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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-three)

About damn time he got here," Alexei Yakut complained to himself as he watched a pair of headlight beams ricochet off the trees outside the main lodge. Irritated to have been kept waiting this past half hour, Lex moved away from the window in his father's former quarters – quarters that now belonged to him, like everything else his dead father had left behind. The black vehicle prowling up the drive was huge, obviously an SUV. Lex rolled his eyes in disgust. He'd expected a male of Edgar Fabien's status to travel in something more elegant than a Humvee loaner taken right out of the Enforcement Agency fleet. Lex's own standards demanded much more than such a utilitarian mode of transport, especially for an event as important as the one he would be attending with Fabien. For fuck's sake, they might as well be arriving at the gathering in a pickup truck for all the statement they would make in that inelegant Agency vehicle.

If he was in charge of things – when he was in charge, Lex mentally amended – he would arrive nowhere without a proper motorcade befitting his elite rank.

He strode out of his chambers in an impatient huff, adjusting the line of his suit coat as his polished alligator -hide loafers tapped softly across the wide plank beams of the floor. He knew he looked good – which was the point – but he was far more accustomed to his longtime service uniform of boots and leather. He was an adaptive individual; he didn't think it would take much to get used to his new identity.

In the great room outside, the lodge's two remaining guards sat at a table playing cards. One of them glanced up as Lex entered, the subtle lift of his hand not quite fast enough to hide his amused smirk. "That necktie looks like it's cutting off your air, Lex," joked the other guard, chuckling at his own humor. "Better loosen that shit up before you pass out."

Lex glared as he ran his finger along the rim of the too-tight collar of his five-hundred-dollar shirt. "Blow it out your ass, cretin. And open the fucking door. My ride is here."

As the guard lumbered over to carry out the command, Lex wondered how long he should keep the two bone-heads around. Sure, they'd served beside him in his father's employ every day for the better part of a decade, but a male like Lex deserved respect. Maybe he would teach both of them that lesson when he arrived back in a couple nights from the weekend gathering. Lex forced a welcoming smile for Fabien as the guard opened the door…except it wasn't Edgar Fabien standing there to greet him. It was a uniformed Enforcement Agent, with three more behind him.

"Where's Fabien?" Lex demanded.

The tall Agent at the front gave Lex a slight bow of his head. "We'll be rendezvousing with Mr. Fabien at a separate location, Mr. Yakut. Do you need assistance with anything before we escort you to the vehicle?"

Lex grunted, his ego soothed somewhat by the Agent's deferential tone. "I have a couple of bags in the other room," he said with a dismissive wave in the direction of his quarters. "One of your men can fetch them for me."

Another nod of obeisance from the one in front. "I will see to your things personally. After you, sir."

"This way," Lex said, permitting the escort detail into the lodge as he strolled ahead of their leader to his quarters down the hall. Once inside, he paused near the bed to point out the things he wanted to take. "Grab the garment bag and that leather duffel on the floor over there."

When the Agent didn't move to pick up the bags, just stood there beside him, Lex turned an indignant glare on him. "Well? What the hell are you waiting for, idiot?"

The answering look he got was flat as a blade, and equally cold.

And then Lex understood the chill, because in that next instant, he heard the stacatto pop of several muted gunshots in the other room and his blood ran to ice in his veins.

The Enforcment Agent standing next to him smiled a pleasant smile.

"Mr. Fabien asked me to personally deliver a message from him, Mr. Yakut."

Renata looked tired as Nikolai walked up to her from the field where they'd dumped the bodies of the dead Enforcement Agents. In a few hours, dawn would obliterate all traces of the vampires, not that anyone aside from the local wildlife would notice this far off the nearest road and this far out of the city.

"I threw their uniforms and gear in the back of the vehicle," Renata told him as he approached. "The extra weapons are behind the front seats. Keys are in the ignition."

Niko nodded. After cleaning up all evidence of the Breed assault on the garage apartment, he and Renata had commandeered the Agency's SUV, which their attackers had been helpful enough to leave parked along a side street near Jack's place.

"You hanging in there?" he asked, seeing the fatigue in her eyes. "We can wait here and rest awhile if you need to." She shook her head. "I want to keep moving. We're only a few miles from the lodge."

"Yeah," Niko said. "And I'm not expecting Lex to roll out a red carpet for us when we get there. Things could get ugly real fast. It's been a couple of hours since you mind-blasted those Agents. How long before your reverb sets in?" "Probably not long," she admitted, glancing down at the moonlit grass at their feet.

Niko lifted her chin and couldn't keep from stroking the delicate line of her cheek. "All the more reason to hang out here for a while."

She drew away from him, stubborn with determination. "All the more reason to keep going before the reverb hits. I'll rest after we have Mira." She pivoted around and started walking to the vehicle. "Who's driving – you or me?"

"Hey," he said, catching her hand before she could get very far. He walked up to her and wrapped his arm around the small of her back, easing her into his embrace.

God, she was so beautiful. Any idiot could appreciate the fragile, feminine perfection of her face: the pale, almond-shaped eyes that glittered like moonstones beneath the inky fringe of her lashes; the impish nose and lush, sexy mouth; the milky skin that looked like flawless velvet against the ebony gloss of her hair. Renata's physical beauty was stunning, but it was her courage – her unshakable honor – that really did Niko in.

Somehow, in the short time they'd been forced together, Renata had become a true partner to him. He valued her, trusted her, as much as he did any of his brethren in the Order.

"Hey," he repeated, quieter now, staring into her brave, beautiful face and awed all over again by this extraordinary woman who was proving to be such a vital ally to him. "We made a pretty good team back there, didn't we."

"I was scared as hell, Nikolai," she confessed softly. "They came at us so quickly. I should have reacted faster. I should have – "

"You were amazing." He smoothed an errant wisp of hair from her face and hooked it behind her ear. "You are amazing, Renata, and I'm damned glad to know that I've got you at my back."

She gave him a small, almost shy smile. "Same here."

Maybe it wasn't the ideal time for him to want to kiss her, standing in a godforsaken stretch of backcountry, a trail of blood and death behind them and more of the same sure to be waiting down the line before this journey was over. But all Nikolai wanted to do right now – what he needed, here and now, this very moment – was to feel Renata's lips pressed against his.

He gave in to the urge, leaning in and taking her mouth in a tender, unhurried kiss. Her arms went around him, tentatively at first, but her hands were warm and giving as she stroked his back and held him to her, even after their kiss had ended and she laid her cheek against his chest.

When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "Are we going to find her, Nikolai?"

He pressed his lips to the top of her head. "Yes, we are."

"Do you think she's okay?" His hesitation was brief, but long enough that it brought Renata out of his arms. She frowned, her eyes dimming with hurt. "Oh, my God…you don't believe she is. I can feel your doubt, Nikolai. You think something's happened to Mira."

"It's the blood bond you feel," he said, not even close to a denial of what Renata had read so accurately in him.

She was backing away now, her feet shuffling in the dark grass as she moved toward the SUV. Her face had taken on a stricken look. "We have to go now. We have to find Lex and force him to tell us where she is!"

"Renata, I still think you should wait here awhile and rest. If the reverb hits you – "

"Fuck the reverb!" she cried, tossing her head in mounting panic. "I'm going to Yakut's place. You can either ride along or stay behind, but I'm leaving right fucking now."

He could have stopped her.

If he'd wanted to, he could have been on her faster than she could track him, physically preventing her from taking another step toward the vehicle. He could have tranced her with a simple brush of his hand over her face and forced her to wait out the pain that would probably wipe her out completely not long after they reached the lodge.

He could have held her back in any number of ways, but instead he circled around to the driver's side of the black Humvee before she got there and blocked her entry with his body.

"I'll drive," he said, giving her no chance to argue. "You're shotgun."

Renata stared at him for a second, then walked over and climbed into the passenger seat.

They found their way back to the road and drove the short distance to Yakut's wooded property in silence. Niko cut the lights as they approached at a slow roll. He was about to suggest they bail out and move in on the lodge by foot when he noticed something was off about the place.

"Is it always this quiet?"

"Never," Renata said, shooting him a grave look. She reached behind the seats to pick up some of the Agency weapons. She looped the strap of an automatic rifle over her head, then handed Nikolai one for himself. "Lex only had two guards left, but it doesn't look like anyone is here at all."

And even from this distance, Niko detected the scent of spilled blood. Breed blood, coming from more than one source. "Wait here while I go check things out."

She gave him an insubordinate scoff that he might have predicted was coming.

They both climbed out of the vehicle and moved in tandem toward the dark main house. The front door was wide open.

Fresh tire tracks were laid out in the gravel drive, wide, deep-set tracks like the kind an oversized SUV would leave behind. Niko had a feeling the Enforcement Agency had been here too.

The lodge was utterly silent, reeking with the stench of recent vampire deaths. He didn't need to turn on the lights to see the carnage. His keen vision spotted the two dead males just inside, both shot point-blank in the head with several rounds. He guided Renata around the corpses, following his nose to the back of the place, to Yakut's private quarters. He knew what he was going to find in here as well. Even still, he stepped into the room and let out a furious curse.

Lex was dead.

And with him, so was their best hope of locating Edgar Fabien tonight.

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