World-building work

Cecily took a sip of her drink.

Alex had made it too strong again. Did he do that on purpose?

She tapped a fingernail against the side of the glass. Tap-tap.

Did he really think he could get her drunk? Tap-tap.

He must know better than that. Tap-tap.

Perhaps he simply liked his rum-and-Coke to be mostly rum, flavored with the lightest touch of cola. Tap-tap.

Did that mean he drank copious quantities of rum? Did Alex have a drinking problem? Tap-tap.

He didn’t look like a drinker. No bloodshot eyes, no broken capillaries around his nose, no generally seedy air as if he slept in his clothes more often than not. Tap-tap.

Of course, that didn’t mean much. Perhaps he was still too young for those obvious signs. Tap-tap.

He couldn’t be much more than thirty, maybe thirty-five at most. Dark eyes, dark hair, a polished, urbane smile, always a button-down shirt, pressed, but with sleeves casually rolled to the precise spot on the forearm that said comfort, not practicality. Tap-tap.

No, it was more likely that he was trying to get her drunk than that he drank too much himself, Cecily decided regretfully. Tap-tap.

Not that it mattered. Either would be stupid. Tap-tap.

But the one was manipulative and stupid. The other just dumb. Tap-tap.

“Could you stop that?” Alex finally snapped.

Took him long enough, Cecily thought with an inner smirk, as she widened her eyes in innocent surprise. “Stop what?” Tap-tap.

“That.” He gestured toward her glass. “That tapping.”

“Oh, was that bothering you?”

He shot her a look. Before he could return his attention to the paperwork in front of him, she placed the still almost full glass on the coaster he’d set next to her. She didn’t know why he bothered with coasters. His tables were all glass. But perhaps smudges bothered him.

“Do you have any questions I might answer?” she asked. He should have dozens of questions, she knew. She’d read the contract. It was terrible. A piece of work, as her old mentor would have called it. A good lawyer — even a bad lawyer — would be marking it up with a heavy hand right now.

But Alex didn’t think he needed a lawyer. Yes, he was dumb, she thought again with an internal sigh. It was a pity good looks so often went with stupidity.

“I’m not signing this,” he said.

She blinked at him. That was unexpected. “Are there changes you’d like to suggest?”

“No.” He stood, scooping up the loose pages of the contract and tapping them straight against the surface of the desk. He extended them in her direction.

She made no move to take them. “Shall I tell Ms. Barker that you’ve rejected her offer?” she asked with interest.

“Yes.” He set the pages down at the edge of his desk, within her reach.

Cecily leaned back in her chair. Well. Hot damn. The boy had a backbone.

But Genevieve Barker had a temper. Informing her of this turn of events might get ugly.

The para-readers had spent six months searching for a match for Genevieve. Cecily hadn’t been involved in the search, but she’d heard about the difficulties from her brother, Bo. Apparently Barker’s profile was extremely unusual, with a meta-sensing ability that was off the charts coupled with marked weaknesses in some of the more basic para-skills. She could fly through the system, but she couldn’t open the simplest doors.

Plus, she was a bitch.

Alex — who apparently was not as stupid as he’d seemed — was well rid of her. But it left Cecily in an awkward position. Her work usually ended with congratulations all around, not flat-out rejections.

“I have a counter-offer,” Alex continued.

Cecily didn’t let her relief show on her face, but she cocked an eyebrow in his direction.

“I’m not sure of the proper procedures for this… type… of negotiation,” he admitted.

Cecily spread her hands. “That’s what I’m here for.”

More or less, anyway. As a neutral third-party affiliated with the para-reader who’d suggested the match — in this case, her brother Bo — Cecily served as a go-between and a resource. She’d brought Alex the initial proposal, facilitated his first meeting with Genevieve, mediated the early steps of the negotiations. Her job was to provide both parties with information, options, background data — but Genevieve had no interest in anything Cecily had to say and Alex had seemed remarkably devoid of curiosity in the few brief meetings they’d had.

“I don’t know what you know of my background.” The words were clearly a question.

“Nothing at all.” Cecily folded her hands together in an attitude of patient listening. His lips twitched and she let her lashes drop over her eyes. There was something about him. Not just that he made her drinks too strong. Not simply that he was arrogant and rich and para-talented. Something else. Something that made her delight in annoying him, in pushing his buttons, and something that let him spot the pushes almost as soon as she made them.

“As I know nothing of yours,” he said.

“Of mine?” Surprised, she let the words escape. “I’m…” Irrelevant. No one. A go-between. Supposed to be invisible. “…not important.”

“I think you are.” He came around to the front of his desk and leaned against the edge of it, his hands resting on the surface.

“I assure you, I am not.” She said the words firmly. She could feel a blush threatening to creep up her cheeks and she did not blush. She hadn’t blushed for… years. Decades, perhaps.

“Your brother was the para-reader who found me, correct?”

“Correct.”

“In the streets of Dublin, as the story goes.”

“Yes?” Wary, Cecily eyed Alex. He sounded as if he didn’t believe how Bo had found him. But why would Bo have lied? He’d claimed that he’d spotted Alex during a routine traffic block and knew immediately that his talents would complement those of Genevieve Barker.

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