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Filthy rich and oily with a born salesman's ready grin, Crowe strolled over in his black tux and white shirt, a slender flute of bubbling champagne caught between the fingers of his left hand. He was tall and fit, carried himself with an air of entitlement - of ownership of all he laid eyes on - that made Lucan want to punch the arrogance out of him on sight. Crowe's thick yellow mane held the golden glint of a Krugerrand, slicked back tonight, making his broad grin seem to take up even more of his Mediterranean-baked face.

"Chairman Thorne," he said, that grin seeming even tighter, far less friendly, up close. "Good evening to you."

Lucan had little choice but to take the offered hand and give it a firm shake of greeting. But he didn't have to curb his glare as Crowe's gaze shifted to Gabrielle. He looked her over from head to toe, stunning in her simple dove gray sheath and delicate heels. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure."

"My mate," Lucan snarled. "Gabrielle."

She gave a polite nod of her head and Crowe's face lit up with appreciation. "Enchanted, to be sure." He bowed slightly, then gestured with his champagne glass. "May I get you a cocktail or some hors d'oeuvres? It would be my pleasure to serve, Lady Thorne."

Gabrielle's smile went a bit strained at the unwanted attention. "No, thank you."

"What do you want, Crowe?"

Crowe swung his head back to Lucan. "Actually, I wanted to commend you on the decision to move forward tonight with the gala. Director Benson would've wanted that, I have to believe. He and the rest of the GNC - yourself included, of course - have done so much to make this summit happen. It would've been a shame to see it fall apart at the last minute."

Lucan grunted in acknowledgment. "Especially after you've obviously invested so much into the event personally."

Everywhere he looked he saw Crowe Industries' stamp on the party: from the security staff to the catering service and video crew broadcasting the reception for the rest of the world. For crissake, even the ten-man orchestra at the back of the lavish hall played under a digital banner bearing Reginald Crowe's smirking image.

And then there was the centerpiece of the man's ego - the crystal sculpture he was to dedicate to the GNC tonight in commemoration of First Dawn and the summit's mission of securing true peace - situated in the center of the grand hall. At least this wasn't a blatant ode to Crowe's arrogance. Not the life-size likeness of the man that Lucan had half expected but a tall obelisk carved of glittering, multifaceted crystal. The ten-foot sculpture tapered at its peak, on top of which sat an orb that gleamed as flawless and cool as a diamond but glowed faintly at its center in palest shades of peach and gold.

It was, Lucan had to admit, if only to himself, a stunning work of art. Most of the mingling dignitaries agreed, crowds drawn to the obelisk like a beacon in the middle of the sea of formally attired attendees.

Crowe took a sip of his champagne, surveying the reception he'd bought with what had to easily have been millions. He exhaled a beleaguered sigh and slowly shook his head. "A pity, really. This evening was supposed to have been a celebration of all the good things still to come. A recognition of all the promise the future holds. To have lost one of the world's most brilliant scientific minds and a respected statesman, both to violence in the same week . . ." Crowe clucked his tongue. "Well, it's unthinkable. Such a tragedy."

"Indeed," Lucan replied.

Crowe's gaze locked on him, as shrewd and sharp as a bird of prey. "And the Order must be in shock as well, not without its own losses this week. Terrible business, learning one of your flock has turned traitor. A former warrior, gone to the dark side to collude with the rebels . . . astounding." Crowe peeled his lips back in a cold smile. "I hope you'll forgive me for saying that's one death today for which I did find cause to celebrate."

Lucan gave a careless shrug, refusing to let the human goad him. "Apparently he wasn't the only one involved in conspiracy. Benson's murder by JUSTIS officers today obviously means the director had secret enemies of his own."

Crowe frowned as if to express regret, but the emotion didn't quite make it to his eyes. "We live in dangerous times, I'm sure you'd agree. And I have to say, I'm surprised at the lack of security response after the violence at today's hearing. I would've guessed the Order to come in tonight like a battalion on the march."

Lucan grunted, cool and unfazed. "This is a peace summit event, not a combat zone. Your men must've missed the memo."

Crowe chuckled, looking around at his uniformed guards who patrolled the party like a SWAT team.

"Makes me wonder whose interests you're protecting more," Lucan added. "The summit, the attendees . . . or your own."

Now the magnate's humor vanished, and his smile was anything but pleasant. "I happen to view those things in equal importance. Especially after the Order allowed someone like Jeremy Ackmeyer to be abducted under their watch - by one of their own fallen members, no less. I'm of the opinion we can't be too careful when it comes to protecting the interests of our future, Chairman Thorne."

"On that we are agreed," Lucan replied stiffly.

Crowe lifted his glass and drained it in one long swallow. He glanced to Gabrielle, gave her a gallant nod. "If you'll excuse me, I have guests to greet."

He didn't wait for a response. Spotting a Breed ambassador from South America arriving with his attractive blond mate, Crowe glided smoothly away, vanishing into the throng of tuxedos and evening gowns.

Gabrielle stared after him, then scoffed under her breath. "What an asshole."

Lucan grunted and drew her close to his side. "He is that, all right. And he's up to something. I can smell it on the son of a bitch."

He sent a glance to Tegan and Dante across the room, then a meaningful nod in Crowe's direction. They would be watching the human closely tonight.

And if any of the Order got so much as a whiff of cause to be concerned, the bastard was going to be taken down - whether the whole world was watching or not.

Chapter Twenty-Seven


Their sweet fragrance wreathed his senses like a silken ribbon. Pulled him gently to the surface, out of a dark, heavy slumber.

He was alive.

He opened his eyes. Blinked slowly as he focused on his surroundings. He was in a bed. A hospital - no, the Order's D.C. headquarters infirmary. He knew this place, had landed there after combat more than once in his distant past. But never like this.

And never with Mira nestled against him.

A rush of emotion swamped him.

He was alive.

And yet he knew he'd been dead. He remembered the moment when the blackness closed in and he lost his grip on the corporeal world. He'd tried so hard to hold on. He hadn't wanted to go. Hadn't wanted to leave her. He could still feel the sense of panic, of marrow-deep loss, as his connection to Mira thinned and stretched . . . then snapped, sending him drifting away from her, unmoored, lost in a sea of darkness.

He had died.

He understood that.

Yet here he was, given another chance to live. Tess and Rafe, he realized now. It was their hands that healed him. Their voices that told him to hang on, to reach for the line they were throwing to him.

And then there was Mira.

She'd saved him too. He could still taste her lily-sweet blood on his tongue. It had found him, healed him, just when he needed it most. Her strength, her power, her love.

Their bond had defied death, and he had never felt so humbled by anything before in all his days. He loved this woman - his woman, his eternal mate. He needed her more than air, more than anything else this life could give him. His heart swelled with love for her, reborn and renewed, beating as hard and strong as a drum.

Mira stirred beside him, coming awake on a soft sigh. She wore the same black fatigues she'd had on when he last saw her, but they were bed-rumpled now, stained in places with his blood. Her blond braid was a wreck, more loose than not, pale hair framing her face in wispy tendrils. He'd never seen a more welcome sight.

She lifted her head, sucked in a shallow gasp as she looked at him and saw his eyes open, gazing back at her. "Kellan . . . Oh, God. You're awake. You came back to me." He smiled but had no chance to speak before Mira crushed his mouth in a fierce kiss. She drew back and stared at him, her eyes dancing behind the purple veil of her lenses. "You're really here with me."

He managed a nod before she kissed him again, more tenderly this time, her hands cupping his face. She kept looking at him, searching his eyes, drinking him in with open joy and affection. Then she scowled, hissing a dark curse. "Don't you ever leave me again, Kellan Archer."

"Never," he vowed, his voice thick and rusty.

Her scowl deepened. "If you do, I promise you, right here and now, I will hunt you down and kill you myself. Do you understand?"

He smiled and pulled her closer. "Yes, ma'am."

His body was already back online, blood pumping robustly through his veins. Under the sheet that covered his naked body, his muscles flexed, rejuvenated and ready to be put to use. Something else was ready too, and it took Mira only a second to notice that every bit of him was awake and alive.

"You're unbelievable," she murmured, but there was humor - and no small amount of interest - in her eyes. "You have at least two dozen bullet holes in you, in case you didn't realize that."

He didn't, and, in fact, he hardly felt the bandaged wounds now. All he felt was his Breedmate, his precious Mira, warm and sweet in his arms. He ran his hand down her back, to the firm curve of her behind. He groaned, rejoicing in the feel of her under his hands, and pressed up against the length of him. "One of us has too many clothes on."

He wanted to lighten the moment, and, yeah, he was glad as hell to be alive and breathing again - best of all, to be doing it lying next to the woman with whom he hoped to spend a good long eternity. So glad he could think of no better way to celebrate the occasion than burying himself deep within the haven of Mira's delectable body.

But she was having none of it right now. She levered herself up on one elbow beside him, all serious. Her gaze was sober, her breath shaky as she let out a quiet curse. "I thought I lost you today, Kellan. I watched you die. I felt it." A crease formed between her light brows, eyes lowering as she slowly shook her head. "I wanted to hate you for surrendering yourself back at the Darkhaven in Maine. I think I did hate you for that, just a little. I wanted to make our time together last, and you took that away from me. From both of us."

He caressed her face and silky hair, swallowed on a dry throat. "I didn't mean to hurt you again. I didn't want to see you throw away your past - throw away your family - the way I had done. I didn't want you to face the same kind of impossible decision I did. I didn't want you to make my mistake."

"I know that now," she said, lightly stroking her fingers over his wounded chest. "It took almost losing you for good to understand what you'd done for me that night." She glanced back up at him, mouth twisted wryly. "That doesn't mean I'm not still pissed, by the way."

He arched a brow, let his hand drift down her arm, then along the swell of her breast. "I look forward to making it up to you." Then, tenderly, he lifted her chin and kissed her, unrushed and reverent. "You're mine, Mira. I love you. I should've told you that a hundred times before. I'm not going to blow that chance again. I have a second chance, and I'm going to make it right."

"We do have a second chance," she murmured softly. "But where will we begin? You're dead, Kellan. You and Bowman both. It's been reported all over the country, probably all over the world. The public wanted their vengeance, and the GNC was all too eager to tell them justice had been served."

He considered for a long moment. "Candice and Doc and Nina . . . ?"

"Lucan released them this morning, before you were brought in front of the Council. They would've heard by now that you were shot and killed." She stared at him, a fierce intensity in her eyes. "No one outside the Order can ever know any different, or your life will be in danger all over again. I can't bear that kind of worry. Not ever again."

"I won't ask you to," he said, smoothing away the tension around her pretty mouth. He exhaled sharply, sardonic. "Do you think you can love a ghost?"

"I loved one for eight years."

"So you did. Thank God you did." He caressed her cheek, the desire he felt for her flaring even brighter when he thought of how faithful she'd been to him. Steadfast and strong. She'd been his partner always, in every way. After all they'd been through, he wasn't about to let a little thing like death stand between them and their future together.

And he wasn't about to let anyone hurt Mira or the others he cared about. Which meant his new mission had become doing whatever he had to in order to bring down Benson and uncover the truth behind the name that the corrupt councilman had given in Kellan's final conscious moments at the hearing.

Opus Nostrum.

Kellan sat up, his blood pounding at the sudden recollection of Benson's guilt.

"What's wrong?" Mira asked, rising with him. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and she crawled behind him. "What are you doing?"

"I need to talk to Lucan."

"About what?"

"Benson." He stood up, expecting to feel weak or wobbly, but his legs held strong, bolstered by his Breedmate's blood. Even his wounds felt insignificant. He peeled one of the bandages away and found the bullet hole healed over, puckered and pink but already growing new skin. Kellan unwrapped the rest and tossed the dressings into a nearby trash bin. Someone had left a pair of sweats and a T-shirt on the table beside the bed. Kellan hastily put the pants on. "Lucan needs to hear what I found out from Benson today."


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