Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Seven)

Are you hungry, darling? I've asked Tilda to prepare something nice for you, but if you'd like anything to eat before the dining room is ready, you need only ask and I'll get it for you. Anything you wish – "

"I'm fine." Corinne turned away from the window in the room she'd been brought to a short while ago, after her mother had ushered her into the house and her father had disappeared into his study to confer with Mason and the other Darkhaven guards. The fuss and activity were making Corinne uncomfortable. Now that she was home, all she wanted was a few private moments alone with her parents. Time enough to tell them how badly she'd missed her family … and how desperately she needed their help. When her mother began to wonder aloud about calling the kitchen for a tray of food to be brought up to the room, Corinne walked over and clasped hold of her hands. "I'm all right, really. Please, don't feel you have to fuss over me."

"But I can't help it. Do you know how many times I prayed for the chance to fuss over you again?" Regina Bishop's skin was moist and cool, her fingers trembling as they gripped Corinne's in an urgent hold. Tears swam in her kind eyes. "Good lord, are you really here? I'm looking at you – I feel you, alive and beautiful as ever, but I can hardly believe this is happening. We lived a nightmare after you went missing."

"I know," Corinne acknowledged softly. "I'm sorry for what all of you went through too."

"Lottie cried for weeks after you disappeared. She'll be so happy to learn that you're home again."

Corinne smiled at the thought of reuniting with her little sister. Although both were born with the Breedmate birthmark, she and Charlotte were not blood related. Nevertheless, they'd been fiercely devoted to each other – perhaps all the more so, having been born into neglect and abandonment as infants, only to become family as wards of the Bishops.

"Is she here, Mother?"

"Oh, no, darling. Charlotte has her own Darkhaven in London with her mate and their two sons. In fact, her youngest and his Breedmate just celebrated the birth of their first son a few weeks ago."

Corinne felt a bittersweet jolt in her core. Five years Corinne's junior, Lottie had been a gawky adolescent at the time of Corinne's abduction. Now she was grown up with a mate and adult children of her own. Corinne should have been happy for her sister; deep down, she was. But the news only drove the point more sharply that time had marched on while Corinne was gone.

Far more painful was the reminder of all the things she had lost – the precious things that had been taken from her – while Dragos held her imprisoned. Now that she was here, back in her parents' home, she could put all of her energy into reclaiming the pieces of her own broken life.

"I didn't see Sebastian when we came in earlier," she said, recalling the handsome, studious Breed youth who'd been so patient with his adopted sisters. He'd been twenty the year Corinne was abducted. Now he was probably leader of his own Darkhaven, with a beautiful Breedmate and half a dozen sons of his own as well.

The long silence that met her question made Corinne draw in an anxious breath. Regina Bishop's mouth quivered. "Of course, you wouldn't know. We lost Sebastian to Bloodlust more than forty years ago now."

Corinne closed her eyes. "Oh, God. Not our sweet Sebastian."

"I know, darling." Her mother's voice was small, still rife with grief over her son all these decades later. "Sebastian had changed in the years after you went missing. We knew he was struggling, that his thirst was consuming him, but he withdrew from us. He tried to hide his problems from us, wouldn't accept help. He'd been on a terrible killing spree in the city that night. When he came home, he was covered in blood. None of us could reach him. He was Rogue by then, too far gone to be saved. And he knew it. Sebastian was always so perceptive, so smart and sensitive. He locked himself in your father's study. We heard the gunshot not even a moment later."

"I'm so sorry." Corinne hugged her, feeling the anguish as the other woman stifled a tight sob. "It must have been awful."

"It was." Sorrowful eyes met her gaze as she withdrew from her mother's embrace. "Until you've lost a child – and until tonight, I'd thought I'd lost two – no one can imagine what it's like to feel such hollowness inside."

Corinne said nothing, unsure how to respond. She bore her own emptiness, endured her own loss, even now. It was that loss that had brought her home, even more so than her own selfish needs for comfort and the sheltering arms of her family.

"You must recognize this room, don't you?" her mother asked abruptly, wiping at the corners of her eyes.

Halfheartedly but glad for the momentary distraction, Corinne took in her surroundings. Her glance traveled over the elegant dark cherry sleigh bed and the antique chest and dresser that still looked so familiar to her, despite all these years. The linens and window treatments were different. So were the walls, no longer swathed in yards of shimmering peach silk but painted a soothing matte shade of dove gray. "This used to be my bedroom."

"It still is," Regina replied, a forced brightness in her voice. "We'll put it back exactly as it was before, if that's what you'd like. We can start tomorrow, darling. I'll take you shopping for a new wardrobe in the morning, and we can make an appointment with my decorator to refurnish the whole room, top to bottom. We'll set everything back to rights and it will seem as though you've never been gone a day. Everything can be made exactly the same as it was before, Corinne. You'll see."

Corinne was hardly aware she was shaking her head until she noticed her mother's crestfallen expression. "Nothing can ever be the same. It's all changed now."

"We'll fix it, darling." Her mother nodded as if her certainty alone would make it so.

"You're home now, and that's the most important thing. None of the rest matters."

"Yes," Corinne murmured. "It does matter. Things happened to me while I was gone. Terrible things that I need to tell you about. You and Daddy both …"

She hadn't meant to blurt it out like this. Her intent had been to sit both her parents down together and gently walk them through the circumstances of her captivity as best she could. Now she knew there would be no graceful way to convey the truth, as she watched dread creep into Regina Bishop's pretty face.

The two of them could have passed as sisters in public, both of them youthful looking, the process of aging halted near thirty years old. It was the same for all Breedmates, due to their genetic anomalies and the life-giving power found in a Breed male's blood. Corinne was gone seventy-plus years, but she'd hardly aged. She'd been kept alive, deliberately kept young and viable because that's where her value had been to her captor.

Regina Bishop saw this truth now; Corinne watched the realization dawn, as though her mother hadn't really looked at her closely until that very moment. "Tell me," she whispered.

"Tell me what happened to you, Corinne. Why would anyone want to hurt you?"

Corinne gave a slow shake of her head. "Why would anyone want to hurt any of the young Breedmates who were captured along with me? Insanity, maybe. Evil, certainly. That's the only way to explain the things he did. The torture and experimentation …"

"Oh, darling," Regina cried, the words lost within a choked intake of breath. "All this time? All these years, you've been made to suffer such things? To what end?"

"We were used for a very specific purpose," Corinne replied, her voice sounding wooden even to her own ears. "The one who took us – the one who locked us in a lightless prison and treated us no better than cattle – needed our bodies to help him grow his own army. We weren't his only captives. He also had another, a creature I'd only heard about in stories Sebastian used to tell Lottie and me to frighten us."

Her mother's face drained of all its color. "What are you saying?"

"There was an Ancient imprisoned in the labs too," she said, speaking past Regina Bishop's recoiled gasp. "Our captor used him for experimentations as well. And he used him for breeding, to father Gen One vampires who'd be raised in service – enslavement, more like it – to the madman who'd controlled all of us."

For a long moment, her mother simply stared, mute and pale. A tear rolled down her cheek as the understanding settled on her fully. "Oh, my dear child …"

Corinne cleared her throat. She'd gone this far now; she needed to speak the rest. "I fought every chance I got, but in the end they were stronger. It took a long time, but eventually –

thirteen years ago, as best I've been able to guess – they got what they wanted from me." She had to draw a deep breath in order to continue. "While I was in those awful laboratory cells, I gave birth to a son. I have a child out there somewhere. He was stolen from me just hours after he was born. Now that I'm free, I intend to get him back."

Something wasn't right.

As Hunter parked the car in the Order's private hangar at the airport, he kept thinking back to Corinne's reunion with her Darkhaven family. He kept wondering why his predator's instincts were circling back around to Victor Bishop like a hound on a trail that had nearly gone cold.

Nearly, but not quite.

Something about Bishop's reaction toward Corinne's reappearance didn't ring true. The Breed male had seemed shocked, certainly, and obviously moved to see the young woman who'd been dead to all of her kin for such a long time.

As any Darkhaven leader would be, Bishop had been notably concerned about the immediate security of his home and its inhabitants. He'd been cautious and protective, all things to be expected. Yet Hunter had detected something more in Bishop, something that seemed to run deeper than his outward expression of astonishment and relief at Corinne's unexpected homecoming.

There had been a remoteness to Victor Bishop's gaze as he looked at his daughter. There had been a hesitancy to the man, a hint of distraction in his demeanor, even as he'd embraced her and told her what a relief it was to see her again. Victor Bishop was hiding something. He was holding back somehow with Corinne; Hunter was sure of it.

Then again, who was he to judge when it came to any demonstration of emotion?

He had been raised to deal in logic and facts, not feelings. His instincts were honed toward stealth and combat, toward the pursuit and destruction of any given target. In those things, he was expert. And it was those very things that awaited him in Boston – both the pursuit of the Enforcement Agent who'd fled the club in Chinatown and the rooting out and destruction of Dragos and his untold number of homegrown assassins.

But still …

Suspicion nagged Hunter as he got out of the vehicle and strode toward the corporate jet inside the private hangar. Ahead of him, at the lowered steps of the Cessna, one of the pilots came out and greeted him with a polite smile.

"Mr. Smith," murmured the human. He and his copilot were part of a discreet charter service kept on permanent retainer by the Order. Hunter knew little about the arrangement, other than that the humans who operated the private jets exclusively for the Order were top of their class and paid a good sum to ask no questions of their typically late-night clientele. "We are cleared for taxi and takeoff as soon as you are ready, Mr. Smith."

Hunter gave a faint nod of acknowledgment, his instincts still prickling as he put his foot on the first step. It was then that the realization hit him.

Something Victor Bishop had said.

What of your abductor? he'd demanded of Corinne.

Good God, please tell me the bastard who stole you from us is dead. Although neither Corinne nor Hunter had mentioned any details about where she'd been or who had held her, Victor Bishop spoke as if he knew the blame for her capture rested on a single individual.

An individual who had the Darkhaven leader visibly anxious. "Paranoid" was the word that sprang to Hunter's mind when he recalled the hurried orders that sent Bishop's guards in a scramble to batten down the hatches of the estate and to hustle Bishop's mate and Corinne into the mansion. Now that Hunter thought about it, Victor Bishop had been acting like a man on the verge of a coming siege.

The question was, why?

"Is anything wrong, Mr. Smith?"

Hunter didn't answer. He pivoted off the plane's staircase and stalked across the concrete floor of the airport hangar, his boots thumping hard with every long stride. He got back into the car and turned on the engine.

The black sedan roared to life, tires screaming as he punched the gas pedal and headed back to confront Victor Bishop and whatever secret he was hiding.