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But he did care.

Underneath all that hard-as-nails exterior, he wasn’t as blasé as he wanted her to believe. Otherwise he wouldn’t have sat down and talked to her at all.

Heading over to the bank of windows that overlooked the front of the mansion, she pulled back the lacy privacy curtain and waited. A moment later, Axwelle emerged from the grand entrance, marching off down the slate walkway.

“Look at me,” she whispered. “Come on … you know you want to.”

In the back of her mind, she was oh-so-aware that self-righteous speeches about professionalism and self-control to the contrary, a part of her really wanted the male to pull a John Cusack on the front lawn.

Which was nuts.

And not as in clinically insane.

More as in a road she shouldn’t go down, given their circumstances.

The good news? As he continued to stride away from her house, he clearly wasn’t going to—

Axwelle stopped about fifteen feet past the third lantern on the walkway … and he stayed where he was for the longest time. Years, it seemed. Just before she was going to either give up or go down to see if that head injury she’d asked about had finally decided to make an appearance … he pivoted on one boot and glanced back.

His chin lifted as if his eyes were traveling up to the second floor.

With a squeak, Elise jerked back out of sight and let the curtain fall into place once more.

Her heart thundered behind her sternum and a hot flush made her take off her cashmere sweater like it was a medieval hair shirt.

As she turned away, she looked over at the sunken impression in the duvet where he’d sat on her bed. From out of nowhere, she wanted to go over and run her hand over the spot.

“What the hell am I doing?” she said into the silence of her bedroom.

THIRTEEN

The funny thing about watching a movie marathon while you couldn’t see anything was how much you could in fact picture.

Of course, in Rhage’s case, he had essentially memorized Die Hard from the moment John McClane got the advice about taking off his shoes on the plane, all the way until his wife hit that obnoxious newsman right in the piehole.

“How you doing, Bit?” he said.

Hours before, he and Bitty and Mary had taken up res in the reclining leather ass palaces of the mansion’s movie theater for two reasons: one, Bitty was more comfortable sitting up with her legs extending out; and two, the never-ending parade of cinematic distraction, which he’d curated from his repertoire of greatness, had been exactly what they’d all needed to cleanse their mental and emotional palates. They’d seen Deadpool first, of course.

One had to keep current, dontcha know.

And then it had been The Devil Wears Prada, out of deference to Mary, who, in spite of her preference for valid Palme d’Or stuff, loved Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly. After that, they’d gone back to the ass-kicking with Guardians of the Galaxy—Bit loved Zoe Saldana in that one—and finally, Central Intelligence.

The Rock was probably one of the few humans who you’d want at your side in a fight.

Rhage had had to end with an oldie but goodie, though. Plus it had been at least three weeks since he’d seen Hans Gruber fall off Nakatomi Plaza, and it was Christmas.

#seasonallyappropriate

“Bit? You okay?” When there was still no answer, Rhage turned his head in the other direction. “Is she out?” he asked Mary.

When there was no reply on that side either, he smiled and felt around. He found Mary’s hand first, and as he took it, his mate snuffled and curled in his direction, one of her legs crossing over his, her sigh as she fell back into deep sleep one of total contentment. Then he located Bit’s much smaller version of same, and just as with Mary, the little girl turned to him, her head coming to rest against his bicep, her hair falling forward to tickle his forearm.

Rhage smiled and resumed not watching the movie.

Even though he couldn’t see anything, he felt strong as an ox, big as a mountain, deadly as a cobra—you name the he-man metaphor and he was rocking that shit.

It wasn’t chauvinistic to want to protect your females. It was appropriate, and not because they couldn’t be smart and protect themselves. Females were simply more important than males and always would be, and in the very deepest part of his marrow, he was proud to be in service as a mate and a father to them.

God, he felt so totally whole, his shellan and his daughter bookending him, giving him all his strength and purpose, stabilizing him even though he hadn’t been aware of feeling wobbly.

Funny, the experience was a little like falling in love: a revelation that made everything more beautiful, more precious.

Right on cue, as if fate were determined to give him A Moment, his sight slowly returned, the flickering of the screen, the contours of the seats and the dark theater … his beautiful females … coming into a soft focus.

Like his view of life had taken on a Merchant Ivory filter.

And to think, without his Mary, he wouldn’t even know what that was.

Dearest Virgin Scribe, though, it pained him to see those casts, the reminder of Bit’s suffering and his spectacular flame-out taking him back to a place he didn’t want to be. But he did smile. Bitty had insisted the leg casts be blue and the arm casts silver, for his bloodline’s colors. And everyone in the house had written on them with a black Sharpie, the signatures and messages blurring together, the King’s overlapped by a doggen’s, brother sharing space with Nalla’s scribble, even Boo and George adding a paw print thanks to an ink pad that had been brought up.

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