"You were not trained to question your orders or to back away from obstacles. You were bred for one thing - as were the others like you."


The stern chin came up another inch, questioning. Mistrusting. "What others?"


He chuckled low under his breath. "You didn't actually think you were unique, did you? Far from it. Yes, there are others. An army of others - soldiers, assassins...expendable pawns I've created over a period of several decades, all of them born and raised to serve me. Others, like you, who live only because I will it." He glanced pointedly at the collar that ringed the vampire's neck. "You, like the others, live only so long as I will it."


"Master," interrupted the Minion handler. "I'm certain this was a one-time error. When you send him out next time, there will be no problems, I assure - "


"I've heard enough," he snapped, slanting a look at the human who by association had also failed him. "There will be no next time. And you are of no use to me anymore."


In a flash of motion, he wheeled on the Minion and sank his fangs into the side of the man 's throat. He didn't drink, just punctured the carotid and released him, watching with complete disregard as he collapsed on the earthen floor of the cellar, bleeding profusely. The presence of so much pumping blood was almost too much to bear. It was hard to waste it, but he was more interested in proving a point.


He glanced at the Gen One vampire beside him - grinning as the male's glyphs began to pulse with the deep colors of hunger, his golden eyes now fully amber. His fangs filled his mouth, and it was obvious that every instinct within him was screaming for him to lunge on the sputtering prey and feed before the blood and the human were both dead.


Except he didn't move. He stood there, defiant still, refusing to give in to even that most natural, savage side of himself. Killing him would be easy enough; just a code typed into his cell phone and that rigid, unentitled pride would be blown to bits. But it would be far more enjoyable to break him first. So much the better if breaking him could serve as an example to Fabien and anyone else who might be stupid enough to disappoint him.


"Outside," he commanded the servant assassin. "I'm not finished with you yet."


Chapter Eighteen


Renata stood at the pedestal sink in the bathroom, spat the last of her toothpaste down the drain, then rinsed with several handfuls of cool water. She'd gotten up much later than she intended. Nikolai said she had looked like she needed the rest, so he'd let her sleep until almost ten in the morning. She could have slept another ten days and she'd probably still be tired. She felt awful. Achy all over, weak-limbed. Unsteady on her feet. Her body's internal thermostat couldn't seem to decide between freezing cold and overheated, leaving her racked with alternating shivers and waves of perspiration beading on her brow and the back of her neck.


With her right hand braced on the sink, she put her other under the running faucet, thinking to clamp her cool, wet fingers around the furnace that burned at her nape. One slight shift of her left arm and she hissed in pain.


Her shoulder felt like it was on fire.


She winced as she carefully unbuttoned the top of a big oxford shirt she was borrowing from Jack. Slowly she shrugged out of the left sleeve so she could remove the bandage and inspect her wound. The tape stung as she peeled it away from her tender, aggravated skin. Coagulating blood and antiseptic ointment coated the thick pad of gauze, but the wound underneath was still swollen and seeping.


She didn't need a doctor to tell her that this wasn't good news. Blood and thick yellow fluid drained from the angry red circle surrounding the bullet's open point of entry. Not good at all. Nor did she need a thermometer to confirm that she was probably spiking a fairly high fever due to the onset of infection.


"Shit," she whispered at her haggard, sallow face in the mirror. "I don't have time for this, damn it."


An abrupt knock on the bathroom door made her jump.


"Hey." Nikolai knocked again, two quick raps. "Everything okay in there?"


"Yeah. Yeah, it's all good." Her voice scraped like sandpaper in her throat, little better than a hard rasp of sound. "I'm just brushing my teeth."


"You sure you're all right?"


"I'm fine." Renata wadded up the soiled bandage and tossed it into the trash bin next to the sink. "I'll be out in a few minutes."


The answering pause didn't give her the impression he was going anywhere. She cranked the water to a higher volume and waited, unmoving, her eyes on the closed door.


"Renata...your wound," Nikolai said through the wood panel. There was a gravity to his tone. "It's not healed yet? It should have stopped bleeding by now..."


Although she hadn't wanted him to know what was going on, there was no use denying it now. All of his kind had impossibly acute senses, especially when it came to detecting spilled blood.


Renata cleared her throat. "It's nothing, no big deal. Just needs new dressing and a fresh bandage."


"I'm coming in," he said, and gave the doorknob a twist. It held, locked from the push-button mechanism on the inside. "Renata. Let me in."


"I said, I'm fine. I'll be out in just a - "


She didn't have a chance to finish. Using what could only have been the power of his Breed mind, Nikolai sprang the lock and opened the door wide.


Renata might have cursed him out for barging in like he owned the place, but she was too busy trying to yank the long, loose sleeve of the shirt up to cover herself. She didn't care so much if he saw the inflamed state of her gunshot wound; it was the other marks that she wanted to make disappear.


The permanent ones that had been burned into the skin of her back.


She managed to get the soft cotton cloth around her, but all the shifting and tugging made her shoulder scream and her gut turn inside out as the pain brought on a hefty wave of nausea.


Panting now, awash in a cold sweat, she plopped herself down on the closed toilet lid and tried to act like she wasn't about to lose her stomach all over the tiny black-and-white tiles under her feet.


"For crissake." Nikolai, bare-chested, his borrowed warm-ups hanging low on his trim hips, took one look at her and dropped into a squat in front of her. "You're far from okay in here."


She flinched as he reached for the sagging open collar of the shirt. "Don't."


"I'm just going to check your wound. Something's not right. It should be healing by now." He moved the fabric away from her shoulder and scowled. "Shit. This doesn't look good at all. How does the point of exit look?"


He stood up and leaned over her, his fingers careful as he slid more of the shirt out of his way. Even though she was burning up, she could feel the heat of his body as he hovered so near to her in the small space. "Ah, fuck...this side is worse than the front. Let's get you out of this shirt so I can see exactly what we're dealing with."


Renata froze, her entire system seizing up. "No. I can't."


"Sure you can. I'll help you." When she didn't budge, just sat there holding the front of the big shirt in her tight fist, Nikolai grinned. "If you think you have to be modest with me, you don't. Hell, you've already seen me naked so it's only fair, right?" She didn't laugh. She couldn't. It was hard to hold his gaze, hard to believe the concern that was starting to darken his wintry blue eyes as he waited for her answer. She didn't want to see revulsion there, nor, even worse, pity. "Will you just...go away now? Please? Let me take care of this myself."


"Your wound is infected. You're running a fever because of it."


"I know."


Nikolai's face went sober with some emotion she couldn't discern. "When was the last time you fed?"


She shrugged. "Jack brought me some food last night, but I wasn't hungry."


"Not food, Renata. I'm talking about blood. When was the last time you fed from Yakut?"


"You mean drink his blood?" She couldn't mask her revulsion. "Never. Why would you ask that? Why would you think it?" "He drank from you. I saw him feeding at your vein in his quarters at the lodge. I guess I assumed it was a mutual arrangement."


Renata hated to think about that, let alone be reminded that Nikolai had witnessed her degradation. "Sergei used me for blood whenever he felt the need. Or whenever he wanted to make a point."


"But he never gave you his blood in exchange?"


Renata shook her head.


"No wonder you're not healing faster," Nikolai murmured. He gave a slight shake of his head. "When I saw him drinking from you...I thought you were mated to him. I assumed you were blood-bonded to each other. I thought maybe you cared for him."


"You thought I loved him," Renata said, realizing where he was heading. "It wasn't that. Not even close." She exhaled a sharp breath that grated in her throat. Nikolai wasn't pushing her for answers, and maybe precisely because of that, she wanted him to understand that what she felt for the vampire she had served was anything but affection. "Two years ago, Sergei Yakut plucked me off a downtown street and brought me to his lodge along with several other kids he'd collected that night. We didn't know who he was, or where we were going, or why. We didn't know anything, because he put us all in some kind of trance that didn't lift until we found ourselves locked up together inside a large, dark cage."


"The one inside the barn on his property," Nikolai said, his face grim. "Jesus Christ. He brought you in as live game for his blood club?"


"I don't think any of us realized that monsters truly existed until Yakut, Lex, and a few others came out to open the cage. They showed us the woods, told us to run." She swallowed past the bitterness rising in her throat. "The slaughter began as soon as the first of us broke for the forest."


In her mind, Renata relived the horror in excruciating detail. She could still hear the screams of the victims as they fled, and the terrible howls of the predators who hunted them with such savage zeal. She could still smell the summery tang of pine and loamy moss, nature's scents smothered all too soon by that of blood and death. She could still see the vast darkness surrounding her in the unfamiliar terrain, unseen branches that smacked her cheeks and tore at her clothes as she tried to navigate her escape.


"None of you stood a chance," Nikolai murmured. "They told you to run only to toy with you. To give themselves the illusion that blood clubs have anything to do with sport."


"I know that now." Renata could still taste the futility of all that running. Terror had taken shape out of the black night in the form of glowing amber eyes and bared, bloodied fangs like nothing she'd ever dreamed in her worst nightmare. "One of them caught up to me. He came out of nowhere and began to circle me, readying for the attack. I'd never been more afraid. I was scared and angry and something inside me just...snapped. I felt a power coursing through me, something stronger than the adrenaline that was flooding my body."


Nikolai nodded. "You didn't know about the ability you possessed."


"I didn't know about a lot of things until that night. Every thing had turned inside out. I just wanted to survive - the only thing I knew how to do. So when I felt that energy flowing through me, some visceral instinct told me to turn it loose on my attacker. I pushed it outward with my mind and the vampire staggered back as if I'd physically struck him. I threw more at him, and still more, until he was down on the ground screaming and his eyes were bleeding and his entire body was convulsing in pain." Renata paused, wondering if the Breed warrior staring at her in silence was judging her for her total lack of remorse over what she'd done. She wasn't about to apologize or make excuses. "I wanted him to suffer, Nikolai. I wanted to kill him, and I did."


"What other choice did you have?" he said, reaching out and very tenderly brushing his fingertips along the line of her cheek. "What about Yakut? Where was he during all of this?"


"Not far behind. I had started running again when he stepped into my path and headed me off. I tried to take him down too, but he withstood it. I sent everything I had at him, to the point of exhaustion, but it wasn't enough. He was too strong." "Because he was Gen One."


Renata gave an acknowledging tilt of her head. "He explained it to me later, after that initial bout of reverb had knocked me unconscious for three full days and I woke to find myself pressed into service as a personal bodyguard to a vampire." "You never tried to leave?"


"In the beginning, I tried. More than once. It never took him long to locate me." She tapped her index finger against the vein at the side of her neck. "Hard to get very far when your own blood is better than GPS for your pursuer. He used my blood as insurance of my loyalty. It was a shackle I couldn't break. I was never going to be free of it."


"You're free now, Renata."


"Yeah, I suppose I am," she said, the answer sounding as hollow as it felt. "But what about Mira?"


Nikolai stared at her for a long moment, saying nothing. She didn't want to see the doubt in his eyes, no more than she wanted empty assurances that there was anything either one of them could do for Mira now that she was in enemy hands. All the worse when she was currently weakened by her wound.


Nikolai pivoted to the claw-footed white tub and gave the twin handles a crank. As water rushed into the basin, he turned back to her where she sat. "A cool bath should bring your temperature down. Come on, I'll help you clean up."


"No, I can manage on my own - "

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