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He wanted to go home and take a shower, wash himself clean of the filthy, nasty sex he’d had all over her body, but there was no time.

Finding a thick of shadows, he whipped off that new skull mask he’d had made for himself and disappeared it into the cloak. Then he removed the great hanging weight from his shoulder, taking a black shirt out of another inner pocket, and putting the wifebeater on over his head. His weapons were hidden in still more compartments, and he retrieved them and their holsters from their Velcro strapping system. Arming himself, he gathered the voluminous fall of the cloak and folded it into itself until the outerwear appeared to be nothing more than a three-quarter-length coat.

A moment later, he dematerialized and re-formed in an alley eleven blocks farther into the worst part of Caldie.

He was not the first of his fellow trainees to arrive. Peyton and Boone were already there, the pair of them standing together under a fire escape. They were in black and as heavily armed as Axe was, but unlike him, they didn’t smell like sex.

And Peyton didn’t smell like weed or booze, either. Fucking miracle.

The male smiled. “Been busy?”

“Not at all.” Axe clapped palms with him and did the same to Boone. “Where’s everyone?”

Peyton smiled, flashing his fangs. The guy was right out of the Perfectly Bred Handbook—and so exactly the kind of bastard Axe hated on principle. Rich, blond-haired, with polished nails and an off-duty wardrobe that looked like something Zoolander would wear, Pey-pey was a pey-pain in the ass. The only thing that saved him? He was a helluva shot, and either too arrogant or too stupid to understand his own limits: In training, he fought just as hard as everyone else did, took way too many chances with himself and his safety, and was so out of control, all Axe could think of was a Lamborghini that had lost half of its wheels, most of its undercarriage, and all of its brakes.

As it headed for a brick wall.

So yeah, Peyton, first blooded son of Peythone, was the exception that proved the aristocrats-should-never-be-in-the-field rule.

But Axe still wasn’t all buddy-buddy with the SOB.

Not that he went there with anybody.

Boone, on the other hand, was the anti-Pey-pey. Quiet, huge, and unusually physically adept, he was the crouching tiger of the group, the prowler who kept to himself and the shadows, the one who was most likely to pounce on your back and slit your throat with a knife you weren’t even aware of him having in his hand. Axe was pretty sure the guy had been seriously fucked up by somebody or something earlier in his life. For all his outward calm, Boone was never, ever truly relaxed or at ease. Whether he was reading on his iPhone, listening to his music on the bus, or waiting for commands from the Brothers, you always had the sense he knew where everybody in a given space was.

As if he were waiting for an attack—and goddamned if he was going to let anyone get the best of him.

Watch the sleeper, Axe always thought. Before the cocksucker went Grim Reaper all over your ass.

Craeg and Paradise arrived next, the pair of them dressed in black and covered in weapons. The couple was as committed as a mated twosome, but they were not lovey-dovey in class or outside of it. And thank God for that.

After all, Axe hated vomiting—and if there was one thing guaranteed to make his stomach go evac? It was the sight of two people going baby-talk and gooey-eye’d all over each other. Back three years ago, when he’d been doing heroin all the time, his nightmare had been when he’d been too nodded out to change the channel on a Sandra-fucking-Bullock marathon.

Although he’d liked The Blind Side.

Axe acknowledged them and stepped back as the rest of the greetings rolled out. And then there was a lull, during which he amused himself by watching Peyton try not to stare at Paradise. It was the same thing every night, that weak pining after a female the guy couldn’t get, and it was good to see the pretty boy who undoubtedly had everything he ever wanted get shanked by fate.

So fucking pathetic.

Man, that was one lesson Axe’s moms had taught him. Never give a female power over you. That shit will castrate you faster than a pair of surgical scissors.

Hell, look at what had happened to his old man after Axe’s mom had left them. Decades and decades of mourning. A life wasted at the altar of “love.” An otherwise good male brought to his knees and kept there by an abandonment that was based on what someone else could fucking buy her.

As an old, familiar pain lit off behind his sternum, Axe bolted away from the sensation even as his body didn’t move. Refocusing on the Paradise-Peyton-Craeg triangle, which wasn’t a triangle at all for Craeg-adise, he found himself smiling. Yeah, the fact that the poor kid had won the girl made him happy. Craeg was the alpha of all alphas, the de facto leader of the trainees, but he came from nothing, just like Axe. Paradise, on the other hand, was the daughter of the King’s First Advisor. You didn’t get more pedigreed than that.

But she had picked the scrub over the Great Gatsby.

Attagirl. One more reason to like her. Aside from her hunting skills.

The last trainee to arrive was the kind of female that would have gotten Axe’s attention under any circumstances. And yup, with nothing but black leather covering her from head to foot, he took the opportunity to admire the view—at a respectful distance. She was the cobra in the group, a sinewy, powerfully dangerous thing of beauty, with teal eyes, reflexes quicker than C4 exploding, and a subversive nature that Axe totally got.

But he’d never hit that.

Even though she was hot as fuck, he had a couple of reasons for his uncharacteristic restraint, the main one being that you didn’t shit where you ate. Although Craeg and Paradise had somehow won the destiny lottery by hooking up without losing their edge or hating each other in the end, that was not a set of dice Axe was interested in rolling. Oh, and P.S., he was about as into relationships as he was aristocrats.

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