Dill Harper leaned against the outside of the club and spun his car keys around the key ring on his finger. Eden, already alive and hopping, had a line circling the block out of sight. He watched the muscled bouncers stonewall another underage kid before turning his attention to the lot.
Rough-hewn brick plucked at his leather coat. Dill settled in, stretching out his long legs. He watched club wannabes though the long, black fringe of his bangs. Midnight breezes sifted his hair across his vision as he sank deeper into the shadows and waited to see the only reason he had come tonight: his mark, Mason Haliday.
Dill's cell phone buzzed at his waist. He ignored it, looking intently out of the darkness. Sage, his brother, would have to wait. After having followed Mason for almost a month, Dill knew the other man's haunts. Mason would be arriving any minute, and so far, Dill hadn't been able to get the DNA sample he'd been hired to obtain. There was always breaking and entering, but Mason's apartment overlooked the entire alley. It made sneaking in difficult.
It's why Sage had asked him to take the job. Only Dill could freeze time and escape with the sample. Neither one of them had counted on the fact that Mason fired every one of Dill's carnal fantasies.
Well, Sage still didn't know, so long as he hadn't been peeking into Dill's thoughts.
The faery curse had only worked in Dill's favor once, he rationalized. There was no reason to think he could freeze time without consequence when it really mattered and not get caught. The faeries had seen to that, and he had wondered why there'd been one moment's reprieve from the faery curse.
Freezing time had worked on command only once. He'd relived those perfect minutes over and over--always wondering if there'd be another aberration, another time he could stand in Mason's presence without being seen.
He should have taken the sample then, but Dill hadn't been able to do more than look at him, taking in Mason's darkly clothed form, inch by luscious inch, as Dill's heart had pounded almost painfully with want. His fingers had shaken to touch the other man. How he refrained, Dill would never know.
"Where are you?" Dill whispered into the night. He twisted his wrist to see the face of his watch, which had slid to cover hidden pulse points. Midnight. He'll be here, he assured himself.
As men went, Mason wasn't Dill's type. Usually, Dill wanted someone easy to leave. He liked transient boy-toys who danced to throbbing acoustical beats under strobing club lights, who laughed too loudly and shivered when he kissed them. He liked being the one who walked away when things got clingy, breaking ties before they'd bonded, and moving on before the sweethearts pinned their futures to him. The boy-toys Dill dated expected quick fucks and speedy departures.
Mason wasn't a boy-toy. God, no, he was a solid wall of unrelenting muscle. Getting a glimpse of him made Dill's thighs tighten and his breath catch in stupid effeminate ways that Dill laughed at from the prissy set. Mason freaked him out and turned him on, scared the shit out of him and brought him to full, erect discomfort with the sound of his voice.
He's a mark, not a fuck-buddy, he reminded himself, trying to keep his libido in check. But anticipation didn't seem to care that this job made Dill feel differently.
Dill was dominant, had always been a leader in relationships, yet Mason out-alpha-ed him in a way that made his inner guy cower with respect and intimidation. God, he wanted to get fucked by that cock. He wanted the right to hang out in Mason's posse of friends like he belonged.
Unless he invested in some serious body art, that wasn't likely to happen.
Unless he dropped the job, risked the reputation of Harper Security, Mason would always be off-limits. Dill was fairly certain that the kind of guy Mason appeared to be wouldn't take it lightly that he'd been under surveillance for the past month and that Dill had been the one to invade his privacy.
He grimaced. Yeah, there was that. Mason was definitely a private sort of guy and spying on him wouldn't win Dill any Brownie points. Shattered trust before there was ever a chance to earn it. Not the thing on which strong relationships were built. Assuming that's what Dill wanted.
A roar of motorbikes entering the lot at the opposite end tore him from his thoughts. Dill straightened in expectation. They'd take their time getting off the bikes. They'd dismount their hogs in that lazy way which suggested they didn't really want to leave the throbbing beast behind. Even after they were off, their thighs would continue to vibrate from the powerful motors.
He admired the relaxed way Mason drew his leg up and over. It always had Dill's balls in a pinch because he couldn't help but think Mason would use the same sexy move after fucking his brains out.
With any luck, Dill could make that man's inner thighs tingle and thrill with the same kind of powerful rush. Dill kept his eyes on him, watching through lowered lashes and downward tipped chin. Mason wouldn't be able to see him in the shadows, but Dill didn't take the chance. The man had that kind of charisma and sex appeal which makes one's teeth hurt and lungs ache if looked at fully.
Mason's guys congregated in a mass of jeans and leather, testosterone and tattoos. The last guy joined the group as they began moving toward the club with hoots and shoves. Mason seemed above the ruckus, at a distance while standing amidst them and untouched by the jibes and nudges of the others. He fucking coasted.
Rubber squealed in the distance. Engines revved and tires thump-thumped over the curb as three cars poured into the lot. The rear car blocked the exit. One plowed down the bikes as the bikers' laughs turned to raging shouts. Men with chains spilled out of the vehicles, advancing on the bikers.
Shit! A beat-down? A fucking beat-down? What had Mason's crowd done piss someone off that bad?
"Run," Dill shouted, breaking every rule about getting involved with a mark's interests.
Too far away, too engulfed in the miasma of clinking chain on cracking bone, of popping fists and cries of pain, Dill's shout went unheard. He leaped forward, racing toward the fray without a second thought on what he hoped to accomplish. As quickly as the fight started, it was over. The club pulsed on, behind him. The line and bouncers out of view around the corner had missed the whole cut up.
The bikes were destroyed. Two guys were down. One stabbed through his leather vest, blood pooling on concrete beneath him. The other, Mason, lay face down. Dill ran to him as the other bikers took off behind the cars, leaving their fallen men behind.
"Mason. Mason, answer me, goddamn it," he demanded, squatting down beside him.
Dill gripped Mason's shoulder, and rolled him. Mason roused, swore, and swung a fist. It connected and Dill's teeth clacked together sharply. He shook his head to clear the brightly exploding pricks of light in his vision as Mason fell back, losing consciousness.
"Hey! Hey, you," a man shouted by the club.
Dill looked up. The man waved a cell phone in the air.
"You stay right there. The police are coming."
It didn't sound like a Good Samaritan call. It sounded like a threat. Fuck if he'd stick around for that. "Sorry, buddy," he muttered at Mason. "I'm not leaving you here, and I'm not sticking around. You gotta come with me." And fuck if that didn't make Dill's cock jump a little in anticipation.
Sage let out a long, low whistle. "This one's a brute, bro."
"Yeah." Dill's lips twitched with a hint of pride. His arms folded across his chest, he was the standoff-ish version of his brother's stance. "This is the guy you assigned to me."
Sage relaxed with his hands on his hips.
"Did you call Mom?" Dill asked.
"She's coming. She has to pick up some mini-quiche for her class," Sage said. He motioned to Mason. "What happened?"
"Beat-down swarm. What class?"
"Your Vagina: The Cave of Creation," Sage answered.
The two men looked at each other and shuddered.
"God, vaginas and mushy food with cheese? Who thought of that?" Dill asked.
"Fuck if I know." Sage motioned to Mason's sleeping form by way of changing the subject. "Can we get back to this guy?"
He didn't want to. Mason would want privacy and Dill wanted to give it to him. The truth was, Mason was still a mark. He was their contract. No matter how much Dill wanted to protect him, he wasn't the reason they were there. Jenson Price was.
He pulled back the sheet, revealing the gauze that already showed red from the seeping wound in Mason's side. "He took a knife."
Sage looked at Dill askance. "The best place for him is the hospital."
"They'd ask questions, call the police."
"It's not your problem," Sage said. "You shouldn't have touched him."
"You aren't that cold, and neither am I."
"No, but it complicates the job by a lot," Sage pointed out. "If nothing else, you can get your sample and turn it in. That was your job. Now it's over."
He thought about the blood soaked gauze in the sterile bag. He didn't know why Jenson wanted it. It wasn't his business to know why, just to do. Well, he'd done. He could have just taken Mason's shirt and sent it off to Jenson instead of washing it. He told himself it was because he didn't want Mason to know someone was testing his blood.
It came down to shame. Dill liked what he'd seen of Mason. Every last sneer and each unforgiving edge of roughness he longed to soothe. A guy like Mason wouldn't forgive him for invading his space, stealing his fucking DNA, and sending it off to a stranger. Hell, Dill didn't forgive himself for doing what he knew he had to do.
"It's not," Dill said, trying to think of a reason to keep watching Mason, reasons to stay near him.
"Walk away, Dill."
He shook his head. "What if Jenson needs follow up? What if those guys come back and attack Mason? Don't you think that a man interested enough in hiring us to acquire his DNA sample might have some curiosity about anyone trying to kill his mark?"
"Maybe. Did you call him and tell him you had the sample?"
Sage shot him a look of disbelief. "You brought the mark home. Not only is that a conflict of interest, but it puts a crimp in my plans to get paid. Call him. Send the sample to the drop-off point. Bill him. That's all we need to do."
"Were you this snake-hearted with Joe on his job?" he asked, referring to Sage's husband.
"Joe wasn't my mark. He was my employer." Sage sighed. "Look, I get that you don't want this guy to die. I knew you'd be a soft touch with some of our jobs, and I have to compensate for that. Let Mom heal him and then send him on his way. If you occasionally keep tabs on him, after you've told the contact what happened tonight, it should be because the job was extended. First, get the invoice in, and take care of the original job."
Dill nodded. His gaze fell on Mason's sleeping form. He had no idea the turmoil he'd caused. Sage was right. He should call the client and finish it. If Jenson employed him further, then so be it.
God, he's sexy.
Dill shifted his weight and refolded his arms. He'd been tempted to peel Mason's jeans off his body. He should have. He wanted to. If he happened to get a slow look at the man's bulge, it couldn't be construed as more than examining the mark, could it?
"Did the faeries grant you X-ray vision, too?" Sage asked on a snort. "You're boring holes through the sheet with your smolder-vision."
"I didn't look for other wounds. This shouldn't have knocked him out. I hope Mom gets here soon to heal him."
"Well, clearly he's brain damaged," Sage said, bending to study the markings on Mason's bald head.
Alarm sped through Dill. Concussion? Head trauma? "What do you see?" he asked, sharply. Dill's fingers brushed the visible side of Mason's smooth scalp.
I don't see any marks. The pillow isn't bloody.
"I see an enormous tattooed skeleton claw cupping the back of his head with some wicked metallic looking talons. Jesus, how far down does his tat go? A guy with this much death art has some serious brain deficiencies." Sage stood, shaking his head. "Why are you protecting him? I don't get it."
Dill breathed a sigh of relief. "Is that it? Is that all you see? There isn't a cut somewhere, is there?"
"Relax, bro. No slice and dice on his head. Just sharp pointy objects injecting copious amounts of black ink not two inches from his central nervous system and biological mainframe."
"Well, if that's all," Dill said, smiling through his relief at Sage's humor.
Sage snorted. He clapped his hand on Dill's back. "Good luck. When this beast wakes up, he may not be too keen on finding himself in another man's bed. Call the client while you're waiting for Mom."
Dill cocked his head. "I will."
"Next time you play nursemaid to a mark, and need to carry him, change your mind. I'm going to be sore for a week." Sage flexed his arms, ruefully.
"Nah, that's Mom's department." Sage gestured to Dill's face. "You might want to put some ice on that. You're going to have quite a shiner when that thing develops."
"I will," Dill said, waving off his concern. "Why's he still out?"
"You're asking me?"
"Yeah, you're the brother with the ability to read minds." Dill's fingers tightened on his arms in exasperation.
"High tension moments, this isn't. You know how it works." Sage faced him, narrowing his eyes. "What aren't you saying?"
"Nothing." Dill eyed his brother nervously. The fuck if he wanted his thoughts read by a nosey sibling. "Cut it out."
"What is it about this mark?"
"Mason Haliday," Dill replied as though saying his name answered the question.
"You don't fucking know him, do you? Tell me you didn't cozy up to a mark," Sage said, sharply. "Dill, for fuck's sake, you didn't, did you?"
"No. He just seems like a guy who's had it rough."
"And you're his avenging angel," Sage summarized.
"What if he dies?" Dill argued, feeling like they were ten and eleven again. He made a determined effort to change the subject. "Do you think he's concussed?"
"If he is, you'd better wake him up. Sleeping through a concussion could be dangerous."
Dill sat down on the bed at Mason's hip. Leaning across his torso, he dropped a hand on Mason's shoulder and lightly shook him. "Mason, wake up. Can you hear me?"
Mason didn't move.
"God, I wish Mom would hurry up and get here."
"Fuck. I should have taken him to the emergency room," Dill muttered. "I just didn't want the cops hauling him off to jail until he had a chance to defend himself."
"Bullshit. His life saga isn't for you to clean up."
Dill shot a glower over his shoulder at Sage.
"Bullshit," Sage repeated, this time chuckling, too. "They'd have fixed him up first and then questioned him. What you wanted was to play nursemaid to the pile of ink and leather. You wanted to see him occupying your space. I bet it'll provide a lot of great jack-off sessions later."
"I acted, okay? Is that what you want me to admit? That I acted without thinking the whole thing through?"
"Pretty much," Sage answered, grinning reluctantly.
Dill let out a sigh of disgust, resumed gently shaking Mason's shoulder.
"Bet you were hoping I could tell you whether or not he has the hots for you, too, huh?" Sage asked gently.
"Crossed my mind," Dill confessed, glancing back. "He's still out, Sage. It's more important that he not die, wouldn't you say? For the client's sake?"
"He's not. He's dreaming about the parking lot fight. It's pretty choppy and mixed up with flashes of dry grass and a broken, white fence." Sage shrugged. "Looks like any other dream I've seen but none of it is deep or sluggish like a hard sleep or a comma."
Dill looked at him speculatively. "I thought you said you couldn't read him."
"Ever since Joe, I've had a little more flexibility about when I see things. Flora said the same thing about her transportation gift after she and Tate got together. Right now, Mason is having some major anxiety, though I don't get why being stabbed in a parking lot has anything to do with open fields and dry grass."
"Free association," Dill supposed.
Sage checked his watch. "I gotta go. Mom's gonna be here any minute and you know how she is. She's on this kick for me to hire some faery kid. I'm really not interested."
Dill snorted. "You think you'll win that fight?"
"Between Mason in your bed and Fauna not being married yet, I'd say I like my chances a lot better."
Mason moaned incoherently. Dill turned his attention back to the unconscious man, barely grunting when his brother threw a see ya, and left. Mason's head jerked to the side, his brow furrowed and tight.
"You're okay," Dill said, softly.
"Oh. Oh, dear," his mom said from beside him.
Dill startled, not having heard her approach. "Hey, Mom. Can you help him?" Looking up into his mother's pixie face, he noted the concern in her blue-eyed gaze as she moued her lips and tipped her head in consideration.
"My quiche is going to get cold," she said randomly. "You boys play so rough sometimes."
"I didn't do this."
"No one is assigning blame, Dill-weed," she assured with her affectionate term.
He hated that nickname, and frowned to express it.
"The universe doesn't work randomly. For you to have been there for this moment does mean you have something to do with this poor boy's state." Her look leveled on him.
She always seemed to approach problems from the back end. Most of the time, he didn't bother picking through the tangled mess of meaning because, most of the time, there wasn't one.
"Mom, if there were any way to have stopped this, I'd have done it."
"I know, Dilly."
Oh, God, not another one. If she was whipping out the Dilly already, the next one would be Dilly-boy.
"That's why you were there."
"Whuh? I thought you said it wasn't my fault, right before you said it was. Now you're saying that my being there caused it while it also didn't?"
"Uh huh," she agreed, brightly. She patted Dill's cheek. "You're so smart."
Dill closed his eyes, and took a deep, calming breath. "Mom, can you fix him?"
"Sure, I can."
"Mom, please fix him," he said, hoping she'd get the hint.
She put her tiny, pale hands on Mason's thickly muscled chest. Catching her bottom lip under her teeth she stared off into space as the skin beneath her palms glowed, spreading outward until Mason looked like a human light bulb. Just as suddenly, she got up and caressingly patted Dill's cheek.
"I fixed your eye, too. Now. I have to get my quiche back in the oven, Dill-doh. Why don't you come over and say hello to the ladies?"
"Mom! Do not add that nickname to your repertoire."
She blinked, a vaguely hurt look crossing her face. "Why not, Dilly-boy? I like dildos."
He felt the blush climb his neck. "Because I don't want to think of my mother's fuck toys. Ever."
"Oh. Why didn't you say so?"
He sighed with increasing exasperation. He loved his mom, really he did, but she could be kind of oblivious sometimes. If she whipped out that new nickname at Thanksgiving or something, he'd never live it down.
He looked from his mother to Mason. "Is he done?"
"Resting. Being well takes a lot out of a human. Come meet the ladies."
"I'll pass, Mom, but thanks, vagina caves aren't my thing. I want to be here when he wakes up."
She tapped her foot on the floor, reminding him all over again how tiny she was, how faery-like. "Dilly, you just watch your step. This boy's injuries aren't your fault even though you caused them."
He wondered if he looked as confused as he felt.
She kissed his forehead. "I'll save you some quiche."
God, no. Wedge shaped warmed cheese and mushy egg casserole with a bunch of vaginally curious women was definitely something he could take a pass on. Especially if she called him Dildo in their presence. But he smiled and nodded since it facilitated her exit.
Now alone with Mason, he carefully peeled back the gauze to see that the cut had healed perfectly. Only trace redness remained. Mason breathed easier, and his brow had smoothed.
Dill put his hand over Mason's heart, telling himself all he meant to do was check the steadiness of his pulse. It didn't stop him from running his fingers through the sparse nest of hair on his pecs, or from tracing the line of dark, crisp curls that traveled to Mason's waistband.
A man as hard and unapproachable as Mason should have had rough skin. It wasn't though. Its firm texture heated the pads of Dill's fingers with smooth resilience. Dill wanted nothing more than to nibble the strange combination of delineated muscle and pliable abdomen.
He knew from stripping the man's shirt off, that the skeletal claw design morphed into a tattoo of a spinal column that tracked Mason's vertebrae, making him even more intimidating.
Mason's large frame, thick wrists, and well-muscled physique had always been dressed in negligent fashion. Sometimes with worn jeans and black cotton shirt, he nevertheless always sported a chain attached to his black leather belt. His biceps were circled with tribal tattoos and, on the inside of one of his wrists, inked scar tissue spoke of a homemade design given to him sometime in the past.
He looked like a mean sonofabitch and, for the life of him, Dill couldn't figure out what drew him to Mason like a moth to a flame. All he knew was that Mason filled his eyes, lurked in the spare moments of his thoughts, permeated his pores with danger and life, and captivated his curiosity with heart-pounding certainty.
"Mason. Wake up."
Dill's heart felt like it was in his throat. What would Mason say when he woke? Mason didn't know he existed. Dill's job was to lurk in the background, watch, and snag some DNA for a client.
While Dill knew a helluva lot about him, technically, they'd never met. Just that one moment when Dill had first seen Mason and time stood still. His faery gift in action, he supposed. It had been enough for Mason to take the risk, walk around the frozen man and his posse, to look in his charcoal eyes, and shiver when he felt as though Mason had seen him.
That wasn't possible, though. That wasn't how the gift worked. When time stood still, everything in that moment ceased to move, caught between one second and the next while Dill existed out of time as a misplaced observer.
"Mason," Dill murmured, eager to see those pitch eyes trained on him.
Mason inhaled sharply. His eyes opened, narrowed.
"You," he growled, acidly.
His arm cocked, and Mason's fist connected with Dill's cheek, knocking him senselessly to the side. Mason fell off the bed, rolling unsteadily to his hands and knees.
Stunned, Dill shook his head trying to clear it of the throbbing pain in his cheekbone and the high whistle ringing through his hearing.
"Get the fuck away from me, you freak," Mason snarled.
Dill watched him, trying to make sense of what was happening. Mason leaped to his feet. Instantly, his face turned ashen and he clutched his side where the stab wound had been. With a grunt, he collapsed to his knees.
"What the fuck? What the fuck?" Mason rambled, urgently.