Nikolai made love to her as slowly as he could - as slowly as his fevered body would permit him. She came again, clenching around him and wringing a furious release from him as well. It hardly slowed him down. He was still hard inside her, still hungry for this woman...his woman.


With a trembling hand, Nikolai smoothed the stray ebony locks from the side of Renata's beautiful throat. "Are you sure?" he asked her, his voice hardly recognizable to himself, it was so raw and desperate. "Renata...I want you to be certain."


"Yes." She arched up to greet his thrust, her steady gaze beseeching. "Yes."


With a feral snarl curling up from his throat, Nikolai bared his fangs and descended on her.


The sweet taste of Renata's blood surging into his mouth leveled him as totally as a roundhouse kick to the gut. Ah, Christ... now he knew. How many times had he busted the other warriors' asses about being mated and finding one female who would make them blind to any other? Easily hundreds of times. Thousands, probably.


What a clueless ass he'd been.


Now he knew. Renata owned him, even before he'd given himself to her with his bite. He was on his knees before this female, and he'd gladly stay there for the rest of his life.


Niko drank deeper, drowning in the pleasure of the bond they were forging through their mingled blood and through the heated rhythm of their joined bodies. His teeth still holding her beneath him as he took his last taste of her, Nikolai came again, harder this time, a staggering release that slammed into him like a freight train. He held on to her, shuddering with intense satisfaction. Although he could have sipped from her vein all night, Nikolai forced himself to move away, sealing her wounds with a loving sweep of his tongue.


He stared down at her, his gaze brigt on her skin. "I love you," he rasped, needing her to hear it and to believe it. He wanted her to remember it later tonight, after they reached Fabien's location up north and Nikolai explained to her why he'd felt the need to lie to her today. He kissed her chin, her cheek, her brow. "I love you, Renata."


She smiled up at him drowsily. "Mmm...I really like the sound of that."


"Then I'll have to make sure you hear it a lot."


"Okay," she murmured, her fingers playing in the sweat-dampened hair at his nape. "That was incredible, by the way. Is it always going to be that good?"


He groaned. "I have a feeling it might only get better."


She laughed, and the vibration made his sex rouse to life again. "If you keep this up, I'm going to have to go back inside and take another shower."


He gave her a meaningful grind of his pelvis, driving his erection deeper. "Oh, I can keep it up. Don't worry, that's never going to be a problem when you're around."


"You'd better be careful, or I might hold you to that."


Niko chuckled despite his heavy mood. "Sweetheart, you can hold me any way you like."


He kissed her again, and growled with delight as she wrapped her legs around him and rolled him onto his back to begin a slow, torturous ride.


Chapter Twenty-seven


There had been a time in Andreas Reichen's almost three hundred years of walking this Earth when death had rained down upon him like a deluge. Once, when a senseless, brutal wave of slaughter had visited his otherwise peaceful domain.


Back then, in the humid summer of 1809, it had been a pack of Rogue vampires that had forced their way inside this very Darkhaven to rape and kill several of his kin. The attack had been a random thing, the mansion and its residents merely unfortunate enough to be standing in the path of the blood-addicted gang of Rogues. They'd battered their way past the unprotected doors and windows, feeding and killing too many innocents...yet there had been survivors. The Rogues had wreaked their terror and moved on like the pestilence they were, eventually being hunted and destroyed by a member of the Order who'd come to Reichen's aid. The carnage back then had been unbearable, but it hadn't been complete.


What faced Reichen upon his return home this evening had been a calculated attack. Not a brute-force entry, but treachery. An enemy welcomed inside like a friend. And the slaughter that had occurred here this time - probably in the small hours of morning, just before the sun rose - had been a total annihilation.


No one had been spared.


Not even the youngest souls in the residence.


With an awful silence permeating the air like a disease, Reichen walked through the blood and destruction as one of the dead himself. His footsteps tracked sticky scarlet stains across the marble of the vestibule and foyer, past his young nephew, who'd been so pleased to name Reichen godparent to his infant son just weeks ago. The ginger-haired new father sprawled by the door had been the first to die, Reichen guessed, unable to look at the lifeless face that stared unseeing to the bullet-riddled staircase leading to the Darkhaven's sleeping quarters on the upper floors.


More death waited in the hallway outside the library, where another male had been cut down in midstep. Still more lives extinguished near the stairwell to the cellar, one of Reichen's cousins and his Breedmate, both of them dead while trying to escape the gunfire.


He didn't see the body of the boy until he almost stumbled over it - a tow-haired vampire child who'd evidently attempted to hide in one of the cabinets of the sideboard in the dining room. His assailants had dragged him out and shot him like a dog on the antique Persian rug.


"Good Christ," Reichen choked, sagging to his knees and lifting the boy's limp hand to his mouth to stifle his hoarse cry. "For the love of God...why? Why them and not me!"


"He said you would know why."


Reichen closed his eyes at the wooden sound of Helene's voice. She spoke too slowly, the syllables too flat...toneless.


Heartless.


He didn't need to turn around to face her to know that her eyes would seem oddly dull to him now. Dull because all of her warmth - all of her humanity - had been recently bled out of her.


She was no longer his lover, nor his friend. She was Minion.


"Who turned you?" he asked, letting go of the dead boy's hand. "Who do you belong to now?"


"You should know, Andreas. You sent me to him, after all."


Son of a bitch.


Reichen's jaw clenched, molars nearly cracking from the pressure. "Wilhelm Roth. He sent you here to do this to me. He used you to destroy me."


That Helene said nothing only made the realization cut all the deeper. As wrenching as it would be to look into his former lover's eyes and see a soulless shell of the woman he'd cared for, Reichen had to see for himself.


He stood up and slowly turned around. "Oh, Christ. Helene..."


Dried blood splattered her face and clothing - almost every square inch of her, covered in the blood of his dearest friends and relatives. She must have been right there in the center of the entire slaughter, an unfeeling, unaffected witness to it all. She said nothing as she stared at him, her head cocked a bit to the side. Her once-bright and clever eyes were now as vacant and cold as a shark's. Down at her side, she held a large butcher knife from the kitchen in her hand. The wide blade glittered in the lamplight of the dining room's crystal chandelier.


"I'm sorry," he murmured, his heart twisted in a vise. "I didn't know...When you e-mailed and left me the message with Roth's name, I tried to warn you. I tried to reach you..."


He let the words trail off, knowing that explanations didn't matter. Not now.


"Helene, just know that I am sorry." He swallowed the bile that rose in the back of his throat. "Just know that I truly did care for you. I loved y - "


With a banshee shriek, the Minion lunged for him.


Reichen felt the sharp edge of the blade cut across his chest and arm, a deep, punishing slice. Ignoring the pain, ignoring the sudden inhaled scent of his own blood, he grabbed the flailing arm of Roth's mind slave and wrenched it behind her. She screamed, bucking and fighting as he brought his left arm down and locked both of her limbs tight at her sides. She cursed and shouted, calling him vile names, spitting in fury.


"Shh," Reichen whispered beside her ear. "Shh now...be quiet."


Like a feral animal, Helene kept squirming, kept shrieking for him to let her loose.


No, he corrected himself. Not Helene. This was no longer the woman he knew. She was gone, lost to him the moment she brought Wilhelm Roth's death squad into this Darkhaven. In truth, for so many reasons, she was never his to claim. But God help her, she hadn't deserved this end. None of the fallen here deserved such horror.


"It's all right now," he murmured, bringing his right hand up to stroke her cold, bloodstained cheek. "It's all over now, darling."


A scream tore out of her throat as she yanked her face out of his grasp. "Bastard! Let me go!"


"Yes," he said. He wrested the butcher knife from her grasp. "It is finished now. I'm going to let you go."


With sorrow choking him, Reichen turned the handle around in his fingers and held the point to her breast.


"Forgive me, Helene..."


Holding her tight against him, he plunged the blade deep into her chest. She made no sound as she died, just exhaled a long, slow sigh as she deflated in his arms and hung there, limp as a rag doll. As gently as he could, Reichen eased her body to the floor. The knife dropped out of his hand and fell beside her, coated with the bright crimson of their mingled blood.


Reichen took one long, unflinching look at the wreckage that had been his home. Now that it was over, he wanted to memorize every bloodstain, every life that had been cut short because of his inattention. His failure. He needed to remember, because in a short while none of this would exist.


He couldn't let any of it remain, not like this.


Nor would he would let these deaths go unmet.


Reichen pivoted and strode away from the carnage. His boots echoed hollowly on the wood floor in the hall, his steps the only sound in what had become a grisly mass tomb. By the time he reached the front lawn of the estate, his chest was no longer tight but cold.


As cold as stone.


As cold as the vengeance he intended to visit on Wilhelm Roth and all those associated with him.


Reichen paused outside on the moonlit grass. He faced the mansion and, for a moment, simply watched it in its perfect, eerie quietude. Then he whispered a prayer, old words that felt rusty on his tongue for their neglect.


Not that prayers would do him any good now. He was forsaken, now more than ever. Truly alone.


Reichen dipped his head to his chest, summoning his terrible talent. It swelled within him, a heat that swiftly intensified, balling into a molten, churning orb in his gut.


He let it grow. He let it turn and gain strength until his insides felt seared by its fury. And still he held it back.


He kept it inside him until the fireball banged against his rib cage, smoke and cinder drifting up to burn the back of his throat. Until the fireball consumed him, illuminating his entire body with a white-hot glow. He staggered on his heels, fighting to keep it building until he knew it would wreak total, instant destruction.


Finally, with a grief-filled roar, Reichen turned loose the power within him.


Heat shot out of his body, tumbling and spinning as it sped forward, a sphere of pure explosive energy. Like a missile deployed on a laser-sighted target, the orb rocketed into the open door of the Darkhaven mansion. A second later, it detonated, a thing of awesome, hellish beauty.


Reichen was knocked back with the sonic blast of the explosion.


He lay in the grass, watching with detached satisfaction as the flames and sparks and smoke devoured even the tiniest pieces of what had been his life.


Chapter Twenty-eight


We're loaded up and ready to roll, Renata. Do you need more time before we head out?"


Standing in the gravel drive in front of the lodge, Renata turned as Nikolai approached her from behind. "No. I don't need any more time here. I'm ready to leave this place."


He wrapped his arms around her, cocooning her in his strength. "I just talked with Gideon. Tegan, Rio, and the others are making good progress. They should be at our rendezvous point within the hour."


"Okay. Good."


Renata leaned into his embrace, glad for his sheltering warmth...and his love. Nikolai had kept her near him in their vine haven until the sun had set, soothing her fears with his body, transporting her away from the ugly reality of what had originally brought them together - and what might lay in wait for them tonight, when they finally had the opportunity to confront Edgar Fabien. The truth was, she was worried about what they might find. Bone-deep worried, and even though Nikolai hadn't said anything to suggest that he had his doubts too, she could tell that his mind was heavy with thoughts he seemed determined to hide from her.


"You can tell me, you know." She drew out of his arms and faced him. "If you have a bad feeling about tonight...you can tell me."


Something flickered across his expression, but he didn't speak it. He shook his head. Placed a chaste kiss to her brow. "I don't know what we might be walking into with Fabien. But I can tell you that no matter what, I'm going to be right there with you, okay? We're gonna get through this."


"And once we have Fabien, we're going to go get Mira," she said, searching his eyes. "Right?"


"Yeah," he said, his unflinching, steely gaze holding her steady. "Yes, I promise. I gave you my word on that. I'm not going to let you down."


He brought her to him once more, catching her in a grasp that seemed unwilling to let go. Renata held him too, listening to the strong, rhythmic pound of his heartbeat beneath her ear...and wondering why her own pulse seemed to be clanging a warning in her veins like a death knell.


In a remote hundred-acre parcel of no-man's land a couple hours north of Montreal, the woodland evening shuddered with the buzzsaw whine of an outboard motor speeding a boat across a mostly uninhabited lake. The land and lake, like the transportation provided for Dragos to reach this place, belonged to Edgar Fabien.

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