Two months later…
Bella materialized in the front of the Brotherhood's mansion and looked up at the dour gray facade. She had never expected to return. But fate had other plans for her.
She opened the outer door and stepped into the vestibule. As she hit the intercom and showed her face to the camera, she felt as if she were in some kind of dream.
Fritz opened the doors wide and bowed with a smile. "Madam! How nice to see you."
"Hi." She stepped inside and shook her head when he tried to take her coat. "I won't be long. I'm just here to talk to Zsadist. For a minute."
"But of course. Master is over here. Please to follow me?" Fritz led her across the foyer to a set of double doors, all the while chatting along merrily, updating her on things like what they'd all done for New Year's.
But the doggen paused before opening the way into the library. "Begging your pardon, madam, but you seem… Would you care to announce yourself? When you are ready?"
"Oh, Fritz, how well you know me. I would love a minute to myself."
He nodded and smiled and disappeared.
She took a deep breath and listened to the voices and footsteps in the house. Some were low enough and loud enough to belong to the Brothers, and she glanced at her watch. Seven o'clock at night. They would be getting ready to go out.
She wondered how Phury was. And whether Tohr had returned yet. And how John was.
Stalling… she was stalling.
Now or never, she thought, grabbing onto a brass handle and twisting. One half of the door gave way soundlessly.
Her breath caught as she looked inside the library.
Zsadist was sitting at a table, bent down low over a piece of paper, a thin pencil in his heavy fist. Mary was next to him, and between the two of them there was a book open.
"Remember the hard consonants," Mary said, pointing to the book. "Check. Catch. The k and c in those words sound close, but aren't the same. Try again."
Zsadist put a hand up to his skull trim. In a low voice he said something that didn't carry. And then his pencil moved on the paper.
"That's good!" Mary put her hand on his bicep. "You've got it."
Zsadist looked up and smiled. Then his head whipped around toward Bella and he lost the expression.
Oh, good Virgin in the Fade, she thought as she drank in the sight of him. She still loved him. She knew it down to her gut—
Wait a minute… What the… hell? His face was really different. Something had changed. Not the scar, but something was different.
Whatever, Get this over with so you can get going.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "I was wondering if I could talk to Zsadist."
She was vaguely aware of Mary getting up and coming over, of the two of them hugging, of the female leaving and shutting the door behind her.
"Hi," Zsadist said. Then slowly rose to his feet.
Bella's eyes widened, and she took a step back. "My… God. You're huge."
He put a hand to his thick pec. "Um… yeah. I've put on about eighty pounds. Havers… Havers said I'm probably not going to gain much more. But I'm about two-seventy now."
So that was the change in his face. His cheeks were not hollow anymore, his features no longer so stark, his eyes not sunken. He looked… almost handsome, actually. And much more like Phury.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Yeah, so, Rhage and I… we've been eating together."
Jesus… They certainly had. Zsadist's body was nothing like she remembered. His shoulders were massive and corded with muscles she could see under the tight black T-shirt he was wearing. His biceps were three times the size they'd been, and his forearms were big enough now to fit the size of his hands. And his stomach… his belly was ribbed with strength, and his leathers were stretched over heavy, roped thighs.
"You've been feeding, too," she murmured. And instantly wished she could take the words back. As well as the tone of censure.
It was none of her business whose vein he took, though it hurt to imagine him with one of their kind—and surely that was who he was drinking from. Human blood couldn't possibly have been responsible for this kind of growth.
His hand fell from his chest back to his side. "Rhage has a member of the Chosen he uses because he can't take Mary's vein for sustenance. I've been feeding from her, too." There was a pause. "You look well."
Another long pause. "Um… Bella, why have you come? Not that I mind—"
"I have to talk to you."
He didn't seem to know what to say to that.
"So what are you doing?" she asked, pointing to the papers on the desk. This was also none of her business, but she was hopelessly stalling again. Tongue-tied. Lost.
"I'm learning to read."
Her eyes flared. "Oh… wow. How's it going?"
"Good. Slow. But I'm working at it." He glanced down at the papers. "Mary's patient with me."
Silence. Long silence. God, now that she was in front of him, she just couldn't find the words.
"I went to Charleston," he said.
"What?" He'd come to see her there?
"It took a while to find you, but I did. I went the first night I was out of Havers's."
"I never knew."
"I didn't want you to."
"Oh." She took a deep breath, pain doing a quicksilver dance under every inch of her skin. Time to jump off the cliff, she thought. "Listen, Zsadist, I came to tell you—"
"I didn't want to see you until I was finished." As his yellow eyes stared at her, something changed in the air between them.
"With what?" she whispered.
He looked down at the pencil in his hand. "Me."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't understand—"
"I wanted to give you back this." He pulled her necklace out of his pocket. "I was going to leave it with you that first night, but then I thought… Well, anyway, I wore it until I couldn't get it around my throat anymore. Now I just carry it around."
Bella's breath left her, just eased out of her mouth until she was empty of air. Meanwhile he started to rub the top of his head, his biceps and chest so big now, they pulled his shirt until it strained at the seams.
"The necklace was a good excuse," he murmured.
"I thought maybe I could go to Charleston and show up at your front door to give this back and maybe… you might let me in. Or something. I was worried that another male would court you, so I've been trying to go as fast as I could. I mean, I figured maybe if I could read, and if I took a little better care of myself, and if I tried to stop being such a mean-ass motherfucker…" He shook his head. "But don't misunderstand. It's not like I expected you to be happy to see me. I was just… you know, hoping… coffee. Tea. Chance to talk. Or some shit. Friends, maybe. Except if you had a male, he wouldn't allow that. So, yeah, that's why I've been hurrying."
His yellow eyes lifted to hers. He was wincing, as if he were afraid of what might be showing on her face.
"Friends?" she said.
"Yeah… I mean, I wouldn't disgrace you by asking for more than that. I know that you regret… Anyway, I just couldn't let you go without… Yeah, so… friends."
Holy… Moses. He'd come looking for her. With the intent of coming back and reaching out to her.
Man, this was completely outside any scenario she'd imagined as she'd prepared to talk to him.
"I… What are you saying, Zsadist?" she stammered, even though she'd heard every word.
He glanced back down at the pencil in his hand and then turned to the table. Flipping the spiral notebook to a new page, he bent way over and labored on top of the paper for quite a while. Then he ripped the sheet free.
His hand was shaking as he held it out. "It's messy."
Bella took the paper. In a child's uneven block letters there were three words:
I LOVE YOU
Her lips flattened tight as her eyes stung. The handwriting got wavy and then disappeared.
"Maybe you can't read it," he said in a small voice. "I can do it over."
She shook her head. "I can read it just fine. It's… beautiful."
"I don't expect anything back. I mean… I know that you don't… feel that for me anymore. But I wanted you to know. It's important that you knew. And if there's any chance we could be together… I can't stop my job with the Brotherhood. But I can promise that I'll be so much more careful with myself—" He frowned and stopped talking. "Shit. What am I saying? I promised myself I wouldn't put you in this position—"
She crushed the paper to her heart, then launched herself at him, hitting his chest so hard he stumbled back. As his arms came around her with hesitation, as if he didn't have any idea what she was doing or why, she wept openly.
In all her preparations for this meeting, the one thing she had never considered was that the two of them might have some sort of future.
When he tilted up her chin and looked down at her she tried to smile, but the crazy hope she felt was too heavy and joyous a burden.
"I didn't mean to make you cry—"
"Oh, God… Zsadist, I love you."
His eyes flared so wide, his brows nearly hit his hairline. "What…?"
"I love you."
"Say that again."
"I love you."
"Again… please," he whispered. "I need to hear it… again."
"I love you…"
His response was to start praying to the Scribe Virgin in the Old Language.
Holding Bella tight, burying his face in her hair, he gave thanks with such eloquence she started to weep all over again.
When the last laudation had been murmured he switched back into English. "I was dead until you found me, though I breathed. I was sightless, though I could see. And then you came… and I was awakened."
She touched his face. In slow motion he closed the distance between their mouths, pressing the softest of kisses on her lips.
How sweetly he came to her, she thought. Even with his bulk and his power, he came to her… sweetly.
Then he pulled back. "But wait, why are you here? I mean, I'm glad you—"
"I'm having your young."
He frowned. Opened his mouth. Shut it and shook his head. "I'm sorry… what did you say?"
"I carry your young." This time there was no response from him at all. "You're going to be a father." Still nothing. "I'm pregnant."
Okay, she was running out of ways to tell him. God—what if he didn't want this?
Zsadist started to sway in his shitkickers and the blood ran out of his face. "You carry my young within you?"
Suddenly he gripped her arms hard. "Are you all right? Did Havers say you're all right?"
"So far. I'm a little young, but maybe that'll work to my advantage when the time to deliver comes. Havers said the baby is well and I'm under no restrictions… well, except I'm not allowed to dematerialize after my sixth month. And, ah…" Blushing… she was seriously blushing now. "I won't be able to have sex or be fed from after the fourteenth one until the birth. Which should be around month eighteen."
When the doctor had given her those warnings, she'd thought she'd never have to worry about either of those things. But maybe now…
Zsadist was nodding, but he really didn't look well. "I can take care of you."
"I know you will. And you're going to keep me safe." She said this because she knew he would worry about that.
"You will stay here with me?"
She smiled. "I would love to."
"Will you mate me?"
"Are you asking?"
Except he still looked green. He was literally the color of mint ice cream. And these rote words of his were beginning to freak her out. "Zsadist… are you okay about this? Um… you don't have to mate me, if you don't—"
"Where is your brother?"
The question startled her. "Rehvenge? Ah… home, I guess."
"We go to him. Now." Zsadist took her hand and dragged her out into the foyer.
"We will get his consent and we will be mated this night. And we will go in V's car. I don't want you dematerializing again."
Zsadist was pulling her to the door so fast, she was having to run. "Wait, Havers said I could until month—"
"I don't want to take any chances."
"Zsadist, that's not necessary."
Suddenly he stopped. "Are you sure you want my young?"
"Oh, yes. Oh, dear Virgin, yes. Even more now…" She smiled up at him. Took his hand. Placed it on her lower belly. "You're going to be a wonderful father."
And that was when he fell over in a dead faint.
Zsadist opened his eyes to find Bella looking down at him with love shining out of her face. All around his periphery there were other members of the household, but she was the only one he saw.
"Hi, there," she said softly.
He reached up and touched her face. He was not going to cry. He was not—
Oh, to hell with it.
He smiled up at her as the tears started rolling. "I hope… I hope it's a little girl who looks just like—"
His voice cut out. And then, yeah, like a complete flipping nancy, he broke down totally and wept like an idiot. In front of all the Brothers. And Butch. And Beth. And Mary. He was no doubt horrifying Bella with his weakness, but he couldn't help himself. This was the first time in his whole life that he had ever felt… blessed. Fortunate. Lucky. This moment, this perfect, shimmering moment in time, this one, sublime moment where he was flat on his back in the foyer, with his beloved Bella, and the young inside her, and the Brotherhood around him… this was his very luckiest day.
When his pathetic sobbing dried up, Rhage knelt down, grinning so wide his perfect cheeks were about to split. "We came running when your noggin cracked into the floor. Put 'er there, daddy-o. Can I teach the little bugger how to fight?"
Hollywood held out his hand, and as Zsadist took hold of it to shake, Wrath got down on his haunches. "Congratulations, my brother. May blessings from the Virgin be upon you and your shellan and your young."
By the time Vishous and Butch offered their laudatory words, Z was sitting up. Mopping up. God, he was such a pansy, crying all over himself. Shit. Good thing none of them seemed to mind.
As he took a deep breath, he looked around for Phury… and there his twin was.
In the two months since Phury's night out with that lesser, his hair had already grown down to his jawline, and the scar he'd put on his face was long gone. But his eyes were flat and sad. And they were sadder now, too.
Phury came forward and everyone got quiet.
"I should like to be an uncle," he said quietly. "I'm so happy for you, Z. You too… Bella."
Zsadist grabbed for Phury's palm and squeezed so hard he could feel his twin's bones. "You're going to be a fine uncle."
"And perhaps the ghardian?" Bella volunteered.
Phury bowed his head. "I would be honored to be the young's ghardian."
Fritz bustled in with a silver tray of slender glass flutes. The doggen was glowing and all atwitter with happiness. "To toast the occasion."
Voices mixed and mingled and glasses were passed and laughter sounded. Zsadist looked at Bella as someone put a flute in his hand.
I love you, he mouthed. She smiled back at him and pressed something into his hand. Her necklace.
"You keep this on you always," she whispered. "For good luck."
He kissed her hand. "Always."
Abruptly Wrath rose to his towering height, lifted up his champagne, and tilted back his head. In a tremendous, booming voice, he hollered so loud, you could have sworn the walls of the mansion shook.
"To the young!"
Everyone shot to their feet, raised their glasses, and yelled at the top of their lungs, "To the young!"
Ah, yes… Surely their chorus of voices was bold and deafening enough to carry to the Scribe Virgin's sacred ears. Which was precisely as tradition demanded.
What a true and proper toast, Z thought as he tugged Bella down to kiss her on the mouth.
"To the young!" the household all shouted once more.
"To you," he said against Bella's lips. "Nalla."