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Midnight Awakening (Chapter Twenty-four)

Commotion in the foyer of the Darkhaven woke Tegan from a light doze in his guest room. Something was wrong. Really wrong. He heard Elise's voice–heard the elevated pitch in her usually calm tone–and vaulted to his bare feet in an instant, all of his senses tripped to full alert.

Naked except for the pair of blue jeans he pulled on as he headed for the hall outside, he registered the muffled sounds of a female crying. Not Elise, thank God, but she was down there too, talking fast and clearly upset.

Tegan got to the staircase and glanced down to the open entryway of the estate. What he saw just about leveled him where he stood.

Elise, having just returned from somewhere outside, covered in blood.

Holy hell.

He rocked back on his heels, his stomach dropping like a stone to a vicinity somewhere around his knees. Elise was drenched in scarlet. The front of her clothes were stained deep red, as if someone had opened up her jugular.

Except it wasn't her blood, he realized as the metallic odor of it drifted up to fill his nostrils. It was someone else's blood–a human.

The relief he felt in that moment was profound.

Until a desperate brand of anger set in.

He put his fists on the railing and swung his legs over, dropping to the floor of the foyer on a tight-bitten curse. Elise hardly glanced at him as he stalked toward her, his body shaking with the depth of his fury. But all her focus was on stricken, incoherent Irina Odolf, who had collapsed onto an upholstered bench near the front door.

Reichen came in from the kitchen carrying a glass of water. He handed it to Elise.

Thank you, Andreas. She turned and offered the drink to the sobbing Breedmate. Here you go, Irina. Drink a little of this if you can. It will make you feel better. Tegan couldn't see anything wrong with the other woman aside from shock. Elise, however, looked like she'd just come in from the front lines. A livid bruise ran along her jaw and up the side of her cheek. What the hell happened? And what the fuck were you doing outside of this Darkhaven?

Drink, Elise coaxed her charge, all but ignoring Tegan. Andreas, do you have a quiet room where Irina can lie down for a while?

Yes, of course, Reichen replied. There's a sitting room here on the first floor.

Thank you. That should be fine.

Tegan watched Elise taking control with a gentle command that came so easily to her. He had to admire her strength in the midst of obvious crisis, but damn it, he was fuming. You want to explain why you're standing here bruised and bathed in blood?

I went to see Irina this morning, Elise replied, still not troubling herself to meet his angry gaze. A Minion must have followed me–

"Jesus Christ."

He broke into Irina's town house and attacked us. I took care of it.

You took care of it, Tegan said darkly. What happened? Did you fight with the son of a bitch? Did you kill him?

I don't know. We didn't wait around to find out.

She took the glass of water away from Irina, who wasn't drinking much anyway, and set it down on the floor. Are you able to stand up now? she asked the woman, her voice caring and concerned. When the Breedmate nodded, Elise took her under the arm and helped her to her feet. We're going to walk you to another room where you can rest, all right? Allow me, Reichen said, smoothly moving in and taking Irina's slack weight onto himself. He gingerly guided her out of the foyer, toward a pair of open double doors off the grand entrance.

When Elise started to follow them, Tegan reached out and caught her by the hand. Elise. Wait.

Given little choice, she paused. Then she blew out a slow sigh and turned to face him. I really don't need your disapproval right now, Tegan. I'm exhausted, and I want to get out of these awful clothes. So, if you plan on lecturing me, it's going to have to wait–

He pulled her to him and she fell silent as his arms went around her in a fierce embrace.

He couldn't let go. He couldn't speak. His chest was constricted with an emotion he didn't want to acknowledge, but could hardly deny. It wrenched him, pressing like a vise around his heart.

Ah, fuck.

Elise might have been killed today. She'd managed to get away, sure, but she'd been in serious danger with that Minion and there was always the very good chance that things would end badly.

He might have lost her while he slept. When she'd been out of his reach, and he'd been unable to protect her.

The thought hit him hard.

So unexpectedly deep.

All he could do right now was hold on to her. Like he never wanted to let her go.

Elise had expected anger from Tegan. Perhaps arrogant male censure. She couldn't have been more shocked to feel his arms holding her tight. Good Lord, was he actually trembling?

She stood in the warm, strong cage of his embrace, and felt some of her edgy tension begin to break. The bone-deep fear she'd refused to let herself feel until now started to pour into her limbs. She leaned into Tegan's welcome strength, bringing her hands up to rest against the hard muscles of his bare back, her unhurt cheek lying on the smooth plane of his chest.

There are some papers, she finally managed to say. Petrov Odolf 's brother wrote a bunch of letters. I thought they might be important. That's why I went out to see Irina.

I don't care about that. Tegan's voice was thick, vibrating against her ear. His fingertips pressed into her shoulders as he brought her away from him and stared down into her eyes. That gem- green gaze was penetrating, so intensely serious. Jesus Christ, I don't care about any of that right now.

It could mean something, Tegan. There are some strange verses…

He shook his head, scowling now. It can wait.

He reached out and wiped at an apparent smudge on her chin. Then he tilted her face up to his. He stared at her for a long moment before he kissed her.

It was brief and tender, filled with a sweetness that robbed Elise of her breath.

Everything else can wait for now, he said quietly, a dark ferocity in his voice. Come with me, Elise. I want to take care of you now.

He led her by the hand, out of the foyer and up the main staircase to her guest room on the second floor. She walked inside with him, paused as he turned to close the door behind them. He glanced down to where her packed bag sat on the floor. When he looked back at her, there was a question in his eyes.

I had been planning to leave Berlin today. I was going to go back to Boston.

Because of me?

She shook her head. Because of me. Because I'm confused about a lot of things, and I'm losing focus on what matters. The only thing that should matter–

Your vengeance.

My promise, yes.

Tegan came to stand in front of her, his broad chest filling her vision, radiating a warmth she wanted so badly to feel against her again. She closed her eyes as he began carefully unbuttoning her bloodstained blouse. He peeled the sticky silk off her body and let it drop to the floor.

Maybe she should have felt awkward or at least resistant, allowing him to undress her after the awful way things had gone between them last night. But she was sickened by the gore on her clothes, and there was a shaking, distressed part of her that welcomed Tegan's care. His touch was protective, not sexual, all steady strength now. Capable and compassionate.

Her ruined pants went next, along with her socks and shoes. And then she was standing before him in just her bra and panties.

The Minion's blood soaked through to your skin, he said, frowning as he ran his hand over her marred shoulder and down along the line of her arm. In the adjoining bathroom, the shower turned on. I'll wash it off you.

She walked with him into the spacious bath suite, saying nothing as he gingerly removed the last of her clothing. Come on, he said, guiding her around the wall of mottled glass bricks that separated the large shower area from the rest of the room.

Warm steam rolled around them as they neared the spray.

You're getting all wet, Elise said when Tegan strolled in ahead of her without taking off his jeans.

He merely shrugged. Water sluiced all over him, into his tawny hair and down the thick, banded muscles of his shoulders and arms. Cascading rivulets ran over the beautiful lines of his dermaglyphs, and onto the darkening denim that covered his long, powerful legs.

She looked at him and felt as if she were seeing him with fresh eyes…seeing him for the first time. There was no mistaking what he was–a solitary, deadly male, trained to kill and nearly perfect in his apathy. But there was a stunning vulnerability about him as he stood in front of her now, soaking wet, his hand extended out to her in kindness.

And if the warrior in him gave her pause before, this new vision of him was even more unnerving.

It made her want to run into his arms and stay there, forever if she could.

Step under the water with me, Elise. I'll do the rest.

She felt her feet moving beneath her, her fingers coming to rest in the warm center of Tegan's palm. He brought her into the soft rain of the shower. Smoothed her hair back from her face as they both became drenched together.

Elise melted into the warm water and the even greater heat of Tegan's body brushing against hers. She let him soap her skin and shampoo her hair, glad for his comforting touch after the ugliness of her day.

Feel good? he asked as he rinsed her off, the low vibration of his voice traveling through his fingertips and into her skin and bones.

It feels wonderful.

Too much so, she thought. When she was with Tegan, especially like this, he made her forget about her pain. He made it all too easy to accept the void that had existed for so long in her heart. His tenderness could make her feel so full, pushing away all the darkness. Right now, as he caressed her and held her so safely in his arms, he made her feel loved.

He made it far too tempting to imagine a future where she could be happy again. Whole again, with him.

I'm failing in my promise to my son, she said, forcing herself to draw away from the comfort of Tegan's touch. All I should be concerned about is making sure Camden's death wasn't in vain.

Something flashed in his eyes, only to be shuttered an instant later by the fall of his spiked, wet lashes. He reached behind her and shut off the water. You can't spend your life living for the dead, Elise.

Reaching above her, he grabbed a folded towel from the supply stacked on a high shelf built into the marble of the shower. When he passed the towel to her, Elise met his gaze. The hauntedness reflecting there took her aback.

There was a bleakness staring back at her. The pain of an old wound, not yet healed.

She'd never noticed it before…because he'd never allowed her to see it.

You blame yourself for what happened to your mate, don't you? He stared at her for a long, quiet minute, and she was certain he would give her an aloof denial. But then he exhaled a hushed curse, ran his fingers through the wet hair at his scalp. I couldn't save her. She depended on me to keep her safe, but I failed her.

Elise's heart stumbled a beat in her chest. You must have loved her very much.

Sorcha was a sweet girl, the most innocent person I've ever known. She didn't deserve the death she was given.

Elise wrapped the towel around herself as Tegan sat down on the marble bench that ran the length of the shower stall. His thighs were spread, his elbows resting on his knees.

What happened, Tegan?

After her abduction, some two weeks later, her captors sent her back to me. She'd been raped, tortured. As if that hadn't been cruel enough, whoever held her also fed on her. She came back to me a Minion of the one who brutalized her.

Oh, God. Tegan.

Sending her back like that was worse than killing her, but I guess they left that task to me. I couldn't do it. In my heart, I knew she was gone, but I couldn't end her life.

Of course not, she assured him gently, her heart breaking for him.

Elise closed her eyes on a softly whispered prayer as she eased down onto the bench next to him. She didn't care if he rejected her compassion; she needed to be close to him. He had to know that he wasn't alone.

When she put her hand on his bare shoulder, he didn't flinch away. He pivoted his head to the side, meeting her sympathetic gaze. I tried to make her better. I thought if I drew enough of her blood away and gave her my own in return– if I could feed her from my veins and siphon off the poison in hers–maybe by some miracle she'd revive. So, I fed to feed her. I went on a blood rampage that lasted for weeks. I had no control. I was so consumed by guilt and the need to make Sorcha better that I didn't even notice how quickly I was slipping toward Bloodlust.

But you didn't slip, did you? I mean, you must not have, to be sitting here now.

He laughed sharply, a coarse, bitter sound. Oh, I slipped all right. I fell, like all addicts do. Bloodlust would have turned me Rogue if it hadn't been for Lucan. He stepped in, and put me in a stone cell to wait the disease out. For several months, I nearly starved, feeding in only the smallest quantities needed to keep me breathing. Most of those days, I prayed for death.

But you survived.

Yeah.

And Sorcha?

He shook his head. Lucan did for her what I wasn't man enough to do. He freed her from her suffering.

Elise's heart lurched with understanding. He killed her?

It was an act of mercy, Tegan answered tightly. Even though I hated him for it all these past five hundred years since. In the end, Lucan showed her far more compassion than I was able to. I would have kept her alive only to save myself from suffering the guilt of her death.

Elise smoothed her palm over Tegan's strong back, moved by his confession and by the love that had been taken from him so long ago. She had thought him cold and unfeeling, but it was only because he hid his emotions well. His wounds went deeper than she could ever have guessed. I'm sorry for everything you've been through, Tegan. I understand now. I understand…so much now.

Do you?

The bleak, narrowed gaze that met her eyes was penetrating in its intensity.

When I saw you downstairs, covered in blood– He broke off abruptly, as if unable to form the words. Ah, fuck…I never wanted to feel that kind of fear and pain again, do you understand? I didn't want to let myself get that close to anyone again.

Elise looked at him in silence, hearing his words, yet uncertain he could actually mean them. Did he really mean to say that he cared for her?

His fingers were a feather-light brush against the dull throb of her bruised cheek. I do care, he said, a quiet reply in answer to the question he'd read with his touch. He brought her under the shelter of his arm, just holding her, his thumb idly stroking her arm. With you, I think it would be very easy to care too much, Elise. I'm not sure that's a risk I can afford to take.

You can't…or you won't?

There's no difference. Just semantics.

Elise leaned her head against his shoulder. She didn't want to hear this now. Didn't want to let him go. So, where does that leave us now? Where do we go from here, Tegan?

He didn't say anything one way or the other, just held her close and pressed a tender kiss to her brow.

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