Dante frowned, considering. "I still say it can't hurt to rustle the bushes with the Agency and see what we turn up. We might not flush out Dragos, but netting a few dirty Agents would be worth the effort. Especially if we can get one of them to talk." His thumb flicked idly at the leather blade sheath belted around his hips. A fraction of a second later, one of his twin curved blades was in his hand, titanium glinting as he made the weapon dance through his fingers. "If Harvard were here right now, I know he'd say the same thing."

Lucan couldn't disagree that Dante had a point. As for Sterling Chase - Harvard, as he'd been wryly christened by Dante from just about the moment the former Enforcement Agent had first set foot in the Order's compound a year and a half ago - he'd spent decades in the Breed's law enforcement organization. Long enough to have seen some of its ineffectiveness and corruption. It was because of him that the Order had found an ally in Mathias Rowan a few months ago.

Rowan was one of Chase's trusted colleagues during his time in the Agency and was proving to be a valuable asset as well as a friend to Lucan and the rest of the warriors.

There was a time Lucan would have said that about Chase too. Hell, he still felt that way, in spite of Harvard's faults and failures of late. Lucan hated that he'd been forced to draw a hard line in the sand with him. He understood all too well the beast Chase was fighting. He'd walked that same path, had seen it take down his family and long-ago friends, and, very nearly, himself. Because he'd tasted the destructive power of Bloodlust and had seen what it could do to even the strongest of his kind, Lucan was all the less forgiving when it came to protecting his kith and kin from its harm. Chase's inability - or unwillingness - to right himself from his downward spiral had put everyone in the compound at risk.

Yet Lucan wouldn't hesitate to admit that the Order was a lot better for having had Chase in its fold. And working without him now - especially after what he'd done to buy them the much- needed opportunity to vacate the Boston compound - felt as though the Order had lost a limb. For what hadn't been the first time, Lucan considered the viability of heading back into the city to retrieve Chase from police custody. It went against the grain to leave a comrade alone and exposed in the field. The Order had always taken great care with its fallen, and even though Chase was still alive - for all they knew, that is - it had been one of the damned hardest decisions Lucan had ever made to depart Boston with the rest of the compound and leave Chase behind.

It didn't help that there had been no word on him since he'd been hauled into custody yesterday morning. Gideon was keeping an ear to the ground, monitoring news stations and cable sources for any updates, but there'd been nothing to report.

The radio silence was the thing that bugged Lucan the most. He didn't expect for a minute that Chase would stay put inside a human lockdown for any longer than he wanted. And it wouldn't have taken much time before his blood thirst drove him to feed. God forbid he lost his shit and attacked anyone inside the station.

Just thinking of it made Lucan blow out a low curse.

"All we'd need is one pair of loose lips," Rio was saying now, drawing him back to the topic at hand. "One Agent to tell us something we don't know about Dragos and we'll be that much closer to killing the bastard at last."

"I won't argue any of that," Lucan said. "The Order - hell, all of the Breed nation - would be better off if the Agency underwent some serious housecleaning. But we can't take our sights off Dragos as our primary target. As much as I'd like to storm down those hallowed Agency halls and start making heads roll, we've got our hands full enough without declaring all-out war on the Enforcement Agency as a whole."

Tegan met his gaze with a thoughtful narrowing of his green eyes. "That might be exactly what Dragos was hoping we'd do. Toss a little distraction our way while he's busy making other plans."

Gideon grunted. "Divide and conquer. He'd hardly be the first megalomaniac to draw that weapon."

And in another place, another time, Lucan might have been arrogant enough to fall into such a tactical trap, believing himself above failure. He'd been infallible once, for a long time undefeatable.

The Order had been founded on the edge of his sword and the mettle of his convictions. Back then he'd feared nothing, bowed to no one. He'd ridden into every battle alongside his fellow warriors, determined to defy death yet willing to accept it, should that moment come.

Nearly seven hundred years had passed since that time. But it was only recently - a matter of months, a blink of time compared to the centuries he'd been living - that he'd begun to make decisions not based solely on his confidence as a leader and the battle prowess of his men. He'd never concerned himself with the well-being of anyone but himself. There'd been no need. But now?

Hell ...

Now he felt the responsibility for the lives of everyone under his roof, and it was a weight that had gotten even heavier since the abrupt evacuation from Boston.

He heard the source of some of his angst - the bright laughter and delighted squeal of a little girl - drifting in from another room. "Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh, Rennie! He said he would do it and he really did!"

At Lucan's confused scowl, Gideon explained. "Apparently Mira's just discovered the Christmas tree Niko brought in for her from the woods before daybreak this morning."

"Christmas tree," Lucan echoed with mild annoyance. He vaguely recalled Nikolai saying something about the eight-year-old girl's want of holiday decorations at the new headquarters, but there had been no mention of bringing in a damn tree.

Lucan got up and stalked out of the meeting room to confront the foolery going on in the vaulted great room at the center of the large stone-and-timber house. By the time he got there, half the compound was already gathered to admire the seven-foot pine. Nikolai and his mate, Renata, stood with Rio's mate, Dylan, helping to position the tree while warriors Kade and Brock looked on with their respective mates, Alexandra and Jenna, both recent arrivals from Alaska.

Lazaro Archer's teenage grandson, Kellan, brooded on the periphery. At just fourteen, the lanky kid had already been through hell and back, thanks to Dragos. His only remaining kin was his grandfather, and even though the youth tried to insist he was all right about everything that had happened, Lucan guessed it was only going to be a matter of time before Kellan Archer either detonated like an atom bomb or imploded into himself.

The Breed youth stood at the back of the room like a bored spectator, his arms crossed over his chest, a hank of overlong ginger bangs drooping over his brow as he tried not to look too impressed with the whole production going on in front of him now. Lucan could relate.

Mira had no such restraint. She bounced in her purple pajamas and fleece-trimmed suede slippers, ebullient in her joy. "Rennie, isn't it the most wonderful tree you've ever seen?" "It's pretty awesome, Mouse." Niko and Renata had for all intents and purposes adopted Mira as their own after the warrior had brought them both home to Boston with him from a mission in Montreal last summer. Dark-haired Renata was as lethal as any one of the Order's warriors, but her cool jade eyes softened as they lit on Nikolai's crooked smile on the other side of the tree as they tried to balance it on its stand. "It's perfect, babe."

"Wait - not there," Mira abruptly directed. "You're gonna put it too close to the fireplace, you guys!"

Niko shot the girl a wry look over his shoulder. "Of course. We don't want to block Santa from coming down the chimney with all your presents."

Kellan Archer scoffed from his post near the back of the room. "Santa Claus is a myth. Only babies believe in him."

"Kellan!" Renata gasped.

"It's okay, Rennie." Wispy blond hair swinging, Mira turned toward the boy, looking greatly offended. "I haven't believed in Santa since I was five years old. I just didn't want the tree to catch on fire if it was too close to the hearth." She rolled her eyes. "Kellan thinks I'm a baby." "How should we decorate the tree, Mira?" This time it was Alex, Kade's Breedmate, who spoke. "Did you bring the ornaments you made?"

Mira's mouth pressed into a sullen line. "I only had time to pack up a few. I had to leave the rest back in Boston at the compound."

Ah, Christ. Lucan groaned inwardly. So much for clamping down on the merriment out here. He'd done that even before he entered the room.

Feeling awkward and out of place, he was about to turn around and leave the room when Niko threw him under the bus. "Hey, Mira, make sure you thank Lucan too. Bringing this tree in from the forest was all his idea."

"No," Lucan denied sharply. "I had nothing to do with - "

But the little girl had already launched herself in his direction. She caught him in a tight hug around the waist, her sweetly innocent face turned up to meet his glower. "Thanks, Lucan. This is gonna be the best Christmas ever."

For fuck's sake.

He stood there unmoving, helpless in the child's embrace.

"Maybe we can make popcorn garlands?" Mira wondered aloud, releasing him in that next instant to skip back over to continue her supervision of the tree setup. "Do you think so, Rennie?"

"Sure," Renata answered.

Brock's mate, Jenna, strode over to ruffle Mira's bed-head hair. "We could gather some pinecones from the woods today. They'd make pretty ornaments, don't you think?"

The girl nodded enthusiastically. "It's gonna be great!"

"What do you think?" Lucan asked the sulking Breed youth as he drew up next to him. Kellan shrugged. "The tree looks kinda short and scraggly to me."

"Short and scraggly?" Niko replied. "The hell you say."

With the tree in place to Mira's satisfaction now, the Breed warrior put his hands into the brushy boughs and held them there. He was quiet for a long moment, and Lucan knew the Russian-born vampire was summoning the extrasensory ability that was unique to him. Every Breed male inherited some type of power from his Breedmate mother, be it a blessing or a curse. In Lucan's case, through hypnotic suggestion he could manipulate a human mind into seeing and believing whatever he willed.

As for Nikolai's ability, Lucan found an amusing irony in the fact that the gear-head weapons expert with a penchant for making things blow up was gifted with a talent rivaled only by Mother Nature herself. In Niko's silence and concentration, something started to happen deep within the center of the pine. There was a soft rustling sound, then, as though flooded with new life, the tree's branches and needles began to flourish and stretch. It grew fuller, taller, inching another two feet toward the vaulted rafters of the great room's ceiling.

Mira giggled over the hush that had come over everyone else in the room. "Awesome!" she exclaimed, clapping excitedly as the tree soared even higher.

Kellan Archer, meanwhile, gaped, slack-jawed. "What the ..."

Niko brought his hands out from within the tree's core and blew at the tips of his fingers like an Old West gunfighter. Beneath his crown of blond hair, Niko's icy Siberian eyes crinkled at the corners as he shot an arch look at the teen. "Now the only thing kind of short and scraggly in here is you, kid."

Everyone chuckled at the teen's ribbing, even Lucan. He watched Kellan's cheeks redden briefly before his color returned to the sallow paleness that had been its norm for more than a few days. Lucan cast an assessing eye over the Breed youth's thin frame and lean, almost wan, face. "Have you fed lately?"

Kellan gave a noncommittal shrug.

"He hasn't," Mira volunteered. "Not even one time since he was first brought to the compound in Boston."

The glare he sent the girl was nothing short of murderous.

"Is that true?" Lucan asked.

Another shrug, head down, refusing to meet Lucan's eyes. "I guess so."

No wonder he looked so anemic. It had been nearly two weeks since the teen had been abducted on Dragos's command. Only days less than that since he'd been rescued by the Order and brought, along with his grandfather, into the Order's protection at the Boston headquarters, the pair of them being the sole survivors of Dragos's attack on their family Darkhaven.

It was one thing for an adult of the Breed to go a week or more without blood; even that was pushing it. But an adolescent needed regular sustenance to feed his developing body and hone his preternatural strengths to their maximum potential. For those of Lucan's kind with blood- bonded Breedmates, feeding was an act of intimacy, as sacred as it was primal. For unmated males and children of hunting age, feeding required a human Host.

Kellan had spent his first few days in the infirmary at the compound recovering from his ordeal, but he'd been on his feet for a while now and his body was in serious need of nourishment.

Lucan stared at the teen. "It's been too long since you fed. You need to take care of that, Kellan. Sooner than later."

"I will," he replied, eyes remaining downcast.

Lucan reached out and lifted the youth's chin until he had no choice but to meet his gaze. "You will tonight. That's an order, son."

Kellan frowned. His body threw off a palpable mental recoil, like an animal suddenly getting backed into a corner. "My grandfather said he'd go with me. I've been waiting for him to have the time, but he's been so busy helping Jenna ..."

Lucan shook his head, dismissing the comment as the excuse he was certain it was. "I'll take you myself if I have to. Tonight, Kellan. We clear?"

Finally, a nod, accompanied by another hard look in Mira's direction. "Yeah. We're clear." With that issue resolved, Lucan glanced over at Jenna. The former Alaska State Trooper was the most recent addition to the Order's female population. Unlike the rest of the warriors' women and little Mira as well, Jenna was not a Breedmate but came from basic Homo sapiens stock. The other females had been gifted with unique DNA and blood properties that allowed them to share a life-extending blood bond with Breed males and to carry their offspring.


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