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“That’s not how this works. I’m going to expose his whole network for what it is, so they can’t simply set up shop somewhere else. I want in on whatever you’re going to do.”
“Not gonna happen, sweetheart. I’ll do what needs to be done, and when it’s over, I’ll tell you what you need to know. This is vampire business, not yours.”
“Not—” Sid couldn’t form the right words around the anger choking her throat. “The women they’re kidnapping and selling are human, Lord Fucking Aden. That makes this my business. And you wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t told you about it.”
“Bullshit. I have my own sources. You just made it easier. Now, either tell me what you know, or go play reporter somewhere else.”
Sid stared at him in disbelief. What a total asshole. She couldn’t believe she’d been ready to let him . . . Fuck. She couldn’t even think about what she’d almost let him do.
“Tell you what, Aden,” she said pleasantly. “Go to hell.” And with that, she spun on her heel and stormed out of the house.
Bastien was waiting on the porch, probably worried about his precious asshole of a vampire lord. He looked up questioningly when she banged open the screen door.
“He’s fine. I’ll see you later,” she snapped, then almost growled out loud when she caught Bastien’s quick look over her head. He was obviously checking with Aden to see if she was allowed to leave. She didn’t wait to find out. She didn’t need anyone’s permission, no matter what these vampires seemed to think. Reaching the street, she looked both ways, calculating her best chance of catching a cab.
“Don’t be an idiot, Sidonie,” Aden said from right behind her.
She spun around, fighting the urge to jump, but knew she hadn’t succeeded when she saw one side of his mouth curl up knowingly.
“I’ll give you a ride back to your condo,” he told her.
“No, thank you,” she said primly. She turned away from him and started walking.
“Have it your way,” he murmured. “But don’t blame me if Silas finds you.”
That stopped her. She spun to face him. “What?”
His thick shoulders moved in a careless shrug. “Dresner told Silas how she knew I was coming. Your name came up.”
Well, wasn’t that great? Sid pulled her cell out of her pocket. “I’ll call a cab.”
Aden strode forward until he was blocking the street light, and she was standing in his shadow. His deep voice curled around her. “Let me give you a ride, Sidonie.”
Sid swayed closer, then realized what he was doing. “Don’t you dare do that to me!” she gasped. “I am not some pathetic vampire groupie you can mesmerize into becoming your slave.”
“Be careful,” he warned her. “My patience is not unlimited.”
“The truth hurts, Lord Aden. Good-bye.” Sidonie turned her back on him and started off toward Clark and Wrightwood. There were a few clubs up there in Lincoln Park that had music seven days a week. She should be able to find a cab there, or at least she’d have other people to hang out with until one could arrive.
It was a short walk to the corner, and she felt Aden’s stare against her back every step of the way. She kept waiting for his crooning voice to drift over her shoulder, for his big hand to wrap around her waist. But it never did. He let her go. And she told herself it didn’t matter. That the disappointed ache she was feeling was only because she was losing a powerful ally in her efforts to close down Klemens’s old network.
And she nearly believed it.
ADEN WATCHED Sidonie storm away down the street, as if she were in control. As if she could escape him. He let her go . . . for tonight. There were only a few hours before sunrise, and he had a lot to do before then. He’d pretty much drained Dresner of any useful information, but he wanted to pursue Sidonie’s claims regarding Klemens. His vampire sources had hinted at the existence of a slave ring here in Chicago, something he found deeply troubling. He wasn’t a total innocent. He knew many vampires indulged their darker natures and ignored human laws. Aden himself frequently bypassed the human legal system, considering it irrelevant to most vampire affairs.
But slavery was one thing he would never permit in his territory. He knew the emotional toll of being owned, of having one’s very existence dependent on the whim of another. Sidonie thought he’d enslaved Dresner by capturing her mind and compelling her to tell him what she knew. But what he’d done to Dresner was temporary and harmless. He hadn’t altered her memories, though he could have, and he hadn’t stripped her mind bare, although he could have done that, too. Once he’d dealt with Silas permanently, Dresner could go back to her sad devotion to the dead Klemens, and Aden would have nothing more to do with her.
That wasn’t slavery.
Sidonie Reid had no idea what it truly meant to be a slave.
ADEN OPENED HIS eyes and shivered in the cold morning. It was raining. His master Hafiz would be in a foul mood again today. Hafiz hated the rain. He claimed it lowered his profits, and Aden supposed that must be true, since he doubted people would want to stand in the rain and bid on shivering, wet slaves. But what Aden knew for certain was that if business was slow, his master would take out his unhappiness on his own slaves, and that included Aden. Especially Aden. It was as if Hafiz derived particular pleasure in beating the bastard son of one of the wealthiest merchants in the city. More than once, Aden had wondered if his father had known the kind of treatment he’d receive at Hafiz’s hand, and if he’d chosen the slave master for that very reason. Had his father wanted to punish him for being born? For taking even a small part of his mother’s love? Though that love had obviously meant nothing to her. She’d sent him away willingly enough.
He poured freezing water from the cracked pitcher on the wooden table next to his bed, filling the crude pottery bowl. He no longer even thought about the elegant furnishings he’d left behind in his father’s home, things like smooth pottery and fresh-smelling soaps. As the bastard son, Aden had made do with the lowest quality available in his father’s palace, and yet they were still a thousand times better than what he had now. He splashed water on his face and washed his hands with the harsh soap. It hurt his skin, but he did it anyway, knowing it would earn him lashes if he failed to present a neat appearance. Not that he wouldn’t be whipped anyway, but he’d discovered there were degrees of pain.
There was no need to change clothes. He had only the one set, and it had been too cold last night to sleep naked. The shirt was ragged and unhemmed, the pants torn and too short for his long legs, but they were the only ones he possessed. And even these were owned by his master. Aden owned nothing. He was nothing. He was a thing, a possession, easily discarded and of very little value.
He heard his master’s bellow and rushed from his room, drying his hands on his pants as he went.
Dropping to his knees at the open door to his master’s morning room, he bent nearly in half, face to the floor, and shouted, “How may this useless one serve you, master?”
His master’s laugh greeted his query. “Didn’t I tell you?” Hafiz chortled. “Perfectly biddable.”
“So you said,” a woman’s husky voice responded.
Aden didn’t move from his prostrate position, but he was intrigued. His master didn’t entertain many women. Boys were far more his style, and only the smallest, weakest ones at that. It was one thing Aden had to be grateful for, that his Scottish blood had made him too big to suit Hafiz’s perverted taste in sexual amusement. Even at the age of five, when Hafiz had first purchased him from his father, Aden had been too strong, his attitude too arrogant. The arrogance had been beaten out of him quickly enough, but his size and strength were there to stay.
“Get in here, worm,” Hafiz’s hated voice called.
Aden lifted himself from the floor, and, keeping his head lowered, eyes downcast, he shuffled into his master’s audience chamber, where he promptly prostrated himself once again.
He felt the sharp end of Hafiz’s cane dig into his shoulder and tensed, but then the woman intervened.
“No,” she said sharply, and amazingly, Hafiz stopped his poking. “Stand up, boy,” she commanded. “Let me see you.”
Aden froze uncertainly. The woman had given him an order, but Hafiz had not. If he stood without his master’s permission, he would be beaten. But if he ignored the command of his master’s guest, he might very well be beaten, too. Though perhaps not as severely. So he remained prostrate.
“Do it, imbecile.”
Aden stifled a sigh of relief, jumping to his feet at his master’s order.
“Raise your head,” the woman said. His mind told him the words were a command, but his gut felt it was a request. He chose not to obey either his brain or his gut, because the words didn’t come in his master’s voice.
Hafiz sighed deeply. “This is becoming tiresome. Do whatever she says, worm.”
Aden lifted his head and tried not to stare. He barely managed not to meet the woman’s eyes, which would have earned him far more than a lashing in punishment.
“You’re right. He’s very big for his age,” the woman observed, standing suddenly and coming close to Aden. He fought the shiver that tried to race along his nerves at her nearness. No female had been this close to him since he’d bid his mother good-bye. Hafiz didn’t own female slaves, didn’t have a wife or a mistress. His entire staff was male.
“Take off your clothes,” she said quietly, leaning close enough that he caught the flowery scent of her perfume. It confused him for a moment, because it reminded him again of the last time he’d seen his mother.
“Take off your clothes, boy.”
Hafiz’s harsh command broke through his confusion, and he jumped to obey. Slaves had no souls, but Aden had gained enough religion before being sold to know that it was unseemly for this woman to see him naked. But that didn’t stop him. Modesty of any kind was something he’d lost long ago. He loosened the tie on his pants and let them fall to the floor as he tugged the rough garment that was his shirt over his head. Stepping out of the pants, he folded both pieces neatly and set them aside before standing straight once more, eyes cast downward.