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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TEN)

HE WAS HALLUCINATING. Had to be.

Chase knew what Bloodlust could do to one of his kind. He understood how the disease could corrode logic, rob the senses and reason until nothing remained of even the soundest mind. He'd sure as hell felt it nipping at his own sanity in recent days.

Bloodlust had been raking him hard after he left the detective back at the police station parking lot. The hand-to-hand combat with the two unconscious feds and the dead Minion lying in the other room had made it even worse. He was in a bad way, he knew, but never had his affliction manifested in such a crazed mental trick as it did now.

Because what he thought he was seeing on Tavia Fairchild's bared skin was impossible. A pattern of dense but delicate markings tracked her body from neck to torso. They were light-colored, a faint mauve barely darker than her fair skin tone. To his impaired vision, swamped in the amber light of his hunger, the webwork of interconnecting flourishes and twining swirls looked like something he was intimately familiar with.

The markings looked very much like Breed dermaglyphs.

"Impossible," he said, hearing his own confusion in the feral growl of his voice.

Skin designs like these occurred only on his kind. And courtesy of a genetic anomaly of the race, beginning when the Ancients sired their young on Breedmates and created the Breed, all of Chase's kind – for all the thousands of years they'd existed on this planet – were born male. Through the fog of his questionable reason, he was reminded of Jenna Darrow, the woman who'd recently come to the Order from Alaska following an assault by the last of the Ancients. Brock's human mate had marks like these now, but they were minor in comparison and caused by the alien DNA contained in the rice-size bit of biotechnology the Ancient had implanted in her during her ordeal.

This was something altogether different.

Where the thick terry robe was still loosely fastened at Tavia's waist, the intricate skin pattern disappeared beneath the folds of the fabric. He caught a glimpse of more on her hip as she tried to scramble away from him on the bed.

Jesus, how far did they extend?

He reached for the belted tie, about to yank it open.

"No!" she cried, eyes fixed on him in abject horror as she drew the edges closed in trembling fists. "Get away! Don't touch me!"

Her fear jolted him from the insane tack his mind was taking. He hadn't come there to terrify her. His objective had been to see her safe, to make certain the Minion cop accompanying her didn't harm her. At the same time, he'd been damned curious why Dragos would enlist one of his mind slaves to act as her guard.

That question burned more fiercely as he stared down at her white-knuckled hands that gripped the robe closed over her body like her life depended on it.

Chase laid his palm to her forehead once more, another attempt to trance her, but she had a strong mind that didn't want to go down easy. She fought the lull that should have put her under in just a few moments and would have made it easier for him to decide what to do with her next. She pushed and fought, refusing to surrender despite the fear that he could feel rolling off her tall, deceptively athletic body in waves.

And he had other problems stirring now.

In the room outside, one of the federal agents Chase'd knocked unconscious was starting to rouse. If either of them woke and saw him there, eyes throwing off amber sparks and fangs extended to razor-sharp points, his mind scrub on them a few minutes ago would have been for nothing. And he didn't have time for a do-over.

"Stand up," he growled at Tavia Fairchild. He took off his stolen coat and covered her with it, robe and all. Then he fisted his hand in the woolen lapels and hauled her up off the bed. "Come with me."

He gave her little choice. Pulling her along the short hallway to the living room of the hotel suite, he ignored her choked gasp as she saw the signs of the struggle and the three large law enforcement personnel lying in crumpled heaps on the floor. Her breath was coming fast and hard now, on the verge of hyperventilation.

"You killed them," she cried. "Oh, God … let me go!"

"I only killed the one who needed killing," he said as he dragged her through the room, past the dead Minion. One of the feds moaned, started to move where he lay on the floor nearby. It would only be seconds before he came to, and Chase needed to be gone before that happened. "Please," Tavia choked. "Please, don't do this. Tell me what you want from me!"

God help him, he wasn't sure how to answer that now. All he knew was he had to get out of there and he couldn't leave her behind. So she was coming with him.

When she sucked in a breath and he felt her prepare to let it loose in a scream, he brought the Minion cop's gun around from the back waistband of his pants where he'd stashed it after the scuffle. All it took was one look at the weapon and she got quiet. He never would have used it on her; he was Breed, and that gave him about a dozen other ways he could have threatened her into silence. But the pistol spoke the most convincingly to her mortal sensibilities. "This way," he ordered her. "Quickly."

Shocked and confused, she didn't resist. Chase pushed her into the empty hotel corridor outside the suite, then hustled her toward the back stairwell.

FRESH FROM A SHOWER, Lucan stepped out the French doors of his and Gabrielle's private bedroom at the Maine compound and stood alone on the timber deck. He was naked, beads of water still clinging to his skin, which steamed in tendrils all around him as he walked into the brittle night air. It was cold this far north and this deep into winter, punishingly so. He breathed it in, let it clear his mind and crystallize his thoughts around mission goals and duty. The things he knew best – the burdens he had elected to carry on his shoulders alone when he founded the Order all those centuries ago.

He'd never resented that choice, and he'd be damned if he let himself start doing so now. On a muttered curse, he inhaled another lungful of bracing cold and pushed it deep down, determined to smother the strange ache that had been troubling him all day. It had plagued him longer than that, he had to admit, although it had taken seeing Gabrielle with Dante and Tess's baby before the disturbing ache – the unwanted void – had given itself a name.

It was longing.

Bone-deep, and undeniable.

Christ, he was sick with it.

He saw his beloved mate near the small Breed infant and knew an instant, intense yearning to see her swell with his own sons. Everything male in him had roared with the need to claim her in that most primal, basic way. In that moment earlier today, he had wanted it more than anything he'd ever known.

And that was something he could not afford to feel right now.

Not when their world was in the midst of war with Dragos and everyone was looking to Lucan to lead. Bad enough he worried for Gabrielle every time he left her behind to walk into combat. He couldn't bear to think of possibly leaving her to raise his child alone.

That was why he'd always frowned on warriors taking a mate, had all but forbidden any of them from starting a family while serving the Order. It was just two summers ago when his point had proven out tragically in the Boston compound when Conlan, a member of the Order for more than a hundred years, took a fatal blast of bomb shrapnel and C-4 explosives while on patrol pursuing a Minion. Conlan's grieving widow, Danika, had been forced to release her dead mate to the sun while pregnant with their firstborn. She'd decided to leave Boston soon afterward, devastated and bereft.

Not that the painful lesson had been warning enough to any of the other warriors to avoid emotional entanglements. Somehow, within the space of less than two years, they'd nearly all taken Breedmates – Lucan himself included. Things had only gotten more complicated when Niko and Renata brought eight-year-old Mira in with them as their own child when they'd paired up some six months ago, and now Dante and Tess had newborn Xander Raphael.

Lucan tilted his face up to glower at the pale gray wedge of a waning crescent moon peeking through the canopy of soaring pines overhead. He'd have to be a fool to think about adding another innocent life to the potential casualty list, should this situation with Dragos escalate into the catastrophe Lucan dreaded was coming.

He raked a hand through his damp hair and exhaled a curse into the frigid, dark night. "I didn't realize you'd come back already."

Gabrielle's warm voice jolted him to attention. He turned to face her and was struck, as always, by how beautiful she was. Tonight her long auburn hair was swept up off her delicate nape in a loose twist, curling tendrils framing her pretty face and soothing brown eyes. She was dressed all in black – not the soft colors and easy lines she normally wore, but a low-cut silk blouse unbuttoned to just between her breasts. The fabric was filmy, skating over her alabaster skin and lacy black bra. Her skirt was fitted and clinging to her every curve, hinting at the flare of her hips and her long, lean legs. Sharp-toed, glossy leather boots lifted her a good five inches on thin stiletto heels.

Damn, she was hot.

No wonder he'd been doomed from the moment he first laid eyes on her.

Lucan cleared his throat. "I got back about an hour ago. You look amazing."

She smiled and walked out to meet him, crossing her arms around herself to rub at the cold. Her breath puffed in a light cloud as she spoke. "You've been home for an hour? What are you doing out here?"

Lucan shrugged and brought her under the warmth of his sheltering arm. "Just getting some air."

"It's freezing," she pointed out. "And you're naked."

He put his mouth to her temple. "Suddenly I wish you were too."

Her quiet laugh didn't seem as light as it sounded. "How did it go with Kellan tonight?" "He hunted," Lucan replied. "He fed."

"That's good news."

Lucan grunted. "It'll be good news when he doesn't need to be told to do it or require an escort to make sure it happens."

"He's been through a lot," Gabrielle reminded him. "And he's just a boy. Give him time." Lucan nodded, guessing she had a point. Kellan had been none too pleased to discover Lucan had been serious about taking him out personally to find a blood Host that night if Lazaro hadn't already made firm plans to see the task done. At nightfall, Lucan had found the youth in the Order's makeshift weapons room, engaged in solo mock combat, wielding a pair of long daggers. He wasn't very good – all gangly arms and lanky, uncooperative legs – but he wouldn't have had much practice at battle while living in the Darkhavens. He'd almost cut off his foot with a fumbled blade when Lucan announced they were going hunting right then, just the two of them, together.

Lazaro Archer would have been perfectly capable and ready to take the boy himself, but Lucan had been curious. He'd taken Kellan to Bangor, the nearest city with a decent population and enough public gathering places to select from without being noticed as anything more than tourists from "away."

Kellan had chosen an old drunk sleeping off a bender in the downtown park – easy prey, but the exercise tonight hadn't been about challenge or technique. Lucan had stood back while the boy quickly fed, then left his blood Host in a peaceful, trance-induced drowse. Kellan didn't say two words to him on the drive back to headquarters, but his eyes had lost their dark circles and his skin color was flushed a ruddy, healthy pink from the feeding.

Gabrielle turned a questioning look on him. "You've been back all this time, but you didn't come to find me and let me know? That's not like you."

He kissed her furrowed brow. "You were with Tess. I didn't want to disturb, in case they were resting. Besides, I'd asked Gideon for a systems check earlier today and he'd been waiting for me to return."

Gabrielle's inquisitiveness took on a suspicious edge. "If I didn't know better, I might think you were trying to avoid me."

He scoffed at the idea, but part of him wondered if she could be right. He cast a dark glance up at the night sky and that damned sliver of a moon suspended within it. This was the fertile time for Gabrielle, and for every Breedmate who shared a blood bond with one of Lucan's kind. It took blood and seed given together, a mutual feeding at the moment of release – during the cycle of a crescent moon – to create the spark of new Breed life.

The act was sacred, not to be entered into with any trace of doubt.

Gabrielle stared at him in his silence. She took a small step forward, moving out from under his arm to gaze up at the black velvet sky herself. She released a small sigh, wordless but rife with understanding. She gave her back to the moon and faced him, leaning against the waist-high railing of the deck. "I hear there's been word from Hunter tonight. He and Corinne are on their way north?"

Lucan nodded, more than willing to take her offered detour in the conversation. "Had to wait out the daylight in Pennsylvania, but they're on the road again tonight. They expect to make New England before daybreak, arriving here tomorrow night."

It still seemed strange sometimes to think of Hunter as part of the Order, but the lethal Gen One who'd once served as assassin for Dragos had proven himself to be a vital asset in the short time he'd been with the warriors. Now he was returning from a mission in New Orleans – one that had netted the Order valuable intel from a key area of Dragos's operation. Hunter was bringing that intel with him.

He was bringing something else too: Corinne, his new mate, and the boy she'd given birth to some thirteen years ago, while she'd been held captive in one of Dragos's genetics labs. "I can't say I'm surprised that Hunter and Corinne are together," Gabrielle remarked, as if she were tuned into Lucan's thoughts as much as her blood bond to him had connected them emotionally. "They're both survivors of Dragos's evil. Now they have a fresh start, together. Nathan too, that poor child."

Lucan considered Corinne's Breed son, one of many sired on scores of imprisoned Breedmates whom Dragos had used to create his own private army of first generation Breed assassins. Those Gen One offspring all shared the same paternal DNA – taken from the Ancient that Dragos had kept hidden and secret for centuries, enslaved to do his bidding until the otherworlder escaped to the wilds of Alaska. That Ancient was dead now, killed by the Order after cutting a bloody swath through a number of settlements up there before the attack on Jenna that had left her changed forever.

But his laboratory-bred progeny lived on, raised in solitude by Minions and schooled by Dragos in the art of killing. They were called Hunters, stripped of their identities and all humanity from the time they were born. Boys like Corinne's son, Nathan. And the Order's own Hunter, whose imprisoned Breedmate mother hadn't lived long enough to see freedom from her captivity or been given the opportunity to search for her lost child the way Corinne recently had. Thanks to the dogged efforts of Gabrielle and the other women of the Order, Corinne and the few remaining Breedmate survivors had been located in their secret prison and set free to try to begin their lives again.

"How many boys like Nathan do you think there are?" Gabrielle asked.

Lucan shook his head. "Too many. Dragos has been breeding his assassins for decades, beginning with Hunter, fifty-odd years ago."

"And I suppose we shouldn't expect that Dragos's experiments were limited to his breeding labs," she added, her tone grave. "God only knows the extent of his sick work." "With any luck," Lucan said, "the lab intel that Hunter's bringing back with him from New Orleans will give us some idea about that."

Gabrielle's mouth curved. "I'm sure Gideon can't wait to get his hands on the computer files. Not to mention the genetic samples Dragos had been keeping in cold storage."

Lucan nodded. "I've been hearing about it from Gideon ever since Hunter first contacted us, saying he had the cryo tanks and lab records and would soon be heading our way."

The recovery of the laboratory intel was only the latest blow the Order had dealt Dragos's operation. It was also very likely the thing that had pushed him to the edge, made him desperate enough to pull the trigger on the bombing of the building in Boston and deliver human law enforcement right to the Order's front door.

"This thing with Dragos is far from over," Lucan said, sharing his troubling thoughts with Gabrielle. "He's not finished, not by a long shot. He's going to do something that can't be fixed. I can feel it in my bones. We're never going to be able to go back to the way things were." Gabrielle stepped toward him. She wrapped her arms around his naked waist, her cheek coming to rest warmly against his chest. "You're doing all you can. We all are, Lucan. Put Dragos out of your head for now."

He ground his molars together, ready to tell her there was no way to put the bastard out of his mind. Dragos lived inside him like a ghost now, mocking and foul, oily with menace.

Gabrielle reached up and took his tense jaw in her tender hands. She brought his mouth down to hers, pressing a slow kiss to his lips. "Try to forget him for a little while," she said. Her eyes shone up at him with a hint of mischief. "It is your birthday, after all. Or did you forget?" He grunted, surprised at the reminder. "I never give the day much thought," he said as he stroked his fingertips along the graceful line of her throat.

"Well, I do," she said. "And I have something for you."

She drew out of his arms and walked back into their bedroom. He followed behind her, unable to take his eyes from the sway of her perfect ass that looked even more incredible with every long stride she took in those spiked black heels. She pulled something from out of a bureau drawer on the other side of the room and held it behind her as she turned to face him. "It's not much, just something I thought you'd like to have."

"You didn't have to get me anything," he replied, voice a bit thick now that his fangs were erupting out of his gums in desire for his woman. He wanted to peel her out of that clingy skirt and lick her from the toe of her glossy boots to the peachy tips of the nipples that were pressing through the lacy black bra and gauzy silk of her blouse. "I already have everything I could possibly want."

She brought the gift around, a large, folded square of fabric tied with a red satin ribbon. Gabrielle placed it in his hands. "Open it."

He tugged the bow loose and untied the ribbon. As he began to unfold the embroidered swatch, he realized at once what it was. The tapestry was old – centuries old, a medieval depiction of a dark knight on horseback, a hilltop castle smoldering in the distance behind him. Lucan remembered that moment very well; he'd lived it. He had commissioned the tapestry not long after he'd founded the Order, never suspecting the secrets it would hold within its design, or for how long it would keep them.

The tapestry was important to him for many reasons, but mostly now because his Breedmate had seen to it that the piece made it safely out of Boston.

"You were so busy gathering up combat gear and equipment, I decided to bring a few things of yours from before."

Lucan glanced up to meet his beloved's gaze. "Thank you. I've never had a nicer gift." He put the tapestry down on the bed nearby and pulled Gabrielle into his arms. Their mouths met in a deep kiss, unhurried, sensual. Lucan soaked her in, felt the heat of her body pressed against his naked skin, silk sliding between them as he drew her close and ran his tongue along the wet softness of her lips, desire stirring like a flame meeting gasoline inside him. His breath escaped on a rough growl as he skated his hands along the elegant line of her spine, then down to the strong curve of her backside. She moaned as he caressed and kissed her, the slick tip of her tongue pushing past his teeth and fangs to enter his mouth. Her fingers found his cock and took him in a firm grasp. He was already hard as granite, but her touch sent his blood surging southward, building toward an impossible ache. Mouth locked with his, she toyed with him, lightly stroking his shaft, teasing his balls with just the tips of her fingers.

Lucan brought his hand up between them and palmed her breast, flicking his thumb over the pebbled bead of a nipple that strained against the lace and silk that confined it. He made quick work of the tiny buttons on her blouse, then eased it off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor at their feet. When he started to reach for the front closure on the skimpy bra, Gabrielle took his hand and guided him to her hips.

"Touch me," she whispered around heady kisses. "Feel how much I want you."

He obeyed at once, lifting the long drape of her skirt until he could slide his hand beneath. Her firm thighs were encased in silk stockings that rasped against his roughened fingertips as he stroked up the length of them. The silk ended abruptly, topped off by a band of grippy lace. Her hips and ass were bare.

No panties.

Ah, Christ.

She let go of a shuddery sigh as he let his hands roam over her smooth, naked skin. When he slipped his fingers between the wet satin of her sex, he felt her answering moan vibrate deep inside his own throat. His arousal throbbed with the need to be in her. His blood went molten, desire hot and possessive in his veins. He found the zipper on the side of her skirt and tugged it down. His hands were clumsy and rough as he pushed it over her hips and watched as his woman was revealed to him, in nothing but a black lacy bra, thigh-highs, and gleaming leather boots.

"Holy hell," he murmured, feasting his gaze on her.

She smiled, a catlike curve of her kiss-swollen mouth. "The tapestry might not be the best gift you've ever gotten."

Lucan could only stand there at full attention as she slowly sank down onto those slender heels before him and took his stiff cock in her hands. Her eyes on his, she stroked his shaft and palmed his balls, her thumb working the underside, fingers slick with his arousal. God help him, when her mouth closed around the head of him, he nearly lost it, right on the spot. She sucked him until he could hardly stand it anymore, until all he could do was lift her up to her feet and bury himself to the hilt where they were standing. He didn't know how they made it over to the wall near the open French doors a moment later, didn't have control enough to pause this fevered fucking and bring her to the bed, where he could make love to her properly.

Not that this didn't feel proper. He'd never felt anything more proper in his life than the heat of Gabrielle engulfing him completely, her body caught in his arms, her mouth hungry and demanding on his.

"Feed me," she whispered against his lips now, nipping at him with her blunt little teeth. "Let me drink from you, Lucan."

He couldn't refuse her. There was nothing more intimate than the bond they shared. There was nothing more precious he could offer his mate than the lifeblood that gave her immortality with him and bound her to him for as long as they both drew breath. And drinking from him would heighten her pleasure now like nothing else could.

Gathering her weight in one arm as he continued to thrust into her welcoming body, Lucan brought his other wrist to his mouth and sank his fangs into the veins that pulsed there. Gabrielle drew him to her and latched on hard. She moaned with ecstasy as the first drops of his blood hit her tongue.

He could feel her climax building. His own was right behind her, gaining power as she suckled at his wrist and wrapped herself more tightly around him. He could see her pulse ticking strongly in the veins of her pretty throat. That rhythmic drum pounded inside him too, driving him toward release and beckoning him to take the pleasure that waited just beneath the delicate flesh of his beautiful Breedmate's neck.

Gabrielle's eyes were open, watching him, imploring him. She angled her head, presenting herself to him like an offering atop an altar.

Lucan snarled with the force of the temptation. But his release was too close. And there was a crescent moon out tonight. His gaze flicked toward it through the open French doors and he couldn't bite back his growl.

Gabrielle's mouth drew away from the small wounds on his wrist. She reached up to touch his face, her eyes tender with understanding. "Would it be so bad, Lucan? I want this too." He couldn't speak. He looked into her loving gaze, torn with longing and fear, dread for what kind of future their sons would have if he failed in his mission now. Could he risk that? Could he risk knowing that the sons he shared with Gabrielle might be born into this war of his making – or, worse, become casualties of it?

Gabrielle showed him no mercy. Her lips fastened once more to the open vein at his wrist, as her legs wrapped tighter at his hips, spiked boot heels digging into him like spurs as she held him against her and cried out with the first tremors of her orgasm. Lucan roared as pleasure rocked her body, the sheath of her sex clutching hard around him, tiny muscles coaxing him toward the point of no return.

"Do it," she whispered harshly, lips stained red with his blood as she reached up to take his nape in her palm. She guided his face down to her vulnerable throat. Pressed his mouth against her throbbing carotid as her slender body began to crest beneath him in release. "Oh, God, Lucan. Please … do it now. I can feel how much you want this too."

Lucan's orgasm coiled hard at the base of his shaft. He couldn't stop his hips from moving, couldn't stop his seed from its want to boil over, his release on the verge of exploding. One nick of his fangs against her skin. That's all it would take. One taste of her blood on the tip of his tongue and he would be unable to keep from taking her in full. She'd be pregnant with his child by the end of the night.

Ah, fuck …

"No," he snarled, more to himself than in rejection of what she'd asked of him. His cock shuddered as he drove in deeper, his control beginning to snap its leash. "I can't … I won't do this to you."

He'd barely gotten the words out before his body detonated inside her. His release shot through him, a rushing, endless stream. Lucan turned his face away from the temptation of Gabrielle's fast-ticking vein as his seed flooded her and she went very still against him. "I'm sorry," he murmured when he was finally able to summon his voice again. He gently pulled his wrist out of her slack grasp and sealed the punctures with a sweep of his tongue. "Gabrielle … I'm sorry."

Feeling like a coward and a bastard, he bowed his head to hers and held her in a prolonged and awful silence.

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