Edge of Dawn (Chapter One)
The night was thick with them.
They choked the dark sidewalks and intersections of Boston's old North End, overflowed from the open doorways of dance clubs, sim-lounges, and cocktail bars. Strolling, loitering, conversing, they filled the near-midnight streets with too many voices, too many bodies shuffling and sweating in the unseasonable heat of the early June evening.
And damned too little space to avoid the anxious sidelong looks – those countless quick, darting glances from people pretending they hadn't noticed, and weren't the least bit terrified, of the four members of the Order who now strode through the middle of the city's former restricted sector.
Mira, the lone female of the squad of off-duty warriors, scanned the crowd of Homo sapiens civilians with a hard eye. Too bad she and her companions were wearing street clothes and discreetly concealed weapons. She'd have preferred combat gear and an arsenal of heavy firearms. Give the good citizens of Boston a real excuse to stare in mortal terror.
"Twenty years we've been outed to mankind, and most of them still gape at us like we've come to collect their carotids," said one of the three Breed males walking alongside her.
Mira shot him a wry look. "Feeding curfew goes into effect at midnight, so don't expect to see the welcome wagon down here. Besides, fear is a good thing, Bal. Especially when it comes to dealing with their kind."
Balthazar, a giant wall of olive-skinned thick muscle and ruthless strength, met her gaze with a grim understanding in his hawkish golden eyes. The dark-haired vampire had been with the Order for a long time, coming on board nearly two decades ago, during the dark, early years following First Dawn, the day the humans learned they were not, in fact, the ultimate predator on the planet.
They hadn't accepted that truth easily. Nor peacefully.
Many lives were lost on both sides in the time that followed. Many long years of death and bloodshed, grief and mistrust. Even now, the truce between the humans and the Breed was tentative. While the governing heads of both global nations – man and vampire – attempted to broker lasting peace for the good of all, private hatreds and suspicions still festered in each camp. The war between mankind and Breed still waged on, but it had gone underground, undeclared and unsanctioned but nonetheless lethal.
A cold ache filled Mira's chest at the thought of all the pain and suffering she'd witnessed in the years between her childhood under the protection of the Order, through the rigorous training and combat experience that had shaped her into the warrior she was now. She tried to sweep the ache aside, put it behind her, but it was hard to do. Tonight of all nights, it was next to impossible to shut out the hurt.
And the part of this war that was personal, as intimate as anything in her life could be, now gave her voice a raw, biting edge. "Let the humans be afraid. Maybe if they worry more about losing their throats, they'll be less inclined to tolerate the radicals among them who would like to see all of the Breed reduced to ashes."
From behind her, another of her teammates gave a low purr of a chuckle. "You ever consider a career in public relations, Captain?" She threw a one-fingered salute over her shoulder and kept walking, her long blond braid thumping like a tail against her leather-clad backside. Webb's laugh deepened. "Right. Didn't think so."
If anyone was suited for diplomatic assignment, it was Julian Webb. Adonis handsome, affable, polished, and utterly devastating when he turned on the charm. That Webb was a product of a cultured upbringing among the Breed's privileged elite went without saying. Not that he ever had. His background – along with his reasons for joining the Order – was a secret he'd shared only with Lucan Thorne, and the Order's founding elder wasn't telling.
There were times Mira wondered if that's why Lucan had personally assigned Webb to her team last year – to keep a close eye on her for him and the Council and to ensure the Order's mission objectives were being met without any . . . issues. Since her humiliating censure for insubordination by the Council eighteen months ago, it wouldn't surprise Mira to learn that Lucan had entrusted Webb to smooth out any potential rough patches in her leadership of the unit. But she hadn't worked her ass off, trained to the brink of killing herself to earn her place with the Order, only to throw it away.
It was highly unusual – all but unheard of, in fact – for a female to come through the ranks with the Order and be awarded a place as captain of a warrior team. Her pride swelled to think on that, even now. She'd lived to prove herself capable, worthy. She'd pushed herself ruthlessly to earn the respect of the Order's elders and the other warriors she'd trained with – respect she'd eventually won through blood, sweat, and stubborn determination.
Mira wasn't Breed. She didn't have their preternatural speed or strength. She didn't have their immortality either, something she, as a Breedmate – the female offspring of a Homo sapiens mother and a father of as yet undetermined genetic origins – could obtain only through the mated exchange of a blood bond with one of the Breed. Without that bond being activated, Mira and those other rare females born Breedmates would age, and ultimately die, the same as mortals.
At twenty-nine and unmated, she was already beginning to feel the physical and mental fallout of her taxing career choice. The wound she'd been carrying in her heart for these past eight years probably didn't help either. And her "conduct unbecoming" reprimand a year and a half ago was likely more than enough excuse for Lucan to want to reassign her to desk duty. But he hadn't yet, and she'd be damned if she gave him further cause to consider it.
"Storm's coming," murmured the third member of her team from beside her. Torin wasn't talking about the weather, Mira knew. Like a lion taking stock of new surroundings, the big vampire tipped his burnished blond head up toward the cloudless night sky and drew in a deep breath. A pair of braids woven with tiny glass seed beads framed razor-sharp cheekbones and finely chiseled features, an unconventional, exotic look for someone as expertly lethal as Torin, one that hinted at his sojourner past. The glittering plaits swayed against the rest of his thick, shoulder-length mane as he exhaled and swiveled his intense gaze toward Mira. "Bad night to be down here. Something dark in the air."
She felt it too, even without Torin's unique ability to detect and interpret shifts in energy forces around him.
The storm he sensed was living inside her.
It had a name: Kellan.
The syllables of his name rolled through her mind like thunder. Still raw, even after all this time. Since his death, the storm of emotion left in his wake grew more turbulent inside Mira, particularly around this time of the year. Whether in grief or denial, she clung to Kellan's memory with a furious hold. Unhealthy to be sure, but hope could be a cruel, tenacious thing.
There was still a part of her that prayed it was all a bad dream. Eventually she'd wake from it. One day, she'd look up and see the young Breed male swaggering in from a mission, whole and healthy. One day, she'd hear his deep voice at her ear, a wicked challenge while they sparred in the training room, a rough growl of barely restrained need when their bouts of mock combat sent them down together in a tangle of limbs on the mats.
She'd feel the formidable strength of his warrior's body again, big and solid and unbreakable. She'd gaze into his broody hazel eyes, touch the crown of tousled waves that gleamed as copper brown as an old penny and felt as soft as silk in her fingers. She'd smell the leather-and-spice scent of him, feel the kick of his pulse, see the sparks of amber heat fill his irises and the sharp white glint of his emerging fangs, when the desire he held in check so rigidly betrayed itself to her despite his best efforts to contain it.
One day, she would open her eyes and find Kellan Archer sleeping naked beside her again in her bed, as he had been the night he was killed in combat by human rebels.
Hope, she thought caustically. Such a heartless bitch.
Angry at herself for the weakness of her thoughts, she picked up the pace and glanced at the intersection ahead, where half a dozen human couples had stumbled out of a trendy hotel bar and now stood awaiting a traffic signal. Across the street from them, one of the city's ubiquitous Faceboards took the liberty of scanning the group's retinas before launching into an obnoxious ad, custom-tailored for the interests of its captive audience trapped at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.
Mira groaned when the digitally rendered 3D image of business tycoon Reginald Crowe, one of the wealthiest men on the planet, addressed the couples by name and proceeded to hawk discounted stays at his collection of luxury resorts. Crowe's face was everywhere this year, in press releases and interview programs, on entertainment blogs and news sites . . . anywhere there was a webcam or a broadcast crew willing to hear him talk about his newly unveiled technology grant – the biggest science award of its kind. It probably irritated him to no end that neither that story nor the announcement that Crowe was helping to champion the upcoming Global Nations Council summit enjoyed the same depth of coverage as the ones concerning the billionaire's recent divorce from Mrs. Crowe the sixth.
"Come on," she said, stepping off the curb to avoid the wait at the light.
She led her team across the street, heading up the block toward Asylum, a local watering hole that in recent years had become an unofficial neutral ground for its mix of vampire and human clientele. Another squad from the Order was meeting them tonight. Mira hadn't been much in the mood to socialize – least of all in this city, on this night – but the teams deserved to celebrate. They'd worked hard together for the past five months on a joint mission – black ops stuff, the kind of covert, specialized assignments that had become the Order's stock-in-trade over the past two decades.
Thanks to the combined effort of Mira's squad and the one she spotted at a back table as she entered Asylum, the GNC had one less international militant group to contend with. It was a victory that couldn't have come at a better time: Just a week from now, government leaders, dignitaries, and VIPs from all over the world, representing Breed and humankind alike, were scheduled to gather in Washington, D.C., in a much-publicized show of peace and solidarity. All of the Order elders would be in attendance, including Mira's adoptive parents, Nikolai and Renata.
Back home in Montreal, the mated pair were still waiting for her to confirm whether she'd be going with them too. Although neither had said anything, she knew their invitation was given in the hope that she might expand her social circle, maybe meet someone she might consider bonding with someday. It was also their well-meaning but none-too-subtle attempt to take her off the battlefield, even for a little while.
She must have been scowling when she arrived at the table with her team, because as she sat down, the captain of the other squad narrowed a concerned look on her.
"You all right?" Nathan's voice was level and unreadable beneath the thump of music and the din of noise rising up from Asylum's bar and dance floor. His greenish blue eyes were steady and unblinking beneath the military-short cut of his jet-black hair. "I wasn't sure you'd be up for this."
Not sure she'd be able to handle being back in Boston. Especially on the anniversary of Kellan's death.
She caught his meaning, even though he didn't specifically say the words. He knew her too well, had been one of her dearest friends for almost as long as Kellan had. Longer, now that Kellan had been gone eight years. Nathan had been there that night too. He'd been right next to Mira, holding her back from the flames and falling debris when the riverfront warehouse exploded into the dark sky. And he'd been standing at her infirmary bedside days later, when she woke up and learned there'd been no trace left of Kellan or the human rebel scum he'd pursued inside the booby-trapped building.
Mira cleared her throat, still tasting ash and smoke all these years later. "No, it's fine. I'm good." He didn't believe her, not at all. She looked away from his probing stare and took in the rest of the warriors gathered around the table. "In case I didn't say it already, nice work, all of you. We kicked some serious ass out there together."
Torin and Webb nodded in agreement, while Bal shot a crooked grin at the three members of Nathan's crew. "Captain's right. Damn good working with you ladies. After all, every skilled surgeon needs someone to mop up the spilled blood and guts or hand him the right tool when he calls for it."
"I got a tool for you right here," quipped Elijah, Nathan's second in command, a brown-haired Breed warrior with cowboy rugged looks, a quicksilver smile, and a slow Texas drawl. "And if you want to talk surgical precision, we've got you beat in spades. My man Jax over here? Poetry in motion. Two of those rebel bastards had the bad judgment to open fire on us, but Jax took them both out with a single toss of his hira-shuriken." Eli made a low whistling sound as he drew his finger across his neck and that of Rafe, his teammate seated next to him. "Thing of fucking beauty, Jax."
Jax gave a mild bow of his dark head at the praise. Half Asian and 100 percent lethal, the big, ebony-haired vampire was renowned for his deadly grace, and for his skill with the razor-edged throwing stars he handcrafted and carried with him wherever he went. Mira knew without checking that Jax likely had half a dozen of his hira-shuriken on his person now.
She carried her own pair of custom blades too, daggers she'd had since she first learned how to use one properly. They were always within her reach, even though it was illegal to discharge weapons of any kind in civilian sectors of the city. Only uniformed officials with the Joint Urban Security Taskforce Initiative Squad, a government-directed police detail comprised of hand-picked Breed and human officers, were licensed to carry unconcealed arms or use deadly force in nonmilitary situations.
Reflecting back on the success of their completed mission, Mira nodded to Nathan's other squad member, blond, blue-eyed Xander Raphael. "Good job providing the cover we needed to breach the rebel's compound," she told him. "You've got serious skills, kid."
"Thanks." Though hardly a child, Mira had known Rafe since he was an infant. Of the group seated around the table now, he was the newest recruit, fresh out of training ten months ago. Mira was almost a decade older than he, but the young Breed warrior was capable and wise well beyond his years. He was also the son of an Order elder, Dante, and his mate, Tess. Like all Breed offspring, Rafe had been gifted with his mother's unique extrasensory talent. Tess's ability to heal with her touch was a conflict for her son, who had also been born with his father's innate courage and virtually unmatched fighting skills.
Rafe's other gift from his mother was his fair hair and eye color. On Tess, the honeyed waves and aquamarine gaze was stunning, infinitely feminine. On Rafe, six foot six and wrapped in lean, hard muscle, the combination turned every female head in his vicinity.
One such female, a twenty-something brunette who'd been watching their table from the bar with a gaggle of her friends, was doing everything she could to catch Rafe's eye. He'd noticed. And there was no doubt he knew what the pretty girl would be offering him too; Mira saw that spark of male arrogance lift the corner of the warrior's mouth in the moment before he and a few other males at the table swiveled their heads to greet her.
"Hey," the young woman said, eyes on Rafe for the longest. She'd made her choice, no question.
"Hey, yourself," Eli answered for the rest of the table. "What's your name, beautiful?"
"I'm Britney." A smiling glance at him and the other males, then back to stay on Rafe. "My friends have been daring me to come over here and talk to you."
Rafe smiled. "That right?" His voice was smooth and unrushed, that of a male totally at home with his effect on the opposite sex. Or another species, in this case.
"I told them I wasn't afraid," Rafe's admirer went on. "I told them I was curious what it was like – " She gave a quick toss of her head, flustered but flirtatious. "I mean, I was curious what you were like . . ."
Fang-girls, Mira thought with an amused roll of her eyes. Despite the ongoing civil unrest between human and Breed, there was never a shortage of women – and a large number of men – looking to donate their fresh red cells in exchange for the sensual high of a vampire's bite.
Balthazar chuckled. "Very brave of you to come over all by yourself, Whitney."
"It's Britney." She giggled, nervous but determined. "Anyway, they said I should do this, so . . . here I am." Licking her lips as she inched closer to Rafe, she pushed her long brown hair back over her shoulder. The adjustment bared the delicate white column of her neck, and Mira felt the air go sharp with the instinctual reactions of more than one Breed male at the table.
"No reason for your friends to be shy." Torin's voice was a smoky, dark invitation that made even Mira's dormant senses prickle with awareness. He drew in a breath through parted lips that didn't quite hide the pearly white points of his fangs. "Call them over and let's see if they're as daring as you are, Britney."
When the girl excitedly motioned for the others to join her, Mira got up from the table. Fresh off a mission and deserving some kind of reward, the warriors had a right to accept the indecent proposal being extended to them here. But that didn't mean she wanted to watch.
"Feeding time ends at midnight, boys. That's ten minutes from now, in case any of you were worried about breaking curfew laws."
Nathan stood now too, the only one of the vampires seemingly unfazed by the approach of several warm, pretty females willing to play blood Hosts to them tonight. "What are you doing?"
"Getting out of the way. I'll be back in a few."
He frowned. "I should go with you – "
"No, stay." She held up a hand, gestured with a nod toward the arriving women. "God knows these fools can't be trusted without adult supervision."
The taunt got the anticipated rise out of Eli, Bal, and the others, but Nathan's gaze remained solemn. When his broad mouth went flat in disapproval, she reached out and cupped his jaw in her palm. She felt him tense at the contact and suddenly wished she could take back the tender gesture. Nathan may have spent more than half of his thirty-three years of life with the Order, but the scars of his dark childhood might never be buried. Touch and tenderness always put the former assassin on edge, made him twitch like no amount of bloodshed and battle ever did.
"Have some fun, Nathan. You earned it too, you know." Mira started walking away from the table. "Ten minutes," she called over her shoulder. "Somebody be nice and have a drink waiting for me when I get back."
She was fine until she reached the exit. Then the weight she'd been holding off all night settled on her chest and brought hot tears like needles in the backs of her eyes.
"Shit. Kellan . . ." She let his name escape her lips on a rasped breath as she leaned against the brick exterior wall several yards away from Asylum's crowded entrance. God, she hated how much it hurt to think of him. Hated that she hadn't been able to find her way free of the hold his memory still had on her. No, his death had killed something in her too. It had broken her somewhere deep inside, in a place no one but he had reached, before or since.
Mira hung her head, not bothering to sweep aside the loose blond tendrils that had escaped her braid and now swung into her face like a veil. She cursed under her breath, struggled to pull herself together. Her fingers were trembling as she wiped the moisture from her cheeks. She blew out a frustrated sigh. "Damn it. Get a grip, warrior."
The angry self-rebuke worked well enough for her to lift her head and square her shoulders. But it was the high-pitched, human chortle from within the nearby throng that really snapped her out of her sulk. Mira would know that barnyard hoot anywhere. Just the sound of it made her veins go hot with contempt.
She spied the young man's head – his ridiculous red mohawk – bobbing along in a group of petty thieves and troublemakers now walking past the crowd that waited to get into Asylum. That upright comb of bright scarlet hair, along with his distinctive laugh, had helped earn the delinquent his street name of Rooster.
Son of a bitch.
She hadn't seen the bastard in years. Her blood boiled to spot him now. A known rebel sympathizer, strutting around with his repeat-offender friends when he should be rotting in a prison somewhere. Better yet, dead from choking on the business end of her blades.
When the top of his red mohawk turned the corner up the block with his four pals, Mira hissed a curse. Not her concern what Rooster was up to. Not her damn jurisdiction, even if it turned out he was up to his usual no good.
Still . . .
Impulse propelled her into motion, even against her better judgment. Rooster was an occasional supplier to human militant groups and rebel factions. And that occasional alliance made him Mira's permanent enemy. She fell in behind him and his friends at a covert distance, her lug-soled boots silent as they devoured the pavement in stealth pursuit.
The men shuffled up the block and entered an alleyway door of another place, one that had long ago been a popular dance club in the North End. The former neo-Gothic church was far from holy now, and far less reputable than it had been even a decade ago. Graffiti and old shelling scars from the wars all but obscured the fading "La Notte" sign painted on the side of the old redbrick building. No longer pulsing with silky trance and synth music, the current proprietor favored hardcore industrial bands with screaming vocals in the street-level club.
All the better to drown out the raucous shouting and blood-thirsty cheers of the customers taking part in the establishment's underground arena.
It was to that part of the club that Rooster and his pals now descended. Mira followed. The stench of smoke and spilled liquor hung like fog in the air. The crowd was thick at the bottom of the steep stairwell, thicker still in the space between the entrance and the large, caged-in, steel-reinforced fighting arena at the center of the room.
Inside the cage, two huge Breed males circled each other in bloody combat. Outside, gathered around the perimeter and standing a dozen rows deep, the crowd of human spectators cheered and hollered, bets placed on their favorite. This match had been going on for some time, based on the amount of blood in the ring and the fevered pitch of the crowd outside of it. Mira had seen the outlawed games before and hardly flinched at the sight of the two powerful vampires wearing only gladiator-style leather shorts and U-shape steel torcs around their necks. Titanium spikes rode the knuckles of their fingerless leather gloves, making each blow a savage shredding of flesh and muscle.
Rooster and his friends paused to watch one of the fighters take a hard strike to the sternum. His hooting laughter shot up through the crowd as the combatant crashed backward into the bars. The downed vampire was already in bad shape, pitted against an undefeated fighter who never failed to bring in the big crowds and heavy purses. Now, spitting blood, heaving under the force of this last blow, the losing male scrabbled to reach the mercy button inside the cage. Rooster and the rest of the spectators hissed and booed as the call for mercy temporarily halted the match and delivered a punishing jolt of electricity to the wounded combatant's dark-haired opponent. Unfazed, the immense Breed fighter took the hit as if it were no more than a bee sting, fangs bared in a cold smile that promised yet another win for his record.
The cage thundered with violence as the fight resumed, but Mira ignored the spectacle of the arena. Her sights were locked on her target. Her own need to punish boiled like acid in her veins as she stalked Rooster through the throng.
She thought of Kellan's final moments as she watched the rebel sympathizer cackle and hoot, he and the other humans cheering each terrible strike, frothing for more Breed bloodshed.
She didn't know at what point she'd drawn her blades from their sheaths at her back. She felt the chill of custom-tooled metal in her hands, her fingertips light on the scrollwork of the daggers' hilts. Felt her instincts itching to let the blades fly as Rooster shot a sudden glance in her direction.
He saw her, realized she was coming for him. Something flashed in his eyes as they met hers. Panic, certainly. But Mira saw guilt in that worried gaze too. In fact, his oh-shit look seemed to say that she was the last person he expected or wanted to see. He shrank back behind one of his hoodlum pals, as if that fiery shock of upright hair wouldn't give him away.
Mira felt a snarl curl up from the back of her throat. Son of a bitch was going to bolt. And sure enough, he did.
"Damn it!" She shouldered her way through the thick crowd, trying not to lose sight of her quarry as she maneuvered for a clear shot at him with her blades.
Someone saw her drawn weapons and a scream of warning went up. People scrambled out of her way – just long enough that she saw her chance at nailing Rooster. She took it without a hint of hesitation. Her twin blades flew. They arrowed on an unerring path that hit her moving target and skewered him to the far wall, one dagger buried to the hilt in each of the human's thin biceps.
He howled, no longer amused now that he was on the receiving end of a little pain. Mira shoved a few gawking stragglers aside as she closed in on him, venom hot in her veins. She'd already broken one law here tonight; looking at the rebel ally just beyond arm's reach from her, she was tempted to add aggravated homicide to the tab.
A strong hand came down on her shoulder.
"Don't do it, Mira." Nathan. He and the rest of the warriors stood behind her now, disapproval on each hard face.
She realized suddenly how hushed the club had gone. The illegal contest in the cage was over, the spectators now watching the new one Mira had started. The human proprietor of the place and some of his Breed fighters moved in from other areas of the club, their mere presence threatening added trouble if things got any further out of hand.
Shit. Mira knew she'd stepped in it this time, but her blood was still on a hard boil and all she could think about was settling the score for Kellan. One less rebel bastard tonight was a good place to start.
"Let it go," Nathan said, his voice soldier-cool and emotionless, the way she'd heard him speak a thousand times before, even under heavy combat fire. "This is not the way you were trained. You know that."
She did. She knew it, and yet she still threw off Nathan's grip and took a hard lunge toward Rooster, who yowled like a banshee, writhing where he was pinned to the wall. Nathan blocked her. He moved faster than she could track him, placing himself between her and the human.
"Get out of my way, Nathan. You know who this scum hangs with – rebel pigs. Way I see it, that makes him one of them."
"Somebody help me!" Rooster howled. "Somebody call the cops! I'm innocent!"
Mira shook her head, meeting her teammate's disapproving gaze. "He's lying. He knows something, Nathan. I can see it in him. I can feel it. He knows who's responsible for Kellan's death. Damn it, I want someone to pay for what happened to him!"
Nathan's curse was an airless growl. "For fuck's sake, Mira." His eyes were intense but tender. Holding her with a pity that she'd never seen before and hated to acknowledge now. "The only one you're making pay for what happened to Kellan is yourself."
The truth in his words hit her like a slap. She absorbed the blow in a stunned kind of silence, watching as the rest of her squad and Nathan's moved in around the two of them.
"Probably not a good idea to linger down here," Webb remarked to Mira and Nathan when neither had relaxed from their unspoken standoff. "If we don't clean this up quick, things could turn ugly."
Bal swore low under his breath. "Too late for that."
Pouring into the underground club from the street outside came twenty black-clad officers from Joint Urban Security. The JUSTIS detail stormed in, heavily armed, dressed in full riot gear. Mira could only watch – and blame no one but herself – as the law enforcers surrounded them, their automatic weapons trained on her and her teammates.