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Her lips, the ones he had tasted in his dreams, parted so she could pant.

“Yes,” she breathed. “Outside.”

As she turned away, he said her name. And when she looked back at him, he said, “Take your time. I like how much the anticipation hurts.”

NINETEEN

Historically, back in the Old Country, it had been part of the normal functioning of life for the King to hold audiences with his subjects, ruling on everything from property disputes and petitions for sehclusion to noble matings, rythes, and even murders and other crimes.

However, when Wrath had refused to ascend to the throne for, oh, a couple of centuries, the practice fell by the wayside. All that had changed recently, though, and now the tradition was back in full swing, the audiences being conducted out of the Federal-style mansion Darius had lived in before he’d been blown up in his BMW by the enemy: Every night, Monday through Friday, members of the race came to the great Blind King and sought his advice, counsel, declarations, and blessings.

And tonight’s docket was full, Rhage thought as he opened the double doors to the dining room yet again and let out a hellren with his shellan and new baby son. The couple were commoners, dressed in clean but unfancy clothes, their miracle wrapped up in a humble swaddling blanket. Ordinarily, Rhage would have nodded and just let them go, but now he really looked at the family, and even rushed forward to open the heavy main door for them.

“You take care of them,” he said to the male.

The guy seemed flustered to be spoken to at all by a brother, and as he stammered, Rhage put a hand on the guy’s shoulder. “I know you will.”

“Yes, my Lord, yes,” he said with a bow. “I shall lay down my life for them both.”

Rhage smiled at the female and the young, but he made no move to touch them—certainly not the female, definitely not the baby. That would have broken protocol: Even though he was at the top of the food chain socially and accorded all kinds of honor and respect, it would have been inconceivable in the Old Country for a newborn and its mother to have contact with a male, even in a formal setting, during the first year of life.

It was funny, ever since they had started up with the audiences again, Rhage and the brothers had fallen into the Old Ways again. It just felt right.

Especially in this case, now that Rhage knew firsthand what it was like to be a dad.

“Congratulations again,” he said to the couple as he stood to the side and watched them go off into the cold.

The female’s father was waiting for them in the driveway in a ten-year-old Honda Accord, and the way the guy jumped out and beamed at the young family, you’d have sworn he was driving a Rolls-Royce.

Rhage gave the grandfather a wave, which floored the male and caused him to bow so fast he nearly fell over—and then Hollywood shut the door to keep the winter breeze from sucking all the warmth out of the foyer.

“Last night’s good weather was just a chimera, huh,” he said to the receptionist.

Paradise’s second cousin, Beline, looked up from her computer. “I know, right? Don’t tell anyone, but under my desk, I’ve taken my heels off and put fleece socks on.”

Rhage nodded to the fire, which had gone down a lot since he’d stoked it an hour ago. “You want me to throw some more wood on?”

“No, thanks.” She smiled and pushed up her glasses. “It’s just my feet.”

There were two people in the waiting room, but there was another wave coming in.

On a lot of levels, he’d rather be in the field, or beating the crap out of the trainees, but he never was at full capacity right after the beast made an appearance, and it was better for him to pull this admin shift now.

After all, every brother had to put in time here, fulfilling their duty as personal guard to Wrath. Between humans, lessers, and members of the glymera linking up with the Band of Bastards, they didn’t take any chances with the King’s life: There were always a minimum of two members of the Brotherhood on site with Wrath. Tonight, it was he and Vishous, which was always fun.

Mostly because the pair of them could do good cop/bad cop. Or rather, V could sit there with his icy eyes and his hands rolled, making the civilians shit themselves in their pants, and Rhage could be a yo-ho-ho, Steve Harvey– on– Family Feud grin-and-greeter.

Striding back to what had been the dining room, Rhage stood in between the carved jambs and waited as Saxton reviewed a couple of documents with Wrath down at the far end by the flap door into the kitchen. Saxton was frickin’ amazing, keeping all the paperwork and documentation straight as well as making sure that the Old Laws were consulted when appropriate.

The set-up for the private meetings was simple and very non-thronal: just two armchairs facing each other in front of the fire, one for the King and one for his subjects—although there were other seats off to the side to be pulled in as needed. Whichever brothers were on stayed at a discreet distance, with Saxton at a desk that was halfway in between. There was a rolling cart of coffee, tea, and sodas, along with cookies and other kinds of snacks—

A blast of cold air whipped into the foyer behind him, and Rhage turned with a smile at whoever … it …

… was …

Rhage’s heart didn’t so much stop … as die in his chest.

The male who had come in was young and healthy, heavily muscled, but not obviously weaponed, as if he were a manual laborer of some kind as opposed to a fighter. His clothes were so well washed that his jeans fell from his hips like drapes, and his jacket was way too light for December. Construction boots were well worn. No jewelry. Nothing in his hands. No strange scents on him.

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