Shades of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-two)

Alex waited in Kade's cabin, anxious with concern for what he was subjecting himself to in the yard behind the Darkhaven's chapel. Eight full minutes of ultraviolet light on his exposed skin. Eight minutes of excruciating pain, before duty would permit Kade to leave his brother's body to the consuming rays of the sun.

Alex wouldn't have had any idea about the funeral tradition of the Breed had it not been for Kade's uncle, Maksim, and the young Breedmate named Patrice, both of whom had walked back to introduce themselves in the moments after Kade had carried Seth's body away. The pair had been warm and welcoming, waiting with Alex while the rest of the congregation departed via underground tunnels that connected all of the buildings in the Darkhaven compound.

Max and Patrice had offered to keep Alex company in Kade's quarters to await him and help tend his burns, but Alex had declined as politely as she could. She didn't think Kade would want to be fussed over. She wasn't even sure he would want her there now, a worry that made the wait for his return drag out all the more.

But thoughts for herself blew away like cinder on the breeze when she heard Kade's footsteps coming up the front porch of the cabin.

coming up the front porch of the cabin.

Alex ran to the door and opened it, stricken by the sight of him standing there with daylight blazing behind him. Incredibly, after the eight minutes he'd given his brother, Kade had not taken the tunnels but had instead apparently walked across the grounds from the chapel to his quarters.

"Oh, my God," Alex whispered as his pale silver eyes stared out at her from the reddened, blistered skin of his face. Her throat squeezed up like it was caught in a fist. "Come inside now." As he walked past her, his bare shoulders, arms, and torso radiated palpable heat that she could feel a foot away from him. He was obviously in agony, but he showed no sign of it beyond the visible UV damage of his skin.

"Come with me," Alex said. "I have a cool bath waiting for you." He shot her a questioning look.

"I met Maksim and Patrice in the chapel. They told me what you might need when you came back." His mouth curved slightly at that, but when he tried to speak, his voice was nothing but a raspy croak of sound. "Come on, Kade. Let me take care of you."

He walked with her to the bathroom down the hall. He put up no resistance as she helped him undress, removing his boots and socks one at a time as he stood on the tiled floor, his broad palm feeling like an electric iron against her shoulder as he held on to her for balance. Alex carefully stripped him of his black fatigues and briefs. She couldn't contain her soft gasp, struck as always by the masculine perfection of his body and the complex artistry of his glyphs, even though at the moment she was too concerned about soothing his burns to take much pleasure in the sight of his nakedness.

She helped him step into the tub, watching as he slowly sank down into the cool water on a hiss that stretched into a long, deep sigh.

"Is that all right?"

He moaned and gave a faint nod, his eyes drifting closed as steam from his heated skin curled over the surface of the water. "Thank you," he murmured thickly, settling deeper into the bath. Alex picked up a soft cloth and submerged it in the tub. "Just relax now. I'll do the rest." Gingerly she trickled the clear, cool water over the blistered bulk of his shoulders. She did the same to his burned back and chest, then his strong, bare arms. As carefully as she could, she brought the cloth to his face and cleansed the raw, reddened skin of his lean, angled cheeks and the strong, stern lines of his chin and brow.

As he relaxed deeper, Alex gently tipped his head back so she could wet his ebony hair and run cool water over his scalp. "The things you said in the chapel today about Seth, and about yourself … I was very proud of you, Kade. It took a great deal of courage to stand up there like you did." He grunted, a wordless sound of denial.

"You may not think so, but you were a good brother to Seth. I think everyone saw that today. You are a good son to your parents, too."

His eyelids flicked open even as his dark brows lowered in a frown. "A few minutes of talk," he rasped on a dry voice. "That's all it was. Doesn't erase the past. Doesn't mean a damn thing." Alex squeezed more water into his hair and tenderly ran her fingers through the silken strands. "Why are you so hard on yourself?"

"Seeing what my brother was should tell you the answer to that," he said, all but growling the words.

"I'm sure I don't have to remind you what he was capable of. You saw that firsthand in the woods outside Harmony."

"Yes," Alex agreed softly. "I did. But that was Seth, not you. Or do I have to remind you that those were your very words to me when I told you what I saw? Seth was a killer, not you." He exhaled a vivid curse, but Alex ignored his rising anger.

"Seth was the one who went Rogue, Kade. That doesn't mean you will, too." He shifted in the tub, lifting his head so that he was looking her squarely in the eyes. "Most of my life, Alex, I have been hiding from the truth, living in denial. Running from the things I couldn't control. I thought if I put enough distance between myself and my problems, they would just … go away. Well, they don't."

Alex nodded. He could just as well be talking about her life. "I know now that running away doesn't solve anything," she whispered. "You have to stand up and face the things that scare you the most. You've taught me that, Kade."

His scowl deepened. "That's what I intend to do. But I need to do it alone, Alex."

"What do you mean?"

"The things I talked about in the chapel today, and on that mountain when we brought Seth's body up from the ledge. I can't risk putting you in the middle of my problems."

"It's a bit late for that, don't you think?" She caressed his tight jaw, only the barest skate of her fingers over the tender skin. "I've heard everything you've said. I've seen what happened to your brother. I understand your fear, Kade. But I'm not going to run away. Not ever again. And I won't let you push me away, either. I love you."

He expelled a harsh breath, and when he looked at her now, sparks of amber lit the silver irises of his eyes. She saw the glint of his fangs behind his lips, sharp white points gleaming with deadly power.

"I love you, Kade," she insisted, refusing to back down. "And unless you tell me here and now that you don't love me, too, then I can think of no reason why either of us should be alone." He stared hard at her, his jaw held tight. "Goddamn it, Alex. You know I can't say that. I do love you. And that has complicated everything."

She smiled with a humor she barely felt. "A little too much gray for you?" she asked softly. "And here I thought I was the one who liked to keep things simple, black and white." He didn't return her smile. He was too far gone for that. As Alex drew back, she saw his eyes move from her lips to the base of her throat.

Her pulse was fluttering there, a fast tick that intensified to a heavier throb as she watched Kade stare hungrily at that spot. He caught her looking at him and abruptly glanced away. Tried to hide his awareness of her blood, pounding below the surface of her skin. Tried to hide his thirst from her. Alex brought his gaze back to her with a coaxing touch. "You don't have to deny who you are or what you need, Kade. Not from me. Not anymore."

Silently she put down her wet cloth and positioned herself against his mouth, sweeping her hair away from her neck.

Her name was a reverent whisper on his lips as he drew in his breath, then blew it out in a heated rush against her skin. Kade descended on her in a swift motion, his sharp bite filled with need and a desperation that he made no effort to conceal.

Inside Zach Tucker's house in Harmony, a pair of Alaska State Troopers recently arrived from the post in Fairbanks slumped in subdued silence, both men tranced on the living room sofa. In a recliner next to them, Mayor Sidney Charles snored softly, tranced, as well. The elderly Native man had proven immensely cooperative, albeit unwittingly so, to the Order's mission objectives in town. Not only had he delivered on his promise to summon every citizen of Harmony into the church a few hours ago, but he'd also had the good manners to escort the newly arrived Staties to Zach Tucker's place when their plane had touched down from Fairbanks around daybreak.

With Brock still on post at Jenna's cabin, Tegan, Chase, and Hunter had since relocated their operation to Tucker's house. They'd waited out the scant few hours of daylight there, using the idle time to dig into the dead trooper's computer records and look for further evidence of his corruption in the house. They hadn't had to look very far.

Zach Tucker might have been a bush cop but he had an accountant's eye for record keeping. He'd logged every drug deal and bootlegged bottle of booze that had passed through his hands and into Skeeter Arnold's for distribution around the area.

When the two Staties woke up, they were going to find every handwritten ledger and computerstored spreadsheet in Zach Tucker's ransacked house. They were going to find the safe where Zach kept all of the considerable cash he'd made from his little side business over a period that had to have been several years.

The uniformed troopers were going to follow a hunch neither one of them could shake that would lead them to a remote area of the bush where they would discover Harmony's sole police officer, brutally murdered and scavenged by animals. Near the body, they would find Skeeter Arnold's cell phone, showing a history of plenty of calls to and from Trooper Tucker. With Skeeter nowhere to be found, nor heard from, the Staties would conclude that Tucker, and possibly Skeeter, as well, had apparently found themselves on the losing end of a deal gone horribly, fatally wrong.

What the troopers from the Fairbanks unit would not find was evidence of any other strange happenings in Harmony. With no one in town recalling the spate of recent deaths, let alone the names of the victims, and with a strategically placed computer worm originating from Boston that wiped out half of the AST's dispatch logs for the past week, there would be no reason for the Staties to look for anything more than a disappointing matter of police corruption in the otherwise peaceful town of Harmony.

"That's gonna do it," Chase said as he came out of Tucker's home office. "The computer password is disabled and there's a spreadsheet of our boy's current-year transactions conveniently left open on the monitor. These troopers are going to think Tucker was not only an asshole, but a complete moron besides." Tegan chuckled. "I'll finish in here with the humans. Tell Hunter we're rolling out in five minutes." Chase nodded. He took a step, then paused. "Any word from Kade?"

"Nothing yet."

"Damn shame about his brother," Chase said, his voice oddly wooden.

"Yeah," Tegan said. "It is a shame."

When the ex-Enforcement Agent pivoted to walk away, Tegan cleared his throat. "Hey, Harvard. I've been meaning to talk to you about what happened out there at the mine."

"What about it?"

"Just wondering what the fuck you were thinking when you held that Minion by the throat for a while instead of going for a clean, quick kill."

Chase's grin seemed somehow too tight for his face. "Just having a little fun, is all." Tegan stared, assessing the once-straitlaced agent who'd proven to be a valuable asset to the Order, if a bit reckless at times. "Fun can get you killed, my man. You'd do well to remember that." Chase's expression was nonchalant, the lift of his shoulders casual, unconcerned. "Sure, Tegan. Thanks for the advice. I'll keep it in mind."

Tegan watched him walk outside, then he turned his attention toward instructing the tranced humans to awaken once he and the other vampires had time enough to get several miles out of town.