Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER SIXTEEN)

SENATOR BOBBY CLARENCE had been a good Catholic apparently, but an even better politician. The church he'd shrewdly joined fresh off the bus from Bangor as a first-year law student at Harvard was only the largest, most prestigious in Boston. Some fifty years ago, this same church had mourned a parishioner who was more famously a beloved fallen human president, a fact that Dragos guessed had played a role in the ambitious young Clarence's decision to join its flock. Although the bachelor senator had no immediate family, outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross that cold early afternoon, police were directing traffic to accommodate the crowd of funeral attendees waiting to get one of the two thousand seats at his service. The line of mourners stretched from the pair of red double doors at the entrance, out to the bricked sidewalk and around the large corner lot on which the massive neo-Gothic cathedral sat.

Dragos sat inside his idling, chauffeured sedan about a block down the street, impatient for the service to begin. He was risking a great deal, venturing out during daylight hours. Even with the precautions he'd taken – UV-blocking wraparound sunglasses, a brimmed hat made of dense, boiled wool, and a generous length of knit scarf to shield his neck and head – his nearly pure Breed genes were a liability here. Being second generation of his kind, he could withstand less than a half hour in direct sunlight before his solarsensitive skin began to cook.

But some risks were to be expected.

Some things, he supposed, were worth a little pain.

He'd endured his share already, thanks to the Order. The killing of his Minion senator so soon after Dragos had turned him had been inconvenient to say the least. It still grated to have lost the human before his full potential could have been realized. But then again, Dragos's plans wouldn't have waited the handful of years it might have taken Bobby Clarence's political star to complete its natural, some might say inevitable, ascent to the White House.

Dragos certainly had intended to help clear the way by any means necessary.

But fuck that. Bobby Clarence would soon be dust, and Dragos had better options to pursue.

Assuming those options played into his hands as he expected.

"What time do you have?" Dragos asked his Minion driver for what hadn't been the first time.

"Ten minutes before two, Master."

Dragos hissed a curse against the dark-tinted glass of his backseat window. "He's late. The service will be starting soon. Any sign of a Secret Service motorcade up ahead? Any federal vehicles anywhere at all yet?"

"No, Master. Shall I drive around the cathedral to have a better look?"

Dragos dismissed the suggestion with a curt wave of his gloved hand. "Forget it. He may already be inside. I need to go in before it gets any later. Drive toward the rear of the place, away from all the commotion and prying eyes. I'll find a way in through the back."

"Of course, Master."

The Minion eased the sedan around the corner to inspect the perimeter of the cathedral. As Dragos had hoped, there was an unimportant little nook that provided service and staff access to the monstrous building. The waist-high wrought-iron gate stood open, nothing but a couple of small Dumpsters and a parked car sitting on the poorly patched asphalt. Two red doors provided a couple of choices in terms of entry.

"Over there." Dragos pointed to the one farthest back, where the afternoon shadows and a peaked eave provided a pocket of shade amid the glare of the afternoon sun. The Minion brought him in front of the door. Organ music vibrated from all around the building, a holy place unaware it was about to usher in the launch of Dragos's unholy war. He stepped out of the car. "Wait at the curb until I summon you. This shouldn't take long."

The Minion gave him an obedient nod. "Yes, Master."

TAVIA RACED INTO THE HOUSE, leaving Aunt Sarah out at the curb taking care of the cab fare, since her own money – like her medicine – was left behind in her pocketbook the other night at the hotel. She felt on the verge of relieved collapse as the familiarity of home greeted her. All of Aunt Sarah's soft, ruffle-edged furniture and assorted knickknacks on every available surface, the very things that had long ago begun to make Tavia yearn for a place of her own, with her own belongings arranged to her own taste, now felt as comfortable and welcome as the cocooning warmth of a fleece blanket.

The house felt normal.

It felt solid and real, when just a short while ago, she'd been sure she was trapped in some kind of harrowing, inescapable dream.

As she took a seat at the kitchen table, a gust of wintry air blew across the floor from behind her as Aunt Sarah came back into the house. "Where have you been all this time, Tavia? Don't you know I've been worried sick about you?"

Tavia pivoted on the chair to face the older woman, feeling nothing but glad for the concern that radiated in from her wringing hands and wide, desperate brown eyes.

"The police were here yesterday," she informed Tavia in a questioning voice, her hands fisted on her hips. "They told me if I heard from you, I needed to call them right away. Of course, I thought you were with them. Isn't that what you told me? When we spoke last, you said you were staying at a hotel downtown to help the police with their investigation."

God. The police-arranged hotel suite seemed like a hundred years ago now. Everything that happened since that night seemed like it had occurred over the span of a lifetime. All she wanted was to put it behind her and get on with the life she knew. This life, the only one she wanted. "You've never lied to me before, Tavia. It's going to break my heart if you're keeping something from me now, after all these years …"

"No." Tavia took her aunt's nervous hands in a light grasp and guided her to the chair next to her at the little table. "I wouldn't lie to you, but a lot of very strange things have been happening lately. Terrible things, Aunt Sarah. The gunman from the senator's holiday party – he broke out of police custody and killed Senator Clarence."

"I know," the older woman murmured. "It was all over the news. There's a manhunt under way for him all across New England."

Tavia shook her head at the futility of that notion. "They'll never get him. Even if the police find him and take him in, they won't be able to keep him behind bars. He'll just break out again. He's more dangerous than anyone can possibly imagine."

Aunt Sarah was frowning now, her gaze searching. "Where did you get these clothes? And where's your pocketbook? I was so relieved to see you, I didn't even think to ask why you didn't have money to pay the taxi driver …"

Tavia kept talking, even as her aunt's voice trailed off. "He can't be dealt with like a normal criminal. He can't be dealt with like a human, because he's not. He's not human."

"You look positively peaked, dear." Aunt Sarah reached out and touched her fingertips to Tavia's forehead, then clucked her tongue as she picked up one of her hands and clasped it between her smooth, cool palms. Her skin felt like wax against Tavia's significantly warmer touch. "Are you feeling queasy right now? When was the last time you took your medications?" "Goddamn it, will you please stop fussing and listen to me!"

The older woman went immediately silent, her eyes fixed on Tavia now. Guarded and uncertain.

"That man, he broke into the hotel suite just a little while after I called you, Aunt Sarah. He killed a police officer and he incapacitated two federal agents. Then he came into the room where I was, and he took me away."

Aunt Sarah seemed somehow stony now, not breaking into the hysterical fretting that was her usual reaction to everything where Tavia was concerned. Her brown eyes unblinking, scrutinizing, she was serious and contemplative in her calm. "Did he touch you, Tavia? Did he do … anything to you? Did he hurt you?"

Tavia had a hard time answering that. He didn't physically harm her, even though the threat had seemed very real when it was happening. "He brought me someplace – to where he used to live, I guess. He tied me up. He kept asking me questions about who I was. He didn't seem to believe anything I told him."

There was a long silence as her aunt watched her speak, absorbing the weight of her words. Then: "What did you tell him, Tavia?"

She shrugged, gave a slow shake of her head. "I told him I was no one, that I just wanted to go home. I told him I was very sick and that I left my medicines back at the hotel – "

Aunt Sarah drew a sharp breath over that bit of news. "You haven't taken them since two full nights ago?" She stood up. "I have to call Dr. Lewis right now. He'll need to come here to the house and give you an emergency treatment."

Tavia grabbed her hand and held her in place. "Aunt Sarah, something very strange happened to me today. I can't begin to make sense of it …"

She pulled up the long sleeve of her hoodie, baring her forearm. The markings there were back to their normal color now, just faintly darker than her own skin tone.

"What is it?" her aunt asked, peering at her uncovered arm. "Tell me what to look for. Are your scars giving you pain? Because Dr. Lewis can prescribe something for that, I'm sure – " "They're not scars," Tavia murmured. She ran her fingers over the webwork of swirls and arcs, feeling nothing unusual. "I don't know what they are, but just a little while ago, these markings were all different colors. They were … I don't know how to explain it. They were … alive somehow."

Aunt Sarah was staring at her, not at the markings on her arm but deep into her eyes. "They look perfectly ordinary to me, sweetheart. I don't see anything wrong."

"No," Tavia said. "Neither do I. Not anymore." Which made her wonder once again – made her hope desperately – that the transformation she thought she'd experienced had just been a bizarre hallucination. "What about my eyes, Aunt Sarah? How do they look to you?"

"The same pretty green as always," she answered gently. "But those dark circles under them concern me very much. You need rest and you need your medication."

"And my teeth?" she pressed. "Nothing strange there?"

As Aunt Sarah's look turned pitying, Tavia ran her tongue over the line of her teeth, finding only her usual slight overbite. Her canines were in alignment with the rest of her mouth, no fangs jutting down from her gums.

"I'm going to call Dr. Lewis now, okay?" the older woman said, speaking to her like she was a moron. And really, that shouldn't come as a surprise, given the outlandish things that had just come out of her mouth. "I have more of your medicines in the hall closet. You stay right here, and I'll get you some to take while we're waiting for the doctor. Does that sound all right to you, Tavia honey?"

She nodded as she was left alone in the kitchen, weary of all that had happened, whether it was some jarring new reality or manufactured completely in her mind.

She wasn't about to bring up the sex. That, she was sure, had happened. And she thought better about mentioning the blood on her body too, even if some of it might help substantiate her ordeal. Telling Aunt Sarah about that would only prompt a full body scan – or worse, an examination of her person by Dr. Lewis and his icy hands and implements.

"Here you are now." Aunt Sarah hurried back in with a handful of brown prescription bottles. She set them down in front of Tavia then went to the sink to fill a glass with water. "Go on, take them. You'll feel better; you know that."

Tavia shook out the various tablets and capsules that made up her thrice-daily meds regimen. She washed them down with a big gulp of water, shuddering as the knot of pills and the cold liquid cascaded into her body. "I need a shower," she murmured, winding down quickly now that she was back on familiar ground. "I'm so thirsty and tired."

"Of course you are." Aunt Sarah helped her get to her feet. "You freshen up and get some rest. I'm calling the doctor right now. I'm sure he'll be here within the hour."

CHASE CLEANED THE BLOODSTAINS from the bedroom floor as best he could, although he didn't know why he bothered. The Darkhaven hadn't been lived in for more than a year, and he sure as hell had no reason to step foot in it ever again. Nothing but bad memories and shame within these walls.

And today, with what happened between Tavia and him, he'd added the cherry on top.

Figuratively, if not literally.

"Jesus, way to fuck things up." He bunched up the wad of wet paper towels, taken from a yellowing roll he'd found in the kitchen, and pitched them into the bathroom trash with the bandage wrappers and bent needle from his earlier self-stitchery.

As he passed the sink, his gaze snagged on the silver vial of Crimson. He picked it up, held it for a moment. Rolled the slender container in his palm. Considered ripping out the wax-sealed cork and flushing the poisonous contents down the toilet.

But his hand refused to give the damn thing up.

Less a lifeline than a swift means to a certain end, this last existing dose of Crimson was a crutch he dreaded he might need – maybe sooner than later.

Still midafternoon and his blood thirst was clawing at him already again, if it had ever truly left him. He wasn't sure anymore. The cold, constant ache was becoming a part of him. How long before it owned him completely?

Considering how close he'd come to taking a bite out of Tavia's neck today, his descent into Bloodlust was getting slipperier all the time.

Just the thought – and the reminder of how incredible it had felt to be inside her – made him hard all over again, his blood surging through his veins like lava in its rush to head south. All the worse when he was still torqued from the release he'd interrupted in order to prevent himself from sinking his fangs into her throat as his orgasm had begun to crest.

The urge to free himself into his hand now and work her out of his system was one he didn't even attempt to resist. The vial of Crimson fisted in the hand he braced against the black granite countertop, he took his shaft in the other and furiously pumped it off into the sink. He came on a rough shout that was more about relief than pleasure.

With his release went some of the edge that was riding him, but the greater need still lingered. And now that he'd had a small taste of Tavia Fairchild, he knew better than to think he could be trusted anywhere near the female.

There had been a time – a million years ago, it seemed – when he'd been all about restraint and honor. He'd held himself to exacting standards and high ideals, dismissive of anything less than perfection. Like his father and brother before him, he'd been an impeccable enforcer of Breed law, merciless when it came to those who could not keep themselves or their own selfish needs in check.

What he'd been in truth was a self-righteous prick who'd considered himself leagues above the rest of the unwashed masses, his own kind and human alike.

What a fucking joke.

He had somehow become the thing he'd despised the most. And even worse, he'd dragged an innocent, frightened young woman into the mess along with him.

She was probably spilling everything to the cops by now. Maybe the news outlets as well. Just another mess he'd made that would have to be cleaned up quickly. He shouldn't have let her run out like she had. There was too much that needed explaining. Too many things that she needed to know in order to understand what she truly was.

A Breed female.

Not only that, but a Breed female with Gen One dermaglyphs and the inexplicable ability to walk unharmed in broad daylight.

Holy. Hell.

The thought hadn't lost any of its impact on him. If anything, it was more astonishing to think that she actually existed. Deeply disturbing to imagine the only way that could be possible. Dragos had made her.

The bastard had to have created her in one of his labs, playing God with genetics – something the Breed had long decried as the worst kind of blasphemy within the race. Babies were sacred, not science. Everyone knew that. Everyone within the Breed subscribed to that simple tenet. But not Dragos.

His secret breeding labs had produced a Gen One army of homegrown assassins, so why not this?

But what was his intention with her? It seemed obvious now that Tavia had been unaware that she was anything other than human. Her true nature, and its physical manifestations, had been somehow suppressed. By medications? Was her professed "sickness" actually her body struggling to deny the part of her that was Breed?

"Jesus Christ," he hissed, making a quick cleanup of himself and the basin. The Order needed to be informed ASAP.

The problem there was he didn't even know where they were, or how to reach them. He'd made himself persona non grata with Lucan and the rest of the warriors. Worn out his welcome, possibly for good.

But he did know someone who might be willing to intervene. Someone who might be willing to take Tavia Fairchild under his protection as well. God knew Chase was a poor candidate for that duty.

Which meant he was going to have to call in a big favor – possibly the last he had coming to him – from his former Enforcement Agency colleague Mathias Rowan.