"No, no. I think..." Hunter sighed, sitting up and sliding to the edge of the bed. "This was not the topic I'd hoped to discuss this morning."
Right. Because he'd offered me his home for the week. This time, with him included.
"I do want to stay here with you this week, Hunter," I said. "But I absolutely don't want to be kept in the dark about—about you being injured, or why girls from the theater are being murdered, or—"
Hunter reached for me and I rose up on my knees, crawling over to the edge of the bed, but remaining stiff as he wrapped his arms around me.
"There is a figure in my community, a wretch less than a man, but in some ways more powerful than any monster I've ever met. He influences so many of us and feeds our vices and worst cravings," Hunter said, frowning down at me as he spoke. "He hides his actions well, so we can't be certain, not about the murders yet, but I think he may be responsible. It wasn't him who attacked you last night, but perhaps he is motivating the beast who did."
"And Mr. Reddy? Does he know any of this?" I asked.
Hunter nodded. "He shares my suspicions."
"What on earth would he have against the theater?" I asked.
"I suspect he would like to own it," Hunter said, shrugging. "It's an alternative to his own houses and parlors."
A spike of anger so hot it was like being stabbed with a fire poker shot through my chest, and I stumbled off the bed, ignoring Hunter's offered hands.
"You're telling me that girls, Beth and Margaret and nearly me, are being killed in some—some pissing contest over who owns the theater and Mr. Reddy is just...carrying on?" I shouted. "On with the show, and twice the acts for each of us, so he can hold onto the reins?! He hasn't told us any of this, you haven't told me—and you've known too—"
"Suspected," Hunter corrected quickly, grimacing as I shot him a ferocious glare. "You're right, little one—"
"I'm not little!"
Hunter flinched, but he stood straight and strong, almost as if he was inviting me to strike out, to lash my fury against him. "Hazel. You're right. But believe me when I say Mr. Reddy's determination to hold those reins is a blessing. The theater would not be a safe place for you in Birsha's corrupt grip."
I stumbled back at the name. Birsha. Had I heard it before? In the whispers backstage? Had I met the man or only heard of him? Was he a patron?
"The humans in his establishments are only objects to be tormented, to bring out the worst in monsters, reveal our darkest natures," Hunter murmured.
Because a man who would kill women to get what he wanted certainly wouldn't be merciful once we were in his possession.
I was calming, releasing a long breath, when the bedroom door banged open. Ronan strode in, bare chested and dressed in his pants from the night before, his eyes wild and searching the room. I yelped and jumped, and Hunter pulled me close, pushing me to stand behind him.
"Hazel, are you—"
"It's fine, Ronan," I said.
"Sir, I did try to prevent him—" the slow and solemn voice of the gargoyle butler intoned.
I slipped free of Hunter, easing him back and holding up a hand to both him and Ronan.
"I heard shouting," Ronan said.
Behind him, in the doorway, the surprisingly harried-looking butler was jostling with Nireas.
"Leave, Withes, it's fine," Hunter said, calm as ever, one hand stroking my back. "Come in, both of you."
Ronan blinked at that, clearly not expecting a naked orc to invite him to intrude, but he didn't hesitate, and I hurried to the foot of the bed to meet him.
"I was getting upset over information to do with the murders, it wasn't Hunter's fault," I said, turning back to find Hunter wrapping himself in a handsome black-cherry velvet robe. "It wasn't your fault."
"You should've been informed sooner," Hunter acknowledged with a nod. "Why don't you soak while I arrange breakfast for all of us. I'll explain the argument to—"
"I think I'd like Hazel to be the one to explain," Ronan said, jutting his chin out at Hunter. "I want her side of the story."
"Your throat looks much better," Nireas murmured to me.
"It is," I answered, but my eyes were bouncing between Hunter and Ronan.
"Then you're welcome to join her, if she's amenable," Hunter said, shrugging.
Hunter was a little taller and broader than Ronan, but the imp's wings were flexing open slightly, as if to make up the difference.
"Someone hand me that glass," I said, pointing to the drink Hunter had prepared for me. All three of them jerked, as if they might fight to see who was quickest. Nireas was closest, and I thanked him as he passed it to me, trying to decipher what Hunter was up to. Wasn't he meant to be chasing other men away from me, not inviting them into my bath?
Was this a test to see if I would take Ronan with me? Was it a test for Ronan? Was Hunter trying to prove something to me—that I had the right to choose, that he was confident enough to not be jealous? All the possibilities made my head spin.
"Ronan, go with Hunter," I murmured, turning my back to all of them. "I trust him and whatever version he gives you."
"But someone should help with your hand," Ronan said.