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Elise exhaled sadly. “I’m really sorry about what happened to your father. I hope you know that.”

Now it was his time to laugh in a short burst. “The really sad thing? What they did to him, how he died, isn’t the half of it.”

She wasn’t surprised as he hand-and-footed it over to the fire and put more logs on the flames.

“I think I should probably go,” Elise murmured as he spent an excessive amount of time nursing the hearth.

“Yeah.” Abruptly, he looked over his shoulder. “It’s not because I don’t want you.”

“Good.”

But the mood had shifted and there was no going back to where they had been. She believed him, though, when he said he still—

“Can I see you tomorrow night?” he asked without looking at her.

“Yes. Where?”

“Here.” He poked at the burning logs, a shower of sparks raining down on his bare forearm, not that he seemed to care. “I have a long training session tomorrow. I won’t get off until late, but you said you weren’t going into the library or anything, right?”

“That’s right. What time?”

“I’ll let you know. Probably four? We’ll still have some time.”

“I’ll be here then. I can just wait for you? If you trust me here alone—”

“I’d trust you with my life.”

The fact that he said that absently really made her believe that he meant it. And that warmed her through and through, more than the fire did.

“Then we have a date.”

“Is that what it is,” he drawled. “What else would you call it?” She started to get dressed, stumbling when it came to getting her bra hooked. “And I’m going to be the first to say, I can’t wait to see you again.”

When she was finally back in what she’d been wearing, she stood up with her coat. “Good day, Axe. If you think of me, you can text me, you know. No pressure. I just want to put that out there because I think you might not even if you wanted to.”

He got to his feet, and as he stretched his back, there were a series of snaps and pops—and yes, she admired his muscles under the tight T-shirt he had on. “Let me walk you out.”

They were silent as they left the room—but he caught her and redirected her to the front door, not the one off the kitchen.

“You’re going to be cold,” she said as she stepped out into the night and he followed.

“It doesn’t matter.”

And indeed, he stood strong against the frigid wind, unbending, magnificent.

“Be careful,” she told him. “You know, in the training. I imagine it can be hard.”

He made a noise in the back of his throat that could have been anything from a Yup to a Whatever.

“Okay, then …,” she murmured.

For some reason, the darkened windows of the little cottage made the homey place seem as cold and empty as space itself.

She didn’t want to leave him there all by himself.

But what choice did she have?

“Well, good day—”

Before she stepped off the stoop, he grabbed for her and brought her in against him. But he didn’t kiss her. He just cradled her close to his chest, holding her tightly. And oh, she held him back.

She got the impression it had been a very long time since he had hugged anyone. She also knew that he didn’t want to let her go.

The embrace was, she would reflect later, even better than any promise of mind-blowing sex.

And then she was gone.

Axe stood on the front steps of his father’s cottage for the longest time after Elise dematerialized. Under his skull, his brain was bucking like a bronco, what he and Elise had shared so outside of the norm of where he usually went with females—hell, with anyone—that he felt rattled down to his marrow.

It had been so long since he’d connected with another person.

And yeah, he didn’t like what he was feeling now—the things she’d told him about herself sticking around in his thoughts, processing and re-reprocessing, calling up all kinds of emotions he could really fucking do without. It was so bad that the only thing he could think of to do was go and find a fight somewhere. He knew how to fight. Knew what to do, how to strike, how to avoid getting hit—hell, he’d known that before he’d gone into the training program.

Whatever had happened in front of his fire back there?

No fucking clue how to handle it. Or its aftermath.

It was easier when he’d just seen Elise as a becky to fuck. Now? She was a person.

When he finally headed back inside, his stomach rumbled with hunger, but there was nothing to eat, and besides, he was used to an empty gut. As he shut the door, he intended to go take a shower and then crash, but he didn’t get that far. For some insane reason, he was drawn to the kitchen, to the door in the far corner, to the creaky old stairs that took him down into the basement.

He fucking hated the basement.

When he got to the bottom of the steep steps, he put his hand out into the pitch-darkness for the lantern on the hook. Cranking up the glowing kerosene wick, he almost hoped it wouldn’t come alive—

The illumination was yellow like the fire, fixed like the moonlight.

And the ghosts of the past came alive as he looked at his father’s workshop.

Breathing deep, he could still smell the wood chips and the sawdust that carpeted the dirt floor like honey-colored snow.

Even though nothing new had been made down here in over two years.

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