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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER NINETEEN)

DR. LEWIS'S PRIVATE CLINIC was nestled on a pastoral stretch of land that had once been a colonial farm in the rural town of Sherborn. Partway down the moonlit, one-lane track leading to the medical facility and clinic grounds stood a guard shack and automated arm that served as a gate.

The modern enhancements had always struck Tavia as sorely out of place beside the property's stout, rambling stone walls and rolling meadows. But Dr. Lewis had been meticulous about his special patients' privacy and security, which made it all the more peculiar when Tavia, Chase, and Mathias Rowan drove up to the darkened guard shack and found it empty. "Something's not right," she said from the backseat of their dark SUV. "There's always security personnel on duty here, no matter what hour. Dr. Lewis had someone posted at the gate around the clock."

Chase glanced out the passenger window at the darkened landscape, then gave a grim look to his friend seated behind the wheel. "Dragos knows this facility has been compromised." Rowan nodded, equally grave. "It could be a trap. Might not be worth the risk to go any farther."

"We have to." Tavia sat forward, her hands gripping the side of Chase's black leather seat. She wasn't about to come all this way only to turn around without trying. "My life is inside that clinic. This could be the only chance I have to learn who, and what, I really am. If there are others like me, they deserve the truth too."

She watched a tendon tick in Chase's rigid jaw. He said nothing, but she could see his doubt in the dark blue of his gaze as he looked at her. She could feel it, a cold indecision running through her own veins. "I need to know what he did to me and why. I need to know the whole truth, something I haven't had even once in my life. I can't let you deny me that. Not after everything I've been through already."

Chase's answering nod was a long time coming, just a faint tilt of his chin in Rowan's direction. On his cue, the vehicle swerved off the pavement and onto the snowy grounds, engine roaring as Rowan gunned the big SUV up and over the little stacked stone wall, sending the old rocks tumbling beneath the crush of the vehicle's large wheels. With a jostling bump and heave, they plowed through the fallen stones and rolled on toward the clinic building several hundred feet ahead.

Chase jumped out before they stopped. Moving almost faster than Tavia could track him, he ran to the building, breaking a reception area window and climbing inside ahead of them. It struck her, how easily he assumed the role of leader. It seemed to come naturally to him, leaping to the front lines, clearing the way for others to follow him. She caught a glimpse of something golden in him in that moment, something shining and heroic beneath the rough surface of the dangerous man he was now.

"We're clear," he said, reappearing in the open space as Tavia and Rowan ran up to meet him. He knocked aside some of the jagged shards of glass with his boot and offered Tavia his hand. "Watch your step."

She climbed inside the dark office and stood next to Chase, Rowan following right behind. The clinic looked different to her now, unlit and empty. No longer the place she came for healing, but a nest of deception. Its comfortably appointed waiting room, with its soft club chairs and pleasant watercolor paintings framed on the walls, now felt as falsely welcoming as a tranquil lagoon infested with piranhas.

"This way," she said, heading around the partitioned wall that separated the waiting room from the receptionist desk on the other side.

"Where are all the patient files?" Mathias Rowan asked, as he and Chase followed her into the area. Frowning, he quickly scanned their surroundings. "Every medical clinic I've ever seen has reams of paper records on hand."

Tavia shook her head. "Not Dr. Lewis. He is – he was – maniacal when it came to patient security. Everything in here is computerized and password-protected."

"Interesting," Chase remarked.

Rowan pulled one of his pistols out of the holster under his black parka. "If you two have things under control in here, I'm going to have a look around the rest of this place."

Chase nodded to his friend as Rowan ducked out to the hallway, but his eyes never left Tavia. He watched as she fired up one of the desktop computers and took a seat in the wheeled chair behind the workstation. When a password prompt appeared, she entered a complicated string of letters and numbers on the keyboard. The machine accepted the code, then resumed its start-up process.

When she glanced over at him, Chase was staring at her with a questioning look on his face. She gave him a mild shrug. "I was here a few months ago during a power outage. When the staff rebooted the computer, I couldn't help noticing what she typed in for the password."

Chase leaned down nearer to her, his big hands braced on the edge of the desk. "That sequence had to be about a dozen characters long."

"Thirteen, actually."

He grunted, eyebrows quirking. "And you remembered it perfectly all this time?"

"I only have to see something once to remember it. That's just how my mind works."

"Impressive." He gave her a devastating grin that made her pulse kick into a higher gear. She wasn't used to having feelings of attraction, but it was impossible not to notice how close he stood to her now. How she could hear him breathing, could practically feel the steady, rhythmic pound of his heartbeat. Or how the thick bulk of his powerful biceps was brushing against her shoulder, each soft friction seeming to enter her bloodstream like an electrical current, as she brought up a login screen for the clinic's records program.

Another password prompt appeared, and this one she fumbled at first, too busy trying to ignore the warmth of Chase's body beside her and the heated weight of his attentive gaze. She tried the code again. "We're in. This is the patient database. I've seen it in use probably a thousand times."

Chase nodded. "Let's find your file."

She typed her name into the search field and held her breath as the screen began to fill with dates and records of her treatments. The data went back the full twenty-seven years of her life. Her entire existence, condensed into several thousands of line item entries stored as bits and bytes on a cold computer hard drive.

All the betrayals, waiting to be discovered with just a click of the mouse.

"Hey." His deep voice was quiet beside her. He rested his large palm over the top of her fisted hand in a gesture that made her feel both comforted and unsettled. "You gonna be okay with this?"

She swallowed. Gave him a shaky nod. "Yeah. I'm fine. I want to know."

Before she could think better of it and change her mind, Tavia clicked to open the most recent record. It was her visit from earlier that week. "I had an appointment with Dr. Lewis about recurring migraines. He treated me for a couple of hours here in the clinic and sent me home with new meds."

Chase eyed the record on the monitor. "Just a few days ago."

Tavia nodded. "And later that night, I was brought into the police station to identify you as the shooter from Senator Clarence's party." It seemed impossible that it was less than a week ago that her world was turned upside down. Less than a week ago that this man standing next to her had entered her life so abruptly. So strangely, darkly unexpected. "Nothing's been the same for me since that night. It won't be the same for me ever again."

Chase's stormy blue eyes fixed on her for a long moment, sober, remorseful. She realized only then that his hand was still resting on top of hers. His pulse beat in his fingertips, and in the heated center of his strong palm. "You wish you'd never met me. Trust me, I get it. I wish that for you too, Tavia."

"No, I don't wish that at all," she said, surprised by how deeply she meant it. True, her life had been thrown into chaos from the first moment she laid eyes on him – when he'd stood in the gallery balcony of the senator's house with a gun trained on a crowd of innocent party guests. She'd thought him unhinged and dangerous, and maybe he was both even now, but she couldn't blame him for any of the mess that was her life currently.

Because of him, she'd had to question her own reality. He'd opened her eyes, and just because she didn't want to see the things in front of her, didn't mean he was at fault. If anything, this deadly, terrifyingly brutal man had saved her life.

She looked at him, taking in the hard lines of his stark, handsome face and the world- weariness of his ruthless, beautiful eyes. "I'm glad I met you, Sterling Chase. Right now, you're the only friend I have."

He stared at her. Then he laughed, low and cynical. His hand withdrew from hers now, leaving a chill behind on her skin. "You should know something about me, Tavia. I don't have friends. What I do have is a bad habit of disappointing everyone around me. Better you hear that now than be fool enough to think you can count on me later."

There was no anger in his voice, only flat statement of fact. She felt sad for him somehow, watching the subtle way he distanced himself from her now. First his withdrawn touch, then his cool warning that felt as effective as a physical rebuff. Even his eyes were shuttered, no longer attentive and open but hooded and dark. Unreadable.

He stood up and paced to the far wall of the room to peer out between the closed metal blinds. "Let's get going," he said, his voice clipped and impersonal. "We don't have much time to take what we need and get the hell out of here."

Tavia went right to work, sending the full contents of her file to the printer in the corner of the office space. As the records displayed on the computer screen, she scanned the data, reading the details of her every visit to Dr. Lewis's clinic. Every medical trial and experimental treatment was documented. Each specialized medicinal serum and bitter pill was noted in the file, along with the results it produced for her condition.

And there were more records associated with her file.

Tavia paused on one of the entries, frowning as she recognized her own handwriting on a scan-captured page. Still another page followed the first. Several more too, all of them produced by her own hand, filled with names and codes and diagrams. She recognized them all, but she didn't remember writing any of it down.

Chase came over and looked at the screen from over her shoulder. "What is it?"

"A list of Senator Clarence's largest campaign contributors. Every name is here, along with the issuing banks and account numbers from the checks they wrote." "Are you sure?" Tavia nodded. "I was the one who processed the deposits. This is my handwriting." "Why would you give that information to your doctor?"

"I didn't," she said. "I wouldn't. At least, not knowingly."

She paged down to a further document that showed a hand-drawn sketch of a federal judge's residence. Another diagram showed the floor plan sketch of a nuclear plant she'd toured with the senator last spring. Still more documents listed personal data and security-sensitive information on dozens of Senator Clarence's political allies and rivals.

"My God," she whispered, horrified at what she was seeing. "This collection of intelligence would be worth a fortune to enemies of the United States."

"Or to someone like Dragos," Chase said. He pointed to one of the earliest entries in her file. "Open that."

She clicked it, and data from her first in-clinic treatment filled the screen. By the date on the record, she'd been just six months old. Tavia read the page, feeling a mixture of fury and sorrow wash over her as the truth of her origins was spelled out to her in cold, clinical terms.

Ancient + Breedmate genetic splicing successful. Viable female specimen transferred to gestational surrogate. Laboratory live birth at full term. Subject 8 removed to Minion care, residing at 251 Pleasant Street, Saugus, Massachusetts. Admission to treatment program on this date as Patient "Octavia."

She scrolled to a later record and read the information in stunned, sickened silence. "There were others before me, but they died as infants in the medical trials. Dr. Lewis apparently discovered a combination of chemicals and synthetically engineered immunosuppressants that could inhibit blood thirst and halt genetic transformation. He tested it on us, knowing some would die."

Chase's mouth was pressed in a flat line as he read the record along with her. "Life means nothing to Dragos and his followers. Not even the most innocent."

Tavia paged to a different section of her file and quickly read the contents. "He's orchestrated every aspect of my life from the moment I was born. The medical trials and lies about who I was would've been bad enough, but that was only the start of it." She pointed to a notation about her photographic memory. There were references to detailed exercises the clinic had put her through in order to help build her innate ability and hone it like a weapon. There were other documents too, explaining hypnosis sessions that had gone on for hours and days at a stretch – time in which they'd pumped her unconscious mind for information, forcing her to document everything she'd seen and heard, page after page of details, written while her mind and body were under a narcotic spell. It had all been training for the real mission Dragos had in store for her.

Tavia pulled up another entry, no longer shocked by anything she read. The reality of it settled on her like a wet, cold blanket. It chilled her to the bone, made her ache inside with a void she thought might never be filled.

"He used me, Chase. He created me so he could use me. From the very beginning, just like Aunt Sarah – " She stopped herself, closing her eyes at the pang of hurt that welled inside her from the betrayal. "Just like the Minion who pretended to be my aunt had said. Dragos has owned me from day one. He made sure I had the right education, the right contacts, the right social skills and access. Then he cleared the path for me to get my job with an up-and-coming political star like Senator Clarence. All that time, I was nothing but a puppet for him."

"We're all puppets as far as Dragos is concerned. Every living being on this planet is either a tool for him to use or an obstacle that needs to be pushed out of his way."

There was a gravity to Chase's voice that made Tavia's stomach clench with dread. "Can he be stopped?"

The fact that it took Chase more than a few seconds to reply only made the knot in her gut coil a bit tighter, a bit colder. "I don't know," he said. "If you'd asked me that a year ago, I would've had a different answer. Back then, I believed that good always triumphs over evil. Everything was black or white, right or wrong, and the bad guys always lost in the end."

"And now?"

He exhaled a sharp sigh and shook his head. "Now there are moments when I can't even be sure which side I'm on."

Tavia held his haunted gaze. "You're one of the good guys. Maybe you don't know that. Or maybe you've just forgotten. Maybe someday you'll tell me about it."

For the longest time, he said nothing. Just stared at her in a way that made her heart ache a little for him. In that moment, she had the sudden urge to pull him close and reassure him that he wasn't alone. A crazy thought. One that would only earn her a swift, cutting rejection. If Sterling Chase was alone or adrift in his world, it was because he chose to be. He sure as hell didn't need her sympathy or friendship.

Maybe she was the one who needed reassuring.

Not that she'd find that in the stern face and merciless eyes locked on her right now.

To her relief, Mathias Rowan broke the awkward silence as he strode in from the adjacent hallway. "Damn, Chase, you have to see this place. It's more like a data center than a medical clinic. There's a server room at the other end of this corridor that must have thirty stacks of active drives in it. They must be warehousing millions of gigs here."

"Let's pull it all," Chase said. "Start yanking the drives. We'll take them with us. Maybe Gideon can take something useful off them."

"Right." Rowan nodded and pivoted to carry out the order. He froze an instant later, head cocked.

Tavia heard it too – a vague disturbance in the air outside the clinic building. Nearly indiscernible, yet unmistakable to her heightened senses.

"Shit." Chase swung a grim look at Rowan and her. He kept his voice low, barely above a whisper. "We've got company on the way. We need to clear out."

"What about the servers?" Rowan asked.

Chase shook his head. "May be too late for that."

"I think I can grab a few."

"Then make it fast."

When Rowan took off in a flash of movement, Chase grabbed the pistol from its shoulder holster. With his other hand, he took Tavia's arm and hauled her up from the chair at the desk. "You need to get out of here. Now."

She looked back at the printer, still churning out paper from her clinic records. "Wait! I don't have my files. And what if there are more like me still out there somewhere? I need to know. I have to search more of these files."

"Fuck the files. Fuck the others," Chase growled, taking her with him bodily into the hallway. "The only thing I care about right now is making sure you get out of here alive."

He brought her around to the waiting room where the broken window yawned open into the chill night. Chase stopped short. Tavia did too, her lungs freezing in the center of her chest. A huge male form stood in front of them, garbed from head to toe in body-hugging black, like some kind of ninja on steroids. A knit skullcap covered the male's head and half his face, leaving only cold dark eyes visible.

He was Breed; Tavia knew it to the depths of her marrow.

And he was there to deliver death on Dragos's command.

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