Publication: August 6, 2013
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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 dreamed I was falling down into the well on the old homestead where I was a slave for my teenage years, after my father and I were sold for his crimes. I kept waiting for the splash of water or the crack of rock bottom, but neither came. I simply fell and fell, reaching for walls to slow my descent but finding none, never crashing down into the end of all sensation. It was a suspended, endless plummet, too dark below me and too bright above, and there was no way out by death or life.
I jolted awake in a bed far too soft, in arms too warm, the energy of nighttime coursing through me as the drain of daytime vanished. I awoke in arms. Oh, yes, the memory emerged: I had committed a sin with a penalty of death last night. Right. I craned up to peer at Jack’s face, and sucked in a gasp when I found him staring right back at me. He brushed a curl out of my eyes, and I fluttered inside, my new desires awakening as readily as my body.
“You’re not sleeping,” I said.
“You were barely breathing. I worried for a while, but nothing changed so I assumed that was normal.”
I couldn’t stifle a quiet giggle. “That’s normal. We almost hibernate during the day. Everything’s slowed down, and we can be woken, but it’s not wise to be the one to wake us.”
Jack’s smile curled one side of his mouth and he brushed my temple again, though there was no hair in my way. He touched me because he wanted to. Not because he wanted to hurt me, like Rachel. Because he wanted to make me feel good. I averted my eyes from his gaze, for that thought alone was enough to melt me inside and send a spiral of terror through my mind. How badly I wanted to feel good in Jack’s arms. How sick it was that I wanted it.
And how dead I was if anyone found out what I’d done with him.
A gurgle between us startled me out of my brooding, and I yanked back the sheet to see where Jack was hurt. He must have stripped off his shirt while I was sleeping, but I didn’t notice him do it. But all I saw were smooth muscles, a light stripe of hair cutting downward into the waistband of his pants, and I rested my hand on his stomach, his heat bleeding through my palm. “What was that?”
Jack’s grin brought delight into my mood and I couldn’t help but smile back. “Just hungry, Milady,” he said.
Oh! Hunger pains, hunger gurgles. I remembered human hunger. I tugged the sheet back up, embarrassed that I’d exposed him, and though humility caught in my throat and I didn’t know what to say, Jack laughed and threw the blanket right off us both, revealing his full torso. I couldn’t possibly pout when Jack was laughing. I loved that laugh. Carefree, unrestrained joy… something Vespers were forbidden to express.
“I forget, sometimes, what being human is like.”
“Are you hungry?”
“No!” It was a lie: I was always hungry. But not hungry enough that Jack was in danger, so he didn’t need to know.
“Oh, good.” Jack stretched, his hands clasped together above his head. My heart beat quicker in response, and I felt a little lightheaded. Like a pathetic damsel in distress in a movie, I swooned.
“How long since you were human, anyway?”
I shrugged. “About seventy years, I think. I’m not sure. I didn’t live a privileged life.”
“But you do now.”
I thought of my Lady’s palace and the lavish décor, the unlimited funds for the finest of clothing we Maids could procure. “Yes, I do now. Except I’m still a slave.”
Jack dropped his arms and glared at me, a flash of anger brightening his eyes while his smile vanished. “Still a slave? You were one before you became a Vesper?”
Questions I didn’t want to answer. Most humans didn’t realize how many different ways slavery existed in the world, and that we weren’t all freed with the end of the Civil War. Or that skin color had nothing to do with whether or not you were bought and sold for whatever purpose. I snugged the blanket around my legs and sat up. He was angry. I hadn’t seen Jack angry, or any human, really. Most often, they were just scared.
“Fuck,” Jack snapped, and I flinched at his vehemence. He flung open the bedroom door and stomped down the stairs, and I sat there in a human’s bed, wrapped in a human’s blanket, bearing the weight of human anger. What did I say wrong? The fury in his eyes was clear, but I didn’t know how I had offended him. Humans were so confusing, so sensitive. I didn’t mean to complain about my life. I knew I had the better end of the deal than Jack did. After all, he couldn’t eat me. At least not in a lethal way. Oh, that mouth of his...
I jumped out of Jack’s bed as that thought drifted from my brain down between my legs, lubricating my veins as it moved. I straightened the sheets and followed him down the stairs, taking each step with caution. An angry human seemed as unpredictable as an angry Vesper.
Jack was still shirtless, leaning on the kitchen counter on his elbows, digging aggressively into a bowl and shoving a spoon into his mouth with each scoop. He ate so fast I didn’t imagine he had much time to chew or taste his meal, and as I stared at him, my sinuses throbbed. Watching Jack eat made me hungry. Hungering for Jack made me… well, hungry. In a different way. Both ways, I reminded myself, clenching my jaw tightly shut to assure I wouldn’t forget the danger I posed to him whenever he tempted me. Jack slammed the spoon down on the counter and tilted his head back to drink the contents of the bowl. I watched him swallow, the bounce of his Adam’s apple bringing a smile to my face.
Jack plunked the bowl down and faced me, one elbow still leaned on the counter, his abdominal muscles heaving lightly with his breath. He was so sinfully attractive.
“What?” he asked, his tone curious but impatient.
“Why do you suppose they call it an Adam’s apple?” I asked.
Jack blinked and glanced around, caught off-guard by my question. “Uh, I don’t know.”
I stepped toward him until I could lean on the counter, too. His height wasn’t overwhelming, but enough that I had to tilt up to see his jade eyes as he peered down at me, curious, a bit of anger still rippling off his sculpted shoulders.
“I think they call it an Adam’s apple because it must have tasted really bad when Levitiqas and my Lady had to eat the things. I bet it got caught in Levitiqas’ throat.”
He regarded me with curiosity. “Levitiqas and your Lady eat apples?”
“They did once. But only once, since the flesh of the apples was laden with serpent poison.”
“Why would a serpent poison apples?”
“What else should he have done to penalize them when they stole the most sacred fruit from the Garden that started it all?”
Jack’s eyes widened, the anger gone and replaced by shock. “Holy fuck, Three, are your masters Adam and Eve?”
I nodded and let a smile spread across my cheeks. “That’s how Vespers were born. All the old stories are true, Jack. They’re just adapted in your written faiths to hide us.”
Jack let out his breath in a rush, stunned. “Wow. We knew your masters were ancient. Of all the train gossip I’ve heard, all the rumors, I never expected that.”
I nodded, inhaling the taste of his breath, a hint of something sweet from his food ringing in my nostrils. “I’m not allowed to tell you this.”
“Yet you’re telling me.”
I shrugged. “I could already be killed for what we did last night. I figure, what’s one more sin, to give you some answers?”
“I don’t recall asking you about Adam and Eve. I asked if you were a slave. You asked about the Adam’s apple.”
I bit my lip, and he sucked in a breath, straightening, taking me by the waist and pulling me toward him. “Yes,” I said, “but that wasn’t the question I really wanted to ask. And you don’t owe me answers if I don’t give you any answers about this crazy life you’re indentured into.”
“What question did you want me to answer?”
I unfolded my arms from their protective cross over my chest and slid my hands up Jack’s arms, letting his heat flow into me as his fingers tightened on my waist. “Why did you get angry at me?”
The anger in Jack’s eyes flared again and something about his scent in my nostrils amplified with the rise in his temper. I stepped closer, drinking in his anger, trying to understand, trying to taste. His fury was intoxicating in an unfamiliar way. Rage and I had an intimate relationship, and my rage wanted to know his.
He let go of me to rake both hands through his hair, and then let his fingers fall to rest on my waist again. “I’m not angry at you. I’m angry that someone would enslave you, then or now. All the rules fucking piss me off. You should be able to choose who owns you.”
“You think I’d choose to be owned?”
He shrugged. “If it were by a guy like me who only wanted to please you, yeah.”
“Since when do slaves choose their masters?”
Jack smirked at me, and I loved the way his attitude toyed with his face, giving me clues to his mood before he spoke. “In my world, they do.”
What world? “You don’t choose your masters.”
“Says who? I haven’t run away yet. I can quit the train company any time I want.”
“And be hunted for it.”
“If I really didn’t want to be here, that would be an acceptable price to pay. Would you risk your life to escape masters you hated?”
The sound of searing flesh resonated in my memory as I thought of my human days. “Yes,” I whispered.
“Me too. But I’m not miserable enough to risk it, therefore I’ve chosen.”
He was angry at those who enslaved me, not at me? “What choice do I have? I can’t fight my nature… we’re programmed to be the way we are. Disobedience is difficult.”
Jack leaned into my space and I tasted his breath, and I wished I could kiss him like he kissed me. “You fought your nature and disobeyed your programming last night.”
I nodded. “I know. I did. And I loved it.”
Jack’s eyes lit with fire. Not angry fire. Just… hot fire, as though fire itself didn’t blaze brightly enough for what he was feeling. “Yes, you did.” He pressed forward and that ridge was there again, and I lost my breath.
“I can’t do this with you,” I whispered.
Jack didn’t relent. He rolled his hips against me and I moaned. “Really? You seem pretty capable to me.”
“No, I…” What was my argument again? Jack’s hand slid up my side and he ran his thumb over my breast, the hot pad of his thumb shocking my attention to the sensitive bud. I shook and pressed against him, my body betraying my morals before I had time to stop it.
Jack took my chin with a fingertip and tilted me up, and he kissed me again, and oh, how I wanted to slip my tongue between his lips and taste his breath.
“Wait, stop,” I said, breaking the connection.
“I’m sorry,” Jack rushed, his voice gritty with arousal. He stepped back and blew out his breath, shaking his head. “I don’t… I can’t think clearly with you. I can’t focus on anything but you when you’re in the room, and I forget it’s probably different to you. You’re a goddess, and I’m just a human.”
His honesty sliced through my resolve. Ugh! Why did his words have to be as enticing as his body? Jack leaned on the counter with both palms, panting, and I battled internally between talking us both down from this ledge of sexual tension, and jumping Jack, pinning him to the floor and making him mine.
Mine. I shook my head. Now that was a dangerous thought. If Jack were a Vesper, and I took him into my body… he’d be mine in more ways than one.
Or would he? I was bitten by a Gent. My soul was as susceptible to ownership as his would be, if I bit him. And I’d been owned my whole life. I didn’t know if I wanted to own somebody, wanted to dominate them.
Jack had spoken of slaves choosing their masters. “In my world, they do.” Had he meant dominance? Like, the intimate dominance human beings often engaged in with each other? I’d seen it in movies a couple of times and it looked... well, I imagined myself as the human woman with the collar, and a faceless man, sculpted and tanned, with the whip. I swallowed at the thought, my attention drawn to sensations low in my core. Sensations Jack woke up in my body last night.
But I wasn’t a human woman, and no matter how delicious it looked in the movies, such a relationship between Jack and I was impossible.
“Jack,” I breathed. “You have no idea how much I want… things I shouldn’t want, right now.”
He tilted his head to peer at me through narrow eyes, his jade flashing again with fire. “Me.”
I swallowed. “Yes. You.”
Jack blinked, and then his eyes lit with humor. “For dinner, of course.”
I glared at him. I was trying to say something important, and he disarmed so effortlessly with his humor. “No, not for dinner.”
“Really?” Playful Jack was back after a quick appearance from serious Jack. He straightened and took a step forward, and I couldn’t help but notice the way his movements tensed up my insides in that perfect, terrible way. “For breakfast, then?”
I folded my arms across my chest. Playful Jack, meet playful Three. “Not a chance. A snack, maybe, but you’re not quite enough man to satisfy my hunger.”
Jack’s breath caught and he grabbed my wrist, yanking me closer to him. I sucked in a breath, and he pressed my palm to his groin, to that ridge… Oh. My. Yes.
I hesitated, my eyes wide with shock, as Jack held my hand there. What do I do?!
Just pretend you’re a human woman. One from the movies. I swallowed my fear and wrapped my fingers around that ridge through his pants, and squeezed. Jack’s grip on my wrist tightened, a hot shackle holding me captive in a prison I wanted more than I wanted daylight. I moved my hand, and it was Jack’s turn to lose his breath.
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