The Scientific Method, Page 9Joey W. Hill
He dropped to one knee next to her, leaned down and stroked his fingers through her hair, spreading it out on the blanket. "Your hair has more colors of gold than autumn," he observed. "You never color it."
"No...I never have."
Nodding, he traced her cheek, her lips. "And very rarely do you wear makeup. Sometimes for formal events you add some eye liner, shadow, and it makes your eyes even more soulful. They're like a shy animal's eyes, liquid brown and watchful, wanting to trust."
"Master." Don't. Please don't.
His own eyes darkened. "I'll do as I wish, won't I? And you'll bear it."
She nodded, choked out a sob as he bent, put his mouth on hers. Not a penetrating, demanding kiss, but a meeting of lips where he nuzzled, breathed into her mouth. It was terribly unfair, that a man this intelligent could kiss like this.
He lifted his head only the necessary space to stare into her eyes. "You've been wanting to ask me a question this week. I thought I caught a glimpse of it once or twice, but it's surrounded by a lot of emotions. I think we'll both benefit from you being brave enough to walk out of that storm and ask the question."
No. Don't make me go through that again. Please.
He touched her face. "If you know one thing about vampires, you know we have a ruthless side. I'm no exception to that."
No, he wasn't. She closed her eyes. "Please don't make me do it, Master."
"Ask me the question, Debra. Trust me as you did once, long ago."
That brought her eyes back open. While he still had that implacable look, there was something else there. A desire...a hope. Maybe a need for her to trust him.
He hadn't earned that. She knew that, rationally. But the plain truth of it was she'd never been able to deny him anything.
Beyond that, sometimes a project turned up data that provided answers for another project. The Delilah virus cure had required in-depth research on the makeup of the servant himself or herself. As such, it had led to a hypothesis, still under investigation, that vampire servants were humans chemically disposed to being servants. Once in contact with a vampire, the human's irresistible compulsion was to take the path that led to the full marking.
They'd done some preliminary research and found a general marker, but it seemed to have DNA linkages, suggesting many servants might have that compulsion only with vampires of a certain type of compatible anatomy. Chemical proof of soul mates, in a sense.
Remembering that untested hypothesis, as well as his changed behavior this week, the hopes he was trying to unbury inside her, she found the courage to ask the question.
"My lord...Master...did you..." She wet her lips, looked up at the moon. "When you did...what you did, with Lady Carmela, was it because..."
Did she really want an answer to such a painful question?
He slid his arm beneath her, lifting her into a sitting position to put himself behind her, his thighs bracketing her hips. Banding his arm across her chest, he touched his lips to her ear. "Ask it, Debra."
His chest was a comforting firm brace behind her. Her hand fell on his thigh, nails digging in as she curled her other fingers over his forearm. "Was it to protect me?"
"It would make me seem noble and self-sacrificing if I said yes, wouldn't it? You might find it in your heart to forgive me. But you would know that's not the full truth, and I won't let a lie stay between us."
She almost heard her heart crack. She would have done the unthinkable, scrambled away, run back to her room and close the door, but he tightened his arm around her. He wasn't done with her.
I'll never be done with you.
She might die from the pain of that. She was starting to understand all too well why some servants took their lives.
In a heartbeat, she was on her back on the blanket again and he was leaning over her, looking more menacing than she'd ever seen him. A quick look around told her they were still alone, that he wasn't bracing for an attack. Which meant that menace was directed toward her. Her heart skipped a beat as he captured her jaw in a bruising grip. The shadows of the night turned his eyes to storm fire. His fangs had unsheathed.
While Brian suffered from it far less than others, a vampire under the age of a hundred could be goaded to savagery, a loss of impulse control hazardous to everyone within reach. It appeared she had provoked it.
She froze, knowing it wouldn't save her any more than a hapless field mouse, but she couldn't have run from him anyway.
I forbid it, Debra. If even the thought of taking your life crosses your mind...
Her eyes widened at the terrible look on his face. It mattered to him.
"Of course it matters," he snarled. "What kind of monster do you think I am?"
When she flinched, he made a visible effort to rein himself back. He sat back on his heels, but straddled her thigh, his other hand braced alongside her hip, keeping her on her back.
She moistened her lips. "Tell me why you did it. Honestly."
"Except for that night, I've always been honest with you. Haven't I?"
He had. Which was why that night had always held some sense of wrongness, because it felt like he'd lied to her. She'd foolishly clung to the hope Jacob had dangled as to why Brian had done it, but her Master had just taken that slim hope away, denying it was for such a selfless reason. She'd known that anyway. She wasn't stupid. She just had never been able to figure out the whole of it. But would the truth help or make it worse? She tried to stave off the feeling that the ground was crumbling under her feet.
"He wasn't entirely wrong. Just not entirely right." Brian sighed, stroked her jaw, her neck, dropped his touch to the raised curve of one lace-clad breast. Then down even further, trailing along her stomach, a hip bone, the lace of her panties stretched over it. When he slid a fingertip below the edge, she trembled, hating him for being able to make her helpless to his desires when he was tearing her apart inside. His eyes darkened, seeing it, hearing it.
"I am a young vampire," he said quietly. "Even younger then than I am now. I was fighting for credibility among my own kind, espousing ideas many thought were pointless. Vampires are about politics and power struggles, not about working together to solve problems like fertility and sun vulnerabilities. Or a synthetic blood that might make us less dependent on human blood, just in case someone ever comes up with something even more virulent than the Delilah virus. I've always known my desire to research these things weren't idle curiosity, a personal hobby. Born vampires, the base stock for all vampires, are a terribly endangered species. A fragile one, in some ways."
He shook his head. "It was essential, especially because of my age -- let alone my outlandish ideas -- that I always appear completely detached, objective."
As he spoke, his gaze was sliding over her, an inch at a time it seemed, reminding her how thorough he could be, how detail-oriented. He caressed the other hip bone, making her twitch restlessly. Bending, he kissed her navel, rimmed it with his tongue. She was dying, her throat closed and choking her, heart aching. When she placed her hand on his head to stroke his hair and he turned enough to kiss her palm, she had to choke back another sob.
He lifted his head, met her gaze again. "I'd heard choosing your first full servant is a lot like a first crush. Having a servant to call my own, and one like you...it was a heady mix, such a brilliant woman willing to submit to me, become my servant." A shadow crossed his gaze. "I spoke to others about it. When I described you to them, how impressed I was with you, how much I wanted you, my feelings must have shown. They teased me. Normal hazing, not even unkind really. But I thought my behavior reinforced what they believed, that I was still going through growth spurts, and my scientific pursuits were simply a phase.
"Then you told me you loved me. You asked if I loved you back. An honest question. You weren't even nervous, so clear-eyed and direct. In your world, it simply is, right? Two people fall in love."
Tears trickled out of her eyes and he put his lips to her cheek, capturing one. He cradled the other si
de of her face, absorbing those tears in his palm.
"It seemed like the test I was waiting for, to prove to them and you that you didn't have that hold on me. I told myself I was teaching you a lesson, but I was teaching myself a lesson as well. Proving I had the self-control to accomplish everything I intended."
His gaze lifted to hers. "I was testing a hypothesis. 'If she hasn't affected my heart, then I can behave as if she doesn't matter. I can hurt her deeply and still continue to see her as my servant, expecting her to be my servant, no matter what I do to her.' I salved my conscience by reminding myself you came into the relationship fully informed."
"Women are known for an appalling lack of self-regard when they fall for a man," she said. She'd meant to sound wry, not bitter, but she knew she failed. The flash of hurt on his face startled her, but then it was gone, replaced by something softer.
"For the next few years, we stayed so busy. I thought you found a way to heal your heart and accept the way things were."
"You proved your hypothesis." She wanted to be anywhere else, but remained rigid under his touch now. He brushed her lips with a thumb.
"No, I didn't," he said softly. "The intensity, how you respond to me, the overwhelming physical pleasure of having you as my servant, made it easy to assume I had. Yet whenever you kneel to me, whenever I hold you in my arms, it's far from simple."
When her brow furrowed, his lip curled, a sign of personal frustration. "It was a fucked-up hypothesis, Debra, because it was based on twisted logic."
Sliding his arms beneath her, he lifted her to her feet, her bare soles sinking into the blanket, cushioned by the layer of grass beneath. He stayed kneeling, his arms banded around her thighs and hips so she had nowhere to put her hands but on his shoulders, her knuckles brushed by the strands of his blond hair.
"Here's the right hypothesis: If I didn't care for you, then I never would have felt the need to do that." Taking her hands, he gripped them tight. His hazel eyes were serious and intent, the way they were when he knew he'd hit the right vein on a research problem. "Here's another one. 'If I truly love you, then I can convince you once more that I am your Master.'"
She blinked. Had he said...love?
"The Master who cherishes and values you. The one who humbly and on his knees" -- he glanced down at himself wryly -- "begs your forgiveness."
Amazed disbelief flooded her, followed by apprehension. "Master, don't." She tugged at him. "If someone should see..."
He stayed stubbornly in place. "You risked your life for Lord Daegan, for Gideon and Anwyn. You did it without thought."
"I had every intention of waiting in the car."
He gave her a look. "We're not in the lab. Don't correct me."
An unexpected snuffle of laughter caught her. He was right, it was the only place where she would correct him. But when she kept trying to get him back on his feet, he gave her a little shake.
"Cease. I'll do as I like, risk or no risk, because I hurt you badly, Debra. I damaged your trust, and I'm realizing exactly what that may have cost me. Tell me what I can do to earn your forgiveness. Show me."
Dear God, he meant it. Here she was, facing what she'd always hoped to hear from him, yet there were too many layers of hurt. It didn't penetrate. It didn't feel real. How could he really know what it meant if he'd fought it so long? If he'd never really loved? And in his world, he could be risking...everything.
"Yes, I could. But a scientist who ignores truth and how it influences everything else fails anyway." She saw that flash of frustration again. "Debra, I don't deserve your trust. I know that. But give me something. Let me earn at least an ounce of your forgiveness tonight. I want to find the woman I met in that lab long ago, the one I hope I haven't destroyed."
He had destroyed her. But he'd remade her as well, the subsequent years of emotions and experiences crafting a whole new person, a new way of looking of things. Built on the foundation of the Debra she'd been.
She took a breath. If this was a dream, it would be just as capable of breaking her as it would if he didn't really mean it. Because she didn't want to wake from a dream like this.
An ounce of forgiveness. One tiny step. It seemed so little, but his steady expression told her he knew just how wide a chasm it was. She closed her eyes.
He wanted her to show him how he could earn her forgiveness. It was far more likely that he could show her. As she bit her lip over that thought, she sensed the warm drift of him in her mind. His feelings so sincere, in a way that had her heart squeezing up into her lungs, inhibiting their airflow.
"You know that's not medically possible."
She opened her eyes. "You're not supposed to correct someone you're asking to forgive you."
"Valid point. I'll file it away for later discussion."
She resisted the urge to pinch him, then glanced down at the blanket. She saw the rose that had fallen there.
"Can you...would you lie on your back, my lord?"
He considered, then nodded, complying. She held her breath, not sure this was really happening as he stretched out on his back for her. He let one arm lie above his head, the other resting loosely across his abdomen. His gaze never left her, making things tremble in her lower belly. Kneeling next to him then, she picked up the rose. The breeze picked up a little, riffling the petals, his hair across his brow, sending another shiver across her skin.
"Put the coat back on if you're cold." His voice, a masculine tenor well suited to presentations and convincing others of his intellectual authority, was potent in a whole different way when lowered to a sensual purr.
She shook her head, then dropped her touch, letting the bloom slide over his chest, his upper abdomen. His gaze shifted, tracking it, and she drew in a pleased breath, seeing his skin shudder under the touch of the flower. She made a circle around his nipple, saw it harden. Leaning forward, she braced herself with a hand curled over his upper thigh, so high her forefinger could make a tentative caress of his testicles under the denim.
"I'm working on forgiveness, my lord. As you commanded."
His lips quirked at that, but then they firmed, his eyes watching her like a hawk watched a field mouse. That waiting intensity told her eventually he would strike, and the pleasure would overwhelm her. Doing what he'd so rarely allowed her to do was overwhelming enough by itself.
It couldn't fix all that buried hurt, no. Trust didn't switch on and off like a light. But he was a smart man. She knew he knew all that. He was asking her to take a step in that direction, see if she could find it in her to open herself to the possibility. She wanted that, she truly did, but she'd learned the heart, when wounded, didn't always respond to the wants of the mind. It had to make its own decision, in its own time. And it wasn't necessarily easy. There were so many pitfalls in the vampire world, so many things that would require Brian to underscore her status as a mere servant, things that could send her back in that wrong direction again. Things beyond both their control.
But he was right. She'd known most of those requirements when she signed up for this. It was how he'd abandoned her emotionally to face so much of it alone that was at issue. He was giving her an opening, a chance to believe he might be capable of making up for it. If she'd lacked any evidence to back that up, she would have been dead in the water right now. But she'd seen the type of vampire master possible in the relationship between Mason and Jessica, Lyssa and Jacob...
It would be new to him, though. He was right, in that all his focus had been proving himself to the vampire world, a world that still pretty much considered her expendable, her needs second to all of theirs. Could she be strong enough to trust him through missteps, even if he was truly headed in the direction she'd hoped for all along? That she'd sensed during those first few days together, so strongly she'd never doubted his feelings had been real, not all these years. Sometimes that was more painful than finding out she'd deluded herself.
She had no answer to any of that. She'd jus
t focus on this, see if she could navigate a moment of trust. The physical part of it was certainly no hardship. But an edgy part of her wanted to test, to push the boundaries of what had always been acceptable between them. So she let that bloom drift down over the nice muscled ridges of his stomach and play at his belt. It wasn't tight at his lean waist, so she brought her fingers into the equation. Dipping below, she found his bare hip bone and nothing else. No underwear. It made her pulse trip a little faster, thinking of his cock and testicles right against denim.
She reversed the bloom. The stem had several sharp, thick thorns. As she fed the stem below the line of the belt, imagining it curving on the inside of his hip bone, against the tender flesh over the pubis, she saw his gaze sharpen on her again, felt his attention in her mind, like the hum of electricity. She savored feeling him there. Those servants who grumbled about the vampire's presence in their minds didn't know what it was like to do without it. When he was aroused and his emotions were high, it was as clear he was inside her head as if he was standing behind her in the lab, his breath on her neck, making her have to work to concentrate, not mess up her process.
You manage it well. I'll have to work on that. It would be nice to punish you for actual cause sometimes.
He was teasing, because they took the work they did seriously. But she expected there were some less important things she could mess up. Just because.
His lips curved at that. My servant likes punishment. I'll make a note to meet her needs more often.
The usual thought crossed her mind, that her needs weren't his to worry about, but he lifted the hand on his abdomen, grazed her cheek. Everything about you is mine to worry about, Debra. It always has been.
She ducked her head, not able to handle that. Too close to that nest of snakes that could eat her alive from the inside, if she let herself trust too fast, too much. Bracing both her hands on his hip, over the stem beneath the cloth, she pressed down, hard. Harder.
She felt two of the thorns puncture him. He didn't flinch from the pain, but fire flared in his gaze, all the muscles along that distracting upper body rippling. As she eased off, small spots of blood bloomed through the fabric, staining the fibers.