Gideon shook his head. "Nope. And it wasn't the work of an assassin, either. Niko says Yakut's own son brought in a Rogue to kill his father. Unfortunately for Nikolai, Yakut's son has some kind of alliance with the Enforcement Agency. They hauled Niko in and threw him into a containment facility."


"What the fuck?" This time it was Sterling Chase who spoke up. Being a former Agent himself, he was as aware as any of the warriors in the room how unpleasant a visit to one of those Agency-managed Rogue holding tanks could be. "Since he's conscious enough to phone in, I assume he's not still being held there."


"He escaped somehow," Gideon said, "but I don't have all the details yet. I can tell you that there's a female involved, a Breedmate who was a member of Yakut's household. She's with Niko now."


Lucan didn't comment on that troublesome newsflash, although his dark expression probably spoke plainly enough for him. "Where are they?"


"In the city somewhere," Gideon replied. "Niko wasn't sure of the exact location, but he says they're secure for now. Are you ready for the real kicker?"


Lucan arched a brow. "For fuck's sake. There's more?"


"Afraid so. The guy who tossed Niko's ass in the containment facility and personally oversaw his torture? Apparently during one of his chattier moments, the son of a bitch admitted a connection to Dragos."


Chapter Twenty


Nikolai was in the middle of a cell phone conversation when Renata came out of the bathroom from her long, much-needed soak. She'd evidently fallen asleep in the tub at some point because the last thing she remembered was hearing Jack's voice in the garage apartment after Nikolai had gone out to meet him, and there was no sign of him now. She stepped into the room, her hair damp at the ends and clinging to her neck, her body wrapped in the towel Nikolai had set out for her.


She was groggy and achy, still overly warm, but the cool-water bath had been just what she'd needed. Nikolai's kiss hadn't been half bad either.


Speaking in low, confidential tones, he glanced over at her from where he sat straddling a folding chair near the card table in the center of the room, his pale blue eyes doing a quick but thorough head-to-toe scan of her body. There was an unmistakable heat in that brief gaze, but he was all business on the phone with what she could only assume was the Order back in Boston. Renata listened as he provided an efficient run-through of the circumstances of Yakut's murder, Lex and Fabien's apparent alliance, Mira's disappearance, and the containment facility escape that had brought Nikolai and Renata to Jack's place for temporary shelter.


From the sound of it, the male on the other end of the line - Lucan, she'd heard Nikolai call him - was concerned for their safety and glad they were both in one piece, although not at all pleased to hear that they were holed up at the mercy of a human. Nor did Lucan seem enthused about the fact that Nikolai was talking about helping Renata locate Mira. She could hear the deep voice on the other end of the line growl something about "Breedmate's problems" and "current mission objectives" as though the two were mutually exclusive.


The cursed response when Nikolai added that Renata was nursing a gunshot wound was audible all the way across the room. "She's tough," he said, glancing her way now, "but she took a pretty hard hit in the shoulder and it's not looking too healthy. It might be a good idea to arrange a pickup, take her into the Order's protection until everything shakes down up here."


Renata glared her disapproval and gave a shake of her head. Big mistake. Even that slight jostle made her vision swim, and it was all she could do to position her backside at the edge of the bed before her legs gave out beneath her. She dropped down onto the mattress, fighting off a vicious wave of cold sweats.


She tried to hide her misery from Nikolai, but the look he gave her said it was no use pretending she wasn't in bad shape. "Has Gideon turned up anything on Fabien yet?" he asked, getting up to pace the floor. He listened for a minute, then exhaled a low sigh. "Fuck. Can't say I'm surprised about that. He had the arrogant stink of a politician all over him, so I had a feeling the bastard was well connected. What else do we have?"


Renata held her breath in the silence that stretched out. She could see that the news on the other end of the line wasn't good. Nikolai blew out a long sigh and ran his hand through his hair. "How long does Gideon think it will take him to dig into those restricted files and turn up an address? Shit, Lucan, I'm not sure we should wait that long, considering - yeah, I hear you. Maybe while Gideon's hacking on that end I should go pay Alexei Yakut a visit. I'd bet my left nut that Lex knows where to find Fabien. Hell, I wouldn't doubt it if Lex has been there a time or two himself. I'd be glad to squeeze the information out of him, then go deal with Fabien personally."


Nikolai listened for a moment before grunting a low curse. "Yeah, sure, I know...much as I'd like a little pay-back from the son of a bitch, you're right. We can't afford the risk of scaring Fabien to ground before we've got a solid lead on his ties to Dragos."


Renata glanced up in time to catch Nikolai's grim look. She waited for him to add that nothing was more critical than ensuring Mira's safety and tracking down the vampire who was holding her. She waited, but those words never left Nikolai's lips. "Yeah," he murmured. "Have him call when he finds something. I'm going to head out tonight and do some recon on this end too. If I turn up anything useful, I'll be in touch."


He ended the call and set the cell phone down on the card table. Renata stared at him as he walked over to the bed and dropped into a crouch in front of her.


"How are you feeling?"


He reached up like he was going to check her shoulder - or maybe simply caress her - but Renata flinched away from him. She couldn't sit there and act as if she wasn't feeling more than a little bit confused and pissed off right now. Betrayed, even, as ridiculous as it was to think she could have counted on him in the first place.


"Did the cool water help your fever at all?" he asked, his brows furrowed. "You're still looking kind of pale and wobbly. Here, let me have a look - "


"I don't need your concern," she bit out. "And I don't need your help either. Forget that I asked you. Just...forget everything. I wouldn't want my problems to interfere with any of your current mission objectives." His scowl deepened. "What are you talking about?"


"I have my priorities, and you clearly have yours. Sounded to me like your buddy Lucan is calling the shots for you now."


"Lucan is one of my brothers-in-arms. He's also the leader of the Order, so yeah, he's earned the right to call the shots when it comes to Order business." Nikolai stood up, crossing his arms over his chest. "Something big is going down, Renata. Yakut's murder was only a small part of it, and he wasn't the first. There've been several other Gen One assassinations that have taken place in the States and abroad. Someone's been quietly taking out the oldest, most powerful members of the Breed."


"What for?" She looked up at him, curious against her will.


"We're not sure. But we believe it all ties back to one individual, a very dangerous second-generation Breed male named Dragos. The Order flushed him out of hiding a few weeks ago, but he managed to get away from us. Now he's gone underground again. Son of a bitch has been lying real low. Any lead we can grab to get close to him is critical. He has to be stopped." "Sergei Yakut killed dozens of human beings - just for sport," Renata pointed out. "Why didn't you and the rest of the Order put a stop to him?"


"Until recently, we didn't know where to find him, let alone know about his extracurricular activities. Even if we had, he was Gen One, and as much as we hated it, the Order wouldn't have been able to move on him without a lot of bureaucratic bullshit standing in our way."


Renata's thoughts grew dark, spinning back across the time she'd spent under Yakut's control. "There were times when Sergei drank from me...when he used me for blood, that I saw something monstrous in him. I mean, I know what he was - what all of your kind is - but once in while, I would look in his eyes and I swear there was no humanity in him. All I could see in his gaze was something truly evil."


"He was Gen One," Nikolai said as though that should explain it. "Only half of their genes are human. The other half are something...else."


"Vampire," she murmured.


"Otherworlder," Nikolai corrected.


He stared at her as he said it and Renata had the abrupt impulse to laugh. But she couldn't, not when his expression was so completely serious. "Lex loves to boast that he is grandson to a conquering king from another world. I always assumed he was full of shit. Are you telling me what he said is actually true?"


Nikolai scoffed. "A conqueror, yes, but not a king. The eight Ancients who arrived here thousands of years ago and fathered their young on human women were bloodthirsty savages, rapists...deadly creatures that decimated entire communities. Most of them were wiped out by the Order in the Middle Ages. Lucan led the charge against them after his mother was killed by the creature who fathered him."


Renata just listened now, too astonished to ask all the questions churning in her head.


"As it turns out," Nikolai added, "one of the Ancients survived the Order's war on them. He'd been placed in hiding by one of his sons - a Gen One vampire named Dragos. We have good reason to believe the Ancient is still alive today and that Dragos's last surviving son, his namesake and the bastard we intend to shut down, is just waiting for his chance to unleash him on the world." "Two years ago I was sure that vampires didn't really exist. Sergei Yakut changed my mind. He proved to me that vampires not only existed, but they were scarier and more dangerous than anything I'd seen in books or movies. Now you're saying there's something even worse than him out there?"


"I'm not trying to scare you, Renata. I just think you should have the facts. All of them. I'm trusting you with that."


"Why?"


"Because I want you to understand," he said, the words too gentle.


As if he were apologizing to her in some way.


Renata lifted her chin, a coldness settling in her chest. "You want me to understand...what? That the life of one missing child means nothing in light of all this?"


He cursed softly under his breath. "No, Renata - "


"It's okay. I get it now, Nikolai." She couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice, not even when she was still struggling to absorb all of the staggering things she'd just heard. "Hey, no big deal. After all, you never actually agreed to anything with me and I'm used to being let down. Life's a bitch, right? It's just good to know where we both stand before we let this thing go any further."


"What's going on here, Renata?" He stared at her, his gaze too penetrating, as if he could see right through her. "Is this really about Mira? Or are you upset because of what's been happening between us?"


Us. The word stuck in her brain like a foreign object. It felt so unfamiliar, so dangerous. Far too intimate. There had never been an "us" for Renata. She'd always depended only herself, asking nothing of anyone. It was safer that way. Safer now too.


She'd broken her own rule when she went after Nikolai to enlist his help in finding Mira. Look what it had gotten her: a festering gunshot wound, crucial time lost, and not a single step closer to locating Mira. In fact, now that word was certainly out about her abetting Nikolai in his escape from Fabien's custody, she stood little hope of getting close to the vampire on her own. If Mira was in danger before, Renata might have just made things worse for the little girl.


"I have to get out of here," she said woodenly. "I've lost too much time already. I couldn't bear it if anything happens to that child because of me."


Worry and frustration made her push off from the bed. She stood up - too quickly.


Before she could take two steps away from Nikolai, her knees turned to jelly. Her vision went dark for a second and suddenly she was sinking, pitching forward. She felt strong arms cushion her, Nikolai's voice quiet beside her ear as he scooped her up and lifted her onto the bed.


"Stop fighting, Renata," he said as she came out of her faint and blinked up at him. Poised over her, he smoothed the backs of his fingers along the side of her face. So tender, so calming. "You don't need to run. You don't need to fight...not with me. You're safe with me, Renata."


She wanted to close her eyes and shut out his gentle words. She was so afraid to believe him, to trust. And she felt so guilty accepting his comfort knowing that a child could be suffering, probably crying for her in the dark and wondering why Renata had broken her promise.


"Mira's all that matters to me," she whispered. "I need to know that she's safe, and that she always will be."


Nikolai gave a solemn nod. "I know how much she means to you. And I know how hard it is for you to ask for help from someone. Jesus Christ, Renata...you willingly risked your life to break me out of that containment facility. I 'll never be able to repay you for what you did."


She turned her head on the pillow, unable to hold his piercing gaze. "Don't worry, you're under no obligation to me. You don't owe me a thing, Nikolai."


Warm fingers glided along her jaw. He cupped her chin in his palm and gently guided her face back to him. "I owe you my life. Where I come from, that's no small thing."


Renata's breath stilled as he looked into her eyes. She hated herself for the hope that was kindling in her heart - hope that she truly wasn't alone right now. Hope that this warrior would assure her that everything was going to work out, and that no matter what kind of monster had Mira, they would find her, and she was going to be all right.

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