Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN)
Tegan came in, still dressed in his winter coat and weapons, fresh off his return from Boston. "Don't mean to interrupt."
Lucan shrugged and pushed aside the lab intel analyses Gideon had given him earlier that night. He hadn't even read the damn things yet, had just been sifting through the papers on autopilot for the past hour, glad for the excuse to shut himself away from the rest of the compound to wrestle with his thoughts. Grave, disturbing thoughts that probably weren't going to see any improvement, if Tegan's serious look was any indication. "How'd it go?"
"Could've been worse." Tegan arched a tawny brow. "Chase and the woman are both outside with the others."
"No resistance from him?" Lucan could hardly believe that.
"Oh, he resisted. Or would have, if Renata hadn't dropped him on his ass with a shot of instant obedience training."
"Shit," Lucan grumbled, raking a hand over his tense jaw. "And the female?"
Now Tegan's shrewd green eyes glinted with an ironic light. "Tavia Fairchild is everything Rowan told us she'd be – and then some. She's Breed, all right, and Gen One besides. No damn doubt about that. Got the glyphs and fangs to prove it."
"I'm not sure I want to know how you were able to confirm that."
Tegan grunted and shook his head. It took an awful lot to put the Gen One warrior in a state of awe, but there was no mistaking the amazement in his low voice. "You should've seen her, man. The instant Renata opened up on Chase with her mind zap, Tavia came out of nowhere, spitting venom and ready to take on all four of us at once." He exhaled a wry curse. "Maybe I should have let her try, just to see what she was capable of in raw, Gen One form. With training and a bit more time to get used to herself in her new skin, I think she could be one hell of an asset to us."
"She's not staying," Lucan said, already hating the idea that yet another civilian – and a female besides – was under the Order's roof. One more innocent life placed in his hands. A life unlike any other, if the facts about Tavia Fairchild's origins were even close to the truth. "I agreed to bring her in because we can't afford to let anyone connected to Dragos run loose and unchecked on the streets right now. She's here to provide whatever intel we can glean from her and to cool her heels until we ash that son of a bitch Dragos once and for all. Soon as we have what we need, she's going back to Rowan or a safe house somewhere. Either way, she's out of here ASAP."
"You gonna tell that to Chase?"
Lucan's dark look was met with a cool stare. "Ah, Christ … Harvard and her – "
Tegan inclined his head in confirmation. "Appears so. If the move she pulled, coming to his defense at Rowan's wasn't enough to convince me, the ride north only confirmed it."
"You talking sex, or sex and a blood bond between them?"
"That I don't know," Tegan admitted. "Harvard looks like shit, but he's keeping it together for the most part. I tested him on the way up, and I gotta say, I was surprised to see he passed. If not by much. No mistaking the feral vibe coming off him, but there was a new restraint about him that I haven't seen in a long time."
Lucan considered for a moment. "You think he needs solitary?"
"I think if we put him in a hole, that might just push him straight over the edge. Right now, Tavia seems like the only thing holding him together, and even that's precarious."
"Jesus." Lucan leaned back in his desk chair and blew out a long sigh. "Like things aren't bad enough around here. Harvard's outside, you say?"
Tegan nodded. "Hunter and Niko are keeping an eye on him while I headed down here to talk with you."
"And the female?"
"She's meeting the welcome wagon right now. Looks like we got back to base just in time. Everyone's about to head in with Dante and Tess for Xander's presentation ceremony." Lucan's brow furrowed. "That's tonight?"
But, shit, of course it was. Gabrielle and the other Breedmates had been making preparations for the ritual for days now, trying to give Tess and Dante's son a proper introduction into the world despite the chaos that surrounded them. As leader of this household, Lucan would be the one officiating as tonight Xander Raphael would be officially presented to his kith and kin, and his godparents would publicly pledge themselves to his upbringing, should tragedy take Dante and Tess before he reached adulthood.
The ritual was steeped in tradition and honor among the civilian Darkhaven populations, more pomp than practical necessity. But it took on heavier meaning here, under the Order's roof, where combat and war could claim any one of their members on any given night.
Lucan stood up, unaware he was gritting his teeth until he heard the sharp grate of his jaws. His hands were fisted at his sides, knuckles white as bone.
Tegan's gaze narrowed on him. "What's going on with you?"
When Lucan started to stalk toward the door, Tegan stepped in front of him. "Nothing, my ass. I don't need to touch you for an emotional well-check to know that something's got you freaked out. I don't think it's got anything to do with Chase or this new wrinkle Tavia Fairchild has caused. I don't even think it's got much to do with Dragos." The warrior stared harder at Lucan now, as though he could see right through him. "What's going on with you and Gabrielle?" Lucan felt his chin go up in defense, a cold spark shooting through his veins. "Has she said anything to you? To Elise? What the fuck have you heard, Tegan?"
Tegan shook his tawny head. "Haven't heard a thing. But I pay attention. She's walking around lately like there's a hole in her heart, and you look like you're about to lose your best friend."
Shit. He wanted to deny it, but there was little point trying to dodge Tegan now. Not when Lucan's face had to be telling Tegan how right he actually was. "I'm fucking things up with her. I knew when that female first came into my life that she deserved someone who could give her a life worthy of her. A safe life, a happy life. Not this endless upheaval and war."
Tegan narrowed a look on him. "Gabrielle's never struck me as the kind to go into anything with her eyes closed. When she chose you, she did it knowing exactly what she was getting into. Everyone under this roof knows there's nothing you wouldn't do for her."
"Except give her a son." Lucan felt the words slip out of his mouth before he could bite them back. Much as it killed him to admit it, he was glad his guilt was finally out there. Keeping it inside had been a festering sore that only bored deeper into his soul every second he held it back. "That's what she wants from me, Tegan – a child. And I can't give it to her. Not now. Not when I know this war with Dragos could eventually rip our son from her arms. And not when I can't see a clear future that isn't swamped with violence and corruption. This is no goddamn time to be bringing another innocent life into the world."
Tegan had gone very quiet now. Studying Lucan. Reflecting on something deep inside himself. Finally he gave a mild shrug. "Maybe it isn't, Lucan. Then again, maybe there's never been a better time. Maybe right now we all need a little hope."
Lucan stared, dumbstruck, realization dawning on him as subtly as a freight train. "You and Elise?"
"Yeah." Tegan's chuckle burst from him, full of a mystified wonder that Lucan had never heard in the warrior. Not in the five long centuries the two had known each other.
"Goddamn, T. Congratulations." He reached out and clapped his palm to his friend's thick shoulder, then pulled him into a brief, brotherly embrace. "How far along is she?"
Tegan's smile only deepened. "Not long. She conceived just a few nights ago."
Lucan thought back to the recent crescent moon phase, the brief cycle of fertility for blood- bonded Breedmates. While he was pushing Gabrielle away, Tegan and Elise were making a new life together.
Although Lucan was rife with shame for the fear that had kept him from sanctifying his own bond with Gabrielle, he couldn't deny his goodwill for Tegan and his beloved mate. "A Breed child couldn't hope for better, more loving parents. I mean that, my friend. I am truly happy for you and Elise."
The warrior nodded solemnly. "Knowing our son is on the way only gives me more cause to make this world a better place. For all our sons, Lucan."
He wanted to agree, to say he felt the same hope for the future none of them could predict, but Lucan's tongue stayed cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Tegan nodded. He understood. He, of all the warriors of the Order – down the many centuries since its original formation – knew the dread that was eating Lucan up inside.
Tegan knew it – he had to feel it himself – and yet he'd found the strength to put aside his fear and take an enormous leap of faith.
Lucan wanted to believe he had that in him too.
But the dread was an ache that refused to let him go.
TAVIA HAD NOT BEEN at all prepared for the familial atmosphere that greeted Chase and her on their arrival at the Order's headquarters. Based on the weapons and combat attire of their escorts out of Boston, she'd expected more of the same once she stepped inside the stone-and- timber fortress where they lived.
But it felt like a home more than the military-style bunker she'd anticipated. She could even see a roaring fire on the hearth of the great room just off the foyer and an enormous pine, trimmed with handmade ornaments, festive ribbon bows, and popcorn garlands. She didn't know what packed the bigger punch: the homespun Christmas vibe of the place, or the fact that she was standing in the midst of half a dozen heavily armed vampires and their mates yet had never felt more welcome or at ease.
Renata had made quick introductions for her while Nikolai and Hunter kept a close eye on Chase across the foyer. Tavia marveled at the beautiful women who were mated to some of the members of the Order: Dylan, with her mane of fiery red hair and peachy freckles; Alex, an athletic brown-eyed blonde with a quick, friendly smile; petite Corinne, whose long ebony hair and delicate features might have made her seem fragile if not for the steely resolve in her greenish-blue gaze; and Jenna, the human female Tavia had heard about on the drive north.
The pretty brunette had come into the foyer just a moment ago, leaning just a little on the arm of her mate, Brock. The towering Breed male's dark face was drawn with unmistakable concern, all of it focused on her.
"How'd it go tonight?" Renata asked the pair after they'd had the chance to meet Tavia. "Any luck with Claire and the dream-walking?"
Jenna gave an eager nod. "We got something new this time. I'm not sure what it means yet, but Claire and I documented everything. As awful as it was to be in the nightmare – to be living it like my own memories – I also can't wait to go in again and try to bring back something more." Beside her, Brock emitted a quiet growl and muttered something about hardheaded females.
Jenna wrapped her arms around him and gazed up into his dread-filled eyes.
"He worries," she told Tavia and the others, giving him a private smile.
"He loves you," the big warrior quipped right back, his voice as solemn as his gaze.
"Tavia, can I look at your glyphs?" The abrupt request came from Mira, a child of about eight or nine years who'd been among the first to greet Tavia on her arrival and had been watching her with rapt interest ever since.
"Mouse," Renata admonished her, shaking her head in exasperation. "Manners, young lady." "Sorry." The flaxen-haired imp huffed out a remorseful sigh. "Tavia, may I please look at your glyphs?"
"That's not exactly what I meant, Mouse." Renata's expression was as mortified as any mother of a precocious child, even though her voice held a tinge of amusement. "It's not polite to ask something like that of someone. Or to stare."
"No," Tavia replied. "It's okay, really. I don't mind."
She inched up the sleeve of her sweater and let the child peer at the web of skin markings that tracked all around her arm. It didn't take long for the other children – teen boys, one a lanky ginger-haired youth and another, whose head was shorn to his glyph-covered scalp and whose face showed no emotion whatsoever – to drift over and have a look as well.
"These are real dermaglyphs," said the first boy, his hazel gaze suspicious under the fall of his drooping bronze hair. "So, you're really Breed, then?"
Tavia nodded. "Apparently, I am."
Mira rolled her violet-hued eyes. "I told you so, Kellan. He didn't believe me."
The boy shot her a sullen look. "I wanted to see it for myself, that's all."
"You said you needed proof, like you thought I was trying to trick you or something." There was a note of hurt in her tone. "How come you never believe anything I say?"
Kellan looked uncomfortable under the public accusation. When he finally spoke, his voice was quietly defensive. "It's stupid to take anyone on faith alone."
"Even your friends?"
He didn't answer, and while their argument faded into a silent standoff, the other boy, who was still studying Tavia's glyphs, moved closer. He had pushed up his own sleeve, revealing a similar pattern that swept around the lean muscles and tendons of his forearm.
His name was Nathan, and aside from his introduction as Corinne's son, the inscrutable young teen was a mystery. Tavia watched his long-lashed eyes take in her skin markings, cataloging them, one by one. He was serious and strangely detached, seeming vastly older than his years and nothing like any other boy she'd ever seen before.
When he glanced up at her, head cocked to the side, his blue-green eyes pierced her with the cool dispassion of a blade. "You are Gen One. Born in Dragos's laboratory."
"So was I."
The softly voiced confession sparked an instant kinship in her, and Tavia felt the absurd urge to hug the child who'd also been a victim of Dragos's evil. She wanted to talk with Nathan some more, ask him about his experience with the monster who created them, but the hauntedness of his gaze deepened, then was shuttered behind his dark lashes and gone altogether when he looked up at her again.
At that same moment, from a room down the corridor, Tegan and another warrior emerged and strode into the gathering in the foyer. Simply by breathing, the dark-haired male with Tegan commanded attention and respect, and there was no question that he was the leader of the Order, even before Tegan introduced him as such.
"Lucan, this is Tavia Fairchild."
She accepted the warrior's large hand and felt herself immersed in the stormy scrutiny of Lucan's shrewd gray eyes as he clasped her fingers in a firm, callused hold. "Mathias Rowan has filled us in on the basics, but I'm sure you understand we'll have questions for you now that you're here."
"Of course. Whatever I can do," she replied. "I need some answers myself."
He gave her a grim nod as he released her hand. "Until then, you'll be staying here, under the Order's protection. That means you remain on the grounds of this property at all times, and you make contact with no one beyond these walls without my express permission."
"Okay." It sounded a lot like imprisonment, but it was hard to balk at the offer when she had so few other options. Besides, she'd lived the first part of her life in one form of prison; now at least she had the truth. And she had Chase too. She felt him near her now, his presence behind her a warm comfort despite his radiating tension like a furnace.
Lucan sent a measuring look over her shoulder at him. "Unfortunately, we're in tight quarters and down to the last unclaimed room – "
"I don't need it." Chase's reply was dark and defensive, despite the negligent shrug that accompanied it. "I'm sure there's a locked cell with my name on it somewhere in here." "That'll depend on you, Harvard."
"And we can figure all of this out later." The smooth female voice came from behind the group in the foyer, turning all heads her way. Tavia glanced at the auburn-haired beauty whose soulful brown eyes were fixed on Lucan alone. She was his mate; the palpable energy connecting the pair left no doubt. "You must be Tavia," she said, stepping forward to greet her with a welcoming smile. "I'm Gabrielle."
Gabrielle moved over to Lucan and twined her fingers through his. "Tess and Dante are waiting in the sanctuary with the others. Are you coming?"
Lucan inclined his head, brushing the back of his hand gently along the slope of her cheek. Such a simple gesture, and yet there was so much devotion in his eyes, it stole Tavia's breath. "Whatever you want, love. I mean that. As you just said, we can figure the rest out later." She stared up into his gaze for a long moment, a question hanging between them unspoken. Then a tender smile broke across her face, warm and joyful and meant for him alone. As they embraced quietly, Mira came over and took Tavia's hand in hers. "Come on. You have to meet the baby."
"The baby?" Tavia glanced to the rest of the women for explanation.
"Tess and Dante's newborn son, Xander Raphael," Renata replied. "He's not quite a week old now, and tonight he's being officially presented to his godparents. It's a tradition within the Breed."
"You're welcome to attend," Gabrielle said. "But I'm sure you must be exhausted too, so if you'd rather rest – "
"Not at all." Amazingly, she was anything but tired, even after all she'd been through lately. Her body felt stronger, more vital than ever, no doubt thanks to her otherworldly genes and the lack of medicines keeping that part of her suppressed. She had to admit, she was more than a little curious about this new side of her, including the rituals that were part of the strange new world in which she was suddenly submerged. "If you don't think anyone would mind me being there, I'd love to attend."
"Come on, then, let's go!" Mira gave her hand an eager tug, already charging ahead of the group as they started to move out of the foyer.
Yet despite Tavia's own interest in these people and the generous welcome they were extending her, she couldn't help noticing how Chase hung back. In fact, if anything, he seemed more uncomfortable now than he had on the drive north. His unease prickled through her veins like tiny needles under her own skin.
She paused and turned to look at him, waiting for him to join her. She couldn't leave him there alone when everyone else was moving into the other room – even if it appeared to be exactly what he wanted her to do. When he finally took the first step toward her, it was with the slow gait of a man making his way toward the gallows.