Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE)

THE ANTIQUE CHAIR in Dragos's island lair had been in his possession for more than a century. An uncomfortable monstrosity, it was a throne carved of six-hundred-year-old Wallachian hardwood and acquired from an old church in the southwestern Transylvanian Alps. Legend had it that the polished seat and dragon's-head arms had once held the weight of a bloodthirsty medieval ruler whose name instilled fear in most humans even to this day.

Dragos normally found such folklore amusing at best. Tonight, he envied the mortal dread the chair's former owner had inspired in his subjects.

Tonight, Dragos longed to mete out that kind of raw, unholy terror – not only on those who served him but on the world as a whole.

His rage had started earlier that day, when the vice president had failed to show at Senator Clarence's memorial service. A last-minute security concern had forced the human government official to cancel his appearance in Boston. As for Dragos, the wasted daylight trip and an hour lost waiting among the throng of human mourners hadn't done anything to improve his mood. Nor did the fact that now his calls to the politician's office were being routed to lackeys who politely brushed him off with offers to check the vice president's calendar for availability to meet again sometime later in the year.

Dragos snarled just thinking on it.

His fingernails dug into the wooden arms of the Impaler's throne as he watched the news coverage of a fire raging out of control in a private stretch of land in the rural town of Sherborn. It wasn't the loss of Dr. Lewis's clinic that had Dragos's fury escalating; the destruction of the building and its collected data had been on his command, an order issued soon after he'd been made aware of his Minion doctor's demise.

It was the fact that his dispatched Hunter had not reported back with Tavia Fairchild that had his temper simmering toward a full boil. He'd sent the assassin to fetch her at nightfall, suspecting that she'd end up back at the clinic sooner than later, curiosity about her true past certain to carry her right back into her creator's hands. Dragos had been so looking forward to schooling beautiful Tavia in all the ways she could please him, now that the facade of her mortal existence had been stripped away.

But the Hunter had failed to bring Dragos his prize.

One more failure on top of a day filled with setbacks and annoyances.

He'd abide no more.

His patience had reached its end and there would be no more delaying his birthright.

Dragos launched himself out of the chair on a violent curse, taking the priceless antique up in his hands as he rose to his feet. In a fit of rage, he flung the thing at the massive stone fireplace that filled one whole side of the room. The chair smashed to pieces as it hit the towering wall of immovable granite rock and mortar.

Six centuries of history reduced to splinters at his whim.

The totality of that loss – the irrevocable destruction – filled him with a satisfaction as real and visceral as the most explosive orgasm. Dragos savored the rush of power through his veins. He drank it in, let it feed him like life-giving, free-flowing blood.

He was seething, drunk on his own magnificence as he burst through the door of his private chambers and barked to one of his Minion servants.

"Summon my lieutenants," he snarled. "I want every last one of them dialed in to the secure video line within the hour. Have them ready and awaiting my command."

ROWAN SUCKED HIS BREATH IN through his teeth as Chase mopped the last of the blood from the back of his contused, split scalp. "Jesus, that knot hurts like a bitch. Your heavy hands aren't helping the situation either. You make a damned awful nurse."

Chase grunted. "Bedside manners were never my strong suit."

"No shit. You about finished back there?"

"Done." Chase had already dressed his own wounds from the battle at the clinic, he and Rowan having turned the latter's Darkhaven kitchen into a makeshift field medic station while Tavia had been shown to an upstairs guest room to clean up and rest. The mansion was quiet but for the occasional murmur of conversation as Rowan's civilian kin – a handful of younger brothers and nephews, a few of them with Breedmates of their own – went about their business elsewhere in the Darkhaven.

Chase tossed the mess from Rowan's injuries and eyed the wincing Enforcement Agent with a sidelong glance. "When's the last time you took a hit on duty, anyway?"

Rowan shrugged. "You mean, since I was promoted to director of the region? Hard to get hit when you're sitting behind a desk or pushing paperwork most of the time."

"Thought you knew what the job entailed when you campaigned for it."

"I only campaigned for it because you refused to," Rowan said. "You know the director's spot had your name on it. Hell, it was tradition that it should go to you. There'd been a Chase in that office for as long as the Agency's had a presence in Boston."

More than two hundred years, in fact.

First Chase's father, then Quentin, Chase's brother. It had been six years since Quent had been killed on the job. Everyone in the family and the Agency alike had assumed Chase would step in as director. Instead, after the shock of what had happened to Quent and the grief of his death had faded, Chase had thrown himself into fieldwork, taking the street patrols and other shit jobs that usually went to the new recruits and discipline cases. Work intended to get their hands dirty, make their balls sweat a little in action before any of them started jockeying for council attention or political favors within the Agency.

To those looking in from the outside, Chase's decision to avoid the director's office had been one of honor, of courage. A mourning brother, sole surviving son of one of the most respected names in Breed society, turning away from title and privilege to continue his family's legacy of selfless service in the trenches.

The truth of it had little to do with any of those things. Chase couldn't bear the thought of attempting to fill Quentin's or his father's shoes. His success never would have measured up to the impossible standards they'd set, and his failure by comparison would have been more than he could bear. The shame of just how deeply he understood this fact had dogged Chase even to today.

So he'd shunned the responsibility.

He'd run away from it, a disgrace that was only made worse for the way everyone concluded that he acted out of the same shining integrity that had guided his kin before him. And he'd let the facade stand, all those years. Even after he'd joined up with the Order, he'd continued to play his holier-than-thou role. But it hadn't lasted. No, they'd seen through him soon enough. He'd been a fraud all his life. Golden and impeccable on the outside, yet festering and sick to death of himself within. All the worse after Quent was killed. Thanks to his rising affliction, this dangerous dance with Bloodlust, Chase no longer cared to hold up the mask he'd hidden behind for so long. The effort was too much.

Now he wore his sickness on the outside. Even his talent for bending shadows had all but deserted him. He was naked now, exposed. Nothing could conceal him anymore.

Rowan heaved a sigh, disrupting the dark path of Chase's thoughts. "There are days – many more than not, if you want to know the unvarnished truth – that I don't even know what the Agency stands for. I took my office because I thought I could make a difference. I haven't. The corruption has been there too long, and it goes too deep. It's a cancer whose tendrils have touched nearly everyone in the organization."

Chase understood. He'd felt the crush of that weight himself. "Things in the Agency have been on a downward slide for a long time. To clean it up? Christ." He shook his head, considering the breadth of changes it would require. "You'd have to turn the whole place inside out. Start all over, with a handpicked few and reconstruct from the inside. New philosophies, new measurables. Reform the Agency, piece by piece."

Rowan was watching him closely, nodding along in agreement. "Maybe one day you'll come back and help me do just that."

"Fuck." Chase scoffed. "Not me. I was glad for the chance to get out when I did. It never had been a good fit for me."

Rowan grunted, his dark brows coming together in a frown. "I thought maybe you left the Agency for a different reason. I guess I wondered if maybe you left to follow Elise. You know, to make sure she wasn't making a mistake, getting involved with one of the warriors of the Order," he added, when Chase snapped a hard look on him.

"She couldn't be in better hands," Chase said, meaning it too. "Tegan adores her, as well he should. He's a good man, worthy of her. And she loves him, maybe even more than she did Quent."

"Yes. I've seen that for myself too," Rowan replied. "But at the time …"

Chase picked up his old friend's trailing thought. "At the time I quit the Agency, I didn't know what I wanted. I only knew that if I wanted to keep my sanity – keep my damned soul – I needed to get out."

He gave Rowan the truth now – as much as he was willing to share. There were some things he didn't divulge to anyone. Things he had never shared, shames from his past that he expected he would keep to himself forever.

"And now?" Rowan asked after a moment.

Chase exhaled a humorless chuckle. "I don't worry about those things anymore."

"Maybe you should." Rowan reached over and put his hand on Chase's shoulder. "You and I go back a long time, my friend. I've seen you at your best. Even at your worst, you're a hell of a lot better than most of the assholes calling themselves my friends inside the Agency. You ever need anything, I've got your back."

Chase frowned, reluctant to accept so undeserving a gift. "I wouldn't ask it of you, Mathias. Except – "

"The female upstairs," Rowan said with a grave nod. "Jesus Christ, Chase. I've seen her with my own eyes, but I still can hardly believe it. Dragos engineered a female Gen One in his labs?" "More than one, according to the patient records we saw at the clinic tonight."

Rowan kept his voice low, so as not to be heard by any of the other civilian residents of his Darkhaven. "Do you realize what that means? What that means to the future of our entire race? That young woman up there changes everything."

"Yes," Chase said. "And that's why she needs to be protected. The safest place for her is with the Order. I'm hoping you'll make sure she gets there."

"You can do that yourself, Chase." Rowan's shoulder lifted in a vague shrug. "I told you I had to inform Lucan about all of this. I called him as soon as we got back. He's sent Tegan and a few of the others down to collect the female. They're en route already, should be here within the hour."

Chase swore under his breath. When he walked out of the Order's mansion and into police custody with the humans a few mornings ago, he'd done it as an act of finality. His way of releasing his warrior brethren from the burden of his presence and all the failures he'd been at the center of since he'd begun to lose his battle with Bloodlust.

His walking out had been a last-ditch effort to scrape together a small bit of honor – a feeble grab at redemption – by sacrificing his own freedom for theirs. He didn't think he'd ever face Lucan or Dante or Tegan and the rest of the Order again. He sure as hell didn't want to see their rightful contempt now.

"You'll have to do the honors for me," he told Rowan. "I'm not planning to stick around that long."

"Where else do you have to go?"

The question wasn't posed with any challenge, but the concern wasn't welcome either. Chase got up and began a tight prowl around the kitchen. Above his head was the private guest room Tavia had been shown to on their arrival. The water from her shower was still running; he could hear the muffled whine of old copper pipes through the thick plaster walls. "She's been up there a long time. Do you think she's all right?"

"Considering everything she's gone through today alone, I'd say she's holding it together remarkably well."

"Yeah," Chase said. "Tavia is … remarkable."

He thought back on the past several days and nights. All the astonishing revelations. The unexpected concern – the unwanted caring – he felt for a woman who'd been a stranger to him not even a week before. And yes, there was the added complication of his desire for her. All the more reason for him to cut and run now, before he let himself get entangled any further. "Shit." Chase raked his splayed fingers over his scalp on a deep sigh. "I gotta go. It's better this way. Better for her. Hell, it's better for me too."

Rowan studied him now. The shrewd Agency director didn't need anything more to understand just how intimately Chase had fucked things up with Tavia already. "What am I supposed to tell her?"

Chase swore again, more vividly this time. "Just tell her I'm sorry. For everything."