Grabbing the edge of the love seat, they both grunted as they got it stabilized between them, and then they were crab-walking the thing across the Smithsonian foyer and out onto the ramp that led into the truck’s belly.

“Where do you want this?” she asked.

“Right here is fine. I’m not taking much else.”

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As they lowered the weight, she said, “So…you’re leaving.”

“Yeah.” He slapped his palms on the seat of his jeans. “It’s about time. My father and I were done a long while ago.”

He refused to look at her. Not because he seemed mad, though. More like he was finished with drama.

Unease rippled through her like a toxin. “Where are you going?”

“A buddy of mine has a penthouse with an extra room. I’m going to stay with him for a while until I find a place of my own.”

“So you’re at least staying in Caldwell. What about the training program?”

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“Oh, I’m not leaving that. Why would I. I am not a quitter anymore.” He measured his things. Then focused on her. “So. What can I do you for.”

His affect was calm and centered, not hostile or emotional. Just as he would be with a stranger on the street: polite but not wrapped up in anything.

Her heart pounded. And not from love seat–related exertion.

“I wanted to apologize.”

“It’s cool. You don’t have to.” He turned away. “I’m not going to be weird in class or anything.”

She reached out and took his arm. “Please. Let me talk.”

With a deliberate move, he took himself out of her reach—and she was reminded of all the times she had done that to him, literally and figuratively.

“Actually,” he intoned, “maybe it’s best that you don’t.”

“Peyton, I said things I didn’t mean last night—”

“You sounded very lucid to me, FYI. And listen, you’re not the first person to call me out for having no substance, for being a flaker.” Suddenly, his face got serious. “You will be the last one, though. I promise you that.”

“I didn’t mean it. I was hurt and I jumped to conclusions after I—”

“Oh. By the way, I am sorry for what my father said to you. When I came back here after you and I had our little—discussion, shall we call it—he told me what he’d done and we had it out. I broke his favorite Tiffany lamp, but at least it wasn’t over the motherfucker’s head.” He shrugged. “Incidentally, not that you care, that’s the reason I’m leaving. He’s not going to force me into mating anybody, and I am sure as shit done with living under the same roof with a male who could accuse you of being a goddamn prostitute to your face.”

“So it was all a lie?”

“About the female? Why ask me that?”

“You rightfully accused me of not giving you a chance to explain—”

“No, why ask me a question when you won’t believe the answer? I am very sure I could talk until I’m blue in the face, and you will do what you want with the words.” He pivoted away and headed back into the house. “You know, recast them to suit yourself. Play a game of chess and move ’em around until you get the answer you’ve pre-decided is the truth—”

She caught up with him on the fancy stairs. “I went to see Serenity.”

At that, he stopped.

“That’s what I named her. I spent the day at the house. In the kitchen.”

It seemed like a lifetime before Peyton slowly turned back around.

And oh, man, she was not going to waste this chance. She spoke fast and with the kind of urgency that came from desperation.

“You were right. I’ve been punishing you and everyone around me for what Sophy did to me and what Oskar wasn’t strong enough to fight against. And then I’ve been punishing me for the miscarriage even though I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve had this…fury in my blood that I haven’t been able to handle. And I’m so sorry. You told me last night you hoped I’d figure it out for myself and I’m trying, I really am. I just…I love you. Even though I’m broken, I love you. And not like I did Oskar. I was with him because he was the first male who paid any attention to me and I was too fucking stupid to know the difference between hope and reality. But you…you were the only person I wanted to see when it was time to tell my truth. You were the only place I wanted to go. And that’s because this,” she pointed to her heart, “knows more than this.”

As she indicated her head, she prayed she was getting through to him. “I would do anything to take back those words I threw at you. You didn’t deserve any of it. You have more than earned a chance to explain what actually was going on about that mating thing, but in my anger, I didn’t have the ability to give you that. I know I don’t deserve a second chance, but—”

“Shh. Just stop talking for a minute.”

He put his head in his hands and took a deep breath. Then he focused beyond her, looking around her.

Novo’s heart beat so hard, it rivaled an entire rhythm section.

“Let me ask you one thing,” he said after a long time.

“Anything. I don’t care what it is.”

He shifted his eyes to hers. “Do you think we can fit my love seat and my couch at your place? Or just the love seat.”

Novo shook her head to clear it. “I’m sorry, what—”

“I mean, how much square feet do you have?” As she stared at him in total confusion, he held out his arms and smiled. “Come on, the female of my dreams tells me she loves me and then she thinks that I, a homeless indigent, am not going to take advantage of that and move in with her? Really? Like, seriously? Even if I wasn’t in love with you, too, you’re bound to be a better roommate than Nickle.”

Novo couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

So she did both as she leapt into Peyton’s loving arms. “I don’t deserve you,” she choked. “I really don’t.”

As Peyton held Novo to his chest, he closed his eyes and breathed in. “Deserve me? Well, considering that many people think I’m a curse of Biblical proportions—”

She pushed back. “Says who. I’ll cut a bitch.”

“My father, for one. But he has poor taste.”

Peyton kissed her quick. And then again for a little longer. When they eased back for air, he stroked the tears from her cheeks.

“You don’t have to say it,” he murmured. “I already know.”

“Know what?”

“That you don’t want anyone to know about this soft side to you. So I’m just going to tell them that you came over, kicked me in the balls, and took my liver when I coughed it onto the floor. I had to follow you home or I wouldn’t be able to cleanse my own blood.”

She laughed, and then searched his face as if she were re-memorizing it after a long trip. “It’s okay. I’m not feeling like I have to protect myself all the time anymore.”

“Good. ’Cuz I’ve got your back.”

“And I have yours.” She craned a glance toward the open door of the mansion. “And I think we need to leave your couch. Your wardrobe takes up more space than I’ve got already.”

“Cool. I’ll just take it out of the truck and leave it in the middle of the foyer. My father will probably want to haul the fucker back out and burn it on the front lawn because it’s mine—but at least he won’t have to have the doggen move it that far.”

“You are a very considerate son.”

“Aren’t I?”

She kissed him again. “But listen…my place is a dump compared to what you’re used to. It’s small, it’s doesn’t have any windows, and the neighbors can sometimes be pests.”

Peyton looked around at the grandeur he had grown up in. His sire had vowed to take him out of the will and remove him from the family tree—so all this was going to be a thing of his past. And the amazing thing? He was so totally good with that.

Stuff was nice. Love was better.

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