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By Kris T. Bethke

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

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Copyright 2018 Kris T. Bethke

ISBN 9781634866064

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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By Kris T. Bethke

Chapter 1


My head jerked up at the sound of my name, breaking my concentration and destroying the image in front of me. I scowled at the closed and locked door, willing the woman on the other side to just leave me alone.

“Julian, come on. I know you’re in there,” Mara said pleadingly.

I rolled my eyes, and turned back to my work. I summoned up the magic, ready to pour it back into the bowl of water in front of me. Water was my preferred medium when scrying. I could use any reflective surface, but still water in a dark bowl worked the best for me.

Once again, sounds from outside my office interrupted me—a crinkling of a plastic bag, then Mara’s cajoling voice. “I brought peanuts.”

My scowl grew deeper but I remained silent. She knew I was in here but I had the futile hope that, if I ignored her long enough, she would go away. She really knew better than to interrupt me while I was working.

She rattled the can of peanuts like that would entice me. I wasn’t some animal who could be persuaded by treats, but it took all my willpower not to get up. Peanuts were my one great weakness. I loved them. But I could resist.

Then, with another shake of the can, she said the magic words. “They’re honey-roasted.”

Damn that woman. I stood and stomped to the door. A quick incantation, and the wards released. I twisted the lock and yanked open the door. She blinked—surprised, I think—at my sudden appearance, then her lips twisted into a smug, satisfied grin. I growled as I snatched the tin of peanuts from her hand.

Mara pushed her way into my office. Although she was five-foot-nothing and barely a hundred pounds, she was a force to be reckoned with. Her dark hair was cut into a no-nonsense bob that accentuated her pixie-like face. She was gorgeous and she knew it, but she also had a fuckton of magical power and wasn’t afraid to use it. Especially not on me. I had felt the brunt of her displeasure too many times to count.

She wrinkled her little ski-jump nose. “Good gods, Julian, when was the last time you went home?”

I looked around my tiny office and tried to see it as she did. I had to admit, it looked worse for the wear. The rumpled blankets on the small, uncomfortable sofa in the corner clearly advertised I’d been sleeping there. The garbage can was overflowing with food wrappers and empty drink containers. Even the candles were burned down to nubs. I shrugged and opened the can of peanuts.

“Thanks for these. They’re really good,” I said through a mouthful of peanuty goodness. Peanuts really were the perfect food—protein, sugar, fats, everything one needed to keep up their energy. Plus, they tasted amazing.

She looked at me like I was an idiot. “You’re welcome. I got them from that whole-foods store you like.”

I eyed her suspiciously and replaced the cover on the can before setting it carefully on the edge of my desk. That was an awfully nice thing for her to do. “Why are you being so nice?”

Mara made a dismissive gesture with her hand, ignoring my question entirely, then eyed me critically. “Stop deflecting. When was the last time you went home?”

I squinted and tried to remember. I’d been showering in the gym for the last three days. Or had it been four? I wasn’t exactly sure, but it didn’t matter. “I have a lot of work to do. I’ve been busy.”

“Julian,” she admonished, exasperated.

“There’s too much going on. A lot of it’s important. I need to be here. I’m the best, Mara. No one can do what I can,” I said without arrogance. I was simply stating a fact. I was the Department of Extranormal and Magical Affairs’ top scryer. I had worked hard to get here, and I took my responsibilities seriously.

Her eyes narrowed. “Only because of what you did to yourself.”

I sighed heavily and turned away. She was my sister and I adored her to pieces, but there was no way I was going to get into this argument with her again. We’d beaten that horse past death a hundred times. But I still couldn’t stop myself from saying for the thousandth time, “Becoming Beholden is not a crime. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I know that,” Mara said, her voice softening. She let out a big sigh. “But why you would limit yourself like that, bind your magic to one discipline—” She stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. “Look, I didn’t come here to fight about that. I wanted to check on you. No one has seen you for days.”

“I’ve been working.”

“And what’s so important that you have to put your own health at risk?”

I spun around to face her, surprised by the vehemence in her tone. Her eyes—the same muddy hazel as mine—brimmed with tears. She cried only when she was well and truly pissed off. Well, she could be as angry as she wanted. It wasn’t going to change the facts. I was where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to be doing. I sat at my desk again, pulling the bowl closer, then I looked up at her while I waited for the water to settle.

“You know I can’t tell you that,” I said calmly.

“More secrets,” she scoffed. “This place—gods, Julian, this place is going to end you! Secrets and lies and misdirection, that’s all DEMA is about. And they keep you here, locked in this cell of a room, working yourself to death after they forced you to become Beholden—”

“Enough, Mara,” I snapped. Her eyes narrowed again and she opened her mouth to speak, but I steamrolled right over her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. These are my choices, no one is forcing me, and I don’t regret a single one. I think you need to leave.”

She stared at me, her mouth agape. “What?”

I nodded toward the door. “You need to go. I’m not going to listen to you belittle my choices. I have work to do, and you’re interrupting me.”

“Julian, please just listen to me.”

“No. If you need assistance, I will call security and have them escort you out.”

Anger blazed in her eyes. “I’m your sister!”

“And I love you very much. But that doesn’t give you the right to talk to me this way. And that doesn’t mean I won’t call security to haul your ass out of here.” I took a deep, calming breath to force down my temper. I usually didn’t let it get this far with her, but I was just plain tired of the same argument. “Please, Mara, just leave.”

She backed toward the door, her face hard, her mouth set in a grim line. Gone was the kind sister who had brought me peanuts and had come to check on me. In her place stood a woman pissed off beyond belief. I held her gaze, not wanting to show the slightest hint of weakness. Her hand on the knob, she fixed me with a hard stare.

“Ever since you started working here, ever since you became Beholden—” her cold voice spat the word like a curse “—you’re not the same person I grew up with. You’ve changed, Julian. And not for the better.”

She slammed the door behind her when she left.

I released a breath, and after a moment, stood and crossed to the door. Laying my hand on the smooth wood, I reset the wards with a whispered incantation. I walked back to the desk and sat in the chair with a hard flump. I slouched until I could rest my head on the high back, and scrubbed my face with my hands.

Mara was wrong. I hadn’t changed, not really. She just didn’t know me as well as she thought she did. And never really had. I had always hidden a part of myself from my sister. I kept my desires a secret because I knew she wouldn’t agree with the choices I wanted to make. And I wanted to keep her approval for as long as I could. If I were honest, I didn’t want her to talk me out of becoming Beholden.

I was seventeen when my power had started to manifest. Magic usually made itself known around puberty and it wasn’t uncommon in my family for the boys to start a bit late. But the surge of magic in my body had triggered the onset of Mara’s power as well—also something that happened with siblings as close in age as Mara and I were. We went through Academy together. Mara had been a star pupil, excelling in all disciplines of magic. I, on the other hand, had shown a surprising and vast aptitude for the arcane art of scrying.

More than just being adept at it, I absolutely loved it. That moment of stillness, of gathering the power and focusing it, the unqualified thrill of seeing things that were taking place hundreds of miles away—there was nothing about it that didn’t excite me. As I practiced and became more accurate, my advisor had suggested I make it my focus. I was able to see farther and more clearly than anyone he knew. By the time I finished the Academy, I had already been offered a position with DEMA, which I’d readily accepted.

The first few years, I’d been one of many scryers employed by DEMA. I was also one of the best. I loved the work, and knew I was making a difference. The intelligence I’d gathered helped DEMA intercept dark practitioners before they could go too far; the missing people I’d found were reunited with loved ones; I’d foiled plots, assisted interrogations, made a difference. I’d known, without a doubt, this was my life’s work. After talking with the powers-that-be at DEMA, I’d decided the best application of my gift was to become Beholden.

It was an ancient ritual and would, essentially, permanently bind my magic to the art of scrying. I’d be able to do very little else, but that didn’t matter. Scrying was the only thing I wanted to do. Even knowing my sister was vehemently against such a practice, I was going to do it, no matter her feelings.

Mara, as well as many others in the magical community, looked down on the practice of Beholding. Some viewed it as a cop out, a way to boost magic for the practitioner who didn’t have much. Mara, I knew from our many discussions over the years, thought it a low-brow and “blue collar” way of doing magic. It was a snobbish view, and I disagreed. But I had still completed the ritual without telling her first. And once something like that was done, it couldn’t be undone.

When I had finally admitted what I’d done, Mara was livid. She didn’t talk to me for three weeks. Eventually, she got over it and I’d thought she’d made peace with it. At least mostly. It wasn’t uncommon for her to throw in a jab at my Beholden status every once in a while. Occasionally we’d get into real arguments about it. But nothing like what happened today because I usually shut it down before it got that far.

I hated fighting with her, but I wasn’t going to smooth things over. Not this time. Every time we got into one of these arguments, she made me feel about six inches tall. And always, eventually, I’d make peace with her, saying what she wanted to hear and fixing things between us. Today, I’d stood up for myself and it was about damn time. I was thirty-three years old, for gods’ sake! It was about time I stopped bending to my sister’s wishes and stopped apologizing for choices I didn’t regret.

With a deep breath, I sat up straight and discontinued my trip down memory lane. I reached for the water bottle on the edge of the desk and downed half the contents before my thirst was quenched. Then, with another deep breath, I pulled the piece of paper outlining my latest assignment closer. I focused on the words, fixing them in my mind, then gathered my power and got back to work.

* * * *

Three hours later, I finally finished scribbling the last of my reports. I stood and stretched, my back popping after having been hunched over my desk for so long. Spending nights on the cramped sofa in the corner couldn’t have been very good for it either. I surveyed my desk and, seeing that I had finally cleared the most urgent requests, decided I could finally go home to my tiny apartment and get a good night’s rest.

Since my use of magic was severely limited, I’d had to find ways to get tasks done that other practitioners took for granted. I sealed the completed report in a heavy parchment envelope, then placed it in a tube affixed to the wall by the door. Pressing my hand on the sigil etched into the PVC, I willed a bit of magic into it. With a whoosh, the paper moved up the tube. It would be delivered to Lena Rystrom’s desk. Lena was one of the secretaries for the administrators, and one of the few people I could trust and count as a friend. She would send the paper on to where it needed to go. I couldn’t magically send paper to whomever I wished, so I had to rely on Lena for assistance.

The wards on my office door, and the ones I had at home, worked on the same principle. I wasn’t able to create that kind of magic on my own, but the sigils crafted by other talented practitioners and set to respond to my magic were nearly as effective.

Only when I was this tired did I wish I hadn’t bound my magic to scrying. It would be so nice to whisper a few words and disappear, only to reappear in my apartment. But the fleeting thought never lasted, and I wearily shuffled around the room to snuff out the candles. Electronic devices and I didn’t get along very well—something about the way I had bound my magic liked to suck power and wipe memory from them—but light fixtures weren’t usually a problem. I just preferred the ambience of the candles when working. Besides, the only fixture in my office was an overhead fluorescent. Its buzzing gave me a headache, which the brightness compounded. I snapped on the switch anyway as I made my circuit. It would be only for a few minutes while I finished tidying up and preparing to leave.

The loud knock on the door scared the crap out of me. I barely managed to stifle a little gasp of surprise. It was rare I got any visitors down here, but to have two in one day was unheard of. My heart pounding from the burst of adrenaline, I took the twelve steps necessary to reach the tiny mirror next to the door, gathered my magic, and poured it into the surface. Within a second, the image came into focus. At this distance, it was child’s play to scry and see who was on the other side of the door.

Two men stood there. The one with dark hair and who was slightly smaller was dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit. But the larger of the two caught my attention. He was wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a jacket without a tie. His dark blond hair was cut close to his head, but I could see the way the strands wanted to curl. He had a strong square jaw, a somewhat large, straight nose, and a wide, generous mouth. His shoulders looked broad underneath the severe cut of his coat, and as I watched, he lifted one big hand to rub it over the top of his head. He nudged his companion with an elbow.

“Knock again. I heard movement in there,” he said.

The other one frowned. “It’s pretty late, maybe he’s gone home.”

The bigger man focused on the door, his blue eyes startling in their intensity. Then he shook his head. “I think he’s in there. Knock again.”

Just as the other one lifted his hand to do so, I caught sight of the badge hanging around his neck. Quickly, I let the magic on the mirror go. Then I placed my hand on the door, released the wards, and pulled it open. I fixed my face in what I hoped was a pleasant expression and focused solely on the slightly smaller man. He didn’t make my heart pound and my blood rush to all points south. Judging by the badges, they were part of the Investigations Unit. Which meant they were here about work and not on a social visit.

“How may I help you?” I asked, happy the sudden lust shooting through my veins hadn’t made my voice waver.

“Julian Thomas?” the one in the suit queried. At my nod, he gave a small smile. “I’m Agent Dreswick. This is Agent Caldwell. May we come in?”

I gave a tip of my head and stepped back to allow them entrance. Dreswick stopped a few feet into the room, but Caldwell walked in further, his gaze darting around and taking in everything. Perhaps assessing for threats?

I tore my gaze away from him and focused on Dreswick. I would have probably thought he was attractive if Caldwell hadn’t been with him. But physically, Caldwell was everything that turned my key. He could have told me to bend over my desk and I would have. The thought sent a surge of lust to my cock. That would not do. I told my body this was official business and it was better to keep my attention focused on Dreswick.

“What can I do for you?” I asked politely. Having them in my space was a little unnerving, but I was a professional. They were here for a reason and I was going to do my best to accommodate them.

Dreswick handed me a piece of parchment and it took me a moment to realize what it was—a missive from DEMA Director herself stating that Agents Dreswick and Caldwell were to have complete access to any resource they deemed necessary. That apparently included me. I returned the paper to Dreswick, who folded it neatly and tucked it into his pocket.

I cleared my throat. “What is it you need?”

The agents exchanged a look. Then Caldwell handed Dreswick a file folder. Dreswick reached inside and extracted a picture. He handed it to me.

“That’s Mason Roberts. We need to find him.”

I returned the picture once I had the man’s image firmly fixed in my mind. I went about setting up the necessary items for scrying. Even though I’d been on my way home, I didn’t think either man would be willing to wait until tomorrow. They were here for a reason.

“What has he done?” I asked as I filled my favorite bowl with distilled water.

“Nothing,” Dreswick answered calmly. “But he’s disappeared and we believe he might be in danger. We need to locate him as quickly as possible.”

I nodded and started to light the candles. Dreswick looked at me curiously while I fumbled with the matches, then he gave me a nice smile, waved his hand, and muttered a few choice words. The wicks burst into flame all at once, the scent of wax heavy in the air for a moment.

“Thank you,” I murmured. I flipped off the light switch, plunging the room into the semi-darkness I needed for working. I took a deep breath to settle into the right head space and sat behind my desk. Caldwell ambled closer and I felt the low hum of whatever electronic device he had in his pocket.

“Please turn off any phone or other device you may have,” I requested.

Dreswick immediately reached into his pocket, extracted his cell, and shut it off. Caldwell arched a brow in question.

I tried for a smile. “They interfere with my magic. And I’ve been known to inadvertently wipe them. It’d be in your best interest.”

Caldwell regarded me for a long moment, and I barely managed to keep my reaction from showing. His piercing blue eyes seemed to stare right into me. He was so handsome. I licked my suddenly dry lips. Then he turned away to comply with my request, and I blew out a relieved breath. His stare was unnerving, but not altogether unwelcome. Part of me enjoyed being at the center of his undivided attention.

Even with the devices off, a hum of energy remained. Puzzled, I squinted at the agents, trying to figure out where it was coming from. Unable to sort it out, I gave a half shrug and focused my attention on the bowl. The water was still and smooth, nary a ripple to be seen. Perfect. Gathering my magic, I brought the image of Mason Roberts to the forefront of my mind. When I was certain I knew for whom I was looking, I released the magic into the bowl, letting it fill the water with my will.

Slowly, the picture came into view. I frowned at the bowl and concentrated harder, forcing more will into the magic. Distance didn’t matter to me; I could find anyone anywhere on the planet. But the image before me remained murky. I could make out Roberts, but details were fuzzy. If I hadn’t seen this man’s picture, I wouldn’t have been able to discern who I was looking at. When I’d first learned scrying, I’d had trouble making the picture clear. Like twiddling with the dial on a radio to get a clear station, I’d had to learn how to finesse my magic to tune into the picture. I hadn’t had so much trouble tuning an image since I’d mastered the art years ago.

Frowning harder, I pushed more of my will into the bowl. More magic, more will, that’s what I needed. I was the best, and this shouldn’t be so hard for me. It had been a long day and I’d used a lot of my magic, but that shouldn’t have mattered. I was Beholden to scrying, and even though no one had an endless reserve of magic, I shouldn’t have needed to recharge my magical battery yet. I should have been able to do this without much effort. But the difficulty wasn’t going to stop me. I pushed further, watched the details resolve a little more clearly, and knew I had to push even harder.

Suddenly, I felt hands on my face and I could distantly hear Dreswick calling my name. I let the magic go, and blinked. Caldwell had moved into my personal space, was holding my cheeks in his hands, and peering intently into my eyes. I couldn’t help the goofy smile that stretched my lips. I was exhausted and that always made me a little loopy.

Gods, Caldwell was pretty. I wish I knew his first name. I licked my lips and stared at him, wanting to lean closer. I wanted to feel his mouth pressed to mine, his body tight against me. I was only a few inches shorter and I knew we would line up just right, all the important parts touching, rubbing. I think I gave a little moan.

Dreswick’s voice finally penetrated into my tired and lust-filled haze.

“…the bruises were popping up on your skin. Are you taxed? Should we come back?”

I blinked and tried to shake my head, but Caldwell held my face securely. I swallowed hard. “What?”

“Mr. Thomas, it’s important that we find Mason Roberts, but not at a detriment to you. If you’ve already expended your magic for the day and need to recharge, we can come back,” Dreswick said, not unkindly.

I frowned, my brow creasing in confusion. Then I gently extricated myself from Caldwell’s hold and turned to face the other man. I shook my head, trying to sort out my thoughts.

“I don’t usually need to recharge, even after a day of working,” I said. It took me a minute to work things out, my brain a bit sluggish and slow. “This Roberts guy must have known someone would be looking for him. He’s blocking the scrying. He must have a hell of a lot of power to be able to stop me from breaking through.”

The agents exchanged another look, once again having a silent conversation. After a few long seconds, Dreswick nodded. “We’re under the impression he does indeed have a vast amount of power. Perhaps if we come back in the morning, when you’re at full capacity, you can break through.”

I shook my head. “I was almost there. I just need a little boost, I think.”

Both men nodded.

“One of us can augment your power easily enough. Got a preference as to which?” Dreswick asked.

“Agent Caldwell,” I answered, the words out of my mouth before my brain had a chance to think things through. I barely held back the groan. Gods knew that was a bad idea. Would I even be able to concentrate at all with the man’s hands on my skin? But his hum of energy resonated well with my magic. Caldwell was actually the best choice. And I could be professional.

Caldwell stared at me, his blank face a mask.

I quickly added, “If that’s all right?”

Another moment of silence passed before Caldwell gave a single nod. He removed his jacket and handed it to his partner. I gulped. The buttoned-down shirt fairly strained at the seams to contain his shoulders. I averted my gaze. Broad, strong shoulders had always done it for me. I kept my attention fixed on the bowl before me as Caldwell moved in behind me.

“How do you want to do this?” His deep voice resonated in my chest and skittered down my spine. I couldn’t quite contain the shiver of pleasure. Oh gods, what had I just gotten myself into?

* * * *

Chapter 2

As attracted as I was to Agent Caldwell, I knew it would be difficult not to show my reaction once he had his hands on me. And he would have to touch me. Bare skin to bare skin. It was the only way for the power to flow from him into me. I stared at my hands for a long moment, watching as the bruises bloomed, a physical side effect to overusing one’s magic. Cells started to break down at the molecular level. For most practitioners, this meant overwhelming fatigue and dark, red-purple bruises. Thank the gods they didn’t hurt. And both the tiredness and the coloration faded completely once a practitioner recharged.

The fact that my skin was already bruising meant I was at my limit. Magic was a finite but renewable source. I didn’t have time to recharge with the usual methods—meditation and rest, pulling on the natural magic of the elements. I needed a power boost if I was going to get this done. With that in mind, I sat up a little straighter and motioned to the back of my neck—the one part of my skin that was uncovered. In my peripheral vision, I saw Caldwell nod before he moved out of my line of sight. A moment later, his big hand gently cupped the back of my neck.

His fingers were so warm. It took a fair amount of willpower not to sink back into that heat and beg him to massage my tired muscles. I was willing to bet he’d be excellent at it. I could feel the strength in his fingers, could feel the calluses on the tips that told me he worked with his hands. For a split second, I was ready to beg him to touch me with intent.

Behind me, Caldwell cleared his throat. “Ready?” he rumbled.

I made myself murmur an agreeable noise and steeled myself for the onslaught of his power. Even if he was practiced in the art of sharing his magic with others, that first jolt would be a shock. I’d never liked it when another practitioner had to augment my magic with their own. It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. Even knowing Caldwell’s magic resonated with mine, and it would therefore be easier to meld them together, I had to force myself not to grimace in anticipation.

Caldwell was good. I had to give him that. The first push of his magic into me was like a tender probing finger. Easy, delicate touches, gently feeling its way. He gave me time to adjust, and only when he sensed I was ready did he give me more. His power flowed into me, slow and steady, until all I could feel was him, his magic filling me to the brim. I had to breathe deeply, the sensations overwhelming for a moment, until finally, I felt like he was a part of me. We were no longer two separate entities, but one singular magic source. I relaxed into it and sighed in relief.

“All right?” Caldwell asked, his voice no more than a whisper and his lips close to my ear.

I shuddered in pleasure. “Yes.”

It took me another few seconds to get myself focused, but once I did, I gathered all the magic within me—both Caldwell’s and mine—and willed it into the water. It took less than a minute for the picture to resolve, clear as day. Mason Roberts was pacing, his mouth pulled into a frown, his reddish-brown hair sticking up at odd angles as though he’d been running his fingers through it. His brown eyes darted around nervously and, every few seconds, he’d pull his bottom lip between his teeth, and chew on it for a moment before letting it go.

“Can you see?” I asked quietly.

Caldwell leaned closer, his torso pressing against my upper arm and shoulder. His hand slid higher on my neck, into my hair. Was he caressing my scalp? My concentration wavered, and with it the picture in the bowl. I took a deep breath, centered myself, and brought the image back into focus.

For long moments, we stared into the bowl. The obviously scared and worried man captivated me. Agent Dreswick had said he was in danger, and clearly Mason Roberts knew it. I wanted to reach through the water and offer him a hand. I wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone. But all I could do was hope he gave us something to indicate where he was hiding so the agents could help him.

Suddenly, Caldwell’s fingers tightened on my scalp, digging in and pulling on my hair a little. I gasped, the sensation shooting a new shock of lust through my veins. Caldwell didn’t seem to notice.

“Got it,” he said, his voice soft but triumphant. After another moment, his lips brushed the shell of my ear as he said, “You can let it go now.”

I really didn’t want to. More than the wonderful feeling of Caldwell’s magic filling me and not wanting to lose that, a part of me thought that severing this connection with Mason meant that he would be truly alone. Only he had no idea I was watching. He had, in fact, taken pains to keep anyone from being able to scry for him. He was so scared that he didn’t want to be found. Me keeping an eye on him wouldn’t change that.

It still took a great deal of effort to let the image fade. Slowly, like a dying television, the picture got fuzzier until nothing remained. I released the last bit of will and the water went completely clear.

“I’m going to pull out now,” Caldwell said, his tone low. “I’ll go slow.”

Even though it was the last thing I wanted, I made myself nod.

It was easier going out than going in. Little by little, Caldwell pulled back his magic. Bit by bit, I felt it leave me. I actually whimpered when it was gone. I felt empty, like I was missing a vital part of me. Slumping forward on the desk, I buried my face in my hands and tried to control my erratic breathing. I was being ridiculous. I knew it, and I still couldn’t seem to stop it. I was bereft of something amazing, and I really wanted to cry.

“Julian?” Dreswick called. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” I wasn’t, not really. Caldwell’s magic had complimented mine so well it was as though he was truly a part of me. I knew I was overtired, and that always made me a little loopy and emotional. I just needed to go home, sleep for twelve straight hours, and have a big breakfast. Then I would be fine.

I turned my attention to Caldwell and tried not to remember that I found him so attractive. “Did you get what you needed?”

“Yes,” he bit out, a little tersely. My eyes widened as his ice blue gaze assessed me. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I just need to get home. If I can make it to my car, that is.”

My attempt at humor fell flat on my audience, so I gave a weak chuckle and stood. I wobbled a little, and had to grab the edge of the desk to remain upright. Caldwell stepped closer, but I held up my hand to ward him off. I couldn’t be responsible for my actions if he touched me again, magic flowing between us or not.

“I’m glad I could assist you,” I said to the agents in what I hoped was a professional but dismissive manner. When neither man made a move to exit, I sighed before I could stop myself. “If you’ll excuse me, I really need to get home.”

“I’ll take you.”

Shocked by the announcement, I spun so fast to face Caldwell, I nearly fell over. Only my grip on the desk kept me from tumbling to the floor. It didn’t go unnoticed by either agent, and both started insisting.

“I’m fine!” I shouted, louder than I’d intended. Heat swarmed up my cheeks but I pretended I wasn’t likely turning red. I sucked in a silent breath and continued in a much more appropriate tone. “Really, I’m fine. I’ll see myself home. Goodnight.”

Before I could put away my things, Caldwell stepped into my personal space. The extra three inches he had on me were enough to intimidate, especially combined with the breadth of his shoulders. His hand cupped my elbow as he leaned in.

“I’m taking you home.” His voice brooked no disagreement. “Dreswick will put away your things and make sure your office is secure.”

“I have to set the wards,” I protested weakly with a shake of my head. Caldwell’s eyes narrowed and I tried to make my voice firmer. “I’m particular about where things go.”

He considered me for a moment before his face softened. He wouldn’t be considered classically handsome, but his features fascinated me. When he spoke, my gaze dropped to his lips. Gods, I wanted to know what they felt like on mine.

“All right, then. You sit here and let us put away your things, under your direction. Then you can ward the door and I’ll take you home.”

I wanted to protest again but I got the distinct impression that no matter what I said, Caldwell would end up winning. I was too tired to argue anymore. I just wanted to go home. And if I had to agree to make that happen, then I would. I really did appreciate their concern. And if I was completely honest with myself, I shouldn’t be driving in the state I was in.

But still, I was reluctant. I didn’t know either of them, hadn’t met them before today, and it seemed like too big a leap to just give them my trust. In the end, it was only the fact that they worked for the same organization that I did, that they had the blessings of the director—a woman whom I respected and trusted immensely—that made it a bit easier. If the director had given them carte blanche, then I could believe they were trustworthy. I studied Caldwell for a long moment, trying to get a read on him. He was silently watching me, but I could tell he was making an effort to show me his true face. In the end, the pros outweighed the cons. I still scribbled a note to Lena about what was going on and sent it through the tubes before I agreed with a short nod.

The agents were efficient. They packed away my favorite bowl in the curio cabinet exactly as I would have done it, placed just so on the shelf before the doors were locked. Dreswick snuffed out the candles with a wave of his hand. For about thirty seconds, we were in complete darkness. I knew I imagined the feel of fingers running lightly over my hair.

The overhead lights came on, and Caldwell offered his hand. I ignored it, using the arms of the chair to push myself into a standing position. A wave of dizziness washed over me and I squeezed my eyes shut. Caldwell hovered—I could feel the heat of his body—but I ignored that, too.

I took slow and careful steps to the door. I slipped into my lightweight jacket, but when I reached for my satchel, Caldwell beat me to it, slinging it easily over his shoulder. Dreswick led the way out the door, and Caldwell gave me a gentle nudge with his hand on the small of my back to follow.

I locked the door with the key, then placed my hand on the smooth wood. I barely had any magic reserve left, and I almost couldn’t get the ward to seal. I managed it in the end, and had to lean heavily against the jamb as another wave of dizziness threatened to send me to my knees. When Caldwell once again took my elbow, I didn’t protest.

The flight of stairs up to the ground level left me winded, and by the time we reached the lobby, I was ready to curl up in a corner and sleep. But Caldwell gently pulled me along, leading me outside into the fresh, cool night air. I breathed deeply, soaking it in, absorbing a bit of the energy that flowed everywhere to strengthen me. I’d fortunately found a parking spot close to the door when I’d arrived—gods, was it four days ago now? It didn’t matter. I was going home to my nice warm bed. Maybe I’d take tomorrow off.

Caldwell didn’t say much as we got into my car. Sitting on the passenger side was a foreign experience for me, but I was so exhausted it barely registered. I mumbled out directions—I wasn’t even sure if they were coherent—but Caldwell seemed to get the gist. He put the car into drive, and headed in the right direction.

Syracuse was a fairly large city, with a lot of twisting side roads and one-way streets. When I’d first moved here, after taking a position with DEMA eight years ago, I’d spent much of my time mostly lost. But Caldwell seemed to know exactly where he was going. Either he was a native or had a superb sense of direction. At that moment, I didn’t really care which.

DEMA was situated within a vast network of buildings encompassing two square blocks of downtown. I lived on the north side of the city, an easy ten to fifteen-minute drive. The lights were in our favor, and eight minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of my house. I lived in the downstairs portion of a two-family home. I made enough that I probably could have bought my own house, but renting was easier.

It took me two tries to find the door handle, then a ridiculous amount of effort to push open the door. I sat for a few seconds, gathering my resolve, before I pulled myself to my feet. Caldwell stood there, hands out like he expected me to fall and was ready to catch me. I rolled my eyes. At least, I intended to. Even my muscles there were tired. I trudged up the walk, nearly whimpered at the sight of the four steps onto the porch, but finally made it to the front door. My hand actually shook as I raised the key to the lock. Caldwell made an impatient noise and took the key from me.

“You can go now.” I meant to sound terse. It came out sounding weary.

He gave a small snort, apparently amused. The door swung open, and he guided me inside. I kicked off my shoes at the edge of the living room and struggled out of my jacket. When Caldwell helped pull it from where it had gotten caught on my hands, I actually managed a bit of a glare.

“Just let me help you, Julian,” he said.

The sound of my name on his lips did funny things to my insides, and I had to bite my lip to keep a whimper from escaping. Gods, why did he have to be so sexy and chivalrous when I was at my worst? If we’d been in a different situation, I would have tried to seduce him right into my bed. But I was too worn out to even think about it.

“How are you going to get home?” I asked as I tugged on the collar of my Henley. I needed to undo the top button so I could pull the shirt over my head.

“I’ll use a transportation spell once you’re locked in and settled.” I heard a note of amusement in his tone.

I shook my head. It had been a rather stupid question. I sometimes forgot that other practitioners weren’t as limited. I couldn’t do those things, and when drained like this, I easily forgot that almost everyone else with a bit of power could. It was a clear indication that I needed Caldwell gone before I did something asinine.

I gasped when Caldwell tugged my shirt over my head with one smooth movement. “Where’s your bedroom?’

I shuddered. He couldn’t be asking what I thought he was asking. It had to be my own wishful thinking. “W-what?”

He gave me a patient smile. “I’m going to make sure you get there without falling over, and then I’ll leave you to sleep.”

“Right, yeah.” I felt like an idiot. My cheeks heated and I averted my gaze, motioning vaguely toward the back of the house. Caldwell swept out one arm, indicating I should lead the way. I shambled in that direction, acutely aware of his presence behind me. Gods, how I wished he was taking me to bed for an entirely different reason.

I managed to make it the length of the house and into my room without doing or saying anything else embarrassing. Once I caught sight of my bed and the rumpled sheets, I nearly wept with relief. I didn’t even bother taking off my pants, just collapsed onto the bed with a happy sigh and curled up on my side. I thought I heard Caldwell chuckle when he pulled the blanket up to my shoulders, and I nestled into that perfect spot.

I was certain I was dreaming when I felt a soft kiss on my brow and heard the whispered words, “Sleep well, Julian.”

* * * *

Chapter 3

I slept for twelve hours straight and the bruises had mostly faded, but I was still tired. I frowned. This had never happened to me before. At least, not to this extent. I usually ended the day bruised and fatigued, but it was never so bad that a good night’s rest couldn’t fix it. I gave a negligent shrug and dragged myself to the shower. I figured it was the result of a work-intensive day coupled with the influx of power from Agent Caldwell, and that I’d be back to normal in a day or two.

Agent Caldwell. For all that I’d been wary of letting him escort me home, he’d proven to be kind and courteous underneath that gruff exterior. That, of course, only added to his appeal. I was a sucker for the stoic guy with a mushy center. Not only was he my type physically, but he was turning out to have a personality that matched my likes as well. It was probably a good thing I was unlikely to see him again, because if we had to interact on a regular basis, I’d be headed for a huge crush.

Still, he was on my mind as I entered my office. I was only thirty-seven minutes late. I counted that as a win, considering I’d never been late a single time in the eight years I’d worked for DEMA. I figured no one would judge me for the indiscretion. Or for the fact that I was daydreaming about a certain Investigations agent while I prepared for my work day.

I still didn’t know his first name. I could find out easily enough, with just a little bit of digging. But I found myself reluctant to do so. I didn’t want to cement him anymore in my mind. If I kept him firmly in the “agent” box, then I would hopefully keep my burgeoning crush at bay. I was too old for such nonsense. I had work to do, and I needed all my focus to do it. Dividing even a bit of attention for the hot agent did not serve anyone.

My inbox was once again full. I gave a weary sigh as I sat at my desk and began to sort through the requests, prioritizing which ones needed to be completed first. Normally, I enjoyed this task. Just getting organized for my day gave me a sense of peace. But even that seemed to take energy and focus I didn’t have this morning. Frustrated with myself, I took a deep breath, centered my thoughts, and got to work.

I wasn’t exactly surprised when, several hours later, I found my magic beginning to wane. I could usually work an entire twelve-hour day without starting to feel the effects. Knowing how I’d felt when I woke up this morning, it seemed perfectly logical that after just a few hours of intensive work, things would get difficult. I finished my current task—looking for a lost scroll for the head librarian—then pushed back from my desk. I drank deeply from my water bottle, and took three cleansing breaths. On the small area rug in front of the couch in the corner, I sat cross-legged on the floor and closed my eyes. A bit of meditation to pull more power from the ether and replenish my supply and I’d once again be ready to work. I would fill out my reports later.

A knock at the door startled me out of my contemplative state. I jerked so hard I almost fell over, my heart pounding as adrenaline from the scare poured through my veins. I so rarely got visitors that a knock was always a surprise. It took me a few seconds to haul myself off the floor, but I was glad to realize I felt better and more alert.

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