Midnight Rising (Chapter Eighteen)

Rio killed the last couple of hours before dawn topside in the estate's back courtyard with Dante, then headed below to the compound for some alone time in the chapel. The quiet little sanctuary where the Order carried out their most important and personal ceremonies had always been a haven for him. Not now. All he saw in the candlelit space were reminders of Eva's deception.

Because of her, over a year ago they'd had to anoint and shroud one of the Order's most noble members in funeral white and place him on the altar at the front of the rows of pews. Conlan's death in a subway tunnel last summer had been unintentional – the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – but his blood was on Eva's hands.

Rio could still see her standing in the chapel at his side, clinging to him and weeping, yet all the while hiding her deceit. Waiting until the next chance she got to collude with the Order's enemies as part of some misguided attempt to see Rio pulled from the Order – even by seeing him maimed – so he could finally belong to her alone.

The irony of it was, he never would have left the Order.

He didn't want to now, and wouldn't, if he felt the least bit useful to the warriors who'd been like kin to him for nearly a century. If he hadn't been robbed of his sanity and his self-control by the blast that might have – should have – killed him.

"Shit," he muttered, pivoting around to get the hell out of the chapel.

He didn't need to linger there any longer with his old ghosts or the misery they brought him. All it took to revive Eva in his mind was a glance in a mirror or a reflection in a window. He tried damn hard not to do that, not only because of the shock of seeing what stared back at him, but also because he wanted Eva severed from his life completely. Just hearing her name was enough to send him into a fit of uncontrollable rage.

As Dylan could unfortunately attest.

He wondered if she was okay. Tess would have taken excellent care of her, even if her healing touch was absent now that she was pregnant.

But still, Rio wondered. He hated himself for the way he'd reacted. Dylan was probably feeling likewise. If she wasn't too busy pitying him for the mental train wreck he'd proven himself to be.

Feeling as alone and detached as a ghost himself, Rio wandered away from the compound's chapel and down the labyrinth of corridors until he reached the empty infirmary. He took a quick shower in the medical recovery room that had been his home during the months following the explosion, letting the hot water wash away the aches in his muscles and the rising pound in his temples.

And as he cut the spray and toweled off, his thoughts returned to Dylan. It wasn't doing her any good at all to be kept here against her will. And getting her gone meant he had to get that story of hers derailed ASAP.

It was morning now, which may mean lights out for the Breed, but not for the humans living topside. They'd be going about their usual weekday habits, which meant one more day for Dylan's boss at the paper to think about running her story. One more day for the women Dylan had been traveling with to talk about the cave she'd found and speculate on what it might have contained. One more day for Rio's fuckup to put the Order and all of the vampire nation in jeopardy of discovery by humankind.

He threw on a pair of loose navy warm-ups and a tank that were still folded in the closet with a few other things leftover from his extended stay in the infirmary wing. When he stepped into the corridor and navigated his way back to his quarters, it was with new purpose. His head was clearer now, and he was good and ready to get Dylan working on the kibosh to that cave story before another minute passed.

Except when he opened the door to his private apartments, the place was dark. Only a small table lamp glowed in the corner of the living room, like a night light left on for him in case he came back. He glared at the welcome little glow as he slipped inside and quietly shut the door.

Dylan was sleeping. He could see her in his bed in the other room, curled up on top of the duvet. No doubt she was exhausted. The past three days had to have taken a toll on her. Hell, they'd taken a toll on him too.

He walked into the dark bedroom and promptly forgot all about his original purpose in coming into the apartment as he got an eyeful of Dylan's long, bare legs. She was wearing a babydoll tee-shirt and pastel plaid boxers, stuff evidently taken out of her travel bag, which lay open next to the bed.

The cotton combo was nothing overtly sexy as far as sleepwear went – certainly nothing close to the expensive scraps of lace and satin that Eva used to parade around in for him. But damn if Dylan didn't look good in next to nothing…and look good sleeping in his bed.

Cristo, far too good.

Rio pulled a silk throw from a chair in the corner of the room and carried it over to the bed to cover her up. He wasn't doing it merely to be courteous. As one of the Breed, his vision was even sharper in the dark. All of his senses were more acute, and at the moment, they were conspiring to kill him with input about the half-naked female lying so vulnerably within his reach.

He tried not to notice that her breasts were bare beneath the little cap-sleeved shirt, her nipples pressing deliciously against the thin cotton. The temptation to stare at her smooth white skin – especially the exposed wedge of her abdomen where the tee-shirt was twisted and riding up so nicely above her navel – was more than he could handle.

But as he neared the edge of the bed with the blanket, she stirred slightly, shifting her legs and rolling a little farther onto her back. Rio stood there, unmoving, praying she didn't wake up and find him looming over her like a phantom.

Looking at her put a hot ache in his chest. He had no claim on Dylan, but a surge of possession ran through his blood like several thousand volts of live electricity. She wasn't his – wouldn't be his, no matter what path she chose in the end. Whether she wanted a future living among the Breed in a Darkhaven or one lived topside without any recollection of Rio and his kind, she wasn't going to belong to him. She deserved better, that's for sure.

Another man – be he Breed or human – would be much better suited to care for a woman like Dylan. It would be another man's privilege to explore her soft curves and silky skin. Another man's pleasure to taste the delicate pulse that beat in the sweet hollow at the base of her throat. Only another Breed male should have the honor of piercing Dylan's veins with a tender, wholly reverent bite.

It would be the solemn vow of another – never him – to protect her from all harm and to sustain her faithfully and forever with the blood and strength of his immortal body.

Not his right at all, Rio thought grimly as he placed the blanket over her as lightly as he could. Not one damn bit of her was his to desire.

But yet he did.

God, did he ever.

He burned with want, even knowing he shouldn't. Rio told himself it was purely accidental that his hands brushed along her curves as he dragged the silk coverlet higher. He didn't mean to let his fingers trail through her soft hair, the flame-red waves dampened slightly from a recent washing. He couldn't resist smoothing his thumb along the fine slope of her cheek and over the velvety skin below her ear.

And there was no biting back his whispered curse as his gaze lit on the small bandage that covered the cut he'd given her.

Shit. This was all he truly had to offer her – pain and apologies. And the only reason she was letting him get this close to her now was because she didn't know he was there.

Wasn't awake to see the beast standing over her in the dark, stealing touches and contemplating what it would be like to do far more. Wanting her so badly that his fangs were biting into his tongue, and his lust-changed eyes were throwing off some seriously intense amber light. Those Breed high beams were bathing her in a burnished glow, illuminating every dip and swell and delectable curve.

He drew his hand away from her and she stirred, probably from the heat of his transformed gaze. A quick downward sweep of his lids cut the twin spotlights, plunging the room into total darkness again.

Rio backed away from her without making a sound.

Then he crept out of the bedroom before he could prove himself any more of the thief he feared he could easily become when it came to this female.

At first Dylan thought it was the touch that woke her, but the tender fingers caressing her cheek had been a soothing warmth that made sleep feel more luxurious. It was the abrupt absence of that warmth that pulled her out of what had been a very pleasant dream.

She opened her eyes, seeing nothing but darkness in the bedroom.

Rio's bedroom.

Rio's bed.

She sat up at the realization, feeling awkward as hell that she'd fallen asleep here after taking a shower earlier that night. Or was it day? She didn't know, and couldn't tell, since there were no windows to be found in all two-thousand-plus square feet of Rio's apartment.

The place was dark and still, but Dylan didn't think she was alone.


A whole lot of quiet was all she heard in response.

She peered out toward the living room and noticed that the lamp she'd left on was off now. And someone definitely had been in here at some point, because whoever it was had covered her with a light blanket that used to be draped over one of the bedroom chairs.

It was Rio. She knew it absolutely.

It had been him beside the bed not a moment ago. His touch that had felt so good against her skin, and so cold when it was gone.

Dylan pivoted around and put her bare feet on the floor. She padded to the closed French doors, opening them softly as she strained to see anything in the lightless living room on the other side.

"Rio…are you asleep?"

She didn't ask if he was there; she knew he was. She could feel his presence in the way her heart was racing, blood speeding through her veins. Dylan walked across the carpeted floor to where she remembered seeing a squat ginger jar lamp on a little writing desk. She felt her way there, reaching out carefully for the cold porcelain base of the lamp.

"Leave it off."

Dylan swiveled her head toward the sound of Rio's voice. He was to her right, near the center of the room. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the lack of light, she could see him in the large, dark form seated on the velvet sofa, his body and long limbs devouring the petite lines of the furniture.

"You can have your bed. I didn't mean to fall asleep there."

She walked deeper into the room…and heard a low growl rumble from his direction.

Oh, God. She froze where she was standing, just a few steps away from the sofa. Was he in the throes of another meltdown like earlier? Or had he not fully recovered from that one yet?

Dylan cleared her throat. Braved another step toward him. "Are you…um, do you…need anything? Because if there's something I can do – "

"God damn it!" The sound of his voice was more desperate than angry. He pulled one of his faster-than-you-can-blink maneuvers, shooting up off the sofa and moving back against the far wall. As far as he could get from her. "Dylan, please. Just go back to bed. You need to stay away from me."

That was probably really good advice. Staying away from a vampire with a traumatic brain injury and a nuclear-grade level of uncontrollable rage was probably about the smartest thing she could do. Yet Dylan's feet kept moving, like all her common sense and survival instincts had packed up and gone on a sudden vacation.

"I'm not afraid of you, Rio. I don't think you're going to hurt me."

He didn't say anything to confirm or deny it. Dylan could hear him breathing – if the sharp, shallow panting qualified as such. She felt like she was walking up on a wounded wild animal, unsure if reaching out to him was going to win her a bit of uneasy trust or a vicious taste of fang and claw.

"You were in the bedroom with me a few minutes ago…weren't you?" She inched steadily forward, undaunted by the weight of his silence or the darkness that concealed him in shadow. "You touched me. I felt your hand on my face. I…I liked it, Rio. I didn't want you to stop."

He hissed a nasty, violent curse. She felt rather than saw his head come up sharply. There was a pause, and then he must have opened his eyes because the darkness was suddenly pierced by two glowing embers aimed straight at her.

"Your eyes…" she murmured, caught like a moth in a flame.

She'd seen Rio's eyes transform from topaz to amber when he'd stumbled into his quarters a few hours ago, but this…this was different. There was a smoldering quality to them now, something other than anger or pain. More intense, if that was possible.

Dylan couldn't move, just stood there in the heated path of Rio's gaze, feeling it rake her body from head to toe. Her heart flipped and stuttered as that amber gaze burned over her, into her.

Now he was moving, striding toward her with slow, predatory grace.

"Why did you come up on that mountain?" he asked her, his voice harsh, accusing.

Dylan swallowed, watching him approach her in the dark. She started to say that it was Eva who sent her there, but that was only partly true. The ghost that was Eva had showed her the way, but Dylan returned to the cave because of Rio.

As much as anything – including the job she thought she might be saving with her story of a demon in the Bohemian hills – it was Rio who compelled her to stay in the cave and try to reach out to him when good sense would have told her to flee. It was he who compelled her now, desire for him keeping her feet rooted to the floor when fear should have been sending her running as fast as she could in the opposite direction.

He was right in front of her now, still masked by darkness except for the eerie, seductive glow of his vampire eyes.

"Goddamn it, Dylan. Why did you come up there?" His hands were firm as he took hold of her upper arms. He gave her a little shake, but he was the one who trembled. "Why? Why did you have to be the one?"

She knew the kiss was coming, even in the dark, but the initial press of his mouth on hers went through Dylan like an uncontained flame. It seared her, hot desire shooting into her core. She melted, losing herself in the brush of Rio's lips – and, oh, Christ – his fangs. She felt the pointed tips of them as he pushed her mouth open with his tongue, forcing her to take what he had to give her now.

Dylan wasn't about to fight it. She'd never known anything as erotic as the graze of Rio's fangs as he kissed her. There was so much lethal power in him; she could feel it, coiled and dangerous, but on the very knife's edge of breaking loose. Rio held her tightly, kissed her harshly, and Dylan had never been so turned on in all her life.

He pushed her down onto the sofa behind her, his strong hands braced at her back to ease the fall. He went with her, the weight of his hard body bearing her down beneath him. She could feel the thick ridge of his sex. It felt enormous and stiff as stone where it wedged between their bodies. Dylan ran her hands up his back, slipping them under the cotton tank he wore so she could feel the flex of his strong muscles as he moved atop her.

"I want to see you," she gasped in between his hungry kisses. "I need to see you, Rio…"

She didn't wait for his permission.

Casting her hand about, she found the lamp beside the sofa and clicked it on. Soft yellow light bathed the room in illumination. Rio was poised above her, straddling her hips with his knees as he stared down at her in what looked to be pure misery.

His eyes were glowing fiery amber. His features were drawn taut, his jaw held locked but not quite able to mask the astonishing length or sharpness of his fangs. The dermaglyphs on his shoulders and arms were churning with color – beautiful, deep saturations in a range of burgundy, indigo, and gold.

And his scars…well, she saw them too. Couldn't really ignore them, and she didn't try to.

Dylan came up onto one elbow and reached up to him with her other hand. He flinched, turning his face to the left like he meant to hide his ruined cheek. But Dylan wasn't about to let him hide. Not now. Not from her. She reached out again, tenderly placing her palm against the hard line of his jaw.

"Don't," he said thickly.

"It's okay." She gently turned him to face her full-on. With the utmost care, she lightly caressed the scarred skin. She followed the damage to his body, smoothing her fingers down the side of his neck, to his shoulder and biceps, over the skin that had once been as smooth and flawless as the rest of him. "Does it hurt for me to touch you like this?"

He said something, but it came out strangled, unintelligible.

Dylan sat up fully, lifting herself until her face was level with his. She held his gaze, making sure those thin, catlike pupils stayed rooted on her eyes as she softly stroked his cheek, his jaw, his wonderfully sensual mouth.

"Don't look at me, Dylan," he croaked, the very thing he'd said before, she realized now. "Fuck…how can you look at me so closely – how can you put your hands on me – and not be revolted?"

Dylan's heart squeezed up like a fist in her breast. "I'm looking at you, Rio. I see you. I'm touching you. You, " she said with emphasis.

"These scars – "

"Are incidental," she finished for him. She smiled as she glanced down at his mouth and at the perfectly white, perfectly incredible pair of fangs that had sprouted from his gums. "Your scars are the most ordinary thing about you, if you want to know the truth."

His lip curled back as if he were going to push her away with more talk of his perceived defects, but Dylan didn't give him the chance. She held his face in her hands and leaned in close, giving him a deep, unhurried, passionate kiss.

She moaned as his hands wove into her hair and he kissed her back.

Dylan wanted him so fiercely, she could hardly stand it. God, the whole thing made no sense – this craving she had for a man she hardly knew and for so many reasons should be terrified of, not kissing like there was no tomorrow.

But she didn't want to stop kissing Rio. She put her arms around his shoulders and drew him down with her, back onto the sofa. His hair was silky against her palm, his mouth hot and questing on hers. His hand was strong but gentle as he slipped beneath the hem of her tee-shirt and smoothed his palm up her stomach and then over her bare breasts. Dylan writhed as he caressed her, his fingers teasing her nipples into hard, aching buds while his tongue played along the seam of her mouth.

"Oh, God," she gasped, burning for him already.

He wedged himself deeper between her thighs, spreading her wide with his knees and grinding his stiff erection against her through their clothes. She nearly came from the delicious friction of their bodies. Good Christ, she was going to climax for sure if he kept up that fluid rhythm that left no doubt as to what kind of lover he would be once they had their clothes off.

Dylan lifted her feet and locked her ankles around his hips, letting him know that she was willing to go wherever he wanted to take this. She wasn't used to throwing herself at a man's feet – could hardly remember the last time she'd had sex at all, let alone good sex – but she could think of nothing she wanted more than to be making love with Rio. Right here. Right now.

He sucked her lower lip between his teeth as he rolled his hips against hers. She reveled in the graze of his fangs, in the hard, driving thrust of his body and the flex of his muscles under her palms. He slid his hand between her legs, his fingers cleaving her wet, hot flesh, and Dylan could not hold back the cry that curled up from her throat.

"Yes," she hissed sharply as an orgasm rolled up on her out of nowhere. "Oh, God…Rio…"

She was spiraling inside, lost in pleasure, and clutching Rio as her core pulsed with her release. She heard his wild sounding growl, registered dimly that he had broken their kiss to let his lips wander down along the column of her throat. She wrapped her arms around him as he nuzzled her neck, his tongue playing hotly against her tender skin.

The rough stroke of his teeth in that spot startled her.

She tensed, even though she didn't want to be afraid of what might come next. But she couldn't call back the automatic reaction, and Rio drew away from her as if she'd screamed at the top of her lungs.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, reaching for him but he was already gone, moving off her and taking himself more than an arm's length from the sofa. Dylan sat up, feeling oddly bereft. "I'm sorry, Rio. I just wasn't sure…"

"Don't apologize," he muttered sullenly. "Madre de Dios, do not apologize to me, please. This was my fault, Dylan."

"No," she said, desperate that he stay with her. "I want this, Rio."

"You shouldn't," he said. "And I would not have been able to stop."

He raked his hand through his dark hair, staring at her with those blazing amber eyes. "This would have been a terrible mistake for both of us," he said after a long moment. "Ah, fuck. It already is a terrible mistake."

Before she could say anything, Rio simply turned around and left. As the apartment door closed behind him, Dylan pulled her tee-shirt back down and adjusted her skewed boxers. In the quiet he left her with, she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her shins, then reached over and clicked off the lamp.