Beth Cousland tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the crosswalk signal to turn green. She was only five minutes late, but those five minutes nagged at her like a high-pitched noise she couldn’t turn off. Our reservation was at seven sharp. I promised Leliana …
But, as usual, she was worrying over nothing. When she finally dashed across the last crosswalk and sailed through the doors of the little bistro her friend had suggested, Leliana was already comfortably seated and did not look the least bit impatient. She had clearly come straight from work; she’d shed her tailored grey suit jacket, revealing a creamy silk blouse, and was scrutinizing the wine list with an approving look in her eyes.
Like a true best friend, Leliana said nothing about Beth’s mild tardiness. Instead, she took one look at Beth and grinned. “It went well?” she asked, her silken Orlesian accent bright with optimism.
“It went perfectly .” Beth sat in her chair and melted into its plush back, relief turning her into something close to a puddle. She knew she was wrinkling the tailored shift dress she’d worn for the presentation, but work was over and she no longer cared. “They approved the grant renewal. Five years of full funding.”
Leliana dropped the wine list and signalled the waiter. “A bottle of your best Orlesian sparkling wine,” she told him. “We are celebrating!”
“And we couldn’t possibly celebrate with a Ferelden wine?” Beth asked wryly as the waiter departed, already merrily calculating the likely tip on that bottle.
“Beth. I love you. But do not let patriotism blind you to the truth: only Orlais knows how to truly make the bubbles dance on your tongue.” Leliana beamed. “Now then. Tell me everything.” She rested her elbows on the table and leaned in, her red bob swinging around her chin.
“You really want the blow-by-blow of my presentation on a grant renewal for a community rec center?” Beth laughed. She probably shouldn’t be so pleased about getting one of her ideas approved by an organization with her family’s name on it, but this was the first small step in Beth’s bigger scheme.
Her family’s charitable foundation was well-known for endowing scholarships at Ferelden’s most prestigious universities. Those were good programs, but Beth thought there was more they could be doing for Denerim’s teens. Today’s board meeting was one more step towards her dream of taking the Cousland Foundation in a new, more ambitious direction—one that opened doors for all of Denerim’s kids, not just the academic high achievers.
“The meeting itself wasn’t that exciting,” she admitted, replaying the afternoon in her mind. “I outlined what the Denerim Family Recreation Center has been doing with the Cousland Foundation money they got two years ago—and they’ve done a lot , the credit’s really theirs, not mine. They’ve put the money into their after-school programs, serving kids from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Those programs help parents who have to work long hours and kids who otherwise would have nowhere to go. The Board agreed it seemed like a great organization that deserved more Cousland support.”
Leliana arched an eyebrow. “They all agreed? Even your father’s former business partner, the one you were so nervous about?”
Beth scowled. “Oh. No. Rendon Howe called it a waste of money. But he doesn’t count.” She reached for one of the bread rolls on their table and shredded it in half with more force that was perhaps strictly necessary. “My father told me it was ‘just Rendon being Rendon.’”
And her dad wasn’t exactly wrong. That was the problem. In Beth’s experience, when Rendon Howe was acting like himself, he was acting like an asshole. She could still see his face, that condescending sneer underneath his hooked nose, the cruel not-quite-smile that always preceded his most insulting statements.
“But I’ll have to figure out how to work with him. He’s a permanent fixture on the board and one of my parents’ oldest friends besides,” she continued, reluctantly acknowledging reality. “Which makes me question their judgment sometimes.”
“I am surprised they have remained so close after their partnership dissolved,” Leliana said, taking an elegant sip of her water.
“Me too,” Beth admitted. “To hear my mom tell it, when Rendon bailed on their first company and made them buy back his shares, there was a lot of cursing and yelling on both sides. But I guess they all got over it.”
As she said that, however, she wondered if it were really true. After leaving his partnership with her parents, Rendon Howe had quickly made a fortune in personal finance software. But Eleanor’s coding skills and Bryce’s business know-how had gone on to revolutionize digital security. Half the households in Ferelden, and three-quarters of the top companies, used Cousland Enterprises software to check for computer viruses, secure passwords, and protect their networks. The Couslands could have bought and sold the Howes ten times over, and Beth suspected that Rendon hated that fact with every fiber of his being.
“But enough about me,” she said, realizing she hadn’t asked Leliana a single question since arriving. “How’s life at Legal Aid?”
“Stressful. Busy. But rewarding. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Leliana’s smile glowed, and Beth’s heart warmed at the sight. Her best friend had held a job for a slightly shady corporate law firm before bailing on that world to help Denerim’s neediest citizens. It was a choice that meant fewer designer shoes, but Leliana had never seemed happier.
“And there’s a new bartender at my favorite hangout near the courthouse,” Leliana finished slyly. “A gorgeous one. It is always nice to end the day on a happy note, no?”
Beth laughed. That’s Leliana. Always the romantic. “Any plans to ask this gorgeous bartender on a date?”
“Mmm, maybe. What about you? Anyone you could bring on a double date?” Leliana’s blue eyes sparked teasingly.
Beth shook her head. “I’m afraid you’ll be single-dating it. I really need to stay focused on the Foundation right now. I want the Board to take me seriously, not see me on the cover of Ferelden Weekly with my latest alleged ‘boy toy.’” The Couslands tried to keep a low social profile, but there was only so much you could do to avoid media attention when your parents regularly showed up on lists of Ferelden’s wealthiest people.
“The cover?” Leliana arched an eyebrow.
“OK, page 27. But it would still be my picture under the headline ‘Youngest Cousland steps out with mystery man!’ Not exactly the professional vibe I’m going for at work.”
Beth suspected she was being over-sensitive about her image. But she’d always hated publicity, and she hated it now more than ever. She knew how her job had to look to the world at large: like a spoiled heiress had been tossed a cushy gig at her family’s charity. She had to prove to everyone that the youngest Cousland wasn’t just a nepotism hire—she was the person who could chart the Foundation’s future.
Which meant no headlines, no scandals, and for now, no dating.
Further discussion of Leliana’s hot bartender was suspended when the bottle of sparkling wine arrived at their table. Leliana raised her glass first. “To successful presentations.”
“To the DFRC,” Beth said as they clinked flutes. “And to friends who know how to order the good stuff,” she added after her first sip.
“Shite-balls!” Sera howled as she swung and missed for the third time in a row.
“Swear rule!” Alistair and Naia yelled in unison.
“And that was two swears,” Naia added from her dugout. “So you owe us two laps around the diamond.”
“No. ‘Shite-balls’ is one word,” Sera said, her green eyes narrowing stubbornly.
Alistair could see Naia debating whether to push the point. “OK, but you just said it a second time,” he called from his dugout. “Two laps.”
Sera grumbled something under her breath that might or might not have been another swear word and stuck her tongue out at Alistair as she resumed her place on his bench. Alistair bit back a laugh. He knew he wasn’t supposed to find misbehavior funny, but he had a soft spot for the foul-mouthed fourteen-year-old.
The game continued. Despite Sera’s strikeout, Alistair’s team won the scrimmage easily. He reminded himself to tease Naia about that at his earliest opportunity. Never mind that at the end of the day, they were co-workers and next-door neighbors and best friends besides. Naia Tabris was the most insanely competitive person he’d ever met. Reminding her he’d won this round would be a great way to drive her crazy.
“Play rehearsal tomorrow,” Alistair told the kids as they packed up the gear—all except for Sera, who began her jog around the field. “Don’t forget to work on your lines.”
As he’d expected, this was met with groans from all but the most enthusiastic thespians. A particularly loud howl of protest went up from Sera as she rounded second base. Wynne had suggested adding a theater day to their program to introduce some variety. It had been … interesting. If by “interesting” you meant “full of forgotten lines, missed cues, and collapsing cardboard sets.”
Slowly, the kids filed off the field. A few of them went into waiting cars, but most were headed for the city bus. Alistair waved to the parents who came for pickup and offered them a silent apology for the extremely amateurish production of The Brecelian Forest they’d be sitting through later that month.
When they were alone on the field, Naia slung the bag of batting helmets over one shoulder as Alistair hoisted the bats. “Go on, say it,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Say what?” Alistair asked innocently. “Oh, you mean reflect on my stunning victory? I’d never point out that your players didn’t take a single base from the third inning through the seventh.”
“It’s not fair. You somehow got Sera and Shianni in the draw. I got Soris, and I love him, but he can’t spot a bad pitch to save his life.” Naia made a mock-disgusted noise.
“I’m sorry, what’s that I’m hearing? Excuses? Sounds like excuses to me.” Alistair couldn’t help his grin.
Naia screwed up her nose at him. “Fine. Be smug. My draw can’t possibly be this bad next week. Victory will be mine.”
The two of them bickered playfully as they crossed the grounds back to the DFRC, occasionally pausing the insults in order to plot out the rest of the week’s activities. Alistair took a moment to marvel at the fact that they were planning anything more than two hours in advance. Back when they’d started at the rec center, they’d had to scrape together things for the kids to do based on whichever balls weren’t leaking that day. Most afternoons either started or ended with Naia and Alistair plunking down their own money for a set of colored pencils or a new soccer ball.
Now they had paint in the art room, an actual baseball diamond, soccer goals with no holes in them (yet), and even a small library full of books that mostly still had their covers on.
Thank you, Cousland Foundation.
He was just wondering when they’d hear back about the renewal of their grant when he spotted a familiar figure waiting for them at the door to the storage shed—Wynne, their boss. The older woman was beaming, her smile so wide and so proud that it seemed almost ready to leap off her face.
Naia’s own expression brightened. “We got it?”
“I just heard from Elizabeth Cousland herself. Our application was approved.” It seemed as if ten years had vanished from Wynne’s face overnight.
Alistair pumped his fist in the air. Naia whooped loudly, actually jumping off her feet in her enthusiasm. “Five more years of not having to share one blue crayon!”
“Things were never that dire,” Wynne said sternly, though her eyes crinkled in amusement.
“Says the woman who replenished all of our crayons with her own money and pretended they’d been donated,” Alistair shot back.
Wynne laughed. “No secrets from you two, I see. But there is one very small catch. Ms. Cousland wants to come and take some photographs of your program tomorrow. She says it’s for a display at an upcoming charity ball for the Foundation.”
Alistair felt himself freeze a bit. “Pictures? Of … of us?”
“Of the program in general. But you might be in them, yes.” Wynne tilted her head at him—then understanding filled her eyes. “Oh. I see.”
Alistair felt embarrassment heat his cheeks. But at least these two knew him well enough to understand why he might not want his picture scrutinized by Denerim’s elite. He knew he’d be recognized—sort of—and he knew exactly what the reaction would be.
“Hmmm, that young man reminds me of someone.”
Or maybe, “He kind of looks like Cailan Theirin, doesn’t he?”
Or, his personal favorite, “Hey! That’s Maric Theirin’s half-elf bastard!” Always a fun one.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said uncomfortably. “I don’t want to make it a whole thing.” He tried to think about whether or not he had ever met Elizabeth Cousland. He knew he must have seen her photo somewhere at some point, or maybe glimpsed her across the room one of the times Cailan had dragged him to an awkward rich-people party. But hopefully if they had met, she’d found him forgettable.
“We’ll figure something out,” Naia assured him. She gave him a friendly nudge with her elbow. “Now come on. Let’s put this stuff away so we can catch our bus and celebrate with pizza and beer.”
With the promise of dinner in his future, Alistair felt himself brighten. “Can I get pineapple on my half?”
“Ewwwww,” Naia groaned as she pushed open the door.
Beth brought three changes of clothing to her office the next day. She tried all of them on in her office, and only just talked herself out of calling Leliana, before settling on the dark slacks and white sweater for her visit to the DFRC. She was going for “responsible but approachable”—like she could be trusted, but also wasn’t a horrible snob. Then she grabbed her camera—cell phone snapshots wouldn’t do today—and set out on her way.
The GPS on her phone took a strange turn or two on the way to the rec center, but Beth recognized the blocky grey building immediately when she turned the right corner—she’d seen it in dozens of photos accompanying the initial grant application. A colorful mural around the entrance—a new addition—made it more cheerful and inviting, but it clearly wasn’t a building with a lot of spare pennies inside.
Beth climbed out of the car and lifted her camera, framing the center against a blue spring sky and trying to capture the new mural. Slowly, she moved closer, focusing in on the door. The mural had clearly been a teenagers’ creation; it showed dozens of different hands at work. But Beth found that she liked the jumble of colors and styles. They reinforced the message painted over the top of the door: Welcome and have fun!
Beth jumped a bit and lowered her camera. An woman in slim jeans and a loose tunic was pushing the door open. She was around sixty, with pale skin and light grey hair pulled back in a short ponytail. Beth fought the sudden urge to stand up straighter—there was something in the woman’s friendly but no-nonsense expression that reminded her of a favorite strict teacher. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Wynne Kinloch—we spoke on the phone.”
She held out her hand and Beth accepted it. “Ms. Kinloch. Thank you so much for taking the time to give me a tour.”
The DFRC’s longtime director smiled. “We’re delighted you’re here. And we’re especially delighted about the reason. Now then. What are you hoping to see?”
Straight down to business. Beth found herself liking Wynne quite a lot. There was no embarrassing fawning over the Foundation’s money or Beth herself; Wynne had the air of a woman who knew her organization deserved the grant and was proud of the chance to show off what they’d done.
“I’m putting together a slideshow about the grant for the Foundation’s charity ball this weekend. New equipment or facilities you’ve purchased with the Foundation’s money would be great,” she replied. “And pictures of the kids in their programs, if they’re comfortable with that.”
“They’ll be thrilled,” Wynne said warmly. “Why don’t we start with the new softball field?”
After snapping some photos of small kids playing t-ball, Beth followed Wynne to a recently mowed soccer field with neatly painted sidelines and goals at either end. She wouldn’t normally have considered the goals remarkable, but Wynne mentioned more than once how nice it was to have them, so she pointed the camera at each one and snapped photos for posterity. Then it was time to head inside, where Wynne showed off closets full of art supplies and sports equipment—none of it extravagant, but all of it clearly well-used and appreciated.
“How long have you been at the DFRC?” Beth asked as she fiddled with the settings on her camera, trying to figure out a way to photograph a closet so it wouldn’t just look like shadows.
“About ten years, give or take a few months,” Wynne replied. “My goodness, has it really been a decade? I was a college professor first. But … well, I found myself a bit restless up in the ivory tower. So I took early retirement and found this job instead.”
“They were lucky to get you,” Beth said sincerely, snapping a few photos of the art supplies. “I can’t tell you how impressed I was by the proposal you submitted. The teen programs you’ve been running are incredible.”
“I can’t take all of the credit for that,” Wynne admitted. “With the Foundation’s money I was able to put two of my best employees on the teen program full-time as co-directors. They’ve done great work.” Her eyes shone with pride. “In fact, the teens are rehearsing a play in our auditorium right now. They’re doing The Brecelian Forest . Want to take a look?”
Beth smiled. “Lead the way.”
“This is your plan?” Naia asked, staring at the cardboard cutout Alistair was holding.
“It’s perfect!” Alistair beamed. “With Soris sick, we need someone to stand in for The Grand Oak. I can spend rehearsal behind this chunk of cardboard. Photo op avoided.” To emphasize his point, Alistair held up the tree cutout. He was too tall for it, of course, but he was willing to have his feet photographed if it meant he could hide his face.
“Do you know the Grand Oak’s lines?” his friend asked skeptically.
Alistair flipped the cutout and pointed to a series of carefully cut-and-pasted lines from the script decorating its back. “Soris has me covered.”
Naia winced. “He knows the part backwards and forwards! He’s such a worrywart, poor kid.” But she didn’t object further to Alistair’s plan, which he decided to take as a sign that she understood its brilliance.
As usual, rehearsal was a bit painful. There were fewer forgotten lines than at the last rehearsal, which was good, but their male lead couldn’t project above a dim mumble. Meanwhile Sera, playing The Warden, was chewing the scenery with glee, throwing dramatic emotion into every line, including “Did you hear that?” and “What do I see over there?”
Alistair smiled behind his cardboard hiding place. Sera might grumble about the play, but he suspected that in her heart of hearts she was having a lot of fun.
They were taking the scene from the top when the back door to the auditorium opened. Alistair pointedly turned his face towards the kids, giving them an encouraging thumbs up whenever they remembered a particularly tricky line. From the front row, Naia followed along in the script, ready to supply the prompt if needed.
But then curiosity got the best of him and he turned his head to look through the Grand Oak’s eye holes. Wynne was standing in the third row of seats next to a woman holding a camera. He tried not to visibly flinch as its shutter clicked, capturing images of the action on stage.
Grand Oak. Cardboard. Can’t see me. This is fine.
“We cannot hope to defeat the werewolves if that barrier remains!” Sera flung her arms to the sky. “Andraste, Bride of the Maker, reveal to us the way forward!”
The newcomer lowered her camera, smiling at Sera’s delivery—and suddenly Alistair found himself staring.
We definitely haven’t met before.
I would remember her.
Elizabeth Cousland had tawny, golden-brown skin and dark, wavy hair, which she wore loose over her shoulders. Her face was heart-shaped and her warm smile was framed with curving pink lips. Her large, dark eyes were crinkling at the sides in genuine amusement. The white sweater she wore clung to a very appealing set of curves—that Alistair was definitely not noticing right now.
No, he was absolutely not noticing the curves of the woman funding their entire program. That would be creepy and inappropriate.
Suddenly he realized that the stage was silent. Naia was looking up at him with an arched eyebrow, tapping the script with her pen.
My line. Frantically, he scanned down the cut-and-pasted scraps at the back of the costume. Oh, Maker, which one is it? Who said what last?
“Oi! It’s you, dummy!” Sera hissed as he searched.
And then, to make sure he got the point, she kicked him in the shin.
“Ow!” Alistair yelped, more startled than hurt. Instinctively, he leapt away from Sera, trying to get out of the range of any more reminders. But as he leapt, one knee bashed against the cutout he was holding, and his feet got tangled against one another, and before he quite knew what was happening, he was falling over.
It felt as if it happened in slow motion. He tried to catch himself and get his feet back underneath him, but all he managed was taking several long, backwards steps as he fell further and further off balance. He barely managed to twist himself around to avoid landing on the Grand Oak before his back hit the stage with a jarring thump that knocked the breath from his lungs. The cardboard cutout landed on top of him half a second later.
“Alistair!” Naia yelped from the audience.
“Oh dear,” he heard Wynne murmur.
Alistair clenched his eyes closed and counted to ten. Any chance I’ll wake up and find out this is a nightmare?
“I’m fine,” he groaned after a moment. “It’s just my dignity. Nothing to worry about.”
“Is the Grand Oak costume OK?” Shianni, the propmaster, had run out from backstage and was glaring down at him accusingly. “That took me hours. ”
“The Oak survives to recite another rhyme,” Alistair assured her, holding the cutout up.
Then Sera’s blonde head popped into his field of vision. Her freckled face was screwed up into a peeved scowl. “Are you gonna say your lines now or what?”
Beth watched as the kids helped the Grand Oak to his feet. At her side, Wynne’s mouth was pressed together in a thin line. For a moment Beth thought she was angry, but then she realized the older woman was trying not to laugh and losing the battle. At the front of the auditorium the red-haired elven woman was holding the script over her face for a similar reason. Beth could see her shoulders shaking in mirth.
The man behind the tree stood and dusted himself off, then glared out at the audience. “All right. Have at it. I can see you laughing, Naia. You too, Wynne.”
Wynne composed herself quickly, with nothing more than a little clearing of her throat to signal her amusement.
The elven woman, however, dropped the script and cracked up. “You’re really OK?” she managed through her giggles. “That was epic. ”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” the man sighed, rubbing his shoulder ruefully. “Forgotten lines and hilarious pratfalls.” Almost furtively, he shot a glance at Beth and her camera. She lowered it just a hair and tried to look like the kind of person who would never take pictures of someone crashing to the ground.
Although she had gotten a shot or two just as he started falling. I’ll delete those.
“Hi,” she said with a little wave. “Sorry if I distracted you. I’m Beth, I’m here with the Cousland Foundation.”
“Ah, yes. Ms. Cousland—Beth—meet Naia Tabris and Alistair Griffin, the co-directors of our teen program,” Wynne said, gesturing to the two adults in turn.
The name Alistair Griffin tickled something at the back of Beth’s head, but she wasn’t sure why. Business school? No, Wynne said he’s been working here a while. College classmate, maybe? She tilted her head and tried to get a better look at him as he climbed down from the stage.
He did look a little bit familiar. He was also incredibly cute. He was around Beth’s age, tall and broad-shouldered, with light brown eyes and a slightly crooked smile. He was dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, but somehow he made it look perfect, as if anyone wearing anything else would be overdressed.
She could spot a faint blush on the top of his cheekbones as he offered his hand. “Nice to meet you. Any chance you didn’t see what just happened?” He flashed her a hopeful grin.
“Why, did something happen? I was messing with the camera settings,” Beth lied, smiling back.
“What? No, nothing. Absolutely nothing just happened,” Alistair said airily. “Other than the best production of The Brecelian Forest you’ve ever seen, of course.”
Beth suddenly realized why the blonde elf’s lines had sounded familiar. “I studied this play in high school. Have you figured out why the tree speaks in rhyme?”
Alistair shook his head. “I think it’s one of those eternal mysteries. Right up there with why socks always come out of the dryer one at a time.”
“I thought I was the only one with that problem. I guess I’m not special.” Beth let out a mock sigh. Her heart beat a little faster when he chuckled at her joke, lame as it was.
For a moment they just stood there, not-quite-staring at each other. But then the red-haired elf joined them and Alistair cleared his throat. “I. Um. Have you met Naia? This is Naia.”
The woman stuck her hand out and shook Beth’s. Naia Tabris had the lean, athletic look of a runner, or maybe a soccer player. Her arms were toned under the sleeves of her loose green t-shirt, and her smile was bright and friendly. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to The Brecelian Forest. Sort of.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your rehearsal,” Beth said apologetically.
“You didn’t,” the elf said easily. “That’s all Alistair’s doing. And it’s time to break for the night in any case.” She turned her head to the kids. “Take the sets backstage and hang up your costumes!” she called. “Great work, everyone.”
“Except for Alistair!” the blonde elf playing The Warden yelled.
“Well, now, that’s just mean,” Alistair yelled back, but he was smiling when he said it. Apparently he’d already forgiven the swift kick that had sent him careening across the stage.
Beth felt her heart skip a beat. Cute and nice to kids. Oh, Maker.
“Hey, if the kids are headed out, I’d love to get a picture of the three of you out front,” she said, looking between the adults. “I think the donors would love to hear more about the people who make the DFRC’s programs such a success.” And I’d love to know more about Alistair.
But she’d barely finished that thought when the redhead flashed her an apologetic smile. “Actually, Alistair and I have to catch the bus home. Maybe some other time?”
Beth’s stomach clenched in mortification. Of course a guy like this would have a girlfriend. She forced herself to smile a little wider to conceal her disappointment. “Oh. Sure. No problem. Maybe some other time?”
“Tomorrow is soccer day,” Alistair called as Naia tugged him away by the elbow.
“Thanks!” Beth called back, grateful that he apparently hadn’t noticed her reaction.
Andraste’s blood, Beth. Not twenty-four hours ago you were telling Leliana you shouldn’t date, and now you’re pouting because a cute guy has a girlfriend, she scolded herself.
She pulled her shoulders back and turned to Wynne with a smile. “Thank you so much for all of your help, Ms. Kinloch. I can’t wait for our donors to get a closer look at everything you’ve been doing.”
“It’s been my pleasure,” the director said warmly. “Please, come back any time.”
Beth was just about to pull out of the parking lot when her phone buzzed. She flicked the screen to open the message and felt her heart drop into her stomach.
Calendar Alert: Delilah Howe reception 6:30pm.
Oh, Maker. I completely forgot.
Rendon Howe, scary board member and someone Beth really needed to get along with, was throwing a party to celebrate his daughter’s elopement. And it started in less than thirty minutes.
Beth looked at the clock and took a deep breath. If she didn’t hit too many lights, she could run home, change into a dress, and be only fashionably late to the party.
Naia was staring out the bus window, trying to figure out how they could get Darrian to actually project his lines so that people could hear them, when she noticed that Alistair was upset. It was a subtle sort of upset—his arms were crossed and his mouth was a little turned down—but he was definitely disappointed about something.
“Come on. The fall wasn’t that bad. And that charity lady didn’t get any pictures of your face, I think. That’s good, right?” she said encouragingly, nudging her elbow against his.
“Oh, yeah. That was great, the way you pulled me out of the room and said ‘we’ have to go home.” When Naia stared at him, baffled, Alistair’s eyes widened in indignation. “She thinks you’re my girlfriend now.”
“So? What do you care if …” Naia’s voice trailed off as she remembered the look on Alistair’s face as he shook Beth Cousland’s hand. “ Oh . You liked her.”
“I liked her,” Alistair confirmed, a faint blush heating his cheeks underneath his tan.
Naia slapped a hand across her forehead. Great best friending.
“I’m really sorry,” she said sincerely, lowering her hand and meeting his eyes. “I was trying to get you away from her camera.”
“I know. You were just trying to help me out. And I didn’t exactly argue when you said we had to leave. Bah.” Alistair scrubbed his hands across his face. “I’m being stupid. Just ignore me, please.”
“You’re not being stupid! She was cute. And she seemed nice.” Naia had expected that Elizabeth Cousland would show up in expensive heels and look down her nose at their cardboard sets, but the other woman had been friendly and relaxed during their brief interaction. For a rich shem, she’d been downright delightful.
“And I didn’t get her number and I’ll probably never see her again,” Alistair sighed. “Not that I would have had the guts to ask for it.”
“She’s a Cousland , Naia. As in Cousland Enterprises? Cousland General Hospital? The Cousland Foundation, which incidentally funds our entire program?” Alistair groaned as the bus pulled up to their stop. “What if I asked her out, and then she pointed and laughed and then decided to put the Cousland Foundation money somewhere else? I’d lose my job and be out on the street with no pants, that’s what.”
“So it’d be a typical Tuesday in your life?” Naia teased.
Alistair scowled playfully at her. “You are very, very mean.”
“It’s part of my charm,” Naia agreed.
The apartment building where Naia and Alistair both lived was an eight-minute walk from their bus stop and almost entirely lacking in charm. It was a shabby, squat brick building that sat behind a cracked parking lot. Scruffy bushes and trees added some greenery to the scene, but it still looked—well, like the kind of cheap, slightly disreputable building where twenty-somethings who made nonprofit salaries and didn’t want roommates might find a one-bedroom apartment to call their own.
Naia slid her key in the lock to the front door of their building and turned it carefully, jiggling it at just the right moment to force the ancient deadbolt to actually open for them. The door opened onto a narrow hallway lined with metal mailboxes; they both spent a few minutes checking theirs. Naia tucked the bills into her messenger bag and dropped the advertisements into the recycling bin before the two of them began the climb to the third floor.
Alistair still had a slightly moony expression on his face when they turned into their hallway. Naia hid a smile. Wow. The charity lady really made an impression. “Maybe she’ll drop by again sometime,” she suggested. “I’ll drop in a subtle hint that you’re single if she does.”
“You really think she’d be interested?” Alistair blushed a bit.
“Sure, why not?” Naia wasn’t exactly objective on the subject, but she thought Alistair was prime boyfriend material—kind, funny, and a hell of a lot smarter than he pretended to be.
“Do you remember the thing where she’s a Cousland?” he demanded.
Naia rolled her eyes. “OK, now you’re going in circles. Stop spiraling. And besides, you know better than to ask me for dating advice. The last guy I went out with stood me up on our second date and then called me at three in the morning for bail money. My track record is awful.” She pulled out her keys. “It’s how I know our new neighbor is bad news. I’m attracted to him, so he’s probably a sociopath with a criminal record.”
“A sociopath? I am wounded!”
Naia actually felt the blood drain from her face. She hadn’t even heard anyone coming up the stairs behind them, but somehow when she turned around, there he was: Zevran Arainai, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and an amused look on his face.
The newcomer to 3C had moved in about a month ago. He was a good neighbor—quiet, didn’t keep weird hours, held the door if you were carrying groceries. He was also a shameless flirt. Which he probably got away with because he was one of the best-looking men Naia had ever seen in person.
Because the universe was feeling extra unfair, he was looking especially gorgeous today. He was wearing a white button-down shirt that made his skin glow almost bronze. His crossed arms pulled his shirt tight across his shoulders; his golden hair spilled over his shoulders, catching the light from the single hallway window. The tattoo on his face was curving above his smile and his eyes were sparkling wickedly. Ugh, it was absolutely unfair for anyone to be that handsome.
“Tell me, do you have details of my alleged criminal record, Ms. Tabris?” Zevran asked, his Antivan accent curling seductively around the words. “I do hope the imaginary crimes I committed were exciting ones.”
Naia forced herself to meet his eyes with a smile. “Nope. Check fraud. Strictly low-risk. Sorry.”
Zevran made a little scolding noise with his mouth. “How disappointing. I will have to work on giving you more interesting fantasies, Ms. Tabris.”
With a very insolent wink, he vanished into his apartment.
Naia leaned her forehead against the door and groaned. “Please tell me the embarrassment will kill me soon.”
“Your face is pretty red. I give it five more minutes,” Alistair said, biting his lip to stifle a laugh.
Zevran watched through the peephole until both of his neighbors were safely inside their apartments. Then he turned his back to the door, leaned against it, and laughed until his sides ached.
It was a nice ache. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt genuine mirth.
After moving into apartment 3C, Zevran had found himself compiling bits of information about his neighbors based on what he noticed during day-to-day interactions. It wasn’t really necessary—he was out of the corporate espionage game for good, and no one in that world would live at 9472 Embrium Street in any case—but it seemed that old habits died hard.
Besides, it gave him something to do besides think about how badly he’d blown up his old life.
Naia Tabris had caught his eye right away—as had her handsome human boyfriend, the man who seemed permanently glued to her side. Sharp-witted Naia had seemed like an unlikely match for the softhearted Alistair, but, as recent events demonstrated, he was no expert at those sorts of things. So he released a wistful sigh about the two most attractive people in the building being attached to one another and let it go at that.
It had taken him a full week to realize that they lived in separate apartments. A week after that, it occurred to him that while they were affectionate with each other, the affection was more of the punch-on-the-arm sibling variety than the lingering touches and kisses that came with sharing a bed.
But it wasn’t until just now, when he’d found himself behind them on the stairs listening to Alistair talk about a crush on another woman, that he was really sure: they weren’t dating at all.
Learning that Naia Tabris had noticed him too—and thought he was attractive—was just the icing on a very nice cake.
It was too bad he’d wasted all that time assuming she was dating someone else. But there was little point in regretting what he couldn’t change. Fortunately, he was subletting 3C for another month. Just enough time to get to know the locals better, no?
With a faint smile playing around his lips, Zevran went to pour himself a glass of wine.
Beth pulled into the Howes’ driveway at exactly two minutes before seven, having run home, thrown on the first cocktail dress she found, and then blasted through several yellow lights in an attempt to be something close to on time. She handed her keys to the valet the Howes had hired for the party and walked inside, trying to pretend that she wasn’t mortified at being twenty-eight minutes late.
The Howe family home was a sprawling, single-story mansion with a network of living rooms and a library more than large enough to house the hundred or so guests invited to celebrate Delilah’s happy news. Beth felt herself relax when she realized her parents were both engrossed in conversations and hadn’t seen her enter. Hopefully she hadn’t missed anything important.
“Nathaniel!” Beth beamed and held out her arms to hug her old friend.
Nathaniel was a year older than Beth and the only thing she liked about being forced to socialize with the Howes. He was a kind, serious man with a head for numbers, and shortly after college he’d been snapped up by an elite consulting firm. The job sent him to places all over Thedas. Beth had the impression that the distance from his family suited him. Nathaniel and Delilah were close, but Rendon Howe could not be an easy father.
“Maker, it’s so good to see you! I can’t remember the last time you were in Denerim,” Beth said, looking him up and down. He’d grown his hair longer since she’d seen him last and was now wearing a small, neatly groomed soul patch. On anyone else it might have looked scruffy, but Nathaniel somehow made the look seem stylish and daring.
“It’s been a while,” he admitted, shaking his head. “My company sent me to the Free Marches a while back. Speaking of business, what’s this I hear about you graduating number one in your MBA class?”
Beth blushed. “You’ve been talking to my father, haven’t you? Ugh, he’s going to ruin my reputation as a devil-may-care bad girl.”
Nathaniel leaned his head back and chortled heartily. The sound warmed Beth’s heart; she adored Nathaniel, but he wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, especially around his family. “I hate to be the one to tell you, Beth, but you’ve never had that reputation,” he said wryly. “Now then. Can I get you a drink?”
Beth and Nathaniel wove their way through the party, snatching canapes and catching up, until they happened upon a tray of sparkling wine flutes. Nathaniel lifted one for each of them and glanced around the room. “I think we’re about to toast the happy couple.”
The faint stress lines around his eyes gave him away—he wasn’t entirely thrilled. Beth took a sip of her drink, trying to figure out what to say next. “Do you know, um, ah”—she realized she’d forgotten Delilah’s husband’s name—“the groom well?”
Nathaniel’s mouth twitched. “No, I haven’t had much chance to talk to Albert. But I think—I hope he treats Delilah the way she deserves.”
Beth followed her old friend’s gaze over to his younger sister. Delilah was a tall, dark-haired woman with a slightly anxious air about her. She was wearing a floaty white cocktail dress and she was linking arms with a man Beth could only assume to be Albert-the-groom. He was a somewhat plain young man, and his dark suit was a few years out of style, but he was staring down at Delilah as if she were his entire world. Beth felt a twinge of envy.
“They look happy,” she observed, wanting to reassure her friend.
“She’s pregnant,” Nathaniel said abruptly. “Not that it’s a bad thing. I’m rather looking forward to being an uncle. It’s just … I hope she didn’t think she had to do this. Marry him, I mean.”
Beth reached out and patted his arm reassuringly. “It’s not the Storm Age anymore. I’m sure Delilah knows that too.”
“Beth! There you are!”
Bryce and Eleanor Cousland made their way through the crowd of people, broad smiles on their faces. Beth hugged them each in turn. Eleanor had clearly just come from the office—she was wearing a chunky turquoise necklace, a crisp white blouse, and slim, tailored slacks. Bryce was wearing a neatly pressed suit and looked every inch the successful businessman he was.
“How nice to see you, Nathaniel,” Eleanor said, squeezing his hand warmly. “Especially on such a happy occasion!”
“I didn’t see you come in, sweetheart. Have you been here long?” Bryce asked, giving Beth a kiss on the cheek.
“I didn’t see you either,” Beth replied, avoiding the question. “Has anyone seen Rendon? I’ve been wanting to say hello.”
OK, that was a lie. But Howe was a Board member; he wasn’t going anywhere. Beth had to at least try to pretend she respected him.
Nathaniel cleared his throat. “I believe that’s him now.”
The room fell silent as Rendon Howe crossed it, headed for a spot in front of the ornate stone fireplace. Beth tried to look for signs that he was happy about this event, but he looked the way he always did—as if someone had just cut in front of him in line. Underneath his large, hooked nose, his mouth was thin and sour, and his close-set eyes were flat. Beth could see Delilah swallow visibly as he raised his glass. Albert's arm drew her closer, offering quiet support.
“Thank you all for coming,” Rendon Howe said gruffly. “I appreciate the time you took from your busy days to enjoy my free food and liquor. And to celebrate my daughter’s marriage, of course.”
The crowd laughed. But Beth had the weirdest sense that Howe wasn’t telling a joke. She glanced over at Nathaniel, who looked anxious, as if he wasn’t sure where this was going next either.
“Well. Let me not keep you from the revelry too long.” Rendon raised his glass. “To Delilah and Albert.”
“To Delilah and Albert,” Beth echoed before taking a sip of her wine.
Next to her, Nathaniel sighed. “That’s a Howe man for you. Not great with words.”
He could have at least made an effort for his only daughter, Beth thought uncharitably.
Beth mingled with the other guests for a while—taking care to say hello to every Board member in attendance—before finding herself in need of a trip to the bathroom. On her way back, a light from a small room caught her eye. Rendon Howe was standing in front of a bookshelf, a large glass of amber liquid in one hand. He was staring at the books as if they had personally offended him and he expected an apology.
He looked like he wanted to be alone. Beth was about to continue on her way when his head turned and his eyes met hers. They narrowed, and his mouth twitched in an almost-sneer.
No escape this time.
“Congratulations on the new son-in-law,” Beth said politely.
“Congratulations on having a useless nobody thrown into my bloodline, you mean?” Howe tossed back a large gulp of brandy and turned his head back to the bookshelf. “Let’s not play these games, girl. My daughter fucked a shopboy and got herself with child. She thinks a pretty ring will make it right. But her bastard will never be anything but an embarrassment to my name.”
Beth felt herself go very cold and still. She’d never liked this man, but even she hadn’t expected something so ugly to come from his mouth. She was unsure of how to reply to something so awful, and so there was a long pause before she replied.
“That’s a horrible way to think about your daughter and your first grandchild.” Her heart began pounding, but it was too late to go back now. “They both deserve better. A lot better.”
Howe didn’t respond at first. It almost seemed as if he hadn’t heard her; he simply took a long sip of his brandy. Then, slowly, he turned to Beth with a full-blown sneer on his face. “Just like a Cousland. Look at you with your nose in the air, acting as if you’re better than me. I can guess where you learned it from.” He gestured towards her with his brandy; the liquid sloshed and crested, flowing over the side of the glass. “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking, girl.”
Beth stepped forward and crossed her arms, her eyes locked on his. “Do you really think that? That we’re all as mean and bitter inside as you?”
So much for playing nice with a Board member.
“I don’t know if you were always like this, or if you used to be a decent man. But one day my parents will see you for what you really are.” She felt as if a bright flame were burning in her chest, releasing words she’d wanted to say for most of her life.
Rendon Howe chuckled. It was a dark sound, amused but mean, and it made the hairs on Beth’s arms stand on end. “We can only hope, little Cousland. Run along now. Peddle your false congratulations to my daughter. She might be stupid enough to believe them.”
Her limbs were shaking with rage. But there was nothing more to be gained from arguing with this man. Beth turned and walked from his study, her heels echoing against the floors. She was suddenly desperate to get away—to be looking anywhere except into those vicious, empty eyes.
Anyone who could tell me how to insert emoji into AO3 would have my undying gratitude!! I tried in this chapter but it didn't work :(
When she woke up the next morning, Beth tried hard to shake the encounter with Rendon Howe. It didn't work. After an hour or so in the office, she gave in and spilled the entire story to Leliana via text.
Leliana, bless her, responded right away.
(9:39 am) He really said that? About his own daughter??
(9:40 am) HE IS THE WORST
(9:41 am) Ugh, I know I need to play nice with him but I just COULDN’T
(9:43 am) Don’t be ridiculous! What else were you supposed to say? That poor girl
(9:45 am) No kidding. I hope she’s off on a nice honeymoon ASAP.
At least Leliana doesn’t think I’m crazy, Beth thought with a sigh. In the harsh light of morning, she knew she was going to pay for what she’d said to Rendon last night. But she couldn’t really bring herself to care. The alternative would have been pretending those were totally normal things to say about your newlywed daughter, and Beth wasn’t sure she had that much polite in her.
“Honey? Can I steal a moment?”
Beth guiltily dropped her phone onto her desk with a clack and tried to pretend she’d been working instead of texting. She didn’t think she’d actually fool her mother, but she at least owed her the effort. “I’m free. Come on in.”
For a moment Beth was worried her mom was there to talk about her exchange with Rendon Howe the previous night. But the happy smile on her face indicated a very different conversation. “Thanks, sweetie. I was in the neighborhood and realized I’d never gotten a chance to tell you how proud I was of your presentation.” Eleanor beamed down at her only daughter. “So. I’m proud.”
Beth flushed, pleased. “Thanks, Mom. I was really happy with the Board vote.” Howe’s just one vote. I can get by without him, she reminded herself. “I’m actually putting together the DFRC slideshow right now—we’re going to project it against a wall at the Foundation charity ball. Want to take a look?”
Eleanor crossed the room and looked over Beth’s shoulder. Beth hit a key to start the show from the beginning; pictures of the facilities and the kids flowed past one by one, captioned with data about where the Foundation’s money had been spent.
She bit back a smile as a photo of The Brecelian Forest popped up. You couldn’t see much of Alistair—only his feet and his shins—but thinking about the play made her remember that smile and that goofy sense of humor.
He has a girlfriend, remember? And you’re not even dating right now, she told herself sternly.
“This looks great, honey. But what are the empty soccer goals supposed to show us?” Eleanor asked, pointing at one of the slides.
Beth paused the show and frowned. “The DFRC director said those nets were one of their first Cousland money purchases. But the picture would be better with people in it,” she admitted.
It probably wasn’t worth her time to go back just for one photo, she knew. But she really wanted this program to put its best foot forward in front of the Foundation’s donors. Her perfectionism wrestled briefly with her practicality before practicality declared defeat. “They’re supposed to play soccer today. I’ll call and see if they’re OK with me dropping by.”
“Do you think we could ever convince Sera to try out for varsity softball?” Alistair mused, shuffling some papers around his desk in the office he shared with Naia. “She’s good. Really good. I know she’s just a freshman, but …”
“I asked. She said, and I quote, ‘like I’d wanna wear a uniform and do pushups in the dirt for some nutter with a whistle five days a week an’ every weekend.’” Naia laughed and shook her head. “So the good news is, she’s thought about it enough to know the practice schedule?”
Alistair smiled. “I suppose Sera in an organized team sport was kind of a ridiculous thought. Besides, I’d miss her around here. Who else is going to kick me in the shins and send me crashing to the ground in front of our biggest donor?”
“I’m first in line if Sera leaves,” his friend quipped, pulling a stack of folders from the mess on her desk. “I need Wynne’s signature on some checks. Back in a minute.”
Alistair felt his brow furrow as Naia left the room. Now, what was I looking for?
He was close to almost remembering when a bright brrrring! noise from the phone interrupted his train of thought. He let out a little sigh as he reached for the receiver. Phone calls to their office were usually a wrong number; they were one pesky digit away from the DFRC’s main line and people were always calling them asking about the day’s class schedule or when the gym was open. He’d taken to keeping a copy of the facilities schedule handy, since it was easier than pressing five thousand buttons to transfer someone to the main desk.
“DFRC teen programs,” he said cheerfully, reaching for the schedule. “This is Alistair. How can I …”
A warm, vibrant alto filled his ear. “Alistair? Hi. This is Beth. Cousland. From yesterday?”
Alistair’s heart almost stopped beating in his chest. “It is? I mean, of course it is.” Since she couldn’t see him, he cringed with his entire face. Well, now I sound like a moron. “Hi. Hi! How are you?”
“I’m, um. Pretty good. Weird night last night …” she trailed off and then laughed uncomfortably. “Um. But you don’t want to hear about that.”
Alistair would have happily listened to this woman recite the phone book. But telling her that seemed inappropriate. “Weird how?”
“I went to a wedding reception and … well, there was family drama. Not my family, thank the Maker, but my friend’s family.” She laughed ruefully. “I think I got caught in the crossfire. Or maybe I jumped into it.”
Alistair grimaced sympathetically, then remembered she couldn’t see him. But he knew what it was like to find yourself in the middle of a family feud you only barely understood. “You seem like a pretty reasonable person. I’m sure you did the right thing.”
“Thanks,” said Beth, almost shyly. “So. I actually called to see if you’d mind me dropping by with my camera again today. You said you’re playing soccer?”
“Yes!” The intensity of his own enthusiasm made Alistair blush a bit; he tried to dial it down. “Just a scrimmage, but we’ll be here for pictures if you want them.”
“That would be great,” Beth said warmly. “See you on the soccer field?”
“See you there.”
Alistair hung up with a broad grin on his face and butterflies in his stomach. She’d never date someone like you , he reminded himself.
But there wasn’t any harm in looking forward to seeing her again, right?
When Beth arrived at the DFRC around five, there was a pickup game in full swing on the DFRC’s soccer field. Naia and Alistair were standing on the sidelines as ten teens—half in blue shirts, half in grey—faced off over the ball. A few of the kids on the bench looked eager for their shot at the action, but some looked relieved. One young woman was reading a book. Beth’s gym teachers would have yelled at her for that, but Alistair and Naia seemed content to let it go.
The elven woman spotted her first. “Hey!” she called, waving enthusiastically.
Beth waved back as she walked around the field. “Hi! Is now a good time?”
“Absolutely,” Alistair said, flashing her a grin. In spite of her best efforts, Beth’s stomach fluttered pleasantly at his smile. “But you might want to watch out for any soccer balls accidentally launched at your head. Some of our players have more enthusiasm than aim.”
“You just tell yourself that,” Sera grumbled from her position on the bench. “Maybe I was trying to hit you in the stomach.”
Beth choked back a laugh. “OK. Thanks.”
“Come sit by me,” Naia said suddenly. “My bench has the best view.”
Beth wasn’t sure why that bench would have a better view than any other seat, but she accepted the invitation. She settled on the narrow metal bench next to the elf and popped the lens cap off her camera, zooming to capture a few action shots.
She’d only taken three or four pictures before Naia cleared her throat. “Listen,” she said quietly.
Beth swallowed. Oh, no. Did she notice me drooling all over her boyfriend yesterday?
“I think I gave you the wrong impression. About me and Alistair. We just take the bus together because we live together.” A pause. “Um. I mean. We don’t live together-together. Just in the same building.” Naia coughed.
Beth turned her head and blinked, not quite sure what she’d just heard. “OK?”
“I. Um. It would be really unprofessional for us to be dating, right?” the redhead babbled. “And I didn’t want you to think we were unprofessional since your Foundation is giving us tons of money and stuff. So. Long story short, Alistair’s single.”
Beth stared at the other woman for a moment, trying to process all of that.
Naia grimaced. “Sorry. That sounded more subtle in my head,” she mumbled.
Beth felt a ridiculously happy smile flow over her face. Maybe Naia only wanted her to know that because of the Foundation’s involvement in the Center—but she doubted it.
“That’s … great news. Because of the professionalism thing,” she said, blushing a bit.
“Right. Only because of that,” Naia agreed, her eyes aimed squarely at the soccer field.
As her camera’s shutter opened and closed, Beth’s mind whirled.
You’re not supposed to be dating right now.
Oh, come on. How often do you meet guys that cute and that nice?
Maybe he’s not nice. Maybe he’s just really good at pretending.
Well, then, why not get to know him better?
Inspiration struck just as the kids were jogging off the field. Before she could lose her nerve, Beth stood and walked over to Alistair.
Alistair spent most of the pickup game reminding himself that it would be stupid to ask for Beth Cousland’s number. She was the daughter of two of the richest people in Ferelden—she wasn’t about to date some nobody. And while Alistair might have a famous father, he knew perfectly well that he himself was a nobody. He was practically the poster boy for nobody-ness.
But he forgot all of those reasons when he saw Beth headed his way after the scrimmage. She’d obviously just come from the office; she was wearing dark slacks with a loose pink shirt. The pink glowed against her tawny skin, and Alistair found himself noticing her curves all over again.
Okay. She’s objectively a beautiful woman, he told himself. But she’d never date you, and we need to stay on her good side unless you want to buy your own art supplies again. So get a grip.
Alistair took a deep breath through the nose as Beth reached him. “Hey! Hi! Hope you got some good pictures,” he said, sounding almost normal. “Nice to see you again. And all that.”
“It’s nice to see you too.” She actually sounded like she meant it. A light breeze blew the fabric of her blouse against her figure, and Alistair found himself wondering what it would feel like to rest his hand at her waist, what the silky fabric of her shirt and the warmth of her body would feel like underneath his fingertips.
Where is that grip you’re supposed to be getting?!
Beth’s fingers were fiddling with the lens cap. After what seemed like an age, it finally clicked into place, and she cleared her throat. “Hey, I had kind of a weird idea. You can say no. You probably won’t want to do this. But the Foundation is having a black tie charity ball this weekend. Saturday, eight o’clock at the Westford Hotel.”
Alistair could not for the life of him figure out why she was telling him this. But apparently, she wasn’t done.
“I’m supposed to say a few words about our recent grants, and well, is there any chance you can make it?” She looked up and met his eyes. Her smile was bright and hopeful. “It feels silly to celebrate all of the great things the Foundation is funding if the people putting in the hard work aren’t there to celebrate too. So I thought you and Wynne and Naia might like to come? The food is good, I promise.”
Alistair blinked. “A—a black tie ball?” he managed in a strangled voice.
Beth’s smile dimmed. “It’s kind of stuffy, I know. I understand if you don’t want …”
“No, it sounds great. I’d love to go.”
Alistair wasn’t sure he’d said those words on purpose, but when Beth grinned at him as if he’d just said something amazing, he was very glad his subconscious had hopped into the driver’s seat.
“Really? I’m so glad!” She beamed. “So. I’ll … see you there, I guess?”
Alistair’s heart actually fluttered in his chest. “Count on it.”
“Absolutely not,” Naia said firmly as they walked to the bus. “Rich shems in fancy clothes? No freaking way.”
“Please? ” Alistair begged. “If you don’t come with me I know I’ll lose my nerve and sprint screaming across the parking lot before I ever make it inside.”
“Alistair, where am I even going to get a black tie dress?” his friend asked, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “We’re talking hundreds of dollars. Dollars that I don’t have, in case you were wondering.”
“I’ll pay half,” he promised. “Actually, I’ll pay all of it. Just … is there any way?”
Naia glared at him. But her expression quickly softened as she looked at his face. Alistair opened his eyes extra wide, trying to convey hopeful desperation.
“Ugh. Fine. I’ll hit the charity shops tomorrow. They always have some old prom dresses. Maybe I’ll find something that can pass for adult black tie.” She poked him in the ribs. “Have you even thought about where you’re going to get a tux on two days’ notice?”
Alistair had not. But, he realized, he was pretty sure he knew where he could get one.
If he could stomach the price.
Alistair waited until he was alone in his apartment to pull out his phone. Naia’s buying a whole new dress for you, he told himself. Suck it up and text him.
He opened his contacts, scrolled past such names as “Annoying Neighbor” (Naia) and “Boss Lady” (Wynne), and paused when he hit the Cs.
CT. Cailan Theirin.
His biological brother.
Alistair was the product of a whirlwind affair between Maric Theirin, a Senator from a storied political dynasty, and Fiona Griffin, a human rights lawyer who rarely spent more than a month in the same city. His parents had apparently agreed that while Maric should be a part of Alistair’s life, they should do what they could to keep Alistair—and, by extension, Fiona—out of the harsh political spotlight. Alistair had mostly been raised by his mother, if by “raised” you meant “sent to boarding schools.”
Consequently, Alistair had only had sporadic contact with Maric’s legitimate son. Now handsome Cailan was a tabloid fixture and a regular entry on lists of “Ferelden’s most eligible bachelors,” while Alistair hid in comfortable anonymity. He usually saw Cailan and Maric for Satinalia and that was it.
And yet Cailan did care, in his way. He always included Alistair on invite lists to his birthday parties and housewarming parties and “hey-it’s-a-day-that-ends-in-y” parties. Lately he’d taken to texting Alistair with invitations to things Alistair had no interest in attending, like polo matches and wine tastings and—worst of all—something called “elite speed dating.”
Wynne had suggested that he was trying to reach out. She was probably right. Alistair just wasn’t sure if he wanted to reach back. Especially not if it involved “elite speed dating.” But … at least Cailan was trying, which was more than he could say for himself.
He felt like a bit of a jerk, asking for a favor when he’d said no to so many invitations. But he didn’t really see any other options.
Cute girl. Black tie ball. You can do this.
(6:34 pm) Hi
(6:35 pm) is this an ok time?
(6:36 pm) def bro!!! How ru???
Alistair groaned under his breath. He couldn’t remember the last time Cailan had used his actual name. He probably had Alistair in his contacts as “bro.” Then again, Alistair probably wasn’t one to talk, seeing as he had Maric in his contacts as “Potential Kidney Donor.”
(6:38 pm) good
(6:39 pm) Any chance you have a tux I can borrow Sat night?
(6:40 pm) a TUX????
(6:41 pm) whos the lucky lady???
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Alistair thought. I’m not even sure I believe me.
(6:41 pm) work stuff, black tie charity ball
(6:42 pm) sure no prob bro
(6:43 pm) come by tomorow 8
(6:44 pm) pm not am
Alistair was torn between relief that he’d have something to wear, and anxiety about having to spend time with Cailan. Relief won out.
(6:45 pm) see u then
(6:47 pm) Thanks
(6:48 pm) no prob bro
Naia spent the next morning scouring the racks of the secondhand store around the corner from her apartment. The options were … not encouraging. Which she probably should have anticipated. It was prom season; the city’s teenagers had already picked the formalwear sections clean. Most of what was left was either stained, torn, hopelessly unfashionable, or some combination of the three.
In the end, it came down to two choices. Option A was polyester, yellow, and strapless. It fit, and the price was right, but the color was awful on her. It somehow made her skin look both sickly-pale and flushed, like she was about to keel over from some rare disease that no one had had since the Blessed Age.
Option B shouldn’t have been an option at all. It was made for a human woman and the style was a solid forty years out of date; Naia suspected it had ended up in the charity shop when someone’s grandmother did a closet purge. It was a backless, dark green halter dress that clasped around the neck. Diaphanous chiffon sleeves gave it a vague nightgown vibe. If she bought it the sleeves would have to go and it would need to be taken in. But the fabric was beautiful, and Naia was handy with a needle.
So my choices are: Spend the night bent over the DFRC sewing machine, or show up to the rich shem thing looking like a deranged daffodil.
With a resigned sigh, Naia went to plunk down the cash for the green dress. The over-enthusiastic human clerk took strange care with the garment, looping the long skirt over a second hanger and placing it inside a transparent plastic bag. Naia thought about telling him that it was OK, the dress was going to be chopped up for parts in a matter of hours, but by that point he was tying a knot at the end so no dirt would get into the bag and it didn’t seem worth it.
Naia was standing at the bus stop, checking her messages with someone’s grandmother’s party dress hanging from her fingers, when a familiar voice made her look up from her phone.
“Ms. Tabris. What a delightful surprise.”
It took everything Naia had not to cringe. She wasn’t sure how long it would be before she got over the mortifying incident in the hallway, but apparently it was going to take more than thirty-six hours. “Hello to you too, Mr. Arainai,” she said, turning her head towards him with a sheepish smile.
“I regret to say I have not forged a single check this morning. I must be quite lazy at my chosen profession.” Zevran leaned nonchalantly against the wall of the bus shelter and crossed his arms. He had pulled his hair back into a loose ponytail today and was wearing a snug, dark grey henley; crossing his arms made the fabric do some very interesting things to the curves of his shoulders and biceps.
Naia winced. “I’m sorry about that whole thing. I was joking around with Alistair, and … I don’t actually think you’re, you know.”
“A sociopath?” he asked with a wink. “I am glad to hear it. I’ll admit, however, that I was far more intrigued by the fact that you told your friend you find me attractive.”
Naia felt herself blush. “Oh, come on,” she said, aiming for a light tone. “Like you don’t hear that six times a day.”
Zevran chuckled. “I am most flattered that you think so.”
Naia was trying to think of a way to reply when Zevran’s attention suddenly focused on the bag in her hand. “What a remarkable garment.” His eyebrow arched skeptically as he took in the sleeves. “Is it yours?”
“It is as of twenty minutes ago. I need a dress for a black tie … thing. This is it.”
The eyebrow arched higher. “I … hm. I do not wish to offend. But such a dress hardly seems worthy of a woman as lovely as you.”
Naia found herself torn between being flattered and being offended. It’s not like there were better choices! “Come on. It’s not that bad.”
His mouth curved in an amused smile. “Perhaps it is the sort of dress one has to see worn to appreciate.”
“Well, then, why don’t you join me and find out for yourself?”
Zevran blinked, clearly thrown off-balance. “Join you?”
Naia wasn’t sure she’d meant to say that, but as usual, her mouth was running ahead of her brain. Too late to stop now. “At the Cousland Foundation charity ball this Saturday.”
“A charity ball.” His voice was flat and disbelieving.
“Yep. Rich shems, a few speeches, lots of liquor, probably those little canapes on trays. Sounds like a blast, right?” She gave him a smile and a sarcastic thumbs up. “Alistair and I are going to leave around seven-thirty on Saturday night. Show up in a tux and we’ll let you tag along.” She held his gaze and sharpened her grin, making it clear that the invitation was really a dare.
This time Zevran raised both of his eyebrows. “I will have to consult my social calendar,” he said, chuckling nervously. “Alas, I believe I have plans this Saturday.”
“Too bad,” Naia said as her bus pulled to a stop in front of them. “Green is really my color. See you back at the third floor, Zevran.”
As the door closed behind her, she thought she heard him say, “I look forward to it.”
Thank the Maker for GPS , Alistair thought as he stepped through the revolving door at Cailan’s swanky condo building. There weren’t many ways to get from his part of town to his brother’s on public transit, but fortunately his maps app had found the right combination of buses.
Cailan lived in the penthouse of a tall building overlooking the harbor. It was the kind of place where a doorman gave you a skeptical look before ringing upstairs to see if you were expected. It struck Alistair as a bit unnecessary, until it occurred to him that if he had tabloid photographers snapping pictures of him at lunch he’d want a gatekeeper too.
One astonishingly long elevator ride later, Alistair found himself in a bright white hallway lined with artistic light fixtures that sort of looked like squids to him. He squared his shoulders, took a breath, and knocked.
Ten seconds later, the door sprang open.
“Alistair! Bro! You found the place!”
“Thanks in no small part to the modern wonder of the smartphone,” Alistair admitted. “Thanks for helping me with this, Cailan.”
“I told you, it’s no problem.” Cailan grinned at him. Alistair smiled back and tried not to stare. It was always a shock seeing his face—well, something close to his face—on a completely different person. Looking at Cailan felt a little like looking into one of those funhouse mirrors, if funhouse mirrors made you just a tiny bit taller, noticeably paler, and several shades blonder.
“So. You’re sure it’s black tie? Not white?” Cailan asked, ushering Alistair inside.
“I … there’s a white tie?” Alistair thought he knew the answer to that question, but he was kind of distracted by Cailan’s view of the harbor; every window in this place seemed to look out over miles of ocean. Also, Cailan had apparently gotten a very good package deal on black leather furniture, if his living room was any indication.
“White tie is the jacket with the tails,” Cailan explained.
“It’s black tie. I’m pretty sure,” Alistair said nervously. “No tails of any kind were mentioned to me. I didn’t even know jackets came with tails. Shouldn’t we leave that up to the animals? It sort of feels like infringing on their territory.”
“Black tie it is,” his brother said after a slightly awkward pause. “Come on, let’s go see what I have in my closet.”
It turned out that Cailan’s closet was, in fact, the second bedroom in his condo, an absolutely massive space that also had a window overlooking the harbor. Alistair stood by the shoes, wondering if he should try counting the number of pairs of sneakers Cailan owned, as his brother flipped through a series of jackets. “Where is … aha! Here. Black, classic, no cummerbund or vest needed.” He pulled it out triumphantly. “Go ahead, try it on.”
Mercifully, he stepped out of the closet to let Alistair strip down to his boxers in private.
It took Alistair longer than he’d expected to get dressed. Tuxedos, it turned out, had an astonishing number of buttons. And there was some sort of trick to the sleeves of the crisp white shirt—the cuffs were flopping over Alistair’s hands and there was nothing to secure them with. Cufflinks, he realized, poking his finger into the hole against his wrist. Oh, this is what cufflinks are for.
Since he didn’t have cufflinks handy, Alistair folded the extra fabric back and tucked it into the sleeve of the jacket. He also didn’t know how to tie a bow tie, so he draped it around his neck and resolved to look up some video tutorials later. He glanced at himself in the walk-in mirror and was pleased in spite of himself. He looked almost like someone who could reasonably ask Beth Cousland to dance at a black tie ball.
Or like someone who’s there to serve her canapes, his treacherous brain snarked.
Hush, you, Alistair grumbled back.
“Nice. It fits you great,” Cailan said genially when Alistair emerged from the walk-in closet. He gave Alistair a thumbs-up and an encouraging smile. “We Theirin men clean up good.”
Alistair almost reminded Cailan that he wasn’t technically a Theirin man, but it seemed a little mean, so he bit the words back. But his brother must have seen something in his expression. Cailan suddenly dropped his gaze and looked unhappy. “Oh. Uh. Sorry. Theirin-Griffin men, I should have said.”
“I’ll take the compliment,” Alistair said, trying to push past the awkward moment. “I get so few of them. I try to savor them when they come.”
Cailan chuckled. “So. Out with it. Who’s the girl?”
“I told you, I’m doing this for work!” Alistair protested.
“Oh, come on. I’ve never seen you out of a t-shirt and jeans and now you suddenly need a last-minute tux? There’s a girl.” Cailan’s eyes lit up. “Are you and the redhead finally …?”
“No,” Alistair said firmly. “Naia and I are not dating. We have never dated, we will never date, mabari will walk on their hind legs and learn to sing opera before we date. At this point it would be like kissing my sister.” He paused. “… we don’t have any sisters, do we?”
Cailan snorted. “None that anyone told me about,” he said wryly. “But don’t change the subject. Come on. At least admit that you’re hoping to impress a girl at this thing.”
“I … all right,” Alistair huffed. “There will be a girl there and I would like to impress her. At the very least, I’d like to not make a complete idiot out of myself in front of her. Happy?”
“Extremely.” Cailan pulled out his phone and began flicking through something. Alistair was about to make a joke about swiping left or right, but his brother spoke first. “So hey, how are you getting to this thing?”
“The way I get everywhere. By bus.” When Cailan didn’t reply, Alistair added, “Large things, squarish, make lots of stops. Ever ridden on one? They’re quite cheap and they smell really interesting.”
“Nope. No bus for you this time.” Cailan pressed his thumb triumphantly against the screen of his phone. “I just ordered you a limo. Seven-thirty Saturday. Meet the driver in the parking lot in front of your apartment building.” He grinned and slid his phone back into his pocket.
“I. Wow. Thanks.” Alistair found himself torn between genuine gratitude that he wouldn’t have to take the bus—drastically reducing the odds of sitting on something gross between his apartment and the hotel—and a little bit of annoyance at the fact that Cailan barely consulted him about the limo. But that was Cailan in a nutshell. He was so used to getting his way that it barely even occurred to him that other people had ways too.
Cailan, meanwhile, was looking very pleased with his limo brainstorm. He gave Alistair another once-over. “OK. We’ve got the tux and the ride. Now let’s get you a pair of cufflinks. And some shoes.”
Alistair looked down at his scuffed sneakers and winced. “Shoes. Right. Good call.”
“Mom? Is this dress too … something?”
Eleanor Cousland paused mid-lipliner to look over at her daughter. “You’ll have to be more specific. Too what, sweetheart?”
Beth pressed her hands against the waistline of the dress and looked critically at herself in the mirror of her parents’ master bathroom. The black-and-white ballgown had seemed like the perfect find when her mother’s stylist had pulled it out, but now every time she looked in the mirror she felt … weird.
It was a great dress, objectively. But Beth kept swinging back and forth between thinking it was too boring and thinking it was way too sexy. The strapless black bodice molded to her curves; the white trim lining the sweetheart neckline called attention to the little vee of cleavage peeking out the top. Slashes in the sides of the black skirt parted to reveal more white fabric. It was unapologetically a ballgown, a garment only at home at this kind of event.
Her mother was also in black and white, but Eleanor was wearing a crisp white blouse and a slim black taffeta skirt. Tailored. Elegant. The kind of thing a businesswoman would wear to a black tie ball. The white shirt glowed against her brown skin and silver hair; the high collar made her look powerful, almost imperial. Standing next to Eleanor Beth felt girlish and frivolous and like she was showing way too much skin.
Will Alistair think I look pretty? Or will I just look like a spoiled heiress in an expensive, impractical dress?
“Too much,” she finally said. “Too revealing? Too princess-y?”
Eleanor put down the lipliner. “It’s perfectly appropriate for the event, Bethie. What’s got you so worked up?” Her eyebrow arched. “Is someone special going to be there?”
A gorgeous rec center program director with a smile that makes my stomach do backflips, Beth answered silently as she fiddled with a tube of mascara. But she couldn’t tell her mother that. Eleanor and Bryce weren’t snobs, exactly. But …
All right, they were snobs.
Not in the traditional way. They wouldn’t care that Alistair didn’t come from money. But the Cousland parents were hard-driving entrepreneurs. Beth knew they imagined her bringing home an ambitious startup founder who drank coffee for dinner. A guy who played softball with teens for a low five figures a year wasn’t in their plans for their only daughter.
You’re not even dating the poor guy yet. Keep him out of their crosshairs.
“Just … thinking about the chance of someone. And the cameras. And the board members. I don’t want to look wrong.” Beth frowned and smoothed a single loose hair back into her loose chignon. “The dress is fine?”
“The dress is perfect, sweetheart. Focus on your speech. You’re not going to use notes, are you?” More than a hint of judgment clung to those words. “I hate it when I can see someone clinging to an index card during what should be perfectly straightforward remarks.”
“No notes,” Beth promised calmly, stamping down a spark of annoyance, along with an all-too-familiar feeling of not measuring up to the Cousland standard. She was only going to deliver a few sentences welcoming the partygoers. Surely her mother had better things to do than worry about whether she was going to do it while holding notes in her hand.
“Good.” Eleanor refocused on her lip liner. “Not to change the subject, but how is Leliana these days?”
Just the mention of her friend made Beth relax a hair—which, she quickly realized, her mother had known. “She’s great. The new job keeps her busy but she’s happy.”
Eleanor’s lips pressed together thoughtfully. “Busy? I’m sure. Those government jobs run their lawyers ragged for very little pay. She does know that Cousland Enterprises would snap her up as in-house counsel, right?”
Beth bit back a sarcastic comment about the number of times they’d already had this exact conversation. Mom thinks she’s helping. “She knows. But Leliana loves her job. And I think she’s still traumatized by her first time around with corporate law. It will be a few years”— more like forever —“before she’s ready to leave nonprofit work.”
Eleanor sighed. “Well, you can’t blame me for asking. We Couslands didn’t get where we are by letting top talent work for someone else.”
“Who’s the top talent?”
Beth and Eleanor turned simultaneously to face the bathroom door. Bryce Cousland was striding in, a broad smile on his handsome face. His tuxedo fit perfectly but his bow tie was predictably askew; he’d never been able to tie a good one on himself.
“Leliana. Mom’s trying to recruit her via me. Again. ” Beth shot her mother a loving, knowing glare.
“Ah yes, your brilliant Orlesian lawyer friend. Would she like a penthouse? We could get her a penthouse as a signing bonus. Or one of those nugs she’s always talking about.” Bryce’s eyes twinkled merrily as he kissed his wife’s cheek. “Maybe she could figure out what the devil is going on with our application to sell Cousland software in Orlais.”
Eleanor smiled, every feature lighting up with happiness as her husband pulled her close. “Speaking of that, how was the conference call?”
Bryce groaned. “Very Orlesian. I can’t tell what in the bloody world they want from us! The Orlesian market is clamoring for our software, but we just can’t seem to find the magic formula to get us that license from the Orlesian government. I’ll keep working on it.”
His wife wrinkled her nose. “Is this really worth your time? We’ve been trying to get an Orlesian license for over a year. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses and focus on other markets.”
“Hmmm. Maybe,” Bryce replied.
Beth knew that tone. It meant over my dead body. Her dad was a sweet and easygoing man with his family—well, unless you brought home a B—but when it came to business, he was like a terrier with a bone. She knew this wouldn’t end until Cousland Enterprises held a business license for the Orlesian market.
“Come here, Dad. You can’t walk into the ball with a loose bow tie,” she said affectionately. “Now then. What time does our car leave?”
Stop messing with your cufflinks. Pretend you’ve worn them before. They don’t feel weird and heavy on your arms.
Alistair’s fingers found the cufflinks of their own accord and began spinning them around. He felt like an anxious seventh-grader as the little squares turned in his fingers, scratching a mental itch that he couldn’t shake.
He was going to a black tie ball. In Cailan’s tux. With Maric’s cufflinks. All to try and impress one Elizabeth Cousland.
Alistair had been to his fair share of fancy parties with Maric and Cailan. He’d felt like an imposter at every one. But he’d never felt quite as much an imposter as he did in that parking lot, imagining himself asking Beth Cousland to dance.
“Alistair! You look great!”
Naia’s voice broke through Alistair’s panicked spiral. “You think so? I mean, I hope …” his voice trailed off as he got a good look at his friend. “What’s with the jacket?”
His best friend’s lower half was swathed in a silky dark green fabric; she’d clearly found a dress. The high heels of her strappy shoes clicked against the pavement as she crossed the parking lot, and she’d done something with her hair and earrings and makeup that made her look different and fancier than usual. But her top half was concealed underneath a battered jean jacket with a sheepskin collar. She had it wrapped close, holding it against her body as if it were armor.
“Cut me some slack; I bought a dress for you,” Naia said dryly as her heels clicked to a stop. “I’ll dump the jacket in the coat room, I promise. I just didn’t want to die of pneumonia before the bus came.”
Alistair grinned down at her. “Have I mentioned lately that you are a very, very good friend? And that your hair looks amazing today? And that I promise to grab you all of the available glasses of wine that come my way in the first hour?”
As he’d hoped, Naia laughed. “Deal. You really do look great, by the way.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Tabris.” But Alistair felt himself blush. “Hey. Did I tell you Cailan ordered us a limo?”
Naia’s jaw dropped. “Seriously? I can’t believe …”
But whatever she couldn't believe would remain a secret, because the words died in the air as the door to their apartment building opened and Zevran Arainai stepped out wearing a tuxedo.
Huh. What are the odds? He’s headed to a black tie thing too.
Alistair realized it wasn’t a coincidence when Naia’s jaw dropped so low he thought it might actually hit the ground. “I—what are you doing here?” she asked in a slightly strangled voice.
The Antivan elf raised an eyebrow at her. “I am accepting your invitation, of course. It is seven-thirty—or nearly that—and I am wearing black tie. Never say you are going to leave me behind?”
Alistair wasn’t a hundred percent sure what was going on, but he could fill in most of the blanks from context. He could also see that Naia was off balance and at a loss for words, a situation he’d witnessed exactly twice before in his life.
He was going to give her endless crap about this later, of course. But right now he wasn’t going to let her twist in the wind.
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his borrowed pants, smiled at Zevran, and tried to sound like he’d completely expected their neighbor to be there. “Of course not. Glad you could join us.”
Naia tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “What happened to your Saturday plans?”
“Cancelled. Imagine my delight when I realized I had a backup invitation.” His tone was perfectly breezy, but a mischievous half-smile deliberately gave it away as a lie. He’d invented the other plans. He’d wanted Naia to think he wasn’t coming.
Alistair crossed his arms and tried not to frown. As a general rule, he wasn’t super fond of people messing with his best friend’s head. He’d keep that thought to himself in front of Zevran; Naia wouldn’t thank him for acting like some overprotective oaf. But he wasn’t sure he trusted this guy.
He was saved from further musings on the subject when the limo pulled over the curb and into their parking lot. “Ah. Right on time. Cailan said it would come stocked with snacks. Do you think they have any of those little packs of peanuts?”
“No idea. I’ve never ridden in one of these things before.” Naia gave the impractical vehicle a skeptical once-over as it pulled to a stop.
Smoothly, Zevran slid around them and opened the back door. “In that case, my lovely neighbor, you should be the first to see it. After you.”
For about half of the limo ride Naia tried, and mostly failed, to not stare at Zevran.
She should probably have been annoyed that he hadn’t just accepted the invitation when she’d issued it. But since she’d mostly invited him to catch him off-guard, it didn’t seem fair to get all that mad about him returning the favor.
Besides, formal wear really suited him. Zevran had combed his hair back into a neat half ponytail, highlighting his elven ears and the curving tattoo on his face. The black fabric of the tuxedo set off his blond hair and dark skin. He looked elegant and a bit dangerous all at once—like a spy in one of Naia’s favorite action flicks.
And she, meanwhile, was wearing a denim jacket she’d picked up for a dollar at a yard sale.
Men have it so easy. Their formalwear has a jacket built in.
“Hey! They do have peanuts!” Alistair triumphantly pulled a little bag from the bottom of the limo’s mini-fridge.
Naia leaned forward and considered the fridge’s contents. Red licorice. Score. She wasn’t particularly hungry, though, so she quietly slipped the bag into her clutch.
Zevran arched an eyebrow. “Have you so little faith in the catering?”
“Never abandon free food,” Naia said cheerfully—though she could feel an embarrassed blush heating her chest. Great move, Tabris. No one can resist a woman who shoves free snacks into her purse like a pack rat.
“Fine advice.” Zevran leaned forward and claimed a little pouch of dried fruit for himself, sliding it neatly into his breast pocket. “Since this is Ferelden, I fear most of the canapes you promised will be meatballs on sticks.”
“Hey. There will also be various things made from fried potatoes. Don’t insult my homeland,” Alistair snarked.
“Cheer up. If it’s really bad we’ll order a pizza,” Naia promised as the limo pulled up to the hotel.
The Westford Hotel was one of the newer buildings on a very expensive block. A massive two-story wall of windows faced out to the sidewalk; inside the lobby, Naia could see a large number of people in formalwear milling about, the gowns bright against the marble-and-chrome decor. As far as Naia could tell, not one of those gowns was being worn by an elf. So far, her dread about the evening seemed fully justified.
Just don’t let them throw me out at the door, she prayed silently.
As Alistair and Zevran climbed out of the car, she turned to the front and knocked gently at the partition separating the passengers from the driver.
“Are you coming back for us, or will it be another driver?” she asked when the glass rolled down. “Can I leave something here?”
“It’ll be me,” a gravelly voice answered back. In the twilight, Naia could just make out a heavyset dwarf with an enormous red mustache. “Leave whatever ya want. You’ve got the car booked through two a.m.”
“Great. Thanks,” Naia replied as she stripped off her jacket. No way was she going to wear that thing inside if she could leave it in the limo. Bless you and your weird generosity, Cailan.
She grabbed her clutch and climbed out of the limo. The cool spring air hit her bare skin and raised immediate gooseflesh, but the door was only a few paces away. No problem. I’ll make it. It’s not that cold.
Then Zevran’s eyes locked on hers, and suddenly she wasn’t cold at all.
Altering the gown had taken her entire evening and a good chunk of the night besides. If Zevran’s expression was any indication, though, it had been well worth the effort. She’d removed the sleeves and taken in the waist, turning the nightgown-like silhouette into a slim green halter dress that clung to her hips and left her shoulders and back bare. Zevran pulled the door open for her and she could feel his eyes on her as she passed him, taking in the full expanse of skin along her spine.
I told you green was my color, Naia thought smugly.
Alistair was already in the lobby when she entered. His eyes were scanning the crowd—looking for Beth, no doubt—but he still turned to her when she stepped inside. Then his eyebrows rose. “Great dress! I can’t believe you found that in a secondhand store.”
“Well, sort of,” Naia said evasively, looking around the lobby as Denerim’s elite filed past them and into the hotel’s ballroom. “Now then. Where’s your girl?”
Alistair let out an indignant little huff. “She’s not my … ”
Beth Cousland was weaving her way through the crowd towards them, a bright smile on her face. She was wearing a black dress with white trim and her hair was pinned back in a loose, artful updo. She looked like—well, she looked like someone who expected to see her photograph on the Internet and in the society pages the next day. But the way she was looking at Alistair made Naia feel almost mushy inside.
She really likes him too.
Beth’s smile widened as she reached them. “Naia! I love your dress. I’m so glad you made it.”
“We made it,” Naia said cheerfully. “This is my date, Zevran Arainai. Zevran, meet Elizabeth Cousland.”
Beth extended her hand and Zevran shook it. “A pleasure, Ms. Cousland.” Naia tensed as she waited for the inevitable flirtation, but all he said was, “Quite the stunning celebration you’ve thrown tonight.”
Beth smiled. “I can’t take much credit. But I’ll pass on the compliment to the people who made this happen.”
Her eyes flickered back to Alistair, who was just staring at her, taking her in. Naia gave Alistair a subtle elbow in the ribs to remind him to talk. And breathe.
“Beth! Wow. You look … Wow.” Alistair coughed. “Beautiful. There’s the word I’m looking for. You look beautiful.”
It wasn’t much of a line. But Beth Cousland, heiress to more money than Naia could count, actually blushed.
For a minute Beth and Alistair just looked at each other, wearing the same doe-eyed, nervous, hopeful expression. When she couldn’t take it any more, Naia cleared her throat. “So. Should we head into the party?”
“That sounds great,” Beth said, just as Alistair said “Yes! Definitely.”
Naia looked over at her surprise date for the evening. He was wearing an amused smile as he took in the interaction between Beth and Alistair. For a minute Naia worried he would pull the rug out from under her again—announce that he’d forgotten more compelling plans, or leave to pursue one of the fancier, prettier women in the room.
But instead, Zevran offered her his arm. “In that case, shall we?”
Alistair’s heart pounded in his chest as he wove his way through the ballroom with Beth at his side. It was crowded, and loud, and he in no way belonged here—but Beth had her fingers in the crook of his elbow, and all he could think about was the way she’d smiled when she saw him.
“Drink?” she asked as a waiter approached, balancing a tray of champagne flutes garnished with curled lemon peels. “It’s the evening’s signature cocktail. Gin, sparkling wine, and some lemon.”
“Not for me. I’m more of a beer person. Or, honestly, a root beer person,” Alistair joked. “You?”
Beth shook her head. “I’m going to abstain until after my speech.”
“Gin? I’ll give it a try.” Naia snagged a flute as the tray passed by; a heartbeat later, so did Zevran.
Naia raised the glass to her lips, then paused. “I shouldn’t drink this on an empty stomach. I’m going to go find some food.” Her green eyes slid over to her date.
The Antivan smiled. “Now that you mention it, some of those trays do smell rather appealing. For Ferelden.”
“We’ll catch up with you later.” With a little wave, Naia slipped into the crowd, Zevran close behind her.
Part of Alistair wanted to thank her for a quick exit that left him alone with Beth. The other part wanted to scream at her to come back before he said or did anything stupid.
He turned his head towards Beth and cleared his throat a bit. Talk to her, you oaf. “So. You have to give a speech?”
“Just a few remarks to say welcome and thank you. It’s the Cousland Foundation ball, and I’m the Cousland who works for there,” Beth said with a shrug. “It’s nothing all that …”
Both of them turned their heads towards the sound of a familiar voice. A man around Alistair’s age was making his way towards them, looking polished and handsome in his dark formalwear.
Beth grinned. “Nathaniel!” She reached up for a hug; the other man returned it with an easy familiarity that made Alistair just a little jealous. But it ended quickly, and Beth immediately gestured towards Alistair. “Meet Alistair Griffin. He works for the DFRC, one of our grant recipients. Alistair, Nathaniel Howe is an old family friend.”
With a curious smile, Nathaniel held out his hand. “Maker, you look familiar. Don’t tell me. Are you another Calenhad alum?”
Oh. He’d been so focused on getting ready to see Beth again that it hadn’t even occurred to him to worry about the rest of the people at this ball. Of course someone was going to recognize him. Shite-balls, as Sera would say.
Fortunately Nathaniel hadn’t put it together yet, so Alistair cleared his throat and tried to look not-Theirin-y. “Nope. Denerim State for me. Go Fighting Mabari.”
“I feel as if I should defend my alma mater, but that’s objectively a better mascot than the Calenhad Ancient Oaks,” Nathaniel chuckled as they shook. “Well. Nice to meet you, Alistair.”
“You too,” Alistair said—a little awkwardly, but sincerely.
The three of them made small talk for a minute before Nathaniel excused himself to say hello to a business school classmate. Alistair barely got to be glad to have a moment alone with his sort-of date when another tuxedoed man swept her into a hug.
“Beautiful party, little sister!”
“Thanks, Fergus,” Beth laughed, hugging the man back. “Where’s Oriana? And Oren?”
“Oriana is perusing the selection of hors d’ouevres. Oren is at home with a babysitter. He was disappointed to miss his Aunt Beth, but he took one look at my tux and said our party looked boring.” Fergus chuckled fondly. Then he turned to Alistair and blinked. “I’m so sorry. I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Not your fault. I didn’t say it. Alistair Griffin.” Alistair extended his hand; Fergus shook it.
“I’m Fergus Cousland. But we’ve met before. Haven’t we?” Fergus’s brow furrowed.
“I don’t think so. I just have one of those faces, I guess,” Alistair said with a shrug. But he could feel every muscle in his body stiffening with nerves. At his side, Beth was starting to look a bit curious too. One conversation like this was a coincidence; two was too many to ignore.
“Well. Enjoy your speech, Beth. I’ll find you later. Nice to see you, Alistair.” With a quick kiss on the cheek, Fergus slipped into the crowd.
Alistair felt more than a little unsettled. Beth cleared her throat tentatively. He braced himself for a question—but it wasn’t at all what he expected.
“Do you want to see the slideshow I put together? It’s just a display at the other side of the room, but you’ll get to revisit your Brecelian Forest.”
Alistair felt his shoulders melt with relief. “That sounds great.” His smile turned teasing. “Unless you turned the pictures of me falling onstage into some kind of animated gif.”
“I would never!” Beth protested, pressing an indignant hand over her chest. “Never display it at a party, that is. I keep it for personal amusement.”
Alistair opened his mouth wide in mock outrage. “How could you. I’m shocked, Beth Cousland. You seemed so nice. But all this time you were just a cold-hearted gif-maker, out to immortalize my embarrassments in digital form.” He pressed a hand to his heart, mimicking her gesture. “I am wounded. Deeply.”
Beth laughed as they approached the display. “Maybe this will help you feel better.”
The Foundation’s displays for the evening were small, sleek smart TVs, each one bragging about one of the Foundation’s grant recipients. Most of the TVs showed pictures of scholarship winners, or occasionally photos of some kind of symposium. Beth’s slideshow stood out, and Alistair was glad to see that it was attracting a slightly larger crowd than some of the others. Hopefully that’s a good sign.
The photos had turned out really well. There were some great action shots of the soccer game—Naia’s cousin Shianni kicking the ball straight at the goal, another student diving for the save—and the pictures of The Brecelian Forest were priceless. Sera’s hands were flung dramatically skyward in every single shot.
Alistair felt a smile grow across his face as he watched the pictures flow by. “They really are great kids.”
“And they obviously adore you,” Beth added softly.
“Yeah, I guess they tolerate me,” Alistair retorted with a self-deprecating smile. “But all of this stuff—the stuff in the pictures—your Foundation made it possible, Beth. Before we had the Cousland money, we were scraping the bottom of the petty cash to buy soccer balls. It’s hard to convince teenagers to come hang out with us at the DFRC if they’re not going to have anything to do. It makes a huge difference. Thank you.”
Beth blushed almost crimson. “You and Naia and Wynne do the hard work. I’m under no illusion otherwise. But … you’re welcome. This is the kind of thing that makes me love the Foundation.”
They stood there for a long moment, both looking at each other, neither willing to break the spell. Then a soft, lilting song rose over the room.
“Would you like to dance?” Alistair asked.
“I’d love to.”
“Your friend appears to be enjoying himself.”
Naia grinned as she watched Beth and Alistair approach the dance floor, her hand in his. She had to admit they made a pretty damn good-looking couple. “I’m glad. He deserves it.”
“And you? Are you enjoying yourself?”
The question was bland enough if you just looked at the words. But Zevran’s voice was warm and low, seductive and intimate, and Naia felt her stomach flutter in response.
“Sure. What’s not to like?” she asked flippantly, flashing him a grin. “My dress fits and this drink is good. So far the evening is going a lot better than I thought it might.”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “I had meant to ask. How did you turn the garment I saw into … this?”
“With a sewing machine and a very late night,” Naia admitted. “There wasn’t much at the secondhand store. I had to improvise.”
“Well. The results are remarkable.” His smile grew cautious, curious. “I would not have guessed that you sewed. It occurs to me that I know very little about you.”
“Other than my name and where I live? Come on, that’s more than enough to steal my identity,” Naia teased. “Well, I work with a program for teens at the Denerim Family Recreation Center. That’s how we ended up here—the Cousland Foundation gave us a grant. Otherwise, there’s not much to tell. I grew up in Denerim, I went to school here, and now I live and work here.”
“And is that how you know Alistair? From work? Or did you meet in the building?”
Naia took another sip of her drink; it was delicious, but deceptively strong. Pace yourself, Tabris. “Neither, actually. We met in college. This asshole professor was giving me a hard time for not having the books on the first day of class—I was a scholarship student, I was still waiting for my financial aid to clear. Alistair stood up for me and he and I both ended up walking out in protest.” She smiled at the memory. “We’ve been friends ever since. I tipped him off about the DFRC job; he’s the one who found the apartments.”
“And the two of you have never …?” He waggled a suggestive eyebrow.
“Ugh, everyone asks that,” she complained. “Never happened, never will.” She took another sip from her drink. “Okay, your turn. I know that you’re Antivan and that you live in apartment 3C. Not exactly a life story. So tell me, Zevran Arainai. What brings you to Denerim?”
“Why, a tragic past, of course,” Zevran replied nonchalantly, snagging a puffed pastry from a passing tray.
“Somehow I find it hard to believe that a guy like you is fleeing disappointment and heartbreak,” Naia said wryly. “Are you sure you’re not a sociopath with a criminal record?”
A shadow of something passed across Zevran’s face, and Naia instantly wished she hadn’t said that; she had the oddest sense that she’d just hurt his feelings, or touched on something sensitive. But he recovered smoothly. “I hate to disappoint such a lovely companion, but I do not have a criminal record. Just a powerful former employer with a slightly ruthless reputation. I was an investigator for a firm in Antiva that specializes in corporate espionage. Officially they are called Investigative Services Incorporated, but colloquially they are known as the Crows.”
Naia felt her eyebrows rise up her forehead. She’d imagined some interesting back stories for their new neighbor, but that was a pretty good one. She should probably have been suspicious—it wouldn’t be the first time a guy had invented a noteworthy past to impress her—but something about Zevran’s tone told her he wasn’t joking.
“Why are they called the Crows?” she asked, eager to hear more to the story.
“I believe it is because our appearance usually means something bad has happened,” he explained with a chuckle. “Or is about to. Companies hired us to steal each others’ secrets, investigate disloyal employees, or dig up blackmail material. In Ferelden much of this would be illegal, of course, but in Antiva it is simply the way one does business.”
“And it wasn’t for you?”
“Actually, I did rather well with them. Until I made a mistake.” Zevran raised his glass to his lips. “My employer and I had—well, let us call it a difference of opinion on how to handle the fallout. I eventually resigned and thought it best to put some distance between myself and my old life.”
“Ouch,” said Naia, wincing. “That’s a lot at once—leaving your job and having to leave town.”
“Just so,” he agreed with a faint smile. He looked down at his glass contemplatively.
“So you wound up in Denerim. Do you think you’ll stick around?” Naia hoped she wasn’t prying—according to Alistair, prying was her signature move—but she was genuinely curious.
“Hmmm. I am only subletting your neighbor’s apartment for another month,” he admitted.
Naia raised her eyebrows. “Morrigan’s coming back?”
He nodded. “She is on some sort of research trip for her dissertation. Or so her emails said.”
“She could have said something. I had no idea she’d left town until her mail started exploding out of her mailbox,” Naia sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, I like her. But she’s an odd one.”
Zevran chuckled. “Having read the rather long list of terms and conditions for this sublet, I must agree.” He winked at her. “That said, your building has many delightful features.”
“Like spontaneous invitations to black tie balls?” Naia joked.
“And an extremely attractive neighbor. Whom I would very much like to get to know on a more intimate basis.”
The look Zevran gave her made Naia’s breath catch in her chest.
Oh, Maker. I’m in trouble.
Beth had expected that she and Alistair would perform the usual stand-and-sway steps when they took the dance floor. To her surprise, however, as they approached the other dancers, Alistair asked, “Do you waltz, by any chance?”
Beth blinked. “Sort of. I mean, I’m a bit rusty, but if you can lead, I’ll probably only step on your toes half a dozen times or so.”
“Drat. That was the promise I was going to make you.” Alistair held out his hand. “Well, want to give it a try?”
It took them a moment to settle their hands—the waltz, Beth suddenly remembered, called for the dancers to be close together, hands clasped, with Alistair’s hand at her back. But the awkwardness faded almost immediately when they began to move. Every step was perfectly in time with the music; every movement felt smooth and natural and easy.
“You’re really good at this,” Beth said softly.
Alistair grinned sheepishly. “I may have taken lessons. There was a fancy party—well, more than one—and everyone was nagging me about learning to dance for it, and so finally I took a class to get them off my back.”
“What kind of party? A wedding?” Beth asked curiously. “Did the bride and groom give you a hard time?”
“Uh. No. An, um. An inauguration. My dad’s political advisors didn’t want me embarrassing him.” Alistair grimaced.
“Your dad?” Beth repeated, blinking.
A faint blush heated Alistair’s cheeks. “It’s probably better to tell you before someone here recognizes me for real.” The next words flew from his mouth so quickly, Beth almost missed them. “I’m-Maric-Theirin’s-son.”
Beth actually felt her jaw drop.
Maker. That’s why he looked familiar. Alistair’s coloring was different, but he was otherwise the spitting image of playboy Cailan and his senator father. Now that she saw it, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized it earlier. She’d known Maric Theirin had an illegitimate son—everyone did—and the Couslands had given a lot of money to Maric’s campaigns over the years. How could she have not seen the connection?
And she must have seen Alistair at some party or another. Maybe even one of the inaugurations he was talking about. Maker, she felt stupid. How could she possibly not have noticed this man?
Alistair looked desperately uncomfortable. Beth groped for something to say. “Your dad’s people made you learn a waltz for his inauguration? Shouldn’t they have been bringing you lobster and kissing up to you for political favors instead?”
The moment the words were out of her mouth she wanted them back. They were dismissive and flip and kind of dumb. But somehow, Alistair brightened when he heard them. “Alas, semi-secret bastards get very little in the way of the kissing up.”
“That seems unfair,” Beth complained. “You should at least get some benefits.”
Alistair chuckled. “Well, the dance lessons do come in handy. Mostly, say, right now.” His feet and hands guided Beth through another turn and she spun, the skirt of her gown swinging around her.
Later she would be glad that she didn’t know what was coming, because in that moment she felt light and free and utterly, deliciously happy.
When Zevran had started calling local rental shops—the high-end ones, of course—to find a tuxedo in his size, he’d had only a vague idea of what he thought Saturday evening might be like. He only knew that Naia Tabris had issued a challenge, and he wanted to meet it.
So far, he was glad he had.
His pretty neighbor was astonishingly good company, confident and quick-witted and flirtatious. And she seemed as interested in him as he was in her. He was not certain where their flirtation would take them after they returned to Embrium Street, but he was increasingly optimistic that she would invite him into her bed—if not tonight, some night soon.
And he and Naia were not the only couple who seemed to be enjoying each others’ company. When Alistair and Elizabeth Cousland left the dance floor, both of them had stars in their eyes. Ms. Cousland was immediately swept away by some official-looking folks with clipboards, so a moment later, Alistair rejoined the two elves. There was a broad grin on his handsome face. Besotted was the only word that seemed appropriate.
“Good dance?” Naia teased.
“Really good. I should probably pinch myself,” Alistair laughed. “I’m never this lucky.”
“Don’t worry. The night is young. I’m sure things will go downhill in a hurry.” Naia patted his arm. “In the meantime, try the little beef sandwiches.”
“I think I am going to take further advantage of the open bar,” Zevran said. “Would either of you like the same?”
Alistair shook his head. Naia, however, nodded. “I’ll take another one of these, if you’re headed that way.” She pointed at her nearly empty champagne flute.
Zevran smiled. “For you? Anything.”
Naia rolled her eyes a bit, but she was smiling when he walked away.
There was a crowd at the bar when Zevran reached it. Since he could tell there would be a wait, he placed his elbows on the bar’s surface and began scanning the hotel’s liquor offerings, wondering what he ought to choose next.
“Avoid the rum. Apparently no one can make it right outside of Rivain.”
It had been years since he’d heard that tempting alto. But Zevran knew immediately who he would see when he turned to his left. A beautiful human woman was standing at the bar next to him, an amused smile on her red lips. She was dark-skinned and generously curved; her blue dress hugged her lush body and plunged to a tantalizing vee between her breasts. Zevran noticed more than a few people staring.
“Isabela. And why am I not surprised to find you in the same place as an open bar?”
“Now, is that any way to greet an old friend?” Isabela pretended to scowl and brushed her dark curls over her shoulder. “I’ll have you know I was invited. By a very attractive date.”
“Business or pleasure?” Zevran asked wryly.
He didn’t expect her to answer. Isabela was—well, “con artist” seemed like too simple a descriptor, but it was the one that fit her best. She excelled at separating the wealthy and overconfident from large sums of money. At a gathering like this she was as at home as a shark in an ocean.
Isabela chuckled. “You know me too well. And you? Don’t tell me one of these poor Ferelden sods caught the attention of the Crows.”
“Ah. You have not heard. I am currently unemployed.” Zevran’s eyes slid to the bartender as the overworked man finally found his way to the sole elf at his station. “Two of the evening’s signature, if you please.”
The bartender moved away and began slicing a lemon. Zevran looked back at Isabela. She was clearly still processing the idea of him parting ways with the Crows. “Well. That’s … quite a development. Then what in the Maker’s name brought you to Denerim, of all places?”
“I could ask you the same question.”
“I asked first,” Isabela retorted as his two drinks appeared on the bar. “Whiskey sour,” she told the bartender.
“I wished to be out of Antiva City for a time. Denerim was far away and affordable, not to mention the first place I found an apartment to sublet.” He shrugged. “It has been reasonably amusing.”
“And how’d you find yourself here?”
Zevran subtly gestured across the ballroom. “An invitation from a neighbor.”
“The redhead?” Isabela’s eyebrows rose. “Wait, isn’t that the same girl from the slideshow? Works at a rec center?” She shook her head playfully. “Now, what is a nice girl like that doing with you, Zevran Arainai?”
“Hm. It is a puzzle,” Zevran agreed, chuckling. “But I once overheard her say that she has terrible taste in men.”
“Ah. That would explain it, then.” Isabela accepted her drink from the bartender and winked at him. “Well. Good luck.”
“And you as well.” Zevran raised a glass in her direction as she vanished into the crowd.
It had been pleasant to see Isabela. It was always pleasant to see Isabela—they had made some rather splendid memories together a few years ago. But as Zevran made his way back to Alistair and Naia, he found himself wrestling with an unfamiliar feeling of disquiet.
What is a nice girl like that doing with you?
Isabela had only been teasing. And yet it was a fair question. Naia Tabris was sexy and funny and made his head spin in the most delightful ways. But she was a nice girl.
And Zevran Arainai was very much not a nice boy—and he had done more than enough damage for one lifetime.
Welcome to the Cousland Foundation’s annual ball, Beth recited silently as Erlina, the Foundation’s event planner, discreetly rang a champagne flute in front of the microphone stand she’d brought to the middle of the dance floor. Tonight’s event honors and supports some truly remarkable grant recipients. The Foundation is expanding its programs into the wider Denerim community, bringing much-needed resources to …
“... the Foundation’s Director of Grants Development, Elizabeth Cousland.” Erlina held out her hand towards Beth.
Beth took a deep breath and walked across the dance floor with a calm, relaxed smile—well, as relaxed as she could muster in the moment. She had the sudden, panicked thought that she should have brought notecards with her, but even now, with an MBA under her belt and a job she loved, Beth’s biggest fear in life was disappointing her mother.
“Good evening, everyone, and thank you so much for being here tonight,” she began. She tried folding her hands at her waist, decided that looked ridiculous, and curved her right hand around the microphone instead. “It is my honor to welcome you to the Cousland Foundation’s annual ball.”
Her eyes instinctively sought her parents. Both of them were standing close to the back of the room; both looked very pleased and proud.
“Tonight’s event honors and supports some truly remarkable grant recipients,” Beth continued, spontaneously adding, “I hope you’ve had a chance to see some of the displays around the ballroom tonight that highlight what the Foundation does for children and teens.”
A murmur rose in the crowd.
At the back of the room, a small knot of people in dark blue were approaching the Couslands. Beth’s stomach clutched—had something gone wrong at Cousland Enterprises? She forced herself to continue as if nothing was going on; her parents might want a little quiet cover for a discreet conversation with the police.
“The Foundation is expanding its programs into the wider Denerim community, bringing much-needed resources to schools, parks, libraries, and community centers. We hope that …”
“You cannot be serious about this!”
Beth’s speech died on her lips when she heard her father’s voice, raised in indignant protest, and saw the light flash off of a pair of handcuffs.
“Mom? Dad?” she gasped.
The words echoed over the speakers, mortifyingly childlike and vulnerable, filling the entire room.
A uniformed officer had Eleanor Cousland by the elbow and was leading her out the door. Eleanor’s head was raised high, her face defiant but calm.
Bryce was not quite so sanguine. “Fergus, call our lawyer,” he yelled, turning his head left and right, trying to find his son. “Right now. … Fergus?”
Only then did Beth realize that Fergus—Fergus, who’d nearly had a panic attack over a parking ticket—was being led out in handcuffs too, as his horrified wife watched from the sidelines. Fergus’s mouth was hanging open and his eyes were wide and baffled; his eyes were locked pleadingly on their father, as if Bryce might know what was going on.
For a frantic minute Beth wondered where her handcuffs were—surely someone was coming for her parents’ other child. But the police seemed to have what they wanted. As a stunned, silent ballroom watched—and as the partygoers pulled out their cell phones to photograph the spectacle—her parents and brother were escorted away.
Then the whispers began.
Beth couldn’t make out much of what was being said. Most of it seemed in line with her own thoughts. What in the Maker’s name is going on? Did they just arrest Bryce and Eleanor Cousland? How could this possibly be happening? Everyone in the room looked horrified, or shocked, or pleasantly scandalized.
Except for one person.
In the middle of the room stood Rendon Howe. His harsh, cragged face looked utterly calm, except for a slight tightness in his mouth. Somehow, Beth was absolutely certain that he was biting back a smile.
You, she thought, her stomach heaving. I don’t know what’s happening. Or what you did. But you—you’re responsible for this.
A flash exploded in her field of vision.
Beth blinked and raised an instinctive hand, trying to shield her eyes from the light, still too stunned to really understand what was happening. But then another light flashed, and another, and her stomach threatened to empty itself on the floor.
Everyone in the room had turned their cameras on her.
Alistair felt like the whole horrible thing happened in slow motion.
The Cousland family was led out the door in handcuffs, one by one, as cell phone cameras snapped. Then, when they were out of reach, the lenses swirled around and focused on the one remaining Cousland: Beth, standing alone in front of a microphone, her moment in the spotlight turned into a nightmare.
Alistair choked back a shout as he sprang into action. He slid through the bodies in the ballroom, pushing them out of the way when he had to, moving his feet forward and forward, trying desperately to get to her.
After what seemed like a bloody year he reached Beth’s side. Instinctively he stepped in front of her, letting the cameras catch the back of his borrowed tuxedo instead of Beth’s deadly-pale face.
“Come on,” he whispered, his head tilted down towards hers. “Come with me. It’s OK. Come with me.”
It wasn’t OK. He knew that, and so did she. But she drew a deep breath and nodded bravely as tears sprang to her eyes. He slid his arm through hers and pulled her through the throng on the dance floor, leading her through the crowd, using his body to shield her from the onlookers.
He’d pulled her from the dance floor to the carpet when he realized he had no idea where, exactly, he was leading her. But Andraste bless her, Naia was somehow waiting at the sidelines.
“Follow me,” she hissed, her urgent voice cutting through the din of the murmuring partygoers. “Through the kitchens. They’ll lead to the outside. Come on.”
They raced through the kitchens, bypassing some very startled-looking chefs and dishwashers. The door to the kitchens opened onto an ugly alleyway, wide enough to accept deliveries from trucks, but otherwise nothing to remark on unless you counted the disgusting smell coming from the nearby dumpsters. Beth wrapped her arms around herself, and instinctively, Alistair shrugged his jacket off and draped it around her shoulders.
He barely had time to wonder where they went from here before a screech of tires answered his question. Their limousine was barreling down the alleyway, its headlights bright against the grime and darkness of the alley. The rear door sprang open, revealing Zevran in the backseat. “Get in!”
Beth flung herself forward, nearly tumbling over Zevran in her haste to get away from the hotel. Alistair followed, with Naia bringing up the rear to slam the door shut.
The dwarven limo driver looked at them in the mirror with some suspicion. “You kids running from the cops?”
“... no?” Alistair said after a pause.
“No,” Beth confirmed, taking a shuddering breath. “Just amateur paparazzi.”
The dwarf grinned, his red moustache curling above his mouth. “Heh-heh. Gotcha. One fast getaway, coming up.”
With the squeal of spinning tires and the smell of burning rubber, the limo left the Westford Hotel in the dust—just as half a dozen partygoers spilled out the door, their cell phones held aloft.
Beth gulped down breath after breath. It seemed to her like she was consuming all of the oxygen inside the limo, and that none of it would ever be enough.
I’m the only one, she thought wildly. The only one they didn’t arrest. What’s going on?
“Howe,” she gasped, answering a question that no one but her had asked. “It was Rendon fucking Howe. I know it was.”
The voice was Alistair’s, gentle, tentative. “Who is—I mean, can we do something?”
“No,” Beth replied dully. “I don’t have any proof. I just know—he hates them. I know he does. And he was smirking when the police took my parents away. He’s behind this.”
What do I do?!
Leliana. Leliana was a lawyer. She’d know what came next, who she should call. But Beth had no sooner decided to call her best friend than she had a horrible realization.
“My phone,” she gasped. “I left my phone … it’s in my purse. On a chair by the dance floor.” Tears began leaking from her eyes.
Alistair reached into the pocket of his tux. “Use mine. Please,” he said, pressing it into her hands. “Do you remember the number you need?”
Oddly enough, Beth did. At least, she knew the area code and knew that Leliana’s number ended in 8008—they’d had a good laugh about how Leliana’s new number spelled “BOOB,” as if they were twelve years old. Now if she could only remember the prefix …
She got Leliana on the second try.
“Hello?” Leliana’s voice was cool and suspicious; she was always wary of unfamiliar numbers.
“Leli? It’s Beth. I lost my phone and … I need help.” She swallowed back tears. “My parents—they were arrested, and I don’t know who to call, and … help?” The last word was almost a whisper, her voice choked by panic and tears.
“Where are you?” Leliana’s voice was sharp and alarmed.
“I’m in a limo, borrowing a friend’s phone. Where would they take my parents?”
“The station first, for processing and questioning. They’ll be permitted to call their lawyer eventually, though the police will try to stall them—make them wait, get them tired and anxious enough to confess. It will help if they have representation waiting.” Beth could practically hear the wheels turning in Leliana’s head. “I will meet you there. It’s just around the corner.”
“OK. Let me see if the driver will drop me off at the police station.” She looked through the window to the front of the cab.
“Just give ol’ Oghren the address,” the dwarf said gruffly. “Better be a tip in this.”
Beth punched “police station” into Alistair’s maps application, her hands shaking, and rattled off the address. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes,” she told Leliana.
“Please. Fifteen,” the driver snorted as he hit the gas.
Sixteen minutes later, having run some slightly red lights and taken a few corners on two wheels, the limo came to a screeching halt in front of the police station. Her best friend was standing outside, phone in hand, somehow already dressed in a neat black suit despite the late hour and the short notice. She jumped a bit as the limo came to a stop. Beth tumbled out of the limousine in full black tie and flung herself into her friend’s arms. Leliana held her close, her hug tight and welcoming.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Beth gasped as every limb in her body started to shake. “They were arrested, Leliana. Mom and Dad and Fergus. I don’t … what could they be arrested for? Maker, what is Oriana going to tell Oren when his dad doesn’t come home?”
“Shhhhh,” Leliana soothed, stroking her hair. “We will get to the bottom of this. I just need the name of their lawyer.”
“Landra Oswin handles the business stuff.” Beth gulped down a breath and took a step back. I have to pull it together. They need me. “But … this isn’t business if the police are involved, is it?”
Leliana waved a hand. “She will know who to call, if she is not the one who can help them. Now come inside with me. Put on your haughtiest expression and demand to know where your parents are.”
Beth linked her arm through Leliana’s and took a step before she remembered. Alistair.
She turned towards the limo. Alistair was standing outside it, his expression anxious, his phone at the ready. It felt like a lifetime ago that Beth had waltzed with a handsome man at a charity ball—though she could still feel his strong arm around her, shielding her from the cameras, rushing her out of that room when she thought it might choke her.
She wondered if she’d get to see him again after her life finished falling apart.
“I’m so sorry,” she said softly, drinking in his handsome face, wishing this was not the end to their evening. “You did so much for me tonight. I can’t thank you enough.”
He shook his head. “No thanks necessary. I—I’m sorry too. For everything.” His face hardened. “I hope this Howe guy gets what’s coming to him.”
He believes me. She’d made the accusation through tears, in a rage, with no more evidence than her gut feeling. But he believed her. That belief was almost her undoing. She had to take three or four deep breaths before she could speak again.
“I … before my speech, I had a wonderful evening,” she said softly.
“I did too.” He swallowed. “Listen. Your friend has my number. If there’s anything I can do … call it, OK? Promise?”
Beth nodded. “I will.”
Those were the last words she exchanged with him before she followed Leliana inside. Her friend had found Landra Oswin’s number and was already dialing.
Chapter 9 brings this fic up to an E reading--but the naughty bits will be clearly signposted! Related: if anyone knows good resources on writing/improving sex scenes, I would be forever grateful.
I have had 1.5 glasses of wine and am feeling brave enough to post this.
Plot-relevant stuff happens before the first break. If you've hit Zev's POV, you're about to get into the smut, so if that's not your thing feel free to skip. Concrit welcome—this stuff is tricky to write!
The ride back to 9472 Embrium Street was very, very quiet.
Zevran, bless him, had brought enough cash to give the limo driver a generous tip. Naia and Alistair added what bills they had to the bonus, leaving Oghren very satisfied and eager to give them his personal number “in case the paparazzi find you again.”
They marched up the stairs in single file. Naia tried to think of something to say to Alistair. But there wasn’t a pithy, comforting sentence that encapsulated “sorry your sort-of-date was ruined because your dream girl’s parents got arrested.”
When they reached the third floor, she finally settled on, “You need a drink? I’ve still got that bottle of whiskey Wynne gave me last Satinalia.”
Alistair shook his head. “Thanks. But I think I’m going to watch bad TV alone for a few hours and fall asleep on my couch. You know. My usual healthy coping mechanism.”
Naia hugged him tight. He hugged her back, his arms wrapping around the back of her ugly denim jacket. She noticed, quietly, that Beth Cousland had walked off with part of his tuxedo, but she decided not to mention it. Cailan can afford another one.
“Get some sleep,” she told him, though she expected it was kind of a pointless suggestion.
He chuckled as he unlocked his door. “Sleep. Yeah. I’ll give it a go. See if I like it.”
When the door to Alistair’s apartment shut, Naia and Zevran were alone in the hallway.
“Well,” her neighbor said quietly, shaking his head. “That was … not the end to the evening I expected.”
“None of us did.” Naia winced. “Man. I never thought I’d feel sorry for a Cousland, but—poor Beth. And poor Alistair.” She smiled faintly. “Thanks for getting us out of there so quickly.”
“Strictly speaking Oghren deserves the credit.” Zevran rubbed his neck. “I believe, however, that he may have given us all some whiplash.”
“Probably,” Naia agreed. “But you were the one who told me to get them out through the kitchens, and the one who called the car back. So thanks.”
“I am pleased to have been of service, my lovely neighbor.” Zevran laid a hand over his heart and inclined his head in a little bow.
Naia put her hand on her doorknob—then paused as her impulsiveness wrestled with her better judgment. As usual, better judgment lost.
“Want to come inside?”
Zevran’s eyebrows rose; a pleased smile curved his mouth. Naia smiled in return and reached out, wrapping her hand around his lapel and stepping forward to kiss him.
But to her surprise, he stepped back. “Wait.”
Naia stopped in her tracks. “Oh. I—um.” She felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment as her hand dropped away. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Do not misunderstand,” he said quietly. “I would very much like to accept your invitation. But you know, I think, that I will leave Denerim when Morrigan returns to her apartment.”
Naia nodded. “It sounded like that was the plan. ”
He reached out to stroke a thumb across her cheek and regarded her seriously. “I would not wish to seem to offer something I cannot give.”
It took Naia a minute to realize what he meant. “You mean you’re not going to change your entire life plan if you sleep with me?” she said wryly.
He chuckled. “I would not have put it quite that way, but … that was more or less my point, yes.” He dropped his hand away as he met her eyes.
On the one hand, Naia was a little bit annoyed that he assumed she hadn’t thought this through—even though she hadn’t, not really. On the other … after so many guys who had told half-truths and outright lies to get her into bed, it was nice to hear someone just come out and say that he wasn’t in this for the long haul.
Naia’s gaze intensified as an idea took form in her head. If she let herself spend a month with this man, she had no idea what shape she would be in when he left. She didn’t want to nurse a broken heart. But on the other hand, going to bed alone tonight seemed like the stupidest thing she could possibly do when a man this gorgeous was standing right here, waiting for her to open her door.
Maybe I can have it both ways.
“All right, I’ll make you a deal.” She took a deep breath. “One night.”
“One night?” Zevran repeated, clearly intrigued.
“One night, and never again.” Naia took a step towards him, lifting her chin up in a challenge. “We agree that there’s no possibility of anything else happening between us after tomorrow morning. We’ll go back to being neighbors, you can take off for whatever city comes next with no guilt, and I’ll avoid any awkward flower deliveries.” She tilted her head, her heart racing. “What do you think?”
Zevran stepped closer. “Just so that we are clear. This would be one night of … what, exactly?”
His mouth was moving towards hers, his breath warm against her skin. Naia smiled and brought her lips almost to his.
“Really good sex, I hope,” she whispered, twining her arms around his neck. She slid her body against his, pressing herself into him, breathing deep as his warmth seeped through the thin silk of her dress.
“You drive a hard bargain, Naia Tabris. I accept.”
And then finally, finally, his lips brushed against hers.
The first thing Zevran did when they got inside Naia’s apartment was slide the hideous denim jacket off her shoulders. All night he had been imagining running his hands down her bare back and so he finally indulged himself, kissing her hungrily as he touched the warm, soft skin along her spine. Naia kissed him back eagerly, her eyes closing in pleasure as his hands explored her. She was lithe and strong and gorgeous, and he somehow wanted to both savor this experience and be inside her as soon as possible. His cock was already hard and aching just from the feel of her skin underneath his fingers.
“Do you want anything to drink?” she asked breathlessly.
“Hm. Not really,” he admitted, pressing his mouth to a sensitive spot beneath her ear.
Her hands tangled in his hair. “Me neither.”
There was a couch a few steps from Naia’s door, and so Zevran pulled her towards it, sitting down and tugging at her hips until she was straddling him, one leg on either side of his waist. Naia wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him hard, moaning when he slid his tongue between her lips, gasping as he pulled her hips into his. His cock was tight against the cleft of her sex; it was his turn to gasp when she rocked back and forth, rubbing herself eagerly against him.
She broke the kiss and grinned down at him, her green eyes sparkling with anticipation. “So. What do you like?”
The question threw Zevran off-balance. It was not the kind of thing his lovers usually asked him. The Crows encouraged their employees to use every trick in their arsenal to manipulate sources, including sex; he was used to finding pleasure, but not to having it offered to him so openly, or on his own terms. He pulled her mouth down to his and kissed her again, trying to think of an answer.
He found one when his fingers brushed against the clasp at the neck of her dress. “May I?” he whispered against her mouth.
She nodded. “Please.”
The moment he released the fabric the dress began to slide down her body, pooling at her waist. Her breasts were bare underneath, her nipples already hard, her skin freckled and luminous in the dim light. He lowered his mouth just as she shifted her body, raising her breast to his lips, answering his silent request. He drew her nipple into his mouth and sucked, nipping it ever so gently with his teeth, feeling her jerk against him and shiver in pleasure. She twined her fingers through his hair as he turned his attention to her other breast, sighing when he took her into his mouth.
Then she pulled away, rising to stand in front of him. A little shimmy sent her dress sliding from her hips, leaving her naked in front of him save for a pair of black panties and her shoes. He leaned back and drank in the sight, letting his eyes roam slowly over her, admiring her strong legs, the flare of her hips, the breasts he had so recently been enjoying.
“I would normally say something complimentary right now,” he murmured. “But I cannot think of a single compliment that would adequately acknowledge your beauty.”
Naia laughed and crossed her arms. “You’ve already got me mostly naked, Arainai. Compliments are kind of superfluous at this point.”
“They are only superfluous if I plan to settle for mostly naked.” He held out his hand. “Come back here.”
She slid her hand into his and stepped forward, stradding him again, lowering her mouth to his for a lingering kiss as he ran his hands over the curve of her ass. Then he felt her fingers at the button of his fly.
“Eager, are we?” he whispered.
She brought her lips to his ear and whispered, “I want your dick in my mouth.”
Zevran nearly short-circuited with lust. “As the lady wishes,” he managed.
Despite a rather extensive history with both women and men, he couldn’t remember ever shedding his trousers so quickly. Naia knelt on the floor before him and dipped her head into his lap, running her tongue up his length and swirling it around his tip before drawing him in with an eagerness that threatened to tip him over the edge. Her mouth was wet and hot and hungry, and the sight of her lips moving back and forth was almost more than he could stand. He dropped his head back against the couch and gasped as she sucked him down.
He was prepared to enjoy this exquisite torture for as long as she would provide it--until he saw her slide a hand down her belly and into her panties, and heard her catch her breath in pleasure as she sucked his cock and rubbed her clit.
“You like this,” he groaned, stroking a hand through her hair.
She pulled her mouth away and looked up at him, her eyes sparkling wickedly. “A bit.”
“Take off your underwear and lie back,” he rasped. “I want to watch you touch yourself.”
That was a new one on Naia.
Some of her partners had taken her touching herself as a slight on their skills; most had said something like “that’s hot” and continued with whatever they were doing. But Zevran was looking down at her as if he wanted to devour the sight of her fingers between her legs.
Slowly, she pulled away from him and lay down on the rug. She hooked her thumbs over the sides of her panties and pulled them over her hips. Zevran slid from the couch and came to kneel between her knees. As her fingers slid between her legs, he shed his jacket, loosened his tie, and began work on the buttons of his jacket, teasing her inch by inch with the sight of his skin underneath the crisp white shirt.
His eyes never left her hand. Slowly, deliberately, Naia showed him what she liked. She slid a finger inside herself and drew it out, pulling the wetness with her across the sides of her cunt, using it to circle her clit.
His final buttons unfastened and he stripped his shirt off, leaving him naked between her legs as her fingers worked. The left side of his torso was covered in twisting, elegant tattoos that hugged the curves of his lean musculature. Naia had never been particularly turned on by tattoos, but apparently in his case she was going to make an exception.
“Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” she gasped, quickening her pace.
He chuckled. “Now, that is a very good compliment.”
He reached for his discarded pants. She felt a stab of relief when he pulled a condom from his wallet; hers were in her bedside table, which felt entirely too far away. “Smart. You came prepared.”
A slow smile spread across his face as he rolled the condom over his cock. “Call it a moment of optimism. But I had hoped I might find myself here tonight.”
“What, here on my floor?” Naia laughed.
He lowered himself over her slowly and brushed her mouth with his; she felt him smile. “To tell the truth, I did not think much about where. Only about what. For example, I have been imagining this.”
And then his body shifted between her legs and his mouth found her cunt.
Naia pulled her hand away and stifled a scream as he slid his tongue up one side of her and then the other, licking her as if he could not get enough. She was slick with her own wetness and the heat from his mouth and she writhed under his touch, arching herself against his mouth, silently begging him to lick her clit.
“Please,” she gasped.
He laughed, the bastard, and raised his head to meet her eyes. “Please what?”
“I’m close,” she replied, fighting to catch her breath. “Keep going. Get me closer.”
“Close, but not there?” he murmured, arching an interested eyebrow.
She swallowed. She wasn’t normally quite this bossy with her lovers, but she had the idea that Zevran liked it. “Get me close. Then fuck me.”
Two fingers slid inside her and began stroking, pressing into the delicious spot deep within her. He found her clit and licked it mercilessly, stroking it with the entire length of his tongue. She was close to the edge when he subsided, drawing his mouth away, stilling his fingers. He pressed kisses to her stomach and breasts as her breathing stabilized.
Then his mouth was on her again, teasing and coaxing all that heat back into her, bringing her closer and closer to losing control. His tongue slid into her and she gasped, her hips arching upwards as she tried to hold back her orgasm. She loved this moment right before she came, when every nerve she had was on fire and every muscle ached in anticipation.
“Now,” she begged, stretching her arms overhead, spreading her legs wide as he licked. “Fuck me now. Please. Please. I—ah! ”
In one smooth motion Zevran pulled his body upwards over hers. She felt his cock at her entrance and then he was inside her, his length pushing into her hard and fast. She cried out and arched her back, rocking her hips into his. He pulled back and slammed into her again, the motion sending shock waves through her. She reached out and pulled him down against her, welcoming the warmth and weight of his body, finding his mouth with hers.
“You’re so wet,” he purred, pushing himself just a bit deeper inside her. “Does it feel good when I fuck you?”
“Maker, yes,” she moaned. She tightened herself around him, shivering when she felt how hard he was.
“Yes what?” He nipped at her earlobe—a bare brush, a tease, a promise of what might happen next if she gave him what she wanted, the words that confirmed what he was doing to her.
“I like it when you fuck me,” she gasped.
He kissed her neck. “Do you want more?”
She choked back a whimper. “I want more. As hard as you want. Please.”
He pulled away, his cock withdrawing almost entirely, and she almost sobbed from the loss—but then his hips crashed into hers and she was full again, gasping with the pleasure of him inside her. “Like that,” she moaned, digging her hands into his back. “Just like that.”
He seemed all too happy to oblige. With a soft groan he began moving inside her; the first few strokes were slow, but after that there was nothing gentle about his motion. His hips moved in sharp strokes, fucking her hard and fast. She rocked her hips into his and rubbed her clit against him, no longer caring about holding herself back.
Her orgasm broke over her like a wave. Every muscle in her body shook; she heard herself cry out, she closed her eyes and saw stars. Zevran paused above her for a moment and she could feel his eyes on her face, watching her enjoyment--but before she was done he began again, more slowly than before, the strokes firm and deep. The sensation was exquisite and overwhelming and somehow had her at the edge again faster than she’d thought possible.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Oh, Maker, that feels good. Don’t stop—ah! ”
His hand caught the back of her knee and he pushed her leg upwards, changing the angle, entering her higher than before. She worked her fingers against her clit as she watched his cock slide in and out of her, the view heightening her arousal, making every thrust seem even harder and more delicious. With a sob, she came again, her body shuddering underneath his.
His hips snapped into hers once more, twice more, and then he went stiff above her, gasping as his back arched. She felt him drive deeper inside her as he came; his eyes were closed and his face tight with ecstacy. With a grateful moan, she slid her fingers into his hair and drew him down, welcoming the way his weight settled against her. She slowly became aware of the friction the rug had created, the spots against her back that would burn like fire tomorrow. She regretted none of them.
“I. Um.” She gulped down air. “Wow.”
He kissed the side of her neck and chuckled. “Indeed.” A pause. “Refresh my memory. Did I agree to one time? Or one night?”
Naia smiled at him. “Fortunately, it was one night. By my count, we’ve got some very good hours ahead of us.”
By the end of the night, Beth was much more sympathetic to her parents’ determination to bring Leliana on board at Cousland Enterprises. Not that she’d doubted her friend’s skills, but watching Leliana cut through the bureaucracy and arcane rules of the police station was like watching a skilled fencer battle an opponent wielding a butter knife.
“I am sure you would not wish to deny my clients legal representation. Was there not a recent case in which a confession was struck from the records because a lawyer like myself was kept waiting while the client was questioned?” she asked the desk sergeant sweetly. “I believe the officer at the desk became something of a scapegoat for the oversight.”
The sergeant paled. “I. Um. I’ll get my captain.”
Soon, Leliana was being escorted back to the interrogation rooms while Beth used Leliana’s phone to talk to Landra Oswin.
“Oh, thank the Maker it’s you, Elizabeth. I just saw the news alert on my phone,” Landra gasped. “Where are you? I know just who your parents need. I only hope I can get him on the phone at this late hour. Sit tight.”
An hour later, after a lot of pacing in the ugly waiting room where she’d been banished, Beth was shaking hands with Teagan Guerrin. He was younger than she’d expected—in his early forties—and Beth hoped he was up to the task. But he looked calm and in control of the situation, which was a lot more than Beth could say for herself.
“Where are your parents now?”
“In an interrogation room, I think. My friend Leliana—she’s a lawyer—she came with me and insisted on joining them back there. She said she was going to direct them not to answer anything until their criminal lawyer showed up.”
Teagan smiled. “Excellent. That was good thinking, calling your friend.” His eyes softened with sympathy as he took in her appearance—the wrinkled ball gown, the hair falling out of its pins, the smudged eyeliner and mascara. “I would ask you to stay if I thought there was more you could do. But for now, I recommend that you go home and get whatever sleep you can. I’ll call you tomorrow after I secure their release.” He frowned. “Or—could you go to a hotel? There may well be paparazzi outside your parents’ home.”
Beth grimaced. “I’ll see if Leliana would mind me sleeping on her couch. She lives a few blocks from here.”
Leliana did not mind. An hour later, having borrowed an oversized t-shirt and drunk a very large glass of red wine, Beth found herself drifting into a fitful sleep.
True to his word, Alistair fell asleep on the couch as bad TV played in the background. He dozed off sometime during a rerun of a popular sitcom; he woke up to the sounds of a passionate Chantry brother telling him all of the ways he could save his soul if he would only look to Andraste and the Chant. He took that as his cue to turn off the TV and go collapse in bed.
He was rudely woken up by the buzz of his phone getting a text message.
(9:34 am) BRO
(9:35 am) UR DATE WAS ELIZABETH COUSLAND?????
The next text was a link. Alistair clicked it with bleary-eyed trepidation.
It was a post from a popular gossip blog, and it was mostly pictures that readers had sent in documenting the older Couslands’ arrest. But at the end of the post, there it was: Alistair’s picture.
It wasn’t a great picture. The camera had caught his right profile as he tugged on Beth’s arm, pulling her off the dance floor. And the caption read “Elizabeth Cousland was escorted from the Westford Hotel by her personal security detail,” which was amusingly inaccurate. But apparently that blurry profile had been enough for Cailan to recognize him.
He groaned. Loudly. Sincerely. Painfully.
(9:36 am) i don’t know what you’re talking about
(9:37 am) that’s her personal bodyguard. It says so right in the article
(9:38 am) BRO UR KILLING ME
(9:40 am) ok fine, its me. I was there to see Beth. We danced and talked and it was great until her parents got arrested
(9:41 am) but thanks for the tux
(9:43 am) anytime
(9:44 am) im really sorry about ur date :(
(9:45 am) thanks
With that, Alistair set his phone aside and went to go find Naia. It was too early in the morning for whiskey, but at least his friend would have some creative swear words.
Naia slept in well past nine the next morning and woke up weirdly sore, as if she’d scraped her back and shoulders. It only took her a minute to remember what it was—rug burn—and how she’d gotten it.
They’d moved to the bed after the first round, and the sheets still smelled a bit like him. She breathed in the scent with a smile. She’d wash them this week, before the smelling thing got creepy, but for now she just basked in the memory of some really, really good sex. She’d had a handful of satisfying one-night stands before, but all of them seemed pretty forgettable compared to what she and Zevran had done last night. She had a feeling that it was going to be a while before she topped that.
When she emerged from her bedroom, yawning and pulling her mess of a hair up into a ponytail, there was a note waiting for her on the counter.
Perhaps it is best we decided not to repeat last night—I fear we could only go downhill from there.
Thank you for an evening that I will remember very, very fondly.
Naia found herself grinning down at the slanting print with a slightly goofy smile. She sternly forced her features into a neutral expression and folded the note. She almost threw it away—but decided to slide it into a drawer that she saved for bills and other mail.
No harm in a souvenir, right?
There was a knock at her door. Naia shoved her drawer shut with a slightly guilty expression. “Hello?”
Naia all but sprang to the door. When she opened it, Alistair looked like he hadn’t slept much either, and for much less pleasant reasons than Naia. His eyes were puffy and his hair was flattened on one side, the classic look of someone who had spent most of the night in an uncomfortable spot. “Come in. I’ll make coffee.”
“Andraste bless you, Naia Tabris,” Alistair sighed. “Cailan sent me this.” He held out his phone in his hand.
Naia took it. There was a picture of Alistair and Beth on the screen. It was blurry, and the blogger clearly had no idea who Alistair was, but still. “Shiiiiiiiiit. Shitshitshit. I’m sorry. Do you think anyone besides Cailan will realize that’s you?”
“Is it weird that I kind of don’t care?” Alistair sat down on her couch with a thump and ran his hands over his face. “I just keep thinking about Beth.”
“It’s not weird,” Naia said gently. She sat down beside him and wrapped her arm around his broad shoulders, squeezing them in a hug. “Worrying about someone else and not yourself is very you.”
The two of them got mugs out of her kitchen cabinets and stood side by side, staring eagerly at the coffeepot as it hissed and dripped. Then Naia saw Alistair’s forehead wrinkle.
“What happened to your elbow?”
Naia looked down and winced; there was a faint red rash on the back of her right arm. “Um. You don’t want to know.”
They had established “you don’t want to know” as code for “it’s about my sex life” back in college. Alistair’s jaw dropped. “Zevran? I—wow. So that’s a thing now? Are you sure about that guy—I mean, not that I’m qualified to comment—um. Hm. Hmmmm.”
She laughed. “You don’t need to look so alarmed. He’s only staying another month so we decided to stick to a one-night stand. We had fun, now it’s over, no need to spend a lot of time dwelling on it.”
Then why’d you save that note? a little voice demanded.
“Dwelling? Who’s dwelling? I’m sure not dwelling. At least, not on you and our neighbor.” Alistair took a breath and sighed as he watched the coffee percolate. Naia could almost hear Beth echoing through his brain.
“I need a distraction,” he said abruptly. “Want to go to the first showing of a really loud movie and eat bad popcorn for breakfast?”
“Let’s eat some cereal first,” Naia replied. “Otherwise, you’re on.”
Beth looked around her dining room, desperately hoping that someone would correct her obvious misunderstanding. Dimly in the background Beth could hear the sound of Oren watching cartoons; this conversation had been deemed unfit for children. “The charge is espionage? ” she repeated.
Teagan nodded. “I’m afraid so. And the case, from what I’ve seen, is a persuasive one.”
Beth liked Teagan so far, but right now she wanted to throw something at his head. “How can it be a good case when they didn’t do it? Why in the Maker’s name would my family commit treason?”
She swung her head around the table, staring at Bryce and Eleanor and Fergus. All three were out on bail as of this morning, thanks to Teagan’s work, but all three were confined to their homes until their trial. Oriana, sitting beside Fergus, looked as exhausted as any of them; Beth still couldn’t believe her sister-in-law had had the presence of mind to grab Beth’s purse in the ballroom.
“They’re saying we hacked a Ferelden government database at the behest of the Orlesian government. In exchange for the data and a certain sum of money, we were going to receive an Orlesian sales license.” Eleanor’s voice was infuriatingly rational. “It’s a convincing case because the hack occured, I am one of the few people who could have performed it, and your father has recently been in contact with the Orlesian government. And the attack was initiated through the Cousland Enterprises server using Fergus's login.” She took a sip of her coffee. “In short, we’ve been framed.”
How can you be so calm? Beth wanted to scream. Then she got a look at Eleanor’s mug. It was pale brown; someone had put a ton of cream in it. Her black-coffee-addict mother hadn’t even noticed.
She’s not calm. She’s barely holding it together.
Deep breaths. You can’t be the one who loses it. You weren’t even arrested. They need you to keep a clear head.
Teagan nodded. “Much of their case seems to be based off of an anonymous tip encouraging the police to check Fergus’s login records and Bryce’s recent contacts with the Orlesian government. Most prosecutors would have waited to gather further evidence before arresting your parents, but Loghain Mac Tir … well. His anxieties about Orlais are well known. The tipster handed him a story he was quite ready to swallow whole.”
Bryce wasn’t faking calm as well as his wife. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “Our stock’s going to go into freefall when the markets open tomorrow. Who would do this to us?”
Beth cleared her throat. “I think I know. Rendon Howe. He didn’t look very surprised last night.”
Bryce lowered his hands and shook his head. “Rendon? He hardly ever looks surprised, Bethie. Don’t read too much into it. Besides, why on earth would he do something like that? We’ve been friends since college!”
“Have you?” Beth challenged. “He’s been making snide comments at you—at all of us—for years. You and Mom brush it off as ‘Rendon being Rendon,’ but I don’t think you get how jealous he is of you. He means those shitty things he says.”
Bryce blinked and leaned back in his chair. At his side, Eleanor sipped her coffee again, then grimaced and set it to the side. “He’s not an easy man to like,” she allowed. “But that stock in freefall? He owns six percent of it. Why would he do that to himself?”
“Pure spite?” Beth snarked. “Or maybe he’s just bad at math. Or maybe he sold his stock!” She looked over at Teagan. “Can we find out if he sold his stock before last night?”
“Our investigators will look into everyone who unloaded significant amounts of Cousland Enterprises stock in the past few months,” Teagan promised. “And I will push the police to do the same. In the meantime, however, you should all try to recover a bit and get some rest. And in case I need to remind you: One of the conditions of your bail was that you have no contact with Cousland Enterprises resources. That means no using their network, their computers, their servers—any of it. No trips into the office, no phone calls to co-workers. From everything I know, I suspect you hired great people. You’ll need to trust them to do their jobs.”
Beth’s heart sank. Her parents did hire great people—but none of them were Eleanor or Bryce Cousland. Would there even be a Cousland Enterprises for them to return to if their names were cleared?
Bryce and Eleanor both looked grim, their mouths thin and their eyes tired. She suspected they were wondering the same thing.
“I just can’t believe this is happening.” Fergus closed his eyes and squeezed Oriana’s hand. His wife rubbed his shoulder, her face pale and worried.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, Fergus,” Beth said firmly. “What can I do? I’m not caught up in the criminal investigation, there has to be some way I can help.”
Bryce and Eleanor shook their heads in unison—then exchanged an alarmed look. Beth sat up a bit straighter.
“What do you need?”
“No, honey. It’s not that. It’s …” Eleanor’s voice trailed off.
Teagan cleared his throat. “One of the government’s allegations is that your parents were planning to launder payments to Orlais through the Cousland Foundation, disguising it as a grant. The government is freezing the Foundation’s charitable assets pending further investigation. Foundation employees will still get paid through the operating budget, but you can’t take new donations. And you can’t write checks.”
Beth’s heart almost stopped. “That means … none of our grant recipients will get their money until this is over?”
“We’ve got kids on scholarship starting college this fall! How are they supposed to pay tuition? And we just approved a grant for …” her voice trailed off.
The DFRC. They’re going to lose their funding.
For all intents and purposes, Beth was unemployed as of Monday morning.
She could have gone into work, technically; Teagan said there wasn’t any legal reason why she couldn’t. But there wasn’t much point to being the Director of Grants Development at a charity that couldn’t give out any grants. And she didn’t want paparazzi—amateur or professional—harassing her co-workers. So Beth decided to stay at home to help her parents cope.
By nine a.m. she realized that was a mistake. Both of her parents had plugged in their laptops at the dining room table and were all but ignoring her. Eleanor had buried herself in “a personal project”—some sort of app she’d been coding that wasn’t technically a Cousland Enterprises project yet. Bryce was alternating between checking their stock price, slamming his laptop shut, announcing he was going to go for a run on their treadmill, and then opening his laptop again. Beth’s offers to get them breakfast, make more coffee, and take Bryce’s laptop away were all met with “no thanks, honey.”
“I’m going to get some air,” she said finally. “Can I pick up anything? Lunch? Dinner?”
“Wine?” Eleanor asked hopefully.
Beth kissed her mother’s cheek. “Done. Text me if you think of anything else.”
She returned to her room to put on jeans and a t-shirt—anything else seemed too ambitious at the moment. She had just pulled the t-shirt over her head when she spotted something across the room, lying neatly folded next to her crumpled ballgown.
I’ll have to return it to him. Maybe I’ll stop by the DFRC. The thought brought a smile to her lips. That smile was quickly wiped away by her next thought.
Your family is in crisis and you’re planning ways to drop by the place where your crush works? What’s wrong with you?
But Alistair wasn’t just a crush anymore, not really. He’d graduated from “crush” when he’d rescued her from that ballroom. She didn’t know if there could be anything between them with the way things were now, but at the very least, he was a friend.
And then there was the tiny little matter of the Foundation’s frozen assets. Beth’s stomach dropped when she remembered that delightful tidbit.
The DFRC needs to know what’s coming. I owe Alistair and Naia and Wynne that much.
She picked up the jacket, tucked it over her arm, and walked out the door.
“My lunch is making me depressed,” Alistair complained. He frowned as he took in the full horror of what he’d packed himself this morning: a dessicated apple, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no jelly, and—for some reason—a bag of chocolate chips. I think I thought that would be dessert. Reading the morning’s stories about the charges against the Couslands had pretty much guaranteed that he had no brain power left over for things like food.
“You had other things on your mind,” Naia said sympathetically from her desk. “Go get a hamburger?”
Alistair opened his mouth to say that he was trying to be fiscally responsible—he owed her money for that dress, after all—when a tentative knock at their office door drew his attention.
Beth was standing there, a black jacket tucked over one arm.
Alistair’s mouth curved in an absolutely stupid grin. He wiped it off his face when he remembered what her last twenty-four hours must have been like. “Beth! I—hi! Why are you—I mean, it’s great to see you, but what—what brings you here?”
She held out her arm, the one with the jacket on it. “I think I stole part of your tuxedo the other night.”
Alistair leapt up from behind his desk to take it. “You didn’t have to bring it all the way down here. I mean, I’m glad you did, and thank you. But …” He trailed off. “How are you doing?”
She shook her head. “I’m—OK? I think?” Her shoulders slumped. “But the jacket’s not the only reason I’m here. Is Wynne in her office? There’s something I need to tell you guys.”
Alistair got the sense that they weren’t going to like whatever she had to say.
It turned out he was very, very right.
When Beth finished explaining the Cousland Foundation’s legal situation, he and Wynne and Naia all sat in stunned silence for a long moment. Naia was the first to let out a breath. She looked at Wynne. “How long can we keep the program running?”
Their boss pressed her lips together. “I had been making contingency plans in the event that our application to renew was turned down. There are other grants that may yet come through, but they are smaller ones. In the meantime there are funds I can move around to keep things going for another six months or so while we look for other support.” She drew a breath and squared her shoulders. “Longer, perhaps, if there’s only one program director. We won’t be able to afford both salaries very much longer.”
Naia and Alistair spoke in unison. “I’ll quit.”
“I can move back in with my parents,” Naia said, glaring daggers at him. “Or find another job. My mom always knows someone who’s hiring.”
“You’re being ridiculous. I’m the one with a bloody trust fund!” Alistair pointed out.
“That you can’t touch until you’re thirty,” Naia shot back. “Unless you’re not planning to eat or pay rent in the next three years …”
“I can borrow from it, if I ask Fiona and Maric. Fiona will give me a lecture about financial responsibility and saving for a rainy day, but I’m about due for one of those anyway. And I can find another job too. I’m not that unemployable.”
He held up his hand. “Naia. You grew up in the same neighborhood most of our kids came from. I know what this program means to you. It’s you. It has to be.”
Naia sat back in her chair and put her face in her hands. Normally Alistair would have relished winning an argument with Naia, but this was a pretty crummy argument to win.
Wynne cleared her throat gently. “I’d prefer it if everyone refrained from resigning until absolutely necessary. We may yet find a way to work things out.” She sighed. “I wish I hadn’t told you.”
Alistair shook his head. “No. We needed to know.”
He chanced a glance over at Beth, wondering how she was taking this all in. She looked pale and miserable, her face etched with stress and guilt. “We needed to know,” he repeated, looking into her dark brown eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, taking a shuddering breath. “Maybe—my parents’ lawyer is good. Maybe the Foundation’s name will be cleared sooner rather than later.” But she sounded only a little optimistic. Mostly, she just sounded tired.
“I should get out of your hair,” she said abruptly, standing up so quickly that her chair almost tipped over. “If I can do anything, please, just ask. I’ll see if I can dig up any other grants that might be relevant, ones with charities that aren’t currently being investigated for treason.”
Alistair leapt up to follow her as she walked out the door.
He hadn’t entirely thought through why he was following her until he saw her shoulders shake. She was crying. It was a silent cry; she didn’t want anyone to see. But somehow he’d known she was close to tears.
She stopped, but didn’t turn around. “I really am sorry.”
“I know.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Um. Say no if you need to be somewhere else. But … want to get some lunch? You look like maybe you could use a break from whatever you’re doing.”
“You mean from delivering horrible news to nice people?” she cracked, wiping at her eyes. She shook her head, then paused. “You know what? Lunch sounds great. I just realized I never ate breakfast.”
There was exactly one restaurant in walking distance from the DFRC: a dive bar in what clearly used to be a gas station. Ten minutes later they were both digging into a shared bucket of fries, and Beth was pretty sure they were the most delicious food she’d ever eaten.
“Andraste bless these fries,” she sighed, pulling some onto a salad plate and shaking vinegar over them. “I can’t believe I forgot to eat breakfast. It’s not like I’ve been doing anything else.”
“Other than worrying about your family?” Alistair pointed out.
“Other than that,” she allowed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make this a pity party for myself.”
“You’re not,” he assured her quietly. “I can’t imagine how hard things have been.”
A lump formed in Beth’s throat. Indifference, she could have dealt with; Alistair’s kindness kept threatening to tip her over into tears all over again.
“It’s strange. And scary. My parents can’t leave their house right now. Mostly I just feel useless,” she admitted. “There isn’t a lot I can do for them except be there for them. And right now I think they kind of want to be alone. I need to think of something to do with myself, that’s all.”
He grimaced sympathetically, dunking a fry into ketchup. “Um. What about … Alpaca grooming? Lamppost painting? Hamster training?”
“I could start a pretentious InstaPics account and only post pictures of sewer grates and discarded socks.” Beth giggled.
“There you go.”
They were briefly interrupted by the arrival of their burgers, which looked ordinary at first glance, but when Beth bit into hers it was juicy and hot and completely perfect. She actually closed her eyes in bliss as she chewed. It was by far the most she’d enjoyed anything since Saturday night.
“I need to remember this place,” she said after she swallowed. “They’ve earned my business for life. Do you think they’re looking for a waitress? Or someone to just sit here and eat their fries all day long?”
Alistair set his burger down. “I have another idea.” He cleared his throat. “You’re welcome to hang out at the DFRC if you want. We have top-notch gym facilities—OK, not really, more like tenth or eleventh notch. But if you’re really desperate for something to do, I know Shianni will put you to work painting sets. We’re supposed to put on The Brecelian Forest soon and half the trees don’t have leaves.”
Beth was so startled that she swallowed a half-chewed bite. After a long sip of water, she finally had an answer. “I—that actually sounds kind of great. But isn’t that going to be awkward? Having the woman who ruined your program walking around your halls, I mean?”
“Unless you’re the one who hacked the Ferelden government, I really don’t think this is your fault,” Alistair said kindly. “Whatever happens, I hope you know that.”
She could think of a million reasons to say no. The awkwardness she’d just mentioned. The fact that she hadn’t worked with teenagers since she’d been one. The fact that she was thinking about how cute Alistair looked when he smiled instead of thinking about her parents.
But when she opened her mouth, she said, “I think I’m going to take you up on that. Thanks.”
There was a brief tussle over the check when it arrived; both of them wanted to pay it all, but finally they agreed to split the tab. The battered bills Alistair threw on the table to cover his half reminded Beth of something he’d said in the meeting with Wynne.
“Can I ask you a really impertinent personal question?” she asked as they began the walk back to the DFRC.
“Oooh, impertinent questions are my favorite.” Alistair grinned. “Ask away.”
“Your brother Cailan—he was a senior when I was a freshman at Calenhad University. I didn’t know him very well, but he had a reputation on campus for throwing money around like it was water.” She trailed off, wondering if she was about to cross a line. There wasn’t really a polite way to ask why did they lock up your money but not his?
But Alistair just nodded, as if he’d expected the question. “It’s because of his mom. She died when he was a kid and he got his inheritance when he turned eighteen. Maric’s well off, but it was Rowan—Cailan’s mom—who had the real money. And my mom has opinions about financial responsibility and learning to stand on your own two feet. When Maric wanted to put aside some money for me, it was her idea to hold it in trust until my thirtieth.”
“That seems like a good way to make things awkward between you and Cailan, though,” Beth pointed out, her brow furrowing.
Alistair’s eyes widened a bit, as if that hadn’t occurred to him before. After a beat, he chuckled. “Now that you mention it, the fact that he spends my yearly income on premium vodka and black leather couches is probably one reason we don’t find a lot in common.”
He immediately winced. “Sorry. That wasn’t very nice. Cailan means well. But it’s weird sometimes. Not just the money parts. He’s a Theirin, I’m not; he grew up in the spotlight, I didn’t. I wouldn’t trade places with him, don’t get me wrong. But he’s my dad’s other son and it’s like we came from different planets.”
Beth nodded. “I get it. Hard for that not to be weird.” She paused. “Your mom. I don’t know much about her. What’s she like?”
“Her name’s Fiona Griffin. She’s—”
“Wait, the humanitarian lawyer?” Beth felt her eyebrows shoot up her forehead. “Just warning you, my friend Leliana is going to be begging you for an introduction. Fiona’s one of her legal idols.”
Alistair grinned. “That’s my mom.” There was more than a little pride in his tone. “She’s impressive. She came from nothing, put herself through college and law school. Her thing with the money probably sounds strict, but her worst nightmare is that I’ll turn into one of those trust fund kids who eats peeled grapes all day and never has to work for anything.”
He looked over at her, abashed. Beth realized he was wondering if she’d take offense.
“Please,” she said haughtily. “Real trust fund kids eat truffled caviar all day. Peeled grapes are for posers.”
He snorted with laughter. “Thanks for the tip. Now I know what to serve at my thirtieth birthday party.”
They walked the rest of the way back in a comfortable silence—well, almost comfortable. Beth couldn’t help stealing glances at Alistair’s profile, at the strong lines of his shoulders and arms and hands. What kind of man finds out he might lose his job and asks the woman who broke the news out for lunch because she looks upset?
A nice one. A really nice one.
One who probably likes me.
If this had been any other day Beth would have asked him to dinner, or even tried her luck with a kiss—but it felt so wrong to contemplate making her move on a crush when her parents were at home wearing ankle monitors. She needed her focus where it belonged, on her family.
Even if every cell in her body was begging her to put her arms around Alistair and hug him, to take refuge in being held, to thank him for somehow making her feel safe when everything else felt like it was turning to ash in her hands.
It felt like it happened in slow motion.
Sera, as usual, was goofing off, jumping from foot to foot and using way more elbow motion than she needed to paint a tree. One of her elbows knocked into a paint can, and slowly, painfully, inevitably, it tipped and fell.
Naia shrieked and ran to catch it, but she was much, much too late. Half of the paint was out of the can and running all over the plywood tree, soaking it beyond recovery. It dripped over the table and onto the floor; Soris had to jump to avoid ruining his shoes.
That’s like ten bucks worth of paint. And how much of that donated wood do we have left?
“Sera!” she snapped as she set the can straight. “Andraste’s butt, can’t you watch what you’re doing for once? Does everything you do …”
She clamped her jaw shut before she could say have to involve showing off and making a mess —which was mean and unfair and definitely not the kind of thing a trusted adult said to a teenager. Guilt twisted her stomach.
Sera’s hazel eyes narrowed angrily even as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“I’m sorry too,” Naia sighed. “I’m in a lousy mood. It’s not you.”
That seemed to comfort Sera a bit, at least. But on the other side of the tree, Naia saw Soris’s eyes widen. “Why are you in a bad mood?”
Fuck. “Just … it’s lots of little stuff. Don’t worry about it.”
Judging by Soris’s expression, he knew that was code for “it’s one big thing” and “you should probably worry about it.”
“I’m going to get some paper towels,” Naia mumbled, standing and rushing away.
It didn’t help that Beth Cousland was one of the people staring at her as she all but ran out of the room. Beth herself wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was gamely taking Shianni’s orders and was pretty good with a paintbrush. But she was like an ever-present blinking sign reminding Naia that there was an expiration date on all of this.
No one would come and repossess the soccer goals, of course, or take away the art supplies lining their supply closets. But the goals would rust and bend or be stolen during a prank; the paint would get used up. And then they wouldn’t be replaced. Alistair wouldn’t be there any more. Worst of all, the kids would stop coming. And then …
Then they’d end up the same way Naia almost had.
She let herself have thirty seconds of angry crying in the supply closet before emerging with a roll of paper towels. Beth was kneeling next to Sera, using the largest paintbrush to spread the spill over a wide area as Shianni peered over her shoulder with a disapproving eye.
“We’ll stick it at the back of the stage,” Shianni said with a sigh. “No one will notice. Hopefully.”
Naia forced her brightest smile onto her face as she walked up with the paper towels. “Good call. I’m sure no one will notice.”
It was one of the longest afternoons at her job that she could remember. But finally, finally, the clock ran out and the kids departed. Naia buried herself in the cleanup as Beth and Alistair chatted quietly in the theater, pushing the new trees into their spots. She wanted to be happy for her friend, who was getting to spend time with a woman he was obviously crazy about, but Andraste’s tits, this was all such a fucking mess. Happy was a little bit beyond her right now.
“Do you guys want a ride home?” Beth asked as they walked down the auditorium aisle together—well, with Naia lagging behind several paces.
“Skip our beloved bus? But then how will we know which bodily fluid it smells like today?” Alistair snarked. “Well, since you offered.”
Naia shook her head. “You know what? I’m going to go for a run. I’ve got some gym clothes in my office. I’ll see you back there.”
Alistair’s brow furrowed. “Wait, you’re going to run home? Won’t that take, like, an hour?”
“Forty-five minutes if I push myself,” Naia said with fake cheer. “It’s nice out. It will be good to stretch my legs.”
But after she changed and went outside, Naia realized that she’d lied to Alistair about the weather. It was clammy and cloudy, one of those spring days that hadn’t fully decided to shake off the chill of winter. But all Naia could think about was running—finding speed and exhilaration, losing herself in the feeling of her heart crashing against her ribs. She rubbed her arms against the cold and took her first steps.
It’s over. It’s going to be all over.
You got complacent, she scolded herself as she ran, seeking out side streets and steep hills, trying to burn her emotions away with exertion. You know better than to count on handouts from rich shems. But no, you just assumed Wynne would handle it. You could have …
But what could she have done, really? Looked for more grants? Robbed a bank?
This was out of my control.
I hate everything.
She assumed the first fat droplet of rain was an anomaly—a drip of condensation or a stray bit of moisture from someone’s sprinkler. But then the second one fell. And the third. And the fourth.
Naia stopped in the middle of the block and tilted her head back to watch as the rain began to fall.
Yep. That seems about right.
It had taken Zevran a while to figure out how to pass the time in Denerim. Alone in a stranger’s apartment, he would begin thinking about the past—about the Crows, and about Rinna. He quickly became skilled at cobbling together a to-do list out of unnecessary errands. Movie theaters, bookstores, jewelers, and the city’s few fine leather goods shops all made for good destinations. He’d also found a gym, though the sparse concrete space was a far cry from the crisp, clean facilities the Crows had offered their employees.
It was all pleasant enough—or it had been. On Monday everything felt just a bit dull, just a bit colorless. The few sparks of amusement came when he spotted something that reminded him of Naia—a green dress in a shop window, a display of champagne flutes, textbooks in a bookstore.
He tried to push her out of his mind when she appeared there. She had made the terms of their night together quite clear and he had accepted them enthusiastically. He had no right to wonder what she was doing right now or when she would return to Embrium Street. Best to think of her as little as possible, save as a pleasant memory once he was out of Denerim.
Since he was in a strange mood in any case, Zevran decided to do his laundry, which was without question his least favorite chore. As a member of the Crows he’d been paid a salary that enabled him to send his laundry out to a service, but he was trying to economize now that he was living off his savings, and 9472 Embrium Street did have a laundry room in the basement. But he hated the musty smell in that room, and he frequently found himself rushing downstairs to rescue clothes from the washing machine that had been sitting there for hours, forgotten.
I will set a timer, he told himself as he climbed the stairs to the third floor.
He pushed open the stairwell door to find Alistair standing at the door to apartment 3B, resting his head against the doorframe with his eyes closed.
His neighbor turned to him expectantly. The hopeful light in his eyes subsided as he took in Zevran. “Oh. It’s you. Hi.”
“Such an enthusiastic greeting. Hello to you as well,” Zevran replied wryly.
Alistair shrugged. “Bad day.”
“I am sorry to hear it. And Naia? Did she share in this bad day?” Zevran hadn’t entirely meant to ask that; it felt as if the words slipped from his mouth of their own accord.
Alistair went still. The look in his brown eyes went from weary to alert and extremely suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
“I do not mean to pry,” Zevran assured him.
“Then don’t.” Alistair pulled his keys out of his jacket and began to unlock his door.
Zevran could not help himself. “Do I detect a note of brotherly concern, Mr. Griffin?”
“Andraste’s knees, what is with this day?” Alistair groaned, tilting his head back and closing his eyes.
Then he snapped his chin back up and met Zevran’s gaze dead on. “Look. I don’t understand what game you’re playing, or if you’re playing a game, or basically anything about what’s going on between you and Naia. But if you want to know something about her, ask her yourself. I’m not going to help you mess with her head.”
With that, he opened the door, stepped inside, and shut it behind him with a firm shove. Zevran found himself alone in the hallway, blinking and slightly stunned. He is a loyal friend. And a wise one—Alistair had clearly guessed that Zevran was not the kind of man Naia Tabris should be involved with. But the odd thing was, Zevran hadn’t asked that to manipulate Naia, or to gain information that might lead him back to her bed. He’d asked because he genuinely wanted to know the answer.
He wanted to know if she was all right.
Leave her be. You made your bargain, he reminded himself. One night. A good night. And more of her time than you likely deserve.
With an uncomfortable frown, he let himself into Morrigan’s apartment.
Naia was soaked to the bone by the time she turned the corner onto Embrium Street. Rainwater ran in streams down her back and between her breasts; her socks squished with every step she took. Stubbornly, grimly, she pushed herself a little harder, taking the last quarter mile in a full-out sprint.
She burst through the door to the building and caught herself on the balcony, gulping down air as she began to shiver. Andraste’s ass. Great solution to a horrible day, Tabris. Go for a run in the rain and then die of pneumonia. Genius.
And then—because of course—the door to the basement swung open and Zevran stepped into the foyer, carrying a laundry basket.
He looked as handsome as always in narrow jeans and a button-down white shirt, and in spite of how cold she was, Naia felt a rush of heat as her body recalled some of the things they’d done together on Saturday night. In that moment she couldn’t decide if the one-night bargain had been a great idea or a terrible one. It was pretty much the only thing keeping her from launching herself at him again.
Zevran's eyes widened as he took in her drowned-rat appearance. “I take it that it’s raining?”
“Actually, I decided to go skinny dipping and forgot to take off my clothes,” Naia snarked, wiping water from her eyes. “It’s really sunny outside. Step out and give it a look.”
He laughed and set the basket down. “I think I shall remain indoors.” He pulled an enormous bath towel from his laundry and held it out to her invitingly.
Naia knew she should decline and go dry off in her own apartment—every second she was looking at him was a dangerous temptation—but the thought of a warm towel fresh from the dryer was too much to turn down. “Thanks,” she said, wrapping it around her shoulders and pressing its corner to her face. Her shivering subsided as its warmth soaked into her skin.
Zevran watched her as she twisted her ponytail into the towel. “Is everything all right?” There was an odd hesitance in his question, as if he wasn’t sure he should ask it.
She opened her mouth to reply with a breezy I’m fine, just too dumb to check the weather . But her mouth couldn’t form the words. She’d done her best to hold it together at work, but Andraste’s ass, she was too tired to pretend right now.
“No,” she admitted. Her shoulders slumped. “That whole thing with the Cousland family? It messed up our grant. Long story short, unless a miracle occurs, I’m going to lose my job. Or Alistair will lose his. And either way the program will probably fold.” She sat down on the stairs with a thump and buried her face in the towel.
There was a slight creak on the stairs and a rustle of fabric. Zevran was beside her—not touching her, just sitting near. “Surely any number of people would wish to hire a woman as capable as you. I am certain you could find another job, should the worst come to pass.”
She lowered the towel. “This isn’t just a job to me.”
She wasn’t sure what compelled her to keep talking. Who confides their darkest secrets in a one-night stand? But Zev was there, and he was listening, and Maker, she needed someone to listen to her right now. “Want to know something funny? You might not have a criminal record. But I do.”
She looked over at him, waiting for judgment. But there was only mild surprise on his face. “I would not have guessed.”
“It’s a juvenile conviction for breaking and entering. It’s sealed now. But I was on a bad path before my parents screwed my head on straight.” She rubbed the towel over her face. “They put me in an after-school program like this one. I thought it was so lame at first, and then all of a sudden it was the thing I looked forward to when I woke up every morning. And it’s the same for our kids, I can tell.” She drew a painful, shuddering breath. “And now it’s going away. And some of them don’t have great families to go home to after school. I hate it. I hate it. ” Her fists tightened in the soft fabric of the towel.
They sat side by side in silence for a while as Naia continued drying herself off. She was turning Zev’s clean towel into a damp, wrinkled mess, but if he regretted the favor he didn’t show it on his face.
“Ms. Cousland mentioned a man she believed was responsible for her parents’ arrest. Rendon Howe.” Zev’s amber eyes narrowed in thought. “I have heard of him. He has an unpleasant reputation—and in Antiva, that is quite an achievement.” He looked at her, his face serious. “If someone could demonstrate that the Couslands had been framed, would that be enough to restore your funding?”
“It’s about the only thing that would,” Naia sighed. “But let’s just say I don’t put a lot of faith in the shem police. Most of them couldn’t find their own butt with two hands and a flashlight.”
Zevran chuckled. “I share your lack of confidence in the authorities. But corporate sabotage is—or was—my area of specialty. Should you wish me to make inquiries …”
“No,” Naia said instinctively, her eyes widening in shock. “I—Maker. That’s really nice of you. But you said most of what you did in Antiva is illegal here.”
“You assume I would be caught? I believe I may be offended.” Zevran paused thoughtfully. “Yes. I am offended.” His tone made it clear that he was teasing.
“My sincere apologies,” Naia said wryly. “Honestly, you probably wouldn’t be caught. But if the worst should happen I don’t want your arrest on my conscience. I’d feel obligated to visit you in jail, and that sounds depressing.”
He laughed softly. “Ah. I suppose I do see your point.”
Naia held out his towel to him; he accepted it carefully, holding it away so it would not ruin his own clothing. “Thanks,” she said quietly. “For the towel. And for listening.”
“No thanks are necessary, my lovely neighbor.” Zevran folded the towel with a little snap of fabric. “A voice like yours is rarely a burden to listen to.”
She smiled faintly, even as she felt herself blush. “Glad to hear it.”
She was halfway up the staircase when she heard him clear his throat. “Should you change your mind, my offer of help stands.”
She paused and turned her head, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but … why?”
“It seems like a good thing to do. And I am not sure I have ever done one of those before.” He smiled, but there was an odd edge to it, as if the joke pained him. As if it weren’t really a joke. “Who knows? Perhaps I would enjoy the change of pace.”
On a normal night, Beth’s parents would have eaten dinner in the Cousland Enterprises cafeteria alongside the coders and accountants and lawyers who made up the CE rank and file, while Beth made dinner for one in the massive Cousland kitchen. She had just dropped Alistair off at his apartment building when it occurred to her that they would all have to eat, and she had no idea how to cook for more than one person, or what was in their fridge at the moment.
A buzz from her phone saved her further agonizing. Leliana had sent her a text.
(6:20pm) Can I bring you and your parents Antivan takeout?
(6:20pm) I’m in line now.
(6:21pm) Yes. you are a goddess. Thank you.
Beth swung by the liquor store on her way home, so Leliana managed to beat her back to the Cousland estate. When Beth opened the door to the garage, a case of wine in her arms, her parents were already helping her best friend set up a makeshift buffet. There was gentle chatter between the three of them, polite conversation about the weather and the food, but Beth could see how much it was costing her parents to be polite, to pretend it was perfectly ordinary to be having dinner at home while wearing ankle monitors. Leliana seemed to know it too; she asked no questions, only answered them.
By unspoken agreement, Bryce and Eleanor took their plates and a bottle of wine to the dining room table while Leliana and Beth took their dinner to the living room. The two friends settled into a pair of high-backed wing chairs and balanced their plates on a small table, eating in companionable silence, occasionally pausing to pour the wine Leliana had picked out of Beth’s haul from the store.
The living room looked out over the vast grounds of the Cousland estate, a brilliant green landscape dotted with flowers in white and purple and blue. Beth watched the rain fall over the family’s gardens with an ache in her chest. She had grown up in this house, spent hours running to and from the guest house, played with her dolls in the shade of its trees. But if her parents were found guilty, would their assets be forfeit? Would Beth lose her home along with her family?
She felt Leliana’s hand on top of hers, interrupting her anxious reverie. “How are you?”
“I’m not sure,” Beth admitted with a sigh. She poured a large glug of wine into her glass and sat back against the chair. “I know my parents didn’t do this, Leliana. And I really know that Fergus didn’t do this. But … can we prove it? And when?” She swallowed. “The Foundation’s assets are frozen right now. No money can go in or out.”
“Oh, Beth.” Leliana’s voice ached with sympathy. “I am so sorry.”
They sat in silence for a moment while Beth sipped her wine and pretended to pick at her food. Then Leliana cleared her throat. “I had a thought, if you will indulge me. The Orlesian government is allegedly involved in this scandal, yes?”
“I could, perhaps …” Leliana fidgeted with her watch, spinning it around her wrist. “I know someone who might be able to shed some light on these events.”
“No. ” The word came out harsher and sharper than Beth had intended, but she was too alarmed to control her tone. “Maker’s breath, Leli. I don’t want you within a hundred miles of that woman.”
Leliana drew a deep breath. “She happens to be in Denerim, and she says she is willing to talk.”
“Then she can talk to me. I’ll go. Alone.” But Beth knew what Leliana would say in response.
Her friend’s lovely mouth curved in a rueful half-smile. “Ah. She is willing to talk, but only if I am there.”
“Of course she is.” Beth closed her eyes and leaned back against her chair. “Marjolaine has put you through enough. I won’t ask you to do this for me. I can’t.”
“You are not asking,” Leliana said gently. “And perhaps it is time she and I reckoned with one another.”
Perhaps it is time someone punched Marjolaine’s teeth in, Beth thought savagely. That was a pretty violent thought, but if anyone had earned it, it was Leliana’s ex. “Unless that ‘reckoning’ involves her grovelling at your feet for forgiveness, I’m not interested, and you shouldn’t be either.”
“For all I know, Marjolaine orchestrated this herself! She knew how close we are.” Leliana’s eyes blazed with worry and anger.
“That makes no sense. She screwed you over. Why would she feel like she had to take revenge?” Beth pointed out.
“I am not sure Marjolaine sees it that way. She is quite skilled at persuading herself that she is the one who has been wronged.” Leliana quietly swirled her wine in its glass. Her mouth tightened. “I … would sleep better if I knew for sure. I will take the meeting.”
Beth felt tears form at the corners of her eyes. “Can I go with you, at least?” she asked, her hands shaking as she gripped Leliana’s.
Leliana’s eyes closed in relief. “Yes. Please.”
Naia returned from a mid-afternoon trip to the supply closet to find Soris sitting in her office chair. Her sixteen-year-old cousin was slouched in his chair, flicking a thumb over his smartphone screen. Most people in that pose looked utterly zoned out, but Soris’s eyes kept narrowing and narrowing and his mouth kept twisting, reacting to what he was reading.
His eyes moved to her as she entered the room. He sat up straight. “This is my free period,” he blurted.
Naia smiled. “Soris, I don’t really worry about you cutting class. What’s up?” Alistair was out at the softball field, cleaning it up and getting it ready for their usual game with Beth at his side, so she pulled his chair out from behind his desk and sat down across from her cousin.
“So. Um. I’ve been … reading some stuff.” Soris fiddled with his phone, clearly trying to think about how to proceed.
Naia’s mind raced. Is this the sex talk? … no, we had that when he was fourteen. Unless he has new questions? Should I get Alistair?
“Some of the articles about the Cousland trial mention the Foundation. Is the program going to lose funding?” Soris’s blue eyes glittered with anxiety.
Naia drew a deep breath. “Maybe. Wynne’s looking into some other options. But … yeah. We’re one of the programs affected.”
“OK. So, I was thinking. What if we had, like, a bake sale?” Soris blushed a bit. “I know that sounds dumb, and we probably wouldn’t raise much money, but … we can try, right?”
Naia’s heart twisted in her chest. No, it probably wouldn’t raise that much money, but at least they would be doing something. “I think it’s a great idea.”
“What’s a great idea?” Alistair walked into the office, Beth on his heels.
“A bake sale,” Naia repeated.
“Cupcakes, specifically,” Soris elaborated. “We can sell them at the high school, and to parents at pickup. And maybe at the play?”
“Let’s focus on one place at a time,” Alistair said, rubbing his chin. “The high school cafeteria sounds like a good call. Maybe the people who aren’t rehearsing tomorrow can bake some test batches?”
Beth grinned. “I can pick up the ingredients tomorrow,” she offered. “From scratch or cake mix, Soris?”
“Cake mix,” Soris, Naia, and Alistair all replied in unison.
“And maybe frosting in a can?” Soris added with a sheepish smile.
Naia laughed. “Yeah, let’s keep the first batch realistic. And before we get too excited, let’s see what we have for baking equipment.”
The four of them walked down the hall to the DFRC kitchen, a square little space with cracked countertops and two ancient ovens that were missing most of their knobs. It was a far cry from the palatial kitchen in the Cousland mansion, and Beth felt a flash of guilt over the fact that all she used her parents’ kitchen for most weeks was boiling pasta for one.
Naia immediately knelt and began searching the cupboards. Soris joined her, and soon the two of them were setting bowls and spoons and one tired-looking electric mixer out on the counter.
“We only have two cupcake pans,” she said with a frown, opening cupboards to check again.
“I think I saw another one in the supply closet a few weeks ago,” Alistair said, his eyes lighting up. “Be right back.”
Soris followed, saying something about cupcake liners. Beth mentally added another pan to her shopping list just in case, along with some of those colorful paper liners. And maybe some sprinkles. She didn’t know much about bake sales, but anything eye-catching couldn’t hurt.
Naia ducked back into the cupboards, half-crawling inside as she looked for more equipment. Beth took the opportunity to pull her phone from her pocket to see if Leliana had texted yet with a time and place to meet Marjolaine. She battled competing feelings of relief and nausea when she saw no alerts.
Beth looked up to see Naia, a dented metal bowl in hand, watching her with a curious expression. She felt herself blush as she tucked the phone away. “Sort of. I’m waiting on a message about a meeting, but it hasn’t come yet.”
“Lawyers?” Naia asked sympathetically.
Beth shook her head. “No. Well, actually, yes—my best friend Leliana, she’s a lawyer, and I’m waiting for her message.”
She trailed off, assuming Naia wouldn’t want to listen to her problems. But when Naia’s green eyes didn’t waver, something urged her to keep talking.
“She wants to do something to help me. But I think it’s a bad idea,” she blurted. “She says it’s her choice, not mine, but … what if she gets hurt?”
“Yikes.” Naia grimaced sympathetically. “How bad are we talking? Illegal? Immoral? Physically unsafe?”
“No, no, and I hope not. More like … personal pain.” Beth swallowed. “Ever heard of Bard and Associates?”
Naia shook her head.
“They’re a law firm, super-connected to the Orlesian government. Leliana got a job with them right out of law school and moved back to Val Royeaux. Her second day on the job she met a junior partner named Marjolaine Laurent.” Beth leaned her palms against the counter; her fingers tightened. “They started dating.”
She remembered those years so vividly. Beth had taken time off before going back for her MBA, so she’d still been a graduate student when her friend finished law school and started at Bard. She’d sensed the change in Leliana from afar—seen her become harder, more ruthless, more focused on her own success, with Marjolaine cheering every dirty legal trick Leliana pulled off. It had been unsettling, to say the least.
“After about two years, one of Marjolaine’s cases crashed and burned in court because she tried to hide evidence. She decided to blame Leliana, and it worked. She was knocked off the partnership track and everyone at the firm was gossiping about it. It almost destroyed her.”
Beth wasn’t exaggerating. Unable to prove her innocence and shattered by Marjolaine’s betrayal, Leliana had resigned from Bard and Associates and moved back to Ferelden. She’d spent a week sleeping in one of the Cousland guest rooms, crying and wondering if her career would ever recover. She’d emerged from that dark period determined to shed the woman she’d been in Val Royeaux, to make sure she never became another Marjolaine. And now ...
“And now she wants to sit down with that awful woman to find out if she knows anything about the charges against my parents,” Beth finished. “I’m going to go with her, but … Maker. Marjolaine scares me. She’s smart and ruthless and I don’t—I don’t know if I can protect Leliana.” Those last words burned in her throat. Would there be anything about this nightmare that didn’t make her feel helpless and terrified?
Naia was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, she met Beth’s eyes. Her expression was calm but serious. “I think I know someone who might be able to help.”
There was quite a lot about Rendon Howe on the Internet.
Zevran had not entirely meant to spend his afternoon reading page after page of interviews with Rendon Howe, the man behind one of Ferelden’s most popular personal finance software programs. But he’d heard the name before in Antiva and knew that Howe was not a man to be trusted. Beth Cousland’s suspicions seemed worth exploring further.
I am not breaking any promises, he told himself. I am doing nothing that might get me arrested.
One interesting pattern emerged almost immediately. With one or two exceptions, every article about Rendon Howe mentioned that he had broken from Cousland Enterprises before Eleanor’s first program hit the market. As wealthy as Howe was—one older article Zev found was a profile of his late wife, photographed in their palatial home—he’d cost himself a lot of money when he’d decided he couldn’t work with Bryce and Eleanor Cousland, and everyone seemed to know it.
Fertile ground for a grudge.
Other interesting rumors emerged. Two hostile workplace complaints, quickly hushed with financial settlements. Several old gossip columns wondering if divorce was on the horizon for Rendon and Eliane Howe. Posts on coders' message boards from people claiming to be former Howe employees, warning others not to apply for jobs there. “Total nightmare,” one poster wrote. “Howe is crazy psycho. Go work there if you like getting 3am texts and being screamed at.”
All of it led up to an unpleasant picture. But, other than confirming his suspicion that Howe was not a nice man, Zevran hadn’t really learned anything new. And none of it seemed likely to help clear the Couslands.
Without the Crows’ resources, there may be little more I can do.
A knock on the door interrupted his musings. Almost guiltily, Zevran snapped the lid of his laptop shut before going to answer the door.
Naia, Alistair, and Elizabeth Cousland stood outside.
Zevran did not bother to conceal his surprise. “Good afternoon.”
Naia smiled at him—a little hesitantly. “Hi. Um. Any chance your offer of help is still good?”
Zevran stood back and gestured to the inside of the apartment. “Please. Come in.”
One by one the three of them stepped inside. Even in those few steps, Zevran noticed how close Alistair and Beth were standing, how each of them sought the other’s presence. The sight made something in his chest ache, though he could not have said why.
He pushed that thought out of the way as Beth and Alistair settled on the futon, an aggressively uncomfortable item of furniture that Morrigan had draped in a purple sheet. Naia sat cross-legged on the floor, implicitly offering him the one chair at Morrigan’s little table. In spite of himself he felt an intense flash of memory as he remembered her floor and what they had done on it. He shook his head and tried to focus on what Beth was saying.
“Bard and Associates?” He raised his eyebrows. “I am familiar with them, of course. Your friend used to work for them?” That was far from the kind of friend he would have imagined for this woman.
Beth nodded. “Her former boss completely screwed her over. It almost ruined her life. Marjolaine—that’s the boss—she claims she knows something that could help my parents. But I’m worried she just wants to mess with Leliana. And this kind of thing is not in my wheelhouse at all.” There was painful sincerity in her eyes as she met Zevran’s gaze. “So can I hire you as a consultant? Come with us, keep the interview from going off track, tell us to walk out if Marjolaine is just trying to torment Leliana?”
“Your friend approves of my presence?” Zevran asked cautiously.
Beth nodded. “I didn’t tell her your name in case you said no—just that you used to work for the Crows. She said it was a good idea, that a Crow might be one of the few people able to go toe-to-toe with Marjolaine.”
Zevran could not deny that. The Crows had a long history with Bard and Associates—sometimes on the same side, often on different ones. He thought the score was roughly tied at the moment, but that wasn’t bad when you were playing against a ruthless law firm not-so-secretly bankrolled by the wealthiest government in Thedas.
“In that case, Ms. Cousland, I would be delighted to help.” He gave her a half-ironic little bow from his chair. “As my schedule is rather open, I am at your disposal.”
Her face relaxed into a smile—one that turned her from merely pretty into stunningly beautiful. “Call me Beth. And thank you.”
In spite of himself, Zevran looked over at Naia to see her reaction. The lines of stress around her eyes were still there, but he thought he saw a glimmer of hope in them. He felt elation and guilt in equal measure. Guilt quickly won out.
I should not have allowed her to put faith in me. That has never ended well.
I cannot fail this time.
Marjolaine kept them waiting.
Beth wasn’t very surprised. Leaving them to stew in the reception area, perched uncomfortably on fashionable chairs with no backs, was a classic power play. The Denerim offices of Bard and Associates were small, but the all-white decor, the bright lighting, and the polished perfection of the handsome young man at the front desk all combined to create an unwelcoming and intimidating environment. The longer they sat here, the more they’d feel like outsiders in this silent, efficient office.
But Beth was no stranger to this kind of place and she’d taken care to look like she belonged. She was wearing an elegant cream dress and minimalist jewelry made from expensive stones and metals. She’d also put on her most uncomfortable shoes, sky-high heels with the signature red soles of one of Orlais’s best-known design houses. She knew she’d gotten it right because the handsome young assistant had nearly fallen over himself offering her coffee and bottled water before remembering that she was the enemy.
Meanwhile Zevran, sitting across from her, was wearing a sleek grey Antivan suit that somehow made him look completely respectable and a bit scary. Not for the first time, Beth found herself wondering how Zevran Arainai had found himself at 9472 Embrium Street. She’d heard of the Crows from her parents--apparently doing business in Antiva was eventful and stressful--and from what little she knew, she suspected that it was unusual for one of them to find himself unemployed and subletting from a graduate student.
Leliana had taken a different approach. Her black suit was flattering and professional, but it was clearly an off-the-rack garment, the kind of thing one of the lawyers in this office would never wear. She looked as if she had never had any connection to a place like Bard and Associates. She also looked deeply ill at ease.
Beth couldn’t blame her. How were you supposed to prepare for a face-to-face conversation with the person who had tried to ruin your life?
This had better be worth it.
She checked her watch. It was twenty minutes past the hour. How long is this nonsense going to keep going?
“Shall we place bets on how long she will keep us here?” Zevran murmured, noticing her gesture. “I predict … hmmmm. Thirty-four minutes. That seems correct for this tired ploy, no?”
He pitched the words just loud enough for the young man at the desk to hear him, and was rewarded with the faint sound of thumbs hitting a touchscreen. The young man was relaying what was said to Marjolaine.
“I’ll take forty.” Beth let her annoyance show in her chilly tone. “Leliana?”
“I would not dare to guess.” A shadow passed over her friend’s lovely features. “Marjolaine, I have learned, will do whatever best suits her.”
She had barely finished those words when a door behind the receptionist opened. A woman in her late thirties stepped out into the waiting room. She was fair-skinned and dark-haired, with a long, elegant face and large brown eyes. She radiated success and confidence; her sharply tailored suit and heels gave Beth’s designer clothing a run for its money. Leliana’s reaction was minimal—a quick catch of breath, a brief smoothing of a wrinkle in her skirt—but even so, this awful woman smirked to see her effect.
Beth stood, trying not to grind her teeth. “Ms. Laurent. I’m Elizabeth Cousland. Thank you for seeing me.” She held out her hand.
“But of course. Any favor for Leliana is well worth doing. It is lovely to see you again, my dear.” Marjolaine shook Beth’s hand, but she looked over Beth’s shoulder as she did, her gaze focused on her former lover. She was watching Leliana with amusement in her dark eyes, as if she had caught Leliana playing a particularly funny game and could not wait to learn the rules.
Only then did she appear to notice Zevran. “And who is your handsome friend?”
Beth shifted subtly, placing herself between Marjolaine and Leliana. “This is Zevran Arainai. I’ve hired him to assist me in this matter.”
Zevran inclined his head, but did not offer his hand. “A pleasure, Ms. Laurent.”
Marjolaine’s thin lips curved in an almost-smile. “Ah. So you have found yourself a former Crow to make inquiries. How strategic. But perhaps this is best discussed in private, yes?”
The three of them followed Marjolaine down a bright white hallway behind the receptionist and into a sun-soaked office decorated in white and chrome. Another sterile, expensive space; another environment made to make people feel uncomfortable. Beth suppressed a disapproving wrinkle of her nose.
“May I offer you some coffee, perhaps?” Marjolaine asked, arching an eyebrow. “I was shocked to learn the lengths to which one must go in order to procure proper beans in this wretched country—no offense, of course, Ms. Cousland.”
Beth tilted her chin and did not reply. She pulled out the center seat in front of Marjolaine’s desk and settled into it, crossing her ankles and folding her hands expectantly. Zevran took the seat on her right; Leliana, the one on her left.
“No coffee? Well. I suppose I shall also abstain for now. I would not wish to be thought a poor host.”
Marjolaine strode behind her desk and sat behind it, every motion deliberate and slow. She placed her elbows on the shining white surface and templed her fingers. She looked Beth up and down for a long moment before beginning. “Officially, of course, the Orlesian government denies knowledge of any supposed hack on the Ferelden government.”
Beth felt her heart begin to speed up. “And unofficially?”
“You understand, I hope, that should anyone else attempt to get me on the record about this, the answers will be quite different,” Marjolaine warned her.
“That is what we expected,” Zevran said airily.
“Splendid. I do so like to be on the same page.” Marjolaine smiled. “Which brings us to just one more matter before I tell you what you wish to know.”
Her head swung towards Leliana, her eyes focused and intense. “What, my dear, are you playing at?”
They had expected something like this. The three of them had discussed what a meeting with Marjolaine might be like; Leliana had been confident that Marjolaine wanted something from her. The plan had been for Beth and Zevran to monopolize the conversation as much as possible, but they knew they could not distract her forever. Marjolaine, evidently, was not willing to be distracted for more than a minute. Beth’s stomach squeezed in worry.
“I do not know what you mean,” Leliana replied, her voice a little unsteady.
“The shabby office. Those sad little cases for penniless wretches in disputes with their landlords. The clothes , Leliana.” She gestured at her former lover’s off-the-rack suit with an air of deep grievance. “This is not you. This is not my Leliana. And so, I must wonder … what exactly are you planning?”
Leliana blinked. “Planning?” she repeated.
Marjolaine made a tsk noise with her tongue. “I am not so foolish as to think there will be no reprisal for what I did—and you have more than enough knowledge to use against me. I confess I did not expect you to do something so dramatic as resign and flee to Ferelden. But then I saw that it was all the better to distance yourself from whatever is to come.” She smirked triumphantly, pleased with her deduction. “Do tell me. What revenge do you hope to take?”
Leliana’s mouth dropped open. “You’re insane,” she gasped. “I knew you were paranoid, but—you truly think that my life now is about you? I left Bard and came to Ferelden so I would not become you, Marjolaine. That is all I am planning. To walk my own path. To be myself, not ‘your Leliana.’” Her voice was heated and passionate, her anger obvious.
“And how long do you think you will be content doing that, my dear?” Marjolaine’s dark eyes glittered. She stroked a possessive finger down the surface of the desk, her eyes locked with her ex-girlfriend’s. “You excelled as my protege because I was an excellent mentor, true. But it is also because I understand you as no one else does.”
There was an almost hypnotic quality to her words, a confidence and clarity that made it hard to see how she could be wrong. Beth saw just how easy it must have been for an impressionable young Leliana to fall under this woman’s spell, and her heart broke all over again for her friend.
“You are skilled at my kind of work because you love it,” Marjolaine continued, her voice a low purr. “You love the status, the power, the ability to get what you want. You cannot change that, no matter how much you may wish to be the kind of simple girl who toils away in a public works office .” Her voice dripped with disdain.
Leliana’s face was pale. “I … I am not …”
Beth, Leliana, and Zevran had talked about the circumstances under which they would walk away from this meeting. The two women had agreed to let Zevran give the signal; he was the least emotionally involved. But as Beth watched the agony in Leliana’s eyes, she felt her anger bubble in her chest, and she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stick to the plan.
That’s enough out of you, Marjolaine.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Leliana, you are nothing like this woman.” Beth’s voice was firm and cold. “I did not come here to give you the opportunity to insult my friend, Ms. Laurent. We’re leaving.” She gathered her purse over her arm and stood, her motions crisp and furious. She knew she was about to walk out the door with no more information than she’d arrived with, but right now she didn’t care. Putting Leliana through this wasn’t worth whatever this woman knew.
“Beth …” Leliana said softly, reaching for her arm.
“No. She’s done nothing but waste our time and try to turn your head inside out since the second we walked through that door. She almost ruined your life. She should have opened with an apology, not whatever this bullshit is. Either she knows nothing or has no intention of telling us. We’re leaving ,” Beth repeated, glaring daggers at Marjolaine.
And, wonder of wonders, the Orlesian lawyer looked taken aback. Only for a moment—she quickly recovered, her smug smile back in place, but she’d obviously expected Beth to be more desperate.
“I have given offense, though I do not entirely see how. Even so, please accept my apologies,” she said smoothly. “Please, sit down. I do have information to share. If my Leliana is so wounded as you seem to think, perhaps she will see it as a peace offering.”
Leliana tugged gently on Beth’s hand. Reluctantly, Beth let her knees bend and settled back in the chair once more. She glanced over at Zevran, wondering what he’d made of her outburst. Zevran’s mouth quirked at the corner—it was a subtle expression, but Beth somehow knew that he didn’t think she’d blown it. In fact, it rather seemed like he approved.
“As I said, officially the Orlesian government knows nothing.” Marjolaine tapped one perfectly manicured finger against the surface of her desk. “Unofficially, for the past six months Bard and Associates has been negotiating with an organization called Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated that expressed interest in acquiring an Orlesian sales license. We were under the impression that this organization was acting as a front for Cousland Enterprises.”
“And were they a front for Cousland Enterprises?” Beth asked the question ask calmly as she could, but she could feel her hands shaking as she waited for the answer.
“To tell the truth, Ms. Cousland, we did not particularly care one way or the other.” Marjolaine shrugged. “The outcome concerned us more than the precise identity of the people we were dealing with. We wanted what they had to offer—namely, a sizeable payment in the form of cash and secrets. And who else but your parents would have wanted a license for Cousland Enterprises?”
“That is not an answer to Ms. Cousland’s question,” Zevran pointed out.
Marjolaine shrugged. “Perhaps not. But it is all the information you will receive. So I recommend that you look into Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated. And … good luck. To you especially, my dear Leliana. I look forward to meeting again.” Her voice was intimate, almost loving—but there was a darkness beneath the words, a hint of a threat.
Leliana met her former lover’s gaze steadily. “I hope you enjoy the trip back to Orlais, Marjolaine. As far as meeting again—no. I have no wish to be part of your life or your world. Not ever again.”
The other woman chuckled. “Lie to yourself if you must, my dear. But you and I are one and the same. And deep down, you know that.”
Beth Cousland bundled her friend out of the Bard and Associates office with a speed and ruthlessness that surprised Zevran. In the little time he’d spent in her company, he had only seen her kindhearted side, and he had expected her to be easily intimidated when faced with a shark like Marjolaine Laurent. But she had more than held her own. Small wonder Alistair is so smitten.
“Let’s get a late breakfast at that bistro. Pastries and good coffee. My treat,” Beth said as she strode across the parking lot, her heels loud against the pavement. Her tone was more like an order than a suggestion.
Leliana smiled slightly. “You do not need to ply me with pastry to calm me down, Beth. I am quite all right.”
“Well, I need a pastry. I need a tray of pastries. And then I’m going to take that tray and drive back here and smack it over your ex’s head. Ugh!” Beth shook her head. “What a manipulative, paranoid, self-centered … I’m running out of insults.” She let out a frustrated sigh. “And all we got for our troubles is a name. Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated.”
“It is more than we had before,” Leliana said firmly, pushing her friend towards optimism rather than frustration. “Though I fear we cannot share the name with Teagan Guerrin, given how we came by it. I will do what I can with my resources to determine who holds the incorporation.”
Zevran cleared his throat. “And there is one more piece of information that we gained that I do not believe Ms. Laurent intended to reveal.”
Beth stopped in her tracks. “What do you mean?”
Zevran had been turning this over and over in his mind since Marjolaine’s offhanded response to his introduction, and the more he thought about it, the more certain he was. “When she met me, she was immediately able to identify me as a former Antivan Crow.”
Leliana nodded. “I assumed your reputation had preceded you. I do not know of many former Crows.”
“Ah, would that my fame had extended so far!” Zevran joked with a wink. “But I cannot imagine that my exploits, daring and impressive as they were, would have reached Marjolaine’s ears—and there are more of us than my former employer would like to admit. No. Were I in Marjolaine’s shoes, meeting an unknown Antivan in a Cousland’s employ, I would have assumed that they had hired the Crows to investigate their family’s troubles.”
Understanding began dawning in Beth’s dark eyes. “So how did she know you weren’t a Crow?”
“The Crows do not take contracts that conflict with ones they have already accepted.” He frowned. He took no pleasure in what he was about to say, but it had to be shared. “So I believe that the Crows have already been hired to work against you—and were likely hired some time ago. Framing your family would be quite in line with their usual methods.”
Leliana and Beth both paled. Zevran could not blame them. The forces aligned against the Cousland family grew more troubling by the moment.
“Rendon Howe hired them.” Beth’s voice crackled with loathing. “It has to be him. Can you—can you find out for sure? Is there any way?”
Zevran did not want to give her false hope. “I will try. But the Crows are not encouraged to communicate with former employees.” He drew a breath. “Whether I learn anything will depend on whether an old friend can be persuaded to ignore the rules.”
And on whether I am willing to pay whatever Taliesin will expect in return.
“Are you sure you don’t want coffee?”
Leliana looked out the car window and shook her head. They were parked on the street next to her office; she was staring out the window of the car in the general direction of her workplace, but it felt as if she was looking right through the building. Her eyes were unfocused and weary. “No. I—I ought to get to work. And I am certain Zevran wishes to return home.”
“That is kind, but you have not seen the decor at the apartment I am subletting,” Zevran said wryly. “In fact, it occurs to me that I have an errand to run not far from here.” He unbuckled his seat belt and met Beth’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I will make what inquiries I can and let you know what I learn.”
Beth nodded. “Thanks, Zevran.” For everything. She strongly suspected that Zevran had invented his errand to give her a moment alone with her friend.
As soon as he was gone, Beth put her hand over Leliana’s. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Leliana closed her eyes and leaned her head against the seat. “I—how!” she blurted, her face crumpling. “She thinks I am plotting against her! I’ve done nothing to her since leaving Val Royeaux. How could she think that?”
“Because it’s what she would do,” Beth said, scowling. “Because awful people console themselves by believing that everyone else is just as awful as they are.”
Leliana took a shuddering breath as she opened her eyes. “She is not wrong, you know. About me, and what I was like when I worked with her.” She bit her lip. “I was good at it, Beth. I bent the rules until they nearly broke and delighted in it, never mind who we hurt—who I hurt. I did not want to be that person anymore.” Her face tightened in pain. “But what if I am only fooling myself? What if I am just like Marjolaine, deep down?”
The self-doubt in Leliana’s eyes tore at Beth’s heart. Marjolaine had put those questions in Leliana’s head, and Beth’s troubles had given her the chance to do it. She didn’t know if there was anything she could say that would chase those worries from her friend’s mind, but Maker damn it all, she was going to try.
“You’re not like her. And I get to say that because I’ve known you longer than she has,” Beth said firmly. “That’s not the Leliana I knew in college, and it’s not the Leliana I know now. You were good at what she does because you’re a great lawyer. But this? The Legal Aid stuff? You’re good at that too. Better than good.”
Her friend swallowed. “I am,” she allowed, a small smile forming on her lips. “But—oh! It all feels so small sometimes. So many small injustices, all symptoms of larger problems.”
Beth squeezed her hand. “It’s not small to the people you help.”
“I suppose not.” Leliana sighed. “Bah. Marjolaine knew just what to say to tie me in knots. I should not have let her do it.”
“You did it to help me and I love you for it.” Beth reached out and pulled her into a hug.
Leliana laughed sadly and returned the hug. “I love you too. Now then. Leave me and go see your program director.” There was a hint of her usual playfulness in her tone.
Beth blushed. “I know I really shouldn’t.”
“Why on earth not?” Leliana blinked, startled.
“I—it just feels so selfish. Playing the nice, normal volunteer. Flirting with a cute guy. I should be thinking about how to help my family.” She sighed.
“You are not selfish.” Leliana took both her hands and looked her square in the eye. “I know the timing seems odd. But it will not hurt your parents’ case if you have an opportunity for happiness and go after it.” She winked. “Besides, he is quite handsome. It would be a regrettable waste to let him slip away, no?”
Beth laughed. “All right. I’ll—I’ll think about it.”
Alistair slumped over his desk and folded his arms on its surface. He settled his chin on his arms with a dramatic sigh as he looked over at Naia. “Well. I feel useless. You?”
Naia leaned back in her chair and groaned, pushing a stack of paperwork away from her as she did. “ So useless. Maker. It’s probably too much to hope that this Bard and Associates woman has all our answers?”
“Probably,” Alistair agreed. “But maybe Beth and her friend and your boyfriend will pick up something useful.”
She sat up and narrowed her eyes at him. “He’s not my boyfriend and you know it,” she said with exaggerated patience.
“If you sa-ay so,” Alistair replied in a singsong.
“I do-oo,” his friend sang back, sticking her tongue out at him. “I told you. We agreed on one night.”
Alistair arched an eyebrow. “And he’s involving himself in this Cousland business because …?”
“Maybe he’s a nice guy who wants to help out.”
“Or, maybe I’m just that good in bed.” Naia’s eyes sparkled wickedly as she grinned at him.
“Ewwww, why did you have to put that image in my head?” Alistair yelped indignantly.
“Hey, you brought him up. Don’t start something you can’t finish, Griffin.” Naia shut a folder with a light slap. “Want to go get our baking supplies ready?”
“Oh good, distracting busy work.” Alistair shoved himself back from her desk. “Sign me up.”
They were busy washing and drying the muffin pans when the door to the kitchen opened. Beth walked in wearing a t-shirt and jeans, her arms heavy with grocery store bags. She looked like any other volunteer—at least, until you noticed the fancy, expensive-looking earrings glittering in the DFRC’s fluorescent lights. She must have changed clothes quickly after leaving Bard and Associates. The idea that she’d been eager to come here brought an unbidden smile to Alistair’s face.
He immediately leapt around the counters to help her. “Wow! This is amazing. I was thinking maybe two or three boxes, not an army’s worth of food.”
Beth smiled a little sheepishly. “I figured the kids will probably eat a few during the decorating,” she explained as she began unpacking. “And we can always save a few boxes for later. Maybe sell some at the play too?”
“That’s a great idea.” Naia bit her lip, then blurted, “OK. I have to ask. How did the, uh, thing go?”
Beth wrinkled her nose. She was obviously annoyed, so Alistair probably shouldn’t have found that quite as adorable as he did. “I’m not sure. She gave us a little information, which I guess is good, but mostly she just wanted to mess with Leliana’s head.” Her expression grew somber. “And Zevran got the impression that the Antivan Crows are involved.”
Alistair let out a low whistle. He’d never even heard of the Crows until a few days ago, but he was reasonably sure that you didn’t hire them to do nice things like throw surprise parties or rescue lost puppies. “Yikes.”
“Yikes is right,” Beth sighed. “I’ve got a feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better.” She smiled bravely. “But at least I have delicious cupcakes to look forward to?”
“That’s the spirit,” Alistair said, grinning at her. “Frosting and sprinkles won’t solve everything, but a sugar high is always nice.”
Naia looked between Alistair and Beth, a slight sparkle in her eye. “I’m going to go set some things up for the play. Why don’t the two of you bake a test batch?”
Alistair bit back a laugh. Subtle as always, Naia . Not that he was going to turn down the chance to spend more time with Beth. “Works for me.”
“Me too.” Alistair could see a faint blush bloom on Beth’s cheeks.
As Naia left, Beth came to stand beside him, a box of cupcake mix in hand. She turned it over and squinted at the instructions. Alistair looked over her shoulder at the cheerful little list of steps. The cake mix people had done everything in their power to make this look extremely easy—but, as Alistair knew from hard experience, that didn’t necessarily mean it would be easy in practice, especially not for him. “Um. We may have come to the point where I should admit that I have never baked anything in my life.”
“Me neither.” Beth stared down at the box with a determined expression on her pert face. “But come on. There are instructions. We’re two intelligent adults. I’m sure we can handle this.”
It started off well enough. Preheat oven to 350, check. Line cupcake pan with muffin cups, check. Pour mix into the bowl, check. Add oil and eggs, check. But then came the mixing—and their electric mixer would not turn on.
“It’s plugged in, right?” Beth tugged skeptically at the cord. “I’m not imagining that it’s plugged in?”
Alistair flipped the little switch back and forth. “Well, if you are, it’s a shared hallucination.” Understanding brightened his face. “Oh, wait. Maybe this outlet is dead. We had some electrical problems last year. Let’s try another one.”
Beth pulled the cord out of its plug and slid down the counter, closer to the oven, where another outlet awaited. Seconds later the mixer whirled to life, its little metal beaters spinning rapidly.
“Aha! Success! Take that, electrical problems!” Alistair crowed as he brought the bowl over to her.
Beth was just thinking about how nice and normal and sweet this all felt when she stuck the spinning beaters into the bowl—and the contents of the bowl exploded.
Dry mix and globs of oil and egg flew everywhere, flung from the bowl by the whirling mixer. Beth shrieked in surprise and pulled the beaters out—but of course that just flung more cake mix against the walls and counters and all over her and Alistair. Frantically she fumbled for the switch, but it was several long, agonizing seconds before the beaters slowed down and stopped.
Slowly, her eyes wide, Beth turned her head to Alistair.
His dark t-shirt was now covered in yellow cake mix. There was a huge spot of egg yolk underneath one of his eyes, and some of it was even in his hair. Beth didn’t have a mirror, but judging from Alistair’s expression, she probably looked pretty much the same way.
She could feel something wet dripping down one cheek. Slowly, she wiped it away. “Um. So. Now that I think about it, I think I remember hearing you’re supposed to put the beaters in the bowl first, then turn them on?”
“Oh, sure, you could do it that way. But not us! We live on the edge! We are bakers who defy convention!” Alistair declared, pointing a triumphant finger at the ceiling. “While others might say that batter belongs in a bowl, not on the walls, we dare to …”
“Get it in our hair?” Beth snarked. “Hold still. You’ve got egg on your face.”
“And to think I always thought that was just a saying,” Alistair joked as she reached for a paper towel.
She had only the purest of intentions as she stood on her toes to brush the mess away. She’d created the problem; she’d clean it up. But suddenly her face was within inches of his, and her fingers were on his cheek, and somehow he was the most gorgeous man he’d ever seen, standing there covered in cake ingredients and looking at her like he couldn’t believe she was really there. She swallowed as she swept the paper towel under his eye, wondering if he could hear the way her heart was pounding in her chest.
“You’re thinking about something,” he said softly. “What?”
And in that moment, she couldn’t be anything other than honest. “I’m thinking about kissing you.”
His breath caught as he blinked in surprise. “I’m sorry, I think I’m daydreaming. Did I just hear you say that you’re thinking about …”
Slowly, Beth slid her arms around his neck. “Kissing you,” she repeated.
A smile started at one corner of Alistair’s mouth and spread across his face. “Well. Um. If you think about it some more and decide you want to go for it, I—I would really like that. Just so you know.”
His hands found her waist and pulled her closer—not a tight embrace, but close enough to feel his chest against hers, close enough to feel the warmth of his body.
Beth stood on her toes and tugged his mouth down to hers.
It was a gentle kiss, a soft exploration, both of them fiercely aware of just how new this was. Beth brushed his lips with hers, not wanting to push too hard or go too fast—there was something fragile and precious in this first kiss, something she didn’t want to frighten away too quickly. Warmth and desire lit within her as Alistair kissed her back, his hands resting in the curve of her waist.
The kiss deepened step by step. Beth parted her lips and Alistair answered by parting his own, his tongue flicking lightly against hers, then more urgently. Their arms tightened and their bodies drew closer. Beth felt everything in her body hum with anticipation and longing; she sighed into the kiss as she ran a hand into his hair.
Alistair and Beth sprang apart at the sound of the voice. Sera was standing in the doorway, her eyes wide with shock as she looked between the two of them. But the shock soon faded, leaving only amused exasperation behind.
“Next time try locking the door, geniuses.” Then, as if to illustrate the point, Sera pushed the button in the center of the knob, stepped outside, and pulled the door shut behind her, leaving them alone again.
Silence spread between them for a long minute. Then, almost simultaneously, they both burst out laughing.
“You should know that the entire program is going to know about this within the hour,” Alistair warned her. “Sera isn’t much for keeping secrets.”
“I don’t mind,” Beth assured him. Then she sobered. “But—oh. You probably do. I’m sorry.”
“Mind? Let’s see. Do I mind people knowing that I kissed a beautiful woman? Hmmmm …. No.” The way Alistair was smiling at her made Beth’s entire body quiver. “I—look. I know that right now’s kind of a disaster, and the last thing I want is to make it worse. But … do you think you might like to go to dinner? With me. As a date. Just to make sure we’re clear.”
“I’m having dinner with my parents and their lawyer tonight. But tomorrow?” Beth asked shyly. “Is tomorrow OK?”
“Tomorrow is fantastic.” Alistair’s smile threatened to split his face. “All right. Let’s get this mess cleaned up and tell the kids it’s safe to come in.”
For the rest of the afternoon Alistair felt like he was walking on air.
She kissed me. She really kissed me. And I asked her on a date and she said yes.
“Where am I going to take her?” he asked Naia on the bus ride home, suddenly struck by the fact that he was actually going to have to plan this date.
“Um. A restaurant?” his friend suggested apologetically. “Sorry. My knowledge of food in this town is limited to places that deliver. What does she like to eat?”
“Fries,” he said immediately, flashing back to her bliss as she devoured the plate at that dive bar near the DFRC. “But … I kind of want someplace romantic. Are fries romantic?”
“You know who would have the inside scoop on romantic restaurants,” Naia pointed out. “Cailan’s photographed in one every other week.”
“I can’t afford Cailan’s restaurants,” Alistair sighed. “But … maybe he’s got other advice. Or a suit I can borrow.” And, he realized, his brother would like to know that he and Beth were going to go out.
That was an unexpectedly nice thought. Cailan might live in a world of expensive leather couches and polo ponies, but he really did care about Alistair. Maybe being his brother didn’t have to mean trying to be part of his world.
Alistair pulled his phone out of his pocket and began texting.
(5:59 pm) hey, guess what? I asked Beth out and she said yes
(6:00 pm) NO WAY
(6:01 pm) not that its a surprise! Thats great!
(6:02 pm) where ru taking her??
(6:03 pm) don’t know
(6:03 pm) any ideas? Date’s tomorrow. I know she likes burgers and fries
(6:04 pm) nice but not too fancy?
(6:07 pm) ok got it. Vine street. its quiet and the foods good. I go there when i dont want paps to find me
It took Alistair a moment to translate—“paps” meant “paparazzi.” He almost rolled his eyes at the casual mention of photographers until he realized that those same people would salivate over the chance to take a picture of Beth right now.
(6:08 pm) that sounds perfect.
(6:09 pm) thank you SO much. seriously.
He almost put his phone away at that point. But something urged him to type one more sentence.
(6:10 pm) what are you up to this weekend?
(6:11 pm) not much. Anora invited me to go skiing, shes going up to the mac tir place in the mountains
(6:12 pm) you and Anora are a thing again??
(6:13 pm) lol no, just friends, she invited a bunch of us. Most of the snows gone, i might stay home. You?
(6:14 pm) Selling cupcakes at a high school football game
(6:15 pm) you bake??
Alistair let out a self-deprecating snort of laughter.
(6:16 pm) not well. But the kids made most of them. Wish us luck!
(6:17 pm) good luck bro!!!
(6:18 pm) w the baking AND the date ;)
(6:19 pm) thanks :)
Hey all! Sorry for the long wait between chapters. I've been having kind of a rough time lately. But the fog is starting to lift and I am delighted to bring you this fluffy chapter! Plot will resume shortly ;)
Beth stopped on her way home for yet another takeout meal—pizza this time, with salads on the side in case Teagan was a healthy eater. She knew it wasn’t the kind of dinner the Couslands would normally serve a guest, but Teagan didn’t strike her as a snob and she wasn’t sure she had the space in her brain to plan anything more elaborate.
She kept a list of things she wanted to ask her parents’ lawyer—about timelines and evidence, about press coverage and interviews—and ran through it in her head as she waited for the cashier to call her name. Could they convince Loghain Mac Tir to drop the charges? Would the case go to trial? What would a jury make of the case? Nerves twisted her stomach as she played out the worst possible scenarios, imagining jail or bankruptcy or both.
But every so often, her mind would flash back to the kiss and everything else would vanish.
It shouldn’t have felt right to kiss Alistair in the middle of everything happening with her family. But Beth could find nothing to regret in the memory of his arms holding her, his lips brushing against hers. She’d felt alive and beautiful and excited and safe all at once—and she wasn’t sure how she would make it until tomorrow when all she wanted was to kiss him again immediately.
She half wondered if her parents would notice something different about her when she returned home—if a smile or a blush would give her away. But they didn’t even seem to notice the splatters of cake batter in her hair and on her shirt as she set the pizza down on the dining room table. Both of them were on their phones, reading something that didn’t make them look very happy.
“Are you looking at the news about your case?” Beth asked, a gentle hint of reproach in her voice.
For an answer, both of her parents sheepishly pocketed their devices.
“Teagan said not to, but I couldn’t resist. It’s just so bloody difficult, sitting here knowing they’re going to get the story wrong. And we can’t say a word about it!” Bryce groaned. “Maker’s breath. How are we going to survive this?”
Eleanor slid her hand into his; Bryce squeezed it. The sight unexpectedly warmed something deep within Beth. As bleak as things were, her parents were still reaching for each other.
Fergus and Oriana arrived downstairs as Beth was getting out plates and silverware; moments later Teagan joined them in their dining room, his tie loosened and his suit slightly wrinkled from a long day at the office. After a bare minute of polite “hello-how-are-you” small talk, their lawyer got right down to business.
“Mac Tir is dragging his feet on handing over the official files from the police investigation. I suspect we’ll find that those files are thin and he doesn’t want us to know how little they have so far,” Teagan told the Couslands as Eleanor took a halfhearted bite of pizza.
“Thin enough to get the case dismissed?” Bryce asked hopefully.
The lawyer shook his head. “Not that thin. The evidence against Bryce and Eleanor is circumstantial at best, but Fergus’s login is a problem.” Beth appreciated that Teagan didn’t give them false hope, but she still felt her stomach drop in disappointment.
Fergus winced. “I still don’t know how that happened! I change my password every week and I never write it down.”
“Surely the building's security footage shows that Fergus didn't do this.” Beth brightened momentarily. "Won't the Cousland cameras show that he wasn't the one who used his password that night?”
But Teagan shook his head. “The hacker used Fergus's login credentials to access Cousland Enterprises servers remotely and initiate the attack from there.”
Beth felt her shoulders slump. Teagan continued. “We're looking into whether we can find out more about how they obtained Fergus's password. In the meantime, my investigators found something that I think may become important should this case go to trial. We looked into sales of Cousland Enterprises stock. You’ll be happy to know your friend Rendon Howe’s name didn’t come up”—his eyes slid to Beth as he said that—“but there was a hedge fund that shorted an enormous amount of Cousland stock a week before your arrest.”
Oriana's brow furrowed. “Shorted?”
Beth’s business school training took over. “It’s when you borrow a stock from another fund, sell it, and promise to replace it with the same stock later. You’re basically making a bet that the stock price is going to drop. If you sell the stock you borrowed for a hundred dollars a share and replace it with stock you bought for fifty dollars a share, you get to keep the difference.”
“Yes, exactly,” Teagan said. “And someone at a hedge fund called Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated made a twenty million dollar bet that Cousland Enterprises was about to lose value.”
Beth felt her jaw drop open.
“Who—what’s Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated?” she asked, trying to cover her reaction.
“They filed their incorporation papers in the Tevinter Imperium, which has the most secretive registration system in Thedas.” Teagan tapped a finger against the table. “So far we haven’t been able to get a person’s name to go with the fund, and it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to do so because of Tevinter privacy laws. But what we do have is evidence of motive to frame your family. Someone made twenty million dollars off of your arrest. If Loghain Mac Tir can’t explain who’s behind the fund and convince a jury that it’s is all just a big coincidence, he’s going to have a hard time getting a conviction. Not impossible,” he cautioned as Fergus brightened. “But difficult.”
“If we could find out who’s behind Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated, would that help?” Beth asked, her heart hammering against her ribs.
“It might, if it leads us to the person who framed your family.” Teagan’s eyebrows drew together as he looked at Beth; he could clearly feel her urgency, but wasn’t sure about its cause. “Or it might turn out that it’s a trader in Rivain with an airtight alibi and nothing to do with any of this.”
It’s not , Beth thought. It’s Rendon Howe. It has to be.
But she knew what Teagan would say next. She’d picked up a thing or two from years of friendship with Leliana. She knew the smart legal play would be to let Loghain try to track down the person behind Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated, to let him spend his own time and money on a possibly fruitless search. All Teagan needed was the possibility of a conspiracy to dangle before a jury. There was no sense in looking for evidence that might disprove his most promising defense—even if it meant that acquittal would come too late to help the Foundation or the DFRC.
“For now, I’m content to know that we have a good story to tell the jury—a shadowy hedge fund walking away with millions after your parents’ arrest hit the news.” Teagan gave the table a gentle, reassuring half-smile. “I know it must not feel this way, but so far, things are going well. You just have to be patient, as difficult as that might seem.”
Bryce, Eleanor, Fergus, and Oriana nodded in unison. Beth forced her own head to follow suit.
But the moment she left the dinner table, she pulled out her phone to dial Zevran.
It should not have taken two hours to write five words.
But these weren’t just any five words. And Zevran wasn’t sending them to just anyone. Taliesin’s phone—like all phones owned by members of the Crows—would be heavily monitored. Any message he received would be read, and read again, and parsed for clues and hints of disloyalty. Zevran composed the text over and over in his mind as he walked the streets of downtown Denerim, searching for some phrase that might get Taliesin to call him without alarming his employers.
Once he’d decided on his message, however, doubt seized him all over again. This wasn’t the first time he’d tried to contact his old friend since leaving the Crows, but each message he’d sent and each call he’d made had been met with silence. The thought of sending yet another message into the void was oddly nerve-wracking. It had been bad enough to lose Rinna. Finding that he’d lost Taliesin too had been an unexpected final blow. Like being kicked in the stomach after being knocked to the ground.
Finally, he could not take the uncertainty or the swirl of emotion any longer. There was nothing left to do but hit send.
(12:32 pm) Have you heard from Rinna?
Eight hours later, Taliesin had not replied.
Zevran had known that was a very real possibility. He had thought himself prepared for it. But his stomach still twisted every time he picked up his phone and saw no new messages. He finally forced himself to set the damned thing aside and step into the shower—only to leap back out, soaking wet, when he heard the sound of his ringtone.
He didn’t even pause to look at the caller ID before answering. “Hello?”
“Zevran? It’s Beth.”
He tried to force down his disappointment. “Ah, my lovely employer. How goes the chat with your parents’ attorney?” He began walking back to the bathroom, water dripping from his hair and over his shoulders.
“You’re not going to believe this.” Beth’s voice was pitched low, as if she didn’t want anyone else to overhear. “Teagan found out that Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated shorted a bunch of Cousland stock. They made something like twenty million dollars when the price went into freefall.”
“Ah. Let me guess.” Zevran pulled a towel from his towel rack. “The incorporation papers were filed in Minrathous and there is no chance to find out who profited?”
“Got it in one,” Beth sighed. “I think Teagan’s given up on the idea of finding out who’s behind it. He’s planning to dangle evidence of a shadowy conspiracy at trial. But by the time this actually goes to a jury …”
“The DFRC will have long since lost its funding.” Zevran frowned. “We need evidence that will force the district attorney to drop the charges. You said it was your brother’s login that was used the night of the hack?”
“Yeah. But he says he changes his password every week and never writes it down. I don’t know how they could have cracked it. Not to brag, but we’ve got top-notch anti-hacking protocols.”
Zevran’s mind began whirling. Stealing passwords to access confidential information was something of a Crow specialty. How would I have approached this problem, if this were my assignment?
Well, he could think of one way. “Cousland Enterprises has security cameras in senior offices, I assume. Can you get me in to see the security footage of your brother’s office?”
“Absolutely. We’ve worked with our head of building security for years. I’ll call and tell him to expect you.”
Beth did her best to prepare Zevran for his meeting with the Cousland Enterprises head of building security. Even so, Zevran felt his eyes widen when a helpful intern opened the door to the security wing. It wasn’t every day, after all, that he set eyes on someone a full two feet taller than him.
Sten, the man in charge of securing the Cousland Enterprises headquarters, was a massive Qunari with silver-brown skin and carefully braided cornrows in his white hair. He was wearing a dark grey sweater and black pants—more casual garb than someone in his position would normally wear, but Zevran suspected finding clothes that fit him at all had not been easy in Denerim. He was also the only Qunari Zevran had ever seen who had no horns, though his height and coloring made his heritage clear.
“Sten, I presume,” he said, trying to meet the other man’s eyes without craning his neck.
Sten crossed his arms. “Yes. And you are Ms. Cousland’s consultant.” Those seven short words somehow managed to convey that so far, he was deeply unimpressed. “I am to show you the security tapes from the week before the attack on Ferelden’s servers. Follow me.”
The pace Sten set as he walked down the hall made no allowances for Zevran’s shorter legs. He soon found himself hurrying to catch up—and more intrigued than annoyed. Most of the Qunari Zevran had met in Antiva were Tal-Vashoth, members of the Qunari race who had rejected their homeland’s religion. According to Beth, however, her parents’ head of security was still very much a true believer in the Qun.
“I am told you have worked for the Couslands for some years now.”
“Yes.” Sten’s voice remained emotionless, though his deep voice still reverberated off the walls.
“Is it unusual for a follower of the Qun to take a job in Ferelden?” Zevran knew the answer, of course, but he was hoping the question might draw more information from his companion.
He was quickly disappointed. “Yes.”
“I see. What led you to break with tradition, as it were?”
“I was sent to this land to fulfill a purpose.” Sten’s voice did not invite further probing on that subject. “I was obliged to search for employment and was hired here as a security guard.”
“From security guard to head of security! That is quite the promotion.”
The compliment did nothing to soften the stony planes of Sten’s face. “There were many promotions in between. I accepted them because the Couslands have honor. I have found that few of you do.”
In spite of himself, Zevran was a little offended. “ Us ? Perhaps you have noticed that I am no more human than you.”
“And so you are not, elf.” Sten grunted. “But one bas is much the same as another in the end.”
“Well. That sounds ominous,” Zevran murmured as they approached a heavy grey door at the end of the hallway. “But there is a term for those bas whom the Qun holds in esteem, is there not?”
“Basalit-an.” Sten said the word grudgingly, as if he were not sure that Zevran deserved to hear it.
“And the Couslands, do you consider them basalit-an?”
“I would not remain if I did not.” Sten’s eyes narrowed impatiently. “Nor would I be answering your inane questions at their daughter’s behest.”
As they entered the main security room, a stark grey-and-white space lined with monitors, Zevran quietly discarded one pet theory: that the Couslands’ head of security had been bribed. It would still be worth looking into Sten’s financials—assuming the man had a bank account and didn’t keep his entire paycheck in cash underneath his mattress—but the Qunari did not strike him as the kind of man who did dishonorable things for money.
“I have watched these tapes many times,” Sten informed him crossly as Zevran sat down in front of the central monitor. “No one comes or goes from that office who is not a Cousland Enterprises employee.”
That did not surprise Zevran. Break-ins had been part of his arsenal of tricks with the Crows, but they were a last resort. Much better to fake a resume, be hired for a job, and use the resulting access to gain entry. Or bribe an existing employee.
“Were any of the employees recently hired, or have any of them recently departed?” Zevran hit play on the video of Fergus Cousland’s office, then fast-forwarded as quickly as the video would go.
“A few were recently arrived. But none have left.” A hint of grudging respect had entered Sten’s tone.
Fergus Cousland was a harried-looking man who had clearly gone too long between haircuts. Most of the footage was of him squinting at his computer and running his hands through his hair. Zevran paused the moment he saw someone who was not Fergus on the feed, an older human woman pushing a cart with a large wastebin at the front. “This is?”
“Nan Cook. A janitor. She has been with the company for twenty-two years. She bakes cookies.” A pause. “We have no such things in our land. That should be remedied.”
Nan Cook did not sound like a promising suspect, and she did nothing out of the ordinary for a janitor, so Zevran hit fast-forward again. The next stranger entered shortly after Fergus left for lunch on the second day. “And this?” he asked, hitting pause. A pretty blonde elf stood frozen in the frame, one hand on the keyboard.
“Iona Ebrin. Information technology. An employee of four years, two months. She is there to replace Fergus Cousland’s keyboard.”
Zevran sat up straighter. “Is she, now? Did he request that?”
“No. All of the keyboards on his floor were replaced that day.”
In spite of himself, Zevran smiled. Clever. Very clever.
He watched Iona swap Fergus’s keyboard with a newer model, then watched Fergus’s return to the office at one-and-a-half speed. He slowed the video down to regular speed when Fergus took his seat at the computer. Fergus typed his password with rapid-fire precision, waited for the computer to boot up, then began composing something.
Then Fergus paused. He hit the space bar once, twice, three times. He frowned, shook the keyboard, and hit it again. A moment later he reached for his phone. Barely two minutes later Iona had returned with a different new keyboard and an apologetic smile. She walked back out, the broken keyboard under one arm.
Zevran hit pause and looked over at Sten. “There is your password thief. Likely bribed, or perhaps blackmailed, if she has been here four years with no problems.”
Sten crossed his arms. “She wrote nothing down and did not see him enter his password.”
Zevran shook his head. “Iona Ebrin gave Fergus a keyboard that would permit him to enter his password, but then need to be immediately replaced. If we found that broken keyboard—and I suspect it has long since left this building—we would find a small device inside that logs the keystrokes made. She carried his password out underneath her arm.”
Sten’s face paled. “Such things exist?” Despite how prickly the other man had been, Zevran took no pleasure in the look of horror on Sten’s face. Well, perhaps just a hint of satisfaction.
“They do. You said no one had left. Could you summon her here? Perhaps I can persuade her to answer a few questions.” If the young woman had been blackmailed, she might welcome an ally who knew the Crows’ methods.
Sten’s expressionless face grew stony and furious. “She will answer your questions,” he growled, reaching for the phone. “And then she will answer mine.”
But the call to Iona’s supervisor had a disappointing outcome.
“Iona? Yeah, she’s been a no-show yesterday and today,” the supervisor said with a sigh. “Won’t even answer her phone. I think I’m going to have to fire her if she doesn’t show up tomorrow. Why, what’s wrong?”
Sten’s face darkened with fury. Zevran leaned in to answer. “A minor problem with her employee badge. Should she return your calls, kindly direct her to the security office for a replacement.”
But Zevran suspected that Iona would not return. If he knew the Crows, she was sitting on a beach somewhere, drinking a cocktail and enjoying the fruits of a very generous payoff.
Beth woke up at six and spent a good chunk of the next hour planning her outfit for her date with Alistair. He’d texted her information about the restaurant last night to double-check for allergies, so she knew it was intimate but not fancy. A casual dress? Jeans and a sweater? A skirt and blouse? After much agonizing Beth settled on one of her favorite outfits, a soft black sweater with a grey plaid wrap skirt. It was pretty but not too dressy, and the sweater’s v-neck was just the right length for her favorite necklace, a pretty gold-and-garnet strand that Leliana had given her for her birthday.
Satisfied, Beth changed into a t-shirt and jeans and hung her date-night clothes on the back of her closet door. I am not allowed to rethink this outfit when I get home, she told herself firmly. With that decided, she made sure her family had breakfast in front of them, drove Oren to school, and then went for a run on her father’s treadmill to shed some of her nervous energy.
When she emerged from her shower just before ten, there were texts waiting from Zevran.
(9:54am) I have good news and bad news.
(9:55am) Admittedly, it is mostly bad news.
(9:56am) Can we speak in person?
Beth swallowed nervously. If he won’t tell me what it is over the phone, this definitely isn’t going to be good.
(10:00am) I’m about to head to the DFRC. Meet there at 11?
An odd lull followed. Beth was wondering if Zevran had let his battery die when the return text came.
(10:08am) I will wait for you in the parking lot.
Beth pulled into the DFRC parking lot at eight minutes before 11. To her surprise Zevran was already there and waiting underneath a tree adjacent to the lot when she pulled in. She had half expected Naia to accompany him—the two of them clearly had something going on—but he was alone, and he had a serious expression on his face. Beth pulled her car into the spot closest to him and climbed out.
“Ah, my lovely employer.”
“Morning, Zevran. So. Uh. Find anything with Sten?” Beth could hear the wobble in her voice as she fumbled with her car keys. She finally hit the button to lock the doors—and then, of course, she dropped them onto the pavement.
Zevran waited as she picked them up. “I did. A former employee named Iona Ebrin is responsible for the password theft.” Briefly, he outlined what he’d seen and what it likely meant. Beth’s heart began pounding in her chest.
“Maker, Zevran! You said it was mostly bad news! You caught her. With that footage, Loghain Mac Tir will have to drop the charges against my parents.”
But even as she said that, her heart dropped straight into her stomach. She imagined Loghain looking at the footage Zevran had described and tried to see it through his eyes—through the eyes of someone who was sure the Couslands were guilty.
It’s not a smoking gun. It’s a movie of an employee replacing a keyboard. The fact that Iona Ebrin had abruptly left Cousland Enterprises was helpful, but it was “convince-the-jury-there’s-something-fishy” evidence, not “get-an-obsessed-DA-to-drop-the-charges” evidence.
She felt her face fall. “It’s not enough, is it.”
Sympathy shone in Zevran’s green-gold eyes. “I regret to say that I agree. There are quite reasonable explanations for everything we saw on the film, and even for Ms. Ebrin’s sudden departure.”
Beth grappled for a next step. There had to be something else they could do—that she could do. “We could try to find the hacker,” she suggested half-heartedly. “Someone used the password after they stole it.”
“I fear that would be almost impossible. The Crows likely sent your brother’s password to a specialist in Antiva. They are quite good at covering their tracks.” He met her eyes, his expression grave. “I fear we have only one lead left. Rendon Howe.”
“Speaking of people who seem to be good at covering their tracks,” Beth said bitterly. “I’d bet ever last dollar in my bank account that Howe is behind Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated. But there’s no way to prove it.”
Zevran’s expression brightened. “Unless we find the incorporation documents and pass them along to Mac Tir as an anonymous tip.”
Beth caught her breath. “He’d have to keep them,” she said, thinking through this slowly, not wanting to let optimism run away with her. “Without the numbers for his accounts, he’d never be able to make trades or access his money.”
Zevran crossed his arms and tapped his fingers against his bicep, his brow furrowed in thought. “Does he strike you as the sort of man who has sophisticated computer security?”
“Rendon refuses to save anything sensitive to his computer. He’s worried about being hacked and he thinks security software is an expensive scam. As he’s told my parents many, many times.”
A flash of white-hot satisfaction burned in Beth’s chest. Years of snotty comments about Eleanor Cousland’s signature program meant that she knew exactly where Rendon Howe kept his most important documents. “He keeps everything in hard copies in his study.” Her face fell. “The file cabinets will be locked, though.”
Zevran waved his hand dismissively. “That can be dealt with. If I can gain access. I read a feature on the Howe estate in an architecture magazine earlier this week; I believe the estate is gated. And I rather doubt Rendon Howe is in the habit of opening his doors to strange elves.”
“No. He’s not.” Beth’s mind whirled. “But his son Nathaniel would open the door for me.”
Guilt over using her friend warred with her worry over her family. Nathaniel will never find out, she told herself, knowing it was a rationalization. And even if he does, he’ll understand. He has to know his father’s not a good man.
“I could bring you along? Introduce you as a friend? You could ask to use the bathroom and find the documents we need.” She laughed self-consciously. “I’ve probably watched too many spy movies, huh.”
Zevran’s mouth quirked in a half-smile. “It is not a bad thought. If I knew precisely which file drawer and folder held the documents we desired, that would be our path forward. But I will need more time. I believe our best approach would be for you to knock at the front door while I sneak in another way. If you can distract whatever Howes might be home, I can photograph the documents we need and escape with no one the wiser.”
A very pleasant vision flashed through Beth’s mind: Loghain Mac Tir looking through the files, realizing that Rendon Howe must be behind everything. But that was quickly replaced by another vision: Zevran caught with his hand in Rendon Howe’s file cabinets. “Maker, Zevran. I—no. If something goes wrong you’re the one who’s getting arrested.”
The word arrested made Zevran flinch a bit; he recovered quickly, but Beth was sure she hadn’t imagined it. “I will simply have to not get caught,” he said airily. “This is hardly the first time I have broken into someone’s house in search of confidential documents, after all.” He punctuated that little boast with a wink.
“Why does that not surprise me?”
Beth felt her stomach drop as she looked over at the source of the voice. Alistair was standing behind them in the parking lot, his hands shoved into the pockets of a hoodie.
Zevran crossed his arms. “Eavesdropping, Mr. Griffin?”
The Antivan raised an eyebrow.
“Well, yes, but not on purpose,” Alistair amended. “I saw Beth’s car, and I came over to say hi, and you were talking and I sort of walked into it.” His expression was somewhere between baffled and horrified. “And anyway, don’t change the subject! The two of you are planning a burglary ?”
“It’s—it’s not what it sounds like,” Beth said as her stomach twisted. “I … oh, Maker, Alistair, I don’t want you to think … But without evidence against Rendon Howe, nothing will happen in time to help the DFRC. I just don’t see another way.”
Alistair’s brow furrowed as he met her eyes. “You’re that sure it’s him.”
She nodded. “I know it sounds crazy. My parents’ oldest friend, framing them for espionage. But the truth is that he hates them. If he saw a way to make millions of dollars and wreck their company, he’d do it in a heartbeat.”
He frowned for a long moment; then he took a deep breath and he nodded. “You’ve said from the start that it’s Howe. I trust your judgment. But what about you?” He turned his head towards Zevran. “What’s in it for you? Are you setting all this up for a paycheck? Or are you just trying to get to Naia?”
“Leave Naia out of this.” Zevran’s voice was low and harsh; Alistair blinked and rocked back on his heels, clearly taken by surprise. “I want to help her, yes. But rest assured I am not trying to place her in my debt. I do not intend to tell her my plans. I hope you will agree to do the same.”
I am definitely missing something here , Beth thought as she watched Alistair wrestle with that directive.
“Maker, she would punch me so hard if she knew I was about to say this,” he sighed. “But all right. We leave Naia out of this.”
Zevran inclined his head. “I appreciate the assurance, Mr. Griffin.”
Alistair turned back to Beth. “This Howe guy. If he hates your family that much, what happens if he finds you in his house?”
“Nothing,” Beth said, with a lot more confidence than she felt. “He can’t do anything to me if he wants to keep covering his tracks. Hopefully he won’t know I’m on to him. He’ll just think I’m there to see Nathaniel.”
To use Nathaniel, her conscience whispered.
Alistair’s eyes narrowed in thought; he was clearly wrestling with an idea that made him uneasy. Then his face grew resolved. “I should go with you.”
Beth’s jaw dropped open. “Alistair, no. It’s way too risky. You don’t need to get involved in this.”
“Two people are more distracting than one,” he pointed out. “And if anyone else is home besides your friend, you might need help keeping them away from whatever he’s doing.” He jerked his head towards Zevran.
She opened her mouth to argue, but Zevran spoke first. “I agree with Mr. Griffin.” He paused, a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “Believe me, I am as surprised as anyone.”
Alistair glowered. Zevran pretended not to see. “If I were planning this operation with the Crows, I would have been working with a three-person team. Two to distract, one to infiltrate. If Mr. Griffin is willing, I am not about to turn him away.” He smiled at the two of them. “So. Shall we meet at Embrium Street? Say, around seven?”
Beth looked over at Alistair and grimaced. “I guess that means our date is on hold.” She felt a little guilty at the way her stomach dropped.
Alistair gave her a half smile. “What are you talking about? Breaking-and-entering is a perfect first date activity.”
In spite of herself, Beth laughed. But she could already feel her nerves rising.
Holding it together at work that afternoon was one of the most difficult things Alistair had ever done.
Did I really agree to help Beth and Zevran rob someone?
Technically they’re not taking anything. So that’s only kind of illegal, right?
And if they don’t succeed I’ll be out of a job and this program will fold and all of these kids will lose something amazing. So it’s a justified not-burglary.
Fortunately, Naia attributed his distracted, jumpy state to a more obvious cause than planning-a-not-burglary.
“You don’t have to be this nervous about tonight,” she whispered during a quiet moment. “You’ve already kissed. She obviously likes you.”
“What? Oh. Right. Yeah. The date. I’m still nervous,” Alistair whispered back. “I keep thinking, um, what am I going to wear?”
He had not actually been thinking that, mostly because it hadn’t occurred to him to dress up for a not-burglary. For a moment he was sure Naia would spot him lying. But she just clapped him on the back sympathetically. “Keep it together, Griffin. I’ll help you pick your outfit when we get home.”
True to her word, Naia walked right off the bus and into Alistair’s apartment, where she started rifling through his closet. “Let’s get those fancy jeans, the ones Cailan gave you for Satinalia last year. What about that sweater with the half-zip up the front?” She found it almost immediately. “I’ve always liked this one. The dark red looks good on you.”
“That sounds good,” Alistair said as his phone buzzed. “But, um. What about that blue stripey shirt? The one with the buttons?”
“The henley?” Naia tossed the sweater on his bed and dove deeper into the closet. Alistair pulled out his phone.
(6:48) I’m on my way!
(6:50) I called Nathaniel, he said we could drop by. His dad’s at a meeting tonight though.
Alistair nodded and pocketed his phone. Zevran had cautioned them against putting anything into a text message that might hint at what they were planning, but he got the message loud and clear: tonight was perfect. Operation It’s-Not-Really-A-Burglary was a go.
“Found it!” Naia pulled it out and frowned. “But it’s got a toothpaste stain on it. I say go with the sweater.”
“Sounds great.” Alistair tried to sound enthusiastic. Or at least reassured. “Thanks, Naia. Really.”
“Anytime. You’ve got everything else you need?” she asked, a wicked sparkle in her eyes. “Credit card? Cash? Condoms?”
“It’s a first date !” Alistair protested as his face turned beet-red. “I’m hardly expecting to … you know. Need, uh. Those.”
“How is it that you still can’t say ‘condom’ after almost a decade of being my friend?” Naia demanded playfully.
“Your powers are useless on me, apparently,” he snarked.
Naia stepped forward and gave him a hug. “She likes you. You like her. It’s going to be great. And don’t forget to knock on my door tonight to tell me how it went.” She stepped back and winked at him. “Or, you know. Tomorrow morning. Whenever you get home.”
I’m not lying to her, Alistair told himself as she left. I’m just not telling her what Beth and I are really doing.
Or that we’re bringing her one-night-stand along.
Alistair changed into the outfit Naia had picked out, locked his apartment, and climbed down the stairs to the front door of the building. He spent the next five minutes shifting his weight from foot to foot, trying to look like a guy who was just antsy about a date and not about to help someone commit a felony.
Beth’s sleek silver car pulled into the cracked parking lot with a little more speed than it probably needed. She was normally a cautious driver; Alistair took that as a sign that she was anxious too.
He tried to think of something reassuring to say as he opened the passenger door, but any ideas he’d had died away when he saw her.
“Hi. Wow. You look great.”
It wasn’t an empty compliment. Beth had changed since leaving the DFRC; the outfit was somehow both sweet and sexy. Alistair tried very hard not to stare at the warm, dark skin of her thigh peeking out from the hem of her skirt, or the way her v-neck sweater almost-but-not-quite dipped into her cleavage. Her hair fell over her shoulders in waves and red lipstick turned her bright smile into a showstopping grin.
She blushed. “Thanks. I had my outfit all picked out and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. You look nice too, by the way.”
“Indeed. You are a very handsome couple.” The door to the backseat opened and Zevran slid inside. “Now then. Shall we get on with the business of tonight’s minor felony?”
Sorry for the long wait between updates!! I am clawing my way back to regular work on this. Thanks for waiting and reading <3
They went over the plan once, twice, then a third time on the drive to the Howe estate. Nathaniel would buzz Beth’s car through the gates. Zevran would quietly roll out of the backseat once they were inside the grounds and make his way to the back of the house to the windows of Howe’s study. Alistair would ask to use the bathroom and would unlock one of the study windows, enabling Zevran to gain access. Zevran would then find and photograph any incriminating documents.
Once Zevran’s task was done, he would send Alistair an innocuous text—“do you have my spare key?” That would be Beth and Alistair’s cue to say their goodbyes to Nathaniel. Zevran would escape out through the grounds at the rear of the estate; he had faith in his ability to evade cameras and climb fences. They could pick him up on the dark, winding road that ran around the back of this wealthy, isolated neighborhood.
Beth and Alistair were nervous. Zevran could feel their anxiety rising, making Beth’s luxurious car seemed cramped and overly hot. Perhaps I should be nervous, as well. The job itself was familiar territory. But when he had done this sort of thing before, it had been with the knowledge that there would be few consequences for getting caught. The law was marvelously flexible—and bribeable—in Antiva. Pulling such a job in Ferelden, and without the Crows’ protection?
Naia’s voice floated through his memory. I don’t want your arrest on my conscience. I’d feel obligated to visit you in jail, and that sounds depressing.
He shifted against the leather seat and pulled at the seat belt; it suddenly felt too tight. I will simply have to avoid getting caught.
He met Alistair’s eyes in the rearview mirror and tried to smile encouragingly. “Do not look so anxious, my good neighbor!”
Alistair looked back suspiciously. “Why? Because you’d never let me do anything dangerous?”
“Oh, no. I would gladly let you do all manner of dangerous things. But I would never allow Ms. Cousland to come to harm. She pays me most generously, after all.”
Beth, at least, laughed at that. Alistair did not.
“And you wonder why I don’t like you sniffing around my best friend,” he grumbled.
Beth glanced up into the rearview mirror. “I meant to ask. What is going on with you and Naia, Zevran?”
“Nothing.” Zevran crossed his arms and tried to look nonchalant. “I am not blind to her charms, of course. But I am set to leave Denerim within the month.”
“Where are you going?” Beth asked.
“I do not know. Highever, perhaps, since I am already in Ferelden. Or perhaps into the Frostbacks. I have always wanted to learn to ski.” That was a lie; he preferred sand and sun over cold and snow. But the truth was he had no destination in mind, no plans in place, and he was not sure what to say.
“So … you could stay, if you wanted,” Beth pointed out.
“Alas, my landlord was quite firm on the timeline.”
“And that’s the only apartment in Denerim?” Alistair asked sarcastically. “No, you’re right. You couldn’t possibly stick around. Too bad. Got anyone we can set Naia up with, Beth? Maybe this Nathaniel guy?”
A needle of jealousy prickled in Zevran’s chest—followed immediately by a rush of confusion and worry that had nothing to do with their little job. And why should you mind the thought of her with someone else?
He tried to think of something cutting to say. Fortunately, Beth responded first. “I don’t know. Does she like kind, incredibly serious men with psychotic fathers?” Her face fell. “Maker. Nathaniel and I have been friends since grade school. I feel awful, tricking him like this.”
“You don’t have to go through with it.” Alistair’s voice was quiet, gentle. “We can just stop by, say hi, and leave. Zevran can wait in the trunk. He won’t mind, right, Zevran?”
“It would not be my first choice for an enjoyable evening, no. Perhaps I could persuade you to abandon me by the side of the road, like an unwanted puppy?” Zevran replied wryly. “But he is not wrong, Ms. Cousland. We have set nothing in motion that cannot be undone.”
For just a moment, Zevran thought it was over. This was unfamiliar territory for Beth Cousland; he would not blame her for deciding she could not go any further. But then her face hardened with resolve.
“No. But Rendon Howe has. He’s not just wrecking my family’s life—he’s screwing over everyone who works at Cousland Enterprises, everyone who relies on a Cousland Foundation grant.” She squared her shoulders. “And I’m not going to let him get away with it.”
The guilt hit Beth like a hammer the second she set eyes on Nathaniel. This was one of her oldest friends, the boy she’d played blocks with while their parents chatted over dinner, the guy who had taken her to prom when things went south with her boyfriend. And she was tricking him into helping her find evidence that his father was a criminal.
Nathaniel’s warm hug only made it worse. “Beth! Thanks for calling. I’m so glad I got to see you before I left for the Free Marches.”
“Y-you remember Alistair?” Beth gestured awkwardly to her date as they stepped inside the Howe home.
“Of course.” Nathaniel had a curious look in his eyes as he extended his hand to Alistair. “Nice to see you again.”
Alistair smiled and shook it. “Likewise.”
“Can I get you guys anything to drink? We’ve got red and white wine, and of course my dad always has a healthy supply of cognac.” Nathaniel chuckled. “And we have a lot of club soda. Poor Delilah’s had awful morning sickness lately … I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”
“Her secret’s safe with us,” Beth assured him. “Club soda would be great, actually. Alistair?”
For a moment she thought he hadn’t heard her. Alistair was staring at the entryway to the Howe home with a mildly stunned expression. It was an opulent space, dark and lined with wood and decorated with heavy antiques. Beth had always found it a bit forbidding, but it also fairly screamed of wealth.
“Uh—same for me,” Alistair said after a pause, tearing his eyes away from a particularly ugly umbrella stand. “But can I use your bathroom first?”
“Of course.” Nathaniel pointed down a hallway. “Third door on your left.”
Now it’s my turn , Beth thought as Alistair walked down the hall. Get Nathaniel into the kitchen and away from the, uh, crime.
“Got any snacks?” she asked brightly. “Our dinner reservation isn’t until nine-thirty.” That was a lie; their reservation had been for seven-thirty and Alistair had cancelled it. Maybe we’ll get drive-through on the way back to Embrium Street .
“My dad’s terrible at keeping food in the house. But Delilah has low-salt crackers,” Nathaniel said wryly. “And I think we still have some leftovers from the party. Come on, let’s go take a look.”
They were halfway down the opposite hall, headed for the kitchen, when Nathaniel elbowed her. “Out with it, Cousland. What are you doing here?”
Beth felt her face drain of blood. “I—what?”
“Not that I’m not flattered that you wanted to stop by. But why are you interrupting your date to do it?” Nathaniel jerked his head in Alistair’s general direction. “You two are on a date, right?”
“We are.” Beth bit her lip. “I—am I awful, Nathaniel? Dating someone new at a time like this?”
“Of course not.” He gave her a warm, sympathetic smile. “Is that what this is about? You felt weird about going out when your parents are under house arrest?”
“Kind of,” Beth said nervously.
Mercifully, they were at the door to the Howe kitchen—a large, functional, but unlovely space with one narrow window. It was clearly designed for servants and not the owners of the home; Beth found herself wondering when Rendon had last stepped foot in here.
Nathaniel stepped over to the fridge and opened it. “Ah! I was right, we do have leftovers from the elopement party. Here, turn on the oven and we’ll get these warming up.”
Alistair entered the room just as Nathaniel was sliding the tray into the oven. He gave Beth a quick blink-and-you’d-miss-it thumbs up. She got the message loud and clear. The window’s unlocked.
“What’s cooking?” Alistair asked, a nervous chuckle in his voice.
“Leftover hors d’ouvres,” Beth replied as Nathaniel turned around.
“Little things in puff pastry? Fantastic.” Alistair clapped his hands together and rubbed them enthusiastically. “So. Nathaniel. Beth said you work in the Free Marches?”
“I do. I’m stationed in Starkhaven, mostly, though my job takes me all over.” Nathaniel moved back to the fridge and pulled out a chilled bottle of sparkling water. “I spent a good chunk of last month in Amaranthine, where my dad grew up.”
Beth felt as if the world had frozen into place. Amaranthine. As in, Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated? Alistair caught her reaction; he leaned against the door and grimaced a bit.
Just more evidence that this is Howe’s work.
“I’d forgotten Rendon was from Amaranthine,” she managed. “Did he like it there?”
“He loved it,” Nathaniel replied readily, pulling glasses from the cupboards. “It’s one of the only subjects he’s truly enthusiastic about, actually. According to Dad the food is better in Amaranthine. The water is nicer. The sailing is superior.” He shook his head with a little smile. “He even opened a private hedge fund last year and named it Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated.”
It was like the floor had dropped out from under her feet.
“Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated?” she asked faintly. “You’re sure?”
“Fairly certain, yes. I saw him going through some papers the other day and he said it was a new fund he’d opened.” Nathaniel’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
Beth’s heart hammered against her chest.
This was it. This was the smoking gun. Forget documents stolen from Rendon’s office. This was Nathaniel Howe, a man who paid parking tickets on the day he received them, saying that he knew his father was the one behind Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated. Loghain Mac Tir would have to investigate, and the whole thing would unravel.
Her hands shook as she spoke. “Because my parents’ lawyer said a company called Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated shorted a bunch of Cousland stock right before my parents’ arrest and made twenty million dollars.”
Nathaniel blinked and leaned back against the fridge. “Maker. That’s … awkward. I’m sorry, Beth. I don’t know why Dad bet against Eleanor and Bryce, but I doubt he expected that kind of return.”
“Nathaniel, don’t you get it?” Beth blurted. “He bet against Cousland Enterprises—he bet millions and millions of dollars—because he knew they were going to get arrested!”
Silence fell over the room as Nathaniel stared at her. Slowly, deliberately, he straightened and crossed his arms. “I beg your pardon? Are you saying my father and your parents conspired to steal Ferelden state secrets?”
“No!” Beth snapped indignantly. “My parents weren’t behind the hack! How could you even think that?”
“How in the Maker’s name could my father know that his oldest friends were going to be arrested for a crime they didn’t commit? The only way that would work is if he set them up.” Nathaniel’s face paled as he watched Beth’s reaction. “Maker’s breath. You—you—that’s what you’re saying. You think he set them up.” His jaw dropped. “How could you think that?”
“Because I’ve been listening to him snipe at them for years!”
Some part of Beth—the rational part—knew this wasn’t the way to go, that ambushing Nathaniel like this wasn’t going to win him to her side. But that part was drowned out by a wave of desperation—an almost frantic need to get Nathaniel to just understand.
He’ll see it. I know he will. He just needs more information.
“You know those jokes your dad is always making? About how my mom married my dad for his money, and my dad married my mom to make more money? About how their software is garbage and they pay the press for positive stories and anyone with sense could tell that Cousland Enterprises has no business plan?” Beth’s voice was racing; she could barely keep up with her own thoughts. “They’re not just jokes, Nathaniel. He means those things. Tell me you don’t see it. Tell me it hasn’t eaten away at him, watching Cousland Enterprises become one of Ferelden’s biggest companies while Howe Financial sells tax software to suburban parents.”
Too late, she realized how snotty that sounded. It was like—well, like something Rendon would say.
Nathaniel flinched; his jaw clenched. “My dad’s got a cutting sense of humor, I’ll give you that. But he’s been friends with Bryce and Eleanor since college. And he’s done more than his fair share of shrugging off your parents’ attitude. You think he doesn’t know that every damn Cousland looks down their nose at him for ‘selling tax software to suburban parents?’” he spat.
“That’s not true, Nathaniel.” Beth could hear her voice rising to a near-shout.
“Maybe we should all kind of … calm down?” Alistair suggested tentatively, stepping forward.
“You stay out of this.” Nathaniel stabbed a finger at Alistair.
“Stay out of what?”
All three heads in the room turned to the kitchen’s back door. Delilah Howe was standing there, her face deathly pale and her hair sweaty. Nathaniel’s expression instantly shifted from furious to worried.
“Dee, are you OK?”
“I barfed again. ‘Morning’ sickness my butt. Mine seems to last all day,” she said with a faint smile. “I just wanted some crackers, but … what’s going on, Nathaniel?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he said soothingly, shooting a poisonous glance at Beth. “Just an argument. A stupid one.”
Beth fumbled for something to say, but found herself falling silent. Looking at Delilah’s pale, sweat-streaked face, she didn’t have the heart to repeat her accusations. Zev, please be finding something that makes this worth it.
Because we’re definitely not getting invited back.
Then another voice from the kitchen’s front door made her blood turn to ice.
“A party. At my house. Without my permission. How nice.”
Rendon Howe stood in the doorway, his arms crossed and a sneer on his face. His hard, empty eyes were fixed firmly on Beth.
Rendon Howe’s study was almost frighteningly organized. In some ways that made Zevran’s job easier—there were no untidy piles of paper to sort through, no mislabeled folders, no inexplicable stacks of dishes. In other ways that made it harder. Someone with an office like this would notice if anything was even a bit out of place. That meant Zevran would have to move slowly and make certain everything was exactly as he found it when he left.
The file cabinets were hidden behind heavy wooden bookshelves that swung open with the push of a button on Rendon’s desk. The mechanism was silent, fortunately—a pleasant side effect of the money Howe had spent on his personal workspace. As the shelves opened, Zevran began a quick search of the desk. He had little hope that Rendon Howe would leave a key to his file cabinets in a desk drawer, but it would be foolish not to check.
Howe’s heavy wooden desk had three drawers—one underneath the surface of the desk, and two on the desk’s right side. The central drawer was unlocked but contained nothing interesting—merely pens, blank paper, and a letter opener. The two drawers on the right were locked, but yielded quickly to Zevran’s lockpicks.
The top drawer yielded an unpleasant surprise—a handgun.
After confirming that the gun was not resting atop anything important, Zevran put it back in place with a wince. His mind flashed back to the message board comments about Howe’s fits of temper at work. Zevran did not particularly like the idea of that sort of man owning a firearm. He was tempted to steal it, but put that idea out of his mind as he opened the third drawer.
For a moment he could only stare.
It cannot be this easy.
There, in the bottom drawer, was a fat manila envelope labeled AHI.
Apparently, Howe wished to keep the evidence of his success close at hand.
After pulling the documents from the folder and laying them carefully on the desk, Zevran began snapping photos on his phone. He did not have time to examine them all closely, but even the snippets he caught as he flipped through the pages were enough to make his heart race with satisfaction. Letterhead that said “Amaranthine Holdings Incorporated.” Account numbers and balances.
Now, all he needed was the certificate of incorporation—the only document Rendon Howe would have been required to sign.
He was halfway through the pile of statements when his phone’s screen flashed. An incoming text message.
He knew it would be bad news even before he opened it.
“A party. At my house. Without my permission. How nice.”
If Alistair had ever had any doubts that Beth was right about Rendon Howe hating her family, they would have vanished the moment Howe stepped into the kitchen. The older man didn’t even seem to realize there was anyone else in the room; his eyes went straight to Beth and stayed there. His expression made Alistair want to take a step back—or maybe a step in between Howe and Beth.
So that’s why they say ‘if looks could kill.’
Maker. How much did he hear?
Beth managed a smile, which Alistair didn’t think he could have done under the circumstances. “Just dropping by to say hi to Nathaniel before he heads back to Starkhaven. Rendon, I don’t think you’ve met …”
“They were just leaving,” Nathaniel interrupted, his handsome face stony.
Right. Time to warn Zevran.
Alistair pulled out his phone and tried to look as if he were just hiding from an awkward confrontation—which wasn’t far from the truth.
(8:01pm) we’re about to head home. Nathaniel’s dad just got back
(8:02pm) i found your spare key, you should drop by and get it
“So soon? You haven’t even eaten the food you’re currently burning in my oven,” Rendon pointed out.
Hurriedly, Nathaniel grabbed the nearest potholder. Beth looked over at her friend with regret etched on her face. “We’d love to stay longer.”
“Delilah’s not feeling well.” Nathaniel’s voice was clipped and cold.
“I—ugh.” Delilah put a hand to her stomach as the oven opened, releasing the smell of cooking meat and a fair amount of oily smoke. “I’m fine. They don’t have to leave on my account.”
For the first time, Rendon’s gaze swung towards his daughter. If he was concerned about her pale appearance, he didn’t show it. “You want our guests to try and eat a pleasant snack while you lie in the bathroom with your head in the toilet?”
Alistair’s jaw actually dropped at that. He looked over at Nathaniel; the other man had enough grace to look mildly embarrassed, but that was all.
He’s been hearing those kinds of “jokes” all his life, Alistair thought, frowning. But Beth’s right. Howe’s not trying to be funny.
His phone buzzed.
(8:06pm) can you wait? I am not yet home
Alistair could read between the lines. He needs more time.
“Why don’t I get you some club soda?” he blurted, looking over at Delilah. “Or, um, ginger ale? Toast?” Those were the things that had comforted him when he’d had the stomach flu.
Without waiting for an answer, he crossed the kitchen and opened the door to the fridge. “Let’s see. Wine. Wine. Wine.” He set the three bottles on the counter. Right. Make a mess. Distract. “More leftovers. Some kind of, um. Not sure what that is.” He set two foil catering trays on the counter and set a paper-wrapped parcel on top of them. “Aha! Club soda! And you said you wanted crackers. Where are the crackers?”
Nathaniel watched him with a baffled expression on his face as he pulled two bottles of club soda out onto the counter. “I can do that.”
“No, no! You and Beth should talk. It’s good to clear the air. Or so I’ve heard.” Alistair reached for one of the glasses Nathaniel had set on the counter and began pouring.
Half on purpose, half because his hands were shaking, the bottle slipped from his grasp. It caught the side of the glass as it fell and knocked it from his hand. Everything fell to the floor and the entire room winced as the glass shattered.
“Oops. Sorry,” Alistair said. Even though he’d mostly meant to do it, he could feel a blush rising in his cheeks.
For the first time Rendon Howe swung his gaze over to him. “Who in the Maker’s name are you? ”
The question was nakedly hostile and loaded with contempt. But as a survivor of several rich kids’ boarding schools, Alistair was used to exactly that question, asked in exactly that tone. He gave a sheepish shrug and his best hey-I’m-just-a-big-dope, no-I’m-not-a-threat smile. “I’m Alistair. Griffin. Hi. Do you have paper towels? And a broom? And a dustpan? And a garbage can?”
“Alistair’s a friend of mine.” Beth crossed her arms and glared across the room at Howe, bristling visibly.
“And you brought him here to eat my food and destroy my kitchen?” Howe crossed his arms and glared right back, focused on Beth once more.
“Yes. That’s exactly what she said on the way over here. ‘Be sure to eat the Howes out of house and home and break as many glasses as you can.’” Alistair began opening cupboards, looking for something to wipe up the mess. “She didn’t really say that. It’s just me. Total klutz. I can’t be taken anywhere.”
“I’ll get the paper towels.” Nathaniel opened the cabinet doors below the sink. “You and Beth should head out. Get on with your evening.”
“No, no, I broke the glass, I should clean it up,” Alistair said quickly, kneeling beside him and reaching for the dustpan. “Really. I don’t want you …”
“My son is right. You two lovebirds should be on your way.” Howe’s voice was ice cold. “Let me walk you to the door, Beth dear.”
There was going to be no getting out of this one, it seemed. Fortunately, Alistair’s phone buzzed just at that moment.
(8:11pm) I should return shortly
“Yeah. We should head out before I break anything else,” he said sheepishly. “Sorry. Again.”
“It’s OK. You were just trying to be nice.” Delilah gave him a wan smile.
“Bye, Nathaniel. Can—can we talk later?” Beth’s lovely face was pale with anxiety as she looked at her friend. Alistair’s heart dropped for her.
Nathaniel’s expression was unreadable. “It may take me a while to get settled back in Starkhaven and catch up at work. I’ll call you when I can.”
Based on Beth’s expression, Alistair suspected she heard the same answer he did— no. Maker willing, she’d just bought her parents’ freedom—but she might have cost herself a friendship to do it.
Alistair and Beth walked shoulder-to-shoulder down the hall, following Rendon as he led them to the door. Beth focused on taking each step one by one, breathing deeply and quietly, keeping herself calm when really, she was torn between fury and tears.
How could Nathaniel think my parents did what they’re accused of doing?
How could he not see what his dad did?
But then one thought rose above the others. Maker, how could I have messed that up so badly?
Nathaniel was deeply loyal—it was one of his best qualities. He wasn’t blind to Rendon’s flaws, but Beth knew that he also quietly craved his father’s approval and admired the business and the life he’d built. Accusing Rendon of framing the Couslands, out of the blue and without real evidence, was exactly the wrong way to win Nathaniel to her side.
Surprisingly, it was Rendon who broke the silence. “Where are you headed next?”
On the surface, it was a perfectly benign inquiry. But Beth could feel a trap laying within. Maker. What did I tell Nathaniel? “Our reservation isn’t until nine thirty,” she repeated, relieved she’d remembered the lie. “So maybe we’ll stop by my house first, see how my parents are doing.”
Howe’s smile was unpleasant and sharp. “Oh, good. Would you mind giving me a ride? I’ve been meaning to drop by to express my support, but alas, my car has decided to fail on me again. Cheap Antivan garbage, though you wouldn’t know it from the price tag.”
Time screeched to a halt.
Beth frantically tried to think of some reason—any reason—why they couldn’t do this favor for her parents’ supposed friend. “I—well, come to think of it, maybe we should head right to Vine Street. I’m not sure what the traffic will be like. I could call you a ride with my app?” she offered.
“Vine Street? But that’s barely ten minutes from your house. And surely the traffic’s not so bad that it would take you over an hour to drive there.” Rendon’s eyes crinkled in gleeful suspicion. “I wouldn’t want to put you out, of course. But it really would be so convenient. Unless you think they’d rather not see me.”
Beth’s heart hammered in her chest. How much did he hear?
It couldn’t have been much. Delilah had come in and stopped the worst of the fight well before Rendon showed his face. Unless he was waiting to make his entrance.
But there was no way to know for sure. And if he hadn’t heard enough to know she was on to him, she couldn’t take the chance of tipping him off.
She smiled, turning on the charm as high as it would go, stopping just shy of batting her eyelashes. “You’re right. I’m being silly. I know my parents would love to see you.”
Sorry, Zev, she thought, her stomach twisting. We’re going to be just a bit late picking you up.
But it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be fine. Right?
She looked over at Alistair, who looked as nervous as she did. “Sorry for the unexpected stop,” she told him.
“Oh, it’s no bother,” Alistair said with a faint smile.
“First time meeting the parents, I take it?” Howe asked, a vicious, pleased gleam in his eyes. “What did you say you do again?”
“I work for the, um, the DFRC? It’s a rec center in downtown …”
“Oh, yes. One of the Couslands’ charming little charity projects.” Howe chuckled unpleasantly. “I’m surprised Bryce and Eleanor didn’t insist on meeting you earlier. They do like to take a good, close look at the people their daughter dates. They certainly didn’t care for that last fellow, did they?”
Beth’s jaw dropped. “They liked Dairren fine,” she protested weakly.
“Ah, yes. Bryce and Eleanor have always been good at hiding how they really feel,” Howe chuckled. His eyes slid over to Alistair, glittering unpleasantly. “But your father told me they didn’t think much of him. I believe the official judgment was ‘nice enough but unambitious, I suspect he’ll be kicked to the curb soon.’”
Alistair swallowed nervously.
Beth could have cheerfully strangled Howe right there and then. “I suspect they’ll have other things on their mind at the moment besides who I’m dating,” she said coolly. “Like being arrested, and their upcoming trial.”
“Of course, of course,” Howe murmured. “Speaking of that, give me a moment. I’m going to fetch a bottle of brandy from my study. It will be just the thing to take the edge off.”
You have got to be kidding me.
Beth looked over at Alistair, trying to conceal the naked, crushing panic that she was feeling. Alistair looked back helplessly. “That’s really nice of you. But doesn’t your mother drink wine?” he asked Beth.
Howe sniffed. “Eleanor drinks what’s put in front of her. Trust me, she’s not as picky as she would have you believe.”
I can tell where this is going, Beth thought wearily. “I suppose that’s how she ended up with my dad?”
He chuckled darkly. “You’ve noticed. Perhaps you’re more observant than I give you credit for.”
Beth wanted to say that wasn’t what she meant, but by then they were at the door to his study, and every nerve in her body was screaming with tension.
Please don’t let him notice someone’s been in here. Maker, please.
And PLEASE let Zevran be outside and far away.
Beth craned her neck over Howe’s shoulder as he pushed open the door. The study was silent and empty.
Even so, Howe paused and glanced around the room. “It’s chilly in here.”
Beth and Alistair exchanged a glance. Can he tell the window’s been opened?
“Is it?” Alistair asked. “Maybe a bit. You know, I once had a dorm room that was always draftier than any of the others. It turned out squirrels had eaten away some of the insulation.”
Howe turned to him, his weathered face incredulous and annoyed.
Alistair pretended not to notice. “Do you have squirrels in this neighborhood? Or is it too expensive? Fancy squirrels, maybe. With top hats and little canes.”
In spite of everything, Beth giggled. Partly, it was the expression on Howe’s face. Like he couldn’t believe his life had come to this, listening to someone talk to him very earnestly about squirrels in top hats. Like could not imagine a greater indignity, a worse punishment.
“And little bow ties?” she added. “And monocles! They’d need monocles, of course.”
Howe stalked away from them with an indignant huff of breath. A moment later he had a bottle of brandy in hand. “Let’s get this over with.”
Beth’s indignation warred with her relief that he hadn’t spotted anything out of place. Relief won. “My car’s out front. Let’s go.”
The sooner we leave, the sooner we can come back for Zevran.
But as she was climbing in her car, the first drop of rain fell on her head.
Zevran had gone no more than five steps from the study window when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the door open.
Quickly, he ducked behind a tree near the house, hoping it would be enough cover in the dark. The night was growing chillier than he’d anticipated, and with a growing sense of unpleasant unease, he remembered the ominous “10% chance of rain” that his weather app had predicted. Ninety had seemed like an encouraging percent when he left Embrium Street. It seemed less so now.
Between the leaves of the bushes, he could see Rendon Howe sweeping his eyes across the room. It was strange to see him in the flesh after reading so many articles about him, seeing his face in so many digital photographs on the screen of a laptop. In person, Rendon Howe was slightly older and significantly meaner-looking. And that was a feat, considering that the expression he’d worn in the photos had not exactly been friendly.
Howe’s eyes settled on the window.
Zevran felt himself tense—but then he saw Beth and Alistair begin to chatter behind him. Distracted, Howe made a sour face, snatched something from the liquor cart and departed.
Well done, my novice accomplices.
When he was certain the coast was clear, Zevran resumed his walk through the Howe backyard. “Backyard,” though, was not quite the term for the expansive grounds that lay behind the Howe estate. The riskiest bit, in his estimation, was the stretch of wide green lawn that lay immediately behind the house. He made his way through that part low to the ground and well away from any lit windows.
He felt safer when he reached the first trees. Beth had warned him that the grounds behind the Howe mansion were steep, so he moved with care, using his cell phone as a flashlight. He had to abandon that small comfort when he glimpsed the chain-link fence at the back of the property. A man with Howe’s wealth would almost certainly have … yes. Cameras, perched atop the fence at regular intervals.
Some security cameras Zevran had encountered swept the area slowly, over and over, keeping a constant watch. These cameras were still, which either meant that they were stationary or that they would only move when they sensed motion. Cautiously, carefully, Zevran picked up a small rock by his toe and threw it towards the fence.
Two cameras swerved immediately towards the rock.
“Braska,” he cursed quietly. Stationary cameras would have been far easier to evade. But that had been rather too much to hope for.
There was only one way over the ten-foot fence without being spotted. It was not one he liked, but beggars could not be choosers. With a resolute sigh, Zevran picked up more rocks and began inching towards the fence.
When he was as close as he dared get, he reached into his pocket to collect a handful of pebbles in each palm. He drew a deep breath and flung the two handfuls in opposite directions.
There was no time to watch to make sure that the cameras had followed the arc of the stones. Zevran sprinted for the fence and climbed it as quickly as he could, hands and feet moving in a blur of motion. It had begun to rain—lightly, just a mist—and the metal of the fence was cold and slippery beneath his hands. Somehow, miraculously, the Maker deemed him worthy of survival. He did not fall.
Not until halfway down the back of the fence.
He was descending too fast; his left foot slipped off its perch, nearly sending him tumbling to the ground. He tightened his fingers to catch himself, but most of the weight fell into his left side; he felt his shoulder pull alarmingly tight, wrenching the muscles around the joint. With a grimace, he forced himself to continue his flight, to finish the descent as quickly as he could and run before the cameras swung back.
The rain was falling steadily by the time he reached the road. He pulled his phone out, expecting to see a text message from Alistair or Beth confirming that they were on their way—but there was nothing. With a jolt of displeasure, he realized that he was not receiving a signal.
The rain, perhaps. Or poor coverage so far from main roads.
He told himself not to worry, that his co-conspirators were surely on their way. But with a sense of unease, he wondered why Beth and Alistair had been with Howe, and why Howe had taken a bottle from his rather expensive personal stash before leaving his study. He did not strike Zevran as the sort of man who gave nice cognac to young lovebirds on their way out. Has he asked them to take him somewhere?
There was no help for it, though. Even if he had a signal, he could not call a cab to pick him up in these suspicious circumstances. So, rubbing his arms for warmth, Zevran rested his back against the tree with the heaviest branches and settled in to wait.
The night her family had been arrested would always be the worst night of Beth’s life—at least, she hoped so. But tonight was turning out to be a strong runner-up.
She wanted nothing more than to drop Rendon at her parents’ door and escape back to her car. She’d even planned an excuse about wanting to get a drink at the bar before their reservation. But Howe had all but dragged her and Alistair into the Cousland living room, insisting that they sample his cognac instead and “let us older folks get to know the young man taking our Beth out for the evening.” Beth’s parents had missed the pleading look in her eyes and had readily agreed.
And Zevran hadn’t sent them a text since they left the Howe estate.
“So, Alistair. Do tell us a bit about yourself.” Rendon poured an absolutely ridiculous amount of cognac into Alistair’s glass—three fingers at least. Beth winced as he lifted it, but mercifully, Alistair merely touched the liquid to his lips and put it down with a little shiver.
“Well. I’m, um. I work at the DFRC? I run the teen program there with my best friend Naia.” Alistair’s eyes jumped between Howe and the Couslands, as if trying to decide who he found more intimidating.
“Ah. Taking a few years after college to do some good works?” Bryce sounded cheerful and friendly, but Beth could feel the trap coming. “What are your plans after you’re done there?”
“Done at the DFRC? Well. Um. Haven’t really thought it through,” Alistair admitted. “I hope to be there a while. I like the work. Maybe someday I’ll, um. I’ve thought about maybe getting a teaching certificate and being a coach at a high school?”
Bryce and Eleanor blinked, uncomprehending. Rendon smirked into his cognac.
Beth tried to catch her mother’s eye, to somehow psychically communicate the message Stop letting Rendon Howe torture my date.
But Eleanor was studying Alistair with narrowing eyes. Then she snapped her fingers. “Maker, I do know you! You’re Maric’s younger boy, aren’t you?”
Beth’s heart dropped into her stomach—she’d gotten the sense that wasn’t information Alistair tossed around lightly. Seeing Rendon choke a bit on his drink was satisfying, though; he clearly hadn’t made that connection.
“That’s me. Cailan’s brother, Maric’s other kid.” Alistair rubbed his hands together nervously.
“Aha!” Bryce sat back in his chair and grinned as if he’d solved a puzzle. “Putting together a good-works resume for that inevitable run for office?”
“Oh, no no no.” Alistair waved his hands emphatically. “That’s my father’s thing, not mine. I have absolutely no political aspirations, aside from eating the food at my dad’s inaugurations. At the last one they had this nice selection of cheeses on toothpicks. Very tasty.”
Beth giggled as a sudden image popped into her brain—Alistair, holding several toothpicks in each hand, trying to decide which cheese to sample first.
“Cheese.” Rendon Howe looked at the two of them as if he could not believe what he was hearing.
“I like cheese,” Alistair said cheerfully.
“I like cheese too.” Beth stood as inspiration struck. “In fact, we have some good cheese in the fridge. Anyone else need something in their stomachs? Let’s go get some cheese.”
“I don’t think I’m making a very good first impression,” Alistair murmured as they raced down the hall.
“You’re doing fine,” Beth said—truthfully, because it wasn’t Alistair’s fault her parents raised their eyebrows at anyone who didn’t have a forty-eight-point life plan. “But Alistair. Maker. Look at the rain. We can’t leave Zevran out in this weather. And I can’t shake the feeling Howe is on to us. What are we going to do? Normally I’d call Leliana, but if she gets caught up in what we did tonight, she could be disbarred.”
“I’m on it.” Alistair pulled his phone from his pocket as they entered the Cousland kitchen. “You get the cheese to maintain our cover. I’m calling Naia.”
Guilt twisted Beth’s stomach. “Zevran didn’t want her involved.”
“I don’t either.” Alistair pressed his thumb to one of his contact buttons. “But I also know what she’ll do to me if I let him freeze to death instead of calling her.”
“No! No no no no no …. Aaaaugh! YES!”
Naia collapsed dramatically onto her couch as the goalie for the Denerim Lightning snatched the ball from the air, saving it before it sailed into the net. Sometimes it was nice having Morrigan out of town. With the prickly grad student elsewhere, she could scream as loudly as she wanted for her favorite team without annoying anyone.
Except Zevran, she thought guiltily.
Well, if the noise bothers him, he can always knock on my door and ask me to keep it down.
Naia was trying very hard not to spin that idle thought into an inappropriate fantasy when her phone rang.
“Alistair!” she said, sitting up and putting the phone to her ear. “How’s the date going? Wait, why are you calling me on a date? Where are you?”
“I’m in the kitchen at her parents’ house.” Alistair’s voice was low and quiet. “Naia. Um. You can yell at me later. But right now I need you to do something. I need you to get to the dirt road behind Arland Estates and pick up Zevran. He should be directly behind 2449 Rainsfere Place.”
Normally Naia prided herself on being quick on the uptake. But that was a lot to put together all at once. “Alistair, what in the Maker’s name are you talking about? Isn’t Arland Estates that crazy fancy neighborhood north of the city?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. I can’t explain it right now,” Alistair whispered. “Only that Zevran’s stranded and the weather’s turning bad and he’s not answering his texts. Beth thinks he might not be getting great reception out there.”
A splatter of raindrops flung themselves against Naia’s window. She shivered involuntarily. “Maker,” she whispered as her head spun.
Normally she got everywhere by bus. But there wasn’t a bus in the world that went over dirt roads, especially not ones behind one of the city’s most exclusive communities.
Her eyes slid to the pile of papers that she had balanced at the edge of her kitchen counter—bills and flyers and there at the side, one dark brown business card with a crumpled edge.
Normally Naia wouldn’t have dragged someone she didn’t know into whatever this was, but she was pretty good at reading people. Oghren had struck her as the kind of man who might actually enjoy weird late-night errands, and wouldn’t ask too many uncomfortable questions.
“Alistair. I’ll handle this.” She took a deep breath. “And after I do, you and Beth—and Zevran—are going to give me a very thorough account of exactly what the everloving fuck you have been up to tonight.”
“Yep. That’s fair,” Alistair agreed nervously.
Naia was gearing up to ask the first of many questions when she heard her friend catch his breath. “Ohcrapgottagobye.”
A dial tone sounded in her ear.
She took a deep breath, fighting an insane number of sudden, competing worries. What in the world was going on? Was Alistair OK? Would Zevran be OK by the time she got there?
One thing at a time, Tabris.
She flicked her finger across the screen to dial Oghren.
It had been nearly forty minutes waiting in the dark when Zevran saw the first pair of headlights appear.
Shivering, he prepared to step closer to the road—but the headlights never slowed. They whipped past him as quickly as the dirt road and the rain would permit. He found himself grateful that he’d come no closer when he saw the tires kick up waves of water and mud.
His stomach dropped as he rubbed his hands together. How far was he from the main road? Two miles or more?
I will have to find shelter soon. Or at least a signal.
At fifty-five minutes, he began heading west. By now he was too solidly soaked to the bone to bother avoiding the rain, but he still clung to the trees, hoping no unfriendly headlights would see him. Beth and Alistair, he hoped, would drive slowly, trying to be sure they didn’t miss him.
So would a less friendly vehicle looking for me, he reminded himself. If Rendon Howe had realized what Beth and Alistair were up to …
A new pair of headlights shone through the rain.
Zevran stopped dead and slid behind a tree. After a flash of hope, he quickly realized it was not Beth’s expensive luxury sedan, but a heavy black towncar, the kind favored by chauffeurs. An Arland Estates resident taking a shortcut.
But then the car pulled a u-turn and stopped about a hundred yards up the road from him.
Zevran’s heart hammered in his chest. Ah. Is this the part where I run?
The car’s back door opened. A figure in a dark blue hooded coat emerged and turned its head left and right, seemingly unaware of the rain coming down.
“Zevran!” the figure yelled.
The voice was so unexpected that it took Zevran a moment to place it. When he did, he felt almost rooted to the spot. “Naia?”
The figure—Naia—raised her arm in greeting. “Come on,” she yelled. “Let’s get out of here.”
Zevran did not need to be invited twice.
As Alistair outlined their predicament to Naia, Beth felt hope rising in her chest for the first time since Rendon had pushed his way into her car.
That optimism quickly fell away, however, when footsteps approached the kitchen.
“Ohcrapgottagobye,” Alistair whispered, shoving his phone back into his pocket.
They’re wondering what’s taking so long.
On an impulse, Beth stepped close to Alistair. “Kiss me,” she whispered.
Alistair’s brow furrowed—but quickly cleared as he understood her purpose. Swiftly, a little clumsily, they wrapped their arms around each other and brought their mouths together.
It should not have been a romantic kiss. Unlike their first time, their lips were meeting in a rush and their arms were tangled oddly and—oh yes—they were kissing for cover, to provide an explanation for why they’d been so slow. But the moment Beth felt Alistair’s lips touch hers it was like all of those other things fell away. She didn’t have to feign the eagerness as she slid her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. And she knew she wasn’t imagining the way he sighed into her mouth, an astonished, happy little sound.
“Pardon me for interrupting.”
Howe was standing in the door to the kitchen, a superior sneer on his face. “I came to see if you needed help. But there’s my answer, I suppose.” His mouth twitched as Beth and Alistair slowly stepped apart. “Shall I tell your parents to prepare their own shotgun wedding?”
Beth had never thought of herself as a violent person, but she felt her right hand twitch. She was positively itching to slap those ugly words out of Rendon Howe’s mouth. “Well, that’s a creepy thing to say,” she replied coldly. “It’s not the Storm Age anymore, Rendon.”
He merely snorted. “Do bring the cheese out. If it’s not too inconvenient.”
As Howe spun around and walked away, Beth reached for the plate she’d set on the counter, her jaw clenching in anger. Alistair put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you OK?”
She blew out her breath. “I’m fine.” She looked over at him with a little smile. “So is this our thing now? Kissing in kitchens?”
“If it is, let’s just say I hope we spend a whole lot of time in kitchens.” Alistair blushed. “So. How much more time until our fake dinner reservation?”
Beth looked at her watch. “Um. Forty minutes?”
He winced. “All right. I’ll get the cheese and let them resume the grilling. Meanwhile, you can invent reasons Naia and Zevran shouldn’t kill me.”
It began again the moment Beth and Alistair sat down. Somehow Eleanor decided that this was a good time to tell Alistair that Fergus had thrived in the family business—“he worried it wouldn’t be for him, but it’s just in his blood.” Bryce then took the opportunity to inform Alistair Beth had been at the top of her class at Calenhad University and number one in her MBA program.
“Your brother was at Calenhad, wasn’t he?” Bryce asked. “Nice boy, from what I could tell. But not exactly a scholar.”
Alistair’s shoulders stiffened. “He scraped through. As the tabloids were happy to tell all of us.” There was a little bite in his genial tone; he was feeling protective of Cailan, Beth realized.
“He was nice,” she interjected. “And he had some reasons not to be. One time the entire campus got an email from this shady ‘journalist’ promising us money for photos of Cailan drinking underage. I can’t imagine what that was like for him, having cell phones snapping pictures of him every time he showed up at a party.”
“Ah yes. Poor Cailan Theirin, heir to a storied political name and Rowan Guerrin’s entire fortune.” Rendon rolled his eyes.
“Did you go to Calenhad too, Alistair?” Eleanor asked curiously.
Alistair shook his head. “My mom’s alma mater. Denerim State.”
“So, Alistair. What was your major in college?” Bryce gestured towards him with his glass of cognac. “Let’s brainstorm a bit. A bright young guy like you with your family connections could go places. Maybe with an advanced degree … ”
“Dad. ” Beth didn’t bother to hide her irritation. “You’ve known Alistair for twenty minutes. And he’s great at his job. The kids at the DFRC adore him. So let’s not plot to send him away from them, OK?”
Bryce blinked, taken aback. Of course he would be. To his mind, Career Counseling with Bryce and Eleanor was probably the nicest thing the Couslands could offer a promising young person visiting their house.
Next to him, Rendon smirked. “Oh come now, Beth dear. Don’t deprive us old folks of our fun. Besides, what else are we to discuss? Bryce and Eleanor’s ankle monitors?”
Two red spots appeared on Eleanor’s cheekbones. “Tactful as always, Rendon,” she murmured, taking another sip of her cognac.
He’s not being clueless. He’s being a jerk on purpose, Beth wanted to scream.
Next to her, Alistair’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket quickly, glanced at the screen, and slid it back.
“I take it that wasn’t an important business call?” Rendon snarked.
“Nope. Just my friend Naia. She’s doing me a favor, wanted to let me know she didn’t forget,” Alistair replied cheerfully. But he was beginning to look a bit strained around the eyes.
Okay. Enough of this.
Beth stood. “Mom, Dad, Rendon, this has been, uh. Great. But I think Alistair and I are going to head out. I’m starving and our reservation’s in fifteen minutes.” Surely they’d stayed long enough to put Rendon off the scent. “Rendon, I hope you don’t mind calling a cab home.”
Rendon waved his hand. “Go, go.” His eyes locked unpleasantly on Alistair. “Enjoy your bit of fun.”
“Yes, sweetheart. Have a lovely time.” Eleanor stood and offered her hand. “It was nice to meet you, Alistair. Give our best to your father, won’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Alistair agreed, shaking Eleanor’s hand, then Bryce’s. “Great to meet you both.”
They left the house in silence, both of them taking faster and faster steps, desperate to get out before someone thought of a reason to call them back. When they were finally in the safety of Beth’s car, she draped her arms over the steering wheel and lightly smacked her forehead against it. “Maker’s breath. I am so, so sorry, Alistair.”
Alistair leaned his head back against the seat and ran a hand over his face. “What for? I can’t imagine why you don’t like Rendon Howe. He’s just delightful. I’m thinking of making him a friendship bracelet.”
“Rendon’s an asshole to everyone. But my parents,” Beth groaned. She’d spent so many of the past few nights sleeplessly tossing and turning, worrying about her family. But right not she would have cheerfully locked Bryce and Eleanor in a jail cell herself. “All that stuff about your major, and what you’re doing next, and … ugh!” She flopped back against her seat. “If it helps, that’s pretty much what they’re like with me and Fergus too. ‘Great job on your test, sweetie! Now what are you doing to make sure you ace the next one too?’ You always have to be looking ahead to the next thing. Nothing you do is ever enough.”
The bitterness in her words surprised her. She loved her parents. But all her life there had been that little voice in the back of her head, nagging her to live up to the Cousland name. That voice was really hard to live with sometimes.
“Anyway. I’m sorry for the fifth degree,” she finished, letting out a breath. “And I’m also kind of starving. Want to get drive-through on our way back to Embrium Street?”
Alistair brightened. “Concentrated sodium and processed beef? Sold. Now let’s get out of here before your parents print out grad school applications for me.”
The driver of the vehicle turned out to be none other than Oghren, using a towncar instead of the limousine for the evening. “You got weird hobbies, elf,” the dwarf informed Zevran as he climbed inside.
“Believe me, I am aware.”
The absence of the falling rain came as a blessed relief, but the contrast between his chilled skin and the warm, dry air of the car suddenly set Zevran shivering. And he could not seem to stop.
“Here.” Naia shoved a towel into his hands. “It’s not warm but it will help. And I brought clothes.” She pulled a sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants from a bag at her feet. “They’re Alistair’s. Sorry, I didn’t have any elf-guy-sized things on hand.”
As Zevran dried his hair in the towel, he began to piece the story together. A rush of anger rose in his chest. “Alistair called you.” The one thing he had promised he would not do.
Naia nodded. “Apparently he and Beth are at her parents’ house. I gather that wasn’t the plan.”
“It was not.” Zevran stripped his sodden shirt from his back, toweled off as best he could, and reached for Alistair’s sweatshirt. It was comically large on his frame, but it was warm and dry and he could not think of another garment that he had ever been more grateful for. With a glance in the rearview mirror at Oghren—whose eyes were fixed firmly on the road—Zevran reached for his pants and stripped those off as well, underwear and all.
Naia turned her face to the window, a faint blush on her cheeks. In spite of himself, Zevran felt a rush of heat at the knowledge that she was paying attention. “Enjoying the view?” he murmured.
“I’m insulted. I’m being a model of respectful propriety over here. I would never take advantage of you in your weakened, shivering state,” she replied archly.
Despite their bargain—despite the fact that she shouldn’t be here at all, should never have known to come for him—Zevran could not resist. “But how am I to regain any warmth unless you come closer, hmmm?”
“There’s hot tea in the cupholder,” she said dryly. “Give that a try.”
“You want me to turn the heat up?” Oghren rumbled from the front seat. “Or, I suppose you two could forge the moaning statue in my backseat to take the chill off. Wouldn’t be the first time. Just let me know if you want me to pull over and take a quick walk.” He chuckled, amused with himself.
Zevran bit back a smile. “As appealing as that sounds, my good sir, I think we will decline. I hope you will not be offended if I say the ambiance leaves something to be desired.”
The car whipped its way along the rain-soaked streets of Denerim. Zevran rubbed the warmth back into his limbs inch by inch, taking deep breaths, telling his body that he was safe and not going to freeze to death tonight. The tea helped. He was not ordinarily a camomile tea drinker, and it had over-steeped to the point of bitterness, but the feeling of the hot liquid on his tongue and in his chest was too blissful to reject. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Naia pointing every heating vent in the backseat in his direction. That tiny act made his throat constrict in the oddest way.
“How much did Alistair tell you?”
“Not enough,” Naia said crisply. “And since he’s not here, I’m going to have to get the full story out of you. Once we get home you’ve got ten minutes to take a hot shower and put on your own clothes. Then the interrogation starts.”
“Shall I be tied to a chair? Please, do say yes.” He flashed her his most wicked grin.
“You wish, Arainai,” she said dryly.
But he could see the bob of her throat as she swallowed.
The text message from Zevran came as Beth and Alistair were pulling out of the Couslands' neighborhood.
(9:21) Naia found my spare key
Alistair read the message to Beth, who closed her eyes in relief. “Maker bless you, Naia Tabris,” she sighed.
“I owe her one.” Alistair pocketed the phone and tried to sort through a swirl of very confusing feelings. Thanks to him Naia was in a car somewhere with Zevran, probably learning all about their dastardly not-burglary activities. After Zevran had specifically asked him not to involve her. But it had been the best and only way. Zevran was just going to have to deal with it.
And Alistair was going to have to deal with Naia’s reaction. Even as long as he’d known her, he wasn’t sure how she was going to feel about hearing “I helped plan some crimes that were kind of related to your job and you weren’t invited because your one-night-stand said so and I figured you should stay away from him.”
Then again, maybe he was sure. Oh yeah. She’s definitely going to kill me.
And then there was the whole Cousland … thing.
Alistair wasn’t a stranger to privilege. He’d spent every Satinalia in a mansion a lot like the one where Beth had grown up. But it had felt like a weird bit of trivia about himself, the fact that his dad had money and his brother had more. Beth was born and raised in that world. And she’d done everything the beloved daughter of Ferelden’s most famous power couple was supposed to do—top grades, advanced degree, doing great work at a place with her family’s name on the letterhead.
He’d known from the start that Beth was out of his league. The fact that she liked him too had made him forget it for a little while. But would that be what it was like every time they went out? Whispers of what is she doing with him? Her parents looking at him in total bafflement, wondering what their daughter could possibly see in such a nobody?
He looked over at Beth, whose eyes were fixed on the road. Passing headlights threw little flickers of illumination over her profile. Her lipstick was a bit smudged, and Alistair touched his fingers to his own mouth, remembering what it had felt like to kiss her. How his entire body had gone all tingly and light when her mouth opened and her tongue brushed his.
A smart man wouldn’t get himself all knotted up about why he got so lucky. He’d just … let himself be lucky.
If the choice was between dealing with some raised eyebrows or never seeing Beth again, the answer was pretty obvious.
They’d pulled to a stoplight and Beth’s eyes slid over to him. “You look like you’re thinking about something.”
“Just trying to plan our second date. Between committing a crime and meeting your parents, I think we used up all of the best date ideas on this first date.”
She laughed, that beautiful smile lighting her features. “A more ambitious crime? Maybe a bank robbery? Or we could do dinner and a movie. Not at a drive-through, I mean.”
“Dinner and a movie sounds great.” Alistair grinned at her. “And speaking of drive-through, I know just the place near my apartment.”