This is close enough. Thanks," I said to the cabdriver, and he swerved to park a block from Carew Tower's drop-off zone. It was Sunday night, and the trendy restaurants in the lower levels of the Cincinnati high-rise were busy with the March Madness food fest-the revolving door never stopped as laughing couples and groups went in and out. The kids-on-art exhibit had probably brought in a few, but I'd be willing to bet that the stoic pair in the suit and sequined dress getting out of the black car ahead of me were going up to the revolving restaurant as I was.
I fumbled for a twenty in my ridiculously small clutch purse, then handed it over the front seat. "Keep the change," I said, distracted as I tugged my shawl closer, breathing in a faint lilac scent. "And I'm going to need a receipt, please."
The cabbie shot me a thankful glance at the tip, high maybe, but he'd come all the way out to the Hollows to pick me up. Nervous, I readjusted my shawl again and slid to the door. I could have taken my car, but parking was a hassle downtown for festivals, and tawny silk and lace lost a lot of sparkle while getting out of a MINI Cooper. Not to mention the stiff wind off the river might pull apart my carefully braided hair if I had to walk more than a block.
I doubted that tonight's meeting with Quen would lead to a job, but I needed all the tax deductions I could get right now, even if it was just cab fare. Skipping filing for a year while they decided if I was a citizen or not hadn't turned out to be the boon I originally thought it was.
"Thanks," I said as I tucked the receipt away. Taking a steadying breath, I sat with my hands in my lap. Maybe I should go home instead. I liked Quen, but he was Trent's number one security guy. I was sure it was a job offer, but probably not one I wanted to take.
My curiosity had always been stronger than common sense, though, and when the cabbie's eyes met mine through his rearview mirror, I reached for the handle. "Whatever it is, I'm saying no," I muttered as I got out, and the Were chuckled. The thump of the door barely beat the three loud Goth teenagers descending upon him.
My low heels clicked on the sidewalk and I held my tiny clutch bag under my arm, the other hand on my hair. The bag was small, yes, but it was big enough to hold my street-legal splat gun stocked with sleepy-time charms. If Quen didn't take no for an answer, I could leave him facedown in his twelve-dollar-a-bowl soup.
Squinting through the wind, I dodged the people loitering for their rides. Quen had asked me to dinner, not Trent. I didn't like that he felt the need to talk to me at a five-star restaurant instead of a coffee shop, but maybe the man liked his whiskey old.
One last gust pushed me into the revolving door, and a whisper of impending danger tightened my gut as the scent of old brass and dog urine rose in the sudden dead air. It expanded into the echoing noise of a wide lobby done in marble, and I shivered as I made for the elevators. It was more than the March chill.
The couple I'd seen at the curb were long gone by the time I got there, and I had to wait for the dedicated restaurant lift. Hands making a fig leaf with my purse, I watched the foot traffic, feeling out of place in my long sheath dress. It had looked so fabulous on me in the store that I'd bought it even though I couldn't run in it. Wearing it tonight was half the reason I had said yes to Quen. I often dressed up for work, but always with the assumption that I'd probably end the evening having to run from banshees or after vampires. Maybe Quen just wanted to catch up? But I doubted it.
The elevator dinged, and I forced a smile for whoever might be in it. It faded fast when the doors opened to show only more brass, velvet, and mahogany. I stepped inside and hit the R button at the top of the panel. Maybe my unease was simply because I was alone. I'd been alone a lot this week while Jenks tried to do the work of five pixies in the garden and Ivy was in Flagstaff helping Glenn and Daryl move.
The lobby noise vanished as the doors closed, and I looked in the mirrors, tucking away a strand that had escaped the loose braid Jenks's youngest kids had put it in tonight. If Jenks were here, he'd tell me to snap out of it, and I pulled myself straighter when my ears popped. There were ley line symbols carved into the railing like a pattern, but they were really a mild euphoric charm, and I leaned backward into them. I could use all the euphoria I could get tonight.
My shoulders had relaxed by the time the doors opened and the light strains of live chamber music filtered in. It was just dinner, for God's sake, and I smiled at the young host at the reception desk. His hair slicked back, he was wearing his uniform well. Behind him, Cincinnati spread out in the dark, the lights glinting like souls in the night. The stink and noise of the city were far away, and only the beauty showed. Maybe that's why Quen chose here.
"I'm meeting Quen Hanson," I said, forcing my attention back to the host. The tables I could see were full of people taking advantage of the festival's specials.
"Your booth isn't ready yet, but he's waiting for you at the bar," the man said, and my eyes flicked up at the unexpected sound of respect in his voice. "May I take your shawl?"
Better and better, I thought as I turned to let him slip the thin silk from my shoulders. I felt him hesitate at my pack tattoo, and I straightened to my full height, proud of it.
"This way, please?" he said as he handed it to a woman and took the little paper tag, handing it to me in turn.
I let my h*ps sway a little as I fell into step behind him, making the shift to the revolving circle without pause. I'd been up here a couple of times, and the bar was on the far side of the entry. We strode through tables of upscale wining-and-dining people. The couple who had come up ahead of me were already seated, wine being poured as they sat close together and enjoyed each other more than the view. It had been a while since I'd felt that, and a pang went through me. Shoving it down, I stepped to the still center portion of the restaurant with the brass and mahogany bar.
Quen was the only one there apart from the bartender, his stance hinting at unease as he stood, not sat, with a ramrod straightness in his suit coat and tie. He had the build to wear it well, but it probably hampered his movement more than he liked, and I smiled as he frowned and tugged at his sleeve, clearly not seeing me yet. The reflection in the glass behind the mirror showed the lights on the river. He looked tired-alert but tired.
His eyes were everywhere, and his head cocked as he listened to the muted TV in the upper corner behind him. Catching the movement of our approach, he turned, smiling. Last year I might have felt out of place and uncomfortable, but now I smiled back, genuinely glad to see him. Somehow, he'd taken on the shades of a father figure in my mind. That we kept butting heads the first year we'd known each other might have something to do with it. That he could still lay me flat out on the floor with his magic was another. Saving his life once when I had failed to save my dad probably also figured into it.
"Quen," I said as he needlessly tugged his dress slacks and suit coat straight. "I have to say this is better than meeting you on the roof."
The hint of weariness in his eyes shifted to warmth as he took my offered hand in a firm grip to help me onto the perch of the bar stool. Tired or not, he looked good in a mature, trim, security sort of way. He was a little short for an elf, dark where most were light, but it worked well for him, and I wondered if that was gray about his temples or a trick of the light. A new sensation of contentment and peace flowed from him-family life was agreeing with him, even if it was probably also why he was tired. Lucy and Ray were thirteen months and ten months, respectively. As Trent's security adviser, Quen was powerful in his magic, strong in his convictions . . . and he loved Ceri with all his soul.
Quen made a sour, amused face at the reminder of our first meeting at Carew Tower. "Rachel, thank you for agreeing to see me," he said, his low, melodious voice reminding me of Trent's. It wasn't an accent as much as his controlled grace extending even to his speech. He looked up as the bartender approached and topped off his glass of white wine. "What would you like while we wait?"
The TV was just over his head behind him, and I looked away from the stock prices scrolling under the latest national scandal. My back was to the city, and I could see a hint of the Hollows beyond the river through the bar's mirror. "Anything with bubbles in it," I said, and Quen's eyes widened. "It doesn't have to be champagne," I said, warming. "A sparkling wine won't have sulfates."
The bartender nodded knowingly, and I smiled. It was nice when I didn't have to explain.
Quen leaned in close, and I caught my breath at the scent of cinnamon, dark and laced with moss. "I thought you were going to order a soft drink," he said, and I set my purse on the bar beside me.
"Pop? No way. You dragged me all the way into Cincy for a meeting at a five-star restaurant; I'm getting the quail." He chuckled, but it faded too fast for my liking. "Usually," I said slowly, fishing for why I was here, "when a man invites me somewhere nice, it's because he wants to break up with me and doesn't want me to make a scene. I know that's not the case here."
Silent, he tightened his jaw. My pulse quickened. The bartender came back with my drink, and I pushed it around in a little circle, waiting. Quen just sat there. "What does Trent want me to do that I'm not going to like?" I finally prompted, and he actually winced.
"He doesn't know I'm here," Quen said, and his slight unease took on an entirely new meaning.
The last time I'd met Quen without Trent knowing about it . . . Dude! "Holy crap, did you get Ceri pregnant again? Congratulations! You old dog! But what do you need me for? Babies are good things!" Unless you happen to be a demon, that is.
He frowned, hunching over the bar to sip his drink and shooting me a look to lower my voice. "Ceri is not pregnant, but the children do touch on what I wanted to talk to you about."
Suddenly concerned, I leaned closer. "What is it?" I said, a flicker of anger passing through me. Trent could be a dick sometimes, taking his "saving his race" quest to unfair extremes. "Is it about the girls? Is he pressuring you about something? Ray is your daughter!" I said hotly. "She and Lucy being raised together as sisters is a great idea, but if he thinks I'm going to sit here while he shoves you out of their life-"
"No, that's far from the truth of it." Quen set his drink aside to put his hand on mine. My words cut off as he gave my hand a warning squeeze, and when I grimaced, he pulled away. I could knock him flat on his ass with a curse, but I wouldn't. It had nothing to do with the fancy restaurant and everything to do with respect. Besides, if I knocked him down, he'd knock me down, and Quen had a spell lexicon that put mine to shame.
"Ray and Lucy are being raised with two fathers and one mother. It's working beautifully, but that's what I wanted to discuss," he said, confusing me even more.
I drew my hands back to my lap, slightly huffy. So I had jumped to conclusions. I knew Trent too well, and pushing Quen out of the picture to further the professional image of a happy, traditional family wasn't beyond him. "I'm listening."
Avoiding me, Quen downed a swallow of wine. "Trent is a fine young man," he said, watching the remaining wine swirl.
"Yes . . ." I drawled, cautiously. "If you can call a drug lord and outlawed-medicine manufacturer a fine young man." Both were true, but I'd lost any fire behind the accusations a while ago. I think it was when Trent slugged the man trying to abduct me into a lifetime of degradation.
Quen's flash of irritation vanished when he realized I was joking-sort of. "I have no issue in having a secondary public role in the girls' lives," he said defensively. "Trent takes great pains to see that I have sufficient time with them."
Midnight rides on horseback and reading before bed, I imagined, but not a public show of parenthood. Still, I managed not to say anything but a tart "He gives you time to be a dad. Bully for Trent." I took a sip of bubbly wine, blinking the fizz away before it made me sneeze.
"You are the devil to talk to, Rachel," he said curtly. "Will you shut up and listen?"
The sharp rebuke brought me up short. Yes, I was being rude, but Trent irritated me. "Sorry," I said as I focused on him. The TV behind him was distracting, and I wished they'd turn it down even more.
Seeing my attention, he dropped his head. "Trent is conscientiously making sure I have time to be with both Ray and Lucy, but it's becoming increasingly evident that it's caused an unwise reduction to his own personal safety."
Reduction to his own personal safety? I snorted and reached for my wine. "He's not getting his fair share of daddy time?"
"No, he's scheduling things when I'm not available and using the excuse to go out alone. It has to stop."
"Ohhhh!" I said in understanding. Quen had been keeping Trent safe since his father had died, leaving him alone in the world. Quen practically raised him, and letting the billionaire idiot savant out of his sight to chat with businessmen on the golf course probably didn't sit well. Especially with Trent's new mind-set that he could do magic, too.
Then I followed that thought as to why I might be sitting here, and my eyes got even wider. "Oh, hell no!" I said, grabbing my purse and shifting forward to get off the stool. "I am not going to do your job again, Quen. There isn't enough money in the world. Not in two worlds."
Well, maybe in two worlds, but that wasn't the point.
"Rachel, please," he pleaded, taking my shoulder before I could find the floor. It wasn't the strength of his grip that stopped me cold, but the worry in his voice. "I'm not asking you to do my job."