Gathering her things and putting them in her own duffel, she checked her phone just out of habit—


All that chill, no worries, Bobby McFerrin shit went right out the window as she saw who had texted her.

Opening up the message, she had to read it twice. Then she put her phone away and scrambled-egg’d her way out into the corridor.

She was halfway to the parking area when a voice in her ear drawled, “Can we have a rematch, only naked?”

Novo jumped and spun around to Peyton. “Oh! Yeah, sorry, absolutely—where are you headed?”

“Home. And I was hoping to see you.”

“Yeah. I have to go start some laundry and stuff. I’ll meet you in like an hour?”

“Hey.” He put his hand on her arm. “You okay?”

“Totally.” She shrugged out from under his touch. “My shoulder’s aching and my place is out of control. I just need to get things sorted on the home front and then I’ll be over.”

“Roger that.” His eyes became remote. “And listen, if you need some time off, I totally understand.”

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“Nah. I’m good.” As she shook her head, she was struck by a surprising impulse to give him a quick kiss.

As if he sensed this, he smiled slow and on one side. “Take your time. I’ll always wait for you.”

Together, they walked down the corridor and got on the bus, sitting across the aisle and facing one another, their legs stretched out so that their running shoes knocked. As the bus began to move, Boone started to listen to old-school U2 and she was able to track the Joshua Tree album by the rhythm of the hisses of his earbuds. Craeg and Paradise were in the back, in each other’s arms, not hooking up, but just relaxing. And Axe started to snore.

When they got to the designated drop-off spot, everyone disembarked and Peyton lifted a hand to her before ghosting away.

Novo loitered as everybody dematerialized. Then she scattered herself into the night air…in a direction away from where she lived.

When she re-formed, it was in front of an Irish bar called Paddy’s in a section of town she had avoided for over two years.

She took a deep breath as she pushed her way into the pub. It was mostly empty, but there was a male vampire sitting all the way in the back, in a booth.

He stood up as soon as she came in. And after a moment, she walked down toward him.

“Hello, Oskar,” she said as she stopped in front of him. “This is a surprise.”

After Novo spoke, there was an awkward moment, and she made good use of it by sitting down and arranging her duffel bag—so that there was no chance of a hug or anything.

Oskar cleared his throat and then re-lowered himself into the booth. “Would you like something to drink?”

Maybe a beer, she thought. Ordinarily, she liked a good Scotch, but this was not an ordinary situation.

“Yeah, Coors.” Then she tacked on. “Light.”

He raised a hand and when the bartender came over, he said, “Two Coors Light.”

“We close in a half hour.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

The human man grumbled away and came back immediately with a pair of longnecks. “You want to pay for ’em?”

Oskar nodded and shifted over so he could get his wallet out of his pocket. “Keep the change.”

“Okay. Thanks—but we still close in thirty.”

The guy was still muttering under his breath as he returned to washing glasses on the far side of the counter.

“I’m glad you came,” Oskar said softly.

As she picked at the label on her bottle, she could feel his eyes searching her face, her hair, her body.

“You look different,” he murmured. “Harder. Stronger.”

“It’s the training.”

“It’s not all physical—”

“Look, Oskar, I don’t know what you’re hoping to get out of this, but I’m not interested in rehashing the past, okay? I lived through it, and it’s done. You’ve moved on with Sophy and so have I.”

“I just…wanted to see you.”

“Right before you mate—sorry, marry—my sister. Really? Come on. What kind of game are you playing here—”

“I knew you were pregnant.”

The words were quiet, but they hit her like a bomb, stopping her heart and her breath. “You did?”

“Yes.” He nodded and looked down at his own bottle. “I mean…I wondered. You were getting sick first thing at night all the time. Or at least that’s what Sophy said. She thought it was the flu. She didn’t want to catch it.”

Of course she didn’t.

And now Novo was studying him. He was thinner. There were bags under his eyes. That beard was like a trimmed garden hedge on his face, and the glasses? The lenses in them were without prescription. They were just one more prop in the outfit.

When you only looked at the superficial, she thought, standards were too easily met—and altered.

“What happened to the young?” he asked roughly. “I mean, where did you go for the abortion?”

As her stomach rolled, Novo pushed the beer aside. “What makes you think I had an abortion.”

“I saw you, like, ten months later. You weren’t pregnant anymore.”

Oh, riiiiight. She remembered that happy little reunion. She had come to her parents’ for dinner, having been invited by her mahmen. It had been after she had moved out and she had been feeling guilty that she hadn’t been back. So, yeah, sure, Mom, I’ll grin and bear it for a meal.

And naturally, it had been all about Sophy bringing her new boyfriend home to “meet” the family. Evidently, her sister had chosen that meal to tell the ’rents that there had been a little switcheroo on the dating landscape—and she had even maintained that it was important for Novo to be there so that everyone could feel good about the way things had ended up.

Novo had gone home and not been able to eat for three nights.

Sophy, on the other hand, had basked in a glow of I-win-the-game for weeks afterward.

“I mean, it was your decision,” he said. “I wouldn’t have stopped you. We weren’t ready to have a young at that point.”

“Yeah, ’cuz you were fucking my sister. Details, details.”

He winced at that. “I’m sorry.” He scrubbed his face. “I just…I didn’t know what to do.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest that, once again, probably not fucking her sister was a good place to start. But then she stared at his face again. First loves were by definition passion with training wheels on. Sometimes you lucked out and the future was long and full of self-discovery on both sides that only brought you closer together. But more often than not, you had too much to learn about yourself.

He had been her first. On all the levels that counted.

But compared to a certain blond aristocrat? Who was a wiseass and gave zero fucks about almost everything?

There was no comparison, actually.

And come to think about it, the fact that Sophy had stepped in and interrupted the natural devolution of things really was a neither-here-nor-there. The true tragedy hadn’t been about losing Oskar. It had been more about the young and the betrayal by her own bloodline.

“I’m okay,” she blurted. “It’s all okay.”

Which was a shocking truth.

“I’m glad,” he replied.

“I didn’t say those words for you.” She touched over her own heart. “I said them for me. I am…okay.”

At least about losing him. The young? Well, that was a different story—and none of his goddamn business. If the male had known she was pregnant and left anyway? He didn’t deserve her secrets.

Truth, like trust, had to be earned.

Oskar cleared his throat and ran his fingernails over his beard like the stuff itched. Then he took off his heavy black-rimmed glasses. Placing them on the table, he rubbed his eyes like they hurt.

As the silence stretched out, Novo shook her head. “You’ve decided you’re making a huge mistake mating Sophy and you don’t know what to do.”

He let his hands flop down to the table. “She’s driving me insane.”

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