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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty-four)

She broke first, panting and moaning, her graceful spine arching up beneath him as her sex clenched his in a rippling fist of sensation. His own release was right behind hers. He shuddered hard, driving home with a need so fierce it owned him.

As he gathered her close and felt the hot rush of his seed erupting deep within her, Hunter knew a bliss that eclipsed everything else. He entertained – just for a split second – the notion of living a normal existence, without the dark past that had shaped him. He wondered – pointlessly, his logic warned him – what it might be like to have a female at his side, to experience what some of the other warriors had with their mates.

It was a dangerous indulgence, dreaming. But no more dangerous than the sudden rush of protectiveness, of primal possessiveness, he felt when he thought about Corinne. He'd killed for her tonight, and he would do so again without hesitation, if he thought she might come to harm. And in the back of his mind, as he sated himself in her body and took his comfort in her tender arms, he wondered if he might be the biggest threat to her happiness of all.

Dante paced the corridor outside the compound's infirmary, trying not to think about the fact that his beautiful, courageous Tess was in utter agony on the other side of the door. She'd been in labor all night and now, well into the morning. The contractions had only been worsening, growing more and more frequent with every passing hour.

Tess was handling the whole thing like a champ.

As for him, every time he heard her groan with the onslaught of another labor pain, he thought for sure he was going to pass out cold.

Which is why he'd finally removed himself to the hallway a short time ago. Probably the dead last thing Tess needed was to watch him become white as a sheet at her bedside, his knees turning into jelly beneath him.

Through the blood bond they shared, he felt Tess's pain as his own. He wished like hell he could shoulder it all himself. Pain? He could handle that, no problem; it was the idea that the female he loved was suffering that made him want to either punch something or vomit in the corner. But he felt Tess's strength too, and he marveled at the tenacity – the purely miraculous feminine strength – that gave his mate the stamina to continue fighting through the exhaustion and the prolonged agony that was required to bring their child into the world. He took a quick glance through the small window of her infirmary room. Gabrielle and Elise stood on either side of the bed. They'd come in a few hours ago and had been taking turns holding Tess's hands, mopping her forehead with a damp cloth, and feeding her ice cubes as the process dragged on seemingly without end. Gideon was monitoring her vitals – under his solemn oath to Dante that he would do so with his eyes closed, lest he see any more of Tess than Dante was comfortable sharing.

The best part of the whole setup, though, was Savannah. She was handling the delivery, her long family background in such things giving Dante the reassurance he needed that everything was going to be fine in the end. At least, he hoped to God everything was going to be okay.

Meanwhile, he felt pretty damn useless himself.

He took another back-and-forth stroll of the hallway, wondering where the hell Harvard was when he needed him.

If he'd been there now to see Dante hanging in the corridor like a green-gilled ghost, Chase would have busted his balls from now to next week. He'd have shamed Dante for being a straight-up wuss, would have drop-kicked him back into the infirmary if that's what it took. Shit. Dante truly missed the smart-ass warrior who'd been his tightest friend in the Order for the past year and some change.

Ex-warrior and former friend, he mentally amended, still pissed as hell over the whole fucked-up situation. It didn't soften his opinion any that Chase had phoned in last night to let them know he'd gone against Lucan's direct orders and hunted down Murdock on his own. And for what? Aside from a vague mention of Dragos's possible interest in a local politician, the most solid piece of intel Chase had managed to squeeze out of the bastard was the day-late/dollar-short fact that Dragos was looking to get a bead on the compound's location. News the Order was all too well aware of already.

From what Tegan had relayed to everyone about his brief conversation with Chase, it didn't sound like they should be counting on hearing from him again anytime soon – if ever. Tegan was of the opinion that Chase was on a serious downward slide. He'd mentioned the word

"Rogue," something neither Dante nor any of the other warriors were eager to accept but found themselves hard-pressed to contradict.

Dante paced another hard track in the hallway, raking his hand through his dark hair and grinding out a muttered curse. It was past time he started getting used to the idea that Harvard was no longer a part of the Order. He was no longer a part of their lives. Dante felt like kicking himself over the conversation he'd had with Tess recently about naming Chase as godfather to their son. He'd had to work pretty hard to persuade her that Chase could be relied upon for something that important, and now the son of a bitch had gone and made him look like a jackass for even suggesting him.

In the end, Tess's instincts in that area had proven a lot better. Gideon had been stunned by their request, and both he and Savannah had accepted the responsibility with grace and conviction. If anything should happen to Dante and Tess, they couldn't hope for better guardians for their son.

With this reassurance fresh in his mind, Dante glanced up to find Elise poking her blond head out the infirmary room door. "It's time," she said, soft light shining in her pale purple eyes.

"The baby's almost here now, Dante."

He scrambled inside, his heart leaping into his throat. He moved in close beside his Breedmate, taking her hand to his lips and pressing an adoring kiss into her damp palm. "Tess,"

he whispered, his tongue thick, joy and worry crawling up the back of his throat. "How're you doing, angel?"

She started to answer, but then her face scrunched tight and her grasp on his hand became a vise. Savannah told her calmly to bear down, that they were almost there. Tess pulled herself up off the infirmary bed. A shredding howl tore out of her mouth, and Dante felt his legs go a bit wobbly beneath him. He held it together, though. Bad enough he'd spent the last hour propping up the corridor walls, he wasn't about to let Tess go another second without him at her side. The pain dragged out for an excruciatingly long couple of minutes before Savannah instructed Tess to lie back again and relax. She was panting as she looked up at Dante, sweat beading her forehead. He mopped it away with the cloth Gabrielle handed him, then pressed a tender kiss to his beautiful mate's brow.

"Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he murmured, holding her aqua gaze.

"You're amazing, Tess. You're gorgeous, so incredibly brave. You're going to be a great mother to our – "

Her lips peeled back from her teeth as a fresh bellow exploded from her throat and drowned him out. Dante felt the rush of hot pain as it roared through Tess's delicate body. It was beyond intense, a shredding anguish that made him want to swear off ever so much as thinking about another baby if it meant putting Tess through this kind of ordeal.

"Okay, folks," Savannah said, her voice as soothing as a balm. "Here we go now. One more push, Tess. He's almost here."

Dante bent his head down beside her face and whispered private words of encouragement, things meant only for Tess. Praise for what she was giving him tonight, and pledges of devotion for her that he couldn't adequately express in feeble words.

He held her hand as the final contraction twisted through her. He shouted with joy as his son finally appeared, a tiny, pink, squirming little bundle held aloft and squalling in Savannah's expert hands. And he wept without shame as he met Tess's beautiful, elated gaze in that next moment, loving her with every particle of his being.

He leaned over and kissed his amazing Breedmate, pulling her into his embrace and sharing the euphoria of this precious moment of their lives together, particularly knowing how it had come in the midst of so much upheaval and strife.

After a few minutes, Savannah came over with the impossibly small bundle that was their newborn son. "I know you must be eager to hold him," she said, placing the baby in Tess's waiting arms. "He's beautiful, you guys. Perfect in every way."

Tess started weeping again, tenderly touching the infant's tiny cheeks and the rosebud mouth. Dante marveled at the sight of his child. He marveled at the woman who gave him such a miracle, something equally as precious to him as the incredible gift of her love. He stroked a tendril of damp blond hair away from her face. "Thank you," he told her softly. "Thank you for making my life so complete."

"I love you," she replied, bringing his hand to her lips and kissing the heart of his broad palm. "Would you like to say hello to your son?"

"Our son," he said.

Tess nodded, so proud and lovely as he took the little bundle into his arms. His hands dwarfed the tiny infant. He felt clumsy with him, awkward as he tried to find a comfortable cradle for the newborn in his too-big arms. Finally, he learned the way to hold him, taking the utmost care to get everything right. Tess smiled up at him, her joy pouring through his veins along with his own happiness.

God, his heart was so full, it felt near to exploding.

Dante stared down into the pink, squalling face of their child. "Welcome to the world, Xander Raphael."

Corinne stood next to the bed that next morning, watching Hunter sleep. He lay naked on his stomach, an immense, masculine sprawl of beautiful, glyph-covered skin and bulky muscle. He snored lightly, resting as deeply as the dead.

Their night together had been incredible, and she had never felt more content than she had resting in his arms after they'd made love. But the night had been over for a while, and except for the few hours she'd been able to close her eyes and sleep, her thoughts had centered on one thing: the urgency to find her son.

It was that need that had made her rise before daybreak, slip out from Hunter's comforting warmth, and head out back to the swamp to look for the truck he'd left there on his return from Henry Vachon's. She had gotten lucky, and found the white box truck unlocked behind Amelie's house on the river. Corinne had crawled inside and spent the better part of an hour poring through the reams of paper files and photographs she'd found stuffed inside the broken safe.

Dragos's laboratory files. Decades' worth of records.

She'd thumbed through every one, searching for anything that might bring her closer to learning the fate of her son or the other infants born inside the lab. She'd found medical charts and experiment results – thousands of pages of codes and jargon that meant nothing to her. To make matters worse, none of the files contained the names of their subjects. Like some kind of callous inventory of assets, Dragos's records contained only case numbers, control groups, and cold statistics.

Everyone he'd touched – every life he'd ruined inside the hellish madness of his laboratory – meant nothing to him.

Less than nothing.

Corinne had dug through the remaining stacks of papers in a fit of impotent outrage. She'd wanted to tear all the offending records into tiny pieces. And then, nearly to the bottom of the safe's contents, her fingers brushed across the smooth leather of a large file pouch. She'd pulled it out and dumped the files into her lap, sifting through them for even the smallest shred of hope.

The hand-recorded entries were more of the same impersonal inventories that were in the other files. Except there was something different about these dates and notations. Something that had made the fine hairs at the back of Corinne's neck prickle with suspicion … with a certain, dreadful knowing.

She held the leather file pouch in her hands now, as she moved closer to the bed where Hunter was just starting to rouse. He must have sensed her in the shuttered quiet of the room. His head came up off the pillow, eyelids blinking open over the piercing gold of his gaze. He saw that she was dressed, that she was still breathing hard from her run back to Amelie's house, and he frowned. "What's wrong? Have you been somewhere?"

She couldn't keep the truth from him any longer. Not after what they'd shared last night. She owed him that much. She owed him her trust.

"I had to know," she said quietly. "I couldn't sleep. I couldn't sit still, lying in the comfort of your arms, knowing some of Dragos's secrets were nearby."

"You left the safe house without telling me?" Hunter sat up, moved to the edge of the bed, and swung his big bare feet to the floor. His frown had turned darker, more of a scowl. "You can't go anywhere without me there to protect you, Corinne. It's not safe for you now, not even during the day – "

"I had to know," she repeated. "I had to see if there was anything that might help me find him …"

Something dark flickered across Hunter's hard, handsome face. It looked like dread to her, like grim expectation. His scowl still creasing his proud brow, he glanced to the large pouch she held in her hands.

When he didn't speak right away, she swallowed hard and forced the words from her dry throat. "I had to know if any of the records you took from Henry Vachon contained information that might lead me to my child. The child I gave birth to in Dragos's lab."

Hunter stared, then glanced away from her. His low curse was vivid as he ran a hand over the top of his head. "You have a son."

Even though his voice was level, devoid of anger or any other emotion, it still sounded like an accusation to her.

"Yes," she said. He wouldn't look at her now. An odd distance began to spread between them, growing colder by the moment. "I wanted to tell you, Hunter. I meant to before now, but I was scared. I didn't know who I could turn to, nor who I could trust."

The emotional distance apparently wasn't enough for him. He got up off the bed and prowled, naked and immodest, to the other side of the room, adding physical space between them.

"This child," he said, throwing a dark look at her. "He is Gen One, like me? Bred off the Ancient that Dragos kept alive for his sick experimentations?"

Corinne nodded, her throat tight. "After everything they did to me while I was kept there, the worst was when they took my baby away from me. I saw him only for a few moments, right after he was born, and then he was gone. The thought of him was all that kept me alive through the things that were done to me. I never dreamed I'd actually be freed. When I took my first breath of fresh air after the rescue, I promised myself I'd spend every breath that followed – even down to my last – working to reunite with my son."

"That's a promise you can't truly keep, Corinne. Your son is gone. He was gone the instant Dragos took him out of your arms."

She didn't want to hear this. She wouldn't accept it. "I would know if he was dead. A mother's heart beats with her child's for nine months, day in and day out. In my bones – to my very soul – I still feel my son's heart beating."

Hunter exhaled a sharp curse, not even looking at her now.

She forged on, determined to plead her case. "I tried to keep track of the years, but it was difficult to know for sure. My son will be around thirteen now, by my closest estimate. Just a little boy – "

"He will be a killer now, Corinne." Hunter's deep voice shook, startling her with an anger she neither expected nor knew what to make of. His face was taut, skin drawn tight over his sharp cheekbones and rigid jaw. "We were never boys, none of us. Do you understand? If your son lives, he will be a Hunter, like me. By thirteen, I was fully trained, already experienced in dealing death. You cannot expect that it will be any different for him."

The harsh words dug a sharp ache in the center of her. "It has to be. I have to believe that if he's out there – and I know in my heart he is – that I will find him. I will protect him, the way I wasn't able to the day he was born."

Hunter was silent as he turned away from her, slowly shaking his head in denial. Corinne set down the leather file pouch and walked over to him. She laid her hand on his shoulder. The dermaglyphs beneath her palm pulsed hot with his anger, but she couldn't help noticing how the stormy colors muted at her touch, his body responding to her even if he seemed intent on shutting her out.

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