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He’d already let his hunger for her trump his good judgment. He may have jeopardized his team’s entire mission by taking Jordana’s virginity last night instead of bringing her in to take her statement as he would any other witness.


That was the reason he now stood outside Chase’s office, fully prepared to take whatever punishment he was due.


He’d placed his own selfish wants above his greater responsibility to his brethren last night. He couldn’t regret a moment of the hours he’d spent in Jordana’s bed, but the fact he’d done it in spite of the hard-won discipline he prided himself on—worse, that he pursued Jordana at the expense of his duty to his teammates—was a failure he intended to rectify by any means possible.


He read Jordana’s message again and groaned at his loss.


He would call her after his meeting with Chase and tell her not to expect him.


Dammit. He was going to have to try to explain to her that the next time she saw him, it would likely be on instructions to collect her and hold her at the command center as a witness until the Order felt she was of no further use in their investigation.


He could only hope she wouldn’t despise him for not having that conversation with her before she surrendered to him so openly last night.


As he berated himself for that further failure, his comm vibrated with another incoming transmission.


No message this time. Just an image.


Jordana, in a red dress.


A sexy, back-baring, curve-hugging, stupefyingly hot red dress.


And she had to know how incredible she looked in it. Posed from behind in front of a full-length mirror inside her dressing room, she looked over her shoulder at the camera with an expression that was confident, provocative, utterly sensual.


And meant just for him.


Nathan’s fangs punched out of his gums and his already uncomfortable hard-on became unbearable. He stared at her photo in abject lust, his fingers clamped so tight around his comm unit, it was a wonder the device didn’t shatter. All the air left his lungs on a ragged exhalation.


“Holy. Fucking. Hell.”


Without warning, the door to Commander Chase’s study opened.


“Shit.” Nathan jerked his head up, at the same time casually but quickly stowing his comm unit in the pocket of his fatigues. As an afterthought, he shoved his hands into both pockets too, hoping the added bulk would conceal the very obvious evidence of his arousal.


His fangs and amber-flecked irises were equally difficult to hide.


“Nathan.” Sterling Chase’s shrewd blue eyes hit him like twin-focused laser beams, missing nothing. The commander’s deep voice was low, his mouth grave and unsmiling. “I reviewed the reports from your team’s patrol last night. I was just about to call you in here to discuss them.”


Nathan gave a grim nod. “I thought you might, sir.”


“Come in.” Chase turned and strode back to his desk inside the spacious office. “Close the door and sit down.”


Nathan did as instructed, taking a seat in one of a pair of leather chairs on the opposite side of Chase’s desk. Even though he’d arrived there of his own volition, he knew full well that this was a reprimand waiting to happen.


More than likely, Chase had already spoken with Lucan and the two Order elders had discussed his failing … and his fate.


Nathan waited in respectful silence for his commander to address him. And he was glad for the opportunity to wrestle his libido into submission—no easy feat when that image of Jordana dressed in flame red silk was burned indelibly into his mind.


Chase put his elbows on the surface of his desk and studied Nathan for a long moment. “We’ll talk about what the hell you think you’re doing with her—and why she’s messaging you on a secure comm port—after we cover our other business this morning.”


With that, Chase leaned back and pulled up Nathan’s patrol report on the touch-screen monitor perched on the edge of his desk. “As I said, I reviewed the team’s reports on Cassian Gray’s slaying last night. Disappointing, to say the least. Not only did he manage to elude our sweeps and shakedowns these past several nights, but his death provides the public with a story they’ll be talking about for years. A beheading in the middle of the goddamned city of Boston?” Chase’s eyes crackled with angry sparks. “Fortunately, JUSTIS is operating in typical head-up-the-ass fashion, so they’ve officially declared it a random homicide, subject and motive undetermined. We know that kind of killing, not to mention the victim, was anything but random.”


Nathan inclined his head in agreement. “Whoever killed Cass knew what it would take to end him. They had to understand what he was.” Chase’s mouth pressed flat. “Or they are the same as he was. Atlantean.”


“That would be my guess,” Nathan said. “The question remains, why would someone—particularly one of Cass’s own kind—want him dead?” Chase grunted, his stare unwavering. “I’m informed there is a witness who saw Cassian Gray just hours before his death was discovered. A witness who did not seem to warrant a mention in any of the patrol reports. I wouldn’t have heard about this at all if Rafe hadn’t come to me with the information earlier this morning. Seems he wanted to shield a friend, so he omitted this crucial detail from his findings.”


Nathan struggled to keep his face neutral, but inside he was kicking himself. Damn Rafe for trying to protect him. Nathan hadn’t asked it of him; he would never have expected it.


“Fortunately for Rafe, his loyalty to the Order won out before the breach of trust was discovered on its own, or the consequences for him could be severe,” Chase said. He glanced over at the patrol report still displayed on the monitor. “I’ll deal with Rafe later. Right now, I want to know why this same witness isn’t noted on my patrol team captain’s report—which also wasn’t filed until daybreak this morning. I want to know why one of my best men, a warrior who’s served this unit faithfully, flawlessly, for more than a decade, suddenly decides to defy protocol.” Chase slammed his fist on the desk. “Dammit, I want to know why you’re practically forcing me to remove you from your command of the team.”


Nathan remained calm, knowing he had earned every bit of Chase’s fury. “I can offer no excuse. I failed my team and you. I can only give my word that it won’t happen again.”


Chase studied him silently with a long, measuring look. Then he blew out a harsh sigh. “What the hell are you doing, Nathan? Forgetting for the moment that Jordana Gates is currently a lead in an ongoing investigation for the Order, she’s also a Breedmate, for crissake. How far do you intend to take things with her? You’ve already slept with her. What’s next? Am I going to find out you’ve blood-bonded to this female?”


Now Nathan’s schooled calm faltered slightly. His lip curled, the barest hint of a snarl. “All due respect, sir, but that’s none of your damned business.”


“The hell it isn’t.” Chase got up. He walked around the desk and sat on its edge, directly in front of Nathan. “This won’t do. You know that. The stakes are too high. If we’re soon to face another rising war—this time against an entire other race of immortals—then we can’t afford distractions. And Jordana Gates is a very big distraction for you. There’s too much at risk for you to allow an emotional entanglement to hamper your effectiveness.”


Although Chase couldn’t have known, the charge he leveled now was a direct hit to Nathan’s soul. Like a tide of black water, memories from his past swelled up around him.


The shattering impact of thick chains striking his back. The threat of sunlight breaking in through the weathered slats of the old barn’s roof where he and the other young Hunters were brought after lessons in obedience and duty had failed to teach them who—and what—they were meant to be.


You are a weapon.


Crack!


Effective weapons do not feel.


Crack!


Effective weapons do not bend. Not ever. Not for anyone.


Crack!


Nathan said nothing, silently working through the vivid, unexpected recollection of his conditioning. He reached for the part of him that was the detached Hunter. The survivor who endured his merciless training and lived to find a better life for himself outside of that other, brutal, bleak existence.


But there was a part of him that would always recall the stench of spilled blood and urine and other offending body fluids … and taste the salty tears of a terrified, brutalized little boy.


“Nothing will hamper my effectiveness,” he murmured evenly.


Chase stared. “Do you love her?”


A quick, sharp denial sat on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t seem to spit it out.


Whatever it was that he felt for Jordana, it surpassed simple desire or affection. It consumed him. Made his heart feel squeezed in a tight fist yet soaring free at the same time.


He glanced down, gave a mute shake of his head. “Maybe I do. Fuck, I don’t know.”


“You better figure it out,” Chase replied. “Because anything less than that is a waste of our time here. Especially when it could cost you your rank under my command. Possibly even your place in the Order as a whole.”


“I won’t let that happen,” Nathan assured him. “No matter what I have with Jordana, the Order is my family. My duty. I’ve got this under control.”


Chase grunted. “Then prove it to me. Prove it to yourself, and bring her in, as you should’ve done last night.”


Nathan pictured her in her stunning red dress, surrounded by half of Boston as she proudly unveiled her exhibit.


Then he imagined walking in there, just as he’d dreaded, not as the man she hoped to have at her side for that important moment but the warrior sent to ruin her night and likely earn her hatred.


He swore roundly under his breath. “I can’t do that. Not tonight. She’s got this event at the museum. She’s been planning it for months—”


Chase rose to his feet on a snarl. He scrubbed his hand over his brow, then leveled a hard look on Nathan. “Listen, I didn’t live nearly two hundred years without more than a few fuckups and near disasters to my credit. You know my history; it’s far from spotless. I’m hardly the one to lecture you on duty or how you should live your life. But I’m your commander. I’m taking you off patrol for the night. Tell Elijah he’ll captain in your place.”


Nathan absorbed the edict with a conceding nod. “I understand.”


“Do you?” Chase challenged. He motioned for Nathan to stand up. “Consider this a chance to figure your shit out with Jordana. I need to know if you can come back and continue your mission as captain of your squad. I’ll expect your answer first thing tomorrow morning.”


Nathan gave him another nod. “Yes, sir.”


Chase slanted him a thoughtful but frustrated look. “Now get the fuck out of here.”


Nathan left and headed down the corridor.


Rafe rounded a corner up ahead and immediately jogged forward to meet him. Worry etched his face.


“Have you seen Commander Chase yet today?”


“Yeah. He just finished chewing me a new asshole.”


“Shit.” Rafe looked at him, contrite. He fell in alongside Nathan and walked with him toward the warriors’ wing of the compound. “I had to name Jordana as a witness, man. I left her out of the patrol report because I didn’t want to make things hard for you, but—”


“It’s nothing,” Nathan replied. He could hardly be upset with his friend for simply carrying out his duty. “You had to report. I would’ve done the same thing.”


“So what’d he say?”


Nathan shrugged. “Nothing I didn’t deserve to hear. Then he yanked me off patrol for tonight. I need to let Eli know he’ll be heading things up in my place.”


“Jesus, Nathan.” Rafe frowned, gave a slow shake of his head. “This is serious shit.”


Yes, it was. But what he felt for Jordana was serious too.


And Chase was right, he needed to sort it out. He needed to see if there was any way for both the Order and her to fit into his life.


“What are you going to do?” Rafe asked.


Nathan chuckled. “I guess I’m going to go to Jordana’s exhibit opening at the museum tonight.”


Rafe gaped. “What? You mean, like some kind of date? You’ve got to be joking.”


“I’m not.” When Rafe paused outside the weapons room, Nathan kept walking, heading for his quarters.


“I hope you don’t plan to go there in full patrol gear,” Rafe called out from behind him, laughing now.


Shit. Nathan hadn’t considered things that far. He, the consummate tactician. The expert at weaponry and warfare didn’t have the first clue how to present himself as anything even remotely resembling a man going to be with his woman in a social gathering.


A date, for crissake.


Nathan pivoted and strode back to find Rafe. He pulled him outside the weapons room and lowered his voice. “What the fuck does someone wear to a museum party?”


19


JORDANA STOOD IN THE GALLERY OUTSIDE THE EXHIBIT HALL of the museum, feeling a sense of relief—a sense of pride and accomplishment—as she looked out over the packed house at the grand opening that evening.


She had been hoping the event would be well attended, but the sea of benefactors, society elite, museum members and general public arriving to fill the space far exceeded anything she’d dared to imagine.


Everyone was there tonight, her father included. Martin Gates mingled easily among his Darkhaven peers and the other upper-class citizens of Boston. Dressed in a conservative charcoal gray suit, pristine white shirt, and perfectly knotted silk tie, the handsome, staid, dark-haired Breed male looked every bit the wealthy investor and businessman that he was.

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