Lover Unbound Chapter One

"I am so not feeling this cowhide."

Vishous looked up from his bank of computers. Butch O'Neal was standing in the Pit's living room with a pair of leathers on his thighs and a whole lot of you've-got-to-be-kidding-me on his puss.

"They don't fit you?" V asked his roommate.

"Not the point. No offense, but these are wicked Village People." Butch held his heavy arms out and turned in a circle, his bare chest catching the light. "I mean, come on."

"They're for fighting, not fashion."

"So are kilts, but you don't see me rocking the tartan."

"And thank God for that. You're too bowlegged to pull that shit off."

Butch assumed a bored expression. "You can bite me."

I wish, V thought.

With a wince, he went for his pouch of Turkish tobacco. As he took out some rolling paper, laid down a line, and twisted himself a cig, he did what he spent a lot of time doing: He reminded himself that Butch was happily mated to the love of his life, and that even if he weren't, the guy didn't play like that.

As V lit up and inhaled, he tried not to look at the cop and failed. Fucking peripheral vision. Always did him in.

Man, he was a perverted freak. Especially given how tight they were.

In the last nine months he'd grown closer to Butch than anyone he'd ever met in his over three hundred years of living and breathing. He'd roomed with the male, gotten drunk with him, worked out with him. Been through death and life and prophesies and doom with him. Helped bend the laws of nature to turn the guy from human to vampire, then healed him when he did his special business with the race's enemies. He'd also proposed him for membership in the Brotherhood... and stood by him when he'd been mated to his shellan.

While Butch paced around like he was trying to get comf with the leathers, V stared at the seven letters that were carved in Old English across his back: MARISSA. V had done both the As, and they'd come out well, in spite of the fact that his hand had been shaking the whole time.

"Yeah," Butch said. "I'm not sure I'm feeling these."

After their mating ceremony, V had vacated the Pit for the day so the happy couple could have their privacy. He'd gone across the compound's courtyard and shut himself up in a guest room at the big house with three bottles of Grey Goose. He'd gotten saturated drunk, real rice-paddy flooded, but hadn't been able to meet the goal of making himself pass out. The truth had kept him mercilessly awake: V was attached to his roommate in ways that complicated things and yet changed nothing at all.

Butch knew what was doing. Hell, they were best friends, and the guy could read V better than anyone could. And Marissa knew it because she wasn't stupid. And the Brotherhood knew it because those old-maid fool idiots never let you keep secrets.

They were all cool with it.

He wasn't. He couldn't stand the emotions. Or himself.

"You going to try the rest of your gear on?" he asked on an exhale. "Or you want to whine about your pants a little more?"

"Don't make me flip you off."

"Why would I deprive you of a favorite hobby?"

"Because my finger's getting sore." Butch walked over to one of the couches and picked up a chest harness. As he slid it onto his broad shoulders, the leather contoured to his torso perfectly. "Shit, how'd you get it to fit so well?"

"I measured you, remember?"

Butch buckled the thing in place, then bent down and ran his fingertips across the lid of a black-lacquered box. He lingered over the gold crest of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, then traced the Old Language characters that spelled out Dhestroyer, descended of Wrath, son of Wrath.

Butch's new name. Butch's old, noble lineage.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, open the thing." V stabbed out his cig, rolled another, and lit up again. Man, it was a good thing vampires didn't get cancer. Lately he'd been chain-smoking like a felon. "Go on."

"I still can't believe this."

"Just open the damn thing."

"I really can't¡ª"

"Open. It." At this point, V was twitchy enough to levitate out of his frickin' chair.

The cop triggered the solid-gold lock mechanism and lifted the top. Lying on a bed of red satin were four matching black-bladed daggers, each precisely weighted to Butch's specs and honed to a lethal edge.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God... They're beautiful."

"Thanks," V said on an exhale. "I make good bread, too."

The cop's hazel eyes shot across the room. "You did these for me?"

"Yeah, but it's no big thing. I do them for all of us." V lifted up his gloved right hand. "I'm good with heat, as you know."

"V... thank you."

"Whatever. Like I said, I'm the blade man. Do it all the time."

Yeah... just maybe not with quite as much focus. For Butch, he'd spent the past four days straight on them. The sixteen-hour marathons working his cursed glowing hand over the composite steel had made his back burn and his eyes strain, but goddamn it, he'd been determined to get each one worthy of the male who would wield them.

They still weren't good enough.

The cop took one of the daggers out, and as he palmed it his eyes flared. "Jesus... feel this thing." He began working the weapon back and forth in front of his chest. "Never held anything so well weighted. And the grip. God... perfect."

The praise pleased V more than any he'd ever received.

So it irritated the shit out of him.

"Yeah, well, they're supposed to be like that, true?" He stabbed the hand-rolled out in an ashtray, crushing the fragile glow at its tip. "No sense you going out in the field with a set of Ginsus."

"Thank you."

"Whatever."

"V, seriously¡ª"

"Make that fuck you." When there was no slappy comeback, he looked up.

Shit. Butch was standing right in front of him, the cop's hazel eyes dark with a knowledge V wished the guy didn't have.

V dropped his stare to his lighter. "Whatever, cop, they're just knives."

The black tip of the dagger slid under V's chin and angled his head up. As he was forced to meet Butch's stare, V's body tensed. Then trembled.

With the weapon linking them, Butch said, "They're beautiful."

V closed his eyes, despising himself. Then he deliberately leaned into the blade so that it bit into his throat. Swallowing the flare of pain, he held it in his gut, using it as a reminder that he was a fucked-up freak, and freaks deserved to get hurt.

"Vishous, look at me."

"Leave me alone."

"Make me."

For a split second V almost launched himself at the guy, prepared to punch the bastard out cold. But then Butch said, "I'm just thanking you for doing something cool. No BFD."

No big fucking deal? V's eyes flipped open and he felt his stare glow. "That's bullshit. For reasons you are very fucking aware of."

Butch removed the blade, and as the male's arm dropped, V felt a trickle of blood ease down his neck. It was warm... and soft as a kiss.

"Don't say you're sorry," V muttered into the silence. "I'm liable to get violent."

"But I am."

"Nothing to be sorry for." Man, he couldn't take living here with Butch anymore. Make that Butch and Marissa. The constant reminder of what he couldn't have and shouldn't want was killing him. And Christ knew he was already in bad shape. When was the last time he'd slept through the day? Weeks and weeks.

Butch sheathed the blade in the chest holster, handle down. "I don't want you to hurt¡ª"

"We are so not discussing this further." Putting his forefinger to his throat, V caught the blood he'd drawn with the blade he'd made. As he licked it off, the hidden door to the underground tunnel opened and the scent of the ocean filled the Pit.

Marissa came around the corner, looking Grace Kelly-fine as usual. With her long blond hair and her precision-molded face, she was known as the great beauty of the species, and even V, who didn't go for her type, had to show love.

"Hello, boys¡ª" Marissa stopped and stared at Butch. "Good... Lord... look at those pants."

Butch winced. "Yeah, I know. They're¡ª"

"Could you come over here?" She started backing down the hall to their bedroom. "I need you to come back here for a minute. Or ten."

Butch's bonding scent flared to a dull roar, and V knew damn well the guy's body was hardening for sex. "Baby, you can have me for as long as you want me."

Just as the cop left the living room, he shot a look over his shoulder. "I'm so feeling these leathers. Tell Fritz I want fifty pairs of them. Stat."

Left by himself, Vishous leaned over to the Alpine and cranked up MIMS's Music Is My Savior. As the rap pounded, he thought about how before, he'd used the shit to drown out the thoughts of others. Now that his visions had dried up and that whole mind-reading thing had gone poof!? He used the bass beats to keep him from hearing his roommate making love.

V rubbed his face. He really had to get out of here. For a while he'd tried to get them to move out, but Marissa maintained that the Pit was "cozy" and that she liked living in it. Which had to be a lie. Half the living room was eaten up by the foosball table, ESPN was on mute twenty-four/seven, and hard-core rap was always playing. The refrigerator was a demilitarized zone marked with decaying casualties from Taco Hell and Arby's. Grey Goose and Lagavulin were the only drinks in the house. Reading material was limited to Sports Illustrated and... well, back issues of Sports Illustrated.

So, yeah, not a whole lot of duck-and-bunny-adorable going down. The place was part frat house, part locker room. With decor by Derek Jeter.

As for Butch? When V had suggested a little U-Haul action to the guy, the cop had shot a level stare across the couch, shook his head once, and gone into kitchen for more Lagavulin.

V refused to think they stayed because they were worried about him or some shit. The very idea made him mental.

He got to his feet. If there was going to be a separation, he was going to have to be the one who initiated it. The trouble was, not having Butch around all the time was... unthinkable. Better the torture he had now than an exile.

He checked his watch and figured he might as well hit the underground tunnel and head over to the big house. Even though the rest of the Black Dagger Brotherhood lived in that rock-faced monster of a mansion next door, there were plenty of extra rooms. Maybe he should just try one on for size. For a couple of days.

The thought made his stomach churn.

On his way to the door, he caught the bonding scent wafting from Butch and Marissa's bedroom. As he thought about what was happening, his blood heated even as shame made his skin go Popsicle.

With a curse, he walked over to his leather jacket and took out a cell phone. As he dialed, his chest was warm as a meat locker, but at least he felt as if he was doing something about this obsession of his.

When the female voice answered, V sliced through her husky hello. "Sundown. Tonight. You know what to wear, and your hair will be off your neck. What do you say to me?"

The reply was a purr of submission. "Yes, my lheage."

V hung up and tossed the cell phone on the desk, watching as it bounced and came to rest against one of his four keyboards. The submissive he'd chosen for tonight liked things especially hard-core. And he was going to deliver.

Fuck, he truly was a pervert. Down to the marrow. A confirmed, unrepentant sexual deviant... who was somehow famous within the race for what he was.

Man, it was absurd, but then, the tastes and motivations of females had always been bizarre. And his fancy reputation was no more significant to him than his subs were. All that mattered was that he had volunteers for what he needed sexually. What was said about him, what the females needed to believe about him, was just oral masturbation for mouths that needed to be otherwise occupied.

As he went down into the tunnel and headed for the mansion, he was thoroughly bitched. Thanks to that stupid rotation schedule the Brotherhood was on, he wasn't allowed in the field tonight, and he hated that. He'd much rather be hunting and killing the undead slayers who went after the race than be parked on his ass.

But there were ways to burn off a case of the eye-splitting frustrates.

That was what restraints and willing bodies were made for.

Phury walked into the mansion's industrial-sized kitchen and froze the way you did when confronted with an accidental injury of the bloody variety: The soles of his feet got stuck to the floor, his breath stopped, his heart skipped then scrambled.

Before he could back out through the butler's door, he got caught.

Bella, his twin's shellan, looked up and smiled. "Hi."

"Hello." Leave. Now.

God, she smelled good.

She waved the knife in her hand over the roasted turkey she was working on. "Would you like me to make you a sandwich, too?"

"What?" he said like an idiot.

"A sandwich." She pointed the blade at the bread loaf and the almost empty jar of mayonnaise and the lettuce and tomatoes. "You must be hungry. You didn't eat much at Last Meal."

"Oh, yeah... no, I'm not..." His stomach put the kibosh on the lie by growling like the empty beast it was. Bastard.

Bella shook her head and went back at the turkey's breast. "Get yourself a plate and have a seat."

Okay, this was the last thing he needed. Better to be buried alive than sit alone in the kitchen with her as she prepared food for him with her beautiful hands.

"Phury," she said without looking up. "Plate. Seat. Now."

He complied because in spite of the fact that he came from a warrior bloodline and he was a member of the Brotherhood and he outweighed her by a good hundred pounds, he was lame and weak when it came to her. His twin's shellan... his twin's pregnant shellan . . . was not someone Phury could deny.

After sliding a plate over next to hers, he sat down across the granite island and told himself not to look at her hands. He'd be okay as long as he didn't look at her long, elegant fingers and her short, buffed nails and the way¡ª

Shit.

"I swear," she said as she sliced more breast meat off, "Zsadist wants me big as a house. Another thirteen months of him pestering me to eat and I won't fit into the swimming pool. I can barely get my pants on anymore."

"You look good." Hell, she looked perfect, with her long dark hair and her sapphire eyes and her tall, fit body. The young inside of her didn't show beneath her baggy shirt, but the pregnancy was obvious in her glowing skin and the way her hand frequently went to her lower belly.

Her condition was also evident in the anxiety behind Z's eyes whenever he was around her. As vampire pregnancies carried high maternal/fetal death rates, they were a blessing and a curse for the hellren who had bonded with his mate.

"Do you feel okay?" Phury asked. After all, Z wasn't the only one worried about her.

"Pretty much. I get tired, but it's not all that bad." She licked her fingertips, then grabbed the mayonnaise jar. As she fished around inside, the knife made a rattling noise, like a coin being shaken around. "Z's driving me nuts, though. He's refusing to feed."

Phury remembered what her blood tasted like and looked away as his fangs elongated. There was no nobility in what he felt for her, none at all, and as a male who had always prided himself on his honorable nature, he couldn't reconcile his emotions to his principles.

And what was doing on his end was definitely not reciprocated. She'd fed him that one time because he'd needed it desperately and because she was a female of worth. It had not been because she was driven to sustain him or because she craved him.

No, all of that was for his twin. From the first night she'd met Z, he'd captivated her, and fate had provided that she be the one who truly saved him from the hell he'd been locked in. Phury may have rescued Z's body from that century of being a blood slave, but Bella had resurrected his spirit.

Which was, of course, just one more reason to love her.

Damn, he wished he had some red smoke on him. He'd left his frickin' stash upstairs.

"So how are you doing?" she asked as she dealt out thin slices of turkey, then layered on lettuce leaves. "Is that new prosthesis still giving you problems?"

"It's a little better, thanks." Technology these days was light-years ahead of what he'd had a century ago, but considering all the fighting he did, his lost lower leg was a constant management issue.

Lost leg... yeah, he'd lost it, all right. Shot it off to get Z away from that sick bitch Mistress of his. The sacrifice had been worth it. Just like the sacrifice of his happiness was worth Z being with the female they both loved.

Bella topped the sandwiches with bread and slid his plate across the granite. "Here you go."

"This is just what I needed." He savored the moment as he sank his front teeth into the thing, the soft bread giving way like flesh. While swallowing, he was struck with a sad joy that she had prepared this food for his belly, and she had done it with a certain kind of love.

"Good. I'm glad." She bit into her own sandwich.

"So... I've wanted to ask you something for a day or so."

"Oh? What?"

"I've been working down at Safe Place with Marissa, as you know. It's such a great organization, full of great people..." There was a long pause¡ªthe kind that made him brace himself. "Anyway, a new social worker has come in to counsel the females and their young." She cleared her throat. Wiped her mouth with a paper towel. "She's really great. Warm, funny. I was kind of thinking that maybe¡ª"

Oh, God. "Thanks, but no."

"She's really nice."

"No, thanks." With his skin shriveling up tight around his body, he started eating at a dead run.

"Phury... I know it's not my business, but why the celibacy?"

Shit. Faster with the sandwich. "May we change the subject?"

"It's because of Z, right? Why you've never been with a female. It's your sacrifice to him and his past."

"Bella... please¡ª"

"You're over two hundred years old, and it's time you started to think about yourself. Z's never going to be completely normal, and no one knows that better than you and me. But he's more stable now. And he's going to get even healthier over time."

True, provided Bella survived this pregnancy of hers.

Until she came out of the delivery healthy, his twin wasn't out of the woods yet. And by extension, neither was Phury.

"Please let me introduce you¡ª"

"No." Phury stood up and chewed like a cow. Table manners were very important, but this conversation had to end before his head exploded.

"Phury¡ª"

"I don't want a female in my life."

"You would make a wonderful hellren, Phury."

He wiped his mouth on a dish towel and said in the Old Language, "Thank you for this meal made by thine hands. Blessed evening, Bella, beloved mated of mine twin, Zsadist."

Feeling cheap that he didn't help clean up, but figuring it was better than him having an aneurism, he pushed through the butler's door into the dining room. Halfway down the thirty-foot-long table, he ran out of gas, pulled free a random chair, and dropped into the thing.

Man, his heart was pounding.

When he looked up, Vishous was standing on the other side of the table, staring down at him. "Christ!"

"Little tense there, my brother?" At six-feet-six, and descended of the great warrior known only as the Bloodletter, V was a massive male. With his blue-rimmed ice white irises, his jet-black hair, and his angular, cunning face, he might have been considered beautiful. But the goatee and the warning tattoos at his temple made him look evil.

"Not tense. Not at all." Phury splayed his hands out on the glossy table, thinking about the blunt he was going to light up the instant he got to his room. "Actually, I was going to come find you."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Wrath didn't like the vibe at this morning's meeting." Which was an understatement. V and the king had ended up chin-to-chin on a couple of things, and that wasn't the only argument that flew. "He's taken us all off rotation tonight. Said we need some R & R."

V arched his brows, looking smarter than a matched set of Einsteins. The genius air wasn't just an appearance thing. The guy spoke sixteen languages, developed computer games for kicks and giggles, and could recite the twenty volumes of the Chronicles by rote. The brother made Stephen Hawking seem like a candidate for vo-tech.

"All of us?" V said.

"Yeah, I was going to hit ZeroSum. Wanna come?"

"Just scheduled some private biz."

Ah, yes. V's unconventional sex life. Man, he and Vishous were on such opposite ends of the sexual spectrum: Him knowing nothing, Vishous having explored everything, and most of it on the extremes... the untrodden path and the Autobahn. And that wasn't the only difference between them. Come to think of it, the two of them had absolutely nothing in common.

"Phury?"

He shook himself to attention. "Sorry, what?"

"I said, I dreamed of you once. Many years ago."

Oh, God. Why hadn't he just gone straight to his room? He could be lighting up right now. "How so?"

V stroked his goatee. "I saw you standing at a crossroads in a field of white. It was a stormy day... yeah, lots of storms. But when you took a cloud from the sky and wrapped it around the well, the rain stopped falling."

"Sounds poetic." And what a relief. Most of V's visions were scary as hell. "But meaningless."

"None of what I see is meaningless, and you know it."

"Allegorical then. How can anyone wrap up a well?" Phury frowned. "And why tell me now?"

V's black brows came down over his mirrorlike eyes. "I... God, I have no idea. I just had to say it." With a nasty curse, he headed for the kitchen. "Is Bella still in there?"

"How did you know she was¡ª"

"You always look ruined after you see her."

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