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Along with Ysabel, Dorian sent me back with some shipments of food on credit. I almost would have thought he was trying to soften the blow of me being stuck with her, except Dorian was the type who would actually enjoy the thought of us having an uncomfortable trip. He would get a kick out of knowing how irritated I was and probably regretted he couldn’t be there to witness our interactions. Nonetheless, I mitigated the discomfort by riding at the head of my group, sticking Ysabel all the way in the back behind my guards and Dorian’s servants.
Shaya was understandably surprised when we arrived back. I left her to distribute the food and deal with Ysabel. “Put her somewhere. Anywhere,” I said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
“But why…why is she even here? That’s Dorian’s mistress.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, watching as a scowling Ysabel stepped aside for the rest of the entourage spilling into my castle. I kind of took offense at the sneer she gave my residence, despite the fact that I knew it was in disarray compared to those of other monarchs. “Believe me, I know she is.”
Shaya seemed mollified and distracted enough by Dorian’s gifts that I was able to slip away without too much argument. I made the crossing back to my world, not even bothering to change clothes before I went. When I finally got back to my own house, I had the pleasant surprise of finding Kiyo lying on the couch. Three cats slept on the couch’s back while one rested on its arm. The fifth lay sprawled across Kiyo’s stomach.
“That,” he said, “is a great dress. Smells a little like horse, though.”
I glanced down at the purple silk dress, which was holding up remarkably well considering all the dust and sweat it had been subjected to today. “It was part of a diplomatic outreach.”
“What was your first clue?”
I headed across the living room, toward the hall that led to the other side of the house. “I’m hitting the shower. You want to go to Texas with me afterward?”
Kiyo straightened up, spooking a couple of the cats. “Is that like a new restaurant? Or do you mean the state?”
“State. I have to go talk to those two shamans that Roland told me about.” I glanced at a clock. “We’d probably have to stay overnight.”
He considered. “If we can be back by noon tomorrow, I’ll do it.”
I assured him we could and then left to shower away the day’s dirt. Miraculously-and a little disappointingly-Kiyo didn’t come harass me while I cleaned up. He had a tendency to show up while I was showering and offer to “help” clean me off.
Conscious of our time, he let me be, and a half-hour later, we were ready to hit the road. Yellow River was just over the Texas border, making it about a four-hour drive if we kept a little over the speed limit. Kiyo liked to drive-I think it was some manly instinct-so I let him. We stuck to casual topics, which allowed my mind to wander to the Otherworldly affairs on my plate.
The whole stress of running and caring for a kingdom still weighed upon me, but I had the comfort of knowing I’d done what I could and that Shaya would manage the rest. That was her job. We both knew it, and she would perform her duties excellently. I needed to stop stressing about that. The missing girls…well, those were my problem. At least, I’d made them my problem. Meeting with these shamans in Yellow River would hopefully shed light on that situation, so until I saw them, there was no point in worrying about that either.
Ysabel…yes, well, that was something worth worrying about. I’d just let a viper into my household and took some comfort in realizing that my reluctance to stay the night in my castle would probably save me from being smothered in my sleep. If I’d had my way, I would package her up and send her straight back to the Oak Land. My stupid promise bound me. Maybe she did have something useful to teach me, but I had no evidence that she’d actually try to be helpful. She’d probably just glare the whole time, no doubt paranoid I wanted to move in on Dorian….
I sighed. He was a problem, one I kept thinking would go away but didn’t. I needed him, and we both knew it. So long as I did, he was going to use that as leverage to keep seeing me and taunting me. For the most part, that annoyed me. I hated being part of his games. Yet, at the same time, there was always something irresistible about Dorian, something that made me laugh in spite of the exasperation he so often caused.
And, yeah…I hated to admit it, but no matter how much I loved Kiyo, and no matter how much I’d washed my hands of the romance between Dorian and me, there was still a part of me that would probably always be attracted to him. Our night together still haunted my dreams. His hand on me earlier today had woken a lot of those feelings, and I couldn’t help but imagine again how easy it would have been for him to slide that hand up my leg….
“Huh?” Kiyo’s voice startled me out of my indecent thoughts.
“What are you thinking about? You have the weirdest look on your face.”
“Oh, well, I…” I was totally astonished when the next words burst out of my mouth. “How come we never have any foreplay?”
Kiyo’s hold on the steering wheel momentarily faltered, and I feared we’d run off onto the shoulder. He quickly regained control. “What are you talking about? Of course we have foreplay. Remember that thing I did with the honey last week?”
“Yeah, I guess. But that’s more the exception than the norm. We always just kind of jump right into it.”
“You never really seem to mind.”
He had a point. “No…I mean, it’s always good. It’d just be nice to…I don’t know. Expand our horizons.”
“I’m okay with that,” he said after several thoughtful moments. “I’m up for anything. It’s just my…well, instincts, I guess, that tend to drive me right toward the main attraction.”
I knew what he meant. The problem with spending part of your life as an animal was that you picked up some of their traits. Foxes in the wild didn’t really devote a lot of time to foreplay.
“I don’t really mind. I’m just saying that I’d like to shake it up.”
He fell silent for a while. Finally, he asked, “Does this have anything to do with Dorian?”
“Why do you say that?” I asked blandly.
“I don’t know. More instinct.” His dark eyes narrowed as they focused on the road. “I’m not stupid, you know. I know you slept with him.”
I jerked my head in surprise, unable to attempt any sort of denial. I’d never technically lied to Kiyo about what had happened with Dorian, but seeing as we’d been broken up at the time, I’d never really felt the need to go into detail.
“How do you…” I couldn’t finish the question.
Kiyo gave me a rueful smile. “Dorian used to watch you like a starving man who wants meat. Now he looks at you like he wants seconds.”
I didn’t say anything. No response came to mind.
“It’s okay,” continued Kiyo almost amiably. “I know it happened when we were apart. What’s past is past-so long as it doesn’t mess with our present.”
It was rather magnanimous of him, and I felt both grateful and guilty. “It’s in the past,” I agreed. “It has nothing to do with anything anymore.”
The first shaman Roland had directed us to was a guy named Art. Like Roland and me, Art lived in his own piece of suburbia, in a large house that hardly looked like it belonged to someone who battled spirits and gentry. The sides were painted a sunny yellow, and the yard-which bore the signs of daily tending-was even ringed with a white picket fence. I could hear children playing down the street.
In fact, Art himself was out in the yard, weeding flower beds as the afternoon light turned orange. I pegged his age around thirty or so. A red snake tattoo coiled around one of his arms while a stylized raven showed on the other. No doubt there were more under his shirt. He glanced up and smiled when we stopped beside him on the house’s sidewalk.
“You must be Eugenie,” he said, standing up. He brushed dirt off his gloves and looked apologetic. “I’d shake hands, but…”
I smiled back. “No problem. This is Kiyo.”
The two men exchanged nods of greeting, and Art directed us around the side of the house. “Roland said you wanted to chat, right? How about we sit down in the back? Let me clean up, and I’ll go get us something to drink.”
Kiyo and I followed his direction and found ourselves sitting at a cute, umbrella-covered table in a backyard even more lush than the front. Though a bit more humid, Yellow River’s climate wasn’t that far off from Tucson’s, so I could only imagine the amount of water and labor it took to maintain this greenery. A funny thought came to me, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“What?” asked Kiyo. He’d been watching a hummingbird dance around a red-flowered bush that flanked the house.
“I was thinking I need Art to come do landscaping in the Thorn Land.”
“I think that might blow your cover.”
“Likely. I don’t even know if he crosses over very much.”
“If he does, it’s probably only a matter of time before he finds out and tells Roland. Actually, it’s only a matter of time before anyone does that.”
I made a face. Roland knew a lot of shamans, all around the country. “Yeah, I know.”
Art stepped out through the back patio, gloves gone and a new shirt on. He set down a small cooler, carefully sliding the glass and its screen shut again. The drapes hanging on the other side of the patio were blue and purple watercolors laced with silvery threads that I envied after my own had been ripped up by a storm I’d inadvertently caused. Between his excellent decor and yard, I was feeling like a lame homeowner.
He opened the cooler. “I didn’t know what you wanted, so I brought some options.”
The cooler revealed an assortment of pop and beer. Kiyo opted for the latter; I took the former. The hot summer afternoon had cooled down to a pleasant temperature, and the shadows cast by the trees helped too. The memory of the hot journey to Dorian’s was still with me, though, and I drank my Coke gratefully.
“This is a great yard,” I said. “Wish I had the patience. Mine’s kind of a rock garden.”
Art grinned, crinkling up the lines around his eyes. They were an azure blue that stood out against his sun-weathered skin. “But that’s fashionable up there, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, kind of. But there’s a fine line between a fashionable arrangement of sand and rocks, and, well…just a pile of sand and rocks.”
He laughed again. “Well, I’m sure you have better things to do. Roland tells me you’re keeping busy now that he’s retired.”
“‘Retired’ is a dubious term. It’s hard for him to sit still, knowing I’m out there doing business by myself.”
“And I hear you’ve got some business questions to ask me?”
Right to the point. I liked that. “You’ve got a big crossroads here.”
“I do,” he agreed. “Keeps me busy.”
“You get a lot of gentry crossing over?”
He took a long sip of his beer and considered. “Well, there are always gentry crossing over.”
“Has there been an unusual amount lately? Girls in particular?”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Not that I’ve noticed. Why do you ask?”
“Following up on a job,” I said vaguely.
“Women cross over all the time, of course,” he mused. “But men outnumber them. Seeing a surge would be noticeable. Most of my time lately has been spent on exorcisms.”
I nodded. Until gentry and Otherworldly creatures had decided they wanted to father my child, spirits had made up the bulk of my business too. That was a normal shaman workload.
“Sorry I can’t be of more help,” added Art kindly. I must have looked disappointed. “You should check with Abigail, though.”
“She’s the other one here, right?”
“Yup. We work together sometimes. Maybe she’s noticed something I haven’t.”
I thanked Art for the info, and we spent the next hour or so chatting about assorted things. Art asked questions about Kiyo’s background. Roland could sense Kiyo’s Otherworldly nature, but Art’s blandly polite style made me suspect it wasn’t a talent he possessed. Art also wanted to know about my jobs, no doubt curious about my interest in gentry girls. I kept my answers vague, in no way coming close to the fact that I was protecting my subjects.
After making our good-byes, we headed off to the second address Roland had given me. Abigail lived in an apartment in downtown Yellow River, very different from Art’s homey location. The downtown area was actually more thriving than I would have expected. Yellow River was a small town at the end of the day, but it still had an assortment of interesting shops and restaurants. Abigail’s apartment was above an antiques store, and we climbed two flights of rickety stairs to get to her. The mysterious, dusty nature of it all was much more in line with stereotypical shaman images.
Indeed, when she answered the door, I suspected she would have met most people’s visions of a shaman. She was an older woman, gray hair styled into a long braid down her back. Her loose peasant blouse was patterned in mauve and yellow flowers, and crystal beads hung around her neck. She broke into a beatific smile when she saw us.
“Eugenie! So nice to finally meet you.”
She ushered us inside, and I introduced Kiyo. The apartment was beautifully constructed and nicer than its outside suggested-but cluttered with candles and assorted statuary. It made me feel better after Art’s immaculate home. The apartment was also filled with cats. I counted at least seven, and all of them looked up at Kiyo’s entrance. Four of them got up and rubbed against his legs.
“You’ve certainly got a way with animals,” noted Abigail.
“I’m a vet,” he explained, giving her a winning smile that tended to make women weak in the knees.
Like Art, Abigail sat us down and forced beverages on us, this time in the form of herbal tea. We started with the usual small talk. Abigail was a big fan of Roland and couldn’t say enough nice things about the work he did. I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of stepdaughterly pride. When we finally got to the issue of gentry girls, though, Abigail didn’t have much more to offer than Art had.
“Most of my work is actually along the lines of healing and spirit retrievals,” she explained. Spirit retrieval was itself a form of healing, often done when some entity was plaguing a human in a possession sort of way. I’d done it a few times but was no expert. “I don’t do much in the way of casting out. That’s Art’s specialty, but that crossroads is so big that he sometimes gets more than he can handle. So, I help out every once in a while.”
“But you haven’t noticed a surge of gentry girls?”
Abigail shook her head, making the crystal beads click together. “No, but like I said, I’m not out in the field enough to say for sure. And gentry usually aren’t so difficult to cast out…. Art tends to handle those on his own and call me in for the entities that are harder for him to get rid of.” She gave me a rueful grin. “Neither of us is as strong as you or Roland.”
I played with my tea bag, wondering how to parse this new information. Was my theory about gentry girls sneaking over here a total bust? Or were they being crafty enough to avoid detection? I usually ended up casting out gentry because they did something troubling that put them on my radar. Gentry girls slipping in among humans wouldn’t necessarily attract a lot of attention.
We thanked Abigail when we finished our tea and left for our hotel. I’d booked one that sat just on the edge of town. As we walked toward where we’d parked my car on the street, Kiyo declared that he wanted to take it over to a gas station on the corner for both gas and air for the tires. I told him I would walk down there and meet him. I wanted to browse a few of the shops before we called it a night.
Poking my head in the little stores gave me a chance to get my mind off the gentry girls and today’s disappointing intel. Most of the shops were what you’d expect for a small town. Antiques. Vintage clothing. Crafts. One, however, was a sex-toy shop, and I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at that. It was surprising in this town. Equally surprising was that I went in and bought something.
I met Kiyo at the gas station shortly thereafter. “Not much in the way of information,” he said as we drove out to the hotel.
“Yeah. I want to check out the crossroads in the morning before we go.” That was the main reason I’d chosen to actually come out to Yellow River in person, rather than simply call with my questions. “If that doesn’t yield anything, we might just have to give this theory up.”
Kiyo shook his head, a small smile curling his lovely lips. “I don’t know what to think of you sometimes. You’re so annoyed about this whole queen thing, yet here you are, going to a lot of trouble to help these girls.” We reached the hotel and found a parking spot. He turned off the car.
“And let me guess. You want me to stay away from it all?”
“Only inasmuch as it’ll keep you safe. But truthfully? What you’re doing is great.”
The look he gave me showed just how great he thought it was-and how great he thought I was. There was admiration there in his eyes, underscored with something heated and dangerous and wonderful. I might make jokes about his animal intensity, but when channeled into sex and passion…well, there was nothing to laugh about. My whole body felt the heat of his gaze, every nerve coming to life.
“Let’s go inside,” I said softly.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “No place I’d rather be.”
His hands were on me as soon as we cleared the hotel room’s door, reminding me of the first night we’d spent together. He pushed me onto the bed, tearing off my clothes as he did. I wanted to sprawl right there and let him take me-but just barely had enough presence of mind to wriggle away.
“Did you mean what you said earlier?” I asked, my breathing hard.
His dark eyes were hungry and impatient. “If it gets the rest of your clothes off right now, then yes, I stand by whatever I said earlier.”
“About expanding our horizons?”
This gave him pause. “What did you have in mind?”
I slipped away from him-no small feat-and produced my purse and the purchase I’d hidden in it: the bag from the sex-toy store. I pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
“Are you serious?” Kiyo asked, not sounding particularly opposed so much as curious.
“That headboard’s got a nice spot to lock your wrists in.” I might dream of Dorian restraining me, but right now, it was the thought of me being Kiyo’s captor that aroused me.
“Me?” This was a surprise to him too. He hesitated only a moment, though. There was desire and lust radiating from him, and while he might have preferred simply jumping in and having his way with me like usual, the bottom line was that he wanted me, period. One way or another. “Okay.”
He pulled off the rest of his clothes and lay back against the bed’s covers, hands stretched up. I paused to admire his body, filled with such strength and power. After removing my own clothing, I leaned over him and fastened one wrist to the headboard. I heard his breath catch as I did, my breasts only a few inches from his face. His other hand immediately went out to my hip and ran up along the side of my body. I pulled away, out of reach.
“Not allowed,” I warned. “You don’t get to call the shots here.”
He gave me a saucy grin. Being tied down wasn’t in his nature, but he felt bolder with only one hand bound. He was still able to feel in control.
“I’ve got another hand and two feet,” he pointed out.
I smiled sweetly and reached back into the bag. I pulled out three more pairs of handcuffs. His smile faded to astonishment.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve got it covered.”
I made sure all his hands and feet were locked into place, putting him at my mercy and ensuring he wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want him to. And as I lowered my hips down near his face, spreading my thighs so that the warmth of his mouth and tongue had no choice but to lick and suck as long as I wanted, I felt smug satisfaction in knowing for certain that I would be the one who got off first tonight.
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