Cutie and the Beast (Fae Out of Water, #1)
Temp worker David Evans has been dreaming of Dr. Alun Kendrick ever since that one transcription job for him, because holy cats, that voice. Swoon. So when his agency offers him a position as Dr. Kendrick’s temporary office manager, David neglects to mention that he’s been permanently banished from offices. Because, forgiveness? Way easier than permission.
Alun Kendrick, former Queen’s Champion of Faerie’s Seelie Court, takes his job as a psychologist for Portland’s supernatural population extremely seriously. Secrecy is paramount: no non-supe can know of their existence. So when a gods-bedamned human shows up to replace his office manager, he intends to send the man packing. It shouldn’t be difficult—in the two hundred years since he was cursed, no human has ever failed to run screaming from his hideous face.
But cheeky David isn’t intimidated, and despite himself, Alun is drawn to David in a way that can only spell disaster: when fae consort with humans, it never ends well. And if the human has secrets of his own? The disaster might be greater than either of them could ever imagine.
- Winner: Best Gay Fantasy Romance in the 2017 Rainbow Awards
- Runner-Up: Best Gay Book in the 2017 Rainbow Awards
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
threatened sexual assault
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), acceptance, adoption, age gap, disability / disfigurement, duty, family, hurt / comfort, immortality, interspecies, legends, protection, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, workplace romance
David Evans carried his aunt Cassie from her bedroom to the sun porch, laughing at her squeak of protest.
“Put me down, you dreadful boy. I’m capable of walking through the house on my own.”
“I’m showing off for you. Stop fussing or you’ll wound my masculine pride.” He settled her on the chaise, angling it for a perfect view of her beloved garden. The morning sun was flooding the room with the crisp light of almost-summer. From a big cage in the corner, her zebra finches beeped in cheerful counterpoint to the lazy buzz of bees in the hollyhocks outside the window screens. “And you know how I love to pamper you.”
She patted his arm, smiling up at him as he smoothed a coverlet over her knees. “You look very handsome this morning, Davey.” A faint Welsh lilt still shaded her voice, even after six decades of living in Oregon. “I’ve not seen that tie before, have I?”
“What, this old thing?” David flicked the corner of the blue-on-blue polka-dot bow tie he’d saved for this exact occasion. “I start a new gig today, Auntie. Temporary office manager for a real live health care provider, so I dress to impress.”
“Really?” Her fragile skin puckered between where her eyebrows used to be. “Ms. Fischer assigned you to a medical practice?”
David dodged her shrewd gaze by fiddling with the blinds, adjusting them so the sun didn’t shine directly in her face. “Sandra’s out with a nasty flu. Her assistant is the one who placed me.”
When poor frazzled Tracy had called with the offer, he’d almost reminded her he’d been permanently exiled to telecommuting limbo. But then she’d told him the job was for Dr. Alun Kendrick.
Just once, a few months ago, he’d had a very small transcription assignment for the psychologist. He’d prayed for another, because, God, that voice. A British accent that put Colin Firth to shame. No doubt about it, the man was total ear candy.
So he’d neglected to mention that Sandra had banned him from office positions for life. On paper, he fit this position perfectly. In practice . . . well, there was always a first time. Besides, forgiveness? Way easier than permission.
“Are you sure this is wise?” Aunt Cassie’s mouth quirked up in a ghost of her old sly grin. “The last time, you caused a riot. In a dentist’s office.”
“I did not cause the riot.” He propped her cane within easy reach and dropped a kiss on her rainbow head scarf. “I was merely present when it occurred, and clearly those men were either unbalanced or laboring under the severe stress of looming root canals.”
He nudged her hip gently with his knee and sat beside her, his arm around her thin shoulders. “It’s the ideal job. Swing shift, two until ten, so I can still handle my billing and transcription assignments in the morning. Plus, it’s indefinite, maybe permanent. Tracy hinted that the regular office manager might not return from maternity leave.”
Aunt Cassie plucked at the blanket on her lap, pulling out tiny tufts of green and blue fluff. “Don’t hope for someone else’s misfortune, Davey. It’s bad for your spirit.”
“I’m not. Truly, I’m not. But if she chooses to spend longer at home with her baby, I’m more than happy to keep her chair warm and her desk competently staffed.”
She sighed. “All right. You know best. Show me your lucky earring.”
David turned his head to flash the onyx stud his aunt had given him on his thirteenth birthday. “Never without it.”
“You have your worry stone?”
He pulled the purple quartz oval out of his blazer pocket, thumbing the shallow dip in its top face, the familiar shape smooth and cool in his hand. “Always. Now . . .” He stood up, brushing green fuzz off his gray trousers. “I won’t be home until eleven, but I’ll have my cell phone with me every minute. Lorraine should be here any second to sit with you until Peggy brings your dinner at six, but if you need me, you call. Understood?”
“Pooh.” She scrunched her face in a near-pout. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
He picked up her pill bottle—just as full as it was yesterday. On days like today, when he’d sent off yet another partial payment to the clinic, begging for patience and an extension, he missed the time when the only things he had to worry about were studying for his next anatomy exam, or wondering why his latest sort-of-boyfriend had suddenly turned into a jealous douche bag.
And when Aunt Cassie wouldn’t even comply with the doctor’s orders for the treatment that kept David working as many hours as he could swing—and still barely earning enough to keep them from losing their home? Argh.
“Auntie, how many times do I have to—” He took a deep breath. Don’t be a jerk. You can’t browbeat someone into getting better. He rattled the pill bottle, waggling his eyebrows. “Could you at least try to do what the doctor says?”
Pink tinged her pale cheeks, but she met his gaze calmly. “I’ve been an adult for several times your lifetime. I’ve earned the right to control the end of my own.”
David’s heart tried to scrunch itself into a fetal position. No. No. No and no and no. Life without his aunt? The thought made him want to lie down on the floor and drum his heels against the hardwood like he’d done as a temper-prone toddler, or hide in the closet and rock in denial like he’d done during his years in foster care.
Instead, he dropped to his knees and took her hands. “Auntie, you’re the only family I’ve got. I want to keep you around as long as possible. Please?”
“Ach, Davey. How can I say no to that?” She sighed and took the pills from him. “Revolting little objects.”
“I know, so thank you.” He kissed her forehead. “Love you. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Be careful, cariad.” She rested one palm against his cheek. “You leap into things, heart first. Don’t be too quick to believe this your belonging place. Wait a bit. Learn how the days play out.”
David dropped his gaze from her bird-bright eyes. She had a point, but he couldn’t help it. Something about this job felt so right, as if the ultimate assignment had come along exactly when he was able to snag it.
His cheerful honorary aunt Peggy, one of his aunt’s six closest friends, would say his stars were in alignment. Aunt Regan, the more mordant one, would call it fate. But he didn’t care what any of them called it; he called it perfect.
He’d make it perfect, damn it. This time for sure.
A beast loomed in the stairwell, hulking and monstrous and far too savage to be contained by the glass door panel with its flimsy safety mesh.
Alun Kendrick’s pulse bucked like a frightened mare. He grabbed the door handle, teeth bared in the battle rictus of a Sidhe warrior.
Undeterred, the beast mirrored him, grimace for grimace, scowl for scowl, glare for glare.
Oak and thorn, not again. He released the doorknob with a groan. It’s been two hundred years, Kendrick. You ought to be accustomed to your own reflection by now. But intellectual acceptance didn’t trump his instinctive revulsion at the sight of his grotesque features.
Beauty was a prerequisite for admittance to the Seelie Court, a tenet so basic he’d never thought to question its fairness. There’d been no need—he’d met that restriction for millennia—but he bloody well violated it now.
As long as he wore this face, the gates of Faerie were barred to him. He’d have preferred a death curse to this exile and all-consuming guilt, but he’d not been given that choice.
He shoved the stairwell door open and took the stairs two at a time, down the six flights from his top-floor flat to his clinic offices. With the curse robbing him of nearly all his former abilities, he knew better than to take the elevator. He could pass unnoticed as long as he was moving, but his paltry glamourie of not-here couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of a bored human in an enclosed space.
Stairs were by far the safer choice.
When he emerged from the stairwell into the corridor that led to his clinic, his nerves flared again.
Stomach jolting toward his spine, he rushed halfway down the hall, reaching reflexively for his sword. Fool. You haven’t worn a scabbard in two centuries. He stopped and rested his hand against the wall, willing his battle reflexes to stand down. You carry a briefcase now, not a broadsword.
Besides, this intrusion, while not welcome, was anticipated. His office manager, a werewolf expecting her first child, had taken early maternity leave, collateral damage in the F1W2 flu that had approached epidemic proportions in the shifter community. Although it only affected the big cats, her father-in-law had demanded she retire to their compound to await the birth. Something about impending grandfatherhood had turned the normally tough and pragmatic alpha of the Multnomah wolf pack into a skittish old hen.
Alun opened his clinic door and slipped into the reception lobby. While the need for a temp irritated him, he had no intention of frightening her senseless before she brewed the coffee. He might be a monster, but he wasn’t an idiot.
“Hello? It’s Dr. Kendrick.”
A narrow band of sunlight spilled through open blinds, gilding the carpet with a stripe of gold, and Alun rethought his don’t-frighten-the-temp-senseless policy. Damn it to all the hells, hadn’t she bothered to read the office procedures manual?
Blinds must remain closed during daylight hours.
Throughout most of the year, the north-facing windows wouldn’t admit enough sunlight to injure any but the most helio-sensitive of his clients, and his clinic hours—midafternoon through evening—were arranged to further minimize exposure. This close to the solstice, however, the sun’s angle was acute enough to bleed into the room. She should know that. Every supe in the Pacific Northwest knew that.
A growl rumbling in his throat, he yanked the cords, plunging the room into soothing shadow. He stalked down the hallway, searching for the temp. No one was cowering in the break room, nor the restroom, nor the supply closet that housed the copier and printer.
Where the bloody hells was she? As a rule, people didn’t run until after they’d gotten a look at him, although few supes had cause to balk. Many of them looked nearly as bad at certain phases of the moon or after an ill-considered blood bender.
Cursing under his breath, he threw open the door to his inner office and came face to posterior with the most perfect arse he’d seen since the day he left Faerie.
A human arse.
Flaming abyss, had everyone at Fischer Temps run mad, or only Sandra Fischer herself?
The slender man in indecently well-cut trousers and a fitted dress shirt was standing on Alun’s desk atop the latest Physician’s Desk Reference and two of Alun’s heftiest old text books, arms stretched overhead as he fiddled with the light bulbs in the track lighting. His shirttails, partly untucked, displayed a tantalizing arc of skin over one hip.
Alun’s mouth went dry, an unexpected surge of want sizzling from the base of his outsized skull to his bollocks.
No, damn it. He’s human. Humans were off-limits for so many reasons, not least of which was that heavy sedation and years of therapy lay in store for any unlucky enough to see his face. No non-supe was allowed knowledge of the supernatural world without the express permission of the all ruling councils, under pain of . . . well . . . pain.
Excruciating, never-ending pain.
He thrust his unwelcome desire away, which his strict century-old vow of abstinence made more difficult than he wanted to admit. He tossed his briefcase on the love seat next to the door and stalked across the office to stand behind the human.
“What in all the bloody hells do you think you’re about?”
“Dr. Kendrick.” Despite Alun’s less than hospitable words, the man’s mellow tenor held welcome, not alarm.
He turned. Eyes widening under a slash of dark brows, he inhaled sharply and his smile faltered. Alun caught a brief impression of an upper lip shaped like the longbow he had last held the day he left Faerie. Enchanting.
Then the man lost his footing on the teetering pile of books, and stumbled backward, slipping on a stack of Psychology Today. His feet flew out from under him, along with a spray of magazines, and he toppled right into Alun’s arms.
Merciful Goddess. Alun hadn’t been within intimate-touching distance of a man since 1898. No wonder then that his breath sped up, his blood burning like molten silver in his veins. His cock suddenly hard behind his fly.
He inhaled, slow and deep. This was what a man’s skin smelled like when he was fresh from the bath and not the battlefield. Vivid and forest wild, with a faint undertone of salt and a hint of musk. This was what a man’s hair looked like, shiny and flyaway, gold threads glinting among the peat brown, finer than any pelt yet coarser than a woman’s or child’s. This was what a man felt like in his arms, alive and warm and—
To the human’s credit, he didn’t shriek or faint, nor did he struggle or try to escape. Instead, he remained cradled in Alun’s arms, tilted his chin, and blinked eyes the color of a storm-clouded lake. An erratic pulse beat in the angle of his jaw, betraying that he wasn’t as calm as he pretended, a bright—and undoubtedly false—smile curving that tempting mouth.
“How do you do? I’m David Evans, your new temp office manager.”
“I don’t think so.”
Alun set the man on his feet and escaped behind his desk before the state of his trousers could reveal his inconvenient reaction. Thank the Goddess he no longer wore doublet and hose.
The human, David—although despite endless years in exile, Alun mentally translated the name to its Welsh form, Dafydd—sidled away under the guise of picking up the scattered magazines and reshelving the books he’d used as an impromptu stepping stool.
“Yes, indeed I am.” He didn’t lift his gaze to Alun’s face, and who could blame him? “Don’t worry. Tracy filled me in—”
David shook his hair out of his eyes. “Sandra’s out with that bug that’s going around, I’m afraid, but you know she trusts Tracy to fill in for her or she wouldn’t employ her. Sandra insists on the best.”
She did, and she’d hear about this outrageous infraction, flu or no flu. Supe business, supe temps. That was the foundation—the absolute guarantee—of her company. She was a panther shifter, damn it, with the responsibility to adequately brief her staff.
“You’ve no business in here. My office is off-limits.” Especially to humans, however beautiful they might be.
“The lights above your desk. They . . .” David cast a brief glance at him from under unfairly long eyelashes and swallowed, his Adam’s apple sliding beneath the honey-smooth skin above his collar. “They were failing. I wanted to change them before they burned out so—”
“Did you not consider that I keep them dim on purpose?” Alun thrust his head forward into the merciless light. Flinching, David stumbled back, the unmistakable tang of fear tainting his seductive clean-man scent. Good. He should be afraid. He should be afraid, and he should be gone. “You think anyone wants to look at this face too closely while they’re spilling the secrets of their soul?”
David pressed his lips together, no doubt to hide their trembling. Alun should have felt gratified that he’d succeeded in intimidating the man. A necessary evil, for his own sake as well as for the safety of the supe communities. But a whisper of regret, the shadow of sorrow for something he could never have again, raised a lump in his throat and tightened his chest.
Yes, the human must leave, no matter how much Alun’s awakening libido regretted the necessity.
Instead of bolting out the door, however, David took a deep breath, a mulish cast to his pointed chin, and stared Alun straight in the eye. “If you prefer to remain in the dark, that’s your choice and privilege. After all, you’re the doctor.”
With his pulse thumping like a techno dance beat, David clamped his teeth together to keep his chin from wobbling. This was so not the way he’d envisioned meeting the owner of The Voice.
Dr. Kendrick picked up the handset of the desk phone and punched a button so hard it was a miracle the unit didn’t shatter. “Don’t get comfortable. I’m getting a replacement.”
While the doctor growled into his phone, David reached instinctively for his worry stone. Damn it. He’d left it in the pocket of the blazer currently draped over the back of his chair in the lobby. Out of reach, it did him precisely zero good in his face-off with his new boss.
And, judging by David’s slam-dancing nerves, Dr. Kendrick was winning that particular contest on points alone.
That face. What kind of birth defect or unfortunate medical syndrome caused skull disfigurement that severe? He looked like the victim of a failed experiment on the island of Dr. Moreau who’d tried to get the results fixed at a cut-rate back-alley plastic surgeon.
David’s compassion circuits would have been firing on all channels if it weren’t for the attitude.
Dr. Kendrick slammed his phone into its cradle. “Voice mail. Bloody hells.” He glared at David from under a brow ridge as craggy as the Nehalem jetty. “This situation is completely unacceptable.”
Maintain, Evans.You can do it—just imagine you’re Luke Skywalker, and he’s . . . he’s . . . David’s gaze drifted up and up and up. He’s Darth Really Freaking Huge. But if David bombed at this assignment before he’d been on the job for half an hour, Sandra would never let him near a medical office again.
Not that she’d let him near this one, but David never sweated the details.
“With all due respect, Doctor, you’ve known me for two minutes. How do you know it’s unacceptable?”
“In that time, you’ve violated at least three office policies. You.” He drew his shoulders back, making him even more ginormous than before. “Opened. The. Blinds.”
Seriously? The blinds? This was the unforgivable sin? “I could barely see to cross the room. Safety first, you know. I would have closed them before—”
Dr. Kendrick marched around the desk and invaded David’s personal comfort bubble. “You entered my office without permission.”
David loved big men, but he didn’t like bullies, and the good doctor’s body language was all me-Tarzan-you-twink. He took a baby step forward, tipping his head back so he could focus on Dr. Kendrick’s face and not his necktie. “You weren’t here. I knocked. According to the procedures manual, it’s the office manager’s job to make sure your office is ready for the day.”
“You changed my light bulbs. Without asking.” Dr. Kendrick took the last step, so they were practically toe-to-toe. As his nostrils flared, chest rising on a long inhale, something flickered across his misshapen features and in the depths of his shadowed hazel eyes.
With the nursing training David had already completed, and with his experience caring for his aunt, he had no trouble recognizing that something.
Whether Dr. Kendrick wanted to admit it or not, and no matter how he camouflaged it with anger, he was in pain.
Maybe not physical pain, but if emotional pain was great enough, the brain processed it exactly the same. If David knew anything, he knew how to deal with pain, and it didn’t start with giving up or—unfortunately, drat it—getting confrontational. But that didn’t mean the man could get away with being a jackass, no matter how good it had felt cuddled up against his acres of chest.
David dialed his inner Jedi down a few notches.
“I’m sorry about that.” He backed up and reshelved the last of the scattered books. “I didn’t realize the lower light was intentional. Shall I put the original bulbs back?”
“No,” Dr. Kendrick barked. “Just go.”
“Very well. I’ll be at my desk. Buzz if you need anything.”
He closed the door of Dr. Kendrick’s office and was immediately plunged into gloom, the lobby blinds once again shut tight against the glorious afternoon sun. This was Oregon, for goodness sake. Wasn’t it gloomy enough most of the year to suit the man?
David flicked on the track lighting in the patient seating area. Ooorg. Whoever had decorated this office must have fond memories of fog banks and rainstorms because gray was a definite theme.
The L-shaped speckled gray Formica reception desk—his desk, damn it—and matching credenza guarded the doctor’s inner office door. Gray carpet extended down the hallway. Gray faux-suede chairs lined the gray walls. Gray granite end tables sat in each corner with accompanying gray ginger jar lamps.
Good grief. Whatever the patients’ diagnoses were when they arrived, they’d add clinical depression by the time they left. Luckily, David had come prepared with anti-gray accoutrements of all sorts. Since the procedures manual, holy of holies, said nothing whatsoever about the display of personal items, he intended to spread the love—and the color.
His practical pagan aunts—the real one and the six honorary ones—had gifted him with enough gorgeous handcrafted cheer on each solstice and equinox to transform a dozen dreary offices. He hummed the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark as he unpacked his treasures. Blown-glass candy dish in flaming orange-red? Check. He filled it with Aunt Peggy’s pastilles and stationed it on the corner of the desk.
Hand-woven coasters in all the colors of the rainbow? Check. After stacking them on the coffee service table, he snagged his favorite green one for himself, and crowned it with his cobalt-blue ceramic mug.
Inspirational action figures? Check, check, check, and check. Arranged in heroic lockstep under the flat-screen computer monitor—Dr. Who (the eleventh incarnation, because bow ties truly were cool), Chewbacca, Legolas, and Lt. Commander Data—they’d have his back every time, no matter what poo Dr. Curmudgeon decided to fling at him.
Although he hunted for ten minutes, he couldn’t locate a sound system, but no worries. Once he got the word on acceptable lobby music, he could cue up mental-health-appropriate tunes on his phone so the place didn’t feel quite so much like the inside of a sensory-deprivation chamber.
He crawled under his desk, iPhone dock cord in hand, but while he was wrestling the cover off the outlet, the clinic door whooshed open.
Shoot, he hadn’t made the coffee yet, and his blazer was still hanging over the back of his chair. He’d planned to be sitting behind the desk when patients arrived, welcoming and professional and perfectly turned out. He scooted out, misjudged his position, and whacked his head on the edge of the desk.
“Ow. Son of a—” Oops. No swearing in front of patients. He peeked over the desktop and met the amused gaze of a guy who had obviously mistaken the clinic for the location of a photo shoot for Hot Men and Their Harleys. Leather bomber jacket (in June?), blinding white T-shirt (tight!), black leather pants (tighter!), windblown dark hair, and blue eyes that put David’s coffee mug to shame.
“All right there?” His voice had the same swoon-worthy British flavor as Dr. Kendrick’s.
“Absolutely. Nothing dented but my pride.” David stood up without any further close encounters with the furniture, and shrugged into his jacket, tugging the sleeves straight and smoothing his lapels. “How can I help you?”
“Depends on what you’re offering.” Dimples quivered in the man’s stubbled cheeks, a matched set to go with the chin cleft on his square jaw and his bad-boy attitude.
David didn’t roll his eyes, but it was a close call. He sooo knew this type. The Handsomeness God’s gift to horny club boys everywhere. No, thanks. That kind of arrogance didn’t get invited to play in David’s sandbox. “Depends on whether you have an appointment.”
“I don’t, but I rate special treatment. Mal Kendrick.” He jerked a thumb at the closed office door. “Brother.”
Holy cats. If poor Dr. Kendrick had had to grow up comparing himself with this pinnacle of male hotitude, no wonder he was Dr. Grumpypants. “In that case, I can offer a cup of coffee and the announcement of your arrival.”
Mal chuckled and raised one shoulder in a negligent shrug, conceding with more graciousness than David expected. “Half-and-half would be grand. No sugar.”
David delivered his best customer-service smile. “Coming up.” He lifted the phone handset and buzzed Dr. Kendrick.
“Aren’t you gone yet?”
“Your brother is here, Doctor.”
“Wonderful.” His growl implied the exact opposite.
“Shall I send him in?”
“I doubt you could stop him.”
The doctor hung up with a bang. David smiled with only a hint of teeth-gritting and settled the handset into its cradle.
“Please go right in. He’s thrilled.”
“I’ll just wager he is.” Mal grinned, and David was surprised sparkles didn’t glint off his teeth. “Thanks, love.”
As soon as the door closed behind Mr. Hot-and-knows-it, David leaped up from his chair. God, if he expected to keep this job, he had to pull a rabbit out of his ass tout de suite.
Luckily, he had the perfect secret weapon. He dug the precious package out of his messenger bag.
Coffee. Aunt Cassie’s special blend.
David chuckled to himself in his best evil minion impression. Oh yeah. The brothers Kendrick were freaking toast.
Two years. Two bloody years since Mal had last crossed this threshold, yet now he was lounging in the doorway, as if he dropped by for a visit every day. Maybe in Mal’s eyes, his last visit was only yesterday, since he was still living under the stars of Faerie, where time passed at a different rate. But Alun had felt Mal’s absence—indeed, the absence of both his brothers—every minute of every Outer World day, making his exile all the harder to bear.
Alun glared, derailing the prickle in his eyes. He gathered up half a dozen issues of Psychology Today to hide the trembling in his traitorous hands, and whacked their edges on his desk until they lined up. “What do you want?”
Chuckling, Mal kicked the door closed with one booted foot. He placed a hand on his chest and bowed. “A gracious good afternoon to you too, brother.” He sauntered forward at perfect ease, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his leather pants, as if Alun’s office were his own personal domain. “You’re looking slightly better these days. Brow ridges less pronounced. Jaw not as Neanderthal. Cheekbones still capable of slicing a tough steak, but promising, brother, promising.”
“I can’t say the same for you. What in the hells is that on your face?” No high fae sported facial hair, yet stubble shadowed Mal’s jaw and chin.
Mal snagged Alun’s framed diploma off the wall and angled it to preen at his reflection in the glass. “Like it? They call it scruff.”
“You’re using glamourie to emulate poor grooming?”
“Men find it sexy, and it’s such a small illusion. Simple to maintain, expends no power to speak of. I recommend it.” He replaced the diploma, then flicked the corner so it hung a fraction off true, laughing at Alun’s resultant growl. “You’re so easy to wind up, Alun. Especially when you’re horny.”
The back of his neck heated with the memory of his reaction to David. “I’m not horny.”
“Don’t try that on with me, brother. The lad at the front desk? Exactly the type to make you play the fool.”
“You’re just as likely as I am.”
“Nah. The soft, pretty ones were never my taste. I like mine with a bit of steel. An edge.”
“Well he’s not my type either. He’s human.”
“He doesn’t belong here. Humans aren’t equipped to face our world. They have enough trouble interacting with normal supes—”
Mal snorted and picked up the geode paperweight from the corner of Alun’s desk, tossing it from hand to hand. “Assuming any supe is ever normal.”
“Precisely my point. All my clients, with the exception of the PTSD group, are disturbed supes. Even if the councils tolerated the threat of human exposure, the danger to his psyche is too great.” Alun stood up and snatched the geode out of the air mid-toss. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
“I’d stop by more often if you acted happier to see me.”
And I’d act happier if you could bear to look at me. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Maybe I just want to catch up.” Running a negligent finger down the stack of magazines, Mal shoved them into a sloppy fan over the polished oak desk. “Seen any good movies?”
“Any new restaurants?”
Abandoning any pretense of nonchalance, Mal actually met Alun’s gaze. “Goddess save us all, what do you do with your time?”
“I read. I listen to music.”
“What do you read?”
“Psychology texts. Magazines. I write self-help articles for the supe community.”
“There’s a bloody irony for you,” Mal muttered. “Who do you kick back with? Friends? Acquaintances?”
Alun raised a heavy eyebrow. “Brothers?”
Mal had the grace to flush. “A point. Sorry. I plan to do better. But what about supes? Do you socialize with any of the families you treat?”
“That would be unprofessional.”
“But it might be fun.”
Could his brother truly be that oblivious? He was the Queen’s Enforcer—did he restrict his knowledge of the supe races to what he required to track and kill them?
“I dare you to play poker with a clutch of dragon shifters. None will ever place a bet. They’re too busy hoarding their chips.” Still holding the geode, Alun ignored Mal’s wicked chuckle and walked to the wall to straighten the off-kilter diploma. “The top flight of the vampire council invited me out once. For drinks. It struck me as ill-advised.”
“All right. I can see how that might turn . . . unfortunate. What about sex? When was the last time you had a date?”
Alun snorted. “The last man who agreed to sleep with me—whom I paid to agree—couldn’t bear to look me in the face.”
“He doesn’t have to look at you for you to shag him.”
Goddess preserve me. “Mal. I don’t have time for guessing games. Why are you really here?”
“Have you seen Gareth?”
Alun flinched, his fist clenching around the geode, and its rough surface bit into his palm. He hadn’t seen Mal for two years, but his youngest brother hadn’t spoken to him since the day of his exile. The day of Owain’s death. He forced his hand to relax and set the stone in its rightful spot on the desk. “Of course not. He’s still in LA, partying like a rock star.” He restacked the magazines and moved them out of Mal’s reach.
“He is a rock star. But I expected him to . . .” Mal took a deep breath, his shoulders rising under his leather jacket. “He’s in Portland. His band has a gig at the Moda Center.”
So close. Anger warred with hurt in Alun’s chest. He sat down heavily. “I didn’t know.”
“Here.” Mal removed a CD case from the pocket of his jacket and tossed it on Alun’s desk.
“What is it?”
“Gareth’s latest solo work.”
Anger won, burning like basilisk venom in his belly. Alun shoved the CD away with extra force. “Keep it.”
“Gwydion’s bollocks, man.” Mal flicked the case with his finger, sending it skating across the desk’s slick surface. Alun slapped his hand on it before it could fall into his lap. “You’re both over twenty-five hundred years old. When will you grow up?”
“He’s the one who turned away.”
“But you’re the one who let him.” Mal planted his fists on the desk. “Aren’t you over this shite by now? Stop wallowing and break the damn curse.”
“Have you ever tried? There must be a way. The end is always contained in the beginning.”
Alun stared his brother down until Mal’s gaze shifted to the corner, away from his unlovely features, as it always did. “I walked into the Stone Circle as a lord of the Sidhe. I walked out as something from a demon’s nightmares. Draw your own conclusions.”
Mal’s dark brows snapped together over the Roman nose so like what Alun’s once had been. “The achubyddion cursed you? Not bloody likely. They were healers. Pacifists.”
“Even the most peaceable will call down vengeance when pressed.”
“That wasn’t your fault. The Unseelie hordes had been tracking them for months.”
“They’d never have found the camp if I’d been more careful. If I’d—”
If he hadn’t been so thrice-damned arrogant to believe Owain willing to forsake his home and family for an oh-so-exalted position as Alun’s consort.
His jaw tightened and he shut his eyes, the memory of that night crashing through him as it did every single day, every single night. The fire in his chest and belly, as if he were being gutted by his own sword. The blinding, knee-buckling pain as the bones in his face contorted and reformed. And Owain—his poor broken body abandoned on the altar stone under the lowering clouds while the carrion birds circled overhead.
How could he ever atone for that? He deserved every moment of his curse, and more.
“Alun.” Mal’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle. “Don’t. I know you loved him. You wouldn’t have done anything to hurt him. His death was not your fault.”
Alun’s throat constricted, throttling his voice. He swallowed once, twice, and spun his chair toward the window, the reflection of his harsh, misshapen features an easier penance than any potential pity on Mal’s face. “This is what I am now. What I will likely be until the End of Days. It’s time to accept that the curse is permanent.”
“Have you accepted it? Truly? Because—”
“Yes. I have.” He swiveled back to face Mal, and his brother’s gaze shifted once again to the bookshelves. Despite his swagger, his words of support, his brother was still Seelie fae, the tenets of the Seelie Court branded on his soul. Alun’s curse—its cause and its result—violated nearly all of those. No wonder his brothers avoided him. “It’s only right. I was responsible for the slaughter of the last enclave of an entire race.”
With a muttered oath, Mal sat on the love seat. “About that. We found another enclave.”
Alun’s breath stilled in his chest. “Of achubyddion? You mean they’re not extinct? Did you— Were they—”
“I’m sorry. We were too late. Someone got there first.”
Eyes burning, Alun let his head fall against the high back of his chair. “How many?” he rasped.
“Two bodies. Completely drained. No soul, not a spark of life force left to regenerate.”
“An Unseelie attack?”
“Oak and bloody thorn, you really think someone from the Seelie Court would do this?”
Mal shrugged. “No hard evidence one way or the other. However, there were signs that the colony may have had more members.”
“Or were captured. For—” Mal swallowed hard, his expression darkening. “For later use.”
Alun squeezed the back of his neck. “Shite.”
“They had records. Computers. Those were gone, but we don’t know whether they were taken by the survivors or the attackers.”
“So the hunt may still be on?”
“If word of an enclave of achubyddion gets out? It’ll be worse than the last battle of the Oak Wars.”
“You know what she’s like. If it doesn’t happen in Faerie, then it doesn’t exist as far as she’s concerned, and this attack happened in Vermont.”
“Shite.” Alun moved from his desk to the wingback chair across the coffee table from Mal. “I— Thank you. For telling me.”
“I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else.”
“I appreciate it.”
“There’s more. There’s rumor of a power play by the Daoine Sidhe.”
“Fair warning—it might amount to something this time, since you’re not around to counter them.”
“I haven’t been around for two centuries.”
“Two centuries in the Outer World. Less than a year in Faerie, depending on who’s counting. At first I thought it wasn’t anything, but I’ve heard talk from more than one source, and both of them mentioned the Midsummer Revels. Something’s going down then, but I don’t know—”
A knock sounded at the door, and David entered without invitation, carrying a tray with two steaming cups.
Alun scowled, fisting his hands on his thighs. “I didn’t ask for refreshments.” Although he counted it a blessing that the dark aroma of coffee was masking the maddening scent of David’s skin.
David grinned, bright as a sunny meadow. “No, but your brother did, and he doesn’t look the sort to be rude enough to indulge when you don’t.”
Mal rose and took the cup David offered him, standing a little too close, damn him. “Don’t know me very well, do you, boyo? Want to change that?”
“Mal.” Alun let his voice dip in warning. His brother grinned wryly, but he retreated to the love seat, cradling the mug in his hands.
David flipped a woven coaster in eye-watering yellow onto the low table and set an oversized orange cup on it. Alun’s mouth watered at the smell of the coffee. Or maybe it was the proximity of David’s arse.
Oak and bloody thorn, he needed this human out of his sight, out of his office, out of his life. The fae were notoriously susceptible to human charm, and it never ended well—not for the fae, but especially not for the human.
“I didn’t tell you how I like my coffee.”
David cast him a sidelong glance from under his lashes. “Black. No sugar.”
Mal laughed and raised his cup in a toast. “You are so very right, boy bach. Gods forbid he should indulge himself, even in something as trivial as sugar and cream.”
Alun’s gut tightened, and he clenched his teeth, waiting for the inevitable smile and melting body language that his brother never failed to invoke in fae, supe, or human, but it didn’t come. Instead, David turned his back on Mal and faced Alun, swinging the tray at his side.
“Your first appointment should be here in twenty, Doctor. I’ll buzz you when he arrives.”
“I told you—”
David exhaled on a barely perceptible sigh. “Yes, you told me to go. But I doubt you could run the office by yourself, so why not let me do my job? I’ll be at my desk.”
He left, Mal ogling his backside until the door snicked closed.
When Mal turned around, he burst out laughing. “Goddess bless, Alun. Upgrade your bleeding wardrobe. Hair shirts went out of fashion in the Middle Ages.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You and your self-immolation fetish. Why are you trying to get rid of this man? He’s cute, past the age of consent, and seems competent.”
Alun’s scowl would have sent anyone but his brother scurrying for the nearest exit. “He’s human.”
“So you said. Get that stick out of your arse about consorting with humans or you’ll never get laid.”
“Setting aside the ethics of fae/human pairings—”
“Nobody cares about the ethics except you, brother.”
Alun lowered his heavy eyebrows and glared at Mal. “Ask the families of the humans whom randy Sidhe lords co-opted for their pleasure. Ask those humans, after they were expelled from Faerie when those same lords grew bored, only to find a year had passed for every day, the world changed, and them with no place in it. Ask Gareth.”
Mal fidgeted with his cup, pivoting it in precise quarter-circles on a lopsided knot in the burled oak coffee table. “I’m not advocating that whole changeling shite, or old-school flitting, or spiriting unwilling humans from their beds and into Faerie. I’m talking a couple of drinks at a bar and some consensual Outer World good times. Nothing wrong with that.”
“What of the unfair advantage? No human can resist fae glamourie. None could ever say no.”
Mal grinned. “Why would they want to?”
“Are you saying you’d be happy with love based on compulsion?”
“Who’s talking about love?” He leaned back, cradling his cup in his hands. “Attraction of any sort is its own compulsion anyway. I don’t see the problem.”
“The problem is that they deserve a choice. A true choice. If you’re using glamourie to pull men in your infernal clubs—”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Of course I don’t.”
“Other than your ridiculous facial hair.”
“That’s nothing but a minor decoration. For fun. I don’t need it. You, now—”
“Out of the question. Even if I could reconcile it with my conscience, high-level glamourie is lost to me under the curse.” And without it, no one could want me anyway.
Mal shrugged and sipped his coffee. His eyes widened, and he took another sip, then a gulp. “Gwydion’s bollocks. If nothing else, keep the lad for his brew skills. Have you tasted this?” He pointed to Alun’s untouched cup. “Better than anything on the Queen’s table.”
Alun crossed his arms and grunted. Like all the Sidhe of the Seelie Court, Mal was a hedonist. Alun preferred Unseelie fae psychopaths. Those, he could treat.
Mal took another sip, and the look of bliss on his face robbed it of its usual cynical smirk. Alun glanced at the steam rising from the cup, beckoning him to taste, to yield.
“Drink the damn coffee, Alun.” Mal took another gulp of his own and chased it with a contented sigh. “You know you want to.”
Tempted as he was to dump the whole thing in the ficus pot in the corner for spite, he rose to the challenge of Mal’s lifted eyebrow. He took a sip, and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head. Smooth. Dark. Secret. The coffee wasn’t just a flavor—it was a seductive whisper, a stroke of sin down his throat to his belly.
“Goddess strike me—” He took another gulp. “Gaaah.”
“I’m saying. You’ve got to keep this lad. If you don’t make a grab for his balls, at least find out where he buys his beans.”