Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER SEVENTEEN)

SHE COULDN'T SLEEP. After a long, hot shower, Tavia dressed in her own clothes, then lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling in a state of quiet anticipation. Of what, she couldn't say. But no matter how she tried to close her eyes and take a much-needed rest, her body seemed to be running at a strange new calibration.

Her blood rushed in her ears and through her veins. Her muscles were tense with power, everything prickly and twitching with idle, unspent energy. She was about to sit up and work off the feeling with a brisk pace around her room when she heard the front door open.

Voices in the foyer: Aunt Sarah bringing Dr. Lewis inside and giving him a quick summary of why she'd called him to the house. The two of them spoke in hushed tones, from all the way up the hallway and around through the living room, but Tavia caught the basics of their conversation.

"Two full nights since she last took her medications," Aunt Sarah informed him, stress in her quiet voice.

Dr. Lewis's usual baritone was subdued, little more than a rumble that carried through the walls and into Tavia's room. "Any outward indication of systemic distress?"

"No. But she said she noticed … changes." This last word was whispered, yet heavy with significance.

Tavia sat up on the bed, concentrating on catching everything that was said.

"These changes occurred while she was with him?" Dr. Lewis asked.

"That was my assumption, yes."

A pause. "Was there contact with him, physical or … intimate in nature?"

Oh, God. Tavia winced, hating how every aspect of her life was open for discussion and dissection by everyone around her. She hated her prolonged medical condition the most for that reason alone. True privacy was something she'd never known.

"I don't know precisely what occurred between them," Aunt Sarah replied. "She said she was physically restrained. He asked a lot of questions. She mentioned nothing more than that."

"Mmm-hmm. And how did she present to you when she arrived back here today? Anything peculiar?"

Floorboards creaked softly as the pair began to move through the house, farther inside, still careful to keep their voices low. They stood near the head of the hallway, if Tavia could trust her hearing.

"She was warm to the touch but not fevered. And flushed in the face. As for the rest, I noted nothing unusual."

"Nothing else?" Dr. Lewis grunted. "That in itself is unusual. Forty-eight hours without medical suppression of the condition should have produced some kind of marked reaction.

We've seen it in all the others."

All the others? Tavia held her breath as a jolt of alarm went through her, as cold as ice. What is he talking about? What others?

"She complained of being tired," Aunt Sarah added. "I sent her to take a shower and rest a while."

"Is she still asleep?"

"Yes. In her bedroom down the hall."

"Good," Dr. Lewis said. "I'll go in and have a quick look before we wake her to assess her for in-clinic treatment."

Every tendon and nerve ending in her body was firing off like small explosions inside her as the footsteps neared her closed bedroom door. Her senses were hyperacute now, skin tingling as though rained upon by thousands of tiny needles. She jumped as the knob twisted and Dr. Lewis appeared in the slowly widening wedge of space behind the door.

"Oh. Tavia, you're awake." He smiled, a faint curve of his mouth, which was partially hidden within the whiskers of his graying beard. "Your aunt told me you had gone to take a little nap. I hope I didn't disturb your sleep."

She was too uptight to bother with being polite. "What's wrong with me, Dr. Lewis?"

"Don't you worry. That's why I'm here," he said, stepping inside. He carried the big leather case that held his house-call medical supplies. Tavia had seen that bag of cold instruments and bitter medicines more often over the course of her lifetime than she cared to recall.

"No, no. Sit," he said when she started to get up from the bed. "No need to trouble yourself with a thing. It's all under control now. You'll see, I'm going to fix you right up."

Tavia eyed him warily. "Something's happening to me."

"I know," he said, nodding soberly. "But there's no cause for alarm, I assure you. I'm going to administer a small booster treatment that's going to make you feel good as new. Even better than a week at the spa. How does that sound?"

Tavia barely resisted the urge to tell him she'd never stepped foot in a spa. Things like that were off limits to her on account of her delicate physiology and her extensive skin issues – a fact he well knew, having been her sole care provider since she was an orphaned infant. He was trying to be light and humorous, but there was a flatness to his voice. A dull gravity to his gaze. It made her shudder a little, deep in her bones.

He came over to where she sat on the edge of the bed. "Lift your sleeve, if you would, please?" She hesitated, then complied, slowly inching up the long sleeve of her sweater. "Everything looks all right with your skin," he told her. "That's marvelous, Tavia. Very encouraging."

He ripped open a sterile alcohol packet and dabbed the cold pad over her bared biceps. "How many others have you treated like me, Dr. Lewis?"

He looked up, clearly startled. "Excuse me?"

"Are there a lot with my condition?" she asked. "Who are they? Where do they live?" He didn't answer. Crushing the used alcohol wipe and foil packet in his fist, he pivoted away and tossed it into the nearby trash bin.

"I thought I was the only one," she said, unsure why this revelation was making her breath come so rapidly, her pulse kicking with a note of apprehension. With dread for an answer she suddenly wasn't all that certain she wanted to hear. "Why didn't you tell me there were others?" He chuckled lightly. "Somebody's been listening through the door. You always did have an overly inquisitive mind, Tavia. From the time you were a child."

He busied himself in his medical bag now, his voice coy, mildly patronizing. And frankly, it was pissing her off. "How many, Dr. Lewis? Have any of them died from this … illness I have?"

"Let's concentrate on making you better, okay? We can talk about everything once you're fully recovered."

"I don't feel sick."

"But you are, Tavia." He heaved a sigh as he withdrew several instruments from his bag. "You are a very sick young woman, and you were lucky this time. Next time, it might be another story."

Her instincts spiked toward alarm as she watched him fill a large syringe from a vial of clear liquid medicine he'd taken out of his case. He turned around then and came toward her with it, a chilling smile on his lips. "You'll feel a lot better in just a few moments."

Oh, hell no. Tavia flinched away, acting on pure survival impulse. She didn't know where it came from, nor did she know how she'd managed to move her body so quickly.

She was suddenly up and on the other side of her bed in the amount of time it took for the thought to form in her mind.

Dr. Lewis gaped. He cleared his throat, hardly missing a beat. "Now, let's not make this difficult, Tavia. I'm not here to hurt you. I only want to help."

He gently closed the door and walked toward her, syringe held fast in his hand. His smile had gone from chilling to menacing. Tavia's skin began to crawl, getting warm and tight. Her teeth ached, and she could feel her vision sharpening, narrowing in on him as if he were prey caught in her sights.

Dr. Lewis cocked his head and gave a soft cluck of his tongue. "Bad girl. Someone hasn't told the whole truth about where she's been or what she's been doing."

Tavia moved opposite him as he came around the foot of the bed. "The one who hasn't been telling the truth is you." As she spoke, she felt the scrape of her fangs against her tongue. "What the hell have you been giving me all these years? What have you done to me?"

"Tavia? Dr. Lewis?" Aunt Sarah's voice sounded on the other side of the closed door. "Is everything all right in there?"

"Aunt Sarah, stay out!" Tavia screamed. "Please don't come in!"

Her concern for her aunt was genuine, but there was a part of her that couldn't bear to let the older woman see her in this state. She didn't want to lose her aunt's love if she were to discover the girl she'd raised was, in fact, a monster.

"Tavia, what's going on – "

"It's not safe," she shouted. "Call for help, but don't come in. Dr. Lewis – "

"The girl has been compromised," he interrupted, speaking over her with unnerving calm. "The process has been activated."

The process? What the hell did that mean? Just what had Dr. Lewis been doing to her all these years? Tavia didn't get much chance to guess about it.

Dr. Lewis lunged for her. The long needle of the syringe started to come down toward her face in a swift, deadly arc. Tavia leapt out of its path, muscles and limbs moving in perfect concert, as effortless as breathing. One instant she was in front of her attacker, the next she was behind him, crouched and ready to spring.

No time to wonder if he realized he couldn't win against her. He came at her again, and she looked at him as though seeing him for the first time now. How had she missed the dull glint of his eyes before? Like a shark's eyes. Dead and cold. Soulless.

It was her new, clearer vision that let her see this, and she knew that her irises were amber bright by the faint glow that bathed Dr. Lewis's murderous face as he charged toward her, wielding his syringe like a weapon.

Tavia came up off the balls of her feet and took him down to the floor. As he fell, his head knocked into the edge of the bed frame. A bloodied gash opened up on his grayed scalp, spilling bitter copper red cells. Even with her newly attuned senses, she could smell a foul taint on him. He was human, and yet … not.

And he wasn't about to give up easily. He tried to stick her with the needle, but Tavia grabbed his wrist. Wrenched it until it snapped. He only grunted, even though the pain must have been excruciating. With a snarl boiling up her throat, Tavia twisted his broken limb and jammed the syringe into the old man's chest, plunging the contents.

Immediately he started to wheeze and cough. He sputtered a thick foam, eyes nearly popping out of his skull as his jaw went slack and spittle crept down onto his chin. The medicine was poison, at least to him. He convulsed into death, his last breath leaving on a choked rattle. Tavia leapt up and bolted for the hallway, frantic. She had to find Aunt Sarah and get them both out of there.

The older woman was on the phone in the kitchen. She spoke in a rush, her voice lowered to a careful whisper, unaware of Tavia's approach or the fact that Tavia could hear her as plainly as anything in this powerful new form that had overtaken her.

" – process has been activated. Yes, Master. Lewis is in with her now. Of course. I understand, Master."

Tavia's legs felt a bit unstable beneath her as she listened to her aunt speak. Strange words. An odd, flat intonation. Servile and unfeeling. Tavia had to work to find her voice. "Aunt Sarah?"

She abruptly hung up and wheeled around. "Tavia! Are you all right? What on Earth was going on in there? Where is Dr. Lewis?"

Tavia didn't even blink. Aunt Sarah's concern felt altogether false now. As false as Dr. Lewis's had proven to be. Sad with a sick, dawning comprehension, she said, "I killed him." "You – you what?"

"Aunt Sarah, who was that on the phone?"

She busied her hand over her cheery Christmas apron, brushing at nonexistent wrinkles. "It was, ah, Dr. Lewis's office. The way things sounded in there a moment ago, I thought I'd better call … to see about … having them … send …"

The lie died on her lips. Her face relaxed into a strange kind of calm. Emotionless.

Tavia shook her head, noting that Sarah's eyes had taken on the same flat luster that Dr. Lewis's had. She could see it now, her vision clearer than it had ever been. No more medicines to mute this preternaturally powerful part of her that had been living inside her, probably all her life.

Sarah moved back into the kitchen, away from Tavia. She pivoted to return the phone to its cradle.

"You betrayed me," Tavia said to the rounded bulk of her grandmotherly back. "All this time. You and Dr. Lewis both. You've lied to me."

"It wasn't you that we served."

The admission opened a cold pit in Tavia's chest. "What are you talking about? Who do you serve?"

"Our Master." Sarah turned to face her again. She had a butcher knife in her hand.

Dread and sorrow crept up Tavia's spine. "You would actually kill me?"

Sarah gave a small shake of her head. "Whether you live is up to him to decide. He owns you too. He's owned you from the very beginning, child."

"Him, who?" Tavia asked, but already a sickening thought was cleaving into her brain, as cutting as the edge of Sarah's knife. "Dragos."

She thought about Senator Clarence and what Sterling Chase had said about him. That Dragos already owned him. Now Aunt Sarah and Dr. Lewis too?

"Tell me what's going on," she demanded of the old woman. She moved forward, prepared to rattle the truth out of her if she had to.

"I have my instructions," Sarah replied evenly. And with that, with not even the slightest hesitation, she sliced the blade across her own throat.

Her body dropped to the creamy linoleum floor in a lifeless heap, blood pooling in a dark red slick beneath it.

Tavia stood there, numb and shaking, staring down at the corpse of the woman she'd never really known in truth. She felt bereft anyway. She'd just lost the only family she'd ever had. She also knew her house was no longer safe for her. Dr. Lewis and Aunt Sarah were dead, but there had to be others. Others who served this evil named Dragos.

He owns you too.

He's owned you from the very beginning, child.

Tavia shook off the debilitating feeling that rose on the wake of that thought.

She ran out of the house without looking back.

Everything had changed now, and she could never go back. Not to this house that had been the only home she'd ever had, nor to the life she'd been living for all of her twenty-seven years. A life that had been nothing but a terrible, monstrous lie.