Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR)

DESPITE HIS BODY pulsing with obvious need, he placed her down on the bed as if he thought she were made of glass.

His transformed eyes were throwing off fire, heating her skin as he let his gaze roam over her face. When he spoke, his voice was barely more than a growl. "This time, we're taking it slow." He prowled up onto the mattress with her, crouched on all fours above her like a big cat. "This time, I want to give you what you want … but not until you're screaming for it."

Oh, God.

The anticipation of what he might mean was nearly enough to undo her. She lay back and let him touch her, his fingertips skating from her forehead, cheek, and chin, to the tender hollow at the base of her throat, where her pulse hammered in rapid beats. He took his time studying her, tracing the flaring, arching tangle of color on her skin.

"So beautiful," he murmured thickly. "How could you be led to think you were anything less than perfect? I could kill Dragos for that reason alone."

She heard the restrained fury in his voice, felt it in the hard pound of his pulse, which all but filled her ears, filled her senses. But his touch was gentle, reverent. So very careful. The first brush of his lips across hers was warm and indulgent, a lazy crawl that sucked all the breath from her lungs. His tongue slipped inside, sweeping between her teeth before testing the sharp tips of her fangs. True to his word, he took the kiss slowly, not breaking contact until she was melting beneath him, awash in the pleasure of his mouth on hers.

"You taste like heaven," he drawled against her parted lips. "So pure and clean and bright. God, what you do to me."

She couldn't speak, could only fist her hands in the quilted coverlet on the bed and hold on as his kiss traveled lower. His lips and tongue were moist and hot on her breasts, teeth and fangs grazing her pebbled nipples as he moved down her body in a maddening, pleasurable path. He kissed her belly and tongued the indentation of her navel, and then his mouth was drifting over the flare of her hip bone and down onto the tender flesh of her inner thigh. She moaned as his warm breath fanned her sensitive skin. Gasped as his slick tongue traced the cleft of her body. Shuddered on an indrawn cry as he began to suckle the tight bud of her sex, kissing her with the same slow, sensual attention he'd lavished on her mouth.

"Feels so good," she whispered, her fangs sharp and cool, the long points filling her mouth. Tavia arched into his kiss, her hips moving of their own accord, every inch of her alive and on fire, his to command. She couldn't fight the pleasure he stoked within her, could only let herself go as he brought her to the sheerest height of sensation, then tumbled her over the edge. Her orgasm splintered at her core, spreading its light into her limbs like warm, sun-spangled rain. She let it carry her away, leaving all the hurt and ugliness of the past twenty-four hours long behind her as Chase's mouth continued its blissful assault on her senses.

She was still panting, her body still reverberating with pleasure, as he climbed onto her with hungry eyes. His lips were glossy with her juices, sweet with the taste of her own climax as he caught her mouth in a deep, bone-melting kiss. Their fangs tangled and clashed, the scrape of their razored tips an unexpectedly erotic sensation.

Tavia's body was molten, needful for more of him even before the thrumming heat of her release had yet to ebb. She clawed at his back and shoulders as he kissed her, feeling the swell of another climax building. Its deep ache made something animal rouse within her. She nipped at his lower lip, a bite nearly hard enough to draw blood. Her voice felt like ash in her throat, hardly recognizable to her own ears. "I want you inside me."

His answering growl was a rumble that vibrated in her bones. "Patience," he rasped, his glowing eyes flashing with dark amusement. "I haven't showed you all the other ways I can make you come."

He caught her lips in another long kiss. This time, his tongue went deep, filling her mouth as he reached down between them and inserted his fingers into the tight sheath of her sex. He probed her in rhythm with his kiss, pushing deep into her core while his hot mouth plundered her from above. Her body clenched around him, trying to hold him inside even as the friction of his movement made her thrust and mewl with pleasure.

"You're so wet," he murmured hotly. "You feel like silk. So hot and tight around my fingers. I could come just feeling you like this."

He moved his hips against the side of her thigh, the thick ridge of his erection as hard as steel but smooth as velvet. She wanted to feel him filling her, desire for him making everything female inside her coil with greedy hunger. She exhaled a wordless protest as he withdrew his touch, but then the slick pressure of his fingertips met her clitoris and her cry became a choked gasp, sensation jolting through her. He stroked and rubbed the sensitive little knot, swirling his thumb over it as his fingers delved back into her cleft. Her climax came swiftly, ripple after ripple, her sheath contracting in tiny waves. Her voice was ragged, torn from her on a shout of release that she tried to muffle in the strong curve of his neck.

With a primal-sounding snarl, he brought his hips down over hers and lowered himself until his thick shaft rested between her wet thighs. Without entering her, he began a slow melding of their bodies, his cock nestled in the cleft of her core. He moved against her, lifting his body weight, then easing it down again, teasing her with the hot, wet promise of penetration. She was already ripe with arousal; a few torturous strokes was all it took before she was catapulted into yet another shattering release.

"Christ, you are lovely like this, Tavia." He watched her come, his gaze searing and rapt, the amber glow of his eyes bathing her face and skin in delicious heat. His own desire flared in dark hues over the beautiful pattern of his dermaglyphs, a churning storm of color that painted his strong arms and torso in tempestuous burgundy, gold, and indigo. He shuddered with his next slow thrust, which set the head of his penis against the mouth of her womb. "Ah, fuck. I can't wait any longer. I have to be in you."

He pushed inside on a low growl, seating himself to the hilt.

With a hard grimace, he rocked into her, riding her hard. She couldn't stop the rising tide of sensation that washed over her with every deep thrust of his body. No more than she could stop the primal urge that made her rise up to take the hard bulk of his shoulder between her teeth. Release poured through her as she bit down on him, scoring his skin with her fangs.

He grunted through his teeth. His frenzied tempo became more fierce, more animal, with every stroke. She could feel him struggle against his own nature. She felt the ravenous thirst that lived inside him and the anguish it caused him to purposely deny it. He suffered in that denial, a brutal, soul-shredding ache.

In the hard, heavy drum of his pulse, she could sense the primal urge that compelled him to bite her in that moment – to drink from her and mark her as his own.

But he didn't do that.

Instead, he turned his head away from her, roaring with a mix of anger and relief as he plunged deep and came. His heat spilled into her, his big body shuddering, sheened in clean sweat. Tavia stroked his muscled back as he slowed above her. She studied his face, trying to understand what it was about him that made him seem so open and trustworthy yet so coolly remote. So haunted and detached. So shadowed and alone.

She felt somehow sad for him. Concerned for him. Right. Ridiculous. As if he seemed in need of her sympathy or worry.

But that didn't stop her from wanting to figure him out, even a little. When nothing in her life made sense anymore, being with Chase somehow did. It wasn't just the sex, incredible as that was. It was the fact that he was the first person to ever be honest with her, even if she hadn't been prepared to hear it. For better or worse, he was her only safe mooring in a world blown so fast and far off course from what she'd known before. What she'd told him at the clinic earlier tonight had been the truth: He was the only friend she had now. And it troubled her to know that he endured a private pain.

They made slow love again on the bed, indulging in each other's bodies for what seemed like hours. After they had lain there for a long while, Chase's body draped across her, their legs still joined in a pleasant tangle, Tavia asked the question that echoed in her mind with every hard thump of his heartbeat.

"Why don't you allow yourself to feed?" An uncomfortable tension crept through him in reply, palpable in the flicker of his pulse and the subtle stillness of his body against hers. "I don't mean just me," she said. "You don't let yourself drink from anyone. How long has it been?"

He shrugged. "A few days, I guess."

The way his voice sounded, so gravelly and raw, he might have said he'd been starving himself for a year. "How long can you go without?"

"Normally one of my generation can go a week on a single feeding. Sometimes longer."

"But that's not normal for you, is it?" She hardly had to ask; his pulse was still pounding through him in a hollow beat, an ache that she felt reverberating in her own veins. "I can sense your hunger, Chase. I'm not sure how, but I can feel it inside me like it's my own."

He rolled away from her and swore, low and angry, under his breath. "It's the bond." His expression was grave, mouth flattened in a hard line. He raked a rough hand over the top of his head and cursed again, darker this time. "You drank my blood, Tavia. It's bonded you to me. If you were human, it wouldn't matter. But you're not. You're not only Breed either. The part of you that's Breedmate is linked to me through my blood, which lives inside you now."

Astonished, she smoothed a hand over her chest, where the dull ache of his hunger now burned with the bitter tang of his regret.

He nodded, a grim acknowledgment. "That's right. If I feel something strongly enough, whether it's pain or pleasure or grief or joy, you'll feel it too. The blood bond will draw you to me. You'll feel it like an echo in your veins."

She held his troubled stare. "For how long?"

"Until one of us dies."

Tavia swallowed, her eyes widening as she attempted to absorb what it might mean to always feel his presence as a part of her own being. The dark throb of his emotions was a powerful force, intense, but not exactly pleasant.

Watching her reaction, Chase scoffed quietly. "I should've made sure you understood what you were doing – what it would cost you – before you bit me."

"I don't know that you could have stopped me," she said, recalling all too vividly how ravenous she'd been that day in his keeping. In the moments after her fever had broken and Dr. Lewis's medications had worn off, a savage creature had torn loose for the first time. "I'd never felt hunger like that before. It owned me. If you think I blame you – "

"You should," he grated harshly. "It was up to me to be the one in control. There were any number of ways I could've kept the situation from getting so far out of hand. Regardless of how good it felt to have your pretty fangs sunk deep in my throat." His eyes scorched her. A bolt of desire shot through her – his or hers, she wasn't even sure in that moment. He reached for her, his fingers light on her chin, his thumb stroking her lips with tenderness. "You feel so fucking good. The sweetest thing I've ever known."

"But you regret it."

He gave a faint nod. "I'd take it all back in a second. The blood bond is sacred. It's unbreakable, and it's meant to be shared with someone you love, Tavia. With your mate." And obviously, he wasn't volunteering for that role. That wounded pang she felt in response should have been relief. The way her life was going right now, getting involved with a semipsychotic, blood-starved vampire was the last thing she needed to be dealing with. Except she was involved. Whether either of them chose it or not, they were very much involved now. Especially if she was going to be linked to him by some kind of inextricable psychic bond.

A one-sided bond, she realized, watching the remorse play across his harsh, handsome face. "Have you ever been bonded to someone, Chase?"


"But you wanted to be," she said softly. "The woman in the photograph I found at your old house …"

"Elise?" He blew out a curse and shook his head.

Tavia thought back on how he'd told her that woman was his dead brother's mate. Just the mention of her at the time had made Chase very defensive about what he might have felt for her. "You said you weren't in love with her, but that's not quite the truth, is it?"

He let out a long sigh and leaned back on the carved wood of the headboard, quietly contemplative. She waited to feel his emotional walls climb higher. She knew so little about him, but it wasn't hard to imagine that her prying would only make him slam the door in her face that much harder.

She cleared her throat and started to sit up, suddenly wanting a little space herself. "Never mind. You don't have to tell – "

"I did want her," he blurted. The words were rough, self-condemning. "She belonged to Quentin, had always belonged to him … but there was a part of me that wanted her anyway." Tavia stilled beside him, pivoting around to face him. "Did you seduce her?"

"In my thoughts, many times. That was bad enough." He gave a vague shake of his head. "Elise was only part of my problem, but it took a while for me to realize that. I wanted everything my brother had. I wanted to be like him, everything he was. All the things that seemed to fit him so well. Things that came so easy to him yet were never within my reach. I tried to be the man I saw in him, even after I realized I was only pretending I could even come close." There was such torment on his face, it made her chest squeeze. His eyes were haunted, filled with guilt and shame and a secret, inwardly directed contempt she could hardly fathom. Good lord, how long had he lived with this intense hatred for himself?

"Did your brother know how you felt?"

"No. God, no. Nor would he have suspected." He pursed his lips, eyes downcast. "We were both Chases, after all. It would have been beneath Quent to think I envied him, even a little. We'd been groomed to be morally pristine, nothing less than perfect in every way. Our venerable father would've accepted no less." His voice had taken on a brittle, caustic edge. "There were certain expectations that came with being born one of August Chase's sons. Quent had no problem exceeding our father's exacting standards."

"And you?" Tavia asked gently.

His mouth twisted sardonically. "Top of my class in every contest. Influential, respected. Well connected in my profession and among my social peers. The path ahead of me was golden, spread out before me as far as I wanted to take it."

"I don't doubt that," she replied. "But that's not what I was asking. I meant – "

"My father," he finished for her, no inflection in his tone. "The problem with having a brother like Quentin ahead of you is that he tends to cast a very long shadow. It's easy to get swallowed up by it, to become invisible." He shrugged. "I gave up trying to compete with my brother when I was still a boy and he was already a decade in the Agency, making good on the Chase family's centuries-long legacy of service."

"Then what happened?"

He grunted, nonchalant. "A lot of years of going through the motions. Decades of following every rule, doing whatever was expected of me and then some. Pointless time spent collecting Agency accolades and admiration from people who called themselves my friends only as long as it served their interests or their whims."

"But not your father." Tavia understood now.

"He already had the son he wanted. I was … redundant." He exhaled sharply, shaking his head. "You've told me how alone and empty you feel, after realizing your past was built on lies and that no one you knew ever really cared about you." At her nod, he went on. "Sometimes you can feel that way even when you're surrounded by family."

She reached over and unfolded the fist that rested at his side, twined her fingers with his. For some time, he remained silent, staring at their linked hands. When he spoke, there was an odd vulnerability to his deep voice. As if he were letting her peek inside one of the dark chambers of the heart he seemed so sure he didn't possess.

"My brother died six years ago. He was killed on duty for the Agency, by a Rogue who'd been brought in for rehabilitation."

"A Rogue?" She shook her head, uncertain.

"If a member of the Breed lets his hunger overtake him, addiction isn't far behind. It's called Bloodlust, and there's no turning back once it takes hold. You go Rogue – the worst kind of insanity. You thirst, and you hunt, and you kill. You destroy, until someone either takes you out or you do the world a favor and let the sun ash you."

She wasn't sure what sounded more terrible: the affliction itself, or the grim finality of its cure. "But the Agency is able to rehabilitate some?"

His mirthless chuckle didn't give her much hope. "For a long time, the Enforcement Agency has operated under the notion that there was reason to think so. Of course, the Agency is also in charge of the facilities that house these diseased members of the race all across Europe and the United States. Many empire builders within the Agency's upper tiers would try to convince you that the system does have its successes."

"You don't think so."

"Not that I've ever seen or heard. If you ask me, those facilities are nothing more than cold storage for a population of locusts just waiting for the chance to swarm and devour everything in their path."

Tavia shuddered at the horrific image he painted. "Nothing can stop a Rogue?"

"Only a bullet or blade forged of titanium. The metal acts like poison on a Rogue's diseased blood system. Failing that, a long, hot sunbath will also do the job."

She studied him, seeing the anguish written in the tense lines of his face. "It must've been awful, losing your brother to one of those monsters."

"Yeah. It was." He nodded grimly, his expression distant and pensive, a thousand miles away. It seemed to take a moment for his focus to return. "I hardly remember the days and nights that followed. I had so much rage and grief inside me … it's all I knew for a long time afterward." Shadows filled his eyes as he spoke, and Tavia sensed that he was holding something back, a secret he wasn't ready to share with her. Maybe not with anyone. And it was clear that the things he'd done at that time still haunted him now, despite his claims that he'd left the memories behind.

"It was unthinkable that Quent could be taken down so suddenly. Elise was destroyed, of course. So was their son, Camden. The boy was barely a teen. He'd already been making plans to attend private, specially arranged night classes at Harvard, the same as Quentin and I both did, and our father before us. Cam had been so excited. The whole world was ahead of him." The photograph of Chase and Elise and the smiling boy came back to her in full detail. Even without her genetic gift of flawless memory, Tavia would have recalled the covetous look in Chase's eyes in that candid shot. "What happened to Elise and her son after your brother was killed?"

Chase's expression clouded again, shadows filling his eyes. "They lived under my care for a while. My father had been killed on patrol before Quent died, so that left me as the leader of my kin's Darkhaven. Elise and Cam moved in to my Back Bay brownstone immediately after Quent's death. To be honest, I thought I could just step in and pick up the pieces Quent's death had left behind. I thought maybe I could finally know what it was like to be him – just once. But I could still feel the chill of his shadow, even after he was gone."

"What about Elise?" Tavia asked, wishing she could deny the twinge of dread that was needling her already, expecting to hear that he might still feel something for the woman beyond familial bonds. "How was it for you, suddenly having her in your house, under your protection?" "It was like living with two ghosts – my brother's and hers. She withdrew from everyone after Quent died. No one but Camden mattered to her." His exhaled sigh was deep, edged with a thick kind of remorse. "None of us could've known that soon he would be dead too, gone Rogue himself and shot to death in front of her like a rabid dog."

Tavia's hand came up to her mouth. She could feel the grief tearing through him like a fresh wound. "My God, Chase. That's awful."

"Yeah," he said, nodding in sober agreement. His silence stretched, cold and heavy. "She may never forgive me for pulling that trigger."

Tavia couldn't help it – she gaped at him, stricken speechless at his confession. But before she could ask him what could have brought him to do such a terrible thing, the sound of muffled voices carried up from the floor below.

Male voices, deep and rolling, filling the mansion's foyer. A female was down there too. Tavia heard Mathias Rowan greet them all like old friends.

"What's going on? Who is that downstairs?"

Beside her on the bed, Chase had gone tense and still. "The Order has arrived."