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“I don’t know. I mean, it could be hours.” Mary looked at her phone by tilting the screen. “Marissa said she’d shoot me an update when she was able to.”

“Goddamn it. I feel like I’m waiting to hear if I have cancer.”

“As somebody who’s gone through that one? Yup, it’s pretty close.”

“I just—”

“Shit!” Mary jumped up. “I forgot!”

“Forgot what?”

She put her hands up to her face. “The letter he wrote. I never gave it to Bitty. Oh, God, I don’t want Ruhn to think I’m obstructing anything!”

Justlikethat, she was out of the billiards room, her feet carrying her fast up the grand staircase. Moments later, she came back down breathing heavily, with the folded papers in her hand.

“What does it say?” Rhage asked. “I mean, he told us we could read it.”

It seemed like the closest they could get to what Bitty was experiencing with the guy.

“I really hope … well, there’s nothing to be done now.” Mary sat down and opened the pages. “I will apologize. It was an oversight … it’s all just been so emotional.”

As she read what had been written in pencil, she was silent for a while, her brows moving up and down as her eyes went back and forth.

“What’s in there?”

“Sorry. Ah, he works on the estate as a handyman, fixing fences and tending the lawns and buildings. He … takes care of the barn cats and the two security dogs. Lives by himself. Says … well, this is too bad.”

“What, that he molests farm animals?”

Mary shot him a look. “No, he seems apologetic he wasn’t schooled.” She went to the second page. “Oh … this is about Bitty’s mom.”

“What?” he prompted.

When she didn’t reply, he let her go and waited, drumming his fingers on his knee. Checking his fucking watch. Letting his leg bounce against the sofa.

Her eyes finally lifted. “It’s so sad. It’s … heartbreaking. He talks about all the things he used to do with Annalye when they were kids. Sounds like a pretty perfect upbringing on that estate. Their parents worked for the landowners—it’s been generations of the two families together. Everything changed, though, when Annalye met the male who was Bitty’s father. Ruhn’s respectful about it and doesn’t give many details. But he says he never stopped thinking about his sister and he tried to find her numerous times. He didn’t know for a while that they had even come up here to Caldwell.”

Rhage rubbed his face. “You know, this would be so much easier if I could hate him.”

“Would it …?” Mary murmured. “I’m not so sure.”

“He can’t take care of her like we can.”

Mary went to the last page. “Oh … my God …”

“What?” Okay, now he felt like going for his dagger. “What—”

“Look at this.”

She turned the final sheet to him. And “Oh, my God” was right. Covering the white paper, there were incredibly detailed and beautiful pen-and-ink drawings of a big house, and fields … a little cabin … a close-up of a dog … a cat napping all curled in a ball.

“He’s an artist,” Mary breathed.

As Rhage let his eyes travel over the pictures, he wanted to hate everything about the letter and the dumb-ass fucking drawings. He wanted to take a shit all over those pages, rip them to shreds—hell, nail them to a tree trunk and put bullets into them until there was nothing but shreds left.

Except he couldn’t.

Both his logic and his instincts were telling him that Ruhn was a good guy, a simple guy—which was not to say there was anything stupid happening with her uncle … just that there was an honest life of hard work being lived on his part. And yeah, the tragedy of that dead sister of his was only going to be eased if Ruhn could do right by his niece.

Mary’s phone went off with a bing! and the two of them both reached for it on the sofa cushion—

Mary won the race and didn’t waste time opening whatever it was up.

“It’s Marissa. They’re still talking, Ruhn and Bitty. She says that … Bitty was really shy in the beginning, but is now asking questions. They’re going to eat.”

Yeah, ’cuz First Meal had been a no-go, even for him.

“It’s going to be a long while,” Mary concluded. “And it should be.”

Rhage scrubbed his eyes. It was so weird. When Ruhn had turned up and turned out to be real, there had been a tearing in him, a ripping apart, a searing pain. And now, with each new piece of information, Rhage felt like Bitty was a ship going out to sea, disappearing first by feet and then by yards and soon by miles as she floated off, leaving him on the shore.

Now the emotions were settling into more of a pervasive sadness.

“Well, do you want to—”

His phone went off next, and as he looked at it, he frowned. “Fuck.”

“What is it?”

As Mary glanced over at him, he jumped up. “Shit. There’s an emergency downtown—listen, tell Marissa to call me when Bitty’s ready—I’ve got to go, but I can break free.”

Or at least he hoped he could.

“What is it?” Mary asked.

“Trainees trapped with slayers—and I want the brothers to stay with Bit and the uncle, she’s more important.”

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