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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twenty)

Being alone after Rio left had made Dylan restless as hell. Her mind was spinning, emotions churning. And she couldn't help thinking about her life back in New York. She had to let her mother know that she was all right at the very least.

Flipping on a lamp, Dylan padded into the bedroom and retrieved her cell phone from its hiding place. She'd practically forgotten about it since she arrived there, having taken it out of her pants pocket and stuffed it under the mattress of Rio's bed the first chance she'd gotten to ditch the thing for safekeeping.

She powered it up, trying to muffle the musical chime as the phone came alive. It was a miracle there was any juice left in the battery at all, but she figured the single bar of remaining power was better than nothing.

Voice mail waiting, the illuminated display informed her.

She had service again.

Oh, thank God.

The number for call-back on the first voice mail was a New York exchange – one of Coleman Hogg's office lines. She retrieved the message and wasn't a bit surprised to hear him sputter and curse about her rudeness in standing up his freelance photographer in Prague.

Dylan skipped the rest of his diatribe and went to the next message. It was her mom, received two days ago, just calling to check in and say she loved her and hoped she was having fun. She sounded tired, that feathery quality to her voice making Dylan's heart go tight in her chest.

There was another message from her boss. This time he was even more angry. He was docking her pay for the cameraman's fee, and he was considering the e-mail he'd received from her about taking extra time abroad to be her resignation. Effective immediately, Dylan was unemployed.

"Great," she muttered under her breath as she skipped to the next call.

She couldn't really get worked up over the loss of the job itself, but the lack of a paycheck was going to hurt real quick. Unless she found something better, something bigger. Something monumental. Something with real teeth…or fangs, as it were.

"No," she told herself sharply before the idea could fully form in her mind.

No way could she take this story public now. Not when she still had more questions than answers – when she had become a part of the story herself, bizarre as it was to think that.

And then there was Rio.

If she needed one reason to protect what she'd learned about another species existing alongside humankind, he was it. She didn't want to betray him, or put his kind at risk of any sort. She was past that, now that she was coming to know him. Now that she was coming to care for him, as dangerous as that might prove to be.

What happened between them a short while ago rattled her big-time. The kiss had been amazing. The feel of Rio's body pressed so intimately against hers had been the hottest thing she'd ever known. And the feel of his teeth – his fangs – grazing the fragile skin of her neck had been both terrifying and erotic. Would he really have bitten her? And if he had, what would it have done to her?

Based on how fast he bolted out of the room, she didn't expect she would ever have those answers. And really, she shouldn't feel so empty at the thought.

What she needed to do was get herself out of this place – wherever she was – and get back to her own life. Back to being there for her mom, who was probably going crazy with worry now that Dylan had been out of touch for three full days.

The next three incoming calls had been from the runaway shelter, all received yesterday and last night. There were no messages, but the close timing of them seemed to indicate some urgency.

Dylan hit the speed-dial button for her mom's house and waited as the phone rang unanswered on the other end. No answer on her mom's cell phone either. With her heart in her throat, Dylan brought up the number for the shelter. Janet picked up her mom's extension.

"Good morning. Sharon Alexander's office."

"Janet, hi. It's Dylan."

"Oh…hi, honey. How are you doing?" The question sounded oddly careful, as if Janet already knew – or thought she knew – that Dylan was probably not having a good day. "Are you at the hospital?"

"The what – no." Dylan's stomach sank. "What's going on? Is it Mom? What's wrong?"

"Oh, Lord," Janet breathed softly. "You mean, you don't know? I thought Nancy was going to call you…Where are you, Dylan – are you back home yet?"

"No," she said, hardly aware she was talking for the cold ache opening up her chest. "No, I'm, ah…I'm still out of town. Where's my mom, Janet? Is she okay? What's happened to her?"

"She'd been feeling a little run-down after the river cruise the other night, but yesterday afternoon she collapsed here at the shelter. Dylan, honey, she's not doing well right now. We took her to the hospital and they admitted her."

"Oh, God." Dylan's whole body felt numbed out, frozen in place. "Is it a relapse?"

"They think so, yes." Janet's voice was the quietest it had ever been. "I'm so sorry, honey."

Lucan hadn't been happy to be roused out of bed with Gabrielle in the middle of the day, but as soon as he heard the reason for the interruption, the Order's leader was all business, instantly snapped to attention. He'd thrown on a pair of dark jeans and an unbuttoned silk oxford, and came out to the corridor where Rio, Nikolai, and Chase waited.

"We're going to need Gideon to run some record checks," Lucan said, flipping out his cell phone and speed-dialing the warrior's quarters. He murmured a greeting and an abrupt apology for the intrusion, then gave Gideon the same news Rio and the others had just shared with him. As the four of them headed down the hallway toward the tech lab, Gideon's personal command center, Lucan finished up the short conversation and snapped the cell phone shut. "He's on the way. I sure hope like hell you're wrong about this, Rio."

"So do I," he said, no more eager than anyone else to consider the possibility.

It didn't take Gideon more than a couple of minutes to join the impromptu meeting. He came into the lab in gray sweats and a white muscle shirt, sneakers unlaced like he'd just shoved his feet into them and ran. He dropped ass into the wheeled swivel chair at his computer command center and started launching programs from several of the machines.

"Okay, we're sending feelers out to every reporting agency and Darkhaven resident bank, including the International Identification Database," he said, watching the monitors as data slowly began to scroll up on the screens. "Huh. That's odd. You said one of the two dead Gen Ones was out of Seattle?"

Nikolai nodded.

"Well, not according to this. Seattle came back with zip – no recent deaths reported. No record of a Gen One in their population at all, although that alone isn't completely unheard of. The IID's only been around for a few decades, so it's by no means thorough. We have a few of the Breed's eldest members catalogued, but the majority of the twenty or so Gen Ones still breathing tend to be a bit protective of their privacy. Rumor has it that more than a couple of them are bona fide recluses who haven't been near a Darkhaven for a century or more. I guess they feel they've earned some autonomy after about a thousand or more years of living. Ain't that right, Lucan?"

Lucan, himself aged around nine hundred and not in the IID register, only grunted in response, his gray eyes narrowed on the computer monitors. "What about Europe? Anything coming back on the Gen One that Reichen mentioned?"

Gideon banged out a lightning-fast sequence on his keyboard, burrowing into yet another secured software system like it was child's play. "Shit. Nope, nothing showing up there either. I gotta tell you, this level of silence is eerie as hell."

Rio had to agree. "So, if no one's reporting Gen One deaths, there could actually be more than just the two we know of so far."

"That's something we need to find out," Lucan said.

"How many Gen Ones are registered in the IID across all Breed locations, Gideon?"

The warrior ran a quick search. "I've got seven between the States and Europe. I'm sending the report of names and Darkhaven affiliations to the printer now."

When the single-page listing came off the laser, Gideon swiveled around and handed it to Lucan. He looked it over. "Most of these names are familiar to me. I know of a couple more that aren't listed. Tegan can probably come up with a couple more too." He put the list of data down on the meeting table so that Rio and the others could have a look. "Any Gen One names you see missing from that list?"

Rio and Chase shook their heads.

"Sergei Yakut," Niko murmured. "I saw him once in Siberia when I was a kid. He was the first Gen One I ever knew – hell, the only one, until I came to Boston and met Lucan and Tegan. Yakut's name is not on this list."

"You think you could find him if you had to?" Lucan asked. "Assuming he's not already some long years dead, that is."

Nikolai chuckled. "Sergei Yakut is one mean son of a bitch. Too mean for death. I'm willing to bet he's still alive, and yeah, I think I could probably locate him if he is."

"Good," Lucan said, his expression dark. "I want to get a handle on this fast. Just in case we are looking at a potential serial situation, we need to get names and locations of every Gen One in the population."

"I'm sure the Enforcement Agency knows of a few more than what we have here," Chase added. "I've still got one or two friends left over there. Maybe someone knows something or can point me to someone who does."

Lucan nodded. "Yeah. Check it out, then. But I know I don't need to tell you to keep your cards close when you're dealing with them. You may have a few friends in the Agency, but the Order sure as shit doesn't. And no offense to you, Harvard, but I trust those useless Darkhaven ass-kissers about as far as I can drop-kick them."

Lucan turned a serious look on Rio. "As for the other potential you brought up – that the Ancient may be revived and being used to breed a new line of first generation vampires?" He shook his head and exhaled a low curse. "Nightmare scenario, my friend. But it could very well be a solid one."

"If it is," Rio said, "then we'd better hope we get a lead on it soon. And that we're not a couple of decades behind the bastard."

It wasn't until after he'd said it that Rio realized he was using the word "we" when talking about the warriors and their goals. He was including himself in his thinking about the Order. More than that, he was actually starting to feel a part of the whole again – a functioning, valid member – as he stood there with Lucan and the others, making plans, talking strategy.

It felt good, in fact.

Maybe there still could be a place for him here after all. He was a mess and he'd made some mistakes, but maybe he could get back to what he was before.

He was still reaching out for that hope as a little beep started up on one of Gideon's monitoring stations for the compound. The warrior wheeled over to the computer, frowning.

"What is it?" Lucan asked.

"I'm picking up an active cell phone signal here in the compound – not one of ours," he replied, then looked over at Rio. "It's outbound, originating from your quarters."

Dylan.

"Holy fuck," Rio ground out, anger spiking – at himself and at her. "She said she didn't have one on her."

Goddamn it. Dylan had lied to him.

And if he'd had his eye on the ball like he should, he would have body-searched her from head to toe before he so much as thought about taking the female at her word.

A reporter with a cell phone in her possession. For all he knew she could be sitting in his apartments phoning in everything she'd seen and heard to CNN – exposing the Breed to the humans and doing it right under his fucking nose.

"There was nothing in her bags to indicate she had a cell with her," Rio muttered, a feeble excuse and he knew it. "Damn it, I should have checked her over."

Gideon typed something on one of his many control panels. "I can throw up some interference, shut down the signal."

"Do it," Lucan said. Then, to Rio: "We've got some loose ends that need to be snipped, my man. Including the one down the hall in your quarters."

"Yeah," Rio said, knowing Lucan was right. Dylan had a decision to make, and time was getting crucial now that the Order had other things to contend with.

Lucan put a hand on Rio's shoulder. "I think it's time I should meet Dylan Alexander personally."

"Janet – hello? I didn't get Mom's room number. Hello…Janet? Are you still there?"

Dylan pulled her cell phone away from her ear. Signal failed.

"Shit."

She held the device out in front of her and started pacing the room, looking for a spot where she might get a stronger signal. But…nothing. The damn thing was dead, just cut out on her even though the battery hadn't quite choked yet.

She could hardly think straight for the panicked drum of her pulse.

Her mom was in the hospital.

Relapse…Oh, God.

She narrowly resisted the urge to pitch the dead cell phone into the nearest wall. "Damn piece of shit!"

Frantic now, she headed out to the living room to try the call again –

And nearly jumped out of her skin when the apartment door flew inward like it had been blown open by a storm force gale in the corridor. Rio stood there.

And good Lord, he was pissed off.

"Give it to me."

His flashing amber eyes and emerging fangs put a knot of fear in her stomach, but she was pissed off too, and torn in pieces over her mother's turn for the worse. She needed to see her. Needed to get the hell out of this unreality she'd been kidnapped into and get back to the things that really mattered to her.

Jesus Christ, she thought, on the verge of losing it. Her mom was sick again, and alone in some city hospital room. She had to get there.

Rio strode into the room. "The phone, Dylan. Give it to me. Now."

It was then that she noticed he wasn't alone. Standing behind him in the corridor was a tank of a man – easily six-and-a-half feet tall, with a mane of black hair and an air of menace that belied his calm exterior. He hung back as Rio stalked inside and approached Dylan.

"Did you do something to my phone?" she demanded hotly, more than a little terrified of Rio and this new threat but too worried about her mom to care what might happen to her in the next minute. "What did you do, make it stop working? Tell me! What the hell did you do!"

"You lied to me, Dylan."

"And you fucking abducted me!" She hated the tears that suddenly ran down her cheeks. Almost as much as she hated her captivity and cancer and the cold ache in her chest that had opened up during her call to the shelter.

Rio put his hand out as he walked up to her. The man in the corridor prowled into the apartment now too. No question about it, he was a vampire – a Breed warrior, like Rio. His gray eyes seemed to penetrate her like blades, and in the same way an animal sensed a predator on the wind, Dylan sensed that where Rio was dangerous, this other man was exponentially more powerful. Older despite his youthful appearance. And more deadly.

"Who were you calling?" Rio demanded.

She wasn't about to tell him. She clutched the slim cell phone in her fist, but at that very instant she felt an energy force pulling at her fingers, prying them open. She couldn't keep them closed no matter how hard she tried. Dylan gasped as her cell phone flew out of her hand and onto the palm of the vampire now standing beside Rio.

"There's a couple of messages here from the newspaper," he announced darkly. "And several outgoing calls to other New York numbers. Residence of one Sharon Alexander, a cell number for the same, and a connected call to a blocked number in Manhattan. That's the one we shut down."

Rio swore vividly. "Did you tell anyone about us just now? Or about what you've seen?"

"No!" she insisted. "I haven't said anything, I swear. I'm no threat to you – "

"There is the matter of the pictures you distributed, and the story you sent to your employer," the dark one reminded her, the way you might remind the condemned of why they were heading for the gas chamber.

"You don't have to worry about any of that," she said, ignoring Rio's harsh scoff as she spoke. "That message from the newspaper? That was my boss, letting me know I was fired. Well, technically it was an involuntary resignation, on account of the fact I no-showed an appointment in Prague because I was busy being abducted."

"You lost your job?" Rio asked, slanting her a scowl.

Dylan shrugged. "It doesn't matter. But I doubt at this point my boss is going to use any of the pictures or the story I sent him."

"That's no longer a concern." The grim one stared at her like he was measuring her reaction. "By now the virus program we sent him should have wiped out every hard drive in his office. He'll be putting out that fire for the rest of the week."

She really didn't want to feel the least bit happy about that, but Coleman Hogg up to his quivering jowls in hard drive crashes was one tiny bright spot in an otherwise unbearable situation.

"The same virus went out to everyone you distributed those photos to," he informed her. "That takes care of any hard evidence leaks, but we still have to deal with the fact that several people are walking around with knowledge we can't afford to let them keep. Knowledge they could, willingly or unwittingly, pass on to others. So we need to remove that risk."

Something icy settled in Dylan's gut. "What do you mean…remove the risk?"

"You have a choice to make, Miss Alexander. Tonight you will either be relocated into one of the area's Darkhaven sanctuaries under the protection of the Breed, or you will be returned to your residence in New York."

"I have to go home," she said, no decision at all. She looked at Rio and found him staring at her, his face unreadable. "I have to get back to New York right away. Do you mean I'm going to be free to go?"

That hard gray gaze turned to Rio now, without giving her an answer. "Tonight you leave for Miss Alexander's home in New York. I want you to handle things with her; Niko and Kade can scrub the other folks she's been in contact with."

"No!" Dylan blurted. The ice in her stomach suddenly turned into a glacial sort of fear. "Oh, my God – no, you can't…Rio, tell him – "

"End of discussion," the dark one said, directing his attention at Rio, not her. "You'll leave at dusk."

Rio nodded solemnly, accepting the orders like it didn't faze him at all. Like he'd done this sort of thing a hundred times before.

"As of tonight, Rio, no more loose ends." The flinty eyes slid pointedly to Dylan, then back to Rio. "Not one."

As his terrifying friend departed, Dylan turned shakily to Rio. "What did he mean, remove the risk? No more loose ends?"

Rio glowered over at her darkly. There was accusation in that piercing topaz gaze, a scathing coldness and very little of the wounded, tender man she'd been kissing in this very room just a short time ago. She felt cold under the blast of that hard glare, like she was looking into the face of a stranger.

"I'm not going to let you or your friends hurt anyone," she told him, wishing her voice didn't falter as she said it. "I'm not going to let you kill them!"

"No one's going to die, Dylan." His tone was flat, so detached it was hardly reassuring. "We're going to take their memory of what they saw in your photographs, and of anything you might have told them about the Breed or the cave. We're not going to hurt anyone, but we need to scrub their minds of any recollection of those things."

"But how? I don't understand – "

"You don't have to understand," he said softly.

"Because I'm not going to remember either. Is that what you mean?"

He looked at her for a long moment in silence. She searched his face for some hint of emotion beyond the stony resolve he projected. All she saw was a man fully prepared for the task he'd been given, a warrior committed to his mission. And none of the tenderness she'd seen in him before, or the need she thought he'd felt for her, was going to stand in his way. She was a captive at his mercy. An inconvenient problem he intended to eliminate.

Rio's brows came together slightly as he gave a vague shake of his head. "Tonight you go home, Dylan."

She should be happy to hear it – relieved, at least – but Dylan felt oddly bereft as she watched him leave the room and close the door behind him.

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