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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Eleven)

Chase roused slowly, a sickly sweet, smoky stench drifting up his nostrils and pulling him out of the darkness of a thick, heavy sleep.

His eyes refused to open. His body was sluggish, limbs weighted down, leaden where he sprawled facedown on the cold hard surface that had apparently been his bed. He groaned on a parched throat, nothing but cotton dryness in his mouth. With effort, he managed to lift one eyelid and peer into his fetid surroundings.

He was in an old railcar. Rusted out in places, small holes had eaten through the metal and now emitted blinding white light from outside.

Daylight.

Rays shone in from above his head where the roof was little more than delicate lace, some of it haphazardly patched over with scrap wood and plastic sheeting. Not enough cover for him. One bright nimbus of sunlight was aimed directly onto the back of his bare hand. It had seared an ugly burn into his skin – part of the stench that had woken him.

"Holy fuck." Chase hoisted himself up and scrambled on his haunches into a shaded corner.

That's when he saw the other source of the railcar's foul odor. A dead human male lay nearby where he'd been sleeping. The man's army green parka had been wrested off his shoulders, his face twisted in horror, ghastly white. His throat had been punctured and torn in numerous places. "Savaged" seemed a better way to describe the grotesque evidence of Chase's frenzied feeding.

He remembered his raking thirst. He recalled slipping inside the occupied shelter of the railcar, sending the homeless addicts screaming when they saw his glowing eyes and bared fangs. As the humans fled their makeshift shelter, he'd grabbed the slowest of the bunch, culling the easiest prey from its herd.

The big man had gone down fighting, but he'd been no match at all. Nothing could have stopped the feral need that had been spiraling so dark and deep inside Chase as he'd thrown the human to the filthy floor of the railcar and fed.

He'd drained him.

Killed him.

Shame for that engulfed Chase as he looked at what he'd done. He had crossed a line here, broken an immutable tenet of Breed law. He had trashed his own sense of honor, the one thing he'd clung to so steadfastly through all his years of life.

And there was the matter of the Order. He had squandered their trust. Last night when Dante and Kade had spotted him, gone after him out of concern, he'd cowered in the shadows of the rail yard like vermin. They had known he was there, using his talent to conceal himself, deliberately ignoring their calls. If they'd had any faith left in him at all, he'd smashed it to bits by refusing to face them.

It hurt to shut them out – Dante, especially – but it would have hurt him even more to let either of his fellow warriors see him in the state he'd been in. He'd been hunting all night, had already fed once but it hadn't been enough to sate him. Thirst had driven him down into the squalor of the industrial area near the river, where whores and addicts – failures, like him – tended to cluster. His thirst had known no shame, only craving and need. Chase craved still, despite having clearly drunk more than his fill only hours ago. He glared at the dead human, offended by the sight and stench of it. He needed to get out of there. With a fresh, needy ache blooming in his gut, Chase stripped the corpse of its coat, then pulled off the heathered gray sweatshirt and baggy jeans. His own clothes, the black fatigues he'd worn when he left the Order's compound the night before, were blood-soaked and revolting from careless feedings. He took them off, then put on the human's clothes. The jeans and sweatshirt were on the small side for one of Chase's kind, and probably hadn't been cleaned since their former owner had picked them up at Goodwill.

Chase didn't care, so long as he didn't draw undue notice by walking around looking like he'd murdered someone. Taking his ruined fatigues in one hand, he walked to the partially ajar door of the railcar. He pushed it wider and stared out at a sight few of his kind would ever willingly witness.

Sunlight beat down from a bright blue midmorning sky. It illuminated the ground below, glinting off the dirty snow and frozen mud of the rail yard. Despite the ugliness of his immediate surroundings, there was a beauty in that moment – that first glimpse of daylight on a crisp new dawn – that defied the squalor around him.

It defied even the urgency of his thirst, making him pause where he stood and simply look at the miraculous world he inhabited. The one he felt slipping through his fingers with every throbbing pulse through his veins.

Chase lifted his arm like a visor to shield his hypersensitive eyes from the impossible glare. He tipped his face up and let the unfamiliar, glorious heat of morning warm his face. It started to sting.

Before long, it started to sear.

How long would it take for the sun to bake him crispy? Probably half an hour, he guessed, savoring the acid burn as his skin across his cheeks and brow grew hotter. Thirty minutes, and there would be no more hunger. No more shame. No more struggle to keep himself out of the abyss that seemed so welcoming, so blessedly dark and endless.

He considered the notion for a long, excruciating while, testing his will. But he failed, even in that.

With the talons of his thirst sinking deeper into him, Chase stepped off the edge of the railcar and dropped to the ground below. He crossed the tracks and pitched his ruined warrior's garb into the smoldering belly of a smoking rubbish barrel.

Then he slunk off quickly to find shelter to wait for nightfall, when he could begin his hunting once more.

* * *

They had arrived in New Orleans in the dark early-morning hours and took a taxi from the airport to a hotel in what Hunter assumed was the heart of the tourist area. Street noise and music had echoed up from below their fourth-story window until long past daybreak, creating a racket that had kept his senses on full alert, anticipating the slightest hint of trouble. Not that he'd had any intention of sleeping. He hardly needed rest; an hour or two at most each day. It was how he'd been trained, a discipline that kept his body ready for any situation, his mind prepared to engage with hair-trigger response.

Corinne, on the other hand, had slept like the dead upon their arrival. He knew she'd been exhausted, physically drained. Her emotions had been taxed as well, although if she'd wanted to collapse in a fit of unproductive self-pity and tears, he had to give her credit there. She'd held up with remarkable strength. She'd seemed resolved since they'd left the Bishop Darkhaven. Defiant, even.

She'd been agreeable enough when he'd told her she was under his guardianship, and there had been no irrational histrionics when he'd informed her that his mission for the Order was going to take him – both of them – right into the potential enemy territory of Henry Vachon, a known ally of her captor and tormentor. Corinne had seemed almost eager at the idea, a fact that sparked a watchful curiosity in him.

Now he listened to the sounds of water moving in the tub of the adjacent bathroom. Corinne had gone in to freshen up shortly after noon, having slept all the way through the morning while he pored over maps of the city and outlying parishes in the lightless gloom of the hotel room's curtain-drawn living area.

He'd noticed she had neglected to close the door tightly, and for the past thirty-seven minutes – the full duration of her time spent reclining naked in the tub – he'd had to purposely avoid looking at the thin wedge of golden lamplight that poured into the darkness where he sat. He rallied his focus to the spread-out maps he'd picked up from the hotel lobby on their arrival. They were abbreviated street listings, intended mostly for tourists whose main objectives were, apparently, finding the nearest restaurants, bars, and jazz clubs. Hunter would get further intelligence on Henry Vachon from Gideon shortly; until then, he felt it a beneficial use of his time to familiarize himself with the various streets and districts. Perform some virtual reconnaissance until sundown, when he could venture out and see Vachon's city for himself. Anything to keep his gaze from straying toward that partially open door across the room. His resolve was tested when he heard the gurgle of water draining as she pulled the stopper. Her skin squeaked against the porcelain as she moved about in there, liquid splashes indicating she had climbed out of the tub. He saw her slender arm reach out to take a thick white towel from a polished metal bar on the wall. He heard the rustle of terry cloth as she began to dry the water from her body.

He forced his eyes back to the work that covered the coffee table in front of him. With total concentration he studied the portion of the map where they were currently staying, intent on committing the multicolored grid and its corresponding street names to memory: Their hotel was in an area called the Upper French Quarter. This part of the city encompassed numerous blocks between Iberville Street to St. Anne Street and was hemmed in on one side by a street named North Rampart and, on the other, the Mississippi –

Through the wedge of softly lit open doorway, he caught a glimpse of Corinne's bare thigh. The towel traveled down, then her foot came up to rest on the closed lid of the toilet as she dried off the lean, slender length of her calf.

A heat that had been kindling in his belly now drifted lower.

Hunter wanted to look away.

He meant to.

But then she shifted again, and his gaze rooted on the small, rounded curve of her breast. The nipple crowning it was flushed dark rose, a tantalizing contrast to her creamy skin. He stared at that sweet pink bud peaking at the swell of her soft, pale flesh. He'd never seen a female's naked breast before. On film and television at the compound on occasion, of course, but none of those hard-looking, grossly inflated examples could compare to the delicate perfection he saw in Corinne's naked form.

He wanted to see more of her; it shocked him how much he wanted that. As he watched her move in and out of his scant field of vision, arousal began to coil around him and tighten. His skin felt hot and confining, drawn too tight across his chest and up along his neck. Lower still, the tightness was worsening by the second, his sex stirring, stiffening with the sudden upticking rush of blood through his veins.

He growled quietly under his breath, though whether from shock or shame, he wasn't sure. He didn't want to feel this curiosity for her, this unwelcome sexual awareness. He'd been trained – disciplined without compromise from the time he was a boy – to be above base needs or desires.

Yet he could not wrest his attention away from Corinne Bishop now.

Even as he shifted to alleviate the binding annoyance of his too-snug clothes, he stared, stealing another look, hoping for a longer glimpse. Wishing for a brief fumble of the large white towel so he could feast his eyes on her completely and sate the curiosity that had him leaning onto his elbow for a more advantageous field of vision.

His temples pulsed, almost as insistently as the throb that had settled in his groin. Had he not been raised so rigidly, so ruthlessly, he might have been tempted to stroke his hand over the demanding pound of his arousal, if only to relieve the ache. Instead he fought the urge. Thinly. Everything male in him was locked on to her in that moment, and Corinne would have to be unconscious not to feel the weight of his hungry eyes on her.

Perhaps she did sense something, after all.

She pivoted around suddenly and tried to sidestep away from the gap in the narrowly opened door. As she moved, the towel he'd been willing her to drop slipped out of her grasp. It swung down on one side, baring the column of her spine and the upper curve of her heart-shaped backside.

His breath ceased, caught in a low rasp in his lungs. Not from the feminine beauty of her body but from the savagery that had evidently been wreaked upon it at some point. A web of angry red scars tracked across the smooth canvas of her back, from shoulder to buttock. Hideous welts left from a lash – probably a length of chain as well, based on the ruination of her skin – left him stricken into a dull sort of wonder. What had she been forced to endure?

Just how deeply had Dragos's evil cut her?

All the heat he'd felt just a moment before was eclipsed by the sight of those scars. He felt something elusive and unfamiliar wash over him in that instant, feelings that seemed to rise up at him from somewhere deep inside, an inaccessible place, long out of his reach. Regret for what had been done to her flooded through him, along with a dark, swelling wave of fury for the beast responsible.

He cursed, unable to keep the contempt inside him.

Corinne's head whipped around, wet black hair slapping against her bare shoulders as she hurried to cover herself with the towel. Her eyes clashed with his gaze through the slim gap of the open door. There was challenge in her unflinching look, a rawness that made him feel as though his knowledge of her wounds was as deep a violation as the punishment itself had been to her. Hunter glanced away, casting his gaze back to his maps.

He kept his eyes averted out of respect – out of sympathy he didn't even realize he was capable of until now. He listened as Corinne's bare feet padded a couple of steps across the tiles of the bathroom floor.

The door creaked as she slowly closed it and latched it tight, blocking him out.

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