Goose bumps ran up the back of his neck. “You have no idea how right you are. May I keep this?”

“Let me fold it so it’s right.”

“Of course,” he murmured as he gave her artwork back.

Bitty lined up the corners precisely and then, with care to rival a brain surgeon’s, drew her fingertips downward, creating a perfect crease. She made as though she were going to give it to him, but then she took the card back.

“I was supposed to write something on the inside. But I don’t have the pens I was going to use. They are up in my room. I didn’t expect to do the lettering yet.”

Trez looked at the silver figure and the image of himself. “You know, it was made with love and I love what you’ve painted. So I’m not sure it needs words.”

“Okay, you can have it like it is.”

As he accepted the gift, the little girl threw her arms around him and squeezed. With a lump in his throat, Trez returned the hug lightly. She was such a tiny little thing, but her heart and spirit were fierce. She had more than proven that.

“Thank you, Bitty. I will treasure this always.”

“I love you, Uncle Trez.” Bitty pulled back. “And I don’t want you to be sad anymore.”

“I’m better now,” he whispered. “Honest.”

The sound of approaching boot falls brought Trez’s head around. Rhage was striding into the billiards room, a turkey leg in one hand, a chocolate milkshake that was half finished in the other. The Brother smiled.

“Hey, Trez, what’s doing?” He looked at Bitty. “And young lady, it’s time for dinner. I gave you an extra ten minutes, but that’s turned into twenty. You can always come back here soon as you’re done.”

“Okay, Dad,” she said as she stood up.

“Wow, look at your cards,” Hollywood murmured as he took a draw on his straw. “They are beautiful.”

“She made one for me.” Trez held out his as he got to his feet. “Isn’t it perfect.”

A shadow of sadness crossed Rhage’s Bahamas-blue stare. “Yeah. It is—”

“It’s perfect. Just perfect.”

Rhage smiled down at this daughter. “Good job.”

“Do you think George will walk on them?” Bitty asked.

“No, he sticks with his master. And as for Boo—well, that cat does its own thing. But I think you’re pretty much in a paw-free zone in here.”

“I don’t want them to get paint on their paws and lick it off. What if it made them sick?”

“You are a very thoughtful little girl, Bits.”

“I’m going to go find Mom.” She waved. “Bye, Uncle Trez. I’m glad you liked the card.”

“I love it!” he called out as she skipped across the mosaic floor, her long brunette hair flagging out behind her slip of a body. “Thank you again!”

When they were alone, Rhage cleared his throat. “Listen, if that’s, you know, too hard for you to hold on to, you can throw it—”

“No.” Trez recoiled. “I’m keeping this. I love this. She is a talented artist, and this is my favorite card. Ever.”

As Hollywood looked doubtful and tried to hide it behind taking a hunk out of that turkey leg, Trez switched subjects.

“Hey, did you happen to hit Sal’s last night?” he asked.

“Yup.” Hollywood took a refresh on the milkshake, hitting his straw again. After he swallowed, he smiled. “Your brother is a helluva good cook, you know that. And actually…”

When the Brother didn’t finish, Trez had a feeling where the male had gone in his head.

“What.” Even though he knew. “You can tell me. It’s okay.”

* * *

On time, Therese thought as she re-formed in the shadows thrown by the restaurant’s far corner. Let’s hear it for being on time.

Jumping over a low-level snowbank, she hit the shoveled part of the walkway and made her way to the staff entrance. Opening the door, she—

Stopped dead.

iAm’s office was at the end of the shallow concrete hall, and she couldn’t see through the open doorway for all the people crammed shoulder to shoulder in front of it. They were all facing away from her, and their voices were overlapping. It was everyone who worked at the restaurant, from the servers and the bartenders, to the sous chef and the manager. What the heck was going on?

Walking over, she tapped the pastry chef on the shoulder. “What’s happening—”

“You’re alive!” he called out.

The next thing she knew, he was giving her a hard hug that smelled like melted sugar and strawberries.

The staff pivoted around, and then they were all talking again, their voices loud and shouty, shock and relief warring on their faces as they looked her over as if they were searching for leaks of the arterial variety.

The next thing she knew, she was being drawn through them all, urged into iAm’s utilitarian office. Emile’s red-rimmed eyes were wide as he stood next to their boss. He looked awful, like he hadn’t slept for a week.

“You’re alive,” he said. Just like the pastry chef.

Emile’s embrace did not smell like shortcake with mixed berries. He was wearing a cologne of some kind, but it wasn’t something he had put on fresh that night. It was in his clothes.

“I’ve been calling you all day,” he explained. “Something happened at that club shAdoWs last night and we had to leave without you—”

Wincing, he stopped talking and brought his hand up to his temple as if he had a sudden headache. Which was characteristic when a human had had their memories stripped and replaced with some other version of events than what had actually happened. For the most part, the patches held, but when the person tried to probe past the story their minds had been supplied, they typically felt pain in their gray matter.

“Liza and I were worried,” he mumbled. “And when I couldn’t reach you, I panicked.”

Wow, so Trez and Xhex really did take care of everything. Then again, she hadn’t seen anything on the news, either. “I’m fine. But thanks for worrying about me.”

iAm, who was seated behind his messy desk, cleared his throat. “Okay, guys. How about everyone but Therese head back to prep.”

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Emile said.

“Thanks—and hey, listen, I lost my phone last night. That’s why I didn’t answer when you called. I wasn’t avoiding you or anything, and the last thing I want is to create a problem.”

“As long as you’re okay.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “That’s all I care about.”

After everybody left, Therese exhaled in frustration and turned back to her boss. “Am I in trouble or something?”

“No.” He shook his head. “But what happened last night?”

She shrugged. “It was a shooting between humans. Nothing to do with us.”

“At my brother’s club?”

“Yes. Emile and I went there to—” She stopped herself. “That’s not important. Anyway, I gather everything was… taken care of… on the human side of things. Just as they said it would be.”

Now iAm was rubbing his head like it hurt. Then he muttered something under his breath and looked across that desk. When he didn’t say anything, she felt as though he were trying to speak with his eyes. There was no chance to ask questions, however. The outside door opened behind Therese and—

As a blast of arctic winter air shot into the corridor, she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. And forget about the flush that went through her body.

Trez was bigger, better, sexier, smarter, fitter, handsomer—every -er you could tack on to every adjective that had ever been used to describe a male of worth. Even though she had seen him a mere eighteen hours ago, the absence had gone further than making her heart grow fonder. It had turned him into a living, breathing fantasy.

And on his side? He smiled back at her. And smiled. And smiled.

Okay, she really needed to get another burner phone. So they could talk to each other during the day. She had wondered whether he had tried to call her—but then remembered he had been with her when she’d discovered her cell was gone—

“Allow me to break into this moment,” iAm said sharply.

She and Trez snapped to attention as if a drill sergeant had threatened them with dead lifts for insubordination.

“Why didn’t you tell me what had gone down at the club?” iAm demanded. Except then he put up a hand. “Wait, don’t answer that. I’m just glad she’s okay.”

“I wasn’t in any real danger,” Therese said.

Hell, there had at least been three feet between the muzzle of that gun and her face. Maybe four. No problem.

iAm sat forward and pulled a folder across the desk. Opening it, his finger went down the form she had filled out when she had first been hired.

“You never gave us your emergency contact information.” He tapped one of the vacancies she had left. “I’ve got to know who to get in touch with if something happens to you here at work. If you’re injured in an accident. If you don’t come in at all.”

Therese opened her mouth. Closed it.

“Me,” Trez said. “Call me.”

She glanced in his direction. She had been so struck by his presence, she hadn’t even noticed what he was wearing. But damn… the male turned a white silk shirt and a set of fine black slacks into a masterpiece. Did he never wear a coat, though?

As she worried about him catching a cold that turned into pneumonia that put him on life support, Therese pulled back from the tailspin a little. It was impossible not to notice how far she had evolved in such a short time. Just twenty-four hours before, she had been all now-is-not-a-good-time-for-a-relationship and do-things-on-my-own. Now? She was totally about this male, that rare sexual connection they shared rocketing her forward on a timeline of intimacy so fast she probably should be wearing a neck brace from the whiplash.