The restaurant is Bradon’s choice. He usually chooses Italian, so I was surprised when he asked me to meet at the Columbia. The Cuban the oldest restaurant in Tampa, in the heart of Ybor City. The Columbia is not a landmark, it’s an institution. It’s somehow fitting for my last meal in my home county. I’m sipping on iced tea when Bradon joins me. His light gray suit is an interesting contrast to the charcoal gray one he asked me to wear to this meeting. He eyes me suspiciously as he sits down opposite of me. He says nothing as a waiter materializes. I order the ropas viejas. Bradon orders the picadillo. I crook my eyebrow up in surprise as the waiter vanishes.
“You never order food,” I say.
“You’ll eat it,” Bradon answers, with an unfamiliar coolness in his voice. I’m not surprised he knows about the recent uptick in my appetite. Even a month later, my body is still healing from my fight with Lothos. Healing takes a lot of calories. I set down my glass and study the vampire for several long moments.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Whatever for?” Bradon asks.
“You were expecting Lady Elizabeth to marry me,” I say.
“You promised me as part of our agreement,” Bradon says, “I don’t know this Fangbearer.”
“If you don’t have an inch-thick file on him already, I’m going to be very disappointed in you Bradon,” I say. The comment elicits the ghost of a smile.
“It’s not the same,” Bradon says.
“No, it’s not,” I agree.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Bradon asks. “If I’m going to sell this change to our treaty, I should know why it happened.”
“Savik becoming the Prince of Florida changed everything,” I say. “I’m sure you have much better intelligence on the fallout among the county lords than I could tell you.”
“That doesn’t explain why the Lady of Hillsborough is no longer in love with you,” Bradon says, bluntly.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, trying to keep my tone as neutral as I can.
“Ranger, would you grant that I am very good?” Bradon asks. I nod. “Then why are you surprised that I would detect the change in how Lady Elizabeth speaks of you. How her eyes no longer sparkle when your name comes up? No heartache, just resignation when we discussed her upcoming marriage to Fangbearer?”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t talked to her since her packs came back to Hillsborough,” I say.
“Lady Anna,” Bradon states. I don’t say anything. Bradon’s dark eyes scrutinize me. He smiles, and a chill goes down my spine. I’ve seen that particular smile before. “I shouldn’t be surprised. In many ways, she suits you. I’m assuming you will serve her much as you did your Guildmaster here? Now that your Prince Savik put her in charge of the Society of the Fang and the Claw?”
“Nope,” I say. “Nick’s her personal hitter. We didn’t think any of the Society would trust me in that role.”
“So what will be your role in our upcoming war? Surely not in the State Guild?” Bradon asks.
“I’m the Prince’s personal hitter,” I say. Bradon pauses for a moment, and then he erupts in a hearty laugh. Other patrons look over at the sudden noise. Bradon apologizes for disturbing their supper with a wave.
“Was that his idea or hers?” Bradon asks.
“I don’t know, and I don’t know if I want to know,” I say.
“That is such a you thing to say, Ranger,” Bradon says. Our waiter materializes, efficiently drops our dinner on the table, refills our glasses, and vanishes. The rich smells of the beef and rice awaken the hunger. I inhale the ropas on just this side of politeness. Bradon deftly switches our plates and sits with a patriarchal smile as I demolish the picadillo. Our small talk is limited to our pride and joys. In my case, it’s my guns. In his case, it’s his new Cadillac. After the dishes are cleared and the bill is paid, the two of us walk out of the restaurant.
“I hate to say goodbye, but I don’t know when we’ll see each other again Bradon,” I say.
“You’re not coming to the wedding tomorrow?” he asks.
“The groom prefers that I not be in the county any longer than I need to be,” I say.
“That’s understandable, from his point of view,” Bradon says. “Thank you for giving me a little insight to the new Lord-Consort.”
“Something tells me that I may have said a little too much,” I say.
“That’s because I trained you well. Just not too well,” Bradon says. I chuckle at the comment. He gives me a resigned look.
“What?” I ask.
“I was so looking to having another Bloodclaw as the Hillsborough County lord,” Bradon says. I can’t stop my jaw from dropping. Bradon turns around nonchalantly and walks away. I swear that fucking leech is a fucking telepath. I hope I don’t have to kill him until after we deal with the FCV.