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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER FORTY-TWO)

THE WHITE-BRICK, Queen Anne – style mansion and parklike grounds occupied a large, dedicated section of the circular United States Naval Observatory property in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Tavia knew it on sight, had been inside its thirty-three-room splendor more than once during her employment as Senator Clarence's aide. As the blades of Dragos's Minion-piloted helicopter chopped the night sky above the vice president's residence, she peered out the window to the snowy, tree-filled ground below and felt some of the air leave her lungs on a gasp of heartsick astonishment.

Military and Secret Service vehicles sat vacant at their posts around the property. Dark shapes lay unmoving on the ground, the obvious signs of struggle – of armed conflict and unanimous human losses – grimly evident as the aircraft slowly descended into a clearing several hundred feet from the house.

Dragos's assassins had already been here.

She understood that even before a pair of them came out from the cover of the trees to meet their arriving commander. "Everything is secured," one of the massive Gen Ones in head-to-toe black informed him. "The human awaits you inside."

"Excellent," Dragos replied. With the two Hunters leading the way, Dragos took Tavia by the arm in a none-too-gentle grip as they exited the helicopter. Following close behind was the assassin who'd made the trip with them, watching her every move.

If the scene outside the mansion made her heart catch with sick dread, the reality of what had taken place inside hit her even harder. The vice president sat at gunpoint on the ivory-colored sofa in the tastefully appointed living room. Behind him on the wall, the celadon and cream palette of an oversize abstract painting was sprayed with blood, no doubt belonging to the dead Marine who sprawled on the floor just a few paces away.

"Tell me what you want from me, damn it!" the graying government official shouted to his emotionless captors. "Please, let me at least see my wife and family. Let them go."

"Relax," Dragos replied smoothly, catching the vice president's full attention as he strolled into the room. "Your family is upstairs, unharmed, with some of my men. I have no need of them."

The man's face sagged into a visibly incredulous stare. "Drake Masters? For God's sake … and Tavia?" He moved as though he meant to stand up, but the assassin standing beside him persuaded him otherwise with a nudge of his semiautomatic pistol. "What is this about, Drake? I demand to know what the hell is going on!"

Dragos chuckled. "You no longer demand anything. And you can call me Dragos. In a few minutes you'll be calling me Master."

"I don't understand," the vice president murmured. "I don't understand anything that's been happening these past couple of days – "

"Don't you?" Dragos mused darkly from beside Tavia. He strode forward, radiating a cold menace. "Don't you finally understand how powerful I am? Now that you've seen what I can do – now that the entire world has seen the magnitude of my wrath – perhaps mankind will finally realize that they control nothing. This world belongs to us now. To me."

Stricken eyes went a bit wider. "What are you saying, that all of this madness is somehow your doing?"

Dragos's reply was a low growl of sound that made Tavia's veins turn to ice. "The Breed has lived in the shadows long enough. I am resetting the order of things. I am putting the Breed on the top of the food chain where we belong. And you are going to help me do that."

Tavia's fists clenched at her sides. Anxiety spiked through her like acid as she felt Dragos's mood go from mildly amused to dangerously determined.

"Tonight, I am seizing my rightful place as master of all mankind and Breed alike," Dragos went on. "For your part, you will make the call to help me begin my ascent to power. You will deliver the president to me right here and now."

A look from Dragos prompted one of the guarding assassins to wrest the human's cell phone from his suit coat pocket. The Gen One held it out to the vice president, who merely stared at it in abject refusal. "You're insane," he said sharply. "You may have found a way past my security outside and killed my staff, but more will come. They're on the way now, I can guarantee that. You've just brought down the entire United States military on your head."

Dragos laughed. The air around him vibrated with ominous cold before his eyes flashed bright amber and his fangs erupted from his gums. "Make. The. Call."

"I can't," the human protested. "I won't do this – "

In the fraction of an instant between those damning words and Dragos's leap forward like a viper ready to strike, Tavia sprang into action. With superspeed motion, she placed herself between Dragos and his intended victim, the vial of Crimson retrieved from its concealment on her person and uncorked in her hands.

She held a bunch of the red powder in her palm – all the weapon she had in that moment. She exhaled the breath that would blow the massive dose into his face, praying it would be enough to disable him, if not kill him in a blast of writhing agony.

But she never got the chance.

Moving faster than she could track them or react – faster than she could fathom, even though she herself was gifted with similar genes – two of the Hunters protecting Dragos grabbed her. One wrenched her arms back behind her. The other held the vial of Crimson. With a single command from Dragos, she understood with cold certainty that she would be dead.

His expression was too mild to be trusted, his movements very calm as he took the Crimson away from his guard and held it up to his nose. He gave it a faint sniff, then sneered with cold malice. "Now, this was an incredibly stupid gamble on your part, Tavia. A pity."

Before she could react, he lunged forward and shoved the open vial into her mouth. She choked on the dry dust of the powder as it hit the back of her throat. Coughing, sputtering, she went down on her knees as a rush filled her head like the buzz of a million stinging bees. Oh, God, she thought, desperate with fear as the Crimson hit her bloodstream and agony arrowed through every cell of her body.

She'd failed.

She'd failed Chase and the Order miserably, and now she was certain that Dragos had just killed her.

CHASE'S KNEES BUCKLED beneath him in the street. A pain racked him, so violent it felt as though his chest were breaking wide open.

"Tavia."

Ah, Christ.

Her agony was everywhere inside him. Fire and daggers and poison – a suffering so intense it was a wonder his heart didn't cease beating in his chest.

No, the wounded organ wanted to explode behind his sternum.

The ferocity of what she was feeling in that moment was the most terrible thing he'd ever known. Not only because of the raw anguish of her pain, but because of the fact it was she who felt it.

His female, his mate, hurting – God forbid, dying – and he unable to be at her side. "Tavia!" Her name ripped out of his mouth on a roar.

"Chase," Dante shouted, right beside him as he stumbled under the weight of her agony. "Jesus Christ. Talk to me, Harvard. What's going on?"

"She's hurt. Ah, fuck … I've got to get to her!"

His desperation to reach her after hearing a moment ago that she was with Dragos now went nuclear. As Niko and Brock rolled up in the Order's two SUVs with the rest of the warriors, Chase broke for the vehicles. Dante, Lucan, and Archer were right behind him.

Tegan was on the phone with Gideon as Chase and his team piled into the Rover. "We're moving out right now," he said, then glanced to Lucan and the others. "Gideon got a bead on the IP address Tavia provided. It's originating in Maine, a private island off the middle of the coast."

Chase's agony worsened, wrenching him from within. He growled with the fury of his helplessness. "Get me to her. Please …"

The vehicles started rolling, tearing through the smoke-wreathed streets of D.C.

"Gideon says he's got more intel on those detonation sequences for the UV collar codes. He's trying to grid them to GPS signals, work up some kind of road map to all the active Hunters," Tegan reported.

Lucan grunted. "Tell him he'd better step on it. We may need those codes when we get to Dragos's lair."

As they sped through the chaos and carnage of the dark capital city, the heavy ache in Chase's chest burrowed deeper. His blood bond to Tavia was throbbing, pumping through his senses like the beat of a drum. It felt near enough for him to touch. "We're not going to Maine." Niko's questioning gaze met his pained stare in the rearview mirror.

"Stop the car!" Chase rasped, hardly able to speak for the shredding intensity of his realization now. "We gotta turn around. I feel her. She's here. She's somewhere in this city."

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