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“—and most importantly, you won’t be alone. ’Kay?”

Bitty took a long, slow inhale. “Okay. That’s good. Thank you.”

A set of headlights flared in those old, narrow-paned windows by the exit … and sure as shit, Rhage wanted to bust out of the house and scream at Fritz to go away.

“All right,” Mary said in a strained voice. “Big hugs.”

As the two embraced, Rhage stared at that little sun spot on Bitty’s shoulder. It had gotten even smaller, so that it was nearly invisible, the sort of thing that was easily missed.

He was going to owe the angel big-time for this one.

“You’re so brave,” Mary said over Bitty’s head. “I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m not brave, I’m scared.”

“And you’re doing this anyway—which is the very definition of brave.”

Mary stepped free and brushed her own hair back. She was glancing away a lot, her eyes shimmering with tears that she was clearly determined not to shed.

Bitty came over to stand in front of Rhage. Looking up, up, way up at him, she said, “You promise you’ll come.”

He sank down on his haunches, both knees cracking like tree branches from a trunk. “I promise. V will let me know and I have my phone right here.”

As he showed her his cell, Bitty threw her arms around his neck and he pulled her in close, shutting his eyes and sending a prayer up that this would all somehow magically be okay.

And then he and Mary walked the girl out through the vestibule, across the stone pavers of the mansion’s entrance, down the steps, and to the black Mercedes. Fritz helped the little girl by opening the door for her, and then the butler shut things up and bowed deeply to Rhage and Mary.

Those taillights going down the hill were the most tragic thing Rhage had ever seen.

He and Mary stayed where they were, standing side by side in the cold, well after the pair of red eyes were long gone.

“Let’s go inside,” his shellan said dully.

“Okay.”

“There’s nothing we can really do but wait.”

“Yeah.”

She turned away and started back for the vestibule. But for some reason, he couldn’t move. Rhage just stood there, immobile, staring out at the moon, which was full or pretty damn close to it.

His heart was in that fucking Mercedes. His heart was heading away from him, leaving his body and traveling in that car to someone else, to some other construct of family, to a future that didn’t include him or Mary—

“Rhage?”

Pivoting on his shitkicker, he looked toward the mansion. Mary was standing just inside the vestibule and holding the door wide for him.

He wanted to go over to her, but his body seemed to be ignoring the signals from his brain. And then he decided he should say something … but speech didn’t seem to be coming.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

There was a pause. And then Mary exploded forward, racing across the distance, throwing herself in his arms. As he caught her against him, he really couldn’t believe it was all happening.

“You always tell me,” she groaned, “that I know what to say. But I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do, I can’t help you, I can’t help her, I can’t change anything.…”

Rhage smoothed his palm up and down her back, and felt so powerless.

“I’ve got to stop this,” she babbled. “I’ve got to stop … this from happening.… oh, God, she’s leaving.… Rhage, my baby is leaving me, my child.…”

He ended up scooping her into his arms and holding her off the ground, cradling her as she wept.

Eventually, the emotional burn-off eased up, and she took some shuddering inhales. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry—”

“Why?” He shifted his hold and brushed her hair back. “Why would you ever apologize?”

“Because I need to be there for you. I need to support you.”

For a long moment, he stared down into her face, tracing the features he knew so well with his eyes. And then he smiled a little. “My Mary Madonna, by letting me take care of you? You make me strong. You give me strength by relying on me to take care of you.”

“That’s not fair, though. What about you—”

Rhage shook his head. “Do I have to explain male bonded vampires to you again? You are … my reason for being. And I’ve never loved you more than I do right now.”

“Even if Bitty leaves.”

His eyes went to the moon overhead. The bright shining moon. “If she leaves, nothing will be the same again for me. Nothing will be quite as bright or funny or free. I was forever changed the minute she came into our lives—and I guess I didn’t really understand how fully until now. It happened in an instant … and it will take a lifetime to get over.” He refocused on his shellan. “There is only one thing that will remain unchanged. And that is my feelings for you. In fact, my love for you is the one thing that will keep me standing at the end of this.”

Mary teared up all over again, especially as he kissed her.

“Our strength must be tested,” he whispered, “for us to know it’s still there. And I will always be your warrior, Mary mine. Always and forever.”

Mary reached up to his face and stroked his cheek.

“I love you,” she breathed.

He nodded. “We’re going to get through this, Mary. Even if we’re limping and bloodied at the end. We will go on because … maybe she’ll come and see us someday, after she’s grown. Maybe she’ll remember us. Who knows. But even if she doesn’t, we have to still be a family together, you and I. Otherwise … God, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.”

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