Having someone tell you they’ve come to end your pathetic existence is probably an uncommon occurrence. I can’t imagine that anyone intent on murder would have the decency to pause long enough to look their victim in the eye, state their mission and purpose, and with very little feeling explain that the end result of their victim’s death will benefit an entire race.
Then again, what do I know?
There’s always the slim chance that plenty of killers are far more civil seconds before committing such a depraved act, but how would any of us ever be privy to those morbid details when the victims never live to share said details?
I knew I’d never live long enough to share mine.
The well-muscled warrior standing several feet in front of me had made that abundantly clear. I studied him intently, deciding it would be best to memorize every inch of him in case I managed to escape and succeeded in describing my would-be assassin to the local authorities.
My need to drink in his image had absolutely nothing to do with his six-foot frame, broad shoulders, sharp, chiseled features, and flawless, crystal-blue orbs framed by a sturdy brow.
Insert wistful sigh here. And wasn’t that the antithesis of what I should have been feeling?
Weren’t murderers supposed to be ugly, unkempt psychos? This guy was a carbon copy of most of the Abercrombie models I lived to drool over. He had an otherworldly look and feel to him, and his clothing appeared to be made out of some kind of forest-green leather. His hands were gloved up to his knuckles, and his skin let off a golden, florescent glow.
I might have attributed his all-too-perfect tan to the San Diego weather, but I doubted other men in the vicinity were capable of making their skin glow a light golden hue whenever the sun’s rays kissed them. I didn’t think someone as imposing as this guy would have spent time throwing gold body glitter all over himself, but I couldn’t figure out what else he’d done to get his skin to glimmer like that. He looked like a warm summer evening and smelled like the earth after a spring rain.
His hair was shoulder-length, shiny, and lightning white. Not the kind of graying white you might find on your local senior citizen, but the kind that looks like heaven.
His movements as he studied me and my dingy apartment were stiff and watchful. His expression was that of guarded curiosity, and when my cat, Nala, made a small whining noise from my bedroom down the hall, his stance came to attention and his arm muscles went taut as he withdrew a small dagger from a sheath at his waist.
Honestly, where had this guy come from, and why weren’t we dating?
Oh, yeah. He was here to kill me.
“It’s just my cat,” I said, raising my hands in a placating gesture. “My roommate, Jami, is out of town for the weekend.”
“What?” He lowered his dagger and stared me down.
I didn’t feel threatened by his gaze. I almost felt drawn to it, and I wondered if he was as curious about me as I was about him.
Stupid! I am so stupid.
Any other recently emancipated seventeen-year-old would have run screaming around her apartment in an attempt to get her worthless, noisy neighbors to call the cops, or at the very least, to come to her aid.
Not me, apparently. Oh, no. I was content to stare at the gorgeous criminal before me with all thoughts of fight or flight escaping my slow-witted mental processes. It was a little strange that he was more interested in killing me than kissing me. I don’t say that to insinuate that I’m the most desirable woman in the world, but usually whenever I make eye-contact with a man, their pupils tend to dilate, they get this weird obsessive look in their eyes, and suddenly I’ve added an unwanted admirer and eventual stalker to my list of unwanted admirers and stalkers.
Truly, I didn’t do it on purpose. It simply happened and I had no idea how to stop it. But this guy…he looked at me with the kind of indifference I’d been praying for from most men…and it totally bothered me.
Which was ridiculous.
“That noise you just heard was my cat. She’s not much of a threat to you unless you’re violently allergic to cat hair. So once you’re finished…how did you put it?…‘regretfully ending my poor, pathetic human existence,’ I’d appreciate it if you’d dump some cat food in a bowl on your way out.” I folded my arms over my chest as he silently continued to take me in. “Just thinkin’ out loud here,” I added self-consciously.
This whole situation merely added insult to the injury that had recently become my life.
It was a darn shame, too. I’d only just discovered this morning that my ballet teacher thought I would be ready to audition for the San Diego Ballet Company in two weeks. I’d be eighteen by then and wanted so badly to dance professionally I did nothing but eat, sleep, and dream ballet. After sacrificing for so many years to pay for my own tuition—seriously expensive as I got older and the training became more intense—I was ready for this opportunity. I was also broke, having paid for this months tuition with my rent money when I lost my job.
Yet another reason why this murderous man’s arrival felt like an added twist of the knife. I’d become emancipated and escaped my crummy foster home and my sleazy foster father, I’d landed a great secretarial position at a law firm which helped to pay the bills, and I was on the fast track to becoming a prima-ballerina. Things had finally been going right for me until I lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent, and some delusional guy in a Peter Pan outfit had decided to come kill me.
“You face your imminent demise with honor and dignity.” He nodded in approval, but his expression held a hint of confusion. “I must admit, I was not expecting such a brave display from one the likes of you.”
“One the likes of…what is that supposed to mean?”
His eyebrows rose at my caustic tone.
Hey, I wasn’t a fan of being insulted—or murdered either, but I was more practiced at defending myself against degrading comments than attempts on my life.
“You are human, and as we all know, humans are a cowardly, passive-aggressive race despite their propensity for devious and destructive behavior.”
I placed my hands on my hips, feeling outraged.
“May I remind you that you are human too, and murdering me doesn’t bode well for your own personal code of ethics? You’re not exactly the poster child for stellar human behavior.”
The handsome murderer shook his head in amusement.
“I am neither human nor a poster child. I have never heard of that race, to be completely honest with you.” He took a step closer and gave me another searching look. “I would also like to clarify the circumstances surrounding your death. This is not a murder.”
“You are human, albeit a crazy and deranged one, and you just divulged your plan to kill me. According to the laws of this land, that’s murder.” I met his challenging step with one of my own.
He gave me a wicked smile and took another step forward, no doubt trying to intimidate me.
“I’m not human. I’m a member of the Fae, and the laws of my land state that an assassination is not classified as murder when it is done for the good of the Fae kingdom and its ruling monarch. Also, I informed you of your impending death, and I’m giving you a moment to make peace with it before I send you on to the next phase of your journey.” It was obvious he thought his actions were perfectly sound and reasonable. “I have kept to the strict code of honor all assassins swear to uphold in these circumstances.”
Not only did I match his intimidating step forward with one of my own, but I followed through with my crazy impulse to laugh in his face.
“The Fae? As in faeries? Please! Assassin’s code of honor? Look, I’m all for rationalizing bad behavior. I’m guilty of shoplifting occasionally while telling myself it’s either break the law or starve to death, but at some point a line must be drawn. How about we draw that line at murder and avoid blaming our actions on creatures who don’t exist?”
“You don’t believe me? Do I look like a human to you?” He seemed angry at the thought.
It was then that I realized logic would be useless in this situation. My assassin was a few peanuts short of a plantation.
“You are completely off your rocker,” I stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
His features took on a puzzled look, and I threw my hands in the air, totally exasperated.
“You know, I could stand here while you waste time monologuing about your crazy delusions of a different race and ask you how an obscure girl living in foster care for most of her life could ever be considered a threat to your mythical kingdom and its mythical monarch, but I’d much rather get this whole business over with.” I rubbed my forehead and let out a harsh laugh. “Your timing is impeccable, considering my recent thoughts of throwing in the towel.”
I sensed him take that last step forward, bridging the gap between our bodies, and suddenly I was staring at the tight lines of his chest through the strange fabric of his tunic. He surprised me by reaching for a strand of hair at my temple and rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. It felt quite nice, and I had to bite my lip to repress the soft sigh that nearly escaped.
“I’m not sure I understand what throwing a towel around has to do with this conversation.” He sounded a bit distracted. I looked up to find him reaching for more of my hair. He gently pulled some extra strands from my messy ponytail and began running all five of his fingers through them.
“It’s an expression.” I closed my eyes at the amazing sensations his fingers evoked. “It means I feel like giving up. I’m tired of fighting.” Thick tears gathered at the corners of my eyes, and I fiercely blinked them into submission.
I thought I heard him mutter the words, white roots, under his breath, but couldn’t be sure. It was an odd thing to say and made me feel nervous. He stopped playing with my hair and looked at me.
“You’re a warrior, then? I must admit, I wasn’t sure how you might be a threat to our reigning king, but perhaps your fighting skills have something to do with it.”
He gave my hair a brief reprieve and stared at my ears. At least, I think he was staring at my ears. Then again, I’d felt terribly self-conscious about their shape for most of my life, and even though I saved up for some plastic surgery and had them fixed a while back, I sometimes forgot the mutated ends were no longer visible.
Idiot. Get over your insecurities. He isn’t staring at your ears. And seriously, why should you care.
I shivered. “No, I’m not a warrior. I’m tired of starving all the time. I’m tired of fighting for food and shelter. I’m tired of getting fired every time a boss or coworker makes an unwelcome pass at me, which is exactly what happened a few days ago.”
My would-be assassin gave me a bemused look and went back to playing with my hair, something I found terribly distracting. I pulled the thin strands out of his fingers and walked over to the small, square table leaning against the wall to my left. I grabbed an envelope, turned back, and waved it in his face.
“Do you know what this is?”
“I’m assuming it’s some form of human communication.”
“It’s a sweet little eviction notice my roomie left for me before she went on vacation because I can’t provide for myself. I can’t earn money fast enough to pay for my share of the stupid rent. My only other option for survival is something I would never in a million years contemplate, and so I’m left with no money, no food, no family, and this crappy ‘I’m-kicking-you-out’ notice.”
“You have no family?” He reached for my hair again, but I stepped away before he could grab it.
“Foster care! Didn’t you catch that? My parents died in a car wreck when I was a baby, and I have no other living relatives who can care for me.”
“So you do not know how to fight?” He went for my hair yet again, but I was too preoccupied with the date on the eviction notice to defend myself against his relentless onslaught.
If I didn’t come up with six hundred dollars by the end of the week, I would be out on the streets again, digging in local, restaurant garbage cans for food and fighting old, homeless ladies with stolen grocery carts for a bed at a run-down women’s shelter.
“No, I don’t know how to fight, but I will be destitute by the end of the week.”
That thought was more than depressing—it was devastating. I’d searched long and hard to find a roommate willing to take me on despite my age and total lack of income. Then I’d landed that sweet secretarial position at JP Morgan & Ross even though I only had a GED and zero experience. I met Jami at the grocery store within the same week, and it just so happened she needed a roommate fast. It had all panned out so well six months ago, and look how quickly it had fallen apart.
Thank goodness Jami wasn’t here to witness my demise. With any luck, this handsome assassin would kill me quickly and dispose of my body without anyone being the wiser. I threw my eviction notice on the floor and finally had the presence of mind to stop him from mauling my hair.
“Would you quit that and just end me already? The suspense is killing me.”
I might have laughed at my unintentional pun, but something crazy happened. The moment my hand touched his, a small electrical current skipped through my fingertips and created a faint glow between our hands.
I gazed at the eerie luminescence in surprise and lifted my head to find him staring at me with a mixture of disbelief and uncertainty etched across his features.
“That was…unexpected. I wasn’t aware humans possessed supernatural tendencies.”
“We don’t. I’m just as surprised as you are.”
I might have attributed the strange light to hallucinations as a result of food and sleep deprivation, but my assassin was witnessing it too. Maybe he was a hallucination. I was having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary hot guy who was here to kill me with his imaginary dagger.
He pulled his hand away and stared at it, looking extremely perplexed. Then he reached out for mine again, lacing his fingers through my shaking ones. The glow from the contact of our skin burned a little brighter this time.
He held our entwined fingers up to his eye level, lifting my five-foot-five frame to its tippy-toes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in a human before. I’ve studied everything there is to know about your race, and not once did my studies cover this type of physical phenomenon.”
“You’re human, so why on earth would you feel the need to study them?”
He lifted his gaze from our hands to my eyes and held it there.
“I will state once again that I am Fae and an assassin of the highest order. Any seasoned assassin knows he must study his mark to effectively kill it. You must know all of your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses in order to prepare for the unpredictable circumstances inherent in my profession.”
I felt a slight chill tickle my spinal column at the casual way he discussed death. This Looney Tune may have been handsome, but he was also deadly. Encouraging him to talk about his delusions was probably better than having him act out any of them.
“Wow. That’s quite the field of study. Do you kill anything besides humans?”
“Of course. Any criminal who is a threat to the Fae is swiftly dispatched by the Fae’s assassins. The majority of these criminals are vampires and werewolves. Humans are rarely targeted for assassination, though it has been known to happen. I was most eager to receive this assignment due to the rarity of the mission. I’ve never actually seen a live human before today.”
I looked at our linked hands and the glow our body heat produced, and for some reason I felt wholly content. I’d always been a very restless individual. I never knew when I’d be moving or when the next assault on my person would take place, with all the various foster fathers and brothers. I couldn’t remember a single moment in my life when I had ever felt truly safe, and yet standing here with this human-who-supposedly-wasn’t-human, I felt more protected and serene than I cared to admit. I wasn’t even bothered that he was here to assassinate me. At least he was being civil about it.
I was totally losing it!
This guy was here to kill me, and I was holding hands with him? How about a moving rendition of Kumbaya while we were at it?
I tried pulling my hand out of his, but he had a much stronger grip on my fingers than I’d realized.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, refusing to release me.
“Hello! You’ve come to kill me! Do you always get this friendly with your victims?”
He pulled me in closer and dipped his head down toward my neck, inhaling deeply and then straightening.
“Interesting,” he muttered under his breath.
“You have a very distinct woodsy smell. I’m not completely certain killing you is advisable at this point.”
“My woodsy smell is now the deal breaker in all this?”
He gave me a serious nod. “Of course. Your smell is extremely significant.”
“Well, how extremely bizarre! Does that mean I can have my hand back?” I tried again to free my tingling fingers from his grasp to no avail.
He watched me struggle, amusement creasing the faint smile lines around his kissable mouth.
“You are not what I was led to believe. I fail to see how you could be a threat to my race when you can’t even extricate yourself from my weak hold on your hand.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think it’s great that you’re having second thoughts about murdering me. That’s progress, really it is, but if you’re not going to kill me, how about figuring out a way to pay my rent so I don’t find myself homeless again?”
“Consider it done.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
His eyes lit up at the ideas I could almost envision formulating within that beautiful cranium of his.
“I need to learn more about you before I report back to my superiors. They will want to know why I aborted this assignment. I think it best to live here with you for the time being until I come to understand how the monarchy could have made such an egregious error concerning your welfare.”
I struggled to wrap my brain around this new development.
My assassin was now my roomie?
“Live here? You can’t live here. I already have a roommate.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’m sure I can convince her to find another place to dwell.”
“I have a cat.”
“I am not, as you said, violently allergic to cat hair.”
“I have self-respect!”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
I tried throwing my hands up in frustration, but only succeeded in throwing one of them since I had not been able to free my other hand from its current prison. Not that I was putting up too much of a fight, and seriously, who could blame me, right?
“You were ready to assassinate me fifteen minutes ago, and now you expect me to let you live here while I lie awake at night, wondering if you’re going to change your mind and kill me in my sleep?”
He brought my hand to his nose and inhaled deeply. I raised my eyebrows at this disturbing behavior.
“Has anyone ever commented on your serious lack of social skills?”
“Killing you is out of the question. The thought will never cross my mind again, but someone wants you dead, and I must find out the reason for this. The assassin’s code is very clear about protecting the frail and defenseless.”
“I am neither frail nor defenseless. I’ve negotiated the murky waters of foster care for years and come out on top. I can take care of myself.”
“I am your caretaker now. Until I understand what games are being played here, you are under my protection. There is something very strange about all of this.”
“It’s funny that you should be the one to acknowledge that, Mr. Crazy Pants.”
The corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “Crazy pants? I’m not sure I understand your meaning. I am not wearing this thing called ‘pants,’ and clothing lacks the necessary intelligence required for insanity to exist.”
I looked heavenward, hoping I would find patience for this handsome assassin’s strange inability to understand English.
“It’s slang. You’re not supposed to take it literally.”
His eyebrows drew into an adorable V. “How else is the English language supposed to be taken? Do humans never mean what they say?”
“That annoying behavior tends to happen more when we’re dating.”
“Dating? What is dating?”
“What is…seriously, you don’t know what dating is? Were you born under a rock?”
“No, a fir tree, but that’s a very personal question to ask, and we hardly know each other.”
I stared at him for a few seconds and half-heartedly pulled on my hand.
“Why do you keep trying to pull away from me?” he asked.
“You’re holding my hand.”
“Yes, I am your protector now.”
“Does that mean you’ll be holding my hand for the rest of my life?”
He contemplated my question seriously.
“No, I imagine that would be inconvenient for both of us, but at the moment, our contact makes my skin tingle and heat in a most pleasant and surprising way. Do you not feel it?”
“Oh, I feel it.”
“Then why do you want me to let you go?”
“Does the phrase ‘personal space’ mean anything to you?”
“All righty, then.”
I sighed heavily, though secretly I couldn’t help but love the feel of his hand in mine or the fact that he acknowledged the strange chemistry between us. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome!
“Let’s get back to the part where you mentioned paying my rent and moving in.”
His face brightened at this and then he motioned to the sofa next to us, quirking an inquisitive eyebrow at me.
“Do you mind if I sit down for a moment?”
“I…suppose that’s fine.”
He immediately moved to the couch and made himself at home. Unfortunately, he still had hold of my hand and refused to relinquish it so I went right down with him. I decided not to complain since he’d decided not to kill me. I wasn’t about to thank him for it though. The way I saw it, the right to live wasn’t something I needed to ask permission for.
He held tightly to me as if he was afraid to lose the luminescence from our contact. His beautiful eyes rose to mine and then we just sat there facing each other.
I couldn’t figure out if I was having a nightmare or some blissful fantasy because there was no way I wasn’t dreaming this entire thing.
“I can use my powers of persuasion to convince your roommate to find another place to live when she shows up again.”
“Powers of persuasion, huh? Good luck with that,” I muttered.
He didn’t seem to notice my incredulity since he continued discussing his plans like they were destined to come to fruition.
“I will happily pay for your accommodations, and in return you will allow me to live here with you so I can investigate this unorthodox situation. And since you appear to be nothing more than a frail, weak, non-threatening individual, I shall offer you my protection should the need arise.”
He appeared pleased at my response and rubbed a finger against the top of my hand, creating sparks of golden light as he did so. I stared again at the magical glow and then shook my head, trying to restore order to the crazy churning of my thoughts.
Wake up. Wake up.
“Wake up,” I shouted.
“I am awake,” he said in some surprise.
I startled at his voice and opened my eyes.
“I am, however, extremely tired and wouldn’t mind a few hours of sleep. I would be most grateful if you showed me to our room.”
My eyes bugged out of their sockets.
No way in hell was I sharing a room with a dude who’d originally planned on killing me. I didn’t care how sinfully kissable his lips looked. If he was up for a catnap, then I was sooooo taking advantage of that and getting myself and Nala outta here. I’d be a fool not to, even though the temptation to stay and drool over him as he slept might have briefly crossed my thoughts.
I hadn’t completely succumbed to my assassin’s otherworldly good looks…yet.
“Our room? There are two rooms in this apartment. You can sleep in Jami’s room as long as you don’t mind being ensconced in bright, pink satin.”
The discontent on his face made me wonder if he might go for his dagger.
“I cannot protect you if we are dwelling in separate living quarters.”
“The rooms are right across the hall from one another. You could literally launch that very pointy dagger of yours from one room to the next and maim any perceived threats to my person without any problems. I promise.”
He mulled that one over for a moment and then shook his head. It was interesting to watch the emotions play across his face as he went from one thought to the next. The tightening of the muscles in his jaw-line signified his dissatisfaction with my response, and damned if that didn’t make him look even more appealing.
“I’m afraid your suggestion is unacceptable. Until I understand why the monarchy considers you a threat, you will remain with me.”
“As your hostage?”
His lips quirked in amusement.
“Of course not. You’re not a prisoner.”
I shook my head, ripped my hand from his—to which he let out an outraged grunt—and rose to my feet, grabbing my purse from the coffee table and throwing it over my shoulder. This dream was over. I hoped the reality of my unemployment and the need to find a new job would snap me out of this crazed hallucination I was trapped in. With any luck, my assassin would evaporate due to the monotony of filling out applications for McDonald’s and Burger King. I turned toward the door and ran smack dab into his muscular chest.
He placed his hands on my shoulders to steady me.
“What are you doing?”
I took a step back to remove the alluring warmth and weight of his hands upon me. My teenage hormones couldn’t handle the contact.
“You may be paying the rent, but I still need money for food, clothing, tuition, and other necessary girlie things. I figure if I’m not a prisoner, then I’m free to go out and get a new job.”
“That’s completely unnecessary. I will provide for your needs.”
I’d been waiting for years for someone to say that to me; for someone to give me the green light, simply stop surviving, and enjoy my childhood…or what was left of it, but the way he said it—like his word was law and there was nothing left to discuss—made me revert to an I-am-woman-hear-me-roar mentality.
“Are you planning on killing me?”
“Are you planning on keeping me locked up in my room for the next decade?”
“Of course not.”
“Are you going to provide me with tampons when my next period hits?”
His face balked at that. “I’m afraid I have no idea what tampons are, but I’m familiar with a human female’s menstrual cycle. The similarities between our females and yours are nearly identical in that department, and no, I do not wish to overstep my bounds.”
His idea of overstepping was hell and gone from mine.
“Then I need to go get a job.”
“Not without me.”
I glared at him, but he looked annoyingly unaffected by it. I stepped forward, deciding I should take charge of my hallucination and just walk through him. With arms locked at my sides, I rammed right into him. He didn’t budge an inch while the impact nearly launched me flat on my butt. His quick arm around my waist saved my very bony arse from some painful bruises.
“Was that some strange human custom I failed to uncover during my studies?”
My face burned with embarrassment—seriously, who lets a hallucination embarrass them—as I adjusted my purse, pushed out of his wholly unwelcome embrace, and moved toward the door like the independent woman I’d become.