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Was that where Allishon had gone all those nights and days she hadn’t come home—

“We rented that for her.”

With a gasp, Elise wrenched around.

Her aunt was standing in the closet’s archway, and dear Lord … the female looked as if she had been in a car accident—or maybe one involving a motorcycle with her as the cyclist: her hair, once always coiffed and sprayed into a beautiful fall onto her shoulders, was a ragged mess, with roots showing that were two shades darker than the streaky California blond so popular in the glymera. And instead of a fashionable little Escada suit or St. John knit, with plenty of pearls at her throat and on her ears, she was in a stained, wrinkled nightgown that once had been made of silk but now seemed to have more in common with a crumpled paper napkin.

Her eyes were wide and crazy.

She wasn’t looking at Elise, however. She was staring at the order of the hangers.

“Did you do this?” the female asked in a wobbly voice.

And as she came in a little farther, her steps were equally unsteady.

“I’m sorry.” Elise fumbled with the paperwork to get it back in the box and shut the lid. “I just … I didn’t know what I could do to help.”

And yeah, eavesdropping had been so frickin’ laudable.

“Her things …” A frail hand reached out and brushed the clothing Elise had put to rights. “God, how I hated these clothes of hers.”

Elise pushed the safe back where it had been and got to her feet. “I shouldn’t have come in here—”

“No, it’s all right. You’ve done … a better job than I have.”

“It wasn’t my business to—”

“We leased her that apartment because we couldn’t stand to have her coming and going here all hours of the night. Disheveled. Drunk. Drugged up. The stench of sex on her.”

An inner Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, started to go off in Elise’s head. As did a refrain of Be careful what you wish for.

This was not what she had imagined when it came to talking.

Her aunt’s gnarled hand gripped and twisted one of the short skirts. “Her father felt certain that the banishment would be the corrective action for all her disobedience. That she would get out there, realize her folly, and snap out of the behavior.” The laugh was madness personified. “Instead, she lived more on her own terms than ever before. I couldn’t reach her. He barely tried. And all the time she got worse. She enjoyed torturing us.”

“Auntie, perhaps you should speak with Uncle—”

“I hated her.” The female snapped the skirt free of its clips and threw it to the carpet. “And I hate her even more in her death.”

“I’m sure you don’t mean that—”

“Oh, but I do. She was a filthy whore, then and always. She got what she deserved—”

“You’re her mother,” Elise blurted. “How can you say that?”

Her aunt moved down and made a fist out of one of the safety-pinned blouses. Ripping it off the rod, the hanger popped free and ricocheted right into her face. Not that she seemed to notice.

“Look what she’s done to us! After we lost our son, we now have a murdered daughter! Who was found bloodied and half-dead in front of a domestic abuse house! How could she have embarrassed us like that!”

All Elise could do was stare into that ashen, emaciated face as her aunt began to tear the closet apart.

She was the reason for the disorder—not Allishon. She was the one who had trashed the clothes—and she was going to do it again, right here and right now.

Abruptly, Elise wanted to cry. The idea that social expectations had so completely ruined any even biological connection between mother and daughter was just … unfathomable.

And yet she never would have guessed at the splintering. Before the death, everything had been kept under wraps, her aunt and uncle showing up dressed beautifully and smiling at events, ever the perfect couple … as their daughter had self-destructed after her brother’s death, first by inches, and then by yards … until the fracturing of the family unit had become obvious to the other people in this house.

The others in society.

“We are not welcomed anymore,” her aunt gritted out as she pulled more and more off the rods, throwing the clothes down, trampling over them with her bare feet. “We are invited nowhere! We are outcasts and it is her fault!”

Elise swallowed hard and eyed the escape.

She was fairly certain she was going to throw up.

“Have I shocked you with my honesty,” her aunt sneered. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“No,” Elise whispered. “Not a ghost. I’m looking at a version of evil that I never expected to see in my own family.”

Stumbling by, she shoved her corpse of an aunt out of the way and ran not just out of Allishon’s room, but the mansion itself.

Out on the front lawn, she braced her hands on her knees, leaned over … and dry-heaved in the bushes.

And then she kept running down the drive, not even caring she had nowhere to go.

TWENTY-NINE

As Butch signaled for go-time, Axe and the Brother entered a cramped service lane behind the abandoned buildings, Axe falling in tight behind and sticking with the warrior as they efficiently progressed down toward God only knew what.

Fucking hell, it was darker than he’d thought, although Axe recognized that this was because he had no goddamn clue what was going to happen and it was reflexive to think that illumination would put him in a better defensive position.

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