Charlie was a connoisseur of pain. She knew it in all its varieties— aching, piercing, throbbing, stabbing, stretching, tingling, burning, cramping, and so forth— and could instantly rate it on the 1-10 scale that doctors liked. But as far as she was concerned, there were only two important divisions. There was good pain, and bad pain.
The pain that involved physical malfunctions or medical procedures was bad pain, even when it was damped down with medication until it didn’t hurt. The pain that was carefully and deliberately inflicted during sex, intended only to enhance the experience for everyone, was good pain. That was the pain she chose. And that made all the difference.
She stretched luxuriously, enjoying the tingling in her unbound limbs and the dilemma of whether to keep still and prolong it, or move and intensify it. Stefan had been careful not to tie her tightly enough to affect her circulation, but she’d been completely unable to move as he’d subjected her to the most delicious torments, keeping her on the verge of orgasm without allowing her to come.
Before they had started, Charlie had informed him that she did not beg and there was nothing he could possibly do to make her. She’d made him work to break her, but break her he had. A contented glow filled her as she recalled her determination slowly wearing away until she had cracked at last. The release she’d felt when she’d finally given in and begged had been as satisfying as the orgasm itself.
Stefan rubbed her hands, easing away the ache she’d started to feel in her joints. During sex, she no longer felt her usual pain, but it had returned with the fading of the afterglow.
“I wish I could just keep you here in my apartment,” Stefan said. “You’d be my little pet.”
“Your secret pet,” Charlie said, sinking into the fantasy. “Would you give me orders to follow, while you were out?”
“Absolutely.” His hands moved up her arms, then settled on her shoulders. Those were her one set of joints that rarely had problems, but it still felt good to be massaged there. “Sometimes I’d sneak out of work just so I could check on you unexpectedly and see if you’d obeyed.”
“What would happen if I was disobedient?” Charlie asked.
“Oh, I’d have to discipline you.” He thought about it. “I might have a lockbox that you weren’t supposed to open. I’d leave the key where you could see it, to test your self-control. If you couldn’t resist opening the box…”
“…I’d find out that it was full of the implements of discipline!” Charlie said happily. “What would they be?”
“Let’s see…” Stefan scooped her up and carried her into the bathroom.
They speculated about the contents of the lockbox as they bathed. Charlie was certain that a real one would materialize if their relationship lasted long enough. She saw no reason to end it just yet. Stefan had a fine lean body, a handsome face, and an effortlessly commanding presence. He was an excellent lover and an imaginative, sensitive dom. He pushed her limits, but only the ones she wanted him to push.
Except for his less-than-glamorous job, his utterly mundane background, and his slight lack of height, he could be the hero of a romance novel. But given the constraints of reality, he was as close to perfect as an actual man could get.
Charlie leaned on him, letting him gently towel-dry her hair, and thought, You won’t last six months here.
He was too sensitive. Too imaginative. And he was a nurse. Dr. Semple ran her experiments out of the hospital. Whatever he thought he’d signed up for, it hadn’t been that. Sooner or later, he’d see something he couldn’t live with. Then Mr. Dowling would remind him that he had family and friends who were surely more important to him than blowing the whistle on the base. And Stefan would bid farewell to his co-workers and Charlie, and try to forget that he’d ever heard of Wildfire Base.
They should hire me to do the employee screenings, Charlie thought. I’d save them a bundle in severance pay.
Stefan playfully touched her nose. “Penny for your thoughts.”
She smiled at him. “I was just thinking how much I’d love to be your pet for a day. If you get that lockbox—”
The phone rang.
“Hold that thought.” Stefan went into the living room to pick it up, leaving Charlie perched on the edge of the bathtub. “Stefan. Oh— hold on, Michelle. Charlie? It’s for you.”
Charlie’s cane was in the bedroom, but she moved as fast as she could without it. The only reason anyone would call her at Stefan’s apartment was to let her know that Echo was back from her mission. Michelle was on duty at the hospital, so that meant Echo was injured.
In the eternity it took Charlie to reach the sofa, she reminded herself that if Echo’s life was in danger, Mr. Dowling would have called.
She sat on the couch and snatched the phone from Stefan’s hand. “What happened to Echo?”
Michelle spoke reassuringly. “She has a concussion. But we gave her a CT scan, and there’s no skull fracture or bleeding on the brain. We strongly recommended that she be hospitalized overnight for observation, but—“
“She walked out,” Charlie finished for her. “I’ll meet her at our apartment. Thanks for letting me know. Shall I wake her up every couple hours to make sure she hasn’t gotten worse?”
“Just to be safe,” Michelle replied. “Thanks, Charlie.”
“Thank you.” Charlie hung up. In her focus on her sister, she’d completely forgotten where she was or that anyone else was with her. Or that she was sitting naked on the couch. She blinked in surprise at Stefan looming over her, holding her cane and her clothes. “Thanks, Stefan. You’re so considerate.”
“No problem.” He watched as she put on her ivory lace bra and panties, and then her diaphanous blue-green dress. “What’s wrong with your sister?”
“Just a concussion.”
“There’s no such thing as just a concussion,” Stefan said, frowning. “They can have serious long-term effects.”
“Not for Echo. She was designed with enhanced healing and regeneration,” Charlie replied. Any long-term effects wouldn’t be physical, anyway. And her target must have put up one hell of a fight in order to injure her, which meant that he had been wildly unlikely to have been a civilian, which meant that Echo was unlikely to be bothered by having to kill him.
Stefan looked unconvinced. “She left against medical advice, didn’t she? And you’re going to take care of her? Do you have any medical training?”
“Yes, actually. I’m a paramedic.” Charlie had gotten the training along with her sisters when they were thirteen, plus yearly refresher courses. She hadn’t been expected to need it, but they’d liked to stick together as much as possible, and it was easier to practice on each other with an even number of students.
Too bad Althea missed it, Charlie thought. She’d have loved all the gory stories.
“Would you like me to come anyway?” Stefan asked. “I’d be happy to help.”
“Thanks for offering, but we’ll be fine.” Mentally, she revised her estimate of Stefan’s likely tenure at Wildfire Base downward. Way too sensitive. If she wanted to experience his lockbox, she’d better move fast. She beckoned him down and gave him a lingering kiss. “Call me the day after tomorrow. I’ll be too tired tomorrow. Start thinking about that lockbox.”
She extracted herself from his arms and hurried down the unmarked corridors, ignoring the deep ache in her hip. Echo hated hospitals, she hated medical tests, and she hated Dr. Semple. She had to feel terrible to have either been willing to admit that she was hurt, or to be unable to hide it.
Charlie barely managed polite nods for the guards and night shift personnel she passed. Tomorrow she’d explain why she hadn’t smiled or stopped to chat. Tonight, she had to get to her sister.
She widened her eyes for the retina scanner and walked into her apartment. It was dark inside, but when she checked the infrared, she saw Echo lying in bed. Usually she blazed scarlet, but her glow had dimmed to a darker red. She must be chilled. Charlie turned off the air conditioning.
“Hi, Charlie,” Echo said. Charlie could hear the effort it was taking her to sound normal. “Before you start fussing… I’m fine.”
“So fine that you checked out AMA, and now you’re lying in the dark, freezing, because you don’t have enough energy to turn on a light or get under the covers?”
“I’m tired. I wanted to get some sleep.”
“You’re not allowed to sleep.”
“I am. I just need to wake up every few hours, to make sure I’m not in a coma.” When Echo spoke in longer sentences, more pain filtered into her voice.
“Did you get any medication?” Charlie asked.
“Dr. Semple tried to shove some down my throat. I told her to shove it up her ass.”
“I guess we can cross off one symptom of traumatic brain injury. There’s no change in your personality.” Charlie turned on the lights.
The fluorescent glare revealed one of Echo’s best scowls. She lay atop the covers, still in her favorite mission outfit of black jeans, black tank top, and black shoes. A bandage was taped to the side of her head, and they’d obviously had to shave quite a bit of her hair. No wonder she was scowling.
“Your hair!” Charlie gasped, hurrying to the bed. “You’re like Jo March after she sold her hair to get money to take care of her father.”
That got an almost-smile from Echo. “Only if she got cold-cocked by a drug dealer’s bodyguard on her way to the hair salon.”
“Jo wouldn’t have been an innocent bystander. She’d have gone after those drug dealers herself.” Charlie leaned her cane against the wall, took off Echo’s shoes, and then nudged her to move so she could pull back the covers. Echo obediently shifted over, then snuggled down under the blankets. Charlie removed her own shoes and sat with her back to the headboard and her legs under the blankets.
With the lightest of touches, she stroked Echo’s forehead and temples. Her sister closed her eyes, and Charlie felt her muscle tension ease.
“Jo would’ve made a good assassin,” Echo said. “That is, until that goody-goody Professor Bhaer got hold of her and convinced her that it was immoral, even though it was providing for her sisters and keeping them safe.”
“And then she’d have turned her skills to a more respectable use,” Charlie agreed. “Spying, maybe. The kind where you gather information without killing anyone.”
“Amy would have been better at that,” Echo said.
Charlie wondered if Dr. Semple had managed to slip Echo something after all. They hadn’t played Little Women since Althea had died. Charlie had been Amy, Echo had been Jo, Della had been Beth, Brava had been Meg with a personality halfway between Amy and Jo, and they'd invented a fifth sister, Louisa, for Althea.
“Absolutely,” Charlie replied. “Amy knew what people expected, and she could act to match it, and it didn’t bother her to do it. Jo was terrible at fitting in, and she hated that people expected her to. Jo would’ve been a lousy spy.”
Echo managed a smile. “Jo and Amy would’ve been a good team. Amy infiltrates, and Jo does the head-breaking.”
“Amy would have been a good assassin, too.”
Echo opened her eyes, then winced at the light. “Do you really think so?”
Charlie hit the switch, leaving them in the dark. “Yes.”
“Thanks.” Echo turned on to her stomach and rested her cheek on Charlie’s thigh. Charlie rubbed her shoulders. “Tell me about Amy the assassin.”
“Amy was ruthless. She burned Jo’s book! And she was calculating. She knew what she wanted, and she went for it, and she wasn’t sorry. All that stuff Professor Bhaer said about morality wouldn’t have worked on her.” Charlie hesitated, wondering if she should say it. But Echo had asked. “Jo was stronger physically. She was braver, probably. Jo would’ve been a better fighter. But she was never really the assassin type. She wanted to put on a uniform and fight for the Union.”
“Jo was a soldier,” Echo agreed. “Beth never could’ve hurt anyone, no matter how she was engineered. Meg would’ve fought, but only to protect her sisters. But Amy would have put on a beautiful dress and done her hair just right, and slipped some poison into her target’s wine glass without anyone noticing.”
“She’d have taken out her target without so much as messing up her hair,” Charlie agreed. “Then she’d have spent the rest of the night dancing with her pick of the alpha males. And she’d have enjoyed it.”
Echo chuckled. “If she was into alphas, Laurie was a terrible choice.”
“No, Laurie was perfect,” Charlie said. “He loved her and he knew all her secrets and he didn’t mind. He wasn’t jealous, either. Actually, I think Laurie liked alpha males too. So Amy found men who were dominant and discreet, and brought them home for threesomes. And then everyone was happy.”
“And Beth didn’t die,” Echo said.
Charlie barely stopped herself from stiffening. Echo was definitely drugged.
She bio-controlled her breath before she replied, “No, Beth didn’t die. She got better, and she lived a normal, happy life with her pets and friends and piano. She never got married, but she didn’t want to. But she adopted a bunch of kids, and she was the best mom ever.”
Echo prodded Charlie’s thigh. “What about Meg? She didn’t really settle down with some boring guy and have babies, did she?”
“No, Meg realized that she liked girls and boys. She had beautiful girlfriends and handsome boyfriends, and she had way too much fun to ever settle down. She had all sorts of different jobs because she got bored easily, but she was successful at everything she did. She became a fashion icon and always had paparazzi chasing after her, waiting for her to do something outrageous and photogenic.”
“And the fifth sister?” Echo asked. “The one who got left out of Little Women because she was too badass for the time they were written?”
Charlie was glad of the dark; her eyes stung with tears. “Louisa became a boxer. She was the women’s welterweight champion of the world. When she wasn’t in the ring, she climbed mountains and flew airplanes and ran ultramarathons.”
“Jo met a man as sexy as Gabriel Byrne, but her own age and much more fun. He was a soldier, like her. They had adventures and lots of great sex, and she wrote whatever stories she wanted for the rest of her life.”
“That’s nice,” Echo mumbled. A minute later, her breathing evened out into sleep.
Now that Charlie was the one person awake in the dark, the ache in her hip intruded into her consciousness. Her knees hurt too, and her hands. The glow of sex had long since faded.
Echo didn’t stir. Charlie was certain that when she woke her sister up in a couple hours, she wouldn’t remember the conversation. Which was just as well. Echo didn’t normally escape into fantasies; the return to reality hurt too much. But when she woke, the only thing that would hurt would be her head. And she’d have Charlie with her.
Charlie went on rubbing Echo’s back and shoulders, letting the warmth of her sister’s body ease the pain in her own finger joints.
“The sisters lived happily for a long time,” Charlie said softly. “But not forever. Louisa collapsed in the ring after she knocked out a champion. Beth’s children and sisters kissed her good-night, and she went to sleep and never woke up. Meg tackled a suicide bomber in a crowded mall, and saved everyone but herself. Amy—”
A hand caught her wrist. “Amy doesn’t die.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I woke up.” Echo’s voice was sharper; the drugs were probably wearing off. “And I wanted to hear the end of the story, but not if it’s going to be that depressing. I thought I could rely on you of all people for a happily ever after.”
“Happily ever after just means you stop the story while everyone’s happy and alive,” Charlie replied. “I went too far. Let me try again.”
Echo released her wrist and settled back down. “Go for it.”
“Amy and Jo moved in together,” Charlie began, then stopped. This was a harder story to imagine than the others. Simply stopping before Amy died didn’t feel like much of a happy ending.
Without knowing what she would say until she spoke, Charlie continued, “At first they couldn’t imagine a happy ending for themselves, without their sisters. But they knew that Louisa would have said, ‘Do everything I never got a chance to do, and name something cool after me,’ and Beth would have said, ‘I just want you to live your lives and be happy,’ and Meg would have said, ‘If you fucking curl up into a ball and give up on account of me, I swear to God I will rise from the dead and kick your sorry asses.’”
Echo gave a soft chuckle. “Yeah, that's exactly what they would've said.”
“Amy and Jo didn’t know what their future would hold,” Charlie went on. “But they still had each other. And they still had hope, even though sometimes it seemed more unrealistic than The Brazilian Billionaire Biker’s Blackmailed Badger-Shifter Bride. They hadn’t yet reached their happily ever after. But they also hadn’t yet reached the end of their book. And that’s because it’s still being written. The last pages are blank. Anything is possible.”
Echo squeezed Charlie’s hand, but said nothing more. A few minutes later, her breathing told Charlie that she was asleep again.
Charlie rested her hands on her sister’s shoulders and let her mind wander to thoughts of Stefan’s lockbox, of Echo’s need for a new haircut, and of blank pages.