Veil of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-three)

Nikolai's heart froze in his chest, a stricken, fear-filled lump of ice. With gunfire still erupting in the area, he had made it back through the woods, all the way to the place where his bonded blood had told him he'd find his terrified mate.

Renata was there. She stood in the moonlit darkness of the forest, as still as a statue and looking on as an immense Gen One vampire crouched before Mira, holding the child in his punishing hands.

Jesus Christ.

Niko moved in on soundless feet, creeping in closer and trying to find a position that he could shoot from that wouldn't put either Renata or the girl in the crossfire.

Blast him away, Renata.

Take him the fuck down and get the hell out of there.

She didn't open her mind's power on him. She didn't so much as twitch a finger toward any of her weapons, psychic or otherwise. No, to his horror, she didn't even move. She just stood there, in the center of what could very quickly turn into a hellish storm of bloodshed and violence.

Niko's own fear in that moment was fathomless. All he knew was the terror shredding him from within, his bones chilled, a desperation so savage and complete it set his heart banging like a drum in his chest.

He drew twin 9mm pistols from their holsters at his sides and stalked forward. Although he was moving at a pace only one of the Breed could manage, Renata glanced up. She felt him there, stirring the very air around her, even if her eyes couldn 't quite register his speed. Her blood told her that he was near, just as his would always find her.

He was too consumed with rage to fully notice that she was looking up at him in alarm – alarm directed more at him than the enemy vampire who faced her.

Nikolai charged forward as a flash of movement, totally prepared to kill. He drew to a halt just behind the big Gen One, both barrels held up tight against the glyphs that tracked up the back of the vampire's shaved skull.

Everything happened in a blink of time, but it played out in maddening slow-motion frames in Nikolai's consciousness.

He cocked the nines, his fingers on the triggers.

Renata's eyes went wide. She shook her head. "Niko…wait…don't!"

The Gen One let go of Mira, letting his big hands fall down at his sides. He didn't even react to the guns trained on his head. His chest expanded as he took in a long breath, then let it out on a resigned sigh.

He wasn't going to fight his death.

He didn't care if he died.

And then Mira was screaming, her child's voice pitched high with fear. "No! Don't hurt him!"

Nikolai watched in stunned disbelief – in total amazement – as Mira lunged forward and threw her arms around the Gen One's broad shoulders.

"Please, don't hurt him!" she cried, staring up at Niko pleadingly as she attempted to protect the hulking vampire with her tiny body.

"Nikolai." Renata caught his gaze as he looked up, disbelieving, two large pistols still cocked and ready, leveled at the Gen One's head. "Nikolai…please, it's okay. Just wait a second."

He frowned in question, but his warrior stance relaxed somewhat. "Get up," he ordered the vampire. "Stand up, and get away from the child."

The Gen One complied without comment, slowly un-fastening Mira's arms from around his neck and setting her away from him as he rose to his feet.

Niko moved around to face him, weapons still held on him as he guided both Renata and Mira to stand behind him. "Who the hell are you?"

Sober, expressionless eyes stared at the ground. "I am called Hunter."

"You're not Enforcement Agency," Nikolai said cautiously.

"No. I am a Hunter."

Renata brought Mira close, holding her as the chaos of the ongoing disruption in the woods and at the house slowly died down around them. "His eyes, Nikolai," she said, understanding now. "He is the golden-eyed assassin who tried to kill Sergei Yakut that night. He's the one Mira witnessed at the lodge."

Nikolai's expression darkened. "Is this true? You are a hired killer?"

"I was." The Hunter gave a grim nod and finally lifted his gaze. "The child saved me. Something…changed in me after I saw the vision in her eyes that night. I saw her saving my life, precisely as it happened a moment ago."

In that next instant, the surrounding forest came alive with armed men moving in on them from all directions. Nikolai had his weapons at the ready, but he made no move to fire on the newcoming threat. Renata's pulse spiked in panic. "Oh, shit. Niko – " "It's all right." He calmed her with a reassuring look and a few gentle words. "These are the good guys, my friends from the Order."

She watched in relief as four of Nikolai's fellow warriors stepped into the area. All of them were formidable in size and attitude, a cadre of muscle and might that seemed to suck all of the air out of the woods by their presence alone.

"How you doing, amigo? Everything okay here?" asked the smooth caramel voice Renata now recognized as belonging to Rio.

Nikolai nodded, his eyes and weapons still trained on the Gen One in their midst. "I've got this under control, but the situation at the house is all fucked up. Edgar Fabien is dead, and Dragos and the others slipped out the back. They went by boat to the other side of the lake. I tried to track them, but…" He glanced at Renata. "I had to make sure everything was okay on this end first."

"We heard a small-engine aircraft buzzing overhead as we arrived," Rio said.

"Shit," Nikolai hissed. "That'll be them, no doubt. They're gone. Goddamn it, Dragos was right here and we lost the bastard."

"Let me help you find him."

All eyes turned to the vampire still held in Nikolai's crosshairs.

"Why should we trust you?" Nikolai asked, his gaze narrowing. "Why would you be willing to help us get Dragos?" "Because he is the one who created me." There was no warmth in the golden hue of the Gen One assassin's eyes as he responded to the question, only cold hatred. "He made me what I am. Me, and all the other Hunters bred to kill for him." "Oh, my God," Renata breathed. "You mean there are more of you?"

The shaved head nodded soberly. "I don't know how many, or where they are all located, but Dragos told me himself that I am not the only one of my kind. There are others."

"Why should we believe you?" asked another of the warriors, this one almost as dark as the night around them, his teeth and fangs gleaming like pearls against his brown skin.

Another warrior stepped in then, his eyes quick and shrewd, as cunning as a wolf's under the ebony spikes of his cropped hair. "Let Tegan tell us if we can trust him."

Renata watched in astonishment and not a little dread as the largest of the group – a warrior who'd held back from the rest like a ghost stalking the shadows – took a few steps forward. Immense, with tawny hair peeking out from under the black knit skullcap he wore, he was a broad, towering slab of muscle and dark energy. Easily as big as the Gen One who stood before him, waiting his judgment.

Saying nothing, the warrior called Tegan held out his large hand. The Hunter took it, his eyes as steady as his grasp.

After a long moment, Tegan gave a vague nod. "He comes with us. Let's secure this site and get the hell out of here."

Renata felt a heavy weight lift from her as the tension of the moment gave way to a new purpose. The group split up, most of the warriors heading off to take care of things at Fabien's place while Rio and Nikolai walked Renata, Mira, and their unexpected companion back to the Order's waiting vehicle.

Partway there, Nikolai caught Renata's hand in his. "We'll catch up to you, Rio."

The warrior nodded. As they moved on, Renata watched in awestruck wonder as Mira slipped her tiny hand into the larger palm of the Hunter.

"My God," she said to Nikolai. "What just happened?"

He shook his head, clearly just as much amazed as she was. "Gonna take me some time to figure it out, I think. But first I want to figure things out between us."

"Nikolai, I'm sorry – "

He silenced her with a long, sweet kiss, pulling her into his warm arms. "I screwed up, Renata. I was so afraid of losing you that I drove you away from me with a stupid, reckless lie. I never would have forgiven myself if anything happened to you, or to Mira. You're my heart, Renata. You are my life." He stroked her cheek, his gaze engulfing her, drinking her in. "I love you so much…I don't want to live a single moment without you at my side."

She closed her eyes, overwhelmed with emotion. "I've never wanted anything more," she whispered, her throat constricted with joy. "I love you too, Nikolai. But you have to understand, I'm a package deal. Mira's not my child by blood, but she is the child of my heart. I love her like she is my own."

"I know," he said soberly. "You've proven that in spades."

Renata glanced up at him, unable to contain the hope that was battering around in her breast. "Do you think you can find room in your life – in your heart – for both of us?"

"What makes you think I haven't done that already?" He kissed her again, tenderly this time. When he looked into her eyes, his own gaze was so filled with love it swept her breath away. "Let's get out of here now. I want to take my girls home."