He hated himself for that past even though it’d been forced on him.
Now Nykyrian was an avenger, not a murderer. When he’d left The League, he’d sworn he would protect the innocent victims chosen by The League and other assassins . . .
He couldn’t let her die.
You’re not the law anymore, Syn’s voice echoed in his head from an argument they’d had years ago. You left that behind the moment you dug out your tracer.
Syn had been right. He wasn’t the law. Now he was retribution and justice. Retribution usually came too late and justice would never allow Kiara to die over something that didn’t even concern her.
Nykyrian stared at Syn in indecision. It wasn’t his job or his responsibility to guard Kiara. He’d done his sentence in hell when he belonged to The League. To be alone with her and not touch her would be an even worse torture for him than the missions he’d been forced to execute against his will.
Kiara’s battered face drifted through his mind. Had they been a few minutes later, she’d have been raped and murdered . . .
In that instant, Nykyrian made his decision.
Kiara stretched her tense joints. She hoped she could give a decent performance tonight, but she doubted it. She hadn’t slept for the last four nights with any kind of peace. Every time she tried to rest, nightmares of her mother’s death plagued her, along with the memory of the lasers cutting into her own body.
Kill them both.
Would she ever get those cold, soulless words out of her head? It’d taken her years of therapy after that attack to be able to sleep through a full night. Years of therapy to dull the memories of blood and fear.
Two years to be able to go to the restroom alone.
A year after that before she could close the door to a room or stall while she was inside it.
Even though her father had hunted down and killed the ones responsible and paid a fortune in plastic surgery to remove her scars from the attack, it hadn’t been enough.
That day lived forever inside her.
But on the day when she’d turned sixteen and had narrowly missed being shot in her favorite restaurant while she celebrated another year of her life, she’d decided that she was tired of living in terror.
No, she couldn’t stop the animals from trying to kill her. She had no control over their greed or actions.
All she could do was control her own.
She would not live in fear another day, under lock and key. They may have taken her mother from her, but they wouldn’t take her sanity or her freedom. She refused to give them that power over her. While the inner scars remained, she would stand strong against those demons.
No one would make her feel weak and powerless again. No one. She wasn’t going to be like her mother or other aristocratic children who could only leave their protected rooms under heavy security. She was going to be normal and to live her life the way she wanted to. Animals be damned.
Yet words were easy. Living by them was what was hard, and it’d been a battle every day since.
Today was harder than most. Every sound made her jump. Every shadow made her flinch. She hated being like this. But for all her bravado, she knew the truth. There was no sanctuary safe enough. No place secure enough that they couldn’t get to her if they wanted to . . .
Make the most of it all. That was her mantra since any second she breathed could be her last.
With a tired sigh, she went to stare at her reflection, checking her costume for any telltale flaws. The tight, red, sequined bodysuit clung to her figure, making her regret the large amount of sweets she’d eaten that afternoon in an effort to cheer her mood.
She was still miserable, only now she had a fat butt to go with it.
But at least her bruises were almost gone. She was a bit surprised the media hadn’t questioned her about her battered face. Most likely it was hidden by the heavy amount of red and gold makeup her costume required. They probably hadn’t even noticed.
Kiara made a face at herself and returned to her nervous pacing.
Loneliness filled her as she glanced around the tiny, empty room. Her father thought his absence comforted her. Everyone seemed to think she preferred solitude before a performance, but the truth was very different. She needed company most in the minutes prior to a dance. Just the sound of another voice would alleviate some of the anxiety tearing at her.
What if I trip? Forget a move?
What if my costume rips?
Just don’t let me embarrass myself . . .
Those doubts and fears never went away. “You would think by now I’d be used to this.”
But no. It never seemed to get any easier. Every show was hard and her fear of screwing up and being laughed at never abated. The worst part was the knowledge of all the other dancers in the company who wanted her to fail. Those who would laugh if she made a mistake or who would revel in her humiliation.
For that matter, half of them would hire an assassin to kill her if they could get away with it.
Why did people have to be so cruel? She’d never once in her life taken pleasure at someone else’s pain, let alone their torture.
Chewing her thumbnail, she continued to pace the room. As she neared the door, she heard the muffled voices of her father’s guards outside in the hallway.
“You know, I didn’t enlist for this kind of bullshit. I’m a soldier, not a babysitter for some rich bitch who can’t keep her whiny ass at home. Hell, I wish someone would try to kill her just to get rid of the boredom.”
The other guard laughed. “I can think of a better way to end my boredom.”
“What do you mean?”
“Imagine having overnight duty at her place. I envy Yanas and Briqs.”
“Yeah, I’d like to show that little dumpling my nightstick.”
Repulsed by their bantering, Kiara crossed the room and rifled through her bag on the table. Pulling out the small blaster, she made sure it contained a full charge.
“You pigs,” she said under her breath, appalled by their words. She wasn’t whiny and while she could be a bitch if the occasion warranted it, she’d been nothing but courteous and respectful to them.
Why would they be so hurtful toward her?
At the moment, she didn’t know whom she trusted less, the Probekeins or her father’s uncouth soldiers. Either way, she wasn’t taking any more chances with her safety.
After she replaced the weapon, she returned to pacing. It was almost time to start the show. The director’s assistant would be here any second to lead her out. She could hear the orchestra warming up, making a loud cacophony that echoed all the way to her room.
There was something muffled out in the hallway, but the music covered it. Assuming it was the assistant trying to get past her guards, she headed for the door.
As she moved closer, a tall shadow fell across her.
Her breath caught as she froze in terror. No . . . she was safe here. Not only did the show have its regular security, her father’s men were all over the place. No one could get in. She was just imagining the fact that the shadow looked like a giant man.
It was just her paranoia making her scared. Nothing more. Nothing less.
No one was here.
Still, unreasoning dread filled her. She didn’t want to turn around, but she did anyway, then wished she’d listened to herself.
Cold, black eyes stared at her from a handsome human face that lacked all compassion. A maniacal smile twisted his lips letting her know he enjoyed the thought of hurting her.
She looked to her bag on the table next to him. Could she get to her blaster?
As if he could read her thoughts, he glanced to the bag. With a swipe of his arm, he knocked it to the floor. She took a step, then froze as her blaster landed at his feet with a heavy, soul-wrenching thud.
He laughed cruelly and retrieved it in his large paw of a hand.
Kiara ran to the door, only to have him grab her and sling her away from it. She rolled across the floor, then came to her feet—the beauty of being a dancer. She could catch her balance and bend with the best of them.
“Guards!” she screamed, knowing the soldiers outside would come to her rescue.
Clucking his tongue, the assassin shook his head. “They can’t hear you, sweetmeat. They’re dead.”
Those words rang in her ears as old memories flashed . . . Her mother’s guards being blown to pieces as she and her mother were dragged into a waiting transport. The smell of blood and her first taste of real terror.
Her breathing became labored and rapid. She wasn’t dead yet . . . Glancing to the door, she knew it was the only chance she had.
She tossed a chair at the assassin and ran.
Her hand touched the icy knob. She grasped it like a lifeline, but before she could twist it open, a blow struck her across the back, knocking her away.
Dazed, she hit the floor.
Desperately she wanted to scream again, but her lungs were incapable of anything save the cold rasping breaths rattling in her chest. She scooted along the floor in an effort to put more distance between them as she tried to think of another way out of the room.
But there wasn’t one. Panic twined through her, blinding her eyes. There was no way out.
There’s no . . .
No, wait . . .
The window. That must have been how he got into the room.
She looked up at it.
It was still open.
You can reach it. It was her only hope. Rising up fast, she ran, intending to jump for it.
Before she could make it, the assassin grabbed her by the throat and shoved her across her dressing table. Her bottles of perfume and makeup rattled, biting into her back, tearing at her flesh while he tightened his grip. Tears of frustrated pain welled in her eyes as she stared into the assassin’s unfeeling face.
Kiara kicked and punched as she fought against him with everything she had. It just wasn’t enough.
The assassin held his blaster to her cheek, his twisted laughter filling her ears as she waited for the final explosive sound that would end her life.
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The door burst open with a resounding crash.
“Drop it, Pitala.”
Kiara went cold in relief at the deep accent she remembered so well. It was him . . .
Opening her eyes, she turned her head to see Nykyrian standing calmly in the doorway, his arms braced on either side of the frame as if he was leisurely chatting with a friend.
His long coat was pulled back on both sides to show two holstered blasters and an assortment of weapons she could only guess at. As before, his long, blond hair was braided down his back and a pair of dark shades covered his face.
“I’ll kill her, freak,” Pitala snarled in warning as he clicked off the blaster’s release.
Nykyrian appeared unaffected by the insult and threat—and why wouldn’t he be? It wasn’t like the blaster was pressing against his temple.
He released a bored sigh. “Then I’ll kill you and laugh while I do it. Either way it’s no real sweat off my balls. Release her and you can at least walk away alive. But that’s not a standing offer. Make your mind up quick before I kill you just for getting me out on a night when I’d rather be at home doing needlework.”
Kiara swallowed at the ambivalence of his tone. She would appreciate his ability to remain calm had it not been her life they were negotiating over.
Pitala glared at her in indecision.
His blaster moved away from her head. She took a shaky breath, offering a prayer of thanks. “Do you think I fear you, half-breed?” Pitala sneered, refusing to release his grip on her throat.
Nykyrian shifted to one side of the door frame. “Stop stalling, ass**le. Do you honestly think I’d be stupid enough to stand here until your partner comes up behind me?” He snapped his fingers.
An unconscious man was shoved through the door. Pitala cursed.
“I really hate taking out the trash.” Syn joined Nykyrian as he wiped his hands together.
Pitala released her.
Kiara rubbed her bruised throat and slid from the table. She jumped in reflex as Pitala moved his weapon toward the pair standing in the doorway.
Before he could aim it at either man, two blasters came out of nowhere to balance their sights on his body. Two red targeting lasers hovered without shaking—one between his eyes and one over his grain.
“Think,” Nykyrian said ominously, clicking back the release of his blaster with his thumb.
Pitala gave a nervous laugh, and held up his hands. “I wouldn’t actually try to shoot you. I just wanted to see if you were as good as they say.”
“Better.” Syn moved forward to pull Pitala’s blaster from his hand. “And that’s with me drunk off my ass. Imagine what I’d do to you sober.”
It was only after he was disarmed and Syn stood between her and Pitala that Nykyrian’s red light vanished from Pitala’s forehead.
With an amazing nonchalance, Nykyrian holstered his weapon. “Apologize to Tara Zamir for ruining her night and you can leave.”
Angry black eyes focused on Kiara with an unspoken promise he would be back. “My apologies, princess,” he rasped. “It was nothing personal.”