Black Heart Page 54

I kept my hands on his face, my eyes on his eyes. “Nathaniel. For me. Do not do this, because I am asking you not to.”

“Madeline,” he said, and his voice broke. The heat of his anger receded a little. “Do not ask me to lay aside my vengeance. They deserve to suffer. They hounded you and harried you and sent the Retrievers to take you.”

“But you saved me,” I said, and kissed him very gently. “You sent me away. You saved me.”

“I thought I had killed you,” he said, and one single tear fell. “I wanted only to keep you safe, and I thought I had sent you to your doom.”

“You didn’t,” I said. “I survived. I always do.”

“And you truly do not wish me to take vengeance upon Sokolov for your suffering? He is responsible. He should pay.”

His eyes searched mine. I knew he wanted me to let him loose upon the Agency, but I couldn’t do it.

“Someday someone might have to take care of Sokolov,” I acknowledged. “But not today.”

“I would feel better if you would let me smite him,” Nathaniel said sulkily.

I laughed. He looked like a toddler who’d just been denied a trip to the candy store. “I know it would be satisfying to break him into little pieces, but no.”

“I will respect your wishes, Madeline,” Nathaniel said. “For now. But know this—Sokolov will receive no more chances from me.”

I understood what Nathaniel was saying. The next time Sokolov tried anything, Nathaniel would grind him up and spit him out.

And no amount of affection for me would stop Nathaniel again.

13

I HAD TO MAKE PEACE WITH THIS. IT WASN’T THAT I necessarily objected to removing Sokolov. He had tortured J.B. He had sent Bryson after me and Nathaniel, and we’d been shot out of the sky and nearly killed. He’d sicced the Retrievers on me and caused me a lot of grief generally.

And I wasn’t that bothered by one more death. Maybe that was a dark-side thought, but it was true. Especially the death of someone who had worked very hard to make himself my enemy.

I didn’t want Nathaniel to incur the wrath of the Agency. I didn’t want him to be hunted as I was.

But I also couldn’t ask him to sit by over and over and watch the woman he cared about suffer at Sokolov’s hands.

So I had to make peace with this. Nathaniel would not be leashed by me again, and I couldn’t ask him to be.

He watched me expectantly, waiting for my answer.

“I understand,” I said finally.

“Good,” he said, and kissed me again. It was a warmer kiss, full of promise, and when it was over he took my hand. “Now you can come inside and tell me what has happened to you.”

“And you can tell me what’s happened to you,” I said. “You look like you haven’t eaten a thing since I left.”

“You are also thinner,” Nathaniel said.

“But I was on an alien planet and I didn’t know what food was edible,” I said.

Nathaniel shrugged. “Eating was not a priority.”

“It was for me,” I said. “But I thought I was only gone for a few days, not three months.”

Nathaniel pushed open the front door. Bendith, J.B. and Beezle were seated around a coffee table, arguing over something. I realized in that moment that I had never been inside J.B.’s condo. He had been in my house a ton of times, but I’d never seen his living space.

It was more or less what I would have expected of J.B. Color was pretty much nonexistent—everything was gray or black. Wall-to-wall carpeting was gray. A galley kitchen opened into a wide living/dining area, with a hallway leading off behind the living room, presumably toward bedrooms. The kitchen was pristine, and looked like it had never been used.

Tall windows on the opposite side of the front door were covered by dark gray shades that completely blocked out any ambient light from the street. There were tall lamps set at intervals around the room. The dining room had a square table made of something shiny and black, surrounded by four chairs.

The living area was arranged in a perfect rectangle, with a sofa on one side, two chairs divided by an end table on the other and the coffee table in the center.

There were no photographs, throw blankets, flowers, books, or anything personal of any kind. It looked like a show floor at Crate and Barrel, except with less warmth.

It was kind of shocking to think that three men had been living in the space. I would have expected a spare sock on the floor or a dirty cereal bowl in the sink, at least. There was nothing. Just a perfectly perfect, almost inhuman space.

Bendith and J.B. sat on the couch a few feet apart, and Beezle was perched on the coffee table, which looked like it was made of the same stuff as the shiny laptops in the window at the Apple store. I realized that Beezle was standing in front of a stack of take-out menus, and that the argument was about whether or not to order food.

“Maddy said you just ate,” J.B. said. “You’re not going to get me in trouble.”

Bendith had looked up when we walked in. I saw his eyes lock on Nathaniel, like a child who was waiting for his parent to come home. He glanced at our joined hands uncertainly.

I knew that Bendith was very attached to Nathaniel. Bendith and I had not had positive interactions in the past. He, like so many people I knew, had tried to kill me. He had to be wondering about his welcome now that I’d returned. But I wasn’t going to bring it up unless he did. I had enough uncomfortable personal conversations looming on my horizon.

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