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Was he wrong about Novo? About females in general?

Maybe he just needed to have sex with that hard-ass female.

The instant the thought hit him, he started to get hard—and this was not a surprise. He’d been attracted to her since day one.

Paradise, though, was who had his heart—not that she was even a remote possibility with Craeg around. Which sucked. It was just … well, they’d developed a real bond during the raids, during all those phone calls when they had both been in their safe houses outside of Caldwell, isolated from everyone but their immediate families.

He trusted her in ways he didn’t anyone else.

And he was attached to her in ways he wasn’t with anybody else—

The knock that sounded out on his door was quiet, too quiet to be the butler—or that nurse who had forearms like Popeye and seemed to enjoy manhandling him around when she changed the dressing on his head.

“Come in—” He sat up as he saw who it was. “Elise, hey, girl. What are you doing here—what’s wrong.”

The female didn’t answer him. Hell, she didn’t seem capable of speech. She just shut the door behind her and stood there, ashen and shaky.

His first thought was that Axe had done something to her.

And his second was that if that fucking asshole had? Head injury or not, Peyton was going to castrate the bastard.

“Come here,” he said, patting the bed next to him. “What can I do?”

But she paced around, and it was a while before she spoke. “You told me … back in the beginning …”

“What did I tell you?” he prompted gently. “Keep talking to me.”

“About Axe … that I didn’t really know him.”

Motherfucker. “Yes, I did. What’s going on?”

She put her hand into the pocket of her coat and took out an object. As soon as he saw it properly, he frowned. “What are you doing with one of those?”

“You know what this is?”

“Yeah, it’s a pass to that sex club downtown. The Keys. I’m not a member, but I’ve seen them every once in a while. Allishon had at least one—I asked her what it was once.”

“This is not hers.” Elise stared at the thing. “But I went to her apartment tonight. I just had to—Axe was with me. When I found the one that was hers, he said he didn’t know what it was.”

“So whose is that one?” Peyton had already guessed, but he wanted her to have to say it.

“Axe’s.”

“So he lied to you.”

“Yes.” She shook her head. “I found his, by mistake. It was in the pocket of this cloak. I found a mask of a skull, too. They’re both his. I could smell his scent on them—and it’s fresh.”

As she stopped talking and stared across at him, Peyton realized he was at a crossroads with her, and it was funny. After getting slapped with Novo’s little asshole label, he wasn’t going to enjoy being honest if that was what Elise wanted—

“I want you to be honest with me.”

Shit. “Okay.”

“Did you disapprove of him because he’s a civilian, because he likes hardcore sex, or … because of something else?”

Noting her past tense, he fell silent—although things were far from quiet in his head: All he could hear was Novo’s voice in his ear, railing on his double standards about males and females. About judging the two sexes differently.

And what do you know, lightning kind of struck Marblehead: If he thought females who slept around were sluts … that meant it was the female’s fault that he himself was sexually promiscuous and kind of cruel when it came to the opposite sex. After all, if fucking was okay for males, but not females, then no matter how many people he banged without feeling, no matter how many hearts he trampled, nobody could hold him accountable.

’Cuz he was a male.

It was the ultimate unassailable justification for being an asshole.

Peyton closed his eyes and rested his head back against his downy soft pillows. All things considered, given that he had been shot in the noggin the night before, he could have done without that flash of insight.

Mostly because the OxyContin, no matter how good it was at erasing his physical pain, didn’t touch the emotional burn in the center of his chest.

The one that informed him he was not a nice guy. In spite of his looks. His money. His breeding.

Novo was right … he was an asshole.

“Damn it,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t put you in this position—”

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. You’re fine.”

Bullshit. She was an emotional wreck and he was starting to feel like he was having an identity crisis.

“I should go—”

“No,” he said sharply, and opened his eyes. “Look, I don’t want to get in the middle of you two. I did last night and it nearly got us all killed—and even though there aren’t any lessers around right now and nobody is armed, I just … I’m going to try and not be such a judgmental dickhead.”

He was going to have to apologize to Axe, too.

“Novo … is that female who fought with us last night. Isn’t that right?” Elise asked.

Peyton nodded. “Yeah. Why?”

“I’d forgotten her name. But you introduced her that first evening I met everyone at the cigar bar.”

“Yeah.”

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