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Midnight Rising (Chapter Fifteen)

It was almost as if he'd never been gone.

Rio stood in the compound's tech lab surrounded by Lucan, Gideon, and Tegan, who'd each greeted him with a hand offered in genuine friendship and trust.

Tegan's grasp lingered the longest, and Rio knew that the stony warrior with the tawny hair and gem-green eyes was able to read his guilt and uncertainty through the link of their clasped hands. That was Tegan's gift, to pine true emotion with a touch.

He gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. "Shit happens, man. And God knows we all have our own personal demons yanking our chains. So, no one's here to judge you. Got it?"

Rio nodded as Tegan let go of his hand. As he passed off Dylan's messenger bag to Gideon, he cast a glance toward the back of the lab, where Dante and Chase were cleaning their weapons for the night. Dante gave him a tip of his chin, but Chase's steely look said his jury was still out when it came to Rio. Smart man. Rio figured the ex – Darkhaven Agent's reaction was probably the same one he'd have if the tables were turned and Chase was the one flying in deadstick and in need of a rescue.

"How much does the woman know about us?" Lucan asked.

At nine hundred years old and first generation Breed, the Order's founder and formidable leader could command control of an entire room with just a quirk of his black brows. Rio considered him a friend – all of the warriors were as near as kin to one another – and he hated like hell that he might have disappointed him.

"I only gave her the basics," Rio replied. "I don't think she fully believes it yet."

Lucan grunted, nodding thoughtfully. "It's a hell of a lot to deal with. Does she understand the purpose behind that crypt in the rock?"

"Not really. She heard me call it a hibernation chamber when Gideon and I were talking, but she doesn't know anything more than that. I sure as hell don't plan to clue her in. Bad enough she saw the damn thing for herself." Rio exhaled a harsh breath. "She's smart, Lucan. I don't think it will take her long to start putting the pieces into place."

"Then we'd better act fast. The fewer potential details we have to clean up later, the better," Lucan said. He glanced at Gideon, who had Dylan's laptop open on the computer console beside him. "How hard do you think it will be to hack in and lose those pictures she's sent out via e-mail?"

"Deleting the source files on her camera and computer is easy. Half a minute's work."

"What about getting rid of the recipients' image and text files?"

Gideon scrunched up his face as if he were calculating the square root of Bill Gates's net worth. "About ten minutes for delivery of your basic hard-drive wrecking ball to all of the computers on her distribution list. Thirteen, if you're looking for something with a little more finesse."

"I don't give a rat's ass about finesse," Lucan said. "Just do whatever you need to trash the pictures and kill any text references to what she found on that mountain."

"I'm on it," Gideon replied, already working his magic on both devices.

"We can destroy the electronic files, but we still need to deal with the people she's been in contact with about the cave," Rio pointed out. "Aside from her employer, there's the three women she was traveling with, and her mother."

"I'm going to leave that to you," Lucan said. "I don't care how you go about it – use her to deny the story, discredit her, or go out and find the folks she's talked to and scrub the memory of every last one of them. Your choice, Rio. Just handle it, like I know you will."

He nodded. "I give you my word, Lucan. I will fix this."

The Gen One vampire's expression was as grave as it was certain. "I don't doubt you. Never have, never will."

Lucan's confidence was unexpected, and a gift Rio didn't plan to squander, no matter how wrecked he knew himself to be. For so many years, the Order and the warriors serving within it were his chief purpose in life – even above his love for Eva, which had seeded a quiet, but festering resentment in her. Rio was honor-bound to every last one of these men like his own blood kin, pledged to fight alongside them, even die for them. He looked around him, humbled by the grim, courageous faces of the five Breed males whom he knew without question would lay down their lives for him as well.

Rio cleared his throat, feeling awkward for the nearly unanimous welcome from his brethren. Across the lab, the glass doors whisked open as Nikolai, Brock, and Kade strode in from the corridor outside. The three of them were talking animatedly, giving off an air of easy camaraderie as they swept into the lab.

"Hey," Niko said, a greeting tossed out to no one in particular. His ice-blue gaze lit on Rio for half a second before he looked to Lucan and began relaying the details of the trio's night patrol. "Smoked a Rogue down by the river about an hour ago. Bastard was sleeping off a kill inside a Dumpster when we found him."

"Think it was one of Marek's hounds?" Lucan asked, referring to the army of Rogue vampires his own brother had been amassing until the Order stepped in. Marek was dead at the hands of the Order, but the remnants of his army were still vermin in need of extermination.

Nikolai gave a shake of his head. "This suckhead wasn't a fighter, just an addict scratching his permanent itch for blood. I figure he was only a few nights out of the Darkhaven based on how easy he went down." The Russian-born vampire looked past Rio to crack a crooked grin at Dante and Chase. "Any action over on the South Side?"

"Not a damn thing," Chase muttered. "Too busy running errands out at the airport."

Nikolai grunted, acknowledging the comment with a glance in Rio's direction. "Long fucking time, man. Good to see you in one piece."

Rio knew the male too well to think the reply was friendly. Of all the warriors in the Order, it was Nikolai that Rio expected to be first in line to defend him – whether or not Rio deserved it. Niko was the brother Rio never had, both of them born in the past century, both having joined the Order in Boston around the same time.

Odd that Niko had been absent for Rio's arrival at the compound, although knowing the vampire and his love for combat, he probably was pissed off that his patrol was cut short with still a couple of hours to go until dawn.

Before Rio could say anything to his old friend, Nikolai's attention swung back to Lucan. "The Rogue we found tonight was young, but the kill he left behind looked like the work of more than one vampire. I'd like to head back tomorrow night and sniff around, see if we turn up anything more."

Lucan nodded. "Sounds good."

With that out of the way, Niko turned to Kade and Brock. "Got enough time before sunrise to do a little hunting of our own. Anyone else feeling thirsty all of a sudden?"

Kade's wolflike eyes glittered like quicksilver. "There's an after-hours place in the North End that's probably just getting interesting. Plenty of sweet young things just ripe for the plucking."

"Count me in," Chase drawled, coming out of his chair next to Dante to join the three other unmated males as they started heading for the lab's exit.

For a moment, Rio watched them go. But as Nikolai stepped out to the corridor behind the rest of the pack, Rio hissed a curse and shot after him.

"Niko, wait."

The warrior kept walking like he couldn't hear him.

"Hold up, man. Goddamn it, Nikolai. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

As Chase, Brock, and Kade paused to look back, Niko waved them on ahead. They continued moving, rounding a corner in the corridor and disappearing from view. After a long few seconds, finally, Nikolai pivoted around.

The face staring back at Rio in the stark white tunnel was hard and unreadable. "Yeah. Here I am. What do you want?"

Rio didn't know how to answer that. Hostility rolled off his old friend like a winter chill. "Have I done something to piss you off?"

Nikolai's sharp bark of laughter scraped against the polished marble walls. "Fuck you, man."

He wheeled around and began stalking away.

Rio caught up to him in a blink. He was about to grab the warrior's shoulder and force him to stop, but Niko moved faster. He spun back and plowed into Rio broadside with his forearm against Rio's sternum, driving his spine into the hard wall on the other side of the corridor.

"You want to die, you son of a bitch?" Niko's eyes were narrowed, amber firing into the blue as a result of his anger. "You want to fucking kill yourself, that's your business. Don't ever use me to help you do it. We clear?"

Rio's muscles were tensed and ready for a fight, his combat instincts rising even though he was facing a long-trusted ally. But as Nikolai spoke, Rio's swiftly igniting battle rage ebbed a crucial fraction. Suddenly Niko's fury toward him made sense. Because Nikolai knew that Rio had stayed behind on that Bohemian mountain intending to end his life. If he hadn't known it those five months ago, he sure as hell knew it now.

"You lied to me," Niko seethed. "You looked me right in the eye and you lied to me, man. You were never going back to Spain. What were you going to do with that supply of C-4 I gave you? Strap it on and detonate the shit for some private jihadist fun, or maybe you just planned on sealing yourself inside that godforsaken tomb for the rest of eternity? What was it going to be, amigo? Which way did you plan on checking out?"

Rio didn't answer. There was no need. Of all the warriors in the Order, Nikolai knew him best. He saw him for the weak coward that he truly was. He alone knew how close Rio had been to ending the whole damn thing – even before his arrival on that Czech mountain.

It had been Niko who refused to let Rio wallow in self-loathing, making it his personal mission to pull Rio out of his dark tailspin last summer. Niko who took Rio topside with him in the weeks that followed, hunting for him when Rio had been too weak to look after himself. Nikolai, the brother Rio had never had.

"Yeah," Niko scoffed. "Like I said. Fuck you."

He dropped his arm away from Rio's chest and backed off with a growled curse. Rio watched him go, Niko's boots chewing up the polished marble as he stormed off to meet the other warriors already on their way topside.

"Shit," Rio hissed, raking his hand through his hair.

This clash with Nikolai was just more evidence that he shouldn't have come back to Boston – even if it meant leaving the problem of Dylan Alexander to someone else to handle. He didn't fit in here anymore. He was an outsider now, a weak link in an otherwise solid steel chain of courageous Breed warriors.

Even now he could feel his temples pounding from the rush of adrenaline that had kicked in a few minutes ago, when it looked like Niko wanted to tear him apart. His vision started to swim as he stood there. If he didn't get moving and find somewhere private to host the oncoming mental meltdown, he knew it would likely be only minutes before he woke up ass-planted on the marble right there in the corridor. And frankly, having Lucan and the others come out of the tech lab to stare over him like he was week-old roadkill was not something he wanted to experience.

Rio commanded his legs to start moving, and with no small degree of difficulty, he managed to find his way back to his quarters. He stumbled inside and closed the door behind him, sagging against it as a fresh wave of nausea swept over him.

"Are you okay?"

The female voice came from somewhere distant in the apartment. At first it didn't register as familiar; his brain was struggling to perform basic motor movements, and the bright, crystalline voice didn't seem to belong in this place full of old, musty memories.

He shoved away from the door and dragged himself through the living room toward his bedroom, his skull feeling like it was going to shatter.

Hot water. Darkness. Quiet. He needed all three right away.

He pulled off his shirt and let it fall onto Eva's ridiculous gold velvet settee. He really ought to burn all of her shit. Too bad he couldn't toss the deceptive bitch into the pyre along with it.

Rio clung to his fury for Eva's betrayal, a feeble grounding, but the only thing he had at the moment. He reached the open French doors to the bedroom and heard a small gasp from inside.

"Oh, my God. Rio, are you all right?"

Dylan.

Her name bled through the fog of his mind like a balm. He looked up to find his unwilling guest sitting on the edge of the bed, something flat and rectangular resting on her lap. She set the object aside on the nightstand and rushed over to him in the instant before his knees gave out.

"Shower," he managed to croak.

"You can hardly stand up." She helped him over to the bed, where he gratefully collapsed. "You look like you need a doctor. Is there anyone here who can help you?"

"No," he rasped. "Shower…"

He was too far gone to use his Breed ability to mentally turn the water on, but he didn't need to try. Dylan was already running to the adjacent bathroom. He heard the sharp hiss of the shower coming on, then Dylan's soft footsteps on the carpet as she came back out to where he was slumped pathetically on his side toward the foot of the bed.

Vaguely he registered the slowing of her stride the closer she got to him. He hardly heard the quick, indrawn breath above him. But there was no mistaking the shaky exhale as she blew out a quiet, pitying oath.

"Jesus Christ." Too much silence followed her whispered curse. Then, "Rio…My God. What kind of hell have you been through?"

Using every last ounce of strength he had, Rio peeled his eyes open. Big mistake. The horror he saw in Dylan's gaze was undeniable. She was looking at the exposed left side of his body…at the chest and torso that had been shredded by shrapnel and nearly flayed off his bones by the flames of the explosion he'd barely survived.

"Did she…" Dylan's soft voice drifted off. "Did your wife have something to do with what happened to you, Rio?"

His pulse froze. The blood that had been beating like a drum in his ears turned to ice as he stared up blearily into Dylan's questioning, concerned face.

"Did she do this to you, Rio?"

He followed Dylan's outstretched hand as she reached toward the item she'd set down on the nightstand. It was a framed photograph. He didn't need to see the picture under the glass to know that it was a snapshot of Eva, from an evening walk they'd taken along the Charles River. Eva, smiling. Eva, telling him how much she loved him, while behind his back she conspired with the Order's enemy to fulfill her own selfish goals.

Rio snarled when he thought of his own stupidity. His own blindness.

"It doesn't concern you," he muttered, still adrift in the darkness that was rising up on him from within his broken mind. "You don't know anything about her."

"She was the one who led me to you. I saw her on the mountain in Jicin."

An irrational suspicion sharpened his anger to something deadly. "What do you mean, you saw her? You knew Eva?"

Dylan swallowed, gave a small shrug of her shoulder. She held the picture frame out toward him. "I saw her…her spirit was there. She was there on the mountain with you."

"Bullshit," he growled. "Don't talk to me about that female. She's dead, and that's where she belongs."

"She asked me to help you, Rio. She sought me out. She wanted me to save you – "

"I said that's bullshit!" he roared.

Fury brought his body up off the mattress like a viper lashing out to strike. He knocked the frame out of Dylan's hands, and his rage hurled it across the room in blinding speed. It crashed into the large mirror on the wall opposite the bed, splintering on impact and sending shards of polished glass exploding out like a hail of tiny razor blades.

He heard Dylan cry out, but it wasn't until he smelled the juniper-sweet scent of her blood that he realized what he'd done.

She held her hand up to her cheek, and when her fingers came away, they were stained scarlet from a small, bleeding gash just below her left eye.

It was the sight of that wound that snapped Rio out of his downward spiral. Like a bucket of cold water thrown over his head, seeing Dylan injured jolted him instantly sober.

"Ah, Cristo, " he hissed. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry."

He moved to touch her, to assess how badly he'd hurt her – and she backed away from him with wide, terrified eyes.

"Dylan…I didn't mean to – "

"Stay away from me."

He reached out, meaning only to reassure her that he meant no harm.

"No." She flinched, shaking her head wildly. "Oh, my God. Don't you touch me."

Madre de Dios.

She was gaping at him in utter horror now. She was trembling, eyes fixed on him in fear and confusion.

When his tongue brushed across the pointed tips of his extended fangs, Rio understood the source of her terror. He stood before her, the vampire he'd told her he was but which her human mind refused to comprehend.

Now, it did.

She was seeing the truth of it for herself, in the physical changes that had come over him and transformed him from scarred madman to a creature out of a nightmare. There was no hiding the fangs that stretched even larger as his hunger for her swelled. No way to mask the elliptical sharpening of his pupils as the amber glow of bloodthirst swamped his vision.

He looked at the small cut, the rivulet of blood trailing down from it so red against the creamy skin of Dylan's cheek, and he could hardly form a coherent thought.

"I tried to tell you, Dylan. This is what I am."

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