Sergei Yakut and all the rest of the Breed shared the same driving thirst: the need for Homo sapiens red cells, taken directly from an open vein.


They were deadly savages who happened to look human most of the time, but who at their core - in their soul, if they even had one - lacked all humanity. Why she should think that Nikolai was any different was beyond her.


But he had seemed different, if only a little.


When she'd sparred with him in the kennel - when he'd kissed her, for God's sake - he had in fact seemed remarkably different from the others of his kind that she knew. Not like Yakut at all. Not like Lex either.


Which probably only proved that she was a fool.


And she was weak as well. How else could she explain the wrenching wish she'd had that Nikolai might have taken her out of this place when he'd left today? She didn't often indulge in futile hopes, or waste time imagining things that could never come to pass. But there had been a moment...a brief, selfish moment when she pictured herself torn away from Sergei Yakut's unbreakable hold.


For one unfettered instant, she wondered what it might feel like to be free of him, free of everything that held her there...and it had been glorious.


Shamed by her thoughts, Renata swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. She couldn't lie there for another minute, not as long as her head was spinning with thoughts that would do her no good at all.


The fact of the matter was, this was her life. Yakut's world was her world, the lodge and its many ugly secrets her unshakable reality. She didn't feel sorry for herself; she never had. Not at the convent orphanage all those years as a child, nor the day she was tossed out of her home with the Sisters of Benevolent Mercy at the age of fourteen and forced to leave for good.


Not even on the night, just two summers before, when she'd been plucked off the streets in Montreal and brought with a group of other frightened humans to the locked holding pens of the barn on Sergei Yakut's property.


She hadn't shed a single self-pitying tear in all this time. She sure as hell wasn't about to start now.


Renata got up and left her modest room. The main lodge was quiet at this hour, the few windows in the place shuttered tight to banish the sun's lethal rays. Renata took the thick iron bar off the exterior door and walked out into a gloriously warm and bright summer afternoon.


She headed straight for the kennel outbuilding.


Amid all the drama that had occurred last night, both alone with Nikolai and in the time afterward, she'd completely forgotten her blades outside. The careless oversight bothered her. She never let the daggers out of her possession. They were a part of her now, as they had been the day she'd received them.


"Stupid, stupid," she whispered to herself as she entered the old kennel and looked to the post where she expected to find the embedded blade she'd thrown at Nikolai.


It wasn't there.


A cry slipped past her lips, disbelief and anguish.


Had the warrior taken her blades for himself? Had he fucking stolen them?


"Damn it. No."


Renata stormed across the center aisle of the building...then came to an abrupt halt as she reached the back of the place and her eyes settled on the stout bale of straw near the scarred wooden post.


Carefully folded atop it and placed neatly beside the pair of shoes she'd left behind last night as well was the silk-and-velvet wrapper that contained her treasured daggers. She picked it up, just to reassure herself that the fabric sheath wasn't empty. Its familiar weight settled into her palm and she couldn't hold back her smile.


Nikolai.


He'd taken care of the blades for her. Collected them, wrapped them up, and left them here for her as if he knew how much they meant to her.


Why would he do that? What did he expect his kindness to buy him? Did he actually think her trust might come so cheaply, or was he just hoping for another chance to force himself on her the way he had with that kiss?


She really didn't want to think about kissing Nikolai. If she thought about his mouth on hers, then she would have to admit to herself that as unexpected and uninvited as his kiss had been, force was hardly to blame for it happening.


The truth was, she'd enjoyed it.


Mother Mary, but just thinking on him now lit a slow, liquid heat in her core.


She'd wanted more of him, despite that every survival instinct in her body had been screaming for her to get away from him, and get away fast. She hungered for him - then and now. Burned for him, in a place she'd long thought to be frozen over and dead. And that little admission made what he'd said about Mira - the implication that whatever he'd seen in the child's eyes might somehow involve Renata and him intimately together - all the more unsettling.


Thank God he was gone.


Thank God he would likely never return after what he'd discovered here.


It had been a long time since Renata had gone down on her knees to pray. She knelt before no one anymore, not even Yakut at his terrifying worst, but she bowed her head now and begged heaven to keep Nikolai away from this place.


Away from her.


No longer in the mood for training, especially when memories of what had taken place here last night were still ripe and swimming in her head, Renata grabbed her shoes and walked back to the lodge. She went inside, replaced the bar on the door, then walked the hallway leading to her room and what she hoped might be at least a few hours' sleep.


She sensed something out of place even before she noticed Mira's door was unlatched.


No lights were on in the child's room, but she was awake. Renata heard her soft voice in the dark, complaining that she was sleepy and didn't want to get up. More nightmares? Renata wondered, feeling a pang of sympathy for the child. But then another voice hissed over Mira's groggy protests, this one cold and harsh, clipped with impatience.


"Stop your sniveling and open your eyes, you little bitch."


Renata pressed her hand to the paneled door and pushed it wide. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Lex?"


He was bent over Mira's bed, the child's shoulders caught in a bruising hold. His head swiveled around as Renata came into the room, but he didn't let go of Mira. "I have need of my father's oracle. And I don't answer to you, so kindly get the fuck out of here."


"Rennie, he's hurting my arms." Mira's voice was tiny, pinched with pain.


"Open your eyes," Lex snarled at her. "Then maybe I'll stop hurting you."


"Take your hands off her, Lex." Renata stopped at the foot of the bed, her sheathed blades a tempting weight in her grasp. "Do it. Now."


Lex scoffed. "Not until I'm through with her."


When he gave Mira a hard shake, Renata let loose with a blast of mental fury.


It was just a spurt of power, only a fraction of what she could give him, but Lex howled, his body jerking as though he'd been hit with a few thousand volts of electricity. He reeled back, dropping Mira and falling away from the bed, ass-planted on the floor.


"You bitch!" His eyes bled amber fire, pupils tight slivers in their center. "I should kill you for that. I should kill the brat and you both!"


Renata hit him again, another small taste of agony. He slumped, clutching his head and moaning from the debilitating second blast. She waited, watching as he worked to collect himself from his sprawl on the floor. He didn't pose much of a threat to her like this, but in a few hours he would be recovered and she would be the vulnerable one. Then she might have a bit of hell to pay.


But for the time being, Mira was no longer of interest to Lex, and that was all that mattered.


Lex glared up at her as he dragged himself to his feet. "Get out of my...way...goddamn...whore."


The words were choked, sputtered between his gasps for breath as he clumsily moved toward the open door. When he was out of sight, his footsteps scuffing along the hallway outside, Renata went to Mira's bedside and hushed her softly.


"Are you all right, kiddo?"


Mira nodded. "I don't like him, Rennie. He scares me."


"I know, honey." Renata pressed a kiss to the child's brow. "I'm not going to let him hurt you. You're safe with me. That's a promise, right?"


Another nod, weaker this time as Mira settled her head back onto her pillow and exhaled a sleepy sigh. "Rennie?" she asked quietly.


"Yes, mouse?"


"Don't ever leave me, okay?"


Renata stared down at the innocent little face in the dark, feeling her heart squeeze tightly in her breast. "I'm not going to leave you, Mira. Not ever...just like we promised."


Chapter Eleven


The moon rose high, casting dappled light over Lake Wannsee in an exclusive area outside Berlin . Andreas Reichen leaned back in his cushioned chaise on the rear lawn of his private Darkhaven estate, trying to absorb some of the peace and quiet of the evening. Despite the warm, pleasant breeze and the calm of the night-dark water, his thoughts were morose, turbulent.


The news of the latest Gen One killing, this time in France, weighed him down. It seemed to him that the world was going increasingly mad around him. Not only the world of the Breed - his world - but that of humankind as well. So much death and destruction. So much anguish everywhere one looked.


He had the terrible feeling, deep in his gut, that this was only the beginning. Darker days were coming. Perhaps they had been coming for a long time already and he'd been too ignorant - too caught up in his own personal pleasures - to notice.


One of those pleasures came up behind him now, her elegant stride unmistakable as she walked through the estate 's manicured gardens and down onto the grass.


Helene's lithe arms wrapped around his shoulders. "Hello, darling."


Reichen reached up to caress her warm skin as she bent over him and kissed him. Her mouth was soft, lingering, her long dark hair fragrant with the lightest trace of rose oil.


"Your nephew told me when I arrived that you've been out here for the past couple of hours," she murmured, lifting her head to gaze out at the lake. "I can see why. It's a lovely view."


"It just got lovelier," Reichen said, as he tipped his chin up and looked at her.


She smiled without coyness, having long become accustomed to his flattery. "Something is troubling you, Andreas. It's not like you to sit alone and brood."


Could she know him so well? They had been lovers for the past year, a casual dalliance that had somehow turned into something deeper if not entirely exclusive. Reichen knew Helene had other men in her life - human men - as he also occasionally took his pleasure with other women. Theirs was not a relationship plagued by jealousies or possessiveness. But that didn't mean it was devoid of affection. They shared a mutual concern for each other, and a bond of trust that extended beyond the barriers that generally made human and Breed relationships impossible.


Helene had become a friend and, of late, an indispensable partner in Reichen's important remote work with the warriors back in Boston.


Helene came around to the front of the chair and seated herself on the broad arm. "Have you relayed the news to the Order about the recent assassination in Paris?"


Reichen nodded. "I did, yes. And they tell me there was also an attempted killing in Montreal a few nights ago. At least that one failed, by some miracle of fate. But there will be others. I fear there will be many more deaths to come before the smoke finally clears. The Order is convinced they will put a stop to the madness, but there are times when I wonder if the evil at work here isn't greater than any amount of good."


"You're letting this consume you," Helene said as she idly petted his hair off his brow. "You know, if you were looking for something to do with your time, you could have come to me instead of the Order. I could have put you to work at the club as my personal assisant. It's not too late to change your mind. And I assure you, the fringe benefits alone would be worth it."


Reichen chuckled. "Tempting, indeed."


Helene bent down and nibbled his earlobe, her breath tickling and heated on his skin. "It would only be a temporary position, of course. Say twenty or thirty years - a blink of time to you. But by then I will be wrinkled and gray, and you will be eager for a new, more appealing plaything who can still keep up with your wicked demands."


Reichen was surprised to hear the twinge of wistfulness in Helene's voice. She'd never talked about the future with him, nor he with her. It was more or less understood that there could never be a future, given that she was mortal with a finite life span and he - barring prolonged UV exposure or massive bodily harm - would continue living for something close to eternity.


"What are you doing wasting your time with me when you could have your pick of any man? " he asked her, running his fingers along the smooth line of her shoulder. "You could be married to someone who adores you, raising a litter of clever, beautiful children."


Helene arched a flawlessly manicured brow. "I suppose I never was one to make the conventional choice."


Neither was he, in fact. Reichen acknowledged that it would be very easy to ignore everything he and the Order had discovered a few months ago. He could forget about the evil they'd tracked to that mountain cave in the Bohemian hills. He could pretend none of that existed, renege on his offer to help the warriors in whatever way he could. It would be the simplest thing in the world to retreat to his role as head of his Darkhaven household and slide back into his carefree, libertine ways.


But the simple truth was, he'd grown tired of that lifestyle long ago. Someone years past had once accused him of being a perpetual child - selfish and irresponsible. She'd been right, even then. Especially then, when he'd been fool enough to let that woman and the love she'd given him slip through his fingers. After too many decades of self-indulgence, it felt good to be making a difference. Or trying to, as it were.

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