Only when the snows came, washing away the grimness and painting the world in a feathery white, had she come to see any sign of joy or laughter in this dark world. Blade had been patient with her, offering her a position as his housekeeper when it became clear she was so frightened of the blood-letting that she could barely stand it at first. Even the grim men who worked for him had begun to terrify her less as she grew to know them. Tin Man with the thin metal sheeting over his scalp and his inability to speak; Will, the feral verwulfen boy who Blade had rescued from life in a cage and Rip, whom she’d almost fainted in front of when she first saw the broad-shouldered giant.
He’d caught her as she swayed, wrenching her against his hard body and sucking in a sharp breath. All she could remember were those piercing green eyes staring down at her in surprise, and the heavy feel of the muscle in his left forearm as she gripped it.
In his own quiet way, Rip had won her trust the most, soothing her with his deep voice and helping her with her chores. Reaching for things that were set too high for her and accompanying her at a respectable distance whenever she had to go out. A quiet, solid presence that shadowed her. Never saying much. Rarely touching her. And dangerously brutal whenever some man called out a lewd remark to her.
They stopped doing that within a month of her arrival at the Warren.
Rip had never asked for anything in return for his help and she’d gradually realised he never would. That more than anything had made her start trusting men again.
Though he worked as one of Blade’s enforcers Rip was gentle with her, as if even he feared his strength. And he had a sense of humour so dry that it often took her a moment to realise he’d made a joke. Then that slow smile would spread over his face, catching her breath in her chest and warming parts of her that missed a man. He was her friend, and only that, though Esme was the first to admit that she longed for more.
She’d slowly become accustomed to the world she lived in over the years. Accepting her role as Blade’s housekeeper and even as his blood thrall. Before his wife Honoria had arrived, of course. Blade drank his blood cold now, out of respect for his wife and Esme…Well, she was waiting for Rip to ask her to be his.
A man stepped out of the shadows ahead, watching her. Esme’s lips curved in a genuine smile as she saw Will. He noticed her of course, his amber eyes roving the streets with a predatory interest. Men gave him a wide berth as he stood and smiled at her, ignoring them. He’d been bigger than everyone else ever since he’d arrived in the rookery as a boy. Most people saw that as dangerous but Esme knew he would never hurt her. Will was verwulfen – of course he was dangerous – but he was also fiercely protective and that protection had always extended to her.
“Will!” She held out her gloved hand and he offered her his arm. The move was awkward but well-intentioned. Even through the thick oilskin of his coat she could feel the unnatural heat of his skin and the hint of tension in the thick muscles of his forearm.
Esme looked up. “What’s wrong?”
“William Carver,” she scolded. “I may not have your hearing or your sense of smell, but I know when you’re lying to me.”
A flush of red darkened his high cheekbones. “Come. I’ll walk you home.” A faint, almost Scottish burr corrupted the words, a sure sign that he was nervous or upset. He rarely showed any sign of his birth country now.
Esme planted her feet as he tried to steer her down the street. Away from the nearby alley. He was hiding something.
Tugging free – though in effect he let her go – Esme strode to the mouth of the alley and peered down it curiously.
There was a couple pressed against the pitted brick wall. The whore’s skirt was tucked up as a sign of availability; her profession’s calling card. Tangled blonde hair tumbled down her back as she threw her head back with a gasp, the long smooth column of her throat gleaming pale in the cold afternoon light. Her arms curled up around the man’s back, her nails biting into the thick muscle of his shoulders. Unconsciously, the woman pressed against him, her hips grinding against his as if it felt good, so good – and the part of Esme that had once been Blade’s thrall knew exactly how that felt. Blood fired through her body, a hot flush of need. Then she saw the metal gleaming as rough steel fingers slid up the woman’s nape, clenching in her hair as he held her still. The familiar harshly-cut features that had earned him a fierce reputation. Features she’d often stared at when she thought he wasn’t aware of it. Dreamed of running her lips over…
His mouth trailed over the woman’s throat, lips still glistening with blood. Heat rushed out of Esme’s face and down her neck, as if her heart was constricting in her chest and drawing all of the blood in her body into a small, clenched fist beneath her lungs. She took a step back and stumbled on something. Catching her balance, she saw Rip’s head jerk up sharply, the all-consuming blackness of his pupils drowning out the colour of his irises. As if coming out of a daze his eyes locked on her. A harsh breath tore through his throat, his body rocking on the balls of his feet as if for one moment he made to move toward her.
“Rip,” the whore whispered, sliding a possessive hand up his throat and turning his face back to hers. She shivered and gave a breathy little laugh. “That feels amazin’. Never thought I’d say it, but you want more?” She licked his throat. “’Cos I’ll tup you fer free.”
A fist of nausea crawled up Esme’s throat. Staggering backward, she dropped her basket and clapped a gloved hand to her lips. She had to get away. Before she could hear what his answer would be.
Turning she bolted straight into Will’s hard body, her fingers curling blindly in the heat of his shirt. “I’m sorry,” she blurted, the world spinning around her.
Will’s hand curled around her arm. “Steady there, Esme.” His voice was surprisingly gentle. “I got you.”
Bending low, he scooped up her basket and tucked her in close against his body. She needed it. Her knees were threatening to give out beneath her, a throb of white-hot anger searing away the hurt. The bastard. Don’t want no blood o’ yours, Esme. I prefer it cold, out of the icebox.
All this time she’d thought him afraid to take it fresh from the vein. They’d agreed – her and Blade – that it was best to let Rip learn to control himself by drinking his blood cold. He’d been so badly injured when he’d been infected… Without his own natural resilience, the craving virus had hit him hard and they’d virtually had to chain him in his room for the first month to stop him from tearing through the rookery after blood.
Esme had been patient. Six months ago, when Blade carried him in, crimson dripping from his throat and abdomen…she’d thought she’d lost him. It didn’t matter if she had to wait for him to leash the hunger. She would. In her head, she’d always known that one day he would gain control and then he would need to take a thrall to keep the craving at bay.
She’d had some insane notion that he might finally turn to her, after the last few years when he’d gone out of his way to keep a friendly distance. A foolish hope.
And all this time, he’d been out getting blood on his own. Taking from… from whores on the street, when they wouldn’t even know the basics of how to deal with him when he was in the throes of the hunger. The selfish, arrogant bastard. Not only was it dangerous but it was downright insulting. Her teeth ground together furiously.
“You all right?” Will asked, his voice sounding as though it came from a great distance away.
Esme straightened, her fingers locking around the basket he offered her. “I’m fine,” she said tightly, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “Let’s go.”
Something hot trailed down her cheek, but at least Will was gentleman enough to pretend not to notice it.
Rip shouldered through the back door into the enormous kitchen of the Warren. A blanket of heat hit him, blood stinging in his cheeks and his heart racing. All he could see was the shocked look on Esme’s face as she’d stood in the mouth of the alley, staring at him as if he’d just knifed her.
Hell. He hadn’t meant her to see that. He knew exactly what she’d be thinking. She’d made it quite clear over the last month or two that if he wished to begin taking thralls, then she and Blade thought it best he start with someone who was experienced with a blue blood’s volatile hungers. Her. Never mind that the mere thought of it set him on edge in a way any other woman would not have. Their friendship wouldn’t have survived; if she knew precisely what he thought of her, she’d be horrified.
Esme looked up from the scarred workbench where she was preparing dinner, then dropped her gaze. Will was seated on the other side of the bench, straddling a chair backward with a mug of tea in his hands. Hot amber eyes lit on Rip in an eerie, not-quite-friendly way.
“Esme,” Rip murmured. “You got a moment?”
Somehow he had to put this right. Explain to her that he’d never meant to take her as his thrall – that he didn’t dare. She didn’t owe them anything. She’d earned her right into this family over the years, no matter what the original deal of protection she’d made with Blade had been. Blade didn’t require her services anymore and Rip was hardly about to make fresh demands on her. She was free of her thrall contract.
Esme scraped a pile of butchered parsley off the chopping board into a bubbling pot on the enormous stove. “I’ve got to get dinner on.”
Rip shot Will a dark look and tipped his chin suggestively toward the door. “I’ll help,” he murmured. The way he usually did.
Will sat up a little straighter, setting the mug aside. His fingers curled around the back of the chair. Not going anywhere.
“That’s quite all right. Will can assist me.” Esme put the chopping board down, presenting her back to him. Tendrils of black hair trailed down her nape as she stared down at the board for a fraction longer than necessary.
She wouldn’t look at him. Rip’s teeth ground together, the thought of Will’s presence setting something off inside him, a flare of dark heat arrowing through his gut. Rip took a step toward her, hand curling into a fist.
“Esme, you weren’t meant to see that--”
“Evidently.” Setting a plucked chicken on the board, she picked up the cleaver and hefted its weight.
“I only meant--”
“You said you were fine.” The cleaver cut into the board with a meaty thunk, separating the leg from a chicken’s body. “That you didn’t require fresh blood. That you were drinking it cold, out of Blade’s supplies in the cellars.”
“I were,” he snapped, staring down at the stiffness between her shoulder blades. Look at me, damn you.
The cleaver made another decisive move and Will winced as the impact echoed in the cavernous room. Slowly he levered himself to his feet. “Think I’ll leave you two alone.”
Esme’s head jerked up. “What? Why?”
“Think you got matters to sort that ain’t to do with me,” Will replied.
Rip jerked his head. “Out.”
Esme didn’t like that none. She spun on him, her green eyes glittering with fury, the cleaver emphasising each word. “Don’t you think you can order him out of my kitchen! I want him to stay. I want you to leave.”
Will took his chance and bolted through the door.
“Looks like the decision’s been made,” Rip murmured.
As soon as Will left, the room suddenly seemed too small. Rip scraped a hand over his mouth, feeling the rough scratch of his stubble. Esme looked down, her jaw clenching as she set about dismembering the chicken. If he wasn’t mistaken he thought he heard a muttered, “Coward,” under her breath.
“I never meant you to be me thrall,” he started to say, watching as the cleaver flashed up and then buried itself in the board. “Weren’t ever me intention.” He swallowed hard, remembering that first night when he’d put his mouth to her throat and drank. The flash of fire through his veins as though someone had injected him with pure acid, an rush of heat tightening in his groin until he felt like he was going to explode… And Esme… Helpless little gasping noises coming from her throat as she curled her hands into his shirt and begged, pleaded, for more. “Yes… yes… Oh God, John!”
If they’d been alone, if Blade hadn’t been there… he’d have taken her. Shoved her down into his sheets and buried his heavy cock inside her, his teeth in her throat. The thought frightened him, because he didn’t know where he would have stopped.
Or if he would have stopped before it was too late.