“I—I wrote the address on a piece of paper. It’s in the front pocket of my suitcase.”
Kai strode out of the room. As Martha’s face purpled, I poked Ezra in the arm. He tilted his head and she gasped in air, too winded to speak.
“Got it,” Kai said, returning to the room.
“When is Varvara leaving?” I asked Albert.
“Tonight—I don’t know when. But she told us not to be late.”
Tonight. Shit. We were out of time. I turned to the guys. “What do we do with them?”
“I texted Girard,” Kai answered. “He’s sending a team to pick them up. They’ll be handed over to the MPD.”
“I see criminal charges in your future,” I told the couple cheerfully. “Accessory to murder and kidnapping, just to start. Hey Kai, is there a statute of limitations for magical crimes?”
Martha glared furiously. With a wave over my shoulder, I sauntered out of the house and down the front walk, the guys following. Once we were outside, Aaron groaned.
“You ruined it, Tori,” he complained. “Ezra and I have the ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing down to an art. He bursts in all scarred and terrifying and starts suffocating people, and I act all worried, and they spill their guts within three minutes.”
“Maybe you should’ve told me that.”
“Actually, I’m glad we didn’t.” He widened his eyes emphatically. “What was that? How’d you know the tea was poisoned? And whipping out your artifact as fast as a combat sorcerer—it was freakin’ hot.”
“Don’t forget her expert use of a black-magic artifact,” Kai added, his tone lacking Aaron’s admiration.
I winced. “Um. Am I in trouble for that?”
“Of course not.” Ezra linked his arm through mine. “Do we look like tattletales to you?”
Stopping beside the car, I peered up at him. “What next?”
“We’re going to save Nadine from the sorceress.” He smiled crookedly. “Right now.”
A frown tugged at Kai’s lips. “We need a larger team, but we can’t wait around for people to join us.” He pulled out his phone. “I’ll coordinate on the drive. Let’s hope we can get backup in time to make a difference.”
“So we’re doing this?” I asked, my voice hushed with a mix of hope and fear. “We’re going after Varvara? For real?”
Aaron unlocked the trunk of his car. From inside, he pulled out a huge sword, its leather baldric wrapped around the dark sheath. Shaking the straps out, he flashed me a dangerous grin.
“Good thing we came prepared.”
My thumbs flew across the keyboard on my phone, half my attention on the words I was typing and half on Aaron as he drove. His eyes were fixed on the dark, winding road, bordered by huge trees that formed a leafy tunnel over the street.
“How much farther, Tori?” he asked.
I hit send then hastily switched back to the navigation app. “Looks like a block and a half.”
The cute duplexes and bungalows of the Rivers’ neighborhood were long gone. I couldn’t see any houses outside the car windows, only mature trees and manicured bushes that formed impenetrable privacy screens. At irregular intervals, gated driveways interrupted the walls of greenery.
According to my map, somewhere on the other side of those trees was the ocean. Yep, these were waterfront properties. Expensive waterfront properties. Not, like, million-dollar houses. Oh no. Twenty million? Fifty million? I wasn’t sure. I honestly didn’t want to know.
The important thing to note was, assuming Varvara didn’t intend to take Nadine through an international airport, the easiest way to leave the country was by sea. Varvara’s escape route was literally a stone’s throw away from her house. Damn clever of her, though I hated to admit it.
Slowing the car, Aaron drove another block, then pulled off the road and onto the strip of grass beside a dense twelve-foot hedge—neatly trimmed, of course.
“We’re not there yet,” I told him.
“We need to finish gearing up. Plus, sneaking is easier when you don’t drive straight to the front door.”
I grunted in reluctant agreement.
He shut off the car and twisted in his seat, his blue eyes unusually serious. “I know I said we’d do this—and we will—but I need to ask you something first.”
Nervousness fluttered through me—extra anxiety on top of my nerves about taking on a notoriously lethal rogue sorceress without proper backup, which wouldn’t arrive for at least forty-five minutes.
Aaron braced his forearm against the steering wheel. “I’m aware that the three of us aren’t known for caution, but there’s a difference between taking calculated risks and throwing your safety right out the window.”
“When we were going after the Ghost,” Kai said from the backseat, “you put yourself in more danger than I know how to quantify. And though you can’t explain how you escaped, I suspect it was mostly luck and circumstance.”
I winced. Yeah, he’d pegged that one right.
“You came this close”—Aaron held up his finger and thumb, an inch apart—“to imprisonment or death.”
Fighting another flinch, I tried to think of something to say in my defense, but even in my head, all my excuses sounded idiotic.
“You knew how dangerous it was. You knew no one had ever returned after he took them.” Aaron leaned toward me. “Why did you go with him?”
I looked from his face, harshly lit by the car’s overhead light, to Kai in the backseat. Ezra was sitting directly behind me, out of my line of sight, so I was spared his guilt-inducing, puppy-eyed, “you worried us” expression.
“It seemed like the only option.” I squeezed my phone between my palms, unable to meet their eyes. “If the Ghost had left, we would’ve lost our only chance to save Nadine.”
“We?” Kai asked. “Or you? Why are you so hell-bent on saving this girl?”
My head jerked up. “Why shouldn’t I be? She’s sixteen, all alone, trapped with parents who don’t love her, abandoned by everyone, completely helpless, and—”
Aaron’s hand closed over mine, cutting off my shrill rant.
“Tori,” he murmured, “are you sure you’re talking about Nadine?”
“When you went with the Ghost, we didn’t know Nadine’s parents were giant douchebags. No one had abandoned her. She wasn’t unloved—as far as we knew. She was helpless, but that’s because she ran away.”
“But now we do know that—”
He squeezed my hand. “Tori.”
My throat constricted. He was right. I’d gone with the Ghost thinking Nadine was alone and abandoned and unloved. But I’d assumed all those details, filling in the blanks based not on her life—but on mine.
At sixteen, I had been alone. I had been abandoned and unloved.
I’d been desperate to save Nadine from that fate, as though changing her future would somehow change my past. If I rescued her, I would also rescue sixteen-year-old me. If I rescued her, the ghost of my teenage self would forgive me for being so weak.
And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Nadine wasn’t me. Faced with abusive parents and horrifying truths about her origins, she’d left it all behind. She’d found her way to Zak, who took her under his wing.
But me? I hadn’t had the guts to run away. My brother had, but I stayed with my father, letting him destroy me piece by piece. When Justin ditched me for the police academy, I went right back into the cycle of dependency by living with my father’s relatives. Even after relocating across the country, I was still clinging to the familiar—moving in with Justin, relying on him again.
Aaron’s warm hand slid up my arm, his brows pulling together in concern, and I realized tears were leaking down my face. Gasping in embarrassment, I twisted away from him as I fought for composure.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered thickly.
Aaron curled his fingers around the back of my neck, his thumb gently rubbing my cheek. “You scared us really bad, Tori. We don’t want to lose you.”
“I know. I won’t be stupid this time.”
“Just this time? I was hoping you wouldn’t be that stupid ever again.”
I sniffed. “You’re one to talk. You do stupid shit all the time.”
“Hey, I’ve never—”
“No, no,” Kai interrupted. “She’s got a point.”
I shot Aaron a triumphant smirk. He rolled his eyes, and with no more discussion than that, he threw his door open. Following suit, I hopped out of the car. The guys piled out and opened the trunk.
They’d partly geared up back at the Rivers’ place, but now they got their weapons out. Aaron strapped his big-ass sword Sharpie onto his back. Kai, already wearing a black garment that resembled a bullet-proof vest with small pockets and sheaths, checked that his tiny throwing knives and ninja stars were in place. If the small triangular blades had a real name, I didn’t know it and I didn’t want to. I was calling them ninja stars, because hell yeah. Kai, the lightning ninja.