Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-four)

Renata's breath seized up at the sound of Nikolai's muttered curse. She reached for the light switch near the open door of Yakut's bedroom. Slowly flipped it on.

She couldn't speak as she stared down at Lex's lifeless body, his eyes vacant and clouded over with death, three large bullet holes bored into the front of his head. She wanted to scream. God in heaven, she wanted to drop to her knees, fist her hands in her hair, and howl to the rafters – not with grief or shock, but complete and thorough rage.

But her lungs were constricted in her breast.

Her limbs were weighted down, arms and legs too heavy to move.

What hope she'd been harboring – as small as it was – that they might come here and get a solid lead on Mira's location seeped out of her, as surely as Lex's blood had seeped into the floorboards of his father's room.

"Renata, we'll find another way," Nikolai said from somewhere near her. He bent down over the body and removed a cell phone from the pocket of Lex's suit coat, flipped it open and pressed some of the keys. "We've got Lex's call history now. One of these numbers might be Fabien's. I'll contact Gideon and have him chase them down. We're gonna have something on Fabien very soon. We'll get him, Renata."

She couldn't answer; she had no words. Turning slowly, she walked out of the room, hardly conscious that her feet were moving. She drifted through the dark lodge, past the bodies lying in the great room and down a hallway…unsure where she was heading, yet unsurprised when she found herself standing in the center of the tiny room where Mira had slept.

The small bed was just as she'd left it, as if waiting for its occupant's return. Over on the squat little nightstand was a wildflower Mira had picked earlier in the week, on one of the rare times Sergei Yakut had permitted the child to venture outside. Mira's flower was wilted now, the fragile white petals drooping and lifeless, green stem as limp as a piece of string. "Oh, my sweet mouse," Renata whispered into the darkened, empty room. "I'm sorry…I'm so sorry I'm not there for you right now…"

"Renata." Nikolai stood in the hallway outside the room. "Renata, don't do this to yourself. You are not to blame. And this isn't over, not yet."

His deep voice was soothing, a comfort just to hear him, and to know that he was there with her. She needed that comfort, but because she didn't deserve it, Renata refused to run into his arms as she so desperately wanted to do. She stayed where she was, rigid and unmoving. Wishing she could reverse all her failings.

She couldn't bear to remain in the lodge for another minute. There were too many dark memories here.

Too much death all around her.

Renata let the dead flower fall out of her fingers and onto the bed. She pivoted around toward the doorway. "I have to get out of this place," she murmured, guilt and anguish twisting in her chest. "I can't…I'm suffocating in here…can't…breathe." She didn't wait for him to reply – couldn't wait in there, not one more second. Pushing past him, she ran out of Mira's vacant room. She didn't stop running until her feet had carried her out the back of the main house and into the surrounding forest. And still her lungs squeezed as though they were caught in a vise.

In the back of her skull, she could feel a headache blooming. Her skin wasn't aching yet, but she was bone weary and she knew it wouldn't be long before reverb took her down. At least her shoulder was feeling decent. The gunshot wound was still there, still a dull throb deep in her muscles, but Nikolai's blood had worked some kind of magic on the infection.

Renata felt strong enough that when she glanced over and saw the locked barn – the outbuilding where she and so many others had been brought as bait for Yakut's sick blood sport – she didn't think twice about stalking over to it and pulling the Enforcement Agency rifle around from where it had shifted to her back. She shot the heavy lock until it broke off and fell to the ground. Then she flung open the door and let loose with more shots inside, peppering the large holding pen, the walls and rafters – all of it – with an obliterating hail of bullets.

She didn't let up on the trigger until the magazine was empty and her throat was raw from her screams. Her shoulders heaved, chest sawing like a bellows.

"I should have been here," she said, hearing Nikolai come up behind her outside. "When Lex turned her over to Fabien, I should have stopped him. I should have been there for Mira. Instead I was in bed, too weak with reverb…useless."

He made a small noise, a wordless dismissal of her guilt. "You couldn't have known she was in danger. You couldn't have prevented any of what occurred, Renata."

"I should never have left the lodge!" she cried, self-contempt searing her like acid. "I ran away, when I should have stayed here the whole time and worked on getting Lex to tell me where she was."

"You didn't run away. You went to look for help from me. If you hadn't done that, I would be dead." His footsteps moved closer, coming up gently behind her. "If you had stayed here all this time, Renata, then you would have been killed tonight along with Lex and the other guards. What happened here was a coldly planned execution, and it's got Fabien's name all over it." He was right. She knew he was right, on all points. But it didn't make her hurt any less.

Renata stared, unseeing, into the gunpowder-choked chasm of the barn. "We have to go back to the city and start searching for her. Door to door, if we have to."

"I know what you're feeling," Nikolai said. He touched her nape and she forced herself to step away from his tenderness. "Goddamn it, Renata, don't you think that if I thought kicking down doors from here to Old Port was going to get us closer to Fabien, I'd be right on board with you? But that's not gonna buy us a thing. Especially not with daybreak just a few hours away and riding hard on our heels."

She shook her head. "I don't need to worry about daylight. I can go back into the city by myself – "

"Like hell you will." His hands were gruff as he turned her around to face him. His eyes glittered with sparks of amber, and an emotion that looked remarkably like fear, even in the darkness. "You're not going anywhere near Fabien without me." He stroked her brow, his fierce eyes burning into her. "We're in this together, Renata. You know that, right? You know that you can trust me?" She stared into Nikolai's face and felt a well of emotion begin to rise up within her, felt it rise over her like a swamping wave she couldn't hold back if she tried. Tears stung her eyes, then filled them. Before she could stop the flood, she was weeping as though a dam had burst inside her and all the hurts she'd ever felt – all the pain and emptiness of her entire existence – came rushing out of her in great, heaving sobs.

Nikolai wrapped his strong arms around her and held her close. He didn't try to make her tears stop. He didn't feed her soft lies to make her feel better, or give her false promises to cushion her despair. He just held her.

Held her, and let her feel that she was understood. That she was not alone, and that maybe, in some small way, she might be worthy of being loved.

He picked her up, lifting her into his arms, and began to carry her away from the bullet -riddled barn. "Let's find you someplace to rest for a while," he said, his soothing voice rumbling in his chest, vibrating against her as she clung to him. "I can't go back into the lodge, Nikolai. I won't stay in there."

"I know," he murmured, bringing her deeper into the woods. "I have another idea."

He set her down in a leaf-strewn alcove between two towering pines. Renata didn't know what to expect, but she never would have imagined what she witnessed in those next moments.

Nikolai knelt down near her and spread his arms wide, his chin lowered, his immense, muscled body held in a study of quiet concentration. Renata felt the energy around them crackle. She smelled rich, fertile earth, like the forest after a rainstorm. A warm breeze tickled her nape as Nikolai touched his fingertips to the ground on either side of him.

There was a quiet rustle of movement in the grass nearby – a whisper of life. Renata saw something snake up from beneath Nikolai's hands and couldn't keep from gasping in awestruck wonder when she realized what she was seeing.

Tiny vines, shooting through the soil, running toward the twin pines on either side of her.

"Oh, my God," she murmured, rapt with amazement. "Nikolai…what's happening here?"

"It's all right," he said, watching the vines – commanding them, hard as it was to believe.

The tendrils spiraled around the tree trunks and climbed higher, filling in with leaves that multiplied exponentially as she watched. Well over her head some eight feet, the vines leapt across the space between the pines. They twisted together, then sent off shooting lengths of vegetation, creating a living canopy that stretched all the way to the ground where Renata and Nikolai sat. "You're doing this?" she asked, incredulous.

He gave her a nod but kept his focus on his creation, more and more leaves unfolding on the vines. Thick walls of fragrant shelter formed a haven around them, the lush greenery interspersed with the same tiny white flowers that Renata had found in Mira's room.

"Okay…how are you doing this?"

The rustle of growing plant life slowed and Nikolai turned a nonchalant look on her. "My mother's gift, passed down to her two sons."

"Who's your mom, Mother Nature?" Renata said, laughing, delighted in spite of the knowledge that the beautiful flowers and vines were just a temporary veil. Outside, all of the ugliness and violence remained.

Nikolai smiled and shook his head. "My mother was a Breedmate, like you. Your talent is the power of your mind. This was her talent."

"It's incredible." Renata ran her hand over the cool leaves and delicate petals. "God, Nikolai, your ability is…I want to say amazing, but that doesn't even come close."

He shrugged. "I've never had much use for it. Give me a clip full of hollowpoints or a few blocks of C-4 any day. Then I'll show you amazing."

He was making light of it, but she sensed that his glibness shielded something darker. "What about your brother?"

"What about him?"

"You said he can do this too?"

"He could, yes," Nikolai said, the words sounding a bit hollow. "Dmitri was younger than me. He's dead. It happened a long time ago, back in Russia."

Renata winced. "I'm sorry."

He nodded, plucked a leaf from the mass of vegetation, and tore it into pieces. "He was just a kid – a good kid. He was a couple of decades younger than me. Used to follow me around like a goddamn puppy, wanting to do everything I was doing. I didn't have a lot of time for him. I liked to live on the edge – shit, I guess I still do. Anyway, Dmitri got it into his head that he needed to impress me." He exhaled a raw, strangled curse. "Stupid fucking kid. He would have done anything to make me notice him, you know? To hear me say that I approved, that I was proud of him."

Renata watched him in the dark, seeing in him the same guilt she felt when she thought about Mira. She saw the same dread in him, the same inward condemnation that a child was in grave peril – might even be dead already – all because someone they trusted had failed them.

Nikolai knew that torment. He had lived it himself.

"What happened to Dmitri?" Renata asked him gently. She didn't want to tear open old hurts, but she needed to know. And she could see from the weight that had settled over him that Nikolai had carried his pain for too long. "You can tell me, Nikolai. What happened to your brother?"

"He wasn't like me," he said, the words contemplative, as if bogged down by their history. "Dmitri was smart, a crack student. He loved his books and philosophy, loved peeling the layers off things, figuring out how everything around him worked so he could put them back together again. He was brilliant, truly gifted, but he wanted to be like me."

"And what were you like back then?"

"Wild," he said, saying it more like an epithet than a boast. "I'm the first to admit it. I've always been a little reckless, not really caring where I ended up tomorrow so long as I was having a good time today. Dmitri liked contemplation; I like adrenaline. He enjoyed putting things together; I like blowing them up."

"Is that why you joined the Order, for the adrenaline rush of fighting?"

"That's partly why, yeah." He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the ground. "After Dmitri's murder, I had to get away. I blamed myself for what happened. My parents blamed me too. I left the country and came to the States. Hooked up with Lucan and the others in Boston not long after that."

She didn't miss the fact that he'd said his brother was killed, not merely dead. "What happened, Nikolai?"

He blew out a long sigh. "I had an ongoing mutual hatred with a Darkhaven asshole out of the Ukraine. We got into pretty serious hand-to-hand with each other from time to time, out of boredom mostly. Except one night Dmitri hears this dickhead in a tavern talking shit about me and decides to call him on it. Dmitri drew a blade and cut the guy in front of his pals. It was a lucky hit – D sucked with weapons. Anyway, he pissed the bastard off and two minutes later, my brother is lying in a pool of his own blood, his head cleaved off his neck."

"Oh, my God." Renata sucked in a sharp breath, feeling sick in her heart. "I'm so sorry, Nikolai."

"Me too." He shrugged. "Afterward, I went out and tracked Dmitri's killer down. I took his head and brought it to my parents as an apology. They turned me away, said it should have been me who was dead, not D. Couldn't fault them for that. Hell, they were right, after all. So I split and never looked back."

"I'm sorry, Nikolai."

She didn't know what else to say. She had little experience offering comfort, and even if she did, she wasn't sure he would want it or need it. Like a man suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin, Nikolai grew quiet for a long moment.

He cleared his throat, then he ran a hand over his scalp and rose to his feet. "I should go out and have another look around the lodge. Will you be all right out here for a few minutes?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

He stared at her, searching her face. She didn't know what she wanted him to say to her, but the look in his eyes seemed shuttered. "How are you doing? No sign of reverb yet?"

Renata shrugged. "A little, but not too bad."

"And your shoulder?"

"Good," she said, flexing her left arm to show him she wasn't in any pain. "It feels a lot better now."

A longer, more awkward silence stretched between them, as if neither one knew whether to bridge it or do the easier thing and let it lengthen. It wasn't until Nikolai started to part some of the thick vines to leave that Renata reached out to touch him. "Nikolai…I, um…I've been meaning to thank you," she said, conscious of the fact that although he had paused, she kept her hand on his arm. "I need to thank you…for giving me your blood earlier today."

He turned toward her, gave a mild shake of his head. "Gratitude is nice, but I don't need it. If our situations were reversed, I know you would have done the same thing for me."

She would have; Renata could say that without the slightest doubt. This man who had been a stranger to her not quite a week ago – this warrior who also happened to be a vampire – was now her most trusted, intimate friend. If she was being honest with herself, she had to acknowledge that Nikolai was far more than that, and had been even before he shared his blood with her. Even before the sex that still made her toes curl just to think about it.

"I'm not sure how to do this…" Renata looked up at him, struggling with the words but needing to say them. "I'm not used to counting on anyone. I don't know how to be with someone like this. It's nothing I've ever had before, and I just…I feel like everything I thought I knew, all the things that once helped me survive, are deserting me. I'm adrift…I'm terrified." Nikolai stroked her cheek, then wrapped her in his embrace. "You're safe," he said tenderly beside her ear. "I've got you, and I'm going to keep you safe."

She didn't realize how badly she needed to hear those words until Nikolai spoke them to her. She didn't know how badly she could want his arms around her or how deeply she could crave his kiss until Nikolai pulled her closer and brushed his mouth across hers. Renata kissed him with abandon, letting herself drift into the moment because Nikolai was with her, holding her, giving her safe harbor.

His kiss growing more passionate, he eased her down onto her back on the cushioned earth of their shelter. Renata reveled in the feel of his weight atop her, his warm, sure hands caressing her. He delved under her loose T-shirt, smoothing his fingers over her belly and up to her breasts.

He gave her lip a small, teasing stroke of his fangs as he drew back from kissing her. His eyes glowed like embers under the heavy fall of his lids. She didn't need to see his transformed face to know that he wanted her. The very hard evidence of that pressed insistently against her hip. She ran her hands up his spine and he groaned, his pelvis kicking with a reflexive thrust. Her name was a throaty moan as he trailed his mouth past her chin and down the length of her neck. He pushed her shirt up and Renata arched her back to greet his lips as he descended on her bare breasts and the smooth plane of her stomach. She was lost in the pleasure of his kiss. Aching for the feel of his skin against hers.

With deft fingers, he unfastened her jeans and slid them down her thighs. His mouth followed his progress, searing her from hip to ankle as he pulled her legs free and pushed her clothing aside. She cried out as he then bent between her thighs and suckled her, his tongue and fangs bringing on a rush of exquisite torment.

"Oh, God," she gasped, hips rising up off the ground as he buried his mouth in her sex.

She didn't know how he managed it so quickly, but a moment later he was naked too. He loomed over her, something more than human, more than simply male, and everything female in Renata trembled with desire. She opened her legs to him, greedy to feel him inside her, filling the emptiness with his strength and heat.

"Please," she moaned, panting with need.

He didn't make her ask him twice.

Moving to cover her, Nikolai wedged his knees between her legs and spread her wide beneath him. The head of his cock nudged into the slick cleft of her body, then plunged, long and slow and deep.

His growl as he sank down into her was fierce, a roll of thunder that echoed in her bones and in her blood. He pumped slowly, taking his time at first, even though it was clear that patience was torture. Renata could feel the intensity of his hunger for her, the depth of his pleasure as her body sheathed him, head to balls.

"You feel so good," he murmured, sucking in a hiss as he withdrew then filled her again, deeper than before. He thrust hard, shuddering with the effort. "Jesus, Renata…you feel so fucking good."

She linked her ankles around his backside as he fell into a more urgent tempo. "Harder," she whispered, wanting to feel him pound away her fears, a hammer to smash through all her guilt and pain and emptiness. "Oh, God, Nikolai…fuck me harder." His answering snarl sounded as eager as it was wild. Slipping his arm beneath her, he tilted her to meet his strokes, driving into her with all the fury she so desperately needed. He swept down on her mouth for a fevered kiss, catching her cry as her climax roared up on her like a storm. Renata quaked and shuddered, clawing at him as he continued to pump, every muscle in his back and shoulders going as hard as granite.

"Ah, Christ," he ground out between his teeth and fangs, his hips banging against her fast and furious, a reckless rhythm that felt so good. So right.

His coarse shout of release was echoed by her own as Renata came again, clinging to him as she lost herself to this delicious new sense of abandon.

She truly was adrift, but in this moment she felt no fear. She was safe with this wild, reckless man – she truly believed that. She trusted Nikolai with her body and with her life. As she lay there with him in an intimate tangle, it wasn't so difficult to imagine that she could trust him with her heart as well.

That she might, in fact, be falling in love with him.

The knocking was insistent – a frantic beat on the solid oak door of Andreas Reichen's Darkhaven in Berlin.

"Andreas, please! Are you there? It's Helene. I must see you!"

At just after 4 A.M., only a short while before the sun would first peek over the horizon, only a few stragglers in the household remained awake. The rest of Reichen's kin – nearly a dozen in all, young Breed males and mated couples with small children, some of them newborn infants – had already gone to bed for the day.

"Andreas? Anyone?" Another panicked series of knocks, followed by a terrified-sounding cry. "Hello! Some one, please… let me in!"

Inside the mansion, a young male came out of the kitchen where he'd been warming a cup of milk for his Breedmate who awaited him upstairs in the nursery, where she was tending their fussy baby son. He knew the human female who was at the door. Most of the Darkhaven knew her, and Andreas had made it clear that Helene was always welcome in his home. That she had come unannounced at such a late hour, and while Andreas was away on private business for two nights, was unusual.

Even more unusual was the fact that the typically in-control businesswoman was so obviously afraid.

Awash with concern for what may have happened to Andreas's human companion, the Darkhaven male set down the cup of steaming milk and raced across the marble floor of the vestibule, his bathrobe flying behind him like a sail.

"I'm coming," he called, raising his voice to be heard over Helene's ceaseless knocking and tear-choked pleas for help on the other side of the door. His fingers flew over the keypad of the mansion's security system. "One moment! I'll be right there, Helene. Everything's going to be fine."

When the electronic light blinked to indicate the sensors were disabled, he threw the dead bolts and opened the door. "Oh, thank God!" Helene rushed toward him, her makeup in ruins, wet black trails running down her cheeks. She was pale and trembling, her usually shrewd eyes seeming somehow vacant as she made a quick visual search of the foyer. "Andreas…where is he?"

"Gone to Hamburg on private business until tomorrow night. But you are welcome here." He stepped back to give her space to enter the mansion. "Come in, Helene. Andreas wouldn't want me to turn you away."

"No," she said somewhat dully. "I know he would never turn me away."

She came into the foyer and seemed instantly calmer.

"They knew he would never turn me away…"

It was at that moment the young Darkhaven male noticed that Helene was not alone. Behind her, rushing in now before he could do so much as cry out in alarm, was a team of heavily armed Enforcement Agents dressed from head to toe in black. He swung his head around to look at Helene in disbelief. In abject horror.

"Why?" he asked, but the answer was there in her empty eyes.

Someone had gotten a hold of her. Someone very powerful.

Someone who had turned Helene into a Minion.

The thought no sooner registered before the first shot hit him. He heard more rounds being fired, heard the screams of his family as the Darkhaven awoke to terror.

But then another bullet slammed into his skull, and his world and everything in it went silent and black.