Authors: Dannika Dark
When Ella pointed to the fruit salad in the counter below, Simon glowered. “I’m not about to feed you a bowl of berries. Don’t you eat meat?” he asked, mouthing slowly.
She looked like she wanted to say something but shrugged.
Simon tapped on the counter, and the man who looked like Mario from the video game smiled.
“I got you taken care of. What about your friend?”
“She’ll have the ham and provolone, a side of that fruity crap, and a bag of crisps.” He tossed a bag of potato chips on the counter, and when he added a giant chocolate cookie to the mix, Ella’s jaw slackened. He added two bottles of flavored water to the bill and then led her to a small booth a few feet away. There were highboy tables by the front windows, but eating there made him feel like an animal on exhibit at the zoo.
Simon usually tried to abstain from eating too much junk food, but his willpower crumbled if it was within arm’s reach. In his own home, he often cooked up fresh vegetables and made his meals worth remembering. His weight stayed relatively the same, although he could amp up muscle tone and shift his weight around. Luckily Breed magic kept him from gaining nine hundred pounds after eating too much rubbish.
He analyzed Ella’s behavior with mild fascination. She seemed content watching people in the deli. Whenever a breeze floated inside from a new customer entering the shop, she’d peer over her shoulder and give them an assessing look. That was a good habit to have in their world. When the food arrived, her eyes rounded and she shook her head.
Simon grasped her hand. “Look, maybe Hannah likes you to eat like a bird, but as long as you’re under
training, you’ll eat what’s on my menu. Your body requires more protein, and carbs in moderation are your friends.”
Ella licked her lips, eyeing her meal like a woman who’d spent years living in the desert. She pulled out a crisp and popped it in her mouth, immediately licking the salt from her fingers. He sat back and watched her polish off the bag before even touching her sandwich. It only took a nudge to get her to break the rules, and rules
They ate in silence for a few minutes until a regretful look crossed her face. He guessed her stomach was in a state of catastrophic shock from real food on the premises.
A young man leaned against the counter, leering at Ella’s body. Modern women often paraded around in revealing attire, but most men succumbed to the teasing allure of a well-covered woman. The mystery set off their imaginations—especially among Breed men who came from an era where the teasing glance of skin was erotica at its finest.
Simon tested the dull energy in the air and regarded the man, who looked more like a football player fresh out of college. He was definitely human.
He sat back in his seat. “Keep looking at her like that, you manky bastard. See what happens. You might have a banana in your pocket, but I have a six-inch dagger in mine.”
The human flicked his eyes away when he caught the deadpan expression on Simon’s face.
Ella sipped her water, watching him closely. Simon’s gaze traveled to the front door, hoping he didn’t have to explain something as foolish as protecting her honor. Since when did he get all chivalrous? That was a caveman move Justus would have made.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a man skulking out of sight. By his position, he’d been standing at the right corner window, looking in. Simon eyed the customers inside the shop, his senses sharp.
When Ella turned around to look, he took her hand.
Is there any reason why someone would be following you?
Simon wasn’t currently working on any jobs, and most men just tried to kill him, not capture or follow.
She lifted her shoulders, but he put his feelers out to decipher if her energy matched her body language. It wasn’t that difficult to sense when someone was lying—it sent out a negative spike that felt like a nine-volt battery on his tongue. Some were better at deception than others, but Ella’s light remained unchanged.
He let go of her hand and took a slow sip of his water, watching the front window. Something didn’t feel right, and he had a feeling Hannah was behind it.
the remainder of the day testing Ella’s skills. He’d never trained a female pupil, so he decided to keep communication to a minimum. He owned a private patch of land where he practiced blade tricks and flashing on uneven surfaces, but since he suspected someone was following them, he decided to take her to a local training facility instead.
By the end of their session, her grey dress had sweat stains and her plaited hair had loosened around her temples. She sucked down two bottles of water until her cheeks were no longer flushed. Afterward, they headed back to Hannah’s house.
The Ice Queen wasn’t too thrilled when she got a look at her precious Learner.
“That’s what they’re supposed to look like after training or a good shag,” he said, ignoring her hostile remarks.
During the drive home, he kept glancing in his rearview mirror, paying attention to his surroundings when he parked in his building’s indoor garage and headed up to his flat.
Simon tossed his keys on the bar and peeled out of his shirt, sweat still clinging to his skin. A shower would come later. First, he had to make a call.
“Justus, I need a favor.”
He heard a heavy sigh. “You are almost out of favors. Does this have anything to do with Hannah? I already told you I’m out.”
“Happen to know anyone who could do a bit of bodyguard work? I think someone’s following me, and I need to know what the bleeding hell he wants. I’m too busy training to be looking over my shoulder every five minutes.”
“What about your connections?”
Simon strode across the living room. “I would never ask anyone I know for a favor like this. Can you imagine? The great Simon Hunt in need of a bodyguard? Rumors would fly.”
“There’s only one person I know who might be available. He specializes in this line of work and knows the streets like the back of his hand.”
“Spectacular. Ask him to set aside the entire first day. If he’s skilled, then I should have what I need and won’t require his services any longer.” Simon untied the laces of his trainers and tossed his shoes on the floor. “After I drive Ella back to Siberia at the end of the day, your man can take off. I’m fine on my own.”
“Are you paying? I can tell you right now that this will not come out of
wallet,” Justus informed him.
“No worries. I just need him to find out who’s on my tail, and I’ll do the rest.”
“Let me make a call, Simon. If you don’t hear from me by morning, consider it done. Do you want to know who it is?”
Simon wondered for a moment if it would be wise to know. “If I have your word that I’m safe to walk the streets without looking over my shoulder, that’s good enough for me. I’m afraid if you tell me a name, I’ll think it over too long and decide to research their life history. That would be even more distracting,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Simon had trust issues with most everyone. All men had a price. The only man he trusted to a degree was Justus, and even then he suspected the man probably divulged secrets he shouldn’t to Page. Women had influence over men, and that’s what made them dangerous.
“Very well,” Justus said. “Any other favors you have up your sleeve, old friend? Because soon it will come with a price.”
“I don’t like being in anyone’s debt, so you have my answer to that. If your man doesn’t come through, give me a ring so I can make other arrangements. Talk to you on the morrow.”
Simon ended the call and stripped out of his jeans. When one of the legs caught on his ankle, he hopped around and lost his balance, crashing against the wood floor. With a violent kick, he flung his trousers across the room and knocked over a lamp.
The buzzer sounded.
By the third buzz, he got up and pressed the intercom button next to the door. “Who is it?”
“Hannah Freund. I have the contract and wish to speak with you.”
He cursed under his breath, holding down the button to grant her access.
Simon dunked his head beneath the kitchen faucet and ran the water, trying to rinse off some of the sweat. After a few scrubs, he swung his head back, and a spray of water hit the overhead cabinets behind him before dripping from the ends of his hair in rivulets down his back.
When a knock sounded, he swaggered into the hall and opened the door.
Hannah’s eyes glided down to his tight black briefs.
“You caught me on a good day,” he said, turning on his heel and entering the living room. “I normally don’t bother with underpants.”
The door closed. “Perhaps you should get dressed before we have our discussion.”
He collapsed on his chocolate-colored sofa, lying on his left side with his right leg bent at the knee. “Perhaps not. I’ve had a long day, so take it or leave it.”
She looked down at him with disdain and dusted off the chair across from him. Simon had a cozy living room—much of the furniture dating back to the late nineteen hundreds. A brown shag carpet covered the floor in the living area, and everything he owned looked used… except for the telly to his right. Nothing was without a scratch, stain, or imperfection of some kind. Just the way he liked it.
“So what brings you to the shady side of town?” he asked, water still dripping down his neck.
Hannah adjusted one of the silver pins that secured her dark hair in a bun. “I have your contract.”
“Let’s not play games, Hannah. You could have sent a messenger, or licked a stamp and sent it through the post. You didn’t come all this way to count my body piercings, so let’s not waste each other’s time. I need a shower.”
As she crossed her legs, the hiss of her panty hose made him shudder. Not many women wore stockings these days, but hers were a shade paler than her skin tone. If Hannah sat still enough, she could pass for a mannequin.
“I’m not comfortable with this arrangement. If I don’t know where my progeny is, then I can’t ensure her safety.”
“If she’s with me, then she’s safe.”
“And you, Mr. Hunt, are a man who’s easily distracted by a pair of long legs.” Her thick brows drew together. “I didn’t come this far with Ella only to have her taken out by some juicer because you weren’t paying attention. I’ve lost too many Learners already, and anyone who survives this long is an investment.”
He quickly sat up and laced his fingers together, forearms resting on his knees. “And why are you suddenly concerned for her safety? You and I both know how capable she is. Your Learner put a knife in my chest this afternoon in less than thirty seconds, and that’s not something even my foes can claim to have done. You forget who I am. A strategist analyzes intentions, and I’m not quite clear on yours.”
Simon tried reading her, but Hannah capped her energy. That was uncharacteristic for a Mage to do in the company of another, but it didn’t necessarily imply anything. With inducting all the Learners she did and witnessing their gifts, she was probably aware of the many talents that could expose her weaknesses.
Hannah adjusted the hem of her business skirt. Why she bothered to dress so formally to deliver a piece of paper baffled him.
“The contract is here, part of which includes your providing me with your phone number. I would give my Learner a phone, but that is unarguably pointless.”
“Have you not heard of texting?”
Her jaw set. “She wouldn’t be able to hear it.”
“I believe they come with vibrator mode. I’m sure you know
Ignoring him, she went on. “This is not a favor, Mr. Hunt. This is a negotiation. I’m ready to pay you a generous fee for your services, and compared to some of the jobs you’ve worked in the past for much less, I’d say this is a fair deal. You will answer each time I call. Should you not, then I will null and void this contract and recoup any moneys paid. In return, I will increase your weekly salary by an additional ten thousand. You will also report to me everything that happens that is out of the norm.”
His brow quirked.
What the bloody hell did she mean by that?
“And what qualifies as ‘out of the norm’ for you?”
She averted her eyes and looked at his décor. “Should anyone attack my Learner without provocation, then I want to know about it. She is young and pleasing to look upon. Her meek appearance makes her more susceptible to attacks by juicers or other such vagrants. If I feel that you are putting my Learner’s life in danger, I will reconsider our negotiation. I see no reason why you can’t continue her training and assessment within my home. You may use one of my guards as a potential assailant, should you need that.”
“No offense, but an armless man could take down one of your guards. There’s plenty of target practice out there, and the rogues hanging outside the bars are no match for me. What happens when you turn her loose into the real world, Hannah? She’ll never become independent unless she learns how to interact with these men—how to avoid an attack and how to win one. If you want to shield her, then what the hell am I doing this for?”
He sat back and folded his arms.
The staring contest began.
She finally stood up and dropped the envelope onto his lap before fishing a pen from her clutch. “Sign. Make sure your phone batteries are charged and it’s not set to voice mail. This is no joke, Mr. Hunt. I want to remain in constant contact, and you will notify me of all strange occurrences.”
“Including this one?” he grumbled, scribbling his signature on the document after skimming through the details. As requested, it was written in plain English—no questionable wording or anything added. He included his phone number at the top with a giant heart encircling it.
Hannah lifted the signed paper and reviewed it. “I’ll have a duplicate sent to you for your records.”
He pointed to the right. “There’s a copy machine on my desk. Why don’t you make me one?”
Irritation flashed in her eyes, but she didn’t put up an argument. Hannah’s heel snagged on his carpet, and she wobbled before regaining her composure.
Simon laughed quietly, deciding he wanted to save that mental image for later recall.
The sound of her heels sharpened when they left the carpet and met with the wood floor. She stood in front of his desk and tapped several buttons on his copy machine before placing the paper underneath the lid. When it produced a blank sheet of paper, she punched more buttons with vigor.
“There is one thing I excluded from the contract. It’s a verbal agreement that you will not engage in sexual relations with Ella,” she said, her back still to him. “If we had to take this to the higher authority, it would be a shame if I had to disclose insider knowledge about you when questioned about your… character.”
“Insider knowledge? Do you know that every job I’ve performed for the Council or Mageri is confidential?” He stirred with anger, rising to his feet.
“Of course I do!” Hannah took her copy of the contract and slowly drifted across the room, humor softening her words. “Did you know there’s a nude sculpture in the private chambers of a high-ranking official of the Mageri? Life-size, and in quite a prominent location. I couldn’t help but notice it bears a striking resemblance to you,” she said, turning on her heel. “Such
He raised an eyebrow. “And what were you doing in the private bedchamber of an official? One must think about one’s own reputation before jumping to such conclusions.”
She pointed her finger, eyes narrowing. “Don’t test me. I’d be very curious to know what kind of favor you received from an official to pose in such a lascivious manner. I’m sure the favor trade is far more interesting than the sculpture itself.”
Simon didn’t like the threat of blackmail. But why the circus? What did she care who her Learner bedded with? There was no law that stated a Creator could dictate their progeny’s sex life. This was absurd.
“I’ll see myself out. Oh, and one more thing.” Hannah slowly circled around, and a smile touched her lips. “Should this deal go through successfully on all accounts, I happen to have a clumsy servant whom our mutual friend has shown an interest in knowing intimately. It would be a shame for the sculpture to get broken, but accidents happen. Consider my request carefully, Mr. Hunt. I’m sure you’ll see the benefits outweigh the formalities. Good evening.”
Hannah swiftly crossed the room and went out the front door.
Simon didn’t like that his nude body was the object of someone’s affection, but he didn’t back out on deals. That one had given him a golden ticket to search a house during an investigation he’d worked on with Silver. He wouldn’t mind if that blasted thing took a tumble, so why was he getting worked up over a few small requests? After all, with the new salary adjustment, he was going to pocket twenty grand a week. Ella wasn’t his type anyhow, so the no-hanky-panky rule seemed reasonable.
What needled him was a sense of deception. What if Hannah was setting him up? Corruption existed within the Mageri, and that’s why he’d always been less than thrilled about taking their offers. The easiest thing to do would be to turn a blind eye to Hannah’s dubious motives and just do the job.
But Simon had always preferred the hard way.