Sloane chuckled. “We’ll find her. The employee who let her in isn’t cooperating, but we saw the woman’s hands on the feed. She’s got tats all over her. Won’t take long to ID the bitch just based on the markings we recovered from the video. Already got some of my men working on that. I’ll be joining up with them as soon as the sun sets. You and your team care to lend a hand on this tonight?”
“Can’t,” he blurted. “We’ve got a…got a lead on another Rogue’s nest down in Lambeth that bears looking into. Once my squad wraps up, I can send them your way.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. We’ve got this one covered.” Sloane chuckled. “I can think of worse things than conducting body scans of the females working the area tattoo shops. You go have fun with your Rogue hunt. I’ll be in touch if we shake anything loose tonight.”
Sloane hung up, and Mathias stood there for a long moment, staring at the reflection of his scowling face in the mirror.
The face of a man who had just lied to an old friend, and who was about to defy his pledge to the Order by sending his team of warriors on a wild goose chase down in Lambeth, if only to give Mathias time enough to warn Nova that whatever her secrets were, they were about to catch up with her.
He wasted no time in seeking her out.
With mission directives given to his team to flush out a warehouse he knew would yield nothing, Mathias himself took off for Southwark the moment the sun dipped below the horizon.
When his street side surveillance of Ozzy’s shop showed Nova’s absence in the studio that evening, Mathias took a chance that he might find her in the apartment she lived in on the third floor.
He entered through the back of the old brick building, mentally flipping the lock with an ease all of the Breed possessed. A rear stairwell climbed up from the ground level. Mathias ascended to the top in the time it would take a mortal to blink.
Once he was standing in front of what had to be Nova’s apartment, he cooled his heels and let his knuckles fall against the unmarked door. He heard faint movement inside, bare feet padding over hardwood floors.
Nova’s voice sounded weary on the other side of the wood panel as she freed the deadbolt. “Eddie, you were just up here five minutes ago. Now, I told you, I’m not feeling well tonight, so, please, just let me–”
Her words cut short the instant she opened the door and saw Mathias standing there. What little color she had in her face in that moment drained away. She was dressed for a quiet night in, loose-fitting black sweats and a strappy black tank. Mathias didn’t know what was more appealing–her perky breasts zipped into last night’s tight black leather vest, or braless beneath the scrap of cotton that was all to prevent him now from taking them into his hands.
He cleared his throat, but couldn’t quite mask the emerging presence of his fangs. “I hope you don’t mind if I come in.”
Her chin hiked up. “Yes, actually, I bloody well do mi–hey!”
He stepped forward, taking hold of her upper arms as he strode inside. He steered her into the living area and closed the door behind him with a stern mental command.
When the deadbolt clicked back into place, Nova’s indigo-ringed, light blue eyes went from shock to outrage. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“That’s what I came to ask you,” he growled back at her. “Where were you this morning?”
She glared, but there was a guilty glint in her gaze. “I don’t answer to you.”
“Tonight you do, Nova. If you’re smart–and I know you are–you’ll tell me everything now. What happened the other night in Ozzy’s shop, why you went to the morgue this morning and why…all of it.”
She swallowed hard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Damn it, woman. Don’t lie to me. I’m not your enemy.”
“Yet,” she finished quietly. “I don’t even know you.”
He swore roundly. “Yes, you do, Nova. Do you think if I wanted to hurt you, or if I didn’t care what happens to you, I’d be standing here right now, asking you to trust me?”
“Why?” Her voice was so thin, he hardly heard it over the drumming of his pulse.
“Why do you care, Mathias?”
For a moment, he wasn’t sure how to answer that. He couldn’t point to any one reason that made sense to him, and yet there were a hundred things about this damaged, but resilient, woman that he wanted to understand. He only wanted her to give him that chance.
“I care, because I see a beautiful, strong young woman who’s hurting–badly–and I want to take some of that hurt away, if I can. I see a scared little girl behind all of your ink and metal and claws, and I want her to know that she can be safe.”
Tenderness shone in the soft blue of her eyes. Her answering scoff, however, was bitter. “I don’t need some goddamned white knight riding to my rescue, Mathias. I thought we already covered that.”
“Yeah, we did,” he said. “And now I’ve got the tattoo to prove it.”
She dipped her head, not quite in time to hide the sudden, slight curve of her lips. “I suppose you hate it.”
“Not at all.” He lifted her chin on the tips of his fingers. “If you didn’t want me playing gallant knight to your obstinate lady, then you shouldn’t have put Sir Galahad’s sword on my back.”
He expected her to smile, maybe even laugh. But instead a pained look crossed her lovely face. “I can’t do this.”
She reached up to draw his hand away from her, and that’s when he saw–really saw–the colorful design that covered the back of her right hand. The blue eye surrounded by elaborate swirls and flourishes had looked like some kind of hex symbol to him on first glance. Now, he saw something else hidden within the mark.
“Jesus Christ.” He grabbed her wrist to hold her steady while he took a closer look. “You have the same mark as the dead men. I can see the scarab. Holy fuck, you tried to bury it under this other design, but it’s there.”
Fury and confusion sparked in him like a match struck against dry tinder. Mathias felt his gaze heat as the amber light of his anger ignited in the green of his irises. “Are you one of them, Nova?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Did you kill them?”
“God, no!” She moaned then, a terrified sound. The sound of an animal caught in a snare. “Mathias, please…”
He held fast to her wrist, refusing to let her evade him now. “There is video of you at the coroner’s office this morning, Nova. After I told you about the dead men with scarab tattoos, you went to the morgue to see them. You touched them, held their hands. Do you know who they were, or where they came from? Were you mourning any of them?”
“No,” she answered thickly. She struggled against his grasp, but he didn’t release her. Right now, he needed the answer to that last question more than any of the others. “It was nothing like that.”
“Then what was it like? Tell me, Nova. Talk to me. I’m not the only one who’s going to make you explain what you’ve done.”
When she looked up at him in question, in panic, he said, “The video was shown to JUSTIS officers today. They haven’t identified you yet. Since the employee who let you inside isn’t talking, I assume he’s a friend. All he’s done is delay law enforcement from finding you. But they will, and you’ll not only have to answer for the killing I’m certain happened here in the shop, but the other victims you seem to have some connection to as well.”
Her breath leaked out of her, taking some of her fight along with it. “I didn’t kill the man who came in here last night. I wanted to. But he was stronger than me. He clamped his hand around mine and he made…threats. Then he grabbed my hair with his other hand. He wouldn’t let go.” She exhaled a heavy sigh. “Ozzy only wanted to protect me. He did what anyone would do, what I couldn’t do at that moment. After he was dead, Oz and I dumped the body in the river. We tried to weight it down, but there was a storm overnight…”
Mathias listened to her in silence, watched her confess an account he hadn’t quite guessed on his own. And there was a detail that still troubled him. “You said the man made threats. What kind of threats, Nova?” When she didn’t answer after a moment, he freed her hand in order to brush his fingers along the taut line of her jaw. “You knew him, didn’t you.”
She nodded once. “From…before. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, but I would’ve recognized him anywhere. I tried to pretend I didn’t–that’s why I started to give him the tattoo he demanded. But then, after I started working on him, he recognized me too, even though I look very different now. I am very different now.”
“Was he the one who hurt you…before?”
“One of them,” she said. “His name was Orin Doyle.”
Mathias would dig into that name the first chance he got. He only wished he had the opportunity to deliver some pain to the bastard personally before Ozzy stabbed him. “And the others in the morgue?”
Nova shook her head. “I didn’t know them at all. They were associates of Doyle’s, but he betrayed them. He executed them in cold blood down on a dock at the river. There were others with them. They were speaking Russian, I think, making some sort of deal with Doyle’s men. But it all seemed to go wrong. At least one of them was shot too, killed, but not by Doyle.”
Mathias scowled, skeptical. “How can you know all of this?”
“Because that’s what I saw when I touched the bodies. I saw the last few minutes of their lives. I saw how they died. I saw who did it.”
At first, he wasn’t sure what she was saying, then realization dawned. “Your Breedmate gift is a dark one. It can’t be easy for you, having that kind of ability.”
She shrugged, but her voice was quiet, haunted. “I don’t think about it. I don’t use it. Not unless I have to.”
He nodded, solemn with understanding. For all the times he cursed his own grim ability, it was nothing compared to what Nova must experience when she called upon hers. And yet she bore her burden–all of them–with stalwart courage. An extraordinary woman, in so many ways.
As for what she’d revealed just now, Mathias had suspected some kind of massacre, but the news of Russians being part of whatever went down was valuable intel the Order and JUSTIS didn’t have. Still, it only raised more questions.
“Do you know what brought Doyle and those other men to London? You said it seemed like some kind of deal was taking place,” he said, trying to put the pieces together. “Do you know what that deal was about? Do you know why the killings happened?”
“No. That’s not something I could detect with my gift.” She met his gaze solemnly. “I don’t know any of those answers, I swear to you.”
“And the scarab, Nova?”
“What about it?”
“What does the mark mean? There’s no gang known to law enforcement that uses that symbol, so who does it belong to?”
She shook her head mutely, pivoting from him to pace a few steps away. “It’s not a gang. It’s a family symbol. My family.”
He walked up behind her. Gently rested his palms on her shoulders. “Tell me their name, Nova.”
“Now, you ask too much,” she murmured. “I ran away from them a long time ago, for good reason. I won’t speak the name and let that evil touch me again.”
Mathias wanted to press the issue, persuade her to give up the rest of her secrets. But she was trembling under his light touch. The tough-talking, hard-looking woman was shaking like a fragile leaf.
He coaxed her around to face him. “It’s okay. We’ll figure it out.”
“I’d like to believe that,” she whispered. “But I just don’t see how.”
Mathias brushed his thumb over her lips, silencing her worries. For now, at least–for a moment–he didn’t want her to be afraid. She stared up into his eyes, and he knew there was nothing he wouldn’t do to keep this woman safe.
“We’ll figure it out,” he told her again, softer this time.
Then he bent his head down to hers and kissed her.
She didn’t resist him, didn’t push him away with defensive words or protesting hands. No, she wrapped her arms around him as he drew her deeper into his embrace. She kissed him back, with the same heat and need that was coursing through his own veins.
Mathias stroked his hand up the inked sleeve of her arm, then caught her nape in his palm while his tongue tested the giving seam of her lips. She parted for him, took him in on a quiet gasp.
He didn’t know how he’d managed to let the moment go from one of confrontation and mistrust to one of fierce, undeniable desire.
The comfort he’d meant to offer had incinerated, melted into something powerful. Something he wasn’t noble enough to resist.
He only knew that he wanted her.
And if he didn’t find the will to put the brakes on soon, there would be no turning back.
She wanted to push him away.
She wanted to tear her mouth from his, retreat to the other side of the room, out of his arms.
She wanted to scream, but it wasn’t terror or panic making her senses explode with the need to escape. It was desire.
Raw, hungry, impossible desire.
Something she had never known, had never expected to feel so powerfully. She could hardly contain it, the need Mathias’s kiss stirred inside her.
She could hardly breathe, hardly think straight, for the way it coiled around her, stripping away her defenses. Removing each carefully placed brick in the wall she’d built around herself ages ago.