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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Sixteen)

His head was beating like a drum. The constant, rhythmic pounding filled his ears, so deafening it dragged him toward consciousness after what seemed like an endless, fitful sleep. His body ached. Was he lying on the floor somewhere? He felt cold metal underneath his naked body, the heavy bulk of cardboard shipping crates jabbing into his spine and shoulder. A sheet of plastic covered him like a makeshift blanket.

He tried to lift his head but hardly had the strength. His skin felt livid, pulsating from head to toe. Every inch of him felt wrung out, stretched tight, hot with fever. His mouth was dry, his throat parched and raw.

He thirsted.

That need was all he could focus on, the only coherent thought swimming through his banging skull.

Blood.

Christ, he starved for it.

He could taste the hunger – the black, consuming madness – in every shallow breath that sifted through his teeth. His fangs filled his mouth. His gums throbbed where the huge canines descended, as though his fangs had been there for hours. Some distant, sober part of his logic noted the misfire on that calculation; a Breed vampire 's fangs normally displayed only in moments of heightened physical response, whether reacting to prey or passion or pure animal rage.

The drum still banging away in his head only made the throb of his fangs deepen. It was the pounding that woke him. The pounding that would not let him sleep now.

Something was wrong with him, he thought, even as he peeled his burning eyes open and took in the too -sharp, amber- washed details of his surroundings.

Small, confined space. Lightless. A box filled with more boxes.

And a woman.

All else faded once his gaze found her. Dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans, she lay in a fetal ball across from him, arms and legs tucked hard into the curve of her torso. A lot of her chin-length inky hair had fallen over the side of her face, concealing her features.

He knew her…or felt that he should.

A less cognizant part of him knew only that she was warm and healthy, defenseless. The air was tinged with the merest trace of sandalwood and rain. Her blood scent, some dim instinct roused to tell him. He knew it – and her – with a certainty that seemed etched in his own marrow. His dry mouth was suddenly wet in anticipation of feeding. Need coupled with opportunity lent him a strength he didn't have a moment ago.

Quietly he levered himself up off the floor and moved into a low crouch. Sitting on his haunches, he cocked his head, watching the female sleep. He crept closer, a predatory crawl that brought him right on top of her. The amber glow of his irises bathed her in golden light as he let his starving gaze roam over her body.

And that ceaseless drumming was louder here, the vibration so clear he could feel it in the soles of his bare feet. It banged in his head, commanding all of his attention. Drawing him closer, then closer still.

It was her pulse. Staring down at her, he could see the soft tick of her heartbeat fluttering at the side of her neck. Steady, strong.

The very spot he meant to catch between his fangs.

A low rumble – a growl emanating from his own throat – rolled through the stillness of the place.

The female stirred under him.

Her eyelids flipped open, startled, then went wider. "Nikolai."

At first the name hardly registered to him. The fog in his mind was so thick, his thirst so total, he knew nothing else but the urge to feed. It was more than an urge – it was insatiable compulsion. Certain damnation.

Bloodlust.

The word traveled through his hunger-swamped mind like a phantom. He heard it, knew instinctively to fear it. But before he could fully grasp what the word meant, it was ghosting away from him, back to the shadows.

"Nikolai," the woman said again. "How long have you been awake?"

Her voice was familiar to him somehow, a peculiar comfort to him, but he couldn't quite place her. Nothing seemed to make sense to him. All that made sense was that tempting thud of her carotid and the deep hunger that compelled him to reach out and take what he needed.

"You're safe here," she told him. "We're in the back of the supply truck I took from the containment facility. I had to stop and rest for a while, but I'm good to go now. It's going to be dark soon. We should keep moving before we're spotted." As she spoke, images flashed through his memory. The containment facility. Pain. Torture. Questions. A Breed male called Fabien. A male he wanted to kill. And this brave woman…she was there too. Incredibly, she had helped him to escape. Renata.

Yes. He knew her name after all. He didn't know why she had come for him, or why she would try to save him. Didn't matter.

She was too late.

"They forced me," he croaked, his voice sounding detached from his body, rough as gravel. "Too much blood. They forced me to drink it…"

She stared at him. "What do you mean, they forced you?"

"Tried to…to push me into overdose. Addiction."

"Blood addiction?"

He gave a vague nod and coughed, pain racking his chest. "Too much blood…it brings on Bloodlust. They asked me questions…wanted me to betray the Order. I refused, so they…punished me."

"Lex said they would kill you," she murmured. "Nikolai, I'm sorry."

She lifted her hand as though she might touch him.

"Don't," he growled, snatching her by the wrist.

She gasped, tried to pull free. He didn't let her go. Her warm skin seared his fingertips and palm, everywhere he touched her. He could feel the movement of her bones and lean muscles, the racing of her blood as it coursed through the veins of her arm. It would be so easy to bring that tender wrist up to his mouth.

So tempting to pin her beneath him and drink himself straight into damnation.

He knew the precise moment that she went from surprise to apprehension. Her pulse kicked. Her skin tightened in his grasp.

"Let go of me, Nikolai."

He held on, the beast in him wondering whether to start on her wrist or her neck. His mouth watered, fangs aching to pierce her tender flesh. And he hungered for her in another way too. There was no hiding his rigid need. He knew it was the Bloodlust driving him, but that didn't make him any less dangerous.

"Let go," she said again, and when he finally released her, she scooted back, putting some distance between them. There wasn't far for her to go. Stacked boxes hemmed her in from behind, beyond that the wall of the truck's interior. The way she moved, halting and careful, made the predator in him sense weakness.

Was she in some kind of pain? If so, her eyes didn't reflect it. Their pale color seemed steely as she stared at him, defiant. He glanced down and his feral eyes lit on the gleaming barrel of a pistol.

"Do it," he murmured.

She shook her head. "I don't want to hurt you. I need your help, Nikolai."

Too late for that, he thought. She had pulled him out of purgatory at the hands of his captors, but he'd already gotten a taste of hell. The only way out was to starve the addiction, deny it from taking full hold. He didn't know if he was strong enough to fight his thirst.

He wouldn't be, so long as Renata was near him.

"Do it…please. Don't know how much longer I can hold out…"

"Niko – "

The beast in him exploded. With a roar, he bared his fangs and lunged for her.

The shot rang out that next instant, a stunning clap of thunder that finally, gratefully, silenced his misery.

Renata sat back on her heels, the tranq gun still gripped in her hands. Her heart was racing, part of her stomach still lodged in her throat after Nikolai had sprung on her with his huge fangs bared. Now he lay in a sprawl on the floor, motionless except for his shallow, labored breathing. Aside from his churning skin markings, with his eyes shut and his fangs hidden behind his closed mouth, there was little way to tell that he was the same violent creature who might have torn out her jugular.

Shit.

What the hell was she doing here? What the hell was she thinking, allying herself with a vampire, imagining she might actually be able to trust one of their kind? She knew firsthand how treacherous they were – how lethal they could turn in just an instant. She might have been killed just now. There was a moment when she really thought she would be.

But Nikolai had tried to warn her. He didn't want to harm her; she'd seen that torment in his eyes, heard it in his broken voice in that instant before he would have leapt on her. He was different from the others like him. He had honor, something she'd assumed was lacking in the Breed as a whole, given that her examples were limited to Sergei Yakut, Lex, and those who served them.

Nikolai couldn't have known her weapon didn't hold bullets, and yet he'd forced her to take him down. Begged her for it.

She had been through some pretty rough things in her life, but Renata didn't know that kind of torment and suffering. She was quite sure she hoped she never would.

The wound in her shoulder burned like hell. It was bleeding again, worse, after this tense physical confrontation. At least the bullet had passed through cleanly. The nasty hole it left behind was going to need medical attention, although she didn 't see a hospital in her near future. She also didn't think it wise to stay near Nikolai now, especially while she was bleeding and the only thing keeping him away from her carotid was that single dose of sedatives.

The tranq gun was empty.

Night was falling, she was nursing a bleeding gunshot wound and the added bonus of her lingering reverb. And staying in the stolen truck was like hiding out with a large bull's-eye target on their backs.

She needed to ditch the vehicle. Then she needed to find someplace safe where she could patch herself up well enough for her to push on. Nikolai was an added problem. She wasn't ready to give up on him, but he was no use to her in his current condition. If he could manage to shake the terrible aftereffects of his torture, then maybe. And if not…

If not, then she had just wasted more precious time than she cared to consider.

Moving gingerly, Renata climbed out the back of the trailer and latched the doors behind her. The sun had set, and dusk was coming fast. In the distance, the lights of Montreal glowed.

Mira was somewhere in that city.

Helpless, alone…afraid.

Renata climbed into the truck and started the engine. She drove back toward the city, uncertain where she was heading until she eventually found herself on familiar ground. She never thought she'd be back. Certainly never like this.

The old city neighborhood hadn't changed much in the two years she'd been gone. Cramped tenements and modest post – World War II bungalows lined the twilit street. A few of the youths coming out of the convenience store on the corner glanced at the medical supply truck as Renata drove past.

She didn't recognize any of them, nor any of the shiftless, vacant-eyed adults who made this stretch of concrete their home. But Renata wasn't looking for familiar faces out here. There was just one person she prayed was still around. One person who could be trusted to help her, with few questions asked.

As she rolled up on a squat yellow bungalow with its trellis of pink roses blooming out front, a queer tightness balled in her chest. Jack was still here; Anna's beloved roses, well tended and thriving, were evidence enough of that. And so was the small ironwork sign that Jack had made himself to hang beside the front door, proclaiming the cheery house Anna's Place.

Renata slowed the truck to a stop at the curb and cut the engine, staring at the youth halfway house she'd been to so many times but never actually entered. Lights were on inside, throwing off a welcoming, golden glow. It must have been near suppertime because through the large picture window in front she could see that two teenagers – Jack's clients, though he preferred to call them his "kids" – were setting the table for the evening meal.

"Damn it," she muttered under her breath, closing her eyes and resting her forehead on the steering wheel.

This wasn't right. She shouldn't be here. Not now, after all this time. Not with the problems she was facing. And definitely not with the problem she was currently carrying in the back of the truck.

No, she had to deal with this on her own. Start the engine, wheel the truck around, and take her chances on the street. Hell, she was no stranger to that. But Nikolai was in bad shape, and she wasn't exactly at the top of her game either. She didn't know how much longer she could drive before –

"Evenin'." The friendly, unmistakable Texas drawl came from directly beside her at the open driver's side window. She didn't see him walk up, but now there was no avoiding him. "Can I help ya with…any…thing…"

Jack's voice trailed off as Renata lifted her head and turned to face him. He was a little grayer than she remembered, his short, military-style buzzcut looking thinner, his cheeks and jowls a bit rounder than when she'd last seen him. But he was still a jovial bear of a man, more than six feet tall and built like a tank despite the fact that he was easily pushing seventy. Renata hoped her smile seemed better than the wince it was. "Hi, Jack."

He stared at her – gaped, actually. "Well, I'll be damned," he said, slowly shaking his head. "It's been a long time, Renata. I hoped you'd found a good life somewhere…When you quit coming around a couple of years ago, I worried that maybe – " He stopped himself from completing the thought, gave her a big old grin instead. "Well, hell, it don't matter what I worried about because here you are."

"I can't stay," she blurted, her fingers gripping the key in the ignition, ready to give it a twist. "I shouldn't have come." Jack frowned. "Two years after I see you last, you show up out of the blue just to tell me you can't stay?"

"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I have to go."

He put his hands on the open truck window, as if he meant to physically hold her there. She glanced at the tan, weathered hands that had helped so many kids out of trouble on Montreal's streets – the same hands that had served his home country in war some four decades past, and which now nurtured and protected that trellis of pink roses as though they were more precious to him than gold.

"What's going on, Renata? You know you can talk to me, you can trust me. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I'm fine, really. Just passing through."

The look in his eyes said he didn't buy that for a second. "Someone else in trouble?"

She shook her head. "Why would you think that?"

"Because that's the only way you ever came around here before. Never for yourself, no matter how badly you personally might have needed a hand up."

"This is different. This isn't anything you should be involved in." She started the truck. "Please, Jack…just forget you even saw me here tonight, okay? I'm sorry. I have to go."

No sooner had she grabbed the shifter to put the truck into gear than Jack's strong hand come to rest on her shoulder. It wasn't a hard touch, but even the smallest pressure on her wound made her practically jump out of her skin. She sucked in her breath as the pain lanced through her.

"You're injured," he said, those wiry gray brows crashing together.

"It's nothing."

"Nothing, my ass." He opened the door and climbed up on the runningboard to get a better look at her. When he saw the blood, he muttered a ripe curse. "What happened? Were you stabbed? Some gangbanger try to roll you for your truck, or your cargo? You have a chance to call the cops yet? Jesus, this looks like a gunshot wound, and you've been bleeding for some time now – "

"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not my truck, and none of this is what you think."

"Then you can tell me all about it while I take you to the hospital." He crowded her in the cab, gesturing for her to make room. "Move over. I'll drive."

"Jack." She put her hand on his thick, leathery forearm. "I can't go to the hospital, or the police. And I'm not alone in here. There's someone in the back of the truck and he's in bad shape too. I can't leave him."

He stared at her, uncertain. "You do something against the law, Renata?"

Her exhaled laugh was weak, full of things she couldn't say. Things he couldn't know and sure as hell wouldn't believe even if she told him. "I wish it was only the law I had to deal with. I'm in danger, Jack. I can't tell you more than that. I don't want to get you involved."

"You need help. That's all the info I need." His face was serious now, and beyond the wrinkles and thinning, graying hair, she saw a glimpse of the unshakable Marine he'd been all those years ago. "Come inside and I'll get you and your friend someplace to rest awhile. Get something for your shoulder too. Come on, there's plenty of room in the house. Let me help you – for once, Renata, let someone help you."

She wanted that so badly, in a place buried so deep within her it ached. But bringing Nikolai into someplace public was too great a risk, to him and to anyone who might see him. "Do you have somewhere other than the house? Somewhere quiet, with less traffic in and out. It doesn't have to be much."

"There's a small apartment over the garage out back. I've been using it for storage mostly since Anna's been gone, but you're welcome to it." Jack hopped out of the truck and offered his hand to help her climb down. "Let's get you and your friend inside so I can have a look at that wound."

Renata stepped down onto the pavement. What about moving Nikolai? She was certain he was still sleeping off the tranquilizer, which would help conceal what he truly was, but there was no way she could hope that Jack wouldn't find the naked, bloodied and beaten, unconscious male just the slightest bit unusual. "My, um, my friend is really sick. He's in bad shape, and I don't think he'll be able to walk on his own."

"I've carried more than one man out of the jungle on my back," Jack said. "My shoulders may be a little bent now, but they're broad enough. I'll take care of him."

As they walked together around to the back, Renata added, "There's one more thing, Jack. The truck. It needs to disappear. Doesn't matter where, but the sooner the better."

He gave her a brief nod. "Consider it done."

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