The Beast – J. R. Ward

Ants under the skin. As Rhage transferred his weight from one shitkicker to the other, he felt like his bloodstream had come to a soft boil and the bubbles were tickling the underside of every fucking square inch of his flesh. And that wasn’t the half of it. Random muscle fibers misfired all over his body, the spasms causing fingers to twitch, knees to jerk, shoulders to tighten like he was about to go tennis racket on something. For the one millionth time since he’d materialized into his position, he peeper-swept the ragged, overgrown meadow up ahead. Back when the Brownswick School for Girls had been a functioning entity, the field in front of him had no doubt been a rolling lawn that had been well mowed in the spring and summer, de-leafed in the autumn, and snow-covered pretty as a children’s book in the winter. Now, it was a touch-football field from hell, studded and tangled with gnarled bushes that could do more than just aesthetic damage to a guy’s crotchticular region, saplings that were the ugly, misshapen stepchildren of the more mature maples and oaks, and late-October brown long grass that could trip you like a little bitch if you were trying to sprint. Likewise, the brick buildings, which had sheltered and provided living and instructional spaces to the privileged elite’s offspring, were aging badly without regular maintenance: windows broken, doors rotting, off-kilter shutters opening and shutting in the cold wind as if the ghosts couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be seen or just heard. It was the campus from Dead Poets Society. Assuming everyone had packed up after the movie had been shot in 1988 and nobody had touched a fucking thing since. But the facilities were not empty. As Rhage took a deep inhale, his gag reflex did a couple of push-ups in the back of his throat. So many lessers were hiding in the abandoned dormitories and classrooms that it was impossible to isolate individual scents from the sinus-numbing stench of the whole. Christ, it was like putting your face in a chum bucket and inhaling like the world were about to run out of oxygen. Assuming someone had added baby powder to all the day-old fish heads and goo.

For that sweet finish, don’tcha know. As his skin went on another shimmy-shimmy, he told his curse to hold its hey-nannies, that hell yeah, it was going to get let off the chain ASAP. He wasn’t even going to attempt to hold the damn thing in—not that trying to throw the brakes on it was ever successful, anyway—and whereas giving the beast free rein was not always a good thing, tonight it was going to be an offensive bene. The Black Dagger Brotherhood was facing how many lessers? Fifty? A hundred and fifty? That was a lot to handle, even for them—so yeah, his little … present … from the Scribe Virgin was going to come in handy. Talk about your ringer from out of town. Over a century ago, the mother of the race had given him his own personal T.O. system, a behavior modification program that was so onerous, so unpleasant, so overwhelming that it did, in fact, manage to bring him back from the brink of total douche-baggery. Courtesy of the dragon, unless he managed his energy levels properly and moderated his emotions, all hell broke loose. Literally.

Yup, in the course of the last century, he had become largely successful at making sure the thing didn’t eat his nearest and dearest, or get them on the nightly news with a “Jurassic Park Is Alive” headline. But with what he and his brothers were facing right now—and how isolated this campus was? If they were lucky, the great purple-scaled bastard with the chain-saw teeth and the hollowlegged hangry was going to get his Nobu on. Although, again, a lesser-only diet was what they were looking for. No brothers as Hot Pockets, please. And no humans as tapas or dessert, thank you very much. The latter was more out of discretion than affection. Shit knew those rats without tails never went anywhere without two things: a half dozen of their evolutionarily inferior, nocturnally codependent, fuck-twit buddies, and their goddamn cell phones. Man, YouTube was a total pain in the ass when you wanted to keep your war with the undead under wraps. For nearly two thousand years, vampires fighting the Omega’s Lessening Society had been no one else’s business except for the combatants involved, and the fact that humans couldn’t stick to their core competencies of ruining the environment and telling each other what to think and say was only one of the reasons he hated them. Fucking Internet.

Changing gears so he didn’t get loose too soon, Rhage GoPro’d his vision to a male taking cover about twenty feet away from him. Assail, son of Whoever-the-Fuck, was dressed in funeral-cortege black, his Dracula-dark hair requiring no camouflage, his handsome-as-sin face furrowed so tight with murder that you had to respect the guy. Talk about doing a solid—and a one-eighty. The drug dealer had come through for the Brotherhood, making good on his promise to cut business ties with the Lessening Society by delivering the Fore-lesser’s head in a box to Wrath’s feet. And also divulging the location of this bolt-hole the slayers had been using as HQ. Which was how everyone had ended up here, up to their nuts in the overgrowth, waiting for the countdown on their V-synchronized watches to hit 0:00. This attack wasn’t some bullshit, buckshot approach to the enemy. After a number of nights—and days, thanks to Lassiter, a.k.a.

00-a-hole, having done recon during sunshine hours—the attack was properly coordinated, staged, and ready for execution. All of the fighters were here: Z and Phury, Butch and V, Tohr and John Matthew, Qhuinn and Blay, as well as Assail and his two cousins, Fang I and II. ’Cuz who cared what their names were as long as they showed up weaponized with plenty of ammo. The Brotherhood medical personnel were also on standby in the area, with Manny in his mobile surgical unit about a mile away and Jane and Ehlena in one of the vans at a two-mile radius. Rhage checked his watch. Six minutes and change. As his left eye started to do the stanky leg, he cursed. How the fuck was he going to hold his position for that long? Baring his fangs, he exhaled through his nose, blowing out twin streams of condensed breath that were nothing short of a bull’s charging notice. Christ, he couldn’t remember the last time he was this juiced. And he didn’t want to think about the why of it.

In fact, he’d been avoiding the whole why thing for how long? Well, since he and Mary had hit this strange rough spot and he’d started to feel— “Rhage.” His name was whispered so softly he wrenched around, because he wasn’t sure whether or not his subconscious had decided to start talking to him. Nope. It was Vishous—and given his brother’s expression, Rhage would have preferred to be pulling a split-personality on himself. Those diamond eyes were flashing with a bad light. And those tattoos around that temple were so not helping. The goatee was a neutral—unless you assessed it on style. In which case the fucker was a travesty of Rogaine proportions. Rhage shook his head. “Shouldn’t you get into position—” “I’ve seen this night.

” Oh, hell, no, Rhage thought. Nope, you are not doing this to me right now, my brother. Turning away, he muttered, “Spare me the Vincent Price, ’kay? Or are you trying for the guy who does the movie trailer voice-overs—” “Rhage.” “—’cuz you got a future in that. ‘In a world … where people need … to shut up and do their jobs —’” “Rhage.” When he didn’t look back, V came around and glared up at him, those fucking pale eyes a twin set of nuclear blasts that spelled mushroom cloud forward and backward. “I want you to go home. Now.” Rhage opened his mouth. Clapped it shut.

Opened it again—and had to remind himself to keep his voice down. “Look, it’s not a good time for your one-eight-hundred psychic headquarters shit—” The Brother snapped a hold on his arm and squeezed. “Go home. I’m not fucking you.” Cold terror washed through Rhage’s veins, bottoming out his body temperature—and yet he shook his head again. “Fuck off, Vishous. Seriously.” He was so not interested in testing out any more of the Scribe Virgin’s magic. He wasn’t— “You’re going to fucking die tonight.” As Rhage’s heart stopped, he stared down into that face that he’d known for so many years, tracing those tattoos, and the tight lips, and the slashing black brows … and the radiant intelligence that was usually expressed through a filter of samurai-sword sarcasm.

“Your mother gave me her word,” Rhage said. Wait, was he actually talking about him kicking it? “She promised that when I die, Mary can come with me unto the Fade. Your mother said—” “Fuck my mother. Go home.” Rhage looked away because he had to. It was either that or have his head explode. “I’m not leaving the brothers. Ain’t going to happen. You could be wrong, for one thing.” Yeah, and when was the last time that had happened? Eighteen hundreds? Seventeen hundreds? Never? He spoke over V.

“I’m also not going to run scared from the Fade. I start thinking like that, and I’m finished with a weapon in my hand.” He put his palm all up in that goatee so the brother cut the interrupting. “And the third fuck off? If I don’t fight tonight, I’m not going to make it through the day locked in the mansion—not without my purple friend coming out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you feel me?” Well, and there was a number four, too. And the fourth rationale … was bad, so very bad that he couldn’t entertain it for more than the split second required for the piece of shit to come to mind. “Rhage—” “Nothing’s going to wreck me. I got this—” “No, you don’t!” V hissed. “Okay, fine,” Rhage bit out as he tilted forward on his hips. “So what if I die? Your mother gave my Mary the ultimate grace. If I go unto the Fade, Mary just meets me there.

I don’t have to worry about ever being separated from her. She and I will be perfectly fine. Who really fucking cares if I kick it?” V did some lean-in of his own. “You don’t think the Brothers will give a shit? Really? Thanks, asshole.” Rhage checked his watch. Two minutes to go. Might as well be two thousand years. “And you trust my mother,” V sneered, “with something that important. I never thought you were naive.” “She managed to give me a fucking T.

rex alter ego! That’s some good fucking credibility.” All at once, a number of birdcalls sounded out around them in the darkness. If you hadn’t known better, you’d have assumed it was just a bunch of night owls going Pitch Perfect. Damn it, the pair of them were yelling over here. “Whatever, V,” he whispered. “You’re so goddamn smart, worry about your own life.” His last conscious thought, before his brain went Zero Dark Thirty and nothing else registered outside of the aggression, was of his Mary. He pictured the last time they’d been alone. It was a ritual of his before he engaged with the enemy, a mental talisman that he rubbed for luck, and tonight he saw her as she had stood in front of the mirror in their bedroom, the one that was over the tall bureau where they kept their watches and their keys, her jewelry and his Tootsie Pops, their phones. She was up on her tiptoes, angled over the top, trying to put a pearl stud into her earlobe and missing the hole.

With her head tilted to the side, her deep brown hair flowed over her shoulder and made him want to put his face into the freshly shampooed waves. And that wasn’t the half of what impressed him. The clean cut of her jaw caught and held the light from the crystal sconce on the wall, and her cream silk blouse draped over her breasts and was tucked into her tight waist, and her slacks fell to her flats. No makeup on her. No perfume. But that would be like touching up the Mona Lisa or hitting a rosebush with a shot of Febreze. There were a hundred thousand ways to detail his mate’s physical attributes, and not one single sentence, or indeed an entire book, that could come close to describing her presence. She was the watch on his wrist, the roast beef when he was starving, and the pitcher of lemonade when he was thirsty. She was his chapel and his choir, the mountain range to his wanderlust, the library for his curiosity, and every sunrise or sunset that ever was or would ever be. With one look or the mere syllable of a word, she had the power to transform his mood, giving him flight even as his feet stayed on the ground.

With a single touch, she could chain his inner dragon, or make him come even before he got hard. She was all the power in the universe coalesced into a living, breathing thing, the miracle that he had been granted in spite of the fact that he had long been undeserving of anything but his curse. Mary Madonna Luce was the virgin Vishous had told him was coming for him—and she was more than enough to turn him into a God-fearing vampire. On that note … Rhage took off without waiting for the Go Now from his team. Rushing headlong across the field, he had both guns up in front of him and premium, high-test gas funneling into his leg muscles. And no, he didn’t have to hear the precise curses of frustration as he blew their cover and started the attack too soon. He was used to the boys being pissed off at him. And his demons were way harder to deal with than his brothers.



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