Chapter Three


John Matthew moaned and rolled over in his bed onto his back.

The woman followed his lead, her naked breasts pressing down on his broad, bare chest. With an erotic smile, she reached down between his legs and found his heavy ache. He kicked his head back and moaned as she stood his erection up and sat down on it. While he gripped her knees, she fell into a good, slow ride.

Oh, yeah...

With one hand she played with herself; with the other she tantalized him, sweeping her palm over her breasts and up to her neck, taking her long, platinum blond hair with her as she went. Her hand moved higher to her face, and then her arm was over her head, a graceful arc of flesh and bone. She arched back and her breasts pushed out, the hard tips distended, rosy. Her skin was so pale it looked like fresh snow.

"Warrior," she said, grinding. "Can you handle this?"

Handle it? Damn straight, he could. And just so they were clear on who was handling what, he grabbed her thighs and thrust his hips up until she cried out.

When he retreated, she smiled down at him, working against him faster and faster. She was slick and she was tight, and his erection was in heaven.

"Warrior, can you handle this?" Her voice was deeper now from the exertion.

"Hell, yeah," he growled. Man, the second he came, he was going to flip her over and pound into her all over again.

"Can you handle this?" She pumped even harder, milking him. With her arm still over her head, she was riding him like a bull, bucking against him.

This was great sex... awesome, incredible, great¡ª

Her words began to warp, distort... fall below the register of a female. "Can you handle this?"

John felt a chill. Something was off here. Something was way off...

"Can you handle this? Can you handle this?" Suddenly a man's voice was coming out of her throat, a man's voice was sneering at him. "Can you can handle this?"

John struggled to throw her off, but she was clamped on to him, and the fucking wouldn't stop.

"Do you think you can handle this? Do-you-think-you-can-handle-this? Doyouthinkyoucanhandlethis?" The male voice was screaming now, roaring out of the female's face.

The knife came at John from over her head¡ªonly she was a man now, a man with white skin and pale hair and eyes the color of fog. As the blade flashed silver, John reached up to block it, but his arm wasn't heavy with muscle anymore. It was thin, emaciated.

"Can you handle this, warrior?"

With a graceful slice, the dagger landed square in the middle of his chest. A blazing pain lit off from where it penetrated him, the violent burning sluicing through his body, ricocheting around inside of his skin until he was alive with agony. He gasped for breath and choked on his own blood, choked and gagged until he could get nothing into his lungs. Railing around, he fought against the death that was coming for him¡ª

"John! John! Wake up!"

His eyes popped wide. His first thought was that his face hurt, though he had no idea why, because he'd been stabbed in the chest. Then he realized his mouth was stretched open, accommodating what would have been a scream if he'd been born with a voice box. As it was, all he was doing was letting out a steady stream of air.

Then he felt the hands... hands were pinning his arms. Terror returned, and in what was for him an awesome surge, he threw his little body off the bed. He landed face-first, his cheek skidding on the low-napped carpet.

"John! It's me, Wellsie."

Reality came back at the sound of the name, shaking him free of the hysteria like a slap.

Oh, God... It was okay. He was okay. He was alive.

He launched himself into Wellsie's arms and buried his face in her long red hair.

"It's all right." She pulled him into her lap and stroked his back. "You're home. You're safe."

Home. Safe. Yes, after only six weeks this was home... the first he'd ever had after growing up in Our Lady's orphanage and then living in hovels since he was sixteen. Wellsie and Tohrment's was home.

And he wasn't just safe here; he was understood. Hell, he'd learned the truth about himself. Until Tohrment had come and found him, he hadn't known why he'd always been different from other people or why he was so scrawny and weak. But male vampires were like that before they went through the transition. Even Tohr, who was a full-fledged member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, had apparently been small.

Wellsie tilted John's head up. "Can you tell me what it was?"

He shook his head and burrowed deeper into her, holding on to her so hard he was surprised she could still breathe.

Zsadist materialized in front of Bella's farmhouse and cursed. Someone had been in the place again. There were fresh tire tracks through the powdered snow in the driveway and footprints to the door. Ah, shit... There were a lot of footprints, so many back and forth to whatever car had been parked there that it looked as if things were being moved out.

This made him anxious, like little bits of her were disappearing.

Holy hell. If her family dismantled the house, he didn't know where he would go to be with her anymore.

With a hard eye, he stared at the front porch and the long windows of the living room. Maybe he should pack up some of her stuff for himself. It would be a bastard thing to do, but then, he wasn't above being a thief.

Once again, he wondered about her family. He knew they were aristocrats of the highest social order, but that was about it, and he didn't want to meet them to find out more. Even on his best day, he was shit-awful with people, but the situation with Bella made him dangerous, not just nasty. No, Tohrment was the liaison with her blood ties, and Z was always careful not to run into them.

He went around the back of the house, entered through the kitchen, and turned off the security alarm. As he did every night, he checked on her fish first. Flakes of food were scattered across the top of the water, evidence that someone had already taken care of them. He was pissed off that he'd been robbed of the opportunity.

Truth was, he thought of her house as his space now. He'd cleaned it up after she'd been abducted. He'd watered the plants and taken care of the fish. He'd walked the floors and the stairs and stared out of the windows and sat on every chair and sofa and bed. Hell, he'd already decided to buy the damn thing when her family sold it. Though he'd never had a house before or many personal possessions, these walls and this roof and the shit sheltered inside¡ªhe would own it all. A shrine to her.

Z made a quick trip through the house, cataloging the things that had been removed. It wasn't much. A painting and a silver dish from the living room and a mirror from the front hall. He was curious why those particular objects had been chosen and wanted them back where they belonged.

As he came into the kitchen again, he pictured the room after she'd been abducted, all the blood, the glass shards, the busted chairs and china. His eyes went down to a black streak of rubber on the pine floor. He could guess how it had been made. Bella struggling against the lesser, being dragged, the sole of her shoe squeaking as it left a trail.

Anger crawled around his chest on all fours until he was panting from the ugly, familiar feeling. Except... Christ, the whole thing didn't make sense: him searching for her and obsessing over her shit and walking around her house. They hadn't been friends. Hell, they hadn't even been acquaintances. And he hadn't been nice to her on the two occasions he'd met her.

Man, he regretted that. During those few moments he'd had with her, he wished he hadn't been so... Well, not throwing up after he'd found out she was aroused by him would have been a good fricking start. Except there'd been no way to suck back the response. No female other than that sick bitch mistress of his had ever been wet for him, so he sure as hell didn't associate slick female flesh with anything good.

As he remembered Bella being up against his body, he still wondered why she'd wanted to lay with him. His face was a goddamned mess. His body wasn't much better, at least not on the back. And his reputation made Jack the Ripper look like a Boy Scout. Damn it, he was angry at everyone and everything all the time. She'd been beautiful and soft and kind, a regal, aristocratic female from a privileged background.

Oh, but their contradictions had been the point, hadn't they? He'd been the change-of-pace male for her. The walk on the wild side. The savage creature who would shock her out of her nice little life for an hour or two. And even though it had hurt to be reduced to precisely what he was, he'd still thought she was... lovely.

From behind him, he heard a grandfather clock start to chime. Five o'clock.

The front door to the house opened with a creak.

In a soundless rush, Z unsheathed a black dagger from his chest and flattened himself against the wall. He angled his head so he had a view down the hall to the foyer.

Butch held up his hands as he walked inside. "Just me, Z."

Zsadist lowered the blade, then put it back in its holster.

The former homicide detective was an anomaly in their world, the only human who'd ever been let into the Brotherhood's inner circle. Butch was V's roommate, Rhage's lifting partner in the gym, Phury's clothes-whore buddy. And for reasons of his own, he was obsessed with Bella's abduction, so he had some shit in common with Z, too.

"What up, cop?"

"You heading back to the compound?" The guy's question might have been framed as an inquiry, but it was more like a suggestion.

"Not right now."

"Close to daylight."

Whatever. "Phury send you for me?"

"My choice. When you didn't come back from what you paid for, I figured you might end up here."

Z crossed his arms over his chest. "You worried I killed that female I took into the alley?"

"Nope. Saw her working the club before I left."

"So why am I looking at you right now?"

As the male glanced down like he was putting words together in his head, his weight moved back and forth in those expensive loafers he liked. Then he unbuttoned his fancy black cashmere coat.

Ah... so Butch was a messenger. "Spit it out, cop."

The human rubbed his thumb over his eyebrow. "You know Tohr's been talking to Bella's family, right? And that her brother's a real hothead? Well, he knows someone's coming in here. He can tell because of the security system. Every time it's shut off or turned on, he gets a signal. He wants the visits to stop, Z."

Zsadist bared his fangs. "Tough."

"He's going to put up guards."

"Why the hell does he care?"

"Come on, man, it's his sister's place."

Son of a bitch. "I want to buy the house."

"That's a no-go, Z. Tohr said the family's not putting it on the market anytime soon. They want to keep it."

Z ground his molars for a moment. "Cop, do yourself a favor and get out of here."

"Rather drive you home. Damn close to daybreak."

"Yeah, I really need a human telling me that."

Butch cursed on an exhale. "Fine, go crispy if you want. Just don't come back here again. Her family's been through enough."

As soon as the front door shut, Z felt a flush come over his body, like someone had wrapped him up tight in an electric blanket and cranked the dial. Sweat broke out on his face and his chest, and his stomach rolled. He lifted his hands. The palms were wet and the fingers sported a fine tremble.

Physiological signs of stress, he thought.

He was clearly having an emotional reaction, although damned if he knew what it was. All he picked up on were the ancillary symptoms. Inside of himself there was nothing, no feeling that he could identify.

He looked around and wanted to set fire to the farmhouse, just burn the thing down to the ground so no one could have it. Better that than knowing he couldn't go in anymore.

Trouble was, torching her place was like hurting her.

So if he couldn't leave a pile of ashes behind, he wanted to take something. As he thought about what he could carry with him and still dematerialize, he put his hand up to the slender chain stretched tight around his throat.

The necklace with its tiny inset diamonds was hers. He'd found the thing in the rubble the night after she'd been abducted, on the terra-cotta floor under her kitchen table. He'd cleaned her blood off of it, fixed the broken clasp, and had worn it ever since.

And diamonds were eternal, weren't they? They lasted forever. Just like his memories of her.

Before Zsadist left, he took one last look at the fish tank. The food was almost gone now, snipped off the surface by little gaping mouths, mouths that came at it from the underside.

John didn't know how long he stayed in Wellsie's arms, but it took him a while to get back to reality. When he finally pulled back, she smiled at him.

"Sure you don't want to tell me about the nightmare?"

John's hands started moving, and she stared at them hard because she was just learning American Sign Language. He knew he was going too fast, so he leaned over and picked up one of his pads and a pen from the bedside table.

It was nothing. I'm okay now. Thanks for waking me up, though.

"You want to go back to bed?"

He nodded. It seemed as if he'd done nothing except sleep and eat for the last month and a half, but there was no end to his hunger or his exhaustion. Then again, he had twenty-three years of starvation and insomnia to make up for.

He slid between the sheets, and then Wellsie eased down beside him. Her pregnancy didn't show that much if she was standing, but when she was sitting there was a subtle swell under her loose shirt.

"You want me to put the light on in your bathroom?"

He shook his head. That would only make him feel more like a pansy, and right now his ego had pretty much taken all the shriveling up it could handle.

"I'm just going to be at my desk in the study, okay?"

As she left, he felt bad that he was kind of relieved, but with the panic gone he was ashamed of himself. A man didn't act like he had just now. A man would have fought the pale-haired demon in the dream and won. And even if he'd been terrified, a man wouldn't have cowered and shook like a five-year-old when he woke up.

Then again, John wasn't a man. At least not yet. Tohr had said the change wouldn't come to him until he was closer to twenty-five, and he couldn't wait for the next two years to pass. Because even though he now understood why he was only five feet, six inches tall and 112 pounds, it was still tough. He hated facing his bony body every day in the mirror. Hated wearing boy-sized clothes though he could legally drive and vote and drink. Cringed at the fact that he'd never had an erection, even when he woke up from one of his erotic dreams. And he'd never even kissed a woman, either.

No, he just didn't feel like much in the masculine department all the way around. Especially given what had happened to him almost a year ago. God, the anniversary of that attack was coming up, wasn't it? With a wince he tried not to think of that dirty stairwell or the man who'd held a knife to his throat or those horrible moments when something irretrievable had been taken from him: His innocence violated, gone forever.

Forcing his mind out of that tailspin, he told himself that at least he was no longer hopeless. Sometime soon he would change into a man.

Itchy from thinking about the future, he threw the covers off and went to his closet. As he opened the double doors, he was still unused to the display. He'd never owned this many pants and shirts and fleeces in his whole life, but here they were, so fresh and new... all their zippers working, no buttons missing, no fraying, no tears at the scams. He even had a pair of Nike Air Shod.

He took out a fleece and pulled it on, then pushed his spindly legs into a pair of khakis. In the bathroom he washed his hands and face and combed his dark hair. Then he headed for the kitchen, walking through rooms that had clean, modern lines but were decorated with Italian Renaissance furniture, textiles, and art. He stopped when he heard Wellsie's voice coming out of the study.

"... some kind of nightmare. I mean, Tohr, he was terrified... No, he fudged when I asked him what it was, and I didn't press. I think it's time he sees Havers. Yes... UAH-Hugh. He should meet Wrath first. Okay. I love you, my hellren. What? God, Tohr, I feel the same way. I don't know how we ever lived without him. He is such a blessing."

John leaned against the wall in the hall and closed his eyes. Funny, he felt the same way about them.

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