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“What do you want to do about it?”

“I am aware that she left the house last night. I do not know where she went. She did not arrange for you to escort her to school—or you would have sent me your hours as we agreed and you did the evening before.”

“You want me to follow her. Even when she’s not in school.”

“And tell me where she goes. I will pay you, of course.”

Axe shifted in the chair, crossing his legs, ankle on knee. He glanced over to the painting again. Looked back. “I have training. I can’t be with her twenty-four/seven.”

“I had a GPS program installed in her phone. My butler is rather electronically adept. He can monitor where she goes and provide you with coordinates.”

“But again, what if I’m in class.”

“You could investigate where she goes afterward. On your time off.”

“Let me get this straight. You don’t want her under sehclusion, but you want to know where she goes, and if I can’t be there, you want me to pretend to be a P.I. and figure out what she was doing and with who?”

“Yes.” Felixe smiled with relief. “Exactly.”

Damn it, Father, she thought. And of course Axe was going to do it. He’d maintained he needed the job, and more money was always better—

Axe got to his feet. “Sorry. That’s not for me.”

“What?” her father said.

What? she thought.

“Look, I’m good with being her bodyguard. But sneaking around behind her back and reporting to you what she does, just so you can use it against her, isn’t my thing. If you’re so concerned with what she’s doing and who she’s seeing, you need to ask her yourself. Your daughter is one of the most up-front people I’ve ever met. She’ll tell you. She’s honest like that, even if it’s a hard discussion.”

“But … I’ll pay you more. I can pay you double.”

“Wow. You people …” Axe glanced in Elise’s direction one last time. “I have to go. Training starts in an hour and I have to eat.”

“I wish you’d reconsider.” Felixe seemed deflated. “I need your help.”

“You really don’t. You need to talk with your daughter, not treat her like she’s the enemy.”

“I only want what’s best for her.”

“If there’s anyone who’s going to know what that is, though, it’s her.”

As Axe let himself out, Elise shut the slide and hopped off the steps. Gathering her robe, she raced for the hidden shelving.

Back at the Brotherhood mansion, in his and Mary’s new bathroom, Rhage checked his pair of forties and made sure the clips were full. Then he put both of his black daggers into his holster, handles down, and verified his backup ammo.

“Merry Christmas,” he said to the reflection in the mirror over the sinks.

Funny, that this human holiday was about the birth of a savior, and yet here he was, going out into the field, on the search for death.

And yeah, he looked like a killer, especially as he pulled on a leather duster and covered up his blond hair with a black skullcap.

Then again, he could have been in a pink bathrobe and fuzzy slippers and his eyes would have given him away.

Turning from himself, he went out into the bedroom beyond. When they had moved up to the third floor only two months ago, it had felt like home immediately because Bitty had been with them. Now the suite seemed like a hotel room, something that was lovely, but transitory.

If the girl left them, they were not staying here.

In fact, he would never again go up to the third floor.

Leaving their room, he went next door, and stopped in between the jambs. Mary and Bitty were sitting on the girl’s bed, the pair of them in sweats, Bitty’s hair still damp from the shower. Mary was brushing the long lengths, starting at the ends and working her way up, as Bitty chatted along about the Christmas party that Beth and Butch were organizing for the end of the evening.

“And so this big fat guy in a red velvet suit comes down the chimney?” the girl said.

“Yes. He leaves presents under the tree, and in the morning, everyone opens their stockings and packages. You eat too much at four in the afternoon. Watch football and fall asleep. Wake up at nine o’clock. Feel peckish. Eat more. Go to bed and pass out.”

“Oh, that is Father’s kind of holiday! But we should have done it at dawn this morning, then.”

“We had to fit the schedule to what worked for the most people.”

Yeah, there had been plans in place for weeks now, but with that male showing up at the Audience House? No one had been in the mood for celebrating. Rhage and Mary had insisted the gathering go forward, though.

Maybe it would be another good distraction along the lines of Lassiter’s little miracle/balloon fight/perfectly timed show of excitement for the little girl.

Bitty went on to ask questions about Mary growing up, and Mary answered everything in the same way she was brushing that hair … slowly, gently … as if she were never going to have a chance to do it again.

“Oh, Father! Hi!”

As Bitty turned to him, her face was so open, her smile so genuine … that he wanted to lose it all over again. But he didn’t. He walked in, as if it were any other night, and murmured something, smiled, patted Bitty’s shoulder, kissed Mary on the mouth, said his goodbyes.

Bitty seemed worried.

Mary was resigned and sad.

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