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Midnight Rising (Chapter Nine)

A Breedmate.

Madre de Dios, but he hadn't been expecting that. The small crimson birthmark on the nape of Dylan Alexander's slender neck changed everything. The teardrop-and-crescent-moon skin marking she bore wasn't something that occurred very often in nature, and its meaning was indisputable.

Dylan Alexander was a Breedmate.

She was a human female, but with the specific, extremely unusual blood properties and DNA that made her cellular physiology compatible with that of the Breed. Females like her were rare, and once women like Dylan were known to Rio's kind, they were cherished and protected as closely as blood kin.

They had to be. Without Breedmates to carry the seed of future vampire generations, Rio's kind would cease to exist. It was the curse of the Breed that all offspring of its hybrid race were born male – a genetic anomaly that occurred when the cells of the vampiric otherworlders mixed with those of the special human females that bore their young.

Women like Dylan Alexander were to be revered, not stalked like common prey and abducted off the street in fear for their lives. They were to be treated with great respect, not locked up like prisoners and held against their will, no matter how elegant the cage.

"Cristo en cielo," Rio muttered aloud as he stormed down the Darkhaven estate's gleaming mahogany staircase to the foyer below. "Un que desastre."

Yes, this truly was a disaster. He himself was a disaster – one that worsened by the moment. His skin was tight with hunger, and he didn't have to check the dermaglyphs on his forearms to know that they were probably no longer their normal pale henna hue, but reddish-gold, reflecting his mounting need to feed. A nagging throb was kicking up in his temples, portent of the blackout he'd be dealing with if he didn't lie down soon or get some nourishment to stave it off.

But sleep was out of the question and so was hunting for a blood Host. He needed to check in with the Order and fill them in on the added complication to a situation that had been fucked-up royal to begin with, all thanks to him.

He took the stairs a couple at a time, wishing like hell he could just continue walking right out the front door of the Darkhaven and into broad, deadly daylight. But he'd made this mess, and he'd be damned if he was going to leave it for anyone else to clean up.

As he hit the marble of the foyer below, Andreas Reichen was just opening the double doors from within one of the many rooms situated on the first floor. He wasn't alone. An anxious-looking Darkhaven male with a mop of strawberry blond hair was with him, both of the vampires coming out of the dark-paneled study in the midst of a hushed conversation. Reichen looked up at once and met Rio's eyes. He murmured something reassuring to his civilian companion as he clapped him gently on the shoulder. The younger male nodded, then politely got the hell out of the area with only the most furtive glance at the scarred warrior standing nearby.

"My nephew, bringing me some unpleasant news from one of the region's other Darkhavens," Reichen explained once they were alone in the foyer. "It seems there was an incident a couple of nights ago. A rather high-profile inpidual was found missing his head. Unfortunately for him and his family, the killing occurred at a blood club."

Rio grunted, thoroughly unmoved. Blood clubs had been outlawed as barbaric underground sport decades ago, and most of the vampire population agreed with the ruling. But there were some within the race who still got off on the secret, invitation-only gatherings where human victims could be chased down in a contained area, raped, fed upon, and murdered like wild game. Helpless wild game, since not even the strongest Homo sapiens, male or female, was any match for a pack of bloodthirsty vampires.

The blood club killing was obviously a Breed-on-Breed altercation.

"Did they get the vampire who did it?"

"No. They're still investigating the murder." Reichen cleared his throat and went on. "Since the deceased was an elder – Gen One, in fact – and a member of the Enforcement Agency, there is understandable concern that the whole thing is set to explode into scandal. It's a very sensitive situation."

Rio gave a wry snort. "No doubt."

Well, at least he wasn't the only one among the Breed with piss-poor judgment lately. Even the fully sane, cultured members of the vampire nation had their bad days. Not that it made Rio regret his own fleet of mistakes any less.

"I need to touch base with Boston," he told Reichen, running his palm over his brow to wipe away the sheen of cold sweat that was beginning to gather there. A wave of nausea tried to rise up on him but he held it back with sheer willpower. Damn. He had to hold his shit together at least until sundown, when he could run out for a while and feed.

If the coming blackout didn't drop him before he got the chance.

"Is anything wrong?" Reichen asked him, concern furrowing his brow.

"I'm fine," Rio muttered.

The other vampire didn't look the least bit convinced, even if he was too well-bred to say so. His dark gaze flicked down to Rio's arms, where beneath the rolled-back sleeves of his shirt, his glyphs were infusing with deeper, more intense color. He could claim from here to Sunday that he was right as rain, but those skin markings would give him away every time. The damn things were emotional barometers that visually broadcasted a Breed vampire's state of mind – from hunger to satiation, rage to joy, lust, contentment, and everything in between.

At the moment, Rio's dermaglyphs had saturated in hues of deep red, purple, and black – plain evidence that he was hurting and hungry.

"I need a phone with a secure line," he told Reichen.

"Now. If you could, please."

"Of course. Come, you may use my office."

Reichen gestured for Rio to follow him back into the room where he'd been meeting with his nephew. The study was large and richly appointed, full of Old World elegance like the rest of the Darkhaven estate. Reichen went around a claw-footed monstrosity of a desk and opened a small hidden panel built into the polished mahogany surface.

He pushed a button on an electronic keypad, which made two of the tall bookcases across the room begin to separate, revealing a large, flat panel screen mounted behind them.

"Video teleconferencing, available if you wish," he said, as Rio came farther into the room. "Dial an eight to reach our operator for a secure outside line. And take as long as you like in here. You'll have complete privacy."

Rio nodded his thanks.

"Do you need anything else right now?" his generous host asked. "Or anything for our, ah, guest upstairs?"

"Yeah," Rio said. "Actually, I told her I'd bring her something to eat."

Reichen smiled. "Then I'll go have something special prepared for her."

"Thank you," Rio said. Then, "Hey, Reichen. There's something you probably should know. That female up there…she's a Breedmate. I didn't realize it until just a few minutes ago, but she's got the mark. It's on the back of her neck."

"Ah." The German vampire considered that for a moment. "And does she know what that makes her? What that makes the rest of us?"

"No. Not yet." Rio picked up the cordless phone on Reichen's desk and hit the number eight on the keypad. Then he started dialing the private line that would route him to the Order's compound. "She doesn't know anything about any of that. But I have a feeling I'm going to be spelling it all out for her real soon."

"Then perhaps I'd better have a cocktail prepared for the lady as well. A strong one." Reichen strode to the open double doors of the study. "I will let you know when her meal is ready. If there is anything you need, just ask and it is yours."

"Thanks."

When the heavy wood doors clicked shut, Rio turned his full attention to the ringing phone line on the other end of his call. The compound's computerized answering intercepted and he punched in the code for the tech lab.

Gideon picked up without hesitation. "Talk to me, buddy."

"I'm at Reichen's," Rio said, unnecessary information since the compound's system had certainly already confirmed the incoming phone number. But Rio's head was pounding too hard for him to do a lot of extraneous processing. He needed to convey his relevant intel while he was still making sense. "The trip was uneventful, and I'm here with the woman at Reichen's Darkhaven."

"You got her contained somewhere?"

"Yeah," Rio replied. "She's cooling her heels in a guest room upstairs."

"Good. Nice work, man."

The unwarranted praise made him clamp his teeth together hard. And the combination of his churning hunger and the spin of his head made him suck in a ragged breath of air. He let it back out on a low curse.

"You all right, Rio?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah, my ass," Gideon said. Not only was the vampire a genius when it came to technology, but he also had the uncanny ability to smell a load of horseshit when it was being shoveled at him. Even when it was being shoveled at him from another continent away. "What's going on with you? You don't sound good at all, amigo."

Rio rubbed his drumming temple. "Don't worry about me. We've got a bigger problem over here. Turns out the female reporter is a Breedmate, Gideon."

"Ah, fuck. Are you serious?"

"I saw her birthmark with my own eyes," Rio replied.

Gideon murmured something urgent yet indiscernible to someone else apparently in the lab with him. The answering deep growl of a cool Gen One voice could belong to none other than Lucan, the Order's founder and leader.

Great, Rio thought. Although it wasn't as if he was planning to keep the news from the highest-ranking warrior of the group, so he might as well clue him in on all the facts now.

"Lucan's here," Gideon informed him, in case he missed that fact. "You alone over there, Rio?"

"Yep. Sitting all by my lonesome in Reichen's study."

"All right. Hang on. I'm gonna put you on video telecom."

Rio's mouth twisted grimly. "I thought you might."

He glanced up as the large flat-panel blinked on across from him. Like a window opened on a next-door room, the screen filled with a real-time image of Gideon and Lucan seated in the Boston compound's tech lab. Gideon's eyes were intense as he gazed over the rims of his pale blue shades, his cropped blond hair a spiky, mad-scientist mess, as usual.

Under Lucan's furrowed black brows, his gaze was also serious, his light gray eyes narrowed as he leaned back in one of the big leather chairs that circled the Order's conference table.

"The female is safe here at the Darkhaven, and she has not been harmed in any way," Rio began without preamble. "Her name is Dylan Alexander, and from what I've gathered off her computer files she lives and works in New York City. I'm guessing she is in her late twenties, but there's a chance she could be near thirty – "

"Rio." Lucan leaned forward, peering intently at the video screen where Rio's image was being projected back home. "We'll get to her in a minute. What's going on with you, man? You've been out of contact since February, and no offense, but you look like hell."

Rio shook his head, raked a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. "I'm good. Just want to take care of this problem and be done with it, you know?"

He wasn't sure if he was talking about Dylan Alexander and her photos, or the other, longer-term problems he'd been dealing with since the warehouse explosion that might have killed him. Should have killed him, damn it.

"Everything's cool with me, Lucan."

The vampire's expression held steady, measuring on the other end of the video feed. "I don't appreciate being lied to, my friend. I need to know if the Order can still count on you. Are you still with us?"

"The Order is all I have, Lucan. You know that."

It was the truth, and it seemed to satisfy the shrewd Gen One. For now.

"So, the reporter you're holding over there is a Breedmate." Lucan sighed, rubbing his palm over his strong square jaw. "You're going to have to bring her in, Rio. To Boston. You need to explain a few things to her beforehand, about the Breed and about her link to us, and then you need to bring her in. Gideon will handle the transportation."

The other warrior was already typing away furiously at his keyboard, making it happen. "I can have our private jet waiting to pick you up at Tegel Airport tomorrow night."

Rio acknowledged the plans with a firm nod, but there were still a few loose ends to consider. "She was booked on a flight out of Prague to New York today. She has family and friends who'll be expecting her home."

"You've got access to her e-mail," Gideon put in.

"Send a group message using her account, explaining that she's been delayed for a few days and will be in contact as soon as possible."

"What about the pictures she took of the cave?" Rio asked.

Lucan answered that one. "Gideon tells me you have the camera and her computer. She needs to understand that everyone who has copies of those pictures is a risk to us – one we can't afford to let slide. So, she'll have to help us by killing her story and destroying every copy of every photograph she's let loose."

"And if she won't cooperate?" Rio could already imagine how well this conversation was going to go with her. "What do we do then?"

"We track down those inpiduals she's been in contact with, and we obtain the images by whatever means necessary."

"Mind-scrub them all?" Rio asked.

The set of Lucan's mouth was grave. "Whatever it takes."

"And the woman?" Rio wanted to be clear. "As a Breedmate, we can't just scrub her arbitrarily. She would be given some choice in this, wouldn't she?"

"Yes," Lucan said. "She does have a choice. Once she knows about the existence of the Breed and the mark she bears that links her to us, she can decide whether she wants to be a part of our world, or return to her own and give up all knowledge of our kind. That's the way it has always been done. It's the only way."

Rio nodded. "I'll take care of it, Lucan."

"I know you will," he said, no challenge or doubt in the statement, just pure trust. "And, Rio?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't think I haven't noticed those livid glyphs on you, my man." Narrowed silver eyes fixed on him over the distance. "Make sure you feed. Tonight."

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