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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT)

IT WAS THE LAST PLACE he wanted to be.

The fucking last thing he wanted to do was stand around like the interloper he was and watch as Dante and Tess presented their son to Gideon, his appointed godfather. Not that Chase begrudged the choice. It was the right thing to do for their child, the best thing. Should anything happen to Xander's parents before he reached adulthood, the Breed youth would want for nothing. Gideon and Savannah would provide him with all the love and care he could possibly need.

Dante had been insane to suppose that Chase could ever fill that role. Fortunately for him and Tess, Chase had shown them what a poor choice he was before their child took his first breath. And now he would stand by and try to feel unaffected – to feel nothing but relief – as the honor was bestowed instead on Gideon.

All the worse that Tavia would be there to witness it too.

She didn't know the tradition or politics of the ritual, or the amount of fuck-ups and disappointments it took for Chase to have lost the privilege of being the infant's appointed guardian. But as they all entered the prepared sanctuary to take their seats in the wooden pews, he knew she could feel his shame, and that was enough.

Or so he thought, until Tavia's gaze lit on Elise across the candlelit room.

She held her surprise, but he felt her go a bit still beside him as she looked at the woman who had once been part of his family. Part of his life's deepest shame.

Elise stood at the front of the little sanctuary room with Gideon and Savannah and Dante, Tess and the baby. She'd been assisting with the silks to be used in the ceremony, but when her pale lavender gaze lit on Chase and Tavia, she whispered something to the waiting couples and started walking over. Tegan intercepted her halfway, wrapping a protective arm around her as he escorted her toward them. His expression was guarded and watchful, a male prepared to spill another's lifeblood right in the middle of the holy space if it meant keeping his mate safe from harm.

And little wonder he felt that way where Chase was concerned. Chase could still feel Elise's open hand cracking across his face from the last time he saw her. A strike he'd more than deserved for what he'd said to her in the days leading up to his separation from the Order. But this was something different.

He watched the mated couple come toward him – Elise beatific and radiant, Tegan glowering and possessive – and he suddenly knew.

She was newly pregnant.

It should have hit him harder than it did. Maybe it would have, had Tavia not been standing beside him, her calm, nonjudging gaze watching him in quiet understanding as the couple approached. She was steady and serene, tranquil waters when he'd grown so accustomed to riding out his storms alone.

"Sterling," Elise whispered as she paused in front of him. She started to reach out to him, then seemed to think better of it, clasping her hands in front of her. "I'm so relieved that you're all right. The way you left us in Boston the other morning … we've all been fearing the worst." "I'm sorry for the worry," he murmured. "That wasn't my intent."

"No," she said. "You intended to save us that day. And you did. What you did for all of us in that moment was – "

"Honorable," Tegan finished for her. "Fucking suicidal too, but that's beside the point." Chase gave a vague lift of his shoulder, dismissing their gratitude. One noble gesture couldn't earn back everything he'd thrown away, no matter how badly he suddenly wanted to think it could. It would take time to prove himself fully to his brethren again. Time he wasn't sure he had when hunger was gnawing at him from far within the pit of his soul.

His hands were twitchy at his sides, his veins beginning to jangle, giving him the sudden, rising urge to hightail it out of the place and run deep and long into the night. As the dark impulse built inside him, he felt Tavia's fingers brush lightly against his. She knew what he was feeling, and her offered hand was just the mooring he needed. Their fingers twined, he cleared his throat and made the introductions.

"Tavia Fairchild, this is Tegan's mate, Elise."

"I'm also Sterling's former sister-in-law," she said, smiling with genuine kindness. "Yes, I know," Tavia replied. "It's good to meet you."

"Likewise." Elise's gaze drifted down to their joined hands and a tender light came into her eyes. "Maybe after the ceremony, I can show you around the house and grounds?"

Tavia smiled. "Sure, I'd like that."

"I should go back and take a seat now. We were just about to begin."

As she and Tegan started to turn away, Chase reached out to take a light hold of Elise's arm. "Wait."

Tegan's answering growl was low and dark, well within his rights. His eyes flashed with amber sparks. Chase let go and blew out a hasty apology. "I just wanted to say congratulations. To both of you. About the baby. I'm happy for you both."

Elise beamed up at Tegan, then turned her joy on Chase. "Thank you. That means a lot to me, Sterling. It means a lot to both of us."

Tegan grunted and took Chase's offered hand in a firm shake. The blond warrior's hold hesitated, no doubt reading the emotional truth of Chase's words with the power of his touch. Chase didn't recoil under the extrasensory probe; he truly had nothing to hide. Tegan nodded, then drew his hand away and clapped Chase's shoulder. "Good to have you back, Harvard." The pair walked off to take their seats near the front of the small sanctuary.

Chase turned back to Tavia. "She and Tegan have been mated for just over a year. I should've told you she was part of the Order now."

"It's all right. I was surprised to see her, but it's okay." She held his gaze, not with jealousy or anger, but with genuine care and concern. "What about you? Are you okay with Elise being here, and being mated to one of your friends?"

"Yeah, I am." He nodded, rubbing the pad of his thumb over the back of Tavia's hand, their fingers still entwined. "She's mated well. They both have."

For one insane moment, he pictured himself mated as happily as Tegan and Elise. It wasn't something he'd ever wished for himself, but now, with Tavia's hand enveloped in his, his mind was swamped with imaginings of what his future might hold if she were his blood-bonded mate. Impossible dreams.

His hope for any kind of future with Tavia would expire the first time he let his thirst rule him. He told himself it didn't matter as the ceremony got under way and he and Tavia found their places by themselves in the last row of pews.

With Gabrielle holding the baby at the front of the room now, Elise and the other Breedmates lit eight white candles arranged in a large circle around Dante, Tess, Gideon, and Savannah – an infinite ring connecting them in this moment. There were no white-hooded tunics for the four of them; it was doubtful there'd been time to gather much of what they needed between the evacuation of the Boston compound and the ceremony tonight. But they had the eight thin lengths of virgin white silk, and as the candles were being lit all around them, Dante, Tess, Gideon, and Savannah braided the pieces together into a woven cradle they held suspended between them, a symbolic link between parent and guardian.

Lucan stood front and center, sober in his duty as officiant of the ceremony. "Who brings this child before us tonight?"

"We do," Dante and Tess answered in unison. "He is our son, Xander Raphael." At Lucan's nod, Gabrielle carried the naked baby over to his parents and placed him in his mother's arms. With Dante holding one end of the woven cradle and Gideon and Savannah holding the other, Tess lifted Xander up to the gathered assembly.

Beside Chase on the pew, he could feel Tavia holding her breath, watching in awestruck silence as the ceremony unfolded.

"This babe is ours," Tess and Dante recited together. "With our love we have brought him into this world. With our blood and lives we sustain him, and keep him safe from all harm. He is our joy and promise, the perfect expression of our eternal bond, and we are honored to present him to you, our kin."

"You honor us well" came the singular reply from everyone gathered in the room.

Even Chase found himself murmuring the traditional reply, anticipating the ritual still to come. He'd witnessed countless such rites in the Darkhavens, for births and deaths and marriages, but ceremony among his warrior brethren was a rare thing. And this – a baby presented before the compound – was a first.

Which made it even more powerful as Tess returned her child to Lucan's arms and took her place once more beside Dante. Lucan's deep voice boomed heavy and unrushed as he pivoted toward Gideon and Savannah. "Who pledges to protect this child with blood and bone and final breath should duty call upon it?"

"We do," the pair replied together, words that tasted bitter on Chase's tongue as he pushed them back down his throat unspoken. He saw Dante's gaze search him out through the gathering, and he forced himself to offer a nod of acceptance, of sincere approval, for the decision his friend had made in the best interests of his son.

The soundness of that decision hit Chase even more pointedly in that next instant, when Lucan placed Xander in the center of the woven cradle and Gideon proceeded with the final step of the ritual. Bringing his wrist to his mouth, Gideon sank his fangs into his flesh, then turned and did the same to Savannah's wrist.

Chase knew it was coming, but as soon as the scent of fresh blood permeated the room, his body seized in a violent tremor. He struggled to get it under control, but the hunger was fierce. His fangs punched out of his gums to fill his mouth.

"Chase?" Tavia whispered softly beside him. "Are you okay?" She reached up to touch his cheek, her pretty face twisted in concern and bathed in the glow of his transformed irises. At the front of the room, Gideon and Savannah were now holding their wrists above Xander, blood droplets raining down on his naked skin to signify their vow to surrender their lives for the protection of his.

Chase couldn't remain there. Not without losing his head and ruining the entire ceremony. Miserable with himself, Chase pivoted off the pew and slipped out of the sanctuary as quietly as he could manage. He stumbled up the corridor to the great room and through the French doors leading to the deck outside. Leaping off it, he ran for the deep gloom of the surrounding trees. By the time he took his first gasp of crisp night air, he was sick with hunger, lungs sawing, stomach feeling shredded to pieces inside him. He dropped to his hands and knees in the snow, dragging in one wheezing breath after another.

"Chase?" Ah, Christ. Tavia. She'd followed him outside. It killed him to let her see him like this, weak and heaving like the junkie he was. He'd never forgive himself if he did anything to hurt her. "Get away from me, Tavia. Just – go back inside."

"What's happening to you? Talk to me, Chase."

"Leave, Tavia. Now." He flinched when she bent down to touch his hunched back. "For fuck's sake, stay away from me!"

She drew up short at his violent snarl, but there was no fear in her eyes, no pity or revulsion. Only concern. "You need help. I'm going inside to get someone – "

"Don't. Please. Not them." The words rasped out of him, raw and desperate. He shook his head, miserable as he looked up at her, knowing how he must appear to her now. So weak. So diminished. Pathetic. No shadows to conceal him, no bravado or fury to mask the truth of what he'd become. He groaned, whether from the anguish of his thirst or the depth of his humiliation, he wasn't sure. "I don't want anyone to see me like this."

Not even her.

Especially not her, but Tavia wasn't leaving. No, she knelt down next to him in the snow. Stroked her hand gently over his back, through his short, sweat-dampened hair. "I can feel your hunger … and your pain. You're shaking with it, Chase. My God, you're starving. If you need blood, take it."

"No." He choked the denial, even as his fangs tore farther out of his gums. His throat was ash, blood thirst raking him like nails over scorched earth. His fevered eyes lit on the pulse point ticking at the base of her neck. Hunger spiked, hard and demanding. "Please, Tavia. Go back inside. Before I …"

"Before you drink from me?" Her gaze was steady on him, unafraid. "It's okay, Chase. I'm here for you. I would let you – "

"No." He hissed a sharp curse and swung his head away from the temptation of her vulnerable throat. "No. Never with you."

"Because you don't want to bind yourself to me."

That quiet guess was so far removed from the truth, it brought his wild amber gaze right back to her. "Because once I have a taste of you, I don't trust myself to stop. You shouldn't trust me either." His voice was little more than a growl, animal and raw. "I'm sick, Tavia. This thing's had its talons in me for a long time. I'm not sure how much longer I can fight it."

She stared at him, studying the misery that had to be written all over his face and in the churning fury of his dermaglyphs. Some of the color drained out of her as comprehension dawned, cold and certain. "You're talking about Bloodlust. That's what this raw, shredding ache is that I feel in your veins all the time. It's your addiction."

No sense in denying it. She was the only person he couldn't hide from, the one person whose rejection would cut him the deepest.

He groaned, weathering another savage convulsion of his insides. Sweat popped all over his skin and across his brow, chill and damp in the cold winter air. When the worst of it gripped him, it was Tavia's tender hands that drew him back from his pain. She sat down on the frozen ground beside him and stroked his face with gentle care, courageous despite his feral condition. "When did this start, Chase? How long have you been fighting it?"

Her touch gave him strength, brought the words up from his scorched throat like a balm drawing poison from a wound. "Six years," he admitted hoarsely. It all came up at once now, acrid and raw. "I've been hiding it from everyone since the night of my brother's death." She ran her soothing fingers along the tense line of his clenched jaw. "What happened that night? I know you held something back when you first told me about Quentin's death. You said you didn't remember, but you do … you remember it all, don't you?"

He nodded, sick with the truth of his actions yet unable to deny them to her. He recalled every second of those blood-soaked hours surrounding Quent's death. Every one of the Rogues he'd slaughtered in his thirst to avenge his fallen kin.

And he remembered the shame of his actions afterward too, when his guilt had driven him to an even further low.

"I was the one who brought in the Rogue who killed my brother. Son of a bitch had drained two humans outside a Goth bar in Cambridge. I should've ashed him on the spot, but that was against Agency policy." He scoffed, still feeling the bite of fury like acid on his tongue. "So I hauled him in, and Quent put him on ice for questioning and processing. He was only in the room alone with the blood-crazed bastard for a few minutes. By the time Quent hit the alarm, he was already bleeding out from the gaping shank wound in his throat."

"Oh, Chase." Tavia's voice was a whisper on the chill night breeze, full of the same shock and anguish that he felt coursing through him now as he relived the awful moments. "I'd done a weapons search on the Rogue when I brought him in, but somehow he got the makeshift blade past me. I failed my brother." He blew out a raw curse. "I might as well have stabbed him with my own hand."

"No," Tavia said, shaking her head as she caressed him. "God, no. You can't blame yourself."

"Really?" His voice was airless, as cold as the night around him. "Do you know how many times I wondered what it would've been like to live without the weight of Quent's shadow hanging over me? There were times I fucking wished for it, Tavia."

She stared at him, no doubt appalled now. Her fingers fell away from him, her exhaled breath clouding in the chill before being swept away into the dark. "You didn't kill him, Chase. Everyone makes mistakes."

"Not one of August Chase's sons," he replied, bitter with self-loathing.

He recalled the whispers that followed in the immediate aftermath of Quentin's death. Elise's horror had been the worst to bear. Her questions and confusion when she'd arrived at the Agency headquarters to see her dead mate still rang in his head: How could this have happened, Sterling? Who brought the Rogue in? Who was responsible for searching him for weapons? Sterling, please tell me Quentin's not really gone!

"I wanted to make it right somehow, but there was nothing I could do. Not even killing the Rogue who killed my brother made my guilt any lighter." He swore roughly and raked a hand over the aching bones of his face. His hunger still rode him, but as he sucked the wintry cold into his lungs, some of the burn had begun to ebb. "I went back to the Goth club where I'd picked up the Rogue earlier that night. There was another lurking outside, waiting for his prey. I took out some of my rage on him, then forced him to tell me where his nest was. A group of Rogues had squatted in a warehouse at the ass end of the Charles River. I killed them all, brutally, practically bathed in their blood. And I didn't stop there. I couldn't. The violence had me by then. By the time dawn started to break, I'd killed my first human and was teetering on the edge of a thirst I could barely contain. I've been fighting it ever since."

"Bloodlust," she murmured quietly.

He nodded. "Near enough to taste it. There's a tipping point in the disease that I haven't reached yet. If I cross that line and turn Rogue, I'm lost."

"Like Quentin and Elise's son?" she asked, her brow furrowing now. "You told me that's what happened to him, before you …"

"Before I shot him," he said, the admission bitter even now. "Yeah. But with Camden it was different. He'd gotten mixed up with a new club drug that had been making the rounds last year in Boston. It was called Crimson. The shit was potent, a speedball designed especially for the Breed. One whiff or taste of that red powder and it was all you could do not to fuck, fight, or fang everything in your reach."

"My God," Tavia gasped. "It sounds terrible."

Chase grunted. "Not if you're a young male bored out of his skull in the Darkhavens. They ate it like candy, and some of them learned that it was the fast lane to Bloodlust. Cam was one of them."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "Me too. The Order and I took out the Crimson dealer's lab, destroyed all of the product. Well … almost all of it. I kept a vial of it for myself. One last dose, enough to be lethal."

"The silver container I found in your desk in Boston," Tavia murmured. "Why would you want to keep something like that?"

He didn't have to answer. She would read his logic plainly enough. The dose of Crimson was his escape plan, his silver bullet, should Bloodlust finally pull him under all the way. Which more and more didn't seem so much a question of if but when.

He ground out a raw curse.

Walk away. That's what he should do – what he'd done every other time shit got too real for him, too heavy to deal with. And there was a part of him now that wanted nothing more than to vanish into the night and never look back. Just run … until he met daylight and all his problems – all his damnable failures, past, present, and future – were eaten by the sun.

That would have been the easy thing for him to do. Hard was making himself sit there and sweat through the shudders that were wrenching his body from the inside out. Hard was laying his weaknesses and his ugliest sins bare as he looked into Tavia's tender gaze and waited for the moment her concern mutated into justifiable contempt. Or worse, pity.

But Tavia's eyes wouldn't release him. Those clear, calm, spring-green eyes held him in the darkness like a caress. As he looked at her now, he realized the feral glow of his own gaze had banked. His irises no longer washed her in amber fire. Even the hungered throb of his fangs had eased in the time he'd been out there alone with her.

"You haven't lost the fight yet, Chase," she told him. "Isn't there anything you can do to help yourself get better? Maybe I can help you over time. I'd like to try, if you'd let me." He stared at her, leveled by the genuine compassion – by the depth of feeling he could hardly fathom – that shone from her beautiful face. He couldn't resist reaching out to stroke her cheek. "How can you be so caring after everything you've just heard? When I've done nothing but make your life hell since the moment I first saw you?"

"You haven't made my life hell. Dragos did that." Her hands were warm and soothing against his face as she drew him close and pressed a brief kiss to his lips. "You gave me truth, Chase. You have from the very beginning. You've opened my eyes. I may not like everything I see, but it's real and it's honest and I feel like I'm finally alive. You've given me all of that." He swore under his breath, wondering how it was possible that he'd allowed this female to get under his skin the way she had. Even worse, she had somehow gotten inside his heart, into his very blood.

Ironic that he should find her now, when the last thing he wanted – the very last thing he deserved – was a woman as extraordinary as Tavia Fairchild.

Whether or not he deserved her, Chase couldn't keep from wrapping his palm around her nape and pulling her close for his kiss. She tasted so sweet against his mouth. Felt so good and warm against him as she leaned into his embrace and parted her lips to accept the sweep of his tongue into her mouth.

He could have kissed her all night. Might have, if not for the sudden whoop and shouts of children racing out of the house to play in the snow. Chase pivoted his head to watch Mira, Kellan, and Nathan bound off the deck and into the pine-ringed yard with the compound's two canines – Alexandra's majestic Alaskan gray-and-white wolf dog and a scrappy brownish mutt terrier that belonged to Dante and Tess.

The kids tore right past, barely pausing to notice Chase and Tavia wrapped in each other's arms. Kellan stooped to grab a handful of snow and packed it into a ball. He lobbed it at Mira, missing her by mere inches as she dodged right and retaliated with a projectile of her own. The snowball nailed the teen dead center in the chest.

"Good arm," Chase called to her, which earned him a big grin from the pint-size blond imp. More volleys were exchanged between Mira and the two boys, until suddenly Chase and Tavia found themselves under fire from the trio. They scrambled to their feet, Tavia laughing as Chase tried to pull her to safety behind the trunk of a thick pine. One of Nathan's snowballs smashed into the back of his head, raining icy powder down the nape of his neck and into the collar of his shirt.

"This means war," Chase shouted, grabbing a handful of snow and sending a ball shooting toward the kids and the dogs barking and jumping all around them.

Tavia's giggles were the most miraculous thing he'd ever heard. He wheeled around on her, full of empty bluster. "You think this is funny, female?" Her smile went wider, but her eyes glimmered with as much heat as humor. He stalked toward her, grinning now. Hotter than he should be, with the kids playing behind them in the woods. "You sure you want to take me on?" Tavia's answering look was devastatingly inviting. "Think you can handle it?"

"Try me." He hauled her close and kissed her like there was no tomorrow.

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