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“Is that normal? I mean, does he usually check in with you or—”

I break off as Mekhi laughs. “Jaxon doesn’t check in with anyone, Grace. I thought you would have figured that out by now.”

“I did. I just… What do you think is going to happen?”

“I think Foster is going to give him a slap on the wrist and then move on.”

“A slap on the wrist?” I don’t even try to hide my shock. “He nearly killed that boy.”

“Nearly killed and killed are two very different things here—in case you haven’t noticed.” He gives me a knowing look. “At some point, we all screw up learning how to deal with our powers.”

“Yeah, but this wasn’t a screwup. This was a calculated attack.”

“Maybe.” Mekhi shrugs. “But it was also necessary. I don’t think Foster will blame Jaxon for trying to protect you. Or be shortsighted enough to send him away when he’s the one standing between you and God knows what. In my opinion, the wolf alpha is more at risk for being kicked out than Jaxon is.”

“School rules aren’t all about me, even if the headmaster is my uncle. Besides, I thought Jaxon was the whole reason the shifters were after me. Because they wanted payback for everything that went on with Hudson?”

I mean, what else could it be? I’ve never done anything to any of these people, nor is there anything supernatural about me. No powers, no shifting, no sudden desire to bite people’s necks. So unless they’re playing a rousing game of Terrorize the Human, I can’t imagine what the shifters could possibly get out of trying to kill me.

“Jaxon’s operating under that assumption, which makes sense, considering they’ve just been waiting to find something that matters to him. Waiting for something they can take away from him.”

My heart beats a little faster at Mekhi’s words—and the implication that everyone knows that I’m who Jaxon cares about. It’s probably ridiculous to be so excited at the thought, since if it’s true, those feelings put a big red X right on me. But after the time I spent with Jaxon in his room today, I don’t care nearly as much as I should. I want to be with him.

“So what was Hudson like?” I ask Mekhi as we reach the back part of the tunnels. Maybe it’s an indelicate question to ask, but how else am I supposed to find out anything about Jaxon’s relationship with his brother? I’m pretty sure he’s not going to tell me.

Mekhi glances down at me, and there’s something different in the look he gives me, something wary and fearsome at the same time. It’s so similar to the look Jaxon had when he was talking about Hudson—minus the palpable anguish—that it makes me wonder just who this guy was. And how his presence can be so keenly felt even after he’s been dead for nearly a year.

“Hudson was…Hudson,” Mekhi says with a sigh. “I guess the best way to describe him would be as a light version of Jaxon.”

“A light version?” That’s not what I was expecting, especially after what Jaxon had to say about him earlier. “I thought he was a…” I trail off because I don’t want to call the former heir to the vampire throne a monster, even though that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

“Not light as in sunshine,” Mekhi elaborates as we reach the center rotunda of the tunnels. “I mean Jaxon lite. He was the older brother and pretty much the prodigal son—their parents adored him. And so did a lot of other important people in our species.

“But being able to fool people into thinking you have character isn’t the same as actually having character. And the one thing I know for sure is that Hudson wasn’t a quarter of the person Jaxon is. Too selfish, too egotistical, too opportunistic. All Hudson cared about was Hudson. He was just good at pretending to care about what those in power wanted him to care about.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so in the end I don’t say anything. After all, I never met Hudson, and I don’t care about him in the slightest, beyond the fact that Jaxon is using his brother’s death to punish himself.

But I’ve got to admit, Mekhi’s description sounds awfully close to what I figured out reading between the lines of what Jaxon was telling me. He’s beating himself to hell and back for what happened between them, but it sounds to me like he did the world a favor taking Hudson out of it. No matter what Jaxon thinks about it.

A noise sounds far behind us, and suddenly Mekhi is shoving me in back of him as he whirls around, hands raised in an obvious fighting stance. Which he drops once he realizes the noise came from Lia, who is racing up the tunnel toward us.

And by racing, I mean really booking it. Wow, she can move fast when she wants to. I mean, that’s no surprise—I’ve seen Jaxon move, and it’s a little shocking how quickly he can get to me when he wants to.

But so far, every time he moves like that, it’s because I’m in some kind of trouble and he wants to get to me. The same kind of trouble that keeps me from paying close attention to him because I’m afraid I’m in the middle of trying not to die.

Watching Lia run without any safety fears for myself, though? It’s intense. It takes her less than a minute to cover the tunnel we just spent the last five minutes walking down.

And when she gets to us? She isn’t even breathless.

“Hey, girl, where’s the fire?” Mekhi asks as she moves to pass right by us. I’m surprised at his tone, and the fact that a lot of the warmth he has when he talks to me is now absent.

Of course, she isn’t exactly dripping friendliness herself when she answers, “Oh, hey, guys. Just using my free period to do some extra time in the art studio.”

Mekhi raises a brow. “Since when do you use your free period for anything productive?”

She looks away, jaw working, and for a second, I’m pretty sure she isn’t going to answer him. But then she shrugs and says, “I’m working on a painting of Hudson.”

“So that’s who it is,” I exclaim, thinking back on the portrait I saw her working on yesterday. “He’s really good-looking.”

“You have no idea.” Her lips curve in the closest thing I’ve seen to a smile from her. “I’m nowhere near talented enough to do him justice.”

“False modesty?” Mekhi mocks. “That’s not like you, Lia.”

“I’d say bite me,” she answers with an eye roll, “but who knows where you’ve been.”

“Thanks, but I’m too afraid of catching rabies to ever bite you,” he sneers back.

And can I just say, wow. There are enough bad vibes flowing between them that I can’t help thinking I’m about to witness my second vampire attack of the day.

Apparently, when her relationship went bad with Jaxon, it went bad with the rest of the Order, too, because right now, Mekhi honestly looks like he wants to rip her throat out.

But just when I’m trying to determine how to get out of range, Lia flips him off. Then hooks her arm through mine and says, “Let’s go, Grace. He’s so not worth it.”

“Oh, well, actually, Mekhi was just walking me to class.” I don’t like being in the middle of the two of them, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to bail on Mekhi the first chance I get.

The warning bell chooses that exact moment to ring, and Mekhi gives a little shrug as he takes a step back. “I’m good heading to Calculus if you’re good with Lia showing you the rest of the way.”

“I’m pretty sure I can get her to class safely,” Lia snarks, but I just smile my gratitude at him.

I like that Mekhi isn’t making a big deal of the me not being alone thing, just kind of making sure all the bases are covered without putting up too big a fuss. Especially since Jaxon has already covered the giant-fuss department.

“I’m good,” I tell him, and I mean it. Down here, surrounded by people Jaxon trusts—even if they don’t trust each other—makes everything else that’s happened so much easier to deal with. “You should get to math.”

“Words absolutely no normal person has ever wanted to hear,” he answers with a sigh. But he steps back, does a little two-fingered salute as a goodbye wave.

Impulsively, I close the distance between us to give him a hug. “Thanks for walking with me. I really appreciate it.”

He seems a little taken aback by my very human show of emotion, so I pull away, worried that I did something wrong. But when I look up at him, he’s got a goofy smile on his face that says he doesn’t mind at all. And that’s before he pats my head like I’m a prize-winning Chihuahua or something.

Still, it feels pretty good to have one of Jaxon’s friends’ stamp of approval, so I just grin at him and do that ridiculous two-fingered salute back at him.

He laughs, then snarls a little at Lia—for show, I think—before turning around and heading back the way we came.

I watch him for a second, expecting him to start booking it like Lia was, but instead he takes his time, moseying along like he’s in the middle of one of the old Westerns my dad used to watch.

Which only makes me appreciate Mekhi more. He’s willing to give Lia and me some privacy, but he’s in no hurry to leave me alone with anyone. Even another vampire.

“So what’s been going on with you?” I ask Lia after another glance at my phone reveals still no texts from Jaxon. And the fact that we have two minutes left to get to class.

“Pretty sure that’s my line after that whole scene in the lounge today.” She raises her brows in a WTF look.

“Oh, that. Um, Jaxon…” I trail off, not sure what I can possibly say about what happened.

Lia laughs. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. Hudson was overprotective in the same way, doing whatever he thought necessary to take care of me. Even if there was nothing to protect me from.”

I think about correcting her, maybe even telling her what’s been going on so I can get her take on it, but we’re almost to the cottages, and suddenly more people are around—vampires, witches, and shifters. And since there’s more than enough gossip surrounding me right now, I figure the last thing I need to do is add fuel to the fire.