Xhex left the club at four twelve a.m. The cleaning staff were doing their suck, buff, and shine thing, and would be responsible for shutting the doors, and she had the alarms ready for automatic activation at eight o'clock. The cash registers were empty, and Rehvenge's of fice was not just locked but impenetrable.

Her Ducati was waiting for her in the private garage slip where the Bentley was parked when Rehv didn't need his wheels. She rolled the black bike out, mounted it as the door trundled shut, and started the bitch with a kick.

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She never wore a helmet.

She always wore her leather chaps and her biker jacket.

The motorcycle roared between her legs, and she took the long way home, weaving in and out of downtown's maze of one-ways, then opening the Ducati up on the Northway. She was going well over a hundred when she blew past a cop car parked under the pines in the median.

She never put her lights on.

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Which explained why, assuming she'd tripped the guy's radar and he wasn't asleep behind his badge, he didn't come after her. Hard to chase what you couldn't see.

She had two places in Caldwell to lay her head: a basement apartment downtown for when she found herself needing privacy stat, and a secluded two-bedroom cabin on the Hudson River.

The dirt road to her waterfront property was nothing but a footpath, thanks to her having let the underbrush grow in over the past thirty years. On the far side of the tangle, the 1920s-era fishing cabin sat on a seven-acre lot, the house built solidly but without grace. The garage was detached and over to the right, and that had been a major value-add when she'd looked at the property. She was the kind of female who liked to keep a lot of firepower around, and storing the ammo outside of the house reduced the likelihood of her getting blown up in her sleep.

The bike went into the garage. She went into the house.

Walking into the kitchen, she loved the way the place smelled: old pine boards from the ceiling and walls and floors, and sweet cedar from the closets that had been built for hunting gear.

She didn't have a security system. Didn't believe in them.

She had herself. And that had always been enough.

After a cup of instant coffee, she went into her bedroom and stripped out of her leathers. In her black sports bra and panties, she lay down on the bare floor and braced herself.

Tough as she was, she always needed a moment.

When she was ready, she reached down to her thighs, to the barbed metal bands she had clamped into her skin and muscles. The locks on the cilices released with a pop, and she groaned as blood rushed to the wounds. With her vision flickering, she curled onto her side, breathing through her mouth.

This was the only way she could control her symphath side. Pain was her self-medication.

As her skin went slick with her blood, and her body's nervous system recalibrated, a tingling went through her. She thought of it as her reward for being strong, for keeping it together. Sure it was chemical, nothing except garden-variety endorphins racing around in her veins, but there was magic to the spacey, racy, ringing sensation.

It was times like this when she was tempted to buy herself some furniture for this place, but the impulse was easy to resist. The wooden floor was easier to clean up.

Her breath was easing and her heart was slowing and her brain was starting to turn over again when something popped into her head that reversed the trend toward stabilization.

John Matthew.

John Matthew... that bastard. He was, like, twelve, for godsakes. What the hell was he thinking, trying to sex her up?

She pictured him standing underneath those lights in the mezzanine bathroom, his face that of a fighter, not a young boy, his body that of a male who could deliver, not a wall- flower with self-esteem issues.

Reaching to the side, she pulled over her leathers and took out the folded paper towel he had given her. Unfurling it, she read what he had written.

Next time say my name. You'll come more.

She snarled and wadded up the damn thing. She had half a mind to get up and burn it.

Instead, her free hand went between her legs.

As the sun came up and light spilled into her bedroom, Xhex pictured John Matthew on his back beneath her, thrusting what she had seen in his jeans up to meet her riding surges...

She couldn't believe the fantasy. Resented the hell out of him for it. Would have cut the shit if she could have.

But she said his name.

Twice.

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