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Darker After Midnight (EPILOGUE)

One Year Later. New Year's Day.

CHASE MADE GOOD on his promise to be at her side until she was well again. Tavia had felt his strength holding her, protecting her, anchoring her during the time her body struggled to come back from the edge of a dark abyss.

Tess had helped heal the organs that were ravaged by the Crimson's poison, but there was little her unique Breedmate talent could do for the hunger that had gnawed at Tavia, chewing away at her will and sanity hour by hour, day by day … week by week.

For that they'd had to turn to an unlikely source: Dragos. Or, rather, his Minion doctor's treatment formulas and procedural logs, documenting the twenty-seven-year-long suppression of Tavia's Breed nature. They'd used Dr. Lewis's medical treatments to curb her blood hunger and quiet her body's fever so she could purge the Bloodlust from her system and rest the months required for her to mend.

Ironic, and yet somehow fitting, that the same insidious practice that had been a betrayal of her trust from the moment of her birth had, in the end, been the very thing that saved her. That, along with Chase's love.

It flowed through her now, where he stood behind her, sheltering her in the circle of his arms. His heartbeat echoed in her own blood, steady and strong, whole and hale. She nestled deeper into his embrace, sighing softly as his warm breath skated along the side of her neck. "Have I told you today how much I love you?" he murmured, low, private words meant only for her.

"You have," she whispered, smiling at the kiss that settled briefly below her ear and sent a tingle of heat racing through her. "But I don't think I'll ever tire of hearing it." His answering growl vibrated against her spine like a sensual purr. "Good thing we've got forever. We've already missed too many days."

Six full months – that's how long it had taken for Tavia to make the journey back to the living. It hadn't been easy, but it was time and agony she scarcely recalled now; a rare, merciful reprieve from the power of her faultless memory. But through their blood bond, Chase had weathered it all. It had to have been hell for him, finding the strength to combat his own affliction while experiencing hers as well, but somehow he'd done it.

With the help of his brethren of the Order, his family.

And now her family too.

Tavia glanced at the people gathered with them tonight in the dimly lit observation room in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan as Lucan prepared to address the delegation.

All of the Order and their families were there. Seated in the front row of the private balcony suite were Gabrielle, Savannah and Gideon, Dante and Tess with little year-old Xander Raphael. Tegan held his infant son in the cradle of his muscled arm, his other wrapped lovingly around Elise. Rio and Dylan, Kade, Alex, Brock, and Jenna stood by the large glass window beside Niko, Renata, and Mira, peering down with Andreas and Claire Reichen, Hunter, Corinne and Nathan, Lazaro and Kellan Archer, at the crowd of eighteen hundred delegates from all over the world who occupied the seats below.

The assembly was filled to capacity, buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Because, today, as night fell over North America on a crisp, clear January 1st, the 193-nation coalition had amended its charter to admit its newest member:

The nation of the Breed.

Chase's heart beat with an anticipation Tavia shared as Lucan moved toward the microphone to accept the evening's honor. Alongside him were the president of the United States and several other world leaders.

"My name is Lucan Thorne." His piercing gaze panned the faces of the delegation, all of whom stared at this formidable male in his conservative black suit, which did little to soften the air of dark power that radiated from him. "I stand here before you tonight, addressing the world on behalf of my kith and kin … my long-lived race, called the Breed."

As his deep voice filled the chamber, the room fell into an immediate, complete silence. "We have existed alongside you for a very long time. And we have never meant you harm, though it will take time to build that trust, when we are starting on bloodstained ground." He paused as though to let his words be absorbed, everyone in the room aware that his message was going out to many millions of ears around the world. "There have been casualties on both sides over the past year – those humans who have been attacked at night by Rogue members of our kind, and those of us being hunted by day and torn from our Darkhavens in the weeks and months that have followed the first waves of violence. We need to agree to move past these dark beginnings and set the course for a new path forward. This will not be easy. It may not be fully accomplished for years to come, nor without any more lives lost."

As the capacity crowd rumbled with unease at the hard honesty of words that could be conceived as more threat than warning, Lucan looked to the president and the other leaders. "From the shadows we have watched as man over the centuries has made war on themselves over borders and mistrust of one another. I come here tonight asking for unification across all divides, for the good of humankind and my own. I come here tonight with the hope that all residents of our world will find a way to coexist, to get along with one another. And I come here tonight because I believe that we will find common ground and that we can, eventually, forge a lasting peace between us all."

Gabrielle turned a smiling, tear-filled look on Chase and Tavia and the others in the room. "When I first met Lucan, he told me he was just a warrior, not an emissary for his race. Later on, when Dragos was doing his worst, Lucan worried that he didn't think there was any hope for what the future might hold." She glanced down lovingly at her three-month-old son, who nestled snugly against her in a peaceful sleep, tiny pink fist tucked under his chin. "I've never been more proud to be his mate than I am right now."

"This was Lucan's true destiny," Tegan said, the forbidding Gen One looking out at his leader, his friend, with respectful, admiring eyes. "It's always been in him to lead, to be the one clearing the way toward a better future. It's what he's done from the very beginning. He honors his race well."

"You all do," Elise added, beaming up at her mate while their baby boy took in the room with wide, inquisitive eyes the same lavender shade as his mother's.

Everyone nodded or smiled in response, no doubt every heart full with pride – and hope – for the future they were seeing forged in this hall tonight.

But Lucan's words of warning were true.

Although Tavia had awakened six months ago healed and stronger than ever through the love she shared with Chase, the rest of the world still bore deep wounds from the violence and terror that Dragos had unleashed on it.

There would be much to do in the months and years to come. There was still mistrust between mankind and the Breed. Pockets of unrest and violence still existed on both sides.

With the help of Andreas Reichen, Mathias Rowan, and the dozens of Enforcement Agents who'd come together in the fight to end the bloodshed, the Order had swept the cities clean of all Rogue violence. Together they'd also eradicated Dragos's remaining lieutenants and their known accomplices. But there was no telling if his seeds of dissent had taken root in secret elsewhere.

With the top ranks of the Enforcement Agency neutered and its membership in shambles, it was the Order that had taken charge of enforcing all Breed law now.

There was much left to be done, many questions yet to be resolved, but things were off to a good start.

There was hope.

Tavia felt it as she met the earnest, caring faces of her Breedmate friends gathered around her. She felt it when she looked at the warriors, standing so firm and courageously behind Lucan's resolute lead, all of them prepared to embark on this new, uncharted way of life. A new world to be formed and shared by all, human and Breed alike.

Most of all, she felt hope bloom inside her, warm and abiding, when she looked up into Chase's steady blue eyes and felt his love moving through her … growing inside her.

Love that would take physical form when their twins were born in the spring.

Tavia felt joy, and as her gaze held her mate's now, she felt a perfect peace swell to fill her.

They'd found love in each other and an eternal bond that transcended the one that linked them through their blood.

She and Chase had both, finally, found home.

To my amazing readers and online communities both in the United States and abroad, with deep appreciation and humble thanks for all the enthusiasm and support you've given my books. I hope you enjoy the rest of the adventures still to come! And to John, always, for more than any words could say.

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