A/N: OH MY GOSH IT'S FINALLY HERE! Well, half of it, anyway. This chapter gets super citrusy, and not all of it is consensual. So there's your warning off-the-bat. I'm also going to say straight-off that there is gore. As I warned in my blog (see my profile for the link), Rome is going to give a little snapshot of just how beastly he is. There is also bondage and punishment, unglorified, so watch out.

I tried to respond to your reviews on my blog, even if I didn't message you personally. So, if you're wondering why you didn't get a response, please check there!

Note that the scenes are still long, but they are moving at a much quicker pace. That's because more things of interest are happening within each day of Alonza's party as it progresses.

I rushed to post this before work, so sorry for those of you who read this before I fixed typos and added more to the glossary!


.

Glossary:

grandsuh: title for a grandfather, often ascribed to elder noblemen of a House
ha'second: half-second (archaic)
lau:
title for a servant
nabin: trousers (a.k.a. pants)
ruka: a probationary or untried nobleman; a newbie or rookie
sarobi:
a man's shirt
sire: refers to the father of a man of good breeding, i.e. a nobleman's father
yea: yes (archaic; pronounced roughly yee-AY-uh)

Note: By "centrifuge," I mean the old-school kind that you see in historical labs in movies—those test tube-holding things that the scientists swirl around in the air by hand. If you know what that's called, please tell me! I tried to look it up, but was unable to find the term.


.

Chapter 16
Catch Me If You Can

Party Day 5: Part I

.

This, I decided, was taking the prostitute's pet name for me a little too literally. I mean, this was an actual human-sized birdcage I was crouching in, swinging from a gnarly-looking curved iron stand. All the other showcases' cages stood safely on the ground. But mine, of course, had to be suspended off the ground, swinging like a centrifuge every time I moved. My stomach groaned along with every creak of the iron hinge.

Not that I wanted to be on ground level. This suspended cage was all that stood between my thinly veiled form and row upon row of nobles, eyes gleaming with vicious hunger and cruel expectations. They had their wicked game faces on. And my sloshing stomach would rather swing than fall into their clutching grasp.

But Rome was out there too. Rome with his unruly mane, his glowing eyes, his wandering hands, and his indulgent tongue….

Rattling. The turquoise-liveried servant off to the side was hooking his long pole into the door. Twisting the end in the lock.

"Three."

Click.

"Two."

I angled myself toward the door.

"One."

Ka-clang!

I squeezed through the opening and half-jumped, half-fell out of my cage. My slippered feet skidded and over the marble as I landed. I broke into a sprint. No feet pattered behind me. I was the only one released.

Servants swung the ballroom doors wide open. I bolted through, taking my head start for all it was worth.

The hunt was on.

It was a simple game, really: Hide and Go Seek. All the showcases ran and hid throughout the premises. Whichever man found them could do whatever he wanted to them, for as long as he liked. If he caught more than one, well, that was fine too. Designated rooms had been erected for them to drag us back to, filled with props and restraints. But they didn't have to bring us back; they could have us wherever they found us. Or wherever they wanted. And, as the Party Showcase, I was the highest-value target on this game floor.

Which was why I was counting on Rome's acute sense of smell to find me quickly. Because if the other nobles found me first, there wouldn't be much of me left to protect.

There was one major problem: I didn't know where to hide. This was an unfamiliar mansion. It wasn't like we had been allowed to explore at our own leisure.

I had turned down about four hallways, when it hit me: dizziness like a wave. I fumbled to the nearest wall and leaned heavily into it. My head reeled. I barely kept upright. A dense fog crept in over the corners of my mind, shrouding logic in happenstance. The fear driving me forward deepened to dread…and spiked again when I heard heels on marble a hall back, and a feminine squeal.

They were coming. And they were catching up to me.

I stumbled into motion again, a peculiar heat pounding in my ears and rippling down my body. Feverish. I felt feverish. I should stop and rest…

Bootfalls thundered around he corner at the end of the hallway. They were coming around the other side!

I tried doors. Knob after knob was locked. A noble hurtled around the corner, and I caught a glimpse of his brilliant smile—right as the knob I was trying turned. I shoved the door open and darted inside, slamming it shut behind me. I flew down interior hallways and around startled servants, triumphant yells and whistles echoing off the walls behind me.

I ducked into another hall. Walls confronted me on all sides. I tried the first door. It was locked! The joyful shouts were too close behind me! I ducked beneath an abandoned serving cart. Scrolled the table cloth back down. Tucked in my feet. Whisked in the hem of my cloak, winding it close about me.

A second later, the sound of a door opening. The soft pit-pat of feet. Fear burned in my ears, blazed across my eyes, raced along my limbs. I had to get out! I had to escape! The shouts were almost here…

The cart began to move. Rolled away from the shouts, over a threshold. The door closed behind it.

I peeked beneath the tablecloth. Not boots. Flats. It wasn't a noble.

The cart was still moving at a decent clip when I hurtled out from underneath it, nearly colliding with a servant in an apron and a funny hat. Turquoise, turquoise everywhere. Kitchen, I was in a kitchen. I heard several gasps behind me as I lurched into motion again, sprinting down the aisle, dodging around cooks and counters and carts. Pots and utensils clattered to the floor in my wake.

I ran to the far wall, collided with a door. Handle. Where was the handle?! There!

"Not that way, lau!" I head the distressed cry behind me, but I couldn't heed it. I had to keep running. I had to get out!

Plush floors, sinking under my feet. A long strip of turquoise scrolled out before me. Luxurious. These were private quarters. Lord Alonza's quarters! Or his relatives'.

I powered down the hall. My limbs were burning. I didn't feel right. Not quite tired, but not…right. I felt loopy. And like I really wanted to wrap around something and squeeze.

Weird-looking door with a worn-looking handle. "Which one of these is different than all the others?" I barreled straight into it, yanked on the handle. Why wouldn't it open?! The key…in the lock…duh. I tweaked it, yanked the door open with more force than necessary. Pulled it shut behind me…and just about tumbled down an invisible stairway. So dark. I stretched my arms out to either side. The walls were close. I could see light outlining a rectangle at the bottom, straight ahead. Carefully, one foot down, and then the other. I had no time for this! There was no time…

Stupid rectangle. I hadn't fallen on my behind yet—enough to make the prostitute proud—but where was the goddessdamned—Oh. Right where it belonged. I wrung the handle, shoved the door out—

Outside. Oh my dear goddess, I was outside. Well, not really free. In fact, way too walled-in for my taste. And no other doors in sight.

Click. The door swung back into the wall. I turned to grasp the handle, to pull it back open. I couldn't stay here! I'd be caught for sure!

I stared at the wide turquoise stripe on the wall, just like all the others roundabout. I splayed my fingers over it. Patted it down. No-no-no! This couldn't be happening!

There was no handle on this side.

I heaved in great gulps of frigid air. Great round circles in the glass roof let in the elements, forming mini blizzard-tornadoes that spiraled downward at intervals. The snow danced beautifully, before flaking off to dust the flowers and float to the ground.

Roses. There were roses everywhere.

Rome would hate this place, I thought absently, tucking my cloak around me. The shadowy charcoal material was thin; it wouldn't shield me from the cold. If someone didn't find me in this indoor-outdoor room, and get me out, I was going to get hypothermia and freeze to death.

Well I didn't want to go banging on stripes, hoping they were doors. There could be a noble on the other side of one. Or more than one noble. My chances of surviving that encounter weren't any better than my chances out here.

And I still felt so weird! Like my body was like a furnace inside, despite the cold. And like I really wanted to rub up against something. And what was this weird after taste in my mouth—?

Aftertaste. Oh no. Oh no-no-no. I slumped back into the nearest pillar. I had been drugged. Aphrodisiac, by the taste of what Mistress Healer once described with disdain. And something else. Maybe more than one "something."

The sound of footsteps clunking down stairs echoed through the silent courtyard.

I could hide behind this pillar. Or another pillar! Except, with the strange acoustics in this accidental sort of place, I had no idea which direction the clunks were coming from. I could be right next to the door when it opened!

I raced for the center of the garden, flimsy slippers crunching and skidding on the gravel. A bench! I ducked down, crawling on hands and knees. The pebbles bit into my bare knees. I rustled into the snow-dusted rosebushes on the other side, collecting scratches. I glanced up into the branches. Turquoise buds frosted with white. How were they still blooming in this weather?!

A door banged open.

"Where in hell is this?"

"Oi, mind the door! Don't want it closing on us. This garden keeps things in, not out."

Wish someone had told me that.

"Are we outside."

"Not exactly."

"Why the hell are there holes in the roof? Not a sensible ceiling."

"More for effect, I imagine. Not that you have any taste in art."

"Art is not architecture."

"Try telling that to my grandsuh."

"Or my sire," another voice called from across the yard. Then, "I believe I have found footprints, heading away from my present location."

"Oh good! Well, do track her. 'Twould be unpleasant to be in this useless garden for nothing."

"Roses, Labriella?"

That voice was way too close! I jumped out of my skin at the disgruntled voice, and crashed backwards into the rosebushes, earning myself a whole lot of scratches.

"Goddess above!" I tried to shush my tone. "How long have you been standing there?!"

Rome peered down his perfect nose at me. "Long enough."

I flushed, gaze shying away. "Long enough to see me make a fool of myself, you mean." Falling all over myself in the bushes.

"Long enough to remind me you're terrible at escaping notice." He scowled down over folded arms. "What in hell are you doing down there?"

"Hiding." I crawled toward the bench. "I heard footsteps."

"But not mine."

"You don't have footsteps." I wriggled out onto the path. "You move silent as a spirit."

"Maybe not. But you do. You're easy to track." His gaze flicked about the atrium at large. "Should I be taking a cue from our surroundings?"

"I didn't choose to be here," I mumbled, attempting to rightside myself. "I just kind of ended up here. And couldn't get out."

His gaze returned to eye my cape-tangled form, ridden with dirt smudges and powdered with snow. "This place is very close to Alonza's personal quarters." He extended an arm down to me. "Should I be asking how you know where those are?"

"I don't." I let go of his warm palm, and tottered.

Rome caught my arm. Frowned. "It's the medicine."

I eyed him uncertainly. "How do you know that?"

"Fucking cur told us after you ran. Each blend is different. Enhancing something. Apparently Alonza has a healer in his employ."

"Aphrodisiac, tastes like. And something else."

"Aphrodisiac?" His brows lowered. "What does this mean?"

My cheeks heated, hotter than the rest of my flaming body. I gave him an odd-feeling look. "Nothing. Don't worry about it."

Rome's golden eyes narrowed. "You said that about your back."

"Oi! Over here! Looks like the ruka found something!"

Panic flared through me like liquid fire shooting through my already burning veins. "There's nowhere to go! None of the door handles are on this side."

"I don't need a handle." He turned and strode away, zigzagging from walkway to walkway.

I hurried after him, taking two strides for every one of his. I wasn't about to be left behind, alone, where I could be captured! "Where are you going?"

"To find a door."

I zigzagged hopelessly after him. Hoping to the goddess that he knew what he was doing. Halfway across the yard, I glanced back over my shoulder, caught a glimpse of a bobbing head a few rows over. "Rome—"

"This way!"

My blood burned cold. "We're not going to make it." I turned back around. Rome was still walking, his long strides eating up the ground. I sprinted forward, dashed in front of him, stretching out my arms. Blocking his path. "I know you can make it," I huffed, eyes bleary. "I can't." The drugs were slowing me down. As if he wasn't already capable of moving ten times faster than me. "We have to try something else."

He looked at me skeptically. "Like what?" He arched a slightly mocking brow. "I'm not a killer. Remember?"

He was seriously considering that as a way out?!

"If they can't extricate you, then they may settle for watching…"

"You have to kiss me."

His expression turned unreadable. "No."

I startled at his short, blunt answer. Recovered. "The nobles are—"

"—Are drugged too."

I stared at him. "What—?"

"The beast is clawing just beneath the surface. If I lose control—"

My face must have betrayed my incredulity. Time was running out!

"You weren't going to tell me what happened after I lost consciousness last night. Were you."

I held in a wince, eyes swinging from his golden slivers. They were jogging over! "This isn't the time—"

"I remember. What I did. When I blacked out."

My eyes flicked over his face. His jaw. Set on this. He was going to keep being obstinate. Not good. I had to derail him, quick! I inhaled a shaky breath.

"Lord Rome." I stared brazenly into his startled golden eyes. "Did you, or did you not, make a coat oath to me last night?

Rome flinched like I had struck him across his cheek. Grimaced. Snatched up a fistful of my robe that nearly lifted my feet from the gravelly snow. And yanked me down on his twisting mouth. His tense lips moved marginally against mine. It brought back a very different memory, from last night, of the moment his lips tensed on my throat.

Right before he threw me up against the dresser and started shredding the remainder of my costume.

I tensed. Shook. Adrenaline pumped into me with every speeding, throbbing heartbeat. Pumping liquid fear into my veins.

Rome started to pull back.

No! No, he had to stay! If he withdrew now… Blood pounded in my ears, in my eyes, in every limb. Shook my chest with every breath. They were going to rape me. He was going to forfeit me to them. He was going to watch as they—

Where was all that passion he unleashed last night? All that reckless abandon? All that fire? It was pent up inside. Trapped.

Trapped by the memory of last night.

But there was more than one memory from last night. And some of those memories, to relive them again would be…divine.

I slipped a hand between us, over his where it bunched my cloak in a white-knuckled grip. He snatched his hand back like mine was fire.

"It will not be enough to act in front of the other nobles. You have to make them believe it. Which means you have to make him believe it. Make the man you want drag you into his bed before the other nobles get a second look at you."

I unwound the thin fabric from my frame. Let it drop to the ground.

Rome's recalcitrant eyes were pulled to me like a string on a shade. And then they were all over me, roving over my bared skin like I was his next course.

I raised a hand to his chest, ran a finger down the deep "V" of his neckline. Smoothed my palm over his pec. Down, over his abs, to his hip, his waistband. Tugged us flush. I heard him inhale sharply through his nose. His body heat seeped through my clothes. Fueling my already rising body temperature.

I parted my lips a little, let my tongue peek out to poke at his lower lip. He startled, allowing me the opportunity to gently suck it between my teeth. It felt good to do, but it wasn't nearly enough to quell the heat blossoming in me. I remembered he liked biting. I bit him. Hard.

He jerked, growled in warning.

My mind was growing hazy. I was getting flashes of clarity, but most things were muddled. Mostly I just knew that somehow the man in front of me was the answer to everything I wanted. I backed to the side, toward a nearby bench. Crooked my finger at him. His eyes glowed.

"This is not a good idea." His voice was thick with a strange accent.

"But you want it."

"Yea." No hesitation.

"And you want to see me…bare."

Lust storms swirled in the gold of his eyes. Literally. "More than anything."

"Kiss me, and, when we get back to the room…" I swallowed. "I'll bare myself to you."

"Freely."

Lump lodging in my throat, I gave a nod.

Rome was hovering over me in a heartbeat, fingers trembling on my jaw. "Swear it." He sounded breathless. "For if we return, and you deny me—"

"I swear."

His breath stopped.

Crunch-crunch-crunch. The sound of skidding on gravel.

"Hurry!" I urged him, grabbing a desperate fistful of his sarobi.

His mouth crashed down on me, the force of it leveling me down to the bench. Only the hand suddenly spinning me around on the stone surface kept me from toppling backward over it. Rome's weight followed me, pinning me underneath him as he kissed and sucked at my lips and then slipped in between to pry open and ravage my mouth. He shifted only a little to let me swing my leg out, but his growl took on rumble of approval as I hooked the leg over his hip. It took only a second before I realized why. My gesture left me wide open for him to settle his lower half comfortably over mine. Hips to hips. Heat to heat. Bulge to—

He nestled up. Pulled up tight against me. His hard chest flattened over my breasts, coat flaps descending around either side of me. Enveloping us in the smell of suede. Suede and spiced pine. His hands tucked up underneath, running up my bare legs, over my bare sides while his tongue ravaged the inside of my mouth, his jaw savage over mine as he tangled with my tongue. The insides of my cheeks sparkled with Power and heat. I wrangled a hand out from between us to wrench into his mane.

"Well, well. Look what the ruka managed to snare."

"Goddess damn, that's fast work."

"No collar on her, mind you."

Collar…? We hadn't been given collars. Today was the first day we weren't required to wear one.

Rome tore out of my mouth. "Forgive me," he murmured, still growling somewhere in his throat.

Cold metal clapped around my neck.

My panting breaths hitched. "W-What?" My hand dropped from his hair to feel around my throat. A metal band. With a pendant. A stone. I craned my neck to try to see it, but couldn't. I looked to Rome in disbelief.

Rome had collared me.

There was cursing from behind and off to the side. "You had to open your mouth."

"Suppose the ruka had an interest in sharing? We might be willing to…strike a deal."

"Supposing you had something I desire." Rome rose up a little to stare down at me, straight into my eyes. The lust hadn't left his amber. "But that which I desire is—" He rolled his hips slowly. My own hips rolled with his, pressing our forbidden parts unethically tight together. We both breathed a little harder for it. "—Inescapably between my thighs."

I heard grumbling from behind him. "This is a waste of time. There are other showcases to catch."

They crunched away across the gravel, grumbling and speculating. I watched them from the side, and breathed a sigh of relief. Relaxed into the bench. Let my arm at my side rise to loosely circle Rome's lower back. "They're gone."

Rome lifted himself up, bracing on his hands so that he hovered over me. "Yea."

"You can take this off now," I said, tugging at the link around my neck.

Rome's eyes traced slowly over the metal. "It bothers you? To belong to me?"

I blinked in surprise. "No. Not at all."

"Then…" He hunkered down. "Can I keep you, a little longer?"

"Rome, you don't need a piece of metal to—" I gasped, eyes widening. His hips rolled into me again, and pressed in this time. "Unnnhh—Mmm." He leaned on his forearms, and dipped his bulge down along my crotch, and pressed against my panty-clad crevice. Started rubbing against me, slowly, from triangle to maidenhood, and back. Rubbed harder. I could feel his length unfurling, pressing more and more firmly up into me. My triangle was loving the pressure. Loving it too much. And that heat—! "Rome, I—"

"Just—Mm. A little. Ah. More." He seized my hips and pulled them up into him, and ground deeply, back, and forth. His hips started to buck and jerk in rhythm, ripping ragged breaths from him.

I had never seen him like this before. And it felt so good, too. I wanted to tell him not to hurry. To keep going. To take his time. But a sense of urgency was building in me. A need for him to go faster. To add more pressure. I jerked my hips along with one of his rubs. A needy growl ripped out of him. I started trying to rub along with him, along his hard length that burned hot against my sensitive parts. He jerked viciously. Found me on the timing. His breaths came in loud pants, his back arching slightly. "God Bre, it feels—"

"Harder," I said, trying to arch more forcefully against the rod rubbing teasingly at my want.

"Yea." He threw his hips into it. Threw his head back as our bodies bucked together. My panties started to soak through. The hard presence of him was deliciously unforgiving through the thinning barrier. My hands found his hips, found his rear, felt the bulges and strains of his hard body as he ground relentlessly against me. I clutched him tighter, felt my core twitch against him. I felt so hungry for him, so zealous for him. My whole body burned with want.

Just when I thought he couldn't rub any harder, he pummeled my triangle with pressure, with longing, again and again. I felt myself come around him, still panting and jerking as he continued to grind. My eyes rolled back in my head as I thrashed, the turquoise and white of the sky swirling with gold in my vision. Still he didn't stop, burying the hardness between his hips up into my softness. His rod jerked eagerly against me, like it could sense there was more pleasure to be had. Never letting my triangle rest. I could feel a second pleasure building, building…

He bucked and jabbed viciously, and then he was arching and spasming, snarling and purring all atop me, the wetness between us growing as he snapped over the edge, leaving me just shy of orgasm. I rode the last waves of his hips, hoping to gain my second release, but in vain. I whimpered under him as he collapsed atop me, pressing licking kisses to my neck.

"R-Rome," I said, sounding strangled. "P-Please…"

He growled in response, shifting his weight a little. As if to relieve me of it.

"No!" I yanked his hips back down over mine. Rolled up into them. He purred into my neck. "I need you," I choked out. "I didn't…I didn't finish. I need—"

He pulled his head back to look at me. His eyes were feral. Wild.

Unreachable by words.

I slipped one hand around his hip. Tucked down the front of his nabin. His lashes fluttered in rapture, his purring intensifying. He leaned into my hand, eyes only slits. His length began to resolidify.

So fast! Dear goddess, what manner of man was he?!

But that was exactly what I needed. I needed him to get hard. I needed him to want to grind that thick rod of his between my legs again. I needed him to release me into that heaven, that nirvana he had just reached.

I jerked and squeezed and rubbed, massaging his velvety sheath until he was hot and thick in my hand and his satin tip was dripping gratitude. And then I took back my hand, and tugged him down into me.

He didn't like that too much. Growling and snarling and struggling atop me. Until his rod caught between my thighs, and I rolled my hips to show him why that was a good place for it. He froze then. Blinked down at me. And then smiled. A very masculine, rather savage smile. All sharp teeth and knowing want. Rose up on his knees. Dragged me out from under him. And flipped me over. Onto my hands (and chin) and knees on the bench. Dragged my hips back toward him. Pried my legs apart with a clawed hand to each inner thigh. And heaved me over his erection.

And proceeded to give me the most savage orgasm I had ever dared to have.

Two orgasms, actually. He pumped heat between my legs, firing up my core, and brought me quickly to my first, and rushed me toward my second. I knew he was pressing toward his own, ramming against me with such fervor as he growled and purred above me. I feared he would leave me behind again. Topple me off the bench and leave me in the gravel and snow.

But he didn't. He pressed his lips to my nape, and reached a hand around my front. Down over my curls. My triangle. And started to touch me, in time with his thrusts. He wasn't gentle. More like fierce, and adamant. But as he bucked up into me in an explosion of passion and need, he freed me to come after him. And in the midst of his purrs, he drove his sharp teeth into my nape. I screamed under him, but continued to come, jerking and drenching the front of his nabin.

The growls stopped abruptly. I heaved into the silence, collapsing onto my face on the bench.

"…Bre?" His voice was quiet. Completely devoid of the savagery that characterized him the moment before.

His voice grew more desperate. "I heard you scream. I-I…" His clawed hands fluttered over my back. "Oh God. Oh God. What have I done. Bre, please." His arms dipped to wrap around my front, hugging me to his hunched chest. His breath was shaky on my back. "Please. I need you. Please, stay with me. Please." He started to shake. "Don't leave me," he whispered. "I was selfish. I…I should never have…"

"Stop…biting me," I grumbled, when I had the breath.

His breath caught happily, and then horribly. "That—I—We—"

"—Was amazing. And un-called for."

"Rash. Dangerous."

"The closest we've ever come to sex."

A pause. "…Yea."

"Why is that the closest we've ever come to sex."

"Do you really have to ask?"

"Yes. Because you're already hard again; I can feel you."

Rome snatched in a breath and quickly backed off of me. "The nobles have gone. We should depart as well. Before more come."

"How can you think about that right now," I huffed between pants.

"I pledged you my protection." He nosed at my jaw, my throat. "I intend to keep that pledge."

"I…" I swallowed. "I promised you something too."

"Later." His tongue flicked briefly over my Eve's apple. "When we won't be interrupted."

My heart jolted back into a frenzy of thrill and terror.

"Come." He stepped back. To the side. And around me. Every move deliberate. Like he had to make sure he followed his own advice. "We should not stay here."

"You don't seem very out-of-control to me," I grumbled, grabbing my thin cloak off the ground and pulling it on as I toddled after him.

"Good," was all Rome replied.

He resumed zigzagging among the intersecting gravel walkways, converging eventually on a stripe on the wall. It looked the same as every other wide turquoise stripe to me: plain, solid, and knobless. But Rome listened and sniffed discreetly, and then smoothed his hand down one side, as if feeling for something. His hand paused. His fingers sparked. And then, click. The stripe popped outward. He wedged his claws into the crack, and levered it the rest of the way open. He stared into the black beyond. Sniffing, listening. And then turned to me.

"Stay close," he said sternly. Like I was a child who might wander off on a passing whim. "If you get cornered, it will get hostile."

I nodded mutely.

He grasped my arm and pulled me into the darkness, pulling the door closed behind. I heard it click into place.

"Stairs. Step up." He held my arm up as I stumbled, guiding me silently toward the top. There he sparked open another door; this time I heard the key turn in the lock. Except, when we came out the other side, there was no key.

"How did you learn to do that?" The amount of focus needed for something like that had to be immense. Maidens had training for things like that. Rome had none…that I knew of.

"Hush. We stay silent from here."

Rome pushed the door closed and tugged me around a corner—right before two nobles stalked by. He gave me a look.

I clamped my mouth shut. Right. No talking. Nowhere was safe.

I followed Rome down several hallways, and up a flight of stairs, stopping when he raised a hand. It was kind of fascinating, the way he'd listen and scent the air, knowing from that whether to stop or go. But I was sluggish and jittery, like my veins held too much nervous excitement for my body to keep up with. I was ready to be done with all this creeping around. I was ready to have Rome to myself. Or be a mental basketcase. Or squeeze my legs around a pole. Or something.

And then there was Rome. Perfectly calm Rome. Who was supposedly on the brink of losing control himself.

Rome who was now flaring his nostrils closed, jerking his head back with brows furrowed. He looked disturbed.

And then I heard it. The sound of feminine whimpers, down a side hallway. I peeked carefully around the corner. He yanked me back. But not before I caught a glimpse of wild blonde hair surrounded by three or four nobles. Cornered. Being manhandled.

The girl Rome had kissed. Suffering a fate worse than I wanted to imagine.

I gritted my teeth. Rome was with me now. I didn't want him to go to her. To be her savior. I wanted to wrap myself around him and—

"Go," I whispered.

Rome gave me a blank look.

"Go!" I shoved him.

"Why?"

"Because it's the right thing to do!" Goddess only knew what they had already done to her.

"My pledge is to you, not to her."

I shoved him so hard he nearly toppled into the hallway. He glowered at me incredulously.

"Go. It can't be that much farther to the room, right? I recognize this hallway." I wasn't lying, exactly. I did recognize it. I just had no concept of where it was located in reference to our room.

Rome stared at me.

"Look," I sighed. "That would have been me. If you hadn't found me."

He nodded slowly. "Two turns to the right, second turn on the left. Listen. Check the corners before you turn. I'll meet you there."

I nodded bravely.

He pushed me. "Run."

I dashed off in the direction he pushed. I was weaving, but some of the effects of the drugs were starting to fade. Or, at least, I didn't feel quite so much like I needed to wrap my legs around everything.

Right. Down the hallways. Right. Down the hallway. Le—wait. Voices. Footsteps. Feminine squeals and noises. A door closed. Now. Left—

Whirling. Dizzy. Whaaa—?

My eyes met turquoise.

"My, my. Look what I caught fluttering around the ruka's chambers."

I cringed backward.

"Ah-ah-ahh." Lord Alonza yanked me close. "I caught you, fair and just." He smiled catlike. "You are mine until I am done with you."

I shook with horror.

"No need to look so concerned. I only mean to take what the ruka interfered in months ago. Tch. He really should not have done that." He tugged me down the hallway, back the way we came.


I huffed a quiet sigh after Bre disappeared around the corner. Bre was too damn considerate for her own good. Wanting to help someone she clearly despised.

Females. As if one bitch wasn't enough of a troublesome clawful. Now I was supposed to look out for a second? I had no intention of stopping for strangers who belonged to other males. Even if they had served as a pleasant distraction. My vow of protection was to Bre, not some baked-wheat girl I had hardly met. She was the other predators' quarry. There was no reason to interfere. As long as they stayed out of my way, I would stay out of theirs. Besides, we should be able to pass by unnoticed, as long as the wheat girl was doing what she was good at: distracting them.

But Bre, being too compassionate, decided it was better to put her own life at risk. I should have known she would not be able to leave the troubled girl alone. Damn soft heart of hers. It was like her instinct was not survival; it was finding broken things—broken people—and keeping them. Against everyone's better judgment but hers.

She was like a damn conscience: Annoying as hell. But important. And the kind of thing you keep coming back to.

Fine. Whatever. It was only a couple turns back to the room. This would only take a couple minutes. And I should be able to hear if she ran into trouble.

I debated another few seconds over whether to just go after her. But Bre's compassion kept tugging at me.

Or, no, wait. Those were the tavern wench's words, floating through my mind. Insistent. Nagging. "Dispose of them after." After…

Maybe those were my thoughts tugging. My…

I shook my head, and rounded the corner. Crossed some of the distance. Folded my arms, tucked in my claws. "You done yet?"

The three nobles' heads swiveled. "What is it to you?"

I felt my stoic mask click into place. Let traces of my annoyance bleed through. "I heard from two halls away. Thought you'd be done by the time I got here."

They looked a little smug.

"She sound good?"

"You want a taste?"

I gave them a skeptical look. "Is there going to be anything left of her?"

One of the males turned his haughty smirk to the other two. "What do you say we leave the leftovers to the ruka? Fitting, think you not?"

One smirked back. The other frowned. "I have yet to leave my mark."

"Come now, Cerelus," the smirker chided, his smirk turning cruel. "Then there really shan't be anything left."

"She still has a few good rides in her yet. And I like this." The first speaker lowered his voice, to a level humans probably couldn't hear from my distance. "A ruka taking leftovers is a ruka who knows his place. If he cannot scrounge leftovers, then where shall he set his sights?"

The nobles glanced at each other, shooting dark, calculating looks back and forth between them. They let go of their captive's limbs and stepped haughtily away, as though they had meant to be done all along, and sauntered away down the hall.

"Enjoy," one of them smirked over his shoulder, waving dismissively.

I waited until they rounded a corner before my dispassionate expression dissolved into a scowl. Leftovers? Know my place? Like I couldn't have ripped out their perfume-clogged throats in half a second. Probably should have. Make an example of where their place was.

The day was still young.

I glanced down at the unfortunate-smelling creature who had slithered down the wall into a slump of shaking female. She was staring straight at me, eyes wide, lip trembling. Her hair quivered. Immediately she snapped her gaze away, gathered her arms and legs close. Bruises were blossoming all over her arms and legs, on her chin. And little slits of red.

I dropped my arms and strode forward. Leaned down and grasped her by the arm. She jolted so hard I nearly lost my grip on her, and a noise caught in her throat. She shook. Twice as hard as she had before. Her scent was awful. The sweat was not so bad, and the blood was sweet. But there were now three different scents mixed with hers. From the inside. Tainting. I grimaced as I pulled her full weight to her feet. "You smell like hell."

"P-Please, milord. I-I'm not ready to receive…again…yet. L-Let me do s-something else? For milord?" She rose up on wobbly knees. Reached a swaying hand up to my nabin. Started to pull down.

I slapped her hand away, a strange rumble of emotions vying for dominance inside of me. My blood thundered in my ears. "Do not," I snarled, baring my teeth.

She shrunk back, cowering and covering her head. Pulling her battered legs close around her body. I smelled salt.

Something burned in my chest. Something close to pity, I thought. And maybe guilt.

My chest clenched, something in me retracting like it had sustained a blow. "Come on. Get up." I reached down. My fingers barely brushed her shoulder before she flinched a foot backward. Away from me. I swallowed, throat closing. Tried to ignore the stabbing pain in my chest. "Bitch, you cannot stay here. Unless you wish to be rutted again. Is that what you want?"

She flinched, but wagged her head slightly.

Thought not. "Can you walk?"

A small nod.

"Unassisted?" Any aid on my part would attract suspicion.

Another nod.

I snatched ahold of her bicep before she could dodge out of arm's reach, and hauled her up off the ground. Her legs bowed when I lowered her to her feet, forcing me to support most of her weight. It was like holding a sapling, so thin and light was she. I knew the strength of my grip had to be adding to her bruises. But there was no help for it. I couldn't carry her; it would draw far too much attention. It had to look like my intentions toward her were ill-mannered and crude.

"Walk."

The going was slower than I would have liked. We passed a fair number of nobles—some traveling in packs, raucous and malevolent, onto the next conquest; a couple focused and hunting solo. Seeing them made me uneasy. I had not anticipated so much traffic in this part of the house; certainly they had not been there a few minutes ago. Bre could have run into any one of them. I should never have let her go alone…

There was Bre's scent! Buried beneath all the others, but definitely strong enough to be fresh—recent. I followed the invisible trail down the hallway, around a bend. She remembered. She had gone the right way. Less traffic here. Then none, around the next bend. One more—

I halted so fast the waif girl in my grip walked right off her feet. I growled. Alonza. That cur had been down this path. Recently. But there was no way to determine how recent. He could have passed by just before Bre. Or just after. They might not have crossed paths; he might not have seen Bre at all. But his scent was particularly strong in one section, by the wall. His scent was still dispersing from there. Like he had been there awhile. Lurking near our room.

"Milord?" The voice from beside me was faint.

I lurched into motion, trapping my escalating growls in my throat.

"Milord, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," I gritted out. "Just an unwelcome presence."

"But there's no one about."

"At the moment."

"I don't understand."

"You do not need to."

I wrenched open the door and hauled her in. She tensed substantially when she took notice of her new surroundings: My chambers.

I released her and began to pace the room, sniffing less discreetly. Casing for Bre's scent. It was all over this room, the extension, and the next. But none as strong as ours. No definite trail. I stopped mid-room. She wasn't here. She hadn't been here, by the smell of it.

Why? Why wouldn't she have come here?"

Unless she thought it wasn't safe. Alonza had been lurking close by. Maybe she couldn't make it around him, to the room. Maybe she went elsewhere, to wait for him to give up his post.

Or maybe he sighted her, and she ran, and he gave chase.

I did not hear a struggle. I should have heard, if there was one; she should have been within range, if she needed me to hear.

Unless she hadn't had the chance.

But there had been no scent of her feminine musk in the hallway. That intoxicating flavour that would have accompanied rutting, if she had been forced. Maybe she had gotten away?

In which case, should I be out looking for her—before another noble found her? Or would she be circling back here?

"Where does milord wish me to be?"

Right. The wheat girl. "Any place. Matters not." On second thought, "Do not leave the room."

"What does milord wish me to do?"

"Sit," I said distractedly.

Several minutes passed in silence. I felt every second of them. Every ha'second.

"Milord seems troubled."

"She should be here by now," I muttered.

"Who, milord?"

"The foolish bitch you have to thank for your life."

"My life, milord?" she echoed faintly, uncertainly. In that quaint little voice of hers.

"The thing Cerelus would have stolen from you, given a few more minutes."

I could feel her stare. "Milord was…saving me?"

"'Twould seem that way."

"Thank you," she said quietly.

"Not my idea." I continued to pace.

"But milord is a noble." She sounded flabbergasted. "Milord can do whatever he pleases."

"I suppose that is…somewhat true." Though not for reasons you would understand.

"Why would a nobleman listen to his servant?"

It was strange, hearing Bre referred to like that. Like Bre's only identity was through me. Like Bre hadn't had her own whims, apart from me, for several years. "'Tis no concern of yours."

A few moments passed in silence.

"Milord's in love with her. Isn't milord."

My heart gave a startled jolt. My head jerked in her direction. "What nonsense—?"

"There are stories, but they're old. So old, someone probably made them up—so's I'da told my's sis'a. But there you be, walking the ground down. So's it's gotsa be true."

"You deceive yourself. Love is a commoners' myth."

"So's a noble that saves people."

"I did not save you on principle."

She looked at me then. Really looked at me. "You've got yourself a little voice inside, haven't you."

"A voice?"

"Tells you some things be right and some things be wrong."

Uneasiness stirred in my gut. I kept my thoughts from my expression.

She smiled. It looked haggard, frayed around the edges. But the smile was bright, and somewhat relieved. "It's okay. I won't tell anyone. N'one would believe me, anyhow."

"What would a wheat girl like you know about voices?"

Her mouth twitched from side to side. Like a hare's nose. "'Wheat girl'?"

"You smell like wheat." I crossed my arms. "Taste like wheat."

Red blossomed beneath her freckles. "My papa grows wheat. We'd help him—"

My head snapped toward an approaching presence.

"…Milord?"

There was a knock on the door.

I strode across the room. Stopped with my hand to the wood, sniffing. Sage. Almond. My eyes narrowed. I let the door inch open. "What."

His eyes flicked over my shoulder. Toward the wheat girl. "Interesting."

"What is it you want."

"I heard you may have kept my showcase in one piece. I thought to see for myself."

"Did you." I did not move out of the way.

His shrewd purple-blue eyes considered me. "There may be something you should know."

I raised a skeptical brow. "Which is?"

He glanced over his shoulder. Down the empty hallway. "Accompany me."

I was of half a mind to roll my eyes in a very Bre-like manner. But the very action made me think of Bre, who still wasn't back yet. Maybe he knew something useful?

I opened the door just wide enough to slip through, closing it carefully behind me. The almond-sage noble turned and began to stroll down the hall. I shot some Power into the lock before striding swiftly after him, keeping abreast. Not for a second was I going to follow him around like some second-class pack lackey.

He strode purposefully down several hallways, turning corners every chance, until he came to a very inconspicuous door. With a brisk flick of his wrist, the door swung open, and we were suddenly among a bunch of scurrying servants, who gasped and dodged promptly out of our way. He continued on as though it were the same hallway, not even batting an eye as a spray of rice from a leaking sack narrowly missed his person. Wound around a corner. And then turned sharply, halting abruptly at a dead-end. A door.

He looked at me. "I was never here. You understand."

I gave a short nod.

"There are repercussions for you being here. You must know that."

Wherever "here" was.

He swung open the door. Onto a long hall of deep turquoise carpet. Alonza's scent hit me like a swing in the jaw.

And then I heard it: the faintest echoes of my name.

My veins burned with rage. I snarled and launched down the hall, wallhangings crashing to the floor in my wake. When I was done with that turquoise mongrel, he would be a pile of mutilated scraps. Trapped in agony. Writhing and drowning in his own blood.


.

For a split second, I thought Lord Alonza was taking me back to the ballroom. To my birdcage. To where it all started.

And then he turned. Down a different hallway. Toward the inner rooms. And I knew a different fear: Being alone with Lord Alonza. Where no one would know where I was. Where no one could find me. Where only diligent servants, bound to silence under pain of death, would hear my cries.

I tried not to hyperventilate. Perhaps he wouldn't be the same in private. Perhaps he wouldn't have so much to prove, with no other nobles watching.

But my mind betrayed me. Interrupted my forced calm with memories of his mouth latched onto my neck, of his hand groping up my leg, of his drink spilling over my shoulder, of his finger prodding my maidenhood with the threat of invasion. Of the sound lashing awaiting me if I did not comply, if I embarrassed him.

My heart curled in on itself. Most of my life I had been bullied. Been thrown down on floors. Stepped on. Kicked when no one was looking. Had my hair pulled. Been the brunt of colorful sacrilegious insults and jokes and accusations. Been told I was nothing, was worth nothing, would not be missed. I was no stranger to trouble. I knew to wait it out. To let what was going to happen, happen. To get back up again when it was all over, and limp away.

But the minute Lord Alonza opened the door to his chambers and slid open a mirrored wall-door, I knew this time that wouldn't work.

It opened onto a bedroom—a second bedroom, actually, since the first (which looked perfectly ordinary) led to this one. I always thought wall-doors were to hide servants—so nobles wouldn't have to see their servants' daily living, and thus acknowledge that those who served them were people who had lives. But now, seeing this room, I realized that was not always the case. Some hidden rooms were clearly built with another use for servants in mind.

Dead ahead, a bejeweled light hung suspended over a massive cushion, which sat prominent on a platform in the center of the room. The edges bloomed out like petals, and curled inward at the tips like cresting waves. Smooth metal vines scraggled loosely over jewels of light piled inside half-cone wall sconces, casting either side of the room into plays of soft light mingled with shadows.

To the left, a chaise with cuffs at its head stretched innocuously along the length of a low-level wrought-iron oval table frame. Out of the center grew an iron tree, each of its pronged branches curling downward and in. A turquoise jewel the size of a coin dangled from each gold-tipped branch. A throne-like chair sat along the other side of the table frame, wider than the one in the ballroom.

To the right…I looked at the back wall, and swallowed. A row of whips. And, beneath it, a wall of objects I didn't want to understand.

Lord Alonza turned, and I dropped my eyes quickly. "What think you of this room, my showcase?"

I swallowed.

"'Tis every Party Showcase's privilege to see the inside of this sanctuary. However—"

He swung me around suddenly, and my back slammed into a wall. He had my hands above my head in a second, his grasp practiced and none too kind.

"I do not think I have ever so desired to bring one here as I have you." He tsked. "You are an elusive minx, you know that? Cunning, in your common way." He shifted my wrists to one hand, letting the other wander over my breasts. "Using the ruka to slither out of my grasp."

Wham! The backside of his hand collided with my cheek, leaving a hot impression. My whole body rocked to the side. Just when my head rightsided, wham! The world spun. Fire flooded into my cheek. Wham! My knees buckled. My weight hung from my wrists. Wetness, on my cheek. Blood. From where his ring connected. I was sure he had knocked loose of molar. Or three.

"For dislodging me at the inn," he said. "Though, for involving the ruka, I assure you my retribution has not nearly begun."

I lugged my fat tongue around the inside of my mouth. Sucking down the coppery taste. Checking for damages. Another hit like that, and I might black out.

I flinched as a finger probed experimentally at the gash on my cheek. "'Twas not what I had in mind, all those nights ago." He pressed. A noise caught in my throat. "But a pet must learn." His mouth replaced his finger, and he sucked. Hard. I jerked my face to the side. He bit down. I cried out.

"Mistake not my persistence for lenience." His breath moved away, and then a cup was being pressed to my lips. "Drink."

I had already been drugged. There was no telling what was in this cup. What its contents could do to me. I turned my head minutely aside.

Lord Alonza stretched my wrists up, until I was on my toes, and hooked my wrist cuffs onto something. A moment later, his hand was on my throat. Cutting off my air supply. "Open your mouth."

I only held out a couple seconds before my lips gasped open. And then he was wrenching my head back, my jaw open, pouring liquid down my throat. I choked on the flood, but he kept pouring. Flooded my senses with fermented fruit and incense and mandrake…and burned all the way down. Inflamed everything it touched, the heat spreading outward like a fever. Oh goddess, no…

"You can feel it working already, can you not? Gladys promised it was fast-acting. And, there—" I twitched, fire flowing through my veins. I started to pant. My eyes burned, my vision blurred. "Feel it taking hold inside you." It traveled down my spine. Struck between my legs. I gasped, snapped my legs together, around my hidden places. Places that were blazing to life. The heat shivered down my legs, raising bumps down to my curling toes. My thighs flexed, spasming. Needing something to wrap around. My core began to throb.

Hot. It was so hot. I squirmed in my clothes. Feeling the soft fabric scratch over me like sandpaper. Abrasive. It hurt. My womanly places pulled taut in response.

No. No-no-no-no. I couldn't feel like this. In this place. With this man—this nobleman. He was going to rape me, and I—

I lifted one of my precious privates-blockers and kicked as hard as my shaking limb could manage.

Lord Alonza cursed, and stretched my wrists up. Unhooked me. Started dragging my collapsing weight. To the right, I thought; I couldn't be sure.

I was sure when he shoved me up against a wooden horse. Oh goddess, oh goddess—

Crack! A shout startled out of me. My thin cloak split around a line of fire.

"You should know better, bitch," he hissed in my ear. "Even your precious ruka would lay you low for that."

"Wouldn't," I gasped out, fighting delirium.

The whip's barbs scraped across my throat. "What was that?" His voice was silky. Like sugar-coated poison.

"Rome wouldn't—" The whip pushed on my windpipe.

"You dare call one of the blood by name?" Lord Alonza sneered. "Is that what he lets you call him when he takes your cunt? Disgraceful." Crack! Crack! Crack! My nails dug splinters out of the lacquered wood, threatened holes in the cushion that was a turquoise blur before my face. I whimpered, arched, clung on for dear life. Tried to ignore the incessant throbbing between my legs. When the lashes finally paused more than a second, I found myself clambering around one of the silver legs. Parting my legs around it so it could slip between my thighs. I could have cried in relief. At least one pain could be lessened. At least—I jerked against the cool metal. Goddess that felt good. Better than it should.

I heard a superior chuckle behind me. "Changing your mind, I see."

"N-No." I tried to disentangle my legs from around the support. They wouldn't come.

A ringed hand found my hip. Forced it down. I arched involuntarily, gasping against the pressure. Fighting the heat permeating my entire being. Losing horribly.

"Feel that?" Lord Alonza said in my ear. "'Tis your cunt. Changing sides. Choosing a new loyalty."

"N-N-Nah." Sides? What sides? What loyalty—

"I should command just as much of your loyalty."

Rome! Oh goddess, Rome! "R-Rome," I groaned. "R-Rome will come."

Crack! I lurched—into the pole. Gaped. My head fell back a little, lashes fluttering. My hips bucked, of their own volition.

"The ruka is not coming."

"R-Rome will—" Crack. "Umph!" My body slithered down to the floor.

"Shall I break you of him?" His tone was low, lilting, dark. Seductive in the promise of pain.

I shied violently, throwing myself sideways against the horse.

"Ah, so you have been broken. I wondered at such loyalty. I suppose I must credit the ruka for being thorough." He grabbed a fistful of my cloak. "But he has done you no favor." Riiip! The fabric fell from my scantily clad body. Exposing me to my captor. I cowered into the horse, trying not to think of his turquoise eyes on me. Of what he might do next.

Lord Alonza sucked in a breath. "Where are they?"

I had no idea what he was talking about. Didn't want to know.

He grabbed ahold of my hair, yanked my head back. "I watched him whip you yesterday! Saw you bleed with my own eyes!"

My drug-hazed brain wasn't keeping up. "What, my lord—"

"The lashes, Showcase! From yesterday! They were bleeding! And now they are gone!"

My breathing stopped. Oh goddess, the marks. On my back. Rome had healed them. Right before he—

The places between my legs throbbed anxiously. Remembering fingers. Remembering tongue. Remembering the sight of Rome's golden head between my thighs…I shuddered.

"Where. Are. They." Lord Alonza's growl was almost worthy of Rome's.

"I don't know what you mean," I huffed breathlessly. Still full of memory.

A finger probed into one of the new lashes. Dug its nail in. My pained cry bounced off the marble walls. "Wounds like this do not heal overnight. They only heal quickly with—" He stopped. "—Power," he breathed. He pressed his mouth close to my ear. "Have you been hiding something from me, little minx?" He wedged the coil of his whip up between my legs. The barbs caught on my skin. On my panties. Alarm shot through me. If he pressed any harder—

I heard a light shhhnk, and then something metal was pressing against my side. Something short and thin and sharp. "Come, my little showcase." I gasped and flinched as the tip wheedled into my side, separating the skin in a slow line that set my nerves to screaming. "Heal for me."

"I-I can't," I choked.

"Do not lie." The whip scraped across my inner thigh, barbs sawing slowly through the skin. I gaped, finding it harder to breathe. It was too close. Too close to my womanly places.

"I-I wouldn't lie…hicc…to you."

"I think you would." The knife grazed the back of my arm. "If he trained you to."

I trembled. "H-Hates it…when I lie."

"To him." His knife dashed across my hip, earning him a cry. My panties skewed to one side, unnervingly loose against his coil.

"P-Please." He nudged the whip upward. "I can't heal."

"We shall see."

He cut the other side of my panties loose. And drove the coil up into the fabric, into my sensitive places. The barbs caught in the fabric, poked through. Like a million needle pricks driving into my curls. But my hips rolled against against the pressure. I shouted something frustrated, unintelligible. The knife opened a new line over my stomach. And then it struck up to my breast, and my shout turned into a scream. I thrashed to the side, but Lord Alonza followed me.

"Blood looks good on you." He dragged the knife along my clavicle. Down my sternum. "Bright red against skin the sun has never seen." He chomped hard on my shoulder with his blunt teeth.

I tried to crawl out from under him. "No, my showcase." His knife cut into my breast again. I screamed, trying to shake him off. The whip slid up to my stomach, as he pushed my hips backward into the cradle of his. His erection poked at my rear. "Your cunt is mine." He ground and groaned for a minute, and then a rough hand on my shoulder flipped me around, landing me hard on my back. Any chance of protest died when a knife pressed one thigh open, the whip pressing the other. When I struggled, each began to cut. Slowly. I yanked my wrists, but the cuffs were caught fast on something. I glanced up. A screw on the horse's leg.

Lord Alonza's knees replaced his tools, one by one. "Heal." A slight rustle of fabric. "Or I promise, I shall make this the most painful bout you shall never forget."

I could feel the air between my legs. Hear the rustling of his clothes. I knew I would never get out of this. All the drugs in the world couldn't delude me into thinking it could turn out okay. Tears burned at my eyes. I was helpless on a floor, in a secret room, between sex couches and instruments of torture. The reason I became Rome's servant was looming over me, about to take from me the one thing I couldn't let him have.

With a flash of clarity, I suddenly remembered why I couldn't let him have it: My body didn't belong to Alonza.

I sucked in a deep breath, filling my lungs until they stretched and hurt. And yelled the name of the one man on this earth I ever wanted to belong to.

I was swiftly backhanded with a curse. Blood filled my mouth. I couldn't reorient myself.

A weight dropped over me. A stump settled between my legs. A rod against my thigh, dragging upward. A hand seized my jaw. Teeth clamped over my lip, and then Alonza's mouth closed like a trap over mine. Occupying my mouth as his knife slit into the marks on my throat…

The bite marks on my neck sizzled under Alonza's knife. I screamed. My body started to seize.

The sound of shattering glass filled the air. Alonza barely broke from my mouth before he went flying off of me. Cries of pain burst past my lips, throat still sizzling. My sparkling eyes meandered over to the rectangle of light across the room.

Rome stood in the doorway, legs braced apart, arm extended, mane glowing with golden light. His crackling palm faced the opposite wall.

He hadn't even touched him.

Rome's blazing golden eyes skimmed over me. Caught on many different places. "Busy, I see." It was a sneer, an accusation. I couldn't tell who it was directed toward. But then his eyes returned to the back wall. A cold fire smoldered in their depths. Promising torment. Agony.

Murder.

He strode purposefully toward the back wall. I tried to crane my neck, to see what happened to Lord Alonza, but there was furniture in the way. I inched backward, toward the horse, trying to unhook my wrists and wrangle into a sitting position.

"How dare you try to scratch off my mark."

"'Tis not possible!"

"Of course it's not!"

"Any one of the noble line with Power would have been—Nyah!"

"I should have done this months ago. When you were slobbering all over my bitch like a runt scavenging for scraps."

"You stole her out from under me!"

"You touched what was mine."

Alonza screamed. Shouted. Screamed again.

I forced my quivering legs to bend at the knee. Reached up. Began to scale the horse. I had to see what was happening. To see what could possibly make Lord Alonza scream like that.

To see what Rome was actually capable of.

"What do you want!" Alonza shouted.

A murmur, too low for me to understand. And then Lord Alonza was screaming again.

I heaved my elbows over the turquoise cushion of the horse. Clapped my hands over my ears. Looked up.

Rome's hand was inside him. Up to part of his sleeve. In his abdomen. Fishing around. I imagined his sharp claws in soft tissue and quailed, remembering when he had accidentally plunged his claws into me.

The movements were getting jerkier—Rome's arm, and Alonza's body. I could see Lord Alonza's face, turning ghostly pale. Sweat was rolling off his forehead, though he shivered uncontrollably.

Rome said something wicked-low. And then reached down inside. I watched in shocked horror as he jerked viciously, and Alonza arched and screamed. And screamed. And screamed. In a pitch I had never heard before from any living thing.

Rome ripped something out and tossed it sideways. Like an unwanted piece of fruit. It splattered across the marble floor. I clapped one hand over my mouth, eyes wide. I shook with terror.

A second later, Rome was directly in front of me. On the other side of the horse. I startled backward, but he caught my arm. His eyes were accusatory, their blaze of murder not yet dispersed. "You were supposed to return. To the room." His eyes slid askance for a split second, as though to indicate the slumping Lord Alonza. "Alone."

"I-I-I did. I-I mean, I-I tried." I shook in his grip.

"In his chambers." His voice was rough. "Rutting him."

"N-No!" I practically shouted. Clapped my hand over my mouth again. Volume control.

"You're wet," he growled, eyes narrowing to slits. "I can smell it."

I shook my head, tears stinging my eyes. "He did something!"

His other hand shot up, seized my chin. Slimy. Wet. Slid down the column of my throat.

"He forced me to drink!"

His hand paused. "Drugs."

I nodded slightly.

"Say it. I can tell if you are lying."

"He drugged me," I forced out. "Again."

His thumbnail traced my Eve's apple. "Did you even fight him?"

I looked at him incredulously. "Of course I—"

He yanked me forward, collapsing me toward him over the horse. Forced my chin to the side. One long finger traced my swollen cheek. "Him?"

"Y-Yes."

His lip curled in a snarl. He wheeled around and stalked back over to Alonza. Reached inside the gaping hole in his abdomen. Yanked out a slimy rope. Raked his claws down it.

"Stop!" I shouted through the new high-pitched screams.

Rome's head tilted a little over his shoulder, in my direction. But nothing stopped.

I flung myself around the horse and launched myself at his back. "Stop it—"

He caught me by the throat and slammed me back into the horse. I cried out as my stripes connected with the cushion-lined wood. His eyes blazed. And then chilled. And burned like hot coals. "So you are with him." His expression was like flint. But his eyes strayed down my front. Caught on my neck. My breasts. My navel. Down.

He was jealous, I realized. Violently jealous.

"No," I said faintly, around his heavy hand—which wasn't quite choking me. A warning maybe.

"You can let go," I eeked out. "I just wanted your attention."

His eyes flickered. "You have it."

I raised a shaky hand to his arm.

His hand tightened.

"Please," I rasped. "Rome."

His hand flexed tighter, for a moment. And then slowly relinquished its grip. His face contorted. He shook his head, grimacing. Scuffed at his head.

I heaved in great lungfuls of air.

Rome stepped back. And back. And to the side. "Go."

I stared at him, uncomprehending.

"I'm not…" He swallowed. "I'm not in control."

That whole dissection thing looked like it required a lot of control to me…

"Goddamn it, run!" He seized my arm and flung me toward the mirror that had been a one-way window to the outside.

"You're angry at me," I surmised, stumbling backward.

"Oh no, bitch." He drew a hand down the front of his face. Molten eyes peeked teasingly through his fingers. "When I pin you down, last night will look like child's play."

That look in his eyes jolted straight down into my core.

He sniffed. Smiled. A predatory smile. "Run, little girl. Or I'll rut you in Alonza's blood."

My eyes widened.

He smirked.

I wheeled around and scampered through the shattered wall-door. The glass cut into my feet, but I didn't stop. I was less than steady on my feet, and toppled into wall more than a couple times. But I kept moving. I couldn't get that hungry, slightly crazed look in his eyes out of my head. Couldn't forget the slop dripping from his hand. My whole body was caught between aching for him, and wanting to hurl.

And instead I was running. Like he had scolded me for at Lord Symeon's party.

Except, once again, I had no idea where I was going. I was in the residential wing of the turquoise mansion, deep within the ranking noble's personal quarters. I had no idea which way was out. And no idea how long my shaky legs would last on drug-spiked adrenaline.

After several twists and turns, I stumbled down a short flight of stairs, and busted open a door to…a flower room? There were bouquets, in various stages of prep and arrangement, lying about or standing in water buckets. I skirted around the metal table in the center, and flung myself at the door opposite the one I'd come in. Fiddled with the knob, yanked it open.

And came face to face with the atrium I got stuck in earlier.

I slammed the door closed with a groan, and started back across the small room. I'd have to backtrack.

The rounded wooden door I was heading toward swung inward. Rome stepped through.

I swiveled and launched myself back toward the other door, but arms came around me, forced my forward momentum to an abrupt halt.

"Hey. Oi. It's me."

I struggled. The door was only a few feet away. I wouldn't be able to get out, but the atrium was large. Maybe I could lose him in the maze of bushes and paths.

"Goddamn firecracker." He slung me around and hauled me up against the metal table, the edge knocking the wind out of me. He kept right on me, close behind, giving me no room to escape. I shook uncontrollably.

"I'm sorry." His forehead bowed between my mostly-bare shoulders. "The drugs. I-I wasn't…myself."

"So you didn't mean—to Alonza—"

"No, I did."

I squirmed.

"Hey!" He wrestled me down, hovered over me over the table. "I am not sorry for what I did to him. I should have done that long ago. Before any of this." His hot tongue flicked over the defaced marks on my neck. I flinched under the sting.

"What you did was awful."

"Maybe. But." His tongue traced over a lash, and I gritted my teeth as he followed it through. "That mongrel will never touch you again."

"And when the other nobles—ungh!—find out?"

"Let me deal with that." His fingers traced the edges of another slash. "This is going to hurt." His tongue wedged in.

"Just leave it!" I shouted, tears springing to my eyes.

"You know I cannot." His fingers slithered down my front. "But I can make it better." His fingers teased over my folds. "You seem to have lost your undergarments."

"Don't—! Ah!" My core clenched with burning want. Heat blossomed again over my entire body.

His tongue turned to the next lash, and I found my cries caught between pain and pleasure.

And then he started snapping strings. One notch at a time, the front of my costume started to loosen. A bulge pulled flush with my rear. Nudged up underneath. His hands dropped, and then they were on the insides of my thighs, hauling them apart as his torso kept mine pinned beneath it. A hard, cloth-covered rod pressed into my crotch. Oh my goddess, he's— "Hah! What are you—oh! Ngh!" He wriggled around a little, and then began to grind up into me.

"God, that feels—" Rome shuddered, and pressed kisses to my back. "Do you feel that?"

I was trying really hard not to push back into him. To roll my hips. I braced my hands against the tabletop. He thrust forward, all the way over my triangle, and I couldn't help arching then.

"You like?"

I shivered. "No," I said stubbornly. "I just—hah!"

He took a hip in each hand, and started to glide between them. Brushing along my maidenhood, my favorite spot, my triangle. Back. Forward. Back. Friction. So much friction. My hips started to twitch, to buck.

"You do like it," he said, voice a low rumble.

"This doesn't—change—what just—happened. With—Lord Alonza."

"You would have let him do this to you?" Rome growled, his tone biting.

"N-Nn—Ah—N-No. Mmm!" I slouched over the table, spreading my legs a little wider. I needed to be angry with him right now. And afraid. And I was angry and afraid. I just—goddess, this heat—

He pressed harder, rubbing rougher against me. His incisor grazed my back. Snap, snap, snap—

I yelped and plastered an arm across my chest, trying to keep the small scrap of clothing over my breasts. His thumbnails scored down my hips. The short skirt fell from my rear.

"Rome, wait—ah!" He bucked up into me. Again. And again. We moaned in tandem. Rolled our hips simultaneously into one another. I scrabbled at the table, and he grasped at my hips. Pulling them down further onto himself for the next lurch. I arched hard back into him, forbidden places pulsing.

And then he reached forward and snatched the remaining fabric out of my hands.

That was my wakeup moment: Me naked. Riding his crotch like he hadn't just gutted another man and threatened to rut me in it.

I threw myself sideways so suddenly that I must have taken him off-guard. Because I made it to the door.


.

I was all too pleased to feel Alonza's organs slipping and writhing beneath my fingers, shuddering as my claws punched through them again and again. Though, my ears could have done without the screams. I could sense his agony just fine. Perhaps I should have ripped his tongue out beforehand; he certainly wasn't making good use of it now, even with my hand deep inside him.

He knew who was alpha now; I could see it in his eyes. I wondered if he had always known. If he had striven to piss me off because he thought by challenging me it would somehow make him more.

Even now, there was defiance in his eyes. He could not see that he was nothing, amounted to nothing.

I had to know. Had to know if Bre had betrayed me with this cur. If she had thought him something more than nothing. Something more than me.

The terror in her eyes was complete. She did not like the "something" I was anymore—the "something" I had always been. But I felt the truth in her, heard it in her heartbeat, smelled it past the strange scents clogging her pores, past the adrenaline and the fear.

No, of course she didn't. She would not betray me like that. She was loyal. Loyal to a fault.

I turned my attention back to Alonza. To digging out those parts of him he would have used to defile my bitch. I knew the symbolism would not be lost on him. I looked into his eyes while I carved it out of him. Into the fear. Into the panic. Into the growing certainty that he was going to die because the scepter between his legs had betrayed him.

And then someone was daft enough to lay hands on me from behind.

It took me a moment to notice the neck I had my hand around was Bre's. Slender. Soft. Delicate. And then realization hit me: She was protecting him! This cur who had been trying to get his filthy paws on her for months! How dare she defend him! After—between us, earlier! After last night!

She wanted my attention, she said. Fine. She had it.

Wait. She wanted my attention. Mine. On her. Not on Alonza. On her.

That was when common sense kicked in. It was Bre's neck I had my fingers around. Even if she had betrayed me, I could never close my fist. What was I going to do, choke her? Choke the life out of the only meaning in my life?

My heart contracted in horror. Disavowed me. Left me for dead. For beast.

I forced her to run from me. But I knew it was only a matter of time. Before I caught up to her. Before I forced myself on her. Putting my hand around her throat should have been a passing beast-thought. Instantly dismissed and safeguarded against. Not ever acted upon.

I was losing control.

It was the drugs. The medicine. It had to be. Somehow it had knocked loose my grasp on my urges. Making them actionable. Making them valid.

Making me want to rut Bre before Alonza's dulling eyes, forcing her to watch the life drain out of my only rival as I took her for myself.

Forcing her kind heart to hate me forever.

I couldn't let that happen. I didn't want to let that happen. If I was going to force her to accept me, I could at least do it in a place that wouldn't give her more reason to hate me.

I kept myself in the room as long as I could. Pacing. Filling with need. Until finally I sprang out into the hallway after her.

Bre was ridiculously easy to track. She always was, but this time she had stepped in glass, and tracked blood all the way to her current location. Which wasn't far. Clearly she wasn't able to move that fast, between the drugs and her injured foot. And I could smell her scent on the walls. If I found out any nobles had thrown her up against those walls...

I stepped through a door, into a small den. Goddamned roses. She would be right next to them.

There was only one other door in the room. And Bre was headed toward this one. Which meant she couldn't get out. I had her trapped.

God, she was beautiful. And barely dressed. Pale skin everywhere, with a spattering of precious freckles I had never seen. I wanted to run my tongue over them. I wanted to leave my mark. Somewhere secret. Somewhere she would remember.

Bre's eyes widened at the sight of me. She fled back toward the other door. But I was too quick for her. I had her in my arms in a second, her warm, lithe body against mine. Everything I wanted. Struggling in my arms.

I spoke to her, but she wouldn't quiet. Wouldn't relax. She probably thought I meant her harm. I didn't. Never harm. I had sworn an oath. She must only receive pleasure at my hands.

But those lashes. That cur had cut into her flesh again. The smell of her blood was intoxicating, potent. I wondered if she could feel my groin awakening against her, ready to sink into her heat.

No, I had to heal her. God, her screams were painful! I had to make it better for her. She had to remember pleasure… I slipped my hand down her front. Up under the scrap of fabric that could hardly be called a skirt…Oh dear God, she was bare. Bare and soft and warm and a little wet… She jerked immediately under my hand. Protesting. Pressing. Riding…

I barely finished healing her lashes before my hands were prying apart her sweet thighs. I needed—between them— I tucked up against her. Slid slowly along her wetness, hoping she would be receptive. Hoping she would agree. She sputtered but gave, and moaned, and her hips pushed against mine. She was giving herself to me. Yielding. Riding. The pleasure. And it was pleasurable for her; I could feel it. Hear it.

God, it felt so good to be together. Just the two of us. The closeness. The heat. I could feel it building, toward something. Something I really wanted to have with her. She was with me…

…And then suddenly she wasn't. She was jetting sideways.

I could have caught her. But I didn't. Because my chest was tight. It hurt. I was confused. I thought she wanted it. Wanted me. Earlier, she had all but demanded I kiss her. Wrapped her legs around me. Everything went hazy after that, but I vaguely remembered her dragging me into another round of pleasure. Dragging me between her thighs.

And now she was running from doing the same thing over again.

My groin throbbed despondently. I fought a sudden rush of emotion. A sudden dampness in my eyes. I gritted my teeth. Raised my palm toward the door.

It swung shut in her face.

Bre reached for the handle. Yelped when it zapped her. She crumbled against the wood. Shaking. Clutching the remaining scraps of clothing to her front.

"You see me for what I am, now. Is that it?"

Her back hunched as she tried to shield herself from me.

"So, earlier—what we did, on the other side of that door—when you pulled me to you—when we were together—That was a ruse?"

"N-No, I—"

"You knew what I was," I said, slamming my shaky fist down on the table. It jumped. So did she. "I did not hide it from you. I warned you." My hand fell again, and again, punctuating dents into the metal. "I pushed you away. I gave you away. And now that I've finally started to—" My fist wavered in the air, shaky as my breathing. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, letting my head hang as I took a deep, shuddering breath. "Goddamn it, Bre, I'm not made for this! I'm made to take what I need! And you've made damn sure that what I need is you!

"And now you're denying me, and I—" I growled. "Fucking forget it." I ripped the coat off my back and chucked it at her, dampness burning at the corners of my eyes. "Put the damn coat on."

"It'll attract attention." Her voice was small, barely there.

"Unless you want a fucking bloodbath, put on the goddamned coat. We're going back to the room. I don't care what the hell you do once you get there. Just stay out of my goddamned way." Or I'm going to rut the hell out of you, and show the Wheat Girl just how much of a conscience a beast really has.

.

.

.


A/N: More to come, in Part 2! Don't think this is "it" for the relationship. Because it's not. (Sorry to end this mid-argument! I had to; the chapter was getting too long.)

Next chapter is going to get crazy, relationally and plotwise. So stay tuned! I'll try not to take so long to update. I know what I'm planning on doing in the chapter, but I just landed a second job, so my writing time is about to get crunched. Again, no matter the time lapses, I'm not abandoning this story! So keep an eye out!

I know I'm doing crazy things with Rome and the nobles. And writing about Alonza and Bre made me rather disgusted. But I felt that it had to be done, to culminate with him as a villain and to and reach a resolution. Also, I edited a lot of things, so I'm sorry if I accidentally left something in that didn't make sense. (Tell me!) I would love to know what you think of how the chapter turned out overall!


NEXT CHAPTER (a continuation): Rome and Bre return to their suite, both upset. Rome secludes himself, leaving Bre to entertain the girl she's jealous of, as each tries to sort through their feelings about what just happened. The "wheat girl" poses an interesting question: If Rome is truly a noble, with a conscience, then what does that mean for everyone involved?

Meanwhile, Rome has shed noble blood, throwing the nobles into an uproar...