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Midnight Rising (Chapter Eight)

Dawn was inching up over the horizon as the delivery truck from Prague wheeled into a gated, heavily secured lakefront estate on the outskirts of Berlin.

The Darkhaven was held by a Breed vampire named Andreas Reichen, a civilian, but also a trusted ally of the Order since he'd assisted with the discovery of the mountain cave a few months ago. Rio had only met him briefly that past February, but the German greeted him like an old friend as he came around to the back of the truck and opened the trailer door.

"Welcome," he said, then sent an anxious glance up at the pinkening sky overhead. "You made excellent time."

The male was dressed in an impeccably tailored suit and a pristinely pressed white shirt that lay unbuttoned at the throat. With his thick chestnut hair loose around his shoulders, the perfect waves setting off his striking, angular features, Reichen looked like he'd just come off a photo shoot for a men's designer ad.

One dark brow lifted slightly as he took in Rio's negligent appearance, but he remained the consummate gentleman. With a nod, Reichen offered his hand in greeting as Rio climbed out of the truck. "No trouble along the way, I hope?"

"None." Rio gave a brief shake of the vampire's hand.

"We were stopped at the border into Germany, but they didn't search the truck."

"For the right price, they don't," Reichen said, smiling pleasantly. He glanced behind Rio into the darkened trailer, to where Dylan Alexander lay on the floor. She was curled up on her side and resting peacefully, her head cushioned by the lumpy edge of her backpack. "Tranced, I take it?"

Rio nodded. He'd put her out about an hour into the trip, when her endless, probing questions and the swaying motion of the truck had been too much for him to deal with. Even though he'd fed earlier that night, his body was still in need of nourishment and not yet operating on all cylinders. To say nothing of his other problems.

He had spent most of the five-plus-hour drive fighting off nausea and blackout – a weakness he wasn't about to risk exposing to the woman he'd just forcibly abducted. Better that she spend the duration of the trip in a light, psychically induced doze than have her make some desperate bid to overpower him and attempt an escape while they were in transit.

"She's attractive," Reichen said, a casual observation that didn't even begin to do the female justice. "Why don't you take her inside. I have a room prepared for her upstairs. One for you as well. Third floor, end of the hall to the right."

Reichen waved off Rio's murmured thanks. "You are welcome to stay as long as you require, of course. Anything you need, just ask. I'll be along with her things as soon as I compensate my Czech friend for doing this favor on such short notice."

As the German went around to the front of the truck to pay the driver, Rio climbed back inside to retrieve his sleeping captive. She stirred lightly as he lifted her into his arms and carried her outside. He walked briskly toward the mansion and up the short climb of steps that led into the opulent foyer.

None of the Darkhaven's residents were around, even though it wouldn't have been unusual to see some of the civilian vampires or their female mates who lived together as a community in the vast estate. Reichen had probably made sure the house would be quiet for Rio's arrival, devoid of curious eyes and ears. Not to mention, protecting those same civilians from being identified by someone like Dylan Alexander.

A goddamn reporter.

Rio's jaw clamped tight at the thought of the damage the woman in his arms could do. Just a stroke of her pen – or keyboard, as it were – and she could put this Darkhaven and the hundred or so others like it in Europe and the United States in terrible danger. Persecution, subjugation, and, ultimately, wholesale annihilation were certain outcomes if humankind were to have proof of vampires living among them. Aside from some assorted, mostly incorrect, vampire folklore widely dismissed as fiction by modern man, the Breed had kept itself hidden from discovery for thousands of years. It was the only way they'd survived this long.

But now, through his own carelessness – his weakness – Rio might have undone all of that in one reckless moment. He had to make it right, no matter what it might take to stanch the bleeding wound this woman's story could cause.

Rio carried her through the empty foyer and up the massive staircase at the center of the elegant mansion. At the third floor landing, he followed the walnut-paneled hallway to the end of the line and opened the guest room door on his right. It was dim inside; like any Darkhaven residence, the windows were outfitted with electronic, UV-blocking shades to shut out deadly sunlight. Rio brought Dylan into the room and placed her on the large four-poster bed.

She didn't look so dangerous like this, coming to rest there in the middle of the plush, silk-covered mattress. She looked innocent, almost angelic in her silence, her skin as clear as milk except for the spatter of tiny freckles that marched across her cheeks and the bridge of her small nose. Her long red hair fell around her head and shoulders like a halo of fire. Rio couldn't resist touching one of the molten strands that had fallen over her creamy cheek. The tendril rasped against his callused fingers, which looked so dark and unclean against the coppery silk.

He had no right to touch her – no good reason to sift the beautiful lock between his fingers, marveling at the resilient strength contained within so much mesmerizing softness.

There was no cause at all for him to bend his head down to where she lay, passive only because he made her so, and to breathe the appealing scent of her into his lungs. Saliva surged into his mouth as he held himself very still over her, his face mere inches from the side of her neck. His thirst rose swiftly, along with a hot, swelling need.

Madre de Dios.

Had he really thought her to look like no threat to him now?

Wrong again, he thought, recoiling from her bedside as her eyelids fluttered with waking consciousness. The lull of the trance was dissipating; it would fall away completely once Rio wasn't in the room to hold the effect in place.

She stirred a bit more and he turned away from her briskly. He'd better get out of there, before he revealed himself any further with the current, rather obvious presence of his fangs.

When he looked up, he found Andreas Reichen standing in the hall outside the open door. "Do you find the room suitable, Rio?"

"Yes," he replied, stalking over to take the backpack and pocketbook from the German's hands. "I'll keep these with me for now."

"Of course. As you wish." Reichen stepped back as Rio came out to the hallway and closed the guest room door. The German handed him a key for the lock beneath the antique crystal knob. "The window shades are centrally controlled, and the glass behind them is equipped with alarms. Outside, the estate grounds are secured by motion detectors and a perimeter fence. But these measures were designed to keep people off the property, not in. If you think the woman is a flight hazard, I can post a guard at the door – "

"No," Rio said as he turned the key in the lock. "It's bad enough she can ID me. The fewer inpiduals we bring into this, the better. She's my responsibility. I'll make sure she stays put."

"Very well. I've had the adjoining suite prepared for you. You'll find the wardrobe fully stocked with brand-new men's attire. Help yourself to anything you like. There's a bath and sauna in the suite as well, if you'd, ah, like to freshen up."

"Yeah." Rio nodded. His head was still pounding from the long ride in the back of the truck. His body was taut and edgy, hot all over, and he couldn't blame any of that on the trip or his rocky state of mind. Behind his closed lips, he ran his tongue over his still-present fangs.

"A shower sounds great," he told Reichen.

Preferably an ice-cold one.

If Dylan was confused before she and her abductor left Prague, their arrival in what she could only assume was somewhere in or around Berlin made things all the muddier to her. When she woke up in the middle of a large, silk-covered bed in a darkened room that looked like an upscale European bed-and-breakfast suite, she wondered if she'd dreamt the whole thing.

Where the hell was she? And how long had she been here?

Even though she felt fully awake and alert, there was a kind of cloudiness to her senses, like her head had been wrapped in thick cotton.

Maybe she was still dreaming.

Maybe she was still somehow in Prague and none of what she recalled had actually happened at all. Dylan turned on a nightstand lamp, then got off the bed and walked over to the tall windows on the other side of the luxurious room. Behind the beautiful drapes and curtain sheers, a tightly fitted panel shade covered the glass. She looked for a pull-cord or some other means to open it, but she couldn't find anything. The blind was completely immobile, as though it was locked in place over the glass.

"The shade is electronic. You won't be able to open it from in here."

Startled, Dylan spun around at the sound of the deep, but now familiar male voice.

It was him, sitting in a delicate antique chair in the opposite corner of the room. She knew the unmistakable dark, accented voice, but the man staring at her from the shadows didn't look anything like the filthy, ragged lunatic she expected to see.

He was clean now, and wearing fresh clothes – a black button-down dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black trousers, and black loafers that were probably Italian and probably very expensive. His dark hair gleamed from a fresh washing, no longer the dingy hanks that hung limply into his face but swept back now in glossy espresso-brown waves that set off the unusual color of his intense, topaz eyes.

"Where am I?" she asked him, taking a few steps closer to where he sat. "What is this place? How long have you been sitting there watching me? What the hell did you do to me that I can hardly remember coming here?"

He smiled, but it couldn't be called friendly. "Barely awake and already starting in with the questions. You were a lot easier to take when you were sleeping."

Dylan wasn't sure why she should feel insulted by that. "Then why don't you let me go if I annoy you so much?"

The smile quirked a little, softening the grim line of his mouth. Good God, if not for the scars that ran from temple to jaw on the left side of his face, he would have been drop-dead gorgeous. No doubt he had been, before whatever accident had happened to him.

"I would like nothing better than to let you go," he said. "Unfortunately, the decision of what to do with you is not mine to make alone."

"Then whose is it? The man you were talking to in the hallway before?"

She'd only been half-conscious, but she'd been awake enough to hear the exchange of two male voices as she was placed in the room – one of them belonging to the man glaring at her now, the other clearly German based on the accent. She glanced around at the wealth of antique furniture and fine art, at the ten-foot ceilings and ornate crown moldings, all of which practically screamed multimillion-dollar estate. And then there were those light-blocking, Pentagon-grade window shades.

"What is this place – headquarters to some kind of government spy ring?" Dylan laughed, a bit nervously.

"You're not going to tell me you're part of a well-funded foreign terrorist cell, are you?"

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "No."

"No, you won't tell me, or no, you aren't a terrorist?"

"The less you know, the better, Dylan Alexander." The corner of his mouth lifted as he said it, then he shook his head. "Dylan. What kind of name is that for a female?"

She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. "Don't blame me, I had nothing to do with it. I happen to come from a long line of hippies, groupies, and tree-huggers." He just looked at her, those dark brows lowering over his eyes. He didn't get it, apparently. The reference seemed to go right past him, like he had never bothered with pop culture and probably had better things to do with his time. "My mom named me Dylan – you know, as in Bob Dylan? She was really into him around the time I was born. My brothers were named after musicians too: Morrison and Lennon."

"Ridiculous," her captor replied, scoffing under his breath.

"Well, it could be worse. We're talking the mid-seventies, after all. I had just as good a chance of being named Clapton or Garfunkel."

He didn't laugh, just held her in his piercing topaz gaze. "A name is no insignificant thing. It frames your world as a child, and it lasts forever. A name should mean something."

Dylan shot him a sardonic look. "This coming from a guy named Rio? Yeah, I heard your German friend call you that," she added when he pinned her with a narrowed gaze. "It doesn't seem that much better than Dylan, if you ask me."

"I didn't ask you. And that's not my name. Only a small portion of it."

"What's the rest of it?" she asked, genuinely curious, and not just because it seemed like a good idea to gather whatever information she could about this man who was holding her captive.

She looked at him – at his scarred, yet ruggedly attractive face, the powerful body contained within his expensive new clothes, and she wanted to know more. She wanted to know his name and all the rest of his secrets, which she was certain had to be plentiful. He was a mystery she wanted to solve, and she had to admit that interest had very little to do with the cave, her story, or even her own sense of self-preservation.

"I've gone through your computer files and e-mail," he told her, ignoring her question like she fully expected him to do. "I know you've sent the cave photos to several inpiduals, including your employer." He calmly rattled off the full names of her boss, Janet, Marie, Nancy, and her mom. "I'm sure we could find them with little effort, but this will go much faster if you give me their current addresses and places of employment."

"Forget it." Dylan bristled at the idea of her privacy being so casually invaded. Inappropriately intrigued by him or not, she was not about to unleash this man or his shady cohorts on anyone she knew. "If you have a problem with me, fine. But don't think I'm going to drag anyone else into this."

His face was grimly set, unflinching. "You already have."

Dylan's heart sank at the flat statement that seemed so calm, yet so ripe with threat. When she said nothing else, he got up out of the dainty chair. God, he was huge, every inch of him swathed in lean, powerful muscle.

"Now that you're awake," he said, "I'll see that you have something to eat."

"And give you the opportunity to drug my food? No thanks, I'd rather fast."

He exhaled a low chuckle. "I'll bring you some food. Whether or not you choose to eat it will be up to you."

Dylan hated that her stomach seemed to churn eagerly at the thought of eating. She didn't want to accept anything from this man or his associates, even if it meant starving to death in the process. But she was beyond hungry and she knew that even if he brought her a bowl of lumpy, ice-cold gruel she'd gratefully gobble it down.

"Don't get any ideas about leaving this room," he added. "The door will be locked from outside, and I'll know the instant you try anything. I think you know that you wouldn't get far before I caught you."

She did know that, in a place inside her that was all raw, animal instinct. This man, whoever he was, now held her completely at his mercy. Dylan didn't like it, but she was smart enough to know that whatever she was dealing with here was deadly serious. Like the woman in her, the journalist couldn't deny a certain fascination too, a need to know more – not only about what was truly going on, but also about the man himself.

About Rio.

"What, um…what happened to you…to your face?"

He threw a scowl at her, one that said of all her many questions, this one angered him the most. She didn't miss the way he turned his head slightly to the left, an almost unconscious move that helped to hide the worst of the damage. But Dylan had already seen the burn scars and pebbled skin. From the look of them, she guessed that they had to be combat wounds. Very grave, frontline combat wounds.

"I'm sorry," she said, although whether she meant she was sorry for asking or sorry for what he went through, she wasn't totally certain.

He reached up with his left hand and raked it through the thick hair at his temple, like he didn't care if she stared now. But it was too late for him to call back his initial self-conscious reflex, and no matter how darkly he glared at her, Dylan knew he was bothered by his condition.

And as he moved, she caught a glimpse of an intricate pattern of tattoos on his forearm. They peeked out on both arms from under the rolled sleeves of his shirt, quasi – tribal markings done in a unique, variegated color blend of pale scarlet and gold. On first glance, she thought maybe they were some kind of membership markings, like the kinds American gangs used to show their allegiance.

No, not like that, she decided the longer she stared at them. Not like that at all.

The markings on Rio's arms were very much like the symbols and strange writings that were on the walls and crypt inside that cave.

He brought his hand down and the flash of warning in his eye all but dared her to question him about them.

"Tell me what they mean," she said, looking up to meet his hard gaze. "The tattoos. Why do you have the same kind of symbols on your body that were in that mountain cave?"

He didn't answer. In silence, he stood there unmoving, looking even more dangerous in his civilized, tailored clothing than he had in the tattered rags he'd been wearing before. She knew he was immense, tall and broad and covered in lean, hard muscle, but he looked even more so as she approached him, determined to have this answer.

"What do the markings mean, Rio?" She took hold of his arm. "Tell me."

He stared down at her fingers wrapped around him. "It doesn't concern you."

"Like hell it doesn't!" she replied, her voice rising. "Why would you have the same kind of markings on your body that are in that cave – on that crypt?"

"You are mistaken. You don't know what you saw. Then or now."

It wasn't an argument so much as a complete refusal to take the conversation any further. And that really pissed Dylan off.

"I'm mistaken, am I?" She grabbed her long, loose hair and lifted it around to one side of her neck. "Look at this and tell me I don't know what I saw."

She bent her head, putting the exposed base of her neck – the patch of skin that bore her unusual birthmark – in plain view to him.

The silence seemed endless.

Then, finally, a hissed curse.

"What does it mean?" she asked him, lifting her head and letting her hair fall back in place.

Rio didn't answer her. He backed up as if he didn't want to be near her for another second.

"Tell me, Rio. Please…what does all of this mean?"

He was quiet for a long moment, his dark brows low over his eyes as he stared at her.

"You will know soon enough," he said softly as he went to the door and stepped outside.

He closed her in, then turned the lock, leaving her in there alone and confused, and very certain that the path her life had been taking had just irrevocably changed course.

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