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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE)

HE'D HAD EVERY INTENTION of leaving.

After walking out of Mathias Rowan's kitchen, his mind had been made up. Avoid the certain contempt of his former brethren of the Order and simply disappear into the night; that was the extent of his plan. Yet, somehow, Chase instead found himself climbing the stairs to the Darkhaven's second floor.

The living quarters upstairs were quiet, most of the mansion's residents either in their own suites or out for the evening to hunt or play in the city.

The room where Tavia was stood at the far end of the broad hallway. Chase walked over the antique runner that spanned the floor from the top of the wide, curving stairwell, to either end of the living quarter wings of the regal old home. He stood motionless in front of the closed door, uncertain if he should disturb her.

From the other side of the thick panel of carved and polished mahogany, he heard the faint hiss of running water.

She was still in the shower?

She'd been up there for more than an hour.

Was she all right?

"Tavia." Chase rapped lightly on the door. No answer. He knocked again, harder this time. More of the same troubling silence. "Tavia, are you in there?"

He tried the faceted crystal knob and found it unlocked. His breath going shallow in his lungs, he pushed open the door and stepped into the unlit bedroom suite.

"Tavia? Why didn't you answer …"

His voice trailed off to nothingness as he rounded the corner of the bedroom and found her sitting quietly against the wall in the dark.

Weeping.

"Ah, Christ."

Still dressed in her clothes from the clinic, arms wrapped around her bent knees, she shook with the force of her tears. Head bowed, her hair drooped to conceal her face, the long caramel waves matted and tangled from the battle earlier that night. Although she was no waif, far from helpless or weak, she had never looked so small or vulnerable to Chase.

He crossed the room and crouched before her. She didn't even look up to acknowledge he was there. Her shoulders trembled as soft sobs racked her body. "Hey," he whispered, reaching a tentative hand out to gentle her.

He stroked her hunched back, slow caresses that only seemed to make her cry harder. She didn't speak, just sucked in air and wept it out again.

"Shh," he soothed, uncertain how to comfort her, knowing he was a poor choice for the job. If there was one thing he preferred to avoid more than disappointing those who depended on him, it was dealing with such a raw display of feminine emotion.

But he couldn't walk away from Tavia's sorrow, not even if she deserved the arms of someone better.

"It's okay," he murmured, sweeping aside the limp strands of her hair. He lifted her chin, bringing her red-rimmed eyes up to meet his gaze.

God, she was breathtaking. Even wrecked with distress, her face spattered with dried blood and grime from the clinic, eyes wet with tears and puffy from crying. Chase looked at her and realized he'd never heard her laugh. Had never seen her smile. Since she'd been with him, she'd gone from terrified to outraged, then anguished and confused to lost and alone. Now, utterly destroyed.

Yes, there had been passion between them too, but even that had been fierce and raw-edged. He'd taken something precious from her when he allowed things to go as far as he had. The sex and the blood – her first time knowing either one – and he the selfish bastard who'd greedily enjoyed the pleasure in both.

The guilt of that pressed down on him as he gathered Tavia into his embrace and rocked her as she cried against his chest. "None of my life before was true," she said, her voice thick and choked with tears. "I thought I could deal with it, but it hurts so much. Everyone I knew was lying to me. Using me. All my life, they were betraying me."

Chase caressed her head and back, smoothed his rough palm over the tangled silk of her hair. "You'll be okay," he told her. "You're strong, Tavia. You'll come through this, I have no doubt. And there are people among the Breed who can help you."

Not him, surely. He'd done enough damage where she was concerned. And even though it felt good to hold her, felt somehow comforting to feel her arms wrapped around him as she wept, the embers of his hunger kindled just below the surface of his calm. It was a struggle to tamp it down, to curb the fevered glow of his irises as Tavia lifted her head to meet his gaze. "You want to know the irony in all of this?" She bit off a strangled sigh. "I loved her – the Minion that Dragos assigned to be my family. I loved her like she was my mother. I even loved Dr. Lewis. They were the two people I trusted most in this world, the only people who really knew me. I thought they were protecting me, making me better." Another sob tore loose from her throat, raw with pain. "They would have killed me if Dragos wanted them to. I didn't mean a thing to either one of them. Not to anyone. That hurts even more than the shock of learning what I really am."

Seeing her in such anguish, Chase wanted to deal a little death of his own. The two Minions who'd betrayed her were already gone, but Dragos still had a brutal end coming to him. More than anything, Chase wanted to be the one to deliver it – prolonged and bloody, the more violent the better.

But he was careful to keep his hands tender as he brushed the pad of his thumb over a smear of soot that rode the delicate angle of her cheek. He swept the marks away and couldn't resist touching his lips to the furrowed center of her brow. The smoky tang of the clinic explosion clung to her skin and hair. Dried blood from the battle with Dragos's Hunter stained her clothes and dotted her face in dark, rusty speckles.

"Come here," he whispered, moving her out of his arms and helping her to her feet.

He took her hand and led her into the warmth of the adjacent bathroom. Steam wafted over the top of the long glass panels of the running shower. The silvery mist wreathed Tavia as she stood before him, silent, unresisting, while he carefully peeled her soiled clothing from her body. The dermaglyphs that painted her torso, from the base of her throat to the dusky tips of her breasts and lower, down along the smooth plane of her belly and onto her bare thighs, flickered with the faintest blush of color.

Color that darkened as his eyes roamed over her in undeniable admiration.

Her hand trembled only a little as she reached out to cup her palm along the side of his jaw. Eyes the color of new leaves grew stormy and heavy-lidded as she stepped toward him and pressed her parted lips to his mouth.

Chase kissed her, calling upon every ounce of self-control to keep his mouth tender on hers despite the flare of desire that arced through his veins like lightning. It took even more effort to raise his hands between them and ease her away from his hardening body.

But this wasn't about his own need. He'd come to her only out of concern; if he stayed here any longer, it would be only to offer comfort, not to take anything more from her than he already had.

He slid open the shower door and motioned for her to step inside. He followed a moment after her, stripping hastily out of his own clothes, then palming the glass panel shut behind him. He washed her hair and body with tender, unhurried care. Soon the blood and ash of the violent hours earlier that night were sluiced away, leaving only Tavia's naked beauty before him. Her glyphs stirred with color, the dark indigo, wine, and gold a more delicate palette than the one playing out over Chase's own nude skin. His mouth was full of his elongated fangs and a need that made his throat feel desert dry. He clamped his jaw tight to keep her from seeing just how badly he hungered for her.

Not that she could overlook the thick upward jut of his cock. The painfully obvious evidence of his desire filled the scant space between them, growing harder by the moment each time Tavia's wet, satiny skin brushed against him.

Her palm rested lightly on his chest. He could feel the drum of her pulse beating in her fingertips. He could hear it pounding in his ears, a low throb running undercurrent to the soft, sibilant hiss of the shower.

She wanted him too.

Despite the anguish that had all but wrecked her, desire put an amber spark in her green eyes. Her pupils narrowed, intensifying the fiery heat of her irises. Her palm skated in a slick path down the front of him, over his many healing cuts and contusions, injuries he barely noticed under the warm touch of her hand. But she noticed them. He saw her wince as she found the worst of them, heard her soft intake of breath as she studied the most recent wound – the one he'd taken at the end of the Hunter's blade.

"Does it hurt?" Her voice was velvety rough, the pearly tips of her fangs glinting as she spoke.

Chase shook his head, unable to find his voice as she continued her tactile exploration of his body. He didn't know whether to will her away or pray she'd keep going. His cock answered for him, jerking with eager anticipation as her wet fingers trailed lower, toward his groin. Her name was a curse grated through his teeth and fangs as she trailed her fingers down his shaft and stroked the length of him. His body tensed under the hot spray of the shower, blood racing molten through his veins. He watched her soft, pale hand skate lightly over his hard flesh, agonizing in the teasing pleasure of it. Dying for her to take him fully in hand. Knowing he should stop her before he let things go too far again.

If he'd had even a meager scrap of honor in him, he'd have done just that.

He had a hundred reasons to simply turn and walk away as he'd intended all along. A hundred more reasons why a female as rare and unique, as miraculous, as Tavia deserved a better male – hell, any other male – than him. She deserved someone good and true, someone worthy, to usher her into the life that awaited her as one of the Breed.

But God help him, as he looked at her now, as he felt her touch ignite a heat all the way into his marrow, Chase felt a surge of possessiveness so complete and powerful, it left him shaking. He didn't want to crave her. Not on top of his other, hellish addictions. Blood and violence had nearly destroyed him. Looking at Tavia as she was now, naked and dripping under the shower, so lovely in her transformation from beautiful woman to glorious Breed female, Chase could hardly imagine a more consuming want than what he felt when he was near her.

But as fevered as that need was, he touched her with utmost tenderness. One hand slipping beneath the wet curtain of her hair, he cupped her nape and gently drew her close. He kissed her, only the barest, briefest brushing of his lips against hers.

"The way we came together before," he rasped thickly, then bit off a harsh curse. "It was your first time. You deserved something better. I had no right – "

She silenced him with another kiss, more demanding than his had been. When she lifted her head to look up at him, there was no regret in her fiery eyes. Only need. Open and honest, shameless need. "You gave me exactly what I wanted."

"Did I?" He touched her face and hair, marveling at how she could look so damned sure of herself and yet so heartbreakingly innocent at the same time. "What about now?"

Her eyes smoldered even brighter. Behind her parted lips, her fangs were even longer now, sharper. Exquisite white points that made the feral vampire in him snap at its feeble tether. She stepped in close, the heat of her body touching his skin like an open flame. Her palm was between them, soft fingers trailing fire along his abdomen, then down toward his arousal. Her gaze on his, Tavia wrapped her hand around the girth of his shaft and stroked it from base to tip and back again.

Chase couldn't bite back the growl of approval that erupted from his throat.

He killed the water and opened the shower door.

Then he scooped Tavia up into his arms and carried her out to the bedroom in a few long strides.

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