by Carolyn Jewel
11:40 AM. Lobby of 101 California Street, San Francisco, California
He was here. Telos Khūnbish had come. Relief nearly demolished her, it hit so powerfully. He was here, and now, improbably, she believed everything was going to be all right. Her life was irrevocably screwed, but she believed. She ignored the noise of the lobby and the man standing beside her. He was irrelevant. What a damn sad commentary it was that after nearly ten years in the city, Khūnbish was the closest thing she had to a friend. Maybe even a real friend, because he was here, and she believed she’d get through this.
Her heart kicked up a notch when she got a clear view of his black BMW turning onto Front Street. Now, of course, she wondered if she’d made a mistake involving him. She didn’t make a habit of asking for help. She wasn’t good with people. She wasn’t even sure she’d asked right. Seems she had.
The BMW was definitely looking to park. Good thing. In less than ten minutes the lunchtime rush would start, and she’d be in real trouble. Even now there were too many people around.
“My ride’s here,” she said to Jack, the man standing beside her. She didn’t make eye contact because that would be dangerous. Instead she stared at his tie, but that turned out to be a mistake. The dark red silk looked like blood streaming down his chest. She focused on the shiny marble floor and the tips of his Oxfords. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Let me carry your things.” Jack reached for the moving box that contained the personal contents from her office. He knew Michael, and that meant she couldn’t trust him. Simple fact. She couldn’t trust anyone who knew Michael Ford.
“No.” She gripped the box tighter and looked at the street again, as if Khūnbish could help her from afar. The BMW was waiting for a van to pull away from the curb. Khūnbish had never met Michael. That was part of the reason she’d called him. That, and she didn’t know anyone else.
“Lys.” Jack was thirty-ish, good looking, and in line to make partner in the next two years. He did good suit. He was a competent lawyer and a decent litigator.
She faked a smile and looked at Jack without directly meeting his eyes. Over the years she’d gotten good at faking contact normal people never thought twice about. She lifted the box an inch. “Hardly weighs a thing.”
Jack smoothed a hand down the river of blood that was his tie. She held her breath, half expecting his palm to come away smeared red. He reached for her moving box, and she jumped back, heart slamming against her chest. Either Jack didn’t get it, or he was in league with Michael and meant her harm. He kept moving toward her.
“Don’t.” The word came out sharp and loud. The security guard at the lobby reception area looked over. She was close to losing it. Way too close. Blocking shouldn’t be this hard for her, but the last several days had been…difficult. Not enough sleep. Not enough to eat. Too much caffeine. Far too much stress.
“Lys. Come on.” His tie vibrated at the edges of her vision. Blood red. A river of red. He reached for the box again. “I’m only trying to help out.”
She risked a look at his face. His smile was hesitant, a little irritated, but that would be normal if he really just wanted to help. Just a regular person trying to be nice. Part of her didn’t believe it. He knew Michael, and Michael had tried to kill her. “Don’t touch me.”
Jack lifted his hands palm out and backed off. She regained a bit of her calm. It didn’t last long. The minute she relaxed, he moved into her personal space again. She made the mistake of assuming he meant to take the box. She swung her torso to one side, and by the time she realized he meant to touch her, she couldn’t avoid the contact. His hand landed on her shoulder, and her control shattered into a million pieces.
Her immediate surroundings blinked out. She dropped the cardboard box, but maybe she didn’t because she didn’t hear it fall. From experience she knew not to move. Her sense of where she was in space disappeared along with her vision. The bitter taste of iron coated her mouth and oozed down the back of her throat to burn in her stomach.
He ignores the first symptoms; the sense of something off, the clammy sweat, the pinch in the left side of his rib cage. Pain crushes his chest, and he can’t get enough air. His knees give out, and he falls to the concrete.
By sheer dint of being terrified about what would happen if she went into free fall, she got her blocks back in place.
The normal world boomeranged back.
Sound, sight, scent, all of it crashed around her. Fire streaked along the left side of her face from just behind her eye through to the back of her head. She was present in normal time, out of free fall, except dozens of lives continued to thrum in her head, out of rhythm and out of control. The blowback would pass eventually, but in the meantime she was fucked up every which way. So was Jack.
Her surroundings came into focus, first in a grainy monochrome, then with increasing detail. Her spatial awareness returned with her depth perception. There were more people in the lobby than before. Too many. The noise shredded her nerves, and her head hurt like a mother. She remained on her feet. That was good. Her hands were empty, though, and that was bad. She didn’t see Jack anywhere, and that was really bad.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
It took her a minute to locate where his voice was coming from. Jack was crouched at her feet, putting things back in the box she’d dropped. He looked fine. He was fine.
Her relief that she’d somehow managed to stop things in time made her go limp. The fact that she could even tell she was relieved meant she was probably going to be okay. She worked her tongue around her mouth until she had enough acid-tainted spit to moisten her throat. She needed to get the hell away from Jack and all these people, because next time she might not be so lucky. “Clumsy. That’s all.”
“Your mug broke.” He held up a shard of her coffee cup that included half the handle. He looked at her like he expected her to say something. Well, she didn’t. She’d already said all the words she could dredge up.
She dug in her purse for her sunglasses because, damn, her eyes hurt, and her skull was in a vise and about to fracture. Dark glasses or not, her ability to insulate herself from other people continued to erode. She hadn’t lost it this badly since her college days.
“Maybe you can glue it back together?”
From where she stood, just inside the lobby doors, traffic noise was a rumble that hurt deep inside her ears. She took the shard of porcelain and dropped it into the box. It broke into two more pieces and slivered what was left of her nerves.
Jack, still crouching, stared into the box. “Or not.”
She wished he wouldn’t talk. His voice hurt. At least now the metallic taste in her mouth was duller. Her vision continued to recover with her other senses. Jesus, that blood-red tie vibrated as if it were alive. She could feel her skin again, judge the temperature of the air. She stared down at Jack still helpfully, and rather sweetly, picking up her things. He didn’t deserve to die. She needed to get away from him. For both their sakes. If he ended up thinking she was a bitch, fine.
“Go back to the office, Jack.” He stretched to pick up a pen that had rolled out of easy reach. “You shouldn’t be down here.”
He threw the pen in the box and winced.
Any minute her heart would burst out of her chest. He glanced up and pressed the side of his ribs. She almost didn’t look away in time. If she landed in the hospital again, she’d need a cardiologist instead of an ER doc. “Leave.”
Office workers streamed from the elevators, holding briefcases, purses, paper bags with lunch in them, bottles of water or soda. The lunch rush was starting. If she didn’t get the hell out of here, she was screwed. Jack was screwed. Three or four people stopped in the lobby, each with a cell phone to an ear, talking away without the least privacy. Who knew? Maybe one of them was screwed. Two with Bluetooth enabled devices looked like psych cases, ranting to invisible people. Voices hammered at her, pounding at the barrier. She cut herself off from everything until the words might as well be Swahili.
An elevator swallowed a mass of people, but more appeared. Panic set in. Enclosed spaces weren’t good for someone like her. Not when she was seconds from a breakdown she might not be able to stop. She ignored Jack. Let him think she was a cold-hearted bitch. He wouldn’t be the first.
She took her box, peering inside to avoid eye contact with Jack. Her mug was now six pieces of brown-and-white porcelain. Her frog stapler was intact. Good. That was good. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He put a hand to his ribs again.
She slid her gaze away, still avoiding his face. The maneuver was awkward and rude, but what else could she do? “What’s wrong?”
“No, it isn’t.” Too late, she realized how brusque she sounded. She tried to look elsewhere without actually looking. More people came through the lobby. With more effort than she liked, she softened her next words. “Call a doctor.”
“Nah. Too many lat pulls at the gym this morning. Been bugging me ever since.” He smiled sheepishly. She ended up staring at the knot of his tie. It had stopped vibrating but the color still reminded her of blood. Would he just leave her alone already? “You’ll keep in touch, right?”
“Sure.” Where the hell was Khūnbish? She looked toward Front Street. The BMW was still waiting for a brown delivery van to pull away. She didn’t know how much time had passed since she’d nearly blanked out. Probably not long. Maybe only a minute.
The van bulled its way into traffic, and the sleek black car slid into the vacated space. She headed for the lobby door, the heels of her pumps clicking on the marble floor. Jack followed. “In a couple of weeks they’ll be begging you to come back as of-counsel.”
“Not happening.” In her peripheral vision, she saw him smile. He took a quick double step to open the lobby door for her. He winced when he did. She hoped it was really too many lat pulls at the gym. Outside, the blast of foggy air made her head pound.
Jack let go of the door and caught up with her. “Trust me, the partners will make it worth your while to come back. You’re too good a litigator to let walk out the door.”
“I don’t think so.”
He chuckled. “Maybe I should quit, too.”
Lys risked a sideways look at him. She wondered if he was, for all practical purposes, dead already. “No. You shouldn’t.”
“Call a doctor, Jack.” She stopped walking and went back to staring into her box. She still didn’t feel right, and being outside wasn’t offering much relief. Too many people around. She looked in the direction of the BMW. At this point, she didn’t care if Khūnbish was in the car or not. “My ride is here. Bye.”
He held out a hand. “See you around?”
She could have briefly held the box in one arm, but she didn’t dare touch him. It was dangerous for her to touch anyone when she was like this. “Sure.”
At the curb, the BMW’s headlights switched off. The driver got out. Her chest constricted at the same time the tension in her shoulders released. Khūnbish. Definitely him. She had an unobstructed view of him pressing his key fob. There were men no one messed with, not if you knew what was good for you. Telos Khūnbish was one of those men; scary at a primordial, brainstem level.
Jack stayed where he was, but, despite the pain spiking through her, she managed to cut him out of her awareness. Not completely, but enough. She hoped. He said something to her, but she didn’t allow the meaning of the words to penetrate. She needed to hold together long enough to get someplace quiet.
Khūnbish paused by his car and lifted a hand like he was blessing the damn thing against a parking ticket or a tow. A bike messenger zipped past. He headed across the plaza with its series of concrete risers and planters. On a nice day, support staff who made shit money and had to bring their lunch could eat outside.
She adjusted her sunglasses, now almost comfortably wrapped up in a layer of ice that kept out the rest of the world. There had always been a very non-professional tension between her and Khūnbish. One of those things that went formally unacknowledged but that worked its way into conversations and body language. He’d never made a move. She’d never done anything about it because one, she couldn’t, and two, there was Michael, and three, well, really there was no three; not with one and two.
Her stomach took a familiar dive when he reappeared from between two planter structures, heading for the lobby doors. His long black hair fell behind his shoulders, twisting slightly in the wind. His goatee, as usual, seemed to be barely getting started. His unbuttoned flannel shirt flapped in the breeze and showed off the physique under his T-shirt. He didn’t fit with the suit and tie crowd, and the bandanna around his head didn’t do much to make him look like anything but trouble in a dark alley.
Lys defended high-stakes corporate lawsuits involving computer hacking, and Khūnbish was her Information Security expert. Used to defend, since she’d just quit her job. Though he’d never admitted anything under oath, he was what computer industry insiders called a gray-hat, someone who navigated between the black-hats who hacked corporate databases, downloaded credit card numbers, and engaged in other nefarious online activities, and the white-hats who warned companies about their security vulnerabilities.
He paused at a trash can, tossed something in, then continued toward the building. She walked away from Jack. She plastered on a smile for Khūnbish and anyone else who might be looking at her. The smile was fake, like everything else about her. He didn’t see her yet.
Jesus, her head hurt. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth again but that didn’t do anything to lessen the building metallic tang. Her blocks slipped, and the roar of sensation about dropped her to her knees.
Behind her, Jack called her name.
Khūnbish slowed when he saw her. For the half a second that their gazes met, her head cleared, and it was such a blessed relief she damn near cried. Then she heard Jack calling to her again, and the acid taste in her mouth intensified. Her peripheral vision turned grainy. She stopped walking and fought for control.
Four women crossing the plaza on a collision course with Khūnbish detoured around him. She lost sight of him while the women continued toward the lobby.
That was Jack calling her. She paid no attention because Khūnbish took three longer steps and was right in front of her. From within her icy barrier, she felt the zing of attraction all the way to her toes. That’s how it always was with them. She stuck out a hand because he was safe to touch. In her life, she’d met maybe four other people who were safe that way. She had her suspicions about why. No proof, though. “Khūnbish.”
“Counselor.” He sounded like he smoked cigars and drank whiskey every day for breakfast. Lunch and dinner, too.
She gave him her best Litigation Lawyer smile. “Thank you for coming.”
His expression didn’t register any curiosity about the reason she’d met him out here. He looked her up and down and ended up at her face. They both knew he was thinking about sex, and they both pretended he wasn’t. The way his eyebrows drew together told her she looked worse than she thought. “That pussy over there is calling you.”
“Really? Who?” Her voice was calm. Serene even, and that had to be a miracle because her control wasn’t anything like reliable right now.
“Here in three, two, one…”
“Lys. You dropped this.”
She turned in time to see Jack slow from his jog across the plaza. He had her frog-shaped stapler in his hand. While she watched, he closed the distance between them. He was grinning because to him, a normal, everyday person, how absurd was it to chase a woman across the plaza with a frog stapler?
“Oh, hey. Thanks.” She stuck out her box, intending for Jack to drop the stapler inside.
Jack held out the stapler and put a hand on her arm. The boom in her head went off like a cannon. She jerked away. Her vision winked out. Jack twitched, and the stapler dropped from his fingers.
His knees give out, and he falls to the concrete. Bright crimson blood flows from his head.
Reality slammed back.
“Dude,” she heard Khūnbish say. “You okay?”
Jack’s eyes rolled up in his head, and his knees buckled. He hit the paving stones hard. She heard the crack when his head hit.
“Holy shit.” Khūnbish whipped out his cell phone and started dialing while Lys dropped her box and knelt, afraid to touch him in case there was a chance he could be saved. Jack didn’t move. Blood pooled around his head. Red. So red.
A girl with pink hair, leggings, and a tatty black tee-shirt emerged from the gathering crowed. Lys snatched her hands away when the girl dropped to Jack’s side and pressed two fingers to the side of his throat.
That’s all she needed; to kill another innocent person. Every ounce of Lys’s energy went to keeping herself out of free fall. If she didn’t stay in control, Jack might not be the only casualty. She was aware, in a distant way, of Khūnbish talking to 9-1-1 and of the young woman doing chest compressions on an unresponsive Jack.
Sirens, far away at first, came closer and closer. Lys shook with the effort of staying here and in the present. She didn’t want to hurt anyone else. Her head was going to crack open, but she’d managed to seal herself off. She could observe without feeling anything. Ice protected her from all the people around her.
A fire truck pulled up, then an ambulance. Paramedics jogged across the plaza with their gear. Radios squawked. The strobe effect from the flashing lights on the emergency vehicles flashed inside her head, too. The pink-haired woman doing compressions let one of the EMTs take over, and some time later the EMTs loaded Jack into the ambulance.
She answered questions from one of the firefighters. She was ice. Nothing but ice inside and out. It was horrifyingly clinical the way she didn’t feel a damn thing, but this was how she needed to be. More time passed, there were more questions and answers, and then the firefighters were gone. The last of the crowd dispersed.
Khūnbish cocked his head and shoved his hands into his front pockets. Her head hurt. She wondered idly what he would say if she told him Jack was dead and that it was her fault. He’d call her crazy, and he’d be right. He held her gaze, and she got trapped there.
She braced herself, but nothing happened. Nothing at all. Her stomach, however, did a slow flip-flop. The conviction that he knew about her sprang into full bloom. He knew what she was. Without understanding why or how, she’d stepped onto a tightrope here with Khūnbish, and there wasn’t any net.
“Ms. Fensic.” His low, scratchy voice made it easy to imagine him awake at four in the morning, a bottle of whiskey at his elbow. Some blonde babe with a tramp stamp and a fondness for glitter would be on his lap while he hacked into someone else’s server. In between rounds of beating the crap out of men stupid enough to cross him.
Khūnbish was the calmest man she’d ever met. Nothing rattled him. Not an adversarial deposition or a vicious cross-examination. Or seeing a man drop dead at his feet. “Someone you knew well?”
She swallowed. “A colleague.” She wasn’t a talkative person, but hell if she could stop herself. “I quit my job today, and he wanted to help me with my things.” She nudged her moving box with the toe of her pump and swallowed the lump in her throat. “I told him not to follow me. I told him to go back to his office.”
“Was he harassing you?”
“No. God no.” Their eyes met again, and the world stayed in place. “Nothing like that.”
“So. You quit your job and called me.”
She waited for a group of people to pass them on their way to California Street. On a purely selfish level, she’d been right to think of him. He was perfect. She needed someone mean and dangerous, and Khūnbish fit the bill. With a prayer that she was right, she made the leap that would change her life forever.
“I need a favor.”
He was going to do her the favor. Why? Because he was a sucker for smart chicks, and Lys Fensic was smarter than just about anyone he knew. Because despite her ice-cold exterior, she could make him laugh. Also, she was fucking hot. Curves in all the right places, legs that didn’t quit. She had a great ass, too. The woman was gorgeous and untouchable, and he’d wanted a piece of her cool elegance for a long time.
More important than his other reasons, she had power he didn’t understand. Most of the time she registered to him as completely normal. A woman without any magic. A complete vanilla. Every now and then, like now being an example, whatever magic she had going for her worked him hard.
She wasn’t a trained mage, he was sure of that. If she were in that life, he wouldn’t be consulting for her because she’d already have tried to kill him or enslave him. He suspected she was one of the survivors: a kid thrown away by magekind parents who thought she didn’t have any magic. Most of the throwaways died before they hit twenty. Some of them, like Lys Fensic, didn’t. He thought about that poor guy, dead before he hit the ground, because sometimes, possibly like Lys Fensic, the survivors grew up to be dangerous. He wondered how much she knew about what she was and what she could do.
Right now she was in front of him, eyes big and wide, skin pale as ashes, and so completely opaque to him there was no way she was normal. Vanilla humans couldn’t block the way she was doing. They couldn’t make it impossible for him to get anything at all, not when he was trying. He checked out her eyes in case she was self-medicating. Copa, the drug the magekind took to amp up their power, changed their eye color while they were under the influence. The stuff also eventually burned out their power, if it didn’t outright kill them. Her eyes were the same dark blue as ever.
He stooped to retrieve her now broken stapler. It was cute that she’d kept his joke present to her and decided to cart it with her. “I’ll get you a new one.”
He tossed the stapler in the box. “Let’s talk about that favor. Coffee?”
She squeezed the strap of her purse with both hands. Completely opaque. It bothered him that she could do that. “Okay.”
He picked up her box and pointed in the direction of Market Street. “Seeing how you’re unemployed, it’s on me.”
“Thank you.” Her smile was brief and didn’t reach her eyes. She was something else when she smiled for real.
Five minutes later they were sitting at a table at Peet’s Coffee. Her moving box was on the chair beside her, her purse on the floor at her feet. Telos sat across from her, holding his chai. She drank half her six-shot espresso macchiato without blinking.
“Two hours of sleep in the last forty-eight hours.” She lifted her cup. He still wasn’t getting a thing from her. How the hell long could she keep that up? It had to be costing her. “I could use a couple of these.”
Neither one of them said a word for long enough that the silence got awkward. He wasn’t good with human expressions when he couldn’t pair them with what he picked up naturally, but even he could guess she was about to tell him to forget the favor.
“So.” He nodded the way humans did when they were taking about anything except what needed to be talked about. “A favor.” He gave her an encouraging smile, but his attention flicked down to her truly fine rack. “Between friends.”
“Yes.” She smoothed a palm over her head and rested her hand there for a bit. “Between friends.”
She licked her lips. “I need a ride.”
He quirked his eyebrows at her. “That’s it? I thought you were going to hit me up for a loan.”
That got him a nanosecond’s worth of a smile. “Just a ride.”
So much for her coming out to him about her magic. A ride was a lot less interesting, though, on a personal level, he liked the idea of being alone with her and nowhere near her office. That would change everything, and if he was even a little lucky he could get her between the sheets with him. Not that he expected sex in return for any favor, but he could hope they ended up there.
“A ride. Sure. Where to?”
Noe Valley was an upscale neighborhood of the city, and the way she said it, a bit too quickly, set off all kinds of alarms. He was doing her the favor, sure, but that didn’t mean he was dumb enough to forget a street witch could be dangerous to him. “Do you need a ride back?”
“Yes.” She slipped the cardboard sleeve off her cup and started tearing it into pieces.
“Why?” He wasn’t used to seeing her frayed at the edges like this, and that added to his uneasiness.
“My car got wrecked.”
She nodded, but he thought that was a non-verbal lie. Not certain, because she was blank to him right now, but she was on the edge of some kind of massive collapse, and, well, in his experience there wasn’t much coincidence where the magekind were involved. In the life or not, she was magekind.
“Hit and run,” she said. “The other guy. Not me.”
“That blows.” He tried not to think about how long he’d wanted to hook up with her but didn’t have much luck. She was right in front of him, gorgeous and tired and vulnerable in a way that worked on every protective instinct he had. He knew she could take care of herself, but whatever was going on with her was really messing with her. He was curious, and he wanted to help.
Her eyes were a million miles away. Whatever was going through her head, the recollection was powerful enough to shake her control. She stopped being opaque. The mental hints he’d been trying to pick up flashed into place. It was like being pushed into a volcano of magic. The hair on the back of his neck lifted, and then she shut down hard. She was back to total vanilla, a human with no magic at all.
Her hand shook so hard she almost knocked over her macchiato. He moved her coffee to the middle of the table. Goddamn, but that was some power she had. All this time she’d had enough control to convince him she was nothing more than minorly talented. Well, hello to the majors. “Okay. When was your car wrecked?”
“Last night.” She blinked, and she looked so lost and uncertain he almost didn’t recognize her as Lys Fensic, ice queen. The break only lasted a second or two, then she was back to her usual self. Almost. Whatever the hell was going on with her, he couldn’t turn his back on her. “No. I think it was two nights ago. I’m so tired, I’m losing track of time. What day is it? Tuesday or Wednesday?”
“Really?” She wiped a hand across her forehead. The breaks in her control were spiderweb fine, spinning out so that, though he got almost nothing from her, he got more than previously. “Two nights, then. My car got wrecked. I was in the hospital at some point, but I checked myself out.”
“Against medical advice?”
She shrugged. “I’m fine.”
He peered into her face, but she avoided eye contact. Not totally ignorant, then. “All due respect, bullshit.”
She drank more of her jet-fueled coffee. “There’s something I need from my house.”
He leaned his forearms on the table. His skin was a lot darker than hers. “And?”
“Something terrible will happen if…” Her expression closed off, but for half a second there she’d looked terrified. Enough afraid that he could see the fear without being able to pick up the psychic clues to her mental state.
She dropped her head, staring at the table. Fractures in her ability to block him spun out like cracks in melting ice. He could waltz right inside her head if he wanted to. He didn’t. But he could. Not that he needed to right now. She was pretty much wide open. A wave of despair came at him, so intense he was tempted to do the unthinkable and give the ice queen a hug. Then…nothing. Her switching on and off like that was disorienting as hell.
She let out a breath. “I don’t know who to trust.”
“You called me.” He tapped a finger on the table near her so she’d look up. She did, and he cocked his head. Her looks really worked for him, and now that she’d lost her usual frosty reserve, she was even more his type. “Here I am.”
Her power cycled up again, cranked him something fierce, and he thought this had to be the point where she told him what she was. She didn’t, though. She winced. Just like that, she was vanilla again. But not opaque.
“One of us is an idiot.” A tiny smile curved her mouth then faded. “We both know it’s not me.”
He laughed, relieved to see a glimmer of her usual self. He leaned closer and made sure his voice was too low for anyone to overhear. “What the hell has you so scared you can’t think straight?”
She bit her lower lip, and even someone like him could see she was scared to death. Up to now, he’d have said nothing frightened Lys Fensic. “I broke things off with Michael.”
Funny how he felt like he knew her but, in fact, knew almost nothing about her personal life. He knew things like she had a sense of humor, she was smart, hard-working, and liked Thai food. He knew she’d learned a lot about computer security because of her job. She wore a lot of high-heeled pumps that showed off her first class legs. She didn’t wear bright colors or a wedding ring.
“Husband or boyfriend?”
She shook her head ruefully. “It’s complicated.”
All right then. He was jealous. Disappointed to find out she was in a relationship. Then again, there was something off about the way she felt to him. She wasn’t lying, but she wasn’t telling him everything. “Were you sleeping with him?”
She raised shocked eyes to his, and he met them straight on. Her gaze veered off.
“If I’m going to help you out, and I am, it makes a difference if there’s a pissed off ex at your house.”
“Sometimes.” She stirred the pile of tiny cardboard bits. “About sleeping with him, I mean.” She tossed back the rest of her coffee. “He’s…It turns out he’s not a very nice person.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I don’t put up with shit from anyone.” Her expression hardened, and she was the ice queen he’d known and admired all this time. Hard as diamonds. “Ever. I don’t have much tolerance for hypocrites either, and that’s what he is.”
He slouched on his chair. There were no other magekind in the café. Just her. No demons either, or at least not any of the free kin. A mageheld? He wouldn’t be able to sense a demon that was enslaved to a mage. Demons who got taken were cut off from their own kind.
Lys kept talking, hunched over, fingers tearing at the remains of the cardboard sleeve. She appeared oblivious when he pulled enough magic through him that a trained mage would want to be prepared for trouble. “He’s supposed to be out of town until tomorrow, so chances are I can get what I need, no problem. But if he’s there” —briefly, she met his gaze—“or one of his…friends are there, I want someone like you with me.”
He rubbed his chin. “Someone like me, huh?”
A bit of color showed up in her cheeks. It’d be cute if this weren’t so serious. “Yes.”
“Good with computers? A guy who knows the difference between TCP and UDP?” She had bone structure like you wouldn’t believe. Maybe not perfect, but damn close.
“Someone who can get rough if need be.”
“That’s it?” He wanted her to say exactly what she thought he might walk into. “I drive you to your house, you get whatever, and if there’s someone there, I do what? Defrag his hard drive? Install a key logger and steal all his money?”
“Scare the crap out of him? Push him around? Or something else?”
“Yes.” She wilted under his stare. “I mean, no.” She ran both her hands over her hair. “Look, Michael is…he’s…different.”
“Takes all kinds.”
“He’s different.” She blew out a breath, and he thought, Here it comes. “The way you’re different.”
He cocked his head again. They were now officially in the dangerous territory of talking about the truth. Holy. Shit. This Michael asshat was one of the kin? One of the kin was fucking with her mind without her knowing what she was? “I’m not an abusive bastard.”
Exasperation flashed over her face. “Of course not. I know that.”
“Spell it out.”
“He has certain abilities.” She gave a wry laugh that told him a lot.
He didn’t need to be in her head to know what she was thinking. “You’re not crazy.”
“No?” She was getting better about looking him in the face.
“He doesn’t use his powers for good.”
“You think I do?”
There was just the slightest hesitation before she said, “Yes.”
He wasn’t about to use words that confirmed what he was, not without knowing for a fact it was safe for him if she knew. Like she wasn’t telling him straight out about Michael and what he was. “Are you saying he’s not following the rules?”
“Rules?” Her confusion about that was rock solid. “If there are rules, I don’t think he’s following them, no.”
“Probably not.” He felt sick for her. Outraged and ready to kill the motherfucker that had sent her over the edge like this. He felt guilty, too, because someone like him had obviously, obviously, been fucking her over. Oh, he understood the temptation, but the days when the kin routinely didn’t give a damn about the consequences of that sort of thing were over. “There’s people who can help with this kind of problem. Rule following problems.”
She lifted her hands in a helpless gesture, and he had to restrain himself from consoling her. “I don’t know about any rules. And I don’t know about any of those people.”
“If he’s breaking the rules, it’s no surprise he didn’t mention the rest.”
“Not that it matters.” Her mouth twisted, and he didn’t need a connection with her to guess her mental state right now. Right there on the edge of panic. “Even if I knew, what if I asked for help and Michael found out? Accidentally or on purpose? I’d never have risked it.” Her long, pale fingers curled around her empty coffee cup. “He has poor impulse control.”
“You should have contacted Nikodemus before now. His name had to have come up.” She shook her head. Even closed off the way he was, and with her as unstable as she was, he believed the name meant nothing to her. “Or Carson Phillips.”
Nikodemus was the local warlord, a demon whose significant other was the human witch Carson. How the two of them ended up together, he had no idea, but the warlord kept tight control over his territory and that included magekind and demonkind both. More to the point, Nikodemus forbade the demonkind from harming humans. Just like he had a rule about the magekind fucking over the kin. From everything he’d heard, transgressors paid. He wasn’t at all surprised Michael hadn’t mentioned any of that.
“If you want my advice, get in contact with Nikodemus or Carson. If Michael is breaking the rules, one of them will help you out.”
She closed her eyes, then opened them right away. Her pupils were huge. She went opaque again. She grabbed her purse, threw a ten on the table, and stood. While she picked up her box, the skin along his arms prickled. More cracks appeared in her control, and magic leaked from her. At least two people in his line of sight rubbed their arms. “Thanks.” She gave a tight nod. “Good advice, I’m sure. I appreciate you listening to me.”
“Sit down.” He shoved her ten into one of the outside pockets of her purse.
She didn’t. “Why?”
He took out his phone. “I’ll text you a number. When you call, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep my name out of it.” He forwarded the contact to her, and a moment later her purse beeped. He frowned as his skin rippled again. One of the humans from before turned around and stared at Lys. He grabbed the strap of her purse and pulled until she sat down with the box on her lap. He leaned in. “Fensic, how poor, exactly, is your boyfriend’s impulse control?”
She didn’t answer.
“Did he try to kill you?”
“I think so.”
“What the hell is at your house that’s worth your life?” He waited out her decision about what she was going to tell him.
And, boom. There it was. “Yours or Michael’s?”
“Mine. Sort of.” Her lips parted, and he got another ripple of magic from her. “Michael gave it to me. God, I hate that thing. Touching it gives me the creeps. I don’t want it near me.”
“Did he tell you what it is?”
“He told me the magic in it would help stabilize my condition. But he was lying.” She let out a breath. “He lied to me about everything.” She leaned across the box and as much of the table as she could and pitched her voice low. “That thing is alive, and I swear to you, it wants out.”
“And?” He maintained eye contact with her. The thought of one of his own kind using a talisman like that made him ill.
“Michael kept asking me why I wasn’t wearing it. Three days ago, just to get him off my back about it, I told him I lost it. He went ballistic, and that’s when I left.”
Telos swirled the cooling contents of his cup. “It’s still at your house?”
“And he’s not home?”
“Not supposed to be.”
He glanced out the window. “Let’s go then.”
Lys’s knees shook the entire time she followed Khūnbish to his car. She carried the box from her office, but she was tempted to throw it into the nearest Dumpster or put down it on the street and leave it there. Nothing in there mattered. The damn frog stapler, which she’d loved more than she ought to, was broken.
Back on Front Street, a meter maid puttered past the BMW and didn’t even look at the car. Khūnbish went around to the passenger side door and opened it for her. While she got in and sat with her purse on her lap, he put her cardboard box in the trunk.
This was a high-end model with plenty of leg room. Newer than her white one, but other than that, more or less the same car. Hers had a black interior, too. In the ambulance after her accident, one of the paramedics had told her she was lucky she hadn’t been killed. He’d been more right than he could possibly have imagined.
Khūnbish had a hand on the roof of his car and was leaning down at the passenger door side, staring at her with his black, black eyes. A frown put a crease between his eyebrows. She couldn’t tell his pupils from his irises. She set her purse on the floorboard and gave him a cool look.
“I won’t drive like a maniac,” he said, as if he’d read her thoughts. Maybe he had. In her current condition, her state of mind couldn’t be that hard to guess.
“I appreciate that.” She gave him a businesslike smile because she had enough to deal with right now without adding in the problem of the physical attraction between them. Nothing could ever happen between them. Ever.
“No problem.” He reached in to fasten her seat belt for her. His hair, dark as night, spilled over one shoulder as he did. Khūnbish was big and rough, and a bit more than normal. Here they’d been talking about talismans without any discussion about whether something like that even existed. He hadn’t asked a single question when she said he was like Michael, either. He was exactly what she needed right now. Someone who didn’t set her off. Someone she trusted.
She closed her eyes. In her head, she heard the sound of breaking glass and the hollow thump of metal against metal. Her body actually jerked and her eyes popped open. The metallic tang came back, coating her mouth and tongue, but she stayed in the here and now. Traffic moved with the usual controlled chaos, and she was in Khūnbish’s BMW, not hers. The car was still parked.
“You okay, Fensic?”
Their gazes locked again, and she got overwhelmed by all the ways he appealed to her. He seemed to know what was happening to her, too. Smug bastard. “Yes. Of course. Just tired.”
He stayed bent over. There was the tiniest suggestion of a very male smirk at the edges of his mouth. “That’s all?”
“Yes.” His skin was fine-grained, smooth. No scars, no fading zits, not a single imperfection. She liked that he hadn’t shaved in a while. He’d once told her he only shaved once a week because he was a descendant of Genghis Khan on his father’s side, and back in the day the Mongol horde didn’t have much facial hair. He’d said that with a straight face. He must be the tallest Mongolian on record, because he was over six feet. Taller than Michael. How good a mage did he have to be to achieve that sort of perfection? God knows Michael worked at it.
While Khūnbish was still at the passenger-side door, a disheveled woman pushed her shopping cart piled with bulging plastic bags in front of his car and continued into traffic. She didn’t care about anything, did she? Bent over and shuffling, she looked sixty. She was probably half that age. Drugs would do that to you.
Cars slammed on their brakes or swerved around the woman and her shopping cart, and that broke into her fragile calm. The vise-grip of her headache made her queasy again. The taste of iron got stronger. She breathed through her mouth, but right now she was wide open to anyone. Dangerous. Potentially fatal. The inside of her skull burned, and she could swear her head was fracturing. She imagined tiny fragments of bone driving into her brain.
Her vision blanked out. Front Street disappeared.
In front of a brick building that isn’t being maintained, she hands over grimy bills and in return accepts a dirty, much folded glassine paper. Deftly exchanged with a man whose job it is to peddle poison. The unbelievably intense craving that lives in her is about to kill her.
With a nauseating jolt, she came back to the present.
She could see Khūnbish. The inside of his car. The street. God, the noise was going to shatter her. Their eyes met again, and she couldn’t look away. She wasn’t sure she heard him speak, but if he hadn’t, he was about to. Same difference, really. His mouth moved, forming the word Fensic?
She blinked a few times, waiting for his future to slam into her. There was this odd click between her ears, like a door closing. Nothing happened. Her surroundings stayed in place. God, what a relief. “Fine,” she said. She would not throw up in his car. Would. Not. “I’m fine.”
He straightened from his lean over her and closed her door. When he was behind the wheel and he’d merged into the madness of downtown traffic, she stared into the side view mirror, watching for cars coming up too fast. After a bit that made her dizzy, so she looked straight ahead.
Reflection through the windshield made his eyes appear to flicker between black, bronze and gold. Eerie. She wondered if she was hallucinating that. She turned her head to the passenger-side window, but then she was staring into cars, taxis, and buses full of people, and that was worse than staring forward and seeing him and that weird eye-color flicker in her peripheral vision. She concentrated on remaining disconnected from the world outside. It had been years since she’d had to work this hard at staying alone in her head.
He flipped on his blinker and looked over his shoulder before he moved into one of those left turn lanes where the city allowed a turn on the green light. Lys tensed up, anticipating a collision.
“Relax.” He watched oncoming traffic for a break. “We’re not going to get hit. Promise.”
“Sure.” She couldn’t help thinking about people who weren’t what they seemed. People who weren’t really people. Dangerous people like Michael and Telos Khūnbish. And then there were demons, even more dangerous than the mages because although they could and did pass for normal, they weren’t even human.
He drove without the least sign of irritation with the congestion and double parked cars and trucks. One hand lightly gripped the bottom left of the steering wheel, the other rested on the stick shift. How odd that a man who dressed like a thug looked so at home in such an expensive car. Then again, she knew what he charged per hour.
She sat straight, legs pressed together, one hand on her lap, the other on the door so she’d have an anchor if she slipped into her special brand of insanity. Her thoughts refused to stay focused in the present. Even with her sunglasses back on, whispers broke though and the physical world blinked out. Every time that happened she had to fight to get back to what was real. She wondered how much longer she’d last before she broke down completely and irrevocably.
He will fall fall fall swiftly into cold hard water.
The car moved smoothly forward, carrying her along.
They were out of the Financial District now, but traffic was still horrendous. The car’s radio wasn’t on and though she could see a dock for a phone, he hadn’t hooked in to play whatever music it was he liked. She found the silence comforting. Khūnbish didn’t impinge on her thoughts the way other people did. He never had. The quiet helped keep her sane.
Her problem now was the people outside the car and her disintegrating ability to keep her mind safely walled away. The BMW would move out of range of whatever person she’d hooked into, but inevitably someone new flashed into her consciousness. When they stopped or had to slow down, the images got more explicit and more insistent.
—boyfriend will terrify her—
She understood that one.
She pressed her right arm hard against the side of the car. If she went into free fall the way she had earlier, she’d be open to everyone within ten feet of her, and there was no guarantee that the freakish meld of neurons, gray matter, and whatever else that comprised her brain wouldn’t permanently break from reality. No telling how many people might die because she couldn’t control herself.
At least you didn’t die from a broken heart.
“Earth to Fensic.” Khūnbish put a hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me.” Out of habit, she braced herself for the deluge, but nothing happened. Nothing. For one blessed moment all the breaks in her control sealed over.
“It’s okay.” He kept his eyes on the street. “You’re going to be okay.”
She was afraid to move or even breathe in case the quiet in her head stopped.
“I mean that. I’ll make it okay.” He returned his hand to the knob of the gear shift.
Slowly, the fractures in her sanity reappeared, though she wasn’t as bad off as she had been before. Instead of the full-bore clatter of knowing, only a flutter of all those alien perceptions came through. She was profoundly grateful for the respite. The mental quiet allowed her time to gather herself, build up another reserve of resistance.
He stopped for a red light.
Half a dozen people stepped into the crosswalk in front of them. She squeezed the side of the door and braced herself. Some of them were bound to get through to her.
Khūnbish put a hand on her knee. Above her knee, actually. She looked at her thigh. His fingers were dark against her skirt. Dark against her skin, too. “You okay?”
“I thought you were going to jump out the window.”
“No.” The acid taste faded from her mouth.
His fingers stayed partially on her bare leg. He was touching her, and she wasn’t in free fall. She didn’t get anything from the people in the crosswalk. Not even when they walked in front of the car. She let out a breath.
She wondered if Khūnbish was that much more powerful than Michael that he could have that effect on her, or whether Michael was just a sadistic bastard who enjoyed seeing her suffer. Maybe both. She leaned against the backrest again and turned just her head in his direction. His hand stayed on her thigh, but he wasn’t feeling her up. He flexed his other fingers on the steering wheel, then relaxed them again.
“Yes,” she said softly. “Much.”
“Tell me what happened before your car accident.” He kept his attention forward.
“Michael and I argued about the talisman. He wanted me to wear it, and I didn’t. I told him I’d lost it. Things got ugly, I left, and he didn’t like it.”
“Did he hit you?”
“Not where it would show.” She gave him a once over. Khūnbish was a physically solid man. Tall. Muscular. Fit. If he wanted to, he could hurt her worse than Michael. That was the thing about men. Until you knew what was in their hearts, every single one was a potential danger.
The silence in her head got pushed out by the sound of metal breaking, no brakes. Right before the impact of her accident, she’d recognized the other driver as one of the men who worked for Michael. The same man who told her the truth about the talisman. She couldn’t erase the image of him pointing a finger at her; it was burned into her memory. The next thing she knew, her car was a heap of metal and there were sirens wailing louder and louder. Michael’s guy was gone.
“Hey, Fensic. You’re with me.” His calm worked into her, soothing her when contact with anyone else would have sent her straight into madness.
Before long they were on her street. He pulled into a space a few doors down from her house and turned off the motor. He left the keys in the ignition. She didn’t move. Khūnbish turned his torso toward her, one arm draped over the steering wheel. He looked at her, no smile to soften the truth that he was a dangerous man. Her entire body reacted to that truth. With all the defenses she had to have in place, sex was never very good for her. All the same, a part of her wondered what it would be like to have sex with him. She gave herself a mental shake. That just wasn’t a place she ought to go.
“Let’s get your talisman.” He took the keys out of the ignition and got out of the car. She watched him walk around the front. She already had her door open when he came around to the sidewalk. Good thing he was there, because she got dizzy when she stood. He caught her forearm and steadied her. “Easy there.”
She stared at his torso while she waited for her head to clear. “What on earth does your shirt say?” She squinted at his chest. “While you were reading my shirt, I hacked your bank account?”
Khūnbish smiled. The thing was, it was only partly a joke, that saying on his shirt. He probably could hack her bank account. According to his CV he had top-secret security clearance and right-coast clients with three-letter acronyms. And those were the ones he could disclose. The left-coast clients were scattered up and down the coastline from the heart of Silicon Valley to Redmond, Washington.
“Don’t worry, your money is still there.” He smiled as he put a faint emphasis on your. He didn’t let go of her arm, not right away, and they stood there staring at each other while she drew on the bizarre calmness the contact offered. His eyes were completely black. No colors. Just black. She could drop into them and never come out. Five minutes of peace, that’s all she wanted. Five minutes of not having anyone’s fate force its way into her head. That was her idea of paradise.
He let go of her, and the fractures began to reappear. But now she had more reserves than before. He stayed in front while they walked up the slope to the house she’d lived in for going on ten years. She couldn’t help but wonder how things had gone so wrong. It was her home, and Michael had just moved in and taken over everything.
Khūnbish took the lead up the concrete stairs. There were seventeen of them with a landing in between. When they reached the landing, she fumbled around for her keys and eventually found them in a corner of her bag. He looked over his shoulder at her, and she held up the keys. He didn’t take them from her.
“We don’t get in without the keys.”
“Yes we do.”
She blinked. “You can do that?”
“Fensic.” He spread his arms wide.
Computer hacker, door jacker. She should have known. She dropped her keys back in her purse and glanced at her front door. The house gave her the creeps. The upstairs lights were off, but there was a light on downstairs. While she watched, someone walked between the light and the curtained window.
Her heart thumped so hard it hurt. “He’s home.” She took a step back. “Jesus, he’s home.” She tugged on his arm, harder a second time than the first. He didn’t budge either time. “Let’s go. Now.”
Too late. Too late. Too late. She clamped down on herself because she damn well knew their lives depended on her not losing it. Michael knew how to hurt her when she lost control.
The front door opened, and Michael stepped onto the porch. From as far away as they were from him, she could still feel that peculiar fullness in the back of her head that seemed to come along with Michael. Not quite the same sensation as with Khūnbish, but then Khūnbish, she suspected, was a much more powerful mage.
Michael’s eyes tracked downward, and he walked to the edge of the porch. He’d been using; she could tell from his fever-bright eyes. He looked down to where she and Khūnbish stood, a familiar sneer curing the edge of his mouth.
“Oh, God,” she whispered. “What’s he done?”
Michael’s arms were deep crimson up to his elbows. Drops of liquid red slid from his fingers to the ground. He shook his head to get his sandy hair off his forehead. Two men emerged from the house and stood behind him, both of them with hair buzzed short. One she didn’t recognize, but the other was the man who’d crashed into her car. He pointed at her and slowly grinned.
“Lys.” Michael held out a red fist and slowly unfurled his fingers. Bright, glittering sand trickled onto the porch, but more red dripped from his arms to the ground. “You lying bitch.”
“Asshole,” Khūnbish said under his breath.
“I don’t know why you thought I wouldn’t find it.” Michael swept the toe of his shoe over the sand and pushed some of it to the stair below. He stared at Khūnbish. The men behind him stared at her. “This is all that’s left.”
Her head was back in a vise, her vision going grainy and narrow. But she had control. She wasn’t going to lose it. She refused. Michael wasn’t going hurt her. Not ever again. “You’re supposed to be in LA.”
“As you can see, I am not.” His attention moved from Khūnbish to her. His calculating, drug-enhanced confidence made her sick. He was always worse when he was using. He gestured at the man to his right, the one from the car accident. “You. She’s yours. When you’re done with her, kill her. You.” He motioned to the other. “Bring the fiend to me.”
Khūnbish grabbed her shoulder and pushed her in the direction of the street. “Move.”
Long before they made it back to the sidewalk, the two men were after them, running full speed.
Telos pulled as much magic through him as he could without triggering a shift in his physical form. The burn forced a roar from him, half frustration at the need to limit himself, half joy at the power. The air crackled around him as he drew hard on his magic, pulling up from its source and through his body until the energy electrified him. Fensic was taking the steps two at a time. He jumped all of them, skidded to a stop and whipped around to intercept the magehelds while she sprinted for his car.
He kept himself between her and Michael’s two magehelds as they, too, raced for the street. Both of them were under the mage’s compulsion, so they were moving fast. Once Fensic had a few steps on him—she was fast despite running in heels—he put on the brakes and whirled to the two magehelds.
They were practically on him, big motherfuckers not looking to start a friendship. He didn’t have time to do anything but go for a kill, the hell with anything she might see that she shouldn’t.
As soon as the first mageheld’s eyes turned colors, he released everything he had on tap straight into the fiend’s head. A shriek tore through the air, high and piercingly loud. Telos magically dampened the sound before the whole neighborhood called the goddamned police. At the same time, he darted in and slipped an arm around the demon’s neck, braced with his hand and twisted hard because he wasn’t going to get a second chance. He released and stepped back. The corpse dropped bonelessly to the sidewalk.
The silence was freaky. The other demon had looped around while Telos killed his buddy. It didn’t matter if the remaining mageheld had been fucking in love with the dead fiend. He’d been given a kill order, he had to obey, and that’s what he was doing. Another scream shattered the peace.
With a mageheld fiend bent on hunting down a witch he’d been told he could fuck at his leisure before he killed her, a two or three second delay was way too long. Telos shot toward Fensic, expecting to see that the mageheld had her already. But she wasn’t the one who’d screamed like a girl. The mageheld was on his knees, scrabbling at his eyes while she stood over him, eyes wild, a small canister in her outstretched arm. Mist wafted toward him, and then his eyes burned and watered, too. She’d maced the guy.
The mageheld lurched to his feet, still digging at his face. Nothing short of death was going to stop him from doing what he’d been ordered. Probably in the most unpleasant way imaginable. Telos was the last thing between the mageheld and the only revenge an enslaved demon ever got.
He pulled again and unloaded directly into the mageheld’s head the way he had with the other one. The psychic scream deafened him, but he kept going, shredding the demon’s mental and physical boundaries until the only thing left was a sort of magical goo. It was brutal, but he didn’t see that he had a choice, unless he was going to let Fensic die.
When the noise stopped, the mageheld collapsed at her feet. He saw her shoulders slump with relief. She was wrong. Killing a demon’s physical body wasn’t enough. Not if he wanted to stay alive and free, which he did, and not if he wanted to make sure that goddamned mage couldn’t fuck both those demons worse than he already had.
To stay dead, the dead fiends’ magic had to be safe from the magekind. If Telos allowed the mageheld’s life force to drift sentient but unable to interact with the corporeal world, he risked Michael taking the magic for himself. For the demonkind, that was Hell; to have your still-living magic trapped like that.
Michael came down the steps at a run, blood still dripping from his arms. Idiot. Some vanilla human was going to notice and call the cops. Telos knelt at the nearest mageheld’s side and gave the life there a path home. Though it cost time he didn’t have, he did the same for other one, too. When he was done, he grinned at Michael with vicious satisfaction. “Too late, mage.”
Michael hit the last step, slowed, and then walked toward Fensic. She extended the canister and pointed it at Michael, deadly serious. “Not another step.”
The mage lifted his hands. “You betrayed me.”
She yelped and dropped the canister, shaking her hand as if she’d been burned.
“Fitting, I think, if your companion kills you for me.”
“Enough, Michael.” She stood her ground, shoulders back. She’d gone opaque again. “No more.”
Michael glanced at his arms and muttered something under his breath. His words carried power that made the skin on the back of Telos’s neck ripple. The blood on Michael’s arms flaked away. “Once you two are dead, I think I’ll be done for the day.” He spoke in that tone of aristocratic entitlement the magekind tended to have.
Telos reacted to the magic the mage was holding; a shiver down his spine, the allure of all that power. No way in hell was this asshole some self-taught street mage. Someone like Michael trained for this from the day he could walk and talk. Judging from the color of his eyes, an opaque and unnaturally bright brown, he’d recently taken copa. The effects came at a price. Copa was addictive and eventually lethal for the magekind.
He pulled magic through him again. He was prepared for anything. “There’s rules in this territory, mage.”
“I don’t take orders from demons.”
“Nikodemus won’t be happy when he finds out about the talisman. How many magehelds did you murder to pull off that one?” The unknowns were a worry. He didn’t know how many magehelds Michael had, how much copa was raging through his system, or how much new power he had after the ritual murders. This could go all kinds of wrong fast. He jerked his head in Fensic’s direction. “Not to mention what you’ve been doing to her.”
The mage brushed lingering flakes of blood off one of his arms. “I don’t know what she’s told you, but surely you’ve noticed by now she’s too dangerous to be on her own. Uncontrolled. She doesn’t have any idea what she can do. She might be nothing but a street witch, but she’s almost as dangerous as you.”
“Nikodemus is going to find out about what you’ve been up to.”
“I do not accept that creature’s authority over me. Or anyone.” He sneered. “The sooner you’re all dead, the better.”
“The car,” Fensic said from behind him. “Start the car.”
Without taking his eyes off the mage, Telos pointed his fob backward in the direction of his car and pressed the button. The minute the motor came to life, he flipped the keys to her. He didn’t hear them hit the pavement and hoped that meant she’d caught them. Every second’s delay brought them closer to disaster.
Michael’s attention flicked past him to the car, assessed the risks, then snapped back to him.
Fensic needed time to get to the car. They were both dead if she didn’t make it in time. “You’re going to die a painful death, mage.”
The mage muttered words that weren’t English. A chill shot down Telos’s back and the surface of his skin crawled. He wasn’t any stranger to pain, but the electricity turned searing hot. Foul magic spread through his body as Michael worked the spell that would enslave him. It happened a lot faster than he expected, losing his freedom. His chest burned and his heart slowed. The pain short-circuited his brain. There wasn’t any air, and when the mage headed for him, he was paralyzed.
His legs crumpled and both knees hit pavement with a crack. He fought for his life, reaching for his magic, deeper than could ever have been safe for a place where there were vanilla humans, and he pulled. Nothing happened. Panic and horror at what was happening floored him. There had never been a time when he hadn’t been able to touch his magic. A trickle came through, and he seized it, and pushed all of it at the mage. He managed to rock Michael back on his heels, but the respite wasn’t going to last.
From the street-side, Fensic popped up over the driver’s side of his car and tossed something at him. He caught whatever it was with the tips of his fingers while he battled for what shreds of himself he could protect. Michael walked closer, muttering ugly words, words that touched the core of him and turned it. The tearing inside him stopped his heart.
In a desperate bid for his freedom, he rolled out of Michael’s immediate reach, but he was already dying and about to be reborn a slave. The mage’s will flowed over him like stagnant water. His fingers tightened reflexively, and he realized one of his hands wasn’t empty. A corner of his mind made the ironic observation that he was spending his last moments of freedom with a can of pepper spray.
Michael stood over him, triumphant. “You will kill Lys. Make it painful for her, please.”
On his back, and with his entire body being ripped apart and reshaped as Michael’s order hooked into him, he oriented the device and depressed the button, and then he gave in to the rage of losing his freedom and the compulsion Michael had set on him.
The mage went down sputtering.
The pain and tearing stopped.
Telos’s heart contracted once and sensation flashed through his body.
His obscene connection to the mage vanished. Telos lurched to his feet. Jesus, fuck. He was going to puke. Right after he killed that goddamned mage so dead the parts left over wouldn’t fill a tuna can. Behind him, a motor revved, and before he could off the mage, his car shot past him, forward and over the verge. Fensic jammed on the brakes in time to pull even with him. Then her head disappeared and the passenger-side door flew open.
“Get in! Khūnbish. Now!” She was straightening from her stretch along the seat when his brain understood they needed to get the fuck out of here. He threw himself inside. She hit the gas while he grabbed the passenger door and slammed it shut.
The car flew over the curb so fast his head snapped back and hit the side of the headrest. The BMW went briefly airborne. He braced one hand on the dash and grabbed the seat belt with the other, and somehow he managed not to break his head against the windshield when they hit the pavement. Fensic gunned the car, his head hit the seat again, and they roared down the street like her foot was welded to the gas.
“What the hell?” Fensic threw one hand in the air.
“Both hands, Goddamn it!” He was woozy every way that counted, but his will to not end up bleeding in a heap of twisted metal was in fine working order. “At this speed, you drive with both hands on the wheel.”
Her palm slapped onto the leather-covered steering wheel. The car fishtailed when she took the corner at the first intersection. He reached for his magic and there it was, a wide open tap. A fucking lake, and he pulled until he was inches from a physical change. If Michael came after them, the mage was dead. As long as Fensic didn’t kill them first. She made the next turn at near reasonable speed.
“What the hell was he doing to you?” She wheezed, but her eyes were focused on the road, so there was at least a chance they weren’t going to die. “I felt that. I felt what he did and what it did to you. What the hell was that?”
The loss of her usual cool had the ironic effect of settling him down. Psychically speaking, she was wide open to him and now, now, he understood the control she had over herself, and it terrified him that any street mage could have that kind of magic and live and fool people like him into thinking she was mostly normal.
Lys Fensic was fucked up. Bad. He was already in a volatile state, on the brink of physical transformation, and edgy as hell from all that shit with Michael. He’d been nanoseconds from breaking the one rule he knew Nikodemus enforced ruthlessly. No harming the magekind. He sat up straighter. “Thanks.”
Like thanks even began to cover it.
“Thanks? For what? God, Khūnbish, I am so sorry.” Her voice shook.
“I know what he’s like. I never should have brought you when there was even a chance he’d be there. Never.”
Rubbing his chest didn’t relieve the ache from Michael’s attempt to take him, but he did it anyway. Now that he was calming down, recovering, he was reacting to Fensic’s unshielded magic. He was turned on. He couldn’t help it. His kind reacted to human magic that way. The magekind counted on it.
“I hope his eyeballs are melting in his head.”
“Amen, sister.” He risked a brush of his finger along her arm because he knew from how she’d reacted before that touching her helped calm her down when her control frayed. One touch and her magic blasted through him hard enough to bring on a partial transformation to one of his other forms. He got that stopped before she noticed. “Get us out of here without getting pulled over, would you?”
Mentally, she closed up. Shut just about everything down, and it scared him to think she could do that to herself. She eased up on the gas, and it was awful seeing the ice queen back. An elegant, ice-cold bitch. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. She focused on the road, but her fingers on the steering wheel were bone white. “Where are we going? Anywhere or do I just drive?”
“For now, just drive.” He kept an eye out for cops. Or a tail. As soon as Michael recovered, he was going to send magehelds after them, no question about that. And not just for him. A trained mage was likely to have at least one mageheld demon skilled at tracking. Even a tracker with mediocre talents could follow the residue he and Fensic had left—were leaving now. If they were lucky, they had a day or two before the next set of magehelds found them. If the tracker had some talent, they might have half that. Telos allowed himself a private smile. Either way, he was going to be ready for the rat bastard mage. Fuck Nikodemus and his rules.
The back of the car shuddered again. “Have you always had a lead foot?”
She slowed to forty-nine. “I have a perfect driving record.”
“How many cops let you off because you smiled pretty?”
“My appearance has nothing to do with the fair and equal administration of justice.”
Telos snorted. “Speed limit here is thirty-five. You’re doing forty-three. Slow down.”
“Fine.” She slowed, but not enough. Two minutes later, the speedometer was back to forty-five.
“Do you have any idea how much a speeding ticket costs in this city? I don’t care if you don’t have a job, I’m not paying the fine.”
“I won’t get a ticket.”
“No, instead you’re going to get us killed. Pull over and let me drive.”
He looked at the speedometer. “Seven. Forty-seven and this is my fucking car. You wreck my ride and you better be prepared to write me a check.”
She bowed her head and over-corrected after the car drifted because she’d taken her eyes off the road. “Fine.”
They made the switch at the first gas station they came to. They didn’t say anything for several minutes, and he was fine with that. He drove, heading west.
She broke the silence. “Those men at my house.”
He signaled for a turn. He didn’t see any reason to pretend about anything. “They weren’t men.”
“Demons. They were demons, is that right?”
“Magehelds. Your ex-boyfriend’s slaves.”
Her shoulders climbed toward her ears, and he got flashes of her mental state: unsettled, determined, and still on the edge of a psychic crash. Why the hell wasn’t she insane?
“He’s not kidding about killing you,” he said.
“He doesn’t necessarily want me dead.”
Her phone rang, muffled since it was inside her purse. She grabbed it and stared at the screen. “Michael.”
Telos reached over and took the phone away from her. He considered crushing it to bits of plastic, silicon, and metal.
She snatched it back. He couldn’t help but catch the ragged emotions leaking from her. He was getting even more turned on. Nothing he couldn’t control, though. Fensic pressed against the back of the seat and went completely still. After a bit more silence, she dropped the phone onto her lap.
The phone rang again. She picked it up and stared at the display.
“Don’t engage.” He rubbed a finger along the steering wheel.
“You know what?” she said over the ringtone.
“You’re right.” Phone in her hand, she pushed the button to roll down her window. Wind whipped through the car. Some of her hair came loose from the roll at the back of her head. She stuck her arm out the window and spread her fingers wide. He heard plastic shatter. She raised the window. “I think we can call that refusing to engage.” Her smile was cold as ice. “Don’t you?”
He looked at her and then out the side window. “It’s a start.”
She looked out the window, too. “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I have a year left on my contract.”
“You can get a new phone.”
She slumped on her seat, unaware, or uncaring, of the way her skirt stayed where it was. He was beyond feeling guilty for looking. “I’d rather have a puppy.”
Telos laughed. “A new phone would be less work and less expensive.”
“True.” Fensic tapped her finger on the top rim of the door. “I can expense a new phone.” She let out a brittle laugh. “Well, I could if I still had a job.”
They didn’t say anything more for the twenty minutes it took to reach his house at the far edge of Presidio Heights. He pulled into his garage, punched the button to close the garage door, and shut off the engine.
She looked around his garage. “Where are we?”
She ran her hands over her head, smoothing her hair. He wondered what she looked like with it down. Hot, probably. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Probably not.” He shrugged and juggled the car keys on his palm. “I’d take you to your place if there wasn’t a homicidal mage waiting there for you.”
She stretched out her legs and leaned an elbow on the rim of the car door. “A hotel then.”
“Do you have enough cash on you not to use your credit card?”
“No, but—” She looked at him sideways. “You already did me my favor and look how that turned out.”
“You’ll be dead twenty minutes after your card swipe.” He shifted on the seat. “Look, you’re safer here than anywhere else. They’re going to find you no matter where you go. With me you have a shot at living to see another sunrise.”
She let out a breath. “I was wrong about you. You aren’t like Michael.”
Telos fisted his keys. “Pretty much the opposite, I’d say.”
He shrugged. He did like the smart chicks. “If you want me to take you to a hotel or someplace else, I will, but then it’s your funeral. I’m offering to help you stay alive.” From what he’d heard, a lot of survivors like her were intensely self-sufficient. They had to be. They tended to have abandonment issues, too. “It’ll probably take him at least until tomorrow sometime to find us, and that’s if he’s got a good tracker. In the meantime, I’ll put in a call to Nikodemus and let him know what’s up.”
His car felt uncomfortably enclosed right now because he was aware she was all legs. She drew in a breath, but didn’t look at him. Good thing. She had a more than decent rack, too. She shook her head. “You don’t owe me anything, Khūnbish.”
“Saying that doesn’t change the truth. I owe you. That’s just a fact.” This time she did meet his gaze. Her pupils were huge. More than anything, he wanted to reach over and unbutton the top button of her shirt. “Look, you’ll be safer with me. We can drink beer, order Thai, and watch wrestling all night.”
She smiled. Almost like old times. Except not. “Wrestling?”
“Or a monster truck rally. I have three DVR’d.” He schooled himself against smiling. “You pick.”
She sighed again, but there was a smile somewhere in there. “All right, Mr. Khūnbish. Let’s go inside.”
They got out of the car and went in. He was careful with his proofing, the magical wards he set to keep the bad guys out. He made sure to adjust things so Fensic wouldn’t set them off.
He couldn’t help relaxing a little. This was his turf. He had the place well-warded. Anyone who tried to get in had some nasty surprises in store.
In his living room, she dropped her purse on the floor and slumped on his couch, legs sprawled out. She wasn’t wearing pantyhose. The ice queen was in his house, and he was thinking dirty thoughts about her.
He watched her look around and take in her surroundings and what he’d done with his place. This was a big house. Big enough to put him in the one-percent category. Three stories, vaulted ceilings in this room, six bedrooms, two of which he’d converted into a climate-controlled server room—not that she knew that yet.
“What paid for this?” She lifted a hand. “Don’t tell me if it means admitting you committed any crimes.”
He stood in front of her with his arms crossed over his chest. At the moment, psychically speaking, he got nothing from her. Nothing. She was so tightly closed off she could pass for vanilla. “You know what I charge per hour.”
She lifted a hand to shade her eyes. He relaxed when he saw her familiar icy smile. “Honey, you are worth every penny. But even your hourly rate couldn’t pay for this.”
“I have no worries, let’s just say that.”
She stretched her arms over her head, arching her back. Her clothes were rumpled, but she still looked corporate uptight. The look worked for him. “Does your mortgage payment bite your ass every month?”
She gave him another long look. “I didn’t realize hacking paid so well. Maybe that should be my second career.”
“There’s big money in spam. All you need is an open relay on a misconfigured mail server and you can send out millions of pitches to enlarge your dick.”
“You’re a spammer?”
He laughed. “No. If you’re good, protecting corporate America from hackers pays well.”
“And you’re good.”
“You know it.”
She sat up enough to pull the clip that held her bun and shake her head. He got distracted by the way her skirt rode up. Again. She finger-combed the honey-blonde mass; there was a lot more than he would have guessed, and having it down completely changed her looks. Totally fuckable. It hurt his dick to look at her she was so hot. She quirked her eyebrows at him while she got her hair slicked back. Did she know how she looked with her hair down like that?
Fensic returned her hair to its clip and flopped back on the couch. Her skirt hitched up to mid-thigh, and even though she knew he was looking, again, she didn’t move. His couch was a charcoal micro-suede, and she practically glowed against the dark fabric. Without straightening, she fished a pair of sunglasses out of her purse and put them on. “Do you have any aspirin?”
“Sorry, no.” He shook his head. “Headache?”
“The light hurts my eyes.” Now she looked like a movie star, all frosty-cold beauty. “Never mind. It’ll settle down in a bit.”
Telos walked over to the wall switch and flipped the main lights off. Like she was a date, and he was looking to get romantic with her. He closed the blinds, too, and did one more mental pass through his wards. Everything locked tight.
Back at the couch, he took his time studying her. She was in a partial sprawl, eyes covered by an arm thrown over her face. The first two buttons of her white blouse were unfastened, and he could see the very top curve of her breasts. Nice. She had pearls in her ears and ash-gray pumps that were not practical for anything but looking hot. She had toned calves, high arches and ankles that looked like they should have broken while she was running from her murdering ex and his magehelds.
She pressed her fingers to her temples and rubbed. Her nails were just long enough to be classy. They were painted icy pink, and that was all the color on her hands. No jewelry. “I guess you figured out I’m not a normal person.”
“You’re okay with that?”
He shrugged one shoulder.
“You’re not exactly normal yourself, are you?” she said.
Telos had to laugh at that. “Hell no.”
Her fingers kept massaging her head, moving out from her temples. She hesitated and looked up at him. He couldn’t see her eyes through her dark glasses “Usually it’s not good when people touch me. But when you do?”
“What about Michael? What happened when he touched you?”
She flushed. She’d misunderstood his question, but what the hell. The answer would be interesting. “We made sure I had time to prepare. Mentally.”
“To get myself shut down.”
He shook his head. “Hell on the spontaneity, isn’t it?”
She lifted her sunglasses above her eyes and blinked a few times. He wondered about her ability to shut down her magic. That kind of control was usually the result of training. A lot of it. She smoothed a hand along the seat of the couch, leaving a wavy pattern in the micro-suede. “Has to be that way for me.” Her hand stilled, and she looked at him dead on. “You can block me. How?”
“I’m not human.” Telos moved closer to the couch. “What happens if I don’t block you?”
She huffed. “You’ll think I’m crazy. Correction: you’ll know I’m crazy.”
“I already know that. You were wide open to me a couple of times.”
“Never for very long.”
“Oh, Counselor.” He couldn’t stop his grin. No more flirting. He was into the direct come-on. “I can do it long enough to make us both really happy.”
She rolled her eyes at him.
“Your friend today. Is that what happens when you’re not locked down?” He didn’t have to have a hook into her head to know she was trying to decide whether to lie.
“I see people’s futures.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Or else somehow what I see, I make happen. I’m not sure which it is.”
“I’ve touched you. Lots of times. I never had a clue what you can do. Whatever the hell it is.”
She rubbed her temples again. “All those times, I was prepared.”
“But not today.” He stayed where he was, a few feet away from the couch. Close, but not too close. Not close enough.
“No. Not today.” She didn’t sound happy about that. “I didn’t have good control today. He touched me, and I saw it happen.” She looked away, then back, and there wasn’t a single break. “And now he’s dead.”
He didn’t argue with her. The poor bastard had been dead long before the paramedics got him strapped onto the gurney. She knew it, too.
“I don’t know if I’m seeing the future or if what I see actually changes someone’s life.” She laughed, but there wasn’t any emotion in it. Her expression stayed somber. “I mean, that really would be crazy, changing people’s lives with the power of my mind.”
“Nobody can change the future just because of what pops into their heads.” She bit her lower lip and chewed on it for a while. Telos entertained dirty thoughts involving her mouth and his dick. “Most days I’m sane by an inch. Today, not so much.”
“You’re not crazy. You just don’t know shit about what you are.”
Fensic tossed the glasses back in her purse. “One time I kept a log of what I was getting from people. Of the twenty events whose outcomes I was able to confirm, I was right nineteen times.”
“You never tried to warn them?”
“Sure I did.” She wasn’t looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on a horizon he’d never see himself. “Intervening only makes things worse. For everyone. Especially me. I was lucky none of my foster parents had me committed.” Her attention flicked back to the now, and she gave a tight smile. “I learned how to block people out. Most of the time. I’d be in an institution otherwise. Or a crazy lady walking the street, talking to myself while I push a shopping cart full of my worldly possessions.” She pointed a finger at her ear and made a twirling motion; the universal sign for loony. “Been this way since I was fourteen.”
“That’s about when it starts for survivors like you.”
“Like me? There isn’t anyone like me.” She spoke with a bleak deliberation that tugged at him. “According to Michael, I’m a stone-cold killer.” Her voice got stronger. “I’m not like him. I have never, ever harmed anyone on purpose. Because I know exactly what I am.”
“Fensic.” He rapped out her name. That got her attention. “What the hell are you saying? Think about it.” He was angry on her behalf. Bone deep. “Those magehelds of his, they’re enslaved demons. You tell me, in what world is slavery right? He fucking tried to take me. You ever do that to someone?”
Her eyes went wide, but he was on a roll and kept going.
“You saw the blood when he came out of the house. He’d just murdered one of my kind. He ripped the beating heart from a demon’s chest so he could have more power. Live a little longer. You ever killed a demon?”
“No. To my knowledge anyway.”
“You know what people like him say? ‘The only good demon is a dead demon.’ You’ve probably heard him say it. More than once. It’s their goddamned motto. So whenever it was that Michael called you a killer— Do not try to tell me he didn’t. I can fucking feel it.” He rapped the side of his head. “Here. When he said that, he was lying.”
She rubbed her temples some more, and in the silence his anger receded. “I don’t want to talk about this. There’s no point. All I want is for my head to not explode.”
He didn’t want her to suffer, but he hesitated before he said, “I can help with the pain. If you’re interested.”
Hands still at her temples, she looked up. “Like before?”
“A little different, but yeah. Like that.”
“I would love that.”
He held out a hand. “I need to touch you.” He was thinking about how she felt when she let go of that iron control. He was seeing himself doing her when she was psychically open to him. In his imagination she wasn’t uptight or fastidious. She was hot and naked and totally wild for him. And all that magic was his. “Tell me if you have any problems. Okay?”
She leaned forward, squinting a little as she stretched to put her hand in his. Her skin was pale compared to his, her fingers warmer than he expected from a human woman. When she was upright, he took a step closer and released her hand. He pressed a fingertip to her forehead. Her eyes fluttered closed. She had some serious defenses. It was like trying to get through an iron wall.
She pried open one eye. “This is relaxed.”
She did, and he made his connection. Like before, he kept himself blocked from her. She couldn’t get to him, but he was open to her psychic state. No need to be subtle now about what he was doing. Her eyes flew open, wide, stark, and her pain lanced through him like it was being delivered by a semi.
Telos siphoned off the reaction as best he could, but her head was a river of pain. Aspirin wouldn’t have done a goddamned thing for her. He ended up straddling her, one hand on the back of the couch, the palm of his other hand resting on her forehead while he bled out the agony.
Compared to a trained mage, her magic was stunted, but right now he was in direct contact, and he was bowled over by the way her power folded over and under and around itself. Stunted, but concentrated. He had a predictable reaction to that. Getting this close to her magic? Almost better than sex. Eventually, he released the link between them. “Better?”
She released a slow breath, looking at him through half-closed eyes. “Yes.” She touched his cheek. He didn’t look away. Neither did she. His body had a stimulating reaction to that. “Thank you.”
He was aware of how close they were physically; only inches apart. That she was human and that his species was made to get in close like this. He took in the curve of her chest and the buttons down her blouse. She smelled like something flowery. This was probably a mistake, but then again, he had a hard time believing getting laid by a beautiful woman was ever wrong, so he stayed where he was, his thighs on either side of hers, his hands on the back of the couch.
“I’m not your type, Khūnbish.” She didn’t move though. Interesting.
“The point, Fensic, is who I think is my type.”
She narrowed one eye at him. “Really?”
“You never once thought about doing it with me?” Right out there in the open. God, he hoped she said yes.
He got a glimpse of her smile, and it was really hot, seeing her smile that way. “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“In a house this big, the neighbors won’t hear a thing.”
She pushed herself straighter, and he leaned back a little. Not much. “I can’t have sex with you. Jesus.” She held her head in her hands. “Not now. Not when I’m having so much trouble with my control.”
“Did I ever tell you about my name?” When she was looking at him again, he said, “My Mongolian name.”
“Khūnbish. It’s the kind of name parents give their kid if they want to keep the gods from noticing him. To avoid bad luck. My name’s like that, but for a different reason.”
He liked the way her eyes stayed on him. “Khūnbish translates to ‘not a human being.’ Roughly speaking.”
Her chest rose and fell while she processed that. “That’s a good name for you.”
“It’s accurate.” He brushed a fingertip over the soft skin along the side of her throat. Silky. Smooth human skin. She tilted her chin to get a better look at him. He moved his hands to her waist, thumbs in front, fingers around her sides. “Here’s the thing, Fensic. You don’t need to worry about control with me. Because I am not a human. I can keep your magic locked up tight while I do you any way you like it.” He smiled. “I like it dirty. How about you?”
What little Lys had heard about demons had to be considered of dubious reliability. She knew that. Nevertheless, given what facts she did have, if they were even partially accurate, she ought to be terrified of Khūnbish. Except he wasn’t attacking her or taking over her will or doing any of the other horrific things demons supposedly couldn’t help doing to humans. She was afraid of Michael, and that said something. Afraid of the human. Not afraid of the demon.
He was watching her. “What?”
“I can’t decide if I don’t care what you are or if I’m just too stressed out to worry about it.”
“Either way is good for me.” He laughed, low and sexy. The sound sent a shiver of arousal down to settle in her belly. Out of habit, she immediately shut herself off from the reaction. Not safe. She wasn’t safe with Telos Khūnbish. But what if he wasn’t safe with her?
She wasn’t in a good place right now. She stared anywhere but at Khūnbish. The room they were in had a fireplace at one end and a large television mounted on one wall. Most of the furniture was dark, like the sofa they were on. She closed her eyes, but that didn’t help at all. Eyes closed or open, he pressed in on her senses so thoroughly it hardly mattered if she could see him.
He was close enough that she could touch him if she wanted to. If she dared. She didn’t. Physically, he was large and all muscle. His stomach was flat, obvious even with his loose and untucked T-shirt. His arms bracketed her, closing her in, though she didn’t feel claustrophobic.
“Confession?” she said.
“That depends. Will it turn me on?”
“Jesus. What is with you? Stop it.”
“No.” He leaned over her. “Tell me all your kinky sex secrets, and I will make them come true.”
She eyed his chest and allowed herself the fantasy that it would be safe for her to touch him more than accidentally. What if she could? “I’ve always had a thing for a man who looks like he loves the gym more than he does people.”
“Sorry. I love women way more than the gym. Also, I never go to those places. Not necessary for me.”
She huffed a laugh. “I do like to look at you.” She lifted her gaze to his face. “I know that’s shallow of me.”
“Be as shallow as you want.” He moved in closer. “Touch me. I won’t bite.”
She wanted to. God, she wanted to. Experience said she and Khūnbish shouldn’t be this close. She ought to get away from him and keep herself in the familiar isolation that kept everyone safe. But she wasn’t reacting to him the way she did around normal people or around Michael, and there were all these feelings she was having that she wasn’t good at dealing with. At all. “I think that would be dangerous.”
“I live for danger.”
“I mean it.” She fisted her hands. “It’s not safe. Something physical between us.”
“Fensic, what am I going to do with you?” His voice was pure honey, and she felt the effect all the way to all the parts of her that wanted to be penetrated.
“I don’t know.” She was back to eying his chest and the curve of his thighs and having more and more trouble remembering why this was a bad idea. He seemed so certain it wasn’t. “What are you going to with me?”
“Suppose, just for a moment, that we could do it safely. Don’t give me that look. Suppose, Fensic. Does it matter to you what I am?”
“No. No, it really doesn’t.” She lifted a hand to punctuate her statement, only she misjudged the distance between them. The backs of her fingers brushed his chest. Her breath caught and for a precious instant she was absolutely floored by the potential for sex. With Telos Khūnbish. Jesus. What if they could?
He glanced between them, casual, like there was no big deal with how close they were or that they were alone or that he wasn’t human. The back of her hand thrummed with the physical echo of the unintended contact. She shoved away that profoundly agonizing reaction. “That feels good. When you touch me, and you react like that.”
She made herself look at his face. His eyes were not normal. Orange and bronze flecks swirled in the deep black of his eyes. “Maybe it’s different for you, but for me, hypothetical sex isn’t satisfying. It’s frustrating as hell.”
He leaned closer. With more of his weight on his arms, the muscles of his upper arms bulged and flexed. “What do you say we get naked and see how much real world fun we can have?”
It was the way he said the words that rocked her, the way he was so sure this could happen. Instinctively, she kept herself blocked off. All those disturbing reactions of hers got put into ice; observed but no longer felt. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Only the ones I bring home.”
“Not really.” He stopped smiling. Just like that he was a thousand times more intense, and her blocks didn’t seem so invulnerable. “That’s not necessary, you doing that.” He touched her head. The contact turned into a caress she didn’t have the will to avoid. The reaction burned through her, melting the ice that kept her separate. Her arousal felt foreign at the same time every erogenous nerve she possessed went on overload. He drew a finger down her temple to her jaw. “You don’t have to live like this.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I hear Nikodemus has magekind who work with people like you. Street witches and mages who have problems with their magic.”
She forced herself not to react to anything. She spread her fingers flat on the sofa and concentrated on the fabric against her skin. Feeling nothing was familiar and safe, and right now she wasn’t safe. His finger reached her chin, only it wasn’t his fingertip that touched her but the back of his hand, and she fell further into disastrous arousal.
“We’ll call him and find out. After.”
“After what?” The moment the words left her mouth she got what he meant. What a stupid, boneheaded thing to say. She didn’t have much time to feel like an idiot, though.
He kissed her, hard and fast. After a stunned moment during which her brain was less useful than mush, she understood one thing: she wasn’t spinning out of control. Not even a glimmer of free fall. And she felt wonderful and frightened and terrifyingly good.
She tilted her chin toward him and let it happen. Tongues got involved. The immediacy of her physical reaction threatened to overwhelm her. She savored the feel of his mouth, the taste of him, the sandy scent, her sense of how much bigger he was than her. Reactions she barely recognized flowed through her. A river of desire that unsettled her at the same time she wanted more. More and more.
When he leaned back from that, his smile remained smug, and she didn’t care. She really didn’t. “After I fuck your brains out.”
She brushed a finger over the stubble of his goatee, then filled her free hand with his black, black hair, and he dipped his head to make that easier for her. A little too late, she realized she’d obliterated what was left of the physical barrier between them. Verbal banter she could pretend was no big deal. Touching someone the way she was touching Khūnbish changed everything.
Then again, she wasn’t getting even a flicker from him.
He moved his lower body closer to her, all that hard male flesh. He focused on her chest, and she had two opposite reactions: that his stare was both crude and unbearably arousing. He dragged his attention to her face, and the look was pure heat. She lifted her hand from the couch and set her palm on his upper chest. Nothing happened except between her legs. She ached for him there. She left her hand where it was. His smug grin broadened.
“I know you’re keeping me out of your head, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t get through. Or that I wouldn’t lose control.”
“God, I hope so.”
She pushed against his chest. Not very hard, though. “We have to be sure. Bad things happen when I lose control.”
His grin was pure evil. “Lucky me.”
“No. Not lucky you.” She made a fist of her hand on his chest. My God, that was solid muscle under her hand. How, when he wasn’t human? “You saw what happened to Jack. I lost it for a second, and now he’s dead. Trust me, orgasms aren’t good for me.”
He frowned. “What, did you just lie there while Michael got himself off?”
“It wasn’t like that.” Still not a flicker from him. What if he was right? What if this was safe? With her other hand, she brushed his hair over his shoulder, but most of it fell back, cool against her fingers, sliding over her skin. “As long as I have control of myself, everything’s okay. I can do the things he likes.”
He kept scowling. “Did he know you were doing that?”
“We can be intimate without me having an orgasm.”
He pushed back enough that her hand fell away from his chest. He gaped at her. “Are you saying he didn’t get you off? Ever?”
“You don’t understand.” She disentangled her fingers from his hair, frustrated. Irritated. “We couldn’t risk me feeling much. It wouldn’t have been safe for him otherwise.”
“You just closed your eyes, is that what you’re saying?”
She shrugged. “It was the only time someone touched me more than accidentally.”
“Jesus, Fensic. That just isn’t right. It’s criminal, that’s what it is.”
“It had to be that way. Besides, men are very visual. Once they get to see you naked…”
He stilled and some of his smugness returned. “Does that mean I get to see you naked?”
“Fensic.” His muscles flexed some more. “Listen. We can do it without you needing to block yourself off. I won’t lie, I’m counting on you getting me off, but you can believe I’ll make it happen for you, too. You’ll feel when I touch you, I promise.” The rasp of his voice set off a whole new level of arousal. From the change in his eyes, he knew it, too. She wanted that to be true, more than anything. “Anything you want. Any way you want it.”
She brought her hands up and rested them on the curve of each biceps. Pure muscle. She got nothing from him, not even when she tried. Nothing happened. No bitter tang in her mouth, no images slamming into her head. The couch, which wasn’t small, now wasn’t nearly big enough. She whispered one of Michael’s pet phrases. “Demons deceive by their very nature.”
He gave her a decidedly dirty grin. Her stomach tightened. While she watched, he took off his flannel shirt and dropped it on the floor. His arms were cut. “He’s right in a way. And totally, entirely wrong.”
“What’s the lie, Khūnbish?” This time she didn’t cut herself off from her reactions. She let them flow through her, and she found out the sizzle underneath her skin felt good. So did the heaviness in her breasts and between her legs. She wanted him to touch her again, all those soft, gentle caresses. She wanted to know what it would feel like to be touched without being removed from herself.
“Complicated things are all kinds of gray. You know that. Demons and mages? That’s complicated. Demons and witches? Even more complicated.”
Lys gazed into his face, distracted by sensations she’d not permitted herself to feel except in the most distant way. “Michael says demons have a non-human form. Is that true?”
The way his body tensed and the flicker in his eyes made her wonder if he’d prefer to avoid the truth. “You humans. So tied to one form.” He tipped his chin at her and clapped a hand to his chest. “This is real. As real as my other forms.”
“What else do you look like?”
A smile of sly invitation curved his mouth, a dark and inviting look that made her sex throb. “A fucking monster.”
“Be serious.” She curled her fingers harder around his arm. Solid. Real. Warm.
“I am. You want to do a monster, we can do that. Whatever gets you off is good with me.”
Her mind clicked back to a state of cold unfeeling, and that felt safe. She knew how to deal with him when she was like this. “What gets you off?”
“Since you ask, human women get me off every time.” He moved from his straddle and sat next to her. She forced herself not to drag him back. But he moved close. Close enough that his side pressed against hers. He leaned in, and his smile was all about sex. His attention wandered in a long, slow perusal of her body that stripped away the barriers between her and the world. One elbow on the top of the couch, with his free hand, he popped a button of her shirt. “I love sex with human women.” His gaze flicked over her again. “I think I need sex with you. I really do.”
“So you do deceive.” She put her palm where his heart ought to be. Must be there, because she felt it beating. Was that part of the illusion? Or was there really a heart there? She pushed against his chest, gently. “Do you tell your partners what else you are?”
“Hell no,” he said in his whiskey and smoke voice. “If I did that, I might never get laid.”
“How many people have you told about your thing?” He tapped a finger to her head. “Besides, where’s the lie? This is exactly what I look like in my human form.”
She shifted her legs, and he looked over her body again. One of his hands settled on her upper thigh. Out of habit, she closed herself off from the shiver of arousal.
“Hey,” he said in a low voice. “I told you. That’s not necessary.” He fingered the next button of her blouse, a motion that forced her to drop her hand from his chest. “You know it’s true. Stop fighting it. You know we’ll be good together.” He reached around her and unfastened her hair clip, then ran his fingers through it. “There,” he said softly. “You’re not the ice queen anymore. Not that I don’t like that, but you’re even hotter like this.”
His hand curved over her thigh, and she looked down. His fingers were long with blunt but perfect nails. They weren’t manicured, but his nails were strong and even, without a single blemish. His hand was not soft or gentle-looking. Her breath got short when he moved his hand to her bare skin underneath her skirt. She sucked in air as he searched higher.
He looked human, but he wasn’t. Not at all.
He reached the top of her thigh, and she spread her legs enough for him to cup her. No one, no one ever had touched her there without her being emotionally shut down. Such a casual touch, a gentle pressure and then his finger sliding along her there, pressing against her underwear, and she was nearly out of her mind with the tension.
She blocked it out. All of it. The surge of desire. The tension. Everything receded into frost.
“Don’t do that.” He curled his other hand around her head and pulled her toward him. “I want to make you come so hard you scream my name.”
She met his gaze, with the swirling colors drifting through the black. “I don’t know how.”
“We’ll practice. Until you get it perfect.”
He kissed her. His mouth touched hers and there was no pain streaking through her head, no loss of connection with the physical world, no taste of bitter metal. She couldn’t remember what it was like to kiss a man like this. There was tongue involved again, and she was melting.
He pulled back, but his hands stayed where they were, one on her thigh, the other at the back of her head. “That was nice,” he said. “Really nice. More?”
“How do you do that? Keep me from reacting to you?”
He set himself to unbuttoning her blouse. “This form looks human. I’ve been passing for years. But I’m not human.” He grinned at her, so cocky. He touched the middle of his forehead. “We can fuck like bunnies and nothing happens except one of us gets tired. And it won’t be me.”
She laughed at the absurd image. Her fingers gripped his arm, and his smile was slow and wicked.
“I need your permission for this.”
“I don’t want to run afoul of the warlord who controls this territory. There’s rules about how things have to happen when a human knows what we are. If I wanted to, I could take control of your mind. I won’t do that. But the risk is there.”
“Possession, you mean?”
“No. But I could do that, too. If you gave permission. But that isn’t what I want from you.” He leaned in and licked the side of her throat. She held back a groan. “What I want from you is hot sex. You and me naked and maybe”—he drew back and tapped the side of his head—“a little of this going on. If you say it’s okay.”
She nodded. “Informed consent.”
“Say the words.”
“It’s okay.” She breathed in and lowered her defenses.
“Relax.” He pressed his finger to her forehead.
“You can.” His eyes changed color. Not black but bronze and gold. “Anything you want.” He curled his hand around hers and brought her fingers to just beneath his lower lip. She picked out her reactions, examining each one. The heat that transferred from his hand to her fingers, the anticipation of his muscled body and what his bare skin would feel like. The way her body quivered with want. He whispered, like smoke and whiskey. “Any way you want it.”
The tension in her weighed down her eyelids so that she could only open them slowly. When she did, he was staring at her chest with eyes that were worlds away from normal. In the dimness of the room, she spread her fingers over his shoulders. Muscles flexed and bunched under her fingers.
The color of his eyes shifted again. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“I thought you wanted me to be bad.”
“Can you do that for me?”
Khūnbish unfastened a few more buttons of her shirt, and a shiver spread from her breasts to her belly. She let it happen.
Lys’s hands fell to her sides because she didn’t how to process her body’s reactions. Khūnbish was so close, her left hand landed on his thigh, well above his knee. The curve of his muscled thigh set off a whole new set of reactions in her, and she froze up. After so many years living with the guilt of what happened when she lost control, she couldn’t let go anymore. Not the way he wanted.
Khūnbish sat back, but kept a finger hooked in her blouse. “Are you okay?”
She was momentarily lost in the features of his face, the black hair, the planes and angles of his cheeks. The shape of his eyes and mouth. She tried to let go of her blocks again, and even half-assed success let her feel enough of her arousal to be astonished. Was that sexual hunger really hers? Jesus, she’d let Khūnbish do anything he wanted as long as he could make her feel like this. As long as he’d be safe.
The rasp of his voice curled inside her, and she imagined what it would be like to hear him whisper her name during that first push when she was accepting him inside her, and her body was wound even tighter than this. He shifted beside her, and his thigh bunched and released under her hand. She tightened her fingers, and more colors flecked his eyes. “I’m okay.”
“Good to know.” He went back to unbuttoning her blouse. Every now and then one of his fingers brushed the bare skin of her stomach, lower each time. With more effort than she liked, she relaxed her mind and took stock of her physical state. Her breasts felt amazingly heavy. Each breath made her long for him to cup her, hold her, make her nipples peak. She flashed on an image of him taking her in his mouth and that just about did her in again. She sank deeper into sensations she’d only ever felt at a remove.
He drew a finger over the exposed upper curve of her breast, above her bra, and her skin leapt with tiny quivers that followed the contact and made her wish for more. Much more. His eyes swirled with trails of color again, orange amid the bronze and gold. “Have I told you how hot you are? Because you are. Really hot.”
She loved his voice, the way that smokey edge wound around her. So different from the way he sounded when they were just business and trial prep. She pressed her hands flat to his chest while he reached under her skirt again, both hands this time, up high. He hooked his fingers into the top of her underwear. All the breath in her body stopped while she fought to stay present.
He tugged, and she lifted her hips to let him drag her panties down her thighs. She was actually letting this happen. She was slick. Aroused. Heavy between her legs, and it was the most amazing thing for her to feel the immediacy of her sexual arousal. He watched her from under half-lidded eyes as he moved so he could slide her underwear all the way off her. She sucked in a breath. Her body thrummed with arousal, a deep, sensual ache that lived inside her. When his fingers brushed up her legs, she panicked and without warning her icy remove snapped on.
The emotion of her failure tangled up in her throat. She was going to fall apart if this kept up. Part of her was perversely relieved because her closed-off state was familiar, but the loss of her connection to her body was excruciating.
She sucked in a shaky breath when Khūnbish pressed his palm to the side of her head. He didn’t look angry or annoyed, but then she didn’t really know what he was like. Aside from her few disastrous encounters when she was still a teen, her only sexual experiences had been with Michael. Sterile. Emotionless for her. Not a fair comparison for anyone.
“Hey, my smoking hot little street witch. Come back.” The fingers of his other hand trailed upward from her stomach, over her bra to her upper chest. She swallowed hard and managed to release some of that automatic hold over herself. The sizzle came back, beckoning at the same time it set off alarms. He leaned in. “It’s been a bad couple of days for you, I know.” His eyes flicked down to her cleavage. “I can help you with that. The trouble you’re having.”
“Let me make a connection.” With one finger, he tapped her temple. “Here.”
She froze again. “You mean take over.”
“No.” He hesitated. “I could. But I don’t mean that. I mean you let me in here.” He tapped her temple again, but she was distracted by his thigh pressing against hers and the fact that her underwear was somewhere on the floor. “If it doesn’t help, I’ll stop, okay? I promise.”
In Michael’s view of the world, Khūnbish was lying in order to get control of her will because that’s what demons did. The question was, did she buy into the paranoia, or did she trust the man who’d damn near lost his freedom in order to help her? She moved away from all that ice. “Okay.”
“This will be fucking amazing.”
She felt a presence in her head. A pressure. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant. It didn’t hurt, and it didn’t do anything to whatever was wrong inside her head. Khūnbish, however, loomed large, not just physically now, but also in his impact on her senses. Incredible. She touched a hand to his cheek and this time the panic stayed in the distance.
He let his eyes fall closed and then breathed in. When he opened them again, there was nothing but gold-tinted bronze. He touched her, and she stayed present. Such warm fingers along her skin. Every caress sent a shiver of arousal through her to settle between her legs. He slipped off her pumps, one then the other. When he came back, he stood and pulled her to her feet, bringing her close. His hands cupped her ass and kept her tight against him, her curves against his muscled body. No question he felt like an aroused human male. She didn’t get as much as a mental peep from him. She couldn’t see even a glimpse of his future, and it was such a relief. Such a blessed relief.
Telos put his mouth by her ear and pressed a kiss there, then a flick of his tongue at the side of her throat. She let her head fall back, and he kissed her harder. Hard enough that maybe tomorrow she’d have a hickey like some high school girl with her first boyfriend. She melted against him.
“Yes,” he whispered. “I have wanted this for a long time, Fensic.”
She was going to go up in flames and feel every minute of it. His hands skimmed the backs of her thighs, very high up. She slid her hands underneath his T-shirt. His skin was smooth. Alive beneath her fingers. He felt good.
He let go of her to grab the bottom of his shirt and yank it over his head. His torso was just as cut as she’d guessed. He kicked off his shoes and while she watched, he braided his hair into a partial queue he left hanging down his back. He didn’t have much body hair. Just smooth, brown skin over a lot of muscle. Skin without a single blemish. No moles, no scars, no scratches or birthmarks. His physical perfection was eerie.
His jeans went next, underwear in the same motion. If it hadn’t been for that sense of him in her head she might have panicked again. He took a step back and stood with his hands at his sides.
He was naked. Telos Khūnbish was standing in front of her completely naked, and he was gorgeous and looking at her in a way that brought on another set of butterflies in her belly. This was happening. She was going to have sex without having to insulate herself from all sensation.
She made a turning motion with one hand and, with a wicked smile, he turned for her. He took his time. He was more elegantly made than she’d imagined. There was length to his limbs, despite the well-developed musculature. On his back were two vertical rows of symbols inked in black. Most of the symbols she didn’t know but she recognized some as Hebrew. He finished his turn.
She moved to one side of him and touched the markings on his back. Still present. Still feeling. “What’s the tat?”
“On a demon?”
He flashed a grin. His penis was erect and a damned impressive sight. “Good joke, if you ask me.”
“Hilarious.” It was freeing not to have to concentrate on blocking out what her body was feeling. It felt wicked and new and dangerous. Unreal.
He went to work on her blouse again. He got to the last button and dipped his head to kiss her. His mouth opened over hers and demanded that she feel pleasure. And she did. She accepted her reaction without worrying about sliding into insanity.
The tenderness of his kiss made her weak-kneed with lust. He separated the halves of her blouse, and she put her arms behind her to undo the buttons at her cuffs. By then he’d pushed her blouse off her shoulders. She let the silk fall to the floor. Her skin flushed hot as he stared at her.
“Beautiful.” He slipped his fingers under the straps of her bra. Attention on her torso, he ran his fingers several times from the front to the tops of her shoulders before he reached around and unhooked her bra. He drew it from her, and then he touched her.
She closed her eyes, concentrating on the way he touched her. The way her breasts tightened, the hardening of her nipples and the rippling shiver of arousal that shot straight to her underwear-free zone. In her head, she saw him over her, felt him inside her, felt his skin hot over hers, and there was only her anticipation.
He went for the waistband of her skirt next. Since her skirt was lined, she wasn’t wearing a slip. After it hit the floor, she kicked it aside. His gaze lingered at her breasts, hands following from there to her waist and then along her hips. The heat in his eyes shook her, the newness of him, of Telos Khūnbish touching her like this. She never wanted to forget this.
It occurred to her that she could touch him, too. She put a hand on his chest, following the midline of his body, and ended up with her hand around his penis. “Condom,” she said. “Tell me you have a condom somewhere in this house.”
His lips were parted, his pelvis tipped toward her hand. He drew a finger downward from the top of her throat along the midline of her torso, right to the top of her sex. “I don’t have diseases the way you humans do. We don’t transmit them to you, you don’t transmit them to us.”
“There’s other reasons to use condoms. I’m not on any birth control.”
“If I were human, that would be a problem.” His eyes remained fully bronze, but flecks of gold moved in them. “But I’m not. When I’m in this form, I’m not fertile.” He backed up to the couch, bringing her with him until she ended up on her back. She wanted this. Him. His penetration. He joined her. “I’ll wear one if that’s what you want, but I’m not trying to pass for human with you, and that means I don’t have to pretend a condom matters. You’re not going to get any diseases, and you can’t get knocked up.” He stretched over her. “As long as I’m in this form we can do this bareback.”
She buried her fingers in his hair. His hair slid over her skin, thick and heavy. “And if you’re not in this form?”
“Are you trying to drive me crazy? I would love to do you like that.” He set his mouth to the top of her throat, near her ear, and kissed her there. “If I change”—he dropped a kiss on her collarbone—“if that were to happen tonight, you need to understand a few other things. Just in case.”
“I’m fertile in my other forms.” He slid a hand around the back of her neck and came in for a kiss. His teeth nipped. “We procreate with humans. That’s how it works for us. Doesn’t matter if you’re on birth control. And a condom isn’t likely to work. It’s good when I’m like that, better than anything.” He practically growled as he pushed up enough to look into her face. He was dead serious. “If you want to go there, I’ll take you. I’d change back in time, but there’s never any guarantee with that. So understand this: we take care of our children. If we went that far and you ended up pregnant, you aren’t going to end up alone with a kid.”
Words bubbled up from deep inside her, regret-tinged words, words that brought back a sorrow she thought she’d buried long ago. “I’ve always wanted children. Always.”
“Do not say that. Hell, Fensic. Don’t. Not unless you mean it.” While he spoke, he touched her, deliberate touches that made her wonder how anyone survived this kind of pleasure.
“Doesn’t matter.” The words ended on a gasp because his first two fingers brushed the peak of her nipple. She felt that everywhere, it seemed, but she stayed in the right now. Right here, nothing but greedy lust for more. “Whatever is wrong with me affects me physically, too. I can’t have children.”
“Famous fucking last words.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and marveled at the smoothness of his skin. “Eight years with Michael. No protection. No kids.”
“It’s totally different with us.” His eyes flickered when he adjusted his pelvis. “I can’t wait to prove it to you.” Their naked skin touched, his sex hard against her belly. Sparks flew between them; she was sure he felt them, too. The tension was going to break her into pieces. He rocked against her.
“Touch me, Khūnbish. Please.”
A grin spread slowly across his face. “Where? Where should I touch you?”
She bowed against him, and he let his weight settle onto her. “Your favorite part, damn you.”
“Well.” His gaze traveled downward. “I love your tits.” He shifted his weight partially onto one arm and with the other cupped the side of her breast, his thumb curved around the inner curve. He took her nipple between his lips. His tongue slid around her, upward. She arched against him, following the pull of his mouth. Panic lapped at her, but then her sense of Khūnbish got bigger and that pushed away the anxiety.
She concentrated on all the places where his body made contact with hers, the ways in which her body experienced pleasure. She writhed underneath him, shifting her hips because she was ready for him to be inside her. His teeth closed on her nipple and that about sent her over the edge. He lifted his head enough to make eye contact. His tongue came out and slicked over her nipple. Still looking at her, he took her nipple between his teeth and gently bit.
She gasped. Underneath her palms, his muscles flexed, and she didn’t have to pretend it wasn’t happening. More colors raced through his pupils. His hips shifted and one of his knees slid between her thighs. Butterflies filled her belly, dipping and swooping. Anticipating his entry, she lifted her hips toward him and felt every shiver of her arousal, the glide of his palm along her side and the way his skin slipped along hers, the shift of his thumb over the curve of her breast, his breath, the dry, sandy scent of him. She put her hands on the back of his shoulders, and he buried his fingers in her hair and nipped the side of her throat, the top of her shoulder. While he did that, his hips flexed forward, and his penis was at her entrance.
He lifted his head and their eyes met, and oh, God, the slide of him into her made everything vanish except physical sensation. He paused while she adjusted to him, because, damn, he was bigger than Michael and all of this was new to her, feeling with such intensity what was happening to her. Not an atom of her existence wasn’t focused on him inside her, the way her body took him in. She lived every single moment. He let out low groan, and their gazes locked.
“Fuck, yes.” He dipped his head and kissed her while he drew slowly back. His queue fell over his shoulder and onto hers. She ran her hands down his back to his ass, round and taut with muscle. His hips flexed forward, pressing his cock deep inside her. Every nerve she possessed was centered on their joining, on her arousal. She couldn’t possibly last long.
His eyes flashed through shades of bronze and gold, flecked with orange. The colors weren’t any more normal than the rapid change from swirling color to normal black. From human to not human. His hips drew back, and her hands tightened on him. Wanting him became unbearable. “Please.”
He pushed forward, and she met the motion, felt the slide of him into her and the pressure, how she was wet for him. He kept moving until he was as far in her as possible, and while he did that, his mental presence increased, too, and she accepted that. She welcomed it, even, because it meant she could rock against him, seek the friction of his body against and inside hers. She was alive. Alive in her body, experiencing the zing of her aroused state.
Wordless now, they moved with each other. The heft of him inside her kept her on the edge of an orgasm that threatened to overwhelm her. Too much and at the same time not enough. At one point he dropped his head to her shoulder. He fit his mouth over the curve of her there, up near her throat.
He withdrew from her.
“No.” She grabbed him. “Please.”
“Wait.” He slid down her body, his mouth over her, pausing at each breast, and then between her legs, and it was shameful how fast she reached her breaking point. He laughed when she called him an awful name, and it was a joyous sound that echoed back through her.
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled them both to the floor so that she was on her knees, her forearms on the couch and him behind her, parting the folds of her body, entering her again. Hard. Moving as hard as she needed.
Her sense of him increased, his groan vibrated in her ears, in her chest, the sounds of their bodies, their breath, the hard expiration of breath at each thrust. His barely human growl vibrated in her ears and slid down her spine and wrapped around her heart. The hot, hard spiral of climax began, and he continued to thrust into her, and she adjusted herself so he’d hit all the most sensitive places. He got what she was doing, too, because he hit all those places on his own, higher, better, faster, holding her hips.
Then he did something, or her body just reached a point where there was nothing but the clench of completion. He was slamming into her now, and she let go. She let all of this happen. The only thing she wanted right now was to fall off the cliff, to get to the end of the peak she was rushing toward. He put a hand between her legs and pressed, and she rocked into that and came apart.
When it was over, when she was back to earth, he leaned over her, a hand cupping her breast, and said, “I’m not done with you yet.”
Telos was in a state of physical and psychic bliss. He could stay like this forever. He was inside Lys Fensic’s warm, slick passage, so soft and snug around his cock. He held her close against his chest, that incredible ass of hers right up against his pelvis. They both smelled like sex.
Eventually his perceptions broadened. For example, he was aware he could definitely do this again. For another, he was feeling her humanness and really feeling his lack of same, and that was good. Add in that he didn’t have to bother with passing for human, and his life was great. Fucking amazing, actually.
He brushed her hair off her nape and, with his fingers threaded in all that gorgeous blonde, he nipped the tender skin at the base of her skull. He pushed into her again and got another tingle from his fading orgasm. He didn’t want to let go. The knife-edge of his desire wove through his impressions about what he was and what she was. In the back of his head was her curiosity about his other forms. Now that cranked him something fierce.
His dick was still hard, but he pulled out of her and turned her to face him. They did a little dance as they rearranged themselves. She sank onto the floor, a hand on his shoulder, breathing hard and still a bit lost in her post-orgasmic state. He was far enough into her head, and she was distracted enough that if he wanted to, he could go after her thoughts and find out exactly how curious she was about him. He didn’t.
She blinked several times, and he allowed her reactions to flow into him. Savored them. A shudder rolled through him as his impulse to change forms surged. He braced his hands on the edge of the couch on either side of her, bracketing her with his bent legs, too. “Good?”
Her eyelids flicked up, and he connected with her gaze, pretty dark blue eyes. She was naked. After all this time thinking about her, he had her naked. Beautiful, long legs, a neat trim at her pubes, and breasts that got him thinking bad thoughts again.
“Yeah.” Her fingers tightened on the top of his shoulder. “Really good.”
She stretched, and hell if that didn’t send his mind rocketing along in fascinating directions. With her hair down and her lips swollen from kissing him and all that naked skin, he wanted to do the whole thing over, only faster and harder, and maybe sweeter, too. She gave him a wicked dirty smile and curled a hand around his dick. Because he was in her head and not currently distracted by his own carnal needs, he felt her reaction to her contact with his dick, and it turned him on.
He pushed upward. “You want more, I’m ready.”
“Is it always like that?”
Jesus. She was a grown woman, yet she’d been so fucked over by the mage that she really didn’t know what sex was like. Thinking about all the ways the mage had been screwing her over made him mad all over again. He considered lying and didn’t. “No. It’s not.” He pressed a fingertip to her forehead. “This makes it even better.”
“Right now our connection is one way, from me into you.” The hell with being careful and circumspect about the goddamned rules. “If it was two-way, you’d blow my mind. I think it would do the same for you.” God, he loved the way her eyes searched his face, and he loved the way she felt mentally. The burn of her magic was yet another turn on for him. “I can show you what that’s like.”
She had some trouble focusing, and not because she was having control issues. “How?”
He was crossing a line with her, he knew it, and it was a rush just thinking about it. “I’d take a little of your blood. Just a nick someplace.” Or a bite, he thought. “You say a couple of words, take some of my blood, and we make a psychic connection that lets you in my head.” Thinking about doing her with a two-way link was potent stuff. All this time, he realized, he’d been rocking his pelvis, fucking her hand. He looked down, and she tightened her fingers around him the perfect amount. “New feelings—oh, hell, Fensic, you’re good at that—new sensations. And besides, you didn’t scream my name loud enough that time.” He pushed up again. “I think I need to make that happen.”
“Is that so?”
“Come on,” he said in a low voice. Life just didn’t get better than this. He had a naked woman in his house, and she had her hand around his dick, hair all tousled and falling around her shoulders and a body that just didn’t quit. And he was in her head, about to find out what it was like to cross lines while he got laid. “Let’s get wild. What do you say, Counselor?”
She brought her hand down, gave some wicked-evil twist of her thumb and gripped him hard on her upward motion. “I agree. You do need to try a little harder.”
“I will. I promise I will.”
“All right then, Khūnbish. Let’s see what you can do.”
He cupped the back of her neck and kissed her hard, mouth open, lots of tongue.
Maybe it was a mistake to let himself transform even a little, but it was only enough to get a sharp edge on a fingernail. Besides, it felt good. Really, really good. Even that small change was enough to thin the barrier between his human and non-human forms, and it was great, fantastic, mind-blowing, to know it didn’t matter because he didn’t need to pass for her. He grabbed her hand, the one that wasn’t around his dick, and nicked the crook of her elbow. She sucked in a breath, and he wrapped his other hand around the one on his cock and kept her going.
He pulled his magic through him and the way that resonated with hers was better than good. He tightened his fingers around her arm, and his anticipation thinned the barrier even more. The taste of her was sweeter than he expected, sweeter than he remembered from past experience. But then he’d never done this while he was getting a hand job, either. She did that thing with her thumb again, and her fingers swept down to slide over his sac. It was like she was pulling an orgasm out of his balls.
He lifted his mouth from her arm, and already he was deeper in her head, closer to that twisted up magic she had. “Dirty and hard, Fensic. That’s how I like it.”
The smile she gave him came with a big dose of her emotional state. She was turned on almost as much as he was. Still holding her arm, he grabbed the back of her head and hardly had to bear down at all because she got that he wanted her mouth. She blew his mind, too. Didn’t take her but two minutes to make him come, and while he did, he got deeper into her.
He kept his fingers tangled in her hair when she sat up. “I want you in my head. Now.” He captured her chin in his hand and swept his thumb across her lips. “For that we need the blood bond I told you about. That takes some magic. You ready?”
“Yes.” Her eyes were big and nearly all pupil.
He told her the words she needed to say. She said them, and he opened a cut at the side of his throat, just above his collar bone. “Hell yeah,” he whispered when she put her mouth there. The pull went directly to his cock.
As soon his blood hit her tongue, the two-way connection jumped to life. He wished she’d bite a little harder. She went still when she realized she was getting his thoughts and feelings. He waited for her to adjust to how they were now. She bit him again. Harder. The way he wanted her to.
Desire flashed hot. Sexual desire, sure, but more than that. His species had evolved to reproduce with humans, and that instinct flooded him, drove him. Practically drowned him. He let her see and feel what he wanted them to do to each other. She lifted her head.
“Jesus, Telos,” she whispered.
“You have to say yes.” He was frantic for a yes. She wanted to know. He wanted her to know. “You have to say you’re okay with me doing you in my other form or it can’t happen.”
“Yes. I am okay with that.”
“It might get rough. And since I’m here”—her sense of him in her head increased—“that means I could make you do things you don’t want to.”
“Could or will?”
“Could.” He rubbed his chin. “Could. Not will.”
She sat up enough to kiss him on the mouth. A quick pressure.
“You sure? You have to answer yes or no, or I can’t.” He could, of course. That was the crux of the troubles between demons, humans, and the magekind. A demon could always take a human against her will. It’s why, centuries ago, the magekind had started killing demons. It’s why the warlord was enforcing the rules against that. While he hadn’t formally aligned himself with Nikodemus, he wasn’t keen on running afoul of him. Word was he had assassins to make sure everyone played fair.
He stood, bringing her with him. “I want a bed for this.”
He almost didn’t turn on lights in his bedroom since he was halfway to a transformation that made his vision preternaturally acute, but he clicked on the lamp by the bed and turned it to face the wall. He fell back on his mattress. She came with him, and he set his hands around her waist and lifted her up. She was so gorgeously naked, and he was going to do things with her he hadn’t done with anyone in years. Decades.
She knew what he was going for. She bent down and braced herself on his shoulders while he pushed inside her, and the friction felt so good, she was so soft inside that he vibrated with the need for more. He let her take in what it was he wanted them to do.
Her hair fell around her face as she bent closer. “Show me.”
He withdrew from her body before he let the transformation happen. His senses became sharper, his body bigger. The texture of his skin changed to something more like soft hide. His body turned color; bronze, gold and black. He took on more mass, larger torso, longer limbs, and his skin, his hide, burned hotter. He was the monster he’d promised her.
Quiet covered them. Deep and wide and while she kept the silence, Telos didn’t move but for the expansion of his chest as he breathed. They remained touching, hide to skin. In the quiet, her mind stayed unrestrained. It would be so easy to take control of her. Make her his so he could do whatever he wanted to.
Slowly, she raised a knee, let it fall to one side while she arched toward him.
A low growl came from his throat. He got them missionary, and he fucked her hard, and she answered the need in him. Sex like this was better than he remembered. All that twisted-around and convoluted magic of hers aroused him beyond belief. Her humanness intensified all his reactions. He went harder, giving into his need, and once he understood she was okay with him getting rough, he used his size and weight, too.
His mind went out ahead of where he was at this moment, and it was like catching a wave, there was no stopping the momentum. He’d spent so long passing for human, so much time in his human form, that he hit peaks he’d forgotten existed. He reached for that core of magic in her, and he could touch it. Bathe in it. He pried open his eyes, and she was looking at him, cupping a hand to a face that couldn’t possibly look right to her, and her eyes were a well, deep and intimate. Her belly pressed against him, her breasts were soft and there just wasn’t much about her that wasn’t exactly what he craved.
And the magic. How the hell had she managed to survive with any part of her sanity intact? She ought to have died coming into that kind of power with no one to help her learn how to control it. He worked one hand underneath her shoulder, careful not to hurt her with a talon, and her magic was there for him. Right here, and even if he wanted to he might not be able to take it all in. She knew what he wanted, and turned her head, exposing her throat to him. He fit his mouth there and bit down hard enough for his teeth to draw blood and give him a deeper taste of her.
Her sharp intake of breath was sweet in his ears. She fell deeper into his head as the tang of her blood spread over his tongue, and, for a moment, he couldn’t see a thing. Then there was this weird moment when he thought about how he could bind her to him permanently, and, in his head, in their shared mental space, he could see it happening like he was watching a movie, except he was immersed in it. Living it. She was his, and he was fucking her in this form, coming in her.
And then he was back in the present, the now, and he was hard inside her, thrusting with his emotions closer to the edge because, for him, this was starting to be mostly about the imperative to procreate. He withdrew because he was too close, and she turned onto her side, breathing hard. She ran her palm over him, over his face, his back, his torso, and then she gave him head, which he already knew she was really good at. He wanted his dick inside her so bad, he didn’t let her go for long.
With the blood-enhanced link they had going, they couldn’t tell whether words or thoughts were uttered or merely accessible through their connection. Didn’t care much, either. He sat her on the edge of the mattress, slid to the floor on his knees, between her legs, and he used his mouth on her, sliding, sucking, touching until she was shaking. His ice-queen was hot. Unbelievably hot. He was enveloped by her reactions, and it was natural for him to ramp it up for them both. The sex turned raw and his magic hooked deeper into her because his very nature when he was like this was to kickstart her reproductive physiology.
What he needed was to be pounding into her, making her scream while he had a mind-blowing climax. He wouldn’t be remotely human when it happened, either. He forced himself to push away from her and wait for the edge to fade. He was jumpy with the need to nail her.
“Stop it.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward her. “Stop holding back.”
“I know what you told me.” She took his face between her hands, and, hell, she was naked, and he was all wrapped up in her head, and she was in his. She knew what he saw and how he felt about it; her sleek body, her hair down around her shoulders, pale skin slick with sweat, the scent of her. She knew what he felt, what he was thinking, that he wanted her hard and rough and under his control. “You were very clear about the risks.”
With a growl, he flipped her onto her back again, and she shouted when he slammed into her. She held him while he pumped hard and fast, and she didn’t have any trouble keeping up. She even knew when to turn her head to the side to expose her throat for him again. More blood from the nick he’d made there the first time. Hot and sweet, tangy.
They did it hard, fast, and dirty, and she was just amazingly good. They were amazingly good together. They were so tightly linked psychically he could hardly tell whose reactions belonged to whom. One of them screamed when she came, and it rolled through him, too. His talons sliced into the bed covers and she was in his head, connected with him, and her magic pulled at him because she wasn’t blocking anything.
He dropped into that weird mental space where he wasn’t in the present any more. He was in some kind of free fall that felt damn close to bliss.
His magic spreads through her, changes something in her, changes him. When he comes, it’s overwhelming for her. She calls out. His name. His name and when she finishes shuddering with her climax, he’s still in his other form.
Back in his head, hers? He had to work at controlling himself, and making sure he was aware enough to change back before it was too late. Not yet, though. Not yet. She wrapped her long legs around him, up high around his hips, meeting him thrust for thrust, and the release that had been building hit them both, blew them away in a gut-wrenching, breath-stealing orgasm that turned them inside out. He went deep into her magic and let the storm roll over them.
When he could breathe again, her arms were tight around his shoulders, her legs wrapped tight around his hips. He had a hand on her ass, holding her against him. He was still changed. Not even remotely human. He’d come inside her. No protection, not that it would have mattered. No change back to human.
The hell of it was, he was up for doing it again, and she knew it and wanted that astonishing, doubled, mind-bending climax as much as he did. She needed what that bastard Michael had denied her all this time. She blinked a couple of times, and arched her hips against him. More. Again.
He shifted into another form and they did it again, missionary because he had wings in this form. Slower this time, sweeter even, so that when he knew he was perilously close, he wasn’t expecting to be annihilated the way they had been before. He expected that this time he would be able to change back before it was too late. He believed it to his core. But he didn’t change. Couldn’t. Didn’t want to. What they were doing answered something in her, gave her something she needed. She took just as much as he gave. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Eventually, he withdrew from her and let his body return to his human form so he could lie on his back, though their psychic connection stayed in place. He was boneless with pleasure. Sated. He took her hand and pressed it to his chest. “You need to move in here.”
After a bit, when she might still have been recovering, she said, “Not a good idea.”
“You should be here when you have my kid.”
She turned onto her side and cupped his face before she leaned in to kiss him. “I don’t think—”
Telos lifted his head, concentrating on the change in his proofing.
Lys frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“You need to get dressed. Right now.”
Apparently, Michael had a talented tracker.
Telos stood in the center of his living room with all kinds of wrong flowing through him. His skin crawled. The silence felt wrong. Too quiet in the house, way too quiet outside. Michael was out there, no question about that. He was probably still high on copa and hyped from his earlier kill. The ritual murder of a demon would have added to the mage’s power.
To one side of him, Lys fastened the last buttons of her blouse. She kicked her pumps under the couch. Smart. Great looking shoes, but a bitch for her if she had to run, and potentially in the way if she left them there. Deftly, she slicked back her hair and refastened it in her clip. She grabbed her purse, took out her ID, some bank cards and cash, and shoved her bag into one of the cubby holes in his entertainment center. She headed for him.
“Hold still.” She stuffed the items from her purse into the back pocket of his jeans and gave his ass a pat. “Keep it safe, will you?”
With a crack like ice breaking, one of the hundreds of carved wooden medallions that made up his early warning system snapped in half.
Beside him, Lys went still. “What was that?”
“Company.” He pointed at the cracked medallion. “They react to our kind, yours and mine, who don’t have permission to be in my house. When they break like that, it means my company isn’t waiting for an invitation to come in.”
He grunted. Another of the medallions cracked. For about ten seconds, he considered locking Lys in the server room with a pile of blankets to keep her warm, but if he did that and Michael got to him, she wouldn’t be safe no matter where she was. If he got taken alive, she was fucked. If he got killed, they’d eventually find her, and she’d be trapped. Same result.
He walked to the window and took a look outside. He didn’t see anyone out there but that didn’t mean much. Another of his wards cracked. He glanced at the line of medallions around the perimeter of his ceiling. Several of the carved faces were no longer smiling. One was frozen in a scream. His pulse sped up. Michael wasn’t playing around. With this proofing going off like this, there had to be more than just one or two magehelds. Plus the tracker good enough to have found them this fast.
“We call for help.” He pulled out his phone and brought up the contact he’d sent to Lys. He’d known for the last year or more he couldn’t stay unaffiliated much longer. This bullshit with Michael was only pushing a decision he’d already made. He was fine with that. From what he’d heard, there were worse warlords to tie himself to than Nikodemus.
“Are you calling the police?”
“Nikodemus.” Telos kept one eye on the window. “Get the lights. Leave that one on. In the corner there. Kill the rest.”
Lys found the wall switch and flicked the lights off. On the other end of the call, a woman answered the phone, and that wasn’t right. He was about to disconnect when the woman said, “I represent Nikodemus.”
Telos said, “That so?”
“Yeah.” Short and assured.
“Who is this?”
“The warlord’s witch?” Not just a representative of the warlord. More like his damned other half.
There was a brief silence. “Yes.” He didn’t give a shit if she was pissed off. “What can I do for you?”
“I need some help here,” he said into the phone. He shifted his weight between his feet. A warlord who didn’t protect his own wouldn’t last long. The question was how diligently he’d protect someone who wasn’t sworn to him.
“For now.” He felt a world of understanding in the silence that followed, and that went a long way toward making him think he did have the right person on the phone.
“Can I get a name?”
He went back to the window as he gave Carson his name. The woman whistled softly. “Honor to hear from you.” Then she was all business. “Situation?”
He looked out the window, and this time there were people out there who weren’t vanilla humans. He did a quick count. “There’s a mage outside here with six magehelds that I can see.” There were probably more at the back, but other than the reactions of his proofing, he had no way of knowing for sure. From the way his wards were going off, there was at least one on the roof. “He’s already tried to take me once. He had blood up to his elbows when I saw him earlier today, and two magehelds fresh out of the box.”
“No kidding.” The rituals the magekind performed to take a demon’s power involved removing his still-beating heart. Blood was unavoidable. “He’d recently cracked open a talisman. I let him know how I felt about that. He tried to kill me, and now he’s here, and I will rip off his fucking head if I have to.”
“Michael.” He turned around and kept his eyes on Lys. She was near the couch, pale but calm enough. “I’ve got his street-witch here with me.”
“Lys Fensic, right?”
After a pause, Carson said, “Can you trust her?”
He held Lys’s gaze. “Can I trust her?” he said for her benefit. “Yeah. I can trust her.” He and Lys made eye contact, and he felt the nullity from her that he’d previously mistaken for vanilla. Now he knew it was the result of her iron-control over her magic. “We consummated when I was changed. She needs to stay alive.”
She let out a breath. “Understood.”
“Michael isn’t fucking around with this. He wants her head. If he takes me, who do you think he’ll have kill her?”
“No half-measures. Full authorization from us.” She sounded like she gave kill authorizations every day. Maybe she did. Nikodemus had more than one assassin sworn to him. “I’m in the car now. Confirm you’re at your home?”
“I have people on the way now.”
He liked that she didn’t need to ask where he lived. That spoke volumes about Nikodemus and how he monitored his territory. “When?”
“Twenty, thirty minutes? Depends how close my assassin is to your place. I should be hearing from him any minute.”
More of his wards went off. “That might not be soon enough. I only counted the ones out front. There’s going to be more than six.”
“Whoever comes will be able to sever you if you get taken.”
He’d heard rumors about that. He didn’t believe a word. The only way to free a mageheld was to kill the mage who enslaved the poor fuck. “You better be right about that.”
“I’ll sever you myself if that’s necessary. That’s a promise.”
More medallions turned black. A thud shook the top floor of the house.
“I heard that. Hold on.” He listened to dead air for a couple of seconds. “ETA, twenty minutes. Nikodemus will want to talk with you when this is over.” Her voice lightened. “Never any obligation.”
“Good to know.”
“If what we hear about you is true, you should be able to hold off six magehelds until our people are there.”
“I told you, there’s more than six. Any of them get inside, I’m taking them down. That includes the mage.”
Lys walked to the window, but she was careful and stayed out of sight of anyone out there looking in. The windows shook harder, and on the other end of the phone call Carson waited for the noise to stop.
“If you’re under attack, do the needful.” Carson disconnected, and he was left holding his phone, staring at Lys while his house shook. She had to stay alive. At any cost.
He walked to her and cupped the side of her head. “What happens if you stop blocking out all those other minds?”
She leaned her shoulder against the wall. “Like I said, I see people’s futures. Or change them. Maybe. I’ve never been exactly sure how it works. All I know is that whatever I see in my head, it happens, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Except keep them out in the first place.”
“Do you think you can get to any of his magehelds and tell me what happens?” Telos glanced out the window. “It’s important, or I wouldn’t ask.”
She moved to the window, then looked over her shoulder at him. “It won’t work if they’re blocking me the way you do.”
“I’m counting on Michael’s enslavement bond making them vulnerable to someone like you.”
“No accidents. Shield yourself.”
Lys pushed aside the blinds. The moment she lowered her blocks her magic hit him like a wave. Michael and his magehelds weren’t going to miss what she was doing. Cycling out of control like that, it was setting him off, too. Eyes closed, she rocked on her feet. She slapped a palm on the wall beside her and moaned. Her knees buckled, but when he moved to steady her, her eyes snapped open. She held out a hand to stop him. “Do not. Do not touch me.”
A few more wards popped, most likely the result of the magehelds reacting to her. She put her blocks back in place. Still looking out the window, she said, “You were right. I could get to them.”
“You kill two of them.”
She turned, pressing her back to the wall. She was paler than when he’d met her outside her office building all those hours ago. Her arms were clasped tight beneath her breasts in an attempt to hide her shiver. He could see it, though, and feel, too, the psychic cost of opening herself like that. “The others”—she gestured at the window—“something’s going to happen to them, too.” She gave an apologetic shrug. “They won’t die.” Her mouth thinned. “I don’t understand what I see. I don’t always. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many at once. It’s hard to keep it all straight. Sorry.”
He touched her cheek. Her skin was cool. The need to protect her lived in his bones, his blood, and his magic. If she survived this, in a couple of months, less probably, they’d know if she was pregnant. “Thanks, Fensic.”
Telos took a quick look out the window. Of the magehelds he could see, two weren’t going to be any trouble for him. The other four were big, also not a problem. In the case of the demonkind, size and perfection of the human form tended to be an indication of magical power. If he had to go up against all six at once, his margin for error was going to be small but not unsurmountable. Unless there were more, and he was certain there were.
“Which ones?” he asked. She looked at him with a soul that had lived with more pain than anyone should have to endure. “Which ones do I kill?”
“It never works. Trying to change things. Something always happens.” Her eyes were desolate, her pupils huge.
“Which ones, Lys?”
She pointed. “The one by the car there. And him. Across the street. Those two.”
One of the smaller ones. One of the big ones. His still-forming plan had included going after the biggest ones first, so he wasn’t exactly comforted to know he’d only take down one of the more dangerous ones. Did that mean he was going to screw up and get taken? “How? Do you know how it happens?”
“Not an accident. And here. In this room. A lot of blood. They’re what you said. Slaves. They hate Michael. It consumes them.”
“When?” It would be nice to know how much time they had before his house was breached.
She thought about that. “I’m not sure. Soon. That’s a guess.”
He leaned the side of his shoulder against the wall and tried to figure the most likely scenario. He might have to let himself get taken to give Nikodemus’s people time to get here. After that, Lys’s survival depended on how soon he got a kill order and whether Carson could do what she promised. The windows at the back of the house started shaking. He reached for her. After a hesitation, she moved into his arms. He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t want to go into this blind if I don’t have to.”
“No.” She grabbed his hand and kissed each of his fingers. “Don’t leave me.”
He set her back a step and set both hands on her shoulders. He waited until she was looking at him. “If I know whether I die or end up taken, I’ll know how to keep you away from Michael.” He moved a hand to her belly. “You have to be safe. You have to be where Nikodemus and Carson can keep you safe.”
She closed her eyes, and her power burned down his spine again. He opened himself to her. It was as intense—more intense—than their blood bond had been upstairs. Her eyes were open, but she stared at nothing, unseeing. He cupped her elbow, keeping her upright. Slowly, her eyes opened. The desolation about killed him.
“There has to be a way to stop this.” She spread her fingers over his chest. The windows rattled again and somewhere in the house, glass broke. “I don’t want you to die.”
“Listen to me.” He brought his mouth close to hers, and she lifted her head, and well, he kissed her instead of telling her they’d done the right thing. Hungry, demanding, a full on kiss with his tongue in her mouth, his hands touching her curves, and she kissed him back as if she’d die if they ever stopped. He drew back, breathing hard. “I’d rather be dead than mageheld, you understand me? I won’t be anyone’s slave. It’s better if I die.”
Her eyes glittered with tears. “No.”
“Not your choice, Fensic.”
She had herself under control. Completely shut down. Vanilla as anything. He still had his link with her, though not to her magic. “I’m never wrong about what happens. I’m going to lose you, and it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair.”
He put one hand on the wall above her shoulder, then took her hand, turning her wrist up so he was looking at the blue veins on the tender underside of her arm, thinking things he shouldn’t be. “I’m going to change the proofing to kill once his magehelds are in. That should slow them down some. When Michael gets here, he’ll have to take me first because he knows if I take down his magehelds, he’s fucked. There’ll be a fight. We know that because I’m going to kill two of his magehelds. While that’s happening, you get the hell out.”
“And leave you?”
“Michael wants you dead. He brought along enough magehelds to be sure that happens.” He let go of her arm and put a hand on her hip. Not a grope; he just set his hand to the curve of her body. When she didn’t avoid the contact, he pulled her closer. He put his other hand on her opposite hip. His heart thudded against his ribs while she slid a palm up the side of his arm.
She touched his lips, and their connection burned him. In a good way. “What if I can twist what happens?”
His back door shattered.
Michael was here.
More wood and glass broke somewhere toward the back of the house. Lys was sick to her stomach with fear, but she ignored it. Another explosion rattled the windows and shook the structure. One of the pictures on the wall fell to the floor. She’d kill Michael with her bare hands if she had to. Behind her, Telos muttered something.
She released her blocks. Destroyed them, actually.
The familiar metallic taste coated her tongue, and she fought to keep her vision from cutting out without resisting her connection to whatever and whoever was out there. Hot air rolled through the room, raising the hair on her arms. Along the walls and near the ceiling, medallions deformed until more than a few of the faces carved in them looked like they were screaming. The effect was horrific. She clapped her hands over her ears, as if that would stop the shrieking in her head, but she kept herself open and completely and utterly vulnerable.
Her awareness of the world folded around her, twisting into a different set of stimuli. She struggled to stay open and aware because everything depended on her doing something with her magic instead of just allowing it to happen.
A new awareness shivered through her. Telos was behind her and he flared in her consciousness, white hot. Not a human being. There were more like him, not human. Different from Telos because of the poison of Michael’s enslavement of them. And there was Michael, too.
Ten. There were ten of Michael’s demons in the house. Four had come in through the front. One from the roof, five more from the back of the house. Outside, fainter threads, were four more. Fourteen magehelds under Michael’s control.
Khūnbish strode away from her in a whisper of fabric moving and the sharp pull of his magic. She recognized now the way demons registered to her and the difference between Khūnbish and the demons controlled by Michael. If she concentrated, she could separate each of them; Khūnbish, the magehelds, and Michael.
The noise receded. Windows and doors stopped shaking. What if she followed one of those vibrating patterns back to the source? She concentrated on one of them, traced it back until that one thread burned hot. She imagined cutting through it. In the back of the house, something screamed then cut off abruptly. Her sense of the magehelds changed. One less thread than before. One of the magehelds had vanished from her head.
She whispered, “Nine.”
Telos stood near the door, hands clenched at his sides. His pupils glowed orange. “I don’t know how long that will hold.” His mouth moved after the words registered in her head.
All sorts of images popped in and out of her head. Reality slipped away, but she didn’t need to be sane. She just needed to keep track of Michael and his magehelds.
“Khūnbish, do you have a gun?”
He faced her and again, the words registered in her head out of synch with her hearing and sight. “Wouldn’t stop a mageheld long enough to matter. You have to sever their spines for that. Or rip out their hearts. Or blast their magic clean out of them.” She blinked hard, but Telos wasn’t in his human form. Bigger body, sharp teeth and talons. The body that had made love to her was a formidable weapon.
The windows rattled again, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Then there was nothing but silence while she watched the faces in the medallions slowly reform to screaming horrors. Each one echoed back a tiny reflection of Khūnbish. All the medallions around the living room door cracked. A few crumbled to ash. Several more turned the color of charcoal. She heard their shrieks in her head.
Another scream rocketed through the air and another of the threads she was tracking winked out. Eight, now. Her heart pounded so loud she could hear it.
Telos didn’t have to tell her to get ready. She knew what was coming because she’d seen it happen. In the next few minutes, there were going to be eight magehelds in this room, and Telos wasn’t going to survive.
He headed for the door, but the visuals blurred because she was looking at present and future at the same time. She stopped trying to follow any speech but what was in her head.
“Behind me. Now.”
She did, and he tossed her his cell phone. She caught it squarely because she already knew where he was going to throw it.
“Call Nikodemus and tell whoever answers they need to be here now or it’s too late.”
“Is there another way out?” She concentrated on the thread she felt most clearly and traced it back to the source of the vibration. In the mental image that took shape, she saw a demon step over an inert body. Corpse. Eyes closed, she broke the thread the way she had the other. Her stomach roiled, her head blazed with fire, but she watched the mageheld fall to its knees. She didn’t stop until that thread, too, winked out.
“Seven,” she whispered. She was in full free fall now. Her connection to her body thinned, and her stomach threatened to revolt. More images flickered in and out. Seven magehelds were still too many. Telos needed better odds than that. Pain shot through her head, and she wavered on her feet, but she refused to give up contact with those seven remaining threads. She touched a hand to her ear and her fingertips came away bloodied.
“Call, Lys.” Telos positioned himself next to the door. Waiting to die. “Do it!”
Phone in hand, she retreated to the sound of footsteps pounding down the hall. First the ones in her head, then the footsteps for real. They weren’t bothering with stealth now. Her fingers shook, and her palms were clammy, but she got the phone engaged without dropping it. Seven of them. Demons. Slaves.
Lys found the recent call list and pressed the first number in the column.
Five magehelds shot through the doorway and slid to a halt inside. All of them had short hair, and all of them focused on Telos. Because Michael had told them Telos was the immediate threat to eliminate. Not her. Two of the magehelds were the ones she’d seen Telos kill. That left the others for her.
The inside of Lys’s head lit up, scouring, burning, overwhelming her ability to process what was coming at her. Image followed image so quickly she could hardly make sense of them. More medallions cracked and turned black. A cut opened up on the arm of the man who’d come in first. He growled and wiped his arm behind him, but he didn’t move from the doorway. Another one yelped and took a step back. Blood continued to drip down the first one’s arm. She tore her eyes away from the sight, unable to tell if she was seeing real wounds or future ones.
The phone in her hand rang at the other end of the call she’d initiated. She got it to her ear just in time but had to fight to concentrate on the call and not what was happening with Telos. The center of her chest burned. Two more people here. Outside. One demon. One something else. Hybrid? One person who felt like demon and mage. “Hello?”
A woman answered, her voice sharp, clipped. “Telos?”
“They are here.” She concentrated on speaking clearly and making sure the words were uttered for real and not just in her head. At the same time, she picked out a thread and tracked it back the way she had the other two. “Inside the house. Something will happen to Telos. Soon. How close are you?”
She whirled and looked out the window. Two bodies lay on the ground. A larger man knelt over one of them. He felt different from the magehelds, more like Telos felt to her when he wasn’t blocking what he was. She thought he was a demon until her sense of him changed, and she could have sworn he was like Michael. A mage. A smaller figure, a woman with her back to the window, had her hands on her hips. She, too, had that odd duality of magekind and demonkind. In her, though, the two aspects weren’t at war.
Two more demons stood not far from the woman. They weren’t magehelds, but she felt the stink of Michael’s magic from them. One was doubled over. The other pressed a hand to his chest like he was having a hard time breathing.
“Get in here. Now.” Lys’s voice slid up the register. The images in her head battered at her. She fought to maintain her concentration on the phone call, to not give in to the chaos in her mind.
A sea of red. Pain. Horror. Hatred. The two largest falling, tumbling.
“Three minutes,” said the woman’s voice.
“Not three minutes. Now.”
Outside, the small woman turned and glanced upward to the window where Lys gripped the phone so hard her fingers hurt. From where Lys stood, the woman looked impossibly dainty. “That’s some serious magic you have.” The woman’s voice was loud and clear. “Whatever the heck you’re doing with it, you need to learn some control.”
“Too late. Too late.” The horror of knowing made her voice crack. “You will be too late to save him.” Without disconnecting the call, Lys put the phone on the window sill. Blood smeared the glass surface of the phone.
Telos engaged one of the smaller magehelds. While she ran toward him, in her head, she heard a snap and saw the mageheld’s body go limp.
Telos threw the body away from him. It hit the wall and slid down, boneless, and then it happened again. For real this time.
Lys ran full speed into the mageheld closest to her and kneed him in the crotch as hard as she could. The images in her head changed. From the corner of her eye, she saw Telos whirl, back in his human form. His hair spread out like a fan. A spatter of blood arced through the air. Not his blood; the mageheld who had engaged him. The larger one this time. Through that veil of crimson against black, she saw Michael walk into the room with two magehelds behind him. Again. The smell of blood filled the air.
Telos killed the mageheld.
She found the most insistent of the threads and, as she had before, concentrated on following it to the source. Michael stretched a hand toward Telos. Contact made.
She opened her mouth to warn him, but something hit her in the back. She lurched forward and lost the thread. She went down hard, jamming her knees against the floor. Her stomach turned inside out. Heat sizzled through her, burning, and thousands of images flashed before her eyes. Telos. Michael. The magehelds. The woman outside and the man with her.
Someone roars. Monster. Teeth tearing. Lust. Michael lifts a hand and says words that rip away the world.
On the floor, she fought to hold herself together, to keep herself from sliding into unrecoverable madness. The threads in her head slipped in and out and she couldn’t isolate them because she was losing it. She swallowed against the nausea. She was not going to watch events play out in her head. Michael had to be stopped.
Too many images came at her too fast. So much blood. She crawled forward, half blind. Screams rang in her ears, deafening her. Overhead, the air sparked. She identified the thread that was Michael.
“Lys!” That was Telos’s voice in her head, pounding in her ears. She lifted her head and saw Telos in her mind, then in life. A mageheld rose up behind him. “Get out.”
The muscles of her back seized up, but she moved through the pain. Michael might as well be a million miles away. She’d never get to him in time. In her head, Telos was a living presence with an edge of the unhuman. She felt everything that was happening to him; the dark and oily spread of Michael’s magic and the white heat of his determination to stay alive and free.
Telos was losing that battle, and he was doing it on purpose. To give her a chance to get away. Tears burned in her eyes as she kept moving like some mortally wounded animal intent on protecting her mate. The higher functions of her brain had shut down. Her sense of him turned. Nothing. Nothing at all, and then it came back, tainted. And then it all happened for real.
A petite woman walked in. Lys recognized the resonance of the woman who’d been outside. Behind her was a demon in human form. He no longer felt anything like a mage. His presence dominated the room. His eyes flashed blue, green, and red. Ice formed at the base of Lys’s spine. Image or reality? She had no idea. The two were opaque to her. Their minds did not claw into hers because they’d blocked her.
The woman darted smoothly into the room and touched the nearest mageheld. It shrieked and went down hard on its ass, hands clutched to its chest.
Telos crashed to the floor. Gone from her. Michael’s now.
Something hot splattered her cheek. Burning. She wiped at her face and her hand came away smeared with blood. She clawed halfway upright and lunged for Michael. In her mind, she got a hand on his knee. He kicked back, but she dug her fingers into his leg until she was sure the bones of her hands were breaking apart. Michael tangled his fingers in her hair while Telos stood rigid before Michael, his mouth open in a scream that had no sound. She used her other hand to shield her head from his blows. Heat streaked through her body, pain like nothing she’d ever felt. She couldn’t get high enough to hit him in the crotch so she pounded away at his knee.
She couldn’t fail. She refused.
She took the images in her head, focused on Michael, and imagined his knee shattering.
Across the room, the dark-haired woman touched another of the magehelds. The demon in human form flowed past the witch and touched another mageheld, and her sense of that one winked out then returned, free of Michael’s taint.
In her mind, she reached for Michael. Anything to stop him. His future was hers to shape. The fire building in her body flamed through her, burning her. Killing her. Hot as the sun. She was made of wax. She was Icharus falling to the hard and unforgiving earth. Tumbling in the chaos of her mind, creating a future where Michael wasn’t a god.
Michael stands triumphant. Telos kneels before him.
Another mageheld stumbled, touched by the other woman who spun and tapped the last one to have come in with Michael. The only threads left in Lys’s head belonged to Michael and Telos.
“Kill the witch.” Michael pointed at the dark-haired woman, then at her. “When that’s done, kill her.”
Michael stands triumphant. Telos flows so quickly, too quickly to stop his attack on the smaller woman. The demon/mage steps in front of her and Telos dies by his hand.
Telos whirled toward the woman. The air sizzled. Already the other demon was moving toward Telos. She stopped the image in her head, and in her mind, the woman touched Telos the way she had the others.
The man who’d come in with the petite woman moved with incomprehensible speed. He intercepted Telos, slamming him against the wall. Lys saw everything twice. In her head and then in front of her eyes, all of it melting together.
“No!” The word tore from Lys’s throat, raw and painful.
“Harsh.” The woman spoke in a calm voice. “Don’t kill him.”
“Do it.” Telos’s lips peeled back from his teeth. “Do it before it’s too late.”
The demon the woman had called Harsh held back from what Lys was sure would have been a killing strike. “Quickly, Carson.”
Carson touched Telos the way she had the others. He convulsed, gasped, then went still. Her sense of him returned, but there was the faintest sense of the witch coming from him now. Not that she cared much. Telos wasn’t dead. Harsh released his grip on Telos, but kept a hand on his upper arm. Carson faced Michael. “Mage,” she said. “It’s over.”
Michael yanked on Lys’s hair, forcing her to stand. “One step, and she’s dead.”
Carson stopped, hands on her hips. A telephone headset curled around the outside of her ear. “You were warned, mage. You know the consequences.”
“I don’t accept a demon’s authority over me.”
Michael stands triumphant. He speaks words of horror, fingers digging into her hair. She touches him, and the sun inside her incinerates him.
“I sent a team to your house,” Carson said. “By now you know the magehelds you left there are no longer in your control.” She smiled, and it was just about the scariest smile Lys had ever seen. Carson took a step closer to Michael, and, yes, she was small and dainty, but she didn’t look like someone you wanted to have mad at you. “Nikodemus authorized a sanction against you.” She tilted her head in Harsh’s direction. “I warn you, my guy here is really good. If you don’t let her go, you’re dead.”
Michael wrapped an arm around Lys’s throat, tight enough to restrict her air. Telos lunged then pulled up short when Carson raised a hand. “I wonder which of us is faster?” Michael said. “Me?” His arms tightened, squeezing off her air. “Or your pet demon there?”
Michael stands triumphant.
Harsh hadn’t moved from the door. He stood there, relaxed. Lazy, even. In his human form, he looked distinctly Indian, with black-as-coal hair and dark, dark eyes. His smile was eerie because of the way it failed to reach his eyes. Telos vanished from her field of vision. She went up on her toes in an attempt to relieve the pressure on her throat.
The sun inside her incinerates.
“No question about it,” Carson said. “My guy is faster.”
She didn’t have any more time, and she wasn’t going to let Michael choke her to death. With the last of her strength, Lys punched back with her elbow, but Michael was already falling away from her. She gulped in air.
“But Telos,” she heard Carson say, “is closer.”
Michael laughed. Lys turned and walked toward him. She no longer knew what was real and what was the future, what was something she’d twisted into being or something simply meant to be. She twisted her upper body and touched Michael. Behind him, she saw Telos stretching out a hand and Michael turning to address the threat. The heat inside her flashed through her skin, through her mind and into Michael and the world went away.
The sun incinerates.
There was nothing. No sound. No color. No sense of her body. Just the bitter taste of acid in her mouth. Then everything roared back. Her mind went black. Nothing. Not even free fall.
The next thing she knew, Telos was helping her to her feet. “You okay?”
She nodded, though okay was a relative term. She hurt everywhere, but she was alive, and that was good. Telos’s arm slid around her waist, and she decided she didn’t mind that. Michael was on the ground. Not moving. His open eyes stared at nothing. “Dead?”
“How.” She didn’t have the energy to make the word into a question.
Telos shrugged. “You touched him.”
“A clean kill,” Harsh said with an approving nod. “Nice work.”
Carson gave them both a friendly smile. “You two love birds up to meeting Nikodemus while Harsh takes care of the clean up here?”
“I’m not doing the dirty work.” Harsh’s expression had softened and now instead of looking scary, he was the kind of gorgeous that made women feel a bit faint. He had a phone out and was making a call.
Carson waved a hand. “Whatever. As long as everything’s taken care of.”
Telos turned to the witch. “How does Nikodemus feel about demons who hook up with witches?”
Carson’s smile broadened. “He’s open minded.” Her green eyes moved between Telos and her. “As long as everyone’s a consenting adult. Is that what happened between you two?”
Lys said, “No coercion was exerted at any time.”
“I hear you’re a lawyer.” Carson kept smiling. A nice smile this time.
Harsh looked up from the quiet instructions he’d been giving over the phone. “It so happens Nikodemus is looking to build a team of outside counsel. Interested?”
“Can I have a corner office?”
He put the phone to his ear. “I’m not in charge of accommodations.”
Lys looked at Telos. “What do you think?”
“Counselor, we’re all safer if you’re on our side.”
Carson smiled again. “How soon can you meet with Nikodemus?”
Six weeks after Michael’s death, Lys walked into Telos’s office. She’d needed time to recover from the events of that day; a lot of bad dreams at night, too much sleeping during the day, lots of reading and watching movies. Telos had been giving her plenty of space. Possibly too much. Now that she was feeling more her normal self, which wasn’t saying all that much, she’d started wondering what the hell she should do with her life.
She had enough money in the bank that she didn’t need to worry about finding work for a while, but this was a tough economy. Eventually her savings wouldn’t look so robust, and if the job market didn’t improve while she was dicking around, she’d end up wishing she’d started looking sooner. If she went back to her old job, she’d have to do it soon. The partners had emailed her and called a couple of times. The problem was she didn’t want to do anything that reminded her of her life before Telos. Not her old job. Not her old house. But she couldn’t just drift along either. Not many people wanted to hire a pregnant woman.
Courtesy of Telos, she had a new laptop, a new cell phone and a place to stay. They’d never discussed their current living arrangements, and it was starting to make her uncomfortable that they hadn’t. He expected her to stay because she was pregnant. She was grateful to know she wasn’t going to end up alone, no question about that. But she didn’t want to feel dependent, either.
Twice in the last ten days, they’d ended up in bed, but both times getting there was unexpected, and there wasn’t any talking afterward about what that meant. She was afraid to ask. By silent agreement, there was no mental sharing between them. Part of her understood he didn’t want to pressure her and part of her was convinced he didn’t want her to know he didn’t really want her around. She was turning into a basket case. She wasn’t good with people. She was even worse with demons.
She leaned against the wall by the door until Telos looked up from his computer. She still thought he was hot. Hotter, actually. “Just got the same invite,” he said.
She had her new cell phone in her hand. Her calendar invite from Nikodemus was open on the screen. “Who does he think he is?”
Telos pushed away from his desk so she didn’t have to look at him from over his four monitors. Behind him was a locked glass door that led to his server room. He’d given her a tour, and she’d damn near frozen her ass off when he showed her his racks of servers and routers. “A warlord who directly controls most of northern California and is making a serious claim for defacto leader of every goddamned warlord in North America. He’s got warlords and mages working with him from inside Europe, the Russian Federation, and India, and he has envoys in China and Brazil.” His eyes flickered. “He’s got people on his side who can free a mageheld. That’s who he thinks he is.”
Lys stared at her calendar invite. “We can’t decline?”
She looked up. “You’re going to take this oath he’s talking about?”
He nodded. “Easier decision for me than you. I’ve been sworn before. I know what it means for me.”
Her heart turned over. She didn’t belong anywhere.
“We do better when we’re around other demons. It’s our nature to have those connections going. Being sworn to a warlord means protection.” He stuck out his legs and crossed his arms behind his head. “And a chance to work toward a solution to the current mess.”
“What about people like me?”
“Come with me.” He held out a hand, and she went to him. He pulled her down for a kiss that curled her toes. One of his hands settled on her belly. She wasn’t anywhere near showing yet. But neither of them disputed the accuracy of that little plastic stick with a plus sign on it. “Talk to Nikodemus, Lys. See what he has to say about you working with him.”
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to hear what he has to say.”
“In fifteen minutes?”
He laughed, but she noticed he kept himself blocked. She did the same. “If I can’t blow your mind in ten minutes, I’m losing my touch.”
His grin set her stomach flying. “I’m a big guy.”
Ten minutes later, he’d proved he hadn’t lost his touch at all.
Nikodemus’s main compound was just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Tiburon, a Marin County enclave known for its mansions and celebrity residents. The warlord’s house, Telos told her, was the former home of a once powerful and very dangerous mage who, over his unnaturally long life, had been personally responsible for the murder or enslavement of hundreds of demons. Carson and Nikodemus had dispatched him.
The house was at the top of a hill, and it was huge, with breathtaking views of the bay in just about every direction she looked. The warlord was making a point by living here. She got it and was impressed by it. She didn’t doubt other demons and mages got the message, too. Her refined ability to sense demons kicked in the minute she got out of the car. She felt at least fifteen of them, with one of them particularly resonant. On the other side of the car, Telos didn’t bother locking the door. He pocketed his keys and quirked his eyebrows at her. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be, I suppose.”
He walked around to her side of the car and kissed her. “Don’t be nervous. No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to. Besides, I have your back.”
Lys gazed into his face and felt the truth of that. Michael was a distant memory. “You do, don’t you?”
“You know I do.” His arms slid down her back. He kept the eye contact. “Right?”
“Let’s go see the warlord.”
“Right?” He didn’t let her go. The hurt in his face and in his words pierced her heart. “Lys?”
Telos Khūnbish was not a liar. She knew that. He’d never been dishonest with her. Ever since Michael, he’d been giving her the peace and quiet she needed to process what had happened. He was giving her the space she needed to deal with being pregnant when she’d believed that would never happen. She was shaken that she’d taken so long to understand that. She went up on her toes and pressed her lips to his. “Yes, Khūnbish. I do know that.”
She held his hand during the walk to the door. He didn’t let go even when Harsh answered their knock. He stayed in the middle of the doorway, and she got that strange vibe from him that she had before. He wasn’t a mage, not like Michael at any rate, but he also didn’t feel the same as other demons.
“Aren’t you two cute?”
Telos gave him the finger and Harsh laughed and clapped Telos on the shoulder. The two did some kind of hand thing, and Harsh stood aside so they could go inside. Telos interlaced his fingers with hers.
The interior lived up to the outside. Impressive as hell. Someone had good taste in art. Harsh took them to a large living room that she could see from the doorway had the kind of view that cost millions. He walked in ahead of them. Halfway in, he stopped, pressed three fingers to his forehead, and bowed his head. Her sense of the demons was now oddly suppressed. Probably not an accident, she figured.
There were two men in the room. Both were demons, but that’s all she could tell at the moment. A sandy-haired man in jeans and a gray tee-shirt that read My Other Shirt Looks Just Like This One was slouched on the couch. He had on cowboy boots. He looked like the guy next door who comes home from college three inches taller and with twenty pounds more muscle and a low-body-fat heat factor going for him. Not her type, but definitely a head-turner.
The other man was scary. He stood beside the couch, arms crossed over a broad chest, face impassive. He was working the bad-ass air. His medium-length hair was dark. So were his eyes. His wore black slacks, a black sweater and shiny black loafers. He didn’t smile when they stopped behind Harsh.
Telos let go of her hand to press three fingers to his forehead and bow, just as Harsh had done. “Warlord.”
She expected the man in black to acknowledge them, but he didn’t. The man on the couch stood up. He was tall, and he had an easy-going smile she didn’t trust for a minute. “Telos Khūnbish and Lys Fensic. Thanks for coming. Harsh. Thanks for bringing them here. I’m Nikodemus. Maybe the name’s familiar.” He extended an arm in the other man’s direction. “This is Durian. Sworn assassin.” The easy smile vanished, and Lys’s chest went cold. Telos slipped his arm around her waist. “Also a warlord.”
“Nice to meet you.” Lys was very, very glad to have Telos with her. It was chillingly clear the assassin was here to send a message. A very scary one. It worked.
Telos bowed his head again, but without the three fingers to his forehead.
The sandy-haired man had to be Nikodemus. Had to be. He crossed the room toward them but stopped about five feet away. Harsh shifted his weight. She’d seen what he could do and that was frightening enough. The assassin, however, made her skin crawl. Nikodemus clapped his hands and rubbed his palms together. “Now that we all know each other, you two ready to get this done?”
“Yes,” Telos said. No hesitation. Not a shred of doubt.
Lys couldn’t help feeling left out.
“That’s great. Glad to hear it.” Nikodemus turned to her and the minute his eyes connected with hers, she revised her opinion of him as wholesome. His power took hold in her, and she just had no doubt at all that the man had more magic in his little finger than she’d ever see in her lifetime. He terrified her. “You?”
“I don’t know.”
“Appreciate the honesty.” His smile thinned. “Could be a problem, though.”
“Honesty is a problem?”
“Not in this room it isn’t. But I meant it could be a problem if Telos swears fealty and you don’t.”
“The cross-species thing doesn’t bother me, don’t get me wrong there.” He grinned. “There’s Carson and me, after all. My man Durian here hooked up with a witch a while back. A couple others with me have done the same. But I have this rule about my sworn fiends not taking up with magekind who aren’t sworn to me.” He cocked his head at Durian. “Or to another warlord sworn to me. It’s not safe for anyone if that happens. I’m surprised Telos didn’t tell you that.”
“Warlord, Lys and I—”
He lifted a hand, cutting off whatever Telos was going to say. She felt the pressure that meant he was checking her out. She kept her blocks in place, but she was horribly aware that Nikodemus could have gotten through with no trouble. “You’re pregnant.”
That got Durian’s attention. And Harsh’s.
The warlord gazed at her belly. “The father?”
The temperature in the room ratcheted up several degrees. Nikodemus’s good humor vanished. He turned a pair of piercing gray eyes on Lys. “There’s only one way that happens, and it’s a big, big problem if you didn’t get full disclosure. I like to be crystal clear before I take oaths from anybody. It’s not good to start off finding out the fucking new guy already broke a rule.”
“He told you about the risks?”
“And you agreed.”
“I said the word yes, which I gather you require.”
“Definitely required.” Nikodemus turned away from her. “Would she lie to protect you, Khūnbish?”
“I’ll find out the truth. Either when you swear fealty or after you tell me you won’t.”
Lys took a step forward. “You’ve already been told the truth.”
The warlord frowned hard. “Let’s circle back to that later. Ms. Fensic, Durian here”—he tipped his head in the direction of the assassin—“wants you on his team.”
She looked at the other demon with no idea what the warlord meant. “Are you a lawyer?”
“He’s my number one assassin. Harsh says you made a clean kill, and when he says something like that, even Durian believes it.” Nikodemus’s grin flashed. “More than one kill, as I understand it. Carson, on the other hand, is interested in working with you on some of your other talents.”
“Is she a lawyer?”
“Nah. But you did that thing.” He waved a hand. “She wants to know more about that. What you can do.” He nodded to himself. “I have to agree that’s something we need to be sure you learn to control. Whether you swear fealty or not, by the way. The way things are shaping up around here, we could use your help.”
She wanted desperately to sit down, but with everyone else standing up, that would put her at a disadvantage. She was physically smaller, the only woman present, and the only witch, too. And pregnant. She was going to have a baby, and once again the realization rattled her to her soul.
“I assume you’re open to that or you wouldn’t be here.”
Telos tightened his arm around her waist, and it was comforting.
“My senior legal counsel says I could use a litigator.” He shoved his hands in his front pockets and rocked back on his heels. “She’s a lawyer, by the way. If you want to do lawyer stuff, there’s a place for you with her. Maybe you could do lawyer stuff when you’re too pregnant to work with Durian or Carson. Either way, I pay top dollar for good talent. Great benefits, and we allow telecommuting. Paid maternity leave for a year, no loss of seniority or benefits. Free day care. I’m happy to hook you up with HR.” He tipped his head. “Four options for you. One is you come over to my side and work with Durian and his team. Two is you go with Carson and her people, which I recommend until we’re all sure you have control. Three is you can join my legal team.”
“What’s the fourth?” It struck her as odd that in this room with its million dollar view, the guy in jeans and a T-shirt looked most like he belonged here.
“The fourth is that you stay unaffiliated. That means no oath, but we watch you and make sure you abide by the rules. But then, like I said, that means you and Khūnbish are a problem for me.” He rocked on his heels again and leveled his laser-sharp gaze on Telos.
“There’s a place for you here, Khūnbish. We can use your talents.” He pretended to type in the air. “No need to give up your consulting work. It’s good cover.” Then he looked between Telos and her, and even though he was still smiling, the temperature in the room fell ten degrees. “Now we do the looping back around. Before we go any farther with this, I need to get clear on something.”
“Warlord,” Telos said.
Nikodemus nodded and returned his attention to her. “You’re living together? You and Khūnbish.”
“How’s that working out?”
“He has toilet seat issues. Aside from that, it’s good. So far.”
Nikodemus looked at Telos. “Your take?”
“She has commitment issues.”
Lys turned on him. “I do not.”
His fingers tightened around hers. “Yes, you do.”
“You haven’t asked for a commitment from me.”
He gave her a look that conveyed his poor opinion of that claim. “It’s obvious what I want. You’re living in my house, aren’t you?”
Nikodemus briefly covered his face. “Jesus H. Khūnbish, don’t you know anything?”
Harsh snorted, and even Durian’s mouth twitched at least a nanometer.
“You are living with a witch.” He rolled his eyes. “Use your fucking words, fiend. I’m not taking any oaths until you two figure out what you’re going to do about each other.”
Telos’s upper body tipped back about an inch.
“Durian, Harsh, let’s give them some privacy.” He gestured. “We’re back in ten.”
When they were alone, she and Telos stared at each other. “This is awkward,” she said.
“All this time you’ve been thinking I don’t want you with me? Lys.” Briefly, he closed his eyes. “I said I’d take care of you.”
“Have to. Want to.” She lifted her hands. “Not the same thing.”
“Do you want to move out? You don’t have to stay. I’ll help you find a place. Buy, rent, fix up your place, whatever you want, I’ll take care of it.” His voice got low and thick, and he let out a frustrated breath before he started again. “Look. I’m not going to leave you, if that’s what you’ve been thinking. Shit. I’m no good at figuring out what you humans want when all I have to go on is this. Your expressions. Your words. I’m lost without the rest, and if I’ve fucked up because of that, I’m sorry.”
She had an inappropriate urge to laugh, but managed not to. “You didn’t. And it’s okay. I know why you didn’t use your words.”
“It’s not okay.” He scowled, but he didn’t push her away. He wasn’t angry, just frustrated. “I’ve been staying out of your head, completely out, because I thought you needed the space.”
“I did. For a while.” Khūnbish seemed so terribly serious, and her heart folded over. “You don’t need to do that anymore.” She pressed a palm to the side of his head. “You don’t need to keep away. I don’t know how these things work. Relationships. I only know what it was like living with Michael and constantly being afraid I’d go into free fall. I’ve never been involved with anyone else. Never anyone normal.”
“You know I’ll help you with that. Whatever you need.” He took her head between his hands. “But, Lys, with me, you still don’t have normal.”
She couldn’t help a smile. “I wouldn’t deal well with someone normal.”
“Good. That’s good.” He moved his thumbs over her cheeks. “Whatever you decide, nothing changes about my commitment, okay? But I want you with me. Want. All this time I’ve been trying not to crowd you, but we’re great together, and I want you with me.” He looked directly into her eyes, so serious. She felt the pressure of him, that subtle change that told her he’d opened himself to her. “If you don’t feel the same, that’s fine. I’m here for you and the baby, no matter what. But please.” He drew her close. “I like having you around. I love having you around. I want you to stay. Please.” He whispered. “Don’t leave. Don’t leave me.”
He sounded like he was ripping up inside. He sounded like he meant every single word. No one, no one in all her life, had ever spoken to her as if she mattered more than anything. The most important thing, though, was that Telos Khūnbish was not a liar. He would not hand out bullshit about anything, but especially something like this. She leaned her forehead against his chest because tears jammed up in her throat, and she was afraid he’d see.
“Hey. Hey. Don’t cry.”
She sniffed. “I’m not crying.”
“My mistake.” He held her while she got herself under better control, one hand stroking her back. After a bit, he slid his other hand to her stomach. “Baby or not, I want us to try. Do you? If you need more time—”
“No. I mean, yes.” She drew back enough to look him in the face. All the fear and doubt she’d been holding in, her expectation that he would leave her and she’d be alone, all that faded away in the face of what she saw when she looked at him.
He frowned at her, but the edges of his mouth kicked up. “Does that average out to maybe?”
“It means I want to try, Telos.”
He leaned in and kissed her, and she pulled him close. His arms went around her, too, and he whispered, “I won’t swear fealty to him if you don’t want to.”
The back of her head got cold, then the door opened, and Nikodemus, Durian, and Harsh came back in. “Everything good here?” He looked between her and Telos. “No rush. But I do have another meeting in half an hour.”
The warlord gave her chills, but she answered him. “I want to swear the oath.”
He grinned. “I take care of my people.” He tipped his head in Telos’s direction but looked at Lys. “If this one turns out to be a dick, there’s room for you here or at Harsh’s place in the city. If you ever feel like you’re not getting the support you need, you come to me, I’ll take care of everything. No questions asked.”
“Fortunately, there’s no evidence he’s a dick.”
“Fensic, you love my dick.”
She elbowed him for that, and Telos pretended she’d hurt him.
The warlord rocked back on his heels. “You two ready for this?”
An oath of fealty to a warlord turned out to be a big deal. It changed something inside you when the oath took hold. It wasn’t one-sided. She’d understood going in that she’d be obligated to support Nikodemus, that a betrayal of her oath would likely result in her death. For his part, the warlord was required to play fair. If he treated his sworn fiends and magekind badly, the oath would break, and she’d be free.
Telos made his oath first, and since he ended his by kneeling, she did the same when it was her turn. When it was over, and she’d sworn fealty to Nikodemus, Telos took her hand in his.
Nikodemus studied them both. “Glad to have you with me. The baby, too.”
“Thank you.” She leaned against Telos’s side.
“I have a good feeling about you two.”
Lys slipped an arm around Telos’s waist, and he brought her in close. She wasn’t alone. She was where she belonged, and so was Telos. “Me, too,” she said. “Me, too.”
Carolyn Jewel was born on a moonless night. That darkness was seared into her soul and she became an award-winning and USA Today bestselling author of historical and paranormal romance. She has a very dusty car and a Master’s degree in English that proves useful at the oddest times. An avid fan of fine chocolate, finer heroines, Bollywood films, and heroism in all forms, she has two cats and two dogs. Also a son. One of the cats is his. carolynjewel.com
Carolyn is also the lead plaintiff in Jewel v. NSA, one of EFF’s longest running legal cases. Filed in 2008 on behalf of AT&T customers, the lawsuit is aimed at ending the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans and holding government officials accountable for illegally authorizing this surveillance.