A Taste of Midnight
If Reiver wanted problems to go away, they tended to disappear quickly. True to the origins of his name, he had long grown accustomed to taking whatever he wanted. No one refused him anything, and no one dared stand in his way. When fat bribes and illicit favors didn't suffice, Reiver had no qualms about resorting to less civilized tactics to ensure his interests were protected.
What might Reiver do if he suspected that his private discussion this evening had been overheard by the Breedmate with a longtime connection to the Order?
It wasn't a stretch to imagine. Bad enough that she'd dented his ego and topped it off with a physical insult in the middle of a crowded ballroom. If Reiver worried that she might know details of his current business dealings, Bran hated to think how his employer would go about securing her silence.
Bran despised the son of a bitch. He felt that contempt simmer through his veins and boil into his vision with amber fire as he watched Reiver come out of the mansion and make his way toward the waiting vehicle. It took some effort to tamp down hid ntamp dos hatred and school his features into a mask of professional calm before the other Breed male reached the car and opened the back passenger door.
He slid into the backseat, slamming the door behind him. "That uppity bitch better hope our paths never cross again. Be a shame to ruin such a pretty face, but damn if she's not begging for some hard discipline."
Bran grunted, his eyes narrowed on Reiver in the rearview. "Where to, boss?"
"The club," he snarled. But then the mansion's front door opened and out came the tall blonde and the mated couple who'd come to her defense inside. As they headed for the sea of luxury vehicles parked along the wide driveway, Reiver's seething gaze followed her. "Yes, that's a female in need of a firm hand. Among other things."
Reiver chuckled darkly and Bran's hands tightened to a death grip on the wheel. It was all he could do to resist the urge to reach behind him and smash the other male's face into the bulletproof glass of the back window.
But he had to play it cool.
He hadn't come this far, worked this hard to win Reiver's trust, only to lose it now.
As Bran stepped on the gas and the Rolls eased into motion, Reiver settled back against the leather seat. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a haughty female. Even less ones who don't know their place." Demanding eyes met Bran's gaze in the mirror. "I want you to find out all you can about that widow of the Order. Report back to me on everything you discover."
Bran gave an obedient nod, then went back to studying the night road ahead.
He already knew plenty about the woman.
But that was a long time ago-centuries, in fact. Back in a different time, when he was a different man.
And before the beautiful Danish Breedmate had given her heart to his best friend, Conlan of the clan MacConn.
Danika hadn't gone to the party looking to make new friends, but she surely hadn't expected to have a one-on-one clash with the Breed's most feared crime boss in Edinburgh.
Not that she'd lost any sleep over her run-in with Reiver the night before, despite the terror Emma and James had tried to instill in her after they'd left the Darkhaven gathering. According to them, Reiver's dirty business dealings began a few hundred years ago on the northern border marches, where he acquired livestock, lands, and loyalty at the end of his sword.
Now it was payoffs and personal favors that allowed him the freedom to do whatever he pleased. That and his reputation as a man few, if any, dared to cross.
Danika was more offended by Reiver than afraid.
And she couldn't dismiss the troubling conversation she'd overheard. Ler"zive cargo shipments arriving any day now. Whispered requests for exotic offerings that would command hefty prices and ignite the hunger of Reiver's lascivious society friends.
The very idea chilled her to her marrow.
Although it was forbidden by Breed law, Reiver wouldn't be the first of their kind to peddle humans as if they were nothing more than cattle meant for slaughter. Skin traders were a despicable scourge, usually ranking among the lowest of the low in Breed society. Base street scum like that generally didn't stay in business for very long.
But if someone with Reiver's reputed power and connections had decided to deal in mortal suffering and death, how many innocent lives would he be allowed to steal and destroy before someone had the courage to take him down?
It was that disturbing thought that had Danika dialing a scrambled phone number in the States while she sat alone inside an Edinburgh coffee shop the next morning.
"Gideon, it's Danika," she told the Breed warrior on the other end of the line, in Boston.
"Hey," he replied. The British-born vampire ran the command center of the Order's compound. "You all right? You need anything? I hope things are good in Denmark."
Normally quick with wry humor, today Gideon seemed cautious, an odd intensity edging his voice. "I'm fine," she said. "Everything's fine. And I'm in Scotland, actually. I decided it might be nice to spend the holidays here in Edinburgh with Connor."
"Ah. That's good." Relief in his answering exhalation. "How is the little guy?"
She couldn't help smiling when she thought of her sweet baby boy, back at the cottage with Emma this morning while Danika ran daytime errands in the city. Her son was Breed; for him and the rest of his kind, sunlight was a deadly threat. "Connor's great. Getting bigger all the time. He's so much like his father already. Calm and good-natured. I'm blessed to have him."
"It's good to hear you're both okay." There was a question in the warrior's slight pause now. "But that's not why you called, is it?"
"No," she admitted. As a fresh wave of customers strolled in to place their orders, Danika got up from her table and walked outside for a little privacy. "Do you know anything about a vampire from the Edinburgh area named Reiver?"
"Let me check the IID." The clack of a keyboard sounded in the background as Gideon tapped into the Breed's international identification database. "Not much on record. Looks like he's been around since the 1700s. Currently holds several properties in the Highlands and a handful of businesses in and around Edinburgh."
"What kind of businesses?" She crossed the street and headed for the car lent to her for the day by Conlan's kin. "Anything out of the ordinary?"
"Import/export companies, couple of antiques shops. And a private gentleman's club on South Bridge. Appears the place has been registered to him for the past century and a half."
She knew that area, a historically notorious part of the Old Town now clogged with tourist shops and pubs. She was only a few blocks away. Danika got into the car and turned the key. "Do you have the name and address of that club, Gideon?"
His answer came in the form of a prolonged silence.
Then: "What's this really about, Danika? You're not being straight with me."
She told him about the incident at the party last night, including the snippet of conversation she'd overheard. "I can't be sure, but I think he was talking about human cargo, Gideon."
"Jesus," the warrior hissed on the other end of the line. "And you put yourself within arm's length of this guy? I don't need to tell you what Conlan would say about that-"
"Con's gone. And I'm fine. I just wanted to make you and the rest of the Order aware of what happened."
"You did the right thing," he told her. "Now do us all a favor and steer clear of the whole situation. We'll take a closer look at Reiver. Don't mention this to anyone-not even the Enforcement Agency. Shit, especially them. The way things are going around here right now, we have to assume that no one can be trusted."
"I'm not sure how it could get worse, unfortunately." The uncharacteristically grave edge to Gideon's voice had taken on an even darker tone. Although the time she'd been away from the Order had kept her removed from their day-to-day operations, she was still in touch with her old friends and was aware of the war they'd been embroiled in with a powerful enemy named Dragos. The fact that Gideon was unable to make light of that battle now, even to dismiss some of her worry, could only mean bad news. "The compound's location has been compromised. We're scrambling for temporary headquarters, but the whole plan got more complicated yesterday when Dante and Tess's baby arrived ahead of schedule."
Danika wanted to be happy for Dante and his Breedmate, whom she had yet to meet, but she'd been a part of the Order long enough to understand that a newborn was both a blessing and a burden to a group of warriors who lived-and sometimes died-to make the world a better place.
"As if that wasn't enough," Gideon went on, "one of our own is AWOL. Chase disappeared the other night. Based on the way he's been acting lately, we're all dreading that we've lost him to Bloodlust."
"I'm sorry," she said. Of all the warriors, she never would have guessed the most rigid, by-the-book enforcer of Breed law would be the one to fall victim to an irreversible blood addiction.
In light of everything the Order was dealing with now, she regretted that she'd called to trouble them with her suspicions about a petty gworut a peangster like Reiver. "I wish I were there with you all, Gideon. I wish there was something more I could do."
"Don't worry about us. You take care of you, understand?" She heard him typing something more on the keyboard in his tech lab. "You want me to send someone your way? Reichen's in Europe on a mission, but you say the word and I know Lucan will pull him-"
"No," she said as she turned the corner from cobbled High Street and slowly made her way along the hodgepodge collection of Victorian-era brick buildings and modern storefronts that lined the South Bridge. "It's not necessary, Gideon. I'm perfectly fine. I shouldn't have bothered you."
"No bother, Danika. You're kin, always will be. We all feel that way."
"Thank you," she replied, warmed by the thought. "I have to go now."
"Keep out of trouble," he cautioned grimly. "And you get in touch ASAP if you need anything at all. Right?"
"Yeah. I will." She told him good-bye and ended the call just as the car's GPS announced that she had reached her destination.
Although Gideon hadn't spoken the address when she'd asked him for it, his mind had given up the answer to her ESP talent. The building that housed Reiver's club had no signage, only a bloodred door with a brass wolf's-head knocker.
Danika drove around to a side street where she could park, then walked back to have a closer look. She shouldn't have been tempted to try the front door, but a tentative squeeze of the cold metal latch was too much to resist.
The building was unlocked. Strange. Unless Reiver's business encouraged straying visitors to enter. She eased the heavy door open and walked into the dim vestibule. Interior shutters blocked the daylight from outside as she closed the door behind her, the soft glow of a fluted wall sconce the only illumination inside. She didn't bother to call into the gloom to see if anyone was there. All she wanted was a quick look, something to either confirm her suspicions about Reiver or dismiss them.
She ventured farther inside and tried one of the interior doors toward the rear of the vestibule. It was shut tight, bolted. Another door appeared to lead to a stairwell, but it too was locked. So much for a quick look around.
Danika released a pent-up breath but sucked it short when movement sounded from somewhere inside the building.
She wasn't alone here.
She pivoted and raced back to the front door. It was locked now. She struggled with the latch, but it wouldn't budge no matter how hard she tried. "Damn it!"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Danika wheeled around on a gasp.
It was him.
Not Reiver, but his menacing bodyguard with the mane of shaggy brown hair and the savagely scarred face. Gone was the dark suit and weaponry. Now he stood before her in nothing but loose jeans and bare feet, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed. It jolted her, seeing his naked, muscled chest and strong arms. Breed dermaglyphs tracked across his torso and over his bulky shoulders in swirling arcs and flourishes. As he moved toward her, the color of those genetic skin markings deepened from the golden tone of his flesh to dark shades that broadcast his displeasure.
His overlong hair drooped low into his eyes, but she didn't need to see his narrowed gaze to know that it was fixed on her in growing, dangerous anger. She glanced away from him, throwing an anxious look at the locked door behind her.
"You don't belong here, lass."
Maybe it was the fact that he was out of her line of sight in that moment, but when he spoke just then-when he called her lass-she realized she knew that gravel-and-velvet voice. She'd heard it in her head at the party, when he'd sent a chiding thought her way for eavesdropping on Reiver. Yet he hadn't outed her to him when he had every chance to do so.
And there was something else familiar about him, she realized now.
Something that spoke to her from a distant yet undeniable place.
She looked at him again, trying to see past the bearded jaw and battle-scarred face that hid behind the thick fall of his hair. "Do I know you?"
His curt answer should have been enough to convince her. Instead it only made her study him more. She stared at him, trying to make sense of what her instincts were telling her. "Mal&nbsp;...&nbsp;?"
The hard line of his mouth pressed flat, unreadable. "My name is Brannoc."