Veil of Midnight (Chapter Eighteen)

Renata stood at the pedestal sink in the bathroom, spat the last of her toothpaste down the drain, then rinsed with several handfuls of cool water. She'd gotten up much later than she intended. Nikolai said she had looked like she needed the rest, so he'd let her sleep until almost ten in the morning. She could have slept another ten days and she'd probably still be tired. She felt awful. Achy all over, weak-limbed. Unsteady on her feet. Her body's internal thermostat couldn't seem to decide between freezing cold and overheated, leaving her racked with alternating shivers and waves of perspiration beading on her brow and the back of her neck.

With her right hand braced on the sink, she put her other under the running faucet, thinking to clamp her cool, wet fingers around the furnace that burned at her nape. One slight shift of her left arm and she hissed in pain.

Her shoulder felt like it was on fire.

She winced as she carefully unbuttoned the top of a big oxford shirt she was borrowing from Jack. Slowly she shrugged out of the left sleeve so she could remove the bandage and inspect her wound. The tape stung as she peeled it away from her tender, aggravated skin. Coagulating blood and antiseptic ointment coated the thick pad of gauze, but the wound underneath was still swollen and seeping.

She didn't need a doctor to tell her that this wasn't good news. Blood and thick yellow fluid drained from the angry red circle surrounding the bullet's open point of entry. Not good at all. Nor did she need a thermometer to confirm that she was probably spiking a fairly high fever due to the onset of infection.

"Shit," she whispered at her haggard, sallow face in the mirror. "I don't have time for this, damn it."

An abrupt knock on the bathroom door made her jump.

"Hey." Nikolai knocked again, two quick raps. "Everything okay in there?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it's all good." Her voice scraped like sandpaper in her throat, little better than a hard rasp of sound. "I'm just brushing my teeth."

"You sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine." Renata wadded up the soiled bandage and tossed it into the trash bin next to the sink. "I'll be out in a few minutes."

The answering pause didn't give her the impression he was going anywhere. She cranked the water to a higher volume and waited, unmoving, her eyes on the closed door.

"Renata…your wound," Nikolai said through the wood panel. There was a gravity to his tone. "It's not healed yet? It should have stopped bleeding by now…"

Although she hadn't wanted him to know what was going on, there was no use denying it now. All of his kind had impossibly acute senses, especially when it came to detecting spilled blood.

Renata cleared her throat. "It's nothing, no big deal. Just needs new dressing and a fresh bandage."

"I'm coming in," he said, and gave the doorknob a twist. It held, locked from the push-button mechanism on the inside. "Renata. Let me in."

"I said, I'm fine. I'll be out in just a – "

She didn't have a chance to finish. Using what could only have been the power of his Breed mind, Nikolai sprang the lock and opened the door wide.

Renata might have cursed him out for barging in like he owned the place, but she was too busy trying to yank the long, loose sleeve of the shirt up to cover herself. She didn't care so much if he saw the inflamed state of her gunshot wound; it was the other marks that she wanted to make disappear.

The permanent ones that had been burned into the skin of her back.

She managed to get the soft cotton cloth around her, but all the shifting and tugging made her shoulder scream and her gut turn inside out as the pain brought on a hefty wave of nausea.

Panting now, awash in a cold sweat, she plopped herself down on the closed toilet lid and tried to act like she wasn't about to lose her stomach all over the tiny black-and-white tiles under her feet.

"For crissake." Nikolai, bare-chested, his borrowed warm-ups hanging low on his trim hips, took one look at her and dropped into a squat in front of her. "You're far from okay in here."

She flinched as he reached for the sagging open collar of the shirt. "Don't."

"I'm just going to check your wound. Something's not right. It should be healing by now." He moved the fabric away from her shoulder and scowled. "Shit. This doesn't look good at all. How does the point of exit look?"

He stood up and leaned over her, his fingers careful as he slid more of the shirt out of his way. Even though she was burning up, she could feel the heat of his body as he hovered so near to her in the small space. "Ah, fuck…this side is worse than the front. Let's get you out of this shirt so I can see exactly what we're dealing with."

Renata froze, her entire system seizing up. "No. I can't."

"Sure you can. I'll help you." When she didn't budge, just sat there holding the front of the big shirt in her tight fist, Nikolai grinned. "If you think you have to be modest with me, you don't. Hell, you've already seen me naked so it's only fair, right?" She didn't laugh. She couldn't. It was hard to hold his gaze, hard to believe the concern that was starting to darken his wintry blue eyes as he waited for her answer. She didn't want to see revulsion there, nor, even worse, pity. "Will you just…go away now? Please? Let me take care of this myself."

"Your wound is infected. You're running a fever because of it."

"I know."

Nikolai's face went sober with some emotion she couldn't discern. "When was the last time you fed?"

She shrugged. "Jack brought me some food last night, but I wasn't hungry."

"Not food, Renata. I'm talking about blood. When was the last time you fed from Yakut?"

"You mean drink his blood?" She couldn't mask her revulsion. "Never. Why would you ask that? Why would you think it?" "He drank from you. I saw him feeding at your vein in his quarters at the lodge. I guess I assumed it was a mutual arrangement."

Renata hated to think about that, let alone be reminded that Nikolai had witnessed her degradation. "Sergei used me for blood whenever he felt the need. Or whenever he wanted to make a point."

"But he never gave you his blood in exchange?"

Renata shook her head.

"No wonder you're not healing faster," Nikolai murmured. He gave a slight shake of his head. "When I saw him drinking from you…I thought you were mated to him. I assumed you were blood-bonded to each other. I thought maybe you cared for him."

"You thought I loved him," Renata said, realizing where he was heading. "It wasn't that. Not even close." She exhaled a sharp breath that grated in her throat. Nikolai wasn't pushing her for answers, and maybe precisely because of that, she wanted him to understand that what she felt for the vampire she had served was anything but affection. "Two years ago, Sergei Yakut plucked me off a downtown street and brought me to his lodge along with several other kids he'd collected that night. We didn't know who he was, or where we were going, or why. We didn't know anything, because he put us all in some kind of trance that didn't lift until we found ourselves locked up together inside a large, dark cage."

"The one inside the barn on his property," Nikolai said, his face grim. "Jesus Christ. He brought you in as live game for his blood club?"

"I don't think any of us realized that monsters truly existed until Yakut, Lex, and a few others came out to open the cage. They showed us the woods, told us to run." She swallowed past the bitterness rising in her throat. "The slaughter began as soon as the first of us broke for the forest."

In her mind, Renata relived the horror in excruciating detail. She could still hear the screams of the victims as they fled, and the terrible howls of the predators who hunted them with such savage zeal. She could still smell the summery tang of pine and loamy moss, nature's scents smothered all too soon by that of blood and death. She could still see the vast darkness surrounding her in the unfamiliar terrain, unseen branches that smacked her cheeks and tore at her clothes as she tried to navigate her escape.

"None of you stood a chance," Nikolai murmured. "They told you to run only to toy with you. To give themselves the illusion that blood clubs have anything to do with sport."

"I know that now." Renata could still taste the futility of all that running. Terror had taken shape out of the black night in the form of glowing amber eyes and bared, bloodied fangs like nothing she'd ever dreamed in her worst nightmare. "One of them caught up to me. He came out of nowhere and began to circle me, readying for the attack. I'd never been more afraid. I was scared and angry and something inside me just…snapped. I felt a power coursing through me, something stronger than the adrenaline that was flooding my body."

Nikolai nodded. "You didn't know about the ability you possessed."

"I didn't know about a lot of things until that night. Every thing had turned inside out. I just wanted to survive – the only thing I knew how to do. So when I felt that energy flowing through me, some visceral instinct told me to turn it loose on my attacker. I pushed it outward with my mind and the vampire staggered back as if I'd physically struck him. I threw more at him, and still more, until he was down on the ground screaming and his eyes were bleeding and his entire body was convulsing in pain." Renata paused, wondering if the Breed warrior staring at her in silence was judging her for her total lack of remorse over what she'd done. She wasn't about to apologize or make excuses. "I wanted him to suffer, Nikolai. I wanted to kill him, and I did."

"What other choice did you have?" he said, reaching out and very tenderly brushing his fingertips along the line of her cheek. "What about Yakut? Where was he during all of this?"

"Not far behind. I had started running again when he stepped into my path and headed me off. I tried to take him down too, but he withstood it. I sent everything I had at him, to the point of exhaustion, but it wasn't enough. He was too strong." "Because he was Gen One."

Renata gave an acknowledging tilt of her head. "He explained it to me later, after that initial bout of reverb had knocked me unconscious for three full days and I woke to find myself pressed into service as a personal bodyguard to a vampire." "You never tried to leave?"

"In the beginning, I tried. More than once. It never took him long to locate me." She tapped her index finger against the vein at the side of her neck. "Hard to get very far when your own blood is better than GPS for your pursuer. He used my blood as insurance of my loyalty. It was a shackle I couldn't break. I was never going to be free of it."

"You're free now, Renata."

"Yeah, I suppose I am," she said, the answer sounding as hollow as it felt. "But what about Mira?"

Nikolai stared at her for a long moment, saying nothing. She didn't want to see the doubt in his eyes, no more than she wanted empty assurances that there was anything either one of them could do for Mira now that she was in enemy hands. All the worse when she was currently weakened by her wound.

Nikolai pivoted to the claw-footed white tub and gave the twin handles a crank. As water rushed into the basin, he turned back to her where she sat. "A cool bath should bring your temperature down. Come on, I'll help you clean up."

"No, I can manage on my own – "

He gave her a no-arguments lift of his brow. "The shirt, Renata. Let me help you out of it so I can have a better look at what's going on with that wound."

Obviously, he wasn't about to give it up. Renata sat very still as Nikolai unfastened the last few buttons on the tent-sized oxford and gently eased it off her. The cotton fell in a soft crush on her lap and around her hips. Despite that she was wearing a bra, modesty ingrained in her from her early years in the church orphanage made her lift her hands up to shield her breasts from his eyes. But he wasn't looking at her in a sexual way just then. All his focus was on her shoulder right now. He was gentle, careful, his fingers probing lightly around the area. He followed the curve of her shoulder over and around to where the bullet had left her flesh. "Does it hurt when I touch you here?"

Even though his touch was barely a skimming contact, pain radiated through her. She winced, sucking in her breath.

"Sorry. There's a lot of redness and swelling near the exit wound," he said, his deep voice vibrating in her bones while his touch moved lightly on her. "It doesn't look great, but I think if we flush it out and…"

As his voice trailed off, she knew what he was seeing now. Not the raw gunshot wound, but two other blemishes on the otherwise smooth skin of her back. She felt those marks sear as hotly as they had the night they'd been put there.

"Holy hell." Nikolai's breath left him in a slow sigh. "What happened to you? Are these burn marks? Jesus…are they brands?"

Renata closed her eyes. Part of her wanted nothing more than to shrink away and vanish into the tile, but she forced herself to remain still, her spine rigidly erect. "They are nothing."

"Bullshit." He stood before her and lifted her chin on the edge of his hand. She let her gaze drift up to meet his and found his pale eyes sharp with intensity. There was no pity in those eyes, only a cold outrage that took her aback. "Tell me. Who did this to you – was it Yakut?"

She shrugged. "Just one of his more creative ways of reminding me that it's not a good idea to piss him off."

"That son of a bitch," Nikolai fumed. "He had his death coming. Just for this – for everything he did to you – the bastard damn well had it coming."

Renata blinked, surprised to hear such fury, such fierce protectiveness, coming from him. Particularly when Nikolai was one of the Breed and she was, as was made clear to her often enough the past two years, merely human. Existing only because she was useful. "You're not like him at all," she murmured. "I thought you would be, but you're nothing like him or Lex or the others. You're…I don't know…different."

"Different?" Although the intensity hadn't left his eyes, Nikolai's mouth quirked at the corner. "Was that almost a compliment, or just your fever talking?"

She smiled despite her state of general misery. "Both, I think."

"Well, different I can handle. Let's cool you down before you start throwing around the n-word."

"The n-word?" she asked, watching as he took the bottle of liquid hand soap from the sink and squirted some into the running bath.

"Nice," he said, and tossed her a wry look over his thick shoulder.

"You're not comfortable with nice?"

"It's never been one of my specialties."

His grin was crooked and more than a little charming as it made his lean cheeks dimple on both sides. Looking at him like this, it wasn't hard to imagine he was a male of many specialties, not all of them the bullets-and-blades variety. She knew firsthand that he had a very nice, very skilled mouth. As much as she wanted to deny it, a part of her was still burning from their kiss back at the lodge, and the heat she felt had nothing to do with her fever.

"Get undressed," Nikolai told her, and for one addled second she wondered if he'd been able to read her thoughts. He ran his hand back and forth through the sudsy water in the tub, then shook it out. "It feels about right. Go on, climb in." Renata watched him set the soap bottle back down on the sink, then start a search of the vanity cabinet below, taking out a folded washcloth and a large towel. While his back was to her and he was distracted searching the toiletries pack for soap and shampoo, Renata quickly slipped out of her bra and panties then stepped into the bathtub.

The cool water was bliss. She sank down with a sigh, her fatigued body instantly soothed. As she carefully settled in and submerged herself up to her breasts in the soapy bath, Nikolai ran a washcloth under cold water at the sink.

He folded it and pressed it gently against her brow. "That feel all right?"

She nodded, closing her eyes as he held the compress to her forehead. The urge to lean back against the tub was tempting, but when she tried to, that brief moment of pressure on her shoulder made her recoil, hissing in pain.

"Here," Nikolai said, putting the palm of his free hand at the center of her back. "Just relax. I'll hold you up."

Renata slowly let her weight come to rest on his strong hand. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had taken care of her. Not like this. God, had there ever been a time? Her eyes drifted closed in silent gratitude. With Nikolai's strong hands on her tired body, a strange, utterly foreign sensation of safety spread over her, as comforting as a blanket.

"Better?" he asked.

"Mm-hmm. It's nice," she said, then opened one eye just a slit and glanced at up him. "N-word. Sorry."

He grunted as he took the cold compress away from her brow. He was looking at her with a seriousness that made her heart kick a little in her chest. "You want to tell me about those marks on your back?"

"No." Renata's breath seized up at the thought of baring even more to him than she had already. She wasn't ready for that. Not with him, not like this. It was a humiliation she could hardly stand to think about, let alone put into words.

He didn't say anything to break the silence that stretched out between them. He dipped the washcloth into the water and brought some of the sudsy lather to her good shoulder. The coolness flowed over her, rivulets running over the swell of her breast and down her arm. Nikolai swabbed her neck and breastbone, then carefully made his way over to the wound on her left side.

"Is this all right?" he asked, his voice a low tremor.

Renata nodded her head, unable to speak when his touch felt so tender and welcome. She let him wash her, her gaze drifting to the beautiful pattern of color on his bare chest and arms. His dermaglyphs weren't as numerous or as thickly tangled as Yakut's had been. Nikolai's Breed markings were an artful twining of swirls and flourishes and flamelike shapes that danced across his smooth golden skin.

Curious, and before she realized what she was doing, Renata reached out to trace one of the arching designs that tracked down his thick biceps. She heard his slight intake of breath, the sudden halt of his lungs as her fingers played lightly over his skin, the deep rumble of his growl.

When he looked at her, his brows were low over his eyes. His pupils thinned sharply, and the blue of his irises began to flicker with amber sparks. Renata pulled her hand back, an apology at the very tip of her tongue.

She didn't get the chance to say a word.

Moving faster than she could track him, and with a predator's smooth grace, Nikolai closed the scant few inches that separated them. In the next instant his mouth was brushing sweetly against hers. His lips were so soft, so warm and coaxing. All it took was one tempting slide of his tongue along the seam of her mouth and Renata eagerly, hungrily, let him in.

She felt a new heat kindling to life within her, something stronger than the pain of her wound, which faded to insignificance under the pleasure of Nikolai's kiss. He brought his hand up out of the water behind her and cradled her in a careful embrace, his mouth never leaving hers.

Renata melted into him, too weary to consider all the reasons it would be a mistake to let this continue any further. She wanted it to continue – wanted it so badly she was shaking. She couldn't feel anything but Nikolai's strong hands caressing her, heard only the pound of her own heart and his, the heavy beats matched in tempo. She tasted only the heat of his seductive mouth claiming her…and knew only that she wanted more.

A knock sounded from outside the garage apartment.

Nikolai growled against her mouth and drew back. "Someone's at the door."

"That'll be Jack," Renata said, breathless, her pulse still throbbing. "I'll go see what he wants."

She tried to shift in the tub to get out and felt her shoulder light up with pain.

"The hell you will," Nikolai told her, already standing up. "You're staying put. I'll handle Jack."

Nikolai was a large male by any standards, but he seemed enormous now, his clear blue eyes crackling with burnished amber and the dermaglyph markings on his muscular arms and torso alive with color. He was apparently large elsewhere too, a fact that was hardly concealed by the loose-fitting nylon pants.

When the knock sounded again outside, he cursed, the tips of his fangs gleaming. "Does anyone besides Jack know we're here?"

Renata shook her head. "I asked him not to say anything to anyone. We can trust him."

"I guess it's as good a time as any to find that out, eh?"

"Nikolai," she said as he grabbed the shirt she'd been wearing and shrugged into the long sleeves. "About Jack…he's a good man. A decent man. I don't want anything to happen to him."

He smirked. "Don't worry. I'll try to be nice."