Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Three)

Are you sure I can't get you something else to eat or drink?"

Gabrielle came back into the library, her cheeks flushed, her brown eyes seeming somehow brighter than they had been when she'd left with the tea tray a few minutes ago. Her gaze drifting for a moment, Lucan Thorne's Breedmate brought her fingertips to her lips in an absent gesture that did not quite hide the small, private smile that curved her mouth. She blinked it away an instant later and walked over to resume her seat on the sofa.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting. Lucan and I got caught up in a small negotiation," she said, as kind and hospitable as an old friend, despite the fact that they'd been complete strangers until just a few hours earlier that evening. "Is it too cold for you in here? Look at you, you're shivering."

"It's nothing." Corinne Bishop burrowed deeper into her pale gray wrap cardigan and shook her head, even as a further tremor rattled deep within her bones. "I'm all right, really."

Her discomfort had nothing to do with the temperature inside the Order's compound. Luxury and warmth surrounded her here, the likes of which she could hardly comprehend. She had marveled at the astonishingly expansive underground headquarters from the moment she'd arrived, and certainly the elegant library where she was seated now with Gabrielle was the most exquisite room she'd been in for quite some time.

Her home for the past many years had been little better than a tomb. From the moment of her abduction when she was just eighteen, Corinne had been kept prisoner along with a number of other young females, all of them taken captive by a madman named Dragos for the simple fact that each of the women had been born a Breedmate.

Her hands folded in her lap, Corinne glanced down and idly ran her thumb across the tiny scarlet birthmark on the back of her right hand – the same small birthmark that every Breedmate bore somewhere on her skin. It was that teardrop-and-crescent-moon stamp that made her part of an extraordinary world – the secret, eternal world of the Breed. It was the reason she'd been lifted out of certain poverty and neglect as an infant, after she'd been abandoned at the back door of a Detroit hospital just hours following her birth.

That diminutive, bloodred birthmark had been her entree into the lives of Victor and Regina Bishop, her adoptive parents. The blood-bonded couple with a Breed son of their own had opened their sumptuous Darkhaven mansion to both Corinne and her adopted younger sister, Charlotte, giving two unwanted, unclaimed girls a loving home and nothing but the best that life had to offer.

If only she'd been adult enough then to appreciate all the blessings she'd had. If only she'd had the chance to tell her family one more time that she loved them … before a villain called Dragos had yanked her away and thrown her into what had seemed an interminable hell.

It was the small red birthmark on the back of her hand that had caused her so much pain and heartbreak. She'd been tortured and abused, kept alive against her will and made to endure things she could hardly think about, let alone speak of now that she was free of the horrors. Both she and Dragos's other captives – somewhere close to twenty of them who had managed to survive his torment and experiments long enough to be rescued by the warrior members of the Order and their incredibly courageous, resourceful Breedmates.

For the past few days since their rescue, Corinne and the other freed captives had been living in Rhode Island, at the Darkhaven of another couple whose generosity and caring had been a godsend. Trusted friends of the Order, Andreas Reichen and his mate, Claire, had provided all of the evacuees with shelter, clothing – anything they could possibly need to help reclaim some sense of normalcy as their lives began again outside of Dragos's reach. The only thing Corinne needed was her family. She had been astonished to learn that of all the Breedmates captured and imprisoned by Dragos, she was the only one taken from a Darkhaven family. The other females had all been collected from runaway shelters or plucked from solitary existences, unaware that they were special in any way until Dragos's evil tore the blinders from their eyes.

But Corinne had known what she was. She'd had a family that had loved her, one that had surely missed her and eventually mourned her when the decades passed without her return. She was different from Dragos's other victims. Yet she'd suffered the same as them – perhaps more, as the thought of her anguished parents and siblings had made her defiant in the face of her captor.

The urgency to be back where she belonged, back among the people who could help her heal – perhaps the only people capable of helping her recover everything she'd lost during her time in captivity – was a need that consumed her, more and more as the days and hours ticked past, costing precious time.

She could only hope that they would welcome her into their fold once more. She could only pray that during the long years she'd been gone they hadn't forgotten her. She could only wish with all her heart that they might still love her.

She glanced up and met Gabrielle's concerned look. "When did Brock think he would be back in Boston?"

Gabrielle exhaled a soft sigh as she slowly shook her head. "Probably not for another day or so. It could be longer than that, if the snow doesn't let up in Fairbanks very soon."

Corinne could hardly hide her disappointment. Coming out of her captivity and discovering that her childhood bodyguard from Detroit was one of her rescuers had given her the first true taste of hope. Brock had become a member of the Order in the time since her disappearance. He had also recently fallen in love. It was that love that had taken him to Alaska a few days ago, but he'd given Corinne his word that as soon as he and his mate, Jenna, returned, they would personally see to it that she made it safely home to Detroit. Corinne needed Brock's support. He'd always been her confidant, a true friend. As a young girl, she had always trusted him to keep her safe. She needed to know she was safe now and to be certain that no danger could touch her as she made her journey home. Some frightened little part of her worried that she might not have the strength to knock on her family's front door without someone like Brock, someone she could trust completely, standing at her side.

"I understand from Claire and Andreas that you haven't been in touch with anyone back home," Gabrielle said gently, breaking into her thoughts. "They have no idea that you're even alive?"

"No," Corinne replied.

"Wouldn't you like to call them? I'm sure they would want to know that you're here, that you're safe and sound and coming home to them soon."

She shook her head. "It's been so long. I remember our old telephone exchange, but I wouldn't even know how to reach them …"

"That's not a problem, you know." Gabrielle gestured toward a flat white box that rested on the nearby desk in the library. "It wouldn't take more than a minute or two to find them on the computer. You could call them right now. If you'd like, you could even talk to them on video."

"Thank you, but no." The terms and concepts were all new to Corinne, almost as overwhelming as the idea of speaking to either of her parents without being there in person to touch them, to feel their arms wrapped around her once again. "It's just that I … I wouldn't know what to say to them after all this time. I wouldn't know how to tell them …"

Gabrielle gave an understanding nod. "You need to be there in person to do this."

"Yes. I just need to go home."

"Of course," Gabrielle said. "Don't worry. We'll make sure you get there as soon as possible."

They both looked up when a quiet knock sounded on the doorjamb from the corridor outside the library. A pretty blonde with pale lavender eyes opened the door from the hallway and peeked into the room.

"Am I interrupting?"

"No, Elise. Come in." Gabrielle stood up and motioned the other woman inside. "Corinne and I were just chatting while we waited for word from Brock and Jenna."

Elise stepped inside and gave Corinne a warm smile. "I thought I'd come down and sit with you both for a while until everyone comes in from patrols."

Corinne had been introduced to some of the Order's women when she'd arrived earlier that evening. Elise's mate, she recalled, was a warrior named Tegan. She'd been told that he and most of the other members of the Order were out on missions elsewhere in the city, all of them focused on the single goal of hunting down Dragos and all those loyal to him. The thought gave her a great deal of reassurance. Surely with an extraordinary group like this determined to catch him, Dragos stood no chance of escape.

And yet he had.

Time and again, as Corinne understood it, he'd managed to stay one step ahead of the Order. They were a powerful force, but Corinne knew firsthand that Dragos was not without his own power. He had his own soldiers, his own terrible tactics.

And he was mad – dangerously so. Corinne knew this firsthand as well, and the awful memories of that knowledge swelled up on her like a wave of darkness now, before she could stop them. She staggered under the weight of her remembered torture as she rose from the sofa to stand beside Gabrielle and Elise. The anxiety came up fast this time, faster than it had a short while ago. When Gabrielle had left her alone in the library, Corinne had somehow managed to wrest herself back under control.

But not this time.

The floor-to-ceiling bookcases wobbled in her mind's eye as the walls of the library seemed to squeeze in, collapsing inward from all sides. On the wall across from her, a large tapestry, stitched to depict a glowering dark knight on a black charger, now seemed to twist and distort, the man's handsome features and his beautiful horse both mutating into something demonic and mocking.

She closed her eyes, but darkness didn't make things any better. Suddenly she was back in Dragos's prison cells. Back in the lightless pit, naked and shivering. Alone in a dank void, waiting for death. Praying for it, as her only means of escape from the horror. Corinne sucked in a mouthful of air but felt only the smallest gasp of oxygen feed her lungs as the space around her condensed toward nothingness.

"Corinne?" Gabrielle and Elise both said her name at the same time. Both women reached out to hold her up, keep her steady.

Corinne heard herself gasp for breath. "Need out … have to get out of this cell – "

"Can you walk?" Elise asked her, her voice urgent but in control. "Hold on to us, Corinne. You're going to be okay."

She managed a nod as they helped her out to the corridor. Cool white marble spread out in both directions. The passageway was wide and endless, instantly soothing. She let the gleam of pale, pristine walls fill her vision as she took a deep breath and felt some of the constriction in her lungs begin to ease.

Yes, thank God.

Already it was better.

Gabrielle reached out to smooth some of Corinne's dark hair from her eyes. "Are you all right now?"

Corinne nodded, still breathing hard but feeling the worst of her anxiety fade away.

"Sometimes I just … sometimes I feel like I'm still in there. Still locked in that awful place," she whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm so embarrassed."

"Don't be." Gabrielle's smile was sympathetic without being pitying. "You don't have to be sorry or embarrassed. Not among friends."

"Come on," Elise said. "We'll take you up to the mansion. We can have a little stroll around the grounds outside until you feel better."

As the compound's garage elevator came to a cushioned stop belowground, Hunter glanced at his wounded patrol partner in silent assessment.

Head hung low on his shoulders, matted golden-brown hair drooping over his brow, Sterling Chase leaned against the opposite wall of the car, his breath sawing through his teeth. His black fatigues were torn and blood-soaked, lacerations and swelling contusions making a battered mess of his face. His nose was surely broken, his upper lip split open and bleeding onto his chin. More than likely, his jaw had been fractured as well.

The warrior's injuries from the brawl in the city were numerous, but nothing that wouldn't heal with time and a few decent feedings.

Not that Chase seemed at all concerned about his condition.

The elevator doors whispered open and he swaggered out to the corridor ahead of Hunter, arrogance in every stride.

Lucan blocked his path just a few steps out. Put his palm in the center of Chase's chest to stop him physically when the other male appeared disinclined to pause. "Have a good time in Chinatown tonight?"

Chase grunted, his split lip tearing wider as he gave Lucan a dark smirk. "I gather Mathias Rowan has been in contact with you."

"That's right. More than I can say for either one of you," Lucan replied tersely, his furious gaze traveling briefly from Chase's battle-worn appearance to Hunter, whose fatigues were stained with their own share of spilled Enforcement Agent blood. "Rowan told me all about the shit that went down. He says he's got multiple dead and wounded and every Agent he's spoken to has put the blame for the unprovoked assault squarely on you, Chase."

He scoffed in response. "Unprovoked, my ass. Every one of the Agents in that place was looking for a reason to piss me off."

"And you couldn't wait to oblige them, that it?" At Chase's answering glower, Lucan shook his head. "What you are is reckless, my man. This shit tonight is just one more mess you've left for someone else to deal with. It's getting to be a pattern with you lately, and I don't like it. Not one fucking bit."

"You sent me out to do a job," Chase shot back darkly. "Sometimes things get messy."

Lucan's eyes narrowed, anger radiating off his body now, a palpable heat that Hunter could feel from where he stood just a few steps away with Gideon. "I'm not sure you know what your job is anymore, Chase. If you did, you wouldn't be coming back here empty-handed, reeking of spilled blood and attitude. Far as I'm concerned, you failed out there tonight. How much intel did you gather on Freyne? Are we even one fucking scintilla closer to getting a lock on Dragos or any of his possible other associates?"

"Perhaps we are," Hunter interjected.

Now Lucan swung his scowl on him. "Explain."

"An Agent named Murdock," Hunter replied. "He approached Chase and me when we arrived at the club. We had words, but he wasn't forthcoming with any useful information. Once the fight broke out, he appeared notably anxious. I saw him make a phone call to someone before he escaped amid the chaos."

"This is a lead?" Chase muttered dismissively. "Of course Murdock would run. I know this guy. He's a coward who'd rather put a knife in your back than face a fight head-on."

Hunter ignored his patrol partner's commentary as he held the keen stare of the Order's leader. "Murdock took off for the alley out back of the place. A car was already coming around to pick him up. The driver was a Gen One assassin."

"Good Christ," Gideon remarked from beside Hunter, shoving his hand through the short blond spikes of his hair.

Lucan's face hardened, while Chase had gone utterly silent where he stood, listening as intently as the others now.

"I pursued the vehicle on foot," Hunter continued. "The assassin was neutralized."

He reached around to the back waistband of his fatigues and pulled out the detonated collar he'd removed from his kill. Gideon took the ring of charred black polymer out of his hand.

"One more to add to your collection, eh? You're racking up quite a score lately. Good work."

Hunter merely blinked at the unnecessary praise.

"What about Murdock?" Lucan asked.

"Gone," Hunter replied. "He fled the scene while I was disabling the driver. By then it was a choice of either tracking him down or going back inside the club to retrieve my patrol partner."

The decision to aid his fellow warrior had given him more than a moment's pause at the time. Logic and training as one of Dragos's soldiers demanded he carry out his missions as a single entity: efficient, impersonal, and utterly independent. Murdock was a quantified target. Interrogating him would surely provide valuable intel; his capture was imperative to the success of the night's patrol. To Hunter, apprehending the escaped Agent had seemed a logical enough objective.

But the Order operated under a different tenet, one he had pledged to follow when he'd joined them, no matter how it contrasted to the world he had once known. The warriors had a code among themselves for every mission, an understanding that if a team went out together, they came back together, and no man was ever left behind.

Not even if it meant forfeiting an enemy asset.

"I know Murdock," Chase said, lifting the back of his hand to his chin to wipe away some of the blood that slicked his skin. "I know where he lives, I know the places he's likely to hang out. It won't take me long to find him – "

"You're not doing shit," Lucan interrupted. "I'm pulling you off this mission. Until I say otherwise, any and all Agency contact goes through me. Gideon can dig up everything we need on Murdock's properties and personal habits. If you feel you've got anything more useful to add, turn it over to Gideon. I'll decide how and when – and I'll decide who – is best to go after this asshole Murdock."

"Whatever." Chase's blue eyes glittered darkly under his lowered brows. He started to walk away.

Lucan's head pivoted only slightly, his voice as low as distant thunder. "I didn't say we were finished."

Chase scoffed. "Sounds to me like you've got it all under control, so what do you need me for?"

"That's something I've been asking myself all night," Lucan replied evenly. "What the fuck do I need you for?"

Chase muttered something low and surly under his breath in response. He took another step and suddenly Lucan was right in front of him, having moved so quickly it had been hard for even Hunter to track him. He shoved Chase with a hard dose of Gen One strength, a frontal blow that sent the other warrior flying into the corridor wall.

Chase righted himself with a hissed curse. Eyes flashing like bright coals, he charged forward with a fang-bearing snarl.

This time it was Hunter who moved the fastest.

Intercepting the threat to the Order's leader –  his leader – he placed himself between the two vampires, his hand clamped around Chase's throat.

"Stand down, warrior," he advised his brother-in-arms.

It was the only warning Hunter would allow. If Chase so much as flinched with further aggression, Hunter would have little choice but to crush the fight out of him. Teeth and fangs clamped together, lips peeled back from his gums, Chase held his stare in a thick, answering silence. Hunter felt a shift of movement in the space of the corridor behind him. He heard a feminine gasp – just the softest pull of air through parted lips. Chase's gaze drifted in that direction and some of the taut fury left him at once. As he relaxed, Hunter let go of him and stepped back from the confrontation.

"What's going on out here, Lucan?"

Hunter turned along with the other males in the corridor and found himself facing Lucan's mate, Gabrielle, standing behind them with two other females. Hunter knew the fine-boned blonde with the pale lavender eyes. It was she – Tegan's mate, Elise – who'd gasped, her hand still lifted toward her mouth.

"I'm out of here," Chase muttered, notably subdued as he brushed past Hunter and the others and stalked off down the corridor toward his quarters.

Hunter hardly noticed the warrior's departure.

His attention was riveted on the third female who stood in the passageway now. Petite and fair-skinned behind the curtain of long ebony hair that partially hid her face from his view, she held him utterly transfixed in that moment. He couldn't look away from the large greenish blue eyes that tapered delicately at their outer corners. At a loss to categorize their specific color, he didn't try, instead attempting to determine why he found her presence so arresting.

"Is everything all right?" Gabrielle asked, moving over to Lucan in obvious concern.

"Yeah," he replied. "It's all good now."

Hunter drifted closer to the unidentified woman, hardly aware his feet were moving until he was standing directly before her. She looked up at him then, lifting the perfect oval of her face until her gaze had traveled past the blood-spattered length of him and their eyes were locked on each other.

She was a stranger to him, yet, somehow, strangely familiar too.

He cocked his head, trying to puzzle out the peculiar sense that he'd seen her somewhere before. He blurted the thought that was banging around in his brain. "Do I know you …?"

Gabrielle cleared her throat and walked over as if she meant to protect the female from him. "Corinne, this is Hunter. He's a member of the Order. Say hello, Hunter."

He grunted the greeting, still staring at her.

"I saw you the night of the rescue," she said quietly. "You were one of the warriors who brought me and the others to Claire and Andreas's Darkhaven."

So, she'd been among the captives Dragos had been holding. He supposed that made sense. He gave a vague nod, his curiosity somewhat satisfied by her reminder. But he hadn't seen her in Rhode Island, he was almost certain of it. He felt sure he'd remember that face, those luminescent eyes.

"I'm afraid we still don't have an ETA on Brock and Jenna," Gideon told the dark-haired beauty. "The weather report out of Alaska doesn't look good for another three days, minimum."

"Three more days?" Corinne's smooth forehead creased with a small frown. "I really need to get home. I need my family now."

Lucan blew out a sigh. "Understood. Since Brock is a few thousand miles and a couple of blizzards away from Boston at the moment, someone else will have to – "

"I will take her." Hunter felt Lucan's stare land on him the instant the words left his mouth. He met the other Gen One's gaze and gave a decisive nod. "I will see that she gets home safely to her family."

It seemed a simple enough task to manage, yet everyone in the immediate vicinity had fallen into a sudden, lengthy silence. The most stricken of all seemed to be Corinne herself. She stared up at him mutely, and for a second he wondered if she was going to refuse his offer.

"It will take about fourteen hours by car," Gideon said. "That's a couple of days total, since we're talking about night travel only. If you left right now, you could put in about a hundred miles before the sun starts to rise. Or I could have one of our corporate planes fueled up and ready to go at sundown. A couple hours of flight time and you're there."

Lucan stared hard at him, then gave a nod. "The quicker, the better. I'm gonna need you back on patrol tomorrow night."

"Consider it done," Hunter replied.