Peyton took her hands, drew them away from the ties, and then turned them over. Dipping his head, he kissed her on both wrists, his lips the softest of brushes. And afterward, he gathered the ties she had been holding…and executed a perfect bow, the two loops exactly the same, the pair of ends of equal length, the johnny now re-closed.

Placing his hand over her heart, he whispered, “I am so glad you’re okay.”

Without another word, he wrapped his arms around her and urged her back down onto his chest.

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She resisted. For a little bit.

But then she stopped fighting.

As the hours of daylight passed, Peyton did not sleep. He just stroked Novo’s back with a slow hand, the contours of her spine and muscles a landscape he learned better with each pass.

He had often recognized her strength. How could he not? There was a lot of pain underneath all of that, though—and he was struck by a need to find out her secrets, get in and help her conquer those demons. But come on, what could he really do for her? He was more boat-with-a-hole-in-it than competent-rescuer-on-the-high-seas.

At some point, he must have drifted off, because the wailing of that patient with the mental breakdown woke him up. Listening to the howling, he wondered how much longer anyone could last in that condition.

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A quick check of the clock on the wall and he cursed. Five o’clock.

Damn it, he didn’t want to leave her and he most certainly did not want to go where he was expected at five-thirty. But he was used to doing shit he had no interest in.

With slow, careful movements, he repositioned Novo—and prayed that she stayed asleep. She looked like she was really making the turn, what with that scar healing up already and her brows relaxed now, not furrowed in pain. When he was standing on his own two feet and she had curled onto her side, he eased the blankets into place and realized that they had never been skin to skin. She hadn’t taken her johnny off, and he hadn’t even gotten in under the covers.

Seemed like a metaphor for all the things she was keeping to herself.

As he pulled on his tuxedo slacks, he had some notion that he should leave well enough alone. Sexual attraction did not a relationship make, and neither did it justify demands for emotional connection. And hell, he knew firsthand from those hours on the phone with Paradise that people talked about themselves on their own timeline and no one else’s.

Just leave her be, he told himself. Those defenses of hers were in place for a reason.

His tuxedo shirt was a wrinkled mess and he hated that as he pulled it on, but it wasn’t like the thing was going to stay on him for longer than the walk down to the males’ locker room. He’d take his shower there and throw on a set of scrubs.

Over at the door, he stared back at Novo sleeping on that hospital bed. She was in the position of a young, her knees tucked up tight, her arms, too, those hands of hers that were so good with weapons curled into innocent rolls under her chin. Black lashes rested on cheeks that were no longer so pale, and that heavy black braid was like a rope as it lay along the archer’s bow of her back.

He had some thought that he was never going to see her like this again.

This moment, right here, was a one-off, an artificially constructed instant limited to the final phase of her recovery. The next time he saw her, she was going to be up and at him and everyone else, her body whole and fully functioning, her mind sharp, her faculties no longer dimmed, but firing on all cylinders.

He had been granted a gift the now. Not by her, though. She never would want anyone to see her like this.

Stepping out of the room, he took off the piece of paper that had been taped to the door and folded it a couple of times so that Dr. Manello’s shitty handwriting was no longer visible. Then he put the thing in his pocket and hustled down to the locker room.

A quick shower, shave, and change of clothes, and he was ready for what was ahead, another hurdle to be jumped, a hoop to go through, a “t” to cross, an “i” to dot—and then things were done here. He left his tux in one of the lockers and was stuck wearing his formal patent leathers, the little grosgrain bows and glossy pointed toes looking absolutely ridiculous sticking out from underneath the hems of the scrub pants.

Back in the hall, he paused by Novo’s room. Then kept on going. No one was out and about. Dr. Manello was probably sleeping off his toked-up version of a rager, and Doc Jane and Ehlena were no doubt getting ready for First Meal at what they called “the big house.” There were no Brothers around, and certainly no trainees.

There were going to be soon enough, though.

They were supposed to be having a meeting at eight. That was why this particular appointment of his had to happen so early.

Peyton stopped at the glass door of the office. Peering in, he almost hoped there would be no one at that desk. But of course, that was a not-happening.

The Brother Rhage’s shellan, Mary, was sitting at the computer, her head down, her eyes trained on the screen. As if sensing his presence, she looked up and waved for him to come in.

Run, Forrest…run! was all he could think of as he pushed his way inside.

“Hey.” She got to her feet. “How are you?”

“I’m great. Thanks.”

“Good. You ready to have a little chat?”

As far as he knew, Mary was a human—or had been one—until the Scribe Virgin had interceded and, for some reason, taken the female out of the continuum of time. He didn’t know much more about it, but she certainly seemed as serene as an angel or a deity or whatever she was. And she was very different from Rhage. She was small, especially compared to her hellren, and she had an unassuming beauty, her brown hair cut practically, her face always free of makeup, her clothes simple, functional. The only jewelry he’d ever noticed on her—not that he paid much attention—was an enormous gold Rolex, which had to have belonged to her mate, and maybe a pair of pearl studs.

She was wearing both tonight.

Bottom line, she was just what you’d think a shrink would be like: calm, sharp as a tack, and bonus for him, she didn’t seem judgmental in the slightest.

“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered as he went to take a seat in the chair across from her.

“Oh, not here.”

He looked around at the office. “Why not?”

“It’s not private.”

“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said dryly. “If that were the case, I would have stopped streaking at human concerts years ago.”

“No, let’s go.”

“Where?”

Mary came around the desk. “There’s an old interrogation room down the hall—no, this is not being filmed, and before you ask, I will not divulge to anyone what you say. It’s just that if we’re in there, no one will interrupt us.”

“Wait, if you won’t tell anybody anything, why are we doing this?”

“I’ll be making an assessment. But I will not be sharing specific details.”

“About whether or not I’m sane?”

“Let’s go this way.”

As she smiled, it was calm, but he had the sense she wasn’t going to go into any further detail.

Whatever, he thought. This was all just a formality before they kicked him out.

As Peyton followed her into the corridor, he shrugged. “FYI, you can tell the world as far as I’m concerned. I made the bad call out in the alley and I know I’m leaving the program. So we could save a lot of time and just have you check that box on the form.”

She stopped and looked up at him. “No one’s made that determination yet.”

“You mean telling me to leave? Come on, we both know that’s where we are. And it’s fine.”

“Do you not like what you’re doing here?”

The question was not phrased in an offensive way, as if she were criticizing him for his lack of commitment or something. It was more an invitation to talk.

He should be ready for a lot of that tone from her, he thought.

“No, it’s fine. Whatever happens, happens.”

After she made some kind of an mmm-hmm sound, they started walking side by side. As they went along, only one set of footfalls, his, echoed around. Mary glanced down at his feet.

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