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Elise rolled her eyes to herself. But she did owe Peyton. Unfortunately. “You are such an egoist.”

“Ha! If I’m the reason you got to be out all day without getting in trouble? I’d call that accuracy, not ego, when it comes to me being a god.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

“I bet you can’t wait, either. Buh-bye.”

First stop actually turned out to be Elise’s family’s mansion, and Axe let her go into her father’s house alone. As he waited on her frozen front lawn, he wondered what it would be like to live in a place like that. With servants, and a museum’s worth of stuff, and money, money, everywhere.

He thought of his unheated, dingy cottage.

Had his mother made it happen? he wondered. Had she made it to where she had told his father she wanted to go? Mistress of a house just like this one?

Was she happy—assuming she was alive? Hell … did she ever think of him? Wonder what had happened to the son she had left behind?

As Elise emerged out of the front door, he could tell by the skip in her step that all was well. Her father hadn’t caught on.

“Are you ready?” she asked as she came up to him.

“Always. Everything okay with your father?”

“No problems—and I told him I was meeting Peyton out, with you as an accompaniment, and he was fine with that.”

Axe almost kissed her. But then he remembered that there were probably security cameras all over the outside of the mansion and around the property. Shit, he was still worried whether anyone had seen their little clinch behind the old oak tree the other night.

“Let’s go.” She smiled so widely, he couldn’t help but return the grin a little. “And brace yourself, Peyton thinks he’s a god because he rewired the GPS system on my phone.”

“Oh, yeah. V taught us that—should have thought of it myself. And if that cousin of yours is a god, it’s only because his bong is telling him lies again.”

Axe dematerialized downtown first and checked the alleyway. Then he texted Peyton’s phone, which Elise still had, and told her to come along ahead.

“This feels like a date,” she said as they walked around to the front of the cigar club. “Don’t you think?”

As she took his hand and kept holding it, he frowned. “Are you sure you want to come out of the closet with me, so to speak?”

“I’m all about honesty, right? I have nothing to hide.”

“Once Pandora’s box is opened, you can’t shut it back up.”

“I’m not afraid. Are you?”

He cleared his throat. “Fuck no.”

As they came up to the entrance, Axe held the door open for her. And he had to admit, he wanted Peyton to know that Elise was his and his alone.

“I’m going to take my cues from you,” he muttered after he followed her in.

“Good.” She linked an arm through his. “Let’s do this.”

As they walked back to Peyton’s regular table, Axe was aware that he was blushing like a motherfucker—but hopefully, the dim lighting and the ambient smoke in the air hid the shit well enough. Funny … for as many people as he’d fucked, he’d never been … claimed … before. Never wanted to be, either. And the realization made him like something else about Elise: She always knew where she stood. There was no waffling, no inconsistency, nothing hidden or misrepresented about her.

She was solid as a rock.

And given that he’d had a void for a mother and a ghost for a father?

Okay, wow. Enough with the psychoanalyzing.

Peyton was already at the seating arrangement, holding court with some other vampire males, his casual, Rich Guy suit and open-collar shirt making him seem like exactly what he was: a son of privilege who always got the girl, had the car, led the pack.

And that male’s eyes snapped to where Axe and Elise were linked.

Axe was ready for anything. But what he got, at least in the short term, was nothing much: Peyton just stared over at them and then smiled remotely as Elise broke free and approached him.

The bastard didn’t get up, but made her come to him—which made Axe want to leave the guy spitting teeth and shitting out his lower intestines.

“How great am I?” Peyton said, like he was the fucking Pope or something. “G’on, tell me. Don’t hold back.”

Elise just cocked a brow, took out his phone, and swapped it for her own. “You are amazing. Incredible. And a total blowhard—which, considering how young you are, is really saying something.”

“I’ll just focus on the first two, thank you very much.” Peyton looked at Axe, his tone hardening. “And if it isn’t the man of the hour. The big hero. Sit down and have a drink. Or as you’re working, maybe you should stand in a corner and just watch her, bodyguard.”

Elise froze, but Axe didn’t.

He simply parked it across from the guy and kept his hands out and ready. He didn’t think Peyton would make a direct move, but there clearly had been a lot of alcohol consumed already, and the male was giving off territorial hormones like he had Elise’s certificate of title in his back pocket.

Fucking asshat cocksucker.

Elise crossed her arms over her chest. “I can’t believe you just said that.”

Peyton shrugged. “It’s the truth. He works for your father, doesn’t he. He’s supposed to keep you safe, isn’t he. What exactly do I have wrong here?”

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