Rage glittered in her eyes, and maybe she didn’t hate him as much as she’d said. Then again, maybe she wanted the Keepers to leave him alone so she could kill him herself.
“Where are you taking me?” Shade thrashed against his bonds, which earned him a strike to the back of the head by the imp with the cudgel.
The Nightlash didn’t answer, merely curled his lips in a nasty smile and wrapped the chain connected to the collar around his fist, yanking Shade to his feet. The imps wrenched his arms behind his back and slapped restraints on his wrists.
They dragged him toward the door. When he struggled at the threshold, a caning to his hamstrings dropped him to his knees. A cool breeze caressed the back of his legs—the cane had torn through his pants. His flesh would be next.
Behind him, Runa spat curses and threats that were as creative as they were ineffective. He couldn’t imagine the Runa he’d bedded saying those things, not the shy creature she’d been. Seemed the little human truly had grown claws and teeth.
Or it would have been if he weren’t being dragged toward one of three whipping posts. Sure, Shade could appreciate a good whipping as much as the next guy, but he had a sneaky suspicion that he wasn’t in for a good time. Still, better the post than the water wheel, the rack in the corner, or the meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. And those were the tamer pieces of the torture equipment that littered the cavernous space.
At the rear of the dungeon, an arched opening into a smaller chamber revealed a sight that sent blades of ice right into his spine. Medical equipment filled the room—cutting tools, an autopsy table, a bone saw, and a chest spreader. Fresh and dried blood stained the floor.
Gods, this was beyond sick.
The demons strung him up, facing outward, his hands stretched tight apart and above him, his legs forced wide by a spreader bar and fastened at the ankles. The female imp stroked his thigh, working her way up, and he quickly started working on a plan to seduce her into letting him go … until the Nightlash cuffed her in the head. Still, the fact that some of the Keepers were female was something to keep in mind.
“Where is the Umber female?” he asked.
“Cooperate, and you’ll see her.”
Shade hadn’t expected an answer, so the deep, gravelly voice shocked him. He thought he detected a touch of an accent … Irish maybe, but he couldn’t be sure. A hulking figure veiled in black robes stepped out of the shadows, its chuckle as cold as the air.
“And what do I have to do to cooperate?”
An icy tremor crawled across the surface of Shade’s skin. “Maybe you could be a little more specific.”
Motion flashed in his peripheral vision. Something struck him in the chest, and blood splattered on the wood post next to him. The Nightlash stood there holding a thorny flail, looking all proud of himself.
“Was that specific enough?”
“Worked for me,” Shade said glibly, though he did so through gritted teeth. “It’d be more effective if you removed my shirt, though.”
“And everyone says Wraith is the smartass of the family.”
Shade’s mind screamed. How did this sonofabitch know about Wraith?
“That’s a common misconception. Dickhead.”
The insult earned him more specific suffering. Blood ran freely down his chest through the shredded remains of his medic shirt. His only consolation was the knowledge that because they were busy torturing him, they were leaving Runa alone.
“Remove his clothes,” the dickhead said, “and fetch the fluffer.”
Fluffer? One of the imps skittered away while the Nightlash cut away Shade’s uniform and stripped him of his boots.
“You know, it’s not fair that I have to be na**d and you’re hiding in that drama-queen robe.”
Robe Man moved forward, just a little, but enough for Shade to feel the male’s vibe on his skin. It was familiar, like a scent that brought back a memory but couldn’t quite be placed. The vibe felt diluted, or maybe masked. A spell, perhaps, had been used to cover it up. But why? So he wouldn’t be recognized?
“You’re close to s’genesis,” Robe Man said. “The Change. I can sense it. Are you ready? Or do you plan to fight it, like Eidolon did?”
Hell, no, he wasn’t going to drag out the final maturation process, the one that would allow him to shapeshift and impregnate females, among other, less pleasant things. But how did this as**ole know what E had done to try to stave off The Change?
“If you’re trying to get me to ask how you know about my brothers and about my species, it won’t work, asshole. You got something to say, f**king say it already.”
“Not yet.” Robe Man circled him, his face hidden in his cowl, but the way he moved … again, very familiar. He stopped behind Shade, and then the tickle of a finger trailed down his spine. Shade fought the urge to shudder. “So? Are you going to fight it? Or take a mate? Oh, that’s right, you can’t take a bond-mate because you might fall in love and consummate your curse.” Hot fetid breath heated Shade’s ear as the creature leaned close. “Youthful indiscretions always come back to bite you in the ass, don’t they?”
The son of a bitch knew about the Maluncoeur, a curse that promised if he fell in love, he’d slowly fade away until he became invisible to everyone. He’d live forever, wracked with stabbing hunger pangs, debilitating thirst, and unbearable sexual desire for all eternity.
Shade closed his eyes and tried to figure out who could know such intimate details about his life. The list was short, and those on it wouldn’t talk.
Unless they’d been tortured.
“Again,” Robe Man said. “Inner thigh.”
Shade barely had time to brace himself before the Nightlash’s flail ripped into his flesh.
Robe Man laughed. “Doesn’t this seem a bit like karma, given how many females you’ve strung up like this?”
Shade didn’t bother to argue that this was different, because sometimes the line between pleasure and pain blurred far too much for Shade’s comfort.
The flail bit into Shade’s other thigh. Sweat popped out on his forehead, his vision dimmed, and damn, that hurt. How could E stand going through this once a month when he paid for Wraith’s sins?
“You’re wondering how Eidolon deals with this every time Wraith goes over his limit of human kills.”
Shade’s head snapped up and around, but Robe Man had retreated to the shadows. “I’ve had enough of your bullshit,” he roared. “Who the hell are you?”
A sinister cackle echoed through the dungeon. “I’m the demon who is going to make you beg for death. Starting now.”
“Hello, Shade.” The female voice Shade knew well brought his gaze back front and center.
“Solice?” He stared at the brunette vampire nurse who had been working at UG for years, and suddenly everything made sense. Skulk hadn’t talked—Solice had. “You bitch.”
Her sultry smile revealed long fangs as she leaned in and licked up his chest in a warm, wet lash. Her raspy tongue caught on shredded flesh. Pain streaked through him, but he’d suffered worse while playing with some of his rougher bedmates.
“I’ve wanted to taste you for so long,” she murmured against his nipple. “But you never so much as looked at me.”
“That’s because after years of f**king my brother,” he growled, “you were damaged goods.”
She continued to tongue his chest, even sucking lightly on his caduceus pendant, and he wondered just when the torture would begin, because all this was doing was turning him on. Yeah, it was messed up, but shit, he was an incubus, capable of getting it up under the worst of circumstances, and the female in front of him was throwing off arousal like she was in heat.
“We’ll see who is the damaged one.” She dropped to her knees, eyeing the blood on his thigh. And he knew. Oh, shit, he knew exactly how his suffering would go down.
Every noise that filtered through the wood and iron door made Runa flinch. She should rejoice at the knowledge that Shade was being tortured. She should volunteer to help. But damn her heart, she wanted to save him.
So she could kill him herself.
Except, she hadn’t come back to New York to kill Shade. She’d returned to her hometown with military orders to gather intel on a demon hospital, and to locate an ex-soldier and Aegis Guardian who hadn’t been heard from since reporting the existence of the hospital. The Army feared he might have become a traitor not only to the United States, but to the entire human race. And when the U.S. Army’s Raider-X Regiment issued an order, you followed it—and not just because they’d planted a microdetonator in your brain. No, the supersecret military unit inspired loyalty by giving “special humans” a purpose and a sense of belonging in a world that had rejected them.
She hadn’t been rejected, but her situation had guaranteed that, without help, The Aegis would have killed her, but probably not before she slaughtered countless innocent humans. Fortunately, her brother, a high-ranking officer at R-XR, had known exactly what to do the night he found her bleeding to death in the alley where she’d been attacked. The Army had saved her life, had even attempted to prevent the lycanthropic virus from taking hold. They’d failed, but the side effects of their experimental treatment turned out to be handy.
She still turned into a giant, slavering beast three nights out of every month—a beast with no control over her actions and very little memory of what took place while she was in beast form. But thanks to the Army, she could also turn into the beast any time she wanted to. Even better, when she changed form intentionally, she retained her humanity and could control her actions and remember everything once she returned to her human form.
Laughter bubbled up from somewhere, female laughter, followed by a long, drawn-out noise. An erotic growl. Shade’s erotic growl. She’d know that sound anywhere. So what, they were torturing him with sex?
That bastard. She hated him. But she was pretty sure that just before the werewolf attack, he’d saved her brother’s life. And, truth be told, probably hers, as well.
Runa had met him when she’d been at the lowest point in her life. Twenty-five years old but feeling double that, she still hadn’t gotten over the death of her mother four years earlier—how could she when her mother had died alone and miserable, thanks to Runa? But more recently, her best friend had moved to Australia with her new husband, Runa’s coffee shop had been only days from closing, and her brother had been dying. Arik had, in fact, been dying in her house, and the only reason she wasn’t with him was that he’d insisted that she tend to her shop and employees, who would soon be jobless.
One of her employees, a pierced, green-haired girl who called herself Aspic, had been razzing Runa about never taking risks, which was probably why her business had failed in the first place. No risks in love, business, or life. And where had that gotten her?
Arik might have been dying, but he’d lived. Should she be struck by a mysterious disease that killed her by slow measures, would she know the satisfaction of having truly lived life to the fullest?
The answer to that had been painfully obvious, especially because guilt had been killing her as surely as whatever had struck down Arik. She had denied herself anything that even resembled pleasure with the ruthlessness of a religious zealot. How could she allow herself to experience what she had denied her mother?
Not a day had gone by that she didn’t think about how she’d ruined her parents’ marriage and sent her mother into a downward spiral of depression. No matter how many times Arik tried to tell her that she needed to forgive herself for telling their mother about finding their father with another woman, she couldn’t. Because Arik didn’t know her secret—that deep down, Runa feared that she hadn’t done it out of concern for their mother.
She’d done it to hurt their father.
The day Shade walked into her life had been the day she’d wondered, for the first time, if she would have anything to live for once Arik was gone.
He’d sauntered into her coffee shop, huge, impossibly gorgeous, black motorcycle boots thudding on the floor, his leather pants and jacket making that soft rasp, the pirate earring in his left lobe glinting in the light. His right hand had been tattooed, as well as the right side of his throat, and she’d wondered if tats on his arm had connected the two.
All female eyes latched on to him. All male eyes had averted.
“Oh, f**k me,” Aspic whispered. “All. Night. Long.”
There was no looking away from him as he moved to the counter, his gaze locked onto Runa’s.
Aspic started to pant, honest-to-God pant. “Here’s your risk, Runa. Take it. Make a move or I swear I will.”
He stopped in front of Runa. “Coffee.” The word rolled off his tongue as if he’d said, “I’d like to give you an orgasm.”
“Yes,” she whispered, because he could give her … oh, right. Coffee. She cleared her throat. Twice. “Regular, tall, or grande?”
“Whatever your largest size is.”
“Do you have a brew preference?”
“Strong and hot.”
“Milk? Soy or dairy? Cream?”
“Hell’s freakin’ bells.” He planted his palms on the counter and leaned in. “Just. Coffee.” His intense gaze roamed over her figure in a blatant appraisal that should have infuriated her but only made her heart beat faster. “Though I might be tempted to try something sweeter.”
Aspic nudged her with an elbow and then stepped forward. “Runa’s a little shy. Do you have a motorcycle? Because she loves motorcycles. Bet she’d love to see it.”