An Insider's Guide Chapter One

Author: J.R. Ward

Genres: Fantasy , Romance

"So, Bella looks good."

At the counter of the Brotherhood's kitchen, Zsadist picked up a knife, squeezed a head of romaine lettuce together, and started drawing the blade through at one-inch intervals. "Yeah, she does."

He liked Doc Jane. Hell, he owed her. But he had to remind himself of his manners: It would be damn tacky to bite the head off a female who was not only your brother's shellan, but who had saved the love of your life from bleeding out on the birth table.

"She's recovered beautifully in the last two months." Doc Jane watched him from the table across the way, her Marcus Welby, M.D., bag beside her ghostly hand. "And Nalla's thriving. Man, vampire young progress so much faster than human babies. Cognitively, it's like she's nine months old."

"They're doing great." He kept slicing, moving his hand down and through, down and through. On the far side of the blade, the leaves sprang free in curly green ribbons like they were clapping at having been liberated.

"And how are you doing with the whole dad thing--"


Dropping the knife, he cursed and brought up the hand that had been on the lettuce. The cut was deep, down to the bone, and his blood was red as it welled up and dripped off his skin.

Doc Jane came over to him. "Okay, let's get you to the sink."

To her credit, she didn't touch him on the arm or try to lead him with a push on his shoulder blade; she just loomed and pointed the way to Kohlerland.

He still didn't like anyone but Bella putting their hands on his body, although he had made some progress. Now, if the contact was unexpected, his first move wasn't going for a concealed weapon and capping whoever had let their palms do the walking.

When they were in front of the sink, Doc Jane cranked the thing's throttle over and fired it back so that there was a warm rush landing in the deep porcelain belly.

"Under," she said.

He extended his arm and put his thumb into the hot water. The slice burned like a bitch, but he didn't wince. "Let me guess. Bella asked you to come talk to me just now."

"Nope." When he shot her a look, the good doctor shook her head. "I examined her and the baby. That was it."

"Well, good. Because I'm fine."

"Had a feeling you'd say that." Doc Jane crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him with a stare that made him want to build a brick wall between the two of them. Whether in a solid state or translucent as she was at the moment, it didn't matter. When you got eyeballed by the female like this, it was as if you'd been sandblasted. No wonder she and V got along.

"She did mention you won't feed from her."

Z shrugged. "Nalla needs what her body can provide more than I do."

"It's not an either-or situation, though. Bella's young and healthy and she has great eating habits. And you've let her feed."

"Of course. Anything for her. Her and her baby."

There was a long silence. Then, "Maybe you want to talk to Mary?"

"About what." He shut the water off and shook his palm out over the sink. "Just because I'm respectful of the demands on my shellan, you think I need a shrink? What the hell?"

He snapped a paper towel free from the roll mounted under the cabinets and dried his hand.

"Who's the salad for, Z?" the doctor asked.


"The salad. Who's it for?"

He pulled out the trash bin and pitched the towel inside. "Bella. It's for Bella. Look, no offense, but--"

"And when's the last time you ate?"

He put his hands up, all "Stop! In the Name of Love." "Enough. I know you mean well, but I'm a short fuse, and the last thing any of us needs is Vishous coming after me because I snapped at you. I get your point--"

"Look at your hand."

He glanced down. Blood was running from the pad of his thumb onto his wrist and his forearm. If he hadn't had a short-sleeved T-shirt on, the shit would have been pooling at his elbow. Instead, it was trickling onto the terra-cotta tile.

Doc Jane's voice was annoyingly level, her logic offensively sound. "You are in a dangerous line of work where you rely on your body to do things that keep you from getting killed. You don't want to talk to Mary? Fine. But you need to make some concessions physically. That cut should have closed by now. It hasn't, and I'm willing to bet it bleeds for the next hour or so." She shook her head. "Here's my deal. Wrath's appointed me as the Brotherhood's personal physician. You screw around with eating and feeding and sleeping such that it impairs your performance, I will bench your ass."

Z stared at the glossy red droplets seeping up from the wound. The river of them went straight over the inch-wide black slave band that had been tattooed on his wrist nearly two hundred years ago. He had one on his other arm and another around his neck.

Reaching forward, he peeled off another section of paper towel. The blood wiped off just fine, but there was no getting rid of what his sick bitch Mistress had marked him with. The ink was imbedded in his tissue, put there to show that he was property to be used, not an inpidual to live.

For no good reason, he thought of Nalla's infant skin, so incredibly smooth and completely unmarred. Everyone remarked on how soft it was. Bella. All his brothers. All the shellans of the house. It was one of the first things they commented on when they held her. That and how she was like a down pillow, she was so huggable.

"Have you ever tried to get those removed?" Doc Jane said softly.

"They can't be removed," he said briskly, dropping his hand. "The ink has salt in it. It's permanent."

"But have you ever tried? There are lasers now that--"

"I'd better go take care of this cut so I can finish here." He grabbed another paper towel. "I'll need some gauze and tape--" "I have that in my bag." She turned to go over to the table. "I have everything--"

"No, thanks, I'll take care of it myself."

Doc Jane stared up at him, her eyes clear. "I don't care if you're independent. But stupidity I won't stand for. We clear? That bench has your name on it."

If she'd been one of his brothers, he would have bared his fangs and hissed at her. But he couldn't do that to Doc Jane, and not just because she was a female. Thing was, there was nothing to push back at with her. She was just objective medical opinion.

"We clear?" she prompted, utterly unimpressed by how fierce he had to be looking.

"Yeah. I hear you."


"He has these nightmares. . . . God, the nightmares."

Bella leaned down and stuffed the dirty diaper into the bin. On the way back up, she snagged another Huggies from under the dressing table and brought out the talc and the baby wipes. Palming Nalla's ankles, she hipped up her daughter's little butt, did a fast-and-dash sweep with the cloth, sprinkled some powder, then slid the fresh diaper into place.

From across the nursery, Phury's voice was low. "Nightmares about being a blood slave?"

"Has to be it." She put Nalla's clean bottom down and taped up the sides of the Huggies. "Because he won't talk to me about it."

"Has he been eating? Feeding?"

Bella shook her head as she did up the snaps on Nalla's onesie. The thing was pastel pink and had a white skull and crossbones appliqu?d on it. "Not much on the food and no on feeding. It's like . . . I don't know, the day she was born, he seemed so amazed and engaged and happy. But then some kind of switch was triggered and he just closed up. It's almost as bad as it was in the beginning." She stared down at Nalla, who was patting at the pattern on her little chest. "I'm sorry I asked you to come down here. . . . I just don't know what else to do."

"I'm glad you did. I'm always there for you both, you know that."

Cradling Nalla on her shoulder, she turned around. Phury was leaning against the creamy wall of the nursery, his huge body breaking up the pattern of hand-painted bunnies and squirrels and fawns.

"I don't want to put you in an awkward position. Or take you away from Cormia unnecessarily."

"You haven't." He shook his head, his multicolored hair gleaming. "If I'm quiet, it's because I'm trying to think of what the best thing to do is. Talking with him isn't always the solution."

"True. But I'm running out of both ideas and patience." Bella went over and sat in the rocker, repositioning the young in her arms.

Nalla's brilliant yellow eyes stared up out of her angelic little face, and recognition was in her stare. She knew exactly who was with her . . . and who wasn't. The awareness had come in the last week or so. And changed everything.

"He won't hold her, Phury. He won't even pick her up."

"Are you serious?"

Bella's tears made her daughter's face wavy. "Damn it, when is this post-partum depression going to lift? I well up at almost nothing."

"Wait, not even once? He hasn't gotten her out of the crib or--"

"He won't touch her. Crap, will you hand me a frickin' tissue." When the Kleenex box got in range, she snapped one free and pressed it to her eyes. "I'm such a mess. All I can think about is Nalla going through her whole life wondering why her father doesn't love her." She cursed softly as more tears came. "Okay, this is ridiculous."

"It's not ridiculous," he said. "It's really not."

Phury knelt down, keeping the tissues front and center. Absurdly, Bella noticed that the box had the picture of an alley of leafy trees with a lovely dirt road stretching off into the distance. On either side, flowering bushes with magenta blooms made the maples look like they were wearing tulle ballet skirts.

She imagined walking down the dirt road . . . to a place that was far better than where she was now.

She took another tissue. "The thing is, I grew up without a father, but at least I had Rehvenge. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a dad who was alive but dead to you." With a little cooing sound, Nalla yawned wide and snuffled, rubbing her face with the back of her fist. "Look at her. She's so innocent. And she responds to love so well . . . I mean . . . Oh, for God's sake, I'm going to buy stock in Kleenex."

With a disgusted noise she flipped another tissue free. To avoid looking at Phury as she blotted, she let her eyes wander around the cheery room that had been a walk-in closet before the birth. Now it was all about the young, all about family, with the pine rocker Fritz had hand-made, and the matching dressing table, and the crib that was still festooned with multicolored bows.

When her stare landed on the low-slung bookcase with all its big, flat books, she felt even worse. She and the other Brothers were the ones who read to Nalla, who settled the young on a lap and unfolded shiny covers and spoke rhyming words.

It was never her father, even though Z had learned to read almost a year ago.

"He doesn't refer to her as his daughter. It's my daughter. To him, she's mine, not ours."

Phury made a disgusted sound. "FYI, I'm trying to resist the urge to pound him out right now."

"It's not his fault. I mean, after all he went through . . . I should have expected this, I guess." She cleared her throat. "I mean, this whole pregnancy thing wasn't planned, and I wonder . . . maybe he resents me and regrets her?"

"You're his miracle. You know you are."

She took more tissues and shook her head. "But it's not just me anymore. And I won't raise her here if he can't come to terms with the two of us. . . . I will leave him."

"Whoa, I think that's a little premature--"

"She's beginning to recognize folks, Phury. She's starting to understand she's being shut out. And he's had three months to get used to the idea. Over time, he's gotten worse, not better."

As Phury cursed, she lifted her eyes to the brilliant yellow stare of her hellren's twin. God, that citrine color was what shone out of her daughter's face as well, so there was no looking at Nalla without thinking of her father. And yet . . .

"Seriously," she said, "what's this all going to be like a year from now? There is nothing more lonely than sleeping next to someone you're missing as if they were gone. Or having that as a father."

Nalla reached up with her fat hand and grabbed onto one of the tissues.

"I didn't know you were here."

Bella's eyes shot to the doorway. Zsadist was standing in it, a tray in his hands bearing salad and a pitcher of lemonade. There was a white bandage on his left hand and a whole lot of don't-ask on his face.

Looming there, on the verge of the nursery, he was exactly as she had fallen in love and mated him: a gigantic male with a skull trim and a scar down his face and slave bands at his wrists and neck and nipple rings that showed through his tight black T-shirt.

She thought of him the first time she'd seen him, punching a bag down in the training center's gym. He'd been viciously fast on his feet, his fists flying faster than her eye could track, the bag being driven back from the beating. And then, without even a pause, he'd unsheathed a black dagger from his chest holster and stabbed the thing he'd been pounding, ripping the blade through the bag's leather flesh, the stuffing falling free like the internal organs of a lesser.

She'd come to learn that the fierce fighter wasn't all there was to him. Those hands of his had great kindness in them as well. And that ruined face with its distorted upper lip had smiled and looked at her with love.

"I came down to see Wrath," Phury said, getting to his feet.

Z's eyes flicked to the Kleenex box his twin held, then went to the wad of tissues in Bella's hand. "Did you."

As he came in and put the tray down on the bureau where Nalla's clothes were kept, he didn't look at his daughter. She, however, knew he was in the room. The young turned her face in his direction, her unfocused eyes pleading, her chubby little arms reaching for him.

Z stepped back out into the hall. "Have a good meeting. I'm going out hunting."

"I'll walk you to the door," Phury said.

"No time. Later." Z's eyes met Bella's for a moment. "I love you."

Bella hugged Nalla closer to her heart. "I love you, too. Be safe."

He nodded once and then he was gone.