"Brown or green for the drapes, Rache?”
Jenks’s voice slid into my dozing state, and I opened an eyelid a crack to find him hovering inches from my nose. The sun was hot, and I didn’t want to move, even if his wings provided a cold draft. “Too close. I can’t see,” I said as I shifted in the webbed lounge chair, and he drifted back, his dragonflylike wings humming fast enough to spill a red- tinted pixy dust over my bare middle. June, sunbathing, and Cincinnati normally didn’t go together, but today was my last day to get a tan before I headed west for my brother’s wedding.
Two bundles of fabric were draped over Jenks’s arms, spider silk most likely dyed and woven by one of his daughters. His shoulder-length curly blond hair—uncut since his wife’s death—was tied back with a bit of twine to show his angular, pinched features. I thought it odd that a pixy able to fend off an entire team of assassins was worried about the color of his drapes.
“Well,” I hedged, not any more confident in this than he was, “the green goes with the floor, but I’d go with the taupe. You need some visual warmth down there.”
“Brown?” he said, looking at it doubtfully. “I thought you liked the green tile.
“I do,” I explained, thinking that breaking up a pop bottle for floor tile was ingenious. “But if you make everything the same color, you’ll wind up back in the seventies.”
Jenks’s wings dropped in pitch, and his shoulders slumped. “I’m not good at this,” he whispered, becoming melancholy as he remembered Matalina. “Tell me which one.”
I cringed inside. I wanted to give him a hug, but he was only four inches tall. Small, yes, but the pixy had saved my life more times than I had spell pots in my kitchen. Sometimes, though, I felt as if we were worlds apart. “Taupe,” I said.
“Thanks.” Trailing dull gold dust, Jenks flew in a downward arc to the knee-high wall that separated my backyard from the graveyard. The high- walled graveyard was mine, too, or Jenks’s, actually, seeing that he owned the deed, but I was the one who mowed the lawn.
Heartache took me, and the sun seemed a little cooler as I watched Jenks’s dust trail vanish under the sprouting bluebells and moss, and into his new bachelor-size home. The last few months had been hard on him as he learned to live without Matalina. My being able to become small enough to help him through that first difficult day had gone a long way in convincing me that demon magic wasn’t bad unless you used it for a dark purpose.
The breeze cooled the corner of my eye, and I smiled even as I dabbed the almost tear away. I could smell the newly cut grass, and the noise of a nearby mower rose high over the distant hum of Cincinnati, across the river. There was a stack of decorating magazines beside my suntan oil and a glass of melted iced tea—the lull before the storm. Tomorrow would be the beginning of my personal hell, and it was going to last the entire week, through the annual witches’ conference. What happened after that was anyone’s guess.
Nervous, I shifted the straps of my bikini so there wouldn’t be any tan lines showing in my bridesmaid’s dress, already packed and hanging in a garment bag in my closet. The witches’ annual meeting had started yesterday on the other side of the continent. I was the last on the docket—like saving the biggest circus act for the end.
The coven of moral and ethical standards had already shunned me, tried to incarcerate me without a trial in Alcatraz, sent assassins when I’d escaped, and finally accepted a stalemate only when I threatened to go public with the fact that witches had their beginnings in demons and I was the proof. The rescindment would become permanent after they replaced the missing member of the council and pardoned me for using black magic. At least that was the theory.
As much as I needed to do this, I was so-o-o-o not looking forward to it. I mean, I’d been accused of being a black witch—of doing black magic and consorting with demons, both of which I did. Do. Whatever. That wasn’t going to change, but if I couldn’t pull this off, I’d be hiding out in the ever-after for the rest of my life. Not only did I not particularly like demons, but I’d miss my brother’s wedding and he’d never let me live it down.
I looked up, squinting into the oak tree as the familiar, almost ultrasonic whistle of a pixy cut through the drone of a mower. It was no surprise when Jenks darted out from behind the knee-high wall, going to meet Jumoke, one of his kids, coming in from sentry duty at the front of the church.
“What’s up, Jenks?” I called out as I grabbed my sunglasses, and the pixies angled toward me, still talking.
“Black car at the curb,” Jenks said, his hand on the hilt of his garden sword. “It’s Trent.”
My adrenaline pulsed, and I almost jabbed the earpiece of my sunglasses into my eye as I put them on. “He’s early!” I exclaimed, sitting up. Trent and I had an appointment for me to annul his familiar mark, but that wasn’t until five. The curse wasn’t ready yet, and the kitchen was a mess. Maybe he wanted to see the prep, afraid of what might be in it.
Jumoke’s wings hit a higher pitch when the front bell rang, and we all turned to the back of the church as if we could see through it to where Trent was standing on the front porch. The bell was one of those big farm bells with a pull, and the entire sleepy neighborhood could hear it. “Maybe he’ll go away if we don’t answer,” I said, and Jenks rose—sixty feet in a mere second. In another second, he dropped back down.
“He’s coming around back,” he said, his gold dust looking black through my sunglasses.
Damn it back to the Turn. “Pix the sucker,” I said, then waved my hand in negation when Jumoke clearly thought I was serious. The small pixy looked about six, and he took everything literally.
Jenks flew backward as I twisted, yanking on the back of the chair until it slid forward and I could sit more upright. Maybe this was a last-ditch effort to get me to sign that lame-ass paper of his, guaranteeing my safety from the coven but making me Trent’s virtual slave in the process. Tomorrow I’d be on the West Coast, clearing my name and sliding completely out of his clutches. Either that or he was avoiding Ivy—a distinct possibility. He knew she’d be here tonight, and his spies had probably told him she was out now.
Jenks’s wings clattered, and I flicked my gaze to his. “What do you want me to do, Rache?” he asked. “He’s almost at the gate. My kids are mobbing him.”
My jaw clenched, and I forced it to relax. I had a nice silk blouse picked out to wear tonight. Something professional and classy. And here I was in a bikini and with a dirty kitchen. “Let him come back,” I finally said. “If this is about that paper of his, he can suck my toes and die.”
With a nod and a wing chirp for Jumoke to accompany him, Jenks and his son darted to the side of the church and the slate path there. I settled back, tilting my head so I could see the gate without looking obvious about it. Trent’s voice—his beautiful, resonant, soothing, political voice—slipped over me even before he got to the gate, and I touched the braid that Jenks’s kids had put my curly red flyaway hair in this morning. I hated that I liked his voice, but it was a familiar hatred, one that had lost its fire long ago.
The wooden latch to the tall gate lifted, and my heart thumped as I took my sunglasses off. Eyes half closed, I pretended to be sleeping.
Wreathed in pixy kids, Trent came into my garden, his motions both slow and irate; clearly he was not liking the noisy, winged escort. Keeping my expression bland, I took in his slim form. In the months since I’d last seen him, Trent had deepened his tan, and his baby-fine, almost translucent hair caught the dappled sun. Instead of his usual thousand-dollar suit, he had on a lightweight gray short-sleeved shirt, dress slacks, and shiny dress shoes. It made him look harmless, but Trent was anything but. And what was he doing here alone? Quen never let him out by himself.
Trent made his way down the fern-laced slate path with the pixies chatting at him, his innocent businessman facade hiding his true demeanor as the head of an illegal bio-drugs and Brimstone distribution. Why am I helping him again?
I am helping myself, I thought, suddenly feeling almost naked. If I didn’t annul the familiar bond between us before I left for the witches’ meeting, Trent would start trying to kill me again, and as much as I detested the man, I liked him rather more when he wasn’t trying to put me in the ground.
Feeling like a big fat hypocrite, I closed my eyes entirely, listening to Trent murmur something to one of Jenks’s kids as his steps scraped on the broken patio tile. My heart beat faster. If it had been anyone other than Trent, someone might think I liked the man. In reality, I was trying hard not to look like the crazy witch living in a church with a gargoyle in the belfry, pixies in the garden, and a cat on the fence—even if I was. No way was he getting into my kitchen. Not with candles all over the place and half-crushed herbs and magnetic chalk everywhere.
“You’ll never guess who I found digging through our trash, Rache,” Jenks said snidely, and I stretched, shivering as a cold shadow slipped over me.
“I thought we got rid of those raccoons,” I said, opening my eyes to find Trent looming over me, nothing more than a black silhouette with the sun behind him. The scent of cinnamon and wine hit me, and I squinted up. Trent was on edge? Curious . . . If Trent was uncomfortable, then maybe I could keep the upper hand even if I was only half dressed. That would be a nice switch. He was good at putting me on the defensive.
“Oh! Hi, Trent,” I said when the man said nothing, the half shadows of pixy wings making dappled patterns over both of us, their noise almost as loud as their chiming voices. “What the Turn are you doing here already? Avoiding Ivy, are we?”
He backed up, and the sun blinded me—just as he had planned. “Good afternoon, Rachel,” Trent said dryly. “You’re looking well.”
“Thanks.” I reached for my sunglasses and put them on as he moved to stand next to the chair with my robe draped over it, effectively stalling me from taking it. “It’s amazing what two months of not being on anyone’s hit list will do for a person.” I hesitated, realizing his hair was in a more trendy style than usual. “You’re not looking bad yourself, for a murdering drug lord.”
At that, Trent’s smile became real. I think he enjoyed our verbal banter—everyone else was too awed by his bank account to stand up to him. “I apologize for surprising you like this, but I have something I want to discuss with you.” He glanced up at Jenks. “Alone, if possible?”
He was avoiding Ivy then, I mused, thinking it was funny. Jenks snorted, his hands going to his hips. His fingers just brushed the hilt of his garden sword, giving him a mischievous, dangerous look, like Puck with an attitude and penchant for killing. Amused, I beamed at Trent, pulling up a knee so I didn’t feel so exposed.
“Actually, I am kind of busy right now,” I drawled as I settled back into the chair and closed my eyes. “You have to make melanin while the sun shines.” I opened my eyes, smiling at him with bland insincerity, but a small ache of warning furrowed my brow. He’s here alone.
A soft giggle in the trees drew Trent’s attention up, and he made a quick step to the right, getting out of the way of one of last year’s acorns. It pinged on the broken slate of the patio, bouncing and rolling under my lawn chair as a chorus of disappointment grew.
“Excuse me,” Jenks said sourly, darting up into the tree. There was a noisy complaint, quickly hushed, and the pixies started to drop down one by one to leave an acorn, a stick, and even a marble on the table beside my glass of iced tea before they apologized and flew mournfully into the graveyard, all under Jenks’s watchful eye.
“I have four hours to try to get this pasty skin a shade away from death- pallor white for my brother’s wedding,” I said, uneasy and trying to ignore the little drama, “and I’m not spending it in my kitchen twisting your spell. Come back at five. Or you can sit and wait until the sun goes down. I don’t care. Is Quen in the car? He’s welcome to come back. I’ve got more iced tea in the fridge. Or a beer. You guys drink beer, don’t you?”
“I don’t have a babysitter today,” Trent said as if it was a victory, and I cleared my throat. I knew how he felt. My babysitter was either a four-inch man or an annoying ex-ghost, depending on how much trouble I was cur- rently in and which reality I was occupying.
Jenks’s youngest daughter, Jrixibell, dipped forward and back, twisting the hem of her brown silk dress. Apparently it had been her acorn. Under Jenks’s stern gaze, the sweet-looking little girl mumbled a shamefaced “Sorry” and flew to where three of her sisters waited, and together, they darted into a nearby bush to plot further mischief.
Trent smiled, half-turned, and shocked the peas out of me when he brushed the nearby chair free of imaginary dust and sat down, moving gingerly, as if he’d never had to trust plastic webbing before. Staring at him, I took off my glasses.
He’s staying? Sure, I’d offered, but I hadn’t expected him to take me up on it! Suddenly I felt twice as exposed, and I could do nothing as Trent crossed his legs and leaned forward, taking the top magazine off the stack. “Doing some redecorating?” he asked idly.
“Uh, Jenks is,” I said, heart thumping. Crap on toast, I couldn’t just lie here and pretend he wasn’t there. I’d thought he’d get huffy, spout some nonsense about his time being more important than mine, and leave. “You’re, ah, going to wait? Don’t you have something else more important to do?”
“Yes, I do, actually,” he said as he turned a page, his green eyes darting over the images of tiles and artwork. “But I want to talk to you. Alone.” His eyes lifted from the magazine, fixing on Jenks.
“Now just a fairy-farting minute . . .” Jenks rose up on a column of in- dignant silver.
My brow furrowed. Trent had come early, stinking of cinnamon and wine, to talk to me alone. So-o-o-o not good. “It’s okay, Jenks,” I said softly, but he didn’t hear me.
“The day I leave you alone with Rachel is the day I wear a dress and dance the polka!” Jenks was saying, and I sat up, putting my feet to either side of the lounge chair.
“Jenks, I’ve got this.”
“We are a team!” Jenks shouted, his hand on the hilt of his sheathed garden sword. “You talk to all of us or none of us!”
There were about a dozen pairs of eyes watching from the edges of the garden and graveyard, and I heard a rustle of leaves overhead. I glanced at Trent. His lips pressed together for an instant, and then his expression eased, hiding his irritation.
“Jenks,” I said softly, “it’s okay. I’ll tell you what he says.” Trent’s eyes squinted, and I lifted my chin. “Promise.”
Immediately Jenks calmed down, his wings clattering as he landed next to my iced tea in a huff. Trent got that little worry wrinkle, but it was true. I’d tell Jenks just about anything, and Trent needed to know that.
“Why don’t you get your kids and check out the blackberries at the far end of the graveyard,” I said, and there was another rustle in the tree overhead. “All of them.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jenks said sullenly. He rose up, pointing two fingers at himself, then at Trent—the unmistakable gesture of “I’m watching you”— before he flew off, yelling at his kids to clear out and give us some space. Trent watched them leave from their hidden nooks and hidey-holes, his tension becoming more obvious as he laced and unlaced his fingers.
A wind blew across the graveyard, smelling of cut grass and warm stone, and I shivered. “Well, what is it?” I said, leaning back in my chair with my eyes closed, pretending indifference. “You going to tell me what you can’t say in front of my partners and your office help, or are you just going to sit there ogling my bikini.”
That didn’t get the expected chuckle. I heard him take a breath and let it out. The soft, sliding sound of the magazine being replaced made me shiver again. “Your upcoming meeting with the coven?” he said softly. “I don’t think you realize what’s going to happen.”
My eyes opened, and I turned to him. He’d leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees, hands laced between them. Bowed over, a worried slant to his brow, he looked up as he felt my gaze on him.
He was worried about the coven? “The witches’ annual meeting?” I said. “Not a problem. I can handle it.” The webbing was cutting into me, and I shifted uncomfortably.
“You’re begging forgiveness for using black magic,” he said, and my gut tightened at the reminder. “It’s a little more than dodging drunk witches at the beach.”
I shifted the strap of my top to hide my unease. Trent looked scrumptious sitting on that cheap chair, even if he was worried. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I grumbled.
“Rachel . . .”
Nervousness twisted in me, and I grimaced. “The coven called off their assassins,” I said, but I couldn’t look at him. Sure, they’d quit trying to kill me, but they could start up again in a demon minute. Let me live in my dream world a day longer, okay, Trent?
“You’re leaving tomorrow for the coast?” he asked, and I rubbed a hand under my nose, nodding. He knew that. I’d told him last week.
“What about Jenks and Ivy?”
My gaze slid to Jenks, standing on the knee-high wall between the gar- den and the graveyard. True to his word, he was keeping his kids corralled. He was pissed, though, his feet spread wide and his hands on his hips. His wings were going full tilt into invisibility, but his feet stayed nailed to the sun-warmed stone. I lifted a shoulder, then let it fall, trying to look nonchalant. “Ivy’s staying to watch the firm. Jenks is coming with me. If he’s human-size, he’ll be able to handle the pressure shifts.” I hope. Suddenly suspicious, I turned to Trent. “Why?”
He sighed. “You’ll never make it. Even with Jenks.”
My heart gave a thump, and I forced myself not to move. The slight breeze became chilly, and goose bumps ran down my arms. “Oh, really?”
“Really,” he said, and I flushed as I saw him notice my gooseflesh. “Which do you think more likely: that the coven is going to let you come before them with that story of how they shunned you as part of an elaborate plan to test my security systems, or that they will simply make everything go away by killing you en route?”
It was hard to keep my head in the sand when he kept yanking my tail feathers like that. “I’m not stupid,” I said as I grabbed the suntan oil. “You don’t think I’ve thought about that? Where’s my choice here? They said they’d pardon me if I kept my mouth shut.”
“They never said whether or not the pardon would come while you were alive.”
True. “That’s so unfair.” Peeved, I flipped the bottle top open and squirted some oil onto my palm.
“You can’t afford to be stupid anymore,” Trent said, and I frowned, smacking the bottle on the table. “The same qualities that make you an at- tractive employee—loyalty, honesty, passion, diligence . . . trust—will get you killed until you realize how few people play by your rules.”
That last one, trust, had been hard for him to say, and I frowned, rubbing out the goose bumps under the guise of putting on suntan oil. “I’m not naive,” I grumbled as I found the red marks from the webbing. Yes, I worked with demons, studied with them, and was one of only two witches capable of invoking their magic, but I’d been good. I’d never hurt anyone who hadn’t hurt me first, and I’d always shown more restraint than those who’d tried to kill me. Even the fairies.
“The coven will never let you on a commercial plane, and the only way you’re going to make it to the coast is if we go together,” Trent said quickly. “The coven won’t dare attempt anything if I’m with you.”
Together? I blinked, then stared at him. This was why he’d come in my garden stinking of cinnamon and wine. He wanted to go out to the coast together and was afraid I’d say no. “Are you offering me a ride on your pri- vate jet?” I said, incredulous. I was almost free of him and the coven both, almost my own person again. If I got on his plane, it could land anywhere.
“You have to trust me,” he said as if reading my mind, but his body language said I shouldn’t.
I settled back, uncomfortable and feeling cold. “Yeah, like I believe you’d help me out of the goodness of your little elf heart. Don’t think so.”
“Would you believe I’m trying sugar instead of vinegar?”
He sounded amused, and I squinted at him. “Yeah,” I blurted out. “I’d believe that, but I’m not getting on your jet. You are a drug-running, tax- evading, irritating . . . murdering man, and there hasn’t been a month in the last two years that I’ve not worried about your trying to off me.”
“Irritating?” Trent leaned back against my robe, seeming to like being irritating, his fingers laced and his ankle on one knee. The position would have made me look unsure, but on him it was confident. The scent of coconut oil mixed with cinnamon, and he dropped his eyes. Silent, I waited.
“The truth of the matter is I’d rather have you alive and free of the coven than dead,” Trent said softly, glancing up as a torn leaf drifted down. “If you leave for the coast without me, you won’t make it. I still harbor the hope that you’ll someday work with me, Ms. Morgan.”
We were back on familiar ground. Work with me was better than work for me, but how many times did I have to say no? “No—you’re lying,” I said, waving my glasses at him when he began to protest, green eyes looking innocently at me from under his wispy blond hair. “You walked in here all strung out about asking me to go with you to the coast, not the other way around. You want my trust? Try buying it with the truth. Until then, we’ve got nothing to talk about. Bye-bye, Trent. See you at five. Don’t let the graveyard door hit you on the way out.”
I jammed the glasses back on my face and reclined in a huff, ignoring him as he shuffled his feet. For a moment, I thought he was going to stick to his lame claim of city-power benevolence, but then he whispered, “I need to get to the West Coast. I have to have an escort, and Quen won’t leave Ceri. She’s three weeks from her due date.”
Ceri? My jaw clenched, my eyes opening as I looked into the amber- tinted world. I sat up, eying Trent to see if he was lying. There was a hint of compassion there, but most of his expression was peeved, probably because Ceri liked his security officer instead of him.
“Quen won’t allow me to leave Cincinnati unless you come with me,” Trent said, clearly bothered. “He says you’re raw but enthusiastic.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Okay,” I said, swinging my legs to the broken patio again. “I think I’ve got it now. You say you want to join forces to help me—poor little me—but it’s only because Quen won’t let you go by yourself. How come? You planning on speaking out against me if I don’t sign your lame-ass paper? I knew there was a reason I liked Quen.”
“Will you forget about that contract?” he said, starting to look cross. “It was a mistake to try to bully you, and I’m sorry. My need to get to the coast is a private matter. You’re simply a means to get me there. An escort.”
He was sorry? I thought, shocked by the admission. From the wall, Jenks flew up in a burst of orange. Clearly, he’d heard it, too.
“Please,” Trent said, scooting to the edge of his chair. “Rachel, I need your help.”
From the gate came the faint, familiar sound of a metallic click and a puff of air. Behind Trent, a little blue ball at chest height flew right where he would have been had he not leaned forward. It hit the tree, exploding in a familiar splat of sound as a piercing whistle echoed through the garden.
Trent stared at me, then the wet mark, his eyes wide.
Shit, we are under attack.