Shades of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-eight)
"Keep following the river," Kade told her. "The trail is getting fresher now. We're gaining on him." Alex nodded, focusing on her flying and the heavy gusts that blew down off the Brooks Range as they pushed farther north along the frozen river below. Although she could barely see the icy ribbon of water, she knew that they were coming up on a spot where the fleeing Ancient would have been forced to make a choice: stay low to the ground and trust the thickening woodlands to conceal him from pursuit, or veer to the west and take his flight to higher terrain, up into the craggy ridges of the mountains. Neither option would provide the best landing conditions, but in this weather, there was little more treacherous than attempting a short landing on high, potentially unstable rock.
"The trail is turning," Kade announced. "We need to bank left."
"Okay," Alex replied, sending up a silent prayer as she changed course away from the river and headed toward the mountain range instead. "Hang on, everyone. There are going to be some bumps as we turn into the headwinds."
"How you doing up there?" Tegan asked from behind her. "You sure you can handle this?"
"Piece of cake," she said–not quite the truth–and felt Kade's hand slide over to brush hers. It felt good, the contact of his touch. Even though she still carried the chilling vision of what she'd seen in the woods, her stomach still coiled with ice from that experience and the even greater terror of having seen the Ancient at Jenna's cabin, Alex could not deny her feelings for Kade. He was the one person who knew her, better than any other now. Despite everything that had occurred between them and around them, her heart could not completely seal itself off from the comfort that only he could give her. Some of the betrayal and anger she'd had for Kade and the rest of his kind had melted when she'd seen how he and his friends from the Order had handled the awful situation at the cabin. Kade had been tender and loving with Alex, respectful and considerate with Jenna. The other warriors had been, too. Especially the one called Brock, who had stayed behind to tend to Jenna.
It was difficult to reconcile a race of beings that could show so much humanity yet belong to the same ruthless, otherworldly line as the creature that had killed Zach and so many others in recent days. Or the blood-addicted Rogues who'd killed her mom and little brother. Or the twin Kade had been too ashamed to admit he had until Alex had seen Seth's savagery for herself.
But Kade and the other Breed males he'd introduced her to were different. They were good men, regardless of the genes that made them something other–something more–than men. They had honor.
Kade did, too. And now, as she flew him and his brethren of the Order through a patch of gusty air, toward the jagged crag of the mountain and an imminent battle with a creature not of this world, she only hoped that she and Kade would have the chance to sort out the tangled mess of what they meant to each other. She could only pray there would be some kind of future waiting for them on the other side of the danger that lay ahead right now.
"Luna's tracking the Ancient's scent up the base of the mountain," Kade said from beside her. "Ah, shit … it's rough rock and it's damned steep. Son of a bitch is escaping up the ridge. We're gonna lose him on the mountain."
"Just tell me where Luna's heading," Alex said. "I'll worry about getting us there." She flew the plane along the dark ridge, following Kade's directions, straining to see through the windscreen as the fine flakes of snow danced and rolled in her line of vision.
"Damn it," he snarled a moment later. "The scent is gone. It just went cold. Luna's circling around on the ledge below us, but she can't pick up the Ancient's scent anymore."
"Because he leapt from that point," Hunter remarked evenly. "The Ancient is now either above the animal, or below her."
"We're close enough to pursue him on foot," Tegan said. "The Ancient can't get far now without us right on his ass. But we need to set this plane down now."
"Okay, here we go," Alex said, and peered through her window, seeing limited options for anything more than the shortest of short landings.
She aimed the little plane toward a small patch of pristine snow on the rocky tableau, and began the descent.
Kade had seen Alex in action behind the controls of her plane before, but it didn't diminish his awe for her as she brought the small plane down onto a narrow, snowy ledge on the mountain. It wasn't until they had landed that Kade noticed she'd successfully touched them down into a gentle glide that left barely a few feet of room for error on any side.
None of the warriors uttered a word as the single-engine growled into idle and the plane came to a delicate rest on the ridge.
Not even Hunter, who sat stock-straight in the cargo hold, his face imperturbably calm, even though his knuckles looked a bit white for their grip on the netting above his head. Finally, Chase muttered a ripe curse.
Tegan chuckled low under his breath. "Hell of a landing, Alex."
"Hell of a woman," Kade said, looking across the cockpit at her and taking a personal pride in her that he probably had no right to feel. But her gaze was soft on him, although brief, and it gave him a surge of hope that maybe he hadn't lost her completely.
Maybe there was a chance for them yet.
As the group climbed out of the plane and suited up with weapons and ammunition, Luna came bounding up the sloping incline and straight into Alex's open arms. For a moment, Kade selfishly held onto his telepathic connection to the wolf dog, letting himself savor the warmth of Alex's love for the animal. When he broke the link, Tegan was standing next to him, armed for war. "We're going to split up: Hunter will take the incline, Chase and I will cover the ground below," Kade gave him a grim nod. "Where do you want me?"
Tegan glanced over at Alex, who was talking in low, praising tones to Luna. "Stay here and make sure your female is safe. That's more important than anything else you can do, yeah?" Kade considered the comment, feeling duty spurring him to say that the mission was the most important thing right now. That nothing mattered more than his pledge to the Order, his brethren, and their goals. Part of him believed that. Part of him knew without the shadow of a doubt that he would give his life for any one of the warriors, just as they would lay down their lives for him. They were family, as tight as any bond he'd ever known.
But Alex was something even more.
She owned his heart now. He wouldn't even attempt to deny that. And he knew that when Tegan spoke about her, the mated Gen One warrior drew from a point of personal experience, as well.
"Yeah," Kade admitted to him. "Without Alex … ah, Christ. Without her, nothing else would matter." Tegan nodded, mouth pressed in a thin line. "Maybe you ought to make sure she knows that." He cuffed Kade on the shoulder, then gestured to the other warriors to fall in and begin the next leg of their pursuit. When Hunter had vaulted up to the next ledge and Tegan and Chase had dropped to the one below, Kade strode over to Alex.
"I guess the three of us make a pretty good team," he said, reaching out to scratch behind Luna's ears only because it distracted his hands from reaching for Alex instead.
She wrapped her arms around herself. "You're not going with the others?"
"Tegan wanted me to stay behind and look after you. He knows how much you mean to me, and he knows it would kill me if anything happened to you."
A small line formed between her brows as she looked at him. For the longest time, there was only silence between them. The quiet of falling snow and the faint cry of a wolf baying low in the distance. When Alex finally spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "I wanted to hate you. When I saw you in the woods, covered in blood–"
"Not me," he reminded her. "It wasn't me, Alex. It was Seth, not me." She nodded. "I know that. I believe you. But it was you I saw in that moment. It was you, Kade, seeming just as monstrous as the Rogues who killed my mom and Richie. I wanted to hate you in that moment … but I couldn't. Part of me refused to let go of you, even then, when you couldn't have seemed more hideous and evil to me. I still loved you."
He exhaled a relieved sigh and pulled her into his arms. "Alex … I'm so sorry for what you thought. For what you saw. I'm sorry for everything."
"That's what scared me the most, Kade. That I could love you even if you were a killer. Even if you were a monster, like…
"Like my brother," he answered softly. "I'm not him. I promise you that. You never have to be afraid of me. I love you, Alexandra. I always will."
Gingerly he took her beautiful face in his hands and kissed her. She felt so good in his arms, against his lips, he could have kissed her forever.
But behind them, Luna's throaty growl put Kade's combat instincts on high alert. He felt the slightest shift in the air as he drew away from Alex and moved her behind him on reflex-Just as a large, dark shape dropped out of the sky. Several yards away from them, the Ancient landed with fluid grace on his feet in the snow. Baring his teeth and enormous fangs, the deadly creature fixed his amber gaze on Kade and hissed with murderous intent.