Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Six)

The female was safe and his job here was done.

That's what Hunter told himself as Corinne Bishop was taken into the hands of her father's security detail. The guards immediately opened the gates to her amid repeated apologies for the inadvertently hostile way she had been met. The one named Mason had moist eyes as he stared at her, his voice cracking with barely restrained emotion as he rubbed a hand over his face and murmured his disbelief at seeing her standing before him. Waving the other guards ahead, Mason wrapped a protective arm around Corinne's petite shoulders and started to walk her up the cobbled drive.

Hunter hung back just inside the gate, watching her make her way toward the mansion ahead.

The task of seeing her safely delivered home was met, which left him free to return to the airport where the Order's private plane waited to take him back to Boston. In a moment, Corinne Bishop would be ensconced inside her family's Darkhaven, and in just a few short hours, he could resume the more urgent business of pursuing Dragos and the army of Gen One killers who served him.

Yet there was still the matter of Mira's vision …

Corinne turned around to look at him as she was led farther up the driveway by her father's guards. Her long ebony hair caught in the cold breeze, whipping dark strands across her pale cheek and brow. Her lips parted as though she meant to speak, but the words were lost, clouding as her breath caught on the wind and flew away. Her gaze lingered on him. He felt that prolonged, haunted glance reach out to him across the distance, as palpable as a touch. As he watched Corinne Bishop being guided away from him, he saw instead the tearstained face and wild desperation of the woman in Mira's precognitive vision. He heard her voice, wrenched with fear and anguish.

Please, I'm begging you …

I love him …

You have to let him live …

Beneath the logic that reminded him the child seer's gift had never been wrong yet, something unfamiliar tugged at Hunter from inside. The stealth tactician in him was quick to suggest that the vision was a puzzle demanding to be resolved. The assassin in him cautioned that Mira's precognition might lead him to an enemy to be discovered and destroyed. But there was another part of him that looked at Corinne Bishop in that moment, with her tender beauty and the steely resilience that had carried her out of Dragos's dungeons with her spine held straight, and he couldn't fathom being the one to finally crush her as he had in Mira's vision.

He felt an odd respect for her, for what she might have suffered at Dragos's hands. Odder to him still, he realized that he didn't want to be the one to cause Corinne Bishop's pain and tears. It was that illogical, far-too-human part of him that made him glance away from her and begin to pivot back toward his waiting vehicle at the end of the drive. If he left now, the chances were good that he might never cross paths with the female again.

He could go back to Boston, and the vision be damned.

As he took the first steps, the front door of the mansion was flung open on a keening feminine wail. "Corinne! I have to see her! I want to see my daughter!"

Hunter paused to look over his shoulder as an attractive brunette female raced out of the house. She hadn't stopped to grab a coat, had apparently left whatever she'd been doing and run outside in just a white satiny blouse and a narrow, dark skirt. Her high-heeled shoes clicked and skidded as she flew over the cobbled drive, sobbing as she hurried toward the guards and Corinne in the center of the long driveway.

Corinne broke away from the others and rushed to meet her. "Mother!"

The two women fell into a fierce embrace, both of them weeping and laughing, clutching each other tightly as they each spoke in a rush of whispered words punctuated by joyful tears. Victor Bishop was only a moment behind his relieved mate. The Darkhaven's head of household came up in silence, his face pallid and slack in the moonlight, black brows lowered over unblinking dark eyes. A choked cry snagged in the Breed male's throat. "Corinne …"

She glanced up as he said her name, nodding as he tentatively approached her. "It's really me, Daddy. Oh, God … I never thought I'd see any of you again!"

Hunter observed the continued reunion, listening as Corinne's stricken father tried to make sense of everything that was happening. "I don't understand how any of this can be,"

Bishop murmured. "You've been gone so long, Corinne. You were dead …"

"No," she assured him, stepping out of his arms to meet his stunned gaze. "I was taken away that night. You were made to believe I was dead, but I wasn't. All this time, I was kept like a prisoner. But none of that matters now. I'm just so glad to be home again. I never thought I'd be free."

Victor Bishop's head shook slowly. His brows sank lower, deepening his look of confusion. "I can hardly believe it. After all these years … How is it possible that you're standing here in front of us now?"

"The Order," Corinne replied. Her gaze found Hunter through the cluster of Bishop's guards. "I owe my life to the warriors and their mates. They found the place I was being held. Last week they rescued me and several other captives and brought us to a safe house in Rhode Island."

"Last week," Bishop murmured, sounding both surprised and disturbed. "And no one thought to tell us? We should have been informed that you were all right – we should have been told that you were alive, for crissake."

Corinne gently took his hands in hers. "I couldn't let you hear it from anyone but me, in person. I wanted to be able to see your faces and put my arms around you when I told you what happened to me." Her expression went solemn, almost mournful, a look that did not escape Hunter's notice. "Oh, Daddy … there's so much I need to tell you and Mother both."

While Corinne's mother hugged her tight and stifled another sob, Victor Bishop's jaw was growing increasingly taut. "And what of your abductor? Good God, please tell me the bastard who stole you from us is dead – "

"He will be," Hunter replied, his interruption drawing the eyes of everyone gathered there. "The Order pursues him as we speak. Soon the one who did this will be no more."

Bishop's narrow look scanned Hunter from head to toe. "Soon isn't good enough when it's my family at risk, warrior." He gestured to his men. "Shut that gate and arm the perimeter sensors. We shouldn't stay out here any longer. Regina, take Corinne into the house. I'll be right behind you."

Bishop's guards hurried to carry out his commands. As Corinne's mother steered her toward the house, Corinne broke away and walked back to where Hunter stood. She held out her hand to him. "Thank you for bringing me home."

He stared for a moment, torn between her strong, steady gaze and the pale, delicate hand that reached out to him, waiting for his acknowledgment.

Hunter took her slender fingers into his grasp. "You are welcome," he murmured, careful not to crush her as his large hand devoured her much smaller one.

He wasn't used to physical contact, and he'd never known any need for gratitude. Still, it was impossible not to notice how soft Corinne's skin was against his palm and fingertips. Like warm velvet against the rough scrape of his hard, weapon-callused hand. It shouldn't have meant anything at all, but somehow the idea of touching this female piqued all kinds of interest within him. Unwanted, unwarranted interest, a point made all the more clear as Corinne's anguished pleas from Mira's vision echoed in the back of his mind. 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 …

He released her from his loose hold, but even after the contact was broken, her warmth stayed nestled in the cradle of his palm as he fisted his hand and brought it back down to his side. Corinne quietly cleared her throat, folding her arms across herself. "Please tell everyone in the Order – Andreas Reichen and Claire too – that I will be eternally grateful for all they've done."

Hunter inclined his head. "Live a good life, Corinne Bishop."

She stared at him for a long moment, then gave him a faint nod and pivoted to rejoin her mother. As the two females started for the house together, Victor Bishop stepped into Hunter's line of vision, his head turned to watch the women walk back up the driveway. When they were well out of earshot, he exhaled a low curse.

"I never dreamed this moment would come," he murmured as he looked back at Hunter once more. "We buried that girl decades ago. Or, as it turns out, what we thought was that girl. It took a long time for Regina to give up hope that there had been some mistake and the body my men pulled out of the river months later wasn't actually her daughter."

Hunter listened in silence, watching Bishop's face twist and redden with emotion as he spoke.

"It nearly destroyed Regina, losing Corinne. She kept hoping for a miracle. She held on to that hope for longer than I imagined could be possible. Eventually, she did let go." Bishop ran his palm over his creased brow and slowly shook his head. "And now … thanks to God and the Order, tonight she finally has her miracle. We all do."

Hunter did not acknowledge the praise, nor the outstretched hand of the Darkhaven vampire in front of him. He kept his eyes trained on Corinne's retreating form as she and her mother walked the remainder of the long driveway, then entered the open front door of the warmly lit house up ahead. He watched until the door was closed behind them and he was assured that his temporary ward was fully transferred to the shelter of her family's arms. In the lengthening quiet, Victor Bishop cleared his throat as he let his hand drift back down to his side. "How can I ever repay the Order for what you've done here tonight?"

"Keep her safe," Hunter said, then he turned away from Bishop and walked to his waiting vehicle at the street.

A furious throb was drumming in Lucan's veins as he sat with several members of the Order in the compound's tech lab. His elbows planted on the edge of the long conference table, he and the others listened in disgust as Gideon reviewed his findings concerning Murdock, the Enforcement Agent who'd fled the scene last night at the private club in Boston and had yet to surface anywhere.

"In addition to the sip-and-strip clubs he tends to frequent, our boy Murdock also seems to prefer his blood Hosts on the rare side – as in very young. There's more than one blemish in his records with the Agency for solicitation of an underage human, and not just solicitation with intent to feed. Also some citations for excessive force among both Darkhaven civilian populations and humankind. Keep in mind, this is just the shit in his general file. If I dig any deeper than the surface, there's bound to be a whole other pile of nasty on this guy."

Gideon had hacked in and pulled up the vampire's records from the IID, the information database that logged nearly every known Breed individual in existence. There were exceptions, of course, namely Lucan and an untold number of other early-generation Breed born centuries before any kind of technology had been in place. Lucan glanced at the flat-panel monitor where a photograph of a prissy brown-haired male with an oily, too-smug smile filled the screen.

"What about family? Anyone we can squeeze for intel on this asshole's possible whereabouts?"

Gideon shook his head. "Never took a Breedmate, and there is no recorded kin on file anywhere. Another thing, Murdock's only been local for the past fifty-odd years. Before that, back around the time of his documented problems with kids and violence, he was part of the Agency in Atlanta. Looks like the director of that region personally recommended Murdock for transfer and promotion to his position up here."

Across the table, seated in black fatigues and patrol gear like the gathered male warriors, Nikolai's mate, Renata, scoffed. Her chin-length brunette hair swung around her jaw line as she leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. "What easier way to get rid of a problem than packing it up and shipping it somewhere else? I saw plenty of that going on among the orphanage staffs in Montreal."

"Sounds like this scumbag Murdock needs to be put down," Rio said from the other side of Niko and Renata. His topaz eyes smoldered with contempt, making the web of combat scars that riddled the left side of his face look all the more savage.

Another of the warriors, Kade, gave a nod of his spiky-haired dark head. "Too bad Hunter and Chase didn't finish him off at the club last night. Might've done the world a favor."

"Murdock is scum," Lucan agreed, "but if there's any chance he might be connected to Dragos or his operation – even remotely connected – then we need to make sure he keeps breathing long enough to lead us there."

"What about Sterling?" It was Elise who spoke, her voice tentative as she turned to look at Lucan from her seat between him and her mate, Tegan. While the rest of the assembled group had been occupied with talk of their missions and the new priority of locating Agent Murdock, Elise had been quiet, pensive. Now she wore her worry in the flat press of her mouth and in the stormy lavender of her eyes. "He's been gone for nearly twenty-four hours. Has there been any word from him at all?"

For a moment, no one said a thing. Sterling Chase's absence was the elephant in the room, the topic on everyone's mind, if not their tongues.

"No word," Gideon answered. "His cell rings straight to voicemail and he's not returning my calls."

"Same here," Dante put in from the other side of the conference table. Of all the warriors, Tess's mate was easily Chase's tightest ally. Just a year or so ago, when Chase had come on board with the Order, he and Dante had been at each other's throats. In the time since, they'd had each other's backs as friends and brethren. But even Dante seemed doubtful about Chase now. "I tried him just before we came into this meeting but got no answer. Harvard's dodging us hardcore this time."

"That's not like him at all." Elise glanced at Tegan as he reached out to draw her hand into his. "He's too responsible to just take off like this without any explanation."

"Is he?" Tegan's question was gentle, but there was tension in his jaw – a fierce protectiveness – as he looked at his troubled Breedmate beside him. "I know you want to think the best of Chase, but you need to look at him through clear eyes now. You saw him last night, Elise. You told me how he acted with you in the chapel. Was that the Chase you think you know?"

"No," she answered quietly, her eyes downcast as she slowly shook her blond head. Earlier that day, Elise had relayed to everyone her confrontation with Chase in the moments before he'd left the compound, how he'd lashed out at her, full of anger and crudeness. Lucan had bristled to hear about the whole thing, but no worse than Tegan. The other Gen One still vibrated with palpable malice toward Chase's actions, despite the care with which he handled his beloved mate's feelings for her former kinsman.

"I shouldn't have struck him," Elise murmured. "I knew he was upset. I should have walked away and left him alone. That's what he told me to do. I shouldn't have pushed him – "

"Hey," Tegan said, tenderly lifting her chin with his fingertips. "You didn't push him out that door last night. He went willingly." Tegan glanced Lucan's way then. "Let's face it, Harvard's been walking a damn thin line for a while now. Maybe it's time we all start looking at him with clearer eyes. Time we stop making excuses for Chase and acknowledge what I'm sure more than one of us has been thinking about him lately."

Lucan caught the meaning in Tegan's knowing stare and in the statement that hung over the room like a funeral shroud. Hell, how could he mistake Tegan's point, considering Lucan's own recent history and the battle he'd waged not so long ago to resist falling victim to the weakness that plagued all of the Breed?

"Bloodlust," Lucan said, grim with the thought. He glanced up at the faces of his Breed brethren seated around the table, more aware than any of them – except Tegan, that is – of what it meant to become addicted to the thirst. Once a vampire stepped foot on that path, the decline was swift. Plummet too far and you never came back. "No offense, T, but I hope you're wrong."

Tegan's stare remained steady, too certain. "And if I'm not?"

When no one else filled the answering silence, Dante hissed a curse. "Either way, we need to haul Harvard's ass back into the compound and set him straight. Someone needs to tell him to pull his shit together before it's too late. I'll pound it into his thick skull personally, if that's what it takes."

Lucan wanted to agree with Dante's argument but found himself shaking his head the longer he considered it. "Chase knew what he was doing when he walked out of here. And if he didn't, then he sure as hell knows now. We've got bigger problems to deal with than cleaning up another of Harvard's messes. He's AWOL, and that's coming on the heels of a fucked-up mission that might have gone even further south if not for Hunter having been with Chase on patrol. Let's not forget it was Chase who failed to keep Lazaro and Christophe Archer safe during Kellan's rescue last week. He's been screwing up left and right. Frankly, he's becoming a liability."

"I can go after him, try to bring him around," Dante insisted. "I mean, Christ, Lucan. He's proved to be solid in combat. He's saved my ass more than once, and he's done a lot of good for the Order since he's been on board. Don't you think he deserves some benefit of doubt here?"

"Not if his behavior jeopardizes the Order's objectives," Lucan replied. "And not if his presence here endangers the security of this compound or anyone within these walls. Like Tegan said, nobody pushed Chase out of the fold. He walked out of here on his own free will."

Dante stared in grim silence, along with the others seated around the table. This wasn't a call Lucan wanted to make, but he was leader here, and, ultimately, his word was law. None of the warriors would argue the subject any further. Not even Dante, who slumped back into his seat and muttered a low curse.

Lucan cleared his throat. "Now, let's get back to Murdock – "

Before he could finish the thought, the tech lab's glass doors hissed open and Rio's Breedmate, Dylan, rushed into the room. Her freckle-spattered face was pale against the fiery color of her hair, her eyes wide with panic.

"Tess sent me," she blurted, skidding to a sharp halt. "She's in the infirmary. She needs help quick!"

Dante shot out of his seat. "Oh, fuck. Is it the baby?"

"No." Dylan shook her head. "Nothing like that – Tess is fine. It's Kellan Archer. Something's wrong with him – really wrong. He's in a lot of pain. We can't get him to stop convulsing."

The meeting broke up in a rush of movement, Lucan and Dante leading the way. Everyone scrambled down to the infirmary at the other end of the corridor. Dylan hadn't been exaggerating when she said the situation with young Kellan Archer was bad. The Breed youth was doubled over on his infirmary bed, clutching at his abdomen and moaning in obvious agony.

"His nausea started worsening about half an hour ago," Tess volunteered as the group crowded into the room. Kellan's grandfather, the Gen One civilian Lazaro Archer, stood at one side of the bed, Tess at the other. Her hand rested lightly on the teen's back as another deep convulsion rippled through his body.

"What's wrong with Kellan?" asked little Mira, who stood nearby with Gideon's mate, Savannah. The girl clutched an opened book to her chest, as though she'd recently been reading from it. Her eyes were wide and anxious. "Is he going to be okay?"

"Kellan's got a bad tummyache," Savannah told her, glancing to Gideon and Lucan as she guided the child away from the bed. She spoke and moved with utter calm, but her dark brown eyes were grave with concern.

The fact was, no one knew what was wrong with Kellan Archer. Instead of rebounding after he'd been abducted and tortured on Dragos's command, he seemed to be getting weaker. He needed to feed, that much was certain, but he wasn't yet in any shape to venture topside and find a Host on his own.

Bad enough Lucan had been forced to open the Order's headquarters to Lazaro Archer and his grandson after Dragos razed their Darkhaven and obliterated their kin. If things didn't improve with Kellan damn soon, Lucan was going to have to break yet another rule of the compound and bring a human inside to feed the kid.

Renata reached out to take Mira's hand. "Come on, Mouse. Why don't you come with Savannah and me for a little while? We can come back when Kellan feels better, all right?"

Mira nodded but kept her head turned toward the youth suffering on the bed until the other two Breedmates had removed her from the room. No sooner had they gone, the young vampire doubled over into a deeper spasm, saliva dripping from his open mouth.

"Please," Lazaro Archer said. "Please, do something to help my boy. He's all I have left – "

A terrible groan ripped out of the Breed youth's throat. He gagged and wheezed, then, with a great heave of his torso, he leaned across the infirmary bed and began to vomit. A stream of liquid shot out of his mouth as he pitched forward and retched again. Dante leapt forward and pulled Tess out of the way, sheltering her against him. Dylan and Rio rushed to grab paper towels from the cabinet nearby while Elise stepped in to comfort the youth and help clean him up.

He kept heaving, spasms racking him even after his body had expelled what little it had to give up. He tried to speak, an embarrassed moan of apology, but only managed a raw rasp of sound.

"Shh," Elise whispered, stroking his damp hair where he'd crumpled on the mattress. "It's okay now, Kellan. Don't worry about anything except feeling better."

Dylan was on her hands and knees below, mopping up the mess on the floor as Rio worked on stripping away the soiled blanket and sheet. Lucan heard Dylan's indrawn gasp and watched as she suddenly went very still next to Kellan Archer's bed.

"Um … you guys?" She stood up then, a wad of wet paper toweling in her hand. "I think I know what was making Kellan sick."

Lucan stared, a feeling of sickness opening up in his own gut as Dylan held out the soiled, soggy clump. In the center of it was a coin-size silver disc.

"Ah, Christ. Ah, fuck me," Gideon murmured. His face went slack as he reached out to take the object out of its wet nest of spittle and stomach acid. "I don't believe this. Son of a bitch!"

"What is it?" Tegan asked, grim as the rest of them.

"It's a GPS chip," Gideon replied. "A goddamn tracking device." He raked a hand over the top of his head and turned to face Lucan. "We've been compromised."

Lucan exhaled, the magnitude of his mistake hitting him like a freight train plowing into the center of his being.

Now it all made sense. The abduction of Kellan Archer. The too-easy rescue. The simultaneous attack on Archer's Darkhaven – an attack that was so thorough, it would have ensured the boy had no place else to go but back to the compound and into the protection of the Order.

Dragos had staged the entire thing, all for this purpose.

He knew where they lived now. He'd known for days, ever since Lucan had made the decision to allow the civilians into the Order's home.

The only question that remained was how long it would be before Dragos or his army of homegrown killers brought this war right up to the mansion's front gates.