Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER FORTY)

THE ROGUE HAD a woman cornered in the stairwell of her posh apartment building when Chase smashed into the vestibule and ashed the suckhead. The titanium blade raked across the feral vampire's throat sent him sputtering to the floor, dropping in an oozing, sizzling heap of melting flesh and bone.

Chase stood over the dead Rogue, his fingers sticky on the blade's handle, his black fatigues and combat boots awful with blood and gore from the other kills he'd already made in the couple of hours since the sun set that night. He stared down at the fright-stricken woman who huddled in the far corner of the stairwell. The amber glow of his eyes cast her face in fiery color. Her brown hair was in disarray, fallen out of its conservative twist at her nape. Her dark, skirted business suit and frothy white blouse were disheveled, torn in places and smudged with the filthy handprints of the suckhead who'd attacked her.

"You're okay," he assured her as he cleaned the edge of his blade on his pants. "The Rogue can't hurt you now."

She gaped up at him in horror. Shook her head frantically as she shrank farther back, eyes wide and mistrusting. "You – oh, God, you're one of them too!"

"No," he said, then blew out a curse when he considered how close he truly was to being the same ravenous beast as the ones cutting a bloody swath through the night. "I mean you no harm. Get up."

She pulled in a hitching breath. "I don't understand."

"No time to explain," he growled. "Now get the fuck inside your apartment and bolt the door. Don't come out until daybreak, you understand? Go. Now!"

She scrambled away from him in a clumsy rush, one high-heeled pump lost during her attack.

As she hurried toward her apartment, she found the wherewithal to fumble her cell phone out of her purse and snap a quick picture of him in all his vampy glory. Wonderful. Not like he didn't already have enough photos on file with human law enforcement.

He stalked outside and took a cleansing breath. Or rather, it should have been cleansing. But the wintry air was ripe with the undercurrent of spilled red cells, some of it fresh, some of it coagulating in ice-crusted puddles on the streets and sidewalks.

The presence of so much blood, for so many hours at a time, was making him crazy.

But he pushed through it anyway, his mind centered on his responsibility to the Order. His heart was grounded in his love for Tavia.

It troubled him that he couldn't feel her near anymore.

He wanted to see her, touch her. Have irrefutable proof that she was safe. And he wanted her to know that he loved her. More than anything, he wanted her to know that.

Damn Dragos. And damn this war that had finally exploded in the Order's face. They were doing their best to get the situation cleaned up, but the battle had only just begun. With Boston's streets having come under some degree of control earlier that night the Order had since moved on to New York City, where there'd been reports of vicious attacks in Manhattan and every surrounding borough. Between the Order and Rowan's guys, they'd smoked upward of thirty Rogues the past two nights. A lot more to go. And a lot more cities still under heavy siege, in the States and abroad.

"Harvard." Dante's deep voice cut through the darkness. He jogged up, curved daggers in his hands, his face smeared with the grit of recent combat. "You get the suckhead that came this way?"

"He's dead," Chase replied. His vision was still flooded with amber, fangs thick in response to the stench of blood that permeated the night. "Ashed the bastard just as he was moving in for the kill. Victim walked away with her carotid intact – and a picture of me standing over the smoked body."

It wasn't the first time the humans the Order were trying to spare had stopped to take snapshots or cell phone videos of the warriors attempting to sweep up this mess. Nor would it be the last.

Dante raked a hand over his begrimed face. "Fucking modern technology. Inconvenient as hell sometimes, eh? Well, it's not like the Breed has to be concerned with keeping a low profile anymore. We're about as out as we can be."

Chase nodded and absently rubbed at the center of his chest.

"You okay?" Dante asked, studying him.

"Yeah. It's just …"

"Tavia," the warrior said when Chase's voice trailed off.

"I hate that I'm not with her right now." Their blood bond thrummed through him, but her physical distance from him left a hollowness in his chest. "I hate that I can't feel her close." Dante nodded, sympathetic. "If she's in trouble, you'll know. And if that time comes, I'll have your back. All of the Order will have your back."

The promise – the renewed bond of friendship, and kinship with the Order – made Chase's throat go dry. It humbled him, knowing that Dante and the others were ready to accept him again. Willing to bleed for him, the same as he would do for any of them.

He'd found his family in these good, brave men.

He wouldn't risk losing that for anything.

And he couldn't know his true home until he had Tavia standing at his side.

Just then, Dante's cell phone began to vibrate with an incoming call. He picked up, greeted Niko, then swore low under his breath. "You gotta be shitting me. Yeah, we can bounce. Harvard and I are five minutes away from you. Be right there." He ended the call and shot Chase a grave look. "Rock and roll time. Order's moving out, ASAP."

"Problem?" Chase asked, rhetorically, when they were surrounded by little else.

"Fresh wave of Rogues just swept into D.C. They're torching the place, smashing up the foreign embassies and dragging people out of their homes. Human fallout is off the charts." Chase snarled a raw curse, then fell in alongside Dante to meet their brethren for the next round of battle.

SHE WAS NEVER GOING to get near enough to kill him.

Dragos kept his Hunters close at all times. Yet as cautious as he was, he didn't seem to view her as much of a threat. How could she be, when getting to him would first require that she simultaneously disable four highly trained soldiers?

Right now, he was behind closed doors in his private study, conferring with his lieutenants. No doubt they were gloating over the most recent terror they'd unleashed – setting loose even more Rogues into thickly populated areas, including a massive attack on Washington, D.C. Dragos had been giddy with the prospect of more death and destruction to come.

And Tavia had been forced to bite back her horror as the body counts began to soar for the second night in a row.

In the hours since she'd arrived at his lair, she'd resolved in her mind that there was likely only one place that she would have the opportunity to be alone with Dragos. It turned her stomach to think of letting him touch her, of putting herself anywhere near him, let alone in his bed, but she would do it if that proved the only way.

She sat on a sofa in his beautifully appointed living room, listening to his sadistic laughter and animated conversation on the other side of the closed door. The Minion posted in the room kept an eagle eye on her, the dull glint of his soulless gaze sending a ripple of contempt crawling up her spine. The inaction and sense of powerlessness over everything Dragos had accomplished was driving her crazy. She had to do something to thwart him, if her plan to kill him would have to wait any longer.

She stood up abruptly, sending the Minion across the room into stiff alertness. "I've been sitting here for more than an hour. I need to use the bathroom."

The Minion hesitated, then gestured toward a powder room just outside in the hallway. Tavia walked over at a nonchalant pace, sagging against the door as she closed it behind her. She felt inside her bra for the item she'd been carrying with her since she'd left Chase's Darkhaven earlier that morning.

The silver vial of Crimson was warm from her skin, the wax-sealed cork stopper still snugly in place on top of the deadly dose. All she needed was the chance to put the powder down Dragos's throat. The fact that the drug would deliver a writhing, agony-filled death probably shouldn't have given her so much satisfaction. But she wanted him to suffer. For all the evil he'd enacted during his too-long lifetime, she wanted Dragos to die slowly and horrifically.

She tucked the vial back into her bra and carefully opened the door, peering around it to the living room. The Minion hadn't moved. Genetically speaking, he was only human, so he didn't so much as blink with notice when she flashed out of the bathroom and down the hall with swift Breed agility.

Tavia followed the electronic vibration of computer equipment emanating from the stairwell at the far end of the hallway. Dragos's operation command center, she guessed.

Someone typed on a keyboard, machinery humming nearly imperceptibly from below. Tavia took the steps silently, faster than the Minion technician could track her. Her strength was gaining every day now, along with her inhuman speed and dexterity. She grabbed both sides of his head and gave his neck a hard, lethal twist. She eased his dead bulk down without a sound, then stowed his body in a nearby supply closet.

A wall of monitors glowed with various security feeds and running programs. Tavia scanned them all, absorbing as much of Dragos's command center data as she could. One of the computers – the one the Minion had been typing on – showed an open database, accessed by his log-in credentials. Tavia searched the system menu for applications that might shed more light on Dragos's operation.

After a couple of tries, she'd pulled up a wealth of intel, including the records on three other Gen One females still active in Dragos's program. She read their names and locations with an ache in her chest – three half sisters, none of whom knew of the others' existence. "I will find you," she promised them all now in a fierce whisper. "This will be over one day."

Still more data opened to her as she searched deeper into the hard drive. Reams of Dr.

Lewis's study findings, treatment procedures, and prescription formulas. Records on the Hunter program, including dossiers on the entire assassin population.

Good lord, everything the Order needed to crush Dragos's operation from the inside was located right here in front of her.

She had to find a way to get it to them. Calling it in would be impossible. There was simply too much intel and too little time. There had to be a better way.

And so there was, she realized.

She brought up a DOS prompt on the computer and typed in a command. The dark screen filled with line after line of code and parameters. When she saw the one she needed, she committed it to memory in an instant.

But how to get this to the Order?

She raced over to the dead Minion in the supply closet and searched him for a cell phone. Found it in the front pocket of his Dockers. Her fingers flew over the touch pad.

No sooner had she finished and sent the message than she sensed a shift of movement in the hallway above. She shoved the phone back in the Minion's pocket and dashed upstairs … right into Dragos and his four assassin guards.