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A low growl escaped his throat as he reached for her. She pulled back, avoiding the contact. “No, don’t. Stay away from me.”


He studied her for a moment, his eyes locked on her. “Tell me you really mean that, and I will.”


“I mean it.” She forced herself to hold steady, in spite of the widening ache in her breast. She had to do this. For her own sanity, she had to put him out of her mind and out of her life. “I don’t want to see you again, Nathan. I wish I’d never met you.”


He said nothing. Just stood before her in agonizing silence, his inscrutable gaze seeming to cut straight through her, as cold and unfeeling as a blade. His face was unmoving, impossible to decipher if he was relieved or insulted by her rejection.


The walls she’d so naively thought she might pull down were in full force as she looked at him now, perhaps rising even taller than they had been before. Nathan wasn’t someone who let others in easily; she’d sensed that about him early on.


Now that she was pushing him away, he would shut her out completely. And she knew once he did, there would be no getting back inside.


One of his teammates—Aric Chase’s best friend, Rafe—called to Nathan from back at the crime scene. “Captain, heads up. Squad from Joint Urban Security is en route from downtown. This place’ll be crawling with JUSTIS officers in less than ten minutes.”


Nathan acknowledged the report with a vague lift of his hand. In flat, maddening silence, he stared at Jordana for what seemed an eternity.


Then he simply turned away from her, walking back to his waiting crew of warriors and the grisly reality of his dark world.


14


NATHAN LEANED BACK AGAINST THE ORDER’S PATROL VEHICLE next to Rafe, trying to pretend he wasn’t brooding from his confrontation with Jordana as he idly watched a team of six officers from the Joint Urban Security Taskforce Initiative Squad process the crime scene outside La Notte.


Shit, he was worse than brooding. He was pissed off and bewildered.


She wished she’d never met him? She had no idea. The best thing she could do for him was take her haughty indignation and all-too-tempting body and stay far the hell out of his way.


Out of his head.


Out of his life.


And the fact that he was stewing over the female an hour after she’d gone only jacked his frustration higher. He wasn’t used to letting anything, or anyone, get under his skin. His Hunter training had conditioned him to ignore distractions, to dismiss anything that might sway him from his course. Any obstacle in his path was either shoved aside or trampled beneath him, left behind and instantly forgotten.


It was how he survived. It was how he came through the fire of his childhood, his mind and body equally honed, his heart as ruthless as a blade.


He was a master of control, and yet Jordana Gates had somehow begun to chip away at that impenetrable foundation. Like a small trickle of water through a mountain of stone, she’d managed to find a breach and slip inside.


Try as he might to put her out of his thoughts, to close himself off to the desire he felt for her—to deny his maddening need to possess her, now that he’d had the first taste—he couldn’t get her out of his head.


The best thing she could have done for him was storm off in justifiable fury, determined that she never see him again.


And yet he brooded.


He stewed.


Told himself to let her run back to her safe life with Elliott Bentley-Squire and consider it a bullet dodged.


He tried to pretend that every muscle in his body wasn’t twitchy with the hunger to go after Jordana right now and take her down beneath him, show her pleasure like no other man ever would.


With more effort than he cared to admit, Nathan wrestled his focus back to the situation at hand. While most of the combined human/Breed JUSTIS unit stood around trying to look important as they made phone calls and manned crime scene blockades set up around the club, they’d tasked one of their junior members with the unpleasant job of photographing the evidence. The twenty-something human, an obvious rookie, had already vomited twice since his team arrived an hour ago.


Rafe chuckled beside Nathan as the young officer butterfingered his camera and nearly dropped it into the blood pool surrounding Cass’s headless body. “Twenty bucks says the new guy doesn’t make it back to his squad car before he passes out.”


As Rafe spoke, Elijah strode over with Jax to join them. “Now, that’s just mean, picking on the human.” Eli grinned. “I got forty on the Breed detective over by the club door. He’s been trying to hold his shit together, taking statements from the staff and fighters, but that vampire’s gonna need an assist before the kid does. I give him about two minutes before he goes all fangy standing around this much spilled hemoglobin.”


Jax grunted. “Hell, we don’t get out of here soon, I’m about to sprout fangs myself.”


Although the blood was dead and no longer viable to any of their kind as sustenance, there was hardly a Breed in existence who could ignore the prolonged sensory torment of the lake of blood surrounding Cassian Gray’s remains. Even Nathan felt the throb of his lengthening canines and the sharpening of his pupils as he stared at the headless body across the dark, wet pavement.


Then again, blood thirst was only part of his problem tonight.


The bigger instigator to his dangerous mood was more than likely tucked away safe and sound in another male’s arms right about now. Nathan growled at the thought.


The unbridled sound of aggression drew his team’s gazes, Rafe’s more questioning than that of the others. “You okay, Captain?”


“No,” Nathan muttered. Refusing to acknowledge the reason for his lingering discontent, he jerked his chin in the direction of the crime scene. “Instead of putting Cassian Gray’s ass in an interrogation cell back at Headquarters, I’m watching JUSTIS mop up our best potential source of intel on Reginald Crowe. Hell, Cass might have been our best source of intel on the Atlanteans themselves as well.”


Rafe’s nod was grim. “True, but this slaying did answer one question. How many deaths by decapitation do we see on average?”


Eli arched a brow. “Not counting Crowe’s little helicopter blade mishap on that rooftop in D.C. last week? Exactly none.”


“Someone was making a statement here,” Jax suggested.


Nathan had to agree. “As we suspected, Cass wasn’t human. Whoever killed him obviously knew that too.”


Rafe met his gaze in the dark. “But who would want Cass dead—Opus Nostrum? Or someone Cass might’ve crossed in his business dealings at La Notte? No doubt the man took a lot of secrets with him tonight.”


“Could be whoever wanted him dead had a secret of their own to protect,” Eli added.


Nathan stared at the carnage across the way, considering all of the disturbing possibilities where Cassian Gray’s murder was concerned. “Someone knew what he was and how to kill him. This was an execution. But even so, that doesn’t tell us why.”


And there was another question still gnawing at Nathan.


What the hell was Cassian Gray doing at the art museum today? That the bastard had gone there within hours of his being killed was suspicious enough. But to have gone there and merely chatted with Jordana about art, when he was so concerned with being found out he’d changed his appearance and been MIA from his club and staff for nearly a week?


What business did he have at the museum? It didn’t make sense that he would spend precious time—not to mention risk coming out of hiding—to go there today.


Nor did it sit well that Jordana was evidently the last person to see Cass alive.


What did he want with her? Because Nathan was damned certain it wasn’t coincidence that put the elusive club owner at Jordana’s exhibit. He’d had a reason to go there. She may not realize it, but Cassian Gray left something with her today. He did something, said something—something Nathan was determined to find out.


And if he was looking for that answer, what was to say Cass’s killer wasn’t doing the same thing?


For all he knew, Jordana could be in the crosshairs already.


Holy fuck. If Cass had put Jordana in harm’s way, intentionally or otherwise—


A murderous flare of rage shot through Nathan at the thought, a deep protective instinct that he had no right to feel where the Darkhaven female was concerned. Still, the ferocity of his emotion stunned him.


But his fury was self-directed too.


He’d let Jordana walk away from him tonight. Hell, he’d all but shoved her away.


Bad enough he’d let jealousy and stung pride rule his warrior’s logic in neglecting to debrief a possible intel source. But in allowing Jordana to leave the crime scene, he’d left her completely unprotected, should Cass’s killer trace the Atlantean’s steps back to his visit to the museum.


That logical part of him that had been missing earlier tonight tried now to remind him that Jordana likely wasn’t without a Breed male to keep her safe from imminent harm. She had her de facto mate to protect her—a choice she’d willingly made last night.


As if Elliott Bentley-Squire were capable of looking after a woman like Jordana.


She needed a better male, a stronger male. The kind of male who would throw down his life for her in an instant.


The kind of male who would have leapt on Nathan last night and pounded him into a bloody pulp for the liberties he’d taken with her in that elevator.


Nathan snarled low under his breath. Told himself the current of urgency coursing through him was more about protecting a potential Order asset than assigning himself as a personal bodyguard to the woman he craved so fiercely, so unwelcomely.


The woman who just a short while ago had insisted she wanted nothing more to do with him, and rightly so.


As the JUSTIS officers cleared the crime scene and packed up the body, Nathan ordered his team to report back to base. Then he pivoted away and began to stalk across the dark pavement.


Rafe jogged after him. “What’s going on?”


“Jordana,” Nathan stated simply. “She was the last person to see Cass alive.”


“Jesus,” Rafe muttered. “Are you sure? How do you know that?”


“She told me. Cass showed up at the museum this afternoon. She spoke with the bastard.”


Rafe frowned. “About what? Why the hell would he go there?”


Nathan kept walking. “That’s what I intend to find out.”


“You mean we,” Rafe said. “As in the Order. As in we call this in to Headquarters and let them decide how best to proceed with the female.” When Nathan didn’t respond, Rafe grabbed his shoulder. “Jordana Gates is a civilian and a potential intelligence lead now, Nathan. You know the protocol on something like this.”


Yeah, he did.


He knew Order procedure and protocol inside and out. Hell, he’d lived and breathed it for most of his life. But that didn’t keep his feet from moving in the opposite direction of what he knew was the right and proper thing for a warrior to do.


“Holy shit,” Rafe murmured. “You really care about her.”


Nathan didn’t have the patience to try to deny it. Not that his friend would believe him, even if he wanted to pretend it was true.


All that mattered in that moment was getting to Jordana, making sure she was safe.


“Dammit, Nathan. You know I have a duty to report this.”


Nathan picked up his pace. He heard Rafe’s curse behind him, low and incredulous, in the instant before Nathan vanished into the darkness.


The teakettle started to howl in the kitchen as Jordana sat on her sofa, sweeping fresh tears from her cheeks. The sweet ending of the romantic comedy she was watching shouldn’t have inspired more than a smile or a satisfied sigh, yet as the credits rolled, she was about two seconds away from breaking down into a full sob.


Not that the movie was what had her so emotionally on edge. She’d been shaken up since she arrived home tonight. The long bath she’d taken when she first got there had helped calm her nerves, but she didn’t think she would ever be able to purge the memory of what she’d encountered outside La Notte.


She had cried inexplicably for Mr. Cassian—for Cassian Gray, or whatever his true name was. She’d never been so close to death before, and she hated that the kind man she’d spoken with had met such a seemingly senseless, violent end.


No matter what he’d apparently done for a living, the odd stranger Jordana had found inside the exhibit had appeared to be a decent, interesting person. What he could have possibly done to earn the death he’d been dealt tonight, she couldn’t imagine.


Sniffling as she got up from the sofa, Jordana padded barefoot to the kitchen to rescue the whining kettle. She had donned lavender silk pajamas after her long soak in the tub. Beneath a loosely tied matching robe, the light tank and shorts felt cool against her bare skin as she trekked through the empty apartment.


Carys and Rune had checked in on her a short while ago, practically insisting that she come out with them and not sit around the penthouse by herself. But alone time had been just what Jordana had wanted. Except now she felt a sudden, keen ache for the comfort of family. She longed for the reassurance of her father’s protecting arms.


Martin Gates would welcome her back to his Darkhaven anytime; she knew that. She also knew that going home would only make her father try to persuade her to move back in permanently. And that was a conversation she didn’t want to have with him again. Especially not tonight, when learning where she’d been and what had happened would send him into a fit of worry.


Although the wealthy Breed male had brought her up selflessly as his daughter from the time she was an infant, providing her with anything she could possibly ever need in life, Martin Gates could not seem to fully adjust to the idea that Jordana had become an adult woman. She was nearly twenty-five years old, yet he still wanted to direct her life as if she were a child.

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