Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 17
The morning dawned, bright and early, too loud, and way too bright. Her head pounded like an old war movie.
No delivery man, and no date for Saturday night. How in the world would she get the deliveries done? Not to mention remake the ones left in Jimmy’s truck the day before. There were vendors to call, and deliveries to do, both yesterday’s and today’s. It hurt her head to worry.
She was pretty sure she had a concussion of some sort. Her legs trembled, and her vision spun every time she stood, and in the shower, when she washed her hair, the water had swirled down the drain as pink as a new rose. No time for doctors. Not the day before Valentine’s Day.
Staying home, sitting on her butt, feeling sorry for herself was oh-so-tempting, but it simply wasn’t an option.
Her assistant, Tina, had arrived early and was already busy in the back making phone calls. The woman deserved a raise or at least a bonus. Phoebe made a mental note to check her finances and see what she could reasonably offer her.
The front of the shop was empty when she stepped through the doors, shaking sleet from her boots as gently as she could since any sudden movement sent her brain rattling.
Except… the shop wasn’t entirely empty. A man sat inside.
A very tall, hot, dreamy man.
She rested her arm on the counter, so her knees wouldn’t wobble, and her stomach would settle. “You came back.”
His head rested in his hand on the little bistro table, his big body dwarfing the seat. “I keep my word.”
“I thought you’d left for good.”
His shoulder lifted. “You were safe in bed. One of my healers had tended you. You didn’t need me. My unit did.”
She looked at her hands, her cheeks burning. “Did you change my clothes?”
“I kept my eyes closed the whole time,” he whispered.
It was probably a lie, but it made her feel better. She swallowed, feeling unaccountably shy. There were so many questions. What sort of unit? Who was Szar, really? Why did he talk about the planet the way he did? Was he insane? What was a healer? Who was Jimmy? Why had he come to her flower shop? How could she have worked so closely with a murderer for so long and never known? Who was Jogon?
It was too much. Her head throbbed. “Is Jimmy Jogon? Did you catch him?”
Szar’s gaze probed her face. “Yes. He got away. It’s not the first time. We found him once before. We’ll find him again.”
She dropped her purse behind the counter.
“I’ll still go to your party, Peahen.”
She nodded again, still unsure what to say. “Thank you.”
He stood and crossed the stone floor to tower over her, dark brows and a Roman nose, and a truly beautiful pair of manly lips. “You look terrible.”
A laugh burst from her lips. “Such a smooth talker. Be still my beating heart.”
He trailed his fingers under her eyes. “Like bruises,” he said. “Go home. Take the day off. I finished Jogon’s deliveries yesterday, so we are all caught up. That woman in the back can tell me what to do.”
Her mouth dropped. “You did that? For me? Why?” No one had ever done anything like that for her.
“It was my fault you were hurt. I repay my debts. Go home. Rest. Drink fluids.”
“No.” That would never happen. This business was hers. She’d built it from the ground up with grim determination and a little help from her inheritance. “But Szar, I can’t thank you enough.”
A massive weight lifted off her shoulders. They weren’t even behind. Today would be busy. But not impossible. He’d pretty much saved her business. How do you even thank anyone for that?
His fingers drifted down to her chin, tilted her face up to his. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. It should feel weird, being kissed like that by a total stranger, but it didn’t. It felt right. How’d they get to this point so fast? “I am sorry I let you get hurt.”
Her eyes drifted closed. Standing like this, she could almost pretend they really were lovers. Warm, spicy man-smell gathered around her like a blanket. It would be so easy to lean into him. Take comfort from him like a new bloom soaking up the sun after a truly long and terrible winter.
His lips trailed over to her temple, his other hand settling on her hip. Without really being aware, her own hands had moved to settle at his waist. “You more than made up for it.”
He was too good to be true, and that usually didn’t work out so well in her experience. “Are you real?” she asked, breathlessly.
“What planet are you from? Mars?”
“It’s called Argentus.”
Maybe she’d been hit in the head harder than she thought.
“Come on. We’ve got work to do.” His lip curved, and he tugged at her hand. “Tina says we have more than two hundred flower arrangements to make, and more hotel and restaurant deliveries.”
Phoebe had to admit she was impressed. Szar may have been crazier than that guy from that old play who shouted Stella all the time while tearing at his chest, but the man could work. He found a van from who-knows-where— she didn’t want to look too hard at the blacked-out license plates— and spent the entire day making deliveries while she and Tina received shipments and made flower arrangement after flower arrangement.
He stripped off the wool sweater he was wearing, and in nothing but a clingy black t-shirt and jeans, he looked good enough to make her forget all about her pounding head. Seriously, those biceps looked like they’d been carved with a steak knife, and who had abs so defined you could see them through a shirt?
Tina blushed like a school girl every time he looked at her.
Sasha would definitely approve. A burst of guilt tore through her. For lying to her twin, her only living family member. For using Szar. She shrugged it away, too exhausted to think about it.
All the custom orders for the following day were prepared. All the cards tucked in.
That was her favorite part, the cards. She wrote them herself, in careful looping script in red and pink for the occasion, with big curving hearts.
There were sexy ones from new lovers, sweet ones from old spouses, doting ones from kids to parents, and silly ones to friends. It gave her a thrill to see all the variations, all the different ways humans had invented to say three simple words, one single sentiment. I love you.
Tomorrow, the shop would be closed. No new orders accepted. A delivery company that specialized in Valentine’s Day, and charged a fortune, would handle the deliveries. By 9 p.m., the last batch had been collected, Tina had gone home, and Phoebe’s stomach rumbled.
Szar, chartreuse eyes stubborn and hard, came to tower over where she sat in the back on a stool, fingers still wrapped in tape to protect them from stray thorns.
“You need to go home,” he said. “I’ll walk you there.”
She nodded absently, tugging at the tape.
“And you need to eat something. You haven’t had anything all day.”
That was true, too. But neither had he. “Come on,” she said, rising from the stool. “I’ll buy you the best burger you’ll ever have.”
He grinned, and another wave of dizziness came over her at the brilliant beauty of his smile. “A burger is a chunk of meat between two pieces of bread, right?”
“Yes,” she rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. You don’t eat burgers in Argentina.”
“Argentus. It’s called Argentus.”
So much for that rational explanation. “Whatever.”
He frowned. “On Argentus, we don’t call them burgers.” She could never tell if he was kidding or not. His teeth flashed white with a grin. “But we have meat and bread. I like meat and bread.”
“You’re so weird.”
He tapped her chin. “So are you.”
She led him a few doors down to the local sports bar, the kind with big leather banquettes, lots of TVs and low lighting. She ordered them both loaded cheeseburgers with fries. And
Something old was playing on the radio, not a song she recognized. Old jazz. The same basketball game on repeat winked, all around, tall men with squeaky sneakers, running and running and running. It was peaceful, and in the dark lighting, her headache receded a touch. “Any word on where he is?”
“Jogon?” Szar sniffed his beer and took a sip. He frowned and set the glass back down politely. “His tracker isn’t working now, but we assume he’s still here.”
“Why doesn’t he take it off?”
“The tracker? He can’t. It’s fused in his spine.”
She shook off a shiver of revulsion. “What does he want?”
He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Not sure. Can you think of anything you might have that he’d want from you?”
She blinked. “That I’d have?” Shaking her head and frowning, she looked around without seeing, imagining her house and its contents. She didn’t have much. Her mom had died and left the place to her and Sasha along with a bit of money.
She’d bought Sasha out, done some updates, and opened Peacocks and Posies. Aside from that, she had nothing of value. Some costume jewelry of her mom’s that she and Sasha had divided up. Not even her TV was worth stealing. “I don’t have anything of any real value.”
“There’s something.” He looked around. “There’s something he wants.”
The waiter delivered their burgers. Szar studied the orange cheddar cheese like he’d never seen it before.
“What is cheese?”
Phoebe frowned. Where the hell was Argentus that there was no cheese? Maybe he really was from another planet. “It’s made with cow’s milk. It’s delicious.”
His brow lowered, and with the knife, he carefully scraped off the gooey mess. He watched with interest as she dumped ketchup on top of her own burger.
“But he had months of working for me.” She tried not to laugh when Szar sniffed the ketchup and set down the bottle. He squirted mustard on his plate and tasted it, nose wrinkling comically.
That was fair. “Mustard is kind of an acquired flavor, I’ll give you that. Why didn’t he take whatever he wanted and move on?”
Szar shook his head and lifted the barbecue sauce. He squirted some onto his plate beside the mustard. “We can’t figure it out.”
“He never threatened me. I don’t think he meant to hurt me. He was quiet, but always kind enough. He didn’t seem like a dangerous murderer.”
He traced his finger into the barbecue sauce, sucking the tip. His eyes closed. “This one. This sauce is perfect for this meat.” He traced his hands together, big broad fingertips. A shiver ran down her spine, imagining those fingers running along her bare skin.
He lifted the burger and took a big bite. Why was that hot? She gave herself a shake and lifted her own burger.
“Trust me,” Szar grunted. “He is dangerous. He killed my brother.”
A piece of the puzzle fell into place. It was personal for Szar. He wasn’t just some weird police officer looking for a perp. He was a man looking for revenge.
“My brother was a guard, and Jogan was escaping our penal colony.”
She didn’t voice it, but a small part of her wondered if Szar wouldn’t kill people too if it meant his freedom. “He escaped prison, and came straight here? To my shop?”
Szar nodded, taking another massive bite of his burger.
“Where’s the prison? Had he ever been here before? To D.C., I mean. Not to me.”
“He used to be on the team studying this planet.”
She rolled her eyes. Again with the planet stuff.
They passed the rest of the meal in relative silence, Szar purring about the “delicious meat with bread and perfect sauce.”
And afterward, he walked her home like a perfect gentleman on a real date. It was easy to pretend she’d known him a long time. They just settled into an easy rhythm together.
When they got to the steps, she hesitated. One of those awkward moments where instinct demanded she invite him in, but a lifetime of common sense disagreed.
Szar made the choice for her. “You shouldn’t be alone. Jogon will come here. You’ve got something he wants.”
She exhaled a long breath. “You can sleep on the sofa,” she whispered across the cold night air. Here we go… trusting a crazy person.
He just didn’t seem crazy, though. Not after today. Not after a whole day of helping her save her business.
It could have been awkward, letting a strange man who may or may not think he came from another planet into her home. But it wasn’t. He was so natural about it, tossing his coat over a chair in the living room, pulling off his boots, that it was impossible to feel anything but comfortable.
She climbed the stairs with barely enough energy to change into pajama pants and a tank and practically fell into bed.
At some point in the night, she woke. Some shift in the air currents had her eyes drifting heavily open. Szar’s rumbling voice echoed up the stairs.
She’d grown used to sleeping in the house alone, had considered buying a dog or a cat, one that could come to work with her every day, but it just seemed unfair to the animal. The last time anyone had stayed over, it had been Brad, and he’d needed a humidifier.
A man was in her house. She could sense him, and his presence was strangely comforting.
Sleep was impossible, though. She told herself she’d just check on him, make sure he didn’t need anything.
Rising from bed, she padded down the stairs.
He sat upright in her living room, legs bent at a sharp angle on the sofa. He’d stripped down to nothing but briefs. The ruddy glow of the streetlamps outside the windows spilled over smooth golden skin and the sharply defined muscles of his back. Dark hair curled at his neck.
He didn’t turn to look at her, but he knew she was there. She could just tell. His attention was focused elsewhere, at something on her coffee table, just out of her view.
He spoke in a language she’d never heard before. Fluid, hard sounds.
She moved slowly down the steps. An eerie blue glow filled the air around him. She couldn’t quite see it.
She got to the bottom of the steps. And she saw it.
Oh wow. She hissed out a breath. That wasn’t any kind of technology she’d ever seen before.
It looked like something out of a movie.
A head – a man’s head – floated above her coffee table, made of light. The whole head, flickering and sparkling and slightly blue, face moving as he spoke in that incomprehensible tongue.
Her hand slid on the banister. The blow to her head must have been worse than she thought.
A single word registered, reaching her ears – Argentus – followed by a flurry of words as the conversation finished.
Szar was talking to a floating head made of light. About a place called Argentus. His planet. Where they had meat and bread and evidently no mustard or peacocks.
His planet. As in not her planet. He’d told her plenty of times.
The weirdest part was, it made more sense than the alternatives.
Somewhere along the way, she’d accepted that he wasn’t actually insane. She’d let him sleep in her home, so obviously her intuition didn’t actually find him creepy, all jokes aside.
He’d told her he came from a planet called Argentus. She just hadn’t believed him.
One of the light pistol things sat on the sofa beside him. Not a toy, then. The real deal. Mr. Valentine – Be Mine was an alien. Her vision tunneled.
Tall. Hot. Dreamy.
And an alien.
Oh, Phoebe. You sure know how to pick them.
She stepped off the last step, proud of the fact that her legs were only shaking a little bit.
On the bright side, if an alien had to cross her path, it was a really good-looki
It could be worse. He could have antennae or claws. Though, she didn’t really know what was beneath his briefs.
The man’s head floating above her coffee table exploded in a burst of white light, before imploding back on itself, and disappearing. Nothing sat on her coffee table anymore, except Szar’s innocuous cell phone device thingy.
She blinked a few times, and made a dumb surprised sound, like a squeaking goat.
He glanced at her over his shoulder, brow raised.
“So,” she said. “You weren’t kidding about coming from another planet?”
Eyes crinkling slightly at the corners, he shook his head, stretching a long arm across the back of the sofa to take her hand.
He drew her around to stand in front of him. She stopped when her feet rested on the colorful carpet between his, her body between his spread legs. He held her hands in his, staring up at her.
“You’re like a …an alien? Or something. For real?”
One side of his mouth lifted. “Alien is a relative term, isn’t it? To me, you are the alien.”
She frowned. “You aren’t blue.”
The other side of his mouth lifted. “Neither are you.”
“And you don’t make slime or control minds or anything.”
His lips parted in a true smile. He stroked a hand up her arm, along her neck to brush her hair over her shoulders. “Neither do you.”
“So, you’re human?”
His other hand closed around her waist, pulling her a closer. She dropped her hands to his shoulder. “Our DNA is very close. There are some… big… differences. But we could discuss those later.”
She sighed. It was mesmerizing, really. Those dreamy green eyes. She swayed on her feet, and he gave her a tug. With a gasp, she landed in his lap, one leg on either side of him.
Oh, jeez. All that wonderful man smell and the warm press of his body against hers. The warm… hard press of his body. Was this his…?
Yes. It definitely was. No mistaking that.
Szar liked her. Or at least…that part of him liked her.