Ezra wore fingerless gloves that ran all the way to his biceps, the knuckles and elbows reinforced with shining steel. A baldric was strapped over his chest, waiting for his weapon—his Twin Terrors, a two-foot pole arm that split into dual blades, which could then be attached end to end to make a four-foot double-bladed pole arm. It was freaking badass. He swung the pole over his shoulder and stuck it onto the magnetic baldric.
And me? I just stood there, having no gear to don. It kind of sucked.
Aaron slammed the trunk shut, adjusted the strap over his chest, and gave me a sharp grin. “Ready?”
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“For now, we’re winging it,” Kai said. “Sneak in, check out the property, break into the house.”
“Rescue the girl, defeat the evil sorceress, celebrate victory,” Ezra concluded.
I pumped my fist, pretending I was as confident as they sounded. “Let’s do this!”
As Kai and Ezra approached the twelve-foot hedge, Aaron caught my hand, pulling me to a stop. I squinted at his face in the darkness.
He brushed his fingers along my jaw, the touch gentle and questioning. “Are you okay, Tori?”
Leaning down to bring our faces closer, he studied me. “Is there any way I can convince you to wait here?”
He sighed. “Stick close to us, don’t go anywhere by yourself, and don’t take risks.”
I opened my mouth to retort with something pithy and sarcastic, but the words died on my tongue. Fear tightened his eyes—fear for my safety. However difficult the last two weeks had been on me, they’d been worse for him.
His warm hand cupped my cheek. Fluttering heat uncoiled in my core, spreading through my limbs, and I didn’t need the soft pressure of his hand to guide my head back. His lips brushed over mine, then he kissed me hard. I gasped against his mouth, my arms curling around his neck.
“Uhhhmm,” Ezra drawled. “Maybe you two could save that for later?”
Tearing myself away from Aaron, I turned. Ezra stood at the bottom of the hedge, and Kai was perched awkwardly on top, irritation written all over his face even in the darkness.
With a laugh, Aaron stepped into Ezra’s cupped hands and the aeromage threw him upward with an assistive gust of wind. Aaron scrambled onto the stupidly high hedge, then he and Kai jumped off, disappearing on the other side.
Ezra cupped his hands again. “Your turn, Tori.”
“Uh.” I was pretty sure Aaron had made that maneuver look much easier than it was. Doubt flitted through me. If the first obstacle—a goddamn hedge—was intimidating me, maybe I should wait in the car.
No, I could do this. I’d smashed poison over a darkfae, flown with a dragon, and discovered the secret identity of the most notorious rogue in the city. I was a badass.
Tugging my shirt straight, I marched up to him and put one running shoe in his gloved hands. He crouched, dropping lower so I could bend my knee for the jump, then together we launched up. I leaped as he threw me upward, a helpful blast of wind sweeping me into the air. I caught the dense branches at the top—and pitched backward off the bush, clutching useless handfuls of leaves.
Ezra dove to catch me, his arms clamping around my waist. Heaving me up before I hit the ground, he staggered back a step, lost his balance, and landed on his butt with a grunt. I sprawled in his lap, stunned by my own incompetence.
“Sorry!” Flinging the torn leaves away, I twisted around—and found myself face to face with him, our noses almost touching.
I reeled back, then scrambled up and nonchalantly brushed shredded foliage off my pants.
Climbing to his feet, Ezra gave me a funny look, a crinkle between his dark eyebrows. “Shall we try again?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
My second attempt went much better. I dropped off the hedge on the correct side and Aaron caught me. Phase one, complete.
Varvara Nikolaev’s estate was even more opulent than I had expected. The sprawling lawn, interrupted by a winding brick driveway, was impeccably manicured and included towering trees, artistically clustered shrubbery, several statues, and a marble fountain. The three-story house lay on the land like a plump, lounging baroness, her limbs and bulges adorned with tall windows and white columns.
“Be careful,” Kai warned. “Varvara is expecting the River couple to arrive within the hour, and I don’t think she’s planning a friendly welcome.”
“What do you mean?” I whispered as we crouched behind a red bush trimmed into a perfect sphere. I plucked off several leaves. Bushes weren’t supposed to be perfect spheres. It was unnatural.
“The Rivers are a liability,” he explained. “They’re the only ones who can tie Nadine to Varvara, and I doubt that’s a loose end she wants to drag around with her. Tolerance and mercy aren’t common traits for dark sorcerers.”
“You think Varvara is planning to kill them?”
“I would bet money on it. You probably saved their lives.”
Hmm. Could I get karmic points for unintentional good deeds?
“Ezra and Tori,” Kai whispered. “You two stay here and watch the front. I’ll scout the east side of the property and Aaron, you can scout the west side. Ten minutes.”
I almost protested, but he and Aaron were already zipping away, moving swiftly from shadow to shadow in a way I knew I couldn’t duplicate. Well, I felt useless.
“Don’t worry,” Ezra murmured, noting the dejected slump to my shoulders. “I’m not great at sneaking around either. I usually get door-watching duty.”
That actually made me feel better. Then again, Ezra sucked at stealth operations because he was literally half blind. I didn’t have that excuse.
Kai and Aaron returned right on time, reporting signs of sorcery hidden around the property but no clues about Varvara’s or Nadine’s whereabouts. There was, however, a sleek white yacht anchored at the end of a long floating dock that extended into the ocean waters at the north end of the property. Varvara hadn’t made her escape yet. She must be waiting for the Rivers to show up first.
Not wanting to waltz in the front door, Kai led us around back. I craned my neck. The main level extended to almost twice the square footage of the upper levels, and its rooftop formed a wide terrace accessible from the second floor. We crept to the ground-level garden doors and Kai produced a zippered pouch from his vest, pulled out two small tools, and picked the lock in about ten seconds. Color me impressed.
He opened the door and we slipped into a huge pool room. The water shimmered in the faint glow of decorative lights set around the ceiling. As adrenaline buzzed in my veins, we tiptoed down a luxuriously carpeted hall and into a large … parlor room? I didn’t know the proper names for fancy rich-people rooms.
Whatever it was called, my first impression was red. So red. Textured crimson wallpaper, rich cherry fabric on the furniture, scarlet- and amber-patterned carpet. Massive oil paintings in heavy gold frames covered the walls. The architecture, with domed ceiling cutouts and hugely elaborate trim, was very Victorian England, but the décor was giving me serious Winter Palace vibes. Varvara had added touches of home to the interior design.
As we slunk through the room, a crash sent me leaping into the air. Kai, Aaron, and I whirled around. Ezra stood beside a delicate curio table, surrounded by the shattered pieces of a vase. None of us moved as we listened, but no suspicious sorceresses appeared to investigate the noise.
Ezra cringed sheepishly. “Sorry.”
He hadn’t been kidding about his lack of sneaking abilities. He’d told me before that moving targets weren’t a problem for him—they disturbed the air, which he could sense with his air magic—but he was easily defeated by stationary furniture.
Kai scanned several wide doorways leading away from the parlor-ish room. “We should split up. Aaron and Ezra, you go left. Tori and I will go right. Look for Nadine, but don’t engage Varvara. Beware of traps. Meet back here in fifteen minutes.”
Split up? Seriously? Was I the only one who’d ever watched a horror movie before?
But Aaron and Ezra were already heading across the parlor. I cast a worried glance after them, then hastened in the opposite direction, following Kai. Together, we ventured deeper into the silent mansion, our survival hinging on little more than faith and luck—both of which I’d always made a point of never counting on.
“How is splitting up a good idea?” I hissed at Kai as we passed through another gaudy sitting room.
“We can cover more ground. The faster we find Nadine and get out, the better. If we can avoid confronting Varvara …”
Trailing off, he hastened through another archway and into a grand corridor, complete with twelve-foot ceilings and monster-sized gold chandeliers. At the front of the house, a huge curving staircase dominated the three-story-tall foyer.
“Varvara wants Nadine’s loyalty,” I whispered. “I think she’ll avoid treating Nadine like an outright prisoner. Let’s check the bedrooms.”
He nodded, and we scampered up the stairs to the third floor and ventured into a hallway covered with deep, luxurious carpet.
Quiz time. How many bedrooms does a multi-million-dollar, 20,000-square-foot mansion have? Answer: too damn many. Who needed this many bedrooms? It was ridiculous! Luckily, they were easy to check because, surprise, the doors were all open. And, just as luckily, they were all devoid of any nasty surprises. If I hadn’t known better, I would never have guessed an evil sorceress lived here.