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So far she had come up with nothing.

“Are you ready?” Rhage said.

There was the temptation to try to be strong for him because she knew he was hurting as much as she was. But honesty won out over a lie.

“No.” She looked across at him. “I’m not.”

“Me neither.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

And that was the best and only foot forward there was, wasn’t it: The simple words they shared were a vow on both their parts to get through this together, a reaffirmation that just as they had been side by side going into the joy of having Bitty in their lives, they would likewise go through the pain of losing her side by side.

Together, they got out and shut the doors, and Mary lifted up the fleece she was wearing and retucked her turtleneck into her waistband. As if somehow having a smooth presentation would impact anything at all.

Hell, Ruhn didn’t have to like them or approve of them. The male wasn’t vetting them in any way.

No, he was just going to take their daughter away—

Mary stopped herself right there on that one.

As Rhage held open the back kitchen door, she walked in and reminded herself that Bitty only felt like their daughter. Legally, that was simply not the case. And in a classic head-wins-over-the-heart situation, reality wasn’t going to vote with emotion.

V had already dematerialized over and was waiting for them at the table Rhage had done such a number on. “Marissa’s in there with him right now.”

“Okay,” Mary said.

When Rhage faltered, she took his big hand. “We’re ready when he is.”

Vishous nodded and got to his feet. “I’ll come back when it’s time.”

Cue an awkward period of waiting … which Rhage spent prowling around from cupboard to cupboard, taking out bags of potato chips, boxes of cookies, loaves of bread, jars of pickles. He always ended up putting whatever it was back after an inspection, as if he wanted to nervous-eat, but his stomach wasn’t finding anything appealing.

Or even tolerable.

After God only knew how long, V put his head in through the flap door across the way. “They’re ready.”

Talk about the longest walk of her life. As she and Rhage went past the pantry, and out into the foyer, and then around the base of the stairs and down a little hall, it seemed to take forever—and Mary was good with that.

They were entering the new reality as soon as they saw that other male.

As they came up to the library doors, both sides were closed and V knocked once. When Marissa answered, the Brother opened things up … and Mary found herself blinking a lot and staring at the floor.

And then somehow, she was in the room.

As with the Brotherhood house, there was a fire crackling and first editions on the shelves … and nicely arranged furniture … even a plate of cookies and some tea sitting on a low coffee table. No Christmas tree, though. No hand-wrapped presents. No Bing Crosby playing.

And there he was.

Her first impression of Bitty’s uncle was that he was just as nervous as they were. His foot was tapping and his arms were crossed over his chest and his eyes bounced back and forth between her and Rhage.

Her second thought was that he was big. Much bigger than she would have imagined, given Bitty’s size and Annalye’s relatively delicate build. In his clean blue jeans and red and blue flannel shirt, he took up almost all of the sofa he was on, and not because he was fat. He was covered in muscle, clearly a field worker of some kind.

His hair was dark, just like Bitty’s. His eyes were some flavor of pale brown. Skin was the tone of Rhage’s. Face was … yes, there were clear echoes of Bitty’s features there.

Marissa stood up from the chair next to the male. “I’m going to make introductions.”

Ruhn got to his feet, and yup, he was very tall. And he wiped his palms on his thighs repeatedly as names were traded.

He offered his hand only to Rhage—which was a measure of respect and showed an awareness of vampire etiquette. Given that she and Rhage were mated, it would have been entirely inappropriate for Ruhn to touch her without express invitation by either her or her hellren.

“Sire,” he said in a low, soft voice.

Rhage reached out, and as they shook, Ruhn bowed deeply.

Then he turned to her and did the same, just without the palm-to-palm contact.

Mary glanced at Rhage. His face was remote, but his eyes were not so much narrowed with aggression … as sad with unhappiness.

“Perhaps we should all sit down and get comfortable?” Marissa said, indicating various chairs and sofas. “Tea, anyone?”

The female was obviously falling back on her finely bred manners, and it was helpful, filling the silence as Mary nodded about the offer of Earl Grey because she needed something to do with her hands.

Vishous stayed standing in the far corner, a menacing presence that was a reminder that the rest of the house was empty, all the appointments with the King rescheduled just so they could have this neutral space. He alone was here on guard.

But you know, he was more than enough to feel safe—

Except abruptly Mary noticed a figure outside on the back terrace. Z, going by the skull trim. And … wait, was that—yes, that was Butch at another window on the other side.

Undoubtedly, other members of the Brotherhood were elsewhere, remaining unseen—and she drew strength from having family with her and Rhage.

“So we all know why we’re here.” Marissa leaned forward with an admirably steady hand, passing a full teacup to Mary. “Perhaps someone would like to say what’s on their mind.”

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