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Rhapsodic: Chapter 20

April, seven years ago

My dorm room has become a collage of me and Des. A string of prayer flags hang across my ceiling, courtesy of a trip to Tibet. The lantern perched on my shelf is from Morocco. The painted gourd on my desk is from Peru. And the striped blanket at the foot of my bed is from Nairobi.

The man’s taken me around the world, mostly on business trips, but sometimes just for the hell of it. I think he likes seeing my excitement. And out of all these trips, I’ve collected a room full of souvenirs.

Pinned to my walls, between my trinkets, are the Bargainer’s sketches. A couple of them are of me, but once I noticed I was a recurring theme in his art, I asked him if he could draw me pictures of the Otherworld. Originally, my intent had been to minimize portraits of me, but once he began drawing images of his world, I was ensnared by them.

Now my walls are covered with sketches of cities built on giant trees and dance halls nestled beneath mountains, monsters both terrifying and strange, and beings so beautiful they beckoned me closer.

“Callie,” Des says, pulling me back to the present. He’s sprawled across my bed, the edge of his shirt hitched up just enough to give me a glimpse of his abs.

“Hmmm?” I say, twisting my computer chair back and forth.

He hesitates. “If I asked you something right this instant, would you answer me honestly?”

Up until now, our conversation had been lighthearted, humorous, so I think of nothing when I say, “Of course.”

Des pauses, then says, “What really happened that night?”

I freeze, my chair coming to a stop.

He doesn’t need to elaborate just which night he’s speaking of. We both know it’s the night he met me.

The night I killed a man.

I’m shaking my head.

“You need to talk about it,” he says, tucking his hands behind his head.

“Are you suddenly a shrink now?” There’s a lot more venom in my voice than I intended. I can’t go back to that night.

Des reaches for my hand and holds it tightly in his own. The same trick that I’ve used dozens of times on him he now turns on me: touch.

I stare down at our joined hands, and damn but his warm grip makes me feel safe.

“Cherub, I’m not going to judge you.”

I drag my gaze up to his. I’m about to beg him to not push me any further. My demons batter against the walls of their cages. He’s asking me to unleash them him, and I don’t know if I can.

But when I meet his eyes, which stare at me with so much patience and affection, I say something else entirely.

“He came at me like he always did when he drank too much.” I swallow.

Shit, I’m really doing this.

And I’m not ready, but I am, and my mind makes no sense right now, but my heart is speaking through my mouth and I’m not sure my mind has anything to do with it. I’ve carried this particular secret with me for years. I’m ready to unburden myself.

My eyes move back to our joined hands, and I take a strange sort of strength from his presence.

“That evening was a long time in coming. It began several years before then.” Long before my siren ever had a chance to defend me.

To know the story, I have to go back to the beginning. Des had only asked me to explain a single night, but that’s impossible without knowing all the hundreds of nights that preceded it.

“My stepfather … raped me … for years.”

I drag myself back to that dark place, and I do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: I tell him. All the gory details. Because there really is no such thing as dipping a toe into this discussion.

I talk about the way I used to stare at my closed door, that I came close to wetting my bed watching that knob turn. How I can still smell the bite of his cologne and the sour spirits on his breath.

That I used to cry and sometimes beg. That despite my best efforts, it never changed anything. That eventually, I became complacent, and that’s perhaps the detail that hurts the most.

Will the fear and disgust ever go away? Will the shame? Intellectually I know what he did to me wasn’t my fault. But emotionally, I’ve never been able to believe it. And God, have I tried.

My knuckles are white from how tightly I grip his hand. In this moment, he’s my anchor, and I’m afraid when I let him go, he’ll drift away from me.

I’m a dirty, tarnished thing, and if he couldn’t see that before, now he will.

“That night, the night he died, I couldn’t take it anymore.” It was him or me in the end, and to be honest, I didn’t really care which. “Killing him wasn’t premeditated. He came at me in the kitchen, and he set that bottle on the counter. When I got the chance, I grabbed it, and held it out like a weapon.”

What are you going to do with that? Hit your father with it?

“I smashed it against the wall.” My eyes go distant, remembering that encounter. “He laughed at that.” A mean laugh, one that promised pain. Lots of it. “And then he lunged at me.

“I didn’t think. I swung the broken bottle at him.” It felt good to fight back. It felt like madness, and I gave myself over to it. “I must’ve nicked an artery.” My body’s shaking, and the Bargainer squeezes my hand tighter.

“He bled out so fast,” I whisper.

And the look in my stepfather’s eyes when he realized he was going to die. Mostly shock but also a healthy dose of betrayal. Like after all he’d done to hurt me, he assumed I’d never hurt him back.

I swallow thickly, blinking back the memories. “The rest you know.”

I expect a million terrible reactions, but not the one the Bargainer gives me. His releases my hand only to wrap his arms around me and pull me out of the computer chair and into his embrace. And I’m so, so thankful he’s touching me, holding me, giving me this physical comfort right when I thought I was incapable of being cherished.

I crawl the rest of the way onto the tiny twin bed we now share, and as the moon sets, I cry in his arms. I let myself be weak because this may be the only time I’ll ever get this.

A weight lifts from my chest. The pain is still there, but the dam’s been broken, and all that pressure that existed within me now rushes out.

Finally I understand why the Bargainer is so alluring to me. He’s seen Callie the victim, Callie the killer, Callie the broken girl who can barely keep her life together. He’s seen all this, and yet he’s still here, stroking my hair and murmuring softly to me. “It’s alright, cherub. He’s gone, you’re safe.”

I fall asleep like that, locked in the strong arms of Desmond Flynn, one of the scariest, most dangerous men in the supernatural world.

And he’s right. In his arms, I feel absolutely safe.


Present

Back in Des’s Otherworld chambers, I pace, my skirt floating behind me.

He’s coming for you.

The Thief of Souls.

Des warned me it would get worse. I just hadn’t really understood.

“Have those sleeping women ever done that before?” I ask, glancing over at Des.

The fae king watches me from a side chair, his fingers steepled over his mouth.

“No.”

He doesn’t even try to dodge the question like he’s usually so fond of doing.

“And you heard everything they said?”

“You mean their little rhymes?” he says. “Yes, I did.”

He’s been uncharacteristically somber since we left the chamber of sleeping warriors. His wings only disappeared a few minutes ago, but I know better than to assume he’s unaffected by what we heard.

He’s just better at hiding his meltdown than I am.

“First the children, and now this,” he says, his seat groaning as he leans forward in it. “Apparently this enemy has taken a liking to you.” A flash of anger in those silver eyes.

My panic rises all over again.

The Bargainer stands, his presence almost menacing as the darkness curls around him. His hammered crown and war cuffs only serve to make him look more intimidating. He comes up close to me, placing a finger under my chin.

“Tell me, cherub,” he says, tilting my chin up, forcing me to meet those silver eyes of his, which look almost feral, “do you know what I do to enemies that threaten what’s mine?”

Is he referring to me? I can’t tell, nor can I tell where he’s going with this.

He leans in close to my ear. “I kill them.” He pulls away to meet my gaze. “It’s neither quick nor clean.”

His words send shivers up my arms.

“Sometimes I feed my enemies to creatures I need favors from,” he says. “Sometimes I let the royal assassins practice their skills on them. Sometimes I let my enemies think they’ve escaped my clutches only to recapture them and make them suffer—and how they suffer. The darkness cloaks many, many deeds.”

It scares me when Des gets like this. When his Otherworldly cruelty surfaces.

“Why are you telling me this?” I say softly.

His stares into my eyes. “I am the scariest thing out here. And if anything tries to touch you, they will reckon with me.”

The next few days, Des spends in the Otherworld, doing his kingly duties while I stay back at his Catalina home. He’s invited me along, but um, yeah, I’m good on this side of the ley line for now.

Meanwhile, I’ve read over some of Des’s case notes, which largely restate what he’s already told me. It mentions the human servants with their bruises and haunted eyes, the fairies who fall into that deep sleep after caring for those strange children, and the people who chose death over answering Des’s questions. The whole mystery is one sad, disturbing trail of destruction.

When I’m not reading up on the case, I’m either exploring the island of Catalina or Des’s house. Right now, I’m up to the latter.

I wander into the Bargainer’s room, flicking on the lights. My eyes move from the art hanging on the walls, to the metal model of the solar system, to the wet bar.

I’ve been curious as to why Des didn’t want me to see this room when he first gave me a tour of the house. There’s nothing much in here.

I move over to his dresser, opening the drawers one after the other. Inside each are piles of folded shirts and pants. The mighty King of the Night stores his clothes just like the rest of us.

I close the last drawer and move farther into the room, not seeing much else I can rummage through. Seriously, this is one of the most spartan rooms I’ve come across, and I do my fair share of snooping in my line of work.

My eyes land on one of his bedside tables. The only thing resting on it, besides a bedside lamp, is a leather-bound portfolio. I remember from our time together that Des loved to sketch; I even got him a sketchbook at one point.

I move over to the book, my hand curving over the soft cover. But then I hesitate. This is private—it’s essentially Des’s journal.

But he’s never been unwilling to share his artwork before.

Making a decision, I open the portfolio.

I stop breathing the moment I see the first picture.

It’s of … me.

The portrait is quite simple, just a simple basic of my head, neck, and shoulders. I run my finger down the penciled slope of my cheek, noticing how bright my eyes look in the drawing. How hopeful I appear. I remember Des drawing this in my dorm room over seven years ago. I also remember seeing the image and completely not connecting with it. I’d been so lonely then, so full of my own demons, I couldn’t imagine that anyone looked at me and saw this beautiful girl. But I’d been flattered nonetheless.

After all this time he kept it.

I feel more of my defenses crumbling. The wall I built around my heart is in shambles, and apparently Des doesn’t have to be here to destroy it.

The next sketch is of me sitting on the floor, my back against my dorm room bed, giving a petulant look to the artist drawing me. Scrawled beneath the picture is a note: Callie wants me to stop drawing her. This is how she looks when I tell her no.

I grin a little as I read that. Mighty words, but Des had at least partially caved into my request; he drew me all sorts of landscapes and Otherworldly creatures in addition to the portraits of me he was so fond of.

The next drawing is one I’ve never seen, and unlike the other sketches, this one’s more painstakingly executed. At first all I can make sense of is the odd angle of the drawing, like the artist was on his back, looking down the length of his body. Then I make out the woman curled up against the chest we’re looking down at. I recognize my dark hair, the top of my nose, and the contours of my face, which is somewhat buried against Des’s chest.

This could’ve been one of many nights where I fell sleep curled against him, but something about the image … something about it makes me think it was one of the bad nights, the nights where Des stuck around to scare off my nightmares. I can feel an echo of that old pain even now.

Those evenings were what made me realize I loved the Bargainer. That it wasn’t just infatuation, but something I could feel on my skin and in my bones. Something that couldn’t be extinguished.

I didn’t fall for Des because he was handsome, or because he knew my secrets, but because he stuck around when I was least lovable. Because he was a man who didn’t try to take anything from me even when I lay next to him, but instead gave me peace and comfort. Because each one of those nights he saved me all over again, even if it was from myself.

And if this picture was anything to go by, it was a moment Des wanted to remember as well.

I flip to the next image, this one in color. Most of the drawing is set in deep shades of blue and green. In it I’m smiling, a ring of fireflies resting on the crown of my head. I remember this night too—

A knock on the door jolts me from my thoughts.

What am I doing? I definitely shouldn’t be looking through these. Even if I am clearly the Bargainer’s muse.

Hastily I close the portfolio, arranging it how I found it. I throw several glances back at it as I cross the room. He kept those old drawings all this time. Again I’m reminded of his confession about how he felt leaving me.

Like my soul was ripped in two.

And once again, I feel hope so sharp it’s almost painful.

That too is whisked away when someone pounds on the door again.

Who would visit Des here?

I get my answer a few seconds later, when I peer through the door’s peephole.

“Shit,” I mutter under my breath.

“I heard that, Callie,” the familiar, gravelly voice says.

The Bargainer doesn’t get visitors here.

I do.


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