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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Nineteen)

Nice," Niko exhaled through a tight grimace. He was feeling anything but nice as he closed the bathroom door and walked into the main room of the apartment.

Being alone with Renata while she sat nude in the tub, touching her – kissing her, for crissake – had shifted all of his systems into overdrive. But as torqued as he was, his raging hard-on was the least of those concerns as he approached the door where Jack was knocking again from outside. It was one thing to pretend there wasn't a tent pole erected in his pants, quite another to hope no one would notice that his eyes were burning as bright as hot coals and that his extended canines would put a rottweiler to shame.

At least the loose shirt covered his glyphs. Niko didn't have to see his body to know that his skin markings were alive and pulsing with the deep colors of arousal. Awfully hard to try to explain them away as tattoos now.

Nikolai stared at the door and willed himself to chill out, cool down. He had to extinguish the fire in his irises, and that meant powering down the lust that Renata's touch had stirred in him. He focused on slowing his pulse, a hell of a struggle when his cock was in command of his blood flow.

"Hello?" came the drawled greeting from outside. Jack knocked again, the dark shadow of his head bobbing on the other side of the curtained window of the door. He seemed conscious of keeping his voice at a discreet level. "Renata, that you, darlin'? You awake in there?"

Shit. No choice but to let him in. Nikolai growled low under his breath as he reached out to flip the dead bolt. He'd assured Renata that he would go easy on the old guy, but things could go south as soon as he opened the damned door. And if the human gave off so much as a whiff of suspicion, he was going to find himself on the short list for a mind scrub.

Niko freed the lock and twisted the doorknob. He backed off from the wedge of daylight that poured in through the opening and positioned himself behind the door as it swung open.

"Renata? All right if I come in for a minute?" A scuffed brown cowboy boot stepped over the threshold. "Thought I'd better look in on you this morning before I get busy around the house with the kids."

As the human in worn-out Levi's and a white cotton undershirt entered, Nikolai splayed his hand on the door and eased it shut to seal out the morning sunshine. He sized up the aged man in a glance, taking in the craggy face, shrewd eyes, and silvered, military-style buzzcut. He was a big man, a little soft around the middle, a little bowed around the knees, but his tattooed arms were tan and still firm with enough muscle to indicate that while he might be old, it didn't mean he was afraid of hard work.

"You must be Jack," Nikolai said, careful to speak in a way that kept his fangs under wraps behind his lip.

"That's right." A small nod as Niko was subjected to a similar measuring look. "And you're Renata's friend…She, ah, didn't get around to telling me your name last night."

Apparently the amber glow was gone from Niko's blue irises, since he doubted Jack would be reaching out to shake his hand right now if the old guy was staring into a pair of otherworldly eyes that threw off sparks like a furnace.

"I'm Nick," he said, sticking close enough to the truth for now. He gave the former soldier's hand a brief shake. "Thanks for helping us out."

Jack nodded. "You're looking a lot better this morning, Nick. Glad to see you're up and around. How's Renata doing?" "Okay. She's in the bathroom washing up."

He didn't see any reason to bring up the infection. No sense getting well-meaning Jack so worried that he started talking about doctors or trips to the hospital. Although based on what Nikolai had seen of Renata's wound, if her healing process didn't get a serious boost – and get one soon – there would be no alternative but a visit to the nearest ER.

"I'm not gonna ask how it is she ended up with a bullet hole in her shoulder," Jack said, watching Nikolai closely. "From the shape the both of you were in last night, and the fact I had to adios an apparently stolen medical supply truck, I'd be tempted to guess whatever trouble's chasing you is drug-related. But I know Renata's smarter than that. I don't believe for a minute she'd let herself get mixed up in something like drugs. She didn't want to tell me about any of it, and I promised her I wouldn't press. I'm a man of my word."

Niko held the old man's stare. "I'm sure she appreciates that. We both do."

"Yeah," Jack drawled, steely eyes narrowing. "But I am curious about something. She's been MIA for the past couple of years…you got anything to do with that?"

It wasn't phrased as an overt accusation, but it was obvious that the old man had been concerned about Renata and also had the sense that her long absence hadn't necessarily been good for her. Man, if he only knew what she'd been through. The gunshot wound she was sporting now was just the icing on what had been a very nasty cake.

Nikolai shook his head. "I've only known Renata for a few days, but I can tell you that you're right about her being too smart to fall into problems with drugs. That's not what this is about, Jack. But she is in danger. The only reason I'm standing here is because she risked her neck to pull me out of a shitload of trouble yesterday."

"That sounds like Renata," Jack said, his expression lost somewhere between pride and concern.

"Unfortunately, because she stepped in to help me, now there's a target on both our backs."

Jack grunted as he listened, wiry brows knitting together. "She tell you how we know each other?"

"Some of it," Niko said. "I know that she trusts and respects you. I assume you've been here to help her a time or two before now."

"Tried, more like it. Renata never wanted help from me or from anyone else. Not for herself, anyway. But there were a lot of other kids she brought to my house for help. She couldn't stand to see a child in pain. Hell, she wasn't much more than a kid herself the first time she came around. Always kept to herself for the most part, a real loner. She doesn't have any family, you know." Nikolai shook his head. "No, I didn't know that."

"The Sisters of Benevolent Mercy raised her the first twelve years of her life. Her mother gave her up to the church orphanage when Renata was just a baby. She never knew either of her parents. By the time Renata was fifteen, she was already on her own, having left the nuns to live on the streets."

Jack walked over to a metal file cabinet that stood with some of the other stuff stored in the apartment. He fished a set of keys out of his jeans pocket and stuck one of them into the lock on the front of the piece. "Yessir, Renata was a tough little customer, even in the beginning. Skinny, wary, she looked like someone who would hardly stand up to a stiff breeze, but that girl had a spine of solid steel. Didn't take bullshit from anyone."

"Not much has changed there," Nikolai said, watching the old man pop open the bottom drawer. "I've never met a woman like Renata."

Jack looked over at him and smiled. "She's special, all right. Stubborn too. A few months before the last time I saw her, she showed up with a face full of bruises. Apparently some drunk rolled out of a bar and got the idea that he wanted some company for the night. He saw Renata and tried to shove her into his car. She fought him, but he got a few hard punches in before she was able to get away."

Nikolai cursed under his breath. "Son of a bitch should have been gutted for laying a hand on a defenseless female."

"That was my thinking too," Jack said, deadly serious, the protective soldier once more. He eased down into a squat and withdrew a polished wooden case from the file cabinet. "I taught her a few self-defense moves – basic stuff. Offered to send her to some classes on my dime, but of course she refused. A few weeks passed and she was back again, helping another kid with nowhere left to turn. I told her I had something for her – a gift I had made special for her. Swear to God, if you'd seen her face, you'd think she would rather have bolted into oncoming traffic than have to accept any kindness from someone."

Nikolai didn't have to work to imagine that look. He'd seen it once or twice himself since he'd met Renata. "What was your gift for her?"

The old man shrugged. "Nothing much, really. I had an old set of daggers I picked up in Nam. I took them to an artist fella I knew who worked with metals and had him customize the handles for me. He hand-tooled each of the four grips with a few of the strengths I saw in Renata. I told her they were the qualities that made her unique and would see her through any situation." "Faith, honor, courage, and sacrifice," Nikolai said, recalling the words he'd seen on the blades Renata seemed to treasure so much.

"She told you about the blades?"

Niko shrugged. "I've seen her use them. They mean a lot to her, Jack."

"I didn't know," he replied. "I was surprised that she accepted them in the first place, but I didn't think she'd still keep them after all this time." He blinked quickly, then busied himself with the box he'd pulled out of the file cabinet. He opened the lid and Niko caught the glint of dark metal resting inside the felt-lined case. Jack cleared his throat. "Listen, like I said before, I'm not going to press for details about what the two of you are involved in. It's clear enough that you're in some pretty big trouble. You can stay here as long as you need to, and when you're ready to go, just know that you don't have to leave here empty-handed."

He set the open box down on the floor in front of him and gave it a little push in Nikolai's direction. Inside were two pristine semiautomatic pistols and a box of rounds.

"They're yours if you want them, no questions asked."

Niko picked up one of the .45s and inspected it with an appreciative eye. It was a beautiful, well-tended Colt M1911. Probably military-issued weapons from his service time in Vietnam. "Thank you, Jack."

The old human warrior gave him a brief nod. "Just take care of her. Keep her safe."

Nikolai held that steady stare. "I will."

"Okay," Jack murmured. "Okay, then."

As he started to get up, someone shouted his name from outside in driveway. A second later, footsteps were pounding up the wooden stairs to the garage apartment.

Niko shot Jack a sharp look. "Does anyone know we're in here?"

"Nope. Anyway, that's just Curtis, one of my newer kids. He's fixing my dinosaur of a computer. Damn virus attack again."

Jack went over to the door. "He thinks I'm looking for a boot disk in here. I'll get rid of him. Meantime, if you think of anything else you two might need, you just ask."

"How about a phone?" Niko asked, replacing the pistol next to its mate.

Jack reached into his front pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He tossed it to Nikolai. "It should have a few hours of battery time. It's all yours."

"Thanks."

"I'll check in with you again later." Jack grabbed the doorknob and Nikolai backed into the shadows, as much a reflex because of the daylight outside as it was an effort to stay out of sight from the unwanted visitor who'd arrived at the top of the stairs. "Well, I was mistaken, Curtis. I checked everywhere and there's no disk in any of my boxes up here." Niko saw the other human's head trying to peer around the edge of the door as Jack closed it firmly behind him. There was a clopping shuffle of feet on the steps as Jack escorted the other human away.

Once he was certain they were gone, Nikolai dialed a remote access number that was maintained by the Order's Boston headquarters. He typed in Jack's cell phone number and a code that would identify him to Gideon, then waited for the callback.

Midday in a compound that housed a bunch of vampires was generally a dead zone of inactivity, but none of the seven warriors gathered in the weapons room of the Order's subterranean headquarters seemed to notice the time, not even the handful of them blessed enough to have loving Breedmates warming their beds. Since regrouping at the compound before daybreak, the warriors had kept themselves busy reviewing current mission statuses and laying out objectives for the night to come. Hashing out Order business for hours on end was nothing new, but this time there had been none of the usual good-natured smacktalk or joking squabbles over who was grabbing up the best assignments.

Now, a few yards away, at the area used for target practice, a quintet of pistols were being fired one after the other, paper bull's-eyes at the other end shredded into minuscule confetti. The compound's shooting range was used more for entertainment than necessity, since all of the warriors had dead-on aim. Even so, that never stopped any of them from testing one another and busting asses just to keep things lively.

There was none of that today. Only the steady hail of all that thundering noise. The racket was oddly comforting, if only because it helped mask the silence, and the fact that the entire compound was vibrating with a low-level current of unrest. For the past thirty-six hours, the mood there had been sober, draped in a collective, if unspoken, dread.

One of their own was missing.

Nikolai had always tended to be something of a maverick, but that didn't mean the male was unreliable. If he said he was going to do something – or be somewhere – you could damn well count on him to follow through. Every time, no exceptions. And now, when he should have been back from Montreal a full day and a half ago as planned, Niko was off-grid and out of contact.

Not good, Lucan thought, sensing he wasn't alone in that sentiment as he looked at the other warriors who also waited for word of Nikolai and dreaded what it eventually might be.

As a Gen One Breed and the founder of the Order in the Middle Ages, Lucan was the de facto leader of this cadre of modern-day vampire knights. His word was law in this compound. In times of crisis – for better or worse – it was his response that set the tone for the other warriors. He was well conditioned not to show worry or doubt, a skill that came naturally to that part of him that was virtually immortal, a powerful predator who'd been walking this Earth for some nine hundred years.

But the part of him that was human – the part of him who had come to appreciate life all the more for having met his Breedmate, Gabrielle, just a summer ago – could not pretend that the potential loss of one more soldier in this private war within the vampire nation would be anything but catastrophic. To say nothing of the fact that the warriors of the Order, both the ones who had been with him from the start and the newer members who'd joined the fight in the past year, had become like family to him. So much had changed in that time. Now there were several females living in the compound too, and for one of the warriors and his mate – Dante and Tess – a baby several months on the way.

The stakes were higher than ever for the Order now, one evil defeated only to see another, even more powerful, rise in its place. In just a year's time, the warriors' primary mission had gone from hunting down Rogues in an effort to keep the peace, to pursuing a dangerous enemy who'd been hiding in plain sight for many long decades. An enemy who had been patiently constructing his strategy while concealing a deadly secret and waiting for the opportunity to unleash it. If he were to succeed, it wouldn't be just the Breed populations in peril, but all of humankind as well.

It didn't take much for Lucan to recall the savagery of the Old Times, when the night was ruled by a handful of bloodthirsty creatures from another world, creatures who dealt in wide-scale terror and death. They fed like locusts and wreaked destruction like the deadliest marauders. Lucan had made it his life's mission to eradicate the beasts from existence, even though it had meant slaying the Ancient who was his own father.

The Order had declared war, had wielded swords and ridden into battle to take them all out…or so they'd believed. The idea that one had survived put a deep chill in Lucan's immortal bones.

He looked at the warriors who served alongside him and couldn't help feeling some of his age. He couldn't help feeling that they had all been handed a test last year – perhaps their first true test since the Order's formation – and the worst of it was still to come.

Lost in dark thoughts as he paced the back of the weapons room, Lucan didn't realize the training area's doors were sliding open until Gideon came rushing through them. The blond vampire's vintage Chucks skidded to a squeaking halt on the white marble in front of Lucan.

"Niko's back on grid," he announced, visibly relieved. "His ID just came up on a cell phone with a Montreal exchange." "About fucking time," Lucan said, the snarled reply betraying none of his concern. "You got him on the line?"

Gideon nodded. "He's on hold back in the tech lab. I thought you'd want to talk to him personally."

"Damn straight I do."

The gunfire at the range came to an abrupt stop as one of the other warriors, the Order's only other Gen One member, Tegan, jogged back and delivered the news of Niko's contact to the five males shooting at targets. The warriors at the range – Dante and Rio, longtime members; Chase, who'd left the Enforcement Agency to join the Order last summer; and the two newest recruits, Kade and Brock, both brought in by Niko – put down their weapons and strode forward behind Tegan, all of them a knot of muscle and grim purpose.

Rio, one of the warriors who was tightest with Nikolai, was the first to speak. His scarred face was taut with concern. "What happened to him up there?"

"He's only given me the Reader's Digest version so far," Gideon said. "But it's all sorts of fucked up, starting with Sergei Yakut's murder two nights ago."

"Holy hell," Brock muttered, raking his dark fingers over his skull-trimmed black hair. "This Gen One assassination shit is getting way out of hand."

"Well," Gideon added, "that's not exactly the worst of it. Niko was arrested for the killing and taken into Enforcement Agency custody."

"Ah, shit," Kade replied, his pale silver eyes narrowing. "You don't suppose he – "

"No way," Dante said without a second's hesitation. "I doubt he shed a tear for blood-clubbing scum like Yakut, but there's no way Nikolai had a hand in his death."

Gideon shook his head. "Nope. And it wasn't the work of an assassin, either. Niko says Yakut's own son brought in a Rogue to kill his father. Unfortunately for Nikolai, Yakut's son has some kind of alliance with the Enforcement Agency. They hauled Niko in and threw him into a containment facility."

"What the fuck?" This time it was Sterling Chase who spoke up. Being a former Agent himself, he was as aware as any of the warriors in the room how unpleasant a visit to one of those Agency-managed Rogue holding tanks could be. "Since he's conscious enough to phone in, I assume he's not still being held there."

"He escaped somehow," Gideon said, "but I don't have all the details yet. I can tell you that there's a female involved, a Breedmate who was a member of Yakut's household. She's with Niko now."

Lucan didn't comment on that troublesome newsflash, although his dark expression probably spoke plainly enough for him. "Where are they?"

"In the city somewhere," Gideon replied. "Niko wasn't sure of the exact location, but he says they're secure for now. Are you ready for the real kicker?"

Lucan arched a brow. "For fuck's sake. There's more?"

"Afraid so. The guy who tossed Niko's ass in the containment facility and personally oversaw his torture? Apparently during one of his chattier moments, the son of a bitch admitted a connection to Dragos."

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