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And even then, Axe was on a hair trigger. Natch.

As he got out, he looked around at a dim, industrial interior that smelled like oil, gas, and old metal—and tried to pretend he wasn’t losing his fucking mind.

He couldn’t believe that not only had Elise gotten ambushed with the rest of them, but that she had discharged about a pound and a half of lead into a lesser who had a gun—and worse, it was all his own fucking fault. If he and Peyton hadn’t been going at it, playing dick toss in that bar, the three of them, and then Novo, and then Rhage, never would have ended up outside, exposed, and wrong-place-wrong-timing it with all those slayers.

And yeah, then her fucking cousin, Peyton the Golden Boy, never would have gotten popped in the head. Plus, what if Rhage didn’t get out of that human cluster-fuck okay? What if the cops got him or another lesser or—

That open-ended nightmare was solved when a side door got thrown wide and the stench of vampire blood and lesser death wafted in.

“How is Peyton?” the Brother Rhage said as he came into the light thrown by the surgical unit. “And what do I need to do to help.”

As Rhage passed by, he clapped Axe on the shoulder in acknowledgment, but focused on Dr. Manello, who had laid Peyton out on the operating table and was hooking up all kinds of shit to him. Before there were any answers, Doc Jane came in through that same door. She was in surgical scrubs, just like Manello, and she was not interested in anyone other than her patient.

Inside the van, Novo was standing against the far wall with her arms crossed over her chest and her head down. Blood was dripping off her chin. She’d been cut there. Also on the forearm.

Someone’s phone started to ring.

“That’s me,” Elise said next to him.

Snapping to attention, Axe put his arm around her as she fumbled with the thing and put it up to her ear.

“Troy? No, I’m so sorry, I can’t talk right now. Tomorrow? Sure. What? Well … I’ve got … a friend who’s in trouble. We’re at the ER right now. No, it’ll be fine. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”

She hung up and leaned against him as if the interruption had never happened. Which made it less likely he’d stalk across Caldwell to find her professor and black-eye him on principle.

Okay, fine. He wouldn’t do that. At least not in a world outside of his jealous streak.

And why the fuck was he thinking like this right now?

“Is he going to be all right?” Elise asked nobody in particular.

“We just have to wait,” Axe heard himself reply. “We just have to pray.”

After all, he didn’t particularly like Peyton, but that didn’t mean he wanted the bastard to go brain dead or into an early grave. Especially if Elise was even tangentially involved.

After a little while, Rhage ducked his head out of the SUV. “Listen, I want you two to head home. There’s nothing you can do here. We’ll let you know what happens with him, okay?”

“Is he …” Elise just let the sentence drift as if she recognized its futility.

“We’ll do everything we can for him.” Rhage looked over at Axe. “You were a huge asset again, son.”

“It’s my fault.”

“How you figure that? You send up a flare or some shit? Put an ad in Craigslist for your buddy to get shot in the head? Don’t think so. G’on now, get her home and you do the same.” Rhage then met Elise’s eyes. “And you were amazing. You really showed up when you had to.”

“I don’t know how to shoot a gun,” she mumbled. “I’ve never shot one before.”

“Well, you have now. And I’m sorry you had to learn the skill.”

With his head thumping, Axe led her over to the door and opened the way out. He stepped through first, and as he glanced around, he saw that they were close to the river under the bridges, the highway elevated up on pylons, the sound of the occasional car and truck above echoing around.

“You go now,” he said to her. “And I’m right behind you. To your house.”

She nodded in a way that broke his heart. And then she closed her eyes.

It took her at least a minute, maybe two, to ghost out.

And then he was on her tail, traveling through the cold night in a loose collection of molecules that seemed to represent better who he was as opposed to the more organized, corporeal version of himself.

Scattered was his very definition.

When he re-formed, it was right beside her, something made possible because of the blood they’d shared.

As she took his hand and started for the front door, he pulled her to a stop. “You have blood on your clothes. Is there a back way we can use?”

Elise looked down at herself like she had forgotten what clothes were at all, much less what she was currently wearing and what condition it was in.

“Funny,” she whispered. “This was how it all started.”

“I’m sorry?”

She looked up at him. “With you. I walked into the house through the front door by mistake and that’s how my father saw me. And if I hadn’t done that … I never would have met you.”

Yeah, and how’s it working for you, he thought grimly. You shot a lesser, nearly got killed yourself, and you’re covered with the stains of war.

“Tell me where the back door is,” he said in a grim voice. “And I’ll take us in.”

There was nothing Rhage could do.

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