Trainees at the Black Dagger Brotherhood’ training centre continue to prepare for the fight against the Lessening Society, but fighting is the last thing on Axe’s mind. Still plagued with the guilt of his father’s death, the brooding loner finds himself battling an unlikely attraction to Peyton’s bright, aristocratic cousin, Elise.
Elise feels it too – and when the two are thrown together in unusual circumstances Elise must decide whether she can trust Axe to help her uncover the mystery surrounding her sister’s death.
Meanwhile, Mary and Rhage are in the process of adopting Bitty, a young pretrans orphan, until the appearance of a young male claiming to be Bitty’s blooded uncle threatens to tear the new family apart.
The Black Dagger Brotherhood Mansion
“So what is that?”
As Rhage’s daughter piped up, he froze with his gun halfway into his under-arm holster. For a split second, he decided to pretend that he hadn’t heard her—but that was going to get him nowhere. In the two months or so that he and Mary had had Bitty, they’d both learned that she was smart as a whip and tenacious as flypaper.
Ordinarily, he got a kick out of those two defining characteristics. When it came to describing the technical specs of a forty-caliber killing weapon to his thirteen-year-old? Pass. He wished she had an empty skull and ADD.
“Ah . . .”
He glanced into the mirror over the bureau, hoping against hope that she had moved on to something, anything else. Nope. Bitty was sitting on his and Mary’s new bed, the one in the third-floor suite that Trez had graciously moved out of so the three of them could have adjoining rooms. The girl was way on the small side, her skinny arms and legs the kind of thing that made him want to move to the tropics instead of live in Upstate New Freezing-Fucking-Cold. Hell, even under a body weight’s worth of fleece, she seemed fragile.
But the oh, dainties ended right there. Her brown eyes were direct as an adult’s, old as a mountain range, keen as an eagle’s. Her dark hair was thick and shiny, falling past her shoulders, nearly the exact color of Mary’s. And her aura, her . . . whatever, life force, spirit, soul . . . was as tangible as her physical form seemed almost transient.
He took pride in the fact that the longer she stayed with them, the more she was emerging. Not like a flower.
Like a fucking oak.
Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut that didn’t mean he wanted to get into the nitty gritty of his job killing lessers with her.
And nope. Really not interested in the whole birds-and-bees talk, either. At least they had another twelve years or so to prepare for that.
“Father?” she prompted.
Rhage closed his eyes. Okay, so every time she called him that, his heart got too big for his chest and this unreal, won-the-lottery feeling sunrised all over him. It took him back to right after he and Mary had been mated and he’d gotten to call her shellan for the first time.
Pure, full-bore awesomeness.
“What is it?” Bitty prompted.
That happy pink bubblegum glow faded as he seated the gun and clipped its strap over the butt. “It’s a weapon.”
“I know—it’s a gun. But what kind?”
“A Smith and Wesson forty.”
“How many bullets are in it?”
“Enough.” He picked up his leather jacket and smiled. “Hey, you ready for movie night when I get home?”
“Why don’t you want to tell me about your gun?”
Because if you’re the audience, I can’t separate what I do with it from a discussion of its specs. “It’s just not all that interesting.”
“It’s what keeps you alive, though, right?” The little girl’s eyes locked on the black daggers that were holstered on his chest, handles down. “Like your knives.”
“Among other things.”
“So that’s interesting. To me, at least.”
“Look, how ’bout we talk about this when your mom and I are both here? You know, like, later tonight.”
“But how do I know you’ll come home safe?”
Rhage blinked. “I am never not coming back to you and Mary.”
“What if you die, though?”
His first thought was:
His Mary, as a trained therapist—who had treated Z with all his demons, for godsakes—could deal with this so much better than some meathead fighter like him could. But his shellan was at Safe Place, working, and he didn’t feel right about calling and possibly interrupting her with anything other than an arterial bleed or a house fire. Zombie apocalypse. H-bomb behind the compound.
And fine, maybe if they were out of cheesecake.
Except he needed to man up. What was going down right now? This was Father Shit, and not only had he signed up for exactly these kinds of hard conversations when he and Mary had started the adoption process, he really didn’t want to admit this early that he couldn’t handle the job.
Okay, note to self: Find an online course on being a father. Surely there had to be a curriculum for this kind of thing.
“I’m just worried,” she said. “It’s scary for me, okay?”
Jesus, it was scary for him, too. He had so much more to lose with her in his life.
Rhage went over and knelt down. Bitty had tucked her arms around herself and her eyes were steady as if she were not going to accept a load of bullcrap.
Opening his mouth, he . . .
Closed it. And wondered what he needed to do to jump-start his brain. Maybe bang it into a wall?
“You know my car?” he heard himself say.
As Bitty nodded, he had an image of Puskar Nepal–ing himself until he passed the fuck out from foot-to-forehead contact: Of all the things for his subconscious, or whatever was running his program, to spit out, he led with his GTO?
“Well, you know when I was teaching you to drive?”
Yeah, Bits, right before those kids attacked Mary and you found out that I have a dragon for an alter ego? Har-har, good times, good times.
God, he wanted to throw up.
As she nodded again, he said, “You remember when you were figuring out the gears and the steering wheel and the brakes? Going back and forth, again and again, until you could get it right?”
“You know how I drive that car?”
“Oh, yes.” Now, she smiled. “Fast. Very fast and fun. It’s like a rocket.”
“So, someday, you’re going to drive her just as well as I do. You’re going to know where the gears are by feel, and you’re going to work the clutch and the gas without thought. And if someone swerves in front of you, you’re going to react so quick and so sure, you’re not going to be aware of even thinking about it. If somebody slams on the brakes, you’re going to shift lanes instinctually. You’re going to feel the tires hydroplaning on the highway in the rain and you’re going to know to slow up on the gas, but not hit the brakes. And all of that is going to happen because you’re going to practice, practice, practice on a car that is kept in tip-top shape.”
“I’m going to practice. So I drive better.”
“Right. Even if the people around you drive dangerously, you’re going to be aware and focused and trained to deal with whatever comes at you.” He put his palm over his daggers, over his heart. “I have been out there fighting for a century, Bitty. And everything I take with me into the field—the weapons, the gear, the support in the form of my brothers—all of it is engineered to keep me safe. Is it a perfect system? No. But it’s the best it gets, I promise you that.”
Bitty’s arms uncoiled and she looked down. The pink and green bracelet on her wrist was made out of faceted beads that sparkled like real gems. Moving the thing around and around, she took a deep breath.
“Are you . . . good at it? I mean, the fighting?”
God, he wished he was an accountant. He really did. Because if he were some pocket-protector’d numbers cruncher, he wouldn’t be having to tell an innocent that he excelled at killing things.
“Are you?” she prompted.
“I’m very good at keeping myself and my brothers safe. I’m so good at it, they’re having me teach younger people how to do it.”
She nodded once again. “That’s what they were saying. At Last Meal the other night. I heard people talking about you and the other Brothers teaching people.”
“That’s where I’m heading right now. While you hang here with Bella and Nalla, I’m meeting the trainee class out in Caldwell to show them how to stay safe.”
Bitty tilted her head, her brown hair cascading over her shoulder. And he let her stare at him for as long as she wanted. If that made him a little late to work, who cared.
“You must be really good at it to be a teacher.”
“I am. I swear to you, Bitty. I am effective and I take no more chances than I absolutely have to in order to get my job done.”
“And the beast will keep you safe, won’t he.”
Rhage nodded. “You better believe it. You saw him. You know what he’s like.”
She smiled, sunshine replacing the worry. “He likes me.”
“He loves you. But he doesn’t love people who get aggressive with me.”
“That makes me feel better.”
“Good.” He put his palms up, and as she high-fived him, he said, “You’re never going to be alone, Bitty. I promise you.”
In that moment, as he sought to relieve any and all of her anxiety— and his own, for that matter—he nearly came out with the one thing Bitty didn’t know about her adoptive parents. Yes, her new old man had a dragon living under his skin, but her new mom had an even fancier secret.
Mary was a unique flavor of immortal. Thanks to the Scribe Virgin— and this remained true even though V’s mahmen was no longer in charge—Mary did not age, and could choose when she went unto the Fade. It was a gift beyond measure, insulating this family in ways that other people’s weren’t.
Except Rhage stayed quiet on that front. Even though the knowledge might have helped Bitty in the moment, he really felt like it was Mary’s information to share, not his.
“You’re never going to be alone, Bitty,” he repeated. “I swear to you.”
As Mary sat behind her desk at Safe Place, she put her bag down and shrugged out of her parka. Extending her arm, she pulled the sleeve of her turtleneck up and smiled at the pink and green bracelet that twinkled at her wrist.
She and Bitty had made matching ones the other night, the pair of them sitting at Fritz’s kitchen table in the mansion, a jewelry-making kit spread out everywhere, a huge array of clear plastic boxes holding a rainbow’s worth of iridescent beads. They had talked about nothing and everything, and greeted each person who came in, and split a bag of Combos and a Mountain Dew. They had also made a necklace for Rhage, a different-colored bracelet for Lassiter, and braid for Nalla to play with. And even Boo had come over and curled up to watch, the black cat’s green eyes inspecting everything.
In a mansion full of priceless stuff? That time together had been the most precious, irreplaceable thing.
Looking across her desk, Mary reached out and picked up a photograph of Bitty from two weeks before, when the little girl had been taking selfies with Rhage’s phone. Bit was making a crazy face, her dark hair back-brushed until she looked like something out of an eighties glam metal band.
And in fact, Lassiter was over on the left, doing his best Nikki Sixx impression.
Unexpected tears pricked Mary’s eyes. In all her life, she had never expected to be a woman who had pictures of a daughter at her work desk. Nah, that hypothetical, blessed, stranger of a person, that lucky female who had a husband and a family, and holidays to look forward to, and homemade things on her wrist? That had always been someone else, a stranger whose reality was something you watched on TV or saw in Maytag ads or overheard at the table next door in a restaurant.
While you were eating alone.
Mary Luce was the nurse to an ailing mother who had died horribly and too young. Mary Luce was the cancer survivor left infertile after chemo. Mary Luce was the ghost on the fringes, the shadow that passed unnoticed through a room, an allegory of where you didn’t want to end up.
Except life had corkscrewed on her in the best of all possible ways. Now? She was exactly where she had never even dared to dream of being.
And yup, this unexpected destiny came with a not-too-small dose of PTSD. Hell, sometimes, when she woke up next to her gorgeous vampire of a husband? And especially now, when she tiptoed into another bedroom to check on Bitty at nightfall? She expected to wake up, back in her nightmare of a real life.
But no, she thought as she put the picture down. This was the real stuff. Here and now was the story she was living.
And it was . . . amazing. So full of love, family, and happiness that it felt as though the sun lived in the center of her chest.
They were all survivors, her, Rhage, and Bitty. She of her illness. Rhage of the curse he had to live with. Bitty of the unimaginable domestic abuse she and her mahmen had suffered at the hands of her birth father. The three of their lives had started to intersect here, at Safe Place, when Bitty and her mahmen had come in seeking shelter. And then Bitty’s mother had died, leaving her an orphan.
The opportunity to take the girl in had seemed too good to be true. It still did, sometimes.
If they could just get through this six-month waiting period, the adoption would be final and Mary could take a deep breath. At least there were no relatives coming forward. Even though Bitty had talked initially about some uncle, her mother had never mentioned having a brother or disclosed anything about any blood relations, either during intake or in subsequent therapy sessions. Notices posted on closed Facebook and Yahoo groups had yielded nothing so far.
God willing, it would stay that way.
On that note, Mary signed in to the computer network, her heart starting to bang in her ribs, a sick flush blooming in her body. As social media aficionados went, she was below amateur status, the anti-Kardashian—and yet every night, but only once a night, she hopped onto Facebook.
And prayed she found nothing.
The FB group she checked was one specifically devoted to vampires, its closed roster restricted to members of the species. Created by V after the raids, moderated by Fritz’s staff, the clearinghouse was an opportunity for folks to connect about anything from safe-house locations—always in code—to garage sales.
Scanning the posts in the last twenty-four hours, she exhaled in a rush. Not at thing.
The relief made her office spin around—at least until she went to check the Yahoo group. Recipe for Crock-Pot. Knitting group having a meeting . . . snowblower for sale . . . question about where to get a computer fixed . . .
“Thank you, God,” she whispered as she put another small check on her wall calendar.
Almost to the end of December, which meant they were nearly two whole months down. By May? They could move forward.
As her heart shifted out of tachycardia, she wondered how in the hell she was going to face this IT gauntlet another hundred and thirty times or so. But she had no other choice. The good news was that she was able to stick to this once-and-only-once-a-night check. Otherwise she’d be on her damn phone every fifteen minutes.
She had to be fair, though, to whoever else might be out there. Extinguishing parental rights in blood relations was serious business, and with no modern precedents in the vampire race to follow, she, Marissa, as head of Safe Place, Wrath, the Blind King, and Saxton, the King’s head counsel, had had to devise a procedure that provided an adequate notice period.
Emotions did not have waiting periods, however, and moms and dads who loved their kids couldn’t toggle back the speed of their hearts.
As if Marissa could read minds, the female put her head in the open doorway. “Anything?”
Mary smiled at her boss and her dear friend. “Nothing. I swear, I have never been more excited for May to get here.”
“I’ve always had a good feeling about this, you know.”
“I don’t want to jinx anything, so I’m staying quiet.” Mary focused on the calendar again. “Hey, I’m not going to be in tomorrow night. Bitty’s got her physical exam scheduled.”
“Oh, that’s right. Good luck—and it’s too bad you have to go all the way in to Havers’s.”
“Doc Jane says she just doesn’t have the appropriate knowledge base. Pediatrics for vampires is a thing, apparently.”
Marissa smiled gently. “Well, my brother may be complicated for me personally, but I have never questioned his ability to provide good care to his patients. Bitty couldn’t be in better hands.”
“I’d really rather just keep her with us at the training center’s clinic. But at the end of the day, what’s right for her is all we care about.”
“That’s called being a good parent.”
Mary looked at her bracelet. “Amen to that.”
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