“How did you—” he began as another wave of confetti spilled out of my hair.
“Don’t ask,” I grumped as I started picking the shiny stuff out. Curly hair forbade the use of hairbrushes, and if I shook it around too much, all my hard work containing the frizz would be ruined.
Ezra watched me pluck confetti out piece by piece, then stepped into the bathroom. Moving behind me, he reached up. The first slight tug on my hair as he removed a piece of confetti sent tingles rushing down my spine.
I cleared my throat. “So, you guys never said whose idea this was.”
When I gestured at our reflections, Ezra’s crooked smile reappeared. “I’ll give you one guess.”
“Aaron’s,” I concluded grouchily. “The Three Musketeers are so lame.”
“Four Musketeers,” he corrected.
My scowl deepened. Indeed, four. I’d already put on my tight breeches, white shirt with billowy, tight-cuffed sleeves, and a draping blue tabard with a shiny fleur-de-lis on the chest. The hat and leather gloves were the last part of my getup, and I wasn’t pleased about any of it. I looked ridiculous.
Ezra, on the other hand …
He would be wearing the exact same outfit, but he hadn’t donned his tabard yet. The breeches hugged his strong legs, and the way the white shirt hung off his broad shoulders looked downright dashing. On my smaller frame, the shirt looked more like a pillowcase with sleeves.
Our shirts dipped into a sharp V-neck, but he’d left the ties on his undone, allowing a tantalizing hint of his bronze chest to peek out. I yanked my gaze away and focused on picking crap from my hair. He was standing so close that his intoxicating scent filled my nose.
That night a week ago felt like a terrible dream. Ezra’s flight from the house, his confrontation with the Keys, my finding out he was a demon mage. Abandoning the city, racing north, the car accident … and everything that had followed. The blur of darkness, rain, battle, blood, and crimson magic. It all had the hazy obscurity of a half-forgotten nightmare, but when I lay in bed at night, waiting for sleep, it all came back with crisp, terrifying clarity.
Ezra carefully lifted my hair away from my neck and brushed confetti off my shirt collar. My gaze lifted to the mirror. We hadn’t had a proper conversation since that night. Every time I entered a room, he’d disappear shortly afterward. He was more elusive than an antisocial housecat.
I spun around. He blinked, his hands hovering in the air, ready to resume searching for confetti. He started to step back, but I grabbed his wrists, halting him.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” I accused bluntly.
He opened his mouth but seemed to realize denying it would be stupid.
“Why?” I demanded.
He gave his wrists a tug. I didn’t release him.
“Tori …” he muttered. He pulled away again, more strongly, but instead of letting go, I stepped with him, keeping close and pressing my advantage. His back bumped the wall. The bathroom wasn’t cramped, but it didn’t leave much room to maneuver either.
I glared at him. His gaze darted away, seeking a safe place to look besides my face. He settled for gazing pointlessly at a spot above my head.
“Spill it, Ezra.”
“The reason you’ve been avoiding me all week and won’t look me in the eye.”
His mouth thinned. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Surprise brought his gaze down to mine. He searched my eyes—probing for signs of deceit. I held his wrists between us.
“No,” I repeated sternly, staring him down. Or staring him up, since he was taller than me. “I don’t know why you’re avoiding me and I’m getting seriously annoyed about it.”
“Annoyed?” Uncertainty flickered over his features. “I thought you’d prefer …”
“To … see less of me?”
I squinted angrily. “Because you’re a demon mage?”
“Well.” Still gripping his wrists, I leaned closer. He tried to lean back and banged his head against the wall. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t care. If I cared, I wouldn’t have gone with you guys that night, would I?”
His expression shuttered, emotions hidden. “How can you not care?”
“Oh, I see. You think I’m a coward.”
“What? No, I don’t—”
“Then you think I’m selfish.”
“Then what? Why do you think I would turn my back on you just because your inner demon is more literal than usual?”
A small, amused snort escaped him.
“Ezra, nothing has changed except I understand now.” Actually, that wasn’t true. Damn near everything had changed—but one thing hadn’t. “You haven’t changed. You’re the same person you were before that night, so why would my feelings for you change?”
He went very still. “Your feelings?”
“Uh.” Something near to panic jumped through me. “I—I mean, you still want to be my friend, don’t you?”
His gaze skimmed my face, then settled on my eyes like he was trying to peer inside my head.
“Of course I do,” he said softly.
I’d expected one of his deadpan jokes. Or at least a smile. But he was staring at me with a strange intensity, his steady gaze still seeking something. I suddenly became aware that I hadn’t released him, holding his wrists hostage between our bodies.
He seemed to realize it too, because his arms moved—but not away from me. His hands drew closer to my face. Hesitantly, as though expecting me to cringe in disgust, he touched his fingertips to my cheeks.
Not daring to breathe, I stared up at him. My brain had gone blank, buzzing and useless.
His fingers brushed lightly across my cheeks, his eyes fixed on mine as they searched my soul. “Tori … can I have a hug?”
My heart jumped into my throat, choking off my voice. I started to lift my arms.
He pulled me into him before I could complete the motion, and I yipped in surprise as he crushed me against his chest. His warm breath stirred the curls above my ear, his face pressed into my hair.
“You must be crazy,” he muttered. “It’s the only explanation.”
“Are you complaining?” I asked, managing to inject a tart note despite my breathlessness.
“No. No, I’m not.”
My chest tightened at his quiet response, and I wiggled my arms free so I could slide them around his shoulders. Our hugs had always been friendly—familial, even—with only the occasional rogue thoughts on my part about hard muscles and mouthwatering scents, but that had changed too. Pressed against him like this, my awareness was consumed by every inch of his warm, sculpted body against mine, his strength easy and overwhelming.
As heat flushed through my center, his fingers brushed the back of my neck, tangling in my hair. I couldn’t help it—I shivered as a fresh wave of hot tingles whispered down my spine.
His head turned just slightly. Had he noticed me shiver? Embarrassed, I tried to pull back, but he tightened his arms.
“Oy!” Aaron’s shout cut through the quiet basement. “Tori, are you ready yet or—oh.”
A body filled the doorway. I looked around in time to see Aaron stop dead in his tracks, staring at Ezra and me entwined in a tight embrace. His eyes widened.
“Oh,” he said again. “Does this mean Ezra has stopped hiding from you?”
A soft footstep, then Kai appeared beside Aaron. “I’m guessing Tori ambushed him.”
“Uh.” I tried to step back, but Ezra hadn’t released me. Heat rose in my cheeks.
“Well, good.” Aaron waved. “Let’s go already. Darius is making a big announcement tonight and I don’t want to miss it.”
“Wait, we should check first.” Kai fixed his dark eyes on Ezra. “Are you finished sulking and avoiding us now?”
Ezra gave his friends a long, hard stare, his expression inscrutable. “You know, the fact that I’m the sanest one in this house is extremely alarming.”
Aaron, Kai, and I exchanged looks. Since we were perfectly happy to be friends with a demon mage, we couldn’t really argue, could we?
Silence hung for a moment more, than a grin flashed across Ezra’s face. I groaned that he’d gotten us again, and Aaron laughed. Chuckling, Ezra finally released me. He picked up my plumed hat, shook the confetti off it, and set it on my head.
“Looking good, D’Artagnan.”
I snorted and rolled my eyes, making sure he had no misconceptions about my feelings regarding the costume.
We rushed back into our preparations, and five minutes later, we were clustered by the back door in our identical Musketeer costumes—the guys nothing less than alluring in their blue tabards and snug breeches, their wide-brimmed hats placed at jaunty angles. Actual steel rapiers were sheathed at their hips, and they looked ready to whip the swords out with a haughty, “En garde!”
I had a rapier too, but I didn’t feel particularly charming, bold, or medieval. I just felt silly. Costumes were the worst.
We piled into the silver Mustang parked out back—Aaron’s rental. He had yet to shop for a new vehicle. His poor baby had been totaled, and I suspected he had a grieving process to complete before he could replace it.