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Rhapsodic: Chapter 23

May, seven years ago

After the dance, Des walks me back to my dorm, disappearing only long enough to slip past the girl manning the main desk in our lobby.

Now he hesitates at the threshold of my room, looking conflicted as hell.

Rather than question the look, I grab his hand and tug him in, closing the door behind him. I drop the hem of my dress, which I’ve been carrying since we left the dance, afraid to dirty it any more than I already had. It’s the prettiest piece of clothing I’ve ever worn.

I run my hands nervously down the bodice. “Thank you,” I say quietly, staring down at my feet.

Des doesn’t respond, but I feel his eyes on me. Those wicked, calculating eyes.

“Tonight was…” Something from a dream. I can still feel the way he held me when we danced, “wonderful.”

The Bargainer sits down heavily on my bed, running his hands through his hair.

I wait for some reaction, but it doesn’t come.

The silence inside this tiny little room stretches on, and for once it isn’t comfortable.

“Is something wrong?” I ask. I can feel worry churning inside me; I can practically taste the bitter bite of it at the back of my throat.

This can’t just be the best night of my life. I don’t get to have anything that sweet.

Poor Callie. Always on the outside, always looking in.

He drops his hands from where they cradle his head. “I can’t do this anymore.”

He looks up at me, and I nearly stagger back. For once Des is the one with his emotions laid bare, and he’s staring at me like he’s been waiting for me his entire life.

Maybe I do get to have this night with all its sweetness.

Maybe I’ll get more than just this night.

“Des? What are you talking about?”

I see his throat work as he stares at me, his gaze challenging. He pushes off my bed, standing once more. The way his jaw squares is making my heart race. He looks sinister. Dangerous.

He begins stalking towards me, his eyes raking over my body, his gaze hungry.

I despaired that this man felt nothing towards me. Now a good dose of fear floods my veins because a small voice is whispering, Oh, but he does, and that is the much worse fate.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t take you away from here tonight. Right now.”

“Take me away?” I flash him an odd look. “Do you have another bargain tonight?” He hasn’t been taking me on as many lately, not since I glamoured one of his clients.

He begins to circle me. “I would take you away and never release you. My sweet little siren.” He runs a hand along the bare skin of my back, and I shiver. “You don’t belong here, and both my patience and my humanity grow thin.”

Something’s not right.

“I could make you do so many things—so many, many things,” he whispers. “You would enjoy them all, that I promise you. You would enjoy them, and so would I.”

I swallow, my gaze darting down to my bracelet. I can feel his magic coaxing me towards something elusive.

“We could start tonight. I don’t think I can bear another year,” he says, eyeing me again. “And I don’t think you can either.” Just the way he says this is full of so much hunger.

As he moves around me, I catch his hand, trying to stop him and these weird, cryptic confessions of his.

“Des, what are you talking about?”

He threads his fingers through mine, holding our hands up between us. “How would you like to begin repayment tonight?”

Now there is nothing but sex and desire in his eyes.

For the past year the only things that struck me as particularly fae-like about Des were his trickery and his brutality. But right now, Des is all fairy. It’s in his words and his frightening expression. This version of him is dark and foreign.

Dark, foreign, and compelling.

And as he looks down at our intertwined fingers, his lips spread into the brightest, cruelest smile yet. I almost draw my hand away; something like self-preservation keeps me from running. I have a feeling this man is dipping his toes into treacherous waters right now, and any wrong move I make will send him tumbling headfirst into it.

I draw in a shaky breath. “Desmond Flynn, whatever’s going on, I need you to snap out of it.”

I sound a lot calmer than I feel. My pulse pounds like a drum between my ears.

He brings our joined hands close to his lips and closes his eyes. He stays like that, unmoving, for at least a minute. Long enough for me to worry. But eventually he does blink his eyes open, his nostrils flaring. And I know with just that one look that the Des I’ve come to know and rely on is back.

His expression holds a world of remorse. “I’m sorry, cherub,” he whispers, his voice husky. “You weren’t meant to see that.” He continues, “I am … not human, for all I appear to be.”

There’s something singing in my blood, and I’m pretty sure a good portion of that is still fear, but mostly it’s hope.

I’m not particularly brave, but I decide to be so now. “Do you … like me?” I ask. There’s no mistaking my meaning.

The Bargainer releases my hand. “Callie.” He’s pulling away, physically, emotionally.

“Do you?” I push.

Because I got those vibes when he was promising to take me away and make me repay him.

One of his thumbs brushes against my cheekbone. Still frowning, he dips his head.

He does.

My skin illuminates, its glow blindingly bright, and I’m happy, I’m so goddamn happy because he likes me, and I like him, and he took me to a dance, and as far as the supernatural world is concerned, I’m legally an adult.

This can work.

Even though he’s more than a little scary, and even though my siren would love nothing more than to take advantage of him, he’s the moon in my dark sky.

My dark king. My best friend.

I rise to my tip-toes.

“Callie—”

I cut him off with a kiss. It’s a bit of an indulgence to call it a kiss. My lips graze his, and there they linger.

The Bargainer’s hands move to my upper arms and he squeezes them. I swear he wants to pull me closer, but he doesn’t.

His lips stay rigid beneath mine, and I’m going to lose courage fast.

But then he lets out a pained sound and his mouth does begin to move. Suddenly, it goes from being a “kiss” to being a kiss.

He gathers me into his arms, his lips sweeping over mine, and his mouth moving desperately, like he can’t get enough. Like this is the first, the last, the only kiss he’ll ever get.

The whole thing takes my breath away. I slide my arms around his waist, feeling like I’m holding on for dear life. Every part of me fits perfectly against every part of him.

Hell couldn’t give me a more wicked man; heaven couldn’t give me a more perfect moment. A year I’ve waited, a year I’ve agonized, a year I’ve despaired that this would never happen.

And now it is.

One of Des’s hands threads into my hair, roughly gripping it. He can’t hold me any tighter, and yet I sense that he’s trying. That he’s trying to fill himself with my very essence.

And here I thought I’d worry about how crappy my kissing technique would be. I hadn’t imagined this—that he’d crave me like a dying man craves life.

My lips part as I gasp in a breath of air, and it’s like the action breaks a spell. One moment Des’s mouth is on mine, the next, it’s gone.

He releases me, staggering back, his breathing heavy. Shadows gather around him, thicker and denser than I’ve ever seen them. They wrap around me too, looking like billowing black storm clouds.

But I only have time to wonder at his shadows before my eyes are drawn up—up, up.

Behind Des, two wicked, silvery wings flicker into existence, the sharp talon-tipped ridges of them rising above the Bargainer’s head.

“Your wings …” I say, awed.

The only time our wings come out is when we want to fight or fuck, he’d said.

And I don’t think he wants to fight me.

Des doesn’t bother looking over his shoulder, he’s still staring at me. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It was never supposed to happen like this. I should’ve waited. I’d intended to wait.”

“Des, what’s wrong?” I say, taking a step forward. My stomach is plummeting. I can already sense his regret.

He drags a shaky hand through his hair. “I have to go.”

“No,” I say, my skin dimming.

“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I meant to give you more time. I never should have done this—any of it.”

Any of it?

He can’t be saying what I think he’s saying. Especially not when his wings are still out. They’ve been twitching, like they want to spread themselves.

“But you like me,” I say, not understanding what he’s rambling about, but hearing regret threaded throughout his voice.

“I’m a king, Callie. And you’re …”

Broken.

“Innocent.”

“I’m not innocent.” God, I’m not.

He stalks forward and cups my cheek. “You are. You are so painfully innocent in so many ways, and I’m a very, very bad man. You should stay away from me because I can’t seem to.”

Wait. “Stay away? But why?”

“I can’t just be your friend, Callie.”

I can’t just be yours, either.

“Then don’t,” I say, my voice hoarse.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” he says, searching my face.

“I don’t care.” And I really don’t.

“But I do,” he says quietly. There’s a finality to his words.

I feel a tear drip out because I know what this is.

It’s a goodbye. And I don’t understand any of it.

His voice drops. “Don’t cry.”

“You don’t have to go,” I say. “Everything can go back to the way it was. We can just … pretend tonight never happened.” I practically choke the words out. I don’t want to pretend any of this away.

Des frowns. Still holding my chin, he pulls my face forward, kissing each of my tears.

When he pulls away, I see something in his eyes, something that makes me think the Bargainer’s feelings run deeper than I assumed. That only confuses me more.

“Just… give me some time.” Almost reluctantly he releases me, backing up.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I ask. In the last year I’d never gone more than a few days without seeing him.

His lips press together. “Long enough to figure out what I want and what you deserve.”

The way he says that causes panic to unfurl inside me. This is the end of something. I thought it was the beginning … but it’s not. It was foolish of me to be so optimistic.

“What about my debts?” All 322 of them. They’re a lifeline suddenly.

“They don’t matter.”

They don’t matter? This is the Bargainer, the man who has made an empire off of his deals. He wouldn’t just squander hundreds of them.

Now it’s more than just panic I feel. I’m terrified. He’s leaving, not just for the night, but for many. Perhaps for the rest of the nights of my life.

His hand falls to my doorknob. And I know, this is it: the moment he walks out of my life.

All because of one single kiss. One kiss that revealed his wings.

Never before had I seen them. The one single time the unshakable Des slipped up was with me.

That has to be worth something, right? Something worth fighting for.

“One final wish.” My voice is harder than I imagined. More resolute.

He bows his head. “Don’t, Callie,” he says, almost begging me.

His one weakness—a bargain. He can’t seem to help himself when it comes to granting me favors.

I don’t know what comes over me, what strange compulsion pushes me to say words that I have no right saying to the Bargainer. I only know that my very world has come to a standstill, and if I do nothing, it will fall off its axis.

I close my eyes, and words from an old book flow from my lips. “From flame to ashes, dawn to dusk, for the rest of our lives, be mine always, Desmond Flynn.”

All I hear is his ragged breathing.

I don’t even have the presence of mind to be embarrassed. The old binding verse spoken between lovers felt right leaving my lips.

I open my eyes, and the two of us stare at each other. I’ve never seen horror and wonder share space on someone’s face, but he manages to wear both. And then he vanishes in a wisp of smoke.

I didn’t know then that he wasn’t coming back.


Present

A fairy doesn’t show his wings to his betrothed. A fairy shows them to his soulmate.

I stop breathing.

The entire world goes quiet, until all I can hear is the pounding of my heart, my stupid, hopeful heart.

“You lie,” I whisper.

He gives me a small smile, his eyes shining so brightly. “No, cherub, I’m not.”

I feel like I’m on the verge of breaking. “So you’re saying … ?”

“That I’m in love with you? That I have been since you were that obstinate teen with way too much courage? That you’re my soulmate and I’m yours? Gods save me, yes I am.”

My knees nearly buckle.

Soulmates.

Yes, my heart whispers, soulmates.

Seven years ago I buried my past and recreated myself. Seven years ago I fell in love.

I fell in love, and I never fell out of it. Which was problematic, because seven years ago my first love broke my heart.

“But you left,” I say softly.

He stays rigidly in place. “I did,” he says, his eyes sad. “But I never meant to stay away.”

“Then why did you?”

He runs a hand through his hair, looks away, then takes a deep breath, his gaze returning to me. “You were so damn young,” he says quietly, his eyes searching my face. “And you’d been abused. And my heart chose you. I felt it that first night, but I didn’t believe it, not until the feeling grew until it couldn’t be ignored.

“I couldn’t stay away, I could barely resist you at all, but I didn’t want to push you into something. Not when you’d just escaped a man that took and took. I didn’t want you to think that was all men were good for.”

I can’t breathe. A silent tear tracks down my cheek. Then another.

Des wipes my tears away, his expression so gentle. “So I let you play your game, buying favor after favor from me, until the day I couldn’t take it. No mate of mine should owe me. But my magic, it has a mind of its own … like your siren, I can’t always control it. It thought that the more you owed me, the longer I could guarantee that you were in my life. Of course, that strategy came to an abrupt end the moment you cast your final wish.”

Tears are still dropping down my face as I rack my brain for the wish he’s referring to.

“That final wish of yours,” he continues, “it was bigger than either of us. You wanted me, I was falling for you and it wasn’t right, Callie. I knew it wasn’t right. Not when you were sixteen. But I could be patient. For my little siren, my mate, I could.”

He flashes me a soft smile, his eyes brimming with some deep emotion.

And I feel light as air. This is everything I wanted to hear all those years ago. And now it’s making me cry harder. I thought my scarred heart had fallen for the one man who couldn’t love me back.

His eyes go distant. “But that wish … I was a prisoner to it.”

“What wish?” He keeps mentioning this ominous wish, and I have no idea what he’s talking about.

Des’s focus sharpens. “Your last one. On the night of the dance—‘From flame to ashes, dawn to dusk, for the rest of our lives, be mine always, Desmond Flynn,’” he says, quoting the binding verse I spoke long ago.

My face heats. “You never granted that one.”

“Are you sure about that?”

My skin goes cold as his words sink in. “You … you granted it?”

“I did,” the Bargainer says, his eyes moving to my lips.

He’d agreed to be mine. My brain is exploding at that.

I glance at my bracelet. “But the beads never showed up …”

“They wouldn’t, since you were already paying them off. We both were.”

My breath catches, and a lump forms in my throat. “What do you mean?” I barely get the words out.

“A favor as large as the one you requested requires steep payment,” the Bargainer continues. “Do you think my magic would allow you to buy yourself a mate so easily? That kind of favor requires a good dose of heartbreak and years of waiting—seven years, to be precise.”

Seven years.

Oh God.

The Bargainer’s magic is subtle, if you aren’t looking for it, you’ll never notice it.

That entire time I’d tried and failed to move on, all that time I’d resented the Bargainer, it had all been part of the wish.

“Every day after your last wish, I worked myself raw trying to get close to you,” Des says. “And every day I was stopped by my very own magic, which had turned on me.

I’m shaking my head because I can’t speak. The binding verse I’d spoken out of sheer desperation. As that final evening seven years ago replays itself out in my head, I watch it from a new perspective—Desmond’s. I inhale sharply when I realize how the events unfolded according to him.

He’d been bound to my wish just as much as I’d been. I’d never realized he couldn’t just stop his own bargains.

“Then one day,” Des continues, “the magic’s hold on me loosened. I tried to approach you like I had a thousand times before, and this time, the magic didn’t stop me.” His silver eyes shine as he looks down at me. “Finally, after the longest seven years of my life, I was able to come back to my love, my mate. The sweet siren that loved my darkness, and my bargains, and my company when I was no one and nothing more than Desmond Flynn. The woman that took fate into her own hands when she spoke those ancient vows and declared herself mine.”

A sly grin lifts first one side of his mouth, then the other. “Callie, I love you. I’ve loved you from the beginning. And I will love you long after the last star dies. I will love you until the end of darkness itself.”

“You love me,” I say, letting that sink in.

“I love you, Callypso Lillis,” he repeats.

And then … I smile. My heart feels like it’s going to burst.

“Do you … want to be with me?” I ask, suddenly shy. Part of me is still in disbelief.

Des pulls me in close. “Callie, this may be oversharing, but I’m getting the sense that you want that at the moment …”

My smile widens. “I do.”

His eyes move over my face. “I want to wake up every morning to you, cherub, and I want to marry the shit out of you, and then I want to have lots and lots of babies with you. If, that is, you will have me.”

I stare at Des, with his white blond hair and striking silver eyes. It’s all laid bare, his love, his excitement, his yearning. Des, who saved my life, who is looking at me like I’m his moon and his stars.

For once the King of the Night is not in control of the situation. He doesn’t hold any of the cards, but he has shown me his hand. And his hand is everything I ever wanted.

And now he’s asking me to make the decision of whether or not I still want that man in my life.

I wanted him seven years ago, and all that time between then and now I continued to want him, even when I knew it was impossible. Even when I hated him I wanted him. I wanted him yesterday, I want him today, I want him tomorrow, and the day after. I want him for the rest of my life.

I always have.

“I’ll be yours, if you’ll be mine,” I say.

Des smiles so bright that it reaches every corner of his face. I’m almost bowled over by it. “I’ll always be yours, cherub.”

And it’s pure reaction, but I begin to grin back at him, even as a happy tear slips out.

My heart is breaking, and it’s reforming, and my whole body is lit up from the inside out.

Des clasps my cheeks. “And mountains may rise and fall, and the sun might wither away, and the sea claim the land and swallow the sky. But you will always be mine.” He runs his knuckles over my cheekbone. “And the stars might fall from the heavens, and night might cloak the earth, but until darkness dies, I will always be yours.”


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