Her eyes took a slow tour over my exposed skin, tracing the black veins. Guilt flashed across her face as she spun the ring on her finger then looked down at it.
“This old thing?” She lifted her eyes to mine for the briefest of moments. “I don’t even think it’s silver,” she dismissed.
Really? She was going to play it like that?
“Give it to me.” I held out the hand that wasn’t pulsing with pain, willing to take another hit to prove a point.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed and went to move away but I reached out and grabbed her wrist. She gasped and flinched and we both froze for a second. I let go immediately and leaned over the bar to get a closer look at her arm. There was a ring of bruises around her wrist that hadn’t been there when I sat down.
“I’m sorry,” I apologised with a gentle brush on a bruise the size of a man’s thumb. “Who did this to you?” I growled, looking around the room suspiciously.
Poppy arched her brows and smirked at me, a gleam in her eyes as she stepped away. “It was nothing, an accident.”
I let her get away with the lie for now but I had my suspicions about the punk who had been looking at her with covetous eyes when I got here. I was later than usual thanks to the bad reaction to her jewellery but I wouldn’t let that happen again. And if I saw him again… scaring him away would be my pleasure.
I sipped my drink and watched her work. She was competent and polite but didn’t flirt like Dulcie did. Poppy’s end of the bar was quieter too, a veritable oasis of calm in the busy bar. She kept her distance from me which was amusing and annoying. I thought we’d made some progress the other night. There had been something in her eyes as we’d danced and the way she had tangled her fingers in my hair for a moment had nearly bought me to my knees. I’d been so caught up in her, the scent of her skin, the feel of her hand in mine, that I’d thought the tingle I’d felt had been just that, a tingle, a frisson, a spark. Not a silver ring destroying me from the inside out.
“Poppy. Time for your break.”
I watched as she spoke to the man I knew to be the owner, then she disappeared into the staff room and I was left to wait for her. The first time I had come in here on Red’s trail he had been working the bar alone but since then he had hired Poppy and then Dulcie. There were plenty of other bars in the area and I had visited many of them in my search but I kept coming back to this one and I wasn’t alone. I knew what kept me coming back and I guessed it was the same for most of the men. I had been confused at first, by my attraction to Poppy, had tried to stay away. Then I had seen her in the shadows, there had been a shimmer in the air around her and I’d seen her. I’d growled and gone to her, couldn’t do anything else.
I had been impressed as hell, that she had hidden from me that way, fooled by a spell. I assured myself that I had known her on some level though, and then the games had begun. I had ignored her, flirted with Dulcie and other women too, waiting for her to reveal herself. But she hadn’t. She had teased and taunted and ignored me right back. I liked playing with her, even if she didn’t know we were playing. I loved that she was jealous, the way she had verbally attacked me about Dulcie had me almost howling with glee. Then that dance.
My neck itched and I was reminded of the downside of the dance, but it had been worth it. I wasn’t in a hurry to experience the pain again though so I had to convince Poppy to take the ring off. Especially as I suspected that was the key to the spell, making her eyes and her hair light.
“Get you another?” The bar owner was before me, his eyes on my empty glass and I shook my head.
“I think I’ll wait for Poppy,” I declined his offer.
“Girl’s gone for the night,” he said with an annoyed grunt. “You want another or not.”
No, he was wrong. She was close by, I could feel her. The air stirred and I had to bite back a growl as heads turned towards me. Well not to me, towards the woman sliding onto the empty stool beside me.
“What can I getcha?” The bar owner was there with a smile in no time.
“Whisky rocks please.”
He nodded and reached for a glass and the bottle without looking away from her. “Do I know you?” He tilted his head as she shrugged.
“I’ve been in here before,” she admitted and I snorted.
“Maybe that’s it,” he said sounding puzzled and waved away her money with a smile. “First one’s free for such a pretty lass.”
“Thank you,” she said softly dismissing him and he moved away.
Her hand reached for the glass as I watched, her fingers long and slender and bare. Excitement thrummed through me and I turned on the stool to face her. She had her head down, a baseball cap low on her brow, but there was no hiding her long red tresses or the curves of her body. A growl rumbled in my chest and I had to fight the urge to grab her. This was her game after all, and I was pretty sure that would be breaking the rules. Maybe I could just bend them a little?
“Well hello darlin’, where have you been all of my life?”
Her eyes snapped to mine with a glare then she blinked and the heat was gone. She ducked her head quickly and shot me a shy smile but didn’t answer.
I reached out and tapped the bar beside her glass. “Buy you another?” I offered.
She picked up the glass and threw the liquor back. “Sure.” She cleared her throat and smiled at me as I signalled for refills.
The drinks were accompanied by a hard glare that I barely noticed as she angled her body towards mine with another shy smile. “I’m Tate,” I offered my name along with my hand.
“Hi Tate, I’m-” she gasped, shock rippling across her face. “Are you okay?” She tentatively touched my hand and I looked down to savour the sight but instead was reminded of Poppy and her ring.
“I am,” I nodded. “It’s just an allergic reaction.” I turned my hand and caught hers before she could pull away.
“It looks painful,” she said with a wince and I chuckled at her little game.
“It was.” I shrugged as she looked at me. “I can barely feel it. Now.”
Her eyes flashed with anger again and she tried to pull her hand away but I held on. I had a point to make before I let her run again.
“What about you darlin’? Do these hurt?” I stroked my finger over the bruises ringing her wrist. “And more importantly, is the idiot who did this to you in pain yet?”
“I…” she blinked and shook her head, suddenly flustered. “It’s nothing.”
This time I let her pull away, I even reached for my drink and handed hers to her. “Let’s toast.”
She licked her lips nervously but lifted her glass gamely. “To what?”
“To… old friends lost and new friends found.” I paused and she nodded, a tentative smile on her lips. “To magic,” I added and touched my glass to hers.
She held my gaze, searching, wondering what I meant, waiting for me to what? Pounce? Then she sighed and echoed, “To friends and magic.”
We both drank and she set her glass down with a soft click, her fingers tracing up and down the side in a nervous gesture.
“So Tate, do you come here often?”
“Occasionally,” I lied to see how she’d react. Her mouth tightened and her fingers stopped for a moment before resuming a rapid up and down motion.
“Any special reason you come here?” She looked at me through her lashes, hiding even as she fished for information.
“Nope.” I shrugged. “It’s just convenient, close to home, you know.”
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed and I felt bad for a second, then my neck itched and my guilt cleared.
“How about you? Any special reason you came into this bar tonight?”
She shook her head then picked up her glass and drained it. “None at all. I was just passing by.” She moved quickly then, sliding to her feet, lifting a hand to her ball cap to pull the brim down a little more. “Thanks for the drink.”
She was walking away from me before I could respond and then the bar owner was reaching for her empty glass, his eyes hard as he stared at me. Almost as if he was daring me to go after her. Was he in on the joke? Did he know about the spell?
“You scared her away,” he said with a growl and I relaxed. He had no idea who she was.
I wanted to go after her stayed where I was. She would be back tomorrow and so would I. Whatever game she wanted to play was fine with me. So long as she only played with me.