"It's not like that at all. Nothing that happened between us today - nothing I said to you - had anything to do with the Order. Today was about you and me...it was about us."


"Bullshit!" He reached for her and she drew back, out of his grasp. She opened the door and got out of the SUV. He was out of the vehicle and around to her side, blocking her with his body, all of it happening so fast she couldn't even begin to track his movements. "Get away from me, Nikolai."


"Where are you going?" he asked gently.


"I can't sit here any longer and do nothing." She took a step around him but he was right there again. The gentleness in him was fading fast, replaced by a firmness that said he would keep her there in shackles if he thought he needed to. "I can't let you do this, Renata."


"That's not your choice to make," she fired back, trembling with fear and outrage. "Damn it, that was never your choice to make for me!"


He growled a curse and lunged for her.


Renata hardly knew what she had done until he froze in midstep, clutching the sides of his head in his hands. He hissed, his eyes throwing off amber sparks as he pinned her in a shocked, furious gaze. "Renata. Do not - "


She blasted him again, all of her fear for Mira and her pain at his betrayal pouring out of her in a punishing stream of mental heat. Nikolai crashed down onto his knees, groaning and writhing from the jolt of pain she'd unleashed on him. Renata bolted away from him, into the forest, before she allowed herself to be deterred by the regret already swelling up in her.


Chapter Thirty


The house was under heavily armed, guarded watch on all sides. Impossible to breach without being noticed by at least one of the Enforcement Agents staked out like the vampire equivalent of an antiterrorist SWAT team. Every one of them carried a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude, from their dark-visored black helmets and combat gear, to the bone-shredding automatic rifles they held at the ready.


Thanks to the agents who'd raided Jack's place the other night, Renata and Nikolai had come away with transportation, uniforms, and weapons. She didn't think she would be lucky enough to fake her way into the building, but on first glance, garbed as they were, the agents on watch might think her one of their own.


She put on the helmet she'd taken with her from the SUV and dropped the tinted visor. Adopting as much of a soldier's swagger as she could manage, Renata stepped out of the woods and approached the vampire guarding the west side of the house. The agent spotted her immediately. "Henri? What the fuck are you doing out there?"


Renata shrugged, lifted her good arm in a hell if I know gesture. She couldn't risk speaking to him - no more than she could risk using her gun to mow this obstacle down. If she let off a bunch of rounds, she would have the whole security detail on her ass. No, she had to keep her cool and just continue walking toward him with the hope that he wouldn't open fire out of raised suspicion alone.


"What's the matter with you, idiot?"


Renata shrugged again. Getting closer.


Her fingers itched to let her blades fly - he made an easy target standing as still as a stump - but the slightest whiff of spilled blood would call every vampire in the vicinity to attention. Renata knew she had to get close enough to reach him with her mind. Her only option was to hit him with a swift, solid blast.


"You fucking ingrate, Henri, get back to your post," the agent growled. He reached for a small communication device clipped to his belt. "I'm calling Fabien to report you. If you want to piss him off, go ahead, but I don't want any part of - " Using all the power at her command, Renata unleashed a savage bolt of energy from her mind and sent it crashing into the vampire standing before her. His words choked off with a grunt and he went down like a stone. She kept blasting him until he was silent. When she was certain he was dead, she bent down and liberated him of both his weapon and his comm device.


Renata opened the side entrance door a bare sliver and did a quick glance of the area just inside. It was clear. She slipped inside, heart hammering in her chest, breath steaming against the closed visor of her helmet.


For all her fury at Nikolai for not telling her that Mira was here with Fabien, now she knew only gratitude that the Order had visual proof of the child's location. It was too late to second-guess how she'd left things with Nikolai. Too late to worry that maybe she should have waited for him and his brothers-in-arms to be there to back her up. Part of her knew that she'd been unfair, but she'd gone too far to take it back.


She'd made an impulsive, emotional decision based on wounded feelings. It was a decision that might cost her the friendship she had with Nikolai - maybe even his love - but as much as she regretted that already, she couldn't undo it now. Nikolai might never forgive her for jeopardizing his mission; she would understand if he couldn't.


Now she could only pray that Mira didn't end up paying the price.


Niko roused to the nagging buzz of a cell phone going off next to his head. He was on the ground next to the vehicle. No idea how long he'd been there. The cell phone vibrated again, jiggling in the grass and old leaves that littered the forest floor. It took nearly all his effort to move his hand up to grab the damned thing. Clumsily he flipped it open. Tried to say something, but only managed a dry croak.


"Yeah," he said once more, forcing his limbs to drag himself up off the ground into a seated slump against the front wheel of the SUV.


"Niko?" Rio's voice came through the receiver, heavy with concern. "You sound like shit, amigo. Talk to me. What's going on?"


"Renata," he said, holding his banging head in his hands. "Pissed off..." Rio cursed. "Yeah, I gathered that. My fault, man. I didn't realize she wasn't clued in about the girl being moved last night - " "She's gone," Niko said. When he thought of that, all his senses started coming back online like a switch on a backup generator had been thrown inside him. "Ah, fuck, Rio...I pissed her off and now she's gone in after Mira on her own." "Madre de Dios."


On the other end of the line, he heard Rio give Tegan and the others a quick rundown of the situation. "That's not the worst, my man," Nikolai added, ignoring the shooting pain in his head as he got up from the ground and made a staggering run for the back of the SUV. "This gathering of Fabien's? It's bigger than we realized...Dragos is up here too." "Are you sure about that?"


"I saw the bastard with my own eyes. He's here." Nikolai was grabbing automatic weapons out of the back as fast as his sluggish arms could move. He draped his body with the rifles, stuffed a pistol in the back of his stolen Enforcement Agency uniform and another one in an ankle holster. "The house is surrounded by guards, so when you get here, come in on foot and split up." "Niko, what are you doing?"


He didn't reply to that; didn't think his old friend was going to like his answer. Instead, he pulled extra magazines and clips from the vehicle and loaded up with as much ammo as he could carry. "You've got two men at the halfway point on the drive and three at the front of the place. Take them out first and you'll have the cleanest way in."


"Nikolai." Rio's voice was low with warning. "Amigo, whatever you're thinking right now...don't."


"She's in there, Rio. Inside with Dragos and Fabien, and God knows who else...and she's alone. I'm going in after her." Rio bit out something nasty in Spanish. "Stay put. We're not even ten minutes away from you and we're hauling ass, my man."


Niko closed up the back of the SUV. "I'm gonna rig some kind of perimeter diversion - "


"Goddamn it, Nikolai, if this female wants to kill herself, it's not your problem. We'll help her however we can, but - "


"She's my mate, Rio." Nikolai blew out a ripe curse. "We're blood-bonded...and I love her. I love her more than life itself."


The warrior's answering sigh sounded heavy with understanding, and defeat. "I suppose there's no point in telling you that you're defying Lucan's direct orders if you go in there right now. If Dragos is on site, that makes this shit even more critical and you know it. We need you to stay put and wait for backup."


"Can't do that," Nikolai replied.


He closed the phone and tossed it into the open driver's-side window. Then he headed out to go find his woman.


Chapter Thirty-one


Dragos permitted himself to revel in the awe of his underlings as they gaped at the Ancient trapped in its UV prison cell onscreen. From the wonder on their faces - the rapt incredulity - one would think he'd managed to catch lightning in a bottle. In truth, what he had achieved these past long decades was something even greater than that.


The seven Breed males gathered with him in the room now looked upon him like a god, and rightfully so. He was the architect of a revolution that would turn the entire planet on its head. Tonight they were witnessing history, and the start of a future he had personally designed.


"How can this be?" someone murmured. "If that truly is one of the Ancients who fathered our race, how did he survive the war with the Order?"


Dragos smiled as he walked closer to the screen. "My father was an original member of the Order...but he was, first and foremost, this creature's son. During the bloodshed perpetrated by the Order when Lucan declared war on the Ancients, my father and his alien sire made a pact. In exchange for shared power in the future, my father would hide him away until the hysteria died down. Unfortunately, after making good on his promise, my father did not survive the war. But the Ancient did, as you can see." "So, you intend to carry on your father's agreement with that...thing?" Fabien asked, his expression drooping like a lapdog who'd just lost his bone to a feral wolf.


"The Ancient is entirely under my control. He is a tool that I make use of whenever and however it suits me and our cause." "How so?" asked another of the group.


"Allow me to show you." Dragos strolled to the door of the conference room. He snapped his fingers at the Hunter who waited outside, then pivoted back to his associates as the big Gen One obediently followed in on his heels. "Take off your shirt," he ordered the Hunter.


The huge male complied in silence, baring massive shoulders and a hairless chest covered in a dense, tangled network of glyphs. More than one head snapped back to the monitor to compare those hereditary skin markings to the creature contained inside the UV cell.


"They bear similar dermaglyphs," Fabien gasped. "This male is the Ancient's kin?"


"A Gen One son, bred for the sole purpose of serving the cause," Dragos said. "All of the Hunters in my personal army are the strongest, most lethal weapons in the world. They have been specially raised and trained at my direction. They are flawless killers, and they are unfailingly loyal to me."


"How can you be certain of that?" asked the Darkhaven leader from Hamburg, a shrewd male who would no doubt appreciate the realtime demonstration that Dragos had in mind.


"You notice this Hunter wears a collar. It is a GPS monitoring device, only this collar is also equipped with an ultraviolet laser. Every Hunter wears one, from the time he can walk. I can track his every move, locate him in an instant. And if he displeases me in any way," Dragos said, casting a meaningful look at the Hunter standing so rigidly stoic beside him, "all it takes is one simple remote-controlled command and the laser activates, sending a UV light as thin as a razor around the Hunter's neck, severing the head."


One or two males at the table exchanged uncomfortable looks.


It was the German who spoke up first, his gaze glittering with interest. "What should happen if the collar is tampered with, or removed?"


Dragos grinned, not at the German, but at the Hunter himself. "Let's find out, shall we?"


Although her every instinct screamed at her to creep in like a thief on the prowl, Renata strode through the west corridor of her enemies' lair as if she had every right to be there. She heard the low rumble of male conversation coming from one of the large rooms out back. Elsewhere in the house, there was nothing but quiet, until...


A child's soft sobs, drifting toward her from a stairwell leading to the second floor.


Mira.


Renata flew up the steps and followed the cries to the end of the hallway. A bedroom door had been locked from outside.


She ran her hand along the top of the frame but didn't find a key.


"Damn it," she whispered, drawing one of her blades from the twin sheaths at her sides.


She wedged the point between the door and jamb just above the lock and gave it a hard lever. The wood cracked, loosening just a bit. Twice more and finally she had enough room to jimmy the thing free. With shaking, eager hands, Renata opened the door.


Mira was in there, thank God.


Her veil was gone, and as soon as she looked up and saw the black-clad figure coming into the room, she scuttled into the corner in absolute terror.


"Mira, it's me," Renata said, flipping open her dark visor. "It's okay now, kiddo. I'm here to take you home."


"Rennie!"


Kneeling down, Renata held out her arms. With a hitching little cry, Mira flew into her embrace.


"Oh, mouse," Renata whispered, pressing relieved kisses to the top of her blond head. "I've been so worried about you. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner. Are you all right, sweetheart?"


Mira nodded, her small arms wrapped tightly around Renata's neck. "I was worried about you too, Rennie. I was afraid I'd never see you again."


"Me too, kiddo. Me too." She hated to let go, but they still had to get out of there before Fabien and his cronies caught up to them. Renata stood, lifting Mira up into her arms. "We have to run now. Hold on to me, okay?"

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