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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER SIX)

FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-TWO emails in his in-box since the afternoon – including the one Tavia Fairchild told him she'd sent containing his speech file for the morning fund-raiser. Ever the efficient assistant, she'd gone to the trouble of including a separate file that provided anecdotal remarks about some of the people who'd be attending the charity breakfast. A social cheat sheet to assist him in maintaining his reputation for personability and effortless charm. He barely glanced at the document, finding it hard to care about the pet philanthropic ventures and causes du jour of a bunch of Back Bay socialites or the alma mater team standings of every deep-pocketed corporate executive on the guest list.

Under the low light of the desk lamp in his study, he flipped open his calendar and cast a disinterested eye over the sea of meetings and committees, public appearances and social engagements that filled the pages.

None of it mattered to him, not anymore.

Had it ever? He wasn't sure. He felt a cold sense of detachment from it all. Even from the sight of his own name, from his own being.

Oh, he still had a job to do. It was imperative that he continue his upwardly mobile career trajectory. But all of his old dreams and desires – the personal ambition that used to propel his every careful step – meant nothing to him now.

His life had a new purpose.

Drake Masters – Dragos, the only cause he served now – had shown him a truer path.

He'd made everything clear the last time they'd met. Was it only last night? He couldn't remember exactly how long it had been. Time, like everything else connected to the shell of who he'd once been, had somehow, somewhere, ceased to exist.

To him, it felt as though he'd belonged to his Master forever. There was nothing before or after him. Nothing beyond the purpose to serve at his pleasure and to protect him above all else. Which is why the first thing he'd done upon returning to his North Shore residence was to contact his Master and inform him of what occurred at the police station with the Breed warrior in law enforcement custody.

He'd told his Master about Tavia Fairchild and all her questions – her careless suspicions – too. He'd hoped his Master would not be displeased that he had let the woman out of his sight, but there was no reprimand. In fact, his Master had seemed almost amused by the report.

"Leave the woman to me," he'd instructed. "I will deal with the inquisitive Tavia Fairchild personally. You have your orders, Minion. See that you complete them without delay."

And so he had.

The private audience was already in place for tomorrow evening, a personal favor impressed upon a longtime friend who had risen to one of the highest seats in the nation. His Master would be pleased. And by this time tomorrow, he would have another loyal servant added to his ranks. The Minion smiled, eager to know his Master's approval.

He powered down his computer and was about to rise to go to bed when he heard a muffled noise in the hallway outside his study. He got up and walked to the closed door, then cautiously peered out.

One of his security detail lay motionless on the runner in the hall. His blood soaked the light- colored rug, leaking out swiftly from his slashed throat. The Minion cocked his head, listening to the unnatural quiet of his surroundings. There were no other guards in sight. No raised alarm from anywhere within the large house.

He'd had other men on armed watch tonight. Whoever was inside now had likely killed them all.

Breed.

The Minion's veins jangled with the warning. He drew back quickly into the study and pivoted to shut the door before the danger could reach him.

But it was too late for that.

Death was already in the room with him, manifesting from out of the shadows behind him. The Minion blinked and saw that the illusionary gloom had cleared. Standing in its place was the enemy of his Master. The warrior who should have been dead at the hands of the police tonight. He was barefoot, water dripping from his snow-dampened hair and the sodden blue hospital scrubs that stretched tight and wet around his body. Blood splattered the front of him, though whether from the gunshot wounds he'd sustained at the police station or the spent lives of the men he'd killed on his way inside here, the Minion couldn't tell.

The Breed warrior took a step toward him, eyes throwing off vicious amber light. His fangs were huge, lethal daggers that could shred a body into pieces.

But the Minion wasn't afraid.

He was resolved.

This vampire had come to wring information from him, information he would never get, not even under the worst torture.

He knew that's what awaited him here tonight. Torture, and death.

"You will never defeat him," the Minion stated, devout in his faith of his Master's power. "You can't win."

But there was no uncertainty in the searing glower that leveled on him, only a wild fury that promised a hellish end.

His feet started moving beneath him, old instincts urging his body to flee this threat. He spun around and watched as a sudden stream of blood slashed in an arc across the wall and door in front of him.

His blood.

His hellish end, just beginning.

SHE WAS BURNING UP.

Tavia shifted in her bed, suspended in that thick veil separating sleep from wakefulness. The sheets and comforter were too heavy, her body too warm beneath them in her cotton camisole and panties. In the daze of her fitful slumber, she pushed the covers away, but the heat stayed with her.

It was inside her, not the rash of sudden fire that sometimes swept across her skin and nerve endings when she went too long without her medicines, but another kind of heat. Something slow building and fluid, a hot unfurling from deep within her.

Sensation tingled at her breasts, a sweet ache that traveled over each nipple and swell, then down toward her belly. Eyes closed, sleep still holding her in its web, she arched into the pleasure, wanting the feeling to linger in one place yet hungry to feel it all over her too. Deep inside, her senses were coming alive, reaching, the same way her body roused to its erotic demand.

The heat licked a trail that plunged lower now, playing at the flare of her hip bone. Then down onto the tender flesh of her naked thigh. Her blood rushed through her veins and arteries. She could feel it surging with each rising beat of her heart.

Anticipation simmered as the hot, wet heat stirred the small nest of curls between her legs. Yes. The silent plea echoed in the heavy pound of her pulse. Yesss …

She knew it was only a dream. Her semiconscious mind understood that this phantom lover seducing her now couldn't be real. She'd never been with a man. Had never felt a questing, hungered mouth on her body. Not even on her lips. She couldn't. Her reality was too fragile, too constricted by fear and shame.

But not now.

Not like this, when she was dizzy with arousal from a dream she couldn't bear to leave. With sleep and pleasure enticing her to stay, she reached down to touch the part of her that was melting, alive with sensation. Her fingertips were his tongue, silky and relentless, kissing and stroking her in all the right places.

She pictured broad shoulders between her legs. Smooth skin and lean, hard muscle rubbing against her nakedness.

Surrender, let it all go. The low voice spoke inside her mind, the encouragements he murmured being so seductive she could feel his hot breath skating against her enlivened flesh. I want to see you, taste you, all of you. I want to make you scream my name.

But she didn't know his name, logic that tangled in the gossamer threads of the dream. She pushed away the intrusion of her conscience and sank further into her fantasy. She had no choice but to surrender, because the pleasure was coiling tighter now, her skin tingling, every inch of her on fire … on the verge of disintegration. She writhed on the bed, unable to take much more. And then his voice was beside her ear. His mouth was wet and warm against her neck, his voice a deep vibration she felt all the way to her bones. Let me taste you, Tavia …

"Yes," she whispered into the darkness of her bedroom. "Oh, God. Yes."

She felt his mouth open on her neck, his tongue and teeth pressing down onto the tender flesh, piercing it. She cried out at the pain of his sharp bite, shock and pleasure exploding at once and sending the flood within her crashing over its banks.

She was drowning in the dream now, helplessly adrift as her phantom lover rose up to look at her where she lay beneath him.

It was him.

The man from the police lineup. The shooter from the senator's party. The steely-eyed, deadly menace whose face had haunted her from the moment she first laid eyes on him.

Poised above her now in her dream, his gaze was no less cruel, still unflinching, devoid of mercy. His lips were parted, and his broad, sensual mouth – the mouth that had given her such pleasure – was slick and dark with blood.

Her blood.

The realization raked through her as startling as a blade against her skin. He smiled then, beautiful and terrifying, baring the pearly tips of razor-sharp fangs … "No!" Tavia jolted to full wakefulness at the sight of them, her horrified scream raw in her throat. She sat up, panting and shaken, even while her body still thrummed from release. A knock on her bedroom door had her scrambling to cover herself.

"Tavia, are you all right?" the older woman's voice called through the closed door. "Is anything wrong?"

"I'm fine, Aunt Sarah. Nothing's wrong."

There was a hesitation, but only for a moment. "I heard you cry out in your sleep. Not another night terror, was it?"

No, something even worse, she thought. The night terrors had never started out so pleasantly, only to turn so hideous in the end. "It was nothing, really." She somehow managed to keep the distress from her voice. "I'm okay. Please don't worry. Go back to bed."

"You're sure? Can I get you anything?"

"No, thank you." Tavia closed her eyes in the darkness of her room, trying to forget the disturbing dream that was still ripe in her mind, still alive on her skin and in the pounding rhythm of her pulse. "Good night, Aunt Sarah. See you in the morning."

More silence as her worried aunt and caretaker waited outside her room. Then, finally, "All right. If you say so. Good night, sweetheart."

Tavia sat there for a long moment, listening to the sound of retreating footsteps and the soft creak of her aunt's bedroom door down the hall.

She swung her feet to the floor. Padded across the carpet to the cold tiles of her bathroom. Her face was pale and stricken in the medicine cabinet mirror. She slid the glass panel open and took out one of the monstrous pill bottles – the one Dr. Lewis prescribed to combat the anxiety attacks that had plagued her most of her life.

Tavia shook out one of the big white capsules and tossed it into her mouth, washing it down with a quick swig of water from the bathroom tap. Better make it a double. She'd never had a better reason to take the maximum dose. She swallowed the medicine and another mouthful of water, then headed back to bed.

Twenty minutes and she'd be under a heavy, medicated drowse. She climbed under the covers and waited for the powerful meds to obliterate all thought of the man who'd invaded her dreams like the dangerous criminal he'd proven himself to be.

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