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His normal table was in the back by the emergency exit, and the waitress who worked the night shift jerked her head in that direction.

Which was her way of saying, Hey, good to see you again. Your favorite spot’s open, and I’ll bring you your coffee ASAP. Oh, and glad you brought the wife with you this time.

Given everything that was going on, the lack of cheerful interaction was a serious bene.

He and Mary took their seats. Coffee was served in heavy mugs. Rhage got the banana cream, Boston cream, and a slice of apple. Mary got a second fork for sampling.

Before he dug in, he put his phone right out on the Formica tabletop. Just in case, you know, reception was bad in the pocket of his leather jacket.

They sat in silence, that cell with its unlit screen between them like a fucking black hole in space, sucking all matter and energy into it.

Mary sipped her coffee. Left that fork where it was on the folded-up paper napkin. From time to time, she looked around at the mostly empty tables.

“You know what I like about this place?” she murmured.

“The pie?” he said between bites. Which were all texture, no taste tonight.

“Well, yes. But it’s so bright in here. Usually, at night, everything is dim. I never really noticed this until I came to live with you and started doing the night-is-day, day-is-night thing. Like, for some reason, humans tend to make the insides of all restaurants dim after sundown. Here, though, it reminds me of what it’s like to be out during the day.”

“Do you resent the changes?” he asked, wiping his mouth. “You know … in your life?”

“Not at all.” Her eyes swung over to his. “I have you, and that makes everything better.”

“Not in this situation with Bitty, it doesn’t.”

“Nothing could make that any better.”

“Too right.”

He pushed the banana cream plate away with half the slice still on it. He didn’t know why he’d ordered the damn thing. He wasn’t a big fan of bananas, and even with the crunch of the graham cracker crust, there was a uniformity of texture between the custard and the cream that kind of made him gag.

It was the reason he couldn’t do key lime. Or chocolate mousse …

God, he was really hurting, wasn’t he. If he was debating desserts in his head.

“You didn’t like that?” Mary remarked.

“Not really. But I thought I’d try something new.”

Yeah, ’cuz this was a night to expand your horizons. Or maybe try out the theory that there was a keep-your-daughter god who required you to override your gag reflex as tribute.

“I’ve been here to eat so many times,” he said as he pulled the apple in for a landing. “For years and years. And I never thought it was going to be part of our story, you know?”

Because sure as hell, he was going to remember exactly where they were sitting now and what he was eating and how Mary looked until he was dead.

“I know exactly how you feel,” she murmured.

As he set to work on his number two, he looked around at the other people, the two over there by the window, the three spaced out evenly on stools at the counter.

Who the fuck knew what was going on in their lives, good or bad. After all, there was a tendency to assume that the anonymity of strangers translated into calm, clear slates for their lives, but that was just bullshit. Everyone had drama. You just didn’t know what it was if you didn’t know them.

“What do they say about life?” he muttered. “Nobody gets out of this alive?”

Bing!

They both jumped, him dropping his fork on his plate, her splashing coffee out of her mug.

He leaned into his phone, entered his code, which was Mary’s birthday, and waited for the cell to cough up the text. “Wrath says it’s a go. We can proceed.”

They both straightened and sat there for a moment.

Then, without words, he took two twenties out of his wallet, she mopped up what she’d spilled, and then they were making their way to the exit.

I don’t know how to do this, he thought as they stepped outside.

I don’t know how to look that little girl in the eye and tell her to go meet her uncle.

I don’t know how to ever let her go.

In the GTO, he turned to Mary. “I love you. I don’t know what else to say.”

“I keep thinking I’m going to wake up, and take a shuddering breath … and become crazy-relieved that this was all a bad dream.”

Rhage paused to give reality a chance to hop on that train.

When nothing changed, no alarm went off, no elbow from Mary nudged him awake … he cursed, started the engine, and headed out.

To have an impossible, lose-lose conversation with his daughter.

THIRTY-EIGHT

“So where are you going?” Peyton asked from his reclining pose on his bed.

As Elise felt a flush hit her face, she hoped he was too drunk to notice.

“I just want to clear my head.” She took her phone out of her pocket. “So you’ll answer this if my father calls?”

“Are you seeing Axe?”

“Not right now.” It was the closest she could get to any truth. “I’m not going into the university tonight. I really need to get my head straight and that is not going to happen if I go back home.”

“So I’ll ask again. Where are you off to?”

“I’m really not sure. But I’ll be safe, promise.”

Peyton raised a forefinger. “Don’t you think if you don’t know where you’re going that it’s especially important to have your phone?”

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