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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty)

Nikolai was in the middle of a cell phone conversation when Renata came out of the bathroom from her long, much-needed soak. She'd evidently fallen asleep in the tub at some point because the last thing she remembered was hearing Jack's voice in the garage apartment after Nikolai had gone out to meet him, and there was no sign of him now. She stepped into the room, her hair damp at the ends and clinging to her neck, her body wrapped in the towel Nikolai had set out for her.

She was groggy and achy, still overly warm, but the cool-water bath had been just what she'd needed. Nikolai's kiss hadn't been half bad either.

Speaking in low, confidential tones, he glanced over at her from where he sat straddling a folding chair near the card table in the center of the room, his pale blue eyes doing a quick but thorough head-to-toe scan of her body. There was an unmistakable heat in that brief gaze, but he was all business on the phone with what she could only assume was the Order back in Boston. Renata listened as he provided an efficient run-through of the circumstances of Yakut's murder, Lex and Fabien's apparent alliance, Mira's disappearance, and the containment facility escape that had brought Nikolai and Renata to Jack's place for temporary shelter.

From the sound of it, the male on the other end of the line – Lucan, she'd heard Nikolai call him – was concerned for their safety and glad they were both in one piece, although not at all pleased to hear that they were holed up at the mercy of a human. Nor did Lucan seem enthused about the fact that Nikolai was talking about helping Renata locate Mira. She could hear the deep voice on the other end of the line growl something about "Breedmate's problems" and "current mission objectives" as though the two were mutually exclusive.

The cursed response when Nikolai added that Renata was nursing a gunshot wound was audible all the way across the room. "She's tough," he said, glancing her way now, "but she took a pretty hard hit in the shoulder and it's not looking too healthy. It might be a good idea to arrange a pickup, take her into the Order's protection until everything shakes down up here."

Renata glared her disapproval and gave a shake of her head. Big mistake. Even that slight jostle made her vision swim, and it was all she could do to position her backside at the edge of the bed before her legs gave out beneath her. She dropped down onto the mattress, fighting off a vicious wave of cold sweats.

She tried to hide her misery from Nikolai, but the look he gave her said it was no use pretending she wasn't in bad shape. "Has Gideon turned up anything on Fabien yet?" he asked, getting up to pace the floor. He listened for a minute, then exhaled a low sigh. "Fuck. Can't say I'm surprised about that. He had the arrogant stink of a politician all over him, so I had a feeling the bastard was well connected. What else do we have?"

Renata held her breath in the silence that stretched out. She could see that the news on the other end of the line wasn't good. Nikolai blew out a long sigh and ran his hand through his hair. "How long does Gideon think it will take him to dig into those restricted files and turn up an address? Shit, Lucan, I'm not sure we should wait that long, considering – yeah, I hear you. Maybe while Gideon's hacking on that end I should go pay Alexei Yakut a visit. I'd bet my left nut that Lex knows where to find Fabien. Hell, I wouldn't doubt it if Lex has been there a time or two himself. I'd be glad to squeeze the information out of him, then go deal with Fabien personally."

Nikolai listened for a moment before grunting a low curse. "Yeah, sure, I know…much as I'd like a little pay-back from the son of a bitch, you're right. We can't afford the risk of scaring Fabien to ground before we've got a solid lead on his ties to Dragos."

Renata glanced up in time to catch Nikolai's grim look. She waited for him to add that nothing was more critical than ensuring Mira's safety and tracking down the vampire who was holding her. She waited, but those words never left Nikolai's lips. "Yeah," he murmured. "Have him call when he finds something. I'm going to head out tonight and do some recon on this end too. If I turn up anything useful, I'll be in touch."

He ended the call and set the cell phone down on the card table. Renata stared at him as he walked over to the bed and dropped into a crouch in front of her.

"How are you feeling?"

He reached up like he was going to check her shoulder – or maybe simply caress her – but Renata flinched away from him. She couldn't sit there and act as if she wasn't feeling more than a little bit confused and pissed off right now. Betrayed, even, as ridiculous as it was to think she could have counted on him in the first place.

"Did the cool water help your fever at all?" he asked, his brows furrowed. "You're still looking kind of pale and wobbly. Here, let me have a look – "

"I don't need your concern," she bit out. "And I don't need your help either. Forget that I asked you. Just…forget everything. I wouldn't want my problems to interfere with any of your current mission objectives." His scowl deepened. "What are you talking about?"

"I have my priorities, and you clearly have yours. Sounded to me like your buddy Lucan is calling the shots for you now."

"Lucan is one of my brothers-in-arms. He's also the leader of the Order, so yeah, he's earned the right to call the shots when it comes to Order business." Nikolai stood up, crossing his arms over his chest. "Something big is going down, Renata. Yakut's murder was only a small part of it, and he wasn't the first. There've been several other Gen One assassinations that have taken place in the States and abroad. Someone's been quietly taking out the oldest, most powerful members of the Breed."

"What for?" She looked up at him, curious against her will.

"We're not sure. But we believe it all ties back to one individual, a very dangerous second-generation Breed male named Dragos. The Order flushed him out of hiding a few weeks ago, but he managed to get away from us. Now he's gone underground again. Son of a bitch has been lying real low. Any lead we can grab to get close to him is critical. He has to be stopped." "Sergei Yakut killed dozens of human beings – just for sport," Renata pointed out. "Why didn't you and the rest of the Order put a stop to him?"

"Until recently, we didn't know where to find him, let alone know about his extracurricular activities. Even if we had, he was Gen One, and as much as we hated it, the Order wouldn't have been able to move on him without a lot of bureaucratic bullshit standing in our way."

Renata's thoughts grew dark, spinning back across the time she'd spent under Yakut's control. "There were times when Sergei drank from me…when he used me for blood, that I saw something monstrous in him. I mean, I know what he was – what all of your kind is – but once in while, I would look in his eyes and I swear there was no humanity in him. All I could see in his gaze was something truly evil."

"He was Gen One," Nikolai said as though that should explain it. "Only half of their genes are human. The other half are something…else."

"Vampire," she murmured.

"Otherworlder," Nikolai corrected.

He stared at her as he said it and Renata had the abrupt impulse to laugh. But she couldn't, not when his expression was so completely serious. "Lex loves to boast that he is grandson to a conquering king from another world. I always assumed he was full of shit. Are you telling me what he said is actually true?"

Nikolai scoffed. "A conqueror, yes, but not a king. The eight Ancients who arrived here thousands of years ago and fathered their young on human women were bloodthirsty savages, rapists…deadly creatures that decimated entire communities. Most of them were wiped out by the Order in the Middle Ages. Lucan led the charge against them after his mother was killed by the creature who fathered him."

Renata just listened now, too astonished to ask all the questions churning in her head.

"As it turns out," Nikolai added, "one of the Ancients survived the Order's war on them. He'd been placed in hiding by one of his sons – a Gen One vampire named Dragos. We have good reason to believe the Ancient is still alive today and that Dragos's last surviving son, his namesake and the bastard we intend to shut down, is just waiting for his chance to unleash him on the world." "Two years ago I was sure that vampires didn't really exist. Sergei Yakut changed my mind. He proved to me that vampires not only existed, but they were scarier and more dangerous than anything I'd seen in books or movies. Now you're saying there's something even worse than him out there?"

"I'm not trying to scare you, Renata. I just think you should have the facts. All of them. I'm trusting you with that."

"Why?"

"Because I want you to understand," he said, the words too gentle.

As if he were apologizing to her in some way.

Renata lifted her chin, a coldness settling in her chest. "You want me to understand…what? That the life of one missing child means nothing in light of all this?"

He cursed softly under his breath. "No, Renata – "

"It's okay. I get it now, Nikolai." She couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice, not even when she was still struggling to absorb all of the staggering things she'd just heard. "Hey, no big deal. After all, you never actually agreed to anything with me and I'm used to being let down. Life's a bitch, right? It's just good to know where we both stand before we let this thing go any further."

"What's going on here, Renata?" He stared at her, his gaze too penetrating, as if he could see right through her. "Is this really about Mira? Or are you upset because of what's been happening between us?"

Us. The word stuck in her brain like a foreign object. It felt so unfamiliar, so dangerous. Far too intimate. There had never been an "us" for Renata. She'd always depended only herself, asking nothing of anyone. It was safer that way. Safer now too.

She'd broken her own rule when she went after Nikolai to enlist his help in finding Mira. Look what it had gotten her: a festering gunshot wound, crucial time lost, and not a single step closer to locating Mira. In fact, now that word was certainly out about her abetting Nikolai in his escape from Fabien's custody, she stood little hope of getting close to the vampire on her own. If Mira was in danger before, Renata might have just made things worse for the little girl.

"I have to get out of here," she said woodenly. "I've lost too much time already. I couldn't bear it if anything happens to that child because of me."

Worry and frustration made her push off from the bed. She stood up – too quickly.

Before she could take two steps away from Nikolai, her knees turned to jelly. Her vision went dark for a second and suddenly she was sinking, pitching forward. She felt strong arms cushion her, Nikolai's voice quiet beside her ear as he scooped her up and lifted her onto the bed.

"Stop fighting, Renata," he said as she came out of her faint and blinked up at him. Poised over her, he smoothed the backs of his fingers along the side of her face. So tender, so calming. "You don't need to run. You don't need to fight…not with me. You're safe with me, Renata."

She wanted to close her eyes and shut out his gentle words. She was so afraid to believe him, to trust. And she felt so guilty accepting his comfort knowing that a child could be suffering, probably crying for her in the dark and wondering why Renata had broken her promise.

"Mira's all that matters to me," she whispered. "I need to know that she's safe, and that she always will be."

Nikolai gave a solemn nod. "I know how much she means to you. And I know how hard it is for you to ask for help from someone. Jesus Christ, Renata…you willingly risked your life to break me out of that containment facility. I 'll never be able to repay you for what you did."

She turned her head on the pillow, unable to hold his piercing gaze. "Don't worry, you're under no obligation to me. You don't owe me a thing, Nikolai."

Warm fingers glided along her jaw. He cupped her chin in his palm and gently guided her face back to him. "I owe you my life. Where I come from, that's no small thing."

Renata's breath stilled as he looked into her eyes. She hated herself for the hope that was kindling in her heart – hope that she truly wasn't alone right now. Hope that this warrior would assure her that everything was going to work out, and that no matter what kind of monster had Mira, they would find her, and she was going to be all right.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to Mira," he said, forcing her to hold his intense gaze. "You have my word on that. I'm not going to let anything happen to you either, which is why I'm going to get you medical care for your shoulder as soon as the sun sets tonight."

"What?" She tried to raise up and winced from the sharp stab of pain. "I'll be fine. I don't need a doctor – "

"You're not fine, Renata. You're getting worse by the hour." His expression was grave as he looked from the searing wound in her shoulder back to her eyes. "You can't continue like this."

"I'll survive," she insisted. "I'm not about to quit now, when Mira's life is on the line."

"Your life is on the line too. Do you understand?" He shook his head and muttered something dark and nasty under his breath. "You could die if this wound doesn't get treated. I won't let that happen, so that means you have a date with the nearest emergency room tonight."

"What about blood?" She watched as every muscle in Nikolai's body seemed to tense up the moment the words left her lips. "What about it?" he asked, his voice wooden, unreadable.

"You asked me earlier if I'd ever taken Sergei's blood. Would I be healed now if I had?"

He lifted his shoulder in a vague shrug, but the tension in his big body remained. When he lifted his gaze to hers, there were flashes of amber burning into the wintry blue of his irises. His pupils were thinning by fractions as he stared at her. "Would I be healed now if you gave me your blood, Nikolai?"

"Are you asking me for it?"

"If I were, would you give it to me?"

He exhaled sharply, and when his lips parted to draw another breath, Renata saw the sharp points of his fangs. "It's not as simple a question as you might think," he replied, a rough edge to his voice. "You will be bonded to me. The same way Yakut was linked to you through your blood, you will be linked to me. You'll feel me in your blood. You will be aware of me always, and it can't be undone, Renata – not even if you drink from another Breed male down the line. Our bond will trump any others. It can't be broken, not until one of us is dead."

This was no small thing; she understood that. Hell, she could hardly believe she was considering it at all. But deep down, crazy as it might be, she trusted Nikolai. And she truly didn't care about the cost to herself. "If we do this, will I be well enough to walk out of here tonight and search for Mira?"

His jaw was clamped tight enough to make a muscle jerk in his cheek. He stared at her, his features going more feral by the moment. Bit by bit, the blue of his eyes was engulfed by a fiery glow.

When it didn't seem like he would answer her, Renata reached out and laid her hand firmly on his arm. "Will your blood heal me, Nikolai?"

"Yes," he said, the word sounding strangled in his throat.

"Then I want to do this."

As he held her gaze in an intense silence, she thought about all the times Sergei Yakut had fed from her veins, how degraded and used she'd felt…how revolted she'd been by the idea that her blood was nourishing such a cruel, monstrous being. She would never have considered taking any part of him into herself, not even if it had been a matter of her own survival. It would have killed a piece of her soul to willingly put her mouth on Yakut's body. To drink from him? She wasn't even sure that her love for Mira could have overcome something as vile as that.

But Nikolai wasn't a monster. He was honorable and just. He was tender and protective, a male who was feeling more and more a partner to her the farther they traveled down this uncertain road. He was her best ally right now. Her brightest hope of retrieving Mira.

And deeper still, in a place that was all woman, with needs and wants she hardly dared to examine too closely, she craved a taste of Nikolai. She craved that more than she had a right to.

"Are you sure, Renata?"

"If you'll give me your blood, then yes," she said. "I want to take it."

In the long silence that followed, Nikolai sat back from her on the bed. She watched as he unbuttoned the big oxford shirt, waiting for her uncertainty – her apprehension – to worsen. It didn't happen. As Nikolai stripped off the shirt and sat before her bare-chested, his dermaglyphs pulsing, every arch and swirl saturated with variegating shades of wine-dark colors, she felt no misgivings at all. When he crawled up toward her and lifted his right arm up to his mouth, baring his huge fangs, then sinking them into his wrist, she felt nothing even close to fear.

And when, in that next moment, he placed the bleeding punctures next to her lips and told her to drink, Renata had no inclination whatsoever to refuse.

The first taste of Nikolai's blood on her tongue was a shock.

She'd expected to be swamped by the bitter taste of copper, but instead she tasted warm, muted spices and a power that spread through her like liquid electricity. She could feel his blood coursing down her throat, into every fiber of her body. Light flowed into her limbs from within, and the ache in her wounded shoulder began to ease as she drew more of Nikolai 's healing strength inside her.

"That's it," he murmured, his fingers stroking her damp hair away from her cheek. "Ah, Christ, that's it, Renata…drink until you feel you've had enough."

She pulled long and hard from his wrist, with an instinct she never knew she had. It felt right to be drinking from Nikolai like this. It felt more than right…it felt incredible. The more she took from him, the more alive she felt. Every nerve ending blinked on as though a switch had been thrown in her core.

And as he continued to caress her, to nourish and heal her, Renata began to feel a new kind of heat building swiftly inside her.

She moaned, swept up in the molten wave that washed through her. She writhed, and knew better than to mistake the feeling for anything but what it was…desire. A desire that she had been trying to deny since she first met Nikolai, and which now was rising up to consume her.

She couldn't resist suckling at him deeper.

She needed more of him.

She needed all of him, and she needed him now.

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