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Rhage rubbed his hair so hard his fingers were fuzzy when he stopped. “You wouldn’t understand. You’re never going to be in my shoes.”

“That’s my point, though. Whether you had a hand in birthing them or you volunteer to take them in, we’re all in the same shoes.”

Rhage stared at the closed door in front of him. “I’m scared, Z. I’m just … fucking scared. What if there’s something permanently wrong? That’s what Doc Jane is worried about, you know. She’s worried Bitty’s transition will ruin her arms and legs so badly … that they’re going to end up having to amputate them.”

The image of Bitty dancing through the foyer made his eyes sting. She was so active now … he couldn’t imagine her in a wheelchair that was operated by her blowing into a tube. It just killed him.

“What the … what the fuck are you talking about?” Z demanded.

“Something to do with growth plates. There were breaks that occurred right along”—He motioned to his thighs, his forearms, his calves—“you know, Bitty’s growth plates, and they healed wrong? So when the change hits her, they’re liable to bust open and be unrepairable.”

“Shit.”

“Mary doesn’t know.” Rhage went back to trying to pull his hair out. “Yeah, I should have told her before now, but I just didn’t know how. I told Doc Jane I would. But I’m a fucking coward for both of them. I was hoping … for good news, I guess, but the longer they’re in there, the more I think—”

Across the way, the exam room door swung open, and Doc Jane emerged.

One look at her face and he knew that the worst case had rolled out in there.

“How bad is it?” Rhage gritted as he jumped to his shitkickers. “And is there anything we can do?”

EIGHT

Turtleneck.

Hours later, as Axe sat silently in the back of the “school bus,” he tried to think of where in the hell he could get a turtleneck.

Reaching up to his throat, he massaged the side that he’d had tattooed and wondered if he could find one in his father’s shit. And didn’t that make him want a stiff drink … or maybe even a syringe full of lights-out.

He hadn’t been anywhere near his dad’s room since the death.

“Fuck,” he said to the blackened window.

To get out of his head, he looked away from his reflection—and hey, what do you know. Pey-pey had gotten bored of the don’t-touch-my-cousin routine, and was back in his primary mode of staring at Paradise as she sat beside her male.

No one had had a good time tonight, not that training was ever a party. But yeah, it stung when you were forced to meet your failures head on. What was fun? Seeing Peyton all castrated across the aisle from that female, wishing he could get in her head and help her out, be the savior he felt she needed. You could practically read the thought bubbles floating around.

Sorry, champ. She had all she required.

Novo stood up and walked down to Axe, shoving him over so she could take a load off. “I’m going at two a.m. When is your interview?”

“In a half hour.” He rubbed his tattoos, thinking they were probably going to work against him. “I gotta hustle.”

“Good luck.”

As the female put her palm out, Axe shook it. “You, too.”

“Guess it’s just you and me going for the job.” Her voice took on an edge. “Peyton already has enough money, and far be it from him to let gainful employment get in the way of his smoking up. Boone doesn’t need the cash, either—and Paradise and Craeg are already providing extra security at the Audience House on their nights off.”

Shit, Axe wasn’t crazy about competing with Novo—he would have much rather gone up against another male, and yeah, guess that made him sexist. Then again, the joke was probably on him. She was just as good at the fighting and the shooting as he was, her strength nearly that of his own, her brains a little ahead of his. She also didn’t look like a serial killer.

But hey, he would take his piercings out. Bam. Nearly normal.

He also had zero personal skills. So she could very well beat him in the interview.

“You want to have a friendly wager?” Novo drawled.

“On what?”

“Who gets it? Loser has to pay for dinner.”

He wasn’t in a position to buy her a Kit Kat. “How about winner buys dinner?”

“Deal.”

Twenty minutes later, the bus came to a stop and everyone filed off. The night was bitterly cold, and no one lingered to talk. As Axe dematerialized to his father’s cottage, he thought it was weird that he’d never called the little place his “parents’ ”—but then again, there had been no “parents” involved with the damn thing. It had been built for his mother, and hadn’t done its job to keep her in the family.

So the roof and four walls were nothing but a monument to his father’s weakness for a female.

Going inside, he was glad there was no electricity, no lights to turn on. He couldn’t stand the kitchen, hated looking at it, and he steamed right through the shallow space. The stairs to the second floor were short and steep and he took them two at a time, proceeding to the only open door.

He kept his father’s room closed off.

His room was a mattress on the floor, clothes in piles, and not much else. Hell, he didn’t even sleep up here, because the fireplace was downstairs and he had to stay warm. In the spring and summer, though, he’d move back to the second floor—or maybe he wouldn’t. Who cared.

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