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As she re-formed on her father’s lawn, Allishon’s death converged with memories of Troy staring across the table of papers, his eyes burning, his body sending off its scent of arousal. Life could change in a moment, and didn’t that mean you should take advantage of however many nights and days you had?

Time wasn’t so much relative as an illusion. If she’d known her cousin was going to die, she herself would have made different choices. On that theory, if she knew she had a week left, or maybe a month, shouldn’t she see where things went with a male, even if he was just a human?

Troy had her number. And she had his. How did this work? They texted occasionally, but only about scheduling things.

A date was a “thing” to be scheduled, though, right?

Walking in the grand front door, she started trying out conversations in her head, ways of greeting and following up on—

“Where have you been!”

Elise froze. And realized as she saw a grandfather clock and a set of stairs that was right out of Buckingham Palace that she had seriously screwed up: She’d come in through the formal entrance … and walked right past the open door to her father’s study.

With her coat on, and snowflakes in her hair, and her backpack on her shoulder.

“Elise!”

Through the open door, her father had stood up from behind his carved desk, his shock and horror more appropriate to someone having crashed an SUV through his mansion.

And actually, his pale face, his peeled-wide eyes, and his ruffled evening coat might have been funny. Under other circumstances.

With a curse, Elise closed her lids and braced herself for the onslaught.

TWO

THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD MANSION

“So what is that?”

As Rhage’s daughter piped up, he froze with his gun halfway into his under-arm holster. For a split second, he decided to pretend that he hadn’t heard her—but that was going to get him nowhere. In the two months or so that he and Mary had had Bitty, they’d both learned that she was smart as a whip and tenacious as flypaper.

Ordinarily, he got a kick out of those two defining characteristics. When it came to describing the technical specs of a forty-caliber killing weapon to his thirteen-year-old? Pass. He wished she had an empty skull and ADD.

“Ah …”

He glanced into the mirror over the bureau, hoping against hope that she had moved on to something, anything else. Nope. Bitty was sitting on his and Mary’s new bed, the one in the third-floor suite that Trez had graciously moved out of so the three of them could have adjoining rooms. The girl was way on the small side, her skinny arms and legs the kind of thing that made him want to move to the tropics instead of live in Upstate New Freezing-Fucking-Cold. Hell, even under a body weight’s worth of fleece, she seemed fragile.

But the oh, dainties ended right there. Her brown eyes were direct as an adult’s, old as a mountain range, keen as an eagle’s. Her dark hair was thick and shiny, falling past her shoulders, nearly the exact color of Mary’s. And her aura, her … whatever, life force, spirit, soul … was as tangible as her physical form seemed almost transient.

He took pride in the fact that the longer she stayed with them, the more she was emerging. Not like a flower.

Like a fucking oak.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut that didn’t mean he wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of his job killing lessers with her.

And nope. Really not interested in the whole birds-and-bees talk, either. At least they had another twelve years or so to prepare for that.

“Father?” she prompted.

Rhage closed his eyes. Okay, so every time she called him that, his heart got too big for his chest and this unreal, won-the-lottery feeling sunrised all over him. It took him back to right after he and Mary had been mated and he’d gotten to call her shellan for the first time.

Pure, full-bore awesomeness.

“What is it?” Bitty prompted.

That happy pink bubblegum glow faded as he seated the gun and clipped its strap over the butt. “It’s a weapon.”

“I know—it’s a gun. But what kind?”

“A Smith and Wesson forty.”

“How many bullets are in it?”

“Enough.” He picked up his leather jacket and smiled. “Hey, you ready for movie night when I get home?”

“Why don’t you want to tell me about your gun?”

Because if you’re the audience, I can’t separate what I do with it from a discussion of its specs. “It’s just not all that interesting.”

“It’s what keeps you alive, though, right?” The little girl’s eyes locked on the black daggers that were holstered on his chest, handles down. “Like your knives.”

“Among other things.”

“So that’s interesting. To me, at least.”

“Look, how ’bout we talk about this when your mom and I are both here? You know, like, later tonight.”

“But how do I know you’ll come home safe?”

Rhage blinked. “I am never not coming back to you and Mary.”

“What if you die, though?”

His first thought was:

MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARY!

His Mary, as a trained therapist—who had treated Z with all his demons, for godsakes—could deal with this so much better than some meathead fighter like him could. But his shellan was at Safe Place, working, and he didn’t feel right about calling and possibly interrupting her with anything other than an arterial bleed or a house fire. Zombie apocalypse. H-bomb behind the compound.

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