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“I’m not her mother,” Mary choked out. “Oh, God … I’m not really her mother.”

“Yes, you are. And I’ll keep these so that I can give them back to you when this is over.”

“He’s going to be real. I can feel it. The uncle … is real.”

“Maybe so.” Lassiter stood up again. “But why don’t I keep these just in case, ’kay?”

He strolled off, hair dripping, clothes a mess, all that gold jewelry he wore like part of the sun stuck with him even when he was indoors.

Mary looked at the archway through which Rhage and Bitty had disappeared.

When she felt like she could walk that far … she got up … and did.

TWENTY-SIX

The following evening, Elise was in her bathroom, blow-drying her hair, when her phone started shimmying across the marble counter.

She went for the thing so fast, she nearly fumbled her Conair right onto the floor.

But it wasn’t Axe.

“Finally,” she said as she turned off the dryer.

“What kind of hello is that?” the male voice demanded over the connection.

“The kind you give somebody who takes this long to call back.”

Peyton, son of Peythone, cursed softly. “I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. But I’m all yours now. You okay?”

She turned away from the mirror and leaned her butt against the counter. It was hot in her fuzzy pink bathrobe, but she was keeping the thing on: Even though they weren’t FaceTiming, it didn’t seem right to be naked while she talked to her cousin.

“Why did you try and buy off Axe?”

There was a silence. “So this is about your new bodyguard, huh.”

“That was really insulting to him.”

“Lemme ask you a question, here. Exactly who do you think is guarding you? Do you know anything about him?”

“Is that a leading question? If it is, just answer it already, will you. I don’t want to play games.”

“Elise, your family has already lost so much—”

“Spare me. I’m living in this house, okay? Like I don’t know how much people are hurting?”

“Yeah, and I was the one who had to look Allishon’s parents in the eye when I told them she was dead.”

“Are we really competing over my cousin’s death here? Really?”

“Elise …” There was a long muttering. “Look, I’m not going to argue with you.”

“Good, because I feel safe around Axe. He’s been nothing but a gentlemale to me. And I don’t appreciate you disrespecting him by trying to bribe him over something that is none of your business.”

“You are my business.”

“No, I’m not. I’m your third cousin. That’s it.” As silence stretched out, she was beyond frustrated. “Maybe I shouldn’t have called.”

“Maybe.” He cursed. “I gotta go. I have to get ready for class—you want me to tell your boy you said hello?”

“Why are you being like this? And he’s not my boy.”

“Good luck with him. You’re going to need it—”

“No, you don’t get to do this. You either tell me what you’re really worried about or you cop to being an ass because you’re being overprotective. Those are your two options, Peyton. What you do not get to do is play this smoke-and-mirrors game, and then huff off like you’re being offended by my behavior.”

There was a pause. And then the laughter was rueful. “And this is why I could never date you. Cousin thing aside.”

“Well, I’m not asking you to, so there’s also that.”

“Fine, I’m being overprotective and I have no right to be. There.”

Elise exhaled and smiled a little. “You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?”

“So I am told.” Peyton exhaled. “Look, I know people like us don’t talk about these things, but that shit with Allishon is still with me. I can’t … I can’t get it out of my mind. And yes, I realize it’s making me a little psychotic. I just … I’m not sleeping, I’m—my head’s all fucked. It’s been rough.”

Elise dropped her voice to a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. God, not at all.”

“What happened to her? No one will tell me. Nobody will say anything other than she died out in the human world. They haven’t even done a Fade ceremony for her. It’s like she was here—and then she was gone, as if she never existed. And meanwhile, my aunt never leaves her room, and my uncle wanders around aimlessly.… I would love to help or understand or … just finally know what happened.”

There was a long pause. “Peyton? You still there? Hello?”

“I saw what was done to her. I saw … the violence that killed her.”

“Oh, my God, Peyton …”

“I wasn’t the one who found her. But I was the one who found out … what was done to her.”

“No wonder you’re struggling.” Elise covered her mouth with her palm. “I had no idea.”

“She wasn’t killed by a human. It was one of us.”

“Who?” she breathed.

Peyton cleared his throat. “Okay, I’m not being a dick right now, and I don’t want to end this all abruptly, but I really do have to get ready. Can we meet up and talk in person sometime?”

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