Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Fourteen)

They ended up at a small restaurant a few blocks from the hotel and away from most of the tourist traffic.

It didn't look like much to Hunter. A dark cave of a place with no more than twenty tables corraled on the opposite side of a modest, rough-hewn stage and postage-stamp-size dance floor. The trio onstage was playing something slow and sultry, the female singer pausing to nod appreciatively at the man on the piano and another who blew a string of mournful notes from a short brass trumpet.

The air was clouded with the mingled odors of greasy food and strange spices, grill smoke and perfume, and far too many human bodies for his liking. But Corinne seemed more than pleased to be there. As soon as she'd heard the music pouring out into the street, she had homed in like a missile and insisted it was where she wanted to eat.

Hunter had no stake in the matter. As it was her body that required sustenance, he'd been more than willing to let her decide where they would go.

As for his own needs, it had been a few days since he'd fed. He'd gone longer, but it was unwise to push his Gen One metabolism much closer to a week without sating its thirst. He felt the twinges of that thirst quirking in his veins as he sat at the corner table with Corinne, his back to the nearby wall, his gaze perusing the crowd of humans who filled the cavernous old establishment.

He wasn't the only Breed male visually sifting the throng of Homo sapiens. He'd spotted the pair of vampires as soon as he and Corinne had walked in. They posed no threat at all, just a couple of Darkhaven civilians idly evaluating potential Hosts the same way he was. As soon as they noticed him watching them from across the way, they retreated into the hazy shadows like a couple of minnows that had just gotten a whiff of a shark in their pool. After the young males disappeared, he glanced across the little table at Corinne.

"Is your meal sufficient?" he asked.

"Incredible." She set down her drink – some kind of clear, alcohol-based concoction that had been poured over ice cubes and a fat wedge of lime. "Everything is or, rather, was delicious."

He'd hardly needed to ask, based on how quickly – and enthusiastically – she'd attacked the plate of almond-crusted fish and steamed vegetables. And that had been after she'd already had a bowl of spicy soup and two crusty rolls from the basket perched at the edge of the table. Even though she clearly enjoyed the food, she seemed to grow quiet, pensive, the longer they sat there. He watched her run her fingertip along the rim of the short cocktail glass. When her gaze met his across the candlelit table, he found himself snared in her exotic dark eyes. The glow of the small flame played with their color, darkening their usual greenish blue to deep forest green. There was a hauntedness to Corinne Bishop's eyes, her most painful secrets walled behind an impenetrable thicket of changeable green.

He didn't think she would tell him her thoughts. And as much as he found himself curious, he didn't think it his place to ask. Instead he sat in silence as she closed her eyes and swayed with the music coming from the stage. Above the din of voices and serving clatter, he heard Corinne humming softly along with the singer's sorrow-filled words. After a long moment, her lids lifted and she found him looking at her. "This is an old Bessie Smith song," she said, regarding him expectantly, as though he should know the name.

"It's one of her best."

He listened, trying to understand what Corinne enjoyed about it. The sound was pleasant enough, a lazy stroll of a song, but the lyrics seemed mundane, almost nonsensical. He shrugged.

"Humans write songs about strange things. This singer seems overly affectionate toward her new kitchen appliance."

Corinne had her glass to her lips, in the midst of finishing the last swallow of her drink. She stared at him for a long moment before a smile broke over her lips. "She's not singing about a kitchen appliance."

"She is," he countered, certain he hadn't misheard the lines. He studied the singer now, then gave Corinne an affirming nod when the lyric came around again. "Right there. She says after her man left her, she went out and bought the best coffee grinder she could find. She says it more than once, in fact." He scowled, unable to find logic in any of the words. "Now she's moved on to some apparent affection for a deep-sea diver."

Corinne's smile widened, then she laughed out loud. "I know what the lyrics say, but that's not what they mean. Not at all." Her eyes still dancing with amusement, she cocked her head at him in question. Studying him now. "What kind of music do you like, Hunter?"

He wasn't sure how to answer. He'd heard some of the stuff the other warriors played at the compound, but he had no particular affinity toward any of it. He'd never thought about music one way or the other, never paused to consider if any of it appealed to him. What would be the point in that?

Now he looked at lovely Corinne Bishop, sitting just an arm's length across from him, bathed in candlelight and holding him in her beautiful, smiling gaze. He swallowed hard, struck by just how exquisite she truly was.

"I like … this," he replied, unable to drag his gaze away from her. She was the first to break eye contact, looking down as she took the crisp white napkin from her lap and dabbed at the corners of her mouth. "It's been so long since I've had a wonderful meal like this. And blues music, of course. I used to listen to this kind of music all the time … before."

"Before you were taken," he said, seeing her expression grow reflective, haunted. He knew she'd been very young when Dragos had abducted her. He'd heard she had been full of life, always laughing and ready for adventure. He could see traces of that in her now, as she unconsciously swayed with the more lively tune that was coming from the stage, her foot tapping out a quiet beat beneath the table. "Brock has mentioned to me that he used to accompany you out to dance clubs when he knew you in Detroit."

"Accompany me?" When Corinne's head came up, she wore a wry half-smile. "If that's what he told you, he was just being polite. I was an insufferable pest when Brock bodyguarded for me. I used to drag him out to every jazz club in a fifty-mile radius of the city. He didn't approve, but I think he knew that if he refused to take me, I'd find a way to go on my own. I'm sure there were many times he must have hated having to watch over me."

Hunter shook his head. "He cared for you. He still does."

Her answering smile was soft, reassured. "I was very glad to see that he is happy. I'm glad he's found a mate in Jenna. Brock deserves all the good in life."

She went quiet as the waitress came by to clear the dishes and remove the empty cocktail glass. "Bring ya 'nother vodka gimlet, shugah?"

Corinne gave a dismissing wave of her hand. "I'd better not. This one already seems to be going straight to my head."

Hunter declined as well, his glass of beer sitting untouched, ordered only for appearances'

sake when they'd first arrived. After the server left them alone, Corinne glanced across at him in the wobbling glow of the candlelight. Her pupils were dark pools, mesmerizing and endless. When she spoke, her voice was husky and soft, tentative somehow. "What about you, Hunter?

What were you like growing up? Somehow, I don't think you were the wild, impulsive type."

"I was neither of those things," he agreed, recalling his grim beginnings. He was serious and disciplined for as long as he could remember. He had to be; failure in any area of his upbringing would have meant his death.

She was still looking at him, still trying to puzzle him out. "I know you said you don't have family, but have you always lived in Boston?"

"No," he replied. "I came there when I joined the Order this past summer."

"Oh." She appeared surprised by that, and not entirely pleased. "You've only been with them for a short while." She glanced back down at the table and brushed at some errant bread crumbs. "How long were you in service to Dragos?"

Now he was the one caught by surprise.

"That first night, at Claire and Andreas's Darkhaven," she explained. "Someone heard them talking about you. About the fact that you used to be allied with Dragos." She watched him closely, carefully. "Is it true?"

"Yes." Simple. Honest. A fact she apparently already knew. So, why did he feel the sudden want to bite the word back? Why did he have the impulse to reassure her that though he might have served Dragos, he posed no threat to her?

He couldn't tell her that. Because in the pit of his gut, he wondered if it was true. Did he pose no threat to her?

Mira's precognition seemed to indicate otherwise. Since leaving the Detroit Darkhaven, he'd been trying to dismiss the vision as having already played out – albeit altered, the prophesied outcome thwarted – during his confrontation with Victor Bishop. But something wasn't right about that.

Nothing had ever altered the child seer's visions before. He would be a fool to think it should happen now, just because he was finding himself intrigued with darkly beautiful, damaged Corinne.

He heard her quick but subtle exhalation as she absorbed his frank admission. Instead of leaning forward on the small table, he noticed she was now gradually inching away, physically retreating until her spine came up against the back of her chair. For a long moment, she remained silent, staring through the dim light and thin haze that hung in the room.

"How long did you serve him?" she asked, guarded now.

"For as long as I can remember."

"But not anymore," she said, studying his face as she spoke. Searching, he guessed, for some sign in his expression that she could trust him.

He kept his features schooled, deliberately neutral, as he tried to decide if it was she who had something to conceal from him. "Now I do for the Order what I used to do for Dragos."

Her eyes held his, bleak with understanding. "Death," she said.

Hunter tilted his chin in acknowledgment. "I want him and all who serve him destroyed. If I have to hunt him and every last one of his followers down, one by one, I will see it done."

He was only stating fact, but Corinne looked at him with a strange softness in her wary expression. There was a question in her gaze, too tender for his liking. "What did he do to you, Hunter? How did Dragos hurt you?"

To his own astonishment, Hunter found he could not speak the words. He'd never been reluctant to admit the isolation and discipline of his upbringing. He had never cared enough about himself or anyone else to feel any inkling of humiliation for having been raised no better than an animal – worse than that.

He'd never been ashamed of his Gen One origins before – sired by an Ancient, the last surviving other-worlder who, along with his alien brethren, had fathered the entire Breed race on Earth. Dragos had secretly kept the powerful vampire drugged and incarcerated inside his laboratory for some long decades. That same savage creature had been unleashed by Dragos on countless captive Breedmates, like Corinne and the other recently freed females. Like the unknown Breedmate who had given birth to Hunter while imprisoned in those fetid cells.

He had no idea what might have happened to her, had no memory of her whatsoever. But seeing Corinne Bishop, having seen the evidence on her delicate back of the many tortures she had endured, Hunter knew a sudden, deep shame that made him want to deny any link to Dragos or the horrors of his labs.

A tendon twitching in his jaw, he replied, "You don't need to concern yourself with what happened to me. None of it was any worse than what Dragos did to you."

Her frown deepened with disapproval. Even in the dark, he could see color rising into her cheeks. No doubt, she knew he was referring to her scars. Scars he wouldn't have seen if he hadn't been spying on her in her bath.

He waited for her to get angry at the reminder; she had the right, he supposed. He wouldn't have denied that he'd looked. He probably wouldn't have denied that he'd admired what he saw. All night, he'd been trying to forget the thought of her naked in the hotel room bath. The memory came back vividly now, insistent, despite his effort to banish it from his mind. As for the scars, they'd been shocking, but they hadn't dimmed her beauty. Not in his eyes.

It stunned him how tempted he was to tell her that, whether or not she'd want to hear it. Corinne stared at him for too long, then she scooted her chair back and started to rise.

"I'm going to find the restroom," she murmured.

He stood up with her, his eyes scanning the crowd. "I will go with you."

"To the ladies' room?" She gave him a dismissing look. "Wait here. I'll be right back."

Short of tailing her across the restaurant, she gave him little choice but to cool his heels at the table. He watched her retreat toward the lighted sign marked "Femmes," then she disappeared through the dark, swinging door.

Corinne spent only a minute or two in the restroom, standing with her back resting against the wall opposite the nicked-up porcelain sink and chipped mirror. Just long enough to catch her breath, to collect her thoughts as best she could. Her one cocktail with dinner really had gone straight to her head. Why else would she have been sitting at the table with Hunter, talking about music and reminiscing about her past, when she should have been quizzing him about whatever information he and the Order had gathered on Henry Vachon?

If Hunter hadn't brought up her scars, or the none-too-subtle reminder that he'd seen them and a lot more back at the hotel, she might still be sitting there, losing herself in the simple pleasures of good food and drink and the music she'd loved so much as a girl. She had even been enjoying Hunter's stiff company, which only emphasized how badly the little bit of alcohol had affected her.

She stepped out of the restroom, back into the smoke-wreathed cavern of the restaurant. Standing up, without the restroom wall to keep her steady, her head was light, her legs loose as she drifted toward the three-piece band that was serenading a dance floor crowded with slowly swaying couples.

Corinne stood at the edge of the small square of worn wood flooring and watched the people move among the candlelight and shadows. Bodies pressed close together, arms wrapped around one another as the music enveloped the entire club. She smiled wistfully, unable to keep the smile from her lips as she recognized the sultry but defiant lyrics. Another Bessie Smith song. Another pull toward the past, back to a time when she was innocent, unaware of just how cruel and ugly evil could be.

She closed her eyes and felt the familiar old music wash over her, tempting her toward its safe harbor. It was only illusion; she knew that. She couldn't run away from where she stood now, no matter how much she longed to erase everything she'd been through. She couldn't ignore where she'd been, what she'd lost … what she still needed to do.

She knew all of this, but with the singer's voice lulling her into a gentle sway at the edge of the dance floor, she couldn't resist the sweeping pull. It was only for a minute, a brief indulgence that she savored, eyes closed, senses adrift, floating on a tranquil tide. When she lifted her lids a moment later, Hunter was standing right in front of her. He didn't say anything, just towered over her, a looming wall of muscle and dark energy, the heat of his presence making the scant few inches that separated them seem like nothing at all. His harshly sculpted, handsome face was inscrutable as ever. But his eyes glowed with the embers of a banked, but slow, smoldering fire.

It was the same look she'd seen in his eyes back at the hotel, only now there was no door to close between them. There was no place for her to hide from the heated gaze of this dangerous, deadly man. But it wasn't fear that flooded her veins as Hunter looked at her now. It wasn't anything like that at all.

Something electric, something unbidden and powerful, passed between them in that instant. It was the only way she could explain how her hands reached out to him, her palms coming to rest on his broad shoulders. The only way she could fathom the impulse that made her rest her cheek on his strong chest and whisper, "Dance with me, Hunter. Just for a moment?"

Holding on to him, she rocked slowly to Bessie's lyrics, her ear pressed against the heavy thump of Hunter's heart. He wasn't dancing, but she didn't mind. His heat surrounded her, made her feel safe even though he was likely the most dangerous person in the room. His arms went around her after a long moment, his big hands resting lightly, tentatively at the base of her spine. He was stiff, almost awkwardly so. She couldn't hear him breathing anymore, only the rising drum of his heartbeat, so heavy and intense it nearly drowned out all other sound.

She lifted her head and glanced up at him, her hands still braced on his thick shoulders. His golden eyes were throwing off amber sparks, his pupils narrowing toward catlike slits. Desire rolled off him, unmistakable and hot. She moved back a hesitant step, putting fractional space between them, even though her own pulse was clattering with a sudden, intense awareness. And need.

It startled her, how deeply it pierced her. Desire was something foreign to her after all she'd been through. After what she'd endured, she thought she would never crave a male's touch. But she did now. Unbelievably, perhaps stupidly, she craved this stony, lethal warrior's touch more than anything else in that moment.

She forced herself to take another hitching step backward. "Thank you for the dance," she murmured, confusion clashing with the warmth that was spiraling through her. "Thank you for this. For bringing me here tonight. I thought I'd forgotten what it was like to feel … normal." She glanced down, away from the searing heat of his eyes. "I didn't think it was possible for me to feel … anything anymore."

His answering touch was light but firm beneath her chin. He lifted her face on the edge of his fingertips, until their gazes were locked once more. He lowered his head toward hers. And then he was kissing her.

Gently, unhurried, he brushed his lips across hers. His kiss was almost tentative, as though he didn't know how to take more than what she was willing to give him. As intoxicating as his mouth felt against hers, it was also sweet, the first time she'd ever been touched so carefully, so full of tenderness. That a formidable male like Hunter could possess such patience and restraint astonished her.

It wasn't easy for him. She saw that truth a moment later, as their lips parted and she glanced up into golden eyes transformed into twin fires that seared her with their amber heat. His head bowed toward hers, only a breath between their mouths in the hazy gloom that surrounded them. The tips of his fangs gleamed bright white behind his upper lip. Color flushed the dermaglyphs that tracked in graceful arcs and flourishes along the sides of his neck and around to his nape.

He wanted her.

The thought should have terrified her, not drawn her closer. She gazed up at him, yearning against all reason for another taste of his sensual mouth. His hands trembled against the small of her back where he still held her from their brief dance. When he brought one up to stroke her cheek, his touch was feather light, as gentle as his kiss, despite the callused roughness of his weapon-hardened fingers.

Corinne exhaled shallowly as he caressed the pad of his thumb across her lower lip. Her chin lifted on the edge of his fist, he bent his head down toward hers once more …

And then he froze.

Tension swept him in an instant – a new tension, this one cold and battle-wary. His eyes flicked up to take in the crowded club. "We have trouble," he said, snapping back into warrior mode. "It's not safe now. I need to take you out of here."

"What is it, Hunter?" She tried to follow the direction of his focus, but he was more than head and shoulders taller than she. "What do you see?"

"Vampires," he said, his voice low, discreet. "A group of them just came in from the front of the restaurant. There's a Gen One among them. One of Dragos's assassins."

Corinne's heart slammed hard against her rib cage. "Are you sure?"

"There can be no doubt."

His reply was so grave, she had to struggle to catch her breath. "Do you still see them?

What are they doing?"

"Searching the crowd." His hand found hers and wrapped around it tightly. "My guess is they're looking for us."

He pulled her deeper into the crowd on the dance floor, weaving through the oblivious couples, his gaze never leaving the presumed area of the incoming threat.

"Why would they be looking for us?" she asked as she hurried along at his side, panic fluttering on dark wings in her breast. "How would Dragos know we were in New Orleans?"

"Because someone told him where to look," Hunter answered tersely. "Someone I should have killed when I had the chance."

Victor Bishop.

Oh, God. He had betrayed her once again.

What a stupid mistake to think he wouldn't. Even worse, she had made it possible by persuading Hunter to spare him. Now she could only hope it wouldn't cost either one of them their lives.