Without this work, these fights, her nightly routine, there was nothing to ground her. Pull her through. Keep her going.

And her salvation from oblivion all started with Peyton.

Forgiveness by her, here and now toward him, was the kind of thing that would spread to everyone else and re-bind the group. The other trainees would have to follow her lead—and p.s., she hadn’t made up the shit about her being part of the problem. She should never have let the enemy just lie there on her like it had. Those slayer bastards were like rattlesnakes, capable of biting you even after you cut them in half. Peyton had definitely set the bad result in motion, but she had provided the slope.

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It was a mistake neither one of them was going to make again.

Assuming they got the chance.

With what was left of her strength, she tried to keep her eyes focused on Peyton’s face, but she could only get halfway to goal. Everything was fuzzy, as if there were panes of dusty glass between them.

What was clear? The scent of his tears.

And that was a shocker. Sure, she had needed open-heart surgery, but he was the perpetual joker, the playful resister who bobbed on top of everything. Not even a brush with death could make him get real…or at least, she wouldn’t have thought it could—

I’m not in love with her.

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That was totally not relevant, she told herself.

The door to the room swung open and Dr. Manello came in, his hospital scrubs traded for workout gear, a water bottle under his arm and a set of earbuds dangling from his hand.

“And we’re awake.” The human smiled. “Better than I thought you’d be.”

“Fighter,” she said in a voice that was more sandpaper than syllable.

God, she fucking hated to sound weak.

Dr. Manello came over and pounded knuckles with Peyton. Then he leaned against the base of the bed. “Yeah, as a soldier, you are absolutely in the right line of badass work. You flatlined twice on our table, which, to be honest, pissed me off. But you had your reasons. And there was one point when I was convinced I was going to lose you for good—you came back, though. Guess you decided you weren’t done with your work here on earth—well, and that six-chambered heart of yours just kept working with us. Somehow, it hung on so I could do what I needed to to fix that hole.”

“Maybe it was more because my surgeon”—she took a deep breath—“is talent? I mean, talented.”

“Nah, I’m just a mechanic in scrubs instead of overalls.”

He was lying, of course. Just as she had been coming out of anesthesia, she had heard Vishous say that there were only two surgeons that he knew of who could have saved her—Doc Jane and Dr. Manello. Especially because they hadn’t had a bypass machine in the surgical unit.

Whatever the hell that meant.

“So here’s the plan.” Dr. Manello did that thing medical people do, scanning the monitors that were all around the bed like he was updating her chart in his head. “You’re going to stay here for the next forty-eight hours. And don’t frickin’ bitch to me about how long that is or how amazing your species’ regenerative powers are and how you can go home at nightfall.” He put his palm up as she opened her mouth. “Nope, there will be no discussion. In another twelve hours, I want you walking yourself up and down the corridor. All the way to the exit and back every two or three hours—”

“Hoping…back to…work forty-eight hours.”

Dr. Manello shot her an are-you-fucking-serious. “After you had open-heart surgery. Yeah, right.”

“Feeding? But I could…feed more.”

“That’ll help, sure. But you know what else is ammmmaaaazing?” He lifted his head to the ceiling and got rapturous. “Staying the fuck in bed.”

“I heal faster…if I feed.”

“What’s the rush? None of you are going back out in the field anytime soon.” Abruptly, the surgeon shut his mouth, as if that were information he was not authorized to share. “Anyway, take a load off, eat chocolate pudding to soothe that throat I intubated, and we’ll see how you go.”

“Feeding, too.”

“Fine, yeah, sure, take as many fucking veins as you want. But whether you turn yourself into Frank Langella or not, I’m only clearing you when I’m good and goddamn ready.”

“Do you always curse…at your patients?”

“Only the ones I like.”

“Lucky…me.” But she smiled. “Do I…say thank…you…now?”

“Are you going to cry like a sissy if you do? ’Cuz, no offense, I’m a sympathetic weeper and I’d just as soon not have to go into the weight room looking like someone Mayweather’d me in the face.”

“I never cry.”

“Well, you’ve got a big heart, I’ll tell you that much. I’ve seen it up close and personal.” Dr. Manello put a hand on her foot and gave her a little squeeze. “You hit that call button if you need anything. Ehlena is right next door. I’m working out for the next hour or so, and then I’ll be sleeping across the hall just in case you spring another leak. Not that I’m expecting that.”

“Thank…you.”

“You are so welcome,” the surgeon said. “I love a good result. And let’s keep it that way during recovery, okay?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Good girl.” He smiled. “I mean, good badass boss lady.”

As her surgeon headed for the door, Novo admitted to herself that he was right. It was way too ambitious on her part to think she’d be able to fight in two days. The pain in her chest was incredible, the kind of thing she felt up in her molars and down to her toenails, even with all the drugs she was on. There was no way that was backing off by next nightfall.

She looked at Peyton. He was sitting in that chair like he was on the verge of bursting to his feet, his torso leaning forward, his hands planted on his thighs as if he were going to push himself up.

“What?” she asked him. “You look…as if you want…to be called on in class.”

“Chocolate pudding.”

Novo tried to take a deep breath and just ended up wheezing. “What…?”

“He said you’re supposed to eat it for your throat. I’ll get you some.”

“No.” In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to gag. “Oh, no. Stomach…no.”

“I just want to help somehow.”

She stared at him for a while. In all the ways that mattered, Peyton was the very thing she detested in a male, all that glymera bullshit wrapped up in a package that, as much as she tried to deny it, even she recognized as attractive.

He was her sister’s type, as a matter of fact.

Good thing Sophy was never going to meet him. Or Oskar would learn firsthand how it feels when someone you think loves you treats you like you’re an iPhone 5 in an X world.

Actually, wasn’t that a tempting fantasy…

What was the question? God, her brain was fuzzy. Oh, right…Peyton was everything she hated about wealthy high-society types who were too good for everyone else around them—but there was one part to all that which did work for her.

His blood was liable to be hella pure, to the point of being medicinal.

“What can I do?” he asked. “And if it’s leave you in peace, I can do that for you, too.”

In the back of her mind, a warning went off, the little ring-a-ding-ding pointing out that maybe, just maybe, it might be better for her to never know what he tasted like.

Although, come on, she’d already learned her lesson with males, and it had cost her a piece of herself. Literally.

She was not that stupid—and she really fucking wanted out of this bed.

“Let me…take your vein.”

As she said the words, Peyton’s eyes flared like that was the last thing he had ever expected her to say.

“Please,” he said roughly as he extended his wrist to her.

Except he immediately retracted his arm and brought his own flesh to his lips. His brows tightened only a fraction as he bit into himself, and then he extended the punctures over to her.

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