Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER FORTY-THREE)

SHE COULD HARDLY stand the pain.

It swam through her veins, through her mind, draining her of all strength. Chewed away at her sanity with tiny, shredding teeth.

This was death.

This was true agony, a swift and thorough addiction that left her writhing on the floor. Gasping as though she was dying for air.

This was hell unlike any she could have imagined, to feel her body lost to a hunger – a savage, consuming thirst – that no amount of drink could quench.

Through bleary eyes, her face resting heavily on the floor where she writhed in helpless despair, she watched as Dragos's newest Minion made the call to the man he once served as his loyal second. The vice president's neck still bled from the twin punctures Dragos had made there, but he no longer felt pain. He knew only to please his Master.

"The president is on the way," the Minion said, handing the cell phone back to Dragos with a dead man's smile. "He was suspicious of the request. He will come with heavy military guard, Master. They will be on shoot-to-kill orders if he senses anything amiss."

Dragos nodded. "We are prepared for that. All I needed was to get him close. Soon I'll own him too. And with his allegiance will come the rest of the world's leaders, one by one. You've just helped put the last nail in the coffin of the humans' control over the Breed."

The Minion inclined his head in a servile bow.

Tavia tried to get up, desperate with the hope that something – anything – would thwart the evil Dragos still intended. She no sooner lifted her head than a heavy boot came down on the back of her neck, pinning her there.

The Hunter's boot heel promised to crush her throat if she even thought of rising up against his commander.

She sagged back down and felt a new agony bloom to life inside her. It was Chase. Her blood surged with the power of his fury – his fear for her. It shook her to her core, how deeply he longed to be near her now.

And he was coming. She could feel that too. She felt every mile that shrank between them – could almost feel him urging her to hold on, to stay alive, until he could reach her. It was only then that her tears started to fall.

Chase was coming for her, and Dragos and his army of killers would be waiting for him.

"YOU'RE SURE THIS IS IT?" Nikolai asked from behind the wheel as they sped toward the sprawling United States Naval Observatory compound.

Chase's blood thrummed hard with the answer. "I'm sure. She's in there somewhere." "The vice president's house is on these grounds," Dante said from next to him in the Rover's backseat. "This place should be swarming with military."

"Not if Dragos is here too." Lucan's reply was an ominous mix of foreboding and thinly leashed menace. "Good God. Tavia's brought us right to the son of a bitch."

Lucan's cell phone hummed with an incoming call and he pressed the button to put it on speaker. It was Gideon again. He'd been keeping a pulse on the situation since they'd set out a few minutes ago. Now his voice was tight with an eager intensity.

"We got pay dirt on those collar signals at last," he reported. "I've got a map online and I'm seeing a whole lot of signals coming out of the D.C. area right now."

"Where at?" Lucan asked as Niko took a fast corner and gunned it onto the circle, Brock keeping close behind.

"I've got literally dozens of blips a couple miles northwest of the White House. The area's lit up like a goddamn Christmas tree."

Lucan glanced to Chase and the other warriors, dark brows low over his steely gray eyes. "We know exactly where that is. We're rolling up to it now."

"Holy shit, this can't be good," Gideon murmured, running his hand over his disheveled blond hair as he slumped back in his seat in the tech lab. "It could be a trap, guys. You could be walking right into Dragos's hands."

A muscle ticked in Lucan's jaw as he met Chase's determined gaze. "Guess we're gonna find that out soon enough. Chase's female is inside. We're not leaving without her." A look to Niko dropped the warrior's foot hard on the gas.

With a screeching wail of rubber on asphalt, both of the Order's Rovers surged up onto the parklike lawn of the vice president's compound.

Chase leapt out halfway up the yard and raced toward the mansion with all the preternatural speed he possessed.

DRAGOS HEARD the sudden shriek of tires on the grounds outside the house. He wheeled toward the noise, knowing that the president and his security detail would not come barreling into the place hell-bent for leather.

It was the Order.

He threw a glance at Tavia, recalling her admission that she'd taken blood from Sterling Chase. He might have guessed the half-Rogue former Agent might've also sampled her blood. They were bonded, and when Dragos saw the tears streaking the female's contorted face, he understood that Chase and she were bonded by more than blood. She loved him.

And Dragos was betting by the cacophony of gunfire and combat rising up in the yard outside that Sterling Chase loved her too.

"You led them here." He let his laughter boom out of him as he clapped his hands in mock applause. "Congratulations, Tavia. You've done what I've been unable to accomplish all this time. You brought the Order to me, right to their certain deaths."

He swung a hard look on one of the Hunters who stood nearby in the living room. "No survivors. Understand me? Tell the others to do whatever they must to see it done. I want Lucan and his warriors dead right now, goddamn it!"

As the assassin pivoted to carry out the command, a window at the front of the residence shattered. Rapid gunfire and a massive bulk of roaring fury crashed inside, taking the Gen One down to the floor in a blurred confusion of motion and savagery.

Dragos gaped at the unexpected invasion. He dived for a weapon as his Hunter took the brunt of a punishing assault by Sterling Chase. The warrior was crazed with violence, purely animal. Almost magnificent in his lethality.

Another warrior vaulted in behind Chase, then another, the mad exchange of incoming gunfire and deadly force taking on two more assassins by what seemed to be sheer bloody-mindedness alone. The battle was brutal, and Dragos knew a pang of uncertainty when he saw his highly trained killing machines taking a beating from Chase, Dante, and Rio of the Order.

Behind him, Dragos saw Tavia using the moment of inattention to push herself up from the floor. The bitch was in bad shape, but she wasn't about to go down without a fight. Her amber eyes skewered him from across the room. Her fangs were sharp white daggers, dripping with the red foam of Crimson that would eventually consume her sanity and her life.

But not soon enough.

She came out of her crouch and sprang off her toes toward him. Dragos went down beneath her, his pistol skittering out of his grasp as the seething female vampire perched on his chest like a she-dragon about to eviscerate him.

She didn't get the chance.

Before she could do her worst, his last remaining Hunter in the house plucked her off him and threw her against the wall. She crashed to the floor in a broken, moaning heap. Dragos was right there as she tried to lift herself for another round.

"Not so fast," he warned her, the butt of a semiauto 9 mm pushed up hard against her temple. A nod to his Hunter saw her yanked to her feet. Dragos kept his pistol leveled on her, ready to blast her brains all over the wall if she so much as blinked in a way that displeased him. Across the room, Chase and the others had finished his two assassins. In the yard beyond, the combat raged on, gunfire blasting, sirens wailing in the distance as the rest of the city remained under siege at Dragos's command.

Dragos grinned as Chase realized he'd taken his battle as far as he could.

The warrior's eyes flashed hot amber as he glared at the pistol that could end his female's life at any second. "You have lost," Dragos told him. "You and the Order were never going to win this."

"Let her go." Chase lifted his own weapon now, training it on Dragos's head.

"Let her go?" Dragos scoffed at the tight command and the threat of the bullet he knew the male would never risk. Not when his woman's temple could so easily eat a bullet at the same time. Not that it would take a bullet to kill Tavia Fairchild now. "She's already gone, warrior. Look at her. Foaming and panting like a rabid dog. Put down your weapon."

"Tavia," Chase said now, his gaze pitiful with love and concern. "Tell me you're okay. Ah, Christ … tell me I haven't lost you."

Dragos chuckled, enjoying the wasted sentiment like the villain he truly was. "I said put down your – "

The words clogged in his throat, then leaked out of him on a wheezing cry as a jolt of pain stabbed his skull. It was debilitating. A fiery-hot stake that skewered his brain made every muscle in his body convulse in agony. The pistol fell out of his hand. His legs disappeared from beneath him. His head felt squeezed in a vise, about to pop under the extreme pressure and pain. As Dragos crumpled to the ground, he saw the slender outline of a female in black leather. A Breedmate with chin-length black hair and piercing jade green eyes that held him in a mind- blasting web of extrasensory power.

AS SOON AS Renata's talent dropped Dragos, Chase flew at him in a furious leap.

He couldn't curb his savagery.

His roar was purely animal as he clamped his jaws down on the vampire's throat and tore out his larynx with his teeth and bared fangs. Dragos's scream died along with him. The orchestrator of so much violence and misery, dead in a bleeding mash of frayed tendons, spurting arteries, and wide-eyed, slack-jawed fear.

Chase had wanted to make the suffering last. He'd craved a brutal, punishing demise for Dragos, but not with Tavia's life on the line. Chase let Dragos's body fall, rubbish discarded without a single backward glance.

As the life left his body, all his Minions would perish too. Behind Chase, the human who'd been the vice president slumped lifeless to the floor. Elsewhere in the world, wherever Dragos had sown his seeds of revolt, the humans he owned would all die in a similar manner: abruptly, quietly, inexplicably.

Not so his homegrown army of assassins. Between Dante, Rio, and Renata, the last Hunter remaining in the house was no longer a threat, but those still battling the Order on the grounds outside would not relent until they carried out their commander's wishes.

Chase knew his brethren needed him out there.

He knew it, yet all he could do was race to Tavia's side and pull her Crimson-ravaged body into his arms.

"Stay with her," Dante said, no judgment in his whiskey-colored eyes. Only friendship, and the understanding of a mated male who would do the same thing if it were Tess lying there now. "Keep her safe. We'll handle the rest."

Chase hugged Tavia close as Dante and the others pivoted to head out into the fray.

In the next instant, the night outside was illuminated with the sudden flash of intense, retina- searing light.