Niko lifted her chin and couldn't keep from stroking the delicate line of her cheek. "All the more reason to hang out here for a while."


She drew away from him, stubborn with determination. "All the more reason to keep going before the reverb hits. I'll rest after we have Mira." She pivoted around and started walking to the vehicle. "Who's driving - you or me?"


"Hey," he said, catching her hand before she could get very far. He walked up to her and wrapped his arm around the small of her back, easing her into his embrace.


God, she was so beautiful. Any idiot could appreciate the fragile, feminine perfection of her face: the pale, almond-shaped eyes that glittered like moonstones beneath the inky fringe of her lashes; the impish nose and lush, sexy mouth; the milky skin that looked like flawless velvet against the ebony gloss of her hair. Renata's physical beauty was stunning, but it was her courage - her unshakable honor - that really did Niko in.


Somehow, in the short time they'd been forced together, Renata had become a true partner to him. He valued her, trusted her, as much as he did any of his brethren in the Order.


"Hey," he repeated, quieter now, staring into her brave, beautiful face and awed all over again by this extraordinary woman who was proving to be such a vital ally to him. "We made a pretty good team back there, didn't we."


"I was scared as hell, Nikolai," she confessed softly. "They came at us so quickly. I should have reacted faster. I should have - "


"You were amazing." He smoothed an errant wisp of hair from her face and hooked it behind her ear. "You are amazing, Renata, and I'm damned glad to know that I've got you at my back."


She gave him a small, almost shy smile. "Same here."


Maybe it wasn't the ideal time for him to want to kiss her, standing in a godforsaken stretch of backcountry, a trail of blood and death behind them and more of the same sure to be waiting down the line before this journey was over. But all Nikolai wanted to do right now - what he needed, here and now, this very moment - was to feel Renata's lips pressed against his.


He gave in to the urge, leaning in and taking her mouth in a tender, unhurried kiss. Her arms went around him, tentatively at first, but her hands were warm and giving as she stroked his back and held him to her, even after their kiss had ended and she laid her cheek against his chest.


When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "Are we going to find her, Nikolai?"


He pressed his lips to the top of her head. "Yes, we are."


"Do you think she's okay?" His hesitation was brief, but long enough that it brought Renata out of his arms. She frowned, her eyes dimming with hurt. "Oh, my God...you don't believe she is. I can feel your doubt, Nikolai. You think something's happened to Mira."


"It's the blood bond you feel," he said, not even close to a denial of what Renata had read so accurately in him.


She was backing away now, her feet shuffling in the dark grass as she moved toward the SUV. Her face had taken on a stricken look. "We have to go now. We have to find Lex and force him to tell us where she is!"


"Renata, I still think you should wait here awhile and rest. If the reverb hits you - "


"Fuck the reverb!" she cried, tossing her head in mounting panic. "I'm going to Yakut's place. You can either ride along or stay behind, but I'm leaving right fucking now."


He could have stopped her.


If he'd wanted to, he could have been on her faster than she could track him, physically preventing her from taking another step toward the vehicle. He could have tranced her with a simple brush of his hand over her face and forced her to wait out the pain that would probably wipe her out completely not long after they reached the lodge.


He could have held her back in any number of ways, but instead he circled around to the driver's side of the black Humvee before she got there and blocked her entry with his body.


"I'll drive," he said, giving her no chance to argue. "You're shotgun."


Renata stared at him for a second, then walked over and climbed into the passenger seat.


They found their way back to the road and drove the short distance to Yakut's wooded property in silence. Niko cut the lights as they approached at a slow roll. He was about to suggest they bail out and move in on the lodge by foot when he noticed something was off about the place.


"Is it always this quiet?"


"Never," Renata said, shooting him a grave look. She reached behind the seats to pick up some of the Agency weapons. She looped the strap of an automatic rifle over her head, then handed Nikolai one for himself. "Lex only had two guards left, but it doesn't look like anyone is here at all."


And even from this distance, Niko detected the scent of spilled blood. Breed blood, coming from more than one source. "Wait here while I go check things out."


She gave him an insubordinate scoff that he might have predicted was coming.


They both climbed out of the vehicle and moved in tandem toward the dark main house. The front door was wide open.


Fresh tire tracks were laid out in the gravel drive, wide, deep-set tracks like the kind an oversized SUV would leave behind. Niko had a feeling the Enforcement Agency had been here too.


The lodge was utterly silent, reeking with the stench of recent vampire deaths. He didn't need to turn on the lights to see the carnage. His keen vision spotted the two dead males just inside, both shot point-blank in the head with several rounds. He guided Renata around the corpses, following his nose to the back of the place, to Yakut's private quarters. He knew what he was going to find in here as well. Even still, he stepped into the room and let out a furious curse.


Lex was dead.


And with him, so was their best hope of locating Edgar Fabien tonight.


Chapter Twenty-four


Renata's breath seized up at the sound of Nikolai's muttered curse. She reached for the light switch near the open door of Yakut's bedroom. Slowly flipped it on.


She couldn't speak as she stared down at Lex's lifeless body, his eyes vacant and clouded over with death, three large bullet holes bored into the front of his head. She wanted to scream. God in heaven, she wanted to drop to her knees, fist her hands in her hair, and howl to the rafters - not with grief or shock, but complete and thorough rage.


But her lungs were constricted in her breast.


Her limbs were weighted down, arms and legs too heavy to move.


What hope she'd been harboring - as small as it was - that they might come here and get a solid lead on Mira's location seeped out of her, as surely as Lex's blood had seeped into the floorboards of his father's room.


"Renata, we'll find another way," Nikolai said from somewhere near her. He bent down over the body and removed a cell phone from the pocket of Lex's suit coat, flipped it open and pressed some of the keys. "We've got Lex's call history now. One of these numbers might be Fabien's. I'll contact Gideon and have him chase them down. We're gonna have something on Fabien very soon. We'll get him, Renata."


She couldn't answer; she had no words. Turning slowly, she walked out of the room, hardly conscious that her feet were moving. She drifted through the dark lodge, past the bodies lying in the great room and down a hallway...unsure where she was heading, yet unsurprised when she found herself standing in the center of the tiny room where Mira had slept.


The small bed was just as she'd left it, as if waiting for its occupant's return. Over on the squat little nightstand was a wildflower Mira had picked earlier in the week, on one of the rare times Sergei Yakut had permitted the child to venture outside. Mira's flower was wilted now, the fragile white petals drooping and lifeless, green stem as limp as a piece of string. "Oh, my sweet mouse," Renata whispered into the darkened, empty room. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry I'm not there for you right now..."


"Renata." Nikolai stood in the hallway outside the room. "Renata, don't do this to yourself. You are not to blame. And this isn't over, not yet."


His deep voice was soothing, a comfort just to hear him, and to know that he was there with her. She needed that comfort, but because she didn't deserve it, Renata refused to run into his arms as she so desperately wanted to do. She stayed where she was, rigid and unmoving. Wishing she could reverse all her failings.


She couldn't bear to remain in the lodge for another minute. There were too many dark memories here.


Too much death all around her.


Renata let the dead flower fall out of her fingers and onto the bed. She pivoted around toward the doorway. "I have to get out of this place," she murmured, guilt and anguish twisting in her chest. "I can't...I'm suffocating in here...can't...breathe." She didn't wait for him to reply - couldn't wait in there, not one more second. Pushing past him, she ran out of Mira's vacant room. She didn't stop running until her feet had carried her out the back of the main house and into the surrounding forest. And still her lungs squeezed as though they were caught in a vise.


In the back of her skull, she could feel a headache blooming. Her skin wasn't aching yet, but she was bone weary and she knew it wouldn't be long before reverb took her down. At least her shoulder was feeling decent. The gunshot wound was still there, still a dull throb deep in her muscles, but Nikolai's blood had worked some kind of magic on the infection.


Renata felt strong enough that when she glanced over and saw the locked barn - the outbuilding where she and so many others had been brought as bait for Yakut's sick blood sport - she didn't think twice about stalking over to it and pulling the Enforcement Agency rifle around from where it had shifted to her back. She shot the heavy lock until it broke off and fell to the ground. Then she flung open the door and let loose with more shots inside, peppering the large holding pen, the walls and rafters - all of it - with an obliterating hail of bullets.


She didn't let up on the trigger until the magazine was empty and her throat was raw from her screams. Her shoulders heaved, chest sawing like a bellows.


"I should have been here," she said, hearing Nikolai come up behind her outside. "When Lex turned her over to Fabien, I should have stopped him. I should have been there for Mira. Instead I was in bed, too weak with reverb...useless."


He made a small noise, a wordless dismissal of her guilt. "You couldn't have known she was in danger. You couldn't have prevented any of what occurred, Renata."


"I should never have left the lodge!" she cried, self-contempt searing her like acid. "I ran away, when I should have stayed here the whole time and worked on getting Lex to tell me where she was."


"You didn't run away. You went to look for help from me. If you hadn't done that, I would be dead." His footsteps moved closer, coming up gently behind her. "If you had stayed here all this time, Renata, then you would have been killed tonight along with Lex and the other guards. What happened here was a coldly planned execution, and it's got Fabien's name all over it." He was right. She knew he was right, on all points. But it didn't make her hurt any less.


Renata stared, unseeing, into the gunpowder-choked chasm of the barn. "We have to go back to the city and start searching for her. Door to door, if we have to."


"I know what you're feeling," Nikolai said. He touched her nape and she forced herself to step away from his tenderness. "Goddamn it, Renata, don't you think that if I thought kicking down doors from here to Old Port was going to get us closer to Fabien, I'd be right on board with you? But that's not gonna buy us a thing. Especially not with daybreak just a few hours away and riding hard on our heels."


She shook her head. "I don't need to worry about daylight. I can go back into the city by myself - "


"Like hell you will." His hands were gruff as he turned her around to face him. His eyes glittered with sparks of amber, and an emotion that looked remarkably like fear, even in the darkness. "You're not going anywhere near Fabien without me." He stroked her brow, his fierce eyes burning into her. "We're in this together, Renata. You know that, right? You know that you can trust me?" She stared into Nikolai's face and felt a well of emotion begin to rise up within her, felt it rise over her like a swamping wave she couldn't hold back if she tried. Tears stung her eyes, then filled them. Before she could stop the flood, she was weeping as though a dam had burst inside her and all the hurts she'd ever felt - all the pain and emptiness of her entire existence - came rushing out of her in great, heaving sobs.


Nikolai wrapped his strong arms around her and held her close. He didn't try to make her tears stop. He didn't feed her soft lies to make her feel better, or give her false promises to cushion her despair. He just held her.


Held her, and let her feel that she was understood. That she was not alone, and that maybe, in some small way, she might be worthy of being loved.


He picked her up, lifting her into his arms, and began to carry her away from the bullet -riddled barn. "Let's find you someplace to rest for a while," he said, his soothing voice rumbling in his chest, vibrating against her as she clung to him. "I can't go back into the lodge, Nikolai. I won't stay in there."


"I know," he murmured, bringing her deeper into the woods. "I have another idea."


He set her down in a leaf-strewn alcove between two towering pines. Renata didn't know what to expect, but she never would have imagined what she witnessed in those next moments.


Nikolai knelt down near her and spread his arms wide, his chin lowered, his immense, muscled body held in a study of quiet concentration. Renata felt the energy around them crackle. She smelled rich, fertile earth, like the forest after a rainstorm. A warm breeze tickled her nape as Nikolai touched his fingertips to the ground on either side of him.

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