"YOU SURPRISE ME."
Cybil tipped her head, gave him that long, slanted stare as they walked through the house. "I hate to be predictable. What's the current surprise?"
"I figured, especially after the mood-breaker, you'd say no thanks."
"That would be shortsighted and self-defeating. I like sex. I'm fairly sure I'm going to like sex with you." She gave a quick, careless shrug, while that half-smile stayed in place. "Why shouldn't I have something I like?"
"I can't think of a single reason."
"Neither can I. So." At the top of the stairs she pushed him back against the wall, crushed her mouth against his. And the easy, the expected glide of arousal inside him banked hard, then shot straight through him.
She bit lightly on his bottom lip once, then spoke against them-each word a separate stroke. "Let's both have something we like."
She stepped back, gestured toward a bedroom doorway. "That one's yours, isn't it?" With one last glance over her shoulder, one that literally caused the breath to back up in his lungs, she strolled to it, and through.
This, Gage thought as he pushed off the wall, was going to be pretty damn interesting.
She was bent over the bed, straightening his disordered sheets when he came in. "I wasn't planning on using that again before tonight."
She flicked a look back at him, eyes wicked. "Isn't it nice when plans change? I'm a bed-maker myself. I like everything all… smooth when I slide in at night. Or…" She gave the sheets a last pat, turned. "Whenever."
"I don't mind a few tangles." He moved to her, gripped her hips to lift her onto her toes.
"That's good, because there's bound to be more than a few when we're finished with it, and I won't be making the bed for you." Sinuously, she hooked her arms around his neck, met his mouth in a long, slow burn of a kiss.
In one lazy glide, his hands slid up, under her shirt, over her sides with a teasing brush of thumbs over her breasts. Her shirt slithered up with the movement as he drew her arms over her head.
"Nice move," she said when her shirt dropped away.
"I've got more."
"Me, too." Smiling, she flipped open the button of his jeans, eased the zipper down barely an inch. Watching him, she grazed her nails over his belly, up to his chest. "Nice definition, for a cardplayer," she added as she pulled his shirt up and off.
She was a killer, he thought. "Thanks."
Both of them, he knew, understood the steps of the dance, had practiced its variations, its changing rhythms. But for this dance, their first together, he intended to take the lead.
He took her mouth again, a playful meeting of lips and tongues while he unhooked her pants. Then he lifted her off her feet in a sudden and casual show of strength that had her breath snagging even as the cotton slid down her legs to the floor. Gotcha, he thought, and lowered her just enough to bring her mouth to his. And when her sound of pleasure warmed his lips, when the hands on his shoulders tensed, he released her with just enough force to have her falling onto the bed.
She lay on her back, hair tumbled. Dusky skin and frothy black lace.
"You didn't get that muscle shuffling cards."
"You'd be surprised." He eased down, planted his hands on either side of her head. "Fast or slow?"
"Let's try some of both." Fisting her hands in his hair, she pulled him to her. The kiss spun out, rolls of white satin, then darkened and fired with the first hungry nips of teeth. Her hands stroked down his back, slid under his loosened jeans to ride over taught muscles. And like lightning her legs hooked around him, her body bowed up pressing them urgently center to center in a move that yanked furiously at his chain of control.
A killer, he thought again, and ravished her neck.
He had a fantastic mouth, an amazing mouth. She let her head fall back so it could sample her wherever it chose. Her skin hummed under it, and under her skin her blood began to beat. His body-long, hard, with the ripple of muscle, pressed down on hers in exactly the right way so that need gathered into tight knots that set pulses drumming.
Heat. Hunger. Hurry.
She shoved the jeans down his hips, pushing them clear as she rolled over to straddle him. He countered by levering up, fixing his mouth on hers as he flicked open the clasp of her bra.
Even as the kiss spoke of speed, of urgency, his hands skimmed, stroked, in a kind of lazy torture that kindled low fires in her belly. When his mouth lowered to taste, to possess what his hands had aroused, she bowed back to offer more.
She flowed, was all he could think, agile and eager. The beautiful lines of her, the lovely curves all in pale gold, an exotic feast for the taking. And she took, grasping her own pleasure, gliding on it. Nothing could have been more provocative to him than Cybil steeped in that inevitable rise of passion.
Had he wanted her this much? Had this clenched fist of desire been inside him all along-waiting, just waiting, to punch through caution and control? It pounded in him now, beating down all reason so he wanted to feel her tremble, to see her writhe. To hear her scream. Pinning her beneath his weight he used his hands to plunder, to loose that slow rise into a hot, fast flood.
She came, quaking under him, her skin sheened from the heat glowing in the sunlight. Those dark eyes, those gypsy eyes seemed to hold a world of secrets when they locked on his.
"All of you," she said and closed her hand around him. "All of you now." Wrapping her legs around him, she took him into her.
A flash, a wire sparking in the blood. She let it burn through her, crying out when it brought release, moaning as it whipped her into need again, wildly. She yielded when he shoved her legs back to go deeper, and her nails bit into his hips like spurs to urge him on. Even as the pleasure, dark and intense, battered her breathless, she rushed toward that next swamping wave.
She erupted under him, and dragged him with her into the fire.
They lay flat on their backs, side by side on the bed. He felt as if he'd been kicked off a cliff, doing the tumble down through screaming air to land in a hot river. He'd barely had the strength or the brainpower to roll off her so they could both try to get their breath back.
That hadn't been sex, he thought. Sex was anything from an enjoyable pastime to a good, sweaty bout. That had been a revelation of near-biblical proportions.
"Well, okay," he managed. "The surprises just keep coming."
"I think I saw God." Cybil's breath streamed out in something between sigh and moan. "She was pleased."
He laughed, closed his eyes. "You're like a live, female version of Gumby. Without the green."
She was silent a moment. "Since I believe that was a compliment, thanks."
"And since we're handing them out, you-" She broke off, and her hand clamped on his. "Gage."
He opened his eyes. The walls bled. Long rivers of red gushed down the walls, swam over the floor. "If that were real, Cal would be sincerely pissed off. Blood's a bitch to clean."
"It doesn't like what went on here." She took a breath, rolled to nudge him back when he started to rise. Eyes hard, face pale, she spoke in a steady voice. "Peeping Toms are so disgusting. But, we might as well give this one something to write home about. Tell me, is it true what I hear from my housemates?"
"What would that be?"
"That your healing powers include impressively fast recovery?"
He grinned at her. "Are you up for a demonstration?"
"More to the point, are you?" She tossed a leg over him, mounted him. Her head fell back, her breath shuddered out. "It's comforting to know my friends are honest. Oh God. Wait." Her hands gripped his as sensation clawed through her.
"Take your time."
"Brace yourself," she warned. "This is going to be a wild ride."
Later, though the walls and floor showed no signs of demon tantrums, he took her again in the shower. Hair damp, eyes sleepy, she dressed.
"Well, what an interesting day. Now I've got to get back to work and swing by and get Q from the bowling center."
"Maybe I'll ride in with you."
"You want input, and I figure I'll cop lunch out of the deal."
"That might be arranged." When she started to walk by him, out of the room, he took her arm.
"Cybil. I'm not nearly done with you."
"Cutie." She gave his cheek a very deliberate pat. "They never are."
When she kept on going, he shook his head. He'd walked into that one, he admitted. By the time he got downstairs she'd dug a lipstick out of her cavernous bag and was sliding it, with perfect accuracy, over her lips. "How do you do that without looking?"
"Oddly, my lips remain in exactly the same place day after day, year after year. Are you going to want your laptop?"
"Yeah." He'd never considered a woman applying lipstick particularly sexy. Before. "If it gets too irritating working with you and the blonde, I'll set up somewhere."
"Gather it up then. The train's about to pull out." While he did she took out blusher, stroked a bit over her cheeks. In seconds, she'd done something with a minute mirror and a pencil to soot up her eyes. As they walked toward the door she spritzed something from a silver tube about the size of his thumb onto her throat. And that scent, that autumn woods scent reached out and grabbed him by his.
So he grabbed her, rubbed his lips over hers. "We could blow off the day." And had the satisfaction of feeling her heart kick against his.
"Tempting. Seriously tempting, but no. I'd have to call Quinn and explain I'm not picking her up because I've decided spending the day naked in bed with you is more important than trying to find the way to destroy a demon who wants us all dead. Not that she wouldn't understand, but still."
She opened the door, stepped out on the deck.
The boy crouched on the roof of her car, a grinning gargoyle. As it flashed its teeth, Gage pushed Cybil behind him. "Get back in the house."
With a flourish, the boy raised its hands, then chopped them down like a mad conductor. The dark fell; the wind rose.
"It's just show," Cybil shouted. "Like the walls upstairs."
"More than that this time." He could feel it in the bite of the wind. Inside in surrender, Gage thought, or out here, in challenge? If he'd been alone, it wouldn't be a question. "My car's faster."
They started forward, pushing into the wind that shoved them back. Gage kept his eyes on the boy as it whirled in wild circles over the slope of hill, the curve of road. Debris flew, chunks of garden mulch, falling twigs, and peppering gravel. He used his body in an attempt to shield her from the worst of it. Then the boy leaped down.
"Fuck the whore while you can." The words were only uglier when shouted in that young, childish voice. "Before long, you'll watch as I make her scream in pleasure and pain. Want a taste, bitch?"
Crying out in shock, Cybil doubled over, clutching herself. Gage made the choice quickly, and letting her fall to her knees, he pulled out his knife. On a howling laugh, the boy flipped out of range in a gleeful handspring. Gage gripped Cybil's arm, wrenched her to her feet. One look at her face had her horror, her helplessness stabbing through him like his own knife.
"Get in the car. Get in the damn car." He shoved her inside, fighting off the rage as the thing in a boy's form pumped its hips obscenely. The rage pushed at him, screamed at him to go after the thing, to hack and slice. But she was curled into a ball inside the car, shaking.
Gage pulled himself in, fought to slam the door against the wind. Ruthlessly now, he shoved Cybil back, yanked the seat belt around her. Shock and pain turned her face to white marble.
"Hold on. Just hold on."
"It's in me." She gasped it out while her body jerked. "It's in me."
Gunning the engine, Gage shot into reverse, then whipped the wheel. The car bucked in the force of the wind as he sped over the bridge toward the road. Blood spat out of the sky, splatting the windshield, hissing like acid on the roof, the hood. The boy's head appeared at the top, its eyes slanted like a snake's. As it ran its tongue through the blood, Cybil moaned.
It laughed when Gage flipped the wipers on full speed, pumped the washer to spray. Laughed as though it was a fine, fine joke. Then it squealed, either with humor or with surprise, when Gage wrenched the car into a vicious three-sixty. The windshield erupted with fire.
He cut his speed rather than risk a wreck, blocked out everything but the need for a steady hand on the wheel. Slowly, the dark ebbed, the fire sputtered.
When the sun flashed on again with a gentle spring breeze, he pulled to the side of the road. She slumped back in the seat, staring up as her shoulders shook with each breath.
She cringed away. "Please don't. Don't touch me."
"Okay." Nothing to say, he thought. Nothing to do but get her home. She'd been raped right in front of his eyes, and there was nothing to say, nothing to do.
When they got to the house he didn't help her inside. Don't touch me, she'd said, so he only held the door, closed it after her. "Go upstairs, lie down or… I'll call Quinn."
"Yes, call Quinn." But she didn't go upstairs. Instead she walked back toward the kitchen. When he went in moments later, she had a glass of brandy in her shaking hands.
"She's on her way. I don't know what you need, Cybil."
"Neither do I." She took a long drink, then a long breath. "God, neither do I, but that's a start."
"I can't leave you alone, I can't give you that. But if you want to go up and lie down, I'll stay outside the bedroom." When she shook her head, everything about her seemed to tremble. "Goddamn it, goddamn it, scream, cry, throw something, punch me."
She shook her head again, drank the rest of the brandy. "It wasn't real, physically. But it felt real, physically, and every other way there is to feel. I'm not going to scream; I might never stop. I want Quinn, that's all. I want Quinn."
When the front door slammed open, Gage thought Quinn must have run every step. She was still running when she reached the kitchen. "Cyb."
Cybil made a sound, a mix of moan and whimper that sliced straight through Gage's belly. Even as she turned into Quinn's arms, Quinn led her away. "Come on, baby, let's go upstairs. I'll take you upstairs."
Quinn sent Gage one long grieving look, then they were gone. Gage picked up the glass, smashed it in the sink. Changed nothing, he thought, looking down at the shards. Just a broken glass, and that changed nothing, fixed nothing, helped nothing.
Cal came in to find him standing at the sink, staring out at the sunny afternoon. "What happened? After Quinn got your call she told me to call Layla, get her here, and she ran out. Cybil, is she hurt?"
"Christ knows." His throat burned, Gage realized. Burned as if he'd swallowed flame. "It raped her. The son of a fucking bitch, and I didn't stop it."
Cal stepped up to him, laid a hand on his shoulder. "Tell me what happened."
He began coldly, almost clinically, beginning with the blood on the walls. He didn't stop or acknowledge Fox when Fox came in, but he picked up the beer Fox opened and set in front of him.
"About a mile, mile and a half from your place it stopped. It all went away. Except for Cybil. I don't know if that kind of thing ever goes away."
"You got her away," Cal pointed out. "You got her back home."
"Give me a medal and call me hero."
"I know how you feel." Fox met Gage's hot and bitter look quietly. "It's happened to Layla, so I know how you feel. Layla's upstairs now. That's going to help. And Cybil will get through it because that's the way they're made. We'll get through it because it's all we can do. We'll all get through it because we're going to make the bastard pay. That's what the fuck we're going to do."
He held out a hand. After a moment, Gage gripped it, and Cal laid his over theirs. "We'll make the bastard pay," Gage repeated. "That's what the fuck we're going to do. I swear an oath."
"We swear an oath," Cal and Fox agreed, then Cal blew out a breath and rose.
"I'll make her some tea. Tea's the thing she likes."
"Put some whiskey in it," Fox suggested.
They put it together, and after some discussion and debate, put a pony of whiskey on the side. Gage carried it up, then hesitated outside the closed bedroom door. Before he could knock, Layla opened it, jumped a little.
" Cal made this tea," Gage began.
"Perfect. I was just coming down to do exactly that. Is that whiskey?"
"Yeah. Fox's contribution."
"Good." Layla took the tray. Then studied Gage with weary eyes. "She'll be all right, Gage. Thanks for bringing this up." She closed the door and left him staring at the blank panel.
In the bathroom that linked the two bedrooms, Cybil lay in the tub. She'd had her jag, and that had left her exhausted. Oddly, the fatigue helped. Not as much as her friends, she thought, but some.
As did the hot water, and the fragrance and froth Layla had added to it. Quinn rose from the little stool beside the tub when Layla brought in the tea tray.
"That was really fast, like superpower fast."
"Gage brought it up. Cal made it, so it's probably just fine. Honey, there's whiskey here. Do you want it in the tea?"
"Oh yeah. Thanks. God." Shifting up, Cybil squeezed her burning eyes, breathed through the threatening flood of tears. "No, no, done with that."
"Maybe not." Layla doctored the tea. "I have a moment every now and again. It's okay. We're allowed."
With a nod, Cybil accepted the tea. "It wasn't the pain, though, oh Jesus, nothing's ever hurt like that. It was feeling it in me, pounding and pushing, and not being able to stop it, or fight it. It was the boy. Why is that worse? That it made me see the boy while it-" She broke off, made herself drink the spiked tea.
"It's a kind of torture, isn't it? A kind of physical and psychological torture designed to break us down." Quinn brushed a hand over Cybil's hair. "We won't be broken."
"No, we won't." She held out a hand, and in a gesture that mirrored the one made in the kitchen, Quinn took it, and Layla closed hers over theirs. "We won't break."
She dressed, and took some comfort in grooming. She wouldn't break, Cybil vowed, nor would she look like a victim. When she stepped out of the bedroom she heard the murmur of voices from the office. Not yet, she thought. Not quite ready for that. She moved quietly past, and down the stairs. Maybe after another ocean or two of tea.
In the kitchen she took the kettle to the sink and saw Gage outside, alone. Her first inclination was to back away, to slink away into some dark corner and hide. And the urge both surprised and embarrassed her. In defense, she took the opposite tact, and went outside.
He turned, stared at her. In his eyes she saw the rage and the ruin.
"Absolutely nothing I can say would sound remotely right. I thought you might want me to take off, but I didn't want to leave until I was sure you… What?" he said in disgust. "I don't have a clue what."
She considered for a moment. "You're not far wrong. I guess a part of me hoped you'd be gone so I didn't have to talk about this now."
"You don't have to."
"I don't like that part of me," she continued. "So let's just get this done. It came at me, the attack that's a woman's nightmare. The big fear. It made me feel that violation, and the helplessness. That horror that drove Hester Deale mad."
"I should've gone after it."
"And left me? Would you, could you leave me when I was completely defenseless, completely terrorized? I couldn't stop it; that's not my fault. You got me away, and getting away made it stop. You defended me when I couldn't defend myself. Thank you."
"I'm not looking for-"
"I know you're not," she interrupted. "I probably wouldn't feel as grateful if you were. Gage, if either of us feel guilty about what happened, it wins a kind of victory. So let's don't."
But he would, for a while yet anyway, she realized. A man would. This man would. Maybe she could do something to soothe them both. "Would it complicate our straightforward and mature relationship if you just held on to me for a minute?"
He put his arms around her with the wary caution of a man handling thin and priceless crystal. But when she sighed, laid her head on his shoulder, it was he who broke. His hold tightened. "Christ, Cybil. Good Christ."
"When we destroy it." She spoke clearly now, steadily now. "If it comes in a form with a dick, I will personally castrate it."
His grip tightened again, and he kissed her hair. Complicated, he realized, didn't begin to cover whatever was going on inside him. But right at that moment, he didn't give a damn.
TO AVOID HAVING EVERYONE TIPTOEING AROUND her, Cybil voted for work. The small second-floor office might've been cramped with six people inside, but she had to admit, it felt safe.
"Gage found what may be another pattern dealing with locations," she began, "that springs off the one we talked about before. We can look at them as hot spots and safe zones. The bowling center. While that was the location of the first known infection and violence and has seen other incidents, it's never sustained any damage. No fires, no vandalism. Right?"
Cal nodded. "Not really. Some fights, but most of the trouble's been outside."
"This house," Cybil continued. "Incidents since we moved in, and there may have been some during previous Sevens, but no deaths here, no fires. The old library." She paused to look at Fox. "I know you lost someone important to you there, but before Carly's death, there'd been no major incident there. And again, the building itself has never been attacked. There are several other locations, including Fox's family farm and Cal 's family home that have proven to be safe zones. Fox, your office building's another. It can get in, but not physically. Only to create its illusions, so nothing it's been able to do in those places is real. Nor, more importantly, I think, have any of those locations been attacked by those infected during the Seven."
"So the questions are why, and how do we use it." Fox scanned the map. "The old library was Ann Hawkins's home, and my family farm was where she stayed and gave birth to her sons. If we go back to energy, it may be that enough of hers remains as a kind of shield."
"There you go." Quinn planted her hands on her hips. "So we dig and find out what connection the safe zones, or even those places that see less violence, have."
"I can tell you that the land the center sits on was the site of the home Ann Hawkins's sister and her husband built." Cal puffed out his cheeks. "I can check the books, and with my grandmother, but what I remember is it was originally a house, then converted to a market. It morphed and evolved over the years until my grandfather opened the original Bowl-a-Rama. But the land was always Hawkins's land."
"I think that's going to be our why," Layla commented. "But we need to remember that the old library was, well, breached, during the last Seven. It could happen to any of these locations this time."
"There wasn't a Hawkins in the library over the last Seven." Gage continued to study the map, the pattern. "Essie'd retired by then, hadn't she?"
"Yeah, she had. She still went in most every day, but… It wasn't hers anymore." Cal stepped up to look more closely. "They'd already started building the new library, and approved plans to make the old one a community center. It belonged to the town then. Technically, it had for years, but…"
"But emotionally, essentially." Cybil nodded. "It was Essie's. How long has your family owned this house, Cal?"
"I don't know. I'll find out."
"I bought my building from your dad," Fox reminded Cal. "Yeah, that's going to be the why. So how do we use it?"
"Sanctuaries," Layla said.
"Prisons," Gage corrected. "The question will be how do we hold a couple thousand infected people bent on murder and mayhem in a bowling alley, on a farm, and in a law office, to start."
"We can't. I'm not talking about the legal crap," Cal added.
"Hey, if anyone's going to talk about legal crap, it should be me." Fox took a pull from his beer. "And I'm not going to deny trampling over civil liberties isn't a big issue with me during the Seven, but the logistics won't hold."
"How many could we convince to camp out at your farm before they were infected?" Cybil met Fox's eyes as he turned to her. "And yes, I realize what an enormous risk this would be, but if a few hundred people could be talked into going there before the Seven, staying there through it-or until we kill this bastard-then others might be convinced to leave altogether for that period, or hole up in what we'll designate as safe zones, or as close to safe as we can define."
"Some leave anyway," Cal pointed out. "But the majority don't remember, don't get it, not until it's too late."
"It's different this time," Quinn added. "It's been showing itself, showing off. This is all or nothing for both sides. Even if only ten percent of the town moves out or holes up, it's a stand, isn't it?"
"Every step we take toward the positive counts," Cybil agreed.
"But doesn't kill it."
Cybil turned to Gage. "No, but it uses tactics to try to weaken us. We'll counter with those that may weaken it." She gestured toward the board with the Tarot outline. "We all have our strengths, too. Knowing who and what we are is a positive step. We have a weapon in the bloodstone, another positive. We know more, are more, and have more to work with than the three of you did before."
"If we're going to try moving anyone out who's willing, Fox needs to talk to his family. If you want to ditch the idea from the get," Cal continued, "no arguments."
"Yeah, I want to ditch it, but I'm stuck with the old free will, make your own choices song and dance I was raised on. They'll decide for themselves if they want to start a damn refugee camp. Which they will because that's how they're made. Damn."
"I'll need to talk to mine, too." Cal blew out a breath. "First, people in town tend to listen to my father, give what he says some weight. Second, we'll figure if their house or the center should be a secondary camp, or if they should stay out at the farm to help Fox's family. And we're going to need to push, and push hard on finding out how to use the stone. Having a weapon's no damn good if we don't know how to trigger it."
"We've built on the past," Quinn began, "and we have a handle on the now."
"We need to look again." Cybil nodded. "We've started on that, but-"
"We're not going there tonight." Gage's statement came cold and firm. "No point in pushing on that," he said before Cybil could argue. "It's nothing you mess with when you're already worn down. Go back to that positive energy crap you're hyping. I'd say you're running low on that tonight."
"You'd be right. Rude, which is no surprise, but accurate. In fact, I'd probably be better off hunkering down with some research, solo, for tonight. I'll do more digging on the stone because Cal 's right, too."