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Rhapsodic: Chapter 7

November, eight years ago

Ever since the Bargainer took me out last week—for coffee and pastries of all things—we’ve spent half of our evenings in my dorm, and the other half inside a bakery on the other side of the Isle of Man.

He’s been careful to keep things platonic, despite the fact that he’s been paying for the coffee and French macaroons I order every time we visit Douglas Café, the Isle of Man’s best bakery. Or that he’s spent most nights over the last month hanging with me.

This situation isn’t right.

I don’t want it to change.

“So, what’s your real name?” I pester him for the hundredth time.

Tonight we’re hanging in my room. I’m lying in my bed, the credits of the movie we watched rolling down my laptop screen, which is situated next to me on the bed.

A part of me dreads turning and seeing the Bargainer’s face. He has to be bored, sitting in my uncomfortable foldout chair and watching Back to the Future on a tiny screen between us.

But when I turn, I don’t see a bored man. I see a confused one. His brows are pinched, and his lips form a thin line.

“Bargainer?”

“Why did you kill your stepfather?” he asks, his gaze moving to mine.

I sit straight up, my reaction immediate. Old fear pounds through me, accompanied by unwanted memories. My stepfather’s sour breath, the smell of his expensive cologne.

“Why would you ask me that?” I don’t quite manage to keep the emotion out of my voice.

He leans back in my chair, threading his hands behind his head. One of his feet rests on his other thigh. The man doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.

“I think I’m entitled to some sort of explanation,” he says, “seeing as how I’m your accomplice.”

I swallow. I never should’ve bargained for this man’s presence.

I’m a stupid, stupid girl.

“You’re not going to get one,” I say. It’s not that I don’t trust him—because I do, even though I shouldn’t.

But the idea of sharing that part of my past with the Bargainer … I feel queasy at the mere thought.

He watches me for a long moment, then his lips curl into a smile. “Tell me, little siren, are you getting a taste for secrets?” He looks almost proud.

But then it evaporates, and he turns serious again.

He leans those scary, ripped arms of his on his thighs. “Whatever he did to you, it’s—”

Stop it. Stop talking.” I stand, my laptop nearly falling off my bed in my mad dash to get off the mattress.

The Bargainer knows. Not that it would take a genius to figure out why a seemingly innocent teen would attack her stepfather.

I silently beg him not to push any further. I know I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve, that my broken, battered soul is staring out through my eyes.

The Bargainer’s form blurs. At some point I must’ve started crying, but I only notice it now, when I can no longer clearly see him.

He curses under his breath, shakes his head. “I need to go.”

I blink away the moisture in my eyes.

He’s leaving? Why do I feel so desolate at that thought when a moment ago I was wishing just the opposite?

As he gets up, the Bargainer’s gaze follows the tears that slip down my cheeks, and I can see his regret. That eases my pain. Somewhat.

Just when I think he’s going to apologize, he doesn’t.

He says something better.

“Desmond Flynn.”

“What?” I say.

The air is already moving, shifting as his magic takes hold. “My name.”

It’s only after he leaves that I realize he never added a bead for the information.


Present

Des doesn’t tell me where he’s taking me, nor what task he has in mind for tonight. As the two of us soar over the ocean, all I know is that he’s heading down the coast, rather than inland.

Now that I’ve gotten somewhat used to flying in the Bargainer’s arms, I stare out at the glittering sea and the twinkling stars. Dark though it is, the view is something to behold. I can smell the salt in the air, and the wind weaving through my hair. It makes me yearn for something I’ve forgotten—or lost.

I turn my head inward, my eyes falling to the column of Des’s throat and the underside of his strong jaw.

A fairy is carrying me off into the night. That sounds like all the stories I’ve ever read of them.

Up my eyes climb, to those beautiful, familiar features of his. He glances down, catching me staring at him. His eyes are sly, but whatever he sees in mine causes them to soften.

My heart lodges in my throat. I tear my gaze away before that look can get under my skin.

We turn away from the coast, heading out towards sea.

What could possibly be out there for us?

I find out a short while later, when out of the coastal mist, Catalina Island comes into view. Sitting off the coast of L.A., Catalina is a place where locals go for weekend vacations. Most of the island is uninhabited. We pass Avalon, the island’s main city, moving along the edge of Catalina’s coastline.

We curve around the bend in the cliffs, and a white stone house comes into view, lit up amidst the darkness. It becomes clear by the way the Bargainer maneuvers us in the air that this is our destination.

I drink in the sight of it. It’s perched near a cliff’s edge, much like mine, the back of the house giving way to a terraced yard that ends right at the edge of the property.

The closer we get, the more magnificent the place appears. It’s made of glass and white stone, and as we circle to the front, I catch a brief glimpse of the elaborate gardens that surround it.

The Bargainer glides over the front lawn, and with one final dip, we touch down.

I step out of his arms and look around. “What is this place?” It looks like something out of a dream. A palatial house set at the edge of the world.

“Welcome to my home,” Des says.

“Your home?” I say, incredulous. “You live here?”

“From time to time.”

I never thought of the Bargainer as having a place of his own, but of course he does. He visits earth often enough.

I take in the climbing bougainvillea and the gurgling fountain set into the front yard. Beyond it, his house stands majestic.

“This place is unbelievable,” I say. Suddenly my little home seems dingy and dilapidated by comparison.

He glances around, and I get the impression he’s trying to see his house through my eyes. “I’m glad you like it. You’re my first guest.”

I balk at this. “Really?”

First he shows me his wings. Now he shows me his hideaway. Both of these revelations are obviously important, but I can’t figure out the Bargainer’s motives.

“Does that make you uncomfortable?” he asks, his voice dropping low. “My bringing you here to my home?”

I get the distinct impression that he wants me to be uncomfortable.

He’s doing good job of it too.

“Curious, not uncomfortable,” I say, challenging him with my eyes. After all, he’d been in my home hundreds of times when I was younger.

The corner of his lip quirks, his eyes darkening with whatever schemes are brewing in that mind of his. He extends a hand forward. “Then come inside, we have much to discuss.”

I move through his entryway slowly, taking in the polished wooden floorboards and gleaming metal wall fixtures. No iron, I notice.

My brows furrow when I see two Venetian masks hanging along the wall. I used to have an identical pair back at Peel Academy. I feel goosebumps break out along my skin.

It means nothing.

A series of panoramic photographs line the entryway and spill into the living room, each one taken from a different corner of the world. The bright bazaars of Morocco, the austere mountains of Tibet, the red tile roofs of Cuzco. I’ve seen them all in person, thanks to the man at my side.

I can feel Des’s eyes on me, watching my every reaction.

Tentatively, I make my way into the living room, a worn leather couch rests on a shaggy fur rug. His coffee table is a giant wooden chest, the brass buckles dull with age.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Callie.”

I love your place.

I want to bury my bare feet into that shaggy rug and feel the fur tickle my toes. I want to sprawl out on his couch and hang out with the Bargainer like we used to.

“I never realized how close you lived,” I say instead.

His eyes narrow, like he knows I didn’t speak my mind.

I crane my neck and try to peer down a darkened hallway.

“Want a tour of the place?” he asks, leaning against one of his walls. With his low-slung jeans and windswept hair, he looks like he invented the word sexiness, which is really annoying when you’re determined to harden your heart against someone.

I’m nodding before I think better of it.

So much for hardening my heart.

And so the Bargainer shows me his house, from the fancy kitchen to the guestroom I so recently furnished. The only two rooms he doesn’t show me are one, the room that contains a portal to the Otherworld—the land of the fae—and two, his bedroom, a.k.a., the two most interesting rooms in his house.

We end up back in his kitchen, an area of his house that, while much more polished than mine, is nonetheless a place you want to linger.

“Why did you bring me here?” I ask, idly opening a copper canister he has sitting against the wall. At first I think I’m staring at flour, but when it catches the light, it shimmers.

Fairy dust?

Instead of answering, Des sets the canister I hold aside and grabs my wrist. He runs a hand over my bracelet. “Tonight I want a truth from you,” he says, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Tell me, cherub, what have you been up to in the last seven years?”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, I can feel the magic compelling me to talk. It’s not pushy like it was last night, because there is no time limit to this, but it does coat my tongue, beckoning me to speak.

“I went to Peel Academy for one more year,” I begin, “ and that’s when I met my best friend Temper.”

I swear I see him react to even that one little detail. He once held the prize position of my best friend, odd match though we were.

“She got me through that last year.” I don’t need to elaborate for him to understand that the thing I was getting through was him.

The hand that still hold my wrist now tightens.

“On graduation night Temper and I left the UK. We moved to L.A. and started our own business.”

“Ah, yes, West Coast Investigations is it?” he says.

My eyes widen before I can help it. “You know about it?”

He releases my hand. “I’m the Bargainer, I know all about your little business.” He says that like he keeps tabs on everyone. “Seems I’m not the only one extracting secrets these days.”

I can’t tell whether he’s pleased, or annoyed.

“Does that bother you?” I ask.

“It pleases me. And it angers me that it pleases me.” He frowns, folding his arms over his chest. “I never wanted you to end up like me.” All the trickery is gone from his voice when he says that.

“I didn’t realize that you cared one way or another.” Is that bitterness my voice? I think it is.

He gives me a rueful smile. “Tell me about your business.” He says this innocently enough, but I still feel his magic on my tongue, forcing me to answer.

“Temper and I are in private investigation. She uses her spells to catch criminals, find missing persons, and”—scare the living crap out of people—“other things. I use my glamour to compel people to confess, or to act against their base nature.” I think of Mickey, my last client, as I say this.

Des clicks his tongue. “Callie, Callie, making a business of breaking the law. My, how this is sounding familiar.”

So I modeled my business after his. Big deal.

“Copying is the sincerest form of flattery,” I say.

The Bargainer leans forward. “Cherub, this is perhaps too sincere. Though, like I said, it does please me … You are taking precautions to guard yourself against the authorities, aren’t you?”

A.k.a., you’re not going to get caught anytime soon, are you?

I swear it sounds like he actually cares. All this coming from the third most wanted man in the supernatural world.

“I’m fine.” I pull out one of the barstools in his kitchen and sit down. “That’s what I’ve been up to for the last seven years.”

I spin myself on his barstool.

“You’re omitting some details,” he says, rounding to the other side of the bar I sit at.

He doesn’t need to tell me that for me to feel the magic pressing down on me, demanding I say more.

“What have I missed?”

Des leans against the island in his kitchen, his eyes unwavering. “Your personal life.”

I can feel my face flushing even as I give him a strange look. Why would he, someone who spurned me long ago, care about my personal life? I’m just a client.

It’s the magic that compels me to speak. “You want me to tell you about all the relationships I’ve had within the last seven years? There’s nothing to tell.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You’ve been with no one in all that time?”

Jesus, this is worse than telling my gynecologist about my sexual history.

“What about you?” I demand. “Who’ve you been with?”

“I’m not asking about me, and you still need to answer the question.”

The magic sinks its talons in, tightening my throat.

“Eight. Okay? I’ve been in eight ‘relationships’.” I air quote the word because my idea of a relationship really is a joke. None have lasted longer than six months.

I have commitment issues.

Des’s magic still has me in its grip.

“And some flings here and there in between,” I say, my face heating as I speak.

God, this is embarrassing, considering I’m telling this to the object of my teenage infatuation. And the longer I’m around him, the more I think he wasn’t strictly a teenage infatuation. No, the more he stares at me with those bedroom eyes of his, the more I feel the armor around my heart crumbling away, like it was made of nothing more than papier-mâché.

As  I talk, Des’s face hardens. I get a little thrill at the possibility that he’s actually upset at the idea of me being in a relationship.

“Did you love any of them?” he asks.

I tilt my head at him. “That’s none of your business,” I say, more confused than anything.

Au contraire, so long as you owe me, it is my business.”

“You’re really going to make me say this?” It’s a rhetorical question; I can feel the magic dragging my answer up my throat.

“No, I didn’t love any of them.” Finally the magic releases me. “Are you happy?”

“No, cherub,” he says, his expression flinty, “I’m not.”

I eye him up and down. This entire repayment has been a farce. A kiss, some furniture, and a couple confessions. That’s all he’s asked for so far.

I’ve seen this man single-handedly force a politician to change supernatural law as repayment. I’ve seen him drag secrets out of men who would rather die than confess.

I lean my elbows against the granite countertop. “Why have you come back into my life—and don’t tell me it’s just because you randomly decided I needed to pay my debts.”

He leans forward as well, our faces no more than a foot apart. “I didn’t randomly decide that, Callie. That was very, very deliberate.” He says this like the words themselves are weighty.

I search his face. “Why, Des?”

He hesitates, and I see the first crack in his façade, something that’s not angry or bitter or aloof. Something … vulnerable.

“I need your help,” he finally admits.

Des has made an empire on secrets and favors. Surely I can’t offer anything he can’t already get elsewhere?

“The infamous Bargainer needs my help?” I say this sarcastically, but I’m intrigued.

“There’s something happening in the Otherworld,” he explains, “something even my secrets can’t uncover.”

Otherworld. Just the mention of it raises my gooseflesh. It’s the realm of fairies and other creatures too cruel for Earth. All supernaturals know of it, and those with a lick of sense fear it.

“How can I possibly help?” I ask, as his fridge opens behind him. Already I’m dreading what he might say.

A bottle of sparkling cider floats out from the fridge. Just as the door closes behind it, a bottle of wine slides off the far countertop. A moment later, a cupboard opens and two wine glasses levitate out of it. All four items land in front of the Bargainer, who then begins to pour us drinks.

“I need you to get some information out of a few of my subjects.”

He slides a glass of sparkling cider across to me. I frown at it but take a tentative sip of it anyway.

“And you can’t?” I ask, my eyebrows rising.

He shakes his head, his eyes far away. “I can, to a point. Beyond that point … they die.”

“They die?”

Jesus. What is this man talking about?

“Like you, I can compel people. But there is one key difference between our two abilities.”

There was a whole lot more than one key difference between our abilities. Des didn’t happen to glow every time he used them, nor did he try to dry hump the object of his glamour like the siren in me did, that horny bitch.

“Your glamour doesn’t give your target the ability to refuse orders,” he continues. “You want them to talk—they talk. You want them to dance naked in the streets, they dance naked in the streets. There is no other option.”

He slides his wine glass back and forth between his hands. “With my power,” he says, “a person can choose not to be compelled—but it will kill them. So, if they wish, they can choose to die fully clothed rather than dance naked in the streets. Or they can choose to die silent rather than spill a secret.”

I’d never realized …

“But you get everyone to talk,” I say.

The Bargainer takes a long drink of his wine before he answers. “Most people want to live.”

I let that revelation sink in. “So your subjects are choosing death rather than sharing information?”

He nods, staring at his glass.

Yikes. I can’t imagine what secret would be worth dying for.

“There’s one thing wrong with your plan,” I say. “I can’t glamour fairies.”

His eyes rise to mine. “I’m not asking you to glamour fairies.”

That gives me pause. “Then what are you asking?”

His moonlit eyes are just as mysterious as they’ve always been. Making some sort of decision, he rounds the bar and, grabbing another barstool, pulls it up close.

“Things in the Otherworld are … amiss.” His voice is softer, like he needs to gently ease the words out. “My kingdom is restless—as are the others. There have been disappearances—many, many disappearances. Soldiers vanishing without a trace. Only the women have … returned. I need to find out what’s happened to them.”

“Why don’t the women just tell you themselves?” I ask.

“They can’t.” Des’s expression is agonized.

“They’re dead?”

He shakes his head. “Not quite. They are neither alive nor dead.”

I swirl my glass of sparkling cider. “I still don’t understand. What do you want me to do, Des?”

“The fae won’t talk to me.” He chooses his next words carefully. “But fae aren’t the only ones that live in the Otherworld.”

All at once I understand.

“The changelings,” I breathe. Humans snatched up by fairies and taken to the Otherworld. Most lived there as slaves.

“I need to protect my kingdom.”

I stiffen. It’s rare to get Des to talk about the other half of his life, the half where he’s not just some thuggish phantom in the night. The half where he is actually a king, one that rules over all those creatures that go bump in the night.

“So you want to take me into your world,” I say. “And you want me to glamour your slaves—”

“They’re not slaves,” he growls.

“Don’t play me for a fool, Des. Just because it’s all they’ve ever known doesn’t mean they’d choose that life if they could.”

“None of us get to choose our lives,” he says, and his eyes are a little too penetrating.

“You want me to force the truth out of the humans that live in your kingdom, even though it’s unethical, and it will probably get them worse than killed.”

“You’ve never cared about the ethics of glamour before,” he says.

“Because none of the people I’ve glamoured have been victims.” They’d all been criminals of one sort or another.

I continue. “Haven’t you ever considered that if the King of the Night, with all his tricks and promises, can’t get these people to talk, that we should leave them alone?”

“Callie,” Des says, leaning forward, “fairies are dying. Humans are dying. Something’s happening to the Otherworld, and it’s happening right under my nose.”

“What if I told you no, that I wouldn’t do this?” I say.

He studies me for several seconds, his jaw tightening. “I would make you do it, regardless.”

That’s what I thought. He’d prefer my permission, but he’d use my abilities either way.

“Then it’s no choice at all,” I say. “I’ll do it.”

And just like that, I’m back to working alongside the Bargainer.


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