Her laughter was harsh. “Oh, I owe you, huh. Riiiiiight. Because everything has to be about you.”

“What are you talking about?” He could feel his voice getting loud, but he couldn’t stop it. “What is wrong with you?”


“Me? Nothing is wrong with me. And nothing is wrong with you, either. You’re getting mated soon to a nice female from a good family, so all’s right in your world. Congratulations—hey, maybe you two and my sister and Oskar can double-date as newlyweds.” She clapped her hands together. “Yay! Selfie time!”

Before he could open his mouth, she leaned forward. “And don’t pretend that you’re surprised. You knew exactly what you were doing the whole time you and I were fucking. You knew you were getting mated to someone else, but you played it like—” She cut herself off. “Anyway, do me a favor and don’t invite me to the ceremony, ’kay? I’m pretty sure it would be awkward for the shellan-to-be, and whereas your kind is perfectly happy to be cruel, we wouldn’t want to be tacky, would we. Yeah, ’cuz that’s wrong.”

A pair of humans, a man and a woman, came down the stairs over on the left, and the fact that they were laughing and holding hands was a real kick in the balls.

Peyton stepped to the side to let them pass, and he waited until they were all the way through the vestibule to speak.

“It’s not what you think.”

Novo laughed again. “Really? Just how many ways do you believe this scenario is open to interpretation—or do you assume that because I’m just a piece-of-shit civilian that I would be nothing but grateful to be your hot, kinky side-piece for the rest of my life.”

Peyton took another step back. And then a third. “So you’ve made your mind up. You’ve decided everything, huh.”

“The math is not that hard. And I’m a very smart female.”

“FYI, you haven’t let me say one word about any of this.”

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“Why would I. Your version isn’t going to matter to me at all. It’s only air, not substance. Just like you.”

Peyton felt that one go right through the center of his chest. And in the aftermath, he looked down at the floor. Dimly, he noticed the carpet was damp, the result of people coming in from the cold with snow on their boots and shoes.

He thought of how she had let him hold her through the night.

He had been so convinced he was finally in her heart.

But he should have known better.

Maybe at a different time in her life they could have had a better chance. A relationship with her, though, was going to be like running a marathon on a broken foot. There were accommodations that could be made, conversations to re-engender trust, reassurances and reexaminations to make sure she was comfortable, but over time, the fundamental weakness that she would never really trust him was going to break down the overall effort.

“I can’t fix you,” he murmured.

“What was that?” she snapped. “What the hell did you say to me?”

He swung his eyes back to hers. “I’m sorry that you were hurt. I really am—”

“This is not about Oskar! Don’t you dare try to deflect—”

“Actually, it absolutely is. Maybe you’ll figure that out sometime, maybe you won’t. But either way, that’s none of my business because I refuse to keep paying for the sins of another. Good luck to you. Hope you find peace somehow, some way.”

He turned away and went for the double doors—and as he came up to them, he caught a flash of her reflection in the glass. She was staring after him, her chin up, her eyes flashing, her arms crossed over her chest.

Over her heart.

If that was not a perfect metaphor for who she was as a person, he didn’t know what was.

Letting himself out, he went down the seven snow-packed steps one by one and looked left. Then right.

He chose a direction randomly and walked along, putting his hands in the pockets of his fleece. He hadn’t bothered to put on a parka, and he’d left his duffel bag back in the locker room at the training center by mistake. The cold didn’t bother him.

For some reason, as he went along, he thought of a wounded animal that nonetheless bit the hand that was trying to save its life.

All just part of the tragedy, though. Wasn’t it.

“No, fuck that shit. That pair of assholes can fuck right off.”

As Wrath made his proclamation, he was sitting in the Audience Room, in the armchair on the left, in front of a blazing hearth. George was curled on his lap, the King’s hand stroking that boxy, blond head, the dog feeling considerably better after he’d apparently tried to ingest the yellow fuzz of a tennis ball.

Things were working their way through. Not that Saxton had asked for a detailed accounting of what “things” or “working” or “through” meant.

One could guess, however.

“You have such a way of putting things, my Lord,” he said with a grin as he looked back down at the ancient tome that he had opened with care and consulted with much deliberation. “And in this instance, I wholly agree. Peyton and Romina have every right to determine the course of their lives, and by revising the language in this antiquated passage, we can assure that non-consented dowries are not a problem going forward for either sex.”

“Do you want to cancel that appointment?” Wrath lifted his head, those black wraparounds making him look like he was prepared to shoot the pair of sires. “Because if they come in here, they may not appreciate my delicate delivery. Selling your fucking kid. Are you kidding me.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Saxton made a notation on his schedule. “I think it would be best if I explained to them over the phone that there will be no avenue legally for them to accomplish their objectives. Otherwise, we will have call Stainmaster, won’t we.”

Wrath laughed softly. “We are a good pair, you and I.”

“I am complimented greatly by your praise and could not agree more wholeheartedly.” Saxton bowed. “I shall draft the revision to the Old Laws and enter it into my online database so that it is effective as of this evening. All will be well.”

“That’s the last thing on our agenda, right?”

“Yes, my Lord.” He glanced at the dog. “Although, George, no more with the tennis balls, okay?”

“Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore, right, big man?”

As the golden let out a groan, Saxton gathered his papers, got up from his desk, and bid his adieu. On the way out, he nodded at Blay, who had been on guard by the door.

“I think the pair of them are beyond ready to go home,” he whispered. “Wrath is exhausted from worrying about his second child.”

“And I think we’re all scared to death anything will happen to—”

“—that dog.”

“—that dog.”

They nodded and then Blay went into the Audience Room to arrange for transport and Saxton went back to his office. The temptation to go home right away was nearly overwhelming, but in the end, he had to follow his procedure. It was a good hour before he could leave, and when he was finally done, he nearly trampled two doggen on the way to the back door.

Dematerializing to the farmhouse’s front stoop, he paused to loosen the laces on his Merrells, and he was whistling as he entered the—

The scent of blood was thick in the air.

“Ruhn?” He dropped his satchel and his travel mug on the floor. “Ruhn!”

As sheer panic flooded every nerve ending he had, he raced into the parlor. Furniture had been knocked over, a lamp was broken…rugs were out of place, scrunched up in corners.

“Ruhn!” he screamed.

Not a sound. Not a moan. Not a groan.

But the blood was not human.

Wheeling around, he ran down to the kitchen and—

The pool of blood was over by the table and Saxton all but tripped in his rush to get over there—

“Oh, God, no…!”

Ruhn was sprawled on the floor facedown, blood…everywhere.

“Ruhn! My love!”

Saxton fell to his knees by the body, his stomach rolling to the point of vomiting, but he refused to give in to the impulse as he reached out to touch shoulder and back.

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