Oh, wait. That was going to happen anyway.

She holstered both the knife and the gun on her hip in such a way that they looked like nothing more than a cell phone on one side and a walkie-talkie on the other. Then she grabbed her wallet and her phone, threw on her jacket, and she was out into a cramped, cold hallway. At the end, there was a door and a short flight of concrete steps up to street level.

Outside, the wind was in the same mood she was, aggressive and nasty, and as it whipped around her body, it was like being on the subway and having people bang into you as you held on overhead.

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Her last thought, before she dematerialized into hell, was that Peyton hadn’t been in touch.

It had been the plan, and what she’d asked him to do. But he’d still surprised her. And it was embarrassing, really, how often she had checked her phone for texts or calls. Thank God she lived alone.

What was really pissing her off? How frustrated she got every time it wasn’t him—which was each time she picked up her phone, as it turned out. She’d gotten a number of texts: Paradise asking her to come to some birthday party, Boone wanting to know if she’d like to read any of his books, Axe to see if she was interested in working out. No Peyton.

And her sister and her mother had Bridal-mageddon’d her, of course.

OMG, guys, I’m feeling so much better. Yeah, that was a close call, that whole almost-dying thing. But I’m good and you were soooo helpful during my recovery. Thanks! *heart made from two fingers/two thumbs over chest* Love you!

Jesus Christ, this night was going to make her stabbing seem like a cakewalk.

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Going around the corner of the building, she found some dense shadows and dematerialized across town to—

Holy. Mary. Mother of all that was estrogen.

Like an ocean swimmer surrounded by chum, she looked left and right, not because she couldn’t recognize that there was a great white with bad dental work heading right for her churning legs, but rather because she was searching, praying, for a lifeboat of any kind on the horizon.

Nope. No one was coming, and more sharks were on the way.

The venue was pink on the outside and uplit by purple lights. Inside, through the glass bay windows, she saw lace curtains and framed posters of Paris. Lots of round tables and mismatched, cheerfully painted chairs. Flowers. Teacups. Towers of tea sandwiches even though it was eight o’clock at night.

Imagine My Little Pony meets KUWTK and serves gluten-free food.

The only thing that was a surprise was how big it was inside. As she entered, the air was thick with powdered sugar and melted butter, but it turned out the front tea room was just the start of things. Behind that section, there was a proper French-ish restaurant that had a very un-frat-boy, Cosmo’s-only bar, and a dancing area that had certainly never had a mosh pit anywhere near it.

Things grew dimmer the further in you went, but the decor never lost its seven-year-old, pink-and-purple girl palette. And the waitstaff did get a little more intense, although it was more like you just added extra red dye food coloring to the frosting: In the front part, you had human women in pink forties’ dresses with white aprons; in the restaurant, you had men and women in soda-fountain hop clothes; and finally, around the dance floor, security was one-hundred-and-twenty-pound swizzle-stick men with climate-change-awareness T-shirts and facial hair that was right out of Paul Bunyan’s playbook.

Then again, those boys were unlikely to have to ask anyone to leave, much less throw somebody out. The clientele were so Sophy’s peeps, eighty percent of them women with pressure of speech and the kind of hand gestures that professional boxers couldn’t keep up with for long.

Novo felt like a fly in a bowl of vichyssoise—and as she went down into the restaurant proper, she certainly got that kind of attention. All the pretty girls in their pretty clothes looked over at her, their expressions ranging from who-let-that-in to bless-her-heart, depending on where they were on the Mean Girls spectrum.

She found her sister presiding over her court of like-minded intellectuals at a special lineup of tables by the dance floor. There were a good number of them, well over a dozen, and that was not a surprise. A queen needed her ladies in waiting.

The second Sophy saw her, the female looked down at her place setting. Then she glanced over at her right-hand girl as if drawing strength. When the other female, who looked a lot like old-school Lynda Carter, nodded and squeezed her shoulder, Sophy put her napkin on the table and got up.

That smile was as bright and false as a pair of dentures.

“Novo, I’m sooooo glad you’re here.”

It was like getting embraced by a powder puff, and as Novo stepped back, the female’s spring-bouquet perfume lingered on her leather jacket like somebody had smacked her with an Easter lily.

“I’ve saved a seat for you. Down there.”

Novo looked at the other end of the table. There were a couple of empty chairs there, and she was willing to bet that was on purpose.

“Thanks.”

Joke’s on you, Sophy, she thought as she sauntered her way to her dunce-cap seat.

This was the best thing that had happened to her all night: If you took the infectious-disease model, there was no inoculation that could work against the Pollyanna pathogen, so isolation was best.

“So what do you think?”

As Saxton posed the question, he looked across the restaurant table. Ruhn was chewing slowly and looking as if he were trying to understand the dialect of a language he was only nominally familiar with.

“It’s delicious,” he announced after he swallowed. “What is it called again?”

“Chicken tikka masala.”

“And this?”

“Garlic naan.”

The waiter came up to the table and spoke with a beautiful, fluid accent. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Oh, yes,” Ruhn said. “May I please have another plate of this? And more of the rice?”

The human man bowed. “Right away, sir.”

Saxton smiled to himself. And was still smiling when the second wave arrived twenty-five minutes later. Ruhn ended up having thirds, too.

He was a precise eater, nothing sloppy or loose about his forkfuls or his hands, and he wiped his mouth constantly. He also asked very good questions.

“And then what did the sire do?” he was saying.

He was also so very handsome in the light of the little candle that sat between them, his eyes luminous, his face accented by the shifting shadows from the flame on its wick. As Saxton stared at those lips, he remembered how they had spent the day downstairs at Miniahna’s farmhouse, intertwined in that old rickety bed, the heat of their bodies providing all the warmth they needed, their passion banked, not extinguished.

Ruhn was proving to be the kind of lover Saxton had been looking for all his life. There was great hunger and rough dominance, but all of that was mediated by a wellspring of consideration and caring. It was the yin and the yang of sex, the grabbing and the caressing, the biting and the kissing, the pushing down and the cradling.

“Saxton?”

“Sorry, just admiring the view—and the memories of the day.” On cue, that blush was enchanting—and there was the temptation to stay on the subject of making love. But he let it go for the time being. “Anyway, the sire relented. She will be allowed to mate the male she wants. In the end, love wins.”

“I like that outcome.”

“Me, too.” Saxton sat forward as the male seemed to retreat into his head. “What are you thinking of?”

“I would like to believe I’d let Bitty choose. I mean, not that I’m her father or anything. But I would hope I would do that for her as long as the male was not a bad or dangerous guy.”

“You will. You’re a good father.”

“Rhage is her father.” Ruhn shook his head. “And I’m okay with that. It’s hard to be a father—I’m intimidated by the role. My father…he was my everything, my hero. He was strong and he honored my mahmen. He worked hard and provided well. All I ever wanted to do was be like him and live up to his standard. I never felt like I quite got things right.”

“Relationships with family are complicated.”

And it must have been so hard to learn the male wasn’t perfect, Saxton thought. That he had endangered the family through his gambling. That Ruhn had had to make good on the debts of his hero.

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