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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twelve)

She didn't expect to see him in her room first thing that morning.

Dylan came out of the guest suite's spacious shower and dried off with one of the half dozen luxurious towels folded neatly on a built-in shelf in the bathroom. She rubbed out most of the water from her hair, then threw on the last of her clean clothes from her bag. The layered double camisoles and drawstring capris were rumpled, but it wasn't like she had anyone to impress. Barefoot, her damp hair clinging to her bare arms, she opened the bathroom door and padded out to the main room.

And there he was.

Rio, seated in the chair near the door, waiting for her to come out.

Dylan stopped short, startled to find him there.

"I knocked," he said, a strangely considerate thing, coming from her kidnapper. "You didn't answer, so I wanted to make sure you were all right."

"Seems like I should be asking you the same thing." She cautiously walked farther into the main area of the suite. Although there was no reason she should be concerned about the man who was holding her against her will, she was still rattled by what she'd heard in the other room a few hours ago. "What happened to you last night? You sounded like you were in pretty bad shape."

He didn't offer an explanation, just stared at her from across the dim room. Looking at him now, she had to wonder if she'd imagined the whole thing. Dressed in a dove gray tee-shirt and tailored charcoal pants, his dark hair perfectly swept back from his face, he looked well rested and relaxed. Still his broody man-of-few-words self, but less on edge somehow. In fact, he looked as though he'd slept like a baby for a full night straight, while Dylan herself felt like roadkill after lying awake speculating about him since the predawn hours.

"You might want to tell your friends that they need to fix the timer on the blinds in here," she said, gesturing to the tall window that should be bathing the room with daylight but was instead blocked by the remote-controlled window shades. "They opened on their own last night, then closed before sunrise. Functionality's a bit backward, don't you think? Nice view, by the way, even in the dark. What lake is that out back – the Wannsee? It's kind of big to be the Grunewaldsee or the Teufelssee, and based on all the old trees surrounding this place, I'm guessing we have to be somewhere near the Havel River. That's where we are, right?"

No reaction from the other side of the room, except for a slow exhale as Rio watched her with dark, unreadable eyes.

He'd brought her breakfast. Dylan strolled over to the squat table and dainty sofa in the center of the parlor area, where a bone china plate containing an omelette, sausage links, roasted potatoes, and a thick slab of toast waited. There was a glass of orange juice, coffee, and a starched white linen napkin tucked beneath a gleaming set of real silver flatware. She couldn't resist the coffee as she wandered over to have a look at everything he brought her. She dropped two sugar cubes into the cup, then poured in enough whole cream to turn the coffee a light shade of tan, sweet and milky, just the way she liked it.

"You know, apart from the incarceration portion of my stay, I have to admit that you folks certainly know how to treat your hostages."

"You're not a hostage, Dylan."

"No, a prisoner is more like it. Or does your kind , as you put it, prefer a less obvious term – detainee, maybe?"

"You are none of those things."

"Well, great!" she replied with mock excitement. "Then when can I go home?"

She didn't really expect him to answer. He leaned back in the chair and crossed his long legs, one ankle propped on the opposite knee. He was thoughtful today, like he wasn't quite sure what to do with her. And she didn't miss the fact that as she took a seat on the sofa and began nibbling at the buttered toast, his gaze lingered hotly on her body.

Not to mention her throat.

She flashed back to what he'd said to her several hours ago: I can smell you, Dylan, and I want to taste you. I want you…

She definitely had not imagined that. The words had been playing in her mind, practically over and over, since he'd growled them at her through the door. And as he watched her so closely now, with a broody interest that was all male, Dylan could hardly breathe.

She dropped her gaze to her plate, suddenly very self-conscious.

"You're staring at me," she murmured, the silent scrutiny driving her crazy.

"I'm merely wondering how it is that an intelligent woman like you would choose the line of work you're in. It doesn't seem to fit you."

"It fits well enough," Dylan said.

"No," he said. "It doesn't fit at all. I've read some of the articles on your computer – including a few of the older ones. Articles that weren't written for that rag that employs you."

She took a sip of her coffee, uncomfortable with his praise. "Those files are private. I really don't appreciate you excavating my hard drive like you own it."

"You wrote a lot about a murder case in upstate New York. The pieces I read on your computer were a few years old, but they were good, Dylan. You are a very smart, compelling writer. Better than you may think."

"Jesus," Dylan muttered under her breath. "I said those files are private."

"Yeah, you did. But now I'm curious. Why did that particular case matter so much to you?"

Dylan shook her head and leaned back from her breakfast. "It was my first assignment fresh out of college. A little boy went missing in a small town up north. The police had no suspects and no leads, but there was speculation that the father might have been involved. I was hungry to make a quick name for myself, so I started digging into the guy's history. He was a recovering alcoholic who never held a steady job, one of those class-act dead-beat dads."

"But was he a killer?" Rio asked soberly.

"I thought so, even though all the evidence was circumstantial. But in my gut, I was sure of his guilt. I didn't like him, and I knew if I looked hard enough I'd find something that pointed to his guilt. After a few false leads, I ran across a girl who'd babysat for the kids. When I questioned her for my story, she told me she'd seen bruises on the boy. She said the guy beat his kid, that she'd even witnessed it personally." Dylan sighed. "I ran with all of it. I was so eager to get the story out there that I didn't fully check my source."

"What happened?"

"Turns out the babysitter had slept with the guy and had some personal axe to grind. He was no Father of the Year, but he never laid a hand on his son, and he sure as hell didn't kill him. After I was fired from the newspaper, the case blew apart when DNA evidence linked the boy's death to a man who lived next door to him. The father was innocent, and I took an extended leave from journalism."

Rio's dark brows arched. "And from there you ended up writing about Elvis sightings and alien abductions."

Dylan shrugged. "Yeah, well, it was a slippery slope."

He was staring again, watching her with that same thoughtful silence as before. She couldn't think when he was looking at her like that. It made her feel exposed somehow, vulnerable. She didn't like the feeling one bit.

"We'll be leaving tonight, as I mentioned yesterday," he said, breaking the awkward silence. "You'll have an early dinner, if you like, then, at dusk, I'll come back to prepare you for travel."

That didn't sound good. "Prepare me…how?"

"You can't be allowed to identify this location, or the one we're traveling to. So tonight before we leave, I will have to place you in a light trance."

"A trance. As in, hypnotize me?" She had to laugh. "Get real. Anyway, that kind of stuff never works on me. I'm immune to the power of suggestion, just ask my mother or my boss."

"This is different. And it will work on you. It already has."

"What're you talking about, it already has?"

He gave a vague shrug of his shoulder. "How much do you recall of the trip from Prague to here?"

Dylan frowned. There wasn't much, actually. She remembered Rio pushing her into the back of the truck, then darkness as the vehicle started rolling. She remembered being very frightened, demanding to know where he was taking her and what he intended to do with her. Then…nothing.

"I tried to stay awake, but I was so tired," she murmured, trying to recall even another minute of what had to have been several hours of travel and coming up blank. "I fell asleep on the way here. When I woke up I was in this room…"

The small curve of his lips seemed a bit too self-satisfied. "And you'll sleep again this time until I want you awake. It has to be this way, Dylan. I'm sorry."

She wanted to make some crack about how ludicrous this whole situation was sounding – from the vampire bullshit he'd tried to feed her yesterday, to this nonsense about trances and traveling to secret locations – but suddenly it didn't seem very funny to her. It seemed impossibly serious.

It suddenly seemed all too real.

She looked at him sitting there, this man who was unlike any other man she'd ever known, and something whispered in her subconscious that this was no joke. Everything he'd told her was true, no matter how unbelievable it might sound.

Dylan's gaze fell from his stoic, unreadable face to the powerful arms that were crossed over his thick chest. The tattoos that snaked around his biceps and forearms were different from the last time she'd seen them. Lighter now, just a few shades deeper than his olive skin tone.

Yesterday the ink in them had been red and gold – she was sure of it.

"What happened to your arms?" she blurted. "Tattoos don't just change colors…"

"No," he said, glancing down at the now-subtle markings. "Tattoos don't change colors. But dermaglyphs do."

"Dermaglyphs?"

"Naturally occurring skin markings within the Breed. They pass down from father to son and serve as an indicator of an inpidual's emotional and physical states." Rio pushed up the short sleeves of his tee-shirt, baring more of the intricate pattern on his skin. Beautiful, swirling arcs and geometric, tribal designs tracked all the way up onto his shoulders and disappeared under his shirt.

"Dermaglyphs functioned as protective camouflage for the forebears of the race. The Ancients' bodies were covered from head to foot. Each generation of Breed offspring is born with fewer, less elaborate glyphs as the original bloodlines dilute with Homo sapiens genes."

Dylan's head was spinning with so many questions, she didn't know which one to ask first. "I'm supposed to believe that not only are you one of the undead, but that the undead can reproduce?"

He scoffed mildly. "We're not undead. The Breed is a very long-lived, hybrid species that began thousands of years ago on this planet. Genetically, we are part human, part otherworlder."

"Otherworlder," Dylan repeated, more calmly than she could believe. "You mean…alien? To be clear here, you're talking about vampire aliens. Am I getting that right? Is that what you're saying?"

Rio nodded. "Eight such creatures crashed on Earth a long time ago. They raped and slaughtered countless humans. Eventually, some of those rapes were done on human females who could sustain the alien seed and carry it to term. Those women were the first known Breedmates. From their wombs, the first generation of my kind – the Breed – took root."

Everything she was hearing bordered on the knife's edge of pure, delusional insanity, but there was no mistaking the sincerity of Rio's tone. He believed what he was saying, one hundred percent. And because he was so gravely serious, Dylan found it hard to dismiss him.

To say nothing of the fact that she could personally vouch that the marks on his skin, whatever they were and wherever they had truly come from, had done something that defied all logic. "Your dermaglyphs are just a little darker than your skin color today."

"Yes."

"But yesterday they were a mix of red and gold because – "

"Because I needed to feed," he said evenly. "I needed blood very badly, and it had to be taken directly from an open human vein."

Oh, Jesus. He really was serious.

Dylan's stomach lurched.

"So, you…fed last night? You're telling me that you went out last night and you drank someone's blood."

He gave only the slightest incline of his head. There was remorse in his eyes, some kind of private torment that made him seem both lethal and vulnerable at the same time. He was sitting there, seemingly intent on convincing her that he was a monster, but she'd never seen a more haunted expression in all her life.

"You don't have fangs," she lamely pointed out, her mind still rejecting what she was hearing from him. "Don't all vampires have fangs?"

"We have them, but they're not normally prominent. Our upper canines lengthen with the urge to feed, or in response to heightened emotion. The process is physiological, much like the reaction of our dermaglyphs ."

As he spoke, Dylan carefully watched his mouth. His teeth were straight and white and strong behind his full, sensual lips. It didn't look like a mouth meant for savagery, but for seduction. And that probably made it all the more dangerous. Rio's beautifully formed mouth was one that any woman would welcome on her own, never suspecting it could turn deadly.

"Because of our alien genes, our skin and eyes are hypersensitive to sunlight," he added, as calmly as he might discuss the weather. "Prolonged ultraviolet exposure is deadly to all of the Breed. That's why the windows are shaded during the day."

"Oh," Dylan murmured, feeling her head bob like that made perfect sense.

Of course they had to block out UV light. Any idiot knew that vampires incinerated like tissue paper under a magnifying glass if you left them out in the sun.

Now that she was thinking about it, she'd not once seen Rio out in daylight. In the mountain cave, he was protected from the sun. When he'd tracked her from Jicin to Prague, it had been late evening, total darkness. Last night, he'd gone out to hunt prey but obviously had made sure he was back before dawn.

Get a grip, Alexander.

This man was not a vampire – not really. There had to be some better explanation for what was going on here. Just because Rio sounded calm and reasonable didn't mean he wasn't completely deranged and delusional. A total nutjob. He had to be.

What about the other people in this high-rent estate? Just more vampire fantasists like him, who believed they descended from a solar-allergic alien race?

And here she was, the unwitting participant, abducted and held captive against her will by a wealthy, blood-drinking cult who believed she was somehow linked to them by virtue of a simple birthmark. Hell, it sounded like a story that was tailor-made for a tabloid front page.

But if anything Rio had said was true…?

Good Lord, if there was anything real about what she'd just heard, then she was sitting on a news story that would literally change the world. One that would alter reality for every human being on the planet. A chill ran up her spine when she considered how important this could be.

"I have a million questions," she murmured, venturing a glance across the room at Rio.

He nodded as he got up from the chair. "That's understandable. I've given you a lot to absorb, and you'll be hearing even more before it's time for you to decide."

"Time for me to decide?" she asked, watching as he strode over to the door to leave. "Wait a second. What am I going to have to decide?"

"Whether you become a permanent part of the Breed, or go back to your old life with no knowledge of us at all."

She didn't eat the breakfast Rio brought her, and the dinner he delivered later that day sat untouched too. She had no appetite for food, only a gnawing hunger for answers.

But he told her to save her questions, and when he came back in to inform her that it was time for the two of them to leave, Dylan felt a sudden rush of trepidation.

A gate was being thrown open before her, but it was dark on the other side. If she looked into that darkness, would it consume her?

Would there be any turning back?

"I don't know if I'm ready," she said, held in the mesmerizing snare of Rio's eyes as he came toward her in the room. "I'm…I'm afraid of where we're going. I'm afraid of what I'm going to see there."

Dylan looked up into the handsome, tragic face of her captor and waited for some words of encouragement – anything to give her hope that she would come out of this all right in the end.

He didn't offer any such thing, but when he reached out and placed his palm to her brow, his touch was gentle, incredibly warm. God, it felt so good.

"Sleep," he said.

The firm command filtered through her mind like the soft rasp of velvet over bare skin. He wrapped his other arm around the back of her, just as her knees began to sway. His hold on her was strong, comforting. She could melt into that strength, she thought, as her eyes drifted closed.

"Sleep now, Dylan," he whispered against her ear. "Sleep."

And she did.

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