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“Search me. If you find anything of yours, I’ll show myself to the stocks”

He’s standing in front of you, arms spread wide and a smirk dancing across his face. Your face flushes at the offer, but a spark of excitement jolts through your chest as his shirt flutters open and reveals the pale gleam of his torso, dotted with flecks of ginger hair.

“Go ahead, search until you’re satisfied.” There’s a chuckle in his voice, and you realize he’s caught you staring. He also seems to think he’s called your bluff.

“Alright.” You tilt your head up and give him a playful grin, projecting casual confidence as best as you can, trying to hide the fact that he’s thrown you off.

“But, we’re not doing this out here”. The street is empty right now, but all it takes is one witness to spread the word – and somehow, you don’t think the Countess would appreciate this sort of investigation. You step towards him, and he backs obligingly into your shop, raising an eyebrow as you shut the door behind you with a loud click. You feel the briefest flash of fear as you realize you’re completely alone with him again – and you’re pretty sure he’s figured out what the palace has asked you to do. But you remember the Rowdy Raven, the smiles and the drink, the way he leaned in when you spoke, and you somehow know – you have nothing to fear from Julian Devorak.

“Ah, some alone time – aren’t you just full of surprises?” His eye flicks up and down your frame, and your face grows hot again. It’s clear he’s enjoying what he sees. The smirk is wider now, complete with a suggestively raised eyebrow, and you feel another rush of anticipation flood your body. It’s an invitation you’ll gladly accept.

“Well, I’m not exactly about to put my hands up the shirt of the most wanted man in Vesuvia in the middle of the street.” He looks eager when you mention your hands under his shirt, but a flash of red creeps across his face as you move in closer. “I don’t think this is what the palace meant when they asked me to find you.” You don’t mean the words to be intimidating, but almost on instinct your voice drops low and your eyes narrow as you speak them. He actually backs away from you slightly, the eye that was curiously wandering your features stilling to meet your gaze. His next words are spoken in a softer tone that’s more sultry than brazen.

“Well then, don’t be shy. I promise I’ll be good”. The words send a thrill all the way down your spine to somewhere deep within you, coming to rest in a place of enthralling pleasures and unspoken desires. You reach out and run your arms down his sleeves, slowly and cautiously at first. The fabric is smooth under your fingers, but the arms beneath are firm and strong.

“So gentle –“He chuckles, back to the challenging tone he used before “You’re welcome to take more liberties when it comes to me – Don’t be afraid to play a little rough.” You feel the thrill again, for a brief moment imagining pushing him up against the wall, showing him just how rough you can be… You shake the thought from your head. He’s getting to you in more ways than one, but you aren’t going to let him know that, at least…not yet.

“Well, in that case…” You keep your tone cool and calculating as you bring your hands back up his arms, this time squeezing tightly when you reach his bicep. As soon as your hands make it back to his shoulders, you slip them under his shirt, quickly at first, then slowing your movements as your palms run down the lean muscles of his torso. His skin is invitingly smooth and cool, broken only by fine, red hairs that dust the center of his chest. You feel subtle ripples as he tenses under your touch.

“Oh. Well. We’re getting up close and personal now, I see.” He’s projecting confidence, but you can feel his heart thumping as your hand traces over it.

“That’s what you requested, isn’t it, Doctor?” The beat under your hand quickens, and you match his eyebrow raise with one of your own, letting out a chuckle. It’s your turn to throw him off.

He lets your hands continue to wander down his chest, the soft, sparse hairs gradually thickening the lower you go on his abdomen. Suddenly, as you reach his sides, he squirms in your grasp.

“Ah, ah, not there; afraid I’m terribly ticklish-ah!”

You scrabble your fingers against the sensitive spot again for good measure, interrupting whatever he was about to say. “What happened to taking liberties? I can’t search you very well if you’re constantly – squirming away.” You step even closer, smiling sweetly as the blush across his face deepens at your teasing.

“I – ah, I suppose I did say that, didn’t I?” This close, you can see he’s biting the corner of his lip.

“Now hold still. Please. I’ve only just started, after all.” Your voice is soft as you flutter your hands across against his ribs one last time, then run your palms back up his abdomen. His breaths slow down as he tries to keep his composure while you toy with him, but you can feel him lean into your touch. As you walk around behind him, his gaze and broad grin follow you. He doesn’t seem to realize it, but his whole body is turning, apparently mesmerized by the way your hand traces across his body.

“So, you’re not afraid, shut up in here alone with me?” He’s trying to bring back his earlier bravado, but you’re learning quickly how easy it is to turn the tables on him.

“Did I say you could move?” For a moment you’re shocked at the commanding, almost threatening tone that comes out of your mouth, but that’s nothing compared to the look of surprise on his face. Surprise, and…something else entirely.

“No – No, um, you did not.” He stammers the words as you put one hand on your hip and stare him down. Slowly, you step forward and put your other hand on the bare skin of his shoulder, leaning in close and gripping tight with your nails as you whisper –

“Then turn back around.” You can feel a shiver run down his spine at your words, and he immediately snaps back into the posture he held before, this time more calculated and rigid. It’s starting to take more and more effort for him to keep himself still beneath your hands. You slip them under his shirt again, this time making your way up his broad back. Shivers radiate from beneath your fingers – at this point, he’s shaking at even the slightest touch. You’re curious, wondering what other things you can do to make him quiver like that. “Now, as for your question, if you were going to do anything nefarious, I’m sure you’d have done it by now –“

“Nef- ah!” He opens his mouth to make another comment, but you take the opportunity to dig your nails into his skin again, this time pressing them deep into the muscles of his shoulder blade. Whatever he’s about to say is cut off by a noise that’s somewhere between a gasp and a moan.

“Besides, shouldn’t you be scared, shut up in here with the person who’s been tasked to turn you into the Countess?” Enjoying the reaction, you slowly drag your hands the rest of the way down his back, imagining the thin red lines you’re opening against his pale skin. The only sound you hear from him is a sharp intake of breath – for once he’s speechless.

After a few seconds, he does his best to gather his composure. “And miss out on that? Not for the world. Besides, if you were going to turn me in, I’m sure you’d have done it by now.” It shouldn’t be possible to hear a wink, but you’re pretty sure that’s what he’s doing as he quotes your earlier words back at him.

You step back for a second, considering your next move now that you’ve thoroughly explored his top half. “Done so soon?” he asks. There’s a catch in his voice, a note of desperation he’s unable to hide. You chuckle slightly, moving back closer.

“Oh, not a chance. See, I’ve been a shopkeep long enough to know all the little tricks shoplifters like to use – and I have never once seen a man try to sneak something out of here in his shirt.” You grab his waist and he closes his eye slightly, a satisfied smile on his face –which immediately jerks back to the look of shock as you slide the tips of your fingers into the waist of his pants. Slowly, you circle him again, ostensibly checking to ensure he hasn’t tried to hide anything in the space between his fabric and skin. You return his wink when you come face to face with him again, taking a moment to savor the expression on his face. He hadn’t been expecting you to take him up on his initial offer – so you’re sure he wasn’t expecting you to go past fiddling around in his shirt.

“About those liberties- “ You walk back around behind him again, keeping your hand in contact with his hip, fingers brushing gently against the exposed skin beneath his untucked, disheveled shirt. Then, you move your hand down, over the smooth, tight fabric of his pants. It’s astonishing just how red the tips of his ears can get, you think as you run your hand across his firm backside, giving the lightest squeeze

“Mmmmm?” He’s leaning fully against you now, eyes half closed, the tips of his crimson hair brushing your shoulders as his head sinks back. The last remnants of his cool, cocky façade are crumbling beneath your touch– but you aren’t letting him off the hook that easily.

“What happened to not moving?”

“Ah- Yes, yes, whatever you ask, anything you’d like-.” He’s tripping over the words now, straightening himself up again as you make your way back to his front and look him directly in the eye.

“What I’d like you to do is…hold still.” With that, you run your hands down the outside of his legs. While you’d obviously noticed his height, you’re still shocked at the length of his legs. They’re muscular and limber, perfect for… You shake your head, realizing all his flirtations are starting to get to you. As you bend down to check the sides of his boot, you feel his eyes on you. Well, if he’s going to be looking - you make sure all your movements are slow and deliberate, arching your back just slightly, bending at the waist just right. Sure enough, when you look back up at him, he’s biting his lip – hard. “Of course…” You make your way back up, this time running your hands slowly up the inside of his thighs, higher, higher, higher – You pause for a second. “If you really wanted to hide something – you’d put in a spot you assume I’d be too afraid to check”. You’re standing up straight again, and you gently trace the bottom line of his jaw with one hand, leaving the right one firmly on his inner thigh, high enough that your thumb brushes the edge of the V-shaped muscle that lies where his legs meet his torso. When you tighten your grip, you can feel his knees start to go weak.

As much as he spoke about taking liberties, you’re suddenly feeling a little cautious. It’s one thing for him to invite you to search around under his shirt, but…this is something else. However, when you look at him, the smirk is back full force. It’s more than just a smirk, it’s a challenge- he thinks you’re hesitating out of your own nerves. You’d think he’d learn by now that you’re not one to back down from whatever he offers, but then again, you realize that’s probably exactly what he’s hoping for. You look him directly into the eye, flash him the wickedest grin you can produce, and shift your hand the rest of the way up and to the side.

“Mmmpf, uh,” The noise he makes instantly shows you made the right choice. If you thought he was flustered before – now he’s staring at you, mouth gaping, every one of his breaths a deep sigh. You bring the hand that’s up along his jaw under his chin, using two fingers to gently pull his face closer to yours.

“What was that?” you ask sweetly, making the just the slightest, gentlest movement of the hand between his legs. You bite your own lip as a shiver runs down his whole body and you realize you quite literally hold him in the palm of your hand.

“Find what you were looking for?” For a second, the confidence is back, his voice dropping low into a provocative tone, and you know you’re flushing nearly as red as he is. You can tell it took effort for him to pull enough of himself together to make a coherent comment. For a second you consider going easy on him – but then you remember the challenging gaze he’d thrown at you just seconds before.

“Maybe.” You raise an eyebrow. “But maybe you should watch that mouth of yours.” You tighten your grip and his eye rolls up towards the ceiling as he lets out one of the loudest sighs yet. His legs nearly buckle under him, but you press your body closer to his. You’re forcing him to back up now, getting closer and closer to your sales counter and gently shifting your grip every couple seconds. You feel answering twitches as your thumb runs across the firm length beneath your hand – even though there’s a layer of fabric between his flesh and yours, his desire is obvious. His mouth keeps moving like he’s about to say something, but all that’s coming out are wordless sounds punctured by sighing, ragged breaths.

Finally, when he’s pressed so closely against the counter that he’s nearly leaning backwards over it, you stop. For a second, you stand there, locking eyes with him as he’s staring at you with a starved, desperate look. With how much of your body is now pressed up against him, you can tell his every muscle is wound tighter than you would have thought possible. Teasingly, you roll your hips against his, then back a few steps away, surveying him through half-lidded eyes with a smirk on your lips. He lets out a soft whine at the loss of the contact, then sharply bites it back, catching his bottom lip between his teeth once more. His chest is heaving and his grip on the counter is tight, knuckles white with the effort of his self-restraint. You know that all you’d have to do would be to give the slightest nod, say a single word and he’d leap at you - like he’s been dying to since the first touch of your fingers on his chest. And you can’t deny you want him to. As much fun as it’s been teasing him, you can’t stop thinking about his body beneath your fingers – broad chest, nimble hands, slender, muscular limbs. Next thing you know, you’re imagining what it would feel like for him to wrap himself around you and sigh your name into your lips…

If only he hadn’t broken into your shop.

You tilt your head and he startles, ready to leap forwards like it’s the signal he’s been waiting for. However, you hold up your hand and press it lightly to his chest before he can come any closer. He freezes, his face inches from yours.

“Ah ah ah…not so fast.” The most feared man in Vesuvia, and you’re holding him back with the gentle touch of a single finger. “See, I seem to recall you offering to let me search you – but I didn’t say anything about you putting your hands on me.” You lean closer again to whisper in his ear, so close your lips brush his skin with every word “And you did promise me you’d be good.”

“I ah- did, didn’t I?” His voice is strained as you slowly nod your head, taking a few steps back and crossing your arms.

“You still haven’t told me what you were really looking for in this shop.”

He lets out a low sigh that’s almost a growl.

“After all of that – you just-“ He sighs, shaking his head “If I tell you, will you – will you come back over here and – please just….“ The desperation is plain in his voice, and you see his body twisting in frustration. His hands open and close on the edge of the counter – his six-foot-four frame is filled with frenetic energy and no place to direct it.

“Just answer the question, Dr. Devorak.” You drum your fingers along your arms expectantly, the commanding tone coming more and more naturally each time you use it.

“Answers. I was looking for answers”

“And did you find what you were looking for?” He flushes when you ask, and you remember what followed when he’d asked that question just moments before.

He starts to shake his head no, but then seems to lose his train of thought, staring off towards the curtain that blocks off the back room. After a few moments, he seems to come back to reality, a more subdued expression on his face “I-I don’t even know any more.” He chuckles to himself. “You really have learned all his tricks….and more”.

“Hmm, what was that?” He was mumbling so much you couldn’t hear the last bit….something about tricks?

“Nothing.” He won’t meet your eyes. Whatever he was looking for here –it wasn’t something happy.

“I’m sorry.” You’re not really sure why you’re apologizing, but something about the sorrow in his voice cuts into you, past the distractions of the past few minutes and the irritation of him breaking into your shop for the second time in as many days.

“For what?”

“Whatever you didn’t find. I believe you.”

He lets out a dry chuckle. “Well, aren’t you the trusting type. Then again, you were….. incredibly thorough with that search.” He turns to you with a grin, saying, “I do hope you’re satisfied….I’d hate to leave you disappointed,” in a voice that’s absolutely dripping with suggestion. His body language loosens up, arms spread slightly, inviting you in once more.

“Oh, don’t worry, Doctor Devorak, I had plenty of fun.” You lean up against his chest, echoing his words with an equally seductive tone and giving him the sweet smile again.

He runs his hand through his hair, letting out a sigh

“Oh, that face- that’s going to be the death of me, isn’t it? Please. If we should meet again – and I do very much hope that we do - call me Julian.” He gently brushes the back of his hand against your cheek, wrapping the other one around your waist and leaning in closer– when you hear a knock at the door.

“Shit.” Julian pushes you out of his arms, looking at you with genuine fear in his eyes. “I can’t let anyone see I’m here. They’ll think you’re hiding me.” He frantically searches the room for someplace to hide, anywhere he can dive out of the way. You feel panic rising in your chest – you’d completely forgotten to lock the door, and it’s going to be pretty hard to explain a nearly shirtless accused murderer in your shop. The image of Julian on the gallows flashes into your mind unbidden, painful and raw. You recognize the voice calling for you at your door, and you realize it’s too late.
“No. I didn’t want this, not for you, not now…” You don’t realize you’re whispering your thoughts aloud until Julian looks at you with a stricken look as the door swings open before he can duck out of the way.

“Ilya?” Portia’s standing in the doorway, looking from you to Julian with confusion and terror on her face. “Ilya, what are you doing here??? Do you want to get yourself killed?”

Clearly, when it comes to Julian’s secrets – whatever he was in your shop for today was just the beginning. As Portia – who you soon realize must be the sister he’d written the letter to- continues to berate him with tears in her eyes, Julian pulls his coat back on and lets her rush him out of your shop. As he’s leaving, he glances back one last time as though he’s trying to lock the sight of you into his memory. The look on his face is one of pure longing.

“I do hope we meet again…” He whispers your name so quietly you almost can’t hear it. As you realize what he said, you feel a warmth in your chest that’s completely at odds with the breeze now coming in through your door.

This investigation just got a lot more complicated