Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWELVE)

"POLICE TODAY had no comment when asked whether the incident that occurred last night at the Hyatt Regency downtown was in any way connected to the recent killing of Senator Robert Clarence. Channel 5 has unconfirmed reports that at least one body was recovered from the scene. However, law enforcement officials are not willing to disclose any further details pending a complete invest – "

Dragos silenced the large flat-screen TV and tossed the remote behind him onto the bed. Naked, his glyph-covered skin still glistening with sweat and spilled human blood, he retrieved his pants from where they'd hit the floor a few hours ago and stepped into them.

"Get dressed," he told the pair of females who'd serviced his recent needs, basic and carnal both. The two humans were young and stupid, plucked from local stock on the mainland last night and brought the handful of miles offshore to his hidden island lair. They'd taken one look at his chauffeured car as it waited at a stoplight in their sorry little town and had climbed inside as soon as he curled his finger at them in invitation.

It would be their last mistake; as with all of his playthings, he didn't intend that either one of them would live to make it out of his lair in one piece.

Dismissing the thought of them already, he strode out of the room. Since relocating to the remote fortress off the coast of Maine more than a month ago, he'd managed to get most of his operation back online and functional. Systems had been in place on a contingency basis for years, and his Minion staff of technology and laboratory experts worked around the clock to see that everything continued to run smoothly.

He had other Minions as well, embedded around Boston and elsewhere, a veritable legion of human mind slaves whose eyes and ears – and sometimes their killing hands – were loyal solely to him. It was those Minions who'd reported last night's hotel break-in to him, hours before the newshounds at the local television station started sniffing around the incident.

Dragos knew the cop who'd been killed inside the suite belonged to him. He also knew it was the work of the Order – specifically, Sterling Chase, who'd done the killing. The warrior's escape from police custody had cost Dragos several Minion pawns already, not the least of whom was Senator Robert Clarence himself.

Not that Dragos hadn't been making quick and prudent use of the upwardly mobile human's political connections from the moment he'd written his first contribution check to the senator's election campaign. In fact, the senator might prove even more useful in death than he had while he was breathing.

A pity to have to forfeit Tavia Fairchild this early in the game, however.

The news that she'd gone missing overnight hadn't come as a complete surprise. She'd been under the watch of his Minion and the two federal agents at the hotel. With the raid of the suite by Sterling Chase, it seemed almost certain that the female was in the Order's hands now. Would they kill her when they realized what she was? he wondered idly.

No matter. She wasn't the first of her kind, nor the last. And once the Order figured that out, it would be too late for them to act on the knowledge anyway.

Dragos was smiling as he entered his command center. Ignoring the lowered heads of his Minion staff on his approach, he strode to the heart of the operations room and sat down in the seat hastily vacated by one of the technicians. He called up an encrypted file directory on one of the computers and watched with pride as the monitor filled with building schematics and security clearance codes for numerous government and infrastructure facilities. More intel loaded on-screen: layouts of power plants, military operations, and transportation control rooms both in the United States and abroad. Political and corporate organizational structures. Top-secret documents that only a mole of consummate ability and years of dedicated effort could provide.

Dragos was looking at the means to topple mankind from the inside out. All that was left for him to do was open the door.

As he paused to admire the fruits of his own genius, his cell phone began to ring in his pants pocket. It was the line he used only for specific business – had, in fact, given the private number out to just two people. With Senator Clarence slaughtered two nights ago, that left just one other possible option.

"Drake Masters," he announced as he answered, giving the name his caller would be expecting to hear.

The United States' second in command cleared his throat. "Good morning, Mr. Masters. I hope I'm not calling at a bad time."

"Not at all," Dragos replied smoothly. Although his voice was calm and professional, his pulse spiked with the promise of a baited snare about to spring tight on unsuspecting prey. "And please, sir, call me Drake."

"Well, thank you, Drake," said the former university professor who was currently just one heartbeat away from arguably the highest seat of power in the world. He had also been a longtime friend and mentor to Robert Clarence, and the weight of his grief was evident in the faint rasp of the aging human's voice. "A terrible, terrible thing, what happened to Bobby. Our country lost a true patriot, one of the best. And I think you should know that he spoke very highly of you."

Dragos gave a mild chuckle before effecting a suitably sober tone as he spoke of his Minion. "The senator and I had a meeting of the minds, if you will. We shared a common dream for this country. Indeed, for all the world."

"I don't doubt that," the vice president agreed. "I realize you didn't know Bobby for very long, but you made quite an impression on him, Drake. You were practically all he talked about lately, especially in the last few days. He felt it was very important that you and I have the chance to sit down together and discuss how our interests for the country might mesh. Hell, the kid pretty much insisted that I make room for you on my calendar, so who was I to refuse?" "Bobby could be quite persuasive when it came to campaigning for what he believed in," Dragos said. "But then, wasn't that part of his charm?"

The human chuckled. "Right you are, Drake. Right you are. Listen, I wanted to apologize that we weren't able to connect last night as Bobby had arranged for us to do before he was …" The voice trailed off for a moment. "Obviously, a lot has changed over the past couple of days." "Of course. No need to apologize." But Dragos wasn't about to let the face-to-face meeting with the important politician slip through his fingers. "I wouldn't think of imposing on your time, sir, especially after you've just lost a close friend." He paused as if to compose himself. "You and I both have lost a good friend. Business can wait for another time."

"Actually," the human hedged, "I'm planning to be in Boston tomorrow afternoon for Bobby's funeral. Perhaps you and I could find some time to talk following the service."

"Certainly," Dragos said, working to keep the eagerness from his voice. All he needed was a few minutes alone with the human and he would own him completely. Dragos's lips parted with his growing smile, fangs filling his mouth in anticipation of the triumph soon to come. "Until tomorrow, sir."

CHASE STOOD IN FRONT of the bathroom sink in the Darkhaven's master suite, sewing up the last of his gunshot wounds from the other night. Spent cotton balls and gauze littered the deep black basin of the sink, all of it soaked and reeking of antiseptic and blood. It had been roughly seventy-two hours since he'd been injured at the police station. The wounds should be healed by now. That they still lingered wasn't a good sign at all.

Nor was the gnawing ache that rattled deep in his marrow, compelling him to hunt. To feed. To fill the void that would soon be endless, unquenchable.

His fingers shook around the drugstore sewing kit needle. His vision blurred at the edges of his sight, making it hard as hell to focus under the yellow glare of the bathroom lights. He blinked away the annoying jangle of his senses, gritting his teeth as he pushed the needle and quadrupled mending thread through the frayed skin above his left pectoral muscle. He tugged the last stitch tight, then made a rudimentary knot to tie the sutures off.

As he bit the tail of the thread free, he caught his reflection in the mirror. Haggard, dark- ringed eyes stared back at him in the glass. Sallow skin and gaunt cheeks aged him – not quite to the hundred-plus years of his true age, but easily a decade beyond the vibrant thirty that was his normal appearance as an adult member of the Breed. He looked tired and worn, on the verge of defeat.

Hell, he felt it too.

With a muttered curse, he tossed the needle into the sink with the rest of the rubbish. His breath was ragged as he pulled in a long breath, then pushed it out on a low growl. What the fuck was he doing, holing up in this godforsaken place, keeping a woman against her will in the other room? Even if she did prove to be something more than she seemed – even if she proved to be connected in some way to Dragos himself – who was he to be her judge and jury? He wasn't a part of the Order anymore. He hadn't been part of the Enforcement Agency in a long time either. From where he stood now, it wasn't that difficult to see himself through Tavia's frightened eyes. He was deranged, dangerous … a monster.

For what wasn't the first time, his eyes strayed to the small silver vial that rested on the edge of the black granite countertop. He'd found it in the bedroom, lying on top of his old desk with a handful of printed snapshots from the time when he'd called this Darkhaven home. He'd been unable to resist picking up the slender container with its damnable contents sealed inside. Even now his hand moved toward it as though drawn by an invisible tether.

Chase palmed the vial, the metal cold against his skin. The red wax that sealed the cork stopper felt smooth under the pad of his thumb. Inside the silver capsule was all that remained of a manufactured substance that had destroyed many lives the autumn before last – including that of his nephew, Camden.

The lab and the human who'd created the drug were long gone, but Chase had saved this last dose as a reminder to himself of the evil he'd helped destroy. And looking at it now, he had to acknowledge that he'd saved the poisonous sample for another reason too. It was his final out. His guarantee that if his struggle to resist Bloodlust became too much for him to bear, he could end it in a single moment.

A taste of Crimson was enough to turn him into a mindless, blood-crazed Rogue in an instant. Just as it had Camden and too many of the Breed youth's innocent friends last year. But inside the innocuous, polished silver vial was a deadly dose of the drug. More than enough to kill. Chase rolled the slim cylinder in his palm, seeing it for what it truly was: his suicide pill. He was halfway gone, all on his own. How much worse would he have to get before Crimson looked like his best option?

A stirring in the other room pulled his thoughts back to more immediate problems. Tavia was waking. She'd finally fallen asleep just before sundown, exhausted, slumped in the chair where he'd left her. Now it was deep night, and Chase had already been out for supplies and back while she'd slept. He set the Crimson down on the bathroom counter and walked out to the study.

She was sitting up now, the hotel robe wrapped around her like a blanket, her hands still restrained behind her. Her head lifted slowly as he entered the room, her movements heavy and listless. She groaned with the effort. Her tongue came out to wet her dry lips. "What time is it?" Chase shrugged as he approached her. "Around ten, I guess."

She groaned again, gave a miserable shake of her head. "Too long. I've never gone this long without my medicines."

"You'll feel better after you eat." Chase gestured to the end table beside her, where a paper deli bag and bottle of water sat. "I brought you a sandwich."

She winced as if the mere idea repulsed her. "I'm not hungry. I feel light-headed. I need to get out of here. My body aches everywhere and my skin … it feels too tight all over."

Chase grunted. She was practically describing how he felt right now, his body barely out of the racking wave of blood thirst that had ridden him most of the day and into the night. The suffering had been intense. The temptation to hunt and feed while he was out earlier tonight had nearly beaten him.

"Lean forward," he told Tavia as he hunkered down in front of her at the chair. Despite the look of mistrust in her eyes, she drooped against him as he reached around her to untie the drapery cord that bound her wrists at her back.

He didn't want to notice how good she smelled this close to his face, how her skin and hair still carried the faint fragrance of hotel soap and shampoo and the more intriguing scent that was hers alone. He tried to ignore the weight of her forehead on his bare shoulder and the fact that everywhere her body touched him, his senses smoldered with instant awareness. Her soft exhalation scorched him like fire as the restraints fell away from her hands and she sagged further into his arms.

Chase cupped his palm around her nape and drew back to look at her face. He searched for signs of illness in her flushed cheeks and glittering green eyes. Although he could see she was tired, taxed physically and emotionally, there was still a strength about her, a quiet defiance that seemed more instinct than conscious power. She was lovely, beauty and intelligence in her delicate but proud features.

And she was studying him now too.

Her gaze roamed his face, lingering on his mouth before lifting to meet and hold his eyes. "You look normal now," she murmured. "Different from before. Right now, you look human … but you're not, are you?"

"No," he said simply, deciding it was pointless to deny it when she'd already seen him at his worst.

She swallowed but didn't shrink away or dissolve into hysterics. She was calm and cool- headed, processing his admission in a cautious silence. "Did your family know? Is that why they left you?"

He scowled, confused now. "My family. What are you talking about?"

"This house," she said. "And the photos … I found them in the desk in the other room. There was a silver tray inside the drawer. It has a name engraved on it. Your name, right? Your name is Sterling Chase."

"The less you know about me, the better, Tavia."

"But Sterling is your name," she insisted, refusing to let it go.

"Chase," he muttered. "Nobody calls me Sterling. Not anymore."

She watched him now, studying him too closely for his liking. "What happened to your family, Chase? I saw the picture of you with a young woman and a boy. I just wondered if your wife – " Chase cut her off with a curse hissed under his breath. "She was my brother's mate. Not mine."

"Oh." Tavia's eyes left him then, a quick downward glance that made him feel more awkward than he should have. "From the way you were looking at her in the picture, I thought – " "You thought wrong," he replied, knowingly curt. He wasn't about to dredge up his past sins, let alone bare them for her judgment. Bad enough he had the burden of his own conscience when it came to this Darkhaven and the memories it held. "This was my home once," he told her. "But I was the one who left. I never wanted to see this place again."

"How long have you been gone?"

Her question caught him off guard, such a simple thing to ask. Although he didn't want to relive it, he found the answer slipping easily off his tongue. "It was a year ago this past fall. Just after Halloween."

He could still hear the percussion of the gunshot ringing in his ears. The devastated scream of his brother's mate, Elise, echoing into the night as her son – her only child – dropped lifeless to the ground. A beautiful teenage boy, turned Rogue on Crimson and shot dead by titanium rounds fired from Chase's pistol.

"Were you in love with her?"

Chase jolted out of his bleak recollections, a scowl bunching between his eyes. "I told you, she belonged to my brother."

"I heard you," Tavia said evenly. "But that's not what I asked."

"I'm not sure I've ever loved anyone," he murmured. "Christ, I'm not even sure I'm capable." It wasn't a sullen remark but the plain truth. He'd never thought about it before. Never said the words out loud until now.

He held Tavia's gaze, realizing just then that his palm was still wrapped around the back of her neck. Her pulse kicked against his fingertips, the fine tendons of her throat going taut as he held her in a loose but unrelenting grasp. He watched her lips part with her indrawn breath and felt a sudden, fierce urge to kiss her. A crazy impulse, but then he wasn't exactly operating on full sanity lately. He swallowed past the unwanted desire, his throat as dry as ash. "You should eat now," he said, releasing her to rise abruptly to his feet. "I brought you some clothes too. You can change into them after you've had some food."

"I told you, I'm not hungry," she said, pushing the sandwich away.

Chase shrugged. "Suit yourself."

He put as much distance between them as he could, moving to the far side of the study to pace an agitated track near the tall windows. The electronic shutters were closed and had been since the Darkhaven's residents moved away last year. But Chase's body knew it was night on the other side of the steel and glass. His veins throbbed with the knowledge, each hard beat of his pulse a reminder of the thirst he was trying so hard to deny.

"You're not well either," Tavia said, watching him pace and prowl from across the room. "Even if you're not … no matter what you truly are, I can see that you need medical attention. So do I."

He scoffed, a raw-sounding snarl low in his throat. "You don't need to worry about me. As for yourself, you don't seem as sick as you want me to believe."

"But I am," she insisted. "Whether or not you believe me, you're playing with my life by keeping me here like this. You've already killed several innocent people. Do you really want another life staining your hands?"

"None of them was innocent," he replied harshly. "They were Dragos's Minions, all of them. Soulless. Mindless. They were as good as dead long before I got to any of them."

"Minions," she said, watching him cautiously. "What do you mean, they were Dragos's Minions? At the police station, you tried to warn me that the senator was in danger. But then when you saw him, you said it was too late, that Dragos already owned him. What did you mean by that?"

She was genuinely confused, which only made his suspicion of her deepen. Either she truly was oblivious to Dragos and his machinations, or she was a stellar actor. Chase dismissed her with a curt flick of his hand. "Never mind. I've said too much as it is."

But she wouldn't let it go. "Tell me what this is really about. I'm just trying to understand – " "It might be better for you if you don't."

"Maybe you should have thought of that before you put me in the middle of it."

Her tone held no venom, just a bold frankness he had to respect. Chase looked at her, realizing she had a point. She was in deep now, all thanks to him. And while he couldn't be certain she would still be alive if he hadn't intervened with the senator and the Minion cop who'd been with her at the hotel, he had to admit he'd all but ensured her life would never return to its status quo of before.

Even if that status quo had been a lie.

There was still a part of him convinced she wasn't who she claimed to be, whether or not she knew it herself. He couldn't dismiss the feeling that she was something more than human. Something other. But what?

Could Dragos have that answer?

The thought had crossed his mind before, but now it nagged at him. It chilled him to think she might somehow be connected to Dragos, unwitting or otherwise. And deep down, in the part of him that was still committed to the Order's cause – still determined to see Dragos annihilated – Chase wondered if Tavia Fairchild might be useful in helping him get close to the enemy he meant to destroy.

His own life was already forfeit. He was fully prepared to go down in flames along with Dragos, if that's what it took to defeat him once and for all. After all, he had nothing left to lose. Had he stooped so low that he would be willing to gamble this woman's life as well? He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to that question.

On the other side of the study, Tavia moaned quietly and took her head in her hands. "Oh, God … it's getting worse. I really need to have my medicines. I need to get out of here …" She glanced at him then, and it was impossible to ignore the true suffering in her eyes. "Please," she said. "Won't you please … just let me go?"

Chase stared, trying to see through her game. But there was no guile in play here, only misery and fear and confusion. He knew the right thing would be to do as she asked and release her. And if he were a better man, he might have.