One time inside that dark, dank place was plenty. If she had her way, she'd burn the damn thing down to cinders. Renata flicked on the switch inside the kennel door and winced as the bare bulb overhead poured a wash of harsh yellow light into the space. She walked in, over the smooth, hard-packed earthen floor, past the dangling ends of two long, braided leather straps that were looped around the center rafter beam of the structure.
At the far end of the kennel interior stood a tall wooden post that used to be rigged with small iron hooks and loops for storing leashes and other gear. Renata had pried away the rigging months ago, and now the post functioned as a stationary target, dark wood scored with deep gashes, gouges, and nicks.
Renata placed her wrapped blades on a tight bale of straw that squatted nearby. She slipped out of her shoes, then padded barefoot to the center of the kennel and reached up to take the pair of long leather straps, one in each hand. She looped the leather around her wrists a couple of times, testing the slack. When it was comfortable, she flexed her arms and lifted herself up off the floor as smoothly as though she had wings.
Suspended, feeling weightless, temporarily transported, Renata began her warm-up with the straps. The leather creaked softly as she turned and shifted her body several feet off the ground. This was peace to her, the feel of her limbs burning, growing stronger and more agile with each controlled movement.
Renata let herself slide into a light meditation, eyes closed, all her senses trained inward, concentrating on her heartbeat and breathing, on the fluid concert of her muscles as she stretched from one long, taxing hold to another. It wasn't until she had pivoted into an upside-down pose, her ankles now caught securely in the straps to hold her aloft, that she felt a stirring in the air around her. It was sudden and subtle, but unmistakable.
As unmistakable as the heat of an exhaled breath that now warmed her cheek.
Her eyes snapped open. Struggled to focus on the inverted surroundings and the intruder who stood under her. It was the Breed warrior - Nikolai.
"Shit!" she hissed, her inattention making her sway a bit from the straps. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" "Easy now," Nikolai said. He lifted his hand as if he meant to steady her. "Wasn't trying to scare you."
"You don't." Flat words, spoken coldly. With a liquid flex of her body, she moved herself out of his reach. "Do you mind? You're interrupting my training."
"Ah." His dark blond brows quirked upward as his gaze followed the line of her body to where she still hung by her ankles. "What exactly is it you're training for up there, Cirque du Soleil?"
She didn't dignify the jab with a reply. Not that he waited for one. He pivoted away from her and walked over to the post at the far end of the kennel. He reached out, fingers tracing the deeper of the wood's many scars. Then he found her blades and lifted the cloth that contained them. Metal clinked together softly within the folded square of ribbon-tied silk and velvet. "Don't touch those," Renata said, freeing herself of the straps and swinging around to bring her feet onto the ground. She stalked forward. "I said, don't touch them. They're mine."
He didn't resist when she snatched the prized possession - the only things of value she could claim as her own - out of his hands. The spike in her emotions made her head spin a little, lingering aftereffects of the psychic reverberation that she'd hoped was past. She took a step backward. Had to work to steady her breath.
She didn't like the look of concern in his blue eyes, as if he could sense her weakness. As if he knew she wasn't as strong as she wanted to - needed to - appear.
"I'm fine." Renata brought the blades over to one of the kennel pens and unwrapped them. One by one, she carefully set each of the four hand-tooled daggers down on the wooden ledge in front of her. She forced a smug lightness into her voice. "Seems like I should be the one asking you that question, don't you think? I dropped you pretty hard back there in the city." She heard his low grunt somewhere behind her, almost a scoff.
"We can never be too cautious when it comes to outsiders," she said. "Especially now. I'm sure you understand."
When she finally glanced over at him, she found him staring at her. "Sweetheart, the only reason you had the chance to drop me was because you played dirty. Making sure I'd notice you, pretending you had something to hide and knowing I'd follow you out of that club. Right into your little trap."
Renata lifted her shoulder, unapologetic. "All's fair in love and war."
He gave her a slow smile that hinted at twin dimples in his lean cheeks. "War, is it?"
"It sure as hell isn't love."
"No," he said, all serious now. "Never that."
Well, at least they agreed on something.
"How long have you been working for Yakut?"
Renata shook her head as if unable to recall specifically, even though that night was etched in her mind as if it had been burned there. Blood-drenched. Horrific. The beginning of an end. "I don't know," she said lightly. "A couple of years, I guess. Why?"
"Just wondering how a female - even a Breedmate with your powerful psychic ability - would end up in this line of work, particularly for a Gen One like him. It's unusual, that's all. Hell, it's unheard of. So, tell me. How was it you hooked up with Sergei Yakut?"
Renata stared at this warrior - this stranger, dangerous and cunning, suddenly intruding on her world. She wasn't sure how to answer. She certainly wasn't about to give him the truth. "If you have questions, maybe you should ask him."
"Yeah," he said, studying her too closely now. "Maybe I'll do that. What about the kid - Mira? Has she been here as long as you?"
"Not as long, no. Just six months." Renata tried to sound casual, but a fierce protective instinct rose in her at the mention of Mira's name on this Breed male's lips. "She's been through a lot in that short time. Things no child should have to witness."
"Like the attack on Yakut last week?"
And other, darker, things, Renata acknowledged inwardly. "Mira has nightmares just about every night now. She hardly sleeps more than a couple hours at a time."
He nodded in sober acknowledgment. "This is no damn place for a kid. Some might say it's no place for a female either." "Is that what you would say, warrior?"
His answering chuckle neither confirmed nor denied it.
Renata watched him, questions of her own bubbling into her mind. One in particular. "What did you see in Mira's eyes earlier tonight?"
He grunted something low under his breath. "Trust me, you wouldn't want to know."
"I'm asking, aren't I? What did she show you?"
"Forget it." Holding her gaze, he raked a hand through the golden strands of his hair, then exhaled a ripe curse and looked away from her. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. The girl definitely got it wrong."
"Mira is never wrong. She hasn't been wrong once, not in all the time I've known her."
"Is that so?" His penetrating blue stare swung back to her, both hot and cold as it traveled the length of her body in a slow, assessing glance. "Alexei tells me her skill is imperfect - "
"Lex." Renata scoffed. "Do yourself a favor and don't put your faith in anything Lex tells you. He says and does nothing without an ulterior motive."
"Thanks for the tip." He leaned back against the blade-scarred post. "So, then, it's not true, what he said - that Mira's eyes only reflect events that could happen in the future, based on the now?"
"Lex may have his own personal reasons for wishing it wasn't so, but Mira's never wrong. Whatever she showed you tonight, it's fated to be."
"Fated," he said, sounding amused by that. "Well, shit. Then I guess we're doomed."
He looked pointedly at her as he said it, all but daring her to ask if he deliberately included her in that observation. Since he seemed to find the idea so damned entertaining, she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of asking him to explain why.
Renata picked up one of her blades and tested the weight of it in her open palm. The cold steel felt good against her skin, solid and familiar. Her fingers itched to be working. Her muscles were limber from the warm-up, ready to be pushed with an hour or two of hard training.
She pivoted around with the blade in hand and motioned to the post Nikolai was leaning up against. "Do you mind? I wouldn't want to misjudge my mark and accidentally hit you instead."
He glanced at the post and shrugged. "Wouldn't you rather make it interesting, spar with a real opponent - one that can strike back? Or maybe you operate best with the odds stacked unevenly in your favor."
She knew he was baiting her, but the glint in his eye was playful, teasing. Was he actually flirting with her? His easy nature made her hackles raise with wariness. She ran her thumb along the edge of the blade as she stared at him, unsure what to make of him now. "I prefer to work alone."
"Okay." He inclined his head but took only a fractional step out of the way. Challenging her with a look. "Suit yourself." Renata frowned. "If you're not going to move, how can you be sure I won't aim for you?"
He grinned, full of cocky amusement, his thick arms crossed over his chest. "Aim all you want. You'll never hit me." She let the blade fly without the slightest warning.
Sharp steel bit into the wooden post with a solid crack, striking home exactly where she'd sent it. But Nikolai was gone. Just like that, vanished from her line of sight completely.
He was Breed, far faster than any human and as agile as a jungle predator. She was no match for him with weapons or physical strength; she knew that even before she sent the dagger airborne. But she'd hoped to at least nick the cocky son of a bitch for goading her.
Her own reflexes honed to precision, Renata threw her arm out and reached for another one of her waiting blades. But just as her fingers closed around the tooled grip, she felt the air stir behind her, heat sifting through the swaying chin-length strands of her hair.
Razor-sharp metal came up under her jaw. A wall of hard muscle crowded her spine.
"You missed me."
She swallowed carefully around the light press of the blade beneath her chin. As smoothly as she could manage, she relaxed her arms at her sides. Then brought the hand with the dagger in it from behind her to rest meaningfully between his parted thighs. "Looks like I found you."
Simply because she could, Renata hit him with a small jolt of her mind's power.
"Fuck," he growled, and in the instant his hold on her eased up, she slipped out of his reach and whirled to face him. She expected anger from him, feared it a little, but he only lifted his head and gave her a small shrug. "No worries, sweetheart. I'll just have to toy with you until the reverb kicks in and takes you down."
When she stared at him, confused and stricken that he could know about the flaw in her ability, he said, "Lex clued me in to a few things about you too. He told me what happens to you every time you fire off one of those psychic missiles. Powerful stuff. If I were you, I wouldn't waste it just because you feel you need to prove a point."
"Screw Lex," Renata muttered. "And screw you too. I don't need your advice, and I sure as hell don't need either of you talking shit about me behind my back. This conversation is over."
Angry now, she recoiled her arm and released the dagger in his direction, knowing he could easily step out of its path just like before. Only this time he didn't move. With a lightning-quick snap of his free hand, he reached out and caught the sailing blade in midair. His smug grin totally set her off.
Renata snatched the last dagger from its resting spot on the kennel ledge and let it fly at him. Like the other before it, this one too was plucked from the air and now caught in the Breed warrior's nimble hands.
He watched her, unblinking, and with a masculine heat that should have left her cold, but didn't. "Now what will we do for fun, Renata?"
She glared at him. "Entertain yourself. I'm out of here."
She turned, ready to stalk out of the kennel. No sooner had she taken two steps than she heard a whooshing sound on either side of her head - so close it made a few errant strands of her hair blow forward into her face.
Then, ahead of her, a blur of flying, polished steel blasting toward the far wall.
The two daggers that had sailed past her head with un-erring aim were now buried into the old wood halfway to their hilts. Renata spun around, furious. "You assho - "
He was right on top of her, his massive body forcing her backward, blue eyes flashing with something deeper than amusement or basic male arrogance. Renata retreated a pace, only far enough that she could brace her weight on one heel. She rocked back and pivoted, her other leg coming up in a roundhouse kick.
Fingers as unyielding as iron bands locked down around her ankle and twisted.
Renata went down onto the kennel floor, flat on her back. He followed her there, spreading himself over her and trapping her beneath him while she fought with flailing fists and pumping legs. It took him all of a minute to subdue her.
Renata panted from the exertion, chest heaving, pulse racing. "Now who's the one with something to prove, warrior? You win. Happy now?"
He stared down at her in an odd sort of silence, neither gloating nor glowering. His gaze was steady and calm, too intimate. She could feel his heart hammering against her sternum. His thighs straddled hers, and he'd caught both her hands above her head in one of his. He held her firmly, his fingers trapping coiled fists in a loose, incredibly warm grasp. His gaze strayed up to their locked hands, fiery light crackling in his irises as he found the little crimson teardrop-and-crescent moon birthmark that rode on the inside of her right wrist. His thumb stroked over that very spot, a mesmerizing caress that sent heat coursing through her veins. "You still wanna know what I saw in Mira's eyes?"
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