Witch Under Wraps
When supernatural secrets collide, it’ll take more than coffee to brew the perfect love.
When Ky Hernández bonded with his familiar, Zuri, his life changed forever. Their connection turned him into a practicing witch and led him to his calling as a medimagical professional. However, it totally tanked his love life—what guy would settle for eternal second place behind a parrot? So Ky keeps his witchy nature under wraps and sticks to hookups with humans, which can never go anywhere. But the mouthwatering barista at the coffee shop next door makes him thirst for more than a caffeine fix.
The charms Ewan Jones uses to appear human are inconvenient, disorienting, and . . . necessary. Ewan and his siblings are achubyddion, metaphysical healers whose powers are coveted by unscrupulous supernatural beings. And let’s face it: all supes are unscrupulous, given the right incentive. He’s grateful for the protections that hide his little family, and for the barista job that keeps them housed and fed. He’s just so lonely. And his regular, Ky, the super-hot, commitment-averse EMT, seems like the perfect candidate for a one-night shot at intimacy. After all, humans are no threat.
It takes a clumsy coffee shop intern, a mysterious werewolf epidemic, and one snarky parrot to unravel their pasts—and give them a chance at a future.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Self-Harm - Overdose of medication.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: adoption, angst, commitment, duty, family, first love, first time, grief, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, isolation, kids, mental illness, pets, pining / UST, politics / power struggle, protection, PTSD, self-confidence, soul bond, trust issues
“Come on, Zuri. Don’t be like that. Our shift doesn’t start for another half hour.” Though Ky Hernández resigned himself to at least twice that long to coax Zuri out of her snit. He shrugged into his windbreaker, settling it over his uniform shirt. To humans, the logo emblazoned on the back would read United Memorial EMT. But to other supes? United Memorial SMT. “I’ll be gone ten minutes, tops. I promise.”
Zuri, of course, didn’t buy it. She mantled her wings and sidled across her perch in the hospital’s staff lounge until she was as far from him as possible. Yeah, even literal birdbrains don’t believe my lines. Ky stroked the soft gray feathers on her back.
“I’m just grabbing some coffee, and I’ll be back before you know it.”
She flicked her tail, and Ky sighed.
“Hola, hermano.” Ky’s brother Wash ambled in from the corridor, a jacket over his scrubs, and his amiable brown face wreathed in a wide smile: his default expression lately. “What’s got Zuri’s tail feathers in a bunch this morning?”
“She’s mad because she can’t go with me to get coffee.”
“Why can’t she?” Wash extended a finger, and Zuri butted her head against it. “Familiars are allowed in the cafeteria.”
“Because I’m not going to the cafeteria. I’m heading next door to Wonderful Mug, and human businesses don’t take kindly to livestock—” Zuri squawked indignantly “—sorry, nonhuman entities—invading their premises unless they’re service animals, and I don’t think anybody will buy an African Grey parrot as a service animal.”
“Stupid,” Zuri muttered.
“Aw, don’t worry, princess. I know you’re kickass.” Wash held out his fist so Zuri could hop onto it, and then brought her up to his face. “You can do whatever you set your mind to. If you can keep my muleheaded brother in line, you can do anything.” Zuri stroked her head against Wash’s jaw.
Ky snorted. “Oh sure. She’s sweet with you.”
Wash grinned at Ky as he transferred Zuri back to her perch. “That’s because I’m her cool gay uncle.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a shelled pistachio. “Here you go, princess.” She took the nut delicately—then turned her back on Ky again.
“I give up,” he grumbled as his work partner, Pete Cotton, wandered in, rubbing his eyes.
“Heeey!” Wash clapped Pete on the shoulder. “How’s it going, Cottonballs?”
Pete glowered at Wash, although his lips twitched as if he were hiding a smile. “I’m going to murder you someday, Hernández. Just because I’m a jackrabbit shifter—”
“Nah, it has nothing to do with that. The name is just too easy.”
Zuri’s head bobbed up and down, and she shifted from one foot to the other. “Bunny Foo Foo.”
“Why me?” Pete groaned. He collapsed onto the uncomfortable sofa, not stirring when Zuri fluttered over and landed on top of his head.
Ky grinned down at him. “She learns new words through repetition, so it’s your own fault for letting your kids sing that ridiculous song to her for three hours straight the last time we were over for dinner.”
Pete flipped him off without opening his eyes.
“Get off your ass and come to Wonderful Mug with me so we can grab coffee before shift.”
“You guys need to get over your weird aversion to the cafeteria,” Wash said. “Since that brownie who used to run the Faerie King’s kitchen took over, the food is stellar, and rumor has it they use druid-blessed coffee beans.”
“I like Wonderful Mug.” Ky pretended to be having trouble with his windbreaker’s zipper. “Habit.”
Pete cracked an eye open and stage-whispered to Wash. “Ask him why he really wants to go.”
Wash perked right up. “Oho. There’s an ulterior motive at work? Outstanding. This I gotta see. Let’s go.” He grabbed Ky’s elbow and hauled him out the door.
“Bring me back a triple espresso,” Pete called. “The baby’s teething and I was up all night.”
Wash looked over his shoulder as they headed for the stairwell. “How many kids does this make for Pete and Molly?”
He whistled. “Wow. They’re breeding like—”
“Don’t say it.”
Ky punched Wash in the arm. “I told you not to say it.”
“Yeah, but since when do I listen to you?”
“Good point.” Ky trotted down the stairs to the staff entrance and held the door for Wash. “How’s your internship with Dr. Mori going?”
Wash beamed. “Aces. She’s had AJ and me sitting in on clinic appointments to test our diagnostic capabilities. So far? Pew!” He lifted his hand in the air like a rocket launching. “The sky’s the limit.”
Since forming an unheard-of bond with his demon boyfriend, Wash had made the leap from orderly to medimagical staff, something he’d dreamed about since he and Ky had been kids at the orphanage. He’d never been able to attract a familiar, and without one, any witch who identified as male was effectively magic-null. Familiars—always female—were required to act as intermediaries to access the Triple Goddess’s power. The coven council was still debating whether Wash was technically a witch at all, since the magic he tapped into was AJ’s, and not the Goddess’s.
But as far as Ky was concerned, the council could shove it. Anything was worth the spring in Wash’s step, the sparkle in his eyes, the grin that held no hint of regret or self-doubt. “I’m surprised you wanted to come along without AJ. You two have been attached at the hip lately.”
Wash leered at him. “That’s not the only place we’ve been attached.”
Ky clapped his hands over his ears. “Stop. I don’t want to hear details about my brother’s sex life.”
“Consider it payback for the many times I’ve had to listen to you grouse about your revolving-door relationships.”
Although the early June breeze was still chilly, that’s not why Ky hunched his shoulders. “You know why long-term relationships aren’t possible for witches.”
“Estúpido, just because you’re committed for life to your familiar doesn’t mean you can’t have another relationship too. Look at Papi and Jefe. They’ve been together for over a hundred years.”
Great, now Wash is calling me stupid too. Ky got enough of that from Zuri. “Yeah, but they fell in love before either of them bonded.”
Wash poked Ky’s biceps. “But their bonds didn’t diminish their commitment. I think you’re using Zuri as an excuse to be a manwhore.”
“Shut up.” Ky tugged on his jacket irritably. Their adoptive fathers’ relationship had been his ideal from the time they’d plucked him and Wash from the orphanage. He wanted to fall in love like that. He dreamed of falling in love. He’d tried to fall in love more times than he could count. If his familiar bond wasn’t the reason he’d never succeeded, then why the fuck couldn’t he manage it? “So where is AJ?”
“He’s meeting with Dr. Mori about some moldy old books she wants him to translate.” Wash’s expression turned dreamy. “Have I told you he can read any language?”
Ky sighed, maybe a shade overdramatically, but it was better than giving into flat-out envy and punching the man who might not be a brother by blood, but was definitely a brother by heart. “You may have mentioned it once or twice.”
“And perfect recall.”
“Yep. Heard that too.”
Wash grinned. “Dr. Mori keeps asking him if he can be in two places at once. He can remember everything that happens in the clinic appointments and can write it out faster than a transcriptionist can type.” His expression darkened. “AJ said he’d be willing to do the work, since he doesn’t technically have to sleep, but he’s been exploited enough. I’ll make sure she doesn’t overwork him.”
“You mean no more than she overworks any of her staff?” Ky drawled.
Wash snorted. “A point. But yeah. Demons like AJ, or that guy who’s working for Quest Investigations—they’ve never been in a position to demand rights before. It’s up to us to behave like decent supes and treat them like they deserve.” His face cleared, settling back into its new contented lines. “How’s your job been?”
Ky was forcing himself not to race down the sidewalk. “Surprisingly slow. Since the Faerie King set up the Fae Transportation Agency, many supes who’d have called for emergency transport before are taking the FTA to the walk-in clinic instead.”
Wash nodded. “That explains why the clinic has been so busy.”
“Seeing lots of interesting stuff to test AJ’s diagnostic mojo on?”
“Nah. Lately it’s been nothing but werewolves with the sniffles.”
“Are you kidding? Nobody whines louder than an alpha were with a snootful of snot. I didn’t think weres could catch a cold, but it’s like there’s an epidemic.”
“Maybe they all caught it from each other in one of those meetings about pack restructuring.”
Wash chuckled. “Could be. I understand those got a little heated, and there’s not a pack alpha I’ve ever met who could resist getting all up in a challenger’s face. Even if they’re just debating what sandwiches to order for lunch.”
Ky led Wash past the wide front windows of Wonderful Mug. Its neon logo—a purple mug with steam wreathing the suggestion of a hooded eye—was bright in the gray morning. He held the door, but Wash stopped, studying the sign and the crowd inside.
“Seems popular. But what has it got that the cafeteria doesn’t?”
“Shut up and get inside.”
Wash strolled in, and Ky followed, although he paused at the door to make sure his collar was straight and to smooth his hands along the sides of his high-top fade. Then he took his place in the order line, unable to prevent an appreciative grin.
Wash glanced between Ky and the counter, and his expression morphed into one of unholy glee. “Oho! This is why the princess was busting your balls. It’s got nothing to do with the coffee.” He snickered. “Well, not the end product anyway. Guess you’re more of a process person.”
“She doesn’t know about him.” And I’m keeping it that way for now.
Wash snorted. “Keep telling yourself that. She knows everything. She’s your familiar.”
“Keep it down, asshole,” Ky muttered. “Yeah, she’s my familiar, not my father. Neither are you, by the way, so back off.”
“Somebody has to call you on your shit. You’re pissing off Zuri so you could flirt with a barista.” He leaned closer and whispered, “And another human? Goddess bless, Ky, are you insane?”
Ky kept his gaze fixed straight-ahead, although it wasn’t because he didn’t want to look at Wash—at least not much. But given the choice between glaring at his brother and feasting his eyes on Ewan, the beautiful man behind the espresso machine, there was no contest. “That’s a very insensitive comment coming from a healthcare professional.”
“Don’t try to deflect. Two minutes ago, you were moaning about being unable to form a long-term relationship. So why start up something that you know can’t go anywhere? It’s like you want to fail. Or at least want to blame the Secrecy Pact for your pathetic track record.”
Ky sighed. “I’m getting a cup of coffee, Wash, not declaring my undying devotion to anyone.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Wash murmured. He narrowed his eyes, his head tilted to one side. “He’s cute, I’ll give you that. Although he doesn’t hold a candle to AJ.”
At that moment, Ewan glanced up and met Ky’s gaze, his breathtaking smile dawning even as he filled another customer’s order. Ky’s insides did a little jig. Goddess, that mouth.
“Earth to Ky. I what?”
He focused on Wash with difficulty. “You, uh, don’t think anybody holds a candle to AJ.”
“Well, they don’t,” Wash said, matter-of-factly.
“So you didn’t mind moving out of your apartment—which you waited for over a year to get, I might add—into one that’s less convenient and frankly ugly to swap the gas stove for an electric one?” AJ, for some reason best known to his demon progenitor, couldn’t work with fire. At all.
“It’s worth it,” Wash said simply. “He’s worth way more than a change of address or appliances. Someday, you’ll get it.”
“Yeah, right,” Ky scoffed as their line inched forward.
“Last time you flirted with a guy—number eighty bazillion in your string of humans, wasn’t he?—he dumped your ass cold because your version of dating was too freaking painful. What was it he said?” Wash squinted up at the ceiling, tapping his chin. “Oh yes. That you were a closed-off, commitment-averse asshole who couldn’t sustain a relationship in an iron lung.” Wash grinned. “The guys before him said much the same, but I gave that one props for the medical reference.”
“It would have ended anyway. You know my reasons.” Ky shuffled another step closer to the counter.
“Yeah, yeah. The familiar bond precludes all others, blah blah blah, natural consequences, blah blah blah.” He poked Ky’s ribs with a sharp elbow. “I’m telling you, that logic doesn’t apply once you figure out what you’re willing to give up.”
Ky scowled. “I’d never give up Zuri.”
“Of course not. But you could stand to give up using her as an excuse.”
“Whatever,” Ky muttered.
When they were two customers from the front of the line, Ewan met Ky’s gaze again through a haze of steam. He grinned, those killer dimples popping in his lean cheeks.
“Morning, Kentucky. The usual, I presume?”
“Right as usual, Ewan. Plus a triple espresso for Pete.”
Wash whispered out of the side of his mouth. “You told him your real name?”
Ky didn’t stop smiling at Ewan, because that would have been an impossibility. “It’s my Mug name. Everyone has one.”
As if to underscore Ky’s point, Ewan set a cup on the counter and called, “Thor, caramel macchiato.”
Wash’s expression was the definition of skeptical. “Yeah, but I doubt that guy’s name is actually Thor. You never tell anyone your real name, especially not your human hookups. Which may be the only reason the coven council hasn’t sanctioned your ass. None of your dates can find you afterward.”
Wash . . . might have a point, but Ky wasn’t ready to admit it yet. “Based on your one-star review of my performance, why would any of them try?”
“Goddess knows I wouldn’t if I were them. You sabotage every relationship before it even starts. I’m amazed you actually let one real thing slip. Watch out.” He grinned evilly. “Someone might catch you this time.”
Heat rushed up Ky’s throat. For once I wouldn’t mind. Still, he refused to let Wash win. “Using my name here doesn’t count as real, and I’ll prove it.” He leaned around the customer in front of him. “Hey, Ewan,” he called, “I’d like to introduce you to my brother. Washington.”
Ewan smirked. “Uh-huh. Whatever you say.” He placed another cup on the counter and called out, “Gandalf, soy latte, double vanilla shot.”
Ky slid a glance at Wash. “See? Nobody believes it, even when it’s true.” Hiding in plain sight was definitely a thing. It’s how the supe community functioned. And restricting his sex life to humans was how he functioned. No fear of messy strings or messier explanations.
Wash only shook his head and ordered a flat white for himself and a chai latte for AJ, then they both moved into the register line, which gave Ky an excellent vantage point for watching Ewan work.
He was good at multitasking, his long-fingered hands deft as he lowered the steam nozzle into a gleaming silver pitcher. “Good weekend, Kentucky?”
Dimples again. Gah. Shoot me now. Ky’s answering smile was probably just this side of sappy. Or maybe one step beyond. Wash snorted behind him, and Ky shot an elbow backward into his ribs. “I was on night shift, so it could have been better.”
Ewan wrinkled his nose. “Ah. No wonder I didn’t see you in here.”
Ky had been tempted to come in early so he could get his daily dose of Ewan, which was fast becoming a drug. Flirtation hadn’t won out over fatigue yet, although Ky’s obsession had been growing exponentially over the last couple of months, Ewan’s smile catching him in the chest more every day.
Ky’s last temporary boyfriend, Trevor, had dragged him into Wonderful Mug back in March. In fact, that might be why Trevor had been extra temporary—he had objected to the way Ky had flirted with Ewan over the milk steamer. No great loss. Zuri hated the guy and vice versa. Once Trevor had taken off in a huff, Ky started coming into the Mug on days when he didn’t have a shift, despite the perfectly good Peet’s near his apartment.
Ky handed his credit card to the cashier, a petite woman called Sierra whose warm brown skin was the same shade as Wash’s. Who knew if that was actually her name or if the employees had Mug names as well as the customers. He frowned, his gaze wandering down to Ewan’s stellar ass. Is Ewan really his name? And all of a sudden, knowing that little bit of truth became the most important thing in Ky’s life.
He accepted his receipt and card from Sierra and stepped aside so Wash could pay for his order. “So, Ewan.” Ky’s voice tried to get lost somewhere south of his throat when Ewan raised his gull-wing brows in inquiry. “Is your name really Ewan?”
His mouth tilted to the side. “Is your name really Kentucky?”
“Actually, it is.”
Wash tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “It is. Really. And mine’s really Washington, like he said, although we go by Ky and Wash.” Wash grinned, and Ewan grinned back—Wash’s smile had always been infectious, the fucker. “Blame the folks at the orphanage who didn’t have any more imagination than to name the kids after states.”
Ewan let out a surprised laugh, and Ky’s breath caught. I’ve never heard him laugh before. Somehow, it seemed to reach right inside and lift Ky’s mood about a hundred degrees. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish.” Wash leaned against the counter. “Ky and I did okay. So did Virginia and Montana. But poor New Hampshire has a terrible time.”
Ewan shook his head. “Now I know you’re putting me on.”
“Wanna see our IDs?”
“Maybe later. I—”
Sierra captured Ewan’s attention, so Ky gripped Wash’s elbow and pulled him a few steps away from the counter. “What the hell, Wash?” he whispered. “I thought you were the one who freaked because I gave my real name to a human.”
“That was before I saw the way you looked at him.” Wash clucked his tongue. “You’ve got it bad.”
Ky scowled. “I don’t.” He shifted his gaze to Ewan, who happened to glance over at the same moment, turning Ky’s knees to jelly.
“You so do.” Wash nodded in Ewan’s direction. “He’s into you too.”
“He is?” Ky practically did a pirouette, putting his back to Ewan so he wouldn’t be tempted to gawp. “I mean, is he?”
“Judging by the way he’s been peeking at you from under those ridiculously long lashes? I’d say it’s a lock.” Wash rocked back on his heels. “You’ve got tomorrow off, and if he works the early shift at a coffee shop, he’ll probably be free in the evening. Why not ask him out?”
Ky choked on his own spit. “Wh-what? Aren’t you the guy who was just warning me about”—he lowered his voice—“consorting with humans?”
Wash snickered. “‘Consorting’? Is that what you call it?”
Ky scowled at him. “Shut up.”
This time, Wash flat-out laughed. “Goddess, Ky, we’re not twelve. You’re acting like—”
A crash from across the shop made Ky flinch, but at least it shut Wash up.
“Sorry! Sorry! Don’t worry. I’ve got this!” A lanky kid in a Wonderful Mug apron was crouched on the floor amid shattered crockery. He started to gather the shards into his apron.
“Jordan,” Sierra called. “Go get the broom. Don’t try—”
“Ow!” Jordan stuck his index finger into his mouth.
Sierra sighed. “I’d better tell George we need the first aid kit again.”
“It’s still under the register from last time.”
“I’m okay,” Jordan said around his finger. “It’s only a scratch.”
Seizing the excuse to escape from his brother’s scrutiny, Ky strode across the shop. After all, this was his job. He hunkered down to where Jordan knelt in a puddle of murky coffee. The kid’s jeans are going to be soaked. He held out his hand. “I’m a paramedic. Will you let me see?”
Jordan pushed his floppy brown hair off his forehead, his bright dark eyes meeting Ky’s. “It really is nothing. I mean, worse happens all the time.” He waggled the fingers of his other hand, two of which sported bright blue Band-Aids.
“What?” Ky widened his own eyes in feigned hurt. “You’ll deny me a chance to show off in front of your handsome coworker?”
“Cowor— Oh!” Jordan looked over his shoulder to where Ewan was glancing from the steamer to where the two of them huddled on the floor. “Okay then.” He extended his hand, a line of blood oozing from a half-inch gash across the pad of his index finger.
Wash appeared at Ky’s shoulder, holding out a package of sterile wipes. “From the cashier. Apparently they’ve stocked extras lately.”
Ky took the packet and tore it open. “I haven’t seen you here before, Jordan. Are you a new hire?”
“I’ve been here about a week. But I only work a couple of hours a day.” He beamed at them. “I’m an intern!”
“Awesome.” Ky reached out to steady Jordan’s hand, but the instant their skin made contact, his triage spell, the one that identified a patient’s supe nature, flared to life.
His jaw sagged. What the fuck? Wonderful Mug was employing a werewolf? Did they know? Furthermore, what was a were this young doing outside his pack compound or Howling Residence?
Jordan’s nose twitched and his eyes widened. “You’re a wi—” He clapped his hand over his mouth, smearing a little blood on his cheek. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“No harm done.” Ky glanced around to make sure nobody was watching except Wash and held out his hand. “Let’s see that finger.”
Since Jordan was a supe and had already recognized him, Ky could use the low-level first aid spell, one of several that SMTs renewed at the start of each shift. If Zuri were with him, he’d be able to mend the cut completely—it wasn’t that severe. Without her, he could still help, but it was just as well she wasn’t here to tempt him into doing more: public instantaneous healing tended to draw unfortunate attention from humans.
He wiped the pad of Jordan’s finger. The cut had already stopped bleeding—werewolves were tough, although one this young was bound to be vulnerable. Ky let the magic whisper along his skin and murmured, “Occludo.” The cut sealed, leaving only a faint red line behind. It would still be a little tender, but not too painful. “Not to worry,” he called to Sierra—well, to Ewan too. “It’s not bad at all. Didn’t even break the skin.”
“If you want anyone to believe that,” Wash murmured, “wipe the blood off his face.”
Instead, Ky handed Jordan the wipe and tapped his own face in the affected spot. Jordan blinked, then scrubbed away at his cheek. Ky resisted rolling his eyes. Subtle this guy was not. “You might want to put a Band-Aid on that while you’re working.”
Jordan smiled sunnily and dug in the pocket of his apron, pulling out a handful of Band-Aids. “No problem. I always carry some with me, just in case.” A few bandages escaped his fist and fluttered down into the coffee puddle. “Shoot.” He shrugged. “That happens all the time too.” As he picked them up and blotted them on his apron, he glanced over his shoulder. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you as a you-know-what before. The coffee messes up my sense of smell. I should have known, though, since you work at St. Stupid’s.”
”You mean United Memorial.” Ky winked, a gentle reminder to the kid not to use the hospital’s supe nickname in front of humans.
“Oh! Right.” Jordan nodded sagely, then mimed zipping his lips. “Got it. Thanks.” With one last grin at Ky and Wash, he leaped up and scurried off through the door next to the counter, presumably to fetch the broom.
Ky levered himself to his feet. “Well. That was . . . interesting.”
Wash frowned at the half-open door. “Was he a—”
“I didn’t know the pack council allowed kids that young out without a leash.”
Ky shrugged. “Things are changing fast. Who can keep up with it all?”
“True. If it’s something we absolutely need to know, somebody’ll write a memo about it. What you need to do—” Wash grabbed Ky by the elbow and towed him aside as Jordan returned with the broom and began sweeping enthusiastically but not very effectively. “—is ask your barista crush for a date.”
“I couldn’t.” Ky glanced sidelong at Wash. “Could I?”
“Why not? It’s not as if you’d ever commit to anything long-term, and you can keep your mouth shut about stuff humans shouldn’t know. I mean, you’re more discreet than young Jordan over there.”
Ky snorted. “I’m pretty sure everybody is more discreet than Jordan.”
“So why not go for it?” The two of them watched Ewan add syrup to one of Wonderful Mug’s signature purple to-go cups. “He looks like he knows his way around a pump.”
Ky pinched the bridge of his nose. “Don’t.”
“Yeah, did you see that squirt?”
“Wow.” Wash widened his eyes in mock amazement. “He can serve up some serious cream.”
“Wash. I’m warning you.”
“Mothman,” Ewan called. “Almond mocha, double whip.”
Wash pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. “Did you hear that? Whips. He’s getting a little kinky.”
“And the heat.” He shook his head as Ewan frothed another beverage. “Steaming.”
“If it gets you to shut the fuck up . . .” Ky marched over to the counter. “Hey, Ewan.”
“Kentucky.” He nodded at Wash. “Washington.” Then he smiled with full dimple action. “I’m redoing your drinks now, since the first ones cooled while you were helping Jordan. Thanks for that, by the way. He’s a good kid, but he’s still learning the ropes, you know?”
“Ropes,” Wash murmured in Ky’s ear. “Oooh, bondage.”
Ky elbowed Wash in the ribs—hard—while giving Ewan his best smile. “No problem. I’d be a pretty poor paramedic if I couldn’t finger a guy— I mean handle a guy’s— I mean treat a cut finger.” Ky’s smile was probably more of a grimace now. Damn Wash and his stupid innuendos. It didn’t help that Wash was snorting laughter while he collected his and AJ’s drinks.
“Here’s Pete’s espresso.” Ewan slipped an insulated sleeve on the cardboard cup and passed it across the counter.
“He sure knows his way around a smoking hot cylinder,” Wash murmured.
“I’m warning you,” Ky growled, but pasted on a smile when Ewan turned to him again.
“And your usual. Americano, double shot.”
Sierra sidled over and set a bag on the counter. “Some scones. On the house.” Grinning, she returned to the register.
“Thanks.” Ky licked his lips. “Listen, Ewan. Um, do you have plans tonight?” Goddess strike me blind. I sound like I’m a kid Jordan’s age instead of a thirty-six-year-old medimagical professional.
Ewan’s smile faded, Ky’s coffee wobbling in his hand. “P-plans?”
“Yeah. I was wondering if you might like to have dinner. I mean, if you’d like to go to dinner. Everyone likes dinner.” Ky pinched himself in the thigh. Hard. Because he was smoother than this, damn it. “What I mean is, if you’re free, I’d love to take you to dinner. I know a great place—”
“No. Sorry. I mean, thank you, but I can’t.”
Ky blinked. He’s turning me down? Nobody turns me down. At least not at first. Oh . . . hang on. Ky wanted to slap himself in the forehead. Of course a guy like Ewan wouldn’t be single. The flirting over the milk steamer was safe—customer service and all that—but if he was already in a relationship . . . “I’m sorry. I assumed you were single.”
“That’s not— I mean, I am. But—”
“Just not interested.” Ky made himself smile. “No worries.”
Ewan set Ky’s cup down and knotted his fingers around the hem of his apron, his eyes shifting as if searching for an escape. “I didn’t want—” His shoulders lifted in a deep breath. “It’s not possible. I’m sorry.”
Ky grabbed both coffees and raised his own cup in salute. “Like I said. No worries.” He turned and attempted to leave the shop with his usual stride, but his feet had turned into blocks of wood and he stumbled over the threshold. He held on to the coffees—barely—but his exit was the furthest thing possible from smooth.
Wash joined him on the sidewalk, staring back inside Wonderful Mug with his mouth hanging open. “I don’t believe it. Did he turn you down?”
“You heard him.” Ky powered along the sidewalk, heading for the ambulance bay.
Wash dogged his heels. “But nobody ever turns you down.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Nobody Ky asked had ever turned him down, but he always took his time before making the offer. He was a master at gauging a guy’s interest—or he’d always thought he was.
“I guess there’s a first time for everything.” But damn, he wished the first time had been somebody other than Ewan.
Ewan’s gaze followed Kentucky—Ky—and his brother along the sidewalk until they disappeared around the corner. Damn it. He should have known flirting was a bad idea. How many times had Mari warned him about overengaging? Only about seventy thousand six hundred eight-five by now. But who’s counting?
“What’s wrong with you?” Sierra banged the register closed and the clang echoed through the shop, but luckily her last customer—who’d only wanted a croissant and not a beverage—was already out the door. The Mug was empty except for the two of them and Jordan, who was still smearing spilled coffee around the floor in his interpretation of “cleaning.” “You’ve been flirting with that guy for weeks. Now he’s finally made a move and you turn him down?”
“It’s a bad time,” Ewan mumbled, grabbing a towel to wipe the counter. It’ll always be a bad time. “My family situation is . . . complicated. I need to focus on them.”
“And that’s another thing.” She leaned one hip against the pastry display case. “We’ve worked together for almost a year and I still haven’t met your family. Why not? You’ve met my girlfriend and her sisters.”
“And her aunts. And your cousins.”
“Exactly! Not to mention George’s kids. Even Jordan brought in somebody—those cute guys who used to live at his frat house. But you? Nada. Not to mention I’ve invited you over dozens of times, but you’ve never come, not once.”
“Then tell me a good time and I’ll set it up. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course!” But Ewan winced and Sierra caught it, hurt clouding her dark eyes. “I mean it. We are friends. But my family is in a difficult place right now.”
She sighed. “Your family. I have no idea who’s in your family. Are you an only child? The youngest of seventeen? The secret baby daddy of adorable triplets?”
Ewan couldn’t help laughing. “Seventeen? Really, Sierra? And triplets?”
She stuck her nose in the air. “I can’t help it if my imagination runs to hyperbole. But if you don’t want me to scale up the ridiculosity in these scenarios, you need to spill.”
Ewan slipped the towel onto the rack next to the sink, smoothing the folds until its bottom edge was exactly parallel to the floor. “There’s just me, my sister Mari, and our foster brother Gwilym. We call him Wil.”
Sierra perked up. “Those are cool names.”
“Siblings older or younger?”
“Younger. Mari’s twenty and Wil’s ten.”
“Ten?” She bounced on her toes. “Then you have to bring him over. Sassy’s twin nephews are ten too.”
“Your girlfriend’s sister has twins?”
“All three of them do.”
Ewan goggled. “You’re joking.”
“Nope. Fraternal. It’s genetic. She’s got the two nephews, but the other four are nieces. Their mom was a twin too.”
“Hey, guys?” Jordan called. “Is this okay?” He stood over a section of tile that looked as if it were coated in mucous.
Sierra masked a laugh with a cough and glanced sidelong at Ewan before smiling at Jordan. “I think it still needs a little work, hon, and the broom isn’t the best tool. Why don’t you get the mop and water bucket?”
“Water?” Jordan shuddered, but then he straightened his shoulders. “You’re right. Water would work better. I’ll get water.” He marched into the back room as if he were approaching the guillotine.
Ewan shook his head. “Interesting kid, but so freaking green. Why on earth did George hire him?”
“His therapist asked him to. Apparently that frat house where Jordan lives is experimenting with some alternate work experience for the guys who live there.”
“I can’t believe that Jordan’s old enough to join a frat.”
“He turned nineteen the week before he started here.” She blinked up at him. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like him?”
“Of course I like him. It’s impossible not to.” Ewan checked his watch. Time for the next dose. “But I hope he doesn’t maim himself permanently before he gets a clue. Excuse me for a minute?”
She gestured to the shop, empty in their usual midmorning lull. “I’ll try to hold down the fort.”
When Ewan left his spot behind the counter and walked through the door to the back room, Jordan was standing in front of the deep utility sink. He aimed his bucket in the general direction of the spigot and jerked the tap with such force that water rebounded off the pail and doused his head and chest.
Ewan hurried over, careful to avoid the impromptu water feature, and turned off the faucet. “The water pressure back here is stronger than out front.”
Jordan blinked at him, water dripping off his eyelashes. “I noticed.” He sighed. “I’ll get better at all this, Ewan. I promise.”
Chuckling, Ewan grabbed a couple of clean hand towels off the shelf and handed them to Jordan. “This is your first job, right?”
“It’s so not.” Jordan’s voice was muffled by terrycloth.
He peeked out from behind the towel. “How did you know?”
Ewan shrugged. “Lucky guess. What was your first?”
Jordan got a faraway look in his eyes. “It was so cool. A construction company down in Eugene, and Mr. Johnson, my boss, was . . .” A flush stained his cheeks. “But there was, um, an unfortunate incident with a nail gun, so Mr. Johnson thought it would be better if I wasn’t around so many sharp implements.”
Mr. Johnson has a point. Ewan eased the water back on to fill the bucket. “Grab a dry Mug T-shirt off the shelf. Fresh aprons on the hook by the bathroom.”
“Sure thing, Ewan. Thanks!” Jordan trotted over to the shelf and selected one of the shop’s branded shirts. But when he unfolded it, he grimaced at the logo—the oversized purple mug with the suggestion of an eye in its wreath of steam.
“Don’t you like the logo?”
“I do! I mean, it’s great. It’s just that . . .” He shucked his wet apron and T-shirt, pulling the fresh shirt on without checking it—which meant that he put it on backward. “That’s what djinni are supposed to look like. Right before they—” He drew a finger across his neck and made a truly dreadful sound in the back of his throat.
Ewan’s chest constricted. “That’s not in any fairy tales I’ve heard of. What have you been reading?”
“Me?” Jordan blinked and suddenly got extremely interested in picking exactly the right apron out of a bundle of identical ones. “Nothing. I don’t read. Anything. I mean, not that. I just heard. I mean, somebody said something once.” He glanced up, face brightening. “A customer. Yeah, that’s it. A customer mentioned it. And they looked really smart. They were wearing a tie and everything.”
“Uh-huh.” A worm of worry still wriggled in Ewan’s belly, but seriously—how likely was it that Jordan knew that djinni were real? Vanished, but real. As Jordan rushed past him, Ewan touched the kid’s shoulder. “Your shirt’s on backward. So unless that’s a fashion statement . . .”
Jordan glanced down. “You know, I think I like it better this way.” He hefted the bucket with apparent ease—that lanky body must be stronger than it appeared—grabbed the mop, and returned to the floor.
Ewan threaded through the crowded storeroom, lifting a hand to George, who was hunched over his desk in his closet of an office, poking at his computer keyboard with one finger. He ducked into the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and leaned against it for a moment to calm his erratic breathing. Jordan wasn’t talking about reality. My reality. He was simply recounting a story.
Gods above and below, Ewan was getting as bad as Mari—imagining that any one of their supernatural enemies might leap out of the shadows at any moment and spirit them away to a life of captivity. Not that djinni, even before they disappeared, would have been likely to imprison an achubydd. After all, both races had faced exploitation for millennia, the djinni because they could improve their captors’ wealth by providing worldly goods, and achubyddion because they could improve the captors. An achubydd’s powers enabled them to alter another supe’s body, their nature, their very essence.
But the captors never considered the toll that isolation and the continual drain on their ynni, their life energy, would take on their achubydd prisoners.
That’s why there are only three of us left in the world. Just me, Mari, and poor little Wil. And it was up to Ewan to keep the others safe, to take care of them, to make sure nobody had a chance to drain any of them to the point of death or beyond. He tugged on the leather thong around his neck, pulling the amethyst amulet from under his shirt. Their emergency contact—the woman who’d greeted them after their desperate flight, Mari still sobbing and Wil nearly catatonic—had promised the amulets would hide their nature from any other supe. So far, she’d been proven right since the fae thugs who’d murdered Wil’s parents hadn’t followed them.
But the woman had stared at him from behind her cat’s-eye glasses, stuck her pencil in her improbable black beehive hairdo, and handed him a huge jar of bilious green capsules. “Here,” she’d said. “You’ll need these.”
Ewan had accepted the jar with shaking hands. “What are they for?”
“The amulets block you from them. These block them from you.”
She’d been right again. Although Mari and Wil rarely left their apartment—an apartment the woman had arranged too—Ewan had to work if he expected to provide for his family. One trip outside—for his interview at Wonderful Mug, another tip from their contact—and he’d known he couldn’t face the world without something to deaden his senses, to distance him from the pain, either physical or emotional, that people carried with them every day.
Since humans lacked a calon—the arcane organ that nestled under every supe’s heart—achubyddion, whose magic was calon-based, couldn’t affect them much. But that doesn’t mean we can’t feel human pain and anguish.
He’d hurried home and taken his first dose of blockers that very day. Every month since their arrival, a fresh supply had arrived in the mail like clockwork, with no return address.
Ewan lifted his apron and dug his little metal pillbox out of his jeans pocket. He swallowed two blockers dry, but had to chase them with a handful of water when they stuck in his throat. He braced himself on the sink as the deadening sensation uncoiled from belly to arms. Legs. Heart.
Is this what my life—our lives—will be like from now on?Hiding even from ourselves? Never feeling that sense of fulfillment, of rightness, that comes with healing of our own free will?
He splashed cold water on his face, the equivalent of a wake-up slap, because he knew the answer: hiding was nonnegotiable. If the fae thugs found them—or any other supe who wanted more from their body than they’d been granted by the gods and nature—then free will would be only a distant memory. A brief one, since they’d probably not survive for long, but distant for all of that.
Word Count: ~76,000
Page Count: ~287
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 10/24/2020
Release Date: 10/26/2020