Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTEEN)

TAVIA WOKE UP screaming in the dark.

Her skin felt shredded and raw, on fire one second, the next chilled to the bone. She thrashed and bucked – only to realize she was flat on her back in a large bed, restrained at her wrists and ankles by the thick, braided ropes of the drapery cords from the other room. She dimly recalled being brought back into the bedroom after she'd refused the food and drink, too ill to stomach either one. She'd tried to tell her captor that she wouldn't attempt escape – that she couldn't attempt it, the worse her body began to rebel.

She'd begged him to let her go, pleaded for his mercy. He'd shown her none.

Tavia tried to fight the ties that held her down on the mattress now, but she had no strength. Her limbs were heavy, her head woozy, stomach pitching and roiling.

Oh, God … what was happening to her?

She was so sick now, sicker than she'd ever been before. She ached all over, racked with a full-body tremble that seemed to originate deep down in her marrow. Her senses seemed at war with themselves, swinging from drained and weak to hyperalert. She felt her pulse drumming in her temples and in the sides of her neck. Her heart banged against her rib cage, beating so fast and hard it was a wonder the organ didn't explode.

Eyes squeezed shut, she made another futile attempt to wrest her hands free of the cord that secured them to the headboard. She yanked and pulled, moaning sharply as the tender skin at her wrists began to chafe.

"Easy now." Warm, strong fingers clamped around both her wrists. Her captor, Chase. She hadn't even heard him come into the room, but there he was, enveloped in the gloomy shadows. His touch was firm but gentle, his voice a rough whisper that skated over her brow. "Be still, Tavia. You're okay."

His eyes searched hers, flecks of amber fire smoldering in his scowling gaze. She didn't want his deep voice to soothe her, any more than she wanted his large palm to ease some of the burn from the restraints he had placed on her.

Yet she did find some comfort in his low-murmured words. His thumb idly stroking her wrists calmed her jagged pulse. Against her will, she stilled, her senses responding to him like the tide stretching to meet the moon.

"Let me go," she said, still wanting to deny what she was feeling. Her body wasn't her own right now, but she hadn't completely lost hold of her mind. Not yet, anyway.

At least she was dressed now. Before he'd returned her to the bedroom that had apparently become her prison, Chase had given her a shopping bag from a Back Bay clothing store and allowed her to use the bathroom to freshen up and change out of the hotel bathrobe into a black track suit. He'd bought her a bra and panties as well, and she didn't want to know how closely he'd had to look at her while she'd slept earlier that day in order to size her up so perfectly. But despite his reassurances, she wasn't okay. She felt something slipping loose inside of her, a part of her breaking away, drifting out of her reach. She struggled against the feeling of helplessness, panic rising, shortening her breath.

"Let me go," she panted. She couldn't bite back her moan or the desperate whimper that leaked from between her lips. The tide of her illness was dragging her under again. She didn't know how long she could fight it. "Please … I think I'm dying. I have to … get out of here …" As her voice faded into the haze that swamped her senses, she felt Chase's gentle touch on her brow. With tender care that didn't seem possible, coming from the monster she'd seen him to be, he swept aside some of the damp hair that clung to her forehead. His touch lingered, tracing a light trail along the curve of her cheek, then the line of her rigidly held jaw.

"Please," she whispered, but her voice was nearly gone now. Consciousness was dimming behind her heavy eyelids, pulling her back toward an inescapable sleep.

As her mind began to slide into darkness, she thought she saw a glimpse of humanity in his eyes, a note of regret in the faint twist of his mouth as he gazed down at her.

But he said nothing.

And then she was drifting further away from her reality, darkness rising up to take her. She turned her head from him, her cheeks wetting with hot tears as he slowly withdrew from her side and disappeared back into the shadows.

HUNTER ARRIVED at the Order's new location that night, just ahead of a blustery winter storm. Lucan and the other warriors had hurried to help him unload the box truck he'd commandeered back in New Orleans, which carried a wealth of intel taken from one of Dragos's fallen lieutenants.

A fireproof safe held printed laboratory records and multiple storage drives of encrypted computer data. There was a pair of large, stainless steel drums, heavy bastards, crowned with polished metal, hydraulically sealed caps that looked like steering wheels. Only one of the cryogenic containers housed viable genetic specimens; the other sported a huge dent and a compromised lid, dried blood spattered down the tank's side.

No need for Lucan to guess how the damage was done. Hunter had also brought the shattered pieces of an ultraviolet-charged polymer obedience collar that had broken off its wearer in combat. Dragos's homegrown assassin had been sent to protect the laboratory haul with his life. Thanks to Hunter's deadly skills, the assassin had failed. And now the boon of that confiscated lab intel belonged to the Order.

Hunter had delivered the shards of another broken UV collar too – this one freed from the neck of a thirteen-year-old boy. Corinne's son, Nathan. Like all of the Breed, the youth took his eye and hair color from his mother. This boy's ebony hair was only a shadow on his skull, shaven clean in the typical assassin way. Just one of many methods Dragos used – and by far the least cruel of them all – to strip away individuality and raise his assassins to be emotionless tools of destruction from the time they were little children.

Lucan eyed the deadly youth with sober reservation, noting how Nathan hung back from the rest of the group that had gathered inside the new headquarters to greet Hunter and Corinne. The boy watched stone-faced as his mother was quickly ensconced in warm hugs by the other Breedmates of the Order. His seawater gaze was flat and unreadable, moving in detached observation from Tess and the baby and the rest of the chattering females, to Gideon and Rio and Kade, who had crowded around the cryo containers to inspect the newly arrived intel along with Nikolai, Brock, Dante, and Tegan.

"The boy could be a problem," Lucan remarked, turning his attention toward Hunter, who stood beside him in the great room. He too was watching Nathan in silent consideration. "I don't like the idea of bringing one of Dragos's foot soldiers into my home, no matter how young the little killer might be."

Hunter cocked his head almost imperceptibly. "You had similar reservations about me, if I recall. I haven't murdered anyone in their sleep so far. Not even Chase."

Lucan stared at the typically stoic former assassin. "Humor – from you? Well, I'll be goddamned." He exhaled a chuckle that managed to take away some of the weight on his shoulders. Some, not all. "It just concerns me that the boy has been plucked out of one bad situation and dropped into another. We're not exactly equipped to help a fucked-up kid like that get back in touch with his feelings."

Hunter nodded. "I take full personal responsibility for him. Nathan will be my problem to manage, not the Order's."

"He means that much to you?"

Hunter nodded again, more solemnly this time. "He does. Because he means so much to her." Lucan followed the warrior's golden gaze to petite, beautiful Corinne. The pair's eyes met and held, and Lucan could practically feel the electricity thrumming in the air between them. "What about the rest of the assassins still carrying out Dragos's commands?" It was a grim reminder, but a fact none of them could afford to ignore. "Part of your mission with the Order is to help us hunt down and neutralize all assets where Dragos is concerned. Even the youngest assassins he commands pose a very real, very lethal threat."

When Hunter's attention swung back to Lucan, it was cold with conviction. "My mission to see his operation dismantled hasn't changed, nor has my vow to you and the rest of the Order. What I'm doing now, I do for Corinne. And for her boy."

Lucan grunted. "And you think he's different from the others like him?"

Hunter was thoughtful, and it took him a moment to answer. "Nathan has something none of us ever knew. Or not for very long. He is loved. That's possibly the only thing strong enough to undo the worst of Dragos's training."

The observation – the very human comprehension of the miraculous power of love – came as a shock to Lucan, especially espoused from this male's lips. But hell, he could hardly argue. Without Gabrielle's love, he could only imagine where he'd be. Heading swiftly down the same dark path toward Bloodlust that Chase was currently on, he had no doubt.

Lucan put his hand on Hunter's massive shoulder. "I hope to hell you're not mistaken about this, my man. For her sake, and the boy's."

"I do not make mistakes," he replied, the level, almost robotic statement showing a glimpse of the flawless soldier he'd been born and bred to be. But when he met Lucan's gaze, his eyes held a determination that was nothing if not personal. "I stake my own life on this decision, Lucan. I will not let you down. Neither will Nathan."

A tendon ticked in Lucan's jaw as he considered the myriad potential risks, and the trust Hunter was asking from him. Finally, he gave a firm nod. "Bring the boy over."

In moments, Hunter had ushered him forward, his large hand resting on the lean, athletic shoulder of the young killer to steer him toward where Lucan waited, apart from the activity still going on around them in the room.

"Nathan. This is Lucan. He is leader and founder of the Order."

The boy's eyes were blank, unblinking as he stood there mutely. Lucan offered his hand.

"Nathan," he said, tipping his head in greeting as he waited for the boy to respond. He thought his hand would go unaccepted, but then, at the last second, Nathan extended his as well. There was uncertainty in the move, the boy's gesture more a mimic of Lucan's than understanding of what was expected of him. But it was a start. Lucan briefly clasped the cool, startlingly strong fingers in his grasp. "You are safe here, son. You are welcome here."

Eyes seeming to stare right through him, Nathan retracted his hand and fisted it at his side. "Hunter!" squealed a little girl's voice amid a chaotic clamber as she burst into the room, her fine blond hair bouncing. "Hunter, you finally made it back!"

Mira tore into the middle of the gathering like a minicyclone, energetic and loud, totally uninhibited in her joy. She threw herself into the big Gen One's arms, giggling as he hoisted her up and held Mira so her face was level with his own. His smile was affectionate, more patient than most might give the lethal male credit for.

Then again, it had been Mira who'd been instrumental in bringing Hunter into the Order's fold. Since that time, the two had become genuine, if unlikely, friends.

"Do you realize you almost missed Christmas?" she informed him, part scold, part girlish incredulity. Her attention diverted just as quickly as it had arrived, her petite face swiveled around to study the newcomer in their midst. "Who's that?"

"Corinne's son," Hunter replied. Then, with a meaningful pause: "His name is Nathan." She scrambled out of Hunter's arms and went right up to the teenage assassin. "Hi, Nathan. I'm Mira."

He didn't say anything, just stared at her as though she were some strange new species he'd never encountered before. Lucan wondered if the boy had ever been that close to a female besides his mother, even a pint-size one like Mira. The poor kid wasn't going to know what hit him if she decided to make him one of her personal projects as she seemed to have done with Kellan Archer.

Leaving the kids to their awkward introductions, Lucan motioned for Hunter to follow him as he strode over to join the conversation taking place around the recovered lab intel. "Let's get some juice on these cryo tanks before their backup batteries die. Hunter, there're a couple of unclaimed bedrooms, so if you and Corinne want to take your pick and settle in, go ahead."

He glanced over to where Nathan was currently being shown the huge evergreen near the fireplace, Mira excitedly explaining that she was making decorations for it and would enjoy his help when the time came to hang them. Lucan shook his head and exhaled a sympathetic chuckle. To Hunter he added, "Have Mira show Nathan to Kellan's room. The two boys can bunk together."