Her good mood only lasted a few blocks. By then, she was out in the sun with the warmth sinking into her skin and fresh air blowing against her. It wasn’t so bad.
They walked side-by-side along the sidewalk, moving with the easy grace that partners of ten years had. Their relationship was purely professional. They worked on cases together and then drifted apart. Mudd had never approached her like this, which worried her. Was he trying something else? Did he know that she and Ravin were no longer together? The discomfort crawled up and down her spine.
Mudd stopped at a small outdoor cafe off of a minor street. He pushed open the cast iron gate and gestured for her to enter the fenced-in area and toward a table in the sunlight.
“What is this?”
“I’m not—” Her stomach gurgled. She tightened her jaw. “I’m not hungry.”
“I know, but at least a coffee. Then we can address my request.”
“I didn’t bring my wallet.”
“I’m fully aware of this. I’m paying; you are not.” He led her to a large empty table and sat down at the end. He gestured for her to sit next to him, around the corner.
Viola sat down on the warm metal seat. “Mudd, what are you doing?”
He looked at her, his face still serious. “I’m paying for lunch.”
Mudd stared at her. The seconds stretched out, the tension increasing.
Then a waiter came up. “How may I help you?”
Mudd carefully pushed the stack of menus away from the waiter and himself before addressing Viola. “Order?”
“Um, just a black tea with two sugars.”
“And you, Sir?”
“An omelet, belly pork and greens and onions. And then an order of steak and pancakes, extra butter with a side of strawberry preserves.”
Viola’s stomach rumbled. She loved steak and strawberries.
The waiter wrote down the order and then held out his hand for the menus.
Mudd pushed them further away.
A flash of annoyance crossed the waiter’s face. Then he turned and left.
“Mudd, I said I wasn’t hungry.”
“Oh? Did I order for you?”
“Yes!” She smacked the table.
“It must have been a mistake. No matter, I’ll eat it later.”
Viola glared at him. “You don’t like steak and you don’t like preserves.”
He shrugged. “Then it was a mistake. No matter.” His monotone voice didn’t waver.
She knew he ordered for her, but she wasn’t going to give him the comfort of knowing that it sounded good already. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine, we ordered, what do you need me to do?”
“We should eat.”
“No,” Viola pointed at him sharply. “Stop stalling, what? Why?”
Mudd suddenly smiled. “Because you are my partner.”
“You need a break.”
She started to speak but he silenced her by holding up a finger.
“No, you need a break from yourself. The observations I made worried me and I was concerned for you.”
“Just because I was sick for a week?”
His eyes hardened. “You called in sick but you were not sick. Judging from the events you had planned that night, your lack of response, the way you had failed to hang up your dress, and the advanced state of decay of delivered food, I suspect events went poorly.”
A memory rose up, one of Ravin calling her an “overly controlling queen” before storming out of the play. He had left her standing in the middle of the seats with everyone staring at her. The actors had to stop due to the disruption of him trying to force his way past the ushers. She felt sick for a moment and she shook her head to clear it.
Mudd continued, “I will not discuss it unless you ask, nor will I let the others do so until you are ready. But you are my partner and remaining in bed for five days eating fatty foods is not the best way to remain healthy or sane.”
“So you decided to drag me out of my apartment?”
“Yes, for fresh air, healthy food, and the brief company of your friends.”
He grinned briefly, a smile that crossed his face before disappearing. “In addition, if you choose, I will hire cleaners to work on the mess of your place to prevent you from being overwhelmed with the clutter.”
Viola frowned for a moment and then sighed. “When?”
“They can start now, if you wish. By the time we are done with lunch, they can have your place in a much cleaner state.”
“And you’ve vetted them to work around mages?”
“They are bonded. They also clean my house during working hours. They understand a mage’s need for order.”
She wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. The idea of having clean sheets or at least less rotting food was appealing. “Thank you. I would like that.”