“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 bestselling author Angela Knight
Lover Reborn (Black Dagger Brotherhood Series #10)by J. R. Ward
#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward’s novels of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continue as a vampire warrior crosses the line between life and death…and ventures into an erotic world of dark dreams and darker desires.
Ever since the death of his shellan, Tohrment has been unrecognizable from the vampire leader he/i>/b>/i>
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#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward’s novels of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continue as a vampire warrior crosses the line between life and death…and ventures into an erotic world of dark dreams and darker desires.
Ever since the death of his shellan, Tohrment has been unrecognizable from the vampire leader he once was. Physically emaciated and heartbroken beyond despair, he has been brought back to the Brotherhood by a self-serving fallen angel. Now, fighting once again with ruthless vengeance, he is unprepared to face a new kind of tragedy.
When Tohr begins to see his beloved in his dreams—trapped in a cold, isolated netherworld far from the peace and tranquillity of the Fade—he turns to the angel in hopes of saving the one he has lost. But because Lassiter tells him he must learn to love another to free his former mate, Tohr knows they are all doomed....
Except then a female with a shadowed history begins to get through to him. Against the backdrop of the raging war with the lessers, and with a new clan of vampires vying for the Blind King’s throne, Tohr struggles between the buried past and a very hot, passion-filled future…but can his heart let go and set all of them free?
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BY J. R. WARD
THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD SERIES
The Black Dagger Brotherhood:
An Insider’s Guide
NOVELS OF THE FALLEN ANGELS
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
DEDICATED TO: You—
it has been so long,
since you have had a home.
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 (pr. 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 (n.) A Chosen trained in the matter of sexual arts.
exhile dhoble (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.
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 (pr. n.) A mythic beast renown 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 manner 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 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.
“The quick and the dead are all the same.
Everyone’s just looking for home.”
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“The bastard’s taking the bridge! He’s mine!”
Tohrment waited for an answering whistle, and when it came, he tore off after the lesser, his shitkickers slamming into puddles, his legs going piston, his hands fisting hard. He passed Dumpsters and parked POSs, scattered rats and homeless people, jumped over a barricade, vaulted over a motorcycle.
Three a.m. in downtown Caldwell, New York, gave you just enough obstacles to keep shit amusing. Unfortunately, the little gnat of a slayer up ahead was taking him in a direction he didn’t want to go in.
As they hit the entrance ramp to the westbound bridge, Tohr wanted to kill the fool—natch. Unlike the blocks of privacy you could find in the maze of alleys around the clubs, you were guaranteed traffic over the Hudson, even this late. Okay, sure, the Herbert G. Falcheck suspension special wasn’t going to be choked with cars, but there were going to be a few—and God knew every human behind the wheel had a goddamn iPhone these days.
There was one rule in the war between the vampires and the Lessening Society: Stay the fuck away from humans. That race of nosy, upright orangutans was a complication waiting to happen, and the last thing anyone needed was widespread confirmation that Dracula wasn’t a product of fiction, and the walking dead weren’t just a TV show that didn’t suck.
Nobody wanted to frontline on the network news, the papers, the magazines.
Internet was fine. No credibility there.
This down-low tenet was the single thing that the enemy and the Black Dagger Brotherhood agreed upon, the one deference that was given by both sides. So, yeah, the slayers could, say… target your pregnant shellan, shoot her in the face, and leave her for dead, taking away not just her life, but your own. But God forbid they rile up the humans.
’Cuz that would just be wrong.
Unfortunately, this directionally challenged, hydraulic-legged motherfucker up here hadn’t gotten the memo.
Nothing a black dagger in the chest couldn’t fix.
As a growl rose up his throat and his fangs elongated in his mouth, Tohr dug deep and tapped a reserve of high-octane hatred, his gas tank refilling, his flagging energy instantly renewed.
It had been a long road back from the nightmare of his king and his brothers coming to tell him that his life was over. As a bonded male, his female was the beating heart in his chest, and in the absence of his Wellsie, he was a ghost of who he had once been, form without substance. The only thing that animated him was the chase, the capture, and the kill. And the knowledge that he could wake up the next night and find more to take down.
Other than ahvenging his dead, he might as well be in the blessed Fade with his family. Frankly, the latter would be preferable—and who knew, maybe he’d get lucky tonight. Maybe in the heat of a fight he’d suffer a catastrophic mortal injury and be relieved of his burdens.
A male could only hope.
The blare of a car horn followed by a chorus of screeching rubber was the first sign that Captain Complication had found what he was looking for.
Tohr got to the top of the ramp’s rise just in time to catch a quick visual of the slayer bouncing off the hood of a Toyota nothing-special. The impact stopped the sedan dead; didn’t slow down the slayer in the slightest. Like all lessers, the bastard was stronger and more resilient than he’d been as a mere human, the black, oily blood of the Omega giving him a bigger engine, tighter suspension and better handling—as well as racing tires in this case.
Its GPS sucked, for real, though.
The slayer sprang up out of his roll across the pavement like a professional stuntman and, naturally, kept going. He was injured, though, that noxious baby-powder smell of his more pronounced.
Tohr came up to the car just as a pair of humans popped their doors, scrambled out, and started flapping their arms like something was on fire.
“CPD,” Tohr yelled as he ripped past them. “In pursuit!”
This calmed them down, and lined up damage control. It was virtually guaranteed that they’d now become a peanut gallery with all kinds of Kodak inclinations, and that was perfect—when this was all over, he’d know where to find them so he could scrub their memories, and take their cell phones.
Meanwhile, the lesser appeared to be gunning for the pedestrian walkway—not his best move. If Tohr had been in the dumb-ass’s position, he’d have taken over that Toyota and tried to drive off—
“Oh… come on…” Tohr gritted out.
Apparently, the bastard’s goal wasn’t the walkway, but the lip of the bridge itself: The slayer jumped up and over the fencing that contained the pedi-way, and landed on the thin ledge on the far side. Next stop: the Hudson River.
The slayer looked behind himself, and in the peachy glow of the sodium lights, his arrogant expression was that of a sixteen-year-old boy after he’d sucked down a six-pack of beer in front of his friends.
All ego. No brains.
He was going to jump. The fucker was going to jump.
Fidiot. Even though the Omega’s joy juice gave the slayers all that power, it didn’t mean the laws of physics went out the window for them. Einstein’s little ditty about energy equaling mass times acceleration was still going to apply—so when the dipshit hit the water, he was going to get blown apart, sustaining substantial structural damage. Which wouldn’t kill him but would incapacitate the hell out of him.
Fuckers couldn’t die unless they got stabbed. And they could spend eternity in a purgatory of decomposition.
And before his Wellsie’s murder, Tohr probably would have let it go. On the sliding scale of the war, it was more important to wrap those humans up in an amnesiac bullshit blanket and head over to help John Matthew and Qhuinn, who were still handling business back in that alley. Now? There was no pulling out: One way or the other, he and this slayer were going to do a meet-and-greet.
Tohr leaped over the guardrail, hit the walkway, and bounced up onto the fence. Locking a clawhold into the links, he swung his lower body over the top, and landed his shitkickers on the parapet.
The lesser’s beery bravado fizzled a little as he started backing away.
“What, you think I’m afraid of heights?” Tohr said in a low voice. “Or that five feet of chainlink is going to keep me from you?”
The wind howled against them, plastering their clothes to their bodies and whistling through the steel girders. Far, far, far down below, the inky waters of the river were nothing but a vague, dark stretch, like a parking lot.
Gonna feel like asphalt, too.
“I got a gun,” the lesser yelled.
“So take it out.”
“My friends are coming for me!”
“You don’t have any friends.”
The lesser was a new recruit, his hair and eyes and skin having yet to pale out. Lanky and twitchy, he was likely a drug user who suffered from brain-fry—which was no doubt why he’d fallen for the pitch to join the Society.
“I’ll jump! I’ll fucking jump!”
Tohr palmed the handle of one of his two daggers and withdrew the black blade from his chest holster. “So quit yakking and start flying.”
The slayer looked over the edge. “I’ll do it! I swear I’ll do it!”
A gust gave them a blast from a different direction, sweeping Tohr’s long leather coat out over the free fall. “Don’t matter to me. I’ll kill you up here or down there.”
The lesser peered over the edge again, hesitated, and then let ’er rip, leaping to the side and hitting all that nothing-but-air, his arms pinwheeling as if he were trying to keep his balance so he landed feetfirst.
Which at this height would probably just drive his thighbones up into his abdominal cavity. Better than swallowing his own head, however.
Tohr resheathed his dagger and prepared for his own descent, taking a deep breath. And then it was…
As he went over the edge and took that first gasp of antigravity, the irony of the bridge jump wasn’t lost. He’d spent so much time wishing for his death to come, praying for the Scribe Virgin to take his body and send him up to be with his loved ones. Suicide had never been an option; you took your own life, you couldn’t get into the Fade—and that was the only reason he hadn’t cut his wrists, sucked on the business end of a shotgun, or… jumped off a bridge.
In his descent, he let himself enjoy the idea that this was it, that the impact coming in a second and a half was going to be the end of his suffering. All he had to do was reposition his trajectory so he was in a dive, then not protect his head and let the inevitable happen: blackout, likely paralysis, death by drowning.
Except that kind of goner-for-good couldn’t be his end result. Whoever made the call on these things would have to know that, unlike the lesser, he had an out.
Calming his mind, he dematerialized himself from the free fall—one moment gravity had a death grip on him; the next he was nothing but an invisible cloud of molecules that he could will in any direction he wanted.
Next door, the slayer hit the water not with the splash! of someone going off the side of a pool, or the ker-chunk of somebody working a diving board. The fucker was like a missile hitting a target, and the explosion registered in the form of a sonic cracking as gallons of displaced Hudson River shot up into the brisk air.
Tohr, on the other hand, chose to re-form himself on top of the massive concrete support to the right of the impact site. Three… two… one…
A head popped up downstream of the still-bubbling entrance point. No arms moving in an attempt to regain access to oxygen. No legs kicking. No gasping.
But it wasn’t dead: You could run them over with your car, beat them until your own fist broke, rip their arms and/or legs off, do whatever the hell you wanted… and they would still be alive.
Fuckers were the ticks of the underworld. And there was no way he wasn’t getting wet.
Tohr shrugged off his trench coat, folded it carefully, and left it nestled in the juncture where the upper part of the support met its broad, aquatic base. Getting in the drink with that on his back was a drowning recipe; plus he had to protect his forties and his cell phone.
With a couple of bounding leaps, so he could get enough momentum to put him over open water, he threw himself into dive formation, his arms pointed above his head, his palms together, his body straight as an arrow. Unlike the lesser, his penetration was elegant and smooth, even though he came at the surface of the Hudson from a good twelve- to fifteen-foot drop.
Cold. Really frickin’ cold.
After all, it was late April in upstate New York—which was still a good month away from anything remotely balmy.
Exhaling through his mouth as he stroked up from the depths, he fell into a powerful freestyle. When he got to the slayer, he locked a grip onto the jacket and began pulling the undead weight to shore.
Where he would finish this. So he could go look for the next one.
As Tohr went off the side of the bridge, John Matthew’s own life flashed before his eyes—sure as if he were the one whose shitkickers had left solid ground in favor of nothing-but-net.
He was on the shore, under the exit ramp, when it happened, in the process of finishing off the slayer he’d been chasing: From out of the corner of his eye, he saw something go into a fall from the great height above the river.
It hadn’t made sense at first. Any lesser with half a brain would know that wasn’t a good escape route. Except then everything had become too clear. A figure was standing on the lip of the bridge, leather coat billowing around like a shroud.
Noooooooo, John had shouted while making no sound at all.
“Motherfucker, he’s going to jump,” Qhuinn spat from behind him.
John lunged forward, for all the good that would do, and then screamed mutely as the closest thing he had to a father jumped.
Later, John would reflect that moments like this had to be what people said of death itself—as you one-plus-oned the series of events that were unfolding, and the math added up to certain destruction, your mind flipped into slide-show mode, showing you clips of life as you had always known it:
John sitting at Tohr and Wellsie’s table that first night after he’d been adopted into the vampire world… The expression on Tohr’s face as the blood results had announced that John was Darius’s son… That nightmarish moment when the Brotherhood had arrived to tell them both that Wellsie was gone…
Then came images from the second act: Lassiter bringing a shriveled shell of Tohr back from wherever he had been… Tohr and John finally losing it together over the murder… Tohr gradually working his strength up… John’s own shellan appearing in the red gown that Wellsie had mated Tohr in…
Man, destiny sucked ass. It just had to barge in and piss all over everyone’s rose garden.
And now it was taking a shit in the other flower beds.
Except then Tohr abruptly disappeared into thin air. One moment he was all fly-be-free; the next, he was gone.
Thank God, John thought.
“Thank you, baby Jesus,” Qhuinn breathed.
A moment later, on the far side of a pylon, a dark arrow sliced into the river.
Without a glance or a word between them, he and Qhuinn tore off in that direction, getting to the rocky shore just as Tohr surfaced, grabbed the slayer, and started to swim in. As John got into position to help drag the lesser onto dry land, his eyes locked on Tohr’s grim, pale face.
The male looked dead, even though he was technically alive.
I got him, John signed as he leaned in, nabbed the closest arm, and heaved the soaking-wet slayer out of the river. The thing landed in a heap and did an excellent impression of a fish, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, little clicking sounds coming from its wide-open gullet.
But whatever, Tohr was the issue, and John looked the Brother over as he emerged from the water: Leather pants were sticking like glue to thighs that were thin, muscle shirt was second-skinned to a flat chest, cropped black hair with that white stripe was standing straight up even though it was wet.
Dark blue eyes were locked on the lesser.
Or studiously ignoring John’s stare.
Tohr reached down and grabbed the lesser by the throat. Baring fangs that were viciously long, he growled, “Told you.”
Then he outted his black dagger and started stabbing.
John and Qhuinn had to step back. It was either that or get a paint job.
“He could just hit the damn chest,” Qhuinn muttered, “and get this over with.”
Except killing the slayer wasn’t the point. Desecration was.
That sharp black blade penetrated every square inch of flesh—except for the sternum, which was the lights-out switch. With each slashing blow, Tohr exhaled hard; with every jerk free, the Brother inhaled deep, the rhythm of respiration driving the gruesome scene.
“Now I know how they make shredded lettuce.”
John rubbed his face, and hoped that was the end of the commentary.
Tohr didn’t slow down. He just stopped. And in the aftermath, he listed to the side, propping himself up by throwing a hand out to the oil-soaked dirt. The slayer was… well, shredded, yeah, but he wasn’t finished.
There’d be no helping out, though. In spite of Tohr’s obvious exhaustion, John and Qhuinn knew better than to mess with the end game. They’d seen this before. The final strike had to be Tohr’s.
After a couple of moments of recovery, the Brother lurched back into position, double-handing the dagger and lifting the blade over his head.
A hoarse cry tore out of his throat as he buried the point in the chest of what was left of his prey. As bright light flashed, the tragic expression on Tohr’s face was illuminated, a comic book rendering of his twisted, horrific features, caught for a moment… and an eternity.
He always stared down into the illumination, even though the impermanent sun was too bright to look into.
After it was done, the Brother slumped sure as if his spinal column had turned to putty, his energy disappearing. Clearly, he needed to feed, but that subject, like so many others, was a no-go.
“What time is it,” he got out between breaths.
Qhuinn snagged a peek at his Suunto. “Two a.m.”
Tohr looked up from the stained ground he’d been staring at, focusing his red-rimmed eyes on the part of downtown they’d just come from.
“How about we go back to the compound.” Qhuinn took out his cell phone. “Butch isn’t far away—”
“No.” Tohr shoved himself back and sat on his ass. “Don’t call anyone. I’m fine—just need to catch my breath.”
Bull. Shit. The guy was not any closer to fine than John was at the moment. Although, granted, only one of them was dripping wet in a fifty-degree gust.
John shoved his hands into the Brother’s field of vision. We’re going home now—
Wafting over on the breeze, like an alarm breaking through a silent house, the scent of baby powder tickled into each of their noses.
The stench did what all that breathing on the ground couldn’t: It got Tohr onto his feet. Gone was the logy disorientation—hell, if you’d pointed out to him that he was still wet as a fish, he probably would have been surprised.
“There’re more,” he snarled.
As he took off, John cursed at the maniac.
“Come on,” Qhuinn said. “Let’s get our run on. This is going to be a long night.”
“Take some time off… relax… enjoy yourself.…”
As Xhex muttered to a peanut gallery of antique furniture, she walked out of the bedroom and into the bath suite. And back again. And… back once more into marble-landia.
In the bath she and John now shared, she stopped by the pond-deep Jacuzzi. Next to the brass faucets, there was a silver tray with all kinds of lotions and potions and girlie what-the-fuck. And that wasn’t the half of it. By the sinks? Another tray, this one full of perfume by Chanel: Cristalle, Coco, No. 5, Coco Mademoiselle. Then there was the fine wicker basket of hairbrushes, some with short naps, others with pointy bristles or spiky metal crap. In the cupboards? A lineup of OPI nail polish bottles in enough variations on cocksucking pink to give even Barbie a nosebleed. As well as fifteen different brands of mousse. Gel. Hair spray.
And don’t get her started on the Bobbi Brown makeup.
Who the hell did they think had moved in here? One of those Kardashian nut jobs?
And on that note… Christ, she couldn’t believe she now knew Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kris; the brother, Rob; stepfather, Bruce; little sisters Kendall and Kylie; as well as the various husband(s), boyfriend(s), and that kid Mason—
Meeting her own eyes in the mirror, she thought, Well, wasn’t this interesting. She’d managed to blow her brains out with E! Entertainment Television.
Certainly less messy than a sawed-off, and the results were the same.
“That shit needs to come with a warning label on it.”
As she stared at her reflection, she recognized the buzzed-off black hair, and the pale skin, and the tight, hard body. The clipped nails. The absolute lack of makeup. She even had her own clothes on, the black muscle shirt and leather pants a uniform she’d put on every night for years.
Well, except for a couple of evenings ago. Then she’d worn something else entirely.
Maybe that gown was the reason for all the fembot stuff that had shown up after the mating ceremony: Fritz and the doggen may have assumed she’d turned over a new leaf. Either that or it was all just part of the standard, newly mated shellan welcome wagon.
Turning away, she put her hands up to the base of her throat, to the big, square diamond John had bought her. Set in sturdy platinum, it was the only piece of jewelry she could ever imagine wearing: tough, solid, able to withstand a good fight and stay on her body.
In this new world of Paul Mitchell, and Bed Head, and Coco’s stinky stuff, at least John still got her. As for the rest of them? Can you say “education”? Not the first time she’d played teacher to a bunch of males who thought that just because you had breasts, you belonged in a gilded cage. Anyone tried to turn her into a glymera chickadee? She’d just saw through the gold bars, set a bomb on the base of the stand, and hang the steaming remains from a chandelier in the foyer.
Heading into the bedroom, she opened the closet and pulled out the red gown that she’d worn during that ceremony. Only dress she’d ever put on—and she had to admit she’d enjoyed the way John had taken it off with his teeth. And yeah, sure, the nights lounging around had been great—first break she’d had in forever. All they’d done was have sex, feed from each other, eat great food, and repeat with bouts of sleep.
But now John had gone back out into the field—whereas she wasn’t due to start fighting until tomorrow evening.
This was just twenty-four hours, a delay, not a dead end.
So what the hell was her problem?
Maybe all the chicky-chicky was just triggering her inner bitch for no good reason. She wasn’t cooped up, nobody was making her change herself, and that Kardashian car accident of a marathon on the boob tube was her own damn fault. As for the beauty stuff? The doggen were just trying to be nice, in the only way they knew how.
Not a lot of females like her. And not just because she was half symphath—
Frowning, she cranked her head around.
Letting the satin fall from her hands, she went for the emotional grid that was outside in the hall.
With her symphath senses, the three-dimensional structure of sadness and loss and shame was as real as any building you could drive by, look around, or walk through. Unfortunately, in this case, there was no fixing the damage to the supports, or the hole in the roof, or the fact that the electric system wasn’t operational anymore: As much as she experienced a person’s emotions as if they were a private home, there were no subcontracting workers to come in and repair what was wrong, no plumbers or electricians or painters for this shit. The homeowner had to perform their own improvements on what was broken, battered, and busted; no one else could do it for them.
As she stepped out into the hall of statues, Xhex had a tremor go through her own little house. Then again, the robed, limping figure up ahead was her mother.
God, that still felt weird to say, even if only in her head—and it didn’t really apply on so many levels, did it?
She cleared her throat. “Good evening… ah…”
It didn’t sound right to throw out mahmen or mom or mommy. No’One, the name the female went by, wasn’t comfortable, either. Then again, what could you call somebody who had been abducted by a symphath, violently forced to conceive, and then trapped by biology to bear the result of the torture?
First and last name: I and Sorry. Middle name: Am.
As No’One shifted around, the hood that was in place covered her face. “Good evening. How fare thee?”
The English was stiff across her mother’s lips, suggesting the female would have done better speaking in the Old Language. And the bow that she gave, which was utterly unnecessary, was lopsided, likely because of whatever injury that caused the uneven gait.
That scent she threw off was not anything by Chanel. Unless they’d recently added a Tragedy line.
“I’m well.” Try restless and bored. “Where are you going?”
“To tidy up the sitting room.”
Xhex sucked back a wince of don’t-go-there. Fritz didn’t let anyone but fellow doggen lift a finger in the mansion—and No’One, in spite of the fact that she had come here to attend to Payne, was staying in a guest room, eating at the table with the Brothers, and accepted here as the mother of a mated shellan. She was not a maid by any standard.
“Yeah, ah… how’d you like to…” Do what? Xhex wondered. What could the two of them possibly do together? Xhex was a fighter. Her mother was… a ghost with substance. Not a lot of common ground there.
“It is all right,” No’One said gently. “These are awkward—”
Thunder roared through the foyer below, sure as if clouds had formed, lightning flashed, and rain had started to piss down. As No’One recoiled, Xhex glared over her shoulder. What the hell was—
Rhage, a.k.a. Hollywood, a.k.a. the biggest and most beautiful of the Brothers, all but leaped up onto the second-floor balcony. As he landed, his blond head shot around in her direction, his teal eyes on fire.
“John Matthew called. It’s all hands on deck downtown. Get armed and meet us at the front door in ten minutes.”
“Hot damn,” Xhex hissed as she smacked her palms.
When she turned back to her mother, the female was trembling, and trying not to show it.
“It’s okay,” Xhex said. “I’m good at fighting. I’m not going to get hurt.”
Nice words. Except that wasn’t what the female was worried about, was it: Her grid was showing fear… of Xhex.
Duh. Given that she was a half-breed symphath, of course No’One would think “dangerous” before “daughter.”
“I’ll leave you alone,” Xhex said. “Don’t worry.”
As she jogged back toward her bedroom, she couldn’t ignore the fact that her chest was killing her. But then, she couldn’t ignore reality, either: Her mother hadn’t wanted her.
And still didn’t.
And who could blame her.
* * *
From beneath the brim of her hooded robe, No’One watched the tall, strong, merciless female she had birthed rush off to fight against the enemy.
Xhexania didn’t seem fazed at all by the idea that she would be facing deadly lessers: Indeed, that sneer she had shown upon the Brother’s command suggested she would relish it.
No’One’s knees went weak as she thought about what she had brought forth into the world, this female with power in her limbs and vengeance in her heart. No female of the glymera would respond such as that; then again, they would never be asked.
But the symphath was in her daughter.
Dearest Virgin Scribe…
And yet, as Xhexania had spun around, there had been an expression quickly hidden on her face.
No’One hurried forth, limping down the hallway to her daughter’s room. At the heavy door, she knocked softly.
It was a moment before Xhexania opened up. “Hey.”
“I am sorry.”
There was no reaction. That showed. “What for?”
“I know what it is to be unwanted by parents. I do not wish you to—”
“It’s okay.” Xhexania shrugged. “Not like I don’t know where you’re coming from.”
“Listen, I have to get ready. Come in if you like, but be warned: I’m not dressing for tea.”
No’One hesitated at the threshold. Inside, the room was well lived-in: The bed was mussed; there were leather pants draped on chairs; two sets of boots were on the floor; a pair of wineglasses were set on a table over in the corner by the chaise lounge. All around, the bonding scent of a full-blooded male, dark and sensuous, lingered in the air.
Lingered on Xhexania herself.
There was a series of clicks and No’One looked around the jamb. Over at the closet, Xhexania was putting some kind of nasty-looking gun through its paces. She was utterly competent, slipping it into a holster under her arm and taking out another. And then it was the bullets and a knife—
“You’re not going to feel any better about me if you keep standing there.”
“I did not come for myself.”
That broke the flow of those hands. “Why, then.”
“I saw the look on your face. I do not want that for you.”
Xhexania reached in and pulled out a black leather jacket. As she yanked the thing on, she cursed. “Look, let’s not pretend either one of us wanted me born, okay? I absolve you, you absolve me, we were the victims, blah, blah, blah. We need to stipulate that and move along our separate ways.”
“Are you sure that is what you want.”
The female froze, then narrowed her eyes. “I know what you did. The night of my birth.”
No’One took a step back. “How…”
Xhexania pointed to her own chest. “Symphath, remember.” The fighter came forward, her gait like a prowl. “That means I get into people—so I can feel the fear you have right now. And the regrets. And the pain. Just standing in front of me, you’re right back where you were when it all happened—and yeah, I know you buried a dagger in your stomach rather than face a future with me. So like I said, how about you and I just avoid each other, and save both of us the hassle?”
No’One lifted her chin. “Indeed, you are a half-breed.”
Dark brows popped. “Excuse me?”
“You sense but a portion of what I feel for you. Or perhaps you do not wish to acknowledge, for your own reasons, that I might wish to care for you.”
In spite of the fact that the female was strung with weapons, she abruptly seemed vulnerable.
“In your gruff self-protection, do not cut off avenues for us,” No’One whispered. “We do not need to force closeness if it is not there. But let us not stop it from blooming if there is a chance. Perhaps… perhaps you shall just tell me this night if there is some small way I can help you. We shall start there… and see what transpires.”
Xhexania broke off and walked around, her tight, hard body more like a male’s, her dress more like a male’s, her energy masculine. She stopped when she was in front of the closet and, after a moment, pulled out the skirting of the red gown Tohrment had given her for the night of her mating.
“Have you cleaned the satin?” No’One asked. “And I am not suggesting you have sullied it. Fine fabric must be cared for, however, in order to be preserved.”
“I’d have no idea where to start on that one.”
“Allow me, then?”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Please. Allow me.”
Xhexania looked over. In a low voice, she said, “Why in God’s name would you want to do that?”
The truth was as simple as four words, as complex as an entire language. “You are my daughter.”
Back in downtown Caldwell, Tohr shed the cold and the aches and the exhaustion that gumshoed him and went in pursuit once again: The scent of fresh lesser blood was like cocaine in his system, buzzing him up and giving him the strength to carry on.
Behind him, he heard the other two closing in, and knew damn well they weren’t seeking enemy—but good fucking luck trying to get him back to the mansion. Dawn was the only thing that could do that.
Besides, the more wiped out he was, the better shot he had at actually sleeping for an hour or two.
As he rounded the corner of an alley, his shitkickers skidded to a halt. In front of him, seven lessers were circling a pair of fighters, but the centerpieces were not Z and Phury, or V and Butch, or Blaylock and Rhage.
That was a scythe in the left one’s hands. A big-ass, sharply honed scythe.
“Son of a bitch,” Tohr muttered.
The male with the curving blade had his feet planted on the pavement like he was a god, his weapon poised, his ugly face smiling in anticipation as if he were about to sit down to a good meal. Next to him, a vampire Tohr hadn’t seen for aeons was nothing like the guy he’d once met in the Old Country.
Looked as though Throe, son of Throe, had fallen in with a bad crowd.
John and Qhuinn pulled up on either side of him, and the latter glanced over. “Tell me that isn’t our new neighbor.”
“Was he born with that puss or did someone make it for him?”
“Well, if that was supposed to be a nose job, he needs a new plastic surgeon.”
Tohr looked over at John. “Call them off.”
Excuse me? the kid signed.
“I know you texted the brothers back at the house. Tell them it was a mistake. Right now.” When John started to argue, he cut off the conversation. “You want there to be an all-out war here? You call the Brotherhood in, he calls his bastards in, and suddenly we’re balls to the wall without any strategy. We’ll handle this by ourselves—I’m fucking serious, John. I’ve dealt with these boys before. You haven’t.”
As John’s hard stare met his own, Tohr had the sense, as always, that they had been in these situations together far, far longer than just the past few months.
“You gotta trust me, son.”
John’s response was to mouth a curse, get his phone out and start hitting the buttons.
And at that moment, Xcor tweaked that there were visitors. In spite of the number of lessers ahead of him, he started laughing. “It’s the bloody Black Daggers—and just in time to save us. You want us on our knees?”
The slayers spun around—big mistake. Xcor didn’t waste a moment, striking with a circling sweep, hitting two of them in the lower back. That was his free shot. As the pair fell to the ground, the others split into two camps, half heading for Xcor and Throe, half gunning for Tohr and his boys.
Tohr let out a roar and met the onslaught with his bare hands, leaping forward and locking onto the first slayer that got in range. He went for the head, grabbing on hard, before putting up his knee and cracking the fucker’s face open. Then he wheeled the thing around and threw the loose body skullfirst into the side of a Dumpster.
As the ringing faded, Tohr faced off at the next in line. He’d have preferred to have gone more with the fist action, but he wasn’t going to dick around: At the far end of the alley, seven more newbies were dropping like snakes from a tree, dripping down the front of a chain-link fence.
He ripped out both daggers, set his boots in the pavement, and assessed an offensive strategy for the fresh arrivals. Man… say what you would about Xcor’s ethics, social skills, and GQ eligibility; the motherfucker could fight. He was swinging that scythe around like it weighed less than a pound, and he had a knack for judging distance—lesser parts were flying all over the place, hands, a head, an arm. The bastard was incredibly effective, and Throe wasn’t incompetent, either.
Against all odds, and the choice of any of them, Tohr and his crew fell into a rhythm with the bastards: Xcor drove the first round into the waiting blades at the head of the alley, while his lieutenant held the second wave in place so no one got blocked in. After Tohr, John, and Qhuinn picked the tide off, one by one the other slayers were sent to the slaughter—freshly wounded.
Whereas there had been showboating in the beginning, now this was work. Xcor wasn’t doing any flashy moves with his wide blade; Throe wasn’t jumping around; John and Qhuinn were in the zone.
And Tohr was knee-deep in revenge.
These were nothing but new recruits—so it wasn’t like the slayers were offering much in the way of skills. The sheer numbers, however, were such that the tide could turn—
A third squadron popped over the fence.
As they landed one after the other on the payment, Tohr regretted his order to John. That had been vengeance talking. Fuck the shit with avoiding a BDB vs. Band of Bastards showdown; he’d wanted to save the kills for himself. The result? He’d put John’s and Qhuinn’s lives in danger. Xcor and Throe—they could die tonight, tomorrow, a year from now, whatever. And as for himself—well, you could jump off a bridge in a thousand different ways.
But his boys…? They were worth saving. John was someone’s hellren now. And Qhuinn had a lot of living ahead of him.
It wasn’t fair for his death wish to put them in early graves.
Xcor, son of an unknown sire, had his lover in his hands. His scythe was the only female he had ever cared for, and tonight, as he faced off against what started as seven of the enemy, and then grew to fourteen, and then swelled to twenty-one, she repaid his loyalty with a performance unparalleled.
As they moved together, she was an extension of not just his arms, but his body, his eyes, his brain. He was not a soldier with a weapon; united, they were a beast with mighty jaws. And as they worked, he knew this was what he had missed. This was why he had come across the ocean unto the New World: to find a new life in a new land where there was still plenty of the old, worthy enemy.
Upon his arrival, however, his ambitions had identified an even loftier goal. And it meant the other vampires in this alley were in his way.
At the opposite end of the alley, Tohrment, son of Hharm, was something worth seeing. As much as Xcor hated to admit it, the Brother was an incredible fighter, those whirling black daggers catching the ambient light, those arms and legs shifting positions fast as a heartbeat, that balance and execution—sheer perfection.
If he had been one of Xcor’s males, the Brother might well have had to be killed so that Xcor could retain his prime position: It was a basic tenent of leadership that one eliminated those who presented a potential challenge to one’s position… although it wasn’t as if his band were incompetents—after all, one had to eliminate the weak as well.
The Bloodletter had taught him that and so much more.
At least some things had proven not to be lies.
There would never be a place for the likes of Tohrment in his band of bastards, however: that Brother and his ilk would not slum themselves for a shared meal, much less any professional association.
Though one cohesed briefly, this night. As the fight progressed, he and Throe fell into a cooperation with the Brothers, funneling lessers in small groups into blade range, whereupon they were dispatched to the Omega by the other three.
Two Brothers, or Brotherhood candidates, were with Tohr, and both were larger than him—in fact, Tohrment, son of Hharm, was not as broad as he had once been. Mayhap from recovery of a recent injury? Whatever the cause, Tohr had chosen his backups wisely. The one on the right was a tremendous male, the size of whom proved that the Scribe Virgin’s breeding program had had a point. The other was more the girth and vertical of Xcor and his males—which was to say he was not small. Both worked seamlessly and without hesitation, showing no fear.
When it was finally done, Xcor was breathing hard, his forearms and biceps numb from exertion. All who had fangs were standing. All who had black blood in the vein were gone, sent back to their evil maker.
The five of them stayed in their positions, weapons still in hand as they panted, eyes peeled for any signs of aggression from the other side.
Xcor glanced at Throe and nodded ever so slightly. If others from the Brotherhood had been called in, this was not the kind of showdown they would come out of alive. If these three engaged? He and his soldier had a chance, but there would be injuries.
He did not come to Caldwell to die. He came here to be king.
“I look forward to seeing you again, Tohrment, son of Hharm,” he announced.
“Leaving so soon?” the Brother countered.
“Did you think I would bow before you?”
“No, that would require class.”
Xcor smiled coldly, flashing his fangs as they elongated. His temper was held in check by his self-control—and the fact that he was already begining to work on the glymera. “Unlike the Brotherhood, we lowly soldiers actually work during the night. So instead of kissing the ring of antiquated custom, we’re going to seek and eliminate more of the enemy.”
“I know why you’re here, Xcor.”
“Do you. Mind reader?”
“You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Indeed. Or mayhap it shall be the other way around.”
Tohrment shook his head slowly. “Consider this a friendly warning. Go back where you came from before what you set in motion rolls you right into an early grave.”
“I like where I am. The air is bracing on this side of the ocean. How’s your shellan, by the way.”
The cold draft that surged forward was what he wanted: He’d heard through the convoluted grapevine that the female Wellesandra had been killed in the war some time ago, and he wasn’t above using any weapon he had to throw off the enemy.
And the shot was a good one. Immediately, the bookends on either side of the Brother stepped in and grabbed on. But there would be no fighting or arguing. Not this eve.
Xcor and Throe dematerialized, scattering themselves into the chilly spring night. He was not worried that they would be followed. That pair was going to make sure Tohr was okay, which meant they were going to dissuade him from a half-cocked, angry whim that might possibly lead to an ambush.
They had no way of knowing he couldn’t access the rest of his troops.
He and Throe regained their forms on top of the tallest skyscraper in the city. He and his soldiers had always had a rallying point such that the band could be reunited from time to time during the night, and this towering rooftop was not only easily visible from all quadrants of the battlefield; it seemed apt.
Xcor liked the view from on high.
“We need cell phones,” Throe said over the din of the wind.
“They have them.”
“The enemy, you mean?”
“Aye. Both of them.” When Xcor said nothing further, his right-hand male muttered, “They have ways of communicating—”
“That we do not require. If you allow yourself to rely on externals, they become weapons over you. We have done just fine without such technology for centuries.”
“And this is a new era in a new place. Things are different here.”
Xcor glanced over his shoulder, trading the view of the city for the sight of his second in command. Throe, son of Throe, was a fine example of breeding, all perfect features, and comely body that, thanks to Xcor’s lessons, was now not merely decorative, but useful: For truth, he had grown hard over the years, finally earning the right to declare his sex as that of male.
Xcor smiled coldly. “If the Brothers’ tactics and methods are so successful, why did the race get raided?”
“And sometimes they are the result of mistakes—fatal ones.” Xcor resumed his perusal of the city. “You might consider how easily such errors can be made.”
“All I’m saying—”
“This is the problem with the glymera—always looking for the easy way out. I thought I beat that tendency out of you years ago. Do you require a refresher?”
As Throe shut the fuck up, Xcor smiled more broadly.
Focusing on the expanse of Caldwell, he knew that dark though the night was, his future was bright indeed.
And paved with the bodies of the Brotherhood.
“Where the hell are they finding all these recruits?” Qhuinn asked as he walked around the fight scene, his boots slapping through the black blood.
John barely heard the guy, even though his ears were working just fine. With the departure of those bastards, he was sticking by Tohr’s side. The Brother seemed to have recovered from that uncalled-for kick in the nuts Xcor had just nailed him with, but it was still waaaaay break time.
Tohr wiped his black blades off on his thighs. Took a deep breath. Seemed to pull out of an inner suck hole. “Ah… the only thing that makes sense is Manhattan. You need a big population. With a lot of bad seeds on the periphery.”
“Who the hell is this Fore-lesser?”
“A little shit, last I heard.”
“Right up the Omega’s alley.”
Just as John was going to broach the whole Cinderella-turning-into-a-pumpkin thing, his head shot around.
“More,” Tohr said on a growl.
Yeah, but that wasn’t the problem.
John’s shellan was out in the alleys.
Instantly, everything went from his mind; his toilet bowl flushed. What the hell was she doing out? She wasn’t on rotation. She should be home—
As the stench of fresh, breathing lesser entered his nose, a deep inner conviction clawed into his chest: She shouldn’t be out here at all.
“I need to get my coat,” Tohr said. “Stay here and I’ll go with you.”
The instant Tohr dematerialized back to the bridge, John took off, his shitkickers pounding the asphalt as Qhuinn shouted something that ended with, “You cocksucker!”
Whatever, unlike Tohr’s wild, crazy, maniac diversions, this was important.
John cut through the alley, shot down a side street, jumped across two lines of parked cars, bolted into a detour.…
And there she was, his mate, his lover, his life, squaring off against a quartet of lessers in front of an abandoned rooming house—flanked by a big, loudmouthed blond traitor.
Rhage should never have recruited her. John had said reinforcements—he sure as shit hadn’t meant his Xhex. And second of all, he’d told them to stay home, at Tohr’s request. What the fuck were they—
“Hey!” Rhage called out cheerfully. Like he was inviting them to a party. “Just thought we’d take the air tonight in beeeeautiful downtown Caldwell.”
Right. This was one moment when being mute sucked. You fucking ass—
Xhex turned her head around to look at him—and that was when it happened. One of the lessers was tucking a knife, and the sonofabitch had both a good arm and great aim: The blade flew through the air, hilt over point.
Until it came to a sudden stop… in Xhex’s chest.
For the second time in one evening, John screamed without making a sound.
As his body surged forward, Xhex whipped around to the slayer, an expression of rage tightening her features. Without losing a beat, she grabbed onto the handle and tore the weapon out of her own flesh—but how long would her strength last? That was a direct hit—
Jesus Christ! She was going to try to take care of the bastard. Even injured, she was going to go after him tooth and nail… and get herself killed in the process.
The one thought that shot through John’s mind was that he didn’t want to be like Tohr. He didn’t want to walk that stretch of hell on earth.
He didn’t want to lose his Xhex tonight, tomorrow night, any night. Ever.
Opening his mouth, he roared all of the air out of his lungs. He wasn’t conscious of dematerializing, but he was on that lesser so fast that going ghost and re-forming was the only explanation. Locking onto the thing’s throat with his palm, he pushed the piece of shit backward off its feet and let his own weight follow. When they hit the ground, he head-butted its face, smashing the nose, and likely breaking a cheekbone or an eye socket.
No stopping there.
As black blood splashed up all over him, he bared his fangs and tore into the enemy with his teeth while he held the thing down. The destructive instinct was so finely tuned and focused, he would have kept going until he was chewing on pavement—but then his rational side sent up a hi-how’re-ya.
He needed to assess Xhex’s injuries.
Taking out a dagger, he raised his arm high and locked eyes with the slayer. Or what was left of the lesser’s pair of peepers.
John buried that blade so deep and hard that after the flash and bang faded, he needed a two-handed grip and a full-body pull to free the weapon out of the asphalt. Scrambling around, he prayed to see Xhex—
She was more than up on her feet. She was engaging another one of the quartet—even though there was a growing red stain on the front of her chest, and her right arm was hanging loose.
John nearly lost his mind.
Leaping up, he threw his body between his mate and the enemy, and as he shoved her out of the way, he took a hit meant for her—a solid swing with a baseball bat that rang his church bell and made him momentarily lose his balance.
Exactly the kind of thing that would have knocked her flat and put “paid” to her coffin.
With a quick shift, he reestablished equilibrium, and then caught the second try at turning him into a homer with both hands.
Quick punch forward and he slammed the lesser in the face with its own Louisville slugger, giving the undead a split second of show tunes in its head. Then it was domination time.
“What the hell!” Xhex hollered at him as he forced the slayer onto the ground.
No good way to communicate, considering his hands were locked on the lesser’s throat. Then again, it wasn’t going to help them for her to know what was on his mind.
With a quick stab, John dispatched the slayer back to the Omega and got up. His left eye, the one that had gotten corked with the bat, was starting to swell, and he could feel his heartbeat in his face. Meanwhile, Xhex was still bleeding.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” she hissed.
He wanted to jab his finger in her face, but if he did, he couldn’t talk. Then don’t fight when you’re injury-injer-injured!
Christ, he couldn’t even communicate, his fingers clogging up over words.
“I was just fine!”
You’re fucking bleeding—
“It’s a flesh wound—”
Then why can’t you lift up your arm!
The pair of them were closing in on each other, and not in a good way, their jaws jacked forward, their bodies hunched in aggression. And when she didn’t counter him on his last potshot, he knew he’d guessed right—knew, too, that she was hurting.
“I take care of myself, John Matthew,” she spat. “I don’t need you looking over my shoulder because I’m a female.”
I would have done the same for one of the Brothers. Well, mostly he would have. So don’t push that feminist bullshit on me—
You’re the one making it about your sex, not me.
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, really. Funnily enough, I’m not persuaded. And if you think my standing up for myself is a goddamn political statement, you mated the wrong goddamn female.”
This is not about your being female!
“The fuck it isn’t!”
On that note, she inhaled deep, as if to remind him that his bonding scent was so strong, it knocked out even the stench of all the lesser blood splattered around.
John bared his fangs and signed, It’s about your stupidity creating a liability on the battlefield.
Xhex’s mouth cranked open—but then, instead of countering, she just stared up at him.
Abruptly, she crossed her good arm over her chest and focused out over his left shoulder, slowly shaking her head back and forth.
Like she was regretting not just what had happened a moment ago, but maybe meeting him in the first place.
John cursed and went to pace around, only to find that everyone else in the alleyway—and that would be Tohr, Qhuinn, Rhage, Blaylock, Zsadist, and Phury—was watching the show. And what do you know, each of the males wore an expression that suggested he was really, truly, completely, and utterly glad that John’s last statement hadn’t come out of his piehole.
Do you mind, John signed with a glare.
On cue, the bunch of them started milling about, looking up at the dark sky, down at the pavement, across at the brick walls of the alley. Manly muttering floated over on the stinky breeze, as if they were a convention of movie critics discussing what had just been screened.
He didn’t care what their opinions were.
And in this moment of anger, he didn’t care what Xhex’s was, either.
Back at the Brotherhood mansion, No’One had her daughter’s mating dress in her arms—and a doggen planted in front of her, thwarting her quest for directions to the second-story laundry room. The former was welcome; the latter was not.
“No,” she said again. “I shall take care of this.”
“Mistress, please, it is a simple thing to—”
“Then letting me tend to the gown will be no problem for you.”
The doggen’s face fell so far, it was a wonder he didn’t have to look up to meet her eyes. “Perhaps… I shall just check with Superior Perlmutter—”
“And perhaps I shall tell him how helpful you were in showing me the cleaning supplies—and how much I appreciated your fine service unto me.”
Even though her hood was up and shielding her face, the doggen seemed to gauge her intention clearly enough: She wasn’t budging. Not to this member of the staff or any other. His only option was to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off—and that would never happen.
“Just about to lead the way, aren’t you.”
“Ah… yes, mistress.”
She bowed her head. “Thank you.”
“May I take the—”
“Lead? Yes, please. Thank you.”
He was not holding the dress for her. Or cleaning it. Or hanging it up. Or redelivering it.
This was between her and her daughter.
With dejection worthy of a castaway, the servant spun about and started walking, taking her down the long corridor that was marked by beautiful marble statuary of males in various positions. Then it was through a pair of swinging doors at the end, to the left, and through another set of doors.
At this point, everything changed. The runner on the hardwood flooring was no longer an Oriental, but a plain, well-vacuumed cream. There was no art on these pristine creamy walls, and the windows were covered not with great swaths of color with fringe and tassels, but heavy bolts of cotton in the same pale color.
They had entered the servant portion of the mansion.
The juxtaposition had been the same at her father’s manse: One standard for the family. One standard for the staff.
Or at least she had heard it was as such. She had never gone to the back side of the house when she had lived therein.
“This should be”—the doggen opened a pair of doors—“everything you seek.”
The room was the size of the suite she had had at her father’s estate, big and spacious. Except there were no windows. No grand bed with a matching set of handmade furniture. No needlepoint rugs in peaches and yellows and reds. No closets full of fashions from Paris or drawers of jewels or baskets of hair ribbons.
This was where she belonged now. Especially as the doggen described the sundry white contraptions as washing machines and dryers, and then detailed the operation of the ironing boards and irons.
Yes, the servants’ quarters rather than the guest accommodations were her home, and had been ever since she had… found herself in a different place.
In fact, if she could convince someone, anyone, to let her have a room down in this part of the mansion, it would be preferable. Alas, however, as the mother of the mated shellan of one of the household’s prime fighters, she was accorded privilege that she did not deserve.
The doggen began to open cupboards and closets, showing her all manner of equipment and concoctions that were described variously as steamers and stain removers and pressers.…
After the tour was completed, she went over and rose up awkwardly on her good foot to link the top of the gown’s hanger upon a knob.
“Are there any stains of which you are aware?” the doggen asked as she flounced out the skirting.
No’One proceeded to go over every square inch of the full bottom, the bodice, the capped sleeves. “There is only this that I can see.” She bent down carefully so as not to put a lot of weight on her weak leg. “Here where the hem meets the floor.”
The doggen did likewise and inspected the faint darkening on the fabric, his pale hands so sure, his frown one of concentration instead of confusion. “Yes, the manual dry cleaner, I think.”
He took her to the far side of the room and described a process that was easily going to fill hours. Perfect. And before she allowed him to depart, she insisted that he stay at her side for the first couple of treatments. As this made him feel more useful, it worked for the both of them.
“I believe I am ready to continue on my own,” she said eventually.
“Very well, mistress.” He bowed and smiled. “I shall go down and endeavor to ready Last Meal. If you should need anything, please call me.”
From what she had learned since her arrival, that required a telephone—
“Here,” he said, over by the counters. “Press ‘star’ and ‘one’ and ask for me, Greenly.”
“You have been most helpful.”
She looked away quickly, not wanting to see him bow to her. And she didn’t try for a deep breath until the door shut behind him.
Now alone, she put her hands on her hips and let her head hang for a moment, the pressure in her chest making it difficult to fill her lungs.
When she had come here, she expected to struggle—and she was, just not with the things she had anticipated.
She hadn’t considered how difficult it would be to exist in an aristocratic house. The home of the First Family, in fact. At least when she had been up with the Chosen, there had been other rhythms and rules, with no one below her. Here? The lofty position people forced upon her cut off her oxygen a lot of the time.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, mayhap she should have asked the servant to stay. At least the innate need for composure had given her a draw in her ribs. With no one to hide from, however, she fought for breath.
The robe was going to have to come off.
Limping over to the doors, she went to lock them, but found there was no bolting mechanism. Not what she was expecting.
Opening them a crack, she put her head out and double-checked the long hallway.
All the servants would be downstairs preparing food for the people of the house. Even more significant, there was no way anyone but doggen would be in this part of the mansion.
She was safe from other eyes.
Ducking back in, she loosened the tie around her waist, removed her hood from the crown of her head and then stripped herself of the weight she bore anytime she was in public. Ah, glorious relief. Reaching her arms up high, she stretched her shoulders and her back, then pulled her neck from side to side. Her last reclamation was to lift the heavy braid of her hair and put it over her shoulder, relieving some of the pull at her nape.
Save for that first night that she had come unto this house and confronted her daughter—as well as the Brother who had tried to save her life so long ago—no one had seen her features. And no one would henceforth. Ever since that brief revelation, she had been e’er covered, and she was going to stay that way.
Proof of identity had been a necessary evil.
As always, she wore beneath her robing a simple linen sheath she had made herself. She had a number of them, and when they grew too thin, she recycled them as towels to dry herself with. She wasn’t sure where she would find the fabric for replacements here, but that was no problem. In order to refresh herself so that she did not need to feed, she went regularly to the Other Side, and she could get what she needed then.
So different the two places were. And yet in either, her hours were the same: infinite, solitary—
No, not entirely solitary. She had come to this side to find her daughter, and now that she had, she was going to…
Well, tonight, she was going to clean this gown.
Stroking the fine fabric, she couldn’t stop the memories from bursting forth, a geyser, unwelcomed.
She had had gowns like this. Dozens of them. They had filled the closet of her nighttime quarters, those beautifully kitted-out rooms that had had the French doors.
Which had proved to be less than secure.
As her eyes misted over, she fought the pull of the past. She’d been through that black hole too many times to count—
“You should burn that robe.”
No’One wheeled around so fast, she nearly tore the dress off the worktable.
In the doorway was a massive male with blond-and-black hair. Verily, he was so big he filled the double-size jambs, but that was not the astonishing thing.
He appeared to gleam.
Then again, he was covered with gold, hoops and studs marking his ears, his eyebrows, his lips, his throat.
No’One dived for what normally covered her, and he stood calmly as she girded herself with the robe.
“Better?” he said softly.
“Who are you.”
Her heart beat so fast that the three words came out in a rush. She wasn’t good with males in enclosed spaces, and this was very enclosed, and he was very male.
“I’m a friend of yours.”
“Then why have I yet to make your acquaintance.”
“Some people would say you’re lucky to have been spared,” he muttered. “And you’ve seen me at meals.”
She supposed she had. She typically kept her head down and her eyes on her plate, but yes, in the periphery, he had been there.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said.
There were two things that kept her from completely panicking: First, there was no speculation in that deep voice of his, no masculine heat, nothing that made her feel preyed upon; and second, he had shifted his position so he was lounging back against the jamb—leaving her room to bolt out if she had to.
As if he knew what made her nervous.
“I’ve been giving you some time to settle in and get your bearings,” he murmured.
“Why would you have cause to do that.”
“Because you’re here for a very important reason, and I’m going to help you.”
The male’s bright white, pupil-less eyes held hers, even though her face was in shadow… as though he were not merely looking at her, but into her.
She took a step back. “You do not know me.”
At least that was a truth so solid she could plant her feet on it: Even if whoever this was was familiar with her parents, her family, her lineage, he did not know her. She was not who she had once been: the abduction, the birth, her death had wiped that slate clean.
Or had broken it to pieces, more accurately.
“I know that you can help me,” he said. “How about that.”
“Are you looking for a maid?”
Hard to imagine, given the number of staff in this household—but that was beside the point. She didn’t want to serve a male in any kind of intimate way.
“No.” Now he smiled, and she had to admit he looked a little… kind. “You know, your default doesn’t have to be servile.”
She kicked her chin up a notch. “All work is honorable.”
That was a fact that she had missed before everything had changed. Dearest Virgin Scribe, she’d been a spoiled, overpampered, entitled brat. And the shedding of those ugly, jeweled robes of self-inflation had been the only good thing that had come out of it all.
“Not maintaining to the contrary.” He tilted his head, as if he were imagining her in a different place, with different clothes. Or maybe he just had a stiff neck; who knew. “I understand you’re Xhex’s mom.”
“I am the female who birthed her, yes.”
“I heard that Darius and Tohr put her up for adoption after she was born.”
“They did. They sheltered me through my convalescence.” She skipped the part about her taking the latter’s dagger and putting it to use upon her own flesh: she had already spoken o’er much to this male.
“You know, Tohrment, son of Hharm, spends a lot of time looking in your direction at meals.”
No’One recoiled. “I am certain you are wrong.”
“My eyes work just fine. As do his, apparently.”
Now she laughed, the hard, short burst breaking out of her throat. “I can assure you, it is not because he fancies me.”
The male shrugged “Well, friends can disagree.”
“With all due respect, we are not friends. I do not know you—”
Abruptly, the room was infused with a golden glow, the light so buttery and delicious, she felt her skin prickle with warmth.
No’One took a further step back as she realized it was not an optical illusion courtesy of all the jewelry he wore. The male was the source of the illumination, his body, his face, his aura like a banked fire.
As he smiled at her, his expression was that of a holy man. “My name’s Lassiter, and I’ll tell you all you need to know about me. I’m an angel first and a sinner second, and I’m not here for long. I’ll never hurt you, but I’m prepared to make you pretty goddamn uncomfortable if I have to, to get my job done. I like sunsets and long walks on the beach, but my perfect female no longer exists. Oh, and my favorite hobby is annoying the shit out of people. Guess I’m just bred to want to get a rise out of folks—probably the whole resurrection thing.”
No’One’s hand crept up and held her robe together in a tight grip. “Why ever are you here?”
“If I told you now, you’d just fight it tooth and nail, but let’s just say I believe in full circles—I simply didn’t see the one we’re in until you came along.” He gave her a little bow. “Take care of yourself—and that beautiful dress.”
With that, he was gone, drifting away, taking the warmth and the light with him.
Slumping back against the counter, it took her a while to realize her hand hurt. Looking down, she observed it from a distance, seeing the white knuckles and the rigid flesh against the robe’s lapels as if it were someone else’s appendage.
It was always thus when she regarded any part of her body.
But at least she could command her flesh: Her brain ordered the hand attached to the arm that plugged into the torso to release and relax.
As it obeyed, she glanced back over to where the male had stood. The doors were closed. Except… he hadn’t shut them, had he?
Had he even been here?
She rushed over and looked out into the hall. In all directions… there was no one.
After nearly two hundred years of having been mated, Tohr was pretty familiar with the way arguments between pigheaded fighters and hot-tempered females went. And how ridiculous was it to have a case of the nostalgias over the way John and Xhex were hairy-eyeballing each other.
God, he and his Wellsie had gone a few good rounds during their day.
Just one more thing to mourn.
Dragging his exhausted brain back on track, he stepped in between the pair, figuring the situation needed a reality injection. If it had been any other two, he wouldn’t have wasted his breath. Romance was not his business—whether it was going well or badly—but this was John. This was… the son he’d once hoped to have.
“Time to go back to the compound,” he said. “You both need treatment.”
“Stay out of this—”
Stay out of this—
Tohr reached over and clamped a hold on the nape of John Matthew’s neck, squeezing those tendons until the male was forced to look at him. “Don’t be an asshole about this.”
Oh, sure, it was okay for you to be an asshole—
“You got it, kid. That’s the privilege of age. Now shut up and get in the fucking car.”
John frowned as if he’d just noticed Butch had rolled up in the Escalade.
“And you,” Tohr said in a softer tone. “Do everyone a favor and get that shoulder dealt with. Afterward, you can call him a fuck-twit, an ass-hat, and any other thing that strikes you—but right now, that injury of yours is reknitting in three or four different bad ways. You need to see our surgeons fast, and as you are a reasonable female, I know you see the merits of what I’m saying—”
Tohr took his forefinger and shoved it in John’s face. “Shut. Up. And no, she’s going to get herself back to the compound. Aren’t you, Xhex. She’s not getting in that SUV with you.”
John’s hands started going, but they stopped when Xhex said, “Okay. I’ll head north now.”
“Good. Come on, son.” Tohr shoved John in the direction of the SUV, prepared to pick him up by the short hairs if he had to. “Time to have a little ride.”
Man, John was so pissed off, you could have fried an egg on his forehead.
Tough. Shit. Tohr whipped open the passenger-side door and packed the fighter into the front seat like he would have an overnight duffel, or a set of golf clubs, or maybe a bag of groceries.
“Can you do the seat belt yourself like a big boy—or should I work it for you?”
John’s lip curled up, his fangs making a reveal.
Tohr just shook his head and propped an arm on the SUV’s black body paint. Man, he was fucking tired. “Listen to me—as a male who’s been in your boots with this kind of thing a million times, you two have to have some space right now. Separate corners, a little calm-down—then you can talk shit through and…” His voice got gruff. “Well, makeup sex is fantastic, if memory serves.”
John Matthew’s mouth formed a couple variations on fuck. Then he slammed his head back against the rest. Twice.
Mental note: Have Fritz check for structural damage to the seat.
“Trust me, son. The pair of you are going to do this from time to time, and you might as well start to deal with it rationally now. Took me a good fifty years of making shit worse till I figured out a better way to handle arguments. Learn from my mistakes.”
John’s head cranked over, and he started to mouth, I love her so much. I’d die if anything happened to h—
When he stopped short, Tohr took a deep breath through the pain in his chest. “I know. Trust me… I know.”
Shutting the door with a clap, he went around to Butch’s side. When the window was put down, he said quietly, “Drive slow and take the long route. Let’s try to have her in and out of surgery before he gets there. Last thing we need is him riding Manny’s ass in the OR.”
The cop nodded. “Hey, you want a ride back? You don’t look so hot.”
“Are you sure you know what those two words mean?”
When he turned away, he saw that Xhex was gone, and knew there was a good probability she had done what she’d said she was going to. Even though she was as pissed off as John, it was doubtful she’d be stupid about her health, or their future.
Females, after all, were not just the fairer sex, but the fairly reasonable one. Which was the only reason the race had survived this long.
As the Escalade eased off at a snail’s pace, Tohr anticipated all the fun Butch was going to have on the way home. Hard not to feel sorry for the poor bastard.
Annnnnnd then he faced off at his peanut galley. Looked like the cop from Boston wasn’t the only one about to get an earful, and sure enough, each one of the males lobbed a sentence back at him:
“Time to go back to the training center.”
“You need treatment.”
“You are a reasonable male, and I know you see the merits of what I’m saying.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
Rhage summed up the regurgitation with two words: “Kettle. Black.”
Fucking hell. “Did you guys plan that out?”
“Yeah, and if you don’t fight us”—Hollywood bit down on his grape Tootsie Pop—“we’ll do it again—only with the dance moves this time.”
“Fine. Unless you agree to home it, we will rock the dance moves.” To prove the point, the moron linked his palms behind his head and started doing something obscene with his hips. Which was backed up by a series of, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, ohhhh, yeeeeeeeaaaah, who’s your daddy…”
The others looked at Rhage like he’d grown a horn in the middle of his forehead. Nothing unusual there. And Tohr knew that, in spite of this ridiculous diversion, if he didn’t cave, the lot of them would crawl so far up his ass, he’d be coughing up shitkickers.
Also nothing unusual.
Rhage wheeled around, shoved out his butt, and started slapping his moneymaker like it was bread dough.
The only advantage? Whatever shit he was spouting was muffled.
“For the love of the Virgin Scribe,” Z muttered, “put us out of this misery, and go the fuck home.”
Someone else chimed in, “You know, I never thought there were advantages to being blind.…”
“Or mute,” somebody added.
Tohr looked around the periphery, hoping that something that smelled like three-day-old sandwich meat would jump out of the shadows.
And next thing you knew, Rhage would break into the robot. Or the Cabbage Patch. Or go Twist and Shout on their asses.
His brothers would never forgive him.
An hour and a half…
It took one hour and thirty cocksucking minutes to get back home.
As far as John could figure, the only way the trip could have taken longer was if Butch had detoured through Connecticut. Or maybe Maryland.
When they finally pulled in front of the great stone mansion, he didn’t wait for the Escalade to get parked—or even slow down. He unlocked the door and leaped out while the SUV was still crusing. Landing in a flat-out run, he took the stone steps up to the front entrance in a single leap, and after ripping into the vestibule, shoved his face so tightly into the security camera, he almost broke the lens with his nose.
The massive bronze portal opened fairly quickly, but damned if he could have said who did the honors. And the incredible rainbow-colored foyer with its marble and malachite columns and its lofty painted ceiling made no impression at all. Neither did the mosaic tiles on the floor that he crossed at a dead run, or the calls of his name from who-the-fuck-knew.
Hitting the door that was tucked underneath the grand staircase, he plowed into the underground tunnel that connected to the training center, punching in pass codes so viciously it was a wonder he didn’t break the keypads. Entering through the back of the office’s supply closet, he vaulted around the desk, shot out through the glass door, and—
“She’s being operated on now,” V announced from fifty yards away.
The Brother was standing outside the main examination room’s doorway, a hand-rolled between his teeth, a lighter in his gloved hand.
“It’ll be another twenty minutes or so.”
As a shhhh-ch rose up, a little flame made an appearance, and V brought the heat to the tip of his cigarette. When he exhaled, the scent of Turkish tobacco wafted leisurely down the hall.
Rubbing his aching head, John felt like he’d been put in a metaphorical time-out.
“She’s going to be fine,” V said on a stream of smoke.
No reason to rush now, and not just because she was on the table. It was pretty damn obvious that V had been put out in the hall as a living, breathing doorstop: John wasn’t getting in that room until the Brother let him.
Probably smart. Given his mood, he’d have been perfectly capable of breaking the door down cartoon-style, leaving nothing but the outline of his body in the panel—and naturally, that was what you wanted in the middle of scalpel-palooza.
Robbed of a target, John dragged his sorry ass down to the Brother. They put you out here, didn’t they.
“Nah. Just a cigarette break.”
Settling against the wall next to the male, John was tempted to give the back of his head a workout against the concrete, but he didn’t want to risk making any noise.
It was too soon, he thought. Too soon for him to be locked out of yet another procedure of hers. Too soon for them to be fighting. Too soon for the tension and the anger.
Can I try one of those? he signed.
V cocked a brow, but didn’t try to talk sense into him. The Brother just pulled out a pouch and some cigarette papers. “You want to do the honors yourself?”
John shook his head. For one thing, although he’d watched V’s rolling procedure countless times, he’d never tried anything like it before. For another, he didn’t think his hands were steady enough.
V took care of things in the work of a moment, and as he gave the coffin nail over, he flicked his lighter.
They both leaned in. Just before John connected the cigarette to the flame, V said, “Word of advice. These have a kick, so don’t suck too hard—”
Holy hypoxia, Batman.
John’s lungs didn’t just reject the onslaught; they had a seizure over it. And as he coughed his bronchial tubes up, V took the offending item from him. Helpful—meant he could brace both palms on his thighs as he bent over and retched.
When the stars faded from his watering eyes, he looked over at V… and felt his balls shrivel up and hibernate in his lower gut. The Brother had taken John’s hand-rolled and added it to his own, drawing on both of them at the same time.
Great. Like he didn’t already feel like a pussy.
V held the pair out between his fore- and middle fingers. “Unless you want to give it another go?” When John shook his head, he got a nod of approval. “Good call. A second drag and your next stop’s the wastepaper basket—and not to toss your Kleenex, true.”
John let his ass slide down the wall until the linoleum floor came up and caught his tailbone. Where’s Tohr? He come home yet?
“Yup. I sent him to go eat. Told him he wasn’t allowed back here until he had a sworn affidavit that he’d sucked down a full meal with dessert.” V took another drag and talked out the fragrant smoke. “I nearly had to drag him up there myself. He’s there for you, for real.”
He nearly got himself killed tonight.
“Same could be said for all of us. It’s the nature of the job.”
You know with him it’s different.
A grunt was all he got in return.
As time passed, and V smoked like a big shot, John found himself wanting to ask the unaskable.
Teetering on the brink of propriety, desperation eventually threw him over the edge. Whistling softly so Vishous would look over, he used his hands carefully.
How does she die, V. As the Brother stiffened, John signed, I’ve heard you sometimes see these things. And if I knew it was old age, I could handle this stuff about her in the field so much better.
V shook his head, his dark brows going down over his diamond eyes, the tattoo at his temple shifting its shape. “You shouldn’t make any changes to your life based on my visions. They’re just a snapshot of a moment in time—which could be next week, next year, three centuries from now. It’s occurrence without context, not a when and where.”
With his throat closing up, John shot back, So she does die violently.
“I didn’t say that.”
What happens to her? Please.
V’s eyes shifted away so that he was staring across the concrete hallway. And in the silence, John was both terrified of, and starved for, whatever the Brother was seeing.
“Sorry, John. I made the mistake of telling someone this information once. It relieved him in the short term, it truly did, but… in the end, it was a curse. So, yeah, I know firsthand that opening this can of worms doesn’t get anyone anywhere.” He glanced over. “Funny, most people don’t want to know, true? And I think that’s good and the way it’s supposed to be. That’s why I can’t see my own death. Or Butch’s. Or Payne’s. Too close. Life’s meant to be lived blind—that’s how you don’t take shit for granted. The crap I see isn’t natural—it ain’t right, kid.”
John felt a great hum start up in his head. He knew the guy was talking sense, but he was tingling with the need to know. One look at V’s jaw, however, told him he was barking up the wrong tree if he pushed the issue.
Nothing was going to come back at him.
Except maybe a fist.
Still, it was horrible to stand on the lip of such knowledge, knowing that it was out there in the world, a book that should not, must not be read—that he nonetheless was dying to have in his palms.
It was just… his whole life was in there with Doc Jane and Manny. Everything he was, and would ever be, was on that slab of a table, out like a light, getting repaired because the enemy had hurt her.
As he closed his eyes, he saw the madness in Tohr’s face as the Brother attacked that lesser.
Yes, he thought, he now knew down to his marrow precisely how the male felt.
Hell on earth made you do some pretty fucked-up shit.
Upstairs in the formal dining room, the food that Tohr ate with the others was all texture, no taste. Likewise, the conversation percolating up around the table was just sound without relevance. And the people to his left and to his right were two-dimensional sketches, nothing more.
As he sat with his brothers and the shellans and guests of the mansion, everything was a distant, hazy blur.
Well, almost all of it.
There was only one thing in the vast room that made any impression on him.
Across the porcelain and the silver, on the far side of the bouquets of flowers and the curling candelabra, a robed figure sat motionless and self-contained in a chair precisely opposite his own. With that hood up in place, the only thing that showed of the female underneath was a pair of delicate hands that, from time to time, cut a piece of meat or forked up some rice.
She ate like a bird. Was silent as a shadow.
And why she was here, he hadn’t a clue.
He had buried her back in the Old Country. Underneath an apple tree, because he had hoped the fragrant blooms would ease her in her death.
God knew she had had nothing easy at the end of her life.
And yet now she was alive again, having arrived with Payne from the Other Side, proof positive that when it came to the Scribe Virgin and the granting of mercies, anything was possible.
“More lamb, sire?” a doggen asked at his elbow.
Tohr’s stomach was packed tighter than a suitcase, but he was still feeling loose in the joints and sloppy in the head. Considering that eating more was better than the ordeal of feeding, he nodded.
As his plate was refilled with meat, and he volunteered for more rice pilaf, he looked around at the others just to give himself something to do.
Wrath was at the head of the table, the king presiding over everything and everybody. Beth was supposed to be in the other armchair at the far end, but instead, and as usual, she was in her hellren’s lap. As was also typical, Wrath was more interested in paying honor to his female than feeding himself: Even though he was fully blind now, he fed his shellan from his plate, lifting his fork and holding it so that she leaned in and accepted what he provided.
The pride he so clearly had in her, the satisfaction he took from caring for her, the goddamn warmth between them transformed his harsh, aristocratic face into something almost tender. And from time to time he bared his long fangs, as if he were looking forward to getting her alone and sinking into her… in a variety of ways.
Not the kind of thing Tohr needed to see.
Swinging his head around, he caught Rehv and Ehlena sitting side by side, doing the lovey-dovey. And Phury and Cormia. And Z and Bella.
Rhage and Mary…
Frowning, he thought of how Hollywood’s female had been saved by the Scribe Virgin. She’d been on the lip edge of dead, only to be pulled back and given a long life.
Down in the clinic, Doc Jane was the same. Dead, but returned, with nothing but good years ahead of her and her hellren.
Tohr’s eyes locked on the robed figure across from him.
Anger boiled in his distended stomach, adding to the pressure: That fallen-from-grace aristocrat, now going by the name No’One, was fucking back as well, granted the gift of life anew by the goddamn mother of the race.
Dead and gone. Nothing but memory and ashes.
As his temper started really buzzing, he wondered who you had to bribe or blow to get that kind of dispensation. His Wellsie had been a female of worth, just like these other three—why hadn’t she been spared. Why the fuck wasn’t he like those other males, looking forward to the rest of his years.
Why hadn’t he and his shellan been granted mercy when they needed it most.…
He was staring at her.
No… he was glaring at her.
Across the table, Tohrment, son of Hharm, was focused on No’One with hard, angry eyes, as if he resented not just her presence in this house, but the very breath in her lungs and the beat of her heart.
The expression did not favor his features. Indeed, he had aged so much since last she had seen him, even though vampires, especially those of strong lineage, appeared to be in their mid- to late twenties until just before they died. And that was not the only change in him. He was suffering from a persistent weight loss—no matter how much he ate at the table, he did not carry enough flesh on his bones, his face marked with hollowed cheekbones and a too-sharp jaw, his sunken eyes smudged with shadows above and below them.
His physical infirmity, whatever it was, hadn’t stopped him from fighting, however. He hadn’t changed before the meal, and his damp clothes were stained with red blood and black oil, visceral reminders of how all the males spent their nights.
He had washed his hands, however.
Where was his mate? she wondered. She had seen no evidence of a shellan—perhaps he had remained unattached all these years? Surely if he had a female, she would be here to support him.
Ducking her head further under her hood, she placed her fork and knife to the side of her plate. She had no more appetite for food.
Nor was she hungry for echoes from the past. The latter, however, was nothing she could politely refuse.…
Tohrment had been as young as she when they had spent all those months together in that fortified cabin in the Old Country, taking refuge against the cold of the winter, the wet of the spring, the heat of the summer, and the drafts of the autumn. They had had four seasons of watching her belly swell with life, a complete calendar cycle in which he and his mentor, Darius, had fed, sheltered, and cared for her.
It was not how her first pregnancy should have gone. It was not how a female of her background should have lived. It was not anything that the fate she had intended for herself would have e’er provided.
Arrogant of her to have assumed anything, however. And there had been, and still was, no going back. From the moment she had been captured and ripped away from her family, she had been forever altered sure as if acid had been splashed upon her face, or her body had been burned beyond recognition, or she had lost limbs or eyesight or hearing.
But that was not the worst of it. Bad enough that she had been tainted at all, but that it had been by a symphath? And that the stress had triggered her first needing?
She had spent those four long seasons under that thatched roof aware that there was a monster growing inside of her. Indeed, she would have lost her social station if it had been a vampire who had abducted her and cheated her family of the most valuable thing about her: her virginity. Previous to her abduction, as the daughter of the Council’s leahdyre, she had been a highly valuable commodity, the kind of thing that was sequestered and brought out for admiring at special occasions like a fine jewel.
In fact, her father had been making arrangements for her mating to someone who would have provided her with a lifestyle even higher than that to which she had been born.…
With terrible clarity, she recalled that she had been tending to her hair when the soft clicking sound from the French door had registered.
She had put the brush down on her makeup table.
And then the latch had been released by someone other than herself.…
In quiet moments since then, she sometimes imagined that she had gone down to her subterranean quarters with her family that night. She hadn’t been feeling well—the precursor, likely, to her needing period—and had stayed upstairs because there was more to distract her from her restlessness up above.
Yes… she pretended sometimes that she had followed them down into the basement and, once there, had finally told her father about the strange figure that often appeared outside of her bedroom on the terrace.
She would have saved herself.
Saved the warrior across from her this anger of his…
She had used Tohrment’s dagger. Right after the birth, she had snapped and taken the weapon from him. Unable to bear the reality of what she had brought into the world, incapable of drawing one more breath in the destiny she had been condemned to, she had turned the blade upon her own stomach.
The last thing she had heard before the light had claimed her was him screaming—
The screech of his chair getting shoved back made her jump, and everyone at the table went silent, all eating halting, all movement ceasing, all conversation cutting off as he prowled out of the room.
No’One lifted her napkin and blotted her mouth under her hood. Nobody looked over at her, as if they had all failed to notice his fixation on her. But from down at the far end, the angel with the blond-and-black hair was staring right at her.
Shifting her eyes from him, she saw Tohrment come out of the billiards room across the foyer. He had a bottle of some dark liquid in each hand, and his grim face was nothing short of a death mask.
Closing her lids, she reached deep, trying to find the strength she was going to need to approach the male who had just left so abruptly. She had come here to this side, to this house, to make amends with the daughter she had abandoned.
There was another who needed an apology, however.
And though words of contrition were the ultimate goal, she would begin with the dress, returning it to him as soon as she finished cleaning and pressing it with her own hands. Comparatively, it was such a small thing. But one had to start somewhere, and the gown was clearly a generational one from his bloodline, given to her daughter to wear, as she had no other family.
Even after all these years, he continued to take care of Xhexania.
He was a male of worth.
No’One was quieter about her departure, but the room fell silent once more as she rose from her seat. Keeping her head down, she left not through the archway, as he had, but through the butler’s door that led into the kitchen.
Limping past the ovens and counter spaces and busy, disapproving doggen, she took to the rear stairwell, the one that had simple whitewashed plaster walls and pine stairs—
“It was his shellan’s.”
The soft leather sole of her slipper shoe squeaked as she wheeled around. Down below, the angel stood at the bottom step.
“The dress,” he said. “That was the gown that Wellesandra wore on the night they were mated nearly two hundred years ago.”
“Oh, then I shall return it to his mate—”
A cold shiver went down her spine. “Dead…”
“A lesser shot her in the face.” As No’One gasped, his white eyes didn’t blink. “She was pregnant.”
No’One threw her hand out for the rail as her body swayed.
“Sorry,” the angel said. “I don’t sugarcoat shit, and you need to know what you’re walking into if you’re going to give that back to him. Xhex should have told you—I’m surprised she didn’t.”
Indeed. Although it wasn’t as if they had spent much time together—and they had plenty of topics of their own to tiptoe around.
“I did not know,” she said eventually. “The seeing bowls on the Other Side… they never…” Except she hadn’t been thinking of Tohrment when she had gone to them; she’d been worried about and focused on Xhexania.
“Tragedy, like love, makes people blind,” he said, as if he could read her regrets.
“I’m not going to take it to him.” She shook her head. “I’ve done enough damage. Presenting him with his… mate’s gown…”
“Is a nice gesture. I think you should return it to him. Maybe it’ll help.”
“Do what,” she said numbly.
“Remind him that she’s gone.”
No’One frowned. “As if he has forgotten?”
“You’d be surprised, my fair one. The chain of memory needs to be broken—so I say bring the dress to him, and let him take it from you.”
No’One tried to imagine that exchange. “How cruel—no, if you’re so interested in torturing him, you can do it yourself.”
The angel cocked a brow. “It’s not torture. It’s reality. Time’s passing and he needs to move on, fast. Take the gown to him.”
“Why are you so interested in his affairs?”
“His destiny is my own.”
“How is that possible?”
“Trust me, I didn’t set it up like this.”
The angel stared at her as if daring her to find falsity in anything he had stated.
“Forgive me,” she said roughly. “But I have done enough harm to that fine male. I shan’t be a part of anything that hurts him.”
The angel rubbed his eyes as if he had a headache. “Goddamn it. He doesn’t need coddling. He needs a good hard boot in the ass—and if he doesn’t get one soon, he’s going to pray to be in the shithole he’s in now.”
“I do not understand any of this—”
“Hell is a place of many levels. And where he’s headed is going to make this stretch of agony seem like nothing but spikes under fingernails.”
No’One recoiled and then had to clear her throat. “A way with words you have not, angel.”
“Really. You don’t say.”
“I can’t… I can’t do what you wish me to.”
“Yes, you can. You have to.”
When Tohr had hit the billiards room bar, he hadn’t bothered to check which bottles he took. Up on the second-floor landing, however, he learned that the one in his right hand was Qhuinn’s Herradurra, and the one in his left was… Drambuie?
Okay, right, he might be desperate, but he still had taste buds, and that shit was nasty.
Striding down to the sitting room at the end of the hall, he swapped the latter for some good old-fashioned rum—maybe he’d pretend the tequila was Coke and put the two together.
In his room, he shut the door, cracked the seal on the Bacardi, and opened his gullet, sucking the hooch down. Pause for swallow and breath. Repeat. Annnnd repeat… and one more good one. The line of fire from his lips to his gut was kind of nice, like he’d deep-throated a lightning strike, and he kept the rhythm going, taking air when he had to as if he were doing the freestyle in a pool.
Half the bottle was gone in about ten minutes, and he was still standing just inside his room. Which was pretty stupid, he supposed.
Unlike getting drunk, which was pretty necessary.
He put all the booze down and fucked around with his shitkickers until he got them off. Leathers, socks, muscle shirt followed the trend. When he was naked, he walked into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and got in with both bottles in his hands.
The rum lasted through the shampoo and soap-up routine. When he started the rinse cycle, he opened the Herradurra and had at it.
It wasn’t until he got out that he began to feel the effects, the sharp edges of his mood recontouring and sprouting the peach fuzz of oblivion. Even as the tide came in to claim him, though, he kept up with the drinking as he went dripping wet into his room.
He wanted to go down to the clinic and see about Xhex and John, but he knew that she was going to make it, and they were going to have to sort stuff out on their own. Besides, his mood was toxic, and God knew, they’d had enough of that going around between the pair of them back in the alley.
No need to share the wealth.
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