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Midnight Rising (Chapter Sixteen)

"Vampire."

Dylan heard the word slip past her lips, despite the fact that she could hardly believe what she was seeing.

In a matter of moments, Rio had transformed before her eyes. She stared in shock at the changes she'd just witnessed. His irises glowed like embers, no longer the smoky topaz color they normally were, but an incredible shade of amber that nearly swallowed up his impossibly thinned pupils. The bones of his face seemed starker now, lean, blade-sharp cheekbones and a squared jaw that seemed carved of stone.

And behind the lush cut of his mouth, Rio sported a pair of fangs like something straight out of the movies.

"You…" Her voice trailed off as those hypnotic amber eyes drank her in. She sat down weakly on the edge of the bed. "My God. You really are…"

"I am Breed," he said simply. "Just as I told you."

Seated in front of him, her vision filled with the broad musculature of his bare chest. The complicated pattern of skin markings on his forearms tracked up over his shoulders and down along his pectorals. The entire array of markings – dermaglyphs ,he'd called them the first time she noticed them – were livid with color now, the darkest they'd been yet. Deep reds, purples, and black saturated the beautiful flourishes and arcing lines.

"I can't stop the change," he murmured, as if he felt obligated to explain himself. "The transformation is automatic for every Breed male when he senses fresh spilled blood."

His gaze shifted slightly down from her eyes, to where her cheek burned from the bite of the glass that struck her. She felt the warm track of blood sliding toward her chin like a tear. Rio watched that droplet fall with an intensity that made Dylan tremble. He licked his lips and swallowed, but clamped his teeth together as rigidly as a vise.

"Stay here," he said, scowling hard, his voice dark and commanding.

Instinct told Dylan she might be smarter to run, but she refused to be afraid. Strange as it seemed, she felt she'd come to know this man over the past handful of days they'd been thrust together. Rio was no saint, that was for sure. He had abducted her, imprisoned her, and she still wasn't certain what he meant to do with her, but she didn't think he was a danger to her.

What she'd just witnessed here wasn't exactly cause for celebration, but in her heart, she didn't fear what he was.

Well, not completely, anyway.

The water was still running in the shower. She heard it turn off, then Rio came out holding a damp white washcloth. He offered it to her at arm's length. "Press this to the wound. It will stanch the bleeding."

Dylan took the cloth and held it to her cheek. She didn't miss Rio's long exhale as she covered the gash, like he was relieved he didn't have to look at it anymore. The fiery color of his eyes slowly began to dim, his slender pupils resuming their round shape. But his dermaglyphs were still flushed with color, and his fangs still looked deadly sharp.

"You really are…aren't you?" she murmured. "You're a vampire. Holy shit, I can't believe it's true. I mean, how can it be true, Rio?"

He sat down next to her on the bed, no less than two feet of space between them. "I already explained it to you."

"Blood-drinking extraterrestrials and human women with alien-friendly DNA," she said, recalling the outlandish story about a vampiric hybrid race she'd tried to dismiss as science fiction. "It's all fact?"

"The truth is a bit more complicated than your understanding of it, but yes. Everything I told you is fact."

Incredible.

Absolutely mind-blowingly incredible.

A mercenary part of her nearly shouted with excitement over the potential fame and fortune there would be in breaking such an enormous news story. But it was another part of her – the part that reminded her of the little birthmark on the back of her neck and its apparent connection to this strange new world – that made her feel instantly protective, as though Rio and the world he lived in was a delicious secret that belonged exclusively to her.

"I'm sorry I upset you," she told him quietly. "I shouldn't have been nosing around in your things when you weren't here."

His head came up sharply, dark brows crushed together. The curse he muttered was ripe and vivid. "You don't have to apologize to me, Dylan. I'm the one at fault. I should never have come in here the way I was. No one should be near me when I'm like that."

"You seem a little better now."

He nodded, head slumped down toward his chest. "The rage subsides…eventually. If I don't black out first, it does eventually pass."

It didn't take much to see him as he had been when he stumbled into his quarters a short while ago. He'd been almost mindless, his limbs hardly working as he struggled with each difficult step. He'd been barely coherent, a shuddering bulk of muscle and bone and unfocused fury.

"What brings it on, Rio?"

He shrugged. "Little things. Nothing at all. I can never know."

"Is that kind of rage just part of being what you are? Do all of the Breed have to go through that kind of torment?"

"No." He scoffed under his breath. "No, this problem is mine alone. My head's not screwed on right anymore. It hasn't been right since last summer."

"Was it an accident?" she asked gently. "Is that what happened to you?"

"It was a mistake," he said, a brittle edge to his voice. "I trusted someone I shouldn't have."

Dylan looked at the terrible damage his body had weathered. His face and neck bore serious scars, but his left shoulder and half of his muscled torso looked like it had been through hell and back. Her heart clenched tightly in her chest when she thought about the kind of pain he must have endured, both in the event that injured him and in what had to have been many long months of recovery.

He sat there so rigidly, so solitary and unreachable even though he was less than an arm's length away from her on the edge of the big bed. He seemed so alone to her. Alone and adrift.

"I'm sorry, Rio," she said, and before she could stop herself, she put her hand over the top of his where it rested on his thigh.

He flinched as though she'd put hot coals on his skin.

But he didn't move away.

He stared down at her fingers, which rested lightly across his, pale white over buttery olive. When he looked over at her, it was with a stark wildness in his eyes. She wondered how long it had been since he'd been touched with any kind of tenderness.

How long had it been since he'd allowed himself to be touched?

Dylan smoothed her fingers over the top of his hand, studying the incredible size and strength of him. His skin was so warm, so much coiled power in him even when he seemed determined to hold himself perfectly still.

"I'm sorry for everything you've been through, Rio. I mean that."

His jaw was clamped so hard it made a tendon twitch in his face. Dylan set the cold compress down on the bed next to her, hardly aware that she was moving because her senses were so fixed on Rio and the electricity that seemed to be pooling where their hands connected.

She heard a low rumble gathering from within him, something between a growl and a moan. His gaze drifted down to her mouth, and for a second – one fast, fleeting heartbeat – she wondered if he was going to kiss her.

She knew she should draw back. Move her hand away from his. Anything but sit there unable to breathe as she waited and wondered – wished so desperately – that he would lean in and brush his lips against hers.

She couldn't stop herself from reaching out to him now. She moved her free hand up toward his face, and felt a sudden blast of cold air coming at her, pushing at her like a physical wall.

"I don't want your pity," Rio snarled in a voice she didn't recognize as his own. The rolling Spanish accent was there as always, but the syllables were harsh, the timbre not quite human, reminding her of just how little she understood about him or his kind. He pulled his hand out from under hers and stood up from the bed. "That cut of yours is still bleeding. You need attention I can't give you."

"I'm sure it's fine," Dylan replied, feeling like an idiot for putting herself out there like that with him. She grabbed the damp washcloth and dabbed at her cheek. "It's no big deal. I'm fine."

There was no sense talking since it was obvious he wasn't listening to her anyway. She watched him walk past the broken glass of the shattered mirror, into the living room outside. He picked up the cordless telephone and dialed a short sequence of numbers.

"Dante? Hey. No, nothing wrong. But I, ah…is Tess there? I need to ask a favor of her."

Rio paced like a caged animal in the short minutes it took for his rescue to arrive. He stayed out of the bedroom, confining himself to a small space of real estate near the main entry of his quarters. As far away from Dylan as he could get without actually bolting out of the damn apartment and waiting outside.

Madre de Dios.

He'd nearly kissed her.

Still wanted to, and the admission – even to himself – was like a sucker punch to the gut. Kissing Dylan Alexander was a guaranteed way to turn a bad situation into something catastrophic. Because Rio knew without a shred of doubt that if he kissed the fiery beauty, it wouldn't stop there.

Just thinking about feeling the press of her lips on his made his blood quicken in his veins. His glyphs pulsed with the colors of his desire – churning in shades of dark wine and gold. And there was no denying the other evidence of that desire. His cock was as hard as granite, and had been since the instant she so unexpectedly laid her hand atop his.

Holy hell.

He didn't dare look back into the bedroom for fear that he wouldn't be able to keep his feet from doing an about-face march through the closed French doors and right into Dylan's arms.

Like she would actually have him, he thought viciously.

That pat of his hand had been a sweet gesture, the kind of "there, there" comfort a mother might offer a pouting child. Or worse than that, it might have been the pained sympathy of a charitable angel consoling one of God's most unfortunate blunders.

Maldecido.

Manos del diablo.

Monstruo.

Yes, he was all those things. And now Dylan had seen how ugly he truly was. To her credit she hadn't recoiled at all the twisted flesh or his fangs, but then she was made of stronger stuff than that.

But to think she might welcome his touch? That she might get close enough to his ruined face to let him kiss her?

Not fucking likely. And he thanked God for that, because it saved him from seeing her disgust. It saved him from doing something really stupid, like forgetting for even one second that she was in the compound – in his private quarters – only until he corrected the mistake he'd made in letting her get close to that cave. The sooner he could do that and get her gone, the better.

A staccato rap sounded on the door.

Rio pulled it open with a growl of self-directed frustration.

"You sounded like shit, so I thought I'd come along with Tess and take a look at you for myself." Dante's mouth quirked into that cocky grin of his as he stood at the threshold with his gorgeous Breedmate close at his side. "You gonna let us in, man?"

"Yeah." Rio backed off to give the couple space to enter.

Dante's mate looked prettier than ever. Her long honey-brown waves were pulled back in a loose ponytail, and her wise aquamarine eyes were soft, even when looking Rio full in the face.

"It's so good to see you," she said, and without hesitation she strode over to him and went up on her toes to give him a quick embrace and a kiss on his cheek. "Dante and I both have been so worried about you these past months, Rio."

"No need," he replied, but he couldn't deny that the concern warmed him.

Tess and Dante had only been together since late autumn of last year; she'd come into the Order's compound with an extraordinary gift for healing and restoring life with her tender hands. Tess's touch held amazing power, but not even she had been able to fix all that was wrong with Rio. He was too far gone by the time Tess arrived. His scars were permanent, both inside and out, though not for lack of trying on Tess's part.

Dante put his arm around his Breedmate in a move that was both protective and reverent, and it was then that Rio noticed the gentle swell of her belly underneath the pale rose tee-shirt and khaki pants she wore. She caught his downward glance and smiled as beatific as the Madonna herself.

"I'm just out of my first trimester," she said, turning all of that glowing love on Dante now. "Someone's making it his new mission in life to spoil me rotten."

Dante chuckled. "I aim to please."

"Congratulations," Rio murmured, genuinely happy for the pair.

It wasn't common for warriors and their mates to raise a family within the Order. Practically unheard of, in fact. Breed males who looked to devote their lives to combat typically weren't the home-and-hearth types. But then Dante never had been one to color within the lines.

"Where is Dylan?" Tess asked.

Rio gestured toward the closed French doors across the room. "I made an ass of myself in there with her. I had a meltdown and I…ah, damn, I shattered a mirror. Some of the flying glass cut her cheek."

"You're still experiencing the blackouts?" Tess asked, frowning. "The headaches too?"

He shrugged, not wanting to discuss his own numerous problems. "I'm okay. Just…do what you can to take care of her, all right?"

"I will." Tess took a small black medical bag from Dante's hands. At Rio's questioning look, she said, "Since I've been expecting, my healing abilities have dimmed. I understand it's normal for pregnancy to draw a Breedmate's energy inward. It should come back once the baby is born. Until then, I'll have to rely on good old-fashioned medicine."

Rio cast a look over his shoulder at the bedroom. He couldn't see Dylan, but he figured she was in there needing to see someone kind and gentle. Someone who could patch her up and talk to her like a normal person. Reassure her that she was safe, among people she could trust. Especially after the spectacular display of raging psychotic-turned-lecherous freak he'd put on for her in there.

"It's okay," Tess said. "I'll take care of her."

Dante cuffed Rio in the biceps. "Come on. There's still an hour or so before dawn. You look like you could use some fresh air, my man."

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