That night, as the moon lifted higher in the sky, O eased up from the ground with a groan. He'd been waiting on the edge of the meadow since the sun went down four hours ago, hoping that someone would show at the farmhouse… only there was nothing. And there hadn't been for the past two days. Well, he thought he'd seen something before dawn this past morning, some kind of shadow moving around inside the place, but whatever it was, he'd caught it just once and then not again.
He wished like hell he could use all the Society's resources to go after his wife. If he sent out every lesser he had… Except he might as well take a gun to his head. Someone would blab to the Omega that focus had been diverted to one inconsequential female. And then there would be big problems.
He checked his watch and cursed. Speaking of the Omega…
O had a command performance with the master tonight and no choice but to keep the damn date. Staying viable as a slayer was the only way to get his woman back, and he wasn't going to risk getting poofed out of existence because he'd spaced a meeting.
He took out his phone and called in three Betas to watch the farmhouse. As the spot was a known place of congregation for vampires, at least he had an excuse to assign the detail.
Twenty minutes later the slayers came through the woods, the sound of their jogging boots muffled by the snow. The trio of big-boned men were just out of their initiations, so their hair was still dark and their skin ruddy from the cold. They were clearly thrilled to be used and ready to fight, but O told them they were to watch and monitor only. If anyone showed up, they weren't to attack until whoever it was tried to leave, and then any vampires were to be taken alive, male or female. No exceptions. The way O figured it, if he were his woman's family, he'd send feelers out first before letting her dematerialize anywhere near the house. And if she was dead and her relatives were moving her things out, then he wanted her kin captured in working order so he could find her grave.
After making it clear the Betas' heads were on the line, O went through the forest to his truck, which was hidden in a stand of pines. As he came out onto Route 22, he saw that the lessers had parked the Explorer they'd come in right on the road less than half a mile from the turnoff to the farmhouse's lane.
He called the idiots and told them to use their fucking heads and get that car good and concealed. Then he drove to the cabin. As he went along, images of his woman flickered through his mind, dimming his eyes to the road in front of him. He saw her at her loveliest, in the shower with wet hair and skin. She was especially pure like that…
But then the visions shifted. He saw her naked on her back, underneath that ugly-ass vampire who'd taken her away. The male was touching her… kissing her… pumping inside of her… And she liked it. The bitch liked it. Her head was back and she was moaning and coming like a slut and wanting more.
O's hands curled around the steering wheel until his knuckles nearly popped out of his skin. He tried to calm himself, but his anger was a pit bull on a paper chain.
He knew then with absolute clarity that if she wasn't dead already, he was going to kill her when he found her. All he had to do was picture her with the Brother who'd stolen her and his higher reasoning clicked off completely.
And didn't that put O in a bind. Living without her would be horrible, and though going out in a suicidal rush after she died had a lot of appeal, pulling a stunt like that would just land him with the Omega for eternity. Lessers, after all, went back to the master if they were extinguished.
But then a thought occurred to him. He imagined his woman many years from now, her skin paled out, her hair blonded, her eyes the color of clouds. A lesser just like him. The solution was so perfect, his foot slipped from the accelerator, and the truck coasted to a stop right in the middle of Route 22.
She would be his forever that way.
As midnight neared, Bella put on a pair of her old blue jeans and that thick red sweater she liked so much. Then she went into the bathroom, pulled the two towels down from the mirror, and looked at herself. Her reflection was of the female she had always seen staring back at her: Blue eyes. High cheeks. Biggish lips. Lots of dark brown hair.
She lifted the edge of the sweater and peeked at her stomach. The skin there was flawless, no longer bearing the lesser's name. She smoothed her hand over where the letters had been.
"You ready?" Zsadist asked.
She glanced up into the mirror. He loomed behind her, dressed in black, weapons hanging off his body. His coal eyes were pegged on the skin she exposed.
"The scars have healed," she said. "In just forty-eight hours."
"Yeah. And I'm glad."
"I'm scared to go to my house."
"Phury and Butch are coming with us. You've got plenty of protection."
"I know…" She lowered the sweater. "It's just… what if I can't bear to go inside?"
"Then we try again another night. However long it takes." He held out her parka.
Shrugging into the thing, she said, "You have better things to do than watch over me."
"Not right now I don't. Give me your hand."
Her fingers trembled as she reached out. She had some vague thought that it was the first time he'd asked her to touch him, and she hoped the contact would lead to an embrace.
But he wasn't interested in hugging. He put a small gun in her hand without even brushing her skin.
She recoiled in distaste. "No, I—"
"Hold it like—"
"Wait a minute, I don't—"
"— this." He positioned the little butt against her palm. "Here's the safety. On. Off. Got it? On… off. You need to be in tight to kill with this, but it's loaded with two bullets that will slow a lesser down long enough so you can get away. Just point and pull the trigger twice. You don't need to cock it or anything. And aim for the torso, it'll be a bigger target."
"I don't want this."
"And I don't want you to have it. But it's better than sending you in light."
She shook her head and closed her eyes. So ugly this business of life sometimes was.
"Bella? Bella, look at me." When she did, he said, "Keep that in the outside pocket of your coat on the right side. You want it in your business hand if you have to use it." She opened her mouth and he talked right over her. "You're going to stay with Butch and Phury. And as long as you're with them, it is extremely unlikely you will need to use that."
"Where will you be?"
"Around." As he turned away, she noticed he had a knife at the small of his back—in addition to the two daggers on his chest, and the pair of guns on his hips. She wondered how many other weapons he had on him that she couldn't see.
He stopped in the doorway, head hanging low. "I'm going to make sure you don't have to take out that gun, Bella. I promise you. But I can't have you unarmed."
She took a deep breath. And slipped the little piece of metal into her coat pocket.
Out in the hall Phury was waiting, leaning against the balcony. He was also dressed for fighting, with guns and those daggers all over him, a deadly calm radiating from his body. When she smiled at him, he nodded and drew on his black leather coat.
Zsadist's cell phone rang and he flipped it open. "You there, cop? What's doing?" When he hung up, he nodded. "Good to go."
The three of them walked down to the foyer and then out into the courtyard. In the cold air both males palmed guns, and then all of them dematerialized.
Bella took form on her front porch, facing the glossy red door with its brass knocker. She could feel Zsadist and Phury behind her, two huge male bodies full of tension. Footsteps sounded and she looked over her shoulder. Butch was coming up onto the porch. His gun was drawn, too.
The idea of taking her time and easing into her house struck her as dangerous and selfish. She unlocked the door with her mind, then walked in.
The place still smelled the same… a combination of the lemon floor wax she used on the wide pine boards and the rosemary candles she liked to burn.
When she heard the door shut and the security alarm get turned off, she glanced back. Butch and Phury were tight on her heels, but Zsadist was nowhere to be seen.
She knew he hadn't left them. But she wished he were inside with her.
She took a deep breath and looked around her living room. Without any lights on, she only saw familiar shadows and shapes, more the pattern of the furniture and the walls than anything else.
"Everything seems… God, exactly the same."
Although there was a blank spot over her writing desk. A mirror was gone, a mirror that she and her mother had picked out together in Manhattan about a decade ago. Rehvenge had always liked it. Had he taken the thing? She wasn't sure whether to be touched or offended.
When she reached out to turn a lamp on, Butch stopped her. "No lights. Sorry."
She nodded. Walking deeper into the farmhouse, seeing more of her things, she felt as though she were among friends of long acquaintance whom she hadn't seen in years. It was delightful and sad. A relief most of all. She'd been so sure she would get upset…
She stopped when she got to the dining room. Beyond the wide archway at the far end was the kitchen. Dread coiled in her gut.
Steeling herself, she walked into the other space and halted. As she saw everything so neat and unbroken, she remembered the violence that had taken place.
"Someone's cleaned it up," she whispered.
"Zsadist." Butch stepped by her, gun up at chest level, eyes scanning around.
"He… did all this?" She motioned her hand in a sweep.
"The night after you were taken. He spent hours here. Downstairs is neat as a pin, too."
She tried to imagine Zsadist with a mop and bucket, getting rid of the bloodstains and the glass shards.
Why? she wondered.
Butch shrugged. "He said it was personal."
Had she spoken out loud? "Did he explain… why that was?"
As the human shook his head, she was aware of Phury pointedly taking interest in the outdoors.
"You want to go to your bedroom?" Butch asked.
When she nodded, Phury said, "I'm staying up here."
Down in the basement she found everything in order, arranged… clean. She opened her closet, went through her dresser drawers, wandered around her bathroom. Small things captivated her. A bottle of perfume. A magazine dated from before the abduction. A candle she could remember lighting next to the claw-foot tub.
Lingering, touching, sliding back into place in some profound way, she wanted to spend hours… days. But she could feel Butch's increasing strain.
"I think I've seen enough for tonight," she said, wishing she could stay longer.
Butch went first as they headed back to the first floor. When he came into the kitchen, he looked at Phury. "She's ready to head out."
Phury flipped open his phone. There was a pause. "Z, time to go. Start the car for the cop."
As Butch shut the cellar door, Bella went over to her fish tank and peered in. She wondered if she would ever live at the farmhouse again. And had a feeling she wouldn't.
"Do you want to take anything with you?" Butch asked.
"No, I think—"
A gunshot rang outside, the hollow popping noise muffled.
Butch grabbed her and hauled her back against his body. "Stay quiet," he said in her ear.
"Out front," Phury hissed as he fell into a crouch. He pointed his gun down the hall at the door they'd come in through.
Another gunshot. And another. Getting closer. Coming around the house.
"We're out the tunnel," Butch whispered as he muscled her around and pushed her toward the basement door.
Phury tracked the sounds with his gun muzzle. "I got your back."
Just as Butch's hand fell on the cellar door's knob, time compressed into fractals of seconds, men collapsed into nonsense.
The French door behind them smashed open, the wood frame splintering, the glass shattering.
Zsadist took the whole thing out with his back as he was pushed through the thing by some tremendous force. As he landed on the kitchen floor, his skull jacked back and hit the tile so hard it sounded like another gun had gone off. Then, with a horrible yell, the lesser that had thrown him through the door leaped on his chest and the two of them slid across the room, heading right for the cellar stairs.
Zsadist was rock-still under the slayer. Dazed? Dead?
Bella screamed as Butch yanked her out of the way. The only place to go was against the stove, and he shoved her in that direction, shielding her with his body. Only now they were trapped in the kitchen.
Phury and Butch both leveled guns at the tangle of arms and legs on the floor, but the slayer didn't care. The undead lifted his fist and punched Zsadist in the head.
"No!" she roared.
Except, strangely, the hit seemed to wake Zsadist up. Or maybe her voice had done the trick. His black eyes flipped open and an evil expression came over his face. With a quick thrust he clamped his hands under the lesser's armpits and twisted so hard, the slayer's torso contorted into a vicious arch.
In a flash Zsadist was on top, straddling the lesser. He grabbed hold of the slayer's right arm and stretched it into a bone-cracking bad angle. Then he jammed his thumb under the undead's chin so far you couldn't see half the finger and bared long fangs that glistened white and deadly. He bit the lesser in the neck, right through the esophageal column.
The slayer hollered in pain, thrashing wildly between his legs. And that was only the beginning. Zsadist tore his prey apart. When the thing no longer moved, he paused while panting and pushed his fingers into the lesser's dark hair, splitting a section wide, clearly looking for white roots.
But she could have told him it wasn't David. Assuming she could find her voice.
Zsadist cursed and caught his breath, but stayed crouched over his kill, looking for signs of life. As if he wanted to keep going.
And then he frowned and glanced up, clearly realizing the battle was over and there had been witnesses.
Oh… Jesus. His face was marked with the black blood of the lesser, and more of the stain covered his chest and hands.
His black eyes shifted to hers. They were bright. Shiny. Just like the blood he'd spilled to defend her. And he quickly looked away, as if he wanted to hide the satisfaction he'd gotten from the kill.
"The other two are finished," he said, still breathing hard. He pulled out the bottom of his shirt and wiped his face.
Phury headed for the hallway. "Where are they? Front lawn?"
"Try the Omega's front door. I stabbed them both." Zsadist looked at Butch. "Take her home. Now. She's too shocked out to dematerialize. And Phury, you go with them. I want a call the moment she puts a foot in the foyer, we clear?"
"What about you?" Butch said, even as he was moving her around the dead lesser.
Zsadist stood up and unsheathed a dagger. "I'll poof this one and wait for others to come. When these fuckers don't check in, there'll be more."
"We'll be back."
"I don't care what you do as long as you get her home. So quit talking and start driving."
Bella reached out to him, though she wasn't sure why. She was horrified by what he had done and by what he looked like now, all bruised and beaten, his own blood running down his clothes along with the slayers'.
Zsadist slashed a hand through the air, dismissing her. "Get her the hell out of here."
John leaped from the bus, so damned relieved to be home he almost fell all over himself. Man, if the first two days of training were anything to go by, the next couple years were going to be hell.
As he came in the front door, he whistled.
Wellsie's voice drifted out of her study. "Hi! How'd it go today?"
While he took off his coat, he blew two quick whistles, which was kind of an okay, fine, all righty type of thing.
"Good. Hey, Havers is coming in an hour."
John headed for her study and paused in the doorway. Sitting at her desk, Wellsie was surrounded by a collection of old books, most of which were laid open. The sight of all those splayed, bound pages reminded him of eager dogs on their backs, waiting for belly attention.
She smiled. "You look tired."
I'm going to crash for a while before Havers comes, he signed.
"You sure you're okay?"
Absolutely. He smiled to give the fib some juice. He hated lying to her, but he didn't want to go into his failures. In another sixteen hours he was going to have to have them out on display again. He needed a break, and no doubt they were exhausted, too, from having had so much airtime.
"I'll wake you up when the doctor gets here."
As he turned away, she said, "I hope you know that no matter what that test says, we'll deal with it."
He glanced at her. So she was worried about the results, too.
In a quick rush he went over and hugged her, then headed for his room. He didn't even put his laundry in the chute, just dropped his bags and lay on the bed. Man, the cumulative effects of eight hours of derision was enough to make him want to sleep for a week.
Except all he could think about was Havers's visit. God, what if it was all a mistake? What if he wasn't going to turn into something fantastic and powerful? What if his visions at night were nothing more than an overactive Dracula fixation?
What if he was mostly human?
It would kind of make sense. Even though the training was just beginning, it was clear he wasn't like the other pretransitions in the class. He flat-out sucked at anything physical and was weaker than the other guys. Maybe practice would help, although he doubted it.
John closed his eyes and hoped for a good dream. A dream that would place him in a big body, a dream that would have him strong and…
Tohr's voice woke him up. "Havers is here."
John yawned and stretched and tried to hide from the sympathy on Tohr's face. That was the other nightmare about training: He had to screw up in front of Tohr all the time.
"How you are you doing, son—I mean, John?"
John shook his head and signed, I'm fine, but I would rather be son to you.
Tohr smiled. "Good. That's how I want it, too. Now come on, let's rip this Band-Aid off about the tests, okay?"
John followed Tohr to the living room. Havers was sitting on the couch, looking like a professor with his tortoiseshell glasses and herringbone jacket and red bow tie.
"Hello, John," he said.
John lifted a hand and sat in the wing chair closest to Wellsie.
"So I have the results of your blood test." Havers took a piece of paper out of the inside of his sport coat. "It took me a little longer, because there was an anomaly I didn't expect."
John glanced at Tohr. Then Wellsie. Jesus… What if he was wholly human? What would they do to him? Would he have to leave—
"John, you are a full-bred warrior. There is only the barest trace of nonspecies blood in you at all."
Tohr laughed in a loud burst and clapped his hands together. "Hot damn! That's great!"
John started to grin and kept going until his lips totally disappeared into a smile.
"But there's something else." Havers pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. "You are of the line of Darius of Marklon. So close you could be his son. So close… you must be his son."
A stony silence overtook the room.
John looked back and forth between Tohr and Wellsie. The two were frozen solid. Was this good news? Bad news? Who was Darius? Going by their expressions, maybe the guy was a criminal or something…
Tohr burst up from the sofa and took John into his arms, squeezing so hard the two became one. Gasping for air, feet dangling, John looked over at Wellsie. She had both hands over her mouth, and tears were rolling down her face.
Abruptly Tohr let go and stepped back. He coughed a little, eyes shimmering. "Well… what do you know."
The man cleared his throat a number of times. Rubbed his face. Looked a little woozy.
Who is Darius? John signed as he sat down again.
Tohr smiled slowly. "He was my best friend, my brother in the fighting, my… I can't wait to tell you all about him. And this means you have a sister."
"Beth, our queen. Wrath's shellan—"
"Yes, about her," Havers said, looking at John. "I don't understand the reaction you had to her. Your CAT scans are all fine, so too your EKG, your CBC. I believe you when you say she was what caused the seizures, though I have no idea why that would be. I'd like you to stay away from her for a while so we can see if it happens in another environment, okay?"
John nodded, though he wanted to see the woman again, especially if he was related to her. A sister. How cool…
"Now, about the other issue," Havers said pointedly.
Wellsie leaned forward and put her hand on John's knee. "Havers has something he wants to talk to you about."
John frowned. What? he signed slowly.
The doctor smiled, trying to be all reassuring. "I'd like you to see that therapist."
John went cold. In a panic, he searched Wellsie's face, then Tohr's, wondering how much the doctor might have told them about what had happened to him a year ago.
Why would I go? he signed. I'm fine.
Wellsie's reply was level. "It's just to help you make the transition to your new world."
"And your first appointment is tomorrow evening," Havers said, tipping his head down. He stared into John's face over the top of the horn-rims, and the message in his eyes was: Either you go or I'll tell them the real reason why you have to.
John was outmaneuvered, and that pissed him off. But he figured it was better to submit to compassionate blackmail than to have Tohr and Wellsie know anything about what had been done to him.
Okay. I'll do it.
"I'll take you," Tohr said quickly. Then he frowned. "I mean… we can find someone to take you—Butch will take you."
John's face burned. Yeah, he didn't want Tohr anywhere near the therapist gig. No way.
The front doorbell rang.
Wellsie grinned. "Oh, good. That's Sarelle. She's come over to work on the solstice festival. John, maybe you'd like to help us?"
Sarelle was here again? She hadn't mentioned that when they'd IM'd last night.
"John? Do you want to work with Sarelle?"
He nodded and tried to keep it cool, although his body had lit up like a neon sign. He was positively tingling. Yeah. I can do that.
He put his hands in his lap and looked down at them, trying to keep his smile to himself.