Edge of Dawn (Chapter Twenty-Seven)
Their sweet fragrance wreathed his senses like a silken ribbon. Pulled him gently to the surface, out of a dark, heavy slumber.
He was alive.
He opened his eyes. Blinked slowly as he focused on his surroundings. He was in a bed. A hospital – no, the Order's D.C. headquarters infirmary. He knew this place, had landed there after combat more than once in his distant past. But never like this.
And never with Mira nestled against him.
A rush of emotion swamped him.
He was alive.
And yet he knew he'd been dead. He remembered the moment when the blackness closed in and he lost his grip on the corporeal world. He'd tried so hard to hold on. He hadn't wanted to go. Hadn't wanted to leave her. He could still feel the sense of panic, of marrow-deep loss, as his connection to Mira thinned and stretched . . . then snapped, sending him drifting away from her, unmoored, lost in a sea of darkness.
He had died.
He understood that.
Yet here he was, given another chance to live. Tess and Rafe, he realized now. It was their hands that healed him. Their voices that told him to hang on, to reach for the line they were throwing to him.
And then there was Mira.
She'd saved him too. He could still taste her lily-sweet blood on his tongue. It had found him, healed him, just when he needed it most. Her strength, her power, her love.
Their bond had defied death, and he had never felt so humbled by anything before in all his days. He loved this woman – his woman, his eternal mate. He needed her more than air, more than anything else this life could give him. His heart swelled with love for her, reborn and renewed, beating as hard and strong as a drum.
Mira stirred beside him, coming awake on a soft sigh. She wore the same black fatigues she'd had on when he last saw her, but they were bed-rumpled now, stained in places with his blood. Her blond braid was a wreck, more loose than not, pale hair framing her face in wispy tendrils. He'd never seen a more welcome sight.
She lifted her head, sucked in a shallow gasp as she looked at him and saw his eyes open, gazing back at her. "Kellan . . . Oh, God. You're awake. You came back to me." He smiled but had no chance to speak before Mira crushed his mouth in a fierce kiss. She drew back and stared at him, her eyes dancing behind the purple veil of her lenses. "You're really here with me."
He managed a nod before she kissed him again, more tenderly this time, her hands cupping his face. She kept looking at him, searching his eyes, drinking him in with open joy and affection. Then she scowled, hissing a dark curse. "Don't you ever leave me again, Kellan Archer."
"Never," he vowed, his voice thick and rusty.
Her scowl deepened. "If you do, I promise you, right here and now, I will hunt you down and kill you myself. Do you understand?"
He smiled and pulled her closer. "Yes, ma'am."
His body was already back online, blood pumping robustly through his veins. Under the sheet that covered his naked body, his muscles flexed, rejuvenated and ready to be put to use. Something else was ready too, and it took Mira only a second to notice that every bit of him was awake and alive.
"You're unbelievable," she murmured, but there was humor – and no small amount of interest – in her eyes. "You have at least two dozen bullet holes in you, in case you didn't realize that."
He didn't, and, in fact, he hardly felt the bandaged wounds now. All he felt was his Breedmate, his precious Mira, warm and sweet in his arms. He ran his hand down her back, to the firm curve of her behind. He groaned, rejoicing in the feel of her under his hands, and pressed up against the length of him. "One of us has too many clothes on."
He wanted to lighten the moment, and, yeah, he was glad as hell to be alive and breathing again – best of all, to be doing it lying next to the woman with whom he hoped to spend a good long eternity. So glad he could think of no better way to celebrate the occasion than burying himself deep within the haven of Mira's delectable body.
But she was having none of it right now. She levered herself up on one elbow beside him, all serious. Her gaze was sober, her breath shaky as she let out a quiet curse. "I thought I lost you today, Kellan. I watched you die. I felt it." A crease formed between her light brows, eyes lowering as she slowly shook her head. "I wanted to hate you for surrendering yourself back at the Darkhaven in Maine. I think I did hate you for that, just a little. I wanted to make our time together last, and you took that away from me. From both of us."
He caressed her face and silky hair, swallowed on a dry throat. "I didn't mean to hurt you again. I didn't want to see you throw away your past – throw away your family – the way I had done. I didn't want you to face the same kind of impossible decision I did. I didn't want you to make my mistake."
"I know that now," she said, lightly stroking her fingers over his wounded chest. "It took almost losing you for good to understand what you'd done for me that night." She glanced back up at him, mouth twisted wryly. "That doesn't mean I'm not still pissed, by the way."
He arched a brow, let his hand drift down her arm, then along the swell of her breast. "I look forward to making it up to you." Then, tenderly, he lifted her chin and kissed her, unrushed and reverent. "You're mine, Mira. I love you. I should've told you that a hundred times before. I'm not going to blow that chance again. I have a second chance, and I'm going to make it right."
"We do have a second chance," she murmured softly. "But where will we begin? You're dead, Kellan. You and Bowman both. It's been reported all over the country, probably all over the world. The public wanted their vengeance, and the GNC was all too eager to tell them justice had been served."
He considered for a long moment. "Candice and Doc and Nina . . . ?"
"Lucan released them this morning, before you were brought in front of the Council. They would've heard by now that you were shot and killed." She stared at him, a fierce intensity in her eyes. "No one outside the Order can ever know any different, or your life will be in danger all over again. I can't bear that kind of worry. Not ever again."
"I won't ask you to," he said, smoothing away the tension around her pretty mouth. He exhaled sharply, sardonic. "Do you think you can love a ghost?"
"I loved one for eight years."
"So you did. Thank God you did." He caressed her cheek, the desire he felt for her flaring even brighter when he thought of how faithful she'd been to him. Steadfast and strong. She'd been his partner always, in every way. After all they'd been through, he wasn't about to let a little thing like death stand between them and their future together.
And he wasn't about to let anyone hurt Mira or the others he cared about. Which meant his new mission had become doing whatever he had to in order to bring down Benson and uncover the truth behind the name that the corrupt councilman had given in Kellan's final conscious moments at the hearing.
Kellan sat up, his blood pounding at the sudden recollection of Benson's guilt.
"What's wrong?" Mira asked, rising with him. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and she crawled behind him. "What are you doing?"
"I need to talk to Lucan."
"Benson." He stood up, expecting to feel weak or wobbly, but his legs held strong, bolstered by his Breedmate's blood. Even his wounds felt insignificant. He peeled one of the bandages away and found the bullet hole healed over, puckered and pink but already growing new skin. Kellan unwrapped the rest and tossed the dressings into a nearby trash bin. Someone had left a pair of sweats and a T-shirt on the table beside the bed. Kellan hastily put the pants on. "Lucan needs to hear what I found out from Benson today."
"You told him," Mira said. She came around in front of him and carefully smoothed her fingers over his healing wounds. "If you're talking about Opus Nostrum, whatever that is, Lucan is already looking into it. You gave him that intel just before you – "
"There's more, Mira. We need to bring Benson in. He's got information about some kind of attack that's being planned, one that involves Ackmeyer's Morningstar technology. We need to interrogate the bastard ASAP."
She gave him a funny look, then shook her head. "Benson's dead. He was killed by the same JUSTIS officers who shot you. They murdered him execution style in a back hallway of the GNC building when he was trying to get away."
Kellan grabbed the T-shirt and shrugged into it. "Lucan needs to know what's going on. I have to see him right now."
"You can't." Mira shook her head. "He's gone. He left with Gabrielle and the rest of the Order and their mates some time ago. Everyone's at the peace summit gala tonight."
The peace summit.
Realization sank in with sharp, icy talons.
"It's going to happen at the gala," Kellan murmured. "When I read Benson, his guilt was over the fact that Opus Nostrum had killed Ackmeyer because of his UV technology and that many more people were going to die because of it too – all under the guise of peace. They're going to use Morningstar as a weapon at the gala tonight."
Lucan's grip was tight on his comm unit as he ended the call with Mira. His curse, vicious and nasty. It drew an aghast inhalation from the Breedmate of a visiting ambassador, who'd been blathering on endlessly to Gabrielle and Gideon's mate, Savannah, for the past twenty minutes about her latest art acquisitions. The female gaped at Lucan, who returned the look with a dark scowl, too distracted by troubling news to be bothered with playing the pleasant party guest.
As the woman made her excuses and scurried away, Gabrielle turned a wry look on him. "Thanks for the rescue. What did Mira want? Nothing's wrong with Kellan, is there?"
"He's fine. Already on his feet, in fact. But he remembered something more from his read on Benson." Lucan's blood ran a bit colder as he took in the sea of people in attendance at the gala. He glanced to Gideon, who stood talking with Darion on the other side of the two Breedmates. "Kellan says Benson was aware of an attack being planned by Opus Nostrum. Something big, involving Ackmeyer's UV technology as a weapon. He believes it may be set to take place tonight."
"Here, at the gala?" Gabrielle whispered. "You don't think that's possible, do you?"
Gideon grunted, his blue eyes dubious over the rims of sleek, silvery-lensed glasses. "Between the Order and Crowe's security detail, this place is locked down. Someone would have to be insane to think they could get in here and wage some kind of assault."
"Unless they're already inside," Dare suggested.
Lucan felt a scowl tighten his face as he considered his son's all-too-probable scenario. With a tilt of his chin, he motioned Tegan, Nikolai, and Hunter over from across the room. "Everyone in here went through metal detectors and weapons scans, yeah?"
Tegan gave a grave nod. "Can't get into any government building these days without a full-body X ray. Everyone was scanned on entry."
Niko grinned. "Think it's too late to recommend Crowe for a cavity search? Nah, on second thought, he might enjoy it."
Crowe was currently working his way toward the lavish stage at the head of the large reception hall. He pumped dozens of hands on his approach, chuckling and backslapping with the dignitaries while leering at their wives and basically acting like he owned the damn place and everyone in it.
Lucan lowered his head and glared in Crowe's direction. His voice was a deep, rumbling growl. "He reeks of something more than just arrogance tonight. What if Crowe's got his hands on the Morningstar technology? Everyone went through metal scans on entry to the building, but did anyone check the rounds Crowe's security detail is packing?"
"You think they could be UV?" Niko, the Order's personal weapons expert and gearhead, blew out a low whistle. "Only one way to find out. Who's up for a round of show-and-tell?"
Tegan met his look. "We have to keep it quiet. Take his detail off the floor, bring them somewhere out of sight where we can search them one by one. Between the twenty of us, we can get this done in a few minutes."
Hunter nodded. "There are empty conference rooms on the west corridor outside the reception hall."
Niko grinned. "What are we waiting for?"
"Make it quick," Lucan said, "but keep this shit covert. Hit them with a trance on the way in, mind scrub on the way out. And if you find anything that raises suspicion, this whole party goes on immediate lockdown."
The three warriors acknowledged the command, then took off to alert the others on watch of the plan. Darion started to go with them, but Lucan held him back, a hand clamped tight on his son's muscled shoulder. "Stay close. I want you nearby to look after your mother if the situation calls for it."
Dare's brows lowered, his mouth flattening into a hard line. But he acquiesced with a nod and hung back, watching as the rest of the Order began discreetly carrying out the search on Crowe's security detail.
As for Lucan, his sights were fixed on Reginald Crowe, currently onstage and basking in thunderous applause from the crowd spread out below him. Crowe ate it up with unabashed pleasure, puffed up and pompous, a golden king about to address his lowly peasant subjects. When the adoration finally subsided, Crowe took the microphone to officially open the summit gala and to welcome the dignitaries as his personal guests.
Lucan tuned out the self-preening to survey the warriors' progress with the catch-and-release operation under way on the floor of the reception hall. Nikolai was casually guiding one of Crowe's security men out of the room, while Tegan had just returned to let another of the uniformed guards loose into the gathering. He met Lucan's gaze and gave a grim shake of his head. Nothing.
One by one the Order led Crowe's men out of the room. And one by one they were all returning without anything to report.
Maybe Kellan had it wrong.
Maybe the attack Benson was privy to was set to occur somewhere else, at some other time.
And yet every one of Lucan's battle instincts prickled with the certainty that something was off tonight. Something wasn't right, and he was willing to bet that something had everything to do with Reginald Crowe.
Onstage, Crowe's demeanor had sobered as he paused to express his shock and grief over the tragic loss of both Jeremy Ackmeyer and GNC director Benson. "Two great men, visionaries, both of them," he said, his voice carrying over the silent crowd. "One committed to advancing our world through science and innovation. The other devoted his life to ensuring a safer future for us all . . ."
Lucan tuned out the brief eulogy, instead watching as still more Crowe Industries guards were searched and released by Tegan and the other warriors.
Crowe, meanwhile, was gaining steam again. "To have lost two brilliant champions of our future at a time when we were gathering here to celebrate peace between mankind and the Breed only demonstrates the work still left to be done. Peace is our dream. Peace is our goal."
As the throng applauded and murmured their agreement, Crowe directed their attention to the center of the reception, where his glittering crystal obelisk shone like a beacon under the soft lights of the hall. "Tonight I give you a symbol of my vision for the future of our world. Tonight I propose a future of true peace. Not First Dawn, but a New Dawn."
Crowe's words put a sudden chill in Lucan's veins. He glanced at the obelisk again and noticed that the crystal orb crowning the sculpture had begun to glow with more intensity than before. Now the light inside the sphere pulsed with energy.
It wasn't UV bullets they needed to worry about after all.
"Peace is our vision," Crowe was saying now, his gaze panning the crowd as he spoke. His eyes found Lucan and came to a stop. "Peace is our work. Pax Opus Nostrum."
Crowe had smuggled it in right under their noses.
"Get down!" Lucan bellowed. He pushed Gabrielle into Dare's arms and motioned for them to move the hell out of the room. As all eyes turned to him, Lucan drew his 9-mm semiauto from under his suit coat and aimed it at the obelisk. "Everyone down now!"
The light within the orb was growing stronger by the second, threatening to blow.
"UV bomb in the orb," he shouted to the other members of the Order. "Get the Breed civilians out of this goddamned room now!"
The crowd started screaming, even before Lucan fired the first shot.
Chaos erupted, humans and Breed scattering in a stampede of confusion and terror.
The crystal orb cracked with his bullet's impact, but the light didn't dim.
The other warriors rounded up the dignitaries as best they could, the tangle of panicked bodies making it next to impossible to see anything but the rush of men and women, dodging in all directions as the gala dissolved into mass hysteria.
Through the fleeing crowd, Lucan spotted Crowe as he leapt off the stage and headed for the shadows in the back of the reception hall. He wanted to pursue the bastard, but all of his focus – all of his savage purpose – was fixed on destroying the tower of deadly art now glowing with greater strength at the center of the gathering.