SNEAK PEEK OF JINXED, Ch 1!
Jinxed will be here in just over ONE MONTH! For those of you who have been patiently - and sometimes not so patiently - waiting, I wanted to offer my immense gratitude by sharing a quick glimpse of what's to come! (This probably goes without saying, but ⚠️CAUTION!⚠️ Inked spoilers lay ahead!)
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But for now, please sit back, relax, and enjoy...
CHAPTER 1 - REMNANTS
“Oh my God,” I moaned, raking my hands through my hair. “Oh… My… Freaking… God!”
“Talia!” Zayn’s voice was hoarse with effort.
Eyes closed in bliss, my fingertips trailed down my neck and across my exposed breasts, where a hot flush had begun to spread. “God, that feels so good.”
Zayn let out a deep, rumbling groan.
“Please,” I begged. “I don’t want this moment to end!”
“Talia,” he growled again, far more demon than man. Up until that point, I’d been doing everything I could to control myself, but the ragged way he called out my name was enough to send me over the edge.
“I’m coming!” I cried out, tilting my head back as waves of hot pleasure swept across my body.
He banged his hand on the locked bathroom door, making me jump. “You swore you wouldn’t use up all the hot water if I let you go first!”
“I said I’m coming!” I screeched, rinsing the last of the blue-tinted soap suds from my hair. “Ugh! Can’t a girl take her first shower in four days without someone banging down the door after ten freaking minutes?!”
“You’ve been in there for almost an hour!”
“Have not,” I muttered under my breath.
With a mournful sigh, I turned off the water and gingerly stepped out of the tub to swathe my aching, sleep-deprived, battered body in a violet, TJK-monogrammed towel – a twenty-fifth birthday present from my purple-obsessed mother.
When I finally emerged from the steamy bathroom, Zayn was leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Deep green eyes peered at me from beneath tousled black hair that fell across his brow in an uncombed-yet-devilishly-sexy coif. His bronzed skin, which had appeared pale and washed-out for days, now looked positively radiant.
He casually looked me up and down, his steely gaze lingering on the assortment of golden cuts and scrapes that peppered my face and arms. The moment I removed the towel from my head and shook out my freshly-dyed hair, however, his eyes grew to twice their usual size.
“Like it?” I asked, running my fingers through damp, cobalt-blue curls. “I figured it was time to switch things up, since we’ll officially be on the run after today.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “That was the color of your hair the first time we met.”
“I guess it was,” I managed to smile, though his words made my heart skip a beat. He’d remembered.
He cleared his throat, shifted his gaze to my freshly-shaved legs, then shook his head and sighed. Not exactly the reaction I’d been hoping for, but what else was new?
“Please tell me you covered that before you got in the shower,” he motioned to the brand-new, brightly-glowing tattoo on my ankle – the only thing preventing the rest of my body from doing the same.
“Of course I did,” I lied, rubbing the back of my calf with my toes.
Zayn’s eyes rolled skyward as he began to unbutton his scuffed-up leather vest. “At the very least, go put some fresh ointment on it – the one from my pouch, not the Aquaphor.”
“The stuff with the dooku compounds, you mean?”
“Droka. And yes. It will help it heal up as well as preserve the magic. Speaking of which, I’ve already set out everything we’ll need for my tattoo on your kitchen table…after clearing away all the dirty dishes you and your friends left out.”
I glanced toward the “kitchen,” a.k.a. the small nook in the far corner of my cramped studio apartment, where last week’s pile of dishes that I alone had left on the kitchen table had been washed and neatly set on the drying rack. It was a stark contrast with the rest of my apartment, which looked as though a semi-truck full of women’s clothing and art supplies had collided with my living room. Which also functioned as my bedroom and dining room, since my fancy, fold-out IKEA dining table was only about six feet from my messy, unmade bed.
“Oh yeah,” I hastily agreed. “My, uh, friends can be real slobs sometimes.”
He let out a muffled snort as he unfastened the last button of his vest. It took everything I had not to openly drool as he shrugged out of it, exposing the most delicious, bronzed pectorals I’d ever seen.
“Do you need any help with the shower?” I asked innocently. “The knobs can be a little tricky, what with all the clockwise and counter-clockwise motions.”
His eyes flashed for the briefest moment. “As much as I’d love to take you up on that offer, I doubt your water heater has more than three minutes’ worth of hot water left.”
“You’d be surprised what one can accomplish in three minutes.” I waggled my eyebrows mischievously.
“I would be a disgrace to my kind if I only spent three minutes exploring that magnificent body of yours,” he chuckled to himself.
I held a hand against the wall to keep my knees from buckling.
Oblivious to my plight, he brought his nose to the top of my damp head and sniffed. “Do you happen to own any soap that doesn’t smell like the teenage girl section of a Bath and Body Works?”
I stuck out my tongue. “Nope. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to cover that.” I gestured over-emphatically at the fancy kraken-ink rune I’d tattooed at the top of his forearm a little over an hour ago. “After all, we don’t want ‘Zany’ coming back any time soon.”
My grin wavered at the sight of Biscuit’s empty tattoo frame sitting just beneath it.
He’ll be back. My eyes darted to the homemade incubator my “incu-boss” had constructed on the far end of the bathroom counter – a.k.a. a pile of towels and a propped-up hairdryer – to keep the sparkling egg Biscuit had left behind toasty warm.
He has to come back.
“Who’s Zany?” Zayn asked, unbuttoning the fly of his jeans.
My anxious mind turned to complete static at the emergence of those perfect, delicious, V-shaped muscles that angled sharply just beneath his hips, and the faintest line of hair that started at his navel and trailed all the way down to his—
“Talia,” Zayn sighed. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s extremely…distracting.”
“Sorry.” I tightened my grip on my towel. “I’ll, uh…go…prep. For, you know, whatever it was we were about to do.”
“You were about to engrave a highly complex, permanent tattoo onto my body to try to bring my familiar back to life.”
“Oh, right. That.”
He was shaking his head as he turned toward the bathroom, but I could have sworn I heard him chuckling. Just as he was about to shut the door behind him, a shadow between his shoulder blades caught my attention.
“Wait,” I blurted out.
Zayn stiffened. “What’s wrong?”
“Just…don’t move,” I murmured as I stepped forward to examine his upper back.
Exquisitely realistic vines knotted across his shoulder blades in overlapping tendrils, coming together to create a tangled mosaic of leaves and exotic flowers that incorporated at least a dozen runes, each skillfully entwined into the complex design. And there, in the center of it all, was the faint remnant of the insect-like symbol that Sol had forcibly branded on Zayn’s body after killing the rest of his family, thereby forging his permanent dominion over him – until a vial of kraken ink, a few drops of my blood, and a hastily-scrawled Counteraction Rune had broken the curse.
Except… I frowned. If it truly had been broken, why could I still see it at all? As I traced my fingertips across the faded ink and the angry, raised scar tissue, goosebumps erupted across Zayn’s back.
“It’s still there,” I whispered.
His shoulders rose and dipped in a heavy exhale. “I know.”
“But what does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I was able to leave the shop, despite Salen’s order not to… Then again, it’s possible her command over me died the moment she did, so it’s a flawed premise.”
I grimaced at the memory of Roy’s butt cobra gobbling her up, thrashing rat tail and all. She was out of the picture, yes, but it wouldn’t be long before her mob-boss dad came looking for her, as well as Zayn’s one-of-a-kind, blood-altering delphinium ink.
The purpose of which, Sol had never deigned to tell him.
I gently turned Zayn around to face me, biting my lip at the feel of his warm skin beneath my fingertips. As he gazed down at me, tendrils of heat unfurled in my core.
Ask me something I couldn’t have answered before.
His words had repeated in my head at least a dozen times since that morning. And I’d come this close to raising the subject at least a dozen times since, only to chicken out at each and every opportunity.
“Um,” I cleared my throat roughly.
Maybe the thirteenth time would be the charm.
“The, uh…the question you told me to ask you. To, um, make sure the Counteraction Rune actually w-worked—” I trailed off as my cheeks heated to what was almost certainly the color of an overripe tomato.
Ask me if I love you.
I couldn’t bear to look up at him as I forced out the rest of my question. “W-Why did you have me ask that question, um, in particular? I mean, as opposed to, say, disclosing Sol’s greatest weakness?”
Zayn’s body stiffened. I lifted my eyes just in time to see a muscle in his jaw twitch: a tell-tale sign that he was thinking through his next words very carefully. Finally, he licked his lips.
“Because my choices – my actions – did not always belong to me, I couldn’t risk becoming close with, uh…with anyone.” His cheeks flushed. “Anyway, the short answer is, I didn’t trust myself.”
My gulp was almost audible; I pictured “Zany’s” red eyes boring into mine, attempting to mesmerize me into releasing him via his utterly irresistible and intoxicating spell. I’d never seen Zayn’s incubus glamour before that moment. Not even a glimpse.
And holy shit, was it potent.
“But even if I was selfish enough to put someone I cared about in danger, the compulsion itself prevented me from allowing anyone to get too close. It was too much of a risk to Sol – or rather, to his dominion over me…” His voice trailed off, and for the briefest moment, a flicker of anger crossed his face. At Sol? At…himself?
My breath hitched. I wanted to hold him, to comfort him. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was for the pain he’d had to go through. And, selfishly, I wanted – needed – to know how he truly felt about me, without the obscuring filter of the curse that had bound his tongue for so long. So we could finally clear the air and slap some sort of definitive label on…this. Us. Whatever we were. I’d finally mustered up the courage to ask him when his next words made my mouth snap shut.
“In any case, it was an emotionally charged moment, and I probably got a little too carried away with premature…declarations,” he chuckled awkwardly.
“I—oh.” My heart deflated like a limp balloon.
Premature declarations? What did that even mean? That he really did love me but shouldn’t have said it so soon? Or that he didn’t actually love me, but got caught up in the euphoria of being freed and accidentally blurted it out?
“Anyway,” Zayn continued hastily, “while you were in the shower, I started prepping the delphinium petals for Extraction, even though I have no intention of using the finalized ink on Sol. As far as his curse truly being broken, that’s gotta be a good sign…right?”
Shoving aside my rampant neuroticism and self-doubt, I mustered up a weak smile. “Definitely a good sign.”
He sighed. “So far, all signs point to the curse being lifted… But I still worry.”
Heart thrumming with uncertainty, I slowly lifted my hand to cup the side of his face. After learning that Salen had been using Zayn’s body against his will for her own pleasure, I’d been hesitant to touch him without his explicit permission – incubus or not. But as he closed his eyes and pressed his cheek into my palm, I relaxed.
“I won’t let them hurt you again, Zayn, I swear it.”
“Talia.” His hand reached up to cradle mine, and his lips found the inside of my palm. “While it means the world to me, that’s just not a promise you can make. I’ve never worked with kraken ink. I don’t know the extent of its power or how long it will last. I can only go off the word of the siren who gave it to you, which, to me, is dubious at best.”
I bristled. “That siren is my friend. She—”
“She saved your life,” he murmured, brushing his lips against the inside of my wrist. “I know. And for that, I am eternally in her debt.”
I bit my own lip as a hot pang of longing twisted through my belly.
Zayn faltered, his beautiful emerald eyes glinting with the desire I felt, the desire I knew he could feel radiating from my pores. He released my hand to cup my face in both of his. Slowly, ever so slowly, he lowered his lips to my forehead.
My eyes closed at the aching touch of his lips. “You treat me like I’m made out of glass.”
“That’s because you are.”
“I’m not!” I protested.
“Would you please just listen?” My hands reached up and closed around his wrists. “Before, at the shop, when we were, um, you know – getting physical – I didn’t even feel tired. I felt great! Revitalized even. Honest!” I added, seeing his incredulous expression.
“And the first time we made love, you had black circles under your eyes for a week.”
“I did not!”
“You did,” he sighed, gently pulling his wrists from my hands. “You may not remember that night, but I do.”
I took a step backward. “How can you say that? Of course, I remem—”
“Not like I do.” His eyes had darkened into a glower. “By the time the sun came up, your body temperature had plummeted and you were as white as a sheet. I couldn’t even wake you. You were so depleted,” he continued before I could interrupt, “I had to carry you home, where you proceeded to sleep for sixteen hours.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “I…I drove myself home that night…” Didn’t I? I shook my head roughly. “I mean, I woke up in my bed the next evening, but that was because…because…” I faltered at my own fuzzy recollection. While the scorching details of that night had been permanently cauterized into my brain, the rest of the weekend had always felt hazy, like a half-formed memory.
“Because you’d had two glasses of wine with dinner?” he growled. I took another step backward. “No, Talia. I drove you home in your car. And the reason you couldn’t stop sleeping the following day is because I’d sucked you dry the night before. Because the allure of your golden blood was so intoxicating, I lost all control and nearly killed you. And you want to know the worst part?” He coughed out a bitter laugh. “While you were lying motionless in your bed, gray and weak as an umbra, I felt the strongest I ever had. Because I’d preyed on you and the potent magic in your blood. Because I’m a predator and a thief – a pathetic, fucked up creature who survives on the stolen energy of others.”
“No.” I was shaking my head in disbelief. “That’s not… I mean, yeah, I remember being sick the following week, but that was just the flu.”
“It was me. That’s why a physical relationship between us can only be parasitic. Because what I take from you, Talia, I can never hope to return.”
My jaw fluttered open in shock. Every syllable of what he was saying felt wrong. Maybe I had been tired the week after we’d had sex… And okay, sure, after trying to save him during the fachan attack, I’d ended up taking a four-hour nap against my will. But what about earlier this morning, when I’d seduced him at the shop? I hadn’t felt exhausted then. And I certainly never felt as though I’d been preyed on, least of all by him.
Unfortunately, none of those thoughts managed to come out as words.
Zayn turned away from me. “Just give me a few minutes… Please,” he added before quietly shutting the bathroom door behind him.
I stared at the wooden barrier in wordless outrage. How dare he! A predator? A parasite?! Did he honestly believe that about himself?
When the water turned on a few seconds later, I entertained thoughts of bursting through the shower curtain to prove to him how incredibly wrong he was in the form of clothes-free conflict resolution. But that didn’t exactly fall in line with my promise to respect his boundaries and his body.
Grinding my teeth together in an animalistic grumble, I smacked my palm on the door and shouted, “This conversation is not over!” and then abruptly spun on my heels to brush four days’ worth of blue knots from my tangled hair.
After I’d taken some time to calm down, and both of us had showered and changed into fresh clothes – him in a navy-blue t-shirt and jeans that he’d brought in his trusty burlap bag of requirement, me in cutoff shorts and a pink tank top – we carefully set the glittering black egg atop an electric heating pad and a rolled-up towel on the kitchen counter. While Zayn hand-selected and prepped the various inks I would need for his tattoo, I slumped into a chair and gnawed at my fingernails.
“Don’t worry,” Zayn smiled, reading my mind. Or possibly my panic-stricken face. “You won’t even have to sketch it out – see? Just trace the old lines of scar tissue. Certain colors have to go in certain spots, but I’ll tell you those ahead of time. Otherwise, you can choose the color palette. And I’ll handle the runes, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“Won’t it hurt – putting the tattoo over fresh scar tissue?”
He shrugged. “I’ve dealt with plenty worse.”
I bit my lip.
“I-I’m just…so tired,” I half-yawned, half-whimpered. “What if I mess it up?”
Zayn nodded thoughtfully, glanced at the clock, then eyed his bag with a sigh. After fishing through its seemingly-endless contents, he retrieved a small vial of bright pink liquid – Revitalizing Serum, the same stuff that got me through a vampire chase while also preventing a full-on asthma attack. “I wouldn’t normally condone taking two doses of this in less than twenty-four hours, but I’ll give you half a drop – enough to help you get through dinner without falling asleep. Okay?”
I stuck out my tongue gratefully, where he placed the tiniest, tingling-est, peppermint drop. A shiver of electricity worked its way down my throat and into my belly, then all the way to my fingers, scalp, and toes. And just like that, the exhaustion was gone – without the telltale racing-heart and pounding-head side effects of a Grapefruit Twist Summer Edition Red Bull.
“Holy crap,” I muttered, shaking my head. “You seriously need to market that stuff.”
“Be careful later tonight,” he said as he screwed the dropper back into place. “I don’t want you operating any heavy machinery when this stuff wears off.”
I nodded my assent as I reached for the alcohol and began prepping the tattoo site on his forearm – an area eight inches high and four inches wide, save for where Biscuit’s long tail feathers draped around Zayn’s wrist. The surrounding skin was already covered in lush foliage and tropical flowers, among which various runes and weapons were deftly hidden.
“What ink should I use to outline it? And how thick do you want the edges?”
He reached for a small plastic ink cap and a black bottle labeled Onyx. “Here – only fill the cap about halfway to start. This stuff’s worth more than my Porsche. And a 5RL or a 7RL is fine for the outline, though do me a favor and use the three-liner for the edges of the tail feathers.”
“Okay,” I nodded as I snapped on my latex gloves.
Zayn reached into his bag to pull out a bible-sized silver box that had been wrapped twice in rubber bands. Carefully, he unwrapped it and opened the hinged lid to expose the glittering black powder inside.
My heart skidded to a stop at the sight of Biscuit’s ashes.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked quietly.
He didn’t reply as he fished out a metal lab spoon. After carefully measuring out a tiny pile of ash, he sprinkled it into the black ink.
“I have no idea if this is going to work,” he murmured as he carefully mixed them together. “I’ve frankly never heard of a familiar sacrificing itself for anyone other than its master, let alone reincarnating as an egg. Only phoenixes can do that. But I’d like to do everything I can to preserve his essence, should we actually succeed.”
With a gulp, I retrieved the pinky-sized vial of blood from my shirt, which Zayn had gifted me earlier that morning. The cork of the vial had a small loop that I threaded the chain of my necklace through, so it could rest beside the locket-shaped fae talisman my parents had given me. I still had a couple hundred burning questions to ask about that, but those would have to wait until dinner at my mother’s house.
“May I?” I asked, uncorking the tiny, glowing bottle. Though the tattoo on my ankle shielded its signature golden glow while my blood was safely inside my body, it did nothing for the blood that was outside of it.
Yeah. My next period was gonna be a real trip.
Zayn eyed the vial, then nodded. “A drop or two should be good. I don’t want to have to stick you again anytime soon.”
We both shuddered at the traumatic experience from earlier that morning. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of screaming and tears.
Oh, and I was upset too.
Still grimacing, I added a couple of drops to the ink-ash mixture, stirred it well, then filled the needle cartridge of my pen-sized rotary machine with our metallic black concoction. With a deep breath, I pressed the button to turn it on.
“Are you ready?”
Zayn flashed me a tight smile. “Let’s bring our little buddy home.”
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