Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Five)

His given name was Dragos, like his father before him, although there were few who knew him as such.

Only a handful of necessary associates, his lieutenants in this war of his own making, were privy to his true name and origins. Of course, his enemies knew him now too. Lucan Thorne and his warriors of the Order had exposed him, driven him to ground more than once. But they hadn't yet won.

Nor would they, he assured himself as he paced the walnut-lined study of his private estate.

Outside the tightly shuttered windows that blocked the scant midday light, a winter storm howled. Wind and snow gusted off the Atlantic, buffeting the glass and shaking the shingles as it whipped up over the steep rocks of his island lair. The tall alpine evergreens surrounding his large estate whistled and moaned as the gale slammed westward, heading toward the mainland, just a few miles away from the isolated crag he now called home.

Dragos relished the fury of the storm that raged outside. He felt a similar tempest churning inside him every time he thought about the Order and the strikes they'd made against his operation. He wanted them to feel the lash of his anger, to know that when he came to collect his vengeance – and he would, very soon – it would be blood-soaked and complete. He would give no quarter, grant no mercy whatsoever.

He was still ruminating over the plans he had for Lucan and his heretofore unbreachable, secret Boston compound when a polite rap sounded on the closed doors of his study.

"What is it?" he barked, his temper as short as his patience was thin. One of his Minions opened the door. She was pretty and young, with her strawberry blond hair and dewy, peaches-and-cream face. He'd spotted her waiting tables in a podunk fishing town a couple of weeks ago and decided she might prove amusing to him back at his lair. And so she had.

Dragos had fed upon her behind a restaurant Dumpster that reeked of fish guts and brine. She'd put up a struggle at first, scratching at his face and kicking him in the moments before his bite had fully taken hold of her delicate throat. She'd let out a short scream and tried to put her knee into his balls.

He raped her for that, brutally, repeatedly, and with pleasure. Then he'd drained her almost to the point of death and made her what she was now – his Minion, selfless, devoted, utterly enslaved to him. She no longer resisted anything he demanded of her, no matter how depraved.

The girl entered his study with a demure incline of her head. "I have this morning's mail from your box on the mainland, Master."

"Excellent," he murmured, shadowing her as she walked in with a handful of envelopes and placed them on his large desk in the center of the grand room.

When she pivoted to face him, her expression was bland but receptive, the hallmark look of a Minion awaiting its Master's next command. If he told her to drop to her knees and suck him off then and there, she'd do it without the slightest hesitation. She would respond with equal obedience if he told her to pick up the silver letter opener and slice it across her own throat. Dragos cocked his head and studied her, wondering which of the two scenarios would amuse him more. He was about to settle on one when his eye strayed to a large white vellum envelope sitting atop the rest of his incoming mail on the desk. The Boston return address and handwritten calligraphy on the front of the invitation captured his full attention. He dismissed the Minion with a bored flick of his wrist.

Seating himself in the thick leather cushions of his desk chair as the girl quietly exited the study, he picked up the white envelope and smiled, brushing his fingers across the carefully handlettered script that spelled out the alias he'd been using in human circles of late. Dragos had assumed so many false identities over the centuries of his existence, among both his own Breed kind and humans, he hardly bothered to keep track anymore. It no longer mattered; his time of hiding who he was, and what he was capable of, had nearly reached its end. He was so close now. Never mind the recent interference of the Order. Their efforts to thwart him were insignificant, and had come too late as well.

The holiday party announcement in his hand was just another step along his path to triumph. He'd been courting the junior senator from Massachusetts for the better part of a year now, tracking the ambitious young politician's every move and ensuring that the pockets of the senator's campaign coffers remained more than amply full.

The human believed he was destined for greatness, and Dragos was doing everything he could to see that he climbed as high and as fast as possible. All the way to the White House, if he had anything to say about it.

Dragos opened the envelope and scanned the details of the invitation. It was to be an exclusive event, a high-priced dinner and charity fundraiser for the senator's power-broker pals, not to mention his most influential – and most generous – campaign contributors. He wouldn't miss this party for the world. In fact, he could hardly stand the wait. In just a few more nights, he would tilt the table so far in his favor, no one would be able to stop him from seeing his vision through to its fruition. Certainly not the humans. They would be clueless until the very end, just as he intended.

The Order wouldn't be able to stop him either. He was making certain of that even now, having sent one of his Minion pawns out to retrieve the specialized weapons he needed to combat Lucan and his warriors in this new brand of warfare and to ensure that none in the Order would be left standing to get in his way again.

As he set the senator's invitation back down on the desk, his laptop computer chimed with an incoming email message from an untraceable free service. Right on schedule, Dragos thought, as he clicked to open the report from his Minion in the field. The message was simple and succinct, just what he'd expect from a former military serviceman.

Assets located. Initial contact successful. Moving forward with retrieval as planned. There

was no need to reply. The Minion knew his mission objectives, and for security purposes, the email address would already be deactivated on the other end. Dragos deleted the message from his in box and leaned back in his chair.

Outside, the winter squall continued to bluster. He settled back and closed his eyes, listening to its fury in a state of satisfied calm, content with the knowledge that all the pieces of his grand plan were at last falling into place.

His name was Dragos, and soon every man, woman, and child – Breed and human alike –  would bow to him as their overlord and king.

Everything had changed.

That was the thought that had been drumming around in Corinne's head from the moment she and Hunter arrived in Detroit the next evening.

Decades of imprisonment in Dragos's laboratories had left her struggling to adapt to countless new changes and advancements in the world she once knew, from the way people talked and dressed, to how they lived and worked and traveled. From the moment of her release, Corinne had felt like she'd somehow drifted into another plane of reality, a stranger lost in a strange future world.

But nothing had struck so close to the bone as the feeling she had as she and Hunter left the airport in a car provided by the Order and made the drive into the city to her parents'

Darkhaven. The vibrant downtown she remembered was no more. Along the river, land that had been open spaces was now crowded with buildings – some sleekly modern, lights glowing from high-rise offices; other structures appearing long vacant, derelict and broken. Only a handful of people strolled the streets, shuffling quickly along the main avenue, past the lightless corridors of neglect.

Even in the dark, the dichotomy of the Detroit landscape was shocking, unbelievable. Block by block, it looked as if progress had smiled on one lot of land while spitting on another. She didn't realize how worried she was until Hunter brought the large black sedan to a stop in front of the moonlit Darkhaven estate she once called home.

"My God," she whispered from her seat beside him in the car as relief washed over her.

"It's still here. I'm finally home …"

But even the Darkhaven looked different from what she recalled. Corinne fumbled to unclasp her confining seat belt, anxious now, and more than ready to be free of the uncomfortable restraints that Hunter had insisted she wear for the duration of the drive. She leaned forward, peering out the dark-tinted passenger window. Her breath left her on a hitching sigh as she looked past the heavy wrought-iron entry gate and perimeter fence, neither of which had been there when she was last home.

Was it merely a sign of dangerous times for all of the city, or had her disappearance made her indomitable father feel so vulnerable that he would wall himself and the rest of his family behind a prison of their own? Whatever the cause, guilt and sadness clenched her heart to see the ugly barrier surrounding such once-peaceful grounds.

Beyond the fortresslike entrance sat the stately red brick manor whose many curtained windows glowed with soft light at the end of the long, cobblestone drive. The tall oak trees flanking the driveway had matured and thickened in her absence, their naked winter boughs reaching across to one another high over the pavement like a canopy of sheltering arms. Ahead, halfway up the wide lawn that spread out in front of the large Greek Revival house, the limestone fountain and wishing pool where she and her younger adopted sister, Charlotte, used to play in the heat of the summer as little girls had at some time been replaced with decorative boulders and a collection of burlap-shrouded topiary.

How vast the grounds had seemed when she was a child living here. How magical this private, special world had seemed to her back then.

How terribly she had taken it all for granted just a few years later, as a young headstrong woman who couldn't seem to get far enough away fast enough.

Now she wanted back inside with a need that was nothing short of desperate. Corinne brought her fingers up to her mouth, a small sob catching in the back of her throat. "I can't believe I'm actually here. I can't believe I'm home."

Impulse had her grabbing for the door handle, ignoring the low growl of her stoic companion beside her in the driver's seat. Corinne climbed out of the vehicle and walked a few paces up the private drive toward the iron gate. A gust of cold wind blew across the snowy landscape in front of her, chilling her face and making her burrow a bit deeper into her thick wool coat.

At her back, she felt a sudden heat emanating toward her and knew that Hunter was there now. She hadn't even heard him get out of the car to follow her, he moved so stealthily. His voice behind her was low and deep. "You should remain in the car until you are safely delivered to the door."

Corinne stepped away from him and walked up to touch the tall black bars of the closed gate. "Do you know how long I've been gone?" she murmured. Hunter didn't answer, just stood in silence behind her. She closed her fingers around the cold iron, exhaling a short puff of steam on her quiet, humorless laugh. "This past summer, it would have been seventy-five years. Can you imagine? That's how much of my life was stolen from me. My family up there in that house … they all think I'm dead."

It hurt her to think of the pain her parents and siblings had gone through with her disappearance. For some time after she'd been taken, Corinne had worried how her family was coping. For so long after her abduction, she'd clung to the hope that they would search for her –

that they would never stop searching until she was found, especially her father. After all, Victor Bishop was a powerful man in Breed society. Even back then, he'd been wealthy and well connected. He'd had every means at his disposal, so why hadn't he torn apart his city and every one between here and her prison until his daughter was found and brought home?

It was a question that had gnawed at her every hour of her captivity. What she hadn't known then was that her abductor had gone to sick lengths to convince her family and all who knew her that she was no longer alive. Brock, who had been her childhood bodyguard long before he'd become a warrior for the Order, had taken her aside after her rescue and explained all that he knew of her disappearance. Although he'd been gentle with the facts, there could be no softening the horrific details of what Brock had revealed to her.

"A few months after I was taken, a female's body was pulled from the river not far from here," she told Hunter quietly, repulsed by what she had learned. "She was the same age as me, the same height and build. Someone had dressed her in my clothes, the very dress I had been wearing the night I was taken. They did something more too. Her body …"

"The woman had been mutilated," Hunter interjected when revulsion made her own words trail off. She glanced back at him in question. He met her gaze with a matter-of-fact look.

"Brock has spoken of your disappearance. I am aware of how the body had been altered in an attempt to conceal the victim's identity."

"Altered," Corinne replied. She dropped her chin, frowning over her right hand, the one that bore her distinctive Breedmate birthmark. "To convince my family the dead female was me, her killer or killers had also cut off her hands and feet. They even took her head."

Bile rose from her stomach as she considered the cruelty – the utter depravity – it would take to do something like that to another person.

Of course, the things Dragos had done to her and the other Breedmates imprisoned in his laboratories had been only fractionally less heinous. Corinne closed her eyes tight on the barrage of memories that flew at her like bats from out of the darkness: Dank concrete cells. Cold steel tables outfitted with unforgiving, inescapable, thick leather cuffs. There had been many needles and probes. Tests and procedures. Pain and fury and utter hopelessness. The terrible, soul-wrenching howls of the mad and the dying, and those who were lost somewhere between.

And blood.

So much blood – her own, and that which was regularly forced down her throat so that she, like the other females who'd been taken, would remain youthful and viable specimens for Dragos's twisted purposes.

Corinne shuddered, wrapping her arms around the deep, cold void that seemed to blow through the center of her now. It was a hollow ache, one she had been trying to keep at bay for a very long time. It had only cracked open wider in the days since her rescue.

"It's cold," said her stoic escort from Boston. "You should return to the vehicle until I've seen you safely delivered to the house."

She nodded, but her feet remained still. Now that she was standing there – now that the moment she'd prayed for for so long to come true was actually happening – she wasn't sure she had the courage to face it. "They think I'm dead, Hunter. All this time, I haven't existed to them. What if they've forgotten me? What if they've been happier without me?" Doubt pressed down on her. "Maybe I should have tried to contact them before I left Boston. Maybe coming here like this isn't such a good idea."

She pivoted around to face him, hoping to find some sense of reassurance that her fears were ungrounded. She wanted to hear him say that her sudden attack of nerves was nothing more than that – something comforting that Brock would have said if he'd been with her now. But Hunter's expression was inscrutable. His hawklike golden eyes stared at her, unblinking. Corinne blew out a soft breath. "What would you do if it was your family up there in that house, Hunter?"

One bulky shoulder lifted slightly beneath his black leather trench coat. "I have no family."

He said it as casually as he might remark that it was dark outside at the moment. A statement of the obvious. One that didn't invite questions, yet only made her want to know more about him. It was hard to imagine him in any other way than the sober, almost grim, warrior who stood before her. Hard to picture him with the softly rounded face of a child instead of the bladed angles of his cheekbones and unforgiving, squared line of his jaw. He was impossible to imagine without the black combat attire and arsenal of blades and weaponry that glinted within the folds of his long coat.

"You must have parents," she prodded, curious now. "Someone must have raised you?"

"There is no one." He glanced past her then, a momentary flick of his gaze. His jaw went rigid, golden eyes narrowed and flinty. "We have been noticed."

No sooner had he said it, security floodlights mounted around the estate came on one after the other, illuminating the yard and driveway. The glare was blinding, inescapable. Worry seeped into Corinne's veins as half a dozen armed men poured out from somewhere behind the lights. The guards were Breed, of course, and coming at her and Hunter so fast and hard, Corinne could barely track them.

Hunter had no such problem.

He stepped in front of her in an instant, guiding her around to his back with a firm but gentle arm even as he moved into a ready combat stance. He didn't draw any of his weapons as her father's guards charged up to the gate with menace in their eyes, each of the six vampires brandishing a big black rifle, the barrels now trained on Hunter's chest. Corinne couldn't help but notice that even without the threat of a gun in his hand, the sight of Hunter alone seemed to have taken her father's guards more than a little aback. None of their own kind would mistake him for anything but Breed, and based on their collective looks of wariness as they took in his black fatigues and lethal coolness, it hadn't taken them more than a second to figure out that he was also a member of the Order.

"Put down your arms," Hunter said, his unnerving calm having never sounded so deadly.

"I have no wish to harm anyone."

"This is private property," one of the guards managed to blurt out. "No one passes the gate unannounced."

Hunter cocked his head. "Put. Down. Your. Arms."

Two of them obeyed as though on instinct. As another started to lower his rifle too, a sharp hiss sounded from a device clipped to his collar. A detached male voice came out of nowhere: "What the devil is going on out there, Mason? Report in at once!"

"Oh, my God," Corinne whispered. She recognized that booming baritone the instant she heard it, even when raised in uncharacteristic anger. Hope soared through her as though on wings, scattering all of her earlier fears and uncertainty. Peering from behind Hunter, she practically screamed her relief. "Daddy!"

The company of guards couldn't have looked more stunned. But when she tried to move around Hunter and step forward, one of them raised the long barrel of his gun. Hunter was up against the gate in a second – even less than that, Corinne had to guess. She watched in astonishment as the warrior placed himself in front of her like a living shield of muscle and bone and pure, deadly intent.

She couldn't tell how he'd been able to grab on to the guard's rifle so effortlessly, but one moment the black steel snout was pointed at her and the next it was bent at a severe angle, wrenched between the iron bars of the gate. Hunter sent a warning look at the rest of her father's men, none of whom seemed eager to test him.

Victor Bishop's voice came over the communication device again. "Someone tell me what the hell is going on. Who's out there with you?"

The guard named Mason was someone Corinne recognized now. He had been a part of the Bishop household for as long as she could remember, a kind-hearted but serious Breed male who'd been a friend of Brock's and used to like jazz music almost as much as she did. Back then, he'd worn his coppery-golden hair stylishly slicked back with pomade. Now it was cut shorter, a bright orange cap that made his widening eyes seem even larger.

"Miss Corinne?" he asked hesitantly, gaping at her in obvious disbelief. "But … how? I mean, good lord … is it – can it really be you?"

At her mute nod, a smile broke over his face. The guard whispered a soft curse as he grasped the communication device on his coat's lapel and brought it closer to his mouth. "Mr. Bishop, sir? This is Mason. We're down at the front gate, and, uh … well, sir, you are not going to believe this, but I am looking at a miracle out here."