"If he doesn't arrive in the next sixty seconds, one of you needs to kill him," he said to the pair of Gen One assassins who flanked him like muscled, six-and-a-half-foot hellhounds.

No sooner had he said it than, out in the foyer of the presidential suite, the private elevator gave a soft electronic chime, announcing an arriving guest. Dragos didn't move from his seat in the other room, waiting in irritated silence as another of his homegrown, personal guards escorted a civilian Breed male--a lieutenant in Dragos's secret operation--into the suite for his private audience.

The vampire had the good sense to bow his head the instant his gaze lit on Dragos. "Apologies for keeping you waiting, sire. The city is teeming with humans. Holiday shoppers and tourists," he said, disdain in every cultured syllable. He peeled off his black leather gloves and tucked them into the pocket of his cashmere coat. "My driver had to circle the hotel a dozen times before we were able to get close to the service doors below street level."

Dragos continued to drum his fingers on the table. "Something wrong with the lobby entrance?"

His lieutenant, born second-generation Breed like Dragos himself, blanched slightly. "It's the middle of the day, sire. In that much sunlight, I would burn to a crisp in minutes."

Dragos merely stared, unfazed. He wasn't happy with the inconvenience of their meeting location, either. He would much rather be enjoying the comfort and security of his own residence. But that wasn't possible anymore. Not since the Order had interfered in his operation and sent him scrambling for cover.

Out of fear of discovery, he no longer permitted any of his civilian associates to know where his new headquarters was located. As a further precaution, none of them knew the locations of his other sites and personnel, either. He couldn't run the risk that any of his lieutenants might fall into the Order's hands and end up compromising Dragos in the hopes of sparing themselves from Lucan's wrath.

Just the thought of Lucan Thorne and his self-styled warrior knights put a bitter taste in Dragos's mouth. Everything he'd been working toward--

his vision of a future he could hardly wait to catch in his ready hands--had been spoiled by the actions of the Order. They'd forced him to turn tail and run. Forced him to destroy the very nerve center of his operation--a scientific research super-laboratory, which had cost him hundreds of millions of dollars and several decades of effort to perfect.

All of it gone now, nothing but cinder and shrapnel in the middle of a thick Connecticut forest.

Now the power and privilege that Dragos had been accustomed to for centuries had been replaced by skulking in the shadows and constantly watching over his shoulder to make certain his enemies weren't closing in on him. The Order had made him flee and cower like a rabbit desperate to evade the hunter's snare, and he liked it not one damned bit.

The latest irritation had taken place in Alaska, with the escape of the Ancient, Dragos's most valuable, irreplaceable tool in his quest for ultimate domination. Bad enough that the Ancient had broken free during transport to his new holding tank. But the disaster was made all the worse when the Order somehow managed to find not only the Alaskan lab but the fugitive otherworlder, as well.

Dragos had lost both of those important pieces to the warriors. He wasn't about to forfeit another damned thing to them.

"I want to hear good news," he told his lieutenant, glaring up at the male from under the furrow of his scowl. "How are you progressing with your assigned task?"

"Everything is in place, sire. The target and his immediate family members have just returned to the States this week from holiday abroad."

Dragos grunted in acknowledgment. The target in question was a Breed elder, nearly a thousand years old--Gen One, in fact--which was precisely why Dragos had him in his sights. In addition to wanting Lucan Thorne and his band of warriors put out of business, Dragos had also returned to one of his initial mission objectives: the systematic and total extinction of every Gen One Breed on the planet.

That Lucan himself and another of the Order's founding members, Tegan, were both Gen Ones only made that goal all the sweeter. And all the more imperative. By removing all of the Gen Ones--save the crop of assassins bred and trained to serve him unquestioningly--Dragos and the other second-generation members of the race would become, by default, the most powerful vampires in existence.

And if, or, rather, when Dragos tired of sharing the future he alone had envisioned and ensured was brought to fruition, then he would call upon his personal army of assassins to remove every second-generation contemporary, as well.

He sat in contemplative, if bored, silence as his lieutenant rushed to review the finer points of the plan that Dragos himself had masterminded just a few days earlier. Step by step, tactic by tactic, the other Breed male laid everything out, assuring him that nothing had been left to chance.

"The Gen One and his family have been under our surveillance round the clock since their arrival back home," the lieutenant said. "We are ready to pull the trigger on the operation on your command, sire."

Dragos inclined his head in a vague nod. "Make it happen."

"Yes, sire."

The lieutenant's deep bow and scraping retreat was almost as pleasing to Dragos as the notion that this pending offensive strike would make it clear to the Order that he might be down, but he was far from out.

In fact, his presence at the swank Boston hotel--and one of several important introductory meetings that had taken weeks to arrange between him and a hand-picked group of influential humans--would solidify Dragos's position on the ladder toward his ultimate glory. He could practically taste success already.

"Oh, one more thing," Dragos called out to his departing associate.

"Yes, sire?"

"If you fail me in this," he said pleasantly, "be prepared for me to feed you your own heart."

The male's face bleached as white as the carpet that blanketed the floor like snow. "I will not fail you, sire."

Dragos smiled, baring both teeth and fangs. "See that you don't."

Chapter Nine

After the death-soaked mess of his night's work in the city, Brock considered it a personal triumph that he'd managed to avoid Jenna for most of the day that he'd been back at the compound. With the two men's bodies dumped in the frigid backwaters of the Mystic River, he had stayed out alone until near dawn, trying to shake off the fury that seemed to follow him all night.

Even after he'd been back at the Order's headquarters for some hours that morning, the unwarranted--completely unwanted--sense of rage that gripped him when he thought of an innocent woman coming to harm made his muscles vibrate with the need for violence. A couple of sweaty hours of blade work in the weapons room had helped take off some of his edge. So had the scalding, forty-minute shower he'd punished himself with following the training.

He might have felt damned good, felt that his head was screwed on straight and tight again, if not for the one-two punch that Gideon had delivered not long afterward.

The first hit was the news that Jenna had come down from breakfast with the other women of the compound and had asked him to run another round of tissue testing and blood work. She had recalled something about the time she'd spent in the Ancient's company--something that Gideon had said left the stalwart female pretty shaken up.

The second blow had come almost immediately after the first samples were drawn and run through the analyzers.

Jenna's blood counts and DNA had changed significantly since the last time Gideon had run them.

Yesterday, her results were normal. Today, everything was off the charts.

"We can't jump to conclusions. No matter what these reports seem to indicate," Lucan finally said into the quiet, his deep voice grave.

"Maybe we should run another sample," said Tess, the only one of the females in the tech lab at the moment. She glanced up from the disturbing lab results to look at Lucan, Brock, and the rest of the Order who'd been summoned there to review Gideon's findings. "Shall I get Jenna and bring her back down to the infirmary for a second test?"

"You can," Gideon said, "but running another sample isn't going to change a thing." He took off his pale blue glasses and tossed them onto the acrylic workstation in front of him. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he slowly shook his head. "These kinds of DNA mutations and massive cellular replications simply don't occur. Human bodies aren't advanced enough to handle the demands that changes of this significance would place on their organs and arteries, to say nothing of the impact something like this would have on the central nervous system."

Arms crossed over his chest, Brock leaned against the wall next to Kade, Dante, and Rio. He said nothing, struggling to make sense of everything he was seeing and hearing. Lucan had advised that no one jump to conclusions, but it was damned hard not to assume that as of right now, Jenna's future well-being was severely in question.

"I don't get it," Nikolai said from the other side of the tech lab, where he sat at the large table along with Tegan and Hunter. "Why now? I mean, if everything was normal before, why the sudden flood of mutations to her blood and DNA?"

Gideon shrugged vaguely. "Could be the fact that until just yesterday she'd been in a deep sleep, almost a coma. We knew her muscle strength had increased once she had awakened. Brock saw that firsthand, and so did we, when Jenna fled the compound. The cellular changes we're seeing now could have been a delayed reaction to simply waking up. Being conscious and alert may have acted as some kind of switch inside her body."

"Last night she was shot," Brock added, biting back the angry snarl that was clogging the back of his throat. "Could that have anything to do with what we're seeing in her blood work now?"

"Maybe," Gideon said. "Anything is possible, I suppose. This isn't something that I, or anyone else in this room, have ever seen before."

"Yeah," Brock agreed. "And doesn't that just suck ass."

From the rear of the tech lab, his booted feet propped up on the conference table while he tipped back in his chair, Sterling Chase cleared his throat. "All things considered, maybe it's not such a good idea to give this woman so much freedom around the compound. She's too big of a question mark right now. For all we know, she could be some kind of goddamn walking time bomb."

For a long moment, no one said a thing. Brock hated the silence.

Hated Chase for putting something out there that none of the warriors would want to consider.

"What would you suggest?" Lucan asked, shooting a sober look at the male who had spent decades as part of the Breed's bureaucratic Enforcement Agency before joining up with the Order.

Chase arched a blond brow. "If it were up to me, I'd remove her from the compound ASAP. Lock her away someplace tight and secure, as far away from our operation as she can get, at least until we have a chance to take Dragos down, once and for all."

Brock's growl erupted from his throat, dark with animosity. "Jenna stays here."

Gideon put his glasses back on and gave a nod in Brock's direction. "I agree. I would not be comfortable removing her now. I'd like to keep an eye on her, get a better understanding of what's happening to her on a cellular and neurological level, at a minimum."

"Suit yourselves," Chase drawled. "But it's gonna be all of our funerals if you're wrong."

"She stays," Brock said, aiming his narrowed gaze down the table to where it skewered the smirking ex-Agent.

"You've had a hard-on for this human since the second you saw her,"

Chase remarked, his tone light but his expression dark with challenge. "You got something to prove, my man? What is it--you just one of those born suckers for a damsel in distress? The Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Is that your deal?"

Brock vaulted across the table in a single leap. He would have had his hands around Chase's throat, but the vampire saw him coming and moved just as fast. The chair toppled, and in half a second the two big males were eye to eye, jaw to jaw, locked in a simmering standoff neither one of them could win.

Brock felt strong hands peeling him away from the confrontation--

Kade and Tegan, there before he could take the shot Chase deserved. And behind Chase were Lucan and Hunter, the two of them and the rest of the warriors ready to dial the situation down if either male thought to escalate it.

Glaring at Chase, Brock allowed himself to be guided away from his comrade, but only barely. For what wasn't the first time, he considered the antagonistic, aggressive nature of Sterling Chase, and he pondered what it was that drove the otherwise skilled--once upstanding--male to be so volatile.

If the Order had a time bomb to worry about in its midst, Brock wondered if he wasn't looking at the source of that danger right now.

"What the hell is taking them so long?"

Jenna hadn't realized she'd spoken her frustration out loud until Alex reached over and took her hand in a reassuring grasp. "Gideon said he wanted to run some extra tests on your samples. I'm sure we'll hear something soon."

Jenna huffed out a sharp sigh. Cane in hand, even though she felt only the smallest need to lean on it, she got up from the sofa she'd been sitting on and limped to the other side of the apartment's living room. She had been brought there by Alex and Tess following her blood draw in the infirmary a few hours ago, told she'd been granted use of the private quarters as her own for the duration of her stay at the compound.

The residential suite was a big improvement over her room at the infirmary. Spacious and comfortable, with oversize leather furniture and dark wood tables that were meticulously polished and free of clutter. Tall wooden bookcases were lined with a library's worth of classics, philosophy, politics, and history. Serious, thought-provoking books that seemed in contrast to the shelf full of neatly organized--good grief, alphabetized--


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