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“Are you fucking kidding me.”

She shrugged. “This is the problem with lying, Axe. You do it once, and the other person has no idea what else you’ve been untruthful about. I come from a family of lies and silence. I can’t go into that shadow world with someone I’m intimate with. Moreover, I won’t do it. I told you in the beginning, honesty is the most important thing—”

“Honesty? You want to talk about honesty? You’ve been sneaking out of your father’s house for how long? And you only came clean about what you were doing when you got caught. You switched phones with your BFF Peyton so no one knew where you were when you were with me. You broke in to your cousin’s fucking apartment.” He jabbed a finger across the tense air at her. “You want to make me out to be an asshole, fine. Have at it. But don’t pretend for an instant that you’re in some holier-than-thou ivory tower. Because that’s bullshit, sweetheart. The only difference is, I’m not judging you and I’m not jumping to conclusions.”

Elise looked toward the dying fire. After a moment, she nodded. “All of that is fair.”

“Thank you for that seal of approval. It means so much to me.”

She got to her feet and laid the cloak aside, placing that fucking key on the folds. “It doesn’t change anything, though. The reality is, I’m not mad at you for sleeping with Novo or going to the club or playing dumb—”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, I am.” She turned to face him. And with the way she was staring at him, he knew without a doubt, this was the last time they were going to be in an enclosed space together. “I’m mad at myself. I’m mad that I didn’t recognize I was addressing an emotional problem concerning my dysfunctional family-of-origin with the distraction of a poorly thought-out physical affair.”

“Yeah, looks like you’ve got it all figured out. You’ve even tagged it with fancy therapy-speak. Good for you.”

Yes, he was being a bitter son of a bitch, but what the fuck else was he supposed to do. Judge, jury, guilty verdict—it was all finished, all wrapped up. And he was going to the death chamber.

Because that’s what life was going to be without her.

Death.

Elise shook her head slowly and put on her coat. “I had no business jumping into anything, with anybody. And like I said, I don’t blame you. You didn’t owe me a thing. It’s not like we had some big conversation about monogamy and then you went out and were with other people. I’ve only known you a week, so … there you go. Lesson learned.”

Axe narrowed his eyes. “And what exactly did you learn?”

“That the only person you can really trust is yourself. And as long as you remember that, you’re going to be okay. No matter what happens.”

As Elise finished saying her piece, she stared across the room at Axe … and felt like she was looking at a stranger.

Which was actually more accurate than the illusion of closeness and intimacy that had been created thanks to the really good sex they’d had together. But come on. The Scribe Virgin, when She created the race, had set things up right. Because pregnancy could be a result of sex, during a time of needing, and young were deadly to bear and hard to raise, the male and female had to reeealllly want to get it on so that the species survived.

Otherwise no one would take the risk. Ever.

So sexual tension and sexual expression were powerful things—and potentially destructive when what made procreation possible for the species was brought to bear in a casual affair between two people who otherwise had no business being together.

Elise was living proof of it.

And yes, she wanted to go into her feelings of hurt, rejection, and betrayal with Axe. She wanted to yell and scream, throw something. Kick him, maybe. But she knew damn well that was a persuasion thing, a negotiation, in addition to a punishment: By revealing more of herself to him instead of less, she was looking for him to do a complete turnaround and become, once again, who she had believed him to be.

But what was the saying? When somebody showed you who they were, you needed to believe them the first time.

Axe’s true colors had come out. But only because he’d slipped up, and gotten caught by a happenstance of facts and circumstance.

Elise had laid Allishon to rest tonight. And now she was putting this … thing … between her and Axe down along with her cousin.

“So that’s all I’ve got,” she told him. “I’m going to go now. I wish you well, and I will not speak of this again to anyone. You do as you wish, however. I don’t need you to protect me. I’m a big girl, and if there’s fallout, I’ll take it.”

Because actually, her situation with him wasn’t the only thing she’d been mulling over as she’d sat here alone and waited for him to come home.

She’d arrived at some other conclusions, too.

“Goodbye, Axe.”

Her body was a little shaky as she approached him, but not because she was afraid of him hurting her or saying something awful: Proximity was just hard … even though her mind had changed gears when it came to him, her corporeal form still wanted his.

That was never happening again, though.

“I think you’re really going into the right field,” he said as he got out of her way.

“I’m sorry, what?”

His eyes shifted over to hers. “You’re going to make a great professor. You excel at one-sided conversations and you have all the answers. You’ve given me an F, kicked me out of the class, and you’re ready for the next student. And you feel terrific about it.”

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