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Midnight Awakening (Chapter Seventeen)

Tegan had known it was a mistake to walk into the reception. He'd been half a mile away from the mansion on foot when the urge suddenly struck him to go back and make his presence known to all of the Darkhaven idiots who thought they were better than him.

Or maybe he just wanted to make his presence known to the woman who had been turning his head inside out since the moment he first met her. Some masochistic part of him wanted to stake a claim here, even though he fully expected her to be appalled by his presence–much like everyone else who saw him strolling into their pleasant little party dressed for war.

What he never expected was to hear Elise rising to his defense as if he needed to be protected from a bunch of blowhards in tuxedos and bow ties. He couldn't remember the last time he felt the sting of humiliation, but he felt it now, left standing alone with Elise as the rest of the crowd shrank back.

Excuse me, she said, ignoring his demand that she explain herself. Without waiting for him to speak, she simply walked away. Tegan stood there, following her with his eyes as she deposited her empty wineglass on a server's tray and headed for the wall of glass doors that looked out over the estate's lakefront back lawn and gardens. When she slipped outside alone, Tegan snarled a curse and went after her. She was halfway to the water by the time he reached her, the frozen grass crunching under the slender heels of her shoes.

Tegan grabbed her arm and pulled her to a stop. You want to explain to me what that was about back there?

She shrugged. I didn't like what I was hearing. Those self-righteous stuffed shirts' as you call them were wrong, and they needed to hear it.

Tegan exhaled sharply, his breath misting in the chill air. Look, I don't need anyone coming to my defense–especially not with a bunch of assholes like that. I fight my own battles. Next time, spare me the concern.

Her eyes narrowed in the dark as she stared up at him. No, you can't accept even the smallest kindness from anyone, can you, Tegan?

Last time I checked, I was doing just fine on my own.

She laughed at him. Threw her pretty head back and really laughed, right in his face. You're unbelievable! You can take on an army of Rogues all by yourself, but you're scared to death that someone might actually care for you. Or even worse, that you might be tempted to care for someone else.

You don't know the first thing about me.

Does anyone? She yanked her arm out of his light hold. Her face seemed stark in the moonlight, her soft features drawn tight. Go away, Tegan. I'm tired and I just…I really want to be left alone right now.

He watched her lift her long indigo skirt above her pale ankles as she began another trek farther out toward the dark lake glistening at the end of the lavish grounds. She paused in the shadows of an old stone boathouse at the shoreline, her arms wrapped around herself. Tegan considered doing as she asked, just turning around and letting her have her space. But now he was pissed off and he wasn't about to let Elise deliver him a verbal slap in the face and simply walk away.

He was fully prepared to lace into her for presuming to know anything of what he'd been through or for thinking she could possibly know how he felt, but as he came up behind her he saw that she was trembling. Not just shuddering from the cold, but really shaking.

Jesus Christ, was she crying?

Elise…

She shook her head and pivoted to move farther up the lawn, out of his reach. I said go away!

Tegan went right after her, moving faster than her human eyes would be able to track him. He stopped in front of her, blocking her path. Pale, tear-filled eyes lifted and widened before she pivoted to get around him. She didn't make it even a single step. He reached out, holding her still, his fingers wrapped over her trembling bare shoulders.

Her grief sliced through him the instant his hands made contact. He hadn't helped the situation any, but most of what she was feeling was something bleaker than the anger he stoked in her. Tegan felt her emotions seep in through his fingertips, registering the cold ache of loss. It was fresh again, like a wound ripped open before it had fully healed.

What happened in there?

Nothing, she lied, her voice thick with sorrow. It will pass, right?

The very words he'd said to her at her apartment when he'd callously dismissed her bereavement. She threw them back at him now, her flashing lavender eyes daring him to say something kind, or to so much as think he might offer her comfort.

He wanted to offer that to her. The realization hit him hard, squarely in the center of his chest. He didn't want to see her in pain.

He wanted…God, he didn't even know what to want when it came to this woman.

I know what you're going through, he admitted quietly. I understand loss, Elise. I've been there too.

Ah, hell.

What was he doing? Some ancient part of him roused in a defensive panic as soon as the words left his tongue. He hadn't aired out his bleak history in ages. He knew he was exposing the soft belly of a long-sleeping beast, but it was too late to call the admission back.

Elise's expression muted from distress to tender surprise. A sympathy he wasn't sure he was ready to accept. Who did you lose, Tegan?

He cast his gaze out over the moonlit water and the twinkle of lights shining across the way, thinking back on a night he'd relived a thousand times in his mind. More than five hundred years of imagined alternate scenarios–endless things that he could have, would have, should have done differently–but the outcome never changed. Her name was Sorcha. She was my Breedmate a very long time ago, when the Order was new. She was abducted by Rogues one night when I was out on patrol.

Oh, Tegan, Elise whispered. Did they…hurt her?

She's dead, he replied, simple stated fact.

He didn't think she'd want to know the horrific details of how her captors had sent her back to him, abused and violated, a broken shell of who she had been. God knew, he didn't want to talk about the guilt and rage that had torn at him when Sorcha had come back alive–but only barely, drained of her blood and her humanity. To his horror, she'd come back to him a Minion.

Tegan had lost his mind, certainly lost his self-control, in those dark days following his Breedmate's abduction and return. He'd fallen into the grip of Bloodlust, and had come deadly close to going Rogue.

All for nothing.

Death, when it finally came for Sorcha, had been a mercy.

I can't bring her back, and I can't take away what happened.

No, Elise said softly. Would that we could. But how long does it take before we stop blaming ourselves for everything we wish we'd done differently?

He looked back at her now, unused to this feeling of affinity. But it was the regret in her eyes that made something inside him thaw just a little. You didn't give your son the drug that corrupted him, Elise. You didn't push him over that edge.

Didn't I? I thought I was protecting him, but I held him too close all the time. He rebelled. He wanted to be a man–he was a man–but I couldn't bear to lose my child because he was all I had left. The more I tried to keep him close, the harder he pulled away.

Every kid goes through that. It doesn't mean you caused his death–

We argued the last night I saw him, she blurted out. Camden wanted to go to some kind of party–a rave, I think he called it. There had already been a few Darkhaven youths who'd gone missing, so I was worried something might happen to him. I forbade him to go. I told him that if he did, he shouldn't come back home. It was just an empty threat. I didn't mean it…

Jesus, Tegan muttered. We all say things we regret, Elise. You were only trying to keep him safe.

Instead I killed him.

No. Bloodlust killed him. Marek and the human he paid to create Crimson killed your son. Not you.

She crossed her arms over herself and gave a mute shake of her head. He didn't miss the sudden flood of tears that filled her eyes.

You're shivering. Tegan shrugged out of his heavy leather coat and draped it around her before she could refuse him. It's too cold. You shouldn't be out here.

Not with him, he thought, so very tempted to touch her now.

Before he could stop himself, he was raising his hand to her cheek and smoothing away the wetness that streaked down her fair skin. He caressed her face, letting his thumb brush across her lips. It was all too easy to recall how sweet her mouth had been, pressed against his wrist. How heated her tongue had been when she lapped at him, drawing strength from his blood.

How the feel of her body, hungry and writhing next to his, had inflamed him.

He wanted that again, with a ferocity that stunned him.

Tegan, please…don't. Elise sighed, closing her eyes as if she knew the direction of his thoughts. Don't do this if you don't mean it. Don't touch me like that if you don't…if you don't feel it.

He lifted her chin, tenderly sweeping his fingertips over her petal-soft eyelids, compelling her to see him. They opened slowly, dark lashes framing pools of beautiful light amethyst.

Look at me, Elise. Tell me what you think I'm feeling, he murmured, then bent his head to hers and pressed his mouth to her parted lips.

The warmth of her kiss was like a flame, kindling the cold space in his chest. He let his fingers thread into the short, silky hair at her nape, holding her against him as he slid his tongue along the seam of her lips. She parted for him on a gasp, trembling in his arms as he tasted the wet velvet of her mouth.

When her hands came up to touch him, Tegan was the one to tremble, shocked by the sensation of being held, astonished by how much he needed it–how much he needed her. It had been so long since he'd allowed himself this kind of intimacy. The centuries of solitude had been their own comfort to him, but this…

The craving for this woman seared him with its intensity. His gums throbbed with the emergence of his fangs. Even behind his closed eyelids he could tell his irises were throwing off amber light, evidence of his desire for Elise. His skin was tight, his dermaglyphs prickling with the sudden rush of blood that would deepen their color to vivid shades of indigo, burgundy, and gold. He knew she had to feel the hard ridge of his cock, which was wedged between their bodies, pushing against her abdomen.

Elise had to be aware of all his body's responses to her–she had to know what it meant– yet she didn't shove him away. Her fingers curled deeper into his shoulders, holding him with an intensity he could hardly fathom.

He was the one to pull back, breaking contact on a low, muttered curse. When he glanced up at the mansion, he saw several faces near the glass, Elise's Darkhaven peers staring out at them in open disdain.

Elise saw them too. She followed his gaze up the frozen lawn and gardens, but when she turned back to Tegan, there wasn't so much as a trace of shame in her expression. Only soft regard, and the lingering heat of desire in her eyes.

Let them stare, she said, stroking his jaw before their disapproving audience. I don't care what they think.

You should. That's your world up there on the other side of that glass. She sure as hell couldn't stay out here with him any longer, not when their kiss was still setting fire to his blood. You should go back inside.

She glanced back up toward the golden light spilling out of the ballroom and slowly shook her head. I can't go back in there. I look at them and all I see is a beautiful cage. It makes me want to run before the trap closes on me again.

Tegan was surprised at the frank admission. You weren't happy in the Darkhaven?

It's all I've known. Quentin was all I'd known. His family took me in as a baby and raised me as one of their own soon after I arrived at the Darkhaven. I owe them everything for the life they afforded me.

Tegan grunted. That sounds like gratitude to me. Nothing wrong with it, but what I asked was if you were happy there.

She turned a thoughtful look on him. I was mostly, yes. Especially after Camden came along.

You said you felt caged.

She nodded lightly. I was never very strong, physically. My gift made it difficult for me to leave the Darkhavens for any length of time, and Quentin thought it unwise for me to go anywhere by myself. He only meant to protect me, I'm sure, but at times it was…stifling. Then there were all the Agency obligations and the impossible expectations that came with being a member of the Chase family. It was a fine line that had to be walked at all times–allegiance to the Agency no matter what, know your place and keep it, never dare to speak out of turn. I can't tell you how often I wanted to scream, just to prove to myself that I could. Most days, I still want to.

So, what's stopping you?

She threw him a frown over her shoulder. What?

Go ahead. Scream right now if you want to. I won't stop you.

Elise laughed. She glanced up at the mansion behind them. That would really make their tongues wag, wouldn't it? Can you imagine the tales they'd tell tomorrow about how you terrorized a defenseless civilian female? Your reputation would never recover.

He shrugged. All the more reason to do it, if you ask me.

Elise exhaled a long sigh, her breath steaming the chill air. When she turned back to look at him once more, there was a pleading light glimmering in her wide lavender eyes. I can't go back in there tonight. Will you stay with me out here, Tegan…just for a little while?

Marek's vision burned red with fury as he scanned the flight plan one of his Minions had procured from the Boston airport a few hours before. A private jet had scheduled a last minute evening trip to Berlin last night, carrying two passengers–one of which was certain to be a member of the Order.

Tegan, no doubt, based on the visual description provided by Marek's mole. But the female accompanying him was a mystery. Tegan was the consummate loner, and try as he might, Marek couldn't imagine what would compel the stoic, deadly warrior to tolerate a woman's presence for more than a few necessary minutes.

He hadn't always been like that, however. Marek recalled well the warrior's utter devotion to the female he'd taken as his mate–Jesus, could it be some five hundred years ago? She was pretty, Marek remembered, with dark gypsy looks and a sweet, trusting smile.

Tegan had been devoted to her. It had nearly destroyed him to lose her so savagely.

Pity it didn't take him all the way.

The fact that Tegan was in Berlin now was troubling news. Couple that with the journal Marek lost–a journal that had taken him a long time to find–and he was looking at a fucking disaster in the making. The Order had the journal now, Marek had no doubt.

How long would it take them to put all the pieces in place? He would have to work fast if he meant to stay ahead of them.

Unfortunately for him, it was daytime and unless he wanted to risk a lethal suntan at thirty thousand feet too close to the sun, he'd have to wait until dark before he could get overseas and take control of the situation personally.

Until then, he would have to call out a few Minion eyes and ears in his place.

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