Leon’s never felt as strongly about any man as he does Andrew, but when Andrew asks to meet him for dinner, Leon’s sure things are over before they’ve even started. Except Andrew isn’t coming to dinner to call things off. He’s coming to drop an entirely different bomb.
Andrew’s a sorcerer. He can manipulate fire, he can manipulate lightning… but like most of his kind, what he can’t do is maintain absolute control of his power when he’s sexually aroused, which is dangerous to non-magics like Leon. No matter how much the two men want each other, there’s no way around it: they’re playing with fire, which means someone’s bound to get burned.
At first, they’re both willing to back off, but as their feelings for each other deepen, their mutual desire is only getting stronger, and Andrew and Leon are hanging by a thread trying to resist each other. But can they give in without getting burned?
“More iced tea, sir?”
I smile up at the waitress. “Yes, thank you.”
As she walks away, I check the time on my phone. Six forty-five. Two minutes since the last time I checked.
Patience, Leon. Patience.
Yeah, right. I just want to get this evening over with because I’m pretty damn sure I know how it’s going to end.
I drum my fingers on the table and look out the window in search of a temporary distraction. The restaurant overlooks the bustling pavilion where the city’s most touristy boardwalks intersect. One extends for miles along the beach in either direction, the other bisects Old Towne, and they meet here amidst the trinket shops and funnel cake stands.
It’s Saturday night and tourist season is in full swing, so the pavilion is packed. Naturally, every street performer in town is here. Steady streams of people throw coins and bills for magicians, mimes, and musicians, but most of them are crowded around two sorcerers who are trying like hell to outdo each other. One of the two is obviously a water sorcerer, and he waves and gestures as the contents of a small metal bucket at his feet rise up and twist and contort into different shapes. At one point, the water takes on the form of a child standing in front of it, mimicking her movements and facial expressions to her great delight.
The sun is sinking behind the ocean, though, and the fading daylight gives the water sorcerer’s rival a distinct edge, making his fire tricks appear brighter and more impressive by the minute. He stands on top of an overturned milk crate, and foot-tall flames dance on his upturned palms, taking beautifully human forms and moving in time with the faint music that’s made its way from one of the musicians to my ears.
Suddenly, the fiery dancers disappear in a puff of smoke, and the water sorcerer throws his head back and laughs as the drenched fire sorcerer glares at him over the heads of the roaring crowd. Undeterred, the fire sorcerer conjures another flickering orange figure, and with a wave of his hand, sends it strutting across the cobbles toward his rival.
His rival, whose watery avatar has leapt from its bucket and is prepared to stand its ground. The two figures face off, circling each other like wildcats, and I have to wonder if the sorcerers are rivals after all. More like performers who’ve figured out exactly how to work a crowd together.
My gaze drifts from the battling avatars to the fire sorcerer. He’s smoking hot, and I don’t just mean his fingertips. He’s got a smile that’s probably attracting as many people as his magic, and he’s not wearing a shirt over his washboard abs, which is also almost certainly helping him draw in a crowd. They say sorcerers are dangerous in bed—something about losing control of their powers—but if I’m up against a body like that, I’ll take my chances.
I pull my gaze away and take a long drink from the iced tea that showed up while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m on a date, for crying out loud. Well, sort of. I glance at the shirtless sorcerer again.
Guess it doesn’t hurt to look. After all, I’m getting dumped in T-minus… T-minus…
I pick up my phone to check the time. Five minutes till seven.
I fold my hands on the table and look out the window again as I blow out a sharp breath. Andrew’s not late, but I’m impatient. As impatient as I was just before our first date, oddly enough, but for entirely different reasons this time.
It’s disappointing, I’ll admit that. Three months of e-mailing back and forth and chatting on the webcam, three dates with sizzling hot chemistry that was just about visible to the naked eye, one almost kiss, and now “can you meet me tonight?” and “we really need to talk” in that quiet “this is about to be over and we both know it” tone.
That sorcerer out in the pavilion is looking more tempting by the minute, with or without the danger of a concussion or a third degree burn. Or maybe I’ll go find the nearest willing body, non-magic or otherwise, for a one-night stand. It’s been six months, for God’s sake, and after I’ve invested this much time, excitement, and anticipation into things with Andrew, only to have it blow up in my face before even making it past a kiss? To hell with it.
I should’ve known when that kiss almost happened, but then didn’t. Right up until that moment in my car, I was sure things were going great. Spectacularly. I wasn’t in a hurry to get into bed, but in the back of my mind, going by the way we kept looking at each other and the things he kept doing to my pulse just by smiling at me, I knew the sex would be amazing when we got to it.
My heart sinks a little deeper. Who am I kidding, thinking I can leave after this inevitable conversation and go find a one-night stand? I want Andrew. Yes, I want to sleep with him—with a body like that and chemistry like this, who wouldn’t?—but it’s more than that. So much more.
Sighing, I take another drink. Well, better to end it now before we’ve gone there. At least then, when I’m banging my head against a wall wondering how I fucked this up and wishing I hadn’t gotten my hopes up, I won’t also be craving another go-around with him in bed. Cold comfort or something, I guess.
Outside, the pavilion is thick with people, some of them still, some of them in motion, but a subtle flicker of movement catches my eye. When I look, my heart skips in the same instant my stomach drops. I’ve known for a while I’m hooked on Andrew, but didn’t realize just how much until now, when I’m watching him work his way through the throngs of people, eyes down and hands in his pockets, to tell me it’s over.
I try to convince myself maybe he’s not really here to call it quits, but his posture doesn’t do much to help my argument. His shoulders are tightly bunched, his gait hurried but stiff, and when he looks up just before he starts up the restaurant’s front steps, his expression is blank. For someone who’s usually relaxed and quick to smile, that’s not promising.
My heart keeps beating faster and faster as he disappears from my view, and my mouth goes dry when he reappears across the restaurant from me. He zeros in on me in an instant, and a half-hearted smile flickers across his lips. I take a long drink as he makes his way from that end of the room to this one.
So here we are. This is it. This is where it ends.
God, Andrew, I’m going to miss you…
He offers a polite but forced smile. “Hey.”
“Hey.” I hope my own smile is half as convincing as his.
“Thanks for coming.” He slides into the bench opposite me. “Sorry I kind of dropped it on you at the last minute.”
“Don’t worry about it. Sounded like you wanted to do this sooner than later.”
He chews his lower lip and doesn’t look at me. “Yeah. The sooner the better.”
He doesn’t elaborate. I don’t even know what to say, and in spite of my eagerness to get this over with, I’m not so sure I want to encourage him to get started. So I just keep my mouth shut and surreptitiously watch him while the waitress drops off some ice water and gets his order for another drink.
The man is stunning. Seriously. His dark hair is just long enough in the back to tickle his collar and in the front to get in his eyes from time to time. From the beginning, it’s been more than a little tempting, more times than I can count, to brush that unruly fringe out of his face and tuck it behind his ear, just because it’d be an excuse to touch him. I’m the kind of man who can and does proposition someone for sex halfway through a first date, but with Andrew, I haven’t been as aggressive. I haven’t been aggressive at all, by my standards or anyone else’s. When his hair falls into his eyes, I let him take care of it with a casual swipe of his slender fingers—he’s fine-boned and slim, more so than most guys I usually date, and it’s sexy as hell—and never make a move myself.
“So.” He clears his throat and wraps both hands around his glass of ice water. “I, um, like I said, wanted to talk. There’s some things that…” He pauses, releasing a breath, and his shoulders slump as much as their visible tension will allow. “It’s hard to explain, and maybe I should have said something sooner, but I hope you understand this is…” Once again, he pauses, and he bites his lip as he drums his fingers rapidly on the condensation-covered glass.
“Whatever it is,” I say in spite of my dry mouth, “I’ll understand.”
“That’s easy to say now.” He doesn’t look at me. “But the thing is, we’ve known each other for a while. We’ve been out a few times, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I—”
He stops, and looks at me through his long lashes. Holy fuck, I love those blue eyes.
I fold my hands on the table and lean forward. “If you want to call time on this, I’ll understand.” No I won’t. God, I want you. “Just…say the word.”
“Call time?” He blinks and his spine straightens. “I…no, that’s not where I was going with this.”
“It isn’t?” I raise an eyebrow. “Because that’s what it sounds like.”
Andrew sighs and lowers his gaze. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intent. I just… I’ve had this conversation a few times, and apparently I still suck at it.”
This isn’t what I expected. Not at all. “Well, just say what’s on your mind, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
“Okay, well.” He drums his fingers on the table.
Right then, the waitress reappears with his soda—Coke, though I’m surprised he didn’t order something much stronger—and a moment later, she’s gone, leaving us to our progressively less comfortable, not to mention predictable, conversation.
“Just give it a go,” I say. “Whatever it is.”
Andrew takes a long drink. Then a deep breath. “Look, I’m really attracted you.” He’s almost whispering now. “Like, really attracted.”
I’m not sure whether to be flattered by the comment or even more worried about what’s coming next.
He goes on, “And especially after the other night, it’s kind of hard to ignore the direction this is…” He meets my eyes briefly, but drops his gaze. “Where this is going.”
“We don’t have to go there,” I say quickly. “Not yet. If you’re not ready.”
With a dry laugh, he sits back. “It’s not quite that simple.”
“What do you mean?”
He keeps his gaze down. His hands are in his lap, and from the subtle movement of his upper arms, I’m guessing he’s wringing his hands. The tension in his shoulders is more pronounced now, working its way into the sides of his neck.
“Whatever it is,” I say, “just say it. No sense beating around—”
“I’m a sorcerer.”
My lips part. “I beg your pardon?”
He leans forward again, rests an elbow on the table, and lowers his head as he scratches the back of his neck. “I’m a sorcerer.”
Okay, that wasn’t what I expected. Holy shit.
My eyes dart toward the pair still battling it out with their magic creations out in the pavilion. Andrew’s one of them?
Without turning toward him, I whisper, “That’s why you backed off the other night.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry about that. I…I guess it caught me by surprise.”
“By surprise?” I look at him, eyebrows up. “The only thing that surprised me was it took us that long to get there.”
“Well, yeah,” he says with a faint smile that fades as quickly as it appears, “but I guess I was so caught up in the moment, I didn’t really think about what was happening until it… Well, until it was happening.”
“Yeah, I suppose I can understand that.” I absently run my finger up and down the side of my glass. “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”
He moistens his lips and looks out at the sorcerers on the pavilion. “I was scared, I guess. It’s kind of a crapshoot, telling guys about this.”
“What happens when you do?”
“Most of the time, they’re freaked out.” He’s still facing the performers outside, but his gaze is distant. “Sometimes, it’s like a fetish. If you wondered why my profile said ‘no adrenaline junkies or thrill seekers, please,’ that’s why.”
“Really?” I chance a cautious smile. “I thought you just weren’t into bungee jumpers and skydivers.”
Andrew laughs. “Well, there’s that, too. But guys like that love being able to say they fucked a sorcerer and lived to tell about it.” He scowls and shakes his head. Then he looks at me across the table. “They don’t even give two shits if there’s an attraction. They just want the thrill, the adrenaline rush, and maybe a few scars to show off.”
“Have you ever…” I pause, chewing the inside of my cheek. “Have you been with guys like—”
“No.” He picks up his drink. “Dated one who turned out to be that kind of guy, but he never made it that far.” Just before he puts the glass to his lips, he mutters, “Doubt he’d have lived to tell about it if he had.”
“That much of an ass?”
He takes a drink and sets down the glass. “No, he was a nice guy aside from his little sorcerer fetish.” Andrew looks into his drink, and some color blooms in his cheeks. “It’s just, it’s that dangerous.”
“But you have dated before, right?”
He nods. “Of course. I just…haven’t gotten very far with a non-magic. Haven’t met many guys willing to take the risk, even fewer I’m willing to take that risk with, and most guys don’t want to stick around if sex isn’t on the table.”
“So, have you ever…?”
He looks me in the eye, his expression caught somewhere between impatience and exhausted resignation. “Are you asking if I’m a virgin?”
“I guess I am, yeah.”
“No. I’ve been with a few sorcerers, but never a non-magic.” Color rushes into his cheeks, and he stares at his hands in his lap. “Which is part of why I wanted to have this conversation.” He raises his gaze, and struggles to hold mine. “I didn’t want to stop the other night. I swear. I’m just scared to death of what will happen if I try to get physical with anyone, and I don’t want you to get hurt, Leon.”
“But it is possible, isn’t it?” I ask. “A sorcerer and a non-magic, without someone getting hurt?”
“It is, yes,” he says with a slight nod. “But it’s still dangerous. And most sorcerers who can handle it are either half-bloods who have less power to begin with, or they’ve worked for years to keep their power under control.”
“How exactly does someone work up to that?” I ask. “Without killing a few people in the process?”
A smirk plays at his lips. “How do you think?”
He nods. “Yeah. Alone.”
“Gotcha.” I idly stir my tea, watching the ice cubes circle the glass. “So have you… I mean, are…”
“Have I been working at it like everyone else?”
“Of course. And on my own, yes, I can handle it.” He chews his lip and watches his fingers roll the edge of his napkin into a tight curl. “But with someone else, it’s different.”
“It’s… I mean, part of the problem is—” He pauses. “How familiar are you with sorcerers? How our magic works, things like that?”
I shrug. “I’m no expert, but I can follow along with most conversations, if that tells you anything.”
“So you know about the five elements, right?”
“Sort of. Like, your power is somehow tied to an element?”
“Close enough,” he says with a half-shrug. “Usually two. One dominant, one less so. Earth and water, wind and fire, lightning and earth, whatever.”
“Right. So, what are yours?”
He grimaces, resting his elbows on the table and clasping his hands beneath his chin. “Not a good combo for someone who wants enough control to get intimate with a non-magic without hurting him.”
“That could be any two, couldn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but…” His eyes dart around the room before meeting mine again. “Fire with a side of lightning isn’t conducive to things like safety or restraint.”
“Oh.” My eyes flick toward the fire sorcerer, who’s enthralling the crowd with a spectacular finale of leaping, dancing, twisting flames. “Wow. Shit.”
“Yeah. To be honest, before the other night, I thought I’d be fine. That’s why I even stuck my neck out and tried dating. Alone, I can stay a hundred percent in control, and I have the functioning electronics and not-scorched apartment to prove it. Which made me think I could totally handle being with someone.” He pauses. “But now, I’m not so sure.”
“So, it’s like a form of performance anxiety.”
“Kind of.” He meets my eyes. “But I think I also have a pretty good reason to believe things could get dangerous between us.”
“How do you figure?”
Once again, he breaks eye contact. “The other night, when we were in your car, I really didn’t want you to stop. In fact, I’d been hoping all evening one of us would make that move.”
Andrew is still and silent for a moment. Then, “That was when I realized just how little control I have.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. As he thumbs through the billfold, he says, “We didn’t even get as far as a kiss, but we were both turned on, right?”
I gulp. Turned on? Yeah, understatement. “That’s a safe bet, yes.”
“Right. And…” He pulls something out of his wallet and sets it on the table. “This happened.”
Lying there between us is a couple of receipts and a twenty dollar bill, and I’ll be damned if the edges aren’t blackened and curled.
I stare at them, trying to make sense of it all. “That’s…that’s just from being turned on?”
“That’s all it takes. Probably just as well it was the fire side that got the best of me that night.” He laughs dryly. “Or else we’d both have dead cell phones, and your car would probably be in the shop.”
“Seriously?” I look him in the eyes. “So you’ve had to go through your entire life with, what, no physical contact?”
“Well, no sexual contact. And I’ve been with sorcerers, but still have to be careful even with them.” His eyes flick back and forth between mine and the slightly burned papers on the table. “Sorcerers have to constantly keep our power in check. It’s a constant thing, a constant effort to remain in control. That’s why we can’t get drunk or high. Lose control of self, lose control of power.” He sighs and folds up the singed bill and receipts, and as he slips them back into his wallet, goes on, “That release that comes with sex? Even the earliest stages of getting aroused?” He shoves his wallet back into his pocket. “Undermines the hell out of that rather fragile control.”
“But it’s safe with other sorcerers?”
He shrugs. “Sort of. But we can handle it. And sometimes, the different powers balance each other out. A water sorcerer is going to temper a fire sorcerer. An earth sorcerer can literally ground a lightning sorcerer. Put lightning and water together, or wind and fire, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.”
“So, why date non-magics instead?”
“I didn’t set out to,” he says, and manages a slight smile. “But I saw your profile and couldn’t help myself.” The smile fades again, and he lowers his gaze. “I knew we’d probably get to this point sooner or later, but, I don’t know. I guess I wanted to believe it’d work out.”
“It still can,” I say quietly.
He lifts his chin and meets my eyes. His brow knits with unspoken skepticism.
I reach across the table and put my hand over his. “Andrew, if I only cared about getting laid, I’d have made a move a while ago. We both have a little more invested in this.” I run my fingers along the side of his wrist. “At least, I think we do.”
He swallows hard and turns his hand over under mine. I can’t help wondering if the electricity raising goose bumps along the back of my forearm is from him or…or from him. His magic, this connection we have, something. Whatever it is, my skin tingles and the hairs stand on end all the way to my elbow.
“I didn’t come here to end this, Leon,” he says softly. “We both do have more invested in this—friendship at the very least—and that’s why I wanted to have this conversation. So you’d understand why I’m scared to death of what comes next.”
I wrap my fingers around his wrist. “The only thing that comes next is whatever we want to come next. Did you think I was going to skip out if we didn’t wind up in bed?”
His cheeks darken slightly, and his eyes flick toward our hands. “Not necessarily. But I didn’t want you thinking I was keeping you at arm’s length or something.”
“Well,” I say, running my thumb back and forth along his wrist, “you know how this works better than I do. So, I guess it’s your call where we go from here.” I incline my head a little. “Do you want to just keep this platonic, or…?”
“To be perfectly honest, that’s the last thing I want to do.” The intensity of his gaze sends a shiver down my spine. “I want more between us, and I want it more than I have with any other man.”
I moisten my lips. “So what do we do?”
“I don’t know.” He sighs. “I really don’t.”
I squeeze his hand. “How about we just take it a day at a time?”
Andrew nods slowly. “I can live with that.”
Silence falls between us, and I’m not sure how to fill it. I’m so damned relieved this turned out differently than I’d been certain it would, I can’t even decide how I feel about our new predicament. No, I can’t take him to bed tonight and probably not any night soon, but at least I’m not watching his back as he leaves while I wonder where the hell I went wrong.
Andrew breaks the silence, and there’s a cautious but mischievous grin on his lips. “Want to see something cool?”
He glances around, then picks up one of the empty coffee cups off the table. “Check it out.” He hooks his index finger inside the rim, then turns the opening toward me. From his finger, tiny bolts of blue-white lightning branch up and out, extending to all sides of the cup’s inner wall. With a playful grin, he says, “A storm in a teacup.”
I snort and roll my eyes. “Well-played, Andrew. Well-played.”
He chuckles and sets the cup on the table again.
“Does it…” I look at his fingers, which he’s rubbing gingerly. “Does it hurt when you do that?”
He shakes his head. “Tingles a bit. Kind of like your foot falling asleep.”
I shudder. “I hate that feeling.”
He laughs. “Yeah, but the trade-off isn’t bad.” Our eyes meet, and his expression darkens. Sighing, he folds his hands on the table. “Most of the time, anyway.”
“I’m sure,” I whisper.
We both fall quiet. After a moment, Andrew takes my hand again.
“Thank you,” he says softly. “For not looking at me any differently.”
I smile and resist the urge to kiss the backs of his fingers. “You’re welcome.”I’m just glad you’re still here.