Chasing the Shadows
Page 20

 Keri Arthur

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"So I should just sit around and do nothing?"
He clenched his fists, then flexed them when he realized what he was doing. “I'm not saying—"
"Yes, you are,” she bit back. “You don't want me using my talents if you're not there. You don't want me and Jake investigating without you coming along. So tell me, what else am I supposed to do?"
"What you're not supposed to do is run off and try some stupid stunt without me!” His voice had risen slightly, despite his efforts to keep calm. “Do you realize your actions have basically destroyed any chance we have of getting information from Dale's memories? Farmer made sure he blurred them into an indecipherable mess. If there was ever a chance of finding a clue, it's gone now." Tears touched her eyes and were just as quickly blinked away. He half reached out to comfort her, despite the fury that still chased through him, but she spun away, moving to the other side of the room.
"Don't,” she said flatly.
He raised an eyebrow, confused. “Don't what?"
"Don't touch me, don't kiss me. I won't be sidetracked, not this time." Exasperation rose. “I wasn't trying—"
"Like hell. It's a ploy you've used many times before when the conversation turns to a topic you don't like."
He stared at her for a minute then strode across to the refrigerator to get a drink himself—but something far stronger than a soda.
"I have no intention of sidetracking the conversation today, believe me.” He poured himself a bourbon and added a few ice cubes.
"At least we've reached agreement on something, then." He took a drink and turned to her again. “Farmer is a vampire,” he said, keeping his voice flat. “He's not a fledgling, and he could overpower you in a second flat. Especially when you've overextended your abilities, as you did today."
She returned his gaze defiantly. “Jasper took longer than a minute to overpower me, and I'd certainly extended my abilities that day."
Yes, she had. And she'd damn near died because of it. “It was nearing dawn when Jasper attacked. It had weakened him."
"Yet it still took the two of us to take him down.” She hesitated, glaring at him. “It was teamwork that killed Jasper that day. You do know what teamwork is, don't you?" He clenched the glass so hard his hand was shaking, and liquid splashed over his fingers. “Sarcasm will get you nowhere."
"Neither will trying to talk sanely and rationally on this matter, apparently."
"Damn it, are you trying to get yourself killed?” His voice rose several notches.
"Then why insist on joining me on Circle missions? You're not a killer, Nikki, and that is what I do. I kill. I murder them in cold blood, and then I walk away. Is that what you're so anxious to become a part of?" Her face paled, but her chin still rose. “If that's all you do, then why did you save my life in that old house near the park? We hadn't even met then, so I meant nothing to you. It would have been easy to kill Jasper if he'd been distracted by feeding off my body. And why did you agree to send Rachel to the Circle to see if she could be saved if all you ever do is kill the bad things and walk away?"
"Neither of those were exactly normal cases."
"How would I know when you won't even discuss what you do with me?"
"I have spent too many years in darkness. I don't want to bring that into what we have."
"All we have is great sex,” she shot back. “And you know what? It's a good foundation, but it's not enough to build a lasting relationship on. That takes trust, honesty and a willingness to compromise occasionally."
"So you're saying you don't trust me?"
"No, I'm saying you don't trust me . Nor are you honest with me. Not completely, not ever. And just where in hell have you met me halfway of late?"
"Just where in the hell have you met me halfway? This is a two-way street, Nikki. You can't keep demanding I consider your wants if you're not willing to do the same." She studied him for a moment, then looked away. “You know, Jake said much the same thing to me this afternoon."
Michael raised an eyebrow. That was surprising, given Jake was fiercely protective of Nikki. The two were more like father and daughter than boss and employee.
"And you're both right. To a degree, I am being unreasonable. But so are you." Which put them right back to square one. They were arguing in circles and getting nowhere. “Nikki—" She held up her hand. “For once, will you just shut up and listen to me?" He downed his drink and slammed the empty glass down on the nearby shelf. “Why should I, when you refuse to offer me the same courtesy?"
"I've heard all your arguments!” Anger sparked her eyes, roughened her voice. “That's all I ever hear whenever I bring this subject up. ‘What I do is too dangerous', or, ‘I don't want the darkness in my life to touch you', et cetera, et cetera. Well, guess what? The darkness is not just something you do, it's a part of who you are."
"A part that nearly killed you not so long ago.” And the nightmare of waking with her blood on his lips and her close to death was not something he wanted to relive.
"No buts, Nikki.” He was as aware of her fury as he was his own, despite the fact the link was still shut down tight. “You asked me to compromise? Fine. I will. Ask anything you like about Seline, the Circle, or my past, and I'll answer you. Just don't ask to accompany me on missions, because the answer is still no. It's far too dangerous for both of us.” If only because worry about her safety would take his attention from what he was supposed to do and possibly lead to mistakes. Or death.
"Damn it, I know I could never go on all your missions, but surely there are some—"
"There are none. Jasper is the least of the fiends that I have hunted, believe me."
"But I found Jasper and Cordell all by myself. Keeping me locked away from what you do is no guarantee that I'll keep safe."
"Maybe. But the chances of you remaining safe are a lot higher." She considered him for a moment. Something in her amber gaze sent a shiver through his soul. If he wasn't very careful, she'd walk away. The resolution was there in her eyes. "So, when you told me yesterday you'd consider the matter, it was nothing more than another lie,” she said softly.
"No, it wasn't. I did consider. I just didn't change my mind."
"So how is a willingness to share some of your history with me compromising? I thought that was something all couples did."
"Perhaps it is. Remember, I've never been part of a couple before."
"I was. You know, for all that Tommy tried to control my abilities—and by default, me—he let me in. I knew Tommy. Knew everything there was to know about him. There were no secrets between us." Her voice was still remote, flat. The chill running through him intensified. It wasn't supposed to be going like this. For the first time in his life, it felt like he was on a train running full bore out of control, and he didn't like the sensation one bit. “Tommy was only sixteen. He didn't have many years behind him to gather secrets."
"But he'd lived on the streets since he was eight. He'd seen the worst life could throw at someone that young. He was a thief, a prostitute, and in the end, a murderer. Yet he wasn't afraid to let me see the darkness in his soul. Why are you?"
"Right now, it's not the darkness in me that I fear might hurt you. It's the darkness in others.” Though that in itself wasn't entirely the truth. He would always fear the darkness in him. He knew what it— he—was capable of doing when that darkness was allowed free rein.
"I know that.” She hesitated, taking a sip of her drink. “And I've considered what I'd be stepping into, as you asked me to. I've thought about Jasper and Cordell and Farmer." The link between them was still shut, leaving him with no avenue to judge her thoughts beyond her expression, body language and the odd flicker of emotion that swirled between them. And those three things were scaring the hell out of him.
"And it strikes me that maybe I have something to offer this Circle of yours,” she continued softly. “You defeated Jasper and Cordell with my help, remember. You certainly wouldn't have found Dale or Anne Harris alive had it not been for my gifts. In cases like this, where there are lives at risk, I can help you." Yes, she could. There was no doubt about that. But the risks she'd be facing were enormous, and there was no way on Earth he'd place her safety on the line to save the life of another.
"Nikki, I love you—"
"That's not the damn point! I'm tired of only being told half-truths. I'm tired of having to fight for every bit of information about Seline and the Circle. But most of all, I'm tired of only being part-time."
"You're not—"
She made a chopping motion with her hand, spilling soda again. “I am. In the four months we've been living together, you've been away nearly two of those months. And half that time, you couldn't even remain in contact with me."
"You knew from the start that was a possibility."
She acknowledged his words with a nod. “What I didn't know was just how much I'd wanted a relationship like the one my parents had. They were equals in every sense of the word. All risks, all decisions, were shared. Granted, the risks in our case are way higher, but the fact is, we haven't got that sort of relationship, Michael. You order, I do. No discussion, end of story.” She hesitated and took a deep breath. “Well, it will be the end of the story, unless you're willing to change your stance a little." He stared at her. He couldn't do anything else when it felt like a fist of ice had formed around his heart and squeezed it tight. “That's blackmail.” Emotional blackmail.
"Maybe it is. Or maybe it's just self-preservation.” She shrugged. “Four months ago, you were willing to walk away from us because you truly believed I would be better off without you in my life. Well, I truly believe that unless you let me into your life—your whole life—you're going to destroy us both. And I won't let that happen. I'd rather walk away now."
Though her face was as impassive as ever, her dark amber eyes glittered with unshed tears. And determination. She would do this, of that he had no doubt.
He wouldn't give in to blackmail, but by the same token, he didn't want to lose her. She was his sunshine, his heart. His soul. If she walked away, he'd have nothing left but the darkness. But he had to keep on arguing, even though he sensed the futility. “Nikki, you can't possibly cope with what I have to deal with day in and day out."
"How do either of us know that unless you let me try? I'm not asking to be involved in every case—just some."
Some would lead to all, and they both knew it. “Even one might be one too many." The tears in her eyes threatened to well over. The fist around his heart clenched tighter, threatening to splinter it into a million jagged pieces.
"So you're not willing to even consider it?” she asked softly. No, he wasn't. God, he should have followed his instincts and just walked away four months ago ... but he hadn't. He'd let his heart rule his mind and, despite everything, he didn't regret it. “I'm not willing to lose you, either."
"Then where does that leave us?"
At an impasse. One that seemed to have no through tunnel. “I won't be blackmailed, Nikki.” The bitterness he was feeling, the anger at what she was trying to force, crept into his voice. And he knew that this might destroy them just as easily as anything else. A solitary tear broke the dam in her eyes and rolled down her cheek. He clenched his fist and stared at her, willing her to see what she was doing to them. Willing her to revoke her ultimatum and just let things be.
Neither moved. He wished he could read her thoughts, wished he could force the link open and taste the rainbow of her emotions. But he couldn't, simply because doing either would truly spell the end for them. After several seconds, she placed the soda on the coffee table and walked towards him. She stopped so close that all he could smell was cinnamon, vanilla and desire. Her gaze searched his, then she rose on her toes and brushed a kiss across his lips. It felt like he'd been touched by fire—a fire that seared down to his soul and set his body alight.
He groaned and clasped his arms around her, pulling her close. He deepened the kiss, tasting her mouth, her neck. She sighed, a sound that was more a groan, then her fingers were on his shirt, impatiently pulling it free of his jeans before tugging at the buttons. It was an urgency he understood only too well. He needed her in a way he'd never needed her before. Needed to taste and touch and feel her, imprint every pore of her in his mind. Needed to lose himself deep inside her. He pulled off her sweater, then nipped at the hard buds of her breasts through the lace of her bra. She shuddered, arching into him as her hand slipped down his stomach and undid his jeans. Too fast, he thought, as she touched him. But right then, he could no more stop himself than he could that runaway train.
He ripped loose her bra, then pushed down her jeans. She stepped free quickly, taking her panties with them. He kicked out of his jeans, then wrapped an arm around her waist and picked her up, kissing her hard as he carried her over to the table. He moved his mouth down the long line of her neck, kissing and nipping, blazing a trail downwards. His blood beat a tattoo of urgency through his body, and every muscle quivered with the need to sheath himself deep inside her. But not yet. Not just yet. He thrust his tongue into her moistness, tasting her, teasing her, until her breath began to quicken and the shudders took hold.Only then did he pull her close and thrust deep inside her. Her soft moan was a sound he echoed. He pushed harder, wanting, needing, to claim every inch of her. Her breathless cries washed across him, sharpening his urgency, urging him to greater heights. Her muscles contracted against him, enveloping him in heat, bringing him closer to the edge. He claimed her mouth and kissed her ferociously. Their tongues duelled, the rhythm resonant of his thrusting hips. The red tide rose, becoming a wall of pleasure he could not deny. His movements quickened. Her gasps reached a second crescendo, and her cries echoed in his ears as her body bucked against his. He came—a hot, torrential release whose force tore her name from his lips and sent his body rigid. This was more than just great sex. More than just love. It was a completeness. A wholeness. Surely she had to see that. He leaned against her, breathing in the warm scent of her and listening to the rapid pounding of their hearts. His body stirred.