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Midnight Awakening (Chapter Sixteen)

Elise skimmed her hands over the yards of glistening indigo silk that covered her. The sleeveless designer gown was breathtaking, one of more than a dozen couture pieces that Andreas Reichen had arranged to be brought in earlier that day from the city for her selection. She chose the simplest dress in the least dramatic color, wishing she didn't have to attend the evening's reception at all.

She'd been treated like a queen all day, and even after a restful bit of sleep, she wasn't much in the frame of mind for the hours of socializing that awaited her in the lakeside estate's grand ballroom downstairs. But years of practice on Quentin's arm had taught her what was expected of a member of the Chase family: duty first. That had been his personal credo, and one Elise had learned to embrace as well. So, after a quick shower in her guest suite, she had put on the form-fitting dark purple gown and a pair of gem-encrusted sandals, then arranged her short hair into some semblance of a style and headed out of her room ready to act her part.

Or at least, she thought she had been ready.

As soon as she descended the curving stairwell from the expansive wing of living quarters above, the din of voices and elegant music made her pause.

This would be the first public reception she'd attended since Quentin's death. Until she'd left the Darkhaven four months ago, she had kept herself in mourning, wearing the long white tunic and scarlet sash that declared a Breedmate a widow. As such, she'd been able to sequester herself in her home, seeing only those people she wished to, and neatly avoiding the sympathetic stares and whispers that would only remind her of Quentin's absence all the more.

There would be no more avoiding it, she realized, seeing Andreas Reichen striding toward her across the marble foyer from the direction of the crowded ballroom. He was stunning in a black tuxedo and crisp white shirt. His dark hair was pulled back off his face into a loose queue at his nape, showcasing those razor-sharp cheekbones and his strong square jaw. The handsome German's warm smile put her somewhat at ease immediately as he approached.

A perfect choice. You look exquisite, he said, his dark eyes taking her in from head to toe as he took her hand and lifted her fingers to his mouth. His brief kiss of greeting was whisper soft and warm as velvet. He released her with a slight bow of his head, and when his gaze reached her face, he frowned. Something is wrong? Is anything not to your liking?

Everything is fine, she assured him. It's just…I haven't done this in a very long time. Been out in public, that is. For the past five years, I've been in mourning–

Reichen's frown deepened in understanding. In mourning, all this time?

Yes.

Ah, God. You must pardon me, but I didn't know. I am sorry. You need only say the word and I will send everyone away. They don't need to know why.

No. Elise shook her head. No, I would never ask you to do that, Andreas. You've gone to so much trouble, and it's just a pleasant gathering, after all. I can get through this. I will get through it. She couldn't help looking around Reichen's broad shoulders, searching for the one face she knew. Even though Tegan could hardly be considered friendly, he was familiar, and gruff or not, his strength would be a comfort to her. By the low current in her veins, she could feel him somewhere in the mansion, nearby, yet out of her line of sight.

Have you seen Tegan? she asked, trying to sound only passingly interested in the answer.

Not since we arrived this morning. Reichen chuckled as he led her away from the sweeping staircase, toward the ballroom. We won't see him anywhere near the reception, I'm sure. He never was one for social gatherings.

No, she didn't suppose he was. Do you know him well?

Oh, not particularly. But then I doubt few can claim to know that warrior well. Personally, I know all I need to know to consider him a friend.

Elise was curious. How so?

Tegan came to my aid some time ago, when the area was having a sudden, but persistent problem with a group of Rogues. This was ages ago, in the early 1800s…1809, the height of summer.

Two hundred years would seem a very long time to human ears, but Elise herself had been living among the Breed for more than a century, after being rescued from Boston's slums by the Chase family when she was a young child. The Breed's Darkhaven communities had been in existence in various parts of Europe and the United States for much longer than that. Things must have been very different for you then.

Reichen grunted as if remembering those times. Things were different, yes. The Darkhavens weren't nearly as secure as they are now. No electronic fences, no motion sensors, no cameras to warn of breaches. Normally, our problems with Rogues were isolated incidents–one or two weak- willed vampires succumbing to Bloodlust and wreaking a bit of havoc on the human population before they were captured and contained. But this was different. These Rogues had begun attacking humans and Breed alike. They had banded together in their hunting, doing it for sport, it seemed. They managed to infiltrate one of our Darkhavens. Before the first night had ended, they'd violated and killed a number of women and slaughtered several Breed males as well.

Elise winced, imagining the terror that must have cut through the hearts of the area's residents at such an episode of violence. How did Tegan help you?

He'd evidently been roaming the countryside when he entered the Grunewald and came across an injured Darkhaven male from my community. When Tegan heard what was going on, he showed up on my doorstep with an offer to assist us. We would have paid him anything, of course, but he would accept no fee in exchange. I don't know how he did it, but he hunted down every one of those Rogues and killed them all.

How many were there?

Reichen's expression was nothing short of awe. Sixteen of the diseased savages.

My God, Elise gasped, beyond astonished. So many…

The Berlin Darkhaven you see today might have been wiped out of existence if not for Tegan all those years ago. He tracked and killed all sixteen Rogues single-handedly, then simply went on his way. I didn't hear from him again until many years later, after he'd settled in Boston with the few remaining members of the Order. Elise had no words for what she'd just been told. Part of her was stunned by Reichen's account of Tegan's heroics, but another part of her was suddenly awash in a deep chill of dread that made her shudder. She knew Tegan was a skilled warrior–an extremely lethal inpidual–but she truly had no idea what violence he was capable of doing.

And to think she had forced herself on him the other night. Goaded him into the profanity of a blood bond she'd initiated with him. How she must have insulted him, and yet by some miracle, he hadn't lashed out at her even though he had every right to despise her for using him.

Good Lord.

If all the hideous things she'd been raised to believe about the Order's members were even remotely true, she probably wouldn't be standing here. As it was, her legs felt a bit weak beneath her. The buzzing in her temples was increasing, distracting her like a swarm of gnats circling her ears.

Andreas, I think I…I could really use a drink now.

Of course. Reichen offered her his arm and she gladly took it. Come, I'll present you to the gathering and make sure you have whatever you like.

Tegan waited until they were gone before he descended from the upper floor landing of the mansion. He took the stairs, even though he could have just as easily vaulted over the side of the carved mahogany railing to the marble foyer three floors below.

After a day of being cooped up in the mansion awaiting nightfall, he'd been on his way out to hunt for blood and Rogues when the sound of Elise's voice stopped him in his tracks upstairs. He peered over just in time to see Reichen sweep in on her, full of his usual dark charm as he kissed Elise's hand for the second time since meeting her. He'd called her exquisite and by God, she was.

The indigo dress she wore hugged her petite figure in all the right places, an architectural wonder of crisscrossing silk layers and flowing, filmy skirts. Her bare shoulders and short blond hair accentuated the graceful line of her throat, which drew Tegan's eye like a beacon. Her pulse ticked frantically below her ear, a beat that echoed in his own veins, even now that she was gone from view.

Damn, he needed to feed.

The sooner the better.

Garbed in combat gear, Tegan headed straight for the mansion's front vestibule, eager to get the fuck out of the place. He strode past the wide-open double doors of the grand ballroom, ignoring the soaring whine of the string quartet and the chaotic buzz of the many conversations underway inside the reception.

He tried to ignore the sight of Elise on Reichen's arm as the suave German brought her before the crowd of their peers. She looked so elegant and refined amid the glitter of the gathering, fitting in perfectly with the Darkhavens' elite.

This was her world; there could be no mistaking that fact now that he saw her enveloped within it. She belonged here, and his place was out on the streets, staining his hands with the blood of his enemies.

Yeah, he thought, feeling a surge of anger run through him. He belonged anywhere but here. As she strolled farther into the ballroom on Reichen's arm, Elise scanned the crowd of fifty or more, recognizing several faces from events she'd attended with Quentin in the past. Everyone was staring at her–had been since the instant she entered the room. Conversations paused, heads turned. The string quartet played on near the other side of the room, falling into a soft whisper of music as Andreas Reichen presented her to the gathering.

He introduced her to one person after another, a dizzying line of names and faces that eventually began to blur together in her mind. She accepted the offers of condolence for Quentin's passing and listened with not a little pride as many of the area's Enforcement Agency representatives recounted their dealings with her respected mate. More than one person asked about the nature of her business in Berlin, but she dodged the questions as artfully as she could. It didn't seem prudent to discuss the Order's business in such a public arena, and it would be next to impossible to mention her association with the warriors without explaining how she'd come to know them in the first place.

How shocked and appalled would these politic Darkhaven males be to learn that she had been out on Boston's streets hunting Minions just a few days before?

Some rebellious part of her almost wished she could blurt that truth out, if only to watch the stuffy civilians balk. Instead, Elise merely sipped the wine Reichen had fetched for her soon after they arrived, her attention only partially focused on the Enforcement Agent who had been bending her ear for about fifteen minutes straight.

Looking slightly down his aquiline nose at her, the imposing blond vampire was quick to impress upon her how he had served the Agency most of his life–racking up more than a hundred years of self-aggrandizing war stories that he seemed compelled to describe to her in great detail. She nodded along and smiled at the appropriate moments, wondering how long it would take her to hit the bottom of her wineglass.

About three seconds, she decided, casually draining the last of the fine French wine.

Your years of service are commendable, Agent Waldemar, she said, already extricating herself from the conversation. Will you excuse me, please? I'm afraid this wine has gone straight to my head.

The arrogant agent sputtered something about the fact that she hadn't yet heard about the time he required a full twenty stitches after a run-in with a Rogue outside Tiergarten, but Elise just gave him a polite smile as she slipped into the thickest knot of the crowd.

In the middle of the perfumed, silk-clad bodies, a female hand reached out to clasp her own. Elise? Oh, my goodness, it's so nice to see you!

She was swept into a tight, warm hug. When she drew back, a flood of delight filled her to see the face of an old, dear friend. Anna, hello. You look well.

I am. And you–how many years has it been since we've seen each other? The boys were so young then. Were they even six years old the last time we were all together?

They were seven, Elise said, hit with an instant blast of memory. Camden and Anna's son Tom?s had been fast friends, spending an entire summer together before the Agency reassigned Anna's mate overseas.

I can't believe how time flies, the other Breedmate exclaimed, then took Elise's hand in both of hers. We heard what happened to Quentin, of course. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Elise attempted a smile. Thank you. It was…a difficult time. But I'm adjusting to life without him as best I can.

Anna clucked her tongue. And poor Camden. I can only imagine how hard it's been for him too, losing his father when he could have barely been into his teens. How is he holding up? Did he come with you to Berlin? I know Tom?s would be thrilled to see him.

All the blood seemed to drain out of her head at the well-meaning questions. The pain in her heart was still raw from this more recent loss. So raw, she could hardly find her voice to speak. Camden is…well, he's not here, actually. There was an incident a few months ago in Boston. He, um…he ran into some trouble, and he… She had to take a breath and push the words out of her mouth. Camden was killed.

Anna went white with shock. Oh, Elise! Forgive me, I had no idea–

I know you didn't. It's all right. Cam's death was sudden, and not many people know.

Oh, my dear friend. You've been through so much tragedy, haven't you? You must be the strongest woman I know. To lose so much in so short a time…it would have destroyed me, I'm sure. I think I would have curled up and simply faded away.

Elise might have too. Lord knew, she wanted to do that very thing at first. But anger pulled her through the initial suffering.

Vengeance would take her the rest of the way.

You do what you must in order to survive it, she heard herself say to the stricken female who looked at her with so much pity it stung. You just do…whatever it takes.

Of course, Anna replied. She smiled, but it was a wobbly effort that didn't quite mask her discomfort with the conversation's awkward turn. How long will you be in town? Perhaps if you have time, I could show you around the city. We have some lovely parks and museums…

Perhaps. Elise glanced at her wineglass as if she just recalled it was empty. Will you excuse me? I think I'll take a little walk and refresh my drink.

Yes, Anna said, sympathy still softening her eyes. It was good to see you, Elise. Truly.

Elise gave her friend's hand a gentle squeeze. You too.

As she started to walk away, a low rumble of conversation carried through the crowd. Elise hardly had to turn to see what caused it; she felt the disturbance deep within her bones, and in the warm prickle of awareness that settled in her breast.

For God's sake, Agent Waldemar muttered from a few feet away from her. He and several of his cronies were gaping in open contempt toward the entrance of the ballroom. You'd think he'd at least have the decency to dress accordingly for a function like this. Despicable savages, every last one of them.

Elise swiveled her head and saw Tegan making his way into the gathering. He was a startlingly grim vision, dressed in full combat gear and dripping with weapons. His overlong tawny hair was wild around his head and broad, leather- clad shoulders, and there was a lethal sharpness to his green-eyed gaze as he casually scanned the crowd.

He had to know how nightmarish he must look to these pampered civilians, but he only sneered at those few inpiduals who dared to stare at him as he strode into their midst.

Just look at that uncouth Gen One barbarian, Waldemar chortled, much to his Agency companions' smirking amusement. The younger generations may be impressed by the Order's violent methods–particularly after that bit of spectacle last summer in Boston–but they need only take a hard look at this one to see the warriors for what they truly are: uncivilized hoodlums who have long outlived their purpose.

The group of them chuckled, so pompous in their silk tuxedos, their arrogance rolling off them like a sour wind.

Elise hated how the Darkhaven males were looking at Tegan. And in a small, shamed corner of her conscience, she knew that she had been guilty of the same thing at one time. She'd been raised in an Agency family nearly from infancy, taught to believe that the Order was exactly what this man claimed them to be.

And when it came to Tegan himself, Elise had to acknowledge that she'd been judging him most unfairly of all.

Tell me, Agent Waldemar, Elise said, putting herself squarely in front of the Breed male and staring up into his surprised expression. Have you lived in the Berlin Darkhaven for long?

He puffed out his chest with pride. One hundred and thirty-two years, my dear lady. As I mentioned, most of them spent in service with the Agency. Why do you ask?

Because it occurs to me that while you and your friends stand around at fancy parties, patting yourselves on the back and condemning the Order as obsolete, the warriors are on the streets risking their lives each and every night to protect a nation that hasn't bothered to so much as thank them for their trouble in the past few hundred years.

Waldemar blanched, but then his feathery blond brows lowered dangerously. You are Quentin Chase's widow, so I'll be kind and not burden you with the facts about just how brutal those thugs can be. But I assure you, madam, they are soulless killers, each and every one of them. Especially that one, he said, his voice low and conspiratorial. He would slit your throat in your sleep if he felt like it, you mark my words.

That one, Elise said, knowing that Tegan was coming closer all the time. Her veins were lit up like live wires, her temples buzzing. But she was furious and getting more incensed by the second. That warrior you would insult so freely is the main reason any of you are standing here tonight.

Indeed, Waldemar scoffed, clearly incredulous.

Is the historical memory so short in this area that you have forgotten about the band of Rogues who descended on your Darkhaven two hundred years ago, killing many of your citizens? It was that warrior who took it upon himself to hunt the Rogues down. He saved your community single-handedly, and he asked for nothing in return. I don't think a little respect for him now would be misplaced.

None of the Darkhaven males said a word as she finished her diatribe and waited for their reaction. They were looking past her now, Agent Waldemar the palest of them all.

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