The Care and Feeding of Sex Demon Excerpt

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The Care and Feeding of Sex Demons

I had spent the morning trying to replicate the smell, texture, and look of ambergris. If you have ever seen or smelled the rotten fish and bile substance found in whale poop, you can imagine how badly my skin stank. Our suppliers had been out of all but the tiniest bit, and I had to make the rest of the pound out of human earwax, fish sauce, and butanoic acid. If you have not smelled butanoic acid, I’d suggest sniffing ambergris first before making that kind of commitment.

The ceremony was supposed to be on Saturday. I thought we had lots of time to arrest the wizard for practicing a world-dominating level-seven curse before it tore the planet along its fault lines. I pulled up in my car to check out where the ceremony would have been in time to see the “ambergris” tumbling out of the locked box I’d put it in and falling into the bright yellow sulfur pile.

We had kept the original ounce or two of ambergris in the sample. In hindsight, it was a gaping error. The resulting explosion lit the whole sky with burning, eye-watering fumes. I was ready for whatever came out of that cloud.

After the burning sky fizzled out, the wizard and I met each other’s gaze. At least this one wasn’t some teenager. Those were the hard ones. He grinned at me, pupils blown out to large black circles.

Then he exploded in a billion, billion…billion? I had no idea. I wasn’t a physicist. I was an apocalypse stopper. Calculating how many photons contained within whatever wizard the Internet coughed up this week wasn’t in my job description. No scientist would ever read my paperwork.

I was retired from active duty. I was only supposed to administrate the real apocalypse stoppers.

And he took my company car with him.

When the apocalypse started, I felt myself getting excited that something was finally going to change.

Patrick was going to kill me. He liked things the way they were.

The cow walking alongside me looked as though nature had squared off her body. If cartoon physics were correct, her cross sections would look like T-bone steaks. The highway I walked beside stretched on ribbons, rolling over the endless hills in the high country. The cow had been following me for a while just on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. Three hours of constant adrenaline had left my fine-reasoning skills somewhat stripped, but I was fairly sure the cow wasn’t a threat. It reached the end of the fenced-in field and regurgitated some cud.

I wanted breakfast too. My back hurt, my shins ached, and the dried mud on the legs of my suit added twenty pounds to each step. My boss had even forced me to wear dress shoes to the stupid meet and greet that had turned into a scream and run.

Another red car appeared in the distance, but I didn’t get my hopes up. Because the high powers above loved to mock my life choices, the last three cars that appeared in the past hour had all been small, two-seaters, and red.

The distant car bobbed up and down on the ribbons. I had a blister on the back of my foot. I wanted to stop walking, but that would almost guarantee that the car wasn’t Patrick’s.

On the last rise, the turn signal came on, and the car started slowing down. Patrick had a meeting with one of the major charm-makers in town. He’d been worried about it for weeks. My job ended when the bad guy exploded into subatomic particles and my paperwork was filed, but Patrick’s job had endless parts to it that kept him busy even when the world wasn’t ending.

Patrick and I had been together for five years, and yet when I called him for a ride at four o’clock in the morning before his biggest meeting of the year, he lied and said I hadn’t woken him up. I would have told him the truth.

Patrick slowed down, inching along beside me. He didn’t stop so neither did I—until I took the wrong kind of step and brought the back of my shoe against the developing blister on the back of my ankle.

Patrick stopped. “Get in the car, Cy,” he said.

He didn’t even wait for me to do up my seat belt before he pulled the sports car into a U-turn. I’d been on a single-lane highway, but the tiny car had no problem completing the circle on the road with its tiny wheelbase.

The silence was worse than the million questions he had every right to ask me. He didn’t ask. I wanted to crack a window to let some of the tension out, but it wouldn’t actually affect the air pressure.

Neighborhoods surged beyond the city limits like massive muffin tops. Some groups’ subdivisions were love handles by now. Calgary needed a bigger edge to contain everything inside of it.

“Have you eaten?” Patrick asked.

“I’ll grab something at the house.”

“I’m not dropping you off at the house. I have to be at the university in twenty minutes. There’s a C-Train station there.”

My feet were killing me. I just wanted to go home, and I’d bought his fucking car. I put my head against the back of the seat. “I’ll get a cab.”

Patrick exhaled sharply. I hadn’t meant anything at all by wanting to hire a car to take me home.

“What’s wrong?”

“You promised me you were going to be in a supervisory position. In what role is the supervisor supposed to be involved in a standard apocalypse prevention attempt? You have minions. They should have singed eyebrows right now, not you.”

I reached up to touch my face. Mud flaked off. I would get the car detailed, but I didn’t really have the time, which meant he was cleaning up after my mess again. We’d just had that talk. I wondered if it had occurred to him not to answer the phone when I called. “As far as we knew—”

“Do not sit there and tell me that you have a clue as to what your boss knows. It’s far more like Ms. Gwen to know it was supposed to be tonight all along than it is that this was all just a misunderstanding.”

“You normally call your demon when you get into shit and you don’t want me to know about it. Was he not picking up?”

August was my sex demon. “He said his hands were tied.”

“That’s original,” Patrick snapped.

“He’s never once said no to me in the entire time we’ve been working together. If he tells me he needs the night off and not to ask any questions about it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Patrick said nothing. He wasn’t exactly thrilled that my best friend was an incubus. Gwen had given me August at the end of a successful job back when Patrick and I had two separate addresses. It was after the house fire, so technically I’d had an address but no place to live.

Patrick and I were still feeling each other out. When I met him, his arms and legs had been too long for his body in a way I found adorable. He moved with coils of energy. In the past five years he’d left his early twenties behind and finished filling out all the way. Now everything looked in perfect proportion.

“I got you coffee,” Patrick said, motioning to the white coffee container in the two-cup holder. It hadn’t been sipped from, either. Alarm bells went off. “What, do you think I poisoned it?”

“No,” I said truthfully. But he would have had to do something to it, or he would have sipped on it on the way out of the city. Patrick hated mornings.

He grabbed it and took a big swallow. “Happy?”

Patrick did not want me to answer that question. Our hands touched when I reached for the coffee. Patrick let go as soon as we touched, so it didn’t become a thing. I took a cautious sip while pretending to drink deeply. It didn’t taste funny. I took another longer drink and kept my hands around it for the residual warmth. “I want to sleep when I get home.”

Patrick gave me his sideways glance. We both knew I wouldn’t. Any explosion that set off a Richter scale had to be reported to people more scary than Gwen. We were still thirty miles out of the city. I closed my eyes, just meaning to rest them.

We’d left the desolate high country road and were in among the morning traffic, caught at the first set of lights into the city. No one in any of the cars would ever know how close we’d come, again, to destruction.

I didn’t want to think about my job.

I looked over to Patrick. I had enjoyed Patrick’s awkwardness. That Patrick, who had been a temp when I met him, had gotten his shit together. I still needed to be picked up on the side of a highway because my car had been melted into the pavement.

Patrick sighed, wrapping his arms around the steering wheel and beating his head against the top of it. “Take the car. You’ve had a worse night of it than I have. I can take the train home.”

“Not after your first successful meeting. I’ll send August to drop it off for you.”

“I would rather take the train home alone than sit with your demon on the ride back,” Patrick said.

“Are you ever going to tell me what it is you do not like about him? He’s done absolutely nothing to you, ever.”

“He’s a sex demon,” Patrick said.

“That doesn’t make him a bad person.”

“Do we have different definitions of demons?”

“He hasn’t done anything to you in five years!”

“But he’s going to. And you trust him with your life! Not me, him!”

“I call him because I know he’s going to be up when I need him,” I snapped back. My mouth burned like I’d bitten down on a spicy pepper. “What did you do to the coffee?”

“I wanted you to be able to feel how many times in a day you lie to yourself.”

“You drank it too!” I protested.

Patrick shrugged. “I have nothing to say to you I haven’t said a thousand times.”

“Oh God. I can’t believe you put a charm on me.” My mouth burned like I’d just bitten down on a habanero pepper. Okay, maybe I could believe it.

Patrick swung into a fast-food restaurant parking lot. The drive-through had twice as many vehicles as were parked. I got out of the car. “This thing you did? Not cool.”

“At least tell me the truth,” Patrick said, not raising his voice. He knew I’d still hear him. I came around the almost toy-sized car. Patrick unrolled his window while I walked. “Why do you call him and not me?”

“I like his no-questions-asked policy,” I said.

Patrick narrowed his eyes. I shouldn’t tell him how adorable he was when he was furious. It wasn’t going to help me, and a lie unspoken didn’t count. I wanted Patrick, the one who would poison me to make a point, and not the one who wanted input in picking out a bedspread. “That isn’t because he likes you or he trusts you. He doesn’t ask any questions because he honestly doesn’t give a flying fuck what you do. Your death would complicate his life. That’s all.”

There were pancakes inside the building and an angry boyfriend out. The choice was so clear, and yet still I wanted to argue with Patrick until he wasn’t angry anymore. Knowing a task was impossible before I started had never stopped me before. “You don’t know him like I do.” I shouldn’t have stood there while my mouth burned and let him berate me at the same time. When I headed to the door, though, it was because Patrick was going to be late if I didn’t end this.

“Wait!” Patrick yelled. “I’ll ride back with your sex doll. You can have the car.”

I turned around at the door. “I do not fuck him!” My mouth, already hurting, didn’t get any worse. The first lie had felt like a jalapeño and the second a habanero. I had no idea what the third lie would taste like.

It was five thirty in the morning. Everyone in the parking lot and dining room of the fast food joint stared straight ahead to avoid the drama. That had been my strategy for the past five years. Good for temporary but not permanent problems apparently.

Patrick leaned on the horn. It wasn’t like him to draw that much attention to himself, despite driving a sleek, red, expensive vehicle. “You really aren’t?” he called.

“Is that what you’re afraid of?” I called back.

Patrick looked down to his watch. “I have to go while the moon is in the seventh house. You promise you’ll be home this morning?”

“When does your charm wear off?”

“Sometime after midnight, according to the label.”

Charm labels were notoriously unreliable, as I’m sure you well know. It could be over by lunch; it could take an entire lunar cycle. They were the cheapest form of magic in an entire magical system, but the only ones I could use.

“What was it, some kind of test to see what your charm guy could do?”

“Gal. But yeah. That’s exactly what it was.”

“It was pretty good. It didn’t have a taste or a texture, and the effects were almost immediate. If she pads her numbers by twenty percent, you can still turn a profit on her.”

We were ten feet away. Patrick could have come to me, kissed me, and gotten up to the earth science building with lots of time, but he didn’t. He drove away.

* * * *

August slipped into the pressed plastic bench and immediately spruced up the joint. People around him sat up straighter, and the food off the grill started looking like the pictures of the items on the menu board.

“Pancakes? What is this, some desperate cry for help?”

“I see your confusion. That call this morning was a desperate cry for help. These are just simple carb abominations,” I said. I stabbed my plastic fork into the pancake again.

“I told you, my—”

“You’ve always taken my calls before, regardless of where you were tied up. I changed my ringtone for you.”

“I would have come if I could.”

“Is that another sexual reference?” I asked.

“No. I really would have gone.”

“You picked a shitty day not to come when your hands were tied,” I said bitterly.

“You always make do.” August picked up the white coffee cup and sniffed the lid, but then made a long face and put it back. “You didn’t tell me you got dosed.”

“I hadn’t been when we talked,” I said.

“Who dosed you, Boss?” August asked in a tone that suggested he knew but didn’t want to say.

“That isn’t important.”

“If someone dosed me with a charm without my permission, it would be important.” August’s eyes were burning red from the inside. He hadn’t glowed in a while.

I took the white cup and gave him the McCrappy one that had come with my meal. “Step down. I just have to spend a day being honest with myself. There’s no actual torture involved.”

“Patrick dosed you,” August said and then looked down. His lips pulled back in a snarl, but he covered it with his hand.

“If you had picked me up when I asked, none of this would have happened.”

“I would have just bought you another day. You haven’t been alone with him for more than twenty minutes, and he’s worried about the two of you.”

August had a way of saying he and him that left no doubt as to whom he was speaking about, though he didn’t often use Patrick’s name. I stood up, brought my tray to the garbage, and tossed everything but the dosed coffee away.

“What did he get you with?”

“Truth serum. I knew he did something. Couldn’t just accuse him straight up.”

“Why not?”

“It would have shown a lack of trust.”

“But he did something to it!”

“I wasn’t supposed to know about it!”

“You’re a crazy fucker if you’d rather drink something dosed to prove a point you didn’t believe to begin with.”

“He didn’t know I didn’t believe in it.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Go home, try to get some sleep. Be in before noon to debrief.”

“I meant about him.”

“Patrick? Why would I do anything about Patrick? He has permission to feed me noxious substances. That’s what being in a relationship is all about. Letting someone do something to you that you wouldn’t let anyone else do.”

August stopped. “I’m no expert in human mating rituals that go beyond the actual mating rituals themselves, but I think you need a better working definition of a relationship, Boss.”

“I don’t want a better working definition.”

“No, you don’t want a better relationship. You want your picket-fence future with a guy you picked up in a game of chicken with your boss.”

“I tell you too many things about my life,” I said, going outside. My boyfriend drove a red two-seater, and my sex demon a dark blue one. Both of the cars were in the six digits, but Patrick’s started in the mid-300s while August had more of an entry-level ridiculously expensive automobile. I was the only one with a job I had to pay taxes on. My car was twenty years old and could seat five. Well, could have if it hadn’t been melted.

“You can’t help it,” August said, unlocking the door a moment before my hand came down on the handle. “You’re a masochist.”

“And you’re a control freak,” I snapped back.

August smiled. It was his sex-demon smile that made his eyes burn red and fire spark from the shadows of his face. The sun had risen an hour ago. There should be no way he could turn half his face dark, but he could. “You control my sublease. If you want me to be a control freak, what does that say about you?”

The danger that Patrick was honestly afraid of simmered so close to August’s surface that I realized I had forced myself to look past it all this time. August overtook other drivers like he was driving for their souls. It was always a relief to reach the wide double doors of our garage in one piece. I was glad I hadn’t sent him back for Patrick.

August reached for the door of the car, but I locked it. He unlocked it manually, but I locked it again. “What the hell are you doing?” August demanded, snatching his hand back from the handle.

I held up his spare key ring’s fob. My car just had plain old regular entry. Keyless entry wasn’t a thing when Windows 98 was cutting edge. “I’ve been carrying around your extra key fob for a while now.”

“Just for this exact moment?”

“How long have you been waiting to tell me you’re tied up?”

I unlocked it. August waited a heartbeat and then opened the door and threw himself inside the car. I came around the passenger side.

August sat back, crossing his arms, while I put on my seatbelt. “What, then? Do you want to progress to your first my-partner-just-doesn’t-understand-me blowjob? Because I’m telling you right now, it never stays at the blowjob level.”

“Do both of you think all my problems begin and end with who I can or can’t fuck? For fuck’s sake itself, I would pay money if all my problems were sexual ones. No, I don’t want to progress that far. Do I need to bind you against hurting Patrick?”

“What now?” August asked. “You never said anything about a binding spell.”

He sounded genuinely panicked. Sure, he could disappear in a puff of fire and brimstone, but he knew the cost of getting his seats releathered, and I wasn’t going to pay for anything that was used to escape my presence. “I thought you liked having your hands tied.”

“Willingly,” August said, turning in his seat to look at me. When he wasn’t using his expression to be evil with, he had a scrubbed-clean college-freshman look that could sometimes spill over to bewildered, like now, when he was trying to think of what he’d done to deserve this. “What did he say I did?” he asked, exhaling in frustration. “Because I’m telling you I haven’t done anything to him—that he knows about or not.”

“He finds you alarming.”

“I find you charmingly dense. I’m not suggesting you should be chained down because I have a mildly unpleasant opinion of you.”

“Does he have anything to be afraid of?” I asked.

“I’m an incubus, Cy. I’m not a school crossing guard.”

“Those two things are not mutually exclusive. I’ve met university profs and police officers who were incubi in my time.”

“Really? How did he make his handcuffs heatproof?” August asked but wasn’t truly as distracted as he pretended. He was still studying me, trying to decide how bad things were going to get. He slumped against his seat. “How bad of a binding does he want?”

“Do you need to be bound?” I asked.

“No-oo-oo.” The word was churlish and three syllables long. “I gave you my word I wouldn’t hurt him. I thought that was going to be enough. You know bindings hurt, right? Plus the whole white-elephant thing. You tell me not to hurt your boyfriend, and that’s the only thing you’re going to force me to think about.”

“I could ask Gwen to take you back,” I said, hoping to cheer him up, but he hunched his shoulders lower and sank deeper into the chair.

“I will do whatever it takes for you to do the exact opposite of that,” August said, his voice low and dark. He wasn’t even looking at me. He went cold, and the red light reflecting off his cheek died. “It doesn’t have to leave this car. Your boyfriend will never know.”

“I’m not threatening you or anything.”

“You know we’re not getting along?” August sneaked a look at me, checking my mood. I wasn’t upset at him, nor was I playing a blame game.

I simply wanted the two people in my life I liked to just get along. I didn’t want to talk about it or have to manage it in any way. I’d moved to a supervisory position five years ago and dealt with people and their problems ever since. It was so much easier to take a knife in the gut than to order someone else into a place knowing the possibility of violence existed. “If I promise not to blame you for what you say, what is it you two are fighting about?”

“You’ve seen him,” August said. “He’s opening a paranormal wing, and he wants to live like he’s in some jacked-up ideal world where walls need decorating and shelves need—” August cupped his hands as if he held something small. “Shit. He’s filling your life with shit you don’t need.”

“Let me fight my battles.”

“But you’re not fighting him!” August protested. “Your bed has a bed skirt on it right now. Do you think your bed had such wicked legs they needed to be covered?”

“He’s redecorating, not murdering neighborhood cats.”

“It starts with redecorating,” August said darkly. “And then he starts looking at which walls are load bearing and which ones aren’t, and suddenly you’re in a monstrosity so far away from the city’s pulse that your new neighborhood is existing in an anaerobic state. Or worse, guys like Patrick burrow into a gated community and never leave. I’m telling you, Cy, this is the beginning of the end. Five years was a good run, but you need to find someone else.”

“We’re not going to break up,” I said. My mouth went numb. Maybe the charm master wasn’t as good as she could have been. I didn’t know if I was lying to myself or not. “At least I hope we don’t. I love him.”

“Why?” August demanded. “There isn’t one thing the two of you have in common.”

“Relationships don’t need to make sense mathematically.” I unlocked the doors.

“But they need to be on the same page. You’re not even in the same book. If you were in books, you wouldn’t even be in the same library. You’re torturing yourself because you’re failing in a relationship that you can’t win.”

“I’ve never aimed for winning. I aim for surviving, and I want to survive with that man.” As soon as my words were out, August’s dark eyes went bright with rebuttal. But since I had taken over his sublease, and the person who owned my contract wasn’t in the garage, I got the last word. “You can make it easier on me by telling Patrick you have no intention now or in the future of harming him. I’m asking nicely for the two of you just to try.”

“Yes, sir,” August said.

“That’s a yes because you want to, and not yes because you have to, right?” I asked, getting out of the car.

August didn’t answer. I could have made him, but I didn’t think I’d like what I got. I turned off the house alarm, pressing my thumb against the print-reader, and held it there while the finicky thing decided to work. Patrick paid for cutting-edge technology in his home security system. It was frustrating turning it on and off but helped me sleep at night.

“Cy?” I heard behind me.

August had climbed out of the little car and was leaning against the hood. He tucked his hands up under his arms and looked more defensive than I thought incubi got as a species.

“Yeah?” I asked.

August flushed. “Thanks for, um…you know. Not making me do stuff.”

August had to do stuff all the time. If he wanted free range of the house and not just his mother-in-law suite, he had to pitch in to do the chores. It was the chief reason he and Patrick fought. I say that with all the superiority of a man who couldn’t remember the last time he had to take out the garbage.

Every part of running the house had been divided between the two of them, and even though they apparently fought like cats and dogs, they didn’t bother me with it. August looked so much like something fished out of a river that I couldn’t just ignore him. “I told you I was never going to.”

August’s shrug was effortless. “Do you think you’re my first master who has promised me that I had nothing to worry about? Except the last one. He had no interest in assuring me I was going to be just fine.”

My guilt rolled to the surface like a lake monster. Genuine sightings of it were rare and far between. “Well, I meant it.”

“They all mean it,” August said. “Half the time I’m summoned on a lark. Most of the time the summonings are so bad I can just devour the summoners and go back to bed, but every once in a while some stickler for details gets all the way to the end of the incantation without missing a step. Then there I am, and I can’t say no. I don’t devour the failed ones’ hearts as a punishment. I do it so they can never succeed.”

“That’s a steep learning curve,” I said.

August’s eyes burned. “Would you rather that binding someone to your will be easier?”

I raised my hands in surrender. “No, of course not.”

August looked away. “You’re the first one who didn’t come sniffing around, though. Afterward. That’s never happened. And you don’t even get any.”

“Seriously? I have sex. I have sex all the time.”

“My mistake. I’m only a sex demon. What do I know about elemental powers raised in coitus? I’m starving, Cy. Are you sure you don’t want a free poke?” He was eyeing me again. He felt leaner and hungrier. Sex-demon attacks where the incubi or succubi turned on their master before getting dragged to hell had been so bad they had made the news. If August had looked at Patrick with half the frustration he was looking at me now, I couldn’t blame Patrick for his jumpiness. I could hide under the standard Patrick would kill me, but I couldn’t lie. “I don’t want to cheat on my lover.”

August sighed but then rearranged his facial expression to hide the hunger as if it never existed. “Do you want to come watch me tonight?”

We didn’t talk about me watching August have sex unless I was actually watching August feed. Even though I didn’t participate, it still felt like cheating in a way I knew was a lot like cheating.

“I’m going to hang around here tonight. I want to be with Patrick.”

August flushed. “Of course you do,” he said, his words tighter than usual. So whatever he’d been out doing the night before, he hadn’t been feeding. He’d sounded breathless on the phone when he told me he couldn’t come.

He had been counting on going out for food now. His disappointment was a tangible presence even before his stomach growled audibly. It wasn’t a human grumbling sound. Something inside August roared. “I’m going to go distract myself. You should know he has a lot more problems than worrying if you have a wandering eye.”

“He could always just ask me,” I said.

“Yeah, and he spiked the coffee because all he needed to do was ask.”

“Why are you on his side?”

“I’m on my side. And my side is happiest when you’re as happy and content in your relationship as possible.”

I unlocked the door.

“Cy?”

“What now?” I said, not turning back to him.

The way he was breathing told me he was going to ask me again for sex, but he changed his mind. “Nothing.”

It was cold in the garage, and I’d been awake for the past two days, planning for the attack that was supposed to be this weekend. I hadn’t showered or shaved or brushed my teeth. I wanted to close my eyes in a bed that wasn’t moving. “Go eat,” I told him.

August kicked his car’s tire. “I’ve been trying. It’s not working.”

I thought of the bath upstairs. “There are pills for that.”

August’s dander was up. “I’m not talking about that. That’s working just fine, thanks for asking. It’s feeding afterward. There’s no rush. There’s no follow-through.” August kicked the tire again. When he looked up he moved like silk did through the air. “I liked the rush. Rush with me, Cy? Please.”

“I can’t.” That was a lie, but only as bad as biting down on a banana pepper. Burning, but sweet and sour too. At least the burn didn’t compound from the morning.

August leaned back on the hood of his car. Despite the chill in the air he never wore more than his black turtleneck and jeans. My tiny ounce of fae blood gave me two gifts. No one, no matter how strong they were could lie to me, and I had souped-up vision that read a lot more from people than what they wanted to tell me. The tremor in his hands came from August’s veins. He looked so hungry, I felt a bit queasy.

“I’m sorry to mention it, Boss. I’d rather we never talk about it again. If I…if I start begging, can you just leave? I don’t…I don’t want to beg.”

I opened the door and stepped up into the landing that divided the house itself from August’s suite. “I don’t want you to have to beg either. I’ll ask Patrick if I could…help you out.”

August exhaled, one vocalization short of another scoff. “Don’t go out of your way or anything.”

“Do you want me to ask or not?” The bedroom was straight above me. If I could levitate and move through walls, I could be in it in a second.

“I don’t want him to say no,” August said. “That would be final, and I can’t…I can’t take a hard no.”

“I understand.” I did. When dealing with full-blooded Fae like Gwen, like Patrick’s dad, hard noes weren’t negotiable. “I’ll be careful when I ask.”

When August stood, the imprints he left of his hands were damp. He put his palm over his cock, stroking it gently. It wasn’t a sign of aggression like most men who grabbed at themselves in public, but something tender I felt awkward having interrupted.

I took out my phone and texted Patrick to call me when he was free. The phone rang instantly. I bounced up the half staircase into the kitchen, leaving August with his “problem.”

“What is it?” Patrick asked.

“I need a favor,” I said.

“What?”

We used to say hello and have real conversations. Patrick was the first person I ever wanted to talk to after having sex. I wanted that feeling back. “How did your meeting go?”

“You were correct about the number fluffing, but I got her down to twenty-two percent. Thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. He sounded less distracted.

Sergeant Pepper came trotting down the stairs, grumbling at the lack of bodies in the bed last night, but his wet food was still full at the back door. He didn’t stop making noises until I scooped him up and put him on my shoulder. Bending down made my back groan like the cat. I hadn’t worked out all week. Hadn’t even gone for a run.

“Did you just call to check up on me?” Patrick asked, his confusion obvious.

I opened the freezer door and grabbed Patrick’s vanilla ice cream and a spoon from the drawer. “Absolutely,” I said. After the first lie, the second was just as vicious. The heavy cream and sugar in my mouth did very little to cool the burn. “Are you coming home?” The words came out slurred.

“What are you doing?”

“Having dessert after my breakfast,” I said. The melted cream on the back of my throat only took the edge off the burn.

“What part of this conversation was the lie?”

“Patrick, no, I don’t want to do this with you. Please, can we just have a normal conversation?”

“What did you call about? Don’t lie to me. From the tension in your voice you’ve already lied a couple of times. If you lie a third, you don’t want to know what you’ll be tasting.”

I hung up the phone and put it in the freezer with the ice cream. That didn’t burn at all.

* * * *

The door creaked open. I woke up. It was two in the afternoon. At first I thought I had forgotten to set the alarm. I had a debriefing at noon and had completely missed it. Gwen was going to kill me. I sat up, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. Wait, no. Without my phone, I’d set the alarm on Patrick’s side of the bed but forgot about the fucking a.m./p.m. switch.

Setting my cell phone to wake me up was second nature.

Patrick stepped into the room, and it only shifted my fear from the immediate to the almost immediate.

We didn’t have a landline. “I need your phone,” I said, holding out my hand. “Give it over. I don’t have time right now.”

“I called Gwen and rescheduled your appointment until tomorrow at eleven. I told her you needed to sleep, and not to call you for the rest of the day.”

“You did what?” I said, slightly awed, but that only lasted a heartbeat. “Fucking hell. You didn’t just leave a message informing her of that, did you? Phone. Now.”

Patrick continued not to give it to me. “I talked to her in person. I even called in a favor, so nothing was owed.”

“Gwen owed you a favor, and you wasted it on this?” I asked, not sure if I was still awed or annoyed.

“She would have ground your remains into pink slime. I doubt I wasted it. Sleeping in, Cy? Really? That’s a rookie mistake.”

“How did you know I’d miss the meeting?” When we talked around eight, everything was fine.

“You would have put the phone as far away from you as possible, and you have never figured out how my alarm clock works. I was a personal assistant for years. I know your idiosyncrasies, heavy emphasis on the idio.”

“I love you.” The words came out, but I wouldn’t have stopped them if they hadn’t. I did. I really, really loved him. We just couldn’t stay talking to each other for more than ten minutes before one of us took something wrong, and the other pounced on the first error and compounded it like a payday loan. To avoid potential disasters, I timed most conversations to end at the eight-minute point. August was right that Patrick had been unhappy for a while.

“I know you do,” Patrick said. “So if it isn’t the sex demon, who are you fucking?”

“I’m not fucking anyone.”

“Then what the hell is wrong with you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. It was the God’s honest truth, and my mouth didn’t hurt at all. “It’s job stuff. Patrick, I swear. There is nothing wrong with you. It’s me.”

“I know that too.”

“You do?”

Patrick glared at me. I looked away first. At worst, I could accuse him of nesting, but that wasn’t a crime, even if he was accenting some hideous rose quartz on the mantel. The bed looked better in a skirt anyway. It presented a more unified shape to the rest of the room. The rock’s undertones matched the curtains in a way that was understated and like nothing I could ever do.

It was a queen-size bed. We hadn’t had the need to go bigger. In the beginning being within arm’s reach of each other had been a selling point, even though how we hooked up couldn’t have been any sleazier. I’d pointed at him and said, “You. What’s your name?” When he told me, I asked him if he wanted to go fuck while still on the clock at Gwen’s office, and he’d agreed. I’m pretty sure I even okayed his overtime.

But I dealt with people who paid a lot of money to play with godlike power, and then charged their estate for the cost of cleanup. He was just so…clean where everything in my life had to be sanitized before use. I’d started to work for Gwen when I was seventeen and switched to her elite force just before I was twenty. All my services had been available for hire for a decade before I met Patrick.

Getting out of that clause had been the closest I’d ever come to having Gwen murder me herself. She had more power than the hydrostation her office looked like from outside.

Patrick had fixed my internal compass, letting me see for the first time how unpleasant it was to let strangers fuck my body for another line item on my already padded bill.

Sex meant something to Patrick, and I wanted to keep it special with him. “Let’s not argue anymore. I don’t like it, and we don’t need to. I’ll do whatever it is I’m not doing that is making you so upset, and we can actually give the relationship a try.”

The words had sounded so good in my head, but it was like grabbing the bucket of thermite instead of water to throw on the fire. Patrick’s temper flared almost as bright. “What the hell have you been doing for the past half decade?”

It was definitely the wrong thing to say. Wrong, wrong, wrong. If I ever invented a way to time travel, I would have come back to the moment before I opened my mouth and stapled it shut. Patrick’s anger didn’t dissolve. So no time travel.

Enough time had passed that I was probably good to lie again, but I didn’t want to. I kept that to myself. “Tell me what you want me to do, and I will do it.”

“Quit your job.”

I paused, surprised my mouth didn’t retroburn, but at the time I said it, I’d meant it. Quitting my job wasn’t even an option. I shouldn’t have to remind Patrick of that, but I gave it a go. “I can’t quit. Patrick, love, sweetheart, Patrick, it isn’t. I can’t. I would if I could, but I can’t. You don’t understand the contract I signed. It’s in perpetuity, taking reincarnation into consideration. Quitting is not possible.”

“You signed that contract when you were seventeen,” Patrick said. “You didn’t have a parent or guardian sign it, so it’s not legally enforceable.”

I wanted to grab him and cover his mouth. “Keep your voice down!”

“She’s not a mythical creature!”

“Yes, Patrick, she is! Did you not get that memo? I can’t quit!”

“You signed your life away in perpetuity! I want a part of it. In fact, I want a majority of it, and you’re never going to settle down long enough to breathe in this house as long as you’re working with her.”

“Oh,” I said, suddenly understanding. “You want me to come to work for you.”

Patrick looked at me like he was seeing me for the very first time. He pointed his finger at me, and I wanted him to tell me that I didn’t understand anything because obviously I didn’t, and that would continue the conversation.

Instead he turned around and left the bedroom and went into the spare room.

He never went into the spare room, ever. Having seen true evil, I knew a room where an old shut-in had hanged himself was more sad than bad, but it was still a negative space. Patrick had a lot more fae blood in him than I did, so he would sense that sadness a dozen times more than I would.

There wasn’t so much a hall upstairs but a landing where all three doors opened into their respective rooms. “Go back to the bedroom. I’ll sleep in here.”

“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” Patrick said. “No one is sleeping anywhere.”

The door didn’t always open the first couple of times. The knob rattled but was locked from the inside on a door without a lock. “Harry, knock it off,” Patrick howled.

The door opened. Other than a drying rack for Patrick’s hang-to-dry clothes and a futon permanently down in the bed form, my blue suitcase stood by itself. He picked it up effortlessly and thrust the whole thing into my arms. “Out.”

“You’re kicking me out?” I asked. The suitcase was too heavy for me to hold with one hand “For real?”

“You need to do some serious thinking,” Patrick said. “But you can’t do it here. You can go sleep on your sex demon’s couch, or you can go buy a hotel, but you can’t stay here.”

“I have been trying,” I said. “The past five years, I have been trying.”

“You have made an effort to ensure that this relationship didn’t affect your life in any way. It was a point of pride with you. If you told me one more time how easy our lives slipped into each other, I swear I would have thrown a drink in your face. I’m somewhat disappointed I don’t have a glass in my hand right now, in fact.”

“I’ll get one for you if it makes you feel any better.”

“It won’t,” Patrick said.

“Is this us breaking up?” I asked.

“Are you asking so you can see if you can fuck your sex demon now?”

I chewed my bottom lip, trying desperately to think of a way to answer that without burning my mouth. “There was a reason I called you after your meeting.”

“I already knew that,” Patrick said. “You’re not getting any extra points for honesty now.”

“I’m not saying this for points,” I said, the complete truth.

Patrick raised an eyebrow at that. “Why did you call then?”

“August is in a lot of pain,” I said. “Something happened, and he can’t feed off strangers anymore. You know he wouldn’t tell me there was anything wrong unless he was actively on fire.”

“So you want to fuck your incubus so he won’t hurt anymore?” Patrick asked.

I sighed. “I’m not stupid. I know this hasn’t been going very well, and I’ve been a huge part of the problem. But he’s in a mess too, and I thought even if I haven’t been pulling my share, at least I could start. I was going to talk Gwen into letting me figure out what’s going on with his mojo in the morning after you and I had your truth-charm chat, and I’m not even mad that you dosed me. I’ll spend the night on August’s couch and find sleeping arrangements in the morning if you don’t trust me, but please. At least one of us has a problem I can fix.”

Patrick leaned against the wall. “I hate that you consider your sex demon part of us.”

“I would take Sergeant Pepper to the vet if he were hurting. I’d take you to the doctor. It has nothing to do with how much I love any of you.”

Patrick covered his mouth. “Did you just tell me you loved your sex demon?”

“Platonically.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then why is my mouth not burning?” It wasn’t. Not even a little bit. I couldn’t do my job at the level I had to unless I had another set of eyes and hands completely separate from my own but absolutely trustworthy. August had been there for me time and time again and had wanted absolutely nothing from me except not turning the relationship into sexual slavery. Literally, it was the least I could do for him.

Patrick stared at me endlessly. He had my rare full attention for as long as he wanted it.

“I would give anything not to believe you right now,” Patrick said. “Anything at all.”

“Your mysterious charm backfired and complicated your life more than if you hadn’t used it at all. Your charm guy is on point.”

“It’s a woman. Do you listen to what I actually tell you?”

“Most of the time,” I said, having to be truthful. Sometimes it was just a relief to let his words flow over me without having to take them in.

“Damn you,” Patrick said. He took the suitcase from my hands. His upper arm muscles didn’t even flex at the added weight. “And your little fuck toy.”

“He’s not my fuck toy. He’s my friend.”

“There are going to be rules,” Patrick said. “Strict, highly enforceable rules. And spot checks.”

“Whatever you want, Patrick,” I said dutifully.

“And you can’t suck him off. That’s my thing. That’s going to instantly break the agreement.”

“Yes.”

“And you have to be working on fixing his feeding tube. You can’t just settle in to this being the new thing, and off the two of you go.”

“Done.”

“And you can’t love him like you love me. Even though the two of you would be perfect for each other, and you wouldn’t have to change your life in the slightest if you picked him over me. You have to work this out with me. You have to try.”

I approached him carefully and took his hands in mine. I had to take them out of the air. Patrick talked with his hands when he was upset. “We will work this out,” I promised.

“Genuinely work? Not one way or the other?”

“To the very best of my ability.”

Patrick closed his eyes. I kissed him gently because I knew he wasn’t expecting me to with his eyes closed. He was more skittish than my cat, who had a really ho-hum approach to life. Patrick felt cold, and being in a haunted bedroom didn’t help.

“Let’s go to bed,” I said.

“What about your sex demon?”

“He can wait a bit longer.”

“You said he was in pain.”

“He’s been in pain for a while.”

Patrick pulled his wrists free. “Which is why he shouldn’t wait. I love you. Go.”

I didn’t insult him by asking if he was sure. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it. I grabbed my toothbrush on the way down the hall. Patrick had gotten ahead of me and blocked my way down the stairs.

“You’re coming back here tonight,” he said and looked up at me, his blue eyes wide. “Aren’t you?”

“It’s just a toothbrush.”

Patrick crossed his arms. I went back into the upstairs bathroom and brushed my teeth. I would come back and brush my teeth again when I was done. While I was there, I stripped off my clothes and washed off the last of the ambergris and earwax combination as best I could with a hand towel.

Patrick brought me a garment bag from the closet.

“I am not wearing a suit just to go from the upstairs down into the basement.”

“Oh, come on. You need to look nice for him. He cares about these things.”

“How do you know that?” I demanded.

“We talk,” Patrick said defensively.

“About how important fashion is on a booty call?”

“It’s not a booty call,” Patrick said. “I’ve seen how hungry he is.”

“You’re acting strangely,” I said, unzipping the black bag around my suit. “You were about to throw me out because you thought we were fucking, and now you’re wish fulfilling?”

Patrick tightened his lips. “He’s not the problem, is he?”

“I tried telling you that.”

“Please don’t be upset I was hoping for the easy fix,” Patrick said. He didn’t say anything else until after he helped me with the tie. And by helped, I mean tied. Before Patrick, all my ties clipped into place. “He’ll take one look at you and know you didn’t make yourself up. If that doesn’t give him my permission, nothing will.”

Most fae-blooded people have a talent. The more blood, the stronger the talent. People couldn’t lie to me. Gwen could control the tidal pull of the Earth. The talents were not equal. Patrick kept his a secret.

“Try to hold it together until after the suit comes off. If you fall asleep afterward that’s fine, but please try to make it upstairs before supper. We can eat as late as you need.”

He stood three-quarters of the way out the door while I finished with socks and shoes. I couldn’t pull off the barefoot-suit look. I don’t think anyone could. Something about the suit and the tie and the crease of the leg ending in toe hair bothered me. Patrick was in full-on helper mode. Maybe not in the stakeout car like August did, bringing still-warm-from-the-rotisserie dinners at four o’clock in the morning. Patrick tracked inconsistencies in accounting with the same intensity August tracked movement.

Patrick hadn’t taken a bullet for me, but I wouldn’t let him. He had solved a dozen cases before they ever got down to the running and screaming. I kissed him against the door frame in a way I hadn’t for so long, and two of the four candles set up around the bathtub flared into life. The flames spit and sparked as dust from the candles’ disuse caught fire separately from the wick.

“This can still work,” I told him.

“Quit your job.”

“Not possible.”

“You don’t know that. Please, talk to her tomorrow about early retirement.”

“That’s code for never finding the body.”

“Not in my house, it isn’t.”

I pulled away. He wouldn’t let go of the back of my neck. His nails dug into my skin as I stepped past him, and I liked it.

“You’ve given her twenty years. It’s enough, believe me.”

“Even if I wanted to quit, which I’m telling you I don’t, I do important work out there. Gwen might be a blonde switchblade in heels, but her company saves the world as part of its charter. I love my job.”

“I’ve had multiple readings done. If you don’t quit, you’re going to die. Cy, you never listen to me, but you need to start, now. Quit your job.”

“Could we not talk about this? Talk of my impending doom plays hell on the vascular system.”

“I’m sure your sex demon won’t have a problem getting it up for the both of you,” Patrick said. He came downstairs with me to the kitchen, but didn’t go down into the basement apartment.

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