The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(30) by J.R.Ward
There was a slouchy couch off to the side of the hearth, positioned such that if you sat upon it, you could see out the bay window. The thing was slipcovered in a collection of quilts, the blankets laid one upon another, the swatches and colors so variable, the conglomeration formed its own unique pattern. There was also a big stuffed chair, some old-fashioned books in short shelves, and a circular braided rug that brought everything together.
“The kitchen is through here,” Xcor said as he closed the front door.
She walked past him, his huge body too still, his eyes refusing to meet hers. The bathroom was modest and equipped with a stall shower, toilet, and a sink. The stairs up to the second floor were steep and narrow and carpeted with a worn runner. And the kitchen on the far side was filled with ancient appliances interspersed with stretches of countertop.
Layla pivoted around. “How long have you had this?”
“As I said, the caretaker died a month ago. She was a doggen who took care of us, with no kin of her own.” He turned away and began to remove his heavy coat. “The family she looked after lived in the big house, but were killed in the raids. She stayed on the property because she had nowhere else to go. The lessers did not come back, so she lived.”
Xcor turned away and began to disarm, his broad shoulders flexing as he removed the halter that kept his daggers in place upon his chest. Next, he unbuckled the holster at his hips, his elbows shifting around, the leather strap coming loose.
For some reason, she noticed the body under the clothes he wore, how his muscles bunched and released under that thin black cotton shirt, how his pants stretched across his thighs, his calves, his backside.
He was talking to her, slowly, in measured syllables, but she didn’t hear what he was saying.
Xcor pivoted back around. Stared at her. Fell silent.
“Do you not wish to stay?” he said in a low voice.
“Why did you bring me here.”
He cleared his throat. “I cannot abide your being pregnant out in the cold on the nights that we meet. Not when you are this far along.”
From out of nowhere, she felt a flash of warmth. And she didn’t think it was the fire.
“Come.” He stepped back against the door, flattening himself. “It is warmer in here.”
She walked up to him. And then kept going.
Taking a seat on the chair, she pulled down her robing. Wrapped her coat around herself. Looked into the flames.
Xcor stalked across the room, closing all the drapes before easing his body down on the sofa.
“Thank you,” she heard herself say. “This is much more comfortable.”
The silence stretched out between them. It was strange: In the field, with the vastness of the sky above and the rolling meadow around, she had not been so keenly aware of him. Within these four walls, however, his presence seemed to be amplified, any movement he made, whether it be breathing or blinking, registering a thousandfold.
There was a curious awkwardness between them, the fire’s cheery conversation failing to relieve the growing heaviness in the house.
“Do you intend to consummate our arrangement,” she blurted. “Is it … time?”
“It’s a ghost town up here, true?”
As V called out from up in the colonial’s attic, Rhage leaned into the bathroom of the master suite. “Nothing here, either. ’Cept a fuck load of pink.”
Heading back into the bedroom, he got a second chance at the rose-colored stuff. The shit was everywhere, from the rug and the drapes, to the wallpaper and the sheets, and Xcor’s scent was all over the place. Clearly, this was his private room—and there was some serious satisfaction that the fucker had had to crash in this estrogen-dominated nightmare.
Like sleeping in a goddamn womb.
Rhage shuddered as he walked out into the hall. “Wonder if he’s been suffering from a phantom urge to wear high heels.”
“There’s a picture.” V came out of the hole in the ceiling and down the folding stepladder. “Abandoned. They just ghosted off and left this place.”
Nothing. There had been absolutely, positively nothing suspicious or threatening, no booby-traps to catch them, no bombs set to detonate, no alarms.
There had also been nothing personal left upstairs, either—like in the living room, there were piles of trash here and there, but no clothes, no weapons, no computers or cell phones.
Moving quickly, they went down the staircase, and backtracked through the empty house. After dematerializing out through the open window in the kitchen, they rejoined Phury and Z.
“Nada,” V said.
Rhage took out his phone for a quick look-see, and when there were no replies to either of his texts, he frowned and disappeared the thing again. Antsy, he went to the other side of his jacket and snagged a Tootsie Pop—then saw that it was orange, and traded that for a grape one. The purple wrapper slid off easily, like the suckah was ready to go to work, and he eased the sugar ball into his mouth.
“It’s completely clean?” Phury asked. “That can’t be right.”
Rhage popped his mouth toy out. “Don’t get me wrong—I think disarming bombs and booby traps is a bore, but I was ready to put the time in. I don’t get it. They leave here because Throe’s out and likely defecting? They must know that we’re going to come as soon as we got the addy from that asshat.”
V’s white eyes shifted over the empty house. “They missed an obvious chance.”
“Didn’t think Xcor was that stupid—or lazy.” Rhage shrugged. “Maybe they’re hurting for money.”
“Doubt that it’s a lack of resources,” Phury muttered. “They’re well armed, going by their kills downtown.”
There was some fast conversation and it was decided they’d go back and report to Wrath that Throe hadn’t lied. Just before they dematerialized, however, Rhage spoke up around his lollipop.
“Listen, you boys mind if I take a little detour?”
“No problem, we’ll start the debrief,” V said.
“Thanks, my brothers. I just need ten minutes or so.”
He clapped palms with his fellow fighters, and then one by one, they all disappeared …
… but instead of re-forming in the backyard of Darius’s old house, where Wrath held audiences with his subjects, Rhage materialized in front of a large, but far less opulent, home in the suburbs. A blue Volvo XC70 station wagon was parked in the driveway, and though the drapes were all pulled, lights were on in every single window all around the three-story house.
Rhage took out his phone, went into Favorites, and hit green-means-go. As the ringing started, he shifted his weight back and forth between his shitkickers.
“Hey,” he said as the call was answered. “You okay?”
“Hey.” His Mary, his perfectly beautiful and brilliant female, sounded all wrong. “How did you know.”
Instantly, his beast surged under his skin, ready to tear into anything or anybody that threatened their mate. “What’s going on?”
“We’re having trouble with one of our moms.”
Rhage’s eyes sought out the windows. “Can I help?”
“Where are you?”
“Out on your lawn.”
“I’m coming down.”
Rhage hung up the phone and did a quick pass with the tidy-up, smoothing his hair, making sure his jacket was hanging right, pulling up his leathers.
Safe Place had been started by Marissa to meet the needs of victims of domestic violence within the Race. Although humans had a lot of programs and resources for their women and children, female vampires and their young had had absolutely nothing to turn to until Marissa had opened up this facility. Staffed with social workers trained thanks to the human world—night school or online—and nurses managed by Doc Jane and Ehlena, the residents were allowed to stay, without charge, for as long as they needed in order to get back on their feet and be safe.
Males were not permitted inside.
As far as he knew, there were at least twelve in the house at the moment, although that number fluctuated—and thanks to the Wellesandra Annex, built because of Tohr’s gift in memory of his beloved first shellan, there was always plenty of room.
The front door opened and Mary slipped out, locking up behind her. Tucking her arms into her chest, she shivered as she ran over the lawn—and it took every ounce of his self-control not to be the one to cross the distance between them. But he had to respect the boundary of the property.
Opening his arms wide, he sank down into his knees so that when she got within range, he could hold her flush to him and lift her up off the ground. To him, she weighed nothing, but oh, God, she was vital, her body warm against his, her arms going around his neck and squeezing, her scent hitting him like a Xanax and a jolt of espresso at the same time.
“My Mary,” he sighed. Deep inside him, his beast chuffed in satisfaction. “My Mary girl.”
He’d started calling her that a while ago. No idea why. Probably because every time he did, she smiled.
Rhage eased her back down, but kept her against him. Brushing her cocoa-colored hair back, he didn’t like how pale she was. “What the hell’s happening?”
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