I cannot roll my eyes harder. My sister is ridiculously in love, and while it’s adorable, it’s equally annoying. She and Mom are chattering away, and it’s all I can do to ignore them by sitting on the couch and flipping through random television shows.
They squeal about something, and I shift to face Dad and stop. Cool blue eyes stare at me—that perfectly rounded face, full, red-painted lips and dark loose curls hanging below her shoulder. I sit up straight immediately, every hair on my arms and neck standing straight up.
“Madeline,” I say under my breath like it’s a curse.
The room stills, Stephanie and Mom quieting as they hear my voice. I can’t tear my gaze from Madeline. I never thought I would see her again, not after she tossed me on my ass when I failed my training. It had been awful.
Madeline nods at Steph and Mom but turns her focus directly on me. “Got a minute?”
My stomach is in absolute knots. My voice catches in my throat, and I have no idea what to say. I don’t want her here, not after the embarrassment I left in.
“It’s nothing bad,” Madeline adds, as if she can sense my apprehension, which I suppose she can. She knows everything. She knows what happened six months ago, she knows how I stormed out of The Order with fire on my heels and she knows that I am not anyone she wants working orders. She told me as much.
“Audrey?” Mom asks, as if she she’s going to protect me from this big bad witch.
I try to shift a glance to her, but I can’t tear my gaze from the woman standing in front of me. I curl my fingers into a fist, nails biting into the skin of my palm until I have some wits about me. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“Yeah.” Pushing myself upward to stand, I eye Madeline carefully. “Only place to meet in private is my bedroom.”
I didn’t want to push it and suggest we talk at The Order. That’d be laughable—me walking back into that place as if nothing had happened. Snorting at the thought, I drag my feet forward until I’m inches from her. As is our custom, I grab her wrist and ghost from the living room to my bedroom. Standing inches from her is even more unnerving than when she’s staring directly at me. Never thought that would happen. None of this. Ever.
I shut the door, hoping it’ll give us at least some privacy. Turning around, I wring my hands together before stopping. I can’t show her how weak I am. “What do you want?”
Madeline sighs and shifts to sit on the edge of my mattress. She looks so out of place in my messy room with the unicorn comforter and unicorn stuffies I refuse to get rid of.
“I’m not here to accost you.”
“Could have fooled me.” Why I’m giving her attitude, I have no clue—but it’s probably not going to help my case any. “Again, I ask, what do you want?”
“I’ve some orders I thought you might be interested in.”
“You fired me,” I respond through clenched teeth. “What the hell kind of orders could you have for me?”
Madeline’s lips thin before she pulls them in a half-smile that is no doubt forced. “Would you relax? I’m only here to try to repair this.”
“There’s nothing to repair. It was severed.”
“There are factors at play that you don’t know about. You didn’t fail in your orders as badly as we told you. You were only off by two marks, and if we had the funds to hire another ghost, you would have been allowed to reapply. However, that’s not the case. I’m here with orders to haunt, if you would like them, but they will not be paid by me.”
“So this is me being volun-told to work a job I was fired from?” I raise a skeptical eyebrow at her.
Madeline shakes her head. “No. I would have very much liked to hire you, Audrey. You would be an excellent asset to The Order.”
“You. Fired. Me.” I spell it out slowly because it doesn’t seem like she’s understanding.
“Yes, but if I’d had another choice at the time, I would have made it.”
I narrow my eyes, anger still boiling in my belly. “Why should I work for you—on the side, without pay?”
“Because you are excellent at what you do, which is causing people to think differently about the world around them in unique and creative ways. I always admired your creativity.”
I scoff, walking to plop onto the mattress next to her. “Never seemed like it.”
She waves her hand. “Persona. Please, I mean what I’m saying.”
“What’s the job?”
“Do you know Bams Brewery?”
I nod. I’ve been there a time or two. Decent beer. Nice atmosphere. Asshole manager.
“They need a haunting.”
“All of them?”
“The four owners, specifically. Marco is one of us, so he will assist, but he also needs his own lesson in there, which is where I need your creativity. He has agreed to hire you on, so you will be paid.”
“Hire me for what?”
“Something at the brewery. Something to your skills.”
“I don’t know how to make beer.” I wrinkle my nose.
“You’ll find something. Would you consider it?”
“What’s in it for me, Madeline? Because, honestly, I don’t relish the idea of doing you a favor, which it seems like this is, without knowing why I’m doing it or what I’m doing it for.”
Madeline falls silent. I’m not sure what she’s thinking, but she is contemplating deeply. “The Order is changing, drastically, and it won’t be what your parents remember much longer. I need allies for what it will be when these changes are made.”
“So let me get this right. You fired me, then you want me as your ally?”
She gives a weak smile. “Yes. If you’ll accept.”
“I’ll accept these orders, because, frankly, I need the paycheck, but beyond that? I have no idea. You’re going to have some explaining to do.”
“All in good time. Since you’ve accepted, you’ll need to contact Marco and create a plan. The rest is left up to you two.” Without another word, she’s gone.
Sitting alone in my room, I stare at the wall and shake my head. What the fuck was that? Never in my life have I heard of such a thing, but she knew exactly who to come to. I’ll do anything to get back in the good graces of The Order. I ghost downstairs after changing into a clean pair of jeans and a tight shirt. Mom and Steph look at me curiously. I shrug.
“It was harmless.” I hope I’m right on that.
“What did she want?” Mom asks.
I shake my head. “She didn’t really want anything—at least, she didn’t insist on anything.”
“Madeline doesn’t just show up for nothing,” Steph adds, her eyes widening.
Shrugging, I chug the last of my beer I’d left opened and grin at them. “I’m off.”
In two seconds, I’m standing outside a small apartment I’ve never seen before. At least Madeline had given me that information. Number four-zero-six. Canting my head to the side, I listen to see if he’s home. Unlike Madeline, I’m not an asshole, so I shift into my corporeal form, make a fist and knock on the steel door. Fixing a grin on my lips, I wait to see what greets me.
Marco is insanely handsome. Madeline put me right in his lap, too, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be putty. His black hair is slicked to the side, combed perfectly and gelled. I just want to stick my hands in it and mess it up. Rubbing my fingers together, I barely resist the idea. His lips are full, which is incredibly sexy on a man. I nearly moan as the thought of pulling his lower lip between my teeth shudders through me.
“Who are you?” he says, his voice wary but also deep.
Fuck, he’s sex on a stick. Madeline is an evil, evil woman for this one. I’m going to get revenge for this. “I’m Audrey.”
“All right.” He raises an eyebrow at me and shifts to block the door. “And who are you exactly?”
“Oh.” I flush, realizing Madeline had left out some very important information for both of us. “Madeline sent me…about the orders to haunt.”
Marco shushes me, grabs me by the wrist and drags me into his apartment. “You can’t be saying that out loud. My neighbors will hear you!”
I squint at him. “Then you need new neighbors.”
“Why didn’t you just ghost in here?”
Putting my hands on my hips, I face him down. “Because I’m not an asshole, and I respect privacy.”
Marco frowns. “What exactly did Madeline tell you?”
“That you’ll pay me.”
Marco’s lips thin. “We will.”
“What will I be doing?”
“Bartending and waitressing.”
“It’s usually one or the other, not both.” He looks cute when he’s frazzled, and I can’t help myself from pushing at him more.
“So what’s the pay?”
“Minimum plus tips.”
I whistle my surprise. “No wonder you can’t keep anyone employed.”
Marco pouts. “Who told you that?”
“I’ve been to your brewery before, Marco, and I’ve seen the employees come and go. Now I know why.”
Sighing, he collapses onto his couch. “The main reason is Bryson. He’s going to be the one you have to work through to get hired.”
“Oh, so this isn’t even guaranteed pay? I’m out.” I start to ghost, but he’s quick. He’s on his feet, grabbing my wrist and dragging me back. “What?”
“Don’t go. I…I need this to happen.”
Clenching my jaw, I give him a hard stare. “Why?”
Marco softens, his entire demeanor changing. He looks so broken. My heart shatters for him, as I see his struggle, the pain this is causing. Sliding up against him, I wrap him in a quick hug.
“Fine, I’ll help. Tell me how to get this job.”
We talk for hours, and he goes from confident to nervous every five minutes it seems, though, he does have good insight into those he works with. It’s after midnight when weariness creeps over me, the events of the day and being thrust into orders I’m not sure are actual orders finally weighing me down. But I don’t know how to leave Marco. First and foremost, he seems lonely, which for a guy who started a business with his three college friends shouldn’t be the case.
Reaching out, I brush my fingers against his arm to get his attention. “It’s getting late.”
Marco nods. “Right. I shouldn’t have kept you.”
“No, it was good.” I give him a gentle smile. I’m not lying. I enjoyed spending the time with him, getting to know him and his friends better. This is going to be one of the best orders I have ever worked, and even if this isn’t a real case, I’m going to see it through—not only to get back into Madeline’s good graces but also for the cold hard cash I really need.
He stares into my eyes, and for a second, I think he might kiss me. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but I’ve only known him for a few hours at this point. He’s adorable and handsome, but this is business. If he wants more—or if I do, for that matter—we need to properly talk about it. Leaning in, I press my lips to his cheek to try to ward off any awkwardness.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at the open interviews.”
He grins. “Yes, later today actually.”
I snort lightly. “Today, then.”
Kissing his cheek again, I ghost into my bedroom. I’m thankful to find it blissfully empty and quiet, though I’m sure Mom and Steph are going to hound me with a million more questions as soon as they can find me. I’m not sure what to tell them. Madeline didn’t swear me to secrecy, but if she’s right and The Order is in for dramatic changes, I don’t know if anyone is going to be happy about it.
Stripping naked, I slide under my unicorn blanket and close my eyes, turning the side lamp by my bed off. I need to sleep so I can have my wits about me tomorrow. Bryson is apparently a beast in the form of a handsome man, and Marco warned me I was going to need to be prepared to pass the interview test. Luckily, Marco was going to help me cheat and gave me some clues as to what might happen. Smiling to myself, I turn on my side and close my eyes. I fall into sleep thinking of the handsome man I’d just met.