An Insider's Guide Chapter Two

As Zsadist came awake in a panic, he tried to calm his breathing and figure out where he was, but his eyes weren't much help. Everything was dark . . . he was enveloped in a dense, cold blackness that, no matter how hard he strained his vision, he couldn't see through. He could have been in a bedroom, out in a field . . . in a cell.

He'd come out of sleep like this many, many times. For a hundred years as a blood slave, he'd woken up in a panicked blindness and wondered what was going to be done to him and by whom. After he was free? Nightmares caused him to do the same thing.

In both cases it was such bullshit. When he'd been the Mistress's property, worrying about the who and the what and the when hadn't helped him. The abuse was inevitable whether he was faceup or facedown on the bedding platform: He was used until she and her studs were sated; then he was left to lie degraded and leaking, alone in his prison.

And now, with the bad dreams? Waking up in the same terror he'd been in as a slave just validated the past horrors his subconscious insisted on burping up.

At least . . . he thought he was dreaming.

True panic hit him as he wondered which dark owned him. Was it the dark of the cell? Or the dark of his bedroom with Bella? He didn't know. Both looked the same when there were no visual clues to decipher and only the sound of his pounding heart in his ears.

Solution? He'd try to move his arms and legs. If they were unchained, if they were not shackled, it was just a case of being caught in his mind's choke hold once again, the past reaching out through the graveyard dirt of his memories and grabbing him with bony hands. As long as he could shift his arms and legs through clean sheets, he was okay.

Right. Move his arms and legs.

His arms. His legs. Needed to move.

Move.

Oh, God . . . damn you, move.

His limbs didn't budge, and in the paralysis of his body the clawed truth ripped through him. He was in the damp darkness of the Mistress's cell, chained on his back, thick iron cuffs keeping him on the bedding platform. She and her lovers would be coming for him again, and they would do to him whatever they wanted, staining his skin, soiling the inside of him.

He moaned, the pathetic sound vibrating up from his chest and breaching his mouth like it was relieved to be free of him. Bella was the dream. He lived in the nightmare.

Bella was the dream. . . .

The footsteps approached from the hidden stairwell that ran down from the Mistress's bedroom, the sound echoing, getting louder. And there were more than one set on the stone steps.

With an animal's horror, his muscles grabbed and pulled against his skeleton, fighting desperately to get loose from the dirty binding of flesh that was about to be fondled and invaded and used. Sweat broke out on his face, and his stomach seized, bile marshaling an assault up his esophagus to the base of his tongue--

Someone was crying.

No . . . wailing.

A young's cry sounded out from the far corner of the cell.

His fight stalled while he wondered what an infant was doing in this place. The Mistress had no offspring, nor had she been pregnant during the years he had been owned by her--

No . . . wait . . . he had brought the young here. It was his young who cried--and the Mistress was going to find the infant. She was going to find the infant and . . . Oh, God.

This was his fault. He had brought the young here.

Get the young out. Get the young--

Z curled his fists and punched his elbows into the bedding platform, heaving with every ounce of strength he had. The power came from more than his body; it was born of his will. With a massive surge, he . . .

. . . got absolutely nowhere. The shackles cut through his wrists and his ankles down to his bones, slicing through his skin so that blood mixed with his cold sweat. As the door opened, the young was crying and he couldn't save her. The Mistress was going to--

Light poured over him, rocketing him into true consciousness.

He was off his mated bed like he'd been bootlicked by a Chevy, landing in a fighting stance with fists up at his chest, shoulders drawn in steel knots, thighs ready to spring.

Bella slowly eased back from the lamp she'd turned on, as if she didn't want to spook him.

He looked around the bedroom. There was, as usual, no one to fight, but he'd woken everyone up. In the corner, Nalla was in her crib crying, and he'd scared the ever-loving shit out of his shellan. Again.

There was no Mistress. None of her consorts. No cell or chains stretching him out on a bedding platform.

No young in his cell with him.

Bella slipped out of bed and went over to the crib, scooping up a red-faced and screaming Nalla. The daughter, however, would have nothing of the comfort offered. The young held its little chubby arms straight out for Zsadist, wailing for its father, tears streaming.

Bella waited for a moment, as if she were hoping this time would be different and he would go over and take the child into his arms and comfort the infant who so clearly wanted him.

Z backed away until his shoulder blades hit the far wall, tucking his arms around his chest.

Bella turned and whispered to her darling one as she went into the adjoining nursery. The door muffled the daughter's whimpering as it slid shut.

Z let himself slide down until his ass hit the floor. "Fuck."

He rubbed his skull trim back and forth, then let both hands hang off his knees. After a moment, he realized he was sitting as he had back in the cell, his back against the corner facing the door, his knees up, his naked body shivering.

He looked at the slave bands around his wrists. The black was so dense in his skin, so solid, it was like the iron cuffs he'd once worn.

After God only knew how long, the door to the nursery slid open and Bella came back with the young. Nalla was asleep again, but as Bella laid her out in the crib, it was with care, as if a bomb were about to go off at any moment.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, rubbing his wrists.

Bella put on a dressing gown and went to the door that led out into the hall. With her hand on the knob, she looked back at him, her eyes remote. "I can't say this is okay anymore."

"I'm really sorry about the dreams--"

"I'm talking about Nalla. I can't say that your shunning her is all right . . . that I understand, that it's going to get better and I'll be patient. The fact is, she is your child as well as mine, and it kills me to see you pulling away from her. I know what you went through, and I don't want to be callous, but . . . everything's different for me now. I need to think in terms of what's good for her, and having a father who won't even touch her? That's not it."

Z flexed open both his hands and stared at his palms, trying to imagine picking the young up.

The slave bands seemed huge to him. Huge . . . and contagious.

The word wasn't won't, he thought. It was can't.

The thing was if he did comfort Nalla and play with her and read to her, it would mean she had him for a father, and his legacy was nothing you wanted to saddle a young with. Bella's born daughter deserved better than that.

"I need you to decide what you want to do," Bella said. "If you can't be her father, I'm leaving you. I know that sounds harsh, but . . . I have to think of what's best for her. I love you and I will always love you, but it's not about me anymore."

For a moment, he didn't think he'd heard right. Leaving him?

Bella stepped out into the hall of statues. "I'm going to go grab something to eat. Don't worry about her--I'll be right back."

She closed the door behind her without a sound.

When night fell about two hours later, the way that door had shut so quietly was still banging around Z's head.

Standing in front of his closet full of black shirts and leathers and shitkickers, he sought his inner intentions, chasing them around the maze of his emotions. Sure, he wanted to overcome the head fuck with his daughter. Of course he did.

It was just insurmountable: What had been done to him might have been in the past, but all he had to do was look at his wrists to see that he was still dirtied by it all--and he didn't want that kind of shit anywhere near Nalla. He'd had the same problem with Bella in the beginning of their relationship, and had managed to get over it with his shellan, but the implications were more grave with the young: Z was the corporeal embodiment of the kind of cruelty that existed in the world. He didn't want his daughter to know that such depths of depravity existed, much less expose her to their aftereffects.

Fuck.

What the hell was he going to do when she got to be old enough to look up into his face and ask him why he was scarred and how he'd gotten that way? What would he do when she wanted to know why he had black bands on his skin? What was her uncle Phury going to reply when she asked him why he was missing a leg?

Z dragged on a shirt and a pair of leathers, then pulled on his chest holster of daggers and opened the gun closet. As he took out a pair of SIG Sauer forties, he checked them quickly. He used to palm nines--shit, he used to fight with nothing but his bare hands. Ever since Bella had come into his life, however, he'd been more careful.

And this, of course, was the other part of his brain twist. He killed for a living. That was his job. Nalla was going to have to grow up worrying about him every night. How could she not? Bella did.

He shut the gun closet and relocked it, then tucked the muzzles into his hip holster, checked his daggers, and pulled on his leather jacket.

He glanced over to the crib where Nalla was still sleeping.

Guns. Blades. Throwing stars. Christ, the infant needed to be surrounded by rattles and plush teddy bears.

Bottom line was, he wasn't cut out to be a father. Never had been. Biology, however, had jacked him into the role, and now they were all chained to his past: As much as he couldn't imagine living without Bella, there was no fathoming how he could be the dad Nalla deserved.

With a frown, he pictured Nalla's coming-out party, something all females of the glymera had one year after their transitions. The daughter always had the first dance with her father, and he saw Nalla dressed in a flowing red gown, her multicolored hair up, rubies at her throat . . . and himself with his fucked-up face and his slave bands peeking out of the cuffs of his tuxedo.

Great. Helluva picture.

Cursing, Z went to the bathroom, where Bella was getting ready for the evening. He was going to tell her that he was heading out on a follow-up from the night before and that as soon as he was finished, he'd come home and they would talk. As he looked around the corner, though, he stopped dead.

In the mist that lingered from her shower, Bella was drying off her body. Her hair was wrapped in a towel, her long neck exposed, her creamy shoulders working this way and that as she made quick work with the terry cloth across her back. Her breasts swayed, catching his eyes, hardening him.

Fuck him, but as he watched her, all he could think about was sex. God, she was beautiful. He'd liked her rounded by the pregnancy, and he liked her as she was now, too. She'd thinned out quickly after Nalla's birth, her stomach as tight as it had been before, her hips regaining their lean contours. Her breasts were bigger, though, the nipples a deeper pink, the swells heavier.

His cock punched into his leathers, a criminal wanting out of jail.

As he rearranged himself, he realized he and Bella hadn't been together since well before the birth. The pregnancy had been difficult, and afterward Bella had needed time to heal and had been rightfully consumed with taking care of her infant.

He missed her. Wanted her. Thought she was still the most spectacularly erotic female on the face of the planet.

Bella dropped her robe on the counter, faced the mirror, and stared at herself. With a grimace, she leaned forward and prodded at her cheekbones, her jawline, under her chin. Straightening, she frowned and turned to the side, sucking in her stomach.

He cleared his throat to get her attention. "I'm about to go out now."

At the sound of his voice, Bella scrambled to get her robe. Pulling it on quickly, she tied the sash and dragged the lapels in close to her throat. "I didn't know you were there."

"Well . . ." His erection deflated. "I am."

"Are you leaving?" she said as she unwrapped her hair.

She hadn't even heard his words, he thought. "Yeah, I'm about to go out now. I'm going to be reachable, though, as always--"

"We'll be fine." She bent over and started rubbing her hair dry, the towel's flapping loud to his ear. Even though she was only ten feet away, he couldn't reach her. Couldn't ask her why she hid herself from him. Was too afraid of what the answer might be.

"Have a good evening," he said roughly. He waited a moment, praying that she would look up at him, smile at him a little, give him a kiss on his way out into the war.

"You, too." She flipped her hair up and reached for the hair dryer. "Be safe."

"I will."

Bella flicked on the hair dryer and picked up her brush to look busy as Z turned and walked out. When she was sure he had to be gone, she stopped the pretense, turning off the dryer and letting it fall to the marble counter.

Her heart ached so badly, she was sick to her stomach, and as she stared at her reflection, she wanted to throw something at the glass.

The two of them hadn't been together, as in been together, since . . . God, it must have been four or five months ago, before she'd started spotting.

He didn't think of her sexually anymore. Not since Nalla had come. It was as if the birth had turned off that part of their relationship for him. When he touched her now, it was as a brother would--gently, with compassion.

Never with passion.

At first, she'd thought it was maybe because she wasn't as thin as she'd been, but in the last four weeks her body had bounced back.

At least, she thought it had. Maybe she was fooling herself?

Loosening the robe, she parted the two halves, turned to the side, and measured her stomach. Back when her father had been around, back when she'd been growing up, the importance of females in the glymera being thin had been drilled into her, and even after his death all those years ago, those stern warnings about being fat stuck with her.

Bella wound herself back up, tying the sash tight.

Yes, she wanted Nalla to have her father, and that was the primary concern. But she missed her hellren. The pregnancy had happened so quickly that they hadn't had the chance to enjoy a lovebird period where they just reveled in each other's company.

As she picked up the dryer and flicked on the switch again, she tried not to count the number of days since he'd last reached for her as a male would. It had been so long since he'd fished through the sheets with his big, warm hands and woken her up with lips on the back of her neck and a hard arousal pressing into her hip.

She hadn't reached for him, either, true. But she wasn't taking for granted the kind of reception she'd receive. The last thing she needed now was to be turned down because he wasn't attracted to her anymore. She was already an emotional wreck as a mother, thank you very much. Failure on the female front was too much to handle.

When her hair was dry, she gave it a quick brush and then went out to check on Nalla. Standing over the crib, looking at their daughter, she couldn't believe things had come down to ultimatums. She'd always known that Z would have continuing issues after what he'd been put through, but it had never dawned on her that they couldn't bridge his past.

Their love had seemed like it would be enough to get them through everything.

Maybe it wasn't.

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