“I’m locking this back door,” he yelled out from the kitchen. “And I want you to lock the front one after I leave.”

As he returned to the living room, she was already sitting in front of the hearth, but she got up again. “Absolutely.”


“And call me if you see anything.”

“I will.”

“My extra gun is under that sofa cushion, right there. Loaded and the safety’s off.”

“I’m not shooting anything again. Or at least not for a very long time and only if it’s a snake in my car. Now, will you go? You’re going to miss the bus—and yes,” she drawled, “I’ll be naked when you come back.”

Axe let out a growl. “Okay, there’s an incentive.”

A quick kiss and he was out the door—and yelling, “Lock up! Or I’m not leaving!”

She laughed and went over, turning the dead bolt. “Locked! Go!”

Elise went back and sat before the fire, tucking her legs up tight and linking her arms. In the peaceful solitude, she thought about Troy and how much she was looking forward to them starting that seminar after New Year’s. He’d been so understanding when she’d told him that as much as she liked him, she had just started to see somebody, so there could be no dating between them. He had almost seemed relieved, explaining that it was probably for the best, given their professional association.

So all was good there.

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And Axe was going to get her back and forth to the classes safely. She was even excited to have him see her teach—

A gust of wind hit the side of the cottage, whistling through the shutters and making the eaves moan. When another hit, she turned around and looked behind her. She felt like she was being watched, but … no.

There was no one around.

As a third battering gust of wind howled, she could swear she felt the chill inside. But maybe that was because her brain was bouncing between the actual violence she had witnessed the night before in that alley … and the representations of violence she had seen at Allishon’s.

Even with her coat on, she got cold.

Axe had stoked the fire perfectly, though, and at least the front of her was warm. But she sure could use …

Getting up, she went over to the chair by the front door. There was a nice heavy throw draped over the back, and as she picked it up, it smelled like Axe’s body. Perfect.

Halfway on the return trip to the fire, something dropped out of its folds, and she bent down to—

At first, Elise couldn’t believe what she was looking at.

So much so, that instead of picking the object up, she knelt down next to it.

A piece of metal. Painted black. In an odd shape that was kind of like a key, but not really.

Her heart started pounding and she looked around, which was ridiculous. Like any of the furniture or those banked flames were going to help her reconcile the issue?

Which was the fact that not more than fifteen minutes ago, give or take, she had looked at Axe and asked him what this “key” was—and he had told her he didn’t know?

Letting the weight of the fabric fall to the floor, she flattened the expanse out … and was entirely unsurprised to find that it was a cloak. Just like Allishon’s—

There was a large bulge on one side, and she ran her hands over it, wondering if she wanted to go any further with this. But of course, she had to. Heart pounding, she reached inside and—

With a curse, she dropped the mask of a skull. The thing was evil looking, realistic to the point of nightmare, hinged so that he could talk while wearing it.

Her hands shook as she put the horror back. And then, bending down low, she breathed in deep—and smelled Axe … along with some other things.

That made her want to throw up.

Images and memories filtered through her brain: of the two of them together, talking downstairs in that cellar; of him smiling at her for the first time; of him kissing her outside of that steakhouse; of their bodies in front of this very fire.

Maybe there was some kind of confusion or … an explanation for why he’d lied to her.

Surely there had to be.

Folding the cloak back together, she stared at the metal object.

Yes, there most certainly was an explanation … but she was abruptly scared of what it might be.

All in all, Peyton had it good.

He was reclining in his bed, his every need catered to by his family’s staff, his pain controlled by some Oxys that were, for once, entirely legal. And what do you know, his head was working fine—i.e., it was running his body and generating reasonable thought processes—like, yes, definitely, he wanted the underdog Louisville Cardinals to beat Kentucky in men’s basketball.

He had good money bet in Vegas with his bookie.

But he couldn’t say he was happy. Even with the feel-fine opiate in his system.

That shit with Novo was staying with him and not in a good way.

The issue for him was not so much that he cared he was a douche bag. Hell, if that bothered him, he’d have hanged himself in the closet years ago.

It was the idea that Novo thought he was a douche bag that was putting a hair across his ass.

Shit, maybe he was more old-fashioned than he thought. He’d certainly flown those same colors with Paradise when she’d told him she was entering the training program—and look at how that had worked out. She had ended up being the Primus, the number one trainee during that brutal orientation they’d all been through. So yeah, he’d been wrong about her.

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