Teasing Fate by Emilia Hartley

 

1

Abell chimed over Wade Santana’s head as he pushed through the swinging glass door. He’d taken one look at the chipped paint on the front window and knew he was in the right place. Back in the Day Treasures was exactly the kind of place that would have what he needed. Or, so he hoped.

He removed his hat and held it at his side as he took in the dimly lit interior of the antique shop. The smell of wood polish, moth balls, and dust hung in the air. While the familiar scent should have comforted Wade, it seemed to have the opposite effect on him. Or, more importantly, his beast.

The creature had caught wind of something that excited it. Wade’s heart raced. Energy hummed through his veins like the anticipatory excitement the day before a birthday. He couldn’t describe it, nor could he define the source. He glanced around, but no enemy hung in the shadows.

Wade wasn’t the heroic type anyway. He didn’t look forward to vanquishing evil. He kept his head down and did his best to survive. That was how it had been for the last fifteen years of his life. Don’t instigate. Don’t loiter. Keep moving.

He passed dress-forms from the fifties adorned with costume jewelry from the same era. A vanity from the turn of the century sat on his right, complete with a silver hairbrush and mirror set. While the costume jewelry didn’t set off any alarms, the hairbrush and mirror made Wade sidestep the vanity. His skin tingled, and, for a moment, his bear lost sight of its goal and growled at the silver.

Shifters didn’t much like the metal. Its mere presence separated them from their beasts when they were close enough. Wade never touched the stuff, but he’d been told that it could burn through their skin. His inability to work with it had lost him a number of jobs in the past, but he knew that was better than getting caught.

A voice dragged his attention back to the present, but as he lifted his head, he realized the voice was not addressing him.

“I need you…” A small sob escaped the speaker before they swallowed it down. “I need my stuff back.”

Wade lingered between a bed frame and a china cabinet, where the woman couldn’t see him, but curiosity got the best of him. He snuck a peek at the counter at the back of the store. A woman leaned against it, her elbows on the glass, a cellphone pressed to one ear, and her head in her hand. A colorful scarf had been folded and wrapped around her hair to keep it in place, reminiscent of a rebellious style from the fifties.

“Brea,” the woman said, her voice drawn.

Wade knew he shouldn’t pry, but he couldn’t help but overhear the conversation on the other end. Shifter hearing, and all.

He tried to focus on the nearby vanity. It had an awful patch of brown paint covering a chip in the curved wooden leg that made him cringe. Brown paint over beautiful woodwork was a crime, but he couldn’t punish anyone for it.

The phone line crackled and another woman said, “I can’t take this anymore, Carolina. You never warned me about any of this. How can I trust you ever again?”

“Brea, you don’t mean that!”

The saline scent of tears blossomed on the air. Wade glanced at the exit and thought about coming back later. He’d clearly arrived at a bad time. Then again, this kind of conversation made him wonder if any time would be a good time. The woman at the counter poured her heart out to the woman on the other end of the call, clearly trying to get her girlfriend back.

Wade wasn’t great with relationships. He had no advice to offer and couldn’t console her. Straight women liked ice-cream and rom coms after their break-ups. Did lesbians like the same thing? Or did they prefer trips to the hardware store to buy new power tools? If women were a mystery to Wade, then lesbians were even more confusing.

The woman at the counter slammed her phone down and wiped at her tears. She sucked in a ragged breath. He glanced around the china cabinet and saw that she had straightened her spine and was looking ahead now. Her gaze found him, and panic took over her face.

Though Wade wished he could take back the last five seconds, he didn’t have the power to do so. He had to step out of his hiding place, acknowledge Carolina, and pretend that he didn’t just eavesdrop on her conversation. The urge to put his cowboy hat back on nearly overrode every polite sensibility in his body.

His mother had taught him better than that, though. Gentlemen didn’t wear hats inside and certainly not around women who might be intimidated by a man’s shrouded features.

“Morning, ma’am,” Wade said. “I was wondering if you might be able to acquire a silvered mirror for me.”

* * *

Carolina Short had never laideyes on a more beautiful man in her life. His black hair had been cut close to his scalp, but not buzzed. He ran a tawny hand through it and offered her a half-smile that revealed a single dimple in his cheek.

Despite everything she’d just gone through, Carolina’s heart flipped at the sight of that dimple. She lost all ability to form words as he approached. His cotton t-shirt strained against his pecs and biceps, but his classic jeans hugged his hips so perfectly.

She blinked and shook her head. Guilt took ahold of her and shamed her for appreciating the beautiful man so soon after a fight with her ex-girlfriend. Carolina shouldn’t have felt any of the things roiling through her. It just wasn’t right.

“Silvered mirrors are rare these days,” she explained. “I don’t currently have any in stock, but I can make some calls to shops out of town if you’re willing to pay the right price.”

The right price wouldn’t be enough to dig her out of the hole she found herself in, but it would be a start. She swallowed and hoped this man had deep pockets. From the scuffs on his jeans and the dirt under his nails, she doubted it. Men with money took an unprecedented amount of care in their appearance. Only working-class folk looked like this man.

Not that she minded. She liked a man who knew how to use his hands.

Oh, she had to stop. Carolina shook her head again. This rebound energy would be better put to use elsewhere. She couldn’t hop on this guy she knew nothing about.

He pulled out a shard of glass. No, it was a mirror shard, she realized when the light behind her glimmered over the surface. He set it down on the counter between them.

“Okay,” she drawled and picked up the shard of mirror only because it was there, not because she needed it to know what to look for. She didn’t understand why people assumed she couldn’t do her job. “What dimensions are you looking for? Oval? Round?”

“Actually, I’m looking for something about two foot by five foot.”

Carolina did a double take. “You can’t be serious.”

He raised a thick, dark brow. “I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t, ma’am.”

She scowled and looked back at the glass in her hands. She flipped it back and forth, noting the oil-slick gleam on the surface. It would be hard to find an exact match to this. At least it didn’t have to replace part of a set.

That would be a nightmare.

“My boss’s lady broke an infinity mirror set. Since the room doesn’t have much in the way of natural lighting or electrical fixtures, I need a mirror to help circulate the light.”

Carolina carefully set the shard of mirror on the counter between them. She wanted to tell him no and move on with her life. The mission would be nigh impossible. Only a custom mirror would get anywhere close to what he needed.

“Where did you say you were working?” Carolina asked.

Perhaps his boss could afford the ridiculous cost of commissioning a custom mirror and the fee she would slap onto such a service. She hated to take advantage of this guy, as he’d been kind throughout this whole process. Charging a man she’d never met? Well, that was a different story.

“Bearclaw Castle,” the man replied.

Carolina about staggered. The infamous castle had been empty since her teenage years. Rumor had it that the previous owners had killed each other. She didn’t know how much of that was truth and how much was the result of teenage gossiping. However, as an adult, Carolina knew that getting inside Bearclaw Castle would be the highlight of her career as an antiques dealer.

The treasure hoard waiting inside would be more than enough to pay off her father’s debts. The loan sharks he’d dealt with before his death would finally get off her back and stop ruining every relationship she ever valued.

She leaned forward, elbows on the counter, and batted her fake lashes at the guy. “I’ll get you the mirror you want if you can get me inside Bearclaw.”

The man seemed perplexed. “It’s not open for tours. My boss and his lady live there.”

Carolina gestured to her shop. While the floor was dense with furniture, the walls had become bare. Her stock had dwindled. Inexpensive items flew off the shelves while pricier, bulkier things stuck around and refused to move.

“I deal in antiques for a living. Bearclaw Castle is an unexplored treasure trove of history that could prove profitable for everyone involved. I want to strike a deal with your boss. That’s all.”

The deal that would fix everything.

Carolina clung to that belief because without it she had nothing else to live for. She gave her phone a sidelong glance as thoughts of Brea swirled through her mind. She never meant for any of this to spill over into her personal life. Hell, this shouldn’t have even happened.

“I can introduce you to Mr. Carson, but I can’t make any promises. You might as well swing by and check out the mirror we still have up, so you know what we need.”

“You sound so unexcited about this,” Carolina teased. Taking jabs at Mr. Seriousness kept her mind off everything. “Like you wouldn’t know fun if it came along and bit you in the dick. Then again, I’m not even sure fun would want to get near your dick.”

He sighed and shook his head. Then, under his breath, he muttered, “I can already tell you’re going to be a thorn in my side.”

He ignored her cackle as he turned and gestured to the mid-century modern vanity near where she first saw him.

“You need to fire whoever restored that piece,” the man said.

“Excuse me?” Carolina bristled. She didn’t say it, but she’d done the work on that particular vanity.

He went over to it and knelt so he could point out a patch on the vanity leg. Carolina scowled and moved out from behind her counter so she could crouch next to the man. There was a quarter-sized spot on the leg where the wood grain vanished. Carolina stared at it until the gears in her brain started turning.

Once she realized what she was looking at, her cheeks flamed. She stood but didn’t know what to say.

“If you can bring down the price of the mirror,” the man said, “I can help you fix this.”

Paint on antiques was a death sentence for the piece. Didn’t he know that? The tools and solvents required to remove the atrocity often ruined the original work. Had she known about the paint on the leg, she wouldn’t have bought it at auction. She could have sworn she looked this piece up and down. She polished it herself!

But it wasn’t like he could have done this. She couldn’t lay the blame on him, nor could she afford his help. Right now, money mattered more than passion. And that wounded her pride.

Getting to check this guy out was the only good part of this day, she thought sullenly.

She knew not to lower the price on the mirror, but she opened her mouth and what came out was an offer far below what she’d meant to say. Though she wanted to cover her mouth and stop herself, she couldn’t admit that she’d misspoken, either. This guy wouldn’t be able to take her seriously after that.

“Sounds like we have a deal.” He held out his hand.

Carolina didn’t tell him she hated being touched, and instead took his hand. A knot in her chest untied itself as his heat spilled into her. She exhaled and wondered how a stranger could make her feel such a way.

He gripped her small hand and gave it a firm shake before promptly letting go, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world. When he nodded and turned to leave, she panicked.

“Hold up! You haven’t given me any information. What’s your name? How do I get ahold of you?”

He put his hat on and lowered the brim. “Wade Santana, ma’am. Meet me at Bearclaw Castle tomorrow at eleven, and we can discuss the rest.”

A mysterious stranger, he disappeared through the front door and left her alone with some very unnerving thoughts. Her reaction to him had been unlike any other. This quiet, simple man left her undone in ways she didn’t particularly like. Carolina should have been reeling from her breakup with Brea, not drooling over Wade.