Shades of Midnight (Chapter Sixteen)

They didn't speak the whole flight back.

Kade sat beside Alex in miserable silence, torn between wanting to explain to her about the Breed and her place within that world and fearing that if she knew what he truly was, she would lump him into the same category of monster that she abhorred and was now so determined to expose to all of Harmony and the rest of humankind.

The fear that she would hate him kept his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth for the entire fortyfive minutes it took for her to fly them back to the snow-packed airstrip on the edge of town. He was a bastard for withholding the whole truth from her; he knew that. He'd proven himself something even worse than that in the Tulak cabin, when he'd let his desire for her trump his duty–his own personal code of honor, flimsy as it might be–that would have compelled a better male to put all of the cards on the table before he'd taken her.

But it hadn't been all about the sex with Alex. It wasn't just about desire, although he had that for her in spades. Things would be a hell of a lot easier right now if it was merely physical. The fact was, he cared about her. Cared for her. He didn't want to see her hurt anymore, least of all by his own words or actions. He wanted to protect her from the things that had harmed her in the past, and he would do whatever possible to see to it that nothing bad could touch her ever again. Oh, yeah, he was doing a damn fine job there.

Doing a first-class job on everything he'd touched since his arrival back in Alaska. In light of the evidence he'd found at the cabin, what might have been a simple, sideline mission to rout out a probable Rogue problem in the frozen north country was now a quest to locate a killer in his own family. And now he had at least one more dead human to add to that mix, potentially two, if the report of Big Dave's injuries was accurate.

Another savage attack that Kade prayed against all suspicion otherwise would not have Seth's name written all over it.

He was still chewing on that dread as Alex brought the plane down in a flawless landing. Damn, even as shaken as she had to be, Alex was total cool control behind the wheel. A real professional. Just one more thing that made him appreciate her all the more.

"Shit," he exhaled low under his breath as he stared out the window of the cockpit. He really did have it bad for this female.

"Looks like half the town is gathered outside the health clinic," Alex said. "Since Roger Bemis's plane is in, I'm guessing they must have brought Big Dave and Lanny in from the bush already." Kade grunted, looking a block up the center of town at the converted ranch house where a couple dozen people had assembled under the floodlight that lit the yard, some on foot, others seated astride idling snowmachines.

Alex cut the plane's engine and opened the pilot's door. Kade got out with her, walking around the front of the plane as she secured it and locked everything down. Her movements were efficient, her gloved hands working as if by habit more than conscious thought. When she finally glanced over at him, Kade saw that her face was pale as ash, her features stricken and wary. But her gaze was sharp with grim determination.

"Alex … let's talk about this before you go in there and say what you think you need to say to those folks."

She frowned. "They need to know. I need to tell them."

"Alex." He reached out and grabbed her by the arm, more firmly than he'd intended. She stared at his fingers clamped around her, then looked back up at him. "I can't let you do this." She pulled out of his hold, and for a second he considered trancing her to keep her away from the gathered crowd up the road. With a small mental effort and one brief sweep of his palm over her forehead, he could place her into a pliable state of semiconsciousness.

He could buy precious time. Prevent her from jeopardizing his entire mission for the Order by alerting her fellow townsfolk to the existence of vampires living among them, preying on them from the shadows.

And she would hate him even more–rightfully so–for the further manipulation. She took a step back from him, her brows still knitted together in confusion. "What's wrong with you all of a sudden? I have to go."

He didn't stop her when she pivoted around and headed off at a jog for Harmony's small health clinic. On a gritted curse, Kade went after her. He caught up in an instant, then wove with her through the anxious, chattering crowd.

"… just terrible that something like this should happen again," murmured a white-haired woman to the person next to her.

"… he lost so much blood," someone else remarked. "Tore them up, was what I heard. Not much left intact on either man."

"A horrible thing," said another detached voice in the crowd, shrill with panic. "First the Tomses, now Big Dave and Lanny. I wanna know what Officer Tucker plans to do about this!" Kade strode beside Alex as she marched toward Zach, who stood near the entrance of the clinic, his cell phone pressed to his ear. He acknowledged her with barely a glance, continuing to bark grave orders to someone on the other end of the line.

"Zach," she said, "I need to speak with you–"

"Kinda busy," he snapped.

"But, Zach–"

"Not now, goddamn it! I've got one man dead and another bleeding out in there and the whole fucking town is going apeshit around me!"

Kade could hardly contain the protective snarl that curled at the back of his throat at the human's outburst. His own anger spiked dangerously, muscles tensed and ready for a fight he realized he was more than eager to initiate. Instead, he subtly took Alex by the arm and placed himself between her and the other male. "Come on," he said to her, guiding her away from the trooper and his meltdown in progress. "Let's go somewhere else until things settle down."

"No," she said. "I can't go. I need to see Big Dave. I need to be sure–" She broke away from him and dashed up the concrete steps and into the clinic, with Kade fast on her heels. The place was quiet inside, only the hum of the overhead fluorescent lights that tracked from the vacant reception area down the hallway toward the examination rooms. From the sparse look of the clinic and its lack of equipment, it didn't appear that it was set up for dealing with much more than the occasional abrasion or vaccination.

Alex headed down the hall at a determined, brisk pace.

"Where's Fran Littlejohn? She never keeps it this cold in here," she murmured, at just about the same time that Kade was noticing the temperature, as well.

An arctic chill, blowing up the hallway from one of the rooms in back. The only one with the door closed.

Alex put her hand on the knob. It didn't budge. "That's odd. It's locked." Kade's warrior instincts lit up like firecrackers. "Get back." He was already standing in front of her, moving faster than her eyes could possibly track him. He gripped the doorknob and gave it a hard twist. The lock snapped, mechanisms were crushed to powder in an instant.

Kade pushed the door open … and found himself staring into the cold dead eyes of a Minion.

"Skeeter?" Alex's voice was sharp with surprise, and well-placed suspicion. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

The Minion's business was potently clear to Kade. On the floor next to Big Dave's bed lay a large, middle-age woman–the clinic technician, no doubt. Unconscious, but she was still breathing, which was better than he could say for her patient on the bed.

"Fran!" Alex cried, racing to the unresponsive woman's side. Kade's focus was centered elsewhere. The room reeked with the overpowering stench of human blood. Had it been fresh, Kade's physiological response would have been impossible to hide, but the odor was stale, the cells no longer living. Nor was Big Dave, who lay on the bed, virtually unrecognizable for the severity of his injuries. All Kade needed was one whiff of the spilled, coagulating hemoglobin to know that the man was several minutes dead already.

"My Master was displeased to hear about the attack today," the Minion said, his thin face pale and emotionless. Behind him was an open window, his obvious means of entry into the room. And in his hand was a bloodied pair of suture scissors that had been used to speed the consequences of Big Dave's lifethreatening wounds.

"Kade … what's he talking about?"

Skeeter smiled at Alex, a deviant, rictus grin. "My Master hasn't been too pleased to hear about you, either. Witnesses are a problem in general, you understand."

"Oh, my God," Alex murmured. "Skeeter, what are you saying? What have you done!"

"You son of a bitch," Kade hissed, launching himself at the Minion. He took Skeeter down to the floor in a bone-crushing assault. "Who made you? Answer me!"

But the human mind slave only stared up at him and sneered, despite the punishing blows Kade delivered on him.

"Who the fuck is your Master?" He hit Skeeter again. And again. "Talk, you goddamn piece of shit." Answers eluded him. Some irrational part of him cast about and latched on to Seth's name, but that was an impossibility. Although Kade and his twin were Breed, their bloodline wasn't old enough or pure enough for either of them to create a Minion. Only the earliest generations of the vampire race had the power to drain a human to the brink of death, then take command of its mind.

"What are your orders?" He pounded the Minion's grinning, bleeding, soulless face. "What have you told your Master about Alex?"

Behind him now, her voice broke through the violence raging in him. "Kade, please … stop. You're scaring me. Stop this now and let him go."

But he couldn't stop. He couldn't let the human who had been Skeeter Arnold go, not now. Not knowing what he was. Not knowing what he might be commanded to do to Alex if he was turned loose to carry out his Master's wishes again.

"Kade, please …"

With a guttural roar, he grasped the Minion's head in his hands and gave it a savage twist. There was a crunch of bone and sinew, then a hard thump as he let the lifeless bulk fall onto the floor. He heard Alex's sharp intake of breath at his back. He thought she might scream, but she went utterly silent. When Kade pivoted his head to look up at her, it wasn't difficult to read the confusion–the complete shock–in her wide brown eyes.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," he said quietly, feebly. "It couldn't be helped, Alex."

"You … killed him. You just killed him… with your bare hands."

"He wasn't really alive anymore, Alex. Just a shell. He wasn't really human anymore." Kade frowned, knowing how that must sound to her by the stricken, confused look on her face. He slowly rose to stand and she took a step backward, out of his reach.

"Don't touch me."

"Ah, fuck," he muttered, raking his fingers over his scalp. She'd been through more than her share of violence in her life; the last thing she needed was to be a party to more because of her involvement with him. "I hate that you're here right now, seeing this. But I can explain–"

"No." She gave an abrupt shake of her head. "No, I have to get Zach. I have to get help for Big Dave and I have to–"

"Alex." Kade took hold of her arms in a light but unyielding grasp. "There's nothing that can be done for either of these men now. And bringing Zach Tucker or anyone else into this is only going to make things more dangerous–not only for them, but for you. I won't risk that."

She stared at him, her eyes searching his.

In the quiet that seemed to expand to fill the room, the clinic worker Skeeter had knocked to the floor began to rouse back to consciousness. The woman groaned, mumbled something indiscernible.

"Fran," Alex said, turning back to help the older female. Kade blocked her path. "She'll be fine."

With Alex watching him warily, he went to the woman's side and gently placed his hand over her forehead. "Sleep now, Fran. When you wake, you'll remember none of this."

"What are you doing to her?" Alex demanded, her voice rising as the clinic worker relaxed into his touch.

"It will be easier for her if she forgets that Skeeter was here," he said, ensuring Fran's mind was scrubbed of the assault on her and any recollections she might have of Kade and Alex being present, as well.

"It will be safer for her this way."

"What are you talking about?"

Kade swiveled his head to face her. "There is more to your monsters than you know, Alex. Much more."

She stared at him. "What are you saying, Kade?"

"Earlier today, out at the cabin, you said you trusted me, right?" She swallowed, nodded mutely.

"Then trust me, Alex. Ah, fuck. Trust no one but me now." He glanced back at Skeeter Arnold's body-the Minion corpse he was now going to have to lose somewhere, and fast. "I need you to go back outside. You can't say anything to anyone about Big Dave or Skeeter or what happened in here just now. Tell no one what you saw in here, Alex. I need you to walk out there, go back home, and wait for me to come to you. Promise me."

"But he–" Her voice choked off as she gestured toward the broken body on the floor.

"I'll take care of everything. All I need is for you to tell me that you trust me. That you believe me when I tell you there's no reason for you to be afraid. Not of me." He reached out to stroke her chilled cheek, relieved that she didn't flinch from him or pull away. He was asking for a hell of a lot from her–far more than he had a right to. "Go home and wait for me, Alex. I'll be there as soon as I can." She blinked a couple of times, then took a few steps backward. Her eyes were bleak on his as she inched toward the open door, and for a moment he wondered if her fear would prove too much for her now.

"It's okay," he said. "I trust you, too, Alex." He turned around and listened as she walked out and left him there to clean up his mess alone.