“Good. Trust me when I say you wouldn’t want to know that one. It’s no secret that he’s a killer, Jordana. One of those laboratory-raised monsters the Order seems so willing to recruit into their ranks.”


As Elliott steered her farther toward the museum guests, Jordana chanced another look back to where Nathan stood.


He was gone.


Why that should disappoint her, she didn’t even want to guess.


As for Elliott’s warning, she knew he wasn’t exaggerating. Nathan had been born and raised under awful conditions. She’d heard a little about his background from Carys over the past few days, information she’d attempted to mine as casually as possible, afraid to let on even to Carys that her curiosity about Nathan was anything more than passing.


And it was only a passing curiosity, she insisted to herself now, despite the pang of sympathy she felt for the coolly remote warrior in light of his horrific upbringing.


Born to a Breedmate who’d been abducted as a young woman and forced to breed, like many other captives who’d been imprisoned in the lab of a madman named Dragos, Nathan had been created for one purpose: killing. As a baby, he and the other boys born into the program were taken away from their mothers and raised to be soldiers in Dragos’s private army.


Worse than that—they were born and raised to be emotionless machines. Assassins to be deployed on Dragos’s whim to murder his enemies without mercy or remorse.


Nathan had eventually been rescued by his mother and the Order, and he now led a squad of warriors for the Order’s command center in Boston.


“A Hunter,” Jordana murmured belatedly.


Elliott frowned at her again. “A what?”


“Hunters. That’s what they were called.”


He scoffed. “Hunter is too polite a term for what he is.”


“What he was,” Jordana corrected him quietly, but Elliott wasn’t listening, no longer interested in Nathan now that he was gone.


“I’m sorry they ruined your reception,” he said. “You worked so hard to make it perfect.”


She dismissed the concern with a smile she didn’t really feel. “It’s not ruined.” She gestured to the room full of well-heeled patrons at the private, invitation-only showing. The drone of conversation, even light laughter here and there, vibrated around them in the museum’s main level. “See? Everyone’s already moved on to enjoy the rest of the evening. You should too, Elliott. You worry too much about me sometimes.”


“Because I care,” he said, reaching out to stroke the side of her face. “And you should worry more than you do, particularly about the company you keep. What happened tonight will likely be gossiped about for weeks, if not longer.”


Jordana drew away from his touch and his censure. “If tongues wag over this, it’ll be free publicity for the exhibit. Museum contributions will probably double.”


Elliott’s look was skeptical, but he offered her a smile. “I still think it was a mistake having Carys Chase host this event with you. The exhibit is your baby, Jordana. You’ve been working on it for more than six months—too long to let anything, or anyone, jeopardize its success. After all, how many times did you cancel or stand me up because your work kept you late at the museum?”


Too many times to count, and Jordana inwardly winced at the reminder. Although Elliott was keeping his tone light, she knew it had wounded him that she’d become so preoccupied and distant in recent months. She didn’t want to hurt him or disappoint him.


Although they’d never been intimate in the year they’d been dating, Jordana did care deeply for him. She loved him. Of course, everyone loved Elliott Bentley-Squire. He was kind and attractive, wealthy and charitable. Everything that any woman could possibly want in a mate.


He was also a longtime family friend, having been her father, Martin’s, attorney and business associate for several decades.


Jordana’s father, a male who had adopted her as an infant yet had never been inclined to take a Breedmate for himself in all his century of living, had hardly concealed the fact that he hoped Jordana might develop a fondness for Elliott. Despite that he was easily three times her age, being Breed like her father, Elliott Bentley-Squire was physically as fit and youthful as a thirty-year-old.


As for Jordana, her twenty-fifth birthday loomed less than a couple weeks away—a date her father had emphasized since she was a child, reminding her constantly of the sizable trust she would be granted on that date, but only if she were mated and settled by then.


Not that she cared at all about the money. Neither did Elliott, who had already accumulated his own considerable riches.


No, their relationship had not been based on commerce or social standing. It had been the most natural thing in the world to assume that she and Elliott might one day seal their long-term friendship with a blood bond and take each other as their mate.


Except …


Except the closer their relationship came to that eventuality, the more absorbed Jordana became in her work. It wasn’t unusual for her to be at the museum seven days a week, including most nights. In her spare time, she served on a handful of charity boards and had picked up a couple of seats on city improvement boards.


She’d developed a keen, consuming interest in a variety of things that had kept her too busy for any kind of social life. The upcoming art museum debut was only the most demanding of her long list of obligations.


“I’m sorry I’ve been so tied up with the exhibit, Elliott. But you should know that Carys has worked on this as hard as I have. She deserved to host with me tonight. Besides, she’s my best friend.”


Jordana scanned the reception for Carys and found her near the rear of the exhibit, smiling and chatting with a deep-pocketed doctor and his wife. Although she was the picture of poise and professionalism now, Aric’s awkward confrontation had to have upset her.


“I should go make sure she’s okay,” Jordana said.


Elliott halted her with a small shake of his head before she even started to move. “You should attend your guests, Jordana,” he advised gently. “They’re here for you. Look around, they’re all waiting for you. Carys will be fine until everyone is gone and the party is over.”


He was right, and although she bristled a little at his hand now positioned at her elbow to guide her, Jordana nodded and fell in beside him as he led her toward a number of patrons she had yet to speak with that evening.


“Carys Chase is not like you, Jordana,” Elliott said quietly as they crossed the room. “You must see that, don’t you, darling? She’s too wild. Reckless. Whether that’s due to her unusual Breed genetic makeup or an overly indulgent upbringing, I can only guess.”


“Indulgent?” Jordana nearly choked on a laugh. “Have you met her father, Sterling Chase? Or her mother, Tavia, who’s also Breed? Carys has always been held to exacting standards by her parents.” That was one of the things that had made Jordana and her friend so close. Although they seemed very different on the surface, Carys being a bit too adventurous and Jordana suffering from chronic overcautiousness, the two young women had much in common. “Carys and I may be different in some ways, but that’s what I happen to enjoy so much about her. Is being a little wild and reckless such a bad thing?”


She’d said it playfully, a small volley of flirtation in Elliott’s direction, just to test the waters. His mouth flattened and his blue eyes leveled on her from his sidelong look. “Wild and reckless usually gets someone hurt. You’re smarter than that, Jordana.” He reached over and gave her nose a light tap of his fingertip. “And that’s what I happen to enjoy so much about you.”


“Counselor,” called a jovial, elderly man who chaired one of Boston’s biggest banks. In addition to being one of Elliott’s human clients, he was also one of the museum’s most generous donors. His contributions to Jordana’s exhibit had helped her add ten more pieces to the sculpture collection.


“Counselor, good to see you!” the old man exclaimed, from beside his group of equally prominent colleagues representing the elite of both Breed and human society. “Come here and give us an excuse to talk to your lovely fiancée about Italian sculptors.”


“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Bonneville.” Elliott chuckled and steered Jordana toward the men. She forced a pleasant smile, allowing Elliott to take her hand in his warm, firm grasp as he practically pulled her along beside him. Dutifully, she shook hands with the banker and his colleagues, and with the other patrons who soon came to join their little circle.


Jordana smiled and laughed at all the appropriate times, hoping no one could tell that her heart was now battering around in her breast like a caged bird that would find a way out or die trying.


At the urging of Elliott and her growing audience, she regaled them with a discussion of her favorite works in the exhibit by Italian masters Bernini, Canova, Cornacchini, and other lesser-known artists.


God knew she needed the distraction.


Because if she didn’t have something keeping her feet rooted to the floor, Jordana was afraid she might be tempted to do something really wild and reckless.


She might walk out of the place—out of her perfect life—and never look back.


4


THAT NEXT MORNING, NATHAN AND HIS TEAM SAT AROUND THE large table in the conference room of the Order’s command center in Boston, reviewing their failure to locate Cassian Gray and putting together a new plan for their patrol set to begin again at sundown. Boston’s district chief, Sterling Chase, had every right to hand Nathan and his men their asses for returning to base empty-handed last night, but he seemed distracted today, his head not quite in the game.


Unusual for the experienced warrior who had twenty years with the Order and another few decades of Breed law enforcement under his belt before that.


Tavia Chase, Sterling’s mate and a member of the Order in her own right, was also present in the morning’s mission review and also less than fully engaged. She was seated with her spine rigid against the back of her chair. Her arms lay crossed in front of her, but the fingers of one hand drummed ceaselessly on her toned biceps. Her green gaze was distant, shadowed with a troubled preoccupation.


Had Aric and Carys brought last night’s anger home with them? Nathan was by no means an expert on reading emotion or weighing familial strife, but he had to wonder if that was the problem here today for Chase and Tavia.


Aric hadn’t betrayed his sister to their parents; that much Nathan did know.


The younger warrior had gone straight to the weapons room of the command center to work off steam after Nathan and the others brought him back to Headquarters. No doubt, he would be at it for a while, not only for the way he’d been frothing but also because Aric wasn’t part of the team’s morning conference.


Fresh out of training and not yet a full-fledged member of the Order, in a few weeks he would find his own squad of warriors in Seattle, when he was scheduled to report to Dante Malebranche, Rafe’s father, the head of that West Coast command center.


When the heavy mood in the room lengthened, Chase finally cleared his throat and brought the meeting back on task. “When we wrap up here, I have to call Lucan Thorne in D.C. and tell him we came up empty on Cassian Gray last night.” Chase’s shrewd blue eyes swept each warrior at the table, pausing the longest on Nathan. “I know I don’t need to tell any of you that the Order’s founder does not like failure. I don’t fucking like failure much either. But I hate excuses even more. So I’m not going to ask how the best team I ever trained—my most effective squad leader—pulled a patrol before either seeing it through to completion or running full-stop into daybreak.”


Neither Nathan nor his comrades spoke. Even if Chase had demanded to know what had caused the mission to search for Cass to be aborted, none of them would have thrown Aric under that bus.


Besides, Nathan agreed with his commander: Blame solved nothing. And the truth was, Nathan felt equally culpable. He’d gone easily enough to the museum reception after Aric.


And while he was admitting damning truths and personal derelictions of duty, Nathan had to count among his the fact that his curiosity about Jordana Gates hadn’t ended when he returned to Headquarters with his team.


While Aric had vented his fury in the weapons room, Nathan had spent several hours online and in the Breed nation’s International Identification Database, researching Jordana’s apparent date at the event.


Or, rather, her imminent mate, Elliott Bentley-Squire.


Nathan had delved into every documented fact and figure he could find—all told, hours of digging. But he’d found no reason to dislike the wealthy, socially acceptable male.


Nor did he care to acknowledge that he’d been looking for cause to despise the trusted friend of Jordana’s father, simply for the way she had let Bentley-Squire touch her, even though her eyes hadn’t seemed able to break Nathan’s gaze from the moment they first saw each other at the party.


The look in Jordana’s eyes haunted him, even now. As if she’d been silently pleading for him to rescue her … to claim her.


Until her would-be mate noticed her distraction and Jordana had denied even knowing who Nathan was.


If he needed a reason to convince himself that beautiful, tempting Jordana Gates was a bad idea, certainly this was it. Nathan preferred his sexual dalliances to be uncomplicated, impersonal. A biological satisfaction of something his body needed in order to perform at its peak.


The way he viewed it, fucking was no different than feeding.


And he preferred to do neither close to the place he called home.


“We did learn something about Cassian Gray last night,” Nathan said, bringing his thoughts back in line where they belonged. “Cass’s office at La Notte was orderly, too much so. Anything of value to someone looking into him or his interests had been removed.”

***

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