Lover's Bite Chapter 1

Mirabella DuFrane exited the beachfront adobe mansion as if she were floating, rather than walking. The skintight gown-paisley print, plunging halter neckline, slit up to her slender hip-clung to every perfect curve, despite the fact that she'd given birth only three months ago. No one would have known it to look at her.

Speculation about the identity of her baby girl's father was rampant, but no one except Mirabella knew for sure. And Mirabella wasn't saying. It just added to the mysterious allure of Hollywood's brightest star.

She was the silver screen's flavor of the year. An exotic blend of Italian and Spanish, with copper skin, almond eyes, a figure most women would die for and many men would kill for-she was the ideal. And that she was so elusive-never married, and promising that she never would be-only added to her massive appeal. She was fond of telling the press that she was too free a spirit to ever be tied down, that no man could ever own her, possess her, or even hold her for very long. She would never be tamed. The tabloids were constantly pairing her with one man or another. Politicians, businessmen, actors. Any photo of her with a male was fodder for gossip in the rags. She never denied or confirmed any of it, just smiled her mysterious smile and answered questions with more questions when the reporters cast their lines into her waters on their fishing expeditions.

That was Mirabella.

And yet, there was something else about her. Something frail and otherworldly that rarely showed. It lingered beneath the surface, like a fragile seashell resting on the ocean floor and hoping no rough currents stirred it up to the surface.

Mirabella floated toward the black stretch limousine that waited at the curb, her gown's hemline skimming just above the sidewalk, creating that airborne illusion she so loved. Paparazzi swarmed, held at a distance by Bella's ever-present bodyguards.

Once it had been unusual for the press to be in Santa Luna in such droves, but this small coastal town, twenty-five miles south of Los Angeles, had become a haven for the rich and the famous. Too expensive for common folk, too remote for fans, it had become the hot spot for celebrity getaways-quick ones, when there was no time to go on a real trip. Mirabella had been a guest at an exclusive party at the mansion known as Avalon. Its fanciful and somewhat pretentious name had been thought up by its former owners, a Hollywood pair who'd peaked in the fifties before retiring here. The Avalon Ball had become an annual event, and Hollywood's elite hungered to see their names on the guest list. Because being invited was such a coup, no one complained too much about the press.

Cameras flashed in the night as Mirabella made her way along the clear path to the waiting car, smiling and waving all the way.

Then there were different kinds of flashes. Three of them. Bella's smile froze in place as her body jerked in perfect synch with those bright eruptions. Her milk-chocolate eyes fluttered, lashes lowering as she looked down. Blood flowers blossomed in slow motion like a Hollywood depiction of an acid trip over the front of her designer gown. She lifted her head, the huge gold hoops in her ears jangling. One hand rose, as if reaching out for help, and then Mirabella's heavily lined eyes fell closed, and she folded over herself and sank to the sidewalk, graceful, even with three bullets in her abdomen.

The press swarmed as her bodyguards fought to hold them off. Police on crowd control duty closed in to help, and within a minute, sirens could be heard as more police and an ambulance arrived.

"It was too late to save Mirabella DuFrane," a vaguely familiar male voice said.

It was some retired news anchor, Jack Heart thought, hired to narrate documentaries once he was replaced by a younger model at the news desk. He couldn't remember the guy's name.

"She died in the hospital that very night. But that's far from where this story ends. The starlet's body was stolen from the hospital morgue, and to this day, it has never been found, leading to numerous reported sightings in the years since. And her murder? Never solved."

There was a knock at the motel room door. Jack looked up, irritated at the interruption. Then he sensed who was on the other side. Topaz.

Jumping to his feet, he popped the DVD out of his portable player, returned it to its case-a case that bore Mirabella's image, and the title DEATH OF A GODDESS: The Mirabella DuFrane Story-and closed the lid. "Just a minute." He quickly stuffed the documentary into his backpack, zipped it closed and tossed it into the closet. "Come in, Topaz," he said as he opened the door to greet her.

She stepped inside, and for just an instant, Jack's gaze was stuck fast on her face. The resemblance was subtle, but it was there in the delicate bone structure, the cheekbones, the jawline, even the eyebrows. Her skin wasn't as dark, and her ethnicity wasn't as obvious as it had been in her mother. But she was every bit as stunning.

No. More so.

"What are you staring at?"

"I was just thinking it's a shame your insides don't match your outsides."

"Oh, I'm the one who's not what I pretend to be? As I recall, you're the one who professed your undying devotion right up until you vanished with a half million of my hard-earned dollars."

"Inheriting is not earning."

"It was in my case." She narrowed her eyes. "And how do you know I inherited it, anyway?"

He averted his eyes. Topaz was under the impression that none of her vampiric friends knew who she had been in life. And maybe none of them did-other than him. But he knew. Now.

"Lucky guess," he muttered.

"Yeah, well. I don't suppose the other half of my money appeared to you in your sleep, did it?"

"I gave you back the half I had. I told you, Gregor has the rest. I'll get it from him somehow, as soon as we track him down. I promise."

"Sadly, I know just how much your promises are worth, Jack." She shrugged. "And I'm pretty sure we've reached a dead end when it comes to tracking your former boss down."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he got away. Reaper's calling a meeting in an hour. I'm pretty sure he's going to disband the gang-send us all our separate ways. At least until he can get a line on Gregor again."

He let his gaze move down her body as she spoke, barely listening to her words and instead tracing her curves with his eyes. Tight jeans, tiny silk blouse, her breasts straining against the fabric. Even while he stared at them, her nipples stiffened, as if they could feel his gaze like a physical touch. He got up and walked toward her.

She tensed, her brown eyes wary, watchful, but she wouldn't back away. No, she was too proud for that.

Jack traced her cheek with a fingertip. "I kept some of my promises-when I promised to make you scream, to play your body like no one ever had or ever would. I didn't break any of those vows, Topaz."

Her eyes fell closed, and her breath slipped from her lips in a slow, soft sigh.

He bent his head until his lips were only a breath away from hers, and he whispered, "If you stick around a little while, I'll keep them all over again."

He felt her body respond. Felt it tugging at his, felt her yearning, her desire. Even heard it in the breathy quality of her wavering reply, saw it in the way her lips trembled as she gave it, while his eyes fell closed and he swayed closer, about to kiss her.

"I could do that. Or you could just eat shit and die," she whispered.

He frowned and opened his eyes.

Hers were coated in a sheet of solid ice-one that concealed a riot of emotions, he was certain.

"I hate you, Jack."

"You want me," he said, straightening away from her.

"One doesn't negate the other."

"Okay. Fine. I'll be ready for Reaper's meeting."

He backed away a few more inches, mostly to give himself relief. Yes, she was just a mark, albeit the only one he'd ever regretted. But he wanted her like he'd never wanted another woman. And he was determined to get her out of his system once and for all.

"Why are you here, Topaz?"

"To give you this." She fished a slip of paper from her jeans pocket and handed it to him. "And to say goodbye."

He opened it, glimpsing an address, then quickly refocused on her. "You're going somewhere?"

"I'm going there." She nodded at the paper in his hand.

"And you couldn't leave without coming to say goodbye, letting me know where you would be, in case-"

"In case you manage to keep a promise for the first time in your life and get me back the rest of my money. I wanted you to know where to send it. And you'd better, Jack. Because if you haven't repaid me by the time I finish my business in California, I'm gonna track you down, and I'm gonna hurt you. And not in the good way."

She turned on her heel, reached for the doorknob.

Jack gripped her shoulder and spun her back around to face him. "That's bullshit and you know it. You couldn't leave without saying goodbye to me, because you still have feelings for me." His arm slid around her waist, hand cupping her ass, and he jerked her against him. "Admit it."

"Oh, I have feelings for you, all right," she snapped. "Contempt. Disgust. Fury."

"Lust. Passion. Desire."

"Desire to do murder, at least," she agreed.

He ground his hips against her, and she closed her eyes, unable to suppress the shiver that passed through her. "Back off, Jack."

He released her, staring into her face in search of confirmation that she still felt the things he did-the physical things that made sense, not the other ones. Before he could find it, she was out the door, slamming it behind her.

Sighing, Jack pushed a hand through his hair in utter frustration. But then reason returned, and he lunged toward the door and peered through the peephole.

Topaz was standing on the other side, her hands pressed to her bowed head. She looked as if she wanted to scream.

He just wasn't sure whether it was with anger or desire. Hell.

Jack wondered why she was really leaving. To get away from him, he would wager. But why go all the way to Califor-

He turned slowly, gazing at the closet door, but seeing, in his mind's eye, snippets of the film he'd just been watching, hearing echoes of the narrator's voice. He gazed down at the piece of paper she'd given him.

Avalon Mansion.

Santa Luna, California.

Good God, she was going to the very place where her mother had been killed. She was going to try to solve Hollywood's most compelling mystery.

It could be dangerous.

Maybe he should tag along. If only he could think of a plausible excuse. Reaching for his backpack, he unzipped it and reached inside. The bag full of money he'd claimed he didn't have was still there, still intact. He might need to give it back to her sooner or later, he supposed, as a way of convincing her of his sincerity and good intentions. The very reasons he'd given her back the first half. It hadn't worked entirely, but it had seemed to knock a chink or two in that brick wall she'd erected around her heart to keep him out.

He might need to return the rest to win her trust.

He probably shouldn't waste his time. But then again, he had to stick closely to one of the members of the gang, because he had bigger fish to fry this time around, and having access to Reaper would be crucial. Sticking like glue to the big guy would be too obvious, though. And since the gang was splitting up, for the moment, he was going to have to pick one member to latch onto. Why not Topaz?

And so what if he had to give her back the rest of her money? He was pretty sure there was a lot more than 500 K to be made this time.

He fingered the manila envelope that rested inside the bag with the cash and the DVD. It was stamped with the words CLASSIFIED: PROPERTY OF THE U.S. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. He'd found it in his former boss's safe, along with Gregor's half of Topaz's money.

Maybe-just maybe, if he played his cards right-Jack could make whatever there was to be made of what he'd found in that envelope and keep half of what he'd conned from Topaz.

That notion made his collar feel a little tight, his stomach a little queasy. He cleared his throat and shook off the unaccustomed sensations. Guilt was nothing but wasted energy.

He pulled out the DVD and told himself he really ought to slip it back into Topaz's belongings before she discovered it was missing. If she found out that he had been snooping through her stuff, she would really be unhappy to see him when he showed up on her oceanfront doorstep.

After she left Jack's room, Topaz held her head in her hands and waited for the hunger that had suffused her veins to ease, for the trembling that had possessed her body to stop. She wanted him. God, she wanted him so badly it was like an addiction.

She knew he was no good. And yet she wanted him. No good for her, and no good, period. And yet she ached for him. He was a con man. And yet she hungered for his kiss. If she fell back into those strong arms again, knowing what she knew about him, then she was the most pathetic, self-destructive, stupid woman on the planet. And she was determined to be none of those things.

"You okay?"

She lifted her head and met Roxy's eyes. Roxy. The wild, irreverent, redheaded mortal whose age was fathomless. The belladonna antigen in her blood, the hallmark of the only humans with the potential to become vampires, made it unlikely she would live nearly as long as she already had, but she showed no signs of slowing down. Roxy. The most trusted mortal Topaz could imagine. One of the sexiest, most beautiful women of any age she'd ever seen. And easily the wisest.

"You still love that asshole, don't you?" Roxy asked, coming to a stop very close to her in the hallway.

"That would make me a complete idiot, and I'm not an idiot, Roxy."

"No, you're not. But we can't always help how we feel."

"I can. I'm the least likely person in the world to fall for a con in the first place, much less twice by the same person. No way."

"Well, good. Don't let him con you again." Roxy shrugged. "Doesn't mean you can't enjoy him, though." She glanced toward Jack's closed door. "Hell, if I didn't know you were into him, I might give him a tumble myself. 'Course, that would spoil him for all other women, but you know, some things can't be helped." She winked at Topaz.

Topaz smiled, grateful for Roxy's always uplifting influence. "Is everyone else in the van already?"

"Vixen and Seth are-probably making out in the back, if I know those two. Raphael's on his way. The devil only knows about Briar. I haven't told Ilyana about the meeting yet. On my way to do that right now, actually."

"Let's tell her together."

Roxy nodded, and the two of them strolled down the hall of the Super 8 Motel, toward the room the newcomer, Ilyana, had taken. They'd found the mortal-one of the Chosen, like Roxy, though far younger-locked in a cage in Gregor's suite during their latest encounter with the rogue vampire. They'd rescued her, but she was afraid of them, and no wonder, if that monster had been her only experience with the undead. She'd told them almost nothing. Not why he'd held her captive, nor for how long. Topaz could only imagine what she might have suffered while in Gregor's care, though she bore no illusions that it had been less than horrific.

Roxy tapped on the door. "Ilyana, it's Roxy."

The door opened and the mortal, with her pixie-short platinum-blond hair and striking blue eyes, stared out at the two of them. Her eyes were warm and welcoming on Roxy's, but when they fell upon Topaz, they cooled considerably. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Group meeting," Roxy told her. "We're gathering in the van."

Ilyana searched Roxy's face, her gaze occasionally darting past it to Topaz's, but never lingering there. She was still wary. "Are we giving up the search for Gregor?" she asked at length.

"Taking a break, maybe. Giving up? No way. Raphael is way too stubborn for that," Roxy said.

Nodding, Ilyana turned. "I'll gather my things. Give me a few minutes."

"That's fine." Roxy pulled the door closed, and linked arms with Topaz. "You know, he's got it just as badly as you do."

"Who's got what?" Topaz asked, pretending she didn't know exactly what Roxy was trying to say.

"He-" Roxy pointed toward Jack's room "-has got it-" she pumped her fists at her sides and thrust her hips a couple of times "-for you." She poked Topaz in the chest with a forefinger. "Just as badly as you-" poke "-have it-" thrust "-for him."

"Okay, okay. I get it. Enough with the pantomime already. It's creepy."

Roxy frowned. "Men usually find it more sexy than creepy, but I suppose being a straight girl-"

"And you're wrong. He doesn't feel a damn thing for me."

"Not even..." Roxy pumped her hips again, more subtly this time, though.

"Well, sure, that. I mean, who wouldn't?"


"But that's physical. He'd jump my bones if I'd let him. He'd also just as soon take my money and run again as look at me."

"Then why do you suppose he's here?" Roxy stared into Topaz's eyes for a long moment, almost as if she expected an answer to what she had to know was an impossible question. "He already took the money," she went on. "So why hasn't he run?"

"He only came back to me when it looked like our gang was going to kick his gang's ass."

"He could have gone anywhere to get away from Gregor and the rogues, Topaz. He didn't have to join up with us. I think you should keep that in mind."

"Probably figured I had a few bucks left in the bank he hadn't scammed yet. Or maybe he's planning to run a con on one of you."

Roxy lifted her brows and looked over her shoulder toward his room. "Hot damn, it would be worth it. I wonder how much is in my IRA by now?"

"Fuck you, Roxy."

Roxy grinned from ear to ear. "I don't swing that way, Topaz. Though I compliment you on your taste in women."

Topaz felt her frown dissolve as she elbowed Roxy lightly in the rib cage, and the two of them laughed together as they made their way across the dark motel parking lot toward a canary-yellow conversion van named Shirley.

Jack waited until everyone else had headed out to the van to slip out of his room and down the hall to Topaz's. He picked the locks with the power of his mind, hand on the knob, ear to the door, willing the tumblers to, well, tumble. When they did, he opened the door and walked inside.

Her things were packed and her cases stacked. A half dozen of them, at least. Designer luggage, all of it matching, made by Coach. He thought they only made handbags and shoes. And those cost a fortune. What must an entire set of Coach luggage have set her back?

Damn, he must have left too much of her money behind if she could still afford to blow it like this.

Sighing, he gazed at the rumpled blankets, and his throat closed up. She hadn't made her bed-left that for the maid, along with a hefty tip on the nightstand to thank her for her trouble. The covers were untidy and thrown back to reveal the faint outline of her body on the mattress, the imprint of her head on the pillow.


Before he could stop himself, Jack was crawling onto that bed, pressing his face to the place where she'd rested, inhaling her scent, and wishing it were her flesh he was lying on and not just her bed.

Intoxicating, the essence of Topaz that lingered there.

He sat up, put his hands in his hair and tousled it vigorously. "Snap out of it, Jack."

It was easier said than done, but he did manage to roll over and get off her bed and onto his feet. He reminded himself of his reason for being there, and the fact that the others were probably waiting for him in the van and might send someone looking for him at any moment. Okay, then. He slid the DVD into one of her bags and exited the room, making sure the door locked behind him.

He stiffened his spine, hoped his yearning didn't show on his face, and then thought, so what if it did? He wanted her, that was all. It was physical. Sexual. Lustual, if that was a word. And if it wasn't, it should be, because it described to a T what he felt for the luscious, lovely Topaz-formerly-known-as-Tanya DuFrane, daughter of a movie star.

A dead movie star.

He headed along the hall to the exit, crossed the parking lot and joined the others in the van, climbing in through the already open side door and giving the interior a quick visual sweep. The back row of seats held Vixen and Seth, sitting so close together you could have fit a lumberjack on either side of them, but instead only Ilyana sat there. In the front seat, Reaper sat on the passenger side, Roxy behind the wheel, just like always. The middle row was host to Briar, who sat there with the same brooding, inwardly focused expression she'd been wearing since they pried Gregor's shock collar off her neck. Prior to that she'd been wild, fighting them every step of the way, hissing and scratching at every opportunity like a feral cat. She'd been dangerous, untrustworthy and probably bad right to her soul. And frankly, he had preferred that to this...this shell.

He supposed she would snap out of it sooner or later. And he would lay odds they would all be wishing her back to this state of silent brooding once she did.

Beside Briar sat the object of his desire. Topaz. He met her eyes briefly, just to remind her that she felt it, too-this longing, this hunger-that she felt it and he knew it, and she knew he knew it. No use tiptoeing around the facts.

Finally he lowered himself onto the seat between the two women.

"About time," Topaz muttered.

Briar said nothing. She'd had very little to say since they'd rescued her from Gregor, who'd been torturing her the same way she'd personally helped him to torture Vixen. Reversal of fortune, big-time. It tended to mix a girl up, he bet.

Her eyes were haunted.

He couldn't help but chuck her under the chin just a little. "Don't look so glum, wildcat. Gregor had us both fooled."

She lifted her black eyes to his, but they never locked on. "He never fooled you," she said. Her voice was dull. A monotone that echoed from lack of emotion, the way an empty room echoed from lack of furniture. "You knew what he was the whole time. You were just playing him."

He shrugged. "Well, I've been around longer than you have. You live and learn, you know." Then, uncomfortable with the turmoil swirling just beneath the surface of her eyes, he shifted his focus to Reaper. "What's up? We throwing in the towel?"

"Only temporarily. Until I get a handle on where Gregor has headed, there's no point in us all staying together."

"Nor any particular point," Seth cut in, leaning forward in the rear seat, "in us splitting up." He looked around the van. "Is there?"

Just as the others were muttering in agreement, Reaper said, "There is, actually. I, um...I believe I'm being followed."

Jack gasped louder than any of them. Hell. Probably overkill. Topaz cut him a narrow-eyed look, but he pretended not to notice. "By whom?" he demanded.

"I don't know for sure, but they seem awfully familiar to me."

"You think they're spooks?" Seth asked.

"No one says 'spooks' anymore, kid." Reaper swallowed hard, then nodded. "But yeah. I think they're Agency. They can be dangerous, and there's no point in all of us being at risk."

Roxy smacked the steering wheel. "Right. You'll just send us on our merry way while you take the heat alone," she snapped. "And if you get your ass killed, then no great loss."

He glanced her way, and his eyes softened. "Rox, I'm not gonna get my ass killed. I'll drop out of sight for a while. Lay low until the heat's off. And it'll be a hell of a lot easier for me to do that without a half dozen soldiers, no matter how loyal, marching along behind me. Don't you think?"

She sighed-probably, Jack thought, in frustration that she couldn't argue with his logic.

"So you're not going to continue tracking Gregor?" The question came from Ilyana, who sat close behind Jack.

"Oh, I'm going to. Just quietly and discreetly. I might lie low for a few days before I put forth too much effort, though, just to try to shake these agents off my tail."

Everyone looked at him, Ilyana, waiting, as if she didn't think he was finished. He hesitated, then went on. "Look, Gregor admitted he was working for the CIA. His rogue activities had a purpose. He and his gang have been murdering and feeding on the innocent with the full knowledge, approval and support of the Agency, all just to lure me in. Everyone knew I was the one the vampires would send to shut him down, to take him out."

"Because you were an assassin when you worked for them," Ilyana said, her voice soft. "Before you became a vampire."

"Yes. And because they're aware I've continued in that role, when necessary, ever since," Reaper told her. "Gregor was supposed to capture me and hand me over to my former employers. But he got greedy, decided to try to drain me and take my power instead, then kill me."

Jack nodded. "I picked up on that much before I switched teams," he said. "Gregor developed a real lust for killing, for taking whatever he wants without remorse or repercussions. And he's been gathering money along the way. You feed on the wealthy, you tend to make a profit in the process. He's been raking it in, pillaging, really. And I think he's drunk on his power. All he wants is more."

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Reaper quoted softly.

"What do you think the CIA intends to do with you, if they ever do get you back?" Jack asked him. "What the hell do they want with you now that you're a vamp?"

"I was the best assassin they ever trained, Jack. Imagine how much better I'd be now that I'm a vampire. And they've already mucked up my mind to the point that they can control me by dropping a single word. You've seen the results of that."

"They probably think of you as a valuable secret weapon," Roxy whispered.

Jack lowered his head, unable to look any of them in the eye for a moment.

"They'll stop at nothing to get me back," Reaper said. "And that includes kidnapping or even torturing any one of you. I can't have that on my conscience. I'd have to turn myself in if that happened. So do me a favor and take off, so I won't have to."

That, too, was impossible to argue with, Jack realized. Reaper was good.

"I'm willing to go off on my own," Ilyana said softly. "But I intend to continue the search for Gregor. If you like, I can contact you when I find him."

Every eye in the van focused on her. She had only just joined them and had no reason to be so invested in their mission.

"Is it vengeance you seek?" Vixen asked.

Ilyana shot her a look.

Vixen seemed to shrink a bit more deeply into her long copper hair and began playing with the ends, as she tended to do when nervous. "I mean, he held and tortured me, too. But...honestly, for your own sake, it's better if you can look ahead, rather than behind you."

"I don't want vengeance," Ilyana said softly.

"Then why-"

"He has something of mine. That's as much as I'm going to say. I won't rest until I get it back. So if any of you want me to call you once I find him-and I will find him-then give me a means of reaching you before I leave."

Topaz dipped into her pocket, scribbled a number on a scrap of paper and handed it to her. Roxy did the same.

"I intend to stick with you, Reaper," Seth said from the backseat.

"Not this time." Reaper quickly looked over at Roxy. "Or you, either. Come on, guys, cut me some slack here. Just for a little while. Scatter and wait. I'll call you back when things cool off. It won't be long."

They all sighed. Topaz finally spoke. "I actually have some personal business to attend to. I'll be in California. Jack has my contact info."

"Can you get me a copy, hon, before you go?" Roxy asked. "I'll make sure everyone else gets it, too."

Topaz slanted him a look, and he returned a sheepish shrug. "They don't trust me any more than you do, I guess."

"Can't say I blame them."

"Here," Roxy said, reaching past Reaper to open the glove compartment. "Why don't we all just jot down some info? A cell phone, a friend, an address, an e-mail, anything. As long as we each have one means of communication that we can commit to checking often and not changing." As she spoke, she pulled out a small notepad and a couple of pens, and passed them around the van.

"If you know how to reach me, they'll still have reason to come after you," Reaper said.

Jack shook his head. "They'd have no way of knowing we had your number. They could just as easily assume we do, even if we don't."

Reaper hesitated, then sighed and nodded. "You're right. Okay, then."

Everyone jotted and passed, until they all had copies of each other's info. Then, finally, Seth said, "Can I take the Mustang?"

"Yep," Reaper said. "And Roxy will keep Shirley. She and I can drop the rest of you wherever you want. But let's get on it. I want us scattered to the winds before dawn. Okay?"

"Not exactly," Jack said. And he shifted his gaze from Reaper to Briar, who sat beside him in silence. "I think Briar should stay with someone."

"I can take care of myself," she said softly.

"I know you can. No one said you couldn't. But, uh...well, you can't be trusted on your own, can you? Like the rest of us, you know the word that can be used to turn our friend Reaper here into a whirling dervish of death. Unlike the rest of us, we can't just have you running around all alone."

She narrowed her eyes on him. "I could kill you as easily as looking at you."

Jack actually felt his lips pull at the corners, though he didn't exactly smile. "There you are," he whispered. "Where have you been, Briar?"

She crossed her arms over her chest, quickly covering the flash of anger with her new expression of bland disinterest. "You can assign me any babysitter you like. I'll stay until I want to leave. And when I want to leave, nothing's going to stop me."

"She stays with me," Reaper said.

Briar's studied expression showed a hint, a very brief hint, of panic.

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