Brock's exhaled curse told Kade what he thought of that prediction. "Better you than me, my man. Better you than me." There was a pause before he asked, "You have a chance to see your family yet?"
"Yeah," Kade said, tipping his head back to stare at the thick beam rafters of the cabin. "My arrival home went over about as well as I expected."
"That good, huh?"
"Put it this way, I get a warmer reception stepping outside in the twenty-below darkness."
"Harsh," Brock said. "I'm sorry, man. Seriously." Kade shook his head. "Forget it. I don't need to talk about my welcome homecoming. Just wanted to touch base and pass along another bit of info that Gideon might find interesting."
"I found the asshole who posted the video clip of the attacked humans. His name is Skeeter Arnold, local burnout, probable small-time dealer. I watched him leave a bar and take off in a shiny new chauffeured Hummer. He was brought to some kind of mining company office out in the sticks. The name on the gate was Coldstream Mining Company. Put Gideon on that when he gets a chance. I'm curious to know what kind of business this loser might have with them."
"You got it," Brock said. "You take care out there. Don't freeze off anything you might need later." Kade chuckled despite the unease he felt just thinking about this whole assignment. "I'll be in touch," he said, and ended the call.
As he set the phone down on the lamp table beside him, a firm rap sounded on the cabin's front door.
"Yeah, it's open," he said, expecting to see his father. He steeled himself for the disapproval that would follow. "Come on in."
Maksim entered instead, sparking a relief Kade could hardly hide. He rose, smiling, and gestured for his uncle to join him in front of the fire.
"I didn't think you'd come back," Max said. "At least, not so soon. I hear it did not go well between you and my brother the other day. I wish he wasn't so hard on you."
Kade shrugged. "We've never seen eye to eye. I sure as hell don't expect us to start now."
"Now that you are one of the Order's warriors," Max said, his eyes lighting with eager conspiracy, his deep, slightly accented voice edged with unhidden admiration, "I am proud of you, nephew. Proud of the work you are doing. There is honor in it, just as there has always been honor in you." Kade wanted to dismiss the praise as unneeded, but hearing it--particularly from Max, who, although he was a couple centuries older than Kade, had always felt like a brother to him--felt too damn good to pretend it didn't matter.
"Thanks, Max. It means a lot, coming from you."
"No need to thank me. I speak the truth." He stared at Kade for a long moment, then leaned forward, his elbows planted on his spread knees. "You've been gone a year. You must be doing important things for Lucan and his Order."
Kade grinned, seeing Max's angle from a mile away. Like him, Max craved adventure. Unlike him, Max had committed himself to serving as second banana to Kade's father, the leader of the Fairbanks Darkhaven. Max's loyalty had shackled him to this ten-thousand-acre prison, and although he would never shirk his duty or his promise to his rigid, uncompromising brother, Max appreciated the concept of risk and reward, courage and honor, every bit as much as Kade did.
Because of that, and because Kade knew Max's loyalty extended to him, as well, he knew that trusting him with a few details of his experiences with the Order and their current mission would not be misplaced.
"I heard there was some upheaval in the Enforcement Agency out East some months back," Max said, watching Kade eagerly, waiting for him to elaborate.
"There was," he admitted, recalling one of the first missions he'd been involved with, and the beginning of the trouble the Order now had with the madman called Dragos. "Our intel uncovered a highranking director of the Agency who wasn't what he seemed. This guy had been operating under an assumed name and seeding a secret rebellion for decades--longer, in fact. We're still trying to figure out just how far the corruption goes, but it hasn't been easy. Every time we get close to the bastard, he goes deeper to ground."
"So, you pursue him harder," Max said, talking like any one of the warriors back in Boston. "You keep hitting him, keep pounding him from all angles, until he's too exhausted from running that he has no choice but to stand and fight. And then you destroy him, once and for all." Kade nodded grimly, hearing the wisdom in Max's advice and wishing their pursuit of Dragos was as simple, as clean, as that.
What Max didn't know--what neither he nor anyone else could be permitted to know--was that Dragos was only the tip of a very treacherous iceberg. Dragos had a secret weapon, one he'd been holding for centuries. Around the same time that Kade had joined the Order, they had discovered the existence of a creature long thought to be dead. An Ancient. One of the bloodthirsty otherworlders who'd fathered the entire Breed race on Earth millennia ago.
Dragos was that creature's grandson, and he'd been breeding his army of ruthless, unstoppable vampire assassins off him for longer than anyone wanted to contemplate.
If that news were to get out to the Breed communities in the United States and abroad, it would incite widespread panic.
If it were to leak to the human populations that not only did vampires walk among them, but one megalomaniac intended to put himself in power and enslave them all?
Kade had to mentally shake himself out of that nightmare scenario. "While the rest of the Order is doing just what you said, I drew the short straw to come up to Alaska. I've been looking into an attack on some humans in the bush--a whole family settlement, wiped out in one night." Max frowned. "Rogues?"
"That's our guess." And Kade's hope, although each minute of this assignment led him farther and farther away from that as a viable outcome. "You haven't heard of any trouble in the Darkhavens, have you?
Anyone rumored to be edging toward Bloodlust?"
Max gave a slow shake of his head. "Nothing like that. There was an incident at the Darkhaven in Anchorage about nine months ago. Some idiot kid nearly bled out a human at a party, but that was the only problem in the region lately."
The news didn't make Kade feel any better, certainly. Because if there were no Rogues on the loose, then that left only one reasonable place to lay the blame.
"I wonder if Seth has heard anything," he murmured, trying to keep the dread and fury out of his voice. "Sure would hate to miss seeing him while I'm here."
"He would hate to miss you, as well," Max said, and Kade could see that he meant it sincerely. He didn't know about Seth. Like everyone else, he had no clue.
Only Kade knew.
And the burden of that knowledge was sitting heavier in his gut all the time. Max sat back in his chair and softly cleared his throat. "There's something I want to tell you, Kade. Something you need to understand ... about your family, and about your father."
"Go on," Kade said, not entirely sure he wanted to hear how much his father adored Seth and wished Kade had been more like him.
"My brother, your father, does not find it easy to show his affection. Especially with you."
"Funny, I hadn't noticed." Kade grinned with humor he didn't feel.
"Our family has a dark secret," Max said, and Kade felt his body go a little numb. "Kir and I had a younger brother. You never knew that, I'm sure. Not many do. His name was Grigori. Kir loved him very much. We all did. Grigori was a clever, charming boy. But he was also a bit wild. Even at his young age, he rebelled against authority and walked the razor's edge of every situation without any fear." Kade found himself smiling, thinking that he might have liked Grigori, too.
"Despite his faults, Kir doted on the boy. But some years later, when it was learned that Grigori had gone Rogue, that in his Bloodlust he had killed, Kir wrote him off completely. Just like that," Max said, giving a sharp snap of his fingers. "We never saw Grigori again. Kir never so much as spoke of him after we heard the news about Grigori turning Rogue, nor has he since. From that time forward, Kir was a changed man."
Kade listened, reluctant to admit the pang of sympathy he had for his father and the loss he suffered.
"Perhaps your father worries that he could not shoulder that kind of pain again," Max suggested.
"Perhaps it's just that he sees a bit too much of Grigori in you sometimes." And he'd apparently decided to write Kade off early, while pinning all of his fatherly hopes on Seth.
"It doesn't matter," Kade murmured, and he half meant it, too. He was too busy dealing with real life-and-death shit to worry about how low his father's expectations might be for him. "I appreciate the information, Max. And the insight. I also appreciate that you came by." Max, perceptive as ever, took the gentle hint and stood up. "You have things to do. I should not delay you."
When he stuck out his hand, Kade grabbed him into a brief embrace instead. "You're a good man, Max. A good friend. Thank you."
"Anything you need, Kade, you need only ask."
They walked to the door together, and Kade opened it just as a pair of women, bundled in winter coats and each carrying a folded down-filled blanket, were walking past the cabin. One of them looked over and did a quick double-take.
"Oh ... Kade?" she asked, then her pretty face lit up with a bright smile. "Kade! I heard you'd returned to Alaska, but I didn't realize you were here."
"Hello, Patrice," he said, giving a polite smile to the Breedmate his twin brother had kept waiting in the wings for the past couple of years.
Beside him, Max had gone very still. Kade could feel heat radiating from the other male as Patrice continued to chat animatedly, sweet and gorgeous with her bright red hair and dark green eyes illuminated by the firelight pouring out from the door.
"Ruby and I were just on our way to watch the aurora borealis from one of the ledges. Would either of you like to join us?"
Kade and Max both said no together, but it was Max's refusal that dimmed Patrice's smile the most, although she tried to hide it with the edge of the blanket she held. As the Breedmates walked away, Kade noticed that the elder male couldn't keep his eyes off them.
Or, rather, one of them.
"Patrice?" Kade asked, stunned by the carefully restrained longing he'd just seen in both of them. Maksim snapped out of his stare and looked at him. "She has promised herself to another. I would never interfere with that, regardless of how long it takes Seth to finally accept the precious gift he's been given. The ignorant, arrogant little bastard."
Kade watched his uncle walk off the porch and continue on across the snowy grounds to his own quarters.
He didn't know whether to chuckle over the virulence of Max's declaration, or curse Seth for potentially ruining two more lives.
Alex poured a kettle of boiling water into the battered old drip coffeemaker on the stove. As the kitchen filled with the aroma of fresh-brewed beans for a second time that morning, she turned back to the little table where she and Jenna were having breakfast. Or rather, Alex was having breakfast. Jenna had only little table where she and Jenna were having breakfast. Or rather, Alex was having breakfast. Jenna had only nibbled at her home fries and had left her scrambled egg mostly untouched.
"God, I hate winter," she murmured, leaning back in the creaky wooden chair and slanting a thoughtful look at the darkness that still pressed thick and deep against the windows at 8:00 AM. "Some days it feels like it's never going to end."
"It will," Alex said, as she sat across from her friend and watched the haunted look grow deeper in Jenna's eyes.
Of course, it wasn't really the darkness or the cold that was weighing her down. Alex didn't have to look at the calendar on the wall near the telephone to understand Jenna's mounting gloom.
"Hey," Alex said, forcing a brightness into her voice. "If the weather stays clear to the weekend, I was thinking about flying down to Anchorage. Maybe do some shopping, go to the movies. You game for a girls'
weekend in the city?"
Jenna glanced back at her and gave a weak shake of her head. "I don't think so."
"Oh, come on. It'll be fun. Besides, you owe me now. I just made the last of my Red Goat coffee for you. I need to hit Kiladi Brothers and stock up again."
Jenna smiled, a bit sadly. "The last of your beloved Red Goat? Wow, you must be worried about me. You think I'm in pretty bad shape, huh?"
"Are you?" Alex asked carefully, a direct question that required a direct answer. She reached across the table and placed her hand over Jenna's. She watched her friend closely, listening to the instinct inside her that always seemed to know whether she was being given the truth or a lie. "Are you going to be all right this time?"
Jenna held her gaze as if locked there. She sighed quietly. "I really don't know, Alex. I miss them. They gave me a reason to get up in the morning, you know? I felt needed, that my life had some higher purpose when Mitch and Libby were in it. I'm not sure I'm ever going to have that again." The truth, then, pained as it was. Alex acknowledged her friend's admission with a tender squeeze of her hand. She blinked, releasing Jenna from the invisible hold of her truth-seeking stare. "Your life has purpose, Jenna. It has meaning. And you're not alone. You have Zach and me for starters." Jenna shrugged. "My brother and I have been drifting apart for a while now, and my best friend has been talking a lot of nonsense lately about picking up and moving away."
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