Home > A Warm Heart in Winter (Black Dagger Brotherhood #18.5)(11)

A Warm Heart in Winter (Black Dagger Brotherhood #18.5)(11)
Author: J.R. Ward

As a shiver of unease teased the nape of Qhuinn’s neck, he stroked his daughter’s blond hair . . . and the sense of warning got worse instead of better.

Back when he had been lying on that stretch of pavement, after the beating had stopped, his weak breath rattling up and down the collapsed trail of his esophagus, he had seen the door unto the Fade. It had come to him, as he had heard it would when the time for death arrived—and he had reached out for the knob because legend held that if you opened the door and stepped through, all your suffering ended and you enjoyed an eternity with those you loved.

Frankly, he’d been shocked that his defect hadn’t relegated him to Dhunhd.

Except he hadn’t turned that knob.

On the flat plane of the white portal, he had seen the face of a young. Lyric. Who at the time had not only been unborn, but was no possibility at all as far as he was concerned. Yet his beloved daughter had appeared before him, her pale-green eyes looking out at him and sending a clear and certain message that as much as he thought it was his moment to transition unto eternity, in fact, it was not his time.

There had been many consequences to the vision, not the least of which was, hello, he was still alive. But an unintended corollary was the fact that until Lyric was born, he’d relied on that vision as a safety vest, a talisman in his reckless engagement and risk-taking in the field: Because until she was safely delivered upon the birthing bed, he was guaranteed life. After all, if he kicked it? She couldn’t exist.

Now, though, it dawned on him that his purpose in creating her had been fulfilled.

No more grace period for danger and death. Sure, in the vision, he had seen her green eyes change to reflect his own mismatched gaze, but that didn’t mean he could guarantee he’d be around to see the shift happen. And as for what happened tonight? He’d been chilling in that tow truck, not expecting any complications from humans, frustrated that he wasn’t on the front lines.

One stab wound later, he was in the OR.

“—okay? Qhuinn?”

Qhuinn looked up. The other two adults in the room were silent in that way that people got when they were expecting the guy in the hospital bed in front of them to throw a clot and expire on the spot with a round of seizures. He wasn’t even sure which one was asking him if he was all right.

“Just perfect.” He gave Lyric’s hand a squeeze with his thumb and forefinger. “I’m absolutely perfect. Come on, with these little guys in my life? And you two plus Xcor? How could I not be?”

The relief that came over the faces that he held so dear made him feel guilty. But sharing the fact that his get-out-of-jail-free card had been stamped didn’t seem like a kind or necessary thing to do.

Shit. He would have been way more nervous going into surgery, or even out on that snowy street, if he’d done the math on it all.

He kind of wished he could undo the realization.

Then again, being more careful just made sense, didn’t it.

The sound of the shower running was a soft lilt through the otherwise silent bedroom suite, and as Z shut the door to his mated chamber, he closed his eyes and breathed in deep. Shampoo. Conditioner. Soap. But more than that bouquet of cleanliness was the underlying scent that pulled it all together.

His shellan. Bella. Mated unto the Black Dagger Brother Zsadist, son of Ahgony, beloved mahmen to Nalla, firstborn of a union that was based on true, abiding love.

When he opened his lids again, the water had been turned off, and there was flapping, a towel being drawn across a naked body with vigor, like the mahmen in question was in a hurry.

He walked forward, shedding his jacket, his chest holster with his daggers, and his guns that rode his hips. He put the hardware of his job inside the walk-in closet on a high shelf, out of sight and out of reach of the young. But never out of mind, not for him, not for his mate.

“Zsadist?”

Oh, that voice. The one that he heard every day and night and never grew tired of. The one that roused him from sleep and aroused him anywhere he was and soothed him and made him smile and did a million other things, small and large, with whatever syllables it served.

“Hi.” He came to the open double doors of the bathroom and looked across all the white marble. “Good shower?”

Bella wrapped herself up in a towel the size of a tarp. The fact it barely fit around his shoulders when he used it made him think of how small she was in comparison to him—and he liked the weight difference, although not because he cared about thin or fat. It meant he could protect her. Kill for her. Feed her and their young with his bare hands if he had to.

Caring for his mate and Nalla was the highest purpose he served, higher even than saving the lives of his brothers and his King.

“Yes, it was a very good shower.” She bent down and wrapped her wet hair up in a separate towel. Flipping the end up as she straightened, she picked her moisturizer off the counter. “I got covered with paint in the playroom.”

“Oh?”

“Mmm-hmmm. Nalla’s idea of finger painting is more is more. Especially when it’s all over her mahmen. Those were blue jeans when we started.”

When she pointed to the tub, Z glanced down at a wad of Levi’s that belonged at a murder scene. The denim was caked with red. “Wow.”

“Right? And I’ll spare you the fleece I was wearing. All I’ll say about that is Fritz was so excited to take it from me. I swear that doggen loves cleaning up messes like it’s his job.” Bella frowned. “I guess it is his job. That made no sense.”

As she laughed at herself, he leaned against the archway and enjoyed watching his shellan’s hands smooth the Neutrogena over her shoulders, her arms, her elbows. As things began to thicken in his blood, ideas of the naked variety occurred to him.

“Is she there still with Bitty?” he asked as his mate bent down and started working on her legs.

Please, dear God, let that babysitter be with her, he thought as his eyes tracked Bella’s hand going up her calf and over her knee, the two halves of the towel parting to reveal the skin of her thigh.

“Yup, the pair of them are having the best time—Bitty is just so terrific with her. I swear, that girl is a gem.” Abruptly, Bella stopped in mid-application and looked over at him. “What’s wrong?”

Z couldn’t keep himself from smiling slowly. “Well, at the moment, I’m sorely disappointed that I didn’t walk in here ten minutes ago as you were just getting into the shower. But I can work around that setback if I take that towel off of you. With my teeth.”

Bella straightened, and, tragically, lost none of her narrowed eye. “What happened tonight. You’re home early, aren’t you. Is everything okay? Who got hurt—”

“Everyone’s fine.” Z walked forward. “There’s nothing wrong.”

He slipped his hands around his mate’s waist, the softness of the terry cloth nothing compared to her skin. In response, her eyes went over the features of his face, and he let her look to her heart’s content. She was like this. She always knew whatever he didn’t speak, and yet he hadn’t lied. He’d gotten the group text that Qhuinn had come through the operation just fine. So everything was . . . just fine.

She put her arms around his neck and leaned into him. When she just stared up at him, he knew what she was doing. She was giving him a chance to elaborate, but also letting him have his privacy—and he hated that she had to do the latter. His therapy sessions with Mary were a weekly thing, and they had helped him a lot, but translating his feelings into words, or even just defining them and sorting through them in his own head, was still hard for him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Her smile was so beautiful, the center of his chest ached. “I love you.”

God, those three words covered so much territory, didn’t they: Don’t be sorry. I’m here and going nowhere. I accept you how and where you are. You are not as broken as you’re telling yourself you are, and you’ll talk about it when you’re ready.

Just as he was dropping down to kiss her mouth, there was a knock on the door and Z glared at the wood panels all the way across the room. The fact that their bed, their big, soft, blanket-laden bed, loomed in his peripheral vision, a nirvana that was potentially getting sidetracked, made him . . . what were the right words?

Cranky as fuck.

“What,” he ground out over his shoulder.

Through the closed doors, Tohr’s voice was all business. “Wrath’s called a meeting. I tried your cell phone.”

“Fucking hell,” Z muttered. And then, louder, “Coming.”

Bella ran her hands over his shoulders. “We’ll pick this up where we left off later.”

He shook his head. “I owe you an apology.”

“You can’t control when meetings happen.”

“Not about that.” He ducked his eyes. “I just wish . . . I were easier.”

“Are you kidding me? Compared to the likes of Vishous? Wrath? Wait, how about—”

“Lassiter.”

“—Lassiter.”

They laughed together a little, and then he said, “But I’m really sorry.”

Those three words were like the ones she’d spoken to him, covering more territory than just their Merriam-Webster definitions: As soon as I know what’s bothering me, I’ll come to you first. I’m okay, truly, and I’m so grateful for your patience. I’m trying to get better at relating, but sometimes I still get stuck and I wish I didn’t.

Oh, and one more: Right now, my job requirements are a serious pain in my ass.

And a last one: I can’t wait to be naked with you.

“You don’t have a thing to be sorry about.” Bella stroked his super short skull trim. “And you know where to find me.”

“Tell my Nalla I said hello? And that Daddy loves her.”

“Always.”

Sweeping his arms all the way around his terrycloth-clad mate, he tilted her back so that her weight was his to bear. Then he brought his lips to hers . . . and kissed the ever-loving crap out of her.

   
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