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Ruhn seemed nonplussed. “Ah …”

Vishous spoke up. “Wrath has to approve this. The security check’s done, but the King is going to need to weigh in on it.”

“It’ll be fine.” Rhage jacked up his leathers. “It’s gonna be great—”

Ruhn rubbed his forehead like it hurt. “Wait, I’m grateful and all. But why would you do this? I’m nothing to you. I’m a nobody.”

“Bullshit,” Rhage said. “You’re family.”

FORTY-NINE

Well, that was fun, Axe thought as he finally got off the bus with Novo, Boone, Paradise, and Craeg. The meeting had gone on forever, new procedures being put in place for them entering the field downtown, new weapons being fitted for and ordered, reviews of defensive practices drilled into their heads until he’d wanted to scream.

But at least the Brothers weren’t stepping back from having the trainees engage with the enemy. Not at all.

The good news? Now he got to rush home to Elise.

After a quick goodbye over his shoulder, Axe went ghost and then materialized on his front lawn. Smelling the burning fire and sensing her presence, he smiled.

It was amazing how much someone could bring to your life. Fill you out on the inside. Make you feel stronger and more peaceful at the same time.

He climbed the front steps, knocked on the door, and was so ready to have her answer it …

When nothing happened, he frowned. Knocked again. Then took out a set of keys he hadn’t though he’d need to use. Opening the way up, he—

The first thing he noticed was that Elise wasn’t sitting in front of the fireplace, on the blankets where they made love.

She was on the sofa, almost out of reach of the heat.

The second thing he tweaked to was … that she had the cloak he wore to The Keys in her lap.

Axe closed the door slowly.

As she looked over at him, she met his eyes calmly. But her face was shut down, no emotion showing at all, no life in her eyes or her expression.

“What’s up,” he said, keeping his voice level.

Crossing his arms, he leaned back against the door. In his head, a litany of She’s leaving you, she knows, she’s leaving you, she knows … you’re going to be just like your father … started up, a bad chorus that was off-key, off-tempo, and the kind of thing that was going to make him mental.

“So I found this,” she said, running her hands over the black folds. “And I found what’s in it. The mask … and the key.”

Boom, boom, boom, boom—

For a split second, he looked over his shoulder, thinking that that sound must be someone beating on the kitchen door to get into the cottage.

Nope. It was his heart.

“I, ah, I’ve been sitting here, thinking, for hours.” She scratched the base of her nose. “Running through things to say to you in my head. Questions to ask you—like how could you possibly stand in front of me at Allishon’s and pretend you didn’t know what I’d found there. How could you lie to me—”

She stopped as her voice got higher and more urgent, and seemed to re-collect herself.

“So I went to Peyton’s, right after I found your key … found that you’d lied to me.”

“Great,” he muttered. He could only imagine how the guy had enjoyed fucking him up the ass with all kinds of—

“He wouldn’t go into it with me. He didn’t really say anything. And I respect him for staying out of this. I shouldn’t have put him in that position in the first place. But I didn’t know where else to go, and sometimes, when people are emotional, they don’t make the best choices.”

Axe waited, knowing that the hammer was about to fall—and it did.

“And I guess … that’s my conclusion.” She motioned between the two of them. “The night I met you, I’d decided to date Troy. It was as random a decision as they come. What I realize now is that what happened to Allishon and the stress in my household were eroding parts of me that I was unaware of becoming weak. I was flailing around, looking for an outlet—and then I met you. I threw myself into this—whatever it was—between us, headlong and out of control.”

Annnnd there it was, he thought. Past tense.

Was. Not is.

“At the end of the day,” she concluded, “you don’t owe me anything. We’re not in a relationship. The fact that you had sex with Novo at that club and then came home and were with me—”

“Wait, say what?” he barked. “When did this happen? If you’re going to rewrite history, at least give me a timeline so I can keep up here.”

Elise shot him a bored look. “You took her to the club. Two nights ago. And don’t pretend you didn’t. I was right here when she called and you wanted to make sure she was home safe. At the time, I didn’t put two and two together, because I didn’t remember the name of the female who was with you the night we met.”

“I didn’t have sex with her. That night, or any other.”

“Maybe that’s true. But I can’t believe you. I can’t believe anything you tell me. You didn’t even correct me when I said she was ‘he.’ You lied to me about knowing what the key was at Allishon’s. How will I ever know if you’re being truthful?”

Axe laughed in a hard burst. “I told you shit I haven’t told anybody.”

“Did you? Or was that an act to get my sympathy, falsely gain my trust?”

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