Human blood?


He dragged in another breath, sifting the taste of it through his teeth, over the sensitive glands of his tongue. It was definitely blood, and definitely human. Not very much had been spilled on the other side of the door, and by the faint tickle it put in his nostrils, he judged it to be long dried and aging probably several months or more. He couldn't be certain unless he had a look inside.


Curious now, he palmed the big lock and was about to yank it loose when the snap of a twig behind him drew his attention. As he turned to meet the noise, he reached for one of his guns - and cursed to remember that Yakut was still holding all of his weapons.


He looked up to find Alexei glaring at him from where he stood at the corner of the barn. Judging by the contempt sparking in his eyes, it appeared his bruised pride hadn't yet recovered from their confronation in the city. Not that Niko cared. He had little use for strutting dickhead civilians, especially those with entitlement issues and delicate egos.


"You got a key for this lock?" he asked, his hand still curved around the cold lump of reinforced steel. If he wanted to, being Breed, he could tear the thing loose with a flex of his wrist. Cleaner still, he could flex his mind and open the lock with a mental command. But it was more interesting to piss in Alexei's direction for the time being. "You mind opening this door, or maybe you need to get permission from your papa first."


Alexei grunted at the barb, arms folded over his chest. "Why should I open it for you? There's nothing of interest in there. It's just a storage barn. Empty besides."


"Yeah?" Niko let the lock fall from his hand, the metal thumping heavily against the wood panels. "Smells like you've been storing humans in there. Bloody ones. The stench of hemoglobin just about knocked me over the closer I got."


An exaggeration, but he wanted to see Alexei's reaction.


The young vampire frowned and threw a cautious look at the barred door. He slowly shook his head. "You don't know what you're talking about. The only humans who ever stepped foot in this barn were the local carpenters who built it a few years ago." "Then you won't mind if I have a look," Nikolai prompted.


Alexei chuckled low under his breath. "What are you really doing here, warrior?"


"Looking to figure out who tried to kill your father. I want to know how the intruder might have gotten close enough to strike and where he might have fled afterward."


"Pardon my surprise," Alexei said, no apology in his tone, "but I find it hard to believe that one failed attack - even on a Breed elder like my father - is enough to bring out a member of the Order for a personal visit."


"Your father was lucky. There've been five other Gen Ones within the population who weren't so fortunate."


Alexei's smug look faded, replaced with a somber gravity. "There have been other attacks? Other killings?"


Nikolai gave a grim nod. "Two in Europe, the others in the States. Too many to be random, and too expert to be anything but the work of a professional. And it doesn't seem to be a solo effort either. For the past weeks, once we learned of the first couple of assassinations, the Order has been contacting all of the known Gen Ones to warn them of what's been going down. They need to understand the potential danger so they can take appropriate security measures. Your father didn't tell you?" Alexei's scowl furrowed his dark brow. "He said nothing of this. Damn it, I would have guarded him personally."


That Sergei Yakut hadn't informed his son of Niko's recent contact, or of the current rash of Gen One slayings, was telling. No matter how Alexei tried to posture himself as his father's right arm, Yakut evidently held him at some distance when it came to trust. Not surprising, given Yakut's suspicious nature. Evidently that suspicion extended to his own blood kin as well. Alexei cursed. "He should have told me. I would have made certain he had proper protection in place at all times. Instead, the bastard who attacked him is still on the loose. How can we be sure he won't come back to try again?"


"We can't be sure of that. In fact, we're better to go on the assumption that there will be another attack. My guess would be sooner than later."


"You need to keep me informed," Alexei said, his tone taking on that irritating edge of entitlement again. "I expect to be alerted immediately of anything you find, and anything you or the Order may know about these attacks. Anything at all. Understood?"


Nikolai let his answering smirk spread slowly over his face. "I'll try to remember."


"My father thinks he's untouchable, you see. He has his hand-picked bodyguards, all of them trained by him, loyal to him. And he has the counsel of his private oracle too."


Niko gave an acknowledging nod. "The child, Mira."


"You've seen her?" Alexei's gaze narrowed, though whether with mistrust or basic curiosity Nikolai couldn't guess. "So," Yakut's son said, "he let you meet her, then. He let you look into her witchy eyes."


"He did."


When Niko's jaw remained firm, probably rigid, Alexei grinned. His voice dripped with sarcasm. "Pleasant glimpse she gave you of your fate, was it, warrior?"


An instant replay of the heated vision ran through his mind like a brush fire, searing him from the inside. He shrugged with a cool he damn well didn't feel. "I've seen worse things."


Alexei laughed. "Well, I wouldn't worry if I were you. The little bitch's talent is far from perfect. She can't show you everything of your future, only brief flashes of what may come, based on the now. And she can't help you put anything of what you see into context either. Personally I don't find the brat nearly as amusing as my father seems to." He grunted, lifted one shoulder along with the corner of his sneering mouth. "The same could be said of the other female he insists on keeping around despite my doubts."


There was no question who he meant. "You're not fond of Renata, I take it?"


"Fond of her," Alexei muttered, crossing his arms over his chest. "She's an arrogant one. Thinks herself above everyone else because she's managed to impress my father a time or two with her mind skill. Since the night she arrived here, she's been far too bold for her own good. You'd be hard-pressed to find a man among all those in my father's employ who wouldn't like to see her taken down a notch. Put the cold, uppity bitch in her rightful place, eh? Maybe you feel the same way, after what she did to you tonight in the city?"


Nikolai shrugged. He'd be lying if he said it didn't irk him on some primal level that a female had laid him low in combat. As grating as it was to have been on the receiving end of her mental assault, Nikolai couldn't deny some amount of awe. Obviously she was a Breedmate, since nature was averse to wasting powerful extrasensory gifts on basic Homo sapiens stock.


"I've never seen anything like her," he admitted to Alexei. "Never even heard of a Breedmate with that level of ability. I can see why your father would sleep better knowing she was nearby."


Alexei scoffed. "Don't be too impressed with her, warrior. Renata's skill has its merits, I'll grant you. But she's too weak to control it."


"How so?"


"She can send the mental wave out, but the power bounces back at her, like an echo. Once the reverberation hits her, she's utterly useless until it passes."


Nikolai recalled the debilitating blast of mental energy that Renata had unleashed on him in the warehouse. He was Breed - his alien genes giving him the strength and resilience of easily ten human men - and he had been unable to bear the pain of the incredible sensory assault. For Renata to go through that same anguish every time she used her skill?


"Christ," Niko said. "It must be pure torture for her."


"Yes," Alexei agreed, not bothering to conceal his light tone. "I'm quite sure it is."


Nikolai didn't miss the smile on the younger Yakut's lean face. "You enjoy that she suffers?"


Alexei grunted. "I couldn't care less. Renata is unsuitable for the role my father has given her. She 's ineffective as his bodyguard - a risk I fear might yet get him killed one day. If I were in his place, I wouldn't hesitate to turn her out on her haughty ass."


"But you're not in your father's place," Niko reminded him, if only because Alexei seemed overly eager to imagine it. The vampire stared at Niko in silence for a long, awkward time. Then he cleared his throat and spat on the ground. "Finish your search, warrior. If you find anything at all of interest, you will inform me at once."


Nikolai merely stared back at Yakut's son, wordlessly daring the civilian to command his promise. Alexei didn't press it, just pivoted slowly on his heel and marched back in the direction of the lodge.


Chapter Six


Renata quietly opened the door to Mira's room and peered inside at the sleeping child who rested peacefully on the bed. Just a normal little girl in pink pajamas, her soft cheek lying against the thin pillow, breath puffing rhythmically out of her delicate cherub's mouth. On the rustic little table next to the bed lay the short black veil that shielded Mira's remarkable eyes at all times when she was awake.


"Sweet dreams, angel," Renata whispered low under her breath, hopeful words.


She worried about Mira more and more lately. It wasn't just the nightmares that had set in after the attack she'd witnessed but Mira's overall health that concerned Renata the most. Even though the girl was strong, her mind quick and sharp, she wasn't well.


Mira was rapidly losing her sight.


Each time she was made to exercise her gift of precognitive reflection, some of her own eyesight deteriorated. It had been fading steadily for months before Mira had confided in Renata about what was happening to her. She was afraid, as any child would be. Perhaps more so, because Mira was wise beyond her eight years of age. She understood that her value to Sergei Yakut would evaporate the moment the vampire deemed her of no more use to him. He would cast her out, perhaps even put her to death if it pleased him.


So on that night, Renata and Mira had made a pact: They would keep Mira's condition a secret between them - take it to the grave, if need be. Renata had taken the promise one step further, vowing to Mira that she would protect her with her life. She swore no harm would ever come to her, not from Yakut or from anyone else, human or Breed. Mira would be safe from the pain and darkness of life in a way that Renata herself had never known.


That the girl had been trotted out to entertain Sergei Yakut's uninvited guest tonight only added to Renata's current irritated state. The worst of her psychic reverb had passed, but a headache still lingered at the edges of her senses. Her stomach hadn't yet stopped pitching. Small waves of nausea lapped at her like a slowly receding tide.


Renata closed Mira's door, shivering a little with the roll of another body tremor. The long bath she'd just come from had helped ease some of her discomfort, but even beneath her loose-fitting graphite-colored yoga pants and soft white cotton jersey, her skin still tingled, raw with the crackling electricity that swam underneath her skin.


Renata rubbed her palms over the sleeves of her shirt, trying to chase away some of the fiery sensation still traveling along her arms. Too wired for sleep, she stopped by her own room only long enough to retrieve a small cache of blades from her weapons trunk. Training always proved a welcome outlet for her restlessness. She relished the hours of physical punishment she inflicted on herself, glad for the rigorous training exercises that wore her out, toughened her up.


Since the terrible night she found herself plunged into Sergei Yakut's dangerous world, Renata had honed every muscle in her body to its peak condition, worked slavishly to make sure that she was as sharp and lethal as the weapons she carried in the silk- and-velvet wrapper now clutched in her hand.


Survive.


That simple guiding thought had been her beacon from the time she was a child - even younger than Mira. And so alone. An orphan abandoned in the chapel of a Montreal convent, Renata had no past, no family, no future. She existed; no more than that. And for Renata, it had been enough. It was enough, even now. Especially now, navigating the treacherous underworld of Sergei Yakut's realm. There were enemies all around her in this place, both hidden and overt. Countless ways for her to misstep, to misspeak. Endless opportunities for her to displease the ruthless vampire who held her life in his hands and end up bleeding and dying. But never without a fight.


Her mantra from her early childhood days served her just as aptly here: Survive another day. Then another, and another.


There was no room for softness in that equation. No allowances for pity or shame or love. Especially not love, not in any form. Renata knew that her affection for Mira - the nurturing impulse that made her want to smooth the way for the child, to protect her like her own kin - was probably going to cost her dearly in the end.


Sergei Yakut had wasted little time exploiting that weakness in her; Renata had the scars to prove it.


But she was strong. She'd been dealt nothing in this life that she could not bear, physical or otherwise. She had survived it all. Sharp and strong, lethal when she had to be.


Renata stepped outside the lodge and strode through the darkness to one of the peripheral outbuildings in back. The hunter who'd originally built the woodland compound had evidently doted on his dogs. An old timber kennel stood behind the main residence, laid out like a stable, with a wide space cutting down the center and four gated pens lining each side. The open-beam roof overhead peaked some fifteen feet high.


Although small, it was an open, airy space. There was a larger, newer barn on the property that would allow for better movement, but Renata tended to avoid the other building.

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