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Thinking of herself in front of the door to Allishon’s apartment, Elise wondered if maybe she shouldn’t heed her own advice.

“Axe, you might just want to consider the radical idea that your mother didn’t leave because of you or your father. She left because of herself. She deserted both of you because of some failing she had. Or maybe it was that she and your father weren’t compatible. Or … maybe she fell in love with someone else. There are a whole host of reasons why relationships fail. But one thing I know for sure? No child, no matter how they behave, is responsible for keeping their parents together or in a healthy relationship. That’s up to the grown-ups. That’s their job.”

He was quiet for a long time. Then he got up, wrapped a blanket around his waist, and stood over her.

Shit, she thought.

She should have known better than to try and act like his therapist. It wasn’t what anyone needed in a personal relationship, for one thing. For another, she wasn’t trained as a shrink.

Just because you took psych classes, as he’d said, didn’t mean you were qualified to tell people how to frame their lives.

“I’m sorry,” she said sadly as she, too, stood up. “I’ll go—I shouldn’t have let my mouth get ahead of me. I’ll just grab my clothes from upstairs in the bathroom.”

FORTY

As Elise got to her feet, still wrapped in the blanket Axe had given her, he couldn’t find the words he wanted to say.

“God, I’m so pissed at myself,” she muttered as she turned away. “And I’m leaving before—”

He caught her arm. “I don’t want you to go.”

Looking over her shoulder, she seemed dumbfounded. “But—”

“I want to …” He cleared his throat. “I want to show you something.”

Taking her hand, he led her past the stairs, into the kitchen, and over to the cellar door. On so many levels, he couldn’t believe what he was doing. Couldn’t believe what he’d said. Really, totally couldn’t believe that she didn’t seem horrified in the slightest.

She also didn’t seem to judge him at all.

And all of that made him want to go deeper into his past with her.

Even though that made no sense.

Opening the cellar door, he kindled the lantern he’d left at the head of the stairs and then led her on a descent down the wooden steps. As the yellow glow fanned out at the bottom, she gasped.

“He did all this? Your father?”

She let go of his hand and walked forward to the shelves of finished figurines. “These are … incredible.”

Axe hung back, aware that, as she inspected the woodland creatures his father had excised—or maybe exacerbated—his grief with, Axe was showing her a part of himself.

“He was an artist,” he heard himself say. “A master. And yet he wasted it all just pining away for her.”

“Is that why you never got mated?” she murmured as her slender hand cradled a rabbit that was up on its haunches with ears pricked. “Are you always worried that the female will leave you and you’ll do what he did?”

“I don’t …” Axe shrugged even though she wasn’t looking at him. “I don’t think about it a lot.”

Coward, he said to himself. And what a liar he was.

That was exactly the reason. Well, that … and he’d never met the likes of her before.

Putting the woodland rabbit back next to a deer and a raccoon, Elise came over to him, moving in that lovely way she did. As she put her hands on his upper arms, he jumped at the contact, but didn’t step away.

“I’m not going to try to fix you, Axe. That’s not my business. But if I think you’re off base, I’m going to tell you and then you can do with it what you will. No judgment.”

“Well, you know all my dark secrets now.”

“And I’m still here, aren’t I.”

He reached up to brush her cheek and wasn’t surprised that his hand was shaking. “You scare the shit out of me, female.”

He’d rather face a thousand lessers than her in a blanket, standing in front of his father’s wall of misery. And yet he wasn’t leaving. And he sure as fuck wasn’t going to tell her to go.

“Intimacy is scary,” she said as she stroked down his arms, soothing him. “If you let people in, they can hurt you. In fact, in your case, that’s what you grew up believing was a natural consequence of loving someone. They fail you. You fail them. And everything falls apart. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Axe put his hands on her waist and brought her up against his body. As he stared into her blue eyes, he whispered, “I lied.”

“About what?”

“I’m flat-out terrified of you.”

She shook her head. “You can trust me. I’m not going to desert you.”

Axe kissed her mouth. Because he wanted to. And because he desperately wanted to stop the conversation. “Come on, let’s get out of here. It’s cold.”

More to the point, he had this superstitious fear that maybe his parents’ bad road was something the two of them could catch. A relationship virus or something.

Back upstairs, he hurried her into the living room. The sun was coming up soon, and the heaviest drapes were in there.

Damn, he’d never given it much thought before, but he didn’t feel safe with her here during the day. He wanted them behind steel doors, so sheltered underground from the sun that it was as if that big, glowing death orb didn’t exist.

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