The weird thing about sexual attraction was its strength and power could create an illusion of closeness between two people: When the body was drawn to another person’s, and desperate and hungry for a physical expression, it was like the brain felt it had to catch up by manufacturing an intellectual or emotional connection.

Surface compatibility thus being assigned deeper connective meaning.


But in fact, you didn’t know someone until you knew them. What was that saying? Unless you traveled with somebody, you had no idea who they truly were…

Knowing them for a decade was even better.

The truth was, Ruhn didn’t know him any better, either. The male had no knowledge of his relationship with Blay, his troubles with his sire, his background and struggle. And this stuff about Ruhn’s past? It was absolutely horrific, and he hated that the male had gone through it. But he had to acknowledge that he’d rather liked the idea of protecting a shy, quiet, sensitive soul in the world, being the guardrail and interpreter of new and different experiences.

Over dinner, for example, he’d planned in his head all kinds of other places he could take Ruhn to eat, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian. And in spite of what he’d promised, all of the restaurants would have been way outside of Ruhn’s price range to afford.

In his mind, he’d looked forward to providing all those exclusive new tastes and tempting treats.

There was control in bringing another out of their shell, wasn’t there. Safety, because they relied on you in their unfamiliarity and inevitable discomfort.

Now, after what he’d witnessed in that fight, all that fantastical noblesse oblige on his part had to be recast. The gentle giant had been through torture, and anyone who could survive the likes of that did not need protection by anyone.

Lowering his head into his hands, he thought, wow, it was a good thing people didn’t share their inner musings with anybody else.

Because this kind of truth-telling was best kept under lock and key: He was an utter asshole to be worried about his little psychological dramas in comparison with what that male had lived through. Ten years, in a cage? Killing males or being killed? Getting marked?

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Saxton had never been through anything like that, and the idea that Ruhn’s past was suddenly making this romance thing between them much too real was too ugly to contemplate.

I cannot have my dignity if I lie to someone I’m falling in love with.

Talk about courage. To say that and mean it?

With a curse, Saxton got to his feet. He had no memory of when he’d taken off his coat, but he found it in a chair next to where he’d been staring off into space.

As he pulled the thing on, he went into the parlor and looked over to the fireplace, to those tiles that lined the hearth. He tried to imagine Minnie and her hellren traveling all the way across the ocean to an unknown land with the specter of the sun looming every day, little money to their name, and nothing but love to shield them.

That was courage.

Shaking his head, he went back to the kitchen, and set the alarm on the panel by the door into the garage; then he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Eventually, he managed to dematerialize and leave in a scatter of molecules through the tiny seam in that weather stripping.

He resumed form all the way across town, miles away, on the rear stoop of the Audience House. As he entered through the kitchen door, his brain totally flatlined. There were some doggen around, doing…God only knew what…and he had some kind of interaction with them. Questions asked and answered, this type of thing.

And then he was in his office. The King was taking the night off, but there were still things to be filed and paperwork to be done…also the stuff that Wrath had called about…

Or had that been a different night? Another time?

Some other…

Sitting down, he put his head in his hands and tried to remember what had been said about which things when. But there was no piecing together the thoughts, no cognitive map materializing out of the soup of confusion to help him march his way back to an even nominal functioning.

A knock on the doorjamb brought his head up. “Oh. Hello.”

As the Brother Rhage entered, he filled the entirety of the office with his preternatural beauty and incredible size and bracing charisma. It was like Ryan Reynolds, the Jolly Green Giant from those frozen-vegetable ads, and twelve world leaders had rolled into one being and come in for a little chat.

“You look like shit,” the Brother said as he sat down on the other side of the partner’s desk. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing. Did you need something?”

“Not really. I came to drop off more of George’s teeth-cleaning thingies. Don’t tell Fritz. He’ll freak—but I was going by Petco—what the hell is wrong with you? I’m serious. You’ve got a death mask going on.”

As Saxton tried to find a place to start, a thread in the tangle to begin the unraveling, Rhage took a cherry Tootsie Pop out of his leather jacket and peeled the wrapper.

“Hello? Have you stroked out on me over there?” Rhage’s teeth were brilliant white as he opened his mouth to fit the lollipop in between his sharp fangs. “You want I get you a doctor?”

“Actually, what I need is…” Saxton cleared his throat. “I’m not sure I should be talking to you about this.”

He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Bitty and her adoptive parents’ relationship with Ruhn. But who else could he go to?

“And I don’t want this to change anything,” he tacked on.

Rhage shrugged. “Well, considering I don’t know what you’re about to say, I’m not sure I can promise anything. But I’m good at the open-minded stuff. I mean, shit, I put up with Lassiter almost better than anyone else. Okay. Fine, better than Vishous. Wait, that probably isn’t saying much. What was the question?”

“It’s about Ruhn.”

Rhage ditched the levity. “What about him?”

“His past. Specifically.”

Instantly, the Brother changed, his big body sitting up, his eyes narrowing, the Tootsie Pop getting a hard crunch of some tense molars.

“What about it?”

Saxton picked a pen out of his holder and fiddled with the thing, twisting its cap in circles. Popping the cap off. Putting it back on.

“I know that Phury and Vishous went down there.” Saxton looked up. “To his old master’s estate. They found out about his background.”

“They did.”

“And so you know what happened to him.”

There was a pause. “Yeah. The fight ring. But how did you hear about it? We were keeping a lid on it out of respect for him.”

“He told me.” Saxton shook his head. “I don’t know how anyone lives through something like that.”

Rhage sat back and stared across the desk, those Bahamian blue eyes so bright, they nearly cast shadows. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Of course.”

“Are you thinking of dating him or something?” As Saxton stiffened, the Brother shrugged. “It’s cool if you are. I mean, I know he didn’t have a female or anything down at his place, and he’s never been mated.”

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

“So it’s a yes. And hey, I only ask because I’m curious. I can’t think of any other reason why you’d bring this up. If he were just a guard for you, I figure you’d be glad he had the experience, even if the way he got it was extreme.”

“I don’t want to put you in an awkward position.”

“But you want to know if he’s going to kill you in your sleep, right?” As Saxton stammered, Rhage put up a hand. “Mary psych-tested him. I mean, Bitty invited him to live with us, and we were more than willing—because hello, he’s our daughter’s nearest blood relative. But with Wrath, Beth, and little Wrath in the house, we couldn’t take chances. Mary gave him the tests orally as naturally he couldn’t read them. He passed all the screenings. He’s bog standard, non-psychotic. She said he has a boatload of PTSD, of course. I mean, after what he’d been through, how could you not have it. And I don’t know…after tonight? With him attacking those humans? Maybe this guarding you stuff is not a good place for him to be.”

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