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PANDORA AND I don’t talk on our way to the airport. Derek ended up insisting that he drive us, and I’m too devastated to protest. I found love, and I left it. I found all I wanted, and it was all wrong, and I left him standing in a hotel room he paid for, staring out the window like he’d chain me to him if he so much as glanced at me.

“I’m texting Kyle to organize something for tonight,” Pandora says.

“No,” I say.

“Mel, it’s your birthday.”

“No!” I say. “Please. I want to be alone.”

We board. I even go as far as sliding my suitcase into the top plane compartment. And I remember him in the rain. I remember every single thing he’s done for me.

“I’ve got your car.”

“Be home tonight.”

“My life has come at a high price too. Every day of it. So many days trying to find some f**ked-up meaning in it.”

“Am I the first man you’ve cooked for?”

“You got me, princess. Jesus! Do you not see what you’re doing to me? You have all of me, Melanie. I’m states away and I feel like half a man, I feel like I’ll tear something apart if I don’t see you soon with my own two eyes . . .”

“I know you’ve used sex to stop feeling lonely too long, Melanie, and I know you’re the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen, always trying to make the best of everything. Giving every frog a chance, because you were given that chance, right? So why would you deny a chance to someone? Anyone? Even a f**king ass**le like me?”

He carried me . . . I suddenly remember how he carried me, home, while bleeding from a cut I gave him, and set me on my bed, filled up my bathtub, and squeezed my hand. He protected me. Held me. Tried to warn me against him because he didn’t want to hurt me but somehow, like me, he couldn’t stay away. I see it so clearly. The LOOK he gives me? That’s what’s real. That look is real. None of that other bullshit matters.

The gratitude and ferocity in his eyes when I cooked for him and he felt . . . accepted.

The times he opened up to how he felt about me. Him!—a man who’s not used to probably feeling anything at all.

The way he knows me. All along, he has known every good and bad thing about me, and still he looks at me like I’m the most precious diamond of diamonds.

Suddenly I remember Brooke telling me OWN THIS, MELANIE! You’ve been looking all your life, fight for it!

“Pan,” I whisper, my feelings for him intensifying until I feel like screaming or imploding because I won’t, I refuse, to live with this bottled up. To live alone when I can have him. Will fear keep me from my guy? My man? My rogue? My hands are shaking as I unlatch my seat belt and almost stumble out of my seat before they close the door. “I’ll see you in Seattle.”

“What do you mean? Dude, I’m afraid of flying and I just popped a f**king sleeping pill and you know it!”

“Don’t stop me. I don’t want you to stop me. Please. Please, Pan! I want him. I love him.”

I don’t let her convince me of how stupid I’m being, or how reckless. I feel a lurch of excitement within me at the mere thought of running back into his arms, and my insides are jangling and out of control as I barely get out of the plane before they shut the door. I sprint down the airport terminal, trying to find Derek.

“Derek!” I call, hurrying in the hopes of catching him. I’m bounding through some sliding doors when another man in cowboy boots and a checkered shirt stops me.

“Holy shit, that’s you!” he says.

“What?” I blink and take in the young man. He has the sort of face I remember seeing on many other men, plain and friendly, but a pair of sunglasses shields his eyes and for the life of me, I just don’t remember meeting him before.

“Melanie. You’re Melanie,” he repeats, speaking the word like he just found gold.

“Do I know you?” I ask, glancing past his shoulder while praying to see a glimpse of Derek’s big, broad back. Suddenly I can’t stand it; I want to go back and stand before Grey and say, I love you. I love you and I trust you and we’re going to make it work. Somehow. You f**king ass**le, you’re my prince whether you want to be or not!

“No, you don’t know me yet.” The young man grins and extends his hand. “I’m Greyson’s brother, Wyatt. I overheard that you were leaving. I even thought I’d missed your flight, and yet here I was hoping I’d convince you to stay.” His eyes twinkle as though he knows about Greyson and me, what we have between us. What we just lost because I’m a chicken and he was being . . . noble.

Noble.

And letting me go.

The anxiety to see him increases by the second. “Are you going to see him now? Where are you going? I was hoping for a ride.”

“Actually, first I was going to see Greyson’s mother.”

“What?” The joy I feel almost doubles me over. “You know where she is?”

“I just found out myself, but shh. Don’t tell Greyson first, it’s a surprise. My father’s not doing so good . . . he’s been in the hospital for days and doesn’t have much longer.”

I’m nearly bowled over by the news. Bowled over with happiness, hope, anticipation. “Omigod.” My eyes blur as I think of what this will mean for Greyson. After how many years will he finally see his own mother?

“Wanna come and bring her to him?” Wyatt suddenly offers.

“YES!”

TWENTY-THREE

NEWS

Greyson

The text comes from Melanie’s phone, but immediately my gut freezes when I realize whoever is writing is not her.

Congratulations. You won.

I text back, And you are?

Melanie forgot her phone in the plane. This is Pandora. You won, I hope you’re happy. She’s on her way back to you. She’s blindly, hopelessly in love with f**king ole you.

The words wrap around me like some sort of blanket, heating me. At the same time, an oddly primitive warning sounds in my brain. I punch Derek’s number. “Where the f**k are you?”

“On my way back from dropping your queen. Why?”

“Get your ass to the airport and bring her back to me. Bring her back to me RIGHT FUCKING NOW!”

All my protective instincts have kick-started with a vengeance, mingled with the wild, primal excitement of what I just read on my phone.

She’s coming to me.

She’s coming back to me.

Twenty minutes of pacing later, I get Derek’s call.

“She’s gone. Taxi dispatcher saw her leave with a guy in a checkered shirt and boots.”

My stomach roils, and suddenly it all clicks, and my blood turns to ice in my veins.

Wyatt.

Eric’s familiar voice rings behind me. “Son, your father wants you . . .”

I’d been waiting outside his hospital room, waiting to talk to him, my checkbook handy, ready to settle things for Melanie, now I glance at Eric and grind my molars in rage.

“Tell him I’m gone. Tell him I’ll be back!” I run down the hall and pull out the keys to my rental, punching C.C.’s number. “Wyatt’s got her. Go to the south of the city, I’ll take the north, spread Derek on the east, get the rest of the team on it. FIND WYATT, HELP ME FUCKING FIND HER!”

Thirteen years I’ve looked for my mother.

Thirteen.

If Melanie disappears for longer than a day, I’m going to become a monster, a full-on monster on a rampage with one mission and one mission only.

Find her, protect her, keep her, mate her. NEVER LET HER GO AGAIN.

I’ve never prayed but I throw myself up to a god I’ve never believed in and yell at him to take anything, anything of mine he wants, but not her.

TWENTY-FOUR

REVELATION

Melanie

“So where is she? Where has she been all this time?” I ask curiously from the backseat.

Greyson’s brother just smiles and keeps driving deeper into the bad neighborhoods on the outskirts of Denver. He’s a shorter guy, with a manner of dress that says I-wanted-to-be-a-cowboy.

I don’t know if it’s the sixth sense they say women have, or the chilling look in his eyes, or the way my heart speeds up in my chest, but something is very, very wrong here.

And suddenly I know—I know—that Wyatt is not taking me to Greyson’s mother, like he’d said he would.

“Take me back,” I say softly.

He laughs. “Seriously? You give orders now?” He clucks and meets my gaze. “Let’s just make him come to you, hmm? Don’t all girls like that? Being rescued? My brother’s definitely going to want to rescue his ‘princess.’ ”

“Listen, he doesn’t care about me right now. He and I are over . . .”

When I reach over to open the door, he pulls out a gun. “Sit down and shut up.”

The shock of having a gun trained on me makes me slam back against the seat, instantly silent. My heart is hammering now, my breathing ragged. I don’t want him to know I’m afraid, but I feel a shudder of fear as I remember hands pulling me . . . taking me away . . .

It was him.

“Oh, trust me, he cares. Hell, I’ve made studying him a religion. My f**king father wanted me to be just like him.” He sneers. “He’s in love with you. He’s had your name on that list for ages and he worked his way from number forty-eight downward, instead of upward, all to postpone the time he’d have to collect from you. In the meantime he’d disappear and I saw him watching you through the cameras of the Underground. All those fights you’ve come to? Greyson has been watching you. He pauses you, rewinds you, replays you. Oh, he f**king cares more than he has about anything else in his life—and I wanted his mind f**ked ! I wanted him to think he’d lost you too. So f**ked he can’t finish the list—and then the Underground would be where it belongs. In my hands.”

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