Valentines day anthology.., p.15

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 15

 

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs
 


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  "Still here," I whisper.

  Indeed, the arrow is now in my grip, vibrating even harder, primed and ready to inject love into Jake's chest.

  It's time.

  The four o'clock hour nears. The twilight is nearly violet.

  I run back onto the Main Street and across the road. The familiar massive tree hides me in its shade once more and I wait with the bow at the ready, wishing Jake all the best in his short, mortal life.

  Seconds.

  Jake appears from around the corner. His chest is heaving. His fists are white-knuckled at his sides. And his gaze, hard and desperate, darts around.

  "Arya!" He shouts once more, his head swinging to the left, then to the right.

  The passing cars separate our sides of the street, but even though he should think that he lost track of me, his brow's arch is too determined to express defeat.

  His attention lands on my tree and his jaw clenches.

  He moves forward. And, as his foot lifts to step off the pavement, I aim and send the arrow flying.

  I tremble watching its trajectory, the golden sparkles flying and dissolving in the tears that blur my vision.

  And, as the arrow hits Jake’s chest, dissolving into love inside him, I cover my mouth to subdue a cry.

  Lost for balance, he stumbles back. His arms swing in the air, his eyes widen and all I can do is witness the steady golden glow radiating from the center of his chest.

  Now he'll go on to find his promised one--

  A light pop resounds in my ears as a searing heat curls between my shoulder blades and settles in the middle of my chest, too.

  My arm shoots out to steady myself against the tree trunk.

  I look down.

  The same golden glow lights up my heart's area. I try to speak, to ask who would shoot me with the love arrow, but I can't form a word. The heat intensifies, spreading pleasure to every corner of my body.

  Granting me knowledge.

  It is as if the particles of my heart rearrange themselves and form a completed puzzle. A puzzle bearing a familiar face.

  I clutch at my chest. Shaking my head. Looking across the road.

  This can't be--

  "Relax, sis. It burns only at the start."

  Still braced against the tree, I look over my shoulder. Hermes swaggers to me with two Cupids at his sides and his precious Scroll under his arm. The little rascals stick their tongues out at me, grinning.

  "What’s going on?” I whisper, still breathless. The heat of love consumes me.

  All golden, Hermes comes closer and gestures for his Cupids to disappear. With a little whine, they soar into the dark sky, leaving me to face my older, but none the wiser brother.

  "You shot me," I hiss. "We should not--"

  "Ah, shoulda, woulda, coulda..." He slings his arm over my shoulders and guides my chin to meet his gaze. His eyes, the blue of Aegean Sea, crinkle at the corners. Sparkle with mischief and warmth under his golden lashes. "You've become such a grouch, Artemis. Such a whiny brat for love that I had no choice but to give you one."

  "But I..."

  I try to wet my lips but my tongue is dry, refusing to speak. My eyes want to look, though. Across the road. To where Jake still stands, the heat of love finally settling to a bearable, eternal glow in his heart.

  I know it because the same thing is happening to me.

  "Yes, I'm well aware that he is mortal and that our father will kick up a storm. But we'll deal with both." He sighs and kisses my temple.

  I concentrate on Hermes again. The Scroll vibrates within his hold, the corner waving at me, and I can’t work out whether it waves hello or shows me a middle finger in its special Scroll-y manner.

  "I'm proud of you, sis." Hermes shoves the Scroll behind his back hastily, huffing.

  So it was the Scroll-y middle finger then.

  "Why?"

  "For keeping your word even though you really liked this Jake guy. For shooting your arrow when it was the last thing you wanted to do to him."

  I glance at Jake. He shakes his head as if trying to get rid of some unwanted visions and rubs his eyes.

  "That's why your Scroll had no mention of his mate?"

  Hermes nods, his biceps tightening under the short sleeves of his tunic. The Scroll behind his back vibrates so hard his muscle trembles to keep it rolled up.

  "So your stupid Scroll only pretended to be swept away?"

  "Sure. I ordered it to."

  "Why couldn't you just tell me?"

  He clicks his tongue. "Those wanting love have to go through trials before being granted it. Humans and gods alike. You had yours."

  Across the road, Jake seems to have come to his senses enough to concentrate on the tree again. His new, knowing gaze detects me. Determination like no other colours his features.

  He makes his way to me, causing the drivers to swear and car brakes to screech. Gaze trained on me, he ignores the commotion striding forward.

  "Artemis?" Hermes backs away. "You two better stay out of Zeus's sight for the first millennia, all right?"

  I glance at my brother and smile. "Thank you."

  Hermes stretches his mouth, baring teeth, and gives me a thumbs-up.

  But I don't have a second to giggle at his bizarre grimace. Jake's arms already encircle me, lift me off my feet and slam me against his chest.

  "I'm not letting you go, baby. You're the one, you hear me?" He speaks into my hair, squeezing me harder.

  His woodsy scent makes me drunk on him. I wind my legs around his waist and take his face into my hands. "We are in serious trouble since I feel the same."

  Jake nods. "This trouble between us is nothing but serious."

  Somewhere above, the Cupids laugh again but, this time, with us.

  Author’s Note

  Thank you for reading my story! I’d love to hear from you, and I’d love to share with you my upcoming novels. You can follow me at

  www.cassandrazolotoff.com

  https://twitter/Casszolotoff

  https://facebook.com/cassandrazolotoff/

  Seeking: Tall, Hot, and Dreamy

  Imogen Keeper

  Acknowledgements

  Since I am sitting in the hospital about to deliver you,

  I have no choice but to dedicate this to you, Little One.

  For Rose. I loved you long before I met you.

  See you on the other side…

  Wednesday

  Phoebe Peacock was about to lie. And not just any lie. A great, big one. It swelled up in her brain like a balloon, moving across the neurons in an unstoppable tide, and her stupid, fat mouth was opening, even as she shouted at herself: Stop it! Don’t do it!

  She did it anyway. “No, seriously, Sash, I’ll have a date.”

  Her twin sister gasped into the phone. “A date? Like with a man?”

  Phoebe rolled her eyes and chewed on a nail. “Yes, a man. A real man.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” Suspicion colored Sasha’s voice all the way from New York to DC.

  “It’s not a big deal. I’ll have a date for the engagement party. So mark me down as plus one.”

  Sasha’s engagement party was on Valentine’s Day, of all days. The biggest holiday at the end of the busiest week of the year for any florist, and now Phoebe needed to worry about finding a date on top of fulfilling the largest number of orders her flower shop had ever had.

  What was she thinking? Why did she do this to herself? Yes, Sasha would sigh and laugh and pity her all over again if she admitted that it hadn’t worked out with Brad, the Lobbyist, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Except, a small part of Phoebe hated seeing the smug pity in Sasha’s eyes. Sasha— who worked for a big Manhattan magazine, who dressed in nothing but Prada, who’d never made a mistake in her whole life, who was marrying her perfect god-like, richer-than-Croesus fiancé— would get that look in her eye as she hugged her hello. Phoebe would do anything to avoid seeing that look of satisfied superiority.


  “But who is he?” Sasha asked.

  Uhhhh… Phoebe panicked. More lies burst forth. “Just a guy. He’s hot.” She glanced around her flower shop for inspiration. Her gaze landed on a long stem rose. “Tall.” She screwed up her eyes. What are you doing, Phoebe? “And kind of dreamy. No big deal.” Jeez! Dreamy? Shut up! She was making this worse by the second. Now she needed a tall, hot, dreamy man.

  She pulled open the calendar on the register’s computer. Today was Wednesday. The party was Saturday. Three days until Valentine’s Day. Great. Three days to find him. Mr. Make-Believe Valentine. And she really needed to find him by Saturday morning to catch the train to Manhattan where the party was being held at Sasha’s fiancé’s parents’ brownstone. Dear Cupid, please don’t make me hire a gigolo. How would I even hire a gigolo?

  She needed professional help. She was worse than her mom who’d died still dreaming of a man who walked out.

  Last time she checked, tall, hot, dreamy guys weren’t raining from the sky.

  She could just imagine Sasha scowling at her desk. Her voice in the phone carried all the notes of suspicion and doubt. “How did you m—”

  The bell at the door tinkled. Thank you! A customer walked in.

  “Oh, I’ve got to go, Sash! He’s just a guy I’m seeing. No big deal. A customer just walked in.”

  A man entered, wearing a costume of some sort, a flight suit like an astronaut or a pilot would wear, all black with a big zipper down the center. It hugged a very long, muscled body. Leather straps crisscrossed a broad chest, stocked full of sheathed knives and an array of fake sci-fi looking pistols. One of them glowed orange in the dimmed lights inside her store. Maybe a comic convention was at the big hotel across from the street. No grown man would walk around like that unless he was deranged or a serious sci-fi nut.

  Perfect. People would probably wander in dressed like that all day long.

  “Welcome to Peacocks and Posies,” she said, forcing a great, big retail smile.

  He ducked under the low-hanging bough of a birch-branch display with hanging votives and succulents, his eyes scanning the room.

  There was something about the way he moved… slowly, and with deliberation, as if every muscle was in perfect tune and every motion had been carefully calculated. A bit of a Creepy Joe.

  He didn’t look like the type to frequent flower shops. That was for sure.

  She craned her neck as he ducked around a bistro table piled high with floral plates, napkins, and gifts and glided toward the refrigerators where she kept her cut merchandise.

  “Can I help you find anything, sir?”

  He stopped, head swiveling back toward her, all dark hair and tense muscles. “You said you’re seeing a man?”

  Great. Even crazy strangers want to mock my lackluster love-life. She almost laughed, except he was starting to make her really nervous. The knives glinting in the light looked pretty real. “Umm… Did you want to buy some flowers for Valentine’s Day?”

  “No.” He crossed to the side of the counter, silent and stealthy. She swallowed the growing lump in her throat.

  Her neck tilted back as he got closer. He was tall. So tall that pink silk cherry blossoms trailed in his thick, black hair, well above the reach of her average customers.

  A shiver drifted down her spine. His eyes were the exact shade of chartreuse as the green orchids in the flower fridges. The most unnatural shade she’d ever seen for eyes.

  “You’re seeing a man?” he repeated.

  She backed away, hitting the wall behind her with its ornate, flowery wallpaper. Her gold bangles tinkled like a hundred warning bells. The phone was out of reach, all the way at the other end of the counter. This was bad. He wasn’t normal.

  So she did what she always did when backed into a corner. Lashed out. “I was lying. I’m not seeing anyone, okay. Nobody. I’m all alone. No men in my life. No family. One sister. Why do you care?”

  He frowned. “Is he here now? Where?” The man had a seriously weird accent. Like Portuguese and Russian combined, only growled.

  “Are you hard of hearing? There’s no man. I was lying. I just didn’t want to admit to my sister that I’m single again.”

  Black brows lowered, and his jaw ticked. His hand surged up.

  Flinching, she threw her hands up in front of her face.

  Nothing happened.

  She cracked open a single eyelid.

  He merely held a clear, flat, round device the size of his palm in front of her face. It was like a weird tablet computer. “This man? Look at him. You’ve seen him?”

  Blinking, heart pounding in her throat, palms sweating, she peered at the image. Maybe if she just looked, he’d leave her in peace.

  The man on the device had thick, curling white hair and a white goatee. “He looks like a clown. I’ve never seen anyone like that in my entire life.”

  He scrubbed a hand through his hair, and she flinched again.

  “Stop doing that,” he barked.

  She squeaked, bluster forgotten.

  She should have listened to her last ex and bought a handgun. But guns scared her senseless. Speaking of guns, that glowing thing on his hip didn’t look as much like a prop anymore.

  “I said stop,” he said, more softly this time.

  “Stop what? I’m not doing anything.” She wasn’t. She hadn’t moved a muscle, for which she was deeply ashamed. Surely if this were a movie, she’d have done something clever, like grab a birch branch from over her head, fashion a club and bludgeon him with it. Instead, all she’d done was cower and shake and freeze up like a ninny.

  “Quit flinching like I’m going to hurt you.”

  “Aren’t you?”

  “No. Look again. Now. This man is very dangerous. He was here recently. Maybe still is.”

  Feeling silly, she cleared her throat and straightened her black turtleneck, dusted off her pants. She clutched the crystal pendant she’d inherited from her mom for comfort. “Dangerous how? What did he do?”

  Creepy Joe didn’t move a muscle. “He’s a murderer.”

  The word echoed around the shop. She gulped. “Oh. I thought you were going to say he’d done something really bad. Like jaywalking.”

  He wasn’t amused.

  “I’ve been here since 6 a.m., and I haven’t seen anyone. I think you’d better leave now.” Emboldened, she stepped toward her phone. “I can call the police if you’d prefer.”

  A smile flashed across his face. “I’ll go. But keep a watch for this man. As I said, he’s very d–”

  “Dangerous. Yeah.” She eyed the wide shoulders, and hard muscles under the bizarre outfit, the array of knives and glowing guns. “I can see that. Thank you.”

  She crossed her arms and clenched her fists to stop the shaking as he left, the broad muscles of his back flexing. No, not a chessplayer, or a botanist, or a flautist that one. He was something else.

  She rubbed her arms against a chill.

  The chill never really left her. Her assistant arrived at noon, and for the rest of the day, she tried not to think about her myriad problems.

  As she wrapped flowers and arranged red and pink roses with white gardenias and paper hearts for the morning deliveries, she jumped at every sound, convinced it was the man with white hair. Or maybe Creepy Joe, with his black hair and weird eyes.

  By the time she left work that night, she was exhausted and angry and so tired she could barely put one foot in front of the other.

  Her coat tucked up against the February chill, hands in her pocket, feeling paranoid. She stared at every stranger during the walk back to her 30s townhouse a few blocks down from her shop, unable to shake the feeling at the back of neck, like someone was watching her.

  Szar had visited a lot of planets in his time working for the Interstellar Guarda of Argentus. Some were cold and others hot, bright and dark, with multiple moons and ring belts. Overpopulated, underpopulated and deserted. There was innumerable variety in the universe. On one planet he
d visited, people lived thousands of feet below the surface in ice canyons; on another they lived on boats, floating endlessly beneath a brilliant sun.

  But of all of them, these Earthlings were the strangest.

  Contradictory. Sophisticated and simple at the same time. Confident, but absurdly vulnerable. Almost entirely lacking any sense of self-preservation.

  The man he’d robbed that afternoon hadn’t even felt it as he’d plucked the wallet from his coat. And the woman at the store where he’d bought new clothes hadn’t even bothered to ask about his weapons. Just taken them in stride as if she saw that sort of thing every day.

  Other people just stared at him, unguarded as babies.

  The woman from the flower store, though, with her warm brown eyes flashing with distrust and anger, her full pouty lower lip snarling at him one minute and shaking the next, was… interesting. She was cute. Really cute. Curves in all the right places, with slender hands. Prickly enough that he wanted to poke at her and see her smile, peel away a few layers and see what simmered beneath the surface.

  And the flicker of sadness on her face, clear and unfiltered, when she’d said she was alone again. He could sympathize. A fellow loner.

  She crossed the street now, hands tucked in her pockets, clearly uncomfortable. Her thick brown ponytail had been bouncing since she left her shop, but she hadn’t looked behind her. Not once. And she appeared to be heading straight for her home across dark, uncrowded streets.

  No instinct for survival.

  She knew there was a murderer out there. He’d told her.

  Baffling. He shook his head. She was lucky he was who he was. A different sort of man, Jogon for example, could have hurt her in a dozen different ways.

  He couldn’t leave her alone. Not with Jogon’s tracker pinging at odd intervals in her vicinity. If it weren’t for the damned solar flares on this planet interrupting the signals, they’d have caught the bastard already. What in the world could the man want from her? There had to be something. He sent off a quick comm to his base commander, asking for deeper intel on her family. Maybe there was something in the past. Some reason Jogon had come back to Earth. Looking for her. So far, they’d focused on the flower shop, but he was starting to wonder if it wasn’t something else. Something more personal.

 
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