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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
On the plus side, she could make out that he was in a low squat, his knees wide apart enough to give her a great shot at his vulnerable testicles.
“I am sorry for this,” he said, the large voice spinning away into a kindness she could almost believe because it was so vastly opposite to the tone of earlier. “That will not happen again.”
Wanna bet? She wanted to sneer at him, but her lip hurt an awful lot. Just wait until she got a second wind. All kinds of shit would be happening again.
Meanwhile, she was pretty much as dangerous as a ball of fluff under the furniture right then. Still, there was that rather attractive testicular target within reach. It could be fun. At the very least it could get her belted into unconsciousness. That’d buy her a few more hours, and she usually healed pretty fast, just like any other ’Dweller could. Provided she could go a few hours without shock therapy, that is. It tended to jar her healing molecules all out of whack or something.
She felt his hand slide up from her shoulder to her throat. Dae swallowed, feeling his fingers on the gold collar to the hurish. Not that she was a treasured pet or anything; the fortified gold was just the best conductor of electricity around. The built-in remote circuitry also had a delightful feature that humans used to keep their dogs within the bounds of an electrified fence—except it was jacked up to less than humane standards. Of course, humans called it something else. Humans didn’t even know Shadowdwellers existed, never mind that they shared technology. Well, lightless technology at least.
She felt him probing at the collar, trying to turn it or have it give way a bit more, she supposed. But she was swollen around it now, not that there was any leeway to begin with.
“What is this? Why do you wear your jewelry so tightly?”
She laughed, a sloppy snort that conveyed she was much less than amused. Her contempt mixed with her fury and the impotence of the moment, making things increasingly dangerous for the idiot touching her. The higher her temper spiked, the stronger she would feel. It was probably an adrenaline thing, but whatever worked…
“Please answer me when I ask you a question.”
“Fuck you. I’m not your parrot, your dog, or anything else.”
Daenaira had never learned when to keep her mouth shut, either. Apparently, she had a sucky learning curve. She felt those fingers come up to close around her face, his heated body closing in as he leaned closer and turned her malfunctioning eyes up to his.
“I do not consider you any of those things,” he told her carefully, “but I do expect a level of respect in my house, girl.”
His house. So he was her new owner after all. She had suspected as much, considering the way he had spoken earlier and the haste with which the other two men had left the room.
It didn’t matter. He could be the president of the United States for all she cared. While humans found that to be an important person, Shadowdwellers did not. This male might scare the hell out of his other servants, but she was a horse of a different color.
Then she spat in his face.
How’s that for respect, asshole?
She wished she could have seen it. She knew she was bleeding really badly, too, because she was constantly swallowing the stuff. Dae would have paid good money to see some aristocratic bituth amec sprayed in red spit, and here the opportunity was, completely free. Served him right anyway. What kind of idiot would lean face-to-face with her after watching her kick his lackeys’ asses all over the place? Now she was thinking she had to take that testicle shot just on principle. Then again, why blow all her tricks at once?
“That,” he said very slowly, “was not only rude, but quite unhygienic.”
Unhygienic? Was he kidding?
“Yeah? I’ve also been known to pee myself on command.” She curled the less swollen side of her lip. “Might want to keep that in mind.”
To her surprise, she heard him chuckle. And it wasn’t some snide or superior mocking laugh either, but a rather genuine, good-natured sort of thing.
“I thank you for the warning. With consideration like that, I am certain we can work up to respect.”
Then she felt him move to slide his hands under her back and her knees. Before she could respond, he had risen to his full height and was carrying her high against a chest made of chiseled rock. Dreading what would happen next, she tensed for any possibility. She was already in trouble, she knew, because he wasn’t the least bit afraid of her. It had taken some time, but Winifred and Friedlow had learned a healthy fear of their caged pet, and she had worked it every chance she could to keep herself reasonably safe and alive. She had no idea how she could work the same effect on a man who seemed so blasé about owning a slave who threatened to leak on him like a baby doll. Also, there was the part where she knew she weighed a good sixty-five kilos, yet he was sweeping her up without so much as a grunt of effort. The muscle closed around her in the form of his chest, astoundingly broad shoulders, and those fearfully thickly developed biceps. There was no give on him anywhere. His belly was hard and flat against her round hip, and as he crossed the floor in a crisp, booted stride, he never so much as shuffled a foot under her added weight.
She was in big trouble. She knew it with that sinking surety she got in her gut right before the most dramatic events in her pathetic life took place. Daenaira was oriented to the room as she knew it so far, though, and she was positive he wasn’t heading back toward the bed where this had all begun. However, without knowing what else was around her in the vast room, she couldn’t say for certain if that was a good thing. She did understand that space in an underground city like this one was a scarce commodity. Once used for deep mining efforts, the caves and caverns the Shadowdweller city occupied were located in the far reaches of an Alaskan mountain range. The small sprawl of the city that existed aboveground appeared to the rest of the world as a wildlife and geographical survey post. Those buildings managed things like winter livestock and other city supplies or technology stations, all managed in a lightless environment, especially during the long, dark winters that gave her people respite from the dangers of daylight. Shadowdwellers migrated to the very edge of the Antarctic for the summer, following the darkness to a New Zealand winter that was far less harsh or dark than Alaska, but still less than eight hours of daylight in a day, which was much preferred to eighteen hours of North American summer days.
But here in the northern city, deep in the dark, it meant an entire culture lived in a slowly developing infrastructure, making space very, very valuable. If the room they were in was truly as large as it sounded, her new “benefactor” was as wealthy as they came. A Senator, she considered, although keeping slaves wasn’t exactly politically savvy. Still, Senators were only useful in bringing the issues and needs of their people to the royals and arguing with them about progress, both for and against. But in truth, the Chancellors were the sole power of their government. Daenaira had once thought it would mean good things for their society when the twins had won the war and taken power about a decade ago. But since she had spent the past eight of those years washing clothes in captivity, she had no idea if it was working out that way. She didn’t much care either. It had been hard enough worrying about how to keep ahead of trouble on a nightly basis.
Eventually they came to a stop and she felt him kneel to put her down on a soft surface. It was a sofa or a firm chaise, the satiny cushions sliding under her fingertips. She sat there tensely, trying to blink the persistent blindness away once and for all. It wasn’t clearing up fast enough, and she needed her vision if she was going to have to fight. And she was going to have to fight, she didn’t doubt that.
“Do you wish to explain to me why you were fighting with the guards?” he asked as he rose to his feet and stepped out of striking distance. She saw him squat again and heard the splash of water. There was a humid dampness in the air and she suspected they were at a hot spring.
He had a hot spring in his room? Or was it a bath? She watched him lean forward and realized he was washing his face.
Well, the urge to run up behind him and shove him into the water was just too strong. He had completely turned his back on her—she could make out the wide width of his shoulders and the dark fabric that stretched over them—and she was a lot faster than he probably thought.
Daenaira sighed, realizing she’d just make things worse if she did it. Where would she run to afterward? She didn’t have a clue where she was and where she could hide. She might as well save it for another day. She prayed there was another day to save it for. The thought made her heart race. She tested the strength of her limbs by holding herself upright and pushing her feet against the cold, smooth floor. Her new owner turned back to look at her over his shoulder, as if he could sense what she was doing and why. Dae went very still. He rose up and advanced on her, his enormous body quickly blocking out all of her vision.
“Why were you fighting with the guards?” he asked again, lowering himself into a vulnerable crouch with his knees parting around her shins.
Boy, is this guy stupid or what?
She tried not to warn him with a self-satisfied smile.
But then a gentle hand landed on her knees and a hot, damp cloth touched her face in soft, short strokes meant to cause her as little pain as possible as he cleaned her up. Dae realized his hand on her leg was just about as warm as the cloth he used. Heat was radiating from him and slipping under her skin, a swimming sensation that seemed to skip like free-flowing energy up along her nerves. She realized then that she could smell the scent of him. There was leather, from his clothing, of course, but it was more than that. He didn’t reek of sweating armpits like her uncle did, offending her sharp Shadowdweller senses, but instead there was an appealing mixture of fabrics, the detergents used to clean them, the almost sultry scent of the soap he used, and…something else. There was a chemical scent, which she thought might be sword polish, but there was also this dark, toasted aroma, like when black fire burned at its hottest.
“He was on top of me in bed,” she found herself saying truthfully. “If you woke up to find a man larger and stronger than you are on top of you, wouldn’t you fight, too?”
His hand went still against her bruised cheek and she heard him draw a slow breath. “Yes, I would. Can you tell me, was he touching you inappropriately?”
“No one has touched me appropriately in eight years,” she countered in a cold, bitter voice. “I haven’t given my permission for so much as a finger to be laid on my person in all of that time, yet it happens quite frequently.”
Daenaira was taken completely by surprise when he suddenly lifted his touch off her knees, clearly realizing he was doing the very same thing. Confused by his seeming kindness and the show of respect, she became suspicious of whatever game he was playing.
“You are right, of course,” he said, his tone grim. “I am sorry. It was wrong of me to presume. Without excuse I will say I am used to touching others for my work and it is a habit. I will be more thoughtful in the future if it truly bothers you.” He paused while Daenaira tried to figure out what in burning Light was going on. “What is your name?”
“My name?” she echoed. Hmm. Girl. Bitch. Stupid. Idiot. He could take his pick. She hadn’t heard someone use her given name in years. “I suppose it’s whatever you are going to want it to be,” she said with a shrug. She’d keep her name, thanks. It was better than hearing it in contempt or in insult. She had a pretty name, actually, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“What does your family call you?” he demanded.
“Slut,” she retorted sharply. “Or ‘useless whore.’ There are also combinations that include both.”
He was silent for a long minute, and then the cloth was cleaning off her chin and jaw. “I see,” he said, his low voice resonant with a hard sound that actually gave her goose bumps. She remembered then that, for all his tenderness of the moment, there was a deadly man in the form before her. How he reconciled the two was beyond her. Again, she suspected it was a tactic, meant to take her off her guard. “I could compel you to give me your real name,” he informed her quietly. It wasn’t so much a threat as it was a fact he was convinced of, and Dae caught another chill. This one raced down her chest, the sensation making her nipples tighten in painful response. She crossed her arms over her chest, knowing how thin the worn-out sari she wore was. “However, I would much rather you tell me for yourself. In the meanwhile, I think I need something to call you by. Jei li is too familiar for us at this point, and it would be an insult to use it when you do not trust me as yet.”
“I am no man’s jei li,” she countered sharply. She might as well let him know that she wasn’t the soft and cuddly type anyone could ever call “sweetheart.”
“‘Slut’ and ‘whore’ are out of the question,” he said firmly.
“Fine with me. Always did prefer ‘you fucking bitch’ anyway. It’s so American slang.”
“Gods, you are a little spitfire, aren’t you?” he remarked as though both pleased and surprised. “No weeping or fear that you’d want to show, though I know you are feeling that fear. These snide, sharp retorts tempting trouble for you had I been of a different temperament. You pissed off the guards enough to make them forget themselves.”
“No one fucks with me,” she said through her teeth, the words colder than the Alaska winter above them. “I’ll warn you now, if you think you’re coming anywhere near my tits or my ass, you better be prepared to like it while I’m out cold, because so long as I am conscious it isn’t going to happen.”