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I live in the gray. It’s a wonderful place, free of accountability, bereft of conscience. I’ve lived in the black and white, but that was before, and I don’t worry about how I used to be.
I hate the cold, and yet there I was, standing on the roof of the Cobb Building, looking out across the Metropolitan Tract while the dark, cloudy sky spit snow on my face. I wouldn’t have been there at all if I hadn’t needed the money. Okay, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t need the money. I wanted the money. I also wanted the action. That, I needed.
“Could you have picked a weirder place to meet?” a man’s voice spoke from behind me.
“Where’s Tyler?” I demanded, a little on edge that Ty had sent an errand boy instead of meeting me himself.
“Had an appointment that ran late.” His thin lips turned up in a twitchy smile, and I palmed the dagger at my thigh, feeling a bit twitchy myself. “He said to tell you he’s sorry and he’ll call you later.”
Great. It was bad enough I had to wait out in the cold. Now I had to do business with this clueless idiot. Not many of Tyler’s contractors enjoyed the privilege of an in-person visit from him, but since day one, I’d been the exception. I looked Marcus over, from his dirty black hair to his soft middle and right down to his worn, secondhand army boots. Where did Tyler find these guys?
“Let’s get this over with,” I said. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
“Seventy-five percent,” the lackey said. My eyes narrowed and I felt again for the dagger at my side. As if it made everything okay, Marcus quickly added, “Tyler promises he’ll get the rest to you after the job’s done.”
I jerked the envelope out of his hand. I didn’t stand out in the cold for seventy-five percent. I didn’t have to. “Ty knows I won’t do shit until I get the rest.” I tucked the money into my coat and waited.
Marcus stared at me, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He looked like he was trying to keep from pissing his pants. I can come across scary when I want.
“Look, Darian. I’m just the messenger.” I quirked a brow and he faltered. “Y-you have a problem with what’s in that envelope, you take it up with the boss man. I’m out.”
He turned his back on me, and I fought the urge to laugh at his carelessness. The tip of my blade pressed into his back before he could face me again. “You know what they do to the messenger—right, Marcus?” He swallowed, and the sound was like a stone dropping into a fifty-foot cavern. “I want the rest of my money,” I whispered close to his ear, and he shuddered. “Tell Ty to call me when he gets it.”
I disappeared before he could open his mouth again.
A gust of wind hit me full in the face as I walked, blowing back my hood and causing my hair to billow out in soft strawberry waves. I locked eyes with a man who brushed my shoulder as I passed him on the street. He studied me for a fleeting moment before averting his gaze. Perhaps he’d picked up on the faint glow of my green eyes that betrayed my lack of humanity, or maybe it was simply the solemn black clothes and deadly expression that seemed out of place on an otherwise innocent-looking girl.
Most nights I felt comfortable roaming the streets of Seattle alone, but tonight something didn’t feel right. I suppose it could’ve been the cold or the wind that stole my breath. Or maybe the fact that Tyler sent Marcus to meet me instead of coming in person. We’d been avoiding each other lately, and not because of our business relationship. It didn’t matter that Ty had shorted me money for the first time in a long time. The only reason I’d threatened Marcus at all was because I knew he’d tell Tyler about it and he’d be forced to call me up. I didn’t like distance between us, despite the fact that I needed it.
I walked, my face protected by the high collar of my duster, deeper downtown and skirted two guys and a girl hailing a cab. “Dude, you’re four-oh-four if you think you’ve got a chance with her,” one guy said to the other before climbing in after the girl.
“Four-oh-four,” I whispered under my breath, committing the phrase to memory. I wanted to find out what it meant, add it to my mental dictionary. I was always careful to use the vernacular of the times.
As the cab pulled away, I thought of the many instances I’d watched from beneath lowered lashes, listening in on conversations. I have perfected the art of imitation. Mannerisms, slang, modes of dress change every day, let alone every year. I don’t miss a single trend. My looks are enough to make me stand out; I don’t need another excuse to draw unwanted attention.
The sleet began to accumulate, and I shuffled my boots through the muck, making narrow paths behind me. I tucked my fists into my pockets and picked up my pace, no longer patient with the weather. Hustling along, I tried not to dwell on the fact that I was alone in this world. I hadn’t encountered another of my kind in nearly a century, and when I had known one, I’d been too green to ask the right questions.
Azriel. As shrewd as he’d been secretive. Answers didn’t come easy. He’d kept me right where he wanted me, under the guise of love and devotion. Even as I forced the memories down, they resurfaced.
“I don’t want your kisses.” I looked into his handsome, ageless face. A face that would never change, despite the passing of years. “I want answers.”
“As long as you’re with me, there’s nothing you need to know.”
“Why do you seem like a mirage once the sun sets, and I seem more solid?”
“I am born, and you are made.” He tried to stop the questions with another kiss.
“But you can look more solid if you choose,” I said.
“Glamour for human benefit. It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“You don’t need glamour during the day,” I pressed, eager for information.
“Neither do you,” he said in an offhand way.
“What about the others? Are there others like us wandering the earth?”
Azriel let out an exasperated sigh. “No. We are the last. The only ones of our kind.”
“Tell me something else,” I begged. “Anything.”
“Really, Darian, you are like a whining babe.” His dark eyes turned cold, but he softened the cruel edge by taking my hand in his. “‘Why, why, why?’ It drones in my ears. Why don’t I ask you some questions?”
“Are you deadly?” he asked.
“If I want to be.”
“Are you strong and quick as the wind?”
“As strong as you and just as fast,” I replied.
“Can you pass as shadow during the night, and are you confined to corporeal form during the day?”
“I can, and I am,” I said, almost pouting.
“Then do not worry about what you do not know. We are immortal. The only weapon that can kill us is a blade forged with magic, and even I don’t know where one might be. We are alone in this world, and you have nothing to fear.” His mouth hovered close to mine. “Ask me no more.”
I broke free from the unpleasant memories and cursed myself for thinking about him. He was long gone. Though I’d never been able to prove it, I figured he’d wound up on the pointed end of a magic blade. Dead. It was the only explanation; he’d never have left me otherwise. But that part of my life was best forgotten. My focus needed to be on the money I was owed and Tyler’s absence tonight. Not a long-lost lover who’d disappeared ages ago.
Thoroughly annoyed with my nostalgic moment and chilled to the bone, I arrived at my studio apartment near the center of Belltown, the northern district of downtown Seattle. The densely populated area suited me—too many people paying too much attention to themselves to worry about me or what I might be.
I stepped from the lift that opened to the apartment and was greeted by a gust of warm air. Every muscle in my body relaxed. I kept the thermostat at a toasty seventy-five degrees, sometimes warmer.
Falling onto a chair, I drummed my hands on the armrest. I hated having my time wasted, and Marcus was a huge waste of my time. My cell phone rang, breaking the silence. Since I didn’t have any besties calling to gab about their hair appointments and desk jobs, I knew it was Tyler.
“Speak,” I said into the receiver.
“Were you expecting someone else to answer my phone?” I smiled, enjoying the way my name sounded like a soft caress when he said it. “Do you have the rest of my money?”
“Yeah. I had to guarantee it, though.” His tone sounded put out, but I knew the truth: Tyler could afford to guarantee my work. “What did you do to Marcus tonight anyway? He said he’d quit if I ever sent him on an errand that involved you again.” The laughter in his voice put me at ease. He knew I’d been messing with Marcus, and he didn’t entirely disapprove. That guy needed to grow a pair if he was going to play with the big boys.
“You should have come yourself,” I said. “I don’t like meeting with your errand boys.”
A long silence stretched between us, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Tyler was thinking. “Snow’s coming down pretty hard out there.” His words were stilted—definitely not what he’d planned on saying, as if the weather were a safer topic than what was really on his mind. “I’ll bring the rest of your money over myself. Be there in ten minutes.”
I snapped the phone shut. He knew me down to the smallest detail, and the fact that he was willing to come over so I didn’t have to go back out in the cold warmed me from the pit of my stomach outward. Avoidance wasn’t going to work. Not when we both made excuses to continue to see each other.
I twisted the ring on my left thumb—wide, worn silver with an antiquated carving. I’d never been able to identify the animal; it looked sort of like a bull or maybe a buffalo. Too much like a cave drawing for me to tell for sure. Tyler had given it to me after I’d completed my first job for him—said all of his people wore one. In the event a job went south, the ring would identify the wearer even if dental records couldn’t. And if anyone happened to cross me? Well, according to Tyler, the ring would guarantee my protection. Apparently, one look at that bull . . . buffalo . . . whatever would set stone-cold killers to shaking in their boots. It hadn’t mattered to him that I wasn’t so hard to dispatch. He’d insisted I wear it, and who was I to turn down free jewelry?
I met Tyler five years ago. He’s like a temp agency for the underbelly of society—a problem solver in the basest sense of the word. Tyler makes them—poof!—disappear. He’s known in a lot of circles, and he gets paid a nice chunk of change for his services. Working for him had been a no-brainer. I’d needed a new benefactor, as my previous contact had met an untimely end at the hands of the Russian mob. Tyler needed someone apathetic and discreet. He knew I was a killer the first time he laid eyes on me, and I knew he was the type of guy with connections.
Tyler was known for his hard edge, but when his eyes met mine, they held a depth of emotion that caught me off guard. It sparked something in me I’d thought long buried. “You’re not just a good-looking daddy’s girl, are you?” he’d asked.
I laughed. I’d never been a daddy’s girl. “Nope. But I’ve got skills, and from what I hear, they’re the kind you need. The kind of skills that could earn us both a lot of money.”
“What do you know about my business?” he asked, a smile in his voice.
“I know people pay you to solve their problems.”
“And how do you solve problems?”
I pulled a dagger from the sheath at my thigh and drove the point into the bar’s thick wooden tabletop. “I take them away. Permanently.”
And with that, I was hired.
As promised, the elevator whirred to life ten minutes after his call.
Tyler never disappoints. He’s never late.
I didn’t greet him at the door. Cordiality wasn’t one of my strong suits. Instead, I stood at my kitchen counter, pretending to be anything but preoccupied by who had just stepped into my apartment. It’s hard to ignore that level of gorgeous, and Tyler had it in spades. My heart raced at the sight of him, and it suddenly felt like my mouth was too dry to speak. Damn. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks, and just watching him walk toward me was enough to make my stomach do a backflip. And that was a huge fucking problem. I couldn’t afford to feel anything for him. I’d learned the hard way that love is nothing more than the sharpest blade, and it can easily be turned against you. I refused to let anyone have that kind of power over me ever again.
“Is there anything in your wardrobe that isn’t black?” he teased as he walked toward the kitchen.
I resisted the urge to smile, unwilling to let him see the trace of warmth his nearness caused. “I like black.” I almost always wear black or white, depending on the job and the circumstances. Tyler only saw me in black. The work I did for him wasn’t exactly on the sunny side.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, coming closer. “You look great.”
So do you, I thought, as he shrugged off his heavy wool peacoat. Ty never overdid it in the clothing department. He was a jeans and T-shirt guy all the way, but he knew how to make the simple garments complement his lean, muscular body. Tyler’s not even a notch below Calvin Klein underwear-model physique, and has a tousled mop of gold-and-bronze-streaked hair and strange hazel eyes—green with a brownish star surrounding the pupil. A garbage bag would’ve looked like an Armani suit on him.
He reached around to his back pocket and produced an envelope containing the rest of my money, and a slip of paper. “Is that for me?” I asked, reaching out.
“Yeah, the information’s on the paper.”
I leaned over the bar and he pressed the envelope and paper into my hand, grazing my fingers as he pulled away. Though his skin was cooler than mine, Tyler’s touch left me warm. And wanting more. My skin all but burned where he’d touched me, a brand that reminded me I’d have been better off dealing with Marcus. Tyler must have felt it too, judging by the way his lids became hooded and his chest rose and fell in a quick rhythm. I took a tentative step back, irritated at my own stupidity for orchestrating this visit. Shit.
He ran his fingers through the thick tangles of his hair and dropped onto a stool at the bar. His jaw clenched, the muscle at his cheek flexing. “Look, Darian. I want you to be careful on this job. Something doesn’t feel right.”
Ty’s instincts were usually right on. But I never gave much thought to things like caution. “I can handle it,” I said. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
“I know you can handle it.” Ty gave me a level stare. “That’s not the point. Maybe I should take this one myself.”
“No way.” This job paid double my usual fee. I had no intention of giving up that kind of money. Or the kind of action a double fee usually indicated. “I’ve got this one. Period.”
Ty shifted in his seat, and I knew his pensive attitude had nothing to do with the mark. “You ever think of a change in venue? Maybe a new line of work?”
“Sure, because I’ve always secretly wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher. Please. I’m good at what I do, and you know it.”
Standing from the stool, Ty rounded the bar and leaned up against the sink beside me. I balled my hands into fists, more to keep them from shaking than anything. God, he smelled good. Comforting, like fresh-baked cinnamon bread or something equally delicious and loaded with rich spices. His unique scent swirled around in my head, and I wanted nothing more than to lean into him, feel the weight of his arms around me as I breathed him in. But then my common sense gave me a swift kick in the ass. There was a stack of reasons why I couldn’t be with Tyler. He was human while I . . . well, I sure as hell wasn’t. Plus, he deserved someone softer. A nice piece of womanly eye candy. Someone capable of giving and receiving love without considering it a bargaining chip. Someone who wouldn’t stab another person with something sharp if he pissed her off. That someone wasn’t me.
“How long are we going to keep doing this?” His tone, though dark, had a sensual edge to it. A yearning that mirrored my own. Shit.
“Tyler—” My gaze dropped to the floor. I couldn’t look up because he’d see the emotion written all over my face. “We’re not going to talk about this.”
“Maybe I want to talk about it.” His voice became softer still. He reached out, his fingers caressing me, shoulder to wrist. A jolt of excitement shot through my core, and I cursed my weakness and my susceptibility to his touch. I wanted him, and not just for the night.
“We work together.” The excuse sounded as lame in my head as it did coming out of my mouth.
“Then you’re fired,” he murmured, brushing his fingers against my palm.
My cheeks flushed and it had nothing to do with the temperature in my apartment. These moments between us were becoming more frequent—and harder to resist. I put my palm against his chest, my entire hand tingling with excitement from the contact. He felt solid, rock hard, under my hand, and I wondered what his skin would feel like without his T-shirt between us. I pushed him gently away, severing our contact and allowing me enough space to take a decent breath. I couldn’t focus with him so close. And we needed to talk business.
“So,” I said, shaky, “I take it the mark’s a real bastard?”
Tyler took an extra step back, his smile turning almost sad. “You know me,” he said with a sigh, and the sound mirrored my own disappointment. “I don’t take money to kill just any asshole. Only the scum of the earth will do.”
That’s why I worked for Tyler. He shared my disgust for the morally bankrupt, and I could count on him to flush them out of their holes for me. Be it a drug dealer, pimp, or worse, Tyler hated abusers just as much as I did. And each and every one of them abused their victims in one horrible way or another.
Talking business was like a gust of fresh air. It cleared my head, redirected my focus. This job was the only thing keeping me from violating all of my self-imposed rules in regards to Tyler. I’d spent decades polishing my armor, and now was not the time to let it tarnish.
I leaned back against the stove, but still, the distance between us could be closed by an arm’s length. Even the air seemed thinner, as though there wasn’t enough of it to share. Tyler sealed the gap, his eyes trained on my face, drinking in every detail. He reached out, his fingers feather light against my cheek, and tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear. Time to take this conversation out of the kitchen. I needed some space, and the current cramped quarters weren’t doing anything for my willpower. I tapped the envelope of money against my palm, paced away from Tyler, and rounded the far end of the polished concrete countertop. I flopped down on the overstuffed chair in the living room that bordered the kitchen. Unfolding the slip of paper, I read the mark’s info with more interest than the situation called for. “I’ll get ahold of you when it’s done,” I said.
Tyler stiffened, his shoulders square. “You can’t keep avoiding this—us—Darian.”
Who says? As far as I was concerned, I could keep avoiding it until the end of time. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Right, Ty? We work well together. And I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Why can’t things stay just the way they are?”
“Change is the only constant, Darian.”
He always said my name with care, as if the word was fragile. The sound of it made my chest ache. “We just can’t . . . be together.”
His eyes burned into mine. “Why not?”
Why not, indeed? “It’s not a good idea. Trust me, Ty. I’m not what you need.”
He threw his coat over his shoulders and headed for the elevator. “Why don’t you let me worry about what I need? Be careful tomorrow. I’d hate for you to trip on your boulder-sized pride before you get the job done.”
The elevator whined its way to the ground floor, leaving me alone.
Way to go, I thought. You wanted things to cool down. Looks like you got your wish. He’d forget about his fascination soon enough. It wasn’t really me he wanted. More likely it was the idea of me. The exotic, preternatural creature. Tyler would find someone worthy of his adoration. The thought of his arms around another woman made me want to scream. I sat for a moment, absorbing the quiet and the hollow ache in my chest that only his absence caused. Fuck if I knew why, but the torture of having him near was almost better than the anguish of watching him leave.
Rather than continue to stew in my misery and obsess over emotions best left unrealized, I locked the envelopes—both the seventy-five percent and the remainder of my fee—in a safe tucked behind a false wall. Tyler wouldn’t dare cheat me. I trusted him with my life; the money was a no-brainer.
I unfolded the paper once again and reread the name and address scrawled on it.
Xander Peck, 1573 East Highland Drive
His name rolled off my tongue a couple of times. Not exactly a Tom or Josh or Steve. But I guess Darian wasn’t exactly a Becky, Suzie, or Jennifer either.
Poor bastard. I wondered who Xander Peck had pissed off to deserve a visit from me. Whatever he’d done, it must’ve been pretty bad. People paid through the nose for my services, and I wasn’t exactly listed in the yellow pages. You’d have to have connections, and not the normal kind, to hire a Shaede to mete out your punishments.