The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(22) by J.R.Ward
“Glad he showed,” iAm said as he glanced at the shut door of the exam room. Guess they were still cleaning Selena up.
What a fucking night. Day. Whatever it was.
iAm checked his watch. Well, whaddaya know. It was eight p.m. After sundown. They’d been here for, like, over twelve hours straight.
“So are you going to tell me what’s on your mind?”
iAm dropped his arm and looked at his brother. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on, man.” Trez let out an exhausted curse. “You think I can’t read you? Really?”
iAm paced down a couple of yards. Came back. Went down again.
“More good news, huh,” Trez muttered.
“Get it off your chest. At least one of us will feel better.”
“Like shit can get worse?”
“The Queen gave birth.”
Trez closed his eyes and seemed to sag in his own skin. “Unbelievable timing.”
“It’s why s’Ex was calling you. He tracked me down when you didn’t answer and, yeah, there you go.”
Trez blew out his breath. “You know what my fantasy is? It ain’t porn. It’s good news. For once in my fucking life, I’d love to have some good news.”
“They’re in mourning.” When Trez just shook his head, iAm felt like hell all over again. “We have a week, and then…”
“Then they’re going to want their living, breathing dildo back, huh.”
As Trez focused on the closed door of the exam room, he appeared to age before iAm’s eyes, the skin of his face seeming to melt from the bone structure underneath, the corners of his eyes dragging down, his mouth going lax.
“Tell s’Ex I want to meet with him. I can’t leave now because of…”
“You’re not actually thinking of going back, are you.”
Trez’s stare didn’t leave that closed door.
“Trez. Answer me. You’re not thinking about going back.”
As the silence stretched out, iAm cursed. “Trez? Hello?”
“I’ve got to meet with s’Ex. But it has to be after…” Trez cleared his throat. “Yeah. Afterward.”
iAm nodded because what else could he do? There was no blaming the guy for that kind of prioritization.
Unfortunately, the s’Hisbe was not going to be so understanding. But that was where iAm came in. No way anyone was muscling his brother while this shit with Selena was going on.
He didn’t care what he had to do: Trez was going to be free to care for his female.
Fuck the Queen.
Layla felt pursued as she kept a foot on the gas and both hands on the steering wheel of her pale blue Mercedes. Qhuinn bought her the E350 4matic, whatever that meant, about three months ago. He’d wanted something flashier, bigger, faster, but in the end, the little sedan was what she’d felt most comfortable with. And she’d picked the color because it reminded her of the bathing pools up in the Sanctuary.
The farmland on Caldwell’s outskirts rolled out over hill and dale, and she loved these gracious undulating fields that spiked up with corn in July and August, and were shorn down like a male’s beard in the fallow months. She knew all of the landscape by heart now, this route well taken out to one specific rise, one particular meadow, one now-significant tree.
When she came to the base of the short hill, she cut her lights and let the car roll to a stop. She never felt good about coming here, but after seeing the state Selena was in and knowing what it meant, her heart was even heavier than usual.
Hefting herself out from behind the wheel, she put her hands on her lower back and arched her chest out, trying to loosen the muscles that seemed perpetually engaged—
With a gasp, she wheeled around. Xcor was standing mere feet from her rear bumper, and she could tell instantly that something was off about him. It wasn’t that his harsh face looked any different; from the harelip that made him appear as if he were perpetually snarling, to his shrewd eyes and his heavy jaw, all the features were the same. And there wasn’t a change in his skull-trimmed hair, or his long black leather duster, or even his leathers or his combat boots or all the weapons she knew he had on him, but which he always carefully hid from her.
She was unable to pinpoint exactly what the clue was. But her instincts did not lie, and they were never wrong.
“Are you unwell?” she asked.
She put her hand on her belly. “I am not.”
“What happened last night? Why didn’t you come?”
An image of Qhuinn pacing around the billiards room as she and Blay sat on the sofas came to mind. And then she pictured the three of them down in the training center’s exam room, standing to the side as Selena was assessed and more bad news was given.
“I had a family emergency,” she said. “Well, two, actually.”
“Of what sort?”
“Naught that concerns you.”
“There is little of you that does not concern me.”
Glancing up toward the tree that they usually sat under, Layla shivered. “I—”
“You are cold. We will get in your car.”
In his usual way, Xcor took charge, opening her door and standing aside, a quiet demand. For a moment, she hesitated. In spite of the noble impetus to keep the King and the Brothers safe, she knew in her marrow that no one would ever approve of these meetings, these words, this time spent with the sworn enemy of the Brotherhood.
The one who had plotted Wrath’s demise not once, but twice.
To sit with Xcor in the very car Qhuinn bought for her out of his own good heart was a violation of all the relationships she valued most.
Except she was protecting those she loved, she reminded herself.
“Get in,” Xcor told her.
And she did.
Closing her door, Xcor walked around to the passenger side, and as he knocked on the window and she unlocked his door, she thought of the false human mythology of vampires, where what was supposedly undead had to be invited in before they could cross a threshold.
So far from reality.
Xcor’s soldier-size body took up all the room in the sedan as he sat down in a seat that was overly big for her, even as pregnant as she was. As she inhaled to steady herself, she hated the fact that she liked the way he smelled—but she did. In fact, he always took pains to be clean whenever they met, his skin smelling of a spiced cologne that she desperately wanted to find unattractive.
This was all so much more palatable if she stayed focused on the fact that she was being coerced into the contact, the proximity, this closeness.
Because to be here with him upon freedom of will …
God, why was she so in her head tonight—
“Drive on,” he said. “Please.”
“What?” Her heart began to pound. “Why—”
“It’s no longer safe here. We have to meet in another place.”
“Why?” The reality of how little she knew and trusted him made her realize exactly how isolated they were. “What’s changed?”
He looked over at her. “Please. For your safety. I shall never harm you—you must know that—and thus I say it is not safe for us here anymore.”
She held his eyes for a long moment. “Where shall we go?”
“I have secured another location. Head west. Please.”
When she didn’t move, he put his hand over hers and squeezed. “This is not safe.”
As he released his hold, his eyes never wavered from hers. And a moment later, she watched from a vast distance as she reached forward and hit the ignition button to start the engine. “All right.”
As she put the car in drive, a subtle binging noise started up. “Your seat belt,” she said. “You need to put it on.”
He complied without comment, stretching the belt far, far out to extend over his massive chest, and then clicking it home.
“How far?” she asked, as a renewed spike of fear made her heart speed up again.
“Ten miles.” Xcor put the window down a crack and breathed in as if trying to find a scent upon the air. “It’s a secure location.”
“Are you kidnapping me?”
He recoiled. “No. You are, as always, free to come and go.”
She hoped he was telling the truth. Prayed he was. And didn’t that shine a bright light on this deadly game she was playing.
This had to stop, she thought. There was a war going on with the lessers. He was a traitor to her King.
She was getting to be very pregnant.
The problem was, she didn’t know how to disentangle the ropes that bound the two of them together.
Rhage was the last of the Brothers to materialize onto the lawn of an estate that was right out of a magazine for one percenters. As he looked up at the great looming house, he heard the narrator from the old Batman TV show: “Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor…”
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