Everything happened in a blink of time, but it played out in maddening slow-motion frames in Nikolai's consciousness.
He cocked the nines, his fingers on the triggers.
Renata's eyes went wide. She shook her head. "Niko...wait...don't!"
The Gen One let go of Mira, letting his big hands fall down at his sides. He didn't even react to the guns trained on his head. His chest expanded as he took in a long breath, then let it out on a resigned sigh.
He wasn't going to fight his death.
He didn't care if he died.
And then Mira was screaming, her child's voice pitched high with fear. "No! Don't hurt him!"
Nikolai watched in stunned disbelief - in total amazement - as Mira lunged forward and threw her arms around the Gen One's broad shoulders.
"Please, don't hurt him!" she cried, staring up at Niko pleadingly as she attempted to protect the hulking vampire with her tiny body.
"Nikolai." Renata caught his gaze as he looked up, disbelieving, two large pistols still cocked and ready, leveled at the Gen One's head. "Nikolai...please, it's okay. Just wait a second."
He frowned in question, but his warrior stance relaxed somewhat. "Get up," he ordered the vampire. "Stand up, and get away from the child."
The Gen One complied without comment, slowly un-fastening Mira's arms from around his neck and setting her away from him as he rose to his feet.
Niko moved around to face him, weapons still held on him as he guided both Renata and Mira to stand behind him. "Who the hell are you?"
Sober, expressionless eyes stared at the ground. "I am called Hunter."
"You're not Enforcement Agency," Nikolai said cautiously.
"No. I am a Hunter."
Renata brought Mira close, holding her as the chaos of the ongoing disruption in the woods and at the house slowly died down around them. "His eyes, Nikolai," she said, understanding now. "He is the golden-eyed assassin who tried to kill Sergei Yakut that night. He's the one Mira witnessed at the lodge."
Nikolai's expression darkened. "Is this true? You are a hired killer?"
"I was." The Hunter gave a grim nod and finally lifted his gaze. "The child saved me. Something...changed in me after I saw the vision in her eyes that night. I saw her saving my life, precisely as it happened a moment ago."
In that next instant, the surrounding forest came alive with armed men moving in on them from all directions. Nikolai had his weapons at the ready, but he made no move to fire on the newcoming threat. Renata's pulse spiked in panic. "Oh, shit. Niko - " "It's all right." He calmed her with a reassuring look and a few gentle words. "These are the good guys, my friends from the Order."
She watched in relief as four of Nikolai's fellow warriors stepped into the area. All of them were formidable in size and attitude, a cadre of muscle and might that seemed to suck all of the air out of the woods by their presence alone.
"How you doing, amigo? Everything okay here?" asked the smooth caramel voice Renata now recognized as belonging to Rio.
Nikolai nodded, his eyes and weapons still trained on the Gen One in their midst. "I've got this under control, but the situation at the house is all fucked up. Edgar Fabien is dead, and Dragos and the others slipped out the back. They went by boat to the other side of the lake. I tried to track them, but..." He glanced at Renata. "I had to make sure everything was okay on this end first."
"We heard a small-engine aircraft buzzing overhead as we arrived," Rio said.
"Shit," Nikolai hissed. "That'll be them, no doubt. They're gone. Goddamn it, Dragos was right here and we lost the bastard."
"Let me help you find him."
All eyes turned to the vampire still held in Nikolai's crosshairs.
"Why should we trust you?" Nikolai asked, his gaze narrowing. "Why would you be willing to help us get Dragos?" "Because he is the one who created me." There was no warmth in the golden hue of the Gen One assassin's eyes as he responded to the question, only cold hatred. "He made me what I am. Me, and all the other Hunters bred to kill for him." "Oh, my God," Renata breathed. "You mean there are more of you?"
The shaved head nodded soberly. "I don't know how many, or where they are all located, but Dragos told me himself that I am not the only one of my kind. There are others."
"Why should we believe you?" asked another of the warriors, this one almost as dark as the night around them, his teeth and fangs gleaming like pearls against his brown skin.
Another warrior stepped in then, his eyes quick and shrewd, as cunning as a wolf's under the ebony spikes of his cropped hair. "Let Tegan tell us if we can trust him."
Renata watched in astonishment and not a little dread as the largest of the group - a warrior who'd held back from the rest like a ghost stalking the shadows - took a few steps forward. Immense, with tawny hair peeking out from under the black knit skullcap he wore, he was a broad, towering slab of muscle and dark energy. Easily as big as the Gen One who stood before him, waiting his judgment.
Saying nothing, the warrior called Tegan held out his large hand. The Hunter took it, his eyes as steady as his grasp.
After a long moment, Tegan gave a vague nod. "He comes with us. Let's secure this site and get the hell out of here."
Renata felt a heavy weight lift from her as the tension of the moment gave way to a new purpose. The group split up, most of the warriors heading off to take care of things at Fabien's place while Rio and Nikolai walked Renata, Mira, and their unexpected companion back to the Order's waiting vehicle.
Partway there, Nikolai caught Renata's hand in his. "We'll catch up to you, Rio."
The warrior nodded. As they moved on, Renata watched in awestruck wonder as Mira slipped her tiny hand into the larger palm of the Hunter.
"My God," she said to Nikolai. "What just happened?"
He shook his head, clearly just as much amazed as she was. "Gonna take me some time to figure it out, I think. But first I want to figure things out between us."
"Nikolai, I'm sorry - "
He silenced her with a long, sweet kiss, pulling her into his warm arms. "I screwed up, Renata. I was so afraid of losing you that I drove you away from me with a stupid, reckless lie. I never would have forgiven myself if anything happened to you, or to Mira. You're my heart, Renata. You are my life." He stroked her cheek, his gaze engulfing her, drinking her in. "I love you so much...I don't want to live a single moment without you at my side."
She closed her eyes, overwhelmed with emotion. "I've never wanted anything more," she whispered, her throat constricted with joy. "I love you too, Nikolai. But you have to understand, I'm a package deal. Mira's not my child by blood, but she is the child of my heart. I love her like she is my own."
"I know," he said soberly. "You've proven that in spades."
Renata glanced up at him, unable to contain the hope that was battering around in her breast. "Do you think you can find room in your life - in your heart - for both of us?"
"What makes you think I haven't done that already?" He kissed her again, tenderly this time. When he looked into her eyes, his own gaze was so filled with love it swept her breath away. "Let's get out of here now. I want to take my girls home."
Three nights later.
The Order's compound seemed vastly different to Nikolai as he walked the corridor that led from the tech lab where he'd been meeting with the other warriors. The mission to thwart Dragos had taken a significant hit a few nights ago, but they 'd also come away with a very unexpected advantage in their quest to locate him and shut down his operation.
Unfortunately, while Hunter was shaping up to be a valuable asset, the Order had also lost a crucial ally and trusted friend: Andreas Reichen had fallen off the grid completely, and the word out of Berlin was the worst kind of news. No one knew if the German Darkhaven leader had survived the attack on his residence. Based on the reported slaughter of all his kin and the blaze that consumed the entire property, the Order held out little hope for their friend.
Personally, Nikolai thought it would be a small mercy if Reichen had perished in the raid. He didn't know how such a deep loss could ever be overcome. Certainly no man, Breed or otherwise, would be strong enough to walk away unscathed from such a brutal blow to the soul. As a warrior, Nikolai understood combat casualties. Every warrior walked into battle knowing that he or his brethren might not return to base.
But to lose one's family...
He didn't even want to consider what that would do to a man. Instead Nikolai focused on the blessings he had - one of which could be heard speaking softly as he neared the open doorway of his private quarters.
Renata was inside, seated on the sofa in the living room, reading to Mira.
For a moment, as Niko reached the entrance, he leaned against the jamb simply to listen and to feast his eyes on the beautiful woman who was now his mate. He loved that Renata was as comfortable curled up with a book as she was holding a weapon. She had a softness he admired, an intelligence that continually challenged him, and an inner strength that made him strive to be a male worthy of her devotion.
It didn't hurt that she was also hotter than hell, especially when she was staring down the barrel of a big 9mm or training with her beloved blades. Kade and Brock had been almost permanent fixtures in the weapons room the past few days, if only for the chance to spar with Renata or watch her in action. Nikolai could hardly blame them. But if he was tempted to feel the slightest nip of jealousy, all it took was a sly glance from his woman to put him at ease. She loved him, and for that Nikolai counted himself the luckiest damned male on the planet.
"Hi," she said now, glancing over as she turned the last page of a Chapter and paused to greet him.
"Hi, Niko," Mira chimed in from under the fall of her short veil. "You just missed a really good part in the story."
"I did? Maybe I can talk Renata into reading it to me later," he said, slanting a heated look at his mate as he stepped into the room. He walked over to the sofa and hunkered down in front of Mira. "I have something for you."
"Really?" Her tiny face brightened with a smile. "What is it?"
"Something I asked Gideon to get for you. Take off your veil and I'll show you."
He didn't miss Renata's protective look as Mira tore the black fabric away from her face. "What's this about?"
"It's okay," he said, taking a small plastic case out of the pocket of his jeans. "You can trust me. You both can trust me." Renata relaxed at the reminder, and watched as Nikolai unscrewed the cap from a contact lens container. "These are special lenses that Gideon thinks will help with your eyes. How would you like it if you never had to wear that veil again?" Mira nodded enthusiastically. "Let me see them, Niko!"
"What kind of lenses are they?" Renata asked, cautiously hopeful.
"Opaque irises to shield the mirroring effect of Mira's own eyes. She'll be able to see through them, but no one looking at her will notice anything unusual about her eyes. Her irises will be covered, in the same way the veil covered them. I thought these would be better."
Renata nodded, smiling warmly at him. "Much better. Thank you."
"Can I try them on?" Mira asked, eagerly peering at the small case in Niko's hand. "Look, Rennie, they're purple!" "That's your favorite color," she said, turning a questioning look on Nikolai.
He'd brought himself up to speed on a lot the past few days, taking on a role he never imagined himself in, let alone imagining it would fit so comfortably on him. He was a blood-bonded male with a Breedmate who loved him and a young child to bring up as their own. And he relished the idea of both.
He, the maverick, the reckless one, had a family of his own now. It was mind-boggling to him, not to mention to the rest of the compound. It was the last thing he ever dreamed he'd wanted or needed, and now, just a few days into it, he couldn't picture life any other way.
His heart had never felt so full.
"Let me help you with those," Renata said, taking the lenses from him and carefully assisting Mira into them. When they were in place for a few long seconds and the child's talent didn't stir, Renata caught a small laugh in her hand. "Oh, my God. It worked, Nikolai. Just look at her. The lenses work beautifully."
He glanced into the wide violet pools of Mira's altered eyes and saw...nothing. Only the happy, carefree gaze of a child. Renata threw her arms around him and kissed him. Mira was right behind her, and Niko caught them both in a heartfelt embrace.
"There's more," he said, hoping they would enjoy the rest of his surprise. He stood up and took each of them by the hand. "Come with me."
He led them up the corridor to the elevator that climbed from the subterranean headquarters to the large mansion that sat topside. He could feel Renata's apprehension in her loose grasp and in the spike of adrenaline that edged into her bloodstream. "Don't worry," he whispered against her ear. "You'll enjoy this, I promise."
At least, he hoped she would. He'd been working on it for the past day and a half, trying to get everything just right. He guided Renata and Mira into the heart of the estate, toward the candlelit warmth of the formal dining room. The aromas of baked bread and roasted meat drifted out to greet them. Niko himself had no appreciation for human food, but the Breedmates living at the compound certainly did, and judging from the looks he was getting from the two females walking along at his side, they did too. Renata's astonishment shone in her eyes. "You cooked dinner?"
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