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Reflecting back on the success of their completed mission, Mira nodded to Nathan's other squad member, blond, blue-eyed Xander Raphael. "Good job providing the cover we needed to breach the rebel's compound," she told him. "You've got serious skills, kid."


"Thanks." Though hardly a child, Mira had known Rafe since he was an infant. Of the group seated around the table now, he was the newest recruit, fresh out of training ten months ago. Mira was almost a decade older than he, but the young Breed warrior was capable and wise well beyond his years. He was also the son of an Order elder, Dante, and his mate, Tess. Like all Breed offspring, Rafe had been gifted with his mother's unique extrasensory talent. Tess's ability to heal with her touch was a conflict for her son, who had also been born with his father's innate courage and virtually unmatched fighting skills.


Rafe's other gift from his mother was his fair hair and eye color. On Tess, the honeyed waves and aquamarine gaze was stunning, infinitely feminine. On Rafe, six foot six and wrapped in lean, hard muscle, the combination turned every female head in his vicinity.


One such female, a twenty-something brunette who'd been watching their table from the bar with a gaggle of her friends, was doing everything she could to catch Rafe's eye. He'd noticed. And there was no doubt he knew what the pretty girl would be offering him too; Mira saw that spark of male arrogance lift the corner of the warrior's mouth in the moment before he and a few other males at the table swiveled their heads to greet her.


"Hey," the young woman said, eyes on Rafe for the longest. She'd made her choice, no question.


"Hey, yourself," Eli answered for the rest of the table. "What's your name, beautiful?"


"I'm Britney." A smiling glance at him and the other males, then back to stay on Rafe. "My friends have been daring me to come over here and talk to you."


Rafe smiled. "That right?" His voice was smooth and unrushed, that of a male totally at home with his effect on the opposite sex. Or another species, in this case.


"I told them I wasn't afraid," Rafe's admirer went on. "I told them I was curious what it was like - " She gave a quick toss of her head, flustered but flirtatious. "I mean, I was curious what you were like . . ."


Fang-girls, Mira thought with an amused roll of her eyes. Despite the ongoing civil unrest between human and Breed, there was never a shortage of women - and a large number of men - looking to donate their fresh red cells in exchange for the sensual high of a vampire's bite.


Balthazar chuckled. "Very brave of you to come over all by yourself, Whitney."


"It's Britney." She giggled, nervous but determined. "Anyway, they said I should do this, so . . . here I am." Licking her lips as she inched closer to Rafe, she pushed her long brown hair back over her shoulder. The adjustment bared the delicate white column of her neck, and Mira felt the air go sharp with the instinctual reactions of more than one Breed male at the table.


"No reason for your friends to be shy." Torin's voice was a smoky, dark invitation that made even Mira's dormant senses prickle with awareness. He drew in a breath through parted lips that didn't quite hide the pearly white points of his fangs. "Call them over and let's see if they're as daring as you are, Britney."


When the girl excitedly motioned for the others to join her, Mira got up from the table. Fresh off a mission and deserving some kind of reward, the warriors had a right to accept the indecent proposal being extended to them here. But that didn't mean she wanted to watch.


"Feeding time ends at midnight, boys. That's ten minutes from now, in case any of you were worried about breaking curfew laws."


Nathan stood now too, the only one of the vampires seemingly unfazed by the approach of several warm, pretty females willing to play blood Hosts to them tonight. "What are you doing?"


"Getting out of the way. I'll be back in a few."


He frowned. "I should go with you - "


"No, stay." She held up a hand, gestured with a nod toward the arriving women. "God knows these fools can't be trusted without adult supervision."


The taunt got the anticipated rise out of Eli, Bal, and the others, but Nathan's gaze remained solemn. When his broad mouth went flat in disapproval, she reached out and cupped his jaw in her palm. She felt him tense at the contact and suddenly wished she could take back the tender gesture. Nathan may have spent more than half of his thirty-three years of life with the Order, but the scars of his dark childhood might never be buried. Touch and tenderness always put the former assassin on edge, made him twitch like no amount of bloodshed and battle ever did.


"Have some fun, Nathan. You earned it too, you know." Mira started walking away from the table. "Ten minutes," she called over her shoulder. "Somebody be nice and have a drink waiting for me when I get back."


She was fine until she reached the exit. Then the weight she'd been holding off all night settled on her chest and brought hot tears like needles in the backs of her eyes.


"Shit. Kellan . . ." She let his name escape her lips on a rasped breath as she leaned against the brick exterior wall several yards away from Asylum's crowded entrance. God, she hated how much it hurt to think of him. Hated that she hadn't been able to find her way free of the hold his memory still had on her. No, his death had killed something in her too. It had broken her somewhere deep inside, in a place no one but he had reached, before or since.


Mira hung her head, not bothering to sweep aside the loose blond tendrils that had escaped her braid and now swung into her face like a veil. She cursed under her breath, struggled to pull herself together. Her fingers were trembling as she wiped the moisture from her cheeks. She blew out a frustrated sigh. "Damn it. Get a grip, warrior."


The angry self-rebuke worked well enough for her to lift her head and square her shoulders. But it was the high-pitched, human chortle from within the nearby throng that really snapped her out of her sulk. Mira would know that barnyard hoot anywhere. Just the sound of it made her veins go hot with contempt.


She spied the young man's head - his ridiculous red mohawk - bobbing along in a group of petty thieves and troublemakers now walking past the crowd that waited to get into Asylum. That upright comb of bright scarlet hair, along with his distinctive laugh, had helped earn the delinquent his street name of Rooster.


Son of a bitch.


She hadn't seen the bastard in years. Her blood boiled to spot him now. A known rebel sympathizer, strutting around with his repeat-offender friends when he should be rotting in a prison somewhere. Better yet, dead from choking on the business end of her blades.


When the top of his red mohawk turned the corner up the block with his four pals, Mira hissed a curse. Not her concern what Rooster was up to. Not her damn jurisdiction, even if it turned out he was up to his usual no good.


Still . . .


Impulse propelled her into motion, even against her better judgment. Rooster was an occasional supplier to human militant groups and rebel factions. And that occasional alliance made him Mira's permanent enemy. She fell in behind him and his friends at a covert distance, her lug-soled boots silent as they devoured the pavement in stealth pursuit.


The men shuffled up the block and entered an alleyway door of another place, one that had long ago been a popular dance club in the North End. The former neo-Gothic church was far from holy now, and far less reputable than it had been even a decade ago. Graffiti and old shelling scars from the wars all but obscured the fading "La Notte" sign painted on the side of the old redbrick building. No longer pulsing with silky trance and synth music, the current proprietor favored hardcore industrial bands with screaming vocals in the street-level club.


All the better to drown out the raucous shouting and blood-thirsty cheers of the customers taking part in the establishment's underground arena.


It was to that part of the club that Rooster and his pals now descended. Mira followed. The stench of smoke and spilled liquor hung like fog in the air. The crowd was thick at the bottom of the steep stairwell, thicker still in the space between the entrance and the large, caged-in, steel-reinforced fighting arena at the center of the room.


Inside the cage, two huge Breed males circled each other in bloody combat. Outside, gathered around the perimeter and standing a dozen rows deep, the crowd of human spectators cheered and hollered, bets placed on their favorite. This match had been going on for some time, based on the amount of blood in the ring and the fevered pitch of the crowd outside of it. Mira had seen the outlawed games before and hardly flinched at the sight of the two powerful vampires wearing only gladiator-style leather shorts and U-shape steel torcs around their necks. Titanium spikes rode the knuckles of their fingerless leather gloves, making each blow a savage shredding of flesh and muscle.


Rooster and his friends paused to watch one of the fighters take a hard strike to the sternum. His hooting laughter shot up through the crowd as the combatant crashed backward into the bars. The downed vampire was already in bad shape, pitted against an undefeated fighter who never failed to bring in the big crowds and heavy purses. Now, spitting blood, heaving under the force of this last blow, the losing male scrabbled to reach the mercy button inside the cage. Rooster and the rest of the spectators hissed and booed as the call for mercy temporarily halted the match and delivered a punishing jolt of electricity to the wounded combatant's dark-haired opponent. Unfazed, the immense Breed fighter took the hit as if it were no more than a bee sting, fangs bared in a cold smile that promised yet another win for his record.


The cage thundered with violence as the fight resumed, but Mira ignored the spectacle of the arena. Her sights were locked on her target. Her own need to punish boiled like acid in her veins as she stalked Rooster through the throng.


She thought of Kellan's final moments as she watched the rebel sympathizer cackle and hoot, he and the other humans cheering each terrible strike, frothing for more Breed bloodshed.


She didn't know at what point she'd drawn her blades from their sheaths at her back. She felt the chill of custom-tooled metal in her hands, her fingertips light on the scrollwork of the daggers' hilts. Felt her instincts itching to let the blades fly as Rooster shot a sudden glance in her direction.


He saw her, realized she was coming for him. Something flashed in his eyes as they met hers. Panic, certainly. But Mira saw guilt in that worried gaze too. In fact, his oh-shit look seemed to say that she was the last person he expected or wanted to see. He shrank back behind one of his hoodlum pals, as if that fiery shock of upright hair wouldn't give him away.


Mira felt a snarl curl up from the back of her throat. Son of a bitch was going to bolt. And sure enough, he did.


"Damn it!" She shouldered her way through the thick crowd, trying not to lose sight of her quarry as she maneuvered for a clear shot at him with her blades.


Someone saw her drawn weapons and a scream of warning went up. People scrambled out of her way - just long enough that she saw her chance at nailing Rooster. She took it without a hint of hesitation. Her twin blades flew. They arrowed on an unerring path that hit her moving target and skewered him to the far wall, one dagger buried to the hilt in each of the human's thin biceps.


He howled, no longer amused now that he was on the receiving end of a little pain. Mira shoved a few gawking stragglers aside as she closed in on him, venom hot in her veins. She'd already broken one law here tonight; looking at the rebel ally just beyond arm's reach from her, she was tempted to add aggravated homicide to the tab.


A strong hand came down on her shoulder.


"Don't do it, Mira." Nathan. He and the rest of the warriors stood behind her now, disapproval on each hard face.


She realized suddenly how hushed the club had gone. The illegal contest in the cage was over, the spectators now watching the new one Mira had started. The human proprietor of the place and some of his Breed fighters moved in from other areas of the club, their mere presence threatening added trouble if things got any further out of hand.


Shit. Mira knew she'd stepped in it this time, but her blood was still on a hard boil and all she could think about was settling the score for Kellan. One less rebel bastard tonight was a good place to start.


"Let it go," Nathan said, his voice soldier-cool and emotionless, the way she'd heard him speak a thousand times before, even under heavy combat fire. "This is not the way you were trained. You know that."


She did. She knew it, and yet she still threw off Nathan's grip and took a hard lunge toward Rooster, who yowled like a banshee, writhing where he was pinned to the wall. Nathan blocked her. He moved faster than she could track him, placing himself between her and the human.


"Get out of my way, Nathan. You know who this scum hangs with - rebel pigs. Way I see it, that makes him one of them."


"Somebody help me!" Rooster howled. "Somebody call the cops! I'm innocent!"


Mira shook her head, meeting her teammate's disapproving gaze. "He's lying. He knows something, Nathan. I can see it in him. I can feel it. He knows who's responsible for Kellan's death. Damn it, I want someone to pay for what happened to him!"


Nathan's curse was an airless growl. "For fuck's sake, Mira." His eyes were intense but tender. Holding her with a pity that she'd never seen before and hated to acknowledge now. "The only one you're making pay for what happened to Kellan is yourself."


The truth in his words hit her like a slap. She absorbed the blow in a stunned kind of silence, watching as the rest of her squad and Nathan's moved in around the two of them.


"Probably not a good idea to linger down here," Webb remarked to Mira and Nathan when neither had relaxed from their unspoken standoff. "If we don't clean this up quick, things could turn ugly."

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