“It’s not really a shock.” He shifted on the bike seat. “You’ve shown none of the classic ‘falling in love’ signs.”
“But why not?” I pressed my forehead against his back. “I really like Aaron. We get along great. We always have fun, and we have amazing chemistry. It’s been three months. Why am I not in love with him already?”
“Maybe you’re trying too hard.”
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” He huffed. “Why are you asking me?”
I rubbed my temples as though I could massage some sense into my brain. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with me.”
“Maybe nothing is wrong. Maybe he isn’t right for you. Just because a man asks you out doesn’t mean he’s destined to be your one true love.” He shrugged, jostling me. “Two fiery personalities probably aren’t a good match anyway. You two never relax when you’re together.”
“But …” My backbone shriveled, feeling as sturdy as a stalk of grass. “How do I tell Aaron?”
“Just tell him. He already suspects, Tori. He won’t hate you.”
“But it’ll be awkward.”
“He’ll get over it.” Kai patted my knee—the only part of me he could easily reach. “Trust me, Tori. Aaron is …” He paused thoughtfully. “Adaptation is one of Aaron’s defining strengths. He doesn’t hold grudges or dwell on the past. He’s always moving forward, searching for the next adventure.”
I nodded slowly, recognizing the truth in Kai’s assessment of Aaron. Still, ending things with him wouldn’t be easy. Distracting myself from the thought, I checked my phone. No notifications.
Growling impatiently, I gave up on texting and dialed the stupid druid. Kai twisted to watch as I held the phone to my ear. It rang twice, then a computerized female voice informed me that the number I’d dialed was unavailable.
That dickhead had turned off his phone? I would strangle him.
Furious, I swung off the bike. “Screw it. We’re going in.”
“Going in?” Kai slid off too and set the kickstand. “You said you weren’t here for the gallery event.”
Thanks to a lethal oath spell, I couldn’t explain. Hissing curses under my breath, I stalked to the entrance, Kai following me. Light blazed through the glass doors and I threw them open. A spacious but empty lobby greeted me, the ticket counter dark and quiet. A second set of doors straight ahead offered a glimpse of a large space scattered with people in dressy clothes.
I’d gotten two steps through the second doorway when a pair of burly men in black suits stepped into my path.
“Excuse me, ma’am. May I see your invitation?”
I bristled. “Ma’am? Do I look like a ma’am to you?”
His expression didn’t change. “Your invitation, please.”
Shit. Zak hadn’t mentioned that this was an invitation-only event. “Uh … I just need to have a word with someone who’s here.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible unless you have an—”
A delighted female shriek echoed off the walls. A petite young woman with long black hair came running—as much as she could run in five-inch heels.
“OhmygodisthatKaisukaaaaaay?” she squealed, all as one word.
Rushing up to us, she threw her tiny arms around Kai’s waist, a diamond-encrusted purse bouncing on her wrist.
“Oh my god,” she exclaimed again, beaming up at him. “Kaisuke, I had no idea you were coming. It’s been so long! Everyone will be so delighted to see you.”
Hugging his arm to her chest, she forced him deeper into the room.
A bouncer stepped toward them. “Invita—”
“Get lost,” she barked, her cutesy squeal replaced with imperious command. “Don’t you know who this is? He doesn’t need an invitation.”
The man scowled and fell back into position. Dragging my jaw along the polished floor, I trailed two steps behind as the woman hauled a silent, expressionless Kai across the grand hall. A few well-dressed loiterers glanced toward us curiously.
“Oh, Kaisuke,” the young woman gushed. “I thought you’d never be back. It’s been, what? Five years?”
“Seven,” he corrected stiffly.
“So long!” she cooed, giving him a once-over. “My, you’ve really filled out. You’re so tall! You were only, hmm, seventeen when we last saw each other?” She squeezed his bicep through his leather jacket. “Mm, I approve. You could have dressed up, though. This is a formal auction.”
As she planted her hands on her hips in a playful reprimand, I scanned her sheath dress, the black fabric glittering with every movement. The men moving through the hall or standing at the cocktail bar wore suits and ties, and the women were done up in dark, sexy dresses.
Thank god I’d put some effort into my appearance before leaving the house. I wore the same outfit I’d donned last night—a snug turtleneck that covered the fae markings, gunmetal-gray skinny jeans, and my trusty bomber jacket—and I’d tamed my bed-head curls into a braid. Still, Kai and I were conspicuously underdressed. At least we matched.
The woman finally noticed me, her rosebud lips quirking. “Who is this?”
Kai pulled me to his side—clamping me tight against him. Every muscle in his body was hard with tension. “She’s with me.”
The woman’s eyes squinched irately, then her smile flashed. “He forgot to tell you it was formal dress, didn’t he?”
“No, I knew,” I said, not letting Kai take the blame. “I just didn’t care.”
She blinked, half smiling as she glanced at Kai for a clue as to whether I was joking. When he remained stone-faced, she cleared her throat. “Well, the auction begins in a few minutes, so everyone is up in the second-level gallery. Shall we join them?”
Kai looked at me, silently asking what to do. Frantic thoughts buzzed through my head, pulling me in different directions. Whatever this was, neither Kai nor I was prepared for it, but Zak had to be nearby. If “everyone” was on the second level, that’s where I’d find the druid.
“Shall we head up?” I asked Kai, giving him a chance to back out if that’s what he needed to do.
A muscle jumped in his cheek, but he nodded.
“Lovely!” the woman exclaimed. She offered her hand to me. “I’m Hisaya—Yamada Hisaya. It’s a pleasure.”
Yamada? Oh shit.
“You’re related,” I said weakly as I shook her teeny hand, keeping my palm tilted down so she wouldn’t spot the glowing fae rune.
“Oh, of course!” she giggled. “Distantly, though. I’m married to his third cousin. It’s a huge family, as you know.”
“Yeah …” I muttered, afraid to look at Kai. What had I dragged him into?
She slid her fingers into the crook of Kai’s elbow like he’d offered his arm and pulled us deeper into the building. He kept his other arm locked around my waist, his white-knuckled grip on my jacket hidden by my sleeve.
“It’s so wonderful that you’ve come back into the fold, Kaisuke! And don’t worry, no one will hold it against you. We’re just too delighted!” Hisaya chattered on without drawing breath, tossing out name after name—who was here, who hadn’t made it, who would be most pleased to see him. All people Kai must know, judging by the casual ease with which Hisaya mentioned each person.
“But Kaisuke,” she said as we walked into a spacious rotunda with twin staircases rising to the second floor, “you’ve hardly said a word! How is darling Makiko?”
He said nothing.
“Oh,” she pouted. “Surely she’s forgiven you?”
Silence. Kai was doing a great impression of Zak’s impregnable caginess.
Hisaya stopped, forcing me and Kai to halt, and wagged a chiding finger under his nose. “You can’t pretend she doesn’t exist, Kaisuke. She’s your fiancée!”
If we hadn’t already stopped, I would’ve fallen on my face. His arm tightened painfully around me, his fingers digging into my side. Hisaya frowned at our closeness.
“Makiko and I haven’t spoken in years,” he said flatly.
Hisaya barely hesitated. “Well, you’re back now, so you two can make up right away. I can’t wait for the wedding. It’ll be grand!”
“So grand!” I chirped. “Hisaya, honeycake, could you give us a moment? We’ll be right up.”
She blinked at “honeycake” and glanced questioningly at Kai. “Yes, of course. The auction starts shortly, so don’t dawdle. I’ll let everyone know you’ve arrived.”
Smiling over her shoulder, she sashayed up the steps. I drew Kai under the curving staircase and out of the way of the final guests heading to the next level.
“Kai,” I whispered, prying his fingers off my side before he left bruises. “What on earth is going on?”
“That’s my line,” he retorted in a low growl. “Why are we at a black-magic auction?”
“I had no idea it was an auction until she said so. How do you know it’s black magic?” I wasn’t surprised—why else would Zak get invited?—but what had made Kai jump to that conclusion?