Three Mages and a Margarita (The Guild Codex: Spellbound Book 1) by Annette Marie

  I looked up at him, wide-eyed. That’s how he’d known Ezra was waiting to catch us? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it as Zora and her team advanced on the dejected psychics. Kai sheathed his handful of throwing knives.

  “No!” Rigel’s hoarse cry cut through the quiet. He pulled himself off the ground, his clothes still smoking from the last lightning attack, and lifted the gun he’d somehow held on to. He aimed the barrel at Kai.

  Faster than should have been possible, Ezra veered toward Rigel. His pole arm twisted apart, one half in each hand, and light gleamed down the foot-long steel.

  Then Ezra, soft-spoken Ezra with the gentle smile, rammed both blades into Rigel’s back.

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  I propped my chin on my palm. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”

  “I’m good,” Justin muttered distractedly. “I’m—oh, shit! Shit shit shit!”

  He grabbed the pot lid as starchy water boiled over, spilling across the stovetop. Swearing, he scooped noodles into the sizzling wok full of chicken and vegetables. As he reached blindly for the bottle of teriyaki sauce, I nudged it into his hand.

  “I’ve got this,” he said, upending the bottle over his concoction. “This is my world-famous teriyaki stir-fry. You love it, remember?”

  I remembered eating it, not loving it, but I nodded noncommittally while saying a silent prayer for the poor vegetables drowning in sauce. Rest in salty peace, carrots and broccoli.

  Setting the bottle aside, Justin cheerfully tossed the contents of the wok. “This is great. I haven’t made this recipe since you moved in.”

  “That’s because I usually cook,” I pointed out. “I don’t mind.”

  His enthusiasm dimmed. “You cook for me even when I’m not home and leave me leftovers in the fridge, clean the kitchen, and keep the apartment spotless.” His hazel eyes, twins to mine, assessed me. “And you pay half my rent and utilities on top of that, even though you’re sleeping on the sofa.”

  I shifted on my chair, a twinge of pain running through my calf where I’d been shot. Not that Justin knew about that. He dished stir-fry into two bowls and slid one to me. I reached for the chopsticks but he grabbed them first, holding them hostage.

  “Tori,” he said seriously, “don’t worry about rent this month, okay? Just let me help you out this one time until you find a new job.”

  Looking away from his earnest stare, I heaved a sigh. “Okay. Just this one month, though.”

  He handed me a pair of chopsticks and I dug them into my meal. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too saucy and the vegetables were crisp. Not bad.

  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he went on, standing at the counter with his bowl in hand. “But I’m honestly relieved you aren’t working at that bar anymore. The place was nothing but trouble.”

  My chopsticks paused, a piece of chicken hovering over the bowl. “I’ll find something soon. Maybe another bartending position.”

  Justin slowly chewed his mouthful. “You liked that job, didn’t you?”

  I flapped one hand dismissively. “They were a bunch of kooks. Good riddance.”

  “I’m sorry, Tori.”

  Biting my lip, I fought back the gloomy shroud that had clung to my thoughts for most of the week.

  After defeating the psychic guild five days ago, the rest of that night had passed in a whirlwind of activity as more Crow and Hammer members showed up to restrain the psychics and treat injuries. Aaron and I were rushed away to a fancy house in a snazzy neighborhood where I met the mysterious healer Elisabetta.

  Unfortunately, I sort of passed out so I missed all the cool stuff and woke up with my leg already fixed, the gunshot wound replaced by a circle of smooth, pink skin. Literal sorcery. I didn’t even know how bad the injury had been. All that was left was a slight twinge in the muscle, which Elisabetta assured me would pass within a week.

  Since then … life had gone back to normal. As in, pre-Crow-and-Hammer normal. I hadn’t heard from Aaron, Ezra, or Kai, and even Sin had ghosted me. Was I surprised? Not really. I was just a human, after all. Non-magical nobody here. Why would they bother keeping up with me after I’d been given the boot?

  I wasn’t surprised … but it still hurt. It hurt a lot.

  As Justin piled dirty dishes into the sink, I slipped my hand into my back pocket, feeling the worn edge of a playing card. The Queen of Spades. My only souvenir of a vacation from reality that had come to an abrupt end.

  I tried to help Justin clean up, but he shooed me away, reiterating that the meal had been his treat and he wasn’t letting me lift a finger. After freshening up in the bathroom, I grabbed the folder I’d prepared that morning and called a goodbye as I headed out.

  The early afternoon sun blazed in my eyes as I stepped onto the baking-hot sidewalk. My purse—recovered from the battlefield and painstakingly cleaned but still smelling of smoke—hung off my shoulder, and I missed the weight of my pink umbrella, lost in the fire.

  As I walked into the Sunday bustle, I dejectedly flipped my folder open to the stack of résumés with my spotty employment history. I hadn’t bothered including the Crow and Hammer on it. What was the point? I’d lasted less than three weeks.

  Tucking the folder under my arm with my purse, I extended my stride. Before I started dropping off applications, I had one stop to make.

  The only person to reach out since that night was Clara. She’d texted yesterday asking me to come in. That was it. Just to come in. She probably needed termination paperwork signed or something. And I needed to pick up my final paycheck.

  The closer I got to the guild, the more my steps slowed. My stomach twisted, compacting my lunch into a queasy ball. I didn’t want to go back. I just wanted to forget about the insane magical world I’d entered. Walking in there and seeing that everything and everyone had moved right along with their magical lives without me … it was going to suck hardcore.

  Mentally pulling up my big-girl pants, I marched onward.

  I didn’t hesitate again until I reached the guild door with the painted crow, perched on its hammer. Revulsion and the need to run away swept through me, triggered by the spell on the door, but I shoved it open and stepped into the dark interior, momentarily blind after the dazzling sunlight.


  I caught a glimpse of Sin’s blue tresses before she swept me into a crushing embrace. After squeezing all the air from my lungs, she stepped back and laughed at my expression, her hair in a wild tangle.

  “I’m so glad you’re back!” she exclaimed, linking our arms. The pub was comfortably busy, most of the faces familiar. Mythics called out as we passed, but Sin towed me straight to the bar. “How’ve you been? How’s your leg?”

  “Fine,” I said dazedly, setting my folder and purse on the bar top. “Um …”

  “I’m sorry I didn’t call you.” She perched on a stool. “MagiPol was investigating us. They were all up in our business, snooping around, checking records of everything.”

  “They were? Why? The psychics were the psycho kidnapping murderers, not you guys.”

  “Yeah, but we have a reputation and MagiPol wanted to be sure we hadn’t provoked KCQ.” She shrugged. “They were prying into everything. Clara made us delete your contact info and conversation history from our phones in case MagiPol checked them.”

  My eyes widened. Was that why I hadn’t heard from anyone all week? I glanced around the pub but a certain trio of mages was nowhere in sight.

  “Liam will be happy to see you. He went home yesterday—full recovery.” Sin smiled tentatively. “I’m glad you’re back, Tori.”

  I didn’t point out that my return would be short-lived. “MagiPol didn’t find out about me, did they?”

  “Nope, you’re good. Everyone was really careful to keep mum about your involvement. It wouldn’t have been good for the guild or for you.”

  Feeling weak in the legs, I sat on a stool. The bar was unmanned; Cooper must be in the kitchen.

  “I ca
n’t believe everything that happened.” Sin smirked gleefully. “You saved Aaron’s life again. He owes you big time. Make sure you rub it in his face as much as possible.”

  I opened my mouth, unsure I wanted to explain all the reasons that wouldn’t be happening, when Clara rushed out of the kitchen in her usual the-world-is-ending frenzy.

  “Tori! You’re here.” She dropped a stack of folders on the counter. “Come with me.”

  I expected her to lead me to the back office. Instead, she headed for the stairs. Chewing my lower lip, I followed her past the second level work area and up to the third story. Just like my one and only visit to this level, we entered the shared workspace of the three officers, but their desks were empty.

  At the back of the room was another door, and Clara knocked before opening it. Inside was an airy office with a single desk and two large bookcases on opposite walls, framing the space. Three chairs were lined up on one side, occupied by the guild officers: Girard with the magnificent beard, ice-queen Tabitha, and blond and bespectacled Felix.

  Behind the desk, a vaguely familiar man sat—older, salt-and-pepper hair, a short and neatly groomed beard, and distinguished features. Darius, the guild master.

  He gestured at the chair in front of his desk. “Welcome back, Tori. Please have a seat.”

  I minced forward and perched on the chair, my gaze darting from face to face as Clara took a spot behind Darius’s right shoulder. Was I in trouble? They’d already fired me, but maybe Darius was going to turn me over to MagiPol for punishment.

  Darius folded his hands and rested his chin on them, analyzing me from head to toe. At least I was dressed nice and not wearing my usual short-shorts. I’d hate to go to magic prison in less than my best.

  “Tori,” the guild master said, his words slow as though he were choosing them carefully. “Among mythics, unique abilities and strong personalities abound. It takes truly rare and exceptional strength to stand out among the crowds of intensely gifted mythics we encounter daily.”

  His gray eyes met mine. “You, Victoria Dawson, are the most surprising and remarkable young woman I have met in many years, mythic or otherwise. Thanks to your courage, determination, and trust in your own instincts, you saved Aaron’s life where I failed to protect him. He, I, and this guild owe you a great debt.”

  I gulped silently, suppressing my surprise. Not what I’d been expecting to hear.

  “That said,” he continued, his voice hardening, “you put your life in severe danger. You failed to communicate your plan, acted alone without a support network, and nearly died. You disregarded the skills of other guild members and withheld crucial information.”

  Mouth hanging open, I shrank in my chair, as intimidated as a kindergartener being lectured by the school principal.

  “This isn’t a guild of independent contractors. At the Crow and Hammer, we function as a team—our strengths compensating for our fellows’ weaknesses. No life is worth more or less than another, including yours.” He leaned back. “Under different circumstances, this meeting would be to determine disciplinary action.”

  “D-discipline?” I stammered.

  “I do not allow my guildeds to recklessly endanger themselves any more than I allow them to endanger others. However”—amusement sparked in his eyes—“since you are not a member of this guild, I can do no more than express my displeasure.”

  Straightening out of my cower, I attempted to piece my dignity back together.

  He stroked his beard. “I understand Tabitha terminated your employment. Clara and I disagree with her decision.”

  Tabitha’s dark eyes flicked to Darius then to me. “I made that call during a crisis with a guilded’s life on the line, but perhaps I was hasty in removing you from the situation.”

  Was that an apology? I wasn’t sure.

  Darius lifted the sheet of paper lying on the desk in front of him. “Interestingly enough, according to the paperwork Clara failed to complete”—the AGM flinched—“you never officially worked for the guild. As such, I cannot rehire you.”

  I blinked.

  “Instead,” he murmured, sliding the paper toward me, “I would like to present this job offer for your consideration.”

  Numbly, I picked up the paper and skimmed it. My job, laid out in clear wording, down to my hours, wage, and perks. Darius’s loopy signature already marked the bottom of the page beside a line awaiting my signature.

  “There’s still the matter of MPD’s approval,” Darius said. “But that’s a bridge we can cross when we come to it.”

  My head buzzed. The guild master surveyed me, then said to the others, “Would you excuse us, please?”

  Clara and the three officers filed out, leaving me alone with Darius. He rose from his chair and circled the desk. Unsure what to do, I jumped up, oddly wary. Authority figures normally inspired my smart mouth to run away with itself, but Darius wielded command and influence like an expert swordsman, and even I couldn’t summon proper snark in his presence.

  To my shock, he caught my free hand in both of his, his palms warm and calloused. “Offering you a job seems like paltry thanks. Without you, I would have lost Aaron. I would have watched him die, unable to stop it. I can’t adequately express my gratitude, but know that whether or not you accept the position, you will always be welcome in any home of mine.”

  Unexpected tears stung my eyes. I blinked rapidly to clear them.

  Darius released my hand and sat on the edge of his desk. “Would you like time to consider the job offer?”

  “I’ve already thought about it.” I raised a finger. “I’ll accept on one condition.”

  His eyebrows crept up. “What condition is that?”

  I turned the paper toward him and pointed. His eyebrows rose higher, and I smiled wickedly. With a quiet laugh, he reached for a pen.

  Five minutes later, I skipped down the stairs, a copy of the signed offer in hand. As I landed on the bottom step, I reeled to a stop so fast I almost fell on my face.

  Sin had disappeared, but lined up at the bar in her place, leaning casually against it with rum and cokes in hand, were Aaron, Kai, and Ezra. Déjà vu from our first meeting tingled through me, not helped by Aaron’s mischievous smirk. I hopped down the last step, barely noticing the bustle in the rest of the pub, but before I could figure out how I wanted to react to their sudden appearance, Aaron pounced.

  Looping an arm around my waist, he swept me over to Kai and Ezra. Next thing I knew, they were standing in a triangle around me, trapping me against the bar, and my paper was in Aaron’s hands. He whooped victoriously.

  “Rehired! And—whoa! A raise?” He pointed incredulously at my original wage, now crossed out with a new number written beside it in the guild master’s neat print. “Nicely done! Darius is a stingy old badger.”

  Ezra smiled, his mismatched eyes warm. “Welcome back, Tori.”

  “About time, too,” Aaron groused. “I was starting to think the MPD agents would hang around until Christmas.”

  Kai plucked the paper from Aaron and scanned it. “Excellent. Darius didn’t include anything about supervision.”

  “Huh?” I said gormlessly.

  “Aaron is off the hook for watching you every shift. Which is good, because we have a lot of work to do. Fourteen KCQ members are still unaccounted for and MagiPol has put out very generous bounties on them.”

  “But …” I looked at the paper, devoid of a supervision clause. “Is it really okay for me to … by myself?”

  “Do you want me annoying you for eight hours a day?” Aaron’s expression turned sly. “If we’re going to spend that much time together, we should do it when you’re not working. Don’t forget I promised you a dinner date.”

  “You don’t need him, anyway,” Ezra jumped in. “If anything, Aaron should be asking you to supervise his work.”

  Aaron bristled. “What’re you—”

  “Yeah,” Kai agreed. “Maybe the three of us should work out a rotating schedule s
o Aaron has a capable defender at all times.”

  “I don’t need—”

  “You never know when you might get abducted again.”

  “That was only once!”

  As Aaron fumed, Kai and Ezra snickered. I stood between them, my brain frazzled by the sudden rearrangement of expectations. I’d thought the guys were done with me and I’d never set foot in the guild again. But now I was back, I was rehired, and …

  Three pairs of very different eyes watched me, and it was like nothing had changed. Like Aaron’s kidnapping, our terrifying escape, and our near deaths had been just another day on the job.

  Another day in the life of a mythic.

  Good thing I wasn’t a mythic. Just a bartender. For a guild. Of mythics. Okay, it was a fine line, but whatever.

  A grin spread across my face. Beaming back at me, Aaron spun us toward the bar. Ezra leaned against the counter beside me, and Kai took up the spot on Aaron’s other side.

  Returning from the kitchen in a waft of cigarette-scented air, Cooper waved in greeting. “Want anything?”

  “Order a drink on me, Tori,” Aaron said imperiously. “Least I can do.”

  “We can toast to Aaron’s amazing talents as a kidnapping victim,” Ezra suggested.

  “No,” Aaron sniffed. “We can toast to Tori being freakin’ amazing and saving my life.”

  Kai bent forward to catch my eye. “And after that, we can have a little chat about how, next time, you’ll call me and Ezra before you race off to save his helpless ass by yourself.”

  “Er, yeah.” I flinched. “Can we just not do a next time?”

  The three guys exchanged looks, then Aaron pulled me to his side. “That sounds boring as hell. We’ll just make sure you’re more prepared for ‘next time.’”

  My eyes widened. “Uh, hey now. I’m just the bartender.”

  “Nope.” His laughing blue eyes captured mine. “You might not be an official member of the Crow and Hammer, but you’re part of the family now.”

  I stared at him, speechless.

  Cooper hurried over, carrying my purse and résumé folder from the other end of the bar. He set them down beside me. “So, Tori? What do you want?”

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