Dante nodded, but there was worry in his gaze, not only for Tavia but for Chase as well. "If she doesn't make it ..."
"Then we'll have to make sure she does."
Lucan's cell started ringing. Gideon, phoning in from headquarters. "Since you're taking my call, I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that my hack of the detonation codes worked." "It worked," Lucan confirmed, nodding to Tegan and the others who'd just witnessed the same miracle of Gideon's genius and were coming to join the rest of the group. "The worst of this war with Dragos is finally over. Now we have to deal with the fallout."
As he spoke, a large black SUV with flashing headlights and a military vanguard escorting it came roaring up the drive toward the house. Lucan felt his brethren tense around him, readying themselves for a continuation of the battle.
"Stand down," Lucan advised them coolly. "We must show the humans we are their allies, not the enemy. Hopefully they'll afford us that chance despite everything Dragos has done to undermine it."
Dozens of soldiers ready for combat surrounded the Order as the SUV came to a halt a few yards away from the gathered Breed warriors. A gruff-looking man in military uniform came out of the back and walked crisply toward them. Four embroidered stars rode down the front insignia pad of his camouflage army fatigues, another set of stars ran across the visored camo cap that covered his high-and-tight, graying hair. As the officer made his approach, shrewd eyes scanned the unexplainable destruction and body count that littered the grounds.
"General," Lucan said, giving him a slight nod of greeting.
The human remained silent, gauging the situation. "Where is the vice president?"
"He's dead. You'll find his body inside, along with that of the one responsible for everything that's happened here tonight." Lucan held the high-ranking officer's appraising stare. "The one who orchestrated all the carnage in this city and others around the world will do no more harm. My brethren and I destroyed him. But evil is still running loose in your streets and there is more work to be done to stop it. Work that needs to be done by all of us together, mankind and ours." The general's eyes narrowed. "Your kind. Just what is your kind? Savages. Vampires, slaughtering our citizens. Spilling blood all over the world, feeding on us like parasites, for God's sake."
"My kind is called the Breed," Lucan replied evenly. "We have lived among you for many hundreds of years. We are not monsters. In fact, part of us is human, not so different from you." "I've seen no humanity in the killings taking place over the past couple nights." Lucan nodded, unable to deny it. "There were some among us who felt mankind should serve us, instead of sharing this world together in peace. Their leader is now dead."
The general stared, hardly convinced. "After what we've seen, how can we ever trust any of you?"
Lucan let the contempt and suspicion wash over him without reaction. He wasn't blameless, after all. The fear that had been stricken into the humans' hearts the past couple of days could take years to assuage. It could take centuries to rebuild some sense of order now. It could take longer still to achieve any kind of peaceful coexistence between their races. But they had to try.
For the future of everyone.
For the future of all the unborn children of the Breed and humankind alike.
"I know that trust will not be an easy thing," Lucan said. "But for the good of all, we need to try."
The general started to say something - a protest, judging by the hard look that entered the old soldier's eyes. But at that same moment, he paused to listen to the communication device tucked into his right ear. "Yes, sir," he murmured quietly. "Of course, Mr. President."
He stepped to the side as the back door of the SUV opened and another man climbed out.
Lucan drew in a breath, watching cautiously as the military detail parted to clear a path for the most powerful man in the United States.
The president stood before Lucan, dressed casually in street clothes and a fleece-collared, dark olive bomber jacket. He looked haggard, as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. Lucan offered a faint, knowing smile as he inclined his head in greeting. "You say the one who caused all of this is dead?"
"Yes, sir," Lucan said with a nod, realizing the president must have been monitoring the conversation with the general from inside his SUV.
"And you and these men - this woman too," the human leader added, glancing at Renata, who looked every bit as fierce as the rest of the warriors. "You say you had a hand in taking him down?"
"We did," Lucan replied.
The United States' commander in chief fell silent, considering. "I've seen scattered reports of a group of soldiers - a group of vampires - who've been saving human lives since the carnage began here two nights ago. I've seen photographs, video clips. Do you know anything about this group?"
"They are my brethren," Lucan replied, pride swelling in his chest. "We are the Order. And I am their leader, Lucan Thorne."
The president studied him now, for so long Lucan wondered if a new war would begin right here, in that moment. Then the human slowly lifted his hand and held it out to Lucan in greeting. In thanks. "We owe you a debt, Lucan Thorne. You and your Order."
Lucan accepted the offered show of trust. He pressed his bloodstained, combat-hardened hand to the human's palm and gave it a firm shake.
TAVIA FELT TOO WARM in his arms, fevered, even as she shivered.
The Crimson had a strong hold on her, too strong. She was sinking into it, drifting further and further out of his reach. "Stay with me, beautiful. Don't let go."
"So tired," she murmured, her lips cracked and parched, the corners of her mouth coated with pinkish foam. "So thirsty ..."
"I know," he whispered. "I know you are, but blood can't help you now. It will only make it worse."
She moaned, and in that broken, needful sound he heard echoes of his own struggle. How ironic that it should be Tavia facing Bloodlust, just when he felt he might actually stand a chance of beating his.
How cruel to think that she was suffering as he had, all for her desire to help him and the Order defeat Dragos.
And she had helped.
Without her risking so much, her life itself, there was no telling how far Dragos would have been able to take his twisted plans.
Outside the din of combat had settled. The bright explosion of light that Chase had seen several minutes ago had left a strange calm in its wake. No more close gunfire or fighting. Dragos's assassins were no more either; Chase knew that had to be fact. As for the Rogues who remained uncaged and loose in the cities around the world, the Order would continue taking them out until the last one was ash in the street.
The world would be better tomorrow, thanks to Tavia's courage and that of his brethren. There was so much to look forward to - so much hope for a better world for all. He didn't want to imagine that world without Tavia in it. He refused to think it could be possible. He would nurse her back to health, even if it took locking himself up with her until the fever of her hunger finally passed. If it passed.
He would gladly trade his life for hers right now, if he could turn back the clock and take the deadly Crimson in her place.
"No," she murmured, her voice thick around her fangs. Even through the ravages of the drug, she must have felt the depth of his emotion as he held her in a careful, despairing embrace. She gazed up at him, her feral amber eyes sad and moist with welling tears. "Leave me here, Chase. Go with your brethren."
"No." He shook his head once, then again, more fiercely. "No. I'm never leaving you. Not ever again." His voice cracked, too full with the emotion he felt for this woman. His woman. His mate. "I love you. You are mine. In my heart, I knew that from the beginning. You are my beloved, Tavia, my only one."
"Chase," she whispered. Her tears spilled over now, streaking down her cheeks and chin. "I love - "
A convulsion racked her as the Crimson burrowed deeper into her blood. Chase felt it, hot and seething in his own veins. And he felt her love. Running under the current of the thirst that was savaging her body, Chase felt the strong and steady beat of her heart ... and it was filled with love for him.
It was all he needed to know.
It was all the hope he required.
She would get better.
She would heal.
And she was his, forever.
He gathered her up into his arms. He kissed her parched mouth, then rose with her and carried her out of the house, away from the carnage, and back to the warriors who were his kin. "I'm taking you home now, Tavia."
One Year Later. New Year's Day.
CHASE MADE GOOD on his promise to be at her side until she was well again. Tavia had felt his strength holding her, protecting her, anchoring her during the time her body struggled to come back from the edge of a dark abyss.
Tess had helped heal the organs that were ravaged by the Crimson's poison, but there was little her unique Breedmate talent could do for the hunger that had gnawed at Tavia, chewing away at her will and sanity hour by hour, day by day ... week by week.
For that they'd had to turn to an unlikely source: Dragos. Or, rather, his Minion doctor's treatment formulas and procedural logs, documenting the twenty-seven-year-long suppression of Tavia's Breed nature. They'd used Dr. Lewis's medical treatments to curb her blood hunger and quiet her body's fever so she could purge the Bloodlust from her system and rest the months required for her to mend.
Ironic, and yet somehow fitting, that the same insidious practice that had been a betrayal of her trust from the moment of her birth had, in the end, been the very thing that saved her. That, along with Chase's love.
It flowed through her now, where he stood behind her, sheltering her in the circle of his arms. His heartbeat echoed in her own blood, steady and strong, whole and hale. She nestled deeper into his embrace, sighing softly as his warm breath skated along the side of her neck. "Have I told you today how much I love you?" he murmured, low, private words meant only for her.
"You have," she whispered, smiling at the kiss that settled briefly below her ear and sent a tingle of heat racing through her. "But I don't think I'll ever tire of hearing it." His answering growl vibrated against her spine like a sensual purr. "Good thing we've got forever. We've already missed too many days."
Six full months - that's how long it had taken for Tavia to make the journey back to the living. It hadn't been easy, but it was time and agony she scarcely recalled now; a rare, merciful reprieve from the power of her faultless memory. But through their blood bond, Chase had weathered it all. It had to have been hell for him, finding the strength to combat his own affliction while experiencing hers as well, but somehow he'd done it.
With the help of his brethren of the Order, his family.
And now her family too.
Tavia glanced at the people gathered with them tonight in the dimly lit observation room in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan as Lucan prepared to address the delegation.
All of the Order and their families were there. Seated in the front row of the private balcony suite were Gabrielle, Savannah and Gideon, Dante and Tess with little year-old Xander Raphael. Tegan held his infant son in the cradle of his muscled arm, his other wrapped lovingly around Elise. Rio and Dylan, Kade, Alex, Brock, and Jenna stood by the large glass window beside Niko, Renata, and Mira, peering down with Andreas and Claire Reichen, Hunter, Corinne and Nathan, Lazaro and Kellan Archer, at the crowd of eighteen hundred delegates from all over the world who occupied the seats below.
The assembly was filled to capacity, buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Because, today, as night fell over North America on a crisp, clear January 1st, the 193-nation coalition had amended its charter to admit its newest member:
The nation of the Breed.
Chase's heart beat with an anticipation Tavia shared as Lucan moved toward the microphone to accept the evening's honor. Alongside him were the president of the United States and several other world leaders.
"My name is Lucan Thorne." His piercing gaze panned the faces of the delegation, all of whom stared at this formidable male in his conservative black suit, which did little to soften the air of dark power that radiated from him. "I stand here before you tonight, addressing the world on behalf of my kith and kin ... my long-lived race, called the Breed."
As his deep voice filled the chamber, the room fell into an immediate, complete silence. "We have existed alongside you for a very long time. And we have never meant you harm, though it will take time to build that trust, when we are starting on bloodstained ground." He paused as though to let his words be absorbed, everyone in the room aware that his message was going out to many millions of ears around the world. "There have been casualties on both sides over the past year - those humans who have been attacked at night by Rogue members of our kind, and those of us being hunted by day and torn from our Darkhavens in the weeks and months that have followed the first waves of violence. We need to agree to move past these dark beginnings and set the course for a new path forward. This will not be easy. It may not be fully accomplished for years to come, nor without any more lives lost."
As the capacity crowd rumbled with unease at the hard honesty of words that could be conceived as more threat than warning, Lucan looked to the president and the other leaders. "From the shadows we have watched as man over the centuries has made war on themselves over borders and mistrust of one another. I come here tonight asking for unification across all divides, for the good of humankind and my own. I come here tonight with the hope that all residents of our world will find a way to coexist, to get along with one another. And I come here tonight because I believe that we will find common ground and that we can, eventually, forge a lasting peace between us all."
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