Authors: Jocelynn Drake
“Believe it or not, this place is actually pretty clean,” I said, shoving one hand anxiously through my hair. “I come up here every few months and air the place out, clean the blankets and anything that’s been used recently. I haven’t actually lived up here for a couple of years, but it’s always been a nice fallback place when I can’t make it home.”
“I didn’t know,” she murmured. “Have you ever . . . ?”
“I’ve never done any of my tattoo deals up here. This is just a place for me to crash,” I quickly said. “Hell, it doesn’t even have a TV.”
“I really appreciate this, Gage. I just need a couple of days to get this worked out and then I’ll be back at my own apartment, or at the very least a new one,” she said. “I’ll even pay you rent if you want.”
I waved off the offer. “I don’t ever use this except on the rare occasion. There’s no reason for that nonsense. Just try to keep it somewhat clean and we’re good.”
“Not a problem.”
“When are you going to tell me what the real problem is?”
“It’s nothing. It’s just best if I don’t go back to my apartment for a little while,” she replied, trying to make it sound as if it wasn’t anything important.
“I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”
“I can handle it. It’s nothing.”
“Well, it’s going to be something when this problem appears on the doorstep of the parlor. I’m going to need to know then,” I warned her as I started to leave the bedroom.
Trixie crossed her arms under her full breasts and leaned back on one foot as she eyed me. “Does that mean you’ll finally get around to telling me why TAPSS is so worried about you catching the attention of someone dangerous? That’s turned up on the parlor doorstep on more than one occasion.”
“It’s something I’ve got under control.”
“And I don’t?”
“A person has to wonder when you’re sleeping at the parlor after-hours. I’m not the one on the run.”
Trixie allowed her arms to drop limply to her sides as she took a couple of steps closer to me. In heels she was nearly taller than me. She dropped her head so that her lips almost brushed against my cheek when she spoke. “Well, then, I guess we both have our fair share of secrets that we’re not willing to share.”
“Someday I think both of us are going to come clean, but I guess today isn’t going to be that day,” I said, as my throat threatened to close up on me while the blood rushed from my head to my pants.
“Thank you for your help, Gage. You’re one of the only friends in this world I’ve got who I can turn to,” she whispered, her warm breath dancing past my ear.
“I find that hard to believe,” I choked out. “You’re a beautiful, energetic, sweet woman. How could you not have other friends who would have your back?”
“That’s just it. I’m only a beautiful woman to them. They don’t care about me. But you do, don’t you? You care.”
A soft sigh escaped me before I could catch it. I lifted my right hand and let my fingertips slip down her cheek, caressing from the line of her jaw to her stubborn chin. She looked different, but I knew I was standing before my Trixie. There was just something in her eyes, the tilt of her full mouth, that reminded me of the woman I had come to know over the past two years. No, I didn’t know her secrets, but I felt like I knew her soul. She was kind and compassionate. She worried about others before herself. She drew a laugh out of Bronx and me when our moods were sour. She eased fears, wiped tears, and laughed freely.
I had loved Trixie for the better part of two years, perpetually watching her from afar because it was simply too dangerous to involve her in my life. The warlock guardians were watching me too closely, and bringing someone into my life only meant making them vulnerable to that kind of danger. I didn’t want the threat of the Ivory Towers to ever touch her life because of me. We all lived under the shadow of the warlocks and the witches, but I knew that she would become a target if anyone knew of my feelings for her.
Even with that quite valid reason dancing through my head, I couldn’t get myself to take a step back from her. I lowered my hand from her face, letting my fingers skim down her arm before returning to my side.
When I finally spoke, my voice was low and rough. “I have always cared for you. I want you to be happy and safe. I will do whatever I can to see to it that you are.”
She leaned forward that extra little bit and brushed her parted lips against mine. My eyes fell shut as instincts immediately took over and I kissed her back with force. I felt as if I had waited a lifetime to touch her, kiss her, taste her. My body grew hard as I raised my hands, running them along her bare arms so that she gave a little shiver as we deepened the kiss, my tongue darting into her mouth to brush against her tongue. She tasted of fresh strawberries, sweet and ripe. My hands lifted and I cupped her face, holding her in place as the kiss became hotter. I wanted her. I wanted her more than anything else I had ever wanted in my life. I wanted to spend hours worshipping her body, exploring every inch and curve, making her moan beneath me.
But I wanted the real Trixie, not this magic-induced facsimile. I wanted to open my eyes and see her golden hair spread out on the pillow. I wanted to be lost in those green eyes I looked forward to seeing every evening. I wanted the real thing.
And in truth, she deserved the real Gage. Not this half-truth that I presented to the world. We both deserved better than what we were getting at that moment. With all the willpower I could summon, I placed my hands firmly on her shoulders, and pushed her away from me a step. Neither of us spoke. Only the sound of our heavy breathing broke the silence of the overly warm apartment.
“We can’t do this, Trixie,” I announced when my brain started working through the haze of sexual desire. “You’ve had a rough night and need some sleep. You’re only going to regret this later.”
“Gage . . .”
“I’m going to head back down to the shop. Just get some sleep and come down when you’re rested. I’ll be waiting,” I said brusquely, forcing myself to meet her gaze. She didn’t look heartbroken or wounded by my rejection. In fact, she looked as if she could easily see through my ruse as a smile played at the corners of her mouth. Not surprising when I had no doubt that she could feel the trembling in my hands and my erection when I had her pressed against me.
Eager to beat a hasty retreat while I still could, I slid around her and headed for the bedroom door. I was determined to do the right thing where she was concerned. She needed help, not being mauled by me.
“I wouldn’t regret it,” she murmured before I left the room. Her voice was so soft, I wasn’t sure that I actually heard it, or just hoped that I heard those words.
No, I wouldn’t regret it either,
I thought. But for now, it wasn’t right.
I shut the front door of the apartment a little harder than I had meant to and tromped down the wooden stairs as fast as I could. I needed to get back to the tattoo parlor where I was safe and the world made sense. I needed to get back to the place where there were invisible boundaries that protected both Trixie and me from having to make these kinds of decisions. I needed to get back to the one place where I felt there were no surprises waiting for me and I was the king of my domain. I needed my shop.
o much for no surprises.
I returned to the tattoo parlor and had started to set up the equipment for the day when I heard footsteps creaking across the wooden floor as if someone was pacing in the lobby area. I glanced over at the monitor set up for the security system that overlooked the lobby, but I saw no one. A cold chill ran through me as I knew that it couldn’t be a vampire—the sun was too high in the sky—and I couldn’t think of any other creature who had the ability to be invisible to a digital camera without the use of a series of spells. Walking over to the cabinet that held the guns I had confiscated over the past few years, I pulled out a large black handgun. I had no intention of actually firing it since I didn’t bother to grab the magazine that had been removed. I hoped that waving it around would be enough to scare off the intruder.
Frowning, I stepped into the lobby to find a man standing in the middle of the room, looking down at the watch on his left wrist with a grim expression. He wore a pair of black slacks and a white button-down shirt with short sleeves. His dark hair was starting to recede, giving him a bald spot on the top of his head, and the clipboard he was holding rested on the slight paunch of his stomach. While I didn’t have any clue as to who he was, I could easily see that he wasn’t the threat I had feared. He looked like a census taker or some poor, middle-aged man stuck in a dead-end job selling kitchen knives door-to-door.
“Mr. Powell,” he said in a low, even voice as he looked up at me. His eyes paused on the gun in my hand, causing him to arch one eyebrow as his frown grew a little deeper. “I hope you appreciate that I was willing to wait for you while you had your brief encounter with the elf on the second floor. I don’t have time to waste like that. I’m on a very tight schedule.”
I opened my mouth to ask how he had possibly known what I was doing with Trixie and how he could know that she was an elf, but no noise came out as he continued talking.
“You might as well put the gun away. It won’t help you.”
“Who are you? How the hell did you get into my shop?” I swept around the counter and walked over to the front door to find that it was still locked. I lowered the gun, guessing that he might have sneaked in through the back door while I was upstairs with Trixie, but he had to have been watching the parlor from the back alley to get his chance, and I couldn’t recall seeing anyone in the alley as we ascended the stairs.
“I’m with the Grim Reapers’ Union, local number 23466, and I can get into any place I want, Mr. Powell, locked door or not.”
A snort of disbelief escaped me as some of the tension eased from my shoulders. “Grim reaper? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I had to admit there were a lot of things in this world that were hard to believe and a lot of things I struggled to understand, but I didn’t believe there was a single creature who controlled the life and death of every living thing. Let alone believe there was an actual union of reapers that saw to the demise of everyone on this planet.
“You’re not supposed to know about us, Mr. Powell. We work much better when we remain in the shadows, handling the death of a person when it is their time with no one looking at us. It’s just easier for everyone involved. Much less paperwork.”
“I would imagine so,” I said, still unable to lose the snideness in my voice. A grim reaper? He looked like an accountant or some corporate drudge trapped in middle management. “I thought the grim reaper was supposed to wear a black shroud and carry a scythe and maybe even an hourglass. You’re really destroying all of my beliefs here.”
“I would hate to do that,” he said with an irritated sigh, seeming to finally get tired of my sarcasm.
In the blink of an eye, dark clouds spread across the sky, blotting out the sun so that the earth was blanketed in a false night. The man I had been mocking was gone and an eight-foot-tall black-shrouded creature leaned over me until I was pressed against the wall. In one skeletal hand was a reaper’s scythe that seemed to gleam in some unholy light, while the rest of him was cloaked in thick shadow. On a silver chain around his waist was an hourglass with its sand constantly pouring toward oblivion. I tried to stare into the hood of the shroud to see the creature’s face, but I could see nothing beyond a pair of unblinking red eyes that radiated power. A deep sense of hopelessness pervaded the room until I was nearly drowning in it.
“Has this convinced you of my identity, Gage Powell, or do you need to accompany me on my next visit to reap a soul from this existence?” the creature asked in a deep, resounding voice that echoed throughout my whole frame and rattled my eardrums. Without a doubt, I was dealing with a creature infinitely more powerful than I could ever be. He could squash me like a bug with a mere wave of his bony hand and there was nothing I could do to stop it. And yet I was still holding my gun on him, clasped tightly in both trembling hands. I knew that a shot wouldn’t do a damn thing to stop him, but my brain wasn’t working in any kind of logical fashion. I was looking into the face of death and I just wanted him to back off and get the hell out of my shop.
“I’m convinced,” I replied, somehow managing not to stutter.
The shrouded creature, in the blink of an eye, turned back into the balding middle-aged man shaking his head at me. He sank onto the bench that lined the back wall, settling his clipboard on his right knee. Pulling a white handkerchief out of his pocket, he wiped some sweat from his brow.
At the same time, I slid down the wall as my shaking knees gave out on me. The heavy metal gun hit the ground with a solid thud, while I hung my head forward so that my chin rested against my chest. My breathing was heavy as well, while a fine trembling seemed to fill every fiber of my being.
“See? Isn’t this form much easier to deal with when it comes to handling business?” the grim reaper commented.
“Yes, but it’s just a little hard to believe at first blush,” I said, laughing, one part relief and one part hysteria. “I thought the idea of the grim reaper was just an old myth. I would never have guessed there were unions that handled death.”
“Someone has to manage the flow of souls from this world to the next. It’s a very important job.”
“Without a doubt, but how does one go about getting such a job? I have to admit that I’ve never seen a want ad for the position.”
For the first time since he’d appeared, the grim reaper actually gave a small smile. “Another time, perhaps. It’s something of a long story and I’m on a tight schedule as it is. In fact, I should have been out of here already, Mr. Powell.”
“Gage, please. I think after that scare, you can use my first name.”
“Thank you,” he said formally, with a nod of his head as he grew serious again. “Gage, you’ve seriously fucked up.”
“I was beginning to guess as much considering that you’re here. I would think that if you were after my soul, you would have reaped it already and moved on. No time for chitchat.”