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Kellan was still trying to process what he'd just experienced, and he was surprised Mira didn't have something to say about Cassian's sudden lack of interest in them and their business at his establishment.

But Mira wasn't looking at the man anymore.

She stared transfixed at the Faceboard monitor across the expanse of the place. Kellan followed her gaze. All the blood seemed to drain out of his head.

The monitor was no longer displaying the boxing match. On-screen now was a JUSTIS Department news alert, barely audible over the din of the crowd and the band still playing its set onstage. But the ticker scrolling across the huge monitor told Kellan all he needed to know.

Laboratory explosion in western Massachusetts today claims life of renowned scientist Jeremy Ackmeyer . . .

Second body recovered on-site, identified as Vincent DeSalvo, ex-convict with established ties to Boston area militant and rebel organizations . . .

Global Nations Council calling for thorough investigation into what it's calling an act of conspiracy and premeditated murder . . .

"Kellan," Mira murmured, her body unmoving, seeming frozen in place, even after he took her hand in his. "Oh, my God, Kellan . . . Jeremy Ackmeyer is dead."

Chapter Seventeen

THE GRIM MOOD AT THE ORDER'S D.C. HEADQUARTERS HAD not improved in the hours since word of Jeremy Ackmeyer's death at rebel hands had made headlines all over the world. As leader of the Order and the de facto public head of the Breed nation as a whole, Lucan Thorne's mood was darkest of all those gathered.

Now, at sometime past midnight, most of the Order's elder mem-bers based in the United States were present along with their mates, the group gathered in the drawing room of the mansion, situated just a few miles from the GNC headquarters at the National Mall. It was an odd juxtaposition: half a dozen long-lived, lethal Breed warriors more accustomed to combat gear and high-powered weapons, now seated in fancy, velvet-upholstered settees and delicate neoclassical armchairs.

Lucan wasn't a particular fan of the frou-frou furnishings, but it made his Breedmate happy, so he'd been obliged to go with it. Gabrielle had insisted they preserve the architectural authenticity of the place, which included a small fortune in eighteenth-century artwork and Asian porcelains gifted to the mansion's original owner, who'd served as a U.S. ambassador in the early 1900s.

She had, however, replaced a large, seventeenth-century English tapestry of Alexander the Great with another, far older one, which she said depicted a hero she much preferred to look at instead.

Lucan paced in front of that medieval-period artifact now, feeling the hand-rendered likeness of his own face judging him from within the woven threads of the tapestry that once hung in his quarters at the Order's Boston compound. Gabrielle, Gideon and his mate, Savannah, Brock, Jenna, and several others gathered in the drawing room in prolonged silence as Lucan practically wore a track in the Oriental rug beneath his boots.

Rio and his Breedmate, Dylan, were less than an hour arrived from the Order's base in Chicago. The Spanish warrior with the scarred face and normally easygoing demeanor was coiled forward where he sat, elbows resting on his knees, topaz eyes intense.

The other recent arrivals, Tegan and Elise, had come in from the base he commanded in New York City. The tawny-haired Gen One was one of the Order's original members from the time of its founding - and within the past twenty years had become one of Lucan's closest friends. Tegan and Elise had their own issues to contend with, namely, their twenty-year-old son, Micah, who was fresh out of warrior training and already embarking with his team on a black ops mission taking them to Budapest.

Elise was openly worried about letting her only surviving child out of her sight, but Micah was his father's son, and Lucan knew as well as anyone that holding on too tight would only risk making the break that much more permanent when it came. He saw that in his own son every day, a weight that settled on him even in the midst of the more immediate problems he faced tonight.

The remaining members still due at the D.C. headquarters included Hunter and Corinne, coming in from New Orleans in a few more hours. Scheduled to arrive tomorrow night were Dante and Tess, now in charge of the Order's base in Seattle, and Kade and Alex, overseeing the command center in Lake Tahoe. In light of the night's events in Boston, Chase and Tavia were staying put there until the eve of the summit gala, when they'd be coming in to attend.

Across the elegant space now, Nikolai's muttered curse was a hiss ripe with malice as his blond head swung away from his pregnant Breedmate and his glacial blue eyes hit Lucan. "Do we have any more intel about who these rebel bastards are and where they're hiding?"

"Only what you already know from Nathan's call tonight," Lucan replied gravely. "Unfortunately, his best lead so far was the information that one of the rebels had defected from his fold, taking Ackmeyer with him for ransom bait. We all know how that turned out."

Niko grunted. "And we have nothing on Mira. Not where she is or what they want with her. Or if she's already been . . ."

That the Siberian-born, battle-hardened warrior had been unable to finish the thought told Lucan just how deeply Niko's concern went. Renata's too. The tough-as-nails female who'd become a valued, highly effective member of the Order's combat missions these past two decades was slumped close to her mate, her jet-dark hair drooped into her face but not quite masking the lines of worry there. Renata's mercilessly lethal hands trembled a bit where they rested on the pronounced bump of her late-term pregnancy.

"We don't have anything more yet, but we will," Lucan told them. "We'll get her back safe and sound, I promise you."

He considered the kill op he'd sent Nathan on, its purpose to recover Mira and the human and shut down their captors with a minimum of noise or attention. Nathan's skill and suitability for the job would never be in question, but the laboratory explosion and the killing of Jeremy Ackmeyer had blown their mission objective to pieces.

And the fallout from that disastrous event was creating newer, bigger problems of its own.

In just the handful of hours since the news of the prominent human scientist's death broke, there had been a swift, and extremely vocal, public outcry for justice. An outcry made all the more troubling when reports suggested not only that rebels were involved but that the Order was partially at fault for his abduction and resulting murder.

Lucan was still pissed that Ackmeyer's uncle, GNC director Charles Benson, had immediately gone to investigators and the press with the fact that the Order had been enlisted - and had ultimately failed - to keep the civilian safe on what was supposed to have been a simple security escort to D.C. for the upcoming summit gala.

The already uneasy human population reacted with paranoia and suspicion, a few vitriolic prophets of doom warning that this failure only confirmed what they already feared: that the Breed, and the Order in particular, could not be trusted to value human life.

Peace, the worst of them were shouting to anyone who would listen, could never be had living alongside inhuman monsters.

The answering panic was widespread and quickly gaining ground. Riots in Boston had begun spreading to other cities. The small number of protesters that were commonplace in front of the Order's D.C. headquarters had swelled to dozens in just a matter of hours. And while the civilians' upset was trouble enough, militant groups around the world were now using the attack on Ackmeyer's lab by suspected rebels as a rallying cry to vandalize and loot, to lash out at governments they deemed too willing to capitulate to the might and will of the Order and the rest of the Breed.

The current situation was, in a word, chaos.

With Lucan and the Order now standing squarely in the middle of it.

"We need to shut this shit down," Lucan growled, anger spiking as the rumble of picketers outside the estate's gates droned on. "We should be back on watch at our district command centers, in case the response to tonight's news escalates from aggravating provocation to all-out anarchy."

"Then again," Gideon interjected, "it may be more important than ever for us to stand with the GNC, show the human public that their panic is without merit, and the Order is on their side. Show the world that we can be trusted as a partner in the effort toward peace between our races."

Lucan saw Gabrielle and a few others nod in agreement. He knew they were probably right, but at the moment it was difficult to rein in the part of him that was ancient and answered to no one. The leader who, for centuries now, was accustomed to making the rules and, when called for, enforcing them with unstoppable might.

And right now, the last thing he gave a damn about was making a group public appearance at the summit, just to demonstrate solidarity with the GNC, whose members were apparently all too willing to throw the Order under the bus, or with the humans, who may never see the Breed as anything more than bogeymen just waiting for the opportunity to rip out their throats.

Diplomacy had never been his strong suit, and tonight it chafed more than ever.

Lucan curbed his internal aggression and paused to address Gideon. "Any leads on the name Nathan supplied us - this rebel bastard, Bowman?"

"I got zip so far," Gideon replied. "Bowman's kept his nose clean, that's for sure. I've dug everywhere I can for the guy - criminal activity, arrest records . . . no hard data on him anywhere. He's like a ghost."

Renata lifted her head, jade green eyes snapping with fury. "Meanwhile, he's got my child. If he's harmed Mira in any way - if he's . . . touched her . . . I want to be the one to personally eviscerate him."

"Not if I get to the son of a bitch first, babe," Niko said, his tone gentle, but his gaze lit up with amber rage.

Rio spoke next. "I say we gear up and head to Boston - the two of us, my friend. We'll hunt down this Bowman and the vermin he runs with, and when we find him, we'll make them dine on bullets and steel."

Lucan felt the same cold need to personally be the one to cut off the head of the enemy who'd taken one of the Order's own kin. That Bowman had also orchestrated Ackmeyer's abduction and death, inciting riots and jeopardizing the summit at the same time, only made Lucan's blood chill all the more.

As he considered the justice he would exact from the elusive rebel leader, Lucan's comm unit buzzed in his pants pocket. Who now? he wondered irritably, then barked out a curse when he saw who was calling him.

"Jesus fucking Christ," he snarled. "Bad enough I've been fielding calls all night from Council members, JUSTIS officials, and press. Now I've got that blowhard Reginald Crowe looking for a piece of me?"

Like a dog marking territory, the arrogant tycoon had been busy making sure he seized every opportunity to stake his claim on the summit. Hosting the pricey gala apparently wasn't enough for Crowe. He had also recently announced the unveiling of a sculpture commemorating First Dawn and the peace summit, presenting it as a gift to be installed at GNC headquarters during the gathering. Given Crowe's inflated sense of self-worth, Lucan wouldn't be at all surprised if the piece was a life-size statue of the man himself.

Lucan ignored Crowe's call, putting the device on silent and shoving it back into his pocket on another ripe curse.

It wasn't even a moment later that Darion appeared in the open doorway of the drawing room. Lucan could tell just from a glimpse at the young warrior's serious expression that more shit was about to rain down on them.

"What is it, son?"

"Director Benson," Dare replied, his deep voice tight with barely restrained outrage. "He's just made a public statement. It's on all the news outlets right now. The GNC was offered - and has accepted - a private security detail from Crowe Enterprises for the summit gathering. According to Benson, Crowe's team will augment and oversee the Order's involvement, effective immediately."

A few of the Breedmates gasped, punctuating the other, more vivid responses from the rest of the warriors gathered in the room.

Lucan grunted. "We'll see about that." While he absorbed the bullshit development with an air of stone-cold fortitude, inside he was seething. And the brunt of his contempt settled on the unknown face of the rebel leader who'd incited this entire fiasco.

Lucan grabbed his comm unit and hit Nathan's number. "Head into base now and await further command. This kill op is gonna go full-scale mission, with as many teams on the ground as needed to find Bowman and bring Mira home. He and his rebels need to be shut down hard, preferably in full public view. And I mean they need to be shut down permanently."

Kellan sat alone on the cool, moonlit thatch of overgrown grass that covered the stone mound of the seaside bunker. He and Mira had been back at the rebel base for several hours, after news of Jeremy Ackmeyer's death broke and the reaction in the city began to turn ugly fast. He didn't want Mira anywhere near an upset, volatile public, but Kellan was also more than a bit concerned about the prospect of an Order death squad working its way closer to him with every second.

Sooner or later, regardless of how cautious he'd been all these years, someone was going to mention the name Bowman and point a finger in the direction of the New Bedford base camp. And when that moment came, Kellan intended to meet it alone, sparing Mira and his remaining crew - his friends - from becoming collateral damage.

The fact that Cassian from La Notte insisted he'd recognized him from somewhere only increased Kellan's sense of ill ease. Ignoring the fact that the club owner had betrayed nothing of himself to Kellan's Breed talent, Kellan got the clear sense that the man was dangerous. Perhaps all the more so because he'd proven unreadable.

Kellan hadn't had a lot of time to worry about what his encounter with Cassian might mean down the road. His more pressing concerns were Mira and the handful of people who were counting on him to protect them. To lead them, even though he had never felt less equipped to navigate a safe course through what was becoming a fast-rising tide of wreckage.


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