Lying in bed, Bella listened to the quiet sounds around her: male voices down the hall, low-pitched, rhythmic… the wind outside pushing against the mansion, capricious, uneven… the creak of a floorboard, quick, high-pitched.
She forced herself to close her eyes.
A minute or so later she was up and pacing around, the Oriental on the floor soft under her bare feet. None of her elegant surroundings made sense, and she felt like she had to awkwardly transcribe what she was seeing. The normalcy, the safety she was steeping in seemed like another language, one she had forgotten how to speak or read. Or was this a dream?
In the corner of the room the grandfather clock chimed five A.M. How long had she been free, exactly? How long since the Brothers had come for her and taken her from the earth back into the air? Eight hours now? Maybe, except it felt like minutes. Or maybe it felt like years?
The fuzzy quality of time was like her blurry vision, insulating her, scaring her.
She pulled the silk robe around her more tightly. This was all wrong. She should be rejoicing. After God only knew how many weeks in that pipe in the ground with that lesser standing over her, she should be weeping with sweet relief.
Instead everything around her felt fake and insubstantial, as if she were in a life-size dollhouse filled with papier-m^ach'e fakes.
She paused in front of a window and realized that only one thing felt real. And she wished she were with him.
Zsadist must have been the one who had come to the side of the bed as she'd first woken up. She'd been dreaming of being back in the hole, back with the lesser. When she'd opened her eyes, all she'd seen was a massive black shape standing over her, and for a moment she hadn't been able to separate reality from nightmare.
She was still having trouble with that.
God, she wanted to go to Zsadist now, wanted to return to his room. But in the middle of all the chaos after she'd screamed, he hadn't prevented her from leaving him, had he? Maybe he preferred her elsewhere.
Bella ordered her feet to start moving again and she made herself a little track: around the foot of the gigantic bed, over to the chaise, quick loop by the windows, then a big scenic swing past the highboy and the door to the hall and the old-fashioned writing desk. The home stretch took her by the fireplace and the bookshelves.
More pacing. More pacing. More pacing.
Eventually she went into the bathroom. She didn't stop in front of the mirror; didn't want to know what her face looked like. What she was after was some hot water. She wanted to take a hundred showers, a thousand baths. She wanted to strip off the first layer of her skin and shave off the hair that lesser had loved so much and clip her nails and clean her ears and scrub the soles of her feet.
She fired up the showerhead. When the spray was warm, she dropped the robe and stepped under the water. The second the rush hit her back, she covered herself out of instinct, one arm over her breasts, one hand shielding the apex of her thighs… until she realized she didn't have to hide. She was alone. She had privacy here.
She straightened and forced her hands to her sides, feeling like it had been forever since she'd been allowed to wash in private. The lesser had always been there, staring, or worse, helping.
Thank God, he'd never tried to have sex with her. Rape had been one of her greatest fears in the beginning. She'd been terrified, sure he was going to force her, but then she'd discovered he was impotent. No matter how hard he stared at her, his body had always remained flaccid.
With a shudder, she reached to the side for the bar of soap, lathered her hands, and ran them over her arms. She sudsed up her neck and then across her shoulders and worked her way down…
Bella frowned and bent forward. There was something on her belly… faded scratches. Scratches that… Oh, God. That was a D, wasn't it? And the next… that was an A. Then a V and an I and another D.
Bella dropped the bar of soap and covered her stomach with her hands, falling back against the tile. His name was on her body. In her skin. Like a gruesome parody of her species' highest mating ritual. She truly was his wife…
Stumbling from the shower, slipping on the marble floor, she grabbed a towel and wrapped herself up. Grabbed another and did the same. She would have gone for three, four… five, if she'd found more.
Shaky, nauseous, she went up to the mirror that was fogged over. Taking a deep breath, she rubbed her elbow across the condensation. And looked at herself.
John wiped his mouth and somehow managed to drop his napkin. Cursing to himself, he bent down to pick it up… and so did Sarelle, who got to the thing first. He mouthed the words thank you when she handed it to him.
"You're welcome," she said.
Boy, he loved her voice. And he loved the way she smelled like lavender body lotion. And he loved her long, thin hands.
But he'd hated dinner. Wellsie and Tohr had done all the talking for him, giving Sarelle a glossed-over version of his life. What little he'd written on his pad had seemed like stupid filler.
As his head came up to level, Wellsie was smiling at him. But then she cleared her throat, as if trying to play it cool.
"So, as I was saying, a couple of females from the aristocracy used to run the winter solstice ceremony back in the Old Country. Bella's mother was one of them, as a matter of fact. I want to check in with them. Make sure we don't forget anything."
John let the conversation amble along, not paying too much attention until Sarelle said, "Well, I guess I'd better get going. It's thirty-five minutes to dawn. My parents will have a conniption."
She pushed her chair out, and John stood up as everyone else did. While good-byes were said, he found himself fading into the background. At least until Sarelle looked right at him.
"Would you walk me out?" she asked.
His eyes shot to the front door. Walk her out? To her car?
In a sudden rush, some kind of raw male instinct flooded his chest, so powerful he shook a little. Abruptly his palm started to tickle, and he looked down at it, feeling as though there were something in it, that he was holding something… so he could protect her.
Sarelle cleared her throat. "Okay… um…"
John realized she was waiting for him and snapped out of his little trance. Stepping forward, he indicated with his hand the way to the front door.
As they went outside, she said, "So are you psyched to train?"
John nodded and found his eyes roaming the environs, searching the shadows. He felt himself tense up, and that right palm of his started to hum again. He wasn't sure exactly what he was looking for. He just knew he had to keep her safe at all costs.
Keys jingled as her hand came out of her pocket.
"I think my friend is going to be in your class. He was supposed to sign up tonight." She unlocked the car door. "Anyway, you know why I'm really here, don't you?"
He shook his head.
"I think they want you to feed from me. When your transition hits."
John coughed from shock, sure that his eyeballs had popped out of his skull and were rolling down the driveway.
"Sorry." She smiled. "Guess they didn't tell you."
Yeah, he would have remembered that conversation.
"I'm cool with it," she said. "Are you?"
Oh. My. God.
"John?" She cleared her throat. "Tell you what. Do you have something I can write on?"
Numbly, he shook his head. He'd left his pad in the house. Idiot.
"Give me your hand." When he reached out, she got a pen from somewhere and bent over his palm. The nub ran across his skin smoothly. "That's my e-mail address and my IM info. I'll be online in about an hour. Messie me, okay? We'll talk."
He looked at what she'd written. Just stared at it.
She shrugged a little. "I mean, you don't have to or anything. Just… you know. I thought we could get to know each other that way." She paused, as if waiting for a response. "Um… whatever. No pressure. I mean—"
He grabbed her hand, whipped the pen out of it, and flattened her palm.
I want to talk to you, he wrote.
Then he looked straight into her eyes and did the most amazing, ballsy thing.
He smiled at her.