Αρχική σελίδα Rhapsodic
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Helllll you need to read thiiissssss omfg. , Loved everything about it
04 June 2021 (19:57)
J'aimerais avoir la version française des livres.
14 June 2021 (19:50)
Table of Contents Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Glossary Prologue May, eight years ago There’s blood on my hands, blood between my toes, blood speckled in my hair. It’s splashed across my chest, and to my horror, I can taste a few droplets on my lips. There’s far too much of it staining the kitchen’s polished floors. No one can survive that much blood loss, not even the monster at my feet. My entire body shakes, adrenaline still pumping through my veins. I drop the broken bottle, the glass shattering as it hits the ground, and fall to my knees. Blood soaking into my jeans. I stare at my tormentor. His glassy eyes have lost their focus, and his skin its color. If I were a braver person, I would’ve placed my ear to his chest to just make sure that his cold, blackened heart had stilled. I can’t bear to touch him, even now. Even if he can no longer hurt me. He’s gone. He’s finally gone. A shuddering sob pushes its way out of me. For the first time in what seems like an eternity I can breathe. I sob again. God it feels good. This time tears follow. I’m not supposed to feel relief. I know that. I know people are supposed to mourn the loss of life. But I can’t. Not him, anyway. Maybe that makes me evil. All I know is that tonight, I actually faced my fear and I survived it. He’s dead. He can’t hurt me anymore. He’s dead. It takes only a few more seconds for that realization to hit me. Oh, God. He’s dead. My hands begin to shake. There’s a body and blood, so much blood. I’m drenched in it. It speckles my homework, and one; fat droplet obscures Lincoln’s face on my history textbook. A harsh shiver courses through my body. I stare down at my hands, feeling like Lady Macbeth. Out damned spot! I dash to the kitchen sink, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in my wake. Oh, God, I need to get his blood off of me now. I rinse my hands furiously. It stains my cuticles and embeds itself beneath my fingernails. I can’t get it out, but it doesn’t matter because I notice the red liquid coats my arms. So I scrub those. But then it’s on my shirt, and I can see it congealing in my hair. I whimper as I do so. It doesn’t matter. It’s not coming out. Fuck. I lean over the granite countertop and assess the pink mixture of blood and water that stains it, the floor, and the sink. Can’t hide from this. Reluctantly, my eyes slide to the body. An illogical part of me expects my stepfather to sit back up and attack me. When he doesn’t do just that, I begin to think again. What … do I do now? Call the police? The justice system protects kids. I’ll be okay, they’ll just call me in for questioning. But will they protect me? It’s not like I killed just anyone. I killed one of the wealthiest, most untouchable men alive. It doesn’t matter that it was self-defense. Even in death, men like him get away with the unthinkable all the time. And I’d have to talk about it—all of it. Nausea rolls through me. But I have no choice, I have to turn myself in—unless … The monster bleeding out in our kitchen knew a man who knew a man. Someone who could clean up a messy situation. I only had to sell a bit of my soul to speak to him. No cops, no questions, no foster care or jail. You know what? He can have whatever’s left of my soul. All I want is out. I dash to the junk drawer, my trembling hands having trouble opening it. Once I do, it’s short work grabbing the business card and reading over the peculiar contact information. There’s a single sentence written on it; all I have to do is recite it out loud. Fear washes through me. If I do this, there’s no going back. My gaze sweeps over the kitchen. It’s already too late to go back. I squeeze the card in my hand. Taking a deep breath, I do as the business card instructs. “‘Bargainer, I would like to make a deal.’” Chapter 1 Present A file folder drops to the desk in front of me. “You’ve got mail, bitch.” I lower my mug of steaming coffee from my mouth, my eyes flicking up from my laptop. Temperance “Temper” Darling—swear to God that’s her name—my business partner and best friend, stands on the other side of my desk, a coy smile on her face. Temper drops into the seat across from me. I kick my ankles off my desk, reaching across it to drag the file closer to me. She nods to the folder. “This one’s easy money, girl.” They’re all easy money, and she knows that. Her eyes drift around my cupboard-sized office, the twin of hers. “How much is the client offering?” I ask, propping my feet up once more on the edge of my desk. “Twenty grand for a single meeting with the target—and she already knows when and where you’re to intercept the target.” I whistle. Easy money indeed. “Rendezvous time with the target?” I ask. “Eight p.m. tonight at Flamencos. It’s a fancy-ass restaurant, FYI, so—” her gaze drops to my scuffed up boots, “you can’t wear that.” I roll my eyes. “Oh, and he’ll be there with friends.” And here I was looking forward to getting home relatively early. “Do you know what the client wants?” I ask. “The client believes her uncle, our target, is abusing his guardianship of his mother, her grandmother. The two are going to court over the issue; she wants to save some legal bills and get a confession straight from the horse’s mouth.” Already, a familiar exhilaration has my skin beginning to glow. This is the chance to potentially help an old lady out and punish the worst kind of criminal—one who preys on his own family. Temper notices my glowing skin, her gaze transfixed. She reaches out before she remembers herself. Not even she is immune to my glamour. She shakes her head. “Girl, you are a twisted motherfucker.” That is God’s honest truth. “Takes one to know one.” She snorts. “You can call me the Wicked Witch of the West.” But Temper’s not a witch. She’s something far more powerful. She checks her phone. “Shit,” she says, “I’d love to stay and chat, but my perp’s going to be at Luca’s Deli in less than an hour, and with L.A. lunch hour traffic … I really don’t want to be forced to part the 405 like the Red Sea. Shit like that looks suspicious.” She stands, shoving her phone to her pocket. “When’s Eli getting back?” Eli, the bounty hunter who sometimes works for us and sometimes works for the Politia, the supernatural police force. Eli, who’s also my boyfriend. “Sorry Temper, but he’ll be gone for another week.” I relax a little as I say the words. That’s wrong, right? To enjoy the fact that your boyfriend’s gone and you get time alone? It’s probably also wrong to find his affection stifling. I’m afraid of what it means, especially because we shouldn’t be dating in the first place. First rule in the book is to not get involved with colleagues. One evening of afterwork drinks six months ago, and I broke that rule like it’d never been there in the first place. And I broke it again, and again, and again until I found myself in a relationship I wasn’t sure I even wanted. “Ugh,” Temper says, her ’fro bouncing a little as she leans her head back, her eyes moving heavenward. “The bad guys always love to stir shit up when Eli’s gone.” She heads for my door, and with a parting look, she leaves my office. I stare at the file a moment, then I pick it up. The case isn’t anything special. There isn’t anything particularly cruel or difficult about it. Nothing to make me reach for the Johnnie Walker I keep in one of my desk drawers. I find I want to anyway, that my hand itches to pull the bottle of it out. Too many bad people in this world. My eyes flick to the onyx beads that coil around my left arm as I drum my fingers against the table. The beads seem to swallow the light rather than refract it. Too many bad people, and too many memories worth forgetting. The swanky restaurant I walk into at eight p.m. sharp is low lit, candles flickering dimly from each two-seater table. Flamencos is clearly a place rich people come to romance each other. I follow the waiter, my heels clicking softly against the hardwood floor as he leads me to a private room. Twenty grand. It’s a crap ton of money. But I’m not doing this for the payout. The truth is that I’m a connoisseur of addictions, and this is one of my favorite. The waiter opens the door to the private room, and I enter. Inside, a group of people chat amicably around a large table. Their voices quiet a little as soon as the door clicks shut behind me. I make no move towards the table. My eyes land on Micky Fugue, a balding man in his late forties. My target. My skin begins to glow as I let the siren in me surface. “Everybody out.” My voice is melodious, unearthly. Compelling. Almost as one, the guests stand, their eyes glazed. This is my beautiful, dreadful power. A siren’s power. To compel the willing—and unwilling—to do and believe whatever it is I wish. Glamour. It’s illegal. Not that I really give a damn. “The evening went great,” I tell them as they pass. “You’d all love to do this sometime in the future. Oh—and I was never here.” When Micky walks by me, I grab his upper arm. “Not you.” He stops, caught in the web of my voice, while the rest of the guests file out. His glazed eyes flicker for one moment, and in that instant, I see his confusion as his awareness fights my strange magic. Then it’s gone. “Let’s sit down.” I direct him back to his seat, then slide into the one next to him. “You can leave once we’re finished.” I’m still glowing, my power mounting with every passing second. My hands tremble just the slightest as I fight my other urges—sex and violence. Consider me a modern day Jekyll and Hyde. Most of the time I’m simply Callie the PI. But when I need to use my power, another side of me surfaces. The siren is the monster inside of me; she wants to take, and take, and take. To wreak havoc, to feast on her victims’ fear and lust. I’d be hard-pressed to admit it out loud, but controlling her is hard. I grab a piece of bread from one of the baskets at the center of the table, and I slide over a small plate one of the guests hasn’t touched. After I pour olive oil, then balsamic vinegar onto the plate, I dip the bread into it and take a bite. I eye the man next to me. That tailored suit he wears hides the paunch of his belly. On his wrist he wears a Rolex. The file said he was an accountant. I know they make decent money, especially here in LA, but they don’t make money this good. “Why don’t we get right to the point?” I say. As I talk, I set up my phone so that the camera records our exchange. For good measure I pull out a handheld tape recorder and turn it on. “I’m going to record this exchange. Please say yes out loud and give your consent to this interview.” Micky’s brows stitch together as he fights the glamour in my voice. It’s no use. “Yes,” he finally says between clenched teeth. This guy is no fool; he might not understand what’s happening to him, but he knows he’s about to get played. He knows he’s already getting played. As soon as he agrees, I begin. “Have you been embezzling money from your mother?” His senile, terminally ill mother. I really shouldn’t have read the file. I’m not supposed to get emotionally involved in cases, and yet when it comes to children and the elderly, I always seem to find myself getting angry. Tonight’s no exception. I take a bite of the bread, watching him. He opens his mouth— “From This moment until the end of our interview you will tell the truth,” I command, the words lilting off my tongue. He stops, and whatever he is about to say dies on his lips. I wait for him to continue, but he doesn’t. Now that he can’t lie, it’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to admit the truth. Mickey fights my glamour, though it’s useless. He’s starting to sweat, despite his placid features. I continue eating as though nothing was amiss. Color stains his cheeks. Finally, he chokes out, “Yes—how the fuck did you—” “Silence.” Immediately he stops speaking. This sicko. Stealing money from his dying mother. A sweet old lady who’s biggest failure was birthing this loser. “How long have you been doing this?” His eyes flicker with anger. “Two years,” he grits out against his will. He glares at me. I take my time eating the last of the bread. “Why did you do it?” I finally ask. “She wasn’t using it and I needed it. I’m going to give it back,” he says. “Oh, are you?” I raise my eyebrows. “And how much have you… borrowed?” I ask. Several silent seconds tick by. Mickey’s ruddy cheeks are turning a deeper and deeper shade of pink. Finally he says, “I don’t know.” I lean in close. “Give me your best guess.” “Maybe two hundred and twenty thousand.” Just hearing that number sends a slice of anger through me. “And when were you going to pay your mother back?” I ask. “N-now,” he stammers. And I’m the Queen of Sheba. “How much money do you have available in your accounts at the moment?” I ask. He reaches for his glass of water and takes a deep swallow before answering. “I-I like to invest.” “How much money?” “A little over twelve thousand.” Twelve thousand dollars. He’s emptied his mother’s coffers and here he is living like a king. But behind this façade, the man only has twelve thousand dollars at hand. And I bet that money will get liquidated soon as well. These types of men have butterfingers; money slips right through them. I give him a disappointed look. “That’s not the right answer. Now,” I say, the siren urging me to be cruel, “where is the money?” His sweaty upper lip twitches before he answers. “Gone.” I reach over and turn off the camera and the recorder. My client got the confession she wanted. Too bad for Mickey, I’m not done with him. “No,” I say, “it’s not.” Those few people who know me well enough would recognize my tone’s changed. Again his brows draw together as his confusion peeks through. I touch his lapel. “This suit is nice—really nice. And your watch—Rolexes aren’t cheap, are they?” The glamour makes him shake his head. “No,” I agree. “See, for men like you, money doesn’t just vanish. It goes towards… what did you call it?” I look around for the word before snapping my fingers. “Investments. I moves around a bit, but that’s all.” I lean in close. “We’re going to move it around a little more.” His eyes widen. Now I see Micky—not the puppet controlled by my magic, but the Micky he was before I walked into this room. Someone shrewd, someone weak. He’s fully aware of what’s happening. “Wh—who are you?” Oh, the fear in his eyes. The siren can’t resist that. I reach over and pet his cheek. “I-I’m going to—” “You’re going to sit back and listen, Micky,” I say, “and that’s all you’re going to do because right now, you—are—powerless.” Chapter 2 May, eight years ago The air wavers in my kitchen, like I’m staring at a mirage, then suddenly, he’s here, filling the room like he owns it. The Bargainer. Holy shit, it worked. All I can see of him is a good six feet of man and a whole lot of white blond hair tied together in a leather thong. The Bargainer’s back is to me. A whistle breaks the silence. “That is one dead man,” he says, staring at my handiwork. His heavy boots clink as he approaches the body. He wears black on black, his shirt stretched tight over his wide shoulders. My eyes drop to his left arm, which is covered in tattoos. Callie, what did you get yourself into? The toe of the Bargainer’s boot nudges the corpse. “Hmm, I stand corrected. Mostly dead.” That snaps me out of it. “What?” He can’t be alive. The fear that thrums through my veins is a living, breathing thing. “It will cost you probably more than you’re willing to offer, but I can still revive him.” Revive him? What is this dude smoking? “I don’t want him alive,” I say. The Bargainer turns, and for the first time ever I get a good look at him. I just stare and stare. I’d imagined a creep, but wicked though the man in front of me might be, he is no creep. Not even close. The Bargainer is gorgeous in a way that only a few rare men are. He’s not rugged, despite the strong jaw and hard gleam in his eyes. There’s a symmetry to his face, a lushness in each one of his features that you see more often in women than men. High, prominent cheekbones, wicked, curving lips, gleaming silver eyes. Not that he looks feminine. That’s impossible with his broad, muscular frame and shit-kicking attire. He’s simply a pretty man. A really pretty man. He sizes me up. “No.” I stare at him quizzically. “No what?” “I don’t do business with minors.” The air shimmers and, ohmygod, he’s leaving. “Wait—wait!” I reach out. Now it’s not just the air that shimmers. It’s my skin. It’s been doing that a lot lately—glowing softly. He pauses to stare at my arm. Something passes through those eyes of his, something wilder than shock, something more untamed than excitement. The room around him seems to darken, and at his back, I swear I catch sight of something large and sinuous. As quickly as the moment comes, it’s gone. His eyes narrow. “What are you?” My hand drops. “Please,” I beg. “I really need to make a deal.” The Bargainer sighs, sounding all sorts of put out. “Listen, I don’t make deals with minors. Go to the police.” Despite his tone, he’s still staring at my hand, now wearing a distant, troubled expression. “I can’t.” If only he knew. “Please, help me.” His gaze moves from my hand to my face. The Bargainer gnashes his teeth together, scowling like he smells something bad. Stares at me in all my bloody, disheveled glory. More teeth gnashing. His eyes sweep the room, lingering on my stepfather. What does he see? Can he tell it was an accident? My teeth begin to chatter. I hug my arms tightly to my chest. In spite of himself, his eyes return to me, his gaze briefly softening before it hardens all over again. “Who is he?” I swallow. “Who. Is. He?” the Bargainer repeats. “My stepfather,” I croak. He stares at me, his gaze unflinching. “Did he deserve it?” I release a shuddering breath, a tear slipping out in spite of myself. Wordlessly, I nod. The Bargainer scrutinizes me for a long time, his gaze moving to the tear sliding down my cheek. He glances away, grimacing. The man rubs a hand over his mouth, paces two steps away before turning back to me. “Fine,” he rasps. “I’ll help you at”—more teeth gnashing and another raking gaze which pauses on the tear on my cheek—“no cost.” He practically chokes on the words. “Just this once. Consider this my pro bono for the century.” I open my mouth to thank him, but he raises his hand, his eyes pinching shut. “Don’t.” When he opens his eyes, they pass over the room. I feel the magic pulse out of him. I know about this side of our world—the supernatural side. My stepfather built his empire on his magical ability. However, I’ve never seen this kind of magic in action—magic that can make things inexplicably occur. I gasp as the blood dissolves from the floor, and then the countertop, and then my clothes, and hair, and hands. The broken bottle follows. One moment it’s there, the next, it vanishes. Whatever enchantment this is, it tickles my skin as it passes through the room. Once he’s done with the crime scene, the Bargainer heads towards the body. He pauses when he gets there, peering curiously down at the dead man. Then he stills. “Is that who I think it is?” Now is probably not a good time to tell the Bargainer that I off’ed the Hugh Anders, the most powerful stock market analyst out there and the man who, for the right price, could tell you just about anything you wanted to know concerning the future. When a drug deal was going to go down, whether the threat on your life was harmless or real, if you were going to get caught for the death of an enemy. If he wasn’t the world’s best seer, he was at least one of the richest. Not that it saved him from death. Oh the irony. The Bargainer lets loose a string of curses. “Fucking cursed sirens,” he mutters. “Your bad luck’s rubbing off on me.” I flinch, well acquainted with sirens’ predisposition for misfortune. It’s what landed my mother an unwanted pregnancy and an early death. “Have any relatives?” he asks. I bite my lower lip and shake my head, hugging myself tighter. It’s just little old me, myself, and I in the world. He swears again. “How old are you?” “I’ll be sixteen in two weeks.” The birthday I’d been waiting years for. In the supernatural community, sixteen was the legal age of adulthood. But now that very fact could be used against me. Once I hit that magical number, I could be tried as an adult. I’d been two weeks away from freedom. Two weeks. And then this happened. “Finally,” he sighs, “some good news. Pack your bags. Tomorrow you’re moving to the Isle of Man.” I blink, my mind slow to catch up. “What? Wait—tomorrow?” I’d be moving? And so soon? My head spins at the thought. “Peel Academy has summer sessions starting in a couple weeks,” he says. Located on the Isle of Man, an island smack dab between Ireland and Great Britain, Peel Academy was the premiere supernatural boarding school. I’d been dreaming of going for so long. And now I would be. “You’re going to attend classes starting then, and you’re not going to tell anyone that you killed Hugh fucking Anders.” I flinch at that. “Unless,” he adds, “you’d prefer that I leave you here with this mess.” Oh God. “No—please stay!” Another long-suffering sigh. “I’ll deal with the body and the authorities. If anyone asks, he had a heart attack.” The Bargainer eyes me curiously before remembering that he’s annoyed with me. He snaps his fingers, and the body levitates. It takes several seconds to process the fact that a corpse is floating in my kitchen. The Bargainer looks unfazed. “There’s something you should know.” “Uh-huh?” My gaze is fixed on the floating body. So creepy. “Eyes on me,” the Bargainer snaps. My attention snaps to him. “There’s a chance my magic will wear off over time. I might be powerful, but that pretty little curse all you sirens have hanging over your heads might override even my magic.” Somehow he manages to come off as arrogant even as he’s telling me his powers might be inadequate. “What happens if that’s the case?” I ask. The Bargainer smirks. Huge asshole. I’ve already got him profiled. “Then you best start utilizing your womanly wiles, cherub,” he says, his eyes flicking over me. “You’ll be needing them.” With that parting line, the Bargainer disappears, along with the man I killed. Present Power. That is the heart of my addiction. Power. I was once crushed under the weight of it, and it almost swallowed me whole. But that was a long time ago. And now I’m the formidable force. The restaurant’s private room glows softly under the candlelight. I lean in close to Micky. “So this is what’s going to happen. You are going to return that money you embezzled back to your mother.” His previously vacant eyes focus on me. If looks could kill … “Fuck. You.” I smile, and I know I look predatory. “Listen closely, because this is the only warning I’m going to give you: I know you have no idea what I am. But I assure you, I can ruin your life, and I’m just enough of an asshole to consider it. So unless you want to lose everything you care about, you are going to be respectful.” Regular mortals know that supernaturals exist, but we tend to separate ourselves from the non-magically gifted, simple reason being that fun shit like witch hunts tend to pop up when mortals get too intimidated by us supernaturals. I reach for my purse. “Now, because you can’t be a good son on your own, I’m going to help you,” I say conversationally. I pull out a pen and a series of documents my client gave me out of my bag. Shoving Micky’s plate out of the way, I lay it out in front of him. One is a written confession of guilt, and the other is a promissory note, both documents drafted by my client’s lawyer. “You’re going to repay every penny you stole—with ten percent interest.” Micky makes a small noise. “Was that fifteen percent interest I heard?” He shakes his head furiously. “That’s what I thought. Now, I’ll give you ten minutes to flip through the document, and then you’re going to sign it.” I spend those ten minutes sampling the wine and food that Micky’s guests left behind, kicking my heels up because, ugh, stilettos. When the time’s up, I collect the documents from Micky. As I flip through them, I peek over at the man himself. His face is now coated with an unhealthy sheen of sweat and I bet if he removed his dinner jacket, I’d see huge rings of it beneath his armpits. I finish flipping through the document. Once I’m done, I slide them back in my purse. “We’re almost done here.” “Al-most?” He says the word like he’s never heard of it. “You didn’t think I’d leave you to just a few paltry signatures did you?” I shake my head, and now my skin is doing more to illuminate the room than the low lighting is. The siren in me loves this. Toying with her victim. “Oh, Micky, no no no.” And this is where I stop toying with Micky and go in for the kill. I lean forward, putting as much power into my voice as I can manage. “You are going to right your wrongs. You’re never going to do this ever again, and you are going to spend the rest of your life working to be a better person and earn your mother’s forgiveness.” He nods his head. I grab my purse. “Be a good son. If I hear you haven’t been—if I hear anything at all that reflects poorly on you—you’ll be seeing me again, and you don’t want that.” He shakes his head, his expression vacant. I stand. My work here is done. A single command is all it takes. Forget I exist. Poof, your memory scrubs away my existence. Look away. Your eyes move everywhere but me. Tell me your darkest secret. Your mouth and mind betray you. Give me your riches. You’ll clean out our bank account in an instant. Drown. Drown. Drown. Drown. You die. That was someone’s favorite back when the world was young, back when sirens got their reputation for coaxing sailors to their deaths. Drown. Sometimes, when I’m left alone to my own thoughts—which is fairly often—I wonder about those women, the ones who hung out on the rocks calling out to sailors and coaxing them to their deaths. Did it really happen that way? Did they want them to die? Why did they prey on those particular men? The myths never say. I wonder if any of them were like me—whether their beauty made them victims long before it gave them power. Whether some sailor somewhere abused those women before they had a voice at all. Whether they grew angry and jaded like me and used their power to punish the guilty as payback. I wonder how much of the tale is true, and how many of their victims were innocent. I prey on bad men. This is my vendetta. My addiction. I climb the staircase to my Malibu beach house, my feet sore from the hours spent standing in heels. In front of me, the slate grey paint of my house peels away from the wooden slats. Bright green mold grows along the roof’s shingles. This is my perfectly imperfect home. I step inside, and in here, the air smells like the ocean. My home is simple. It has three bedrooms, the tile countertops are chipped, and if you walk through it barefoot, you’ll get sand between your toes. The living room and bedroom face the ocean, and the entire back wall in both rooms is nothing more than giant sliding glass doors that can open completely onto the backyard. Beyond my small backyard, the world drops away. A wooden staircase winds its way down the coastal cliff my house is perched on, and at the bottom of it the icy Pacific Ocean kisses the sandy California shore—and your feet, if you let it. This place is my sanctuary. I knew it the moment the real estate agent showed it to me two years ago. I walk through my house in the dark, not bothering to flip on the lights as I strip my clothes off piece by piece. I leave them where they fall. Tomorrow I’ll pick them up, but tonight I have a date with the sea, and then my bed. Through my living room windows the moon shines brightly, and my heart is filled with such unending longing. I’ve secretly been glad that Eli has to keep away from me until the full moon passes. As a lycanthrope, he has to stay away from me during the Sacred Seven, the week surrounding the full moon when he can’t control his shift from man to wolf. I have my own reasons for wanting to be alone around this time, reasons that have nothing to do with Eli and everything to do with my past. I step out of my jeans as I enter my bedroom to grab my swimsuit. Just as I reach back to unclasp my bra, a shadow darker than the rest moves. I stifle the shriek bubbling up in my throat. My hand gropes against the wall next to me until I find the light switch. I flip on the bedroom lights. In front of me, lounging on my bed, is the Bargainer. 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.” Chapter 4 October, eight years ago “Not you again,” the Bargainer says when he manifests in my dorm room. I stumble back at the sight of him. This is the second time I’ve called on him, and I shouldn’t still be surprised that he can just appear at will, but I am. I straighten. “Your magic is failing.” It’s supposed to sound like an accusation, but it comes out like a plea. He eyes my cramped quarters. “I warned you it might,” he says, moving over to the window and glancing out at the rainy night. I’ve already lost his attention. “I want to ensure that it doesn’t.” The Bargainer turns and assesses me. “So Baby Siren wants to make another deal?” he says, crossing his arms. “I didn’t manage to spook you enough the first time?” My eyes move over his white hair and large, sculpted arms. He spooked me all right. There’s something about him that looks a little feral. Feral and strange. But desperate times call for desperate measures. “What would you be willing to give me?” he says, prowling towards me. “What dark and terrible secrets would you share?” he asks, moving in close. “You’ve heard that secrets are my favorite, haven’t you?” I want to back up, but a primal sort of fear roots me in place. His eyes rove over me. “But for a siren … oh, I would make an exception. Anything I want, you would have to give to me. Tell me, cherub, could you give me anything I wanted?” I swallow as he steps in close. “Could you kill for me?” He asks, his voice low. His lips brush my ear. “Could you give your body to me?” Oh God, is he telling the truth? Could he really make me do those things? He runs his nose down my cheek and laughs at my obvious fear. Stepping away from me, he says, “Like I told you before, I don’t bargain with minors. Don’t ruin your life owing me.” The air shimmers. He might’ve scared the shit out of me, but at this point, I’m too far gone. I can’t let him leave. It’s as simple as that. The siren surfaces, stretching out just beneath my skin. I lunge for him and catch his wrist, my hand glowing. “Make a deal with me,” I say, putting as much glamour into my voice as possible. “I’m not a minor.” I’m really not. In the supernatural community, the legal age of adulthood is sixteen. It’s some archaic law that no one’s ever bothered changing. And right now, I am not complaining. The Bargainer stares down my hand, like he can’t believe what’s happening, and I feel an instant’s worth of remorse. It’s crappy to take away someone’s free will. Desperate times. His features sharpen, his brows knitting, the rest of his face turning, in one word, sinister. He rips his arm out of my hand. “You dare to glamour me?” His power rides his voice, and it’s petrifying, filling the whole room. I step back. Okay, glamouring him might’ve been a shit idea. “It doesn’t work on you?” What kind of supernatural is immune to glamour? The Bargainer eases closer to me, his boots clinking ominously. He’s furious, that much is obvious. He leans in, so close that several strands of his white blond hair tickle my cheeks. “You want to piss your life away by making a deal?” His mouth curves up ever so slightly, his eyes sparking with interest. “Fine, let’s make a deal.” Present “I have to say, sleep does not become you.” I roll over in bed and rub my eyes. When I pull my hand away, I see the Bargainer standing off to the side of the bed, his arms folded and his head cocked. He’s studying me like I’m an exotic bird, which technically, I sort of am. “What are you doing here?” I ask, still groggy from sleep. “In case you’ve missed it, the day is done. I’m here to collect more of my payment.” The way he says payment sends shivers up my arms. Behind him, the moon shines brightly into the room. I groan. I slept the entire day away. Ever since that phone call … He snaps his fingers and the blankets that cover me slide off. “Des, what are you—?” He tsks, interrupting me. “Your pajamas don’t become you either, cherub. I was hoping those would improve with age as well.” I stifle a yawn and push myself off the bed. “Because I care what you think,” I mumble, padding past him. Where yesterday his presence filled me with old pain, tonight all I feel is annoyance. Well, and a little lust, and a shit-ton of heartache. But right now I’m focusing on annoyance. I make my way to the bathroom, discreetly wiping away a bit of drool from my mouth. The Bargainer follows me, enjoying just how much he’s ruining my evening. “Oh, but I think you do,” he says. In response I slam my door shut in his face. Probably not the wisest way to deal with the King of the Night, but right now I don’t really care too much. I take two steps away from the bathroom door, and it blasts open behind me. I spin around and stare at the Bargainer, his body filling up the space. My door hangs off its hinges at a funny angle. “I wasn’t finished,” he says calmly. His eyes glint as they watch me; he’s beautiful and terrible to behold. “You owe me a new door,” I respond. He chuckles, and it’s full of dark promise. “Why don’t we work on paying off your current debts before you talk about what I owe you?” I glare at him, because he has me. “What was so important that you had to blow off my door to tell me?” I ask, folding my arms across my chest. A watch forms over his tatted wrist and he taps the face of it. “Time, Callie, time. I have some important appointments to keep. You need to be ready in twenty minutes.” “Fine.” I walk over to my shower and turn on the facet. This would have to be a fast shower. When I turn back around, the Bargainer has made himself comfortable on my bathroom’s tile countertop. He leans against the wall next to the mirror, one of his leather-clad legs stretched out in front of him, his other leg bent at the knee. “Get out,” I say. He gives me a lazy smile. “No.” “I’m not kidding.” One of his eyebrows quirks up. “Nor am I.” I run a hand through my hair. “I’m not getting naked in front of you.” “That’s fine with me,” he says. “Shower with your clothes on.” Oh, because that’s reasonable. “If you’re not going to leave the room, then I’ll go somewhere else.” “The faucet in your guest bathroom doesn’t work,” he says, calling my bluff. My eyes widen before I remember that it’s his business to know secrets. He’s not leaving. “Fine,” I say, taking off my T-shirt. “Enjoy the peep show—that’s all you’ll be getting from me.” His laughter skitters up my arm. “Don’t delude yourself, cherub. You have a wrist full of debt and I have many, many demands.” I flash him another nasty look as I step into the shower to remove the rest of my clothing, uncaring that the water is quickly drenching the material. The shower curtain completely hides me from him. I step out of my pajama bottoms, making sure that when I toss them over the curtain rod I aim right for Des’s perch. He chuckles sinisterly, and I know without looking, he stopped the clothing from hitting him. “Throwing things isn’t going to change your fate, Callie.” But it does feel damn good. I chuck my sports bra, then my panties at him. Several seconds after I throw them, I hear them fall uselessly to the ground with a dull plop. “Seems your pajamas are no better wet than they are dry. Shame.” “Seems you still think I care,” I fire back. He doesn’t respond, and the bathroom quickly falls to silence. This isn’t immensely awkward or anything, I think as I begin to rinse off. “Why are you here, Des?” “You already know why,” he says. To collect. “I mean, why now? It’s been seven years.” Seven years of radio silence. And to think this man and I were once nearly inseparable … “You counted our years apart?” Des says with mock surprise. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you missed me.” A faint trace of bitterness laces his words. I turn off the water, snaking an arm around the curtain to grab a towel. “But you do know better.” I wrap the towel around me and step out. “Sticks and stones, cherub,” he says, hopping off the counter. “Now, chop chop. We’ve got people to see, places to go.” And with that, he leaves the room. I’m just stepping into my pants, my shitty lingerie on full display, when the Bargainer glances at his watch. Ever since he left my bathroom, he’s been lounging on a side chair in my bedroom, waiting for me to finish getting ready. One leather-clad leg jiggles as he waits. I can’t help but feel that he’s making sure I don’t try to run. As if, of the two of us, I’m the one known for running. “Time’s up, Callie.” He pushes himself out of my chair and strides towards me. There’s something predatory about the way he moves. “Wait—” I back up and bump into my dresser. My hair is still dripping wet, and my feet are bare. “No,” he says just as he closes in on me. I manage to open my dresser drawer and snatch a pair of socks from it before he scoops me up into his arms. He used to hold me like this before he left. He’d press me close against him and rock me in his arms as I cried my heart out. And when I fell asleep, he’d lay next to me for hours, just so he could wake me from my nightmares. But he’d never kissed me then—he’d never even tried to. Not until that last night, and then, that had still been all me. “Is this really necessary?” I ask, referring to where I lay in his arms. I push down a shudder. His body still feels like home, just as it did when I was a teenager, and I hate that. I’ve never been free of him. When the sun hits my face, it’s his shadow I see on the pavement. When the night closes in on me, it’s his darkness that blankets my room. When I fall asleep, it’s his face that haunts my dreams. He’s everywhere and in everything, and no number of lovers can make my heart forget. Des glances down at me, his silver eyes softening just a smidge. Perhaps he’s also remembering all the other times his skin pressed against mine. “Yes,” is all he says. Awkwardly I pull one sock over my foot. The other sock slips from my grasp, and I curse as it falls. A moment later the sock flutters up next to us and lands on my stomach. “Can you grab my shoes?” I ask. The Bargainer’s eyes move to the boots resting next to the sliding glass door of my bedroom. As I watch, they lift off the ground and float towards me. I catch them in midair. “Thanks,” I say, giving him a genuine smile. I’ve watched him do this little parlor trick a hundred times, and I’m always enchanted by it. For just a split-second, his steps falter. He frowns as he looks down at me, his brows pinching together. And then he resumes walking again. The sliding glass door unlocks and glides open. Cool night air hits me as the Bargainer steps outside. “Truth, or dare?” he says just as I finish putting my boots on. My limbs lock up. Repayment is beginning. Earlier today I had been ready for it, but now I’m not. He still hasn’t answered why, after all this time, he chose this moment to come back into my life. Or why he left it in the first place. But I know better than to expect an explanation. Getting secrets out of him is harder than bathing a cat. “Truth.” “Did you say dare?” he asks, raising his eyebrows as he looks down at me. His hair isn’t tied back today, and the white strands of it frame his face. “You sirens always do know how to spice things up.” I don’t bother responding. The Bargainer is crooked through and through, so his words don’t surprise me in the least. But what he does next does. The air behind him shimmers and coalesces until a set of folded wings appear, rising above his shoulder blades. My breath catches in my throat. All my animosity, all my hurt, all my pain—it all quiets as I stare at those wings. Dark, silvery skin stretches over bone, so thin in certain areas that I can see the delicate veins beneath. His wings are tipped with bone-white talons, the biggest of them nearly the size of my hand. I’ve only ever seen Desmond’s wings once before, and then it was because he lost control of his magic. This doesn’t seem spontaneous; this seems deliberate. I can’t imagine why now of all times he’s decided to unveil them, and to me of all people. I reach over his shoulder and run my fingers across the smooth skin of one. His arms tense around me, and I can feel his breathing still. “They’re beautiful,” I say. I’d meant to tell him this a long time ago; I just never got the chance. The Bargainer’s eyes travel down my face to my lips. He stares at them for a beat. “I’m glad you like them. You’re going to be staring at them quite a bit tonight.” Chapter 5 October, eight years ago I twist my bracelet round and round my wrist, anxiously playing with the single black bead strung along it, an IOU that I owe the Bargainer for getting the authorities off my back. Ahead of me, the man himself appears for the second time in my dorm room. He’s clad from head to toe in black, the vintage AC/DC T-shirt he wears hugging his sculpted shoulders and broad back. As soon as he sees me, he folds his arms over his chest. “My magic is still holding strong,” he says, “so what else could you possibly need from me?” I twist the bracelet around my wrist again, my heart thumping like mad at the sight of him. “I want to make another deal.” He narrows his eyes at me. I wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t. Time to soldier on. “I, uh …” He raises an eyebrow. Just spit it out, Callie. “… want to buy you for a night.” Oh. My. Sweet. Lord. Fuck you, mouth. Fuck you to the fiery pits of hell. All expression wipes clean from the Bargainer’s face. “I’m sorry, what?” My cheeks and neck flush. I’m going to die of embarrassment. Scratch that, I wish I could die of embarrassment. Better than just standing here, my mouth opening and closing like a gaping fish. The Bargainer begins to smirk, and somehow that makes this all even worse. Should never have done this. “I just want to hang out with you,” I rush in to say. “It would be completely platonic.” Ugh, and now I sound desperate. But who am I kidding? I am desperate, desperate for companionship. When I came to Peel Academy, I thought I’d fit in and make friends, but it hasn’t yet happened. And I’m so lonely. “That’s too bad, cherub,” he says, beginning to poke around my room. “I was liking your offer better when it wasn’t platonic.” I swear my cheeks burn even hotter, my eyes suddenly drawn to the Bargainer’s built torso. His gaze slides to mine, and now his smirk widens, his eyes glinting mischievously. He knows exactly where my mind is. “It would just be for an evening,” I say, watching him as he idly picks up a perfume bottle from the top of my dresser and sniffs it. He winces at the smell, hastily putting it back where he found it. “I have work,” he says. And yet, he doesn’t leave. He’s willing to be convinced. But how to convince him? The last time I glamoured him, it only served to piss him off. I don’t think logic would sway him, and besides, there’s no logic to this. If anything, me wanting to hang out with him for an evening is madness. The first time I had convinced him to help me, what had I done? My eyes widen when I remember. “Bargainer,” I say, heading over to where he stands eyeing my Keep Calm and Read On poster. When I’m close enough, I reach out and touch his forearm, my stomach tightening at the contact. “Please?” I swear I feel his body shiver under my hand. He looks down at where our skin meets, my hand covering some of his tattoos. The first time I had convinced him, it hadn’t been my words so much as my touch. When his silver eyes find mine again, I swear something devious sparkles in them. “You’re pushing your luck, baby siren.” His fingers brush over my knuckles. “One night,” he says. I nod. “Just one night.” Present Near the edge of my property the Bargainer stops walking, but he doesn’t put me down. Far below us lies the ocean, and nothing but a forty-foot drop separates here from there. His wings stretch out behind him, and I suck in a breath at the sight. His wingspan is incredible—nearly twenty feet across—and except for their silver hue, they look a lot like bat wings. I meet his eyes; I know what he’s about to do. “Des, no—” He flashes me a wicked smile. “Hold on tight, Callie.” I bite my lip to stifle my scream as he jumps from the cliff. For a second we drop, and my stomach somersaults. Then Bargainer’s wings catch the wind, and the air current pulls us up. I wrap my hands around his neck and bury my face against his chest. All that’s keeping me from plunging to my death are two sets of arms. My wet hair whips about my face, the strands now icy cold as we rise in elevation. “You’re missing the view, cherub,” he says over the howl of wind. “I’m trying not to barf,” I say, not sure he can even hear me. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights—I mean, my house rests on a cliff—but being carried through the air by a fairy is not on my short list of fun activities. But eventually I do lift my head and look down. The water glitters far below us, and ahead of us, the rest of Los Angeles beckons, the land lit up like a Christmas tree. The higher we rise, the colder it gets. I shiver against Des, and his grip tightens. He adjusts me slightly so that more of my body is pressed against his. Just as I feared, being this close to him is reminding me of all those other times he held me close. “Where are we going?” I yell over the wind. “ … location of your second dare.” The constant shriek of the wind snatches away most of the Bargainer’s words, but not the important ones. I sort of wish it had. I can’t imagine what’s in store for me, and considering my sordid past, that’s not a good thing. Not at all. “You have got to be kidding me.” I fold my arms, taking in the parking lot we landed in and the building beyond it. “This is what you blew off my door for?” I say, my eyes moving over the couches and tables on display in the store’s windows. “A furniture store?” His mouth twitches. “I’m redesigning my guest bedroom—or rather, you are.” I roll my eyes. Picking out furniture, that’s my dare. “The place closes in fifteen minutes,” the Bargainer says. “I expect you to choose and purchase the appropriate furnishings for a bedroom before then.” As soon as he finishes speaking, I feel the cloak of his magic settle on my shoulders like a weight, compelling me to action. I begin moving, grumbling to myself. Of all the dumb, inane tasks, he gives me this one. This is what the Internet is for. I shouldn’t complain, it could be worse. It should be worse. I’ve seen enough of Des’s bargains to know what repayment involves. It’s never this effortless. The Bargainer falls into step beside me, his wings shimmering out of existence. It’s all I can do not to look at him. The man is nothing but a will-o’-wisp, the closer I think I get to him, the farther out of reach he seems. I pull open the door and head inside the store. Spread out before me is a sea of furniture. Fifteen minutes is not nearly enough time to see even half of what’s in here. Desmond’s magic coils around my stomach, the sensation foreign and uncomfortable. “What furniture do you want?” I ask, even as the spell Des has put on me tugs me forward. The Bargainer shoves his hands in his pockets, wandering over to a table and peering at the place settings. He looks comically out of place with his big, manly muscles and the faded Iron Maiden shirt he wears. “That, cherub, is for you to decide.” Fuck it, I don’t have time to worry about this man’s tastes. No sooner does the thought cross my mind, than I feel an insistent tug from the magic, making my insides squirm. Des flashes me a wicked smile from where he lays sprawled out on one of the couches, and I realize I should be more worried about this task than him. This favor is a far cry from the kiss last night. Then I didn’t feel the magic. But perhaps I only feel the pull when I resist it. The thought makes me disgusted with myself. Last night I should’ve fought against that kiss more. I move down the aisles, going for the ugliest pieces of furniture I can find. My little act of rebellion. This is what happens when you don’t give good instructions. I dart a quick glance at the Bargainer, and he watches me raptly. He definitely has something else up his sleeve. Don’t focus on that now. As fast as I can manage, I snatch up the price tags on the pieces I decide on and head to the cash register. The magic is an insistent drumbeat in my veins, quickening by the minute. The entire time the Bargainer’s eyes are still on me. I know he’s enjoying himself. Bastard. God, his magic feels so invasive. Like an itch beneath my skin. And while a small, sick part of me thrills at the feel of his magic on me and in me, the bigger, more practical part finds it disturbing as hell. The woman working at the register looks alarmed when I dump the price tags at her register. “Ma’am, you’re not supposed to remove the tags from the furniture.” My skin glows lightly. “It’s fine—nothing to worry about,” I say, using the siren in me to compel the store clerk. She nods her head dumbly and begins scanning the barcodes. Behind me I hear the Bargainer’s rumbly laughter. “Hmmm.” The woman at the register stares at her computer and her brows furrow. “That’s weird.” “What?” I say, just knowing this is going to be more difficult than I’d hoped. “I could’ve sworn we’d just got a new shipment of these on Thursday, but it says we’re all sold out.” The item she’s referring to is a hot pink, leopard print chair. She sets the price tag aside. “Let me ring up the rest of your items and then I’ll try checking the storeroom for this one.” “Forget about it.” The magic’s starting to breathe down my neck. I doubt I’ll have time for the clerk to check the storeroom. She gives me a strange look before her eyes move to the clock mounted to the wall my left. I know she must be thinking how close her shift is to being over. “If you’re sure…” “I am,” I rush to say. I grabbed enough price tags to still fully furnish the Bargainer’s room. She scans the next barcode—for a couch upholstered in a repeating pattern of roses and sickly sweet bows—and the same issue comes up. My eyes thin, and I glance back at the Bargainer. He holds up his wrist and taps the face of the watch. The magic constricts around my innards, and before I can help it, I fold in on myself. The magic’s becoming more than unpleasant. I hold up a shaky hand and flip him the bird before returning my attention back to the woman. Every other item she rings up runs into the same mysterious problem. A problem I know better as Desmond Flynn. The magic is making my heart race, and it’s getting worse with each passing second. It’s clear that in addition to the store closing, the Bargainer has imposed a time limit of his own. This stupid task. I lean over the counter and swallow. “What in your system is currently available for purchase?” The cashier types something into her computer. Her brows furrow. “At the moment, it looks like we only have a four poster bed, a wrought iron chandelier, a loveseat, and a gilded mirror.” She sounds hopelessly confused. “I’ll take one of each,” I say, shoving my credit card at her, my hand beginning to shake. Sweat beads along my forehead. I would not be killed by some ugly furniture. Startled, she takes it. “But ma’am …” “Please,” I practically beg. The magic is starting to seize up my lungs. Again, I feel the Bargainer’s laughter at my back. The cashier looks at me like I’ve lost it. Then her head tilts. “Hey, are you that actress … you know from—” “For the love of all that is sacred, please ring me up!” The magic is twisting its way around my innards; I’m going to pass out if I don’t complete this soon. She flinches as though I slapped her. If I wasn’t in physical pain, I’d feel bad for hurting her feelings. But all I can think of right now is how the magic seems to be doubling on itself. She sniffs and shakes her head but does as I ask. An agonizing minute passes where she goes over delivery methods and shipping times, but then she swipes the card through the system. I sigh as the magic releases me and I collapse against the counter. I glance down at my wrist in time to see two beads vanish. I’m going to kill him. “Ran into trouble?” the Bargainer asks innocently, standing up from the couch. I stride past him and out of the store. Out in the dark parking lot, he materializes in front of me, arms folded. Naturally, no one notices that he can appear and disappear at will. As I try to pass him, his arm shoots out and catches my wrist. I twist to face him. “Two?” I practically yell. “You make me redecorate your stupid bedroom in under twenty minutes, I nearly die, and that only eliminates two beads?” I shouldn’t be this upset. He hasn’t yet asked anything truly awful of me, but the feeling of magical fingers squeezing my organs has almost undone me. The Bargainer steps into my personal space. “Didn’t like that task too much?” he asks, his voice low. His eyes glint in the moonlight. I’m smart enough to keep quiet. He looks especially predatory right now, and when he’s like this, I know better than to provoke him. He steps in even closer. “I had more tasks like this one planned, but if you really hated it, then perhaps we can do something that’s a bit more … comfortable.” The moment the words are out of his mouth, I realize I just messed up big time. I played right into his hands. The Bargainer wraps his arms around me, his gaze lingering on my lips. Eli was right. The bastard has something else in mind for me. But just when I think he’s going to kiss me, his wings unfurl. And then we’re rising, heading back into the night. Twenty minutes later, the Bargainer lands gracefully in my backyard, holding me in his arms. His enormous silver wings fold up as soon as we touch ground, and a moment later they shimmer out of existence. Wordlessly, the Bargainer carries me to my sliding glass door. Without prompting, it slides open, and he steps inside. It shuts behind us, and the Bargainer places me on my bed and crouches before me. His eyes never leave mine as his hands move to my ankles. I’m beginning to get nervous. Just what else is he going to demand of me tonight? The man’s never even seen me naked. Besides, I know the Bargainer wouldn’t make me pay him back in sex unless I was already on board with the idea. And I’m not. Right? Des removes first one boot, then the other. He tosses them aside and peels off my socks one at a time. “Tell me, Callie,” he says, his gaze sliding to me, “are you nervous?” He’s not exacting repayment right now, I don’t need to answer him. But I find myself reluctantly nodding anyway. “So you have not forgotten everything about me,” he says. “Good.” He clutches one of my feet in his hands, and he places a tender kiss on my ankle. “Truth or dare?” My breath catches. “Truth.” His grip on my ankle tightens. “Why do you think I left you all those years ago?” he asks. He had to go straight for the killing blow. My heart feels like it’s at the back of my throat, and I swallow down my emotion. I draw in a ragged breath. The past can’t hurt me anymore. None of it. It only exists in my memory. “Des, what does it matter?” His magic flares up in my throat, though it’s not painful like it was before. Just a reminder that I have to answer his question. He waits, letting his rising magic speak for him. My fingers pluck at a loose thread of my comforter. “I forced your hand.” I lift my gaze. “I pushed you too far and made you leave.” I feel the spell release me as soon as the words are out of my throat. The past might not be able to hurt me, but it sure feels like a living, breathing thing. Amazing that something and someone who entered and exited my life close to a decade ago can still have this kind of hold on me. The Bargainer’s eyes search mine, the silver of them glinting in the moonlight. I can’t read his expression, but it makes my stomach clench uncomfortably. He nods once and stands. The man is almost to the balcony door before I realize he’s leaving. That thought sends a stab of pain through me. I am so damn fed up with my stupid heart. If I could, I’d break it myself simply for being foolish enough to soften for this man when my mind wants to push him as far away as possible. “Really, Des?” I call out. “Running again?” His eyes flash as he swivels to face me, one hand on my sliding-glass door. “You’re righter than you know, cherub. You did force me to leave you. Seven years is a long time to wait, especially for someone like me. A word of caution: I’m not leaving again.” 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.” 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,