Chapter 1, A Taste of Ice
Xavier Jones lingered on the edge of chaos, and about a thousand people stood between him and his knives.
The first morning of the Turnkorner Film Festival and already he could throw a rock and hit a celebrity. For two weeks each winter, that's exactly what he wanted to do. He hadn't moved to White Clover Creek, Colorado for the swarms of film lovers, the squealing fans, or the demanding Hollywood types. He'd come here for the other fifty weeks of the year, when the insular world of the historic mountain town wrapped its arms tightly around his life, and helped him forget what needed to be forgotten.
Today, however, the sidewalks teemed with strangers. Waterleaf Avenue, the main thoroughfare through town, had been barricaded on either end to disallow cars, and the central square had given birth overnight to several white tents. Music pumped from unseen speakers, the beats rising above the buzz of the shuffling crowd.
Shed, the restaurant where he'd been working for the last three years, was two blocks up, straight through a mass of people in sunglasses and down coats. More than half of them women. Xavier's fingers twitched, eager to wrap around the comforting handle of his favorite chef's knife. His mind burned, anxious for him to get to work, bend over his station, and tune out the world for the next fourteen hours.
He could do this. The first day of the festival was always the hardest. If he just got through this one, the next thirteen would be all downhill.
He left the relative safety of the residential neighborhood and punched through the crowd. Head down, shoulders hunched, he soldiered forward, concentrating on the sting of arctic mountain air as he sucked it deep into his lungs. He loved the cold, the pain of freezing toes. Anything to remind him of what he'd missed his whole life.
Anything to remind him he was free.
The crowd thickened the deeper he went into town. Strangers jostled him from all sides. Salt and ice crunched under his boots. Noise, noise everywhere.
It's okay, he told himself on a loop. You're okay. No one's looking at you.
"Excuse me. Pardon me. Excuse me." The pleading, reedy voice cut through the white noise of the festival goers.
For once, Xavier was thankful for his height. Straightening, he found the crooked little man, his silver hair partially covered by a tweed cap, trying to pick his way against the crowd flow, toward the stairs of the Tea Shoppe. Mr. Elias Traeger, as much a local fixture in White Clover Creek as the bronze statue of the work-hardened miners in the middle of the town square. The old man had worked at the Tea Shoppe for twenty years and would probably totter from local job to local job until his life gave out. Crazy, but that's what Xavier dreamed of. So normal, so everyday.
Xavier was still getting used to the sight of people with wrinkles and brittle hair and bones. In the Plant, where he'd been conceived and raised, no one had ever lived that long.
A chorus of happy screams went up, meaning someone famous had just shown his or her face. The crowd shifted. A tourist with a cell phone plastered to his ear shoved hard into Mr. Traeger's shoulder and the elderly man tipped to one side. His eyes went wide, his thin arms scrambling for purchase on the smooth brick of the shop.
Five years ago, Xavier would've let Mr. Traeger go down. He would've walked on without a second thought. But Xavier wasn't that man anymore. Despite everything else, at least there was that.
Xavier lunged forward and caught Mr. Traeger under his arms before his knees could hit the ice. The old man found his feet, righted himself and blinked into the bright sunshine.
"Ah, Mr. Jones." Traeger's slight British accent trickled through. "My thanks. Reaction times aren't quite what they used to be."
Xavier nodded, surprisingly pleased that Traeger remembered his name. "You should've taken the day off. The first day is always the worst."
A wave of the hand and a flash of false teeth. "Never sit idle, I always say."
Well, if that wasn't the truth.
Taking Mr. Traeger's elbow, Xavier helped him up the steps, which were blocked by two young women holding steaming paper cups of what smelled like Earl Grey.
Xavier cleared his throat. "Excuse us." Over the years, he'd perfected the art of speaking to people without looking at them. The women moved slightly to one side and Xavier gestured for Mr. Traeger to go up and enter. Through the glass door, Xavier watched the old man remove his cap and tip it in thanks.
The two women were staring at him. The blonde smiled, slow and obvious. "Hey," she said.
Three seconds. That's all the time he allowed himself to look. That's all that was safe. Three seconds to look at a woman. To note the shape of her mouth or the intelligence in her eyes. To make assumptions about her character. You could learn a lot about a woman in three seconds, not the least of which was whether or not she wanted to sleep with him.
The blonde did.
"Do you live here?" she asked as her friend laughed low.
He'd never get used to this, to the bold women of the outside world who lusted on their own terms and displayed that lust for all to see. Before, inside, he'd been the one with the desires. His captors, the water elementals called the Ofarians, had done a damn fine job of creating that monster, and he was still trying to exorcise it.
Xavier swiveled away, the three seconds over, his body aflame with need. He was so well trained, such a good pet, and it would take a hell of a lot more than the passage of years to break his conditioning. Five silly words from a girl and every muscle in his body, no matter how small, had tightened with expectation. Every blood cell raced faster. He wanted. He needed sex.
And yet he ran.
Man, he was messed up. He was still learning about the world outside the Plant, but that much was pretty clear. Normal Primary guys didn't sprint the opposite way when a hot woman showed interest. Normal Primary guys didn't spend more than half their days either cooking or thinking about cooking, and the remaining hours pounding the ever-loving shit out of a boxing bag, just to avoid getting naked with someone.
But then, he wasn't Primary. He wasn't entirely human.
And even though he wanted nothing more than to be "normal," he certainly wasn't that either.
He slipped back into the slow-moving crowd. Away from the women, who'd probably already sidled up to another guy, his body cooled.
Shed's entrance was tucked into the back of a cobblestone alley that ran alongside the nineteenth-century Gold Rush Theater, now used as the festival's main venue. The alley was barely forty yards away, but the crowd had completely stopped and Xavier was going nowhere. He bounced on the balls of his feet, willing himself not to duck his shoulder and barrel through the tourists. Willing himself not to have a panic attack in the close quarters. What was the holdup anyway?
Craning his neck above the sea of bobbing heads, made taller by colorful hats, he saw that two massive pockets of people—gaping at two different things—had converged, and no one could get through.
Some young, grizzled guy stood under the triangular theater marquee, a half-moon of five camera teams surrounding him and angling for a shot. A gaggle of fans shouting his name—a name Xavier didn't recognize—fought with the laughter and cheers coming from the crowd closest to Xavier. A giant circle had formed around a street performer.
A middle-aged man wearing a beige North Face jacket and a cheap, felt jester's hat danced along Waterleaf's yellow divider. Xavier's first instinct was to just lower his eyes and try to press on, but what Jester was doing froze Xavier in place.
Jester juggled a mass of colored balls, his hands blurring, a rainbow in the air. Some seemed to disappear then reappear. The audience gasped. Xavier did, too.
Was this guy like him—a Tedran, a Secondary human—capable of true magic, true illusion?
No. That would be impossible. Xavier was the last.
He peered closer, intently following the intricacies of Jester's hands. When Xavier caught the deft slip of Jester's fingers into the folds of his coat, he exhaled. He watched a charlatan, nothing more. He started to turn away, to head back into the thick of the crowd, then stopped. He wanted to be normal, right? If this was the sort of thing Primaries did, then maybe he should suck it up and try it, too.
He rooted his feet. Closed his eyes. Shoved away the feel of strangers around him and pretended he was weightless and invisible. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and pushed it out. Opened his eyes.
Jester was storing the balls in a suitcase to the sound of applause. He pulled out a deck of cards from his coat pocket and shuffled them in an impressively high arc. He started to go around the circle, asking random people to pick a card, look at it, then put it back in the deck. His marks all happened to be women.
With a hand flourish, eyes deliberately averted, Jester offered the deck to Xavier, then finally looked up at him. "Whoa, sorry. Not you, big guy." Jester tried to play it off for laughs, but the nervous shock on his face was nothing Xavier hadn't seen before.
Since escaping the Plant, he'd put on a good thirty pounds of muscle on his already six-foot-five body. No one knew how horrible it was to be the person who stood out more than the person who actually stood out. But that's not usually what made people react when they saw him.
Pam, his boss at Shed, said it was because his eyes were the color of guns—shiny, silver, and full of don't fuck with me.
Xavier thought they were the color of death. And they were.
Jester offered the card deck to the person standing to Xavier's immediate left. "Well, hello, beautiful. Care to pick a card?"
Three seconds. Ready . . . go.
The woman watched Jester with genuine excitement. Laughter cast her in a spotlight. She clapped her mittened hands like a kid about to get a cookie. Her deep brown hair, streaked with gold and wavy like the ocean, streamed out from beneath a knitted red hat topped with a pompom. She was tanned, like so many Hollywood people traipsing around White Clover Creek right now. A fine layer of freckles covered her whole face and neck. A price tag stuck to the sleeve of her green, fur-trimmed coat.
She radiated joy, so unlike those women on the Tea Shoppe steps who were clearly here to see and be seen. This one was . . . so unlike any woman he'd stood this close to before.
He forgot how long a second lasted.
Vaguely he sensed his skin start to tighten. Just barely did he notice a heat rising from deep inside. Then a hard, throbbing pulse kicked up that had nothing to do with his heart. It felt goddamn amazing. Like someone had chained him to a rock for centuries, and now he'd been given the go-ahead to jump from an airplane. Too fucking long to deny himself this rush—this want and need—day after day. What had he been thinking, going all these years without?
She must have felt the weight of his stare because a funny look passed across her face. She glanced over her shoulder at him. Did a double take. Their eyes met and hers widened. They were the color of the caramel he'd made at two in the morning last Tuesday.
She didn't look at him with apprehension, like Jester had, but with surprise. Like she'd been expecting to see him and, suddenly, there he was.
When she turned toward him, his body went haywire. That beating pulse took a dive for his dick and his mouth dried up.
"Hi," she said.
Nothing came from his lips, but inside he screamed. Told himself to walk away. To get away from her now.
Here it came. That low, ragged voice breaking free from the dark place where Xavier had stashed it the day he'd arrived in Colorado. The gravelly, taunting voice of the Burned Man spiraled up from the past, and it hadn't lost any of its punch.
Stay here, ordered the Burned Man. You're already hard for her. I brought her for you. Take her. She's yours.
Three seconds. It had taken just three seconds to destroy three years free from the hallucinations.
They came back in a horrible rush, filling Xavier with terror and shame. One moment he was on the crowded festival street of White Clover Creek, the next he was back in the Plant's breeding block, known as the Circle. White walls, a well-used mattress. Him, naked and anticipating the Burned Man—the Ofarian guard who'd tormented Xavier most of his life—bringing him a woman he was supposed to impregnate.
Today it was the smiling freckled woman whose joy Xavier would quickly erase.
In his waking nightmare, she crossed the Breeding Circle's white floor without enthusiasm or emotion, like all the others had. In his mind, Xavier plucked the red hat from her head and tossed it to the floor, then he went for the zipper of her coat. Pulled it down, peeled the thick garment from her body. She was naked underneath, and the rest of her was as tan and freckled as her face, but he'd been trained to care only about the heaven between her legs.
He pulled her to the mattress, and even though he hadn't been made to lie on it in almost seven years, his nightmares recalled the stiffness of it, the bleachy smell of the sterile sheets changed before every breeding session. The freckled woman lay back, turned her face away, and he pushed himself inside her. He shouted at the feel of her—it had been so long—and took what he'd been made for. Years without release built and built and built inside him, propelling his thrusts.
Xavier—the man he had become since escaping this torture, the man who knew this was wrong—grabbed desperately for reality. It slipped out of his reach. In the hideous world of his past, his body still worked inside hers. Long-denied fulfillment—because it could never, ever be called pleasure—and self-loathing collided together at a violent crossroads.
He threw his head back, pleading for mercy. She doesn't want this. And I don't want to want this.
The square window he knew should belong to the Tea Shoppe morphed into the wire-crossed observation holes in the Circle. The Burned Man appeared on the other side of the glass, terrifying as ever. Unchanged over the last three years. The scarred cheek and chin, the missing hair, the melted ear, the webbed hand . . .
Don't stop, he growled in his fire-damaged voice, the puckered skin on his neck stretching. If you stop, I'll just bring another.
In the waking nightmares, as in life, Xavier always came. It was what he'd been bred for: to create new generations of Tedrans. New slaves for the water-worshipping Ofarians.
It's okay, what you're doing. The Burned Man's tone rang syrupy false. Xavier had always suspected he'd enjoyed watching, and it had turned his stomach. Her life will be better if she gets pregnant anyway.
A red-mittened hand touched Xavier's arm, snapping him back to Colorado.
He gasped as though he'd been held under water—a paralyzing sensation he knew intimately—and gulped down the sweet, cold air. The loud drone of the festival slammed back into his ears. Sunlight bounced off the snow piled around the square, blinding him. He knuckled his eyes, hard enough to hurt. When he opened them, she was still there right in front of him, gorgeously and hideously innocent.
"Are you okay?"
Her voice was smoky, sexy, and it tugged him between reality and the evil place in his head. She wasn't naked beneath him, taking it because she had to. But the possibility of it terrified him.
"Fine." He ripped away from her touch. "I'm fine."
Right about then would have been the perfect time for the old asshole Xavier to return, to shove his way through the ever-increasing crowd and not care if he hurt anyone, like the guy who'd knocked down Mr. Traeger.
"I'm sorry, but"—her freckled nose crinkled and a curious smile lit her candy-colored eyes—"I know this'll sound weird, but do I know you? You seem . . . familiar."
He pictured a pristine cutting board, felt the phantom weight of a scary-sharp chef's knife in his palm, and imagined rows and rows of vegetables laid out before him, waiting. The vision brought him instant calm.
"No, you don't." He turned away, found the tiniest crack between bodies, and shoved himself into it. Get away, get away. He angled for freedom, pushing and mumbling apologies to strangers.
"Are you sure?" she called at his back.
The alley mouth leading to Shed was forty yards and forty thousand miles away. The crowd eased some, but the constant touch of unfamiliar bodies gave rise to panic. An elbow here, a hip there. The next one might be the one that made him crack. He had to get into the kitchen.
At last he broke the edge of the crowd and veered into the alley. At the far end flapped the yellow-and-white-striped awning over Shed's entrance. His long legs strode for it.
"Hey, wait." That smoky voice. Following him. "Can you hold up a sec?"
Didn't she realize that if she didn't leave him alone, the Burned Man would come for her again?
Giant pots holding yews decorated with bows in Shed's signature yellow and white dotted the wide alley, and Xavier wove among them. Stupid to think he could actually lose her, given that the alley came to a dead end, but he was grasping for any way out. When he ducked under the awning and still heard her footsteps crossing the cobblestones, he knew there was only one option left.
Xavier hadn't just given up sex the day he'd arrived in White Clover Creek. He'd abandoned magic, too. But standing there, in the cold shadow under Shed's awning, he reached deep inside himself and pulled out the rusty words of the Tedran language.
No reason to speak it anymore, since there were only two people on Earth who could understand him. Adine Jones, the half Tedran born without magic, had guided him through the basics of the Primary world and then disappeared. Gwen Carroway, the Ofarian Translator who had freed Xavier's people and stopped the slavery, had started a new life with her Primary lover in Chicago.
It had been ages since he'd spoken his native tongue, but with the first hesitant word, the rest sprang up like the quick gush of blood after a pinprick.
He chose his illusion, imagining the face and body he wanted, and whispered the Tedran words to bring it about. Glamour enveloped him in a light, airy caress. Head to foot, the new image fell around him in a shimmering cloak made of the thinnest material. Touch it and it would dissolve.
He couldn't deny that for some part of him, using his birthright after all this time was a well-deserved comfort.
He grabbed hold of the thick, iron bar on the original granary shed wood door, and slid it wide on oiled rails. Rushing through the little foyer that blocked the winter wind, he pushed open the restaurant's main door and waddled inside, shouldering a huge purse that wasn't really there.
Pam, Shed's owner and executive chef, sat hunched over table eighteen studying receipts and supply orders in neat little piles. By the way her fingers toyed with her short, platinum hair, he knew that something wasn't adding up in the ledgers.
The only reason Xavier could work for Pam, a woman, and not fear the Burned Man, was because she sent out zero sexual vibes toward him. Probably had to do with the fact he had a penis.
Across the main dining floor, through the giant glass window of the open kitchen, Jose and Lars were setting up their mise en place for lunch service, their knives flying through prep. Ricardo was bending over the stock pots at the back burners. The familiar and welcome smells, sights, and sounds of the only place that had ever made Xavier happy.
He shuffled around the perimeter of the dining room, making a point to be noticed. Pam glanced up, distracted. "Hey, Carolina."
"Hola," he replied in the lilting voice of Shed's cleaning lady. Magic tingled on his skin.
Veiled in the disguise of a tiny Hispanic woman, he slipped into the back room where Pam stored her linens and cutlery. He shut the door behind him and sagged against the shelves.
Shed's front door opened.
Pam's shoes clicked across the dining room floor. "We're not open for lunch for another two hours."
"Oh. I'm sorry." Her.
Xavier groaned, her voice slicing through him like a newly sharpened blade. Desire flowed into the open wound, and despite his mind's direct orders to stay away from the back room door, his arm reached out and cracked it open.
She stood by the hostess podium, her eyes darting around the dim dining room. The cold touched her cheeks with a gentle pink. "I was looking for someone. Really tall, wavy blond hair to his shoulders? Navy blue down coat?"
Pam nodded and half smiled in the way that looked like she was laughing at some private joke. "You mean Xavier? Hasn't come in yet."
The woman tilted her head, the red pompom flopping to one side. What was it about that silly hat that forced Xavier to conjure images of tomatoes being diced to hell?
"I thought I just saw him come in here."
"Nope." Pam fiddled with the menus on the hostess stand, perfectly aligning their edges.
"But he works here?"
"Yeah. He's my saucier." When the freckled woman looked confused, Pam added, "One of my line cooks."
She shifted her weight and a snow chunk slid off her fuzzy boot. "Any chance you have a reservation open for tonight?"
Pam flipped open the mahogany leather reservation book and lazily dragged her finger down the page. "So. How do you know Xavier?"
The woman blushed almost as red as her hat. Xavier was horrible at guessing ages, considering his own was about as twisted as a screw, but she was younger than him. Mid-twenties, most likely. She kicked at the dislodged snow. "I . . . I don't."
Pam looked like the fox who'd swallowed a chicken. Wrong person to learn a woman was looking for him. She'd been trying to get him to date ever since she discovered him working at an acquaintance's bistro in San Francisco. She'd even gotten her girlfriend to start badgering him. Between the two of them the barrage was endless. Let's get the quiet cook laid. They thought it funny, a game.
It was anything but.
Pam arched an eyebrow at the freckled woman, her wicked smile tipping toward flirtatious. "Oh, really?" She tapped the reservation book. "Look at this. Lucky for you. We have an opening at eight. For how many?"
Shed had been booked up for weeks, if not months.
"Um. Two. Put it under my name. Heddig."
"Got a first name? Just in case I need it?"
Pam would need it all right—to needle Xavier all shift. He considered calling in sick but knew he couldn't. Not during the festival when every table would be full from lunch through close. Not when the only other option was holing himself up in his house. With the Burned Man making such an abrupt appearance, Xavier didn't trust himself to be alone.
"My name's Cat," said the woman.
"Great, Cat." Pam clicked the pen closed and grinned. "See you tonight."
(c) 2012 Hanna Martine