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Elise put the phone up to her ear and made like she was speaking to someone. “Oh, really? And then what happened?”

Walking onward, she kept her eyes on the carpet and the human who was approaching her in her peripheral vision. He didn’t seem particularly interested in her presence.

One benefit to wearing jeans and a long, puffy coat was that her body was totally hidden.

Still, she tensed up as they passed … but he simply kept about his way and so did she.

And then she was on the elevator, going down.

She couldn’t wait to get to Axe’s place.

Rhage was not in a big hurry to get home. But the distance from the diner to the Brotherhood mansion didn’t change, and he was, as always, a very efficient driver.

Too soon, he and Mary were walking into the foyer.

Going by the laughter, they knew where Bitty was … and they found her in the billiards room. Bella was on the sofa, and their girl was playing hide-and-seek with Nalla among the pool tables.

Bit was so carefree, darting from one place to another, moving quickly, but not so fast that Nalla couldn’t catch her and feel the triumph of winning from time to time. For clothes, the toddler was wearing a jumper with a big strawberry on it, her yellow eyes sparkling like sunshine, and Bitty had on one of Mary’s blue fleeces, the thing so big, it flopped around her arms and torso.

As he and Mary watched the playing, the scent of their sorrow was so thick, his nose filled with the acrid burn of it—and Bella must have caught the stinging smell, because she looked around sharply.

Her face went from hopeful to resigned.

“Girls,” the female said as she got to her feet. “I, ah, I think it’s time for Nalla’s bath. And Bitty, your parents need to talk to—ah …”

“Hey!” the girl said as she saw them. “How are—”

She frowned. Straightened from her tickling crouch. “What’s wrong? I don’t have to go back to Havers’s, do I?”

“No, honey.” Mary walked forward and gave Bella a brief hug. “But we need to speak to you.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No.” Rhage nodded at Z’s shellan as Bella scooped up her young and disappeared with sadness. “Not at all. You want to sit down with us, please?”

“All right.”

And then the three of them were on the leather sofa that faced the big TV, Bitty in the middle. On the screen over the fireplace, an episode of Seinfeld was muted. It was the one with Kramer’s Junior Mint ending up in the surgical patient. One of Rhage’s favorites.

He felt like smashing the television to pieces.

“What is going on? You’re scaring me.”

Rhage cleared his throat and looked at Bit. When he came up with a big, fat nothing, he had to get to his feet and pace around. It was either that or find a baseball bat for that redeco job.

Mary picked up the slack, like she always did, and he hated the way he let her down. But her voice was admirably steady.

“Honey, do you remember … when you were talking about your uncle?” his shellan said. “You know, right after your mahmen went unto the Fade. You told me he was coming for you?”

“Yes, but I didn’t really think he would.” The girl’s beautiful brown eyes went back and forth from Mary, who was beside her, to Rhage, who was making a lap around the nearest pool table. “I’d never met him. I was just … hoping someone wanted me. And then you two did and everything is okay now. I have my home.”

Mary took a deep breath.

And when she stalled, Rhage knew he needed to man up; he couldn’t leave this all for Mary to handle. Walking over, he knelt down in front of the girl.

“Well, actually, he contacted us. See, Mary tried to find him for you before you came to live with us, because it was the right thing to do. When there were no responses, we were sad for you, but happy for us.”

Bitty frowned and edged back from him. “Wait … he’s here. He’s alive?”

Mary nodded. “He is and we just met him. He seems very nice and very sincere. And he’s really interested in meeting you.”

That frown on the girl’s face became deeper and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, I’m not going to. I want to live here with you guys, and the Brothers and Lassiter. Nalla, L.W., and Boo and George. This is my home.”

Rhage rubbed his face. “He’s your family, sweetheart.”

“You’re my family.”

“Bitty,” Mary started. “He’s your mother’s brother—”

Bitty burst up from the sofa and wheeled around on the both of them. “This is because of my arms and legs, isn’t it. You guys don’t want to deal with a kid who might be a cripple after their transition. You don’t want me anymore because I’m broken—”

“Bitty!”

“Not at all!”

But the girl wasn’t hearing either one of them. “You want me to go away! Fine! Just throw me out!”

With that, Bitty ran out of the room. And damn it, he and Mary were right on her tail, scrambling in her wake as she hit the foyer and kept on going.

“Bitty, stop!” Mary said as they all headed for the grand staircase and started a frantic ascent. “Bitty, that’s not what’s going on—”

The girl stopped halfway up and turned around again. “You don’t love me—you never loved me! You don’t care—”

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