Death and relaxation, p.21
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       Death and Relaxation, p.21

           Devon Monk
 

  “Why do you think it’s murder? Hot lemon rhubarb tea. Sweetened with organic blackberry honey.”

  I sniffed, sipped. “Four. Honey’s too powerful. I can’t taste the rhubarb. I can’t believe I’m complaining about that. Heim didn’t hit himself in the back of the head and throw himself into the ocean. The gods agree.”

  “Gods.” He shook his head, as if they were of no consequence.

  “And?”

  “Hot chocolate rhubarb with strawberry marshmallow.”

  I stared at the pink marshmallow dissolving into pink slime that coated the top of the slurry of pinkish-brown liquid. “Well, this one isn’t going to win on presentation. Do you know who killed Heim? Do you suspect Ryder?”

  “Do you?”

  A chill washed down my spine. I took a drink of the cocoa, trying to remain objective about the beverage and my almost-boyfriend as I weighed the information that the man I thought I was falling for might be involved in illegal activities. Could Ryder be a killer?

  “Two. Too heavy on the dark cocoa. Needs more pink slime. I don’t…I don’t think so.”

  “Is that your head or your heart speaking, Delaney Reed? Rum rhubarb screwdriver.”

  Alcohol. Finally.

  “You came up here telling me someone might threaten me over hiring Ryder. You led me to believe he could be a murderer. Is there another conclusion you’d like me to jump to?”

  I sniffed the cocktail and hoped they’d gone generous on the rum. Tipped the cup and took a long swallow.

  The air was thick again, the sounds muted.

  “Why did you hire him?”

  “We needed help. Myra and Jean thought he could help. He said yes.”

  “Is that all?”

  “That is all. Do I need to fire him? Watch him?”

  Arrest him? Search his house? Fall out of love with him?

  “No,” he said quietly. “This is a matter of my own. It will not affect the town, or the people within it. It’s all good. If it changes, I’ll let you know. How’s the screwdriver?”

  “A solid six. Rhubarb is a refreshing, if slightly disgusting twist. Don’t write down the disgusting part. How long have you been watching him?”

  “Rhubarb strawberry lime daiquiri. Leave it. I’m an old man. Sometimes I am too curious for my own good. It’s why I meditate. You should try it.”

  “No.”

  “I hold a session every Tuesday morning.”

  “No.”

  “Clothing optional.”

  I knocked back a gulp of daiquiri and almost set off on another coughing fit.

  Hello, tequila.

  “Strong. Um…seven? Hold on, let me try to actually taste it.” I took a smaller sip, moving the icy liquid around on the tip of my tongue. “Change that to a four. It’s all tequila, no flavor. Good tequila, though.”

  I looked over the crowd. Mostly happy faces. A few people were bored, others still staring at their phones. And of course there was Dan Perkin, the eternally simmering ball of anger seething in the front row.

  If he didn’t die of a rage-induced stroke, I’d be amazed.

  “Rhubarb wine,” Rossi said. “That sounds intriguing.”

  I lifted the cup, gave it a swirl, and downed the single-ounce serving in one go.

  “Okay. That was unexpectedly sweet. Nice dessert wine. Let’s give it a nine, and move on to the next.”

  “Barberry Beer.”

  I wasn’t supposed to know who had entered which drink into the contest. But it was a small town and people and creatures and deities liked to talk. A lot.

  It was nearly impossible to create a blind tasting event. Bertie had done a fine job, as far as I was concerned. I hadn’t known any of the entrants’ items for the savory round, and I only knew two for sure in this round: Dan Perkin’s root beer and Chris Lagon’s barberry beer.

  I made a point of not looking at Dan or Chris as I lifted the cup, glanced inside at a deep amber beer with just a hint of an almost fuchsia tint that was actually pretty. It smelled a little like blackberry or raspberry tones over the light scent of hops.

  There was a reason Chris was such a respected brewer. He was good at it. I just hoped this beer held up.

  I took a drink and quickly stuffed my smile under a neutral expression as I leaned toward Rossi. “Ten. I don’t know why I didn’t trust him. How does he make a vegetable as evil as rhubarb taste good?”

  “It’s a fruit,” Travail said absently.

  “Yes, it is. An evil fruit.”

  “Except when it’s in beer, apparently,” he said with an easy smile.

  “Apparently,” I agreed.

  “Whiskey sour,” he said. “Guess what the sour is.”

  “After this, probably not my mood.” I lifted another glass to my lips.

  Chapter 21

  “ARE YOU sure you can make it all the way to the top of the stairs?” Myra asked, parking the cruiser below my house.

  “I’m not drunk.” I waved a hand at her before unbuckling my seatbelt. It took me two tries to get the button thingy right.

  “Uh-huh. Maybe you should stay with me tonight.”

  I sighed. “Okay, I’m a little tipsy, but not drunk. I am also a little sick to my stomach from all that rhubarb. I plan to drink half a bottle of Maalox, take a bath, and sleep.”

  “You sure? I’m…” She chewed on the inside of her cheek and glanced up at the house. “I’m feeling like maybe I should go up there with you.”

  “Nope. No. You are officially relieved from duty. I can bathe myself.”

  “I—”

  “No. Good night, Myra.” I tugged open the door and stepped out into the cold air, shivering as it whipped over my bare skin.

  “Good night, Delaney. I’m watching you until you lock the door behind you.”

  “Fine. Good. Night.” I tromped to the steps and took them at a steady pace, one hand sliding along the metal railing, wind chopping in wet and salty from the west.

  I didn’t have to find my keys because I didn’t lock the front door. So I pushed the door open, waved at Myra, then stepped in and shut it behind me.

  Someone was in the room. I could feel it like a pressure between my shoulders.

  I didn’t have my gun on me, and the one I kept in the house was tucked away in my bedroom.

  I pulled off my coat and tossed it in the little chair by the door, acting as if I didn’t know I had company. I casually pulled my phone up into my palm.

  “Long night?” a voice asked from the darkness near my kitchen.

  I knew that voice.

  “Hey, Ryder.” I hadn’t turned my phone off, but hadn’t dialed for backup yet. “Why are you in the dark, in my kitchen?”

  Are you a murderer?

  There was a snap and a flare of light as a match flickered to life. “I made a promise.” He bent and lit a candle on the bookshelf outside the kitchen, then moved to light three more. “And I am a man of my word.”

  “Do those words include ‘breaking’ and ‘entering’?”

  Why does Rossi think you’re so dangerous?

  His smile in the soft yellow light carved deep hollows of shadows beneath his jaw and under his cheekbones.

  “I know those words,” he admitted. “But only one of them might be on the agenda tonight.”

  I tucked my phone in my front pocket. “What are you playing at here, Ry?”

  He looked up at me, eyes deep as still waters in this light, soft and needful. “Who says I’m playing?”

  I swallowed hard. “Then what are you doing?”

  “I’m lighting candles.” He touched another match to more candles set on the little side tables near the couch. “What are you doing, Delaney?”

  I realized I had taken a couple steps inside the door and had rooted in place. “I’m…uh…standing.”

  Trying to decide if I can trust you.

  He inhaled, holding back a laugh.

  “Shut up,” I said. “I’ve had a long day and never wan
t to see another rhubarb in my life.” I got moving toward the bedroom, pausing in the doorway there. “I’m taking a bath. I don’t know what you’re here for, Ryder, but if it’s dessert, don’t bother. I’m not good for anything except sleeping. So you and your matches should go.”

  He shook out the match pinched between his fingers and walked toward me. “All right.” He stopped right in front of me. We stood there, facing each other. My breathing was a little fast, and I couldn’t seem to look away from the candlelight caressing his skin. Couldn’t stop myself from wondering what he would look like naked in it. What he would feel like naked. In my bed right over there.

  The vampire doesn’t like you. Doesn’t trust you. Why?

  “Can I kiss you good night, Delaney?” I liked the sound of my name on his tongue. Liked it a lot. Maybe the vampire didn’t know what he was talking about.

  I hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. And that, along with the day, the song of power that still felt like a knuckle pressing out from behind my eyes, and the mix of alcohols I’d downed in a short span of time all made me feel like maybe it would be fine to sink here to the floor and get a little shuteye.

  But then, there was a perfectly soft, comfortable bed just a few steps away. It might be worth the effort to walk over there. Just.

  Except there was a man in front of me. Waiting for an answer.

  Yes. Kiss me. Make me forget about the power, the vampire, the murder, and this town.

  “Ryder.” I didn’t know what I was going to follow that up with. I lifted my hands, as if somehow he would understand the words I couldn’t even find.

  His gaze flicked across my face and he bit his bottom lip briefly. “Mmm.” His shoulders squared and he nodded as if he’d made a decision. “Bed, I think.” He took my wrist in one hand and guided me off toward the bed.

  “I don’t—”

  “I know,” he said. “You’re exhausted. We’ll take a rain check on dessert.” He walked me to the head of my bed and tugged at my hand so I’d sit.

  I yawned and pushed at the toe of my boot with my other foot, trying to pop them off without unlacing. “Yeah,” I said. “Probably best. I couldn’t eat another bite. And I think I got a contact high from sitting next to Old Rossi for two hours.”

  “Rossi?”

  Did he sound worried? Startled? Did he sound like someone dangerous who had something to hide?

  “Hippy who inherited that big house on the hill and runs yoga classes or crystal detox seminars and all that other woo-woo kind of thing.”

  “I know him. Why were you sitting with him?” His voice was even, carefully casual.

  Too casual?

  “Well, my assistant got a phone call and dumped me. What was the call about?”

  “Work.” He shifted his weight a bit, and I watched his body language out of the corner of my eye as I continued to kick at my boot heel to no effect.

  “Dammit,” I whispered.

  “Need some help?” He knelt and set the box of matches on the little wooden stepladder I used as a nightstand.

  “I thought you were busy setting my house on fire.”

  “That was one of the things I wanted to set on fire.”

  A thrill of heat licked lazily across my skin. I stared down at his bent head, hair tousled from the wind, wide shoulders and back bent to the task of untying my boots.

  His strong, steady fingers tugged at the laces on my boots.

  Why couldn’t we have this? Why couldn’t we have each other? Just because one vampire thought a person was dangerous didn’t mean he was.

  Or did it?

  “What kind of work?” I asked. “Problems?”

  “I’m in the construction business.” His fingers loosened, pulled. “There’s always problems. They always happen during off-hours, and they are always mine to deal with.”

  “Oh. Sorry. Angry client?”

  He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I might have to go out of town for a while. I think it can wait until after the rally—so don’t worry about that.” He tipped off first my left boot by grabbing at the heel and tugging smoothly, and then did the same with the right boot.

  “So Old Rossi’s a friend of yours?” He set the boots together next to my feet.

  Is he an enemy of yours?

  “Friend of the family. Bertie picked him out for your replacement.”

  That got a small smile out of him. Light and shadow caught in the fine lines at the corners of his eyes. He was still looking down, his fingers slipping into the top of one of my socks and brushing it down my ankle, over my heel. His fingers drifted along the sensitive skin on the inside of my arc. It was almost soft enough to tickle.

  “Bertie could take over the state in a week,” he said.

  I resisted the urge to run my fingers through his thick, dark hair. To grab hold and gently tip his face up to mine.

  “She’s the heart of Ordinary,” I said. “Holds us together.”

  “Oh, I don’t know.” He tucked one wadded sock into my boot, then turned his attention to the other foot. “I can’t imagine Ordinary being anything without Delaney Reed. I know I wouldn’t be here.”

  I licked my bottom lip. Warmth from his touch was sending little soft electric flares up my skin, starting from my ankles and blooming up my legs.

  Sleep was suddenly looking like a less appealing way to get rid of the day’s stress.

  “Where would you be instead?”

  He finally tipped his head up, his eyes deep with shadow and glowing from candlelight. “Anywhere you were.”

  Now it wasn’t just my breath that was caught. It was my heartbeat, and my entire body stilled at his words. His gaze.

  How did you tell someone you had been in love with for almost all your life that you cared for them? How did you tell them you had fantasies about what life might be like with them?

  How did you tell them you didn’t want to screw this up, and that maybe being a day low on sleep and a lifetime high on rhubarb might be altering your decision-making skills?

  And oh, yeah, how did you tell them an immortal vampire hippy thought they might be a dangerous threat?

  “I’m going to be in bed,” I heard myself say.

  He blinked slowly, and the small smile on his lips told me he approved.

  “Good,” he said.

  “Good,” I replied. I stood.

  He stood. We were so close, I could almost feel his heartbeat fluttering under his T-shirt and flannel.

  This is where I say no. This is where I listen to the vampire and turn you away.

  He leaned down, lips slightly parted, hand drifting to cup the side of my face with ridiculous tenderness, gaze searching mine.

  This is where I listen to my heart.

  I reached up and pulled his lips down to mine.

  Heat kindled in that kiss, his mouth shifting gently to surround first my top, then my bottom lip, soft, slow, as if he had waited too long to taste me and wanted to make this last. He tasted of coffee and, slightly, oranges, and some other deep note that was wholly him. His tongue pressed gently at the seam of my mouth and I opened gratefully to him, and lost myself to the reality of my fantasy, of kissing him as I’d longed to for almost my entire life.

  Eventually, he pulled back, rubbing one thumb over my swollen bottom lip.

  “Delaney,” he breathed. He lowered his mouth and kissed me again, longer, and so slowly it ached. I made a needful sound and rubbed my hands up his wide back. I tugged on his soft, short hair, then rubbed my hands back down to his lean hips.

  I wanted this to last forever, this slow exploration, but I trembled with the need for more.

  He was wearing too many layers. My fingers tugged at his T-shirt, slipped up beneath the soft cotton, and finally stroked the heat of his smooth skin along the edge of his low-slung jeans.

  Ryder Bailey, I’ve been waiting for this. Waiting for you. I don’t care what the vampire says.

  I pulled away from the kiss so I could unb
utton my shirt. Ryder’s hands fell over mine, stilling my clumsy fingers over the line of buttons. He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss on the tender skin beneath my ear.

  “I have too many clothes on,” I whispered.

  “What should we do about that?” he growled against my ear, his breath soft and hot.

  I shifted, twisted out of his hold, then scooted back on the bed.

  “We should get naked.”

  He smiled and shucked out of his flannel shirt and T-shirt in one smooth over-the-head move. I tried to peel my gaze away from his bare chest.

  Okay, no, I didn’t.

  I’d seen him naked. Recently, as a matter of fact. But here, in the butter-soft light of the candles, the hard muscles of his wide shoulders, thick chest with a dusting of dark hair, and flat stomach were even more defined.

  He dropped his shirts to the floor. And crawled across the bed after me, then over the top of me, one hand braced on both sides of my shoulders.

  We were so close, I could see the pulse of his heartbeat at his throat, but we weren’t touching.

  He was watching me, waiting.

  I reached up, stroking his left shoulder where the tattoo of Leonardo da Vinci’s hand capped it. I traced the bold lines of the words there and bit at my bottom lip. The art was stark in sepia brown against his tanned skin. Simple and beautiful on its own—on him, incredibly sexy.

  I pressed my other hand—only my fingertips—on his other shoulder, and then dragged my fingers down the warmth of his hard chest, seeking the tight muscles of his stomach. His breathing hitched, and he held it as I explored. When he took his next breath, it shook a little.

  I loved that I could make him feel that way. Loved that just a simple touch from me could make him tremble.

  “Delaney,” he said. I didn’t know if it was question or request. I was focused on his other tattoo, the artist’s compass and stars that spilled over the edge of his hipbone.

  I wanted to put my mouth on it. I shivered a little, but not from the cool of the house. I felt like I was fevered, burning.

  I watched Ryder’s eyes as I slid my fingers into the waistband of his jeans.

  He exhaled, almost a moan, and his eyes fluttered closed as his throat worked to swallow.

 
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