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Jared didn’t agree. He thought I was clumsy, slow, and impatient.

Sleep came more easily than ever. Every night, I fel into bed, my muscles screaming for rest. Dreams of Jack were replaced with calculated moves and steps I would take to get the upper hand in hand-to-hand combat. Jared would tend to my sore spots. Regardless of his efforts, the area would inevitably be a series of purple splotches in the morning.

The weeks passed, and once the trees shed their leaves, Winter wasted no time covering the debris of Fal with a blanket of white. Ignoring Cynthia’s protests, the boys moved the furniture in the Great Room to transform it to a sparring ring.

The target practice, weight training, and sparring was nearly a daily ritual. Jared and Bex were always present. Once Claire caught wind of our new hobby, she came when she could. I always looked forward to the days she would join us.

Claire was more than capable to do everything her brothers could, but I related to her with the knowledge that she had to work that much harder to prove herself. I would never be as fast or as strong as the Hybrids, but I earned their respect with my stubborn refusal to quit or rest. Claire understood my resolve, and when she looked at me, she assumed strength when the boys assumed weakness.

The mirror was proof of not only my mistakes from the bruises, but my hard work. My arms weren’t nearly as tight as Claire’s, but they were taking on a toned look that I was proud of.

The day before Thanksgiving, Jared final y offered his first word of encouragement.

“Better,” he said with an emotionless nod.

That single word gave me the determination to continue. I was only human, but if I could keep up with Jared, Claire, and Bex, I could hold my own with Donovan, or Shax’s other human minions. At least I could try.

Thanksgiving Day arrived. Cynthia attended the Macy’s Day parade in New York with some of her charity chums, and I helped Claire and Lil ian in the kitchen while the boys set the table and kept the dishes washed.

Every one of my favorite spices and herbs permeated the air. Laughter was the background music to the busy atmosphere. Lil ian noticed a difference in me right away, and wanted to discuss my training. She took a keen interest in it, wishing she had thought of it as wel .

Bex set the turkey on the table, and sat beside his mother. Claire grabbed one of my hands, Jared took the other.

“Our Lord in Heaven,” Lil ian began. “Thank you for our many blessings. The wonderful food on the table, the health and safety of our family, and that we are al sitting together on this day of thanks.”

“Amen,” Jared said, nodding.

“Aye Men!” Bex said, digging into the various dishes on the table.

Part-way through dinner, I noticed Claire was quiet, thoughtful y chewing and smiling at the appropriate times in conversation. Jared of course noticed when I did, and he watched his sister.


She met his eyes, but didn’t speak.

Lil ian smiled. “She’s fine. Let her be.”

“This is good ladies,” Bex said, his mouth ful of food.

“Thank you, Son,” Lil ian said. “Jared? Would it be a good time to ask how much longer you’l be engaged?”

“No,” Jared said, shaking his head with a smile. “I just got her to agree to set a date, Mom. Don’t ruin my hard work.”

I laughed. “She has a point.”

“She does?” Jared said, surprised.

I patted his knee. “My parents’ anniversary is on a Saturday this year.”

Lil ian’s eyes brightened. “Oh, it is! How wonderful! June first, then?”

Jared turned to me, cautious. “June first?”

“It’s an easy date to remember,” I shrugged.

“Of this year?” Jared asked, cautiously hopeful.

Lil ian and I shared the same boisterous laugh. “Yes, Honey. Seven months from now.”

The smile that crept across Jared’s face was slow, but it spanned from one side to the other. “June first.”

The conversation was monopolized by wedding plans after that, and the afternoon was fil ed with excitement and anticipation.

We said our goodbyes with kisses and hugs to Bex, Claire and Lil ian, and then Jared led me to the Escalade by the hand. Once inside, he leaned over the console, took my face gingerly in his hands, and pressed his lips against mine.

When he final y pul ed away, I felt a bit dizzy. A smal twinge of guilt settled in. It was so easy to make him happy, and I had grossly procrastinated something so simple.

Jared drove slowly to the house, brushing my hand with his thumb as he held it. A storm had rol ed in, and it fed into the new energy that almost crackled in the air between us, as if he couldn’t wait to get home. He intertwined his fingers in mine, kissing each of my fingers. “I feel like you said yes al over again.”

“I told you I would set a date.”

“You did,” he said. His mouth widened to a broad grin. “Man! I feel like I want to stand on a rooftop and scream! This is one of the best days of my life!”

I giggled, nearly manic from the emanation of Jared’s mood. Just as the moment peaked, it fizzled.

“What are you doing?” I said. He slowed the Escalade to a stop. “You’re not real y going climb onto a rooftop, are you?”

“No,” he said, his smile fading fast. “I spoke to soon.”

It was then that I noticed the blue and red lights dancing al around us. “We’re being pul ed over? But, you weren’t speeding.”

“That’s not what he wants.”

I grabbed Jared’s hand, seeing the dark silhouette of the police officer. The windshield wipers knocked back and forth as we waited for his approach. He knocked on Jared’s window with the butt of his flashlight.

“Officer,” Jared said, pressing the button for the window. The dark glass buzzed as it lowered and then disappeared, revealing a face I had longed to see again.

“Ryan!” I yelped. My mouth fel open in utter shock.

“Good evening, Nina. I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”

“Don’t be an ass. It’s raining,” Jared said.

Ryan nodded. “Just accompany me to the cruiser, Ma’am,” he said, sounding very professional and detached.

I nodded, looking to Jared. “It’s okay. I’ll be right back.” I kissed him, and then scrambled to open the door. I tried to be calm, to preserve Jared’s feelings, but Ryan was just a few feet away. I had been so desperate to see him, and waited so long, any false composure at that moment was impossible.