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Midnight Rising (Chapter Thirty-six)

Nearly a week had passed since Rio brought Dylan back with him to the Order's compound in Boston…back to the home he hoped to make for them with her forever at his side.

He was still healing from the gunshot wound in his shoulder. Tess had tried to speed the mending of his skin after the bullet had been extracted, but as she'd feared, the power of her healing touch was hampered almost entirely by the baby growing in her womb. She wasn't able to help Rio, nor would she have been able to help Dylan's mother.

The funeral for Sharon Alexander had taken place two days ago in Queens. Rio had gone back to New York with Dylan the night before the service – as had the rest of the Order and their Breedmates, in a show of support for the newly mated pair. It pained Rio that he couldn't be at Dylan's side as her mother was laid to rest that sunny summer afternoon, but he was glad for the company that Tess, Gabrielle, Savannah, and Elise were able to provide for her in his place.

Dylan had been brought into the fold like she'd always belonged there. The other Breedmates adored her, and as for the warriors, even Lucan had been impressed with Dylan's willingness to roll up her sleeves and offer her help to the Order. She'd spent the better part of the day in the tech lab with Gideon, poring through IID records and missing persons reports out of the Darkhavens in an effort to identify Breedmates who'd come to her from the afterlife.

Now, as evening approached and the Order was soon to head out on patrols, all of the compound's residents were gathered around the large dining room table in Rio's quarters. As the women shared a meal, the warriors covered Order business and planned the night's missions. Nikolai was soon to be heading out to meet with the Gen One he knew, in the hopes of getting his help to track down the source of the recent slayings.

As for Gerard Starkn, the Order hadn't been surprised to find his New York residence vacant when they'd raided it a few nights ago. The bastard had cleared out entirely, leaving no clues about the double life he'd been leading as Gordon Fasso, AKA the son of Dragos, and zero trace of where he might have fled after his clash with Rio at the Croton dam. A search of the area near the dam had yielded nothing, but Rio and the others weren't about to give up.

There was much yet to be done in the Order's quest to stop the evil Dragos was sowing, but Rio could think of none better to have on his side than the group seated with him now. He glanced around at the faces of his brethren and their mates – his family – and felt a surge of pride, and of deep, humbling gratitude, that he was a part of them once more. For always.

But it was when he turned to look at Dylan that his heart squeezed as if it were caught in a warm fist.

It was she who'd brought him back from the brink. She'd pulled him out of an abyss he never thought he'd escape. Her nourishing blood gave him strength, but it was the boundless gift of her love that truly made him whole.

Rio reached over and took Dylan's hand in his. She smiled as he lifted her fingers to his mouth and kissed them, his eyes locked onto hers. He loved her so deeply, could hardly stand to be away from her now that she was with him. Knowing that she awaited him in his bed every night upon his return from patrol was both a torment and a balm.

"Be careful," she whispered to him, as he and the other warriors prepared to suit up for their missions.

Rio nodded, then pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly.

"Jesus," Nikolai said around a wry chuckle as everyone else began to disperse. "Get a room, you two."

"You're standing in it," Rio shot back, still holding on to Dylan. "How long before we go topside?"

Niko shrugged. "About twenty minutes, I'd guess."

"Long enough," Rio said, turning a hungry look on his woman.

She laughed and even blushed a little, but there was a definite spark of interest in her eyes. As Nikolai made a hasty exit and closed the door behind him, Rio took Dylan by the hand.

"Just twenty minutes," he said, soberly shaking his head. "I'm not sure where to begin."

Dylan arched a brow at him as she started inching toward the bedroom. "Oh, I think you'll figure it out."

Dylan was amazed at just how thoroughly Rio used those twenty minutes.

And when he returned from patrol much later that night, he'd set out to amaze her even more. He'd made love to her for hours, then wrapped her in his strong arms as she drifted off to sleep. She wasn't sure exactly when Rio had left their bed, but it was his absence that woke her about an hour before dawn. She drew on his thick terry robe and padded out of the apartment, following the buzzing in her veins that would lead her to her blood-bonded mate.

He wasn't in the compound or the mansion that sat above it on ground level. He was outside, in the garden courtyard behind the estate. Dressed in just a pair of black warm-ups, Rio was seated on the wide marble steps that spread out to the manicured lawn, watching a small bonfire a few yards out on the grass. Next to him was a box of framed photographs and a couple of the bright abstract paintings taken from the walls of his quarters.

Dylan looked out at the fire and saw the distorted shapes of more of his belongings slowly being consumed by the flames.

"Hey," he said, obviously sensing her as she approached him from behind. He didn't look back at her, just stretched his arm out to the side, waiting for her to take his hand. "I'm sorry if I woke you."

"It's okay." Dylan wrapped her fingers around his. "I don't mind being up. I missed your warmth."

As she spoke, he pulled her into a tender hold next to him. He circled her thighs with his arm and simply held her there, his gaze still fixed on the fire. Dylan glanced down into the box beside him, seeing the pictures of Eva and a few of the two of them together in happier times. Eva's artwork was in the container, as were some of her clothes.

"I woke up a while ago and realized I needed to clear out a few things that no longer belong in my life," he said.

His voice was calm, not angry or bitter. Just…resolved.

Rio seemed to be in a state of true peace; her sense of it registered all the way into her veins as he embraced her in silence, watching the fire dance on the lawn.

"For the past year, I've hated her," he said. "With every breath in my body, I prayed she was burning in hell for what she did to me. I think my hatred for Eva was the only thing that kept me alive. For a long time, it was the only thing I could feel."

"I know," Dylan said softly. She tunneled her fingers into his thick hair, caressing his head as he rested his cheek against her hip. "But it was Eva who led me to you on that mountain. She cared about you, Rio. I think in her own misguided way, she loved you very much. In life, she made some terrible mistakes trying to keep you all to herself. She did some terrible things, but I think she wishes she could correct them in death."

Rio slowly stood up, still keeping a hold on her as he rose to his feet beside her. "I can't hate her anymore, because she brought me to you. And not just that day up there in the cave. Eva was in my car the night Dragos took you."

Dylan frowned. "You saw her?"

"I was still hours outside of New York, knowing that if Dragos had you, I'd never be able to reach you in time. Cristo, the fear that went through me at the very thought – " He broke off and pulled her closer to him. "I was on the highway, driving as fast as I could, praying like hell for some kind of miracle. Anything to give me hope that I wasn't going to lose you. That's when I heard her voice beside me. I looked over and there she was – Eva, in the car with me. She told me where Dragos had taken you. She gave me the location of the dam, told me to trust her. I didn't know if I could – not ever again – but I also knew that it could be my only hope of finding you. Without her, I would have lost you. She could have told me I'd find you in the middle of a raging inferno and I would have gone in after you. She could have betrayed me again, led me into another ambush, and I would have gone, just for the hope of finding you alive."

"But she didn't," Dylan said. "She told you the truth."

"Yes. Thank God."

"Oh, Rio." Dylan rested her cheek against his chest, hearing the heavy pound of his heart as if it were her own. She felt his love pour into her as warm as sunshine, a love she sent back to him tenfold. "I love you so much."

"I love you too," he said, then tipped her chin up and kissed her, long and slow and sweet. "I'm going to love you forever, Dylan. If you'll have me, there's nothing I want more than to spend every day – and night – of my life loving you."

"Of course I'll have you," she told him, reaching up to smooth her fingertips over his cheek. She smiled slowly and with seductive promise. "I'll have you every day and night of my life…and in every way imaginable."

Rio growled deep in his throat, a spark of amber lighting in his gaze. "I like the sound of that."

"I hoped you would." She smiled up into his face, a face she would never tire of seeing, especially when he was looking at her with so much tender devotion in his eyes it left her breathless.

She glanced down at the box of Eva's personal effects, then out at the bonfire. "You know you don't have to do this. Not for me."

Rio shook his head. "I'm doing it for both of us. Maybe I'm doing it for her too. It's time to let go of everything that happened before. I'm ready to do that now…because of you. Because of the future I see with you. I'm done looking back."

Dylan nodded gently. "Okay."

Rio picked up the box and looked to her to accompany him to the fire. They walked together, silent as they neared the undulating flames.

With a soft push, Rio sent the box of pictures, art, and clothing into the middle of the bonfire. It roared to life for a brief moment, shooting a spray of sparks and smoke high into the dusky periwinkle sky.

In a thoughtful silence, Dylan and Rio watched the fire burn for a while, until the flames grew less hungry, their fuel spent. When it was just smoke and embers, Rio turned to Dylan and brought her into his arms. He held her close, whispering a quiet prayer of gratitude next to her ear.

And in the rising smoke from the dying bonfire behind him, Dylan watched over his broad shoulder as an ethereal, feminine shape took form between the flurry of floating ash.

Eva.

She smiled a bit sadly as she watched the two of them embrace. But then she gave a slow nod to Dylan and gradually faded away.

Dylan closed her eyes as she wrapped her arms around Rio and buried her face in the solid warmth of his chest. After a little while, her cheek rumbled with the vibration of his voice.

"About that 'having me every way imaginable' promise of yours," he said, clearing his throat. "You want to explain some of what you had in mind?"

Dylan looked up at him and smiled, her heart overflowing with love. "Why don't I show you instead?"

He chuckled, the tips of his fangs already starting to emerge. "I thought you'd never ask."

THE END

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