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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty-three)

Corinne heard a noise in the guest bedroom as she toweled off from her bath at the safe house.

"Amelie?" she called from behind the partially open door. It had to be after midnight, but Corinne was too anxious for sleep. "Just a second. I'll be right out."

She unfolded the robe her hostess had given her and slipped it on, her hands quickly working the sash belt of the thick pink chenille garment that felt like velvet and smelled like sunwarmed, line-dried cotton. Certain her scarred body was covered, she drew the bathroom door open a bit wider and stepped out to the bedroom.

It wasn't Amelie.

It was Hunter, covered in blood. Bruises rode his sharp cheekbones. His hands were fisted at his sides, knuckles scraped and contused. She'd never seen him look so raw, so steeped in the violence of his profession.

"My God," she whispered, moving toward him in shock and concern. "Hunter … are you all right?"

"Never mind the blood. It isn't mine," he said, unaffected, his deep voice calm as ever. When he started to take off his gore-stained leather coat, Corinne hurried over to help him. "The boots too," she said, eyeing the blood that covered them as well. While he bent to unlace one of them, she hunkered down to loosen the other. She felt him watching her in an odd silence – odder than his usual man-of-few-words way. He seemed to study her now, his hooded, dark gold gaze still enigmatic, but edged with a softness she hadn't seen in him before.

"I'll take those," she said, picking up his large black combat boots in one hand, the long leather coat in the other. "Come with me."

She turned to carry everything back into the bathroom, Hunter following behind her. She set the coat and boots in the tub, then reached for one of the clean washcloths that was folded on the back of the commode. She ran it under the faucet in the tub, wringing out the warm water as Hunter stood over the sink near the door.

She'd been upset with him all night, angry that he'd left without telling her. Worried that he'd gone off to do his dangerous work for the Order and might have gotten himself killed. Now she could only stare at him, relieved that he'd come back in one piece, even if he did look like he'd strode through a war zone to get there.

She sat on the edge of the tub and watched as he ran cold water into the basin and scrubbed his face. When he was done, he cupped several handfuls into his mouth, swished it around and spat it out. Over and over, like there was a taste he couldn't get rid of no matter how hard he tried. Water dripped off his chin as he looked over at her, the hard angles of his face seeming even more severe in the vanity's bright globe lights above his head.

"Your shirt is ruined," she said, noting still more blood soaked into the black knit fabric of his combat gear. She walked to him and set the damp washcloth down on the rim of the sink. He said nothing as she took the hem of his sticky, gore-soaked shirt and lifted it up, baring his glyph- covered torso and broad, muscular chest. He stood back as she filled the basin with cold water and put the shirt into it. While she did this, he picked up the washcloth and scrubbed himself clean. He dropped the soiled cloth into the sink with his shirt.

"You found Henry Vachon." It wasn't a question, because the evidence seemed clear enough as the water turned red in the basin. She glanced at Hunter and met his sober nod. "You killed him?"

She expected a flat confirmation, an emotionless statement of fact that was the warrior's usual mode of response. Instead, Hunter reached out and gently took her face in his hands. He bent his head to hers and kissed her with a care that stole her breath away. When his mouth eventually left hers, he looked into her eyes with quiet but fierce intensity. "Henry Vachon will never harm you again."

Corinne couldn't help the way her body melted into Hunter's tender kiss. Her heart melted a bit too, warmed by the careful way he touched her now and by the way his entrancing golden eyes held her gaze so warmly. She wanted to linger in the pleasure of both, but a knot of dread was forming in the pit of her stomach.

Vachon was dead. The fact that one of the monsters from her life's worst nightmares breathed no more should have been welcome news to her. It was, but with Henry Vachon's death, his connection to Dragos – the only link Corinne had toward finding her son – was severed now too.

Reluctantly, she drew out of Hunter's tender hands. "Were you able to get any information out of him on Dragos or his operation?"

Hunter nodded gravely. "After I left Vachon's estate, I found a storage facility in another part of the city. There was laboratory equipment inside, as well as a safe containing computer records and paper files with photographs and notes from the lab."

Hope kindled dimly at the thought. "What kind of files? What kind of equipment? Where is this storage facility? We need to go there. We need to look at everything we can. Some of what you found might lead straight to Dragos."

Hunter was nodding as she spoke. "I took everything out of the unit. It's in a box truck I've hidden near the swamp behind this house. But you're right. There are bound to be useful clues that could lead the Order to Dragos. I intend to take the contents to Boston as soon as possible."

More than anything, Corinne wanted to race outside to find the truck Hunter mentioned and rip through everything he found. She felt certain that the key to locating her son was contained somewhere in those lab records and files. It had to be, or she stood precious little chance of ever knowing where her child might be.

She looked up at Hunter, knowing she'd deceived him by withholding the truth about her son. She stared into his earnest, intense gaze and felt the same twinge of guilt she had felt earlier that day. He kissed her again, and the guilt she bore was made worse, more distasteful for the fact that Hunter was standing there being so tender and kind with her.

Corinne glanced down at the floor, shamed and frightened. "There's something you need to know," she said softly. "Something I should have told you before now. I should have told you what happened to me while I was in Dragos's prison, but I was scared. I needed to be sure that I could trust you – "

"I know what they did." His deep voice vibrated in her bones. He guided her chin up until she was looking in his eyes once more. "I know what Dragos and Vachon did to you the night you were taken. I know how they violated you."

This wasn't the truth she meant to divulge to him, but all the same, Corinne's breath burned in her lungs. She was confused, horrified. Sickened to think Hunter was aware of her deepest humiliation. She'd wanted to die that night; part of her had died then, her innocence robbed in one horrific moment. Her voice trembled a little. "H-how could you know …?"

"Vachon. He boasted about it, just before I killed him." Amber sparks smoldered in Hunter's golden eyes as he spoke. "I ripped out his throat with my teeth and fangs. I couldn't control my rage when I realized what that sadistic son of a bitch had done to you – that he had enjoyed it."

Corinne listened to his account of what he did, momentarily distracted from the confession she still hadn't made to him. She could hardly believe that the rigid, flawlessly disciplined warrior was admitting to having lost control.

Over something that had been done to her.

"I made sure his death was agony," Hunter went on. "I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to bleed."

And he had, Corinne thought, less appalled than astonished by the depth of violence Hunter had inflicted on the other male. He'd practically bathed in Vachon's blood, from the way he'd looked just a few minutes ago.

"It was his blood that showed me what he'd done, Corinne. I saw all of Henry Vachon's guilt, all his secrets. His blood showed me everything."

She frowned, uncertain what he was telling her. "I don't understand."

"Neither did I, not until tonight," Hunter said. "When I sank my teeth into Vachon's neck, I swallowed some of his blood. That's never happened before, that I've ingested Breed blood. As soon as it slid down my throat, his memories opened up to me."

"You're a blood reader," she replied. "You never knew what your ability was?"

He shook his head. "Dragos made sure all of his assassins knew as little as possible about their heritage or the things that might make them unique. I didn't know my talent until Vachon's foul blood awakened it."

And now he knew her degradation. Good lord, could he possibly have seen all the beatings and violations? Did he see how she'd been stripped and broken, forced to endure unspeakable torture along with the other captives trapped in Dragos's prison cells?

Corinne turned away from Hunter, feeling exposed. She felt dirty and ashamed, embarrassed that he had this awful, ugly knowledge of her ordeal that even she wasn't quite prepared to confront. She drifted into the bedroom, needing space to catch her breath, collect her thoughts.

She didn't realize Hunter had followed her until she felt the warmth of his hands come to rest lightly on her shoulders from behind her. He turned her around to face him. He offered no words, simply wrapped her in his arms and held her against the heat and strength of his body. Corinne clung to him, too needful of the solid protection of his arms to deny herself the comfort of feeling him holding her close. Hunter bent his head, brought her mouth up to his. He kissed her, a slow melding of his lips on hers. His bare chest was warm and velvet-soft under her palms. She felt the faint, raised pattern of his dermaglyphs, felt the quickening of his heartbeat pounding beneath her roaming fingertips.

She drew back from his kiss and met his hooded gaze. His golden irises were hot with amber, their pupils thinning rapidly as the air quickened with the heat of desire. She knew where this was heading. To her astonishment, the thought didn't terrify her as she expected it would. But she couldn't pretend that she was prepared, or that she knew how to touch him – how to be with him – the way another woman might.

He kissed her again, and she felt the gentle graze of his fangs against her lip. Beneath her hands, his glyphs were pulsing and alive, his breath sawing swiftly in and out of his lungs.

"Hunter, wait …" She could hardly find the words, but she needed him to understand what being with him meant to her. "I haven't done this before. You know what happened while I was …" She couldn't say it. Couldn't speak the words that would allow Dragos and his sick deeds into this moment that belonged to her and Hunter alone. "You need to understand that I haven't ever … made love."

He stared at her, something dark and possessive in his hooded, amber-gold gaze. "Neither have I." He gave a slow shake of his head as he tenderly stroked her cheek. "There has been no one, not ever."

Corinne swallowed, struck mute for an instant. "Never?"

His touch traveled along the tilt of her chin, then skated softly across her lips. "Intimacy was forbidden. It was a weakness to want physical contact. It was a flaw to desire anything, especially pleasure." He kissed her again, and a low growl rumbled deep in his chest. "I never knew what it was to crave a woman's touch. Or to hunger for a woman's kiss."

"And now you do?" she asked hesitantly.

"Since I met you, Corinne Bishop, I've been thinking of little else."

She couldn't hold back her smile at that confession, despite that he said it with more than a little bemusement. Perhaps even a trace of annoyance. She reached up and twined her fingers around his nape. He took the cue and bent his head to catch her in another deep kiss. This time, it was searing. She felt his passion in the hungry way he covered her mouth with his and in the erotic demand of his tongue as it swept along the seam of her lips, pushing inside as soon as she parted them to draw a shallow breath.

She moved with him, letting him draw her toward the bed. He peeled away the robe as he guided her down onto the mattress, then spread out next to her. Lips still locked together, hands still exploring each other with avid interest, Corinne felt his fingers trace one of the scars that riddled her torso. Most had healed with the forced ingestion of the Ancient's blood, but there were others, wounds that had been inflicted with the intent that they'd be permanent. Wounds meant to break the spirited young woman who'd fought her subjugation for longer than had been wise.

"Don't," she whispered, her voice choked and anxious. "Please, Hunter … don't look at them. I don't want you to see everything that's ugly about me. Not tonight."

She hoped to feel his touch move away from the hideous marks, but instead it lingered. He drew up onto his elbow and slowly took her in from head to toe. His hot gaze took its time studying the scars left behind from frequent electrical torture and the various punishments that had often gone on for weeks without end.

She knew how terrible she must look to him, but Hunter was gazing at her with open admiration, as though she were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"Nothing about you is unattractive to me," he murmured. "The scars are just scars. Your body is soft and strong, perfect to me. I could never tire of looking at you. I know I could never tire of touching you like this."

As though to emphasize his point, he brought his head down to her torso and kissed the worst of her flawed skin. Slowly, he worked his way up to her mouth and pressed another achingly possessive, dizzyingly hot kiss to her lips.

His glyphs were surging with dark color now, the elegant tangling of his Gen One patterns alive with indigo, gold, and wine – all the lush colors of Breed desire. Corinne touched the beautiful swirls and arcs, tracing her fingers down across his abdomen, where the otherworldly skin markings disappeared beneath the waistband of his fatigues.

She ran her fingertip along the edge of the loose black pants. Heat permeated into her palm as she tentatively moved her touch a bit lower. Beside her ear, Hunter let out a low groan. His big hand came down over hers, his long fingers engulfing her, pressing her caress toward the hard ridge of his erection.

She knew no apprehension or uncertainty as she touched him over the straining zipper. His sex felt enormous, hard as stone. To her amazement, the thought gave her a dark, sensual thrill, not the jolt of panic she feared would ruin everything.

Hunter buried his mouth in the crook of her neck, driving her mad with his tongue as she took her time exploring the breadth and feel of him through the thin barrier of his clothing. She felt his hand drift tentatively down between her legs, felt him cup her with his palm, kneading her gently. Pleasure unfurled deep inside her, spreading a delicious heat all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes. All too soon, he moved on, and then his hand was guiding hers over him, helping her to unfasten his fatigues, pushing the rest of his clothing away. Both naked now, they lay side by side, indulging in long, unrushed moments of kissing and touching, caressing and stroking as they learned each other's bodies. Corinne could feel the steely jut of his sex against her hip. It stoked a heated curiosity in her, a need to be closer … to take him deep into her body.

She hooked her leg over his, bringing their hips together even tighter than before. Hunter was gritting his teeth, his jaw clamped so tight she thought it a wonder he didn't crack his molars. When she stroked her fingers over his bulky shoulder, delighting in the rush of color that flooded his glyphs in the wake of her touch, she noticed he was shaking. He was holding himself back, letting her set their pace.

She leaned forward and kissed him, using her tongue to show him that she was ready. That she knew what was going to happen between them now and she welcomed it. Hunter groaned and dragged her flush against him. The thick length of his arousal kicked hard between her thighs.

"Come inside me," she whispered against his mouth. She reached down and guided him there. "Make love to me, Hunter."

The broad head of his sex nudged at her core, hot and unyielding. She shifted to meet him, then sighed with pure, unabashed pleasure as he cleaved into her in one long unhurried stroke, filling her completely. Tears sprang behind her closed eyelids at the intensity of their joining. Sensation flooded her, every fiber in her being responding to his glorious invasion. His entire body felt as rigid as stone beneath her hands. He shook with immense restraint, moving within her gingerly, so carefully, so reverently, she wanted to weep. Rocking into her, pushing her toward a bliss she'd never known let alone imagined was possible, he caught her moan in a sensual kiss. And then she was shattering, a sweet detonation of pleasure and emotion that broke loose inside her as the wave of her first orgasm carried her senses heavenward on a choked cry of release.

Hunter lost himself in the sweet sounds – the stunning power – of Corinne's passion. She felt so good wrapped around him, her petite body shuddering and quaking, one tiny tremor after another stroking the hard length of his shaft as he pumped his hips against her. Never had he felt anything so glorious.

Never had he imagined pleasure like this could be possible. It ruled him in that moment, demanding that he give it full rein even when he wanted to take his time, make this moment last so he could savor every second of it.

He wanted to take care with Corinne. He wanted to be gentle with her after all the abuse she'd known from other males. And so he held himself to a controlled pace, even as she was coming apart beneath him, every sweet convulsion of her sex a hairbreadth from undoing him. He kissed her and caressed her, holding her close against his body, thrusting and withdrawing with utmost restraint until her climax reached its crest and began to ebb. Her breath trembled near his ear. Then it hitched softly and he felt a warm moisture against his cheek. She shuddered in his arms again, and through the dizzying haze of his pleasure, he realized she was crying.

"Corinne," he gasped, drawing back to look at her in concern. He froze, unable to move in the face of her tears. "Ah, God. I'm hurting you – "

"No," she whispered around a quiet little sob. "No, this doesn't hurt at all. It feels so good. You're making me feel something I've never known before, Hunter. I didn't know it could be like this. It's overwhelming how good you feel to me right now. I don't want it to end."

Relieved that she was all right, he kissed her and settled back into his rhythm. That she was weeping with pleasure because of their joined bodies made him want to pound his chest with his fists and roar his pride to the rafters. It was a strange impulse, animalistic and possessive and raw, but he felt all those things and more when he gazed down at Corinne's tear-streaked, beautiful face, her breath puffing softly from between her parted lips as he rocked into her with long, indulgent strokes.

She moaned as he found a stronger tempo, her short fingernails digging into his shoulders as she clung to him. Her thighs circled his hips, pulling him into a tighter hold against her body. Her wet heat gloved him so firmly, wringing him inside out as a furious wave began to build and swell at the base of his cock.

He tried to hold it back. He growled with the force of his will, but it wasn't enough. Corinne's body continued to milk him, driving him toward a fevered pace that only made him hunger all the more. He thrust deeper with each hard stroke, faster, until the coiled pressure snapped its leash and roared through him like fire in his veins.

He bit back the shout that would have rattled the house, burying his face in the curve of Corinne's delicate neck as his whole body jerked and convulsed and the first true orgasm of his life jetted out of him in a scalding stream of release.

He murmured something unintelligible as his cock spasmed with delicious intensity against the tight, warm sheath of her sex. He couldn't hold back the ragged curse, no more than he could hold back the instant reanimation taking place inside her. He was hard again, every nerve ending enlivened and ready to start all over.

Corinne's fingers trailed lazily across his back as she moved subtly beneath him, a wordless invitation he wasn't about to refuse. "You don't need a moment to catch your breath?"

she asked, a sensual smile in her eyes when he glanced down at her.

"All I need right now is more of this," he growled. "More of you."

"I need that too." Her arms looped around the back of his neck and she drew him toward her for a slow, heady kiss. Her tongue teased the seam of his lips and he was lost. Hunter thrust deep, inch by inch, filling her up. There was no staving off his desire for her now. No amount of discipline strong enough to hold him in check now that he'd had a taste of true pleasure with Corinne. Cupping her breast in his palm, he returned her fevered kiss, their tongues tangling as their bodies undulated in a shared rhythm, giving and taking with equal measure.

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