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Latching onto her wide, sad stare, he moaned, “She’s ours … she’s ours … this stranger can’t take her away—she’s ours.…”

He was babbling, he knew he was babbling, but it was like someone had uncorked the bottom of his brain and every boogeyman fear he’d had about Bitty’s future was funneling down and out his mouth.

Mary let him go for a time, but then she took the reins. “Rhage. The reality is that we knew we had to get through this six-month waiting period. And Bitty … she talked about an uncle. We need … as hard as this is, we have to see this through. It’s what’s fair … it’s what’s legal.”

“She’s my daughter. She’s your daughter.”

“In our hearts, yes. But legally—”

“Fuck the law!”

“It doesn’t work like that and it shouldn’t. Think about it—if we’d made it through to the final adoption, we wouldn’t want anyone showing up at some point in the future with rights. This is the reason why we give notice and wait to see if anybody responds.”

“I can’t believe you’re being so logical—”

“I’m breaking in half right with you, Rhage. Just because I’m trying to keep it together doesn’t mean I’m not bleeding on the inside.”

As he went limp, his brothers loosened their holds and he pulled Mary against him. Looking over her head, he watched V stab out his hand-rolled in the sink and immediately light another one.

After a long silence, Rhage said to Vishous, “You’ll be the one? To go down there and …”

“Yeah.” V sucked so hard on the end of that cig, he nearly consumed the entire thing on a oner. “And I’m the right fucker to do it. Not only did I conduct the interview, but out of all of us, I’m the one most likely to remain neutral.”

True, Rhage thought. V was the smartest among them. The most logical. The most unlikely to be affected by emotion.

Goddamn it, how the fuck were they in this situation.

In a brutal series of mental snapshots, he saw Bitty in the movie theater with him and Mary, her arms and legs in those casts. Then he remembered teaching her to drive around the courtyard and up and down the hill … and helping her make her bed in the early evenings … and their ice cream breaks and the bad dreams that he’d woken her up from … and Mary smiling at their little girl.…

“How long?” he asked as Butch and Z started to pick up chairs and debris. “It will take how long?”

“At least two nights, maybe three. But everyone will see me when I’m down there. Either because of my status or because I’ll put a gun to their head.”

“No coercion,” Mary warned grimly. “I can’t—we can’t have that.”

“Take Phury with you,” Wrath announced. “He has a way about him. He’s a good foil for you.”

“All right.” V nodded once. “As you wish, my Lord.”

“You’ll leave tomorrow?” Rhage demanded.

“No, right after I finish this cigarette. I already spoke to Jane, and I have a place to stay.”

“My brother—” Rhage started.

“No,” V cut in. “Don’t you dare thank me. This is a fucking nightmare and I hate it. I hate everything about this. But goddamn it, I’m going to do this right, no matter the outcome.”

There was a long pause and Rhage watched V’s eyes focus on some point about two feet in front of his face. It was clear the brother was already prioritizing things, making lists, thinking of what he had to accomplish.

Then Rhage looked around at the mess he’d made in the kitchen.

“Where is the uncle now?” he said roughly.

V talked through an exhale. “I put him up in a bolt-hole here in Caldie. He didn’t want to accept the digs, but I told him it was nonnegotiable. I can’t disclose where he is—there really can’t be any contact between the three of you right now. Lot of emotion.”

Rhage went over and righted the mangled table with Z’s help. The thing no longer sat square on the floor, one leg twisted and bent at an angle, the top cracked, one plank missing from where he’d punched it. He wanted to move the heavy expanse back into position, to have them all sit around it again, to return things to normal, but there was no future in that.

“Did you tell him …” Mary cleared her throat. “Did you tell him about us?”

V leaned against the wall and ran his black-gloved hand over his goatee. “I told him that Bitty was with a well-qualified and well-vetted foster family who was keeping her safe. I did not share any identifying information or mention the formal adoption. Unless he’s got a legal claim, there’s no reason to go into your private information.”

“What’s …” Mary rubbed her face. “What’s he like?”

Rhage got quiet, freezing in the process of picking up the chair he’d been in from where it had ended up across the room.

V just shrugged. “I’m going to find that out.”

Mary and Rhage took the GTO back to the mansion, the two of them quiet for most of the ride, their hands nonetheless linked except for when he had to shift. During the last leg of the journey, Mary stared out her window, the trees on the shoulder of the rural road a blur in the night, the moon overhead so bright that the headlights were unnecessary.

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