The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(9) by J.R.Ward
Too quiet, iAm thought. And the brightly lit place smelled like bleach instead of basil.
“Thank you, chef. Do you want me to stew the tomatoes before I leave?”
“It’s late. Go home. Good service tonight.”
Antonio wiped his face off with a blue-and-white dish towel. “Thanks to you, chef.”
“Lock up for me?”
“Anything you want.”
With a nod, iAm left the kitchen and cut through the tiled delivery hall to the back exit. Outside, two of his waiters were loitering around their cars and smoking, their tuxedo jackets off, their red bow ties loose and hanging from their open collars.
“Chef,” one of them said, straightening.
The other immediately came to attention. “Chef.”
Technically, he was more boss than chef here at Sal’s, but he did do a lot of the cooking and recipe R & D himself, and the staff respected him for it. Hadn’t always been that way. When he’d first stepped in to take over the Caldwell institution, he had not exactly been welcomed. Everyone from the waiters to the chefs to the busboys had assumed he was an African-American, and the deep pride and tradition of Italian ownership, cooking, and culture would have worked against anyone who didn’t have Sicilian blood in his veins.
As a Shadow, he understood the deal better than they knew. His people didn’t want anything to do with vampires or symphaths—and certainly never those rats-without-tails humans. And Sal’s was one of the most famous restaurants in Caldwell, not just a throwback to the Rat Pack era of the fifties, but a place that had actually served the Chairman of the Board and his slick boys. With its flocked wallpaper, hostess stand, and formal everything, it was Sardi’s north—and had always been owned and managed by Italians.
Over a year into his ownership, though, everything was all good. He had proved himself to everyone from the customers to the staff to the suppliers, not just stepping into Salvatore Guidette III’s shoes, but filling them. Now? He was treated with respect that bordered on worship.
Wonder what they’d think of him if they knew he wasn’t from Africa, he did not identify as American—and more to the point, he wasn’t even human.
A Shadow was in their midst.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he told the two men.
iAm nodded at them and strode around the far corner. As soon as he was out of sight, he closed his eyes, concentrated, and dematerialized.
When he re-formed, it was on the eighteenth floor of the Commodore, on the terrace of the condo he owned with his brother. The glass slider was wide-open, the long white drapes billowing in and out of the dark interior like ghosts trying and failing to escape. There had been two possible destinations for him: here or shAdoWs, and he’d picked their bachelor pad because of what was waiting inside.
There was news from the s’Hisbe, and all things considered? iAm would rather be the messenger to Trez than the male they’d sent.
Putting his hand into his coat, he found the butt of his gun and stepped inside. “Where are you.”
“Over here,” came the deep, quiet response.
iAm pivoted to the left, toward the white leather couch that was against the far wall. His keen eyes adjusted in a heartbeat, and the enormous black shape of the Queen’s executioner came into focus.
iAm frowned. “What’s wrong?”
The sound of ice cubes in a club glass twinkled across the silence. “Where’s your brother?”
“It’s opening night at the club. He’s busy.”
“He needs to answer his phone,” s’Ex said roughly.
“Has the Queen given birth?”
“Yes. She has.”
Long silence. With nothing but the sound of those ice cubes to break it up.
iAm inhaled and caught the scent of bourbon—as well as an acrid sadness that was so great, he released his hold on his gun.
The executioner burst up from the sofa and strode over to the bar, his robes swirling after him like shadows thrown in a great wind.
“Care to join me?” the male asked as he poured more into his glass.
“Depends. What’s your news and how does it affect my twin?”
“You’re going to need a drink.”
Right. Great. Without further comment, iAm walked over and joined s’Ex at the bar. It didn’t matter what went into which glass, whether there were ice cubes, if there was a splash of tonic. He drank what turned out to be vodka down and poured some more.
“So it wasn’t the next Queen,” he said. “The young that was born.”
“No.” s’Ex went back over to the couch. “They killed it.”
“It was … decreed. In the”—he waved his glass around over his head—“stars. So they killed the infant. My … daughter.”
iAm blinked. Drank some more. And then thought, Jesus, if the Queen could do that to an innocent young born of her own body, the s’Hisbe’s leader was capable of anything.
“So,” s’Ex said more evenly. “Your brother is once again Her Majesty’s prime concern. There is a mandatory period of mourning and I shall depart to join in that. But following the Enclosure Ceremony and its attendant rituals, I will be sent to collect the Anointed One.”
The Enclosure Ceremony was the formal entombing of the sacred dead, a right that was reserved for members of the royal family only. And the mourning would last a number of nights and days. After which … it appeared their reprieves had run out.
“Shit,” iAm breathed.
“I am happy to inform your brother, but—”
“No, I’ll do it.”
“I thought so.”
iAm sat down in the chair next to the executioner. Looking over, he traced the male’s features. s’Ex had come from worse than the lower class; the male had been born of servant parents but, through his brawn and smarts, had risen to seduce the Queen. It was an unprecedented ascension through the strata of social levels.
“I’m sorry,” iAm whispered.
“It was decreed. In the stars.”
The male’s casual shrug was belied by the way his voice cracked.
Before iAm could say anything further, s’Ex leaned in. “Just so we’re clear, I will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to bring your brother home and provide him bodily to the purpose for which he was born.”
“You’ve already said that.” iAm likewise sat forward and locked eyes. “And get real, you don’t actually believe that astrology bullshit, do you?”
“It is our way.”
“And that means it’s right?”
“You are a heretic. So is your brother.”
“Lemme ask you something. Did you hear the infant scream? When they killed your kid, did you—”
The attack was not unexpected, the executioner launching at him with such force his chair was blown backward and the pair of them ended up on the floor, s’Ex straddling iAm while shaking with rage.
“I should kill you,” the male growled.
“Get angry with me if you want,” iAm shot back. “But be honest, at least with yourself. You’re not quite so duty-proud anymore. Are you.”
s’Ex shoved himself away and landed on his ass. Putting his head in his hands, he breathed hard, as if he were trying to pull a composure job—and losing the fight.
“I’m not going to help the pair of you anymore,” the executioner said hoarsely. “Duty demands to be served.”
iAm sat up and thought that the constellations under which his brother had been born were like a disease, something unvolunteered for, embedded in the life that was lived, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Trez’s detonation had been put off for oh, so long. It would not be denied any longer, however.
Not for the first time, iAm wished that he had been born before Trez. He would much rather have been the one cursed, the bearer of the burden. It wasn’t that he wanted to be imprisoned for all his life, with nothing but repeatedly trying to impregnate the heir to the throne for a pastime, but he was different from Trez.
Or maybe he was fooling himself.
What he was clear on? He would do anything he had to in order to save his brother.
And he was prepared to get really damn creative.
By the time Trez came back to check the private lounge, Rhage had woken up from his coma, trance, nap, whatever it was. And although V’s verbal diarrhea had been a real ball slapper, as the owner of the club and the guy who’d attacked first, Trez felt like he needed to make sure the Brother was okay.
“How we doing in here,” he said as he reentered.
As Hollywood slowly sat up, it was clear he was trying to reenter reality, returning from some mental destination that had been far from the club.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” V muttered as he took out a hand-rolled and a lighter. “You back?”
“You can’t smoke in here,” Trez said.
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