In the over-warm, over-decorated bedroom, Gideon stared at Celia and wondered…
If he and Celia had never met—if Commander Radesh had sent some other company to exfiltrate Rand’s wife—how different would his life have been?
Because if Gideon hadn’t been the one to recover Celia back in the day, Celia would not have developed an unhealthy obsession for Gideon (a term that seemed over the top until Gideon remembered he was tied to a chair in the woman’s bedroom).
And if Celia had not developed an unhealthy obsession with Gideon, she’d never have used her husband as a weapon of revenge. Following the thread, Rand would then never have sent the 12th Company to Nasa, or blackmailed Gideon into a confession of treason.
Gideon would never have sent Dani away, those six years in the Barrens wouldn’t have happened, and he most certainly would not be tied to a chair in a silk-papered room filled with antiquities that probably cost enough to feed a company—no, make that a regiment—for a full fourteen months.
He also wouldn’t be half-starved, all-the-way beaten, dizzy from the scent of Celia’s perfume, and yearning to let his hands roam that indolent body, tangle in the arrow-straight hair, shred the teasing excuse for a dress…
“Gideon,” she murmured from her languid repose, “you’re staring.”
“What can I say,” he said, managing an indolent shrug, “seven years haven’t made you less of a walking heart attack.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, shifting so the gown rippled to yet more revealing effect.
“Don’t,” he said. “Really. Don’t.”
At that, he thought he saw the flash of hurt again, but it was so quickly replaced by predatory amusement, he might have imagined it.
“Do you know why I find you so fascinating?” she asked now, running a hand up one of those amazing legs, then continued before he could kick his misfiring synapses into answering. “Because you’re the only one who’s ever said no. Men, women—every single one of my assets—they all fell for my charms. Willingly. Happily. Every one of them.
Which was… wrong.
Not that he didn’t believe her claims to conquest. He pretty much hated Celia’s silk-wrapped guts, but he still wanted her.
No, what was wrong was the other bit, the thing about the… “Assets,” he repeated. “As in…”
Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to say the rest.
“As in,” she agreed. Idly, she set the glass on the long low table in front of the chaise, exchanging it for one of the knickknacks littering its surface.
It was, he noted distantly, a music box. One she wound now, so when she set it back in its place, it began to play.
“I’ve always loved this piece,” she told him, taking up the goblet and unfolding herself from the chaise.
As he watched, still uncertain she really was what she was telling him she was, Celia began to dance, rising lightly on her bare feet, extending a leg here, an arm there, graceful as any swan before spinning her way across the room with such ease, not a drop of the deep red liqueur spilled from the glass.
Gideon was near to breathless by the time she spun to a stop in front of him.
And then her gown’s one lonely strap lost the battle to hold on, slipping over the smooth terrain of her shoulder.
Suddenly, there was a great deal more of Celia to see.
In that moment, Gideon was sure every bit of blood rushed out of his brain. Even the struggle to free his hands, so constant as to be habitual by now, came to a sudden halt as his body reminded him in no uncertain terms that six years is a long, long time to live in a desert—of any sort.
“Do you like it?” she asked, and though he didn’t know if she meant the music, the dance, or her current dishabille, he felt his head dropping in a single, truncated nod.
“Do you know,” she asked, sliding her skirt aside with one hand so she could straddle the lap she’d so recently deserted, “where this music came from?”
It was a struggle, but he managed a strangled-sounding, “No.”
“It’s very old,” she told him, seemingly pleased by his difficulties. “Was old even when our ancestors left Earth.” She slid one arm behind his neck. “It was part of a ballet. That’s the dance I just performed for you,” she explained, bringing the goblet to his lips and tipping the glass, and he, entranced and entrapped, drank from it.
“This particular music is a movement from a ballet called Swan Lake. The ‘Black Swan Pas de Deux,’ it’s called.” She lowered the glass, now barely half-full.
He licked the traces of liqueur from his lips, which felt suddenly hot. “It was stunning,” he said, then flushed at the naked admiration in that statement.
She smiled. “I know.”
And then she let the goblet tip and fall to the floor, where the remaining liqueur spread over the carpet, pooling around the goblet like berry-scented blood, and wrapped her free arm around him as well, so that she might pull herself closer—close enough he could feel the contours of her flesh even through his clothing—and pressed her lips to his throat, his jaw, that small secret place behind his ear.
His hands strained again, desperate to touch, to take…
“Do you want to know the name of the black swan?” she asked.
He wanted to tear the rest of that dress off. “Yes…”
“Her name,” Celia said, her voice little more than a breath in his ear, “is Odile.”
Which was when Gideon finally realized that he’d been wrong.
Well, no, not entirely wrong.
It was, after all, Celia’s husband who’d framed Gideon for treason, and Rand who had ordered the Kodiak to fire on Gideon’s company, killing five soldiers and sending a sixth into slavery.
Rand who had, in his wide swath of collateral damage, ruined John Pitte’s career.
And Gideon firmly believed there should be a reckoning for that.
All of it.
But there was, it appeared, more to the story.
There was Celia.
Celia, who’d pursued him both then, and now.
Celia with her mercenaries, and assassins, and assets.
Celia, with her other name.
“Odile,” he said at last, that other name falling numbly from his lips. Odile, the spy inside Corps Command, the one whose existence might never have been suspected if Gideon hadn’t captured a courier so many years ago. “You were Odile?”
“I never thanked you properly for taking the fall on my behalf,” she said, either unaware or uncaring of his reaction to her.
“Untie these ropes,” he suggested. “We’ll work something out.”
“I don’t think so.” She undid another button… two more and she’d have the shirt off. “But maybe, before it’s all finished, I’ll have the chance to make it up to you.”
As if to prove her good intentions, she pressed herself to him.
There was enough exposed flesh involved in that touch to send Gideon’s entire system into overdrive.
“Stop,” he said, through teeth clenched as tightly against Celia’s attentions as they’d been when Rey was busy venting her anger on his body.
“You don’t really want me to stop,” Celia murmured. “Do you?”
“Yes,” he hissed, hating that he was lying, and hating even more that she knew he was lying.
It was in that moment, when fury and desire declared war on each other, that the chair’s finely carved slats, through which the rope holding Gideon in place was threaded, snapped.
So did Gideon.
He saw her realize what had gone wrong, but it was too late.
He’d surged out of the chair before she could even draw a breath to scream. His momentum shoved her up and back, landing on the floor so hard that what little air she’d taken came out in a pained gasp.
He didn’t have his hands—the original binding still held—but he was bigger than her, stronger than her and he was sure as the first landing madder than her, so when she fell, he followed, setting one knee over her throat and pressing, so there was only a thin trickle of air between Celia and the death of a swan.
It was tempting, so very tempting, to remain where he was.
To end it.
To end her.
Except for the unfortunate truth, one Gideon, even half-mad with rage, could recognize—that the only thing Celia’s death would end was his freedom.
And her, Gideon reminded himself.
But not quite tempting enough.
He removed the knee and sank back on his heels, and it was a good thing he did, because as the hot fuel of rage receded, so too went the energy that had propelled him from the chair in the first place.
“Thank you,” Celia whispered hoarsely, drawing his attention to the bruise blossoming over her pale, pale throat.
“I’m not the murderer in this room,” he said, with some difficulty. He must be more exhausted than he thought. Either that or—
“Not yet,” she said, interrupting his train of thought.
“I… what?” Keepers, but he was tired of a sudden. And the dizziness from earlier, the dizziness he’d attributed to lust, seemed to have increased.
From where her body pressed against his thigh, he could feel her quiver. A hazy glimpse of her face told him her trembles weren’t from fear.
She was laughing.
What, he wanted to ask, is so damned funny?
But words failed.
Mostly because his tongue wasn’t willing to move.
And then there were the shadows spilling over the edges of his vision, much as the liqueur had spilled over the carpet.
The liqueur, he thought, looking to the fallen goblet, and remembering that, though Celia had partaken of the first glass, she hadn’t touched a drop of the second.
Hells, he thought, tipping over, a lumpen imitation of the prone goblet.
“Poor Gideon,” he heard her say, as the morph she’d put in the liqueur dragged him the rest of the way down, “still unable to see the spy for the swans.”