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With his chin dropped to his chest, he was staring at her from under his brows, his pale yellow eyes glowing as they locked on her and her alone.

Her first cogent thought was that he was a predator.

Her second … was that she wanted to be caught.

“Elise?”

As Peyton said her name and stepped in between them, she shook herself. “Sorry, what?”

Her cousin’s frown suggested he’d noticed the connection, and—no surprise—he didn’t approve. Then again, with the way that male in the corner was looking at her? You didn’t have to be a possessive blood relative to not want any female anywhere near the guy.

“Sit next to Paradise, here,” Peyton said. “And let’s talk.”

Boy, it was hot in here, Elise thought as she started to unbutton her coat.

“Elise? Hello?”

Shaking herself, she forced a smile. “I’m sorry. What?”

“Have a seat,” her cousin muttered as he pointed to a padded bench that he’d pulled over.

“Right. Yes, of course.”

As Elise tried to get her brain back on track, she parked it and glanced at Paradise—whose smile was open and as beautiful as the rest of her was. Which was kind of a surprise. Most females with her sorts of connections were straight-up mean girls.

“So Peyton told me what’s going on as we were walking over here.” Paradise tucked her legs under herself and leaned on the arm of her chair. “And I won’t tell anyone, I promise. But I get it. I so get it.”

Elise shook her head and started to parse through what she was prepared to share and what she wanted to keep to herself. Talking about the pathology around Allishon? Not going to happen.

“My father’s not a bad male, he really isn’t.”

“God, of course not. He’s just a traditional one, who’s worried about his daughter in a troubling world. It’s not an issue of good and bad. What it is about is your right to live a life even though you’re a female in a rigid social role.”

Elise exhaled. “How did you get into the training program at all? I mean, I’ve heard that they’ll allow females, but …”

As she continued to speak, some kind of split-personality thing happened—half of her plugged into the conversation with Paradise, the other part of her right with that male, sensing his body, his presence, his power.

The effect he had on her was nothing like Troy, she thought. With the human in that library, she’d felt as though she was in front of a banked fire, where you kind of thought, Huh, maybe I’ll sit here and put my palms out and feel the warmth. Or maybe I’ll just stay where I am and admire the view of the flames. Or … what the hell, let me pick up a book and read for a while.

A lot of pleasant, non-threatening, but certainly interested, reflection.

That male in shadows over there? It was more like she was frozen to the bone and starving because she had wandered off a trail in a December snowstorm, and seventeen days later she was still tripping through the drifts, on the verge of collapse, her lungs stinging from a lack of oxygen, her head spinning, her whole body aching … and there, there on the horizon, was an acres-wide bonfire set by a lightning strike in the forest, the flames eating up the landscape, the blaze overwhelming and terrifying, deadly …

But nonetheless the only source of heat with which to warm her tortured, half-dead, frostbitten body.

Oh, and actually, add a buffet of her favorite foods right in front of the giant hot mess.

With, like, four hundred pounds of Lindt chocolate on it.

And pasta. And champagne.

Yeah, that male was not any kind of pleasant reflection. Not even a choice, really. He was a compulsion to get to the beacon he was sending out.

And to hell with the consequences.

“… talk to your father.”

Elise kicked her own butt and replugged into Paradise. “I’m sorry?”

“Your father,” the female said. “My father would absolutely speak with him.”

“Speak to whom? My sire?”

“What better way to try and change his mind? My father worries about me, and he’s from that old-school way of doing things, but he’s evolved his thinking. If anyone can talk your father off the cliff? It’s him.”

“Oh, my God … that would be amazing.” Tears made her eyes water. “But why would you—”

Paradise took Elise’s hand. “Because I know how hard it is.”

The unexpected empathy was a breathtaker, and Elise got jammed up on the kindness. It was so hard to battle alone the glymera and its restrictions on females, so impossible to argue with standards that she hadn’t volunteered for and didn’t believe in, but that were, nonetheless, running her life. And it wasn’t until this moment that Elise realized she had given up before she had even started fighting because there had been no hope, short of running away, of altering her father’s legal and social authority over her.

“But he’s going to get me declared as sehcluded,” Elise said. “If he does that, I’m finished. It’s over before it starts.”

“When is he making the petition?”

“Right now, I think. He’s gone to the Audience House right now—that’s the only reason I could leave to come here.”

Paradise got her phone out and stood up. “Gimme a minute.”

As the female went in search of a quieter place to make a call, Elise wiped her eyes. And when she took a deep inhale and shifted in her chair, she looked across—

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