Months of successfully avoiding Maddy Winters came to a swift end. She was hardly ever at the San Francisco house, but not only was she here, she was heading his way. His reaction to her was as predictable as it was unavoidable. His sworn set up a roar that shook him like some monstrous wave. All of them were dead. His last act as free kin had been to assimilate every one of the demons who had sworn to him. If he hadn’t, they would have spent eternity in torment.
Kynan Aijan abandoned lap number one thousand and hauled himself out of the pool. Water sluiced off him onto the concrete and the tile ledge. She walked out of the house and headed his direction. A beautiful woman who had every reason to hate him. He slammed down the reaction on his side of the bonds while she approached. Wouldn’t he know if she’d gotten caught up again?
When she was close enough, he said, “Do you need me?”
He pushed wet hair off his face. Good. Good. She wasn’t suffering because of what he’d done while he was out of mind. “Out of your way in a sec.”
She didn’t deviate from her course. Fucking Maddy Winters. Hate her. Love her. There was never anything in between and sometimes there was both at once. He and Winters were too broken to fix. He wanted to hate her all the time, he really did.
“What are you doing here?” He’d done his part staying away from her; why wasn’t she doing the same? It was bad enough he kept sliding into her dreams. More than a dozen times in the past six months. Five of those times he’d been working for Nikodemus during the slip. He did not appreciate having his attention fractured like that. He doubted she liked it any more than he did.
Which was worse? Their bonds waking up and pulling them into unwanted connections when he was having sex or when he’d been sent to kill someone, and she ended up trapped in his violence? His greatest fear was that one day she’d be trapped in one of those wild, vicious links, and he wouldn’t be able to come to her in time. She’d be locked in with him, unable to escape her dreaming state while his thoughts destroyed her.
For him, the sex was worse. Winters might as well actually be in his arms when that happened&emdash;not whoever he’d picked up, not one of the women he’d tried to love instead. Her. His savage ferocity was for her; that low growl came from his mouth close enough for his breath to warm her ear. The build of his desire was from her hands stroking him. Her body was eager for his touch, she melted into his caresses and rose hard against a too-firm grip.
She stopped by the diving board, and he took in the package. She wore jeans, a white tank top, and sandals with rhinestone butterflies. Her hands were behind her back, and she stood in the awkward position of someone doing a crap job of hiding something. “You don’t take my calls anymore. I had to ask around to find out where you were.”
He slicked his hands over his hair one more time. Never mind a towel. He took care of that. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes.” She put a bottle of something on the diving board and smiled the way she almost never smiled at him. “Peace offering.”
He walked over to take a look. Twenty-five-year Macallan. “This’ll get you a damn fine peace.”
She put down two glasses and a box of shortbread. He lifted his eyebrows. She said, “Can we talk?”
Talk. Talk was never good, but he was fine with her bribe. “Why not?”
Winters looked back at the house. “Inside, if you don’t mind.”
Years ago now, but not long after he’d been freed from his centuries-long enslavement to the mage Magellan, Kynan had pulled memories of her from her best friend’s head&emdash;memories that had not been willingly given. At the time, he’d been more or less insane. The rules hadn’t been in place then, and he’d found her and fooled her long enough for them to end up naked and pretending, for a while, that they were both normal. That encounter had ended with him forging bonds between them that would enhance the sex, and her pain, and his ability to make both those things last.
Kynan had made his own mistakes that night. Every one of them began and ended with underestimating her. She hadn’t died, but the bonds he’d made, incomplete though they were, remained to this day. By now those bonds, having never been intended to last beyond a day or two, had developed a reality of their own. Practically sentient. They resented their unfinished state.
He and Winters ended up in the first floor office kept open for anyone to use. He took the couch, expecting she’d want the desk or maybe the chair, but instead she sat beside him. Not close, but not far from him, either. “What do you want to talk about?” he asked.
She opened the Macallan, poured them both a drink, then handed out shortbread. “I’ll wait until you’re in a better mood if you don’t mind.”
“I’m never in a better mood.” He didn’t usually see her in a tank top like that. The cotton clung to her, and he struggled to keep his appreciation of her curves from getting in the way of a clear head. Maddy Winters was wicked smart, and she knew things about him no one else knew. She was also one of the most powerful witches he’d ever encountered. Maybe even the most powerful.
Winters lifted her glass. “To fighting the good fight.”
He laughed and tipped his whisky toward hers. “Sure. I’ll drink to that.” Considering how much time Nikodemus’s inner circle spent together, fought together, and partied together, and especially considering everything he and Winters had been through, he actually didn’t know her all that well. Most of the time when they were alone together, they were fucked-up. He sipped his drink. “That is damn fine.”
“It is.” She curled her legs on the couch and faced him, but he didn’t look at her. She wasn’t looking at him. She broke a piece of shortbread and ate one of the fragments.
He stayed on his side of the couch but gave her a sidelong look. “Is the whole bottle for me?”
“Yours to keep.”
“Generous.” He drained his entire glass and shook his head hard. “Damn.” He poured himself another. He shouldn’t have knocked back whisky that fine so fast. This one he would savor. Whatever she was after, it wasn’t chitchat. “Let’s get to it. What do you want, Winters?”
She scratched the back of her head. Stared at the couch. Stared at her glass. Played with one of the rhinestone butterflies on her sandals. Basically, she was looking anywhere but at him. She had a great deal of power on hand, and that made her dangerous to someone like him. And alluring. Because she was a witch, and he was a demon, and there had always been an affinity between their kind. Sex with her was mind-blowing when it happened. “I’ve been thinking.”
“About?” There wasn’t enough Macallan in the world to get him through this.
“Us.” She reached for his hand, and he allowed the contact. There wasn’t a way for them to be more screwed up. The day he found her, he’d been teetering on the edge of functional for weeks. Everyone, including him, knew it was possible Nikodemus might have no choice but to have him killed. He’d been unstable and no good at following the rules Nikodemus was putting in place.
“What about us?” He didn’t like the direction this conversation was going. There was no them. Not in any normal sense of the word.
“My point exactly.”
He had no idea what she was thinking. At no time during their initial, disastrous, encounter had he managed to take control of her will or get full access to her mind the way he had her friend’s. He didn’t know about her family or whether she had siblings or whether her parents were still alive. Nobody who knew her seemed to know those things. If they did, they weren’t talking. All he knew was that she was from a California Indian tribe, was a lawyer, and had been working with street witches and mages for a very long time. Long before she met Nikodemus. Or him.
She ate more shortbread. “Maybe there should be an us.”
He saw her fingers flex on the glass she held. She smelled good, she always looked good, and right now that white tank top with all her beautiful black hair? She was smoking hot. She had so much magic that there was always a buzz with her. Between them. There was no way this was going where he hoped. They had sex when things were going to hell between them. Just once, he’d like to bone her when at least one of them wasn’t in some level of crisis. “I have things to do, Winters. Can we hurry this up?”
She curled in on herself, like he’d hurt her feelings. That wasn’t possible. Maddy Winters didn’t have personal, private feelings, except when she hated him. “I just meant we should talk more. We work together a lot.” She shook her head, still without looking at him. “Don’t you think it’s strange how little we know each other?”
“What are we going to talk about? The weather?” That little flinch of hers kept him from standing up and walking out. He didn’t want her to be unhappy, but he didn’t see what he could do to prevent it. Especially since he didn’t want to talk.
“I don’t know. Anything. We can discuss what’s going on with the mages.” She was going to break that glass, she kept squeezing it so hard. “I agree with Harsh.” Her words sounded normal, but there was tension in her shoulders.
“If you want to talk, you could at least look at me.”
She did, but it didn’t help a thing. Not even when she smiled, because he knew it was fake. “The Polynesians are causing trouble again.”
“Aren’t they always?” Things went on like this for some time. An awkward stumbling conversation because they never talked unless they had to. For good reason. Maybe they were just hot in bed and that was all. Maybe everything that went on in a normal relationship would be like this. Fucking painful.
Her voice sounded forced to him, but he wasn’t all that good at reading Winters. He did okay with other magekind and humans, but not her. “We should have dinner,” she said.
The air was getting colder. Thicker.
He glanced at the wall clock. Humans were the only reason he ever looked at a clock. They cared about the time. He didn’t. “It’s almost two in the morning.”
“I didn’t mean now.” She ran her hands through her hair, and he tried not to stare. She looked at him. One glance and, okay. There was something going on here that he didn’t get. “I meant generally. You know. The way normal people do when they know each other.”
She met his gaze. Her cheeks flushed.
“Come on, Winters. Just say what you came here to say.”
“I think we should have sex.”
He kept his cool. Barely.
“Sex that doesn’t happen because we’re messed-up. Normal sex.”
He took another long drink of whisky. “Don’t you have girlfriends to talk you out of bad ideas?”
She heaved a sigh as she dropped her head on the arm she’d stretched out along the top of the couch, and he suppressed the urge to touch her and tell her everything was going to be all right. If he did, it would be a lie. They would never be all right. “This was their idea. I told them it wouldn’t work.”
He considered letting this play out in whatever way she had stuck in her head, but that idea only lasted a few seconds. He put down his glass. He and Winters did not have the kind of relationship where talking would do anything but make things worse. He should’ve left the minute he saw her flinch. Then she’d have kept hating him in general instead of hating him specifically for this train wreck. “We have had sex. More than once. So what the do you mean, we should have sex?”
She looked at him through the veil of her eyelashes. “Not sex sex.”
Times like this, he wished Nikodemus wasn’t so big on integration with humans. “I don’t even know what you mean by that.”
She squared her shoulders, and he braced himself for something monumentally stupid. Which he got. She was so exactly what he liked. Strong and beautiful, immensely powerful. “I think we should make love.”
He didn’t even have to think about this one. This was just too fucking absurd. She would rip him to pieces and not even know what she’d done, but he wasn’t about to tell her that. “Honey, I don’t make love. Did you forget that?”
Her mouth twitched, but he wasn’t sure whether she thought that was funny or something a lot worse. “Maybe you should.” She lifted her hand, and he thought about human hands on him when he wasn’t passing like a good boy. “I’m tired of not talking about what’s wrong with us. I’m tired of waking up and realizing I’ve been in your head when, seriously, when you’re doing…any of that… I don’t want to be along for that ride.”
The problem was she understood the demonkind too well for him to bullshit her much. He said the one thing guaranteed to bring this conversation to a quick end. “I’ll do you however you want, but you have to give me what I want.”
Her suspicious look said it all. But she was trying, he had to give her that. “Which is?”
He leaned toward her. “Our bonds closed. Give me that, and I’ll take my chances. Nikodemus can go fuck himself.” The temperature in the room went up at least a hundred degrees, figuratively speaking.
She sat there, blinking at him, and during the silence all he could think about was, what if she said yes? “No.”
He stared at his glass, pissed off at himself. “How drunk were you and your girlfriends when you came up with this?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I think it would be good, don’t you?”
“Maybe I don’t feel like it.”
She lifted a hand again. Lawyer Winters. He fucking hated lawyer Winters. “I’d never deny you your right to choose.”
“Sex. No sex.” He looked her up and down and took the opportunity to appreciate what he saw. He wanted her so badly it hurt. “It’s all the same to you, isn’t it?”
“No.” She let out a breath and shook her head, which pissed him off more. She would never agree. Never.
“That’s the only thing I’m interested in.” The voices of his dead sworn whirled through his head, and he relaxed into the buzz of the additional power. If he were alone, he’d give himself up to that state of bliss. But he wasn’t alone. He grabbed his whisky and held it close. Like that would shield him from the conversational truck about to run him over. Thinking about Winters giving herself to him wasn’t safe. He added a slow grin that felt a little too real to him. He allowed more of his magic to surface. Her glance at him confirmed his eyes had changed. A little risky, letting that happen, but there was good reason for them both to be feeling the bite of him not passing. “If you agree, I’m all over that. Right now.”
She leaned toward him, and her poise turned him on the way it always did. She was completely confident about dealing with him when the pull of their magic vibrated between them like it was alive. “The idea is that you and I would get along better if we had normal sex. We could get all that out of the way. Without any of that other…” She waved a hand. “Just… sex.”
With a deliberation intended to annoy her, he ate a piece of shortbread and then another. “You mean boring sex?”
Annoyance flickered across her face, and she focused on the shelf of glass vases arranged on one wall. “Maybe if we did, we’d stop being so tense when we’re together. Just, you know, have sex when I’m not all having trouble. You too. Are you telling me you haven’t wondered what that would be like?”
“I’m always messed-up.” He poured more whisky into his glass. He wished he could get drunk.
“You’re being unnecessarily difficult.”
“I think I’m being exactly the right amount of difficult.”
“Yes.” Her attention was fully on him, and that was something, having her looking at him like that&emdash;those soft eyes, that beautiful face. “Well?”
“No, Kynan. You know that’s dangerous.”
“Think of the power.” He leaned closer. “Mine and yours, twinned.” Her pupils widened, and for a deathless moment he thought she might say yes. The thrum of arousal started up, connecting them even tighter. “You’re the only one I’d ever make that offer to. I’d give you full access.” He was close enough to brush his lips over hers, so he did. She didn’t pull away. With his mouth hovering over hers, he said, “Not just you belonging to me, Maddy.” He brushed a finger over her temple. “I’d belong to you, too.”
Her eyes closed, and his mind and emotions suspended in the silence. Then she pulled away and frowned at him with one of her intense looks. The kind he saw all the time when she was thinking hard about something. “We can’t.” She shook her head. “We can’t be like that.”
“Then what you’re calling making love is really just fucking.” He looked at her straight on. “Maybe I don’t feel like having sex with you just because you formed a committee to decide what I should do. I guarantee none of you knew about the risks for me.” He stood. He was legitimately upset now. “I have a blood-bound promise to fucking Nikodemus about you. You’re asking me to put that at risk.”
Her eyes got big. He refused to care about how her eyes made her come alive to him. “It’s just sex, Kynan.”
“It’s never just sex with you. Never.” He fought to keep his voice level and lost the battle. “You have no idea.” His dead sworn shouted objections. If he said things he shouldn’t, if that got her off this subject, then good. Never mind the collateral damage. “Not one fucking idea what I deal with every minute of every day. As long as those bonds are like this, we can’t be normal. There is not one chance in hell of normal sex for us. We are fucked, Winters. Both of us.”
She withdrew. Shut down. “A simple no would suffice.”
“Thank you.” She unfurled her legs and put her feet on the floor. “I appreciate you listening to me.”
He grabbed his whisky, took a long drink and stood there staring at her. The more he thought about her asking him for sex like it was no big deal, the more pissed off he got. “Maybe fucked-up sex is the only sex I want with you. Did you think of that? Maybe that’s the only sex I like.”
She leaned back. “I got it the first time.”
“I don’t need a pity fuck, either. There’s plenty of humans willing and able.”
Her reply was sharp enough to cut. “I wasn’t offering one.”
In for the kill. “You don’t need one, either.”
“Please. That’s enough.” She held up both hands. Her white top was extra bright against the red leather of the couch. “That isn’t what I meant. I’m sorry I came across so badly.” Here it was. Winters as hard-assed negotiator. From everything he’d heard, she was an absolute beast in the deals she conducted for Nikodemus. “We don’t get along, and we should. You’re fine with Emily. In fact I think she’s still in love with you.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“You get along with Addison.”
“Not your business.” No way did he want to talk about Emily or Addison, both human. Both with magic. Both good for him in different ways. His kind procreated with humans. The kin were driven to connections with humans. In the days before the wars and rules about behavior, the demonkind had developed a symbiotic existence&emdash; humans in those times called it parasitic, despotic, or whatever the local idiom was for evil personified. Whatever. His kind and her kind. The potential for pleasure wrapped up in power made existence sweet.
“It shouldn’t be this hard, us getting along.” She put her hands on her hips. “You can deal with everybody except me. I would like for that to stop. I don’t think that’s so much to ask.”
He waited until he had himself under control, but the minute he started talking he screwed up. “I’m not tied to anyone else the way I am to you.”
“Those bonds are hardly ever a problem.”
She gave him a narrow look, suspicious. “Explain that.”
All of it came out, and he didn’t have the right words. Only the ones that flowed out of him seared by anger and frustration. They were bound by magical bonds he was prohibited from allowing to close. That had unpleasant consequences for him. “You’re the one who fucks me up every goddamned minute of every goddamned day. Not Emily. Not Addison. You.”
“Thank you for that helpful clarification.”
“It’s about time you saw things from my perspective.”
As she stalked past him, he held out the Macallan. She gave him a venomous look. “I bought it for you.”
“I don’t like Macallan.”
She stopped dead, and this time she was so wooden he knew he’d hurt her. Ice coated every word of her reply. “That is a lie.”
“The only thing you know about me is what I like when I’m fucking you.” He retreated into the cold comfort of his sworn.
“Emily mentioned it a couple of years ago.”
“It’s not my favorite anymore.” He braced himself, because he recognized the look in her eyes.
She spoke crisply. “Fuck you, Kynan.”
He watched her leave, spine straight, moving quickly. It was better this way. It really was.
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