A Taste of Midnight
Bran might have questioned the cryptic response, but all his focus was zeroed in on one task now. He stalked toward the club's security control room, casting a quick look behind him as he neared the back exit. The hallway was empty. Thane was gone.
Bran punched open the door and stepped into the bracing wintry chill outside. Too risky to take one of Reiver's fleet vehicles and hope it wouldn't be missed. Besides, he was Breed. He'd get where he was going even faster on foot.
He summoned the speed of his preternatural genetics and vanished into the night.
Danika got up from the rocking chair and gently placed little Connor into the nest of blankets in his crib, careful not to wake him. His face was as innocent as a cherub's as he slept, sated from his evening feeding at her wrist. She savored these tender moments with her baby.
Watching the small bundle nestled in the center of the delicate crib, it was easy to forget how fierce and unbreakable he'd be one day. How bold and courageous his father's noble Breed blood would make him. In just a few years' time, by the age of five or six, Connor wouldwha be old enough to hunt his own prey. A short decade more and he would be full grown, lethally so, a Breed male ready to make his mark on the world. Would he accept a civilian life, perhaps find a Breedmate to give him sons of his own and centuries of peaceful existence? Or would he follow in his father's footsteps, pledging himself to a greater purpose?
In her heart, Danika knew the answer to those questions, difficult as it was to accept. Each time Connor grasped her finger in his tight little fist, his innocent eyes far too knowing, too fathomless for a mother's peace of mind, she knew. Her son would be a warrior, like his father.
And it killed something inside her to think she might lose him one day too.
With a soft kiss to Connor's velvety head, Danika drew away from the crib to let him sleep. She retrieved her empty tea mug from the table beside the rocking chair, then clicked off the bureau lamp on her way out of the bedroom, her gaze lingering on her child as she quietly closed the door.
Even before she turned around, she realized she and Connor weren't alone anymore.
"Nice little place," said one of the two vampires who stood inside the living area of the cottage. "Cozy, ain't it, Kerr?"
"Secluded too," murmured his companion with a leer that threatened more than simple violence.
Her fingers tightened around the earthenware mug in her hands. There was no need to wonder how the pair got in. Locked doors were nothing but a moment's mental effort for a Breed vampire who wanted something on the other side. As for the two thugs who dripped melting snow from their boots and dark menace from their every pore, there was no doubt where they'd come from.
For what wasn't the first time that day, Danika regretted her visit to his private club. She was still sick to have discovered that someone she once knew-someone she had cared for-was part of a despicable organization like Reiver's. Whatever Malcolm MacBain was calling himself now, and for whatever reason he seemed determined to deny his true identity, Danika hadn't been fooled. Not even the scars that marred his face had been enough to convince her that he was someone other than Mal. But knowing his name and face from the past was not the same thing as knowing the man he'd become.
And as she stood before these two terrifying intruders now, part of her wondered if it was Reiver who'd sent them or his loyal guard dog back at the club, who'd demanded her silence with a cold fury that had left her shaken to her core.
"What do you want?" she asked them, lifting her chin to face this threat, even though her legs felt like sand beneath her.
"Mr. Reiver asked us to come and see you," said the one named Kerr. His big hands were gloved in black leather, sinister mitts that looked large enough to crush her skull. "He wants you to know there's a storm could be heading your way. He thinks it best if you don't stick around to see it arrive."
"Is that right?" As the pair of them stalked toward her, Danika edged away from the bedroom door where Connor slept. Whatever might happen to her tonight, she didn't want to give them any reason to search the rest of the tiny cottage.
"Mr. Reiver's of the mind that Edinburgh's going to prove inhospitable to you if you stay any longer." As Kerr spoke, the other thug aligned himself with the path she was subtly taking, moving so that he could block her if she had thoughts of making a break. "My associate Mr. Packard and I are here to help you. Come with us now, and you can avoid what's sure to be a very bad situation."
"A painful situation," added the second vampire, his lips splitting in a chilling grin, baring sharp white fangs.
Their minds were black with awful intentions, thoughts so brutal she found it hard to breathe as she watched them close in further. She didn't need her extrasensory talent to understand that the odds of her surviving this confrontation weren't good. Even if she agreed to go with them and swore never to speak Reiver's name to another living soul, she knew the trip would end with her death.
The idea of Connor being left without his only parent or, worse, dragged into this impossible scenario along with her was more than she could bear. She flung the heavy mug at Packard and bolted into action in the instant his attention was diverted.
The kitchen was only a few feet away, but she barely made it there before Kerr was on her with hard, punishing hands. She fought his bruising hold, crying out as her skull knocked sharply against the unforgiving edge of the stove. Her arms swung out, hands flailing, scrabbling and searching for any means of defense.
As she struggled with Kerr, Packard came at her now too. He tossed off his companion with an otherworldly growl. "Leave her to me," he snarled, fangs dripping saliva, eyes wild with amber fury.
Danika fumbled in a blind panic, hissing when her fingers brushed the hot copper of the teakettle. It was heavy with water on the stove, still scalding from the tea she'd made a short while ago. She grabbed the handle and swung it at Packard with every ounce of strength she possessed.
He howled when the pot connected with the side of his head. Hot water exploded from out of the spout and the opened lid, dousing his face and neck. A nasty gash bled at his temple. He wiped it with his fingertips, then pierced her with a murderous glower. "You'll pay for that in shredded pieces, bitch."
Danika backed away in utter terror. She had nowhere to go, nothing else to use against them. No hope of anyone hearing her screams.
Packard wheeled on her like an animal moving in for the kill. He lunged, and Danika closed her eyes. She waited to feel his huge body collide with her, but in the next instant the entire cottage seemed to erupt into total chaos.
Cold air swept in from outside in a frigid gust. And with it came a dark shape, moving so fast she could hardly register his movements.
It was Malcolm.
"ka watched in stunned disbelief as he leapt on Packard and slashed the vampire's throat open with the edge of a wicked blade.
The guard went down in a bleeding heap, and then it was Kerr who felt Mal's fury. The fight was swift and brutal, fists and knives and flashing, deadly fangs. When it ended, Malcolm's breath was sawing from between his lips, his eyes throwing off fierce sparks as he let go of Kerr's dead bulk and stepped over the body like forgotten rubbish.
"Malcolm," Danika whispered, aware only then of the shudders that were racking her from head to toe where she stood.
In the hard, heavy silence that followed, a muffled cry rose up from behind the closed door of the bedroom.
Mal's wild gaze narrowed on her. "You have an infant?"
"My son, Connor." Her eyes were moist, her voice choked with fear for what might have happened to them. Might still, if the searing look Malcolm pierced her with was anything to go by.
He raked a hand over his scarred and grizzled jaw, then expelled a vivid curse. "Get the child, Dani. It's not safe for either one of you now."
* * *
Two of Reiver's guards were lying lifeless in pools of blood inside the cottage.
A widowed Breedmate with an infant son-the family of his one-time best friend and a member of the Order besides, for fuck's sake-were waiting in the dead men's car parked behind him near the end of the snowy driveway.
And in his hand, a locked-and-loaded pistol aimed at the front window of the small guest house several hundred feet away, its chamber ready to release a hail of rounds and ignite the stream of gas that was leaking from the pipe he'd disconnected on the stove.
He'd spent half a goddamn year serving a criminal he hated with every ounce of his being, hiding who he was, burying his past and the future yanked out of his grasp, all for one purpose: so he could prepare for the ideal moment when he could take Reiver and the rest of his untouchable cronies down in one fell swoop.
Only to risk throwing it all away, right here.
Malcolm MacBain exhaled a low oath in rusty Gaelic. Then he pulled the trigger and turned to stalk back to the idling car.
Glass shattered behind him. An answering vacuum sucked in some of the chill night air from around him as he walked, pulling with it a flurry of snowflakes that danced on the Highland breeze.
The world went quiet, but only for a second.
Then the cottage exploded and the ground beneath his boots shook with an earth-rattling boom.
Malcolm felt the destruction in his bones. He saw it reflected in the windshield of Reiver's fleet sedan, bright orange flames shooting skyward, the light from the blast illumingn=>ilating Danika's awestruck, horrified face behind the glass.
He slid into the driver's seat without comment and threw the car into a sharp reverse turn. As he roared away from the burning house, he felt Dani's eyes on him. She held her baby close to her breast, shielding his head protectively with her hand. "Malcolm, what have you done?"
"The only thing that could be done." He kept his focus on the dark road ahead, knowing they had to get where they were going before the fireworks brought all of Conlan's clan out to see what had occurred.
"Where are you taking us? Why don't you want Con's family to know what happened back there?"
He felt her ability prodding into his skull. He scoffed a rough curse and slanted a sharp look on her. "Stay out of my head, lass. Leave my damned thoughts alone."
"They're going to worry about me. I need to let them know that Connor and I are all right-"
"You'll do no such thing." His voice grated out of him, harsher than he intended. "What I did just now was buy you time. Time you'll need to get as far away from Scotland as you can. And it will all be for naught if anyone-even Conlan's kin-know that you and the baby are alive."
Danika was staring at him, shaking her head. "It's cruel to let them think anything else."
"Two of Reiver's worst enforcers are dead inside that blaze. He sent them to kill you, Dani. Don't think for a second he won't retaliate on you or the rest of the MacConns if he has even the slightest cause to suspect you might have walked away from this thing tonight."
He let her answering silence fill the quiet of the car as he drove deeper into the night, farther into the rolling hills and wilderness plains of the Highlands where he was born. "As of right now, you're dead, Danika. You have to trust me. It's the only way."
"Where will I go?"
"Somewhere he won't think to look for you."
She went quiet beside him again, murmuring soft words to her baby as the bundle in her arms began to fidget and fuss. Malcolm couldn't keep his gaze from straying to her now and then as the miles fell away behind them. She was lovely still, with her pale blond hair and smooth-as-cream skin.
Time had made him forget how regal yet feminine her Nordic features were, but seeing her now was like looking through a glass to all those years that had passed-the centuries, in fact. Danika MacConn's beauty hadn't faded even a little, despite the faint shadows riding under her eyes that hinted at how long she'd apparently gone without a fortifying taste of Breed blood.
He regretted the loss she'd suffered with Conlan's death. Losing one's blood-bonded mate was the worst kind of suffering. Con was the lucky one, relieved of the grief Danika had to carrnd had toy without him.
And watching her interact so tenderly with her baby son opened up a deeper ache inside Malcolm-the ache of a recent loss of his own. It was an anguish that had nearly destroyed him but now gave him reason to breathe. To have patience. To avenge.
The last thing he wanted was a vulnerable female and baby in his care. All the worse that it should be this female, at this time&nbsp;...&nbsp;in this place.
Steeling himself to the consequences of his actions that night, Malcolm turned the sedan onto a rambling path that could hardly be called a road. They bumped and jostled through a thick heath, following the line of an old cow fence of tumbledown stones. The fortress dominated the vista up ahead, looming as dark as pitch against the wintry night sky.
Danika leaned forward in her seat, peering out the windshield. "I know this place," she murmured softly.
"Aye," he agreed. "You should know it well enough, I reckon."
She was quiet for a long moment, staring straight ahead as he slowed to a stop in front of it. "This is the castle where Conlan first asked me to be his mate." Danika's face glowed milky white in the lights of the dashboard as she turned to look at him now. "Malcolm&nbsp;...&nbsp;this is your castle."
The fifteenth-century stone tower house had been modernized extensively inside. Cold gray stone walls had been coated with white plaster and adorned with contemporary paintings and black-and-white art photographs of the surrounding Highlands. Roughhewn plank floors were now gleaming hardwood, warmed by thick wool rugs. In place of tallow candles and mounted torches spewing soot and smoke from their open flames, Mal had turned on beautiful lamps to chase away the shadows of the castle's interior.