ERIC DEVON sat at the inn’s counter and wished people would just leave him bloody well alone.
A middle-aged man dressed in purple clung to his arm, drooling and cajoling. “Please, Eric. You’re my last hope,” he slurred. “You know what my wife will… do to me if I don’t recover that doily? You have got to help me….”
The tall pendulum clock in the corner struck eleven. Eric groaned and pressed the heel of his hands to his eyes, then drew his fingers back, messing up his already tangled black hair. It was nearly lunchtime and he was nowhere near drunk enough. He gestured for the innkeeper. That needed to be fixed, and fast.
“Eric,” the purple-robed man whined. Eric kept his eyes steadily on the glass being filled in front of him. “You know I’m no good at stealing. We’ve known each other for... for at least two days. Help a man out....”
“Piss off, Olaf.” Eric snatched his whiskey up. “I told you I’m not looking for a job.” He shoved his way past the wobbling man and through the crowd to a tiny empty table crammed in a corner. He plopped down on the chair, shoulders hunched, feeling his mood sink even lower.
“Well, isn’t that a shame.”
Eric lifted his gaze, malevolent. A stranger was straddling the chair across from him, leaning forward on the backrest, arms folded. He was smiling, lips curled up in a too-smug grin on his impish face.
“What’s a shame?” Eric grunted.
Clever green eyes twinkled beneath a mess of chestnut bangs. The stranger was wrapped in a red cloak, and a thick braid rested over his shoulder. He lifted his hand to carelessly push his bangs back, without much success. A thick leather strap was tied around his wrist. “You. Not taking jobs.”
Eric rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “How come?” he couldn’t help but ask. The stranger shrugged, and there it was again—that crooked smirk. Annoying, Eric thought. But also....
“I’d heard you were out of the game.” With nonchalance, the man reached toward a passing waitress and snatched a pint of stout from her tray. The girl scuttled on, utterly oblivious. “I guess I wanted to see for myself. Too bad.”
Eric could feel an intrigued smirk bloom on his lips as he watched the stranger take a relaxed sip from his glass. A smudge of froth smeared at the corner of his mouth, and he slowly wiped it away, trailing his thumb along his plump bottom lip before licking it clean.
When Eric managed to tear his eyes away, it was too late. The stranger had seen him staring. The man’s eyes glinted in amusement, and Eric felt himself blush hotly. He downed what was left of his whiskey, doing his best to feign indifference and retain some scrap of dignity.
“I might have had a job for you. That’s all,” the stranger said gently.
“Let’s say I humor you,” Eric harrumphed. “What kinda job would that have been?”
The stranger trailed his fingertips along the rim of his glass in slow, hypnotic circles. “I’d call it a... retrieval job. Retrieving a certain possession from someone and delivering it safely to my ship’s hold.”
“That sounds incredibly lame.”
“I guess it does.” The stranger smiled his crooked smile again. “However, it’s a feat no one has attempted before. Well, some did attempt it... they just didn’t survive to tell the tale. See, the someone I’m referring to isn’t keen on having possessions... retrieved from. People say it’s impossible, but I don’t like that term. I’d rather call it... unachieved as of yet.”
Eric pushed the empty glass to the side, leaning more comfortably into his chair. His thief instincts prickled, an electric feeling sizzling up and down his nerves. “Now that sounds....” Exciting. A breath of fresh air. Exactly what I’ve been looking for. “...vaguely interesting, I’ll give you that.”
The stranger’s eyes were steady on his face, not missing anything. Eric shifted, slightly uncomfortable on the receiving end of such an intense focus. He had the bothersome feeling that the stranger could see right through him.
“However, you’re retired now, and men like you retire for only two reasons. Either you don’t love the job anymore, or you no longer have what it takes.” The stranger’s voice was laced with a hardness that was barely perceptible, yet stung in all the wrong places. “Either way, I have no use for you anymore.”
He downed what was left of his beer, slammed the empty glass down, and got up to leave. Before he could realize what he was doing, Eric’s hand shot out and clamped on the stranger’s wrist, holding him back. He found himself staring straight into surprised green eyes, and his brain seemed to short-circuit. Eric swallowed, trying desperately to remember how to think.
“Tell you what,” he blurted finally. All of a sudden, he really didn’t want to let the irritating, smug stranger just walk back out of his life. “How about we let a game of dice decide. If you win, I come with you and do the job.”
The stranger hesitated, still half turned away. “How do I know you’re still the man I need?”
Eric allowed himself a grin and lifted his free hand. In his open palm gleamed a small silver ring, reflecting the cold light of the gas lamps. For a split second the stranger wasn’t able to hide a look of genuine shock. His hand snapped to his earlobe, nimble fingertips quick to assert that yes, his earring was indeed gone. Slowly, his expression shifted to an intrigued grin, and he sat back down.
“How did you do that?”
Eric hesitated just a moment too long before releasing his wrist. He lifted a finger to his lips. “Secret.”
The stranger’s teeth gleamed in an honest smile. “May I have that back?”
“Only if you agree to my proposal.” Eric dug in his pockets and placed on the table two bone dice. “Highest throw wins. Quick ’n’ easy, will take only seconds. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
“That depends.” The stranger pushed the hair out of his eyes. “What if you win?”
“If I win, you give me a kiss.”
Bright green eyes went wide, and plump lips parted in a surprised gasp. And that made twice in under a minute that he was able to render the smug stranger speechless, Eric thought with considerable satisfaction. It gave him a thrill that couldn’t possibly mean anything good.
The stranger’s mouth snapped shut. His cheekbones were flushed red as he reached to snatch back his earring. “Fine,” he said, trying to sound haughty. But Eric could hear the unsteadiness in his voice and repressed a smile.
Without commenting, he picked up the dice and rolled them. Three and two. That sucked, he considered, as the stranger collected the dice and shook them in his closed hand. One would have to be quite spectacularly unlucky to get a lower—
One and one.
Eric whistled. “Well, that’s bad luck if I’ve ever seen it.”
“I’m not that good at gambling,” the stranger mumbled, eyes resolutely fixed on the tabletop. Eric thought that had to be the understatement of the year, but kindly avoided saying it out loud.
“One man’s loss is another man’s gain,” he murmured instead, standing from the chair to slowly lean forward, hands braced on the tabletop.
The stranger squirmed, his breath speeding up in what looked like mild panic. “Wait,” he stuttered. “We haven’t—you don’t even know my name, I—we shouldn’t—”
Eric fisted his hand in the man’s red cloak and pulled him forward until bright green eyes were scant inches from his—until he could feel the warmth radiating from the stranger’s body, feel the mad thumping in his chest. Slowly, he pressed his lips to the corner of the stranger’s mouth and traced his tongue along the bottom lip, following the path the stranger’s thumb had marked. He felt the man’s trembling gasp, heard the softest hitch in his breath.
Eric let his hand slide up the stranger’s neck, feeling the quick pulse just under the skin, before moving further to curl around the man’s nape, fingers sinking in soft brown hair. He closed his mouth over the stranger’s bottom lip and gently bit on it, rewarded by another sharp intake of breath. Eric was quick to take advantage, slipping his tongue past the man’s lips and into the warmth of his mouth. He tasted like smoke and dark beer, a dry, strong flavor that made Eric’s blood stir in his veins. He clutched harder at the man in his arms, enjoying the feeling of the muscular body thrumming with energy under his hands. It had been a long time since he’d held another man. As he swallowed the stranger’s choked moan, as he felt it shoot straight down to his groin, Eric was shaken by the realization of just how much he’d missed it.
A hesitant hand pressed against his shoulder, travelled up to the corner of his jaw, fingers brushing the sensitive skin behind his ear. Eric closed his eyes, biting back a groan as he felt the stranger grow bolder. The hand gripped him harder, pulled him in, suddenly demanding. The stranger parted his mouth to kiss him back, shameless, wet and hot. Eric felt his own body respond, his cock harden against the fabric of his trousers. He licked into the stranger’s mouth, sucked on his tongue, and then tightened his fist in the man’s hair as a wave of sudden, burning want washed through him, making him near ravenous with hunger. The kiss turned deep and slow, a sensuous dance that had the stranger moaning almost too loud. In a corner of his mind, Eric was aware that a few customers had turned in their direction, lasciviously following their actions. A sudden, unbidden bout of possessiveness tore through his veins, rushed up to his brain. He didn’t want anyone’s eyes on the handsome stranger.
With a last bite on the man’s plump lips, Eric forced himself to pull back. He drank in the sight—the stranger looked utterly delectable, flushed and rumpled, his mouth still half parted, bitten red. He had nothing left of his previous smugness. He lifted half-lidded, gleaming green eyes to Eric, and the thief had to wrestle down the sudden, imperious need to grab him and ravish him there on the damn table. He leaned forward once more, a low growl simmering in his throat, determined to steal another kiss, peeping toms be damned. He pressed his fingertips to the stranger’s jaw, tilted his head up—
Olaf erupted from the crowd in a haze of alcoholic vapors and slammed his considerable girth against the table.
“Sheric,” he slurred, sounding if possible even drunker than before. “I’ve come to a deshision. I’ll be… by your shide every day and every night and every… day and I won’t even shleep until you asshept my job.”
Eric rolled his eyes. He cast a glance toward the stranger, who’d been quick to recompose himself, a hint of red still staining his cheeks the only sign left of his disheveled state. The impulse to head-butt Olaf in the face was almost irresistible.
“Sorry, Olaf,” Eric said, and slung his arm around the stranger’s shoulders. “I already have a job. Stranger here won my services in an honest bet. Gutted, mate—you’ll understand my hands are tied.”
Olaf gesticulated and sputtered, trying to articulate an answer. Apparently he got tired of trying, for he lurched forward in a clumsy punch. Eric grabbed his wrist and smoothly flung the man over his shoulder, sending him flying onto a nearby table. Olaf, table, and the several glasses it carried crashed to the floor in an explosion of splinters, glass shards, and beer. The very large and unfriendly-looking men who sat there turned to face Eric, decidedly displeased expressions on their beer-splattered faces.
“Sorry.” Eric cracked an unconvincing smile, lifting one hand in apology. “Now, there’s no need to take this badly….”
He bowed just in time to avoid the punch aimed straight at his face, which clocked the dark-robed man at the table behind him. The guy stood up slowly, his face smeared with blood from where he’d smashed it in his pint glass, and lurched over Eric’s table to grasp for his attacker. He managed to elbow a passing waiter in the process, causing him to spill all the several drinks he was carrying on the head of a random customer.
In the midst of shouting people and flying chairs, Eric found himself back-to-back with the stranger, arms raised to fend off the jab of a drunken merchant. “Hey there,” he greeted, only half breathless. He kicked the merchant full in the diaphragm, sending him tumbling back into the angry crowd. “Doing all right?”
“Can’t complain.” The stranger moved swiftly, his cloak a flurry of red, and a short pudgy man flew crashing through a window. “Mind your left.”
Eric turned just in time to parry a hook to his head. He placed a hand against the attacker’s shoulder, grabbed his wrist, and twisted. Something went crack, and the attacker went down with a yelp. “Cheers. Hey, watch out—”
An incredibly large man charged with all his weight, knocking the stranger off-balance with the impact and sending him stumbling back. Eric was quick to catch him as he fell, crossing his arms tightly around his chest. The stranger didn’t miss a beat, smoothly lifting both legs and slamming his boots in the attacker’s sternum. The man fell back on the inn’s counter, splintering it.
“Thanks,” the stranger said, regaining his feet. Eric reluctantly released him.
They lurched to the side as one when a chair came flying in their direction, and rolled in a tangle of limbs under a large table that was miraculously still intact. Eric found himself on top of the stranger, their bodies pressed flush together chest to hips, his knee between the stranger’s legs. They stared at each other for a long, breathless second. The stranger was flushed from the fight, his eyes gleaming, his breathing fast. A different kind of excitement stirred in Eric’s body, predatory instincts springing unbidden in his mind.
The stranger shoved at his chest hard and Eric fell to the side, smashing his elbow on the floor.
“Ouch,” he protested, gasping. He rolled on his back, cradling his arm, stupidly painful twinges crawling up to his shoulder. “Uncalled for.”
The stranger scrambled to straighten himself and sat cross-legged, the annoying smirk back on his face. He grabbed a brown glass bottle which must have rolled under the table when the ruckus began and ripped the cork off with his teeth. He drank deeply, his throat working as he swallowed, then handed the beer to Eric. The thief pushed himself up on one arm and lifted the bottle in a half-hearted cheer. He guessed he wasn’t going to get an apology. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” The stranger flicked his braid behind his shoulders and patted his knees. “Well, I’ll be off now. Nice to meet you.”
“Wait,” Eric blurted. Some beer went down the wrong way, and he coughed and sputtered under the stranger’s amused eyes. “I’m coming with you.”
The stranger looked uncertain. “You won the bet.”
“I know. But I told Olaf I’d work with you.” Eric shrugged, as much as one can shrug while lying on the floor. “I can’t very well take my word back, can I?”
“Fancy that.” A slow smile stretched on the stranger’s lips, oddly soothing in the chaos roaring all around them. “Maybe you are the man I need, after all.”
The tall pendulum clock wobbled and crashed to the floor beside them in an explosion of glass shards and cogs.