Veil of Midnight (Chapter Two)
It was always like this for her – the aftermath of using her mind's crippling power.
Outside now, alone in the alley, she gulped in a few quick mouthfuls of air. The rush of oxygen cooled her burning throat, but it was all she could do not to double over from the rising pain that was coursing like a river of fire through her limbs and into the center of her being.
"Damn it," she muttered into the empty darkness, rocking a bit on her tall heels. Taking a few more deep breaths, she stared at the black pavement under her feet and focused simply on holding herself together.
Behind her came the swift, heavy shuffle of booted feet from out of the warehouse. The sound drew her head up sharply. Forced a look of cool apathy over the hot tightness in her face.
"Careful with him," she said, glancing at the slack bulk of the big, nearly unconscious male she'd disabled, and who was now being carried like felled game by the four guards working with her. "Where are his weapons?"
A black leather duffel bag came sailing at her with barely a warning, heaved toward her by Alexei, the appointed leader of tonight's detail. She didn't miss the smirk on his lean face as the heavy duffel full of metal crashed into her chest. The impact felt like the pounding of a thousand nails into her sensitive skin and muscles, but she caught the bag and swung the long strap up over her shoulder without so much as a grunt of discomfort.
But Lex knew. He knew her weakness, and he never let her forget it.
Unlike her, Alexei and her other companions were vampires – Breed, all of them. As was their captive, Renata had no doubt. She'd sensed as much when she'd first seen him in the club, a suspicion confirmed by the simple fact that she was able to take him down with her mind. Her pyschic ability was formidable, but not without its limitations. It only worked on the Breed; the more simplistic human brain cells were unaffected by the high-frequency blast she was able to mentally project with little more than a moment's concentration.
She herself was human, if born slightly different from basic Homo sapiens stock. To Lex and his kind, she was known as a Breedmate, one of a small number of human females born with unique extrasensory skills and the even rarer capability to successfully reproduce with those of the Breed. For women like Renata, ingesting Breed blood provided even greater strength. Longevity too. A Breedmate could live for some long centuries with regular feedings from a vampire's nourishing veins. Until two years ago, Renata had no idea why she was different from everyone else she knew, or where she might belong. Crossing paths with Sergei Yakut had quickly brought her up to speed. He was the reason that she and Lex and the others were on guard tonight, prowling the city and looking for the individual who'd been asking around for the reclusive Yakut. The Breed male Renata found at the jazz club had been so careless with his inquiries all night, she had to wonder if he was trying to provoke Sergei Yakut into coming to him. If so, the guy was either an idiot or suicidal, or some combination of both. She'd have her answer to that question soon enough.
Renata took her cell phone out of her pocket, flipped it open, and speed-dialed the first number on file. "Subject retrieved," she announced when the call connected. She gave their location, then snapped the phone closed and put it away. Glancing over to where Alexei and the other guards had paused with their limp captive, she said, "The car's on the way. Should be here in about two minutes."
"Drop this sack of shit," Lex ordered his men. They all released their grasps on the Breed male, and his body hit the asphalt with a jarring thud. Hands on his hips, fists framing his holstered pistol and a large hunting knife sheathed on his belt, Lex peered down into the unconscious face of the vampire at his feet. He pulled in a sharp, disapproving breath, then spat, narrowly missing the blade-sharp cheek below. The foamy white glob of his saliva landed with a wet splat on the dark pavement not an inch away from the man's blond head.
When Alexei glanced up again, there was a hard glint in his dark eyes. "Maybe we should kill him."
One of the other guards chuckled, but Renata knew that Lex wasn't joking. "Sergei said to bring him in."
Alexei scoffed. "And give his enemies another chance to take his head?"
"We don't know that this man had anything to do with the attack."
"Can we be certain he didn't?" Alexei turned to stare unblinkingly at Renata. "From now on, I trust no one. I would think you'd be as unlikely to risk his safety as I am."
"I follow orders," she replied. "Sergei said to find whoever was in town asking about him and bring him in for questioning. That's what I intend to do."
Lex's eyes narrowed under the severe brown slashes of his brows. "Fine," he said, his voice too calm, too level. "You're right, Renata. We have our orders. We'll bring him in, like you say. But what are we going to do while we wait out here for pickup?"
Renata stared at him, wondering where he was heading now. Lex strolled around to the side of the unconscious Breed male and gave an experimental jab of his boot into the unprotected ribs. There was no reaction at all. Only the soft rise and fall of the male's chest as he breathed.
Alexei peeled his lips back and grinned, jerking his chin toward the other men. "My boots are dirty. Maybe this useless baggage will clean them off while we wait, ah?"
At the encouraging chortles of his companions, Lex lifted one of his feet and let it hover over the unresponsive face of their captive.
"Lex – " Renata began, knowing he would ignore her if she tried to persuade him to stop. But it was at that precise moment that she noticed something strange about the blond male lying on the ground. His breathing was steady and shallow, his limbs unmoving, but his face…he was holding himself too still, even if he truly was unconscious. He wasn't.
In a split second of clarity, Renata realized without a shred of doubt that he was very much awake. Very much aware of everything that was happening.
Alexei chuckled now, lowering his leg as he started to bring the thick sole of his boot down onto the man's face. "Lex, wait! He's not – "
Nothing she could have said would have changed the resulting explosion of chaos.
Lex was still in motion as the man brought his hands up and caught him at the ankle. He clamped down and twisted hard, sending Lex flying off him and howling in agony on the ground nearby. Not a second passed before the man rolled up onto his feet, fluid and strong, like nothing Renata had ever seen in a fighter before.
And holy shit – he had Lex's pistol.
Renata dropped the cumbersome duffel and grappled for her own gun, concealed in a holster at her back. Her fingers were still sluggish from her earlier mental exertion, and one of the other guards responded before she could free her weapon. He squeezed off a hasty round, missing his target by half a foot.
And faster than any of them could track him, the former captive returned fire, putting a bullet squarely in the front of the guard's skull. One of Sergei Yakut's hand-picked, longest-serving bodyguards went down on the pavement in a lifeless heap. Oh, Jesus, Renata thought in mounting worry as the situation rapidly headed south. Could Alexei have been right? Was this Breed male the same assassin who had tried to strike here before?
"Who's next?" he asked, one foot planted on the center of Lex's spine while he coolly swung the pistol from the other two guards to Renata. "What, no takers now?"
"Kill this son of a bitch!" Lex roared, writhing like a trapped bug under the heavy heel that held him down. His cheek mashed against the pavement, fangs emerging in his rage, Lex threw a slivered glare at Renata and his men. "Blow his head off, goddamn it!"
Before the command was totally out of Alexei's mouth, he was yanked up onto his feet. He screamed as his weight shifted to his injured ankle, but it was the sudden presence of his own pistol nuzzled behind his ear that really made his amber eyes go wild with panic. His captor, on the other hand, was as calm and steady as could be.
Oh, sweet Mother Mary.
Just who the hell were they dealing with?
"You heard him," Lex's captor said. His voice was low and unrushed, his gaze piercing even in the dark. He stared straight at Renata. "Bring it on, if any of you are man enough. Then again, if you'd rather not see his brain splattered all over this building wall, then I suggest you drop your weapons. Down on the pavement, nice and easy."
Beside her in the alley, Renata registered the low grunts and snuffles of transformed Breed males. Individually, any one of the vampires was physically far stronger than she was; as a pair, they might be stronger than Lex's attacker, although neither of them seemed willing to find out. A soft clack of metal sounded as a weapon was placed carefully on the asphalt. That left only one guard on backup with her. A second later, he surrendered his gun too. Both vampires retreated a couple of slow paces, surrendering in wary silence.
And now Renata stood alone against this unexpected threat.
He gave her a half smile in acknowledgment, baring his teeth and the tips of his emerging fangs. He was angry; those lengthening canines were evidence of that. As was the amber light that was beginning to fill his eyes as they too began to transform with his Breed features. His smile broadened, twin dimples appearing beneath his razor-sharp cheekbones. "Looks like it's down to you and me, sweetheart. I'm not going to ask any more politely the longer you make me wait. Put your fucking gun down or I'll waste him."
Renata quickly considered her options – what few she had at the moment. Her body was still as raw as an exposed nerve, the aftershocks of her mental exertion still battering her, beating her down. She could attempt another assault on his mind, but she knew she was operating on fumes. Even if she hit him with all she had, she wouldn't be able to take him down again, and once she was spent to that degree, she would be of no use to anyone.
Her only other option was an equally large risk. Ordinarily she was a crack shot, reflex fast and sniper accurate, but she couldn't count on either skill when it would take a great deal of her focus just to command her limbs and fingers to work. No matter what she did, right now it seemed pretty slim odds that Alexei might come out of this in one piece. Hell, the chances of her or anyone else walking away from this situation were looking nil.
This Breed male was holding all the cards, and the look in his eyes as he watched, waited for her to decide her fate, seemed to say that he was very comfortable in his power position. He had Renata, Lex, and the rest of them right where he wanted them. But she'd be damned if she'd go down without a fight.
Renata inhaled to gather her resolve, then she brought her gun around and leveled it on him. Her arms screamed with the effort it took to hold them out and steady, but she sucked up the pain, pushed it aside.
She flipped off the gun's safety. "Release him. Now."
The muzzle of Lex's weapon remained jammed up tight behind his ear. "You don't actually think we're negotiating here, do you? Drop. Your. Weapon."
Renata had a clean shot, but so did he. And he had the added benefit of superhuman speed. He might be able to dodge her bullet since he'd easily see it coming. There was a fraction of a second delay between chambering rounds, even at her best time. That meant ample opportunity for him to open fire as well, whether he chose to shoot Lex first or after he took her out. In another second, they might all be eating lead. This man was Breed; with his accelerated metabolism and healing power, he stood a decent chance of surviving getting shot, but her? She was staring at certain death.
"You got a problem with me specifically, or is it him you really want to see dead tonight? Maybe you just hate anything with a dick. That it?"
Although he kept his aim locked, his tone was light, as if he were only toying with her. Not taking her seriously at all. The arrogant prick. She didn't answer, just cocked the pistol's hammer back and rested her index finger lightly on the trigger. "Let him go. We don't want any trouble from you."
"Too late for that, don't you think? All you're looking at is trouble now."
Renata didn't flinch. She didn't dare so much as blink for fear that this man would sense it as weakness and decide to act. Lex was shaking now, sweat pouring down his face. "Renata," he gasped, but whether he wanted to tell her to stand down or make her best move, she wasn't sure. "Renata…for fuck's sake…"
She kept a steady aim on Alexei's captor, her elbows locked, both hands gripped on her gun. A light summer breeze kicked up, and the soft gust of air raked over her hypersensitive skin like jagged shards of glass. In the distance she could hear the pop of fireworks from the finale of the weekend's festival, the muted explosions vibrating like thunder in her aching bones. Traffic buzzed and braked on the street outside the alley, vehicle engines throwing off a sickening melange of exhaust fumes, heated rubber, and burning oil.
"How long do you want to drag this out, sweetheart? Because I gotta tell you, patience isn't one of my virtues." His tone was casual, but the threat couldn't have been more dire. He brought the pistol's hammer back, prepared to bring the night to its bloody end. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't fill this asshole's brain with lead."
"Because he is my son." The low male voice came from halfway up the darkened alley. The words were devoid of emotion but ominous in their cadence and thickly accented with the cold rasp of Sergei Yakut's Siberian homeland.