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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twelve)

Renata stood at the counter of the lodge's galley kitchen, a knife gripped loosely in her hand. "What kind of jelly do you want tonight – grape or strawberry?"

"Grape," Mira replied. "No, wait – I want strawberry this time."

She was perched on the edge of the wood countertop next to Renata, her legs swinging idly. Dressed in a purple T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and scuffed sneakers, Mira might have seemed like any other normal suburban little girl waiting on her dinner. But normal little girls weren't made to eat the same thing, practically day in and day out. Normal little girls had families to love and care for them. They lived in nice houses on pretty, tree-lined streets, with bright kitchens and stocked pantries and mothers who knew how to cook endless wonderful meals.

At least, that's what Renata imagined when she thought of the ideal picture of normal. She didn't know from any kind of personal experience. As a child of the streets before Yakut found her and brought her to the lodge, Mira didn't know what normal was either. But it was that wholesome, normal kind of life that Renata wished for the child, as futile a wish as it seemed, standing in Sergei Yakut's dingy kitchen, next to a beat-up range that probably wouldn't work even if it did have a gas line running to it. Since Renata and Mira were the only ones at the lodge who ate food, Yakut had left it up to Renata to see that she and the child were regularly fed. Renata didn't particularly care what she had for sustenance – food was food, a necessity of function, nothing more – but she hated not being able to treat Mira to something nice once in a while.

"Someday you and I are going to go out and have ourselves a real dinner, one with five entirely different courses. Plus dessert," she added, slathering the strawberry jam over the slice of white bread. "Maybe we'll have two desserts apiece." Mira smiled under the short black veil that fell to the tip of her little nose. "Do you think they'll be chocolate desserts?" "Definitely chocolate. Here you go," she said, handing the plate to her. "PB&J, heavy on the J, and no crusts."

Renata leaned back against the counter as Mira bit into the sandwich and ate like it was as delicious as any five-course meal she could imagine. "Don't forget to drink your apple juice."

"M-kay."

Renata stabbed the plastic straw into the juice box and placed it next to Mira. Then she started putting things away, wiping down the counter. Every muscle tensed when she heard Lex's voice in the other room.

He'd been gone since dusk. Renata hadn't really missed him, but she had wondered what he'd been up to in the time since he'd left. The answer to that question came in the form of a drunken female cackle – several drunken females, by the sound of the laughter and squealing going on in the main area of the lodge.

Lex often brought human women home to serve as his blood Hosts and general entertainment. Sometimes he'd keep them for days at a time. Occasionally he'd share his spoils with the other guards, all of them using the women however they saw fit before scrubbing their memories and dumping them back into their lives. It sickened Renata to be under the same roof while Lex was in a party mood, but no more than it infuriated her that Mira had to be exposed – even peripherally – to his games as well. "What's going on out there, Rennie?" she asked.

"Finish your sandwich," Renata told her when Mira stopped eating to listen to the ruckus in the other room. "Stay here. I'll be right back."

Renata walked out of the galley and down the hallway toward the disruption.

"Drink up, ladies!" Lex shouted, dropping a box of liquor bottles on the leather sofa.

He wouldn't be consuming the alcohol, nor the other party favors he'd procured. A couple of clear, rolled-up plastic bags, each fat with what was likely cocaine, were tossed out onto the table. The sound system came on, a bass beat throbbing behind crude hip-hop lyrics.

Lex grabbed the curvy brunette with the giddy cackle and brought her under his arm. "I told you we were going to have us some fun tonight! Come here and show me some proper gratitude."

He certainly was in a rare, good mood. And no wonder. He'd come back with quite a haul: five young females dressed in tall heels, skimpy tops, and micro-short skirts. At first, Renata guessed them to be prostitutes, but on closer look she decided they were too clean, too fresh under their heavy makeup to be part of the street life. They were probably just naive club girls, unaware that the persuasive, attractive man who picked them up was actually something out of a nightmare.

"Come in and meet my friends," Lex told the giggling group of women as he motioned the other Breed males around to view his evening's catch. There was a moment of palpable apprehension as the four muscle-bound, heavily armed guards leered hungrily at their human appetizers. Lex pushed three of the women toward the eager vampires. "Don't be shy, ladies. This is a party, after all. Go say hello."

Renata noticed he was keeping a tight hold on the two prettiest girls. Typical of Lex, he had obviously reserved the best for himself. Renata was about to turn around and go back to Mira in the kitchen – to try to ignore the bloody orgy that was about to begin – but before she took two steps away, Sergei Yakut came thundering out of his private quarters.

"Alexei." Fury rolled off the elder vampire in waves of heat. He glared at Lex, his eyes flashing amber. "You've been gone for hours. Where were you?"

"I've been in the city, Father." He attempted a magnanimous smile, as if to say his time away from his duties hadn't been entirely about serving his own selfish needs. "Look what I brought you."

Lex pulled one of the females away from the guards and held her out for Yakut's inspection. Yakut didn't even spare a glance for the prize Lex offered. He stared only at the two women Lex was keeping for himself.

The Gen One grunted. "You would scrape shit off your boot heels and tell me it's gold?"

"Never," Lex replied. "Father, I would never so much as consider – "

"Good. These two will do," he said, indicating Lex's females.

As irate as he had to be, as humiliated as he must have felt by the public jab to his pride, Lex didn't say a word. He dropped his gaze and waited in silence as Yakut collected his two female companions and strode with them toward his private quarters. "I expect not to be disturbed," Yakut ordered darkly. "Not for any reason."

Lex gave a nod of restrained obeisance. "Yes, Father. Of course. Whatever you wish."

Nikolai heard music and loud voices before he was even five hundred feet out from the lodge. He stole in close, moving through the woods like a ghost, past Lex's car parked around back, the hood still warm from the drive out of the city. Niko wasn't sure what he was going to find. He wasn't expecting a damned party, but that's what seemed to be going on inside the main house. The place was lit up like a Christmas tree, light pouring out of the windows of the great room where someone was apparently entertaining a number of females. Hard-core rap vibrated all the way into the earth beneath Nikolai's boots as he drew up to the side of the building and peered inside.

Lex was there, all right. He and the rest of Yakut's bodyguards, gathered together in the rustic hall. Three young women danced on the pelt rugs in just their panties, all of them clearly intoxicated, based on the amount of liquor and narcotics spread out on the table nearby. The four Breed guards howled and cheered them on, the vampires probably just seconds away from pouncing on the un-suspecting females.

Lex, meanwhile, sat in a pensive slouch on the leather sofa, his dark eyes fixed on the women even though his thoughts seemed to be miles away. There was no outward sign of the Rogue Lex had been cozying up to in the city. No sign of Sergei Yakut either, and the fact that his entire security detail was tied up with this convenient little peep show made Niko 's warrior instincts switch to instant red alert.

"What the hell are you up to?" Niko mouthed under his breath.

But he knew the answer even before he started moving for the rear of the lodge, where Yakut kept his private chambers.

Where a subtle yet persistent odor confirmed Niko's suspicions with the worst kind of dread.

Goddamn.

The Rogue was here.

Nikolai smelled freshly spilled blood too, basic human stock, the scent of it almost overwhelming the closer he got to Yakut's quarters. Blood and sex, to be exact, as if the Gen One had been gorging himself on both for some time.

A sudden scream rent the night.

Female. A sound of total terror, coming from within Yakut's chambers.

Then, muffled gunfire.

Pop, pop, pop!

Nikolai flew through a rear door of the lodge, hardly surprised to find it unlocked to the outside and flapping open. He crashed into Yakut's room, his semiauto pistol gripped in hand and ready to unload its chamber full of titanium high-test rounds. The scene that greeted him was total carnage.

On the bed was Sergei Yakut, sprawled naked atop a female who was pinned beneath his lifeless body, her throat torn open where the vampire had been feeding on her just a second before. She wasn't moving, and there was no telling the color of the woman's skin or hair because most of her was currently saturated in blood – her own and Yakut's.

Half of the Gen One's face was missing. Sergei Yakut's head was little more than shattered bone, tissue, and gore from the trio of bullets that had been shot point-blank into the back of his skull. He was dead, and the Rogue who killed him was too gripped by Bloodlust to realize Nikolai's presence. The suckhead had put down the gun he'd used to kill Yakut and was currently getting busy with another naked female who'd been trapped in the corner of the room. Her eyes were rolled back in her head and she wasn't moving. Shit, she wasn't breathing either, although the Rogue kept drinking from her, savaging her neck with his huge fangs.

Niko moved in behind the suckhead and put the muzzle of his Beretta against the big, shaggy head. He squeezed the trigger – two dead-on, titanium-laced blasts into the bastard's brain. The Rogue dropped to the floor, writhing and spasming from the hit. The titanium kicked in fast, and the dying vampire let loose with a howl so loud and otherworldly it shook like thunder in the old wooden rafters of the lodge.

Renata flew out of the kitchen with her pistol drawn. Her battle senses had gone as taut as piano wire at the low, distant crack of gunshots – and the inhuman howl that followed – coming from elsewhere in the lodge.

Music was still blaring in the great room. Lex's visitors were no longer clothed and raucous from the continued free-flowing drugs and alcohol. The women were all over the guards and one another as well, and from the rapt look in the Breed males ' hungering eyes, they wouldn't have noticed if a bomb went off in the other room.

"Idiots," Renata accused under her breath. "Didn't any of you hear that?"

Lex looked up, concern darkening his expression, but she wasn't really waiting for an answer from him. She ran toward the hallway and Yakut's private chambers. The hall was dark, the air thick. Everything too silent back here. Too still.

Death hung like a shroud, almost choking her as she neared the open door of the vampire's quarters.

Sergei Yakut was no longer alive; Renata felt that truth in her bones. Gunpowder, blood, and an overwhelming, sickly sweet scent of rot and decay warned her that she was about to walk into something awful. Though nothing could have truly prepared her for what she saw as she pivoted around the doorjamb, gun raised and gripped in both hands. Ready to kill whoever stood in its path.

The sight of so much death, so much blood and gore, took her aback. It was everywhere: the bed, the floor, the walls. And it was on Sergei Yakut's apparent killer too.

Nikolai stood in the center of the carnage, his face and dark shirt splattered scarlet. In his hand was a large semiautomatic pistol, the nose of the blunt black barrel still smoking from its recent discharge.

"You?" The word slipped past her lips, shock and disbelief like a ball of ice in her gut. She glanced at Yakut's body – his obliterated remains – sprawled across the bed on top of a lifeless female. "My God," she whispered, stunned to see him here at the lodge again, but even more shocked by the rest of what she was seeing. "You…you killed him."

"No." The warrior shook his head somberly. "Not me, Renata. There was a Rogue in here with Yakut." He indicated a large mass of smoldering cinders on the floor – the source of the offending stench. "I killed the Rogue, but I was too late to save Yakut. I'm sorry – "

"Put down your weapon," she told him, uninterested in apologies. She didn't need them. Renata felt some pity for Yakut's violent end, a sense of stunned incredulity that he was actually dead. But no sorrow. None of that absolved Nikolai of his apparent guilt. She steadied her aim on him and cautiously stepped farther into the room. "Put your gun down. Now."

He kept his grip firm on the 9mm pistol. "I can't do that, Renata. I won't, not so long as Lex is still breathing."

She frowned, confused. "What about Lex?"

"This murder was his doing, not mine. He brought the Rogue here. He brought the women to distract Yakut and the guards, so the Rogue could get close enough to kill."

Renata listened but kept her gun locked on target. Lex was a snake, sure, but a murderer? Would he actually take steps to kill his own father?

Just then, Lex and the other guards approached from up the hall.

"What's going on? Is something wrong in – "

Lex fell silent as he reached the open doorway to his father's chambers. In her peripheral vision Renata saw him look from Yakut's body on the bed to Nikolai. He staggered back a half-pace, not so much as breathing. Then he exploded, total rage. "You son of a bitch! You goddamned murdering son of a bitch!"

Lex lunged, but it was a halfhearted attempt, one he abandoned completely as Nikolai's pistol swung in his direction. The warrior didn't flinch, not his gaze nor a single muscle. He was utterly calm as he stared at Lex down the barrel of his weapon, even while Renata's gun and those of the other guards were trained on him. "I saw you in the city tonight, Lex. I was there. The crackhouse. The bait you laid out to attract Rogue vampires. The suckhead you brought back with you here tonight…I saw it all." Lex scoffed. "Fuck you and your lies! You saw no such thing."

"What did you have to promise that Rogue in exchange for your father's head? Money doesn't matter to blood addicts, so whose life did you offer up as the price – Renata's? Maybe that tender little child instead?"

Renata's chest went tight at the thought. She dared a quick glance at Lex and found him sneering coldly at the warrior, giving a slow shake of his head.

"You'd say anything right now to save your own neck. It won't work. Not when you yourself threatened my father's life not even twenty-four hours ago." Lex turned to look at Renata. "You heard him say as much, didn't you?"

Reluctantly she nodded, recalling how Nikolai had given Sergei Yakut a very public warning that someone needed to shut him down.

Now Nikolai was back and Yakut was dead.

Mother Mary, she thought, glancing once more to the lifeless body of the vampire who'd kept her practically a prisoner for the past two years. He was dead.

"My father wasn't in any kind of danger at all until the Order came into the picture," Lex was saying. "One failed attempt on his life, now this…this bloodbath. You were the one who lay in wait to make your move. You and the Rogue you brought with you tonight, waiting for the chance to strike. I can only guess that you came here looking to kill my father from the start."

"No," Nikolai said, a flash of amber lighting his wintry blue eyes. "The one who needs killing is you, Lex."

In a split-second reaction, just as she saw the tendons in his arm flex as his finger began to depress the trigger of his gun, Renata hit Nikolai with a hard mental blast. As little affection as she felt for Alexei, she could not stand more death tonight. Nikolai roared, spine arching, face contorting with pain.

More effective than bullets, the blast took him down to his knees in an instant. The other guards stormed into the room and grabbed his gun and the rest of his weapons. The barrels of four pistols were trained on the warrior's head, awaiting kill orders. One of the guards cocked the hammer back, eager for more bloodshed even though the room was ripe with death already.

"Stand down," Renata told them. She looked to Lex, whose face was tight with anger, his eyes avid and glittering, his sharp fangs visible between his parted lips. "Tell them to stand down, Lex. Killing him now will do nothing but make all of us murderers in cold blood too."

Incredibly, it was Nikolai who began to chuckle. He lifted his head, an obvious effort while the blast still held him down. "He has to kill me, Renata, because he can't risk a witness. Isn't that right, Lex? Can't have somebody walking around who knows your dirty secret."

Lex drew his own pistol now and strolled right up to Nikolai to put the nose of the gun up against the warrior's forehead. He snarled, his arm quivering with the ferocity of his rage.

Renata went stock-still, horrified that he might actually pull the trigger. She was torn, part of her wanting to believe what Nikolai had said – that he was innocent – and afraid to believe him. What he said about Lex simply could not be true.

"Lex," she said, the only sound in the room. "Lex…do not do this."

She was less than a breath away from hitting him with some of what she gave Nikolai when the gun slowly lowered.

Lex growled, finally easing off. "I wish a slower death on this bastard than I am capable of giving him. Take him to the main hall and restrain him," he told the guards. "Then someone get in here and look after my father's body. One of you scrub those females in the other room and dump them off the property. I want this bloody mess cleaned up immediately."

Lex turned a dark look on Renata as the guards began dragging Nikolai out of the room. "If he tries anything at all, unleash all you've got and lay the son of a bitch flat."

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