Deeper than midnight, p.25
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       Deeper Than Midnight, p.25

         Part #9 of Midnight Breed series by Lara Adrian
Page 25


  "What'd I tell you, Drake?" Bobby Clarence said, jerking his perfectly square chin in her direction as he took the gift and gave it a little rattle. "Secret weapon. She's always making me look better than I really am. "

  Tavia Fairchild seemed to take the praise in stride, remaining unflappably on task. "Shall I call down to the garage and ask them to bring the car around for you, Senator Clarence?"

  "Yeah, that'd be great, Tavia. Thanks. " The senator clapped Dragos companionably on the shoulder again as his pretty aide pivoted back toward her desk and picked up her phone to summon his driver. "Can I persuade you to come along, Drake? We could talk some more, and I'd be happy to introduce you to some of the good folks at tonight's First Responders benefit. I think you'd find a lot of like-minded individuals who'd enjoy sharing their thoughts with you on some of the things we've been discussing. "

  Dragos allowed an indulgent smile. "I'm afraid I couldn't possibly. " His sights were set a bit higher than the union yokels of the city's firefighters and police departments. "Thank you for the offer. However, I really should go now. "

  "You sure?" the senator pressed with a winning grin. "The food alone will be worth it. Those guys love to eat. You would too, especially at five hundred bucks a plate, prepared by the best Italian chef in the North End. "

  "Alas," Dragos demurred, "I maintain a very strict diet. Italian food does not agree with me. "

  "Ah, I'm sorry to hear it. " Bobby Clarence chuckled as he strode over to a nearby closet and shrugged into an expensive-looking silk-lined coat. "You will be at the holiday party tomorrow night at my place, won't you?"

  Dragos gave him a nod. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. "

  "Excellent. Tavia really knocked herself out, putting the whole shindig together for me -

  right down to the hand-inscribed invitations. "

  "Is that so?" Dragos turned another appraising look on the young female, who had since retrieved her own coat and handbag and was in the process of shutting down her computer and putting the office phones on voicemail.

  "I'm not supposed to announce this publicly," Senator Clarence added, "but we've confirmed a surprise guest of honor tomorrow evening. A good friend and mentor of mine from my Cambridge days. Someone I'm certain you'll be interested to meet, Drake. "

  Chapter Twenty

  Although the young politician was playing at subtlety, Dragos needed no further hint to guess that the VIP and good friend of Bobby Clarence was none other than his favored college professor who had hitched his savvy wagon to another rising star and landed in the secondhighest seat of power in the country. It was that very connection that had made Bobby Clarence so valuable to Dragos.

  By tomorrow night, Dragos would own the minds - and souls - of both men.

  "Until then," he said, reaching out to the senator and giving the unsuspecting human's hand an enthusiastic pump. He glanced at Bobby Clarence's pretty assistant and offered a courtly bow of his head. "Miss Fairchild, a pleasure to finally meet you. "

  With her shrewd gaze following him, and the senator's optimistic good-bye echoing into the adjacent hallway, Dragos exited the office and headed for the elevator. By the time he reached the street level and climbed into his own waiting limousine, his cheeks burned from the wide spread of his contented, unabashedly eager, smile.

  It took about an hour to make the drive to the safe house the Order had arranged for them. They were several miles off the highway, traveling along an unpaved road that led them deeper into an area of low-lying marshlands and clusters of eerie, moss-strewn cypress. As Hunter made a turn into an unmarked driveway - Corinne assumed it was a driveway - the car's headlights illuminated several pairs of glowing yellow eyes hovering at ground level up ahead. The dense scrub brush shook as the swamp creatures hiding within it scurried back into the gloom of their wild domain.

  "Are you sure this is the right place?" Corinne asked as Hunter drove deeper into the darkness. "It doesn't look like anywhere someone would put a house. "

  "There is no mistake," he replied. "This is where Amelie Dupree resides. "

  It was the first thing he'd said to her the whole trip. The impassive soldier was back in full effect now, not that she should be surprised at his all-business tone. They hadn't exactly left things on the best terms earlier.

  Although she'd wanted to talk about what had happened - explain her panicked reaction to what had been so pleasant, so incredibly pleasurable at first - embarrassment had kept her tongue pressed to the roof of her mouth. That, and the stunning, abject alarm at having heard Hunter voice her son's name out loud.

  She hadn't been prepared for that. Still wasn't, in fact. The instinct to protect her child, to deny his existence if it might mean keeping him safe from discovery, safe from harm, had risen up in her in much the same way as she would yank her hand away from an open flame. The lie had been a reflex, and now it lay between Hunter and her like a chasm. She glanced away from his unreadable face as the car slowed and the beams lit up the weathered gray wood shingles of a rustic old house nestled deep among the ghostly, moss-draped trees. An elderly black woman in a floral housedress stood beneath the shelter of the covered porch, watching them approach. Her arms had been crossed under her ample bosom, but as the car neared and came to a stop, she lifted her hand in a slow wave of greeting. Hunter turned off the engine and pocketed the keys in his leather coat. "Wait here until I tell you it's safe. "

  As he stepped out of the vehicle and walked around to meet the old woman, Corinne wondered what kind of threat he expected might wait for them with her. But she could see from the way he carried himself, the hard line of his shoulders and the loose gait of his long legs, that it was his training in control of his actions now.

  Having spent so many hours in close company with him, it was easy to forget how massive he was, how purely lethal he could be. He radiated danger, even without the skills that had made him one of Dragos's deadliest foot soldiers. Having felt his mouth move so tenderly on hers, it was easy to forget how unforgiving his hands could be if he sensed an enemy threat or had cause for suspicion. He was taking no chances here, no matter how minute they might seem. Corinne wanted to dismiss his caution, but if he was overprotective, she realized with no small amount of humility that it was because he meant to keep her safe.

  He moved with pantherlike grace and military precision, and as he strode up to their smiling, grandmotherly hostess, for a moment Corinne worried the poor old woman might shriek with fright and run the other way. She didn't. Corinne heard a molasses-smooth voice through the glass of the passenger-side window, welcoming Hunter and her and bidding them to come inside. Hunter swiveled his head and met Corinne's gaze. He gave a vague nod, then came over and opened her door before she had the chance to climb out on her own. He walked back with her toward the elderly woman and placed Corinne's hand in the outstretched palm that waited to greet her.

  Clouded, milky eyes darted back and forth sightlessly as Amelie Dupree clasped Corinne's hand in a warm hold. Her smile was broad and radiant, filled with a kindness that seemed to radiate from deep within her. And when she spoke, her aging voice was a sweet, musical rasp. "Hello, child. "

  Hunter made quick introductions while Amelie's blind gaze searched them out in the dark. She gave Corinne's hand a motherly pat. "You come on in now, child. I got a kettle about to whistle on the stove and a pot of gumbo been simmerin' all afternoon. "

  "Sounds delicious," Corinne said, left with no choice but to follow along as Amelie Dupree led her up the creaky steps of the porch. She glanced back at Hunter, noting he'd stayed behind, his cell phone already pressed to his ear, no doubt checking in with the Order to let them know they'd arrived without incident.

  The house didn't look like much from outside, but inside the furnishings were new and well kept, the painted walls bathed in warm earth tones and adorned with art and several decades'

  worth of framed photographs.
One particular picture caught Corinne's eye at once as she walked along behind Amelie Dupree, marveling at the old woman's ability to navigate the room without assistance or hesitation.

  Corinne paused to look closer at the photograph that drew her attention. It wasn't current - it had to be many years old, based on the odd clothing and yellowed tinge under the glass. But the face of the vibrant young woman with the round halo of ebony curls was unmistakable. Corinne had met her at the Order's Boston compound.

  "My beautiful baby sister, Savannah," Amelie Dupree confirmed, having come back to stand next to Corinne. "Half-sister, actually. We had the same mama, God rest her sweet, tormented soul. "

  "I didn't realize," Corinne said, resuming her trek behind the gray-haired woman into the cheery yellow kitchen at the back of the house.

  The tea kettle had just begun to whistle on the stove. Amelie felt for the knobs, unerringly cutting off the gas to the kettle while the covered pot of gumbo bubbled on the next burner. She opened the cupboard and took out a pair of earthenware mugs.

  "Do you know my sister?" she asked, her splayed fingers traveling the surface of the counter now and landing on a tin canister.

  "I've met her only briefly," Corinne replied, unsure how much she should divulge to someone outside the Order's compound, even if there was a blood relation. "Savannah seems very nice. "

  "They don't come any better, I can promise you that," Amelie confirmed, a smile in her lilting voice. "We don't get to talk but a few times a year, but we pick up right where we left off, like she's never been gone. "

  Corinne watched the old woman place teabags into the mugs then reach for a potholder that hung on a small hook suction-cupped to the front of the stove. She was tempted to offer help, but Amelie Dupree was remarkably capable on her own. Using the index finger of one hand to mark the rim of the mug, she poured the hot water without scalding herself or spilling a single drop. Corinne herself would have been hard-pressed to be so exacting.

  "And how is that fine man of hers?" Amelie casually asked as she walked the two steaming cups over to the table. "If you met my sister, I know you must've met Gideon too. The pair of them have been joined at the hip for going on - my lawd, it must be at least thirty years now. "

  The elderly woman sat down, motioning Corinne toward the chair beside her. Since Hunter seemed to be taking his time outside, she sat down and blew gently across the top of her mug.

  "Mm-mm," Amelie intoned contemplatively, her sightless gaze seeming lost in thought.

  "Hard to believe it's been so long since all that trouble took place. "

  "Trouble?" Corinne asked as she sipped carefully at the hot tea. She couldn't deny that she was curious to know more, not only about the woman who'd opened her house to Hunter and her but also about the couple who seemed such an integral part of the Order.

  "I don't like to dredge up bad memories, child, and this one's about the worst. " She reached out to cover Corinne's hand with her own, giving it a little pat. "Too much blood was shed that night. Two lives nearly lost right outside on my front lawn. I knew Gideon was different the first moment I laid eyes on him - this being years before old age started stealing my sight, a'

  course. I never would've guessed what he truly was, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. The gunshot wound should've killed him. The one that hit Savannah should've killed her too - would have, if he hadn't done what he did to save her. If he hadn't bitten into his own wrist and given her his blood. "

  Corinne realized she was holding her breath, listening in rapt fascination. "You saw him feed her . . . you know what he is, Amelie?"

  "Breed. " The old woman nodded. "Yes, I know. They told me everything that night. They entrusted me with their lives, and it's a truth I mean to take to my grave when my time eventually comes. " Amelie took a sip of her tea. "That man outside . . . he's also one of Gideon's kind. Even a blind old woman like me can see that. He has a dark power about him. I felt it vibrating off him before he even got out of the car. "

  Corinne stared down into her mug. "Hunter is a bit . . . intimidating, but I've seen the good in him. He's honorable and courageous, like you and Savannah know Gideon to be. "

  Amelie gave a low grunt. She was still holding Corinne's right hand, her thumb rubbing idly over the teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark. As she continued to trace the outline of the small mark, Corinne realized she was studying it. "It's just like hers," she murmured, her smooth brow creasing. "Savannah has this very same birthmark, except hers is on her left shoulder blade. Mama used to say it was the place where the fairies kissed her before placing her in Mama's womb. Then again, Mama was a bit touched herself. "

  Corinne smiled. "Every Breedmate is born with this mark somewhere on her body. "

  "Hmm," the old woman mused. "I guess that makes you and Savannah sisters of another kind, then, doesn't it?"

  "Yes, I suppose it does," Corinne agreed, warmed from both the tea and her hostess's kind acceptance. "Have you lived here for a long time, Amelie?"

  She gave a bob of her grayed head. "Seventy-two years I've been in this very spot. Born right in that other room, matter of fact. Same as Savannah, though by the time she came along, I was already grown and old enough to help deliver her. I've got twenty-four years on my baby sister. "

  Seventy-two years old, Corinne thought, studying the aged face and silvery gray hair. If not for the Ancient's blood that had been forced upon her all the time she'd been in Dragos's laboratory prison, her body would be roughly twenty years more weathered than Amelie Dupree's. It seemed ironic to her now that the very thing she despised - the life-giving nutrients from a creature not of this earth - had allowed her to survive Dragos's torture. It had kept her strong when all she'd wanted was to lie down and die. It was because of that alien blood that she had a son out there somewhere, a piece of her heart that she worried was slipping farther and farther out of her reach.
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