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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR)

TAVIA TOOK HER TIME showering and getting dressed, listening for Chase's return.

But it had been more than two hours. Daybreak would be coming soon, and he was still gone. Possibly gone from her life for good.

She staggered under the weight of that thought.

It was impossible to think of her life as it was now – her new life, the one based finally in truth – and not imagine Chase as part of it. She was bonded to him, not only by blood. She cared about him deeply. She loved him, and would have done so even without the unbreakable connection that linked her to him on a visceral, preternatural level.

And because she loved him, she couldn't stay there now.

He was right; what happened between them earlier could never happen again. She'd felt the power of his hunger, the depth of his mounting addiction. She'd felt how intensely he had reacted to her blood. How easy it would have been for him to lose control completely and slide over the edge of an abyss from which he might never return.

She couldn't bear to contribute to his struggle.

As she stepped out into the corridor from the bedroom, she heard some of the Order's women talking where they'd apparently gathered in the kitchen. The aromas of freshly brewed coffee and breakfast drifted toward her, along with the Breedmates' quiet conversation.

"Think about it for a minute now. Haven't you ever wondered what it is that makes us different from other women?" The velvety voice belonged to Savannah. "What if Jenna's dream can explain some of that?"

"Atlanteans? You can't be serious." This from Rio's mate, Dylan.

Gabrielle answered her. "It wasn't that long ago that most of us were saying the same thing about the Breed. Not that I'm finding it any easier to wrap my head around the idea that the birthmarks we all share have some kind of link to an immortal race of warriors."

Tavia took a few steps up the corridor and saw Hunter's ebony-haired Breedmate come out of the kitchen with plates for the dining room table. Corinne spoke as she set the places. "I was orphaned as an infant and taken in by a Darkhaven family. Never knew either of my birth parents. Neither did my adopted sister, Charlotte."

"That's true of you and Elise and Renata and Mira," Dylan replied. "But how do you explain the rest of us?"

"You can add Eva and Danika to that list too," Savannah said. "Both of them were foundlings, raised in the Darkhavens."

Tavia really didn't want to be noticed, particularly creeping out from the bedroom like a wraith, but there was no clear shot to the front door without someone seeing her. She paused as Elise came out of the kitchen with a tray full of stacked cups and saucers.

"Actually, most of the Breedmates I've known were either orphaned or abandoned as babies or young children. That's how so many of us end up in foster care or runaway shelters."

Dylan came out carrying a steaming mug of coffee. "Well, I knew my dad, and he was nothing special. Just a garden-variety huckster, con man, and drunk who caused my family a lot of heartbreak before he split for good. Tess's father died in a car crash when she was a teenager. And didn't Alex's dad pass from Alzheimer's?"

"He did," Kade's Breedmate from Alaska replied as she handed off silverware to Corinne. "Hank Maguire was the only dad I ever had, but he wasn't my birth father. My mom never told me who my real father was. She took that secret with her when she died."

"I never knew my parents either," Gabrielle put in. "My mother was institutionalized as a teenage Jane Doe soon after I was born. All my records are sitting in DCF files somewhere in Boston."

"We can't forget Claire's father," Dylan added, obviously un-swayed. "He and her mother were both killed in Africa by rebel warfare. So that rules him out as an immortal."

"Look," Jenna said, coming out of the kitchen now too. "I'm not trying to say I know all of this for sure, but I know what I saw. The Ancients were at war with a race of beings that were something other than human. They hunted these warriors over centuries, across continents. And the only way to kill them was by taking their heads."

"Hi, Tavia." Mira had come out of a room off the hallway and strode right past her with a little wave of greeting. "Are you going to have breakfast with us?"

"Oh. I …" She glanced up to find several pairs of eyes on her now. Elise, Dylan, and Gabrielle had come into the corridor to look at her questioningly. "I was just … taking a little walk, that's all."

Mira shrugged. "Okay. But you won't want to miss out on blueberry pancakes with whipped cream."

As the girl wandered into the kitchen with the other Breedmates, only Elise remained. Her soft eyes were sympathetic. Far too knowing for Tavia's comfort. "Something happened with Sterling." Not a question, a gentle statement of fact. "Is he gone again?"

Tavia nodded, seeing no sense in denying it. "A couple of hours ago. I don't know if he'll be coming back."

Elise let out a small sigh. "I'm sorry. I saw how he was with you. If he left, don't think it's a question of whether or not he cares for you. It was plain to me – to everyone – that he does." Tavia shrugged, managed a faint smile. "I can't stay now either."

The female's expression went a bit cautious. "Perhaps you should talk with Lucan first." "Is that a polite way of telling me I'm not allowed to leave?" She exhaled a soft apology. "When Chase comes back – if he comes back – I don't want to make things harder for him. He needs the Order."

"Yes," Elise agreed. "I think he needs you too."

Tavia shook her head, wishing that was true. "I have to go."

"Stay for breakfast, at least," Elise offered. "The warriors and Renata will be here before sunrise. Perhaps Sterling will be back by then too."

"I can't," Tavia replied. She glanced past Elise as Dylan popped her fiery red head out from the dining room.

"Are we setting another place at the table?"

"That's what we're discuss – " Elise's words were left unfinished.

Because in the time it took for her to swivel her blond head around to answer Dylan, Tavia had summoned the speed given to her by her Breed genetics and had disappeared out the front door.

HE WAS AN IDIOT.

It had taken him several hours to arrive at that realization. Several dozen miles of running like a wild animal through the cold, dark wilderness to understand he would never be able to get far enough away from his biggest problem: himself.

He had to face his demons, not hope he could outpace them or deny them.

Tavia had been teaching him that by example from the moment he first laid eyes on her. He'd just been too thick-headed to grasp the concept.

He'd hurt her earlier, scared her, and he needed to repair that damage – if she'd let him. He didn't know how to live with someone, how to love someone the way a special female like Tavia deserved, but he wanted to try. As unsure as he was about proving himself worthy of her, he could not imagine his life without her.

He loved her, and if it took locking himself up below the Order's new compound to starve the Bloodlust out of him, then he was damn well good and ready to get started.

His bare feet flew over the snow and ice of the forest floor. He felt none of the cold, only the warm promise of a future he hoped to convince Tavia to share with him as his mate.

But as the sprawling bulk of the stone-and-timber compound appeared in the distance ahead of him, Chase realized she was gone.

He felt her absence even before he climbed back in through the window she'd left open in the bedroom where they'd made love. Where he'd fallen on her like the animal he was and fed until she was weeping and terrified. His blood told him she was nowhere near now.

By the vacant chill of his veins, he guessed that she was easily miles away. He'd lost her, probably forever.

He should be relieved, for her, if not himself. She'd made the decision for him. The safest one. The only one that wouldn't put her life at risk every time she got near him.

He sat down on the edge of the empty bed, naked, bereft.

Dawn was rising, sending slivers of pale pink light down through the thick canopy of pines outside. He watched it for a moment, unable to summon the desire to close the shutters. The house's electronic security took care of it for him, automated steel louvers locking tight, blotting out the morning.

He didn't know how long he sat there. When the hard rap sounded on the door behind him, his voice was a rusty sound in the back of his parched throat. "Yeah."

"Harvard." Dante spoke through the closed slab of hand-hewn wood. "You two decent in there, man?"

Chase gave a faint scoff. "She's gone," he murmured.

The door opened and Dante stepped inside. "Jesus, it's freezing in here. What do you mean, she's gone?"

Chase pivoted his head to meet his old friend's confused frown, turning amber high beams on him. The warrior lifted his chin, dark brows rising as he took in Chase's feral appearance. "Ah, shit. You didn't – "

"I drank from her," Chase admitted. "Things got … out of hand. I scared her pretty bad. I hurt her, and now she's gone."

Dante stared at him for a long moment, studying him. "You care about this female."

"I love her. That should be reason enough for me to let her go, right?" He slowly shook his head, considering how much better off she'd be without him. "I'm the last thing she needs in her life."

"More than likely," Dante replied, grave. No mercy in his voice or in the sober eyes that held Chase's amber-swamped gaze. "She doesn't need you in her life like this, my friend. Nobody who cares about you wants to be there to watch when you crash and burn. I'd say least of all her. I don't mean to be harsh. You're trying to get your shit together, I can see that."

"Yeah," Chase agreed. "I have to. I want to prove to her that I can beat this."

Dante shook his head. "No, man. First, you have to want to prove it to yourself."

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