"Nikolai - behind you!" Renata called.


She hit this latest arrival with a debilitating blast of her mind's power, and the bastard crumpled to the floor, writhing and convulsing before Niko stilled him with a couple of rounds to the head.


Renata crippled one of the others with a shot to the knee, then took him out completely with a dead-aim bullet between the eyes. Nikolai killed another, and realized belatedly that he'd completely lost sight of the first male who'd come through the door. The son of a bitch was no longer whimpering where Renata had dropped him.


To Niko's horror, the huge vampire had Renata in his hands, lifting her off the ground and throwing her into the nearest wall. The Breed male's strength was immense, like all of their kind. Renata crashed against the solid surface, then fell hard to the floor. She lay there unmoving, obviously too dazed to retaliate.


Nikolai's roar of fury rattled the feeble table and chairs. His vision went nuclear with the sudden flood of amber into his eyes, and his fangs punched hard from his gums, stretching long and sharp in his anger. He sprang on the other vampire from behind, grabbing the big head in his hands and twisting savagely. The crunch of splitting bone and shredding tendons wasn't enough for him. As the lifeless Agent slumped over, Niko kicked his body away from Renata and pumped his skull full of lead.


"Renata," he said, hunkering down in front of her and pulling her into his arms. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"


She moaned, but managed a shaky nod. Her eyes opened, then went wide as she stared past him to the ruined doorway.


Niko swung his head around and locked gazes with a human male he'd seen once before - the human who'd tried to get a look at Nikolai when Jack had come up to the apartment that morning. Jack had called him Curtis, said the kid was doing some work for him in the house.


As Niko looked into that emotionless face that showed no reaction whatsoever to Niko's glowing eyes and bared fangs, he knew what he was seeing now...


"Minion," he growled. He released Renata gently as he got back to his feet. "Stay put. I'll handle him."


The Minion knew he'd made a grave mistake showing his face after the melee he'd probably instigated. He pivoted toward the night outside and started running down the stairs two at a time.


Nikolai grunted, seeing red as he bolted out of the apartment in pursuit. He vaulted over the railing of the second -story staircase, going airborne as the Minion's feet were just getting their taste of pavement. Nikolai landed right on top of him, tackling him down to the black asphalt of the driveway.


"Who made you?" he demanded, knocking the human's face against the rough pavement. "Who's your Master, goddamn you! Is it Fabien?"


The Minion didn't answer, but Niko knew the truth anyway. He flipped him over and slammed his spine down hard. "Where is he? Tell me where to find Fabien. Talk, you son of a bitch, or I'll gut you right here and now."


Distantly, Nikolai heard the bang of a screen door. Footsteps running through the grass.


Then Renata's voice rang out from above him in the wrecked doorway of the garage apartment. "Jack, no! Go back inside!"


Nikolai glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the old man's horrifed expression. Jack's eyes held his in utter disbelief, his grizzled jaw going slack. "Jesus Christ," he murmured, his feet slowing to a halt. "What the...hell..." And then, beneath him, Niko felt the Minion squirm.


He registered the brief glint of a blade only a half-second before the human mind slave slashed open his own throat.


Renata flew down the wooden stairs in heartsick panic. "Jack, please! Go back in the house now!"


But he merely stood there, frozen in place as if he couldn't hear her, couldn't see her. Couldn't process anything that was happening around him in these past few minutes of complete and utter chaos. Jack was a mute, unmoving statue in the driveway. And Nikolai...


Dear God, Nikolai looked like the stuff of anyone's worst nightmare. Blood-soaked, immense, his face a terrifying mask of lethal fangs and fierce, glowing eyes. When he got up off the body of the dead Minion and wheeled around to face Jack, he couldn't have seemed more predatory and inhuman, his breath sawing through his teeth, his massive chest and shoulders heaving from the combat.


"Sweet Mary, Mother of God," Jack murmured, crossing himself as Nikolai took a couple of steps away from the Minion's corpse. Belatedly he glanced over and saw Renata racing toward him across the driveway. "Renata, get out of here!"


Renata ran to put herself between the two males - Nikolai at her back, Jack gaping at her like she had just stepped into the middle of an active mine field.


"Oh, Jesus...Renata, honey...what are you doing?"


"It's okay, Jack," she told him, calmly holding her hands up in front of her. "Everything's okay, I promise you. Nikolai won't hurt you. He won't hurt either one of us."


The old man's face scrunched in confusion. But then he stared past her to Nikolai and the dimmest spark of recognition flickered across his features. His pallor was ghostly white against the night all around him, and his legs looked like they might give out beneath him. "It is you...but how? Just what the hell are you?"


"It's not safe for you to know that," Renata interjected. "It would be too dangerous, for us as well - "


"It's too late." Nikolai's voice was a low growl close behind her. "He's already seen too much here. We need to contain this situation, and we don't have a lot of time before more humans get curious and make things worse."


Renata nodded. "I know."


Nikolai's hand came to rest gently on her good shoulder. "That means Jack too. I can't let him walk away with his memory of this intact. Everything has to be scrubbed - starting with our arrival last night. He can't remember that you and I were ever here." She winced, but she couldn't argue. "Do I have a minute to say good-bye?"


"A minute," Nikolai said. "But that's about all we can risk."


"What the hell's going on here?" Jack mumbled, some of his shell shock dissipating and the retired warrior in him coming online. "Renata...just what the hell kind of trouble are you in, girl?"


She offered him a weak smile as she moved forward and pulled him into a hug. "Jack, I want to thank you - for helping us last night, but even more, for just being you." She drew away from him to look into his kind old eyes. "You may not realize this, but you were my anchor so many times. Whenever I lost my faith in humanity, your kindness restored it. You've been a true friend, and I love you for that. I always will."


"Renata, I need you to tell me what's going on. This man you're with...this creature. For crissake, am I losing my mind, or is he some kind of - "


"He's my friend," she said, meaning it so sincerely even she was taken aback by her conviction. "Nikolai is my friend. That's all you need to know."


"We have to go now, Renata."


Nikolai's voice was calm, all business. She nodded, and when she glanced over at him, she saw that he was back to his normal state now. Jack sputtered in confusion, but Nikolai merely reached out to take the human's hand.


"Thank you for all you've done, Jack. You're a good man." Nikolai didn't wait for a reply. With his free hand, he lifted his palm to Jack's forehead and pressed it there for a long moment. "Go back into the house and go to bed. When you wake up in the morning, you'll forget we were here at all. You will discover there was a break-in upstairs in the apartment - Curtis was mixed up with some bad people, the robbery got out of hand, and he was killed."


Jack said nothing, but he nodded his agreement.


"You won't see us when you open your eyes," Nikolai told him. "You won't see any of the blood or glass. You're going to turn around, head back into your house, and climb into bed where you'll stay for the rest of the night."


Again Jack bobbed his head in compliance. Nikolai removed his hand from the old man's brow. Jack's eyes blinked open, calm and unfazed. He looked at Renata, but it was an empty stare that seemed to pass right through her. She stood there, watching in sadness as her old, dear friend pivoted around in silence and began a slow trek back to the house.


"You all right?" Nikolai asked her, placing his arm around her waist as they waited in the driveway for Jack to disappear. "Yeah, I'm okay," she said quietly, letting herself lean into his strong embrace. "Let's clean up this mess and get out of here."


Chapter Twenty-three


About damn time he got here," Alexei Yakut complained to himself as he watched a pair of headlight beams ricochet off the trees outside the main lodge. Irritated to have been kept waiting this past half hour, Lex moved away from the window in his father's former quarters - quarters that now belonged to him, like everything else his dead father had left behind. The black vehicle prowling up the drive was huge, obviously an SUV. Lex rolled his eyes in disgust. He'd expected a male of Edgar Fabien's status to travel in something more elegant than a Humvee loaner taken right out of the Enforcement Agency fleet. Lex's own standards demanded much more than such a utilitarian mode of transport, especially for an event as important as the one he would be attending with Fabien. For fuck's sake, they might as well be arriving at the gathering in a pickup truck for all the statement they would make in that inelegant Agency vehicle.


If he was in charge of things - when he was in charge, Lex mentally amended - he would arrive nowhere without a proper motorcade befitting his elite rank.


He strode out of his chambers in an impatient huff, adjusting the line of his suit coat as his polished alligator -hide loafers tapped softly across the wide plank beams of the floor. He knew he looked good - which was the point - but he was far more accustomed to his longtime service uniform of boots and leather. He was an adaptive individual; he didn't think it would take much to get used to his new identity.


In the great room outside, the lodge's two remaining guards sat at a table playing cards. One of them glanced up as Lex entered, the subtle lift of his hand not quite fast enough to hide his amused smirk. "That necktie looks like it's cutting off your air, Lex," joked the other guard, chuckling at his own humor. "Better loosen that shit up before you pass out."


Lex glared as he ran his finger along the rim of the too-tight collar of his five-hundred-dollar shirt. "Blow it out your ass, cretin. And open the fucking door. My ride is here."


As the guard lumbered over to carry out the command, Lex wondered how long he should keep the two bone-heads around. Sure, they'd served beside him in his father's employ every day for the better part of a decade, but a male like Lex deserved respect. Maybe he would teach both of them that lesson when he arrived back in a couple nights from the weekend gathering. Lex forced a welcoming smile for Fabien as the guard opened the door...except it wasn't Edgar Fabien standing there to greet him. It was a uniformed Enforcement Agent, with three more behind him.


"Where's Fabien?" Lex demanded.


The tall Agent at the front gave Lex a slight bow of his head. "We'll be rendezvousing with Mr. Fabien at a separate location, Mr. Yakut. Do you need assistance with anything before we escort you to the vehicle?"


Lex grunted, his ego soothed somewhat by the Agent's deferential tone. "I have a couple of bags in the other room," he said with a dismissive wave in the direction of his quarters. "One of your men can fetch them for me."


Another nod of obeisance from the one in front. "I will see to your things personally. After you, sir."


"This way," Lex said, permitting the escort detail into the lodge as he strolled ahead of their leader to his quarters down the hall. Once inside, he paused near the bed to point out the things he wanted to take. "Grab the garment bag and that leather duffel on the floor over there."


When the Agent didn't move to pick up the bags, just stood there beside him, Lex turned an indignant glare on him. "Well? What the hell are you waiting for, idiot?"


The answering look he got was flat as a blade, and equally cold.


And then Lex understood the chill, because in that next instant, he heard the stacatto pop of several muted gunshots in the other room and his blood ran to ice in his veins.


The Enforcment Agent standing next to him smiled a pleasant smile.


"Mr. Fabien asked me to personally deliver a message from him, Mr. Yakut."


Renata looked tired as Nikolai walked up to her from the field where they'd dumped the bodies of the dead Enforcement Agents. In a few hours, dawn would obliterate all traces of the vampires, not that anyone aside from the local wildlife would notice this far off the nearest road and this far out of the city.


"I threw their uniforms and gear in the back of the vehicle," Renata told him as he approached. "The extra weapons are behind the front seats. Keys are in the ignition."


Niko nodded. After cleaning up all evidence of the Breed assault on the garage apartment, he and Renata had commandeered the Agency's SUV, which their attackers had been helpful enough to leave parked along a side street near Jack's place.


"You hanging in there?" he asked, seeing the fatigue in her eyes. "We can wait here and rest awhile if you need to." She shook her head. "I want to keep moving. We're only a few miles from the lodge."


"Yeah," Niko said. "And I'm not expecting Lex to roll out a red carpet for us when we get there. Things could get ugly real fast. It's been a couple of hours since you mind-blasted those Agents. How long before your reverb sets in?" "Probably not long," she admitted, glancing down at the moonlit grass at their feet.

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