He gave her a no-arguments lift of his brow. "The shirt, Renata. Let me help you out of it so I can have a better look at what's going on with that wound."

Obviously, he wasn't about to give it up. Renata sat very still as Nikolai unfastened the last few buttons on the tent-sized oxford and gently eased it off her. The cotton fell in a soft crush on her lap and around her hips. Despite that she was wearing a bra, modesty ingrained in her from her early years in the church orphanage made her lift her hands up to shield her breasts from his eyes. But he wasn't looking at her in a sexual way just then. All his focus was on her shoulder right now. He was gentle, careful, his fingers probing lightly around the area. He followed the curve of her shoulder over and around to where the bullet had left her flesh. "Does it hurt when I touch you here?"

Even though his touch was barely a skimming contact, pain radiated through her. She winced, sucking in her breath.

"Sorry. There's a lot of redness and swelling near the exit wound," he said, his deep voice vibrating in her bones while his touch moved lightly on her. "It doesn't look great, but I think if we flush it out and..."

As his voice trailed off, she knew what he was seeing now. Not the raw gunshot wound, but two other blemishes on the otherwise smooth skin of her back. She felt those marks sear as hotly as they had the night they'd been put there.

"Holy hell." Nikolai's breath left him in a slow sigh. "What happened to you? Are these burn marks? Jesus...are they brands?"

Renata closed her eyes. Part of her wanted nothing more than to shrink away and vanish into the tile, but she forced herself to remain still, her spine rigidly erect. "They are nothing."

"Bullshit." He stood before her and lifted her chin on the edge of his hand. She let her gaze drift up to meet his and found his pale eyes sharp with intensity. There was no pity in those eyes, only a cold outrage that took her aback. "Tell me. Who did this to you - was it Yakut?"

She shrugged. "Just one of his more creative ways of reminding me that it's not a good idea to piss him off."

"That son of a bitch," Nikolai fumed. "He had his death coming. Just for this - for everything he did to you - the bastard damn well had it coming."

Renata blinked, surprised to hear such fury, such fierce protectiveness, coming from him. Particularly when Nikolai was one of the Breed and she was, as was made clear to her often enough the past two years, merely human. Existing only because she was useful. "You're not like him at all," she murmured. "I thought you would be, but you're nothing like him or Lex or the others. You're...I don't know...different."

"Different?" Although the intensity hadn't left his eyes, Nikolai's mouth quirked at the corner. "Was that almost a compliment, or just your fever talking?"

She smiled despite her state of general misery. "Both, I think."

"Well, different I can handle. Let's cool you down before you start throwing around the n-word."

"The n-word?" she asked, watching as he took the bottle of liquid hand soap from the sink and squirted some into the running bath.

"Nice," he said, and tossed her a wry look over his thick shoulder.

"You're not comfortable with nice?"

"It's never been one of my specialties."

His grin was crooked and more than a little charming as it made his lean cheeks dimple on both sides. Looking at him like this, it wasn't hard to imagine he was a male of many specialties, not all of them the bullets-and-blades variety. She knew firsthand that he had a very nice, very skilled mouth. As much as she wanted to deny it, a part of her was still burning from their kiss back at the lodge, and the heat she felt had nothing to do with her fever.

"Get undressed," Nikolai told her, and for one addled second she wondered if he'd been able to read her thoughts. He ran his hand back and forth through the sudsy water in the tub, then shook it out. "It feels about right. Go on, climb in." Renata watched him set the soap bottle back down on the sink, then start a search of the vanity cabinet below, taking out a folded washcloth and a large towel. While his back was to her and he was distracted searching the toiletries pack for soap and shampoo, Renata quickly slipped out of her bra and panties then stepped into the bathtub.

The cool water was bliss. She sank down with a sigh, her fatigued body instantly soothed. As she carefully settled in and submerged herself up to her breasts in the soapy bath, Nikolai ran a washcloth under cold water at the sink.

He folded it and pressed it gently against her brow. "That feel all right?"

She nodded, closing her eyes as he held the compress to her forehead. The urge to lean back against the tub was tempting, but when she tried to, that brief moment of pressure on her shoulder made her recoil, hissing in pain.

"Here," Nikolai said, putting the palm of his free hand at the center of her back. "Just relax. I'll hold you up."

Renata slowly let her weight come to rest on his strong hand. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had taken care of her. Not like this. God, had there ever been a time? Her eyes drifted closed in silent gratitude. With Nikolai's strong hands on her tired body, a strange, utterly foreign sensation of safety spread over her, as comforting as a blanket.

"Better?" he asked.

"Mm-hmm. It's nice," she said, then opened one eye just a slit and glanced at up him. "N-word. Sorry."

He grunted as he took the cold compress away from her brow. He was looking at her with a seriousness that made her heart kick a little in her chest. "You want to tell me about those marks on your back?"

"No." Renata's breath seized up at the thought of baring even more to him than she had already. She wasn't ready for that. Not with him, not like this. It was a humiliation she could hardly stand to think about, let alone put into words.

He didn't say anything to break the silence that stretched out between them. He dipped the washcloth into the water and brought some of the sudsy lather to her good shoulder. The coolness flowed over her, rivulets running over the swell of her breast and down her arm. Nikolai swabbed her neck and breastbone, then carefully made his way over to the wound on her left side.

"Is this all right?" he asked, his voice a low tremor.

Renata nodded her head, unable to speak when his touch felt so tender and welcome. She let him wash her, her gaze drifting to the beautiful pattern of color on his bare chest and arms. His dermaglyphs weren't as numerous or as thickly tangled as Yakut's had been. Nikolai's Breed markings were an artful twining of swirls and flourishes and flamelike shapes that danced across his smooth golden skin.

Curious, and before she realized what she was doing, Renata reached out to trace one of the arching designs that tracked down his thick biceps. She heard his slight intake of breath, the sudden halt of his lungs as her fingers played lightly over his skin, the deep rumble of his growl.

When he looked at her, his brows were low over his eyes. His pupils thinned sharply, and the blue of his irises began to flicker with amber sparks. Renata pulled her hand back, an apology at the very tip of her tongue.

She didn't get the chance to say a word.

Moving faster than she could track him, and with a predator's smooth grace, Nikolai closed the scant few inches that separated them. In the next instant his mouth was brushing sweetly against hers. His lips were so soft, so warm and coaxing. All it took was one tempting slide of his tongue along the seam of her mouth and Renata eagerly, hungrily, let him in.

She felt a new heat kindling to life within her, something stronger than the pain of her wound, which faded to insignificance under the pleasure of Nikolai's kiss. He brought his hand up out of the water behind her and cradled her in a careful embrace, his mouth never leaving hers.

Renata melted into him, too weary to consider all the reasons it would be a mistake to let this continue any further. She wanted it to continue - wanted it so badly she was shaking. She couldn't feel anything but Nikolai's strong hands caressing her, heard only the pound of her own heart and his, the heavy beats matched in tempo. She tasted only the heat of his seductive mouth claiming her...and knew only that she wanted more.

A knock sounded from outside the garage apartment.

Nikolai growled against her mouth and drew back. "Someone's at the door."

"That'll be Jack," Renata said, breathless, her pulse still throbbing. "I'll go see what he wants."

She tried to shift in the tub to get out and felt her shoulder light up with pain.

"The hell you will," Nikolai told her, already standing up. "You're staying put. I'll handle Jack."

Nikolai was a large male by any standards, but he seemed enormous now, his clear blue eyes crackling with burnished amber and the dermaglyph markings on his muscular arms and torso alive with color. He was apparently large elsewhere too, a fact that was hardly concealed by the loose-fitting nylon pants.

When the knock sounded again outside, he cursed, the tips of his fangs gleaming. "Does anyone besides Jack know we're here?"

Renata shook her head. "I asked him not to say anything to anyone. We can trust him."

"I guess it's as good a time as any to find that out, eh?"

"Nikolai," she said as he grabbed the shirt she'd been wearing and shrugged into the long sleeves. "About Jack...he's a good man. A decent man. I don't want anything to happen to him."

He smirked. "Don't worry. I'll try to be nice."

Chapter Nineteen

Nice," Niko exhaled through a tight grimace. He was feeling anything but nice as he closed the bathroom door and walked into the main room of the apartment.

Being alone with Renata while she sat nude in the tub, touching her - kissing her, for crissake - had shifted all of his systems into overdrive. But as torqued as he was, his raging hard-on was the least of those concerns as he approached the door where Jack was knocking again from outside. It was one thing to pretend there wasn't a tent pole erected in his pants, quite another to hope no one would notice that his eyes were burning as bright as hot coals and that his extended canines would put a rottweiler to shame.

At least the loose shirt covered his glyphs. Niko didn't have to see his body to know that his skin markings were alive and pulsing with the deep colors of arousal. Awfully hard to try to explain them away as tattoos now.

Nikolai stared at the door and willed himself to chill out, cool down. He had to extinguish the fire in his irises, and that meant powering down the lust that Renata's touch had stirred in him. He focused on slowing his pulse, a hell of a struggle when his cock was in command of his blood flow.

"Hello?" came the drawled greeting from outside. Jack knocked again, the dark shadow of his head bobbing on the other side of the curtained window of the door. He seemed conscious of keeping his voice at a discreet level. "Renata, that you, darlin'? You awake in there?"

Shit. No choice but to let him in. Nikolai growled low under his breath as he reached out to flip the dead bolt. He'd assured Renata that he would go easy on the old guy, but things could go south as soon as he opened the damned door. And if the human gave off so much as a whiff of suspicion, he was going to find himself on the short list for a mind scrub.

Niko freed the lock and twisted the doorknob. He backed off from the wedge of daylight that poured in through the opening and positioned himself behind the door as it swung open.

"Renata? All right if I come in for a minute?" A scuffed brown cowboy boot stepped over the threshold. "Thought I'd better look in on you this morning before I get busy around the house with the kids."

As the human in worn-out Levi's and a white cotton undershirt entered, Nikolai splayed his hand on the door and eased it shut to seal out the morning sunshine. He sized up the aged man in a glance, taking in the craggy face, shrewd eyes, and silvered, military-style buzzcut. He was a big man, a little soft around the middle, a little bowed around the knees, but his tattooed arms were tan and still firm with enough muscle to indicate that while he might be old, it didn't mean he was afraid of hard work.

"You must be Jack," Nikolai said, careful to speak in a way that kept his fangs under wraps behind his lip.

"That's right." A small nod as Niko was subjected to a similar measuring look. "And you're Renata's friend...She, ah, didn't get around to telling me your name last night."

Apparently the amber glow was gone from Niko's blue irises, since he doubted Jack would be reaching out to shake his hand right now if the old guy was staring into a pair of otherworldly eyes that threw off sparks like a furnace.

"I'm Nick," he said, sticking close enough to the truth for now. He gave the former soldier's hand a brief shake. "Thanks for helping us out."

Jack nodded. "You're looking a lot better this morning, Nick. Glad to see you're up and around. How's Renata doing?" "Okay. She's in the bathroom washing up."

He didn't see any reason to bring up the infection. No sense getting well-meaning Jack so worried that he started talking about doctors or trips to the hospital. Although based on what Nikolai had seen of Renata's wound, if her healing process didn't get a serious boost - and get one soon - there would be no alternative but a visit to the nearest ER.

"I'm not gonna ask how it is she ended up with a bullet hole in her shoulder," Jack said, watching Nikolai closely. "From the shape the both of you were in last night, and the fact I had to adios an apparently stolen medical supply truck, I'd be tempted to guess whatever trouble's chasing you is drug-related. But I know Renata's smarter than that. I don't believe for a minute she'd let herself get mixed up in something like drugs. She didn't want to tell me about any of it, and I promised her I wouldn't press. I'm a man of my word."


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