A roughened thumb traced the tear’s path. “Fuckin’ hell,” he said in a breathless, bewildered tone. “Christ, luv. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. I ain’t worth that.”
“Yes, you are,” she whispered. “I won’t have you belittle yourself.” Everyone else did enough of that.
As dangerous as sin, the whores on the street whispered. Oh yes, she’d heard it and knew he had too. But in her heart, sin wasn’t unattractive at all. It was the faint brush of his hard body against hers as they passed in the kitchen or the slow, dangerous smile he gave her when they were alone and he was stealing batter from her cake mix. Only she got to see what no one else did when he dropped his guard and let himself be just a man, instead of forcing his reputation and his scowling menace down people’s throats.
“Fine, luv. Fine. Won’t say it.”
His hard body seemed to surround her, fingertips caressing her jaw so lightly she could have escaped if she’d wanted to.
He still didn’t understand what the problem was. She could walk away now, knowing that their friendship would remain as it always had, that her nights would be spent in a torture of thwarted desire whilst he lay on the other side of the wall, no doubt oblivious to her true feelings.
She could pull away. She should.
It was the sensible thing to do. The Esme thing.
If she wanted to…
Her fingers loosened from their tight fist and flexed wide, hovering an inch away from his abdomen. Esme couldn’t believe what she was suddenly thinking. She was so damned tired of waiting for him to notice her feelings. Of being too afraid to voice them.
She didn’t want to be sensible anymore.
“Do you want to know why I’m so upset?” Esme whispered, forcing the words through trembling lips. If she couldn’t say this now, then she never would.
“Aye,” he said gruffly, tilting his face lower as if to find the answers in her eyes.
“Because I wanted it to be me,” she whispered, sinking her fist into the collar of his shirt and lifting onto her toes to press her lips to his.
Rip froze, sucking in a sharp hiss of air between his parted lips.
He could taste her on his mouth, in the warmth of her breath… Everything he’d ever dreamed of and couldn’t believe was actually happening.
Esme’s soft body wilted against him, her fists curling in his shirt and her mouth closing over his with a hungry little moan. The dart of her tongue lashed through him, as though it flickered directly over the length of his cock. He was hard in seconds, his hands sliding into the coarse stiffness of her bustle as he wrenched her against him.
Christ. Rip hesitated, a furore of emotion swirling through him. Dangerous. The heady drumbeat of her pulse was suddenly thick in his ears. She dragged his head down and captured his mouth with a wantonness that pushed him straight over the edge. Rip staggered forward, taking her with him. Somehow her back hit the wall and then he was pressing against her, hand fisting in her skirts and need burning through him like a raging river.
A flash of red swept behind his closed lids and Rip groaned, his hips thrusting unconsciously against her. Steady. He forced his fingers to unclench in her skirts but Esme bit his lip, a flare of pain and pleasure shooting through him.
Her breath. Ragged in his ears. The taste of her, burning through him, igniting every desire Rip had. Her pulse. Her god-damned pulse, thundering now. Rip groaned, wrenching his mouth from hers. Esme’s hand curled in his collar as if she wasn’t prepared to let him go but he had to get away. If he didn’t he’d be on her, teeth digging into the smooth column of her throat, his hand dropping to the blade at his waist… Another groan as the thought fired his blood.
Get away. Now.
Rip shoved back and reeled into the streets, blinking against the dark shadows of his vision. Movement screamed around him. The predator in him, the hunger, was so furiously aware of Esme, of the throb of her heart, that he didn’t dare take a step toward her.
“John,” she whispered, touching her lips. Her eyes were almost glassy.
Esme took a step forward but he backed away, sliding his hands into his pockets. Christ. Couldn’t she bloody see how close to the edge he was?
He shook his head abruptly. “Don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t. Not with you.” The look on her face almost crushed him. As if he had hit her. “Gotta go. I just… I can’t.”
Then he turned and stalked through the steady drift of snow toward the Warren, listening to the sharp, hurt intake of her breath as he tried to stop himself from bleeding her dry.
The bristling fir tree went up, the tip bending against the ceiling. Will peered through the branches, his arms wrapped around the evergreen and a scowl on his face as he wrestled it into place.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” Blade asked, stepping back and examining it.
Esme pasted a smile on her face and nodded as the others gathered to look. She could feel Rip watching her from across the room, leaning against the wall in silence. He’d barely been involved in wrestling the tree inside and neither had she. Both of them hovered on the edges of the family, as if someone had trapped the pair of them outside one of those snow globes the French exported, looking on the family within. Somehow the world seemed dulled, sound distorted. As if she didn’t truly belong in this moment.
Honoria laughed as Blade slung his arm around her. Since marrying Blade, she’d put on several pounds, a vital improvement. The weight softened her features and happiness often put a smile on her face. In the past six months she and Esme had become quite close, though Esme couldn’t go to her with this. She couldn’t go to anyone, not even Blade, who’d once been her confidante. Her heart felt like it was breaking but how could she tell her friends what had happened?
She’d kissed Rip and he’d told her he didn’t want her. I can’t. Not with you. Words that seemed scarred across her heart. She felt it bubbling up inside her, like a fist in her throat, threatening to escape. But if she let it, the tears wouldn’t stop. And Esme had always been good at hiding them.
She hadn’t cried when her parents cut her off after marrying Tom and she hadn’t cried when his mother cast her into the streets after his death. Instead she’d picked herself up out of the gutters and found herself respectable employment as a seamstress until her new neighbour began to make life unbearable. She could do it again. Paste a smile on her lips as she pretended that nothing had ever happened between her and Rip.
Still, the thought of being his friend right now was more than she could bear.
Two children darted past, screaming with laughter. Lark had arrived at the Warren with Tin Man, though nobody knew whether she was his daughter, a relation or merely some young girl he’d taken in off the streets, and Charlie was Honoria’s younger brother. Though he’d been stricken with the craving too, he’d recovered from it much quicker than Rip had. Blade kept an eye on the lad, but he seemed to be handling himself well. In the first few months he’d been terrified to be alone with anyone human, especially his sisters Honoria and Lena, for fear of going for their throats. It was good to hear his laughter now and see him relax.
“Charlie! Give it back!” Lena darted into the room, her hair tied up in a red ribbon and her cheeks flushed. She stopped when she saw the tree, her eyes widening. On the verge of being a woman, Lena could still be given to moments of childish glee, and her life had been hard enough six months ago that she’d taken to every moment as if it could be the last.
“Goodness,” she said. “Where did that come from?” Then her eyes narrowed in delight as she spotted Will, straining to hold the tree in place. “What a terribly hairy decoration. Perhaps we should put some ribbons on it?”
Will shoved out of the branches as if embarrassed to be caught up in it. He’d stiffened as soon as Lena entered the room.
The sight jolted Esme out of her misery. Will had never liked women much, ever since his mother sold him to a travelling showman and he’d spent ten years in a cage. It had taken Esme years to break through his distrustful demeanour – mostly by sneaking him snippets of roast beef and baking spice cakes for him. Stepping up to his side, Esme slid a protective hand over his shoulder. “I think it will hold,” she said.
Their eyes met. Will’s shoulders softened, as though he was relieved to see her. Esme wasn’t stupid. She’d seen him duck behind buildings to avoid Lena, whilst Lena mercilessly hunted him down. Lena knew she made him uneasy, but she hadn’t quite realized why.
It was difficult enough for Will to trust Esme and Honoria but a young, attractive girl who flirted with him? Esme had never seen him with a woman, but she knew when a young man desired a girl. And when he didn’t quite know how to deal with it.
“Come help me in the kitchen,” she said.
Rip watched them go, his arms folded across his chest and his gaze locking on her with an intensity that unnerved her. He shifted as if about to follow them, then thought better of it.
Her cheeks burning, Esme ducked past Blade – ignoring the inquisitive look he gave her – and pushed through into the kitchen.
A wall of heat hit her. Comforting, homely… her own special retreat. She’d spent the last hour popping corn whilst the men dragged the tree inside and fluffy mounds of it filled a bowl on the bench to be strung up for decorations for the tree. Little mince pies still warm from the oven flavoured the room with their spicy scent and Will’s amber eyes locked on them.
“Here,” Esme murmured.
The tenseness leeched out of him as he sat and began devouring mince pies. Esme reached out with a smile and brushed the hair out his eyes. She’d never had a brother, but Will was as close as one could be.
“You shouldn’t let her get to you,” she murmured.
He stiffened instantly.
“And before you tell me a lie, please bear in mind that I’m the only one who has noticed.”
“Ain’t nothin,” he said, dusting the crumbs of pastry from his fingers. “Lena’s just a girl, playin’ games she can’t afford to. I don’t intend to do anythin’ about it, though I should, just to teach her a lesson.”
“You might be the one who gets your fingers burned,” she replied. “Honoria’s protective of her sister and therefore so is Blade.”
Frustration flared in his eyes. A verwulfen’s temper was always volatile and Esme prayed that Lena would learn that before Will did something he didn’t want to do. He’d always been so fiercely controlled, knowing the devastation he could cause if he lost himself to the berserker fury. A verwulfen wasn’t like a blue blood, hungering for blood, but the rage was almost as dangerous as a blue blood’s hunger.
“I try to stay clear o’ her,” he murmured, hints of Scotland in his words. “It’s hard when she lives here too. Been thinkin’… maybe its time I found a place o’ me own, aye?”
“Perhaps you should find a woman.”
At that he shook his head abruptly. “No. That ain’t for me.”
“Have you ever been with a woman?” she asked softly, knowing the answer. Though Blade had only spoken of it once, she knew there’d been that moment between them, when Will turned eighteen and first became Blade’s thrall. She could only imagine how confusing it must have been for Will, for the feeding affected him at least as much as it did her.
Somehow Blade had sorted the misunderstanding but Will was still wary enough of most women that he rarely tolerated them. The only one he’d ever shown any hint of attraction to was in the next room and blithely unaware of the confusion she was wreaking.
“Christ, Esme.” Will’s eyes flared wild. “I ain’t talkin’ about this with you.”
“You should speak to someone,” she chided. “Perhaps Blade?”
“He’d strip the skin off me back if he knew what I were thinkin’,” Will admitted gruffly.
“John?” she suggested.
A quirk of one tawny brow. “’Cause he obviously knows what he’s doin’.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Will reached out and slid his hand over hers on the bench. “Don’t like to see you hurtin’.”
That hot rush of pain swam through her. Esme summoned a brave smile. “I’m fine, Will. I just don’t believe I can be a friend to John at the moment. Not… Not just yet.”
Movement flickered at the corner of her vision. The door swinging shut. Esme’s head jerked up and she stared as Rip’s eyes met hers. Heat flushed into her cheeks as his gaze slid over her hand, so secure under Will’s. He had to have heard her. For a moment her mind raced, trying to remember if anything else had been said.