Ren took my hand as we walked down Canal, toward the Quarter, his fingers threaded loosely through mine. I didn't know how to feel about this since I hated having to navigate people holding hands, but I liked my hand in Ren's. I liked the warm weight and how . . . grounding it was.
Ren squeezed my hand. "You going home or . . . ?"
I knew this was coming. Dinner had been nice and normal despite what I had learned about Val's parents, my weird meet and greet with the prince, and all the other messed-up things going on. It was weird how all of us Order members could easily bounce back from the Three D's: danger, death, and destruction. Maybe it was the fact we constantly faced certain death that made us seize each second of the day while continuously pushing forward.
Well, some of us.
Up until recently, I'd really been living in the past. Hung up on my own missteps and guilt, afraid of letting go and moving on, and now that I finally had done that, everything I knew about myself was a lie.
I swallowed a sigh that would have sounded so pathetic I could have won a Daytime Emmy for it. "I'm going to head home in a bit."
"But not right away?"
I didn't answer.
Ren stopped, pulling me off the sidewalk so we weren't in the way. We were at the corner of Canal and Royal. "Okay," he said after a moment. "Just remember what I said earlier. If you find her, think before you act. Call me. I'll take care of it. Make sure she's brought in alive."
I appreciated what he was saying, more than I think he realized. I stood on my tiptoes, placed my hand against his smooth cheek, and kissed him. Then I smiled at him. "Are you coming to my place when you get off?"
"I was planning on it," he said. "Can you text me when you get back to your place?"
He was giving me permission to go do my thing. He wasn't exactly saying it, but he knew what I had planned, and he was stepping aside. Geez, I sort of wanted to strip right here and have sex with him.
"I will," I promised.
His gaze held mine, and there was so much warmth and strength in those emerald eyes, but there was something else. A deep, unfathomable emotion. "Ivy, I . . ."
I held my breath, for real. Because what was in his eyes mirrored how I felt, and if he was going to say those three words, there was a good chance I would strip down, right here and now-
"I'll miss you," he said finally.
Ren leaned down and kissed me. It was short but powerful, and better than cheese and bacon-smothered Tater Tots.
He swaggered off down Canal, heading back in the direction we came from, and I was left standing there, staring at him, a little weak in the knees.
Drawing in a deep breath, I looked down and fished out my cellphone. Dusk had fallen, and since it was a little too early for Val to be at Twin Cups, I decided to go ahead and make my way there. It wouldn't hurt to scope out the place and talk to a few of the bartenders.
Twin Cups was located about two miles past the Quarter, in the Bywater neighborhood, and it was hidden inside another bar that looked like any other bar outside the Quarter-slightly less smelly, a little quieter, the floors a little less sticky.
With the night just kicking off, the streets were crowded and it took about forty minutes for me to hoof it to Bywater. The whole time I kept an eye out for fae. I didn't catch sight of any silvery skin, but an ancient could be around. They were harder to pick out since they didn't use glamour like the rest and blended in with humans.
Muscles aching in my butt and legs, I wanted to sit down by the time I reached my destination. Laughter and shouts greeted me as I walked into the bar, squeezing past the high top tables. No one paid attention to me as I headed for the hall in the back of the two-story building. I passed the restrooms and stopped in front of a Coke vending machine.
Reaching into my purse, I snagged two dollars out of my wallet and fed them into the machine. Instead of hitting one of the soda options, I reached around and hit the button along the side.
The machine rumbled to life and I stepped back. No soda dropped, but what looked like a regular wall beside it cracked open.
So fancy and secretive.
Grinning, I opened the door to a narrow staircase that led upstairs. At the top there was another door which opened with a turn of the knob. Nothing extraordinary there. Just a regular door.
The Twin Cups was super low key. TVs were on, and like downstairs, some game was playing, but the volume was turned down. There weren't any high top tables, just couches and low chairs surrounded by coffee and end tables. A wall of books faced the doorway. One time, when Val had been a bit tipsy, she'd ventured over to the shelves and discovered that some of the books contained old, hand-drawn maps of the city. Others had drawings of buildings. Pretty cool.
I almost could see Val standing there, her curly hair falling prettily around her shoulders, wearing something bright, most likely in orange or fuchsia. She'd be in a loose-fitting skirt, and multi-colored bangles would be dangling from her wrist.
But she wasn't dancing in front of the shelves.
Only a few people were in Twin Cups. Two men sitting on a couch, and a group of women surrounding a coffee table with books stacked on it. It looked like a book club or something, and I was immediately envious of their smiles and whispered conversation about book boyfriends. For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine sitting with them, chatting about books. I could picture Jo Ann with me. Maybe even Val.
But that wasn't my life.
It never had been.
My chest heavy, I turned to the left and recognized the bartender. He was an attractive, dark-skinned man in his mid-twenties. His name was Reggie, and he went to Tulane. I was pretty confident he and Val had hooked up in the restroom behind the bar more than once.