In its wake, there was hunger.
She hadn't fed since the first time with him. Now, with her every nerve ending alive and electrified, she craved his blood with a ferocity that bordered on madness. She couldn't keep her eyes from the throbbing pulse at the side of his strong neck.
Her mouth was tinder dry. Her gums pounded at the base of her extended fangs. She wet her parched lips, gazing up at him from under the thirst-heavy droop of her eyelids.
He understood her need. His amber irises flared brighter, pupils thinning to slivers as he watched her home in on his drumming heartbeat.
"Christ," he whispered, reverence and profanity all in the same breath.
She lifted up from the bed, bracing her palm against his chest and shoving him onto his back. His lungs sawed as she crawled up onto him, his body hot and powerful beneath her. She bent forward, licked a slow path along the taut column of his throat, playing the tip of her tongue over the fat vein that ticked so deliciously below the surface of his smooth skin.
She teased it with the sharp tips of her fangs, wringing a strangled groan from him in the instant before she sank her teeth deep into his flesh.
She moaned as his blood gushed over her tongue, hot and tingly and dark. She swallowed it greedily, relishing the spicy, exotic taste of him. As she fed, he lay rigid beneath her and stroked her back and unbound hair. She didn't know if her feeding brought him the same contentment it did her. All she knew was the thrumming beat of his pulse against her lips and in her ears, the drowning roar of his blood as it flowed into her muscles, bones, and cells. It quelled the savage pound of her senses. Nourished her as though she'd been starving for it all her life.
When she'd had her fill, reluctantly she swept her tongue over the punctures to seal them. She didn't realize his anguish until she dragged her sated gaze up to his face. His lips were bloodless, drawn back from his teeth and fangs in a tortured grimace. He rolled away from her on a rough curse, his big body shuddering as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and raked his trembling fingers into his damp hair.
His hunger owned him. It raked through her now, the savagery of his blood thirst eclipsing all the pleasure and comfort she'd taken so selfishly from his vein. It tore her open inside, bringing with it a cold, empty ache in the pit of her soul.
God, how he suffered now.
She didn't know how he could withstand such agony. Just the echo of it in her own blood was enough to suck the air from her lungs.
She gasped, clutching at her abdomen as his pain knocked her down onto the bed. She writhed with it, her body jackknifing as the anguish of his hunger swam through her like black, burning acid.
HE WAS HURTING HER.
The thought slammed into his hungered mind even before he pivoted to find Tavia's naked body constricted in an anguished ball in the middle of the bed.
It killed him to see her in such pain, to know that it was his agony clawing at her. His affliction transferred to her through the blood connection of Tavia's bond to him. Because of that bond, his suffering was hers.
And his regret for that was fathomless.
"Tavia, look at me," he murmured, moving back toward her on the bed. He smoothed his hand over her head, hissing as he felt the fevered heat of her skin when he brushed his fingertips across her sweat-sheened brow. "Tell me you're all right."
She moaned as another wave of hunger burned through him like wildfire. When she opened her eyes, he saw pure misery in the bright amber pools of her irises. Her dermaglyphs were churning furiously, steeped in the same angry hues as his own skin.
His choked curse was ash on his tongue. He'd never felt so helpless, so full of hatred for himself and the disease he knew would one day destroy him. But not even Bloodlust compared to the agony of seeing Tavia in distress. Knowing he was causing it.
He had to feed.
The reality arrowed through him, cold and undeniable.
He needed blood to ease the pain - for her. His own pain meant nothing except for the hurt it was delivering to the woman he cared about more than life itself.
Tears streaked Tavia's cheeks as she looked up at him from her tight fetal position on the bed. Her breath rushed between her parted lips in rapid pants, her body shuddering and writhing. Goddamn it. And damn him as well.
He couldn't leave her like this to go and hunt. There was no telling how long he'd have to run before he found prey, and meanwhile Tavia would be suffering alone.
"Help me, Chase." Her voice was a threadbare whisper, frayed and fragile. So naked and trusting. She reached out to him, letting her hand fall open before him on the bed. "Please ... do it. Make this pain go away."
He stared at her, feeling the last scrap of his questionable honor slip away as his hungered gaze settled on the pulse that throbbed between the delicate bones and tendons of her outstretched wrist.
He should have refused the temptation. He should have found another way - anything but the solution that was offered before him now. The one that would bind him to Tavia irrevocably. Eternally.
But even as he struggled to deny the thing his heart craved most, Chase found himself positioned above her on the bed. With utmost care and trembling hands, he lifted her arm up toward his mouth. Set the sharp tips of his fangs against her tender skin.
Swore under his breath as he sank them into her vein and drew the first taste of her blood. Holy hell, she was sweet.
Her blood hit his tongue like nectar from a forbidden vine. He drank her down, feeling a rush of electricity and power blast into every starving cell of his body. The strength of it hit him like a blow to the chest. An explosion that awakened his senses, lit them up with the force of a supernova.
He'd heard the blood bond was a powerful thing, but he hadn't been prepared. Not even close. Some distant bit of logic reminded him that Tavia was not only Breedmate but Breed, the intensity of that combination making itself known to him now, as he felt her blood rocketing through him.
The humans he'd fed upon to excess so often before could've been made of dust for all he knew now. Tavia's blood was a drug unlike anything he'd ever tasted before.
He couldn't get enough of her.
His mouth fastened tightly over her wrist, he drank hard and deep.
Not even when her hand curled into a fist and the tendons in her arm went taut beneath his lips. Not even when she gave a little moan, calling his name on an uncertain gasp. It wasn't until he felt her fear, bone-deep and chilling, seeping through their bond that he found the strength to release her. Barely.
Her eyes were wide, dread-filled as she stared at him now. No longer glowing amber with pleasure and desire, but bright green and full of a terror that tore him apart inside.
Her cheeks were pale, her dermaglyphs drained of most of their color. She held her bleeding wrist to her chest, her finger wrapped around the wounds. "Chase," she whispered brokenly. "I'm sorry I panicked. I was afraid. You were taking so much and I ..."
He could hardly bear to think what he might have done if the blood bond hadn't alerted him to her terror. It was his greatest fear, causing her any kind of harm.
To realize how close he'd been just now was more than he could take.
All the worse when what he craved more than anything was to take her beneath him once more and lose himself in the pleasure of her body while he drowned in the sweet intoxication of her blood.
"I can't be near you like this," he heard himself tell her, although his voice was hardly recognizable, even to his own ears. The words sawed out of him in a feral tangle, harsh and sharp-edged. "I can't do this ever again. I won't."
"Chase," she said, reaching out to him with her wounded arm.
The scent of her blood slammed into him like a bullet. He flinched away, averting his gaze as he backed toward the far wall. As far from her as he could get. He glanced to the window and the predawn morning outside. A mental command flung the glass open, bringing with it a rush of bracing winter air.
Tavia got up from the bed and started toward him. "Chase, please. Don't shut me out ... let me help you."
He allowed himself one last look at her. Then he pivoted out the window and vanished into the darkness.
TAVIA TOOK HER TIME showering and getting dressed, listening for Chase's return.
But it had been more than two hours. Daybreak would be coming soon, and he was still gone. Possibly gone from her life for good.
She staggered under the weight of that thought.
It was impossible to think of her life as it was now - her new life, the one based finally in truth - and not imagine Chase as part of it. She was bonded to him, not only by blood. She cared about him deeply. She loved him, and would have done so even without the unbreakable connection that linked her to him on a visceral, preternatural level.
And because she loved him, she couldn't stay there now.
He was right; what happened between them earlier could never happen again. She'd felt the power of his hunger, the depth of his mounting addiction. She'd felt how intensely he had reacted to her blood. How easy it would have been for him to lose control completely and slide over the edge of an abyss from which he might never return.
She couldn't bear to contribute to his struggle.
As she stepped out into the corridor from the bedroom, she heard some of the Order's women talking where they'd apparently gathered in the kitchen. The aromas of freshly brewed coffee and breakfast drifted toward her, along with the Breedmates' quiet conversation.
"Think about it for a minute now. Haven't you ever wondered what it is that makes us different from other women?" The velvety voice belonged to Savannah. "What if Jenna's dream can explain some of that?"
"Atlanteans? You can't be serious." This from Rio's mate, Dylan.
Gabrielle answered her. "It wasn't that long ago that most of us were saying the same thing about the Breed. Not that I'm finding it any easier to wrap my head around the idea that the birthmarks we all share have some kind of link to an immortal race of warriors."
Tavia took a few steps up the corridor and saw Hunter's ebony-haired Breedmate come out of the kitchen with plates for the dining room table. Corinne spoke as she set the places. "I was orphaned as an infant and taken in by a Darkhaven family. Never knew either of my birth parents. Neither did my adopted sister, Charlotte."
"That's true of you and Elise and Renata and Mira," Dylan replied. "But how do you explain the rest of us?"
"You can add Eva and Danika to that list too," Savannah said. "Both of them were foundlings, raised in the Darkhavens."
Tavia really didn't want to be noticed, particularly creeping out from the bedroom like a wraith, but there was no clear shot to the front door without someone seeing her. She paused as Elise came out of the kitchen with a tray full of stacked cups and saucers.
"Actually, most of the Breedmates I've known were either orphaned or abandoned as babies or young children. That's how so many of us end up in foster care or runaway shelters."
Dylan came out carrying a steaming mug of coffee. "Well, I knew my dad, and he was nothing special. Just a garden-variety huckster, con man, and drunk who caused my family a lot of heartbreak before he split for good. Tess's father died in a car crash when she was a teenager. And didn't Alex's dad pass from Alzheimer's?"
"He did," Kade's Breedmate from Alaska replied as she handed off silverware to Corinne. "Hank Maguire was the only dad I ever had, but he wasn't my birth father. My mom never told me who my real father was. She took that secret with her when she died."
"I never knew my parents either," Gabrielle put in. "My mother was institutionalized as a teenage Jane Doe soon after I was born. All my records are sitting in DCF files somewhere in Boston."
"We can't forget Claire's father," Dylan added, obviously un-swayed. "He and her mother were both killed in Africa by rebel warfare. So that rules him out as an immortal."
"Look," Jenna said, coming out of the kitchen now too. "I'm not trying to say I know all of this for sure, but I know what I saw. The Ancients were at war with a race of beings that were something other than human. They hunted these warriors over centuries, across continents. And the only way to kill them was by taking their heads."
"Hi, Tavia." Mira had come out of a room off the hallway and strode right past her with a little wave of greeting. "Are you going to have breakfast with us?"
"Oh. I ..." She glanced up to find several pairs of eyes on her now. Elise, Dylan, and Gabrielle had come into the corridor to look at her questioningly. "I was just ... taking a little walk, that's all."
Mira shrugged. "Okay. But you won't want to miss out on blueberry pancakes with whipped cream."
As the girl wandered into the kitchen with the other Breedmates, only Elise remained. Her soft eyes were sympathetic. Far too knowing for Tavia's comfort. "Something happened with Sterling." Not a question, a gentle statement of fact. "Is he gone again?"
Tavia nodded, seeing no sense in denying it. "A couple of hours ago. I don't know if he'll be coming back."
Elise let out a small sigh. "I'm sorry. I saw how he was with you. If he left, don't think it's a question of whether or not he cares for you. It was plain to me - to everyone - that he does." Tavia shrugged, managed a faint smile. "I can't stay now either."
The female's expression went a bit cautious. "Perhaps you should talk with Lucan first." "Is that a polite way of telling me I'm not allowed to leave?" She exhaled a soft apology. "When Chase comes back - if he comes back - I don't want to make things harder for him. He needs the Order."