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Wedding Bells… No More like Hell’s Bells

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I followed Marcone back into his upstairs apartment… well, in the sense that he owned it and it was an apartment. I expected the man lived in it with the same permanence that I’d give a hotel room I paid for the night. It would explain the utter lack of threshold. But considering he owned the building which was layered with magical protections while also being guarded by armed security personnel with more firepower than some human nations, I could see why its lack wasn’t something he was too worried about.

The Ministry summit-parties never lasted too long. About two hours on average, with the longest I’d had to suffer through being around four hours, when some intense arguing had taken place about the benefits of attacking a newly discovered Formor fortress full of soldiers and treasure, and then who would be the one to do it and reap the rewards. This evening had lasted a merciless three hours since people kept wanting to talk before they made their excuses and left. Marcone’s alliance with the Winter Court and my upcoming marriage to him had been the main topic of interest.

I’d gotten stuck in many, many conversations about it.

Yes, it was true. No, it wasn’t a weird joke I was pulling. Yes, I was aware I was scowling, this is how I glow with happiness, okay. Grrr.

I may have started getting tetchy after an hour of it. Fortunately by then the summit had started breaking up.

The three Einherjaren left us at the hall as Marcone opened the door to the apartment.

The delicious smell of cooked meat wafted to my nose and my stomach growled to complain, letting me know I hadn’t fed it nearly enough food this evening and I’d better fix that. Right now, dammit.

“Will you be joining me for dinner, after all?” Marcone asked. At my lack of immediate answer to his question, Marcone turned to arch an eyebrow at me.

A part of me wanted to tell him no. I was tired and I wanted to go home. Even knowing most of the people at the summit, parties ran counter to my homebody instincts and I was mentally exhausted. Another part of me was salivating over the smell of food and had punched me in the taste buds to get my attention.

My stomach growled again. My nose chimed in a vote. My mouth was watering.

Well, I knew when I was outvoted. Anyway, there was supposed to be a point to this evening other than posturing for the supernatural community. I should put in some work on my campaign to convince Marcone not to back out of our betrothal.

Okay, thinking that was still weird even after having spent a good chunk of time talking about it with other people.

“Sure, I’ll stick around,” I said.

Marcone nodded and led the way into the apartment. Someone had stopped by after we’d left and set up several lit tapered candles in silver candle holders scattered throughout the apartment. There were even a few intricate candelabras resting at places where more light would be needed.

The smell of food grew heavier in the air as we got closer to the dining room. Marcone undid the buttons of his suit jacket and shrugged out of it before slinging it over the back of the gray leather couch with his left hand as he passed. The candlelight of the apartment caught on the ring.

Goddammit, it was still distracting to see my ring on Marcone’s finger.

“Leaving candles unattended is a fire hazard,” I pointed out.

“I hardly consider it any more hazardous than having you in the same building, Dresden,” Marcone said at once, which made me snort in appreciation.

I hadn’t burned down anything in years, but I would admit to feeling smug that Marcone still judged me to be… well, a danger to his insurance rates, as he’d long ago put it.

Marcone glanced at me as if he could read my thoughts, and he smiled slightly before he gestured for me to proceed him into the dinning room.

*-*-*-*

Dinner was… difficult.

It was strange to realize I’d felt more comfortable walking into the Ministry summit holding Marcone’s hand, or hell, simply fighting at his side against monsters than I did just sitting across from him at his dinner table and eating his food while trying to stay civil.

Especially when there was no one else around to be a distracting buffer.

It was just… sitting down to eat a meal together. Breaking bread. There was a reason that those actions resonated with us. Why it was one of the oldest ways used to ease tensions. It was a universal point of commonality in humanity. People bonded over food. It was the times of day people talked to each other. It fostered connection. Intimacy.

Stars, the very idea of intimacy with Marcone… yeah, it was tripping me up.

Sure, I was the one to push for this date but the very idea of having a conversation with him – of all people – was tough.

I was floundering.

I mean, what did Marcone and I have to talk about? I was hardly going to ask him: Hey, murder anybody I know recently? How’s the corruption of the city’s soul going? Have you bought any useful politicians lately? The force of evil in your head, how’s that going for you?

Yeah, right.

Neither was I going to ask Marcone how his so-called business was doing. I knew too much as it was and all it did was make me angry. Yes, I hated the fact that Marcone was a criminal. And it drove me absolutely nuts to know nothing I said or did would ever change that, so I had to ignore it. Anyway, I suspected it would really hurt my chances of convincing Marcone to go through with the wedding if I stormed off while spouting threats. And getting him to agree to another date would probably also be dead in the water. So yeah, that was another topic of conversation stamped with a large red NO, with an additional note of ‘Don’t even think about it, dummy.’

I gulped down more of the red wine which had come with the meal while trying to decide if I really wanted another glass. Regretfully, I made myself stick to what was left in it.

Hell, there were just too many conversational landmines. I wasn’t looking to blow-up the evening. At least, not on purpose.

Argh.

Now, I’d had first dates that were a helluva lot more… disastrous. Trust me, you have a demon show up to kill you during your first date with someone you really like. Ending up dragging her into a situation where she risks being murdered too, and it quickly sets a high-bar mark to clear for freaking awful. But this dinner date with Marcone was a new level of uncomfortable. And it wasn’t the whole ‘I’m dating another man for the first time’ angle, which was something I hoped Marcone hadn’t noticed.

Maybe the main problem Marcone and I had was that we knew each other too well. And yet at the same time we also didn’t trust each other well enough to be truly relaxed in each other’s presence.

I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. That was the only thing which kept me in my seat at Marcone’s dinning room table. Marcone’s composure was calm and collected as always but the way his pale green eyes were steely as he watched me sitting across from him betrayed him.

Look, you have to know how to read Marcone’s subtle tells. And when he looked more alert for danger than usual happened to be one of his. He was as uncomfortable as I was.

This evening was going great. If it was meant to be a showcase on how not to do it.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to drive back home I’d be asking for more wine right now. Hell, maybe I’d be guzzling down the entire bottle. I had to keep reminding myself this evening wasn’t the worst date with someone I’d ever had. It wasn’t much help.

After finishing my plate, I got to work on seconds when Marcone decided to be the one to break the uncomfortable silence. He put down his fork. He watched me eating for a moment, as if considering some important words. It made me wary and I swallowed down my mouthful of steak.

Then Marcone said slowly, “So the Cubs –”

“Really, Marcone? Sports?” I shot him an incredulous look.

“Well, I could discuss the weather, if you’d prefer,” Marcone said, a shade of amusement in his pale green eyes. He swallowed down a sip of his wine and arched his eyebrows.

I snorted. “There’s only so many ways to describe Chicago summer and that’s as hot, humid, I’m-melting-I’m-melting and oh-god-why-please-make-it-stop. But sure, hit me with the sports talk. Although keep in mind I haven’t had much free time to keep up these days.” Or any free time at all.

“The Cubs after performing extraordinarily well in their first few games this season have returned to their usual level of performance since they won the World Series,” said Marcone, after a moment.

Ooh, Marcone had to bring up the only sore point I had on the subject of baseball. Trust him to find it.

I glowered down at my food.

“I still can’t believe I missed that,” I grumbled. I stabbed at my steak, not even a little disappointed that the meat didn’t make a satisfying thunk sound. The filet mignon was so soft the tines of the fork parted it like a knife. It was too damned good. “What kinda Chicagoan am I? I missed seeing the Cubs winning the World Series!”

“Dresden, you were dead at the time,” Marcone pointed out, dryly.

“I was only mostly dead,” I said, waving my left hand dismissively. “It’s not a good enough excuse for missing getting to see the ‘curse of the billy goat’ finally broken.”

“Considering the average wizard’s lifespan goes into several hundred years, it is entirely likely they will win at least a couple of times in your lifetime.” Marcone paused and seemed to consider his words. “Or at the very least once more. Possibly.”

“Ha,” I said doubtfully, although the curse was well and truly gone now and unlikely to ever be reinstated considering the originator had been one of Ethniu’s victims, I wasn’t sure I trusted the Cubs that much. Okay, yes, I cheered for them. And would happily go to their games (I hoped to take Maggie one day, when being among so many people wouldn’t give her a panic attack), but that didn’t mean I expected them to get to another world series anytime soon, much less win. “Knowing my luck, I’ll miss it even then.”

Marcone’s smile was small but it faded away after a moment. The feel of his pale green eyes on me was heavy. “Well, if you do not want to remain on the topic of sports and your own misfortunes… the conversation you were having with Ms. Raith…,” Marcone stated. “What did you discuss?”

I narrowed my eyes as I realized the entire baseball conversation had been a feint. A way to distract me, getting me to relax enough so Marcone could hit me with the actual question he wanted answered.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. “You know, you could have just asked from the get-go if you wanted to know.”

And before Marcone could do more than go blank, I told him everything… well, almost everything. I don’t know what Lara was hoping to gain with her continual insistence that there was something going on – that there had been… tension for a while – between me and Marcone but I was keeping it to myself until I could figure it out.

Marcone listened quietly. When I finished explaining the idea I was hoping Lara would run with, he stared at me with a stony expression which made the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I straightened up in my chair. Under his opaque expression, I could see the wheels of thought spinning.

With our history, of course, Marcone would be wondering if anything I’d told Lara was true.

“Before you get paranoid about it,” I said, frowning at him. “I shamelessly stole your ideas. Figured if you’d thought them up it was bound to occur to someone in the White Court too.” I stabbed at the honey glazed carrots on my plate.

Marcone nodded slowly but without relaxing. “I’m more surprised you bothered at all, Mr. Dresden. Nothing in the agreement between us or in the alliance with Winter requires you to be so proactive in defense of my interests before everything is finalized.”

I paused with the forkful halfway up to my mouth and I stared back at him. I put my uneaten forkful down on my plate. My eyes dropped to the ring on his left hand before I locked my eyes with Marcone again. “I thought I had already made it clear what I wanted, Marcone.” I gestured toward his hand. “You’re wearing the proof I’ve decided to stand in your corner. I agreed to a partnership of twenty-five years, remember? Do you need me to shout it from the rooftops?” I asked. I leaned forward and I couldn’t hold back a grin. “I know a great spell to amplify sound. I bet I can get coverage of a pretty good chunk of downtown Chicago.” It would be a moment’s work to retool my joke gift for Butters into something loud enough for it to be heard for a couple of miles in every direction.

“That’s really not necessary, Dresden,” Marcone said calmly. “Although if it will please you, I will hardly stop you.” Marcone’s head tilted to the side. “I’m curious as to exactly what you would say.”

Dammit, it wouldn’t be as much fun if he didn’t hate the idea. I settled back in my seat and picked up my fork again.

“Guess it’ll just have to remain a mystery,” I groused.

The slight smile on Marcone’s lips made me grumble louder.

The mood for the rest of the dinner wasn’t as awkward as it had been for the beginning of it. Although considering the tension had been twanging in the air until I could practically hear it, the slight relaxation wasn’t what I would call comfortable either.

I pushed away my plate feeling pleasantly full and regretfully deciding thirds were out of the question.

“Would you like something to drink?” Marcone offered, as he stood up from the table. He slipped his cufflinks off and rolled back the sleeves of his green button-down shirt until his forearms were bared.

I blinked at the sight a couple of times before I focused on his question.

“No more alcohol,” I said, as I stood up and followed him. “I can’t stick around too long, I’ve got a babysitter who needs to get back home. I’ll take a coffee if you have some.”

Marcone nodded and he vanished silently through another door which I suspected led towards the kitchen. Or whatever passed for a kitchen in this place. I was struck with a powerful wave of curiosity. Was Marcone the kind of man who bothered to cook for himself? Did he even know how?

The idea didn’t fit at all with the mental image I had of him.

That was when I was slapped with the realization of how little I actually knew about Marcone. Yeah, I’d seen his soul. I knew how he worked. I knew the depths of his ruthlessness and what drove him. But that information of ‘who’ Marcone was as a person hardly came with the fine details which filled in the outlines. Which made someone… alive.

How often did I simply stick the label of monster – predator – on him, even knowing there was more to him than that? Even with Mab, someone I’d once dismissed as evil, I’d learned she was far more complicated than such a simple label warranted. For all her darkness and inhumanity, she was a defender. She fought for our reality.

Marcone… was hardly any different. He had proved it in his defense of Chicago. He was human, and in many ways far more complex. He could grow. Change in ways someone as powerful and immortal as a faerie queen simply couldn’t. It was humbling to acknowledge I had my own set of prejudices against the man which I needed to work on if my plan to not end up married to Lara was going to work.

Marcone apparently liked the Cubs. Maybe, I couldn’t be certain. For all I knew he was using the team to make small talk. There was a lot I simply didn’t know. Hell, I’d never asked. Although, considering our usual dynamic he probably would never have bothered to answer.

I should ask.

I wondered what he would be willing to share.

The burr growling of a coffee grinder hard at work made me jump. I followed Marcone into his kitchen. I stalled at the door, hesitant to take another step closer when I saw the sheer number of appliances dotting the countertop.

Okay, a handful wasn’t too many, but it sure looked that way with the way they dominated the space. They were made out of stainless steel and with more buttons than a space rocket. I’d probably break them if I so much as sneezed in their direction. I admit, I enjoyed the idea and would happily do it in a heartbeat – I may never get over the fun of breaking Marcone’s stuff – but I did want a cup of coffee before I left.

The bitter, dark smell of coffee was already beginning to waft through the air.

Marcone finished grinding the coffee beans and was spooning the grounds into a reusable filter for a drip coffee maker. That was when I noticed that in the few seconds he’d been out of sight, Marcone had removed his tie and undone the top two buttons of his shirt.

The candlelight made the hollows of his collarbones and what little was visible of his chest really stand out. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to check for Namshiel’s silver chain. But I didn’t see it.

I wondered to myself at how much wine I’d had to drink. I would swear it hadn’t been more than the one glass.

I really needed some coffee.

I leaned against the doorframe and watched Marcone prep the coffee machine with water filtered from the fridge. He moved… gracefully. That was the only way to describe it. Like he’d gone through these motions a thousand times and didn’t need to think through what came next. It was just done.

I tried to picture a young John Marcone holding down a job as a barista and my brain threatened to revolt. No. No way, maybe I could believe it if he was undercover in a cafe so he could assassinate his target. Yeah, that made a lot more sense. There was still an aura of danger around him. Like he could just as easily spin to grab a carving knife from the knife block as he could reach for the sugar bowl.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when Marcone asked, “How do you take your coffee, Dresden?”

“What, you don’t have a folder on me with a bunch of details about my life, Marcone?” I asked, only half-joking. Then I winced. Because I didn’t actually want to know if it turned out to be the case. Talk about creeping me out.

Marcone’s smile was utterly shark-like – spooking me – for a moment before it softened into something more amused than predatory. “Ah, I’m afraid those little details have escaped the notice of my agents.”

I squinted at him, feeling more than a little worried about the ease with which he referred to having agents. It made it seem like he was running some secret government department which needed undercover agents and who knew what else, instead of a criminal empire suspected to have connections throughout North America. And even further out, I always thought.

“Well, Nick Fury, maybe you should think about getting better agents,” I said. Okay, it was disturbing how well I could see the job fitting him. It was weirdly plausible when I remembered all the shady stuff pinned on the CIA in the past. But Marcone’s contempt for the federal and state governments had grown rather obvious in past Ministry meetings – well, at least to me – especially with their failure to help Chicago’s residents. Their slowness had cost lives.

The hiss of brewing coffee – the ambrosia of the gods – sounded in my ear making the delicious scent even stronger in the air as the first hissing drops of coffee started filling the pot and thoroughly knocked my thoughts in other directions.

I straightened from my slouch. “Sugar,” I finally answered. “I like my coffee sweet. With a splash of creamer if you have it.”

Marcone nodded.

I kept watching him move about his kitchen and pull out unadorned white coffee mugs from their cupboard. Of course, he wouldn’t have anything with personality in his kitchen. Still, I had never in my life seen Marcone being so domestic. Ever. It was blowing my mind.

It was a reminder of what I’d been thinking before. Of how little I knew of him.

I frowned thoughtfully. I said, “You told me once that your parents didn’t leave you much. Certainly no inherited silver you could have used against a loup-garou.”

Marcone stilled and turned enough to look at me, his expression back to being unreadable and his pale green eyes seeming darker in the dimly lit kitchen. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Is this leading somewhere in particular, Mr. Dresden?”

I considered him. Thought about the kind of questions I wanted to ask. About the answers I wanted. Even if he didn’t respond it would tell me something. But it struck me that this could quickly become a sharing session and I didn’t feel like answering anything he could ask me in turn. I’d already agreed he could learn my secrets. But it sure as hell wasn’t going to be right now, dammit. So I side-stepped. “Yeah,” I said, slowly. “I realized how little I actually know about your past. Did you grow up in Chicago?”

Marcone was too controlled to let his body relax in relief or something so obvious, but the smooth way he started moving again was a pretty strong indicator of how uncomfortable he had been at having me bring up his parents.

“Yes. In a rather impoverished neighborhood which ended up garnering the wrong sort of interest for its survival,” Marcone admitted quietly. “Not in the sense of being stricken with violence. But rather, it was a location which proved to be too valuable and drew the attention of those who sought to… profit. It fell into ruin because of powerful people who brought pressure to bear to deprive it of resources. Then it fell prey to violence. And there was no one in power who cared enough to do anything about it. So the people who had lived there for decades were powerless and driven out.”

Fascinated, I cocked my head.

“In the end I learned a valuable lesson,” Marcone said blandly. He could almost fool you into thinking this topic wasn’t touching him at a deeper level if it wasn’t for the tight way his hand was gripping the handle of the coffee carafe as he poured the steaming fluid out into the mugs. “You can work yourself to death to keep what you have but if you don’t have any power than everything can be taken from you in a heartbeat.”

There was so much unsaid history in that statement I was tempted to ask more questions. But something in the way that Marcone glanced at me told me that he wasn’t going to share.

It was stunning that he had said anything at all.

Gentleman John Marcone was notorious for having a past so shrouded in mystery that no one in the CPD had ever been able to find anyone willing to admit that they’d grown up with him. Or that they’d known him at all before he was a lieutenant for the Vargassi family.

“Everyone has power,” I said quietly. “We can make choices. You know that too.”

“Hmm, powerless was a poor choice of words. Maybe, too much faith that a system which was turned against them would eventually work in their behalf. Unaware that it was never made for their benefit in the first place.”

I flinched because those words struck at a sore spot I hadn’t expected. Made me think of how I’d ended up in the foster system and then in the hands of my first magical teacher… made me think of how the White Council had nearly beheaded me for breaking the laws of magic, simply for having defended myself against him. But I also hadn’t made it out of those situations alone either. “That’s rather pessimistic, and not exactly complete is it? People have power when they stand together. When they’re willing to help each other,” I said. I locked my eyes with him. “You know that too. You’ve seen it.”

Marcone opened a hand as if he was giving in to my argument, but I noted he didn’t actually say he agreed.

I continued, “I’m surprised. It’s not like you haven’t used the system for your own benefit.”

“Once I figured out my way in,” Marcone murmured. He dropped a large spoonful of sugar from a ceramic container into one mug, stirring it before adding creamer to both cups. He came around to where I was standing and handed me my soulless plain mug.

I sipped my sweet coffee and eyed Marcone. He slipped by me. That prickling awareness of his body heat shivered through me and I clutched my hot coffee in both hands. I followed after him as he walked to the living room. “I get the impression you could have gone anywhere, done anything, so why did you stay in Chicago?”

“Because I know this city from its gutters to its penthouses, from its worse slums to its most opulent mansions, I know its best face and its worst,” said Marcone simply, as he sat on his couch. I watched him slip off his expensive Italian leather shoes, using his feet to get them off. Marcone flexed his dark socked feet against the wooden floor only once. “And Chicago is home.”

That hit me hard.

“Yeah, it is,” I said hoarsely. I sat on the couch too, leaving space between us. I swallowed down another gulp of my delicious coffee to give myself something to do.

I may not have grown up in Chicago. But it was home to me too. It had sank itself deeply into my bones. Even if I managed to live the full span of my wizardly life (something that often looked unlikely with all the trouble which came my way all the damned time) I couldn’t image living anywhere else.

With my mother’s Ways stone I could have chosen to take Maggie anywhere in the world. I could have used the map and gone somewhere I could hide her while still fulfilling my duties to Mab and being the dad who came home to her. But the thought of leaving Chicago had been unthinkable. The city would have to end up a glowing radioactive crater for me to pick up and go.

Marcone and I exchanged looks of perfect understanding and just like that the silence between us shifted into something a lot more comfortable than it had been during dinner. It was a moment of understanding which went deeper than our past antagonism, or any words of threats we’d lobbed against each other.

One of the few things we agreed on completely, and had agreed on for years, was to protect Chicago.

Which was, of course, why I had to open up my mouth and ruin it. “When are you free to meet again?”

“You want to schedule another evening together?” Marcone asked skeptically.

“Hey, I didn’t set your building on fire, I’d call tonight a success,” I pointed out. “A second date isn’t that crazy of an idea.”

Marcone huffed in brief amusement but his expression turned serious. “Is it even something you truly want, or are you simply going through the motions?” he asked, turning to study me intently. “If your previous dating history is any indication, your preferences seem to run towards women and Raiths.”

I blinked at him.

Oh, shit. Of course, Marcone would have heard the rumors about me and Thomas which had gone around a few years ago. Practically the first ones who’d heard them and then spread them around had been the Chicago Police Department (SI alone had had a field day, hell, a field month and hadn’t stopped teasing me for over a year), and Marcone was suspected of owning entire stations of CPD officers. There was no way he hadn’t heard the gossip of me dating another man at some point.

Stars and stones, it explained why he was willing to give dating me a try even after his declaration on how he felt about the subject of me having no choice in getting married. He thought there was a chance that I could want him back all on my own.

Okay, I decided at once, confessing to Marcone those rumors were nothing but lies wasn’t happening. I had kept up the act as a cover to keep people from digging into my relationship with Thomas and learning we were brothers; it had been the only way I could think up to protect Thomas from the White Council while excusing the fact we stayed in each other’s life.

Letting Marcone in on that particular secret dropped to the rock bottom of my To Do list.

Hell’s bells, I had a perfectly good reason to keep it to myself. With Marcone being so fervent about the whole issue of consent – and how he felt about me asking him to marry me to protect Maggie – how in the world would he react if he learned I’d never so much as kissed another guy before he’d demanded one from me all those days ago.

He would put a stop to everything. Now. He probably wouldn’t even care if he took a hit to his reputation (actually, knowing how he planned ahead Marcone had probably already come up with a way to turn it in his favor). I don’t know if he would give me the chance to talk him out of it.

I couldn’t risk it.

“I’m asking you, aren’t I?” I said, after clearing my throat.

“Hmm,” Marcone said as he took a swallow of his coffee. He narrowed his eyes slightly like he sensed I was hiding something important from him.

I clamped down on my panic, feeling my mouth go dry but forcing myself to not show it on my face. Marcone was scarily good at reading me. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea… or the right idea in this case.

“Okay, I admit, being here with you like this isn’t something I’ve thought about before,” I said truthfully. “But I’m willing. I’m asking. Isn’t that what you care about?”

“Then prove it Mr. Dresden,” Marcone said. He put down his coffee mug on a coaster on the coffee table.

I stared at him wondering what he meant. Marcone arched his eyebrows. Then it clicked and I clutched at my coffee mug like I needed it for protection.

I could feel heat crawling up my cheeks. Suddenly, I was really aware of the spread of my knees as I sat on the couch, the way my blasting rod dug awkwardly into my hip and how close Marcone was sitting to me. Okay, he maybe wasn’t right next to me but he was easily within arm’s reach.

I scowled right back at him. Marcone’s lips quirked up.

Then Marcone shifted. He turned his upper torso so he was mostly facing me even as his right arm went up on the couch’s arm, turned inward enough to let his bare forearm and right hand dangle in a relaxed fashion, while flexing his arm enough for the muscles to be even more visible. His right foot remained flat against the floor even as his leg turned inward and his left leg rose up, cocked against the bottom cushions. His left hand rested on his left knee, curling slightly on it. And he leaned back against the corner where the back of the couch met the arm. The way his eyes were riveted onto me felt like he was trying to get another peek of my soul through sheer force of will.

Hell, between the candle light, Marcone’s bare throat, the undone top buttons of his tight shirt and the expensive suit he was wearing, all that he was missing was a tumbler of whiskey to look exactly like a magazine ad trying to sell me some high-end men’s cologne.

Marcone’s pale green eyed stare was relentless. I didn’t move. Then he tilted up his chin in a clear challenge. And that was when it struck me that he wasn’t going to make a move. At least not the first one.

It would be up to me.

I wanted to sputter. Really? Really? He was making me do it. That jerk. Fine.

I ignored how my own heart rate started galloping away. And how I was hit with a rush of adrenaline. It made me feel like I was about to run head-first into something dangerous… terrifying. That if I wasn’t careful I wouldn’t be coming out of this in one piece.

I lowered my own coffee mug to the wooden coffee table, ignoring the empty coaster set out to protect the varnish.

I stood up. Only once I was on my feet, I realized I’d done it to get psychological advantage by looming over Marcone. Who only just looked amused like he knew exactly what I was doing, dammit.

I leaned over him, my right hand resting on the back of the couch next to him.

Marcone’s head tilted back and the humor drained away until all I saw in his eyes was banked heat.

I froze.

“Close your eyes,” I managed to say after a couple of seconds, my voice lower and rougher than I meant it to be.

Something flashed across Marcone’s face too fast for me to catch what it could be. Yet after a moment his eyelids slowly closed shut, sealing away those dangerous pale green eyes. I was so close to him I could count his dark eyelashes. I could see the minute shift of his corneas under his skin.

I breathed for a moment, taking in his cologne. Also the waxy smell of the candles and of the coffee.

And then I kissed John Marcone.

The rasp of his growing stubble was still startling, but not enough to make me jerk away. And his lips opened up under mine, willingly. Welcoming.

His mouth was hot. Startling hot. The lingering heat and the bitter taste (Huh, he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. Weirdo.) of the coffee he’d been drinking scorched my lips, my mouth. Then Marcone reached up with his right hand to curl gently – nothing more than a press of fingers, no grasp at all – to keep me in place as he slipped me his tongue.

It was as hot as the rest of Marcone’s mouth.

The kiss was so similar to the last time we’d kissed. I was abruptly glad I was holding my weight on my hands or I’d have flailed.

The kiss was less gentle than the last, Marcone infusing it with the same sense of care but also confidence on his end. Like he knew how to kiss. That he had as much expertise in it as he did shooting a gun, or throwing a knife.

And he proved it to me.

The slick firm press of his tongue sliding against my own, the way his lips shifted under mine, sparked off a flame.

When the heat of lust bloomed in my guts, I knew that it had nothing to do with Winter at all. The Winter Knight’s mantle was stirring, but it took a moment. It wasn’t in control. And in that space of time, it was my mouth pressing back against Marcone. It was me choosing to bury my left hand in Marcone’s hair.

My actions were my own. And they were the reason my heart was pounding. It was my own desire turning me on.

Hell’s bells. It was all me.

By the time the mantle showed a real interest, pressing me to get violent, to pull Marcone off the couch so I could bear him down to the floor and… well, I had no more doubts. The mantle’s desires were too dark, in a way I hated. In a way which was about as subtle as a crazed grin on a bloodthirsty berserker’s face. But when its urges were this obvious it made it easier to tell it apart from my own.

I was the one reacting to kissing Marcone. No magical suggestion was influencing me. I hadn’t drunk any potion. No one was in my head. Winter hadn’t taken over yet. The coiling feeling of desire, want and heat in my guts was me… only me.

Me.

I pulled away from Marcone before the Winter Knight’s mantle could exert any influence. Or I could panic. He let me go easily. Not grasping. Not gripping to keep me where he wanted me.

I forced myself to keep my breaths slow and steady as I stood up straight. I took a couple prudent steps back and thought about math.

Marcone’s eyes slowly drifted open again. And something in the way Marcone looked up at me, made me think abruptly of a similar expression I’d often seen on my brother’s face when a startlingly gorgeous woman smiled at him and he was feeling… ravenous. Marcone had the same look of intense hunger which only one thing could satisfy. The same overwhelming swirl of emotions, of desire and need glowed in his eyes.

It proved to be too much. I looked away, feeling my entire face burn as I flushed.

Math. Think about multiplication tables, I told myself firmly.

In the silence after the kiss, I was able to get the mantle to lose interest and go back to sleep.

“So... like I said: When are you free to meet again?” I asked, when I could trust my voice not to waver. I acted like I needed to fix the way my blasting rod sat in its holster instead of watching him.

I don’t think I fooled Marcone for a second.

“In a couple of days, I’ll take you to lunch, Dresden,” he said, his voice rougher than I’d ever heard it.

I frowned and risked a glance at Marcone. Who’d gotten himself under control again, well mostly. His eyes were hooded. His breathing was deeper than normal. And he was still staring at me… his eyes were too open. Too bare.

I was used to more walls between us.

“You just fed me, I think it’s my turn,” I objected, ignoring the feel of his gaze.

Marcone finally looked away from me and he exhaled slowly. It was always fascinating to see the barriers go up. Although… this time it went slower than usual. Like it was more than what he usually had to control within himself. It was taking greater mental effort.

“It’s vastly easier on my security,” Marcone said quietly, “if I can be the one to make the plans about where we will go.”

Huh, good point.

“I’ll pick you up in two days time at 11:30 a.m. for lunch. I can spare a couple of hours. That’s the only time window in my schedule for several more days,” he continued.

“Okay, I’ll see you then,” I agreed. Then I bid him a hasty goodnight and tried not to break into a run as I got past his front door.

*-*-*-*

I didn’t quite stagger away in shock from Marcone’s building but it was damned close. And I admit that I wanted to find some place quiet to think and breathe, but I wasn’t anywhere close to where I could do that safely. And having a meltdown in public was bound to get back to the wrong people. Like my boss. Ugh.

Stars, since when did I start finding another man attractive? And Marcone of all people? He’s a freaking criminal! A murderer!

A little voice in my head said, ‘Hey, so are you.’

I growled and ignored the voice.

When had this started? Okay, I could almost reconcile being attracted to another man since I run into supernaturally attractive people of both genders all the time (looking back maybe it hadn’t been as confusing as I’d always labeled my reaction). Hell, Thomas had lectured me once on the nature of attraction and how White Court vampires exploited the fluidity of it because most people existed on a spectrum of sexuality which could shift (or in the case of White Court vampire on the hunt, be forced to shift)… but John Marcone?

I think my subconscious was waiting for me to ask myself this question because the memories of how I kept noticing how he looked in his new suit all evening hit me like a ton of falling bricks. Followed nearly at once by the memory of Marcone’s mocking question of whether I was hitting on him when he’d been partially undressed in the locker room the night of the battle.

Oh. I had been staring at him. Noticing his body in such a way that with a woman I would have instantly known what it meant.

Hell’s bells. Okay, so I’d been noticing Marcone for a while. How long had that been going on?

Dammit, I rubbed my hands through my hair as I walked back to my car. I couldn’t think about that out in the open like this. I wasn’t wearing my duster. I was too vulnerable to attack to walk around with my guard down. I needed to get home.

*-*-*-*

Luckily, I got home without running anything or anyone over. After I waved to Amanda as she drove away in one of the Carpenter family cars I went to check in on Maggie.

My daughter was curled up in her bed. It was so big and wide she nearly was lost in it. Mouse could sleep at the foot near my daughter’s feet without breaking the bed frame from his weight. I hadn’t realized they made beds rated for woolly mammoth weight until Maggie had insisted she wanted one.

Right now Maggie was asleep, her head practically hidden in a nest of pillows even as she’d kicked off most of her covers. She was curled up around Bonnie’s skull, clutching her little sister to her chest. Hilariously, everyone in the bed was snoring. Soft snores came from my oldest daughter, high pitched wheezes from Bonnie while Mouse rumbled away. As I walked into the room one doggie eye peeked at me before Mouse’s tail thumped the bed twice before he fell back asleep.

I kissed foreheads and carded my hand through hair or fur as appropriate before I left the room and went to the library.

I sat down before the fire. Mister jumped onto my lap and demanded his tribute in the form of pets and ear scratches while I stared blankly at nothing. I gave the cat who owned me his due as the master of the castle as I thought.

Was this attraction to Marcone just me having some kind of mid-life crisis?

Well, considering I wasn’t even a quarter of a way into a wizard’s usual lifespan, I sure as hell hoped not.

So… apparently I was attracted to John Marcone. And had been for a while, if not years.

Why had no one told me? You’d have thought my subconscious would at least have given me a hint with all the dreams the asshole threw at me. Maybe clued me in between the nightmares. Something.

Then I remembered how incredulous Lara had looked when I had denied having any sort of sexual tension with Marcone.

Oh, hell. I’d been flat out told by a sex vampire that I had a thing for Marcone and I’d dismissed it. I hadn’t believed her. Hadn’t given her observation – and not even her first one on the subject either – another thought.

I groaned.

“I am,” I told Mister, even as he purred in my lap, “an idiot.”