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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Nine)

Kade exhaled a low growl as he watched Alex cut through the tavern and all but run for the exit. He had pushed a little too hard with her, a tactic he should have known would fail just from the brief time he'd spent around her, studying the way she operated. Alexandra Maguire only dug in her heels harder if someone attempted to lean on her.

And then, on top of that, he'd made everything worse by having the bad sense to touch her. He hadn't been able to resist, and some part of him acknowledged even as it was happening that she'd seemed to welcome the contact. Right up until the moment that greasy slacker with the burnout's gaze and thin beak of a nose came walking up and disrupted them. Kade had a serious urge to pound the guy for that alone, never mind the fact that the stoner had also been the one to broadcast visual evidence of a vampire attack all over the World Wide Web.

As for dealing with Alex, Kade had seen the fear in her eyes as he pressed her for answers. She'd been terrified to spit the words out, but he was certain he'd been very close to getting her to open up completely about what exactly she knew. And the cold-as-ice feeling in his gut was telling him that what she knew went a whole lot deeper than just the recent attack and slaying of the family in the bush. Could she possibly be aware of the Breed's existence?

Had she seen one of his kind before?

Jesus Christ, what if she'd found more than just an un-explainable footprint out there at the Toms settlement?

If she had information that might implicate Seth in the killings–or clear him, slim as that hope seemed–Kade had to know. He had to know right now.

And if she did, in fact, have any inkling about the Breed, Kade figured it would be a hell of a lot easier to strip the memory from her outside in the shadows of the dimly lit parking lot than in the middle of a crowded restaurant and bar.

He stalked out after her to the snow-covered lot. She was already halfway across the short span of plowed tundra, walking briskly past the couple of pickup trucks and the half-dozen snowmachines parked outside Pete's. She didn't even break stride as the clank of the bell on the door sounded behind Kade as he leapt off the squat, covered porch and fell in, hot on her heels.

"Do you always run away when you get scared?"

That brought her up short. She pivoted around, an odd look on her face, as though his comment hit too close to home. But then she blinked and the look was gone, replaced with a narrowed gaze and a stubborn tilt of her hooded head. "Do you never give up, even when you know you're not going to win?"

"Never," he said, zero hesitation.

She muttered a particularly vivid curse and kept on walking, headed in the direction of the street. Kade caught up to her in a few long strides.

"You were going to tell me something back there in the tavern, Alex. Something important that I really need to know. What was it?"

"God!" She spun toward him, anger flashing in her brown doe eyes. "You're impossible, you know that?"

"And you're beautiful."

He didn't know why he said it, other than that he found it too hard to keep the thought inside his head when she was standing there looking windblown and wild, her cheeks carrying the pink kiss of the Arctic chill, her blond hair framing her face in tousled waves beneath the fur ruff of her parka's hood. If Brock or any of the other warriors in Boston had heard him just now, they'd guess that he was just playing this female, plying her with flattery to get what he wanted from her. Kade himself wanted to believe that was the cause of his ham-handed blurt. But as he looked at Alexandra Maguire, her simple beauty lit up by the thin moonlight overhead and the multicolored glow of the neon bar signs in the windows behind him, Kade knew that he wasn't playing any kind of game here. He was attracted to her–fiercely attracted–and he wanted her to understand that he wasn't the enemy.

Not precisely, at any rate.

Her outrage cooled to something resembling confusion as she started to take a backward step away from him. "I really have to go now."

Kade lifted his hand but stopped short of physically holding her back. "Alex, whatever secret you're keeping, you can tell me. Let me share some of the burden with you. Let me protect you from whatever it is that's got you so scared."

She shook her head, her light brown brows knitting together. "I don't need you. I don't even know you. And if I felt the need to share, I have friends I can talk to instead."

"But you haven't told any of them, have you." It wasn't a question, and she knew it as well as he did.

"There isn't another single person in your life who knows what you're keeping bottled inside you. Tell me if I'm wrong."

"Shut up," she murmured, her breath steaming on the chill air, her voice cracking softly. "Just … shut up. Leave me alone. You don't know anything about me."

"Does anyone really know you, Alex?"

She went so still and quiet, Kade thought for sure he'd crossed yet another line that would drive her farther away from him. But she didn't spin around and leave him eating her wake. She didn't curse him out, or strike him, or scream for anyone to come out of Pete's and do it for her. She stood there, looking up into his eyes in a silence that felt so lost, so broken.

His warrior's duty to collect vital intel and erase a potential security risk for the Order collided with the sudden urge he had to offer comfort, to protect this female who professed so strongly to have no need for either.

Kade stepped closer to her, and then he did touch her again. Just the lightest brush of his fingertips over one golden strand of her hair as it caught on the wintry breeze. She didn't move. Her breath had stopped puffing through her parted lips, and this close, Kade could hear the rush of blood pulsing through her veins as her heart rate kicked into a faster beat.

"You asked me in the bar if I was a good guy or a bad guy," he reminded her, his voice low and rough for the awareness of her body's heat mingling with his as he inched tighter into her space. He shook his head slowly. "That's not my call to make, Alex. Maybe you'll find I'm some of both. The way I look at the world, everything is just a different shade of gray."

"No … I can't live like that," she said, the tone of her voice naked with sincerity. "It would make it all too complicated, too hard to know what's true or not. Too hard to know what's real."

"I'm real," Kade said, holding her gaze as he stroked his fingers along the curve of her jaw. "And you feel very real to me, too."

She drew in a soft breath at his touch, and as her lips parted, Kade swept his mouth against hers in an impulsive–instantly electric–kiss.

He held her face tenderly in his palm as he brushed his lips over hers and savored the soft, wet heat of her mouth. Alex's kiss was sweet and open and giving … so damned good. The feel of her body pressing against his sent a jolt of fire swimming through him, searing every nerve ending with the stamp of her lean curves and the warm, wind-and-woods scent of her.

He wasn't thinking about gathering intel or finding a quiet place to scrub her mind once he had the information he needed. The feeling he had right now had nothing to do with offering her comfort or protection, either.

All he felt was need for this woman, his desire for her startlingly intense. And a hunger that was growing more consuming the longer Alex remained in his arms. With a simple, unplanned kiss, she drowned him in a swamping tide of lust and bloodthirst. He hadn't fed since he arrived in Alaska, a careless oversight that now sank sharp talons into him, demanding to be slaked every bit as urgently as the throb that beat hard and hot between his legs. From somewhere in the hunger-drenched fog of his consciousness, Kade heard the rumbling approach of a vehicle nearing the parking lot. He wanted to ignore the low growl of the truck's engine, but then a male voice called out from the shadows.

"Alex? Everything all right out here?"

"Shit," she hissed, pulling back now. "This was a mistake." Kade said nothing as she retreated several more steps, but then speech would have proved a bit difficult, given the fact that his fangs now filled his mouth. She wouldn't look at him, which suited Kade just fine, since one glimpse of his eyes right now–transformed from the pale gray they normally were, to the bright amber glow that betrayed him as one of the Breed–would have turned the ill-conceived impulse of kissing her into a catastrophe of huge proportions.

"I never should have let you do that," she whispered, then ducked around him. Kade slanted a cautious look over his shoulder at the idling Blazer bearing Alaska State Trooper colors, watching as Alex walked up to it. "Hey, Zach. What's going on? I thought Jenna was at your house."

"She just left. Said you were at Pete's, so I thought I'd swing by and have a beer with you." Tucker's voice carried on the chill wind. "What the hell are you doing out here? Were you with someone?" voice carried on the chill wind. "What the hell are you doing out here? Were you with someone?"

"No, not with anyone," she said. Kade felt, rather than saw, the quick backward glance that Alex shot into the shadows where he stood. "I was just leaving. Give me a ride home?"

"Sure, get in," Zach Tucker said, and Alex opened the door and climbed inside. Kade clamped his molars together, curbing the lust that was still coursing through him as he watched her close the door and drive off with the human male. He'd detected the trace odor of bullshit in the trooper's casual tone, and had to guess that Zach Tucker wasn't the only man in Harmony who was happy to use any excuse to put himself in close company with–and in the good graces of–sexy Alexandra Maguire. Kade had a very strong impulse to go after her, whether she'd been glad to escape him or not. But if he needed something to distract him from that idea, he got it in spades as the tavern door banged open and out walked Skeeter Arnold and three of his stoner pals.

Kade observed the knot of twenty-something guys, smiling with satisfaction as the group disbanded and Skeeter was left standing alone while his friends took off in a rumbling old F150. When Skeeter started to walk toward the back lot, Kade peeled away from the shadows to follow him and have a word or two about the hazards of pissing off a bunch of vampires.

But before Kade took two steps toward the asshole, headlights came on in the parking lot and a black Hummer rolled out behind Skeeter Arnold. The vehicle gleamed under the weak lights of the lot, and compared to the other clunkers parked at Pete's, Kade would bet his left nut that whoever was driving it wasn't local. When the truck slowed down to deliberately keep pace with Skeeter, who paused to stick his head inside the open passenger-side window, Kade's hackles raised along with his suspicion. What the hell would someone with Hummer-style tastes want with a low-budget loser like Skeeter Arnold? Something was said to the stoner in barely audible tones before he chuckled and eagerly nodded.

"Yeah, sure. For the right price, I might be interested in hearing more about that," he said, then opened the door and hopped inside.

"What the fuck are you up to?" Kade muttered as the vehicle sped away, kicking up clots of snow in its wake.

He had a feeling that whatever transaction might be taking place between Skeeter Arnold and his newfound business associate, it was going to prove to be much bigger than the small-time dealer's usual fare.

A low, hissing heat and a sentimental old country song drifted from the dashboard of Zach's stateissued Blazer as Alex glanced at the side mirror, watching the parking lot at Pete's fade into the darkness behind her.

"Thanks for the ride, Zach."

"No problem. I've got to run out for eggs and hot sauce, anyway. Breakfast of champions, you know. And single thirty-five-year-old cops with no nutrition sense."

Alex gave him a polite smile as they traveled the last of the short two blocks to her house. She felt every bit as relieved as she did foolish for having run off on Kade as she had, but the fact was, she had welcomed the rescue. God knew she'd needed one, before she'd been tempted to do anything more with him right out there in the open, among the pickup trucks and snowmachines.

What had she been thinking, letting a complete stranger put a move on her like that? She wasn't the type to let a guy take advantage of her with empty flattery or free-range hands–and being a young, unmarried woman in the Alaskan interior, she'd known plenty of men who'd tried. Except with Kade tonight, it hadn't felt like any sort of play or move, as smooth as the art of seduction seemed to come to him. And although she'd never so much as seen his face before he showed up yesterday, she had to admit–to herself at least–that he seemed like anything but a stranger to her. Kade seemed to know her–to understand her–on a level that astonished her. He seemed to be able to look deep inside her, into the dark places not even she was brave enough to face, and that's what terrified her about him the most.

It was that unnerving sense of awareness that had made her so desperate to escape him tonight.

"Home sweet home," Zach said, breaking into her thoughts as he rolled to a stop outside her weathered wood-sided house. "Jenna probably told you already, but I got word the AST unit out of Fairbanks should be here later this week." At Alex's nod, he lifted his right arm up onto her seatback and leaned in a bit closer. "I know this can't be easy for you. Hell, it's not easy for me, either. I knew Wilbur Toms and his family for a lot of years. I don't know how this kind of awful thing could have happened to them. But the truth will come out, Alex. It will."

Zach's face, half illuminated by the pale lights of the dash, seemed troubled, cautious. And after her blurt at the town meeting, she could hardly be surprised if his cop instincts told him she was holding something back.

"If there's anything more that you recall about the crime scene, Alex, I need you to tell me, all right?

Anything at all. I'd like to know we're on the same page by the time the Fairbanks unit arrives and starts throwing its weight around town."

"Sure," she murmured. "Yeah, Zach. If I think of anything else, I'll make sure to tell you." Even as she said it, she knew she would speak no more of the track in the snow or the bone-deep fear she harbored that something terrible was on the loose in the frigid wilderness not far from where they sat now. The thing she feared was worse than any kind of danger posed by man or animal. It was monstrous. It would not be stopped by Zach Tucker or a bunch of Staties, and Alex was going to try her damnedest to forget all about it.

She was going to try to forget everything that had happened in the Florida swamps so long ago, too. Best to just let it all go, bury it deep, and move on.

Or move away.

Run.

"Sleep well," Zach said as she climbed out of the Blazer and closed the passenger door. "You call me anytime, you hear?"

She nodded. "Thanks, Zach. And thanks again for the lift." He flashed a quick smile that was there and gone before he put the truck in gear and drove away. As Alex walked toward the front door of the old house she'd shared with her father since she'd been that frightened little girl, uprooted from her entire world–her entire reality–the notion of running away from it all only deepened. It would be so much easier, leaving her memories behind. Starting over somewhere new would be the best way for her to purge the fears that dogged her, that had come back darker now, more dreadful than ever before.

She could not face horror like that again.

Nor could she allow herself to be wooed into a state of false confidence that anyone–even a man like Kade–could stand firm against an evil like the one she knew existed. Getting involved with him on any level was the last thing she needed. Yet that didn't keep her from wondering what he thought of her now, or from wishing she would have apologized before ditching him in the cold.

She tried not to think about the way his mouth fit so perfectly, so electrifyingly hot, on hers. Tried not to think about the way her heart was still racing, her stomach still coiled in an excited knot at the thought of being in his arms. She tried not to imagine what might have happened if Zach hadn't come along when he did, but picturing herself with Kade–maybe naked together in her bed, maybe hastily unzipped and out of control in the middle of Pete's parking lot if they couldn't make it that far–was disturbingly easy to do.

"Oh, this is so not good," she muttered under her breath as she opened the door and walked in to be greeted by eager wolf dog kisses and much happy tail wagging. "I know, Luna, I know … I'm late. Sorry, baby. It's been a long day for me, too. Come on, let's go take care of you now." Alex busied herself with turning the dog loose in the back to pee while she prepared a bowl of food and fresh water. After Luna was back inside and gobbling her kibble, Alex stripped off her parka and clothes while she headed down the hallway to the bathroom for an overdue, but indulgently long and hot, shower. The heated spray against her bare skin did nothing to quench the lingering heat of Kade's kiss. She soaped up, trying to recall how long it had been since she'd let a man run his hands in slow appreciation over her naked body. How long had it been since she'd been intimate–truly intimate–with someone? The weak moment she'd spent with Zach a few weeks after her father died didn't really count. That had been one night, a couple of hours, really. She'd been an emotional wreck and supposed she'd just needed someone to help her make it all go away, even for a short while.

Is that what she was doing with Kade? Was she latching on to him, manufacturing something between them that wasn't really there–couldn't possibly be there–because of the new trauma she was going through now?

Maybe that's all this was, a temporary feeling of being left adrift and in search of safe harbor. Tonight Kade had told her she'd be safe with him. While part of her believed that–an instinctual, primal part of her-she also knew that the fire he stoked inside her with just a kiss felt anything but safe. She couldn't help feeling that getting close to him might be the biggest risk she'd ever taken. He saw too much about her, knew too much. And tonight he made her feel too much.

Alex groaned as she leaned forward in the tight tub-and-shower combo, bracing her forearm against the slick tiles and resting her head against her arm as the hot water sluiced off her body. She closed her eyes and there was Kade. His chiseled, striking face. His bright, penetratingly intense eyes. The heat inside her was still there, heat that made her whisper his name as she reached down with her free hand to touch herself as him.

She relaxed into a blissful state of resignation, letting the hot water and steam and thoughts of him melt away everything else.

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