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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twenty-three)

He hadn't expected her to run to him when she saw him standing there.

Now that Dylan was in his arms, her body trembling as she cried, Rio found himself at a complete loss. He'd worked up a healthy amount of anger and suspicion in the time it took him to track her across the city. His head was ringing from all the noise, and from the endless, overcrowded presence of humans everywhere he looked. His temples were screaming from the bright lights, all of his senses battering him from within.

But none of that mattered in the long moments he stood there, holding Dylan, feeling her shake with bone-deep fear and anguish. She was hurting, and Rio felt an overwhelming need to protect her. He didn't want to see her in pain like this.

Madre de Dios, but he hated seeing her this way.

He caressed her delicate back, pressed his mouth to the top of her head where it nestled beneath his chin, murmuring quiet words of reassurance. Feeble gestures, but all he could think to do for her.

"I'm so afraid I'm going to lose her," she whispered. "Oh, God, Rio…I'm terrified."

He didn't have to guess at who Dylan was talking about. The patient sleeping in the adjacent room had the same creamy coloring, the same fiery-hued hair as the younger version Rio was holding in his embrace.

Dylan tilted her tear-streaked face up at him. "Will you take me out of here, please?"

"I'll take you anywhere you want to go." Rio smoothed his thumbs over her cheeks, erasing the wet tracks. "Do you want to go home?"

Her sad little laugh sounded so broken, lost, somehow. "Can we just…walk for a little while?"

"Yeah. Sure." He nodded, tucking her under his arm. "Let's get out of here."

They walked in silence, down to the elevator and then out of the hospital to the warm night outside. He didn't know where to take her, so he just walked with her. A few blocks up from the hospital was a footbridge that led to the East River promenade. They crossed it, and as they strolled along the water's edge, Rio felt people staring at him as they passed on the walkway.

There were furtive glances at his scars, and more than one wondering look that seemed to question what he was doing with a beauty like Dylan. A damn good question, and one he didn't have a sensible answer for at the moment. He'd brought her into the city on a mission – one that sure as hell didn't allow for detours like this.

Dylan slowed at last, pausing at the iron rail to look over the water. "My mom got really sick last fall. She thought it was bronchitis. It wasn't. The verdict was lung cancer, even though she never smoked a day in her life." Dylan went quiet for a long moment. "She's dying. That's what she just told me tonight."

"I'm sorry," Rio said, drawing up next to her.

He wanted to touch her, but he wasn't sure she needed his consolation – wasn't sure she'd accept it. Instead he settled for touching a strand of her loose red hair, easier to pretend he was catching the errant tendril from blowing into her face on the light summer breeze.

"I wasn't supposed to be on that trip to Europe. It was going to be her big adventure with her friends, but she wasn't well enough to go so I took her place. I wasn't supposed to be there. I never would have set foot in that damn cave. I never would have met you."

"Now you wish you could undo it." He didn't ask the question, merely stated what had to be simple fact.

"I do wish I could undo it, for her. I wish she could have had her adventure. I wish she wasn't sick." Dylan turned her head and looked at him. "But I don't wish I could undo meeting you."

Rio was stunned silent by her admission. He brought his hand up to the soft line of her jaw, looking down into a face so fair and beautiful it stole his breath. And the way she was gazing up at him – as if he were a man worthy of her, a man she could love…

She exhaled a quiet, unsteady breath. "I would take it all back in a second, Rio. But not this. Not you."

Ah, Cristo.

Before he could tell himself it was a bad idea, Rio bent his head down and kissed her. It was a gentle meeting of their mouths, a tender brush of lips that shouldn't have made him burn like it did. He reveled in the sweet taste of her, in the way she felt so right in his arms.

He shouldn't want this so badly. He shouldn't feel this need, this tender affection that was kindling inside him every time he thought about Dylan.

He shouldn't be pulling her closer to him, splaying his fingers into the warm silk of her hair as he brought her deeper into his embrace, lost in her kiss.

It took him a long time to break it. But even after he lifted his head, he couldn't stop caressing her face. He couldn't let go of her.

A group of teenagers shuffled past them on the promenade, rowdy human boys in clothes several sizes too big for them, talking loudly and shoving at one another as they went. Rio kept his eyes on the youths, suspicion spiking as he watched the gang pause near the railing and take turns spitting over the edge. They didn't seem overtly dangerous, but they did appear to be the types perpetually ready for trouble.

"Demetrio?"

Rio glanced down at Dylan, confused. "Hmm?"

"Am I getting close? Your real name, I mean…is it Demetrio?"

He smiled, and couldn't resist kissing the freckled tip of her nose. "No, that's not it."

"Okay. Well, then, is it…Arrio?" she guessed, beaming up at him in the moonlight as she stepped slightly out of his arms. "Oliverio? Denny Terrio?"

"Eleuterio," he said.

Her eyes widened. "Ay-lay-oo-what?"

"My full name is Eleuterio de la Noche Atanacio."

"Wow. I guess that does make 'Dylan' seem a bit mundane, huh?"

Rio chuckled. "Nothing about you is mundane, I assure you."

Her smile was surprisingly shy. "So, what does it mean – a gorgeous name like that?"

"A loose translation would be 'he who is free and of the night everlasting.'"

Dylan sighed. "That's beautiful, Rio. My God, your mother must have adored you to give you an amazing name like that."

"It wasn't my mother's doing. She was killed when I was very young. The name came later, from a Breed family living in a Darkhaven in my homeland. They found me, and took me in as one of their own."

"What happened to your mother? I mean, you don't have to tell me if you don't – I know, I ask too many questions," she said, shrugging apologetically.

"No, I don't mind telling you," he said, finding it remarkable that he really meant that.

As a rule, he hated talking about his past. No one in the Order knew the details surrounding his awful beginnings, not even Nikolai, whom he considered his closest friend. There'd been no need to talk about it with Eva, since they'd met in the Spanish Darkhaven where Rio was raised and she knew his ignoble history.

Eva had politely chosen to ignore the ugly facts surrounding his birth and the years he'd spent as a foundling, killing because he had to, because he didn't know any better. The young savage he'd been before he was brought into the Darkhaven and shown how to live like something better than the animal he'd had to become in order to survive on his own.

Rio didn't want to see Dylan look upon him in fear or disgust, but a bigger part of him wanted to give her the truth. If she could look at his outward scars and not despise him, maybe she would be strong enough to see the ones that ruined him on the inside too.

"My mother lived on the outskirts of a very small, rural village in Spain. She was just a girl – perhaps sixteen – when she was raped by a vampire who'd gone Rogue." Rio kept his voice low to avoid being overheard, but the nearest humans – the group of adolescent thugs still amusing themselves several yards down the promenade – were paying no attention anyway. "The Rogue fed on her as he violated her, but my mother fought back. She bit him, apparently. Enough of his blood entered her mouth, and, subsequently, her body. Since she was a Breedmate, the combination of blood and seed resulted in a pregnancy."

"You," Dylan whispered. "Oh, God, Rio. How terrible for her to go through that. But at least she had you in the end."

"It was a wonder she didn't rout me out of her womb," he said, looking out at the black, glistening river and remembering his mother's anguish over the abomination she'd given birth to. "My mother was a simple country girl. She wasn't educated, not in the traditional sense, or in life matters. She lived alone in a cottage in the forest, cast out by her kin years before I came along."

"What for?"

"Manos del diablo," Rio replied. "They feared her devil's hands. You remember how I told you that all females born with the Breedmate mark also have special gifts…psychic abilities of some sort?"

Dylan nodded. "Yes."

"Well, my mother's gift was dark. With a touch and a focused thought, she could deliver death." Rio scoffed under his breath and held up his own lethal hands. "Manos del diablo."

Dylan was quiet for a moment, studying him in silence. "You have that ability as well?"

"A Breedmate mother passes down many traits to her sons: hair, skin, and eye color…as well as her psychic gifts. I think if my mother had known exactly what was growing in her belly, she would have killed me long before I was born. She did try at least once, after the fact."

Dylan's brow creased, and she gently placed her hand over his where it rested on the iron grate. "What happened?"

"It's one of my first vivid memories," Rio confessed. "You see, Breed offspring are born with small, sharp fangs. Right out of the womb, they need blood to survive. And darkness. My mother must have figured all of this out on her own, and tolerated it, because somehow I made it out of infancy. To me, it was perfectly natural to avoid the sun and to take my mother's wrist for nourishment. I think I must have been about four years old when I first noticed that she cried every time she had to feed me. She despised me – despised what I was – yet I was all she had."

Dylan stroked the back of his hand. "I can't even imagine how it must have been for you. For both of you."

Rio shrugged. "I knew no other way to live. But my mother did. On this particular day, with our cottage shutters bolted tight to ward off daylight, my mother offered me her wrist. When I took it, I felt her other hand come up around the back of my head. She held it there, and the pain jolted me like a bolt of lightning arrowing into my skull. I cried out and opened my eyes. She was weeping, great, terrible sobs as she fed me and held my head in her hand."

"Jesus Christ," Dylan whispered, her shock evident.

"She meant to kill you with her touch?"

Rio recalled his own marrow-deep shock when he made that same realization for himself – a child watching in terror as the person he trusted above all others tried to end his life. "She couldn't go through with it," he murmured flatly. "Whatever her reasons, she drew her hand away and ran out of the cottage. I didn't see her again for two days. By the time she came back, I was starving and terrified. I thought she'd abandoned me for good."

"She was afraid too," Dylan pointed out, and Rio was glad not to hear any trace of pity for him in her voice. Her fingers were warm and reassuring as she took his hand in her grasp. The hand he'd just told her could wield death with a touch. "The both of you must have felt so isolated and alone."

"Yes," he said. "I suppose we did. It all ended about a year later. Some of the village men saw my mother and took an interest in her, apparently. They showed up one day at the cottage while we were sleeping. There were three of them. They kicked in the door and went after her. They must have heard the rumors about her because the first thing they did was bind her hands so she couldn't touch them."

Dylan's breath caught in her throat. "Oh, Rio…"

"They dragged her outside. I ran after them, trying to help her, but the sunlight was intense. It blinded me for a few seconds that felt like an eternity while my mother was screaming, begging them not to harm her or her son."

Rio could still picture the trees – everything so green and lush, the sky so blue overhead…an explosion of colors he'd only seen in darker, muted shades when he was out in the safety of night. And he could still see the men, three large human men, taking turns on a defenseless female while her son watched, frozen by terror and the limitations of his five-year-old body.

"They beat her, calling her ugly things: Maldecido. Manos del diablo. La puta de infierno. Something snapped in me when I saw her blood run red on the ground. I leaped on one of the men. I was so furious I wanted him to die in agony…and he did. Once I understood what I'd done, I went after the next man. I bit him in the throat and fed on him as my touch slowly killed him."

Dylan was staring at him now, saying nothing. Standing there, so very still.

"The last one looked up and saw what I'd done. He called me the same things he called my mother, then added two more names I'd never heard before: Comedor de la sangre. Monstruo. Blood-eater. Monster." Rio exhaled a brittle laugh. "Until that moment, I didn't know what I was. But as I killed the last of my mother's attackers and watched as she lay dying in the sunlit grass, some knowledge buried deep within me seemed to come awake and rise up. I finally understood that I was different, and what that meant."

"You were just a child," Dylan said softly. "How did you survive after that?"

"For a while I went hungry. I tried feeding from animals, but their blood was like poison. I hunted my first human about a week after the attack. I was out of my mind with hunger, and I had no experience with finding my own food. I killed several innocent people those first few weeks I was on my own. I would have gone Rogue eventually, but then something miraculous happened. I was tracking prey in the woods when a huge shadow came out of the trees. It was a man, I thought, but he moved so fast and so stealthily I could hardly keep focus on him. He was hunting too. He went after the peasant I'd set my sights on, and with a grace I was sorely lacking, he brought the human down and began to feed from the wound he'd opened in the man's throat. He was a blood-eater, like me."

"What did you do, Rio?"

"I watched in fascination," he said, remembering it as clearly as if it had just happened a few minutes ago.

"When it was over, the human got up and walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. I was astonished, and when I drew in my breath, that's when the blood-eater saw me hiding nearby. He called me out and after hearing that I was alone, he brought me with him to his home. It was a Darkhaven. I met many others like me, and learned that I was part of a race called the Breed. As my mother had not seen fit to give me a name, my new family in the Darkhaven gave me the one I have now."

"Eleuterio de la Noche Atanacio," Dylan said, the words sounding far too sweet as she spoke them. Her hand, as she placed it tenderly on the scarred side of his face felt far too comforting. "My God, Rio…it's a miracle you're standing here with me at all."

She moved closer to him now, looking up into his eyes. Rio could hardly breathe as she rose onto her toes and tilted his chin down to meet her kiss. Their lips came together for the second time that night…and with a need that neither one of them seemed willing or able to conceal.

He could have kissed her forever.

But it was at that precise moment that the quiet promenade erupted in a sudden cacophony of gunfire.

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