Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE)

JENNA HUNG UP THE PHONE and leaned back in her chair. Even though her heart was banging with adrenaline over the news she'd just heard, a heavy weariness settled over her like lead anvils perched on her shoulders.

"How's Claire hanging in down there in Newport?" Gideon asked, looking over from his continued experiments on the UV collars across the room from her in the tech lab.

"She's all right. She's safe, and things are quiet for now."

While the rest of the compound was glued to television reports of the Rogue attacks, Jenna and Gideon had thrown themselves into their work. After the inadvertent detonation of the other collar, he had chased down the programmical key to all of the collar activation sequences. Gideon had even managed to get one of the collars in his collection to show up on a GPS map, which had him very excited. It helped, having something to do besides wait for word, and then wait some more.

Jenna rubbed at the ache in her glyph-marked neck, a product of too many hours without sleep and too much worry about Brock and rest of the Order. Worry for the entire world, in fact. Nothing else seemed important at all in light of the events of the past twenty-four hours. At least everyone she cared for was safe and accounted for. "Lucan and Mathias Rowan sent a pair of Agents down to Newport to guard the Darkhaven while Reichen is overseas. Claire says she's in good hands."

Gideon nodded. "Glad to hear it. I gather she was able to do some digging into the question of her parents' deaths before all hell broke loose last night?"

"Yeah," Jenna replied. "That's why she called, actually, aside from letting us know she's okay. Claire contacted the relief organization her mom worked for back in the fifties and they looked up information about the rebel raid on the village. It turns out several people were killed that day, three from the relief organization and four more from the village."

"Claire's father being one of them?" When she shrugged, Gideon set down the broken ring of black polymer he'd been working on. With lowered brows, he regarded her over the rims of small, pale blue sunglasses perched on the end of his nose. "Claire's father wasn't killed?" "No one seems able to say for sure. According to accounts at the time from the villagers who witnessed the raid, he was shot multiple times. Mortally wounded, the same as Claire's mother and the others."

"But?" Gideon prompted, scowling now.

"But there's no record of his body being recovered."

"Holy shit."

"Yeah." Jenna shook her head, still a bit numbed by the idea. "He was declared dead like the rest of the victims and simply ceased to exist from that day forward. For all anyone knows, he could have gotten up and walked away."

"Not if he was mortal," Gideon replied, his eyes serious, devoid of doubt.

"Right." This news from Claire had only added to Jenna's certainty that she was on the right track. If it weren't for Dylan's steadfast insistence that her father was just an average, human, run-of-the-mill asshole, all the question marks on Jenna's theory would be eliminated.

"Jen?" As if conjured by thought alone, Dylan now stood in the open doorway of the tech lab. She looked shell-shocked and pale. In her hand was a yellowed square of paper.

"Hey," Jenna said, getting up to meet her. Dylan looked so stricken and upset, Jenna pulled her into a tight hug. "What's wrong? Did something happen?"

The Breedmate's eyes were searching, a little lost. "With everything that's going on, I guess I was feeling kind of homesick today. I started missing my mom. After she died last year, I took a small box of mementos from her apartment. I hadn't looked through all of it, just enough to see that it contained some letters and postcards, souvenirs from her travels. Silly things, really. She was sentimental, had the most open, loving heart I've ever known."

Jenna brought Dylan inside and guided her to the empty desk chair. "Tell me what this is about."

"I just went through everything in that box. At the bottom, I found a sealed envelope. This was inside it." She placed the piece of paper on the desk. Something was written in the upper right corner in loopy, buoyant handwriting: Zael. Mykonos, '75. Dylan stared up at Jenna meaningfully. "I was born the following year."

No question what she was getting at. "But your mom and dad were already married, I thought. You have two older brothers."

Dylan nodded. "And in 1975, my mom left for a few months. She went to Greece all by herself, just picked up and left. She told me a few years ago that she'd wanted to divorce my dad, but he begged her to take him back. But she never told me about this. She never told me about him."

Dylan flipped the piece of paper over. It was a close-up photograph of an impossibly beautiful man, bare-chested and tanned golden brown, sitting on a white sand beach. His sensual mouth curved in a knee-melting smile for the person who took the snapshot, presumably Dylan's mother.

"You think she had an affair with this guy?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'd say the odds are pretty damn good."

Jenna picked the photo up so she could look closer. Purely for clarification purposes, of course. She stared transfixed at the flawless, muscular body and the mane of copper-shot blond hair. His face was unlined, ageless. His dark-lashed eyes were piercing blue, the color of tropical, turquoise waters. Wise and unearthly.

And slung around his strong wrist was a tooled leather band with a hammered silver emblem affixed to it … a teardrop suspended over the cradle of a crescent moon.

TAVIA'S STOMACH LURCHED as the black helicopter swooped down over the sunlit water toward an isolated, tree-choked island several miles off the coast of Maine. Twenty minutes after the Minion at the police station had contacted Dragos, the dark-suited pilot, also Minion, arrived to take her to a private helipad at the top of a Boston high-rise.

She absorbed every detail of the journey, cataloging landmarks and locations in case she needed to pass the intel along to the Order. Although none of it would matter if her plan to kill Dragos failed and she ended up dead in the next few hours.

The pilot put the helicopter down on a slab of cleared concrete behind a fortresslike residence. It was the only building on the forbidding crag of granite and tall pines. No way off the island on her own, unless she wanted to swim a freezing Atlantic current or sprout wings. "This way." The Minion climbed out of the cockpit and waited for her to follow. They crossed the yard against a howling, brittle wind, and up toward the back of the sprawling house. The door opened from within, and another Minion, this one bristling with a semiautomatic rifle in his hands, motioned for her to enter.

She thought she'd been prepared to face Dragos, but the sight of him waiting for her inside the house put ice in her marrow. "Miss Fairchild. This certainly is an unexpected pleasure."

He was flanked by four Gen One assassins, dressed in head-to-toe black. They had weapons too, guns and knives at the ready, strapped across their hard chests and fastened to their muscled thighs. But it wasn't the arms that gave them their lethal air, nor their severe, shaved heads and black UV collars clamped around their powerful necks. It was the lack of mercy in their eyes.

The lack of any emotion whatsoever.

They were killing machines, and any hope she had of ending Dragos's life swiftly on her arrival was stalled by the understanding that these four Hunters would see her dead in less than an instant after she made the first move.

As threatening as the group of them was, it was Dragos's presence in front of her that put a shudder in her bones. Something about him had chilled her instinctively when she first met him at the senator's office. Now, understanding the depth of his depravity and evil, she was physically repulsed. She used the faint convulsion to effect fear and relief. "I had nowhere else to go. Thank you for allowing me to see you."

Dragos eyed her suspiciously. "You've been with the Order all this time."

Not a question, an accusation. "I didn't think I'd ever escape them."

"And here I'd guessed you'd gone willingly," he replied, guarded, scrutinizing. "I thought perhaps Sterling Chase had found a way to charm you."

"Charm me?" She forced an affronted scoff. "He abducted me. Interrogated me. He … beat me."

He studied her bruises and the lacerations that were already healing. Nostrils flaring, he sniffed slightly, testing the scent of her against what she was telling him. "Did he seduce you?" She couldn't hope to deceive him completely. He could smell the truth on her skin, she knew that much without a doubt. She hung her head as if in shame. "He used my body against me. He made me drink his blood."

"Hmm." He sounded satisfied with her answer but displeased with the facts. "That is unfortunate, Tavia. The bond is unbreakable."

"Only by death," she replied, the words catching in her throat, though not out of regret as she hoped he would be tempted to believe. He lifted her chin and she forced a cold hatred into her eyes – not so hard when the hatred was reserved for the vampire standing before her. "Why didn't you tell me who I was? Why did you keep the truth of my origins a secret from me?" He backed away, out of her reach. His icy eyes narrowed in calculation, that spark of suspicion visiting them again. His Gen One guards inched forward, ready to protect their creator.

Tavia's heart rate sped as she fought to keep Dragos engaged, to keep him intrigued enough to trust her. This was her only chance; she couldn't give him any room for doubt.

"Why did you keep me weak when I could have served you so much better if I was strong?" The vehemence of her determination to win him over made her eyes flash with hot amber. "I could have been something more to you if you'd only allowed me the truth."

His dark brows rose slightly. A slow smile put a faint twist to his mouth. "You served me very well, Tavia. You were more than useful. And I would have told you everything – I would've freed this glorious part of you – when the time was right."

"Instead you left me defenseless. You didn't give me any chance." She played to his ego, and to the obvious attraction she felt radiating from him as her disgust for him made her Breed nature spike to life inside her. "You had to know the Order held me. You had to know they would question me about you, abuse me. They refused to believe me when I told them I didn't know who you were or where they could find you."

"And if they'd known the truth about you, they would have killed you for it," he replied evenly. "I would have, if I'd been them."

Cold words from a cold, black heart. She believed him, and it took all her strength of will to force the next words from her lips. "You were the first person I thought of after I escaped. I sought you out because you're my creator. The only one I can turn to. You are the only one strong enough to defeat the Order."

"And so I have," he answered, smiling with self-satisfaction. He considered her long and hard now, his obvious interest making her skin crawl. "I've been fascinated with you from the time you were a child, Tavia. You're so lovely. My homegrown, personally designed Eve." He shrugged. "Oh, the others have their charms as well, but I find I am particularly attracted to you." The others, he said. Not past tense, but present. She thought back to Dr. Lewis's files – the ones detailing deceased patients and the ones she hadn't had the chance to read before the clinic was destroyed. So, there were other lab-created Breed females who'd survived the prolonged medical trials and treatments? She had to be sure. If she had sisters, she had to find a way to help them.

Dragos was still studying her, his chilling eyes like dead fingers on her skin. "When I am king and all the humans and Breed alike bow to me – very soon now," he added, grinning with arrogant certainty, "I will require a suitable queen."

Tavia swallowed the bile that crept into her throat at the very idea.

"I think I would enjoy having you at my side, in my bed." He grunted, amused by something. "My gift to you will be the Order in chains. You can kill Sterling Chase personally if you like." The words – the very thought of Chase or the others in the Order falling into Dragos's hands – hit her like a slap. He reached out, lightly stroked her cheek. She struggled not to gag, aware of the Gen One assassins watching her like hawks.

She could chew Dragos's hand off in an instant, but she needed to kill him. And for that, she needed to get close. God help her, intimate, if necessary.

"Come," he told her. "It's past sundown overseas. I was just about to sit down and watch the news coverage. You will join me, Tavia, and witness the kingdom that is soon to be ours."