Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Four)

Chase sat in the dark alone, hunkered down on his haunches in a shadow-filled corner of the compound's small chapel.

He didn't know why his boots had carried him in here, to the quiet, candlelit sanctuary instead of his personal quarters farther down the corridor. He'd never been one to seek counsel or forgiveness from a higher power, and God knew he was likely too far gone for prayer anyway. He sure as hell wasn't holding out any hope of absolution. Not from above, and not from Lucan or his other brethren of the Order either. Not even from himself. Instead he nursed his fury. He welcomed the agony of his wounds, the fiery kiss of deep pain that made him feel alive. Just about the only thing that gave him any feeling at all. And, like a junkie, he pursued that feeling with reckless, desperate abandon. Better than the alternative.

Pain was the dark, wicked high that kept him from craving another, more dangerous mistress.

Without pain, all he would have was hunger.

He knew where that would end, of course.

His intellect wasn't as lost as his body or his soul; reason told him that one day this ugly itch of his would kill him. There were some nights – more and more, lately – that he simply no longer cared.

"Sterling, are you in here?"

The feminine voice made his head jerk up, commanding his full attention just as it had in the corridor outside the elevator a few minutes ago. He cocked his head and listened for her movements, even as the addict in him craved the isolation of the shadows that concealed him from her sight.

He drew upon those shadows, reaching deep into the well of his personal Breed talent to gather the gloom around him. It was a struggle to summon his gift; harder still to hold it in place. He let go not even a moment later, hissing a rough curse as even the shadows abandoned him.

"Sterling?" Elise called softly into chapel.

Her footsteps were careful as she entered, as though she didn't feel entirely safe with him. Smart woman. But still, she didn't pause to back away and leave as he would have liked.

"I've just been to your quarters, so I know you didn't go there." She exhaled, her sigh sounding confused and not a little sad. "You can hide from my sight, but I feel your presence in here. Why won't you answer?"

"Because I have nothing to say to you."

Harsh words. And wholly undeserved, particularly by the female who was Tegan's Breedmate of the past year, and, long before that, the mourning widow of Chase's own brother. Quentin Chase had been blessed immeasurably when Elise chose him for her mate – and he'd had no idea that his younger brother had harbored a secret, shameful lust for the happiness Quent and Elise had known.

At least he no longer had to contend with that unwanted desire.

He'd weaned himself of his fixation. There was a tarnished nobility in him that wanted to believe he'd been able to let his want of Elise go because she had given her heart to another of his brothers – a brother-in-arms who would kill for her, die for her, just as she would for him. Tegan and Elise's love was unbreakable, and although Chase had never lowered himself to test it, the simpler truth was, his thirst for pain had since replaced Elise as the primary object of his obsession.

Yet he still found himself holding his breath as she drifted farther into the chapel and found him hunched in its back corner, his spine wedged into the angle of the stone walls. Silent, she walked the short distance between the two columns of wooden pews. At the one closest to where he crouched on the floor, she seated herself on the edge and merely stared at him. He didn't have to look over at her to know that her pretty face would be etched with disappointment. Probably pity as well.

"Maybe you didn't understand me," he said, little better than a snarl. "I don't want to talk to you, Elise. You should leave now."

"Why?" she asked, staying right where she sat. "So you can sulk in private? Quentin would be appalled to see you like this. He would be ashamed."

Chase grunted. "My brother is dead."

"Yes, Sterling. Killed in the line of duty for the Enforcement Agency. He died nobly, doing his best to make this world a safer place. Can you honestly say that's what you're doing?"

"I am not Quent."

"No," she said. "You're not. He was an extraordinary man, a courageous man. You could have been even better than him, Sterling. You could have been so much more than what I see before me right now. You know, I've heard how you are on missions lately. I've seen you come in like this too many times, torn up and volatile. So full of rage."

Chase stood up and stalked away from her a few paces, more than ready to be finished with the conversation. "What I do is my own business. It's none of your concern, nor am I."

"I see," she replied. She rose from the pew to approach him. She scowled, slender arms crossed over the front of her. "You'd rather everyone who cares about you simply left you to bleed alone, is that it? You want me and everyone else to just let you sit in a dark corner somewhere and feel sorry for yourself."

He scoffed and swung a hard glare on her. "Do I look like I'm feeling sorry for myself?"

"You look like an animal," she replied, her voice quiet but not so much so that he would mistake it for fear. "You're acting like an animal, Sterling. I look at you lately, and I feel like I don't even know you anymore."

He held her confused stare. "You've never known me, Elise."

"We were family once," she reminded him gently. "I thought we were friends."

"It wasn't friendship I wanted from you," he answered flatly, letting her absorb the frank admission he'd only had the balls to dance around politely until now. When she took a wary step back toward the open aisle, he chuckled, self-satisfied. "Feel free to run away now, Elise."

She didn't run.

That single backward step was all she allowed. Tegan's mate was no longer the sheltered waif who had pledged herself to Quentin Chase. She was a strong woman, had been through her own brand of hell and back, and she hadn't broken. She wasn't about to break for Chase now, no matter how forcibly he tried to push her out of his life.

As if to prove it to himself, he closed the distance between them.

He was filthy with blood and grime; even he could hardly stand the stench of himself. But despite the scant inch or two that separated him from Elise's pristine beauty, she didn't turn away. Her expression was one of sadness and expectation, even before he opened his mouth to say the words that would free him of this last fragile tether on his past.

"The only thing I ever wanted from you, Elise, was to spread your legs and – "

She slapped him hard across the face, a solid crack that echoed in the quiet of the chapel. Her pale purple eyes glittered in the candlelight, swimming with unshed tears. Not a single one fell, not for him.

Probably never again, by the stricken look she held on him.

Chase withdrew, a staggered step backward, the ringing bite of her hand still hot on his skin. He brought his fingers up to touch his stinging cheek.

Then, without another word or thought for what might lay ahead of him, he vanished from Elise's condemning stare – and fled up the chapel stairwell, into the wintry night outside – using all the speed his Breed genetics could offer him.

Corinne stood at the edge of a wide marble terrace patio that overlooked the snow-filled rear courtyard of the Order's estate on ground level. Alone for a moment while Gabrielle fetched coats for them inside the mansion, she tipped her head back on her shoulders to draw in a long breath of cold December air. The winter sky was dark and cloudless above her, a fathomless sea of midnight blue speckled with bright, glittering stars.

How long had it been since she'd smelled the crisp, faintly smoky scent of winter on the breeze?

How long since she'd felt fresh air against her cheeks?

The decades of her imprisonment had crept by slowly at first, in the days when she'd been determined to mark the time, fighting every second as though it may have been her last. After a while, she'd realized it wasn't her death her captor wanted. For his purposes, he'd needed her alive, even if barely. It was then that she'd stopped counting, ceased fighting, and her concept of time had blurred into a single, never-ending night.

And now she was free.

Tomorrow, she would be home with her family.

Tomorrow, her life would start over and she would be a new person. She had survived, but in her heart she wondered if she could ever be whole again. So much had been taken from her. Some things that could never be won back. And others …

She would have time later to mourn all the things she'd lost to Dragos's evil. Closing her eyes, she breathed in another deep, cleansing draft of the bracing night air. As she released it, the sound of a child's laughter startled her into a jolt. At first she thought it was only a trick of her mind, one of the many cruel games that darkness had liked to play on her during her time in captivity. But then the delighted little giggle came again, carrying on the breeze from somewhere in the vast garden courtyard beyond. It was the laughter of a young girl – a child of perhaps eight or nine years, Corinne guessed, watching as the girl raced happily through the calf-deep snow, bundled up like a pink snowman in a thick parka and matching pants.

Behind her just a few paces came a pair of grossly mismatched, unleashed dogs, tongues lolling joyfully out of the sides of their mouths as they pursued her. Corinne couldn't help but smile at the stubby brown terrier that tried so desperately to get ahead of the larger, more elegant dog. For every unhurried gait of the beautiful, wolfish gray-and-white animal, the scrappy little mutt barked and jockeyed in its wake, finally dashing right through its companion's long legs in order to be the first to reach the girl.

She squealed as the small dog raced up on her ankles and tackled her, barking merrily as the second dog loped up to them with its thick tail wagging and began to lick the child's face.

"Okay, okay!" the little girl giggled. "Luna, Harvard – okay, you win! I surrender!"

As the pair of dogs let up on her to wrestle and growl with each other instead, two women now strode across the snowy lawn from another section of the garden courtyard. One of them was clearly pregnant beneath her oversize down coat, walking at a careful pace alongside a tall, athletic-looking female who held the pair of leashes in her mittened hand.

"Play nice, Luna," she called to the larger of the two dogs. It responded at once, abandoning its canine playmate to lope over and run a happy circle around its obvious owner.

"That's Alex," Gabrielle said, strolling out to the edge of the terrace where Corinne stood. She was wearing a dark wool coat, and held another out to Corinne. It carried the faintest fragrance of cedar, and felt as comfortable as a warm blanket as Corinne slipped into it. "Alex is Kade's mate," Gabrielle continued. "She was out with him when you arrived earlier tonight, so you didn't get the chance to meet her."

"I remember her, though," Corinne replied, her thoughts spinning back to the eve of her rescue. "She and a few other women were the ones who helped bring us out of those cellar cages. They were the ones who found us."

Gabrielle nodded. "That's right. Alex and Jenna were there, along with Dylan and Renata. If Tess wasn't about to pop any day now with Dante's baby, I think she'd have been right there with them too."

Corinne glanced back out to the courtyard as the two women spotted them and each lifted a hand in greeting. The young girl fell into another round of giggles, flopping into a nearby drift with the two dogs eagerly chasing after her.

"The adorable little hellion over there is Mira," Gabrielle said, shaking her head at the child's antics. "Renata had been looking after her when the two of them lived in Montreal. When she and Nikolai fell in love last summer, they brought Mira home to the compound with them to live together as a family." Lucan's mate was beaming when she glanced back at Corinne. "I don't know about you, but I love a happy ending."

"The world could use a lot more of them," Corinne murmured, warmed by Mira's good fortune even as a cold sort of ache opened like the tiniest fissure in the center of her being. She pushed the emptiness away as Alex and Tess walked together, up the wide marble steps of the terrace patio.

Gabrielle's breath misted into the darkness. "It's not too cold for you out here, is it, Tess?"

"It's wonderful," replied the heavily pregnant beauty as she waddled alongside Alex. Her cheeks were flushed a rosy pink inside the deep hood of her parka. "I swear, if Dante tries to keep me cooped up inside the compound for one more day, he may not live to see his son's birth." The threat was diffused completely by her dancing aqua eyes and sunny smile. She stuck out her mitten-covered hand. "Hi, I'm Tess."

Corinne briefly clasped the handful of warm wool and gave a small nod of greeting. "Nice to meet you."

"Alex," said the other Breedmate, offering her hand and a welcoming smile as well. "I can't even tell you what a relief it is to know that you and the others Dragos had taken are safe now, Corinne."

She nodded in response. "I am grateful to you all, much more than words can ever say."

"And tomorrow night Corinne is going home," Gabrielle added.

"Tomorrow?" Alex glanced over in question. "Does that mean Brock and Jenna are on their way back from Alaska now?"

"They're still delayed by the snowstorms," Gabrielle replied. "But Hunter has volunteered to escort Corinne to Detroit in Brock's place."

In the lengthening silence that seemed to fall over the women of the Order, Corinne relived the moment that the immense, eerily unreadable warrior had blurted his offer to take her home. She hadn't expected it from him, certainly. He hadn't seemed the charitable sort, not even on the night of her rescue, when he and a few other warriors from the Order had driven Dragos's freed captives to the Darkhaven in Rhode Island.

Hunter had been hard to miss that night. With his chiseled, forbidding features and sixand-a-half-foot frame of bulky muscle, he was the kind of male who dominated any room he entered without even trying. While the hours after the rescue had been ripe with emotion for everyone involved, Hunter had been the quiet one, the one who kept to the periphery and merely carried out his tasks in stoic efficiency.

Later that night, one of the other women had whispered that she'd overheard Andreas and Claire talking privately about Hunter. She'd said it sounded as though he had once – not long ago – been allied in some way with Dragos. Corinne could hardly pretend that she hadn't recognized the air of danger that surrounded the mysterious warrior. She couldn't deny that the thought of being near him unnerved her, then and now.

It didn't take much to picture him as he had been in the compound a short while ago, with his bloodstained combat clothing and the arsenal of terrible weapons that he wore circled around his slim waist. It took far less effort to recall the striking golden color of his eyes and the way his hawklike stare had locked on her the instant he saw her.

Why she had caught his attention so thoroughly, she couldn't begin to guess. All she knew was she'd felt trapped by his penetrating gaze, scrutinized in a way that had made her feel both enlivened and exposed.

Even now her skin tingled with the remembered awareness of him.

She shivered with the feeling, though her body was nothing close to cold within the insulating folds of her coat. Nevertheless, she tried to rub away the sensation, running her hands up and down her arms to dispel the peculiar, heated prickle of her nerve endings.

"Hunter!" Without warning, little Mira leapt up from her game in the snow and launched into a headlong run toward the terrace patio. "Hunter, come out with us!"

Corinne pivoted her head along with the other women, following Mira's excited dash right past and up to the set of open French doors that looked out over the grounds from the mansion behind them.

Hunter stood just inside those framed glass doors.

He was no longer dressed in gore-covered head-to-toe black, but recently showered, wearing loose-fitting denim jeans and an untucked white button-down shirt that hinted at the elaborate pattern of the dermaglyphs that covered his chest and torso. His big feet were bare despite the time of year, and the short damp spikes of his blond hair hung limply over his brow. And he was studying her again … studying her still. How long had he been standing there?

Corinne tried to look away from him, but his piercing golden eyes would not release her. His gaze didn't move from Corinne to acknowledge the approaching child until the last moment, as Mira giddily threw herself into his strong arms.

He lifted her effortlessly and held her aloft in the crook of his left elbow, listening as the little girl chattered animatedly about all of her day's adventures. Corinne could hardly hear what he said, but it was obvious that he favored the child, holding his voice to low, indulgent tones. In the few moments that he conversed with her, something passed over his otherwise unreadable face. Something that made him go quite still. He sent one further glance in Corinne's direction – a lingering glance that seemed to bore straight through her – before slowly setting the child down on her feet. Then he walked away, back into the heart of the compound. Even after he was gone, even after Mira had run back to play with the dogs in the snowfilled yard and the other Breedmates had resumed their own conversation, Corinne could still feel the unsettling heat of Hunter's eyes on her.

He had seen Corinne Bishop's face somewhere before.

Not during her rescue from Dragos's prison cells. Not at the Darkhaven in Rhode Island either, where she and the other freed captives had been brought for shelter and protection. No, he had seen the woman months earlier than that, he was certain now. The realization had hit him like a physical blow when he'd scooped little Mira up into his arms a few moments ago. All it had taken to remind him was a glimpse into the child's innocent face – into the young Breedmate's eyes, which held the power to reflect the future. Although specially crafted contact lenses usually muted Mira's gift, as they did tonight, there had been a time, months ago, when Hunter had inadvertently looked into her mirrorlike eyes and saw a woman pleading for his mercy, begging him not to be the killer he'd been born. In the vision, the woman had tried to stay his hand, asking desperately that he spare this life – just this one, just for her.

Let him go, Hunter …

Please, I'm begging you … Don't do this!

Can't you understand? I love him! He means everything to me …

Just let him go … you have to let him live!

In the vision, the woman's expression had fallen when she realized he would not be swayed, not even for her. In the vision, the woman had screamed in heartbroken anguish an instant later as Hunter pulled his arm out of her grasp and delivered the final blow. That woman was Corinne Bishop.