The smell of food hit Roehn’s nose the second Arcylaen opened the back alley door to the restaurant. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled, even as her curiosity piqued. If he hadn’t roped Daelyn into cooking for them again, then why did it smell so delicious in the gutted space? Her answer awaited atop a table set for two situated in front of the bar and a pang of guilt struck her for dragging her feet out of the museum…yet again.
“You planned this?” she asked, though it was quite obvious he had.
Rather than answer, he pulled her into his arms and feasted on her mouth with a kiss that rendered the food irrelevant. The Dragon was hungry for something else entirely, and Roehn’s desire rose to greet his.
“Mmm, I’ve been looking forward to doing that for hours,” he moaned, tasting her lips with softer nips, before stepping back.
Roehn tried not to sulk, her mouth still tingling for more, when he led her to the table and pulled a chair out for her. She eyed the tall easel draped with a cover standing on the other side of his chair, aimed perfectly for her seated view.
“Is that my surprise?” she asked.
“No.” He rubbed his hands together and gave her that hesitant look of hope again. “It’s more like a presentation.”
He removed the material and stepped back so she could see. Roehn gasped with a big smile, delighted. It was a large colorful print of what the restaurant would look like once it was completely remodeled. Only, it didn’t appear to be just a restaurant anymore. There turned out to be a whole stack of prints and as Arcylaen showed her each one, she marveled at the differences between the building they currently sat in, and his vision for its future.
The false wall would be removed, combining the two spaces into one giant venue. Half of where the dining area was now would be a nice lobby, complete with a coat check station and ticket counter, refurbished and expanded restrooms. The kitchen would get moved and somewhat expanded into the other half with upgraded appliances, hidden by a longer, sleeker and modernized bar that faced the new dining area surrounding a giant stage, which filled the entire back end of the secret room. The alleyway door would enter behind it, into those areas the audience would never get to see.
“A theater?” she asked.
He shook his head, his gaze intense, and Roehn had a feeling she was about to get her surprise. “A comedy club.”
“Really?” she beamed, the idea automatically clicking with her. “Arcylaen, that’s even better than I imagined!”
She watched relief and enthusiasm replace the hesitant hope in his eyes. “Out of all the ideas we tossed around, this was the one that grabbed me with certainty,” he told her. “This neighborhood needs laughter. A lot of laughter. And, look–”
He flipped through a couple more cards and pointed to one that showed the outside. “We can sacrifice this corner building that used to be a hardware store and put in a parking garage. The next idea is what I have in mind for the apartments across the street,” he continued. “I want to keep their historic façades intact, but open them up inside to turn them into a hotel.”
“Wait, you bought the apartments, too?” Roehn sputtered.
“No, sorry. I’m jumping ahead,” he chuckled and put all the prints back in place, before joining her at the table. His eyes were all but shimmering with his excitement when he continued. “I’m working on devising a charity based foundation called the Home Again Project, where anyone who feels the same way we do, can volunteer their time, materials or donate money toward rebuilding these neighborhoods in our cities that need to be reclaimed from the terror and haunted memories.”
Roehn’s smile, which hadn’t fully left yet, spread again. “That can belong to the people again,” she said, the idea overwhelming her with unexpected emotion. “That can be their home again.”
“Exactly,” he reciprocated. “We’ll break each area down into multiple projects and people can choose which one they’d like to help, or they can donate to more than one. There will also be an option for people to purchase the projects after they’re completed, as long as the original purpose isn’t altered. So, say after we get the hotel up and running, someone can buy it, as long as they keep it a hotel. They can change the name and décor all they like, but they can’t turn it into a department store.”
“Can you have that kind of stipulation in place, legally?” Roehn asked.
“Yes, through the zoning permits, the business types can be fairly well set in stone,” he nodded. “And that would protect the overall positive atmosphere we hope to accomplish with the refurbishments. No city is ever going to be without its bad parts, but these places have seen too much bad. The only way we’re ever going to draw in the kind of revenue needed to change that, is if people want to come back to them.”
“Do you think they will?” she asked, worried that his plans, no matter how amazing they were, might be doomed to fail before they even began.
“Yes, I really do,” he answered. “I think there are enough people out there that feel it would be the best kind of justice, reclaiming these places that were taken away from them, and that’s a strong motivator.”
“Especially with you as the spokesman for the foundation, because let’s face it, you could motivate a boulder to roll up hill,” Roehn pointed out.
Arcylaen laughed with a shake of his head, but his gaze held hers. “That’s all your doing, Leandra. You’re the one who inspired me.”
Though she blushed, Roehn crinkled her nose. “I think you give me too much credit.”
“Let’s not argue, it’s time for your surprise,” he said, before she could do just that.
“I thought the comedy club was my surprise,” she replied, wondering what in the world could be better.
“Kind of, but this was what I really wanted to surprise you with,” Arcylaen smiled, lifting the domes off their plates at last. “A Meivenese specialty which I cannot even begin to pronounce.”
Roehn’s mouth opened on a surprised exhale at the sight of the familiar spiced and caramelized vegetables and broiled, almost raw meat drizzled with a tangy fruit sauce filling her plate. Like an idiot, her eyes misted over. You’d think he’d have given her flowers or jewelry from the way a sweet, almost achy feeling spread through her chest.
“Lereauxa,” she laughed, dumbfounded. “This is one of my favorite dishes. How did you know?”
He shrugged. “I just picked the most popular one I could get my hands on with short notice,” he chuckled.
“Thank you.” Roehn smiled, not knowing what else to say.
It seemed to be the right thing, since he reached across the table and linked his fingers with hers. They both dug into their meals, while he continued filling her in on all of the ideas that he and the other Draeas had been tossing around since before they’d even purchased the restaurant. Roehn wondered how he could be so blind to his own importance. How he was unable to see how perfect he was for the Dragon’s Head position and how much more good he’d be able to do if he’d just made that official already.
Now, they had to fight for it, and the uncertainty of their odds was an uncomfortable feeling. She didn’t want to ruin their very pleasant lunch, though, so let those thoughts stew for the time being. Tonight, when they weren’t so pressed for time, he’d be fair game.
After the conversation about the projects wrapped up, Arcylaen’s gaze turned a little smoky and he popped another caramelized pepper into his mouth. “Have you given any thought to what I said this morning?”
She almost scoffed. How could she not think about it? He wanted her in his bed. Wanted her to give up the last shred of privacy she had in their unfortunate bond, yet Roehn couldn’t deny how much she wanted it, too. Not to lose anything else, but to gain all the pleasures it would open up between them. Sex, yes, for the heavens, they were already on their way to that and fast, but there were other pleasures to be found while sharing a bed with someone. Comfort, companionship, all the little things outside of sex that Roehn had never experienced with anyone so had no idea how they would really feel, yet longed for them all the same. With him. That was the kicker. It had taken a Dragon to make her yearn for things no other man ever had.
“You said a lot of things this morning,” she pointed out with a playful smirk, because she was still unsure of what the night might bring.
Confidence seemed to radiate from him when he flashed a wicked smile, but he was merciful and changed the subject again. Let her off easy with a smoldering reminder. Roehn suspected he might be leery of pushing her too fast too soon, even though she’d been all but begging for it when he’d made that confession in her bed. When she’d been cursing the poor timing of his gentlemanly ways.
Ugh, sometimes trying to figure him out was like trying to dance when she didn’t know any of the steps!
After they cleaned up their lunch mess, Arcylaen gathered all the prints into a kind of portfolio case. Roehn felt the resurgence of her previous awe from when he’d unveiled the prints to her and explained about the Home Again Project. So, when he helped her back into her suit jacket, she followed her instinct and turned into him. Wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him simply because it felt right and she wanted to. Caught off guard, he was slow to return her embrace.
“I feel like I just won a prize or something,” he teased, sounding confused.
“Keep doing what you’re doing and maybe you will,” she smiled with unbidden innuendo. “And as much as you hate the entire subject, Arcylaen, I just want you to know that this, right here, is proof that you’re already the best candidate to lead Skaulling into a better future. You can try to credit me for inspiring you, but these ideas and you acting on them, that’s all you. Arcylaen Draea, not any other Head Dragon of any other Dragon House.”
She tapped her fingers on the portfolio case and gave him a quick kiss, before heading for the door, needing to get away, before she made a complete mushy fool of herself. Roehn was uncomfortable with her feelings and he could’ve been a total Dragon about it, like he’d been at the Gala, but he laced his fingers with hers and didn’t say a word. The ride back to the museum was spent in comfortable silence, if you didn’t count the contented purring from Shursja–which seemed to be a regular part of the ambiance now–and the equally contented smile on Arcylaen’s face, because Roehn was bothered. And he liked her bothered.
And she almost adored that he liked her bothered.
His sigh was almost inaudible, when Ilydan pulled up to the curb and the first thing they saw was the Hawk standing by, waiting.
“Give…” He swore under his breath and released a growl. “Kiss me?”
Roehn couldn’t stop from chuckling, even though she gave him a sympathetic look and leaned in to press her lips to his. His hand cupped the back of her neck and held her there, taking the kiss much deeper than she’d planned. Yet, it wasn’t jealousy she felt emanating from him, it was something else. When he rested his forehead to hers and brushed a thumb over her cheek, she had a strange feeling it had to do with her little speech at the end of their lunch.
To her surprise, he climbed out of the car behind her, but before she could ask why, he motioned for Rynd to join him a few feet away. Pleased, Roehn gave Arcylaen a bright smile over her shoulder, then jogged up the stairs and rushed to the staff room to clock back in.
Ten minutes later, Rynd found her back in the archive room, and without a word, leaned in and placed a kiss on her cheek.
“What was that for?” she blinked in surprise.
“You know what it was for,” he smirked, as he continued past her. “And I trust you won’t tell him about it, because I don’t think you want a different bodyguard. I think you like me, puss puss.”
Roehn snorted out a laugh. “I was going to say you’re welcome, but I’ve changed my mind now.”
With a chuckle, he disappeared to his corner to let her work, but neither of them seemed to find the silence troubling or brood-worthy this time around.
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