Among the problems with shame was that it in fact did not make you shorter or quieter or less visible. You just felt like you were.

Phury stood in the mansion's courtyard and stared up at the looming facade of the Brotherhood's home. All dour gray, with a lot of dark, glowering windows, the place was like a giant that had been buried up to its neck and was not happy with the dirt submersion.

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He was no more ready to go into the mansion than it seemed ready to welcome him.

As a breeze came up, he looked to the north. The night was typical August in upstate New York. All around it was still summer, with the fat, leafy trees and the fountain going and the potted urns on either side of the house's entrance. The air was different, though. Little drier. Little cooler.

The seasons, like time, were relentless, weren't they?

No, that was wrong. The seasons were but a measure of time, just like clocks and calendars.

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I'm getting older, he thought.

As his mind started to head off in directions that seemed worse than the ass-kicking he was likely to find in the mansion, he went through the vestibule and into the foyer.

The queen's voice came out of the billiards room, accompanied by a quartet of pool balls clapping gently together and a couple of thunks. Both the curse and the laughter that followed had a Boston accent. Which meant that Butch, who could beat everyone else in the house, had just lost to Beth. Again, evidently.

Listening to them, Phury couldn't remember the last time he'd played a game of pool or just hung out with his brothers¡ªalthough even if he had, he wouldn't have been completely at ease. He never was. For him, life was a coin that had disaster on one side and waiting for disaster on the other.

You need another blunt, mate, the wizard drawled. Better yet, have a bale of the stuff. Won't change the fact that you're a right bastard fool, but it'll increase the chance of you lighting your bed on fire when you pass out in it.

On that note, Phury decided to face the music and go upstairs. If he was lucky, Wrath's door would be shut¡ª

It wasn't, and the king was at his desk.

Wrath's stare lifted from the magnifying glass he was holding over a document. Even through his wraparounds, it was straight obvi the guy was pissed. "I've been waiting for you."

In Phury's head, the wizard swooped up his black robes and parked it in a Barcalounger slipcovered in human skin. My kingdom for some popcorn and Junior Mints. This is going to be specTAAAcular.

Phury walked into the study, his eyes barely registering the French blue walls and the cream silk sofas and the white marble mantel. The lingering smell of lesser in the air told him that Zsadist had just been right where he was.

"Guess Z talked to you already," he said, because there was no reason not to call a spade a spade.

Wrath put the magnifier down and leaned back behind his Louis XIV desk. "Shut the door."

Phury closed them in together. "You want me to talk first?"

"No, you do enough of that." The king lifted up his massive shitkickers and let them fall on the dainty desk. The pair landed like cannonballs. "You do plenty of that."

Phury waited for the list of failures to get rolling out of courtesy, not curiosity. He was well aware of where he was at: trying to get killed out in the field; assuming the mantle of the Chosen's Primale but not completing the ceremony; being overinvolved with Z and Bella's life; not paying enough attention to Cormia; smoking all the time...

Phury focused hard on his king and waited for a voice other than the wizard's to run down his fuckups.

Except none of it came. Wrath said absolutely nothing.

Which seemed to suggest that the problems were so loud and obvious it was like pointing at a bomb exploding and saying, Boy, that's really noisy¡ªgoing to leave a crater in the pavement, too, huh?

"On second thought," Wrath said, "tell me what I should do about you. Tell me what the fuck I should do."

When Phury didn't reply, Wrath murmured,"No comment? You mean you have no idea what to do, either?"

"I think we both know what the answer is."

"I'm not so sure about that. What do you think I need to do?"

"Take me off rotation for a little while."

"Ah."

More silence.

"So is that where we're at?" Phury asked. Man, he so needed a blunt.

Those shitkickers knocked together at the toes. "Dunno."

"That mean you want me to fight?" Which would be a better outcome than he could hope for. "I'd give you my word¡ª"

"Fuck. You." Wrath stood up in a quick surge and came around the desk. "You told your twin you were coming back here, but dollars to shit piles you went to see Rehvenge. You promised Z you'd stop with the slayers and you didn't. You said you'd be the Primale and you aren't. Hell, you keep talking out your ass about how you're going back to your room to get some sleep, but we all know what you do in there. And you honestly expect me to take your word about anything?"

"So tell me what you want me to do."

From behind the sunglasses, the king's pale, unfocusable eyes were searching. "I'm not sure time off and a fuckload of therapy is going to help, because I don't think you'll do either."

Cold dread curled up like a wet, wounded dog in Phury's gut. "Are you going to kick me out?"

It had happened before in the history of the Brotherhood. Not often. But it had. Murhder came to mind... shit, yeah, he was probably the last one to get the boot.

"Not as simple as that, is it," Wrath said. "If you get curbed, where does that leave the Chosen? The Primale has always been a Brother, and not just because of blood-lines. Besides, Z wouldn't take to that well, even as pissed off at you as he is now."

Great. His safety nets were saving his twin from a head fuck and being the Chosen's man-whore.

The king walked over to the windows. Outside, the summer trees swayed in a gathering wind.

"Here's what I think." Wrath popped his sunglasses up off his nose and rubbed his eyes like his head ached. "You should..."

"I'm sorry," Phury said, because that was all he had to offer.

"So am I." Wrath let the glasses fall back into place and shook his head. As he returned to his desk and sat down, his jaw was set along with his shoulders. Popping open a drawer, he took out a black dagger.

Phury's. The one that had been left in the alley.

Z must have found the damn thing and carried it home.

The king turned the weapon over in his hand and cleared his throat. "Give me your other blade. You're off rotation permanently. Whether or not you see a shrink or how the shit shakes out with the Chosen is not my business. And I'm out of advice, because the truth is, you're going to do what you're going to do. Nothing I demand or ask of you is going to make a difference."

Phury's heart stopped for a moment. Of all the ways he'd thought this confrontation would play out, Wrath's washing his hands of the mess had never been in the cards.

"Am I still a Brother?"

The king just stared at the dagger¡ªwhich gave Phury the three-word answer: in name only.

Some things didn't need to be said, did they.

"I'll talk to Z," the king murmured. "We'll say you're on administrative leave. No more fieldwork for you, and you don't come to the meetings anymore."

Phury felt a rush as if he were free-falling off a building and had just made eye contact with the pavement that had his name on it.

No nets anymore. No promises to break. As far as the king was concerned, he was on his own.

Nineteen thirty-two, he thought. He'd been in the Brotherhood for only seventy-six years.

Bringing his hand up to his chest, he palmed the grip of his remaining dagger, unsheathed the weapon in a single pull, and put it on the silly pale-blue desk.

He bowed to his king and left without another word. Bravo, the wizard called out. Such a shame your parents are already dead, mate. They'd be so delighted in this proud moment¡ªwait, let's bring them back, shall we?

He was slammed with two quick images: his father passed out in a room full of empty ale bottles, his mother lying in a bed with her face turned to the wall.

Phury went back to his room, took out his stash, rolled up a blunt, and lit it.

With everything that had happened tonight, and the wizard playing the role of the anti-Oprah, he either smoked or he screamed. So he smoked.

Across town, Xhex was not in her happy place as she escorted Rehvenge out of ZeroSum's back door and into his bulletproof Bentley. Rehv didn't look any better than she felt, her boss nothing but a grim dark shadow in a full-length sable coat as he slowly moved through the alley.

She opened the driver's-side door for him and waited as he eased himself into the bucket seat with the help of his cane. Even in the seventy-degree night, he cranked the heater and pulled his coat's lapels closer to his neck¡ªa sign that his last hit of dopamine had yet to wear off. It would soon enough. He always went unmedicated. It wasn't safe otherwise.

Wasn't safe, period.

For twenty-five years, she had wanted to go with him to back his ass up for these visits with his blackmailer, but getting shut down every time she asked had made her cut her losses and keep her yap shut. The cost of her silence was a bad fucking mood, though.

"You staying at your safe house?" she said.

"Yeah."

She shut the door and watched him drive off. He didn't tell her where the meetings were, but she knew the rough vicinity. The GPS system in the car indicated he went upstate.

God, she hated what he had to do.

Thanks to her fuckup two and a half decades ago, Rehv had to whore himself out the first Tuesday of every month to protect them.

The symphath Princess he serviced was dangerous. And hungry for him.

At first, Xhex had waited for the bitch to turn him and Xhex in anonymously for deportation to the symphath colony. But she was smarter than that. If they got shipped, they'd be lucky to survive six months, even as strong as they were. Half-breeds were no match for the full-bloods, and besides, the Princess was mated to her own uncle.

Who was a power-driven, possessive despot if there ever was one.

Xhex cursed. She had no idea why Rehv didn't hate her, and she couldn't fathom how he could stand the fucking part of it. She had a feeling, though, these nights were why he took such good care of his girls. Unlike your average pimp, he knew exactly how the prostitutes felt, knew precisely what it was like to screw someone you didn't want because they had something you needed, be it cash or silence.

Xhex had yet to find them a way out, and what made the situation even more untenable was that Rehv had stopped looking to get free. What had once been a crisis situation had become the new reality. Two decades later, he was still fucking to protect them, and it was still Xhex's fault, and every first Tuesday of the month, he went and did the unthinkable with someone he hated... and that was life.

"Fuck," she said to the alleyway. "When is this going to change?"

The only reply she got was a gust that blew newspaper pages and plastic bags her way.

As she went back into the club, her eyes adjusted to the flaring lasers, her ears absorbed the trippy music, her skin registered a slight drop in temperature.

The VIP section seemed relatively quiet with just the usual regulars, but she made eye contact with both her bouncers anyway. After they nodded the all-clear, she looked over the girls who were working the banquettes. Watched the cocktail waitresses tray empties and deliver replacements. Measured the bottle levels behind the VIP bar.

When she got to the velvet rope, she looked over the crowd in the main part of the club. The great throng on the dance floor was moving like an unsettled ocean, surging and parting and coming together again. Couples and trios on the fringes were gyrating while they hooked up, the lasers bouncing off shadowy faces and bodies that were melded together.

Tonight was relatively low traffic, as the weeks geared up slowly, attendance growing until traffic peaked on Saturday nights. For her as head of security, Fridays were usually the most intense, with idiots burning off the residue of a bad workweek by doing too many drugs and either OD'ing or breaking into brawls.

That being said, as dumb-asses with addictions were the club's bread and butter, shit could go south any moment of any night.

Good thing she rocked at her job. Rehv handled the sale of drugs, booze, and women, managed his fleet of sports bookies that ran lines to the mob in Vegas, and contracted for certain special projects involving "enforcement." She was in charge of keeping the club's environment in control so business could be conducted with as little interference from the human police and the idiot patrons as possible.

She was about to go check the mezzanine level when she saw what she referred to as the Boys come in the front door.

Stepping back into the shadows, she watched as the three young males came through the VIP section's velvet rope and headed for the back. They always went for the Brotherhood 's table if the thing was empty, which meant they were either strategic, as it was next to an emergency exit and in a corner, or they'd been told to sit there and mind their manners by the powers that be.

"Powers" as in the king, Wrath.

Yeah, the Boys weren't your average little cock cabal, she thought as they parked it. For a whole host of reasons.

The one with the mismatched eyes was trouble looking for a landing pad, and true to form, after he ordered his Corona he got up and went out to the main part of the club to find some tail. The redhead stayed behind, which was also not a surprise. He was your essential Eagle Scout, straight up as a ruler. Which made her suspicious as to what was under that apple-pie image.

Of the three, though, the mute was the real issue. His name was Tehrror, a.k.a. John Matthew, and the king was his whard. Which meant the kid was a china plate in a bullpen, as far as Xhex was concerned. Anything happened to him? The club was flushed.

Man, the kid had changed over the last few months. She'd seen him pretransition, all scrawny and weak, totally crushable, but now she was looking at one fuck of a big male... and big males were problems if they got to throwing their meat around. Although John had up until now been a sit-back -and-watch type, the kid's eyes were way too old in his young face, which suggested he'd been through some bad shit. And bad shit tended to be the gas on the fire when people cracked.

Mismatched Eyes, a.k.a. Qhuinn, son of Lohstrong, came back with a pair of ready-and-willings, two blondes who'd evidently color-coordinated their outfits to match their cosmopolitans: both were wearing not much pink.

The redhead, Blaylock, didn't have a lot of game, but that was no problem, because Qhuinn had plenty for both of them. Hell, the guy would have had plenty for John Matthew, too, except that one didn't play. At least, not that Xhex had ever seen.

After John's buddies disappeared into the back with the R&Ws, Xhex walked over to the kid for no good reason. He stiffened as he caught sight of her, but he always did that, just like he always watched her. When you were head of security, folks tended to want to know where you were.

"How you doing?" she asked.

He shrugged and fiddled with his Corona bottle. Bet he wished it had a label to pick off, she thought.

"Mind if I ask you something?"

His eyes popped a little, but he shrugged again.

"Why don't you ever go to the back with your boys?" It was, of course, none of her damned business, and what was more, she didn't know why she cared. But hell... maybe it was all the first-Tuesday-of-the-month shit. She was looking to get out of her own head.

"The girlies like you," she prompted. "I've seen them checking you out. And you look at them, but you always stay out here."

John Matthew flushed so deep she could see the red even in the dim light.

"You already tied up?" she murmured, even more curious. "The king pick you out a female?"

He shook his head.

Okay, she needed to leave him alone. The poor kid was a mute, so how did she expect him to answer her?

"I want my drink now!" The booming male voice cut through the music, and Xhex swiveled her head around. Two banquettes away, one of the big-daddy blowhard types was aggressing on a waitress, clearly on the express train to I'm-an-Ass-ville.

"Excuse me," Xhex said to John.

As the loudmouth reached out his bear claw and grabbed the waitress's skirt, the poor girl lost control of her tray and cocktails went flying. "I said, gimme my drink now!"

Xhex stepped up behind the waitress and steadied her. "Don't worry about it. He's leaving."

The man lumbered up out of his seat to a full height of about six-four. "Am I?"

Xhex stepped in close until they were breast-to-chest. She locked eyes on him, her symphath urges screaming to be let out, but she focused on the metal barbs she had clamped around her thighs. Taking strength from the pain she inflicted on herself, she fought off her nature.

"You will leave now," she said softly, "or I will drag you out of here by your hair."

The man had breath like a day-old tuna sandwich. "I hate dykes. You always think you're tougher than you really¡ª"

Xhex grabbed the man's wrist, turned him in a little circle, and cranked his arm up to the middle of his back. Then she clipped her leg around his ankles and shoved him off balance. He landed like a side of beef, the wind getting knocked out of him on a curse, his body plowing into the short-napped carpet.

In a quick move, she bent down, buried one hand in his gelled-up hair, and locked the other on the collar of his suit jacket. As she dragged him face-first to the side exit, she was multitasking: creating a scene, committing both an assault and a battery, and running the risk of a brawl if his buddies in the Hall of Fucktards got involved. But you had to put on a show every once in a while. Every one of the entitled assholes in the VIP section was watching, as were her bouncers, who were edgy characters to start with, and the working girls, most of whom had totally understandable anger-management issues.

To keep the peace, you had to get your hands dirty every once in a while.

And, considering all the hair product this bigmouth used, she was so going to need to wash up after this was over.

When she got to the side exit by the Brotherhood's table, she paused to open the door, but John got there first. Like a total gentleman, he swung the thing wide and held it that way with his long arm.

"Thanks," she said.

Out in the alley, she flipped the bigmouth asshole over on his back and went through his pockets. As he lay there blinking like a fish in the bottom of a boat, the search was another infraction on her part. She had police powers on club property, but the alley was technically owned by the city of Caldwell. More to the point, though, the zip code of this hand job was irrelevant. The search would have been illegal, as she didn't have probable cause to believe he had drugs or concealed weapons.

According to the law, you couldn't frisk someone for just being a cocksucker.

Ah... but, see, this was where instinct paid off. In addition to his wallet, she found a nice load of coke on him, as well as three tabs of X. She dangled the cellophane bags in front of the man's eyes.

"I could have you arrested." She smiled as he started to stammer. "Yeah, yeah, not yours. Don't know how they got there. You're innocent as a two-year-old. But look up over that door."

When the guy didn't respond quickly enough, she clamped a hand on his jowls and pushed his face around.

"See that little red blinking eye? That's a security camera. So this shit..." She jogged the packets at the camera, then flipped open the wallet. ". . . this two grams of cocaine and three hits of Ecstasy that came out of the breast pocket of your suit, Mr... Robert Finlay... has been digitally recorded. Huh... check this out, you have two nice-looking kids. Bet they'd rather have breakfast with you tomorrow morning than eat with a babysitter because your wife is trying to spring you out of jail."

She put his wallet back in his suit and held on to the drugs. "The way I'd like to suggest we handle this is to go our separate ways. You don't ever come into my club again. And I don't send your dime-sized balls to jail. What do you say? Deal or no deal?"

As he pondered whether to take what the Banker offered or open another case, Xhex got to her feet and backed up a little so she had a clear kick shot if she needed it. She didn't think that shit was going to be necessary, though. People who were going to fight had tense bodies and sharp eyes. Bigmouth was loose as dishwater, clearly having run out of gas and ego.

"Go home," she said to him.

And he did.

As he lumbered off, Xhex put the drugs in her back pocket.

"You enjoy the show, John Matthew?" she said without turning around.

When she looked over her shoulder, her breath stopped in her throat. John's eyes were glowing in the darkness... as the kid stared at her with the kind of single-minded focus males got when they wanted sex. Hard-core sex.

Holy... shit. This was no little boy she was looking at.

Without being aware she was doing it, she reached into his mind with a lick of her symphath nature. He was thinking of... him on a bed in tangled sheets, his hand between his legs on a gigantic cock, his mind picturing her as he pumped himself off.

He'd done that a lot.

Xhex pivoted and walked over. When she came up to him, he didn't step back, and she wasn't surprised. In this raw instant, he was no awkward youngling to cut and run. He was all male animal, meeting her head-on.

Which was... oh, fuck her, it was not attractive. It. Really. Was. Not.

Shit.

As she looked up at him, she meant to tell him to go train those glowing blue marbles on the human women in the club and leave her out of it. She meant to say that she was beyond off-limits and to let his fantasy go. She meant to warn him off, as she had all others except for the hardened, half-dead Butch O'Neal before he'd become a Brother.

Instead, she said in a low tone, "Next time you think of me like that, say my name when you come. It'll get you off even better."

She let her shoulder brush across the front of his chest as she leaned to the side and opened the door to the club.

His harsh suck of breath lingered in her ear.

As she went back to work, she told herself her body was hot because of the effort she'd just expended dragging that dickhead out the door.

It had absolutely nothing to do with John Matthew.

As Xhex walked back into the club, John stood there like a frickin' idiot. Which made sense. Most of his blood had rushed from his brain to the arousal in his brand-new, old-looking A & F jeans. The rest of the shit was in his face.

Which meant his brain was running on empty.

How the hell did she know what he did when he thought of her?

One of the Moors who guarded Rehvenge's office came over. "You in or out of this door?"

John shuffled back to the banquette, downed his Corona in two swallows, and was glad when one of the waitresses came over with a freshie without his even asking.

Xhex had disappeared into the main part of the club, and he searched for her, trying to see through the waterfall that separated the VIPs from the others.

He didn't need his eyes to know where she was, though. He could sense her. In the midst of all the bodies in the club, he knew which one belonged to her. She was over by the bar.

God, the fact that she could manhandle a guy twice her size without breaking a sweat was hot as hell.

The fact that she didn't seem offended that John had fantasized about her was a relief.

The fact that she wanted him to say her name when he came was... making him want to come right now.

Guess this answered whether he liked sunshine or thunder better, didn't it. And told him exactly what he would be doing as soon as he got home.

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