Chapter Twenty-three


Bella was damn well coming home. Tonight.

Rehvenge was not the kind of male who handled frustration well under the best of circumstances. So he was beyond through waiting to have his sister back where she needed to be. Goddamn it, he was not just her brother, he was her ghardian, and that meant he had rights.

As he yanked on his full-length sable coat, the fur swirled around his big body, then fell to rest at his ankles. The suit he was wearing was black and by Ermenegildo Zegna. The twin nine-millimeter handguns under his arms were by Heckler & Koch.

"Rehvenge, please don't do this."

He looked at his mother. Madalina was standing beneath the chandelier in the hall, the picture of aristocracy with her regal bearing and her diamonds and her satin gown. The only thing out of place was the worry on her face, and that wasn't because the tension clashed with her Harry Winston and haute couture. She never got upset. Ever.

He took a deep breath. He was more likely to calm her down if he didn't show his infamous temper, but more to the point, in his current frame of mind he was liable to shred her where she stood, and that wasn't fair.

"She will come home this way," he said.

His mother's graceful hand lifted to her throat, a sure sign she was caught between what she wanted and what she thought was right. "But it's so extreme."

"You want her sleeping in her own bed? You want her where she should be?" His voice started to punch through the air. "Or do you want her staying with the Brotherhood? Those are warriors, mahmen. Bloodthirsty, blood-hungry warriors. You think they would hesitate to take a female? And you know damn well by law the Blind King can lay with whatever female he chooses. You want her in that kind of environment? I don't."

As his mahmen stepped back, he realized he was yelling at her. He sucked in another deep breath.

"But, Rehvenge, I spoke with her. She doesn't want to come home yet. And they are males of honor. In the Old Country¡ª"

"We don't even know who's in the Brotherhood anymore."

"They saved her."

"Then they can give her back to her family. For God's sake, she's a female of the aristocracy. You think the glymera will accept her after this? She's already had that one affair."

And what a mess that had been. The male had been totally unworthy of her, a crumbling idiot, and yet the bastard had managed to walk away from the split without talk. Bella, on the other hand, had been whispered about for months, and though she'd tried to pretend it hadn't bothered her, Rehv knew it had.

He hated the aristocracy they were stuck in, he really did.

He shook his head, pissed off at himself. "She should never have moved out of this house. I should never have allowed that."

And as soon as he got her back, she was never going to be allowed out again without his approval. He was going to have her anointed as a sehcluded female. Her blood was pure enough to justify it, and frankly she should have been one all along. Once that was done, the Brotherhood was legally required to render her back to Rehvenge's care, and thereafter she would not be able to leave the house without his permission. And there was more. Any male who wanted to see her would have to go through him as head of her household, and he was going to deny every single one of the sons of bitches. He'd failed to protect his sister once. He wasn't going to let that happen again.

Rehv checked his watch even though he knew he was late for his business. He would make the petition for sehclusion to the king from his office. It was odd to do something so ancient and traditional through e-mail, but that was the way of things now.

"Rehvenge..."

"What."

"You will drive her away."

"Not possible. Once I take care of this, she'll have nowhere else to go but here."

He reached for his cane and paused. His mother looked so miserable, he leaned down and kissed her cheek.

"You don't worry about a thing, mahmen. I'm going to fix it so she never gets hurt again. Why don't you ready the house for her? You could take her mourning cloth down."

Madalina shook her head. In a reverent voice she said, "Not until she walks over the threshold. It would offend the Scribe Virgin to assume her safe return."

He held back a curse. His mother's devotion to the Mother of the Race was legendary. Hell, she should have been a member of the Chosen with all her prayers and her rules and her flinching fear that one word askance would bring certain doom.

But whatever. It was her spiritual cage, not his.

"As you wish," he said, leaning on his cane and turning away.

He moved slowly through the house, relying on the different kinds of floorings to tell him which room he was in. There was marble in the hall, a swirling Persian carpet in the dining room, wide-planked hardwood in the kitchen. He used his sight to tell him that his feet were landing squarely and that it was safe for him to put his weight on them. He carried the cane in case he misjudged and lost balance.

As he went out into the garage, he held on to the door frame before putting one foot and then the other down the four steps. After sliding into his bulletproof Bentley, he hit the garage door opener and waited for a clear shot out.

Goddamn it. He wished like hell he knew who those Brothers were and where they lived. He'd go there, blast through the door, and drag Bella away from them.

When he could see the driveway behind him, he threw the sedan in reverse and nailed the gas so hard the tires squealed. Now that he was behind the wheel, he could move at the speed he wanted to. Fast. Nimble. Free of caution.

The long lawn was a blur as he gunned down the winding drive to the gates, which were set back from the street. He suffered a quick pause while the things opened; then he tore out onto Thome Avenue and proceeded down one of the wealthiest streets in Caldwell.

To keep his family safe and never lacking for anything, he worked at despicable things. But he was good at what he did, and his mother and his sister deserved the kind of life they had. He would give them anything they wanted, fulfill any whim they had. Things had been too hard on them for too long¡ª

Yeah, the death of his father had been the first gift he'd given them, the first of many ways he'd improved their lives and kept them out of harm's way. And he wasn't stopping the trend now.

Rehv was going at a clip and heading for downtown when the base of his skull began to tingle. He tried to ignore the sensation, but in a matter of moments it condensed into a tight grip, as if a vise had been clamped around the top of his spine. He lifted his foot from the accelerator and waited for the feeling to pass.

Then it happened.

With a stab of pain his vision went to shades of red, like he'd pulled a transparent veil over his face: The headlights of oncoming cars were neon pink, the road a dull rust, the sky a claret like burgundy wine. He checked the clock on the dash, the numbers of which were now a ruby glow.

Shit. This was all wrong. This shouldn't be hap¡ª

He blinked and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again, his depth perception was gone.

Yeah, the hell this isn't happening. And he wasn't going to make it downtown.

He wrenched the wheel to the right and pulled over into a strip mall, the one where the Caldwell Martial Arts Academy had been before it burned down. He killed the Bentley's lights and drove behind the long, narrow buildings, parking flush with the bricks so that if he had to drive off fast, all he had to do was hit the gas.

Leaving the engine running, he shrugged out of the sable coat, stripped off his suit jacket, then rolled up his left sleeve. Through the red haze, he reached into his glove compartment and took out a hypodermic syringe and a length of rubber tubing. His hands were shaking so badly he dropped the needle and had to stretch down and pick it up off the floor.

He patted his jacket pockets until he found the glass vial of the neuromodulator dopamine. He put the thing on the dash.

It took two tries to open the hypodermic's sterile packet, and then he nearly broke the needle off getting it through the rubber top on the dopamine lid. When the syringe was loaded, he wrapped the rubber tubing around his biceps using one hand and his teeth; then he tried to find a vein. Because he was working in a flat visual field, everything was complicated.

He just couldn't see well enough. All he had in front of him was... red.

Red...red...red... The word shot around his mind, banging on the inside of his skull. Red was the color of panic. Red was the color of desperation. Red was the color of his self-hatred.

Red was not the color of his blood. Not right now, at any rate.

Snapping himself to attention, he fingered his forearm and looked for an internal launching pad for the drug, a superhighway that would bring the shit up to the receptors in his brain. Except his veins were collapsing.

He felt nothing as he pushed the needle in, which was reassuring. But then it came... a little sting at the injection site. The numbness he preserved himself in was about to end.

As he hunted around under his skin for a usable vein, he started to feel things in his body: The sensation of his weight in the car's leather seat. The heat blowing on his ankles. The fast air moving in and out of his mouth, drying his tongue.

Terror had him shoving the plunger down and releasing the rubber tourniquet. God only knew if he'd had the right place.

Heart pounding, he stared at the clock.

"Come on," he muttered, starting to rock in the driver's seat. "Come on... kick in."

Red was the color of his lies. He was trapped in a world of red. And one of these days the dopamine wasn't going to work. He'd be lost in the red forever.

The clock changed numbers. One minute passed.

"Oh, shit..." He rubbed his eyes as if that might bring back the depth in his vision and the normal spectrum of color.

His cell phone rang and he ignored it.

"Please..." He hated the pleading in his voice, but he couldn't pretend to be strong. "I don't want to lose me..."

All at once his vision returned, the red draining from his visual field, the three-dimensional perspective returning. It was like the evil had been sucked out of him and his body numbed up, its sensations evaporating until all he knew were the thoughts in his head. With the drug, he became a moving, breathing, talking bag that blessedly had only four senses to worry about now that touch had been medicated to the back burner.

He collapsed against the seat. The stress around Bella's abduction and rescue had gotten to him. That was why the attack had hit him so hard and fast. And maybe he needed to adjust the dosage again. He'd go to Havers and check about that.

It was a while before he was able to put the car in drive. As he eased out from behind the strip mall and slipped into traffic, he told himself he was just one more sedan in a long line of cars. Anonymous. Just like everyone else.

The lie eased him somewhat... and increased his loneliness.

At a stoplight, he checked the message that had been left for him.

Bella's security alarm had been turned off for an hour or so and had just come back on. Someone had been in her house again.

Zsadist found the black Ford Explorer parked in the woods about three hundred yards away from the entrance to Bella's mile-long driveway. The only reason he'd run across the thing was because he'd been scouring the area, too restless to go home, too dangerous to be in the company of anyone else.

A set of footprints in the snow headed in the direction of the farmhouse.

He cupped his hands and looked in the car's windows. The security alarm was engaged.

Had to be those lessers' ride. He could smell the sweet scent of them all over it. But with only one set of tracks, maybe the driver had dropped his buddies off, then hidden it? Or maybe the SUV had had to be moved from somewhere else?

Whatever. The Society would be back for its property. And wouldn't it be sweet to know where the hell it ended up? But how could he trail the damn thing?

He put his hands on his hips... and happened to look down at his gun belt.

As he undipped his cell phone, he thought fondly of Vishous, mat tech-savvy son of a bitch.

Necessity, mother, invention.

He dematerialized under the SUV so he left a minimal amount of tracks in the snow. As his weight was absorbed by his back, he winced. Man, he was going to pay for that little trip through the French door. And for the knock on the head. But he'd survived worse.

He took out a penlight and looked around the undercarriage, trying to pick the right spot. He needed somewhere fairly large, and it couldn't be near the exhaust system, because even in this cold, that kind of heat could be a problem. Of course, he'd have much preferred to get into the Explorer and tuck the phone under a seat, but the SUV's alarm system was a complication. If it were tripped he might not be able to reengage it, so the lessers would know someone had been in the car.

As if the punched-out window wouldn't be a clue.

Goddamn it... He should have gone through those lessers' pockets before stabbing them into oblivion. One of those bastards had had the keys. Except he'd been so pissed off, he'd moved too fast.

Z cursed, thinking of the way Bella had looked at him after he'd chewed up that slayer in front of her. Her eyes had been wide in her pale face, her mouth loose with shock at what he'd done.

The thing was, the Brotherhood's business of protecting the race was a nasty one. It was messy and ugly and sometimes deranged. Always bloody. And on top of all that, she had seen the killing lust in him. Somehow, he was willing to bet that was what disturbed her the most.

Focus, dumb ass. Come on, get out of your head.

Z poked around some more, shifting under the Explorer. Finally he found what he was looking for: a little cave in the undercarriage. He shrugged out of his windbreaker, wrapped the phone up, and shoved the wad in the hole. He tested the jury-rig to make sure it was in there good and tight, then dematerialized out from under the SUV.

He knew the setup wasn't going to last long under there, but it was so much better than nothing. And now Vishous would be able to track the Explorer from home, because that little silver-bullet Nokia had a GPS chip in it.

Z flashed over to the edge of the meadow so he could see the back of the farmhouse. He'd done an okay patch job on the busted kitchen door. Fortunately the frame of the thing had still been intact, so he'd been able to close it and reengage the alarm sensors. Then he'd found a plastic tarp in the garage and covered up the monster hole.

Fixed, but not really.

Funny... he didn't think he'd be any more successful if he tried to rehab Bella's opinion of him. But¡ªgoddamn it—he didn't want to be a savage to her.

In the distance, two headlights turned off Route 22 and shined down the long private lane. The car slowed as it came up to Bella's house, then pulled into her driveway.

Was that a Bentley? Z thought. Sure looked like it.

Man, an expensive car like that? Had to be a member of Bella's family. No doubt they'd been notified that the security alarm had been off for a while and then been turned back on about ten minutes ago.

Shit. Now was not a good time for someone to do a look-see walk-through. Given Z's luck, the lessers would pick right this moment to come back for their SUV¡ªand decide to do a drive-by of the farmhouse for kicks and giggles.

Cursing under his breath, he waited for one of the Bentley's doors to open... except no one got out of the car and the engine stayed idling. This was good. As long as the alarm was activated, maybe they wouldn't think to go inside. Because the kitchen was a mess.

Z sniffed the cold air, but couldn't catch a scent. Instinct told him, though, that it was a male inside the sedan. Her brother? Most likely. He'd be the one who'd check out the scene.

That's right, buddy. Look at the front windows. See? Nothing's wrong. No one's in the house. Now do us both a favor and get the fuck out of here.

The sedan stayed put for what seemed like five hours. Then it backed out, did a K-turn in the street, and took off.

Z grabbed a deep breath of air. Christ... His nerves were too tight tonight.

Time passed. As he stood alone among the pines, he stared at Bella's house. And wondered if she'd be scared of him now.

The wind picked up, the cold getting rough with him and bleeding into his bones. With desperation, he embraced the pain that came with it.

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