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No reason to give him an excuse to deny entrance.

She just went for it, pushing her way inside—

That memory of her mother was power-washed out of mind as the tableau at the desk sank in: Her father was at his chair, presiding over the masculine room, his dark suit and tie his informal attire. ’Cuz formal was white tie and tails.

That wasn’t the shocker.

There was, however, a male sitting across from him, a male who had a pair of bulging shoulders and long, thick-thighed legs that dwarfed not just the seat, but the study as a whole. His hair was dark, shaved up the nape, and his turtleneck and leathers were black. As were the holster and the gun she could see under his arm.

The male slowly turned around to look at her. But she didn’t need to see his face.

It was him. From the cigar club.

Elise’s body roared with heat—and her brain roared with fury. How had father found out she had seen the trainee? Had there been another vampire around when they’d argued at the side of the street? But come on, they hadn’t even had much of a verbal altercation. And Peyton had interrupted—

Peyton. That son of a bitch.

“Father, I—”

“And this is my daughter,” her father interjected. “Please excuse her interruption. Elise, this is Axwelle.”

The male she had been thinking about non-stop rose to his feet and towered over her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Elise looked back and forth between the two of them as Axwelle bowed at the waist. As an unmated daughter of high blood in the glymera, even though there was a witness, it would have been impermissible for him to offer his hand to shake, much less for her to touch him in any way. And he knew that.

And it was just as well. Even though she was confused, what she was crystal clear on? The effect of that male on her had only gotten stronger.

The hours she had spent thinking about him had distilled that initial attraction into a compulsion.

But what the hell was he doing here? If her father was upset because she’d met the guy the night before, he certainly wouldn’t have introduced her to Axwelle as if they were strangers.

Well, they were strangers.

Elise looked across the desk at her father. He had slumped in his chair, as if he were too tired to adhere to his posture standards.

“Elise”—he indicated the vacant seat next to Axwelle—“do sit down.”

She complied instantly, crossing over and lowering herself into the seat. In her peripheral vision, she noticed that Axwelle wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were focused forward on her father.

Yeah, boy, he was … okay, she hated the word hot. As if someone you found sexually attractive was like a plate of food out of the oven? But in fact, that was pretty much the first and only thing that came to her mind. That black turtleneck so worked for him. Where had his piercings gone? He had removed them.

What would his hair feel like? Soft and thick—

“… and that’s why I’ve brought him here.”

Shaking herself, she blurted, “What?”

“After my discussions with Abalone, the First Advisor, I have come to that perhaps unmistakable, although uncomfortable, conclusion.”

Great. She had missed on the whole thing. But chances were good that none of whatever he’d said worked in her favor.

“Well, I don’t think I need to be sehcluded.” Elise crossed her arms over her chest. “I think that is a backward way of handling—”

“Which is why I believe a bodyguard is necessary if you’re going to continue to pursue your studies.”

Cue the screeching tires.

As she recoiled, her father nodded at Axwelle. “He is here applying for the position. He is a trainee in the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s program, and comes highly recommended by the King himself. There is another candidate coming in in an hour. A Novo, I believe the name was. He also comes with the very highest of accolades.”

Bodyguard?

As in this male would be guarding … her body?

Elise swiveled her head in Axwelle’s direction as the implications started to her occur to her—but then she snapped her attention back to her father.

“Wait … so if he’s with me, you’ll let me attend classes on campus and do my teacher’s assistant job? You’ll allow me to complete my degree?”

Her father cleared his throat. “That is correct.”

“You … I … we …” She stammered some more. “Father … what has changed your mind?”

Felixe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “The First Advisor is a male of worth whom I respect greatly. He made me realize … if he can allow his blooded daughter into the training center program? I can most certainly permit you to—”

Elise burst up out of the chair and was around the desk in a heartbeat. In her family, physical displays of affection were eschewed in favor of formal interactions such as bows, curtsies, and the very infrequent air kiss on both cheeks. But it was impossible for her not to express herself.

As she threw her arms around her father, he stiffened even more than usual, although after a moment, he did reach up awkwardly and pat her on the arm. “That’s fine,” he said in a rough voice. “Yes. Fine. Indeed.”

He wasn’t dismissing her. On the contrary, she had the sense he was equally emotional—it was just they didn’t come from people who had any ability to handle intimacy. For the pair of them, this was the equivalent of embracing, holding on, and sobbing as she apologized for lying and violating his trust and he vowed to try to be the father she needed and deserved, as opposed to the repressive force she was coming to resent.

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