Bal swore low under his breath. "Too late for that."
Pouring into the underground club from the street outside came twenty black-clad officers from Joint Urban Security. The JUSTIS detail stormed in, heavily armed, dressed in full riot gear. Mira could only watch - and blame no one but herself - as the law enforcers surrounded them, their automatic weapons trained on her and her teammates.
LUCAN THORNE COULD THINK OF A HUNDRED OTHER things he'd rather be doing at a little after 1:00 A.M. than sitting idle at his desk in the Order's global headquarters in Washington, D.C., pushing papers and sifting through video mail. Not the least of those preferred other things being the craving to seek out his Breedmate, Gabrielle, and feel her warm, soft curves beneath him in their bed.
No, that was a craving he hadn't been able to shake in all the time she'd been his. A short twenty-plus years with his woman, and she owned him like nothing else had in more than nine centuries of living.
His body eagerly agreed, responding to just the thought of his beautiful mate. Lucan groaned low in his throat and shifted to adjust the sudden tightness in his groin. His pen scraped across the paper as he signed off on what seemed an endless pile of classified Global Nations Council documents and agreements, most pertaining to the world peace summit taking place in the city in less than a week's time.
The pre-summit meetings with other GNC heads - an equal mix of human and Breed world leaders - had been anything but peaceful. But at least the saber-rattling and firefighting had been kept behind closed doors. To their credit, the Council members seemed to understand that letting their personal agendas, political egos, and private mistrust of one another leak out to a wary public would serve no one well. The summit had become as much about putting a shiny, friendly face on human - Breed relations as it was about negotiating true accord between the heads of state who ultimately would be responsible for enforcing that peaceful future for the generations to come.
Lucan could only hope it didn't all crumble down around him before it even began.
He scrawled his signature onto a GNC security briefing and added it to the stack of assorted other approvals he'd already reviewed and cleared for implementation. As he reached for the remaining sheaf of reports, his tablet chimed with an incoming, top-clearance message. He tapped the receive button on-screen and paused to enter the password required to play the v-mail. It was from one of the GNC's senior officials, an elderly human statesman named Charles Benson. The man was also among the more moderate-minded on the Council, an ally Lucan felt would be sorely needed as talks to forge stronger relations between man and Breed continued long after the pomp and flash of the over-hyped peace summit had faded into the grit and mundanity of daily reality.
Lucan set down his pen and watched, guessing that the message must be important for Benson to have contacted him privately and under high-security clearance, besides.
"My apologies for disturbing you with this request at home, Chairman Thorne." The wrinkled face appeared anxious in the recorded video message, thin lips pressing into a flatter line as the old man cleared his throat. "I have a favor to ask of you, if I may. Of the Order, that is. It's of a personal nature, you see."
Lucan scowled at the monitor as the hemming went on. "It's about my nephew. Perhaps you're aware that Jeremy is to receive a very important award from Reginald Crowe's foundation on the eve of the summit gathering."
Lucan's scowl deepened with mounting suspicion. He knew who Benson's genius nephew was. Knew that Jeremy Ackmeyer's work was respected around the world and that the human was regarded as one of the most gifted minds of all time - a recognition that had recently earned the young scientist a sizable cash prize to be presented personally by one of the world's wealthiest men. "I'm afraid Jeremy is somewhat . . . eccentric," Benson's message went on. "My sister's boy. From the day the child was born, I warned her not to coddle him." A dismissive wave of a thin, bony hand before the councilman finally got to his point. "I'm embarrassed to say that Jeremy has refused to appear at the summit gala. He's a fearful boy, an irrational shut-in, if I'm to be perfectly frank with you. He refuses to travel for fear of dying from one cause or another. I suppose I was hoping I might convince you to provide some means of escort for him to Washington - "
"You've got to be fucking kidding me." Lucan cut the message off with a stab of his finger on the end button and a low, muttered curse.
Since when had the Order become a personal chauffeur and security detail for hermit eggheads?
Politically ill-advised or not, he glared at the tablet, ready to tell Councilman Benson that his paranoid nephew would have to make other arrangements. But as his finger hovered over the record button on the screen, the sound of rising voices outside drew his attention toward the tall, curtained windows of his private study.
Lucan stalked to the window and drew open the long drapes. Apparently the graveyard shift had reported for duty. He counted fifteen human men and women - Christ, even a sign-carrying, shouting little girl - standing on the other side of the towering iron gates at the street. The signs bore the same tired vitriol that had been hurled at the Breed for two decades now: Go Back Where You Came From! Earth Is for Man, Not Monsters! You Can't Make Peace with Predators!
Since the announcement of the summit, picketers and chanting protests representing both human and Breed dissent were hardly uncommon outside the GNC building near the Capitol or at the Order's heavily secured D.C. headquarters. Tonight, with a headache from hours spent poring over Council rulings and the now-throbbing ache of his molars as he ground his teeth in outrage over the ridiculous request from someone he'd been counting on for political support down the line, the thought of a mob of hate-spewing rabble-rousers annoyed Lucan more than usual.
At least it was only picket signs and shouting, not the all-out street combat and acts of terror that had occurred on both sides in the months and years following the Breed's discovery by mankind. War had been inevitable then, even though Lucan had hoped to avoid it. There'd been too much blood spilled, too much fear and suspicion. While the Breed had lived alongside man in secret for thousands of years, all it took to undo centuries of care and discretion was the unspeakable act of one Breed male two decades ago, who, in his villainous lust for power, had freed scores of incarcerated, blood-addicted vampires, loosing them onto an unsuspecting human population.
It had fallen to the Order to help clean up the carnage and stop the Rogues who were cutting a bloody, horrific swath across the entire globe. But Lucan and his warriors couldn't act swiftly enough to curb the violence that broke out in the wake of the attacks. Whole cities were razed, buildings tumbled, governments dissolved by anarchy and rebel uprisings. The Breed's civilian communities suffered daytime raids that left the Darkhavens in shambles, families slaughtered or exposed to the killing rays of the sun.
Then, when it seemed the fighting between man and Breed couldn't possibly get worse, a massive chemical weapon was deployed in the Russian interior, rendering hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness an uninhabitable wasteland. It was a catastrophic move, one that neither humans nor Breed had admitted responsibility for to this day.
It could have been worse. To think what might have been, if the weapon of that size and power had been unleashed on a major city instead.
Still, the impact of the damage had been felt around the world. And it had prompted Lucan to send the Order in swiftly and in full force to destroy all of the nuclear silos and chemical weapons facilities in every corner of the globe.
Although it had been the right thing to do - the only sane thing to do - there were individuals of both races who held Lucan in contempt for the heavy-handed tactic. Some feared he would not hesitate to appoint himself sole judge and jury for the world once more, if the strife between man and Breed were to escalate.
Goddamn right he would.
Lucan only hoped it was a decision he'd never have to make.
A knock sounded on his study door, a welcome intrusion on the grim path of his thoughts.
"Enter," he called, more growl than invitation. Letting the drape fall back into place, he turned away from the window.
He'd been expecting Gideon, the Breed warrior who had long been the technical genius of the Order's complicated operations center and compound. Gideon was currently on task to provide Lucan with security updates on the summit meeting facility, so that Order assets could be assigned to cover the multiday event.
But it wasn't Gideon at the door.
"Am I interrupting your work, Father?"
"Not at all." He gestured for Darion to join him inside.
Just the sight of his boy - the tall, muscular nineteen-year-old man bearing a dark chestnut shade of his mother's auburn hair and her same soulful brown eyes - made the weight of Lucan's current burdens fall away. It was the other traits Darion bore - Lucan's angular facial structure and strong jaw, coupled with an inflexible iron will inherited from both parents - that usually put father and son at odds. Apart from Gabrielle's coloring and her extrasensory ability, both passed down to her son, for Lucan, being around Dare was like looking in a mirror.
Darion was too much like his father in many ways, a recognition that unsettled Lucan more than he cared to admit. But where Lucan had struggled with his natural tendency to lead others, Dare had no such qualms. Too bold, more often than not. Fearless in anything he attempted. These were qualities that made Lucan's blood run cold with a father's fear when he pictured his son eventually dressed for combat as a warrior of the Order and charging out to battle.
If Lucan had his way, that moment he'd been dreading would never come.
Darion strode into the study, casual in dark jeans and a black shirt with rolled-up sleeves, unbuttoned at the collar. "More protesters tonight," he remarked, lifting his squared chin in the direction of the windows, where the din of voices outside was rising. "Seems like the numbers are increasing the closer we get to the date of the summit."
Lucan grunted, gave a curt nod. "For all their bleating, it's only background noise to bigger problems, unfortunately."
"I take it today's meetings did not go well?"
"No better or worse than any other these past few weeks." Lucan indicated a chair on the other side of his desk, then walked around to take his own seat as Darion sat down. "More and more, this summit is becoming a mockery. How can we expect to bridge the gap of mistrust between the races when the GNC's own Council members can't agree on the most basic principles?"
"That bad?" Darion asked, his deep voice as grim as Lucan's thoughts.
"Yes," Lucan said. "And then some. The politicians are using the summit as their personal campaign rallies. Corporations are seeing gold, turning the whole event into a media and advertising sponsorship circus. And let's not forget moneyed clowns like Reginald Crowe who're gilding every stage and pavilion with huge donations in exchange for seeing their names in lights around the world." Lucan muttered a ripe curse. "This summit should have been held sacrosanct from any exploitation. Instead, it's become a goddamned joke. Too much palm-greasing and favor-currying on both sides. Too many people - human and Breed alike - looking to cash in or use the summit as a platform on which to build their personal empires."
"So shut it down," Dare replied, dark brows flat over his serious gaze. He leaned forward, resting his strong forearms on his spread thighs. "Yank the plug on the whole bloody thing. Then set a new course, a better one, that you control. Let the other GNC members get in line behind you or get out of the way."
Lucan smiled with wry amusement, hearing a younger version of himself in Dare's decisive, black-or-white approach. "Tempting, Dare. I'll be honest with you on that. But it's hardly been twenty years since the last time I brought my fist down on human - Breed relations. To do it again now, in the middle of a high-visibility celebration of our so-called peace and optimistic plans for the future?" He shook his head, considering the idea for what hadn't been the first time. He was a warrior, and had been for most of his long life. He was accustomed to the feel of a weapon in his hand, the blood of his fallen enemies pooling at his feet. He was a hard man, not well suited to the diplomacy his new role required of him, let alone gifted with an iota of tolerance for reckless fools or oily opportunists. "Disrupting the summit would undo all the good strides we've made so far - few though they may be. Worse, there are those on both sides who would be all too eager to call it an act of treason by the leader of the Order. War, even."
Lucan felt too confined suddenly, and rose to pace behind his desk. "I tell you, Darion. More and more, I fear that true peace between mankind and Breed is sitting on a keg of gunpowder. All it will take is one spark to blow all hope for our shared future sky-high."
Darion listened, still and contemplative, while Lucan wore a track in the floor across from him. When he spoke, his deep voice was grave. "If someone were to light that spark, be they rebels or other malcontents, what better place to incite a war than at a peace summit? We need to be prepared for that, be ready to act on even the smallest threat."
Lucan's answering curse hissed through his teeth and emerging fangs. He'd thought the same thing, of course. Gideon and he had been taking every precaution to ensure the summit was nailed down and secure on every conceivable level. If he had to personally pat down every dignitary who entered the event, by God, he would do it.
He glanced at Darion, reflecting on how easily he slipped into confiding in his only son as his equal. He respected Dare as a man. Marveled at his keen intellect and the strength of his convictions. Darion, the squalling, helpless infant who had somehow become a man, seemingly overnight to someone like Lucan, whose life spanned nearly a thousand years.
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