Reiver grunted, toying with a lock of the brunette's long hair. "There was a house fire reported on the MacConn lands tonight. Packard and Kerr haven't come back."
"They're dead," Mal replied flatly. "By the time I got there, things were already going south. The woman wasn't about to go down easy. Turns out she had a child to protect too. She was putting up a hell of a fight. It was getting messy."
He didn't have to fake the bitterness of his report. It echoed a similar one that had occurred seven months earlier, in the filthy hovel of a pimp's dank flat. Only Malcolm hadn't reached that altercation in time to make a difference.
He muzzled his hatred and channeled it into a mask of cold indifference. "Packard and Kerr were botching your orders. I had no choice but to finish things as cleanly as possible and obliterate the evidence."
"The Breedmate and her child?"
Malcolm shrugged, nonchalant. "As was your concern, she would've been a persistent problem. So I made sure the situation was snuffed out permanently. Packard and Kerr were collateral damage."
Reiver's dark brows lifted as he considered the account. Then he chuckled darkly and got up from the sofa, bringing his pair of human playthings along with him. He walked over to Malcolm and cuffed hi Sandckls shoulder. "Good work, Bran. No doubt you've worked up an appetite taking care of so much important business for me." Reiver shoved the blonde at him. "She's yours to do with what you will. Never let it be said I don't reward my loyal hounds with a juicy bone when they've earned it."
Malcolm caught the woman as she stumbled into him, dazed and unsteady from her service tonight. She reeked of liquor and narcotics, sex and blood loss. Mal's stomach recoiled, but his revulsion centered on the vampire who watched him closely, waiting to see how Malcolm would respond.
He had no thirst that needed slaking in this place, least of all when it would come from Reiver's leavings. But in seven months of indenture to his vow of vengeance, he'd passed worse tests than this. He'd be damned if he failed now, when Danika and her son were in his keeping, their lives in his hands.
It was rage for what Reiver had ordered tonight that made Mal's hands rougher than intended on the whore tossed at him. It was thoughts of Danika, the impulse he'd felt to pierce her pretty, unspoiled throat and bind her to him, that brought his fangs out to their full, razor-sharp length.
And it was stone-cold determination-a chill and hollow resolve-that made him latch on to the human's neck and swallow gulp after gulp of her fouled blood while Reiver held his gaze, chuckling with sick amusement.
Mal drank until Reiver was gone. Only then did he set the woman away from him, a sweep of his tongue sealing the wounds he'd made before he eased her down onto the sofa, where she fell into a hard sleep.
He wiped the back of his hand across his face, cursing a string of crude Gaelic between his gritted teeth and fangs. The taste in his mouth was rank, bitter. He spat some of it out, startled to hear a throat clear behind him.
Malcolm wheeled around to find Thane in the room with him. "What the fuck are you looking at?"
The black-haired vampire glanced from the limp form of the human female, back to Malcolm. "Don't mean to interrupt, but we've got a couple of patrons causing problems with some of the girls on the main floor. Slapping them around, getting too rough. I told the boss but he says he ain't running a public relations firm in here."
"Yeah?" Mal countered, still vibrating with unvented violence. "What are you telling me for?"
Thane lifted one of his massive shoulders in a vague shrug. "Boss said he doesn't want to be bothered with club issues tonight, so I was thinking I'd go down and dole out some etiquette lessons to the assholes. Wondered if you might feel like joining me."
Mal narrowed a look on the guard, trying to get a read on him. He didn't know if this was yet another test of Reiver's making or some trap of Thane's own. Somehow, he didn't think so. And at that moment, he didn't care.
"Let's go," he snarled, leading the way.
In the hour before dawn, Malcolm arrived back at the castle. Danika was dozing with little Connor in her arms, nestled together in a large, overstuffed chair in the great hall on the first floor. She woke when Mal entered, heard his booted footsteps, his long-legged stride, coming up the short flight of the stairwell from the tower house's entrance on ground level.
He paused in the arched entryway, his dark brows furrowing as his eyes lit on her and her sleeping son. "After the way we left things between us, I half expected you to be gone when I got here," he murmured.
His face looked so weary and grim, his expression so bleakly tormented, she had no choice but to ask. "Expected, or hoped?"
A quiet scoff, then a slow shake of his head. "Both, maybe."
He started walking farther up the stairwell.
"Mal, wait." She tucked Connor into a secure cocoon of blankets and pillows on the chair, then went to follow Malcolm. "Where are you going?"
His deep voice rumbled from the floor above. "To wash off the stink of Reiver's club."
By the time she reached him, he was already in the master bedroom, already stripping off his weapons and clothing. In moments he was naked, gloriously so. Thick muscle rippled as he strode across the floor toward the adjacent bathroom. Danika reached for his hand, forcing him to pause. The copper tang of human blood was ripe on him.
"You've been feeding tonight." She looked at his fisted hand, so large and powerful, heavy in her grasp. The knuckles were tinted dark with bruises, recent contusions not quite healed over. "You've been fighting. What else did you do tonight?"
He stared at her for a long minute, then drew his hand out of her hold and raked his battered fingers through his hair. "It's a job, Dani. Don't make me explain how I have to do it."
As if that was all he needed to say, he stalked into the bathroom and flipped on the shower. He stepped under the spray, began a vigorous scrub of his body.
She watched him for a moment, stung by his dismissal. And more than that, she worried for what his need to avenge his loss was doing to him. She dreaded what it might cost him.
"I think I have a right to be concerned about you, Mal. It's not as if we're strangers, after all." He didn't answer her, just kept up his furious scouring of his skin. He shampooed his dark hair with equal anger, then doused the suds from his head and body under the steaming hot water. "I care about you, Malcolm. I'm afraid for you."
"Don't be." His eyes blazed as he cut off the shower and pulled a towel off the wall hook outside the tiled alcove. "If you want to fear something, be afraid for yourself if Reiver realizes what I've done. Now more than ever, I need to bring that bastard down."
She shook her head, understanding only in that moment how consumed he was with the hatred he felt for Reiver. "This quest for revenge is destroying you, Mal, not him. How long can you brush up against evil and not come away stained with it yourself?"
"My problem. Not yours." He dried off hastily, then tossed the towel aside to step past her. "Don't worry about my life when you have your own and your child's to think about."
"You arrogant jackass." She glared at him, hating him for his self-sacrifice as much as she loved him for it. Oh, God. Yes, loved him. Some part of her probably always had. "There was a time I considered you among my dearest friends, Malcolm MacBain. And now-"
"Now what?" His voice shook with a tightly leashed rage as he wheeled on her, eyes blazing. "We had sex, Dani. Great sex, I'll grant you, but your timing sucks. My life is in motion. I'm on this path, and there's too damned much at stake here. I won't put you any closer to the fire than you already are."
"And I can't stand by and watch you burn." She swallowed past the icy clump of lead that sat in her throat. The feeling sank as she stared up at him, the cold settling heavily on her heart. "I've lost one man I loved, Malcolm. I can't put myself through that kind of pain again."
Only then did his face lose some of its hard line and vicious tension. A muscle ticked wildly in the grizzled side of his jaw, and now his eyes smoldered with a darker, less terrifying fury. "Danika, I …" He scowled abruptly, blew out a raw curse. When he reached out to her, his hand shook a little. His fingers found her cheek with aching tenderness, curved around gently to cup the back of her neck. He brought her to him, placed a heartbreaking kiss to her lips.
She melted into him despite the hurt and anger that tore at her inside. His embrace was firm and warm, his mouth a soothing balm when all she wanted to do was rage at him, demand things she had no right to expect from him.
His fangs grazed her lightly as he let his mouth drift away from hers, then lower, to the sensitive skin of her throat. She held her breath with a needful anticipation, her veins calling to him, hearing his own heartbeat-his unspoken thoughts-echoing through every electrified nerve ending in her body. Her head tilted as though pulled on invisible strings, granting him access to the throbbing of her pulse. He kissed her there, tender and sweet. Teased the delicate spot with his tongue and teeth and fangs. A moan escaped him then, guttural with denial.
"I can't," he murmured against her lips. "I won't turn the mistakes I've made with you into something irreparable, Dani." He drew back, pressed his forehead to hers as he held her against his naked body. "Time was never on our side, was it? Fate gives us nothing more than a taste of what might have been."
She couldn't speak. Couldn't deny him as he kissed her once more and led her toward the bed. They made love in a breathless tangle, no promises or denials. No words at all. Only passion.
Danika Sstiem" wept for the pleasure he gave her, and for the inescapable fact that these would be the last moments they had together.
Because she'd meant what she told him: She could not stand by and watch his hatred for Reiver destroy him. Her heart couldn't bear another loss.
So as he slept beside her in a heavy doze, Danika slipped out of bed to make a cowardly call on his cell phone from downstairs. "Gideon," she whispered when the scrambled number in Boston connected. "I need to get out of Scotland, and I need the Order's help."
It was harder than he cared to admit, leaving Danika that evening at sundown so he could be back at the club before Reiver showed up and wondered where his suddenly straying "Brandogge" had been all day. Malcolm bristled at the role he'd been forced to play. His collar was beginning to chafe-all the more so when he couldn't shake the feeling that it was costing him something he hadn't expected to crave so deeply.
Saying good-bye to her a couple of hours ago had a queer feeling of finality to it. Her kiss had been too resigned. Her embrace had been too tender, too lacking in demand.
He was losing her.
Hell, he'd practically pushed her away himself.
It should have come as a relief in many ways. Romantic entanglement was the dead last thing he needed. He'd been so careful to avoid even casual dalliances since he'd buried his innocent mate and unborn child. Months of work hammering the molten iron of his grief and rage into a resolve made of cold, unbreakable steel.
He'd had it all under his control. Until three nights ago, when he'd chanced to spot the pale, beautiful light that was Danika MacConn, standing mere yards away from him at the Darkhaven party. If only he hadn't seen her. If only he hadn't made it his mission to follow her all night with his gaze, torn between wanting to avoid her notice and wanting nothing more than to place himself in front of her and see if she would remember him. If she would know him, through the mask of his scars and the shield of his false name.
Calling her out that night through his knowledge of her talent had been a reckless move. An arrogant one that he'd known, even then, he would be unable to call back.
Now it was much too late to wish he'd kept his distance.
Too late to think he could go back to what things were like before she arrived in Scotland.
Too late to try to convince himself that he didn't care for Danika … that he couldn't possibly have lost his heart to her all over again.
He loved her.
There was a part of him that always had.
The realization hit him with such staggering force, it was all he could do not to storm out of Reiver's damnable club and tell D V>Thanika exactly how he felt about her. Words he should have given her already today, when she was kissing him good-bye and he was trying to convince himself that he couldn't keep her. That it wasn't killing something inside of him to consider what he might be throwing away with Dani by holding on so tightly to the need to avenge his dead.
Malcolm cursed roundly and sent his fist into the side of a priceless Roman urn in one of the club's private salons. The ancient objet d'art exploded, shattering into a thousand tiny airborne shards.
"That's gonna cost you heavily with the boss."
Thane chuckled from behind him, and at the sight of the other guard, Malcolm lost it. He flew at the vampire on a roar, fangs erupting in his rage. In truth, no one was more deserving of his fury than himself, but he was ripe for a fight and Thane was the closest target. Besides, the son of a bitch had been giving him about a hundred good reasons lately to kick his ass. Mal snarled with violent intent. "You picked the wrong damn time to be in my face, Thane."
"I didn't come in here to pick a fight with you," he snapped back. "I came to tell you Reiver's drafted us as security for tonight's gathering."
Malcolm narrowed a glare on him. "What gathering?"READ MORE >>