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There was a pause. And as it turned into a serious stretch of quiet, she wasn’t going to help him out. Either he proved, right here and now, that he was more than a hotheaded thug with poor impulse control and the aforementioned self-righteous misogyny, or she was going to find another solution.

Hell, maybe Peyton would do the job.

And yes, she was going to have a happy little conversation with him, too.

Axe’s eyes focused on something over her left shoulder. And when he finally spoke, his voice was flat. “I need this job, okay? I have to find work. So I’d … appreciate … a little leeway when it comes to social graces.”

She laughed in a tight burst. “A little leeway? You need, like, a football field on that. Maybe more. You are one of the most offensive people I have ever met.”

He shifted in his boots, something she was beginning to recognize he did when he really wanted to leave but was making himself stay.

“This is on you,” she said. “I’m not going to help you here. If you’ve got something more to tell me, get on with it. Otherwise, I’m going to get my things and leave.”

Axe looked around, and then he muttered, “I live alone, okay? And the training program isn’t about making friends, it’s about life-and-death—which doesn’t exactly play to my interpersonal strengths. Unless it’s killing. And yeah, you just saw what that looks like. So I don’t really know how to make conversation. But I am sorry, all right?”

Elise shook her head slowly while meeting his stare. “I can’t have you getting aggressive with Troy. Yes, I’m aware he finds me attractive, but we’ve never been anything but professional with each other.”

She judicially edited out the details about their momentary lapse the night before. But she didn’t feel guilty about that even with Axe having thrown the honesty thing back in her face.

Okay … maybe she did.

Whatever.

“You need to be tantamount to invisible.” She put her palm out. “And before you go there, that isn’t because you’re a commoner. That’s what bodyguards do. Or … well, from what I’ve seen in movies, that’s what they do. I have real work to do here, and I’ve already had to justify my efforts to my father. I owed the explanation to him. I do not owe it to you.”

Axe nodded. “Agreed.”

After a moment, she took a deep breath, and then indicated the space between them, moving her hand back and forth. “We’re not walking this stretch again together. Am I clear? We’re done with this. If you can’t be up front without being abusive, and you can’t do this job without being out of control, I’m walking away and not looking back. Again, not because I think I’m better than you on account of my bloodline, but because I don’t deserve to have some male going ape-gorilla and pounding his chest in front of me all the time. I will not have this discussion again.”

Axe blinked a couple of times.

And then the strangest thing happened. Or at least … she thought it did.

The right corner of his mouth seemed to lift ever so slightly, and not in a mocking way. More as if she had impressed him and the respect he had for her had been the last thing he’d ever expected to feel around a female aristocrat.

“Deal.” He stuck his hand out. “And I’m sorry we had to run over the ground rules twice. It won’t happen again.”

Elise released the tension in her shoulders and accepted what he offered, shaking his much larger palm. “Deal.”

When they dropped the contact, she leaned to the side and looked around his huge shoulder. “Shoot. Now, we have to try and smooth this over with Troy.”

“Don’t worry. I got this.”

“Somehow that doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“Watch me.”

As Axe headed back to where her professor was still sitting, Elise rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. And then ran off behind him.

This was like Groundhog Day, she thought. With Jason-damn-Statham instead of Bill Murray …

SIXTEEN

As Axe headed back for the professor, it was amazing how much less he wanted to kill the guy. In fact, as he came up to that table with its banks of papers, he didn’t even feel like hurting the human. Mostly.

The man bun had to go, though—and in fact, Axe did have a nice serrated hunting knife on him that could do the deed. Somehow, though, he doubted that was within the scope of his professional duties.

Troy shrank back in his seat, but that didn’t last. Axe reached into the man’s brain and erased the short-term memories of the aggression that had been thrown the guy’s way. And then Axe stuck out his hand.

“Hey, I’m Axe. I’m Elise’s bodyguard. I don’t want to interrupt you two, so I’ll just camp out”—he glanced around—“over there in that chair. You do your thing, I’ll do mine, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Provided you keep your hands off of my girl, he tacked on.

Not that Elise was his.

Shit.

The human winced and rubbed his temple like something hurt up there, but he got to his feet and shook Axe’s palm. “Pleased to meet you. You can’t be too careful these days—remember that shooting down near Manhattan last month? And then there was another out West in California.”

Axe nodded. “You got it. Dangerous times. So I’ll just be over there. You guys get to work.”

As he walked over to a low-slung chair that had almost as much padding as a piece of toast, he was very aware of Elise looking at him like he’d sprouted a horn in his forehead—and he couldn’t resist arching a brow at her.

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