Home > Two Witches and a Whiskey (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #3)(8)

Two Witches and a Whiskey (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #3)(8)
Author: Annette Marie

I’d donned a lightweight sweater, its hood pulled up, and my hair was tucked under a ball cap. A pair of oversized sunglasses completed the concealment, and I didn’t even look like a weirdo since the weather had transformed from sunshine bliss to gloomy clouds. I grabbed my umbrella, just in case.

The walk to Aaron’s house took just over half an hour—not because it was far, but because I had to go around the ten square blocks of train terminal and business complex between our neighborhoods. Twitchy paranoia buzzed through me as I reached his street, lined on one side with houses while the other was a barrier of old trees that hid the aforementioned business complex from view.

I checked for any vehicles with chain-smoking detective types sitting in them—no sign of anything suspicious—then walked well past the blue cottage-style house. I entered the yard through the back alley and tried the handle. Locked.

Squatting, I pulled up the loose brick at the edge of the stoop and grabbed the spare key. After unlocking the door, I replaced the key and waltzed inside.

As I’d been doing for the better part of three months, I kicked my shoes off and set my purse and umbrella on a nearby counter, then walked into the middle of the kitchen. I’d been over here plenty of times, but never this early—and never unannounced.

To my surprise, the house wasn’t silent. The bass beat of music thumped through the floor, and I frowned at the door to the basement. They were up? Really? It wasn’t even noon.

I tossed my sunglasses into my purse, then cracked the basement door open, letting the music—some generic rock song with a quick beat—into the kitchen. The lights were on, but all I could see was a sliver of an unfinished room.

A polite, tactful person would’ve called down to announce her unexpected presence, but I’d never been called tactful in my life. Smirking, I padded down the stairs, paused at the bottom, then stuck my head around the corner, prepared to be shocked or possibly scandalized.

The rumpus room stretched the length of the house. One end was full of the usual basement collection of boxes, bins, and storage shelves, but the rest had been converted into a full-service gym. Treadmills, stair master, stationary bike, weight machines, free weights, and a mirrored wall. The other side had a punching bag suspended from the ceiling and thick sparring mats forming a large square. Music poured from a stereo in the corner.

Aaron was lying on a weight bench, holding a loaded barbell a few inches above his chest. Ezra stood in the spotter position, hands hovering below the bar.

Both guys were staring at me.

Right. Sneaking up on Ezra was almost impossible, despite him being half blind. With his aeromage magic, he could sense disturbances in the air caused by people moving around.

“Uh, hi?” I stepped off the last stair. “What’s up?”

“Tori, what are you doing here?” Ezra blurted.

“Oh, just … you know … passing by.” The last bit came out in a distracted mutter, because Aaron’s sculpted arms were beautifully displayed by his sleeveless shirt—every muscle taut and bulging under the barbell.

“Passing by?” Ezra repeated, his surprise melting into amusement. “Where—”

With a grunt that sounded kind of like Ezra’s name, Aaron lifted the bar about six inches, only for it to tilt dangerously to one side.

Ezra grabbed the barbell, taking its weight, and continued without missing a beat. “—were you headed that our place was on your way?”

I gazed at him, dumbfounded. “Uh …”

Aaron sat up, wheezing, his face red from exertion.

“Just to be clear, Tori,” he panted as Ezra placed the barbell on the rack, “I was at the end of my set before you came in. I don’t normally need a rescue.”

“Sure,” I agreed absently. Frowning, I crossed the room to the bench. The guys watched me examine the setup, then step into Ezra’s spot and grasp the bar loaded with weights.

“Um, Tori—” Aaron began.

I pulled. It felt like pulling on a piece of steel embedded in concrete. Teeth gritted, I strained to shift it. The barbell didn’t budge.

“What the hell?” I muttered.

“It wouldn’t be exercise if it were easy,” Aaron pointed out. “I’d be happy to help you start weight training, but don’t yank on that or you’ll hurt yourself.”

“But …” I looked from the weights to Ezra. “You …”

He blinked. “Me?”

Yes, him. He’d lifted that immovable hunk of metal like it was made of papier-mâché. I pursed my lips at the barbell. Maybe it wasn’t that difficult to move for guys as fit as them, and Aaron had only struggled because he’d been at the end of his endurance.

Aaron poked at my sweater, breaking my trance. “What’s with the getup?”

“I’m in disguise. Who knows if MagiPol is scoping out your house?”

“It’s a possibility, to be honest. It’s not a good idea for you to be here.”

Hurt cut through me. I folded my arms angrily. “Well, maybe I wouldn’t have had to come by if you’d bothered to contact me. I’ve been sitting around for days, not knowing what’s happening or if I’ll ever see you again, while you’ve been going on like nothing is wr—”

“Tori,” Ezra interrupted, his tone unexpectedly sharp. “I told you this was temporary.”

His obvious displeasure surprised me. He was normally impossible to offend. I opened my mouth, then closed it.

Aaron hopped off the bench and slung an arm around me. “Well, you’re here now! Damn, I’ve missed you.”

I wrinkled my nose. “You’re sweaty.”

“That happens with exercise. We’re two hours into our routine.”

My mouth fell open. “Two hours? Why are you doing such a big workout so early?”

“Early? We started late today.” He steered me toward the stairs. “We’d normally go for another hour, but we can cut it short today. We still need to do a cooldown, though.”

I did some easy math in my head. “A three-hour workout? Is it a special fitness day or something?”

“We train like this almost every day.”

Whoa. Seriously? How did they have time for that much exercise when—

“Wait. Is that why you guys never show up anywhere before mid-afternoon?”

“Did you think we slept twelve hours a day?”

Maybe. “So you’re saying you work out for hours every morning?”

“Yep,” he said, releasing me as we entered the kitchen. Ezra came in after us and tossed Aaron the water bottle he’d carried up. The pyromage took a long drink before continuing. “We need to be in top condition to withstand the drain of our magic. Any mage worth anything trains like an athlete.”

I’d heard that before, but I had given little thought to how much training Elementaria required—especially to be at the top of their class.

“We need to do a cooldown, then shower,” Aaron added. “Give us a few minutes.”

He leaned down to kiss me. I tilted my face up and his lips brushed mine, then he was hurrying back downstairs. Ezra started to follow.

“Ezra!” His name popped from my lips against my better judgment.

He glanced back, head angled so he could see me with his right eye.

I bit my lip. Was I seeing things that weren’t there? But no, awkwardness lurked in his silence. Something I’d said had upset him.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted.

His eyebrows pulled together. “For what?”

“I don’t know.” I wrung my hands together. “But you’re mad at me and I’m sorry.”

His mismatched eyes softened. “I’m not angry, Tori. It’s just that I promised you this was all temporary, and you didn’t believe me. That sucked to hear.”

“I …” I swallowed. “I didn’t mean to not believe you. I just know how these things always play out.”

“How do they always play out?”

My gaze dropped to the floor. “I lose my job and all my new friends forget about me.”

“Do you really think we’re like those other people?”

I peeked up at him, the intensity of his question catching me off guard. So fast I wondered if I’d imagined his solemn tone, he gave me a quick smile and disappeared down the stairs.

Blinking at the empty doorway, I rubbed a bewildered hand over my mouth. Morning-Ezra was full of surprises.

He was cagey about his past, but I was too, so I didn’t ask questions. What I did know was that Ezra could beat anyone at video games, liked mountain scenery, read thrillers and police procedurals, watched Game of Thrones religiously, disliked Harry Potter for some reason I’d never understand, picked bell peppers out of his food, couldn’t cook a meal without breaking a dish—half blind, remember?—and fell asleep partway through most movies.

I knew way more than that—the little things, the day-to-day things—but when it came to the important stuff, I was left in the dark. None of the guys would let me in. Even Aaron, who I was supposed to be dating, didn’t talk about his childhood, his family, his future, his ambitions, or his wildest dreams.

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