Veil of Midnight (Chapter Six)
"Sweet dreams, angel," Renata whispered low under her breath, hopeful words.
She worried about Mira more and more lately. It wasn't just the nightmares that had set in after the attack she'd witnessed but Mira's overall health that concerned Renata the most. Even though the girl was strong, her mind quick and sharp, she wasn't well.
Mira was rapidly losing her sight.
Each time she was made to exercise her gift of precognitive reflection, some of her own eyesight deteriorated. It had been fading steadily for months before Mira had confided in Renata about what was happening to her. She was afraid, as any child would be. Perhaps more so, because Mira was wise beyond her eight years of age. She understood that her value to Sergei Yakut would evaporate the moment the vampire deemed her of no more use to him. He would cast her out, perhaps even put her to death if it pleased him.
So on that night, Renata and Mira had made a pact: They would keep Mira's condition a secret between them – take it to the grave, if need be. Renata had taken the promise one step further, vowing to Mira that she would protect her with her life. She swore no harm would ever come to her, not from Yakut or from anyone else, human or Breed. Mira would be safe from the pain and darkness of life in a way that Renata herself had never known.
That the girl had been trotted out to entertain Sergei Yakut's uninvited guest tonight only added to Renata's current irritated state. The worst of her psychic reverb had passed, but a headache still lingered at the edges of her senses. Her stomach hadn't yet stopped pitching. Small waves of nausea lapped at her like a slowly receding tide.
Renata closed Mira's door, shivering a little with the roll of another body tremor. The long bath she'd just come from had helped ease some of her discomfort, but even beneath her loose-fitting graphite-colored yoga pants and soft white cotton jersey, her skin still tingled, raw with the crackling electricity that swam underneath her skin.
Renata rubbed her palms over the sleeves of her shirt, trying to chase away some of the fiery sensation still traveling along her arms. Too wired for sleep, she stopped by her own room only long enough to retrieve a small cache of blades from her weapons trunk. Training always proved a welcome outlet for her restlessness. She relished the hours of physical punishment she inflicted on herself, glad for the rigorous training exercises that wore her out, toughened her up.
Since the terrible night she found herself plunged into Sergei Yakut's dangerous world, Renata had honed every muscle in her body to its peak condition, worked slavishly to make sure that she was as sharp and lethal as the weapons she carried in the silk- and-velvet wrapper now clutched in her hand.
That simple guiding thought had been her beacon from the time she was a child – even younger than Mira. And so alone. An orphan abandoned in the chapel of a Montreal convent, Renata had no past, no family, no future. She existed; no more than that. And for Renata, it had been enough. It was enough, even now. Especially now, navigating the treacherous underworld of Sergei Yakut's realm. There were enemies all around her in this place, both hidden and overt. Countless ways for her to misstep, to misspeak. Endless opportunities for her to displease the ruthless vampire who held her life in his hands and end up bleeding and dying. But never without a fight.
Her mantra from her early childhood days served her just as aptly here: Survive another day. Then another, and another.
There was no room for softness in that equation. No allowances for pity or shame or love. Especially not love, not in any form. Renata knew that her affection for Mira – the nurturing impulse that made her want to smooth the way for the child, to protect her like her own kin – was probably going to cost her dearly in the end.
Sergei Yakut had wasted little time exploiting that weakness in her; Renata had the scars to prove it.
But she was strong. She'd been dealt nothing in this life that she could not bear, physical or otherwise. She had survived it all. Sharp and strong, lethal when she had to be.
Renata stepped outside the lodge and strode through the darkness to one of the peripheral outbuildings in back. The hunter who'd originally built the woodland compound had evidently doted on his dogs. An old timber kennel stood behind the main residence, laid out like a stable, with a wide space cutting down the center and four gated pens lining each side. The open-beam roof overhead peaked some fifteen feet high.
Although small, it was an open, airy space. There was a larger, newer barn on the property that would allow for better movement, but Renata tended to avoid the other building.
One time inside that dark, dank place was plenty. If she had her way, she'd burn the damn thing down to cinders. Renata flicked on the switch inside the kennel door and winced as the bare bulb overhead poured a wash of harsh yellow light into the space. She walked in, over the smooth, hard-packed earthen floor, past the dangling ends of two long, braided leather straps that were looped around the center rafter beam of the structure.
At the far end of the kennel interior stood a tall wooden post that used to be rigged with small iron hooks and loops for storing leashes and other gear. Renata had pried away the rigging months ago, and now the post functioned as a stationary target, dark wood scored with deep gashes, gouges, and nicks.
Renata placed her wrapped blades on a tight bale of straw that squatted nearby. She slipped out of her shoes, then padded barefoot to the center of the kennel and reached up to take the pair of long leather straps, one in each hand. She looped the leather around her wrists a couple of times, testing the slack. When it was comfortable, she flexed her arms and lifted herself up off the floor as smoothly as though she had wings.
Suspended, feeling weightless, temporarily transported, Renata began her warm-up with the straps. The leather creaked softly as she turned and shifted her body several feet off the ground. This was peace to her, the feel of her limbs burning, growing stronger and more agile with each controlled movement.
Renata let herself slide into a light meditation, eyes closed, all her senses trained inward, concentrating on her heartbeat and breathing, on the fluid concert of her muscles as she stretched from one long, taxing hold to another. It wasn't until she had pivoted into an upside-down pose, her ankles now caught securely in the straps to hold her aloft, that she felt a stirring in the air around her. It was sudden and subtle, but unmistakable.
As unmistakable as the heat of an exhaled breath that now warmed her cheek.
Her eyes snapped open. Struggled to focus on the inverted surroundings and the intruder who stood under her. It was the Breed warrior – Nikolai.
"Shit!" she hissed, her inattention making her sway a bit from the straps. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" "Easy now," Nikolai said. He lifted his hand as if he meant to steady her. "Wasn't trying to scare you."
"You don't." Flat words, spoken coldly. With a liquid flex of her body, she moved herself out of his reach. "Do you mind? You're interrupting my training."
"Ah." His dark blond brows quirked upward as his gaze followed the line of her body to where she still hung by her ankles. "What exactly is it you're training for up there, Cirque du Soleil?"
She didn't dignify the jab with a reply. Not that he waited for one. He pivoted away from her and walked over to the post at the far end of the kennel. He reached out, fingers tracing the deeper of the wood's many scars. Then he found her blades and lifted the cloth that contained them. Metal clinked together softly within the folded square of ribbon-tied silk and velvet. "Don't touch those," Renata said, freeing herself of the straps and swinging around to bring her feet onto the ground. She stalked forward. "I said, don't touch them. They're mine."
He didn't resist when she snatched the prized possession – the only things of value she could claim as her own – out of his hands. The spike in her emotions made her head spin a little, lingering aftereffects of the psychic reverberation that she'd hoped was past. She took a step backward. Had to work to steady her breath.
She didn't like the look of concern in his blue eyes, as if he could sense her weakness. As if he knew she wasn't as strong as she wanted to – needed to – appear.
"I'm fine." Renata brought the blades over to one of the kennel pens and unwrapped them. One by one, she carefully set each of the four hand-tooled daggers down on the wooden ledge in front of her. She forced a smug lightness into her voice. "Seems like I should be the one asking you that question, don't you think? I dropped you pretty hard back there in the city." She heard his low grunt somewhere behind her, almost a scoff.
"We can never be too cautious when it comes to outsiders," she said. "Especially now. I'm sure you understand."
When she finally glanced over at him, she found him staring at her. "Sweetheart, the only reason you had the chance to drop me was because you played dirty. Making sure I'd notice you, pretending you had something to hide and knowing I'd follow you out of that club. Right into your little trap."
Renata lifted her shoulder, unapologetic. "All's fair in love and war."
He gave her a slow smile that hinted at twin dimples in his lean cheeks. "War, is it?"
"It sure as hell isn't love."
"No," he said, all serious now. "Never that."
Well, at least they agreed on something.
"How long have you been working for Yakut?"
Renata shook her head as if unable to recall specifically, even though that night was etched in her mind as if it had been burned there. Blood-drenched. Horrific. The beginning of an end. "I don't know," she said lightly. "A couple of years, I guess. Why?"
"Just wondering how a female – even a Breedmate with your powerful psychic ability – would end up in this line of work, particularly for a Gen One like him. It's unusual, that's all. Hell, it's unheard of. So, tell me. How was it you hooked up with Sergei Yakut?"
Renata stared at this warrior – this stranger, dangerous and cunning, suddenly intruding on her world. She wasn't sure how to answer. She certainly wasn't about to give him the truth. "If you have questions, maybe you should ask him."
"Yeah," he said, studying her too closely now. "Maybe I'll do that. What about the kid – Mira? Has she been here as long as you?"
"Not as long, no. Just six months." Renata tried to sound casual, but a fierce protective instinct rose in her at the mention of Mira's name on this Breed male's lips. "She's been through a lot in that short time. Things no child should have to witness."
"Like the attack on Yakut last week?"
And other, darker, things, Renata acknowledged inwardly. "Mira has nightmares just about every night now. She hardly sleeps more than a couple hours at a time."
He nodded in sober acknowledgment. "This is no damn place for a kid. Some might say it's no place for a female either." "Is that what you would say, warrior?"
His answering chuckle neither confirmed nor denied it.
Renata watched him, questions of her own bubbling into her mind. One in particular. "What did you see in Mira's eyes earlier tonight?"
He grunted something low under his breath. "Trust me, you wouldn't want to know."
"I'm asking, aren't I? What did she show you?"
"Forget it." Holding her gaze, he raked a hand through the golden strands of his hair, then exhaled a ripe curse and looked away from her. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. The girl definitely got it wrong."
"Mira is never wrong. She hasn't been wrong once, not in all the time I've known her."
"Is that so?" His penetrating blue stare swung back to her, both hot and cold as it traveled the length of her body in a slow, assessing glance. "Alexei tells me her skill is imperfect – "
"Lex." Renata scoffed. "Do yourself a favor and don't put your faith in anything Lex tells you. He says and does nothing without an ulterior motive."
"Thanks for the tip." He leaned back against the blade-scarred post. "So, then, it's not true, what he said – that Mira's eyes only reflect events that could happen in the future, based on the now?"
"Lex may have his own personal reasons for wishing it wasn't so, but Mira's never wrong. Whatever she showed you tonight, it's fated to be."
"Fated," he said, sounding amused by that. "Well, shit. Then I guess we're doomed."
He looked pointedly at her as he said it, all but daring her to ask if he deliberately included her in that observation. Since he seemed to find the idea so damned entertaining, she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of asking him to explain why.
Renata picked up one of her blades and tested the weight of it in her open palm. The cold steel felt good against her skin, solid and familiar. Her fingers itched to be working. Her muscles were limber from the warm-up, ready to be pushed with an hour or two of hard training.
She pivoted around with the blade in hand and motioned to the post Nikolai was leaning up against. "Do you mind? I wouldn't want to misjudge my mark and accidentally hit you instead."
He glanced at the post and shrugged. "Wouldn't you rather make it interesting, spar with a real opponent – one that can strike back? Or maybe you operate best with the odds stacked unevenly in your favor."
She knew he was baiting her, but the glint in his eye was playful, teasing. Was he actually flirting with her? His easy nature made her hackles raise with wariness. She ran her thumb along the edge of the blade as she stared at him, unsure what to make of him now. "I prefer to work alone."
"Okay." He inclined his head but took only a fractional step out of the way. Challenging her with a look. "Suit yourself." Renata frowned. "If you're not going to move, how can you be sure I won't aim for you?"
He grinned, full of cocky amusement, his thick arms crossed over his chest. "Aim all you want. You'll never hit me." She let the blade fly without the slightest warning.
Sharp steel bit into the wooden post with a solid crack, striking home exactly where she'd sent it. But Nikolai was gone. Just like that, vanished from her line of sight completely.
He was Breed, far faster than any human and as agile as a jungle predator. She was no match for him with weapons or physical strength; she knew that even before she sent the dagger airborne. But she'd hoped to at least nick the cocky son of a bitch for goading her.
Her own reflexes honed to precision, Renata threw her arm out and reached for another one of her waiting blades. But just as her fingers closed around the tooled grip, she felt the air stir behind her, heat sifting through the swaying chin-length strands of her hair.
Razor-sharp metal came up under her jaw. A wall of hard muscle crowded her spine.
"You missed me."
She swallowed carefully around the light press of the blade beneath her chin. As smoothly as she could manage, she relaxed her arms at her sides. Then brought the hand with the dagger in it from behind her to rest meaningfully between his parted thighs. "Looks like I found you."
Simply because she could, Renata hit him with a small jolt of her mind's power.
"Fuck," he growled, and in the instant his hold on her eased up, she slipped out of his reach and whirled to face him. She expected anger from him, feared it a little, but he only lifted his head and gave her a small shrug. "No worries, sweetheart. I'll just have to toy with you until the reverb kicks in and takes you down."
When she stared at him, confused and stricken that he could know about the flaw in her ability, he said, "Lex clued me in to a few things about you too. He told me what happens to you every time you fire off one of those psychic missiles. Powerful stuff. If I were you, I wouldn't waste it just because you feel you need to prove a point."
"Screw Lex," Renata muttered. "And screw you too. I don't need your advice, and I sure as hell don't need either of you talking shit about me behind my back. This conversation is over."
Angry now, she recoiled her arm and released the dagger in his direction, knowing he could easily step out of its path just like before. Only this time he didn't move. With a lightning-quick snap of his free hand, he reached out and caught the sailing blade in midair. His smug grin totally set her off.
Renata snatched the last dagger from its resting spot on the kennel ledge and let it fly at him. Like the other before it, this one too was plucked from the air and now caught in the Breed warrior's nimble hands.
He watched her, unblinking, and with a masculine heat that should have left her cold, but didn't. "Now what will we do for fun, Renata?"
She glared at him. "Entertain yourself. I'm out of here."
She turned, ready to stalk out of the kennel. No sooner had she taken two steps than she heard a whooshing sound on either side of her head – so close it made a few errant strands of her hair blow forward into her face.
Then, ahead of her, a blur of flying, polished steel blasting toward the far wall.
The two daggers that had sailed past her head with un-erring aim were now buried into the old wood halfway to their hilts. Renata spun around, furious. "You assho – "
He was right on top of her, his massive body forcing her backward, blue eyes flashing with something deeper than amusement or basic male arrogance. Renata retreated a pace, only far enough that she could brace her weight on one heel. She rocked back and pivoted, her other leg coming up in a roundhouse kick.
Fingers as unyielding as iron bands locked down around her ankle and twisted.
Renata went down onto the kennel floor, flat on her back. He followed her there, spreading himself over her and trapping her beneath him while she fought with flailing fists and pumping legs. It took him all of a minute to subdue her.
Renata panted from the exertion, chest heaving, pulse racing. "Now who's the one with something to prove, warrior? You win. Happy now?"
He stared down at her in an odd sort of silence, neither gloating nor glowering. His gaze was steady and calm, too intimate. She could feel his heart hammering against her sternum. His thighs straddled hers, and he'd caught both her hands above her head in one of his. He held her firmly, his fingers trapping coiled fists in a loose, incredibly warm grasp. His gaze strayed up to their locked hands, fiery light crackling in his irises as he found the little crimson teardrop-and-crescent moon birthmark that rode on the inside of her right wrist. His thumb stroked over that very spot, a mesmerizing caress that sent heat coursing through her veins. "You still wanna know what I saw in Mira's eyes?"
Renata ignored the question, certain it was the last thing she needed to know right now. She struggled hard underneath the heavy muscular slab of his body weight, but he held her down with damn little effort. Bastard. "Get off me."
"Ask me again, Renata. What did I see?"
"I said, get off me," she snarled, feeling panic rise within her chest. She took a calming breath, knowing she had to keep her head. She had to get the situation under control, and fast. The last thing she needed was Sergei Yakut coming out and finding her pinned and powerless beneath this other male. "Let me up now."
"What are you afraid of?"
"Nothing, goddamn you!"
She made the mistake of lifting her gaze to his. Amber heat sparked inside the blue of his eyes, flame devouring ice. His pupils were narrowing swiftly, and behind the peeled-back grimace of his lips, she saw the sharp points of his emerging fangs.
If he was angry now, that was only part of the cause of his physical transformation; where his pelvis bore down on hers she felt the hard ridge of his groin, the very obvious length of his cock pressing deliberately between her legs.
She shifted, trying to escape that hot, erotic grind of their bodies, but it only wedged him tighter against her. Renata's racing pulse jumped into a more urgent tempo, and an unwanted warmth began to bloom in her core.
Oh, God. Not good. This was so not good.
"Please," she moaned, hating herself for the weak quaver of the word. Hating him too.
She wanted to close her eyes, refuse to see his searing, hungry gaze or his mouth so near her own. She wanted to refuse to feel everything illicit that he was stirring in her – the danger of this unexpected, deadly desire. But her eyes stayed rooted on his, unable to look away, her body's response to him stronger than even her iron will.
"Ask me what the child showed me tonight in her eyes," he demanded, his voice as low as a purr. His lips were so close to hers, the soft skin brushed against her mouth as he spoke. "Ask it, Renata. Or maybe you'd rather see for yourself." The kiss went through her blood like fire.
Lips pressing together hotly, warm breath rushing, mingling. His tongue tracing the seam of her mouth, thrusting inside on her wordless gasp of pleasure. She felt his fingers caressing her cheek, sliding into the hair at her temple, then around to her sensitive nape.
He lifted her to him, deeper into the kiss that was melting her, breaking down all her resistance.
Oh, God. No, no, no.
Can't do this. Cannot feel this.
Renata tore herself away from the erotic torture of his mouth, turning her head aside. She was shaking, emotions spiked to a dangerous level. She risked so much here, with him now. Too much.
Mother Mary, but she had to extinguish this flame he'd lit within her. It was molten, deadly so. She had to snuff it out fast. Warm fingers touched her chin, guided her gaze back to the source of her distress. "Are you all right?"
She extracted her hands from his loose, one-fisted grasp above her head and shoved at him, incapable of speech.
He moved off at once. He took her hand and helped her up to her feet, assistance she didn't want but was too stricken to refuse. She stood there, unable to look at him, trying to collect herself.
Praying like hell she hadn't just signed her own death warrant.
When she finally found her voice, it leaked out of her, quiet and cold with desperation. "Come near me again," she said, "and I swear I will kill you."