Edge of Dawn (Chapter Twelve)
Not since the morning eight years before, when she'd awakened in a similar pose, in a similar state of blissful exhaustion.
That day had ended in a nightmare of fire and ash and tears. Today she felt renewed. Hopeful. She felt happy, and that scared her more than anything. Especially when her happiness had come in the arms of Kellan Archer. Not the teenage boy she'd adored as a child. Not even the young Breed warrior who'd trained alongside her with the Order and had become her dearest, most trusted friend and confidant.
No, her happiness had been delivered by the leader of an outlaw band of rebels, who'd not only abducted an innocent civilian but defied Lucan Thorne and the entire Order by disrupting an operation and taking one of its members hostage.
A hostage who had very willingly tumbled into bed to sleep with the enemy.
Among other things.
Wicked, wonderful things.
Mira couldn't resist kissing the bulky biceps that caged her against Kellan's big body. She tongued the arcing lines of the glyphs on his arm, delighting in the flood of dark color left in the wake of her teasing kiss.
He stirred. With a low moan, he flexed his arm and tucked her farther into his embrace. His chest was a wall of solid heat against her nipples, his ridged abdomen like sun-warmed granite against her belly. And lower still, his arousal was quite obviously apparent, nudging into her hip, stiff and hot. Much too tempting for her roaming hands.
Mira carefully traced her fingers along the smoothness of his chest and abs, past his navel, to the bristly thatch of crisp hair and the jutting girth of his sex. She stroked him once, marveling at the softness that encased so much rigid steel. And the fat plum that crowned his shaft, already weeping with a bead of moisture as she ran her fingertips over the head of his penis.
She flicked her gaze up to see if she'd woken him.
Ember-bright eyes stared back at her, blazing with wide-awake desire.
"Pleasant dreams?" she asked him, attempting innocence.
He wasn't buying it. His dark goatee stretched wickedly around his mouth, lips peeled back in a smile that was purely carnal. "Who needs dreams when reality is fondling me so sweetly?"
He rolled her beneath him, moving with a speed that startled her, even though she was well aware of the power and agility that was always at his command. Mira spread her thighs to accommodate him, ready for him again. Her heart knocking like a hammer in her breast.
Kellan bent to take her earlobe between his lips and teeth, murmuring blush-worthy plans for all the ways he intended to enjoy her in those next moments.
Mira's pulse was clamoring so urgently, her body so ripe for his taking, it took her a second to realize he'd gone suddenly still and tense above her. He lifted his head, stock-still now.
"What the fuck – "
Someone was in the corridor outside, banging on the door. The rapping came again, fast and hard. Panicked.
"Bowman! Are you in there?" A female voice, pitched high with worry. Not Candice, but the other woman of the rebel base. "Bowman, come quick!"
"It's Nina," Kellan murmured, already rolling off Mira and throwing on his pants. He sent her a sober look. Mira scrambled out of the bed and hurried into his T-shirt and sweatpants. He glanced to make sure she was clothed, then flipped the lock with his mind and opened the door on Nina's ashen face.
"Oh, my God," the human woman gasped. "It's Vince. He – oh, my God!"
"What's going on?" Kellan demanded. "Where is he?"
"I don't know!" Nina shook her head, indigo hair tossing, sending the dozens of tiny metal loops swinging in her pierced earlobes. She was sobbing now. "Vince is gone. He took the van. He's got Ackmeyer with him."
Although Mira tried to stay in the background, she couldn't bite back her gasp of alarm. Even Kellan seemed to take the news with no small amount of shock. He went still for an instant, silent. Then seemed to shake it off like the leader he now was.
"Where?" His voice was a roll of thunder, dark and lethal, fully Breed. He stepped out into the corridor. "Where did he take him?"
"I don't know," Nina cried. "But Chaz and Candice tried to stop him. Oh, God . . . he killed Chaz. He's dead, Bowman. Vince slit his throat – "
"Jesus Christ," Kellan muttered. His shoulders slumped a bit, but when he spoke, his voice was level with cold command. "When did this happen? How long has the bastard been gone?"
Nina shook her head. "I don't know. A little while ago, not long. He killed Chaz, then he stole the van and took off."
Mira closed her eyes, absorbing the weight of all she was hearing. Jeremy Ackmeyer in the hands of a cold-blooded killer. Kellan betrayed by one of his own. A death among the ranks of his comrades.
"And Candice," Nina went on. She sucked in a hitching breath, then dissolved into more tears. "Vince stabbed her too. Doc's trying to take care of her, but she's bleeding really bad. He says the blade nicked an artery in her thigh. He can't get it to stop."
Kellan's answering curse was quiet but savage. He swung a look over his shoulder at Mira, somewhere between misery and apology. Mira's own guilt gnawed at her with sharp teeth. All of this violence and betrayal had happened while she and Kellan were making love.
Her body was still humming from the pleasure of Kellan's touch, but her chest was heavy with the knowledge that one life had been cut short today, another stolen away with Vince's escape. If anything happened to Candice now, Mira could see in Kellan's tormented eyes that he would never forgive himself.
She gave him a faint nod, understanding that whatever they'd shared in the privacy of his bed for the past few hours was over now. He wasn't hers in this moment; he belonged to them. To his comrades. His friends.
"They need you," Mira said quietly, meant for his ears alone. "Go to them."
Kellan took off like a shot, Nina trailing after him at a run.
Kellan didn't have to guess where Doc was treating Candice. The olfactory blast of spilled fresh red cells led him like a beacon to the cell where Ackmeyer had been held.
Blood was everywhere. Pooling almost black under the crumpled slump of Chaz's unmoving body inside the opened cage. Splattered on the cement block walls. Smeared in a chaotic path by Vince's boots and Jeremy Ackmeyer's stumbling feet as he'd obviously been dragged away. And then there was Candice.
Lying supine inside the cell, arms splayed out at her sides, she was covered in blood from the front of her T-shirt down, with still more of it seeping out beneath her. Her legs were bare; Doc had apparently removed her jeans so he could work on the nasty puncture in her right thigh. His brown eyes sober, he glanced Kellan's way only briefly before returning all of his focus to treating Candice's wound.
Kellan's skin went tight, fangs filling his mouth. His vision had gone instantly red – not only in physical reaction to the presence of so much fresh-flowing blood but in deadly rage for the betrayal by one of his own. A betrayal that had resulted in the slaying of one friend and the grave injury of another.
All of this havoc and loss wreaked while Kellan had been distracted by the pleasure of having Mira in his bed.
He'd failed his crew in the worst possible way. Failed Jeremy Ackmeyer too, whom Kellan should have freed immediately upon learning of his innocence several hours ago. None of this would have happened if Kellan had kept his head on straight as the leader these people expected him to. They had entrusted their lives to him, trusted him to protect them.
Instead, he'd allowed himself to get caught up in a romantic entanglement with Mira that could only end in disaster. So, yeah, he'd failed her today as well, and it was too late to call back any of his mistakes.
"Goddamn it," he snarled, self-directed anger making his voice sound raw and violent, even to his own ears.
More than anything, he wanted to tear out of the bunker and hunt Vince down – daylight or not. He wanted the bastard to suffer for this, wanted to make him bleed. But it was Kellan's crew that was bleeding and suffering now – one of them bled out on the floor in front of him, another possibly heading that way too.
The sight of Candice injured so severely jolted Kellan back to his duty as the commander of this base and its people. He ignored the coppery gut-punch of Candice's bleeding wound as he walked to her side and went down on his haunches next to her.
Her breath raced between slack, pale lips. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, fixed on the ceiling as Doc bent her leg at the knee, elevating the wound, before fastening his belt around her thigh as a tourniquet.
Kellan grabbed her discarded jeans and rolled them into a makeshift pillow. As he lifted her head off the floor and rested it back onto the softer fabric, her glassy gaze slid to him. "Vince . . . I tried to stop him, but he – "
"I know. Don't worry about him. You just hang in there, you got it?" Her eyelids drooped with her weak nod. Kellan clamped his teeth and fangs together as he smoothed his fingers over her clammy brow. "How we doing, Doc?"
"Be a helluva lot better once I get the blood flow stanched," Doc replied, hands slick with red, face grim as he tightened the belt on Candice's thigh.
Kellan shot a glance over his shoulder to Nina, who hovered nervously in the doorway. "Clean towels, lots of them. Cloths too. Bring whatever you can find."
"On it." She took off at once.
Candice's teeth started to chatter. Her eyes were glazed, alternating between rolling back in her head and sliding over to focus on him. "I'm s-scared, Bowman. Don't want to die."
"You're going to be all right," he assured her. "Doc's treated worse. You remember the shit condition I was in when you dragged me in to meet him that first time?"
"Yeah." Her voice was thready, small. "I remember."
Kellan nodded, swept a lock of damp black hair from where it was plastered to her cheek. Her skin was cold, alarmingly so. "Doc didn't let me die that night; neither did you. He and I aren't about to let you die now either. So, you hang in, Brady, that's a fucking order."
"Okay," she said, giving him a faint smile as her eyes drifted closed. A shudder went through her whole body, prolonged, bone-deep. She trembled, blue-lipped and shivering, despite the summertime humidity of the bunker. "Freezing in here," she murmured. "I'm so cold."
Before Kellan could respond or turn to find something to provide her some warmth, a blanket appeared from somewhere behind him.
He looked up to find her standing at his back, holding a blanket she'd brought from his bed. She moved around him to cover Candice's torso, gently tucking it under her chin and shoulders to keep in as much heat as possible.
When she was done, she stepped back, her hand coming to rest tenderly on Kellan's shoulder. He reached up to meet her touch, clasping her fingers in a grateful squeeze. His guilt and self-recrimination was still acid in his gut, but the sight of Mira standing near him, the feel of her touch on him in silent support and understanding, was a balm he couldn't deny. He saw Doc's gaze flick to the unspoken exchange, saw the question in the rebel's eyes as Kellan's hand lingered on Mira's, possessive and intimate.
"Tell us what you need us to do, Doc."
"Keep her awake," the medic said, going back to work on the wound. "Shock will make her want to sleep, but we can't let her do that. She needs to stay conscious right now."
Kellan nodded. "Open your eyes, Candice. I need you to look at me, stay focused," he prompted, letting go of Mira's hand to give Candice's shoulder a rousing shake. "I need you to tell me what happened in here with Vince. Can you do that?"
"Yes," she murmured. Her eyelids lifted, though she seemed to struggle with the effort. "Came in here to pick up Ackmeyer's meal tray. Chaz came with me . . . gonna take Ackmeyer for a bathroom break."
Kellan grunted in acknowledgment, his eye drifting to the upended tray of half-eaten food that lay scattered on the floor nearby. When Candice shuddered again, struggling to suck air into her lungs, Kellan reached down and stroked his palm over the top of her head. "You're doing great. Take your time, but you stay with me. You stay awake, Brady."
"O-okay. I'm okay." She looked up at him and took a few deeper breaths. "Ackmeyer asked if we were letting him go . . . started going on about how he was innocent . . . never meant to hurt anyone with his inventions."
All the things Kellan heard from the scientist himself. Things Kellan's touch had vouched for as truth.
"He said someone must've stolen his work," Candice went on. "Said he wanted to help us find out who it was and see them punished . . . he said if what happened was true – that his work had been used for harm, for murder – he would personally make sure the technology was destroyed, no matter what it was worth."
Kellan's jaw tightened at the thought of how wrong he'd been in going after Jeremy Ackmeyer. He'd assumed the worst, and he dreaded that the fallout from that bad call was far from over.
Candice weathered another full-body shudder as Nina came in with an armful of towels and handed them off to Doc. Mira pitched in without being asked, she and Nina helping Doc wrap Candice's wound as she continued with her account. "We didn't realize Vince was in the room . . . not until he asked how much Ackmeyer thought someone might pay for his technology."
"Son of a bitch," Kellan muttered, needing no further explanation to understand what Vince would be up to next. "What did Ackmeyer tell him? How much did he say the UV tech was worth?"
"He didn't," Candice replied. "He told Vince it didn't matter . . . said it wasn't for sale, and he wouldn't allow anyone to profit from it now."
"Which obviously didn't sit well with Vince," Kellan snarled, his every fiber still seething with predatory rage and the need to make his traitorous comrade pay.
Mira met his gaze from where she crouched near Doc and Nina, working like a member of the team, not the unwilling captive she'd been just the night before. He didn't want to think of her as one of his crew. Didn't want to think of her in any of the ways he was now. He tore his gaze away from her and put it back on his wounded colleague. "Keep your eyes open, Candice. Tell me the rest now."
"Everything happened so fast," she said, her voice a thready whisper. "Vince had a dark look on his face . . . Next thing I knew, there was a knife in his hand. He lunged at Chaz . . . stabbed him hard in the chest. Then he grabbed Ackmeyer . . . had the knife under his chin . . . said he was going to start doing things his way."
Kellan's growl rumbled in the quiet cell. His vision burned a deeper shade of amber, fury roiling through him with each word he was hearing.
"I tried to stop him, Bowman." Candice's eyes lifted to him now and stayed there, glassy and lethargic, but fixed on him as though searching for forgiveness. Kellan swore, low and coarse under his breath. "Even after he stabbed me, I tried to stop him from taking Ackmeyer, from getting away," she said weakly. "I tried . . ."
"It's all right." Kellan cupped the side of her skull in his palm. "You did everything you could, I know that. I'm the one who should've been there to deal with Vince." His glance strayed to Chaz's body and the three grave faces that were all staring at him in the blood-soaked cell of the rebel bunker. "Bastard's a dead man. He's going to know that now."
Kellan rose to his feet and stalked out of the room without further explanation.
He wasn't surprised to hear Mira right behind him as soon as he took his first step in the corridor outside, but he was far from pleased. "What are you doing?" she demanded at his back, running to keep up with his furious gait. "Kellan, where are you going?"
The sound of his name on her lips – his true name – put a dangerous edge in his answering growl as he wheeled around to face her. He grabbed her upper arms and steered her back against the nearest wall. "One of my men is dead back there. Another of my crew could bleed out in a few minutes, if Doc doesn't work some kind of magic on her leg. And a captive under my watch has been taken by one of my own – right under my fucking nose – likely to be sold to the highest bidder or killed before sundown tonight. You think I'm going to sit back and let this go unmet?"
"It's the middle of the day. You can't go anywhere – "
"Let me deal with that," he snapped, knowingly harsh as he let her loose and pivoted to leave her behind him in the hallway.
But Mira had never been one to give in that easily. No, not her. She marched right after him, bare feet padding in determined strides at his back. It took her only moments before she was in front of him, blocking his path with her body. A body that looked entirely too damn good in his T-shirt and overlong sweatpants, rolled up at her ankles.
"Don't be an idiot," she said, eyes flashing behind the purple tint of her contact lenses. "You'll die out there right now."
"I've got a good half hour before I need to worry about exposure," he pointed out. "I can be in the city in less than ten minutes on foot."
"Then what?" she countered hotly. "Twenty minutes to turn Boston upside down looking for Vince and Ackmeyer before you're toast? It's suicidal and you know it."
He scoffed, even though she was right. "You got a better idea?"
"Yeah. I'll go after them. If I don't find Vince myself, I'll work my way through every rebel piece of shit in the city until someone rats him out."
Kellan barked out a caustic laugh. "Forget it. This is my mess to clean up, not yours. You're not a part of it, Mira. And I'll walk into the sun itself before I put you in the middle of this shit."
If he'd had any kind of honor, he would have done that eight years ago, ensuring that he'd never have the chance to hurt her the way her vision showed him he would. But he hadn't been able to cut himself off from Mira, not totally. He'd stayed close, closer than was wise. He should have put continents between them, anything to make certain their paths would never cross again.
But he hadn't done any of those things.
Even now, it was nearly impossible to keep from reaching out to touch her. He crossed his arms over his chest when the temptation to smooth her outraged scowl proved almost too much to resist.
"You bastard." Mira drew in a breath, then pushed it out on a sharp exhalation. "God, you are still the most infuriatingly pigheaded male I've ever known. You're going to stand there and tell me I'm not a part of this – that you would rather kill yourself than let me into your world – when you just had your cock inside me? You said a lot of sweet things to me, things I was almost fool enough to believe – "
Kellan cursed. "I meant everything I said. Every word, Mira. But that was before."
She gaped, stricken and breathing hard. "Before what?"
"Before everything that went down in that cell back there," Kellan replied. "Before what happened with Vince just now reminded me that this is never going to work. It can't work."
He uncrossed his arms and ran a hand over his scalp, trying to figure a way off the path that fate seemed determined to place him on. But there wasn't one. Vince defecting with Jeremy Ackmeyer in tow had all but made sure of that fact.
"Whatever happens now, whatever Vince ends up doing with Ackmeyer, I want you out of it. To anyone outside this bunker, you're still my captive, an unwilling participant in anything I've done. I intend to keep it that way. I won't have you jeopardizing your future, thinking you can help me. You can't, because I'm not going to allow it."
Her slender blond brows lowered even farther over her flashing eyes. "That's not your decision to make. I don't need your permission to care about you, Kellan. You don't get to decide what's important to me."
God help him, but it didn't take much to remember the stubborn little girl who'd told him pretty much the same thing in word and deed time and again when he'd been a withdrawn, stupid teen who didn't know how to accept her friendship, let alone her love. By sheer force of will, she'd made him participate in life when grief and anger over his family's annihilation had all but crippled him inside. As a girl, Mira had held his hand and led him out of a dark place. As a woman, she'd held his heart, despite his efforts to protect himself from caring for someone he could never bear to lose.
Now he only hoped he'd find the strength to push Mira away, when all he wanted was to pull her close and never let her go.
He kept his voice quiet, the words as gentle as he could make them. "This time I do get to decide. Bad enough I couldn't stay away from you, even though I knew damn well where this would take us in the end." He lowered his head and held her searching gaze, needing her to hear him now. She needed to understand. "When I go down, I'll be damned if I take you down with me."
Mira had gone utterly still in front of him. She didn't blink, barely drew breath. "What do you mean, you knew where this would take us in the end?"
Kellan stared into her eyes, those muted mirrors that had cursed him on what had so briefly been a perfect morning eight years ago. Now they looked up at him imploringly, searching for a truth he hoped she'd never need to hear.
"Tell me," she said, a slight tremor in her soft voice. Her anger was gone now, replaced with a gravity – a tangible dread – that caught his heart in a stranglehold. "What did you mean by that, Kellan?" She spoke hardly above a whisper, hardly breathing, for all he could discern. "Tell me what you know, damn it."
He reached for her, but she flinched away from him. Gave a slow shake of her head, her eyes never leaving his. "Tell me."
"That morning," he said, the words coming out of him dry and rusty. "The morning before the warehouse explosion . . ."
"We made love," she murmured.
"We made love for hours, earlier that night too," she said, filling in the blanks when his voice seemed to desert him. "For the first time."
He nodded. "The first time for both of us. It was the best night of my life, Mira. Until a few hours ago when I was with you again, that night eight years ago and the morning I woke up next to you were the best moments I've ever known. I never got the chance to tell you that. I should've said the words then, but I didn't know."
She swallowed, her delicate throat visibly clenching. "You didn't know what?"
"That it was all going to end that night. I didn't know I'd be leaving you so soon. I thought I would have time to explain." He shrugged lamely, shaking his head. "I thought . . . I prayed we'd be able to sort it all out, find a way – somehow – to make it right."
"I don't know what you're saying, Kellan." She scowled even deeper now, and despite her denial that she understood, he could see in her eyes that realization was settling in hard the longer she looked at him. "What happened that morning? Did I do something wrong? Did I say something, or – "
"No. God, no. You didn't do anything wrong." He cupped her jaw in his hand and smoothed the pad of his thumb over her trembling mouth. "You were perfect. You were everything I could've wanted. More than I ever deserved."
"But you left me," she said quietly. "Why, Kellan? The truth this time. Something happened the morning we were together. Something bad enough to make you think I'd be happier believing you were dead in that explosion."
"Ah, Mouse," he murmured, letting his hand travel up from where it caressed her lips, to the Breedmate mark riding at her temple. He stroked the tiny teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark, then leaned forward and pressed a kiss to each of her eyelids. When he drew back from her, there were tears welling in her eyes. "You see? You would be happier if I'd died that night. And I would rather have left you mourning someone you loved than one day pleading for my life as the traitor I was destined to become."
Her hands came up to his chest, pushed him away. "What are you saying?"
"I saw it, Mira. In your eyes, that morning when we woke up together, naked in your bed. Your eyes were naked too. The lenses that mute your visions – "
She sucked in her breath. "No."
"I looked into your eyes, only for a second – "
"No." The denial was short and sharp. She gave a shake of her head, then another, more vehement this time. "No, I don't believe it. I would've known. I would've felt my eyesight weaken afterward. Using my ability always takes a bit of my sight along with it – "
"I know that," he said gently. "And that's the only reason I looked away as quickly as I did. I didn't want you to pay for my inadvertent lack of care. But there was a part of me that could've gotten lost in your naked gaze forever."
"No!" She gaped at him incredulously, aghast. "You wouldn't have done that. You know better than to look at my eyes when they're unprotected. Everyone knows better than that!"
"I wasn't thinking about your visions or what I might see in your eyes, Mouse. I rolled over that morning to kiss the beautiful woman who'd invited me into her bed and given me more pleasure than I knew was possible. You gave me the sweetest kiss I ever tasted, and then you smiled at me and opened your eyes."
"Oh, God. No, Kellan. Why did you look?" She moaned, a miserable sound that cut him to the marrow. When she turned her head away from him, Kellan brought her back to face him.
"Your eyes are extraordinary, Mira. They're bright as diamonds. Clear and flawless, like crystal pools. In that one fleeting moment that I looked into your gaze, I felt like I was seeing you – all of you – for the first time. And I'd never witnessed anything so beautiful." He caressed her face, wiped away the tear that rolled down her cheek. "That was worth the price. Worth any price fate may make me pay down the line."
"What did you see, Kellan?"
He had little choice but to tell her. "I saw myself, being led before Lucan and the GNC. There were charges against me – capital charges. Conspiracy, murder, treason. They judged me guilty on all counts. And so they sentenced me." He wanted to deliver the words gently, but there was no easy way to tell her what needed to be said. "The sentence was death, Mira. And I saw you there with me, begging for them to spare me. I don't want to think about the pain I saw in you, the grief that all of this will cause you when I'm put to death for my crimes."
She didn't speak. Just stared at him in silent torment, tears streaming down her face.
Kellan tried to smooth them away, but he couldn't keep up. He swore softly, hating that he'd caused her this hurt now and hoping he wouldn't bring her any more.
"I told you I thought you'd be happier believing I was dead eight years ago," he said. "But I had a selfish reason too. I would rather keep the memory of your sweet smile that morning in bed after we made love the first time than see the way you're looking at me now."
Behind them in the corridor, subtle movement sounded. Nina awkwardly cleared her throat. "Bowman? Doc needs to move Candice so he can cauterize her wound and stitch her up. He asked me to come find you – "
"Be right there," Kellan replied, his eyes locked on Mira, even as he drew away from her.
When he finally pivoted to return to his rebel comrades, he hoped Mira would take this chance to leave him and never look back.
He wouldn't blame her if she did.