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“Of course I want to be mated to you!” he exclaims, and this time he’s the one who grabs my hands. “I want it more than anything.”

“Then why would you even suggest…” There’s a strange ringing in my ears, and I shake my head to clear it. “I thought mating bonds were unbreakable.”

“I thought so, too. But I asked the Bloodletter—”

“You asked her? When we were there?” The pain deep inside me gets worse and worse. “When? When she put me to sleep? When she locked me in that cage?”

“No, not then. Of course not.” He gives me a pleading look. “It was way before.”

Somehow, that sounds even worse. “How ‘way before,’ considering I was here for a week, then gone for nearly four months, then here for a few days? When exactly did you ask her? And why?”

“I asked her after you first got here and I realized we were mated. I’d nearly killed you with the window… It just seemed like a really bad idea to be mated to a human who might die because of me. So I went to her and asked for a spell to break the bond.”

There’s so much to unpack there that I don’t even know where to start. And for once, Hudson is completely silent, absolutely no help at all. The traitor.

I still can’t believe Jaxon didn’t tell me up front that we were mated. I mean, I get why he didn’t say anything that first day, but why not after the snowball fight or when we started dating?

But I also can’t believe he was going to break the bond—without even asking me. He was going to do something so irrevocable, so painful, so terrible, and he wasn’t even going to get my opinion on the matter. It would have affected me, too, I’m sure of it, and he wasn’t even going to ask?

And now, after we’ve come so far, he brings up breaking the bond again because having Hudson in my head is an inconvenience to him? Even though we’re so close to getting him out another way? A way that leaves the bond completely intact?

“Did she give you the spell?” I finally whisper, because there’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start.

“She did,” he tells me.

My breath catches. “Seriously?” It feels like he just hit me again. “And you took it?”

“I was scared. I’d nearly killed you. I didn’t want to hurt you, Grace.”

“Yeah, because this is a picnic.” I look wildly around his room. “Where is it? Where are you keeping it?”

I don’t know why it matters, but it does. If he knows where it is, if it’s right at his damn fingertips…

“I threw it away.”

“What?” That’s not the answer I was expecting.

“I threw it away the same day she gave it to me. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, Grace. To either of us. Not before we’d even had a chance to try. Not without your permission.”

I blow out a breath slowly as the pain finally ebbs. It doesn’t go away completely, but it slowly dissipates. Because he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t break what was between us before it even got started, and especially without telling me. That makes a difference. If he could, if he’d kept it…I don’t know if I’d ever be able to get past it.

“We’re not breaking the mating bond, Jaxon.”

“It could starve him. Without the energy from the bond to feed on, he would die quickly, right? I think you’d be okay in that scenario. It’s the draining that is slowly killing us all.”

His words poke at all my still-tender spots. “And I’d have to sit by and watch him die. While also being traumatized at the loss of my mate.”

“You wouldn’t lose me. I’d still be here—”

“Just not my mate anymore.” I look at him with what I know is my heart in my eyes and whisper, “Is that really what you want?”

“Of course it’s not what I want!” he practically shouts.

“Good. Then don’t bring it up again.”


“No.” I want to throw myself at him, to wrap my arms around his waist, but I’m still aching.

“I’m sorry.” He pulls me close, holds me as tightly as I wanted to hold him. “I was only trying to make things better for you.”

“I don’t need that kind of help,” I answer, even as I wonder if that’s really true. If making things better for me is the only reason he brought this up.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’m so sorry.”

I don’t know if it’s enough. Honestly, I don’t know what would be enough right now, but it’s a start. That has to count for something.

“Okay,” I tell him, even though I’m feeling anything but. Still, we’re out of time. We have to get to the assembly.

Maybe if I just breathe for a little while, the pain will go away. And so will the sense of betrayal that’s ricocheting through me.

As I head for the door, I dread having to field Hudson’s snark in the middle of all this. But for once, he doesn’t make a sound.


Fire and Bloodstone

I’m still reeling ten minutes later as we make our way to the ceremony. I tell myself that it’s no big deal, that everything is going to be okay—with Jaxon, with the ceremony, with the Unkillable Beast. But how okay can I convince myself things are going to be if Jaxon was willing to sever our mating bond?

Everything feels wrong now, off-kilter. And the fact that Hudson is back to haranguing me definitely doesn’t help.

“Which part of my father murdered every gargoyle in existence do you not understand?” Hudson demands as we make our way down to the auditorium. “Do you think he killed all of them in secret? He did it right out in the open and dared anyone to question him. And if they did, he killed them, too—or at least discredited them. You think he can’t make one silly little girl go away?

“His words, not mine,” he hastens to add when I turn on him, infuriated. “I’m just saying, that’s what he’ll be thinking. It’s not true, but that’s how he’ll see it.”

“Yeah, well, that’s ridiculous,” I mutter and glance up at Jaxon talking to Mekhi.

“Absolutely. But he’s a ridiculous man. Evil. Monstrous. But ridiculous. You’ll do well to remember that.”

He doesn’t say anything else, but then neither do Jaxon, Mekhi, or I as we take the last flight of stairs two at a time. The others are waiting for us at the bottom, looking a million times happier than I feel. Then again, the king probably doesn’t want to kill them.

“Looking good, Grace,” Flint tells me, holding up a hand for a fist bump.

“You’re looking pretty good yourself,” I tell him, because it’s true. All the guys look amazing in their dress uniforms, especially since they get to wear blazers tonight instead of those absurd purple robes.

“Everybody ready for this dog and vampire show?” Mekhi asks as he holds an arm out for Eden. She looks a little surprised at the gesture—I’m guessing the combat boots and kick-ass attitude tend to limit the gallant gestures aimed her way—but then she smiles wider than I’ve ever seen her.

“Damn straight!” she tells him, taking his offered arm.

Xavier offers his arm to Macy, and she giggles like a schoolgirl before she also takes it. But I can’t help grinning at the way she and Xavier keep stealing glances at each other out of the corners of their eyes when they think the other one isn’t looking.

“Guess that leaves you and me,” Flint says to Gwen with a waggle of his eyebrows.

She looks at him like he’s a little strange, but she nods as she gingerly takes his arm. She’s doing so much better, but her arm is still badly bruised and cut up.

Jaxon reaches up and smooths my curls off my face. “It’s going to be okay,” he tells me. “I promise, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I know you won’t,” I answer as he takes my hand in his. But his words from earlier keep playing in my head.

Sometimes it feels like Jaxon tries to protect me from everyone but himself.

But as our palms meet, I can’t help but realize how drained he is. I fed him energy down the mating bond right after we got back from the Boneyard earlier, and he seemed to be doing better, but right now I’m not so sure.

We have to get the last item. We don’t have any time to waste.

“So anxious to get me out, huh?” Hudson asks.

So anxious to get your brother back to normal, I answer. It’s not the same thing.

I wait for the obnoxious comeback, and it doesn’t take long. “Jaxon doesn’t do normal, or haven’t you noticed?”

Says the guy who lives in my head, I shoot back, fed up with everyone at the moment. Hate to be the one to break it to you, but he’s not the abnormal one here.

Hudson starts to say something else, but he stops as we walk into the auditorium, which is already half filled with students, many of whom turn to look at us as we start toward the back row of seats.

There’s a purple carpet—a purple carpet!—lining the walkway up to the stage. It’s obviously for us, and I feel completely ridiculous walking down it, even though everyone else seems to think it’s totally normal.

Uncle Finn is waiting when we get to the stage, once again fiddling with the sound system. He grins at all of us and goes out of his way to send an encouraging little wink to Macy and me.

Still, there’s something in his eyes—they’re so serious, despite his smile and wink—that makes my stomach clench.

“Is it too late to run?” I ask, and I’m only half kidding. Something about this just feels off. Jaxon squeezes my hand.

“I told you not to come,” Hudson hisses at me. “I told you something bad would happen.”

Nothing bad has happened yet, I try to soothe, but my heart has started beating out of control.

Even Jaxon looks like he thinks running might be a good option, especially as the assembly hall doors swing open and the members of the Circle come parading up the walkway on the opposite side of the auditorium from where the rest of us entered.