Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER ELEVEN)

SHE DIDN'T KNOW where he'd taken her. The room was dark, windows shuttered with louvered steel sandwiched between twin panes of glass. There was no light coming in from the street outside, but in the hours that had passed since she'd been brought there, Tavia could hear the muffled din of traffic increasing with the rise of dawn. The late-night hush was gone, punctuated now by the ruckus of the morning commute, the occasional blare of a car horn or the hiss of a slowing mass transit bus interrupting the rhythmic hum of tires speeding over frozen asphalt. She was in a house of some sort. Probably still within Boston, perhaps even in the heart of the city.

She'd expected to be dead by now. After being forced from the hotel at gunpoint, having witnessed what she had inside the suite – three fully armed law enforcement officials disabled and left unmoving at the hands of one clearly unhinged, lethal man – Tavia hadn't been given any logical reason to think she'd be spared, never mind her abductor's word that he wasn't going to hurt her. She'd been alert and waiting for death to come at any moment, listening to the quiet inside the strange place he'd brought her, wondering if he merely slept outside the locked door of the bedroom or was deciding how best to dispose of her.

Even now, after the night had passed into dawn and she was still breathing, she wasn't at all convinced she was going to make it out of this situation alive. She sat on the edge of a bare king- size mattress in a room that was vacant except for its few pieces of shrouded furniture, dreading that the next time she saw him would likely be the last.

He hadn't told her where they were going, had simply rushed her down the back stairwell of the hotel to the parking garage below street level, tossed her into the trunk of the federal agents' sedan, and sped away with her. Although it had seemed like they'd driven for more than an hour, Tavia could have sworn they'd never left the city. The sounds and smells, the bumps and turns of the tight network of streets, the general crackle of activity – her senses had known all of it as though she could almost picture the city from inside the cramped darkness of the trunk. It was familiar to her. It was freedom out there, if only she could find her way out of this locked room.

Away from this lifeless, shrouded phantom of a house.

Wrapping the robe tighter around herself, Tavia got off the bed and padded over to the window once more. There was nothing to see, no means of opening the shutters. They appeared to be electronically controlled and as secure as a bank vault. The glass panes were thick, stationary panels. The only way through them would be to smash her way out, assuming the glass could be broken. And assuming she could find any kind of tool to use on it.

Her eyes having long since adjusted to the lightless gloom, Tavia glanced at the furniture that stood draped in pale sheets around the bedroom. Sturdy, masculine shapes hinted at a tall bureau and mirrored dresser across the floor from the four-poster bed. She walked over and lifted the shroud to make a quick perusal of the drawers. To her surprise she found them neatly packed with folded socks and underwear, organized with military precision into grouped color ranges and fabric styles.

The walk-in closet yielded the same unexpected discovery: a full wardrobe of men's clothing, from scores of expensive-looking tailored suits and tuxedos, to easily tens of thousands of dollars' worth of conservative casual wear. A collection of size-fourteen shoes, all black, and all meticulously polished and maintained, lined the bottom row of the enormous closet. Whoever had lived here enjoyed a privileged life surrounded by very fine things.

And they'd apparently left it all behind.

The entire bedroom screamed of old money and long-established roots. Tavia glanced up at the crown molding that framed the ten-foot ceilings, the wainscoted walls that weren't painted or papered but covered in delicate ivory silk. She drifted to the other side of the large room, her bare feet cushioned by a dark-patterned Oriental rug that spread out over nearly the entire span of the floor.

A wide desk ate up most of the wall space across from the bed. She pulled off its linen drape and sat down in the sumptuous leather chair. The top of the desk had been swept clean, but its drawers, like those of the bureau and dresser, held the neatly ordered contents of a life interrupted and abandoned.

Tavia sifted through the pens and office implements, looking for something she might wield as a weapon against her abductor or a tool to break out of her confinement. As she dug toward the back of the drawer, her fingertips disrupted a stack of printed snapshots collected with an assortment of other memorabilia in a shallow silver tray.

She pulled the tray out and set it atop the polished wood surface of the desk. It was engraved with a distinguished-sounding name: Sterling Chase. His? she wondered.

A small metal vial about the size of her thumb rolled back and forth on top of the photos. Tavia picked it up and examined it, but she couldn't tell what, if anything, was inside. It felt light in her hand, and made no sound when she shook it, but its corked stopper had been carefully sealed with red wax. She set it aside as her gaze lit on the photographs.

There were about a dozen in all. Random events and subjects documenting what seemed to be a decade of time: A formal reception inside a posh country club. Some award presentation attended by a crowd of immense men dressed in the same kind of dark suits she'd found in the bedroom closet. A young boy's birthday party, resplendent with bright balloons and streamers and a mound of gift-wrapped presents, the celebration held in what appeared to be this very house.

And one final snapshot, buried at the bottom of the stack.

Tavia stared at it and felt some of the blood rush out of her head …

It was her captor.

The deranged menace – the man whom her instincts warned was something more than human. He stood behind a pricey-looking sofa, his muscled arms spread along its back to form a protective arch around the slender shoulders of a petite blond woman and the young boy from the birthday party picture. The boy had gotten older, no longer the towheaded, grinning child holding a giant box with a bow on top of it but a handsome teen wearing a Harvard University sweatshirt and a cocky smile that seemed to say he had the world by the tail.

The woman was stunning. Delicate and beautiful, her perfect oval face was as flawless as the ivory silk on the walls that surrounded her, her long blond hair the color of corn silk, her wide lavender eyes fringed in dark lashes. She beamed at the young man like a proud mother, even though she looked to be only a few years older than he.

Tavia's abductor was smiling too, a subtle, practiced curve of his broad mouth that made him look at once charming and devastating. Attractive didn't even come close to describing the lean angles of his face and the determined, square cut of his jaw.

But where his smile seemed rehearsed and posed, his gaze was disarmingly naked. It smoldered with a pained kind of desire.

All of it aimed at the pretty young woman held loosely in the shelter of his arm.

Tavia sifted back through the rest of the photos once more. He was in most of them, attending important-looking gatherings, dressed in his impeccable suits, surrounded by wealth and privilege and gentility.

My God.

Whoever he was – whatever he had become – this was the life he'd come from. This was his family.

This place he'd brought her to?

It had once been his home.

CHASE AWOKE TO a fierce banging in his head.

He came to on a guttural snarl, blood thirst shredding him with sharp talons that had barely loosened their grip from the night before. His skull was throbbing, mouth as dry as cotton. Every particle of his being felt raw, strung out. Starving for a fix.

Without opening his eyes, he pushed himself up from the floor where he'd slumped a few hours ago, weakened from exertion and injury, in desperate need of a feeding. A feeding he could not afford to take, when his addiction would only crave it more and more the next time. He sensed it was dawn outside. Hours had passed since he'd arrived in this place with the woman from the hotel.

Tavia Fairchild.

Her name seemed less like a stranger's now than a puzzle that needed solving. She was a mystery that didn't make sense to him but was one he could not ignore.

That was why he'd brought her here, to this place he'd never expected to return to again. He'd needed time to think, time to observe her. In the urgent moments following his breach of her cop-secured hotel suite and the precious time he'd wasted driving around Boston in search of viable shelter, he'd finally come to accept there was only one place he could go now. His former Darkhaven, where he'd been leader of his family's enclave following the death of his older brother in service to the Breed's Enforcement Agency.

Chase had walked away from it when he'd joined up with the Order a year and a half ago, never looking back. The near-dozen kin he'd been responsible for then, the young cousins, family friends, and distant relations, had since moved on to other Darkhavens in the area. Now his former home was nothing but a vacant tomb housing the memories of his past sins and failures.

This brownstone mansion in Boston's Back Bay was the last place he wanted to be, but he could think of nowhere else that would be safe enough for Tavia and far enough off-grid for him. As far as human law enforcement knew, his sole place of residence had been the Order's mansion. They didn't know anything about him except what he'd been willing to give them. All of it amounting to little more than lies and half-truths.

Chase groaned, unwilling to drag his eyelids open as another bout of hammering crashed behind his temples. His whole body recoiled under the relentless bang! … bang! … bang! … that seemed to echo from all around him and within him.

Then, the sudden crash of breaking glass.

Chase was on his feet and at the locked door of his bedroom in an instant.

He threw it open and found Tavia standing in her white hotel robe in front of the shuttered window, breath sawing as she paused to lift his heavy desk chair and slam it against the glass again. A piercingly bright nimbus of sunlight arrowed in through the splintered glass, blinding him as soon as he entered.

Chase hissed at the solar onslaught, his fangs punching out of his gums in his rage. He raised his arm to his forehead to shield his eyes and charged in to take hold of her arm before she could level another blow. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"Let go of me!" She shrieked as he ripped the chair out of her hands. "I'm getting out of here!" Chase grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of the room with him, slamming the door closed behind them. He pushed her into the adjacent study where he'd spent the night. "Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

He thrust her away from him none too gently, barely able to control the feral part of him that was snapping at its tether, looking for any reason to get loose. She was half down on the floor near the fireplace, her robe gaping enough to bare the better part of one perfect breast. Chase swore. His vision was bathed in fiery amber, his skin prickling with the churning of his livid dermaglyphs.

Normally, he would have tried to glance away, attempted to hide himself from curious human eyes, but she stared at him unblinking, unflinching, her intelligent gaze locked unerringly on his transformation from man to monster.

"What are you? What's wrong with your eyes? I saw your teeth last night in the hotel. You have – " She choked a bit on the word. "I saw your fangs. I can see them now too. So tell me the truth. What the hell are you?"

"I think you know, Tavia," he answered flatly.

"No," she said. She let out a short bark of a laugh. "No, I promise you, I don't know. I'm not even sure I want to know."

She was trembling now, legs shaking beneath her as she started to get to her feet. He cocked his head, watching her. Studying her for a reaction that would tell him more about who – and what – she was. "You're afraid."

Her face went a bit paler. "I'm terrified, you sick son of a bitch! You killed my boss. You killed several cops and federal agents – "

"I told you, the agents were mostly unharmed," he interrupted to remind her.

"I don't care what you say. I don't believe you," she replied hotly. "You're a cold-blooded psychopath. At best, that's what you are. At worst, I don't even want to think about what you might be. You're a monster!"

Chase took a step toward her, watching her chest heave beneath the loose terry-cloth robe that barely covered her the more she struggled to stay on her feet. "Now you're angry." "Stay away from me," she said as he came closer.

He looked at her exposed skin. The plunging V of her robe showed him an ample slice of the markings that covered her chest and torso. Those markings were still the same dusty mauve they'd been when he'd first spotted them last night in the hotel suite.

They couldn't be glyphs, he realized now. His own were pulsing and alive with color – a visceral reaction to his heightened emotional state – and yet hers, despite her fear and rage right now, remained static, wholly unchanging. "These markings of yours … how the hell can you have them?"

"Haven't you ever seen burn scars?" She tugged the robe closed to hide them as color rose into her cheeks. "Not that it's any business of yours, but when I was a baby, there was an accident. I was burned all over my body."

Although the story seemed plausible, and she certainly seemed to believe it herself, Chase wasn't convinced. "I've seen burn scars before and they don't look like that."

"Well, mine do," she said. "And I think you should know that I also have a serious medical condition. I'm not well. I need my medications."

He scoffed, unmoved by the obvious line of bullshit. "You don't look sick to me."

"I'm telling you the truth," she insisted. "My meds are in my pocketbook, back at the hotel. I can't go more than eight hours without taking them. It could be deadly for me."

He took another step toward her, close enough to see the desperation in her citrusy green eyes. She glanced down toward the fireplace tools, then made a hasty grab for an iron poker. She wielded the thing like a blade in front of her, about to make a hard jab at him with it.

Chase flung the length of metal out of her hands and across the room with the power of his mind alone. Her jaw dropped, eyes going wide as the poker went airborne. It hit the hardwood floor with a jarring clatter before skidding to a stop twenty feet away.

"You're not very strong, Tavia." Chase closed in on her before she could even realize he was moving. She blinked up at him in alarm as he brought his hands down on her shoulders in a subtle but firm hold. "Not very fast either."

She struggled against him, but he held her easily. Even if her mortal brain worked to process what it was witnessing, her instincts were immediately ready to take him on. Eyes blazing, her chin hiked up in challenge. "Is that what this is about for you? You want someone to put up a fight for you before you finally kill them?"

This close, it was impossible not to notice how beautiful she was. Her caramel-brown hair fell in glossy waves that broke at her shoulders, framing high cheekbones, a gracefully curved jaw and elegant throat. Her bright green gaze, even swamped with anger and fear, radiated keen intelligence. Inky black lashes fringed those eyes, softening the sharp wit with a doelike innocence. Her mouth was generous, dusky pink, full lips made for kissing. Among other things. Chase drank her in, his earlier suspicion of her morphing into interest of another kind, no less powerful. An unbidden, unwelcome desire needled him in that moment, intensifying and darkening now that he was holding her just a breath away from his mouth.

No delicate waif, this was a lean, athletically built woman who stood only a few inches less than his six-and-a-half-foot height. She had a swimmer's body, perfectly proportioned muscle, toned and strong and agile. She seemed naturally fit, not shaped by the rigors of a personal trainer and strict diet. Each curve and angle was a flawless construction of female anatomy – scantily covered by one large scrap of draping terry cloth – and his male body responded in rising approval.

He could feel her anxiety spike as he studied her. His nostrils tingled with the scent of her fear and outrage, something more than simple Homo sapiens adrenaline shooting through her veins. Scowling, he tried to process what his senses were telling him.

He bent his head toward her, face moving in close to the side of her neck. She went utterly still as he dragged in a long breath against her skin, sniffing her hard. "You don't smell human." "Oh, God," she moaned, her voice vibrating through him. "Please don't do this."

Hunger lashed him for the mistake of getting this close to her throbbing carotid. It was far too easy to imagine penetrating the soft flesh. Drinking from her open vein.

He wondered what she would taste like. Would her blood be tangy, mundane copper, or something more exotic?

Taking her vein was probably the fastest way to determine if she was, in fact, human or something other. But he knew one sip would be too much. He needed to starve this thirst out of himself, not feed the addiction. And Tavia Fairchild was off limits completely until he got to the bottom of who, and what, she truly was.

Chase searched her gaze. "Tell me the truth, Tavia. You know you're not what you're pretending to be."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she insisted. "You're crazy."

"No," he said, giving a rough, humorless laugh. "Not quite crazy, not yet. I'm sane enough to see that you're keeping a secret. So tell me what it is. Tell me what you are. Did Dragos do this to you?"

She made another futile attempt to break out of his hold. "You're a lunatic! I've never even heard the name Dragos until you said it at the police station."

When she turned away from him, Chase reached out and lifted her face back to his. He watched, waited, expecting to see her pupils start to narrow into thin vertical slits the way his were now. But there was no change in the rounded pools of black that stared back at him. She couldn't be Breed – no matter how certain his instincts were that nothing else could explain her. Impulsively, he put his finger to her lips and forced his way into her soft, wet mouth to check her teeth for the presence of fangs. There were none, of course. Only a straight row of blunt human pearly whites.

She clamped down on his finger with them, biting him hard enough to draw blood.

Chase yanked his hand back with a sharp curse.

She stared at the small wound, her eyes locked on to it and full of rage. Her body was shuddering now, quaking all over as though she were about to break. A droplet of Chase's blood beaded on her bottom lip.

"Christ," he murmured, recognizing only now how far he was pushing her. Some part of him felt shame for the terror he was inflicting on her, but the other part of him, the one that was still throbbing and wild with hunger, dug its claws into his backside, demanding to be let loose from its leash.

Everything Breed in Chase urged him to take this female and slake his thirst on her. Desire and suspicion and raw blood need was a dangerous combination, one he wasn't certain how long he could withstand. It rose up on him in a black wave, almost too powerful to resist. He had to put some distance between himself and this female, before the Bloodlust took hold of him completely.

With a growl, he spun Tavia around and pulled her hands behind her.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

He didn't answer. He had no voice, now that his hunger was roaring to life again inside him. A mental command sent a braided silk drapery tie snaking into his palm from the nearby shuttered window. He secured it around her wrists, then set her down on a covered chair beside the fireplace.

"Please," she said, her tone gone from fear and outrage to one of desperate bargaining. "Please, I won't tell anyone what I've seen. I promise. Just let me go."

He crouched down in front of her, their faces level. She was shivering and shaking, a sheen of perspiration breaking out on her tense brow. Looking at her now, he had to wonder if she'd been telling him the truth about her medical condition. She looked ill and pale since she'd bitten him, on the verge of fainting.

Chase didn't feel so well himself. It was easily eight hours before nightfall. Eight hours before he could even entertain the idea of getting out of there to work off some of his aggression. Eight hours of being trapped in close quarters with a woman who tempted him on more levels than he wanted to consider.

His fingers shook with the force of his mounting blood hunger as he reached out to wipe away the scarlet stain from her lips. Her eyes implored him for mercy, but the beast raging to life inside him now had none.

He stood and strode away from her without a word.