Page 8

 Laura Thalassa

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I clear my throat. “What’s the dare?”
Instead of answering me, he lets go of my wrist and steps into my personal space. Never taking his eyes off of mine, he tilts my head back and cradles it.
What is he doing?
I stare up at him. A small smile dances along his lips, and I notice his gaze deepens the moment before he leans in.
I stiffen as his lips brush mine, and then my body relaxes as his mouth glides against them. Immediately my skin illuminates as the siren awakens. Sex and blood, that’s what she thrives on.
I wrap a hand around the arm that cradles my head. My fingers press against the warm skin of his wrist. Beneath it, I can feel Desmond’s unyielding muscle.
He’s real, this is real. That’s all I have time to think about before the kiss ends and he pulls away.
He glances down at my wrist, and I follow his gaze. The very last bead on my bracelet shimmers for a moment then fades away. The kiss had been my dare, the first payment the Bargainer collected.
I touch my fingers to my lips, the taste of him still on my skin. “But you don’t like me,” I whisper, confused.
He reaches up to my face to trail his fingers over my glowing skin. If he were a man, he’d be completely under my spell at the moment. But he’s something else entirely.
The Bargainer’s eyes glitter, full of emotions I spent a year memorizing, and then seven years trying to forget.
“I’ll be back tomorrow evening.” His gaze sweeps over me again, and he raises an eyebrow. “Consider the following advice a favor free of charge: be prepared for more than just a kiss.”
At sunrise I’m still awake, still in my robe, and I still have no clue what the hell is going on. I sit on the grass at the edge of my property, breathing in the salty sea air. My knees are pulled up to my chest and a mostly empty bottle of wine rests next to me.
I already called Temper and told her I wouldn’t be in the office today. The nice thing about running your own business? You get to pull your own hours.
I watch the stars dim and the Bargainer’s kingdom close as the sky slowly lightens.
I glance down at my wrist. I could swear it feels different now that one bead is gone. Only 321 favors left, and the rest are guaranteed to be far more painful than the first.
I trace my lips with a finger. I was wrong earlier. At one point in time Des had liked me. But not like I had liked him—like he had hung the very moon itself. The day he left me ripped my heart out, and it never healed right, and no amount of booze, men, or work could ever patch it up.
Despite the enormous debt I still owe him, I don’t regret buying the favors, not one bit. They took me away from a monster; I would’ve sold my soul for that. But unease slithers through me at the price I might have to pay. It could be anything.
I needed to call Eli; it was time to end things.
“Hey babe,” Eli answers the phone, his voice low and gravelly. He’s a man of few words and even fewer secrets, the latter which is becoming an increasingly bigger problem for me. I have nearly as many secrets as the Bargainer, a man who makes a living off of gathering them.
Eli’s aware that there’s a lot I don’t share, and the alpha in him has been pushing me to be more open. Shifters are just so damn frank. They operate under that whole sharing-is-caring principle.
I lean on my counter. “Eli …” That’s about all I can get out before I scrub my face. I’d prepared myself for this day a long time ago, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I try again. “Eli, I need to tell you something about myself that you’re not going to want to hear.”
This should’ve been a fast conversation—dump him then end the call. And I considered doing just that. But breaking up with him over the phone is shitty enough. The least I could do is give the man an explanation.
“Is everything alright?” There’s a lethal edge to his voice. The wolf is riding it. Now is not the time to be dropping this bomb.
Should’ve told him months ago. Months ago, when you were what to each other? Friends with benefits? Colleagues working after hours together?
In no version of my life would I have spilled my secrets to Eli, the upstanding shifter who upheld supernatural law during his day job and who was the law in his pack. No, most of my secrets would land me in lots and lots of trouble.
“I’m fine … just, you know the bracelet I wear?”
God, this is it. Moment of reckoning.
“Yeah,” he rumbles.
“That bracelet isn’t just a piece of jewelry.”
A pause. Then, “Callie, can we talk about this when I get back? Now’s not a great time—”
“Every bead is a favor I owe the Bargainer,” I rush to explain. The secret burns leaving my throat.
For most of the supernatural world, the Bargainer is more myth than man. And those who do know a bit about him know that he doesn’t let any of his clients buy more than two or three favors at a time, and he never waits this long to collect his dues.
The other end of the line is quiet, which is not a good sign. Finally Eli says, “Tell me you’re kidding, Callypso.” A low growl enters his voice.
“I’m not,” I say softly.
His growl intensifies. “The man’s a wanted criminal.”
As if I’m not aware of that little fact.
“It happened a long time ago.” I don’t know why I even bother defending myself.
“Why are you just now telling me this?” The wolf in him has almost drowned out his words.