What all had he done?
That thought made her stomach shrink as she remembered her own brutal past. Could he have tortured her mother the way her kidnappers had? Would he abuse a child and laugh at her tears as he threatened her?
Was he capable of killing a child?
How many women had he raped before killing them?
She glanced askance to see the tiny bit of colored flesh showing on his wrist from between his glove and sleeve.
The mark of a brutal killer . . .
Terrified of that past, she switched off the viewer. “I’m going to bed.” Standing up, she paused in the small area between the couch and chair until he looked up at her. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat before she admitted to the one thing she hated most about herself. The one thing she’d never been able to let go of no matter how hard she tried. “Please, don’t turn off the lowlights in my flat when you go to sleep. I-I don’t do well in darkness.”
He didn’t respond at all.
Retrieving what little dignity she had left, she quit the room.
Nykyrian stopped working and listened to Kiara as she prepared for bed. He closed the computer to ease some of the ache from his eyes and allowed the rigidness to leave his body as he relaxed against the couch.
The sounds of Kiara moving around her room formed a strange comfort to his soul. It was such a normal thing to do and normality had always been the one thing missing from his life.
He removed his shades, balanced them on his knee, then pressed the heel of his hand to his right eye that burned like fire. He’d had a bad injury on his right eye years ago that had damaged the tear duct. As a result, that eye tended to dry out and ache. Most of the time, he could ignore it, but whenever he stared too long at a viewer or computer, it would really bother him.
And as he sat there, an image of Kiara taking off her clothes flashed through his mind. Because of Chenz, he already knew what her br**sts looked like. Pert, pale, and just the right size to fill his palm . . .
Enough! he roared at his treacherous thoughts. Put her out of your thoughts.
Yeah, right. He’d have to gouge out his eyes and even then the memory was seared into his brain.
You’re an idiot.
She’s a just a client. No more. No less.
Forcing himself to remember that, Nykyrian placed his shades on the low table and stretched out on the couch, listening to the soothing, empty silence surrounding him. He drew strength from it and swore to keep his thoughts on the men tracking Kiara, and not on her nak*d body.
* * *
Nykyrian never really slept away from his home. The League had trained him to go days without sleeping and to take only small combat naps whenever he absolutely had to rest.
Lying on the couch and staring at nothing, he kept his attention on the sounds in the hallway outside the flat and on their monitoring equipment. He was aware of everything on a heightened level.
All of a sudden, he heard Kiara leave her bed, something that wouldn’t normally alert him except for the way she was breathing. Her breaths were sharp and short, like she was about to hyperventilate.
She opened her bedroom door and headed for her practice room.
Glancing at his chronometer, he frowned before he picked up his shades and put them on. It was the middle of the night. Surely she wasn’t going there to practice . . .
He got up and headed after her.
She’d turned the lights on full strength and was in the room with her arms wrapped around herself. Her amber eyes were filled with terror as she mumbled under her breath in a tight, strained tone. She walked in a frantic circle. “Oh God, stop it, please. Please. Please. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I can’t . . . oh God . . . I don’t want to die. I don’t want . . .”
He knew exactly what this was.
A severe panic attack.
She glanced at him, shook her head and clutched even tighter at herself. “Please, leave me alone. I can’t breathe.”
His heart went out to her and her fear. He closed the distance between them and placed his hands on her arms to help steady her. “Kiara? Hauk wears women’s underwear.”
Kiara froze at his words, not quite sure she’d heard what he said. “Come again?”
“Hauk wears women’s underwear. Pink and really girly. You know, one of those skimpy things that tucks into the crack of his fat ass.”
In spite of her terror, she laughed at the image of the huge, fierce Andarion in a tiny pink G-string. “Hauk wears women’s underwear?”
Nykyrian’s grip loosed on her arms. “Better?”
Surprisingly enough, she was. Somehow that unexpected image had managed to break through her panic and center her back in the real world. No one had ever been able to do that before.
Her father, for all his love of her, would yell at her for doing it even though she couldn’t control herself. It was why she didn’t like anyone seeing them. Not to mention, it was extremely embarrassing at her age to act like a lunatic for no reason, especially in the middle of the night while others were sleeping.
She didn’t even know what caused them. Only that every so often she’d wake up in the middle of the night, terrified and unable to calm herself.
Who would have ever dreamed a man like Nykyrian would know how to help her?
“Yeah, I think I am. Thank you.”
He inclined his head to her and dropped his hands away. “C’mon, I’ll make you some warm milk. It’ll help you sleep.”
She tightened the belt on her robe, then turned down the lights in her exercise room and followed him to the kitchen. “How did you know what to do?”
He shrugged. “Anxiety attacks hit everyone eventually.”
“No. But I’ve been around others who have them. Random stupidity has a way of breaking through the panic and helping the sufferer to focus on something else.”
She still couldn’t believe how easily it’d worked. She’d been suffering from them most of her life. Her father and therapists had never come up with a better coping mechanism for them.
“So does Hauk really wear female underwear?”
“No, but it’s a good image, isn’t it?” He opened her cooling unit and pulled out the milk.
How could he deliver lines like that and not even smile?
She laughed as she took a seat on her barstool in front of her counter. “It is indeed. Does he know you use him in such a manner?”
“I doubt it. I’m still breathing.” He poured milk into a glass and then heated it in her warmer.
In a few seconds, he put it down in front of her along with a napkin.
Kiara sighed as she reached for the hot mug and cupped it in her cold hands. “I’m really sorry you had to see that.”
As he put the milk away, she realized he was still fully clothed and armed. He even had the gloves on his hands. Did he always sleep like that?
“Don’t apologize. You’ve been through a lot this week.”
That was certainly true and she hoped tomorrow was much calmer for her. “How do you cope with this life?”
“Death doesn’t scare me.”
“Honestly? You have no fear whatsoever of what’s on the other side?”
“Not at all.”
How could he feel that way, especially given the way he lived? Given all the things he must have done in The League? “No fear of being judged and condemned for what you’ve done in your life?”
Nykyrian didn’t respond. The truth was, people already did that to him. He didn’t see it being any different than the life he currently lived and the saddest part of it all was that his life now was infinitely better than his past.
He’d already lived through hell.
“Nothing scares me, mu Tara. Really.”
“I admire you. I wish I could live that way.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me. Your life is much better than mine.”
She sipped at her milk. “Yes, but you don’t have to worry about anyone making a victim of you.”
“Princess, in the end, life makes victims of us all.”
Kiara woke from troubled sleep. She couldn’t get Nykyrian’s harsh words out of her mind. But more than the harshness of them was the fact that he was right. Life did make victims of them all and there was nothing anyone could do to safeguard themselves from that reality.
Life was the one predator no one could defeat and death would eventually claim everyone.
It was something she was trying really hard not to think about. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her robe on and went to the kitchen to grab her ritual glass of morning juice.
At the opening of the kitchen, she paused in shock. On the kitchen table placed before her chair was a warmer with a full breakfast waiting for her.
Whoa . . .
She hadn’t seen the like since she’d left her father’s palace. Amazed at the fare, she looked over to Nykyrian who sat on a barstool reading from a small portable, and as usual, completely oblivious to her. Once again, he was dressed in full black regalia complete with the long coat that weighed more than she did.
“Impressive.” She retrieved a piece of toast from the warmer. Her taste buds reeled at the strange, sharp spices he’d added to the bread. “Very impressive. Thank you so much for being so thoughtful.”
He ignored her compliments. “What do you have to do today?”
Kiara swallowed a sip of juice. “I have rehearsal this afternoon, then my performance—”
“No. No performances or rehearsals until this is resolved.” His tone was clipped, but emotionless.
She set the juice down on the table and narrowed her gaze on his rigid frame. “You’re insane if you think you can keep me from dancing.”
He stood up and moved to stand by her side. Looking down at her, he dwarfed her much smaller size. “There are too many random variables to keep you safe during a live performance. You’ll be on stage for hours, completely exposed and in a bright red costume that will make targeting you way too easy, and it will hide a targeting beam. Meanwhile, the crowd will help camouflage the assassin from even the best spotter. And an open auditorium with hundreds of people screaming and panicking after you’ve been killed is the best place to escape from. So let me repeat, there will be no more performances until this situation is closed.”
Kiara swallowed the lump burning in her throat as she realized for the first time just how lucky she’d always been in the past. It was a thousand wonders she hadn’t already been killed there. “Why didn’t Pitala do that?”
“He was paid to torture and mutilate you before he killed you and that requires hands-on participation which he couldn’t do from the stands. You’ve been downgraded from a thrill-kill to a simple bill-kill.”
A thrill-kill she knew, but the other . . . “Bill-kill?”
“Kill you any way possible and send the bill in for payment.”
She pushed her plate back as a wave of nausea consumed her. “I can’t believe that someone’s life can be bartered and sold so easily. That it’s so common that there are even names for the different ways to take a person’s life. For torturing them? My God, what is wrong with you people?”
“We’re not the ones who are sick, mu Tara. With us—the predators—you know what we’ll do and why we do it. What we’re capable of. We make no bones about it and we wear the uniform so that you can see us coming. The ones who are sickening are the cowards who masquerade as sheep. The ones who lull you into trusting them and smile at your face while they plot your downfall behind your back for any number of psychotic reasons. The friends who turn on you out of jealousy or greed. Who try to ruin you for no reason at all. They are the ones who should be put down.” For once, she heard the hatred underlying those words. “And they’re the ones who are truly sickening.”
She didn’t agree with that statement. Killing was wrong no matter who did it. “Why do the Probekeins want me dead so badly? I’ve never done anything to them.”
“To hurt your father and to scare the rest of their enemies. You’re just a means to them. Nothing personal.”
For a moment, Kiara really did think she was going to be sick.
They wanted her raped, tortured, and killed and there was nothing personal in it? What kind of world did they live in? But then she knew that answer all too well. The kind of world where a beautiful, gentle woman was beaten and then executed while she tried to protect her daughter. The world where an eight-year-old child was shot while she begged her mother to wake up.
Kiara rubbed her head as she ached over the harsh reality he was making her face. Again. A reality she’d tried so hard to escape from and deny.
But it wouldn’t let her.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked bitterly. “Stay imprisoned here, waiting for the next assassin to come in and kill me? Why not just bomb this building and have done with it?”
Nykyrian didn’t so much as twitch a muscle as he responded in his low, unwavering voice, “League rules.”