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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Eight)

Corinne sat with her mother at the dining room table, watching in a state of quiet distraction as Tilda brought out the last of the serving platters from the Darkhaven's kitchen. The food looked wonderful, smelled even better, but she had no appetite. Her gaze kept straying toward the adjacent foyer just outside the formal dining room, to the closed doors of her father's study.

"I'm sure he'll be finished any moment, darling." Regina smiled at her from the seat at her right. "He wouldn't want us to wait for him and let Tilda's delicious meal go cold."

At the head of the table, her father's chair sat empty. A place had been set for him, but the china and crystal were there only out of tradition; none of the Breed consumed human food or drink. Corinne made no move to begin eating. She stared at the vacant mahogany chair, trying to will Victor Bishop away from his business and out to his place as the provider – the protector – of his family.

"How about we start with some soup," Regina said, lifting the cover from the large silver tureen that sat on the table between them. Aromatic steam wafted up from the deep bowl. She dipped a ladle in, then served the soup to Corinne. "Doesn't it smell delicious? It's a very delicate beef consomme with shallots and wild mushrooms."

Corinne knew her mother was only trying to take care of her, trying to bring some sense of normalcy to a situation that was anything but normal. She watched her bone china bowl fill with savory soup and vegetables and she wanted to scream.

She couldn't eat right now. She couldn't do anything until she'd spoken with her father and heard him assure her that no one – not even a sadistic monster like Dragos – could keep her away from her child. Until she heard those words and was able to believe it was possible to find her son and bring him back, nothing else mattered.

"Maybe I should go talk to him in his study," she said, already scooting her chair out from the table and standing up.

Her mother put her spoon down, fine brows furrowing. "Darling, what's wrong – "

Corinne walked out of the dining room and across the foyer, hands fidgeting anxiously at her sides with each step.

As she neared the closed doors of Victor Bishop's private office, a sharp crash of breaking glass sounded from inside.

"Daddy?" Worry pierced her center. Corinne flattened her palm against the polished wood panels and gave a few raps on the door. They were panicky, hesitant smacks of her hand, a sudden dark fear washing over her. More sounds of struggle emanated from within – a rustle of falling papers, a muffled grunt. "Daddy, is everything okay?"

She tried the latch. Unlocked, thankfully. Her mother and a pair of her father's Darkhaven guards, Mason and another Breed male, were right behind her as she pushed open the door and stepped inside.

To her shock – to her utter confusion and disbelief – Victor Bishop had been tossed supine across the surface of his desk, now choking for breath beneath the crushing grip of the large hand clamped down like a vise on his throat. The person assaulting her father was the very last person Corinne had expected to see ever again.

"Hunter," she whispered, incredulous, terrified.

Her mother shrieked Victor's name, then broke down into a gusting sob. Behind Corinne, Mason and the other guard shifted warily. She felt their tension, sensed the two Breed males gauging their chances of drawing their weapons and disabling this unforeseen threat. They would never succeed.

Corinne saw the truth of it in Hunter's emotionless face. The look in his golden eyes was a chilling, lethal calm. Corinne saw in an instant that taking a life was something that gave this warrior no pause whatsoever. He had only to tighten his grip, just a cool flex of his strong fingers and he would crush the life from her father in a second's time.

Corinne's worry stabbed her, and in that instant of fright and concern, she felt a current of power stir deep inside her. It was her talent rising quietly, the low hum of sonokinetic energy that would permit her to grasp any sound and manipulate it to deafening heights. It prickled in her now, standing at the ready. But she couldn't risk it. Not with her father's throat caught fast in Hunter's grip.

When Mason inched slightly forward, more willing than she to test Hunter's intent, Corinne held him back with a faint shake of her head.

She was stunned, confused. What was Hunter doing back here at the Darkhaven? She didn't need to wonder how he got inside. The heavy drapery on the French doors of the study riffled in the wintry breeze coming in from outside. He had entered stealthily, an intruder with a single purpose – a single target – in mind.

"Why?" she murmured. "Hunter, what's this about?"

"Tell her." He turned that merciless gaze back onto her father. Victor Bishop sputtered, tried to claw at the unyielding grasp at his throat, but it was useless. His muscles slumped and his head fell back onto the desk with a spittle-laced, hopeless-sounding moan. Hunter barely blinked.

"Speak the truth, or I will kill you right here and now."

Corinne's pulse was ticking in her temples, fear twisting her insides. She didn't know what sparked the greater worry – the lethal threat to the Breed male who'd raised her, or the dread that was gnawing at the edges of her mind as she looked at Hunter and recognized that he was not a male to act rashly.

No, he was nothing if not deliberate. She hadn't known him very long, but Hunter carried himself with a cool, capable reserve that left no room for irrationality or mistakes. The fact that her father was in the crosshairs of this warrior's wrath put a knot in Corinne's gut. She had the deep, instinctual awareness that her world was about to crack open in front of her. She didn't think she could bear that, not after all she'd been through. Not after all she'd survived.

"No," she said, wanting to deny the feeling that was swamping her now. She clung to that denial, even though it felt as breakable as a thread in her grasp. "Please, Hunter … don't do this. Please, let him go."

He cocked his head toward her slightly as she spoke. Something peculiar flashed through his gaze, a flicker of distraction. Perhaps a moment of doubt? But he made no move to release her father. Then his brows lowered into the faintest frown. "He knows what happened to you the night you disappeared. He's known all along that you'd been taken, and by whom. He knows much more than that."

"No. That's impossible." Her voice sounded so small, little more than air pushing out of her lungs. She felt the thread of denial begin to fray in her grasp. "You're wrong about this, Hunter. You're making a terrible mistake. Daddy, please … tell him he's wrong."

Victor Bishop seemed to deflate even more in that instant. He was sweating, quivering, reduced to a state of weak surrender under Hunter's unrelenting power. The handsome face that used to instill such comfort in Corinne as a child now sagged, ruddy and glistening with beads of perspiration. His eyes met hers then, and he sputtered something that sounded like a weak apology.

Corinne went numb, feeling all the blood drain from her head and limbs. The weight settled in her feet, nearly dragging her down to her knees. The air around Mason and the other guard went palpably tense, both males waiting for the situation to either explode or dissolve. Beside her, Corinne felt her mother's body tremble, as off balance as she was.

"Victor, you couldn't have known any such things," Regina insisted. Her pale hand hovered near her mouth, as delicate as a bird until it fell away, drifting back down at her side.

"You mourned this girl when she disappeared. You were shattered, like the rest of us. You could not have pretended those feelings. I'm blood-bonded to you as your mate – I would have known whether you'd been sincere."

"Yes," he managed to croak. Corinne watched the tendons in Hunter's large hand ease up, but only enough to permit the smallest freedom. Victor Bishop was still trapped, still wholly at the warrior's mercy. "Yes, Regina, I mourned. I was shattered that she was gone. I would have protected my family by any means. That's what I did, in fact. I was only trying to protect what was left of my family, and so I had no choice but to remain silent."

Corinne closed her eyes as the words sank in, unexpected and bitter. She couldn't speak, could only lift her lids and hold the steady golden gaze of the warrior whose face revealed neither surprise nor pity. Only a grave understanding.

"I had no choice," Victor Bishop repeated. "I had no idea he would retaliate against me the way he did. You must believe me – "

"Victor," her mother gasped. "What are you saying?"

His eyes slid away from Corinne, toward the Breedmate who'd been part of his life for the last hundredplus years. "He said he would have my support one way or another, Regina. I thought I was smarter than him. I knew I was more connected. But you see? That's what he wanted from me – my connections. He needed my endorsement to help him rise more quickly within the Agency."

Still poised to kill at his whim, Hunter issued a low growl as Corinne's father let his ugly confession spill out.

No, she corrected internally. Victor Bishop was not her father. Not anymore. He was a stranger to her, had become so more in these last minutes than he had in the many decades she'd been gone from his home.

"There were threats when I refused to join his cause," Bishop said, despair roughening the words. "I didn't realize what he was capable of at the time. My God, how could I have known what he would be willing to do?"

"Who was it that threatened you, Victor?" his Breedmate asked, the waver fading from both her voice and her demeanor. "Who stole our daughter from us?"

"Gerard Starkn."

"Director Starkn?" Regina murmured. "He's been to this house more than a dozen times over the years. He's been here before and after Corinne went missing. Good lord, Victor, it has to be fifty years ago now, but I remember you spoke at his reception when he was elected to the Enforcement Agency's high council. Are you saying that he had something to do with this?"

Corinne frowned, confused now. The unfamiliar name bred a wild, desperate hope.

Maybe there was some kind of mistake here, after all. If he didn't know that it was Dragos who'd taken her, maybe Victor Bishop's hands weren't as bloodied as she feared. But Hunter's grim glance stripped her of even that fragile hope. He gave a vague shake of his head, as if he knew the direction of her thoughts. "Dragos has used many aliases. Including this one. Gerard Starkn and Dragos are one and the same."

Corinne looked to Victor Bishop, searching for some shred of honesty in the face she no longer knew. "Did you know that? Were you aware that the man you called Gerard Starkn was actually a monster by the name of Dragos?"

His scowl deepened, eyes blank of recognition. "I've told you everything I know."

"No," she murmured. "You haven't told me everything. You knew what had happened to me, but you didn't come after me. I waited. I prayed, every day. I told myself that you wouldn't rest until I was found. Until I was saved, and back home again. But no one ever came for me."

"I couldn't," he said. "Starkn told me that if I went against him, there would be more pain. He said that if I wavered in my support of him politically, or if I tried to expose him for what he'd done to reach his position within the Agency, the price for my defiance would be far greater than what I'd already paid. You have to understand – all of you have to understand – that I did what I did in order to protect my family, what was left of it."

Regina drew in a sharp, shaky breath. "And so you simply let him keep our daughter?

Corinne was family – she is family, damn you. How could you have been so heartless?"

"He left me no other way," Bishop answered, those stranger's eyes sliding back to Corinne. "Starkn promised that if I attempted to find you, or if I allowed anyone to suspect that he had you, I would be mourning Sebastian next. So I kept my silence. I made sure his demands were obeyed." His voice caught for a moment. "I am sorry, Corinne. You have to believe that – "

"I can never believe anything you say again," she replied, wounded, yes, but not about to break.

She'd been through worse than this. She was battered and weary from the weight of his betrayal, but there was still a long, dark road ahead of her.

As she stood there, trying to reconcile everything she was hearing, a fresh horror began to settle over her. "The girl," she said, new pieces falling into place in the puzzle of his deception.

"After I had been taken, there was a girl recovered from the river …"

Victor Bishop held her appalled stare. "You were gone, and Starkn made it clear that you were never coming back. As long as there were questions about your disappearance … as long as there was hope that you might be alive – "

The truth settled over her like lead, cold and heavy. "You were the one who wanted everyone convinced I was dead. Oh, Jesus … you had an innocent girl killed. You had her cut in pieces, just to cover your own sins."

"She was nothing," Bishop countered as though to justify the murder. An angry edge crept into his voice as he went on. "She was common gutter trash, selling herself down by the waterfront."

"And what about me?" Corinne asked, her own outrage rising. It spilled out of her in a furious rush. "I must have been nothing to you too. You let him take me away, keep me all this time like an animal in a cage. Worse than that. Did you never wonder what was happening to me at his hands? Did you ever stop to think that he could have been torturing me, degrading me … destroying everything I was, bit by bit? Did you never imagine the kind of torture a sadistic lunatic like him might be capable of in the bowels of the prison where he held me and all the other captives he'd collected?"

Regina Bishop dissolved into a wracking fit of tears. Bishop said nothing, merely stared at Corinne and his mate in unaffected silence. "Let me up," he growled to Hunter, whose fingers had gone tight once more around his throat. "I said unhand me. You must be satisfied now. You have the confession you came here to wring out of me."

Hunter leaned over him. "Now you're going to tell me everything you know about Gerard Starkn. I need to know where he is and when you last saw him. I need to know who his associates are, both inside the Agency and outside of it. You'll tell me every detail, and you will tell me now."

"I don't know anything else," Bishop sputtered sharply. "It's been more than a decade since I've even thought of the man, let alone seen him. There is nothing more for me to tell, I swear to you."

But Hunter didn't look convinced. Nor did he seem inclined to release Bishop from his killing grasp, not even if he was given the answers he sought. Corinne could see the truth of Hunter's lethal intent in the steady calm of his eyes.

Bishop realized it too. He started to squirm and struggle. He bucked on the surface of his desk, kicking his legs and sending a stack of leather-bound books toppling to the floor. Corinne's talent, humming more intensely in her veins now, latched out to grab hold of the percussion those falling books had caused. She couldn't hold it back. The noise swelled swiftly, exploding into a prolonged roll of thunder that quaked the room and rattled everything in it.

"Corinne, stop!" her mother cried, covering her ears as the racket shook and rumbled, louder and louder now.

Under the rising din, Bishop's lips peeled back from his teeth, baring the tips of his emerging fangs. Anger and fear transformed his eyes from their normal brown to the fiery amber of the Breed. His pupils thinned and stretched, becoming catlike slits. Hunter, however, remained cool, utterly in control. He spared Corinne's burst of kinetic power only the briefest acknowledgment before seeming to tune out the distraction completely. His eyes held their golden hue, his sharply angled face taut and lean, focused but not furious. He drew his fingers tighter around Bishop's larynx.

Corinne parted her lips, panting and spent. She willed her talent to subside and was on the verge of screaming for all this madness to cease.

But it was Regina who spoke first.

"Henry Vachon," she blurted. Victor snarled, and it was difficult to tell if his anger now was directed more at his punisher or his rattled Breedmate. Regina looked away from him, lifting her chin and speaking directly to Hunter. "I remember another Breed male, also from the Enforcement Agency. He was at Starkn's side almost constantly whenever I saw him in public. His name was Henry Vachon. He was from the South somewhere … New Orleans, as I recall. If you want to find Gerard Starkn – or whatever he calls himself now – start with Henry Vachon."

Hunter inclined his head in a vague nod of acknowledgment, but he still had his hand on Bishop's throat.

"Release him," Corinne murmured quietly. She was sickened by all she'd heard, but she had no vengeance in her heart. Not even for the father who had betrayed her so callously.

"Please, Hunter … let him go."

He gave her the same odd look he had earlier, the first time she'd asked him not to harm Victor Bishop. Corinne couldn't read the strange flicker that dimmed the gold of his eyes. It was a question, a silent pause of uncertainty, or expectation.

"He's not worth it," she said. "Let him live with what he's done. He no longer exists to me."

As Hunter loosened his grasp, Bishop rolled away to the floor, coughing and sputtering. Regina's kind face was stricken, red from crying. She started sobbing again now, apologizing to Corinne, begging forgiveness for what Victor had done. She tried to pull Corinne into her arms, but the thought of being touched – by anyone now – was too much for her to bear. Corinne backed away. She felt trapped in the room, suffocating in the confines of the Darkhaven that was no longer her home and could never be again. The walls seemed to press inward on her, the floors shifting, making her stomach churn and her head spin. She had to get out of there.

Mason held out his hand to brace her as she took an awkward step toward the study's open doors. She dodged his reach, avoiding his comforting hand and pitying eyes.

"I need air," she whispered, panting with the effort to form words. "I can't … I need to get … out of here."

And then she was running.

Through the foyer of the big house and out to the long driveway. Somewhere nearby, she heard the bright melody of Christmas music, joyous carols spilling out into the night. A soul-deep bereavement raked Corinne from within. She sucked in the cold air, rapid breaths sawing in and out of her lungs as she ran the length of the snow-edged drive.

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