Edge of Dawn (Chapter Six)
He was a warrior – he knew that with a certainty in his soul. How could his father not see that he was wasting a valuable asset by keeping Dare tethered to the command center when he belonged in the field? How long could Dare stand to have his hands tied before he threw off those chains and led the charge – with or without his father's approval?
It was that question that dogged him as he sat hunched over a thick volume in the Order's archive library. His hair was still damp from the shower, training garb switched for a dark T-shirt and jeans. His blades and throwing stars now replaced by a pen, which he tapped in idle rhythm on the long wooden table that stretched the center of the expansive, book-lined chamber.
Even though his body yearned for action, his mind thirsted for knowledge. And the history contained in this room alone was enough to keep him busy for decades.
Not surprising, since it had taken a full twenty years to collect it. The library represented millennia's worth of information, everything from the otherworldly origins of the Breed and their alien forebears, their language and customs, their lineage here on Earth, to their often-violent past as powerful, savage beings perched at the top of the food chain. The wealth of insight was nothing short of staggering.
And Jenna Tucker-Darrow, the woman responsible for the archive, was adding more volumes all the time.
"If you spend any more hours in here, I may start worrying about my job security."
Dare swung his head up at the sound of Jenna's voice. She was smiling as she entered the room, wearing a little black dress and strappy high heels. Her brown hair was shorn close to her scalp, showing off her lean cheekbones and big hazel eyes. She was dressed for a date, no doubt with her warrior mate, Brock, but she carried what looked to be a newly completed journal in her hand.
"I don't think you ever have to worry about job security," Dare told her. "No one can do what you do."
She winked at him. "I am cyborg, hear me roar."
Strolling over to a bookcase far across the room, she slipped the journal onto one of the shelves, carefully selecting its placement. It was hard not to stare at the female, and not only because she was beautiful and Dare was a man with two eyes in his head. Jenna was stunning for an altogether unique reason as well.
Her simple black dress plunged low in the back, baring her pale, slender neck and spine, both of which were covered in a graceful tangle of dermaglyphs. Unusual, particularly given that Jenna was neither Breed nor Breedmate.
She'd been fully human once, but all of that changed twenty years ago, when the last of the alien fathers of the Breed transplanted a biotech chip from his own body into Jenna's. The Ancient likely had his reasons for leaving behind a piece of himself before he was killed by the Order. For Jenna, that bit of alien DNA and technology had meant numerous astonishing physical and psychic changes, coupled with memories of a long, often-disturbing past that did not belong to her.
It was those memories that now filled the countless volumes of hand-scribed journals lining the built-in bookcases of the archive chamber.
"I hadn't heard you and Brock had arrived from Atlanta," Dare said.
Jenna ran her fingers across the spines of several journals on the shelf, pausing to rearrange one that apparently had been misfiled. "We got in before dawn this morning. I wanted to come early, do some work in here before the summit later this week. Dante and Tess are coming in tonight. Tegan and Elise too. Everyone else should be arriving over the next couple of nights, from what I understand."
Dare nodded. Lucan had informed him of the gathering of all the Order elders and their mates from their various districts of command around the world. It would be good to see them all again. The warriors and their mates were as close as kin to him, but Dare couldn't help resenting the fact that the summons to publicly assemble was anything more than a command performance instigated by the GNC members. A means for them to show the world that the Order endorsed the peace summit wholeheartedly and would abide by the GNC's terms without question. The politics of it all disgusted him.
Jenna regarded him over her shoulder. "Will you be at the gala reception too, Darion?"
He grunted. "Me, in a monkey suit? Not likely. I can think of a hundred things I'd rather do than stand around kissing the rings of those posturing GNC blowhards. That goes double for kissing their useless asses."
Jenna's brows arched upward. "You're a lot like your father, you know that?"
"I'm nothing like him," Dare insisted. "He's too willing to let the humans have the reins. He's too careful with their fragile egos, when the world would be a better place – a safer place for mankind and our own – with the Order firmly in charge."
"And if you ask the humans, they would argue the opposite. Sooner or later, it would be war." Jenna strode over to him and took a seat on the edge of the table. "Things were different before First Dawn, simpler. The Breed kept their own counsel, lived in the shadows. Now that we're out to the humans, we have more freedoms. We have more power now that we don't have to hide our existence, but there are trade-offs. And the line we must walk to maintain peace is even thinner. Lucan's actions impact the entire Breed nation now. He doesn't take that responsibility lightly."
"He doesn't trust anyone to help him shoulder that burden either." Dare glanced away from Jenna's sage expression and gave a curt shake of his head. "He doesn't give anyone the credit that they could be useful, maybe even as capable as him, if he gave them half a chance to prove it."
When he looked back up at her, Jenna held him with a knowing smile. "Still fighting that same battle with him, are you? He'll come around one day, Darion."
He scoffed. "Have you met my father? He doesn't bend."
"Neither does his son, from what I've seen." Still smiling, she leaned over to see what he was reading in the open journal. "Ah, that's one of the oldest volumes. I was working on that one before First Dawn."
The frustrations of politics and parental misgivings fell away as Dare returned his attention to the journal he'd been studying for the past couple of weeks. "Do you know what this numerical sequence might be?"
Jenna peered at the handwritten page and gave a mild shrug. "The things I record don't always make sense. Sometimes there are symbols or numbers – like this one – that don't mean anything to me, but because I see them or hear them through the Ancient's memories, I make sure to write them down."
Dare nodded, but it wasn't the answer he was hoping for. "This isn't the only occurrence of this same sequence in the journals."
"Really?" Jenna's eyes brightened with interest.
"The same one appears in two other volumes that I've found so far," Dare told her. "I'm betting I'll eventually find it in more of them too."
"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's see if you're right." Jenna slid off the table and started heading for one of the nearby bookcases. She kicked off her delicate sandals and raised up on her toes to reach for a high shelf. "We should start on the older volumes first, then work our way forward in time."
Dare felt the air shift in the second before Brock's deep voice rolled into the room. "I might've known I'd find you in here." The immense warrior gave a nod of greeting to Darion, but his dark-brown eyes were on his mate alone. "It's damn near impossible to drag this woman away from her work. You know, a lesser man might get a complex."
Brock was dressed in a charcoal-gray suit and deep wine-colored shirt, left unbuttoned at the neck where the arcing tails of his dermaglyphs rode on his dark skin. Dare had seldom seen the hardass Breed warrior out of his combat gear, and as much as he wanted to chuckle at the sight of him all spit-shined and civilized, it was obvious from Brock's loving gaze on Jenna that the GQ getup was all for her.
Her answering smile as she pivoted around to face him said she knew it too. "Work? Who needs work?" She picked up her sandals and went into his waiting arms. "I've suddenly got an irresistible urge to play hooky."
Brock grinned, shooting Darion a brief, sly look. "I like the sound of that. Maybe we should skip the dinner date routine and go straight to the hooky part."
Jenna laughed. "What, and waste this killer dress?"
"Believe me," Brock growled, low under his breath, "it's far from wasted."
Dare chuckled as Brock swept Jenna into a hungered, uninhibited kiss. He wondered if he'd ever know that kind of passion. The kind strong enough to make him want to take a mate of his own. A forever kind of thing, not the casual, sweaty encounters he used to burn off restless energy and sate his need for blood.
"Let's get out of here," Brock murmured, nuzzling his mate's neck. "Dinner out is optional."
"Wait a second." She ducked out of his embrace and jogged to one of the bookcases to pull a slim journal from the far corner of the shelf. She came back, held the aged, leather-bound volume out to Dare.
"What's this?" he asked, taking it from her.
"My very first journal. I wrote it in the weeks after I arrived at the Order's old compound in Boston."
Darion smoothed his hand over the faded brown cover, then carefully opened the book. The spine cracked softly, pages brittle as he turned them, looking at Jenna's bold script that filled the journal.
"If you really want to study the Breed and learn your own history, you need to start at the beginning." She smiled at him, her once-human eyes holding him in a gaze that was as wise as the most sage elder of his race. "You might also gain a better understanding of your father from this book."
Darion held her stare, then glanced down at the journal he held so carefully in his warrior's hands.
When he looked up again, Jenna and Brock were gone.
Darion opened to the first page and began to read.
Kellan drove to the back of a closed community park in Brookline and cut the headlights on the old Wrangler. Mira hadn't said a thing the entire trip north from the rebel base in New Bedford, aside from the choice words she had for him when he'd placed her in the vehicle wearing a blindfold and handcuffs. True, after he finished with her tonight, she wouldn't remember anything about where she'd been or how he and his crew operated, but Kellan wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm sorry, but it was necessary," he said, reaching over to remove the restraints from her hands. "We can't risk any more problems than what we already have."
As soon as he freed her, Mira tugged down the blindfold and slanted him a measuring look. "Are you going to kill Jeremy Ackmeyer?"
"If I wanted him dead, don't you think he would be already?"
"Maybe he is." Her eyes narrowed on him before she turned her head to look out toward the vacant parklands. "How do I know anything you say is the truth?"
Kellan cursed under his breath. "He is alive, Mira. He'll stay alive, so long as he agrees to my terms."
He felt her eyes on him again, but this time he was the one who stared at the sea of dark nothing ahead of him through the glass. "Ackmeyer has something I want. Something of extreme value that I can't allow anyone else to get their hands on."
"So, this is about money?" She practically spat the words. "Is that what you've become – a common thief, like your friends back at your bunker?"
"I am not a thief, Mira. Common or otherwise."
"No," she replied. "From the way they fawn and lick your boots, I'd say you're practically their king. Congratulations, by the way. You must be incredibly proud of yourself, seeing how far you've come in these past eight years."
It burned, the acid in her tone. He turned a level glance on her, not wanting to let on how deeply it would wound him if she truly hated him. What would be the point in letting her know that now? "You shouldn't make assumptions about things you don't understand."
"Then enlighten me . . . Bowman, is it?" She shook her head, her pretty mouth twisted in a humorless smile. "Kellan Archer dies a much-mourned hero, and in his place rises Bowman, leader of the rebel resistance. Traitor to everything he once believed in."
"I'm not proud of the way I handled things." And he hated like hell to think how close she was coming to the heart of his reasons for wanting everyone he cared for to believe he was dead and gone. "I never planned to be in this place, Mira. You just have to trust that I had my reasons. I did what I had to."
"Trust?" She barked a sharp laugh. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you. Especially now, when you're sitting here, about to give me a good old-fashioned mind scrub. That's why you brought me here tonight, isn't it?"
He killed the engine and the ancient Jeep rumbled to a stop. "Come on," he said. "Let's get some fresh air."
She didn't budge. "Aren't you worried I'll make a break for it?"
He smiled despite the gravity of the moment. "You never go down easy, do you?"
"You may be tough, Mira, but you're not Breed," he reminded her. "You can't outrun me."
"And you made sure I couldn't fight you either. Don't think I haven't noticed your thieving colleagues kept my daggers."
"You'll get the blades back after this is over. I'll see to that."
"Even the one I dropped during the ambush by your rebel underlings?"
Kellan scowled, caught off guard.
"Oh, didn't you know?" she asked, visibly pleased by his surprise. "They must not have noticed, and left it behind. My comm unit too. It's in the glove compartment of the car I was driving."
"Fuck," Kellan growled through gritted teeth.
"Homo sapiens." Mira sighed with no little drama. "So careless sometimes. I'm sure Lucan's going to be curious why my comm signal hasn't moved in the past, what . . . twelve hours?" She gave him a cold, satisfied smile. "It makes you wonder, doesn't it? What else might your crew have overlooked that will come back to bite you in the ass later?"
Kellan considered the possibility, reluctant to admit she had a point. But she underestimated Candice, Doc, and Chaz. Even Vince had plenty of pros to make up for the frequent cons of his hair-trigger temper and tendency toward excessive force. The team had phoned in the problem of Mira's disabled vehicle, and so Nina had tapped a contact in that area to toss the plates and hack the VIN before towing the heap to a scrap yard. Mira's comm unit was very likely nothing but crushed circuitry and dust by now.
"Let's take a walk, Mira." Before she could argue or throw another verbal volley at him, Kellan got out of the car and rounded the hood to her door in less than a second. The speed was deliberate. He figured it couldn't hurt to remind her what she'd be up against if she thought he was playing games. He opened her door and instructed her to get out.
She obeyed, much to his surprise, and he walked her into the peaceful darkness of the empty park.
"I would've expected you to scrub and dump me in the city, not out here."
"I wanted to be alone with you," he said as they strolled along-side each other in the crisp, moonlit grass. "I didn't want to do this in a parking lot somewhere, or be rushed by crowds around us."
"Romantic," she mocked. "I hope there aren't any rapists or rebels hiding out between here and Boston proper when I make the walk back to the city."
Kellan ignored the jab. "I'll watch over you once we're done here, make sure you get back to the Order's headquarters safely."
She blew out a sharp exhalation. "Don't do me any favors. I'm a big girl, all grown up, in case you haven't noticed."
Oh, he'd noticed. The first time had been when Mira was about fifteen. Scrappy and stubborn as always, but that year the reed-thin tomboy with her mop of pale-blond hair had emerged seemingly overnight as a powerful young woman with curves in all the right places and legs that went on forever. He wasn't the only male in the Order's training program that summer who lined up to spar with stunning Mira.
But for some reason that still eluded his understanding to this day, she only had eyes for him. Her best friend, she'd dubbed him, from the time she was an annoying eight-year-old, refusing to give up on the sullen teenager who'd come under the Order's protection after the slaying of his entire family, save his grandfather, Lazaro Archer.
Mira was still stunning, even with the passing of eight years since he'd last been this close to her. He could see traces of that time under her eyes and around the full curve of her mouth. She hadn't taken another Breed male as her mate. If she had, their blood bond would have enhanced her beauty. It would halt her aging, keep her youth intact.
There was a time that Kellan imagined he might be the male to stand at Mira's side. He'd wanted that, right up until the morning of the last day he spent with her. Then everything changed. What he wanted became impossible, and later that night, he had simply ceased to exist.
And now, here she was, walking beside him in the dark.
Hating him, as she had every right to.
Still, the urge to touch her was nearly too much for him to resist. But Kellan knew if he touched her now, he would only want more. Things he had no claim on. Things that were now and forever out of his reach.
How had he managed to keep his distance all these years? Not very well, he reminded himself. He hadn't really ever been that far from her. He'd lost count of how many times he'd watched her in secret, both in Boston and Montreal, curious to know how she was faring. Proud to see her accomplishments. Dismayed when her fierce independence – that unyielding stubborn streak – landed her in trouble.
His plan upon waking up and realizing he hadn't been blown to pieces along with the warehouse had been to get as far away from Mira and the Order as he could. It would've been better for everyone if he had. All the more so, given where he stood now. But the simple fact was, he hadn't been able to leave. She had a hold on him that he hadn't been able to break.
He'd told himself he would be careful, that there was no harm in staying close to where she was so long as he ensured their paths never crossed. But if he'd had any honor in him, he would have fled as far as possible, as soon as he'd been given the chance.
Mira's pace slowed beside him, then stopped as she pivoted to face him. "What happened to you inside that warehouse, Kellan?"
He grunted, gave a vague shake of his head. "Does it matter now?"
"It matters to me. I want to know." Her lips pressed together and she gave him an arch look. "Come on. You're going to scrub my memory anyway, so it's not like I'll remember anything you say or do here tonight. If you've got a conscience anymore, this is your perfect chance to clear it – when you know I will only hate you for a few more minutes before you take even that truth away from me."
It was an accusation, one that scathed him more than he wanted to admit. "I have to do this, Mira. It'll be better for everyone this way."
"Definitely better for you, at any rate." Bitter, angry words. She was hurting deeply, understandably so. But it was the sudden downward tilt of her head – the move that wasn't quite fast enough to hide the moist glint of her eyes – that undid him the most.
"You're right," he murmured. "I do owe you that."
"You owe me the truth," she insisted tightly, her pale eyes bright now, nearly dry when she looked up at him again.
She wouldn't allow herself to break in front of him. He could see that in her diamond-sharp gaze. She wouldn't give him that soft part of her. After tonight, never again.
When she spoke, her voice was schooled and level, a soldier recounting facts after battle. "I've seen your death a thousand times in my mind since that night. You were ahead of Nathan and me and the rest of our team, all of us on foot by then, fanned out and patrolling the riverfront after reports of rebel movement down at the industrial park. You radioed that you were in pursuit of several suspects, gave us your location and where you were heading. Nathan and I were closest to the area by then, so we joined up and proceeded in your direction to provide backup. We arrived just in time to see you disappear into the warehouse. Not even two seconds later, the explosion went off."
Kellan nodded, recalling the night as clearly as she did. But this was the point where their two accounts differed. "The rebel led me to that building. I didn't realize why until I was inside and smelled the taggant of live explosives somewhere nearby. It was a trap, Mira. I knew you and Nathan were right behind me. I couldn't risk that you'd be anywhere near the place when it blew."
"But you were," she said, her blond brows knit as she tried to put the pieces together in her mind. "You were inside the warehouse when it exploded."
"I was," he said. "But only long enough to spoil the trap. I flashed to where the C-4 and detonator had been planted. It was wired to the walls, no chance of ripping it out and disposing of it, certainly not without setting the whole thing off. So I killed it. Shot the whole thing up."
Mira gaped at him. "You detonated it while you were still inside? You would've had less than seconds to escape the blast once the charges blew."
He nodded again. "I didn't even know if I would make it out in one piece. But if it meant preventing you and anyone else from my team from getting hurt in the blast, it was worth the risk. As it happened, the bomb went off just as I was clearing the back door of the place. I remember feeling the percussion throw me airborne. I could smell the smoke and my own burned flesh. I felt my broken bones shatter even more as I hit the cold surface of the Mystic and sank into the murky water. After that, I suppose I lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, someone was pulling my bloody, broken body ashore."
Mira swallowed, utterly silent through his explanation. "Someone saved you?"
"Candice did." He saw her nearly imperceptible flinch at his mention of the human woman's name. "Candice hauled me out of a certain drowning and took me to her friend, Javier, a former Army sergeant who helped sew me up and heal my wounds. He's one of the best field medics I've ever known."
"Doc," she said, her sharp mind easily making the connection. "They had to know who – and what – you were. Why would rebels spare your life?"
"They weren't rebels then. Except for Vince, none of my crew was involved in any outlaw activity at the time. That came later." He cleared his throat and pushed on with the rest of what he had to say. "Anyway, it took two months before I was whole again. By then, you and everyone else I had known before assumed I was dead."
"So, you just let us continue to believe that?" Her expression was incredulous, her voice clipped and climbing toward outrage. "Why would you do that? How could you let everyone carry that pain when you knew it was a lie?"
Kellan shook his head, knowing that he would feel the same way in her place. Hating to see the anguish in her face when it was he who'd put it there. "My reason back then was more important than even my own life." He looked around at where he was, who he'd become as of this moment, and let out a harsh curse. "Everything's different. It doesn't matter anymore."
"You're saying you did this – you left me and everyone else who ever cared about you – all for nothing?"
"I don't expect you to understand," he told her, as gently as he could. "I'm not going to make you try to understand. Certainly not now, when it's too late for that anyway."
Her eyes held him in a stare that shredded him, so full of confusion and anger and hurt. "You have every right to hate me now, Mira. But that was never what I wanted."
"What about love?" she shot back at him. "You never wanted that from me either, did you?"
He swore under his breath. God, he'd been honored, humbled, by how openly Mira had always given herself to him. She'd loved him when he was at his weakest, angry and withdrawn, a self-pitying idiot who would've been happy to wallow in his misery forever. But she'd seen something in him worth saving. She'd pulled him into her light, pushed him until he was able to walk on his own, challenged him to be more. To be a better man than he ever would've without Mira as a part of his life.
Her love had been a precious gift. One he didn't deserve then and couldn't accept now.
When she started to turn away from him, he did what he'd promised himself he wouldn't. He reached for her, gently took her furious and wounded, beautiful face in his hands. "This isn't what I wanted, Mouse."
"No. Goddamn you, no." She wrenched away from him, pissed off and seething. Her finger came up in his face. "You don't call me that. My family called me that a long time ago. You're not family."
"No," he admitted quietly. Not anymore, not even close.
"You're not a friend either. Not after what you've done," she charged, breathing heavily with every clipped word. "After what you're doing to me now, I can't believe that you were ever truly my friend. Was it all a fucking joke to you, Kellan? Was I just a joke in your mind?"
"You were never a joke, Mira." He fisted his hands at his sides to keep from taking her in them once again. "I think you know better than that."
"Do I? How many times did you try to push me away when we were growing up?" She gave a brittle laugh. "I should've let you push. I should've walked away from you and never looked back, any one of the times you gave me the chance. God, I wish I'd never met you!"
"I know." He couldn't blame her, after all. "If I could take it all away for you right now, I would."
Unfortunately for both of them, a Breed mind scrub wasn't effective on long-term memory. He could erase today, but anything older was outside the bounds of his powers.
"You know this won't be the end of it," Mira pointed out. "Scrub my memory if it will make you feel better, but you know as well as I do that you're on the wrong side of this war."
"I'm trying to prevent a war, Mira."
"Bullshit!" She gave him a hard shove, hands flat against his chest. "What you've done might spark a war."
Kellan seized her by the wrists, trying not to notice the heat of her skin, the frantic beat of her pulse, ticking against his fingertips. He should have released his grasp on her, he knew that. But now that he had her, now that the staccato tempo of her heartbeat was echoing through him – a rhythm that stirred his own blood and sent it coursing through him at a more rapid pace – there was no letting Mira go.
She looked up at him, her purple eyes intense. "What do you think will happen if word gets out that an important human scientist was abducted while under the Order's protection? By a former member of our own ranks."
"No one will know that I was once a warrior," he insisted. "No one but my team back at the camp is even aware that I – that the man they know as Bowman – is Breed. They've kept my secret all this time. They won't betray my trust."
She scoffed. "How nice for you, to have that kind of confidence in the people you care about."
Kellan's answering curse was low and coarse and furious. Before he could stop himself, he hauled Mira up against him and slashed his mouth across hers in an unforgiving kiss.
At first, she resisted. Her lips were tense beneath his, sealed tight against his assault. The fine muscles in her wrists were taut as cables, delicate, skilled hands fisted where he held them between their pressed bodies. She was still angry with him, still rigid with loathing for everything he'd done to her, everything he'd admitted after so many years of deception.
But Kellan couldn't release her. And as he deepened his kiss, teasing his tongue along the stubborn seam of her lush mouth, some of the fight finally leached out of her. She parted her lips on a strangled moan, and he pushed inside, drawing her body closer to his, drowning in the taste of her after such a long time without.
His blood was on fire, scorching his veins. His fangs had erupted from his gums, filling his mouth as desire for this female sent heat and hunger into lower parts of his anatomy.
He told himself the kiss meant nothing. That in a few minutes she would remember none of it anyway. As for him, he was doomed. Because, holy Christ, this moment was going to stay with him for the rest of his days.
Doomed, to be sure.
Because in that moment, Kellan understood that scrubbing Mira was only going to postpone greater problems now that Ackmeyer was in his custody. What she'd said earlier tonight was the truth: If human law enforcement didn't catch up to him soon enough, the Order certainly would.
He should have known.
It wasn't like he hadn't seen it coming a long time ago.
Kellan broke away from her kiss with a savage, inhuman growl. When he spoke, his voice was gravel in his throat, rough from wanting and the sharp-edged reality of just how badly he'd screwed both their lives. "Come with me."
Mira rubbed her damp, reddened lips. Her eyes looked equally bruised, impossibly large, regarding him with a mix of longing and regret. "Time to be rid of me already again, is it?"
"Change of plans," he snarled. He took a firmer hold on her hand and led her back to the Jeep. "You won't be going anywhere after all."