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Mira had loved Kellan from the time she was eight years old. Growing up, he'd been her best friend, her favorite sparring partner when she'd entered training to become a warrior. He'd been her first kiss at fifteen. Her first taste of desire, when sparring and laughter turned to heated glances and caresses that left her virgin body trembling and hungry for more.


Kellan had been the only one for her. How many times had she imagined their life together? How often had she dreamed of their future, of sharing an eternity with him as his blood-bonded mate?


But he'd always held something of himself back from her. She'd never understood why. And then they'd shared one incredible night together - a night when she'd had all of him, at last - only to lose him forever a few short hours later in the blast that took his life.


"I can't forget him, Nathan. And I can't forgive the ones who tore him out of our lives. How do you do it? After all, Kellan was your friend too."


"The best I'll ever have." Nathan and Kellan had been as close as brothers. Maybe closer, having walked into combat together countless times as members of the same Order squad. They'd faced death together unflinchingly, dealt it without mercy when duty called for it. And they'd done it as friends, family, brothers-in-arms. Mira could see the pain of that loss in Nathan's greenish blue eyes, even though his handsome face held its stoic, soldier's expression. "I miss him too, Mira. I hate like hell that he's gone. But he is gone. He's dead. Throwing away your future won't bring him back."


God, if it would? For a brief, sharply desperate moment, she wondered what she would be willing to sacrifice to have Kellan alive again. Nearly a decade without him, and she still ached to see him, to touch him. Pathetic, how deeply she longed for that. Some stubborn piece of her still clung to the hope that this was just some awful, cosmic mistake that had to be corrected soon and then everything would be as it should be once again.


Right. Pathetic.


"When do you return to Montreal?" Nathan asked, a welcome break from her dark thoughts, drawing her back to reality. Which wasn't much brighter at the moment.


"I don't go back. Not for a while, that is." She slanted him a rueful glance. "I've been summoned to D.C. for an in-person Council review with Lucan and the other Order commanders. Where, I'm all but sure, I'll be asked to step down from my post as captain. Webb's standing in as my replacement. Lucan's decision. He's already sent the team back to base without me."


Idly, she traced her thumb over the scrollwork of one of her hand-tooled daggers - a gift from Nikolai and Renata, who were the closest thing to parents that she'd ever known. The blades were fashioned similarly to the ones Renata wielded so beautifully, but this pair had been designed especially for Mira, presented to her on the day she was promoted to captain.


The hilts of her two daggers were carved on each side, etched by the same artisan, bearing the same words that graced Renata's four: Courage. Sacrifice. Honor. Faith.


She'd never felt more unworthy of holding them.


Nathan eyed her in grave silence, and even though he spared her from his opinion on the matter, she could tell that he understood as well as she did that her position with the Order was tenuous at best. She'd been exiled to a kind of no-man's-land, not fully yanked from her footing but cut adrift just the same.


"Has a date been set for your Council review?"


She nodded. "Four days from now, just before the GNC peace summit begins. But my demotion starts immediately." Adding to the sting of her censure, she had also been relegated to a special assignment that was anything but special. "I've been drafted into nanny detail for one of the summit's award recipients. Some egghead recluse named Ackroyd or Ackerman."


"Ackmeyer," Nathan corrected. "Jeremy Ackmeyer. The human is a science wunderkind, Mira. Eccentric, but brilliant. Ackmeyer holds patents on everything from textiles and plant genomes to solar energy."


She acknowledged with a mild shrug. "That's the guy. Genius or not, apparently he spooks at everything, including his own shadow. He's also related to one of the GNC's directors. Lucan said the Order had been asked to provide personal escort for Ackmeyer from his home in the Berkshires down to the summit, make sure he arrived in time to accept his much-hyped award from Crowe Enterprises."


She could hardly keep from rolling her eyes at the thought of being part of Reginald Crowe's circus sideshow, even if her role was being forced on her. Although Lucan hadn't framed the assignment as punishment, Mira knew it was his way of ensuring she had her hands full - of tasking her with something menial that would keep her out of trouble and off the streets - until such time as he was able to deal with her personally and decide her fate within the Order.


Nathan considered for a long moment. "It could be worse. You can't have fallen too far out of Lucan's regard if he's still willing to keep you in play with a solo mission."


She exhaled a humorless laugh. "This is hardly a mission; we both know that. And the only reason I'm solo on it is because Ackmeyer insists on daytime travel only. That automatically rules out ninety-nine point nine percent of the Order's membership, unless they want to risk ashing themselves along the way."


Ackmeyer had other requirements for his escort to the summit as well, phobias about mass transit and airborne diseases that restricted him to traveling by car - brand new, of course, the interior vacuumed extensively and scrubbed from top to bottom with disinfectant. He demanded no more than four hours of drive time per day, yet he refused to stay in public lodging. Which meant by the time they reached Washington, an eleven-hour drive would take more than sixty, all of it spent together in the close confines of the car.


No wonder Lucan had assigned Ackmeyer's safety to her. Any one of the warriors she knew would likely strangle the oddball human before they reached the southern Massachusetts state line. She hoped like hell she wouldn't be tempted herself. If she stood even a slim chance of salvaging her position within the Order, delivering a throttled guest of honor wouldn't be the best approach.


In some private, dangerous corner of her heart, she knew that if Lucan bounced her from the Order, she would continue to fight. She would still want justice, vengeance against the rebels who had upended her world when they took Kellan from it. She didn't know how far she would go to right that wrong, but it terrified her a little to consider it. Her hatred ran too hot, had scarred her too deeply.


Her blades felt cold, tooled hilts biting into her palms. She flipped the daggers around in her fingers and slid them home into their sheaths on her thighs. "Anyway, I leave in a few hours, then it's on to meet my fate in D.C.," she told Nathan. "I should head to bed, try to get some sleep before I go."


"Mira," he said as she started to walk away from him. She didn't want to talk anymore. Didn't want to think about what waited for her at the end of her journey in just four days' time, nor where she might go from there. "Mira, stop."


She paused, swiveled around to meet her dear friend's sober gaze.


"Be careful," he said, eyes holding her in an unblinking stare that seemed to penetrate right to the core of her. "The line you're walking is thin enough. Do this right. You're too good to give up now. Don't give Lucan any more reason to cut you loose."


"There's nothing to worry about." She forced a mild scowl and lightly shook her head, deliberate in her misunderstanding. "I'm on babysitting detail, not a mission. Nothing's going to go wrong."


Chapter Four


THAT SAME MORNING, ADHERING TO THE METICULOUS instructions she'd received from Jeremy Ackmeyer himself, Mira arrived at his home in rural western Massachusetts at precisely 9:00 A.M. The house was large but minimalist in the extreme. No perimeter fence, no elaborate gate or layer of guards to shield the reclusive genius. Just an expressionless single-story block of white concrete, angled rooftop solar panels and steel-louver shaded windows, sitting on a broad knoll in the middle of a naked five-acre parcel of ruthlessly trimmed lawn.


Even without a gate or guards, to Mira, the house seemed more a prison than a place someone would call home - even an odd duck like Ackmeyer.


The germophobe scientist didn't want her coming inside the house and potentially contaminating anything but had stipulated he'd meet her in the garage below and proceed directly into the car to depart. She dutifully rolled up the long driveway to the underground parking garage as she'd been instructed and braked at the electronic access panel in front of the closed door of the bay on the right.


Mira slid the driver's-side window down, thankful for the incoming gust of fresh morning air. The sedan's interior still held a strong disinfectant scent, lingering from the top-to-bottom sterilization Ackmeyer had insisted upon before he'd agree to set foot in the vehicle. Fomites, he'd explained, as if the word struck cold terror into him. What would he do if she decided to lick the side of his face as soon as she got close to him? Probably collapse in a fit of apoplectic shock. It would certainly make the drive pass a little quicker if her cargo spent the duration of it in a dead faint.


Smiling at the idea, Mira drew in and savored a couple of long breaths of the crisp country air. That small taste of freedom would have to last her for the next five days of torment. Pressing the arrival button on the garage access panel, she leaned forward and recited the temporary entrance password Ackmeyer had given her when she spoke with him earlier that morning to arrange his pickup. "Annus Mirabilis."


Had Ackmeyer chosen the Latin password for its obvious play on her name, or for some other reason? She'd almost asked him when he gave it to her but decided to wait, figuring she'd have plenty of time to ask him on the drive. God knew she'd need some decent conversation starters for the many hours they were about to spend together on the road to D.C.


The garage door wasn't moving.


Mira put her head out the window and tried the password again.


Nothing.


"Oh, come on," she muttered, scowling at the unresponding bay door. For all his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, he hadn't noticed that his home security system was out of service?


She gave it another shot, and when the garage door still didn't budge, she squinted through the windshield at the house above. Ackmeyer had specifically instructed her to wait for him in the garage, forbidding her or anyone else from entering his house under any circumstances. He didn't say she couldn't walk up onto the yard to tell him she'd arrived.


Mira got out of the car and hoofed it up the knoll and around to the front of the house. "Mr. Ackmeyer?" she called, walking up to one of the shaded windows to try to peer inside through the steel slats. "Jeremy, are you in there?"


Her nape tingled with a warrior's instinct that something wasn't right here. Then again, when she'd spoken with Ackmeyer a few hours ago to arrange the trip, he hadn't exactly sounded eager to make the journey in the first place. He didn't conduct his work for awards or accolades, he'd insisted, something Mira respected him for in spite of his personal quirks. He was being forced to attend the gala in D.C., out of obligation to his socially and politically motivated family and due to pressure from Reginald Crowe himself.


Not her place to care about any of that, though. She had a duty to fulfill here, and that meant delivering Jeremy Ackmeyer to the summit celebration safe and sound, as expected.


But something wasn't right here.


Not right at all.


The thing that struck her most was the quiet of the place. Total, unnatural quiet.


And then, a crash.


It sounded from somewhere inside the house.


Was the place being robbed in broad daylight?


Mira felt her blade in her hand before she even realized she'd drawn it from its hidden sheath at her back. Her battle senses clashed with the need to know that Ackmeyer was all right inside. "Jeremy? If you're in there, you need to let me see you."


A loud, heavy thump answered. Then a thundering rush of boots on a stairwell. How many, she couldn't be sure. There were hushed voices, followed by a pained and muffled shout, cut off too abruptly for Mira's peace of mind.


Holy shit.


She flexed her fingers around the hilt of her dagger as she crept along the perimeter of the house, gauging the situation to determine her best course of action as one person against an unknown number inside.


Mira was good with her knives and hand-to-hand combat, but now she wished like hell she had ignored Ackmeyer's stated abhorrence of weapons and violence of any kind. She'd kept her daggers concealed on her person, but to avoid upsetting him, she'd hidden her gun in the glove compartment of the car. Damn it. She sped back down the knoll and yanked open the passenger-side door of the idling vehicle.


No sooner had she torn the big 9-mm out of its holster and thrown the safety than the left bay of the garage lifted and an unmarked black delivery van barreled out and past her like a bullet.


The van narrowly missed her, tires screaming on the pavement, smoke curling up in its wake as it roared up the drive. Mira rolled into a crouch and opened fire on the retreating vehicle.


She shot out one of its rear tires, continuing to blast rounds at the van as it swerved crazily, slowed by the damage. She fired until she had exhausted the magazine, then dived into the open passenger door of her car and leapt across the seats to the driver's side. Shifting hard into reverse, she stomped on the gas and swung around into a forward-facing spin.


Eyes on the limping van ahead of her, she slammed the car into drive and ground the pedal to the floor. Rather than ram it from behind and risk disabling her own vehicle, Mira roared up alongside the van and used her car to corral her quarry, steering it away from the paved driveway and onto the rough yard where it would be more difficult for the blown tire to roll. Given little choice, the van began to slow. It struggled on the uneven terrain, angling off to the right with Mira riding its side perpendicularly, holding fast to her course.

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