popular commercial fiction that sat alongside it.
Jenna let her gaze wander the shelves of titles and authors, needing even the momentary distraction to keep herself from dwelling too long on what might be keeping her waiting all this time for answers from Gideon and the others.
"Tess has been down there for more than an hour," she pointed out, idly pulling a book about female jazz singers from its place in the history section. She flipped through a few pages, more to give her hands something to do than out of any real interest in the book.
As she thumbed past a section on 1920s-era nightclubs, a yellowed old photograph slipped out. Jenna caught it before it fell to the floor. The beaming face of a pretty young woman dressed in shimmering silk and glossy furs stared out of the image. With her large, almond-shaped eyes and porcelain-light skin that seemed to glow against her long jet-black hair, she was beautiful and exotic, particularly within the setting of the jazz club behind her.
With her own life spiraling into confusion and worry, Jenna was struck for a moment by the sheer jubilation in the young woman's smile. It was such a raw, honest joy, it almost hurt Jenna to look at it. She had known that kind of happiness herself once, hadn't she? God, how long had it been since she'd felt even half as alive as the young woman in that photograph?
Angered by her own self-pity, Jenna slid the picture back between the pages, then returned the book to its place on the shelf. "I can't take this not knowing. It's driving me crazy."
"I know, Jen, but--"
"Screw this. I'm not waiting here any longer," she said, pivoting to face her friend. The tip of her cane thumped on the rug-covered floor as she made her way to the door. "They must have some of the results back by now. I have to know what's going on. I'm going down there myself."
"Jenna, wait," Alex cautioned from behind her.
But she was already in the corridor, walking as fast as she could manage between the impediment of her cane and the twinge of pain that shot through her leg with every hasty step.
"Jenna!" Alex called, her own footfalls quickly gaining in the empty hallway.
Jenna kept going, around one curving length of polished white marble to another. Her leg was throbbing now, but she didn't care. Tossing away the cane that only slowed her down, she all but ran toward the muffled sounds of male voices coming from up ahead. She was panting as she reached the glass walls of the tech lab, a sheen of pain-induced sweat beading above her lips and across her forehead.
Her eyes found Brock before anyone else in the solemn-looking group. His face was taut, the tendons in his neck drawn tight as cables, his mouth flattened into a grim, almost menacing line. He stood in the back of the room, surrounded by several other warriors, all of them seeming tense and uneasy--all the more so now that she was there. Gideon and Tess were huddled near the bank of computer workstations at the front of the lab.
Everyone had paused what they'd been doing to stare at her.
Jenna felt the weight of their gazes like a physical thing. Her heart lurched. Obviously, they had the analysis of her blood work. Just how awful could the results be?
Their expressions were unreadable, everyone holding her in cautious, silent observation as her footsteps slowed and came to a stop in front of the tech lab's wide glass doors.
God, they looked at her now as though they'd never seen her before.
No, she realized as the group of them remained unmoving, simply watching her through the clear wall that stood between her and the sober meeting on the other side. They were looking at her as though they might have expected her to be dead already.
As though she were a ghost.
Dread settled cold and heavy in her stomach, but she wasn't about to back down now.
"Let me in," she demanded, pissed off and terrified. "Goddamn it, open this fucking door and tell me what's going on!"
She lifted her hand and fisted it, but before she had a chance to pound on the glass, it slid open on a soft hiss. She stormed inside, Alex following in on her heels.
"Tell me," Jenna said, her gaze traveling from one silent face to another. She lingered on Brock, the one person in the room aside from Alex for whom she felt a measure of trust. "Please ... I need to know what you've found."
"There have been some changes in your blood," he said, his deep voice impossibly low. Too gentle. "In your DNA, as well."
"Changes." Jenna swallowed hard. "What kind of changes?"
"Anomalies," Gideon interjected. When she swung her head to look at him, she was struck by the concern in the warrior's eyes. He spoke carefully, looking and sounding far too much like a doctor doling out the worst kind of news to his patient. "We've found some odd cellular replications, Jenna.
Mutations that are being passed into your DNA and multiplied at an excessive rate. These mutations were not present the last time we analyzed your samples."
She shook her head, as much in confusion as it was reflex to deny what she thought she was hearing. "I don't understand. Are you talking about some kind of disease? Did that creature infect me with something when he bit me?"
"Nothing like that," Gideon said. He shot an anxious look at Lucan.
"Well, not exactly, that is."
"Then what exactly?" she demanded. The answer hit her not even a second later. "Oh, Jesus Christ. This thing in the back of my neck." She put her hand over the spot where the Ancient had inserted that granule-size bit of unidentified material. "This thing he put inside me is causing the changes.
That's what you mean, isn't it?"
Gideon gave her a faint nod. "It's biotechnology of some kind--
nothing the Breed or humankind has the capability to create. From the newest X rays we took today, it appears the implant is integrating into your spinal cord at a very accelerated rate, as well."
"Take it out."
A round of uneasy looks traveled the group of big males. Even Tess seemed awkwardly silent, unwilling to hold Jenna's gaze.
"It's not that simple," Gideon finally replied. "Perhaps you should see the X ray for yourself."
Before she could consider whether she wanted to see proof of anything she was being told, the image of her skull and spinal column blinked full-screen on a monitor mounted to the wall in front of her. In an instant, Jenna noted with sick familiarity the rice-size object that glowed brightly at the center of her uppermost vertebrae. The threadlike tendrils that had been present yesterday were more numerous in this newer slide.
Easily hundreds more, each thin strand weaving intricately--
inextricably--through and around her spinal cord.
Gideon cleared his throat. "As I said, the object is apparently comprised of a combination of genetic material and advanced high technology. I've never seen anything like it, nor have I been able to find any human scientific research that even comes close to what this is. Given the biological transformation we're seeing in your DNA and blood work, it would seem the source of the genetic material was the Ancient himself."
Which meant part of that creature was inside her. Living there.
Jenna's pulse hammered hard in her breast. She felt the pump and rush of her blood racing through her veins--mutated cells that she imagined were chomping their way through her body with each heartbeat, multiplying and growing, devouring her from within.
"Take it out of me," she said, her voice climbing in her distress. "Take the goddamned thing out of me right now, or I'll do it myself!"
She reached up with both hands and started clawing at her nape with her fingernails, desperation making her go a little crazy.
She didn't even see Brock move from his position on the other side of the tech lab, but in less than a moment, he was right beside her, his large hands wrapping around her fingers. His dark brown eyes found her gaze and didn't release her.
"Easy now," he said, a low whisper as he gently, but firmly, drew her hands away from her nape and held them in his warm grasp. "Breathe, Jenna."
Her lungs squeezed, then released on a hitching sob. "Let go of me.
Please, leave me alone, all of you."
She pulled back and tried to walk away, but the heavy drumbeats of her pulse and a sudden ringing in her ears made the room around her pitch violently. A dark wave of nausea swept her, cloaking everything in a thick, dizzying fog.
"I've got you," Brock's soothing voice murmured somewhere close to her ear. She felt her feet leave the ground and for the second time in as many days she found herself caught up in the safety of his arms.
He didn't make excuses for what he was doing or where he was taking her. Merely strode out of the tech lab and carried her back up the corridor she'd come from with Alex a few minutes before.
"Let go of me," Jenna demanded, her senses still muddled, ringing with each long stride of Brock's legs. She shifted in his arms, trying to ignore how even that small bit of movement made her head spin and her stomach twist. Her head fell back over his muscled forearm, a pained groan leaking out of her. "I said put me down, damn it."
He grunted but kept walking. "I heard you the first time."
She closed her eyes, only because it was too hard to keep them open and watch the ceiling of the corridor contort and swirl above her as Brock carried her deeper into the compound. He slowed after a moment, then turned sharply, and Jenna glanced up to see that he had brought her back to the apartment suite that was now her private quarters.
"Please, put me down," she murmured, her tongue thick, throat gone bone dry. The pounding behind her eyes had become a jackhammer throb, the ringing in her ears a deafening high-frequency whine that seemed to want to split her skull wide open. "Oh, God," she gasped, unable to hide her agony. "It hurts so much ..."
"Okay," Brock said quietly. "Everything's gonna be okay now."
"No, it won't." She whimpered, humiliated by the sound of her own weakness, and the fact that Brock was seeing her like this. "What's happening to me? What did he do to me?"
"It doesn't matter right now," Brock whispered, his deep voice held too tight. Too carefully level to be believed. "Let's just get you through this first."
He crossed the room with her and knelt down to place her on the sofa.
Jenna lay back and let him gently straighten her legs, not so far gone with discomfort and worry that she didn't recognize the tenderness of the strong hands that could probably crush the life from someone with little more than a twitch of this man's will.
"Relax," he said, and those strong, tender hands came up near her face. He leaned over her and lightly stroked her cheek, his dark eyes compelling her to hold his gaze. "Just relax and breathe now, Jenna. Can you do that for me?"
She'd calmed a bit already, easing into the sound of her name on his lips, the feathery warmth of his fingers as they skated slowly from her cheek to her jaw, then down, along the side of her neck. The short bursts of breath that sawed in and out of her lungs began to slow, to ease, as Brock cupped her nape in one hand and glided his other palm in an unrushed, soothing back-and-forth motion across the top of her chest.
"That's it," he murmured, his gaze still locked on hers, intense and yet so impossibly tender at the same time. "Let go of all the pain, and relax.
You're safe, Jenna. You can trust me."
She didn't know why those words should affect her as much as they did. Maybe it was the pain that had weakened her. Maybe it was the fear of the unknown, the gaping abyss of uncertainty that had suddenly become her reality since that frigid, horrific night in Alaska.
And maybe it was just the simple fact that it had been a long time--
four lonely years--since she'd felt the firm, warm caress of a man's touch, even if offered only in comfort.
Four empty years since she'd convinced herself she didn't need tender contact or intimacy. Four endless years since she'd remembered what it was to feel like a flesh-and-blood woman, like she was desired. Like she might one day be able to open her heart to something more.
Jenna closed her eyes as the prick of tears began to sting at them. She pushed aside the swell of emotion that rose up on her unexpectedly and focused instead on the soothing warmth of Brock's fingertips on her skin.
She let his voice wash over her, feeling his words and his touch work in tandem to coax her through the anguish of the strange trauma that had seemed to be shredding her from the inside out.
"That's good, Jenna. Just breathe now."
She felt the vise of pain in her skull loosen as he spoke to her. Brock caressed her temples with his thumbs, his fingers splayed deeply into her hair, holding her head in a comforting grasp. The piercing ring in her ears began to fade away, until, at last, it was gone.
"You're doing great," Brock murmured, his voice darker than before, just above a growl. "Let it go, Jenna. Give the rest of it to me."
She exhaled a long, purging sigh, unable to keep it inside her as long as Brock was stroking her face and neck. She moaned, welcoming the pleasure that was slowly devouring her agony. "Feels nice," she whispered, helpless to resist the urge to nuzzle further into his touch. "The pain isn't so bad now."
"That's good, Jenna." He drew in a breath that sounded more like a sharp gasp, then exhaled a low groan. "Let it all go now."
Jenna felt a tremor vibrate through his fingertips as he spoke. Her eyelids snapped open and she gaped up at him, stricken by what she saw.
The tendons in his neck were strung tight, his jaw clamped down so hard it was a wonder his teeth didn't shatter. A muscle ticked wildly in his lean cheek. Beads of perspiration lined his forehead and upper lip.
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