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The envelope had been placed flat in the center of my desk. It was blank - no name, no return address, not even an Attn: Wizard on the cover.

Ordinarily, I'd be wary of anything that just appeared on my desk. Ordinarily, however, I hadn't just finished a case that led to Murphy arresting an array of midtown gambling operators who'd been involved in ritual cult killings of their riskier clientele - a case which, perhaps by coincidence, had led to John Marcone sweeping in that morning with his usual noiseless fanfare and buying out five hotels, a riverboat casino, and a racing track in Oak Park.

Inside the manila envelope was another one. This one was white, long, and narrow - the kind that usually hold either restraining orders or the really big checks. Usually, odds were even money on the former; but as my hand hovered over the envelope, I got a hunch.

A really, really annoying hunch.

"What the hell is this?" I demanded into the phone moments later.

"Well, Harry," responded the unflappable Gentleman John Marcone, "if you opened the envelope, perhaps you'd know."

"Don't call me that," I snapped. "Is this a restraining order?"

After a deadpan silence, Marcone responded, "…Do I need one, Mr. Dresden?"

"You might," I bit back, "depending on what I find when I open this."

"By all means," came the response. I could swear, his voice was almost a lilt. Cheeky bastard.

There's a feeling of unreality that comes when you suddenly find yourself with too much money. The check was done up on the stiff kind of paper, in the heavy rendered ink that comes from the fancy pens.

I stared. For a moment I wondered if Marcone had been dropped on his head as a second grade math student, before I realized that extra period was actually a comma.

The check was made out to "Mr. Harry Dresden," with a smug little flourish on the tail of the M, as if "Mr. Harry Dresden" was someone for whom receiving extravagant mafia paybacks was an everyday occurrence. The memo read only, "For services rendered," and in place of a signature were the words: Call me.

I stared, and stared some more, unsure whether what I was feeling could feasibly be termed outrage, indignation, or faint curiosity as to whether I should use some of the money to buy a new desk after I'd finished destroying this one with my head.

"Wow," I said finally. "Now I can have the Jungle Room I've always wanted."

"And here I was hoping you might actually hire a decorator," Marcone said.

"I've got a better idea," I said, sitting down on the desk, and conveniently on top of Marcone's fancy-letter check. "How about you go fuck yourself?"

"Really, Mr. Dresden, I don't expect you to be gracious, but I would have hoped you'd at least allow me to thank you properly for -"

"Thank you properly?" I all but shouted. "For my services? What services! I rendered no services!"

"Would you like to?" Marcone responded implacably, and his voice dropped a notch, to the kind of warm purr that hits you like a second round of tequila. "I'm sure we could arrange something."

"I hate you," I told him emphatically.

"Good day, Mr. Dresden."

I slid the check out from beneath my rump and answered with a long, slow, rip of the paper in two, directly in front of the receiver.

He hung up, but not before I heard the answering chuckle.

______

The next day, there was another envelope on my desk. I rolled my eyes but didn't bother opening it, just picked up the phone instead.

"I told you, I'm not taking your money!"

"Good morning, Harry," was the infuriatingly civil response. "My, my, are you only just getting to the office?"

"I worked late last night," I said, making sure to sound terribly busy and distracted by my important work of shuffling papers around.

Marcone made a disapproving sound. "Some of us keep late hours but still have the sense of responsibility that allows us to be at work on time."

I nearly laughed. Leave it to John Marcone to unflappably deliver a lecture on work ethics. "Well, John," I said, sitting down, "not all of us have your busy schedule - blackmail to extort, paparazzi to pose for, people to kill..."

"It takes work to be a success, Harry," he replied. "You should try it sometime."

I could hear the chuckle in his voice. I settled back in my chair and put my feet on the desk. "Don't call me that."

"Considering you're currently in possession of a very large sum of my money, I should think you'd be more grateful."

"Oh, yeah," I said. "About that."

"I'm only trying to thank a valued associate for - "

"I am not a valued associate! Our values don't even live in the same zip code!"

"Don't sell yourself short, Harry," Marcone answered. On any day when he wasn't trying to bribe me, I'd have said he almost sounded fond.

"Yeah, well, the next time you want to show your appreciation to someone for something they didn't do," I said, "get them flowers or a gift certificate to McDonald's, not a hundred-thousand-dollar check."

Marcone sniffed and replied dryly, "Your typical business clientele has clearly left something to be desired."

"You are not my clientele! I'm not working for you!" I protested - though I sounded less like a man with righteous moral indignation, and more like a nine-year-old insisting he was tall enough to ride the ride, honest.

"Ah, yes," he answered. "We really should remedy that one of these days."

"There is no 'we,'" I said, waving a hand futilely before I sunk my head into it.

"If only there were," he said - and somehow I just knew he was doing that thing where he smiled with all his teeth showing. "We might be able to continue this call. As it is, I really must turn my attention to matters of business. Good afternoon, Harry."

"Don't call me - " I started to retort, but Marcone was already gone.

______

I ran late again the next day, and between the lateness, the lost sleep, and the energy drain (sending out a locator spell over all of Chicagoland will do that do a person), I was already in a pissed-off mood.

On top of everything else, the elevator was broken again - and, look, this time it wasn't my fault; it's not like I told that demon to eat through the cables. I dragged my recumbent ass up all five flights, and by the time I got to my door I was swearing at the universe in general, the stairs in particular, and above all at John Marcone and his complete and utter disrespect for personal privacy. And the check I expected to find on my desk.

Instead I opened the door and saw roses.

Dozens of roses, large, exquisite, bright red roses, overflowing from the largest silver bowl I had ever seen, placed perfectly in the center of my desk.

Now, don't get me wrong, I can wear bad moods like Britney wears spandex. But I'm also only human. You try walking into a room that smells like roses and hating life the way you did ten seconds before.

The bowl was carved in hand-chased silver, with a care and refinement you didn't see anymore. The mouth was inlaid with gold. Knowing Marcone, it could have been worth more than my entire office all by itself. But it was beautiful. The roses spilled everywhere, soft and vibrant, and in the middle of them was -

I laughed. I couldn't help it. In the middle of the bowl where the card ought to be, there was a McDonald's gift certificate.

I had just time to sneak the humor out of my voice when Marcone answered on the first ring.

"I take it back," I said. "I think I'd rather have the check."

"And a good morning to you, too," he said. His voice was warm. I relaxed in my chair and ran my thumb over a rose petal.

"What am I supposed to do with three dozen roses?"

"I believe the typical pattern of behavior is to look at them and think fond thoughts of the sender."

"I wouldn't call them fond," I sulked.

"Ah, well," Marcone replied. "Baby steps."

"I thought I told you I wasn't working for you."

"I should certainly hope not. My doorman makes more than that."

"That's very touching. Do all your underlings get flowers?"

"I assure you, Harry," Marcone said. "I'd never imply that you were beneath me."

His tone of voice in that moment might have been implying something else altogether. "Such sweet talk," I answered lightly. "My maidenly heart is all a-flutter, and you didn't even have to use roses."

"I'm not above employing a variety of methods to get my way, Harry," Marcone replied.

"Hmm," I said, my voice dropping to match his. "Is that so?"

"If you need further demonstration," came the calm answer, "I'd be more than happy to oblige."

And. Okay. I shivered. I admit it. All the way from my neck to my toes, and I couldn't decide just then if it was the good kind of shiver, the bad kind, or the best kind.

"I'm going to need at least a dozen more roses before the chastity belt comes off," I said. Ah, sarcasm. The eternal safe haven for the thoroughly rattled.

"How medieval."

I started to retort, possibly to respond something very inadvisable and silly about piercing his armor before my brain could intervene, but an abrupt sharp buzz thankfully stopped me.

"What's that noise?" I said.

"Construction."

The buzz sounded again, louder and closer. "It sounds like a chainsaw," I said in horror, while visions of Scarface spattered in my head.

"That's because it is," Marcone said patiently. "For my construction site."

I heard voices in the background, and what sounded like a welder over the din. "If these roses were bought with blood money, I'm dumping them in the river."

"You do that, dollface," Marcone said.

And then he hung up.

.......Dollface?!

______

The rest of the day went downhill from there. My investigation was turning up cold leads everywhere I looked, which was real funny when a missing student turned up in Hyde Park that afternoon, minus her head. It was nasty work, the kind that makes you want to take up drinking, so when I finally got home, that's exactly what I did.

Let me tell you, nothing says "good time" quite like downing a bottle of Glenlivet and regaling your pet skull with stories of all the dismembered bodies you encountered that day at the office.

"Hey, Harry," said Bob around the third round. "What's say you let me out and I go bring back a couple of chicks. Let's liven this place up a little."

"We've been over this," I said. "My idea of 'lively' is a trip to Moe's on three-dollar Thursdays. Your idea of lively is Pirate Booty 4."

"Hey, Pirate Booty 4 is a classic! I can't help it if you don't appreciate high art when you see it."

"I'm not drunk enough for that level of art appreciation," I said, downing the fourth glass. "I'll never be that drunk."

"Come on, Harry," Bob said. "This is America. You're a big boy now. Suck it up and get laid."

I abruptly thought of John Marcone, and jokes about chastity belts, and what might have been one or two unanswered phone calls I'd left him throughout the day.

It occurred to me that somewhere along the way his number had ended up in my phone's address book, and I didn't even know how. If I kept thinking about that, though, I'd be sober in no time, and I wasn't quite ready for that. "Goodnight, Bob," I said, and took my toys above stairs.

Except, okay, see, trying not to think about a thing is a self-defeating exercise.

Several glasses of malt whiskey later, I remembered that Marcone, that bastard, had never returned my calls. Just who did he think I was? Someone he could boss around and command and send roses to whenever he felt like it? I wasn't asking for much. Just a modicum of politeness. Decency. Respect. Dollface. I'd dollface him.

I dialed Marcone's number, which had somehow progressed from address book to the speed dial memory bank in my head, because the son of a bitch just had to move fast. It rang and sent me through to voice mail. I may have left a polite and courteous request that he refer to me as "Dresden" or "Mr. Harry Dresden, Wizard," instead of making up stupid pet names whenever he felt like it, because in case he hadn't noticed, I wasn't a pet, I could prove it, I'd never peed on a rug in my life, except for the one time when I was fourteen, but it was on a dare and I won twenty bucks off Jamie Epps, and anyway the rug owner totally deserved it, and also anyway, Marcone was a bastard. I was glad I had clarified that point. He was also a bastard for not answering his phone, Christ, it was only 1:41 am. It was early still. Hey, maybe he was at breakfast. I decided the reasonable thing to do would be to call back.

He answered on the third redial. "This is Marcone," he said. Huh. He didn't sound like he'd been at breakfast. Maybe I'd caught him on his way to the office.

"Marcone," I said, beautifully articulate.

"Dresden," he said. No, that definitely wasn't a limo-on-his-way-to-business-voice. "You wanted to speak to me?"

"I called earlier," I said. "You didn't pick up."

"Ah," he said. "Yes. I did, however, receive your twenty-seven voice messages."

"Good," I said. "Don't call me Dollface."

There was a pause, in which I could only assume my commanding tone was having its intended effect.

"…Will that be all, Harry?" Marcone finally asked.

"Yes," I snapped. "Wait. What? No. Don't call me Harry!"

Marcone tsked. "Surely you're not going to insist upon formality at this stage of our relationship," he said.

"There is no relationship!" I said, suddenly deeply confused. I know they say whiskey is the great leveler, but whoever made that saying up had obviously never been drunk around John Marcone. It was obvious that he was stone cold sober, and that I ...wasn't. I wondered what he'd act like if he ever let himself get drunk. Would he drop the I-am-Gentleman-John-Marcone unflappable act? I may have giggled. "No relationship!"

"You've gotten me on the phone, in the middle of the night, while I'm lying here in bed," he answered. His voice was smooth like the liquor in the glass I was currently topping off. "I beg to differ."

"The bed is incidental!" I said. "Bed is not central to this conversation!"

"You sound as if you wish it were."

"I really, really hate you," I said with deep sincerity.

"Sweet dreams, Harry," he said, and hung up.

______

"Good morning, John." I had this phone call all worked out, really. No more of this relationship crap, I was going to get answers once and for all.

"Good morning," he said briskly. "Can I call you back? I'm in a meeting."

"I thought you said we were beyond formality," I said, settling back and putting my feet up on the desk, next to my roses and my free egg mcmuffin.

"Indeed we are, if you want it that way."

"You're just saying that," I said in my poutiest voice, a la Lucille Ball. "I know you have more important things to do."

"Not more important than you, sweetheart," he said. It was crazy how you could hear the smirk in his voice when you knew what to listen for. I was almost smiling too much myself to remember to be offended. I started in on the pet names and how we'd been over that, but there were voices in the background, and the sound of Marcone muffling the receiver with his hand. "I'll just be a moment," he said.

Aha. I suddenly got a clear vision of Marcone sitting in a conference room with half a dozen men in suits and probably a foreign emissary or two, all staring awkwardly at each other while Marcone carried on a private conversation with his…. well, with me, anyway.

"You know," I said, "for some one who wanted to get off the phone, you seem to be failing."

"Quite the contrary," he responded easily.

"Aren't your 'business associates' pissed?"

"That's precisely the point, my dear," he said. I think my toes may have curled just a little.

"Oh, buttercup," I answered. "You say the sweetest things."

"Believe me, I'm just getting started," he said, in that voice – and yeah. Toe-curling. Spine tingling. Jitters. The works.

"Talk is cheap," I said, vaguely aware that I was sitting a lot straighter in my chair. I was really doing this, I thought. I was really flirting with Gentleman John Marcone.

"I can afford more," he rejoined.

My mouth was moving ahead of my brain at this point, the latter being frozen in, because I heard myself say: "I'll believe it when I see it."

There was the slightest of pauses, and then his voice dropped a notch or two - along with my stomach.

"I'll show you later tonight."

I wanted to reply. I wanted to demand what the hell, what was he playing at now, I wanted to insist he cut the crap and tell me what he wanted so we could put an end to this whole ridiculous charade, I wanted to get smart and sassy, tell him how very much I was looking forward to it –

But instead I just sat there, mute, trying to get my brain around the fact that John Marcone had just penciled me in for what sounded suspiciously like a booty call.

Or maybe he just wanted the flowers back.

My jaw flapped for a moment or two longer while the voices in the background grew louder. "Until later," Marcone said, almost gently into the phone. I would have been disappointed to realize he meant me and not the other guys – but the word 'later' was ringing in my head.

Later, he'd said.

Later when?

______

You know, some guys love their jobs because they get good money. Some guys love their jobs because they can stick it to anybody who gets in their way. Some guys love their jobs because they get to travel.

But me? I love my job because in my line of work, you get to meet all kinds of people. Take today. I got to make small talk with a super ghost with looks like Lon Cheney and strength like the Hulk, and an appetite like Hannibal the Cannibal after a fifty-year fast. Granted, I had to launch a locator spell over a hundred-mile radius to find him, then race across town to keep him from dismembering a Naperville biker, then seal him inside a kind of supernatural tin can like the NeverNever's version of the genie in the lamp. But hey, between the accidental demolition of the Noodletown next door and Mr. Creature-of-the-Week deciding to try the Dresden Diet where you only eat lean raw wizard, it was a charming encounter.

It was damn late when I got back. I ached all over, my throat was raw, and I was bleeding in a sufficiently grisly number of places, but when you're as used to feeling (and looking) like the walking dead as I am, you learn to go to sleep even when you're not too confident you want to wake up.

______

The next day Murphy's office was riding me about going bad-ass wizard all over suburbia. "You torched one of my mom's favorite Chinese buffets," she said irritably. "Dammit, Harry, why am I always having to help you clean up your messes?"

"Because 'Sorry we blew up your business, but it was either that or let the Big Bad eat your clientele' sounds better coming from a nice man in uniform?"

"Ha ha," said Murph, clearly not in the mood for laughing. "Okay, you know what? I'm sending you the paperwork."

"But it wasn't even a precinct job," I said.

"It is now," she snapped. "Special services to the force. I'll send over the courier."

She was true to her word. And hell's bells, she even threw in a box of Bics – half of which I used before I got through the giant stack of C.P.D. red tape. Filling out forms was an easy way to recover from the exhaustion of the night before, but it also used up my entire morning, and it was with a jolt that I realized, sometime around noon, that I'd had no phone call. Plus, my roses were starting to wilt.

It wasn't until Marcone was answering the phone that it occurred to me I didn't really have a reason for calling. Shit, I always had a reason. Surely there had to be a reason.

"This is Marcone."

"…You didn't call," I said lamely. Hey, accusations were as good a reason as anything.

Marcone hesitated before he answered. I'm not sure anyone else would have been able to tell, but I could. "I dropped by last night," he said, voice deliberately cool.

Oh. Oh. Right. I winced. "I had a… thing."

"I expected to hear from you," Marcone said. It sounded like a real rebuff, like I'd actually disappointed him, and wow, that actually stung.

"It was a cannibalistic serial killing super-zombie," I said.

"…I trust that went well."

"Good for me, yes. Bad for my duster."

"Nothing irreparable, I hope?" His voice was light again, and I knew I was forgiven.

I smiled and put my feet back. I wanted to make some sort of witty reply, but dammit, I was exhausted and I'd just been fighting evil. He could cut me some slack.

Instead I just asked: "How are you?"

"Thanks to your assistance during my meeting yesterday, I'm now the proud owner of not one, but two new up-and-coming establishments in the South Loop."

"Congratulations." I pulled one of the roses from the vase. They were a little droopy, but the fragrance was still there. "I'd say 'happy to help,' but we've been over that."

"It's a good thing, too; my personal gardens are only so extensive."

"And you must have so many people who unconsciously do you favors it's probably nearly empty, right?"

"No," Marcone said softly. His voice wasn't mocking or cool or distant or anything but warm. "Just you."

I sat back in my chair. Even though it had been a week for surprises, this one had me totally blindsided.

"John…" I said – and then whatever else was going to come after that stuck in my throat at the sound of my own voice saying his name.

I could almost hear the shift in Marcone, hear him making the decision to withdraw before he put anything else on the line. "Well, Mr. Dresden," he said, brisk and businesslike. "As you do seem to be in one piece, I'll let you return to your – "

There are moments when you know you have to leap before you look.

"Why don't you drop by tonight and see for yourself?" I cut in.

Marcone shut up right quick. "…I don't enjoy being stood up," he said after a moment. "Even if it does involve business."

"It's a Wendigo," I said. "It only comes out once in a half-century."

He chuckled. "In that case, if there are no other chronic monsters appearing in your future, shall we say eight o'clock?"

I think I may have answered something totally lame like, "Sure," before he hung up, but I can't be certain because mostly all I could think was that I had just asked John Marcone out. Or rather, in.

Or rather, oh my god.

______

I told myself I deserved to blow off work early that afternoon. I was still pretty banged up from my encounter with the Wendigo, and I'd sent all Murph's paperwork back to her with a cheerful red ink smiley face on top shortly after one. With nothing else to do and my rent paid up for once, I figured I deserved to go home and relax.

But once I got home, relaxing was the last thing I did.

"Does your suit make you look fat?" Bob called up from the basement. "Come on, Harry, lemmee take a look."

"Don't make me come down there and recite Hamlet," I hollered, busy with shaving. Marcone probably got a shave and a haircut from his own personal barber. This was insane. I was insane. What did you even wear for a night in with the man who had more strippers in his employ than Lake Michigan had boats?

"You'll only thank me, I promise," Bob said. "What's the matter, Harry, don't you want fashion tips from a pro?"

"The last time you had to worry about fashion, men were wearing knee-garters and doublets," I sniped. I'd pulled on a grey button-down shirt – comfortable but dressy enough for Marcone, or so I hoped. I hadn't put on pants yet, but I couldn't help thinking while I stared at myself in the mirror that really, pants were only important as long as they stayed on.

Christ, what was I getting into?

I ran a comb through my squirrel's nest of hair and tried to face facts. Marcone was powerful, ruthless, efficient, and dangerous. He'd also never once lied to me or deceived me. He'd saved my life, much as I hated to admit it, on numerous occasions. And he'd never asked me for anything in return. He'd become as much of a friend to me as any friend I had in this town – and he'd done it despite mostly resistance on my part. And as much as I hated to admit it, I trusted him.

And he was incredibly, undeniably sexy. That I'd known for a long time. But he was also a gangster. My feelings for Marcone were – well, it's like flying; sometimes the reality that you're perfectly safe, safer statistically than you'd be on the ground, and the other reality, that planes crash, can be hard to mix. Marcone had done everything he could to treat me like an equal, to protect me – to court me, if you were going to get mushy about it. But I still couldn't shake the feeling I was twenty thousand feet up in the air with no parachute.

Still, as I finished getting dressed and made sure I sound-proofed the basement – I was not going to have Bob listening in, or, god help us all, providing offstage commentary - I was excited.

Maybe a little more than excited.

At precisely 8:00 pm by my watch, there was a knock on the door. I straightened my collar, took a deep breath, and answered it.

Marcone's money-colored eyes were brighter than usual when he greeted me – and it's saying something that they were the first thing I noticed, because he was holding an enormous bouquet of red roses in his arms. There must have been at least again as many as the three dozen he'd sent two days ago.

Looking back on it now, two days ago seemed like a whole different lifetime.

"Wow," I said at last. "Uh. Come in."

"Thank you," he said wryly, stepping across the threshold. He'd never been inside my apartment before, but he didn't so much as stare – not at my mismatched furniture, or at the collection of knick-knacks, rugs, shot glasses, and all the other crap I had. I stood a little awkwardly, acutely aware that the whole place was more like the lounge room of an aging frat house than a place to invite one of the wealthiest men in Chicago for a nightcap.

"What are these for?" I said, taking the opportunity to sniff a rose and hopefully hide my complete and utter confusion about what to do with the mob boss who is standing in your kitchen.

"These are for after," he said. He was watching me – not with scrutiny, exactly, but with the same calm, detached interest he'd shown in me since the beginning. He was wearing a black button-down shirt and a belt with Levis, maybe the same he'd worn the day we met. Christ. Since when did I remember what Marcone had worn the day we met?

I suddenly felt in way over my head.

"I'll get water," I said, so hoarsely I doubted he could tell whether I meant the water for the flowers or me. I brushed past him and started mentally searching the cabinets for a vase. Maybe there was one that actually looked like a vase. Somehow I doubted Marcone would want his bajillion roses displayed in my prized ceramic Wayne Newton teapot.

I also took the moment to try calming my nerves, though it was hard knowing that Marcone might have Hendricks & Co. standing guard somewhere nearby, that I still didn't know what Marcone was ultimately after, that if any supernatural beastie were to decide tonight was the night to collect a return on a long-standing grudge against yours truly, I'd be with Marcone, and, henchman or no, there was a chance I wouldn't be able to keep him safe. It wouldn't be the first time.

Marcone's hand came to rest against my elbow, scattering my thoughts. He leaned into me from behind and murmured, "In a minute."

I forgot about everything else, stat. He touched my waist, pressing roses against my back, and with the hand not holding them, he pressed his fingers to my chin and turned me to face him. He looked even better up close like this. His eyes were steady on my face, and he had that predatory look. Like he wanted me. Like he wanted my mouth.

I pushed the roses to one side and gave him what he wanted.

The first kisses were slow, unpressured. I had to hand it to him – I never asked how long he'd been wanting this, but for me, it suddenly felt like forever, and it was all I could do to hold back, to make this gentle. But he was still cupping my head in his hand, and he sampled my mouth like I imagined he'd sample a fine wine – lingering, savoring. By all the spirits of the NeverNever, it was fucking hot.

Everything was feathery, light – the way he kissed me, the rose petals ruffling my skin, his thumb slowly stroking the base of my chin. I went with it, overwhelmed with the feel of it all, and it wasn't until Marcone's knees knocked against the base of the couch that I realized he'd been steadily maneuvering us back towards it.

I broke away and pulled back just enough to read him. He wore a poker face better than any other man I've ever met, but just then he wasn't masking anything. I'd read him once before and come up empty, and probably only seen exactly what he'd wanted me to see; but I didn't have to soulgaze with him now to understand what he was trying to telegraph. Contentment, pleasure… maybe even a little amused impatience.

Suddenly gentleness seemed like petty time-wasting. I hummed low in my throat and stepped in to kiss him again, just as he chose the moment to shift his weight backwards. He leaned back over the arm of the couch and I went with him, and between us we half-clawed, half-pulled each other down into a clumsy embrace, right there on my sofa.

Things got hot, and heavy, and I do mean that in the fullest sense. Marcone's predatory look had sharpened into action, and as dangerous as I'd always known he could be, he'd never quite put me this much on edge – or turned me on this much. His hand was in my hair before I'd even settled myself against him, and he was tugging me down against him, pulling me into him and pressing his hand flat against my back to keep me there. The roses had fallen everywhere – on the floor, over the back of the couch. A few stray petals lay bruised and dampened between us, pressed against our chests. I could feel his goddamn military-trained muscles stretching as he shifted underneath me. I wanted to feel a hell of a lot more.

He ran his hand down my chest, and when I couldn't stop the noise I made, he all but smiled, eyes and all. In revenge I grabbed one of the petals that lay against his stomach and ran it over his throat, pleased at the hitching breaths I got in response. Then I followed it up with my mouth.

He stretched and arched back over the couch and I leaned in, biting and tonguing my way down his long neck to his collarbone. When I got to the buttons on his shirt, I kept going, and he let me. His hands had paused, one still in my hair, the other one keeping me close to him. I reached up and cupped his chin and kissed him. It felt great to be able to do that, to kiss him, to know I could do whatever I wanted with him and he'd let me. His eyes were closed and the expression on his face was so intent, so focused, that even with his eyes shut I knew he was concentrating on every touch I was delivering, every trail of my breath over his skin.

Christ, and I'd thought I'd been hard before.

I shifted down slightly and reached for the buttons on his shirt. He lay still beneath me, stretched out just for me. It was the biggest power trip I'd had in a while – and being one of the top forty or so wizards in North America, I could pretty much have generated my own whenever I wanted. But a self-generated electromagnetic pulse had nothing on the way my stomach kept jolting whenever our eyes met.

I started with the top three buttons and undid them all, one by one – slowly, slowly. I was all for getting down to business, but I knew Marcone had an eye for masterworks of art. I wanted to show him I did too.

He watched. I went, button by button, down his chest, slowly exposing his bare, tightly muscled skin, his hard nipples, the firm stretch of his stomach. Then I lowered my mouth to his arm and undid the buttons of his sleeves. With my teeth. I mouthed the inside of his wrist, because I know how sensitive that spot is and I figured the best way to make sure we stayed on a level playing field was to make sure his pants were getting as tight as mine. I wasn't imagining the way he shifted ever-so-slightly, either. When I was done working on his cuffs, I rolled his sleeves up and exposed his fore-arms. They were tanned and thick and strong, and I had a sudden flash of those same arms hauling me up from the water.

I moved up and kissed him, hard. I wanted this. I wanted to show him how much I wanted this. I drew my fingers up the underside of his arm, and then raked them down his chest. He reached up and ran his own fingers over the back of my neck, and I shivered.

Then I knelt back on my haunches and unbuckled his belt.

I'm only a guy who's slept with a handful of people, okay – it's not like I'm some sex god, or anything close. But with my hands hooked into his belt loops and my eyes fastened onto his when I drew his belt in a long slow movement from his waist, I even felt sexy.

I slipped my hand over his crotch and massaged his erection through his jeans, just to show him I wasn't nervous. And, okay, maybe I was a little – I'd mostly gone through life thinking I was straight, and recent events had done nothing to suddenly imbue me with some magic knowledge of the Joy of Gay Sex. But I had always done a fair job of improvisation. I was totally willing to improvise what came next. Especially when his eyes flew open and he stared straight at me. He didn't move, just watched me, noiseless except for his increasingly shallow breathing. I was going to make him make noise, all right.

Except just then, he reached up and slid his hand under my shirt. So far he'd let me do the touching, and that was all right – but now his palm lay flat against my bare skin, cool against my flushed stomach. He kept it there, and I tried to unclench, tried to relax and remember to breathe. Slowly he ran his hand up over my abdomen and my stomach, smoothing slow circles over my chest. I was barely able to think. All I could feel was the steady tingle where his hand had just been, and anticipation for where it would be next.

Next just happened to be his fingers brushing my nipples – if that was payback for the wrist thing it was a good call. I went rigid all over and gasped, and his eyes narrowed in satisfaction. He didn't say a word – just kept touching me, stroking and grazing the points with his thumbnail, until they were sore, until I was undone - shuddering and shaking and so ready to come. It was everything I could not to cry out. I may have bitten my lip. I don't know. His eyes never left mine, and it wasn't quite a soulgaze, but I couldn't have pried mine away from him if the walls had started to cave in. My fingers were shaking and I probably couldn't have undone a belt just then if I'd used both hands.

He'd done all that to me, and he hadn't even taken my clothes off.

I reached up to pull his hand back, because if he touched me again I'd be over the edge, and I wasn't ready. He was still watching me, so composed – as if he'd taken my heterosexuality and deposited it neatly in the trash bin along with yesterday's news.

But I was overwhelmed, and I think he knew it, because when I finally let go of his hand – when I could finally move again - he pulled me into him and kissed me, long slow kisses to still my unsteady breathing against him. Hell's bells, I wanted every inch of him. I lowered my mouth to his chest, and he all but dragged it to the spot to the right, just beside his breastbone. I licked, sucked, and he let out a soft, low moan that went straight through me like it was my own. I was going to come any second now, I was sure of it, all over Marcone's clothes and my couch. I sucked his nipple into my mouth. He bucked up beneath the touch and let out a sharp gasp. I hummed and kept at it, and for a moment I thought I wasn't the only one about to come. His hands tightened in my hair, tightened hard, and I pulled away with a gasp. He kissed me again, almost frantically, and my hands went back to his waist.

I wanted to taste him - half of me didn't know if I could stand waiting that long, but mostly I just wanted to do everything I could think of, and I knew he wanted to let me, which was pretty much the biggest non-magical high I'd ever been on. I palmed him through the coarse fabric of his Levis, and he let out a short little hiss of approval. Then he did it again when I undid him, and I realized I was nowhere near the real high yet.

His erection was straining against his boxers. I palmed it through the cloth, then stroked down to where his balls were drawn up tight, bunching the fabric between his thighs. He twisted sharply at the touch, and I looked up - he was flushed and sweaty and still somehow the most intense thing I'd ever seen. He held my eyes like that for a long moment, letting me see, letting me, jesus, get hard just from looking at him, before visibly relaxing and stretching out beneath me, relaxing all his muscles at once.

And, okay, it was completely unfair for anyone to have that much self-control. I rolled my eyes at him and lowered my mouth to his cock. It was hot and heavy in my mouth through the fabric, and god, this was the most erotic thing I'd ever done. Judging by the sounds he was making, it wasn't too far off for him either. The thought crossed my mind that he was a freaking mob boss, for Pete's sake – he could have anyone he wanted. Maybe he had. But right then, he didn't want anyone else. He wanted me. His favorite wizard.

Marcone was touching me, stroking the back of my neck, tracing the curve of my ear with his fingertips. It was driving me crazy. But it told me one thing – yeah, he wanted me.

I could have gone on like that for ages, just nudging him and slowly teasing him out of his boxers, but Marcone had other ideas. He moved his hand from my neck to my shoulders to pull me back up. I went dutifully, kissing my way back up his waist –

- and then, just like that, Marcone slipped his fingers inside my pants. Mary Saint Patrick Lucifer Crowley Beelzebub, he touched my cock and I came on the spot. Right into his smooth hot hands, and he still kept right on touching me even as I was busy coming in waves right over him.

My hands scrabbled over his thighs as I came, and I buried my head against his shoulder and groaned. My hand found his cock and I squeezed it – I have to say I was pretty proud I could locate anything right then, much less the full monty. But I found it, and then our thighs were pressed together, and his body jerked, and he arched off the couch with a low grunt. He thrust up against me while I was still coming, and I feverishly revised my ideas of 'hottest,' 'most erotic thing ever,' 'that I never thought I'd actually do,' all while he made the hottest sounds I'd ever heard.

Christ, I thought dizzily. We hadn't even gotten our pants off.

After another moment, Marcone slicked his hand around my cock and came away with his fingers glistening. He drew my head up from his shoulder and kissed me, and to this day I don't know how he managed to make me feel in that moment like coming all over my rich mafia boyfriend had been granting a favor – but right then, he kissed me like I'd just given him something special, something he'd been wanting a while.

We kissed like that, sloppy and out of breath, for a while before the high finally subsided. It was just as good as the sex. Maybe better. I felt muzzy and good, and his hands were resting on my waist, showing no sign of moving. Just then I didn't care if they ever moved again.

I rested my head against his forehead. "John," I said. It just slipped out, though it sounded less like his name, more like a sigh or an incoherent burble.

In response, he tilted my chin up and studied me a moment – then produced one of the roses from somewhere beneath the couch. He held the bud against my cheek.

"Told you I'd have a reason for these," he said. His voice was a low, sated purr. I leaned my full weight on his chest and closed my fingers over the ones holding the rose.

"Well," I answered, "there are thirty-five more where that one came from."

Marcone looked at me and arched his eyebrows. "If we're going to go through all thirty-five tonight," he said, "I'm going to need better back support."

The couch chose that moment to creak in agreement.

"Oh. Right." I ran my hand down his arm and beneath the rolled-up cuff of his sleeve. He was all hard muscle there too, just like I thought he'd be. "Bedroom is that way." He took the rose and began to travel downwards with it, which reminded me that he hadn't even gotten my shirt unbuttoned. I leaned in and kissed him, hard, to remind him there was no rush.

He seemed to take the hint pretty well, because my shirt didn't last through rose number two, and we didn't make it to the bedroom til rose number three.

______

The phone was ringing. And ringing. I wasn't sure what time it was, other than half-past ungodly o'clock, but I wasn't about to get up to find out.

Marcone's hand on my thigh stirred. "Don't get up," he murmured, and rolled away, taking all his warmth and the bedsheets with him.

"Don't answer that," I mumbled.

"But it won't stop ringing."

"Oh, is that what that is? I thought it was my head."

Marcone was already sitting up and had the phone in his hand by the time I'd managed to crack an eye open and roll over.

"Hello?" he said. "Everything's fine, thank you. …No, there's no need to send the car around just yet."

Holy… the phone call was for him? Before I could pull words together to form coherent sounds of outrage, Marcone was giving orders again. And casually running a long-stemmed rose down my exposed calf. "I've still one or two matters to attend to elsewhere," he said.

I looked at the roses still in the vase. "It's more like twenty-three," I said helpfully.

Marcone gave me a look. "How ambitious," he said. Then, into the phone, "I'll call from this number later. Cancel my 11:30." I inched closer to him and sat up, making sure our thighs were touching. Then I slid my hand beneath the bedsheet clinging to his hip.

"…And the 12:30," John added without betraying a shred of discomposure. "I have more important business."

"I'm not your business associate," I grumbled, pressing my lips to his shoulder.

Marcone hung up the phone, slid back into bed, and rolled on top of me. He settled his hips between mine, and looked at me until I met his eyes.

"I know," he said, and let the rose fall to the floor.