Chapter Twenty-four


John stared across the desk in the study. Sarelle's head was down as she leafed through one of the ancient books, her short blond hair hanging in her face so that her chin was all he could see. The two of them had spent hours making a list of incantations for the solstice festival. Meanwhile, Wellsie was in the kitchen, ordering supplies for the ceremony.

As Sarelle turned another page, he thought she had really pretty hands.

"Okay," she said. "I think that's the last one."

Her eyes flashed up to his and it was like getting struck by lightning: a shock of heat and then a spacey disorientation. Plus he would have believed he glowed in the dark now, too.

She smiled and closed the book. Then there was a long silence. "So... um, I guess my friend Lash is in your training class."

Lash was her friend? Oh, terrific.

"Yeah... and he says you have the mark of the Brotherhood on your chest." When John didn't respond, she said, "Do you?"

John shrugged and scribbled on the edge of the list he'd made.

"Can I see it?"

He squeezed his eyes shut. Like he wanted her to get a load of his scrawny chest? Or that birthmark that had proven to be such a pain in the ass?

"I don't think you did it yourself, like they do," she said quickly. "And, I mean, it's not like I want to inspect it or something. I don't even know what one is supposed to look like. I'm just curious."

She moved her chair closer to his and he caught a whiff of the perfume she wore... or maybe it wasn't perfume. Maybe it was just... her.

"Which side is it on?"

As if his hand belonged to her, he patted his left pectoral.

"Unbutton your shirt a little." She leaned over to the side, her head angled so she could look at his chest. "John? Can I please see it?"

He glanced at the doorway. Wellsie was still talking on the phone in the kitchen, so she probably wasn't going to come barging in or anything. But the study still seemed way public.

Oh... God. Was he really going to do this?

"John? I just want to... see."

Okay, he was going to do this.

He stood up and nodded at the doorway. Without a word Sarelle followed right behind him, going all the way down the hall, all the way into his bedroom.

After they stepped inside, he shut the door most of the way and reached for the top button of his shirt. He willed his hands to be steady by vowing to saw them off if they embarrassed him. The threat seemed to work, because he unbuttoned the shirt down to his stomach without much trouble. He stretched the left side open and looked away.

When he felt a light touch on his skin, he jumped.

"Sorry, my hands are cold." Sarelle blew on her fingertips, then went back to his chest.

Good God. Something was happening in his body, some kind of wild shifting inside his skin. His breath grew short, strangled. He opened his mouth so he could get more air in.

"That is really cool."

He was disappointed when she dropped her hand. But then she smiled at him.

"So do you think you might want to go out sometime? You know, we could go to the laser-tag place. That could be cool. Or maybe the movies."

John nodded like the dummy he was.

"Good."

Their eyes met. She was so pretty, she made him dizzy.

"Do you want to kiss me?" she whispered.

John's eyes cracked open. Like a balloon had popped behind his head.

"Because I'd like you to." She licked her lips a little. "I really would."

Whoa... Chance of a lifetime, right here, right now, he thought.

Do not pass out. Passing out would be a total buzz kill.

John quickly called on every movie he'd ever seen... and got no help at all. As a horror fan, he was just swamped by visions of Godzilla stomping across Tokyo and of Jaws chewing on the ass end of the Orca. Big help.

He thought of the mechanics. Head tilt. Lean forward. Make the contact.

Sarelle glanced around, flushing. "If you don't want to, that's cool. I just thought..."

"John?" Wellsie's voice came from down the hall. And got closer as she kept talking. "Sarelle? Where are you guys?"

He winced. Before he lost his nerve, he grabbed Sarelle's hand, pulled her forward, and planted a good one right on her mouth, his lips tight against hers. No tongue, but there wasn't time, and he'd probably need to call 911 after something like that anyway. As it was, he was practically hyperventilating.

Then he pushed her back. And worried about how he'd done.

He risked a look. Oh... Her smile was radiant.

He thought his chest would explode with happiness.

He was just dropping his hand as Wellsie stuck her head in the door. "I need to go to¡ªah... I'm sorry. I didn't know that you two..."

John tried to marshal a nothing-special smile and then noticed that Wellsie's eyes were fixated on his chest. He looked down. His shirt was wide-open.

Scrambling to button the damn thing up just made the situation worse, but he couldn't help himself.

"I'd better go," Sarelle said easily. "My mahmen wanted me home early. John, I'll be on the computer later, okay? We'll figure out what movie to go see or whatever. Night, Wellsie."

As Sarelle walked down toward the living room, he couldn't resist glancing around Wellsie. He watched as Sarelle took her coat out of the hall closet, put it on, and got her keys from her pocket. Moments later the muted sound of the front door closing drifted down the hall.

There was a long silence. Then Wellsie laughed and pushed back some of her red hair.

"I, ah, I have no idea how to handle this," she said. "Except to say that I like her a lot and she has good taste in males."

John rubbed his face, aware that he was the color of a tomato.

I'm going to go for a walk, he signed.

"Well, Tohr just called. He was going to swing by the house and pick you up. Thought you might want to hang with him at the training center, since he's got some admin work to do. Anyway, it's your choice to stay or not. And I'm off to a Princeps Council meeting."

He nodded as Wellsie started to turn away.

"Ah, John?" She paused and looked over her shoulder. "Your shirt's... um, it's buttoned up kind of off-kilter."

He glanced down. And started to laugh. Even though he made no sound he just had to let his joy out, and Wellsie smiled, obviously happy for him. As he did the buttons up the right way, he had never loved the woman more.

Bella spent the hours after she returned to the mansion sitting up in Zsadist's bed with her diary in her lap. She didn't do anything with the journal at first, too caught up in what had happened at her house.

Jesus... She couldn't say she was surprised that Zsadist was every bit the menace she'd thought he was. And he'd saved her, hadn't he? If that lesser he'd killed had gotten its hands on her, she would have ended up back in a hole in the ground.

The trouble was, she couldn't decide whether what he'd done was evidence of his strength or his brutality.

As she decided it was probably both, she worried about whether he was okay. He'd been hurt and yet he was still out there, probably trying to find more slayers. God... What if he¡ª

What if. What if... She was going to drive herself crazy if she kept this up.

Desperate for something else to focus on, she leafed through what she'd written in her journal over the past year. Zsadist's name had played a prominent role in the entries right before she'd been abducted. She'd been so obsessed by him, and couldn't say that had changed. Matter of fact, her feelings were so strong for him now, even after what he'd done tonight, that she wondered if she didn't...

Love him. Oh... man.

Suddenly she couldn't be alone, not with that realization shooting around her head. She brushed her teeth and her hair and made a go for the first floor, hoping she'd run into someone. Except halfway down the stairs, she heard voices from the dining room and came to a halt. The last meal of the night was in progress, but the idea of joining all the Brothers and Mary and Beth seemed overwhelming. Besides, wouldn't Zsadist be there? And how could she face him without giving herself away? No way that male was going to deal well with her loving him. No way.

Ah, hell. She was going to have to see him sooner or later. And hiding wasn't her thing.

But when she got to the bottom of the staircase and stepped off onto the foyer's mosaic floor, she realized she'd forgotten to put any shoes on. How could she go into the king and queen's dining room with bare feet?

She looked back up at the second floor and became utterly exhausted. Too tired to go up and come down again, too embarrassed to go forward, she just listened to the sounds of the meal: Male and female voices chatted and laughed. A wine bottle was uncorked with a pop. Someone thanked Fritz for bringing out more lamb.

She looked down at her naked feet, thinking she was such a fool. A shattered fool. She was lost because of what the lesser had done to her. And shaky because of what she'd seen Zsadist do tonight. And so alone after realizing what she felt for that male.

She was about to throw in the towel and go back upstairs when something brushed against her leg. She jumped and looked down, meeting the jade green eyes of a black cat. The feline blinked, purred at her, and rubbed its head against the skin of her ankle.

Bending at the waist, she stroked its fur with unsteady hands. The animal was incomparably elegant, all lean lines and graceful, sliding movements. And for no good reason, her eyes got blurry. The more emotional she got, the closer she and the cat became, until she was sitting on the last step of the staircase and the animal had crawled into her lap.

"His name is Boo."

Bella gasped and looked up. Phury was standing in front of her, a towering male no longer dressed in war clothes, but now in cashmere and wool. He had a napkin in his hand, as if he'd just gotten up from the table, and he smelled really good, like he'd recently showered and shaved. Staring at him, she became aware that all the talk and sounds of eating had bled from the air, leaving a silence that told her everyone knew she'd come downstairs and gotten stuck on the periphery.

Phury knelt down and pressed his linen napkin into her hand. Which was how she realized there were tears running down her cheeks.

"Won't you come join us?" he said softly.

She blotted her face while still holding on to the cat. "Any chance I can take him in with me?"

"Absolutely. Boo is always welcome at our table. And so are you."

"I don't have shoes on."

"We don't care." He held out his hand. "Come on, Bella. Come join us."



Zsadist walked into the foyer, so cold and stiff he shuffled along. He'd wanted to stay until the very dawn at the farmhouse, but his body hadn't fared well in the frigid air.

Even though he wasn't going to eat, he headed for the dining room, only to stop in the shadows. Bella was at the table, sitting next to Phury. There was a plate of food in front of her, but she was paying more attention to the cat in her lap. She was petting Boo, and didn't miss a stroke as she looked up at something Phury said. She smiled, and when her head dropped again, Phury's eyes stayed on her profile as if he were drinking her in.

Z walked quickly over to the stairs, not about to fall into that scene. He was almost free when Tohr emerged from the hidden door below the first landing. The brother looked grim, but then he never was a party.

"Hey, Z, hold up."

Zsadist cursed, and not under his breath. He had no interest in getting waylaid by some policy-and-procedure shit, and that was all Tohr talked about lately. The guy was cracking down on the Brotherhood, organizing shifts, trying to turn four loose cannons like V, Phury, Rhage, and Z into soldiers. No wonder he always looked like his head hurt.

"Zsadist, I said, wait."

"Not now¡ª"

"Yeah, now. Bella's brother sent a request to Wrath. Asking that she be assigned sehculsion status with him as her whard."

Oh, shit. If that happened, Bella was as good as gone. Hell, she was as good as luggage. Not even the Brotherhood could keep her from her whard.

"Z? Did you hear what I said?"

Nod your head, asshole, he told himself .

He barely managed a chin dip. "But why are you telling me this?"

Tohr's mouth tightened. "You want to front like she's nothing to you? Fine. Just thought you'd want to know."

Tohr headed for the dining room.

Z gripped the banister and rubbed his chest, feeling like someone had replaced the oxygen in his lungs with tar. He looked up the stairs and wondered if Bella would come back to his room before she left. She would have to, because her diary was there. She could leave her clothes behind, but not that journal. Unless, of course, she'd moved out already.

God... How would he tell her good-bye?

Man, there was one conversation to bail on. He couldn't imagine what he'd say to her, especially after she'd seen him do his nasty magic all over that slayer.

Z went into the library, picked up one of the phones there, and dialed Vishous's cell number by its pattern on the buttons. He heard the ring through the receiver as well as from across the foyer. When V answered, he told the Brother about the Explorer and the cell phone and the undercarriage antics.

"I'm on it," V said. "But where are you? There's a funky echo on the phone."

"Call me if that car moves. I'll be in the gym." He hung up and headed for the underground tunnel.

He figured he could scrounge up some clothes down in the locker room and run himself into a state of utter depletion. When his thighs were screaming and his calves had turned to stone and his throat was sore from the gasping, the pain would clear his mind, cleanse him... He craved the hurt more than he craved food.

When he got to the locker room, he went to the cubicle assigned to him and pulled out his Air Shod and a pair of running shorts. He preferred going shirtless anyway, especially if he was alone.

He'd disarmed and was about to strip down when he heard something moving around the lockers. Tracking the sound in silence, he stepped out into the path of¡ªa half-pint stranger.

There was a metal bang as that little body slammed into one of the locker banks.

Shit. It was the kid. What was his name? John something.

And John-boy looked as if he was going to faint as he stared up with bugged-out, glassy eyes.

Z glared down from his full height. His mood was utterly vicious at the moment, black and cold as space, and yet somehow, ripping the kid a new asshole for doing nothing wrong wasn't appealing.

"Get out of here, kid."

John fumbled with something. A pad and pen. As he put the two together, Z shook his head.

"Yeah, I don't read, remember? Look, just go. Tohr's up at the house."

Z turned away and yanked off his shirt. When he heard a gasp, he looked over his shoulder. John's eyes were on his back.

"Christ, kid... get the fuck out of here."

As Z heard the patter of feet leaving, he ditched his pants, threw on the black soccer shorts, and sat on the bench. He picked his Nikes up by the laces and let them dangle between his knees. As he stared at the running shoes, he had some stupid thought about how many times he'd shoved his feet into them and punished his body on the very treadmill he was headed for. Then he thought about how many times he'd deliberately gotten himself hurt in fights with the lessers. And how many times he'd asked Phury to beat him.

No, not asked. Demanded. There had been times when he'd demanded that his twin hit him over and over again until his scarred face swelled up and the pounding ache in his bones was all he knew. In truth, he didn't like having Phury involved. He'd have preferred the pain to be private and would have done the damage himself if he'd been able to. But it was hard to coldcock yourself with any force.

Z slowly lowered the running shoes to the floor and leaned back against the locker, thinking about where his twin was. Up in the dining room. Next to Bella.

His eyes drifted to the phone that was mounted on the locker room wall. Maybe he should call up to the house.

A low whistle sounded right next to him. He flipped his eyes to the left and frowned.

The kid was there with a water bottle in his hand, and he came forward tentatively, his arm stretched way out in front of him, his head tilted away. Kind of like he was cozying up to a panther and hoped to leave the experience with his limbs still attached.

John placed the Poland Spring bottle about three feet from Z on the bench. Then he turned and ran away.

Z stared at the door the kid tore out of. As the thing eased shut, he thought about other doors in the compound. The front ones of the mansion, specifically.

God. Bella would be leaving soon, too. She might even be leaving now.

Right this very minute.

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