"I can't," she replied, the words tumbling out even before she realized she was going to say them. She'd never refused any task he gave her, but something about tonight - something about Bobby Clarence himself - made her instincts stir with an odd wariness. She shook her head, even as his look of surprise turned to one of disappointment, then cool disapproval. "I wish I could help, but my aunt is very sick. I have her medicine right here." She reached into her purse and pulled out a prescription bottle full of white pills. "I'm afraid if I'm not there to make sure she takes it and has a proper meal ..."

"Of course. I understand," the senator replied. He was aware of her general living situation - the fact that her aunt Sarah had raised her alone for most of Tavia's life. She was the only family Tavia had ever known, and the fact that Tavia would drop everything to take care of the older woman was no stretch. At least that much was true.

The Suburban slowed, crunching ice and snow under its tires, as they approached the little gray Cape with its neat black shutters, Christmas wreath on the front door, and cheery yellow light glowing from nearly every window. Tavia met the senator's watchful gaze from across the wide bench seat. "I'm sorry I can't help this time. I'm sure your changes will be just fine." He nodded. "Give your aunt Sarah my best. Tell her I hope she feels better soon." His mouth curved into a smile that might have looked sympathetic if not for the dark gleam of doubt in his eyes. "I'll see you in the morning, Tavia. We can talk more then."

She opened the SUV door and started to climb out.

Perhaps she should have bitten her tongue, but a question had been riding the tip of it since the moment they left the police station - a question that disturbed her almost as much as the ones now swirling in her head about the senator himself. In fact, it was something that had been nagging at her even longer than that ... from sometime last week, and the instant she first laid eyes on one of Bobby Clarence's most generous supporters.

She paused outside the vehicle, pivoting to peer in at the senator. "How well do you know Drake Masters?"

She saw it then. The slip in an otherwise careful facade.

"Drake Masters," he said, less a question than a demand. The senator cleared his throat and attempted to school his features into a mask of mild befuddlement, but Tavia had already seen past it. "What does Drake Masters have to do with anything?"

She let the question linger and stretch out. She didn't have an answer for it. Not yet. But she fully intended to find out.

"I have to go now," she said, and turned to make the short walk up to the house.

Aunt Sarah met her at the door, dressed in a red velour track suit with a green Christmas- themed apron tied around her hips. Holiday music poured out into the night, along with the aroma of fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and something meaty simmering on the stove. "There you are, at last," the older woman exclaimed. "Why haven't you been answering your cell phone? I've been trying to reach you all evening."

"I'm sorry. I must have the ringer turned off." Tavia stepped inside the house and watched as the black SUV slowly rolled away from the curb. "It's been a long day, Aunt Sarah. I should have called. I hope you didn't worry."

"Of course I worried. I love you." Her brown eyes crinkled at the corners as she looked Tavia over. "How was your visit with Dr. Lewis? Did you tell him about the night terrors and headaches you've been having lately? Did you pick up your medicine?"

"The appointment went fine, same as the last ten thousand of them. Got my new drug supply right here." Tavia shook her purse, making the pill bottle rattle as she met her aunt's welcoming gaze. She smiled at the older woman and all her questions and worry. It was the first real sense of comfort, of normalcy, she'd had all day. "I love you too, Aunt Sarah. What's for dinner?"

AT FIRST, Chase thought he was in hell. In addition to feeling as though he'd been run over by a truck - repeatedly - his mouth was cotton-dry and his head was ringing with the relentless beep and hiss of electronic machinery somewhere nearby.

He lay there for a moment, eyes closed, senses still attempting to come back online after a long, smothering sleep. Someone was in the room with him. Two people. Humans, a male and a female. They were speaking softly from both sides of him, the woman covering his bare legs with a thin sheet and blanket while the man reached over Chase's head to press buttons on one of the complaining monitors.

"BP's still wicked high," said the man, his booming Boston-roughened voice coming out of what sounded like a deep barrel chest. "Heart rate ain't come down much in the last hour either. This fella's body idles as fast as a damn race car."

"He's just lucky to be alive," replied the woman. "With all those bullet holes in him, his vitals should be flatlining, not clocking off the charts." She sounded middle age and tired, a wad of minty gum snapping as she chewed it noisily while she spoke. "I hear the lab screwed up his blood work again, so they're rerunning everything for the third time. Buncha clowns down there tonight or something, I swear to God. Meantime, looks like I'm going to have to start another bag of O negative before the next shift change."

He wasn't dead, wasn't in hell either. He was in a human medical facility. Judging from the cold metal handcuff that secured his right wrist to the rail of the wheeled bed, Chase guessed he was still technically in the county lockup.

He had to get the fuck out of there.

His immediate instinct was to leap up and haul ass away from the place, before his strange lab results and unusual blood work started raising questions that no human being would be eager to learn the answers to. And as if that wasn't enough reason, there was also the fact that Dragos had recruited another Minion. Fury kindled below the thick fog of his injuries when he recalled the soulless glimmer of Senator Clarence's gaze. It burned even hotter when he thought of Tavia Fairchild, an innocent woman unaware of the evil looming close enough to touch her.

Chase had to do something. But he didn't have the strength to get up or get out. He couldn't even summon the wherewithal to lift his heavy eyelids.

Not the packaged kind Nurse Doublemint was talking about, but fresh red cells, taken from an open human vein. The transfusions had probably kept his organs functioning in the time following the shooting, but in order for him to truly heal and regain all of his Breed strength and power, he needed to feed.

Moving beside him near the bed, the male nurse rearranged some of the tubes and tethers attached to Chase's free arm. "You hear about the other guy they brought back here from the situation in lockup tonight - the one this fella tried to use as a wrecking ball? He's busted up real bad."

The female exhaled a sharp grunt. "Oh, I heard about him all right. Severed spinal column, total paralysis from the neck down. Poetic justice, if you ask me."

"What do you mean?"

More gum-snapping and a whiff of peppermint as she leaned in to inspect one of Chase's chest wounds. "Before I came here, I used to work midnights over at Mass General. Admitted his wife to the ER more than once after he worked her over, then had an apparent attack of conscience and brought her in to be patched up. He always had some kind of excuse, like she ran into a wall or split her head open while she was cleaning. You won't see me crying that a guy like him is gonna spend the rest of his life flat on his ass, eating baby food and pissing in a bag." "No shit." The male nurse blew out a low chuckle. "They don't say karma's a bitch for nothing."

"And so am I when I haven't had a cigarette in more than two hours," she said, chomping even harder on her gum. "Can you finish up here while I run down and have a quick smoke?"

"Yeah, sure. I'm almost done. Just need to prep a little nightcap for Mr., ah ..." A pause as he looked up the name. "For Mr. Chase here. Something to take the edge off, after that suicide-by- lead-poisoning attempt he made tonight in the lineup room."

Nurse Doublemint stripped off her latex gloves with a violent snap that felt like a thunderclap in Chase's head. "You're a doll, Mike. Be sure to turn the lights off when you're done in here, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. Get outta here already. I got you covered."

Chase listened to the padding of the nurse's crepe-soled shoes as she left the room. The door settled closed with a whispered snick. Chase's senses began to bang with the impulse to act, to seize this chance and feed.

He peered through the slit of his parted eyelids. The male nurse was turned away, unwrapping a thin clear tube from a small plastic IV bag. He was a sizable man, as his voice had indicated - tall and strong, with thick shoulders bulking underneath his sky blue scrubs.

"All right, Mr. Chase. Got a bag of nighty-night for you here." He hung the bag on one of the hooked IV poles next to the bed, then leaned over Chase to pick up his left arm and attach the end of the tube to a readied line. "I promise you, this is some real good shit ..." Chase's eyes were fully open now.

"Jesus Christ!" The man's body jerked in alarm as he tried to leap back from the bed. He didn't get far. Chase clamped his hand around the back of the human's neck and brought him down in a sudden burst of coiled power. It was all he had in him, but it was enough. With the man's hoarse shouts muffled against the blanket at his chest, Chase sank his fangs into the human's neck.

He drank quickly, deeply, gulp after gulp. The coppery blood hit his parched tongue like fire, igniting his body's depleted cells and fueling his senses. It was an instantaneous flood of strength and power - the very thing that made it so addictive. He couldn't think about that now. Only one thing mattered, and that was getting out of this place.

The temptation to gorge himself was as powerful as it would be to any junkie, but as soon as Chase felt his power peak, he swept his tongue over the punctures and sealed the wound closed. The man was limp now, dazed from the feeding. To be safe, Chase placed the flat of his palm against the human's forehead, trancing him into a swift, heavy drowse. Chase pushed his heavy bulk off him with his free arm. The cuff on his other broke loose under a combination of mental command and sheer Breed strength.

Naked but for his many bandages, Chase sat up and began pulling the tubes and lines out of his arms. He freed himself of the tangle of medical apparatus, then hurried to strip the male nurse of his blue scrubs. He put them on, scowling when he got to the white Crocs that were easily two sizes too small for him.

Barefoot, Chase hefted the big human onto the bed in his place, clamping the heart rate monitor onto the nurse's finger before the machine had a chance to bleat in alarm. To be sure the human didn't wake up screaming the word "vampire," Chase made quick work of his memory, scrubbing the attack clean from his sleeping mind. After pulling the sheet and blanket up around the man's chin, Chase pivoted to head for the door.

Just as Nurse Doublemint was pushing it open ahead of her.

"I'm not sure, Darcy. I just got back from break," she called over her shoulder, her head turned back toward the nurses' station as she started to enter the room.

Chase drew back against the wall behind the door. His body was still riding the powerful high of its feeding, every muscle coiled and waiting for his command. He didn't want to harm the woman, but if she saw him ...

She lingered in the doorway and stared toward the bed where the big male nurse lay unmoving, still in a deep drowse. "Mike? You still in here?" she asked, speaking in a hushed tone so as not to wake the patient.

As she took a quiet step into the room, Chase pushed deeper into the shadows behind the open door. He gathered those shadows around him, calling on one of his personal abilities that was sometimes even more effective than the strength and brute power of his kind. He held the shadows close, bending them to his will as the woman peered around the room looking for her colleague.

"Michael?" She frowned, shivering a little in the cold of Chase's illusion. She pulled the fabric of her white cardigan tighter around her. "So much for remembering to turn off the lights when you were done."

With that, she pivoted on her heel and left, hitting the light switch on her way out. The room went dark, and Chase released the curtain of gloom that had shielded him from her notice.

He glanced out the window of the door as she returned to the station up the hall and fell into a chatty conversation with the pair of young nurses manning it. Chase slipped out of the room in his stolen scrubs, his bare feet silent as he took the first step into the corridor toward escape. They didn't see him.

Nor could any human eyes follow as he flashed with preternatural speed down the opposite length of the long hallway, as silent and stealthy as a ghost.

Once outside, Chase hit the street on foot. To the few humans he passed, he was nothing but a cold gust amid the midnight flurries that fell from the dark sky. He knew exactly where he would go now. With predatory senses guiding him, he headed for a specific residence on the North Shore, as swift and certain as death itself.

FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-TWO emails in his in-box since the afternoon - including the one Tavia Fairchild told him she'd sent containing his speech file for the morning fund-raiser. Ever the efficient assistant, she'd gone to the trouble of including a separate file that provided anecdotal remarks about some of the people who'd be attending the charity breakfast. A social cheat sheet to assist him in maintaining his reputation for personability and effortless charm. He barely glanced at the document, finding it hard to care about the pet philanthropic ventures and causes du jour of a bunch of Back Bay socialites or the alma mater team standings of every deep-pocketed corporate executive on the guest list.