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“He did, though.”

“What if you hadn’t let me in the door?”

“I did, though.”

“But what if you didn’t believe me—”

He put his forefinger gently on her lips, stopping her ramble. “So I’m thinking right now about something Rhage said to me a while ago.”

“Was it about professors being idiots in their own subject matter?”

“You’re not an idiot. And no, it was about … well, that night I saved him in the alley? Afterward? I was freaking out just like you are now. I was all, like, what if I didn’t make it in time, or what if this, or that … and he said something about there being no reason to beat yourself up over something that was fated to occur. On that theory? Even if Peyton hadn’t said something, we would have ended up back together because that just is what’s supposed to happen.”

“But … but …”

“Elise. Don’t you understand? My door was always going to be open to you. It is always going to be open to you.”

And then he was kissing her, and laying her out in front of the fire.

Elise was soaring with him even before she was naked, her heart free, the tangle untangled, the path astray now back on course.

Just before they were joined, she inched back. “So your door is always open, huh?”

“Always.”

“Really …” She smiled at him, thinking if she were any happier, her heart would burst. “Because I happen to be moving out of my house.”

His brows lifted. “You are? You don’t say.…”

“It makes me sad, but it’s just not the right place for me.”

“You know … I could use a roommate. In fact, I was just thinking I was looking for a beautiful, intelligent female who’s good with a comeback and a gun.”

Elise started to nod. “And I’m looking for a place to stay that’s safe, secure, private … heated by an open hearth—and that has fireworks every night thanks to a guy who has tattooed half of himself and doesn’t mind females who jump to conclusions.”

“I’d say we’re a perfect match, then.”

On that note, he arched his back and filled her deeply. And as she gasped, he gave the knowing smile of a male was who well aware of the effect he had on his female.

“We are a perfect match,” she moaned. “But there’s just one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t …” She glanced at the hunk of wood he’d given her. “I don’t think you’re much of an artist.”

Axe started to laugh. “I know, right? What the hell is that? I tried to give my dad’s thing a shot and I sucked at it—”

“You’re sure it’s a bird—”

“I don’t know—”

As they talked over each other, midnight came and went, a new year beginning, a fresh start happening for both of them.

A fresh start … that was going to last two lifetimes.

FIFTY-FOUR

“Wait, this one’s for L.W.!”

As Mary sat back in the library with a cup of hot cocoa in her hand and a candy cane in her mouth, she smiled as Bitty rushed over to the First Family with a foil-wrapped present. The girl was dressed in a red taffeta gown that had a green sash, and she looked picture perfect. Except for one thing: She was also wearing, tragically, Lassiter’s baseball hat with the reindeer antlers. Which would almost have been okay.

Except it read “The Grinch Can Elf Off.”

At least, Mary decided, there wasn’t an actual “f-bomb” in there.

The entire household had crammed in around the Christmas tree—well, everyone except the angel, and God only knew where Lassiter was. For the last hour, presents had been passed out, the human holiday being celebrated on New Year’s Eve instead of the correct date because, hello, there had been a lot going on.

Rhage leaned in close. “So … can you and I play find-my-mistletoe today after the kid goes to sleep?”

Mary felt her body warm up. “Absolutely.”

Her hellren let out a purr. “And I know just where to put it.”

She elbowed him. “Shh, stop thinking like that. We still have a party to get through.”

“There’s always the bathroom. The pantry. The great outdoors—”

“It’s freezing!”

“I’ll warm you up, female.”

Mary threw her head back and laughed just as Wrath said, “What is it?”

“A Tonka truck!” Beth smiled at Bitty as she put the toy in her son’s lap. “Did you buy this with your own money?”

“I did.” The little girl was very proud. “You said you thought he’d like one.”

George, Wrath’s seeing-eye dog, sniffed the thing and gave it a lick.

“L.W.’s going to love—” Beth laughed. “Yup, right in his mouth.”

As the King’s firstborn started gumming the tires, Bitty danced back to the tree and hunted around. “The last present is for you, Uncle.”

Ruhn was two armchairs away, sitting in the self-contained way that Mary was coming to associate with him. He wasn’t aloof—on the contrary, he was always open and warm—he just seemed a little overwhelmed by all the people and the shouting and the laughter and the never-ending rotation of inside jokes between the Brothers.

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