“Then how could he have—” Aaron broke off as the front door banged.
Ezra strode into the room, dressed in running gear with his brown curls windswept. “Is she hurt? How bad is it?”
“She’s okay,” Kai said. “Just a scratch on her stomach.”
Ezra stopped in front of me, his worried eyes sweeping down to check I still had all my limbs. As his gaze came back up, it stuttered to a stop a good bit lower than my face.
Huh, well. I’d wondered if Ezra didn’t date because he wasn’t interested in women, but my impressively displayed cleavage had just proved otherwise.
Aaron put his hands on his hips and gave me a once-over as though Ezra’s ogling had given him permission to look too. “I’ve gotta say, Tori, that’s a daring shirt.”
“I shoplifted it.”
The three guys gave me the same incredulous stare.
“I didn’t mean to,” I added glumly. “Sin rushed me away before I could pay for it.” I tugged the neckline up, but it slid back down until my bra was peeking out again. “I didn’t even want it.”
“Uh.” Aaron struggled to focus. “Would you like to borrow a shirt?”
“That’s okay. I can change at home.”
“Er, about that.” He leaned against the table beside me. “I think you should hang out here for a few days.”
“If that sorcerer found you,” Kai said, “other rogues involved in the ambush last week could find you too. They probably think you’re a guild member—a mythic. They may come after you for that artifact, or use you to get to Aaron.”
Alarm flashed through me, but I shook my head. “I’ll be fine. I live with a cop, you know.”
“Didn’t I mention my brother is a police officer? Well, he is. I’m perfectly safe at home.”
“You’ll be safer with us.” Ezra’s smooth, soothing voice washed over me. “We’d worry about you by yourself.”
Damn it. Why did he have to play the “we’ll worry” card?
“It’s only a few days,” Kai added. “Since you and Sin took out the sorcerer, we have a place to start. We’ll figure out where he came from, who he’s working with, and most importantly, who he’s working for.”
My mouth twisted. I didn’t want to freeload off the guys any more than I wanted three overprotective bodyguards shadowing my every move, but … I thought of that sorcerer and his glowing dagger, and I imagined him stalking through my apartment. Justin might be a cop, but he stood no chance against mythics he didn’t know existed.
Suppressing an anxious shiver, I reluctantly nodded. “For a few days, I guess.”
“Great!” Aaron said brightly. “You can sleep in my room. I’ll take the sofa.”
Kai pulled a face. “You’re a slob. She won’t want to sleep in your room.”
“Oh, are you offering yours? She’ll love that.”
“At least my room is clean.”
“Mine’s clean. Just a bit … cluttered. You have weapons everywhere. She’s liable to trip on a sword and impale herself.”
As they argued, Ezra glanced between them, then walked away. Easing off the table, I followed him. Aaron and Kai continued to bicker, not noticing our departure.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing with three doors, one open. I stepped into the threshold as Ezra pulled folded sheets from the closet. The small bedroom, with one slanted wall where the roof cut into the space, was simple and tidy. A double bed with a gray patchwork blanket, a hand-me-down dresser with chips in the wood, and a bookshelf loaded with paperbacks and movies. An acoustic guitar on a stand sat in the corner.
The art on the walls surprised me the most: four large prints of mountain landscapes, one for each season. I studied them, finding an unexpected resonance between the peaceful scenery and Ezra’s meltingly smooth voice that calmed me so easily.
“I’m good with the sofa,” I told him. “I’ve been sleeping on one for nine months.”
“You’ll have more privacy here. I don’t mind.” He stripped the bed down to the mattress, then remade it with clean sheets. Flipping the comforter back over the bed, he turned, his gaze searching mine. “Are you okay, Tori?”
I threw my hands up. “How many times do I have to say I’m fine?”
“I just wanted to be sure.” He tilted his head in question. “Do you want a hug?”
My exasperation evaporated—along with my forced nonchalance about the sorcerer’s attack.
“Okay.” The word came out in an embarrassingly childish whisper.
He stepped close and wrapped his warm arms around me. As I buried my face in his chest, my breath released in a shuddering exhale and I had to fight back the sting of tears. Helping Aaron had been one thing—I’d run headfirst into that fight. But being ambushed, getting strangled, having a lethal blade almost shoved in my guts … even I couldn’t shrug that off like it was nothing.
In Ezra’s arms, I felt safe and protected. Part of me wanted to melt against him and cry like a baby. Another part of me hated this false feeling of safety that would only last for as long as he was around. Sooner or later, I’d be on my own again.
He held me as I steadied my breathing. With a quiet sniff—I was not crying, damn it—I raised my head.
Aaron and Kai stood in the doorway, watching. My face flushed, but they didn’t seem shocked by my girly emotions, nor were they gleeful at catching me in their friend’s arms. Concern was all I saw in their eyes.
Ezra stepped away, one hand on the small of my back. “I’m starving. Why don’t we order pizza?”
“I don’t know,” Kai said. “That’ll depend on Tori.”
“Me?” I asked blankly.
“If you want pizza with pineapple on it, we’ll have to throw you out.”
I blinked, not entirely sure if he was joking, but Aaron laughed. “If she wants pineapple, she can have it. You don’t have to eat it.”
“Its existence alone is an insult to all pizza.”
With a snort, Aaron scooped me to his side. He grinned, his confidence banishing the last shiver of my fear. I smiled back as he pulled me to the stairs. Ezra and Kai followed, the latter still explaining why pineapple on pizza was unforgivable blasphemy.
Halfway down, Aaron stopped. “Um, Tori.”
“Are you cold?”
Did his fiery magic make him impervious to outside temperatures? The house was as hot as an oven. “No.”
He glanced at the ceiling like it held the answers to all life’s mysteries. “Are you sure you don’t want to borrow a shirt?”
I looked down. My boobs stared back at me. “Fine. I’ll borrow a shirt.”
All three of them sighed, but I wasn’t sure if it was from disappointment or relief. Huffing, I stepped out from under Aaron’s arm and marched down the stairs alone. Men.
It had been months since I’d slept in a proper bed, but for some dumb reason, I couldn’t sleep. Snuggled into a pillow that smelled of fresh laundry detergent and a hint of whatever nectar-of-the-gods soap Ezra used, I should have been floating on blissful clouds of slumber. But despite the exhaustion leading my eyelids, I couldn’t keep them closed. With no distractions, worries occupied my thoughts—mainly, what would happen next.
Sin had called while we were waiting for pizza to arrive. She’d gotten the name of the sorcerer, and tomorrow the guys would do more research into who he was. The police had taken him away, but as Aaron had explained, he wouldn’t remain in custody for long. Mythics weren’t held in human jails. He’d be let go, and if he didn’t turn himself in to MagiPol, they would put out a bounty for him.
I wasn’t naïve enough to expect the sorcerer to turn himself in, which meant he’d be on the loose again tomorrow. We had no idea how he’d set up an ambush outside my favorite store—and no idea how to prevent him from stalking me.
Rolling over, I absently scratched at my neck. The shirt Aaron had lent me featured a horrifically itchy tag, and as I contorted my arm to adjust it, fabric rubbed against the cut on my stomach. My throat still ached from the sorcerer strangling me, and in the silent, dark bedroom, the array of pain and discomfort was difficult to ignore.
I hadn’t been able to dwell on anything earlier in the night. After pizza, Aaron parked himself in front of the huge TV, picked up a video game controller, and challenged me to a go-kart race. I sucked at it, driving off cliffs and spinning out on banana peels, but trash-talking Aaron while he drove laps around me was fun. When Ezra joined us after showering, the game got even more fun—instead of me losing fantastically to Aaron, Aaron and I both lost to Ezra. I didn’t mind, because watching Aaron curse Ezra out every time he plowed Aaron off the track was hilarious.
Kai eventually took up the fourth controller, and we raced the evening away, complete with popcorn and beer. I threw in the proverbial flag at midnight and watched the guys duke it out one more time on the most difficult track. Ezra won, again.
“I thought you couldn’t drive,” I told him as we high-fived.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com