As we stopped at a red light, Kai leaned over the center console. “Tori, do we need to worry about the Ghost coming after you?”
I snorted. “Nope. He’s so done with me.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could think, and my eyes went wide in panic. But I didn’t keel over dead, so that must not have counted as revealing information.
Kai studied me as the car rolled into motion again. “Can you tell us anything about him?”
“I can’t.” I met his eyes as best I could at the weird angle. “But I swear it’s not a trick or a trap. I just can’t explain where I was. There are … special circumstances.”
“Hmm.” Kai sat back. “Okay.”
As he pulled out his phone, I blinked in confusion. “What are you doing?”
His thumbs sped across the screen. “Just texting Ezra with a heads-up so you don’t have to go through the same round of questions again.”
“But … don’t you …” I trailed off, not sure what question I was asking.
“You can’t talk about it,” Aaron murmured, his eyes on the road. “We get it. Secrets are a part of life for mythics. They keep us safe, even when it means hiding things from people we care about.”
“I’d tell you if I could,” I mumbled miserably.
“We know.” Kai stuck his phone back in his pocket. “Some secrets aren’t about trust, Tori.”
My eyes burned with tears and I blinked rapidly to clear them. Fingers curling against my thighs, I exhaled shakily. They understood. They realized I wasn’t withholding information because I didn’t trust them, but because I had no other choice.
“You know what really sucks though?” Aaron said abruptly.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m never going to find out how you lost your shoes, am I?” He threw his hands up. “How does a person lose their shoes? How did you make it back to the guild barefoot? It makes no sense!”
I slapped at his waving arm. “Hands on the wheel, Aaron!”
Grabbing the steering wheel again, he cast me a tortured look. “This is going to drive me insane, you know that, right?”
“How is it that you care more about how she lost her shoes than how she escaped a notorious rogue?” Kai asked dryly from the backseat. “Priorities, Aaron.”
Aaron flashed me a grin and I couldn’t help my smile. Damn, I’d missed them.
I didn’t know who was a bigger idiot. The three mages or my brother.
While I’d been missing, Aaron, Kai, and Ezra hadn’t wanted to involve the police. So Kai, genius that he was, hacked into my phone—which I’d left at the guild for our Ghost-capturing mission—and between the three of them, they convinced Justin via text messages that I was super busy with my new apartment and that’s why I wasn’t around.
Leaning against the counter in the bathroom, I scrolled through the messages, rolling my eyes so much I was getting dizzy. None of these texts sounded anything like me! In what twisted reality would I ever use cat emojis? The only thing more embarrassing than the impersonation attempt was the fact my brother hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
I closed the message app and set my phone on the counter, then held my hand up. I could still feel Zak’s phantom grip as he’d written across my palm.
With the whole “catching a ride with a dragon fae” thing, I’d forgotten that he’d written on my hand. I hadn’t remembered until I was in the bathroom with a towel and an armful of clean clothes so I could shower while we waited for pizza to arrive.
Two incantations were scrawled across my palm in neat, masculine handwriting. And beneath them were ten digits. A phone number.
Zak must be serious about wanting to take Nadine back—so serious he’d given me a direct method of contacting him. I didn’t know how to feel about that. For starters, I’d thought he was too much of a hippy to have a phone. I should have searched his room while he was sleeping. If I’d found his phone, I could have called in the cavalry and saved myself a black-magic oath spell.
I saved his number in my contacts and made a note about the incantations. With a final glance at his handwriting on my palm, I turned on the faucet, grabbed the soap, and scrubbed until there was no sign that ink had ever touched my skin.
After showering, I dressed in my favorite PJ pants and a tank top. Did I wear a bra? Nope. Should I have put on a bra? Probably, but I wanted to be comfortable. The guys could just avert their eyes.
Conveniently, all my stuff was at their place. To support their bullshit story about how I was relishing in newfound brother-freedom at my apartment, they’d gone to Justin’s place while he was at work and picked up my four whole boxes of belongings. Using my keys. From my purse. Which I’d also left at the guild.
I was only slightly annoyed. They’d done their best to keep my regular life from falling apart while they tried to find me.
By the time I joined them, the pizza had arrived. If not for the irresistible allure of pepperoni and green peppers, I might have stopped to hug Ezra again. Hugging was sort of our thing, so I was free to throw myself into his arms whenever I wanted. Which I’d done, with enthusiasm and maybe a single tear of relief, the moment I’d walked through the front door.
While we ate—or I should say, while they nibbled pizza and I gorged myself, having eaten exactly one apple in the last twenty-four hours—they filled me in on their efforts to find me. Most of the guild had dropped everything to investigate the Ghost and where he might have taken me. Even Darius had tapped into his formidable resources as a guild master.
Despite that, none of them had made significant progress. If Zak hadn’t released me, I’d still be his prisoner—or dead.
Stuffed with cheese and delicious doughy crust, I waddled into the living room and collapsed in the middle of the sofa. Aaron sat beside me and Kai perched on the opposite sofa arm. Ezra wandered in last, eating a final slice.
Closing my eyes, I leaned against Aaron’s side. The evening sun cut across the south-facing window, filling the room with warm orange light. All I wanted to do was sit here with the guys. Listen to them talk. Play silly video games with them. Just be here, safe again. But there was a reason I’d come rushing back.
“Nadine needs help,” I told them, feeling Aaron’s muscles tense. “I tried to tell Girard and Felix, but they won’t act on it until I explain everything. They think it’s a trap, but I swear it’s not.”
I opened my eyes to find them watching me. Ezra crossed the room and sat on the floor beside my legs, using the sofa as a backrest.
“Tell us,” he murmured.
“Nadine explained why she ran away from home.” I repeated as much of her tale as I could remember, describing the envelope she’d received with all the information about her real parents. “She also mentioned her neighbor, a woman named Varvara Nikolaev. Have you heard of her?”
Aaron shook his head.
“Who is she?” Kai asked.
“A dark sorceress. We figure she murdered Nadine’s parents, brought her here as a baby, and put her in the care of a human couple to hide her, all while planning to make Nadine her apprentice when she turned sixteen.”
“Her apprentice?” Aaron repeated. “Why would she want the child of this British couple as an apprentice?”
“The Emrys family is famous,” Kai added. “Seems like an unnecessary risk.”
“It’s an old tradition among dark-arts practitioners to kidnap their enemies’ offspring and brainwash the kids into serving them.” I pulled my knees up, tucking closer to Aaron. He curled his warm arm around me. “Yesterday evening, Varvara kidnapped Nadine.”
“Wait,” Aaron said incredulously. “The dark sorceress kidnapped Nadine from the dark druid who originally kidnapped her?”
“Well,” I mumbled, “Nadine technically went with the Ghost of her own free will, so he didn’t kidnap her … by the strictest definition of the word.”
“Did she go with Varvara willingly?” Kai asked. “If Nadine only knows Varvara as her human neighbor, she probably thought she was being rescued.”
“No, she …” I thought frantically, trying to figure out how to explain it without revealing details about Zak. I couldn’t repeat anything he’d said, but what about things Nadine had said? “She thought she was safe from her parents’ killers.”
Aaron rubbed his hand through his hair. “What did the Ghost think of a rival rogue poaching from him? Can’t imagine he was too happy about that.”
“We’re the only ones who can save Nadine,” I evaded, unable to discuss Zak’s opinion on the matter. “We have to get her back from Varvara before they vanish. Will …” I coughed slightly, steeling myself. “Will you guys help me save her?”
Asking for help. Why was it always so difficult?
But I’d barely gotten the question out before Aaron nodded. “Of course.” He squinted thoughtfully. “My only concern is whether we should expect the Ghost to show up in the middle of our rescue.”
“I promise this isn’t a trick the Ghost is playing—”