Mistress of Redemption (Nature of Desire #5)

Chapter 19

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Nathan swallowed, unable to look away but wanting to do so with all his will when Dona pulled the man’s heart out of his chest, severing the attached arteries as matter-of-factly as she would have cut strings of cheese to free one of those slices of pizza from the main pie. Her blood-spattered face was an indifferent mask, her blouse soaked with his life fluids. When she turned on her practical black heel and advanced on Pamela, her husband’s lover fell off the table, trying to get away. Dona backed her into a corner where the woman remained on her knees, arms up to protect herself as she babbled, sobbed, her gaze latched on that terrible thing in Dona’s blood-soaked fingers.

“It’s a large house, Pamela. I’ve been here since last night, a ghost flitting from room to room, staying just outside your notice.” Dona’s face was pale as a departed spirit, her dark eyes like a vampire’s. Flat, emotionless. It clicked in Nathan’s head. She shut down when she was feeling too much. He suspected that would have figured into her ability to be a surgeon, a successful one, for the opulence of the home strongly suggested she’d been important in her field.

“For thirteen hours I’ve been watching the man who made an oath to me proclaim his love for another. Fuck her, share thoughts about me with her. You knew he was married, but you were more than willing to help him break that oath. My soul died, Pamela, watching the two of you.” The Dona on stage cocked her head, considering the knife in her opposite hand. Pamela curled back into herself, arms clasped over her legs as she became a ball, rocking, keening hysterically.

“It’s okay if they kill me for this,” Dona continued in a reassuring tone. “Why would I want to live in a world where the person who promised to love me above all others…forever…would do something like this?”

As if sensing imminent danger, Pamela uncurled abruptly and made an attempt to scramble past her. Dona thwarted it easily, putting her foot in the middle of the woman’s chest and slamming her back on her ass in the confining corner. Then she squatted, bringing herself eye to eye with the redhead and holding the tumescent mass of blood and muscle before her horrified face.

“I’m going to call the police, Pamela. But before I let them come rescue you, you’re going to eat this. Every bite. If you vomit, you’ll eat it again, until it stays down. Then we’ll call. Okay?” Her lips drew back from her teeth in a smile that was a death threat.

Pamela’s wide eyes registered it. “You wanted his heart? You’re going to have it, every faithless bite.”

The theater dimmed, blessedly, but Nathan wished he could block his ears. For the next fifteen minutes he heard the sounds of Pamela pleading, gagging, choking, pleading more, then finally her broken whimpers as she obeyed Dona’s will and did the unthinkable. The theater was completely dark when he heard the sound of a phone being dialed and Dona’s voice.

“Yes. I’ve killed my husband and his pathetic whore is in shock. Please come right away to…”

The voice faded, Dona giving details as calmly as if she was prescribing blood pressure medicine to a patient.

When the stage lights rose, it was just a velvet curtain. The two of them sat in an empty theater.

Nathan turned his head, studied Dona’s profile. She did not move. Her attention was on the stage, her dark hair elegant and upswept, her neck pale and almost fragile beneath the clasp of the amber necklace.

“You were known as the Scorned Wife,” he said. “That case was…”

“Thirty years ago. I refused counsel, pled guilty and let them put me to death. I didn’t care. I thought my soul had been eaten, the way that heart was eaten.” Her gaze turned to him now, a deep well of things so frightening that neither he nor any man he knew would have been brave enough to meet her gaze. He looked down at her lap, at her clasped hands, the fingers twisted together in a knot. He heard her mocking chuckle.

“It wasn’t.”

The theater went dark again and Nathan could see nothing, only hear Dona’s breath next to him, the sound of her voice drifting over his skin.

“I wish I could look back on that now and say I don’t know who that Dona was.

That I can’t relate to her and don’t know what possessed me. Every act you commit, you commit consciously, even if it’s so unspeakable that you make yourself believe something else compelled you to do it. Those hours I spent in the house while they didn’t know I was there… Touching their body heat on my mattress where he and I had loved one another, so many ways. Watching her rifle through my closet while I stood a foot away from her in the shadow of my dresses. Listening to her make fun of me with the information he’d given her about me, about our relationship. I knew it was insecurity, making fun of what you don’t understand. The adulteress’s guilt at taking what she knows is rightfully another woman’s. I felt angry with her, of course. It was all about him, though. The way he looked at her, smiled when she made the jokes. But he never laughed, because he knew what was between us. He was indulging her ignorance because he loved her. Because he no longer loved me.

“I should have left the house the minute I knew. I couldn’t. It was like…” Nathan wanted to reach out and find her hand, even as his mind told him the desire had all the wisdom of reaching into a snake’s burrow, groping blindly toward a possible strike. She continued after a long pause. “When you find out a lover is unfaithful, it’s usually a snippet of information. Bits and pieces of things that come together like a puzzle. There are a lot of doubts. I think I stayed so there would be absolutely no doubt in my mind, no way he could lie and make me think what I knew was true wasn’t. I had to rub my nose in every bit of it, so by the time I reached that moment I was like a starving dog given the smell of blood in a sheep pen. I had to make him hurt, had to strike them both, even knowing they’d never feel a tenth of the pain I was feeling. Death was the only thing I could do to him that seemed anywhere close.” Another moment of silence, then she spoke again. “I found out he served a more severe punishment here than I did. Do you know why his crime is considered worse in Hell?”

He licked dry lips and braved it. Reaching across the seat, he found her hand again.

“No.”

It surprised Dona that he wanted to touch her after seeing what had happened on the stage. In prison, male guards had been more frightened of her than any other prisoner. She felt no fear or revulsion from Nathan. Only sympathy. But he didn’t know the answer to the question. She could feel him thinking about it and knew his heart wasn’t clean enough to find the answer. It twisted a knife in her own, knowing the answer was beyond his grasp.

“Because the soul can’t die. A soul can become twisted, deformed, maimed, wounded, but it won’t die. Wounds allow infection. You become an instrument of anger, hate and bitterness. You become what attacked your soul in the first place.”

“No.”

“Yes.” Now she held him when he would have drawn back. “You’ve seen it in the pleasure you took in the suffering of your Mistresses. They’re one of your mirrors.” Nathan wanted to deny it, wanted to rail at her, but in this place it was absurd to lie to himself. He tried for a subject change instead.

“So this is part of your punishment? Serving as a Mistress of Redemption?”

“No. My sentence is done. I accepted the role of a Mistress of Redemption.”

“Is your husband…still here?”

“No. He served his time. He wasn’t vicious, just thoughtless. He’s now back in another life, paying his karmic debt.”

“So Hell and Redemption are separate.”

In the quiet of the theater, after the horror of what he’d just seen and knowing that somehow it connected to knowledge of himself he did not want to have, he wanted to pretend they were somewhere on Earth, just sharing a philosophical discussion. Part of him hoped she would relent, at last answer some of his questions to help him get a grip on what was happening. He couldn’t deny any longer that he was somewhere way the fuck gone from Dorothy’s Kansas. Another part of him didn’t want any explanations.

He simply wanted to sit in this quiet place with her and not return to a place of nightmares or choices. Hold her in his lap until all the pain that pursued them both melted away and left only blessed stillness.

What if this had been Earth and he’d been on a date with her? Maybe they’d have gone back to her apartment, the apartment of a young medical student. Him a roofer with rough palms, palms she wanted to feel on her smooth skin. He would have pleased her long into the night, loved her, never given her reason to doubt him…

As Dona felt the thoughts, saw the images in his mind, it made her want to be there with him. Remember a time when she’d believed in such pure moments. She could imagine him moving between her thighs on the sagging secondhand mattress, the curtains fluttering with a hot summer breeze. Her fan was going at high speed because she couldn’t afford to pay for air conditioning as well as her textbooks.

Sometimes dreams were far more special during the time when you were making them, rather than after you believed you’d achieved them.

Here, alternate realities were within a Mistress’s grasp if she wanted to see how it would play out, to help her with her task at hand. She could take the opportunity to create that moment, enjoy it with him and then wipe it off the slate of his memory, keep it only on hers. But as she slid into his imaginings, a different way things could have turned out, she knew this had nothing to do with the task at hand and everything to do with her own desires…

Summer breeze flitting through the curtains. Bed stripped down to just sheets and his body stretched over her, giving her the pleasure of running her palms up his strong arms, braced on either side of her. Across the broadness of his back, down to his hips.

Lean, a roofer’s spare body, muscled and more broad-shouldered than expected. When he bent to her, catching her lips in a kiss that was somewhat off center because of the rhythm of his body stroking into hers, everything was dusky, soft at the edges in the quiet room, the noises of the street outside blending with the radio inside.

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