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He wanted to stay with them. He needed to go.

The beast may have stayed in its cage of flesh last night, but that wasn’t going to last with all the high-flying tension—so he had to find a fight to burn the edge off. It was going to be his only salvation.

“Be careful,” Bitty said as he took his leave.

“Always,” he whispered over his shoulder.

Instead of going to the prearranged meeting spot and joining Z and Butch and the trainees for orientation, Rhage went straight to the alleys west of Caldie’s financial district, proceeding directly into the heart of the field, to the pavement and shadows he had stalked for how long now?

The night was as cold as the previous one, but there was a humidity in the air that spoke of coming snow. The humans would like that. They would find it “seasonal” for their holiday.

There was no one wandering the stretch of deserted buildings he chose to hunt, nothing to mark the street but the burnt-out shell of an old sedan, a rotting couch, and a series of scrawny dead trees in the cracked sidewalk.

No Christmas trees twinkling in the windows. No ho-ho-ho’s from partygoers. No carols, no sleigh bells, no reindeer, no presents.

Breathing in deep, he felt a great burn inside his chest … and it was as if he were back to square one.

Ever since Mary had come into his life for good, he had enjoyed the killing because thanks to the Scribe Virgin’s good old breeding program, he had been designed since conception to protect and defend his race. But there had been none of this old-school desperation, this twitchy unhappiness, this … sad sense … that he was not a master of his destiny but subjugated to it because of his curse—

Cranking around, he tilted his nose up. Inhaled again.

Let out a growl.

Lessers were fewer and farther between now than ever, and there had been sightings, by others in the Brotherhood, of a very different kind of foe.

They were trying to determine who and what it was. Sea changes like that in the war were rarely good news—and clear evidence that the Omega was thinking again.

But the stench of baby powder that rushed up to greet him now?

It was like the one wish he’d needed to come true had been granted.

Well, the one other than Bitty staying where she belonged.

Baring his fangs, Rhage went on the hunt.

TWENTY-SEVEN

The only way that meeting could have been more offensive, Axe decided, was if Elise’s father had suggested his daughter was dealing drugs on the side. Into prostitution after dark. Leading a second life taking candy from babies and kicking puppies.

Unbelievable, he thought as he let himself out the big fancy-ass door and strode away from the mansion—

About twenty feet off to the left, standing in the freezing cold wind in—wait, was that a pink fuzzy bathrobe?—Elise was like an apparition. Except she was oh, so very much alive, her hair swirling in the gusts, her scent filling his nose, her presence warming the night to tropical temperatures.

“What are you d—”

He didn’t get any further than that. She ran up to him and threw herself into his arms, holding him around the neck and squeezing for all she was worth.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Or something like that. “Elise, you can’t be seen like this.”

Holding her up off the ground, he strode behind a big maple tree so that the trunk would give them some privacy.

“What are you doing out here?” he demanded as he lowered her down. “You’ll end up getting pneumonia—”

“I just needed to thank you.”

“For what—” He stopped. “It was you. You were behind that painting.”

“I knew you were in the house. I just didn’t know why. I heard what you told my father … thank you.”

Axe wanted to say the right thing. Or hell, say anything. But the way she was staring up at him with those shining eyes, her hair all clean and fragrant, her body under that robe something that he could remember every single inch of …

He cupped her face and rubbed her cheek with his thumb. “I dreamed about you. All day long.”

Elise smiled more widely. “Did you?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“What did you dream of?”

“This.”

Tilting his head, he bent down and kissed her, working her lips with his own, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her close. The winter wind danced around them, snowflakes starting to fall, the dark velvet heavens above seeming to encourage lovers everywhere.

When he finally edged back, he massaged her shoulders. “I can’t wait for this night to be over.”

“Me, too.”

She put her hands on the pads of his chest, massaging. “I wish you didn’t have to go.”

“I couldn’t stay here anyway.”

“You could—”

“I don’t want to cause trouble for you.”

“Never.”

God, he couldn’t get enough of her face, her throat, the feel of her waist under his palms. She was like a drug he needed another hit from, and the fact that that made him want to run in the opposite direction was ironic, given how he’d embraced heroin and cocaine. Sex. Violence.

But the screaming voice telling him to get the hell away from her and never look back was countered, punch for punch, by an even stronger need to be close and stay close.

From out of nowhere, an image of those figurines of his father’s came to mind.

Axe stepped away abruptly. Missed the contact immediately.

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