The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(11) by J.R.Ward
Looking down, she could no longer see her feet, and for once in her life, her breasts were big enough to create some serious cleavage beneath her robing.
Given the breadth of her, it was hard to believe she still had months to go with the pregnancy.
Why couldn’t vampires be more like humans? Those rats without tails took nine months to do this. Her species? Try eighteen.
Glancing over her shoulder, she checked herself out in the dresser’s mirror across the way. According to the various human birthing shows she’d watched on TV, she was supposed to feel all aglow. Revel in her body’s changes. Embrace the miracle that was conception, incubation, and impending expulsion.
Guess humans really were a different race.
The only positive thing she took from this experience—and arguably it was the only thing that mattered—was that her young was active and seemingly healthy. Regular checkups with Doc Jane had indicated that things were progressing with perfect order, milestones met and surpassed, stages entered and departed with grace.
That was it for the positives. The rest of the experience? No, thank you kindly. She detested the way she had to heave herself to her feet. The big melons sitting on her chest made it hard to breathe. The swelling in her ankles and hands turned elegant limbs into tree trunks. And then there were the surging hormones …
That made her want to do things she felt pregnant females really shouldn’t do.
Especially given who she wanted to do them with—
“Stop it. Just stop it.”
Dropping her head into her hands, she struggled with the piercing guilt that had been her shadow these past months, dogging her close as her own skin, heavy as a suit of chain mail.
Unlike the pregnancy, which had a termination date for all the discomfort and worry, there was no relief to be had with her other situation. No terminal event—at least not one that came with any joy.
She had made her bed, however. Now she must lie in it.
Going over to her door, she cracked the panels and listened for footsteps. Voices. The sound of vacuum cleaners. When there was nothing, she stepped out into the hall of statues and looked left and right. A quick check of her watch told her she had about an hour and a half before dawn would force her return to the Brotherhood mansion.
Stepping out, she wanted to jog, but she could barely manage a fast walk as she headed in the direction of the staff quarters.
Her route to the exit was preplanned and well-utilized, and she had the timing down to a science. Six minutes for her to get down the back stairs and out into the garage. Two minutes to the car that she’d been given to use and had told people she was taking out on a regular basis to “clear her head.”
Sixteen-minute drive into the tracks of farmland east of town.
Two-minute walk up that field to the maple tree.
Where she would find—
She tripped over her own feet as she wheeled around. Blay was at the head of the hall of statues and in his fighting dress, his leathers stained and his face exhausted.
“Ah—hello,” she replied. “Have you come off the field?”
“Are you heading out?” Blay frowned. “It’s awful late.”
“Just for a short drive,” she said smoothly. “To, you know, clear my head.”
Dearest Virgin Scribe, she hated the lying.
“Well, I’m glad I caught you. Qhuinn’s not doing so well.”
Layla frowned and walked back toward the fighter. The father of her young was one of the most important people in her life, as was Blay. The mated pair were her family. “Why?”
“Luchas.” Blay stripped his dagger holster off his chest. “He’s refusing to feed, and Qhuinn’s just hit the wall with it.”
“It’s been almost a month.”
Ordinarily, if a healthy male vampire took the vein of a Chosen, he could easily go several months between feedings, depending on his activity level, stress, and general health. However, for someone who was as ill as Luchas? Much more than a week or two could quickly become a death sentence.
“Where is Qhuinn now?”
“Down in the billiards room. They called me off the streets early because…” Blay shook his head. “Yeah, he’s not doing well.”
Layla closed her eyes and put her hand on her belly. She had to go. She had to stay …
“I have to take a shower.” Blay glanced over at the door to the room he and Qhuinn shared. “Is there any way you could sit with him until I get down there?”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Blay reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “You’re going to need to help me with him. This is getting…”
“I know.” She took off her coat and didn’t bother putting it back in her room. She just tossed it on the floor in front of her own door. “I’ll head down right now.”
“Thank you. God, thank you.”
They embraced for a split second and then she waddled off, heading for the grand staircase and the male who had given her the most priceless gift of this child she carried within her womb.
There was nothing she would not do for Qhuinn or his hellren.
She was, however, very aware of the male who was waiting for her at this very moment, under that maple tree, out in that field.
Her conscience tortured her, especially as she passed by the open double doors of the King’s study. Through the regal doorway, she saw the throne behind the great carved desk … and was reminded of why she had struck the deal she had.
Selling her body to the head of the Band of Bastards had been done to keep all of them safe here at the mansion. The deal had not yet been consummated on account of her pregnancy, however—something that had surprised her at first. Xcor was a brutal warrior, one who not only had the reputation, but the actual character, for doing harm to others—and enjoying it. And yet with her, he seemed content to bide his time before he collected his due.
On a regular basis, they met beneath that tree and talked. Or sometimes simply sat in silence, his eyes roaming all over her as if …
Well, sometimes she thought that he seemed to take strength from just staring at her, as if the visual connection was a kind of vein from which he needed to draw regularly.
Other times, she knew he was picturing her naked—and she told herself to be offended by that. Scared by that. Worried over that.
Lately, however, a strange curiosity about him had taken root under her fear, a curiosity tied to his powerful body, his narrowed eyes … his lips, even though the upper one was ruined …
She blamed it on her hormones—and tried not to dwell on the urges. The only thing she needed to keep in mind was that as long as she continued to meet with him, he had sworn on whatever honor he had that he would not raid the compound.
After all, the only reason he knew where they were was because of her. Indirectly, perhaps, but it felt like the security leak was solely her fault.
The whole thing was a deal with a devil, executed to keep those whom she cared for most safe. She hated the lies, the double life, the guilt … and the fear that sooner or later she would have to live up to her end of the bargain.
But there was nothing she could do.
And tonight, her family had to come before her fraud.
Down in the training center’s main exam room, Trez was having an out-of-body experience as the whirling transportation stopped and he once again had to recalibrate his location. Thank God they’d made it over in one piece. Now, if only there was help to be had here.
Cradling Selena’s stiff, contorted body in his arms, he glanced over his shoulder. Doc Jane, V’s shellan, was standing off to the side in full doctor garb: blue scrubs, green nitrile gloves, little booties on her feet.
She didn’t approach Selena, however. She just stayed where she was, staring at them, for what seemed like forever.
Shit. Trez was no doctor type, but generally speaking, when someone with the big “DR.” in front of their name had to take a TO when they first saw a patient?
Not a good sign.
Rhage and V were across the way, and they were likewise gawking at him and Selena, as if they also had no clue how to help.
Doc Jane cleared her throat. “Trez…?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Will you let me look at her?”
Trez frowned. “Yeah—come on.” When Doc Jane didn’t move, he started to lose his temper. “What the hell’s the problem—”
“Your fangs are bared and you’re growling. That’s the problem.”
He pulled a quick self-check, and discovered—gee-whiz, he had in fact gone all Cujo on them, sinking his weight down into his thighs, flashing his hardware, and making a sound like an industrial mower in the back of his throat.
“Yeah, sorry.” At that point, he noticed that he’d also backed into a corner and was holding Selena to his chest like someone was going to try to take her from him. “So I should put her down on the table.”
“That would be a good place to start,” V pointed out.
His body took its own sweet time as he gave it the command to move forward, and in the end, only the fact that she needed treatment by someone who had half a brain and a stethoscope got him anywhere close to the center of the room. Leaning down, he put her on the stretch of stainless steel—and he shuddered because he might as well have been handling a wooden chair: her body stayed in the exact same position she had been in when he’d found her, legs outstretched, torso twisted, arms curled up to her chest. And almost worse? Her head remained at that bad angle, wrenched around in the opposite direction of her shoulders as if she were in great pain.
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