Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-six)

Renata walked into the back door of the lodge and paused just over the threshold. She had left Nikolai in the shelter, deciding that her need for the bathroom, a hot shower, and a change of clothes that actually fit her was greater than her reluctance to step foot ever again in Sergei Yakut's domain.

Now she hesitated. The early afternoon sun was a warm presence at her back, encouraging her along, but inside the lodge was dim and cold. Shadows played over the toppled furniture and stretched across the rough planks of the floor. She drifted in, and walked toward the place where Lex had fallen.

His body was gone, the blood too. Nothing but the smallest trace of ash left behind – just as Nikolai had promised. The shutters on the bedroom window were thrown wide open, but the sun had since moved past. A fresh breeze carried the scent of pine pitch and crisp forest air into the dank stillness of the place. Renata breathed it deeply into her lungs, letting the fragrance of the new day purge her memories of all the death and blood and violence that had cloaked the lodge last night.

Today, in this new light, so much seemed different to her.

She herself seemed different, and she knew the reason why.

She was in love.

For the first time in a very long time, perhaps in all her life, she knew a sense of true hope. It nestled in her heart – a belief that her future held something more than just bare survival, that she might at some point measure happiness in years, not rare, fleeting moments. Being with Nikolai, whether in his arms or standing by his side, made her believe so many things were possible.

Renata walked into the great room, bolstered by the fact that this would be the last time she'd need to look at the place.

This was good-bye.

When she and Nikolai left here to continue their search for Mira, this lodge, the terrible barn and holding pen out back, Sergei Yakut, Lex, and everything else that scarred the past two years of her life would be history. She would leave all of it here, the ugliness and pain banished from any part of her future.

This part of her life was over.

She strode into the small bathroom she'd shared with Mira, at peace with herself and her surroundings as she turned on the hot water for the shower. As a humid steam began to roll out from the curtain, she unfastened the few buttons left on Jack 's borrowed oxford shirt and stood there for a moment, naked, contemplating her future with new eyes. She didn 't know what awaited once night fell and a dangerous new leg of this journey began, but she was ready to face it head-on.

With Nikolai beside her – with hope and love burning as bright as a flame in her heart – she was prepared to take on anything.

Like a battle-bound knight seeking anointing and blessing, Renata stepped under the hot spray of the shower. She closed her eyes in a solemn prayer as the cleansing water poured over her.

Nikolai stayed in the shade of the vine shelter as Renata's footsteps approached from outside.

"Knock, knock," she called to him through the leaves. "Coming in now, so watch the daylight. Wouldn't want you going crispy on me."

She parted some of the thick greenery and slipped inside, mouthing a quick apology when she noticed he had Lex's cell phone at his ear. Niko had called the Order soon after she'd gone out to the lodge to clean up. The news out of Boston was a mix of good and bad, along with an extra helping of seriously fucked up.

The good? One of the numbers on Lex's phone was, in fact, Edgar Fabien's. Using that bit of intel, Gideon had been able to hack into Fabien's records in the International Identification Database. Now the Order had the addresses for the Darkhaven leader's Montreal residence, his country house, as well as data on all his other property holdings, both business and personal. Gideon had access to Fabien's cell phone numbers, license plate tags, computer files, even the son of a bitch's electronic surveillance equipment at the Montreal Darkhaven.

And that's where the bad had come in.

Edgar Fabien wasn't home. Gideon's hacking had turned up a video feed from early last night showing a group of seven Breed males – one of them presumably Fabien – leaving the Darkhaven in the company of Enforcement Agency armed escorts. It had been hard to tell who Fabien's visitors were, as their tailored suits all looked alike and their faces had been completely obscured by dark hoods.

As for the seriously fucked up part, the group of vampires had left with a child in tow. A young girl who evidently hadn't gone along peacefully. Gideon's description of the petite blond female left no question whatsoever that it was Mira.

"You still with me?" Gideon asked on the other end of the line.

"Yeah, still here."

"Lucan wants Fabien brought into Boston for questioning. That means we need him alive, my man."

Niko exhaled a curse. "First we have to find the bastard."

"Yeah, well, I'm all over that. I ran GPS tracers on all of Fabien's cell phones. Got a lock on a location about an hour north of Yakut's place – one of the properties on record for Edgar Fabien. It's got to be him."

"You're sure?"

"Sure enough that we've already sent backup your way. Tegan, Rio, Brock, and Kade are heading north to rendezvous with you as we speak."

"Backup on the way?" Niko asked, eyeing a sliver of UV light that was peeking through the leaves of the shelter. The Order had protective daylight gear for emergency situations, but not even a late-generation vampire wearing head-to-toe anti-UV clothing would be able to withstand the kind of sunlight that would hit him in the driver's seat of a nearly seven-hour road trip. "Jesus, you can't be serious. Who pulled the short straw for that mission?"

Gideon chuckled. "Headstrong females, my man. In case you haven't noticed, we've been overrun with them as of late." "Yeah, I've noticed." Niko couldn't help glancing over at Renata, who was checking some of the weapons they'd collected from Lex and the others. "What's the situation, then?"

"Dylan is driving the guys up in the Rover with Elise riding shotgun. Their ETA in your area is close to nine o'clock, just after sundown. Since Fabien has a number of unknown associates with him, we're gonna need to get in and out of there gracefully, without unnecessary casualties." Gideon paused. "Listen, I know you're concerned about the kid. Her safety is important, no question, but this is big, Niko. If Fabien can lead us anywhere close to Dragos, we have to make sure we bag him tonight. That's mission number one, straight from Lucan."

"Yeah," Nikolai said. He knew the mission. He also knew that he could not let Renata down, or Mira for that matter. "Shit… okay, Gideon. I hear you."

"I'll call you if Fabien moves between now and sundown. Meantime, I'm working on a rendezvous point for you to meet up with the guys tonight to put an infiltration plan in motion. I should have something in an hour or two. Call you then." "Right. Later."

Nikolai closed the phone and set it down beside him.

"Was Gideon able to get anything out of those phone numbers?" Renata asked, watching him carefully. "Do we have any leads on Fabien's Darkhaven?"

Niko nodded. "We've got his address – "

"Thank God," she breathed. Relief gave way swiftly to determination, as fierce as he'd ever seen it in her. "Where is he? Is his Darkhaven in the city proper, or on the outskirts somewhere? I can make a covert run over there right now to get the lay of the land. Hell, the way I'm feeling – no reverb, my shoulder on the mend – maybe I should walk straight up to his front door and hit him with a blast – "

"Renata." Niko put his hand over hers and shook his head. "Fabien's on the move. He's not in the city anymore." "Then where?"

He could have told her about the GPS signal Gideon was tracking. He could have told her that Fabien had Mira in his custody and that the girl was likely only an hour north of where they were sitting right now. But he also knew that if he told Renata that – if he gave her anything close to certainty on the whereabouts of the child who meant so much to her – there would be no stopping her from taking off on her own right now to find her.

Niko's pledge to the Order was his duty – his life-sworn honor – but Renata? This female was his heart. He couldn't jeopardize his brethren's mission any more than he could allow the woman he loved to walk headlong into danger without him there to see her through. Neanderthal thinking, maybe, especially given that Renata was one woman who knew how to handle herself in just about any situation. She was well trained and capable, definitely courageous, but damn it…she meant too much to him to take that kind of risk. Flat out, not an option.

"We're waiting for solid intel on where Fabien has gone," he said, the lie bitter on his tongue, regardless of his good intentions. "In the meantime, the Order is sending in reinforcements. We'll be meeting up with them tonight."

Renata listened, clearly trusting him at his word. "Does the Order have any idea whether Mira might be with Fabien wherever he is now?"

"We're working on it." Nikolai found it difficult to hold her unblinking pale green gaze. "When we find Fabien, we'll find Mira. She's going to be okay. I promised you that, remember?"

When he thought she might just nod her head or glance away, Renata instead reached out to cup his face in her palm. "Thank you…for standing by me through all of this. I don't know how I will ever be able to repay you, Nikolai."

He brought his hand up to hers and placed a tender kiss in her palm. He was going to say something glib, one of the usual empty quips he used so often whenever things around him got too real with emotion or too raw with honesty. He had his methods down pat: Deflect with humor. Disarm with nonchalance. Cut and run like hell at the first inkling of his own vulnerability. But all those old, reliable weapons he'd honed to razor sharpness failed him now.

He stroked his thumb across the back of Renata's hand and let himself get lost in the verdant haven of her eyes.

"I'm not very good at this," he murmured. "I want to tell you something…shit, I'm gonna fuck it up probably, but I want you to know that I care about you. I do…a hell of a lot, Renata."

She stared at him, going so still and silent he wasn't even sure she was breathing.

"I care," he blurted out, frustrated at himself for fumbling through the words that he wanted to be perfect for her. "I don't know how it happened, or what it will even mean to you – if anything – but I need to say it anyway, because this is real. It's real, and I've never felt this way before. Not about anyone."

Her mouth softened into the smallest smile as he rambled clumsily, trying to find a way to tell her the depth of what was in his heart. Trying and failing miserably.

"What I'm trying to say is…" He shook his head, feeling like a blithering ass, but Renata's soft touch on his face soothed him. Her clear gaze brought him back, front and center, grounding him. "What I'm trying to tell you is, I'm falling for you…falling really hard. I wasn't looking for this to happen. I didn't think I'd ever truly want it, but…ah, Christ, Renata…when I look in your eyes, one word leaps into my mind every single time: Forever."

She exhaled slowly and her little smile spread into beaming joy.

Niko ran his hands over her soft skin, into her damp hair. "I'm in love with you, Renata. I know I'm not a poet – shit, not even close. I don't have all the fancy words I wish I could say to you…but I want you to know that what I'm feeling for you is real. I love you."

She laughed softly. "What makes you think I'd want poetry or fancy words? You just said exactly what I want to hear, Nikolai." She slid her hand around to the back of his neck and pulled him toward her for a long, passionate kiss. "I love you too," she whispered against his mouth. "I'm scared as hell to admit that, but it's true. I love you, Nikolai."

He swept his lips over hers and held her close, wishing he didn't ever have to let go. But dusk would be coming before long, and there was still one thing he needed to do. "You have to do something for me."

Renata nestled against him. "Anything."

"I don't know what's going to happen tonight, but I need to know that you'll be going into this as strong as you can be. I want you to take some more of my blood."

She rose out of his embrace and playfully arched a brow at him. "Are you sure you're not just trying to get into my pants again?"

Niko chuckled, a jolt of heat arrowing right into his groin at the very idea. "I wouldn't turn it down. But I'm serious…I want you to drink from me again now. Will you do that for me?"

"Yes. Of course."

He smoothed a dark tendril from her forehead. "There's one more thing, Renata. When we move in on Fabien tonight, it would kill me if anything…well, I just can't risk getting separated from you. I'm gonna need to know that you're all right at all times, or my focus is going to be for shit. I need to have a link to you. I know how you felt about Yakut using your blood as a tether on you, and I promise you that's not what I – "

"Yes, Nikolai," she said, interrupting him with a gentle stroke of her fingers over his mouth. "Yes…you can drink from me." His answering curse was low with relief. "It's forever," he reminded her firmly. "You need to understand that. Like the blood bond you have to me now, if I drink from you, we can't ever undo it."

"I do understand," she said, no hesitation at all. She moved closer to him and kissed him, long and deep. "I understand the bond would be forever…and I'm still saying yes."

Niko groaned, fire lighting in his veins. His fangs stretched, and his sex rose to instant attention, all of him eager to claim Renata as his own. He kissed her, his heart slamming hard against his rib cage when she slipped her tongue past his lips to toy with the sharp points of his fangs.

"I want you naked for this," he said, unable to curb the edge of command that was leaking into his voice. He was partly human, but there was another part of him – a wilder part – that knew less patience than he would like.

Niko watched with blazing amber eyes as Renata quickly obeyed him, stripping out of her clothes and lying back on the shaded grass floor of the shelter, thighs falling open, presenting herself to him without a speck of inhibition. "Oh, yeah," Niko growled. "That's much better."

He was rampant with need for her. Tearing off his own clothes and tossing them aside, he climbed up over her hips and straddled her. His cock thrust outward, kicking as she petted it with teasing, feather-light strokes. He held her smoldering gaze as he brought his wrist up to his mouth and bit into his flesh.

"Let me taste you again," she said, rising up to meet his vein as he carried the bleeding punctures to her mouth. Crimson drops splashed down onto her breasts, so vivid against her creamy skin. She moaned, closing her eyes as she suckled him, savored him.

Niko watched her drink, watched her body begin to writhe with arousal. With his free hand, he caressed her, unable to resist running his fingers through the blood that had spilled on her. The sight of his blood marking her skin was as erotic as anything he'd ever seen. His touch ventured farther down, into the molten core of her that was so ready for him. Her thighs clamped around his wrist, holding him against her as the first orgasm rocketed through her.

Nikolai growled with pure male adoration as he fed his female from his body and felt hers clamoring to have him. He let her drink for several long minutes, until her body was on fire beneath him again.

He too was on fire.

Gently he took his wrist from her mouth and sealed the punctures closed with a sweep of his tongue. Renata was still arching and writhing, still moaning for him, as he braced himself over her and plunged home. She cried out as he filled her, her fingernails scoring his shoulders in delicious pain.

Nikolai made love to her as slowly as he could – as slowly as his fevered body would permit him. She came again, clenching around him and wringing a furious release from him as well. It hardly slowed him down. He was still hard inside her, still hungry for this woman…his woman.

With a trembling hand, Nikolai smoothed the stray ebony locks from the side of Renata's beautiful throat. "Are you sure?" he asked her, his voice hardly recognizable to himself, it was so raw and desperate. "Renata…I want you to be certain."

"Yes." She arched up to greet his thrust, her steady gaze beseeching. "Yes."

With a feral snarl curling up from his throat, Nikolai bared his fangs and descended on her.

The sweet taste of Renata's blood surging into his mouth leveled him as totally as a roundhouse kick to the gut. Ah, Christ… now he knew. How many times had he busted the other warriors' asses about being mated and finding one female who would make them blind to any other? Easily hundreds of times. Thousands, probably.

What a clueless ass he'd been.

Now he knew. Renata owned him, even before he'd given himself to her with his bite. He was on his knees before this female, and he'd gladly stay there for the rest of his life.

Niko drank deeper, drowning in the pleasure of the bond they were forging through their mingled blood and through the heated rhythm of their joined bodies. His teeth still holding her beneath him as he took his last taste of her, Nikolai came again, harder this time, a staggering release that slammed into him like a freight train. He held on to her, shuddering with intense satisfaction. Although he could have sipped from her vein all night, Nikolai forced himself to move away, sealing her wounds with a loving sweep of his tongue.

He stared down at her, his gaze brigt on her skin. "I love you," he rasped, needing her to hear it and to believe it. He wanted her to remember it later tonight, after they reached Fabien's location up north and Nikolai explained to her why he'd felt the need to lie to her today. He kissed her chin, her cheek, her brow. "I love you, Renata."

She smiled up at him drowsily. "Mmm…I really like the sound of that."

"Then I'll have to make sure you hear it a lot."

"Okay," she murmured, her fingers playing in the sweat-dampened hair at his nape. "That was incredible, by the way. Is it always going to be that good?"

He groaned. "I have a feeling it might only get better."

She laughed, and the vibration made his sex rouse to life again. "If you keep this up, I'm going to have to go back inside and take another shower."

He gave her a meaningful grind of his pelvis, driving his erection deeper. "Oh, I can keep it up. Don't worry, that's never going to be a problem when you're around."

"You'd better be careful, or I might hold you to that."

Niko chuckled despite his heavy mood. "Sweetheart, you can hold me any way you like."

He kissed her again, and growled with delight as she wrapped her legs around him and rolled him onto his back to begin a slow, torturous ride.