He focused on the little pearl stud in her left ear. “Whether I matter or not isn’t the issue.”

“So it’s one-mistake-and-you’re-out in your opinion?”

“Excuse me, and I am not being a smart-ass this time—it’s not like I got a math problem wrong.”

“You’re still deflecting. If Paradise had acted as you did in that alley, would you ask her to leave the program?”

“No, but she’s not me.”

“Why are you different?”

From out of nowhere, his head began to pound and he closed his eyes. “I don’t know. And I’m not the person in charge—for good reason. Can we be done?”

“Why couldn’t you be in charge?”

“Why did I know you were going to say that,” he muttered as he sat forward and put his hands on the metal-topped table. “I don’t know. I don’t have answers to these questions. So how about you throw me out because of that?”

“Would you like to know why they asked me to talk to you?”

“I put Novo in a hospital bed.”

Mary shook her head. “No, you didn’t. You made an unfortunate decision that, frankly, was more an indication that the training failed than you did. The Brothers asked me to talk to you because they want my sense about whether or not you’re taking this seriously. The responsibility, that is. Everyone who’s worked with you recognizes your skills. You’re a really good fighter, you’re smart, you’re quick. But you’re a quitter. When things get tough, you walk. They saw it during orientation when Paradise essentially carried you through the gym and into the pool challenge. They’ve noted it during exercises. And, to be honest, this whole just-kick-me-out is part of that characteristic of yours.”

“I’m not a quitter.”

“So prove it.”



Peyton shook his head. “It’s not up to me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Mary’s voice was grave. “It is entirely up to you.”

As Peyton got quiet, he noticed that the top of the table was reflective…and if he stared down into the surface of it, he could see himself.

He’d never really thought about it like that, but all those females and women he fucked and left? The schools he’d been suspended from halfway through? The things he’d dropped out of, the commitments he’d made and failed to follow through on…?

Hell, the closest relationship he’d ever had had been over the phone.

And Mary was right. This whole getting-kicked-out thing? He’d been practically begging for that outcome.

Was this what his father had always found so frustrating about him? This floating-above, never-committing thing? His sire was still an unsupportive shit all the way around, but Peyton had to wonder if he himself hadn’t deliberately given the male fodder for the cannons, so to speak. And what about the club douches that were Peyton’s closest set of “friends?” They were just like him, living off family money, asshat’ing around, developing drug habits instead of inner character.

He was from the land of labels. Which was not the same as quality, was it.

Who do you want to be? he asked himself. Who are you really?

The memory of Novo lying asleep on his chest, of her warm weight and her even breathing, of her subtle twitches as she dreamed, came back to him sure as if she were with him now.

Sometimes life brought you to corners that you saw coming, big changes altering your direction and focus thanks to a given event, like a mating or the birth of a young. Other times, though, the glacial shifts came without warning, popping out of nowhere.

He had never expected to run into this brick wall of self-reflection tonight. While in hospital scrubs. And tuxedo shoes.

At least the shoes might have been predicable. Maybe the scrubs. The rest of it? Hell, it was the shit he deliberately didn’t want to think about.

“What are you going to do, Peyton?”

“I want to stay,” he said roughly. “I want to keep going in the program. If they’ll have me.”

“Good.” As he looked back up her, Mary nodded. “That’s all we wanted to hear.”

“Forgive me for being blunt,” Saxton remarked dryly. “But this place is a dump.”

More like a meth lab than anywhere you’d build houses out of, he added to himself.

As Ruhn parked them grille-in to a low concrete building that had been painted the color of bile, Saxton wasn’t sure what he expected—but certainly not this window-less, single-doored tomb in a part of town usually reserved for businesses that had a shady side to them.

These were not just developers they were dealing with.

And of course, there was no signage identifying things as a going concern, nothing with a name on it or advertising—and the place had been hard to locate. There had only been a P.O. box listed on the letterhead that had been sent to Minnie, and Vishous had had to do some digging to find this address.

These humans wanted to be found only on their own terms.

“Is that the truck you saw at Minnie’s?” he asked as he pointed across the shallow parking lot.

“Yes.” Ruhn turned off the engine. “That’s the one.”

“Okay, shall we do this?”


It was not hard to note the change in the other male. Ruhn was scanning the empty environs as if he were searching for aggressors, his hands tightened into fists—and they hadn’t even gotten out of the Ford yet.

Grabbing his satchel, Saxton opened his door, and before he even got a foot on the ground, that single entrance swung open, a big human filling the jambs—with one hand tucked into his jacket.

“Can I help you,” the man demanded.

Saxton smiled and walked around behind the truck bed. As he caught up with Ruhn, a second human came to stand behind the one who in the doorway. Both had dark hair, squat builds, noses that were off-center—and eyes that were as warm and welcoming as pistols.

A set of guard dogs, trained to bite trespassers.

Number two also had a hand inside his coat.

“How nice to see you again,” Saxton said as he stopped in front of Big and Bigger. “I believe you recall my associate from the other evening.”

“What are you doing here.”

“Well, you were kind enough to offer some insight into Minnie Rowe’s ownership of her parcel, and thanks to you, we were able to get everything sorted. I have in here,” he lifted his satchel, “copies of the documents that should have been filed with the appropriate agencies, but which had, for reasons beyond her control, not in fact been submitted properly. I’m happy to provide you with copies of—”

As he went to open the flap, both of the men outed their guns.

“That’s enough,” the first one said.

“Now, gentlemen,”—Saxton feigned shock—“whyever would you need to defend yourselves as such? My colleague and I have come here on a routine property matter, which actually does not pertain to you or the man you work for—as neither you nor he is in an ownership position relative to the—”

“Shut up.” The man nodded to the truck. “Get back in that thing and leave.”

Saxton tilted his head. “Why? Don’t you like people showing up on your property unannounced after nightfall?”

That front human outed his gun and leveled the muzzle at Saxton’s head. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

Saxton laughed, his breath condensing into a white puff. “Oh, my God. I feel like I’m in a Steven Seagal movie from 1989. Do you use these lines and they actually work? Incredible.”

“They won’t find the body—”

The subtle growl that percolated up into the cold air was bad news. It was all well and good for Ruhn and him to play push and shove with the humans like this—although all the posturing was such a bore, really—but what absolutely could not happen was anything vampire-ish entering this scenario.

Saxton looked over his shoulder and shot Ruhn a glare. But the male did not show any signs of noticing or stepping off—and his upper lip was starting to twitch.