Playing with Fire (A Magical Romantic Comedy) is on sale as a countdown deal for those in the US until March 9. UK readers, it'll be on sale between March 5-12. (I'm sorry I forgot about you. I do love you, but Amazon's tools don't… A nice reader in the UK gave me a helpful nudge in the right direction.)
This is one of my favorite books, and it makes me laugh. I had so much fun writing it I'm writing a second one (new couple!) The second book has an angry alpaca in a car, in a nod to one of the cutest photos (of an angry alpaca in a car) I have ever seen. Inspiration comes from the funniest of places.
What do you get when you mix gorgons, an incubus, and the Calamity Queen? Trouble, and lots of it.
Working as the only human barista at a coffee shop catering to the magical is a tough gig on a good day. Bailey Gardener has few options. She can either keep spiking drinks with pixie dust to keep the locals happy, or spend the rest of her life cleaning up the world’s nastiest magical substances.
Unfortunately for her, Faery Fortunes is located in the heart of Manhattan Island, not far from where Police Chief Samuel Quinn works. If she’d been smart, she never would have agreed to help the man find his wife.
Bailey found her, all right—in the absolutely worst way possible.
One divorce and several years later, Bailey is once again entangled in Chief Quinn’s personal affairs, and he has good reason to hate her. Without her, he wouldn’t be Manhattan’s Most Wanted Bachelor, something he loathes. Without her, he’d still be married.
If only she’d said no when he asked her help, she might have had a chance with him. While her magic worked well, it came with a price: misfortune. Hers.
When Quinn’s former brother-in-law comes to her for help, he leaves her with a cell phone and seventy-five thousand reasons to put her magic to the test. However, when she discovers Quinn’s ex-wife is angling for revenge, Bailey’s tossed in the deep end along with her sexiest enemy.
No one in their right mind would ever license me as a private investigator, but that didn't stop people from coming to me when they needed something found. Fortunately, I liked my job as the only human barista at Faery Fortunes Coffee and Book Shop. Most came for a cup of joe and left too buzzed to read a thing, but who was I to complain? People paid top dollar for their pixie dust infused latte, and they tipped me well not to judge them.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t so fond of Chief Quinn. When he walked through the door, bad things usually happened to someone—me. For him to come in five minutes after opening, long before the sun even thought about rising, he needed something, and it wasn’t a cup of coffee. Why couldn’t he want coffee? I could deal with making him a drink, and I’d double his dose of pixie dust to keep him happy.
I gave the espresso machine a defiant swipe of my cleaning cloth before stepping to the counter to deal with Manhattan’s Most Wanted Bachelor. Without my help, he’d still be married, too.
What a way to start the day.
And to think people wondered why I refused to help find anything for anyone anymore. The reason stood across the counter from me. Chief Samuel Quinn, aged thirty, hotter than sin, and my heaven and hell rolled together in one smoking tall, dark, and handsome package, hated me for good reason. It was his fault, too. He had been the one to ask me for help finding his wife. I had found her all right, right in the middle of teaching a college stud the nuances of the reverse cowgirl.
If no one asked me to find something or someone again for the rest of my life, I’d be a very happy woman.
“Chief Quinn, what a pleasant surprise,” I lied. “Can I get you something? A dark roast, cream, no sugar, light on the dust?”
Why couldn’t I have been blessed with forgetfulness? I knew my worst nightmare’s favorite drink, and I had to make it for him first thing in the morning. Of course I knew it. He came in at least three times a week to torment me. Screw it. Who was I kidding? Instead of the coffee, he could take me instead. If I had to put up with the hassle of dealing with him, why couldn’t I enjoy it, too?
“Cream, no dust, and make it a large, Bailey.”
Alarm bells tinkled in my head. Since when did Chief Quinn address me by my first name? On a good day, he snapped my last name like he worried it would contaminate him. “Of course, sir.”
The faster I made his coffee, the sooner he’d go away. I’d love every second I spent watching him go. In less than a minute, I had his drink ready, and to lower the risk of him spending any extra time with me, I chirped, “It’s on me today, Chief Quinn. Have yourself a nice morning.”
If it meant we parted without incident, it’d be well worth the five bucks.
He saluted me with his cup, flashed a hint of a smile, and walked out the door. Facing him was hell, but I glimpsed the heavens when he left, and if my panties hadn’t caught on fire under my jeans, I’d be very, very surprised.
“You’re drooling, Gardener,” my boss squeaked. The moth fairy, with just enough pixie heritage to dust glitter when she wanted, fluttered over my shoulder, her tiny arms crossed over her chest. “Reverse cowgirl.”
“Stop reminding me!” I wailed, slumping over the counter. “He hates me. Worse, all I think about when he struts in is taking off my clothes and giving him my panties. I think they caught on fire this time, Mary. Why couldn’t he have had one of his cops find his wife instead?”
“You just want to indulge in some guilt-free fantasizing like every other hot-blooded American woman in the city.”
“Exactly. This is why no one in their right mind asks me for help. I ruin everything.”
“Except my coffee, which is a miracle. Now that we’ve had our daily dose of excitement, can you handle the shop on your own for an hour? We’ll call it even on the coffee.”
Was she serious? Alone for an hour on a Monday morning forty minutes before rush hour? If she thought I’d be all right alone, she was completely cracked. I could already hear her if I dared to complain about my shift. What could possibly go wrong in an hour? Didn’t I like my job? The list went on and on and on. I smiled so I wouldn’t cry. “Sure, Mary. I can last an hour.”
“You’ve gotten better at lying. Your smile didn’t even slip that time. Try not to die while I’m gone. Good humans are so hard to find.” Mary zipped out of the shop through the pixie door and dove through the window of an idling sports car.
Sports car? Red, convertible, top up despite the nice summer morning? I leaned over the counter and squinted. Yep. My boss had just ditched me for a ride in Chief Quinn’s car. Sometimes life really wasn’t fair.
Ten minutes after Mary left, every centaur in the city decided to hold a convention in the shop. Not a single one of them seemed to notice—or care—they barely fit through the door. Equine, bovine, and God-only-knew-what bodies crammed together, waiting for their chance to get a taste of pixie dust goodness.
I lost track of the number of species, wondering what sort of idiot decided to call them all centaurs; maybe they got tired of trying to come up with names for them. By the time the first cat hybrid showed up, I decided to just skip past questioning my sanity to weary resignation and kept making coffee.
Since asking a centaur for his species classified as rude, I plastered my best smile on my face, swallowed my curiosity, and asked, “What can I get for you, sir?”
“Small latte, extra dust.” He slapped a pair of twenties on the counter. If he’d wanted B-grade dust, he would’ve dropped a ten and left with change, so I rang him up for an upgrade to something a bit better. While we kept all four types of A-grade in stock, we only offered A and A+ to regular customers.
Without a permit, no one got the best stuff, and I thanked God for that each and every day. It was only polite; I never knew if the poor bastard stuck with the portfolio was listening.
“Keep the change, my guardian angel.” While the cat hybrid centaur thing had a human face, orange and black fur covered his skin, and when he smiled, he showed his sharp, pointy teeth.
I checked for wings just in case. Stranger things had happened on shift. “Was my halo showing?” I took his cash, tossed the extra fifteen dollars into my tip jar, and fetched his drink, handling the tiny vial of A-grade dust with care. The last thing I needed was to give everyone in the shop a high they’d remember for years to come.
With a fifteen buck tip and a customer to keep happy, I took advantage of Mary’s bribe box on the way back to the counter, snagging a catnip bag. A happy feline mauled no one, including me. “Here you are, sir. Have a great day.”
With that much pixie dust in his system, if the centaur cat wasn’t grinning from ear to ear by the time he made it half a block, I’d be shocked. Of all the legalized recreational drugs, pixie dust brought the high without the low, impaired so few people no one bothered to test for it, and single-handedly fought off the weekday blues for those who could afford it.
I sure as hell couldn’t, even if the dust worked for me, which it didn’t. I balked at a five buck coffee. Twenty-five for a morning hit would bankrupt me within a month.
The centaurs kept on coming, which in turn lured in the more curious races, including the faery. I’d never understand why they came to a shop dedicated to selling pixie dust. The bright-colored blighters wanted one thing in life: liquid sugar, and lots of it. We kept it by the gallons in the fridge, and by the time my shift was over, I would need to make more. We even stocked pure sugar cane for the really adventurous, but we made them sign a waiver and an agreement to pay for any damages.
On the heels of the traditional faery, all of whom had butterfly, moth, or dragonfly wings, the bat-winged folk fluttered in. I doubted they called themselves faery, but with hundreds of different ‘What the hell is that thing?!’ critters living in the city, could anyone really blame me for forgetting their proper names?
After the faery stampeded their way in, taking up every bit of available table space, the cops showed up in search of a little Monday morning cheer. Most of them were frequent flyers from every station in a five mile radius, and it really wouldn’t have surprised me if they came because they idolized Chief Quinn.
At least the faery were easy to serve; one had the bright idea of bringing her credit card—which was bigger than she was—and paying for them all, asking for a pitcher and thimbles. I had no idea how the card disappeared into the faery’s black tank top, but I wisely didn’t ask. I got out the liquid brown sugar and poured it into a cup, dug out enough thimbles to stock a sewing store, and left them to their binge.
When I could serve at least fifty in less than two minutes, I considered it a good day. Unfortunately, at least fifty more people waited for service. On a good day, a line of ten inspired rage and pissed the customers off.
None of the cops, straggler centaurs, or other beasties peeped a single complaint. If I wanted to survive the shift, I’d need to take the methodical, perfectionist approach. As long as I didn’t screw up an order, I might survive until Mary showed up. Once she arrived, we could tag team the crowd. She’d take the orders, I’d fill them, and everything would be okay.
I lasted the full hour, but Mary didn’t show up. Instead, the first wave of businessmen stormed through the door, and some of them were even human.
Humans were the worst. Delays infuriated them, and I still hadn’t managed to get rid of all the cops yet. Too busy to cry, I kept on smiling, faking the good-natured spirit Mary insisted made her coffee and pixie dust taste better.
“I thought this place hired faery.” The business man glared down his nose at me, his perfect black suit and white shirt tempting me to chuck the fresh pot of coffee all over him. “Isn’t your shop called Faery Fortunes? I came here to see the faeries!”
I pointed at the nearest writhing mass of sparkling winged bodies. During the throes of their sugar high, some of them had spread dust and glitter, and I tried not to think of all the health code violations they were committing on the table. When my shift ended, I’d leave that train wreck for my boss to clean up; it’d serve her right for abandoning me. “What can I get for you, sir?”
The businessman stared at the faery, narrowed his eyes, and turned his attention back to me. “You have pixie dust here?”
“We stock C and better, sir. Our regular brews use B, but we have all other grades available.” I prayed he wouldn’t ask for the two better grades. The last thing I needed was the paperwork and having to confirm his permit.
“Espresso, A+, heavy on the dust.”
I bet the human would take flight before he made it out the door. I rang his order up and struggled to hide my shock at the amount. I smiled. I smiled so much it hurt. “That’ll be three hundred and ten dollars, sir.”
“Credit,” he barked, slapping his card on the counter.
I ran his card, handed him the payment terminal, and went to make his coffee. Anyone else who worked in the store had to wear a mask and gloves when handling the vials containing the most potent of the pixie dusts, and I was the only employee certified to handle the best of the best.
Not even my boss could.
Sometimes, immunity was as much of a curse as it was a blessing. Why couldn’t I drink my cares away like everyone else? Even the time Mary had shattered an entire vial of A++ dust, I hadn’t felt a damned thing while she and the rest of my co-workers spent the following six hours giggling over everything, unable to handle even the simplest of tasks without dissolving into a laughing fit.
I checked to confirm the transaction had been approved before measuring out the dust and adding it to his coffee. I offered it to him, my smile still fixed in place. “Have a great day, sir.”
“I better, seeing how much this garbage cost.”
I already missed the centaurs and the cops. A glance at the clock informed me I had survived through three hours with no sign of Mary. When she got back, we’d have words, and unless she had a damned good reason for abandoning me so she could take a ride with Chief Quinn on the worst Monday morning shift I’d ever seen, I knew exactly which two words I’d say.
My shift should have lasted six hours. The chaos ebbed to a trickle, but when the pixie sisters should have arrived, the shop remained quiet, the lull before the lunchtime storm. I considered killing the pair, who provided most of the shop’s dust and worked the midday hours. No one would miss Evita and Lea Anne in a city full of bubbly pink pixies, right?
The door bells tinkled, and instead of the tardy duo, I got Chief Quinn’s former brother-in-law. If I closed the shop really quickly and ran for the hills, would he go away? Before I could escape, Magnus McGee stepped to the counter.
Well, crap. At the rate I was going, my face was going to freeze into a permanent smile. “What can I get for you, sir?”
“Large coffee, black, no dust.”
I loved simple orders. It made maintaining a pleasant demeanor in the face of a living nightmare so much easier. I fetched his drink, and he slid a twenty across the counter. I glared at the bill and snatched it up. Why couldn’t people carry smaller bills instead of decimating the register’s change?
Better yet, I’d really appreciate it if they started using their debit and credit cards. Plastic made things nicer for everyone, especially me. I offered his change by setting it in front of him so I wouldn’t have to touch him. “Have a nice day, sir.”
McGee took his money, crammed a five into my tip jar, and stared at me. Instead of leaving like a good little customer, his eyes tracked my every move, and I contemplated turning a toothpick into a lethal weapon.
Of all the people on Earth, Magnus McGee came third on my list of those to avoid. His sister came in second.
The polite, professional me took over, and still smiling, I chirped, “Is there something else I can get for you, sir?”
How about a murder: his. I could do that. I had a spoon within easy reach. Surely I could kill someone with a spoon. I blamed my bad Monday morning shift for my inclination towards violence.
“Audrey said you can find anyone or anything. Is that true?”
Oh, God. Why me? Why was the woman I caught having sex in Central Park telling her brother about me? Who had told her I’d been the one to inform her husband—with photographs—of her deed? I really wanted to kill them, whoever they were. “No, sorry,” I lied.
“She seemed pretty convinced.”
Of course she probably believed I could find anyone or anything after I caught her cheating on one of the sexiest men alive. The mental image of Samuel Quinn’s wife and her college stud would never, ever fade. Every time I thought I could forget, someone had to remind me.
At least I could hide the truth behind the truth. “I’m a vanilla human, Mr. McGee. Sorry.”
On paper, I was as vanilla as they got, with my only recorded abnormality—or talent, as they liked to call magical abilities—being my immunity to pixie dust and a few other magical substances. Sometimes the cops called me in and paid me a cute little pittance to deal with some of the nastier substances, including gorgon vomit.
No one wanted that job, especially me, but since a gorgon’s bile didn’t turn me to stone like it did everyone else…
“That’s not what I heard. I really need your help. You’re good at finding people who don’t want to be found, right?”
That was one way to put it, but instead of voicing my agreement, I pulled out my driver’s license and showed it to him. “V for vanilla. I’m qualified to handle dangerous substances, but that’s it.” Guilt, the type born of having ruined a man’s marriage, reared its ugly head. “Tell you what. I know a few people. Give me the info, and I’ll see what they can do. No promises. I’m not what you’re looking for, but maybe one of my friends knows something.”
I was such a miserable, horrible liar. What friends? What help? I needed a life, one outside of making coffee and asking how high when the cops ordered me to jump.
McGee pulled out a slender black cell phone and handed it to me. “Everything you need to know is on here. I’ll pay seventy-five thousand if you find him, and an extra twenty-five if you do so within the next forty-eight hours. Please. I’ll call you tonight, so keep the phone on you.”
I gaped at him. He wanted to pay how much for me to find someone? Seventy-five thousand was more than twice what I made in a year, and that included all the buckets of gorgon bile I’d shoveled up so some cop didn’t get turned to stone trying to do it. Seventy-five thousand meant I could make good on my never-spoken threats of quitting.
“Oh, and Miss Gardener?”
“What?” I asked, tensing as I waited for the catch. There was always a catch. I should have known there’d be a catch.
“This talk never happened.”
Of course. I should have known. Someone willing to pay a fortune for someone to be found wouldn’t want anyone else to know he was looking. I sighed. “That’s going to make it difficult to ask my friends for help.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be smart or something? Figure it out.” He turned and headed for the door.
I fumed. “If I were so smart, do you think I’d be working as a barista in a pixie dust shop?” Why did rich men always insist on ignoring me? Magnus McGee left without acknowledging my question. “Screw you, too, buddy. And your sister sucked at the reverse cowgirl, in case you were wondering!”
Ah, well. It was probably for the better he couldn’t hear me. Who could he need to find so badly he’d pay so much for me to do the work for him? Had he missed the memo? I found people all right, in the worst positions possible.
I blinked, and a thought struck me. What if he hadn’t missed the memo?
Muttering curses, I shoved the black phone into my pocket to deal with after my hell shift ended.
While I could understand the pixie sisters ditching their shift, I expected better from Branden. The satyr loved coffee and pixie dust more than life itself, and he worked at Faery Fortunes part-time for the discount. He had a far better paying job as a desk monkey somewhere, but until now, he’d never missed a shift. With Mary still a no-show, I was stuck with closing.
If anyone expected me to open in the morning after an eighteen-hour shift, they’d get an unpleasant surprise. I locked the front door, flipped the sign, and cleaned up the mess. As soon as I finished, I wrote Mary a scathing note informing her she could find some other certified barista, invoked one of the rare New York employee’s rights laws favoring the workers, and told her she owed me for all eighteen hours I’d worked solo. In case she had trouble with the math, I gave her the amount along with a reminder she had promised to be back within an hour.
I would regret my decision when it came time to pay my rent. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t. My certification opened doors, and everyone wanted someone who could handle dangerous substances without a hazmat suit. If I didn’t mind a life as a high-class janitor, I’d be set. There weren’t a lot of people who could fall into a vat of gorgon bile and live to tell the tale. I was one of three in New York City, and the other two were gorgons, powerful ones who didn’t need to petrify me before crushing me to teeny tiny Bailey bits.
A little after one in the morning, I trudged home. Thanks to the late hour, it took four buses, and I staggered to my door in Queens at a little after three. All in all, I couldn’t complain. It could’ve been worse—a lot worse. I had run into only one drunk, and he’d been more interested in a leggy blond, who had enjoyed shocking the shit out of him with her Taser a little too much.
In the relative safety of my apartment, I flopped on my battered, flea-market couch and dug out Magnus McGee’s phone. “Who could you possibly want that you’d pay me so much to hunt him down for you?”
To add a bit of extra icing on my day, the asshole had locked the phone. I glared at the prompt. “Seriously?”
Blocking the info behind a passcode meant he either wanted a little revenge or meant for me to earn my keep. Fine. Two could play at his game, and a four-digit passcode wouldn’t take too long to hack, especially if I pulled out all the stops. First, I’d try random bullshit luck. I’d save the hocus pocus for later, when I was frustrated enough I wouldn’t care if I broke the phone.
I took a few minutes to test the device to make sure it was the real deal. A few swipes of the screen brought up the expected menus, and I even turned on the flash out of curiosity. Maybe after I got paid for the work, I’d buy my very own cell phone. I was probably one of ten people in the entire city without one.
It took me until five after six to brute force my way in. The device clicked, the screen flashed, and it displayed a list of icons showing one missed call. It also clicked and gave an electronic buzz. Before I could do more than suck in a startled breath at the unexpected sound, the device detonated. A cloud of vapor, dust, and glass shards burst in my face. The sharp bite of shrapnel tore into my skin, and my eyes burned with the fires of hell.
With tears streaming down my cheeks and blinding me, I staggered to my bathroom to flush my eyes. I cursed every painful moment I spent splashing my face with water. When I could finally see again, reddish droplets stained my white sink and had splattered on my mirror. I squinted to make out my reflection. The whites of my eyes had turned an angry red, but by some miracle I refused to question, none of the shards had cut me anywhere important. Being blinded would’ve really put a damper on my day.
I picked out the fragments with tweezers. It was a good thing I hadn’t started life all that pretty, as my new collections of scars would ensure no man looked my way twice. At least I didn’t think I needed any stitches.
Who the hell turned a phone into a miniature bomb? Magnus McGee, apparently. The dust gave my skin and clothes a greenish cast, and after a few exploratory sniffs of my shirt, I picked up a faint trace of wet earth.
No one in their right mind made the stuff, not even gorgons. Not only could it turn its victims into stone, they ran a chance of becoming a gorgon, too. The authorities refused to give a percentage on how many were turned, but I suspected it was high, as handling the stuff required a top-level permit, one I possessed thanks to my immunity.
The truly insane dosed themselves with it on purpose. McGee hadn’t just tried to kill me. He had meant to make me a monster—one who’d never be able to look anyone in the eyes ever again.
“That son of a bitch!” Had I been anyone else, I would have been transformed into a statue, easy pickings for anyone who came into my apartment. Petrifying someone was a great way to get rid of them—or cart them off before reversing the petrification with neutralizer. Spitting mad, I went to work purifying my apartment, tears pricking my eyes. It hadn’t been my fault McGee’s sister had cheated on her husband. What kind of idiot left someone like Chief Quinn for a college kid?
Audrey McGee, apparently.
At least I had everything I needed to neutralize the gorgon dust thanks to working with the police. They provided me with a new batch of neutralizer every call, and I kept every last pinch of it. After mixing the powder with some water, I’d be able to spritz everything and vacuum the pale residue when it was dry.
Two hours and one thoroughly cleaned apartment later, I collapsed into bed and dreamed of wringing Magnus McGee’s scrawny little neck.