For the most part, Rehv didn't like staying in the studio behind his office at ZeroSum. After a night like tonight, though, he wasn't up for driving out of the city to the safe house where his mother stayed, and his penthouse at the Commodore, with its glass-fronted views, was so not an option.

Xhex had been picked him up from the clinic, and on the way back to the club he'd gotten grilled pretty damn good as to why he hadn't called her in for the fighting. But come on, he'd said to her, another half-breed symphath in the mix?

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Yeah, right. Besides, clinics made her jumpy as hell.

After he'd filled her in on the infiltration, he'd lied and said Havers had given him a look-see and some drugs. She'd known he was talking out of his ass about his arm, but thank fuck it was too close to dawn for them to get into a knock-down-drag-out. Sure, she could have stayed around and continued to argue with him, but Xhex always had to get back to her place. Always.

To the point that he wondered what exactly was waiting at home for her. Or who.

Walking into his bathroom, he kept his sable on even though the dial on the thermostat was cranked all the way up to fireplace. As he got the shower's heat rolling, he thought about what had gone down at the clinic and found that it had been tragically energizing. Fighting to him was like a Tom Ford suit: a perfect fit and something he could sport with pride. And the good news was that his symphath side had stayed in control, even with the enticement of all that lesser blood getting spilled.

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See? He was fine. He really was.

When steam began to waft up all around him, he forced himself to take off his coat and his Versace suit and his Pink shirt. The clothes were utterly trashed, and his sable hadn't fared much better. He put them in a pile for dry cleaning and mending.

On the way to the hot water, he walked by the long mirror over the bank of glass sinks. Turning toward his reflection, he ran his hands down the five-pointed red stars on his chest. Then he went lower and cupped his cock.

Would have been nice to have some sex after all that, or at least cleanse his body's palate with a good hand job. Or three.

As he hefted himself in his palms, he couldn't ignore the fact that his left forearm looked like it had been put through a meat grinder from all his injections.

Side effects just sucked.

He stepped under the water and knew that it was hot only because of the milky, humid air around him and the way his core temperature let out a huge sigh of relief. His skin told him nothing, not how hard the spray was hitting his shoulders, not that the bar of soap he passed over himself was smooth and slippery, not that his palm was broad and warm as it followed the suds and swept them off to the drain below.

He kept it up with the soap routine longer than was necessary. Thing was he couldn't stand to go to bed with any kind of dirt on him, but more than that, he needed the excuse to stay in the shower. This was one of the few times he was warm enough, and the shock of stepping out was always a bitch.

Ten minutes later, he was naked between the sheets of his king-sized bed and had his thick mink blanket up to his chin like a child. As the inner chill from having toweled off faded, he closed his eyes and willed the lights off.

His club on the other side of the steel-paneled walls would be empty by now. His girls would be home for the day, as most of them had kids. His bartenders and bookies would be grabbing a bite and unwinding somewhere. His backroom scale staff of geeks would be watching Star Trek: TNG reruns. And his twenty-person cleaning crew would be finished with the floors and the tables and the bathrooms and the banquettes and be ditching their uniforms and heading off to their next job.

He liked the idea that he was here alone. It didn't happen often.

As his phone went off, he cursed and was reminded that even if he was by himself, there were always people yapping at him.

He sneaked his arm out to answer the thing. "Xhex, if you want to keep arguing, let's TO until tomorrow¡ª"

"Not Xhex, symphath." Zsadist's voice was tight as a fist. "And I'm calling about your sister."

Rehv sat up, not caring that the blankets dropped from his body. "What."

When he hung up with Zsadist, he lay back down, thinking this had to be what you felt like when you thought you were having a heart attack, but it turned out just to be indigestion: relieved, but still sick to your stomach.

Bella was okay. For now. The Brother had called because he was keeping to the deal they'd struck. Rehv had promised he wouldn't interfere, but he wanted to be in the loop about how she was doing.

Man, this pregnancy thing was awful.

He pulled the covers up to his chin again. He needed to call his mother and give her the update, but he'd do that later. She would just be retiring for bed, and there was no reason to keep her up all day long worrying.

God, Bella... his darling Bella, no longer his baby sister, now a Brother's shellan.

The two of them had always had a deep, complicated relationship. In part, it was their personalities, but it was also because she had no idea what he was. No clue either about their mother's past or what had killed her father.

Or who, was more like it.

Rehv had murdered to protect his sister, and he wouldn't hesitate to do so again. For as long as he could remember, Bella had been the only innocence in his life, the only purity. He'd wanted to keep her like that forever. Life had had other plans.

To avoid thinking about her abduction by the lessers, which he still blamed himself for, he recalled one of his most vivid memories of her. It had been about a year after he'd taken care of business at home and put her father in the ground. She'd been seven.

Rehv had walked into the kitchen and found her eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes at the kitchen table, her feet dangling from the big-girl chair she'd been sitting in. She'd been wearing pink slippers¡ªthe ones she didn't like but had to put on when her favorites, the navy blue ones, were in the wash¡ªand a Lanz flannel nightgown that had strips of yellow roses separated with blue and pink lines.

She'd been such a picture, sitting there with her long brown hair down her back and those little pink slippers and her brow all furrowed as she chased around the last few flakes with her spoon.

"Why you watchin'me, rooster?" she'd piped up, her feet swinging back and forth underneath the chair.

He'd smiled. Even then he'd worn his hair in a Mohawk, and she was the only one who dared to give him a cheeky nickname. And, naturally, he loved her all the more for it. "No reason."

Which had been a lie. As that spoon fished around in the sugary milk, he'd been thinking that this calm, quiet moment had been so worth all the blood he'd gotten on his hands. In fucking spades.

With a sigh, she'd looked over at the cereal box, which was across the way on the kitchen counter. Her feet had stopped their rocking, the little piff, piff, piff of the slippers on the chair's lower rung drifting off into silence.

"What are you looking at, Lady Bell?" When she didn't immediately answer, he'd eyeballed Tony the Tiger. As scenes of her father had flashed through his head, he'd been willing to bet she was seeing the same thing he was.

In a small voice, she'd said, "I can have more if I want. Maybe."

Her tone had been hesitant, as if she were dipping her foot in a pond that might have leeches in it.

"Yeah, Bella. You may have as much as you like."

She hadn't leaped up out of the chair. She'd remained still in the manner of children and animals, just breathing, her senses threading out through her environment, testing for danger.

Rehv hadn't moved. Even though he'd wanted to bring the box to her, he'd known that she was the one who needed to cross the glossy red cherry floor in those slippers and bring Tony the Tiger back to her bowl. Her hands had to be the ones to hold the box as another school of flakes got sprinkled into the warming milk. She had to pick up her spoon again and eat.

She had to know that there was no one in the house who would criticize her for getting seconds because she was still hungry.

Her father had specialized in that kind of thing. Like a lot of males of his generation, the piece of shit had believed that females of the glymera needed to be "kept trim." As he'd said over and over again, fat on the aristocratic female body was the equivalent of dust accumulating on a priceless statue.

He'd been even harder on their mother.

In silence, Bella had looked down into the milk and weaved her spoon through it, making a wake of waves.

She wasn't going to do it, Rehv had thought, ready to kill that bastard sire of hers all over again. She was still scared.

Except then she'd put the spoon to rest on the plate under the bowl, slipped from the chair, and gone across the kitchen in her little Lanz nightgown. She didn't look at him. Didn't seem to look at Tony's cartoon-vivid puss when she picked up the box, either.

She was terrified. She was courageous. She was tiny and she was fierce.

His vision had run red at that point, but not because his bad side was coming out. As the second serving of Frosted Flakes had been poured, he'd had to go. He'd said something cheery about nothing in particular, walked quickly into the hall bathroom, and shut himself in.

He had wept his tears of blood alone.

That moment in the kitchen with Tony and Bella's second-best pair of slippers had told him he'd done right: The approval for the murder he'd committed had come when that cereal box had been walked across that kitchen by his darling, beloved, precious little sister.

Returning to the present, he thought of Bella now. A grown female with a powerful mate and a young barely in her body.

The demon she faced now was nothing her big, bad brother could help her with. There was no open grave into which he could throw the beaten, bloody remains of fate. He couldn't save her from this particular monster.

Time would tell, and that was that.

Until her abduction, he'd never once considered that she might die before him. During those hideous six weeks when she'd been kept by that lesser underground, though, the order of his family's deaths had been all he could think about. He'd always assumed that their mother was going to go first, and in fact, she'd just now started on the quick decline that carried vampires to the end of their lives. He'd been well aware he'd go next, as sooner or later one of two things was going to happen: Either someone was going to find out about his symphath nature and he was going to be hunted down and sent to the colony, or his blackmailer was going to orchestrate his demise in the manner of symphaths.

Which was to say, out of the blue and viciously creative¡ª

Right on cue, a musical chord came out of his phone. The ring repeated again. And again.

He knew who was calling without picking up. But such were the connections between symphaths.

Speak of the devil, he thought as he answered his blackmailer 's call.

When he hung up, he had a date with the Princess the following evening.

Lucky him.

Qhuinn had this long, fucked-up dream that he was at Disney World on a ride with lots of ups and downs. Which was weird, as he'd only seen roller coasters on the TV. 'Cuz you couldn't get on Big Thunder Mountain if you couldn't handle the sun.

When whatever ride he was on ended, he opened his eyes and discovered he was in the PT/first-aid room at the Brotherhood's training center.

Oh, thank fuck.

Obviously he'd gotten cracked in the head while spar-ring with someone during class, and that shit with Lash and the stuff with his family and his brother honor-guarding him had all been a nightmare. What a relief¡ª

Doc Jane's face appeared in front of his. "Hey, there... you're back."

Qhuinn blinked and coughed. "Where... I go?"

"You had a little nap. So I could take your spleen out."

Shit. Wasn't a hallucination. Was the new reality. "Am... I okay?"

Doc Jane put her hand on his shoulder, her palm warm and weighty even though the rest of her was translucent. "You did very well."

"Stomach still hurts." He lifted up his head and looked down his bare chest to the bandage sashing his waist.

"It would be wrong if it didn't. But you'll be happy to know you can go back to Blay's in an hour. The operation was totally textbook, and you're already healing well. I have no problem with daylight, so if you need me, I can be at his house in a moment. Blay knows what to watch for, and I've given him some meds for you."

Qhuinn shut his eyes, subsumed by some kind of fucked-up sadness.

As he tried to chill, he heard Doc Jane say, "Blay, you want to come over here¡ª"

Qhuinn shook his head, then turned it away. "Need a minute alone."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

As the door closed quietly, he put a shaking hand over his face. Alone... yeah, he was alone, all right. And not just because there was no one else in the room with him.

He'd really enjoyed thinking the last twelve hours had been a dream.

God, what the fuck was he going to do with the rest of his life?

In a flash he remembered the vision he'd had when he'd approached the Fade. Maybe he should have gone right through that damn door in spite of what he saw. Sure as shit would have made everything easier.

He collected himself for a moment. Or maybe more like half an hour. Then he called out in as strong a voice as he could muster, "I'm ready. I'm ready to go."

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