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I stood beside Alex, pretending to watch the bobcat when I was really watching Alex.

Ever since she'd faced her mom in Gatlinburg, the dark, far-off look in her eyes had become painfully familiar. Seeing her lips curve into the smile that always made me feel like someone reached into my chest and squeezed, and hearing her laugh proved to me that this trip had been worth the risks involved. Shed already faced way too muchthings a weaker person wouldve broken fromand I had a horrible feeling that whatever truly waited for her in the future wouldnt be any easier than what lay in her past. If I knew how to prevent her from experiencing any more pain and heartbreak, I would. I would do anything. Do you think she knows what we are? she asked. I leaned against the guardrail. I dont know. Her eyes continued to follow the lithe movements of the predator. Mom believed they did. She said animals could sense we were different from the mortals, especially cats. As I watched a breeze stir the strands of her hair, it suddenly made sensethis whole fascination with zoos. Did your mother like cats? She shrugged. I think it had something to do with my father. Whenever wed come here, wed always ended up here right before we left. Looking over her shoulder, she nodded at the weathered benches. Wed sit over there and watch the cats. I moved closer to her, unsure if it was on purpose or not. Alex faced the pen again, smiling. It was the only time Mom would talk about my father. She never really said much about him. Except that he had the warmest brown eyes. I wonder if he had something to do with animals, you know? Anyway, the last time we were here was when she told me he was dead and told me his name. She named me after him, did you know that? I guess thats why Lucian hated it when Mom called me Alex. After a while, she started calling me Lexie instead. My fathers name was Alexander. Several moments passed where neither of us said anything. Thats why you like the zoo so much.

Yeah, you got me. She laughed and her cheeks flushed. Its nothing to be ashamed of, to want to be close to something that reminds you of your loved ones. I didnt even know him, Aiden. Still, he was your father. Alex fell quiet as she returned to watching the bobcat prowl the edges of its pen. Within seconds, my gaze swung back to her. Pink still colored her cheeks and her eyes seemed shades lighter. I glanced back at the pen, thinking that Alex was much like the bobcat. Powerful and graceful, but trapped by the cage of what she would become. Then again, all half-bloods were that way. They were some of the most powerful creatures to walk the mortal realm, but all of them were prisoners to the percentages of their blood. For a brief, insane second, I considered taking her somewhere far away from Deity Island. Like I imagined some mortals did when they saw wild animals caged, they wanted to see them free. But that was impossible. The Council would find her. Hell, the gods might even find her. Seth would find her. Letting out a low breath, I loathed what I had to do next. I hate to do this, but we need to head back, Alex. I know. We started walking back through the park. I wondered what Alex was thinking. Did she want to go back to the Covenant? Did she still want to be a part of that world, after everything? Anger flashed through me like quick-fire. It didnt matter what she wanted, and gods, that pissed me off. What pissed me off even more was the fact that I had told her only she had control over her destiny and that was a godsdamn lie. My brain shot to work, going back to the insanity of setting her free. Money wasnt an issue. Thanks to my parents, I had enough to set her up for decades. Getting her into a mortal school wouldnt be hard, either. Compulsion would take care of that. Safety was an issue, though. Daimons were bound to find her again. The Council would send Sentinels again. Seth would probably tear the world apart to locate her. But I could hide her well enough that she wouldnt be found for years and I could keep her safe fromwhat in the hell am I thinking? Air punched out of my lungs as I opened the drivers door and climbed in.

I could hide her? I could keep her safe? SentinelI was a Sentinel and Sentinels like me would be sent to retrieve her. And on top of that, taking her away from the Covenant would break so many laws it made my head spin. My punishment wasnt a concern. It would be hers, because she would take the brunt of this foolishness. Id be stripped of my Sentinel duties, but my life would go on. Alex would most likely be put on the Elixir, Apollyon or not. But taking her back gods, she deserved so much better than all of this and she didnt need to shoulder everything on her own. Twisting toward her, pressure clamped down on my chest. The words came out before I could stop them. I know how brave you are, Alex. But you dont always have to be. Its okay every once in a while to let someone else be brave for you. Theres no loss of dignity in that. Not for you. Youve already proven that you have more dignity than even a pure-blood can muster. Her beautiful eyes widenedgods, those eyes always got to me. You must be high off sugar or something. I laughed and damn, I had no control over my mouth. You just dont see what we see, Alex. Even the times youre being utterly ridiculous about something, or when youre just standing around, doing nothing, its hard to not notice. As a pure-blood its the last thing I should notice. I closed my eyes briefly, telling myself to shut up, because what I said could never be taken back. And I wasnt sure I wanted it to be. I dont think you have a clue. What dont I have a clue about? she asked in a soft voice. And since I was incapable of keeping my mouth shut, this time was no different. Ever since Ive met you, Ive wanted to break every rule. I turned toward the windshield, my entire body tensing. Gods. Youll become the center of someones world one day. And hell be the luckiest son of a bitch on this earth. The quick inhale drew my attention, and I looked at her. She was so godsdamn beautiful it hurt to look at her sometimes, and she didnt even have a clue. Muscles in my stomach tightened. That pressure increased. I sucked in a deep breath of air and it went nowhere. Thank you, she said, her gaze locking with mine. Thanks for doing all of this for me. Hunger for Alex gnawed on my insides, chewing away things like common sense and consequences. You dont need to thank me. When am I ever supposed to thank you?

Definitely not right now, I wanted to say. Not when I was seconds away from doing something neither of us could undo, when I was so close to risking her future and her freedom. When I do something that is truly worth thanking me for. I dont know how it happened. My brain was screaming at me to stop, throwing out warnings. But she was leaning toward me and I was leaning toward her. And my brain clicked off and my body took over. Clasping her cheeks, my mouth found hers as her hands settled against my chest. My heart was beating like I was a sixteen-year-old kissing a girl for the first time. Ridiculous, but she had that kind of effect on me. Always had. The kiss wasnt gentle or soft. There wasnt a questioning nature to it. I took her into me, because I wanted her. Wanted her more than Id ever wanted anything in my life, and gods, there were so many things that I wanted, but she took the top spot and she stayed there. Touching her, sliding my hands down her arms, to where her hands dug into my shirt, and kissing her was just a teasing glimpse of what could be and it wasnt enough. Not when her lips tasted of cotton candy and sunshine. And what the hell did sunshine taste like anyway? But if the sun had a taste, Alex shared it. She moaned against my mouth, and that sound shot straight through me. My grip tightened, and a shudder ran through her body, multiplied in mine. I need to stop. I kissed her again, soaking her up. I have to stop. My lips devoured hers. I hold her future in my hands. And then I did stop. Pulling back, I rested my forehead against hers, breathing heavily. What I wanted from her was something I could never ask from her. Alexs grip loosened and her breath was shaky, but her next words were strong and unmistakable. I love you. I jerked back, eyes going wide. At first my heart jumpedit actually jumpedand then reality smacked into me. Please gods, I wanted to scratch those words out of the air between us, because those three little words were a death sentence to her. No. Alex. Dont say that. You cantyou cant love me. She started to reach for me, but pulled her hands back to her chest. But I do.

I stared at her, caught between so many warring emotions. Hearing her say that and defend those words was like being struck by lightning. In another world, where she and I werent so very different, those words wouldve undone me in all the right ways. Instead, those words destroyed a part of me. Closing my eyes, I leaned over and pressed a kiss on her forehead, wishing for somethinganythingother than this. Oh, gods, this was my fault. I mentally strung together a string of words that wouldve made Deacon proud. She couldnt love methere was no way. I lingered there too long and forced myself to let go. Scrubbing my palms over my eyes, I could feel her stare on me and my chest cracked. Alex Oh, gods, she whispered. I never should have said that. Its okay. I cleared my throat. Its all right. I knew that wasnt want she wanted or hoped to hear and her sharp intake of breath cracked the fissure in my chest wide open. I glanced at her. Alexs eyes were trained straight ahead, her lips pressed so tightly together that the skin around her mouth was a shade or two lighter. But it was the misty sheen to those whiskey-colored eyes that killed me. It was the silence that settled like lead between us that threw the dirt on my grave. It was the way her hands trembled in her lap that made me want to punch something. I'd never hated myself more than at that moment. But it was for the best, because a love between us would only end in tragedy and she already had her fair share of that.