Gameboard of the Gods

Page 36

Inspiration struck Justin. “Would it? You’ve got religious-freedom lobbyists sending you gifts. Inquiring about the servitor’s office would be very reasonable.”

“You think of everything, don’t you?” Lucian didn’t make it sound like a compliment. “Did you think of a clever reason for why I should do it for you?”

“Because we’re friends. And maybe you’ll need a good servitor on your side if those lobbyists turn on you. Or, hell, just do it for old times’ sake.”

“You mean my girlfriend?”

“Ex,” Justin reminded him.

“Fine. For old times’ sake.” Lucian turned to Mae, who had been watching the exchange with a mix of astonishment and fascination. “But now I have a favor to ask. I have a fund-raising party in a couple of weeks. I don’t suppose you’d want to go with me? If you can tear yourself away from Justin, that is.”

It apparently was a day of firsts with Mae. It had started with that radiant smile and had now moved on to her becoming flustered. That discomfiture only lasted a few moments, though. She rewarded Lucian with a polite and—Justin was certain—ever-so-slightly superior smile. That was castal upbringing. Debutantes were taught to eat men alive.

“That’s very flattering,” she said. “But I don’t think my commitments will allow it.”

Lucian was unfazed. “Well, check on them, and if they change, just let me know. I don’t plan on going with anyone else. They’d just be a disappointment now.”

Do something about this, snapped Magnus.

“Mae’s great at parties,” said Justin. He gave Lucian a pointed look. “She’s a Nordic patrician, though I’m sure you already noticed that.”

Lucian’s eyes said he understood what Justin wasn’t explicitly saying. No matter how high Lucian’s star was right now, no matter how much class tension had eased in recent years…any hint of romance with a patrician would be political suicide. Lucian’s fellow senators were the ones who cast the votes, and their patrician constituents would raise holy hell at the thought of a plebeian defiling some pure patrician woman—especially if her score came out.

Lucian was too noble to fully backpedal, though his pitch lightened. “Well, just let me know.”

Mae didn’t speak to Justin again until they were en route to the airport, free of flirting senators and distracting prætorians. “What,” she said, “was that all about?”

“It was me tapping inexplicable political connections to get answers that my department won’t give me.”

She shot him a sidelong glare. “You know what I mean. The presumption back there was off the charts.”

“I know,” he said, nodding solemnly. “Lucian doesn’t know his limits sometimes.”

“Not him! You, with all your ‘she goes with me everywhere’ insinuations.”

“It’s the truth, isn’t it? And how was that worse than his trying to trade my favor for a date with you? I defended your honor, you know. He was objectifying you.”

“He was just asking me out.” Mae’s face turned speculative. “He seems like a nice guy.”

“You aren’t…you aren’t seriously thinking about that, are you? And what happened to you not lowering yourself to associate with plebeians? Or do you make an exception for glamorous and powerful men?” The thought of her in Lucian’s arms, her face flushed with the afterglow, made Justin feel ill. Over and over, he told himself he couldn’t have her, but he didn’t want anyone else to either.

She stared out the car’s window as it pulled up to the airport’s front entrance. “It’s my business if I do.”

“You don’t want anything to do with a guy like that. It’s his job to say things to lure people in.”

Mae returned her gaze to him. “Tell me exactly how he’s any different from you. Aside from the fact that when he says he holds a post in the government, he’s actually telling the truth.”

Yes, said Horatio. Please, go ahead and tell us.

A lot of answers came to Justin’s mind, but “I’m more fun at parties” might not have helped his case after the overdose in Windsor. Instead, he simply said, “I had that smile first.”

That was apparently the wrong answer, because all Mae said before getting out of the car was, “Point proven.”



Leo was waiting at their gate. He’d caught an earlier flight up from Portland so that they could all travel together, though he still treated Mae in a standoffish way. Once they were en route in the air, Justin asked him about the video.


Leo leaned back in his seat and frowned. “No. I’ve run all the standard tests and a few I made up.” His cold attitude vanished as the thrill of his task seized him. “I know some film people I’m going to check with. Don’t worry—I’m not going to actually let them see it. Just get some info based on the camera type. This thing’ll be cracked. It’s just a question of when.”

“Maybe you’ll have better luck at the house,” said Justin. “Figure out how someone got into a room locked from the inside.” He grinned. “Aside from turning into smoke and shadows, of course.”

Leo nodded. “That shouldn’t be a mystery—as long as the place hasn’t been altered. The last grant you were at muddled all their data.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” Justin said. “That was their own sloppy police work long before we got there.”

Silence fell after that. Justin turned his attention to a reader that held background information on the Nipponese victim. Mae shouldn’t have cared, but she felt a need to lighten things between Leo and her. If they were going to be working together, she didn’t want him afraid of her.

“I never caught how long you’ve been married,” she told Leo. She didn’t mention Justin’s excessive commentary on Leo’s rustic living conditions or choice in spouse.

Leo gave her a wary look. “Two years.”

She smiled back. Maybe hers wasn’t as captivating as Justin’s, but she’d been grilled in how to be pleasant and likeable. Good castal girls learned how to excel as hostesses. “Wine making must be an interesting job.”

“It’s a time-consuming job,” said Leo curtly.

He was breaking the rules of small talk and not giving her much to go on. “I was down there once before, closer to the coast than your place. We spent most of our time in a cottage out at the shore but went wine tasting a few times. It’s beautiful there.”

She didn’t know what had made her bring that story up. Just an instinctive need to draw Leo out, she supposed. It wasn’t a trip she’d thought of in a while, but in giving voice to it, a jumble of memories suddenly flooded her. The way the ocean had smelled crashing on the shore. The never-ending cacophony of circling seagulls. The taste of Pinot Gris that they’d purchased from a vintner selling bottles out of his garage. The sun on her face. The feel of the sheets on her bare skin as they spent long hours in bed.

Leo again made little response, and Mae gave her last, best effort. “How did you guys meet?”

To her astonishment, Leo launched into an extensive account. “I met him at Li Vale. It’s a bar in Vancouver. There’s a list to get in, and you almost always see celebrities there. I was supposed to meet a friend there one night, but she was running late. So, I just ordered drinks at the bar. When my third one came, I realized I’d left my ego at home. You can imagine how embarrassing that was at a place like that. All I could do was hope my friend would show up soon and pay my bill. Suddenly, Dom came and sat beside me and told the bartender he’d cover me. I tried to protest and tell him my friend would come, but he wouldn’t listen. I thanked him over and over and told him I’d get in touch later and pay him back. He told me he’d rather have me pay him back by buying him dinner the next night. I agreed, and after that…we were inseparable.”

Mae didn’t have to fake her next smile. “That’s a great story.”

Leo nodded and switched back to stiff mode. He stood up and moved into the aisle. “Be right back.” After waiting for a flight attendant to squeeze past him, he turned toward the restroom.

Justin’s eyes were still on his reader. “Who was he?”

“Who was who?” Mae didn’t know if he meant Leo or Dominic.

“The love interest you went to the beach with. Some Viking nine?”

“What makes you think he was a love interest?”

“Because friends don’t rent romantic cottages on the water together.”

“I never said it was romantic.”

“Your voice did.” He finally looked up. “Everything about you softened….” His eyes lingered on her for a few seconds, and then he went back to his reading. “It’s fine. You can keep your sordid tales and ex-lovers to yourself. I mean, well, you can try to. You tell stories without even knowing it.”

Mae knew she shouldn’t engage him. If she’d learned anything, it was that Justin loved attention. Ignoring him was probably the worst punishment she could dole out. But, as so often happened, he’d managed to reach into her in a way that made it impossible not to respond.

“Why do you think he’s an ex? How do you know we’re not still together?” she demanded.

“Because you would’ve said ‘my boyfriend and I’ when you were talking. You just said ‘we.’ And although I wouldn’t put cheating past plenty of people, you don’t strike me as one of them. You wouldn’t have sought out a sensational night of sex in Panama if you were involved with someone.”

“You have a real cut-and-dried way of analyzing relationships,” she said. If he used half as much energy on solving the case as he did on her, then he’d have figured out the murders already. “You probably don’t think Leo’s story was romantic at all.”

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