“Tori isn’t here right now. Please call back when she’s had more sleep.”
He chuckled. “I’ll keep it quick. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine.” I squinted my eyes open, blinded by the sunlight. “Are you okay?”
“Yep.” A pause. “Entirely thanks to you.”
“It was no big deal.” I yawned, almost cracking my jaw. “You owe me a new umbrella, though.”
“Consider it done. Can I swing by later today to get my phone?”
I nodded before remembering he couldn’t see it. “Sure. Any time after … three.”
“You’re going to sleep that long?”
No, but it would take a very long, very hot shower before I was anything close to mobile. “I’ll see you then.”
I tossed his phone onto the table and pulled the blankets around myself. Everything hurt and I wasn’t even going to think about getting up for at least an hour.
Perched on a stool at the kitchen counter a few hours later, I turned the Queen of Spades over, examining it from every angle. It looked like a regular, if ancient, playing card. The hand-painted queen wore a black dress with a cowl over her hair and held a spiky scepter that resembled a weapon more than a decoration. Her faint smile was enigmatic and commanding.
I’d forgotten the card was in my pocket until I prepped my shorts to wash with Sin’s anti-dye potion. It had worked like literal magic, lifting the stains from my hair and clothes with a quick scrub.
I flipped the card over again, silently repeating the incantation: ori repercutio. From what I could tell, the spell reflected magical attacks, but not reliably. Still, it was cool. Would its previous owner miss it? I grinned evilly at the card. Finders, keepers.
Sticking it in the pocket of my comfy yoga shorts, I arched my back, grimacing at the painful ache. Nothing like a few hard falls to make all your muscles hate you. My bandaged elbows and knees stung but were easy to ignore. My black eye, not so much. It wasn’t completely swollen shut, but close. I’d reapplied Sin’s healing cream this morning, but it did nothing to hide the spectacular purple bruise.
Justin, dressed in thin sweats and a t-shirt, stepped out of the bathroom, releasing a wave of steam into the hallway. He’d arrived home from his shift an hour ago and his next stop was bed—already delayed by an extended interrogation about the state of my face before he’d gone to shower.
“How are you doing?” he asked. “Do you need anything?”
“I’m fine, Justin. It’s just a bruise.” I tried to roll my eyes but it hurt too much. “Seriously, I’m good. Get some sleep.”
“You should quit that job before you get hurt again.”
I shouldn’t have told him I’d been injured in a bar fight at work, but it was the first lie that had popped into my mind. “It was an accident. Could’ve happened anywhere.”
“You didn’t come home with a black eye from any of your other jobs.”
Grumbling, I started to rise when my phone rang. The caller ID flashed “Door,” meaning Aaron was here to retrieve his cell. I hit 9 to unlock the security entrance.
“I’m meeting someone,” I said. “Why don’t you go to bed?”
“A new friend from work. I accidentally took his phone last night.” I stood up and stretched more stiff muscles. “It’ll just take a minute.”
I could feel Justin’s eyes on me as I padded down the hall. A long minute passed, then someone knocked. With a warning glare at Justin, I opened the door. Aaron stood in the hallway, scratches marring his cheek and gauze taped over his arm, but otherwise as casually sexy as always in a maroon t-shirt and well-worn blue jeans.
Then I spotted the oversized purple gift bag hanging from his hand, a hot-pink umbrella hooked over the edge. “What is that?”
“That is the result of a bet,” he said shamelessly. “I’d better win this one, Tori. I mean it.”
He peered over my head into the apartment. “Am I allowed in?”
“My brother is home.”
“Ah. In that case—”
I sensed Justin approaching from behind.
“Don’t be rude,” Justin said, all sorts of territorial undertones in the simple words. “Invite him in.”
Ugh. “Nah. He can just take his phone and—”
Aaron stepped forward, forcing me to back up. The three of us jammed into the cramped entryway. Aaron pulled the door shut, then offered his hand to Justin.
They shook hands and I swore their knuckles turned white. I really wished I could roll my eyes without hurting myself.
“Okay, okay, quit it.” I grabbed Justin’s shoulder and steered him down the hall ahead of me. “I guess you can come in, Aaron.”
“I’m already in.” He followed me into the main room, and as I plopped onto my stool, he leaned against the counter. “Nice place, man.”
“Thanks,” Justin said, slouching against the wall. “What happened to your face? And your arm?”
“I told you there was a bar fight,” I jumped in. “Aaron is a regular. He broke it up.”
“It was no biggie,” Aaron said modestly. “Just a few scrapes.”
“How did Tori get a black eye?”
Shit, Justin was cross-examining the witness to see if I was fibbing. “Justin, we’re not suspects in a crime. Could you please lay off?”
He didn’t look away from Aaron. “I don’t like it when my little sister gets hurt.”
Oh, screw this. I headed for the door.
“Tori,” Justin called. “Where are you going?”
“Somewhere else. See you later.”
“Wait.” He pushed away from the wall. “I’m going to bed. You don’t have to leave.”
I paused, waiting skeptically. With a stern glance at Aaron, Justin went into his room and closed the door.
Reluctantly returning to my stool, I hissed, “You couldn’t have just stayed in the hall, could you?”
Aaron grinned, unrepentant. “Then I wouldn’t have found out if I won the bet.”
“What bet?” I demanded.
“Do you like your new umbrella?” He unhooked the pink monstrosity and handed it to me. “I can’t wait to see you hit someone with it.”
I set it aside and gave him a hard stare. “The bet?”
“Sin started it.” Laying the gift bag on the counter, he gestured grandly. “She said I should give you a thank-you gift for saving my ass—”
“I don’t need a gift—”
“—but me, Kai, and Ezra disagreed on what to give you.” He nudged the bag toward me. “Open it and take a look.”
I almost told him to shove it. I hadn’t expected thanks for helping him last night, let alone gifts, like I was some kind of high-maintenance princess girl. But my curiosity was too strong.
Grudgingly, I opened the bag and pulled out the first item—a huge bouquet of pink lilies and orange roses. The second gift was a box of chocolate and a bottle of wine, tied together with a red ribbon. I dug my hand into the bag and withdrew the last item: a fluffy white blanket with a pattern of colorful owls.
“So?” Aaron prompted. “Which one do you like most?”
“That’s the bet? Which gift I’ll like?”
“Did it occur to any of you that I might find this offensive?”
He dropped onto the stool beside me, unexpectedly somber. “I know we didn’t need to get you anything, but … you’ve got to be hurting today. We can’t fix that, but we wanted to give you something that would bring you some comfort.”
Biting my lip, I looked again at the gifts. Explained like that, my annoyance melted away. “The flowers are from Kai.”
Aaron blinked. “How’d you know?”
Kai was—reputedly—a playboy. Made sense he’d go for the traditional woman-charming gift. “You picked the wine and chocolate.”
Aaron squinted at the items like they might have nametags. “Yeah …”
I touched the silky fluff of the blanket, tied into a bundle with a blue string. That meant the blanket was from Ezra. Had he made the logical leap from hugs to cuddly things, or was it a coincidence? Lost in thought, I picked up the flowers and circled the peninsula to the sink.
“Flowers? That’s your favorite?”
“No.” As far as I knew, Justin didn’t own a vase, so I grabbed a tall beer glass and filled it with water. “I like all three.”
“No, you have to pick one.”
“Nope. I like them all.” When he groaned, I arched an eyebrow. “Sore loser, huh?”
“I don’t believe it,” Aaron muttered. “I owe Kai fifty bucks.”
I paused in the middle of arranging the flowers. “Huh?”
“He bet you wouldn’t pick one.”
Finished with the flowers, I absently opened the chocolates. Popping one into my mouth, I glanced at Justin’s door then shifted closer to Aaron.