"Apples? What the fuck do I care about apples?" O yelled into his cell phone. He was ready to crack heads, he was so pissed off, and U was nattering on about goddamn fruit? "I just told you we've got three dead Betas. Three of them."
"But tonight there were fifty bushels of apples bought from four different—"
O had to start pacing around the cabin. It was either that or so help him he was going to hunt down U just to burn off his edge.
As soon as O had returned from the Omega he'd gone to the farmhouse, only to find two scorch marks on the lawn as well as the busted-up back door. Looking through a window into the kitchen, he'd seen black blood all over the place and another burn mark on the tile.
Damn it to hell, he thought, picturing the scene again. He knew a Brother had done the work, because given the mess in the kitchen, the lesser who'd been finished off on that floor had been shredded before he'd been stabbed.
Had his wife been with the warrior at the time? Or had the visit been about her family trying to move her stuff out and a Brother had just been guarding them?
Goddamn those Betas. Those three lousy-ass, weak-balled, useless motherfuckers of his had gotten themselves killed, so he'd never have answers. And whether his wife had been there not, sure as hell if she were alive she wasn't going back there anytime soon, thanks to the fighting that had gone down.
U's bullshit came back into focus. "… the shortest day of the year, December twenty-first, is coming up next week. The winter solstice is—"
"I have an idea," O snapped. "Why don't you cut the calendar crap. I want you to go to that farmhouse and pick up that Explorer those Betas left behind in the woods. Then—"
"Listen to what I'm saying. Apples are used in the solstice ceremony to honor the Scribe Virgin."
Those two words, Scribe and Virgin, got O's attention. "How do you know this?"
"I've been around for two hundred years," U said dryly. "The festival hasn't been held for… Christ, I don't know, a century maybe. The apples are supposed to represent the anticipation of spring. Seeds, growth, that kind of renewal shit."
"What type of festival are we talking about?"
"In the past hundreds of them gathered, and I guess they did some chanting, some ritual stuff. I don't really know. Anyway, for years we've been monitoring certain buying patterns in the local marketplace during specific times of the year. Apples in December. Raw sugarcane in April. It's been more out of habit than anything else, because those vampires have been so damn quiet."
O leaned back against the cabin's door. "But now their king has ascended. So they're firing up the old ways."
"And you've got to love the ISBN system. Much more efficient than just asking around, which is what we used to have to do. As I said before, a huge load of Granny Smith apples has been purchased at various locales. Like they're spreading the orders around."
"So you're saying that in a week a bunch of vampires are going to get together in one place. Do a little song-and-dance thing. Pray to the Scribe Virgin."
"Do they eat the apples?"
"That's what my understanding is."
O rubbed the back of his neck. He'd been reticent about bringing up the whole turning-his-wife-into-a-teer thing during his session with the Omega. He needed to find out if she was alive first, and then he had to work up some spin for the concept. Obviously, the potentially insurmountable problem was that she was a vampire, and the only counterpoint he could make on that was that she'd be the ultimate secret weapon. A female of their own species? The Brotherhood would never see that coming…
Although, of course, that was just rationale for the Omega. His wife would never fight anyone but him.
Yeah, the proposal was going to be a hard sell, but one thing he had going for him was that the Omega was open to flattery. So wouldn't a big, splashy sacrifice in his honor do wonders to soften him up?
U was still talking. "… thinking was that I could check out the markets…"
As U droned on, O started thinking about poison. A whole lot of poison. A vat of the stuff.
Poisoned apples. How Snow White was that?
"O? You there?"
"So I'm going to go to the markets and find out when—"
"Not right now you're not. Lemme tell you what you're going to do."
As Bella left Wrath's study she was shaking with rage, and neither the king nor Tohr tried to stop her or talk sense into her. Which proved they were highly intelligent males.
She pounded down the hall in her bare feet to Zsadist's room, and after she slammed the door shut, she went for the phone as if the thing were a weapon. She dialed her brother's cell.
Rehvenge picked up and snapped, "Who are you and how did you get this number?"
"Don't you dare do this to me."
There was a long silence. Then: "Bella… I—Hold on a second." A shuffling sound came through the phone; then he said in a cutting voice, "He'd better get over here right now. We clear? If I have to go after him, he's not going to like it." Rehvenge cleared his throat as he came back on. "Bella, where are you? Let me come pick you up. Or have one of the warriors take you to our house and I'll meet you there."
"You think I'm coming anywhere near you now?"
"It's better than the alternative," he said grimly.
"And what's that?"
"The Brothers forcibly returning you to me."
"Why are you doing—"
"Why am I doing this?" His voice sank into the deep, demanding bass she was so used to. "Do you have any idea what the last six weeks have been like for me? Knowing that you were in the hands of those goddamned things? Knowing that I put my sister… my mother's daughter… in that place?"
"It was not your fault—"
"You should have been home!"
As always, the sandblast of Rehv's fury shook her, and she was reminded that on some basic level her brother had always scared her a little.
But then she heard him take a deep breath. And another. Then a curious desperation crept into his words. "Christ, Bella… just come home, Mahmen and I, we need you here. We miss you. We… I need to see you to believe you're really okay."
Ah, yes… Now the other side of him, the one she actually loved. The protector. The provider. The tenderhearted, gruff male who had always given her everything she had ever needed.
The temptation to submit to him was strong. But then she pictured herself never being allowed out of the house again. Which was something he was damn well capable of doing to her.
"Will you rescind the sehclusion request?"
"We'll talk about it when you're sleeping in your own bed again."
Bella gripped the phone. "That means no, doesn't it?" There was a pause. "Hello? Rehvenge?"
"I just want you home."
"Yes or no, Rehv. Tell me now."
"Our mother can't live through something like this again."
"And you think I can?" she shot back. "Excuse me, but mahmen wasn't the one who ended up with a lesser's name carved into her stomach!"
The instant the words left her mouth, she cursed. Yeah, that kind of happy little detail was really going to bring him around. Way to negotiate.
His voice went utterly cold. "I want you home."
"I've just been in captivity, I'm not volunteering for jail."
"And just what are you going to do about it?"
"Keep pushing me around and you'll find out."
She ended the call and slammed the cordless unit down on the bedside table. Goddamn him!
On a crazy impulse, she grabbed the receiver and spun around, ready to hurl it across the room.
"Zsadist!" She fumbled with the phone, catching it, holding it against her chest.
Standing silently next to the door, Zsadist was wearing running shorts and no shirt… and for some absurd reason she noticed that he didn't have shoes on either.
"Throw it if you want," he said.
"No. I… ah… no." She turned away and put the thing back on its little stand, taking two tries to get it in right.
Before she faced Zsadist again, she thought of him crouched over that lesser, beating it to death… But then she remembered him bringing her things from her house… and taking her there… and letting her have his vein though he'd cracked wide-open at the invasion. As she pivoted around toward him, she was tangled in the net of him, caught between the kindness and the cruelty.
He broke the silence. "I don't want you running half-cocked into the night because of what your brother's up to. And don't tell me that isn't what you're thinking."
Damn, he was smart. "But you know what he wants to do to me."
"And by law the Brotherhood will have to give me up, so I can't stay here. You think I like the only option I've got?"
Except where would she go?
"What's so bad about heading home?"
She glared at him. "Yeah, I really want to be treated like an incompetent, like a child, like… an object my brother owns. That works for me. Totally."
Zsadist ran a hand over his skull trim. The movement flexed his biceps so they squeezed up thick. "Makes sense to get families under one roof. It's a dangerous time for civilians."
Oh, man… The last thing she needed right now was him agreeing with her brother.
"Dangerous time for lessers, too," she muttered. "Going by what you did to that one tonight."
Zsadist's eyes narrowed. "If you want me to apologize for that, I won't."
"Of course you wouldn't," she snapped. "You don't apologize for anything."
He shook his head slowly. "You want to pick a fight with someone, you're talking to the wrong male, Bella. I won't go there with you."
"Why not? You excel at being pissed off."
The silence that followed made her want to scream at him. She was going after his anger, something he gave freely to all comers, and she couldn't figure out why the hell he was showing self-control when it came to her.
He cocked an eyebrow, as if he knew what she was thinking.
"Ah, hell," she breathed. "I'm just needling you, aren't I? Sorry."
He shrugged. "Rock and a hard place makes anyone crazy. Don't sweat it."
She sat down on the bed. The idea of running off alone was ludicrous, but she refused to live under Rehvenge's control.
"You got any suggestions?" she asked softly. When she raised her eyes, Zsadist was looking at the floor.
He was so self-contained leaning back against the wall like that. With his long, lean body, he looked like a flesh-colored crack in the plaster, a fissure that had opened up in the very structure of the room.
"Give me five minutes," he said. He walked out, still shirtless.
Bella let herself fall back on the mattress, thinking that five minutes wasn't going to help the situation. What she needed was a different brother waiting for her at home.
Dear, sweet Scribe Virgin… Getting away from the lessers should have made things better. Instead, her life still seemed totally out of her control.
Granted, she could pick her own shampoo now, though.
She lifted her head. Through the bathroom door she saw the shower and imagined herself standing under a rush of hot water. That would be good. Relaxing. Refreshing. Plus she could cry out her frustration without embarrassment there.
She got up, went into the bath, and cranked on the water. The sound of the rush hitting the marble was soothing, and so was the warm spray as she got under it. She didn't end up crying. Just hung her head and let the water run down her body.
When she finally stepped out, she noticed that the door to the bedroom had been shut.
Zsadist was probably back.
Wrapping a towel around herself, she had no hope whatsoever that he'd found a solution.