“I can tell him I forgot and you’ll need more time to—”
“Nope!” I stuffed my notes in my apron. “It’s fine. No problem at all.” This was my chance to prove I was worthy of more responsibility and I wasn’t blowing it by asking for a deadline extension. If Darius wanted the new menu on Monday, then he’d get it on Monday.
I glanced at the back counter where my laptop was waiting, a half-finished college assignment on the screen. That might not make it to the instructor by next week, though. Hmm. I’d figure it out. I had two days off between now and Monday. I could do it.
Clara headed back upstairs to continue her late-night work session with Darius—odd but not entirely unusual. Darius, the guild master, traveled a lot and whenever he returned from a long trip, he and Clara would disappear for a day to catch up on all the work that required the GM’s input or approval.
That, or they were having a secret affair, and after his trips, they barricaded themselves in his office to … nah. Too weird with the guild officers’ desks right outside his door.
A few minutes later, I was sitting on the bar top and staring with mild panic at the chalkboard menu above the back counter. The stool behind me scraped across the floor as someone pulled it out.
“Do I want to know what you’re doing?”
I didn’t turn at the sound of Aaron’s voice. “What’s your favorite item on the menu?”
“What about you, Kai? Ezra?” I didn’t need to look to know they were there too.
“The burger,” Kai answered without hesitation.
“The burger,” Ezra said in his meltingly smooth voice. “But it’s not a fair question.”
“Because there’s only one menu item.”
I twisted around to give him a puzzled look. “What do you mean? There are ten entrees.”
His dark eyebrows rose above his mismatched eyes. One was chocolate brown while the other was pale as ice with a dark pupil and outer ring, the iris damaged by the scar that ran from his temple down to his cheek. With his curly hair and the scruffy shadow along his jaw, he did kind of look like an olive-skinned Jon Snow.
He leaned on the bar and whispered conspiratorially, “Everyone orders the burger. I don’t think they stock ingredients for anything else.”
Huh. Now that he mentioned it, I always ordered the burger too. You’d think I would be sick of it after five months, but who could get sick of a delicious burger? “What’s your least favorite meal?”
They shrugged, leaving me to wonder if they’d ever tried anything else.
Kai sat on a stool. “Why the sudden interest in the menu?”
“Darius wants me to revamp it.” I hid my desperation. “He wants a new menu proposal on Monday.”
“Monday? That’s short notice.” Aaron propped his elbow on the counter. “How about Poison Ivy?”
“What? You want to add poison ivy to the menu?”
“No, for your costume. You can be Poison Ivy and I’ll be Batman.”
I snorted. “Kai is way more of a Batman than you.”
Ezra laughed, while Aaron sulked. Feeling guilty, I hopped off the bar and faced the three mages. Aaron was perched on his favorite stool, his copper hair tousled and the sleeves of his casual sweater pushed up his hard forearms. Kai sat beside him, his dark hair a stark contrast to his fair complexion, the first few buttons of his shirt undone. Ezra had one hip propped against the bar, his black t-shirt declaring, “Winter Is Coming.”
Hmm, right, he was a Game of Thrones fan. Maybe I could convince him to do a couple’s costume with—wait, what was I thinking? I didn’t want to dress up.
“I’m not wearing a costume,” I announced fervidly.
“But it’s your p—” Aaron began.
“It’s not my party! These are my pumpkins. I never proposed a party, let alone volunteered to organize one! And I never said I would dress up like a—” As a grin took over his face, I cut myself off. He’d heard this rant two or three times a day since the party became a thing. “This is all your fault.”
“You wanted extra pumpkins. If you hadn’t—”
A bell rang, announcing the opening of the guild door. The bell was a new addition, installed a few weeks ago. I didn’t know the whole story, but something about a drunk human wandering in while Clara was upstairs. The ward on the door repelled humans by triggering a sudden wave of fear, but it didn’t work so well on the inebriated—or on the stubborn, like me.
So now we had a bell.
I glanced over, expecting to see patrons on their way home for the night—half the pub had emptied in the last half hour—but instead, two people stepped inside.
The man was average in height but above average in muscle, with dark hair buzzed close to his head and a beard only slightly longer. His tawny skin and leather jacket glistened with raindrops, and a fat, ugly silver pendant rested against his chest.
The tall, willowy woman walked like she was floating, her long black hair fluttering behind her and her russet complexion flushed pink from the cold rain. Her fitted leather coat was stylish, dark blue jeans fashionably tight, and black-leather boots knee high. Hanging from her belt were two narrow-bladed daggers with odd S-shaped hilts.
Neither was a member of the Crow and Hammer.
The newcomers hesitated inside the doors, unsure of their welcome. When they started toward the bar, their every movement screamed guardedness. Yeah, they definitely lacked confidence in their entry—an impression backed up by the sudden silence in the room.
“Who’s that guy?” Aaron muttered. “Gotta be from Odin’s Eye.”
I snapped to attention. In the five and a half months I’d worked here, I’d never seen a member of another guild enter our headquarters. On top of that, Odin’s Eye had a rough reputation. They were bounty specialists—hunters of rogues, criminals, and beastly bad things.
Suffice it to say, Odin’s Eye and the Crow and Hammer did not get along.
Kai pushed off his stool and strode toward the approaching pair. The woman’s gaze slashed across him—then a broad smile erased the cool appraisal from her face.
She took two quick steps ahead of her companion and threw her arms around Kai. My mouth fell open.
Then Kai wrapped his arms around her and my jaw hit the bar top.
I dragged my stare off them to see what Kai’s best friends thought of this unexpected turn. Aaron was smirking, and Ezra was … uh … where was Ezra?
His spot was empty. Where had he disappeared to?
Kai pulled back from the mystery woman and murmured something, then drew her toward the bar with a hand on the small of her back. I eyed the placement. Gentlemanly politeness or a bit too familiar to be good manners?
He nudged his stool out for her. “Tori, a martini for Izzah, please—dry with two olives. Put it on my tab.”
“You don’t have to-lah, Kai,” she exclaimed in a throaty voice tinged with an accent I didn’t recognize.
“It’s my pleasure.” He sat on the stool beside her. “Izzah, you remember Aaron Sinclair?”
“Hey Izzah.” Aaron offered his hand. “Long time no see.”
Izzah’s smile returned, dimples appearing in her cheeks. “Good to see you again, Aaron.”
Kai tilted his head toward me. “Izzah, this is Tori. Tori, Izzah Ramesh.”
As Izzah and I said hello, conversation resumed around the room. Completely forgotten, Izzah’s companion slunk up to the bar and perched on the stool on her other side. She introduced him as Mario and another round of polite greetings ensued.
Aaron’s curious gaze jumped from Izzah to Kai and back again. “What brings you here from Odin’s Eye, Izzah?”
Oh, of course, Aaron was straight to business. I should’ve gotten out a question first—something like, “Kai, how do you know this lovely lady?” or even better, “What is the exact nature of your relationship?”
Okay, maybe Aaron had the right idea about noninvasive questions.
Izzah pushed her thick hair, damp from the rain, off her shoulders and cast the pyromage a playful look. “Wah, not even going to try small talk first?”
“We don’t do small talk very well,” Kai said, a subtle teasing note in his voice. Kai … teasing?
“That you don’t, leng chai,” she replied with a laugh.
Musing about the very specific drink order—how did he know exactly how she liked her martini?—I dropped two olives in the cocktail glass and slid it to her, then asked Mario, “Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine,” he muttered. I felt a spark of sympathy. He’d become an instant third wheel.
“To be fair, though,” Kai continued, his gaze locked on Izzah, “you only show up when there’s trouble.”
Oh, so this girl had a habit of recurring visits? I made another mental note. Was I snoopy? Oh, hell yes. Kai’s reputation as a playboy was surpassed only by the complete mystery surrounding the women he dated. I’d never met a single one. Could this raven-haired beauty be one of them? Was she the current short-term lady in his life? Did she know she was a short-term lady?