It was hours later, or at least it seemed like hours, when Bella awoke to the sound of the mesh plate sliding back. The sweet smell of the lesser drifted down to her, overpowering the pungent, damp earth.
"Hello, wife." The harness around her torso tightened as he lifted her out.
One look into his pale brown eyes and she knew now was not the time to push any limits. He was wired, his smile way too excited. And unbalanced was not good with him.
Just as her feet hit the floor, he jerked the harness so she fell against him. "I said hello, wife."
He closed his eyes. He loved it when she said his name. "I have something for you."
He left the straps on her and led her over to the stainless-steel table in the center of the room. When he handcuffed her to the thing, she knew it must be dark out still. He got lax about restraining her only during the day, when she couldn't run.
The lesser went out the door and left it open wide. Shuffling and grunting noises followed, and then he came back dragging a groggy civilian vampire. The male's head rolled on his shoulders as if it were on a loose hinge, his feet trailing behind at the toes. He was dressed in what had been nice black slacks and a cashmere sweater, but now the clothes were torn and wet and blood-marked.
With a moan choking in her throat, Bella backed away until her tether prevented her from going any farther. She couldn't watch the torture; she just couldn't.
The lesser muscled the male over to the table and laid him out flat on it. Chains were looped with efficiency around his wrists and ankles, and the links were secured with metal clips. As soon as the civilian's hazy eyes latched on to the shelves with the tools, he began to panic. He pulled against his steel binds, making them rattle against the metal table.
Bella met the vampire's blue eyes. He was terrified, and she wanted to reassure him, but she knew that wasn't smart. The lesser was watching her reaction, waiting.
And then he took out a knife.
The vampire on the table screamed as the slayer leaned over him. But all David did was yank up the male's sweater and slit it open, exposing his chest and throat.
Though Bella tried to fight it, bloodlust stirred in her gut. It had been a long time since she'd fed, maybe months, and all the stress she'd been under meant her body needed badly what only drinking from the opposite sex could give her.
The lesser took her arm and pulled her around, the handcuff sliding down the table's rail with her.
"I figured you must be thirsty by now." The slayer reached out and rubbed her mouth with his thumb. "So I got this for you to feed from."
Her eyes rounded.
"That's right. He's just for you. A present. He's fresh, young. Better than the two I have in the holes now. And we can keep him as long as he serves you." The lesser pushed her upper lip off her teeth. "Goddamn… look at those fangs getting longer. Hungry, aren't you, wife?"
His hand clamped on the back of her neck and he kissed her, licking at her with his tongue. Somehow she kept her gag reflex down until he lifted his head.
"I've always wondered what this looks like," he said, eyes roaming around her face. "Is it going to turn me on? I'm not sure whether I want it to or not. I think I like you pure. But you've got to do this, right? Or you're going to die."
He pushed her head down toward the male's throat. When she resisted, the lesser laughed softly and spoke into her ear.
"That's my girl. If you'd gone willingly to him, I think I would've beaten you out of jealousy." He stroked her hair with his free hand. "Now drink."
Bella looked into the vampire's eyes. Oh, God…
The male had stopped struggling and was staring up at her, his eyes about to pop out of his skull. Hungry though she was, she couldn't bear the idea of taking from him.
The lesser gripped her neck hard, and his voice got nasty. "You better drink from him. I went to a lot of fucking trouble to get this for you."
She opened her mouth, her tongue like sandpaper from the thirst. "No…"
The lesser put the knife up to her eyes. "One way or the other he's going to bleed in the next minute and a half. If I go to work on him, he's not going to last long. So maybe you want to try, wife?"
Tears speared her eyes at the violation she would perpetrate.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered to the chained male.
Her head was yanked back, and the lesser's palm came at her face from the left. The slap snapped her upper body around, and the slayer grabbed a chunk of her hair to keep her from falling. He pulled hard, arching her against him. She had no idea where the knife he'd had went.
"You do not apologize to that." He clapped his hand on her chin, digging his fingertips into the hollows under her cheekbones. "I'm the only one you worry about. We clear? I said, are we clear?"
"Yes," she gasped.
He took her free arm and bent it behind her back. Pain shot into her shoulder. "Tell me you love me."
From out of nowhere, anger lit off a firestorm in her chest. She would never say that word to him. Never.
"Tell me you love me," he yelled, blasting the demand into her face.
Her eyes flashed and she bared her fangs. The instant she did his excitement shot out of control, his body starting to tremble, his breath falling into a fast pant. He was instantly primed to fight her, aroused for the battle, ready as if he were erect for sex. This was the part of the relationship he lived for. He loved to fight her. Had told her that his former woman hadn't been as strong as she was, hadn't been able to last as long before passing out.
"Tell me you love me."
"I. Despise. You."
As he lifted his hand and made a fist out of it, she glared up at him, steady, calm, ready to take the hit. They stayed like that for a long time, their bodies suspended in twins arcs like a heart, tied by the strings of violence that ran between them. In the background the civilian male on the table whimpered.
Suddenly the lesser's arms shot around her and he buried his face in her neck. "I love you," he said. "I love you so much… I can't live without you—"
"Holy shit," someone said.
The lesser and Bella both looked to the voice. The persuasion center's door was wide-open and a pale-haired slayer was stopped dead in its jamb.
The guy started laughing and then said the three words that triggered everything that followed: "I'm gonna tell."
David went after the other lesser at a dead run, chasing him outside.
Bella didn't hesitate as the first cracks of the fight rang out. She went to work on the chains that bound the civilian's right wrist, flipping the clips free, unraveling the links. Neither of them said a word as she freed his hand and then started on his right ankle. As soon as he could, the male worked as fast as she did, frantically stripping the left side of himself. The second he was free, he popped off the table and looked at the steel handcuffs that tied her.
"You can't save me," she said. "He has the only keys."
"I can't believe you're still alive. I heard about you—"
"Go, go on—"
"He'll kill you."
"No, he won't." He was just going to make her wish she were dead. "Go! That fight isn't going to last forever."
"I'll come back for you."
"Just get home." When he opened his mouth, she said, "Shut the hell up and focus. If you can, tell my family I'm not dead. Go!"
The male had tears in his eyes as he closed them. He took two long breaths… and dematerialized.
Bella started shaking so badly she fell down on the floor, her arm stretching over her head from where it was handcuffed to the table.
The noises of the fight outside abruptly stopped. There was a silence and then a flash of light and a popping sound. She knew without a doubt that her lesser had won.
Oh, God… This was going to be bad. This was going to be a very, very bad day.
Zsadist stood on Bella's snow-covered lawn until the last possible moment, and then he dematerialized to the dreary, Gothic monster the Brotherhood all lived in. The mansion looked like something out of a horror movie, all gargoyles and shadows and leaded-glass windows. In front of the mountain of stone there was a courtyard full of cars, as well as a gatehouse that was Butch and V's crash pad. A twenty-foot-tall wall encased the compound, and there was a double-gated entry as well as a number of nasty surprises set up to deter unwanted visitors.
Z walked over to the main house's steel-cored doors and opened one side of them. Stepping into the vestibule, he punched in a code on a keypad and was granted access immediately. He grimaced as he emerged into the foyer. The soaring space with its jewel-toned colors and its gold leafing and its wild, mosaic floor was like that crowded bar: too much stimulation.
To his right, he heard the sounds of a full dining room: the soft clinking of silver on china, indistinct words from Beth, a chuckle from Wrath… then Rhage's bass voice cutting in. There was a pause, probably because Hollywood was making a face, and then everyone's laughter mingled, spilling out like gleaming marbles across a clean floor.
He wasn't interested in tangling with his brothers, much less eating with them. They'd all know by now that he'd been booted from Bella's house like a felon for marking too much time there. Few secrets got kept within the Brotherhood.
Z hit the grand staircase, taking the steps two at a time. The faster he went the more muted the meal's noises became, and the quiet suited him. At the top of the stairs he headed left and then went down a long hallway marked by Greco-Roman statuary. The marble athletes and warriors were illuminated by recessed lighting, their white marble arms and legs and chests forming a pattern against the bloodred wall. If you walked fast enough, it was like going by pedestrians when you were in a car, the rhythm of the statues' bodies animating what in fact did not move.
The room he slept in was at the end of the corridor, and as he opened the door he hit a wall of cold. He never turned on the heat or the air-conditioning, just like he never slept in the bed or used the phone or put anything in the antique bureaus. The closet was the only thing he needed, and he went there to disarm. His weapons and ammo were kept in the fireproof cabinet in the back, and his four shirts and three sets of leathers hung closely together. With nothing much in the walk-in, he often thought of bones as he went inside, all the empty hangers and brass rods looking spindly and fragile.
He stripped and showered. He was hungry for food, but he liked to keep himself that way. The pang of starvation, the dry yearning of thirst… these denials that were within his control always eased him. Hell, if he could pull off not sleeping, he'd take that away from himself, too. And the goddamned bloodlust…
He wanted to be clean. On the inside.
When he got out of the shower he ran a buzz razor over his head to keep his hair tight to his skull and then did a quick shave. Naked, chilled, logy from the feeding, he went over to his pallet on the floor. As he stood above the two folded blankets that offered as much cushioning as a pair of Band-Aids, he thought of Bella's bed. Hers had been queen-sized and all white. White pillowcases and sheets, big, white Wonder bread comforter, a white poodlelike throw at the foot of it.
He'd lain on her bed. Often. Had liked to think he could smell her in it. Sometimes he'd even rolled around on top, the softness giving way under his hard body. It was almost as if she had touched him then, and better than if she actually had. He couldn't stand to have anyone put their hands to him… though he wished he'd let Bella find a piece of his flesh just once. With her, he might have been able to handle it.
His eyes shifted to the skull that sat on the floor next to the pallet. The eye sockets were black holes, and he pictured the iris-and-pupil combination that had once stared out at him. Between the teeth there was a strip of black leather about two inches wide. Traditionally words of devotion to the deceased were inscribed on it, but the strap these jaws bit down on was blank.
As he lay down, he put his head next to the thing and the past came back, the year 1802…
The slave came partially awake. He was flat on his back and he ached all over, though he couldn't think of why… until he remembered going into his transition the night before. For hours he'd been crippled by the pain of his muscles sprouting, his bones thickening, his body transforming into something huge.
Strange… verily, his neck and his wrists hurt in a differing way.
He opened his eyes. The ceiling was far above him and marked with thin black bars inset into stone. When he turned his head, he saw an oak door with more bars running vertically down its thick planks. On the wall, too, there were strips of steel… In the dungeon. He was in the dungeon, but why? And he'd best get to his duties before…
He tried to sit up, but his forearms and shins were pinned down. Eyes going wide, he jerked—
"Mind y'self!" It was the blacksmith. And he was tattooing black bands on the slave's drinking points.
Oh, dear Virgin in the Fade, no. Not this…
The slave fought against the holds, and the other male looked up, annoyed. "Settle! I'll not be whipped for a fault that'd be not mine own."
"I beg of you …" The slave's voice didn't sound right. It was too deep. "Have mercy."
He heard a soft, female laugh. The Mistress of the household had entered the cell, her long gown of white silk trailing behind her on the stone floor, her blond hair down around her shoulders.
The slave dropped his eyes as was appropriate and realized he was wholly unclothed. Flushing, embarrassed, he wished he were covered.
"You wake," she said, approaching him.
He couldn't fathom why she had come to see one of such lowly station as himself. He was a mere kitchen boy, someone beneath even the maids who cleaned her privy quarters.
"Look at me," the Mistress commanded.
He did as he was told, though it went against everything he'd ever known. He had never been allowed to meet her stare before.
What he saw in it was a shock. She was looking at him in a way no female had ever regarded him. Greed marked the refined bones of her face, her dark gaze glowing with some kind of intent he couldn't discern.
"Yellow eyes," she murmured. "How rare. How beautiful."
Her hand landed on the slave's bare thigh. He twitched at the contact, feeling uneasy. This was wrong, he thought. She shouldn't be touching him there.
"What a magnificent surprise you've presented. Rest assured, I have fed well the one who brought you to my attention."
"Mistress… I would beg you to let me go to work."
"Oh, you will." Her hand drifted across the juncture of his pelvis, where his thighs met his hips. He jumped and heard the blacksmith's soft curse. "And what a boon for me. My blood slave fell prey to an unfortunate accident this day. As soon as his quarters are renewed, you shall be moved into them."
The slave lost his breath. He'd known of the male she'd kept locked up, for he'd brought food to the cell. Sometimes, as he'd left the tray with the guards, he'd heard strange sounds coming out from behind the heavy door…
His fear must have registered on the Mistress, because she leaned over him, getting close enough so he could smell her perfumed skin. She laughed softly, as if she had taken a taste of his fright and the dish had pleased her.
"In truth, I cannot wait to have you." As she turned to leave, she glared at the blacksmith. "Mind what I said or I shall have you sent unto the dawn. Not one misstep with that needle. His skin is far too perfect to mar."
The tattooing was finished soon thereafter, and the blacksmith took the one candle with him, leaving the slave tied down on the table in the darkness.
He shook from despair and horror as his new station became real. He was now the lowest of the low, kept alive solely to feed another… and only the Virgin knew what else awaited him.
It was a long while before the door opened again and candlelight showed him that his future had arrived: the Mistress in a black robe with two males known for their love of their own sex.
"Cleanse him for me," she ordered.
The Mistress watched as the slave was washed and oiled, and she moved around his body as the candlelight did, ever shifting, never still. The slave trembled, hating the sensation of the males' hands on his face, his chest, his privates. He was fearful that one or both would try to take him in an unholy way.
When they were finished, the taller of them said, "Shall we attempt him for you, Mistress?"
"I shall keep him for myself this night."
She dropped her robe and lithely got up onto the table, straddling the slave. Her hands sought his private flesh, and as she stroked him he was aware of the other males taking themselves in hand. When the slave remained flaccid, she covered him with her lips. The sounds in the room were horrific, the moans of the males and the Mistress's mouth sucking and smacking.
The humiliation was complete as the slave started to cry, tears seeping out of the corners of his eyes, falling down his temples, landing in his ears. He had never been touched between his legs before. As a pretransition male, his body had not been ready for or capable of mating, though that hadn't kept him from looking forward to someday being with a female. He'd always imagined that the joining would be wondrous, for in the slave quarters he had seen the pleasure act on occasion.
But now… to have the intimacy happening in this way, he was ashamed that he had dared to want something.
Abruptly, the Mistress released him and slapped him across the face. The palm print stung on his cheek as she got off the table.
"Bring me the salve," she snapped. "That thing of his knows not its function."
One of the males came forward to the table with a small pot. The slave felt someone put a slippery hand on him, he wasn't sure who, and then there was a burning sensation. As a curious weight settled in his groin, he felt something shift on his thigh and then slowly move across his stomach.
"Oh… good Virgin in the Fade," one of the males said.
"Such size," the other breathed. "He would o'er-spill the depths of a well."
The Mistress's voice was likewise amazed. " 'Tis enormous."
The slave lifted his head. There was a mighty swollen thing lying on his belly, the likes of which he had never seen before.
He lay back down against the table as the Mistress mounted his hips. This time he felt something engulf him, something wet. He put his head up again. She was astride him and he was… inside of her body. She moved against him, pumping up and down, panting. He was dimly aware that the other males in the room were moaning again, the guttural sounds growing louder as she moved faster and faster. And then there were shouts, hers, theirs.
The Mistress collapsed against the slave's chest. While she still breathed heavily, she said, "Hold his head down."
One of the males put a palm on the slave's forehead and then stroked the slave's hair with his free hand. "So lovely. So soft. And look at all the colors."
The Mistress buried her face in the slave's neck and bit him. He cried out at the sting and the taking. He'd seen males and females drink from one another before, and it had always seemed… right. But this hurt and made him dizzy, and the harder she pulled at his vein, the more light-headed he became.
He must have passed out, because when he woke up she was lifting her head and licking her lips. She climbed off him, robed herself, and the three of them left him alone in the dark. Moments later guards whom he recognized entered.
The other males refused to look upon him, though he had been on friendly terms with them before because he had rendered them their ale. Now, though, they kept their eyes averted and didn't speak. As he glanced down at his body, he was ashamed that whatever salve had been put on him was still working, that his private staff was still stiff and thick.
The gloss on it nauseated him.
He desperately wanted to tell the males that it wasn't his fault, that he was trying to will the flesh down, but he was too mortified to speak as the guards released his arms and ankles from the table. When he stood up he sagged, because he'd been stretched out flat on his back for hours and was only a day past his transition. No one helped him as he struggled to stay upright, and he knew it was because they didn't want to touch him, didn't want to be near him now. He went to cover himself, but they shackled him in a practiced manner so he didn't have a free hand.
The shame got worse as he had to walk down the hall. He could feel the heavy weight at his hips bouncing with his footfalls, bobbing obscenely. Tears welled and slid down his cheeks, and one of the guards snorted with disgust.
The slave was taken to a different part of the castle, to another solid-walled room with inlaid steel bars. This one had a bed platform and a proper chamberpot and a rug and torches set high up on the walls. As he was brought in, so were food and water, the victuals left by a fellow kitchen boy he'd known all of his life. The pretransition male also refused to look at him.
The slave's hands were released and he was locked in.
Bereft and trembling, he went over to a corner and sat on the floor. He cradled his body gently, for no one else would, and tried to be kind to this newly transitioned form of his… a form that had been used in a way that was so wrong.
As he rocked back and forth, he worried for his future. He'd never had any rights, any learning, any identity. But at least before he'd been free to move around. And his body and his blood had been his own.
The remembered sensation of those hands on his skin brought up a wave of nausea. He looked down at his privates and realized he could still smell the Mistress on himself. He wondered how long the swelling would last.
And what would happen when she came back for him.
Zsadist rubbed his face and rolled over. She'd come back for him, all right. And she'd never come alone.
He closed his eyes against the recollections and tried to will himself to sleep. The last thing that flashed through his mind was a picture of Bella's farmhouse in its snow-covered meadow.
God, that place was so very empty, deserted though it was filled with things. With Bella's disappearance it had been stripped of its most important function: Though it was still a sound structure and capable of keeping out wind and weather and strangers, it was no longer a home.
In a way, her farmhouse was just like him.