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He did his best not to bleed on the carpet, but by the time he’d been prodded through the foyer, up the stairs, and down the long hall of the top flight of the town mansion, Gideon was fairly certain some house drone was going to be scrubbing a few spots off the stairs, come the sunsrise.
At the end of the second floor’s long hall, he was pulled to a stop by Ronan in front of the last door on the right.
Rey kept her weapon live and trained on Gideon, while Celia opened the door and entered the room, where she crushed out her cigarette in a standing tray that looked like it had been carved from a mammoth tusk. She then stepped out of her shoes before proceeding to move about the room, lighting a series of table lamps as she went.
As pockets of illumination grew to fill the space, Gideon saw he’d been brought to a bedroom. But as Ronan pushed him inside, he realized this chamber was far more sophisticated than anything so simple as a bedroom.
This place was a boudoir, something Gideon had believed only existed in the penny dreadfuls.
From the flocked wall coverings, to the heavy velvet curtains, to the carved wardrobe, to the mantle crowded with antiquities (up to and including what looked to be a genuine Earth-made Dr Pepper bottle), and crammed with bits of furniture so fanciful he couldn’t imagine them capable of supporting a man’s weight, the room was an ode to excess.
Much like Celia herself.
Even the bed was a showcase. A sea of red silk nesting inside the frame of what Gideon was sure was Adidan ebony.
Not very patriotic, he thought, studying the intricately carved headboard.
On the far side of the room, Celia had lit a final lamp, this one on a small writing desk, and was now drawing the thick (red) curtains over a tall window.
Keepers forbid any of the neighbors wake and spy a strange man bleeding all over the brocade.
To his left, he saw Ronan crouch before the fireplace, where he set his lighter to the pile of tinder already laid beneath the kindling. Once it caught, he moved to a finely carved breakfront, where he withdrew a blown glass decanter and goblet, both of which he carried in his good hand to one of the fanciful tables where Celia was waiting. At her nod, Ronan unstopped the decanter and commenced to pour.
The liqueur, Gideon noted with a sort of weary amusement, was of a red deeper than that of the bed’s silk, but lighter than that of the velvet curtains.
He looked at Celia, who lifted the glass, sampled it, and smiled her approval.
“One hates to ask,” he said, then asked, “but why am I here?” And where’s your husband?
“That is a question,” she said, setting the glass down.
For no reason he could fathom, her use of that particular phrase started an itch in Gideon’s brain.
Before he could scratch it, Rey gave him a nudge towards one of the fanciful chairs, a burgundy cushioned number with an ornately carved slat back. Ronan joined them and shoved Gideon into the chair, making sure his hands looped over the back.
Not optimal, he told himself, but if Rey turns the gun away for even a second—
It won’t matter, his self cut in, because Ronan had just produced a short length of rope from a trunk at the foot of the bed, then he took over the gun while his sister used the rope to fix Gideon’s bound hands to the back of the chair, proving they weren’t as careless as Gideon was hoping.
He waited for Rey to move off and counted to ten before beginning to test the bindings. What he found was both the rope and the chair slats were sturdier than they looked.
Still, with patience and pressure, a lot could change. He started applying both now, slowly and quietly, flexing and stretching his wrists before his hands, already numb, lost all function, turned black, and fell off, rendering any escape attempt moot.
Aren’t you being a little overdramatic? he asked himself.
Have you seen where we are? His self replied.
Either unaware of, or unconcerned with, her prisoner’s internal debate, Celia shed the fur coat to reveal a dress as red and (he bet) as slippery as the coverlet on that bed.
A sheath of silk with a thigh-high slash, it didn’t so much cling to her curves as promise to, pausing over various bits of female anatomy until a turn, a step, a twist, caused it to ripple away and onto new territory.
As far as Gideon could tell, there was nothing holding it in place but a slender strap over one shoulder, and that strap little more than a prayer away from releasing its tenuous hold.
Sure enough, as she turned towards him, the slender twist of fabric began to slide, leaving the impression that all it would take was one sharp tug (or a more fervent prayer), and it would give up the fight.
“Um,” Gideon said.
“A moment.” Celia draped the coat over the back of a fainting couch where the silver of the fur set off the (of course) red of the fabric, then looked to the twins. “You will leave us,” she told them.
The twins looked at each other, then at Celia. “Madame,” Rey said, “are you certain?”
“Certain my order was an order?” Celia asked. “Very. You may wait in the hall for Nahmin’s signal.”
Signal? Gideon wondered. He remained silent while the reluctant mercenaries exited the room, then looked at Celia. “Signal?” he asked.
But this question she ignored altogether.
In lieu of a response, she returned to the little table, picked up the goblet, and crossed the carpet to where he sat. “I imagine you’ll be thirsty,” she said.
In response, he spat a gob of bloody saliva onto the rug. Her mouth quirked in the shadow of a smile.
“I could drink,” he said.
Holding his gaze, she leaned close, closer, and held the goblet to his lips.
From the glass, the scent of raspberries and alcohol rose to mingle seductively with the spice of her perfume.
It was, he had to admit, a heady mix.
With his eyes locked on hers, he opened his mouth just enough to let in a trickle of the liqueur. When it proved to be only liqueur, he took a swallow, then another, and another.
She held the glass steady, and when he’d drunk it dry, she withdrew the goblet and brushed her fingers over his lower lip, bringing a stray drop of the liquid to her tongue, much as Doc had done with a drop of sweat in the Morton yard, only days before.
“What,” he asked, forcing himself to stay in the present, “is happening here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She set the glass aside, on another of the ridiculous little tables, and draped herself over his lap as casually as she’d draped her fur on the couch. “I want you.”
His head tilted. “I’m almost sure there are easier ways to get a man’s attention.”
“I tried those ways,” she reminded him, running her fingers down his face, over his throat, down to the collar of his coat, “seven years ago. You didn’t pay any attention.”
He had to admit, she’d gotten his attention now.
“You kept the coat,” she noted, parting it so she could reach the buttons in his shirt.
“Why,” he began, then cleared his throat which was, despite the liqueur, suddenly quite dry. “Why is everyone surprised by that?”
“Not surprised,” she corrected him, humming in satisfaction as she loosed the top button. “Impressed.”
“That you don’t blame the Corps for what happened to you.”
The second button slid free.
“Why,” he asked, as she continued to the next button, “would I blame the Corps for something your husband did?”
“Not everyone would have such a clear view of the matter.”
“Not that clear,” Gideon said, while his wrists continued to slowly twist and pull at the rope. “For instance, I always wondered why your husband believed we’d had a thing.”
“Oh, Jessup never believed we had a thing.”
Despite the fire, Gideon felt cold at the memory of Rand’s final words to him.
You should never have touched her.
“He believes you assaulted me,” she said, pressing her lips to the newly exposed flesh.
“And why,” Gideon asked with (he believed) remarkable calm, “would he think that?”
“Because that’s what I told him.” She looked up with a smile. “I even had some very impressive bruises to show him as proof. You were quite the brute, you know.”
Gideon’s wrists wrenched so violently that the skin tore, but his voice remained steady as he again asked, “Why?”
“You know, you’re quite fit for someone living on prison rations,” she said, ignoring the question of the day as her fingers danced over his collarbone.
Gideon chose not to respond.
Or rather, he couldn’t find a response when the combination of fury, hate, and desire were setting off more sparks than Ronan’s shock stick.
“That said,” she paused over a particularly vibrant bruise, “you also look like someone has been using you for target practice.” She pressed her lips to the insulted flesh.
“Maybe because several someones have,” he said, not even trying to disguise the hoarseness this time. “As I’m sure you recall. If you were so interested in… this… why let Rey use me as her punching bag?”
“Why do you think?”
“You like to see men bleed?”
Another smile. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “But in this case, Rey was very unhappy with the way you treated her brother—”
“Her brother who was attacking me at the time?”
“—and I promised her a chance at retribution,” she continued, over his comment. She shifted her hips over his lap, and smiled at his nonverbal response. “Not that she seems to have done any permanent damage.”
“Tell that to my spleen.”
“Poor Gideon.” She tilted his chin up and pressed her lips to the pulse point under his jaw.
He closed his eyes, willing himself not to respond.
Given the lapful of silk-draped Celia, this was rather the equivalent of stopping a mammoth stampede with a pea-shooter.
Even so, she seemed to sense his reluctance, and leaned back, her expression a shimmering mix of desire, confusion and, he thought, hurt. “Is something wrong?”
“Is something wrong?” he echoed, using even that minute shred of physical space to remember who she was and what she’d done. “Where to begin? Oh, wait, I know where to begin—the lie you told that got my company killed? Or how about with the six years in Morton I served because of it? Or the fact your pet mercenaries abducted me, tossed me in your carriage, and beat the comb out of me in front of you with your permission. And that was after your butler almost drowned me.”
“Actually, he’s the valet.”
“I sit corrected.”
She sighed, stroked his hair. “Does it help to know Nahmin was very sorry about how the morph incident turned out?”
“Do at least try to be fair.” She retrieved the goblet and rose from his lap with a businesslike briskness at odds with the erotic teasing of moments ago. “After all, who eats their dinner in the bathtub?” she asked, crossing back to the table where the decanter had been set.
“People who are dirty and hungry at the same time,” he suggested. “Or who don’t expect their soup to be drugged.”
“A point.” She unstoppered the flask, turning away while she refilled the glass. “Would it help to know I’m sorry?”
“It’d help a lot more if I weren’t tied to this chair.”
“If you weren’t tied to that chair, you’d have been gone before we had the chance to talk, and, as you might have guessed from the extremes I’ve taken to get you here…” She gave a little shrug that had her gown’s one strap edging just a hitch closer to the point of no return, “I very much want to have a little talk.”
The glass full, she now took it and herself to the chaise, where she sat down and crossed her legs in the way of women who expect those legs to be watched.
Gideon watched (prison—six years), but even as the red silk parted to tease glimpses of those ivory thighs, alarms shrilled in the back of his mind because this, this slow slide to seduction, was how all his troubles had begun.