Magic in Disguise - Chapter 1 Sneak Peek for #Bookworms

MAGIC IN DISGUISE

AGENTS OF A.S.S.E.T. 3
KATIE SALIDAS

CHAPTER ONE

How did I get here?
Deep within her hand, the twinges began. Sage stared at the ugly blemish blackening her palm. A few days earlier, the only deformity she could claim was the birthmark that labeled her a Terra: The Tree of Life.
The Great Mother had bestowed innate magical protection upon those who bore her mark. But all magic comes with a price. Especially for Terras. If only she’d read the fine print, she’d have been more careful with her gift.
Sage had been tasked with protecting the greatest weapon known to the magical community, The Seed of Destruction; daring to use its magic, however, earned her this penance. And if the ever-growing black mark on her palm was any indication of the consequences, she too, would ultimately be destroyed by the seed’s need to consume power. 
Pain was fast becoming her constant companion. Living in a house with vampires, she was never too far from magic. Dark or light, it didn’t matter. The seed burned with insatiable hunger for power. She clenched her fist tight, but it did nothing to silence the throbbing.
A knock at her front door provided a perfect distraction from all the negative thoughts that came to her during the lonely hours of isolation.
She jumped to her feet, happy to have any kind of company. Well, any kind of non-magical company. What she wouldn’t give for a pair of missionaries to drop by. She’d endure whatever religion they wanted to peddle as long as they would sit and have a cup of coffee with her. 
“What’s the password?” Sage called playfully as she clicked the door lock.
“Coffee,” Grey responded mechanically.
“That was last week’s password.” She yanked the door open, and met him with an impish smirk. “Try again.”
Grey stood, arms crossed, that silly fedora ever present on top of his head. She was tempted to knock it off, just to continue her playful greeting, but he beat her to the punch with an annoyed, “Grow up.”
Mercurial as ever, she never knew if he was going to play along with her jokes or throw a wet blanket on her good mood. Still, she had to try. He was the only person who visited her since she’d earned the scarlet letter at ASSET. Administrative leave, they called it. Sage had other words. Cabin fever, a slow decent into madness.
“Don’t you want to know the new password?” She stood her ground, hands on her hips, a flimsy barricade, more playful than purpose, but enough to prevent Grey from entering her home.
“You’re either going to let me in, or find a new way to get to work.”
After nearly a week without news, his words renewed her spirit. Her blockade crumbled. She reached out and yanked Grey into the apartment.
“Do we have a case?” Thank the Goddess! Real human…er…Terra interaction. Non-bloodsucker company. Vampires didn’t make the best of roommates. “Fill me in. Shifters, witches, trolls? Who needs our help?”
“Slow your roll there, newbie.” Grey cracked a smile. He had to know how much she needed this. How desperate she was for something useful to do.
She closed the door behind him and ushered Grey to the kitchen table. “Easy for you to say. You’re not on house arrest. I’d willingly jump on the back of your bike and ride across the country and back if it means getting out of this house.”
“Careful what you wish for,” he teased.
She pressed him down into one of the dining chairs and rounded the table to take the one opposite him. “I might be a newbie, but I’m not messing with wishes and djinn again. Hell no!” She crossed her fingers behind her back. Luke’s fate had been a need-to-know basis kind of thing, and even though Grey was her partner, she hadn’t quite let him in on that secret yet.
Luke was still very much alive and living across the walkway from her apartment too. Though he couldn’t possibly have retained his magic after what she’d done to him.
 “All right, there’s this kid.” Grey folded his arms on the table and leaned in closely. “Poor, pitiful little thing.” He whispered the words like a secret none but the two of them should share. “She got herself into a lot of trouble. Mixing with the wrong sort.”
“Really? Do we need to rescue her?” Chills prickled at the back of Sage’s neck. She bristled with excitement. This was her chance to make amends. Anticipation had her salivating for more information. She wouldn’t fail. “Who has her?”
“Oh yeah. She needs rescuing, all right. If I had my way the minute I brought her in, I’d have her locked up. For her own protection.” He snickered, breaking just long enough for Sage to catch the cruelty of his joke.
“Jerk.” She reached across the table and swatted the hat off his head. Too bad she’d been aiming for his cheek.
Grey laughed all the way to the ground as he ducked under the table to retrieve his fedora. His amusement vanished as he came back up. Eyes widened with fearful curiosity. He stared silently as if seeing Sage for the first time, only he hadn’t looked her in the eye. The target of his concern fell much lower than her face.
“You sure you’re up for working in your current condition?”
Sage hid her ruined hand behind her back, but it was too late. He’d already taken in the new damage. “I’m fine. I can still work.”
He stood and dusted off the hat before placing it back on his head. “I’d rather we get you sorted before hitting the field again, but Ava’s ordered you in for a meeting.”
She cringed at the prospect of another lecture from Queen High Bitch herself. “Should I be scared?”
Grey gave a noncommittal shrug. “Whatever it is, we’re partners, so we’ll take our lumps together.”
She stood and grabbed her keys off the wall hook. “Speaking of… How come I got sent home while you were still allowed to work?”
“I didn’t get anything stuck in my hand on our last mission,”—he pointed an accusing finger at her—“but don’t think I got off easy. Ava’s had me tied to her desk all week.”
Her mind instantly sank into the gutter, conjuring up a naughty vision of Grey bound at the wrist and ankles across Ava’s mahogany desk. Ava certainly fit the dominatrix persona, but Grey as a submissive? Nope. Can’t have thoughts like those. Bad Sage! Where was the mental bleach when she needed it?
“You’re right. Administrative leave is so much better. But I’m still ready to get back to work.” A sharp shock jolted through her palm quick as a strike of lightning. She winced, hissing as she clenched her fist tight enough to send her nails into her skin. The seed never failed to make its desire known. Even the prospect of being near magic was enough to awaken its insatiable hunger.
Grey was at her side before she opened her eyes, taking her hand in his. “You’re getting worse.” Carefully, he inspected the damage. Blackening skin spread out from the center where the seed had made its home, its darkness reaching out in all directions, devouring her slowly. He tiptoed the pads of his fingers across each of the lines in her palms.
The shocking tenderness of his touch took the edge off her pain. Tickled a bit too. Sage fought against the smile it brought to her face. It wasn’t like Grey to be so… Had he numbed her mind as well? What new magic was this? His gesture was stirring something else within her.
“Fine… I’m… Good. Can I have my hand back?”
He let go as if she’d burned him. “Does it hurt?”
So much! “A little. More when I’m around magic.”
“I don’t doubt that. You’re like a lightning rod caught in a thunderstorm. All the magic around you, right there for the taking.”
“To put it mildly.” She scrubbed her hands, trying to stop the tingling left in the wake of his grip.
“You sure you’re going to be okay?”
“I’m fine.”
“Good, because I don’t need my partner getting all weird on me when we’re out there dealing with whatever shitstorm Ava assigns us.”
Snarky tone. Condescension. Teasing. That she could handle. That didn’t send butterflies buzzing around her stomach. She reached for a pair of silver-lined gloves on the counter and slipped them on. Ava had suggested she wear them. She hadn’t tested whether or not it blocked the seed’s power, but better safe than sorry.
“Me, weird?” She waggled her silver-coated fingers at him. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“Maybe keep those in your pocket.”
“You think, Captain Obvious? Gloves in the desert, in the middle of summer. Might as well walk around with a neon sign on my head.” Looking weird was the least of her worries. It was the very real risk she could accidentally kill someone with a single touch that weighed heaviest on her mind.
“I know this is difficult. I’m proud of how brave you are being. You’re handling this so well.”
What the hell was that tone? He’d gone from snarking to simpering in a blink, talking to her like she was some fragile creature moments from shattering into a thousand pieces should he utter a negative word. Come to think of it, he’d been noticeably less Grey since she’d been cursed.
“Don’t talk to me like a lost cause.”
Grey stepped back as if she’d took a swing at him. “What?”
“You’re being too nice!”
His brow crinkled. Grey opened his mouth but no words came.
“You know something you’re not telling me, partner.” Sage threw her hands on her hips. He wasn’t going to weasel out of giving her an answer. He wasn’t a soft and gentle kind of guy. The new case was a charade. Sage was dying. Or worse. If there was a worse. That thought sent a whole different kind of chill slithering down her spine. 
“As long as I’ve lived, I’ve pissed off my fair share of women,” – Grey stared at her in disbelief – “but not once has any girl ever yelled at me for being nice.”
“You know what I mean.” She narrowed her eyes, daring him to blow more smoke up her ass. “You’re not being you. What world-altering devastation are you hiding from me?”
“Woah. Hold on there, Drama Queen.” Grey threw his hands up in the air, taking yet another step away from her. Any further and he’d plaster himself against the front door. “You jumped right onto the crazy train.”
“You’re an insufferable asshole, and that’s on a good day. But since this whole thing happened.” She pulled the glove off and shoved her blackening hand in his face. “You’ve been distant. And when I finally do see you, you’re speaking to me like…I’m some sort of…cancer patient who’s been given two weeks to live.”
“Put that away.” He swatted at her hand.
“No.” She held it firmly in his face. “Not until you tell me why you’re acting so weird.”
“Stop this now!” He took hold of her hand with a growl that made him sound part wolf. His grip was iron, tightening when she resisted, preventing her from pulling away.
“Let me go,” she demanded.
“You can’t hurt me. I’m not afraid of you. Probably the only person in your current circle of friends that can say that right now.” His breath came slowly as he moved her hand to his chest. Grey fixed the ruin of her palm directly over his heart.
Stubbornly, she gave one final attempt to pull free before resigning herself to his will.
 His heart knocked against her wounded hand. The steady rhythm vibrated powerfully through his chest, but it was the warmth that radiated from him that worked true magic. Each pulse of his heartbeat fought against the ache, absorbing it, neutralizing it, and steadily gaining ground against her pain.
He loosened his iron grip, letting the choice to continue their physical connection fall to her. Sage found herself floating somewhere in the neutral zone between pain and something much more intense. His thumb ghosted over the back of her hand, so tender, so intimate. She sucked in a frightened breath, realizing how much his touch had kindled within her. A wonderful distraction from the pain in her hand but sure to leave lasting scars on her heart. She wasn’t ready to let him past her defenses. This wasn’t the time for those thoughts anyway.
She let her hand fall, instantly regretting the loss of his warmth, and released her breath in an attempt to force with it all the stress she could expel from her body. Their physical connection had said what words couldn’t, and that scared her more than the meeting she would soon have with Ava.
 “You paid a high price for your service to the gods.” Grey’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat to cover the sound and leaned in, their noses almost touching. The silent way his eyes had begged her to come closer could not be unseen.
“It’s only temporary.” Her legs went soft like warm jelly. She backed away awkwardly, struggling to stay upright. “I’m sure ASSET had a way to fix this.”
“One way or another, we’ll set things right.” Grey mopped his face with his hands, wiping disappointment away as he replaced it with a stony mask of indifference. She’d have much rather he kept the smile, but ultimately his game face was what she needed.
“Yeah.” She chuckled nervously. “Because I’m not wearing these gloves for the rest of my life.” She turned away, her cheeks burning with raw emotions she wasn’t ready to process. Her focus had to be on removing the stone.
“Sage,” he called to her.
“What?”
“You’re not going to die, okay? We will fix you.”
“Of course we will. I’d hate to inconvenience you with my death.” Sage found snarky comebacks flowed much more freely than heavy emotions.
“You know how much I hate paperwork,” Grey responded in kind.
“Good, because the alternative is the Luke Skywalker approach, and prosthetic hands are not that advanced yet.”
“You have a movie to reference for every situation, don’t you?”
“Pop culture is my second language.” She fit the glove back over her bad hand. “But I do draw the line at the Michael Jackson references.”  
“He only wore one glove.”
She snorted at his attempted humor. “You think I could get away with that?”
“Better safe than sorry. But if you’re itching to test the theory, I could hold Zack down for you.”
That was more like it. Grey was beginning to sound like himself. Dumb jokes and playful condescension she could deal with.
“Don’t tempt me. He’s been nearly as insufferable as you this last week.”
Grey’s lips twisted into a sneer. “Something you haven’t told me?”
Was that jealousy she detected? Sage nearly took the bait, but inciting another testosterone war wouldn’t help matters. “It’s just difficult having him live here at the apartment while he trains Matt, that’s all.”
“Better than the alternative.”
“You don’t have to listen to him. The one saving grace about my new little…affliction.” She wiggled her fingers again as if casting a magic spell. “He can’t come anywhere near me.”
“He’d only make that mistake once.”
“And I’d have more blood on my hands. First month on the job… What’s my tally?”
“You do have an impressive kill count for a newbie.” The wink he gave her held a little too much flirt in its wake.
Sage turned to the door before things got awkward again. “Let’s go see if I’m up for any awards, then.”
“Promise not to kill me?” Grey shoved her aside as he rushed to open the door. Yet another oddly un-Grey-like gesture.
“We’re meeting with Ava,” she reminded him. “Are you sure it’s not my head on the chopping block?”

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