Shards of Blood and Shadow | Anna Argent
705
page-template-default,page,page-id-705,page-child,parent-pageid-712,woocommerce-no-js,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,qode_grid_1300,footer_responsive_adv,qode-content-sidebar-responsive,transparent_content,columns-4,qode-child-theme-ver-1.0.0,qode-theme-ver-10.1.2,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-5.1,vc_responsive
 

Shards of Blood and Shadow

Book 1 of The Lost Shards Series

Cleo Radella inherited both the ability to see the future, and a haunting prediction that she will commit murder on her twenty-fifth birthday. That day has arrived, along with a stranger who is fated to alter her world irrevocably.

 

One will come in blood, the other in shadow…

 

Flint is not what one would call a people person. He despises small talk, prefers solitude, and hates being touched. Luckily, the fragments of ancient, powerful souls he carries allow him to fade into the shadows, unseen and unnoticed—handy for a guy who hunts people for a living.

 

Cleo is his next target, but when her life is threatened, he will stop at nothing to protect the beautiful psychic. No one captures his prey but him.

 

Death lurks behind them…

 

Forced together, Flint reveals a world Cleo never knew existed. She soon learns that no one is what they seem, and that her destiny is much bigger than she ever imagined…

Read Excerpt

Chapter One

 

August 18, Cassadaga, Florida

 

As a professional psychic, Cleo Radella was used to handing out predictions about others, but the one she faced today was all about her. And it terrified her.

 

It was barely four in the morning, but she’d been awake since the stroke of midnight, knowing that the day of her mother’s prediction—one given at the moment of Cleo’s birth—was here. No more waiting. No more pretending today wouldn’t come. No more certainty that her next breath was guaranteed.

 

No more time.

 

Despite the Florida heat, Cleo couldn’t seem to get warm. A chill of foreboding wrapped around her, making goosebumps dance on her skin.

 

She wrapped a purple robe around her to ward the chill away and padded down the steep, narrow stairs, avoiding the third, the creaky one, so she wouldn’t wake her aunt. But by the time Cleo had reached the kitchen, she realized her stealth had been unnecessary.

 

Her honorary aunt was already awake and bustling around the kitchen.

 

Delores Vail stood beneath a tarnished, antique glass light with a single bulb. The dim, golden glow was almost harsh in the darkness, making the cracked black-and-white floor tiles hurt Cloe’s eyes.

 

“I thought you’d be up early,” Delores said with a hint of worry in her tone.

 

A flowered apron was tied around her chubby middle, and a sad smile dulled her muddy brown eyes. She was closer to fifty than forty now. Her graying hair had once been a warm, soft brunette, but time was waging a battle within the short strands—one it would inevitably win. As soon as it had conquered her hair, it would spread its invasion across her body until there was no part of her left untouched.

 

Cleo couldn’t stand to think about how the war would end. Today was already filled with enough fear.

 

Delores, while no actual blood relation, was the closest thing Cleo had to family. She’d been her mom’s best friend since Cleo was little, and a constant fixture in her life. Now that Mom was gone, Delores was more than just her roommate and business partner. She was Cleo’s anchor—the thing that kept her from spinning off into the darkness, adrift and alone.

 

If anything happened to Delores, Cleo knew she wouldn’t survive it.

 

“Couldn’t sleep,” Cleo said. “You?”

 

Delores lifted the mixing bowl to display its contents. The smile she offered was genuine, but frail, as if it would crack if she exerted any more pressure on it. “I thought today called for a little fortification.”

 

So sweet. Delores had always been kind. It was a tragedy that the universe had decided to give her such a heavy burden to bear.

 

Cleo felt a grin nibble away at her worry. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think even chocolate chip pancakes have the power to make today not suck.”

 

Delores’s gaze softened. “It’s a big day, but you’ll get through it. We’ll get through it together.”

 

“I was hoping you’d forget what today was so you didn’t have to worry. No sense in both of us having a day ruined.”

 

“First, I’d never forget your birthday, especially not a landmark one like reaching a quarter of a century.”

 

Cleo winced with cartoony exaggeration, which had the desired effect of making Delores chuckle.

 

“Second, your mom and I spent so many hours talking about this day that there’s no way it would just slip my mind. She can’t be here for you, but I can. And I will.”

 

Cleo pulled out one of the mismatched chairs around the small kitchen table and slumped into it. Like everything else in the little house that also served as their fortune-telling business, it was faded and worn with use. No shiny stainless steel and gleaming granite for a couple of professional psychics in a town filled with them. There simply weren’t enough clients—or their money—to go around.

 

Sometimes Cleo wondered if they’d be better off moving to a place where women like her and Delores were fewer and farther between.

 

Then again, no matter where she went, her mother’s prediction would still follow. For all Cleo knew, if she hopped in her car right this second, she’d run right into the thing she was hoping to avoid.

 

No. Better to stand her ground, brace herself, and take it like a woman.

 

Delores poured the first pancakes into a cast iron skillet and sprinkled them with the darkest chocolate chips money could buy. “These may not make today fun, but maybe it will be a little easier with a bit of chocolate on board.”

 

“You are as wise as you are kind,” Cleo said.

 

“You’re just saying that to earn extra chocolate chips.”

 

The coffee pot let out a sputtering, hissing groan, indicating it was done with its chore. Cleo poured two cups, added a healthy spoon of honey to her aunt’s, and a splash of milk to both.

 

“I think we should close the shop today,” Cleo said.

 

Delores flipped the pancakes. “You know that won’t do any good. Your mother’s predictions always come true. Just like yours. There’s no escaping it. Every action you take today will inevitably lead you closer to the thing you’re hoping to avoid, so you might as well make some money while you’re at it.” She looked around the kitchen, which, while clean, was shabby in even the most optimistic light. “The house payment isn’t going to make itself.”

 

Cleo sighed in resignation and sipped her coffee.

 

Mom grinned at her from a photo on the refrigerator. When it was taken, she’d been standing in this very kitchen, baking Cleo’s twenty-second birthday cake. There was a smear of chocolate on her chin and flour in her hair, but she was still so beautiful it made Cleo’s chest ache.

 

She’d died twelve days later.

 

Cleo always wondered if she hadn’t known she was going to die, or if she’d simply chosen not to tell anyone.

 

Sometimes it was better not knowing what the future held.

 

“I wish there was some kind of loophole in Mom’s prediction,” Cleo said.

 

Delores brought two plates topped with steaming pancakes to the table and set them down. Stuck in the top of Cleo’s was a single birthday candle, it’s flame bright and cheerful, as if it had no idea she was about to snuff it out.

 

Delores’s voice was gentle. “Honey, your mother and I spent years turning her prediction around and looking at it from every angle. The only way through today is right down the middle. Be the smart, sweet, brave girl you’ve always been and you’ll come out the other side just fine.”

 

Cleo sure as hell hoped so. For twenty-five years, she’d always known that tomorrow would come. No matter what she did, or what risks she took, she knew she was going to be fine because her mother predicted that today would come. It couldn’t come if Cleo was dead, so there was always a sense of peace in whatever decisions she made. But now…there were no more guarantees.

 

For the first time in her life, she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d have another tomorrow. Even worse, darkness would enter her life today, and she wasn’t entirely sure she’d survive it.

 

Cleo blew out the candle without bothering to make a wish. Wishing would change nothing.

 

“Eat while they’re hot,” Delores said, then bustled off.

 

She returned a moment later with a long, narrow box wrapped in glittery unicorn paper.

 

Cleo’s heart gave a little squeeze of nostalgia.

 

Mom always found a way to work unicorns into Cleo’s birthday gifts, ever since she was a little girl. She’d had a unicorn-themed party at the impressionable age of five and had somehow connected birthdays and unicorns in her head. For years, no birthday had been complete without them, and when she grew older, her mom had delighted in finding creative ways to work them into every year’s celebration. Now Delores was carrying on that tradition in Mom’s absence.

 

Cleo blinked back a mist of tears and gave her aunt a big hug. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Thank you.”

 

Delores didn’t smile back. “Don’t thank me until you open it.”

 

Cleo tore into the paper, unconcerned about the glitter bomb she set off. A little bit of sparkle in her pancakes wouldn’t kill her.

 

She lifted the lid of the box, and inside a foam cradle shaped to fit perfectly was a gleaming combat knife. She’d never seen anything like it before. It wasn’t some mass-produced tool provided to the military or sold at gun stores. It was a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of art. Deadly art.

 

The handle was a beautiful piece of burled wood with an intricately swirling grain. It had been carved by hand and finished with loving attention until the surface was as smooth as glass. Rather than being thick and clunky, the stunning wooden handle was sized just for her grip.

 

The blade was a brilliant, polished silver, with twin grooves running down the length. It’s mirror finish reflected her image—one pale blue eye and one emerald green eye, both wide with horror.

 

The overall design was simple and clean. Practical.

 

This was the kind of knife meant for only one thing.

 

Killing.

 

A cold chill fell over her and she dropped the box on the table like it was on fire.

 

Coffee sloshed out of the cups and the little birthday candle rolled to the floor.

 

Delores grabbed Cleo’s hand, and only then did she realize that she’d knocked her chair over to scramble away from the weapon.

 

“Hear me out,” Delores said.

 

Cleo jerked her hand away and hugged herself. “What the hell? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

 

“You need it.”

 

She shook her head. “I don’t want it. Take it back. I don’t even want to touch it long enough to put it in the trash.”

 

Delores sighed and shook her head. “You’re keeping it. You need to be able to protect yourself. Especially today. I would have bought a gun, but—”

 

The feeling left Cleo’s legs and she had to lean heavily against the kitchen counter to hold herself up. “I don’t want a gun, either. I don’t want any of this.”

 

“It’s only for self-defense.”

 

No. No, it wasn’t. A knife like that was meant to kill. She could see its intent shining in its pretty silver surface as easily as if it had been engraved there.

 

“I have pepper spray. That’s all I need.”

 

Delores’s voice went hard. “That’s not enough and you know it. Bad things are coming for you today and I’m not about to lose another daughter.”

 

Her sharp tone cut through some of Cleo’s shock.

 

“I’m not going to die today.” It sounded more like a question than a statement.

 

“Not if you have a way to defend yourself, you won’t.”

 

“I can’t take it.” Her voice wavered and she felt tears form, hot behind her lashes. “I won’t.”

 

Delores got right in her face, putting on her sternest maternal expression. She pointed a thick, stubby finger at Cleo’s nose and shook it. “I’ve already buried two children, a husband, and a best friend. I am not going to lose you, too. You’re going to take that knife and keep it on you all day. And then, after this whole awful day is over and the sun comes up tomorrow, you and I can sit down as discuss other options. But until then, you’re going to carry the damn knife like it’s the only thing standing between you and death. Because it very well may be. Understand?”

 

Cleo did. She understood that the woman she loved like a second mother was terrified out of her mind, and that if carrying some fucking knife was going to make her feel better today, then Cleo owed it to her to strap on the thing and tote it around.

 

It didn’t mean she had to use it.

 

Cleo was not going to kill anyone today, no matter how clearly her mother’s prediction had promised she would.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

“Did you find her yet?”

 

Flint Skelton eyed the antique house from his nondescript rental car. Even though the sun had yet to rise, the thick heat was still stifling. He didn’t dare open his windows to let in what passed for fresh air for fear of being noticed by a nosy, insomniac neighbor.

 

Cleopatra Radella’s house was charming, with a wide, welcoming porch and lacy curtains in the windows. Great pains had been taken to make the front inviting, but he’d scouted the whole area on foot under the cover of dark and knew that the back had been left to fade and peel under the blazing Florida sun.

 

Appearances were apparently important to Radella.

 

“I found her,” Flint told the woman on the phone.

 

“What do you think? Good guy or bad guy?” she asked.

 

Marvel Manning was a tech genius, a germaphobe, and a total chatterbox. While he appreciated her loyalty, ability, and work ethic, he did not want to get drawn into her conversational black hole.

 

“Don’t know yet,” he said. “She could have no shards at all.”

 

“When will you know?” asked Marvel.

 

“These things take time. It’s not like she has the answer stamped on her forehead.”

 

“Starry told me to tell you to hurry. We’re way behind on bringing in the strays.”

 

Flint suppressed his irritation. He owed Starry his life and would gladly repay her in full if she called on him to do so, but there were some things that were beyond his ability.

 

“Tell her it will take as long as it takes,” he said. “I need to be sure before we send her to Eden.”

 

Marvel sighed. “Yeah. I figured that’s what you’d say. Problem is, my new program is spitting out names faster than we can find them. This Cleopatra chick has been out there for almost three years on her own. And if I can find her, so can the Vires.”

 

Flint caught a fleeting glimpse of a woman through a window in the back corner of the house, in the kitchen. His vantage point wasn’t great, but his eyes were good, and that little flash of movement was all it took to make out the features of a young woman: Average height, chin-length, straight blond hair, pretty features.

 

He couldn’t tell more than that about her appearance, but her movements gave away much more to a man like him.

 

She was terrified.

 

The light in the kitchen winked out. A few seconds later, a light in an upstairs room came on. A shadow passed over the closed blinds, moving with jerky hesitance. Then she went still for a moment before her shadow shrank as she approached the window.

 

The cheap plastic blinds parted as she peered out and looked right at his car.

 

Flint froze.

 

He was good at staying hidden. People rarely noticed him, even when he wasn’t using the magic coursing through his blood to enhance  his ability to blend in.

 

Still, the blond woman looked right at him, as if able to see through the pre-dawn gloom, past the glare of streetlights hitting his car window, and into the shadows of the sedan’s interior. He could feel her gaze on him, almost as if she’d known he’d be here.

 

He barely moved his mouth to speak to Marvel. “This fancy program of yours…what does it tell you about the people it finds?”

 

“Not much. Most of the data is a bust. It’s all based on obituaries. I set it up to track the people who have lost a parent or older siblings, and see if any weird news reports about them hit the ‘net.”

 

“Weird how?”

 

“You know, like manifestations of magical mojo—proof that they might have inherited shards.”

 

Cleopatra’s eyes stayed fixed on Flint’s window as she squinted.

 

Cleopatra. What a ridiculous name for an American blonde.

 

“Does it tell you what abilities they might have?” he asked.

 

“Not really. I mean, we get hints sometimes, based on their parentage, but you know how fickle shards can be. The mix matters. This one time, I knew a dude whose dad could bench press a truck, but when he inherited the shards, he couldn’t even—”

 

Flint cut Marvel off before he could be swept into her conversational vortex. “What about this woman? Does your program know what she can do?”

 

“Sure. She’s a psychic. She lives with another psychic. Has a website and everything. You should check it out.”

 

Flint relaxed. This woman was a charlatan. A con artist. Nothing more. He didn’t have to worry about supernatural psionic blast rays coming from her eyes or a scream that could melt lead, like the last man he’d found.

 

Cleopatra Radella was simply a normal human preying on the gullible.

 

Too bad. For a thief and a liar, she was kind of cute. He just bet that had brought in more than one man for her to prey upon.

 

Her eyes disappeared as the blinds snapped back into place. Her shadow moved through the room, still jerky and unsettled, but she didn’t appear to be coming out to see why he was sitting here, watching her house.

 

Like everyone else, she’d looked right past him and didn’t even know he was there.

 

“Where’s my next assignment?” Flint asked.

 

“You know the rules. I can’t tell you until this one is done. No jumping ahead.”

 

“It’s done. There’s nothing here. Time to move on.”

 

“Are you sure?” asked Marvel, sounding disappointed. “The algorithm gave her a ninety-two percent chance of having inherited shards. That’s unusually high.”

 

“No one advertises that they have shards. That would be insane. She’s just one more liar trying to make a buck by feeding into the delusions of the desperate.”

 

Now Marvel’s voice pitched up with irritation. “For the love of Odin! So, you’re simply guessing that she’s not one of ours based on pre-conceived notions?”

 

“Based on experience,” he corrected.

 

“I don’t have time to deal with your stubbornness. Hang on.”

 

Flint was left with no choice but to wait for Marvel to send him his next target. As he did, he drove out of the aging neighborhood and headed toward a diner he’d spotted down the highway. He hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours—since before his hunt for Cleopatra had started—and he was starving.

 

The voice that came out through his headset was not the young, high-pitched voice of Marvel Manning, but instead, the low, sultry purr of another woman.

 

“Marvel tells me we have a problem,” Starry Mandrake said.

 

Tattletale. Running to the boss because Marvel didn’t like his decision was juvenile. Then again, she was young. He doubted she was even old enough to drink.

 

“No problems,” Flint said. “Simply a difference of opinion.”

 

Starry’s voice had a bit of gravel in it, like Marvel had woken her from a deep sleep. “She says you’re guessing that this woman has no shards, rather than being sure.”

 

“She has a website hocking her wares. If she had shards and the ability to see into the future, she sure as hell wouldn’t be stupid enough to tell the world what she could do.”

 

“While your point is valid, you’re missing one vital piece of information.”

 

“Yeah? What’s that?”

 

“Not everyone who holds shards knows what they carry inside of them.”

 

“I know that. I’ve been doing this job for two years now.”

 

“And I’ve been doing it for twenty.”

 

“I’m not a novice,” he insisted as irritation grated beneath his skin.

 

“No? Then why are you acting like one?” Starry asked. “The Flint I hired doesn’t guess. He knows. You’re one of the best scouts we have because you take nothing for granted. You’re careful. Thorough.”

 

Flint felt a ripple of pleasure at her praise, even as the shame of the truth killed it.

 

He was guessing. He hated liars, and his assumption she was one was clouding his judgment.

 

He let out a long sigh and pulled the sedan to the side of the street. “I’ll go back. Make sure.”

 

For Starry, he’d do anything. He owed her his life. Maybe more.

 

“Thank you,” she said. “And if she is a vessel, I need you to bring her to Eden.”

 

“That’s not my job. Send Garrick or Wade.”

 

“They’re both busy.”

 

“I’m a scout. I find them and verify that they have shards. That’s all. Someone else can do the people stuff. I’m no good at it.”

 

“I need you to figure it out, Flint. We’re short-handed. It’s time you got a promotion, anyway.”

 

“I don’t want a promotion. I like what I do.”

 

“Then learn to like the touchy-feely stuff, too, because we need you to do this. I need you to.”

 

And like a sucker, that was all it took to get Flint on board.

 

He breathed for a moment until his teeth unclenched enough for him to speak. “Any pointers?”

 

He could hear the smile of victory in Starry’s voice. “Be friendly. Trust your instincts. If she has shards but doesn’t want to play nice, then call and we’ll figure out our next move. But you at least have to try. A little sweet talk might be all it takes to convince her to come in. If she’s one of ours, we need her.”

 

“And if she’s one of theirs?”

 

“You were issued one of Marvel’s guns, right?” Starry asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then use it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Flint was standing on Cleopatra’s front porch, his finger over the doorbell, when she unlocked the door and flipped the closed sign to open. Beneath the flourish of the scrolling, feminine font, in smaller letters, the sign read, Come in. We’re expecting you.

 

He rolled his eyes at the lie and tried to shove down his disdain.

 

Professional psychics. What a crock of shit.

 

The sun had not yet fully risen and there were still deep pockets of shadow on her front porch. Between that and his innate ability to blend in and go unnoticed, he was shocked when her gaze met his.

 

She froze on the other side of the glass, staring at him with a mismatched set of eyes. One was the pale blue of sun-bleached summer skies. The other was a clear, bright, emerald green. Both were fringed by light brown lashes and stretched open wide with surprise.

 

Guess she wasn’t expecting him like the sign said, after all.

 

Her hand moved back to the door, and for a moment, he thought she was going to lock him out. Before she could, she stopped herself, squared her shoulders and cracked the door open.

 

“What do you want?” Her voice wavered with fear, and for a split second, Flint had the strangest need to reassure her.

 

Ridiculous.

 

For all he knew, she was one of the Vires, twisted and evil, and preparing to kill him as she spoke. The combat knife strapped to her waistband—while beautiful and sheathed—spoke loudly about how used to violence she was. She hadn’t even tried to conceal the weapon.

 

Then again, in that clinging tank top and skimpy denim shorts, he had no idea where she could have hidden a knife that big.

 

“May I come in?” he asked, keeping his voice soft so he didn’t scare her more.

 

All he wanted was to be done with this mission and back on the road, finding the next target, not babysitting this one. That was a job for the touchy-feely sorts—the ones with people skills and plenty of patience. Flint had neither.

 

“Who are you?” she asked, skepticism clear in her tone.

 

Her voice was quiet, as if she didn’t want to wake someone still asleep.

 

Did she have a kid? A husband?

 

The website Marvel had told him to visit indicated that she lived here with another supposed psychic named Delores Vail, a woman who claimed to be able to speak to the dead. He’d already seen the older woman moving around the house, so there had to be someone else sleeping inside.

 

“My name is Flint Skelton. I’d like to talk to you.”

 

“I don’t do readings until seven.”

 

He didn’t bother to mention that she’d just flipped her sign to tell the world she was open for business. He already guessed she was a liar. Calling her out on it this early in the conversation was just going to make her defensive.

 

“I don’t want a reading,” he said. “I just want a few minutes of your time.”

 

“For what?”

 

He didn’t answer. Let her curiosity do the work for him. “May I come in?”

 

She hesitated, then opened the door the rest of the way.

 

Cleopatra Radella might not have had the dark, sultry looks of an Egyptian queen, but she was definitely as beautiful as one. Even this early in the morning, with no makeup or jewelry to adorn her, there was still a deep, natural beauty glowing in her skin. Her chin-length blond hair was straight and shiny, swaying to stroke her jaw with every twitch of her head. She was average height, with soft, flowing curves and long, smooth limbs. Her mouth was wide and plump, contrasting with the hard lines of a distinctively square jaw—one set at a regal, upward angle as if daring him to defy her.

 

He found that strange, since there was no way she could have known who he was or what he wanted. No one did. It was Flint’s job to stay hidden. He had no online presence, no listed phone numbers, no social media accounts. He did have an email address, but it was a random string of numbers that held no personal meaning whatsoever. And the only people who used it were the ones he worked with.

 

Not even the Vires knew about him, which was just the way he liked it.

 

If his enemy didn’t know he existed, it would be hard for them to see him coming.

 

Cleopatra took a small step back, into the glow of the antique chandelier in the foyer.

 

She was paler than most Florida residents at the end of summer, as if she spent most of her time indoors.

 

Perhaps she stayed busy torturing the prisoners she kept chained up inside. Maybe that’s why she was being quiet—so her victims wouldn’t know help had arrived.

 

For some reason, that image didn’t align with the woman standing in front of him, staring at him with open expectation and more than a hint of fear.

 

Her striking two-tone eyes kept pulling him in, forcing him to stare at her longer than was polite.

 

She licked her lips and her hand strayed to the handle of the combat knife strapped to her shorts.

 

“Are you coming in or not?” she asked.

 

Flint stepped over the threshold, into the cool, golden space.

 

The house was old and didn’t appear to have had many updates over the years. There was a dark, wooden stairway leading up to a landing, where the stairs turned to continue up to the second floor. The foyer was decorated in sepia-toned photos of people and places he didn’t recognize. No one smiled in the photos. That, and the old-time clothing and lack of technology gave away their advanced age.

 

As he looked, he started to notice oddities in the pictures, like shadows that didn’t seem to belong, and floating orbs of light.

 

More charlatan nonsense, no doubt.

 

There was a threadbare, antique rug covering the worn floorboards, and an intricately carved bench where customers could wait for their lies.

 

Running toward the back of the house, next to the stairs, was a hallway that ended in a solid wood door. It was closed, giving the residents privacy from the people who came here searching for answers they would never find.

 

To his right was what would have once been a parlor, and over the heavy wooden pocket doors was a sign with the name, Madame Vail.

 

On the left side of the foyer was another room, this one with a pair of glass door covered in lacy curtains that matched those on the front windows. There was no name over these doors, but there once had been. Flint could see the shadowy outline of something that had been there for years, now removed.

 

Cleopatra motioned toward the doors. “Please, come into my office.”

 

He pushed through the doors, and what greeted him was not at all what he expected. He assumed he’d be surrounded by geodes and crystals, burning incense or sage, and feathered dreamcatchers. Instead, the room was sparsely decorated, with cool gray walls and a soft, navy-blue rug. Along one wall was a small, gray couch, much too short for someone like him to lay on. There was an antique desk in the center with two modern office chairs on one side and one on the other. The wooden surface was scratched and worn dull with use, but it bore no crystal ball, tarot cards, or other trinkets of her trade.

 

The wall opposite the couch was lined with books from top to bottom, the aging shelves bowing with the weight. A few of the books looked like props on a movie set, with leather bindings and intricate gold lettering, but most of them were paperbacks from modern authors he recognized. Mysteries, thrillers and romances mostly, with a few horror stories sprinkled in here and there for spice. And unlike the prop books, these showed marks of wear along their spines.

 

“Have a seat,” she said as she waved to the desk.

 

Flint saw no signs of a trap, felt no prickling sense of danger along his spine. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try to kill him for the power he carried, but he took that lack of foreboding as a promising sign.

 

He sat. She stood, keeping several feet away with her hand never straying far from the knife.

 

“Talk,” she said, without warmth or welcome.

 

He’d thought his plan through, up to the point where he got her to agree to speak to him. Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure what to say. How did one ask someone to drop everything and take off out of town with a perfect stranger to be judged to see if they should be protected or caged?

 

Once again, Flint cursed Starry for forcing him into this situation. But now that he was here, he was stuck, and the only thing he could think to say was, “I have a job offer for you.”

 

She blinked in surprise, like his offer was the last thing she’d expected. “I don’t work with the police anymore.”

 

Anymore? That was interesting.

 

He made a mental note to check that out as soon as he was done here.

 

“Do I look like a cop?” he asked.

 

“Actually, yeah. Short hair, stiff posture, like you’re used to wearing a vest, and that attitude you’ve got going on is a dead giveaway.”

 

“What attitude?”

 

She tilted her head. “You keep looking at me like you’re wondering if you’re going to have to kill me.”

 

She definitely had him there. Then again, in his world, he never knew who he might have to kill next. He didn’t even trust his friends.

 

“Is that some kind of psychic premonition?” he asked.

 

“No, just powers of observation. Now, if we’re done here, I have things I need to do.”

 

“What about my job offer?”

 

“I already told you I don’t work with the police. The justice system has nothing to do with actually getting justice, so I’m not interested in enabling it.”

 

“I’m not a cop. The job is something else.”

 

Her two-tone eyes narrowed, skeptical. “What?”

 

“I’d like you to come with me for a couple of days and meet some friends.”

 

“I don’t do parties.”

 

Do?”

 

She waved a slender hand. “You know, put on a show for entertainment purposes.”

 

Was that a thing? Did entire gatherings of people line up to be lied to for entertainment?

 

He had no idea.

 

Flint shook his hed. “It’s not a party—just a couple of people who’ve heard what you can do and want to meet you.”

 

“Tell them to come here. I’ll be happy to meet them.”

 

“One of them doesn’t get out much. You have to go to her.”

 

She shook her head so hard her hair swung past her nose. “No, thanks. I’ll pass. I have lots of paying clients who are happy to come to me.”

 

He was making no headway here. He was all direct force, and a woman like her needed subtle pressure.

 

There was only one tool he could think of that might change her mind. “Whatever you make here, I’ll double it.”

 

She stared at him for a long moment.

 

Flint squirmed under the scrutiny. He wasn’t used to being seen at all, much less studied.

 

“You think I’m a fake, don’t you?” she asked.

 

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what I think.”

 

A slow, sly smile turned her mouth into a thing of beauty. He couldn’t help but stare and wonder how lips as plump as hers would feel against his skin.

 

She held out her hand. “Want a reading?

 

That was the absolute last thing he wanted, right after letting her touch him. “No, thanks.”

 

“Because you don’t believe or because you don’t want to know?” she asked.

 

“Both,” he said.

 

“What if I told you that I knew you’d come here today. I’ve known all my life.”

 

A flicker of doubt wiggled in his gut. She’d been terrified when she’d seen him standing on her porch well before normal people were out of bed. Terrified, but not surprised.

 

Maybe she had known he was coming.

 

Then again. Maybe this was how her show worked—keep talking until the perception of the sucker shifted enough that her lies sounded true.

 

Flint met her gaze, speaking slowly so she wouldn’t misunderstand him. “I’d say you’re full of shit.”

 

Her hand stayed extended, and the smallest smile tickled the corners of her mouth. “Don’t you want to know the truth? Just take my hand and I’ll tell you what I see. Free of charge.”

 

Not if it meant he had to touch her. He didn’t like being touched. By anyone. Ever.

 

His voice came out harder than he intended. “All I want to know is if you’ll take the job.”

 

“You still haven’t told me what you want me to do. Exactly.”

 

“Meet some people. Talk to them. Nothing illegal or nefarious. Hell, you might even be able to help some people in the process.”

 

“Who? Who will I help?”

 

He shook his head, letting his irritation come through in his voice. “I don’t know…people. You know. The masses.”

 

Her hand fell to her side, grazing the knife as it passed. He wanted to ask her why she was wearing it, but was sure he wouldn’t like the answer.

 

Not that he should have cared what she said. It made no difference to him if she was one of the good guys, the bad guys, or some mundane human liar caught in the middle. All he cared about was getting back on the road and away from all this dealing-with-people shit.

 

“I can’t work for someone who thinks I’m a liar,” she finally said. “I’m sorry, but I think you should go.”

 

“I’m just the messenger. The woman who wants to hire you believes in what you can do.” Or, at least she believed enough to keep an open mind. Which was probably what Flint should have been doing.

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Cleopatra said. “You don’t trust me, and in my experience, that’s either because you’re a liar yourself, or you’ve been burned by one. Either way, I’m not trusting you enough to believe there even is a job.” She moved to the wide doorway, and it wasn’t lost on Flint that she’d never closed the doors. “I’ll show you out.”

 

He stood and turned, wondering how he was going to break the news to Starry. He couldn’t stand the idea of letting her down.

 

“I’ll give you time to reconsider, Cleopatra.”

 

“Cleo,” she corrected. “It’s just Cleo. And I don’t need any time.”

 

He stopped just outside the front door on the porch and turned to face her. “You don’t know that yet.”

 

Cleo gave him a small smile. “I’ve known my whole life that you were coming today. I’m just glad that it ended like this.”

 

“Like what?”

 

She stared for a long second, and the relief shining in her face turned her from pretty to absolutely stunning. “I’m glad I didn’t have to kill you.”

 

Cleo shut the door in his face and locked it behind her.

Subscribe for Anna Argent updates!