My business partner is kissing the back of my neck. Since we spent the night together, this isn’t much of a surprise. I’m curled next to Malcolm, his arm draped over my waist, his rich, nutmeg scent warming the air. I want to laugh at the audacity and joy of it all, but don’t dare make a sound, don’t dare move. His kiss is a soft, shivery thing. I don’t want him to stop. So I remain absolutely still as morning light filters through the drapes and bounces off dust motes in the air.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love this.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.
But I am. This is new. Our business is still new, not quite a year old. Beneath the joy is a thin wire of dread that insists this happiness can’t last. We’ve made a huge mistake mixing business with pleasure, and once I confess what happened at Nigel and Sadie’s wedding reception last night, it will change everything; it will change us.
I will confess. I know I must. But not before coffee. No one should talk about business or pacts with (possibly) demonic entities before coffee.
Malcolm’s lips continue to explore the nape of my neck. I’m pretty sure he’s awake. True, he’s an expert kisser. Even so, no one has so much skill that they can execute what he’s currently doing while asleep.
I’ve vowed not to move, but my toes begin flirting with his. They find the sensitive arch of his foot, and I’m rewarded with his exhale against my neck.
“You awake?” he says, voice low and still warm with sleep.
“I’m guessing you are,” I say.
“How are you?”
The simple question betrays so much with its tone: Are you okay? Was last night okay? Did we make a mistake?
I’m sure there must be other doubts I’m missing, other things he’s feeling. I go with a single word reply.
“Hm. You were that last night, too, if I recall.”
Now I turn to face him. I’m rewarded with that sweet, dark-roast smile, his eyes, shining at the sight of me. I can’t help wondering: how did I get so lucky?
“I think I promised you some Kona blend,” I say.
“You did, and I plan to collect. But first, I think I need my morning kiss.”
Morning kiss. Evening kiss. It’s how we juggled being business partners and a couple, although that was before we moved the arrangement into my bedroom.
“Well, we turned the lights off after midnight.” I peer up at him, trying to school my face into absolute seriousness. “Technically, that’s morning, so we’ve already had our morning kiss.”
“Doesn’t count unless the sun’s up.” Malcolm tugs me closer, folds me into his arms.
It is, by far, the longest morning kiss on record.
* * *
I’m not sure how many pots of coffee I’ve brewed. Thousands, certainly. On most days, I do it without thinking. Unless we’re up against a truly powerful ghost, I don’t need to pay attention to the particular blend (although Kona works best to eradicate ghosts) or how precisely I measure the water.
This morning? My hands tremble—just a bit. I’m in Malcolm’s tuxedo shirt. The tails skim my knees. Even with the cuffs rolled, the sleeves knock against things with a sweep of my arms. When I sprinkle coffee grounds all over the counter, I set down the scoop, close my eyes, and try not to cry.
“Hey.” Malcolm’s voice is gentle in my ear. He moves behind me, wraps his arms around mine, and then cradles me against his chest. “Don’t worry. I think it’s impossible for you to make a bad cup of coffee.”
“I could if I tried,” I insist.
“That’s just it. You gotta try. Just toss in some Kona blend. You could make brewed mud this morning. Trust me. I wouldn’t notice.”
“You sound like you’re in a good mood, Mr. Armand.”
“I’m in a very good mood.” He turns me in his arms and places a kiss on my nose. “I’ve never been in a better mood.”
Something inside me loosens. Tension drains from my shoulders. I eye the coffee scoop and vow to make Malcolm the best damned cup of coffee he’s ever had.
Only now I realize that it’s okay if it isn’t.
By the time the scent of Kona blend fills the kitchen, and Malcolm has two cups and the half and half ready to go, I feel like myself again. We’ll drink our coffee, clear our heads, and then we can tackle the big problems left over from last night. We can do this, I’m certain.
Just as I think this, footfalls sound above our heads. Malcolm and I glance upward and then, at the same moment, our eyes meet.
“Belinda?” he says.
I give my head a little shake. “I didn’t hear her come in last night. Did you?”
He opens his mouth as if to answer, then shuts it tight. I take that as a no. Because treading above our heads is more than one pair of feet. We could make a dash for the stairs, but we’d only meet whoever is on their way down. We could hide in the living room, but that seems cowardly.
Malcolm surveys me, then he glances down at the T-shirt and boxer shorts he’s wearing. His lips twitch. Before I can say anything—or toss him one of my grandmother’s old aprons—Belinda charges into the kitchen.
“Okay, okay.” Her words come out rushed, like she’s trying to convince me of something she knows is wrong. “Before you say anything, I just want to say that I’m not…”
She stutters to a halt. Her gaze flits to Malcolm and back to me. For a brief moment, her mouth hangs open. But this is Belinda Barnes, so the shock is quickly replaced by an impish grin.
“Well, it’s about time. High five?” She holds up a hand. “I think this deserves a high five.”
Malcolm snorts. I scowl.
“There will be no high fives,” I say, willing my cheeks not to flame. They do, of course. My entire face is on fire. Even my knees feel hot.
This only makes Belinda laugh. “Fist bump?”
I tilt my head and glare. It’s then I noticed her attire, remarkably similar to my own. The man’s dress shirt is a pale blue, and since she’s six feet tall, hits her mid-thigh.
Then the shirt’s owner clears the kitchen doorway, and the whole situation goes from slightly awkward to fairly mortifying.
Jack Carlotta stumbles over the threshold, not that there’s anything on the floor to trip him up. To his credit, he swallows his shock almost immediately. Maybe that’s a lawyer thing. Before he does, I see a flash of … something in his eyes. I can’t tell if it’s regret or guilt or simply shame.
Once upon a time, Jack, Belinda, and I attended high school together, and once upon a time, Jack and Belinda were the couple. You know the kind—star athlete and homecoming queen. That was also before the ghosts started tormenting Belinda, before the drinking, before Jack left for college.
And before he started asking me out on a regular basis. By text message. I still have one on my phone from only a few weeks ago. I’ve never said yes. He’s never stopped asking.
After last night? I’m guessing that might change.
Along with the warm scent of coffee, the air is thick with embarrassment. It’s my kitchen, which I suppose makes me the one responsible for starting a conversation, offering my guests breakfast. I glance at Malcolm, but his brow is clouded with a low-grade glare aimed in Jack’s direction.
They’ve never really liked each other.
“I have Kona blend!”
I blurt the words, and they ricochet in the tiny space. Then Belinda tips her head back and laughs. The sound of it slices through the embarrassment to the point where even Malcolm cracks a smile.
“Pour us some coffee,” Belinda says, pulling on one of my grandmother’s aprons. She winks at me. “And then get out of here. Jack and I will make brunch.”
* * *
Malcolm and I do end up hiding in the living room. A racket comes from the kitchen—the clatter of pots and pans, the sizzle of veggie bacon, and the aroma of biscuits baking. I cradle a cup of coffee, and if the steam doesn’t do much to cool my cheeks, at least it clears my head.
Malcolm paces. He’s set his cup on the mantelpiece and pauses after each lap around the living room for a sip.
“You know,” he says, after he’s logged at least a quarter mile. “This isn’t the way I pictured the next morning. I was hoping to cook you breakfast in bed.”
“I still had to get up to make the coffee,” I point out.
He makes terrible coffee. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why since he’s so good at everything else.
“I make okay coffee,” he says.
“No, you don’t.”
“I do. Ask Nigel.”
“I’ve been faking.”
“Why would you…?” I trail off, my mind whirling at this new bit of information. “But we’ve spent hours in the kitchen.”
A sheepish expression lights his eyes while that dark-roast grin spreads across his face. “Yeah, that was kind of the point. At first, you know, before … everything.” He waves a hand toward the ceiling and the general direction of my bedroom. “I just wanted an excuse to spend time with you.”
I tilt my head and go for stern. “And then it got too complicated to explain.”
He raises his hands in surrender. “I know, I know. Bad habit.”
I grumble a sigh, and he laughs.
“I’ll think about it.”
I’m expecting him to log another quarter mile around the living room while I do. Instead, he shakes his head as if he’s shaking away a thought—and the laughter that goes with it.
“What?” I ask, bracing for another confession.
“I was just thinking that we should text Gregory and Terese and invite them over for the most awkward morning-after brunch ever.”
Now, I do laugh and pat the spot on the sofa next to me. “Sit?”
He does, and not too much later, I’m snuggled in his lap. His chin rests on my head, and I’m flush against his chest. His heartbeat is a strong, steady thing against my back.
“Am I forgiven?” he whispers.
“Still thinking about it.”
His laughter rumbles beneath me. I’m a terrible liar, and he knows it.
I contemplate the front lawn, the spring morning. I let my gaze drift. At first, the shadow doesn’t register. At first, that’s all I see, a shadow stretching across my lawn. It takes a few moments before it attaches itself to the man who is so clearly casting it.
He stands on the sidewalk midpoint between my house and Sadie’s. In the past months, I’ve seen so many necromancers stand in that very spot that I’m pretty sure he’s one as well.
True, he isn’t pulled together as most others I’ve met. His canvas trousers are the color of damp sand, worn and patched. His hair is shaggy, dipping to beneath his collar, and far more gray than black. He carries a backpack slung over his shoulders. But there’s something in the way he tilts his chin, tucks his hands so casually in his trouser pockets that pings sudden recognition.
I don’t know him. Certainly I’ve never seen him before, but he’s familiar in a way I can’t pinpoint.
“Hm?” It’s barely an answer. His lips are too busy brushing against strands of my hair, and his fingers are intent on caressing my arms through the long sleeves of his shirt.
“I think there’s a necromancer on my sidewalk.”
The caressing comes to an abrupt halt. His fingers curl around my arms, and he holds me steady.
I part the shutters to give him a full view of my front lawn, the sidewalk, and the necromancer whose gaze is doing a slow and steady survey of my house.
Malcolm doesn’t speak. He doesn’t move. He is so still that dread curls in my stomach. Up until now, a necromancer on the front walk has been a harbinger of bad things. Still, this particular necromancer doesn’t look all that dangerous.
“Am I right?” I prompt.
“Yeah.” He exhales. “You’re right. That’s a necromancer.” With his grip still on my arms, he eases me from his lap. “That also happens to be my father.”