I could only stare, terrified of what she would do when she woke. Her dark hair fell over her face in a way that made me want to tuck it behind her ear, but I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t wake her up.
I shouldn’t even dream about her – I had just kidnapped her! What kind of sick motherfucker was I, to be imagining how beautiful she’d look in the silk sweater and leather pants I ordered with only her in mind. She might never buy something like that for herself, but she should.
Instead, she wore sweatpants and an orange jersey from her Texas alma mater. And even then, sitting in the chair of my apartment, she practically glowed. I could smell her magick in the air. I could almost taste the effervescence that was Marlowe Giles. Lady Babalon.
What was I doing?
Her eyelids fluttered as her consciousness returned, and I forced myself to sit back in the chair, trying to act like the Devil I was. She kept her eyes closed for a moment longer as she inventoried her memories. I watched the expressions dance across her face.
Showing up uninvited to her apartment with a dinner she hadn’t requested might have been a weak ploy, but since she wouldn’t let me inside, I had to take her.
And now she was waking up in my apartment.
Her blue-gray eyes were as dark as the storm clouds outside and full of fire the moment she spotted me. I was in trouble and I knew it, so I bared my soul. Nothing less would work for her.
“I won’t hurt you,” I assured her, keeping my voice edged with compulsion. “I just want to talk.” My fingers pushed through my short hair as she studied me with an angry expression.
“Kidnapping is not a good beginning. You could at least untie me.”
“I only want to talk. Would you stay if I did?”
Her huff proved she would not. I had ‘suggested’ to Marlowe she was tied in the wingback chair where she sat. The glamour of being tied was a parlor trick. She’d been asleep for almost two hours because I’d been afraid to release her from my fascination. When she took in her surroundings, I caught her realization of the glamour, and then her look of determination.
I learned quickly how powerful Lady Babalon was.
Her eyes narrowed and, with a deep breath, she pushed herself up with flair, smirking at my surprise.
“You can’t keep me here.” Her proclamation rang through my apartment.
“Obviously not.” I rose from the sofa and put a hand on her arm, which she shook free with her fists clenched.
“You don’t need to use fascination to talk to me. I can’t believe you used it to get me here.” Her glare set me ablaze. “You won’t do that again.”
With a determined stride, she walked to the door, although I’d been smart enough to lock the deadbolt from the inside. She dropped her hand when she turned around, her eyes searching for another exit.
We were in my private apartment, high off the streets of Manhattan and very secluded. The city was shrouded in darkness and susceptible to snow of year. The twenty-two stories were high enough to disguise our location and keep the lights and sounds of the street from reaching us. This was my secret home, unknown to my family. Unknown to everyone.
“Please, I just want to talk,” I told her again, trying not to show my nervousness. My fear. I was Nic Barnaby. Advertising executive. Her boss. The Devil. I didn’t feel like any of those personas at the moment. “You’re not in any danger. From me.” I needed Marlowe on my side. I needed her to understand. Please, I implored silently.
“What do you mean by that? What kind of danger?”
“Look.” I ran my hands through my hair before I forced them into my pockets. “Gods! I don’t know where to start.” Was I really going to do this?
“Nic, how did you think this would go? Did you think I would let you in with chicken soup?” She stood in the entrance hall and shouted at me. “This is so much more than a trip to HR!”
My hand reached out, then dropped to my side, heavy. Useless. My mouth opened, although no words came to me.
What did I expect? I got her here. Now what? My eyes closed as I tried to wish her back into the living area. I had to make this work.
When I opened my eyes, she was standing in front of me, hands on her hips. The storm of her anger had not calmed one iota.
“You won’t use fascination on me again. Never. Again. And you know they’re going to find me. They’re already looking. What were you hoping to do, Nic? What did you think would happen?”
“Please. Just give me an hour. Once you’ve heard what I have to say, I’ll unlock the door. I’ll even take you home. Just – I need to talk to someone. I thought you’d be the one to understand.”
With my last words, I surrendered. My head dropped back as my eyes searched the heavens for help I didn’t deserve, and a deep sigh heaved from me as I tried not to shudder. I think she sensed my fear. The realization rolled over her when she studied my face, and her expression softened, as did her voice.
“I’ll listen for 30 minutes. And then I’ll decide if I’m staying for more.” She patted all her pockets. “Did you bring my phone?”
My head shook. “I knew they’d track it. I promise, Marlowe. You have nothing to fear from me.” Forcing myself to relax, this time I took the wingback chair. Although she hadn’t let her guard down, she took a seat on the sofa.
“Let me have your phone.” She held out her hand with impatience, expecting my submission. Demanding it. “Yes, they’ll track the location. Eventually. But if they know I’m okay, at least they won’t kill you when they find me.”
Leaving her phone and food bags outside the apartment was my reassurance to them I wouldn’t hurt Marlowe. I wanted to save her.
“Nic, I listen better when you trust me.”
At least she’d hear me out. Maybe it would take The Chariot a little longer to find her. Even if Marlowe broke through the fascination that I used to keep her in the chair, I didn’t think she’d recall where I’d driven to.
I put my phone in her hand and sat back. Marlowe hesitated, momentarily unsure of whom to call or what to say. I looked away as her picture flashed on the screen when she dialed her own contact number. I took that photo on our first night together. Sort of together. The rainy weather had been a great excuse to offer her my sweatshirt. A Texan in Manhattan was always vulnerable to the weather. It was a gentlemanly thing to do. Snapping the picture of her in my clothes had been an irresistible whim, not so chivalrous.
I knew her for who she really was. What she really was. The Lady Babalon.
She shook her head at the photo and began texting.
As soon as she sent the message, the phone rang back with a call and Marlowe took a deep breath before she answered.
“Marlowe! Where are you?” His demand was loud enough that it didn’t require the phone speaker to hear him.
“I don’t know. But I’m fine. I’m with Nic. He just wants to talk.”
“Marlowe, you can’t trust him.”
“I know, baby. You’ll have to trust me. I’m fine. I’ve promised Nic I’d listen to what he has to say, and then he’ll bring me home. One hour. Tops. I’ll call you again, I promise.”
“Marlowe! You need to get out of there.”
“I’ll be fine. Trust me, Char.”
Pulling the phone from Marlowe’s hands, I shouted, “I promise not to hurt her,” and tossed the device across the room. Fear consumed me for what could, or what would, happen to Marlowe if I didn’t go through with this.
“I promise. I just want to talk.”
“Okay, then.” She sat back on the sofa with her arms spread across the back, unaffected by my outburst of emotion. “Talk to me, Nic.”
I took a deep breath and ran my fingers through my hair again, and fell into the chair with an air of defeat. All the while, Marlowe watched in silence.
“Will you have a drink with me?”
“No, Nic. This is not a social visit.”
I stood, fidgeting with the energy buzz in my body. “I need a drink.”
“By all means ...” She motioned away with a flick of her wrist. This would be a challenge.
I rarely got the chance to be in this apartment, although I kept it supplied for any opportunity: clothes, frozen foods, liquor. The bar was well stocked, and I poured myself a golden shot of courage from a crystal decanter. As I poured a second shot and was tempted to throw it back, I forced myself to put the drink down on the silver tray. My hands were shaking over the crystal glass. I needed to be clearheaded. I needed to relax.
I needed control.
Reaching for a different decanter, I poured two glasses of Merlot and carried them back to the living area. Marlowe tried to look casual as she surveyed my apartment. Because of the late evening, I doubted she’d recognize the Park Avenue skyline. The eclectic mix of decor was simply a collection of things I liked, the furnishings and the art. This was my private sanctuary, where I could be my true self and not the façade or power I projected to my employees, or to my family and the Arkane.
And now, everything would change. The signet ring on my finger felt like an anchor.
I was going to invite the Arcana into my life.
Setting the wineglass on a table in front of her, she raised an eyebrow at me. “I promised you thirty minutes, Nic. Drinking won’t affect my ability to tell time.”
“Marlowe.” I took a few gulps of mine in case she thought the wine might be drugged. It didn’t have the same warming effect as whiskey, but it felt comfortable to share a drink with her.
“Marlowe.” I started again, unsure how to start this conversation.
“C’mon Nic. You went to all this trouble to get me here; you must really want to talk. I can’t imagine what it would be, but we can’t talk about it until we talk about it!” The frustration in her voice rang clear. “Just say what you want to say.”
I knew our time was limited. She had a very serious and very dangerous boyfriend who was probably on his way. And probably not alone. This woman acted calmer than me. Patient, even. Marlowe had turned me down for dates and outright asked me to stop making advances. She even threatened to complain to the Human Resources department of my advertising agency. And she quit when I stopped by this evening with chicken soup.
“Time’s a wastin’,” She warned, letting that cute Texan accent bleed through her words.
I stood, reaching into my back pocket, and put it on the table next to her wineglass.
My tarot card from the Arcana. XV: The Devil.
“So. It’s that conversation, is it?” After a moment of staring at the card, Marlowe leaned forward. I expected her to pick it up and examine the mystic card for authenticity. Instead, she grabbed the wineglass on the table and drank three long swallows.
Knowing she understood the importance of our conversation, I breathed easier.
“I didn’t know who else to talk to.” Suddenly, I wished that golden shot was closer. The breath I’d been holding whooshed out of my lungs and I finished the wine in my glass. “I haven’t known what to do for a while. And that’s difficult for me.” My elbows rested on my knees and I leaned forward with my head in my hands. At least we had broken the ice. “Then you came to work at Barnaby’s.” My voice was a whisper.
She scrubbed her face with both hands and let them rest in a prayer at her lips, taking a deep breath before she picked up the tarot card.
“Do you know what this is?” Her tone was nonjudgmental, her head tilted in a curious move.
“Only from, okay, let’s call it history.” I looked at her with an unsureness she felt as well.
“I know about your family, Nic. I know about the Arkane.”
My heart quickened in surprise. “And you still accepted the job?”
“I also just quit,” she reminded me.
“You can’t do that. It’s not safe.”
Her head shook. “Nic. Let’s start the conversation differently,” she said, putting the tarot card on the table and taking a slow sip from her wineglass. “I already knew you were the Devil.”
How could she know? No one knew! My hands shook, but I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of seeing that. Not even Marlowe. I gripped the arms of the chair.
Maybe she took the job to spy on me. The Arcana would have considered that quite a victory. Only I couldn’t find it in my heart to believe Marlowe had it in hers to be a spy. She was so pure. I did all of this because of her. Fuck it! It’s pointless if I don’t follow through. I sat back with my wine and studied her over the rim. This was my only chance.
“When did you get your card?” she asked, casually drawing her legs underneath her on the sofa and sipping from her glass.
“Right after I opened the agency. Five years ago?” More wine. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I invented a story for my family, that I – well, that I got it from the Arcana’s Devil.” The shame of lying and the cowardice of waiting all these years ran deep.
“So, your family thinks you killed the Arcana’s Devil for his powers?” I nodded without looking up, unable to face her. “And how did you account for your image on the card?”
I shrugged. “A bit of fascination on my part.”
“That’s a fucked-up family dynamic.” She chuckled into her wineglass before taking a drink.
“Tell me about it.” I forced myself to make eye contact. Time was running out. Her eyes softened as she recognized my fear. “Now, they’ve got their sights set on you.”
“Who?” She sounded more prepared than she looked. Her bottom lip trembled, but she held my gaze. “Why me?”
A knock at the door interrupted my answer. The Arcana’s Chariot had arrived. Marlowe’s expression said she knew it, too. I didn’t move, even when the knock came again. More forceful. And the doorbell chimed.
“You’ve got to open it,” she told me. “And then we’ll talk. I promise. Give me the key.”
She held out her hand as Char angrily knocked on the door. With a shrug, I reached into my jeans and handed her the key without moving from my spot when she went to unlock the door.
I had met Char twice, but I couldn’t identify the others I sensed had come with him and they remained hidden when Marlowe opened the door. The outer lobby was shared with the only other apartment on this level. I knew it was vacant because I owned it, too.
She looked at me over her shoulder. “Trust me,” she said, before stepping outside to Char’s waiting arms.
When Marlowe disappeared out the door, all my courage evaporated. Who was I fooling? What courage? I’d been wanting to talk since the night at the bar when she stood beside me. It felt so right.
It was wrong on so many levels.
Since I hired her, I’d been watching, double-guessing myself if she was truly the Lady Babalon. My gut said so, even if my heart was trying to deny it. It was too dangerous. I liked her too much.
But her power was undeniable when I stopped by her cubicle on my way to the office happy hour. The stroll by her desk happened every night after the staff was gone, except on that evening she was still sitting there, smelling that damn rose. The rose that glowed.
I knew it was an amulet. The magick filled the office.
I tried to win her over, to protect Marlowe by bringing her under my wing. I wooed her with dinner to capture her attention. I asked her out on dates and invited her to spend Thanksgiving with me. I practically stalked her. Yet, here we were.
And her boyfriend was at the door.