Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Two)

As founder and leader of the Order – hell, as a Gen One Breed male with some nine hundred years of life and then some under his belt – Lucan Thorne was not accustomed to taking an earful from anyone.

Yet he listened in smoldering silence as a high-ranking Enforcement Agent by the name of Mathias Rowan filled him in on what had gone down a couple of hours ago in one of the Agency's private hangouts in Chinatown. The very club where he'd sent two of the Order's warriors, Chase and Hunter, on patrol that night. He could hardly pretend surprise to hear that things had gotten out of hand, or that there had been a shit storm of violence and Chase had ended up in the middle of it.

Or rather, at the start, middle, and end of it, according to Rowan. Under normal circumstances, neither Lucan personally nor the Order as a whole would give a damn about ruffled feathers within the Agency. For as long as they'd existed, the Order and the Enforcement Agency had operated on their own terms, by their own brands of laws. Lucan had founded the Order based on justice and action; the Agency's credo had been mired in politics and empire building from the beginning.

That didn't mean there weren't good, trustworthy men among their ranks – Mathias Rowan being one of those notable exceptions. Sterling Chase had been another. It wasn't much more than a year ago that Chase had been part of the Enforcement Agency's elite, a well-bred, well-connected, well-mannered golden boy whose career trajectory might have known no bounds.

And now?

Lucan's mouth pressed flat in grim consideration as he paced alone in the living room of the private quarters that he and his Breedmate, Gabrielle, shared at the Order's underground headquarters. He couldn't discount that Chase had been a valuable asset to the Order since he'd traded in his starched white shirts and natty Agency suits for basic black combat fatigues and the give-no-quarter methods of a warrior. He'd come on board fully committed to the Order's goals and missions. He'd been a quick study on patrols and had covered more than one of the warriors'

asses in the heat of their battles.

But Lucan also couldn't deny that in recent months Chase was skating on damned thin ice. He'd been losing his edge at times, losing his focus. Lucan's anger spiked dangerously close to off the charts as he listened to Mathias Rowan's recap of the all-out brawl that took place downtown.

"I've got reports of three Agents beaten to within an inch of their lives and another one who looks like someone sent him through a shredder," Rowan said on the other end of the call.

"That doesn't count the walking wounded or the ones still unaccounted for either. To a man, they're all saying that your warriors came into the place looking for an excuse to start trouble. Chase in particular."

Lucan hissed a low curse. He'd had a bad feeling about putting Chase on the Chinatown patrol tonight. That was the reason he'd tasked Hunter to ride shotgun – the coolest head in the Order to accompany the loosest cannon. The fact that neither of them had called to report in for the last hour wasn't making him feel any better about that decision.

"Look," Rowan said, then exhaled a beleaguered sigh. "I consider Chase a friend, and have for a long time. He's the reason I agreed to assist when he first approached me about being the Order's eyes and ears within the Agency. As for what's going on with him personally, I can't say where the change is coming from, but for his own sake – perhaps for everyone's sake – he'd better start figuring it out. And far be it from me to tell you how to run things within your operation, Lucan – "

"Yes," he interrupted, clipped and to the point. "Far be it, Agent Rowan."

Silence held for more than a moment on the other end. Lucan felt a shift in the air around him and glanced up as Gabrielle walked into the room.

He put Rowan on hold with barely a word of warning simply because he wanted to watch his beautiful mate move. She carried an empty tea tray out of their library and quietly placed it in the kitchen. The tray had been set for two: Gabrielle and another female who'd arrived at the compound earlier that evening. Only one of the dainty teacups had been drained. Only one of the bone china plates had been cleaned of its tiny chocolate cake and sundry other frosted confections.

Lucan didn't have to guess which of the women had eaten. A dusting of chocolate powder rode the lush bow of his auburn-haired mate's perfect mouth. He licked his own lips as he watched Gabrielle, hungered as always for a taste of her. If not for the disturbing business at hand, to say nothing of the more minor dilemma that awaited his decision in the other room, Lucan might have dismissed all the demands on him except the one that would get him naked with his woman in the least amount of time.

The quick glance she shot him said that she knew the direction of his thoughts. Of course, the truth of it was probably written all over his face. It took only a graze of his tongue to feel the sharp edge of his emerging fangs, and the way his vision was sharpening, he guessed his eyes were more amber than gray now, his desire transforming him to his true nature in much the same way that blood thirst would.

A slow smile spread over Gabrielle's lips as she walked toward him. Her big brown eyes were deep and soft, her fingers tender and inviting as she reached up to stroke his tense cheek. Her touch soothed him as always, and his growl sounded more like a purr as she weaved her fingers into his dark hair.

With Mathias Rowan parked at the end of the silenced line, Lucan held the phone away from him as he tilted his head down toward Gabrielle's mouth. He brushed his lips across hers, his tongue sweeping lightly across the trace dusting of cocoa that flavored her kiss.

"Delicious," he whispered, seeing the hungered glow of his irises reflected in the fathomless depths of hers. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around him, but she was frowning as she held his gaze. She kept her voice quiet, all but mouthing the words. "Is everything okay with Hunter and Chase?"

He nodded, pressing a kiss to her brow. It felt awkward dismissing her concern. In the year and a half that he'd been blood-bonded to Gabrielle, they had shared everything. He trusted her more than he had ever trusted anyone else in all of his considerable years of life. She was his mate, his partner, his beloved. As his most precious confidante, she deserved to know what he was feeling as a man. What he feared in his heart and soul, as the head of this compound, which had at some point begun to feel more like a household to him than the strategic nerve center of the Order's mission headquarters.

While his warriors battled daily with their own personal demons, while the Order had taken a few hits, weathering some shattering losses as well as some much-needed triumphs – while the compound's population had swelled to almost double what it had been not even two years past as several of the warriors fell in love and found their mates – one disturbing fact remained.

They hadn't yet been able to stop Dragos and his madness.

That Dragos was still breathing, still able to cause the kind of bloodshed and destruction he'd orchestrated last week with the abduction of a Darkhaven youth from a powerful Breed family and the subsequent razing of their residence that had killed all inside was a failure Lucan took very personally.

It was a reality that had struck him far too close to home.

But that was something he couldn't share with Gabrielle, not now. He couldn't bear to make her feel the same dread that haunted him. He had been shouldering as many of his burdens as possible on his own. Until he had all the answers, until his plans were in place and ready to be acted upon, the rest was his to bear.

"Don't worry, love. Everything is under control." He placed another tender kiss on her brow. "How are things going in the other room?"

Gabrielle gave a mild shrug and shook her head. "She doesn't talk much, but it's no wonder, considering all she's been through. All she wants is to go home to her family. Also understandable, of course."

Lucan grunted, in total agreement. He wanted nothing more than to send their guest on her way. Sympathetic to the woman's situation or not, the last thing he needed was another civilian underfoot at the compound for the next few days. "I don't imagine we've gotten any further word on her ride out of here, have we?"

"Nothing in the last hour. Brock said he or Jenna will call right away if the weather clears enough in Fairbanks to let them out."

Lucan cursed. "Even if the blizzard stops right now, they're easily a full day away yet. I'll have to put someone else on this instead. Maybe it's a good way to get Chase out of my hair for a while. Hell, after what I just heard tonight, it might be the only thing to keep me from killing him."

Gabrielle narrowed her gaze on his, all business now. "No way are you going to send that poor woman off to Detroit with Chase as her escort. Not happening, Lucan. I'll take her there myself before I let that happen."

He hadn't been totally serious to begin with, but he wasn't about to argue with her. Not when her chin was held at that stubborn upward angle that said she had absolutely zero intention of backing down. "Okay, forget I said it. You win." Grabbing her close with one arm, he let his hand roam down to the curve of her behind. "How come you always win?"

"Because you know I'm right." She moved in tighter, rising up on her toes until her mouth was brushing his. "And because – admit it, vampire – you wouldn't have me any other way."

With one slender brow arching, she nipped at his lower lip then slid out of his embrace before he could rise to her challenge. Not that he wasn't already rising. Gabrielle smiled, fully aware of his condition as she pivoted around and began to walk back toward the library and her waiting guest.

Lucan paused until she was out of the room, working to regroup his thoughts. Clearing his throat, he took Rowan off hold and put the phone back to his ear. He'd let the Agent hang in uncertain silence for long enough.

"Mathias," he said. "I want you to know that the Order appreciates all you've done to assist us thus far. As for what happened tonight in that club, I assure you it had not been my intent. I realize being the Agency's director for the region, this puts you in an uncomfortable position."

It was as close to an apology as he could muster. Although the long-standing, if unwritten, policy between Lucan's warriors and the Agency's members had been to refrain as best as they could from shitting in one another's yards, circumstances of late had changed. As in changed everything, and drastically.

"I'm not worried about myself," Rowan replied. "And I don't regret my decision to help you. I want Dragos apprehended, whatever it takes. Even if that means making a few enemies of my own inside the Agency."

Lucan grunted in acknowledgment of the vow. "You're a good man, Mathias."

"After all the bastard's done, especially the terror of last week, how could I not want him stopped just as badly as you and your warriors do?" Rowan's voice was edged with a passion Lucan understood very well. "It doesn't shock me that there is corruption within the Agency, least of all that a Neanderthal like Freyne would ally himself with a twisted madman like Dragos. I only wish I'd seen that possibility before it blew up in my face the night of Kellan Archer's rescue."

"You aren't alone in that regret," Lucan replied, sober at the thought. He'd sent several warriors out on that mission as well, added insurance that the Darkhaven youth would be brought home safely from his abductors – a trio of Gen One assassins who'd taken the boy on Dragos's orders. That primary objective had been achieved, but not without a lot of collateral damage and disturbing questions rising in its wake. "How is the boy?" Rowan asked. "Still recovering in our infirmary." Kellan Archer's physical abuse had been severe, but it was the mental anguish he'd suffered during and after his abduction that had Lucan even more concerned for the young Breed male's long-term well-being. "And his grandfather?"

Lucan considered the elder Archer male in grim silence for a moment. Lazaro Archer was one of the few remaining Gen Ones in the Breed population, and an aged one at that. Nearly a thousand years old, he had lived an esteemed, peaceful life, the last couple of centuries spent in New England as the head of his family Darkhaven. He had raised strong sons who had raised sons of their own – Lucan wasn't even sure how many progeny Lazaro and his lifelong Breedmate could claim.

Not that it mattered.

Not anymore.

In a single blood-soaked evening, Lazaro's mate and all their kin who made the Boston Darkhaven their home had been wiped out. One of Lazaro's sons, the boy's father, Christophe, had been murdered at close range by Freyne, the traitor who'd been part of Kellan's Enforcement Agency rescue detail. Lazaro and Kellan were all that remained of the Archer bloodline, although their survival had not yet been made public.

"Both the boy and his grandfather are doing as well as can be expected," Lucan replied.

"Until I can determine why they were targeted by Dragos, they can't be safe anywhere but here, in the compound."

"Of course," Rowan answered. There was a pause on his end, then a quiet inhalation of his breath. "Knowing Chase, I'm sure he blames himself for part of what occurred during the rescue mission …"

Lucan felt his brows draw tight at the reminder of yet another of Chase's recent troubles while on duty. "Let me worry about my men, Mathias. You keep a close eye on your own."

"Certainly," he replied, even-toned and professional. "I'll handle any fallout from the incident at the club tonight. If anything interesting turns up in the meantime about Freyne or his connection to Dragos, rest assured I'll be in touch."

Lucan murmured his thanks. If Rowan hadn't carved such a solid career for himself within the upper ranks of the Agency, he might have made a fine warrior instead. God knew the Order could use extra hands and a few more level heads if things got any worse in their war with Dragos.

Or if things continued to go south with a certain member of their current team. No sooner had the thought put a hard tick in Lucan's jaw, the compound's internal line rang with a call from the tech lab. He ended his conversation with Rowan, then punched the speaker button on the intercom.

"They're here," Gideon announced before Lucan had the chance to bark out a hello. "Just watched them roll through the gates of the estate. Got them on surveillance cameras as we speak. They're driving around to the fleet hangar right now."

"About fucking time," Lucan snarled.

He cut off the intercom and stalked out of his quarters. The pound of his black combat boots echoed down the lengths of snaking, white marble passageways that ran like a central nervous system through the heart of the underground compound. He rounded a corner and chewed up the distance toward the tech lab where Gideon was stationed practically 24/7 these days.

Up ahead of him, his acute hearing picked up the whispered hydraulic whine of the secure elevator as it made its descent from the garage located topside to the compound a few hundred feet belowground.

As he passed the tech lab, Gideon came out to meet him in the hallway. The British-born warrior and resident genius of the compound was letting his inner geek have its freedom tonight, dressed in slouchy gray jeans, green Chuck Taylor sneakers, and a yellow Hellboy T-shirt. His cropped blond hair was more disheveled than usual, as if he'd raked his hands over his scalp more than once during the wait for news of Hunter and Chase.

"Been a long time since I saw that murderous scowl," Gideon said, his blue gaze sharp over the pale lenses of his rimless shades. "Looks like you're about to chew these guys up and spit them out."

"Smells like someone already did that for me," Lucan growled, his nostrils tingling with the scent of freshly spilled Breed blood even before the polished steel doors of the elevator had opened to let out the pair of errant warriors.