“Utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic....The Brotherhood is the hottest collection of studs in romance. I can’t wait for the next one!”—New York Times bestseller Angela Knight
Lover At Last: A Novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhoodby J. R. Ward
The eleventh novel in the stunning #1 New York Times bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood seriesthe hotly anticipated story that finally unites Blay and Qhuinn...forever.See more details below
The eleventh novel in the stunning #1 New York Times bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood seriesthe hotly anticipated story that finally unites Blay and Qhuinn...forever.
“Utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic....The Brotherhood is the hottest collection of studs in romance. I can’t wait for the next one!”—New York Times bestseller Angela Knight
Read an Excerpt
LOVER AT LAST
BY J. R. WARD
THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD SERIES
The Black Dagger Brotherhood:
An Insider’s Guide
Lover at Last
NOVELS OF THE FALLEN ANGELS
LOVER AT LAST
With immense gratitude to the readers of the Black Dagger Brotherhood and a shout-out to the Cellies!
Thank you so very much for all the support and guidance: Steven Axelrod, Kara Welsh, Claire Zion, and Leslie Gelbman. Thank you also to everyone at New American Library—these books are truly a team effort.
Thank you to all our Mods for everything you do out of the goodness of your hearts!
With love to Team Waud—you know who you are. This simply could not happen without you.
None of this would be possible without: my loving husband, who is my adviser and caretaker and visionary; my wonderful mother, who has given me so much love I couldn’t possibly ever repay her; my family (both those of blood and those by adoption); and my dearest friends.
Oh, and the better half of WriterDog, of course.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS AND PROPER NOUNS
ahstrux nohtrum (n.) Private guard with license to kill who is granted his or her position by the king.
ahvenge (v.) Act of mortal retribution, carried out typically by a male loved one.
Black Dagger Brotherhood (pr. n.) Highly trained vampire warriors who protect their species against the Lessening Society. As a result of selective breeding within the race, Brothers possess immense physical and mental strength, as well as rapid healing capabilities. They are not siblings for the most part, and are inducted into the Brotherhood upon nomination by the Brothers. Aggressive, self-reliant, and secretive by nature, they exist apart from civilians, having little contact with members of the other classes except when they need to feed. They are the subjects of legend and objects of reverence within the vampire world. They may be killed only by the most serious of wounds, e.g., a gunshot or stab to the heart, etc.
blood slave (n.) Male or female vampire who has been subjugated to serve the blood needs of another. The practice of keeping blood slaves has recently been outlawed.
the Chosen (n.) Female vampires who have been bred to serve the Scribe Virgin. They are considered members of the aristocracy, though they are spiritually rather than temporally focused. They have little or no interaction with males, but can be mated to Brothers at the Scribe Virgin’s direction to propagate their class. Some have the ability to prognosticate. In the past, they were used to meet the blood needs of unmated members of the Brotherhood, and that practice has been reinstated by the Brothers.
chrih (n.) Symbol of honorable death in the Old Language.
cohntehst (n.) Conflict between two males competing for the right to be a female’s mate.
Dhunhd (pr. n.) Hell.
doggen (n.) Member of the servant class within the vampire world. Doggen have old, conservative traditions about service to their superiors, following a formal code of dress and behavior. They are able to go out during the day, but they age relatively quickly. Life expectancy is approximately five hundred years.
ehros (pr. n.) A Chosen trained in the matter of sexual arts.
exhile dhoble (pr. n.) The evil or cursed twin, the one born second.
the Fade (pr. n.) Nontemporal realm where the dead reunite with their loved ones and pass eternity.
First Family (pr. n.) The king and queen of the vampires, and any children they may have.
ghardian (n.) Custodian of an individual. There are varying degrees of ghardians, with the most powerful being that of a sehcluded female.
glymera (n.) The social core of the aristocracy, roughly equivalent to Regency England’s ton.
hellren (n.) Male vampire who has been mated to a female. Males may take more than one female as mate.
hyslop (n or v): A term referring to a lapse in judgment, typically resulting in the compromise of the mechanical operations or rightful possession of a vehicle or other motorized conveyance of some kind. For example, leaving one’s keys in one’s car as it is parked outside the family home overnight, said oversight resulting in felonious joyrides by unknown third parties, is a hyslop.
leahdyre (n.) A person of power and influence.
leelan (adj.) A term of endearment loosely translated as “dearest one.”
Lessening Society (pr. n.) Order of slayers convened by the Omega for the purpose of eradicating the vampire species.
lesser (n.) De-souled human who targets vampires for extermination as a member of the Lessening Society. Lessers must be stabbed through the chest in order to be killed; otherwise they are ageless. They do not eat or drink and are impotent. Over time, their hair, skin, and irises lose pigmentation until they are blond, blushless, and pale eyed. They smell like baby powder. Inducted into the society by the Omega, they retain a ceramic jar thereafter into which their heart was placed after it was removed.
lewlhen (n.) Gift.
lheage (n.) A term of respect used by a sexual submissive to refer to her dominant.
Lhenihan (n.) A mythic beast renowned for its sexual prowess. In modern slang, refers to a male of preternatural size and sexual stamina.
lys (n.) Torture tool used to remove the eyes.
mahmen (n.) Mother. Used both as an identifier and a term of affection.
mhis (n.) The masking of a given physical environment; the creation of a field of illusion.
nalla (n., f.) or nallum (n., m.) Beloved.
needing period (n.) Female vampire’s time of fertility, generally lasting for two days and accompanied by intense sexual cravings. Occurs approximately five years after a female’s transition and then once a decade thereafter. All males respond to some degree if they are around a female in her need. It can be a dangerous time, with conflicts and fights breaking out between competing males, particularly if the female is not mated.
newling (n.) A virgin.
the Omega (pr. n.) Malevolent, mystical figure who has targeted the vampires for extinction out of resentment directed toward the Scribe Virgin. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers, though not the power of creation.
phearsom (adj.) Term referring to the potency of a male’s sexual organs. Literal translation something close to “worthy of entering a female.”
princeps (n.) Highest level of the vampire aristocracy, second only to members of the First Family or the Scribe Virgin’s Chosen. Must be born to the title; it may not be conferred.
pyrocant (n.) Refers to a critical weakness in an individual. The weakness can be internal, such as an addiction, or external, such as a lover.
rahlman (n.) Savior.
rythe (n.) Ritual manner of assuaging honor granted by one who has offended another. If accepted, the offended chooses a weapon and strikes the offender, who presents him- or herself without defenses.
the Scribe Virgin (pr. n.) Mystical force who is counselor to the king as well as the keeper of vampire archives and the dispenser of privileges. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers. Capable of a single act of creation, which she expended to bring the vampires into existence.
sehclusion (n.) Status conferred by the king upon a female of the aristocracy as a result of a petition by the female’s family. Places the female under the sole direction of her ghardian, typically the eldest male in her household. Her ghardian then has the legal right to determine all aspects of her life, restricting at will any and all interactions she has with the world.
shellan (n.) Female vampire who has been mated to a male. Females generally do not take more than one mate due to the highly territorial nature of bonded males.
symphath (n.) Subspecies within the vampire race characterized by the ability and desire to manipulate emotions in others (for the purposes of an energy exchange), among other traits. Historically, they have been discriminated against and, during certain eras, hunted by vampires. They are near extinction.
the Tomb (pr. n.) Sacred vault of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Used as a ceremonial site as well as a storage facility for the jars of lessers. Ceremonies performed there include inductions, funerals, and disciplinary actions against Brothers. No one may enter except for members of the Brotherhood, the Scribe Virgin, or candidates for induction.
trahyner (n.) Word used between males of mutual respect and affection. Translated loosely as “beloved friend.”
transition (n.) Critical moment in a vampire’s life when he or she transforms into an adult. Thereafter, he or she must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive and is unable to withstand sunlight. Occurs generally in the mid-twenties. Some vampires do not survive their transitions, males in particular. Prior to their transitions, vampires are physically weak, sexually unaware and unresponsive, and unable to dematerialize.
vampire (n.) Member of a species separate from that of Homo sapiens. Vampires must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive. Human blood will keep them alive, though the strength it gives does not last long. Following their transitions, which occur in their mid-twenties, they are unable to go out into sunlight and must feed from the vein regularly. Vampires cannot “convert” humans through a bite or transfer of blood, though they are in rare cases able to breed with the other species. Vampires can dematerialize at will, though they must be able to calm themselves and concentrate to do so and may not carry anything heavy with them. They are able to strip the memories of humans, provided such memories are short-term. Some vampires are able to read minds. Life expectancy is upward of a thousand years, or in some cases even longer.
wahlker (n.) An individual who has died and returned to the living from the Fade. They are accorded great respect and are revered for their travails.
whard (n.) Equivalent of a godfather or godmother to an individual.
Table of Contents
Qhuinn, son of Lohstrong, entered his family’s home through its grand front door. The instant he stepped over the threshold, the smell of the place curled up into his nose. Lemon polish. Beeswax candles. Fresh flowers from the garden that the doggen brought in daily. Perfume—his mother’s. Cologne—his father’s and his brother’s. Cinnamon gum—his sister’s.
If the Glade company ever did an air freshener like this, it would be called something like Meadow of Old Money. Or Sunrise over a Fat Bank Account.
Or maybe the ever-popular We’re Just Better Than Everyone Else.
Distant voices drifted over from the dining room, the vowels round as brilliant-cut diamonds, the consonants drawled out smooth and long as satin ribbons.
“Oh, Lillie, this is lovely, thank you,” his mother said to the server. “But that’s too much for me. And do not give Solange so all that. She’s getting heavy.”
Ah, yes, his mother’s perma-diet inflicted on the next generation: Glymera females were supposed to disappear from sight when they turned sideways, each jutting collarbone, sunken cheek, and bony upper arm some kind of fucked-up badge of honor.
As if resembling like a fire poker would make you a better person.
And Scribe Virgin forefend if your daughter looked like she was healthy.
“Ah, yes, thank you, Lilith,” his father said evenly. “More for me, please.”
Qhuinn closed his eyes and tried to convince his body to step forward. One foot after another. It was not that tough.
His brandy-new Ed Hardy kicks middle-fingered that suggestion. Then again, in so many ways, walking into that dining room was belly-of-the-beast time.
He let his duffel fall to the floor. The couple of days at his best friend Blay’s house had done him good, a break from the complete lack of air in this house. Unfortunately, the burn on reentry was so bad, the cost-benefit of leaving was nearly equal.
Okay, this was ridiculous. He couldn’t keep standing here like an inanimate object.
Turning to the side wall, he leaned into the full-length antique mirror that was placed right by the door. So thoughtful. So in keeping with the aristocracy’s need to look good. This way, visitors could check their hair and clothes as the butler accepted coats and hats.
The young pretrans face that stared back at him was all even features, good jawline, and a mouth that, he had to admit, looked like it could do some serious damage to naked skin when he got older. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Hair was Vlad the Impaler, spikes standing up straight from his head. Neck was strung with a bike chain—and not one bought at Urban Outfitters, but the link that had previously motivated his twelve-speed.
All things being equal, he looked like a thief who had broken in and was prepared to trash the place on the hunt for sterling silver, jewelry, and portable electronics.
The irony was that the Goth bullcrap wasn’t actually the most offensive part of his appearance to his fam. In fact, he could have stripped down, hung a light fixture off his ass, and run around the first floor playing Jose Canseco with the art and antiques and not come close to how much the real problem pissed off his parents.
It was his eyes.
One blue. One green.
Oopsy. His bad.
The glymera didn’t like defects. Not in their porcelain or their rose gardens. Not in their wallpaper or their carpets or their countertops. Not in the silk of their underwear or the wool of their blazers or the chiffon of their gowns.
And certainly not ever in their children.
Sister was okay—well, except for the “little weight problem” that didn’t actually exist, and a lisp that her transition hadn’t cured —oh, and the fact that she had the personality of their mother. And there was no fixing that shit. Brother, on the other hand, was the real fucking star, a physically perfect, firstborn son prepared to carry forth the family bloodline by reproducing in a very genteel, non-moaning, no-sweat situation with a female chosen for him by the family.
Hell, his sperm recipient had already been lined up. He was going to mate her as soon as he went through his transition—
“How are you feeling, my son?” his father asked with hesitation.
“Tired, sir,” a deep voice answered. “But this is going to help.”
A chill frog-marched up Qhuinn’s spine. That didn’t sound like his brother. Way too much bass. Far too masculine. Too…
Holy shit, the guy had gone through his transition.
Now Qhuinn’s Ed Hardys got with the program, taking him forward until he could see into the dining room. Father was in his seat at the head of the table. Check. Mother was in her seat at the foot of the table opposite the kitchen’s flap door. Check. Sister was facing out of the room, all but licking the gold rim off her plate from hunger. Check.
The male whose back was to Qhuinn was not part of the SOP.
Luchas was twice the size he’d been when Qhuinn had been approached by a doggen and told to get his things and go to Blay’s.
Well, that explained the vacay. He’d assumed his father had finally relented and given in to the request Qhuinn had filed weeks before. But nope, the guy had just wanted Qhuinn out of the house because the change had come to the gene pool’s golden child.
Had his brother laid the chick? Who had they used for blood—
His father, never the demonstrative type, reached out a hand and gave Luchas an awkward pat on the forearm. “We’re so proud of you. You look…perfect.”
“You do,” Qhuinn’s mother piped up. “Just perfect. Doesn’t your brother look perfect, Solange?”
“Yes, he does. Perfect.”
“And I have something for you,” Lohstrong said.
The male reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat and took out a black velvet box the size of a baseball.
Qhuinn’s mother started to tear up and dabbed under her eyes.
“This is for you, my precious son.”
The box was slid across the white damask tablecloth, and his brother’s now-big hands shook as he took the thing and popped the lid.
Qhuinn caught the flash of gold all the way out in the foyer.
As everyone at the table went silent, his brother stared at the signet ring, clearly overwhelmed, as their mother kept up with the dab-dab, and even their father grew misty. And his sister sneaked a roll from the bread basket.
“Thank you, sir,” Luchas said as he put the heavy gold ring on his forefinger.
“It fits, does it not?” Lohstrong asked.
“Yes, sir. Perfectly.”
“We wear the same size, then.”
Of course they did.
At that moment, their father glanced away, like he was hoping the movement of his eyeballs would take care of the sheen of tears that had come over his vision.
He caught Qhuinn lurking outside the dining room.
There was a brief flash of recognition. Not the hi-how’re-ya kind, or the oh-good-my-other-son’s-home. More like when you were walking through the grass and noticed a pile of dog shit too late to stop your foot from landing in it.
The male went back to staring at his family, locking Qhuinn out.
Clearly, the last thing Lohstrong wanted was such a historic moment to be ruined—and that was probably why he didn’t do the hand signals that warded off the evil eye. Usually everyone in the household performed the ritual when they saw Qhuinn. Not tonight. Daddio didn’t want the others to know.
Qhuinn went over to his duffel. Slinging the weight onto his shoulder, he took the front stairs to his room. Usually his mother preferred him to use the servants’ set, but that would mean he’d have to cut through all the love in there.
His room was as far away from the others’ as you could get, all the way over to the right. He’d often wondered why they didn’t take the leap completely and put him in with the doggen—but then the staff would probably quit.
Closing himself in, he dumped his duds on the bare floor and sat on his bed. Staring at his only piece of luggage, he figured he had better do that laundry soon, as there was a wet bathing suit in there.
The maids refused to touch his clothes—like the evil in him lingered in the fibers of his jeans and his T-shirts. The upside was, he was never welcome at formal events, so his wardrobe was just wash-’n’-wear, baby—
He discovered he was crying when he looked down at his Ed Hardys and realized that there were a couple of drops of water right in the middle of the laces.
Qhuinn was never getting a ring.
Ah, hell…this hurt.
He was scrubbing his face with his palms when his phone rang. Taking the thing out of his biker jacket, he had to blink a couple of times to focus.
He hit send to accept the call, but he didn’t answer.
“I just heard,” Blay said across the connection. “How are you doing?”
Qhuinn opened his mouth to reply, his brain coughing up all kinds of responses: “Peachy fucking jim-dandy.” “At least I’m not ‘fat’ like my sister.” “No, I don’t know if my brother got laid.”
Instead, he said, “They got me out of the house. They didn’t want me to curse the transition. Guess it worked, because the guy looks like he came through it okay.”
Blay swore softly.
“Oh, and he got his ring just now. My father gave him…his ring.”
The signet ring with the family crest on it, the symbol that all males of good bloodlines wore to attest to the value of their lineage.
“I watched Luchas put it on his finger,” Qhuinn said, feeling as if he were taking a sharp knife and drawing it up the insides of his arms. “Fit perfectly. Looked great. You know, though…like, how could it not—”
He began weeping at that point.
Just fucking lost it.
The awful truth was that under his counterculture fuck-you, he wanted his family to love him. As prissy as his sister was, as scholar-geek as his brother was, as reserved as his parents were, he saw the love among the four of them. He felt the love among them. It was the tie that bound those individuals together, the invisible string from one heart to the another, the commitment of caring about everything from the mundane shit to any true, mortal drama. And the only thing more powerful than that connection…was what it was like to get shut out from it.
Every fucking day of your life.
Blay’s voice cut in through the heaving. “I’m here for you. And I’m so damned sorry….I’m here for you….Just don’t do anything stupid, okay? Let me come over—”
Leave it to Blay to know that he was thinking about things that involved ropes and showerheads.
In fact, his free hand had already gone down to the makeshift belt he’d fashioned out of a nice, strong weave of nylon—because his parents didn’t give him much money for clothes, and the proper one he’d owned had broken years ago.
Pulling the length free, he glanced across to the closed door of his bath. All he needed to do was tie the thing to the fixture in his shower—God knew those water pipes had been run in the good old days, when things were strong enough to hold some weight. He even had a chair he could stand up on and then kick out from underneath him.
“I gotta go—”
“Qhuinn? Don’t you hang up on me—don’t you dare hang up on me—”
“Listen, man, I gotta go—”
“I’m coming over right now.” Lot of flapping in the background, like Blay was getting his clothes on. “Qhuinn! Do not hang up the phone—Qhuinn…!”
“Now, that a muthafuckn’ whip rite chur.”
Jonsey looked over at the idiot who was hunkered down next to him in the bus stop. The pair of them had been parked in the Plexiglas gerbil cage for three hours. At least. Although comments like that had made it seem a matter of days.
And were going to make shit justifiable homicide.
“You a white boy, you know that?” Jonsey pointed out.
Okay, make that three years of waiting. “Caucasian, dude. As in you need fuckin’ sunblock in the summer. As in not like m’self—”
“Whatever, man, check out that ride—”
“As in why you gotta talk like you from the ’hood? You act a fool, yo.”
At this point, he just wanted to get the night over. It was cold, it was snowing, and he had to wonder who he’d pissed off to get stuck with Vanilla Ice over here.
Matter of fact, he was thinking about pulling out of this bullshit altogether. He was making good paper dealing in Caldwell; he was two months out of prison for those murders he’d done as a juvie; the last thing he was interested in was hanging with some white bitch determined to get street cred through vocabulary.
Oh, and then there was the Richie Rich neighborhood they were in. For all he knew, there was an ordinance out here that you weren’t allowed on the streets after ten p.m.
Why the hell had he agreed to this?
“Will. You. Please. Look. At. That. Fine. Automobile.”
Just to shut the guy up, Jonsey turned his head and leaned out of the shelter. As blowing snow got into his eyes, he cursed. Fucking upstate New York in the winter. Cold enough to ice-cube your balls—
Across a shallow parking lot, sitting right in front of a sparkling-clean, no-graffiti’d, twenty-four-hour CVS, there was, in fact, a sweet-ass fucking whip. The Hummer was totally blacked out, no chrome anywhere—not on the wheels, not around the windows, not even on the grille. And it was the big-body—and, going by all that trim, no doubt had the big engine in it.
The ride was the kind of thing you’d see on the streets where he was from, the vehicle of a major dealer. Except they were far from the inner city out here, so it was just some cracker trying to look like he had a dick.
Vanilla-man hiked up his backpack, one-strapping it. “I’ma check it out.”
“Bus is coming soon.” Jonsey checked his watch, and did some wishful thinking. “Five, maybe ten minutes.”
“You scared or some shit?” The SOB lifted his hands and started going Paranormal Activity. “Oh, scurrrrrry—”
Jonsey outted his gun and punched the muzzle right into that dumb-ass face. “I got no problem killin’ you right here. I done it before. I do it again. Now back the fuck off and do y’self a favor. Shut the fuck up.”
As Jonsey met the guy’s eyes, he didn’t particularly care what the outcome was. Shoot the bitch. Don’t shoot him. Whatever.
“Okay, okay, okay.” Mr. Chatty backed away and left the bus stop.
Jonesy put his gat away, crossed his arms, and stared in the direction the bus was going to come out of—like that might help.
Stupid fucking idiot.
He looked at his watch again. Man, enough with this shit. If a bus heading back into downtown got here first, he was just going to get on and fuck it all.
Shifting the backpack he’d been told to get, he felt the hard contour of the jar inside. The pack he understood. If he was going to transport product from the sticks into the ’hood, then yeah. But the jar? What the hell you need that for?
Unless it was loose powder?
The fact that he’d been chosen by C-Rider, the man himself, for this had been pretty fucking cool. Until he’d met White Boy—and then the idea he was special lost some juice. The boss man’s instructions had been clear: Hook up with the dude at the Fourth Street stop. Take the last bus out to the ’burbs and wait. Transfer to the rural line when service resumed near dawn. Get off at the Warren County stop. Hoof it one mile to a farm property.
C-Rider would meet them and a bunch of other dudes out there for the business. And after that? Jonsey would be part of a new crew set to dominate the scene in Caldie.
He liked that shit. And full respect to C-Rider—that motherfucker was tight: high up in the ’hood; strung.
But if the rest of them were like Vanilla—
The roar of an engine made him assume something, anything from the Caldwell Transit Authority had finally shown, and he got to his feet—
“No fuckin’ way,” he breathed.
The blacked-out Hummer had pulled up right in front of the bus stop, and as the window went down, White Boy was full-on insane-in-the-membrane behind the wheel—and not just because Cypress Hill was, in fact, blaring.
“Get in! Come on! Get in!”
“What the fuck you do, yo?” Jonsey stuttered, even as he shot around behind the SUV and jumped into the passenger seat.
Holy motherfucking shit—bitch ass was not a total fool, not pulling off something like this.
The guy floored the accelerator, the engine roared, and the teeth of the tires grabbed onto the snowpack and shot them forward at fifty miles an hour.
Jonsey held on to whatever he found as they went gunning through a red-light intersection and then rode up over the curb and across the parking lot of a Hannaford. As they shot out on the far side, the music buried the beeping sound that was going off because no one had put their seat belts on.
Jonsey started grinning. “Fuckin’ yes, motherfucker! You crazy bitch, you fucking crazy ass snowflake…!”
“I think that’s Justin Bieber.”
Standing in front of a lineup of Lay’s potato chips, Qhuinn looked overhead to the speaker inset into the ceiling tiles. “Yup. I’m right, and I hate that I know that.”
Next to him, John Matthew signed, How do you know?
“The little shit is everywhere.” To prove the point, he motioned to a greeting card display featuring Short, Cocky, and Fifteen-Minutes-Are-Up. “I swear, that kid is proof the Antichrist is coming.”
Maybe it’s already here.
“Would explain Miley Cyrus.”
As John went back to contemplating his finger food of choice, Qhuinn double-checked the store. Four a.m. and the CVS was fully stocked and completely empty—except for the two of them and the guy up at the front counter, who was reading a National Enquirer and eating a Snickers bar.
No lessers. No Band of Bastards.
Nothing to shoot.
Unless that Bieber display counted.
What are you going to have? John signed.
Qhuinn shrugged and kept looking around. As John’s ahstrux nohtrum, he was responsible for making sure the guy came back to the Brotherhood’s mansion every night in one piece, and after well over a year, so far, so good….
God, he missed Blay.
Shaking his head, he randomly reached forward. When his arm came back at him, he’d snagged some sour cream and onion.
Looking at the Lay’s logo, and the close-up of a single chip, all he could think of was the way he and John and Blay used to hang out at Blay’s parents’ house, playing Xbox, drinking beers, dreaming of bigger and better posttrans lives.
Unfortunately, bigger and better had turned out to be only the size and strength of their bodies. Although maybe that was just his POV. John was, after all, happily mated. And Blay was with…
Shit, he couldn’t even say his cousin’s name in his head.
“You good, J-man?” he asked roughly.
John Matthew snagged a Doritos old-school original and nodded. Let’s get drinks.
As they headed deeper into the store, Qhuinn wished they were downtown, fighting in the alleys, going up against either of their two enemies. Too much downtime on these suburban details, and that meant too much dwelling on—
He cut himself off again.
Whatever. Besides, he hated having any contact with the glymera—and that shit was mutual. Unfortunately, members of the aristocracy were gradually moving back to Caldwell, and that meant Wrath had gotten inundated with calls about so-called slayer sightings.
Like the Omega’s undead didn’t have better things to do than stalk around barren fruit trees and frozen swimming pools.
Still, the king wasn’t in a position to tell the dandies to go F themselves. Not since Xcor and his Band of Bastards had put a bullet in that royal throat.
Traitors. Fuckers. With any luck, Vishous was going to prove without a shadow of a doubt where that rifle shot had come from, and then the bunch of them could gut those soldiers, put their heads on stakes, and light the corpses on fire.
As well as find out exactly who on the Council was colluding with the new enemy.
Yup, user-friendly was the name of the game now—so one night a week, each of the teams ended up here in the neighborhood he’d grown up in, knocking on doors and looking under beds.
In museum-like houses that gave him the creeps more than any dark underpass downtown.
A tap on his forearm brought his head around. “Yeah?”
I was going to ask you the same thing.
You stopped here. And have just been staring at…well, you know.
Qhuinn frowned and glanced at the product display. Then lost all train of thought—as well as most of the blood from his head. “Oh, yeah…ah…” Shit, had someone turned up the heat? “Um.”
Baby bottles. Baby formula. Baby bibs and wet naps and Q-tips. Pacifiers. Bottles. Some kind of contraption—
Oh, God, a breast pump.
Qhuinn did a one-eighty so fast, he got faced by a six-foot-high stack of Pampers, bounced back into the land of NUKs, and finally ricocheted out of infant airspace thanks to an A+D rebound. What ever the hell that shit was.
Baby. Baby. Baby—
Oh, good. He’d made it up to the checkout counter.
Shoving a hand into his biker jacket, Qhuinn pulled his wallet free and reached behind for John’s finger food. “Gimme your stuff.”
As the guy started to argue, mouthing the words because his hands were full, Qhuinn snagged the Mountain Dew and Doritos that were clogging up communication.
“There ya go. While he’s ringing us up, you can yell at me properly.”
And what do you know, John’s hands flew through the positions of ASL in various I-got-this combinations.
“Is he deaf?” the guy behind the cash register asked in a stage whisper. As if someone using American Sign Language was some kind of freak.
As the man kept staring, Qhuinn wanted to pop him. “You going to help us out here or what?”
“Oh…yeah. Hey, you got a tattoo on your face.” Mr. Observant moved slowly, like the bar codes on those bags were creating some kind of wind resistance under his laser reader. “Did you know that?”
Really. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Are you blind, too?”
No filter on this guy. None. “Yeah, I am.”
“Oh, so that’s why your eyes are all weird.”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Qhuinn took out a twenty and didn’t wait for change—murder was just a liiiiiittle too tempting. Nodding to John, who was also measuring the dear boy for a shroud, Qhuinn went to walk off.
“What about your change?” the man called out.
“I’m deaf, too. I can’t hear you.”
The guy yelled more loudly, “I’ll just keep it then, yeah?”
“Sounds good,” Qhuinn shouted over his shoulder.
Idiot was stage-five stupid. Straight up.
Stepping through the security bar, Qhuinn thought it was a miracle that humans like that got through the day and night at all. And the motherfucker had managed to get his pants on right and operate a cash register.
Would miracles never cease.
As he pushed his way outside, the cold slapped him around, the wind blowing at his hair, snowflakes getting in his nose—
Looked left. Looked right.
“What the…where’s my Hummer?”
In his peripheral vision, John’s hands started flying around like he was wondering the same thing. And then the guy pointed down to the freshly fallen snow…and the deep treads of four monster tires that made a fat circle and headed out of the parking lot.
“Goddamn motherfucking shit!” Qhuinn gritted.
And he thought Mr. Observant was the stupid one?
Back at the Brotherhood’s mansion, Blaylock sat on the edge of his bed, his naked body flushed, a sheen of sweat across his chest and shoulders. Between his legs his cock was spent, and his hips were loose from all kinds of bump and grind. At the other end of the spectrum, his breath was squeezed, his flesh requiring just a little more oxygen than his lungs could provide.
So naturally he reached for the pack of Dunhill Reds he kept on his side table.
The sounds of his lover showering in the bath across the way, along with the spicy scent of hand-milled soap, were achingly familiar.
Had it been almost a year now?
Taking out one of the cigarettes, he picked up the vintage Van Cleef & Arpels lighter Sax had given him for his birthday. The thing was made of gold and marked with the firm’s trademark Mystery Set rubies, a 1940s lovely that never failed to please the eye—or do the job.
As the flame jumped up, the shower turned off.
Blay leaned into the lick of fire, inhaled, and flicked the top back down. As always, the slightest hint of lighter fluid lingered, the sweetness mingling with the smoke that he exhaled—
Qhuinn hated smoking.
Had never approved of it.
Which, considering the number of outrageous things the guy made a regular habit out of, seemed downright offensive.
Sex with countless strangers in club bathrooms? Threesomes with males and females? Piercings? Tattoos in various places?
And this guy didn’t “approve” of smoking. Like it was a vile habit no one in his right mind would bother with.
In the bathroom, the hair dryer he and Sax shared went on, and Blay could imagine that blond hair he had just grabbed onto and pulled back hard flowing in the artificial breeze, catching the light, shining with highlights that were natural.
Saxton was beautiful, all smooth skin and sinewy body and perfect taste.
God, the clothes in that wardrobe of his. Amazing. Like the Great Gatsby had jumped out of the pages of the novel, gone down to Fifth Avenue, and bought out whole blocks of haute couture.
Qhuinn was never like that. He wore Hanes T-shirts and fatigues or leathers, and still sported the same biker jacket he’d had from just after his transition. No Ferragamos or Ballys for him; New Rocks with soles the size of truck tires. Hair? Brushed if it was lucky. Cologne? Gunpowder and orgasms.
Hell, in all the years Blay had known the guy—and it had been since birth practically—he’d never seen Qhuinn in a suit.
One had to wonder if the guy knew that tuxedos could be owned, not just rented.
If Saxton was the picture-perfect aristocrat, Qhuinn was a straight-up thug—
“Here. Tap your ashes in this.”
Blay jerked his head up. Saxton was naked, perfectly coiffed and scented with Cool Water—and holding out the heavy Baccarat ashtray he’d bought as a summer solstice gift. It was also from the forties, and weighed as much as a bowling ball.
Blay complied, taking the thing and balancing it in the palm of his hand. “Are you off to work?”
Like that wasn’t obvious?
Saxton turned away and flashed a spectacular ass as he went to the closet. Technically, the guy was supposed to be living next door in one of the vacant guest rooms, but over time his clothes had migrated in here.
He didn’t mind the smoking. Even shared every once in a while after a particularly energetic…exchange, as it were.
“How’s it going?” Blay said on an exhale. “Your secret assignment, that is.”
“Rather well. I’m almost finished.”
“Does that mean you can finally tell me what it’s all been about?”
“You shall find out soon enough.”
As the flapping of a shirt emanated from the walk-in, Blay turned his cigarette around and stared at the glowing tip. Saxton had been working on something top-secret for the king since the fall, and there had been no pillow talk about it—which was probably only one of the many reasons Wrath had made the male his private lawyer. Saxton had all the discretion of a bank vault.
Qhuinn, on the other hand, had never been able to keep a secret. From surprise parties to gossip to embarassing personal details like whether you’d gotten laid together by a cheap whore at—
“I’m sorry, what?”
Saxton emerged, fully dressed in a tweed Ralph Lauren three-piecer. “I said, I’ll see you at Last Meal.”
“Oh. Is it that late?”
“Yes. It is.”
Guess they’d screwed their way through the first place setting of the day—which was how they’d rolled ever since…
God. He couldn’t even think about what had happened a mere week ago. Couldn’t even put into mental words how he felt about the one thing he’d never worried about coming to pass—right in front of his own eyes.
And he’d thought being rejected by Qhuinn was bad?
Watching the guy have a young with a female—
Shoot, he needed to respond to his lover, didn’t he. “Yes, absolutely. I’ll see you then.”
There was a hesitation, and then Saxton came over and pressed a kiss to Blay’s lips. “You’re off rotation tonight?”
Blay nodded, holding the cigarette out of the way so the male’s beautiful clothes didn’t get burned. “I was going to read the New Yorker and maybe start From the Terrace.”
Saxton smiled, clearly appreciating the appeal of both. “How I envy you. After I’m finished, I’m going to take a few nights off and just relax.”
“Maybe we could go somewhere.”
“Maybe we could.”
The tight expression on that lovely face was quick and sad. Because Saxton knew that they weren’t going anywhere.
And not just because a Sandals all-inclusive was so not in their future.
“Be well,” Saxton said, brushing his knuckle down Blay’s cheek.
Blay nuzzled that hand. “You, too.”
A moment later the door opened and shut…and he was alone. Sitting on the messy bed, in the silence that seemed to crush him from all sides, he smoked his cigarette down to the filter, screwed it out in the ashtray, lit another.
Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the sound of Saxton moaning or the sight of the male’s back arching or the feel of skin on skin.
He could not.
And that was the root of the problem, wasn’t it.
“Let me get this straight,” V drawled over the cell phone connection. “You lost your Hummer.”
Qhuinn wanted to put his head through a plate-glass window. “Yeah. I did. So could you please—”
“How do you lose eight thousand pounds of vehicle?”
“That’s not important—”
“Well, actually, it is if you want me to access the GPS and tell you where to find the damn thing—which is why you’re calling, true? Or do you just think confession without detail is good for the soul or some shit.”
Qhuinn gripped his phone hard. “Ileftthekeysinit.”
“I’m sorry? I didn’t catch that.”
Bullshit. “I left the keys in it.”
“That was a dumb-ass move, son.”
No. Fucking. Kidding. “So can you help me—”
“Just e-mailed you the link. One thing—when you recover the vehicle?”
“Check to see if the jackers took a moment to put the seat forward—you know, get comfortable and shit. Because they probably weren’t in a rush, what with having the keys.” The sound of Vishous’s yukking it up was like getting paddled in the nuts with a car fender. “Listen, I gotta go. I need both hands to hold my gut as I laugh my ass off attcha. Later.”
As the call went dead, Qhuinn took a moment to rein in the desire to throw the phone.
Yeah, ’cuz losing that, too, was going to really help the situation.
Going into his Hotmail account, and wondering just how long it was going to take to live this one down, he got a bead on his frickin’ car.
“It’s heading west.” He tilted the phone so John could see. “Let’s do this.”
Dematerializing, Qhuinn was dimly aware that the level of his rage was disproportionate to the problem: As his molecules scattered, he was a lit fuse waiting to connect with some dynamite—and it wasn’t just about him being a dumb-ass, or the missing car, or the fact that he was looking like an idiot to one of the males he respected most in the Brotherhood.
There was so much other shit.
Taking form on a rural road, he checked his phone again and waited for John to show up. When the fighter did, he recalibrated and they went farther west, closing in, cross-referencing the direction…until Qhuinn ghosted onto the precise strip of ice-covered asphalt his fucking Hummer was on.
About a hundred yards ahead of the vehicle.
Whatever SOB was behind the wheel was going sixty miles an hour in the snow, heading for a curve. What a…
Well, calling them stupid was exactly the kind of kettle-black thing the night had devolved into.
Let me shoot the wheels, John signed, like he knew a gun in Qhuinn’s hand was not the best idea.
Before the guy could up-and-out his forty, though, Qhuinn dematerialized…right onto the hood of the SUV.
He landed face-first into the windshield, his ass getting hit with the kind of breeze that turned him into a bug on all that glass. And then it was a case of oh-heeey-gurl-heeeey: Thanks to the glow from the dashboard, he caught the OMG! on the faces of the pair of guys in the front seat…and then his bright idea turned into goat fuck number two of the evening.
Instead of hitting the brakes, the driver wrenched the wheel, like he could maybe avoid what had already landed on the Hummer’s hood. The torque threw Qhuinn free, his body going weightless as he wrenched around in space to keep his eyes on his ride.
Turned out he was the lucky one.
As Hummers were designed and built for things other than aerodynamics and braking facility, the laws of physics grabbed onto all that top-heavy metal and rolled the shit. In the process, and in spite of the snow cover, metal met asphalt, and the high-pitched scream soprano’d out into night—
The thunderous impact of the SUV nailing some kind of solid object the size of a house cut off all that caterwauling. Qhuinn didn’t pay much attention to the crash, however, because he landed as well, the paved road smacking him on the shoulder and hip, his body doing its own version of greased pig down the snow-packed pavement—
His momentum was stopped short as well, something hard catching him in the head—
Cue a spectacular light show, like someone had lit off a firecracker right in front of his face. Then it was Tweety Bird time, little stars going around his vision as pain in various places started to check in.
Pushing against whatever was closest to him—he wasn’t sure whether it was the ground or a tree or that red-suited fatty, Santa Claus, he eased himself over onto his back. As he flopped flat, the cold went to his head and helped to dull things.
He intended to get up. Check the Hummer. Beat the shit out of whoever had taken advantage of his blond moment. But that was just his brain playing with itself. His body had taken over the wheel and accelerator, and it had no intention of going anywhere the fuck.
Laying as still as he could, and breathing out uneven clouds of frost, time slowed down and then began to morph. For a second, he became confused as to what had put him in this at-the-side-of-the-road condition. The accident he’d caused?
Or…that Honor Guard from before the raids?
Was this back-flat on the asphalt thing a memory of his past or something that was actually happening?
The good news was that sorting out reality gave his brain something to do other than continue to hammer away at the get-moving stuff. The bad news was that the memories from the night his family had disavowed him were more painful than anything he currently felt in his body.
God, it was all so clear, the doggen bringing him the official papers and demanding some blood for a cleansing ritual. Him throwing that duffel bag over his shoulder and walking out of that house for the last time. The road stretching in front of him, empty and dark—
This road, he realized. This actual road was the one he’d gone down on. Or…was down on…whatever. When he’d left his parents’ house, he’d intended to head out west, where he’d heard there was a clan of rogue assholes just like him. Instead, four males had shown up in hooded robes and beaten him to death—literally. He had gone to the door of the Fade, and on it, he had seen a future that he hadn’t believed…until it happened. Was happening—right now. With Layla…
Oh, look, John was talking to him.
Right in front of his eyes, the guy’s hands were going through the motions, so to speak, and Qhuinn intended reply with some kind of update—
“Is this real?” he mumbled.
John looked momentarily confuzzled.
It had to be real, Qhuinn thought. Because the Honor Guard had come to him in the summer, and the air he was inhaling was cold.
Are you okay? John mouthed as he signed.
Shoving his hand into the snowy ground, Qhuinn pushed as hard as he could. When he didn’t budge more than an inch or two, he let that speak for itself…and passed the fuck out.
The sound of coke getting sniffed up a deviated septum made the man outside the door tighten his grip on his knife.
Fucker. What a fucker.
The first rule of any successful dealer was that you didn’t use. Addicts who funded your business used. Associates you needed to leverage used. Bitches you needed out on the streets used.
Management did not use. Ever.
The logic was so sound, it was fundamental, and nothing different than, say, going to a casino that had a six-million-square-foot facility, enough catered food for a small country, and goddamned gold leaf everywhere—and being surprised that you lost all your money. If taking drugs was such a hot frickin’ idea, why did people regularly die from the shit, destroy lives over it, get thrown in prison thanks to it?
The man turned the knob and pushed. Of course the door was unlocked, and as he walked into the squalid room, the stench of baby powder would have overwhelmed him—if he hadn’t gotten used to the smell on himself.
That nasty nose-pincher was the only thing he hadn’t liked about the change. Everything else—the strength, the longevity, the freedom—he’d been into. But damn, the smell.
No matter how much cologne he used, he couldn’t get rid of it.
And yeah, he missed being able to have sex.
Other than that, the Lessening Society was his ticket to domination.
The sniffing stopped and the Fore-lesser looked up from the People magazine he’d made the lines on. Beneath the residue, some dude named Channing Tatum was staring at the camera, all hot as fuck. “Hey. What’re you doing here?”
As those beady, strung out eyes struggled to focus, the “Boss” looked like he’d given a blow job to a powered doughnut.
“I got something for you.”
“More? Oh, my God, how did you know? I only got two ounces left and I—”
Connors, a.k.a. C-Rider, moved fast, taking three steps forward, throwing his arm out wide, and swinging the knife in a fat circle—that terminated in the side of the Fore-lesser’s head. The steel blade went in deep, slicing through the softer bone of the temple, piercing the buzzed-up gray matter.
The Fore-lesser went into a seizure—maybe because of the injury…more likely because his adrenal glands had just pumped a million cc’s of holy-shit into his bloodstream and the stuff wasn’t mixing well with the cocaine. As the little shit flopped off his chair and shimmied his way down to the floor, the knife stayed with Connors, disengaging from the side of the skull, its blade marked with black blood.
Connors met the shocked stare of his now-former superior and felt really good about this promotion he had going on. The Omega himself had come to him and offered him the job, no doubt recognizing, as they all did, that a sk8tr punk was not who you wanted in charge of any organization bigger than a poker game. Yeah, sure, the guy had been useful in growing the ranks. But quantity was not quality, and it didn’t take the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines to see that the Lessening Society was being overrun by lawless, ADHD juvies.
Hard to promote any kind of agenda with that kind of rank and file—unless you had a real professional running shit.
Which was why the Omega had put all this in motion.
“You been fired, motherfucker.”
The final part of the forced retirement came with another stabbing motion, this one taking that blade and driving it right into the center of the chest. With a pop! and a show of smoke, the regime change was complete.
And Connors was the head of everything.
Supremacy made him smile for a moment—until his eyes went around the room. For some reason, he thought of that Febreze commercial, the one where they’d shit up some place, spray like madmen, and drag “real people, not actors” into the scene to sniff around.
Man, except for the food remnants—which were a no-show, because slayers didn’t require eats—everything fit: the mold on the ceiling, the ratty furniture, the dripping over at the sink…and especially the crap that went along with a multi-chemical addiction, like syringes, spoons, even the two-liter Sprite-bottle meth lab over in the corner.
This was not a seat of power. This was a common crack house.
Connors went over and snagged the little shit’s cell phone. The screen was cracked and there was some kind of sticky patch on the back. The thing was not password-protected, and when he went into the messages section, all kinds of kiss-asses had blown up the phone, the texts blah-blah-blahing congrats about the induction ceremony that was going on tonight.
But the Fore-lesser hadn’t known about it. Wasn’t his gig.
Connors wasn’t going to retaliate, however. Those brown-nosing douches were just trying to stay alive and would suck anyone’s dick to keep breathing: He fully expected the same list to be hitting him up, and he wanted them to. Spies had their purpose in the grand scheme of things.
And, man, there was work to be done.
From what he had figured out during his own blessedly short period of ass-kissing, the Lessening Society had few assets left in terms of weapons or ammo or property. No cash, because what did come in from petty robberies had gone up the little shit’s nose or into his arm. No master list of inductees, no troop organization, no training.
Lot of rebuilding needed to happen fast—
A cold draft shot into the room, and Connors turned around. The Omega had arrived from out of nowhere, the Evil’s white robes shining brightly, the black shadow underneath looking like an optical illusion.
The repulsion that went through Connors was something he knew he was also going to have to get used to. The Omega always enjoyed a special relationship with his Fore-lesser—and maybe that was why word had it they rarely lasted very long.
Then again, given who he picked…
“I took care of him,” Connors said, nodding to the scorch mark on the floor.
“I know,” the Omega replied, that voice warping through the fetid, chilly air.
Outside, a gust of wind blew snow against the windows, the gap on one sill letting some snowflakes in. As they entered the space, they fell to the floor in a shimmer, the temperature cold enough to sustain them, thanks to the master’s presence.
“He is back home now.” The Omega came forward like a draft, with no evidence that any kind of legs were moving him. “And I am very pleased.”
Conners told his feet to stay put. There was nowhere to run to, nothing to escape—he just had to get through what was going to happen next.
At least he had prepared for this.
“I got some new recruits for you.”
The Omega stopped. “Indeed?”
“A tribute, as it were.” Or more like a defined endpoint to this shit: He had to head out soon, and he’d carefully planned these two events close together. The Omega, after all, was into his playthings, but liked his Society and its purpose of eliminating vampires even more.
“You please me to no end,” the Omega whispered as he closed in. “I do believe we are going to get along just fine…Mr. C.”
The Chosen Layla had existed in her own body without any physical compromise for the entirety of her existence. Born in the Scribe Virgin’s Sanctuary, and trained in the rarefied, preternatural peacefulness there, she had never known hunger, or fever, or pain of any note. Not heat nor cold, nor contusion, concussion, or contraction. Her body had been, as with all things in the mother of the race’s most sacred space, always the placid same, a perfect specimen functioning at the highest level—
“Oh, God,” she gulped as she shot out of bed and lurched into the bathroom.
Her bare feet skidded on the marble as she threw herself to her knees, popped the toilet seat, and leaned over to go face-to-face with the bowl’s epiglottal hole.
“Just…do it….” she gasped as the rolling nausea polluted her body until even her toes curled under and grabbed at the floor. “Please…for the Scribe Virgin’s sake…”
If she could just empty the contents of her stomach, surely the torture would relent—
Taking her fore- and middle fingers into her throat, she shoved them in so hard she choked. But that was the extent of it. There was no coordination of her diaphragm, no release of the greasy spoiled meat in her stomach…not that she’d actually eaten that—or anything else—for…how long had it been? Days.
Mayhap that was the problem.
Snaking her arm around her hips, she put her sweaty forehead on the hard, cool lip of the toilet and tried to breathe shallowly—because the sensation of air moving up and down the back of her throat made the impotent urge to throw up worse.
Mere days ago, when she had been in her needing, her body had taken control, the urge to mate strong enough to wipe out all thought and emotion. That supremacy had quickly passed, however, and likewise had the aches and pains from the relentless mating, her skin and bones once again resuming their backseat to her brain.
The balance was tipping back once more.
Giving up, she carefully repositioned herself, placing her shoulders against the blessedly chilly marble wall.
Considering how sickly she felt, her only extrapolation was that she was losing the pregnancy. She’d never seen anyone in the Sanctuary go through this—was this illness what was normal here on earth?
Closing her eyes, she wished she could talk to someone about it all. But very few knew her condition—and for the time being, she needed to keep things that way: Most were completely unaware that she had gone through her needing or been serviced. Autumn’s fertile period had hit first, and in response, the Brotherhood had scattered far and wide as there was no taking chances with exposure to those hormones—for good reason, as she had learned firsthand. By the time people had returned to their normal rooms in the mansion? Her own had passed, and any residual hormonal fluxes in the air had been chalked up by all and sundry to Autumn’s fading time.
The privacy in these two rooms of hers was not going to last if the pregnancy continued, however. For one, her status would be sensed by the others, especially males, who were particularly attuned to that sort of thing.
And two, after a while, she would begin to show.
Except if she felt this bad, how ever could the young survive?
As a vague sensation of tightness settled into her lower belly, like her pelvis was being compressed by an invisible vise, she tried to train her mind on something, anything other than her physical sensations.
Eyes the color of the night sky came to her.
Penetrating eyes, eyes that stared up from a face that was bloodied and distorted…and beautiful even in its ugliness.
Okay. This was not an improvement.
Xcor, leader of the Band of Bastards. A traitor against the king, a hunted male who was enemy to the Brotherhood and lawful vampires everywhere. The fierce warrior who had been born of a noble mother who did not want him because of his visage, and an unknown father who had never claimed parentage. An unwanted burden shuffled from home to orphanage until he’d entered the Bloodletter’s training camp back in the Old Country. A remorseless fighter trained therein to great effect; then, in his maturity, a master of death who toured the land with a band of elite fighters first aligned to the Bloodletter himself, and thereafter, to Xcor—and no one else.
The information trail at the Sanctuary’s library ended there because none of the Chosen were updating anything anymore. The rest, however, she could fill in herself: The Brotherhood believed the attempt on Wrath’s life back in the fall had been made by Xcor, and she had further heard there were insurrectionists within the glymera working with the fighter.
Xcor. A traitorous, brutal male with no conscience, no loyalty, no principle save to serve himself.
Yet when she had looked into his eyes, when she had been in his presence, when she had unknowingly fed this new enemy…she had felt like a full female for the first time in her life.
Because he had looked upon her not with aggression, but with—
“Arrest that,” she said aloud. “Stop that right now.”
As if she were a young getting into a cupboard or some such thing.
Forcing herself to her feet, she drew her robe around her and resolved to leave her room and make her way down to the kitchen. A change of scenery was needed, and so was food—if only to give her churning stomach something to expel.
On her way out, she did not check her hair or her face in the mirror. Did not fuss over the way her robe fell. Didn’t waste even a moment worrying which of her identical sandals to wear.
So much time she had wasted in the past over the minute details of her appearance.
She would have been much better served studying or training herself for a vocation. But that had not been permitted within the allowed prescription of activity for a Chosen.
As she stepped into the corridor, she took a deep breath, steadied herself, and started to walk in the direction of the king’s study—
Up ahead, Blaylock, son of Rocke, burst out into the hall of statues, his brows down tight, his body clad in leather from the tops of his shoulders to the soles of his tremendous boots. As he strode forward, he was checking his weapons one by one, taking them out of holsters, replacing them, buckling them in.
Layla stopped dead.
And when the male finally looked upon her, he did the same, his eyes growing remote.
Deep red of hair, and lovely sapphire blue of eye, the fully blooded aristocrat was a fighter for the Brotherhood, but he was not a brute. No matter how he spent his nights out in the field, he remained at the compound a mannered, intelligent gentlemale of fine comportment and schooling.
So it was not a surprise that even in his rush, he bent slightly at the waist in formal greeting before resuming his hurry to the grand staircase.
In his descent down to the foyer, Qhuinn’s voice came to her.
I’m in love with someone….
Layla exercised her new habit of cursing under her breath. Such a sad state of affairs between those two fighters, and this pregnancy was not of aid.
But the die had been cast.
And they were all going to live with the consequences.
As Blay hit the staircase, he felt like he was being chased, and that was nuts. Nobody who was any threat was behind him. There was no masher in a Jason mask, or sick bastard in a bad Christmas sweater with knives for fingers, or killer clown…
Just a probably-pregnant Chosen who happened to have spent a good twelve hours fucking his former best friend.
At least, there shouldn’t have been any problem. The trouble was, every time he saw that female, he felt like he got punched in the gut. Which was another case of crazy. She had done nothing wrong. Neither had Qhuinn.
Although, God, if she was pregnant…
Blay booted all those happy thoughts to the background as he crossed through the foyer at a jog. No time to psycho-babble, even if it was just to himself: When Vishous called you on your night off and told you to be out front in your gear in five minutes, it was not because things were going well.
No details had been given during the phone call; none had been asked for. Blay had taken only a moment to text Saxton, and then he’d thrown on the leather and the steel, ready for anything.
In a way, this was good. Spending the night reading in his room had turned out to be torturous, and though he didn’t want anyone in trouble, at least this pulled him into some activity. Bursting out through the vestibule, he—
Came face-to-face with the Brotherhood’s flatbed truck.
The thing was kitted out to look authentically human, deliberately painted with red AAA logos and the made-up name of Murphy’s Towing. Fake telephone number. Fake tagline of: “We’re Always There for You.”
Bullshit. Unless, of course, the “you” was one of the Brotherhood.
Blay hopped up into the passenger seat and found Tohr, not V, behind the wheel. “Is Vishous coming?”
“It’s you and me, kid—he’s still working on the ballistics testing of that bullet.”
The Brother hit the gas, the diesel engine roaring like a beast, the headlights swinging in a fat circle around the courtyard’s fountain and across the lineup of cars parked wheelbase-to-wheelbase.
Just as Blay checked out the vehicles and did the math about the one that was missing, Tohr said, “It’s Qhuinn and John.”
Blay’s lids dropped shut for a split second. “What happened.”
“I don’t know much. John called V for an emergency assist.” The Brother looked over. “And you and I are the only ones free.”
Blay reached for the door handle, ready to pop the thing and dematerialize the fuck out of there. “Where are they—”
“Calm down, son. You know the rules. None of us can be out alone, so I need your ass in that seat or I’m violating my own goddamn protocol.”
Blay slammed his fist into the door, punching hard enough that the sting in his hand cleared his head a little. Fucking Band of Bastards, cramping them all—and the fact that the rule made sense just pissed him off even more. Xcor and his boys had proven to be cagey, aggressive, and completely without morals—not exactly the kind of enemy you wanted to meet up with all by your little lonesome.
But come on.
Blay grabbed his phone, intending to text John—but he stopped because he didn’t want the guys distracted by his trying to get details. “Is there anyone who can get to them quick?”
“V called the others. Fighting’s heavy downtown and nobody can break out of it.”
“I’ll drive as fast as I can, son.”
Blay nodded, just so he didn’t come across as rude. “Where are they and how far?”
“Fifteen to twenty minutes. And out past the ’burbs.”
Staring out the window and watching the snow streak by, he told himself that if John was texting, they were alive, and for godsakes, the guy had asked for a tow truck, not an ambulance. For all he knew, they had a flat tire or a broken windshield, and getting hysterical was not going to shorten the distance, decrease the drama, if there was any, or change the outcome.
“Sorry if I’m being an ass,” Blay muttered, as the Brother shot onto the highway.
“You do not need to apologize for being worried about your boys.”
Man, Tohr was cool like that.
As it was late, late at night, the Northway didn’t have any cars, just a semi or two, the wired drivers of which were going like bats out of hell. The tow truck didn’t stay on the four-laner for long. About eight miles later, they got off at an exit well north of downtown Caldwell, in a suburban area that was known for mansions, not ranches, Mercedes, not Mazdas.
“What the hell are they doing out here?” Blay asked.
“Researching those reports.”
Blay shook his head as they went by stone walls as tall and thick as linebackers, and gates of fine, wrought-iron filigree which were closed to outsiders.
Abruptly, he took a deep breath and relaxed. The aristocrats who were moving back into town were spooked and seeing evidence of lesser activity in everything around them—which did not mean that slayers were in fact jumping out from behind garden statuary or hiding in their basements.
This was not a mortal event. It was a mechanical one.
Blay rubbed his face and slapped the shit out of his inner panic button.
At least until they came out on the other side of the zip code and found the accident.
As they rounded a bend in the road, there were a pair of taillights glowing red at the side—far off the shoulder, and upside down.
The fuck this was just a mechanical problem.
Blay jumped out before Tohr even started to pull over, dematerializing directly to the Hummer.
“Oh, Christ, no,” he moaned as he saw two sunburst patterns in the front windshield—the kind of thing that could only be made by a pair of heads slamming into the glass.
Tripping through the snow, he went for the driver’s-side door, the sweet sting of gas knifing into his nose, the smoke from the engine making him blink—
A high-pitched whistle cut through the night from over on the left. Whipping around, Blay searched the snow-covered landscape…and found two hulking shapes about twenty feet away, clustered at the base of a tree nearly the size of the one the Hummer had gotten hung up on.
Scrambling through the drifts, Blay rushed over and landed on his knees. Qhuinn was sprawled on the ground, his long, heavy legs stretched out, his upper body in John’s lap.
The male just stared at him with those mismatched eyes, unmoving, unspeaking.
“Is he paralyzed?” Blay demanded, looking over at John.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Qhuinn replied dryly.
I think he’s got a concussion, John signed.
“I do not—”
He went flying off the hood of his car and hit this tree—
“I mostly missed the tree—”
And I’ve had to hold him down ever since.
“Which is pissing me off—”
“How we doing, boys?” Tohr said as he crunched over to them, his boots crushing the ice pack. “Anyone injured?”
Qhuinn shoved himself free of John and leaped up to the vertical. “No—we’re all just—”
At that point, the guy’s balance went wonky, his body listing so hard that Tohr had to catch him.
“You go wait in the truck,” the Brother said grimly.
Tohr jerked the guy forward so they were face-to-face. “Excuse me, son. What did you say? ’Cuz I know you didn’t just f-bomb me, did you.”
Okay. Right. Blay knew firsthand that there were few things in life Qhuinn backed down from; that being said, a Brother the guy respected, who was more than ready to finish the job that a pine tree had started, was definitely one of them.
Qhuinn looked over to his ruined SUV. “Sorry. Bad night. And I just got light-headed for a split second. I’m fine.”
In typical Qhuinn fashion, the bastard broke free and walked off, heading toward the steaming pile of previously drivable metal like he’d thrown off his injuries by force of will.
Leaving everyone else in his dust.
Blay got to his feet and forced himself to focus on John. “What happened?”
Thank God for sign language; it gave him something to look at, and fortunately, John took his time filling in the details. When the narration was over, Blay could only stare at his friend. But come on, it wasn’t as if anybody would make that shit up.
Not about someone they liked, at any rate.
Tohrment started to laugh. “He pulled a hyslop, is what you’re saying.”
“Not sure I know what that is?” Blay cut in.
Tohr shrugged and followed Qhuinn’s trail through the snow, motioning with his arm toward the wreck. “Right here. This is the definition of a hyslop—precipitated by your boy leaving his keys in the ignition.”
He’s not my boy, Blay said to himself. Never has been. Never will be.
And the fact that that hurt worse than any kind of concussion was something, like so much, he kept quiet about.
Off to the side and out of the glow of the headlights, Blay hung back and watched as Qhuinn crouched down by the driver’s door and cursed softly. “Messy. Very messy.”
Tohr did the duty on the passenger seat. “Oh, look, a matched set.”
“I think they’re dead.”
“Really. What gave that away. The fact they aren’t moving or that this guy over here has no facial features left?”
Qhuinn straightened up and looked across the undercarriage. “We need to roll it and tow it.”
“And here I thought we were going to toast marshmallows,” Tohr said. “John? Blay? Get over here.”
The four of them lined up shoulder-to-shoulder between the sets of tires and dug in with their boots, locking their positions in the snow. Four sets of hands palmed the panels; four bodies leaned into the ready; four pairs of shoulders tightened up.
A single voice, Tohr’s, counted it out. “On three. One. Two. Three—”
The Hummer had already had a bad night, and this right-the-wrong thing made it groan so loudly that an owl was flushed across the road and a pair of deer took flight on bounding hooves through the trees.
Then again, the SUV wasn’t the only one cursing. Everybody was going George Carlin under the deadweight as they worked to pry free gravity’s hold on all that steel. The laws of physics were possessive, however, and as Blay’s body strained, all his muscles tightening against his bones, he turned his head and shifted his grip—
He was standing next to Qhuinn. Right beside the guy.
Qhuinn’s eyes were focused straight ahead, his lips peeled back from his fangs, his fierce expression the result of total anatomical effort….
It was close to what he looked like when he came.
Holy inappropriateness, Batman. And too bad that fact did nothing to change his thought pattern.
The trouble was, Blay knew from firsthand experience what an orgasm did to the guy—although not because he was one of the cast of thousands who’d been a recipient. Oh, no. Never that. God for-fucking-bid the guy who’d stick his dick in anything that breathed—and maybe some inanimate objects—would ever do Blay.
Yeah, because that discerning sexual palate, which had led to Qhuinn balling everything in Caldwell between the ages of twenty and twenty-eight, had filtered Blay out of the fuck pool.
“She’s…starting to move…” Tohr gritted. “Get under her!”
Blay and Qhuinn snapped into action, releasing their holds, crouching down, shoving their shoulders under the lip of the roof. Facing each other, their eyes met as breath exploded out of their mouths, their thighs going into action, their bodies pitted in a war against all that cold, hard weight—that happened to be slippery thanks to the snow.
Their added power was the turning point—literally. An axis formed on the opposite tires, and the Hummer’s four-ton burden started shifted on them, getting lighter and lighter—
Why the hell was Qhuinn looking at him like that?
Those eyes, that pair of blue and green, were locked on Blay’s—and they were not moving.
Maybe it was just concentration—like, he was actually focused only on the two inches in front of his face and Blay just happened to be on the far side of that.
Had to be…
“Easy, boys!” Tohr called out. “Or we’ll flip the damn thing all the way over again!”
Blay let up on the graft, and there was a moment of suspension, a split second where the impossible happened, where an eight-thousand-pound SUV balanced perfectly on the edge of two tires, where what had been excruciating became…exhilarating.
And still Qhuinn stared at him.
As the Hummer landed with a bounce on all fours, Blay frowned and turned away. When he glanced back…Qhuinn’s eyes were exactly where they had been.
Blay leaned in and hissed, “What?”
Before there was any kind of answer, Tohr went over and opened the SUV’s side door. The smell of fresh blood floated over on the breeze. “Man, even if this isn’t totaled, I’m not sure you’re going to want it back. Cleanup in here is going to be a bitch.”
Qhuinn didn’t respond, seeming to have forgotten all about the Allstate Mayhem commercial his SUV was living out. He just stood there, staring at Blay.
Maybe the SOB had stroked out standing up?
“What’s your problem?” Blay repeated.
“I’ll bring the flatbed over,” Tohr said as he started for the other vehicle. “Let’s leave the bodies right where they are—you can dispose of them on the way home.”
Meanwhile, Blay could feel John pausing and looking across at the pair of them—something Qhuinn didn’t seem to care about, naturally.
With a curse, Blay solved the problem by jogging over to the tow truck and walking alongside as Tohr backed the thing up toward the Hummer’s collapsed hood. Going for the winch, Blay unclipped the claw and started to free the cable.
He had a feeling he knew what was on Qhuinn’s mind, and if he was right, the guy had better stay quiet and stay the fuck back.
He did not want to hear it.
As Qhuinn stood in the stiff wind and watched Blay hook up the Hummer, loose snow blew up over his boots, the quiet, soft weight gradually obscuring the steel-toed tops. Glancing down, he had the vague thought that if he stayed where he was long enough, he would be completely covered by it, from head to toe.
Weird goddamn thing to come into his brain.
The roaring of the flatbed’s engine brought his head back up, his eyes shifting over as the winch began to drag his ruined ride off the snowpack.
Blay was the one working the pull, the male standing to the side, carefully monitoring and controlling the speed of the draw so that no undue stress was put on the various mechanical components of this automotive Good Samaritan production.
So careful. So controlled.
In order to seem casual, Qhuinn went over by Tohr and pretended that he, like the Brother, was just monitoring the progress of the lift. Not. It was all about Blay, of course.
It had always been about Blay.
Trying to add to all the nonchalance, he crossed his arms over his chest—but had to drop them down again as his bruised shoulder hollered. “Lesson learned,” he said to make conversation.
Tohr murmured something back, but damned if he heard it. And damned if he could see anything but Blay. Not for a blink. For a breath. For a beat of the heart.
Staring across the swirling snow, he marveled at how someone you knew everything about, who lived down the hall, who ate with you and worked with you and slept at the same time you did…could become a stranger.
Then again, and as usual, that was about the emotional distance, not the same job, under-the-same-roof shit.
The thing was, Qhuinn felt like he wanted to explain things. Unfortunately, and unlike his slut cousin, Saxton the Cocksucker, he had no gift with words, and the complicated stuff in the center of his chest was making that mute tendency worse.
After a final grind, the Hummer was up off the ground on the bed, and Blay started running chain in and out of the undercarriage.
“Okay, you three take this piece of junk back,” Tohr said as flurries started to fall again.
Blay froze and looked at the Brother. “We go in pairs. So I need to leave with you.”
Like he was beyond ready to bounce.
“Have you looked at what we got here? An incapacitated hunk of junk with two dead humans in it. You think this is a play-it-loose situation?”
“They can handle it,” Blay said under his breath. “The two of them are tight.”
“And with you they’re even stronger. I’m just going to dematerialize home.”
In the stretch of silence that followed, the straight line that ran from Blay’s ass up to the base of his skull was the equivalent of a middle finger. Not to the Brother, though.
Qhuinn knew exactly who it was for.
Things moved fast from then on, the SUV getting secured, Tohr departing, and John hopping behind the wheel of the flatbed. Meanwhile, Qhuinn went around to the truck’s passenger-side door, cranked it open, and stood to the side, waiting.
Like a gentlemale might, he supposed.
Blay came over, stalking through the snow. His face was like the landscape: cold, shut down, inhospitable.
“After you,” the guy muttered, taking out a pack of cigarettes and an elegant gold lighter.
Qhuinn ducked his head briefly in a nod, then shuffled inside, sliding over the bench seat until his shoulder brushed John’s.
Blay got in last, slammed the door, and cracked the window, putting the lit end of his coffin nail right at the opening to keep the smell down.
The flatbed did all of the talking for a good five miles or so.
Sitting in between what used to be his two best friends, Qhuinn stared out the windshield and counted the seconds between the intermittent swipes of the wipers…three, two…one…up-and-down. And…three, two…one…up-and-down.
There was barely enough snow loose in the air to require the effort—
“I’m sorry,” he blurted.
Silence. Except for the growl of the engine in front of them and the occasional clang of a chain in back when they hit a bump.
Qhuinn glanced over, and what do you know, Blay looked like he was chewing on metal.
“Are you talking to me?” the guy said gruffly.
“Yeah. I am.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” Blay stabbed the cigarette out in the dashboard’s ashtray. And lit another. “Will you please stop staring at me.”
“I just…” Qhuinn put a hand through his hair and gave the shit a yank. “I don’t…I…I don’t know what to say about Layla—”
Blay’s head snapped around. “What you do with your life has nothing to do with me—”
“That’s not true,” Qhuinn said quietly. “I—”
“Blay, listen, Layla and I—”
“What makes you think I want to hear one word about you and her?”
“I just thought that you might need some…I don’t know, context or something.”
Blay simply stared at him for a moment. “And why exactly do you think I’d want ‘context.’”
“Because…I thought you might find it…like, upsetting. Or something.”
“And why would that be?”
Qhuinn couldn’t believe the guy wanted him to say it out loud. Much less in front of someone else, even John. “Well, because of, you know.”
Blay leaned in, his upper lip peeling back from his fangs. “Just so we’re clear, your cousin is giving me what I need. All day long. Every day. You and me?” He motioned back and forth between them with the cigarette. “We work together. That’s it. So I want you to do us both a favor before you think I ‘need’ to know something. Ask yourself, ‘If I were flipping burgers at McDonald’s, would I be telling the fucking fry guy this?’ If the answer is no, then shut the hell up.”
Qhuinn refocused on the windshield. And considered putting his face through it. “John, pull over.”
The fighter glanced across. Then started shaking his head.
“John, pull the fuck over. Or I’ll do it for you.”
Qhuinn was vaguely aware that his chest was pumping up and down and that his hands had become fists.
“Pull the fuck over!” he roared as he punched the dashboard hard enough to send one of the vents flying.
The flatbed shot to the side of the road and the brakes squealed as their velocity slowed. But Qhuinn was already out of there. Dematerializing, he escaped through that crack in the window, along with Blay’s frustrated exhale.
Almost immediately, he re-formed at the side of the road, unable to keep himself in his molecular state because his emotions were running way too high for that. Putting one shitkicker in front of the other, he trudged through the snow, his need to ambulate drowning out everything, including the ringing pain in both sets of knuckles.
In the back of his head, something about the stretch of road registered, but there was too much noise in his skull for specifics to break through.
No idea where he was going.
Man, it was cold.
Sitting in the flatbed, Blay focused on the lit end of his cigarette, the little orange glow going back and forth like a guitar string.
Guess his hand was shaking.
The whistle that went off next to him was John’s way of trying to get his attention, but he ignored it. Which got him slapped in the arm.
This is a really bad stretch for him, John signed.
“You’re kidding me, right?” Blay muttered. “You’re absolutely fucking kidding me. He’s always wanted a conventional mating, and he’s knocked up a Chosen—I’d say this is a great—”
No, here, right here. John pointed out to the asphalt. Here.
Blay shifted his eyes to the windshield only because he was too tired to argue. Out in front of the flatbed, the headlights illuminated everything, the snow-covered landscape blindingly white, the figure walking at the side of the road like a shadow thrown.
Red drops of blood marked the path of the footprints.
Qhuinn’s hands were bleeding from when he’d bashed up the dash—
Abruptly, Blay frowned. Sat up a little higher.
Like puzzle pieces sinking into their proper slots, the random details about where they were, from the bend in the road, to the trees, to the stone wall beside them, came together and completed a picture.
“Oh, shit.” Blay banged his head back against the rest. Closing his eyes briefly, he wanted to find another solution to this, anything other than him going out there.
He came up with a big, fat nada.
As he pushed open the door, the cold rushed into the warm interior of the truck cab. He didn’t say anything to John. No reason to. Things like going out into a snowfall after someone were self-explanatory.
Taking a deep drag, he clomped through the accumulation. The road had been plowed earlier, but that was a much-earlier kind of thing.
Which meant he probably had to act fast.
Here in this rich part of town, where the tax base was as broad as the rolling lawns, you’d better believe that another one of those house-size yellow muni plows was going to come by right before dawn.
No need to play this out in front of humans. Especially with the pair of leaking, dead-and-gones in the Hummer.
“Qhuinn,” he said roughly. “Qhuinn, stop.”
He didn’t yell. Didn’t have the energy. This…thing, whatever it was between them, had gotten exhausting long ago—and this current side-of-the-road showdown was just one more episode he didn’t have the strength for.
At least the guy slowed down a little. And with any luck he was so pissed off, he wouldn’t put all the clues to their location together.
Jesus Christ, what were the chances, Blay thought as he glanced around. It was right about in this next half mile or so where that Honor Guard had done their business—and Qhuinn had nearly died from the beating.
God, Blay remembered tooling up that night, a different set of headlights picking out a dark figure, this time bleeding on the ground.
Shaking himself, he gave the name game one more shot. “Qhuinn.”
The guy stopped, his shitkickers planting in the snow and going no farther. He didn’t turn around, however.
Blay motioned for John to kill the headlights, and a second later all he had to deal with was the subtle orange glow of the truck’s parking lights.
Qhuinn put his hands on his hips and looked up to the sky, his head tilting back, his breath escaping upward in a cloud of condensation.
“Come back and get in the flatbed.” Blay took another drag and released the smoke. “We need to keep moving—”
“I know how much Saxton means to you,” Qhuinn said gruffly. “I get that. I really do.”
Blay forced himself to say, “Good.”
“I guess…hearing it out loud is still a shock.”
Blay frowned in the dim light. “I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t. And that’s my fault. All of this…is my fault.” Qhuinn glanced over his shoulder, his strong, hard face set grimly. “I just don’t want you to think I’m in love with her. That’s all.”
Blay went to take a hit off his Dunhill, but didn’t have enough draw in his lungs. “I’m…sorry—I don’t get…why…”
Well, that was an awesome reply.
“I’m not in love with her. She’s not in love with me. We are not sleeping together.”
Blay laughed harshly. “Bullshit.”
“Dead serious. I serviced her in her needing because I want a young, and so does she, and it began and ended there.”
Blay closed his eyes as the wound in his chest got ripped open all over again. “Qhuinn, come on. You’ve been with her this whole last year. I’ve seen you—everyone’s seen you two—”
“I took her virginity four nights ago. No one had been with her before that, including myself.”
Oh, there was a picture he needed in his head.
“I am not in love with her. She is not in love with me. We are not sleeping together.”
Blay couldn’t hold still any longer, so he paced around, the snow packing under his boots. And then from out of nowhere, the voice of the Church Lady from SNL came into his head: Well, isn’t that speeeeeeeeeecial.
“I’m not with anybody,” Qhuinn said.
Blay laughed again with an edge. “As in a relationship? Of course not. But do not expect me to believe that you’re spending your off time crocheting doilies and alphabetizing a spice rack with that female.”
“I haven’t had sex in almost a year.”
That stopped him cold.
God, where the fuck was all the air in this part of the universe?
“Bullshit,” Blay countered in a cracked voice. “You were with Layla—four nights ago. As you said.”
In the silence that followed, the horrible truth raised its ugly-ass head again, the pain making it impossible for him to hide what he had so diligently been burying for the last few days.
“You were really with her,” he said. “I watched the library chandelier going back and forth under your room.”
Now Qhuinn was the one closing his eyes like he wanted to forget. “It was for a purpose.”
“Listen…” Blay shook his head. “I’m really not clear on why you’re telling me all this. I meant what I said—I don’t need any explanation about what you do with your life. You and I…we grew up together, and that’s it. Yeah, we shared a lot of stuff back then, and we were there for each other when it mattered. But neither one of us can fit into the clothes we used to wear, and this relationship between us is just the same. It doesn’t fit in our lives any longer. We don’t…fit anymore. And listen, I didn’t mean to get pissy in the truck, but I think you need to be clear on this. You and I? We have a past. That’s it. That’s…all we’ll ever have.”
Qhuinn looked away, his face once again in the shadows.
Blay forced himself to keep talking. “I know this…Layla thing…is a big deal to you. Or I’m guessing it is—how could it not be, if she’s pregnant. For me? I honestly wish you both well. But you don’t owe me any explanations—and what’s more, I don’t require them. I’ve moved on from childish crushes—and that’s what I had for you. Back then, it was just an infatuation, Qhuinn. So please take care of your female, and don’t worry that I’m slitting my wrists because you’ve found someone to love. As I have.”
“I told you. I’m not in love with her.”
Wait for it, Blay thought to himself. Because it’s coming.
This was classic Qhuinn, right here.
The male was incredible in the field. And loyal to the point of psychosis. And smart. And sexual to distraction. And a hundred thousand other things that Blay had to admit nobody else came close to. But he had one serious defect, and it wasn’t his eye color.
He couldn’t handle emotion.
Qhuinn had always run from anything deep—even if he didn’t move. He could sit right in front of you and nod and talk, but when the emotions got strong for him, he would leave the inside of his skin. Just check right out. And if you tried to force him to confront them?
Well, that wasn’t possible. No one forced Qhuinn to do anything.
And yeah, sure, there were a lot of good reasons for the way he was. His family treating him like a curse. The glymera looking down on him. Him having been rootless all his life. But whatever the stressors, at the end of the day, the male was going to run from anything that was too complicated, or required something from him.
Probably the only thing that could change that was a young.
So no matter what he said now, there was no doubt he was in love with Layla, but having been through the needing with her, and now waiting for the results, he was losing his mind from worry and pulling away from her.
And therefore standing here at the side of the road, blabbering about things that made no damned sense.
“I wish you both the very best,” Blay said, his heart hammering in his chest. “I honestly do. I really hope this works out well for both of you.”
In the tense quiet, Blay pulled himself out of the hole he’d once again fallen into, clawing his way back to the surface, away from the painful, burning agony at the center of his soul.
“Now, can we get in the truck and finish our job?” he said evenly.
Qhuinn’s hands lifted briefly to his face. Then he ducked his head, shoved those bleeding knuckles into the pockets of his leathers, and started back for the flatbed.
“Yeah. Let’s do that.”
“Oh, my God, I’m going to come—I’m going to come—”
Farther south, in downtown Caldwell, in the parking lot behind the Iron Mask, Trez Latimer was happy to hear the newsflash—and not surprised. But nobody else in the tricounty area needed the update.
As he worked himself in and out of the very willing participant underneath his body, he shut her up by kissing her hard, his tongue entering that hot mouth, all that unnecessary commentary getting cut off.
The car they were in was cramped and smelled like the woman’s perfume: sweet and spicy and cheap—shit, next time he was going to pick a volunteer with an SUV or, better yet, a Mercedes S550 with some proper space in the back.
Clearly, this Nissan product had not been built to house two seventy-five fucking the brains out of a half-naked dental assistant. Or had she been a paralegal?
He couldn’t remember.
And he had more immediate issues to worry about. With an abrupt shift, he broke off the liplock because the closer he got to his own release, the farther his fangs extended from his upper jaw—and he didn’t want to nick her by mistake: The taste of fresh blood would pitch him right over another more dangerous kind of edge, and he wasn’t sure that feeding from her was a good idea—
It was a bad idea. And not because she was just a human.
Someone was watching them.
Lifting his head, he looked out of the backseat window. As a Shadow, his eyes were three to four times more perceptive than those of a normal vampire, and he was easily able to penetrate the darkness.
Yup, someone was popcorn-and-Milk-Dudding it from over on the left by the staff entrance.
Time to wrap this up.
Immediately he took control, reaching in between their bodies, finding the woman’s sex, and teasing her up as he continued to penetrate her, making her come so hard she jacked her head back and slammed it into the door.
No orgasm for him.
But whatever. Somebody loitering around took this fun-and-games quickie into different territory, and that meant he had to cut the crap. Even if he didn’t get off.
He had a number of enemies thanks to his various associations.
And then there were…complications…that were all his own.
“Oh, my fucking God—”
Going by the explosive exhale, all that torquing, and those pulses that gripped Trez’s thick cock, the dental assistant–paralegal–vet tech was having a rocking good time. He, however, had already pulled out of this nonsense mentally and might as well have been stalking out of the car, gunning for that—
It was a female. Yeah, whoever it was was definitely of feminine derivation—
Trez frowned as he realized who it was.
Then again, at least it wasn’t a lesser. A symphath. A drug dealer he needed to take care of. A rival pimp with an opinion. A vampire who was out of line. iAm, his brother—
But nah. Just a harmless woman, and too bad there was no going back to his slice of bliss. Mood was ruined.
The dental assistant/paralegal/vet tech/hairdresser was panting like she’d tried to put a fireman hold on a piano. “That was…amazing…that…was…”
Trez pulled out and tucked his cock back behind his fly. Chances were good he was going to have a case of neon balls in a half hour, but he’d deal with that when it came.
“You’re incredible. You’re the most incredible—”
Trez let the barrage of silly words fall over him. “You, too, baby girl.”
He kissed her to make it seem like he cared—and he did, in a way. These human women he used mattered in the sense that they were living beings, worthy of respect and kindness by the simple virtue of their beating hearts. For a small while they let him use their bodies, and sometimes their veins, and he appreciated these gifts, which were always given willingly, and sometimes more than once.
And the latter was the problem that was standing over there.
Zipping up, Trez carefully maneuvered his big body around so he didn’t crush his ten-minute partner or give himself a craniotomy on the roof of the car.
Baby girl didn’t seem to want to move, however. She just lay there like a throw pillow against the seats, her legs still spread, her sex still ready, her breasts still out and about and defying gravity like two cantaloupes glued onto her rib cage.
Must be under the muscle, he thought.
“Let’s get you dressed,” he suggested, pulling the halves of her lace-up bustier together.
“You were so fantastic….”
She was like jelly—well, except for the hard-as-a-rock fake boobs—all malleable and agreeable, but utterly unhelpful as he put her back together, sat her up, and smoothed her extensions.
“This was fun, baby girl,” he murmured, and he meant it.
“Can I see you again?”
“Maybe.” He smiled at her tightly so that his fangs didn’t show. “I’m around.”
She purred like a cat at that, and then proceeded to recite her number, which he didn’t bother to memorize.
The sad truth about women like her was that they were a dime a dozen: In this city of several million, there had to be a couple hundred thousand twenty-somethings with tight asses and loose legs who were looking for a good time. In fact, they were all just variations of the same person, which was why he needed to keep them fresh.
With so much in common, a revolving door of new supply was required to keep him interested.
Trez was out of the car a minute and a half later, and he didn’t bother scrubbing her memories. As a Shadow, he had many mind tricks he could call upon, but he’d stopped bothering with that years ago. Not worth the effort—and occasionally he did like a repeat.
Quick check of the watch.
Damn it, he was already going to be late getting over to iAm’s—but he clearly had to deal with the problem by the back door before he closed up shop.
As he went over and stopped in front of the woman, she tilted her chin up and put one hand on her hip. This particular version of ready-and-willing had blond hair extensions and liked hot pants as opposed to skirts—so she looked ridiculous in the cold, with her fluffy pink Patagonia parka and her bare-ass legs in the breeze.
Kind of like a Sno Ball on two toothpicks.
“Getting busy?” she demanded. She was obviously trying to keep cool, but given the way her stiletto was tapping, she was hot and bothered—and not in a good way.
“Hey, baby girl.” He called them all that. “You having a good night?”
“Well, that’s too bad. Listen, I’ll see you around—”
The woman made the colossal mistake of grabbing his arm as he went by her, her nails sinking into his silk shirt and clamping onto his skin.
Trez’s head snapped around, his eyes flaring. But at least he managed to catch himself before he bared his fangs.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she said, leaning into him.
“Trez!” someone barked.
Abruptly, his head of security’s voice cut into his brain. And good thing. Shadows were a peaceable species by nature—provided they were not aggressed upon.
As Xhex rushed over, like she knew murder was not one hundred percent out of the realm of possibility, he ripped his arm free of that hold, feeling five blazes of pain from the woman’s nails. Locking down his fury, he stared into the woman’s face. “Go on home now.”
“You owe me an explanation—”
He shook his head. “I’m not your boyfriend, baby girl.”
“Damn straight, he know how to treat a woman!”
“So go on home to him,” Trez said grimly.
“What do you do, fuck a different girl every night of the week?”
“Yeah. And sometimes twice on Sundays.” Shit, he should have scrubbed this one. When had he been with her? Two nights ago? Three? Too late now. “Go on home to your man.”
“You make me sick! You fucking cocksucking motherfucker—”
As Xhex stepped in between them and started speaking in a low voice to the hysteric, Trez was more than happy to have the backup…because what do you know, the chick in the Nissan picked that exact moment to K-turn in the parking lot and drive right on over.
Putting her window down, she smiled like she was into being the other woman. “I’ll see you soon, lover.”
Cue the crying: Baby girl with the pink parka, the boyfriend and the attachment disorder burst into a weeping jag worthy of a grave site.
Annnnnnnnd naturally that was when iAm showed up.
As his brother’s presence registered, Trez closed his eyes.
Great. Just fucking wonderful.
About ten blocks away from Trez’s bad-to-worse night, Xcor was wiping the blade of his scythe off with a chamois cloth that was soft as a lamb’s ear.
Across the alley, Throe was on his phone, talking in a low voice. He had been thus e’er since the third of the three lessers they’d found in this quadrant of the city had been discharged back to the Omega.
Xcor was not interested in any delay, cellular or otherwise. The rest of his Band of Bastards were elsewhere downtown, seeking out either or both of their two enemies—and he would prefer to be engaged thusly.
But biological needs must. Goddamn it.
Throe ended his call and looked over, his handsome face drawn in serious lines. “She is willing.”
“How kind of her.” Xcor sheathed his scythe and put his cleaning cloth away. “I am, however, less interested in her acquiescence than in the issue of whether she is able.”
“And how do we know this?”
Throe cleared his throat and glanced away. “I went to her last night and availed myself.”
Xcor smiled coldly. So that explained his soldier’s absence—and the reason for the departure was a relief. He had feared that the other male had…
“And how ever was she.”
“She was viable.”
“Did you sample all her charms?”
The gentlemale, who had once been a highbrow member of the glymera, but was now useful, cleared his throat. “I, ah…yes.”
“And how were they.” When there was no answer, Xcor tracked through the black-stained snow, closing in on his second in command. “How was she, Throe? Wet and willing?”
The male’s flush grew deeper on his perfectly handsome face. “She was adequate.”
“How many times did you have her?”
“And in varying positions, I hope?” When there was only a stiff nod, Xcor relented. “Well, you have then faithfully discharged your duty to your fellow soldiers. I’m quite certain that the others shall want to partake of both vein and sex as well.”
In the awkward beat of silence that followed, Xcor would never have admitted it to anyone, but he’d pressed for details not to deliberately goad his subordinate…but because he was glad Throe had lain with the female. He wanted distance between the male and what had happened back in the fall. He wanted calendars full of years, and countless females, and rivers of other females’ blood….
“There is but one stipulation,” Throe said.
Xcor thinned his mouth. As the female in question had not seen him yet, it couldn’t be more cash—besides, he did not need to feed as of now. Thanks to…“And that is.”
“It must be done at her abode. At first night tomorrow.”
“Ah.” Xcor smiled coldly. “’Tis a trap then.”
“The Brotherhood does not know who made the inquiry.”
“You identified six males, did you not.”
“I used not our names.”
“No matter.” Xcor glanced around the alley, his senses reaching out, searching for lesser or Brother. “I do not underestimate the king’s reach. Nor should you.”
Indeed, his own ambitions had pitted them all against a foe of worth. The assassination attempt on Wrath’s life back in the autumn had been his open declaration of war, and as expected, there had been a predictable fallout: The Brotherhood had found his Band of Bastards’ lair, infiltrated it, and left with the rifle pack that contained the weapon that had been used to put a bullet into the Blind King’s throat.
Undoubtedly, they were going for proof.
The question was, of what? He did not know as of yet whether the king lived or had died, and neither did the Council, from what he understood. In fact, the glymera knew not that the attempt had even occurred.
Had Wrath survived? Or had he been killed and the Brotherhood was at the moment busy trying to fill the vacancy? The Old Law was very clear about the rules of succession—provided the king had offspring, which he did not. So it would be his next nearest kin—assuming there were any.
Xcor wanted to know, but he made no inquiries. All he could do was wait until word presented itself—and in the meantime, he and his soldiers kept killing lessers, and he continued to shore up his power base within the glymera. At least both of those endeavors were going well. Every night, they stabbed slayers back to the Omega. And his limp-wristed contact on the Council, the not-particularly-venerable Elan, son of Larex, was proving quite naive and malleable—two characteristics very useful in a disposable tool.
Xcor was, however, growing tired of the information void. And indeed, this business with that female Throe had found was necessary but fraught with danger. A female capable of selling her veins and her sex to multiple users was certainly able to trade information for cash—and though Throe had kept their identities quiet, the number of them had been given. The Brotherhood must have appropriately guessed that none of the Band of Bastards were mated, and that sooner or later, in this new land, they would require what they had had a sufficiency of in the Old Country.
Mayhap this female was put up by the king and his private guard.
Well, they would find out on the morrow. Ambushes were easily set, and there was nary a more vulnerable moment than when a hungry male was at the throat and between the legs of a female. Yet it was time. His soldiers were willing to fight, but their faces were drawn, their eyes sunken, their skin stretched too tightly across their cheeks. Human blood, that weak substitute, was not providing enough strength, and his bastards had been living off of it for too long. Back in the Old Country, there had been enough females to be of service when needs must. But e’er since they had come to the New World, they had had to make do.
If this was a trap, he was willing to fight the Brothers. Then again, he had been properly serviced—
Dearest Virgin Scribe, he could not think of that.
Xcor cleared his throat as pain in his chest made it hard to swallow. “Tell the female, first darkness is too early. We shall come instead at midnight unto her. And arrange for human feedings as soon as the night falls. If the Brothers are there, we shall engage with them from a position of relative strength.”
Throe’s eyebrows rose as if he were impressed with Xcor’s thinking. “Aye. I shall do just that.”
Xcor nodded and looked away.
In the silence, the events of the autumn crowded in between them, cooling the frigid December air even further.
That sacred Chosen was always with them both.
“The daylight is coming fast upon us,” Throe said in his perfect accent. “It is time to depart.”
Xcor glanced over to the east. The predawn glow had yet to arrive, but his second in command was correct. Soon…very soon…the deadly light of the sun would rain down, and no matter that it was at its weakest, with the winter solstice so recently passed.
“Call the soldiers off the field,” Xcor said. “And meet them at base.”
Throe typed in some combination of letters into a message that Xcor would not have been able to read. And then the soldier put his phone away with a frown.
“Are you not coming back?” Throe asked.
There was a long pause. And then the other soldier said softly, “Whither thou goest?”
In that moment, Xcor thought of each of his fighters. Zypher, the sexual conqueror. Balthazar, the thief. Syphon, the assassin. And the other one who had no name, and too many sins to count. So he was referred to as Syn.
Then he considered fair, loyal Throe, his second in command.
Perfectly reared, impeccably blooded Throe.
Handsome, comely Throe.
“Go now,” he told the male.
“And what of you?”
Throe hesitated, and in the pause, that night when Xcor had nearly died came back to them both. How could it not have?
“As you wish.”
His soldier dematerialized, leaving Xcor to stand against the wind alone. When he was sure he had been left, he sent his molecules likewise unto the cold gusts, venturing forth to the north, to a meadow that was covered in snow. Taking form, he stood at the base of its gentle hill, staring up at the beautiful tree standing proud and lovely at the apex.
He thought of the soft rise of a female’s breast, of her elegant collarbones, of the most sublime column of a pale neck—
As the wind buffeted his back, he closed his eyes and stepped forward, drawn to return to the spot where he had met his pyrocant.
Where was his Chosen?
Did she still live? Had the Brotherhood taken her life for her kind, generous, unknown gift to the enemy of her king?
Xcor knew he would have died without her blood. Gravely injured during the attempt on Wrath’s life, he had been on the verge of expiration when Throe had take him out to this field and summoned the Chosen and the deed had been done.
Throe had engineered it all. And, in the process, embedded a curse within Xcor’s dark heart.
His ambitions remained as they had been: He intended to wrestle the throne from the Blind King and reign o’er the vampires. There was, however, a critical weakness that dogged him.
She had been wrongly drawn into the conflict among dagger-handed males, an innocent who had been manipulated and then used.
He sorely worried over her welfare.
Indeed, he had but one regret in his lifetime of evil deeds. If he had not sent Throe into the arms of the Brotherhood, his second in command would not have crossed her path and fed from her himself. And except for that intersection, Throe would not have then later called upon her service, and she would not have come unto them in that field…and Xcor would never have looked into those compassionate eyes.
And lost a part of himself.
He was but a filthy, malformed, sireless cur, a traitor of the order and protection she rightfully lived under. He had not deserved her gift.
And neither had Throe—and not because he had fallen from his previous high station within the glymera.
No mortal male was deserving.
Coming to a stop under the tree, Xcor stared at the spot where he had lain sprawled before her…where she had knelt over him and scored her wrist, and he had opened his mouth to receive the power that only she could give him.
There had been a moment when their eyes had met and time had stopped…and then she had slowly lowered her wrist to his mouth.
Oh, that too-brief contact.
He had been convinced she was but an apparition of his errant mind, but as Throe had driven him back to the lair, it had come upon his consciousness that she was real. Very real.
Weeks had passed. And then one evening, out in the city, he had sensed her, and followed the echo of her blood in his veins to see her.
In those intervening minutes and hours, she had found out the truth about him: She had looked into the darkness, directly at him, and her distress had been evident.
Thereafter, his lair had been infiltrated. Likely because of her direction.
With a gust of wind, snow started to fall again, the snowflakes thickening in the air, swirling around, getting into his eyes.
Where was she now?
What had they done with her?
Off to the east, the glow of the sunrise began to gather in spite of the cloud cover, and his eyes burned—so he was careful to keep them trained on the peach harbinger of daylight, just for the pain.
He had never before been pulled asunder by his emotions like this. All his life he had been solely trained in survival—first through his years in the war camp, and then during his aeons under the Bloodletter, and now in this current era as head of his band of fighters.
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