I grinned. ‘What?’
I got out of the car feeling more knackered than I’d ever felt in my life. Even my bones were weary. It had been a long time since I’d returned home when the sun was shining. All the same, there was an odd buzz of euphoria running through my veins. We’d solved the crimes, Winter and me. I was starting to see why he liked his work so much. Only starting, mind; I wasn’t a total convert. But if the Order brought in a three-day working week, I might be persuaded…
Winter climbed out from the other side of the car and we shared a glance of satisfaction. With his normally pristine clothes messed up, and with his top button undone and his tie askew, he looked rather adorable. I glanced down, taking in the state I was in. Well, at least one of us looked good.
‘Out of curiosity,’ he murmured, ‘what did you wish for? With the eyelash?’
‘A lie-in tomorrow,’ I chirped.
‘You’re kidding me.’
Winter sighed dramatically but I swear I spotted the ghost of a smile on his lips. As if to cover it, he knelt down and started tying his shoelace. From the other side of the road, there was the sound of a car door closing and a familiar voice.
‘Ivy! I’m so glad I caught you!’ Iqbal darted across, his face split into a wide grin.
I gave him a quick hug. ‘Hey! Good to see you. What are doing here?’
His smile stretched even further. ‘You’re gonna love me,’ he promised.
I bopped him on the arm. ‘I already do, Iqqy pop.’
Iqbal took my hand and began to murmur. A strange itching sensation rose up my arm, then it turned to burning. Suddenly alarmed, I tried to yank my hand away. My heart began thumping against my chest and I could feel sweat breaking out across my brow. I stared at Iqbal in horror but he continued to smile, although his teeth were gritted at the same time as if he were concentrating very hard.
‘What the…’ I heard Winter exclaim from the other side of the car. He staggered upwards just as Iqbal finally released me.
The pain vanished almost immediately. Iqbal swept out a proud bow. ‘You’re welcome!’ he beamed.
‘The binding,’ I said slowly.
He nodded vigorously and opened his palm to reveal what I knew was ossombe root. There was only a tiny quantity but it had been enough. The invisible magic thread that bound me to Winter was most definitely gone. I didn’t need to test it to be sure, I just knew.
‘After your phone call yesterday,’ Iqbal chirruped happily, ‘I knew things were getting desperate. I asked around and found an old professor of mine who happened to have some ossombe root lying around in his study. He agreed to give it to me if I gave him an outline of my thesis by the end of the month.’ A faint furrow creased his forehead. ‘So you really owe me now, Ivy. I deserve at least one ballad.’
My mouth was dry. I swallowed several times and looked helplessly at Winter. His face was an implacable mask. ‘We’re free,’ I whispered.
Winter pulled back his shoulders. ‘It would appear so.’
Iqbal gave him a nervous glance. ‘Hi, Adeptus Exemptus Winter. I didn’t see you there until it was too late. I hope you don’t mind that I took off the binding but I knew that Ivy was getting desperate.’
Winter didn’t look at him; his eyes were trained on me. All I could do was shrug awkwardly. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Desperate.’ Darn it.
A curious expression crossed Iqbal’s face as he realised that I wasn’t jigging around as ecstatically as I should be. He lifted his shoulders and gave me a funny look then, putting my lack of joy down to Winter’s brooding presence, he clapped me on the shoulders. ‘The Cauldron,’ he said. ‘Seven o’clock tonight. You can come too, Adeptus,’ he called across to Winter. ‘You’ve not lived until you’ve heard Ivy sing. I need to head off and start that outline but I expect you to be on time.’ He waggled his fingers. ‘You both owe me big time.’
My shoulders dropped. Arse.
With Winter by my side, I climbed the stairs up to my floor. I didn’t even call for the lift; it just seemed like too much effort. Winter didn’t say a word and neither did I. For once, I didn’t know what to say.
Near the top, footsteps tripped up behind us. Thinking it was Iqbal again, I turned. My heart sank. Eve. Any euphoria I’d felt five minutes ago was now well and truly gone.
‘Ivy!’ Genuine delight crossed her face. ‘It’s so good to see you! Honestly, you wouldn’t believe all that’s happened to me. In fact…’ Her voice faltered as she realised who was standing beside me. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter. What are you doing here?’
Winter coughed and looked at me. I scratched my neck. ‘Maybe we should go to my flat,’ I suggested. ‘You can make me a cup of tea and we can talk about it.’
‘I’m being promoted to Second Level?’ Eve’s eyes were saucer-wide and shining.
I fidgeted. ‘Yeah. I’m sorry. The binding has been removed now so maybe you’ll still get to work with Winter. I should have told you before but it didn’t seem right to do it over the phone.’
Eve barely heard me. ‘Second Level? I hoped, you know I hoped, but I thought I’d have to do the exams first. My parents will be thrilled! I’m thrilled! And Arcane Branch?’ She glanced at Winter. ‘Do you think I’ll still have a chance of getting a spot?’
‘A position has just opened up,’ Winter said stiffly, not looking at me.
Eve jumped to her feet. ‘This is just amazing,’ she said, still shaking her head in disbelief. ‘I have to go and tell Harold Fitzwilliam Duxworthy the Third.’ She darted out of the room.
I twisted my fingers in my lap. ‘That went better than I expected,’ I said.
Winter murmured non-committally.
I took a deep breath. ‘I didn’t know Iqbal was going to do that,’ I said in a rush. ‘I didn’t ask him to. Well, not really. In fact, I found some ossombe root a few days ago and stuffed it in my bathroom cabinet. The binding wasn’t all that bad.’
Winter didn’t say anything. Bloody hell, this was hard work.
There was a sudden thump from the bedroom. Relieved to have a distraction, I opened the door to investigate. My secret stash of catnip had been attacked and there was a trail leading from the smashed jar on the floor all the way to the bed. Both Brutus and Princess Parma Periwinkle were rolling around on the duvet with expressions of feline glee. Winter peered over my shoulder and grunted with disapproval.
From beyond the living room, Eve reappeared with her arms by her sides and a confused expression on her face. ‘Why are there are two people tied up in the middle of my living-room floor?’
He stood outside, hands shoved in his pockets and a flat, grim line across his mouth. The pub was well lit and busy. Every time the door opened to welcome a new patron, the sound of appalling music drifted out. He half turned to leave. This was a pointless venture; the sensible thing would be to go home right now. There were reports to write and he knew that it wouldn’t be long before he had another time-consuming assignment to occupy both his days and nights. Besides, she didn’t want him there.
The door opened again and a group of friends fell out, giggling and stumbling towards him. From inside, the music faded away to a burbling voice. ‘Our next victim is the fabulous Ivy Wilde who…’ The door banged shut, muffling the words.
Winter sighed. Then his feet swerved round the happy group and into the pub’s interior almost of their own volition.
Ivy’s friend, if that’s what he was, was pushing her up onto the small stage. She was laughing, her blonde curls bouncing and catching the light, but he could see the reluctance in her eyes even from this distance. She turned in his direction, her chin angling upwards and he hastily veered left towards the bar and caught the eye of the barman.
By the time he had a whisky in hand, Ivy was already onto the second verse. Her cheeks were rosy pink and there was a tremor to the fingers that were clutching the microphone. She wasn’t a particularly bad singer but her lack of enthusiasm made her painful to watch. He wished that she wouldn’t sway her hips like that. The movement only served to accentuate her curves and, despite the quality of the whisky, his mouth felt uncomfortably dry.