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Midnight Rising (Chapter Nineteen)

Rio lifted a 9mm pistol and aimed it toward a target at the end of the compound's firing range. The gun felt foreign as hell in his hand despite that it was his own weapon, one he'd carried on him for years and had been lethally proficient with…before.

Before the warehouse explosion.

Before the injuries that had taken him out of combat and dropped him into a sickbed, broken in mind and body.

Before his blindness to Eva's duplicity had made him question everything he was and ever could be again.

A sheen of sweat broke out on Rio's lip as he held his target in his sights. His trigger finger was shaky, and it took all his concentration to focus in on the small head-and-shoulders silhouette printed on the paper target some twenty yards down the range.

But that was exactly the point of his coming here.

After what had happened with Dylan a few minutes ago, Rio needed a distraction in a major way. Something that would command all of his focus, cool him out. Hopefully dull the edge of the carnal hunger that gnawed at him even now. He wanted Dylan with a need that was still pounding through his veins in a deep, primal beat.

He could still feel her body moving beneath his, so soft and welcoming. So passionately responsive. So accepting of him, even though he was fit only to play Beast to her Beauty.

It was a fantasy he'd let himself indulge in as he'd kissed Dylan, as he pressed her down beneath him and wondered if the intense attraction he felt for her might actually be mutual. No one was that good an actor. Eva had claimed to love him once. The depth of her betrayal had been a shock, but in the back of his mind, he'd known she wasn't happy with him the way he was, in the life he'd chosen as a warrior.

She hadn't wanted him to join in the first place. She'd never understood his need to do some good, his need to be useful. More than once, she'd asked him why she wasn't enough for him. Why loving her, making her happy, couldn't be enough. He had wanted both, but even she had been able to see that he wanted the Order more.

Rio could still recall one night, strolling in a city park with Eva, taking pictures of her on a little bridge over the river. She'd told him that night how she wanted him to leave the Order and give her a baby. Demands he couldn't – or, rather, wouldn't – comply with.

Give it time, he'd told her. The warriors had been putting out fires with a small surge in Rogue activity in the region, so he'd told her to be patient. Once things settled down, maybe they could think about a family.

Looking back, he wasn't sure he'd meant it. Eva hadn't believed him; he'd seen that in her eyes, even then. Hell, maybe it had been at that very moment she'd decided to take matters into her own hands.

He had let Eva down and he knew it. But she had paid him back in spades. Her betrayal had rattled him on a soul-deep level. It had made him question everything, including why the hell he should be taking up precious space in this world.

When Dylan kissed him – when she looked at him full in the face and her eyes reflected back only honesty – Rio could believe, at least for a moment, that he wasn't just a pitiful waste of air and space. When he'd looked into Dylan's eyes and felt her hand cradling his scars, he could believe life might actually be worth living after all.

And he was a selfish bastard for thinking that he had anything to offer a woman like her. He'd already destroyed one woman's life, and nearly his own; he wasn't about to take a second chance with Dylan's life.

Rio narrowed his gaze on the target down the way and forced an iron steadiness into his hold on the gun. He pulled the trigger, felt the familiar kick of his weapon as the Beretta discharged and a bullet went blasting into the smallest center ring of the target's bull's-eye.

"Good to see you haven't lost a bit of your aim. Still dead-on like always."

Rio set the weapon down on the shelf in front of him. When he turned around it was to find Nikolai standing behind him, his broad back leaned up against the wall. Rio had known he wasn't alone here; he'd heard Niko and the three other unmated warriors talking on the far end of the facility as they cleaned their weapons and rehashed their late-night prowl of the human after-hours club.

"How was the hunting topside?"

Niko shrugged. "A lot of the usual."

"Hot babes without enough sense to run when they see you coming?" Rio asked, a tentative stab at breaking the ice that was present between them since his arrival at the compound.

To his relief, Niko chuckled. "Nothing wrong with loose and easy when it comes to women, my man. Maybe next time you should hang with us. I can hook you up with something sweet and nasty." Twin dimples notched his lean cheeks. "You know, if you're not planning to off yourself or anything in the meantime. You dumb bastard."

It was said without venom, only the solemn knowledge of a friend concerned about one of his own.

"I'll let you know," Rio said, and he could tell by Nikolai's narrowed look that the warrior understood he wasn't talking about the prospect of getting a little action topside.

Niko's voice dropped to a confidential tone. "You can't let her win, you know? 'Cause that's what giving up is. Yeah, she screwed you over, and I'm not saying you need to forgive and forget because frankly I don't think I could if I were you. But you're still here. So fuck her ," Niko said harshly. "Fuck Eva. And fuck the bomb that went off in that warehouse. Because you, my friend, are still here."

Rio scoffed, but it was a weak sound in his tight throat. He tried to clear the obstruction, feeling awkward as hell for caring that someone cared about him. "Damn, amigo. Just how much Oprah have you been watching since I've been gone? Because coming from you, that was really touching."

Niko chortled. "On second thought, forget all that shit I just said. Fuck you too."

Rio laughed, the first real laugh to come out of his mouth…Jesus, in about a full year's time.

"Hey, Niko." Kade came strolling up from the other end of the facility, the Alaskan's black spiky hair and sharp silver eyes giving him a wild, wolflike look. "I'm turning in. Tonight if we run into that other Rogue out of the Darkhavens, don't forget you promised he was mine."

"If I don't get to the suckhead first," Brock put in, coming up behind the other warrior and smiling as he artfully placed the edge of a huge dagger under Kade's chin.

Brock's rich chuckle boomed out of him good-naturedly enough, but it was plain to see that the warrior the Order had recruited from Detroit would be as grim and thorough as the Reaper himself in combat. He let Kade go, and the two of them continued to argue over dibs on the Rogue as they headed out of the weapons room to their own separate corners of the compound.

Chase was the last to come around from the back of the facility. His black tee-shirt had a long rip down the front, like someone had tried to get a piece of him. Judging by the sated color of the vampire's glyphs and the chilled-out look in his normally hard-ass eyes, it appeared he'd taken his fill of everything the club girls were offering topside tonight.

He gave Rio a slight incline of his head in greeting, then spoke to Nikolai. "If you hear anything more out of Seattle, let me know. I'm curious why a killing of this nature hasn't been acknowledged by the Agency yet."

"Yeah," Niko said. "I'd like to know that myself."

Rio frowned. "Who turned up dead in Seattle?"

"One of the longest-standing members of the Darkhaven out there," Niko said. "The guy was Gen One, in fact."

The hairs at the back of Rio's neck did a sudden ten-hut at that bit of news. "How was he killed?"

Nikolai's look was grave. "Bullet to the brain, pointblank range."

"Where?"

"Typically the brain is located in the head region," Chase drawled, his thick arms crossed over his chest.

Rio slid a narrowed glare on the male. "Thanks for the anatomy lesson, Harvard. I mean where was this Gen One at when he was killed?"

Niko met Rio's sober look. "Shot in the backseat of his chauffeured limousine. My contact said the poor bastard was returning from the opera or the ballet or some damn thing, and while he was waiting at a traffic light, someone popped him in the head and vanished before the driver even realized what had happened. Why?"

Rio shrugged. "Maybe nothing, but when I was in Berlin, Andreas Reichen told me about a Gen One killing that happened recently over there. Only this Darkhaven elder ate it at a blood club."

"Those private sports clubs have been outlawed for decades," Chase said.

"Right," Rio agreed, all sarcasm, since the ex – Darkhaven Agent seemed intent on being a prick. "So now they print the invitations in invisible ink and you need a secret decoder ring to get past the door."

"Same MO on the Berlin Gen One?" Niko asked.

"No, not a gunshot wound. According to Reichen's sources, this sports lover ended up losing his head."

Niko whistled low under his breath. "That's two of the top three methods for killing a first generation Breed vampire. Option Three being UV exposure, and let's face it, the least effective way unless you have a leisurely ten to fifteen minutes to devote to your work."

"The two killings could be unrelated," Rio said, not sure his instincts could be trusted on this anyway. But damn if warning bells weren't clamoring in his head like a cathedral belfry on Easter Sunday.

"Something's off," Chase said, finally getting with the program. "I don't like the feel of this either. Two dead Gen Ones in a matter of, what, a week's time? And both of them smelling like executions?"

"We don't know that's what they were," Niko cautioned. "Come on, think of the odds here. If you live for a thousand years or so, you're bound to piss someone off. Someone who might want to shoot you in the back of your limo, or guillotine you at a blood club."

"And the Darkhavens don't want word of either slaying going public?" Rio added.

Chase's tawny brows came together tightly. "Berlin's on hush mode, too?"

"Yeah. Reichen said they were keeping it quiet to avoid a scandal. Doesn't look good to anyone if a pillar of your community gets toppled in a sports club full of blooded, dead humans."

"No, it doesn't," Chase agreed. "But two dead Gen Ones is a pretty serious hit to the entire vampire nation. There can't be more than twenty first generation inpiduals still alive among the entire population – Lucan and Tegan included. Once they're gone, they're gone."

Nikolai nodded. "That's true. And it's not like we can make any more."

A chilling thought sank into Rio's gut. "Not unless we had a live Ancient, a Breedmate, and about twenty years' lead time."

Both warriors looked at him with grave expressions.

Niko raked a hand through his blond hair. "Ah, fuck. You don't think – "

"I pray to God I'm wrong," Rio said. "But we'd better wake Lucan."

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