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“Fine. See you at class—”

“I’ll take you to The Keys, though.”

“When?” she demanded.

“Night after tomorrow.” He closed his eyes and rushed through the rest: “We’ll go together. It’s guest night. You’ll find what you’re looking for there. I know I always do.”

TWENTY-FIVE

It was five hours before Vishous came back into the Audience House’s kitchen. And Rhage couldn’t decide whether he was glad the initial interview of the uncle was over … or shit terrified to find out the results.

As V sat down at the table with all of them, he was clearly tired, his hair plastered back off his forehead like he’d been pulling his hands through it, the tattoos at his temple glowing in contrast to skin that was too pale, his gloved hand shaking a little as he lit a hand-rolled and took a deep drag.

Rhage took the teacup he’d been drinking hot chocolate out of off its saucer and pushed the little porcelain plate in his brother’s direction. So the guy had an ashtray.

Then he sat back, took Mary’s hand, and waited some more.

It wasn’t a surprise that Vishous took his time before he spoke, and even Z came over and sat down.

“So here’s what we got.” V tapped his cig over the saucer even though there was no ash at the end. Then he pointed to the thing. “Thank you for this.”

“You’re welcome,” Rhage murmured.

Fucking hell, he almost didn’t want to hear it. Mary, on the other hand, was leaning forward, obviously prepared to deal with whatever the news was.

He drew from her fighting spirit. ’Cuz at the moment, he was feeling pretty fucking ball-less.

“So Ruhn gave me all the details he knows about Bitty’s mother. The names of their sire and mahmen. When and where she was born. Where she lived and who with before she came to Caldwell. How she met that asshole she mated. What he knew of what happened after she came here.” The brother took another inhale and released more of that Turkish smoke. “He also told me about where he’s been living, what he’s been doing, who he’s been associating with.”

“What does he do?” Mary asked roughly.

“He’s a manual laborer. He lives in South Carolina. He works on a big estate down there.”

“What’s the bloodline?” Wrath demanded. Like the King was prepared to go and seize the estate as if they were back in the Old Country. “And did the stories make sense?”

V put his palm up even though Wrath couldn’t see it. “Look, I’m not going to tell you your royal business—”

“But you’re going to anyway,” Wrath muttered.

V focused on Mary, as if he recognized that she was the one who was going to care most about the process. “The most reasonable and responsible thing for me to do is go down there myself and verify everything. I have addresses, contacts—including the family he’s worked for. I have all the details of his life up until now—”

“I’m coming with you,” Rhage said, and started to get to his feet.

Except now he was the one getting palmed. “No, you’re not.”

“The fuck I’m going to let someone else get to the bottom of this shit—”

“No,” Mary said. “You have a conflict of interest. So do I. This needs to be done by a disinterested third party.”

Rhage eased back down into the seat. The idea of sidelining an investigation like that made him want to pound his forehead into the table until the thing splintered and then powdered into sawdust—

“This is bullshit,” Wrath announced. “Let me talk to him. I’ll know whether he’s telling the truth.”

V shook his head. “With regard to the facts as the guy sees them, sure. But it’s not that simple.”

“Yes, it is.” Rhage was aware of the beast surging under skin, the stress juicing him up. “If he’s a lying piece of shit—”

“The issue is his fitness,” Mary cut in. “Fitness to be a parent—”

Rhage released his shellan’s hand, curled up a double’s worth of fists, and slammed them into the table, splitting the heavy oak boards down the center. “We’re her parents! We’re her fucking parents!”

As he leaped up, Mary went with him, catching one of his arms and hanging all her weight off it. “Rhage, you need to relax—”

“I’m her father! You’re her mother—”

Mary lost her hold on him and then he was pulling a RHONJ and flipping the table, sending his brothers and the King jumping back as china and glassware went airborne and then shattered all over the place.

“This is fucking bullshit!”

Immediately, his brothers were on him, Z catching him from behind and cranking him into a neck hold, Butch coming from out of nowhere—when had he gotten to the house?—and grabbing him around the waist from the side, Mary trying to get in his face so he would focus on her.

The only thing that kept the beast still inside him was the fact that it had gotten out the night before. If that shit hadn’t gone down at the clinic, he would have trashed the whole back wing of Darius’s old mansion.

“He can’t take her away!” he screamed at no one and everybody. “We just got her! He can’t take her—he’s a fucking stranger—”

“Rhage,” Mary got directly in front of him, jumping up to catch his eye. “Rhage, we have to—”

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