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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Ten)

Nikolai woke up in total darkness, his head resting against the coffin of an apparently well-to-do Montreal man who'd been dead for sixty-seven years. The private mausoleum's marble floor had made for a hard few hours of rest, but it served Niko well enough. The night had been creeping dangerously close to dawn when he'd left Yakut's place, and he'd sure as hell slept the daylight off in worse places than the cemetery he found at the city's northern edge.

With a groan, he sat up and flipped open his cell phone to check the display for the time. Shit, just after one P.M. He still had about seven or eight hours to wait in here before sundown, when it would be safe for him to be outside. Seven or eight more hours, and he was already feeling itchy from sitting idle for so long.

No doubt Boston was wondering about him by now. Niko hit the speed dial for the Order's headquarters. Halfway through the second ring, Gideon picked up.

"Niko, for fuck's sake. About time you reported in." The warrior's vague English accent sounded a bit rough. Not surprising, considering that Niko was calling in the middle of the day. "Talk to me. You good?"

"Yeah, I'm good. My objective here in Montreal is fucked ten ways to Sunday, but other than that, 'sall good."

"No luck finding Sergei Yakut, I take it?"

Niko chuckled. "Oh, I found the bastard all right. The Gen One is alive and well and living north of the city like some kind of throwback to Ghengis Khan."

He gave Gideon a quick rundown of everything that had happened since his arrival in Montreal – from the ass-kicking welcome he'd gotten from Renata and the other guards, to the strange handful of hours he'd spent at Yakut's lodge, culminating with his discovery of the dead humans discarded out back and his subsequent ejection from the property.

He described the recent failed attempt on the Gen One's life and the incredible role Mira played in thwarting that attack.

Niko left out the part about what he'd personally seen in Mira's eyes. He saw no reason to share the details of a vision, which, despite Renata's insistence that Mira was never wrong, had roughly zero chance – no, scratch that; it had exactly zero chance – of happening now.

It should have come as a relief to him to know that. The last thing he needed was to get mixed up with a female, especially a piece of work like Renata. Yakut's blood-bonded mate. The thought still gnawed at him, far more than it should. And he wasn't feeling particularly chipper about the fact that even the slightest recollection of that kiss with her was enough to render him as hard as the granite tomb that surrounded him.

He wanted her, and there had been a split second as he was leaving the lodge that he thought she might come after him. He had no reason to think it, but it had been a nudge in his gut, a sense that maybe Renata might run up behind him and ask him to get her out of there.

And if she had? Christ, he might have been just stupid enough to consider it.

"So," he told Gideon, mentally steering himself back to reality. "The net of it is, we can't count on any cooperation out of Sergei Yakut. He basically told me to shove it, and that was before I called him a sick fuck in need of a muzzle and choke collar." "Jesus, Niko," Gideon sighed, probably, on the other end of the line, scrubbing his hand through his spiky blond hair in frustration. "You really said that to him – to a Gen One? You're damn lucky he didn't tear your tongue out before he sent you on your way."

Probably true, Nikolai acknowledged to himself. And he'd have lost more than just his tongue if Yakut knew the kind of lust he had been feeling for Renata. "You know I'm allergic to ass-kissing, even if the ass in question happens to be Gen One. If this was a total public relations mission, you picked the wrong guy."

"No shit." Gideon chuckled around another low curse. "You coming back in to Boston, then?"

"I see no reason to linger. Unless you figure Lucan will look the other way if I decide to go back and put a torch to Yakut's house of horrors. Put him out of business, at least for a while."

He was kidding…mostly. But Gideon's answering silence told him that his fellow warrior knew the wheels were turning inside Niko's head.

"You know you can't do anything of the sort, my man. Way out of bounds."

"And doesn't that suck," Nikolai muttered.

"Yeah, it does. But this kind of thing belongs to the Enforcement Agency, not us."

"Tell me how Yakut is any different from the Rogues we take off the streets, Gid. Hell, from what I've seen of him, he's worse. At least the Rogues can blame their savagery on Bloodlust. Yakut can't even cling to blood addiction as his excuse for hunting those humans out there. He's a predator, a killer."

"He is protected," Gideon said, firmly now. "Even if he wasn't Gen One, he's still a civilian, still a member of the Breed. We can't touch him, Niko. Not without a lot of serious shit hitting the fan. So, whatever you're thinking, don't."

Nikolai exhaled sharply. "Forget I said it. What time should I plan on catching a ride back to Boston tonight?"

"I'll have to make a couple of calls to get a flight plan filed on short notice, but the private jet 's still waiting for you at the airport. I can text you the time once I have it firmed up."

"Okay. I'll chill and wait for your go."

"Where are you at, anyway?"

Nikolai glanced at the coffin behind him, the other one across from him, and the bronze urn gathering dust on a pedestal against the back wall of the dark mausoleum. "I found a quiet little place to grab a rest in the north end of the city. Slept like the dead, in fact. Or with them, at any rate."

"Speaking of dead," Gideon said, "we've got a report of another Gen One killing overseas."

"Christ. Picking them off like flies, aren't they?"

"Or trying to, from the looks of it. Reichen's following up on the report from Berlin . Got an e-mail from him that he'll be calling in later today with an update."

"Good to know we've got eyes and ears that we can trust over there," Niko said. "Shit, Gideon. Never would have thought I'd have any use for a Darkhaven civilian, but Andreas Reichen is proving to be a damn good ally. Maybe Lucan ought to officially recruit him into the Order?"

Gideon chuckled. "Don't think he hasn't considered it. Alas, we're just a part-time gig for Reichen. He may have the soul of a warrior, but his heart belongs to his Berlin Darkhaven."

And a certain human female, from what Nikolai understood. According to Tegan and Rio, the two warriors who'd spent the most time with Andreas Reichen at his Berlin headquarters, the German Darkhaven leader was romantically involved with a brothel owner named Helene.

It was unusual for a Breed male to have more than a casual, short-term relationship with a mortal woman, but Niko wasn't about to question it since Helene was also proving instrumental in the Order's intelligence-gathering efforts overseas. "So, listen," Gideon said. "Cool your heels where you are, and I'll let you know once I have your departure info for tonight. Sound good?"

"Yeah. You know how to find me."

The murmur of a velvety female voice, soft from sleep, carried vaguely through the receiver.

"Ah, hell, Gid. Don't tell me you're in bed with Savannah ."

"I was," he replied, leaning hard on the past tense. "Now that she's awake, she says she's tossing me over for a hot shower and a cup of strong coffee."

Nikolai groaned. "Shit. Tell her I'm sorry for the interruption."

"Hey, babe," Gideon called to his beloved, blood-bonded mate of some thirty-odd years. "Niko says he's sorry for being such a rude bastard and waking you up at this ungodly hour."

"Thanks," Niko muttered.

"You're welcome."

"I'll check in with you again from the plane heading home."

"Sounds good," Gideon said. Then, to Savannah on the side: "Hey, love? Niko wants me to tell you that he's hanging up now. He says you ought to come back to bed and let me ravish you slowly from your clever and beautiful head to your delectable little toes."

Nikolai chuckled. "Sounds like fun. Put me on speaker so I can listen at least."

Gideon snorted. "Not a chance. She's all mine."

"Selfish bastard," Niko drawled wryly. "I'll catch you later."

"Right, later. And Niko – about the Yakut situation? Seriously. Don't even think about being a cowboy, yeah? We've got bigger issues to contend with than trying to corral one loose-cannon Gen One. It's not our area, especially not right now." When Niko didn't immediately agree, Gideon cleared his throat. "Your silence isn't exactly giving me the warm fuzzies, my man. I need to know you're hearing me on this."

"Yeah," Nikolai said. "I'm hearing you. I'll see you in Boston later tonight."

Niko closed his cell phone and slid it back into his pocket.

As much as it fried him to think of turning a blind eye to Yakut and his sick activities, he knew Gideon was right. What 's more, he knew that the Order's leader, Lucan, as well as the rest of the warriors at the Boston compound would say the same thing to him.

Forget about Sergei Yakut, at least for the time being. That was the sensible, smartest thing to do. And while he was at it, he would be wise to forget all about Renata too. She'd made her bed, after all. The fact that she'd evidently made it with sadistic scum like Sergei Yakut was none of Nikolai's business whatsoever. Beautiful, ice maiden Renata was not his problem, so good riddance to her.

Good riddance to the entire nest of vipers he'd uncovered in Yakut's domain.

Just a few more hours to kill before nightfall, and then he could put it all behind him.

She never had gotten used to sleeping through the daylight hours, not in the whole two years she'd been living in service to a vampire.

Renata lay in her bed, restless, unable to relax and close her eyes even for a few minutes. She tossed and turned, flipped onto her back and blew out a sigh, staring up at the timber rafters.

Thinking about the warrior…Nikolai.

He'd been gone for hours – nearly half an entire day – but she still felt the weight of his contempt pressing down on her. She hated that he'd seen Yakut feeding from her. It had been hard to pretend she wasn't ashamed when he caught her gaze from across the room. She'd tried to appear unaffected, defiant. Inside she'd been shaking, her pulse jackhammering almost out of control. She hadn't wanted Nikolai to see her like that. Even worse that he had learned of Yakut's brutal crimes and clearly thought her to be a part of it as well. She couldn't get the withering, accusatory look he'd given her out of her head. Which was ridiculous.

Nikolai was Breed, like Yakut. He was a vampire, the same as Yakut. Like Yakut, Nikolai had to feed on humans in order to survive. Even in her limited understanding of their kind, Renata knew that drinking from human beings was the only way the Breed could obtain nourishment. No convenient vampire-friendly blood banks where they could pick up a pint of O-Negative for the road. No animal predation as a substitute for the real thing.

Sergei Yakut and all the rest of the Breed shared the same driving thirst: the need for Homo sapiens red cells, taken directly from an open vein.

They were deadly savages who happened to look human most of the time, but who at their core – in their soul, if they even had one – lacked all humanity. Why she should think that Nikolai was any different was beyond her.

But he had seemed different, if only a little.

When she'd sparred with him in the kennel – when he'd kissed her, for God's sake – he had in fact seemed remarkably different from the others of his kind that she knew. Not like Yakut at all. Not like Lex either.

Which probably only proved that she was a fool.

And she was weak as well. How else could she explain the wrenching wish she'd had that Nikolai might have taken her out of this place when he'd left today? She didn't often indulge in futile hopes, or waste time imagining things that could never come to pass. But there had been a moment…a brief, selfish moment when she pictured herself torn away from Sergei Yakut's unbreakable hold.

For one unfettered instant, she wondered what it might feel like to be free of him, free of everything that held her there…and it had been glorious.

Shamed by her thoughts, Renata swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. She couldn't lie there for another minute, not as long as her head was spinning with thoughts that would do her no good at all.

The fact of the matter was, this was her life. Yakut's world was her world, the lodge and its many ugly secrets her unshakable reality. She didn't feel sorry for herself; she never had. Not at the convent orphanage all those years as a child, nor the day she was tossed out of her home with the Sisters of Benevolent Mercy at the age of fourteen and forced to leave for good.

Not even on the night, just two summers before, when she'd been plucked off the streets in Montreal and brought with a group of other frightened humans to the locked holding pens of the barn on Sergei Yakut's property.

She hadn't shed a single self-pitying tear in all this time. She sure as hell wasn't about to start now.

Renata got up and left her modest room. The main lodge was quiet at this hour, the few windows in the place shuttered tight to banish the sun's lethal rays. Renata took the thick iron bar off the exterior door and walked out into a gloriously warm and bright summer afternoon.

She headed straight for the kennel outbuilding.

Amid all the drama that had occurred last night, both alone with Nikolai and in the time afterward, she'd completely forgotten her blades outside. The careless oversight bothered her. She never let the daggers out of her possession. They were a part of her now, as they had been the day she'd received them.

"Stupid, stupid," she whispered to herself as she entered the old kennel and looked to the post where she expected to find the embedded blade she'd thrown at Nikolai.

It wasn't there.

A cry slipped past her lips, disbelief and anguish.

Had the warrior taken her blades for himself? Had he fucking stolen them?

"Damn it. No."

Renata stormed across the center aisle of the building…then came to an abrupt halt as she reached the back of the place and her eyes settled on the stout bale of straw near the scarred wooden post.

Carefully folded atop it and placed neatly beside the pair of shoes she'd left behind last night as well was the silk-and-velvet wrapper that contained her treasured daggers. She picked it up, just to reassure herself that the fabric sheath wasn't empty. Its familiar weight settled into her palm and she couldn't hold back her smile.

Nikolai.

He'd taken care of the blades for her. Collected them, wrapped them up, and left them here for her as if he knew how much they meant to her.

Why would he do that? What did he expect his kindness to buy him? Did he actually think her trust might come so cheaply, or was he just hoping for another chance to force himself on her the way he had with that kiss?

She really didn't want to think about kissing Nikolai. If she thought about his mouth on hers, then she would have to admit to herself that as unexpected and uninvited as his kiss had been, force was hardly to blame for it happening.

The truth was, she'd enjoyed it.

Mother Mary, but just thinking on him now lit a slow, liquid heat in her core.

She'd wanted more of him, despite that every survival instinct in her body had been screaming for her to get away from him, and get away fast. She hungered for him – then and now. Burned for him, in a place she'd long thought to be frozen over and dead. And that little admission made what he'd said about Mira – the implication that whatever he'd seen in the child's eyes might somehow involve Renata and him intimately together – all the more unsettling.

Thank God he was gone.

Thank God he would likely never return after what he'd discovered here.

It had been a long time since Renata had gone down on her knees to pray. She knelt before no one anymore, not even Yakut at his terrifying worst, but she bowed her head now and begged heaven to keep Nikolai away from this place.

Away from her.

No longer in the mood for training, especially when memories of what had taken place here last night were still ripe and swimming in her head, Renata grabbed her shoes and walked back to the lodge. She went inside, replaced the bar on the door, then walked the hallway leading to her room and what she hoped might be at least a few hours' sleep.

She sensed something out of place even before she noticed Mira's door was unlatched.

No lights were on in the child's room, but she was awake. Renata heard her soft voice in the dark, complaining that she was sleepy and didn't want to get up. More nightmares? Renata wondered, feeling a pang of sympathy for the child. But then another voice hissed over Mira's groggy protests, this one cold and harsh, clipped with impatience.

"Stop your sniveling and open your eyes, you little bitch."

Renata pressed her hand to the paneled door and pushed it wide. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Lex?"

He was bent over Mira's bed, the child's shoulders caught in a bruising hold. His head swiveled around as Renata came into the room, but he didn't let go of Mira. "I have need of my father's oracle. And I don't answer to you, so kindly get the fuck out of here."

"Rennie, he's hurting my arms." Mira's voice was tiny, pinched with pain.

"Open your eyes," Lex snarled at her. "Then maybe I'll stop hurting you."

"Take your hands off her, Lex." Renata stopped at the foot of the bed, her sheathed blades a tempting weight in her grasp. "Do it. Now."

Lex scoffed. "Not until I'm through with her."

When he gave Mira a hard shake, Renata let loose with a blast of mental fury.

It was just a spurt of power, only a fraction of what she could give him, but Lex howled, his body jerking as though he'd been hit with a few thousand volts of electricity. He reeled back, dropping Mira and falling away from the bed, ass-planted on the floor.

"You bitch!" His eyes bled amber fire, pupils tight slivers in their center. "I should kill you for that. I should kill the brat and you both!"

Renata hit him again, another small taste of agony. He slumped, clutching his head and moaning from the debilitating second blast. She waited, watching as he worked to collect himself from his sprawl on the floor. He didn't pose much of a threat to her like this, but in a few hours he would be recovered and she would be the vulnerable one. Then she might have a bit of hell to pay.

But for the time being, Mira was no longer of interest to Lex, and that was all that mattered.

Lex glared up at her as he dragged himself to his feet. "Get out of my…way…goddamn…whore."

The words were choked, sputtered between his gasps for breath as he clumsily moved toward the open door. When he was out of sight, his footsteps scuffing along the hallway outside, Renata went to Mira's bedside and hushed her softly.

"Are you all right, kiddo?"

Mira nodded. "I don't like him, Rennie. He scares me."

"I know, honey." Renata pressed a kiss to the child's brow. "I'm not going to let him hurt you. You're safe with me. That's a promise, right?"

Another nod, weaker this time as Mira settled her head back onto her pillow and exhaled a sleepy sigh. "Rennie?" she asked quietly.

"Yes, mouse?"

"Don't ever leave me, okay?"

Renata stared down at the innocent little face in the dark, feeling her heart squeeze tightly in her breast. "I'm not going to leave you, Mira. Not ever…just like we promised."

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