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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twenty-eight)

Rio didn't trance Dylan for the ride back to Boston.

Despite sidelong looks from Nikolai and Kade in the front of the SUV that suggested he was an idiot to break protocol on that, Rio couldn't treat Dylan with anything but total faith. He knew he was taking one hell of a gamble that she could be trusted with the location of the Order's headquarters, even though he wasn't sure how long – or in what capacity – she'd be staying with him there, but he did trust her.

Hell, more than that, he was pretty damn sure he loved her.

He kept that stunning realization to himself, however, seeing very clearly that Dylan was anxious about leaving her mother alone in New York. Each mile they traveled closer to Boston, he felt her heart beat a bit faster. He didn't need to be bonded to her by blood to feel the tang of indecision rolling off her body in waves as she rested quietly against him in the backseat, her gaze fixed on the blur of scenery speeding past the tinted windows.

She didn't want to be here.

Rio didn't doubt that she felt some affection toward him. After tonight, he knew she did. And he had to believe that under different circumstances, she wouldn't feel so much like she wanted to bolt from the moving vehicle and race back home to New York.

"Hey," he murmured next to her ear as Niko swung the Rover into the gated drive of the compound. "We're going to figure all of this out, okay?"

She gave him a small smile, but her eyes were sad. "Just hold me, Rio."

He drew her farther into his embrace and pressed his lips to hers in a tender kiss. "I won't let anything bad happen. I promise you that."

He wasn't entirely sure how he could make good on a sizable vow like that, but seeing the look of hope in Dylan's eyes as she gazed up at him, damn if he wouldn't make it his life's mission to see the promise through, whatever it took.

The SUV rolled through and headed for the Order's secured fleet garage. Rio hated to let go of Dylan as the car came to a stop inside the hangar.

"Home, sweet home," Kade drawled, opening the passenger door and climbing out.

Nikolai shot Rio a look over the front seats. "We're gonna head down to the lab. Should we tell Lucan and the others you'll be around shortly?"

Rio nodded. "Yeah, right behind you. Give me ten minutes."

"You got it." Niko glanced to Dylan. "Listen, I'm really sorry about your mother. That's got to be tough. There just are no adequate words, you know?"

"I know," she murmured. "But thank you, Nikolai."

Niko held her gaze for a moment, then he clapped his palm on the seatback. "Okay. See you below, my man."

"Tell Lucan I'm going to be bringing Dylan in on the meeting."

Both she and Niko threw looks of surprise in his direction. Outside the Rover, Kade exhaled a wry curse and started laughing under his breath like Rio had lost his mind.

"You want to bring a civilian into a meeting with Lucan," Niko said. "A civilian he fully expects that you scrubbed tonight, like he told you to do."

"Dylan saw something tonight," Rio said. "I think the Order ought to hear about firsthand."

Nikolai considered him in silence for a very long time. Then he nodded like he could see that Rio wasn't going to budge on this. Rio could tell that his old friend realized that Dylan was not merely a civilian, or a mission Rio had failed to execute. By the glint of the warrior's wintry blue eyes, Rio could see that Niko understood just how much Dylan had come to mean to him. He understood, and based on the crooked smile that tugged at the corner of his mouth, he approved.

"Shit, amigo. Yeah. I'll tell him what you said."

As Niko and Kade strode off to the compound's elevator together, Rio and Dylan got out of the Rover and headed in a couple of minutes behind them. Hands linked, they took the elevator down the three-hundred-foot descent to the Order's headquarters.

It felt strange to walk the labyrinth of secured corridors and not feel like he had for the long months following the explosion – like a lost beast left to roam its lair without place or purpose.

Now, he had both, the heart of which could be summed up in one word: Dylan.

"Will you be comfortable talking about what you saw in that hospital room tonight?" he asked her as they traveled the corridors. "Because if you'd rather not, I can do it for – "

"No, it's fine. I want to help, if you think I can."

He stopped her in the long stretch of white marble hallway, not far from the glass walls of the tech lab where his brethren would be waiting.

"Dylan, what you did for me tonight – giving me your blood, staying with me when you had every right to leave me there and never look back…Everything that happened between us tonight, I want you to know that it meant something to me. I am…"

He wanted to say that he was falling in love with her, but he hadn't said those words in so long – hadn't believed he would ever mean them again, let alone mean them as deeply and honestly as he did now. He stumbled over the admission, and the awkward pause made the chasm seem even wider.

"I am…grateful to you," he said, settling on the other emotion that was filling his heart when he looked at her. "I don't know that I can ever repay you for all that you gave me tonight."

Some of the light seemed to dim from her eyes as she listened to him. "Do you think I would ask you to repay me?" She shook her head slowly. "De nada. You don't owe me anything, Rio."

He started to say something more – some other feeble attempt to explain what she had come to mean to him. But Dylan was already walking ahead of him.

"Shit," he hissed, raking his hand through his hair.

He caught up to her a few paces up the corridor, just in time to hear Lucan's voice boom through the glass of the tech lab.

"What the fuck do you mean, he's bringing her in with him? My man had better have a goddamn good reason for bringing that reporter back into this compound."

Any irritation Dylan had felt toward Rio for his polite gratitude was dwarfed by the dread that ran cold in her veins when she heard the Order's leader bellow in outrage. She didn't want to think she needed Rio's protection, but the presence of his broad palm coming to rest at the small of her back as they entered the meeting room full of eight grim-faced, combat-garbed vampire warriors was the only thing that kept her knees from quaking beneath her.

Dylan's eyes made a quick scan of the menace she faced: Lucan, the dark-haired one in charge, was obvious. He'd been with Rio earlier today, laying down the curt instructions that she be taken back home to New York and mind-scrubbed like her mom, her boss, and her friends.

Beside Lucan at an impressive command center of more than half a dozen computer workstations and twice as many monitors was a Breed male with spiky blond hair that looked like it had been raked into a state of total anarchy on the top of his head. He glanced at Dylan from over the tops of thin rectangular sunglasses with pale sky blue lenses. Of all of the warriors gathered there, this one seemed the least threatening, even though he was easily more than six feet tall and had a body as lean and fit and muscular as the others.

"This is Dylan Alexander," Rio announced to the group. "I'm sure by now you've heard all about what happened in Jicin, with the cave, and the pictures Dylan took of what was inside."

Lucan crossed his arms over his chest. "What I'd like to know is why you apparently ignored mission directives and brought her back with you tonight. She may be a Breedmate, but she's a civilian, Rio. A civilian with media contacts, for fuck's sake."

"Not anymore," Dylan interjected, speaking for herself before Rio was forced to defend her. "My media contacts, such as they were, are gone. And even if they weren't, you have my word that I would never willfully pulge any of what I know to the outside world. I wish I'd never taken those pictures or written that story. I am truly sorry for anything I've done to put the Breed at risk of exposure."

If they believed her, none of them gave any clear indication of that. The rest of the Order stared at her from where they were seated at a large conference table, like a jury measuring the convicted. Niko and Kade were there, sitting next to a black warrior with a skull-trim and shoulders that would dwarf the biggest NFL linebacker. But if that guy looked menacing, the one across the table from him was even more intimidating. With shoulder-length tawny hair and shrewd, jewel-green eyes, the warrior looked like he'd seen – and likely done – it all…and then some.

He watched Dylan with a narrowed, studying gaze, as did the remaining two males in the room – a cocky-looking warrior polishing a rather nasty pair of curved blades, and a military-type with a tight buzz cut, chiseled chin and cheekbones, and grim, steel blue eyes.

Rio's arm came around her shoulders. It was a light embrace that made her feel safe, as if she wasn't standing alone before this dangerous cadre of combat-trained warriors. Rio supported her, perhaps her sole ally in the room.

He trusted her. Dylan could feel that trust in the warmth of his body, and in the tender way he looked at her as he addressed his brethren.

"You all are aware of Dylan's discovery of the hidden cave on that mountain, but you haven't heard exactly how it was that she was able to find it." Rio cleared his throat. "Eva showed her the way."

A rumble of disbelief – even blatant hostility – rolled through the room. But it was Lucan's voice that rose above them all.

"Now you're telling us she's somehow connected to that traitorous bitch? Just how the hell is that possible when Eva's been dead for the past year?"

"Dylan saw Eva's ghost that day on the mountain," Rio said. "That is Dylan's special ability, to see and hear the dead. Eva appeared to her and guided her to me up in that cave."

Dylan watched the warriors absorb that bit of news. She could see from nearly every hard face in the room that Eva had no friends among them. And no wonder, considering what she'd done to Rio. What she'd done to them all through her betrayal.

"Tonight Dylan saw another dead female," Rio said.

"She saw another Breedmate, actually. This time the apparition appeared in her mother's hospital room. The dead girl said something I think you're all going to want to hear."

He turned to Dylan and gave her a nod to continue the explanation herself. She met the grave stares and carefully relayed everything Toni's spirit had told her, line for line, recalling every word in case it might help make sense of the warning from the Other Side.

"Jesus Christ," said the warrior over at the bank of computer equipment as Dylan finished speaking. He raked his fingers over his scalp, further mussing the cropped blond spikes. "Rio, remind me again what you said the other day about someone potentially breeding another population of first generation Breed vampires?"

Rio nodded, and the grim look on his face put a chill in Dylan's spine. "If the Ancient has been awakened successfully from its hibernation, what's to say it's not procreating? Or being made to procreate?"

As Dylan listened to them talk, pieces of a puzzle she'd been mulling over for the past several days – ever since she set foot in that cave – now clicked into place in her mind. The hidden crypt with its open tomb. The strange, otherworldly symbols on the walls. The unshakable sense of evil that permeated the dark cavern, even though its original occupant was gone…

The cave had been a holding tank – a hibernation chamber, just like Rio had inadvertently told her.

And the dangerous creature that had been sleeping inside it was now loose somewhere.

Breeding.

Killing.

Oh, God.

From across the long table, Nikolai shot a frown in Rio's direction. "With the last of those alien savages back in the baby-making business, the question then would be, how long has he been going at it?"

"And on how many Breedmates," Lucan added soberly. "If we truly have a scenario here where Breedmates are being captured and held somewhere, and, in at least a few cases, killed, then I hate to even consider where this could be heading. Gideon, you wanna run a check on Darkhaven records, see if there are any missing persons reports on Breedmates over the past decade or so?"

"On it," he replied, hitting the keyboard and firing off what appeared to be multiple searches on multiple computers.

The warrior at the conference table who looked like something out of Soldier of Fortune , spoke up next. "Well, nothing short of a miracle, but the Enforcement Agency's Regional Director has actually agreed to a meeting tonight. You want me to mention this newsflash from the dead Breedmate to Director Starkn?"

Lucan seemed to ponder the idea, then he gave a vague shake of his head. "Let's hold off on that for now, Chase. We're not sure precisely what we're looking for yet, and we'll be upsetting the Agency's apple cart bad enough when we tell them we think the population's few remaining Gen Ones are being targeted for assassination."

Chase nodded in agreement.

As the group began talking amongst themselves, Lucan walked over to speak with Rio and Dylan privately.

"I appreciate the information," he told her. "But as valuable as it may prove to be, this compound is no place for a civilian." He glanced at Rio, those silvery eyes studying him closely. "She was given a choice and she made it. You know we can't permit her to stay. Not as a civilian."

"Yeah," Rio said. "I know that."

Lucan waited, obviously tuned in to the fact that something intimate had passed between Dylan and Rio. He cleared his throat. "So, if you've got something to tell me, my man…"

Through the lengthy silence that answered, Dylan unconsciously held her breath. She didn't know what she was waiting for Rio to say: That he was prepared to challenge Lucan's rule? That he loved her and would fight to keep her at his side, no matter what the rest of the Order thought of her?

But he didn't say anything like that.

"I need to talk to Dante," he told Lucan. "And I need to talk to Tess. There's something important I need to ask her."

Lucan considered him through narrowed eyes. "You know what I expect, Rio. You let me know if anything changes."

"Yeah," Rio replied.

When Lucan turned and strode back to converse with Gideon, Rio lifted Dylan's chin on the edge of his hand. "I promised you that I was going to try to help your mother," he reminded her gently. At her nod, he went on. "I don't know if it can be done, but before we can talk about you and I, that question needs to be answered. I know I can't ask you to stay with me when you're hurting to be near your family. I wouldn't ask that of you."

Hope flickered in her chest. "But do you…want to ask me to stay with you?"

He caressed her cheek, smoothing her hair back behind her ear. "God, yes. I want that, Dylan, very much."

Rio bent his head down and kissed her, right there in front of the other warriors. It was brief but so, so sweet. When he drew back, Dylan felt the eyes of the Order on her – on both of them. But it was Rio's eyes that held her spellbound. They were heated with desire and tender affection, the huge irises flashing with sparks of amber light.

"Let me take you back to my quarters and get you something to eat. I have to talk to Dante and Tess, but I won't be long."

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