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As Doc Jane and Manny went to work on Peyton, stitching up the streak by his temple, assessing his concussion, trying to fix his too-low blood pressure, Rhage was pretty fucking tired of being in situations where he couldn’t do shit.

He glanced at Novo. The female trainee hadn’t moved the whole time. It was as if she had turned to stone. “You want to go?”

“No.”

In other circumstances, he might have argued, but she was tough. No matter what happened, she could handle it—

His phone went off and he grabbed for it. “Oh, shit … I gotta go,” he said as he read the text. “It’s Mary.”

“We’re safe,” Manny said.

“I’ll send some people over.”

“That’d be good.”

Rhage was out the side door and dematerializing a split second later. As he re-formed in front of the Audience House, he didn’t think twice about running up the front walkway and shoving open the door—

Lot of people in the foyer and everyone turned to him—

Complete. Fucking. Chaos.

Mary gasped. Bitty yelled. Somebody started cursing—V, by the sound of it. And then his females were coming at him, talking a mile a minute, pointing, gesturing to his chest.

He couldn’t fathom what they were going on about.

“Hold up,” he said, putting his palms out. “How was it with Ruhn—are you okay, Bitty?”

“You’re shot! You’re bleeding!”

“Huh?”

Except then he looked down at himself. Sure enough, there were bullet holes through the front of his shirt and his leather jacket; there was bright red blood on his hands and all over his clothes … and black lesser blood dripping off his daggers, which he’d restrapped.

Oh. Right. That whole, you know, fighting thing.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m—”

“I’m calling Doc Jane now!” Mary said as she went for her phone.

“No!” He put his hand out again. “They’re operating. And I’m not hurt—”

“I just lived through you getting shot in the chest! Why are you still standing! Rhage—”

He stepped in front of his mate and ripped his shirt clean down the middle.

As buttons went flying and then skipped across the marble floor, he exposed what used to be his shiny new bulletproof vest. But that now had more in common with Swiss cheese.

Rhage pounded on his chest. “Kevlar.” He picked another bullet out and let the thing fall to the floor—where it obligingly bounced along to play with all those buttons. “I’ve been wearing them since I got shot, you know, the last time. I mean, yes, we agreed you’d stay with her after I die, but there’s no reason to rush that.”

All at once, he became aware of Ruhn standing in the far corner, his eyes missing nothing.

Rhage cleared his throat. “Or, you know, there was no reason to rush that.”

There was a pause. And then Mary and Bitty were on him, his females hugging him and talking a mile a minute, nervous energy being burned off, the fact that he was sweaty and bloodstained not seeming to matter to them in the slightest.

“Z,” he said over Bitty’s head as she poked her fingers into the holes. “You need to get down to the garage. They’re unprotected and operating on Peyton. And V, I’m pretty sure they could use another set of hands.”

There was conversation at that point, and someone suggested Ruhn head off to wherever he was staying.

And that totally changed the vibe. Bitty turned to her uncle and so did Mary.

“When do I see you again?” Bitty asked with her customary directness.

“Tomorrow night?” Ruhn said in his quiet way.

“Okay.”

At least they didn’t hug, Rhage thought uncharitably as the male bowed, murmured a few words to Marissa and Mary, and then walked to the door—

“Wait,” the little girl said.

Without warning, she burst forward … and embraced Ruhn.

It was just the way she had done it when she had been getting to know Rhage and Mary: Fast as a blink, but the first sign she was opening her heart.

Rhage felt tears spear into his eyes. More than any detail of the meeting, more than any he said/she said, this-was-discussed, that-was-explained, Bitty’s actions told him exactly how her time with Ruhn had gone.

Funny, when he and Mary had been in the process of adopting the girl, Rhage had gotten flashes of insight that things were happening between the three of them, were changing, were going in a certain direction. Like his showing her the GTO and her liking the way it smelled … he and Mary taking her to T.G.I. Friday’s in Lucas Square and him explaining that it was okay if they had to leave if it was too much for her to handle … that trip to the ice cream parlor …

He was getting exactly one of those flashes now.

Except instead of it showing him an open road …

… it was all about a brick wall.

FORTY-FIVE

Peyton woke up with the worst headache he’d ever had.

But he didn’t give a shit about the pain.

There was a wrist at his lips, and the most amazing blood he’d ever had was filling his mouth, blazing down his throat, pooling in his gut. And the more he took, the more some instinct for survival ordered him to drink and drink and then keep on going.

It wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he found out whose it was.

Novo was standing over him, her face drawn and pale, her shoulders and arms bare, whatever jacket she had been wearing gone.

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