“Indeed.”

“He’s a good male, though. I trust him. And I know you’re not usually around when he’s with Bitty, but you should see them together. Every day before she goes to bed, the two of them come upstairs. There’s this puzzle table that we set up in her room, you know? The pair of them sit there and work on puzzles—frankly, that shit makes me crazy. I mean, you want to talk about psychotic. Hello. Sitting with eight million tiny pieces that you can’t pick up with your fingers, trying to match the colors—but I digress.” He crunched the Tootsie Pop and started chewing. “They love it. And all the time? In this quiet voice, he tells her stories of her mahmen and her grandparents. What it was like growing up—it sounded like a great life. In the country, playing outside, horses and sheep, a mahmen and father who loved Ruhn and his sister so much. And Bitty, she eats it up. He’s given her the side of the family that helps her feel like her mahmen is still with her. It’s priceless. It really is.” Rhage laughed a little. “And come to think of it, it’s pretty much the only time I hear him talk.”

Saxton nodded. “I’m so glad they have that connection. And yes, from what I have seen, they are very close.”

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“Ruhn’s like a son to me. For real.”

“I just never expected…well, I didn’t expect everything that happened to him.”

“Who would?” Rhage tossed the white stick with its pink stain on one end in the trash. “And listen, I’ve already talked to Mary about what went down tonight. She’s going to pay Ruhn a little visit. See if he needs a tune-up, so to speak. She helped Z a lot with his shit, so tragically, she has some experience dealing with trauma.”

“I don’t judge him.” As Saxton spoke, he realized he was trying the words out, seeing if they were true—and that made him feel like a bad person.

“Good. Because you shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t be afraid of him, either. Everyone deserves second chances. I am living proof of it.”

“You’re right. And what happened to him was nothing he volunteered for.”

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“Too right.”

“I feel like I’m in mourning on his behalf.”

“Anyone who’s heard the story feels the same way.”

Will my heart be safe with him, Saxton wondered to himself.

And to be fair, that was a question he would be asking no matter who he was contemplating a relationship with.

“I wish I could see into the future,” he murmured.

“There are certain corners in life where that would be a nice bonus. I wish I could help you more.”

“Thank you.” Saxton smiled. “You are a gentlemale under all your bravado.”

“Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

After a moment, the Brother got up and sauntered out, leaving Saxton with his own thoughts.

After a while, he went to his file drawers. Getting down on his haunches in the far corner, he pressed his thumb to a sensor and sprang the lock. Documents pertaining to the Black Dagger Brotherhood and their families were kept there and he easily located Bitty’s adoption papers.

Taking the file out, he opened the cover and flipped through to the last page, where Ruhn had “signed” his name.

The male had drawn a self-portrait of himself on the line where the signature was supposed to go.

It was a stunning rendering, and so realistic that Saxton ran his finger down the contours of the cheek and could swear he felt the warmth of the male himself.

For some reason, he thought of Blay and Qhuinn. From what he understood, Blay had always taken care of his partner, looked after him, made sure he was as stable as he could be. It had been an expression of love before that word had been shared between them.

The longer Saxton stared at that drawing, the more he realized why all of this with Ruhn was affecting him so.

He had the capacity to fall in love with the male.

And that meant the stakes were very high. He knew all too well what unrequited love felt like. This stuff with Ruhn? It had an even greater potential for destruction.

Novo saw the cane as a huge improvement. Come on, over the wheelchair? It also meant she’d skipped the walker stage.

Beating expectations was good, especially when you were in the vampire equivalent of cardiac rehab.

As she shuffled down the training center’s corridor, she was keeping her pace at a solid geriatric, her feet in their hospital-issue shower shoes scuffing along with a minimal lift from the concrete floor. Everything was quiet, the Brothers elsewhere, the trainees gone home, the clinic empty of patients except for—

The disembodied howl that traveled out from the crazy guy was like a draft in the air, invisible and chilling.

She kept on going. She had made this trip a good ten times or so, even though she was pretty sure that Dr. Manello had only said once an hour. But really, she kept this up and she would hit that rate on average—provided she went against a two-week timetable.

He just needed to be more specific.

Coming up to the double doors into the gym, she looked through the chicken-wired glass. She couldn’t wait to start sparring again.

Continuing on, she relied on the cane for balance, the wonky feeling more like an inner-ear problem than anything to do with her heart malfunctioning. They’d even sprung her of her IV, although she was wearing a Holter monitor to make sure her cardiac function was hunky-dory.

Glancing back, her room seemed like miles away. But fuck that. She went farther on. Eventually, a hundred and fifty years later, she came up to the pool’s doors.

There was someone in there.

Craving company was as unfamiliar as this physical weakness she was rocking, and certainly the latter seemed to make the former more of a thing: Before she knew better, she was pushing her way into the little ante-hall and doing her old-lady dance over the tiles.

The scent of chlorine tingled in her nose and the warmth and humidity made her think of summer nights—

Splashing. And voices.

When she realized there was more than one person in the water, she nearly turned around. Except then she saw that it was Ehlena at the edge, the nurse crouching down and encouraging somebody who was trying to swim.

“Oh, hey, Novo!” the female called out with a wave. “Come talk with us!”

Novo checked to make sure the double-johnny situation she’d jury-rigged was covering her naughty bits in the back and then she caned her way forward. The tiled ring around the Olympic-sized pool was dry, so she didn’t worry about slipping, and that heat and moisture helped ease the aches she still had in her ribs.

“Hi, Luchas,” she said to the male hanging on the edge of the pool.

“Greetings,” came the grunting reply.

His thin, deformed hands, with their missing fingers, were like claws on that lip, his frail body floating out behind him, his remaining leg churning through the water slowly.

He was so pale, and she had to look away from the hard cut of his shoulder blades under his thin skin.

“I wish I could join you,” she said as she leaned on the cane and lowered herself down into a sit.

“Not with that monitor on, I’m afraid.” Ehlena smiled. “But you’re almost home free. You should be ready to go tomorrow.”

“I can’t wait.” Novo kicked off her slippers and put one foot…and then the other in. “Oh, this feels good.”

Luchas’s workout created waves in the water, and she closed her eyes so that she could concentrate on the buffering sensations against her calves and the soles of her feet.

She also didn’t want the male to feel like she was staring at him.

From what she understood, Qhuinn’s brother had been abducted during the raids, and it had been assumed that he had been killed along with the rest of the bloodline. The truth had been more gruesome. The male had been found stuffed in an oil drum, surrounded by the Omega’s blood. He’d been barely alive, and he’d had so many broken bones and missing parts, he’d been all but poured onto a gurney.

Although he’d been rescued some time ago, he had been living in the clinic ever since, not dead, but not particularly alive, either. Qhuinn always visited him, but there was no joy, no laughter, no prospects, it seemed. And for a young male that had once had a life of privilege, it was sad reality.

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