Then he unplugged the thing from his ears and stood back, observing her. “I think you’re fine,” he said. “Heart is regular as a metronome. Your color is great. Your eyes are fine.”

“I feel like I can’t…”

A sudden muffled burst of talk made her frown. “Are they in the gym?” she asked.


“Why aren’t we in a classroom?” Usually if there was a meeting, it was only the six trainees, and one or two Brothers, tops. “I mean, we don’t need all that space—”

“You ever have panic attacks?”

“No, never,” she lied.

“Okay. Well, you might have some anxiety spikes over the next little bit. It’s not uncommon. You’ve been through a lot—and it wouldn’t be unusual for you to be jumpy as hell.”

“Is that a medical term of art?”

“Tonight it is, yup.” He sank down on his haunches and got serious. “The tricky thing is to recognize that the shortness of breath is more likely anxiety, not your heart exploding in your chest, ’kay? If you can believe in that, you’ll do better. You’re medically sound. I promise you that or we wouldn’t be out here in this hall.”

“Right. Okay.”

“You got this.”

“I’m not normally…weird.”

“When was the last time you got stabbed in the heart?”

She pshaw’d with her hand. “Whatever, man. I mean, it’s been at least a week. Maybe two. Guess I’m just out of practice.”

“That’s my girl.” He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Let’s do this. And I’m going to hang right with you.”

“I thought you said I’m medically sound?”

Dr. Manello started pushing her down the concrete corridor again. “Belt and suspenders, my friend. Belt and suspenders.”

They went forth at a pace that was all about the slow and steady, and as they trundled by the weight room, she wondered whether she was ever going to work out again.

The closer they got to the gym, the louder the voices became and she gathered her long braid, holding it in the center of her chest as if it would offer her some kind of protection—even though she knew not against what.

One of the sets of doors opened before they were in range, and as Vishous stepped out, she wondered if they had been sensed by the Brother.

That diamond stare narrowed on her, the tattoos at his temple distorting. “How you.”

“Ready to fight.”

“That’s right.” He offered his knuckles out for a pound. “Gimme some.”

Something about knocking her fist against his gave her some additional strength, and holy crap, it turned out she needed it. As Dr. Manello pushed her into the gym, she was stunned by the number of people who had lined up at the bleachers. It was the entire Black Dagger Brotherhood, all the fighters and her fellow trainees.

Everyone went silent.

At least until they started to clap. Those who had been seated rose to their feet, and people whistled and cheered as well—to the point where she was tempted to check and see if someone else, someone who was important or who had actually done something significant, was behind her.

“Oh, God, please stop,” she muttered into the din.

What was she supposed to do? Pull a Queen Elizabeth and do a white-glove wave?

One by one, the Brothers and fighters came over to her, everybody from Rhage to Butch to Tohrment, John Matthew to Blay and Qhuinn, giving her shoulder or hand a squeeze—or in Zsadist’s case, offering a brief nod. What truly saved her was that there wasn’t any pity or gooey sympathy. No…it was like they were welcoming her into a club that they themselves had been a part of for quite some time.

It was a survivors’ club.

Of course, she thought as she started to relax. The Brothers had all been critically injured in the field at one point or another in their long careers—likely, a number of times.

She had cut her teeth in that regard.

Phury was the last Brother to come up to her, his limp barely noticeable thanks to his state-of-the-art prosthetic lower leg.

“Don’t let it get into your head,” he said as he bent down. “Your body will heal more quickly than your mind. Your job is to place this in a perspective that allows you to still be effective out there. A loss of confidence is worse than going into the field unarmed. Talk to Mary if you need help, ’kay?”

His yellow eyes were warm and kind, his head of multi-colored hair reminding her of a lion’s mane.

And as he went to step away, she almost called him back just so he could say that to her all over again.

But she would remember.

She had to, she thought as she put her hand to her sternum and rubbed. There was no sense getting herself killed…just because she had managed to live.

The trainees came next, Axe giving her a high five that was more like a medium to maybe a low four and a quarter. And then Boone was hugging her and Craeg and Paradise were offering words of encouragement.

Peyton was the only one who didn’t make an approach. He stayed standing on the bleachers, a couple of rows up from the bottom, dressed in scrubs and tuxedo shoes. His hair was streaked back as if he had been pulling his hands through it.

She was glad he stayed put. The last thing she wanted was any of the assembled to know that they had spent all day together. That was not happening again, for one thing. And even if it was—and it most certainly was not—that was their business and no one else’s.

He wasn’t even looking at her, his eyes trained down on the wooden bench in front of him…as if War and Peace had been inscribed there and he was reading it word for word.

She had no idea when he’d left her room. She had woken up reaching for him, though—and she told herself she was relieved when she found that he wasn’t there.

Tell me about your family. What are they like? What do they do that hurts you?

Someone was talking to the whole group now, but Novo couldn’t follow the voice or the words. She hated that she was glad her surgeon was right with her, the equivalent of a comfort blanket who happened to have a medical degree and hands that were magic with a scalpel.

Her eyes wanted to dwell on Peyton—for reasons she knew were bad impulses to give in to. She needed to not look to him for security, safety, strength. Oskar had taught her all the reasons why that was not a good idea.

In truth, the biggest problem Peyton represented wasn’t a sexual one, but something far more dangerous to her well-being.

He got into her heart? He was going to do more damage than that lesser with the dagger had, for sure.

Novo would not have wanted him to go down to her. Nope. No way.

As Peyton stayed on the bleachers and tried to feel comfortable with some other male rolling her around in that wheelchair—even if the guy had, okay, fine, been the one to put her heart back together—his only solace was that the distance was what she needed.

He’d never met someone more determined to be on their own.

Where did she live? Was she safe there during the day?

These things interested him way more than whatever the Brothers were talking about, but as he thought about what Mary had said to him, he forced himself to tune in.

“—more training is needed,” the Brother Phury was saying, “just so that you’re more clear what the proper procedures and operating principles are. So after we’ve talked it over”—he indicated his fellow Brothers—“we’ve decided to fall back into even more classroom training and take you out into the field in pairs, instead of in one whole group. This new paradigm is going to remain in place for quite some time. We were so impressed by your skills development that we jumped the gun taking you out. We’re all learning here, and we’re going to constantly assess and reassess how things are functioning—but we want you to know that we remain totally committed to this program—and to each and every one of you trainees.”

At that, the Brother looked directly at Peyton.

“Any questions?”

Paradise put her hand up. “What will the schedule be like? For the times we’re in the field. I mean, how often will we be able to get out there?”