"Evening, Ida," Zach said pleasantly as she scowled at him.


"What do you want?" She crossed her arms over her breasts, tugging at the edges of her old housecoat. "You come to tell me he's in trouble again?"


"No, ma'am."


She grunted. "He dead?"


"No, ma'am. Nothing like that." He cocked his head. "Why would you think that?"


"Wouldn't surprise me, is all. I heard what happened to Big Dave and Lanny Ham today." At Zach's grim nod, she huffed out a breath and shrugged. "Never did care much for either one of them, tell you the truth."


"Yes, well," Zach replied idly. He cleared his throat, adopting his cop voice, the one that Jenna said made him sound like a self-righteous prick. All he knew was, it generally got results. "I actually came by to talk to Stanley."


The fact that he'd used her son's given name and not the nickname that all the rest of Harmony had called him from the time he was a skinny, snot-nosed kid made Ida Arnold's scowl burrow a bit deeper on her forehead.


"Is he here, ma'am?"


"No, he ain't. Haven't seen hide nor hair since early this morning."


"He hasn't called or anything to let you know where he might be, ma'am?" She barked out a cutting laugh. "He don't tell me nothin', just like his no-good father before him. Thinks I'm blind and dumb, that boy," she muttered. "I know what he's up to, though."


"Oh? And what's that, Ida?" Zach asked carefully, narrowing his eyes under the glare of the overhead light as he watched the old woman's expression harden.


"He's dealing again, drugs, for sure. My guess is he's also bootlegging to some of the dry Native settlements up-river."


Zach felt his brows rise, even as his gut clenched into a tight ball. "What makes you suspect Skeet-Stanley--is involved in something like that?" She tapped the center of her chest with her finger. "I raised him, for better or worse. I don't need proof to know when he's up to no good. I'm not sure what he's gotten himself into lately, but he's starting to scare me. I think he has it in him to hurt me one day. In fact, after the way he treated me when he was here last, I don't doubt it for a second. Never seen him act so nasty and arrogant. Acted like he suddenly grew a pair of balls."


Zach cleared his throat at the woman's crudeness. "This was yesterday, you said?" She nodded. "He came home looking like something the cat dragged in. When I said something about it, he grabbed me by the throat. I tell you, I thought he was going to kill me right then and there. But he just mumbled that he had work to do, then went inside his room and closed the door. That's the last he was home, far as I know. Part of me hopes he never comes back, the way he treats me. Part of me wishes he would just ... go away. To prison, if that's where he belongs."


Zach stared at her, realizing that her fear and dislike of her own son could work to his advantage here. "When he was here at the house last, did he say what kind of work he was doing?"


"He didn't say, but that boy's never done an honest day's work in his life. You wanna have a look inside his apartment? It's a damn pigsty, but if it's proof you need--"


"Can't do that," Zach said, even though right now he wanted nothing more. "From a law enforcement standpoint, I can't search his residence. That would require a lot of paperwork and procedures." The rounded bulk of her shoulders slumped a bit. "I see--"


"However," Zach added helpfully, "seeing how I've known you folks for the past decade or so since I've lived in Harmony, I suppose if you asked me as a personal favor to come in and have a look around-unofficially, as it were--then I would not be opposed." She peered at him for a long moment, then stepped back from the door and motioned him inside. "It's this way, down the hall. He'll have locked the door, but I keep a spare key tucked behind the baseboard." Ida Arnold ambled down to her son's door, retrieved the tarnished brass key from its hiding place, then unlocked and opened the door for Zach.


"I'll be just a few minutes," he said, dismissing her with both his tone and his unblinking academytrained stare. "Thank you, Ida." Once she had shuffled back up the hallway, Zach walked into Skeeter's dump of an apartment and began a swift, thorough search of the place. Empty food wrappers, bottles, and other trash littered the floor and nearly every flat surface. And there--surprise--on the counter next to an old police radio, a roll of twenty-dollar bills, secured with a rubber band.


It didn't seem like Skeeter to leave his money lying around. Didn't seem like him to leave his cell phone behind, either, but there it was, jammed into the seat of a tattered light blue recliner. Guess that explained the ignored calls and texts, although it hardly excused Skeeter for being an asshole out at Pete's the this morning.


Zach grabbed the cash and counted it out: fifteen bills. Not the five hundred bucks Skeeter owed him, but he'd gladly take what he could get.


Hell, he'd take the cell phone, too.


If it didn't give him any insight into Skeeter's recent activities or his apparent newfound business associates, then Zach would pawn the damned thing next time he went to Fairbanks to pick up new product from his connections in the city. Skeeter Arnold owed him, and one way or another, Zach intended to collect what he was due.


Chapter Twenty


Alex sat on the sofa in her living room, sharing a piece of buttered toast with Luna, both of them watching Kade walk a repeated track from the kitchen and down the hallway as he spoke on satellite phone to Boston.


In the time since they'd been back to her house, he'd brought her up to speed on a few more things about himself and the work he'd been sent to do in Alaska. Her mind was still reeling over the fact that he wasn't precisely human. Now she understood that he was also part of a group of Breed males pledged to maintain peace between their race and humankind. From the way he described it, the Order sounded almost military, which made some kind of sense to her when she looked at Kade and observed his dark combination of lethal strength and laser-sharp confidence.


And despite the danger that rolled off him in waves, especially what she'd witnessed today, Kade was gentle with her, protective. As shaken as she was by all she had seen and heard in the past few hours--the past few days--she felt secure with him.


Even when he'd gone on to explain the worst of the threats that faced him and the warriors of the Order.


He had told her about the enemy the Order was doggedly pursuing and committed to destroying, a second-generation Breed male called Dragos. Alex had listened in quiet but horrified comprehension as Kade had described the many evils Dragos had perpetrated, not the least of which being the mass abduction and abuse of an unknown number of women like her--Breedmates, tracked down and collected over a period of decades to be used as vessels for the personal army of assassins Dragos had bred. What truly gave her pause, and what made her blood run cold in her veins, was one final truth that Kade revealed to her tonight. The fact that a creature not of this world--a creature far worse than the bloodaddicted Rogues who'd killed her mom and Richie--was somehow loose in the Alaskan interior. Even Kade was grim when he spoke of the Ancient to his friends at the Order's Boston compound, describing to them the damaged freight container and the presence of vampires and Minion workers at the old mining company location. Although he kept his voice low, it was impossible for Alex to miss the fact that he and his brethren were preparing for battle against the new threat.


The thought of Kade walking into harm's way made her breath come a little shorter, her heart beat a bit heavier. She couldn't bear it if something happened to him. Not after the time they'd shared, an incredibly short time, in which he was somehow becoming an inextricable part of her life. In just a couple of days, he had become her friend and her lover, her confidant. Somehow he was coming to mean something even more than all of that.


Could she possibly be falling in love with him?


Falling in love ... with a vampire.


No, he wasn't that.


Kade was Breed, and that was different. He was different. It was hard for her to reconcile that he was cut from the same fabric as the monsters that had attacked her family. Hard for her to believe that somewhere in his DNA, he carried the genes of something completely inhuman, unfathomably lethal. Something not of this Earth. It was hard for her to reconcile that the strong, proud, devastatingly sexy man prowling her modest little house was actually not a man at all, but something different. Something so much more.


Alex watched him in fascination, all the more so for what she'd seen him do outside the mining company grounds with the wolf. In an instant, he'd become part of the beautiful animal, connecting on some unspoken level that had left Alex gaping at him in awe. Even now, she marveled, feeling the current of wildness, of dark, commanding power, lingering in him still. He was intense and mysterious, strong and seductive. And yes, hot as hell.


Everything about Kade captivated her.


She merely had to look at him and she burned.


And he knew it, too. She saw the spark of awareness light the silver of his eyes as he wrapped up his call and set the phone down on the end table next to the sofa.


"How are you holding up?" he asked, seating himself beside her. "You must be exhausted. I know this is a lot to handle."


She gave a vague shrug. "My head's still spinning, but at least I have answers now. The things that never made sense to me before are clearer. Not exactly reason to jump up and cheer, but it's good to finally have the truth, however terrifying it might be. So, thank you for that, Kade." He took her hand in his, their palms pressed together lightly as he ran his thumb over the thin skin of her wrist. His touch was warm, soothing. Achingly tender. "God, I hate that you've been dragged into this. There are places that you can go where you'll be safe, Alex. The Breed has numerous Darkhavens that would take you in--secure communities where you would be welcomed and protected. Better than what I can do for you now. After seeing what we did out at the mine, this has all gotten too real. Too dangerous--"


"I'm not going anywhere," she said, curling her fingers around his and holding his grave gaze. "I'm not going to run. Don't ask me to, Kade."


His jaw went tight as he stared at her. His dark brows lowered over his eyes, mouth going flat as he grimly shook his head. "This is my battle. The Order's battle. Tomorrow some of the warriors will arrive from Boston. I'll be meeting up with them when they get in, and from there we'll launch an offensive strike on Dragos's operations at the mine. We don't know what we're going to find. I just know that I want you as far away from this mission--and any possible fallout--as you can get." He reached up and smoothed his fingers lightly over her cheek. "That also means getting you as far away from me as possible, before I put you any further at risk."


"No." Alex turned her face, pressing her mouth to the warm heat of his palm where it rested against her. She kissed the heart of his large hand. "I can't hide anymore, Kade. I don't want to live like that, always looking over my shoulder, afraid of the things I don't understand. You can't ask me to, not when meeting you has given me the strength to believe that I can face my fears. Meeting you has given me the strength to understand that I must face them."


He cursed harshly, but his caress was soft, his gaze penetrating, the pale silver color that ringed his pupils dark with desire. "You give me too much credit. You were stronger than you realized, to have gone through what you did as a child and not let it destroy you. Not many could. That's courage, Alex. You didn't need me for that. You still don't."


She smiled, reaching out to hold his face in her hands as she kissed him. "I do need you," she whispered against his mouth. "What's more, I want you, Kade."


His breath rasped out of him on a sigh as she slanted her lips over his again and moved closer to him on the sofa. His arms went around her, holding her in a loose cage as she climbed up onto his lap and pushed her tongue into his mouth.


He groaned, caught her tongue with his teeth ... then abruptly broke contact and turned his head away from her.


"What's wrong? Why did you stop?" She panted the words, her lips and tongue stinging with a delicious heat. She tasted blood, only the smallest trace, but instinct brought her hand up to her mouth and the tip of her finger came away wet with a scarlet stain.


She glanced at Kade's downcast face and felt his torment in the way his big body vibrated with barely leashed control, as though he were waging a private war inside himself.


leashed control, as though he were waging a private war inside himself.


"Look at me," she whispered. When he didn't immediately comply, she lifted his stubborn chin and physically brought his gaze back to hers. "Look at me ... let me see you."


"Trust me, you will not want to," he muttered, glancing away quickly. But not before she noticed the change that had come over his eyes. He hadn't been able to turn quite fast enough to hide the fact that their normally pale gray color was now shot with fiery amber. And his pupils ... something was different about them, too.


"Kade, please," she said gently. "Let me see you as you really are." Slowly, he lifted his face. His dark lashes flicked up, and Alex was stunned by a blast of ember-bright color that glowed like lit coals. And in the center of all that fire, his pupils had narrowed to catlike slits. It startled her, the strangeness of his gaze, the way it transformed his face, sharpening the angles of his high cheekbones and squared jaw. She stared, robbed of words. All but robbed of breath.

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