The order screen blurred in front of me. I blinked, and it came back into focus.
Good grief, I was tired. Every muscle in my body ached.
Why had Gideon and I taken on four houses to clean in one day?
Because otherwise we couldn’t pay rent. I groaned under my breath. So much for signing onto Momoru Investigations for easier work. Two weeks since I signed on, and no calls for consultation. Jack Momoru, the fox shifter owner, had assured me it was just a slow season, and that she’d need my expertise in psychology and relationships soon.
Meanwhile, I was in a corner Sheetz, flipping through the coffee menu and ogling the fancy drinks. Could I drop four bucks for whipped cream and extra flavor shots? Yeah, right. I still had to pay utilities, our fridge was empty, and after that, Gideon and I were saving up for our own business. His potion-making, once he got his alchemists certificate, and my matchmaking business. My brother was throwing in all his tips from his band’s latest show.
I wasn’t about to indulge when a plain cup of coffee would be just fine. Really.
My fingers hovered over the order menu. Slowly, I tapped the “x” button next to the extra flavor shots, the espresso shots, the chocolate sprinkles. My index finger hovered over the whipped cream.
God, in the future, I want to be able to afford whipped cream. Please. Sometimes it truly sucked being only half genie, with curse-marks underneath the sleeves of my warm windbreaker. If I was full-blood, I’d be able to snap my fingers and create my own drink from scratch.
But then I wouldn’t be related to Gideon. My heart warmed thinking of my otter shifter half-brother. He was worth every bit of sacrifice.
“Pardon me.” The voice was smooth and cultured, and coming from behind me. I turned to face a tall man with a pale, angular face, sleek black hair falling past his shoulders, and…was that a three-piece suit? Yeesh, the vest was even black brocade—although some spots seemed a bit less shiny than others. Weird.
I summoned a smile, trying not to be self-conscious in my faded jeans, sneakers, and that cheap-ass windbreaker. “Yeah?” Then I looked around. The other two kiosks were out of order. Crap, this guy had been waiting for me—although why he was at a c-store when he could go to Starbucks was beyond me. “I’m sorry, I’m taking forever. I’ve just cleaned four houses, so it’s been a long day.”
“I understand. I too, have had a long day.” He smiled back, the late afternoon sunlight glinting off his facial piercings. Two slivers at the edge of each eyebrow, one ring in his nose, another in his lower lip, and a stud below that lip. All business and wingtips, and then goth-face? Oh, that was interesting. All of him was very interesting—and yes, downright handsome in a clean, polished way.
Yeah, right. Who are you kidding, Al? He was some kind of high-level magical, had to be with the vibes he gave off. Dangerous, too. I’d say a vampire, but it was daylight outside. Whatever he was, guys like him weren’t even in the menu for someone like me. What on earth would we have in common?
Okay, I’d dated rich types before. Good for a few dates to nice restaurants and theaters, but that’s about where it left off. I could make them like me—communication skills, plus my ability to read desires and fears of others. But it was all a game, and after a while, games got boring. In the end, I gave them a friendly good-bye and half the time, dropped their names in the dating pool for my matchmaking hustle.
Besides, his gray eyes? Totally not my thing. Nope. Not even worth trying to read his desires and fears.
Time to buy the darn coffee. I broke away from his friendly, searching gaze and turned back to the kiosk. One black coffee, nothing extra.
“I can pay for a more luxurious beverage. If you would prefer, that is.”
“Luxurious?” Good grief, no one was allowed to sound that sexy in a freaking gas station. Even a Sheetz, which was about as close to magical as non-magicals could get. Whirling back around, I shoved a hank of dishwater blonde hair behind my ear and stared up at him. “Why?”
Not polite, but did I mention the fourth house we’d clean had had the messes of two incontinent poodles? I wasn’t feeling Sparkly Allis Mode right now.
“I mean no offense.” He shrugged with another smile, like he actually cared. “You just seemed indecisive about your order, and if finances were the issue for you, I assure you that they are not an issue for me.”
I gave him another quick look over. “Ha, I guess that’s true.”
A part of me really wanted to be stubborn about this.
The other part cared way too much about the whipped cream. And hell, if I was willing to let a slick guy buy me dinner when I was dressed up nice, I’d take a fancy coffee in my grungies. I had some pride, but not that much.
“Okay, sure. How’s this gonna work?”
“Allow me.” He eased around me with graceful movements that made me think he could kill it on the dance floor. Which would be fun—finding a good partner was hard. Not that I would actually consider gothic-face-business-powerhouse for a second.
As I watched, he deftly entered in my exact order, which I didn’t even remember, added one of his own, and pressed the submit button. Had he been looking over my shoulder? Creepy. I couldn’t have been there that long, right? I checked my cell phone.
Okay, fifteen minutes at the kiosk was a bit much.
Having him that close to me while he entered in my order was also a bit much, in a “I am definitely not attracted to you but wow you smell like copper and cedar” kind of way. Had to be some kind of cologne. Funny, I’d never liked cologne, ever. But I was willing to buy a whole damn carton of this stuff.
See, Allis, this is what happens when you don’t have coffee. You drool over random magicals in line at Sheetz.
“There, all is taken care of.” I stared back at my coffee-buying saint-in-black brocade. Amusement sparkled in his eyes. “If you wish, you can follow me—or you can remain here. You seem tired.”
“Exhausted is more like it. One of the houses included dog mess.” I could have smacked myself. That sealed the deal. Nothing scared a rich guy away like talking about blue collar cleaning stuff. Usually I just introduced myself as a consultant, which was true. It just wasn’t my only job.
His expression turned rueful. “Yes, I understand all too well. Animal keeping can be difficult.”
Somehow, we’d fallen into step as he got in line to pay the order.
“Indeed. I fund and oversee a menagerie of animals, exotic and domestic.” He gave me a careful look. “Magical and mundane.”
“Oh, cool! Do you have a cockatrice? I’ve always wanted to see one of those. They’re like evil lizard doom roosters.”
He laughed, threw his head back and really laughed. “An excellent description. And yes, there are several. You’re the first person I’ve met who shows such excitement about them. Most are terrified. After all, they can kill you by looking at you, or in several other ways.”
“Maybe not me. I’m not easy to kill. People have tried, y’know?”
Coffee-Buying-Goth-Business-Saint gave me a concerned look, but paused to pay for the drinks, being friendly and considerate to the clerk. Okay, so there was another rich person stereotype broken.
Still didn’t mean I wanted to date him. Yeesh, why did that keep coming up? He hadn’t even asked. He was just buying me a coffee.
“Why have people tried to kill you?”
We walked over to the pick-up area, and in those few steps, I evaluated how little I could get away with answering him. I had no interest in even thinking about my sob story, much less sharing it with some random stranger. No matter how compassionate he looked, now matter how much sincerity screamed off him louder than a siren.
Whatever I said could be used against me later.
“My good looks, charm, and fashion sense obviously.” I flashed him a smirk. “Why else?”
“Clearly.” He paused. “Are you in trouble?”
“Oh yeah.” The words slipped out before I could stop them. “And I am trouble too, so it all evens out in the end.”
So much trouble I had to be shackled with curse-marks since birth and kept in a locked chamber with my foster family as a teenager. It wasn’t that I had done anything—it was that I could, as a half-genie. At least, according to the Fae court. Guilty until proven innocent.
A hand touched my arm, light and subtle, barely noticeable through the windbreaker. I shuddered. Dude, why do people think that’s attractive? It makes me feel all creepy. I yanked my arm away and stared up into his eyes. “I’m Cendric Antalek, attorney-at-law. I help people in difficult, magical situations.”
Oh great, of course he was a lawyer.
“I’m Allis Evanenko, and I have no money to pay for fancy coffee, much less a lawyer.”
“I don’t need money.” For reals, how could he say that so quickly, so easily?
“Wow. Well…I don’t need your charity.” Okay, there was the pride. I knew it was hanging around somewhere.
His lips quirked. “So the coffee with three flavor shots and double whipped cream is—?”
“A vital part of my existence.” Then I backed away, brushing off my hands on my jeans. “Although I don’t need that either, man. I was fine with buying my own plain stuff. I don’t need to owe you anything.”
As soon as the words left my lips, I grimaced. Was this whole thing a set-up to get me in debt to a magical? Hell. No.
“I know.” Antalek sighed, weariness showing in his eyes as well. “I offered to help. Not as a way to make you in debt to me or to otherwise coerce you. The gift is free.”
“Only God gives free gifts. Everything else costs.” Okay, that was a little cynical. I’d definitely gotten a few no-strings-attached gifts over the years. Including being chosen by Destiny for some great fate, not that it had shown up.
But…did I mention I needed the coffee?
He studied me intently. When he spoke, his tone was gentle, but firm. “Allis, not with me.”
Okay, he was asking for it. I shoved up my windbreaker sleeves, revealing the black and silver curse marks that twined around both forearms. My voice dropped to a whisper. “You see these? I’ve had them since birth. Since birth, Cid. Insta-criminal from the womb, enough to lock away most of my magic. And yeah, I’ve broken laws to survive—and sometimes, because I felt like it. So don’t even pretend like you care.”
He fell silent, studying my arms. Shadows seemed to surround him. “I’m truly sorry.”
“Whatever that means. Not your problem.”
At that moment, our drink orders were on the red pick-up counter. I grabbed mine and took a large slurp of coffee and whipped cream, scalding my mouth. Ah, caffeine. My life was suddenly a far better place.
After a few more happy, too-hot swallows, I looked up at Cendric. Another worried look was stamped on his face, although it warred with the sudden laughter in his eyes. Good. Laughter was better than judging me.
“My dear, you might need this,” he said.
He handed me a napkin. I wrinkled up my nose and waggled my eyebrows. “I dunno, I think this look suits me.”
A chuckle escaped him, one that warmed my heart. “Surprisingly, it doesn’t. Although I doubt anything could make you look disagreeable.” His voice lowered. “Not even the marks on your arms. They don’t define you.”
I stopped short. Was that a compliment? All systems pointed to yes. Huh. Well, I could appreciate flattery as much as the next woman. Never mind that Antalek seemed sincere—and that was deep. Legit. And some people were—I was a matchmaker for a reason. I believed in true love, even for me.
I just didn’t quite believe it with a guy like him at a convenience store.
Grabbing the napkin, I cleaned off the coffee and whipped cream smudges. “There. All better.”
“Cleaner, certainly. But your overall appearance needs no improvement.” He was studying me again, as if seeing me for the first time. Seeing beneath the ratty clothes and messy hair and yes, defensive sarcasm.
No, not seeing beneath—more like understanding it. Why I looked the way I did. Understanding and accepting.
Weird. Really, really weird. And so not something I could handle right now, no matter how tempting. How very, very tempting.
Really? He’s not even my type! Nothing against piercings, but they’d just never been a thing for me.
But the whole package with Antalek…it seemed to work, somehow. In some deeper, righter-than-right way.
Oh, good grief. I needed a nap. A nap would help clear my head before I made a way bigger deal about this than it was. I didn’t need to read Antalek’s desires to know any feelings I might or might not have had to be one-way. He was just being nice, like he was with the clerk.
“Um, okay, so I need to head out. Got a meeting across town.” A meeting with a hot shower and my couch. I gave him a wave as I started to back away toward the door. “Thanks again for this!”
“Are you sure?” He walked towards me, which seriously messed up my avoiding-crashing-into-shelves groove. I narrowly missed the lit-up doughnut case.
“Yeah, Antalek. It’s been real, though. And I’m a huge fan of how you have cockatrices. That is freaking incredible, and I wish I could see them.”
He smiled. “I would love to introduce you to them. Carefully, of course.”
“You don’t even know me. I could be playing you to sneak in and kidnap them.”
“You’re welcome to try. They’d kill you.”
“Like I said, not easy to kill.” People had tried enough times. “Laters!”
I pivoted around and pushed through the door. My sneakers smacked on the sidewalk as I fast-walked down the street and around the first corner into an alley. I’d would’ve run, but that would have spilled the coffee of magnificence. Definitely a no-no.
My forearms burned as I moved. Weird. Had they ever done that before? Was something wrong with the curse-marks? I’d have to check once I got home.
As soon as I reached the alley, I closed my eyes, pictured my apartment, shifted my coffee to my left hand, and snapped the fingers of my right. A second later, I was in my apartment. One of the few perks of being half-genie. Teleportation. The only way to travel in a city.
I set the coffee down on the kitchen counter and pulled off my windbreaker. The coils and curls of black marks looked normal and had stopped burning. Huh. Well, maybe just a reminder from the Fae court of how much they hated me for my very existence. They did that sometimes.
At least I had fancy coffee. Someone had paid for it. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember who. It had been a really long day.
“Well, here’s to you, random person.”
I raised the paper cup in a toast and headed off for a shower.