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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Nineteen)

"Henry Vachon is obviously scum, with or without a fresh connection to Dragos," he said, his deep voice rumbling with fury. "I'd personally like to see the bastard drawn and quartered, but I hate the idea that Hunter has to leave Corinne unguarded for so much as a minute while he collects the intel we need."

"It concerns me too," Lucan replied. "Hunter's comfortable that they're in a safe place for the time being, but they need to find better shelter. Unfortunately, we can't risk area hotels, nor can we be sure of any of the local Darkhavens. We have to assume anyone in the civilian population down there could have secret ties to either Henry Vachon or Dragos himself."

"What about someone in the human population?" Savannah's question had all heads turning in her direction. "I know someplace they'd be safe for a while. It's not far from the city, but it's about as off-the-beaten-path as you can get."

"Savannah," Gideon interjected slowly. "We can't ask her – "

"Who is the human in question?" Lucan asked. Savannah met his gaze. "My sister Amelie. She's been living on the Atchafalaya Swamp for more than seventy years. And she's trustworthy. The fact that Gideon and I are alive today, standing here in front of you all, is testimony to that."

Gideon nodded, albeit reluctantly. "Savannah and I owe Amelie Dupree our lives. She's solid, Lucan. I'd stake my life on that. I have, actually."

"Amelie knows what Gideon is," Savannah added. "She's known about him since the night he showed up on her doorstep looking for me some thirty years ago, and she's kept our secret all this time."

The newsflash that a human down in the Louisiana swamps was privy to the Breed's existence didn't exactly warm Lucan's cockles. Still, he knew he'd be a fool not to consider the option Savannah and Gideon had just handed him. Human alliances were hardly his first choice – in fact, they ranked about dead last as far as he was concerned – but the situation was desperate and time was definitely not on the Order's side at the moment. "How long do you think it might take to contact your sister?"

"I can call her right now," Savannah said. "I know she'll be willing to help us. All I need to tell her is when she should expect her company to arrive."

"Tell her they'll be there as soon as night falls," Lucan replied.

Corinne had slept without waking until well into the afternoon. Even though Hunter now crouched on his haunches across the small bedroom from her, he could still feel the soft curves of her body pressed against him. He could still smell the fragrance of her hair and skin from the hours he'd spent wrapped around her while she'd dozed.

Now he watched her breathe in and out, anticipating each slow inhalation, mesmerized by the beat of her pulse, which had kicked into a faster tempo beneath the fine alabaster skin at the base of her elegant throat.

His hunger for her hadn't lessened despite the physical distance he'd been glad to put between them. He wanted her in a way that startled him, one that surpassed even the most primal Breed thirst. His desire for her had disturbed him before, but now, after the torment of having held her against him for most of the day, she had invaded all of his senses. Worse than that, she had invaded his logic, making him fixate on her comfort when he should be planning his recon mission for later that night.

He tried to wrestle his focus back to the call he'd received from the Order a few hours ago. They'd found a safe house for Corinne and him about an hour's drive west of the city. Come sundown, he would take her to the assigned shelter then set off on his own to investigate Henry Vachon's known locations and hopefully collect solid intel on where the bastard could be found. The anticipation of closing in on one of Dragos's likely lieutenants made the predator in him itch for nightfall.

Corinne let out a moan on the makeshift pallet on the floor. Hunter sprang to his feet, thoughts of Dragos and his colleagues thrust aside the instant she began to stir. Her legs scissored as though she were struggling to break free from some invisible restraints. Her mouth twisted into a grimace as she sucked in air, rapid, distressed-sounding gulps.

Hunter eased down behind her on his leather coat and gathered her to him. He didn't know what to say to calm her. He had no experience to draw from, so he simply wrapped his arms around her loosely as she thrashed and shifted in his embrace. She was panting now, whispering indiscernibly, panic seeming to rise to a head with each passing second. He felt the frantic tick of her pulse as a scream ripped from her lips. It was a single word, a gasped exclamation that startled her awake, her face now less than an inch away from his. Her eyelids flipped wide open.

"You are safe," he told her, the only words he had as he stared into the terrified greenblue pools of her gaze. He brought his hand up slowly and swept a tendril of dark hair off her damp brow. "You're safe with me, Corinne."

She gave him a faint nod. "I had a nightmare. I thought I was back there … in that awful place."

"Never again," he told her. It was a promise, one he realized just then that he was prepared to die for. She didn't flinch away as he continued to stroke the delicate slope of her cheek and jaw line. Her eyes, however, remained fixed on him, studying him.

"How long did you stay with me while I slept?"

"A while."

She gave a small shake of her head, not stopping him from letting his fingers stray into the silky warmth of her unbound hair. "You stayed for a long time. You held me, so that I could sleep."

"You asked me to," he replied.

"No," she countered gently. "I only asked you to stay until I fell asleep. What you did was … very kind." Her eyes were locked on him with such open gratitude, it humbled him. When she spoke again, her voice had grown quiet, as though the words were difficult to summon. "I'm not used to being held. I can hardly remember what it's like to be touched with any amount of care or tenderness. I don't know how I'm supposed to feel anymore."

"If I am causing you discomfort – "

"No," she answered quickly, reaching out to press her palm lightly against his chest. It remained there, a slender patch of heat resting over the heavy thud of his heartbeat. "No, you don't cause me any discomfort, Hunter. Not at all."

He frowned, watching his big hand caress the impossibly delicate contours of her face. His fingertips were callused from handling weapons and dealing in violence. His skin rasped against the velvety perfection of hers. "You are the finest thing I've ever touched. I want to be careful with you. I worry that you'll break under my rough hands."

She smiled at that, a deep curve of her lips that had him burning to kiss her. "Your hands are very gentle. And I like the way you're touching me now."

Her whispered praise went through his body like a jolt of lightning. His pulse hammered in his ears, blood rushing through his veins and arteries like a sudden, swelling flood of lava. The tips of his fangs stretched, responding as obviously as another part of his anatomy. He fought the fevered response of his body, certain he could rein it in as he traced the edge of her jaw, then trailed the pad of his thumb over the supple curve of her lower lip. God, she was soft. So beautiful.

She exhaled a small, pleasured-sounding sigh as he continued to study her with his hands and eyes. "Are you always so careful and tender with your women?"

He shrugged, stopping short of admitting that there had been no other women – not even once. He was raised as a machine, denied all physical contact save discipline. Until the past couple of days he'd been with Corinne, he hadn't known to crave anything more.

"Intimacy had no place in my upbringing," he told her. "This is not the kind of contact I was trained for."

"Well, you're doing just fine, if you ask me."

Again she smiled, and again his body responded with a kick of hot, coiling need. He knew she had to feel the vibration that seemed to thrum through every cell in his being. She had to feel the hard jut of his arousal, where it pressed insistently against her thigh, which had somehow wedged itself between his legs as they lay there, not even a bare inch separating them. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to ease some of the ache that was opening up inside him as he curved his hand around the tender arch of her nape and drew her closer. She didn't resist, not even for an instant.

Hunter moved toward her and slanted his mouth across hers. The kiss they'd shared the night before had been unexpected, sweet and tentative. This kiss was something else entirely. Their lips melded together, faces pressed close, hands reaching out, holding tight. This kiss was starved and urgent, greedy with mutual need. Hunter cupped his palm around the back of Corinne's head to drag her deeper into his embrace. Every beat of his heart sent fire shooting through his veins. His fangs throbbed, erupting out of his gums to their full length and filling his mouth. His cock pulsed against the delicious softness of her body, igniting something primal in him, something animal and not entirely within his control.

He didn't think his desire could ratchet any higher, but then he felt the slick prodding of Corinne's tongue as it skated maddeningly along his upper lip. He groaned something unintelligible, incapable of words when his body was on the verge of snapping its tethers. He parted his lips on a rasped breath and nearly lost his mind when the tip of Corinne's tongue darted inside.

They kissed for a long few moments, his entire body tense and rock-hard while Corinne seemed to go even more pliable in his arms, melting into his embrace. He felt the soft crush of her breasts against his chest, and curious, he reached down to rub his palm over the thin fabric of her sweater. He cupped one of the small mounds, marveling at how erotic it felt to caress her and hear her tremulous gasps of pleasure in response.

He couldn't get close enough now. He needed more of this … more of her. Pulse raging, desire roaring through him with an intensity that nearly overwhelmed him, Hunter rolled her onto her back beneath him. He covered her with his body, his mouth fastened to hers in a demanding kiss, the pounding force of his arousal making his hips grind against her pelvis.

Although he'd never tasted sexual release, the need for it now drove into him with razorsharp talons. He felt Corinne writhe beneath him, heard her moan as he slid his hands up the length of her arms. The need to possess her, to claim her, slammed into him with every throbbing beat of his pulse.

It took him a moment to realize Corinne was still moaning, not with the same fierce hunger that throbbed in him but with something that sounded disturbingly like fear. He had her hands pinned above her head, his fingers clamped around her delicate wrists like shackles. She was writhing beneath him still, and through the dull haze of his selfish need, he suddenly understood that she was struggling, squirming to get free from the unyielding press of his body.

Her moan broke like a whimper, then a breathless sob.

Appalled at himself, Hunter rolled away from her at once. "I'm sorry," he blurted, feeling worse than stupid as she scrambled up from the floor, her arms crossed over herself like a shield.

"Corinne, I didn't mean to … I'm sorry."

She slid him a withered glance. "You don't have to apologize. I shouldn't have let you. I should have known I couldn't do this," she said, sucking in a hitching breath. "I'm not ready for this, Hunter. Maybe I'm crazy to think I ever could be."

When she turned away from him, he struggled to drag himself back to his senses. "Is it because of Nathan?"

Her head snapped back to him. Her expression was aghast, eyes wide with alarm. Her voice was hardly audible. "What did you say?"

"Nathan," he replied. "That's the name you called out in your sleep, just before you woke from your nightmare. Is he the reason you're not ready? Is it because your heart belongs to another male?"

She wasn't breathing. She stared at him unmoving for what seemed like forever. "You don't know what you're talking about," she answered at last, the words clipped with finality. "I didn't call out anyone's name in my sleep. You must have imagined it."

He hadn't, but he refrained from pushing her any further. Their moment together was shattered, over in that very instant. Although his pulse was still thrumming, his sex still rampant and aching for release, he could see that she wanted nothing to do with him now. Her silence lengthened, her face shuttering as she backed away from him, wary now. The look in her eyes seemed to accuse him somehow, as though she'd suddenly remembered he was a stranger to her … maybe even an enemy.

He felt awkward, embarrassed, confused. Things that were foreign to him until now, because of this woman. Because of his care for her, and the cornered look that she gave him as she put even more space between them.

Mira's vision came back to him like a slap across the face. Corinne's pleading. Her tears. Her begging for him to spare the life of the male she couldn't bear to lose. And now Hunter was sure he knew that male's name.

Nathan.

He didn't know why the knowledge should set his teeth on edge, but it did. He clamped his jaws together so hard his molars ached.

"Hunter," Corinne began, breaking off to inhale a shaky breath. "What happened between us just now – "

"It will not happen again," he finished for her.

When lust and pride bit into him with twin spurs, he mentally tamped the useless emotions down. He grasped for the rigid discipline that had always served him so well – a discipline that seemed intent on eluding him when he met the look of wounded confusion that swam in Corinne Bishop's lovely eyes.

"The sun will be setting soon," he told her. "We'll leave as soon as it does."

She flinched, worry edging her expression now.

"Where to?"

"A safe house has been arranged. You'll stay there while I resume my mission for the Order."

He turned, and left her standing behind him in the room alone.

"Mr. Masters, I certainly do appreciate the generosity you've shown my campaign in recent months. This check – " The senator arched a well-groomed brow as he glanced once more at the sizable corporate donation. "Well, sir, quite frankly, a contribution of this magnitude is humbling. It's unprecedented, really."

Dragos steepled his fingers under his chin and smiled from his plush guest chair on the other side of the upwardly mobile politician's desk. "God bless democracy, and the United States Supreme Court."

"Indeed." The senator chuckled somewhat uncomfortably, his Adam's apple straining against the starched white collar of his tuxedo shirt and crisp black bowtie. His flawlessly styled golden blond hair was combed back loosely from his handsome face, the dusting of gray on either side of his temples giving the thirty-something senator an air of wisdom and distinction. Dragos wondered if he'd earned those distinguished-looking stripes at a pricey salon, then decided he didn't care. It was the senator's politics – and his elite Ivy League connections – that interested Dragos the most.

"I'm honored that you and TerraGlobal have demonstrated such faith in my campaign's objectives," he said, adopting an earnest look that probably scored Boston's charming, mosteligible bachelor everything he'd ever asked for in his privileged young life. "You have my personal assurance that all the money you've contributed will be put to prudent, good use."

"I have no doubt, Senator Clarence."

"Please," he said, sliding the check into the top drawer of his desk and locking it. "You must call me Robert. Ah, hell, call me Bobby – all my friends do."

Dragos returned the polished smile. "Bobby it is."

"I want you to know, Mr. Masters, that I share your commitment to the real issues that are impacting our great nation. I've promised to do my part in Washington to help bring us back to where we deserve to be – where we need to be, as the greatest country in the world. And I want you to know that my fight is only beginning now that I have the honor of holding this office at such a crucial time in our history. I'm here because I mean to make a difference."

"Of course," Dragos intoned, patiently sitting through the red-white-and-blue highlights of a stump speech he'd heard more than once while Bobby Clarence was on the campaign trail.

"You and I share many of the same interests. Not the least of which being your dedication to antiterror initiatives. I admire your zero-tolerance stance on those who would engage in such deplorable activity. I commend you on being willing to draw a hard line when it comes to matters of national security."

Bobby Clarence leaned forward across his desk, eyes narrowed with practiced intensity.

"Between you and me, Drake – if I may?" Dragos gestured for him to continue, smiling to himself as he granted permission for the human to address him by one of his many aliases.

"Between you and me and these four walls, I wouldn't be opposed to bringing back public executions when it comes to any and all terrorist scumbags, especially the ones sprouting up like weeds from our own American soil. Hang the bastards by their balls and turn a pack of starving dogs on their entrails, I say. Unfortunately, my handlers would probably tell me that doesn't make a great campaign slogan."

He broke into a gregarious laugh, humor that Dragos shared, though not for precisely the same reasons. Dragos's chuckle was one of private amusement and the almost giddy anticipation of the moment he would pull the strings that would result in his ultimate triumph over the Order. The speakerphone on the senator's desk buzzed with an incoming call. He politely excused himself, then lifted the receiver to his ear and pressed the button. "Yes, Tavia? Mmhmm. All right, that's fine. Ah, damn. Is it that time already? Please phone the chairman's office and apologize for me, will you? Tell him I'm in my last meeting of the day and he'll have to go on ahead of us to the benefit. We'll join up with him and the others as soon as possible. Yes, I know how he hates last-minute changes of plans, but I'm afraid he's just going to have to deal with it." Bobby Clarence sent a good-old-boy wink in Dragos's direction. "Tell him I'm delayed on account of a Homeland Security matter. That ought to give him something to chew on until we get there."

The senator wrapped up the call from his aide and offered Dragos an apologetic shrug.

"No one told me that getting elected would be the easy part of this whole gig. Staying on top of my schedule is something else, especially around this time of the year. I tell you, I've spent more time in a damned tuxedo the past month than I have in the trenches where I belong."

"You're a man in demand," Dragos replied, sensing that the exasperation over fat-cat parties and frou-frou social functions was just part of the golden boy's public facade. It had certainly played well in the elections, and that was all that mattered to Dragos, since he was betting a good deal of cash on the fact that the shiny bright star from Cambridge would get him face-to-face with humankind's true power brokers.

"You have appointments to keep, and I shouldn't delay you any longer," Dragos announced, rising from the guest chair despite the senator's rush to assure him he had all the time in the world to talk with him. "Thank you for agreeing to see me on short notice and so late in the day, besides."

Senator Clarence came around the desk and helped Dragos shrug back into his cashmere coat. He reached out and took Dragos's hand in a friendly clasp. "It's been my pleasure talking with you today, Drake. I welcome the opportunity to do it again, anytime."

He walked with Dragos to the door and opened it for him. Standing on the other side, her hand raised before her as though she was only a second away from knocking, was a very tall, very attractive young woman dressed in a charcoal gray business pantsuit and high-collared, ivory blouse. Her thick, caramel-brown hair was fastened in a long ponytail at her nape, not a single strand out of place. All combined, it was a look that might have been offputting on a less beautiful woman, but not here.

"Ah! Tavia," Bobby Clarence blurted as Dragos came to a halt right in front of her, struck by the sight of the young woman mere inches from his face. She took an abrupt step back, her intelligent gaze snapping from Dragos's intrigued smile to her employer's smooth grin. The senator placed his hand on Dragos's shoulder. "Drake, have you met my personal aide, Tavia Fairchild?"

"A pleasure," he purred, dipping his head in greeting.

"Mr. Masters," she replied, accepting his offered hand and giving it a brief but firmly professional shake. "We haven't had the opportunity to meet, but I recognize your name from various correspondence of the senator's."

"Tavia's memory for names and faces is uncanny," boasted her proud boss. "She's my secret weapon, always keeping me on time and in the know. Or at least, trying to."

"I have no doubt," Dragos replied, hardly able to take his eyes off the woman. Dark lashes shuttered her spring-leaf green gaze almost anxiously in the instant before her attention flicked away from him, leaving him to wonder if on some instinctual level the female sensed he was more than he appeared beneath his conservative suit and cashmere coat. Dragos remained fascinated by her, enthralled really, as she turned to the senator and handed him a small gift-wrapped box festooned with a red ribbon and a cheery sprig of fresh holly. "For the chairman's wife. It's an antique brooch I found at a shop on Newbury Street last weekend. I figured since she collects cameos – "

"What'd I tell you, Drake?" Bobby Clarence said, jerking his perfectly square chin in her direction as he took the gift and gave it a little rattle. "Secret weapon. She's always making me look better than I really am."

Tavia Fairchild seemed to take the praise in stride, remaining unflappably on task. "Shall I call down to the garage and ask them to bring the car around for you, Senator Clarence?"

"Yeah, that'd be great, Tavia. Thanks." The senator clapped Dragos companionably on the shoulder again as his pretty aide pivoted back toward her desk and picked up her phone to summon his driver. "Can I persuade you to come along, Drake? We could talk some more, and I'd be happy to introduce you to some of the good folks at tonight's First Responders benefit. I think you'd find a lot of like-minded individuals who'd enjoy sharing their thoughts with you on some of the things we've been discussing."

Dragos allowed an indulgent smile. "I'm afraid I couldn't possibly." His sights were set a bit higher than the union yokels of the city's firefighters and police departments. "Thank you for the offer. However, I really should go now."

"You sure?" the senator pressed with a winning grin. "The food alone will be worth it. Those guys love to eat. You would too, especially at five hundred bucks a plate, prepared by the best Italian chef in the North End."

"Alas," Dragos demurred, "I maintain a very strict diet. Italian food does not agree with me."

"Ah, I'm sorry to hear it." Bobby Clarence chuckled as he strode over to a nearby closet and shrugged into an expensive-looking silk-lined coat. "You will be at the holiday party tomorrow night at my place, won't you?"

Dragos gave him a nod. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Excellent. Tavia really knocked herself out, putting the whole shindig together for me –

right down to the hand-inscribed invitations."

"Is that so?" Dragos turned another appraising look on the young female, who had since retrieved her own coat and handbag and was in the process of shutting down her computer and putting the office phones on voicemail.

"I'm not supposed to announce this publicly," Senator Clarence added, "but we've confirmed a surprise guest of honor tomorrow evening. A good friend and mentor of mine from my Cambridge days. Someone I'm certain you'll be interested to meet, Drake."

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