His only thought as they approached the table was that he didn’t want Ruhn to die in this horrible, clinical place. And not like this, with all these wires going in and out of him.

He was so pale, he was gray. And there were bandages all around his throat.

“What’s the beeping?” Bitty asked as they stopped.

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“His heartbeat.”

Fates, maybe they shouldn’t let the girl see this, he thought as the pair of them looked down at him. Ruhn’s face was so hollow, and with that all-wrong color, his hair was so very dark in contrast. Further, his eyes were closed as if they were never opening again, and his breathing was unnaturally punchy—

Oh, right. He was on a ventilator thanks to a tube that went in through the base of his throat.

“Uncle, it’s Bitty and Saxton. We love you.”

The girl took her uncle’s still hand in hers.

“My love,” Saxton said as he bent over and kissed his male’s forehead. “Come back to us. We need you.”

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There were so many things to be said, pleaded, begged—

Saxton recognized that his own mouth was moving and that he was continuing to speak. But that odd deafness had returned to him, his ability to hear evaporating.

When a hand landed on his shoulder, he jumped.

Doc Jane’s forest-green eyes were grave. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, “but we’re going to ask you to leave for a little while.”

It was like peeling his own flesh off in strips to turn away, but he allowed himself to be led out. And as he stepped from the operating room, he saw that Vishous, Blay, and Qhuinn had joined the crowd that had assembled.

The door closed on his lover.

In the silence, as everyone looked at him, something changed deep inside of Saxton. Gone was the nausea and the sorrow and the fear. All that was weak disappeared as if it had never been. In its place?

The rage of a bonded male.

In a voice that did not sound like his own, he heard himself say, “Will you all take Bitty for a moment?”

Rhage nodded immediately, the male recognizing exactly what was going on. “Hey, Bit, I’m hungry. Can you and Mary take me down to the break room for something to eat?”

The little girl stepped in front of Saxton. “Do you promise to come and get me if he wakes up?”

Saxton brushed her cheek. “I promise. With all that I am, dearest one.”

She gave him a quick, fierce hug—that reminded him of her uncle—and then she was taking her father’s hand and leading the Brother and Mary down the corridor.

Saxton waited until they were out of earshot to turn to Vishous. “Tell me you know who did this.”

Vishous nodded. “I reviewed the security footage from the last couple of weeks. They were the same two human men who have showed up in a truck a number of times. One of them now has his arm in a sling. They came to the front door and they had weapons. Ruhn opened things up and they attacked him. The fight had to have been a brutal one because the total elapsed time was almost thirty minutes.”

“They left in rough shape,” Blay tacked on. “Ruhn hurt them.”

“Bad,” Qhuinn affirmed. “Like a true fighter.”

In a voice that was all vengeance, Saxton said, “You find them. You bring them to me. I, and I alone, will take care of this.”

All three of the males bowed low, paying deference to his position as bonded male.

And then Vishous unsheathed one of the black daggers that were strapped, handles down, to his chest. Opening his ungloved hand, he gripped the blade and yanked it free, his blood welling, dripping, landing on the concrete floor.

He extended his palm. “On my honor.”

Saxton gripped the offering. “Alive. They come to me alive.”

Blay and Qhuinn likewise cut themselves, and in turn, Saxton shook each of their bleeding palms.

And so it was done.

Whether Ruhn lived or died, he would be ahvenged.

As the following night arrived, Novo recognized the sun’s descent and disappearance by the dropping of the temperature and a dimming of ambient illumination. A quick check of her watch told her what she already knew to be true and she got to her feet on a slow, stiff creep.

She had spent the day in the cold house, sitting on the kitchen floor, the boarded-up windows coupled with daytime cloud cover providing her with the protection she needed.

She had not slept, her mind churning over things at a slow-and-steady that had consumed the hours.

You’re choosing this. You’re picking all of this—and that means if it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to do it.

All of this…it’s on you.

More than anything, she found that her own words haunted her, words that she had spoken to the male who had betrayed and hurt her.

But she didn’t think about them in the context of Oskar. She thought about them as they related to Peyton.

He was right. She hadn’t given him a chance to explain anything. She’d been so ready to replay the past, jump back into the I’ve-been-screwed pool, that she’d decided what had happened. Taken at face value what his father had said. Turned on a dime.

All of which made a lot of sense.

Except when she thought of Oskar’s new glasses. The ones that were for show.

The ones that were just on the surface, not anything true or real.

Leaving the house by the door she came in, she returned to Serenity’s grave and stood in the wind for a little bit.

“I’ll be back to visit. You rest well.”

With that, she was off, traveling to her apartment…where she showered, ate something that tasted like cardboard, and checked her phone. There were a bunch of messages on the trainee thread and she read through them quickly.

Classes were canceled for the night. Something had happened, the Brothers didn’t go into what. Everyone checked in, though. Even Peyton.

He had not called or texted her directly, but she hadn’t expected him to.

When she called his number up out of her contacts, she knew he wasn’t going to answer, and started to compose a voicemail in her head—

“Hello?”

She coughed a little from shock. “Ah…hi. It’s me.”

“Yup, that’s what my phone says.”

“Listen, I…can I come see you?”

“I’m a little busy right now.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“If you don’t mind carrying shit down stairs, though, come on over.”

“I’m sorry—wait. Are you moving?”

“Yup. Anyway, you know where I live. Or used to live. Come if you want.”

As he ended the call, she nearly lost her nerve. But she was picking this, wasn’t she. She was going to choose the depth, not the surface. She was going to…trust in what her heart knew of the male, rather than what things appeared to be based on a two-minute interaction with a sire that Peyton didn’t respect.

Her own past traumas aside, she owed the male a chance to explain. And from there…well, it was going to be what it was. But at least she wouldn’t be punishing him for sins he hadn’t committed, as he had said.

Outside on the street, she needed a couple of tries before she could dematerialize, and when she re-formed on the lawn of his family’s mansion, she was surprised. There was a big white U-Haul truck with a sea lion and some facts about Maine on its side backed right up to the grand front entrance.

Like the stately home was a college dorm or something and it was the end of the year.

Walking up through the snow, she paused to look into the van’s open bay. There was a sofa in there. Boxes. Wardrobe stands with clothes on hangers. Shoes in laundry bins.

“Hey, could you give me a hand with this?” came a distant voice.

She wheeled around. Peyton was at the bottom of the stairs inside, trying to corral a love seat and all of its pillows in his arms.

“Yeah, of course.”

She stomped her combat boots on the mat, not because she cared about tracking dirt into his father’s house, but because she didn’t want to slip and fall on all the marble. As she jogged over, it was hard to have that scent of Peyton’s in her nose.

Harder still to hear her own words in her head, the ones that she had thrown at him like daggers.

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