Three is tormented by the branding scars on her back, broken memories of her fallen creator, and the looming consequences of her secret friendship with Sychar - a male of her kind - a high crime in her world of serpentine guardians.
Then along comes Jack - the human train engineer she saves in an explosion. His touch weakens both her knees and her sense of duty. Now Three must choose between her immortal duties, her forbidden friendship, and her human lover.
With every choice comes a cost, but not every cost is hers to pay...
I darted up the front stairs to Jack’s two-story house, admiring the his little yard and the untended weeds, sporadic flowers decorating the grass yellow. Train engineers weren’t home often enough to keep up on the household chores, I knew. I twisted the doorknob, and though it was locked, I pushed it beyond the lock and broke it open without effort. Slipping inside, I glanced around the entryway, shocked to see no extra shoes on the mat and no other jackets on the coat rack. Huh. Jack lived alone.
I took the stairs four at a time and found what looked like Jack’s bedroom. I laid him down in his bed and pulled off his shoes, slipped off his filthy, torn jacket, and then cleaned the wound on his arm with a cloth I found in an attached bathroom.
Bathrooms. I hadn’t needed one in seventy years. It was odd to glance at the mirror and see no hint of a reflection as I wet the cloth with hot water. It was only moments before I had the wound clean and dressed with a chunk of that shirt I’d shed, and the bleeding had nearly stopped.
Jack mumbled when I tried to get his shirt up over his head, so I stopped and glanced down at his bare skin. Oh, my, he was as strong a human as I’d suspected, and I yanked the hem of his t-shirt back down to cover his abdomen, which rose and fell with heavy slumber. I’d only meant to help him get comfortable, but undressing a human... and admiring his body... none of it was appropriate. His lips twitched when I covered him. He didn’t move again, so I sat back and sighed. Sunrise was less than an hour away, and I didn’t want to get caught outdoors in it, so I sat on the edge of Jack’s bed and touched his cheek, hoping the chill of my skin would wake him up. He didn’t move.
“Jack,” I said, keeping my voice low so as to not startle him. For anyone, waking up to a Vesper in your bedroom would be a terrifying experience. It was worse for train men, who both knew what we could do, and had probably witnessed it a time or two transporting Vespers across the country. He still didn’t stir, so I stroked his cheek with my cold palm, hoping he’d rouse soon. I glanced at the window, the telltale sign of morning brightening the room to an icy glow.
“Jack,” I said again. I rubbed his cheek harder and frowned. Stubble from his chin scratched at my skin, and I rubbed it again, intrigued. Huh. Did male Vespers grow facial hair? I’d never seen my friend Sychar, or any other Gent, with a beard. Maybe they didn’t. My body hair was scarce anyway, but what about the men?
I ran my fingertip and thumb along his chin, dragging silken skin across rough stubble. That curiosity prickled through my nerves again, and I leaned down to get a closer look at him.
Age had not yet weathered Jack’s temples, nor had stress grayed his hair. He was young, and in damn good shape for a human, and…
Crap, Three, focus!
Jack wasn’t waking up. Had I done the wrong thing by bringing him home? Should he be in a hospital? No! If he died here in his bed, I’d never get any more information about the explosion, and he’d be dead.
Why did that bother me? And why was I still touching his face? I jerked my hand away and jumped to my feet, realizing what a total creep I was, stroking the stubble of an unconscious man – human, a meal – in his bed.
But he wasn’t waking up.
Okay, think, Three! In movies, men slapped the cheeks of fainted women to wake them up. With my strength, I had to be cautious not to concuss him further. I climbed atop him and sat astride his lap, adjusting his head on the pillow so he was straight beneath me, lying on his back.
I cringed and tapped his cheek with my fingertips.
He didn’t move. I’d have to hit him harder. My heartbeat pounded a rhythm of don’t-kill, don’t-kill, don’t-kill as I squeezed his body between my thighs, holding him still as I prepared to shock him awake in the worst way possible.
I winced and slapped him on the cheek at half-strength, and his eyes snapped open, his muscles all clenching beneath me as he sucked in a gasp. He stared straight at me and I grabbed his wrists, pinning them down above his head, hissing to quiet him.
“It’s okay, Jack!” I hissed.
He blinked and focused on me, and then dropped his head back on his pillow and let out his breath in a rush. “Oh, good, it’s you.” His body relaxed beneath me. He glanced at his wrists. “Let go of me.”
Oh good, it’s a man-eating Vesper? Okay. Ignoring the things I didn’t understand was the best policy, I figured. I leaned down and got a good look at his light, jade-blue eyes, and his pupils seemed normal in the dim light. My heartbeat picked up in pace again as the glow of nighttime lifting though the window brightened, signaling the looming day. I’d be out of time to get to darkness in minutes.
“Let go,” he repeated, a force in his voice I didn’t expect. He dared to order me around? All alone, here in his home?
I released his wrists and he brought his hands down with a groan, resting them atop my thighs. I watched the path of his fingers as he rubbed them down my thighs, and shook my head, confused. Why would he dare to touch me like this?
At least he wasn’t touching my scars. I shuddered at the memory of Rachel’s sharp flicks in the bath.
“I need to go,” I said. “Find one of the Maids at the North Vancouver station to give a full report on what happened, okay?”
“Wait,” Jack said, his voice gruff from slumber. “Just wait a minute. Let me get my head back on my shoulders.”
I blinked. I was still sitting on top of him. But he didn’t seem to mind my weight, so I waited, my heart clenching tighter with anxiety over the sun with each breath that passed.
Jack ran his palms up and down my thighs again. “Thank you,” he said. “Really. I thought I was a goner for sure.”
Why are you still touching me? “I’m glad you’re okay.” That was not the most authoritative, I’m-the-Vesper-so-I’m-in-charge thing for me to say. Stupid. I had to get out of there - into the darkness - before morning fully broke, no matter what I had to say to rush this little encounter along.
Jack fumbled on his nightstand beside his head for a little, white box. He picked it up and pressed a button and I jumped when something hummed behind me. I twisted to see black, vertical shades drawing closed of their own accord across the window, and the room darkened to a comfortable level. I turned back to face Jack, confused.
He shrugged. “You guys pay us well, since we can’t have a social life and might be eaten at any moment. I’ve got everything on remote control in this place.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Why did you do that?”
Jack grinned and shook his head. “Well, fuck, Three, you just saved my life. It’d be shitty manners to let you burn for it.”
Oh. That was nice of him, I supposed, even if he cursed like a barbarian while he did it. He wasn’t afraid to speak to me as though I was one of his coworkers. And his hands on my legs, the sinful combination of his voice and touch… it was as though the pedestal upon which I lived my life – superior, timeless, and unbearably alone – sloped a bit so I could spend these few stolen moments on the same level as someone else. Someone real.
A human. Stolen moments were forbidden moments. I moved to climb off him, but he squeezed my thighs and I stopped.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Away? Off of you, anyway. I need to get outside, find shelter before daybreak.”
“It is daybreak, and you’re already in a shelter.”
“Right, but…” Curse his logic! “…I shouldn’t be here. It’s forbidden.”
“You Vespers and your forbidden shit. Is it forbidden to kiss me, too?”
I gasped. “I did not kiss you! You kissed me!”
Jack laughed, and the way his body shook beneath me sent tendrils of heat licking up through my core like flames. “I distinctly remember you leaning down to my mouth, and me kissing you back. And I liked it. So what?”
“So what?!” My voice climbed an octave. He liked it. That made two of us, but I wasn’t about to admit such a thing. “We could both be killed for it, that’s what!”
“And who’s gonna know? No one can kill us if we promise not to tell. I liked it. You liked it.”
“I didn’t like it!” I lied.
“Then why are you still on top of me?”
“I’m not!” I jumped up and crossed the room to the door. God! What was his problem?! This persistence was uncalled-for, and I was within my rights to devour him for bantering with me as though I were merely a human, or as though he were a Vesper.
And what was my problem? I knew better than to allow the words that crossed a mortal’s lips to fluster me into defensiveness. Even if they were lips like his, lips that unraveled me, lips that tasted like swearing and home.
That kiss was the biggest mistake I’d ever made.
“Wait, Three, wait!” Jack sat up and I turned with a huff. I could feel the exhaustion of daytime weighing me down already, and it was too late to get to another shelter without burning.
Jack stood and rubbed his neck. “I’m sorry. I thought… I got my signals crossed. Just… please stay, okay? I don’t want you to burn in the sun, and I’ve never…” He trailed off, glancing around. “You’re in my home. A Vesper is in my home, and she’s not trying to kill me. This is a pretty big moment for me, and I don’t want to waste it fighting with you.”
I shook my head, the sincerity in his voice pulling me in two directions. On the one hand, I should run the hell away from this train man fast before any little crush he had took root. On the other hand, he wanted me here. Why did he want me here? I thought the hoggers tolerated us out of fear and harbored no warm feelings toward the serpentine demons who dominated their lives.
But why didn’t matter, not when it was a human, a man who couldn’t grasp the depth of the consequences our actions might bring. And as the superior being in the room, it was my responsibility to make the right decision, even if all I wanted to do was crash into his bed and let daytime exhaustion have me in the arms of sin. So I took a deep breath and hoped my remorse was too subtle on my face for his weak eyesight to catch. “I didn’t mean to kiss you. I shouldn’t do that to you. It’s wrong; it’s an abuse of my position.”
“So… you fell onto my mouth with your mouth?”
“What did you mean to do to me, then?”
“Knock you unconscious with my poison.”
He tilted his head, another grin tugging at the edge of his lips. “You can do that?”
I groaned, dropping my arms to my sides. “I’m not supposed to kiss you, and I’m not supposed to tell you these things, and I’m not going to stand here and argue with a human about any of it! You’re food!”
“You didn’t kiss me like food.”
My jaw dropped open. Was he serious? “I’m not having this conversation with a mortal.”
Jack ruffled his hair with his good hand, and I looked away because his bicep flexed and I wanted to see more of it, and that was unnatural, and wrong. Good God, I could picture him naked. Stop it, Three!
“Would you have it with an immortal?”
He had the audacity to ask me about my sex life! “Have what with an immortal?” My voice arced into a shriek, I was so caught off guard.
Jack flinched at my volume, but let a sneaky smile invade his lips. “This conversation! What did you think I meant?”
Oh. Over-reaction. A flood of humiliation poured through my heart at the shock in his tone. Of course he wasn’t talking about my sex life. I could swallow his entire corpse in one bite. Not exactly sexy, to a human. But I was so used to being on the defensive side of things that I jumped to accusation without paying attention to his words. “Um, sorry, I misunderstood. Yes. I mean, no. I don’t… what… what was the question?”
Jack’s grin spread full-force across his face and he stifled a laugh with a fist to his mouth, so I scoffed and turned away, humiliated. How stupid was I, to kiss him, and then bring him home? He kissed me first! Dammit!
“God, you’re cute.”
“You have no business asking me about my personal life!”
“Three, I know you aren’t allowed to have relationships with the Gents. I travel with Levi and Festus pretty often, and they talk all the fucking time. They never shut up. I wasn’t trying to pry into your business… just wondering if you’d be more willing to stay and chat if I was immortal. You know, keep me company, and trust me to keep you safe from the sunlight.”
I took a steadying breath. Safe from the sunlight. “I’m… not thinking clearly. Daytime really messes me up.” It was a lame excuse, because it really only wore down my body rather than my mind, but I’d say whatever I had to in order to get him to stop screwing with my morality and tempting me like an apple on a sacred tree.
Warm fingers found mine. I froze as his fingers folded around my hand, and then he took that hand in his other and flipped my palm up, inspecting me.
“What are you doing?”
“You Vespers talk too much. Shut up and let me look at you.”
Shut up? He just told me to shut up. “When was the last time you let your dinner talk to you that way?”
“I’m not your dinner. If you wanted to eat me, you’d have already done it.” He traced a fingertip up my palm, over the inside of my wrist, and I tried not to tremble at his touch. The pad of his finger wasn’t silken steel like that of a Gent, but what Gent would touch a Maid this way, either? I didn’t really know how a Gent would feel, caressing me like this. I didn’t know how any man would feel trailing a finger tenderly over my sensitive skin. I’d been touched before, but not like this. Not with reverence, desire, and respect all at once.
Would it hurt if he touched my scars? I hid a cringe at the thought. I didn’t want to find out.
Jacked clicked his tongue. “Incredible.”
“What’s incredible?” My voice came out with a breathiness I didn’t expect.
His jade eyes met mine, and he blinked at my confusion. “You. Vespers. I’ve never had the opportunity to really look at a Maid up close like this, you know? You all keep your distance a lot more than the Gents. Not that they ever come over for a drink after work, but they’re always hovering around, being spooky and shit.”
I almost laughed, but pulled my hand back. “We don’t do this.”
“Vespers. We don’t… do things like this.”
“You don’t touch each other? Or humans?”
I shook my head, and the sound of my thick heartbeat, pumping viscous blood through my body, hollowed at the truth of that spoken out loud. No, we didn’t do this. Not unless we wanted to get caught, punished, and killed. I knew that all too well. And two people didn’t touch in an affectionate way like this unless they intended something more than acquaintance. Something bigger. I shivered.
Jack hummed as I trembled and reached forward again, touching my arm. He slid his fingers all the way up to my shoulder, watching his tan hand glide along my fairer skin. My breath drew in ragged as he stroked me, as though touching a priceless antique. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t like it, right?”
I swallowed and wanted to lie, but couldn’t find any words. His hand reached my shoulder and he hesitated for a moment, but then cupped my chin and pulled my gaze to meet his.
His light jade eyes searched mine. “If you like touch so much, why don’t you do it more often?”
I knew I should flinch away from his hand. I had been without touch for so long, save for my sister’s torture and my Lady’s occasional affectionate contact. It wasn’t the same as this. It wasn’t warm or inviting, like this. My voice was rough with something foreign, unknown, slipping through my body like hot oil. Touch. “Physical intimacy has nothing to do with procreation for us.”
He tilted his head to peek at my fangs. “You drain blood and fill the body with poison to make other Vespers, right?”
“Right,” I whispered.
Jack grimaced at the pain in his injured bicep as he slipped his hands on either side of my face, cupping my face for a moment. I leaned into his warmth, but he let go too soon and slid his fingertips up and down my arms, stroking me. “So you were human, once.”
I nodded. I had been human, once. Breakable, like Jack. And intimacy had hurt me. But I wasn’t human anymore, yet Jack’s caress woke up a sensitivity in my heart I’d never felt before. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recognized how wrong this was… but this heat licking through my body… I wanted more of it, more than I wanted to feed, more than I craved darkness. There was no way this man could hurt me, with the strength I possessed as an immortal. And this desire had been suppressed for so long it coursed through me with undeniable potency.
Jack pulled me back to his bed and sat down. I hesitated, so he tugged on my fingers and I climbed into his bed, sitting astride him once more as he lay back, my body alight with something so foreign I almost felt like I was operating a shell that wasn’t my own. A shell that felt good, for once, liquid heat moving through me, melting my fears and smoothing out the sharp ridges of rage in my soul.
The ethical screaming in my head dwindled behind the sound of Jack’s breathing and heart, the life force that made him so tempting to my hungers in every terrible way.
Jack’s hands fit around my hips just right and I leaned down again, my mouth above his. He stretched to kiss me, and I pulled back, but just a touch.
“Careful,” I said, cautious of my anaesthetic venom.
Jack chuckled, his voice so low and rough with the growl of arousal that I nearly lost my breath. “Oh, trust me, I want to be alert and coherent for this.”
I kept my lips tightly closed as I closed that final gap and let him kiss me.a Rafflecopter giveaway