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Felt his head get even more scrambled.

“I’m sorry. I got to go.”

“Be safe out there?” she whispered as she tucked her arms around herself.

Nodding, he took one last look at her … and then dematerialized to the meeting place west and south of where her family’s estate was.

As he re-formed, a gust that made his sinuses hum hit him right in the face and he breathed deeply. All his life, he had had great success pushing emotions down deep and putting a cap on them. And he did the same now, banishing any feelings or thoughts about Elise.

Too bad he could still taste her.

Peyton was the next to show up, and as they faced off, Axe was ready for a fight, prepared to start shit if he had to to get things going.

But Craeg and Paradise arrived and stepped between them.

“Nope,” Craeg said. “Not doing this. Waste of time, waste of effort—and out here in the real world, a dangerous goddamn distraction. What the hell is wrong with you two?”

“Nothing,” Axe said without looking away. “Absolutely fucking nothing.”

“Good.” Craeg didn’t move. “And you, Peyton?”

“I’ve got no problems.”

Paradise hooked an arm through Pey-pey’s elbow and pivoted him around. “So you were going to tell me about that female you went back to in the club last night, remember? Was she hot?”

Classic reroute move, and pretty fucking pathetic that it was required. But Mr. and Mrs. Training Program were right. The group of them were headed back out into the field tonight. None of that classroom work. No sparring in the gym.

Real guns and fun, as the Brothers called it.

Last thing anyone needed was interpersonal drama that got somebody dropped.

Into a grave.

Elise was floating on air as she went up the back staff stairs. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in her bathrobe, smelling of the night air and the male she had just kissed out in the front yard.

Funny, she had wanted exactly this tingling enticement when she had thought about being with Troy only nights ago. She had wanted this exact blossoming, even though she hadn’t really known what it was. She had been searching, and she had been found. And it was beautiful.

Her bubble of happiness did not persist.

She reached the second floor and was padding quietly down the carpeted hall, going past the closed doors of the guest suites and her father’s quarters, when she neared an open portal into a black room.

The voice of her uncle was distant, even though he had to be standing just inside the darkness. “… this eve? Mayhap I shall have a meal set upon a quiet table for the two of us?”

The response from her aunt was so quiet, Elise couldn’t hear the words.

“Well …,” her uncle murmured. “Yes, I shall come back then. Mayhap at some other, later time. I think there is—what? … Yes. I know you do not sleep.…”

Elise crossed her arms around herself and walked quickly past him with her head down and her eyes on the carpet. But her uncle must have heard her or sensed her because just as she came up to their room, he wheeled around into the light.

His face was that of a skull, his skin gray from stress and suffering, his eyes hollow. “Elise,” he said in a dead tone. “How fare thee this eve?”

She bowed and likewise used the Old Language. “I am well, mine uncle. And you?”

It was the customary response to the customary question that did not, in fact, request an honest reckoning of her state, but was more a polite gesture, as someone would utter “Bless you” after a sneeze.

“I am well. Thank you.”

And then the door was closed.

She hadn’t really seen her aunt since the tragedy, and could only guess the shape the female must be in.

Elise continued on to her own room, where she changed into comfy yoga pants and a fleece pullover her father did not approve of. A quick check of the clock suggested she had waaaaay too many hours before she was going to sneak out.

Leaving her phone behind, of course.

Thank you, Father.

Taking a seat at her French desk, there were scholarly articles to read and that draft lesson plan Troy had sent over early in the afternoon for the January seminar. But her mind was scattered and inefficient, snippets of Axe’s conversation with her sire, her phone call with Peyton—and then the kiss on the lawn … as well as what she had just witnessed down the hall—jamming up her thought processes.

For some reason, she found herself back out in the hall … in front of Allishon’s room.

This time, she went right in, but then she stalled out, unsure what she was doing, what she was looking for. After a moment, she proceeded over to the walk-in closet because there was nowhere else to go, really.

Shutting herself in, she looked around as the motion-activated lights came on. The lineup of hanging clothes was messy and there were piles of discarded things all over the floor.

God, it still smelled like Allishon and her signature perfume.

And the wardrobe of shirts and skirts and jeans and boots and high heels was nothing Elise would ever have worn, everything tight, short, leathered, studded, ripped on purpose. Where Elise followed the rules, Allishon had entirely resisted any kind of social expectation.

The classic good girl/bad girl dichotomy.

Clinically speaking, it wasn’t a mystery why nobody was talking about the death. Her father felt guilty and maybe a little superior that his young, the “conservative” female, had been the one to survive; his brother was distraught and bitter that his daughter, the one who had been so resistant and hard to deal with, had come to the very end everybody had tried to scare her away from; and her aunt was likely suicidal.

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