SoHo 11:45 p.m.
Their breath visible in the frigid air, their shadows massive against the jagged stone walls, Nicholas and Lucian Roman moved through the tunnels beneath the quiet Manhattan neighborhood, determined to save their brother's soul, yet severely opposed on how to accomplish it.
"He's not ready," Lucian growled.
Nicholas's strides lengthened as he stalked past the tunnel guards--male vampires, Impurebloods--who kept their eyes on their boots and away from the one so beautifully pale, and the other with eyes and hair as black as his unbeating heart. "I will see for myself."
"What you will see, Brother," Lucian said, his fangs twitching, "is an animal. The hunger rules him again. This time it is nearly uncontrollable."
"No. Alexander has control. He has judgment. Look where he keeps himself."
Nicholas frowned. The six-by-nine-foot cage that dwelled far beneath the New York City streets had been built long ago to quell his eldest brother's rage, starve his body, and fuck with his mind, but in the past two days it had kept him from killing anything that crossed his path.
Lucian fell into step beside him as the tunnel widened. "He nearly butchered that human woman, Nicky."
"She is fine. She breathes."
"Only because you intervened."
Nicholas said nothing, his jaw tight as a fist.
Lucian continued. "He must stay in the cage until he feels . . . whole again. Until his craving for blood eases." His voice dropped. "If it ever eases ..."
"You want to keep him locked up like an animal indefinitely?" Nicholas accused fiercely. "Like he was forced to do as a balas." The ancient word for "vampire child"
exited Nicholas's mouth as a bitter hiss.
"It is as he wants it," Lucian argued. "Alexander built that cage because he was addicted to the pain of his past--now he keeps himself in it to protect his future. I'm not the bastard who fucked up his early years, but I know what needs to be done now, and so does Alexander. He understands the danger he's in--that we're all in now."
They rounded the corner and Nicholas eyeballed a second set of guards as they passed by. The Impure-bloods, the powerless sons of both human and vampire, had escaped their respective credentis--their vampire communities--long ago, after having had their sexual appetites bled out of them by the Order, the rulers of their breed. Now they worked for the Pureblood Roman brothers, and were treated with decency and respect.
"I believe your reaction," Nicholas said to Lucian as they reached the end of the tunnel and the door that led to their brother's prison, "your need to keep Alexander contained--is based in fear."
Lucian stepped in front of the heavy iron door, blocking Nicholas's way, his almond eyes burning with aggression. "Listen to me. If he kills, the Eternal Order will be able to track him--they'll be up our asses before we have a chance to cover them."
Nicholas sniffed. "Since when have you ever cared about the laws of the Order?"
"Hey, if you want to bring a war here--because you know that's what will happen if the Order finds us and attempts to take us back to the credenti--I'm game. I'd have to be dead to return to my vampire community, so they'll get a good fight from me. But we must acknowledge that if they find us, everything we've created since escaping will be over." He lifted his pale brows. "This is not fear, but reality."
Nicholas stared at his brother--the terrifying angel with the shock of white hair hanging past his ears. Granted, Lucian could be a hotheaded shit who acted too quickly and apologized never, but his point, his reasoning for keeping Alexander away from the public, had merit. And Nicholas was never one to ignore reality. As a balas it had kept him and his mother clothed, fed, and breathing. And more vitally, it had kept them away from the credenti and, later, the Eternal Order--the ten Pureblood vampires who had passed on to the middle world, yet made the laws, punished the lawbreakers, and governed every vampire credenti on Earth.
Nicholas nodded. "All right. He stays. But I want to see him and speak to him first."
"Are you going to give him a hug?" Lucian drawled, "Tell him everything's going to be all right? Share some feelings perhaps?"
Nicholas didn't bite back. He was nothing if not controlled. It was how he survived within his own head, within the memories that lurked there. "Enough now. Open the door, Little Brother."
With a sniff of derision, Lucian turned and punched in the alarm code. When he saw "green for go," he gripped the massive door handle and pulled. The brothers entered, quickly filling the small space with their massive frames. Nicholas looked around. First thing he saw was Alexander's ancient servant, Evans, a bald, rat-eyed Impure, who had escaped a credenti in Maine just ten years ago, and had been found in Central Park by Alexander.
Evans paced the floor in front of the cage, which was cut into the rock wall and had no windows, except for the three twelve-inch iron bars soldered into a steel door that took three keys, an alarm code, and a retinal scan to unlock.
"Open the door, Evans," Lucian ordered brusquely.
The old Impure stopped directly in front of Alexander's self-imposed prison. Like most males who came before the Roman brothers, he refused to make eye contact. It was the fear of their father, the Breeding Male, who and what he was--it remained strong, even in those who had escaped the credenti. "I'm sorry, sir. He wishes not to be disturbed."
Lucian cocked his head to one side. "I really don't give a shit."
"Easy, Lucian," Nicholas said in a calm voice, well aware that the old vampire was just protecting his master, the one who had taken him in and given him a new life.
"Step aside now, Evans."
"I'm a gentleman, Evans," Nicholas continued easily, "and would drain your vein quickly and relatively painlessly, but Lucian, as you know, has little self-control."
Evans paled. "Yes, sir."
"Do it," Lucian said. "Quickly."
His hands shaking, the servant did as he was told, disarming the alarm, performing the retinal scan, and fumbling around with the key as he unlocked the door.
Then, without looking at either brother, he stood back and watched as the door rolled to one side.
It was pitch-black inside the cage, freezing, and smelled of disinfectant--just as Alexander liked it. Lucian was the first to enter, but was barely five seconds inside before he let loose a string of curses.
Nicholas reached his brother's side in a millisecond. "What's the problem?" When he saw the reason for the outburst, he stalked out of the hole in the rock and went directly to Evans, his nostrils pulsing with each heavy breath. "Where is he?"
Evans's entire body trembled with fear. "I couldn't stop him. I--"
"Look at me, Impure!" Nicholas demanded.
Evans's gaze flickered up. He saw Lucian coming toward him too, and looked ready to pass the hell out.
"How long?" Nicholas repeated.
"An hour," Evans squeaked out.
Nicholas turned when he heard Lucian. "He's on the hunt."
Lucian's fangs elongated as he glared at the servant. "You stupid little fu--"
Nicholas stopped him. "No time. We need to find him. No female in his path is safe."
The West Side Fourth-floor psychiatric unit
"Lock her in and check her every fifteen."
Before the heavy wood door closed, Dr. Sara Donohue took another glance at her newest patient. Pearl McClean sat in the center of a twin mattress, legs crossed, chin to her chest, and due to a mild sedative, calm for the first time since she'd arrived from the ER an hour ago. The seventeen-year-old girl may have looked like an ordinary teenager daydreaming about her latest crush, but the blue paper gown she wore, and the fact that she was in a juvenile seclusion room on the fourth-floor psychiatric unit of Walter Wynn Memorial Hospital, made it clear that her troubles went far deeper than unrequited love.
Sara eyed the six-foot-three mocha-skinned security guard as he snapped the lock on the girl's door. "Hey, Randy, page me if she rips off that gown again. I'm talking right away."
He gave her a casual salute. "You got it, Doc."
Sara turned away from the door and started down the hall. "Coming, Mel?" she called over her shoulder.
"Yeah, right behind you." Melanie Abrams, the social worker who'd brought Pearl to the hospital and who worked most of the juvenile cases on the floor, ran after Sara, her ultrahigh heels making little clicking sounds on the scuffed white vinyl floor. "Not for nothing," she said, her tone slightly breathless from the pace. "But when did cutting get so freaking popular?"
Her eyes on her files, Sara ran down the med schedules for the night. "Maybe when leeches became an impractical way of detoxing emotional and physical pain. But I don't know if that's what's going on here."
"How can you say that?" Melanie asked, clearly taken aback. "She has hundreds of cuts all over her body."
"I know, but cutters normally stick to one area: arms, legs, belly. An area they can hide," Sara said, while hustling down the hallway, her long legs covering ground like a Thoroughbred out of the gate.
A young psych nurse walked by them and, as usual, his eyes went directly to the petite blonde behind Sara. She could hardly blame the guy. After all, Melanie looked more like a centerfold than a tough-ass social worker, and when she was around, most women in the hospital felt like Mary Ann next to her Ginger. Not so much Sara, though.
She had zero desire to be the hot one, didn't have time to be the hot one.
"Maybe she wasn't looking to hurt herself," Melanie said, ignoring the nurse as she followed Sara. "Maybe she just wanted someone to notice her."
"Could be." Sara rounded the corner, then stopped at the double doors separating the juvenile ward from main reception and the adult long-term-care facility. She slipped her key card into the wall slot and waited impatiently to be buzzed through. Once she gained access, she took off toward reception, Melanie affixed to her side.
"You know," Sara began, "she didn't say a word when I was in there with her. She didn't answer one question, but she did flinch every time I mentioned the mother's boyfriend."
Melanie looked thoughtful. "The guy seemed kind of shady to me, but he did act concerned when we came to get her."
"Course he did. Who called 911?"
"The mom. She was at the door when we got there, led the officers and me right into the bathroom. We found Pearl crouched beside the tub. Knife was a few feet away."
Sara dropped her files on the green marble desktop. "Was she wearing anything?"
"No. Naked, out of control, covered in cuts. But ..."
Sara glanced up, saw the confusion in Melanie's pale blue eyes, and said, "What?"
"I don't know . . . It was weird. With that many cuts, you'd expect a good amount of blood, right?"
"And what?" Sara said. "There wasn't much?"
"There wasn't any." Melanie's gaze flickered to the two nurses behind the large circular desk, and she lowered her voice. "These were fresh wounds, open--and they weren't even seeping. Take a look."
Sara opened Pearl McClean's file again and flipped through the photos of her injuries until she got to the close-up shots of the girl's wounds. As Melanie had said, the cuts looked new, unhealed; no scar had formed over the hundred or so gashes and yet there was no sign of blood. In fact, she thought, pulling the image closer, the skin looked almost shiny, like an imaginary piece of tape was affixed to it.
"So?" Melanie said. "What do you think?"
"ER doc says the weapon and cuts match up." Sara stared at the photograph of the girl's back, then shook her head. "I just don't think those marks are self-inflicted."
"So what, then? Someone did this to her? The boyfriend? The mom?"
"I don't know, but I'm not letting her leave the hospital until I find out."
Melanie eyed Sara, as if she didn't want to say something, yet knew she couldn't stop herself. "The mother raved about the relationship her boyfriend had with the girl.
She said he was the perfect father--that he'd do anything for Pearl."
Sara laughed. "You didn't believe that."
"No." Mel sighed, looking momentarily deflated. "So what should I put in the report?"
"Let's go with 'deliberate self-harm' for now," Sara said, closing the girl's file.
"It'll give me more time--"
Sara was cut off by the long bleating sound of one of the nurse's pagers. She turned to see Claire, a reception nurse in her late thirties who always worked graveyard and was obsessed with bright blue eye shadow and cinnamon Certs, checking the readout on her pager.
"Who is it?" Sara asked her.
"LTC, 412," she said.
Shit! "Buzz me in." Sara pushed away from the reception desk and Melanie, and raced through the door to Long-Term Care. Gray . She'd just seen him an hour ago; he'd been fine. Her heart beat louder and faster as she ran down the hall. What the hell had happened?
Her breath pulled hard from her lungs as she burst through the door to his room.
Her gaze shot to the bed, which was sans patient and stripped of all linen. Then she caught sight of Gray, completely calm, sitting on a chair by the window, staring out at the building across the airshaft and its handful of rooms that were dotted with light and life.
His hands were splayed on his thighs, and his dark blond hair was disheveled. Several longer bits stuck out in places like weeds in the grass.
The rational part of Sara's brain warned her to chill out and feign professionalism if she didn't want any questions coming her way later, but it was almost impossible to be cool. Without a word to the nurse who stood beside Gray, Sara went to him and knelt down beside his chair. She fought the urge to wrap her arms around his long, lean frame and protect him from whatever crisis he'd encountered in the past five minutes. Instead, she took his hands, misshapen and discolored from decades-old burns. "What happened, Gray?" she asked him gently.
Nothing. Not like she expected anything else.
"Will you look at me?" she asked him gently. "Let me see you're okay?"
Gray didn't move, just continued to stare out the window as if nothing but a light breeze had blown through his door. Sara looked up at the nurse standing beside her.
"I found a stockpile in his mattress," the nurse said. "Klonopin." She nodded toward the metal meal cart next to the bed.
Sara followed the nurse's gaze and saw the small hill of round, yellow pills.
Goddammit. How was this happening behind her back? How had she not seen signs of hoarding, and of his mental state deteriorating to this point? She turned back, stared at the once-handsome young man curled into himself like a child on the plastic chair.
Stockpiling sedatives was the road to intentional overdose. Anger, fear, and untamed guilt swam like piranha in her blood. She wanted to shake him, force him to look at her, but she had to be careful how she dealt with Gray in front of staff. As psychiatrists went, she was one of the more hands-on docs, but that didn't mean she could get all weepy and emotional with a patient without attracting attention.
"When you found him," Sara asked Jill, a practiced calm in her voice, "was he taking anything from the stash?"
The nurse shook her head. "Just adding to it. He was on the floor beside the bed stuffing the pills inside. I think he used a fork to jab a hole in the mattress."
Sara stood, pulled out her stethoscope and placed the diaphragm on Gray's back, listening to his heart and lungs. When she was satisfied by what she heard, she eased the buds from her ears. "Jill," she said. "Get rid of the meds, but make sure he takes his regular dosage. And I mean watch and check, okay?"
"Of course, Dr. Donohue." Jill raised her dark brows. "Do you want him back in bed for the night?"
Sara winced. The question was a valid one in a situation like this, but the phrase
"back in bed" was code for "Do you want him strapped down?" and there was nothing she wanted less in that moment. "No, he's fine where he is. But I'm going to get a new mattress in here, and in the meantime I want you to check the room for anything else, anything that might be a problem, then look in on him every ten minutes and call me if there's any change."
Jill nodded. "Sure thing, Dr. Donohue."
When the nurse left the room, Sara went to stand in front of the window, in Gray's line of vision. She hoped he'd lift his gaze to hers for just a moment so she could connect with him. But when he did, the weight of his unhappiness read so loud and obvious in his steely gray eyes that Sara could barely keep her emotions in check. Her breath trembled as she leaned toward him, and she hated herself for it. "Just give me a little more time,"
His jaw twitched; then his mouth settled into a frown, and after a moment, he turned away and shut his eyes.
Sara didn't say another word, just turned and left the room. She headed straight for her office, to the tiny bathroom that was all her own. When she got there, she shut the door and turned on the cold water. What was she supposed to do? What did he expect her to do? Let him go? Let him die? Just give him the tools to kill himself and walk away?
He was fucking kidding himself if he thought she was going to do that.
Tears burned in her throat and she hauled back and smashed her fist against the bathroom door. Pain shot through her wrist, then up her forearm. It felt good for a moment--her anger was alive, and the sudden release of emotional pain felt almost druglike in its quickness. Was this the release-high some of her juvie patients got off on?
she wondered before the pain suddenly jumped and intensified. Sucking air through her teeth, she stuck her throbbing hand under the faucet and let the frigid water numb her skin. She glanced at the door, made sure she hadn't left an imprint.
All she needed was more time. There would come a day, one day soon, if she could get her ass in gear, that she would get it right, and Gray would finally be released from the memories that haunted him. And hell,you'd be released from them too, wouldn't you?
The loud knock on her office door startled her, but pulled her back to reality. She quickly dried her hand, left the bathroom, and called, "Come in," as she walked over to her desk and dropped into the black leather chair behind it. She eyed the four half-empty takeout cups scattered around the top of her messy desk, and ached for a hot cup of coffee.
Dr. Peter Albert walked into the room with an expression of a man who was long on criticisms but short on patience.
Sara didn't wait for the middle-aged ward chief to ball her out. One second after he sat in the chair opposite her, she shook her head and said, "Amazing. It's close to midnight, staff's changing over, and yet the Dr. Albert spy contingent rolls on."
The man smiled dryly. "I would hope so. Who knows when or if I'd have heard about it from you."
He was right, but Sara didn't say it. She didn't have to. Pete had known her for four years now, and he'd come to expect certain things. Her honesty and loyalty were his when it came to every patient but one.
She shrugged, tried to sound casual. "There's nothing to worry about here. He's fine. Nothing drastic went down."
Pete didn't buy it. "Only because a nurse caught him before it did."
"It's my fault. The sessions this week have been particularly brutal. He's been bombarded by flashbacks of the fire--"
"Get serious. That pile of Klonopin was more than a week in the making."
Sara sat up and grabbed one of the half-empty cups of coffee on her desk. "We're getting so close, Pete. I can feel it. Isn't that why you brought me on? To find the switch?
Turn off traumatic memory for good?"
"Yes, that's why I hired you, and why the donors continue to throw money at the Neuro Psych department--it's also why I allow you to have Gray here." Tense lines formed around his mouth. "But if anyone finds out--"
"No one's going to find out," Sara assured him, taking a sip of coffee. Ugh. Cold.
She drank it anyway.
"If Gray regains his ability to speak--"
"He wouldn't tell anyone. He wouldn't want me to lose my job."
Pete's brow lifted. "Even if you were the one preventing him from permanently checking out?"
His words stopped her cold, because in truth, the possibly was a valid one.
Pete was quiet, his gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth and remained there a second too long before he said softly, "Listen, Sara. I've got to protect myself and this hospital."
"I understand that."
"Good, because I've decided to change Gray's current situation."
"What does that mean?" A prick of fear moved through her.
"I'm having him moved to lockdown."
"Hell no!" She slammed down her cup. "No, Pete. I won't keep him in a cell, strapped to a bed, no group therapy. He's already a prisoner."
"You're not thinking clearly. You're making choices based on emotion, not what's right for Gray. I think maybe you should consider putting him under the care of another doctor--"
Sara was adamant. "Not going to happen."
"If you make that change without my say-so, you can consider it my resignation."
Sara leaned toward him, her tone deadly serious. "And all of my research--every study on PTSD, every unpublished finding I have on memory pain in military vets, every question, every curiosity, every idea I have will go with me."
Worry etched Pete's expression, and something beyond a professional loss. She knew he liked her, more than a boss should. And if she were anyone else, someone with a past that was free of tragedy and a future that offered clear possibilities, she might have given him a chance. After all, he was a decent guy, nice to look at. But she had nothing to offer anyone, not now--not yet.
Sara stood, grabbed the stack of files from her desk. "I have to go. I have patients."
Pete stood as well. "If the truth gets out, I'm going to have to deny all knowledge.
It's your career that'll be destroyed."
Sara nodded. "Understood." Poor Pete, she mused. He was a good man, just not a brave one.
Sara walked out of her office and didn't stop until one of the nurses called to her from the nurse's station. "Dr. Donohue?"
"Tom Trainer's calling for you again. It's his fourth call tonight. I tried to tell him you weren't available, but he insisted on holding."
Sara sighed. "He's no longer a patient here. Tell him you'd be happy to recommend a doc outside the hospital, but I won't be speaking to him now or ever."
The young woman nodded. "Okay."
Sara walked away from the nurse's station. She needed to see Gray, see if he was all right and in the room she'd left him in. The hallway was quiet, with most of the patients asleep. She grabbed his chart from the wall and entered his room. When she saw him asleep on the dormitory-style bed, a single white sheet pushed down to his knees and no restraints at his wrists, she sighed with relief.
She watched him for a few moments, the shaft of light from the hallway illuminating his pale face. Her little brother was twenty-seven in real time, but to Sara he still looked like the boy who used to chase her around the house pretending to be a hungry sister-eating dinosaur. Now he was as much a prisoner of the hospital as he was of his mind.
Sara went over to the bed and sat down beside him, laid her perfectly smooth hand over one of his fire-ravaged ones. The fire she'd caused--the fire that had not only destroyed her family, but her brother's mental and physical health, as well, the summer he'd turned eight.
The fire she'd run from and come out unscathed.
It took every ounce of self-control she had not to lie down beside him and weep against his shoulder. But she didn't deserve his care, not until he could offer it to her himself. Because the truth was, no matter how hard she worked, she'd never truly atone for her sin until she brought her brother back to life.
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