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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty-seven)

"Amelie, where are you going?"

"I'm old, child, and life here is simple. After dinner, I like to watch my game shows and take a nap." Her cloudy eyes wandered very close to where Corinne and Hunter stood. "Besides, you two don't need me hanging around eavesdropping when you'd rather be alone. I may be blind, but I ain't blind. "

Before Corinne could protest, Amelie gave them a little wave and shuffled out of the kitchen toward the hallway. "Don't pay me any mind at all," she called, her singsong voice full of amusement. "I'll be watching my programs with the volume up so loud, I wouldn't hear a hurricane."

Corinne's smile broke into a soft laugh. "Good night, Amelie."

From down the hall, the sound of a door closing echoed up into the kitchen. Hunter took Corinne's hands into his, drying one then the other with the dish towel. He set it down on the counter, then wrapped his fingers around hers and led her to the center of the little kitchen. While Bessie Smith crooned about bad love and good sex, they held each other close and swayed together slowly. The moment felt utterly pure, unrushed, and peaceful … perfect. So much so, it put an ache in Corinne's heart.

And although neither of them had to say it, she saw her own thoughts reflected in Hunter's hooded, haunted golden eyes.

How long could a perfect moment – a happiness as innocent as this simple slice of time they'd found together, right here and now – truly be expected to last?

Hunter stood with his back to the wall of the bedroom he shared with Corinne in Amelie's house, watching the moonlight play over her naked body from the open window. The sounds of swamp animals echoed in the distance, deadly night predators like him, called by the darkness and primed to search out fresh prey. They would hunt, and, if successful, they would kill. Tomorrow evening, the cycle would begin again.

It was simply what they did, what they'd been born to do: destroy without mercy or regret, without questioning if there was something more for them in another place. No basis from which to crave anything but what they already knew.

Hunter knew that world.

He'd navigated it without flaw for as long as he could remember.

And he damn well knew better than to permit himself to imagine pointless scenarios, especially those where he was tempted to paint himself a hero. A white knight of some improbable legend, pledged to ride to the salvation of the beautiful damsel in need, like the ones he'd read about ages ago … before his Minion handler had removed all the books from his meager quarters at the Vermont farmhouse and forced him to watch them burn. He was no one's hero, no matter how much this time alone with Corinne was making him wish he could be.

Part of that longing was his blood bond to her. She was inside him now, her cells nourishing his, weaving a visceral connection that would likely amplify all of his feelings toward her. At least, that's what his reason insisted it was.

Better a physiological explanation than the more disturbing one that had been battering around in his head – and in the center of his chest – since the few private moments he'd spent holding Corinne in his arms, dancing with her on the worn yellow linoleum of Amelie Dupree's tiny kitchen.

If he could have stretched that moment out forever, he would have. Without hesitation, he would have been content simply to hold Corinne in his arms for as long as she'd have let him. He yearned to, even now, after they'd finished straightening the kitchen together then gone to bed and made love slowly.

The banging in his chest only intensified at the thought, all the worse when he could smell her on his skin and taste her on his tongue. He wanted to wake her and show her more pleasure. He wanted to hear her gasp his name as she wept with sexual release and clung to him as though he were the only male she ever wanted in her bed.

Madly, yet with a ferocity he could hardly reconcile, he wanted to hear her promise him he was the only male she might ever love.

Which was why he'd denied himself the comfort of lying next to her on the bed while she slept. He had already taken more than he had a right to where she was concerned. He needed to remind himself of who he was. More to the point, who he could never be. Their safe house hostess had been right about one thing. Corinne deserved to be happy. Now that her blood memories had shown him the horrors of her ordeal, he could only marvel that she survived, let alone managed to come out of that prison with her humanity intact. Her heart was still pure, still open and vulnerable, in spite of her heinous treatment. The way he saw it, she had endured far worse than he. Dragos had deliberately stripped Corinne of her spirit and soul, where Hunter was simply denied his from the beginning. When he'd first met her, Hunter had felt a curiosity about the petite female who had come out of Dragos's laboratory cells with a fire still burning in her eyes. That curiosity had evolved into a strange kinship for him – an unexpected sympathy – as he'd watched her struggle to get her bearings in a world whose foundation had shifted beneath her the first time she tried to step back onto it. Unsure where she belonged, uncertain whom she could trust, even a battle-tested warrior might have had his moments of doubt.

But Corinne hadn't crumbled. Not under the cruelty of Dragos or the depravity of Henry Vachon. Not even afterward, in the face of Victor Bishop's unconscionable betrayal. She was a stout-hearted warrior in a petite, five-foot-four frame.

All for love of her child.

Now that Hunter knew the source of her determination and courage, it only made him respect her more. He truly did want to see her happy. He hoped against all logic and reason that she could reunite with her son without the tears and anguish Hunter dreaded was waiting for her. Delivered by his own hand.

He expelled a curse, low under his breath.

As if his knowledge of Mira's vision wasn't enough to haunt him, in drinking Corinne's blood, Hunter had added another weight to his shoulders. He'd told her that her blood had yielded nothing useful to them in searching for her son, but there had been … something. It had been only a small fact, but a potentially crucial one. Precisely what it was, he wasn't yet certain. Locked in her memory of the day she gave birth to her son was a partial sequence of numbers, recited by one of the attending Minions in the delivery room. It had been a casual recitation of digits, and an incomplete one at that, cut off from Corinne's consciousness when she was administered a strong sedative soon after her baby had been born and removed from the room.

What the numbers signified, Hunter didn't know. It could be anything; it could be nothing at all. But he'd given them to Gideon along with the encrypted data files and scanned lab records, instructing the warrior to report back if the sequence returned a match of any kind. Hunter wasn't sure what outcome he hoped for more: a confirmation for Corinne that they'd finally located her son, or no success connecting the sequence to anything useful. Nevertheless, he should have told Corinne what he'd found, whether or not it created false hope for her. He wanted to spare her that if he could.

If he could, he'd like to spare her every pain for the rest of her life. He ran a hand over his head and let himself slide down into a crouch in the corner of the room. As he lowered to his haunches, he noticed a dark rectangular object lying on the floor just under the foot of the bed.

The leather file pouch Corinne had retrieved from the box truck earlier that morning. Amid the all-too-pleasant distraction of their love-making, he had managed to overlook this piece when he'd gotten in touch with the compound regarding the rest of Dragos's lab records. Now he reached for the pouch and pulled out its contents.

Yellowed paper files and handwritten notes comprised the bulk of it, but it was the weathered, book-size black ledger that caught his eye and wouldn't let go. He set the pouch and paper files down on the floor beside him, then opened the cover of the ledger. A jagged scrawl crept across the top of the first page.

Subject No. 862108102484

Hunter stared at the string of numbers. It wasn't familiar to him. Not any part of the sequence he'd given Gideon, nor anything he'd ever seen before.

And yet his blood seemed to cease flowing in his veins, his limbs going cold. He turned to the next page.

Date of Record: 08 August 1956. 04:24 AMResult: Successful live birth of Gen One subject, first to gestate full termStatus: Hunter Program – Initiated

Hunter stared at the page until the

letters blurred together and a din started up in his head. He flipped farther into the ledger, scanning the later entries, his mind absorbing facts and data even as his conscience struggled to blot the details out.

Holy hell …

He was looking at the birth record and developmental progress of the very first Hunter successfully created in Dragos's labs.

Him.

Corinne woke up and stretched her arm across the bed, searching for Hunter's warmth. He wasn't there.

"Hunter?" She sat up in the dark of the bedroom, nothing but the chatter of the surrounding swamps filtering in from the window. "Hunter, where are you?"

When no answer came from anywhere, she climbed off the bed and slipped back into her clothes. Her shoes were on the floor near the foot of the bed … and not far from where they lay was the leather file pouch from Dragos's laboratory records.

Its contents were spilled onto the floor, papers scattered in careless disarray. The sight of that dumped file put a strange knot in her throat. That, and the fact that Hunter was gone without a word.

She stepped into her shoes and padded quietly out of the bedroom. Amelie's television still chattered from behind her closed door at the end of the hallway, but the rest of the house was silent, empty.

"Hunter?" she whispered, knowing if he was there, his keen Breed hearing would pick up even the smallest sound as she trailed through the house toward the back screen door of the kitchen.

Where had he gone?

She guessed she probably knew. Stepping outside to the back stoop, she peered into the shadows of the swamp, which concealed the white box truck parked several dozen yards into the thicket. The grass was crisp underfoot, the night air damp and briny in her nose. She trudged through it, rubbing off the chill that was soaking through her skin and into her bones. When she reached the truck, she found the back latch open. The double doors gapped at the center, nothing but darkness behind their battered white panels with the faded moving company signage spattered with swamp muck and dried blood from the night before. "Hunter, are you in here?"

She pulled the panels wider and peered inside. A light bulb mounted to the interior ceiling clicked on by itself. Then she saw Hunter, seated at the far back of the trailer, barefoot and shirtless, his borrowed nylon track pants riding halfway up his glyph- marked calves. His elbows rested on his updrawn knees, hands and head hanging loosely.

He glanced up at her, and the empty look in his golden eyes made her heart give a lurching heave behind her rib cage. "What's wrong?"

She climbed up into the truck and approached where he sat. A black soft-bound journal of some sort lay between his parted feet. "What are you doing out here?" she asked him, seating herself across from him and folding her knees beneath her. "Did you find something else in Dragos's files?"

He picked up the journal and handed it to her. When he spoke, there was no inflection in his voice whatsoever. "It was among the papers contained in the leather pouch back in the house."

Corinne frowned, lifting the cover and glancing at the handwriting scrawled across the first page. "Is it a record from the labs?" When Hunter didn't answer, she paged forward, then rapidly fanned through dozens of entries, page after page of handwritten notations. "It's a birth record. My God, this is a ledger of events. It's a detailed documentation from one of Dragos's assassin programs."

"The very first," Hunter replied.

The truth hit her even before she glanced up at him and saw the bleakness in his handsome face. This wasn't merely any aged lab record recovered from the beginnings of Dragos's twisted breeding operation … it was Hunter's own.

Her breath caught, uncertain what to expect, Corinne flipped farther into the ledger. Not quite a quarter in, she randomly settled on one of the many entries.

Subject: Year 4Report: Performs at top levels of education and physical training; tests in excess of 50 points above other 5 Hunters currently in program

It came as no surprise to her that

Hunter would excel in whatever he did, even at so young an age. Some of the air she'd been holding in her lungs eased out now, and she turned to another entry farther in the ledger. Subject: Year 5Report: Initial conditioning completed; subject removed from lab to individual cell off-site; habitation and discipline to be monitored by assigned Minion handler She

flipped some more pages.

Subject: Year 8Report: Physical and mental fitness exceeds testing expectations; concepts and practice of various stealth execution techniques mastered; handler recommends advancing subject to live target training A number of later entries, recorded in apparent close sequence to the one that had Corinne's blood running cold in her veins:

Subject: Year 8Report: First kill; training tested in field situation against human quarry (no contest)

Report: Successful kill of civilian Breed adolescent; methods employed: hand-to-hand and short blades (subject and quarry equally armed)

Report: Successful kill of civilian Breed adult; method employed: hand-to-hand, short/long blades (subject unarmed; pursuit and capture techniques outstanding, efficient use of environment and training in execution of quarry)

The coldness she'd felt a moment ago was

ice now, a sickness rising within her when she considered the evil that would bend a child into becoming the kind of soulless monster Dragos seemed determined to have at his command. She glanced up at the stoic Gen One male – the hard-trained assassin who had somehow become her friend and lover – and she found no fear or disdain for what he had been forced to become. She cared about him, deeply.

She didn't have to search very far inside her heart to realize that she loved him. With emotion stinging her eyes and the back of her throat, she turned a few more dreaded pages.

Subject: Year 9Report: Handler notes alarming rise in subject inquisitiveness; frequent questions about purpose in life, personal origin

Report: Subject found hoarding books in cell; random volumes of fiction, biography, philosophy, poetry stolen from handler quarters This particular entry had a further notation beneath it, scribbled by a furious hand.

Determination: Restrict access to reading material other than program-approved manuals, technical and training booksAction: Handler instructed to remove contraband from cell and order subject to destroy itConsider: Rebellion to be anticipated as limiting factor as program continues. Subjects are highly intelligent, natural-born predators and conquerors. Discipline alone may not be enough to keep them submissive. Process Improvement: Task technology staff with providing means of ensuring subject obedience and loyalty within the Hunter program Corinne closed the ledger and moved up next to Hunter.

She was speechless, overcome with sorrow for the boy who'd never been given the chance to be a child and humbled by the man who had come through such a lonely, lightless hell and still had the capacity for gentleness and honor.

She took his face in her hands and tenderly turned him to look at her. "You are a good man, Hunter. You are so much more than what Dragos meant for you to be. You are better than the sum of your past. You must know that, don't you?"

He drew out of her grasp, scowling, shaking his head. "I killed her."

The words were spoken quietly, a simple, horrific statement of fact. "What are you talking about?"

"It's all in there," he said, gesturing to the awful ledger in her lap. Although she hated to see what other ugliness she'd find in Hunter's early years, he had obviously read the entire thing from front to back. She picked it up again and flipped past the first page. This time, she went slower, reading through the details of his birth and the weeks and months afterward, when he – unlike her own son – had been allowed to feed from his mother's vein and not from the strangers who had ostensibly nourished Nathan when she was denied even that small gift.

And then … she saw it.

Report: Subject exhibits obvious separation anxiety when removed from presence of mother; weakness noted; behavioral flaw to be correctedAction: Interaction with mother eliminated; feedings switched to human and/or Minion sources Corinne turned a few more pages, foreboding putting a tremble in her fingers as she found the entry that made all the rest of them pale by comparison:

Subject: Year 2Report: Subject experienced chance sighting of mother in lab; subject emotional, inconsolable when refused contact by Minion handlers; incident resulted in damage to lab equipment, further defiance exhibited in subjectDetermination: For benefit of subject training, potential future distraction must be eliminatedAction: Mother terminated; effective immediately, program process modified to prohibit interaction between future subjects and mothers; subjects to be provided for solely by Minion handlers Corinne's eyes were too wet to read any more. She set the record of Dragos's madness away from her, giving it a hard, hate-filled shove. Hunter's voice was wooden beside her. "I killed my mother, Corinne." The words were flat and emotionless, even while a couple of tears strayed, wholly ignored by him, down his rigid face.

"You didn't do any such thing." As tenderly as she dared, Corinne reached out and swept her thumb through the tracks of moisture dripping toward his tightly held jaw. She caressed his flushed cheek, her heart cracked wide open, raw and aching for this man. "Dragos did this terrible thing, not you."

"My mother is dead because of me, Corinne. Because I loved her."

There was such a depth of regret in his eyes, she could hardly find the words to offer him comfort. Nothing she said could take away the hurt he must be feeling. Loss left pain in its wake, no matter how distant the void.

Corinne knew firsthand how soulless Dragos was, so it should have come as no surprise to learn that he'd considered an innocent child's natural bond to his mother to be a weakness. A flaw in his sadistic program that could be corrected with a single, final action. That Hunter was left holding the pieces now, after all this time, certain that he was to blame, made her want to rip out Dragos's black, diseased heart with her fingernails and crush it in her fist.

Instead she gathered Hunter into her embrace and nestled his big body against her. She kissed the top of his head and petted him gently, she the unlikely protector, her arms the shelter that held this powerful male as he fell into a still and heavy silence in the cradle of her lap.

"You did nothing wrong," she assured him. "Loving someone is never wrong."

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