Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD
Winner of the Romantic Times 2007 Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Vampire Romance
“The newest in Ward’s ferociously popular Black Dagger Brotherhood series bears all the marks of a polished storyteller at home in her world…. This fix will give Brotherhood addicts a powerful rush.”
“Loss, sacrifice, and darkness continue to be major themes as one of Ward’s most damaged heroes gets his story. Sex and violence make this tale of emotional redemption unusually graphic and powerful. Ward pulls no punches and delivers an extraordinary paranormal drama.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4½ stars)
“[T]hese erotic paranormals are well worth it, and frighteningly addictive.… It all works to great, page-turning effect.… In just two years, the …series [has] earned Ward an Anne Rice-style following, deservedly so.”
“It’s tough to keep raising the bar in a series, but the phenomenal Ward manages to do just that!… The world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continues to grow and become more layered, ramping up the tension, risk and passion.… Awesome stuff.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4½ stars)
Winner of the Romantic Times 2006 Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Vampire Romance
“Best new series I’ve read in years! Tautly written, wickedly sexy, and just plain fun.”
—Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author of Hide
“Lover Awakened is utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic. I found myself turning pages faster and faster—and then I wished I hadn’t, because there was no more to read! The Brotherhood is the hottest collection of studs in romance, and I can’t wait for the next one!”
—Angela Knight, USA Today bestselling author of Master of Dragons
“Ward pulls no punches in this dark, dangerous, and at times tragic series. Waiting for successive installments is getting harder and harder.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4½ stars)
“Ward wields a commanding voice perfect for the genre, and readers new to the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood should hold on tight for an intriguing, adrenaline-pumping ride featuring a race of warrior vampires who fill enemies with terror and women with desire. Like any good thrill ride, the pace changes with a tender story of survival and hope and leaves readers begging for more. Fans of L. A. Banks, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Sherrilyn Kenyon will add Ward to their must-read list.”
“[An] extremely intense and emotionally powerful tale…. Ward’s paranormal world is, among other things, colorful, dangerous, and richly conceived…. Intricate plots and believable characters.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4½ stars)
“It’s not easy to find a new twist on the vampire myth, but Ward succeeds beautifully. This dark and compelling world is filled with enticing romance as well as perilous adventure. With myriad possibilities to choose from, the Black Dagger Brotherhood series promises tons of thrills and chills.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4½ stars)
“A dynamite new vampire series—delicious, erotic, and thrilling! J. R. Ward has created a wonderful cast of characters, with a sexy, tormented, to-die-for hero…. A fabulous treat for romance readers!”
—Nicole Jordan, New York Times bestselling author of Touch Me with Fire
“J. R. Ward has a great style of writing, and she shines…. You will lose yourself in this world; it is different, creative, dark, violent, and flat-out amazing.”
—All About Romance
“An awesome, instantly addictive debut novel. It’s a midnight whirlwind of dangerous characters and mesmerizing erotic romance. The Black Dagger Brotherhood owns me now. Dark fantasy lovers, you just got served.”
—Lynn Viehl, author of Twilight Fall
NOVELS IN THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD SERIES
BY J. R. WARD
An Insider’s Guide
New American Library
To the Brothers
WITH THANKS TO:
Kara Cesare, without whom this whole BDB thing couldn’t possibly have gone as far as it has. You are the champion and the cheerleader and the chess master of everything I do—and I’ll stop the gushing there, otherwise this book will be longer than even Phury’s.
Everyone at New American Library, especially: Claire Zion, Kara Welsh, and Leslie Gelbman, Craig Burke and Jodi Rosoff, Lindsay Nouis, the great Anthony, and the wonderful Rachel Granfield, who deals so graciously with my twenty-pound manuscripts.
Steve Axelrod, who’s the captain of my ship.
Monstrous thanks to The Incomparable Suzanne Brockmann (I’m getting her a sash with that on it and a sparkly crown), Christine Feehan (whose obelisk I’m building as we speak) and her amazing family (Domini, Manda, Denise, and Brian), Sue Grafton, aka Mother Sue, Linda Francis Lee, Lisa Gardner, and all my other writer friends.
Once again a huge thank-you to the best dental teams in the world: Scott A. Norton, DMD, MSD, and Kelly Eichler, along with Kim and Rebecca and Crystal; and David B. Fox, DMD, and Vickie Stein.
D.L.B., who’s the best metal-studded, ass-kicking baby boy in the whole world. xxx mummy N.T.M., whose idea this whole Insider’s Guide was and who did so much work on it—and whose kind nature is bested only by his patience and his sense of humor.
Dr. Jessica Andersen—my CP and confidante and sparring partner. LeElla Scott—you have too many nicknames at this point to list. So I’ll just go with the most important one: Bestie. And Kaylie’s momma—who’s still my Idol.
As always to Mom, Boat, and the Boo.
An Insider’s Guide
“So, Bella looks good.”
At the counter of the Brotherhood’s kitchen, Zsadist picked up a knife, squeezed a head of romaine lettuce together, and started drawing the blade through at one-inch intervals. “Yeah, she does.”
He liked Doc Jane. Hell, he owed her. But he had to remind himself of his manners: It would be damn tacky to bite the head off a female who was not only your brother’s shellan, but who had saved the love of your life from bleeding out on the birth table.
“She’s recovered beautifully in the last two months.” Doc Jane watched him from the table across the way, her Marcus Welby, M.D., bag beside her ghostly hand. “And Nalla’s thriving. Man, vampire young progress so much faster than human babies. Cognitively, it’s like she’s nine months old.”
“They’re doing great.” He kept slicing, moving his hand down and through, down and through. On the far side of the blade, the leaves sprang free in curly green ribbons like they were clapping at having been liberated.
“And how are you doing with the whole dad thing—”
Dropping the knife, he cursed and brought up the hand that had been on the lettuce. The cut was deep, down to the bone, and his blood was red as it welled up and dripped off his skin.
Doc Jane came over to him. “Okay, let’s get you to the sink.”
To her credit, she didn’t touch him on the arm or try to lead him with a push on his shoulder blade; she just loomed and pointed the way to Kohler-land.
He still didn’t like anyone but Bella putting their hands on his body, although he had made some progress. Now, if the contact was unexpected, his first move wasn’t going for a concealed weapon and capping whoever had let their palms do the walking.
When they were in front of the sink, Doc Jane cranked the thing’s throttle over and fired it back so that there was a warm rush landing in the deep porcelain belly.
“Under,” she said.
He extended his arm and put his thumb into the hot water. The slice burned like a bitch, but he didn’t wince. “Let me guess. Bella asked you to come talk to me just now.”
“Nope.” When he shot her a look, the good doctor shook her head. “I examined her and the baby. That was it.”
“Well, good. Because I’m fine.”
“Had a feeling you’d say that.” Doc Jane crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him with a stare that made him want to build a brick wall between the two of them. Whether in a solid state or translucent as she was at the moment, it didn’t matter. When you got eyeballed by the female like this, it was as if you’d been sandblasted. No wonder she and V got along.
“She did mention you won’t feed from her.”
Z shrugged. “Nalla needs what her body can provide more than I do.”
“It’s not an either-or situation, though. Bella’s young and healthy and she has great eating habits. And you’ve let her feed.”
“Of course. Anything for her. Her and her baby.”
There was a long silence. Then, “Maybe you want to talk to Mary?”
“About what.” He shut the water off and shook his palm out over the sink. “Just because I’m respectful of the demands on my shellan, you think I need a shrink? What the hell?”
He snapped a paper towel free from the roll mounted under the cabinets and dried his hand.
“Who’s the salad for, Z?” the doctor asked.
“The salad. Who’s it for?”
He pulled out the trash bin and pitched the towel inside. “Bella. It’s for Bella. Look, no offense, but—”
“And when’s the last time you ate?”
He put his hands up, all “Stop! In the Name of Love.” “Enough. I know you mean well, but I’m a short fuse, and the last thing any of us needs is Vishous coming after me because I snapped at you. I get your point—”
“Look at your hand.”
He glanced down. Blood was running from the pad of his thumb onto his wrist and his forearm. If he hadn’t had a short-sleeved T-shirt on, the shit would have been pooling at his elbow. Instead, it was trickling onto the terra-cotta tile.
Doc Jane’s voice was annoyingly level, her logic offensively sound. “You are in a dangerous line of work where you rely on your body to do things that keep you from getting killed. You don’t want to talk to Mary? Fine. But you need to make some concessions physically. That cut should have closed by now. It hasn’t, and I’m willing to bet it bleeds for the next hour or so.” She shook her head. “Here’s my deal. Wrath’s appointed me as the Brotherhood’s personal physician. You screw around with eating and feeding and sleeping such that it impairs your performance, I will bench your ass.”
Z stared at the glossy red droplets seeping up from the wound. The river of them went straight over the inch-wide black slave band that had been tattooed on his wrist nearly two hundred years ago. He had one on his other arm and another around his neck.
Reaching forward, he peeled off another section of paper towel. The blood wiped off just fine, but there was no getting rid of what his sick bitch Mistress had marked him with. The ink was imbedded in his tissue, put there to show that he was property to be used, not an individual to live.
For no good reason, he thought of Nalla’s infant skin, so incredibly smooth and completely unmarred. Everyone remarked on how soft it was. Bella. All his brothers. All the shellans of the house. It was one of the first things they commented on when they held her. That and how she was like a down pillow, she was so huggable.
“Have you ever tried to get those removed?” Doc Jane said softly.
“They can’t be removed,” he said briskly, dropping his hand. “The ink has salt in it. It’s permanent.”
“But have you ever tried? There are lasers now that—”
“I’d better go take care of this cut so I can finish here.” He grabbed another paper towel. “I’ll need some gauze and tape—”
“I have that in my bag.” She turned to go over to the table. “I have everything—”
“No, thanks, I’ll take care of it myself.”
Doc Jane stared up at him, her eyes clear. “I don’t care if you’re independent. But stupidity I won’t stand for. We clear? That bench has your name on it.”
If she’d been one of his brothers, he would have bared his fangs and hissed at her. But he couldn’t do that to Doc Jane, and not just because she was a female. Thing was, there was nothing to push back at with her. She was just objective medical opinion.
“We clear?” she prompted, utterly unimpressed by how fierce he had to be looking.
“Yeah. I hear you.”
“He has these nightmares…. God, the nightmares.”
Bella leaned down and stuffed the dirty diaper into the bin. On the way back up, she snagged another Huggies from under the dressing table and brought out the talc and the baby wipes. Palming Nalla’s ankles, she hipped up her daughter’s little butt, did a fast-and-dash sweep with the cloth, sprinkled some powder, then slid the fresh diaper into place.
From across the nursery, Phury’s voice was low. “Nightmares about being a blood slave?”
“Has to be it.” She put Nalla’s clean bottom down and taped up the sides of the Huggies. “Because he won’t talk to me about it.”
“Has he been eating? Feeding?”
Bella shook her head as she did up the snaps on Nalla’s onesie. The thing was pastel pink and had a white skull and crossbones appliquéd on it. “Not much on the food and no on feeding. It’s like … I don’t know, the day she was born, he seemed so amazed and engaged and happy. But then some kind of switch was triggered and he just closed up. It’s almost as bad as it was in the beginning.” She stared down at Nalla, who was patting at the pattern on her little chest. “I’m sorry I asked you to come down here…. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“I’m glad you did. I’m always there for you both, you know that.”
Cradling Nalla on her shoulder, she turned around. Phury was leaning against the creamy wall of the nursery, his huge body breaking up the pattern of handpainted bunnies and squirrels and fawns.
“I don’t want to put you in an awkward position. Or take you away from Cormia unnecessarily.”
“You haven’t.” He shook his head, his multicolored hair gleaming. “If I’m quiet, it’s because I’m trying to think of what the best thing to do is. Talking with him isn’t always the solution.”
“True. But I’m running out of both ideas and patience.” Bella went over and sat in the rocker, repositioning the young in her arms.
Nalla’s brilliant yellow eyes stared up out of her angelic little face, and recognition was in her stare. She knew exactly who was with her … and who wasn’t. The awareness had come in the last week or so. And changed everything.
“He won’t hold her, Phury. He won’t even pick her up.”
“Are you serious?”
Bella’s tears made her daughter’s face wavy. “Damn it, when is this postpartum depression going to lift? I well up at almost nothing.”
“Wait, not even once? He hasn’t gotten her out of the crib or—”
“He won’t touch her. Crap, will you hand me a frickin’ tissue.” When the Kleenex box got in range, she snapped one free and pressed it to her eyes. “I’m such a mess. All I can think about is Nalla going through her whole life wondering why her father doesn’t love her.” She cursed softly as more tears came. “Okay, this is ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” he said. “It’s really not.”
Phury knelt down, keeping the tissues front and center. Absurdly, Bella noticed that the box had the picture of an alley of leafy trees with a lovely dirt road stretching off into the distance. On either side, flowering bushes with magenta blooms made the maples look like they were wearing tulle ballet skirts.
She imagined walking down the dirt road … to a place that was far better than where she was now.
She took another tissue. “The thing is, I grew up without a father, but at least I had Rehvenge. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a dad who was alive but dead to you.” With a little cooing sound, Nalla yawned wide and snuffled, rubbing her face with the back of her first. “Look at her. She’s so innocent. And she responds to love so well … I mean … Oh, for God’s sake, I’m going to buy stock in Kleenex.”
With a disgusted noise she flipped another tissue free. To avoid looking at Phury as she blotted, she let her eyes wander around the cheery room that had been a walk-in closet before the birth. Now it was all about the young, all about family, with the pine rocker Fritz had hand-made, and the matching dressing table, and the crib that was still festooned with multicolored bows.
When her stare landed on the low-slung bookcase with all its big, flat books, she felt even worse. She and the other Brothers were the ones who read to Nalla, who settled the young on a lap and unfolded shiny covers and spoke rhyming words.
It was never her father, even though Z had learned to read almost a year ago.
“He doesn’t refer to her as his daughter. It’s my daughter. To him, she’s mine, not ours.”
Phury made a disgusted sound. “FYI, I’m trying to resist the urge to pound him out right now.”
“It’s not his fault. I mean, after all he went through … I should have expected this, I guess.” She cleared her throat. “I mean, this whole pregnancy thing wasn’t planned, and I wonder … maybe he resents me and regrets her?”
“You’re his miracle. You know you are.”
She took more tissues and shook her head. “But it’s not just me anymore. And I won’t raise her here if he can’t come to terms with the two of us…. I will leave him.”
“Whoa, I think that’s a little premature—”
“She’s beginning to recognize folks, Phury. She’s starting to understand she’s being shut out. And he’s had three months to get used to the idea. Over time, he’s gotten worse, not better.”
As Phury cursed, she lifted her eyes to the brilliant yellow stare of her hellren’s twin. God, that citrine color was what shone out of her daughter’s face as well, so there was no looking at Nalla without thinking of her father. And yet…
“Seriously,” she said, “what’s this all going to be like a year from now? There is nothing more lonely than sleeping next to someone you’re missing as if they were gone. Or having that as a father.”
Nalla reached up with her fat hand and grabbed onto one of the tissues.
“I didn’t know you were here.”
Bella’s eyes shot to the doorway. Zsadist was standing in it, a tray in his hands bearing salad and a pitcher of lemonade. There was a white bandage on his left hand and a whole lot of don’t-ask on his face.
Looming there, on the verge of the nursery, he was exactly as she had fallen in love and mated him: a gigantic male with a skull trim and a scar down his face and slave bands at his wrists and neck and nipple rings that showed through his tight black T-shirt.
She thought of him the first time she’d seen him, punching a bag down in the training center’s gym. He’d been viciously fast on his feet, his firsts flying faster than her eye could track, the bag being driven back from the beating. And then, without even a pause, he’d unsheathed a black dagger from his chest holster and stabbed the thing he’d been pounding, ripping the blade through the bag’s leather flesh, the stuffing falling free like the internal organs of a lesser.
She’d come to learn that the fierce fighter wasn’t all there was to him. Those hands of his had great kindness in them as well. And that ruined face with its distorted upper lip had smiled and looked at her with love.
“I came down to see Wrath,” Phury said, getting to his feet.
Z’s eyes flicked to the Kleenex box his twin held, then went to the wad of tissues in Bella’s hand. “Did you.”
As he came in and put the tray down on the bureau where Nalla’s clothes were kept, he didn’t look at his daughter. She, however, knew he was in the room. The young turned her face in his direction, her unfocused eyes pleading, her chubby little arms reaching for him.
Z stepped back out into the hall. “Have a good meeting. I’m going out hunting.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Phury said.
“No time. Later.” Z’s eyes met Bella’s for a moment. “I love you.”
Bella hugged Nalla closer to her heart. “I love you, too. Be safe.”
He nodded once and then he was gone.
As Zsadist came awake in a panic, he tried to calm his breathing and figure out where he was, but his eyes weren’t much help. Everything was dark … he was enveloped in a dense, cold blackness that, no matter how hard he strained his vision, he couldn’t see through. He could have been in a bedroom, out in a field … in a cell.
He’d come out of sleep like this many, many times. For a hundred years as a blood slave, he’d woken up in a panicked blindness and wondered what was going to be done to him and by whom. After he was free? Nightmares caused him to do the same thing.
In both cases it was such bullshit. When he’d been the Mistress’s property, worrying about the who and the what and the when hadn’t helped him. The abuse was inevitable whether he was faceup or facedown on the bedding platform: He was used until she and her studs were sated; then he was left to lie degraded and leaking, alone in his prison.
And now, with the bad dreams? Waking up in the same terror he’d been in as a slave just validated the past horrors his subconscious insisted on burping up.
At least… he thought he was dreaming.
True panic hit him as he wondered which dark owned him. Was it the dark of the cell? Or the dark of his bedroom with Bella? He didn’t know. Both looked the same when there were no visual clues to decipher and only the sound of his pounding heart in his ears.
Solution? He’d try to move his arms and legs. If they were unchained, if they were not shackled, it was just a case of being caught in his mind’s choke hold once again, the past reaching out through the graveyard dirt of his memories and grabbing him with bony hands. As long as he could shift his arms and legs through clean sheets, he was okay.
Right. Move his arms and legs.
His arms. His legs. Needed to move.
Oh, God … damn you, move.
His limbs didn’t budge, and in the paralysis of his body the clawed truth ripped through him. He was in the damp darkness of the Mistress’s cell, chained on his back, thick iron cuffs keeping him on the bedding platform. She and her lovers would be coming for him again, and they would do to him whatever they wanted, staining his skin, soiling the inside of him.
He moaned, the pathetic sound vibrating up from his chest and breaching his mouth like it was relieved to be free of him. Bella was the dream. He lived in the nightmare.
Bella was the dream….
The footsteps approached from the hidden stairwell that ran down from the Mistress’s bedroom, the sound echoing, getting louder. And there were more than one set on the stone steps.
With an animal’s horror, his muscles grabbed and pulled against his skeleton, fighting desperately to get loose from the dirty binding of flesh that was about to be fondled and invaded and used. Sweat broke out on his face, and his stomach seized, bile marshaling an assault up his esophagus to the base of his tongue—
Someone was crying.
No … wailing.
A young’s cry sounded out from the far corner of the cell.
His fight stalled while he wondered what an infant was doing in this place. The Mistress had no offspring, nor had she been pregnant during the years he had been owned by her—
No … wait … he had brought the young here. It was his young who cried—and the Mistress was going to find the infant. She was going to find the infant and … Oh, God.
This was his fault. He had brought the young here.
Get the young out. Get the young—
Z curled his fists and punched his elbows into the bedding platform, heaving with every ounce of strength he had. The power came from more than his body; it was born of his will. With a massive surge, he …
… got absolutely nowhere. The shackles cut through his wrists and his ankles down to his bones, slicing through his skin so that blood mixed with his cold sweat.
As the door opened, the young was crying and he couldn’t save her. The Mistress was going to—
Light poured over him, rocketing him into true consciousness.
He was off his mated bed like he’d been bootlicked by a Chevy, landing in a fighting stance with fists up at his chest, shoulders drawn in steel knots, thighs ready to spring.
Bella slowly eased back from the lamp she’d turned on, as if she didn’t want to spook him.
He looked around the bedroom. There was, as usual, no one to fight, but he’d woken everyone up. In the corner, Nalla was in her crib crying, and he’d scared the ever-loving shit out of his shellan. Again.
There was no Mistress. None of her consorts. No cell or chains stretching him out on a bedding platform.
No young in his cell with him.
Bella slipped out of bed and went over to the crib, scooping up a red-faced and screaming Nalla. The daughter, however, would have nothing of the comfort offered. The young held its little chubby arms straight out for Zsadist, wailing for its father, tears streaming.
Bella waited for a moment, as if she were hoping this time would be different and he would go over and take the child into his arms and comfort the infant who so clearly wanted him.
Z backed away until his shoulder blades hit the far wall, tucking his arms around his chest.
Bella turned and whispered to her darling one as she went into the adjoining nursery. The door muffled the daughter’s whimpering as it slid shut.
Z let himself slide down until his ass hit the floor. “Fuck.”
He rubbed his skull trim back and forth, then let both hands hang off his knees. After a moment, he realized he was sitting as he had back in the cell, his back against the corner facing the door, his knees up, his naked body shivering.
He looked at the slave bands around his wrists. The black was so dense in his skin, so solid, it was like the iron cuffs he’d once worn.
After God only knew how long, the door to the nursery slid open and Bella came back with the young. Nalla was asleep again, but as Bella laid her out in the crib, it was with care, as if a bomb were about to go off at any moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, rubbing his wrists.
Bella put on a dressing gown and went to the door that led out into the hall. With her hand on the knob, she looked back at him, her eyes remote. “I can’t say this is okay anymore.”
“I’m really sorry about the dreams—”
“I’m talking about Nalla. I can’t say that your shunning her is all right … that I understand, that it’s going to get better and I’ll be patient. The fact is, she is your child as well as mine, and it kills me to see you pulling away from her. I know what you went through, and I don’t want to be callous, but … everything’s different for me now. I need to think in terms of what’s good for her, and having a father who won’t even touch her? That’s not it.”
Z flexed open both his hands and stared at his palms, trying to imagine picking the young up.
The slave bands seemed huge to him. Huge … and contagious.
The word wasn’t won’t, he thought. It was can’t.
The thing was if he did comfort Nalla and play with her and read to her, it would mean she had him for a father, and his legacy was nothing you wanted to saddle a young with. Bella’s born daughter deserved better than that.
“I need you to decide what you want to do,” Bella said. “If you can’t be her father, I’m leaving you. I know that sounds harsh, but … I have to think of what’s best for her. I love you and I will always love you, but it’s not about me anymore.”
For a moment, he didn’t think he’d heard right. Leaving him?
Bella stepped out into the hall of statues. “I’m going to go grab something to eat. Don’t worry about her—I’ll be right back.”
She closed the door behind her without a sound.
When night fell about two hours later, the way that door had shut so quietly was still banging around Z’s head.
Standing in front of his closet full of black shirts and leathers and shitkickers, he sought his inner intentions, chasing them around the maze of his emotions.
Sure, he wanted to overcome the head fuck with his daughter. Of course he did.
It was just insurmountable: What had been done to him might have been in the past, but all he had to do was look at his wrists to see that he was still dirtied by it all—and he didn’t want that kind of shit anywhere near Nalla. He’d had the same problem with Bella in the beginning of their relationship, and had managed to get over it with his shellan, but the implications were more grave with the young: Z was the corporeal embodiment of the kind of cruelty that existed in the world. He didn’t want his daughter to know that such depths of depravity existed, much less expose her to their aftereffects.
What the hell was he going to do when she got to be old enough to look up into his face and ask him why he was scarred and how he’d gotten that way? What would he do when she wanted to know why he had black bands on his skin? What was her uncle Phury going to reply when she asked him why he was missing a leg?
Z dragged on a shirt and a pair of leathers, then pulled on his chest holster of daggers and opened the gun closet. As he took out a pair of SIG Sauer forties, he checked them quickly. He used to palm nines—shit, he used to fight with nothing but his bare hands. Ever since Bella had come into his life, however, he’d been more careful.
And this, of course, was the other part of his brain twist. He killed for a living. That was his job. Nalla was going to have to grow up worrying about him every night. How could she not? Bella did.
He shut the gun closet and relocked it, then tucked the muzzles into his hip holster, checked his daggers, and pulled on his leather jacket.
He glanced over to the crib where Nalla was still sleeping.
Guns. Blades. Throwing stars. Christ, the infant needed to be surrounded by rattles and plush teddy bears.
Bottom line was, he wasn’t cut out to be a father. Never had been. Biology, however, had jacked him into the role, and now they were all chained to his past: As much as he couldn’t imagine living without Bella, there was no fathoming how he could be the dad Nalla deserved.
With a frown, he pictured Nalla’s coming-out party, something all females of the glymera had one year after their transitions. The daughter always had the first dance with her father, and he saw Nalla dressed in a flowing red gown, her multicolored hair up, rubies at her throat … and himself with his fucked-up face and his slave bands peeking out of the cuffs of his tuxedo.
Great. Helluva picture.
Cursing, Z went to the bathroom, where Bella was getting ready for the evening. He was going to tell her that he was heading out on a follow-up from the night before and that as soon as he was finished, he’d come home and they would talk. As he looked around the corner, though, he stopped dead.
In the mist that lingered from her shower, Bella was drying off her body. Her hair was wrapped in a towel, her long neck exposed, her creamy shoulders working this way and that as she made quick work with the terry cloth across her back. Her breasts swayed, catching his eyes, hardening him.
Fuck him, but as he watched her, all he could think about was sex. God, she was beautiful. He’d liked her rounded by the pregnancy, and he liked her as she was now, too. She’d thinned out quickly after Nalla’s birth, her stomach as tight as it had been before, her hips regaining their lean contours. Her breasts were bigger, though, the nipples a deeper pink, the swells heavier.
His cock punched into his leathers, a criminal wanting out of jail.
As he rearranged himself, he realized he and Bella hadn’t been together since well before the birth. The pregnancy had been difficult, and afterward Bella had needed time to heal and had been rightfully consumed with taking care of her infant.
He missed her. Wanted her. Thought she was still the most spectacularly erotic female on the face of the planet.
Bella dropped her robe on the counter, faced the mirror, and stared at herself. With a grimace, she leaned forward and prodded at her cheekbones, her jawline, under her chin. Straightening, she frowned and turned to the side, sucking in her stomach.
He cleared his throat to get her attention. “I’m about to go out now.”
At the sound of his voice, Bella scrambled to get her robe. Pulling it on quickly, she tied the sash and dragged the lapels in close to her throat. “I didn’t know you were there.”
“Well …” His erection deflated. “I am.”
“Are you leaving?” she said as she unwrapped her hair.
She hadn’t even heard his words, he thought. “Yeah, I’m about to go out now. I’m going to be reachable, though, as always—”
“We’ll be fine.” She bent over and started rubbing her hair dry, the towel’s flapping loud to his ear.
Even though she was only ten feet away, he couldn’t reach her. Couldn’t ask her why she hid herself from him. Was too afraid of what the answer might be.
“Have a good evening,” he said roughly. He waited a moment, praying that she would look up at him, smile at him a little, give him a kiss on his way out into the war.
“You, too.” She flipped her hair up and reached for the hair dryer. “Be safe.”
Bella flicked on the hair dryer and picked up her brush to look busy as Z turned and walked out. When she was sure he had to be gone, she stopped the pretense, turning off the dryer and letting it fall to the marble counter.
Her heart ached so badly, she was sick to her stomach, and as she stared at her reflection, she wanted to throw something at the glass.
The two of them hadn’t been together, as in been together, since … God, it must have been four or five months ago, before she’d started spotting.
He didn’t think of her sexually anymore. Not since Nalla had come. It was as if the birth had turned off that part of their relationship for him. When he touched her now, it was as a brother would—gently, with compassion.
Never with passion.
At first, she’d thought it was maybe because she wasn’t as thin as she’d been, but in the last four weeks her body had bounced back.
At least, she thought it had. Maybe she was fooling herself?
Loosening the robe, she parted the two halves, turned to the side, and measured her stomach. Back when her father had been around, back when she’d been growing up, the importance of females in the glymera being thin had been drilled into her, and even after his death all those years ago, those stern warnings about being fat stuck with her.
Bella wound herself back up, tying the sash tight.
Yes, she wanted Nalla to have her father, and that was the primary concern. But she missed her hellren. The pregnancy had happened so quickly that they hadn’t had the chance to enjoy a lovebird period where they just reveled in each other’s company.
As she picked up the dryer and flicked on the switch again, she tried not to count the number of days since he’d last reached for her as a male would. It had been so long since he’d fished through the sheets with his big, warm hands and woken her up with lips on the back of her neck and a hard arousal pressing into her hip.
She hadn’t reached for him, either, true. But she wasn’t taking for granted the kind of reception she’d receive. The last thing she needed now was to be turned down because he wasn’t attracted to her anymore. She was already an emotional wreck as a mother, thank you very much. Failure on the female front was too much to handle.
When her hair was dry, she gave it a quick brush and then went out to check on Nalla. Standing over the crib, looking at their daughter, she couldn’t believe things had come down to ultimatums. She’d always known that Z would have continuing issues after what he’d been put through, but it had never dawned on her that they couldn’t bridge his past.
Their love had seemed like it would be enough to get them through everything.
Maybe it wasn’t.
The house was set back from the dirt road and crowded by overgrown bushes and shaggy trees with brown leaves. The design of the thing was a hodgepodge of various architectural styles, with the only unifying element being that they’d all been repro’d badly: It had a roof like a Cape Cod, but was on one story like a ranch; it had pillars on the front porch like a colonial, but was sided in plastic like a trailer; it was set up on its lot like a castle and yet had the nobility of a busted trash bin.
Oh, and it was painted green. Like, Jolly Green Giant green.
Twenty years ago the place had probably been built by a city guy with bad taste looking to start life over as a gentleman farmer. Now everything about it was run down, except for one thing: The door was made out of shiny, fresh-as-a-daisy stainless steel and reinforced like something you’d find in a psych hospital or a jail.
And the windows were boarded up with rows of two-by-sixes.
Z crouched behind the rotted shell of what had been a ’92 Trans Am and waited for the clouds above to pull together and cover the moon so he could move in. Across the weedy lawn and gravel driveway, Rhage was behind an oak.
Which was really the only tree big enough to hide the mofo.
The Brotherhood had found the site the night before by stroke of luck. Z had been downtown patrolling the needle park under Caldwell’s bridges when he’d caught a pair of thugs dumping a body into the Hudson River. The disposal had been quick and professional: Nondescript sedan drove up, two guys in black hoodies got out and went to the trunk, body was head-and-footed, remains were tossed into the current.
Splish-splash, taking a bath.
Z had been downstream by about ten yards, so when the dead guy floated by, he saw from its grimacing mouth that it was a human male. Normally this would have been cause for doing absolutely nothing at all. If some man had been God-father’d, that was not his biz.
But the wind changed directions and brought him a whiff of something cotton-candy sweet.
There were only two things Z knew of that smelled like that and walked upright: old ladies and his race’s enemy. Considering it was unlikely that Betty White and Bea Arthur were under those hoods channeling their inner Tony Soprano, that meant there were two lessers up ahead. So the sitch was very much on Z’s list of things to do.
With perfect timing, the pair of slayers got into an argument. While they went nose-to-nose and did a couple punch-shoves, Z dematerialized to the pylon nearest the sedan. The license plate on the Impala junker read 818 NPA, and there didn’t appear to be any other passenger of either the stiff or the quick variety.
In the blink of an eye, he dematerialized again, this time to the roof of the warehouse that flanked the bridge. From his crow’s-eye view, he waited with his phone to his ear and a line open to Qhuinn, bracing himself against the rush of wind coming up the building’s ass.
Lessers didn’t ordinarily kill humans. It was a waste of time, for one thing, because it didn’t gain you points with the Omega, and a lot of hassle if you got caught, for another. That being said, if some guy saw something he shouldn’t have, the slayers wouldn’t hesitate to cash-and-carry him to his royal reward.
When the Impala finally came out from under the bridge, it took a right and headed away from downtown. Z spoke into his phone, and a moment later a black Hummer emerged right where the Impala had come out.
Qhuinn and John Matthew had been taking the night off with Blay at Zero-Sum, but those boys were always ready for action. As soon as Z had called, the three raced for Qhuinn’s brand-new wheels, which had been parked a block and a half away.
At Z’s direction, the boys floored it to catch up with the sedan. While they closed in, Z kept an eye on the lessers, dematerializing from building top to building top as their POS made its way down the river’s edge. Thank fuck the slayers didn’t highway it or they might have gotten away.
Qhuinn had skills behind the wheel and once his Hummer was tailing the SUV reliably, Z stopped his Spidey shit and let the boys do the work. About ten miles later, Rhage took over from them in his GTO just to mix it up and reduce the chance the lessers would catch on that they were being tracked.
Just before dawn, Rhage had followed them to this place, but it had been too close to daylight to do any kind of infiltration.
Tonight was follow-up. Big time.
And what do you know, the Impala was sitting pretty in the driveway.
As the clouds finally got their act together, Z gave the nod to Hollywood, and the two of them dematerialized to either side of the front door. A quick listen revealed arguing, the voices the same ones Z had heard by the Hudson the night before. Evidently the pair of slayers were still oil-and-watering it.
Three, two … one-
Rhage kicked the door to the house open, bootlicking the bitch so hard his shitkicker left a dent in the metal panel.
The two lessers in the hall swung around, and Z didn’t give them a chance to respond. Leading with his SIG’s muzzle, he popped both right in the chest, the bullets sending the pair pinwheeling backward.
Rhage went on dagger duty, leaping forward, stabbing first one and then the other. As the flashes of white light and the sharp sounds faded, the brother leaped to his feet and froze like a boulder.
Neither Z nor Rhage moved. Using their senses, they sifted through the house’s silence, searching for anything that suggested further inhabitation.
The moan that bubbled up into all the quiet came from the back, and Z walked swiftly toward the sound, muzzle first. In the kitchen the cellar door was open, and he dematerialized to the left of it. A quick head jab and he took a look-see down the stairs. A bald lightbulb hung from a red-and-black wire at the bottom, but the pool of light showed nothing but stained floorboards.
Z willed the light off down below and Rhage provided cover from upstairs as Z bypassed the rickety steps and dematerialized into the darkness.
On the lower level he smelled fresh blood and heard the staccato click of rattling teeth from the left.
He willed the cellar light back on … and lost his breath.
A male civilian vampire was tied by the arms and legs to a table. He was naked and covered with bruises, and instead of looking at Z, he squeezed his eyes shut, as if he couldn’t bear to know what was coming at him.
For a moment Z couldn’t move. It was his own nightmare in living color, and reality blurred such that he wasn’t sure whether he was the one tied down or the guy who was coming to the rescue.
“Z?” Rhage said from above. “Anything there?”
Z snapped to attention and cleared his throat. “I’m on it.”
As he approached the civilian, he said softly in the Old Language, “Be of ease.”
The vampire’s eyes flipped open and his head jerked up on his spine. There was a look of disbelief, then astonishment.
“Be of ease.” Z double-checked the corners of the basement, his eyesight penetrating the shadows, seeking signs of a security system. All he saw was a lot of concrete walls and wooden flooring, along with old piping and wiring snaking around the ceiling. No electric eyes or sparkling new power supplies.
They were alone and unsupervised, but God only knew for how long. “Rhage, still clear?” he shouted up the stairwell.
“One civilian.” Z assessed the male’s body. He’d been beaten, and though he didn’t seem to have any open wounds, there was no telling whether he could dematerialize. “Call the boys in case we need transport.”
Z took a step forward-
The floor broke apart beneath his feet, splintering right out from under him.
As gravity grabbed him hard with greedy hands and he went into a free fall, all he could think about was Bella. Depending on what lay at the bottom, this could be-
He landed on something that shattered on impact, shards of whatever it was slicing at his leathers and his hands before bouncing up to cut into his face and neck. He kept hold of his gun because he’d been trained to, and because the jolt of pain tightened him up from head to foot.
It took some deep breathing before he could reboot his brain and try to assess any damage.
As he sat up slowly, the chiming sound of bits of glass falling to a stone floor echoed around him. In the circle of light that fell from the cellar above, he saw that he was sitting in the midst of a brilliant shimmer of crystals….
He’d fallen on a chandelier the size of a bed.
And his left boot was facing backward.
His broken lower leg started to pound with pain, making him think that if only he hadn’t looked at the damn thing, maybe he would have kept on not feeling it.
Rhage’s face popped over the rim of the ragged hole above. “You okay?”
“Free the civilian.”
“Are you all right?”
“Well, I’m looking at the heel of my shitkicker and the front of my knee at the same time. And there’s a high probability I’m going to throw up.” He swallowed hard, trying to convince his gag reflex to pipe down. “Get the civilian loose and then we’ll see about getting me out of here. Oh, and stick to the rows of nails on the floor. Clearly the boards are weak.”
Rhage nodded, then disappeared. As massive footsteps above caused drifts of dust to powder down, Z went into his jacket and took out a Maglite. The thing was about the size of a finger but could throw a beam as strong as the headlight on a car.
As he panned the thing around, his leg problem bothered him a little less. “What… the hell?”
It was like being in an Egyptian tomb. The forty-by-forty-foot room was stocked with objects that gleamed, from oil paintings in gilt frames to silver candelabra to bejeweled statuary to whole mounds of sterling flatware. And across the way there were stacked boxes that probably contained jewelry, as well as a lineup of fifteen or so metal briefcases that must have had money in them.
This was a looting repository, filled with what had been taken during the raids this past summer. All of this shit had belonged to the glymera-he even recognized the faces in some of the portraits.
Lot of value down here. And what do you know. Over to the right, close to the packed dirt floor, a red light started blinking. His fall had triggered the alarm system.
Rhage’s head popped back into view. “Civilian is free, but unable to dematerialize. Qhuinn’s less than a half mile away. What the fuck are you on?”
“A chandelier, and that’s not the half of it. Listen, we’re going to have company. This place is wired and I tripped it.”
“There a staircase to you?”
Z wiped the pain sweat off his brow, the shit cold and greasy on the back of his bleeding hand. As he moved the flashlight around, he shook his head. “Can’t see one, but they had to have gotten the loot in here somehow, and sure as hell it wasn’t through that floor.”
Rhage’s head flipped up and the brother frowned. The sound of him unsheathing his dagger was a metal-on-metal gasp of anticipation. “That’s either Qhuinn or a slayer. Drag yourself out of the light while I sort this.”
Hollywood disappeared from the hole in the floor, his footsteps now whisper quiet.
Z holstered his gun because he had to, and cleared some of the crystal fragments out of the way. Palming his ass off the ground, he braced his good foot and spidered away into the darkness, heading for the security beacon. After backing his ass right up to the damn thing, as it was the only break he could find in the piles of art and silver, he settled against the wall.
When upstairs stayed way too quiet, he knew it wasn’t Qhuinn and the boys. And yet there wasn’t any fighting.
And then shit went from bad to worse.
The “wall” he was leaning against slid away and he fell flat on his back … at the feet of a pair of white-haired, pissed-off lessers.
There were many great things about being a mom.
Holding your young in your arms and rocking them to sleep was definitely one of them. So was folding their little clothes. And feeding them. And watching them look up at you in happiness and wonder when they first came awake.
Bella repositioned herself in the nursery’s rocker, tucked the blanket under her daughter’s chin, and gave Nalla’s cheek a little stroke.
A not-so-hot corollary to momdom, however, was that the whole female-intuition thing was totally heightened.
Sitting in the safety of the Brotherhood’s mansion, Bella knew there was something wrong. Even though she was safe and sound, and in a nursery that was right out of an article entitled “The Perfect Family Lives Here,” it was as if there were a draft going through the room that smelled like dead skunk. And Nalla had picked up on the vibe as well. The young was preternaturally quiet and tense, her yellow eyes focused on some middle ground as if she were waiting for a big noise to go off.
Of course, the problem with intuition, whether tied to the mother thing or not, was that it was a story with no words and no time line. Although it got you prepared for bad news, there were no nouns or verbs to go with the anxiety, no time/date stamp, either. So as you sat with the ambient dread clamped on the back of your neck like a cold, wet cloth, your mind got to rationalizing because that was the best anyone could do. Maybe it was just First Meal not sitting well. Maybe it was just free floating anxiety.
Hell, maybe what was churning in her gut wasn’t intuition at all. Maybe it was because she’d reached a decision that didn’t sit well.
Yeah, that was more likely the case. After having stewed and hoped and worried and tried to think her way out of the problems with Z, she had to be realistic. She’d confronted him … and there had been no real response from him.
Not I want you two to stay. Not even I’ll work on it.
All she’d gotten from him was that he was going out to fight.
Which was a reply of sorts, wasn’t it.
Looking around the nursery, she cataloged what she would have to pack up … not much, just an overnight bag for Nalla and a duffle for herself. She could get another diaper pail and crib and changing table set up easily enough-
Where would she go?
The easiest solution was one of her brother’s houses. Rehvenge had a number of them, and all she’d have to do was ask. Man, how ironic was that? After having fought to get away from him, now she was contemplating going back.
Not contemplating. Deciding.
Bella leaned to the side, took her cell phone out of the pocket of her jeans, and hit Rehv’s number.
After two rings a deep, familiar voice answered, “Bella?”
There was a roar of music and people talking in the background, the various sounds like a crowd competing for space.
“Hello? Bella? Hold on, let me get into my office.” After a long, noisy pause, the din was cut off sharply. “Hey, how are you and your little miracle doing?”
“I need a place to stay.”
Total silence. Then her brother said, “Would that be for three or for two?”
Another long pause. “Do I need to kill that fool bastard?”
The cold, vicious tone scared her a little, reminding her that her beloved brother was not a male you wanted to screw with. “God, no.”
“Talk, sister mine. Tell me what’s going on.”
Death was a black parcel that came in a lot of different shapes and weights and sizes. Still, it was the kind of thing that when it hit your front doorstep, you knew the sender without checking the return address or even opening the thing up.
You just knew.
As Z back-flatted into the path of those two lessers, he knew that his FedEx-tinction package had arrived, and the only thing that went through his mind was that he wasn’t ready to take delivery.
Course, it wasn’t the kind of thing you could refuse to sign for.
Above him, cast in a dim glow from some kind of light, the lessers froze as if he were the last thing they expected to see. Then they took out their guns.
Z didn’t have a last word; he had a last image, one that totally eclipsed the double-barreled action that was at point-blank range of his head. In his mind he saw Bella and Nalla together in that rocker back in the nursery. It was not a picture from the night before when there had been Kleenexes and red-rimmed eyes and his twin looking grave. It was from a couple of weeks ago, when Bella had been staring down at the young in her arms with such tenderness and love. As if she’d sensed him in the doorway, she’d lifted her eyes, and for a moment the love that was in her face had wrapped around him as well.
The two gunshots rang out, and the weirdest thing was that the only pain he felt was the sting of the sound in his ears.
Two flopping thunchs followed, echoing around the stolen riches.
Z lifted his head. Qhuinn and Rhage were standing right behind where the lessers had been, their guns just lowering. Blay and John Matthew were with them, their guns drawn as well.
“You okay?” Rhage asked.
No. That would be one big fat hairy fuck-no. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m tight.”
“Blay, back into the tunnel with me,” Rhage said. “John and Qhuinn, you stay with him.”
Z let his head fall back and listened as two sets of shitkickers headed off in the distance. In the eerie silence that followed, a wave of nausea rolled over him and every inch of him started to shake, his hands flapping like flags in a brisk wind as he brought them up to feel his face.
John’s hand touched his arm and he jumped. “I’m okay … I’m okay….”
John signed, We’re going to get you out of here.
“How-” He cleared his throat. “How do I know this is happening?”
I’m sorry? How do you know … ?
Zsadist’s fingers skipped along his forehead as he tried to prod where the slayers had aimed their guns. “How do I know this is real? And not a … How do I know I didn’t just die?”
John glanced over his shoulder at Qhuinn like he had no idea how to respond and was looking for backup. Then he pounded on his own chest with a solid thumping. I know I’m here.
Qhuinn leaned down and did the same, a heavy bass sound rising from his chest. “Me, too.”
Zsadist let his head fall back again, his body scrambling in its own skin so badly his feet tap-danced on the hard-packed floor. “I don’t know … if this is real… oh, shit…”
John stared at him as if measuring his increasing agitation and trying to figure out what the hell to do.
Abruptly the guy reached down to Z’s broken leg and gave his turned-around shitkicker a quick tug.
Z shot upright and barked, “Motherfucker!”
But it was good. The pain acted like a great broom sweep of his brain, clearing out the web of delusions and replacing them with a focused, pounding clarity. He was very much alive. He really was.
Right on the heels of that realization he thought of Bella. And Nalla.
He had to reach them.
Z shifted to the side to get his phone, but his vision went furry from what was doing with his leg. “Shit. Can you get me my cell? In my back pocket?”
John carefully rolled him over, took out the RAZR, and handed it to him.
“So you don’t think there’s any working this out?” Rehv said.
Bella shook her head in answer to her brother’s question, then remembered he couldn’t see her. “No, I don’t think so. At least not in the short term.”
“Shit. Well, I’m always here for you, you know that. You want to stay with mahmen?”
“No. I mean, I’m happy to have her come visit during the night, but I need my own space.”
“Because you’re hoping he comes after you.”
“He’s not going to. This time is different. Nalla … has made everything different.”
The young snuffled and burrowed in closer to her favorite nook between upper arm and breast. Bella propped the cell phone against her shoulder and stroked the downy-soft hair that was growing in. The waves, when they grew out, were going to be multicolored, with blondes and reds and browns mixed together, just as her father’s would be if he didn’t trim it so tightly.
As Rehv laughed awkwardly, she said, “What?”
“After all these years fighting to keep you on my property, now I don’t want you leaving the Brotherhood mansion. For real, nothing is safer than that compound … but I do have a house on the Hudson River that’s tight. It’s next to a friend of mine’s, and it’s nothing fancy, but there’s a tunnel linkup between them. She’ll keep you safe.”
After he gave her the address, Bella murmured, “Thank you. I’m going to pack a few things up and have Fritz take me there in an hour.”
“I’ll get the fridge stocked for you right now.”
The phone made a beeping noise as a text came through. “Thank you.”
“Have you told him?”
“Z knows it’s coming. And no, I’m not going to keep him from seeing Nalla if he wants, but he’s going to have to choose to come and see her.”
“What about you?”
“I love him … but this has been really hard on me.”
They ended the call shortly thereafter, and as Bella took the phone away from her ear, she saw that a text had come through from Zsadist:
I’M SO SORRY. I LOVE YOU. PLEASE FORGIVE ME— CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU.
She bit her lip and blinked hard. And texted back.
Zstared at the screen of his phone, praying for a response from Bella. He would have called, but his voice was so shaky he didn’t want to alarm her. Plus getting into a huge emotional thing wasn’t a great idea, considering he had a broken leg on lesser real estate.
Rhage and Blay came back through the tunnel.
“… is why they didn’t come into the house,” Rhage was saying. “The entrance to this storage unit is through the shed out back. They were checking on the security system first, clearly less concerned that the house had been infiltrated.”
Z cleared his throat and warbled, “The alarm is still blinking. If it doesn’t get shut off, more will-”
Rhage leveled his gun at the red light, pulled the trigger, and dusted the thing. “Maybe that’ll work.”
“You are such a techie, Hollywood,” Z muttered. “Right up there with Bill Gates.”
“Whatever. We need to get you and the civilian out-”
Z’s phone vibrated and he opened the text from Bella, holding his breath. After he read it twice, he shut his eyes hard and clipped the phone shut. Oh, God … no.
Propping his upper body off the dirt floor, he made a lurch to get on his feet. The shot of agony that ran up his leg helped to distract him from the sight of all the blood that had pooled underneath him.
“What the …”
“… fuck are …”
“… you doing …”
John signed what the other three were saying: What are you doing?
“I need to get home.” Dematerializing wasn’t an option because of his leg—which was making him want to throw up as it flopped around. “I need to—”
Hollywood shoved his perfectly beautiful face right in Z’s grille. “Will you just relax? You’re in shock—”
Z grabbed the male’s upper arm and squeezed to shut the brother up. He spoke softly, and when he was done, Rhage could only blink.
After a moment Hollywood said quietly, “Here’s the issue, though. You have a compound fracture, my brother. I promise we’ll get you back, but we need to take you to a doctor. Dead is not where you want to be, feel me?”
As a wave of light-headedness came swooping in from out of nowhere, Z had a feeling his brother had a point. But fuck it. “Home. I want—.”
His body collapsed. Just folded on him like a house of cards.
Rhage caught his weight and turned to the boys. “You two, carry him out of the tunnel. Move it. I’ll cover.”
Zsadist grunted as he changed hands and was hauled off like a deer carcass found in the middle of a road. The pain was a stunner, making his heart palpitate and his skin shiver, but it was good. He need the physical manifestation of the emotion trapped in the center of his chest.
The tunnel was about fifty yards in length and tall enough so that only a hob-bit could have any headroom—so the trip out was about as much fun as being born. Qhuinn and John were cranked over, scrambling to hold on to him while hauling ass, two grown-ups in a kid-scaled model. As Z’s body jangled and his fucked-up foot rang like a bell, the only thing that kept him conscious was the text from Bella:
I’M SORRY. I LOVE YOU, BUT SHE AND I HAVE TO GO. I’LL GIVE YOU THE ADDRESS WHEN WE’RE SETTLED LATER TONIGHT.
Outside the air was cool, and Z dragged the shit into his lungs in hopes of calming his stomach. He was taken directly to the Hummer and settled in the back, along with the civilian who had passed out cold. John, Blay, and Qhuinn piled in, and then there was a stretch of hurry-up-and-wait.
Finally Rhage bolted from the house, flashed three fingers and a fist, and dove into the shotgun seat. While the brother started texting on his phone, Qhuinn hit the gas and once again proved he had half a brain: The guy had been smart enough to back in so he had a straight shot down the driveway, and he took the way out with a vengeance.
Rhage looked at his watch as they bumped along. “Four … three … two …” The house behind them exploded into a fireball, the aftershocks sending waves of buffering energy through the air—
Just as a minivan full of the enemy pulled into the end of the driveway, blocking the way onto Route 9.
Bella double-checked the two L.L. Bean bags and was pretty sure she had every-thing she needed for the short term. In the one with the green handles she had some clothes for herself, along with her cell phone charger, her toothbrush, and two thousand dollars in cash. The blue-handled one had Nalla’s clothes, bottles and diapers, along with wet wipes, rash cream, blankies, a teddy bear, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.
The title of Nalla’s favorite book was a shitkicker on a night like tonight. It really was.
When there was a knock on the nursery door, Bella called out, “Come in.”
Mary, Rhage’s shellan, popped her head in. Her face was tight, her gray eyes grim even before she looked down at the bags.
“Rhage texted me. Z’s been injured. I know you’re going to leave, and the why is none of my business, but you might consider waiting. From what Rhage said, Z is desperately going to need to feed.”
Bella slowly straightened. “How … how badly injured? What—”
“I don’t have any more details other than that they’ll be home as soon as they can.”
Oh … God. It was the news she had always dreaded. Z injured out in the field.
“What’s their ETA?”
“Rhage didn’t say. I know they have to drop off an injured civilian at Havers’s new clinic, but that’s on the way. I’m not sure whether Z’s getting treated here or there.”
Bella shut her eyes. Zsadist had sent her that text while injured. He’d been reaching out to her when he was in pain … and she’d slapped him back with the fact that she was abandoning him to his demons.
“What have I done,” she said softly.
“I’m sorry?” Mary asked.
Bella shook her head as much at herself as in response to the female.
Going over to the crib, she looked at their daughter. Nalla was sleeping with the hard, dense exhaustion of the young, her little chest pumping up and down with purpose, her pink hands curled into fists, her brows bunched together as if she were concentrating on growing.
“Will you stay with her?” Bella asked.
“There’s milk in the fridge over there.”
“I’ll be right here. I won’t go anywhere.”
Back in the driveway of the Jolly Green Giant house in the sticks, Z felt the heavy-duty lurch of Qhuinn slamming on the Hummer’s brakes. The SUV held steady as the laws of physics gripped its mass hard, putting an end to its acceleration just before the vehicle crushed the frontal lobe of the minivan in its path.
Gun muzzles came out of the windows of the Lessening Society’s soccer-mom special like the bitch was a stagecoach, and bullets went ape shit, pinging the Hummer’s reinforced-steel body and ricocheting off its inch-thick Plexiglas windows.
“Second night out with my ride,” Qhuinn spat. “And these fuckers are Swiss-cheesing me? Hell, no. Hold on.”
Qhuinn threw them into reverse, jumped the SUV back fifteen feet, then punched the engine into first gear and nailed his foot to the floor. Wrenching the wheel to the left, he dodged around the Town & Country, chunks of earth clumping up and clapping against both cars.
As they bounced around like a boat in bad weather, Rhage reached into his jacket and took out a hand grenade. Opening his bulletproof window just far enough, he popped the pin with his teeth and tossed the fist-size explosive out. By the grace of God the damn thing tripped off the minivan’s roof and rolled under the vehicle.
The three lessers leaped out of that fucker like the thing was on fire.
And ten seconds later it was, its flames lighting up the night.
Fuuuuuck, if Z thought the trip through the tunnel had been bad on his leg, it was nothing compared to the bump-and-shatter act it took to get away from those slayers. By the time the Hummer burst out onto Route 9 after having clipped at least one of the lessers on its hood, Zsadist was on the verge of blacking out.
“Shit, he’s going into shock.”
Z realized with little interest that Rhage had turned around and was looking at him, not at the civilian.
“Am not,” he mumbled as his eyes rolled back in his head. “Just taking a little break.”
Rhage’s spectacular Bahama-blue stare narrowed. “Compound. Fracture. Motherfucker. You’re bleeding out as we speak.”
Z lifted his eyes to Qhuinn’s in the rearview mirror. “Sorry ’bout the carpet.”
The male shook his head. “Not to worry. You, I will abso trash my ride for.”
Rhage put his hand on Z’s neck. “Damn it, you’re white as snow and about as warm. You’re going to have to get treated at the clinic.”
In a low voice Rhage said, “I texted Mary not to let her go, okay? Bella’s still going to be there no matter how long it takes us to get back to the mansion. She’s not leaving you before you get home.”
A whole lot of resounding quiet settled in the Hummer, like everyone was busy pretending they didn’t hear any of Rhage’s newsflash.
Z opened his mouth to argue.
But fainted dead away before he could marshal any more objections.
Bella paced around the PT room in the training center, orbiting the examination table on shaky legs. She stopped regularly to check the clock.
Where were they? What else had gone wrong? It had been over an hour….
Oh, God, please let Zsadist be alive. Please let them bring him back alive.
Pacing, more pacing. Eventually she paused at the head of the gurney and looked down its length. Putting her hand on its padded top, she found herself thinking of when she had been on the thing as a patient. Three months ago. For Nalla’s birth.
God, what a nightmare that had been.
And God, what a nightmare this was … waiting for her hellren to be rolled in injured, bleeding, in pain. And that was the best-case scenario. The worst case was a body with a sheet over it, something she couldn’t even contemplate.
To keep herself from going crazy, she thought about the birth, about that moment when both her and Z’s lives had changed forever. Like a lot of dramatic things, the big event had been anticipated, but when it arrived had nonetheless been a shock. She’d been in her ninth month out of the usual eighteen and it had been a Monday night.
Helluva way to start the workweek.
She’d had a craving for chili, and Fritz had indulged her, whipping up a batch that was spicy as a blowtorch. When the beloved butler had brought the steaming bowl to her, though, she’d abruptly been unable to stomach the smell or the sight of it. Nauseous and sweaty, she’d gone to take a cool shower, and as she’d lumbered into the bathroom, she’d wondered how in the hell she could fit another seven months of the young getting larger in her belly.
Nalla, evidently, had taken the random thought to heart. For the first time in weeks she moved strongly—and, with a sharp kick, broke her water.
Bella had lifted her robe and looked down at the wetness, wondering for a moment whether she’d lost control of her bladder. Then light had dawned. Although she’d followed Doc Jane’s advice and avoided reading the vampire version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, she had enough background to know that once your water breaks, the bus has left the station.
Ten minutes later she’d been flat on this gurney, with Doc Jane moving quickly, but thoroughly, through an exam. The conclusion was that Bella’s body didn’t seem ready to get with the program, but Nalla had to be taken out. Pitocin, which was used frequently to induce labor in human women, was administered, and shortly thereafter Bella learned that there was a difference between pain and labor.
Pain got your attention. Labor got all your attention.
Zsadist had been out in the field, and when he’d arrived he was so frantic that what little hair was left from his skull trim was standing straight up. As soon as he got through the door, he’d ditched his weapons, the pile growing to the size of a love seat, and rushed to stand at her side.
She’d never seen him so scared. Not even when he woke up from his dreams of that sadistic Mistress he’d had. His eyes had been black, not from anger but from fear, and his lips drawn so tightly they were a pair of white slashes.
Having him there had helped her get through the pain. And she’d needed him. Doc Jane had advised against an epidural, as vampires could experience alarming decreases in blood pressure with them. So there had been no buffering at all.
And no time to move her to Havers’s clinic. Once the Pitocin had fired up her body, the labor had progressed too fast for her to be taken anywhere—although it wouldn’t have mattered because dawn was near. Which meant there was no way to get the race’s physician to the training center, either.
Bella came back to the present, smoothing her hand over the thin pillow that rested on the gurney. She could remember holding on to Z’s hand hard enough to break his bones as she’d strained until her teeth hurt and she felt as if she were getting ripped in half.
And then her vitals had crashed.
She wheeled around. Wrath was in the PT room’s doorway, the king’s huge body filling the jambs. With his hip-length black hair and his wraparound sunglasses and his black leathers, he seemed in his silent arrival like a modern-day version of the Grim Reaper.
“Oh, please, no,” she said, gripping onto the gurney. “Please—”
“No, it’s okay. He’s okay.” Wrath came forward and took her arm, holding her up. “He’s been stabilized.”
“He has a compound fracture of his lower leg and it’s caused some bleeding.”
Some being massive, no doubt. “Where is he?”
“He’s coming home from Havers’s right now. I figured you’d be worried, so I wanted to let you know.”
“Thank you. Thank you …” Even with the problems they’d been having lately, the idea of losing her hellren was catastrophic.
“Whoa, easy, there.” The king wrapped her in his huge arms and held her gently. “Let the shakes go through you. You’ll breathe more that way, believe it or not.”
She did as he suggested, loosening the rigid control she’d clamped onto her muscles. Her body shimmied from shoulder to calf and she relied on the king’s strength to keep standing. He was right, though. Even as she trembled, she was able to take a deep breath or two.
When she’d become more stable, she pulled back. As she caught sight of the gurney she frowned and had to start walking around again.
“Wrath, may I ask you something?”
She had to pace a little more before she could frame the question properly. “If Beth had a baby, would you love the child as much as you love her?”
The king looked surprised. “Ah …”
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s none of my business—”
“No, it’s not that. I’m trying to figure out the answer.” He reached up and lifted the sunglasses from his brilliant, pale green eyes. Though they were unfocused, his stare nonetheless was utterly arresting. “Here’s the thing … and I believe this is true for all bonded males. Your shellan is the beating heart in your chest. More than that, even. She’s your body and your skin and your mind … everything you ever were and ever will be. So a male can never feel more for anyone than he does his mate. It’s just not possible—and I think there’s some evolution at work. The deeper you love, the more you protect, and keeping your female alive at all costs means she can care for whatever young she has. That being said, of course you love your children. I think of Darius with Beth … I mean, he was desperate for her to be safe. And Tohr with John … and … yeah, I mean, you feel deeply for them, sure.”
It was logical, but not much of a relief, considering Zsadist wouldn’t even pick Nalla up—
The double doors of the PT room bounced open as Z was wheeled in. He was dressed in a hospital johnny, probably because his clothes had had to be cut off him at Havers’s clinic, and there was no color in his face at all. Both his hands were bandaged, and there was a cast on his lower leg.
He was out cold.
She rushed to his side and took his hand. “Zsadist? Zsadist?”
Sometimes IVs and pills weren’t always the best course of treatment for the injured. Sometimes all you needed was the touch of the one you loved and the sound of their voice and the knowledge that you were home, and that was enough to drag you back from the brink.
Z opened his eyes. The sapphire blue stare he met brought a tangle of tears to his lashes. Bella was leaning over him, her thick mahogany hair trailing off one shoulder, her classically boned face drawn in lines of worry.
“Hi,” he said, because it was the best he could do.
He’d refused any pain meds at the clinic, because the sluggish effect they had always reminded him of the way he’d been drugged at the hands of the Mistress—so he’d been fully conscious as his leg had been opened up and pinned back to-gether by Doc Jane. Well, he’d been with it for part of the time, at any rate. He’d passed out for a while. Upshot was, he felt like death. No doubt looked like it, as well. And there was just too much to say.
“Hi.” Bella smoothed her hand over his skull trim. “Hi…”
“Hi…” Before he broke down and made an ass of himself, he glanced around her to see who else was in the PT suite. Wrath was talking to Rhage in the corner next to the whirlpool bath, and Qhuinn, John, and Blay were standing in front of the banks of steel-and-glass cabinetry.
Witnesses. Shit. He needed to pull it together.
As he blinked hard, the details of the room came into clear focus, and he thought of the last time he’d been in it.
“Shhh …” Bella murmured, clearly mistaking the reason for his wince. “Just close your eyes and relax.”
He did as he was told, because he was back on the brink, and not because of how badly his leg and his hands were hurting.
God, that night when Nalla had been born … when he’d nearly lost his shellan …
Z squeezed his lids shut, not wanting to relive the past … or look too closely at the present. He was in danger of losing Bella. Again.
“I love you …” he whispered. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m right here.”
Yeah, but for how long.
The panic he felt now took him back to the night of the birth … he’d been out in the field with Vishous, investigating a civilian abduction downtown. When the call had come from Doc Jane, he’d dumped V like a bad habit and dematerialized to the mansion’s courtyard, plowing through the foyer and into the tunnel. Everyone, shellans and doggens and Wrath alike, had gotten the hell out of his way to avoid becoming bowling pins.
Down in the training center, in this very room, he’d found Bella stretched out on the gurney he now lay upon. He’d come in right in the middle of a contraction and had had to watch as Bella’s body became locked into place as if a giant hand were crushing her around the middle. When the pain eased off she’d taken a deep inhale, then looked at him and offered him a weak smile. As she reached out for him, he’d peeled his weapons off, dropping them on the linoleum.
“Hands,” Doc Jane barked. “You wash your hands before you come over here.”
He’d nodded and gone directly to the deep bucket sinks with the foot pedals. He’d worked a lather all the way up his arms until his skin glowed Barbie pink then he’d dried with a blue surgical cloth and rushed to Bella’s side.
Their palms had just made contact when the next contraction came roaring through. Bella had squeezed his hand until it was crushed in her grip, but he didn’t care. Holding her stare as she’d strained, he would have done anything to take the pain from her … and at that moment he would have cheerfully cut his own balls off. He couldn’t believe he’d put her through that kind of suffering.
It got worse. The labor was like a locomotive gathering speed, and its tracks were all over Bella’s body. Harder, longer, faster. Harder, longer, faster. He didn’t know how she could stand it. And then she couldn’t.
She’d crashed, all her vital signs dropping—heart rate, blood pressure, every-thing going into the shitter. He’d known how serious it was by how fast Doc Jane had moved. He remembered the drugs going into the IV, and Vishous coming forward with … shit, surgical tools and a fetal incubator.
Doc Jane snapped on a fresh pair of latex gloves, looking first at Bella, then at him. “We’re going to have to go in and get the baby, okay? She’s in distress as well.”
Nodding. He’d done some nodding at that point on both his and Bella’s parts. The Betadine had been a rusty orange as V had rubbed it all over Bella’s swollen abdomen.
“Is she going to be okay?” Bella mumbled desperately. “Is our young going to be—”
Doc Jane had leaned down. “Look at me.”
The two females had locked eyes. “I’m going to do everything I can to get both of you through this. I want you to calm yourself, that’s your job. Calm your-self and let me do what I’m best at it. Deep breath now.”
Zsadist had taken one along with his shellan … and then he’d watched as Bella’s eyelids suddenly flared and her stare focused on the ceiling with an odd fixation. Before he could ask her what she was looking at, she’d closed her eyes.
He’d had a moment of terror that he would never see them open again.
Then she’d said, “Just make sure the young is okay.”
He’d gone cold at that point, utterly cold, because it was clear Bella didn’t think she was coming out of it alive. And the only thing she cared about was the young.
“Please stay with me,” he’d groaned as the incision was made.
Bella hadn’t heard him. She’d drifted away from consciousness, sure as if she were on a boat that had left its mooring and floated off over calm waters.
Nalla had been born at six twenty-four a.m.
“Is it alive?” he’d asked.
Though it shamed him to admit it now, the only reason he’d wanted to know was because God forbid Bella had to come around and learn that her daughter had been stillborn.
While Doc Jane stitched up Bella, Vishous had worked fast with a suction balloon over the young’s mouth and nose, then he’d fired up a tiny IV and done something with the hands and feet. Fast. He’d been as fast as his shellan at that point.
“Is she alive?“
His eyes popped open and he came back to the present.
“Do you need more painkillers?” Bella asked. “You look as if you’re in agony.”
“I can’t believe she lived. She was so small.”
As the words came out of Zsadist’s mouth, Bella was confused, but only for a split second. The birth … he was thinking about the birth.
She stroked the fine, short hair on his head, trying to ease him in some small way. “Yes … yes, she was.”
His yellow eyes shifted to the other folks in the room and his voice got quiet.
“Can I be honest?”
Oh, shit, she thought. “Yes, please.”
“The only reason I cared whether she was alive was because I didn’t want you to be told she wasn’t. She was the only thing you were worried about … and I couldn’t bear for you to lose her.”
Bella frowned. “You mean at the end?”
“Yes … you said you just wanted to make sure she was okay. Those were your last words.”
Bella reached out and put her palm on his cheek. “I thought I was dying and I didn’t want you to be left all alone. I … I saw the light of the Fade. It was all around me, bathing me. I was worried about you … about what would happen if I weren’t living.”
His face blanched even further, proving that there was a color paler than white on the spectrum. “I thought that’s what had been happening. Oh … God, I can’t believe how close it was.”
Doc Jane came up to the gurney. “Sorry to interrupt. I just want to do a quick check on his vitals?”
As Bella watched the doctor make fast work of the examination, she thought of the way those ghostly hands had helped her daughter come into the world.
“Good,” Doc Jane said, linking her stethoscope around her neck. “This is good. He’s stabilized and should be able to get up and move around in another hour or so.”
“Thank you,” Bella murmured as Z did the same.
“My pleasure. Believe me. Now, how about the rest of us take off and let you two have some time alone.”