Taken by Midnight (Chapter Twenty-one)
"We're here," she said, parking the vehicle inside the large garage and cutting the engine.
She glanced in the rearview mirror, checking on him for about the thousandth time since they'd set out from New York. He'd been quiet in the backseat of the SUV for most of the trip, despite shifting around in obvious agony as he'd tried to sleep off the effects of his ultraviolet exposure.
She pivoted around in her seat to have a closer look at him. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll live." His eyes met hers through the darkness, his broad mouth quirking into more of a grimace than a smile. He tried to sit up, groaning with the effort.
"Stay there. Let me help you."
She crawled into the back with him before he could tell her that he could manage on his own. He looked up at her in a long, meaningful silence, their eyes connecting, holding. All of the air seemed to abandon the space around them. It seemed to leave her lungs, as well, relief and worry colliding inside her as she stared down into Brock's handsome face. The burns that had been livid a few hours ago across his forehead, cheeks, and nose were all but gone now. His dark eyes were still moist and leaking wetness from their edges but no longer bloodshot and swollen.
"Oh, God," she whispered, feeling her emotions break and begin to rush out of her. "I was so scared today, Brock. You have no idea how much."
"You, scared?" He reached up, ran his hand tenderly along the side of her face. His lips curved, and he gave a faint shake of his head. "I saw you in action today. I don't think anything really scares you."
She frowned, reliving the moment when she'd realized he was coming after her in the SUV, sitting behind the wheel in broad daylight. But her worry for him then had grown to something close to terror when, after the car she was in had flipped, Brock was there, as well, willing to walk through lethal UV rays in order to help her. Even now, she was awed and humbled by what he'd done.
"You put your life on the line for me," she whispered, turning her cheek into the gentle warmth of his palm. "You risked too much, Brock."
He came up off the seat, catching her face in both of his hands. His gaze was solemn, so very earnest. "We were partners today. And if you ask me, I'd say we made a pretty damn good team."
She smiled despite herself. "You had to save my ass … again. As far as partners go, I hate to tell you, but you got the raw end of that deal."
"No. Not even close." Brock's eyes held her with a deep intensity that seemed to reach right into the core of her being. He stroked her cheek, brushed the pad of his thumb over her lips. "And for the record, you were the one who saved my hide. If that Minion didn't take one or both of us out, the sunlight would have finished me off for sure. You saved both of us today, Jenna. Goddamn, you were amazing."
When she parted her lips to deny it, he moved in and kissed her. Jenna melted into him, lost herself in the warm caress of his mouth on hers. The attraction she felt for him hadn't faded a bit since they'd been together in his bed, but now there was something even more powerful behind the swell of heat that flared within her. She cared for him–truly cared–and the realization of what she was feeling took her completely by surprise.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. She wasn't supposed to feel such a strong bond to him, especially not when he had made it clear he didn't want to complicate things with emotion or expectations of a relationship. But when he broke their kiss and looked into her gaze, she could see that he was feeling something more than he'd been prepared for, too. There was something more than desire flickering in the amber light of his absorbing brown eyes.
"When I saw those Minions drive off with you today, Jenna …" The words drifted into silence. He exhaled a soft curse and pulled her close, holding her against him for a long moment. He nuzzled his face into the curve of her neck and shoulder. "When I saw them with you, I thought I'd failed you. I don't know what I would have done if anything had happened to you."
"I'm here," she said, lightly stroking his strong back and caressing his inclined head. "You didn't fail me at all. I'm right here, Brock, because of you."
He kissed her again, deeper this time, an unrushed joining of their mouths. His hands were tender on her, weaving into her hair and moving softly over her shoulders and spine. She felt so sheltered in his arms, so small and feminine against the immensity of his warrior's chest and thickly muscled arms.
And she liked the feeling. She liked the way he made her feel safe and womanly, things she'd never really known before, not even with her husband.
Mitch. Oh, God …
The thought of him made her heart squeeze as though it were caught in a vise. Not because of grief or longing for him, but because Brock was kissing her and holding her–making her feel worthy of his affection–when she hadn't yet told him everything.
He might feel differently if he knew it was her own selfish actions that had caused the accident that killed her husband and child.
"What is it?" Brock asked, no doubt sensing the change that was coming over her now. "What's wrong?"
She withdrew from his embrace, looking away from him, knowing it was too late to pretend everything was all right. Brock was still stroking her tenderly, waiting for her to tell him what was troubling her. "You were right about me," she murmured. "You said I have a problem with needing to be in control, and you were right."
He made a dismissive sound in the back of his throat and lifted her face to meet his. "None of that matters."
"It does," she insisted. "It mattered today, and it mattered four years ago in Alaska, too."
"You're talking about when you lost Mitch and Libby," he said, more statement than question. "You think you are somehow to blame for that?"
"I know I am." A sob crept up the back of her throat, but she choked it back. "It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't insisted we drive home that day."
"Jenna, you can't possibly think–"
"Let me say it," she interrupted. "Please … I want you to know the truth. And I need to speak the words, Brock. I can't hold them in anymore."
He said nothing more, sober as he took her hands between his and let her tell him how her stubbornness–her goddamned need to be in charge of every situation–had cost Mitch and Libby their lives.
"We were in Galena, a city several hours away from where we lived in Harmony. The state troopers had put on a fancy gala there, one of those annual attaboy events where they hand out medals of commendation and take your picture with the governor. I was being recognized for excellence in the department–the first time I'd been singled out for any kind of award. I was convinced it would be good for my career to be seen by so many important people, so I insisted to Mitch that we attend with Libby." She pulled in a fortifying breath and slowly pushed it out. "It was November, and the roads were nearly impassable. We made it to Galena without too many problems, but on the drive home …"
"It's okay," Brock said, reaching up to sweep aside a loose tendril of her hair. "You all right?"
She gave him a wobbly nod, even though inside she was hardly all right. Her chest was raw with anguish and guilt, her eyes burning with welling tears. "Mitch and I argued the whole time. He thought the roads were too bad for travel. They were, but another storm was on the way, which would only make things worse. I didn't want to wait out the weather because I needed to report in for my shift the next day. So we headed home. Mitch was driving the Blazer. Libby was in her car seat in back. A couple of hours onto the highway, a tractor trailer carrying a full load of timber crossed into our lane. There was no time to react. No time to say I was sorry, or to tell either of them how much I loved them."
"Come here," Brock said, and gathered her close. He held her for a long time, his strength so comforting and warm.
"Mitch accused me of caring about my career more than I did him or Libby," she whispered, her voice broken, the words hard to get out. "He used to say I was too controlling, too stubborn for my own good. But he always gave in, even then."
Brock kissed the top of her head. "You didn't know what would happen, Jenna. You couldn't have known, so don't blame yourself. It was out of your control."
"I just feel so guilty that I survived. Why couldn't it have been me who died, not them?" Tears strangled her now, hot and bitter in her throat. "I never even got a chance to say good-bye. I was medevaced to the hospital in Fairbanks and put in a coma to help my body recover. When I woke up a month later, I learned they were both gone."
"Jesus," Brock whispered, still holding her in the caring shelter of his embrace. "I'm sorry, Jenna. God, how you must have been hurting."
She swallowed, trying not to lose herself in the agony of those awful days. It helped that Brock was there to hold her now. He was a rock of strength, keeping her grounded and steady.
"When I got out of the hospital, I was so lost. I didn't want to live. I didn't want to accept the fact that I would never see my family again. Alex and my brother, Zach, had taken care of the funerals, since no one knew when I might come out of the coma. By the time I was released from the hospital, Mitch and Libby were already cremated. I've never had the courage to go to the cemetery where they are interred."
"Not in all this time?" he asked gently, his fingers stroking her hair.
She shook her head. "I wasn't ready to see their gravestones so soon after the accident, and every year that passed, I never found the strength to go and tell them good-bye. No one knows that, not even Alex. I've been too ashamed to tell anyone just how weak I really am."
"You're not weak." Brock set her away from him, only enough that he could bend his head down and stare her solemnly in the eyes. "Everyone makes mistakes, Jenna. Everyone has regrets and guilt for things they should have done differently in their lives. Shit happens, and we do the best we can at the time. You can't blame yourself forever."
His words soothed her, but she couldn't accept all that he was saying.
She'd seen him grapple too much with his own guilt to know that he was only being kind now. "You're just telling me this to make me feel better. I know you don't really believe it yourself."
He frowned, a quiet torment passing over his face in the darkness of the Rover.
"What was her name?" Jenna touched his now rigid jaw, seeing the remembered pain in his eyes. "The girl in the old photograph in your quarters–I saw how you looked at her picture last night. You knew her, didn't you?"
A nod, barely discernible. "Her name was Corinne. She's the young Breedmate I was hired to guard back in Detroit."
"That image must be several decades old," Jenna said, recalling the Depression-era clothes and the jazz club where the young woman had been photographed.
Brock understood the question she was asking now, she could see that by the somewhat wry look in his eyes. "It was July 1935. I know, because I'm the one who took the picture."
Jenna nodded, realizing she should be more astonished than she was at the reminder that Brock and his kind were something close to immortal.
Right now, and every time he was near her, she thought of him simply as a man. An honorable, extraordinary man who was still hurting from an old wound that had cut him deeply.
"Corinne is the woman you lost?" she asked gently.
His frown deepened. "Yeah."
"And you hold yourself responsible for her death," she prompted carefully, needing to know what he'd been through. She wanted to understand him better. If she could, she wanted to help him bear some of his own guilt and pain. "How did it happen?"
At first, she didn't think he would tell her. He stared down at their entwined fingers, idly rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand. When he finally spoke, there was a raw edge to his deep voice, as though the pain of losing Corinne was still fresh in his heart.
"Back when I was in Detroit, times were very lean. Not so much for the Breed, but for the human cities we lived in. The leader of a local Darkhaven and his mate had taken in a couple of young homeless girls, Breedmates, to raise as their own children. I was assigned to watch over Corinne. She was a wild child, even as a young girl–full of life, always laughing. As she got older, a teenager, she got even wilder. She resented her father's precautions, thought he was too overbearing. She started making a game of trying to break free from his rules and expectations. She started pushing boundaries, taking awful risks to her personal safety, testing the patience of everyone around her."
Jenna gave him a gentle smile. "I can imagine that didn't go over very well with you."
"To put it mildly," he said, shaking his head. "Corinne was clever, and she tried damned hard to ditch me every chance she got, but she never outfoxed me. Until that last time, the night of her eighteenth birthday."
"Corinne loved music. At the time, jazz was the big thing. The best Detroit jazz clubs were in an area known as Paradise Valley. I don't think a week went by that she didn't plead with me to take her there. More often than not, I let her have her way. We went to the clubs the night of her birthday, too–no simple thing, given that it was the early twentieth century and she was a white woman alone in the company of a black man." He exhaled a soft, humorless chuckle. "Skin color may be incidental in my world, among the Breed, but that wasn't the case among humankind back then."
"Too often, that's not the case now, either," Jenna said, twining her fingers through his a little tighter and finding nothing but beauty in the contrast of his skin and hers. "Was there trouble at the club that night?"
He gave a faint nod. "There were some looks and whispers. Couple of white men had too much to drink. They came over and said some crude things to Corinne. I told them where they could go. I don't recall who threw the first punch, but things went south from there."
"Did the men know what you were? That you were Breed?"
"Not at first. I knew my rage would give me away, and I knew I had to get out of the club before the whole place saw the changes come over me.
The men followed me outside. Corinne would've, too, but I told her to stay in the building, find somewhere to wait for me while I dealt with things." He drew in a ragged breath. "I wasn't gone even ten minutes. When I came back into the club, there was no sign of her anywhere. I turned the place inside out looking for her. I searched every corner of the city and all the area Darkhavens until daybreak. I kept searching every night afterward, even out of the state. But … nothing. She had vanished into thin air, just like that."
Jenna could hear the frustration in his voice–the regret–even all these years later. She brought her hand up and gently touched his face, uncertain what to do for him. "I wish I had your gift. I wish I could take away the hurt for you."
He shook his head, then brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss to the center of her hand. "What I feel is anger, at myself. I never should have let her out of my sight, not even for a second. When news reached me that a young woman's brutalized, burned body had been recovered from a city river not far from the clubs, I felt sick with dread. I didn't want to believe it was her. Not even when I saw the corpse with my own eyes …
what remained of it, after what someone had done to her prior to the three months she'd been left in the water."
Jenna winced, knowing all too well how horrific death could look, particularly to those who cared for the victim. And most especially to a man who had held himself responsible for a crime he had no way of anticipating, let alone preventing.
"She was unrecognizable, except for bits of clothing and a necklace she still wore when she was pulled out of the river. Burning her and cutting off her hands hadn't been enough for whoever killed her. She was also weighted down, making sure she wasn't discovered for a long time after she vanished."
"My God," Jenna whispered. "That kind of brutality and forethought doesn't just happen. Whoever did it did it for a reason."
Brock shrugged. "What reason could there possibly be to kill a defenseless young woman? She was just a kid. A beautiful, wild child who was living every moment. There was something addictive about her energy and her spirit. Corinne didn't give a damn what anyone said or thought, she just chewed through life without apologies. Grabbed hold of every day as though it was all going to end tomorrow. Jesus, little did she know."
Jenna saw the depth of his regret in his carefully schooled expression.
"When did you realize you had fallen in love with her?"
His gaze was distant in the dark of the backseat. "I don't remember how it happened. I made an effort to keep my feelings to myself. I never acted on them, not even when she flirted and teased. It wouldn't have been right. Corinne was too young, for one thing. And her father trusted me to watch over her."
Jenna smiled as she reached out to him, smoothing her hand along his rigid cheek and jaw. "You're an honorable man, Brock. You were then, and you are now."
He shook his head slowly, reflecting for a moment. "I failed. What happened to Corinne–God, what her killers did to her body–was beyond comprehension. It never should have happened. I was supposed to keep her safe. It took me a long time to accept that she was gone–that the charred and desecrated remains had once been the vibrant young woman I'd known since she was a child. I wanted to deny she was dead. Hell, I denied it to myself for a long time, even searched for her across three states, convincing myself she was still out there, that I could save her. It never brought her back."
Jenna watched him, seeing the torment that still lived inside him. "Do you wish you could bring her back?"
"I had been hired to protect her. That was my job, the promise I made every time she stepped out of her father's Darkhaven. I would have traded my life for Corinne's without hesitation."
"And now?" Jenna asked quietly, realizing she was half afraid to hear that he might still love the beautiful ghost from his past.
But when Brock's gaze lifted, his eyes were steady and serious, centered completely on her. His touch was warm and lingering against her face, his mouth so very close to hers. "Wouldn't you rather know how I feel about you?" He stroked his thumb over her lips, the barest skate of contact, and yet she sizzled deep within. "I haven't been able to stop thinking about you, and believe me, I've tried. Getting involved was never in my plans."
"I know," she said. "Allergic to relationships. I remember."
"I've been careful for a long time, Jenna." His voice was thick, a low rasp that vibrated into her bones. "I try very hard not to make mistakes.
Especially ones that can't be reversed."
She swallowed, suddenly concerned that his voice had gotten too serious. "You don't owe me anything, if that's what you think."
"That's where you're wrong," he said. "I do owe you something–an apology for what happened between us the other night."
She shook her head in denial. "Brock, don't–"
He caught her chin in his grasp and drew her attention back to his gaze. "I wanted you, Jenna. The way I pursued you into my bed probably wasn't fair. It sure as hell wasn't honorable, using my talent to dull your grief when it might also have drawn away some of your will."
"No." She touched his face, recalling very well how good it had felt to be kissing him, touching him, lying naked with him in his bed. She'd been more than willing to know that kind of pleasure with him, then and now. "It wasn't like that, Brock. And you don't have to explain–"
"Most of all," he said, talking past her denials, "I owe you an apology for suggesting that sex with you would be purely physical, without strings or expectations beyond the moment. I was in the wrong. You deserve more than that, Jenna. You deserve far more than anything I can offer you."
"I didn't ask you for anything more." She caressed the line of his jaw, then let her fingers drift down the strong column of his neck. "And the desire was mutual, Brock. My will was my own. It still is. And I would do it all over again with you."
His answering growl was purely male as he drew her to him and kissed her deeply. He held her close, his heartbeat thudding powerfully, the heat of his body seeping in through her skin like a balm. When he broke from her mouth, his breath was ragged through his teeth and bright points of his fangs. His dark eyes glittered with brilliant amber sparks. "Christ, Jenna … what I want to do right now is turn this car around and drive off somewhere with you. Just the two of us. Just for a little while, away from everything else."
The idea was more than tempting but made even more irresistible when he leaned in and caught her in a sensual, bone-melting kiss. She wrapped her arms around him and met his tongue with her own, losing herself in the erotic joining of their mouths. He made a low noise in the back of his throat, a rumbling growl that vibrated through her as he drew her deeper into his arms, deeper into his kiss.
Jenna felt the abrading scrape of his fangs against her tongue, felt the hard ridge of his arousal pressing against her hip as he pivoted her around to the long bench seat and covered her with his body.
"Gideon's waiting for us in the tech lab," she managed to whisper as he broke away from her mouth to rain a dizzying trail of kisses along the sensitive skin below her ear. They'd phoned in from the road an hour ago, alerting Gideon and Lucan to the situation they'd encountered in New York and letting them know they were heading back to the compound. "They're expecting us to report in as soon as we arrive."
"Yes," he growled, but he didn't stop kissing her.
He unzipped her coat and slid his hand underneath her shirt. He caressed her breasts over the thin fabric of her bra, teasing her nipples to pebble-hard peaks. She writhed beneath him as he moved atop her, slow thrusts of his pelvis that made her body weep with the need to feel him naked against her. Buried inside her.
"Brock," she gasped, all but lost to the passion he was stoking in her.
"Gideon knows we're in here. There's probably a security camera trained on us right now."
"Tinted windows," he rasped, glancing up at her with a sexy grin that bared the gleaming tips of his fangs and made her stomach flip. "Nobody can see a thing. Now stop thinking about Gideon and kiss me."
He didn't have to tell her to stop thinking. His hands and lips erased all thought, except the yearning she had for more of him. He kissed her with demand, pushing his tongue into her mouth like he meant to devour her. His passion was intoxicating and she drank him in, clutching at him, inwardly cursing their inconvenient clothing and the confining interior of the Rover.
She wanted him even more intensely than the first time, her desire fueled by the sweetness of his unnecessary apology and the adrenaline that was still simmering in her veins from all they'd gone through together that day. Murmuring his name around broken, pleasured gasps as his mouth roamed along the side of her neck and his hands caressed the aching swells of her breasts, Jenna knew that if they stayed in the vehicle even one more minute, they would end up naked right there in the backseat. Not that she'd complain. She hardly had the breath to do anything more than moan in pleasure as he slipped his hand between her legs and rocked his palm against her in a masterful rhythm.
"Oh, God," she whispered. "Please, don't stop."
But he did stop–not even a second later. He went still above her, his head snapping up. Then she heard it, too.
The roar of a fast-approaching vehicle outside the fleet hangar. The garage door opened and one of the Order's other black SUVs came flying inside. It screeched to a halt a few spaces away from them, and one of the warriors leapt out of the driver's seat.
"It's Chase," Brock murmured, frowning as he watched out the back window. "Shit. Something's wrong. Stay in here, if you'd rather not let him know we were together just now."
"Forget it. I'm going with you," she said, then pulled herself together and followed him out of the Rover to meet the other Breed male. Sterling Chase was heading for the compound elevator at an urgent clip. He glanced over at Brock and Jenna as they approached. If he guessed at what he'd interrupted, the shrewd blue eyes gave nothing away.
"What's going on?" Brock asked, nothing but business in his deep voice.
Chase was equally grim, hardly slowing down to talk. "You haven't heard?"
Brock gave a curt shake of his head. "We just came in ourselves."
"Got a call from Mathias Rowan a few minutes ago," Chase said.
"There's been an abduction at one of the Boston area Darkhavens tonight."
"Oh, my God," Jenna whispered, stricken. "Not another Breedmate?"
Chase shook his head. "A young male, fourteen years old. He also happens to be the grandson of a Gen One elder named Lazaro Archer."
"Gen One," Brock muttered, instincts prickling with alarm. "That can't possibly be a coincidence."
"Doubtful," Chase agreed. "The Enforcement Agency is questioning witnesses, trying to grab any leads they can on where the kid might have been taken, and why. Meanwhile Lazaro Archer and his son, Christophe, the boy's father, are making noise that they want to meet with his abductors personally–whoever they are–to negotiate for his release."
"Ah, Christ. Bad fucking idea," Brock said, sliding a tense look at Jenna as they followed Chase across the garage. "There's only one person I can think of who'd have any cause to snatch a Gen One's family member. It's a trap, Harvard. I smell Dragos all over this."
"So do I. And so does Lucan." Chase paused with them in front of the hangar's elevator and pressed the call button. "He's arranged a meeting with the Gen One and his son here at the compound. Tegan's going to pick them up within the hour."