Bella woke up hours later to a soft scraping sound. She glanced over to a window and watched as its steel shutter came down. Dawn must be close.
Anxiety tingled in her chest, and she looked at the door. She wanted Zsadist to come through it, wanted to clap her eyes on him and reassure herself he was in one piece. Even though he'd seemed back to normal when he'd left, she'd put him through a lot.
She rolled over onto her back and thought about Mary showing up. How had Zsadist known she'd needed a friend? And God, the fact that he'd gone to Mary and—
The bedroom door opened wide without any warning.
Bella sat up in a rush, pulling the covers to her throat. But then Zsadist's shadow was a stunning relief.
"It's just me," he said gruffly. As he came inside, he was carrying a tray, and there was something on his shoulder. A duffel bag. "You mind if I hit the lights?"
"Hi…" I'm so glad you're home safe. "Not at all."
He called to life several candles, and she blinked in the sudden glow.
"I brought you some things from your house." He put the tray of food on the bedside table and opened up the bag. "I got you clothes and a parka. The bottle of shampoo that was in your shower. A brush. Shoes. Socks to keep your feet warm. Your diary, too—don't worry, I haven't read it or anything."
"I'd be surprised if you had. You're more trustworthy than that."
"No, I'm illiterate."
Her eyes flared.
"Anyway" — his voice was hard as his jawline—"I figured you'd want some of your own stuff."
As he put the duffel next to her on the bed, she just stared up at him until, overwhelmed, she reached out to take his hand. When he flinched back, she flushed and looked at what he'd brought her.
God… she was nervous about seeing her things. Especially the diary.
Except it turned out to be comforting to pull out her favorite red sweater, put the thing to her nose, and catch a whiff of the perfume she'd always worn. And… yes, the brush, her brush, the one she liked with the broad, square head and metal bristles. She grabbed her shampoo, popped the top, and inhaled. Ahhhh… Biolage. Nothing like the scent of what the lesser had made her use.
"Thank you." Her voice trembled as she took out her journal. "Thank you so much."
She stroked her diary's leather cover. She would not open it. Not now. But soon…
She glanced up at Zsadist. "Will you… will you take me back to my house?"
"Yeah. I can do that."
"I'm frightened to go there, but I probably should."
"You just tell me when."
Gathering her courage, suddenly interested in getting one of the big «firsts» out of the way, she said, "When light falls this evening. I want to go then."
"Okay, we will." He pointed at the tray. "Now eat."
Ignoring the food, she watched him go into the closet and disarm. He was careful with his weapons, checking them thoroughly, and she wondered where he had been… what he had done. Though his hands were clean, there was black blood on his forearms.
He had killed tonight.
She supposed she should feel some kind of triumph that a lesser had been taken down. But as Zsadist walked over to the bathroom with a pair of sweats draped over his arm, she was more interested in his well-being.
And also… his body. He moved like an animal in the best sense of the word, all latent power and sleek strides. The sex that had stirred in her the very first time she'd seen him rocked her again. She wanted him.
As the bathroom door shut and the shower started to run, she rubbed her eyes and decided she was out of her mind. The male pulled away at the threat of her hand on his arm. Did she actually think he'd want to lay with her?
Disgusted with herself, she looked over at the food. It was some kind of herbed chicken with roasted potatoes and squash. There was a glass of water and a glass of white wine, as well as two bright green Granny Smith apples and a piece of carrot cake. She picked up a fork and pushed the chicken around. She wanted to eat what was on the plate only because he'd been thoughtful enough to bring it to her.
When Zsadist came out of the bathroom with only the nylon sweats on, she froze and couldn't stop staring. His nipple rings caught the candlelight, and so did the hard muscles of his stomach and arms. Along with the star-shaped mark of the Brotherhood, his bare chest had a fresh, livid scratch across it and a bruise.
"Are you injured?"
He came over and measured the plate. "You haven't eaten much."
She didn't reply as her eyes got caught on the curving hip bones that rose above the low waistband of the sweats. God… just a little lower and she would be able to see everything.
Abruptly she remembered him scrubbing himself raw because he thought he was filthy. She swallowed, wondering what had been done to him, to his sex. Wanting him as she did seemed… inappropriate. Invasive. Not that it changed the way she felt.
"I'm not terribly hungry," she murmured.
He pushed the tray closer to her. "Eat anyway."
When she started in on the chicken again, he took the two apples and walked across the room. He bit into one and sank down to the floor, sitting cross-legged with his eyes lowered. One arm settled across his stomach as he chewed.
"Did you have dinner downstairs?" she asked.
He shook his head and took another hunk out of the apple, the crack ricocheting around the room.
"Is that all you'll have?" When he shrugged, she muttered, "And you're telling me to eat?"
"Yeah, I am. So why don't you get back to work there, female."
"You don't like chicken?"
"I don't like food." His eyes never wavered from the floor, but his voice got pushier. "Now eat."
"Why don't you like food?"
"Can't trust it," he said tightly. "Unless you make it yourself, or can see it whole, you don't know what's in it."
"Why do you think someone would tamper—"
"Have I mentioned how much I don't like talking?"
"Will you sleep beside me tonight?" She blurted out the request, figuring she'd better get her answer before he shut up completely.
His brows flickered. "You really want that?"
"Yes, I do."
"Then, yeah. I will."
As he polished off the two apples and she cleaned the plate, the silence wasn't exactly easy, but it didn't crackle, either. After she was finished with the carrot cake, she went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth. By the time she came back, he was working the last apple core with his fangs, picking off the little bits of flesh that were left.
She couldn't imagine how he fought on such a diet. Surely he must eat more.
And she felt like she should say something, but instead slid into bed and curled up, waiting for him. As minutes ticked by, and all he did was surgically trim that apple, she couldn't stand the tension.
Enough, she thought. She really should go somewhere else in the house. She was using him as a crutch, and that wasn't fair.
She reached out to throw the covers back just as he uncoiled from the floor. As he walked to the bed, she froze. He dropped the apple cores next to her plate, then picked up the napkin she had used to wipe her own mouth. After rubbing his hands with the thing, he took the tray and carried it out of the room, setting it right outside the door.
When he came back he went to the other side of the bed, and the mattress dipped down as he stretched out on top of the duvet. Crossing his arms over his chest and his feet at the ankles, he shut his eyes.
One by one the candles went out around the room. When there was just a single wick that burned, he said, "I'll leave that going so you can see."
She looked at him. "Zsadist?"
"When I was…" She cleared her throat. "When I was in that hole in the ground, I thought of you. I wanted you to come for me. I knew you could get me out."
His brows went down even though his lids were lowered. "I thought of you, too."
"You did?" His chin moved up and down, and still she said, "Really?"
"Yeah. Some days… you were all I could think of."
Bella felt her eyes stretch wide. She rolled toward him and propped her head up on one arm.
"Seriously?" When he didn't reply, she had to press. "Why?"
His big chest expanded and he blew out his breath. "Wanted to get you back. That's all."
Oh… so he'd just been doing his job.
Bella dropped her arm and turned away from him. "Well… thank you for coming for me."
In the silence she watched the candle burn on the night-stand. The tear-shaped flame undulated, so lovely, so graceful…
Zsadist's voice was quiet. "I hated the idea that you were frightened and alone. That someone had hurt you. I couldn't… let it go."
Bella stopped breathing and glanced over her shoulder.
"I didn't sleep for those six weeks," he murmured. "All I could see when I shut my eyes was you, calling out for help."
God, even though his face was harsh, his voice was so soft and beautiful, like the candle flame.
His head swiveled toward her and his eyes opened. His black stare was full of emotion. "I didn't know how you could have survived that long. I was so sure you were dead. But then we found the place and I lifted you out of that hole. When I saw what he'd done to you…"
Bella slowly turned over, not wanting to startle him into a retreat. "I don't remember any of it."
"Good, that's good."
"Someday… I'm going to need to know. Will you tell me?"
He closed his eyes. "If you really have to have the details."
They were silent for a time, and then he shifted toward her, rolling onto his side. "I hate to ask you this, but what did he look like? Can you remember anything specific about him?"
Plenty, she thought. Too much.
"He, ah, he colored his hair brown."
"I mean, I'm pretty sure he did. Every week or so he'd go into the bathroom and I could smell the chemicals. And he'd get rooty in between. A little line of white right at his scalp."
"But I thought paling out was good because it meant they'd been in the Society longer."
"I don't know. I think he had… or has… a position of power. From what I could hear from the hole, the other lessers were careful around him. And they called him 'O.»
She shivered, going back into the nightmare. "He loved me."
A growl vibrated out of Zsadist, low and nasty. She liked the sound of it. It made her feel protected. Gave her the strength to keep talking.
"The lesser, he said he… loved me, and he did. He was obsessed with me." She released a breath slowly, trying to calm her fluttering heart. "In the beginning I was terrified of him, but after a while I used his feelings against him. I wanted to hurt him."
"Sometimes, yes. I made him… cry."
Zsadist's expression took on the oddest cast. As if he were… envious. "What did that feel like?"
"I don't want to say."
"Because it was good?"
"I don't want you to think I'm cruel."
"Cruelty is different from retaliation."
In a warrior's world, she imagined that was true. "I'm not sure I agree."
His black eyes narrowed. "There are those who would ahvenge you. You know that, right?"
She thought about him going out into the night to hunt the lesser and couldn't bear the idea that he would get hurt. Then she pictured her brother, all angry and prideful, ready to tear into the slayer, too.
"No… I don't want you doing that. You or Rehvenge or anyone else."
A draft shot through the room, like a window had been thrown open. She looked around and realized the frigid wave had come out of Zsadist's body.
"Do you have a mate?" he asked abruptly.
"Why do you… Oh, no, Rehvenge is my brother. Not my mate."
Those big shoulders eased up. But then he frowned. "Have you ever?"
"Had a mate? For a little while I did. But things didn't work out."
"Because of my brother." She paused. "Actually, that's not true. But when the male couldn't stand up to Rehv, I lost a lot of respect for him. And then… then the guy let the details of our relationship out to the glymera and things got… complicated."
Actually, they got awful. The male's reputation had stayed intact, of course, whereas hers got shredded to pieces. Maybe that was why she was so attracted to Zsadist. He didn't care what anyone thought of him. There was no subterfuge, no courtly manners to hide his thoughts and instincts. He was honest, and that candor, even if it just served to reveal his anger, made it safe to trust him.
"Were you two…" His voice trailed off.
"Were we what?"
"Lovers?" In a harsh rush, Zsadist cursed. "Never mind, that's none of my—"
"Ah, yes, we were, Rehv found out, and that was when the problems started. You know how the aristocracy is. A female who lays with someone she's not mated to? You'd swear she was tainted for life. I mean, I've always wished I'd been born a civilian. But you can't opt out of your bloodline, can you?"
"Did you love the male?"
"I thought so. But… no." She thought of the skull next to Zsadist's pallet. "Have you ever been in love?"
The corner of his mouth lifted into a snarl. "What the fuck do you think?"
As she recoiled, he closed his eyes. "Sorry. I mean, no. That would be no."
So why did he keep that skull? Whose was it? She was about to ask when he cut the question off. "Your brother thinks he's going after that lesser?"
"Undoubtedly. Rehvenge is… Well, he's been head of my household since my father died when I was very young, and Rehv is very aggressive. Extremely so."
"Well, you tell him to sit tight. I'm going to ahvenge you."
Her eyes shot to Zsadist's. "No."
"But I don't want you to." She couldn't live with herself if he got killed in the process.
"And I can't stop myself." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Christ… I can't breathe for knowing that bastard is out there. He has to die."
Fear and gratitude and something altogether warm squeezed her chest. On impulse, she leaned in and kissed him on the lips.
He jerked back with a hiss, eyes wider than if she'd slapped him.
Oh, hell. Why had she done that? "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I—"
"No, it's cool. We're cool." He rolled onto his back and lifted his hand to his mouth. His fingers rubbed back and forth across his lips, like he was wiping her off him.
When she sighed good and hard, he said, "What's the matter?"
"Am I so distasteful?"
He dropped his arm. "No."
What a lie. "Maybe I'll get you a washcloth, how about that?"
When she would have shot out of bed, his hand clamped on her arm. "That was my first kiss, okay? I just didn't expect it."
Bella stopped breathing. How was that possible?
"Oh, for chrissakes, don't look at me like that." He let go and went back to staring at the ceiling.
His first kiss… "Zsadist?"
"Will you let me do that again?"
There was a long, long pause. She inched over to him, pushing her body through the sheets and blankets.
"I won't touch you anywhere else. Just my lips. On yours."
Turn your head, she willed him. Turn your head and look at me.
And then he did.
She didn't wait for an engraved invitation or for him to change his mind. She pressed her lips to his lightly, then hovered over his mouth. When he stayed where he was, she dipped down again and this time stroked at him. His breath sucked in.
"Yes," he whispered.
"Relax your mouth for me."
Careful not to crowd him, she propped herself up on her forearms and got in close again. His lips were shockingly soft except for where the upper one was scarred. To make sure he knew the imperfection didn't matter to her, she deliberately attended to that place, returning there again and again.
And then it happened: He kissed her back. It was just the slightest movement of his mouth, but she felt it all the way to her core. When he did it again, she praised him by moaning a little and letting him take the lead.
God, he was so tentative, feeling his way across her mouth with the most gentle of brushings. He kissed her sweetly and with care, tasting like apples and male spice. And the contact between them, though light and slow, was enough to have her aching.
When she sneaked her tongue out and licked him, he pulled away sharply. "I don't know what I'm doing here."
"Yes, you do." She leaned in to keep the connection. "You really do."
She quieted him with her mouth, and it wasn't long before he was back in the game. This time when her tongue stroked over him he opened his lips, and his own met hers, slick and warm. A slow twirl started… and then he was in her mouth, pushing against her, seeking.
She felt the sex stir in him, the heat and urgency in his big body growing. She was hungry for him to reach out and drag her against him. When he didn't, she eased back and looked at him. His cheeks were flaming, his eyes glittering. He was hungry for her, but he made no move to get closer. And he wouldn't, either.
"I want to touch you," she said.
But as she brought her hand up, he stiffened and gripped her wrist hard. Fear hovered just below the surface of him; she could sense it weaving through his body, making him tense. She waited for him to make up his mind, not about to push him on this.
His hold slowly loosened. "Just… go slow."
She started with his arm, running her fingertips up and down his smooth, hairless skin. His eyes tracked the movement with a suspicion she took no offense at, and his muscles twitched, flickering as she passed. She stroked him slowly, letting him get used to her touch, and when she was sure he was comfortable, she leaned down and put her lips on his biceps. His shoulder. His collarbone. The top of his pectoral.
She was heading for his pierced nipple.
When she was close to the silver ring with the little ball, she glanced up at him. His eyes were wide, so wide the whites showed all around his black irises.
"I want to kiss you here," she said. "All right?"
He nodded and licked his lips.
The moment her mouth made contact, his body jerked like someone had yanked all of his arms and legs at once. She didn't stop. She sucked the piercing in and twirled her tongue around it.
Zsadist moaned, the low sound a great rumble in his chest; then he inhaled with a hiss. His head pitched back into the pillow, but he kept it at an angle so he could keep watching her.
When she flicked the silver hoop, then tugged on it a little, he arched off the bed, one leg bending up, his heel digging into the mattress. She tickled his nipple again and then again until he balled the comforter in his fists.
"Oh... fuck, Bella…" He was breathing in a hard, raw rhythm, heat radiating out of him. "What are you doing to me?"
"Do you want me to stop?"
"Either that or do it harder."
"How about a little more?"
"Yeah… a little more."
She worked him with her mouth, playing with the ring, driving him until his hips started to swivel.
When she looked down his body, she lost her rhythm. His erection was massive as it pushed up against the thin nylon of his warm-ups, and she saw all of it: the blunt head with its graceful ridge, the thick shaft, the twin weights below.
Good Lord. He was… huge.
She went utterly wet between her thighs and shifted her gaze to meet his. His eyelids were still peeled back and his mouth open as awe and shock and hunger warred in his face.
She reached up and pushed her thumb between his lips. "Suck me."
He latched on with a great pull, watching her as she kept going. A frenzy was taking hold of him; she could sense it. The lust was building in him, turning him into a powder keg, and holy hell, she wanted him. She wanted him to explode all over her. Inside of her.
She released his nipple, pulled her thumb out of his mouth, and reared up to thrust her tongue between his lips. At the invasion he groaned wildly, his great body bucking against the hold he kept on the covers.
She wanted him to let go and touch her, but she couldn't wait. This first time, she would have to take control. She pushed the covers away, slid her upper body onto his chest, and threw her leg over his hips.
The instant her weight came on top of him, he went stiff and stopped kissing her back.
He threw her off of him with so much force, she bounced on the mattress.
Zsadist bolted from the bed, panting and whacked-out, his body trapped between the past and the present, stretched thin between the two.
Part of him wanted more of what Bella was doing to him. Hell, he was dying to keep exploring his first taste of arousal. The sensations were incredible. A revelation. The only thing good he'd felt in… forever.
Dear Virgin in the Fade, no wonder males killed to protect their mates.
Except he couldn't bear having a female on top of him, even if it was Bella, and the wild panic pounding through him right now was dangerous. What if he lashed out at her? For God's sake, he'd already thrown her across the damn bed.
He glanced at her. She looked so achingly beautiful in the tangled sheets and scattered pillows. But he was terrified of her, and because of that, terrified for her. The touching and the kissing, however much he'd been into them in the beginning, were too much of a trigger for him. And he couldn't put himself in a position where he got this upset when he was around her.
"We're not going there again," he said. "That shit's not happening."
"You liked it." Her voice was soft but strong. "I could feel your blood race under my hands."
"Your body's hard for me."
"Do you want to get hurt?" As she tightened her hold on a pillow, he pressed harder. "Because, straight up, sex and I only go one way, and it's nothing you want to be a part of."
"I liked the way you kissed me. I want to lay with you. Make love with you."
"Make love? Make love?" He spread his arms out. "Bella… all I've got to offer you is fucking. You won't like it, and frankly I won't like doing it to you. You're so much better than that."
"I felt your lips on mine. They were gentle—"
"Shut up and let me finish!"
Z's mouth dropped open, sure as if she'd booted him in the ass. No one ever took that tone of voice with him. The anomaly alone would have gotten his attention, but the fact that it was her stunned him out.
Bella pushed her hair over her shoulder. "If you don't want to be with me, fine. Just say so. But don't hide behind wanting to protect me. You think I don't know the sex would be rough with you?"
"Is that why you want it?" he asked in a dead voice. "You think you only deserve to be hurt now, after the lesser?"
She frowned. "Not at all. But if that's the only way I can have you, then that's how I'll take you."
He ran his hand back and forth over his skull trim, hoping the friction might get his brain to work.
"I think you're confused." He looked down at the floor. "You have no idea what you're saying right now."
"You arrogant bastard," she snapped.
Z's head shot up. Well, that was slap in the ass number two… "Excuse me?"
"Do us both a favor and don't try to think for me, okay? Because you're going to get it wrong every damn time." With that, she marched into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Zsadist blinked a couple of times. What the hell just happened?
He looked around the room as if the furniture or maybe the drapes could help him out. Then his acute hearing tuned in to a quiet sound. She was… crying.
With a curse he went over to the bathroom. He didn't knock, just turned the knob and went inside. She was standing next to the shower, arms crossed, tears pooling in her sapphire eyes.
Oh… God. What was a male supposed to do in this situation?
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "If I… uh, hurt your feelings or something."
She glared at him. "I'm not hurt. I'm pissed off and sexually frustrated."
His head snapped back on his spine. Well… then. Okaaaaay.
Man, he was going to need a neck brace after this conversation.
"I'll say it again, Zsadist. If you're not into laying with me, that's okay, but do not try to tell me I don't know what I want."
Z planted his palms on his hip bones and looked down at the marble tile. Don't say a thing, asshole. Just keep your mouth—
"It's not that," he blurted. As the words floated out into the air, he cursed himself. Talking was bad. Talking was a real piss-poor idea…
"It's not what? You mean you want me?"
He thought of the it that was still trying to claw a way out of his pants. She had eyes. She could see the damn thing. "You know I do."
"So if I'm willing to take it… hard…" She paused, and he had a feeling she was blushing. "Then why can't we be together?"
His breath shortened until his lungs burned and his heart pounded. He felt as if he were looking over the edge of a ravine. Good Lord, he wasn't actually going to tell her? Was he?
His stomach rolled as the words came out. "She was always on top. The Mistress. When she… came to me, she was always on top. You, uh, you rolled over onto my chest and… yeah, that doesn't work for me."
He rubbed his face, as much to try to hide from her as to relieve the headache he suddenly had.
He heard breath being exhaled. Realized it was hers.
"Zsadist, I'm so sorry. I didn't know—"
"Yeah… fuck… maybe you can forget I said that." God, he needed to get away from her before that mouth of his got flapping again. "Look, I'm going to—"
"What did she do to you?" Bella's voice was thin as a hair.
He shot her a hard look. Oh, not likely, he thought.
She took a step toward him. "Zsadist, did she… have you against your will?"
He turned away. "I'm going to the gym. I'll see you later."
"Later, Bella. I can't… do this."
On his way out, he grabbed his Nikes and his MP3 player.
A good, long run was just what he needed right now. A long… run. So what if it got him exactly nowhere. At least he could have the sweaty illusion he was getting away from himself.