Cold Feet (Empathy in the PPNW Book 3), Page 1Olivia R. Burton
A Preternatural PNW Novel
Olivia R. Burton
© 2016 Olivia R. Burton. All Rights Reserved
Edited by: Alexis Arendt
Cover Art by Michelle Preast
empathy in the pPNW Series
Business With Pleasure
Bone to Pick
Flesh and Blood
The Writer’s Overnighter
Table of Contents
“Gwen Arthur, will you marry me?”
I looked up from the bite-sized cupcake in front of me and into the brilliant blue eyes of the man presenting it. The cupcake smelled amazing, a good distraction from the lunacy that I wasn’t entirely sure I had heard correctly. It was late afternoon in The Internets, a café that doubles as a popular hangout for geeks of all ages. Perhaps the din of the crowd had crazied up Mel’s words.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, frowning at him. Mel pushed the cupcake box a bit closer to my face, his hands holding it open as any man holds open a tiny box while down on one knee. When he didn’t answer, I picked the mini cupcake up between my thumb and forefinger and inspected it. It had no ring in the mound of chocolate frosting and I saw no gold poking out the side of the cake. Still, he remained mute and hopeful.
I didn’t buy it. I took a second to steel myself, sucked in a desperate breath, and then pushed my empathic powers forth poke around in his psyche to see if I could detect deception. I’m not just a pretty face and Mel knows it; if he was trying to play some sort of prank on me, he was doing a very good job of it. His popping, crackling emotions, like the chocolate morsel I held, told me nothing helpful, so I walled myself up once again, already regretting forcing myself to read him. Him being close was bad enough, but actively groping around his mind with my empathy was usually akin to coating my hand in gasoline and shoving it straight into a bonfire.
Focusing on his face once again, I considered the cupcake, hoping I could eat it without actually accepting whatever it represented. I needed chocolate to soothe me, and so, without answering his absurd question, I popped the cupcake whole into my mouth. The result was a sensation so incredible I nearly had a mouth orgasm.
That’s a thing, I swear, and if you’d tasted this cupcake you wouldn’t be looking at me like that.
“Oh, sweet chocolate,” I moaned around a mouthful of toe-curling succulence. Barely able to function over the pleasure running along my tongue and into my brain, I leaned forward, grasping desperately for Mel’s shoulder, ignoring the fact that I had frosting on my finger and thumb. Casually, he rolled his gaze to the chocolate stain, amused rather than irritated. He rarely takes issue with a woman touching him; I could have had the face of a soul-sucking Dementor and he wouldn’t have turned me away. My square jaw, dark hair, and green eyes were incidental to Mel Somerset so long as I identified as a female.
I’m not proud of myself but I did consider leaning even closer and sucking the chocolate-smeared shirt into my mouth to make sure I got every ounce of available cupcake. I wasn’t even sure if I’d eaten a wrapper or not; that’s how good the rich, cocoa treat had been.
“Well?” he drawled, and I realized I’d gone mute with enjoyment and lost track of time as I continued to lick my teeth and suck the chocolate off my tongue. I’d meant to demand more, ask where he bought them, or just shake him until more cupcakes fell out of his pockets, but I always go a little brainless when it comes to really good cake.
“Well what? I don’t know what you want,” I said, leaning back so I wasn’t touching him anymore. My skin was tingling where it had made contact his shirt, fading into numbness like I’d held it against a block of ice so long it was going dead in an attempt to avoid the pain. Mel stayed low, still on one knee, still watching me expectantly as if he hadn’t proposed something so patently ludicrous.
“He’s proposing, dear,” Chloe Warren said from my left, her tone striped with sarcasm. She’s my best friend, but with that comes the permission to mock me when she feels I’m being particularly dim. I snarled instantly, whipping around to glare her way. She’s cute, tinier than me in every direction but with a much bigger personality. Winking, she gestured back to Mel, wiggling her dainty fingers as if she was so excited she couldn’t keep any part of her still. “Go on, answer him! Don’t keep us all in suspense.”
“Did you set this up? Am I being punk’d?” I asked, hoping that was still a reference the kids were using. “Is that why he’s been gone for six weeks? To set up some ridiculous stunt?” Turning back to Mel, I stuck a finger into the tiny box in front of me, aiming to snatch up a stray bit of frosting. Like Richard Gere, he snapped the box closed on my finger; unlike Julia Roberts, I did not shriek and laugh. I looked back up at Mel, finding his thick brows up, a smile still on his attractive mouth. He was enjoying himself, which I wanted to despise on principle.
Sure, Mel and I had gotten friendlier over the last year, and maybe that was why his emotions were not entirely as insufferable as they usually were. But he and I had history. Seriously annoying history, wherein he showed up randomly to get in my face and flirt and I told him off in various and entirely not work safe ways until he laughed and headed back up to his office a few floors above mine. He’s not inherently a bad guy, but I’m the victim here, and don’t let Chloe tell you different because she’ll certainly try.
Yanking my finger out of the box, I leaned back in my chair and inspected every bit of the digit that might have chocolate left on it.
“What do you want, really?” I asked, disappointed I was chocolate-free.
Getting to his feet, Mel moved around the table, taking the tiny box with him. Like a dog convinced its owner is hiding another tennis ball behind his back, I peered around as he pulled up a chair. I didn’t spy any more tiny boxes of orgasmic delight and that only made me crankier.
“I need help on a case," Mel explained.
“A case? You were gone so long, I figured maybe you’d up and retired, gone off to live the good life somewhere far, far away. That’s still an option, you know.”
Mel glared and I felt the crackle of his emotions shift toward irritation. I rubbed a hand along my bare arm below my sleeve, trying to get rid of the sensation. I knew it wasn’t going to work, that you can’t rub away something that isn’t physically there. That’s never stopped me from trying, though. Human irritation can be bad enough, but werewolf emotions? Extra, super, definitely no thank you.
“That wasn’t some sort of vacation,” Mel said tersely, the burning in his psyche sparking hotly enough that I felt my cheek twitch with searing pain. Chloe’s curiosity piqued next to me and I glanced over to find that she’d managed to get herself a drink at s
ome point during the conversation. She hadn’t let me order when we’d arrived, yet here she was, sipping on a hot beverage.
“How come you get a drink?” I demanded, considering stealing hers. She ignored me, probably knowing for sure she could take me if it came to some sort of wrestling match over her soy whatever. Giving up on telling her off, I scanned around behind her, hoping I could catch sight of a waitress, or even just a distracted nerd whose hot chocolate I could swipe. Desperate times, and all that.
“So where’ve you been for the last month?” Chloe asked Mel when I effectively abandoned the conversation to eyeball every drink in the place.
“Recuperating. It wasn’t exactly a picnic coming down from Norma’s death.” Throwing a pointed glare at Chloe, Mel finished with, “no thanks to you.”
“Hey, buddy, we did you a favor.”
“Yeah, big favor,” he grumbled, his irritation with me morphing into something less Psycho-style stabby and more like a spiked, lead vest being dropped down upon my shoulders. Uncomfortable with having his despair press against my upper half like a hedgehog trying to suffocate me to death, I whacked his arm.
“Don’t go there,” I said, tucking my hand against my chest trying to ease the immediate prickling numbness. “Neither one of us can handle that right now. Just tell me what you want and scram before I have some sort of aneurism.”
“I’ve been hired to investigate something and I need your help,” Mel sighed, his usual delight at my reaction to him missing completely. He seemed down overall, like something major had changed since the last time we’d seen each other. I wasn’t really sure what the proper way to handle it was, but my default reaction reared its ugly head.
“I don’t want to give it,” I said. I had somehow forgotten, with him gone, how much his emotions hurt to sense and the pain was making me a little nutty already. I wanted to flee upstairs to my office and my stash of sweets to cool away the feeling of burnt skin. Truthfully, though, Mel and I had really gotten friendlier and I couldn’t justify leaving him there when he needed help. Especially not after everything I’d seen him go through just a few months before.
Dammit, being an adult sucks sometimes.
“You don’t even know what I need you to do,” he said, exasperation starting to burble, making me panic. He had every right to be irritated with me, I knew, but that didn’t make my empathy any less receptive to his unpleasant emotions.
“Yes, but it’s going to be something I don’t want to do,” I said, quickly, trying to explain myself before things got worse. “I can tell. That’s why you’re bribing me with chocolate. Speaking of chocolate—” He cut me off before I could ask for another cupcake.
“You won’t hate it, I promise. It’s like a vacation. A week of vacation.”
Mel’s gaze dropped suddenly, his body language changing. Before I could ask what was wrong, I noticed Jenny bring a tray of three iced drinks and four slices of cake over to the table behind Mel. Jealousy filled me as I watched the girl hunched into the only occupied seat at the table, noting that I hadn’t seen her around in awhile. The last time she’d been in The Internets Mel had been a little nutty himself. The last time I’d seen her in, he had scared her off.
Waiting until Jenny had set the treats down, I called her name and gave a warm smile when she looked over. Sure, my lips wanted to twitch and contort in response to Mel being so near, but I forced myself to look friendly and polite instead. Never scare off a person who can bring you cake. It was a lesson I’d learned young.
Jenny smiled back but as she stepped closer I felt a bump of disapproval at the exact second she realized Mel was with us. She didn’t have the best history with him either.
He’d been in really bad shape before disappearing for a month and a half.
“Hey Gwen. Your mocha’ll be out in just a sec,” she said, her gaze glued to mine as if she was afraid to look Mel’s way.
“My mocha?” I asked. Mel kept to himself, keeping watch of the table like it might try to scuttle away and take Chloe’s drink with it. It’d serve her right, dammit.
“Yeah,” she said, nerves arcing out toward me like little baby lightning strikes. “Chloe called down an order for you before you guys came in? And said to bring it to you at ten after three?” She sounded worried, like she was suddenly convinced she’d messed the whole thing up.
“Oh she did, did she?” I turned to glare at Chloe, who winked at me over a smile. She could have told me I had a sweet drink waiting, but instead she’d bullied me to the table, insisted I sit down, and refused to let me order anything. Now I was starting to get why: she and Mel had probably planned this whole thing ahead of time.
“I…think so. Is that wrong?” Jenny asked.
“It’s fine—it’s great,” I corrected, smiling up at her again to assure her it wasn’t her service or the order I was unhappy about. “Just bring it when you can.”
“Oh, okay.” Jenny’s eyes darted to Mel and I felt a little bit of dread swim through her. I wondered if she was getting up the guts to ask him if he needed to order anything. Before she had to take the initiative, he held his hand out, his face softening.
“Hey, I wanted to say I’m really sorry about the last time I saw you. I was going through some things and I got really inappropriate. I shouldn’t have gotten in your face like that, and it was totally out of line to—well, everything I did was a problem, and I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again, I swear.”
Jenny gave a half-smile, confusion puffing around her, trying to consume the dread but not quite succeeding. Figuring I’d help both her and Mel out, I patted her arm, feeling her nerves jump from her to me as if they were alive and I’d whistled and called, “here boys!” The tension in her ebbed, and I smiled up at her, hoping the residual bit I’d sensed from her would disappear from my guts as quickly as it seemed to for her.
“He’s really not a bad guy,” I assured her. “I mean, I don’t like him much, but that’s my own issue. He really was having a bad week. You don’t have to worry about him, I promise.”
Jenny’s smile was small and crooked but she seemed over the anxiety she’d initially conjured at the sight of Mel. “Okay, yeah. No hard feelings. Did you want anything?”
“Just black coffee for me,” Mel said, keeping his voice mellow, as if he might still spook her. Jenny nodded and headed back toward the counter, hopefully to bring me my hot chocolate-laden, whipped cream-topped sugar-bomb. As soon as she was gone, Mel looked back to me.
“I gotta go in another ten or fifteen, so I’m going to resort to bribery: if you help me, I’ll tell you where I got the cupcake. In fact, I’ll get you a dozen more.”
“Two dozen,” I said before I could stop myself. Mel leaned back, grinning at my frenzied and childish reaction. After a moment, his gaze moved to Chloe and his smile faltered a little. She was in on this and she was going to sabotage me, I knew it. If I let her get in the way, I’d end up legally married to Mel but without a single cupcake in sight.
“One dozen,” Mel said after some unheard threat seemed to pass from her to him. “But I’ll make them full-sized.” Chloe’s disappointment jabbed me in the ribs but I ignored it. This was a possibility? Full-sized chocolate mouth orgasms?
I needed them in my life. “Three dozen, all full-sized!”
“That’s not how you haggle,” Mel countered, trying not to chuckle. I could feel him waffling between finding me funny and being anxious over whatever Chloe had probably threatened him with should he give in to my deranged sugar addiction. He was unstable and off his game, the perfect time to strike.
“Four dozen and a sheet cake! Final offer!” I snapped, slapping my hand down on the table.
“Oh god,” Chloe groaned, while Mel rolled his eyes good-naturedly. Shaking his head, he caught Chloe’s attention once more. I saw her shrug out of the corner of my eye and knew I had won.
“Fine. If you promise to help me, I’ll get you forty-eight cupcakes and a sheet cake.”
> “I’m not having sex with you.”
“No—what? Of course not,” he said, insulted at the idea. Something was up, he never reacted so properly to me refusing to bed him. Maybe I should have gone for five dozen. “I know that. So, do we have a deal?”
“Yeah,” I said, giving Chloe one last look to make sure I wasn’t stepping in something I wouldn’t be able to get off my figurative shoe. She offered no guidance, so I just thought fondly on the cupcakes and agreed. “Deal.”
“Excellent!” His entire mood changed with his exclamation, but happy werewolf wasn’t much better than irritated werewolf as far as my empathy was concerned. “So, will you be wearing white for the wedding?”
Glowering at him as I realized I still actually had no idea the extent of what I’d agreed to, I grumbled, “I need cake for this.”
Mocha finished, half a slice of pastry in my belly (only half because Chloe is a tart tightwad, a morsel miser, and a pastry pinchfist), I leaned back in my seat and kicked at Mel’s ankle. He finished his sentence about a local band he and Chloe were really into and I tried to pretend I’d heard none of it. I had history with that band from before they’d been a band and wasn’t about to let Chloe grill me about it. She might find a way to go back in time and prevent me from having eaten the pastry just out of spite.
“Now that I’ve been less than adequately filled with sweets, tell me what you want from me,” I demanded.
“I’ve already explained what I need,” Mel claimed, though I could tell he was just being difficult.
“Have not,” I countered maturely. Maybe Mel had explained everything, but the amount of emotions zinging around The Internets—several of them not human, though I was sure the humans playing games with the people-shaped creatures had no idea—had just made me stupid. I didn’t recall any specifics, but somehow I didn’t think what he wanted from me would be as simple as me just saying yes for a week or two if someone asked if he and I were joined in holy matrimony. If he’d explained the whole plan in detail and I’d managed to wipe it from my memory, I was going to feel pretty stupid.