Edge of Dawn (Chapter Three)

MIRA LET A CURSE FLY ALONG WITH HER BLADE AS SHE CONTINUED A VIGOROUS SOLO SESSION IN THE TRAINING ROOM of the Boston Operations Center. It was late – or, rather, early. Barely three in the morning, and she probably should have been in bed sleeping off a bad night that had only gotten worse with a well-deserved reprimand delivered personally by Lucan Thorne.

Instead, on her dismissal from the video-conferenced rebuke and the news that she was being pulled from active duty effective immediately, Mira had headed straight for the indoor target range. For the past hour, she'd been pushing herself hard, driving her body toward exhaustion in an effort to purge the tight coil of anger and frustration that was still knotted up within her.

Her training had taught her better discipline than what she'd demonstrated a few hours ago in the city, and apart from the disapproval of the Order's founder and commander, she hated that she'd let emotion rule her. All the more so when her actions had put a very public stain on both her team and Nathan's, as well as the Order in general – at a time, Lucan had reminded her, when the Breed and mankind needed nothing to derail their hard-won progress toward peace.

He was right, of course. No matter how deep her ache over the loss of Kellan, nor her contempt for those she held responsible, her duty to the Order had to come first. As a warrior, she should be above such weakness. She had to be stronger than that, damn it. But she'd failed.

And now she would have to pay the price.

Remorse and self-directed anger put a hard edge to her stride as she stalked back into ready position on the range. Tucking loose strands of her blond hair back into her long braid, then wiping at the moisture that beaded her brow and added to the sting of unshed tears in her eyes, Mira prepared herself for another punishing round of training. With ruthless focus, she drew the remaining dagger from the pair of sheaths strapped to the thighs of her black fatigues, then completed a rapid series of strike and counterstrike moves against an imaginary opponent. She was breathing hard, sweat trickling down her temples and between her breasts as she drove herself through another round of mock combat, then still another.

She kept going, until she was panting from exertion, muscles screaming, her white tank damp and clinging to her skin. Then, with a final thrust of power, she pivoted into a battle crouch and loosed her weapon from her nimble fingers. The blade shot forward in an arrow-straight path, nothing but a flash of gleaming metal in the instant before it struck home in the target at the far end of the range.

"Flawless execution." From behind her, Nathan's voice caught her by surprise. "Your blade work is impressive, as always."

Mira hadn't even heard him come into the room, a fact she attributed to both her deep concentration on what she was doing and her friend's unnerving furtiveness. Not that Nathan's lethal silence came as any shock. Being Breed, he could move faster than any outside his kind could see, let alone match. But Nathan's stealth went deeper than that.

He had been bred and raised in a madman's laboratory, created for the sole purpose of dealing death, until he was recovered by his birth mother and taken in by the Order when he was just a teen. Mira had known Nathan from the time she was a child, had long ago come to hold him as dear and trusted as her own family. Still, she hid her face from him now, brushing the sweat and hot tears from her cheeks while keeping her back to him.

"Don't look at me, Nathan." Not because of her tears but for another, bigger reason. She gestured to the lens case that held her custom-made contacts. "My eyes. They're bare. I thought I would be alone in here, so I left my Sight unshielded while I trained."

Like all Breedmates and the Breed offspring they bore, Mira had an extrasensory gift unique to her. More powerful than many, hers was the ability to show someone a glimpse of their destiny in the reflection of her clear, mirrorlike irises. Often those glimpses were unwelcome, even horrifying. She couldn't control what people saw, nor was she privy to the details of the vision herself. And the cost for using her gift was an incremental degeneration of her eyesight.

As a girl, she'd worn a short veil over her face to protect her vision and mute her Sight. After her parents, Nikolai and Renata, had brought her with them to live under the protection of the Order, Mira had been given special contacts like the ones she wore to this day.

The air behind her stirred subtly with Nathan's movement, then the smooth plastic lens case was pressed into her palm. "Why didn't you let me stand with you when Lucan called tonight? You didn't have to face him alone. I would have vouched for you, shouldered some of the blame for what happened."

"I would never ask you to do that nor allow you to," she said, dismissing the idea outright as she put the violet-colored contacts into her eyes. The last thing she would've wanted was for Nathan or any member of their two squads to be undeservedly penalized for her actions. The only one she'd like to see hurting was the rebel sympathizer she let slip through her fingers earlier tonight. "Has there been any word about Rooster? I suppose the JUSTIS detail has released him back into the wild by now."

When she swiveled around to look at Nathan, he gave a vague shake of his head. "He'd committed no crime, has no outstanding warrants. There was no cause to hold him, so he was free to go."

"Damn it," she muttered, ignoring the Breed warrior's assessing look. "Who knows how long it will take before the bastard resurfaces again."

Without waiting for his reply, she strode away from Nathan, down the length of the target range to retrieve her blades. When she returned, he was watching her in his cool, detached way, studying her as he might a tactical plan or a puzzle in need of solving. "I hear it didn't go well for you with Lucan."

She lifted her shoulder in acknowledgment. "He was right to be upset with me. I acted out of line, and that's unacceptable. I should have been more careful. If I wanted to take care of that human rubbish, I should've done it out of the public eye. Next time, I'll know to be more discreet."

"Next time." Nathan swore low under his breath. "You've been relieved of duty until further notice, Mira. There can be no next time, or you can expect to find yourself pulled from the ranks permanently. That's not what anyone wants. I know that's not what you want."

"No," she said. "What I want is vengeance."

"And so you charge into every battle with a head full of fury, guns blazing, knives flying, and damn the consequences." At another time, she might have taken it as a compliment to her bravery, but the indictment in her friend's expression was impossible to deny. He was silent for a long moment, studying her. "A warrior driven by such selfish means is not a warrior fit to lead others into battle. Maybe unfit to serve at all."

Lucan had told her much the same thing earlier tonight. That she had earned the disapproval of the Order's founder and commander was bad enough. Disappointing Nathan and the other warriors who served alongside her was much harder to bear. "I'm sorry," she said, meaning it wholeheartedly. "I wish I could forget him, Nathan, but I can't."

"You still love him."

Not a question, and she couldn't begin to deny it. Nathan, along with most of the Order and their mates, had long ago recognized the bond that had formed between Kellan and her over the years. What had begun for her as a childhood crush on a sullen, damaged boy had blazed into something much deeper as she matured into a young woman and watched Kellan become a courageous soldier, a good man of unshakable honor.

Mira had loved Kellan from the time she was eight years old. Growing up, he'd been her best friend, her favorite sparring partner when she'd entered training to become a warrior. He'd been her first kiss at fifteen. Her first taste of desire, when sparring and laughter turned to heated glances and caresses that left her virgin body trembling and hungry for more.

Kellan had been the only one for her. How many times had she imagined their life together? How often had she dreamed of their future, of sharing an eternity with him as his blood-bonded mate?

But he'd always held something of himself back from her. She'd never understood why. And then they'd shared one incredible night together – a night when she'd had all of him, at last – only to lose him forever a few short hours later in the blast that took his life.

"I can't forget him, Nathan. And I can't forgive the ones who tore him out of our lives. How do you do it? After all, Kellan was your friend too."

"The best I'll ever have." Nathan and Kellan had been as close as brothers. Maybe closer, having walked into combat together countless times as members of the same Order squad. They'd faced death together unflinchingly, dealt it without mercy when duty called for it. And they'd done it as friends, family, brothers-in-arms. Mira could see the pain of that loss in Nathan's greenish blue eyes, even though his handsome face held its stoic, soldier's expression. "I miss him too, Mira. I hate like hell that he's gone. But he is gone. He's dead. Throwing away your future won't bring him back."

God, if it would? For a brief, sharply desperate moment, she wondered what she would be willing to sacrifice to have Kellan alive again. Nearly a decade without him, and she still ached to see him, to touch him. Pathetic, how deeply she longed for that. Some stubborn piece of her still clung to the hope that this was just some awful, cosmic mistake that had to be corrected soon and then everything would be as it should be once again.

Right. Pathetic.

"When do you return to Montreal?" Nathan asked, a welcome break from her dark thoughts, drawing her back to reality. Which wasn't much brighter at the moment.

"I don't go back. Not for a while, that is." She slanted him a rueful glance. "I've been summoned to D.C. for an in-person Council review with Lucan and the other Order commanders. Where, I'm all but sure, I'll be asked to step down from my post as captain. Webb's standing in as my replacement. Lucan's decision. He's already sent the team back to base without me."

Idly, she traced her thumb over the scrollwork of one of her hand-tooled daggers – a gift from Nikolai and Renata, who were the closest thing to parents that she'd ever known. The blades were fashioned similarly to the ones Renata wielded so beautifully, but this pair had been designed especially for Mira, presented to her on the day she was promoted to captain.

The hilts of her two daggers were carved on each side, etched by the same artisan, bearing the same words that graced Renata's four: Courage. Sacrifice. Honor. Faith.

She'd never felt more unworthy of holding them.

Nathan eyed her in grave silence, and even though he spared her from his opinion on the matter, she could tell that he understood as well as she did that her position with the Order was tenuous at best. She'd been exiled to a kind of no-man's-land, not fully yanked from her footing but cut adrift just the same.

"Has a date been set for your Council review?"

She nodded. "Four days from now, just before the GNC peace summit begins. But my demotion starts immediately." Adding to the sting of her censure, she had also been relegated to a special assignment that was anything but special. "I've been drafted into nanny detail for one of the summit's award recipients. Some egghead recluse named Ackroyd or Ackerman."

"Ackmeyer," Nathan corrected. "Jeremy Ackmeyer. The human is a science wunderkind, Mira. Eccentric, but brilliant. Ackmeyer holds patents on everything from textiles and plant genomes to solar energy."

She acknowledged with a mild shrug. "That's the guy. Genius or not, apparently he spooks at everything, including his own shadow. He's also related to one of the GNC's directors. Lucan said the Order had been asked to provide personal escort for Ackmeyer from his home in the Berkshires down to the summit, make sure he arrived in time to accept his much-hyped award from Crowe Enterprises."

She could hardly keep from rolling her eyes at the thought of being part of Reginald Crowe's circus sideshow, even if her role was being forced on her. Although Lucan hadn't framed the assignment as punishment, Mira knew it was his way of ensuring she had her hands full – of tasking her with something menial that would keep her out of trouble and off the streets – until such time as he was able to deal with her personally and decide her fate within the Order.

Nathan considered for a long moment. "It could be worse. You can't have fallen too far out of Lucan's regard if he's still willing to keep you in play with a solo mission."

She exhaled a humorless laugh. "This is hardly a mission; we both know that. And the only reason I'm solo on it is because Ackmeyer insists on daytime travel only. That automatically rules out ninety-nine point nine percent of the Order's membership, unless they want to risk ashing themselves along the way."

Ackmeyer had other requirements for his escort to the summit as well, phobias about mass transit and airborne diseases that restricted him to traveling by car – brand new, of course, the interior vacuumed extensively and scrubbed from top to bottom with disinfectant. He demanded no more than four hours of drive time per day, yet he refused to stay in public lodging. Which meant by the time they reached Washington, an eleven-hour drive would take more than sixty, all of it spent together in the close confines of the car.

No wonder Lucan had assigned Ackmeyer's safety to her. Any one of the warriors she knew would likely strangle the oddball human before they reached the southern Massachusetts state line. She hoped like hell she wouldn't be tempted herself. If she stood even a slim chance of salvaging her position within the Order, delivering a throttled guest of honor wouldn't be the best approach.

In some private, dangerous corner of her heart, she knew that if Lucan bounced her from the Order, she would continue to fight. She would still want justice, vengeance against the rebels who had upended her world when they took Kellan from it. She didn't know how far she would go to right that wrong, but it terrified her a little to consider it. Her hatred ran too hot, had scarred her too deeply.

Her blades felt cold, tooled hilts biting into her palms. She flipped the daggers around in her fingers and slid them home into their sheaths on her thighs. "Anyway, I leave in a few hours, then it's on to meet my fate in D.C.," she told Nathan. "I should head to bed, try to get some sleep before I go."

"Mira," he said as she started to walk away from him. She didn't want to talk anymore. Didn't want to think about what waited for her at the end of her journey in just four days' time, nor where she might go from there. "Mira, stop."

She paused, swiveled around to meet her dear friend's sober gaze.

"Be careful," he said, eyes holding her in an unblinking stare that seemed to penetrate right to the core of her. "The line you're walking is thin enough. Do this right. You're too good to give up now. Don't give Lucan any more reason to cut you loose."

"There's nothing to worry about." She forced a mild scowl and lightly shook her head, deliberate in her misunderstanding. "I'm on babysitting detail, not a mission. Nothing's going to go wrong."