Edge of Dawn (Chapter Eight)
Morning for their Breed commander usually meant a couple of hours of undisturbed shut-eye, but Kellan would get no sleep today. Not with Mira stowed away in his quarters.
His blood was still running hot from his confrontation with her . . . to say nothing of the kiss that had been unplanned but unstoppable. A kiss his libido was all too eager to repeat. And Kellan knew that if he let himself get that close to her again – if he let himself touch her, even in some small way – it would be only a matter of time before he found a way to get her naked beneath him.
Bad, bad idea.
But damn, did the thought of it make everything male inside him stand at full attention.
He hadn't returned to his room all night. No, he'd conveniently called rank and sent Candice in his place. She'd looked in on Mira a few times during the evening, made sure she had water and something to eat, took her to the bunker latrine the humans shared so she could use the toilet and shower. Candice had reported back that Mira seemed cooperative enough, but her eyes never stopped taking stock of her surroundings, studying every corner of the place as Candice led her through the fortress at gunpoint.
God, it killed him to have to treat Mira like this, to drag her into the crossfire of a battle he'd never wanted to fight. One he dreaded he might not survive in the end, let alone win. And now the woman who'd once mattered to him more than anything was sitting behind the locked door of his chamber, hating him. Wishing him dead for good this time.
As far as fucked-up scenarios went, he couldn't imagine how things could possibly get any worse.
There was a weak part of him that wanted nothing more than to go to her now and ask her forgiveness. Try to make her understand that this was not what he wanted. It was, in fact, the very thing he'd wanted to avoid. All these years, all this time, of distancing himself from everyone who'd ever cared about him, everyone he'd ever loved.
But he hadn't gone far enough.
He couldn't outrun fate, and now here it was, striking him hard across the face.
Kellan swore viciously under his breath and stalked out of the main room of the rebel bunker. He resisted the temptation to seek Mira out, instead turning his boots in the direction of the holding cell deep in the bowels of the old fortress.
Since he was stoked up and aggressive, he couldn't think of a better time to pay a visit to the individual who truly deserved some of his menace. Jeremy Ackmeyer sat in the dank darkness of a ten-by-ten-foot cube of windowless concrete block. A heavy iron grate was secured with a key lock, the cell's bars rusted from age but impenetrable. Not that Ackmeyer seemed intent to try them.
Thin and wiry, a gangly young man dressed in sagging jeans and a dated plaid button-down shirt, Jeremy Ackmeyer stood motionless in the center of his prison. Long, mousy-brown hair drooped onto his forehead and over his thick glasses. Ackmeyer's head was slumped low, slender arms wrapped around himself, hands tucked in close. He glanced up warily but said nothing as Kellan approached the bars.
The tray of food Candice had brought him hours ago lay untouched on the cell's concrete bench. Of course, calling the tin-canned MRE slop food was probably a stretch. Not that Kellan or his kind had any experience with human dietary preferences.
"What's the matter, Ackmeyer? Rebel menu choices not to your liking?" Kellan's low voice echoed off the walls of the place, dark with animosity. "Maybe your tastes are a little too rich for such common fare."
The human's eyes blinked once behind the distorting lenses of his glasses. He swallowed hard, larynx bobbing. "I'm not hungry. I'd like to get out of this cell. It reeks of mildew and there is black mold growing in the corner."
Kellan smirked. "I'll fire the housekeeper immediately."
"It's terribly unhealthy. Toxic, in fact," Ackmeyer went on, seeming more frightened than arrogant. He shifted on his feet, his movements awkward, anxious. Less the diabolical scientist than a nervous, confused child. "It's airborne poison. Do you realize the spores reproduce exponentially by the millions? Deadly dangerous spores that you and I are breathing into our lungs right this very second. So, please . . . if you would, unlock this cell and let me out."
Kellan stared, incredulous that the man seemed more terrified of microscopic bacteria than the other, more obvious threat facing him now. If it was an act, the guy was a first-rate player. "You're not going anywhere until I say so. Which means you'll have to either hold your breath or learn to make quick peace with your neuroses."
Ackmeyer shrank back at Kellan's clipped tone. He fidgeted with the hem of his untucked shirt, his thin brows pulled into a frown. "What about the woman?"
"What about her?" Kellan growled.
"She was at my house when everything happened. I heard her calling to me just before I was knocked unconscious." He glanced up, brown eyes soft with worried regard. "Is she . . . okay?"
"She is none of your concern." Kellan approached closer to the iron grate, peering at Ackmeyer through the bars. He barked a laugh, caustic and rough in the quiet of the bunker. "You'd like me to think you care about another person, wouldn't you? If you're looking for mercy, you won't get any from me."
Ackmeyer blinked rapidly, gave a vague shake of his head. "You are free to feel however you wish. Since the attack occurred at my home, I assume this has to do with me, not the woman."
"A brilliant observation," Kellan snarled. "Care to venture a guess as to why you now find yourself sitting in front of me in a locked, mold-riddled cell inside this rebel bunker?"
Ackmeyer slowly met his gaze, but a tremble shook his scrawny body. "I suspect you plan to either ransom me or kill me."
"I'm not looking to get rich off the blood of another man," Kellan replied coolly. "Are you?"
"No." Ackmeyer's answer was instant, filled with conviction. "No, I would never do that. Life is precious – "
Kellan's coarse scoff cut his words short. "So long as that life doesn't belong to one of the Breed, right?"
He knew his eyes were on fire. The amber heat of his contempt for this human's destructive genius was bleeding into his vision, turning his world red as he glared through the thick metal cage – the meager barrier that separated Kellan from lashing out at the scientist with fists and fangs.
Ackmeyer saw that threat full and real now. He backed farther into the cell, realizing if only just in that moment exactly what he was dealing with here. "I-I don't know what you're talking about, I swear!"
"No?" Kellan's voice was a gravel-filled snarl. "I have evidence to prove otherwise."
The human shook his head frantically. "You're mistaken! I'm a man of science. I respect all life as the natural miracle it is."
Kellan gave a dark chuckle. "Even an abomination like me, like my kind?"
"Y-yes," Ackmeyer sputtered, then suddenly realized what he'd said. "I mean no! That's not what I was trying to say, I – I just mean to say that there is something very wrong here. Whatever offense you think I've committed against you, I swear I'm innocent. There's been some kind of mistake. A terrible mistake . . ."
As much as he wanted to dismiss the human's protests as the desperate denials of a cold, profiteering killer, something unsettling began to unfurl within Kellan's gut. Something that put him on the edge of a deeply disturbing realization.
That something was an earnestness that made him peer at Jeremy Ackmeyer a bit closer, searching for some trace of the lie he was certain had to be there.
With a flick of his mind's power, Kellan released the lock on the barred door of the cell and mentally pushed the metal grate open. Ackmeyer cowered, scuttling back toward the far wall until his rail-thin spine was up against the mold-streaked concrete blocks. Kellan strode inside the dank cell, crowding the human. Moving forward until he loomed over him.
"You want to know why you're here?" He stared down at Ackmeyer, seeing the young man's face take on a hot amber glow in the blaze of Kellan's irises. "It's because of the Breed-killing ultraviolet technology you created."
Ackmeyer shook his head, his voice evidently gone mute with fear now.
"You're here because that UV tech was used to ash a Darkhaven civilian on the street a few months ago. Liquid sunlight, just the kind of equalizer your species would kill to have." Kellan kept talking, ignoring the tears that sprang into the human's widened eyes. "Are you going to stand there and deny that you had any part in this?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Have I discovered a means of harnessing UV light and converting it to liquid? Yes. It's one of several prototypes I've been working on under my Morningstar project. But none of my data or models has been released to the public. And they're all light-bringing technologies, not weapons. The project's chief purpose is to benefit the planet, to revolutionize energy consumption – "
"They used to say the same thing about nuclear power." Kellan growled. "I don't have time for bullshit. Who'd you sell the tech to?"
"No one!" Ackmeyer dissolved into a shaking, hiccupping lump on the floor of the cell. "It's not even out of testing yet. And besides, I've never sold any of my work for profit. I've certainly never created anything with the purpose of inflicting harm on someone. If anyone claims they have it – if someone has used my work, as you say – they must've stolen it. You have to believe me! You have to trust me when I tell you that I've done nothing wrong!"
No, he didn't have to believe him. Nor did he have to trust.
Kellan had a much more reliable tool at his disposal than ordinary intuition.
He reached out and palmed Ackmeyer's trembling skull.
The jolt of understanding came swiftly, irrefutably.
Kellan's Breed talent stripped through the human's intentions, drilling straight to the core of truth hidden deep within Jeremy Ackmeyer's soul. All Kellan found was honesty, the purest of motivations. The absence of any guilt whatsoever.
Kellan drew his hand back as if burned. The realization sank in like bitter acid, corrosive and impossible to scrape off now that it had touched him.
Jeremy Ackmeyer had been telling him the truth. He had no idea his work had been used as a weapon for assassination against the Breed.
Kellan had ordered the kidnapping of an honest, innocent man.
"Anything more I should know about the situation?" Lucan Thorne's grim face filled the flat-screen monitor on the wall of the Boston Command Center.
He hadn't been pleased to hear Nathan's report from the field, but where the Gen One leader of the Order had every right to swear and bellow over the simple escort mission gone so terribly wrong, he clearly struggled to accept the fact that one of the Order's own had gone missing from an assignment. That it was Mira, a female raised by the Order from the time she was a child, made the gravity of the loss all the more difficult to deal with objectively, not only for Lucan, but for Nathan and the other pair of Order members gathered with him in the private conference room that morning.
Sterling Chase, the Breed warrior who'd helmed the Boston operation for the past two decades, sat soberly in the room beside his mate, Tavia, his big hand resting over her slender fingers on the table. Tavia accepted the tender gesture, despite that she was no delicate Darkhaven lady, sheltered from the realities of the world.
Born in the same laboratory, of the same alien DNA that had spawned Nathan and a small army of assassins bred and raised just like him, Tavia was an awe-inspiring rarity among the race: a genetically crafted, Gen One female, and a daywalker besides. Where Nathan would perish after minutes of exposure to UV light, his half sister Tavia and her offspring – a set of fraternal twins named Aric and Carys – could sunbathe all day in the tropics without breaking a sweat.
"If anything's happened to Mira," Tavia murmured, her leaf-green eyes sparking with flecks of amber, "if she's harmed in any way – "
"We'll find her," Nathan assured them all. "I won't rest until she and the human scientist are located."
On the monitor, Lucan nodded his dark head. "I know we can count on you. That's why I'm giving this whole thing to you as a solo assignment. It's crucial that we keep this problem out of the public eye. I want a lid clamped down tight on this, and I want the bastards dealt with cleanly and permanently. Your training makes you ideal for this kind of surgical precision job, Nathan."
He inclined his head in acknowledgment. "I will do whatever it takes."
"I know." Lucan's gray gaze bore into him through the video screen. "You have my permission to remove any and all obstacles in order to meet your mission objectives. If there's fallout afterward, I'll take sole responsibility for the op."
Nathan held the Gen One's grave stare. "It will not be necessary."
"Nikolai and Renata will need to be informed about this," Chase said, his thumb stroking idly over the back of Tavia's hand. "There'll be nothing to keep them from joining the search."
"Nothing, except the fact that Renata is pregnant and due very soon," Tavia pointed out. "But Chase is right. They need to know, Lucan. Mira's their daughter."
The Order's founder pressed his lips together in a flat line but acceded with a sober nod. "It's not the kind of news any parent should hear," he remarked woodenly, the lines of his face seeming more pronounced as he considered the advice. "Gabrielle and I will make the call to them together, as soon as we finish here." To Nathan he said, "This is a kill op. I don't want any of these rebel bastards left standing to rise again after the dust settles. Agreed?"
Nathan accepted with a downward tip of his chin. "Yes, sir."
A few minutes later, the call was ended and Nathan left the conference room to find his team waiting outside the door. Rafe, Eli, and Jax were joined by Aric Chase, who rose as soon as Nathan came out. "What happened in there? Has Lucan assigned a team to go after these sick fucks and bring Mira back?"
The twenty-year-old son of Sterling and Tavia, Aric had trained under his father's direction alongside his best friend, Rafe. But where Rafe had finished months earlier, Aric had not yet been inducted as a full-fledged member of the Order. In a few weeks, he would get his chance, leaving the East Coast for Seattle, to be assigned as a newly minted warrior on one of Dante's teams in that district.
Nathan did not respond to the recruit's rookie question, and the rest of his team knew better than to prod for answers about a private conference with Lucan Thorne. The other Breed males followed Nathan as he set off toward the corridor that would take him to the command center's training facility.
"Damn, I wish Lucan had tasked me with escorting Ackmeyer to that summit gathering," Aric said, falling in with the rest of them. "I would've made sure those Homo sapiens sons of bitches OD'd on lead and steel. Let them take on a Breed in the daytime and watch the rebel cowards piss themselves a river of please-god-save-us."
Even Nathan had to admit the idea held some amusement. He felt grim humor tug at his mouth as the banter between his fellow warriors continued, each of them ratcheting up the fear factor on the pain and terror they'd like to deliver on the bastards who'd taken Mira.
As they cuffed one another and slung good-natured insults, Nathan held himself apart from the pack with a remoteness that came as naturally to him as breathing. He had let a friend – a brother-in-arms – into his life once, and the loss when Kellan died had been as visceral as a limb torn from his body. These other warriors were his team, his comrades, but he'd learned better than to let himself care for them beyond their role as soldiers under his command.
And now Mira was gone too.
If she didn't come home whole and unharmed, he wasn't sure how he would handle it.
No, he mentally corrected.
He'd been trained the first thirteen years of his life to shut out all emotion, to steel himself to caring for anything but his master's commands. If things went badly for Mira, he would draw on the harsh lessons of his upbringing to get him through.
But first he would kill her captors. Every last one of them.
His mind was already preparing for the covert mission he would begin as soon as the sun set. So much so that it took him a moment to realize there had been a shift in the air temperature up ahead in the corridor. The source of that change appeared a moment later, in the form of Carys Chase, ducking out of a room off the long hallway. The crisp scent of morning rushed in behind her, clinging to her caramel-brown hair and the form-fitting black blouse and leg-hugging skinny jeans that disappeared into the tops of spiked ankle boots.
"Carys?" Aric stopped in his tracks in the corridor, gaping at his twin sister. "What the hell are you doing?"
Nathan and his team had paused now too, all of them staring at the beautiful young Breed female as she sauntered toward them, attempting nonchalance. Slender brows arched slyly over sparkling blue eyes fringed in long black lashes. "What does it look like I'm doing, big brother?"
Aric's scowl deepened. "It looks like you just dragged yourself in through a back window of the estate after staying out all night doing god knows what."
She laughed. "Good lord, Aric, you sound just like Father. Besides, since when did having fun with friends become a crime?"
"It's not safe out there, Car. Not for a woman alone, without someone to protect her."
Nathan shot a quelling look at Aric Chase, a subtle warning not to divulge the details of what had happened to Mira and the human scientist, nor the Order's suspicion that rebels were to blame for their disappearance. Aric caught the silencing glance and had the good sense to cool his jets.
"I told you, I wasn't alone," Carys insisted. "Jordana Gates and I met some other friends in the North End. It was perfectly safe."
Aric's jaw went tight in response, but he kept his argument to himself. "I just worry about you, that's all. I don't want to see you get hurt."
She gave him a warm smile. "I know that. And while I may be female, big brother, I'm also Breed, as strong as any of you males. Just because I'm not combat-trained like you, don't think I'm incapable of taking care of myself." Studying her brother's disapproving expression, Carys caught her bottom lip between her teeth and looked up at him from beneath her long black lashes. "You're not going to tell Mother and Father about this, are you?"
"I should," Aric said. "I'm sure Father would be very interested to talk to Jordana's parents too. I doubt the venerable Gates clan of Beacon Hill would be happy to hear their Breedmate daughter was traipsing all over the city, staying out until dawn."
"But you won't tell," she said, smooth and coaxing, yet Nathan was certain he'd detected a note of worry creeping into Carys's bright blue eyes at the mention of her Darkhaven friend. Carys moved closer to her brother and rested her palms on his chest. "You won't tell on me, Aric. And in return, I won't tell Mother and Father about the trio of dancers you and Rafe shared at a Chinatown sim-lounge last weekend."
"How did you hear about that?" Aric practically choked the words out, but Raphael merely grinned, a slow curve of his mouth that showed absolutely zero repentance. "Who the hell do you hang out with that you would hear about something like that?"
"You have your little secrets," Carys chided with a smile and an arch look, "and I have mine. Let's agree to keep it that way, shall we?"
She rose up and gave her brother a peck on the cheek, then she was on her way, tossing a wave at Nathan and the others as she pivoted on her tall heels and strode up the corridor.
While his warrior brethren resumed their trek for the training facility, Nathan felt his instincts prickle with a vague but undeniable suspicion. He turned a curious look behind him at Carys. The retreating female glanced his way, a quick, cautious glimpse over her shoulder, before she picked up her pace and disappeared around a curve in the long hallway.