With thudding footsteps, Aaron trotted down the staircase in the corner. “Tori, ready to go?”
Relieved, I jumped up. “Yeah, ready!” To Sabrina, I added, “Next time, maybe?”
“Sure.” She smiled wanly. “Don’t forget the cards.”
Grabbing the deck, I gave her a quick wave as I stuffed them into my backpack. I was already dressed for my second—and hopefully last—visit to the youth shelter.
Aaron waved me toward the bar. “I’m parked in the back.”
Deciding not to comment on his disregard for kitchen rules—why bother when breaking rules was a point of pride for most guild members?—I fell into step beside him as we pushed through the saloon doors. Food and drink service didn’t start until four, so the kitchen was clean and abandoned, and would stay that way for another couple hours.
Aaron assessed my outfit. “You picked good clothes for your disguise. You look about seventeen.”
He didn’t sound pleased about that last part, and I smirked. Since he was a few years older than my fresh-faced twenty-one, my sudden youthfulness probably unnerved him.
“Thanks.” I slapped at my skintight jeans, the tears in the thighs baring strips of my fair skin. “Can’t say these are to my taste now, but sixteen-year-old me would approve.”
He laughed as we rounded the corner. I reached for the back door, but he tugged me to a stop—then pulled me into his chest. My heart gave an extra hard thump.
“When you’re back to looking legal again,” he said, “we need to reschedule our date.”
I wound my arms around his neck. “Right after we capture the Big Bad and rescue the damsel in distress.”
“Immediately after. And this time, I’m turning my phone off.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Can too.” His hands slid down to the small of my back—pulling my hips into him. “One night won’t hurt.”
Heat fluttered through me, as hot as his flames, and I tipped my head back to give him an arch look. “What makes you think I’d spend the night?”
“You mean you don’t want to play video games into the wee hours of the morning? You had so much fun losing last time.”
Snorting, I opened my mouth to disagree, but he leaned down. Abandoning my comeback, I stretched onto my tiptoes. His soft lips brushed across mine—
Then the door flew open and Ezra walked in.
With his attention on his phone, he almost crashed into us before his head came up. Lurching to a stop, his mismatched eyes widened in surprise. “Oh! Sorry.”
I leaped off Aaron like he’d burned me, my cheeks flushing hot. Before meeting the guys, I’d been all but immune to blushing, and I strongly regretted the loss of that ability as Ezra took two quick steps back, looking as embarrassed as I felt.
“Sorry,” he said again, waving his phone. “You weren’t answering and I didn’t know what was taking you so … long.”
“Impatient much?” Aaron asked amusedly. He didn’t comment on my undoubtedly beet-red face, instead grabbing my hand and pulling me outside with him. “Let’s get going, then.”
Hurrying alongside Aaron, I peeked back at Ezra, but aside from that initial flash of embarrassment, he was back to his usual unflappable self. Shaking off my inexplicable discomfort, I waited while Ezra climbed into the backseat of Aaron’s old two-door sports car, then hopped into the passenger seat and buckled up.
I used the short car ride to pull myself together. Aaron parked in a lot a few blocks from the youth shelter and we unloaded from the car. Tugging my shirt straight, I glanced between the two guys. Kai had joined a C&H team that was one combat expert short, so he was off electrocuting rogues for the next twenty-four hours. I found it weird that he wasn’t with us.
“Take your time,” Aaron advised me. “Gregory should have researched you thoroughly by now. Since you aren’t in the MPD archives, he’s probably decided you’re unregistered and ‘safe’ for the Ghost. I’m not sure what his next move will be. He’ll either put you in contact with the Ghost, or the Ghost will come looking for you. What Gregory tells you—or doesn’t tell you—should give us an idea. Stay in character and wait for him to come to you.”
“Got it.” I slung my backpack over my shoulder. “I’ll be back in two hours.”
With a wave, I strode toward the main street. Nerves twisted in my stomach but I ignored them. I’d do better this time. No teen-flashback meltdowns.
Moving at a leisurely pace, I entered the youth center, checked in, and settled onto the same sofa. The minutes ticked by at an agonizingly slow rate, and I had to resist the urge to constantly check my phone’s clock. As my allotted time disappeared, I texted Aaron that I’d give it ten more minutes. Otherwise, we’d have to try again tomorrow.
When the last ten minutes elapsed, I shoved the tarot cards in my backpack, boiling with frustration. What a jerkoff. Promising to be here all day, then vanishing. Or maybe Gregory was here and he was ignoring me.
I rose to my feet—and he emerged from a hallway, his smile lighting up when he saw me.
“Victoria! How are you today?”
“Fine,” I mumbled.
“I have some information for you. Would you like to discuss it here or in an office?”
“Uh. An office?” Doing my best to appear uncertain instead of victoriously gleeful, I followed him into a hall where an open door revealed a generic office—more like a mini meeting room—with walls covered in posters and the desk lined with colorful pamphlets in plastic holders. I perched rigidly on a chair as he shut the door and took a seat on the other side.
Folding his hands, he studied me somberly. “Do you know any other people who share your gift with tarot cards? Did your mother or grandmother ever introduce you to anyone else with unusual abilities?”
I shook my head.
“Did they ever talk about mythics or magic?”
Furrowing my brow, I shook my head again.
“You have a unique gift, Victoria. And you aren’t alone. There are many gifted people in this world, with widely varying abilities. Magic.” His eyes twinkled with amusement. “It’s a word most people scoff at, but we both know there’s real magic in your cards.”
I tried to imagine how an average teen would react to that statement. I couldn’t base it on my own reaction to discovering magic, since “Can I see that fireball again?” probably wasn’t typical.
“You’re in a difficult position, but there are mythics—members of the magical community—who can help you find your place.” He hesitated. “I don’t want to alarm you, but with a gift as powerful as yours, I think we should move forward with caution.”
“Caution?” I repeated suspiciously.
“Predictive magic is a highly valued skillset. Some people could … take advantage of that.”
Some people like, say, the Ghost? Unsure how to respond, I clutched my backpack and waited. Gregory seemed to debate his next move. Was he having second thoughts about trading a teen for whatever reward the Ghost would give him?
“I know someone who’s uniquely set up to help young people like you who might otherwise be vulnerable in the wider community. He runs a safe house for mythics, and there you could learn more about your abilities.”
Nausea rolled through my middle. A safe house where a girl could meet her peers and learn what she was—it sounded so perfect. Had he given Nadine the same spiel? In her shoes, I would’ve jumped on the chance just like she must have.
“That sounds … really good,” I forced out.
He must’ve mistaken my disgust for nerves, because his encouraging smile returned. “It’s a safe place. It would be perfect for you.” He pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket. “I’ve set up a meeting for you with the man who runs the safe house. Talk to him, and he’ll explain everything. I know it seems rather strange, but like many shelters, this safe house is a closely guarded secret.”
He slid the folded paper across the desk. I picked it up and opened it. An address was scrawled in a masculine script with a date and time underneath. Saturday at 10:00 p.m. Yes! This was it. We were going to catch that kid-stealing psycho—and then we were coming back for this talking blob of pond scum.
Since I was still playing the part of an angsty teen, I frowned at the paper instead of whooping in victory. “Ten o’clock? Isn’t that kind of late?”
“This guy does things a bit differently,” he reassured me. “He won’t harm you, I promise. Just talk to him and see what he has to say.”
Gulping back a sarcastic laugh at “he won’t harm you,” I stuffed the paper into my pocket. I wanted to ask more questions about who this mysterious benefactor was, just to see what Gregory might reveal, but I didn’t want to trigger his suspicions.
Instead, I stood. “Thanks. I’ll meet with him.”
“Wonderful,” Gregory replied with perfect sincerity. “Do you need anything in the meantime? A place to sleep?”
“No, I’m fine.” I stepped toward the door. “But I’ll let you know if that changes.”