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None of which were pleasant.

“So are you okay speaking to me on camera?” the Brother prompted.

“Oh, sorry. Yes, I am.” She cleared her throat. “Did you find out something?”

The Brother leaned forward on the luxurious cushions, his elbows planting on his knees. His hazel stare was direct, but his expression was relaxed—and she wondered whether the latter was on purpose to put her at ease.

Fat chance of that.

“Actually,” he said, “I have a couple of follow-up questions—”

The sound of pounding footfalls cut the Brother off, and those penetrating eyes shifted over to the door he’d closed.

The heavy wooden panel was thrown open and Boone burst into the room like he was prepared to give someone CPR, deliver a baby, and save a litter of puppies. With his face flushed and his body still in rush mode even though he’d arrived at his destination, he took a deep breath. And another.

“SorryImlate.” All one word. And then he inhaled again. “Traffic was hell.”

Helania didn’t mean to laugh. But the giggle came up her throat and flew out of her mouth before she could throw a leash on it. Dollars to donuts, he’d dematerialized from wherever he’d been and the idea he had been in such a fluster-rush to get over here?

Maybe ending their call so abruptly hadn’t offended him too much—

Okay, wow. He was smiling at her.

Dropping her head, she tried not to look like she was blushing. And then she checked him out in her peripheral vision. Well . . . what do you know. The dark hair, the blacked-out clothes, the height and breadth of him . . . were exactly as she remembered. Maybe even better. Maybe . . . even more attractive.

Oh, who was she trying to fool. Everything was definitely better than her memory had painted.

And it wasn’t like she’d pictured him hunchbacked and dragging a foot.

Speaking of which, was he—

“Are you limping?” the Brother demanded.

“Nope.” Boone shut the door. “Not at all.”

As he hobbled forward, she became obsessed with the fact that he clearly had hurt something—and she went so far as to fish into her parka for her phone. Which made no sense. The only number she could call for help was the Brotherhood’s and they were here with a Brother.

Besides, Boone’s health and well-being were not her problem.

On that note, she tried to remind herself that her preoccupation with the male was a symptom of her loneliness—and a red flag. With the number of times she’d replayed their phone call word for word, she was fairly sure she had worn out the grooves in her recollection and that her brain was obligingly filling in the parts that had eroded, the composite of him morphing more into what she wanted to believe of him instead of what was really there. Which was the nature of initial attraction, wasn’t it. That sizzle and shock of awareness tended to be more about what you were seeking than what you actually found.

Except . . . now that he was in the same room with her? Instead of being let down by what he looked like—some off-center part of his nose ruining what she’d assumed was aquiline perfection, a bad cowlick in a weird place making the shape of his head wonky, his shoulders less wide, his chest flatter than her fantasies had projected—she had to force herself not to stare with fixation.

Fortunately, he was talking to the Brother now, apologizing for being late. And the Brother was forgiving him, albeit with a stern tone.

Girl, you need to get yourself together, she thought. Right now.

Focusing on the low-slung table in front of her, she discovered there was a collection of crystal animals on it, the bears and the bunnies and the deer and the squirrels all fat-bodied and round-faced, the firelight coalescing inside the perfectly smooth globes of their bodies and features, making that which was glass seem to be made of water.

Boone’s reflection was in every one, like a kaleidoscope of the male, but it was all a distortion of the real thing, parts of him expanded and compressed by turns.

Was she just lonely and turning him into a fantasy? Although, if you had to ask that question . . .

Helania didn’t want to look at him again.

But she couldn’t fight the impulse.

And wondered what else she would not be able to deny him.

Amazing how knowing someone meant you could read their vibe so well.

For example, as Boone glanced at Butch, he could tell the Brother was annoyed. It was less the expression and more the aura of the male, a bad smell that emanated from him as he sat on the sofa. Was it because of the whole being-late thing? Or the number of texts and calls that had been unanswered as Boone had gone over to the club?

Whatever, it couldn’t possibly be because he was excited to be breathing the same air as Helania and the Brother had picked up on it.

Nah. Boone was super cool. Super chill.

He coughed a little.

“Do you want to take a load off,” Butch said dryly. “Over here with me. On the sofa.”

This was not a suggestion. A hey-wouldja. A how-’bout. It was more do-what-I-say-or-I’ll-break-both-your-legs.

But at least the Brother wasn’t kicking him out. So bonus.

Boone scrambled across the room and threw himself down on the cushions like his ass was putting a brushfire out. He crossed his legs. Uncrossed them. Then played I’m-looking, I’m-not-looking with Helania. He was pretty sure she’d glanced at him when he’d come in, although if she had, she hadn’t stared at him for long.

But what she had done? Smiled at his stupid joke. She had actually laughed a little, too.

In the back of his mind, because he was insane, he decided this meant they were totally compatible and destined to be together forever.

Yup, one lift to her lips and an awkward giggle were totally signs of eternal passion and happiness.

Annnnnnnnd on that note, he had to ease back on his fantasy life.

As she sat in that armchair, wearing normal street clothes, her hair pulled back into a braid, her citrine eyes down on some Baccarat crystal figurines, he had no clue whether she cared he was there. If she had even thought twice about their conversation early that morning. If that smile had been nervousness or actually about him. He couldn’t read her at all.

It was good to remind himself that just because the four minutes they’d had on the phone together had been a game changer for him did not mean that those two hundred and forty seconds had registered in the same way for the other party to the call.

“So the reason we’re here,” Butch said to her in that even tone of his, “is because I’d like you to listen to a previous call into the emergency dispatch number. Will you let me play it for you?”

Helania shifted in the armchair she was sitting in, repositioning the parka in her lap. “All right.”

The Brother pushed a crystal bunny back and put his cell phone face-up by its front paws. A moment later, a voice Boone recognized instantly came out of the speaker.

I—I want to report a death. A murder . . . a killing. At Pyre’s Revyval downtown. It happened the night before last. A female. She—she was found on the lower level by friends. She was taken . . . out of the club by them . . . she was dead . . . Indecipherable sounds. She had been . . . she had been hung by the neck in a storage room and—

Boone’s hand shot out and cut the recording off. “That’s enough.”

As the Brother’s eyes whipped toward him, he shook his head. “She knows what the message said. She doesn’t need to hear it again.”

Over on the armchair, Helania wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed her lids closed, the color in her face draining away until she was pasty white.

Butch took out his spiral notebook. “Was that you?”

Boone had to stop himself from snapping at the Brother. Of course it was her, damn it—and Butch knew that.

“Yes,” she whispered. “It was me.”

As Butch’s phone chimed with a call coming through, the Brother silenced it and made a note for himself. “Can you tell us about what happened that night?”

When Helania did not respond, Butch said, “You’re the only thing we have to go on at this point. In two out of the three deaths down at that club.”

She opened her eyes. “So there were a total of three?”

“Yes. The first was a human, about a year and a half ago. We’re doing what we can to track that down.” Butch’s phone rang again, and he silenced it a second time, slipping the thing into the breast pocket of his sport coat. “I know this is hard, Helania. I know—”

“No,” she said roughly. “You do not know.”

“Then explain it to me.” Butch put his hands together as if he were praying. “Please.”

The quiet that stretched out seemed to last forever. But then Helania opened her mouth—

The knock on the parlor door was loud, a demand.

Butch cursed and got to his feet. “Will you excuse me? I’m going to make this go away.”

As the Brother strode over, you had to pity whoever was outside the room. But that drama wasn’t what Boone was interested in.

Left alone with Helania, he focused on her. “I’m sorry you had to listen to that recording.”

He wanted to take her into his arms. Protect her from anything and everything. But they were strangers.

Butch ducked back into the parlor. “Boone? Could you come over here?”

With a nod, he got to his feet and went across. “What’s up?”

The Brother dropped his voice. “Havers wants me to go to the clinic. A family has come forward with a missing persons on a female fitting the description of our victim. He wants me to handle the possible ID of the remains. We’re going to have to reschedule with Helania—”

“I can talk to her.” He hurried on before the Brother could hell-no him. “I’ll even record the session on my phone. Listen, she’s been through enough. She doesn’t need to come back here just because you don’t trust me to remain professional.”

Butch glanced around Boone’s shoulder. “Okay. But stick to the facts.”