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Elise’s eyes started to water, except then she sniffed hard and blinked while looking up at the ceiling. “Her scent was on the cloak. I didn’t put it together until I was dematerializing over here—but I scented her in the mobile surgical van when she was with us. I remember what she …” As Peyton looked away, Elise’s voice got steady. “He was with her. And recently. Like within the last night or two.”

Peyton just kept his mouth shut. Funny, as early as the night before, he would have jumped at this opportunity to take a shit all over Axe.

And he was jealous—but not when it came to Elise. He was pissed that the fucker had been with Novo.

“Look,” he said, “the only piece of advice I can give you is to go with your gut. It’s never wrong.”

“Well, what it’s telling me, then, is that while he and I were together, he was going to a hardcore club and having sex with someone else.”

Peyton shook his head. “I knew this was going to come to a bad end for you. I mean, shit, I’m aware that you two are consenting adults and all, but this is exactly why I told him to stay the fuck away from you.”

Ordinarily, he loved being right.

But not tonight, he didn’t.

Not at all.

FORTY-EIGHT

As Mary sat at her desk at Safe Place, she accomplished absolutely nothing.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She succeeded, quite admirably if she did say so herself, in moving a pile of paperwork from the right corner to the left—and, in the process, managed to review every page in said pile of case notes, intake forms, and schedules for grammatical errors, typos, and coffee stains.

Real high-level stuff.

Yup. She’d located several its-versus-it’s problems, a there instead of a their, and, the pièce de résistance, an orientated versus the American English oriented.

Go. Her.

Sitting back in her squeaky chair, she swiped the mouse pad and checked the time on her computer screen. Holy crap. It was three a.m.

She hadn’t heard from Rhage—and guessed that quick meeting about the attack on those trainees from the night before hadn’t been all that quick.

Taking a deep breath, she smelled chocolate chip cookie dough cooking in the ovens downstairs, and a wave of sadness hit her. She could remember trying to get Bitty to participate in the community baking right after her mother had died. The little girl had preferred to sit upstairs in the attic room she had shared with her mahmen, those battered suitcases all packed with her meager possessions, her stuffed tiger and that doll head beside her on the bed.

They hadn’t even known her real age at that point.

God, that seemed like a million years ago—

Her phone went off, and as she checked the text, she hoped it was Rhage. She needed an excuse to leave—

It was not from him.

As her hands began to shake, she got to her feet, tucked her blouse into her slacks, and carefully pulled on her coat. Then she picked up her purse and her phone.

Instead of telling everyone down below that she was going, she just sent a message to the group that she was leaving.

Now was not the time to stand in front of anybody and speak about anything—especially not the compassionate females who worked here and would read her like a book.

Outside, the night was terribly cold and that seemed appropriate. After she got into the Volvo and started the engine, she went miles before any appreciable heat came out of the vents, but it was okay. She was too numb to feel either hot or cold.

The King’s Audience House was some distance away and yet her destination arrived too quickly. Then again, her intention had been to use the drive to collect herself—and really, she could have gone to California and back and not felt any different.

Just as she was getting out by the garage, Rhage was materializing.

As she saw him, there was a temptation to rush into his arms and wail again, but she was over that. She didn’t have the energy, even if the emotions in her chest remained that big and hard to manage.

“Come on,” he said in a dull voice. “Let’s get this over with.”

They entered through the back door, using the code, and then walked through the kitchen, heading for that library.

When they entered the formal room, Bitty was sitting on the sofa in front of the fire. Next to her uncle.

Damn, the family resemblance was so clear.

Do not cry, Mary said to herself as she forced a smile. Do not make Bitty feel one ounce of guilt over this.

You’re the adult. She’s the victim of domestic abuse, an orphan, and a child.

Do not make this worse.

Of course, all that self-talk didn’t really change the way she felt. But at least the stern lecturing distracted her from melting down.

Marissa was seated beside the pair of blood relations and she got to her feet with enviable grace. “Thank you for coming.”

As if they were outside third parties attending a meeting in a lawyer’s office. For, like, a fence dispute.

Except they were third parties, Mary reminded herself.

Somehow, she and Rhage managed to sit down on the sofa across from Bitty and Ruhn. Things were said. Who knew what. And Rhage was as quiet as she was.

God, she couldn’t meet Bitty in the eye for more than a second or two, and she needed to work on that—

“So, Ruhn? Or Bitty?” Marissa said. “Would you like to speak now?”

There was a long silence, and Mary was the one who broke it. Looking right into Bitty’s eyes, she said in a voice that mostly didn’t crack, “It’s okay, Bitty. It’s all right, it’s all going to be—”

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