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Rhapsodic: Chapter 3

October, eight years ago

Hi, this is Inspector Garrett Wade with the Politia. I’d like to ask you some questions regarding your father’s death …

My hands begin to shake as I listen to the message. The Politia is looking into this? They’re like the supernatural version of the FBI. Only scarier.

There were supposed to be no questions. The authorities were supposed to stay away. The Bargainer had made sure of that.

That pretty little curse all you sirens have hanging over your heads might override even my magic.

I sit heavily on my bed and rub my temples, phone clutched in my hand. Rain pelts against my dorm room window, obscuring my view of Peel Castle, the castle-turned-academy where all my classes are held.

It’s only been five months since that fateful night. Five months. Too short to enjoy my freedom, but too long to ever appear innocent to the authorities again.

I missed my opportunity the moment I took the Bargainer up on his offer.

Peel Academy and the life I’ve made here could be taken from me. All in an instant.

I take a deep breath.

The way I see it, I have three options. One, I can run away and give up the life I’ve made for myself. Two, I can call the officer back, go in for questioning, and hope for the best.

Or three, I can contact the Bargainer and have him fix this. Only this time, I’d owe him a debt.

It’s an easy choice.

I push off my bed and head to my closet. I pull out a shoebox from the top shelf and open it up. The Bargainer’s black business card lay hidden under other odds and ends, the bronze lettering somewhat faded since the first time I held it.

Lifting it out of the box, I flip the card over and over in my hand. Seeing it brings that night back in all its gory detail.

Can’t believe it’s only been five months.

My life is so different now; I’ve worked hard to bury my past.

Where once I was weak, now I am powerful. A siren who can bend a person’s will—who can even break it if I so desire. That knowledge is a kind of armor that I put on every morning I wake up. It only comes off late at night when my memories get the better of me.

I run my thumb over the card. I don’t need to do this. I promised myself I wouldn’t contact him again. I got away with murder—literally—last time I met him. I won’t be that lucky twice.

But this is the best of three bad options.

So, for the second time in my life, I call the Bargainer.


Present

I freeze in the doorway.

The Bargainer reclines against my headboard, looking for all the world like a predator. Sleek, caged power and dangerous eyes. He also appears far too comfortable in my bed.

Seven years. Seven long years have passed since he exited my life. And now here he is, lounging on my bed as though nearly a decade didn’t come between us. And I have no fucking clue how I’m supposed to react.

His eyes move over me lazily. “You’ve upgraded your lingerie since I last saw you.”

Jesus, talk about getting caught with your pants down.

I ignore the way his words cut into me. The last time he saw me I was a lovesick teenager, and he wanted nothing to do with me.

“Hello, Desmond Flynn,” I say, invoking his full name. I’m fairly certain I’m one of only a few people who know it, and that information makes him vulnerable. And right now, as I stand clad in nothing but my lingerie and come to grips with the fact that the Bargainer is in my room, I need him vulnerable.

He gives me a slow, smoldering smile that tightens my stomach even as it constricts my heart. “I didn’t realize you wanted to spill secrets tonight, Callypso Lillis,” he says.

The Bargainer’s eyes devour my exposed skin, and I feel like that fumbling teenager all over again. I take a deep breath. I’m no longer that girl, even if the man in front of me looks exactly the same as he did in my youth.

Same black-on-black clothing, same imposing frame, same stunning face.

I cross the room and grab my cotton robe from where it hangs on the back of the bathroom door. The entire time I can feel his eyes on me. I turn away from him to slip it on.

Seven years.

“What do you want, Des?” I ask, cinching the robe at my waist.

I pretend like this is normal. That him being in my house is normal, when it’s not. God, is it not.

“Demanding as always, I see.”

I yelp as his breath tickles my ear. I swivel around to face him.

The Bargainer stands not even a foot away from me, so close I can feel his body heat. I didn’t hear him get up from the bed and cross the room. Not that I should be surprised. The magic he uses is subtle; most of the time if you aren’t looking for it, you won’t notice it.

“Odd character flaw of yours,” he continues, his eyes narrowed, “considering how much you owe me.” His voice is husky and low.

This close to him I can see every complex facet of his face. High cheekbones, aristocratic nose, sensual lips, chiseled jaw. Hair so pale that it appears white. He’s still far too pretty for a man. So pretty I can’t seem to look away when I know I should.

It’s his eyes that have always captivated me the most. They’re every shade of silver, darkest at their edges where a thick band of charcoal grey rings them and lightest near their centers. The color of shadows and moonbeams.

It hurts to look at him, not just because he is inhumanly beautiful, but because he shredded my fragile heart a long time ago.

The Bargainer takes my hand in his, and for the first time in seven years I come face-to-face with the sleeve of tattoos he sports.

I glance down at our entwined hands as he pushes the sleeve of my robe up, exposing my onyx bracelet.

My bracelet covers most of my forearm, each bead a magical IOU for a favor I’ve bought off the Bargainer.

He twists my wrist back and forth, assessing his work. I try to pull my hand away, but he won’t let go. “My bracelet still looks good on you, cherub,” he states.

His bracelet. The one piece of jewelry I can’t remove. Even if it weren’t strung with spider silk and thus too strong to cut off, the magic that binds it to my wrist prevents me from removing it until my I pay off my debts.

The Bargainer’s hand tightens on mine. “Callie, you owe me a lot of favors.”

My breath catches in my throat as my gaze meets his. The way he looks at me, the way his thumb is rubbing circles into the soft skin of my hand … I know why he’s here. On some level, I knew it since I first caught sight of him on my bed. This is it, the moment I’ve been waiting seven years for.

I exhale. “You’re finally here to collect.”

Instead of answering me, the Bargainer’s other hand glides up my captive wrist, over all seventeen rows of my bracelet, not stopping until he gets to the very end of it, until his fingers grasp the last of my 322 beads.

“We’re going to play a little game of Truth or Dare,” he says. His eyes flick to mine, and they gleam with mischief.

My heart slams into my chest. He’s finally collecting his payment. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around it.

His mouth curls seductively. “What will it be, Callie—truth or dare?”

I blink a few times, still stunned. Ten minutes ago I would’ve laughed if someone told me Desmond Flynn was waiting for me to come home so that he could collect on my debts.

“A dare it is,” he says gleefully, filling in my silence for me.

Fear grips my heart. The Bargainer is infamous for his steep payments. And it’s rarely money he asks for; he has no need for it. No, he usually takes something more personal, and every repayment comes with added interest. Considering I have 322 unpaid favors, the man essentially owns my ass. If he wanted to, he could order me to wipe out a small village, and I’d be magically bound to until each and every bead winked out of existence.

He’s a dangerous man, and at the moment, he’s rolling a bead between his fingers and watching me with those calculating eyes.

I clear my throat. “What’s the dare?”

Instead of answering me, he lets go of my wrist and steps into my personal space. Never taking his eyes off of mine, he tilts my head back and cradles it.

What is he doing?

I stare up at him. A small smile dances along his lips, and I notice his gaze deepens the moment before he leans in.

I stiffen as his lips brush mine, and then my body relaxes as his mouth glides against them. Immediately my skin illuminates as the siren awakens. Sex and blood, that’s what she thrives on.

I wrap a hand around the arm that cradles my head. My fingers press against the warm skin of his wrist. Beneath it, I can feel Desmond’s unyielding muscle.

He’s real, this is real. That’s all I have time to think about before the kiss ends and he pulls away.

He glances down at my wrist, and I follow his gaze. The very last bead on my bracelet shimmers for a moment then fades away. The kiss had been my dare, the first payment the Bargainer collected.

I touch my fingers to my lips, the taste of him still on my skin. “But you don’t like me,” I whisper, confused.

He reaches up to my face to trail his fingers over my glowing skin. If he were a man, he’d be completely under my spell at the moment. But he’s something else entirely.

The Bargainer’s eyes glitter, full of emotions I spent a year memorizing, and then seven years trying to forget.

“I’ll be back tomorrow evening.” His gaze sweeps over me again, and he raises an eyebrow. “Consider the following advice a favor free of charge: be prepared for more than just a kiss.”

At sunrise I’m still awake, still in my robe, and I still have no clue what the hell is going on. I sit on the grass at the edge of my property, breathing in the salty sea air. My knees are pulled up to my chest and a mostly empty bottle of wine rests next to me.

I already called Temper and told her I wouldn’t be in the office today. The nice thing about running your own business? You get to pull your own hours.

I watch the stars dim and the Bargainer’s kingdom close as the sky slowly lightens.

I glance down at my wrist. I could swear it feels different now that one bead is gone. Only 321 favors left, and the rest are guaranteed to be far more painful than the first.

I trace my lips with a finger. I was wrong earlier. At one point in time Des had liked me. But not like I had liked him—like he had hung the very moon itself. The day he left me ripped my heart out, and it never healed right, and no amount of booze, men, or work could ever patch it up.

Despite the enormous debt I still owe him, I don’t regret buying the favors, not one bit. They took me away from a monster; I would’ve sold my soul for that. But unease slithers through me at the price I might have to pay. It could be anything.

I needed to call Eli; it was time to end things.

“Hey babe,” Eli answers the phone, his voice low and gravelly. He’s a man of few words and even fewer secrets, the latter which is becoming an increasingly bigger problem for me. I have nearly as many secrets as the Bargainer, a man who makes a living off of gathering them.

Eli’s aware that there’s a lot I don’t share, and the alpha in him has been pushing me to be more open. Shifters are just so damn frank. They operate under that whole sharing-is-caring principle.

I lean on my counter. “Eli …” That’s about all I can get out before I scrub my face. I’d prepared myself for this day a long time ago, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I try again. “Eli, I need to tell you something about myself that you’re not going to want to hear.”

This should’ve been a fast conversation—dump him then end the call. And I considered doing just that. But breaking up with him over the phone is shitty enough. The least I could do is give the man an explanation.

“Is everything alright?” There’s a lethal edge to his voice. The wolf is riding it. Now is not the time to be dropping this bomb.

Should’ve told him months ago. Months ago, when you were what to each other? Friends with benefits? Colleagues working after hours together?

In no version of my life would I have spilled my secrets to Eli, the upstanding shifter who upheld supernatural law during his day job and who was the law in his pack. No, most of my secrets would land me in lots and lots of trouble.

“I’m fine …  just, you know the bracelet I wear?”

God, this is it. Moment of reckoning.

“Yeah,” he rumbles.

“That bracelet isn’t just a piece of jewelry.”

A pause. Then, “Callie, can we talk about this when I get back? Now’s not a great time—”

“Every bead is a favor I owe the Bargainer,” I rush to explain. The secret burns leaving my throat.

For most of the supernatural world, the Bargainer is more myth than man. And those who do know a bit about him know that he doesn’t let any of his clients buy more than two or three favors at a time, and he never waits this long to collect his dues.

The other end of the line is quiet, which is not a good sign. Finally Eli says, “Tell me you’re kidding, Callypso.” A low growl enters his voice.

“I’m not,” I say softly.

His growl intensifies. “The man’s a wanted criminal.”

As if I’m not aware of that little fact.

“It happened a long time ago.” I don’t know why I even bother defending myself.

“Why are you just now telling me this?” The wolf in him has almost drowned out his words.

I take a deep breath. “Because he visited last night,” I say.

“He… visited you? Last night? Where?” he demands.

I close my eyes. This call is only going to get worse.

“My house.”

“Tell me what happened.” Judging from the way Eli’s voice is rumbling, I doubt he’s going to hold onto the phone conversation for much longer.

I look down at the chipped polish of my nails.

Just say it.

The only other person besides Des who knew about my debts was Temper. “I had three hundred and twenty-two favors I owed him. Now I have one less. He’s going to collect the rest starting tonight.”

Three hundred and twenty-two favors?” Eli repeats. “Callie, the Bargainer would never—”

“He would—he did,” I insist.

The silence on the other end of the line is ominous.

He must be wondering what would make the Bargainer part from his business practices so thoroughly. And I know the moment he comes to his own conclusion.

I pull the phone away from my ear as Eli roars, and I hear something smash. “What were you thinking, making deals with the King of the Night?”

The King of the Night. Being the Bargainer was just a side gig for Desmond.

I don’t answer Eli. I can’t explain myself, not without unleashing more terrible secrets.

“What did he make you do?” A growl drowns out most of his words.

My dread mounts. My life is about to be flipped on its head. Knowing the Bargainer, whatever repayment he asks of me, it’s going to involve breaking the law at the very least.

Eli would never stand for that.

I have to tell him.

“Eli, I can’t be with you,” I whisper. The words have been echoing in my mind from the very beginning of our relationship. I’d just had so many reasons to not say them that I ignored the truth.

And now that they’re out in the open, relief washes through me. It’s the wrong reaction. Ending a relationship is sad; I should feel sad, not… free. But I do feel free. I’ve been leading this poor man along, desperately trying to fix my scarred, broken heart in the arms of someone who wasn’t right for me.

“Callie, you’re not serious, are you?” The wolf in him lets out a whine.

I close my eyes against the heartache I hear over the line; it’s a painful, broken sound, and it matches his voice.

Better this way.

“Eli,” I continue, “I don’t know what the Bargainer is going to ask me to do, and I have over three hundred favors I owe him.” My voice breaks.

I’m leaving Eli for what? Memories and dust. The man who broke my heart long ago, will make me do things at his behest, and the entire time I’ll have to remember that I brought this upon myself.

Long ago, I thought he was my savior, and like a fool I bought favor after favor from him, determined to keep him in my life, all the while falling for him.

I traded my life for a love that was nothing more than shadows and smokescreens.

“Callie, I’m not leaving you just because—”

“He kissed me.” I cut him off. “Last night, the Bargainer kissed me. That was the first debt he made me pay off.”

I meant to spare Eli’s feelings as much as possible because he’s a good man, but I also need him to stay away. I know the pack leader wants to protect me—to save me. And if he believes I want that as well, he will hunt Des down to the edges of the earth, and it won’t end until one of the two men is dead.

I can’t have that. Not when this situation is my fault, and these debts are my burden.

I force the rest my words out. “I don’t know what he’ll ask of me tonight, but whatever it is, I’ll have to do it. I’m so sorry,” I say. “I never meant for this to happen.”

I hear something like a whine from the other side of the receiver. Eli still hasn’t spoken, and I get the impression it’s because he can’t.

I pinch the bridge of my nose. Now for the especially unpleasant part.

“Eli,” I say, “if he makes me do something illegal, something that hurts someone, you might have to …” I trail off and rub my forehead.

As a supernatural bounty hunter, part of Eli’s job is to make paranormal bad guys disappear. And now I might become one of those bad guys.

“I don’t think you need to worry about hurting anyone,” Eli says, his voice rumbling menacingly. “The bastard has something else in store for you.”


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