Edge of Dawn (Chapter Twenty-Two)
But the physical pain she experienced through her blood bond was nothing compared with the agony of knowing the two men she cared for so deeply – her two best friends, who'd been as close as brothers to each other at one time – were now engaged in a brutal fight because of her.
And fight was not the right term for what was taking place in front of her. Even though her vision was nothing but blackness and shadows, she could tell that Kellan wasn't even attempting to strike back at Nathan. He fended off the incoming fists, dodged when he could, but threw no punches of his own. He wouldn't fight his friend. Kellan had too much honor for that, despite what Nathan must think of him now.
"Nathan, stop!" Hindered by blindness and the sheet wrapped around her nakedness, Mira scrabbled in frustration, finally laying her hand on the massive form hunched over Kellan on the pine plank floor of the bedroom. She grabbed a fistful of his form-fitting combat shirt and yanked, trying to pull him away. "Nathan, it wasn't Kellan who blinded me. I did it myself. Damn it, listen to me. You have to stop this right now!"
The pummeling slowed, then halted as Nathan's bulk shifted beneath her hold on him. She felt the heat of his gaze on her face and knew that his eyes had to be fully transformed – blazing hot with amber light and rage. His breath was sawing out of him, rough and heavy. Realizing just how furious he was – how deadly violent – Mira understood that Nathan could have killed Kellan then and there if he'd truly meant to. He could have killed him outside a few minutes ago, before she'd even known he was there.
"Let him up, Nathan. Kellan won't ask mercy of you, but I will." She searched for Nathan's face with her free hand, an inelegant movement that made him hiss a dark curse.
"Ah, fuck, Mira. Look what he's done to you."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No, Kellan hasn't done anything. He tried to help me. He gave me his blood – "
"Jesus Christ." Nathan scoffed. His voice turned away from her then, and she knew he was looking at Kellan. "You wait all this time to come back into her life, only to ruin it by shackling her to you with the blood bond?"
"I love her," Kellan said. Mira heard him coming up off the floor, felt his warmth as he drew close to her. His hands came down light on her shoulders, comforting and strong. "I will always love her, no matter what fate has to say about it." His mouth pressed against her temple, tender and sweet. "I love you, Mira. More than anything else in this world or the next."
She knew that. Deep down, she knew he meant every word. But here he was, shattering her heart.
He was letting go.
"You promised me," she murmured, closing her eyes against the pain. "You said you wouldn't let me go."
"Ah, Mouse." Another kiss, this one landing gently on her eyelid. His voice was a rough whisper, low and intimate, thick with emotion. "Letting go of you is the last thing I ever want to do. If there was a way to turn this around, believe me, I would."
As Kellan soothed her with tender words of good-bye, elsewhere in the Darkhaven came the muffled sounds of infiltration and struggle. Deep, familiar voices commanding Kellan's crew to cooperate with their arrest and no one would get hurt.
Boots thundered heavily down the hallway toward the bedroom.
"You lied to me," Kellan said to Nathan. "You said you came alone."
Nathan grunted. "I wasn't about to leave anything to chance. As you told me outside, this meeting you instigated tonight was about ensuring Mira's well-being. We had to make sure she'd come out of this safely too."
"Mira." Nikolai's low growl came toward her from the bedroom's now-open doorway.
She couldn't help herself from falling into his arms as he strode inside and pulled her into him for a tight embrace. She knew the instant he looked at her face – the instant he saw her clouded eyes. His snarl was fierce and animalistic, a lethal predator about to spring on the interloper who had wounded one of his young. "Son of a bitch. Fuck the arrest, I'll kill the bastard – "
Before Mira could say anything, Nathan stopped Nikolai with words alone. "She's bonded to him. Hurt Kellan, and you hurt her too."
"Is this true?" Niko asked her sternly. "Did you drink from him?"
"We're mated," she replied, clutching the sheet tightly around her under the cold blast of Niko's fury. "Our bond is complete."
The warrior's answering curse was vicious, rolling off the surrounding walls. "Get him out of my sight before I take his head where he stands."
Kellan didn't resist as movements indicated he was being taken into Order custody. Mira wished she could see his face. She needed to see him. Could not stand the idea that she might never look upon him again.
"Come on, baby," Nikolai said, wrapping her under the protective shelter of his arm. "Let's find some clothes for you and get you out of here. It's all over now. Let's get you home."
But it wasn't over.
Mira walked with him numbly, holding on to keep from stumbling as he slowly guided her out of the room.
For her, nothing was over yet. She walked in silence, having no voice to tell her father that once they arrived in D.C., the worst of her ordeal would be only beginning.
The Order's patrol teams arrived in D.C. from the old Darkhaven in Maine just before dawn, bringing with them Mira, Kellan Archer, and the three human rebels who had, incredibly, been serving under his command for the past several years.
Lucan had been brought up to speed on most of the situation some ten hours earlier, when Nathan called in the mission complete status from the field. Aside from the fact that the rebels were now in Order custody and Mira was recovered and on the way home, there hadn't been much good news to report. Lucan's head was still reeling from everything he'd heard, and after more than nine hundred years of living, it took a damn good lot to surprise him.
Still, the weight of the facts he'd been given hadn't quite set in for him until he stood in the mansion's foyer and watched as Niko ushered Mira inside. He was all but carrying the Breedmate, whose useless eyes were open but fixed on nothing as she shuffled slowly alongside her father, clinging to his arm for support and guidance across the smooth white marble floor.
The warriors' mates – all of the Order's women – converged on Mira en masse as soon as she entered the house. Lucan noted the rush of female concern and affection that poured onto the younger Breedmate as the women quickly escorted her away, all their focus centered on Mira's well-being. Lucan watched them go, knowing he would have his turn to visit with Mira later. When his head was cooler, and his blood was no longer seething with the need to do severe bodily harm to the bastard responsible for her abduction a few days ago and her current physical state.
The object of his fury entered the foyer now, shoved inside ungently by Tegan and Rio. Nathan and Rafe, along with the other two members of their team and Mira's squad of three, stalked in behind them.
"Chase and Hunter have the rebels outside," Nathan reported. "One of them is hobbled by a leg injury. It's had medical attention, but the wound is deep. She can't walk on the limb."
Lucan grunted. "Rafe," he said, glancing to Dante and Tess's son. "Help the woman inside. Have a look at her, see what can be done."
The blond warrior gifted with his mother's extraordinary healing touch gave a nod, then jogged off to carry out the order.
As for Kellan Archer, the eyes of a dozen-plus lethally skilled, pissed-off Breed warriors were fixed on him in barely restrained animosity as he was brought to a stop in the center of the glittering foyer. Damn, it was a shock to see him again, after believing him dead for going on a decade. Lucan had always liked the kid, but the outlaw standing before him now was making it hard for Lucan to resist adding some bruises of his own to the collection Kellan already sported.
And he wasn't alone in his outrage for what Kellan stood accused of. The rage of Lucan's brethren was a palpable thing, rolling off the group of vampires like a black wind.
"This way," Lucan said, before anyone was tempted to act on their impulses. His stern look set Kellan into motion and commanded the rest of the Order to hang back, letting the two of them proceed into Lucan's study alone.
Kellan walked to the center of the room and drew to a halt while Lucan closed the door behind them, then stalked back over to face the errant warrior one-on-one. Lucan could still see the courageous, forthright soldier in Kellan's steady hazel gaze and in the straight line of his spine and shoulders as he stood at grim attention before Lucan, ready to accept his wrath.
Prepared to face the truth that the path he'd chosen for himself had more than likely led to a literal grave end.
"Quite the clusterfuck of problems you bring into this house," Lucan remarked, bypassing unnecessary niceties and getting right to the point of this unexpected reunion. "Nathan briefed me on everything that's gone down these past several days. Bowman's one helluva busy guy. Kidnapping, obstruction, conspiracy, aiding a rebellion, and general defiance of the law. Let's not forget betrayal and usury. Apparently your strongest suits, judging from the condition you left Mira in out there. If you deserve to suffer for anything you've done, hurting that girl ranks right at the top as far as I'm concerned. Jesus Christ. And then to cap everything off, you bound her to you."
Kellan's stoic expression didn't crack until the mention of Mira's name. His deep voice was raw with a pain Lucan couldn't deny. "I wouldn't have given her my blood if I hadn't thought the bond might help repair the damage to her eyesight." Frowning, he gave a remorseful shake of his head. "It didn't work. I need to try again, Lucan. I need to give her some more. See if she gets better."
Lucan scoffed. "You've done enough, haven't you?"
"Then maybe Rafe or Tess – "
"Mira's where she belongs now," Lucan said, knowingly curt. He wasn't even close to sympathy over the obvious concern Kellan felt for the mate he'd claimed well beyond his rights. "The Order will see that Mira gets all the help we can provide. She's with family now. You have problems of your own to deal with."
Kellan held his gaze. "As long as Mira's safe, my problems mean nothing."
"Do you want to die, son?"
Kellan's response was immediate. "No." Then again, more vehemently. "Hell no. I want to live – with Mira beside me. I didn't realize how much I wanted that until I had her back in my arms again." He blew out a sharp curse. "But it doesn't matter what I want."
"Because of the vision," Lucan said. "Nathan informed me about that earlier too. You and I both know Mira's gift is a powerful thing. Unerring. But with or without that prophesied end hanging over your head, your involvement with rebels – for fuck's sake, your having led them as their commander – has all but tied my hands in this. Ackmeyer's death has been blamed on rebels, rebels under the direction of an outlaw called Bowman. It's given the public a cause to rail against, and they're doing it loudly. They're calling for blood – your blood. When word gets out that you're not only Breed but also a former warrior with the Order? The humans won't be satisfied until they have your head, son. I'll have little choice but to give it to them, or undermine all the strides we've made toward any kind of peace with mankind."
Kellan's steady gaze said he understood the impossible position. "If it comes down to that, I'll be ready to face whatever penalty is required."
Lucan raked a hand through his dark hair. "Shit, Kellan. This sure as fuck isn't how I imagined things would go with you when you first showed up at the Boston compound twenty years ago. Not how I imagined your life heading when you sailed through training with flying colors. Making the call to JUSTIS to come and pick you up tonight isn't going to be easy."
"I appreciate that," Kellan replied soberly. "Before you make that call, Lucan, if I could ask one thing for my crew? Their freedom, if you see fit to grant it to them. Don't turn them over to JUSTIS with me. I take total responsibility for my actions and those of the people under my command."
Lucan inclined his head at the request, feeling more than a little respect for the leader willing to bear the full brunt for those who followed him into battle.
"I want you to know," Kellan said, "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of these past eight years. Worst of all, hurting Mira, and deceiving you and the Order – my family – about my death. I'm guilty of many things, Lucan, but murder isn't one of them. The night the lab was destroyed, Mira and I were in the city, looking for leads on Ackmeyer. We hoped to find something that would lead us to him, or to the member of my crew who defected that morning and took Ackmeyer to ransom."
Lucan scowled. "None of which excuses the fact that you abducted a high-profile civilian – Ackmeyer was practically a national treasure, for crissake. And then you grab a member of the Order besides? What the fuck were you thinking?"
"Taking Mira was never part of the plan. I didn't know she'd be there. We had last-minute intel that Ackmeyer would be on the move that day. We mobilized right away and closed in on him. Mira got swept into the net unintentionally. She was never part of it, and my mistake where she was concerned was not sending her back to the Order right away. But if you ask me to regret the time I had with her these past few days, I can't do that."
Lucan exhaled, studying the younger male. That he loved Mira was obvious. And Lucan couldn't help thinking back to his own mistakes and fuck-ups not so long ago, any one of which could have cost him the woman he cherished with all his heart, his Breedmate, Gabrielle. They'd been fortunate. Had the blessing of a shared life together and a son they adored, who made them both proud. Things Kellan and Mira would likely never know.
His heart heavier than he wanted to admit, Lucan cleared his throat and focused on the things that still needed answers. "Why target Ackmeyer? How had he managed to make enemies of you or your rebels?"
"Three months ago, a Breed civilian was shot dead in Boston. One of the women in my crew, Nina, witnessed the slaying. The Breed male was her lover. He'd left her apartment that night and was walking up the side street when a government vehicle rolled up. Two human men got out and killed him, unprovoked." Kellan stared at Lucan, his gaze intense, alive with an anger that simmered just below the surface of his outward calm. "Their guns held UV rounds. Liquid sunlight, neatly packaged into Breed-killing bullets. The vampire didn't stand a chance. He was ashed on the spot."
"Holy hell." Lucan rocked back on his heels, more grim than astonished. Mankind had always been ingenious, sometimes diabolically so, but the ramifications of ultraviolet technology being developed for arms and weaponry could be staggering. Given time and imagination, they could eventually wipe out the entire Breed race. "And you tracked the tech back to Ackmeyer?"
"Took some time and a lot of digging, but we managed to put it together. Ackmeyer had mentioned in a science journal interview last year that he was working on a pet project involving ultraviolet light. At the time, he'd said he thought it would be ideal for agricultural purposes."
"Until someone wagged a big paycheck in front of him, no doubt." Lucan raked his hand over his scalp, hissed another curse. "Is that what happened? Ackmeyer sold his tech to someone who thought it might be put to better use as a weapon against the Breed?"
"That's what I wanted to know," Kellan replied. "I meant to get answers, and if Ackmeyer didn't prove cooperative, I was prepared to persuade him to destroy the technology – by whatever means necessary. Problem was, Ackmeyer didn't know anything about his work being leaked outside his private lab. When I questioned him while he was in my custody, he said his project – something he was calling Morningstar – was still in testing stages, under lock and key. He swore up and down that he'd never allow his work to be used to harm anyone. I read the truth in him, Lucan. He was innocent. By the time I figured that out, the wheels were already in motion."
Lucan grunted. "You shouldn't have acted alone. You should've come to the Order with this."
"Come to you as Bowman?" Kellan asked, his expression grimly wry. "Or as the coward who'd turned his back on his brethren and his kin?"
Lucan knew he was right. His situation had been untenable either way. It still was. "Unfortunately, it may be too late to turn any of this back now."
Kellan nodded. "There are a lot of things I wish I'd done differently, starting with how I left eight years ago." He glanced down, exhaled a short breath as he shook his head. "Jeremy Ackmeyer is dead because of me, Lucan. Because ultimately I gave the command to abduct him. I accept that blame. But I'm telling you here and now, I didn't give the order to torch his lab or to harm him in any way."
"You're going to have a hard time convincing the public of that."
"I don't give a shit about the public and what they believe," Kellan said, a flicker of amber lighting in his eyes. "I need to know that you believe me. That I haven't lost your trust."
Lucan listened to the younger vampire – the once-sheltered, sullen Darkhaven youth who had become a formidable, stalwart warrior under Lucan's tutelage, only to vanish without a trace before he'd reached his prime.
That warrior was still alive inside Kellan Archer. He was still prepared for the good fight, still held his honor intact, even though he'd lost his way for a while. What a waste it would be to see him slip away once more.
Lucan swore, low under his breath. "Of everything that's gone wrong here lately – and Jesus Christ, there's enough to choose from – I'm not sure what bothers me the most. The fact that you and Mira are blood-bonded under the worst circumstances, or that I have to be the one who tears you apart."