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He thought back to him and Axe and the others out on the streets the previous evening, working the blocks of abandoned buildings, instincts prickling, weapons up and ready to go, Brothers with them.

It was a new phase.

They were now not trainees, really. More like soldiers in training. If that made sense.

And Axe always kept it on the DL, never giving a hint of emotion away about anything, strung tight as a piano wire around someone’s throat. But man, you could tell he was hurting. He’d lost weight. The bags under his eyes were so big you could have packed for overnight in ’em. And the grim mood was a tangible weight he brought with him into every room, every alley, every bus ride to and from.

It didn’t take a genius to realize Elise was in no better straits. Peyton had seen what she’d looked like when she’d come to him.

Time and the breakup surely was not improving that.

Shit, he thought as he rubbed his face. Just … shit.

His phone rang. For like the fiftieth time. Another random calling to get him to come out.

When he finally picked up his phone, he went into his contacts and dialed a number he’d only phoned once before.

One ring. Two rings. Three—

“Hello?”

He cleared his throat. “Novo? Look—don’t hang up, okay?” There was a pause. “Hello?”

“What?”

“Listen, I need you to do me a favor.”

“Unless it involves hitting you somewhere with a frying pan, I’m not sure I’m interested.”

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing with you.”

He flexed his LV loafers. “I need your help.”

“If you’re looking for a personality replacement, try eBay. You won’t have to be too picky. Anything but Serial Killer would be an improvement.”

Peyton stared at the blank, dark screen of his TV.

“Hello?” she said.

“I need you to help me right a wrong. And I’m not fucking with you, I really … I can’t do this alone.”

Something in his voice or … he didn’t know what … must have gotten through to her. “Are you drunk?”

“No, and I’m not high, either.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “Fuck me, maybe it’s part of my problem. But I need to fix this first and then … yeah, whatever.”

“Where are you?”

“My house.”

“Go down and open your front door.” She sounded annoyed. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Peyton left his phone behind. Frankly, he was sick to death of the people in it. And as he went to leave his suite, he passed by a mirror. Checking out his reflection, he saw the same features, same hair, same good looks he had every night of his life.

And yet he didn’t recognize himself.

Maybe that bullet had given him brain damage, he thought as he opened the door and stepped out.

’Cuz he hadn’t felt right ever since he’d been shot in the head.

Elise was sitting at her computer, combing the “Apartments for Rent” section of the Caldwell Courier Journal online, when the house phone rang beside her little Tiffany lamp.

Picking the receiver up, she listened to the butler tell her she had guests and that they were waiting for her in the parlor. “Thank you. I’ll be right down.”

As she hung up, it dawned on her that she hadn’t even asked who they were. But she didn’t really care. Could be cousins. Or, hell, an intervention set up by her father to scare her straight.

But she wasn’t afraid of even that. If she could get through losing Axe, she could get through anything.

Heading out of her room, she walked down the hall, passing by Allishon’s old suite. Nothing had changed. Her uncle was still floating around, trying to find his footing, while his shellan self-destructed in their bedroom. Her father still didn’t understand why Elise had to go, what she was doing getting her Ph.D., why she insisted on being such an iconoclast.

Everything would be okay, he had maintained, if she would just settle down and stop trying to talk about things that simply didn’t need to be discussed.

To his credit, he wasn’t telling her he would never see her again.

But he was sad that she was breaking away.

And so was she. She was going to miss the family she had been raised in, even if it was so broken that her only chance of living an authentic, halfway self-aware life was outside of it. You couldn’t change others, though. Only yourself.

On that note, she hadn’t heard from Axe.

She hadn’t expected to.

She was surprised she missed him as much as she did, though. Was frustrated by that, actually. The trouble was, the high points of their … whatever it was … had been so high that in quiet moments of reflection, it was impossible not to remember them and mourn.

It was a process, though.

Or at least that’s what all her fancy schooling had taught her.

And part of what was going to help her through her grief was that her and Troy’s seminar started in a couple of days.

She was going to make it.

Because she wasn’t going to have it any other way.

Downstairs, Elise crossed the foyer’s marble squares and went over to the parlor—but before she entered the pretty room, she halted.

“Peyton? And …”

Okay, it was hard to say the female’s name. Hard to look at that incredible body that just seemed to ooze sex appeal.

“You have a minute?” Peyton said. “We need to talk to you?”

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