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We walked to the house, and Jared stopped abruptly.

“What?” I asked, scanning his face.

He was working far too hard to mask an emotion. “Nothing. Everything is fine.”

“Jared,” I said as we walked. “Something’s wrong.”

“No. No, everything’s fine.”

The closer we got to the door, the harder my heart throbbed against my chest. Jared reached out with one finger to press the doorbel .

The door swung open, and I gasped. “I don’t believe it.”

“Wel that’s a hel of a reception. I missed you, too.”

“Claire!” I squealed, wrapping my arms around her neck.

She didn’t hug me back, but stood with her hands on her hips. “You confuse me.”

“I’m sorry!” I said, breathless. “I just…I wasn’t expecting you.”

Lil ian walked to Claire’s side, casual y crossing her arms. “Surprise,” she said with her warm, sweet smile.

“Wait,” I said, my eyes darting to everyone. “Does this mean that Ryan is…?”

Claire nodded. “He’s at the Providence VA Hospital to finish his rehabilitation.”

My hands flew up to my mouth, and then I hugged her again. “I’m so glad you’re home,” I whispered into her ear.

“Me too,” Claire smiled.

We sat at the table for dinner. The symphony of our laughter fil ed every inch of the house. I cleared the dessert dishes, and listened to them talk and giggle. I waited in the kitchen, smiling to myself as I soaked in the sound of love Bex, Claire, Lil ian and Jared exchanged, even in their teasing.

“Nina?” Jared call ed.

“Coming,” I said, starting the dishwasher.

“I’m sure Nina wants to hear more about her friend,” Lil ian said.

Jared's expression changed so slightly, that I was sure no one at the table noticed but me. The skin around his eyes tightened as the corners of his mouth turned up—something he always did when he tried too hard to cover how he was feeling. I took his hand in mine and squeezed. He seemed to relax an infinitesimal amount, and I shook my head.

“Tonight is about Claire,” I said.

Claire touched the napkin to her mouth and rol ed her eyes. “He’s a machine. He’s been working like crazy trying to get wel . His psych analysis wasn’t exactly...he told them about me.”

“He saw you?” Jared said.

An awkward pause sent tension into the air. “He thinks he did,” Claire said. “My face was covered with the hijab, so he only remembers my eyes, but they’re questioning how a woman with the smal frame he described could have carried him out.”

Bex chuckled. “What a pinhead. Did he real y think they would believe him?”

Claire stared at the table. “He told them I was American. He told Colonel Brand he thinks he knows who it was.”

“Not good,” Jared said.

Claire looked up. “But he only told the Colonel. No one else. After they gave him the results of his psych eval, he insisted he be placed in Providence.”

“Way to go, Claire. You blew your cover,” Bex smiled.

Jared leaned his elbows on the table. “This is serious. You need to stay out of sight, Claire. Lay low.”

“I know,” Claire grumbled, her eyes returning to one spot on the tablecloth. “I could say the same thing to you, you know. No one’s torching my house.”

“What?” Lil ian said, her eyes darting to Jared.

He glared at Claire for moment, and then looked to Lil ian. “There was a smal …fire. Everyone is fine.”

“A fire?” Bex said. “They set explosives at the loft. Everything’s gone.”

“Who’s they?” Lil ian asked. She was concerned, but not in the way a typical mother might be. She didn’t seem overly worried about Jared’s wel - being. It was clear she was years ahead of me as far as experience with Hybrids. She knew exactly what her children were capable of, and I wondered if I would ever have that same peace of mind.

“Donovan,” Jared said.

“Interesting,” Lil ian said, thoughtful y. “How do you plan to resolve that, Son?”

“We’re going to need help that won’t come,” Jared replied, clearly frustrated with his own words.

Claire’s eyes narrowed. “You talked to Samuel?” Jared nodded, and she continued, “Eli?” When Jared nodded again, she shook her head in disgust. “It’s that bad?”

“Eli talked about a balance,” I said. “They won’t get involved.”

“You know,” Claire said, leaning forward in her seat. “If it gets to that point…we could force them.”

“That better be one frightening, desperate point,” Bex said. “That would mean war.”

Lil ian held up her hand. “That would be a last resort.” She stood, making her way to me. “Nina, what I’m about to ask you wil be very difficult, but I need the truth.”

“Okay,” I stuttered, worried what she was going to ask.

Lil ian lowered her chin. “What did Gabe say to you on the plane?”

Jared frowned. “What are you talking about? He didn’t come to her on the plane.”

“Actual y….” I said, trailing off.

“Why didn’t you tel me?” he said, noticeably angry. Before I could answer, he began again, “Don’t you know that everything is important, now?”

“Jared,” I said, embarrassed, “he said to go home. He said not to see Claire. I knew you wouldn’t leave her there alone until you knew she was al right.”

Jared looked to Claire, and then to Lil ian. “Does he talk to you?”

His mother smiled. “At night. Only if it’s important. She knows about Kim now?”

“Yes,” Jared answered.

Lil ian’s mouth pul ed to the side, disappointed. “That was a mistake. Your main focus should be the book. It’s vital y important that you have it in- hand.”

“Kim and I made a deal,” Jared explained. “She wil help us obtain the book if we help her return it to Jeruselum, under the Sepulchre where her ancestor found it. She wants to free her family of it.”

Lil ian's eyes flitted about as she thought. “If she is helping you, why would your father try to keep Nina away from her?”