Fortune, Book 2
by Lia Connor
Ebook ISBN: 03312-01055
[ Paranormal Romance, MMF ]
Together with a worthy opponent and fiery lover, Rosetta works to win the heart of the Firebird. But can she bring herself to sacrifice her pride for a chance at the passion of a lifetime with not one man, but two?
A trick of the rose-hued rays of the late afternoon sun, and to Rosetta’s eyes the branches of the fallen tree outside the aged, nearly opaque window looked like the arms of a lover reaching out for someone’s hands they couldn’t quite grasp. The very tips, twigs barren of leaves, scratched and tapped at the glass, begging to be let in.
She had to draw that.
Focus trained on the window and the tree, Rosetta searched beneath the counter of the customer service desk where she’d drawn afternoon duty as Mama Elise’s clerk-of-the-day, hunting for her cheap spiral-bound notebook and one of her sharpened pencils. Someday she’d have the money saved for oil pencils in a hundred different rich, saturated colors and shades, and smooth, inviting linen paper to draw on. Someday.
She drew the first lines boldly. If you were going to sketch, you had to do it right. No dicking around with a hesitant stroke here and a tentative squiggle there. The bare tree limbs took shape almost without her looking at the paper, letting the feel of the moment guide her hands instead. Then, she didn’t want to look down. She almost had the mood captured, she knew it. If she let herself look at her work, the moment would be lost and the spell broken. A few more lines and —
A solid male body moved between Rosetta and the window, blocking her view with a sleek leather jacket, and a chest as solid as the Great Wall of China. “Pardon me, miss. You the one tending the register or are you just here to attract customers?”
Rosetta snapped her notebook shut, not wanting this joker to get a look at her work. “Say that last part again?” she asked, cross. She put her elbows on the counter before her. “Hey! My eyes are up here.” She snapped her fingers.
The man didn’t seem ashamed at having been caught checking out her rack. He laughed, raising his eyes to tell her she’d won the point, and mirrored her pose. The stance brought him closer to her than she’d have liked, barely a foot between their faces. He had green eyes, the deep green of new leaves, dark curling hair, and the kind of creamy-fair complexion that made her think of Ireland. She could smell the cold sharpness of the winter wind clinging to him.
Heat pulsed between her legs and Rosetta drew back, uncomfortable. “What do you want?”
“Aren’t you supposed to say ‘can I help you’ instead?” He didn’t try to touch her, but the open admiration in his gaze told Rosetta he certainly wanted to. “Word on the grapevine is that this apothecary, Mama Elise, can cure whatever ails you. That true?”
“Maybe,” Rosetta allowed, wary. “No uppers, no downers, no in-betweeners, no Viagra.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled when he was tickled. “I don’t need Viagra, thanks. I’m Bryan. And you are?”
“Not interested,” Rosetta lied, clipping the words short. She refused to squirm, not even to ease the slow pulse of arousal low and deep within. Guys like him, charming and roguish, weren’t worth the effort. All they were interested in was getting off, and if she had an urge she also had a small box devoted to toys she kept under her bed. “I’ll give you one more shot. What do you want?”
Rosetta raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh.”
“You sound surprised.”
She was. “Not too many people know what comfrey’s good for. Why do you want it?”
He winked at her. “Nothing’s better than comfrey for mending cuts and breaks, right?”
“Right,” Rosetta agreed, dubiously waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I figure it’d be good for a broken heart, and I’ll be crushed if I can’t convince you to take a break and come for a walk with me.”
The pencil Rosetta still held loosely between her fingers snapped under a sudden spasm of pressure. “If you think I’m dumb enough to go off with a guy I don’t know, you’re as simple-minded as you are pretty.” Damn.
“Pretty, huh?” He leaned closer, his breath smelling of sweet peppermint. “Why so many prickles, beautiful?”
Rosetta made herself drop the pieces of pencil rather than stab at him. “Don’t call me beautiful. Ever. Piss off.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked, a puzzled line forming between his eyebrows. “You’re gorgeous.”
“Because the only guys who ever say it are ones who want to get in my pants.”
“Who can blame them?” Bryan reached toward her, and though the movement wasn’t abrupt and he probably had something impossibly romantic like stroking her cheek or brushing a curl of her hair in mind, it was the last straw. Rosetta whipped her notebook at Bryan, thwacking him hard on top of the head.
Rosetta glared at him. “Now I’m in trouble. Thanks.”
Bryan rubbed the back of his head. “God, you’re a hellcat.”
“Whatever. I’m a bitch, you’re a dick, let’s move it along.”
Mama Elise sounded like a low roll of thunder when she was angry, and though she could move as silently as a cat she had the grip of a falcon’s talons and the presence of a dragon. “Solánge, help this gentleman. Rosetta, come with me.”
“Someone’s going to the principal’s office,” Bryan sing-songed under his breath. He had the audacity to wink at her. Again.
Rosetta threw half a pencil at him. Probably didn’t help her cause with Mama Elise but did it ever feel satisfying.
* * *
Chastised and embarrassed at having let that clown get the better of her, Rosetta followed Mama Elise through the labyrinthine maze of shelves filled with pottery jars, porcelain canisters, glass vials and imps made of carved ivory. The heady fragrance of herbs and balms usually made her think of walking through a sultan’s treasury. Not now. It was more like a march through Death Valley.
Mama Elise said nothing until they’d reached what she called her office, an alcove with a midnight-blue velvet curtain that could be pulled across for privacy but hardly ever was. She pointed in silence to the leather-topped stool in front of her ancient desk.
“Don’t be impolite to the customers,” Rosetta muttered. “I know. We — you — need the sales. And it’s rude. I know.”
“Then why do you persist in driving everyone who comes near you away?” Mama Elise’s expression was unreadable, though her hooded eyes gave Rosetta an uneasy chill. “I am less concerned for the customers right now than I am for you, child. You have a loveless life.”
Rosetta’s jaw dropped. “What? I do not!”
“You do,” Mama Elise said, implacable. “You have spent your nights alone since Nicola found her happiness, and you keep no other company. How long has it been since you’ve known the touch of a man?”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I’m sorry, Mama Elise, I know you mean well but that’s not your business!”
“Hmm.” Mama Elise’s posture was never less than perfect, but as with the mood the tree branches outside the window had evoked, Rosetta could sense a sort of hunkering down over the problem as Mama Elise saw it. She tapped her forefinger on the desk and regarded Rosetta unblinkingly.
Rosetta lifted her chin. If a staring contest was as bad as it got, fine. She’d deal. She didn’t think Mama Elise would fire her. She’d never canned anyone, especially none of her foundlings or her protégés. She’d spent too much time on Rosetta to kick her to the curb.
Still, it felt way too much like she’d disappointed her mother to be comfortable.
“A bad attitude and a lonely heart,” Mama Elise said under her breath. “You’re in need of more than I can give you, I think.”
Rosetta’s heart skipped a beat. Had she spoken too soon? Christ, what if she was getting fired? She needed this job. “I’ll drop the moodiness and treat customers right, I swear.”
“Not until you have changed not only your mind but your heart, you won’t,” Mama Elise replied. She studied Rosetta a moment longer, then nodded in firm decision. “As penance for your rudeness, and to atone, you will carry a package for me tonight.”
“I’ll what?” Rosetta frowned. She didn’t do deliveries. Not that she was going to push her luck. “Where?”
“To this address.” Mama Elise drew a sheet of plain white paper off a small stack thriftily cut from old envelopes and wrote on it in her smooth, old-fashioned cursive. “The package is under the corner. And it will be cold tonight,” she said with a pointed look at the thinness of Rosetta’s black wrap-blouse. “Take the shawl on the hook in the widdershins corner. Do you accept this penance?”
It wouldn’t kill her to ferry a parcel. She didn’t think it would, anyway. The city could be dangerous as a nightmare after dark but Rosetta could take care of herself. “I do.”
“Wait.” A thought occurred to Rosetta, a memory that might offer her a reprieve. “What about Solánge?”
Mama Elise raised one sleekly sculptured eyebrow. “What about Solánge?” she repeated.
Rosetta shrugged. Her hair escaped from its loose queue, another band broken under the pressure of too much volume in too small a constriction. Irritating. “I was supposed to teach the newbie your organizational system after hours,” she reminded Mama Elise, though she was pretty darn sure Mama Elise hadn’t forgotten for a second.
“I see.” Mama Elise raised her voice, though she still sounded as smooth and unruffled as if she were at a tea party, and called, “Solánge!”
Solánge, younger and thinner than Rosetta, though if she filled out she’d have equal or greater curves, approached almost as quietly as Mama Elise. Rosetta only knew she’d arrived by the delicate sense of a shadow falling across her. “Yes?”
“There has been a change in plans, my dear,” Mama Elise said without taking her eyes off Rosetta. “Rosetta is needed elsewhere. I will remain behind to teach you tonight. Have you any objections?”
Solánge didn’t do well with direct questions that took her off guard. “I — I — sure. I don’t mind,” she said, her uniquely husky voice higher than usual with surprise. “I mean, I’d like that.”
“Good. You see?” Mama Elise asked, smoothly as a satisfied tabby cat licking its paws clean of cream. She folded her hands and quirked her lips. “Then there’s nothing to hinder you, and you may set out to deliver the package now, Rosetta. You have some good distance to travel.”
“Travel where?” Rosetta asked, suspicious all over again and annoyed at being supplanted. Solánge didn’t need to be jerked around and neither did she. “How far is a ‘good distance’?”
“Prickles, prickles,” Mama Elise replied. She held the address slip out between two fingers.
Rosetta blinked at what she saw written there. “No way. The abandoned steel works? That’s almost outside the city limits! I can’t get there before the sun’s down.”
Mama Elise shrugged. “You accepted this penance. Time is not my concern. The package is hidden between the jars of saffron and cinnamon. Small enough to fit in your pocket. Do not forget the shawl. Now, go.”
Like she had a choice? Huffing, Rosetta stood and turned on her heel, her head high as she left.
On an impulse, she grabbed her notebook and three fresh pencils, tucking them in a messenger bag along with the parcel, no bigger than the palm of her hand but curiously warm. If she was going to risk life and limb delivering a package to an abandoned manufactory after dark, be damned if she wouldn’t take the time to draw the ruins by moonlight.
* * *
Halfway to the manufactory, Rosetta remembered that it was her birthday. She rolled her eyes and blew an aggravating, wayward curl out of her eyes. Twenty-seven and this was what she had to show for her life. Doing “penance” after dark by ferrying a palm-sized package to the ruins of an old steel mill in a borrowed shawl.
Still, it could be worse. Mama Elise’s shawl, hand-knitted in fine rows of soft merino wool with beaded tassels that chimed quietly, was warmer than it looked, so she wasn’t too cold, and she had strong enough legs to carry her as far as she needed to go on foot. The wintry weather kept almost everyone else off the streets, too, and those she saw were concerned with their own business. She passed unmolested, the thump-thump of her notebook in the messenger pack comforting her with each bump against her hip. The full moon was bright, and the closer she came to the outskirts of town, the clearer the moonlight grew.
There were worse ways to spend a birthday.
“Or maybe not,” Rosetta muttered when she topped a hill and looked down into the valley, at the wreckage of the steel mill that’d once kept this town alive. Back in the day, it’d approached the status of metropolis, not a place full of secrets and shadows and apothecary-herbalists who knew too much for anyone’s good.
She shivered and drew the shawl tighter around her shoulders. No matter how bright the moonlight, it couldn’t soften the creepiness of the crumbling brick buildings with their shattered windows, broken shards clinging to rusted frames like jagged teeth. The temptation was there to draw it, no doubt, but not as strong as the urge to get out of here.
“Hey! Package!” Rosetta called, pitching her voice to carry. Easier than it sounded. The buildings caught and echoed her salutation, sending it back to her in ripples of sound. “Okay, that’s messed up,” she muttered.
No one answered. Not too surprising. Who the heck would live out here, anyway? Some old watchman or something weirder? With a client of Mama Elise’s, who knew?
Nothing for it but to go down and investigate, was there? Rosetta grumbled darkly to herself, took a moment to be glad she had on a sturdy pair of thick-soled trainers with nearly-new treads, and picked her way carefully down the valley.
Once there, she stood in what reminded her of a courtyard. An ivy-covered mostly-circular mess to her left had probably been an ornamental fountain once upon a time. To her right, she thought the grottos and platforms might have been flowerbeds and display gardens. Not to be expected of a manufactory, but whatever. This place was easily a century or more old. They’d probably done things differently back when.
Rosetta planted her feet wide apart and raised her voice. “Package!” she shouted. “Anyone here? Mama Elise is going to chew my head off if I come back with this undelivered and — Christ!”
The man, or at least she thought it was a man, had appeared without warning, so suddenly that Rosetta flinched. He stood several feet back from her, a huge and hulking shape in the shadows. To an artist’s eye, it was obvious his body was misshapen, his back hunched like an animal’s and his face pointed almost like a muzzle. He wore loose sack-like clothing, too thin for the weather, but given the nearly pelt-like hair that covered him, Rosetta doubted he felt the cold.
As she watched, the Beast hung back, clinging to the shadows. Was he more afraid of her than she was of him? Rosetta thought so. Her heart softened. Poor guy. Life sucked for outsiders, didn’t it?
“It’s okay,” she said, more gently than anyone usually heard from her. She kept it slow, telegraphing each move as she drew the small package from her bag and laid it at her feet, then backed away. “I won’t hurt you.”
A blink, a blur of motion, and the Beast stood in front of Rosetta, so close she could hear his not-quite-human breathing. A lady could have passed out from the shock, and Rosetta figured she was glad in this case that she was no lady. She held her ground and let him get a good look at her.
“Tharrnk you,” he said, his elongated jaw making it hard for him to speak. “Norr fearr’d?” He asked the last with puzzlement and wonder. “Norr fearr’d meh?”
Rosetta looked up at his lonely, twisted face without pity, but with sympathy. “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
The Beast shook his head emphatically. He picked up the package and clutched it to his chest. “Norr!”
“Then I’m not scared. Trust me, you’re nicer than most of the pretty guys out there.” She snorted when he laughed, or she assumed he laughed. “I’d better go.”
The Beast hesitated. He unwrapped his package, which to her puzzlement contained something green and fuzzy. A seed? If so, it was huge. What the heck grew from a seed like that? What did he want it for? “Carrrn stay hrr,” he offered. “Drawrrr.”
“How did you know I –”
He pointed to her hand with its smudges of graphite along the outer edge. “Prett’eh hurr,” he said. “Moon prett’eh.”
“It is.” Rosetta considered the offer. She got the feeling that it would make him happy if she stuck around. What harm would it do? Come to think of it, with this guy around she’d be safer here than she would walking through the city to her tiny studio apartment. Besides, she had wanted to sketch this place… “Thank you. I’ll stay.”
The Beast beamed at her — she thought — and blurred away. The last she saw of him was a flicker of movement by the fountain, kneeling in a patch of open ground where bricks had broken up and been cleared away, and then he was gone.
Rosetta shook her head, trying not to smile. Strange guy. She’d told the truth, though. He was nice.
“Look who we have here,” a man said behind her.
Rosetta recognized his voice. “Definitely nicer than the pretty guys,” she grumbled, glaring over her shoulder. “What are you doing here?”