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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Ten)

Hunter hadn't spoken two words to her in the time between his phone call to the Order and his driving back to the airport outside Detroit. Not that Corinne had been looking for conversation. Her head was still reeling from what had occurred at the Darkhaven, her heart still raw, rent open like a gash in the center of her being.

She had come home looking for her family and found betrayal instead. Even more painful, her hopes of having Victor Bishop's power and resources rallied toward finding her lost little boy were now completed dashed.

Who was she supposed to trust now, when the only family she'd ever known had knowingly abandoned her to a monster?

Despair clogged her throat as she sat in the dark cabin of the vehicle, mindlessly watching the passing, moonlit scenery as Hunter navigated the maze of the airport's private access roads, heading toward a complex of domed hangars adjacent to the public terminal and runways. Corinne couldn't stop thinking about her child, the precious infant Dragos had stolen from out of her arms just moments after she'd given birth. He would be a growing boy now – an adolescent who'd never known his mother.

Helpless as one of Dragos's prisoners, she'd had no calendars, no clocks, not even the most meager comforts. She had counted her son's years the only way she could: in nine-month increments, marking the passage of time by observing the pregnancies of other captive Breedmates. Thirteen birth cycles from the time she'd held her newborn baby boy and the day of her rescue just last week.

Despite the circumstances of his horrific conception, Corinne had loved her baby deeply from the instant she saw him. He was hers, a vital part of who she was, no matter how savagely he'd come into this world. She recalled the anguish of missing him. She felt that still, the sorrow of knowing in her bones that he was alive but uncertain where he'd been taken or what had become of him.

It gnawed at her even now. She weathered the fresh sense of mourning as Hunter parked inside an unmarked hangar where the sleek white private jet waited. He took out his cell phone and made a call. His deep, low voice seemed like nothing more than background noise – a deep, oddly comforting rumble. Just the sound of him speaking, strong and calm, a confident presence, so effortlessly in control of everything around him, somehow made the swelling tides of her memories seem more navigable.

She let it anchor her as the waves of painful memories – of her failure to hold her baby close and keep him safe – continued to swamp her.

If her disastrous reunion tonight had given her anything to hold on to, it was the resolve that had become like iron now that she understood how brutal abandonment could feel. She would not forsake her child. She would walk through the fires of hell itself to find him. Not even Dragos and his evil would keep her from reuniting with her son. She would let nothing – and no one – stand in her way.

Hunter was ending his brief phone conversation, she noticed. He disconnected the call, then tucked the tiny device back into his coat pocket.

She glanced over and their eyes met across the dimly lit interior of the car. "Is everything all right with your friends in Boston?"

Although he hadn't confided in her about his first call to the Order's compound that night, Corinne had heard enough on his end of the conversation to know that something bad had happened while Hunter had been with her. She'd heard Dragos's name and the mention of a young Darkhaven boy whose family and home had recently been lost to Dragos's violence. From the little bit she'd gathered, and from Hunter's elusive, almost forbidding, expression right now, it seemed pretty clear that Dragos had somehow managed to gain the upper hand.

"Are they in terrible danger, Hunter?"

"We are in the midst of war," he answered, his maddeningly calm voice sounding more bleak than apathetic. "Until Dragos is dead, everyone is in terrible danger."

He wasn't speaking only about the residents of the Order's compound. Not even the warriors and the Breed nation combined. The war Hunter referred to encompassed something much larger than that. He was speaking of Dragos's threat to the world in total. If anyone else had said such a thing, she might have chalked it up to dramatics. But this was Hunter. Exaggeration wasn't a part of his personal lexicon. He was factual and concise. He was exact with both his words and his deeds, and that only made the weight of his statement settle all the more heavily on her.

Corinne sat back, unable to hold his piercing golden stare. She swiveled her head and looked out the tinted passenger-side window of the car, watching the side of the small jet open to allow the stairs to fold out and descend to the concrete floor of the hangar.

"Are you sending me back to Boston?"

"No." Hunter turned off the car's engine. "I'm not sending you anywhere. You are to stay with me for the time being. Lucan has charged me with your temporary safekeeping."

She glanced away from the waiting aircraft and ventured another look at her remote companion. She wanted to argue that she didn't need anyone's safekeeping, not when she'd just tasted freedom, bitter as that taste had been so far. But his announcement raised a bigger question. "If we're not going to Boston, then where is that plane headed?"

"New Orleans," he replied. "Gideon has been able to substantiate Regina Bishop's recollection of Henry Vachon. He owns several properties in the New Orleans area and is presumed to reside there. As of this moment, Vachon is our most viable link to Dragos."

Corinne's heart thumped hard in her chest. Henry Vachon was the Order's best link to Dragos … which meant he was also her best link to Dragos. Perhaps the only link she had to finding out what had happened to her son.

As much as she wanted to reject the idea of being leashed to Hunter or to anyone else, a larger part of her understood that she had few options and even fewer resources at her disposal. If hitching her wagon to Hunter would bring her closer to Henry Vachon and any information regarding her child, she had to do it. Anything for her child.

"What will you do," she asked, "if you are able to find Vachon?"

"My mission is simple: Determine his connection to Dragos and extract any useful intelligence I can. Then neutralize the target to disable any potential future fallout."

"You mean you intend to kill him," Corinne said, not a question but a grim understanding. Hunter's stark eyes showed no waver whatsoever. "If I determine that Vachon does in fact have an allegiance to Dragos – past or present – he must be eliminated."

She felt herself nodding faintly, but inside she was unsure what to think. She couldn't feel pity for Henry Vachon if he had anything to do with her ordeal, but another part of her wondered how Hunter's brutal occupation must impact the one who dealt so frequently in death.

"Does it ever bother you, the things you have to do?" She spoke the question before she'd had a chance to decide if it was her place to ask it or not. Before she'd had the time to worry whether or not she wanted to know the answer. "Does life truly mean so little to you?"

Hunter's harsh, handsome face didn't flinch. The angles of his high cheekbones and square-cut jaw were rigid, as unforgiving as sharp-edged steel. Only his mouth seemed soft, full lips held with neither a scowl nor a smirk, only placid, maddening neutrality. But it was his eyes that held her the most transfixed. Beneath the crown of his closecropped blond hair, his eyes were penetrating, probing. As sharply as they bore into her, however, they seemed even more determined to reveal nothing of themselves no matter how deeply she searched.

"I deal in death," he answered then, no apology or excuse. "It is a role I was born into, one I was trained to do very well."

"And you never doubt?" She couldn't help pressing, needing to know. Wanting to understand this formidable Breed male who seemed so solitary and alone. "You never question what you do – not ever?"

Something dark flashed across his face in that instant. There was a flicker of evasion in his eyes, she thought. Brief but impossible to miss, and shuttered a second later by the downward sweep of his lashes as he palmed the car keys and dropped them into the center console of the vehicle.

"No," he answered finally. "I don't question anything my duties require me to do. Not ever."

He opened the driver-side door and began to step out of the vehicle. "The plane is ready for us. We must go now, while the night is still on our side."

"They're on the way to New Orleans now."

Lucan glanced up as Gideon ended his call with Hunter and came back to the tech lab's conference table where Tegan and he stood, poring over a set of unrolled blueprints. "No further issues with Corinne Bishop or her kin in Detroit?"

"Hunter didn't seem to be concerned," Gideon replied. "Said he had the situation under control."

Lucan grunted, wry despite the weight of the discussion previously under way. "Where've I heard that line before? Famous last words from more than one of us over the course of the past year and a half."

"Yup." Gideon cocked a brow over the rims of his pale blue shades. "Usually followed not long afterward by a call from the field that the situation so assuredly under control has gone suddenly and totally FUBAR."

Lucan himself wasn't above blame on that score, nor was Tegan or Gideon, for that matter. Still, this was Hunter they were talking about.

Tegan seemed to pick up on his line of thinking. "If I hadn't seen that male come back bleeding on occasion from some of his nastier missions, I'd say he was made of steel and cables, not muscle and bone. He's a machine, that one. He doesn't fuck up – it's not in his DNA. There won't be any surprises from Hunter."

"There better not be," Lucan replied. "We've sure as hell got our hands full enough as it is."

With that, the three of them turned their attention back to the plans Lucan had spread out on the table. The blueprints were something he'd been working on privately for the past few months, soon after he began to realize how vulnerable the compound was becoming the longer Dragos eluded the Order's grasp.

It was the design for an all-new headquarters.

He'd already procured the land – a two-hundred-acre tract in Vermont's Green Mountains – and the plans were nearly complete for a sprawling, high-security, state-of-the-art bunker that could house a small town in its many underground chambers and specially designed facilities. It was immense, incredible, exactly the kind of place the Order needed now that Dragos knew the compound's location.

The only problem was, a facility of that size and scope was easily a year or more out of reach.

They needed something today, not down the road.

"Maybe we need to think about splitting up," Gideon suggested after a while. "None of us is without money or holdings of our own. I mean, none of our properties are as secure as this compound is – rather, as secure as it was. But we're not without options. Maybe the smartest, fastest thing would be for each of us to take our mate and move to other locations."

Tegan's green eyes glittered darkly as he slid a grave look at Lucan. There was no need to ask what the other Gen One warrior was thinking. Lucan and he, although historically not always on the best of terms, were the last of the Order's founding members. For some seven centuries –

since the Order's inception – they'd fought side by side, lived through numerous personal hells and triumphs. They had killed for each other, bled for each other … sometimes even wept for each other. Only to arrive at this place together.

Together, not divided.

Lucan saw a raw, medieval ferocity in Tegan's gaze now. He understood it. He felt it too.

"The Order will not splinter," Lucan replied, terse with fury for what Dragos was forcing them to consider. "We are warriors. Brethren. We are kin. We will not let anyone scatter us in terror."

Gideon nodded, solemn and silent. "Yeah," he said, meeting their gazes. "Fuck me, right?

Total crap idea. I don't know what the hell I was thinking."

They shared a tense chuckle, all of them acutely aware that the rest of the compound had entrusted them to decide the fate of everyone. And their choices were damned few. Dragos had them trapped like fish in a barrel now, and at any given moment he might start shooting.

"Reichen and Claire have properties in Europe," Gideon pointed out. "I mean, not that it would be ideal in terms of vacating the compound here and relocating abroad, let alone at a moment's notice."

Lucan considered the option. "What about the tech lab? We can't afford to take the heat off Dragos, even if we do clear out of here. How quickly would you be able to set up shop in another location?"

"It wouldn't be totally seamless," Gideon replied. "But anything's possible."

"What about Tess?" Tegan's question dropped on them like a hammer. "You really think she'll be up to the kind of move you're talking about? For that matter, do you think Dante is willing to take that risk?"

Tegan shook his head, and Lucan knew he was right. They couldn't ask Tess and Dante to jeopardize her health and well-being, or that of their soon-to-arrive son, on a relocation effort of that magnitude.

Not to mention the fact that Lucan had his doubts about the viability of setting up the Order's new headquarters so far away from Dragos's presumed base of operations. It would be a hell of a lot easier to keep the pressure on the bastard from close range.

As Lucan grappled with the impossibilities of the situation, he caught a movement in his periphery and noticed Lazaro Archer walking past the glass walls of the lab. The Gen One civilian paused at the doors and lifted his hand in a gesture of permission. Lucan glanced to Gideon. "Let him in."

Gideon leaned over to his workstation and pressed a button, releasing the tech lab's doors with a soft hydraulic hiss.

Lazaro Archer strode in, six foot five and formidable, his first-generation genes giving him the look of a warrior even though he'd lived his many hundred years away from combat and bloodshed.

Until Dragos set his sights on Archer's family, that is.

"How is Kellan?" Lucan asked, seeing the stress of all that had happened showing in the somber Breed elder's eyes.

"He is getting better by the hour," Archer replied. "It was the device that was making him so sick, apparently. He's a strong boy. He'll come through all of this, I have no doubt."

Lucan gave him a slow nod. "I'm glad for you both, Lazaro. I regret that your family was caught in the middle of the Order's war with Dragos. You didn't ask for it. You sure as hell didn't deserve all that you've been through."

Archer's dark eyes went a bit sharper as he walked up to the table to join the warriors. His gaze fell briefly over the unfurled blueprints before coming back up to look at Lucan. "Do you remember what I told you, that night, after my Darkhaven was reduced to ash and rubble, my only son, Christophe, gunned down beside me in the vehicle where we waited for word of Kellan's rescue? I made you a pledge."

Lucan did remember. "You told me that you wanted to help destroy Dragos. You offered your resources to us."

"That's right," Archer replied. "Whatever you need, it's yours. The Order has my utmost loyalty and respect, Lucan. All the more so now, after what happened today with Kellan. My God, when I think that all of you are in far worse jeopardy simply for having come to our aid – "

"Don't," Lucan interrupted him. "There is no blame here. Not against you or the boy. Dragos used you. He will pay for all he's done."

"I want to help," Archer said again. "I'd heard from some of the women that you were in here discussing plans to move the compound."

Lucan's glance traveled from Tegan and Gideon back to Archer. "We had hoped to be able to, but it may not be feasible at this time."

"Why not?"

Lucan gestured to the blueprints. "We have plans in the works, but they can't be implemented in time to make a real difference. Our only other option is to relocate our operations overseas, but with Dragos focusing his efforts here in New England, as far as we can determine, pulling up stakes to run a few thousand miles away isn't exactly our best choice."

"What about Maine?"

Lucan frowned. "We have a handful of acres here and there, but nothing that could work as a viable base for the entire compound, temporary or otherwise."

"You don't," Archer replied slowly. "But I, on the other hand, do have just such a place."

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