forgetting about the ice cream, I get up and head over to Des. “Douglas is far away.” Half a world away.

“Ley lines, cherub,” he says.

“Can I?” I ask, indicating the bag.

“They’re for you.” He watches me as I reach around him.

He so planned on me being here tonight. I wonder if he planned on the evening turning out the way it had, or if he had something else entirely up his sleeve. Knowing what a trickster he is, I wouldn’t be surprised on the latter.

His eyes flick to the ice cream. It lifts off the table, floating towards the freezer. One of the sleek, stainless steel refrigerator doors open, and the ice cream slides in. The spoon soars back across the room, the drawer opening in time for it to clatter inside.

Seeing all this brings a cozy warmth to the pit of my stomach, the kind that comes with happy, familiar memories.

I pull out a pink macaroon and take a bit into it.

I let out a long, deep moan.

It’s perfect.

“Des, you are a god,” I say in between bites. It’s been years since I’ve had any macaroons at all, and Douglas Café’s were always the best.

King,” he corrects. His lips have quirked, lightening that stare of his. But it’s turning mischievous.

He steps in close, taking the paper bag from me and setting it aside, along with the partially eaten macaroon. “You’ve had a trying evening, Callie.”

I stare at him warily, feeling like that little bug trapped in a spider’s web all over again.

“How would you like to postpone going to the Otherworld until morning?” I feel his breath against my skin. “What if tonight we just had a little fun?”

My pulse begins to pound.

Be prepared for more than just a kiss.

“What did you have in mind?”

But it’s already too late. He grabs my wrist, his fingers grazing over all his beads.

“Time for a truth, cherub: what would you most like to do tonight?”

The magic wraps around my throat, tugging at my windpipe. There are a million things my dirty mind would be quite happy doing, so I’m surprised when I say, “I want to swim in the ocean.”

I guess it’s really that simple.

Des smiles at me, and for once it’s genuine. “Alright, let’s take you to the ocean then.”

He leads me back outside and then, wrapping me up in his arms, he flies us down the cliffs behind his home to a tiny little alcove of a beach.

I step out of his arms, listening to the crash of the waves. It calls to me, each slick splash of the water beckoning me closer and closer. Absently, I kick off my shoes and pull off my socks.

I still sense the Bargainer behind me, but I might as well be alone right now. I wade into the water, wincing just slightly at the frigid temperature.

The sound, the smell, the feel of the ocean all steady my pulse.

I am home.

Clothes and all, I dive into the sea. I surface only to dive back under again. Down here in the sea’s watery depths, there’s a quiet peace. Second by second I feel my worries and insecurities wash away. There’s just me, the night, and the ocean.

The next time I surface, I look to the beach. Des watches me from shore, several strands of his white hair whipping about his cheeks. The expression on his face is so familiar; I’ve seen it on mine a thousand times. An outsider’s expression.

I swim to shore, dragging myself out of the ocean. He steps forward, probably thinking I’m ready to go back. Instead, I grab his hand, tugging him back towards the frigid water.

Des stares at me, looking bewitched, as I drag him into the waves. And he doesn’t resist. That’s the oddest part of all.

The ocean has always been the place where sirens kill men.

“Callie, what are you doing?” He finally says when the water rises above his waist.

Isn’t it obvious? “Making you join me.”

We move out far enough that our toes no longer touch the seafloor. Des dips his head underwater and slicks his hair back.

We tread water like that for almost a minute, neither of us saying anything. I drift to my back and stare up at the dim stars. His world is above us, and mine is below. There’s something very satisfying about that.

“You know,” I say, “I missed you. Every day.” It was an ache that lasted seven years. It should’ve dulled, but it never did.

He’s quiet for a long time. Finally, he confesses, “I missed you too.”

It’s not until late that evening that, soaked to our bones, we make it back inside. The Bargainer leads me to my room, and when I see the giant four poster bed waiting for me, I belly flop onto it, quickly ruining the sheets with sand and ocean water.

“You continually disprove the theory that sirens are graceful creatures,” Des says from behind me.

I bury my face in the sheets. “I have no clothes.”

“I have a pretty loose no-clothes policy,” he replies.

Des.” My voice is muffled by the sheets.

He gives a rumbly laugh, then comes over, dropping a large faded Kiss T-shirt and a pair of boxer briefs next to me. “This is the best I got at the moment.”

I stare at the clothing items.

He places a hand on my back, and every single cell is aware of that touch.

He leans in close to my ear. “Shower quickly enough, and I might just tuck you into bed.” He punctuates the thought by nipping my ear.

I give him an annoyed look, but it’s no use; my skin’s glowing like it used to when I was a teenager and my hormones ran wild.

“Only if you take away a bead.”

“Callie, Callie, Callie,” he tsks, “I thought we were beyond paying for each other’s company.”

I grimace, remembering all those days I bought his presence, using him to drive away my loneliness.

“Try to stay out of the bathroom this time,” I say, sliding off the bed and heading over to the bathroom in question.

“Try not to think about me,” he says.

I flip him the bird over my shoulder.

Twenty minutes later, the Bargainer manages to stay out of the bathroom.

I don’t manage to avoid thinking about him.

Toweling off, I slip into the shirt and boxer briefs Des gave me. They smell like him. I hadn’t realized he had a smell, but he does. It’s smoky, like wood fire, and masculine.

When I walk back into the bedroom, the Bargainer has already made himself comfortable on my bed. He catches sight of me, and the shadows in the room deepen. Amidst them, his eyes glint.

There was a time when I would’ve happily given away my firstborn to see him give me that look from my bed.

Now I’m legitimately scared. The Bargainer could ask for anything as repayment.

Anything.

And I’d be bound to give it.

And with that hungry look on his face, I know where his thoughts are. It’s not that I’m against doing more with him. It’s that I’m really not against it, and I should be. I can be intimate with most men and feel nothing. But not with Des.

Not with Des.

“I don’t bite, cherub,” he says, noticing my hesitancy. He pats the space next to him. “I even left you room.”

Warily, I climb onto the bed. I lay on my side, facing him. “I thought you were big on not crossing boundaries, Des.”

He wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me in close. “When you were sixteen. Now—” he runs his hand down my arm, “I’m looking to expand my territory with you.”

My breath catches. “Are you saying … ?”

He leans in close, brushing a kiss against my forehead, and steps off the bed. “Goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t let any monsters bite.”

And with that, the Bargainer leaves.

The next morning, I pad into Des’s kitchen, rubbing sleep from my eyes.

“Morning, cherub.”

I shriek like a banshee at the Bargainer’s voice, clutching my heart. My skin glows, making the tail end of my shout harmonize as the siren slips in.

The fae king leans back in one of his kitchen chairs, sipping coffee. His shirt’s gone, and I clearly see his sleeve of tattoos that runs the length of his left arm.

He raises his eyebrows at me like I’m insane.

I finally catch my breath. “You-you scared me.”

“Clearly.” His mouth twitches.

Don’t laugh.” I pat my hair absently. It feels like it’s defying gravity at the moment.

“It wasn’t funny,” Des says. His eyes move over the shirt and the boxer briefs I wear, and his expression heats.

When he looks at me like that, the siren refuses to go away.

Des.” I’m supposed to say his name like a warning, but instead it comes out like a purr.

Fuck. Pre-coffee, my hold on my siren is not so great.

“Why, hello love,” he says, giving me a smile that he saves for just my siren. These two have a major thing for each other. Even when I was a teenager and Des made it clear he didn’t go there, he was extra indulgent to her.

And now my hold on her is slipping … slipping …

Gone.

I walk over to him, swaying my hips a little, my skin glowing. I don’t stop until I’m climbing into his lap, my legs straddling him.

I take the mug he’s holding and toss it over my shoulder. He lifts a hand, presumably to stop it and the coffee inside it from crashing against the floor.

I lean in close to his ear, shifting my hips until I hear him groan. “Seven years, you fucker,” I say—or rather, the siren says, since she’s leading the show at this point.

His hands fall to my waist. “The best things are worth waiting for, Callie.”

I wind my arms behind his neck. “Truth or dare?”

His eyes are heated, a smirk spreading across his lips. “Trying to play my—”

“Truth: Had you bothered to stick around, I would have given you every single one of your wickedest desires.” I move my hips against him to punctuate my words.

I feel him react, something that brings me no little pleasure.

Leaning in extra close, my tongue tastes the shell of his ear. “And I know my dark king has many wicked desires,” I whisper.

I turn his face to mine, pulling it to me until only the barest bit of distance separates our lips.

But instead of kissing him, I say, “I’m going to make you ache, and ache, and ache, and I will do nothing to alleviate it. I’m going to make you pay for leaving me.”

I step off of him and saunter away.

“Cherub,” Des says at my back, “I will enjoy every sweet second of it.”

It’s not until I get several good swallows of coffee in me that the siren goes away completely.

“Gods, did I miss your siren,” Des says.

Typical that a fairy would miss the most sinister, mischievous part of me.

I grumble as I make myself at home in his kitchen, toasting some mini waffles and searching the cupboards for syrup.

He really does know my favorite foods.

The cupboard above me opens, and the syrup floats out. I catch it.

“Thanks,” I say over my shoulder.

“Mmm.”

I’m playing house with the Bargainer. And it feels so … normal.

Once I finish preparing my waffles, I head back over to the table.

“Now both of our names are on the Wanted List,” Des says when I sit down next to him.

It takes a second for to compute. “Wait, I’m on the Wanted List?”

Des passes me his tablet, and sure enough, there I am. Number eighty-six.

I feel my jaw hanging open. “Seriously, what the actual fuck?”

Eli has lost his damn mind. He broke into my house and shifted, placing me and Des in mortal danger. And the asshole has the audacity to put me on the Wanted List?

A second later, I realize that Temper has surely seen the list, which means she must be going ballistic. I reach for my phone, only to remember that I never had a chance to grab it last night.

I turn my attention back to my listing, tapping on the link. The charges include illegally using glamour and consorting with the Bargainer. It’s the latter charge that got me on the list, of that I’m sure.

My gaze rises to Des as I hand his tablet back to him. There’s murder in his eyes.

I know that look. Fae vengeance.

Over the years, Des has left a trail of mangled bodies in his wake, from clients that tried to cross him to enemies that tried to kill him. He’s even disfigured at least one man that tried to harm me on my behalf.

“Whatever you’re thinking,” I say, “don’t, Des. Please.”

His hand tightens on his tablet. “You plead for that dog even now?”

“I’d prefer to not find him chopped up into tiny little bits.”

“That’s too good a death for the bastard,” the Bargainer says darkly, tossing his tablet onto the table.

“Des, you are not killing him.” Of all conversations I imagined having today, this wasn’t one of them.

He leans forward, wisps of shadow curling around him. “It is not in my nature to be lenient,” he says, his voice low. “So if you want to ensure his safety, you’re going to have grant me a favor.”

“What do you want?” I ask, shoving a slice of waffle into my mouth.

He just stares and stares. “I think you already know.”

The waffle gets lodged in my throat.

Give me a chance, his eyes plead.

He really does want more than just a kiss.

“Why, Des?” The question I always come back to.

He studies me for a long moment. “Eventually, I will tell you,” he admits. “But … not today.” He takes a satisfied sip of coffee.

I eye him. “You’re so lucky my glamour doesn’t work on you.”

He sets his cup down, and I try to ignore the way his arms tighten at the motion.

“You would use it on me?” he asks.

“Absolutely.”

Now he smiles, the look almost feral. “That pleases me greatly, cherub.”

It’s responses like that, that make me worried.

“So,” I say between bites of waffle, “you’re here and it’s daylight.”

“And?”

I glance up and stare directly at his abs. He needs to put a shirt on really effing badly.

“Isn’t there some rule against showing up during the day?”

He picks his coffee back up. “I’m not a vampire. I’m not just going to melt the moment the sun hits me.” Pushing his chair out, he stands. “Finish those waffles; it’s time to get to work.”

My plate begins to levitate, and I have to snatch it out of the air.

I glare at him. “Just for that, I’m going to eat this twice as slow.”

The Bargainer smiles, and the plate lifts into the air again. This time when I grab for it, it resists, and I have to settle for snatching the waffles off the plate.

“You are a vindictive little shit,” I say, glowering at him.

Little?” He gives me a precious smile. “Let’s not use adjectives improperly now.” He takes a final sip of his coffee and sets it in his sink.

Meanwhile, I’m dealing with the clusterfuck that is currently my breakfast. I shove the last bits of waffle into my mouth, my hands covered in syrup.

I make my way over to him, turning on the sink faucet and rinsing my sticky hands off.

His eyes flick over me again. “Much as I like you in my clothes,” he says, “you need to change. There are outfits in your closet.”

“Seriously? Did you just stock it?” I ask, trying to figure out when he could have slipped the clothes by me.

“Naw,” he says, walking out of the kitchen, “the clothes were always there waiting for you. Last night I just wanted to see you in mine.”

Wiley bastard.

“I hope you’re ready to glamour some people,” he says over his shoulder. “In an hour we’re leaving for the Otherworld.”

I take a deep breath as I head to Des’s portal room, girding myself for the trip to the Otherworld.

My glamour only works on earthly beings. Once we crossover, I’m as good as defanged.

It’s just a visit. We’re not staying.

I glance down at the shimmery fae gown. The material parts as I walk, revealing the crisscrossing ribbons of my sandals that tie high up on my thighs. As soon as I opened the door to my temporary closet, the outfit floated out, landing on the bed.

Hint taken.

I will say this for the fae—they may be heartless sons-of-bitches, but they have seriously good taste in fashion.

The Bargainer waits for me in front of his portal room, one of the two rooms in his home I’ve yet to see. I’ve never seen Des in anything but the T-shirt and pants combo he always wears—until now.

The black, sleeveless tunic he wears hugs his torso. Beneath it, his black breeches are tucked into dark riding boots. A low-slung leather belt is strapped loosely around his waist.

Jesus. He looks like an assassin—a bangable one.

Behind him, an assortment of locks line the door, and I bet there’s even more magical ones I can’t see. I don’t know whether to feel reassured or worried by the extensive security measures.

Still facing me, Des raps his knuckles on the door at his back. “On the other side of this door, there’s an active portal,” he says. He extends his arm. “You’re going to want to hold onto me until we step off the ley line.”

He doesn’t need to warn me twice. I take his hand, enjoying the warm feel of his skin against mine.

One by one, the locks tumble, each ratcheting up my unease.

All the old stories of fairies come back to me. Monsters that lurk under mountains. The tooth fairy that built herself a palace of children’s teeth. The wild fae that, with one look, can enslave their prey.

And then there are the fae that aren’t so humanlike. Things that eat humans whole and wear their innards like jewelry.

All that is waiting for me on the other side of this portal.

The door opens, and Des and I step into a circular room, my sandals squishing into bright green grass, tiny white and pink flowers speckled amongst the groundcover.

Crisscrossing vines of wisteria cover the walls and ceiling. Where the wall meets the floor there is a ring of mushrooms circling the room.

The grass sways back and forth, and the leaves of the vines shiver as some phantom breeze blows against them.

Like most portal sites, the laws of nature don’t really apply here.

Des turns, assessing me. “Ready, cherub?” he asks.

Shit, I’m really doing this.

I nod. I let him lead me forward, towards the middle of the room. The air feels thicker with each step, and I swear I hear music, but it’s so soft that I can’t be sure that my ears aren’t just playing tricks on me.

With a poignant look, the Bargainer drags me into his arms and our surroundings disappear.


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