Taken by Midnight (Chapter Thirty-three)

Andreas and Claire Reichen's house in Newport was a hive of anxious activity as the rescued Breedmates arrived that evening and began to settle into the large estate on Narragansett Bay. Brock and Rio had been the first to get there. Hunter and Chase had arrived moments ago with the rest of the former captives and were in the process of bringing them inside.

"Unbelievable," Reichen said, standing with Brock in the second-floor hallway of the seaside mansion. The German vampire and his New England-born Breedmate had been living in the house for only a few months, the newly mated couple having relocated to the States after surviving their own ordeal at the hands of Dragos and his dangerous allies. "Claire's been haunted all this time by what she glimpsed during her dreamwalk through Dragos's laboratory, but to actually see these women now, alive and out of danger after all this time … Christ, it's overwhelming."

Brock nodded, still in disbelief himself. "It was good of you and Claire to take them in."

"We wouldn't have it any other way."

Both males turned as Claire came out of a bedroom carrying an armload of folded towels. Petite and beautiful, the dark-haired female had a glow about her as she strode into the hallway and met the approving gaze of her mate.

"I've been praying this day would come for a long time," she said, her deep brown eyes shifting from Reichen to Brock. "I almost didn't dare hope that we might actually succeed."

"The work you and the rest of the Order's women have done is beyond admirable," he replied, certain that he would never forget the image of Jenna and the others guiding the freed captives out of the cheery-looking house that had been their most recent prison.

God, Jenna, he thought. She'd been on his mind the entire time. The only place he wanted to be right now was with her–to feel her safe and warm in his arms.

She'd been the reason he'd driven in silence from Gloucester to Rhode Island, tormented by the fact that Corinne had been dozing in the passenger seat beside him–impossibly alive, after so many years–yet every fiber of his being felt pulled inextricably back toward Boston.

Back to Jenna.

But he couldn't just walk away from Corinne. He owed her more than that. Because of him, because of his carelessness in protecting her, she'd been yanked away from everything she knew, forced to endure unspeakable torture at Dragos's hands. Because of him, her life had been shattered.

How could he simply ignore all of that and go back to the happiness he'd found with Jenna?

As if conjured by the weight of his dark thoughts alone, he felt Corinne's presence behind him.

Reichen and Claire said nothing as they both glanced past him, then turned to walk away together, leaving him alone to face the ghost of his past failures.

She was bathed and dressed in clean clothing. But God, she was still so small and fragile. The long-sleeved fleece top and yoga pants hung loosely off her tiny frame. Her cheeks were pale and gaunt. Dark circles rose beneath her once-sparkling, almond-shaped eyes.

With her raven hair pulled back in a long ponytail, he could see that she had aged since he'd last seen her at eighteen. Although the passage of years would put her in her nineties now, Corinne looked closer to thirty.

Only the regular ingestion of Breed blood would have preserved her youth, and Brock was appalled to imagine the circumstances of how those feedings might have occurred while she was in Dragos's terrible labs.

"Jesus, Corinne," he murmured, moving toward her when she remained frozen and silent a few feet away from him in the upstairs hall. "I don't even know where to begin."

Small nicks and scars blemished the face that had been so flawless in his memory. Her eyes were still exotic, still bold enough that they didn't flinch–not even under his stricken scrutiny–but there was an edge to her gaze now. Gone was the playful imp, the sweet innocent. In her place stood a quiet, calculating survivor.

He reached out to touch her, but she backed away with a small shake of her head. He let his hand drop, fist hanging at his side. "Ah, Christ, Corinne. Can you ever forgive me?"

Her slim brows knitted slightly. "No …"

Her softly voiced denial blasted him deeply. He deserved it, he knew, and he could hardly say a word in his own defense. He'd failed her. Perhaps more than if she had died all those years ago. Death would have been better than what she'd likely endured while imprisoned by a sick bastard like Dragos.

"I am sorry," he murmured, determined to get the words out even though she was mutely shaking her head, her frown deepening. "I know my apology doesn't mean anything now. It doesn't change a damned thing for you, Corinne … but I want you to know that a day hasn't gone by that I didn't think about you and wish that I had been there. I wish I could have traded places with you, my life instead of yours–"

"No," she said, her voice stronger than before. "No, Brock. Is that what you thought? That I blamed you for what happened to me?"

He stared, astounded by the lack of anger in her eyes. "You have every right to blame me. I was supposed to protect you."

Her dark gaze went a little sad now. "You did. No matter how impossible I was, you always kept me safe."

"Not that night," he reminded her grimly.

"That night, I don't know what happened," she murmured. "I don't know who took me, but there was nothing you could do, Brock. You were never to blame. I never wanted you to think that."

"I looked everywhere for you, Corinne. For weeks, months … years after they pulled the body from the river–your body, I thought–I kept looking for you." He sucked in a sharp breath. "I never should have let you out of my sight that night, not even for a second. I failed–"

"No," she said, shaking her head slowly, her face devoid of any recrimination, utterly forgiving. "You never failed me. You sent me back inside the club that night because you thought I would be safer there. How could you have known I would be taken? You always did everything right for me, Brock."

He shook his head, astonished by her absolution, humbled by the resolve in her voice. She didn't blame him, and some of the leaden guilt he'd been carrying for so long simply broke away.

In the wash of relief that poured over him, he thought of Jenna, and the life he wanted to begin with her.

"You are involved with someone," Corinne said, studying him in his silence. "The woman who helped save all of us today."

He nodded, pride swelling inside him despite the dull ache of regret that still held him when he looked at the young girl–now the frail, serious woman–that Corinne had become during her years of imprisonment with Dragos.

"You're in love?" she asked.

He couldn't deny it, not even for her. "Yeah, I am. Her name is Jenna."

Corinne smiled sadly. "She's a lucky woman. I am pleased that you're happy, Brock."

Overwhelmed with gratitude and hope, he couldn't help himself from reaching out to Corinne and pulling her into a tight embrace. She was stiff in his arms at first, her small body flinching as if the contact startled her. But then she loosened slightly, her hands coming to rest lightly on his back.

He let go after a moment and drew away from her. "What about you?

Will you be all right, Corinne?"

She gave him a weak smile as she lifted one frail shoulder. "All I need now is to go home." Something empty and raw, something that seemed to bleed inside her like an open wound, shadowed her gaze. "All I need now is to be with my family."

Dragos's lieutenant trembled as he broke the day's bad news.

All of the females Dragos had collected over the past several decades for his private laboratory–the ones who'd survived his prolonged experimentations and breeding requirements, that is–had been discovered and released by the Order.

Even worse, it had been the Order's women, not Lucan or his warriors, who made the discovery earlier that day. The Minion nun who'd served him, first as a shelter worker who had assisted him in locating Breedmates for his cause, then, more recently, as the warden of his little prison by the sea, had failed to protect his interests. The useless cow was dead, but not before she'd cost him the roughly twenty females in her care.

And now the Order had managed to chip away at another brick in the bedrock of his operation.

First, they took his autonomy, ending his years of unchecked power as a director within the Enforcement Agency. Then they took his secret lab, raiding his headquarters and forcing him to ground. Next, they killed the Ancient, although Dragos likely would have put the creature down sooner than later himself.

And now this.

Standing just inside the vestibule of Dragos's hotel suite in Boston, his lieutenant fidgeted with his hat, wringing it in front of him like a wet rag. "I don't know how they managed to find the captives' location, sire. Perhaps they'd been watching the house for some reason. Perhaps it was pure luck that brought them there and they–"

Dragos's furious roar silenced the prattle instantly. He vaulted off the silk sofa, his arm sweeping out in front of him to lash out at a crystal vase of orchids that sat on a delicate pedestal nearby. The piece exploded against the wall and shattered, spraying glass and water and bits of flowers in all directions.

His lieutenant gasped in fright and leapt backward, hitting his spine against the closed door. His eyes were nearly popping out of his head, his face stricken with ball-shriveling fear. His expression turned even more dread-filled as Dragos bore down on him, seething with rage.

In those terrified, widening eyes, he saw his lieutenant's remembrance of a threat Dragos had made in this very hotel room just a week before.

"Sire, please," he whispered. "The Minion failed you today, not me. I am only responsible for the message, not the mistake."

Dragos didn't care about any of that. His anger was too far gone to be reined in now. With an animal war cry meant more for Lucan and his warriors than the insignificant pawn who stood quivering before him now, he reeled his fist back and punched it hard into the vampire's chest. He smashed through clothing, skin, and bone like a hammer and plucked out the frantically beating organ caged inside.

The dead lieutenant collapsed at his feet. Dragos glanced down at him, his closed fist blood-soaked and raining a scarlet cascade onto the corpse and the white carpet around it.

Dragos tossed the vampire's heart like so much trash, then tipped his head back and bellowed, his fury vibrating the air around him like a roll of thunder.

"Dispose of this rubbish," he snarled to the pair of assassins who looked on in silence from the other side of the hotel suite.

He stalked into the bathroom to scrub the offending gore from his hands, calming himself with the knowledge that although the Order had managed to deliver yet another strike against him today, he still had the upper hand. A pity they didn't realize it yet.

Very soon, they would.

He had the Order squarely in his sights now.

And he was more than ready to pull the trigger.