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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Sixteen)

That was the niggling familiarity of this place. He had been here once before, more than a decade ago, he and Quentin and a squad of raiding Enforcement Agents, responding to rumors of an illegal hunting party organizing a night of sport at Boston's suburban Blue Hills Park. He didn't have to hear the animal howl of one of the vampires in pursuit of these doomed humans to know he was standing in the midst of a game for the most depraved of his kind. Banned by Breed law for centuries, clubs that arranged the pursuit of humans as sport – and anything else a vampire could desire – had been condemned but not completely abolished. There were still those who defied the laws. There were still those closed social circles with their very exclusive memberships, catering to the Breed's perverted elite.

Chase searched for the contempt that he should have felt for something so reprehensible. He felt the flicker of outrage, his old Agency ethics tingling with the impulse to intervene, but it wasn't enough to keep his fangs from ripping farther from his gums as the coppery fragrance of spilling blood permeated the thicket. Hunger coiled inside him, making his pulse run hot and wild through his veins.

As the humans neared the unplanned blind where he crouched, he got to his feet. His amber gaze burning his vision, he stepped out of his hiding place and directly into their path.

They arrived at the airport in a low-riding purple El Camino that Hunter had commandeered off the street in New Orleans.

The man who'd left the vehicle idling at the curb had been involved in a heated argument with a couple of scantily clad young women on the corner – women he seemed to think owed him money. While he'd jumped out of the car to shout and curse at them, Hunter had put Corinne in the passenger side, then smoothly slid behind the wheel and sped off before the man had the chance to notice they were gone.

The Order's jet awaited them in the private hangar as they drove the stolen vehicle into the cavernous space. Corinne glanced at Hunter, still trying to reconcile the tender touch that had held her in the jazz club with the lethally efficient violence that had taken two lives in the alley outside it. "Those guards back in the city," she murmured as he put the car into park and cut the engine. "You snapped their necks like they were nothing more than twigs."

His expression was unreadable, completely neutral. "We have to go now, Corinne. Gideon has already called ahead to alert the pilots. They'll be waiting for us inside."

She swallowed past the lump of ice that had been lodged in her throat since they fled the club. "You murdered those men, Hunter. In cold blood."

"Yes," he said levelly. "Before they had the opportunity to do likewise to us."

I deal in death.

That's what he'd told her, just last night. Born into the role of assassin and trained very well to do unthinkable things. Before now, it was only words. Only the threat of danger. Now she was seated beside him, about to follow him out of their stolen car and onto the plane that would take her with him God-only-knew-where next.

And yet, when he got out from behind the wheel then walked around to open her door and hold out his hand to her, she took it.

She walked with him, across the concrete floor of the hangar toward the lowered staircase that led up to the cabin of the private jet. Hunter climbed the steps ahead of her, then gestured her toward the spacious cabin.

"The pilots must be in the cockpit," he said as she walked past him to head toward one of the dozen large, leather reclining seats inside. "I will tell them we're here."

Corinne swiveled her head to nod in acknowledgment.

But as her attention swept back toward Hunter, everything seemed to go terribly silent around them. His eyes sparked with warning. He reached for her.

"Corinne, get out. Get out of here right n – "

Before she had the chance to react, something huge – a Breed male, easily as large as Hunter and garbed in head-to-toe black form-fitted clothing – exploded out from the closed cockpit area behind him.

Hunter pivoted with lightning speed, meeting his attacker and grabbing hold of the hand that gripped a nasty-looking black pistol. Shots rang out – one bullet lodging into the ceiling above Hunter's head, two more blasting into the interior sides of the cabin. A window popped, its tempered glass spiderwebbing around the large hole the round left in its wake. Corinne crouched behind the tall back of a leather seat, watching in a mix of terror and astonishment as Hunter chopped into his assailant's wrist with the edge of his hand. The gun dropped to the floor of the cabin, kicked away by Hunter's boot as he landed another series of similar bare-handed, cutting blows to the other male's neck and jaw. This one didn't break like the pair of guards outside the jazz club. He was a match for Hunter in size, and as Corinne stared in frantic horror, she realized that he was also equally matched in deadly skill.

The other male grabbed Hunter by his neck and slammed him into the nearby wall. He battered Hunter with blindingly swift punches to his face and skull. Hunter managed to twist out of the punishing hold. With one hand clamped down on his attacker's wrist, he wrenched the other male's arm until Corinne heard the bones crunch under the strain. Yet Hunter's attacker uttered nothing more than a grunt as he pivoted around to face him, working to get the advantage once more. Hunter didn't seem willing to let him have it. He smashed his boot heel into the side of the other male's kneecap, then delivered another hard blow to his midsection, then the side of the black-clad skull. The assailant went down to the floor, the knit head covering slipping off with the impact, baring his face.

Corinne inhaled a startled gasp.

While Hunter's thick hair was cropped close to his skull, this vampire's head was shaved totally bald. An intricate pattern of Gen One dermaglyphs tracked up around his ears and across the top of his domed head. Their color was muted, showing none of the fury and pain that would have made another Breed male's skin markings livid with deep, turbulent colors. Beneath the dark slashes of the intruder's brows, fierce gray eyes were as flat and cold as steel. He was as calm and cool as Hunter. And every bit as lethal.

Although the two of them looked different from each other, they were also the same. Both of them born assassins.

Both of them trained to kill on Dragos's command.

In the instant it took for her to realize that, Hunter had his foot aimed to come down on the other male's face. As his thigh muscles flexed and the boot heel started its hard descent, the other male rolled out of the way and launched himself toward the jet's small galley between the cabin and the wrecked cockpit door.

With his surely broken arm dangling useless at his side, the intruder reached out and pulled down a cabinet full of glassware. He whirled on Hunter, brandishing a long, glittering shard of crystal like a blade. He made a swipe, a strike evaded only narrowly as Hunter dodged aside then plowed his fist into his attacker's lower abdomen. The blow staggered him, the glass blade shattering under their feet as the struggle pushed farther into the galley. Corinne could have run out. She should have, probably. But the thought of leaving Hunter to contend with this seemingly unstoppable killer was out of the question. She crept out from behind the cabin seat, looking for some means to help him. Her talent was useless to her here. Without the aid of a steady sound wave, her ability to warp the volume of audio energy could not be summoned.

But if she could get her hands on the gun that lay only a few yards between her and the combat zone …

She saw it too late.

Hunter's attacker was already jockeying toward it himself, fending Hunter off while he grappled with his foot to bring the weapon within reach.

They pivoted and strained, alternating blows that would have knocked lesser males unconscious. And then, in a moment that passed so quickly Corinne could hardly register the motion, Hunter's assailant made a grab for the gun and came up with it aimed squarely at his face.

"No!" Corinne's feet were moving even before she could take a breath and shout once more. She raced up behind the other male and flung herself onto his back. Holding on with one hand, she raked the fingernails of the other into the soft flesh of his face and eyes. She gouged as hard as she could, animalistic in her need to prevent one of Dragos's beasts from harming someone she cared about.

The trained assassin didn't so much as gasp at her attack. His elbow came back hard against the side of her face, crushing her lips against her teeth. She tasted blood in her mouth. Felt it trickle down her chin as her lip split open.

And then she was flying backward, tossed off his broad back like she was nothing at all. Failed or not, her attempt to distract had given Hunter just enough opportunity to knock the gun off its aim as the intruder squeezed off another round. Hunter bowed his head and rammed into the other male with the full force of his body, thick shoulder plowing the other male backward on his heels.

Hunter shoved him toward the open door at the top of the lowered staircase. They both tumbled out of the plane together. Corinne got up and ran to the opening, watching as the two landed hard on the concrete below.

Hunter sent a quick glance up at her – just enough to ascertain that she was all right. She felt the heat of his golden eyes as they lit on her face, on the thin trail of blood that she now wiped from her chin.

She heard his low growl, the first sound he'd uttered during the entire length of his punishing struggle. When he turned back to the semiconscious assassin who lay pinned beneath him on the ground, Hunter's movements were precise and unflinching. He took the gun from the slackened hand of his attacker and rose to his feet. Straddling the large, black-clad body, Hunter aimed the nose of the weapon at the hairless, glyph-covered head. No, that wasn't quite right, Corinne noticed now.

He wasn't aiming at the assassin's head exactly, but rather at the peculiar ring of hard black material that circled his neck like some kind of collar.

Even from the top of the stairs, she could see the assassin's eyes go wide with understanding as Hunter leveled the gun on that ring of thick, dull black. Now she saw fear in the other male. Now, finally, she saw his acknowledgment of defeat.

Hunter fired.

A flash of light answered the crack of gunfire, so piercingly bright Corinne had to shield her eyes from its sudden blast. When it cleared an instant later, thin smoke rose up from the place where the assassin lay, his large body lifeless on the concrete, his head cleanly severed.

"Oh, my God," she whispered, unsure what she'd just witnessed.

Hunter came out from behind the lowered staircase as she reached the bottom step. "Are you all right?"

She nodded her head, then shook it weakly, trying to understand what had happened here.

"How did you … What did you do to him?"

Stoic once more, except for the amber sparks that glittered darkly as his gaze dropped to her split lip, Hunter steered her away from the carnage on the ground. He walked over and retrieved the thick black ring from the charred neck of the assassin. "The pilots were dead before we arrived. Dragos must have eyes all over the city now. He may send more like this one after us. We have to go now."

She stole an incredulous glance over her shoulder as he guided her away from the body.

"Are you just going to leave him there?"

Hunter gave a grim nod. "The hangar doors are open. Come morning, the sun will destroy what's left of him."

"And if it doesn't?" she pressed. "What if Dragos or his men get here first and they realize what you've done? What if they come after you?"

"Then they will know what awaits them if they try." He put his hand out to her, palm up, waiting for her to take it. "Let's get out of here, Corinne."

She hesitated, uncertainty gnawing at the edges of her conscience. But then she slipped her hand into his and let him lead her away from the carnage.

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