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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Eighteen)

"What about you?"

"I will report in to the Order, then stand guard in the other room while you rest." He pivoted to move past her, back into the hallway.

"Wait. Hunter …" She wrapped her arms around herself, already feeling too much alone in the confines of the dreary little room. "Will you stay with me here … just until I'm asleep?"

He stared, unspeaking, for almost longer than she could bear. She knew he was probably the last person she should look to for comfort, especially after what she'd seen him do tonight. After all she'd heard of his upbringing and his personal mission for the Order, she knew this deadly male was potentially the worst ally she could have in her need to find – and save – her child.

Yet when she looked at Hunter in the soft shadows of the storm-ravaged house, she didn't see ruthlessness or savagery. She saw the same restraint and tenderness that he'd shown her at the jazz club in the city, in the moments before he'd kissed her so unexpectedly on the dance floor. His golden eyes simmered with that same heat now, the warmth of his gaze drifting slowly to her mouth.

Now Corinne had gone speechless, motionless, unsure what disturbed her more: the thought of kissing him again, or the thought that he might simply turn away and leave her standing there by herself.

"Lie down," he murmured, his voice thick and rough-edged. The points of his fangs gleamed behind his lush upper lip as he spoke.

Corinne backed away from him and eased herself down onto his splayed coat. He moved toward her in a slow, predatory prowl, then sank down beside her as she stretched out tentatively on her side atop the buttery soft black leather. His body was a long wall of heat along her spine and curved backside, his thighs firm and solid against hers. Even though they were fully clothed, her every nerve ending came alive with awareness. Need unfurled deep within her, a slow stretching of feather-light wings, putting a flutter in her already erratic heartbeat, stealing her already shaky, shallow breath.

Hunter's arm came around her, a band of heavy bone and muscle caging her gently against him. Power radiated from every inch of his body, but instead of fear or anxiety at the sensation of being hemmed in, Corinne felt protected.

She felt safe, something she hadn't known for a very long time.

Safe in the arms of the most lethal man she'd ever known.

Midmorning at the Order's Boston headquarters normally meant lights out, shut-eye time for Lucan and the rest of the compound's residents.

Not today.

And although no one had said as much, as the head of this expanding household Lucan knew that the tension gripping them all was nearing the breaking point. Even Mira seemed subdued, the perceptive child seer quietly eating the last few bites of her pancakes and sausage beside Renata at the large dining table instead of chattering at her usual mile-a-minute speed. The impromptu breakfast gathering had been Gabrielle's idea. The fact that the Order's female residents had been dining in the compound alongside their warrior mates instead of up in the mansion at street level had been at Lucan's insistence. Although it felt odd having everyone crowded into Gabrielle and his quarters, nineteen people gathered around the long table Gabrielle had special-ordered months ago from a local Darkhaven craftsman, it was far more palatable than the thought of having anyone out of his sight in the daylight hours when he could do nothing to protect them.

Protect them? Shit.

What a goddamn joke that had become. Lucan scoffed to himself, well aware that the Order had never been more vulnerable. The once-certain security of the compound had been reduced to a flimsy veneer of safety now that Dragos had access to their precise location. Not only that, but Dragos was apparently going on the offensive elsewhere too – case in point, the status call Hunter had made to headquarters a couple hours ago. The attack at the airport hangar by one of Dragos's Gen One assassins had left the two charter pilots dead and Hunter stranded in New Orleans with the civilian female Corinne Bishop. They were currently holed up in a post-Katrina ruin awaiting sundown and Lucan's further instructions. Then there was the lingering matter of Sterling Chase's absence. Lucan had declared the warrior cut loose from the fold since he'd gone AWOL, but the fact was, it bothered him to have lost Harvard. It bothered everyone, and his absence from the table – and the missions – was felt by the whole of the Order. But wanting him back wasn't bringing him back, and since it was Chase's decision to walk out, it was going to have to be his decision to walk back in. The only good thing to happen around the compound recently was the safe return of Brock and Jenna from Alaska late last night. The massive Breed male from Detroit and his pretty human mate sat at the other end of the table from Lucan, Brock's long, dark fingers woven through Jenna's slender, paler ones as the couple conversed with Kade and Alex. The fact that Jenna wasn't a Breedmate didn't seem to make her bond with Brock any less intense. Then again, calling Jenna Darrow human wasn't quite accurate anymore, considering the rice-size bit of alien DNA and biotech material the woman had been carrying in her spinal cord for the past couple of weeks.

She'd only been gone for a few days, but in that time the small dermaglyph that had so spontaneously appeared on the nape of her neck before she'd left had begun to creep around toward her shoulders. It was the damnedest thing, seeing a Breed skin-marking on the flesh of a human – a female human, besides. Add to that the fact that Jenna's body seemed to heal from injuries at a rate similar to that of Lucan's kind, combined with her newfound superhuman strength and agility, and the former trooper from Alaska was shaping up to be one hell of an addition to the Order's personnel arsenal.

Just how far Jenna's genetic transformation would eventually go was still anyone's guess. Jesus, what a strange fucking trip it had been, Lucan thought to himself as he scanned the circle of faces assembled around the table. Most of those faces had been unknown to him just a year and a half ago, and now they were as familiar to him as blood kin. Even Lazaro Archer and his grandson, Kellan, seemed less like strangers than members of the compound's family in the handful of days they'd been under the Order's watch. Lazaro had proven himself a strong, honorable male. As for Lucan, he remained humbled by the other Gen One's offer of his stronghold in Maine as the Order's temporary headquarters. It was a lifeline they needed, and one he meant to take advantage of as soon as possible.

"I want to thank you again for your offer, Lazaro," he said, glancing to the left side of the table where Archer sat, smiling idly as he listened to the spirited debate taking place between his teenage grandson and young Mira over a book they'd both recently read. Lazaro Archer's dark blue eyes were solemn as he met Lucan's gaze. "Please, no need to thank me. I owe you and the Order more than I can ever possibly repay. You saved Kellan's life, and you saved mine. I will always be in your debt. Besides," he added with a shrug of his broad shoulder, "the place up north has been sitting idle practically since I had it built in the 1950s. Eleanor thought the whole concept ridiculous – she laughed, said I was crazy when I told her I wanted to build a secured bunker and bomb shelter under the house, like so many humans were doing during the period of their so-called Cold War. She said in the event of a nuclear disaster, she'd rather go up in a cloud of dust like the rest of the population than cook like a bunch of canned sardines underneath our house. Never was able to convince her to spend so much as one night up there. As headstrong as she was beautiful, my Ellie."

Lucan watched the Breed elder's expression turn wistful as he spoke of his Breedmate. It was one of the first times he'd mentioned her name since the attack on their Darkhaven had killed her and the rest of Archer's household. Eleanor Archer and everyone else in the private residence had been reduced to ash and rubble at Dragos's command. All those lives lost so that Dragos could catch a firmer grasp around the Order's throat.

Lazaro Archer exhaled and shook his head. "I haven't thought of the place – or Ellie's dislike of it – in a very long time. As I told you earlier, if you find the property suitable for the Order, consider it yours."

Lucan nodded in acknowledgment. "We'll make that decision tonight, when we head up to have a look at the place."

From a few seats down the other side of the table, Gideon caught Lucan's eye and piped in with more details. "I've got a laptop loaded with CAD software and communications that we'll bring with us to the site. We can import photos of the place, inside and out, then the software will convert them to blueprints and schematics on the fly. I've also got satellite receivers ready to roll so we can get some comms hooked up as soon as we get there and run the tests I'll need in order to prep for the relocation."

Lucan could barely suppress his grin at hearing Gideon slide into full geek mode. "The technical hocus-pocus is all yours while we're up there."

He noticed that Savannah had grown quiet beside Gideon as they talked about the night's planned trip north. Gideon hadn't missed his mate's reaction either. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze where it rested on the table. "Don't worry, love. It's just a field trip, not a mission. No guns or explosives involved. More's the pity," he added, cracking a cockeyed smile. Even from where Lucan sat, he could see that Savannah's soft brown eyes were sober. More than sober, they were bleak with flat-out terror. Her voice was tender, more wounded than Lucan had ever heard it. "I can't make jokes about this, Gideon. Not anymore. This shit is getting too goddamn real for me."

Abruptly, she got up from the table and started clearing her empty plate and silverware.

Like some unstated demonstration of feminine solidarity, Gabrielle, Elise, and Dylan quickly followed Savannah's lead, picking up what they could, then disappearing right behind her through the swinging door that led into the adjacent kitchen.

Gideon cleared his throat. "Apparently I'll be doing some feather-smoothing before we head out tonight."

Lucan grunted. "Maybe a little groveling too."

"She worries about you," Tess said to Gideon, her hand resting over the large curve of her pregnant belly. "She'll never let on how much, because she knows you need her to be strong. But it's there with her always." At Gideon's acknowledging nod, Tess turned a tender look on her own mate, Dante, beside her. "The worry is there with all of us, every time one of you goes out on a mission. Every time you leave the compound, you're carrying our hearts with you."

"Precious cargo," Dante said, lifting her hand from atop the round swell of their unborn child and pressing his lips to her palm.

Tess's answering smile twisted into a pained grimace. She sucked in air, then blew it out in a slow hiss. "Your son is getting restless again already this morning. I think I'd better … head back to our quarters and … lie down … for a little while."

Dante sprang into action, gingerly helping her up with Renata, Jenna, and Alex acting as spotters on either side of them. Lucan was on his feet before he realized it, as were the rest of the mated Breed males in the room, all of them standing there in wary silence, probably looking as useless as they felt.

"I'm okay," Tess blurted, too breathless for Lucan's liking. She walked slowly, carefully, one arm cradling the underside of her belly, the other clutched tight to Dante as he gently steered her away from the table. Technically she wasn't due for another couple of weeks, and although Lucan was no expert on such things, he had to guess that the Order's pending delivery would be arriving sooner than later.

"Can you make it to the sofa in the other room, babe?" Dante asked, tense and concerned, the devoted, doting father-to-be.

Tess dismissed the question with a curt wave. "I want to walk … it's better if I move a bit. Once I lie down, I'll be there for a while."

"Okay," Dante said. "We'll take it nice and slow, all right? That's it, babe. Slow steps. You're doing great."

The couple said some quick good-byes, then began an unhurried trek back to their quarters in the compound. Gabrielle came back to the dining room with Savannah and the others, just in time to see that Tess and Dante were gone. After a few moments of awkward silence, Mira turned a concerned look on Renata.

"Is Tess's baby ready to be born?"

Renata's sober glance traveled the anxious faces in the room before lighting back on Mira with a nurturing, patient smile. "Yes, I think so, Mouse. It's not going to be long at all before the baby arrives."

Mira frowned. "Hunter better hurry up and come home, or he won't get to meet the baby when it gets here. Where is he, anyway?"

"Still on a mission," Niko replied, smoothly stepping in like the father figure he'd become to the little girl. "Hunter's got some important things to do down in New Orleans, but he'll be coming back as soon as he can."

"Well, that's good," Mira declared. "Because he needs to be here before Christmas for sure. Do you know he's never had Christmas before? I promised I would make him a decoration for his room."

At the girl's mention of the impending holidays, a further pall fell over the dining room. Lucan felt the weight of so many gazes deliberately avoiding him, everyone waiting for him to go all grinch and announce to an innocent child that there would be no Christmas at the compound. Hell, he wasn't even sure there would be a compound by Christmas, which was – damn, less than two weeks away.

Renata dropped down into a crouch next to Mira's chair at the table. "I've got an idea, Mouse. Why don't you come with me and show me what you're making for Hunter?"

"Okay," she answered, then turned to Kellan with a bright grin. "You wanna see too?"

"Sure." The teen shrugged as though he couldn't care less, but he was out of his seat as soon as the word left his lips. He loped along sullenly behind Renata and Mira, a loose shuffle of gangly arms and legs.

"Renata's right about the baby, you know." Savannah addressed everyone in the room.

"I've got a lot of good Southern midwives in my mama's line, and I've attended enough births myself to know that we're probably looking at a matter of days before Tess goes into labor. The way she's carrying, we could be down to a matter of hours."

Lucan felt a scowl pressing into his brow. "Days or hours? We need a few more weeks."

Lazaro Archer met him with a sage look. "Nature doesn't give a damn for convenience, and never has."

Lucan grunted, well aware of that ironic truth. He also knew they could buy valuable time if they could drop a hammer on Dragos somehow, get the bastard on the run again. It was time that they needed to assess a possible relocation of the compound, and time that Tess and Dante deserved in order to deliver their baby under some semblance of normal, peaceful conditions. He looked over at Gideon. "Best-case estimate, how soon can you be up and running if we determine the move to Archer's holding is viable?"

"Have laptop, will travel. Assuming we can establish satellite access up there without any issues, I can get our basic systems limping along in a few hours. The whole enchilada – networks, telecom, security cams, heat and motion sensors, et cetera – is going to take a couple of weeks, minimum."

Lucan expelled a curse along with his low sigh. "All right. Not great news, but we'll have to make it work. What about leads on Dragos?" he asked the assembled group. "Anything turn up on Murdock's possible whereabouts?"

"Nothing firm," Tegan replied from the other end of the table. "I've questioned a few of his known associates, but they came up empty. No one I've found has seen or heard from him since the incident the other night in Chinatown. Meanwhile, Rowan's putting out feelers on Murdock from within the Agency. One way or another, we'll find the son of a bitch."

Lucan nodded grimly. "Let's make it soon, yeah? Right now, he's our best shot at getting the drop on Dragos from this end. While we're working that angle, Hunter's going to run recon tonight on Henry Vachon in New Orleans. Based on the attack Dragos ordered last night, it appears the connection between Vachon and him is more than valid."

A few grave glances met his from the group, silent acknowledgment of the close call Hunter and his civilian companion had survived with one of Dragos's assassins. Brock's expression was the most concerned. Understandable, considering the history he'd had with Corinne Bishop back when he had served as a bodyguard for her family's Darkhaven in Detroit. The warrior had been nearly unrestrainable when he'd been brought up to speed on the details of Corinne's ill-fated reunion with Victor Bishop and the revelations that had resulted from her trip back home to Detroit. He was still visibly outraged over the news.

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