Devin woke to a spear of sunlight shining directly in his eyes. He turned his head away from the blinding glare and blinked the spots away. He found himself nose to nose with a black cat. Jade eyes watched him intently as he yawned. Then the creature reached up and batted at his nose.
“It’s not a button, kitty. I don’t produce food on command.” Devin grimaced. His voice was weak and crackling, and his mouth tasted like the floor of the subway stations he used to prowl.
The cat bent down and dragged a raspy tongue along Devin’s cheek.
“Oh no. That’s just gross.”
Devin struggled to push himself upright and get away from the unwanted cat love. He found himself in a room with bare stone walls on two sides and rough oak paneling on the others. Real wood. Not like the cheap stuff he could kick holes through that his apartment had. The room held a wooden-framed bed with a solid headboard and a reading lamp, a bedside table, a tall four-drawer dresser, and a brown-cushioned dish chair in one corner. It wasn’t a hospital and definitely wasn’t a police station, two facts Devin was more than a little grateful for. He didn’t need that kind of complication in his life, injured or not.
Faint aches drew his attention from the room to his arm, and he inspected the tightly wrapped dressing carefully. His shirt was missing, and his pants felt softer. Someone must have changed him when they bandaged him up. His mind still felt fuzzy, but he could think clearly enough to know he hadn’t been dreaming up those blue-green eyes.
The Faire. He’d driven twenty miles out of town to the goddamned Faire. What the hell had he been thinking?
He hadn’t been thinking at all. That had to be the only explanation for his actions. The pain and shock must have screwed up his common sense and sent him straight into the arms of people he’d stolen from.
“Good morning, sunshine. Barbarian, get down from there. You don’t need to be shedding fur all over our guest’s bandage.”
Devin tensed to run as the cat leaped dutifully off the bed. This man—Ezra—somehow knew everything. Devin had to escape, had to get out of here and move on. Mexico. That was right. He had to run to Mexico. He had to go immediately.
“Lay your ass back down, sweetheart. You aren’t going anywhere in that condition. Doc put several stitches in and had to give you some saline to get your fluids back up, and you need to rest for a while before you get out of bed.”
“I don’t care if you don’t want to. I’ll sit on your legs if I must.” Ezra grinned and patted Devin’s foot. The black cat jumped right back up on the bed, stepped directly onto Devin’s ankle, and pushed her head under Ezra’s hand.
“Why are you keeping me here?”
“To heal you.” Ezra scratched the cat’s ears. He didn’t look old enough for the faint creases around his eyes.
Devin watched Ezra’s face intently. There had to be some sort of shady reason this man wanted to heal him up and keep him here. Money? They had to know he was poor, if they knew he’d been stealing from the Faire. Maybe they had a deal with Max and were waiting for him to come and finish the job.
No, that didn’t make sense. They’d bandaged him up. They didn’t have to do that if Max had been involved. They could have just let him bleed out in the parking lot for a few more hours.
What else could they want from him? Information? He didn’t know much about anything but running. Sex? That might be it. Maybe this Ezra guy ran a brothel somewhere in the depths of this fucked-up place and needed fresh meat. He might not look like a sleazy scumbag, but Devin had dodged sweeter-looking pimps in his life.
The cat moved from Devin’s feet to his chest and curled up against his side. Her purring vibrated all the way through him. Devin sank back into the pillow. The faintest scent of cedar wafted through the air, and he breathed in deeply. At least this place didn’t reek of the lemon cleaners the hotel always used.
He felt compelled to break the silence. He might as well be nice. Maybe they’d tell him what they planned to do with him, if he was nice.
“Your cat is very friendly.”
“Barbarian is a community cat, though she’s taken a liking to my house in the last few weeks. She’s a bit of an anomaly among cats. She likes to cuddle.”
“She’s self-obsessed and incredibly needy. Just what all us Faire folk need to keep us company.” Ezra scratched her head for a minute before shooing her off the bed again. He sat down at the foot and turned to face Devin. “So who shot you?”
Devin closed his eyes again.
“Come on, sweetheart.”
“Don’t call me sweetheart,” Devin said as he tried to tug the blanket up over his face with his uninjured arm.
“Then what should I call you? I’m fairly certain Luke isn’t your real name, like you told Gail.” Ezra pulled the blanket down to Devin’s chest so he couldn’t hide. “Your car registration is for Estevan, but I’m pretty confident that isn’t right either.”
Devin wasn’t sure if it was the last of the pain medication or his blood loss or if he just didn’t care anymore. He sure as hell didn’t trust Ezra, but his mouth sort of moved on its own.
“My name’s Devin.”
“You sound so defeated when you say that.”
“Probably because I haven’t used it in years.” Devin turned back toward the window and let the sunshine glow red through his eyelids. It felt nice and warm.
“Keep talking. Gunshot. How’d you get it? Was he or she trying to kill you? Do we need to watch out for him or her?”
Ezra must not have known about Max. Well, that was promising.
“Him. Yeah, he’s trying to kill me. Has been for the last few years.”
“And he shot you last night.”
“I have to get away from here. I have to run. I probably led him straight here.” Devin opened his eyes again and willed Ezra to see his sheer desperation. If these people thought he’d brought danger with him, surely they’d send him on his way.
Ezra didn’t look fazed at all.
“And the stealing?”
“It’s the whole reason I came to the Faire last weekend. I needed cash quick so I could run. I can’t work without identification. I can’t use ID, or he’ll find me right away.”
“In that case, I’ll reimburse those who reported losses for you. No big deal, as long as it was for something you needed.”
“Fuck.” Devin definitely needed the cash for yet another cross-country trip, but he didn’t want to owe Ezra while he was in the man’s care either. The man might demand something from him in return. Something he didn’t want to do. Devin sighed. He’d have to give it all back. Until he ran again, anyway. “You don’t have to do that. The money’s in the front pocket of my backpack. I have a feeling I’m too hurt to run anyway. He’d just catch up to me and put a bullet in my brain that much sooner. Where did my bag go?”
“It’s down here,” Ezra said. He reached down beside the bed and hoisted up the distressed green bag. He set it on the bed next to Devin.
Devin pulled the cash from the front pocket. “I have something from one of the vendors too. It’s in my jeans pocket, wherever those went.”
Ezra walked over to a little laundry basket and picked out Devin’s worn-out jeans. He tossed them onto the bed. The whole top half of the pair looked like it was covered in rust because of all the dried blood. Devin dug into the pocket with his uninjured hand.
“I don’t know why I took it, but I did.” He pulled out the amulet. The broken leather strap was stiff with blood and still dangling from the loop at the top of the metal disk. He held it out to Ezra.
“You didn’t steal that.” Ezra pushed Devin's hand back toward him.
“Yes, I did. It was in a glass case in front of a shop back on this little deserted path. Ezra’s Amulets— Oh. You’re Ezra.”
“And that was my shop. I make the amulets. But they aren’t for sale. They find their own owners. It pulled you to it, right? You felt it?”
Devin stared at the amulet in his hand. He’d felt it, but he wasn’t going to admit it. His whole life was getting way too weird.
“You wouldn’t have found my shop if you weren’t meant for one of my amulets. It’s yours. It chose you for a reason. The amulets are magic. It did something for you, didn’t it? Something unexplainable?”
Again, Devin felt himself answering before he thought through his response. “Max didn’t recognize me when he broke into my apartment. He always has before.”
He shouldn’t have said that. He really, really shouldn’t have. But there was something about Ezra that made Devin want to talk. Maybe it was the drugs or the warmth or the kind look in Ezra’s eyes. Devin’s damned sense of self-preservation must have jumped ship as soon as that bullet ripped through his arm. He just kept telling Ezra things that could get him in trouble, that could send him to jail or a mental institution or wherever they sent psychotic crazies these days.
“Why did he shoot you? If the amulet changed your appearance, how did you get hurt?”
Devin opened his mouth yet again, and the whole story poured out. His evening at work, Lucia’s help, his attempt at acting, and running away from the cops. Ezra just sat there and listened as Devin stared down at the amulet and let the words flow.
“Listen. The amulet’s magic protected you as best it could. I’m glad it could help you out. I’ll have to get you a new leather tie to replace the broken strip. This was the first piece of metal I ever pulled magic from, and I’ve been wondering what it did.”
Devin wanted to laugh. Ezra sounded positively nuts. Yeah, Devin had something completely unexplainable happen to him while wearing the amulet, but magic? Magic didn’t exist.
Even so, Devin wasn’t about to offend anyone who had the power to hurt him. He even almost liked
Ezra. He’d play along.
“Do all your amulets have…illusions?”
“No. I don’t know what most of them do. I just work on them until I feel a little magic fill them. Sometimes I can guide the magic. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I’ll know what the magic will do before I start to make an amulet, and the magic will pester me until I go and create exactly what it wants. Even if I want to make something entirely different.” Ezra reached over and traced the edge of the amulet in Devin’s hand. “This amulet was the most special to me, because it was the very first. I’d spent two years as an apprentice before I was able to make anything magical at all. I’d nearly given up on becoming the next master of amulets when this one finally sparked while I was engraving it.”
Devin’s stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly enough to make Ezra pause in his story.
“Okay, then. On that note, I should get you something to eat. You’ve been out most of the day, sweetheart.”
“You know my name now. You don’t have to use that stupid pet name.”
“I rather like calling you sweetheart. I think you’ll have to get used to it.”
Ezra grinned at Devin and stood up. Devin’s chest clenched tightly as the blond man walked out the door. Crazy or not, Devin wanted Ezra’s company more than he’d ever wanted anyone else’s.
He’d done so well, training himself not to need anyone close. Especially not after that black-haired beauty he’d had his last one-night stand with gave too much information about him to the wrong people. Lucia had treated him well, but their interactions had been limited solely to work and escape plans. Ezra somehow had already become more than that to Devin. As the sounds of Ezra humming somewhere down the hall drifted into the bedroom, Devin had a little fantasy playing out in the depths of his mind that included the amulet maker, the dusty shop, and lots of skin contact.
He blamed the drugs. He wouldn’t be so open otherwise. Devin needed to clear his mind and get out of here. He couldn’t afford drug-induced attachments. He slid his legs off the bed, but before he could get himself standing, a black ball of fur hurtled into his chest from the top of the dresser, making him gasp. His whole top half ached. He fell back and found himself looking into the eyes of Barbarian, who settled down over Devin’s hips and started cleaning her paws with that look of satisfaction only a cat can pull off. Devin tried to shake her off, but she rose on all four legs, front paws on his stomach and rear right on top of his crotch. Then she flexed her claws just enough for Devin to feel sharp pricks through his pajama pants.
“Ouch! Holy shit, devil cat.”
His cry brought Ezra running back into the room, a spoon in one hand and a bowl of steaming soup in the other. The soup had sloshed over and was running red down the side of the bowl.
“What? What is it?”
“She’s got claws awfully close to my dick, and I’m pretty sure she’s putting her full weight on my bladder.”
“She’s just making sure you don’t get up. Get off him, Barbarian. Good kitty. I’ll get you treats once Devin is fed.”
The cat jumped to the floor, twitched her tail, and padded out of the room.
“Can I at least go to the bathroom? I didn’t realize quite how badly I needed a piss until the cat brought it to my attention.”
“I’ll help you across the hall in a moment. The house is yours to prowl, when you feel up to it. Help yourself to food or books or whatever you find. But before I let you up, I want you to promise to stay inside the town’s walls until we come up with a plan to get this Max character off your back. I know you want to run, but it won’t help you right now.” Ezra sat the bowl of soup on the dresser and wiped his soup-covered hand on his jeans. He looked so fucking sincere as he spoke.
“If I stay put, he’ll find me faster than if I run.”
“But the magic will protect you as long as you stay on the grounds. He won’t be able to get past the Faire’s front gate if he has ill intentions toward anyone living here.”
“But what if I wasn’t?”
Devin thought that through for a moment. Did Ezra mean that Max wouldn’t physically be able to walk through the gates? Would he run into some sort of invisible glass barrier, or would some sort of Jedi mind trick happen? Devin snorted. Impossible.
“That doesn’t make sense. What about that guy who made a stink over Gail at the front gate last week? He obviously didn’t like her at all, and he still got inside. For that matter, I didn’t exactly have the best intentions either. Your magic failed on both counts.”
“The man harassing Gail wasn’t going to try to hurt her physically. And he wouldn’t have been able to get into the private part of this town, unlike you. The Faire took you in because the magic can sense your need. You required help. The Faire extended its magic to you when you first found the road that led to my shop.”
“You aren’t the first person to talk as though this place has a mind of its own.”
“To a certain extent, it does.”
Devin raised an eyebrow.
“Do you doubt the magic?”
So much for not offending Ezra. He probably should be more polite, since Ezra had Devin’s life in his hands at the moment. Devin thought about how to say he didn’t believe in magic as nicely as he could. “I don’t believe anything I haven’t seen, studied, and run away from.”
“But you saw firsthand what magic can do with the illusion.”
“I haven’t figured out what exactly happened last night.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want you to believe you’ll be safe here. The Faire will prove itself to you soon enough, I’m sure. Just promise not to run off on me. Please.”
“I can’t. I have to go.”
“As soon as you think you’re in danger, go. But stay until then, okay?”
Ezra looked so earnest Devin couldn’t say no. Even if the whole magic thing freaked him out a little. He still didn’t want to believe magic existed, but the memory of his reflection the night before made Ezra’s assurances impossible to reject outright.
“Fine. I won’t leave the Faire unless my life is in danger.” Devin rolled his eyes. He’d go running as soon as he felt up to it, promise or no promise.
“Good enough. Come on, I’ll show you the bathroom. I’ll run you a hot bath after you eat too.”
“I can shower,” Devin said as Ezra helped him out of bed. “I kind of want to shower, actually. I haven’t been able to for a while.”
“Not with that arm. Once your stitches are out, I’ll allow it. At least with a bath, we can prop your arm outside the tub, and I won’t have to worry about the bandages getting soaked. The bullet tore through a lot of muscle, though it missed bone by a quarter of an inch. Doc said you were lucky it didn’t shatter your humerus.”
Devin shuddered and gave thanks for whatever painkiller the doctor had given him. He tried to walk on his own, but after a couple steps, he found himself leaning on Ezra for most of his support. Ezra didn’t say anything as they made their way slowly out the door and across the hall. The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom, with a granite-lined shower wide enough for three people and a separate tub with jets. Devin saw no other doors on the second floor. Past the bedroom and bathroom was a balcony that hung over a two-story living room. He’d have to check for a back door when he felt up to walking farther than a few steps at a time. He would also have to take a good look at the bedroom window, just to see if he could use it as an escape if he needed one.
“Here,” Ezra said, taking Devin’s uninjured arm and hooking Devin’s hand onto a towel bar hanging to one side of the toilet. “I’ll give you a little privacy, but if I hear any crashes in here, I reserve the right to check on you. I’ll finish your lunch and be back in a minute. Let me get your pants.”
Devin held as still as he could manage while Ezra’s hands manipulated the button fly on the pajama bottoms. Ezra’s movements were economical. He touched Devin no more than was needed, but Devin had to bite his lip and call on memories of nights sleeping in the freezing rain. He wasn’t sure his cock could do much at the moment, but he wasn’t about to risk popping a boner with Ezra around.
“Thanks,” he said as Ezra left the bathroom.
“You have five minutes, sweetheart. Then I’ll be back, ready or not.”