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Everybody looked at her, including the uncle. Which gave her an idea that maybe Ruhn was not unfamiliar with what she did for a living.

Mary cleared her throat and decided to cut through the bullshit. “Bitty is our primary concern. Her health, well-being, and happiness is the only thing we care about—but of course, we respect your bloodline tie.”

Ruhn looked down at his hands. They were heavily callused, the forearms exposed by those rolled-up sleeves, veined and thick with muscle.

“I’d like to meet her.” His voice was soft, quiet … totally unaggressive. “My sister … it’s hard for me to believe she’s gone. And seeing Lizabitte would be …”

As he trailed off, Mary frowned. It was a surprise to feel compassion for the male.

“I feel like I let my sister down.” He shook his head. “Living with that is a curse … I mean, I tried to find her when she came up here. But I didn’t have many resources—I still don’t, and she disappeared with that male. I knew he was going to kill her. We all did.” He cleared his throat, and his tone deepened, grew stronger. “Lizabitte is the only part of my sister left—and doing right by that young is fulfilling the duty I failed at to Annalye.”

Mary swallowed hard as Ruhn met her straight in the eye, and concluded, “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for that young.”

THIRTY-SIX

Peyton didn’t stop talking. And as Elise sat at the foot of his bed and listened, the picture that emerged of her cousin’s alternate life was both overwhelming and not a surprise.

“Wait, so what is this club?” Elise asked.

“It’s downtown, it’s called The Keys. I’ve never been to it. The shit that goes on there is not my thing.”

“But Allishon was a member of it?”

“Yeah. She used to go there when she, you know.”

“She what? When did she go?”

Peyton’s baby blues gave her a don’t-be-daft stare, but when he saw that she honestly didn’t get what he was saying, he shook his head.

“She should have been more like you.”

Elise winced, thinking that, given where she was headed at the end of the evening, she doubted she was half the paragon of virtue Peyton was giving her credit for.

“Why did she go there?” she prompted.

“Look, Allishon was always on the hunt for something new.” Peyton reached for yet another Grey Goose bottle and poured some more into his tall glass. The ice cubes had melted long ago, but he hadn’t seemed to notice—or maybe he just didn’t care. “She was always searching. And a lot of the time, she found it there.”

“So she was drinking and doing drugs.”

“And having sex.” He cursed as if he didn’t want to go into it all. “She was fucking in public. With lots of different humans in lots of different ways. It was what she got off on—the real hardcore shit. And that club is where it happens in Caldie. She went there a lot.”

Elise couldn’t help but recoil at the thought of a place like that. Nothing she could handle, that was for sure.

No, she was into monogamy. With Axe, specifically.

But she didn’t judge, and again, she’d known that Allishon had different tastes than she did: “So … she went there, and someone found her and hurt her.”

“Anslam found her and killed her, you mean.”

Elise covered her mouth, her eyes popping wide. “Wait, Anslam—as in, hold on, our Anslam?” She’d known the male all her life. “But he was in the training program, wasn’t he? I heard he died during a mission. That’s what my father told me.”

“Not what happened.” Peyton stared across at the football game. “Not even close. You sure you want me to go into this?”

“Yes. I need to know.”

“Anslam was … hurting women and females … and taking their photographs while doing it. He hooked up with Allishon at some point, I don’t know when, exactly—neither of them said anything to me. And you know, clearly, something went down between them.…” Peyton trailed off, his head lowering, his voice going so soft, she could barely hear what he was saying. “I went to her apartment downtown after no one had heard from her for several nights. That’s when I found … how badly she’d been hurt. What had been done to her.”

At that point, he choked up, and Elise had to force herself to give him space to get control of his emotions—she had the sense that if she tried to console him or hug him, he was going to pull out of whatever he was remembering.

Peyton cleared his throat. “There was a lot of blood. On the sheets—I mean, the bed was stained with it. There were footprints of the stuff across the carpet, and the red smudges of handprints on the sliding glass door to the terrace. She didn’t die in the apartment, however. Somehow, she was able to dematerialize out of there. She was found on the lawn of Safe Place, that domestic violence shelter? She was in bad shape. They didn’t know who she was—took her to Havers. She passed there. But again … until I went to her apartment nights later, they didn’t know who she was.”

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“Me, too. She must have been in so much pain.”

Elise closed her eyes. “And it must have been very hard for you to find all that.”

“I’ll be fine,” he clipped out.

Of course, he said this as he was pouring more liquor down his throat.

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