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But he couldn’t have cared less about all that.

What he had caught on the air, after filtering out the woodsy pitch of the crackling fire and the soap of the doggen and a distant aftermath of some kind of meat having been served somewhere on the first floor … was the scent of that female from last night.

Peyton’s cousin either had visited here very recently … or she lived under this roof.

“My master will see you now,” the butler said from behind him.

Yes, Axe thought as he wheeled around. You’re damn right he will.

Sometimes nightmares happened in front of you and hurt people you loved, and even though you prayed to wake up … you knew that there was no alarm clock about to ring, no eyelids to lift, no rollover and reposition about to save you.

Mary was in one of those loops of suffering now.

Bitty was lying on an exam table, a white sheet and blanket folded off to the side, her thin, pale limbs reflecting the light from the massive fixture above her. She was so pale, her face was the color of a Kleenex, and she was trembling, a twitchy, wrung-out shell of the vibrant, happy little girl she usually was.

As Mary stood next to her, the details of the clinical environment, the beeping equipment and the white tile, the stainless-steel everything, the people in blue scrubs and masks, were at once crystal clear and utterly diffused—and as in a dreamscape, the two extremes on the awareness scale alternated, the scene going in and out of focus randomly.

She’d known it was going to be hard to get through the night. But she’d assumed that would be because of Bitty’s memories of abuse getting triggered. Or the fact that the girl was having to go back to the very clinic at which she had watched her mother die. Or even due to the claustrophobia of the MRI, the discomfort of the examination, the tedium of waiting for the test results to come in.

Not. Even. Fucking. Close.

Each one of Bitty’s major bones was being broken and reset. Even on the leg that had a shin made from a titanium rod. Without anesthesia because she was allergic to it.

It was indescribable, the horror, the pain, the terror. And it was hard not to rail against God in this moment, cursing whoever was up there for this perfect storm of bad news: growth plates compromised by badly healed breaks; possible amputations after the transition; her being a non-viable candidate for general anesthesia due to her previous reaction to it.

What little pain relief that could be given didn’t go nearly far enough.

“One more,” she heard herself say. “You can do this.”

Bitty didn’t seem to comprehend the words. She was lost to the haze of agony, and Mary just wanted to break down in tears herself.

But she couldn’t afford the trip to insanity.

Mary leaned down even closer. “Last one, okay? This is our last one.”

Bitty’s eyes opened wide, tears making them luminous, the great purple smudges that had appeared underneath making her seem like she was on the verge of death. “I can’t do it. Please … make them stop.…”

“One more. I promise you, just one more.” She brushed back the bangs and kissed Bitty’s forehead. “Hold my hand. Come on. Squeeze as hard as you have to.”

“I can’t do it … please, Mommy … help me.…”

Sobs racked the little girl’s body, making the hospital gown seem as if it were caught in a breeze, and Mary began to cry, too, the tears rolling down her cheeks and dropping onto the thin mattress of the table.

Sniffling, praying for strength, utterly lost, Mary made a mental note that the next time someone looked at her and told her that she had all the answers, she was going to kick them in the ass.

“Havers, can you give us …”

As she looked up, she found the physician and his two female nurses standing back. And the look he gave her was so full of compassion, it was nearly impossible to reconcile it with what she knew he had done to his sister Marissa.

But no one had ever faulted him in his profession.

“Let’s just breathe,” Mary said to Bitty. “Come on … breathe with me.…”

The MRIs had shown that the girl was at risk of catastrophic deformity when she went through her transition. For vampires, their growth pattern to maturity was compressed into the singular explosion that occurred during their change. It was as if, in the human parallel, a fourteen-year-old became twenty-five physically in a matter of six hours.

In Bitty’s case, there were a series of subtle, and not so subtle, curves in her long bones because of the previous fractures. And Mary had noticed them, but hadn’t really dwelled on the reasons for them or their implications. The issue was that when that explosive growth happened, those deformities were liable to separate completely, snapping because the force of the expansion would be off-angle.

The end result? Amputation. Of all or most of her limbs. Because for about six months after transition, the bones in vampires were not capable of fusing breaks.

The decision had been made to fix them now.

And Bitty had made the choice. She didn’t want to come back in a month or a year or two years or five years to get it done. Nothing was going to change and there was no reason to have the prospect hanging over her head.

But this was just too much.

“I can’t, I can’t … I can’t do this.…”

Mary couldn’t agree more. She couldn’t do this anymore, either. Too much. Tapped out. Over the threshold.

Yes, there was a larger goal here, but they’d done enough. Hadn’t they?

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