As dawn came and shutters went down over the windows, Bella drew on the black robe and bolted out of the bedroom she'd been given. With quick eyes, she checked up and down the hallway. No witnesses. Good. Closing the door quietly, she glided over the Persian runner, making no sound at all. When she got to the head of the grand staircase she paused, trying to remember which way to go.
The corridor with the statues, she thought, remembering another trip down that long stretch so many, many weeks ago.
She walked fast and then ran, clutching the lapels of the robe and holding the slit on the bottom closed over her thighs. She passed statues and doors, until she got to the end and stopped in front of the last pair. She didn't bother to collect herself, because she was uncollectible. Loose, ungrounded, in danger of disintegration—there was no collecting anything. She knocked loudly.
Through the door came, "Fuck off. I've crashed."
She turned the knob and pushed. Light from the hall barged in, slicing a pie wedge out of the darkness. As the glow hit Zsadist, he sat up on a pallet of blankets in the far corner. He was naked, his muscles flexing into ridges under his skin, his nipple rings flashing silver. His face, with that scar, was a billboard for the rankly pissed-off male.
"I said, fuck o—Bella?" He covered himself with his hands. "Jesus Christ. What are you doing?"
Good question, she thought as her courage dimmed. "Can… can I stay here with you?"
He frowned. "What are you—No, you can't."
He grabbed something off the floor and held it in front of his hips as he stood up. With no apologies for her stare, she drank in the sight of him: the tattooed slave bands around his wrists and neck, the gauge in his left earlobe, his obsidian eyes, his skull-trimmed hair. His body was as starkly lean as she remembered, all striated muscles and hard-cut veins and evident bones. Raw power emanated from him like a scent.
"Bella, get out of here, okay? This is not the place for you."
She ignored the command in his eyes and his tone, because although her bravery was gone, desperation gave her the strength she needed.
Now her voice no longer faltered. "When I was so out of it in the car, you were behind the wheel, weren't you?" He didn't respond, but she didn't need him to. "Yes, you were. That was you. You spoke to me. You were the one who came for me, weren't you?"
He flushed. "The Brotherhood came for you."
"But you drove me away. And you brought me here first. To your room." She looked at the luxurious bed. The covers were thrown back, the pillow dented from where her head had lain. "Let me stay."
"Look, you need to be safe—"
"I am safe with you. You saved me. You won't let that lesser get me again."
"No one can touch you here. This place is wired like the goddamned Pentagon."
"No," he snapped. "Now get the hell out of here."
She started to shake. "I can't be alone. Please let me stay with you. I need to…" She needed him specifically, but didn't think he'd respond well to that. "I need to be with someone."
"Then Phury's more what you're looking for."
"No, he's not." She wanted the male in front of her. For all his brutality, she trusted him instinctually.
Zsadist ran his hand over his head. A number of times. Then his chest expanded.
"Don't make me go," she whispered.
When he cursed, she exhaled in relief, figuring that was as close to a yes as she was going to get.
"I have to put some pants on," he muttered.
Bella stepped inside and closed the door, lowering her eyes for only a moment. When she looked up again, he'd turned away and was pulling a pair of black nylon sweats up his thighs.
His back, with its streaks of scars, flexed as he bent over. Seeing the cruel pattern, she was struck with the need to know exactly what he'd been through. All of it. Each and every lash. She'd heard the rumors about him; she wanted his truth.
He'd survived what had been done to him. Maybe so could she.
He turned around. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes, Phury brought me food."
A flicker of expression passed over his face, but it was gone so fast she couldn't read it.
"Are you in pain?"
He walked over to the bed and plumped up the pillows. Then he stood to one side, looking down at the floor.
As she came forward she wanted to throw her arms around him, and he stiffened, as though he'd read her mind. God, she knew he didn't like to be touched, had learned that the hard way. But she wanted to get close anyway.
Please look at me, she thought.
She was just about to ask him to when she noticed he had something around his throat.
"My necklace," she breathed. "You're wearing my necklace."
She reached out to it, but he flinched away. With a quick movement he took off the fragile gold chain with its little diamonds and dropped the thing in her hand.
"Here. Take it back."
She looked down. Diamonds by the Yard. By Tiffany. She'd worn it for years… her staple piece of jewelry. The thing had been so much a part of her, she'd always felt naked without it on. Now the fragile links seemed totally foreign to her.
It was warm, she thought, fingering a diamond. Warm from his skin.
"I want you to keep it," she blurted.
"Enough with the talk. Get in or get out of here."
She put the necklace into the pocket of the robe and glanced at him. His eyes were locked on the floor, and as he breathed his nipple rings caught the light.
Look at me, she thought.
Except he didn't, so she got into the bed. When he leaned down she scootched over to make room for him, but all he did was pull the covers over her and then go back to the corner, to the pallet on the floor.
Bella stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. Then she grabbed a pillow, slid out of the bed, and went over to him.
"What are you doing?" His voice was high. Alarmed.
She dropped her pillow and lay down, easing onto the floor beside his big body. His scent was so much stronger now, smelling of evergreen and distilled male power. Seeking the heat of him, she inched closer until her forehead hit the back of his arm. He was so hard, like a stone wall, but he was warm, and her body relaxed. Next to him she was able to feel the weight of her own bones, the hard floor underneath her, the currents in the room as the heat came on. Through his presence, she connected to the world around her again.
She pushed herself forward until she was flush against the side of him, from breast to heel.
He shifted away with a jerk, moving back until he hit the wall.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, pushing herself up to him again. "I need this from you. My body needs" — you—"something warm."
Abruptly he leaped to his feet.
Oh, no. He was going to kick her out—
"Come on," he said gruffly. "We're going to the bed. I can't stand the idea of you on the floor."
Whoever said you couldn't sell something twice had never met the Omega.
O rolled over onto his stomach and propped his body up on weak arms. The retching was easier like this. Gravity helped.
As he gagged, he remembered the first little deal he'd made with the father of all lessers. On the night of O's induction into the Lessening Society, he'd traded his soul, along with his blood and heart, to become an immortal, sanctioned, supported killer.
And now he'd done another trade. Mr. X was no more. O was now the Fore-lesser.
Unfortunately, O was also now the Omega's bitch.
He tried to lift his head. When he did the room spun, but he was too exhausted to bother getting more nauseated. Or maybe there was nothing left on the downside in that department.
The cabin. He was in Mr. X's cabin. And going by the light, it was past dawn. As he blinked in the weak glow, he looked down at himself. He was naked. Marked with bruises. And he hated the taste in his mouth.
Shower. He needed a shower.
O dragged himself off the floor using a chair and the edge of the table. As he stood, his legs made him think of lava lamps for some insane reason. Probably because both were liquid inside.
His left knee gave out and he collapsed into the seat. While he wrapped his arms around himself, he decided the wash-off could wait.
Man… the world was new again, wasn't it? And he'd learned so many things during the course of his promotion. Before his change in status, he hadn't known the Fore-lesser was much more than just the leader of the slayers. In fact, the Omega was trapped on the other side and needed a conduit to get temporal. The number one lesser was the beacon the Omega used to find his way during the crossover. All the Fore-lesser had to do was open up the channel and make like a lighthouse.
And there were serious benes to being the lesser in charge. Benes that made that body-freeze technique Mr. X had used look like child's play.
Mr. X… good old sensei. O laughed. However shitty he felt this morning, Mr. X felt worse. Guaranteed.
Things had gone so smoothly after that blade-in-the-chest routine. When O had landed at the Omega's feet, he'd made his case for a regime change. He'd pointed out that the Society's ranks were dropping in number, especially among Primes. The Brothers were getting stronger. The Blind King had ascended. Mr. X was not holding a strong front.
And all of that was true. But none of it was what cinched the deal.
No, the closing had happened on account of the Omega's whim for O.
In the Society's history, there had been some instances when the Omega had taken a personal interest, if you could call it that, in a specific lesser. It wasn't the boon you'd think. The Omega's affections were intense and short-lived, and the breakups were gruesome, according to the rumors. But O was willing to beg and pretend and lie to get what he needed, and the Omega had taken what was offered.
What a horrible way to kill a couple of hours. But so worth it.
He wondered idly what was happening to Mr. X right now. When O had been released the Omega had been about to call the other slayer home, and it must have happened already. The former Fore-lesser's weapons were on the table, his cell phone and BlackBerry, too. And there was a scorched star-burst over there by the front door.
O glanced up at the digital clock across the room. Even though he felt like roadkill, it was time to motivate. He picked up Mr. X's phone, dialed, and held the thing to his ear.
"Yeah, sensei?" U answered.
"Been a change in leadership. I want you to be my second in command."
Silence. Then: "Holy shit. What happened to Mr. X?"
"He's eating his pink slip right now. So are you in?"
"Ah, yeah. Sure. I'm your boy."
"You're in charge of the check-ins from now on. No reason to do it in person. E-mail's fine. And I'm keeping the squads as is. Primes in pairs. Betas in groups of four. Get the announcement out about Mr. X. Then get your ass here to the cabin."
O hung up. He didn't give a shit about the Society. Couldn't care less about the stupid war with the vampires. He had two objectives: Get his woman back dead or alive. And kill the scarred Brother who'd taken her.
As he stood up, he happened to look down at his body, at his limp maleness. A horrible thought snaked through his mind.
Vampires, unlike lessers, were not impotent.
He pictured his beautiful, pure wife… saw her naked, her hair all over her pale shoulders, the elegant curves of her slender body catching the light. Gorgeous. Perfect, perfect, perfect. Utterly feminine.
Something to be worshiped and possessed. But never fucked. A Madonna.
Except anything with a cock would want that. Vampire, human, lesser. Anything.
Violence threaded through him, and abruptly he hoped she was dead. Because if that ugly bastard had tried to have sex with her… man, O was going to castrate that brother with a spoon before killing him.
And God help her if she enjoyed it.