The Slashers had corrupted the syringe however, using it to draw blood instead of injecting. A rubber tube stretched from the end of it, toward the collecting device in the corner. “Modo, crank the filtration-device,” Higgins commanded.
The hunchback darted for the machine and set his enormous hands on the crank. He started turning it, his face straining with the effort. It sped up and then the boiler-pack sputtered. Higgins flicked open an air vent and the boiler coughed to life as oxygen hit the small coal-fire inside. The whole thing vibrated as the hunchback stopped turning the crank.
The noise was horrendous. Esme tried to slide her wrist out of the leather loop as the pair of them watched the device, but it caught on the fleshy part of her hand. Not quite loose enough.
Come on. She yanked again, getting nowhere. No matter where she looked her gaze kept lingering on the tray with its vicious array of implements; the syringes hooked to the filtration device, sharp razors for slashing at the veins and an enormous cleaver. She knew what that was for. Getting rid of any bodies the Slashers didn’t want to draw unwelcome attention back to them.
“Nearly ready,” Higgins muttered, raking his hook over the gleaming glass canister with a steely shriek. He glanced at her. “A pity we’re in such an ‘urry, sweet. I’d love to stay and linger a while.” His smile left her in no doubt what he referred to. “To twist that knife just a little deeper for ‘im. Still, guess when ‘e finds you – or bits o’ you – it’ll ‘urt ‘im just as much.” Higgins stepped closer, a dreamy smile of his lips. “Been thinkin’ I might send ‘im a package a month. A little jar full of formaldehyde and maybe a tongue. Or an ear.”
“That’s if Rip hasn’t found you yet.” She glared back, forcing herself not to even think about the images his words conjured. If she gave into the terror turning her chest into a vice she’d start screaming and never stop. “That’s why you’re in such a hurry isn’t it? Because you’re afraid he’ll find you.”
Higgins’s eyes narrowed. “Won’t find me, pet. Buried the trail good an’ proper.” He touched her lips with the end of the hook. “Killed a lot o’ me men, ‘e did. Didn’t take me seriously. Didn’t consider me a threat.” His words grew louder, eyes gleaming. “Now I’ll show that mech-bastard and ‘is master the error of ‘is ways. Been watchin’ I ‘ave. Saw you two out a time or two. Saw you kiss ‘im in the streets when I were plottin’ me attack.” He smiled. “Now we’ll see which one of us ends up laughin’.”
He grabbed one of the syringes. Esme strained but he managed to tear her sleeve with the hook and jerked a small leather tourniquet around her upper arm. The pain as it tightened made her vision swim. Blade had never been so rough with her when he used to use a tourniquet on her.
Esme screamed as Higgins pinned her arm ruthlessly with the pressure of the hook, sliding the needle into her vein with his other hand. The sudden greedy suck of the machine filled the syringe vial in seconds, then blood spurted into the base of the enormous canister in the corner.
“No!” Her fingers were growing cold until he let the tourniquet go with a wrench. The sensation of the needle prickled at her, a cold sweat breaking out all over her skin. Esme was helpless to watch as he turned toward the tray to fetch another syringe.
A wordless roar echoed through the room. Esme’s head jerked toward the door.
“John!” she screamed. “John!”
Her heart thundered to life in her chest and she yanked again. Her hand slipped a fraction further through the leather strap as Higgins moved toward the door.
“What the ‘ell?” he snapped.
The door exploded inwards and Higgins flew back as a man was hurled through it. They both knocked over the tray of implements, the other man’s neck twisted at an alarming angle.
Rip shouldered through the door, his black eyes locking on her. Esme’s breath caught on a sob and she twisted against the restraints, tears blinding her.
“Be careful,” she cried. “Please be careful.”
Higgins came at him and Rip roared in fury again, grabbing the hook and burying it deep in the table in the corner. Higgins wrenched at it, his teeth bared, but the hook was stuck. Rip stepped forward and punched him, teeth and blood spraying everywhere.
Esme’s arm was growing cold. She looked down at the tube and watched her blood being sucked toward the machine. “Hurry,” she called.
Rip turned, his gaze locking on her arm. Then he was at her side, ripping the needle from her vein and pressing down on the tiny hole. Blood wet his fingers and Rip lifted his hand, staring at it with a breathless catch to his gasp.
“John,” she whispered.
He blinked and pressed back down again.
“Watch out for the--”
Rip roared as something hit him from behind. His left knee gave way and he lashed out behind him as the hunchback dragged the knife out of his thigh and hefted it high again.
The hunchback flew across the room, smashing into the glass canister. Glass showered everywhere as he was impaled on a particularly sharp piece.
“No!” Higgins screamed, coming from the right and sinking the hook into Rip’s side. The pair of them grappled, Rip staggering on his injured leg.
Esme yanked on the leather restraint, pain stealing her breath as her skin scraped and tore. Then her hand finally slipped free. She wasted no time, reaching for the other restraint and ripping the leather open.
Rip drove Higgins into the table and it splintered beneath the weight of them. Esme watched in horror as Higgins drove the hook high and buried it in Rip’s back.
He’ll heal, she told herself as she yanked at the straps around her feet. It was incredibly difficult to kill a blue blood. Still… It wasn’t impossible.
Shoving off the table, she staggered against it as her head spun. Higgins lifted the hook again, Rip’s hand clenched around his throat as he held him down. Esme didn’t need to even think. She saw the cleaver on the floor at her feet and picked it up, hefting the weight in her hand like an old friend. This she knew.
Higgin’s hook was just like a plucked chicken spread on her board. Esme lifted the cleaver high as the hook descended and cut through his arm to the bone.
Higgins screamed as blood sprayed across her face, warm and wet. The cleaver was stuck and Esme yanked at it, bile in her throat. Or perhaps not quite like a chicken. She swallowed hard and lifted it again, determined to complete the job. Her man was already injured. Nothing was going to hurt him anymore.
The cleaver cut through this time and the hook went sailing. All of the fight left Higgins and he thrashed and screamed until Rip yanked his neck sharply to the side.
Rip looked up as she staggered, “Jaysus.”
His gaze locked on the cleaver and Esme dropped it with a shudder, her stomach heaving dryly. She couldn’t look at the still twitching hook with its stump of bloodied arm. Instead, she caught Rip under the shoulder and eased him into a sitting position.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, watching the gleaming black drain out of his eyes.
Rip blinked down at himself, as if only just noticing his injuries. He probably was. Whilst in the grip of the craving, a blue blood was impervious to anything other than his intended target.
Esme examined his side, encouraging him to lean forward. Blood stained his shirt and the wound was closing sluggishly. “You haven’t been drinking enough blood,” she murmured. “This should have healed.”
Taking a deep breath she reached for one of the razors still sitting on the tray on the floor.
“No.” Rip caught her hand, shaking his head, his eyes black as night again. “No.”
He was reeling however, blood loss and self-enforced deprivation making him weaker than he ought to be. Esme straddled his thighs, bringing the razor across her wrist in a sharp little motion that made her hiss between her teeth.
“You need it,” she told him, bringing her wrist to his mouth.
Rip’s nostrils flared and he tried half-heartedly to bat her hand away again. But the scent of her blood drew his gaze like a snake being hypnotised and suddenly he wasn’t pushing her away anymore.
His lips locked over her wrist, a harsh moan filling the air. Esme gasped as his tongue swiped over her skin, the heat of it flooding through her body. Each sweet pull of his mouth was like a warm hand stroking between her legs. Lips parting, she rocked against him, straddling his thigh. “Yes,” she whispered, feeling the burn deep within. “Yes.”
She could feel his heartbeat thumping against her like it was her own. Echoing the pulse between her thighs, igniting her blood until she felt like she was on fire.
Her fingers tingled, reminding her that he wasn’t the only one who’d lost blood today. “Rip,” she whispered. “You have to stop.”
No matter how good this felt. How close to the edge she was. The little death, in all its reality. Esme bit her lip. “John!”
Rip gasped, shoving her hand away. Blood stained his lips and he licked them, looking up at her with those wicked-black eyes. His nostrils flared as if scenting the blood. “Cover it,” he rasped hoarsely. “Before I can’t stop meself.”
Esme tore a strip off her skirt. The wound was already healing, courtesy of his saliva. Few thralls owned scars; only those whose master’s cared little enough to cleanse the wound afterwards or whose virus levels weren’t strong enough. She would bear this one, she imagined, for she didn’t dare ask him to lick it clean.
A sign of his mark on her body.
Esme smiled and leaned her forehead against his, her body rising and falling with his breath. She cupped his face and kissed his lips lightly, tasting copper, sharp and sweet. “I knew you’d come,” she whispered. “I knew all along that you’d come for me.”
Rip kissed her hard. “Always, my love.”
Esme hummed under her breath as she diced a carrot, wielding the knife almost as easily as Rip could. Of course the way he used it was entirely different to her. Or perhaps not. Her smile faded as a flash of the cleaver thunking through solid bone hit her.
Weeks ago. But the memory was still as fresh as yesterday. And just as unsettling.
The door to the kitchen opened and Rip’s eyebrow arched as she flinched, her fingers curling over the knife. He stomped his shoes in the doorway, getting rid of the snow and then tugged his collar high. Most of the snow had melted but last night had dropped one last white blanket across London.
He took in the spread of diced vegetables and lamb. “Shepherd’s pie. Used to be me favourite.” He rarely ate now; he didn’t need to. Only bites sometimes, to savour the flavour.
“Used to be?” she asked with a smile as he wrapped his arms around her and dragged her back against the cradle of his chest.
“Mmm.” Rip breathed in her scent, the rasp of his stubble roughening her neck. “I’ve a new favourite now.”
Her. The thought thrilled her. Last night they’d shared another controlled blood-letting. He still drank most of his blood cold but it was becoming easier for him to control himself. And perhaps the fear of hurting her had been greater than the actual risk. No matter how much the hunger took him, even his darker side seemed protective of her.
“You should come outside,” he said. “Got somethin’ to show you.”
“I have to get dinner on.” Still, she leaned into his embrace as his lips traced the side of her neck. “Perhaps… Perhaps just for a moment.” A gasp, and then he let her go.
“Asked Lena to cook,” he said. “You deserve an afternoon off and what I got to show you might take more than a moment.”
Esme turned in his arms. “A present?”
A look of amusement softened the harshness of his face. “You’re getting’ greedy.”
He’d been showering her with gifts ever since he’d gotten her back. Books he found in the markets, pieces of ribbon, a pair of mink gloves that must have cost him a small fortune… The gifts were overwhelming but Esme hadn’t had the heart to chide him. She saw the pleasure he took in finding something to please her and knew that he’d never had that before. Someone to lavish his attention on. Warm arms that opened every time he turned to her. And a smile and kiss especially for him.
Her gentle giant. So fierce on the outside and strangely soft beneath.
“Show me,” she whispered.
With an almost boyish smile, Rip slipped his mech fingers through hers and led her to the door. The gesture wasn’t lost on her.
Outside the children were playing, Meggie watching wistfully from the stoop as Lark pushed Charlie facedown and shoved a handful of snow down the back of his shirt. He might be a blue blood now but Lark knew every dirty trick in the book.