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“Away from Kim?” I asked. “She's harmless.”

“Is she?” Claire snipped.

“Dad is wrong this time. We need her,” Jared said, clearly uncomfortable. Gabe was the foundation of their family, a fal en angel from Heaven, pure-blooded. The thought of him making a mistake was a hard pil to swal ow, and even Jared wasn't convinced of his own words.

Everyone at the table sat silently, processing the situation. Final y, Bex spoke. “We’re al here. Let’s go get it.”

“We need a plan,” Jared said. “And we can’t leave Nina unprotected.”

“So Bex watches Ryan and Nina, and you and I go,” Claire said.

Jared rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve already tried. I’m tel ing you, we need a plan.”

“You went there and didn’t leave with the book?” Claire said, raising an eyebrow.

“He had it in his hands,” Bex said, chuckling. Jared shot Bex a sharp look, and the boy's smug expression immediately vanished. “Sorry,” he said, clearing his throat.

“I was a little outnumbered,” Jared explained. “By eighty or so.”

“So?” Claire said, unimpressed.

Jared huffed. “We’l talk about this later.”

The ride home was long, and the air in the cab of the Escalade was thick with tension. I didn’t dare talk first. Jared’s jaw was tight, and his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel. He drove closer to Bex’s typical speed, impatient with the stop lights and traffic.

Jared parked in the drive, and then appeared at the passenger door. Without a word, he helped me to the ground. I wrapped my arm around his, and we walked in quiet understanding.

After a long shower, I set out clothes for Fal classes the next day. Jared waited for me, sitting on the end of the bed.

“You’re not staying,” I said, more of a statement than a question.

He stood. “Bex wil be outside. I won’t be far.” He tightened the belt of my robe, and then encompassed me in his arms, leaning down just inches from my face. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, pressing his warm lips softly against mine.

He intended the kiss goodbye to be quick, but his lips lingered on mine. I ran my hands over the perfection of his chest and stomach, and then made my way to the bottom of his shirt, reaching underneath the fabric to touch his soft, feverish skin.

“You could stay,” I whispered, smiling against his mouth.

“I want to,” he said, his voice strained.

“Just for a little while? I won't keep you long,” I began to raise his shirt, but he gently restrained me by the wrists.

“Bex is downstairs.”

“Crap,” I said with a grimace. My hands fel to my sides, and I blew my bangs from my face in a huff.

Jared left me alone, and I ambled to the bed. Once my head hit the pil ow, I was surprised the yearning for his warm body beside me, or thoughts of Ryan, or Jack, or the upcoming day of tedious bombardment of syl abi and introductory never crossed my mind. Heaviness came upon me, and I gladly succumbed.

“Nina!” Beth shouted from the end of the hal . She rushed to catch up, and then threw her arms around my neck. “Can you believe we’re back already?” She looked around, scanning faces of passing students.

“No,” I said, grinning at her endearing over-enthusiasm for everything.

I didn’t bother bringing my laptop; every class would be the same. Beth fil ed me in on the last few details she’d taken care of at Titan, and we discussed the monstrosity that was Sasha and the fact that she would be staying on.

“How far does she think sHe’ll go in that company, now that she’s made an enemy of you?” she asked, rol ing her eyes.

“You make the mistake of believing she thinks. She did take on the Christmas party. Makes me wonder what she has up her sleeve.”

“Hopeful y breath spray,” Beth said, covering her mouth. “I can’t believe I just said that.” Beth giggled, and I shook my head.

My attention diverted to a group of boys that walked through the door. Josh led the group. As Ryan’s best friend, he wasn’t a fan of mine, and made it quite clear that he’d rather not be around me. Chad admitted that Josh accused me of being the reason Ryan left. Beth came to my defense, of course, but that didn’t make him wrong.

Once Josh caught a glimpse of me, his eyes became unfocused. He looked right through me before pretending to be deeply engrossed in whatever his friends were saying.

Beth glared at him as he found his seat. “He real y needs to get over himself.”

“He’s just being the same kind of friend to Ryan that you are to me,” I mumbled, fiddling with my pen.

“Guess I can’t fault him for that.”

I found myself fighting the urge to tel her that Ryan was not only back, but just a few minutes away. Not being able to see him when he was so close was bad enough; even though I had thought a several different scenarios where I could happen across that information, I couldn't tel Beth until Claire gave me the green-light.

“Good morning,” the professor said, passing out the intro packet for the class.

I sighed when Beth handed me a stack of papers, and I took my own, passing on the rest. I didn't bother thumbing through the pages like the other students, but settled into my seat, making a valid effort to pay attention. The mundane pieces of my life used to be what I was so desperate to hold on to. In the last month, it was al I could do to make an active effort to be a participant. Col ege seemed trivial compared to the other part of my life.

After classes, I smiled at the sight of Jared’s Escalade waiting in its usual spot. He had warned me that morning that I wouldn’t see him at lunch; he said to give me time to catch up with the girls. Something about ‘holding on to a shred of normal’…I was too busy being offended to hear.

He quickly opened my door for me, and I wrapped my arms around his middle.

“Wel , hel o,” he said, amused at my eager affection.

“Oh, like you didn’t miss me, too,” I said, smiling up at him.

He raised one eyebrow. “Do you even have to ask?” He watched me settle into my seat, and then sighed. “I thought I should tel you. Claire call ed.

Ryan should be released soon.”

“Can I see him, yet?” I said, a bit more enthusiastic than was appropriate.