CW: Adult Content and Graphic Language

Name: Nick

Day/Time: Sunday, 7:54 p.m.

Current state of mind: Chill

What are you wearing? Jeans & a black sweater

What are you listening to? Lights Down Low by MAX

What are you drinking? Bourbon

Where are you? My bedroom

 Zakopane, Poland

Three ways to stay on my good side: 1) mind your own fucking business, 2) don’t interrupt my vacation with your inane bullshit, and 3) don’t threaten anyone I care about—unless you have a death wish. Zachariah failed to hit all three points—which was how he’d won a one-way trip to the volcanic pits of the Underworld. The asshole had suffered spectacularly before meeting his end, but now I was running late for my date with Kari. And I hated being late.

It was just ten after six when Ryan and I strolled through the door of our custom-built mountain villa. If I hit the shower within the next five minutes, then Kari and I would make our dinner reservation on time. Our boots thudded off the hardwood as we strolled into the open living area, where Aria and Lexi were curled up on the oversized sofa. I turned, clapping Ryan on the shoulder. “I’m gonna check on Aria. You sure you’re good with keeping an eye on the girls tonight?”

“I can handle a couple of teenagers.” Ryan grinned, unzipping his coat. “You two kids go on out and have some fun, Uncle Ryan will take care of things here.”

I cocked my brow. “I think all that cold air might’ve damaged your brain.”

“You’re just jealous of my quick wit.”

“FYI, filling your head with hot air is not a quick fix for brain damage.”

“We need to work on your sense of humor.”

“It’s not my sense of humor that’s lacking.”

“Are you implying that I’m not funny?” Ryan’s eyes popped wide in feigned shock as he pressed his hand on his chest. “I’m hurt.”

“No implications about it.” I patted his shoulder in sympathy. “Sorry man, think it’s best you stick with fighting going forward.”

“Well, I am a talented fighter.” Ryan smirked.

“Mm-hmm.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Ryan was a damn good fighter—an asset in the field and off—and he knew it. Hell, we all did. But his ego didn’t need further inflating. If I filled his cranium with any more hot air, the damn thing would likely explode. And wouldn’t that be a fucking shame? “Thanks again.” I tossed him a wave, crossing the room over to the L-shaped sectional.

Aria and Lexi were cashed out cold—their heads resting on the padded armrests opposite from each other while a movie played on the flat screen. Careful not to wake them, I snagged a blanket off the back of the couch and covered them both. As I eased the soft flannel over Aria’s shoulders, I noticed a pale sheen to her skin.

What was up with that?

Tugging the leather free from my hand, I pressed my palm against Aria’s forehead. Her temp was normal. Physically, she seemed fine­—but fine wasn’t good enough. Fine meant okay—and okay was the equivalent of mediocre in my book. I didn’t do mediocre. I wasn’t the type who half-assed things. And as much as I wanted to do a magical system check to ensure she wasn’t coming down with anything, I didn’t want to wake her, either.

Aria needed the rest. She’d been sleeping like shit and had been hell on wheels for the past two days. The six-hour time difference had likely taken its toll, which would explain her pasty pallor. See? Logical explanation. No cause for alarm. But I still planned to check on her again before Kari and I left. Just for good measure.

I got my hustle on, taking the stairs two at a time up to my room. Echoes of Karina’s creative swearing—Polish mixed with English—rang out from beyond our bedroom door. Shoving the thick mahogany open, I followed the sounds of cussing and crashing, pausing mid-stride as a white sweater sailed past me. The top landed in a heap right in front of our king-sized bed.

“Kurwa!” Karina’s curse was followed by a series of thuds and bangs coming from our closet. Another top—this one blue—breezed by, joining the sweater on the growing mountain of discarded outfits.

What the fuck was she doing in there?

As soon as the air was clear of flying projectiles, I made my way into our walk-in.

Fucking hell. It was like a tornado had ripped through the space. Clothes, shoes, and hangers were strewn all over the place—and Karina sat in the middle of the disaster zone looking like the victim of a bad accident. I’d only been gone for over an hour and somehow, she destroyed the entire closet.

I leaned against the doorframe, clearing my throat. “I didn’t realize we were remodeling.”

Her weary sapphire blues snapped up to mine, slowly widening as she dragged her stare from my face to my boots and back up again. “Nick!” Karina leaped to her feet, launching herself into my arms.

I caught her up as she wrapped her legs around my waist, burrowing her head into the crook of my neck. “You’re home.”

“I’m home,” I replied, basking in her sweet spring scent. Man, it felt good to hold her—to touch her—to feel her silky hair against my skin. I wanted to savor the moment—wanted to stay that way until my arms gave out while I kissed her senseless. But there was a bigger issue at play. As much as I wanted to ignore all the damage, I couldn’t. “What happened here?” I asked, easing Karina down.

“I’m sorry.” She averted her gaze, a crimson blush dusting her cheeks.

Suspecting her anxiety had been the culprit behind all the destruction, I gave her time to gather her thoughts. It wasn’t easy for Kari to open up, especially after one of her attacks. So, I gave her space. But after a few minutes of silence, I slid my finger under her chin, tipping it up until her eyes met mine. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”

“I’m not sure what came over me.” Karina heaved out a sigh. “I was worried—and I wanted to find something perfect to wear, but nothing looked good—not that it mattered, because all I could think about was you and…”

“I get it.” I cupped her cheek, stroking my thumb against her smooth skin. She didn’t need to elaborate—didn’t need to say another damn word. I knew Kari—knew she tended to spiral when her emotions ran high. I wasn’t about to make her feel like shit because she’d freaked. I pulled her into my arms, pressing a kiss on top of her head.

She pulled back, looking up at me. “I didn’t mean to go all EF-5 on our room.”

“An EF-5 is extreme. I’d say it’s more of an EF-2—3 tops,” I replied, shooting her a wink.

A flirty smile played up on her lips as she slowly traced my abs with her forefinger. “You are far too generous.”

My pulse kicked up. I wanted to kiss the fuck out of those pouty pink lips—wanted to possess her mouth with mine while I lost myself in her. She held a power over me like no other. She was pure temptation—the one person who could make me lose control. I swept my finger over her lower lip. “Only when it comes to you.”

“Aren’t I special?” Kari practically purred, arching her body into mine.

“You are.” The thread on my self-control snapped. I pinned her against the wall—caging her between my arms. I dipped my head, nipping at her earlobe. “What do you want?” My voice was low. Husky. Lust-starved.

“You.” Kari breathed, her palm skating up my spine.

My hand glided over Karina’s lithe curves, up under her cashmere sweater—her soft skin like satin beneath my touch. My fingers tangled in her loose curls, pulling them taught as her nails bit into my back. She raised up on the balls of her feet—leaning in nice and close—her sensuous lips only a hairbreadth away from mine. A fire raced through my veins—my heart pounding as our mouths collided in a scorching kiss. She tasted like apples and cinnamon. Two of my favorite things.

I thrust my tongue between her lips—nearly spontaneously combusting as she moaned, grinding her hips against me. An inferno raged inside me—my lust overriding any logic—erasing all rational thoughts as I kissed my way down her neck. Just as I gripped the waistband of her soft leggings, a fervent knocking reverberated through the room.

What. The. Fuck. I was tempted to ignore the repeated thumping, but whoever was on the other side of that door wasn’t letting up. Stifling a groan, I kissed Kari’s forehead. “I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be right here.” She smiled.

I hated leaving her, but then I wasn’t planning on being gone long. Just long enough to tear whoever was on the other side of the paneled wood a new asshole. I damn near yanked the door off its fucking hinges, expecting to see Ryan. But when that familiar smirk didn’t meet mine, my gaze dropped. 

“Lexi? What’s up?” I asked, schooling my expression while keeping my voice level and calm. The last thing I wanted to do was scare Kari’s baby sister off.

“Um…” Lexi fidgeted with her necklace. “Aria’s sick. She wanted me to get you.”

I frowned, my instincts kicking in. “Is she in the living room?”

“No.” Lexi shook her head. “In her room.”

I darted across the hall and into Aria’s bedroom. My baby sister was curled up in a fetal position on the queen-sized bed. Sinking down on the mattress next to her, I brushed her hair away from her face. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel good,” she mumbled, inching closer to me. “Everything hurts.”

“I heard,” I replied, stroking her thick locks. “Think you can roll onto your back for me?”

She turned, squeezing her eyes shut as I pressed my palm against her forehead. She was burning up. I should’ve assessed her earlier—should’ve done a magical system check while I had the chance. But kicking my own ass wasn’t gonna do either of us any good.

Keeping my palm in place, I used my magic to evaluate Aria while she squirmed, grimacing the entire time. Magical evals weren’t painful, but they weren’t pleasant either. I hated putting her through it, but I needed to know what I was dealing with. A couple of beats later, I found the flu-like virus. A potion plus some sleep and Aria would be back to normal within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, tops. Thank fuck, I came prepared.

I grabbed two vials of elixir from the spell room and hauled ass back upstairs. The sooner the potion got into Aria’s system, the better. I helped Aria into a sitting position as she drank the nasty-ass concoction—gagging and coughing her way through it. But she kept it down.

Aria looked up at me with a yawn. “Can you stay with me for a bit?”

“Yeah, I’ll hang out.” I slung my arm around her shoulder, tucking her against my side. 

As Aria nestled her head against my chest, I thought about all the times we’d done this—even before I’d taken custody of her. I was no stranger to sick kids. I knew all about belly aches, body aches, fevers, and all that not-so-fun shit. It’d always been me taking care of Aria—mending wounds and soothing nightmares ever since she’d been old enough to walk.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Aria asked for me when she was feeling at her worst. At fourteen, she longed to be an adult—acting like she could take on the world all by her lonesome. She thought she knew it all. Pretended she needed no one. But in that moment, she was just a kid—a sick, vulnerable teenage girl who needed someone to take care of her. And as much as I hated watching her suffer, I was happy to look after her.

Aria fell asleep within the hour. Two hours later, her fever broke, and her complexion returned to normal. At this rate of recovery, she’d be back to her old self soon enough.

My stomach rumbled—a reminder I’d missed dinner. Easing Aria down onto the pillows, I covered her with the comforter and turned the TV off. Leaving the bedside lamp on, I let her sleep. If she needed me, she’d text.

As I headed down the stairs, the scent of freshly fried dough and butter drifted through the air, causing my gut to erupt in another growl.

I veered into the eat-in kitchen and stopped dead in my boots. The lights were off, candles glowing on almost every surface. The pale moonlight combined with the picturesque view of the snow-capped mountains just outside the windows added to the intimate atmosphere. Karina spun around, her face lighting up with the most stunning smile I’d ever seen.

“Perfect timing!” She grabbed my hand, leading me forward. “I was just about to text you.”

My gaze landed on the dining room table—which was just off to the side of the kitchen. It was filled with platters of food: pierogi, roasted chicken, potatoes, mizeria, mushroom soup, and szarlotka for dessert. “What is all this?” I asked.

“I figured you’d be hungry—since we skipped dinner and all—so, I reheated some food,” Kari replied with a shrug—like a six-course spread was no big fucking deal.

“You didn’t need to do this.”

“I wanted to.” She laid her palm on my heart. “You do so much for me—for all of us—so I did something for you. You deserve it and so much more.” She raised up on her tiptoes, kissing my cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day.” I tugged her flush against me, and kissed her until we were both breathless and out of our damn minds. Needless to say, dinner got delayed. Again.

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