Midnight Awakening (Chapter Eleven)
Pretty much all my life, I suppose. Tess pushed a curling lock of honey-blond hair behind her ear and gave a small shrug. For a long time, I didn't use it. I just wished it would go away, you know? So I could be…normal. Elise nodded, understanding completely. You're lucky, though, Tess. Your ability is one of strength. It works for the good.
Shadows seemed to crowd the Breedmate's aqua eyes. Now it does, yes. Thanks mostly to Dante, that is. Before I met him, I had no idea why I was so different from other women. I treated my talent like a curse. Now I wish it went deeper. There is so much more I wish I could do–like with Rio, for instance.
Elise knew the warrior Tess referred to. She'd seen him in one of the other infirmary rooms when she was led down here by Gideon. As they passed his open door, Rio had looked up from where he lay on a hospital bed, one side of his face distorted by old burns, the muscles of his bare chest and torso riddled with shrapnel scars and healed gouges that indicated some very severe injuries. His topaz-colored eyes had been dull beneath the fall of his overlong, dark brown hair. Elise hadn't wanted to stare, but the anguish she saw in his face was arresting–even more so than the ravaged condition of his person.
I can't take away old wounds and scars, Tess said. And some of the worst ones a person bears are on the inside. Rio is a good man, but he's damaged in ways he may never recover from, and there is no Breedmate talent that can erase those kinds of hurts.
Maybe love? Elise suggested hopefully.
Tess shook her head as she ran her hands under the counter tap and scrubbed up. Love betrayed him once. That's what left him the way he is now. I don't think he'll let anyone get that close again. All he's living for is to get back out in the field with the other warriors. Dante and I are trying to convince him to take things slowly, but when you try to slow Rio down, he only pushes harder. In some small way, Elise could relate to the warrior's determined need to take action, even if only in the name of revenge. She was driven by a similar need and, like Rio, hearing others advise her to step back didn't make the need burn any less.
From outside the infirmary room came the soft gait of female footsteps, accompanied by the quick, rhythmic click of a four-footed companion. Savannah and a perky brown terrier appeared in the doorway. Gideon's pretty Breedmate offered Elise a warm smile. All set here?
We've just wrapped up, Tess said, drying her hands with a paper towel and bending down to scratch the chin of the little dog who quite obviously adored her. The mutt jumped all over her, showering Tess with wet kisses.
Savannah came in and carefully ran her fingers over Elise's healed arm. Good as new. Amazing, isn't she?
You're all amazing, Elise answered, meaning it totally.
She'd met Savannah and Gabrielle a short while before, when both women had come down to check on her soon after her arrival at the compound. Savannah with her gorgeous mocha complexion and velvet brown eyes, had instantly made Elise feel at home with her gentle, caring demeanor. Gabrielle was sweet as well, a ginger- haired beauty who seemed wise beyond her years. And then there was pretty, quiet Tess, who'd taken care of Elise as compassionately as she might her own kin.
Elise felt humbled before them all. Having been raised in the Darkhavens, where the warriors of the Order were considered at best to be an antiquated, dangerous faction within the vampire race–at worst, a deadly gang exercising vigilante justice–it was surprising to meet the intelligent, kind women who'd taken members of the Order as their mates. She couldn't see any one of these women binding herself to anything less than a male of honor and integrity. They were too smart for that, too confident in themselves.
Surprisingly, they seemed so pleasant and warm, not unlike the Darkhaven females Elise considered her friends.
Since you're finished here, why don't both of you come with me? Savannah said, breaking into Elise's thoughts. Gabrielle and I just made some sandwiches and a fruit salad. You must be hungry, Elise.
I am…or at least, I should be, she admitted quietly. It had been several hours since she'd eaten and her body felt depleted, in need of nourishment, but the idea of food held little appeal. Everything tasted bland, even the things she used to enjoy when Quentin was alive.
How long has it been for you, Elise? Savannah's tone was cautious, concerned. I've heard that you lost your mate about five years ago…
She knew what the woman was asking, of course. Had she gone so long without blood? In the Darkhavens it would be considered rude to ask questions about another female's blood bond with her mate–even worse to question a widow about whether or not she drew sustenance from another in her mate's absence–but here, among these women, there seemed no reason to hide the truth.
Quentin was killed by a Rogue in the line of duty five years and two months ago. I haven't turned to anyone else for my needs–not any of them. Nor will I.
Five years without Breed blood in you is a long time, Savannah acknowledged. Thankfully she didn't bring up the other implication in Elise's confession: that she hadn't taken another lover in all that time either.
Your body is aging, Tess said, a look of curiosity in her eyes, maybe sadness. If you don't take another male as your mate–
Eventually I will die, Elise answered. Yes, I know. Without Breed blood to sustain me in a state of perfect health, I need to work my muscles and keep fit, just like any other human. And, like any other human, my body will start to progress in years–it already has. In time, like any other human, I will succumb to old age.
Savannah's dark eyes were sympathetic. That doesn't bother you, the thought of dying?
Only when I think that I might go to my grave without having made a difference in this world. That's why I… She glanced down, still finding it difficult to speak about the thing that motivated her to leave the Darkhaven and begin another life. I lost my son four months ago. He got involved with Crimson, and the drug turned him Rogue.
Yes, Savannah said, reaching out to softly touch her shoulder. We heard what happened. And how he died. I'm so sorry.
So am I, Tess added. At least the Crimson lab has been destroyed. Tegan saw to it personally.
Elise's head shot up in surprise. What do you mean, personally?
He razed the place, Tess said. It's all that Nikolai, Kade, and Brock have been talking about since they got back. Evidently Tegan went in by himself and single-handedly shut the operation down before the others had even arrived on scene. Then he burned the building to the ground.
Tegan did that? Elise was astonished. And she was fairly certain he'd implied the Order was responsible for shutting the lab down, not him personally. Why would he let her believe that if he had been the one responsible?
Niko said Tegan came out of that burning warehouse like something out of a nightmare, Tess went on. Then he walked off into the night without any explanation.
And from there he went to her apartment to look in on her, Elise realized now.
Come on, let's talk some more while you eat. Gabrielle's waiting for us in the dining room upstairs.
The three women left the infirmary, Tess's little dog trotting after them, and walked a confusing maze of corridors into the heart of the Order's subterranean compound. They were nearly to an elevator when a glass door whisked open somewhere nearby and deep male voices filled the area. Elise recognized Sterling's voice among them, but he sounded rougher than normal, talking about night patrols and racking up his tally of Rogue kills like it was some kind of sport for him.
The other male's voice rolled with an exotic accent, making Elise picture turquoise ocean waves and golden sunsets. It was Dante, she realized, as the two armed warriors rounded the corner and the one walking with Sterling moved in to sweep Tess into a tight embrace.
Hello, angel, he drawled and nuzzled his mouth against her neck while she laughed at the sudden amorous assault. His eyes flashed amber with the spark of his desire for his woman, emotion he didn't even attempt to hide.
I missed you, she whispered, stroking his dark hair. I always miss you.
Well, I'm home now. The words were a deep rasp as he reached down and twined his fingers through hers. Elise could see the tips of his fangs when he gave his Breedmate a slow, crooked smile. And I'm thirsty for you, Tess.
The female's smile was full of longing. I was just on my way to have a bite with my friends.
Savannah laughed. I think you found something better. We'll save you a sandwich. Lord knows, you're probably going to need it.
Tess beamed over her shoulder as Dante led her away. The couple strode off together, leaving no one in the room in doubt of what would soon transpire privately between them.
When Tess's little terrier started barking as Dante led her away, Savannah bent down to pick up the dog. Come on, you darling beast. I'll find something for you too. She glanced over at Elise. I'm just going to go see what Gideon's up to in the lab. I'll be right back, okay?
Elise nodded. And when she turned her head away from Dante and Tess's retreat, it was to find Sterling staring at her from across the corridor. His eyes scathed her, taking in her appearance– from the top of her shorn hair to her bloodstained shirt, pants, and damp winter boots. There was disapproval in his eyes, even worse than Tegan's initial reaction to her. She saw Sterling's gaze drift down to her hands, to her fingers, which were twisting anxiously at the hem of her shirt. He stared at her wedding band, a muscle ticking in his beard- shadowed jaw.
Aren't you going to even say hello to me? she asked him in the unbearable silence. We have to talk to each other sometime, don't we?
But Sterling didn't say a word.
With a vague shake of his head, he simply turned and strode away, leaving her alone in the long corridor. Tegan tensed up as the lights flicked on over the estate's indoor pool. He'd gone there after making his call to the Berlin Darkhaven, looking for solitude and means of working off some excess steam. He was pissed but not surprised that Gideon hadn't been able to get a legitimate origin for Marek's FedEx shipment. The vampire's network of Minions had to be extensive. That journal had probably been handed off like a relay baton at half a dozen stops before arriving in Boston, just to muddy its trail.
As for the book itself, not even Savannah's impressive psychic ability to read the emotional history of an object had proved helpful there. All Gideon's Breedmate could cull from the journal was the deep madness–the mind-eating Bloodlust–of the one who had written on its pages.
Frustrated by it all, Tegan had swum a few laps, and now sat in the corner of the vaulted space, bare legs straddling a teakwood chaise, his hair and the brief black trunks clinging to his groin still damp from the water. He'd been enjoying the alone time and the darkness–or had been, until the rows of domed lights above the pool blinked on like interrogation room high beams.
He stood up, expecting to see Rio limp in with Tess for a round of therapy. But it wasn't either of them who came out of the shower room into the pool area.
It was Elise.
She didn't see him as she padded in barefoot, wearing a snow-white swimsuit that was sliced up the sides and held together by delicate bronze rings. The front of it plunged low, another ring centered between the perfect swell of her breasts. The daring suit was almost as big of a surprise as seeing her here; Tegan would never have guessed the reserved Darkhaven widow to look so right in such immodest clothing.
And goddamn, did she ever look right.
A deep, primal awareness stirred in him as he watched her draw away the spa towel she had slung around her neck. She let it fall to the tiles at the water's edge, then stepped down onto the first submerged step at the shallow end of the pool.
Soundlessly, Tegan inched his way back into the corner, hardly breathing in the thin shadows that concealed him. Even though it was clear that her body was leaner than it should be from want of fortifying Breed blood, Elise was lovely. She was beautifully formed, from the grace of her long legs and the gentle flare of her hips, to the slender curves of her waist, breasts, and delicate shoulders.
He had seen hints of her figure when she'd come out of the shower in her apartment last night, and when she'd lain unconscious on the futon, but the thick robe had hidden more than it revealed. The scrap of elastic white material she wore now only accentuated her assets. In a big way.
She strode down into the water, then began a slow swim toward the center of the pool. Abruptly, she dove under, disappearing from his view until she reemerged at the far end to come up for air. As her face broke the surface of the water, she opened her eyes and spotted him. Her little gasp echoed in the cavernous room.
Tegan. She brought her arm up to hold on to the edge of the pool, but kept her body submerged as if the water could shield her from his intrusive gaze. I thought I was alone in here.
So did I. He walked out under the lights, and didn't miss the flush of color in her cheeks as she quickly averted her eyes from his near nakedness. He drew closer to the edge and smirked a bit as she moved away, going toward the center of the pool. Your arm looks better.
Tess took care of my wound, she said. Gabrielle and Savannah fed me and gave me some fresh clothes. Savannah said it would be all right if I came up here for a swim…
Tegan shrugged, watching her tread water, lithe arms and legs moving sinuously beneath the surface. Do what you want. You don't need to explain anything to me.
She held his gaze across the pool. Then why do you make me feel like I do?
Instead of answering, she pivoted and started swimming at an easy pace, putting more distance between them. Were you able to find out anything about the journal?
Looking to change the subject, are you? He watched her retreat toward the deep end, and for some absurd reason, it took every ounce of impulse control for him to not pe in and follow her. We might have a lead on something in Berlin. I'm heading there tomorrow night.
Berlin? She reached for the lip of the pool and turned a frown on him. What's in Berlin?
Someone we might be able to persuade into giving us information. Unfortunately, our best lead right now is a Rogue. He's been cooling his jets in a holding tank for the past few years.
A rehabilitation facility? Elise asked. At Tegan's nod, she said, Those places are controlled by the Enforcement Agency.
So, what makes you think they'll permit you inside? I'm sure you are aware that the Order doesn't have a lot of admirers in the Darkhavens. They have never approved of your methods when it comes to dealing with the problem of Breed vampires going Rogue.
He had to give the female credit: she was up on her politics, and she was right about the Enforcement Agency intending to block the Order's access to the captive Rogue. Tegan's call to his old ally in Berlin, Andreas Reichen, had only confirmed what he and Lucan expected. The only way they were getting near Petrov Odolf was through a lot of red tape and bureaucratic bullshit.
Assuming Reichen could get Tegan an audience at all.
Elise knew that too. I have connections in the Agency. Maybe if I went with you…
Tegan scoffed. No way.
Why not? Are you so stubborn that you would refuse my help even in something like this?
I work alone, that's why.
Even if it means banging your head against a wall? Now she laughed, stunning him with her open mockery. I would have thought you were smarter than that, Tegan.
Anger pricked at him, but he held it back, refusing to let her bait him. With a shake of her head, Elise pivoted around and headed back for the shallow end, swimming with determined strokes. I should leave, she murmured.
Tegan kept time with her, strolling along the edge of the pool. Don't let me interrupt your swim. I was just on my way out anyway.
I mean, I should leave the compound. It's obvious I don't belong here.
You can't go back to your apartment now, he informed her curtly. The Rogues will have turned the place inside out. Marek will have his spies embedded all over the neighborhood, looking for you. I know that. Her slim body glided through the water, nearly to the end of the pool. I'm not foolish enough to think I can return there.
Tegan chuckled, satisfied that maybe she had come to her senses at last. Then I guess Harvard has convinced you to go back to the Darkhaven?
Harvard? Is that what Sterling goes by now that he's one of you?
One of us, Tegan said, hearing the accusation in her clipped tone.
Not that she tried to conceal it.
She swam to the steps and came out of the water, evidently too piqued to care that Tegan was staring openly at her wet body. His eyes homed in on the birthmark riding the inner edge of her thigh, drawn there unerringly like a heat-seeking missile locked on target.
Saliva surged into his mouth as he watched rivulets of water slide down her smooth, bare thighs. His skin felt tight all over, heat moving in his veins, and in the dermaglyph markings that covered his body and declared him one of the Breed. His gums ached with the sudden press of his fangs. He clamped his jaws together, curbing the startling jolt of hunger.
He didn't want to look at the female, but damned if he could tear his eyes away from her now.
Sterling hasn't convinced me of anything, she said as she grabbed her towel and covered herself with it. He won't even speak to me, if you want to know the truth. I think he must hate me after what happened last fall.
Tegan studied her smart lavender eyes. Is that really what you think–that he hates you? Sterling was my mate's brother–by marriage, he is my brother. It would be completely improper–
Tegan scoffed. Men have gone to war with their own brothers for want of the same woman. Desire could give a damn about propriety.
Elise held the towel closed between her breasts and paced from him. I don't like where this conversation is heading.
Do you have feelings for him?
Of course not. She looked at Tegan, clearly, rightfully, appalled. And what right have you to ask me that?
None at all, but suddenly it was important to him that he know. He stood there, deliberately blocking her path if she even thought to duck away from him. He desires you. He would take you into his bed if you'd let him. Hell, maybe he wouldn't even need your permission.
Now you're just being rude.
I'm only stating the truth. Don't tell me you weren't aware that Chase burns for you. Anyone with eyes in his head can see that.
But only you would be coarse enough to speak it.
That pale purple gaze flashed with outrage and for a second he wondered if he was about to get slapped. He rather hoped he would. He wanted her angry. Wanted her hating him, especially now, when the scent of her warm, wet skin was drilling into his senses. Every curve of her petite body branding itself into his mind's eye.
He was close enough to take her in his hands. Too close, because at this intimate range, he could see the flutter of her pulse drumming frantically at her throat, and he was all too aware that there would be no one to stop him if he pulled her into his arms and took a forbidden taste of her. You hang your callousness on the excuse of truth, she said, a fierceness creeping into her voice. So maybe you can tell me why you found it necessary to lie to me about what happened with the Crimson lab.
Tegan narrowed a hard look on her, the question raising some kind of alarm within him. I didn't lie to you about anything.
She didn't flinch under his glare, only held his gaze steadier, challenging him. It was you who destroyed the lab, not the Order. You personally, Tegan. No one else. I heard all about it.
A low hiss leaked out of him. He drew back, knowing he was the one retreating now, but unable to stop his hedging backward momentum. Elise moved with him, her wet, nearly naked body too close. Too goddamn tempting.
Why would you do something like that, Tegan? I can't believe that you had any kind of personal stake in seeing the lab razed. So tell me. Why? Did you do it for me?
He said nothing, incapable of speech and edging dangerously close to an emotion he did not want to feel.
She stared up at him fiercely. The silence was heavy, immovable. Where's your truth now, warrior?
Tegan forced a scoff, hearing the humorless laugh scrape in his throat. I've warned you once, female. You're toying with fire. I won't be gentleman enough to warn you again.
Elise closed her eyes as Tegan snarled a curse and stalked away from her. She didn't dare move, hardly drew a breath in the moments Tegan's swift footsteps carried him to the pool's exit. She heard him leave. Only then did she allow herself to sag in relief. What on earth was she thinking? Had she completely lost her mind, provoking a warrior like him toward anger?
And it was anger she saw in his expression. An unmistakable, smoldering fury had lit his bright green eyes as he'd stared at her, probably no less than an instant away from lashing out at her. Was she suicidal, like he'd accused her last night? Because if his ruthless reputation was anything to go by, pushing him like she had was liable to get her killed.
Except it wasn't anger she'd been looking for just now. She had wanted to see some kind of feeling in him…
Feelings he might have toward her.
Which was utterly foolish.
Still, she wondered. Had been wondering, ever since that early November night when Tegan had taken her home from the compound. Elise didn't want to think there was anything between them. Lord knew, she didn't need a complication like that in her life right now.
But in the tense moments before Tegan left the room, something had indeed been there.
Despite his cool demeanor, color had risen in his Gen One dermaglyphs. The beautiful markings had swirled like elaborate, changeable tattoos across Tegan's muscular chest, arms, and torso…and down, beneath the tight black swimsuit that blatantly accentuated his profane sexuality.
And as she'd stood before him, close enough to feel his breath skate hotly across her skin, those incredible glyphs had begun to pulse in shades of burgundy, indigo, and gold–the colors of awakening desire.