Diving into her suitcase, she yanked the zipper open. Inside, she found the contents of the shoulder bag she'd dropped when she'd been abducted. Her wireless laptop and case, her cell phone, even her antibacterial wipes were all there.

But no pills....

Nïx had somehow found that bag, then deliberately removed the two bottles. Why, Nïx? Holly leaned against the wall, tempted to run away, to escape all of this.

But Cadeon and Nïx were the only ones she knew who could help her get back to normal. Holly had no choice but to go along with their plans for her.

Plans that involved leaving town.

She hadn't crossed the borders of Orleans Parish in fifteen years. In fact, she rarely went anywhere except from her loft to the campus ten minutes away.

The campus really was her entire world - a regimented and orchestrated microcosm where things made sense. Days were divided into class hours, weeks into school days, and years into semesters.

Yet now she felt as if she'd been temporarily exiled.

Shaking away that thought, she collected her phone and dialed her friend Mei. When there was no answer, she left a message.

"Hi, Mei, this is Holly. I was wondering if you can take over my classes for a spell? Not a literal spell. Ha-ha. Um, I've had a family emergency crop up and might not be back for" - how long will I be gone? - "a week?"

Holly felt distanced from herself as she spoke, stunned by how normal she sounded when she was on the verge of breaking down. "Call my cell if anything comes up. I owe you big-time."

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After she hung up, she exhaled unsteadily. Need to get dressed, get moving.

Crouching beside her bag, Holly checked the side compartment for her underwear, frowning at what she found. Inside were thigh-highs, thongs, and demi-cup bras, each still packaged or with the tags attached. They were all in her size, and they were...provocative.

Why on earth would Nïx swap out Holly's perfectly good high-waisted briefs and minimizer bras for these?

Left with little other choice, Holly smoothed on silky thigh-highs, and for the first time in her life, she donned a thong.

Once she was fully dressed with her pearls and glasses in place, she set about righting her hair. With angry strokes, she brushed the curls back, wrestling them into submission as usual, only now she made sure her weird ears were covered.

With the last hairpin in place, she studied her reflection. How could she look much the same as usual when she was such a wreck inside? Her eyes began to water, and she clutched the countertop for balance.

After all the madness of the night, she knew only two things for certain. I have to get this condition reversed. And Cadeon Woede is dangerous for me to be near.

The countertop cracked under her grip.

10

Cade, you've got it bad," Nïx said as she hopped atop the Veyron's hood.

"What's new there?"

"You know Holly doesn't trust you?"

"She shouldn't! And apparently, not you either. So, don't leave me hanging. Why did you lie to her?"

"I wanted to see where you were going with this."

"I'm going ahead with the plan." He popped the trunk and opened his bag. Rooting for the flask, he snagged it, then drank deeply of demon brew. Unfortunately it had a delayed effect, but he would sow the seeds of buzz for the future.

"You believe you could turn Holly over to a wicked sorcerer, just when she can be claimed by you? You've waited nine centuries for her."

"I have to do this. I don't want to. Gods, I don't want to. But now that bitch Sabine has my brother, and I already owe him so much. This is the only way I can atone for what I've done. The kingdom and its people are now depending on me, and me alone."

The truth of that statement hit him like a stray punch. Bugger me. The fate of all Rothkalinians rested on the shoulders of the black sheep, the ne'er-do-well.

Speaking of which... "You told Rydstrom that the mortal Néomi died. Are you certain?"

"Abso-smurf-ly."

Cade hadn't realized he'd held out this much hope that she'd survived. Block it out....

Nïx studied him. "I'm considering joining in with your deception of Holly. Mainly because I don't think you will be able to turn her over. And, no, I don't see that outcome. It's a hunch. And secondly, because I believe you have to be cruel to be kind. Holly needs to be educated about the world - bluntly and swiftly - and no one would be better at that job than you."

"What do you mean, educated? She's as educated as she can be."

"I want Holly to experience life. To take away the blinders she has so assiduously relied on. I think you're just the type of person to show her what she doesn't know and doesn't want to know. My niece is innocent in so many ways, and there comes a time in a woman's life when innocence is merely a euphemism for ignorance."

"How innocent could she be in this day and age?"

"She's avoided anything that could fire her Valkyrie tendencies - anything arousing or enraging. She has content controls on her computer, and no cable on her TV. She's lived a PG life. She's sublimated these tendencies so persistently that she's made herself ill at times."

"That's what the counting's about?"

Nïx nodded. "And anything she couldn't sublimate, she would medicate."

"She wants her pills now."

"Well, as her auntie, I say she can't have them. Now, other Valkyrie will have felt her energy emerging. They'll soon be searching for her themselves."

"Then you need to stall them."

After long moments, Nïx said, "I'll do it. If you vow not to fly any leg of the journey."

"You just want that because it'll give me more time to get attached to her, increase the odds that I'll just say f**k all and keep her."

"Yes."

"Damn it, the trip will take longer, possibly weeks. Groot's compound could be as far away as Alaska." Cade swigged from his flask. "And Rydstrom said the deadline was the full moon. What if we don't make it by then?"

"That's my condition."

"She'll be in more danger. Think of it - as soon as she's with Groot, she'll be hidden."

"Take it or leave it. But you won't get very far without the first checkpoint."

"Fine," he bit out. "I agree to your condition." More time with Holly. More time to get attached to Holly.

She emerged from the bathroom at that moment. With her hair pulled back in that perfect bun, she wore her "talismans," a nondescript sweater, and one of those skirts that hugged her plump ass - and made males like him wish they could be the one to unlock all the passion seething inside that outwardly prim female.