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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE)

CHASE CLOSED Tavia's bedroom door behind him without making a sound. He'd gotten dressed as soon as he heard the warriors' voices, reassuring Tavia there was no cause for alarm and that she should wait upstairs until he or Rowan came to fetch her.

To his amazement, she didn't try to debate it with him. No doubt she had enough on her mind already, after he'd unloaded his whole inglorious past on her. Or most of it, that is. He hadn't gone so far as to divulge the worst of his shame. If he could help it, she'd never know how dubious his honor truly was.

Not that he let that stand in the way of seducing her here tonight, despite his good intentions. He knew too well where good intentions usually led him, but damn if he could describe making love to Tavia as anything close to hell.

His pulse simmered at the thought of her, and it didn't help matters that he could still smell her on his skin and taste her on his tongue. He could still feel the heat of her body clenched around him. His cock responded with an eager twinge, already on notice and up to a repeat performance.

Ah, shit.

Maybe this was hell after all.

Chase tugged his dark shirt over the growing bulge in his black jeans and headed out to face his former brothers in arms. Downstairs in the Darkhaven's foyer entryway, Tegan's voice rumbled with its typical menacing cool.

"Appreciate the call, Mathias, and the interception of both the female and Chase. Wish we'd gotten here sooner to provide some backup tonight. I would've liked to get a look at those clinic records myself."

"That's right." Nikolai was down there with Tegan too. Chase knew the Siberian-born vampire by his quicksilver chuckle and his airless, icy growl. "Personally, I would've liked nothing more than to help you smoke a couple of brain-rotted Minions and one of Dragos's Terminator freaks of nature."

Chase walked the length of the second-floor hallway and paused at the top of the stairs. Down below, Niko had cocked a sidelong grin at the third warrior accompanying them on this retrieval mission to Boston. "No offense intended by the freak-of-nature crack, Hunter."

The former assassin didn't even blink. "None taken."

Standing with Rowan and the three members of the Order was Niko's Breedmate, Renata. The dark-haired beauty in head-to-toe black leather glanced up as Chase arrived. Pale jade-green eyes skewered him. "Guys," she murmured, alerting them to his presence with a subtle lift of her chin.

Chase started down the stairs without any acknowledgment.

Tegan was first to break the tense silence. "Speak of the devil. Gotta say, I'm surprised to find you waiting here for us, Harvard. Figured you for a quick cut and run. That's more your style these days."

Chase smirked, gave a sardonic grunt. "Now that you mention it, I was actually just on my way out."

He took a few more steps toward the crowded foyer and the Darkhaven door that stood just behind Tegan and the others. Only a few scant yards to freedom. Yet his gait slowed until he was practically standing still.

As much as he wanted to avoid this clash with Tegan, Niko, and the others, he could hardly stand the idea of abandoning Tavia without a word of explanation. Especially now. It would have been easier before, if he'd gone like he'd intended earlier tonight. Before he'd ended up back in her arms. Back inside her sweet, wet heat.

Fuck.

Who was he kidding?

Nothing about walking away from that female would be easy, now or before.

What would Tavia's reaction be when she found out these three warriors and the take-no- prisoners female who could debilitate even the most powerful of the Breed with a single zap of her mind-blasting power were there to take her into Order custody?

He should have explained a few things to her, but he'd been too busy undressing her and making sure her exquisite body would never forget him. Yeah, he should've done a lot of things differently where Tavia was concerned. Losing even more freedom, even more sense of control wasn't going to sit well with her. She was going to be pissed off and confused – pretty much status quo since she'd had the misfortune of crossing paths with him.

As for Chase, facing the disapproving gazes of his brethren was bad enough. He didn't want to see disappointment in Tavia's eyes too.

He took another step down and felt the tension in the warriors below ratchet up a notch. "Where the fuck do you think you're going?" Tegan asked, that deep voice even more lethal in its calm.

The feral part of Chase flared in response to the recognized threat. His blood scraped through his veins, raw and cold. "Don't let me interrupt important Order business," he snarled, more venom in his tone than he'd intended. But it was the affliction speaking for him now, sparking hot like a match to dry tinder and itching for a fight. One he didn't want to start with any of these people.

He'd left the Order on bad enough terms; it would kill him to bring any more disgrace or disappointment to the one group of individuals who'd ever truly known him and appreciated him. And the thought of raising a fist or weapon to any one of them now was enough to make him recoil with shame.

Hands clenched at his sides, he stepped off the last stair. "I've overstayed my welcome already. I'm outta here."

"I don't think so, Harvard." Tegan moved into his path. "You've made yourself Public Enemy Number One with the humans. Lucan wants you off the streets."

"So, what, then? You're here to conduct some kind of intervention?" Chase scoffed, aggression seething in him now. "Well, you can fucking spare me. I didn't ask for it." "No, you didn't." The huge warrior glowered, tawny head tilted down like a bull preparing for the charge. His eyes pierced Chase, merciless in their assessment. There was never any hiding when it came to the Order's second-longest-standing member. Even less of a chance for Chase, when all it would take was one touch of Tegan's emotion-reading hands for him to understand just how close Chase teetered at the edge of disaster. "Maybe you're not comprehending what I'm trying to tell you, Harvard. You're coming back with us. You and the female both."

The feral part of Chase bristled, pulling his lips back from his teeth and fangs in a sneer. "Last I knew, Lucan and the rest of you had written me off. Didn't need to be any clearer to me that I wasn't welcome anymore."

Ever the peacemaker, Rowan cleared his throat. "Chase, for God's sake. Dial it down." Tegan shrugged off the plea, unfazed by the threat of confrontation. "You can either come freely, or we're prepared to take you by force."

When Chase barked out a caustic, humorless laugh, Renata moved in between Tegan and Niko, as graceful as she was dangerous. "I'd listen to him if I were you. We have our orders." "Is that right," he challenged, bearing down on her with a look that had shriveled more than one Agency squad of fully armed Breed males into a knot of anxious, perspiring little girls. But not Renata. Nikolai's Breedmate braced her long legs in a battle-ready stance and stared him right back. Which only pissed him off more. "If you hit me with that mind-zapping talent of yours, better make damn sure you kill me fast. Or you won't even see me coming back at you." Niko's growl was as deadly as Chase had ever heard it. The warrior took a hard step forward, his palm curled around the grip of a nasty-looking semiauto that was holstered under his arm. Chase knew the weapon would be loaded with an arsenal of Rogue-killing titanium hollowpoints – Niko's handcrafted specialty.

The way his blood was raking him now, cold and acidic, Chase had little doubt that one round would probably be enough to smoke him on the spot. God help him, he was half tempted to test the idea right then and there.

Instead, with a curse, he started to lift his hands in a show of surrender.

He barely twitched before he felt the sudden jolt of lightning entering his skull. Renata. She'd opened up on him before he even knew what hit him. It was brief and only a warning shot; he knew that. Otherwise he wouldn't have wits enough to question it. But holy hell, did it feel like death. Chase let out a strangled roar as the psychic energy ricocheted in his skull and sent him down on one knee.

He didn't see Tavia coming.

None of them could have, she moved so fast and so stealthily. Materializing as though out of nowhere, she leapt over the second-floor rail of the hallway and dropped, catlike, to the tiled foyer below.

One second Chase was stooped brokenly on the floor. The next, he was pushed behind her sleek form, watching through pain-squeezed eyes as she faced off alone against three heavily armed, lethal Breed warriors and a Breedmate who could just as easily turn her staggering power away from Chase and blast it full force onto Tavia.

God, no.

If she took a bullet or a jolt of Renata's fury because of him – "Don't hurt her!" he roared, the words tearing out of his throat, wild and otherworldly. Commanding all his strength to push past the pain of Renata's mental blast, he scrambled to his feet and took his place at Tavia's side. "Don't any of you fucking hurt her!"

But none of them made an untoward move.

They wouldn't have, he realized only then. They hadn't come here to hurt anyone, not even him, except he'd forced their hand. They all stared, Mathias Rowan included, gaping wide-eyed and slack-jawed at Tavia Fairchild in all her transformed magnificence.

Crouched low, her long, jeans-clad legs were bent, bare feet ready to spring. Her loose hair swung around her shoulders like a caramel-colored mane, untamed waves barely concealing the amber blaze of her eyes. She hissed, lips peeled back to expose the twin fangs that gleamed as bright as diamonds and sharp as daggers. Between the deep V of her black sweater, her dermaglyphs were alive with furious color, churning like a tempest written on her smooth, pale skin.

There could be no mistaking what this female was: dangerous, stealthy, utterly lethal Gen One Breed.

And hotter than hell itself.

The three warriors from the Order seemed to shake themselves back to their senses all at once. They spoke in nearly perfect unison, Tegan, Niko, then Hunter, one after the other. "Holy – "

"Fucking – "

"Shit."

Renata was still staring, vaguely shaking her head in disbelief. Her fine jet brows lifted then and a smile began to twist the curve of her broad mouth. The sight of her relaxation – the wry humor in her shrewd gaze – diffused the tension in the room by huge degrees. She glanced from Tavia to Chase, then back again to Tavia in utter amazement. "Now, that's what I call making an entrance."

DRAGOS STROLLED into the video conference with his lieutenants more than forty-five minutes late.

His lack of punctuality accomplished a couple of things: First, it never hurt to remind his underlings that they served at his whim and convenience; more important was the fact that his tardiness gave each of the four remaining members of his original circle ample time to reflect on their slightest missteps and fret over whether one of their heads had landed on his chopping block.

That particular concern carried even more weight, considering the fact that each of his lieutenants on-screen was attended by one of Dragos's personally selected Hunters. If the lieutenants gave him reason to doubt, it would take less than a second for any one of the Gen One killers standing at their sides to dispatch the problem permanently.

But no one's head was in jeopardy here tonight.

Dragos's rage was centered wholly on the Order. It was because of them that he'd met one setback after another. Because of them that his operation was splintered and limping now, all his good work and promising experiments halted or destroyed. Because of them that he'd been forced to accelerate his plans where humankind was concerned.

Instead of waiting until he had all of his Minion players in position around the world – an objective that would only get more difficult with Lucan and his warriors breathing down his neck, driving him to ground at every opportunity – Dragos had decided the time for waiting was over.

He took his seat at the head of his long conference table, facing the wall of monitors mounted in front of him. Four screens showed the faces of his lieutenants: Arno Pike of the Enforcement Agency in Boston; Ruarke Louvell, longtime Agency director from Seattle; reporting in from Europe was Moric Kaszab of the Agency in Budapest; and, last, Nigel Traherne, a well- connected, well-heeled Darkhaven leader from London and the only one of Dragos's surviving circle not intimately associated with the Enforcement Agency.

There had been three others in this cadre at one time, ultimately unworthy males who'd met their ends in various violent ways. Dragos had personally seen to that. The names – Fabian, Roth, and Vachon – hardly registered to him now. They were dust under his boot heels, insignificant.

Gone and forgotten.

What the eight of them had shared in common, Dragos and his inner circle of seven loyal foot soldiers, was their second-generation bloodlines and, more crucially, the unshakable belief that it was the Breed – not humankind – that deserved to rule this orbiting clump of rock. For many long decades, they'd worked together, plotting and conspiring, secretly fueling the operation's vision with materiel, personnel and funding, intel and support. Everything Dragos asked for, including their unwavering allegiance.

The four standing by on video now still held to the belief that Dragos's vision for the future was the only acceptable one. They believed in him as their leader. Their eventual king. So long as they did, and until they proved to be ineffectual or a liability to his goals, Dragos would permit them to live. He might even make good on his promise that they would enjoy some of the spoils soon to come.

Very soon, he thought, hardly able to contain the excitement that coursed through him when he considered the chaos he was about to deliver on the world.

"Gentlemen," he said, giving them each a nod of greeting. "We have waited a long time for this moment. But no more. I've summoned you all tonight to let you know that our triumph is finally at hand."

Cold smiles and eager gazes met the comment. Dragos let the current of dark excitement settle in for a moment, reveling in his power. Although his decision earlier tonight had come on the heels of outrage and vengeful impulse, he'd had time enough to consider all the ramifications of the Armageddon he was about to enact. If it had seemed a fitting solution before, now, with a cooler, more calculating head, he was even more convinced it was time to throw down the gauntlet.

"Each of you in this meeting was brought into my trust because of a common resolve. A dream we all shared, to design a world around our own ideals. Our own liberties and laws. We are close, my comrades. Close enough that it would be unthinkable that our vision for our world – for the future of our very race – should be derailed by the Order or the fools who would ally with them." He scanned the faces of his lieutenants, pleased to see the rancor simmering in more than one pair of narrowed eyes. "With victory in our grasp, we cannot afford to let it slip through our fingers. Our time of hiding and planning and waiting is over." Dragos slammed his fist on the table in front of him as he rose out of his chair. "I'm sick to death with all of it! The time has come to make this goddamn world bleed!"

Three of the four Breed males staring back at him gave assenting nods at this explosive declaration of war. Dragos's breath sawed in and out of his lungs, rekindled fury making his veins prickle with violent impulse. That smoldering aggression deepened when he looked to Nigel Traherne and found the Londoner frowning, his fair-haired head shaking slowly in quiet dissent.

"You have something to say, Mr. Traherne?"

Nigel cleared his throat, looking suddenly uncomfortable. As well he should. "If I am correct in assuming what you have in mind, sire …"

The words trailed off, unnecessary to complete. Everyone assembled in this room understood precisely what he was suggesting. It had been the operation's worst-case scenario option all along.

"An act of this magnitude cannot be undone," Traherne cautioned. "I have to wonder if, perhaps … sire, I fear that recent setbacks in your endeavors to acquire the American senator and clear the path into other areas of human governments may be pushing you into somewhat rash thinking."

"Rash thinking." Dragos grunted, his fists braced on the table, knuckles crushing the polished wood. He fumed over the challenge to his authority. The foolhardy dissent. But he refrained from lashing out. Barely. "Do I seem rash to the rest of you?"

One by one, the other three lieutenants weighed in with their support.

"I'm more than tired of waiting." Obedient, bloodthirsty Pike spoke out first. "I trust you to guide us, sire, as you've done all along. I am prepared to strike on your command."

"I'll be honest," added Louvell. "I've often feared it would come to this. But I'm on board, whatever is decided. I've come too far to turn back now. We all have."

Kaszab grinned a nasty smirk, his dark eyes gleaming. "Mankind has held the reins of power for long enough. I, for one, am more than ready to see the Breed rise up to rule the night as is our birthright."

Dragos looked back to Traherne's uneasy expression and shrugged. "Clearly, you are alone in your concerns, Nigel."

"Sire, I – "

Dragos held up his hand and gave a mild shake of his head. "I understand, of course. Decisions like this – like many of the ones necessary to have brought our operation to this pivotal moment and the victory that awaits on the other side – are not for the squeamish or the meek."

"Sire, I've gone along more than willingly on everything else thus far. I still believe in the cause – you must know that." Fear had crept into the vampire's voice now, and a note of something else. Sorrow, Dragos hazarded to guess, watching the proud male's face collapse into a hopeless sag. "Sire, my Breedmate is expecting our child any day now. My two older sons have given me more than a dozen grandchildren – fine boys who will come into adulthood in the world we create. I agree that the Breed should seize its place as the dominant race on this planet. I only hope there is a better way to ensure that happens."

Dragos crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Traherne to exhaust his problematic, eleventh-hour attack of conscience. Behind the male, the assassin assigned to ensure his security kept his gaze fixed on Dragos. A leashed but lethal hound awaiting his master's command. "I've long had my reservations about bringing a civilian into this circle," Dragos stated evenly. "But you've proven valuable, Nigel. You brought me Breedmates for the breeding and genetics programs. You located some of the brightest human scientific minds to become the Minion staff of the operation's laboratories. You poured in hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades to help outfit the facilities, and you provided valuable intel from both a social and political standpoint among the European branches of the Breed nation."

"Yes, sire," he agreed eagerly. "And I did all of that because I have faith in you, in your vision."

Dragos's anger hadn't ebbed a bit. But he smiled, his mouth feeling tight with the presence of his emerging fangs. "I've never doubted your faith, my good Mr. Traherne. You've had the heart and the means. You even had the malice, when it was called for. What you've always lacked, however, was balls." With the faintest flick of his eyes, Dragos signaled to the Hunter who stood behind Traherne. "End him."

The kill was swift and clean. On the video monitor, Traherne's eyes bulged as his head fell forward, twisted at an unnatural angle on his broken neck. His skull landed with a hard thump on the desk in front of him.

Dragos barely paid the death even a second's notice. He let the dead lieutenant remain on- screen as he turned his attention back to the three other members of his unholy alliance. "We have ventured where none before us has dared," he told them without missing a beat. "Now we begin preparations to take the ultimate step toward securing our rightful place in history."

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