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Rhapsodic: Chapter 18

April, seven years ago

The Bargainer and I step out of a taxi.

“Is it weird for you—taking a car rather than flying?” I ask.

We’re on another gig of his. Someone whose debts he needs to collect.

“Not as weird as bringing you along,” he says, paying off our driver.

Tonight, the two of us are still on the Isle of Man, though I’ve never been to this particular part of it. I think we’re on the north end of the island. The houses in this particular area are built close together, many of them with peeling paint and mossy roof tiles.

“Are you ever going to show me your wings?” I ask, watching him as he walks away from the taxi, tucking his wallet into the back pocket of his pants. I force my eyes not to linger on him, or on the way his clothes cling to his muscular body.

Oh, to be that faded shirt.

“Trust me, you don’t want to see my wings,” he says, walking past me, up the paved road.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I ask as I follow him, pulling out a pistachio flavored macaroon from the bag I carry. We made a pit stop at Douglas Café right before this.

“Something you should know about fae,” he says over his shoulder, “the only time our wings come out is when we want to fight or fuck.”

Considering how often and in depth my textbooks’ descriptions of fairy wings were, those bitches must be losing their shit all the time.

But not Des, apparently. I’ve never seen his wings. Not a once. The good news: so far he hasn’t wanted to kill me. The bad news: he hasn’t wanted to rock my world either.

Damn.

I catch up to him. “You’re an unusually well-behaved fairy,” I say, taking a bite of the macaroon.

Sweet baby Jesus, these pastries are good.

He raises an eyebrow, his eyes drifting to my mouth as I polish off the cookie. “Not always. Get a few drinks in me, and I’m a nightmare.”

“A few drinks, huh?” I say, dusting off the crumbs that have trickled down my chest.

Is that really all it takes? He and I have drunk together …

He must see my interest. “Cherub, catching me drunk is never going to happen.”

Our conversation is cut short when we approach a modest looking house, the paint on this one especially faded.

Des knocks on the door.

“See, so well behaved for a fairy,” I say next to him.

He gives me a long suffering look but doesn’t respond.

When no one answers the door, Des bangs again.

And again, no one responds.

“Fucking idiot,” he mutters, backing up.

“I don’t think anyone’s in—”

Des raises a booted foot and kicks the door clean off its hinges, the force causing the metal to shriek.

My eyes are wide with shock as it crashes inward.

Des looks like Death come to collect a new soul when he straightens, dusting bits of wood off of himself. “Stay here, cherub.”

My heart is in my throat, but I do as he asks.

The Bargainer strides inside, the evening shadows clinging to him like wisps of smoke.

He disappears around the hallway.

Each second of silence is agonizing. I eat another macaroon to distract myself, but it tastes like sawdust. Suddenly, I feel like a fool, holding my bag of macaroons, waiting for this thuggish fae king to do who knows what to the poor soul that lives here.

I shouldn’t be here. Good girls don’t do this. And bad girls … well, I’m not one of those am I?

You’ve killed a man. You’re worse than a bad girl.

A shriek sounds from somewhere inside the house, startling me enough to drop my bag of cookies.

“Please, don’t hurt me!” the man inside the house pleads.

When Des comes back to what’s left of the front door, he’s dragging a man by the scruff of his neck. The shadows clinging to his body have deepened. I look pointedly at his back.

Still no wings.

“Just for being difficult, you’re getting charged interest,” the Bargainer says, dragging him down the front steps and onto the man’s lawn.

“Please, please, I’ll pay, just give me a week.”

“I don’t want your repayment in a week, I want it now.” He throws the man onto the grass.

Over his shoulder, the Bargainer says to me, “Pick up your bag, cherub. It’s rude to litter.”

“Says the man who just destroyed a door,” I mutter as I grab the bag, my gaze fixed on what’s happening in front of me.

The Bargainer throws me a smile. “That’s not littering, that’s B&E.” He pauses, and I hear a series of odd groans behind me. “And now it’s just E.”

Without looking, I know he’s fixed the door.

“Show off,” I say, the beginnings of a smile forming on my lips.

For the second time this evening, the Bargainer’s eyes drift to my mouth.

Beyond him, his client shakes on the ground, his gaze meeting mine. “Please, help me,” he begs.

All humor drains from Des’s face as he turns back around.

The Bargainer steps in front of me, and I swear the night darkens. “You shouldn’t have done that.” Thunder rumbles in the distance.

Des stalks over to the trembling man, who’s now crab-crawling away from him. The Bargainer puts a boot on his chest.

“Give me the name,” Des demands.

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Des sizes the man up for several seconds, then nods. “Alright, Stan. Get up.”

Don’t get up, Stan, you fool.

But Stan the Fool does get up, a disbelieving spark of hope in his eyes. Like the Bargainer ever releases a man from his debts.

“C’mon,” Des jerks his head towards a beat up car parked in front of the house, “get in.”

Now Stan hesitates, confused.

The Bargainer is already walking towards it. “Keys,” he demands.

When Stan doesn’t hand them over, they float out of his pocket of their own accord. Des catches them in midair.

He raps on the hood of the vehicle. “In. Now.”

“What are you doing?” Stan demands. I can see the whites of his eyes.

“We’re going to visit the Otherworld.” Des unlocks the driver’s side door. “And once we get there, I’m going to feed you to the scariest motherfuckers I know.”

That’s enough to break the mighty Stan. The man begins to whimper even as he gets into the back of the car, and his fear is the most pitiful sound in all the world. I grimace at him. It’s as though he hadn’t known this day would come when he bought a favor from the Bargainer.

When Des’s eyes fall on me, they soften. “Apologies, cherub, for the wrench in our evening. I’ll drop you back off at your dorm. Get in.”

I head to the car and slide into the front passenger seat, the interior smelling like stale cigarette smoke.

More begging comes from the back. “Please, you don’t understand,” Stan says, leaning forward, “I have a family.”

“You have an estranged girlfriend and two children whom you don’t spend time or money on. Trust me, they’re better off without you.” The Bargainer pulls onto the dark road.

“I don’t want to die.” Stan begins to weep.

“Then tell me what I need to know,” Des says.

“You don’t understand,” Stan whines, “he’ll do worse things than kill me.”

Once again the darkness expands around Des. “You know who I am, Stan,” the Bargainer says, his voice icy. “My reputation precedes me. So you’ve heard of what’s happened to past clients who’ve tried to stiff me.”

More sobbing.

“And they paid,” Des says, his voice ominous. “Before they died, they paid.”

Oh shit.

Stan weeps harder, and when I look over my shoulder at him, a snot bubble has formed in one of his nostrils.

That’s just wrong.

“Please,” he begs, softer, “please. I have … I have a family. I have …”

Maybe it’s the snot bubble, maybe it’s the fact that a grown-ass man is being cowardly, and maybe it’s that I have to sit in a smelly car and thus can’t eat my macaroons in peace, but this man is kind of ruining my entire night by being difficult.

I will the siren out, a soft glow rushing over my skin as I turn my body around to face Stan.

“Cherub—” Des warns.

Too late.

“Fulfill your oath to the Bargainer and tell him what he needs to hear,” I command, glamouring the Bargainer’s client. “Now.”

Stan spends a good several seconds fighting his mouth, but it betrays him. He begins to cry even as he says, “They call him the Thief of Souls. I don’t know his real name, or the name of the people that do his dirty work.”

Next to me, the Bargainer’s mouth is a thin, angry line.

“He has many bodies and none at all …” His voice dies away into sobs. Somewhere in there I hear him mumble, “You bitch.”

Des slams on the brakes and the car skids to a halt. A moment later, he’s out of the car, hauling Stan out by his hair. He drags the man into the darkness, and I can tell he cloaked himself in shadows by the way the night deepens.

I hear Stan shriek, and the meaty sound of flesh hitting flesh. Then that, too, grows distant. Finally, there’s silence. Several minutes go by like that, and I’m halfway convinced that the Bargainer forgot about me.

But then, out of seemingly nowhere, Des lands a dozen feet away from the passenger side of the car, rubbing his knuckles.

“You flew!” I say, amazed. He also did God knows what to Stan, but I’m not going to linger on that.

The Bargainer wouldn’t kill him. Right?

Des doesn’t respond to my words, and it’s only as he gets closer that I realize he’s pissed.

He opens my door and pulls me out, holding me close. “Don’t ever do that again, cherub.” His chest is heaving. “Never again.”

The glamour?

“But I helped you,” I say.

He squeezes my arms, a muscle feathering in his cheek. “You put a target on your fucking back.”

I still don’t understand. “I did the same thing in Venice.”

“Which was also problematic,” he says, “but this is different. You made a man talk who was willing to die for his silence.” He lets that hang in the air.

He was willing to die for his silence.

A sliver of fear blooms. I haven’t been taking Des’s bargains seriously. The proof runs up my wrist. To me they always felt like games. Macabre, violent games, but games nonetheless.

And games aren’t real.

But this is real, and because I interfered, I might’ve ruined someone’s life—well, ruined it more than it already was.

Des clenches his jaw. “How many girls can glamour someone? Just think about that for a second.”

I don’t know.

He leans in close. “Precious few.” His eyes narrow. “Do you know what happens if someone comes after that man? If that someone didn’t want Stan to talk in the first place? They’re going to torture him, and what allegiance does Stan have to you? He’s going to squeal as soon as he can, and then whoever he was so afraid of is going to come after you.”

Jesus.

“I can make him forget,” I say, my voice rising. “Just bring him back to me.” I peer over Des’s shoulder and into the darkness.

“Making him forget won’t change the situation,” the Bargainer says. “If the wrong person were interested enough, they could sense your glamour even without the aid of Stan’s memory. And then they could trace it back to you.”

I feel my nausea rising. Not just on my own behalf, but because my meddling might’ve screwed over Stan and Des as well.

The kicker of it all is that I thought the Bargainer would be impressed—proud even. I’d proven myself useful.

I let out a shaky breath. “I’m sorry,” I say softly.

Des’s eyes search mine, and little by little his anger evaporates. He pulls me into him, wrapping his arms around me. “It’s not your fault,” he says, deflated. “I should never have brought you along. I was a fool to let you convince me in the first place.”

I go rigid beneath him. As screwed up as it is, I like coming along with him.

“I want to keep coming along with you,” I say.

“I know, cherub. But neither of us can live like this.”

His words make my heart pound harder, though I’m not sure if I feel dread or excitement. I guess it all depends on his reasons.

“Like what?” I ask.

He just squeezes me harder. “Nothing. Forget I mentioned it at all.”


Present

I wake to near darkness. A large leg has been thrown over mine and an arm is wrapped around my midsection.

Des.

Sometime during the final Harry Potter movie I fell asleep in his arms, my body spooned against his. And in the hours since, I’ve been reeled in tight against his chest, his body nearly encasing mine.

My clothes are still on, as are his, and yet something about this feels incredibly intimate.

I rub my eyes, dazedly taking in the dim room. Des’s shadows lurk in every corner, the sight of them makes me feel … safe.

I begin to move, only for Des’s grip to tighten on me, pulling me even closer. I let out a little squeak. I’m an overgrown man’s teddy bear at the moment.

The Bargainer stirs, nuzzling the back of my head. “You awake?” he asks, his voice sleep-roughened.

Instead of answering, I angle my head up and look into his eyes. Gone is the calculating edge to them, gone is his wiliness. Gone are the shields he hides behind.

Right now he’s just a tired, happy man.

He reaches up and runs a thumb over my lower lip. “I lied to you earlier, cherub, sleep does very much become you.”

I feel my face heat. I don’t know how he sees my reaction in the darkness, but his eyes move to my cheeks. “As does blushing.”

Tentatively I reach out and run my hand through Des’s white locks. “Tell me another secret,” I say.

His mouth twitches. “You give a siren a secret … and she asks for another.”

“You have so many of them,” I say. “Don’t be a Grinch.”

He lets out a long-suffering sigh, but the effect is ruined by the smile spreading across his lips.

He leans in close. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but if you want a secret …”

I wait.

“You drooled all over my chest during the second movie,” he confesses. “To be honest, I thought you were crying again.”

I push at him, laughing in spite of myself. “That’s not what I meant when I asked for a secret!”

He rolls onto his back, hooking an arm around my waist and taking me with him. And now he’s beginning to laugh as well. “I don’t make the rules, cherub, I just bend them.”

I straddle him, leaning in close. “I should be an exception.” I don’t even know what makes me say it, but it’s too late to take it back.

I expect Des to raise an eyebrow and spin my words with that silver tongue of his.

Instead, his face sobers, his expression turning serious. “You are.” His eyes drop to my mouth, his fingers pressing into my skin.

Most of the time this man leaves me confused. But not right now. Right now he and I are on the exact same page.

Slowly, I lower my head, and I press my mouth to his.

What’s better than waking up with Des in the morning?

Kissing Des in the morning.

My lips skim over his, savoring the taste of him. He pulls me closer, making a guttural noise as he deepens the kiss, working his tongue into my mouth.

This feels like unfinished business. He and I are that storm on the horizon, but now, finally, that storm is rolling in.

I move against him, wanting more, impatient for it.

“Callie,” he says, his voice strained, “can’t do that, love.”

There it is again.

Love.

“Say that again.”

“Love?”

I nod, pressing myself tighter to him. “I like the endearment.” I move against him again despite his warnings.

He makes a pained sound.

“So do I,” he breathes.

Slipping a hand between us, I unbutton his pants and dip a hand in.

“I really like it.”

Des hisses out a breath.

“Careful,” he warns against my lips. His eyes say an entirely different thing. They’re daring me to go further.

I break away from his mouth. “What if I don’t want to be careful?” I say, grabbing hold of him. My breathing deepens at the feel of him. Never have I done this with him. It feels righter than our kiss.

“What if I don’t want you to be careful?” I punctuate my words by moving my hand up and down. Up and down.

He rocks against me.

I lean in close. “The tough Bargainer isn’t so tough anymore.”

“Callie—”

“Love,” I correct, the siren beginning to seep into my words.

Love,” he says, “I was planning this … the other … way … around.”

“Too bad,” I say.

“Wicked woman,” he says, his mouth curving into a smile.

I’m tempted to bring him to the edge, only to stop. That’s what the siren wants. Enjoy his lust, and then make him suffer.

But a bigger part of me wants to see this through to the very end. This man that left me, but agonized over it. This love who seemed jealous of my exes. This usually polished king that’s going to come in his pants because I want him to fall apart under my touch.

I watch him with awe, my eyelids lazy. His high cheekbones are even sharper at this angle, his crafty eyes focused on my face as his hands squeeze my thighs.

“Too good, Callie—”

I move my hand faster.

He hisses out another breath, his hands moving over me like they’re trying find exactly what they want to touch but can’t decide. Eventually, they settle on my hips.

I work him, feeling his body tense beneath me.

He groans. “Going to come …”

I lean in and kiss him as he jerks against me, again and again and again. His fingers tighten against my flesh, trying to pull me closer to him.

I smile against his mouth when I finally feel him relax.

He breathes heavily against me, leaning his forehead against mine. “You want to know a real secret?” he rasps.

I nod against him.

“I want to wake up to you every single morning.”

This time when we head to the Otherworld, I know the drill.

We crossover, arriving at another set of fae ruins—this one a stone circle made up of statue after statue of solemn fae men and women—before Des flies us to his palace.

He holds me close, and I catch him more than once staring at me with an unguarded look in his eyes.

Like he wants more of me.

I never gave him the chance earlier. Right after he came, I slipped away from his bed.

Why did I run? Perhaps because I was scared of what I did to our relationship. And perhaps because I wanted to give him something to fixate on, the same way I’ve fixated on his confession last night.

Only, now I’m beginning to fixate on this morning too. With every heated look he gives me and every silent promise in his eyes that he’s going to finish what I’ve started.

The fae king is hungry, and he’s used to getting what he wants.

I try to focus on the task at hand—visiting the sleeping warriors—but it’s no use. I’m more aware of the Bargainer than ever.

We break through the cloud cover, and once again I catch sight of that magnificent city of his.

“What’s it called?” I ask, nodding to the Bargainer’s floating city.

“Somnia,” he replies, his breath tickling the shell of my ear. “The land of sleep and small death. The capitol of my kingdom.”

The land of sleep and small death. That sounds dark and magical … which is Des in a nutshell.

He banks sharply to the left, circling the city as we begin to descend. People creep out onto their terraces and into the streets to watch us land. More gather outside the gates in front of the castle.

“The next biggest city,” the Bargainer continues, “is Barbos, then it’s Lephys, then Phyllia and Memnos—sister cities connected by a bridge. Arestys is the smallest, poorest …” His expression darkens.

“Are they all floating cities?” I ask.

“They are.”

“I want to see them.”

What am I saying? Surely that didn’t come from my mouth? The last thing I want to do is spend more time in the Otherworld.

Des looks down at me.

“… Starting with Arestys,” I add breathlessly.

Seriously, Callie, you crazy bitch, stop talking.

But I can’t, not when he’s looking at me like that.

“Then I’ll take you to them all,” he says, his silver eyes shining like he can’t get enough of my words.

I might as well have hammered the last nail in my coffin myself.

Just had to open your mouth …

Des soars over the front of the castle, and unlike the grand entrance we made last time, the two of us land softly on one of the palace’s back terraces.

He eases me to my feet before his wings disappear.

“No fancy entrance this time?” I ask.

“Tonight I didn’t want to share you.” His wings shimmer out of existence as he speaks.

Just as his wings disappear, his simple bronze circlet materializes. Under the black T-shirt he wears, I see the lowest of the three bronze war bands appear as well.

I smile at the sight of him, my crooked king, with his frayed shirt and simple crown. Right now he looks neither fae nor human. He looks like something better than either.

Casually, he takes my hand and leads me inside the palace. We head down a wide hallway and through a room full of swords and scepters on display.

The fae we pass don’t spare a glance at Des’s attire, though they themselves wear embroidered dresses and tunics and suits with fancy buttons and beadwork.

What his subjects do stare at is me. Me and my hand, clasped in the king’s. When I catch them looking, they bow low, murmuring Your Majesty to us as we pass.

I’m antsy to remove my hand, if only to stop them from staring. Des, meanwhile, is unfazed by any of it.

He leads me outside the palace, down a suspended arched walkway that connects two of the castle’s spires, and I have a moment to take in the sweeping architecture of this place. The palace sits at the highest point of Somnia, the rest of the buildings dropping away on all sides.

From here the world looks to be made up of thousands and thousands of stars, each one brighter than the last. Beneath us, levels and levels of white stone houses dot the land, some even trailing down chasms cut into the city. It gives a whole new meaning to the fae term under the mountain.

Once again I’m struck by how magical, how impossible, this place is. The city of dreams and small deaths looks like something from a dream. Something I’m sure I’ll wake from.

The two of us enter another tower, leaving the night sky once more. Des steers us down several more hallways until, eventually, we stop in front of a hammered bronze door, the top of it curved like a Moroccan archway, and he ushers me inside.

As soon as I step in, I realize where we are.

The king’s quarters.

I should’ve known from the door alone we were heading here, but I mistakenly assumed the Bargainer was taking me straight to see the sleeping women.

A plush sitting room spreads out before me, and beyond it, a large balcony. Off to the left I catch a glimpse of bedroom furniture. To the right is something like a dining area.

Bronze lamps are mounted along the walls, those same starbursts of light I saw last visit floating inside each glass case.

When I turn to look at Des, the shadows have curled closer around him. Behind his shoulders, his folded wings shift restlessly, like they can’t get comfortable. They’ve been out ever since we landed.

The hunger in his eyes …

He catches one of my hands and kisses my knuckles.

“Truth or dare?” he whispers. He’s had carnal thoughts on his mind ever since that handy little wakeup call I gave him this morning.

… And so have I.

“Dare.”

His nostrils flare.

One breath he’s across from me, and in the next I’m wrapped up in his arms, his lips hot on mine. He carries me through his chambers to his bedroom, kissing me all the while.

Lamps dangle from the high ceiling, a small starburst of light glowing in each. On the far side of the room, a line of windows with that distinctive Moroccan arch surround a set of double doors that lead out to the balcony.

The Bargainer lays me on a huge bed with a hammered bronze headboard, his eyes gleaming in the light. He doesn’t follow me onto the mattress, choosing instead to stand at the foot of the bed and to gaze at me.

He drops to his knees, a hand caressing my leg, some of his white blond hair sliding over his face.

No, I want to see his expression. I push myself up and reach forward, brushing his hair away from his face.

He leans into the touch.

Both hands wrap around my legs. “Once the repayment begins, the magic takes on a life of its own, Callie. Do you still want my dare?”

Judging by where we are, how Des is touching me, and the heat in his eyes, I know this is going to be something physical.

I should say no. I should protect myself from further emotional entanglements with this man. But after last night and this morning, I’ve decided to try a new tactic. One where I’m brave with my heart.

“Yes.”

Triumph flares in his eyes. He pushes my chest back down. Already I can feel the magic coiling around us, waiting, waiting. Unlike most other times when I feel it bearing down on me, now the Bargainer’s power feels warm, pleasant, like it’s just there to add to the experience.

Hands returning to my calves, he pulls me to the edge of the bed, my legs hanging off the mattress, the chiffon dress I donned this morning now hiking up nearly around my waist. Up Des’s hands slide, over my knees, and along my inner thighs.

I gasp when his fingers brush against the lacy panties I’m wearing.

Des’s breath hitches as he draws my dress up higher, getting a good look at my lingerie.

“How I have imagined …” he murmurs, his eyes roving over me, “and it has never done you justice.”

He imagined this?

Hooking his fingers around the lace edges, he drags my panties off, uncovering me inch by inch.

Under my mounting desire, I’m scared.

Fate’s too cruel to ever give you more than a taste of what you want. I’m afraid this is my taste.

“Cherub,” Des says, tossing my panties aside. He stares at my core, mesmerized, “I am going to make you feel good. So, so good.”

Pushing my dress up even higher, his lips begin to kiss the skin just below my belly.

“Des …” My heart’s going to hammer out my chest.

I lick my lips, my throat dry.

Des runs a finger over my core. I gasp out in surprise, my skin beginning to brighten.

He does it again, and now my hips move. A low sound comes from Des.

A finger dips into me, and my mind goes utterly blank.

He slips in another finger and I let out a low moan.

“That’s it, Callie.”

“Des.” I need more. Far more.

He removes his fingers and, while I’m watching, he licks them one by one.

That is so filthy. And Lord help me, I’m aroused by it.

He lets out a groan. “Better than my imagination.”

He hitches one of my legs over his shoulder, then the other, opening me to him. It’s all so very indecent. The Bargainer’s eyes move from my core, to my eyes.

“Fair warning: I’m not stopping until you come.” And then he leans in.

At the first touch of his mouth, I suck in air. It’s going to be too much, I can already tell.

He licks around my inner lips, throwing in a nip here and there, teasing me. Soon I’m making sounds I’m not proud of. I don’t know what to do with my hands, so I twist them in the sheets.

“My cherub. So sweet, so responsive,” he says between kisses, his voice rough.

Jesus, this man wasn’t lying when he said he was the overlord—or king, whatever—of sex. Has oral ever felt so good?

That’s a rhetorical question. Answer’s no. And he hasn’t even made it to my clit yet.

He toys with me, and I don’t fucking care because the Bargainer is between my legs and he’s not going to stop until I come.

But then he does stop toying with me, and suddenly, he means business. His tongue moves over my clit, again, and again.

Oh God.

Too much. Far too much. My hips move of their own accord, my body glowing brighter than those sparklers hanging throughout the room. I can’t take this.

I try to crawl backwards, away from his mouth, panting.

“Ah, ah, cherub,” he says, dragging me back, “you’re not going anywhere. Not until I’m finished with you.”

He won’t release me. He won’t release me, and I’m bucking against him.

I let out a strangled sob. “Des, please.” There’s way too much sensation down there, and it’s building. Building, building, building.

“Come for me.” He’s now just sucking on my clit.

Impossible to think through this.

Des.” My body is just a bundle of nerves, all of them taut. I can’t get away, and I can’t stand much more of this. I’m right on the edge, and with each stroke of his tongue …

“Come.”

… I begin to fall.

Oh my god, Des.” The siren’s entered my voice.

I stare blankly at the beautiful ceiling, my vision going unfocused, as my orgasm lashes through me, lasting longer and burning brighter than any others I’ve ever had.

By the time I come down, the Bargainer is kissing my inner thighs, his touch still proprietary. My legs slip off of his shoulders, and he catches them, closing them gently and pulling my dress down.

He gathers me in his arms and moves us to the head of his bed.

I stare at him with astonishment.

“That was …” Incredible. Mind-blowing. Unbelievable.

“A long time in coming,” he finishes for me.

Des strokes my hair back, his eyes filled with such longing. My heart squeezes at the sight of it. Leaning in, he kisses me, and I taste myself on his lips. It’s vulgar and arousing, and my dimming skin brightens all over again.

His fingers trail across my arm.

I stare up at him, trying like an idiot not to think about the fact that Des just went down on me. This beautiful man who’d always been so out of reach took a bead just so that he could give me an orgasm.

The world is utterly backwards—and I never want it to right itself.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask.

“So much, cherub.”

I finger the bronze war bands that circle his upper arm.

“I’ve imagined you in my bed a thousand times,” he continues, his gaze on me.

This moment is surreal to me.

“A thousand times?” I don’t know what to do with the woozy, lightheaded sensation that rolls through me. It’s somewhere between elation and flattery, and hope so sharp it hurts. Once again, I’m scared—of him, of us. Of having everything I ever wanted within my grasp, only for it to slip through my fingers. Because it will slip through my fingers. That’s just the nature of things.

He presses his lips close to my ear. “Do you want to know a truth of mine?”

“Always,” I say, turning my head to better face him.

He takes my hand and presses it against his chest. Beneath my palm I feel his heartbeat racing.

My eyes move from his chest to his face.

“It does that whenever I’m around you,” he says.

I stand out on his balcony, looking out at the night sky. Once I regained the use of all my limbs, I explored Des’s rooms, ending up out here.

I stare out at all those pale buildings and gardens that spread out from the castle.

The Bargainer reigns over all of this.

Over all of this and more.

Des steps out onto the balcony.

“Most of the time I forget that you’re a king,” I say.

“I’m glad,” he says, coming in behind me. He braces his arms on the railing, caging me in. “I don’t want you to think of me as a king. I want you to think of me as a man.”

I understand that. Labels can be dangerous, dangerous things, even when they’re seemingly desirable.

“I want to know about this side of you,” I say.

I want to know how he came into power. How many years he’d been ruling. I want to know whether he made decisions by himself, or if he had a committee of trusted advisors. I want to know all the boring, inane things that went along with his position because I simply want to know more about him.

He presses a kiss to my shoulder. “One day, cherub, I’ll tell you,” he says.

I turn towards Des, staring down at the skin he just kissed. I catch sight of the intricate tattoos running along Des’s left arm and begin to trace them.

Beneath my fingers, I feel him shiver.

“Where did you get these?” I ask.

“That is also a story for another time.”

Des and his secrets. Always his secrets.

I sigh, returning my attention to his kingdom.

The two of us stand together like that for a long time, not talking.

“Want to know a secret?” the Bargainer asks.

This must be a consolation prize; I’m not to know about who Desmond the king is, or about the ink that stains his arm, but he will give me a secret—forget that it might not have anything to do with anything.

“Yes,” I breathe. I’m pathetic enough to take what I can get.

He wraps an arm around my midsection, pressing my back flush against his chest. “The Kingdom of Night is the strongest kingdom in the Otherworld. Tell that to fae of any other realm, and they’ll argue with you. But it’s true.”

He points over my shoulder to the sky above. “Tell me, what do you see out there?”

I follow his finger, looking up at the night sky. It glitters with thousands and thousands of stars, each one so much brighter than any I’ve ever seen on earth.

“Stars,” I say.

“That is all you see?” he asks.

“Other than the night, yes.”

“The night,” he repeats, his thumb stroking the skin of my stomach through the fabric of my dress. “That is precisely why people take my kingdom for granted. No one sees the darkness, and yet it’s everywhere. We are surrounded by an entire universe of it. It came before us, it will live on long after us. Even the stars might form and then die, but the darkness will always be there.

“That also happens to be why the Night Kingdom is considered the most romantic of realms. Not only do lovers meet under the cloak of darkness, darkness is the most eternal of all things. To declare your love until the end of night is the most sacred and undying of vows.” More quietly he adds, “It’s the oath I will take when I bind myself to my queen.”

Knife wound to the gut.

I don’t want to hear about Desmond’s future queen, not on the wings of what we’ve done together. It’s not like he’s making the proposal to me, after all.

I’m embarrassed that I even care. I shouldn’t, but it’s like I can’t help but open myself up to him.

“Lucky girl,” I say, pushing away from the wall, and him along with it.

I feel Des’s eyes on me as I cross through his room.

“No,” he corrects, “she won’t be the lucky one. I’ll be.”


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