I nodded.

He waited for a moment, then prompted, “So?”

“So, what?”

Huffing, he leaned back in his chair. “I know I don’t have ovaries and am therefore incapable of proper girl talk, but can’t you at least gush about his manliness or rave about your latest date or describe your future wedding or something?”

“Is that what you think girls talk about?”

“It’s a highly educated guess. Don’t you have anything to say about this guy?”

“You don’t want to hear me gush—you want dirt so you can convince me to dump him. That’s what you always do.”

“That’s what I usually do, since you usually date pricks who deserve to get dumped. This guy seems decent, but”—he arched his eyebrows pointedly—“if he’s stringing you along, that isn’t cool and you should think about whether—”

I held up a hand. “Stop right there. Aaron isn’t stringing me along. We’re casual because we want to be casual, simple as that.” He opened his mouth and I hurried to ask, “How’s Sophie?”

Justin’s mouth hung open, then slowly closed. He looked down at his coffee. “We broke up.”

I almost dropped my latte. “What?”

“She …” He cleared his throat. “She moved out two weeks ago.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Sympathy welled inside me. He and Sophie had been coming up on their one-year anniversary and as far as I’d known, they’d been deliriously happy. “What happened?”

“She moved in shortly after you moved out. It was great for a bit, then …” He slumped. “I don’t know. Suddenly, nothing I did was right. She wanted everything a certain way and I tried to follow along, but …”

I patted his shoulder, inwardly seething. Justin was easy to live with. To make him miserable, Sophie must have gone full control-freak harpy. If I saw her again, I would give her a facial in the nearest mud puddle.

After consoling him for a few minutes, I changed the subject to sports and let him rattle on animatedly about rookie camp and draft picks until we finished our drinks and his break was over. I saw him to his squad car, gave him a goodbye hug, then headed home.

Even on a Tuesday afternoon, Robson Street traffic was insane, and I dodged pedestrians until I could duck down a side road. Skirting the edge of Chinatown, I entered my neighborhood, the streets lined with small apartment buildings and a few bungalows, mature trees casting welcome shade over the sidewalk.

The house I rented squatted on its slip of grass, looking tired but comfortable. I cut through the backyard and unlocked the outer door, then the inner door that led to the basement. As I swung it open, a blast of raucous laughter echoed up the staircase.

How many times had I told my roommate not to turn up the TV? My upstairs neighbors traveled most of the year, but I didn’t want anyone wondering why my television was on twenty-four hours a day.

I trotted down the stairs, ditched my purse, and strode into the living room. “Twiggy! What have I told you about the volume?”

Huge leaf-green eyes pried themselves off the screen and turned my way. The two-foot-tall faery thrust his lips out in a pout, then pointed the remote at the flat-screen TV. His large green head, adorned with crooked branches in place of hair, bobbed as he pressed the volume button exactly twice. The noise level scarcely changed.

A flat-screen TV wasn’t in my meager budget, but Aaron had shown up one day with it tucked in his back seat. According to him, it was an extra one from his basement, but I’d still resisted the donation until I realized it was as much for him as for me. He wanted the option to watch TV when he was over here, which was a weekly occurrence—him and Kai and Ezra.

Kai could cook when motivated, but that wasn’t often. Aaron’s skills were limited to following instructions on a box, while Ezra avoided kitchens at all costs. So, the guys showed up at my house most Sundays and Mondays—my days off—to mooch dinner.

I teased them mercilessly about being helpless bachelors, but secretly, I loved it. First, I enjoyed cooking and always made too much food, and second, what woman wouldn’t want three hot, funny, mostly charming mages in her apartment as often as possible? If I didn’t work five evenings a week, I’d cook for them more.

My gaze traveled to the worn sofa, facing the television with its back to the rest of the room. Another gift. The guys had, apparently, been planning to get a new sofa, so they’d given me theirs and replaced it with a reclining leather monstrosity.

Ducking into my bedroom, I pulled on a loose tank top and yoga shorts. Another round of fake laughter echoed from the TV, and I shook my head. I had no idea whether Twiggy was enjoying the sitcom—he never reacted to the gags, just stared intently as though committing every scene to memory. I could only guess what the little monster was internalizing. I’d already banned horror movies and rom-coms. I’d thought the latter was safe, but then I came home one day to find a message. Spelled out on my bed. In rose petals.

The word? BACON.

After recovering from my shock, I’d informed Twiggy that, one, flower petals were a terrible form of communication, and two, if he wanted to make breakfast requests, he needed to tell me in person.

Should a woodland faery be eating bacon? Who knew. Just one more way I’d corrupted him. The other faeries would never take him back now that he was addicted to meat.

An hour later, I was perched on a stool at my breakfast bar, unenthusiastically scrolling through job listings. Though I hadn’t quite abandoned all hope that my job at the Crow and Hammer would survive the MPD investigation, no shifts meant no pay. It was time to put on my big-girl pants and look for employment.

Chin propped on my palm, I scrolled past three bartender listings. Blah. No, no, and definitely no. I wouldn’t last an hour at an upscale steakhouse. “Hey assclown” wasn’t an acceptable way to address customers in places like that.

Giving up on the job hunt, I wandered around my apartment, searching for something to do. Restless energy buzzed through me, but I couldn’t settle on an activity. As the clock ticked closer to four, my tension increased. Three times, I pulled my phone out and checked it to be sure I hadn’t missed a call.

I came to a stop in the middle of my kitchen and stared at the microwave as the glowing green clock turned from 3:59 to 4:00. It was official: the first shift I’d missed since starting at the Crow and Hammer.

Okay, not quite true. I’d missed two weeks of work while a notorious rogue held me captive, but I wasn’t counting that.

I didn’t move, watching the time. 4:01. 4:02. When it flipped to 4:05, I opened a cupboard and pulled out a shot glass. I grabbed a bottle from the cupboard above the fridge, poured a shot, lifted it, and tossed it back. The whiskey burned all the way down to my stomach.

I poured a second shot and downed that too, then smacked the glass on the counter. Enough moping. There was only one solution to this level of self-pitying restlessness.

Twiggy ignored me as I strode past him to my bedroom. He ignored me as I popped out again in an even rattier tank top and shorts. He didn’t react when I dragged a bucket and rags out of the closet or when I pulled on yellow rubber gloves.

The moment I cracked open the bottle of cleaning solution, his head jerked around.

“Not again,” he hissed angrily. “Why do you wipe poisons on everything?”

“It’s called cleaning, and if you don’t like it, you can leave.”

He minced closer, his petite nose scrunching. “You cleaned last week. The floor reeked all night.”

“I clean every week.”

“Humans are stupid.” As I poured cleaner into the bucket, he backpedaled, his oversized feet smacking the floor. “Stupid human! Put it away!”

“I’ve warned you about insulting me.”

Snarling in another language, he disappeared.

I squinted at the spot where he’d vanished—sometimes he just pretended to leave—then I shut off his TV show and put on my favorite playlist. After turning the music up until the beat thudded in my chest, I got to work.

First I scrubbed every surface in my kitchen, stopping twice for another shot, then headed for the bathroom. Late afternoon morphed into evening, and I only checked the clock three times an hour.

Dumping and refilling my bucket, I hauled it into the main room, hips swaying in time to the beat. After four shots of whiskey, I was feeling pretty good. Or was it five? I might have lost count. Jacking up the music another few notches, I sat cross-legged on the floor and wiped down the baseboards.

“Na na na na,” I sang enthusiastically. Reaching for the baseboards behind the TV stand, I paused, my head cocked to listen. “Twiggy?” When no one answered my call, I shrugged. “Na na na na—”

I stopped singing again, straining to hear over the music. Stripping off my gloves, I pulled out my phone but it showed no missed notifications. Was I losing it? Exasperated with myself, I marched to the kitchen. The whiskey bottle waited patiently, and I hummed as I poured a shot. Just one more.

Lifting the glass in a salute to no one, I belted out the song’s chorus, then brought the glass to my lips, tipped my head back—and heard it clearly: knocking.

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