Shades of Midnight (Chapter Eighteen)
Every inch of his naked body was blistered and raw from ultraviolet exposure, his normally rapid healing processes impeded by the added damage he'd sustained from the shotgun blast that had ripped into his thigh and abdomen. Fresh blood would speed the required regeneration. Once he fed, his soft tissue and organs would mend in a few hours, as would his skin, but he could not risk another minute without seeking adequate shelter.
He had barely survived the daylight, having been forced to flee the cave after the humans had stumbled upon him there. He'd run, bleeding and wounded, into the surrounding woods, into the lethal rays of the sun outside the cave. He'd had only enough time to dig a hole in a deep bank of hard-packed snow and bury himself within before the severity of his combined injuries had shut his body down and rendered him unconscious.
Now, a short while after he'd roused to find welcome darkness, he knew only that he needed to seek new shelter before the next sunrise. Needed to find somewhere secure to recuperate further, so he would be strong enough to hunt again and feed his damaged cells.
His feet dragged in the moonlit snow, his pace slow and halting. He despised his physical weakness. Hated that it reminded him of the torture he had endured while in captivity. But animosity drove him now, forced the shredded muscles of his legs to move.
He didn't know how long or how far he had walked. Easily miles from the cave and his makeshift shelter in the snow.
Ahead of him, he saw a dim orange glow through the veil of silhouetted evergreen trunks. A human residence, apparently occupied, and far removed from any other signs of civilization. Yes, it would do.
He stalked forward, ignoring his pain as he locked all focus on the remote little cabin and the unsuspecting prey within it.
As he neared, his ears pricked with the low, mournful sounds of human suffering. It was faint, muffled by logs and plank-shuttered glass. But the anguish was clear. A female was weeping inside the cabin.
The predator crept up to the side of the domicile and pressed his eye to a crack in the wooden shutter that covered the window to bar the cold.
She was seated on the floor in front of a dying fire, drinking from a half-consumed bottle of dark amber liquid. Before her was an emptied box of printed images, scattered in disarray all around her. A large black pistol lay on the floor next to her bent knee. She was sobbing, incredible sorrow pouring out of her. He could feel the overwhelming weight of her grief, and he knew that the weapon was not beside her as a means of protection. Not tonight.
The scene gave him pause, but only for a moment.
She must have sensed his eyes on her. Her head snapped to the side, her reddened eyes fixed on the very spot where he stood, concealed by the closed shutter and the darkness of the night outside. But she knew.
She rose, picking up the gun as she wobbled to her feet.
He backed away, only to move on silent feet toward the front door of the cabin. It wasn't locked, not that it would have barred him if it had been. He squeezed the latch with his mind, pushed the door open. He was inside the cabin and had his hands wrapped around the woman's throat before she realized he was there.
Before she could open her mouth to scream, before she could command her drink-impeded reflexes to pull the pistol's trigger in defense of the sudden attack, he bent his head and sank his fangs into the soft flesh of her slender neck.
Alex sat at the table in her kitchen with Luna resting at her feet. Every light in the house was turned on, every door and window locked up tight.
It had been nearly two hours.
She didn't know how much more waiting she could take. While Luna slept calmly, blissfully oblivious, across her toes under the table, Alex's mind had been spinning. Churning over questions she hardly dared to ask, and worrying for a man who had left her wondering just who–or what–he truly was. But the small voice inside her that so often urged her to run from the things that scared her was silent when she thought of Kade. Yes, she was uncertain after what she witnessed today. Frightened that the path ahead of her might be even more unsteady than the past she'd left behind her. But running was the last thing she intended to do–not now. Not ever again.
Idly, she wondered how Jenna was holding up. It couldn't be easy on her, hearing about the deaths in town when she was nearing the anniversary of her own personal grief. Alex reached for her cell phone, wanting to hear her friend's voice. She was just about to punch in Jenna's number when there was a soft rap on the back door.
Alex put down the phone and stood up, dislodging her canine foot warmer, who groaned in protest before dropping her head back down to sleep some more. Alex drifted toward the door where Kade waited. Now that he was there, looking so dark and immense and dangerous through the glass window, some of her courage faltered.
He didn't demand or force his way inside, even though she knew without the slightest doubt that there was little she could do to bar him from entering if that's what he intended to do. But he merely stood there, leaving the decision entirely up to her. And because he didn't force her, because she could see a shadowed torment in the piercing depths of his silver eyes that hadn't been there before, Alex opened the door and let him in.
He took one step inside her little kitchen and pulled her into a hard, long embrace. His strong arms circled her, held her close, as though he never wanted to let her go.
"Are you okay?" he asked, pressing his mouth into her hair. "I hated to leave you alone."
"I'm all right," she said, drawing back to look at him when he finally released her from his hold. "I was more worried about you."
"Don't," he said. Scowling, he stroked her cheek, swallowed hard. "Ah, Jesus. Don't worry for me."
"Kade, what the hell is going on? I need you to be honest with me."
"I know." He took her by the hand and led her back to the table. She dropped into her chair as he took the one next to her. "I should have explained everything to you earlier, as soon as I realized …" Her heart sank a bit as his words trailed off. "As soon as you realized, what?"
"That you were part of this, Alex. A part of the world that belongs to me and those of my kind. I should have told you everything before you saw me kill that Minion. And before we made love." She heard the regret in his voice for the intimacy they'd shared, and weathered more than a little sting because of it. But the other part–the peculiar way he'd referred to himself and his kind, and the fact that he was somehow including her in that equation–was what made her mind stutter to attention. And then there was the odd word he'd used to describe Skeeter Arnold.
"A 'Minion'? I don't know what that's supposed to mean, Kade. I don't know what any of this is supposed to mean."
"I know you don't." He raked his palm over his jaw, then exhaled around a vivid curse. "Someone got to Skeeter Arnold before I did. Someone bled him, almost to the point of killing him, before bringing him back so that he could serve. He wasn't human anymore, Alex. He was something less than that. Someone had made him into a Minion, a mind slave."
"That's crazy," she murmured, and as badly as she wanted to reject what she was hearing, she couldn't dismiss Kade's grim, sober demeanor. "You also said that I am a part of this. A part of this, how? And what did you mean back at the clinic, when you said there was something more I didn't know about the attack on my family? What could you possibly know about the monsters that took my mom and Richie?"
"What they did was monstrous," Kade said, his tone unreadable, too level for comfort. "But there is another name for them, too."
"Vampire." Alex had never voiced the word out loud, not in relation to the murders of her mom and little brother. It stuck to her tongue like bitter paste, foul even after she had spit it out. "Are you actually trying to tell me–my God, do you really expect me to believe they were vampires, Kade?"
"Rogues," he said. "Blood addicted and deadly. But they were also part of a race separate from humans called the Breed. A very old race, not the undead or the damned, but a living, breathing society. One which has existed alongside mankind for thousands of years."
"Vampires," she whispered, sick with the thought that any of this could be real. But it was real. Some part of her had known this truth all along, from the instant her family was shattered by the attack all those years ago.
Kade's eyes remained steady on her. "In the simplest terms, to say that they were vampires is fair enough."
Nothing seemed simple to her anymore. Not after everything she had seen. Not after everything she was hearing now. And definitely not when it came to Kade.
She felt some measure of retreat in him as he looked at her, some amount of hurt in his bleak gaze, and it gnawed at her. "You told me once that nothing is simple. Nothing in your world is simply good or bad, black or white. Shades of gray, you said."
He didn't blink, just held her in an unflinching look. "Yes."
"Is this what you meant?" She swallowed, her voice cracking just a bit. "Is this the world that you live in, Kade?"
"We both do," he replied, his voice so gentle it terrified her. "You and I, Alex. We're both a part of it. I am, because my father is Breed. And you are, because you bear the same birthmark as my mother and a small number of other, very rare women. You are a Breedmate, Alex. Your blood properties and unusual cellular makeup connect you to the Breed on the most primal level."
"That's ridiculous." She shook her head, recalling how tenderly he had touched the odd little scarlet mark on her hip when they were together in the cabin earlier today. Without trying, she could still feel the heat of his fingertips on that very spot. "A birthmark doesn't make me anything. It doesn't prove anything–"
"No," he said carefully. "But there are other things that do. Have you ever been sick in your life?
Have you always felt a little bit lost, a little bit detached, different from all the other people around you?
Some part of you has always been searching, reaching for something you could never quite grasp. You've never truly found your place of belonging in the world. I'm right, aren't I, Alex?" She couldn't speak. God help her, she could hardly breathe.
Kade went on. "You're also gifted in some way that you can't really explain–some innate ability that separates you from the rest of the mortal world."
She wanted to tell him he was wrong about all of that. Wanted to, but couldn't. Everything he said summed up her experience and her innermost feelings. It was as though he had known her all her life … as though he understood her on a level that even she herself had not.
Until this very moment, impossible as it seemed.
"Since I was a child, I have always had an instinct for knowing when someone was telling me the truth or a lie." Kade nodded as she spoke, unsurprised. "I can read others," she said, "but not you."
"It's possible that your talent only works on humans." Humans. Not him, because he was something … other.
A coldness swept her as the realization sank in fully.
"Are you–" Her voice cracked, almost wouldn't come. "Are you telling me that you're like them–the ones that killed my mother and Richie? The ones that killed the Tomses and Lanny and Big Dave?"
"I'm not sure who's to blame for the killings here recently, but I'm nothing like that. And only the sickest, most heinous members of my kind would do what was done to your family, Alex." He reached out and took her hand in his, brought her fingers to his mouth and kissed them with aching tenderness. His quicksilver eyes held her gaze with an intensity that seared her, deep inside. "I am Breed, Alex. But I will never harm you, or anyone you love. Never. My God, I sure didn't see you coming–didn't see any of this coming. I never expected I'd end up caring like this."
"Kade," she whispered, not knowing what she wanted to say to him after all the things he'd just told her. She was filled with questions and uncertainty, overwhelmed with a confusion of emotions, all of it centered on the man–the Breed male–who held her hand right now, and her heart. As though he understood the torment she was feeling, he leaned around the small table and gathered her into his arms. Alex went to him, letting him pull her onto his lap.
"I don't know what to think of all this," she murmured. "I have so many questions."
"I know." He drew her away from him and smoothed the backs of his fingers along the side of her face, the curve of her neck. "I'll answer anything you ask me. When I come back, you can ask me everything you need to know."
"When you come back?" The thought of him leaving, now, when her head–hell, her whole life–was turned upside-down, was unthinkable. He stood up, easing her up with him. "Where are you going?"
"Something has been bothering me about Skeeter Arnold. I saw him with someone the other night, outside Pete's tavern. They took him to a mining company several miles from here."
"What was the name of it?"
Alex frowned. "That place shut down about twenty years ago, but I heard new management moved in recently. They're keeping things pretty private out there. Put up a bunch of surveillance equipment and security fences around the perimeter."
"New management, eh?" Kade's dark expression spoke volumes.
"You don't think …"
"Yeah, I do. But I need to be sure."
"Then I'm going with you."
His dark brows crashed together. "Absolutely not. It could be dangerous–"
"Exactly why I'm not about to wait around and worry. I am going with you." She walked over and grabbed her parka, pretending she didn't hear his muttered curse behind her. "Well, are you coming, or what?"