Alchemy’s Hunger – Sneak Peek!

Chapter 1

No one would even notice if he was gone.

Tony rubbed the space between his eyes, his temples burning as the echoing words brought his brain to a screeching halt. An ice pick through the skull would have felt better than Adam invading his thoughts but unfortunately, the bastard wouldn’t shut up. If Adam had a body, Tony would wring his neck, but instead, he squinted through the pain at the pinch faced stranger that had blocked his way.

The man didn’t look like much of a threat; young, skinny, and chances were only versed in rudimentary magic like most average mages. Tony would have given the idiot a pass if he was just posturing. Chest thumpers were all too common in the Wyrd. Unfortunately, the dumbass knew who Tony was. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have said what had said.

“Could you repeat that?” Tony asked the stranger, tapping the bridge of his nose.

The fiery pain returned when Adam’s voice boomed through Tony’s mind. I said, no one would-

I wasn’t asking you! Tony thought back in a hiss.

The misery surged then faded and the test tube resting in Tony’s breast pocket vibrated then stilled.

Blissful silence.

This would be the last time he’d carry Adam around with him in public. Unfortunately, he was a necessary evil. Adam was the only one that could help him. Granted, it was by force, but he still gave good leads when not tormenting Tony with migraines and mind games.

“Your cabal,” the pinched faced moron replied. He wiped an ink stained hand across his pointed chin, his smugness palpable. “They’re looking for you.”

With the headache dissipating, Tony regained himself. “That tells me two things,” he said. “One, you understand who I am and why it’s a very bad idea to challenge me. And two, that you’re unaware that I’ve killed my entire cabal.”

A lie, Adam said, his voice a piercing reverb.

Tony sighed. Does it matter?

You only killed me, and not completely. Drake may still live and Shadow was destroyed by the Constance-

I could go without your commentary.

“They’re not all dead, Harris,” Pinched Face said, a decent amount of disgust pressed onto Tony’s last name.

Tony fought the roll of his eyes.  “Yes, they are.”

“Well, rumor is your leader, Shadow, was killed by a halfblooded Valkyrie.”

Not my leader anymore, Tony thought, hoping Adam had receded far enough that he couldn’t hear him. The twinge at the base of his skull said otherwise.

“But the woman,” Pinched Face continued. “The chain smoker with the bad attitude? She’s still up and around. Been hitting different communities, asking for the whereabouts of an Anthony Harris.”

He opened his palm and with a wiggle of his fingers, a flickering image of Tony hovered over his hand. Tony sighed. It looked like a damn mug shot. When the hell was that picture taken?

Pinched face smiled. “Funny, he looks a lot like you.”

A chill clutched Tony’s gut, twisting it into a knot.  He breathed the name “Drake,” before slapping a glamour of indifference over his face. Pinched Face didn’t seem to notice his slip up.

Lucy Drake was alive. Alive and looking for him. Searching for Tony seemed to be entirely too much effort for her, but when she wanted revenge, Lucy was a Pitbull with a mailman’s pant leg.

Tony wanted to dismiss the mage before him. Just a flick of his wrist and he’d melt his mind with a simple spell as punishment. But Tony needed to know more.

He slipped a hand behind his back, palm igniting with blue sparks. If Pinched Face made one wrong move, even said one wrong word, Tony would turn him into ash without a thought. But the sounds of afternoon traffic and the voices of others filled his ears. His spell winked out. No, this was the wrong time and definitely the wrong place.

Losing your nerve? Adam asked.

There are too many mundanes around, Tony replied.

That never stopped you from killing before.

Clearly you have me confused with everyone else from our cabal.

Murder was never Tony’s cup of tea even on his worst days. Murdering innocent souls in a cross fire made his stomach fill with bile. No. Never again. He flicked the test tube in his breast pocket and Adam’s shout of anguish filled him with pleasure. Mollified, Tony folded his arms and fixed a dark stare on Pinched Face. When that wormy bastard flinched, Tony didn’t bother to hide his smile. Well, at least his reputation continued to follow him.

“So you spoke to Lucy Drake?” Tony asked. Before the mage could answer, he held up his fingers, green swirls of death magic weaving between them. “Think hard before lying to me.”

The mage’s over-sized apple bobbed as he swallowed, then he visibly gathered his boldness, and squared his shoulders. “No, I didn’t speak with her. Not directly.”

“So, she is not in the Bay Area.” Tony shoved the threatening hand into the pocket of his grey slacks, holding in a sigh of relief. He traveled to Northern California to hide, not start a war. Unfortunately, Drake was sending out her lackeys. And here he thought things were finally quieting down.

“All I know is she is looking for you. Hard.” Pinched Face scratched his nails over his stubble encrusted jaw, then grinned. “And well, it would be a damn shame if she found you.”

“What’s your name?” Tony asked.

“Richard.”

“Richard. May I call you Dick?” When Richard’s face turned red, Tony sighed. “Look, Dick, blackmail doesn’t become our kind. We’re already frowned upon in the Wyrd as it is.”

“I could give a shit about the rest of the Wyrd, Harris. And could care less about you. But Drake is offering a lot for your location. Money, knowledge…”

“And you look like quite the knowledge hound,” Tony smirked. “I bet the backs of those cereal boxes are very enlightening.”

Dick pretended that Tony’s quip didn’t bother him but the twitch in his eyelid said otherwise. “Go on, be smug, but I got you by the balls.”

“People will say we’re in love, Dick,” Tony said.

“I’m willing to let you slide if you want to offer even more-”

“Pass.”

A squeaky giggle tore from Dick’s throat. “Then I guess I’ll have to send the info to her then.”

Tony smiled, his dark irises swirling with threads of silver. Tendrils of his mind magic oozed towards Dick as his eyes hypnotically churned. “You don’t want to do that,” Tony said, his voice smooth as silk.

Dick chuckled, unfazed by the spell. “Yeah, I do.” He reached under the collar of his shirt and pulled out a gold talisman that hung around his neck. “You think I didn’t come to this fight prepared?”

The spell faded and Tony narrowed his eyes. Drake must have warned Dick about his talent in mind magic. Dammit, he underestimated this Dick, figuring he’d be like most mages that skirted the edge of the dark side; inexperienced and weak willed.

 So, it’s back to plan A then? Adam chimed in, his voice as sharp as daggers.

No one is getting killed so shut up.

Tony lifted his chin, feigning a cool demeanor. “I’m feeling magnanimous so I’m going to let this whole incident pass.” With slender fingers, he straightened his blue striped tie and stepped away. “Breathe a word of my location to Drake or anyone else, I will find you.”

“That’s it?” Dick’s mocking laugh made Tony bristle. “That’s all you got? You’re supposed to be gifted in all three magical branches. I expected you to be more badass.”

Tony rubbed his forehead. “I’m above vulgar displays of magic in front of mundanes.”

Dick held out his palms, sparks flying with bright cobalt pops. “I’m not.”

Tony’s own hands crackled to life. “Don’t push me, Dick.”

“It’s Richard!”

“No. You’ll always be a Dick.”

Dick bared his teeth. “All right, let’s dance, asshole.”

Tony’s expression went flat. “Did you just say let’s dance? Really?”

Okay, he thought to Adam. I can see your point about plan A.

Tony tucked his hands back into his pockets, still not willing to attack. Yes, he could crush this pathetic blackmailer with his pinky if he wanted -and part of him really wanted- but he lost his taste for bloodshed a long time ago. Instead of running from the challenge, like most would have done, Dick only chuckled.

“No, you’re not worth the effort,” Tony said and turned to stroll away

Something sharp jabbed against his ribs. Tony froze, shifting his gaze down to the knife pressed against his suit jacket. Dick slipped beside him, one hand tight on the handle, the other slipping to Tony’s shoulder.

“I thought you wanted a duel in broad daylight,” Tony said. “But hey, if blatant violence is more your thing-”

“I’m warded from head to toe, Harris. You try any tricks, well…”

The blade broke through the fabric as Dick leaned in. It grazed Tony’s skin, burning with a stinging fire.

Poisoned.

Tony groaned.

Fantastic.

Dick nudged him forward and Tony reluctantly took a step, his hands balled into fists, his mind whirling through the hundreds of spellbooks he had committed to memory. Their pages flipped, words swirling in black and white as he struggled to find a non-violent spell to help him escape. Unfortunately, none came to mind.

Warded against your mind magic, Adam said. Probably warded against force magic as well. Looks like Drake gave him plenty of information. That only leaves death magic, doesn’t it?

I am not casting anymore death magic! Tony’s eyes rolled back until only the whites showed, his body twitching as he fell into conversation with Adam. No death. No madness. No more killing. It’s not happening.

Adam chuckled. Well, not yet. I’ll wait.

You’ll be waiting a long time.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Dick demanded. “Why are you twitching like that?”

No one will even notice that he’s gone, Adam whispered. Just one flick of your wrist and poof, your problem is solved. Do you want to be caught under this worm’s boot heel? He’s useless to you. Useless to everyone. Murdering one blackmailing idiot won’t matter at all.

Tony’s eyes snapped into place and he turned a glare on Dick, rage burning deep inside his belly. Sparks flew from his fingertips.

Adam was right. Once again Tony was caught under someone’s heel. Once again his life was dangling by someone’s whim. Sweat beaded his forehead as that deep-seated hate began to rise.

So tempting to end a life, to crush that sniveling bastard with a breath. One less piece of shit in this world taking up space. Dick jabbed his knife harder, pushing Tony’s patience into the abyss. That son of a bitch thought he could push him around? He was nothing. A nobody compared to Tony’s power and pedigree.

Adam was right.

No one would notice if Dick was gone.

Tony lifted his hand letting death magic flow from his palms.

“Jim?” A feminine voice asked.

Tony jerked his head up, fog lifting from his vision to reveal a small, willowy brunette, one hand holding a large cup of coffee, the other gripping the strap of a bright yellow messenger bag. He froze, dousing the emerald light in his palm.

The woman’s large, grey eyes darted between him and Dick before she continued. “Jim Swanson, right?” She gave Tony a winning smile and straightened her purple knit cap. “You went to San Francisco State?”

“Huh?” Tony replied. Not the most elegant of responses, but this was not the most elegant of situations.

The pressure of the knife let up and Dick gawked as well, shifting his body to hide the weapon. Their bafflement didn’t ruffle the woman’s feathers one bit and she laughed, pressing a hand against her chest.

“It’s me! Faith Conway! We sat next to each other in human sexuality class!” she said. “We used to have lunch together in the student union, remember? You always teased me about getting those Godawful burritos from the vendor downstairs.” She turned to Dick. “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other.” When her attentions returned to Tony, she gave him a quick wink.

Tony snorted, then fell into her game. “Oh! Faith, yeah. Faith. Now I remember,” he said. “How are you and your… burritos?”

Faith laughed. “Oh Shut up, Jerkface!”

“Jerk…face?” Tony arched a brow.

“Who the hell are you?” Dick growled.

“I told you! I’m Faith Conway. Me and Jim here are old friends!” Faith reached up and gave Tony’s nose a little tweak. “Honestly, I would have dated you if I wasn’t with another guy at the time. Dear God, Jim. You are still handsome.”

“And you’re still…”

Tony looked her over. She wasn’t a remarkable beauty but she was pretty in an awkward, earthy way. Small and slender, with high cheekbones and a short bob of chocolate colored hair that fell in waves just below her jaw. He could have mistaken her for one of the fae, or at least an elf if he only gave her a passing glance, her features graceful, almost elegant…

But she had ridiculous taste in clothing. Faith was clad in neon pink skinny jeans, a baggy sweater vomited over with rainbow hearts and a pair of scuffed combat boots. Around her neck was a chunky necklace of chipped rhinestones, the brass chain tarnished. Faith Conway looked like she wrestled a Goodwill and lost. Horribly.

Tony squinted, studying Faith with a mage’s sight. No aura. He felt no magic coming from her and saw no tell-tale signs of the Wyrd. So, she was a human. A mundane who had no idea what she was dealing with. Still, awful fashion sense or not, Faith was a perfect distraction.  The corner of his mouth curled.

“You’re still lovely, Faith,” he said.

“Aw, come here!”

She flung her free arm around his shoulders and hugged him tight. Tony stiffened. The last time anyone got that close was to stick a knife in him. He glanced to Dick. Case in point, he thought.

Faith’s messenger bag bumped him further into Dick’s blade and Tony grunted as the poisoned tip scraped his side, setting his flesh on fire. Her warm breath brushed against his ear as she whispered, “I don’t think he’s buying it. Should I call the cops?”

Oh yes, she was definitely a mundane.

“Enough of this!” Dick shouted.

He pushed Faith away and she stumbled off the curb, coffee sloshing over her fingers. Faith yelped, quickly switching the steaming cup to her other hand so she could wipe the burning one on her sweater. Tony scowled. He curled his fingers, knuckles cracking.

“Get the fuck out of here, lady!” Dick screeched.

Faith put a hand up as she approached, undaunted despite the fear that flickered in her gaze. “No need to get pushy. I just wanted to talk to Jim.”

“His name isn’t Jim Samson!”

“Swanson,” Faith corrected.

“Who the fuck cares?! It’s not his name!”

“Dick,” Tony snarled through his teeth. “Be a gentleman.”

“It’s Richard! And you’re in no place to give me orders, Harris!” He clutched the back of Tony’s jacket. “Now move it!”

“Wait!” Faith cried.

Dick spun, eyes blazing. “What!?”

Faith took a timid step forward. She bit her lower lip then said, “Um, do you like coffee?”

“Oh, I’ve had it with-”

Dick’s words were cut short when Faith yanked the lid off her cup and threw the boiling contents into his face. The back-splash sprinkled Tony with steaming, tan droplets. Dick dropped his knife and grabbed his eyes, staggering blind into the brick building behind him. Tony was about to blow Dick’s shriveled face into the next state when Faith grabbed his arm and gave it a firm yank.

“Come on!” she squealed, voice shaking.

She took off in a sprint. Stunned, Tony could only stumble after her. He looked over his shoulder to watch Dick clawing at his face, brown liquid dribbling down his now scarlet cheeks.

Not how I imagined you’d get out of that situation, Adam said.

Tony nodded absently, turning his attentions to Faith as she dragged him down the street. And now I want to know where it’s going, he answered.

Their feet pounded the pavement dodging pedestrians to shouts of “Hey watch it!” in their wake. Faith batted at them, calling “Sorry! Sorry! So very sorry!” as she pushed her way through a gaggle of teenagers. Tony’s ire turned to intrigue, wondering what else this woman in awful clothing had in store.

Tony slammed into her back when Faith skidded to a stop, the two tripping forward with a grunt. He snagged her before she swan-dove onto the street and pulled her upright, her short, dark hair slapping him in the face.

The smell of fresh ground coffee and sugar hit him so hard that he almost flinched. It was exhilarating, sending a jolt of energy right into his fingertips. Before he realized it, he had hauled her close to sneak a second whiff of that heavenly aroma, his mouth watering.

Faith didn’t seem perturbed by the hand he had pressed against her belly, but she wiggled free, yanked a set of keys from her bag, and unlocked the door to a rusty green Volkswagen Beetle parked on the street.

“Get in!” she said.

Tony swiped an arm across his cheek, attempting to wipe away the oncoming blush. “Your car?” he asked.

“Duh!” Faith slid into the driver’s seat, leaning over to pop the lock on the passenger door.

With a click of his teeth, Tony closed his gaping mouth. Trap? Trick? Maybe this mundane woman was working with Lucy to lure him to her. He reached out his feelers again, expecting to find a hex on the car but it was just as unremarkable as the woman in the driver’s seat. Tony let out a little chuckle.

“What the hell?” he mumbled in amusement.

Faith gestured with a frantic arm. “Get in! He’s probably right on our tail!”

Tony craned his head, spying Dick two blocks away, still rolling on the ground and wailing. The idiot should have healed himself by now. Dumbass.

“I’m pretty sure he’s not a problem,” he said.

“What if he has friends?” Faith jammed her key in the ignition and the bug started up with a clunk, thud, vrrooooooom! “What if his friends have guns?”

“You watch a lot of crime dramas on television, don’t you?” Tony asked.

When her cheeks flushed, and she said, “I like Criminal Minds,” he snorted. “Just get in the car, please?” Faith begged.

The crease between those round gray eyes deepened as she clutched her steering wheel. When her lips turned up into a sad frown, Tony blinked. She was worried. Genuinely worried.

About him.

That was unexpected.

Tony glanced back down the street. Dick was finally standing, wiping the coffee from his eyes and looking furious. He ran towards them, long limbs swinging, greasy hair flapping in the wind. He stretched out a hand as his magic gathered into a tight swirling ball.

“Shit,” Tony groaned.

It was either drive off with this Faith, or commit a murder he had no stomach for. Tony slid into the passenger seat, which made Faith’s wide mouth split into a relieved smile. She slammed her foot on the gas and they took off before he could shut the door, leaving Dick coughing in a black cloud of exhaust. The thud of a force spell hitting the street behind them shook the car but luckily, Faith was too busy watching the road to notice the magical bomb.

She gave a low whistle. “I saw him pull the knife from across the street while I was dropping some stuff off at the post office,” she said. “Are you hurt? Did he get your wallet?”

“He wasn’t after my wallet,” Tony said, then gave her a nod. “I’m fine. It was a personal thing.”

Faith chewed on her lower lip, her eyes sliding over to him before snapping back to the road. “Do you work for the mob?”

Laughter squirted right out of him and Tony leaned his head back against the seat, grabbing his belly. “The mob? Are you serious?”

Faith blushed. “Well can you fault me for thinking that? Have you looked in a mirror?”

His laughter evaporated. While Faith was preoccupied with avoiding a pedestrian, Tony snuck a peek at himself in the review mirror. She was right, he looked like a thug with those deep scars on his cheeks. And his expensive suit would scream high end criminal to a mundane. Well, in a way he was as criminal. At least in the Wyrd, he’d be considered one.

The fact that you would associate our cabal with criminal activity is a crime itself, Adam said.

Tony frowned. You were all fucking evil as far as I’m concerned.

We were acting in the greater good.

Acting like genocidal maniacs, really.

Feeling guilt by association, Anthony? Remember, you helped us.

Faith jerked the wheel and Tony fell against the car door, his head bouncing off the window with a clang. The collision shut Adam’s trap and he was grateful, despite the bruise he’d have later.

Faith glanced to him. “Put your seatbelt on!”

Tony grumbled, pulling the strap across his chest and clicking it into place. “Where are you taking me?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Where do you need to be?” She smiled as she swerved around a bus.

Tony slammed his hands on the dashboard. “Not in this car, right now,” he replied, trying not to appear terrified by her complete disregard of traffic laws.

She only giggled nervously.

Which was concerning.

“I’ll drop you off at your home if you like, or your… safe house?” she said.

“I’m not a criminal!”

“I promise I won’t tell anyone I met you. I swear it. Just don’t take your hitman vendetta out on me or my loved ones, okay?” she said. Tony rubbed his temples. When he groaned, Faith hissed. “That wasn’t a yes. Yikes.”

“Six blocks down will do,” he only replied.

“But what about-”

“No one is getting-” Tony made quotes with his fingers. “Wacked.”

Faith nodded, slowing the bug down at a red light. Well, less like slowing and more like slamming to a halt with the tires squealing. She stuck out a hand to shake. “I’m Faith.”

“So you told me.”

“I’m going to assume your name isn’t Jim Swanson.”

“Definitely not Jim Swanson.”

Tony stared at the outstretched hand a moment, then took it. When his fingers curled around hers, all he felt was the warm touch of her palm, reminding him how long it had been since he touched anyone in a benign manner.

“So what is your name then?” A horn blasted behind them and Faith jumped, slamming her lead foot back on the gas. “Whoops.”

“Do you drive often?” Tony asked. “You seem to be a beginner at this.”

“Been driving since I was eighteen.” When she turned the wrong way down a one-way street, Tony knew sarcasm was lost on her. “You still haven’t told me your name.”

Despite not paying attention to the road, Faith was definitely paying attention to him. With Lucy Drake on the hunt, anyone familiar with his face and name was trouble. Big trouble. Tony clutched his seatbelt tight as she honked at the oncoming car who had the right of way.

“You know? You can just drop me off at the next light,” he said.

“You sure?”

When she ran a stop sign to a symphony of blaring car horns, Tony nodded vigorously. “Very sure.”

“Okie dokie then.” As soon as they approached the next light, Faith turned onto a quiet street and pulled over to the curb. “Look, I don’t mind dropping you off at your place,” she said. “I have nowhere to go.”

“It’s not necessary.”

She shrugged. “Well then, have a good night. And be careful, okay?” She smiled at him, brushing a few strands of hair from her eyes.

Tony nodded, about to escape her death mobile but he paused. Be careful, she said. This complete stranger wanted him to be careful. A lump thickened in his throat. He gritted his teeth and opened the door, one foot hitting the sidewalk.

Get out of the seat. Get out of the seat and walk away. You don’t have time for this.

Tony shut his eyes, not caring that Adam was listening in on his thoughts. Listening and probably chuckling.

“You all right?” Faith asked.

Her sweet chirpy voice cut his mantra in two and he sighed, shoulders slumping. He didn’t turn to face her, just stared out at the neatly styled ranch homes that lined the block.

“Why did you help me?” he asked.

There was a pause. For a moment Tony expected no answer.

“I don’t like bullies,” Faith replied.

A smile slipped across his lips, despite himself. “That makes two of us.”

Without further ado, he pulled himself out of the car, shutting the door behind him. Then he glanced over his shoulder, probably the worst thing he could have done. Faith stared right at him; eyes glittering with threads of silver and blue, that wide mouth turned up into a broad crescent.

“Goddammit,” he muttered then knocked on the window.

Faith unbuckled her seat-belt, and leaned across the seats, her arm jerking in circles as she rolled the window down with the old-school crank. “Yeah?”

“Tony. My name is Tony,” he said then shuddered, at his confession.

“Nice to meet you.” She stuck her arm through the cracked window, offering an awkward hand.

Tony snorted then took her fingers, finding her position too twisted for a proper shake. There it was again. Contact. No aggression. No tricks. No hexes. Just plain old contact. Before he grew comfortable with the concept, Faith straightened in her seat and buckled up.

“I know you’re the strong, silent type and all, but if you ever need a place to hide out from your crime rivals, I work at Cuppa Jane’s. it’s the coffee shop over on San Pablo Avenue.” Faith pushed her cap forward on her head, probably to straighten it. She failed. “I mean, we can’t offer protection-”

“Faith, I am not in organized crime,” Tony groaned.

“Still, if you want to drop in or need someplace to just, I donno, hide out? I work Monday through Friday and make the best latte in El Cerrito. Probably the world, actually.” She laughed, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don’t know why I told you that. Christ, now I feel awkward.”

“I agree. That was awkward,” Tony said. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

“Sure,” Faith smiled, taking her car out of park. “Take care of yourself. And good luck with your hitman career!”

“I’m not a…” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, waving her off. “Sure. Thanks.”

Faith wiggled her fingers in a little wave, then pulled away and barreled around the corner, burning rubber. Tony watched the rusted car as it disappeared, a ragged trail of exhaust fumes following her. Well, that was unexpected. Not unpleasant but not exactly pleasant either. Just… odd. He stared at the tire marks on the blacktop, his thumb passing over the scars on his cheeks; first the left one, then the right.

Feeling sentimental today? Adam asked.

Tony scowled as his grim reality slapped him in the face. She works in a mundane coffee shop. Mages are less likely to cause a stir when surrounded by regular humans. A connection with her may be good. She might be useful.

To your plans or to your baser human urges?

Spare me. I’ve given up on that. She’s a tool. Nothing more.

Tony’s mind went blank, then visions of Faith’s naked body flashed in full Technicolor. She was writhing, legs wrapped around his hips as he pounded between her thighs. He heard her moans, felt that generous mouth suckling his neck. Tony’s head fell back and he groaned at the feel of her wet sex tight around his shaft. Then it was gone and he was standing on the sidewalk alone, hard as stone and aching for release.

“Fuck!” Tony whispered, trying to hide the erection that was now making itself known to the public. He adjusted himself, head turning this way and that for any lookie-loos who witnessed his sudden bout of lust. The empty streets made him sigh in relief.

Adam’s shallow chuckle rolled in his ears. That bastard was playing with his mind again. It wasn’t the first time he made Tony’s thoughts turn to lust, or murder, or pants wetting fear. Tony reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the test tube to give it a glare. The swirling cloud inside the glass flickered yellow, then blue, a strange, spinning galaxy held captive by wax and a cork.

You want me to shake your tube again, don’t you, Tony thought. Keep it up. I’ll throw you under a truck tire.

Adam chuckled. You won’t. Not until you find a Conduit. And you know I’m qualified to help you find one.

It’s been a year and I’m no closer to finding a Conduit than before. Time is running out.

Or perhaps you’re closer than you realize.

Tony tensed, his jaw clenching in anticipation. Are you saying you found one? You drag me to this tiny city, tell me there’s one here, and all I found was a chest thumping idiot and a lady hipster clown. Now tell me, yes or no. Did you find one?!

Adam paused as if choosing his words. I’m saying I’m currently useful to you.

Tony pursed his lips, then carefully slid the tube back into his breast pocket. Then shut your mouth and do your job.

Adam went quiet. At least he took one order seriously. As much as he yearned to bury Adam under twelve feet of cement, Tony needed him. With one foot in the living world and the other in the land of the dead, Adam could detect things Tony couldn’t. Like a Conduit. And a Conduit couldn’t be seen by the naked eye or with mage sight. No, their power was buried deep. The sure-fire way to find one was by casting magic and wait for it to be physically attracted to them. Unfortunately, Tony couldn’t go around, throwing spells near every living soul and hope for the best. He needed Adam’s eyes. But when he talked in vague terms, burying him sounded mighty tempting.

Tony’s gaze returned to the fresh tire marks as Faith’s words haunted him

Be careful.

Take care of yourself.

The last person who showed that much concern for him was…

Sadness clutched him and Tony rubbed his sternum as if trying push that horrible ache away. He shuddered, shutting his eyes to block out the memories.

Make me proud, Cybil’s voice whispered to him.

He clenched his jaw. You’re going to fix this, Harris. You’re going to bring her back. 

Exhaustion covered him like a wet blanket. It always did whenever he thought about his mother.

Shall we continue our hunt? Adam asked.

Tony shook his head. No. I’m done for the day.

He ran his fingers over the thick scars on his cheeks, locking the memories deep. They’d come out to torment him soon enough. They always did.

Cuppa Jane’s. He tucked that name in the back of his mind for later use. Yes, that could be a useful refuge in the future. Tony nodded, clapped his hands, and in a swirl of glimmering sparks, vanished from the sidewalk.

 

 

Chapter 2

“Son of a- Arg!”

Faith looked down, finding one foot clad in a red Mary Jane and the other in a black and green running shoe. It shouldn’t have surprised her because it was the third time this had happened. Last week it was a bunny slipper and a boot. The week before that, a sandal and a ballet flat.

In her defense, it was four in the morning. Usually, she didn’t get into work until six, but with Mikey gone for the week, her mother needed help with the morning rush. Showing up yet again with mismatched shoes would probably send her mother into another downward spiral of worry.

Faith tied her apron, wondering if she’d have enough time to run back to her apartment and fix her fashion don’t, but the bell over the door jingled and Janice Conway walked in, locking the door behind her. Well, that plan was nixed. Faith took a side step behind the counter, hiding her shoes as Janice slowed to remove her coat.

The woman was pushing sixty, but still sported her peasant blouses and boot cut jeans as confidently as any twenty-year-old. Her waist length brown hair was streaked with silver and her figure was zaftig, heavier around the hips due to her love of pastries. It was a far cry from Faith’s waifish body. Faith frowned, pressing her hands against her bony hips, forever tormented by the phrase, “Eat a sandwich!”

They shared the same grey eyes, something Janice touted proudly, especially when the subject of Faith’s birth father came up. Janice always said, “Thank God you got your looks from me.” Which led Faith to believe that her father was some sort of gargoyle.

“Morning, mom!” Faith gave Janice a peck on the cheek as the older woman rounded the counter. “The counters are cleaned, the machines are running, and the cash is in the register.”

Janice blinked. “Wow. Is it my birthday?”

Faith just shrugged. “I was awake so, I got here early.”

Janice folded her arms, the crinkles around her eyes deepening. “You could have tried going back to sleep, Faith. Your shift doesn’t start for two more hours.”

“I feel better when I’m useful.” Faith turned to avoid her mother’s scrutinizing gaze but she still felt it aggravating her like only a mother’s stare could. “And we are down a Mikey so I figured coming in early would be better for everyone.”

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, Angel, but you need sleep,” Janice said.

Faith tried not to shudder at the nickname.

It’s your mom’s endearment, not his.

“I’m fine, mom,” she said. “I swear it. It’s just nervous energy.”

“For six months?”

Faith answered with a weak giggle. Sleeping for an hour then bouncing off the walls for the rest of the night had become her new normal. Hence her early morning attack on Cuppa Jane’s. It was either pace the floors of her apartment, or suck it up and get things done. On the plus side, it had kept her nightmares away and she still had her usual energy. Faith gave the counter yet another wipe down, humming a loud chorus to Abba’s Waterloo, hoping the overly enthusiastic disco tune would throw Janice’s paranoia off.

“I have some Valerian Root and Saint John’s Wart for you to try,” Janice said, following close on Faith’s heels.

Well, that didn’t work.

“Saint John’s Wart makes me depressed. You know that,” Faith replied. Janice had practically force fed the junk to her when she was still seeing he-who-must-not-be-mentioned. If only the depression had come from the herb. That same cold chill crept up her back. She shook it off.

No. You are not getting into my head today, asshole.

“Mom, it’s not a big deal.” Faith gave her one of her chipper smiles. The one that said everything was hunky dory. “So I haven’t been sleeping. Some people just don’t need a lot of sleep. I’ve been totally fine otherwise.” When Janice scowled down to her mismatched shoes, Faith quickly scuttled behind a table. “Well, maybe I’m a little bit scatterbrained, but that’s it!”

“Scatterbrained?”

“Well yeah.”

Janice snorted. “Faith, this is more than just being a little scatterbrained.”

“Mom, it’s nothing!” Faith bit the inside of her cheek, pushing down the irritation.

Just let it slide. You never win these arguments. Let it slide.

“It’s nothing,” she repeated with that same forced smile.

Janice sighed, rubbing her temples. “Don’t be stupid, Faith.”

Faith jabbed a finger in Janice’s direction. “I’m not stupid!” she shouted.

Her voice wavered and she shrunk back, pressing a hand against her mouth. That all too familiar fear took its hold, grabbing the back of her neck with an unrelenting grip. Janice put her hands up, her expression softening. She approached Faith as if she were a skittish fawn.

“I’m not calling you stupid. You know I’d never think that, Angel.”

Faith slumped against the counter as her terror fled, replaced with cheek burning embarrassment. She chewed on her thumbnail, turning her back on Janice to hide her tears. “Sometimes… sometimes things still set me off.”

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. Faith looked up with glassy eyes as Janice smoothed her knit cap off her head. “Chris did a number on you, I know,” she said.

“He’s in the past,” Faith replied, giving her a watery smile. Chris was in the past, sure, but he still squatted in her thoughts every freaking day.

“Yeah, but he left his marks.” Janice kissed Faith’s forehead. “Faith Conway is incapable of stupidity. In the thirty years, you’ve been alive, you have been nothing but sharp as a tack.” She sighed. “I wish I could go back and tell you not to date him.”

Faith gave another forced smile that felt like shards of glass. “I’ll be fine, mom.”

Janice nodded, that worry still hiding in the lines on her face. “But you still need to take those supplements,” she said.

“Mom!” Faith chuckled. Janice’s hippy intentions were enough to pull her out of her anxiety spiral.

“I’m your mother. Sometimes I know best.”

“I’ll take the supplements.”

Janice pulled her apron out from under the counter, looking solid in her victory. “Thank you.”

Faith held her breath, watching her mom as she washed her hands at the sink behind the espresso machine, teeth grinding together.

Wait for it. You know it’s coming, Faith.

“You were just too young to be with Chris,” Janice said.

And there it is.

Faith fidgeted with her cap, wiping away any sign of frustration. It was a futile argument. One she had too many times to count in the last three years. “Sure, mom.”

“Faith. Don’t humor me,” Janice said. “You started dating him when you were twenty-five. You were just a baby.”

“I know mom,” she said in her best non-placating voice. Janice looked mollified by her response and went about her morning duties.

The subject was dropped. It still didn’t make Faith feel any better. The whole “you’re too naïve” conversation was wearing thin on her nerves. When would she be considered old enough to “know better”?  Fifty? Sixty? Dead?

There was no point in worrying about it. Faith had become such a hermit that the chance of her diving back into the dating pool was zilch. She hadn’t had the guts to meet anyone new and when she had, it was during a mugging.

Tony. He didn’t look like a Tony. Tony was the name for a greasy guy in an obnoxious sweater with gold chains around his thick neck. Maybe Tony was short for Anthony. Yeah, that seemed more fitting. Something about him was too elegant for the name Tony. But hey, who was she to judge? Her hippy mom had named her Faith Hope.

God, what the hell was she thinking? Faith wasn’t the type to play hero. She had always kept her head down and plowed through life without making waves. Yesterday would have been no exception. Then she had spotted the most gorgeous man she ever laid eyes on. In true stalker fashion, she ducked behind a lamppost, stupefied by his intense dark eyes and perfectly combed jet black hair.  But it was those elegant, long hands that struck her. The way they moved, smooth but strong, slicing through the air like daggers. Faith didn’t want to sigh but she had.

Faith had every intention of jumping into her car and driving home but when that other guy pulled a knife, a long buried fury clicked on. She didn’t like bullies, had lived with one for two years. For some reason, that hatred came to life as soon as she saw that knife.

It wasn’t until she was right in front of Tony that she had noticed how devastating he was. There were two slash marks buried under his cheekbones that added a rugged quality to his mischievously boyish looks. They were interesting scars. Sexy scars. Scars that made her want to ask questions. But she bit them back, afraid of the answers.

Faith shook her head as she finished wiping down the café tables. Handsome or not, he was kind of an asshole, treating her to sarcasm and eye rolls. That should have turned her off. She had her fill condescending dick bags after Chris and would have been fine with dumping him on the curb. Then she saw that brief flash of loneliness in his eyes and heard a tinge of grief in his deep voice when he asked her why she had helped him.

No more lost souls, Faith. They always bite you in the end.

“Faith, did you hear a word I said?”

Faith jumped, the washrag almost flying out of her hand. “Huh?”

“It’s twenty minutes until we open. Run a mop across the floor, okay?” Janice tilted her head, her lips puckering. “Is something-?”

“Uh, sure. I’m on it.” Faith ducked under her mother’s gaze and hurried to the utility closet.

Stop daydreaming about some hot hitman guy!

Okay, so maybe Tony wasn’t a hitman, but the last thing Faith needed was another man causing her trouble. Janice would have a stroke if she found out about yesterday’s antics and besides, she’d probably never see Tony again. Sexy hitmen were best used as future fantasy fodder. She snagged the bucket and mop and got to work.

After the floor was squeaky clean, Faith pulled the store front window shade up to let in the daylight. The sky was silver, dotted over with wispy gold tinted clouds, the sun casting its rays on the small throng of coffee cravers outside. The prospect of another beautiful sunny day washed all the bad feelings away and Faith smiled.

She gave a wave to a few of her regulars through the window, then squinted, noticing two strange men hovering across the street. One was short and chunky, the other more average with a shaved head. Her fingers tightened around her mop. Usually, a couple of random dudes wouldn’t give her the willies, but there was something about them, something that made her insides twist.

They stared at the shop and for a moment, Faith felt their eyes on her. She swallowed, her mind whirling in fifteen different scenarios, ones that involved robberies or vandalism. Or maybe there were another set of stalkers? Faith’s belly turned to water.

The two were still as statues, hands shoved in their pockets while they muttered to each other out of the corners of their mouths. Then the bald one looked right at her. He jerked his chin, giving her a slimy smile.

Faith sprinted to the storage closet, her heart rattling as she tossed the mop, bucket, and almost herself inside. She slammed the door a little too hard and Janice yelped, turning to her with a cocked brow. Instead of pointing out the would-be stalkers, Faith just smiled, gave a thumbs-up, then quickly spun away.

“Now you’re paranoid, Faith?” she whispered to herself. “Calm down. It was just a couple of guys. And stop talking to yourself before mom shoves more supplements at you.”

“Angel? You ready to open?” Janice asked.

“Yup!” Faith straightened, running her shaking hands down her apron. “Let’s get the day started.” She took a deep breath and marched to unlock the doors.

Despite every warning bell shrieking in her head, she couldn’t find the strength to trust herself. If her instincts worked right, they would have warned her about Chris. She unbolted the door.

Stop it, Faith. Everything is fine.

Her breath caught when the two men greeted her at the door.

****

It was about four-thirty in the morning when Tony decided to leave his apartment. His thoughts had continued to cycle back to Cybil, his ritual, and the few days he had left to fix his entire life. But insomnia was better than nightmares. Eventually, he showered, dressed, then teleported to the parking lot of his complex to pace away his feelings.

Only a couple mundanes were there, meandering to their cars blurry eyed. Tony tapped his forehead, stress tightening the skin until it creased. It would only be a matter of time before the pain crawled over his head and down the back of his neck. Migraines had become just as common as his insomnia.

“Morning neighbor!”

The voice was nasal, humming through a thick wall of mucus. It made Tony’s head buzz even more. He glanced over his shoulder to find a roly-poly man standing behind him, flashing a smile of crooked teeth. His hair was thinning, combed over his shiny pate in sad dark strands. All that hair must have migrated to the caterpillar that was growing on his upper lip.

Tony nodded and kept walking, not in the mood for pleasantries. He thought to his ritual, listing the items he needed in his head and the runes he had to write. Everything was collected and he had the Latin phrases memorized, but readiness wasn’t enough. Even with all his talent and power, Tony would need twice as much to get through his ritual alive. He needed that damn Conduit.

Cut me a break, fate. Let me find it!

The soft click of hard soled shoes came up behind him. Tony spun, a glowing blue hand behind his back. That same pudgy man hadn’t left, walking in the same wide figure eight right behind him.

“Gonna be a lovely morning I bet!” he said with psychotic cheer. Tony’s eyelid twitched.

He arched a brow, quickly sparing his glowing hand a glance. The glittering sparks remained contained in his palm and he growled. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. The migraine now pounding against the top of his head. The spell in his hand was extinguished.

“Sure,” Tony said. He turned to walk away, hoping this time, his tag-a-long would stay put.

“Strange time to be walking, huh?” the man said. Nope, he was not going to wander away. He stuck his sausage fingers out for a shake. “Name’s Phil Bowers. I live here too. Seen you around but never had a chance to say hello.”

“Well, here it is. Hello.” Tony rubbed his forehead. “And goodbye.”

“Wait a second there, fella!”

“I don’t have time to chat. Clearly, I’m not giving you strong enough signals to get that.”

“You don’t look like you’re headed anywhere.” Bowers had a laugh like a braying donkey. Tony’s head pounded even harder. “I’d say it’s a perfect time to chat.” He reached for Tony’s arm. “Come on.”

Tony took a huge step back, shooting Bowers a mean glare. “What part of fuck off do you not understand?”

Another donkey laugh. Tony’s teeth clenched.

“Come on, neighbor. I’m just like you.” Bower’s doughy face squished into a grin. As he held up a sparking hand. “Force magic is my talent. What’s yours?”

“Put that out before the mundanes spot you,” Tony growled. “The Enforcers will not be happy.”

More importantly, the Enforcers would find Tony. The pounding in his head grew stronger.

“Bah, don’t worry about that,” Bowers laughed. “I thought I was the only mage in the building, then I spotted your aura. What a stroke of luck. Two is a great number to start a cabal, eh? You and me neighbor. Exchanging knowledge. Like the big guys do.”

Tony scrubbed his face, then gave Bowers a dismissive wave. “It will be a cold day in hell before I join another cabal.” He walked away, almost lighting up another force spell when he heard Bowers following.

“I’ll convince you somehow, neighbor!” he chuckled “You’ll come around.”

“Fuck off,” Tony replied and teleported in a flash of light.

He reappeared before a shop window, the name Cuppa Jane’s arched across the glass in gold letters.

“The hell?” Tony said.

Faith’s coffee shop. Tony groaned, rubbing his temples. Apparently, his subconscious was focused on the flighty woman he had met yesterday. Well, she had offered it as a refuge but probably not against pudgy annoying morons.

It was a small, square building, wedged between a drug store and a comic book shop, a narrow alleyway on either side. A simple structure with that mid-century modern feel most places had in the area.

The lights were on and Tony saw movement silhouetted behind a flimsy shade. The warm, earthy smell of roasting brew wafted to the street, attracting mundanes to congregate outside the door. It was the same delicious scent that had wrapped around his senses when he stumbled into Faith. Suddenly, he was greedy for her aroma and he shot a dirty look to the others who waited. Tony tilted his head, trying to peek around the shade to see if Faith had the morning shift but when it rattled and flew up, he ducked out of sight.

There she was, standing beside a mop and bucket, waving hello to her customers, that lavish mouth upturned and welcoming. She still dressed like a dumpster fire. Today, it was a green paisley tunic, a scarf of orange and blue skulls, blue cargo pants that were too large for her, and that same purple cap she had worn yesterday. The corner of his lips lifted in amusement.

Wasting time, he thought to himself. Go back, get Adam, and continue your search.

He was about to stroll away when the faintest of movement caught his attention. Tony’s fingers twitched in readiness as he spotted two mages hovering across the street from Cuppa Jane’s. He rubbed his jaw as they snuck across the street and slipped into the alley beside the shop. Mages didn’t stake out random mundane businesses. They wanted something and Tony needed to know what. With a wave of his hand, he cast an invisibility spell over himself.

The two gestured towards the shop. No, towards Faith. She had already retreated, either busy doing other duties or perhaps spooked. A wave of anger kicked Tony in the pants. That woman was the first person to show him an ounce of kindness in years. If those two bastards were going to cause trouble for her, then he would be bigger trouble for them.

The mages darted from the alley, weaving through the crowd of customers waiting outside. Tony crept after them, gradually releasing his spell until he was fully visible. No mundane noticed his slow appearance, all of them too sleepy to care. Grumbles rolled from the crowd as the duo pushed themselves to the front of the line, assumed to be rude caffeine addicts.

The door unbolted with a click and Faith peered out, leaping back when she saw them. Her face went pale and she retreated into the shop, letting the throng of people enter. Another stab of pain connected with Tony’s head.

Tony rode the wave of coffee zombies inside, hovering towards the back. Cuppa Jane’s was a homey place with dark wood wainscoting against warm beige walls. A long counter stretched out on one side of the room, a cash register on one end, a glass pastry display case in the middle, and a large, brushed copper espresso machine on the other end. The rest of the shop was taken up by café tables, well-loved arm chairs, and a green love seat that looked worn and comfortable. Tucked in a far corner was a squat bookshelf, filled close to bursting with books and magazines for guests to peruse. The place was going for that Goodwill chic look as much as Faith was. But unlike her, the shop was succeeding.

Already the patrons were lined up, their dollars and credit cards at the ready. Waiting behind the register was Faith, a splash of color amongst the beige and brown. Her elven face lit up like a beacon when she spoke. Those silvery grey eyes were so expressive; grinning, scrunching, squinting. And dear God, that smile. The entire world seemed to smile with her when it graced her face. Christ, did his heart just skip a beat? Tony rubbed his chest, frowned, then stepped out of her line of sight.

The two mages made it to the front of the line, their lecherous gazes heavy. Faith swallowed, her trembling hands reaching up to fidget with her cap, eyes cast down at her register. Tony shuffled his weight to the balls of his feet in case he had to spring into action.

“Good morning! What’s your order?” she asked, her voice bright and chipper. She managed to keep a pleasant smile in place, despite her eyes screaming help me.

“What’s your name?” the chubby one asked, his tongue flicking across his lower lip.

Faith glanced up at him for barely a second. “Faith. What would you like to drink, sir?” Tony caught a hitch in her voice, a tiny quiver that gave his gut an involuntary twitch.

“Faith is a lovely name,” the bald one said. “Say, Faith. Any chance we could have a chat with you later?”

Faith tried to give them a hard glare but it wavered into pure panic. “There’s line behind you. If you’re not going to order, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

The two mages exchanged a look then after a couple shrugs, one replied, “Two large coffees.”

Money was slapped down onto the granite countertop and Faith waved them off. She took a moment to catch her breath before taking the next customer. Their coffees were delivered by the older woman at the end of the counter, a short curvy thing with salt and pepper hair and silvery grey eyes. Faith’s eyes. Tony hmmed. Her mother. It had to be.

The mages plopped themselves down at a nearby cafe table, still watching Faith as she rung up more orders. Tony narrowed his eyes, looking from the mages to Faith, then back to the mages again before he felt his fingertips prickle with magic.

Just one excuse, boys. Give me one excuse.

Faith moved through the customers with efficient speed, tossing change and writing on cups. Her sweet chuckles mingled in sync with the voice of her mother shouting out orders to the crowd.

“Large mocha with a double shot of espresso!” Faith’s mother called. “Small, non-fat latte! Who the heck ordered the triple cappuccino?”

When the older woman laughed, Faith did as well, the sounds swelling like music in the bustling shop. Soon the last customer was served and the counter was vacant, leaving Faith, hopping from one foot to the other. She scurried over towards her mother, whispering as she pulled her cap down around her ears. The sight of her fear made Tony’s palms light up, the sparks hot on his flesh.

Calm yourself, Tony. Calm yourself.

He took a deep breath, shoving the fury down into the pit where he kept his emotions. Now wasn’t the time to be reckless. His lips tightened as he evaluated the two. They were likely average practitioners and were only gifted in one branch of magic. Tony could take them both with his eyes closed.

The scars on his cheeks tightened with his devious grin. It had been so long since he screwed with a bully and now two had landed in his lap. This would be an enjoyable way to blow off some steam.

Tony’s eyes flashed and he peeked into their minds. No shields up. Excellent. A mishmash of their thoughts swam across his brain.

Grab her.

Get her out of here.

Would only take a second.

She’s mine.

She’s mine!

There was that anger again, rushing through Tony in like an oncoming train. Those thoughts were enough for him to blow both into chunks of viscera.

I don’t like bullies, Faith had told him.

“That makes two of us,” he said under his breath.

He glanced down at his lit palm, ready to zap them both unconscious, then blinked, lifting it up. Tiny sparks flitted from his fingers, winding across the shop of their own accord, drawn like a magnet towards…

“Faith?” Tony whispered.

The delicate stars glittered against her dark hair before evaporating. Faith continued to talk with her mother, oblivious that she was absorbing his magic like a sponge. His heart stopped, adrenaline shooting through his veins until he grew lightheaded.

Faith Conway was a Conduit.

Soon to be his Conduit.

And just like that, the day became ten times better.

Tony’s grin returned.

Oh no, boys. She’s mine

 

Chapter 3

“I don’t like how those two are looking at me, mom,” Faith whispered.

She glanced over her shoulder towards their table. Yup, they were still staring, practically drooling like she was a steak dinner and they were two Dobermans. Janice stopped steaming milk, glaring at the men as she fell into mama bear mode. She puffed up, abandoning her task to defend her young, stepping in from of Faith to block their view.

“What did they say to you?” Janice asked.

“They wanted to know my name and then they wanted to chat with me,” Faith said.

Janice leaned over the counter in an exaggerated way, clearing her throat with a loud “Ahem!” to get their attention. Faith pushed her mom back.

“Mom! They’ll see you!”

“Good!”

“What if they have a weapon, like a gun or something?”

With a humph Janice said, “Keep an eye on them. If they start skulking around you again, I’m calling the cops.”

Faith pulled her cap down over her ears. “Mom, the cops won’t come if they’re not doing anything threatening. We found that out last time.”

Creepers had become a regular thing at Cuppa Jane’s. The police said they couldn’t do much if no one was acting out or making any threats. Around the third time Janice had called, the officers were annoyed with the ladies of Cuppa Jane’s and made sure to tell them. So, Faith did what she had always done. She stuck her head in the sand.

“I’ll make it an issue,” Janice said.

Faith sighed. “Mom.”

“I don’t take stalkers lightly.”

Faith bit her lower lip, her flesh crawling. For all she knew, they were just a couple of socially awkward dudes trying to make conversation.

Or they could want to wear your ass as an evening gown.

She shuddered and went back to the register only to find the duo front and center. Their hands were pressed onto the counter and they leaned forward as if wanting to bask in her personal space. Faith bent backward out of their reach, trying not to look like she was about to scream.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“About that talk,” the chubby one said. “You don’t look busy anymore.”

“I’m calling the cops!” Janice announced. The clacking of her clogs headed towards the back office, probably to hunt down the cordless phone she constantly misplaced.

“She’s calling the cops!” Faith repeated, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.

Their lips curled into sinister grins, sending a chill spiraling up her spine. Faith sucked in a gasp then turned to escape, but the bald one seized her wrist and pulled her back.

“The cops can’t do anything for you, honey,” he said. “Just look into my eyes and it will be all over soon.”

Faith swallowed, her throat constricting as that veiled threat took its stranglehold on her. Then a tall and very familiar figure nudged himself between the two, making them part like the Red Seas.

Baldy released Faith and she pulled away, rubbing her wrist to get his cooties off. Her heart rattled as her gaze ran up the length of Tony’s impeccably groomed body. Her knight in navy blue; broad shouldered and beautiful, his dark hazel eyes a storm of gold and hickory as they narrowed on her enemies.

Tony gave her a brief smile before clearing his throat. “Gentlemen, I’m next in line,” he said.

Never in her life had Faith ever been so relieved to see a stranger. Well, Tony wasn’t quite a stranger. They had at least exchanged names yesterday, and he seemed to like her, even if he was a smartass hitman/crime boss/whatever. Faith had no problems letting that work for her.

“We were ordering,” Chubby replied, his frame inflating.

“No you weren’t,” Faith said then looked to Tony. “They weren’t,” she repeated then winced at how she sounded like a tattle-tale.

Tony ran the pad of his thumb across his scars before slipping it over his lower lip. He closed his eyes, as if in thought, silent and still. The two men suddenly paled and staggered back, practically tripping over each other to get as far away from him as possible. Faith’s jaw dropped as they huddled against the far wall.

Tony’s lids popped back open, those hypnotic irises like velvet. Faith tumbled into his gaze, wanting to float in their depths until she felt numb. She gave herself a little shake, patting her cheek. Her heart was still racing, but for another reason entirely.

“Hi again,” she said like a star struck teenager.

The corners of his mouth twisted up before he cleared his throat. The mere sound kept the two creepers at bay and they glowered in the distance.

“Are they bothering you?” Tony asked, giving a little nod towards the duo.

After some tense hesitation, Faith nodded.

“Would you like me to go talk to them?” his deadly tone made gooseflesh rise over her shoulders.

Faith leaned in and hissed, “Do not kill them! I’m not letting you make this place a crime scene. We can’t afford it!”

Tony had a laugh like honey, smooth and rich. It poured over her, dousing her in its warmth from her neck to her hips. He shook his head, still rubbing his thumb over the scar on his left cheek. “You still think I’m a hitman?”

She gestured to the two men cowering behind him. “Um, duh!”

“I won’t kill them. I promise.”

“Good!” Faith then frowned, wondering where the hell this boldness was coming from.

Janice rushed back to the counter, phone in hand. She skidded to a halt beside Faith, eyeing Tony. “Who’s this?”

Her sudden bluster vanished as soon as Janice took her place as the woman in charge.

“He’s just a hitmaaahmy friend!” Faith answered then slapped a hand over her mouth. “My friend.” She said through her fingers. “Just a friend from back in…some time that…” Her mind went blank.

Tony offered a hand to Janice, with an easy confidence. “Tony Harris,” he said. “Faith and I went to college together. Human sexuality class. I used to make fun of her burritos.”

Faith grabbed the edges of her cap and mouthed Are you serious? He only waggled his eyebrows.

“So, he’s a… friend?” Janice looked suspicious, her finger still poised over the phone’s dial button.

“Yeah,” Faith said. “I was just talking to him about my issue.” She gestured the two men.

“I’m willing to talk them.” Tony lifted a hand before Faith could protest. “Only talk.”

“Good luck, “Janice said. “This isn’t the first time someone has come in and bothered Faith like this.”

“Mom!” Faith groaned, shrinking back from the counter.

Tony brows lowering into a menacing V. “This has happened before?”

“Yeah,” Faith said. She creased her forehead, surprised by her sudden giddiness over Tony’s heated expression. All right, so maybe the prospect of a hot hitman kicking ass for her was a little more enticing than she expected. “It’s not a big deal, really.”

“It’s a huge deal, Faith,” Janice replied.

“I’ll go chat with them,” Tony said. “But you owe me a drink after this.”

Faith smirked. “Oh, I owe you?”

She played with the hem of her shirt, trying to gather her sass from earlier but his sly grin crinkled the scars on his cheeks into dimples and she melted. Faith took a breath and averted her eyes to her mismatched shoes, hoping her swooning wasn’t too obvious.

“I will make you a latte if you tell those two to get lost,” she said.

“Done,” Tony replied. He carefully tugged at his cuffs, then with a curt nod he made his way to the men.

When he approached, the two frowned, bouncing on their toes as if trying to look taller. Faith wouldn’t have been surprised if they started slapping their chests too. The display didn’t faze Tony at all and he stayed his course, hands shoved into his pockets, and his back turned towards the counter.

“This is so freaking weird,” Faith whispered to her mother. “It’s like watching gorillas mate on Animal Planet.”

“Let’s just hope your friend is more than all talk,” Janice replied.

“Gentlemen, a word?” Tony said.

He took a quick step forward and they leapt back, slamming into the wall. Their arms flew up, hands raised, palms out as if trying to wave him away. Faith snorted a laugh then slapped a hand over her mouth.

“We have no grief with you, mister,” the chubby one said, his voice cracking.

“No, but the lady behind the counter has grief with you,” Tony said.

The men exchanged looks then crept forward, ready for a brawl. Faith groaned and rubbed her temples.

“Please don’t start a fight please don’t start a fight please don’t start a fight,” she chanted.

The last time there was a fight, three chairs were broken, the police were called, and two days of business were lost as she, Janice, and Mikey salvaged Cuppa Jane’s reputation with free coffee to anyone who came in to bitch about it.

“She’s fair game. You know that,” the other man said. “We saw her first.”

Faith clenched her jaw, temples burning as humiliation twisted her ego into origami.

“I think it’s best for all involved, that you leave,” Tony said.

The men looked ready to charge but they paused, their shoulders drooping. Both tilted their heads to the side, glazing over as if they had one too many to drink. They stared at Tony, then nodded in reply.

“That’s right,” Tony coaxed, hands still resting comfortably in his pockets. “Now, you’re both going to leave and forget that she ever existed.”

The haze lifted from their faces and they turned away without another word.  The bell over the door jingled and they were gone. Faith almost teetered over in shock.

Tony strolled back to the counter, leaning back on his heels as he stood before her. Then he slipped a thumb under Faith’s chin and closed her mouth. Faith jerked when her teeth clicked together. His smug expression twisted into beautiful arrogance and her knees went weak.

“I’ll take that latte now,” he said.

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