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Midnight Rising (Chapter Seventeen)

Dylan was crouched on the floor near the foot of the bed, picking up broken glass, when the French doors opened softly into the bedroom.

"Dylan?"

It was a female voice, the one she'd heard talking quietly with Rio and another man in the other room a minute ago. Dylan looked up and felt the instant warmth of a caring bright teal gaze light on her.

The beautiful young woman smiled. "Hi. I'm Tess."

"Hi." Dylan set a glass shard off to the side and bent to retrieve another.

"Rio asked me to come in and see if you were all right." Tess carried a small black leather bag as she came into the room. "Are you okay?"

Dylan nodded. "It's just a scratch."

"Rio feels really awful about this. He's been having…problems for some time now. Ever since the warehouse explosion last summer. He's lucky to be alive."

Oh, God. So that explained the burns and shrapnel scars. An explosion did all of that damage? He really had been through hell and back.

Tess went on. "Because of his brain trauma from the blast, he blacks out from time to time. On top of that, he also has severe headaches, mood swings…well, I think you saw for yourself, it's no picnic. He didn't mean for you to get hurt, I promise you that."

"I'm fine," Dylan said, not about to worry over the scratch on her cheek. "I tried to tell him it was no big deal. The cut's not bleeding anymore."

"That's a relief," Tess said as she set the medical satchel down on the bureau. "I'm glad to see it's not as bad as Rio feared. The way he described it to me on the phone, I thought we were looking at half a dozen stitches at least. A little antiseptic and a bandage ought to do the trick." She walked over to where Dylan had been collecting pieces of the shattered mirror. "Here – let me help you with this."

As she approached, Dylan noticed that Tess's palm rested lightly on the little swell of her stomach. She was pregnant. Not that far along from the looks of it, but she beamed with an inner radiance that left no doubt whatsoever.

And the hand that cradled the early stages of a growing baby bump had a small birthmark on it. Dylan couldn't help staring at the scarlet teardrop-and-crescent-moon shape on Tess's right hand – the very same mark Dylan herself had been born with on the nape of her neck.

"You live here?" Dylan asked. "With…them?"

Tess nodded. "I live with Dante. He's a warrior of the Order, like Rio and the others who live here at the compound."

Dylan gestured to the tiny birthmark between Tess's thumb and forefinger. "You're his…Breedmate?" she asked, recalling the term Rio had used after he'd seen Dylan's identical birthmark. "You're married to one of them?"

"Dante and I were mated last year," Tess said. "We're blood-bonded, which connects us in a way that's even deeper than marriage. I know Rio's told you a bit about the Breed – how they live, where they come from. After what happened in here with him, I'm sure you have no doubt about what they are."

Dylan nodded, still incredulous that any of this could actually be true. "Vampires."

Tess smiled gently. "That's what I thought too, at first. It's not that simple to define them. The Breed is a complicated race, living in a complicated world full of enemies. Things can be very dangerous for them, and for those of us who love them. For the few males who've pledged themselves to the Order, every night is a risk to their lives."

"Was it an accident?" Dylan blurted out. "The explosion that injured Rio…was it some kind of terrible accident?"

Something pained moved across the other woman's expression. She stared at Dylan for a long moment, as if she wasn't quite sure how much to say. But then she gave a slight shake of her head. "No. It wasn't an accident. Someone close to Rio betrayed him. The explosion happened during a raid on an old warehouse in the city. Rio and the rest of the Order were ambushed."

Dylan glanced down and she realized she was staring at the broken picture frame that Rio had hurtled across the room in his fit of rage. She carefully picked it up, flipped it over in her palms. Sweeping away the spiderweb of broken glass over the color snapshot, she stared down at the exotic dark eyes and the smile that didn't quite reach them.

"Eva," Tess confirmed. "She was Rio's Breedmate."

"But she betrayed him?"

"She did," Tess said after a long pause. "Eva made a deal with one of the Order's enemies – a powerful vampire who was also the brother of the Order's leader, Lucan. For information that would help this vampire kill Lucan, something Eva wanted as much as Lucan's brother, she was assured of two things. That Rio would live, and that he would be wounded badly enough that he would never be able to fight again."

"Jesus," Dylan gasped. "So she got what she wanted?"

"Not exactly. The Order was ambushed, based on information Eva delivered, but the vampire she bargained with had no intention of upholding his part of their deal. He sent in a bomb. The explosion might have killed them all, but ironically, Rio took the biggest hit. And then he had to learn afterward that it was Eva who made it happen."

Dylan couldn't speak. She tried to absorb the weight of what it must have been like for him – not only the physical pain of his injuries, but also the emotional hurt of a deception like the one dealt to him.

"I saw her." Dylan glanced over at Tess and saw her frown deepen, confusion evident in her questioning gaze. Dylan hadn't known this woman for more than a few minutes, and she wasn't used to sharing herself with anyone, especially not the secret that made her so different from other people. But something in Tess's caring eyes let her know that she was safe. She felt an instant affinity that made her trust she was with a friend. "The dead come to me from time to time – well, women do, anyway. Women who are no longer living. Eva came to me a few days ago when I was hiking with friends on a mountain outside Prague."

"She…came to you," Tess said cautiously. "How do you mean?"

"I saw her spirit, I guess you'd say. She led me to a hidden cave. I didn't know it, but Rio was inside. She – Eva – led me there and asked me to save him."

"My God." Tess slowly shook her head. "Does he know this?"

Dylan glanced meaningfully at the destruction lying at her feet. "Yeah, he knows. When I told him, that's when he really lost it."

Tess's look was apologetic. "He has a lot of anger where Eva's concerned."

"Understandably," Dylan replied. "Is he okay, Tess? I mean, considering what he's gone through, is Rio going to be…okay?"

"I hope so. We all hope so." Tess cocked her head slightly, studying her somehow. "You're not afraid of him."

No, she wasn't. She was curious about him absolutely, and uncertain of his intentions where she was concerned, but she wasn't afraid of him. Crazy as it was, even after seeing him as he'd been a short while ago in this very room, Dylan wasn't afraid. In fact, just thinking about Rio did a lot of things to her, none of them scary. "Do you think I should be afraid of him?"

"No," Tess said without hesitation. "What I mean is, this can't be easy on you. God knows I didn't take it very well when I first heard all of this talk of blood and fangs and war."

Dylan shrugged. "I write for a quasi-tabloid newspaper. Believe me, I've heard a lot of bizarre things. I don't shock easily."

Tess smiled, but she didn't hold Dylan's gaze for long. The words she didn't say were clear as a bell in those quickly averted eyes: This wasn't just a bizarre tabloid story. This was real.

"What was in that cave, Tess? It was apparently some kind of crypt – a hibernation chamber, I heard Rio call it. But what the hell was in there? Did something get loose up there on the mountainside?"

Tess lifted her eyes, but only gave a small shake of her head. "I don't think you really want to know."

"Yes, I do," Dylan insisted. "Whatever it was, it's obviously important enough that Rio felt he had to kidnap me and lock me up to keep me quiet about what I saw."

Tess's silence put a knot of dread in Dylan's gut. The Breedmate knew what was in that cave, and the knowledge of it clearly terrified her.

"Tess, something was sleeping in that hidden tomb – from the look of it, I'd say it had been holed up there for a very long time. What kind of creature was it…or is it?"

Tess stood up and dropped some broken glass into a wastebasket beside the bureau. "Let me take a look at your cut. We should clean it up and get a bandage on it so you don't scar."

Confined within the UV light cell, the Ancient threw his head back and let out a hellish roar. Blood dripped off the huge fangs and onto the broad, naked chest that was livid with the pulsing color of the vampire's glyphs .

"Lock down those damn restraints," barked his keeper, speaking to his Minions through a small microphone in the observation room outside the cell. "And for crissake, clean up that mess in there."

The robotic shackles snaked out sharply and caught the Ancient's thick arms and legs. With a programmic command, they seized up tight, yanking him nearly off his feet. He struggled against the bonds, but he wasn't going anywhere. Thrashing futilely, he peeled back his lips and bellowed again. The wordless howl was one of unmistakable fury as his immense body was dominated by industrial-grade titanium and steel.

He was still erect from the breeding that had gone so violently wrong, still lusting for blood and for the body of the lifeless female that was being hastily – and posthumously – evacuated from the cage.

The Breedmate had been savaged. Hard nails and fangs left their mark all over her, and before the Ancient could be pulled off her, the female was dead. She wasn't the first, not even close. Over the nearly five decades since the Ancient had been awakened from his hibernation and brought under his keeper's control, feeding him – and breeding him – had proven to be a very costly, frustrating endeavor.

For all the technology and money at his disposal, there was no science in existence that could replace the kind of base rutting that had taken place in the prisoner's cell a short while ago. Flesh on flesh coupling was the only viable means of conception when it came to the Ancient, and the rest of the Breed as well. But sex was only part of the process. It took ejaculation, along with a simultaneous exchange of blood at that precise moment, for vampire life to take root in a Breedmate female's body.

Normally, bonded couples looking to conceive reveled in the deliberate, sensual act of creating life. Not so in this place. Down here, with the savage, alien creature rendered insane from starvation, pain, and confinement, conception was a life-and-death gamble. Casualties like the one today were part of the equation. Deaths were to be expected.

But there had been successes, and that made all the risk worthwhile. For every Breedmate killed in this process, two others made it out alive…with the seeds of a powerful new generation planted deep in their wombs.

The Ancient's keeper smiled privately despite the day's loss.

That powerful new generation was already growing, coming of age in secret.

And its allegiance belonged entirely to him.

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