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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX)

"I SURE HATE TO SEE a pretty woman drinking alone." Tavia didn't bother to glance up when the middle-age suit down the bar from her at the hotel lounge finally worked up the nerve to saunter over and attempt to strike up a conversation. Her drink was long gone and her burger-and-fries lunch sat barely touched in front of her. "I'm not looking for company."

"I hear ya. Had my fill of people the past couple of days too. Holidays are a bitch like that." His domestic light beer sloshed in the longneck bottle as he gestured to the empty seat beside her. "Care if I sit down?"

She practically snarled. "Would it matter if I said yes?"

He chuckled as if that was invitation enough and plopped down next to her. Without looking at him, she sized him up by scent alone. Cheap hotel soap and designer cologne on his skin, neither of which masked the trace musk of recent sex that clung to him. Fabric softener and spray starch on the white button-down he wore under his discount outlet suit that still carried the tang of jet fuel exhaust from being packed in his luggage on the flight. He wasn't wearing a ring when he came over, but she didn't have to check to know that she'd find a faint outline of one against the tan he probably picked up at Disney World with the family not too long ago.

"You in Boston on business?" she asked.

He set his empty on the bar and pivoted in his seat to face her. "Sales convention here in the hotel the next couple of days. Just got in this afternoon."

Tavia gave him a tight smile, barely resisting the urge to flash a little fang. "You sure don't waste any time. Your wife know you fuck around on her when you're out of town?"

He got quiet all of a sudden. "My … what the hell do you know about my wife?"

She smirked into her plate as he slid off the stool in a huff and shuffled away to rejoin some of the other men in his pack.

Alone once more, Tavia couldn't suppress her soft bark of laughter. Heightened senses could prove quite amusing in this new life she was going to be living as one of the Breed.

She motioned for the bill and began digging in the pocket of her jeans for her money. Before she'd left the house that day, she'd taken the two hundred dollars emergency cash from the kitchen drawer. Not like anyone was going to miss it, after all. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last long, and then she'd have to figure something else out.

She already felt guilty enough, having appropriated a room on her own when the hotel refused to give her one without a credit card and proper ID. It had taken her only a few tries to mentally unlock a vacant room near a stairwell exit. Easy escape, in case someone opened it legitimately with a key and she had to get out of there fast.

"Need anything else here?" the bartender asked as he came over with the check.

Tavia shook her head. "I'm all set." She eyed the total and left him a healthy tip, more than ready to be gone from the place now that the bar was filling up with a dozen more businessmen who reeked of cheap beer, cigarettes, and bad cologne.

She swung off the stool and could hardly get through the crowd that was thickening inside the cramped lounge. They moved en masse toward a flat-screen monitor mounted in the corner of the place at the other end of the bar. She thought maybe there was a big game under way, until several of the gathered men crossed themselves, eyes wide, transfixed by the television. "Holy shit," someone muttered darkly. "Turn that up, will ya?"

The volume bar inched up to full blast and Tavia stared, horrified, as a live newscast played from a satellite link overseas. The reporter was speaking in German, but there was no need to understand the language in order to comprehend what was being said.

The scene taking place on several simultaneous video feeds behind him was utter chaos.

People racing through the darkened city streets, screaming, wailing. Running for their lives. Wild gunfire popping in the distance. Smoke rising from storefronts and high-rises. Cars abandoned in the middle of intersections, doors flung open, metal twisted and crushed by a brute force unlike anything mankind had ever witnessed before.

And the bodies. Dozens of them, strewn about like broken, bloodied dolls.

The reporter went on, his voice cracking with emotion as he attempted to choke back tears while his city was being sacked in front of the world at large. In the end, he lost it. A sob ripped out of him, and in the moment before he dissolved into an unintelligible howl of anguish and terror, one word echoed like a scream in Tavia's heart.

"Vampires."

LUCAN COULDN'T FEEL HIS LEGS.

For the first time in his life, he felt utterly powerless. He stood in the great room of the makeshift, inadequately equipped compound and listened on speaker phone with the rest of the Order's household as Andreas Reichen reported in from Berlin.

At sundown, Enforcement Agency rehabilitation facilities all over Europe were thrown open, setting loose hundreds of blood-addicted Rogues on an unsuspecting, unprepared human public. "It's primarily the larger cities that are seeing the worst of the carnage right now," Reichen said, his accented voice grim and wooden. "In Germany: Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich. France is reporting scores of casualties as well. Poland and the Czech Republic too. More reports are being broadcast live every hour."

Lucan wanted to roar his fury. He wanted to destroy something, bellow his rage until the house came down around his ears in a pile of burning rubble. But he couldn't even unfist his clenched hands. He could hardly form words in his throat, which had gone dust dry and thick the moment the first newscasts delivered word of the vampire attacks overseas only a few minutes ago.

And now Reichen had confirmed the worst.

Dragos was behind it all. This was his checkmate move. The one Lucan hadn't seen coming. The one he never would have believed Dragos capable of, it was so incomprehensible. So final. Arno Pike's taunting words from last night came back to him like a punch to the gut. You're too late … Dragos has already won.

How could the Order fix this?

How could they contain the situation when the number of freed Rogues surpassed them by scores and were spread throughout multiple regions across the globe?

How could anyone hope to undo the damage Dragos had wrought in this single act of retaliation?

The veil of secrecy – of tentative peace – the Breed had lived behind for so long, for millennia – had been ripped away. And it could never be put back. Their kind were exposed to the human world in the worst possible way.

As monsters.

As killers without conscience, without souls.

And the hell of it was, the attacks in Europe were only the beginning. Lucan knew Dragos well enough now to expect that the same carnage and terror would soon be visiting the United States. Canada and Mexico too.

Less than three hours of daylight left.

Nightfall was coming fast.

"Get Mathias Rowan on the phone," he told Gideon. "I want a lockdown placed on every Agency rehab facility across North America. Tell him to get it done now!"

While Gideon ran to make the call, Lucan looked at the warriors and their mates gathered around him now. Dante and Tess, cradling their newborn son. Tegan and Elise, grim with the awareness of the dark world their own son would be inheriting. Rio and Dylan, hands clasped tightly, Rio's scarred face taut and sober. Niko and Renata, both putting on a courageous front as they clutched Mira in a protective embrace. Kade and Alex, huddled close where they stood with Brock and Jenna, his arms wrapped around her as she wept silent tears. Hunter and Corinne, stoic, even though they held each other's hands with white-knuckled intensity, the pair grouped closely with Corinne's son, Nathan, and the Archers. Savannah and Gabrielle stood together on the other side of Lucan, the two women straight-spined and resolute, as brave as any warrior.

And there was Chase as well. He lingered at the edge of the room, uninvited. Nevertheless, he was dressed for battle in night fatigues and combat boots. Weapons bristled from the belt at his lean hips and from the straps that crisscrossed his chest.

Lucan inclined his head in acknowledgment. In trust and thanks. They were going to need all hands on this mission. Chase would never have a better chance to prove himself. Lucan could see from the warrior's gaze that he intended to do just that. Or die trying.

Every pair of eyes was on Lucan, waiting for his decision. Trusting him to make this better. To lead as he'd never been called upon to do before.

He could not fail them.

He would not.

Gideon came back into the room and held a cell phone out to Lucan. "It's Rowan. He says all the North American facilities are offline. Communications are shut down all over the grid. There's no way to call for a lockdown."

Which meant Dragos had anticipated as much and had already covered that base. Lucan cast a grave look at his assembled brethren. "Everybody suit up. We're rolling out before dusk."

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