But instead of being territorial, Ruhn had been selfless—and recognized the deep abiding love that the little family had found together. The male had insisted that the adoption go through and had signed away all his legal rights without any expectations for himself.

If that wasn’t love, Saxton didn’t know what was.

And in return for that compassionate act, Ruhn had been embraced by the whole household—not that the adjustment to Caldwell and the mansion still wasn’t a struggle for the male. But he had nothing to worry about when it came to his future under the Brotherhood’s roof; for as long as he wanted it, he had a home here.

Advertisement

Saxton had first met him during the process of adoption. But after he had helped with Bitty’s formal adoption papers, he had made sure to stay far away.

Although the male’s physical assets were legion, he had not given any indication that he was sexually open to or even aware of males—or anyone else, for that matter. And knowing the way the universe ran? Ruhn was utterly heterosexual, and God knew Saxton was beyond over wanting things he couldn’t have—

Eyes the color of fine bourbon looked across the table without warning, and the shock of meeting Ruhn’s calm, rather innocent stare made Saxton fumble his napkin off his lap. Which turned out to be a blessing as it gave him an excuse to bend down and get out of view.

Nope. He was definitely not staying the day.

He didn’t care if he ended up stuck headfirst in a snowbank because he had guessed wrong dematerializing, there was no way in hell he was going to get trapped under this roof with unrequited love on the one hand, and unrequited sexual attraction on the other.

It was simply not going to happen.

-- Advertisement --

He should have eaten in his room.

As Ruhn looked back down at his place setting, he tried to swallow the anxiety that rose every time one of these meals happened. So many forks and spoons on the sides of plates that had gold all over them. So many people who were as comfortable in this grand dining room as he was not. So many courses and servants and candles and—

“Uncle?”

At Bitty’s soft inquiry, he took a deep breath. “Yes?”

“More rolls?”

“No, thank you.”

He turned the silver basket down not because he wasn’t hungry. Fates, he was starving even after having cleaned his plate. But he hated the way his hands shook and he was worried he would drop the basket and break all the glassware in front of him.

Please send it in the other direct—oh, thank God. Rhage was taking the thing back and putting it down between the sterling silver salt and pepper shakers and the golden candelabra.

Ruhn didn’t understand how they could all just lounge back after they were finished with the entrée and chat casually, wineglasses held with confidence while plates were cleared around them, dessert coming in on more platters—

When he looked up and caught the King’s solicitor staring across at him, he cringed and wanted to bark out, Yes, I know I have terrible manners, but I’m doing the best I can and your cataloging every slipped pea and drip of gravy is making me worse.

Instead, he dropped his eyes and wondered exactly how long he had to stay here before a bolt for the exit would be even marginally permissible.

Saxton, son of no doubt a Very Well-Bred Aristocrat of Noble Bloodline, looked at him a lot. Whenever Ruhn walked by or sat anywhere around the gentlemale, which fortunately was not often, those eyes followed him in disapproval and judgment. Then again, the attorney was always perfectly dressed in suits that fit his lean body like they had been stitched on it, and the male always was perfectly groomed, his blond hair off to one side with nothing out of place, his shave so close that even at the end of a long night, he appeared to be just out of the shower.

To a male like that? Of course someone who had come to the house with only two pairs of jeans, a better, a medium, and a bad T-shirt, and a single set of work boots, would be an insult. Add on to that the fact that Ruhn was illiterate and hadn’t even been able to sign his name to Bitty’s adoption papers? Come on. The distaste was as justifiable as it was obvious.

Maybe there was more to it, though. Maybe Saxton knew the truth about his past.

Ruhn shuddered to think about that. He’d been truthful about where he’d been and what he’d done, and he had to imagine that nothing was kept from the King’s attorney. But who knew. And at least everyone else seemed to accept him—and when he really got up in his head about Saxton, he tried reminding himself of that fact. It still hurt and worried him, though.

In the meantime, all Ruhn wanted was to find a way to contribute to the household and earn his keep. The problem? There were doggen everywhere, and as much as he had tried to take over some basic repair duties around the estate or work in the kitchen, he kept getting shut down by all of them.

So he lifted weights and tried to pretend he was okay while he screamed inside his head and told himself that connecting with his dead sister’s daughter made it all worth it.

Every night and every day were getting harder, however.

And as much as he hated to admit it, he was coming to the conclusion that he had to leave. He just couldn’t stand being a fish out of water any longer.

Things were not working out.

“I love you, Uncle,” Bitty said. Like she could read his mind.

Closing his eyes, he reached out and took her tiny, soft hand. Leaving her would be like putting his heart in cold storage. But he had done that once before.

He could do it again.

The training center’s gym was big enough so that it could be sectioned in half by an air wall and still have room for two full-sized basketball courts. The ceiling was fifty feet high and had caged lights, and rafters of bench seats rose like wings down both of the long sides. There were two scoreboards that could be lowered for games, as well as multiple hoops and backboard arms that were likewise retractable. Finally, the floor was the color of honey, the heavily varnished and basketball-marked pine boards the kind of thing that squeaked your sneakers.

Peyton was chilling on a metal folding chair just inside one set of entrance doors, a bottle of Vishous’s Grey Goose in one hand, an open bag of Combos in the other. The former he was halfway done with, the latter he was scraping the bottom of, the pretzel and cheddar cheese nuggets of processed goodness his Last Meal.

He really missed his bong, but the Brothers were not into the drugs—and besides, the vodka was doing the job well enough, a floaty disassociation making his head feel like a balloon on a barely-there tether to his spine.

He was also now horny as fuck.

Boone, Craeg, John Matthew, and Novo were playing a game of two-on-two, the echoing dribbles like a marching band that couldn’t quite settle on a beat. Paradise—along with some others—was over on the bleachers, still with those notes, and that was why he was here on a single, right next to the exit: There was no way she could sidle up for a heart-to-heart without being obvious about it—and she wanted to talk to him. She kept looking over at him, trying to catch his eye.

Nope.

In the words of old-school Dana Carvey, Not gonna dew iiiiiiiit.

Fortunately, she had Zsadist right next to her—and Paradise’s studious nature couldn’t help but get her to ask the Brother questions and point out things she had written down for elaboration.

You had to respect that about her. And given that Peyton wanted to avoid her for the rest of his natural life, the proclivity so worked for him—

A shout got his attention.

Novo had the ball and was driving to the basket, dodging Boone and then dribbling between Craeg’s legs. Her dunk was Michael Jordan from the mid-nineties, all air, nothing-but-net, and the bucket won the game. As John Matthew came in for high fives, she smiled.

Truly smiled.

For a brief moment, she looked her age, her eyes sparkling, her face softening, her aura glowing.

“Suck it, douchebags,” she said as she pointed fingers at Boone and Craeg. “Suck it good.”

John Matthew and she fell into Hammertime, all precise coordination of athletic bodies with her rocking the #suckit chorus while the vanquished losers threw up their arms and bemoaned their pitiable fate.

Abruptly, Peyton forgot about everything else. Funny…how you could notice something new about somebody you’d known for a while. And the revelation about Novo?

-- Advertisement --