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“Thank you,” he said quietly.

Everyone went silent as the large flat box was delivered into his lap.

“It’s from all of us!” Bitty exclaimed. “I put some of my money into it, too.”

“Y’all have been too generous already.” The male looked down at the pile of clothes next to his chair. “I don’t know how to thank you—”

V cut in. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just open it, will ya?”

“Vishous!” Jane hissed over in the corner. “Seriously—”

“What! Come on, I seriously spent, like, hours trying to help Rhage find the right one—”

Butch chimed in. “He totally did. I mean, it was intense, the two of them—”

Rhage shrugged. “But hey, you know, this is an important gift … you want to get the color right.”

“Is it another sweater?” Ruhn asked. “I have two now already?”

“You should open the box,” Rhage said. “G’head, son.”

It was funny, Ruhn had been taken under Rhage’s wing within a night of coming here, and the two were really sweet together. Ruhn took all his cues from Rhage, learned from him, spent a lot of time with him.

Turned out Ruhn had gone through his transition only fifteen years before.

And Rhage would probably not admit it, at least not anytime soon, but Ruhn was quickly becoming a son to him.

Yup, that was Rhage’s boy: Each time Ruhn mastered something else, like working out in the weight room with the Brothers, or signing up for an English-as-a-second-language course to learn to read, or watching another of Rhage and Bitty’s god-awful movies, there was pride on Rhage’s face.

The universe had given them a BOGO, in essence—

Ruhn opened the top of the box and rifled through the tissue paper. Then he frowned. “Wait, what is this?”

He held up a key fob.

Rhage jumped out of his seat. “Come on, son, you gotta meet her!”

Bitty squealed and started yanking on her uncle’s arm. “She’s out back—right here!”

“Here, hit the button on the fob—”

“Wait, what—”

As Rhage threw open a set of French doors, the whole household exploded out of their seats and jammed the exit.…

To see the most beautiful heavy-duty Ford truck with a blah-blah-something or another for an engine and double cab blah-blah with eight gazillion horses under the hood and yada, yada, yada, suspension, gear-shifting whatever—

All that stuff.

Mary hung back and let them all go, the security lights coming on and giving her a great view of Ruhn’s total shock and then tentative excitement.

And then the male was turning to Rhage and not looking him in the face. Rhage knew what he was doing, though, and wrapped Ruhn up in a big bear hug—while Bitty danced around like a firefly.

Yes, Mary thought, this was the best Christmas she’d ever—

“Mary.”

Turning at the soft sound of her name, she glanced behind herself. Then frowned. “Lassiter?”

“I’m over here.”

“Where?” She looked all around. “Why is your voice echoing?”

“Chimney.”

“What?”

“I’m stuck in the fucking chimney.”

She raced over to the fireplace and got on her hands and knees. Looking up into the dark flue, she shook her head. “Lass? What the hell are you doing up there?”

His voice emanated from somewhere above her. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“What are you—”

An arm came down. A very sooty arm that was encased in a red sleeve that had white trim. Or what had been white trim and which was now smudged with ash.

“You’re stuck!” she exclaimed. “And thank God no one lit this fire!”

“You’re telling me,” he muttered in his disembodied voice. “I had to blow out Fritz’s match like a hundred times before he gave up. Fuck, that sounds dirty. Anyway, just remind me never to try to be Santa for your kid, okay? I’m not doing this again, even for her.”

Mary stretched a little farther in, but the logs on the hearth stopped her. “Lassiter. Why can’t you free yourself by dematerializing—”

“I’m impaled on a hook that’s iron. I can’t go ghost. And will you just take this?”

“What?”

“This.”

He turned his hand toward her and there was … a box … in it? A small navy blue box.

“Open it. And before you ask, I already cleared it with your pinheaded hellren. He’s not jel or anything.”

Mary sat back and shook her head. “I’m more worried about you—”

“Justopenthefuckingthingalready.”

Taking off the top, she found a slightly smaller box inside. That was velvet. “What is this?”

As she lifted the lid, she … gasped.

It was a pair of diamond earrings. A pair of perfectly matched, sparkly, diamond …

“A mother’s tears,” Lassiter’s slightly echo-y voice said softly. “So hard, so beautiful. I told you everything was going to be all right. And those are to remind you of how strong you are, how strong your love for your daughter is … how, even in the worst of times, things have a way of working out as they should.”

Blinking away tears, she thought of her crying in the foyer in front of the angel, crying because all had been lost.

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