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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER EIGHTEEN)

MATHIAS ROWAN WAS LATE.

The Enforcement Agency director had been shocked to hear from Chase earlier that afternoon when he'd called Rowan from the long-unused landline in Chase's empty Darkhaven.

Nevertheless, to his credit, Rowan had agreed to make the trip over to the Back Bay as soon as the sun set. But now it was dusk and no sign of him yet.

Chase was dressed for battle, having pulled out black jeans, lug-soled boots, and a black long-sleeved knit shirt from the back of his old wardrobe. His holstered Agency-issued pistol felt insubstantial compared to the pair of 9-mm semiautos he was used to carrying as a member of the Order.

He didn't care to admit just how much it stung to realize he would likely never ride out on another patrol with Dante or the other warriors. He'd let that honor slip through his fingers, too busy grasping at selfish indulgences to realize what he stood to lose. Now it was too late to call it all back, no matter how much he wanted to prove himself worthy of their trust. Assuming he wasn't already too far gone to try.

With darkness settling outside, Chase's veins were lit up with the urge to hunt, and it was taking a hell of a lot of effort to resist the feral pull of his hunger. Instead he began a tight prowl of his vacant quarters, pacing the study and trying to ignore the insidious whisper of his blood thirst, tempting him to step outside and let the cool wash of wintry night air soothe some of the fever from his senses.

It was a siren's call and he knew it. A beckon toward disaster.

If his blood thirst didn't seize him the moment he stepped outside into the dark, there was a damn good chance human law enforcement would. Chase didn't want to risk either scenario, least of all letting his current notoriety inadvertently lead the cops or feds to Mathias Rowan's Darkhaven across town.

God knew his careless actions had jeopardized enough people he cared about lately. He wasn't about to add Rowan and his kin to that list.

Tavia Fairchild either.

She'd been the whole reason for calling in this favor with Rowan. He would know what to do with her. He, better than Chase, would be the best one to retrieve her and bring her to the Order where she'd be protected from Dragos and his servants and allies.

Safe from Chase himself too.

"Christ," he muttered, raking a hand over his head as he made another circuit of the study. She hadn't left his mind since the moment she'd run out, and even now he couldn't help wondering where she was, whom she was with … whether she was safe.

Part of him wanted to go after her, even more than he wanted to feed.

Part of him simply wanted her, and that was not good news at all.

Not in the dangerous shape he was in. Not when Dragos was still out there, making his Minions and plotting his next strike against the Order.

Maybe against the world as a whole.

That thought alone was enough to wrench his head back on track. Chase had no business worrying about the safety of one female – even a female as extraordinary as Tavia Fairchild. His life was already near to forfeit. Hell, he'd been willing to throw it away numerous times in the past few months. If he could get close enough to Dragos to take the bastard out, he'd gladly spend his last breath to make it happen.

But first he needed to be sure that Tavia wouldn't get caught in the crossfire. And that meant getting her under the Order's protection.

Where the fuck was Rowan?

When the rap of the brass knocker on the brownstone's front door sounded a moment later, Chase opened the heavy oak panel on a growled curse. "About damn time you – "

It wasn't Mathias Rowan standing there. It was Tavia. She waited on the stoop in the dark, shivering in just a turtleneck sweater, loose jeans, and leather flats. "I've been walking for hours. I … didn't know where to go." She took a breath. It was a ragged, shaky inhalation. She blew it out on a steaming gust that sounded very close to a sob. "I killed someone today." "Jesus Christ." Everything else fell away as he stared at Tavia's stricken expression. Chase stepped out and wrapped his arm around her trembling shoulders. "Come inside."

She felt wooden as he guided her into the foyer, moving with robotic stiffness. Shock, he guessed, looking at her unfocused gaze and the slack lines of her face. "Are you all right? Are you hurt anywhere?"

She gave a weak shake of her head. "He tried to kill me. I think he was going to poison me with something. He said it would make me feel better, but I knew he was lying. There was something very wrong about him. I just sensed it, even before he attacked me. I killed him. I killed Dr. Lewis." She took another hitching breath as a shudder ran through her from head to foot. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know where to go or whom I could trust. Somehow, I ended up here."

"It's okay," he said. "Come on, let's get you warm."

He brought her into the study and sat her down on the shrouded chair. He crouched in front of her and took her hands between his to rub some heat into them. When he looked up at her, there were tears welling in her eyes. "My aunt Sarah," she murmured. "She's dead too. She cut her own throat, right in front of me."

"I'm sorry," Chase said, hearing the pain and confusion in her broken voice.

"I don't understand how they could both lie to me. All my life, they'd been lying to me." She frowned, gave a slow shake of her head. "And their eyes. I never noticed how cold their eyes were. Dr. Lewis and Aunt Sarah – they'd changed somehow."

"No, Tavia. It was you who changed." He held her confused gaze. "You wouldn't have noticed anything unusual because until today you were living as a human. Your true nature was being suppressed, no doubt by the same medicines you thought were helping you. I don't think you were ever sick."

She listened in silence for a long moment, absorbing his words. "They betrayed me. They never cared about me, did they? I saw that today, when each of them looked at me. There was such a terrible emptiness in their eyes. Like a shark's eyes."

Chase grunted, knowing that look well. "They were Minions. All of them have that same dead glint in their eyes. You'll know it right away when you see them."

"Minions?"

He nodded. "Humans bled to the brink of death and turned mind slaves by a powerful member of my kind." He traced his thumb over the tangled pattern of dermaglyphs that swept along the underside of her wrist. "Our kind."

She drew her hands out of his grasp. "Vampires." She swallowed, fine brows knit together. "Is that what I am – a vampire? I know that's what you are. Isn't it?"

"Not exactly."

"Then what, exactly?" she demanded, shooting up from the chair, her voice climbing toward panic. "What the hell is happening to me? Tell me what's going on!"

He stood along with her. "I'm not sure what you are, Tavia. Or how you can be what you seem to be. I've never seen anything like you. No one has. What you are is … impossible." "Great." She made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. "So, I'm a monster. Even by your standards."

Ah, Christ. He was not the person to explain all of this to her. His days of diplomacy and gentle conversation were long gone. Better that she learn what she needed to know from Mathias Rowan, someone still a part of Darkhaven culture who could ease her into the truth. But even as he thought it, Chase bristled a bit at the idea of Tavia being schooled by someone else. Particularly someone as noble and charming and smoothly mannered as Mathias Rowan.

Not that Tavia Fairchild seemed like a woman who needed handling with kid gloves.

And for better or worse, at the moment, Chase was all she had.

"What you are, Tavia, is Breed. Human folklore would call us vampires, but those stories exaggerate the truth. Like me, like the rest of the Breed, you are a living, breathing, very powerful being. Those of our kind live for a long time, centuries at least. Some of us have lived for more than a thousand years. And yes, we subsist by drinking human blood from an open vein."

"No," she interjected. "That's not right. Not me. For twenty-seven years, I've eaten normal food. I drink normal things, like any other human being. I've never even tasted a drop of blood, let alone drank it from someone's vein. Until …"

He watched her face go a little red. "Until you fed from me earlier today. And that was after your body had a chance to purge some of the drugs that were keeping the part of you that isn't human – the part of you that's Breed – on some kind of medically induced leash."

"I'm not like you. I can't be." She moved away from him, taking several paces across the room and giving him her back. "I don't want to be part of this … this nightmare."

"It's reality, Tavia." He walked up behind her and brought his hands down lightly on her shoulders. She didn't resist when he turned her around to face him. "You don't have the choice to be part of this or not. Like it or not, you're living it now."

"Well, I don't like it." He could see her struggling to accept all that she was hearing. Her bright green eyes were still moist from unshed tears, but not a single one fell. She radiated a steely strength, chin held rigid and high, staring at him with a stubborn, unbreakable look that was more Breed than she would care to admit. "I don't like it at all, but if this is the truth, then I'm not going to run from it."

He nodded once, acknowledgment of her courage. "I won't lie to you. That much I can promise."

He didn't tell her there was little else of worth he had to give. If she spent any more time near him, she'd figure that out soon enough on her own.

"Tell me about Dragos." Her gaze was unflinching as it held his. "At the police station that night, you said Senator Clarence belonged to him. That Dragos owned him."

"Yes," Chase said. "The senator was one of Dragos's Minions. The cop in your hotel suite was also Minion. As were your aunt and doctor. They all belonged to Dragos. We can't be sure how many more mind slaves he has under his command. After all the years he's been at it, there could be thousands."

Tavia frowned. "So, where do I fit into this? Aunt Sarah said he owns me too. That he's owned me from the beginning – that's how she phrased it. I'm not one of his Minions."

"No," Chase said. "But based on what you are, there's no question that Dragos is involved. Until you, Tavia, there has never been a female Breed. Not one, not ever. Our race began thousands of years ago, when a ship carrying a group of biologically advanced otherworlders crash-landed on this planet. They killed and they raped, and sometimes they left certain females – genetically unique females known as Breedmates – pregnant with their young."

He couldn't read her expression now. It seemed one part quiet understanding, one part bald skepticism. "You're telling me that aliens and humans mated thousands of years ago and produced vampire babies?" She scoffed. "That's ridiculous. Do you know how crazy that makes you sound?"

"You should know by now that I'm not crazy." When she tried to look away from him, he steered her gaze back with his fingertips under her stubborn chin. He told her he wouldn't lie to her, so he decided to give her the unvarnished truth. "Our Ancient forefathers were not of this world, that's true. They were blood-drinking warrior savages who slaughtered entire civilizations at a time. The Ancients are all dead now, but until just a few weeks ago, one remained. Dragos kept him contained in his labs for decades, until the Ancient escaped to Alaska and the Order eventually killed him. But until then, Dragos used this captive Ancient for various genetic experimentations and to create an army of Breed assassins, the most powerful army this planet will ever know. If Dragos decides to unleash them, there's no telling how much havoc he can wreak."

"And me?" Tavia asked now. "I don't understand what any of this has to do with me." "Don't you?" Chase paused, letting her sharp mind consider the possibilities.

"Dragos created me," she said after a moment. "I was one of his genetic experiments."

Chase's answering nod was grim. "There's no other way to explain the fact that you exist, Tavia. You're obviously Breed, but you're female – something we've never seen. And you can walk in daylight without burning. That's been an impossibility for our kind too. Until now. Until you."

"So, if I was fathered by a creature in Dragos's laboratory, what about my mother?"

"A Breedmate, I'm sure," Chase said. "Dragos kept dozens imprisoned in his labs over decades of time. If I'm right, you probably have a small red birthmark somewhere on your body. It would be in the shape of a teardrop and crescent moon."

Tavia stared at him in stunned silence. "On my lower back. I've always believed it was just part of my scars. Nothing I believed before was true, was it? It was all lies." She backed away, clutching her arms over her midsection as though she might be sick. She wheeled a stricken look on him, her green eyes throwing off amber sparks. "Why would he do this to me? What could Dragos possibly stand to gain by creating me like some kind of Frankenstein's monster?" "You're not a monster," Chase assured her.

"I'm a fucking abomination!" she cried. The glyphs peeking over the edge of her high- collared sweater were alive with color and churning from one dark hue to another in her mounting distress. The sharp points of her fangs were just visible beneath the dusky edge of her upper lip.

She was so beautiful like this, he could hardly think straight. But she didn't see that. With a rough snarl, she tugged at the long sleeves of her top, exposing her forearms. Then she began rubbing at the dermaglyphs that tracked up her arms, scrubbing her palms over them in a ruthless frenzy, as though she wanted to scrape them off her skin.

Chase stilled her hands, taking them in his. "You're not a monster, Tavia. What you are is a miracle."

He reached up between them and smoothed some of her loose hair away from her flushed face. The urge to kiss her was nearly overwhelming, but he held back, unwilling to take advantage of her distress and confusion. Too bad he didn't have the same restraint earlier that day.

As much as it shamed him to think about the feel of her strong, lithe body wrapped around him, he couldn't deny that if she let him kiss her now, they'd end up naked all over again. And now that he was thinking about getting Tavia naked, his own body started to react in obvious interest.

He stroked the velvety slope of her cheek. Through emerging fangs, he said, "Jesus Christ … you are the most incredible thing I've ever seen. Possibly the only one of your kind." "No." She gave a vague shake of her head but didn't pull away from his touch. "I'm not the only one. There are more like me."

Chase's hand paused where it rested against her beautiful face. "There are others? You're sure?"

"I heard Dr. Lewis say so. When Aunt Sarah told him I hadn't had my medication for a couple of days, he seemed alarmed. He said the others had never gone without treatment as long as me without severe reactions."

Holy hell. Chase's veins went cold with astonishment. "What else did he say? Did he mention how many there were? Where they might be?"

Tavia shook her head. "He tried to deny it when I asked him about it."

"Do you know where his office is?"

"Of course. I've been going there for exams and special medical trials since I was a child. He has a private clinic and treatment facility on an old farm property in Sherborn, southwest of Boston."

"That's where he keeps his patient records?"

"As far as I know, everything is kept on-site at the clinic."

While Chase was doing a mental calculation of how fast he could get to the rural farmland clinic, a knock sounded on the Darkhaven's front door. "It's okay," Chase told her. "I'm expecting someone."

He went to the foyer and opened the door for Mathias Rowan. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Chase. Things at the Agency have never been worse. I've got my hands full dealing with Agency traitors and a mass human slaughter that took place at the Chinatown sip-and-strip the other night. I came as soon as I could." As they made their way through the entry hall toward the study, Rowan looked around at the empty Darkhaven and exhaled a low breath. "Crissakes, I never thought you'd return to this place. Especially after what happened with Camden."

"Neither did I." Chase paused in front of his old Agency colleague. "And know that I wouldn't have called you for help unless I had no other choice. I hate dragging you into this shit – "

Rowan put his hand on Chase's shoulder. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm already in it. You're in trouble, I know that. Hell, everyone in a hundred-mile radius knows that, human and Breed alike. You can't turn on the television without seeing your face on every news channel in the country. The dead last place you ought to be right now is Boston, my friend."

Chase nodded. "Yeah. But I need your help with something, Mathias. It's urgent, and it's important."

"I figured it had to be something big if you were calling me. What can I do?"

Chase stepped aside and let Rowan continue on into the study where Tavia stood. Her eyes lit on the Breed male, her thin pupils unwavering in the center of her amber-bright irises. The glyphs on her bared forearms were still alive with changing colors.

Mathias Rowan lost his normally polished demeanor and gaped outright at her. "What the …" "Tavia Fairchild," Chase said. "Meet my old friend Mathias Rowan."

"Hello," she said, the tips of her fangs glinting bright as diamonds in her mouth. "Is she – " Rowan began, then stopped short. He peered at her in disbelief, then shot a questioning look back at Chase. "She can't be …"

"She is," Chase said. "And I need you to look after her for me. Get her to the Order as soon as possible. She needs protection from Dragos."

"My God," Rowan gasped. He strode toward her cautiously, scrutinizing her as he might some new wonder of the world. Which wasn't far off the mark. "Remarkable. But … how can this be?"

"I'll explain it later." Chase checked his weapons belt and grabbed more rounds from the box sitting on the fireplace mantel of the study. "Just get her out of Boston. Take her personally to Lucan. He'll know what to do."

Rowan opened his mouth, but before he could protest or ask more questions, Tavia piped in. "I'm not going anywhere with anyone."

"You are," Chase replied. "It's not safe for you now. Dragos will know his Minions are dead, and he'll come for you. Believe me when I tell you that nothing could be worse for you than falling into his hands."

That stubborn chin went up a notch. "I'll take my chances. But I'm not going anywhere until I know more about who I really am and what's going on."

"And I'll help you with that, if I can. You said your doctor's office is in Sherborn? That's where he keeps your patient records and all the others he's been treating under Dragos's command?"

"Yes, but the clinic property is gated. It's staffed around the clock with an armed security detail."

Chase shrugged. "Not a problem."

"Hold on here," Rowan interjected. "Let's slow down. Tell me what this is about, Chase. If this has something to do with Dragos, we should bring the Order in sooner rather than later." "There's no time for that. Hell, it's probably too late to get much intel as it is. Dragos might have the place on lockdown already."

Rowan cursed darkly. "All the more reason to have Lucan and the Order here too. I'm going to call them – "

"Do whatever you have to," Chase replied, finding it hard to curb the bitterness from his voice, knowing Rowan had open access to the Order while he didn't even know where they'd gone. "I'm not going to wait around cooling my heels. I'm heading out to that goddamn clinic now."

Tavia was at his side before he took the first step. It was still a bit unnerving for a female to move with the same speed and agility as any other Breed. "I'm going with you," she said. "This is my life we're talking about. I'm not going to stand back and let anyone control me. Not ever again. Besides, I'm the only one of us familiar with the clinic and its records. You need me." As much as he wanted to deny her, Chase could see that arguing would be pointless. It would only waste precious time – something they didn't have, if they stood even the slightest chance of collecting any information of value from the dead doctor's clinic.

Tavia Fairchild might be untrained and untried, but in her blood and bones she was Breed – physically strong and powerful in her own right. She was also female, and Chase could see from her determined expression that she would not take his no for any kind of answer.

"All right, then," he said. "What are we waiting for? Let's go."

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