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Rhapsodic: Chapter 6

November, eight years ago

One wish becomes two, two wishes become four, four become eight … until somehow a whole row of beads circle my wrist.

It was just supposed to be one evening. But like an addict, I came right back to him for more. More nights, more companionship. I don’t know what the Bargainer’s story is. He has no reason to keep indulging me.

And yet he does …

I look at my beads and remember the Bargainer’s warnings.

Anything I want, you would have to give to me. Tell me, cherub, could you give me anything I wanted?

… Could you give your body to me?

I should be afraid of that threat. Instead, a restless sort of anticipation gnaws away at me.

I am not right in the head.

“What are you thinking about, cherub?” he asks.

Tonight, the Bargainer makes himself comfortable on my bed, his body so large his feet hang over the edge. The sight of him lounging there, combined with the train of my thoughts …

I feel heat crawl up my cheeks.

“Oh, definitely something inappropriate.” He settles himself against my pillow, sliding his hands behind his head.

Just when I think he’s going to taunt me about it, the Bargainer’s eyes move over my room. My gaze follows his, sliding over the rack of my cheap jewelry and the bag of makeup sitting on top of my dresser. I take in the posters hanging on my wall—one of the Beatles, another a black and white picture of the Eiffel tower, and that dumb Keep Calm and Read On poster. My textbooks are piled on my desk, alongside my mug and cans of tea bags.

Dog-eared books, clothes, and shoes litter my floor.

I feel young all of a sudden. Young and inexperienced. I can’t imagine how many women the Bargainer has visited, but I bet their rooms looked far more mature than mine, with my thumbtacked posters and sad little tea set.

“No roommate?” he asks, noticing the foldout chair I have situated where another bed should be.

“Not anymore.”

She moved in with her friend, who’d been placed in a single and wanted a roommate. I was both disappointed and relieved to see her go. I liked the companionship, but the two of us hadn’t really hit it off. She’d been funny and chirpy, and I was … troubled.

The Bargainer gives me a pitiful look. “Struggling to make friends, cherub?” he asks.

I wince. “Stop calling me that,” I say, sliding into my computer chair and kicking my legs up on my desk.

Cherub. It makes me think of fat baby angels. That makes me feel even younger.

He just smiles at me, really making himself comfortable.

“What even is your name?” I say,

“Not going to address the friends issue?” he asks.

“It’s called deflecting,” I say, tipping my chair back as I talk to him, “and you’re doing it too.”

His eyes dance. I doubt he’ll ever admit it, but I’m beginning to believe he likes visiting me. I know I like having him around. It keeps my demons at bay for just a little bit longer than it otherwise would.

“You really think I just give clients my name, cherub?” He picks up a stray piece of paper from my bedside table.

“Stop. Calling. Me that.”

“Who’s George?” he asks, reading off the paper.

And now I want to die. I snatch the note from him, crumpling it up and throwing it in the trash.

“Oh, my. George.” Just the way he says that is enough for me to fight off another blush. “Is he the one you’re thinking inappropriate thoughts of?”

If only.

“Why do you care?” I ask.

“When a boy gives you his number, it’s because he likes you. And you kept it. On your nightstand.” The Bargainer says that like the nightstand is the clincher.

What was I supposed to say to him? That the only guy I was fixating on at the moment was the Bargainer himself?

No thank you.

“It’s not like he and I are going to date.” I mumble. “His sister is friends with a girl that doesn’t like me.”

I don’t have to spell out the rest. The Bargainer raises his eyebrows. “Ah.” I can feel his gaze dissecting my body language.

What does he see? My embarrassment? My frustration? My humiliation?

He swings his legs off the bed, the sudden action startling me. He reaches out a hand and pulls me to my feet. “Grab a coat.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re going out.”


Present

In the morning before I head off to work, I pad over to my bathroom and inspect my broken door.

Fixed. The Bargainer repaired it without making a deal. My heart pounds harder at this realization. The Bargainer’s a trickster; everything comes at a price. So why not this?

And the Bargainer’s parting lines. I squeeze my eyes shut. Something he said stuck in my mind.

Seven years is a long time to wait, especially for someone like me.

The Bargainer waits for no one, especially not a moonstruck client who was once only too eager to pay back all her favors. But it sounds as though that’s exactly what he did—he waited. It makes no sense.

I roll my bracelet round and round my wrist, counting, then recounting my beads.

Three hundred and sixteen of them are left. That means that the Bargainer removed some after I bought his precious furniture. Several beads in exchange for the secret I revealed.

I scrub my face.

Right now, more than ever, I think I hate the Bargainer. Hate that he came barging into my life when I was really making something of it. Hate that I had to break up with Eli over the phone because I didn’t know what tasks Des would ask of me. But most of all, I hate him because he is easier to hate than myself.

I shuffle into West Coast Investigations twenty minutes late, a pink cardboard box tucked under my arm.

For the last six years, Temper and I have been in the PI business. Though what we do is a bit more questionably legal than what the job entails. West Coast Investigations can procure just about anything for you—a missing person, a confession, proof of a crime.

“Yo,” I call out from our reception area, “I got us breakfast.”

The typing in Temper’s office pauses.

“Donuts?” she calls out hopefully.

“Nah, I picked us up some fruit. Thought today would be a good day to start working on our swimsuit figures,” I say, dropping the box of donuts on a table in our waiting room, a little cloud of dust billowing out around it.

Reminder: need to wipe down the sitting area.

“Swimsuit figures my ass.” Temper comes stomping out of her office, giving me a look like I blasphemed. “You think I want to look like a skinny whi—”

Her eyes land on the box of donuts.

“I got us blueberry old-fashioned and jelly-filled,” I say, handing her coffee as well. “Boom—fruit.”

She harrumphs. “Bitch, I like the way you think.”

“Ditto, love.” I head into my office.

These are the same offices we moved into five years ago when, on graduation night, we packed up and all but fled Peel Academy, our boarding school, for something better. Our office space still holds that same excited, desperate feel it did then, back when the two of us were running—me from my past, and Temper, her destiny—and eager to make something new for ourselves.

I smile when I see the check from my last assignment on my desk. Dropping my stuff, I slide into my chair and grab the check, stuffing it into my purse. I hope Mickey, the shitty son, is treating his mother right. It’s a privilege to have one at all.

Kicking my heels up on my desk, I turn on my computer. While I wait for it to come to life, I flip through messages on my office phone.

One is from a former target, a stalker by the name of Sean who’d been following one of my clients home. Both Temper and I had to get involved in the case, and we clearly left a lasting impression, judging by all his colorful language. I delete the message and move onto the next.

The following three messages are from potential clients. I slide a legal pad over to me and grab a pen, jotting down the names and contact information they leave behind.

And then there’s the final message.

My muscles seize up when I hear the warm, gravelly voice. “Baby girl, I’m not breaking up with you. Not over this. When I get back, we’ll talk about it.”

My back goes ramrod straight.

No, no, no.

“Until then,” the message continues, “I’ve pulled some strings and moved the Bargainer up on the Wanted List to Top Priority.” A.k.a., top ten.

Shit.

This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. Eli taking my mess and making it his own.

As soon as my computer loads, I open up the Politia’s website, moving to their Most Wanted List.

The list goes all the way down to a hundred, but the top ten most wanted criminals are front and center, their photo right next to their name.

Coming in at number three on the list: The Bargainer (real name unknown).

“Motherfucker,” I mutter, kicking the file cabinet next to me.

I don’t know why I’m so bothered. The Bargainer can handle his own shit, and I can handle my own shit. Or I could, until I got involved with an alpha-fucking-werewolf.

My eyes move to the sketch of Des’s face. The Politia doesn’t even have a photo of him, and the picture itself … he could be anyone. The only thing they got right are his silver eyes and white hair. Which, to be fair, is enough.

I click on the link, wondering just how many female officers Eli had to butter up for the Bargainer to make the top ten. Des has always been on the Wanted List, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him make it this high.

The page that opens is full of his stats and a more detailed description. And unlike the drawing of Des, these seem to be accurate, down to his sleeve of tattoos. They didn’t, however, mention his pointed ears or his wings.

Don’t know he’s a fairy.

But still, what they do have is damning.

I open the bottom drawer of my desk and pull out the bottle of Johnnie Walker.

Today is one of those days.

Temper comes in five minutes later. When she sees me drinking, she motions for the bottle. Reluctantly, I slide it across the desk.

“What’s going on, chick?” she asks, taking a drink. She knows that when Johnnie comes out, something bad has happened.

I suck on my teeth and shake my head.

She cringes at the burn of whiskey, waiting for me to say more.

I glance down at my bracelet. “My past caught up with me.”

She slides the bottle back my way. “Need me to hurt someone?” she asks, dead serious.

She and I are as close as friends come, and we have been since senior year of high school. And at the core of our friendship is a pact of sorts: nothing’s going to drag her towards the future she doesn’t want, and nothing’s going drag me back into the past I’ve worked to forget.

Nothing.

I huff out a laugh. “Eli’s already beaten you to it.”

“Eli?” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Girl, I’m hurt. Hoes before bros, remember?”

“I didn’t ask him to get involved. I broke up with him, and then he got involve—”

What!” She grabs the table. “You broke up with him? When were you going to tell me?”

“Today. I was going to tell you today.”

She’s shaking her head. “Bitch, you should’ve called me.”

“I was busy ending a relationship.”

She falls back into her seat. “Shit girl, Eli’s going to stop giving us a discount.”

That’s what your most upset by?” I say, taking another swig of whiskey.

“No,” she says. “I’m happy you grew a vagina and broke up with him. He deserves better.”

“I’m going to throw this bottle of whiskey at you.”

She holds her hands up to placate me. “I’m kidding. But seriously, are you okay?”

I barely stop myself from looking at my computer screen again.

I exhale. “Honestly? I have no fucking clue.”

I’m taking a healthy swig of wine when my back door opens and the Bargainer walks in.

“Trying to drink your feelings away again, cherub?”

My heart gallops at the sight of him in his black fitted shirt and faded jeans.

I set down my wine glass and the book I was reading. “Again?” I say, raising an eyebrow. “How would you know how I cope?”

“Rumors,” he says blandly.

I narrow my eyes. “Have you been keeping tabs on—?”

My voice cuts off as the Bargainer crosses the room, grabs my glass of wine, and makes his way to the kitchen sink. He dumps its contents down the drain.

“Hey!” I say, “That’s expensive Burgundy.”

“I’m sure your pocketbook is suffering,” he says. There’s not an ounce of remorse in his voice.

I follow him into my kitchen. “You shouldn’t waste good wine on principle.”

He moves away from the sink, and I gasp when I see my bottle of wine levitate off my coffee table and cross the living room and into the kitchen, landing in the Bargainer’s waiting hand.

He turns the bottle on its head, and I hear the sound of precious wine chugging out of it and into the porcelain basin of my sink.

“What are you doing?” I’m too shocked at his audacity to do more than gape as the last of the wine swirls down the drain.

“This is not how you solve your problems,” the Bargainer says, shaking the now-empty wine bottle at me.

The first flare of righteous indignation replaces my shock. “I was drinking a glass of wine, you psycho, not the whole damn bottle.”

He drops the bottle into the sink, and I jump when I hear glass shatter. “You’re in denial.” Des’s eyes are angry. He grabs my wrist roughly, never taking his eyes off of me.

He fingers a bead.

“What are you doing?” The first stirrings of trepidation speed up my heart rate.

“Taking care of you,” he says, staring at me with the same intensity.

I can’t help it, I glance down at his hands because his expression is making me squirm. Beneath his fingers a bead disappears.

I raise my eyebrows. Whatever repayment he just asked for, I know I’m not going to like it.

“Are you going to tell me what that bead just cost me?”

“You’ll figure it out soon enough.”


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