Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE)

DEEP IN THE WOODS NOW, Kellan, laughing, cheeks stinging with the cold, scooped up a handful of snow with his gloves and swung around to volley it at Nathan.

The kid was gone.

Mira's giggles trailed from several yards to his left, the barks of the two dogs following her farther into the cover of the dense forest. Kellan paused, silent, listening. Searching the dark for Nathan, anticipating the sudden cold explosion of incoming enemy snowball fire.

This was only mock warfare; Kellan knew that. But there was a spark of competitiveness inside him – a needling urge to prove himself a capable opponent, especially against this strange newcomer who'd been raised and trained by the villain responsible for the murders of Kellan's family.

His senses quirked with the faint stirring of the air. Nathan was moving through the trees now. Kellan's instincts prickled, sending him into a low, stealthy jog toward the subtle disruption of the boy's movement up ahead.

He found Nathan, stalking up on Mira in silence as she played with the dogs. Nathan held a snowball in his hand. In that next instant, he let it fly at Mira.

It shot toward her like a bullet, hitting her square in the back.

She went down as though it had been gunfire, letting out a surprised cry as the force of the impact knocked her flat on her face in a drift.

"Mira!" Kellan shouted, leaping out from his cover in the pines.

He saw the look of surprise on Nathan's face. He hadn't intended to hurt her. But that made no difference to Kellan's instincts. They lit up like a Roman candle, a confusing flood of concern and aggression coursing through his veins in an instant. With a roar, he lobbed his missile at Nathan, pelting the snowball at Mira's attacker with deliberate force.

Nathan dodged the assault and cocked his head in question. Then he reached down and returned fire. He launched one snowball after the other, a relentless hail that drove Kellan back with the force of a hundred fists.

Kellan's anger spiked. His sense of powerlessness kindled a raging fury inside him that exploded out of his mouth in a hoarse bellow. He got up and vaulted at Nathan, meaning to drive his fist into the stoic little killer's face.

Nathan coolly deflected. He moved so fast, Kellan didn't even see the defensive move coming until he found himself hitting the ground on his back, all the air leaving his lungs on a giant wheeze.

Nathan had him pinned, totally incapacitated.

A cold, wet hand was clamped around Kellan's throat, a mere second away from crushing his larynx. Kellan couldn't breathe.

"Stop!" Mira cried. She raced over to them, eyes wild. She tugged at Nathan's arms, but his hold stayed firm and steady on Kellan's neck. "Nathan, please stop! You'll kill him!" Her interference burned Kellan somehow. Embarrassment and humiliation, impotent outrage, rushed into his head as the pressure on his throat eased.

Nathan released him without apology. He stood up, watching without remorse as Kellan coughed and gasped, sucking in air. Mira's face was awash in worry as she hunkered down beside him and placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. Kellan brushed her off, hating that she should witness his degradation.

He dragged his gaze up to meet the silent, placid expression of the boy who had likely killed a dozen men, any one of them far more challenging an opponent than Kellan could ever hope to be. Kellan admired that kind of lethal ability. He'd need it, if he meant to survive in this world Dragos's evil had created. If he meant to avenge the deaths of his kin, as a warrior of the Order one day or on his own, he would need that same cold talent – that same emotional detachment – that he saw reflecting down on him in Nathan's unblinking eyes.

Kellan rubbed his injured throat. Summoned his voice past the acid burn of his humiliation in front of Mira and looked up at the boy who dealt so efficiently in death. "Teach me everything you know."

TAVIA LAY in a pleasure-drowned daze, her limbs tangled with Chase's in the middle of the king- size bed in their room at the Order's compound. She'd lost track of how many times they'd made love. They'd started after the snowball fight of the night before, then picked up again after spending most of the day apart – Tavia with Elise and some of the other Breedmates, sharing meals and pleasant conversation; Chase sequestered in private meetings with Lucan, Gideon, Tegan, and the rest of the warriors.

Now another night was inching toward dawn on the other side of the shuttered windows and Tavia was blissfully, thoroughly spent.

Eyes closed, caught in a lazy, sated doze, she felt him shift slightly beside her on the bed. He kissed her eyelids, one then the other, his lips gentle even as his arousal nudged her hip in blatant demand.

"Mmm," she moaned, her mouth curving as she lifted her heavy lids. "Good morning. You're up early."

"If you're anywhere near me, guaranteed, I'm always going to be up."

She looked into his dark blue gaze and smiled. "Good thing I have Breed genetics too. Otherwise I'd never be able to keep up with you."

"Yeah, but I'd make sure you had fun trying." He kissed her, long and slow, rousing her senses into a heated rush of wakefulness. "Merry Christmas, beauty."

"Christmas?" She thought back on the days and realized it really was. "Never in a million years could I have guessed I'd wake up naked in a vampire's arms on Christmas morning." He grinned. "Santa Claus has already been here and everything. Want to see what he brought for you?"

She laughed. "Is it a big present?"

His eyes gleamed devilishly, lit with amber sparks. "Very big." "With a big red bow on it?"

He glanced down and shrugged, his mouth quirked in a sardonic smile that showed just the barest tips of his fangs. "How about a jaunty cap instead?"

She was still giggling as he kissed her again. When he slid into the wet cleft of her body, her giggles turned to sighs and then to moans of pleasure. He'd learned how to play every inch of her by now, and he was ruthless in his seduction. She surrendered to him wholly, crying out as he brought her to a swift, fevered orgasm.

"My God," she panted, her own fangs filling her mouth as he stoked her toward another shattering release. "Merry Christmas to me."

His answering growl was one of pure masculine pride. "You should see what I do for birthdays."

She laughed drowsily and gazed up at him. The sight of him this close and intimate felt so familiar now, so right. The feel of his naked body pressed against hers was as natural to her as her own breath, her own heartbeat.

And the warm knot that squeezed so tightly in her breast, and traveled lower still, into her very core, was an ache she hoped never to lose.

Deep down, she wondered if she should be afraid.

Because somehow, she realized she had fallen in love with Sterling Chase.