"TONIGHT?" Xhex asked. "You're going up north tonight?"

Rehv nodded and went back to reviewing the construction plans for his new club. The sheaves of paper were stretched out across his desk, the blue architectural renderings overtaking all his other paperwork.

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Nope. This was not what he wanted. The flow wasn't right¡ªit was too open. He wanted a layout that was full of small spaces where people could get off in the shadows. He wanted a dance floor, sure, but not a square one. He wanted unusual. Creepy. Vaguely threatening and very elegant. He wanted the club to be Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker and Jack the Ripper, only done in nickel-plated chrome and a lot of glossy black. Victorian meets modern Goth.

The shit he was looking at was like every other club in town.

He pushed the plans away and checked his watch. "I gotta go."

Xhex crossed her arms and stood in front of the office's door.

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"And no, you're not," he said.

"I want to come."

"Am I having a nasty flashback? Because didn't we just do this the night before last? As well as a hundred other times? The answer is and always will be no."

"Why?" she snapped. "I've never understood why. You let Trez go."

"Trez is different." Rehv pulled on his sable coat and opened the drawer of the desk. The new pair of Glock forties he'd just bought fit perfectly into the holster he'd put on with his Bottega Veneta suit.

"I know what you do. With her."

Rehv froze. Then continued slipping the guns into their sleeves. "Of course you do. I meet with her. Give her the money. Leave."

"That's not all you do."

He flashed his fangs at her. "Yes. It is."

"No, it isn't. Is that what you don't want me to see?"

Rehv bit down on his molars and glared at her from across the office. "There is nothing to see. Period."

Xhex didn't back down often, but she had the good sense not to push him any further. Even though her anger simmered in her eyes, she said, "Changes in schedule are not good. She tell you why?"

"No." He headed for the door. "But this is just going to be business as usual."

"It's never business as usual. You've just forgotten that."

He thought of the years of this dirty shit and the fact that the future held only more of the same. "You're so wrong about the forgetting part. Trust me."

"Tell me something. If she tried to hurt you, would you shoot to kill?"

"You did not just ask me that."

The topic of conversation alone was enough to make him want to peel his skin off and send the shit to a dry cleaner. The idea that Xhex was calling him out on something he didn't want to look too closely at was beyond the pale.

The truth was, a part of him loved what he did once a month, too. And that reality was totally unbearable when he was in the world he mostly inhabited, the world the dopamine allowed him to live in, the world that was relatively normal and healthy.

That little slice of ugliness in his heart was something he sure as fuck wasn't sharing with anybody.

Xhex put her hands on her hips and kicked up her chin, her classic pose whenever they argued. "Call me when it's done."

"I always do."

He gathered together the plans for the club, picked up his overday bag, and stepped out of his office and into the alley. Trez was waiting in the Bentley, and when he saw Rehv, he vacated the driver's seat.

The Moor's voice appeared in Rehv's head, deep, melodic. I'LL BE THERE IN ABOUT A HALF HOUR TO SCOPE THE ENVIRONS AND CHECK THE CABIN.

"Good deal."

TELL ME YOU'RE UNMEDICATED.

Rehv clapped the guy on the shoulder. "As of an hour ago. And yes, I have the antivenom."

GOOD. DRIVE SAFELY, ASSHOLE.

"No. I'm going to aim for logging trucks and stray deer."

Trez shut the door and took a step back. As he crossed his arms over his massive chest, he cracked a rare smile, his white fangs glowing against his dark, beautiful face. For a split second, his eyes flashed brilliant peridot green¡ªthe Moorish equivalent of a wink.

As Rehvenge took off, he was glad Trez backed him up. The Moor and his brother, iAm, had a bag of fancy tricks that would challenge even a symphath. They were, after all, royal members of the s'Hisbe of Shadows.

Rehv glanced at the Bentley's clock. He was due to meet the Princess at one a.m. Considering it was a two-hour trip north and it was now eleven fifteen, he was going to have to drive like a bat out of hell.

As he took off, he thought about Xhex. He didn't want to know how she knew about the sex... hoped like hell she continued to respect his wishes and not show up and hang in the shadows.

He hated that she knew he was nothing but a whore.

On one hand, Phury couldn't believe that the words "I am a virgin" had come out of his mouth. On another, he was glad he'd said them.

He had no idea what Cormia thought, though. She was dead quiet.

He pulled back just enough so he could stuff his sex back in his pants and zip up, then he righted her robe, bringing the two halves together and covering her beautiful body up.

In the silence between them, he paced around the room, going from the door to the far wall and back.

Her eyes watched his every move. God, what the hell was she thinking?

"I suppose it shouldn't matter," he said. "I don't know why I brought it up."

"How is it possible... I'm sorry. That's so inappropriate¡ª"

"No, I don't mind explaining." He paused, unsure as to whether she'd read about Zsadist's past. "I took a vow of celibacy when I was young. To make me stronger. And I stuck to it."

Not quite, mate, the wizard chimed in. Tell her about the whore, why don't you. Tell her about the prostitute that you bought at ZeroSum and took into a bathroom and couldn't finish with.

How typical of you to be exceptional in that manner. The only soiled virgin on the planet.

Phury stopped in front of his drawing on the blackboard. He'd ruined everything.

Picking up a piece of chalk, he started at her feet, beginning to draw the ivy leaves.

"What are you doing?" she said. "You're ruining it."

Ah, lass, the wizard answered. However good he is at drawing, he's better at ruination.

Before long, the stunning figure of her was covered with a blanket of ivy leaves. When he was finished, he stepped back from the board. "I tried sex once. And it didn't work out."

"Why not?" she asked in a tight voice.

"It wasn't right. It wasn't a good choice. I stopped."

There was a pause and then a shuffling sound as she got off the table. "Just as it was now with me."

He spun around. "No, that isn't¡ª"

"You stopped, didn't you. You chose not to go on."

"Cormia, it's not that¡ª"

"Who are you saving yourself for?" Her eyes were smart as hell as she looked at him. "Or is it more like what? Is it the fantasy you have of Bella? Is that what's stopping you? If it is, I feel sorry for the Chosen. But if the celibacy is to keep yourself insulated and safe, I feel sorry for you. That strength is a lie."

She was right. Fuck him, but she was so right.

Cormia coiled up her hair and regarded him with a queen's dignity as she pinned it in place. "I'm going back to the Sanctuary. I wish you well."

As she turned away, he jogged over to her. "Cormia, wait¡ª"

She took her arm away when he tried to take it. "Why should I wait? What precisely is going to change? Nothing. Go be with the others. If you can. And if you can't, you need to step down so someone else can be the strength the race needs."

She clapped the door shut behind her.

Standing in the empty classroom, with the wizard's laughter ringing in his ears, Phury closed his eyes and felt the world shrink down all around him until his past and his present and his future were choking him of breath... turning him into one of the statues in his family's overgrown, dead garden.

That strength is a lie...

In the silence that surrounded him, her words just kept replaying in his head, over and over again.

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