Page 1

Chapter One

HUMANS.

The night was thick with them.

They choked the dark sidewalks and intersections of Boston's old North End, overflowed from the open doorways of dance clubs, sim-lounges, and cocktail bars. Strolling, loitering, conversing, they filled the near-midnight streets with too many voices, too many bodies shuffling and sweating in the unseasonable heat of the early June evening.

And damned too little space to avoid the anxious sidelong looks - those countless quick, darting glances from people pretending they hadn't noticed, and weren't the least bit terrified, of the four members of the Order who now strode through the middle of the city's former restricted sector.

Mira, the lone female of the squad of off-duty warriors, scanned the crowd of Homo sapiens civilians with a hard eye. Too bad she and her companions were wearing street clothes and discreetly concealed weapons. She'd have preferred combat gear and an arsenal of heavy firearms. Give the good citizens of Boston a real excuse to stare in mortal terror.

"Twenty years we've been outed to mankind, and most of them still gape at us like we've come to collect their carotids," said one of the three Breed males walking alongside her.

Mira shot him a wry look. "Feeding curfew goes into effect at midnight, so don't expect to see the welcome wagon down here. Besides, fear is a good thing, Bal. Especially when it comes to dealing with their kind."

Balthazar, a giant wall of olive-skinned thick muscle and ruthless strength, met her gaze with a grim understanding in his hawkish golden eyes. The dark-haired vampire had been with the Order for a long time, coming on board nearly two decades ago, during the dark, early years following First Dawn, the day the humans learned they were not, in fact, the ultimate predator on the planet.

They hadn't accepted that truth easily. Nor peacefully.

Many lives were lost on both sides in the time that followed. Many long years of death and bloodshed, grief and mistrust. Even now, the truce between the humans and the Breed was tentative. While the governing heads of both global nations - man and vampire - attempted to broker lasting peace for the good of all, private hatreds and suspicions still festered in each camp. The war between mankind and Breed still waged on, but it had gone underground, undeclared and unsanctioned but nonetheless lethal.

A cold ache filled Mira's chest at the thought of all the pain and suffering she'd witnessed in the years between her childhood under the protection of the Order, through the rigorous training and combat experience that had shaped her into the warrior she was now. She tried to sweep the ache aside, put it behind her, but it was hard to do. Tonight of all nights, it was next to impossible to shut out the hurt.

And the part of this war that was personal, as intimate as anything in her life could be, now gave her voice a raw, biting edge. "Let the humans be afraid. Maybe if they worry more about losing their throats, they'll be less inclined to tolerate the radicals among them who would like to see all of the Breed reduced to ashes."

From behind her, another of her teammates gave a low purr of a chuckle. "You ever consider a career in public relations, Captain?" She threw a one-fingered salute over her shoulder and kept walking, her long blond braid thumping like a tail against her leather-clad backside. Webb's laugh deepened. "Right. Didn't think so."

If anyone was suited for diplomatic assignment, it was Julian Webb. Adonis handsome, affable, polished, and utterly devastating when he turned on the charm. That Webb was a product of a cultured upbringing among the Breed's privileged elite went without saying. Not that he ever had. His background - along with his reasons for joining the Order - was a secret he'd shared only with Lucan Thorne, and the Order's founding elder wasn't telling.

There were times Mira wondered if that's why Lucan had personally assigned Webb to her team last year - to keep a close eye on her for him and the Council and to ensure the Order's mission objectives were being met without any . . . issues. Since her humiliating censure for insubordination by the Council eighteen months ago, it wouldn't surprise Mira to learn that Lucan had entrusted Webb to smooth out any potential rough patches in her leadership of the unit. But she hadn't worked her ass off, trained to the brink of killing herself to earn her place with the Order, only to throw it away.

It was highly unusual - all but unheard of, in fact - for a female to come through the ranks with the Order and be awarded a place as captain of a warrior team. Her pride swelled to think on that, even now. She'd lived to prove herself capable, worthy. She'd pushed herself ruthlessly to earn the respect of the Order's elders and the other warriors she'd trained with - respect she'd eventually won through blood, sweat, and stubborn determination.

Mira wasn't Breed. She didn't have their preternatural speed or strength. She didn't have their immortality either, something she, as a Breedmate - the female offspring of a Homo sapiens mother and a father of as yet undetermined genetic origins - could obtain only through the mated exchange of a blood bond with one of the Breed. Without that bond being activated, Mira and those other rare females born Breedmates would age, and ultimately die, the same as mortals.

At twenty-nine and unmated, she was already beginning to feel the physical and mental fallout of her taxing career choice. The wound she'd been carrying in her heart for these past eight years probably didn't help either. And her "conduct unbecoming" reprimand a year and a half ago was likely more than enough excuse for Lucan to want to reassign her to desk duty. But he hadn't yet, and she'd be damned if she gave him further cause to consider it.

"Storm's coming," murmured the third member of her team from beside her. Torin wasn't talking about the weather, Mira knew. Like a lion taking stock of new surroundings, the big vampire tipped his burnished blond head up toward the cloudless night sky and drew in a deep breath. A pair of braids woven with tiny glass seed beads framed razor-sharp cheekbones and finely chiseled features, an unconventional, exotic look for someone as expertly lethal as Torin, one that hinted at his sojourner past. The glittering plaits swayed against the rest of his thick, shoulder-length mane as he exhaled and swiveled his intense gaze toward Mira. "Bad night to be down here. Something dark in the air."

She felt it too, even without Torin's unique ability to detect and interpret shifts in energy forces around him.

The storm he sensed was living inside her.

It had a name: Kellan.

The syllables of his name rolled through her mind like thunder. Still raw, even after all this time. Since his death, the storm of emotion left in his wake grew more turbulent inside Mira, particularly around this time of the year. Whether in grief or denial, she clung to Kellan's memory with a furious hold. Unhealthy to be sure, but hope could be a cruel, tenacious thing.

There was still a part of her that prayed it was all a bad dream. Eventually she'd wake from it. One day, she'd look up and see the young Breed male swaggering in from a mission, whole and healthy. One day, she'd hear his deep voice at her ear, a wicked challenge while they sparred in the training room, a rough growl of barely restrained need when their bouts of mock combat sent them down together in a tangle of limbs on the mats.

She'd feel the formidable strength of his warrior's body again, big and solid and unbreakable. She'd gaze into his broody hazel eyes, touch the crown of tousled waves that gleamed as copper brown as an old penny and felt as soft as silk in her fingers. She'd smell the leather-and-spice scent of him, feel the kick of his pulse, see the sparks of amber heat fill his irises and the sharp white glint of his emerging fangs, when the desire he held in check so rigidly betrayed itself to her despite his best efforts to contain it.

One day, she would open her eyes and find Kellan Archer sleeping naked beside her again in her bed, as he had been the night he was killed in combat by human rebels.

Hope, she thought caustically. Such a heartless bitch.

Angry at herself for the weakness of her thoughts, she picked up the pace and glanced at the intersection ahead, where half a dozen human couples had stumbled out of a trendy hotel bar and now stood awaiting a traffic signal. Across the street from them, one of the city's ubiquitous Faceboards took the liberty of scanning the group's retinas before launching into an obnoxious ad, custom-tailored for the interests of its captive audience trapped at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.

Mira groaned when the digitally rendered 3D image of business tycoon Reginald Crowe, one of the wealthiest men on the planet, addressed the couples by name and proceeded to hawk discounted stays at his collection of luxury resorts. Crowe's face was everywhere this year, in press releases and interview programs, on entertainment blogs and news sites . . . anywhere there was a webcam or a broadcast crew willing to hear him talk about his newly unveiled technology grant - the biggest science award of its kind. It probably irritated him to no end that neither that story nor the announcement that Crowe was helping to champion the upcoming Global Nations Council summit enjoyed the same depth of coverage as the ones concerning the billionaire's recent divorce from Mrs. Crowe the sixth.

"Come on," she said, stepping off the curb to avoid the wait at the light.

She led her team across the street, heading up the block toward Asylum, a local watering hole that in recent years had become an unofficial neutral ground for its mix of vampire and human clientele. Another squad from the Order was meeting them tonight. Mira hadn't been much in the mood to socialize - least of all in this city, on this night - but the teams deserved to celebrate. They'd worked hard together for the past five months on a joint mission - black ops stuff, the kind of covert, specialized assignments that had become the Order's stock-in-trade over the past two decades.

Thanks to the combined effort of Mira's squad and the one she spotted at a back table as she entered Asylum, the GNC had one less international militant group to contend with. It was a victory that couldn't have come at a better time: Just a week from now, government leaders, dignitaries, and VIPs from all over the world, representing Breed and humankind alike, were scheduled to gather in Washington, D.C., in a much-publicized show of peace and solidarity. All of the Order elders would be in attendance, including Mira's adoptive parents, Nikolai and Renata.

Back home in Montreal, the mated pair were still waiting for her to confirm whether she'd be going with them too. Although neither had said anything, she knew their invitation was given in the hope that she might expand her social circle, maybe meet someone she might consider bonding with someday. It was also their well-meaning but none-too-subtle attempt to take her off the battlefield, even for a little while.

She must have been scowling when she arrived at the table with her team, because as she sat down, the captain of the other squad narrowed a concerned look on her.

"You all right?" Nathan's voice was level and unreadable beneath the thump of music and the din of noise rising up from Asylum's bar and dance floor. His greenish blue eyes were steady and unblinking beneath the military-short cut of his jet-black hair. "I wasn't sure you'd be up for this."

Not sure she'd be able to handle being back in Boston. Especially on the anniversary of Kellan's death.

She caught his meaning, even though he didn't specifically say the words. He knew her too well, had been one of her dearest friends for almost as long as Kellan had. Longer, now that Kellan had been gone eight years. Nathan had been there that night too. He'd been right next to Mira, holding her back from the flames and falling debris when the riverfront warehouse exploded into the dark sky. And he'd been standing at her infirmary bedside days later, when she woke up and learned there'd been no trace left of Kellan or the human rebel scum he'd pursued inside the booby-trapped building.

Mira cleared her throat, still tasting ash and smoke all these years later. "No, it's fine. I'm good." He didn't believe her, not at all. She looked away from his probing stare and took in the rest of the warriors gathered around the table. "In case I didn't say it already, nice work, all of you. We kicked some serious ass out there together."

Torin and Webb nodded in agreement, while Bal shot a crooked grin at the three members of Nathan's crew. "Captain's right. Damn good working with you ladies. After all, every skilled surgeon needs someone to mop up the spilled blood and guts or hand him the right tool when he calls for it."

"I got a tool for you right here," quipped Elijah, Nathan's second in command, a brown-haired Breed warrior with cowboy rugged looks, a quicksilver smile, and a slow Texas drawl. "And if you want to talk surgical precision, we've got you beat in spades. My man Jax over here? Poetry in motion. Two of those rebel bastards had the bad judgment to open fire on us, but Jax took them both out with a single toss of his hira-shuriken." Eli made a low whistling sound as he drew his finger across his neck and that of Rafe, his teammate seated next to him. "Thing of fucking beauty, Jax."

Jax gave a mild bow of his dark head at the praise. Half Asian and 100 percent lethal, the big, ebony-haired vampire was renowned for his deadly grace, and for his skill with the razor-edged throwing stars he handcrafted and carried with him wherever he went. Mira knew without checking that Jax likely had half a dozen of his hira-shuriken on his person now.

She carried her own pair of custom blades too, daggers she'd had since she first learned how to use one properly. They were always within her reach, even though it was illegal to discharge weapons of any kind in civilian sectors of the city. Only uniformed officials with the Joint Urban Security Taskforce Initiative Squad, a government-directed police detail comprised of hand-picked Breed and human officers, were licensed to carry unconcealed arms or use deadly force in nonmilitary situations.

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