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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-five)

Nikolai sat inside the shade of the vine shelter and watched a single nimbus of sunlight shine through the leaves and into Renata's dark hair while she slept. Ultraviolet light was toxic to his kind – lethal after about half an hour's sustained exposure – but he couldn't work up the desire to patch the small hole in the vegetation and snuff out the errant ray. Instead, for the past several minutes, he'd been sitting next to Renata and watching, admittedly, much too intrigued, as the light soaked into her ebony hair, infusing the silky strands with a dozen different shades of copper, bronze, and burgundy.

What the hell was wrong with him?

He was sitting there staring at her hair, for crissake. Not just staring, but staring with total rapt fascination. To Niko, that seemed to indicate one of two equally disturbing facts: Either he should seriously consider looking into night courses with Vidal Sassoon, or he was a complete goner when it came to this female.

Goner as in gone for good, ruined for any other.

Somewhere, somehow, he had let himself fall in love with her.

Which explained why he couldn't keep his hands – and other parts – off her. It also explained why he'd spent the entire night, with the exception of his quick trip into the lodge before daybreak – lying beside Renata, holding her in his arms.

And if he'd needed any explanation for why his chest had felt so constricted and heavy when she broke down crying last night, or why he'd felt compelled to share with her his guilt over the loss of Dmitri all those years ago, he supposed that being in love with her would do it.

As much as he had wanted to convince her that she was safe with him, Nikolai felt safe with her too. He trusted her wholeheartedly. Would kill to protect her, would die for her without a second's doubt if it came down to it. She may not have been a part of his life for very long now, but he was hard-pressed to imagine not having her in it.

Ah, fuck.

He really had fallen in love with Renata.

"Just fucking brilliant," he muttered, then winced when she stirred at the sound of his voice.

She opened her eyes, smiled when she saw him sitting there. "Hi."

"Morning," he said, casually reaching above her head to knit the vines closed and seal out the last of the sunlight.

He found her slow, catlike stretch even more fascinating than her hair. She was wearing the cotton oxford he'd ruined last night, half the buttons scattered on the ground of the shelter. The big shirt was split open down the front, barely covering her nakedness. No complaints from him.

"How are you feeling?"

She seemed to consider it for a second, then glanced over at him with a frown. "I feel really good. I mean, last night was…"

She actually blushed, a sweet pink color filling her cheeks. "Last night was incredible, but I thought for sure I'd be laid out flat with reverb by now. I don't understand…it never hit me at all. I mean, I had a little bit of pain, but based on what happened during the attack at Jack's place, I should have been in agony most of the night."

"Has that ever happened before?"

She shook her head. "Never. Every time I use my ability, the reverb follows."

"But not last night."

"Not last night," she said. "I've never felt better."

Niko might have made a lame joke about the miraculous effects of his sexual prowess, but he knew it was a different kind of magic that had pulled Renata through her reverb. "You drank my blood yesterday. That's what's different."

"You think your blood not only helped my shoulder but also helped with this? Is that even possible?"

"It's definitely a possibility. A Breedmate who regularly drinks a vampire's blood becomes much stronger than she would be without it. Aging slows to a snail's pace. Her body's cells, muscles, and entire metabolism reach peak fitness and health. And yeah, a lot of times a Breed male's blood will impact her psychic ability too."

"That's why Sergei never had me drink from him," Renata said, her mind already speeding ahead toward the same conclusion Niko had reached. "He made no secret that he liked the fact that my power was limited to small bursts. The couple of times I tried to hit him with it, I could never hold it on him long enough to take him down, and in the end the effort always cost me dearly once the reverb set in."

"Sergei Yakut was Gen One," Niko reminded her. "His blood in your system might have made you practically unstoppable."

Renata scoffed quietly. "Just one more shackle he kept on me. He must have known I would have killed him if I had even the smallest hope that I might succeed." She fell silent for a minute, idly plucked at a blade of grass on the floor of the makeshift shelter. "I did try to kill him…the day Mira and I fled the lodge together. That was the day he put the hot andiron to my back. He did other things to me that day too."

Nikolai didn't have to ask what more she had endured. The scars from the brands that had been seared onto her back were heinous enough, but to think Yakut's punishment went even further…Niko's blood roiled with outrage. He put his hand over hers.

"Jesus, Renata. I'm sorry."

She glanced up at him, a steady green gaze that wasn't seeking sympathy. "His only mercy was that he didn't force Mira to watch everything that was done to me. But Sergei told me that if she or I tried to escape again, or if I ever turned my mind's power on him even a little, it would be Mira who'd pay in the same ways I had. He promised worse for her, and I knew he meant it…so I stayed. I stayed, and I obeyed him, and every hour of every day I hoped for some miracle that would erase Sergei Yakut from my life." She paused, reaching up to caress his face. "Then you came and everything changed. I guess in many ways, you are my miracle."

Nikolai captured her hand and placed a kiss in the heart of her palm. "We're both fortunate."

"I'm glad Sergei is dead," she confessed softly.

"He should have suffered more," Niko said, not even trying to curb the dark edge of his voice. "But he's gone."

Renata nodded. "And now Lex is dead too. Yakut's guards. All of them."

"By this hour of the morning, he and the others in the lodge are nothing but ash," Niko said as he reached up to hook some of her glossy black hair behind her ear. "After you fell asleep last night I went back in and opened all the shutters for the sunlight to do its thing. I also called Boston to give them the numbers in Lex's cell phone. Gideon's going to call us with details once he's run traces on them."

Another nod, her voice soft with hope. "Okay."

"While I was in there, I also brought you something I thought you might be missing."

He leaned over to the stash of weapons and other assorted supplies he'd retrieved and picked up the silk-and-velvet package that belonged to Renata.

"My blades," she gasped, joy brightening her face as she took the package from his hands. She untied the ribbons that secured it and unrolled the length of velvet that encased the four custom-engraved daggers. "Jack gave these to me…" "I know. He told me that he had them made for you as a gift. He said he wasn't sure you'd kept them."

"I've cherished them," she murmured, tracing the hand-tooled hilts with her fingertip.

"I told him that you still had them. He was glad to hear how much they mean to you."

Her tender gaze bathed him in gratitude. "Nikolai…thank you. For doing that for Jack, and for giving these back to me. Thank you."

She came toward him and kissed him. The brief press of her lips slowly melted into something deeper. Nikolai cupped her face in his hands, smoothing his thumbs over the softness of her jaw, the delicate angle of her cheekbones. She parted her lips as his tongue swept along their seam, then moaned sweetly as he delved inside.

His fangs stretched into sharp points as lust ran through him like fire. Between his legs, his sex was a column of granite, rising instantly to the thought of having Renata beneath him. When her hand trailed down past the waistband of his pants to touch him, his greedy cock leapt, surging even harder under the heat of her palm as she stroked him.

"What time is it?" she murmured against his fevered mouth.

He grunted, too engrossed in the torment of her petting to immediately process the question. Through the rough sawing of his breath, he managed to rasp, "It's early. Probably sometime around nine."

"Well, damn, I guess that is pretty early," she murmured, moving her mouth away from his and kissing a trail of heat along his throat, playing over the knob of his Adam's apple. "You can't be out in the sunlight, right?"

"Nope."

"Hmm." Her moist lips descended, onto his bare chest. He leaned back onto his elbows as she followed one of his glyphs with the tip of her pink tongue, tracing the arcs and the tapering swirls around his nipple and across the plane of his stomach. When she spoke, her voice vibrated all the way into his bones. "So, I guess that means we're stuck here for a while, huh?"

"Yeah." The word was more gasp than sound. Her kiss traveled lower now, past his navel, still following the lines of his dermaglyphs, heading for the part of him that was straining, throbbing with the need to feel those moist hot lips clamped around him.

"Stuck here until nightfall, I suppose."

"Uh-huh." She took one end of the waistband's drawstring ties between her teeth and gave it a hard tug. The knot fell loose, and she pulled the warm-ups down, just enough to bare the eager head of his cock. She licked him, watching his face as she swirled her devilish tongue around the fat plum of his flesh, suckling at the drop of slick fluid that beaded there. "Ah, Christ…"

"So," she murmured, her breath skating across his wet skin, tormenting him even more. "What are we going to do in here all day while we wait for nightfall?"

Niko chuckled. "Baby, I can think of a hundred things I'd like to do with you."

She smiled up at him in challenge. "Only a hundred?"

Before he could fire back a smartass reply, she wrapped her lips around his cock and took him deep into her mouth. As Niko's body went nuclear with pleasure, he found himself praying that the day and his time alone with this incredible woman – his woman – could stretch on forever.

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