Dark Arts and a Daiquiri (Page 11)

A mean voice in the back of my mind added, “Assuming she’s still alive.”

I slammed the mental door shut on that voice. Not an option I was considering.

Aaron and I sat side by side on a park bench, tree branches tangled overhead. We’d split from the team on the off-chance the Ghost scoped me out before the meeting, though I found that unlikely. The rest of the team would move into position at nine thirty, and I would head to the meeting place shortly after. Aaron was sticking with me until then.

Unlike the others, he didn’t look prepared for battle, but he’d have a few minutes to grab his weapons before the show began. I wondered if he’d arm himself with his big-a*s sword Sharpie.

“Do you want to go over the plan again?” he asked.

“Everyone gets into position while I head to the meeting spot. I’ll pass Bryce on the way so he can get a lock on my mind.” The words sounded stupid, like a bad movie quote, but that’s how Kai had described it. “If the Ghost is already waiting, then I get out of the way so you guys can pounce. If he hasn’t shown himself, then I wait. Once he shows up, I’ll distract him with conversation while the team moves in.”

Aaron nodded along. “And when Bryce gives you the command, you run like hell right out of there.”

“Yep.”

“See? It’ll be easy.”

“Riiiight.” I pulled my feet up onto the bench and wrapped my arms around my legs, contemplating the park and the glowing lights of the surrounding skyscrapers that marked the downtown core. The Crow and Hammer was less than ten blocks away; the Ghost was operating right under the guild’s nose. Pedestrians meandered past us, cutting across the park on their way to wherever they were going.

Aaron rested an arm on the bench behind me. “Try not to worry, Tori. One guy, no matter how tough, can’t win against me, Kai, and Ezra. We train together all the time and fight as a team.”

I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

His amusement faded. “You’re not worrying about yourself, are you? You’re worried about us.”

“Of course. I won’t be fighting this guy.”

He brushed his warm hand over my shoulder. “We’ll be fine, Tori.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t forget the memory of him blindfolded and tied to a chair as the leader of a rival guild leveled a gun at his head. He wasn’t invincible. He, Kai, and Ezra might have scary-powerful magic, but they were only mortal. They could be hurt. They could be killed.

And the Ghost had the power—and the disposition—to kill them.

I slipped a hand into the pocket of my thrift-store jeans and touched my Queen of Spades card. Probably not useful, but it was the only thing I was bringing with me on the mission. At least I had one tool.

As a cool breeze washed over us, Aaron stared up at the dark sky. “Are you excited about your new place?”

My mood improved at the mention of my apartment. “Ecstatic. Even with the unexpected roommate.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that didn’t work out as planned. How did your brother take the news that you’re moving out?”

“I’m not sure. Ever since I started apartment hunting, Justin has been kind of … pouty. He keeps telling me not to rush things. I don’t get it. I thought he’d be delighted to be rid of me.”

Aaron raised his eyebrows.

“What?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Your brother doesn’t want you to leave because he enjoys your company or because putting you up appeases his guilt about leaving you behind last time. Or both.”

I rested my chin on my knees. “Gonna have to go with option B, then. No one enjoys my company that much.”

“I do.”

My heart somersaulted behind my ribs. “Only because you don’t have to live with me.”

“If we had an extra room, I’d have already invited you to move in with us.” He cast me another charming half smile. “I expect you would’ve turned me down, though. I know this is important to you—having a place all your own.”

Aaron was the only person I’d opened up to about the circumstances of my arrival in the city almost a year ago. I’d told him how Justin had rescued me from our father, patched up my broken soul over the course of three years, then shattered it all over again when he moved away, leaving me behind a second time. Aaron knew my biggest goal was independence—being in charge of my life and my future—and getting my own place was a big part of that. I didn’t want anyone to have the power to take my home away from me.

Was that something Nadine valued as well? Had she fled her parents’ home in search of a future she could control—only to end up under the thumb of someone far worse?

“When’s the housewarming party?” Aaron asked. “I didn’t have one for my house.”

“Your house? Don’t you rent it with Kai and Ezra?”

“Nope. They’re renting rooms from me. I own the place.”

“Wow, you own it?” I couldn’t help my shock. Real estate prices around here would have been fair value only if the houses were constructed from solid gold.

“I had to dip into my trust fund, but it was worth it.”

Right. His parents were loaded. Scrunching my nose, I asked, “Is there anything left in your trust fund?”

“Umm, yeah, the house purchase didn’t really make a dent, to be honest.”

“Why do you go after dangerous bounties if you’re already set for life?”

He canted his head. “Why are you moving out when you could live with your brother for cheap? I haven’t touched my trust fund since buying the house. It might be my money in name, but it’s my parents’ money. I want to make my own way.”

That I could understand. “I get it.”

“Figured you would.” His grin sent a swoop through my center. Damn it. I needed to get a grip.

Or did I? Leaning away from him, I scanned the pyromage from head to toe, trying to see him as a stranger would. Tall, ruggedly built, hard muscle visible in his arms and hinted at in his chest beneath his black t-shirt. Tousled copper-red hair and a reddish shadow along his strong jaw.

Yeah, he was hot. Mm-hmm.

Aaron watched me check him out with obvious curiosity and a hint of uncertainty. My stomach flittered with butterflies as I let my gaze rise to his.

For all that he was impulsive and mischievous and reckless, Aaron was remarkably perceptive—and patient. He never complained about me flipflopping between steamy interest and apathy over any form of dating. Honestly, I didn’t know what was holding me back, why I hadn’t straight-up thrown myself at him, but either way, I couldn’t deny he was the hottest man I’d ever kissed.

Involuntarily, my eyes dropped to his mouth—and his focus immediately sharpened. See what I meant about perceptive?

“Tori?” he murmured, probably trying to get an idea of what was going on in my head. Problem was, I didn’t know what was going on in my head either. Luckily, I had an easy solution for these sorts of dilemmas: stop thinking and just act.

So I kissed him.

He stiffened in surprise, but he got over it in half a second. His lips pressed against mine, and I leaned into his side, needing to be closer. As his hand slid into my curls, his mouth moved across mine, hot and hungry, and I lost the ability to think at all.

Fingers locked in my hair, he slid his other hand around my waist and tugged. The next thing I knew, I was straddling his lap, the hard bench under my knees. My arms wound around his neck. His touch slid under the back of my shirt, caressing my skin, and his mouth caught mine again. My lips parted, and our kiss deepened.

Then his thigh vibrated under my leg and I almost sprang into the air. “Tell me that was your phone and not an undisclosed magical ability.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but I can’t vibrate.” His smile was a lascivious promise. “But I know a few other tricks you might like.”

His hand, still pressed to my back, heated several degrees. He slid his hot fingertips up my spine and I gasped, shuddering head to toe at the delicious sensation.

“Oh,” I breathed. “That’s … mmm. I like that.”

He pulled my head down and kissed me again. My head spun and I had to tear my mouth away. “What’s the message on your phone?”

“Probably the signal to move out. You should’ve jumped me sooner.” With a final hot caress, he slipped his hand out of my shirt and checked his phone. “The team is in position. Are you ready?”

That was all it took to douse my libido in a wave of cold apprehension. I clambered off his lap. “Let’s get this b*****d.”

“You bet we will. Go slow, be careful, and don’t take any risks. If your gut tells you to get out, do it. Your safety is most important.”

I nodded and touched the Queen of Spades card in my pocket. “I’m ready.”

“Go for it. I’ll be nearby the whole time.”

Our eyes met, a hot zing running through me, then I strode away from him. Following the path out of the park, I turned north. This was it. We would save Nadine. I would save Nadine. I was making this happen.

The streets were dark and foot traffic diminished as the clock ticked closer to ten. I moved fast, my head on a swivel as I checked the shadows. No sign of my teammates, but I didn’t expect to see them. Only after the Ghost showed up would they close in.