"Gladly. All this talk of missions and women reminds me that I have important duties of my own that I've been neglecting back in my quarters."

Brock grunted. "Give Alex my best."

Kade merely grinned as he saluted him, then strolled toward the exit.

After he was gone, Brock lingered under the water only a few minutes longer. It was late in the day, but he was too wired for sleep. And Kade's reminder about Jenna and her changing biology had his mind churning.

He toweled off, then got dressed in a gray T-shirt and dark jeans. He stomped into his black leather boots, feeling the sudden urge to head back into the weapons room and blow off more steam until nightfall, when he could finally escape the compound again. But working up a sweat hadn't done him much good the first time; he doubted it would do anything for him now.

Uncertain what would take off his edge, Brock found himself stalking down the central corridor of the compound, toward the tech lab. The halls were quiet, deserted. Not surprising for the time of day, when the mated warriors would be in bed with their females and the rest of the headquarters'

occupants would be getting some rest before patrols rolled out at sundown.

Brock probably should have been thinking about that, too, but he was more interested in knowing if Gideon had turned up anything more about Jenna's blood work results. As he entered the stretch of corridor that would take him to the lab, he heard movement in another of the compound's meeting rooms.

Following the sound of shuffling papers, he drew to a pause outside the open door of the Breedmates' mission command center.

Jenna was alone inside the room.

Seated at the conference table, several manila file folders fanned out before her and a couple more stacked neatly at her elbow, she was bent over a pad of paper, pen in hand and thoroughly engrossed in whatever she was writing. At first, he didn't think she knew he was there. But then her hand paused halfway down the page, her head lifting. The soft brown layers of her hair shifted like silk as she pivoted to see who was standing in the doorway.

That had been his cue to duck away fast, before she saw him. He was Breed; he could have been there and gone before her mortal eyes could register his presence. Instead, for some idiotic reason he had no interest in examining, he took a step inside and cleared his throat.

Jenna's hazel gaze went wider when she saw him.

"Hey," he said.

She gave him a brief smile, looking more than a little caught off-guard by him. And why shouldn't she be, after the way he'd left things with her the last time he saw her? She pulled one of the file folders over and set it on top of her notepad. "I thought everyone had gone to bed."

"They have." He walked farther into the room and made a quick visual scan of the information spread out on the table. "Looks like Dylan and the others have managed to recruit you already."

She shrugged, a weak denial. "I was just ... looking at a few things.

Comparing notes on some of the files, jotting down a couple of my thoughts."

Brock took a seat in the chair next to her. "They'll appreciate that," he said, impressed that she was lending a hand. He reached for the notes she'd been writing. "Can I have a look?"

"It's nothing much, really," she said. "Sometimes it just helps to have a fresh pair of eyes."

He glanced at her crisp, precise handwriting that filled most of the page. Her mind seemed to operate in the same organized manner, based on the logical flow of her notes and the list of suggestions she'd made for investigating the missing persons cases that Dylan and the other Breedmates had been pursuing for the past few months.

"This is good work," he said, not flattery, just fact. "I can tell you're a damned good cop."

Again the denying shrug. "I'm not a cop anymore. I've been out of it a long time."

He watched her speak, heard the regret that lingered in her voice.

"Doesn't mean you're not still good at what you do."

"I stopped being good at it a while ago. Something happened, and I ...

I lost my edge." She looked over at him then, unflinching. "There was a car accident four years ago. My husband and my six-year-old daughter were both killed, but somehow I survived."

Brock nodded faintly. "I know. I'm sorry for your loss."

His sympathy seemed to fluster her somewhat, as though she wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Maybe it would have been easier for her to talk about the tragedy on her own terms, without the knowledge that he'd already been privy to the information. Now she looked at him uncertainly, as though she feared he would judge her in some way. "I ... struggled to accept that Mitch and Libby were gone. For a long time--even now--it's hard to know how I'm supposed to move on."

"You live," Brock said. "That's all you can do."

She nodded, but there was a hauntedness to her eyes. "You make it sound easy."

"Not easy, necessary." He watched her pick idly at a broken staple on one of the reports. "Is that why you resigned from law enforcement, because you didn't know how to live after the accident?"

Staring at the cluttered table space in front of her, she frowned, silent for a long moment. "I quit because I couldn't perform my duties anymore.

Every time I had to report for a traffic violation, even a fender bender or a blown tire, I would be shaking so badly by the time I reached the scene, I could hardly get out of my vehicle to offer help. And the truly awful calls, the serious accidents or the domestic disturbances that often ended in violence, left me sick to my stomach for days afterward. Everything I'd learned in training and on the job had been shattered when that tractor trailer full of timber crossed the icy highway and plowed into my life." She glanced over at him then, her green-brown gaze as tenacious and unflinching as he'd ever seen it. "I quit being a cop because I knew I couldn't do my job the way it needed to be done. I didn't want anyone who relied on me to possibly pay for my negligence. So, I resigned."

Brock had respected Jenna's courage and resilience from the moment he first laid eyes on her. Now the meter on his opinion of her had just climbed up another notch or ten. "You cared about your work and the people who depended on you. That's not a sign of weakness. That's strength. And you obviously had a great deal of love for your job. I think you still do."

Why that simple observation should strike a nerve in her, he didn't know, but he'd have to be blind to miss the flare of defensiveness that sparked in her eyes. She glanced away as though realizing her slip, and when she spoke, there was no anger in her voice. Only a flat sort of resignation.

"You know a lot about me, huh? I guess there isn't much that you and the Order don't know by now."

"Alex gave us the basics," he admitted. "After what happened in Alaska, there were things we needed to know."

She grunted. "You mean, after I started talking alien gibberish in my sleep and became the unwilling ward of the Order."

"Yeah," he said, remaining seated as she stood up and walked away from him, arms crossed over her breasts. He noticed she'd completely given up the cane Tess and Gideon had prescribed for her, and her injured leg put only a mild limp in her step. "I see your gunshot wound must be healing up all right."

"It's much better." She tossed him a vague nod over her shoulder.

"Actually, it didn't seem that serious to begin with."

Brock inclined his head as though he agreed, but he recalled all too clearly just how serious the gunshot had been. If she was healing at an accelerated rate, he guessed the DNA replications Gideon had discovered might have something to do with that. "I'm glad you're feeling better," he said, thinking she probably didn't need any reminders about the unknown matter that was integrating with her body.

Her gaze lingered on him, softening. "Thank you for what you did for me last night--coming to find me, and getting me out of that awful place. I think you saved my life. I know you did, Brock."

"No problem."

God, he hoped she would never learn the details of just how savagely he'd dealt with her assailants. She wouldn't be thanking him if she'd seen him in action that night, or if she'd witnessed the vicious way he'd slaked both his bloodthirst and his fury on the pair of lowlife humans. If Jenna knew what he was capable of, she'd no doubt view him in the same way she did the Ancient who'd attacked her.

He didn't know why that should bother him like it did. He didn't want her to equate him to a monster, at least not so long as he was tasked with watching over her for the Order. She needed to trust him, and as her assigned protector, he needed to make sure that she did. He had a job to do, and he wasn't about to lose sight of his responsibility.

But the issue with Jenna went deeper than that, and he knew it. He just didn't have any intention of dissecting it--now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

He watched her drift toward the wall of maps and charts that documented the Order's pursuit of the Breedmates whom Dragos was suspected to have taken captive. "It's amazing work they're doing," Jenna murmured. "Dylan, Savannah, Renata, Tess ... all of the women I've met here are truly incredible."

"Yeah, they are," Brock agreed. He got up and moved to where Jenna now stood. "The Order has always been a force to be reckoned with, but in the year since I've come on board, I've watched our strength redouble because of the involvement of the females in this compound."

She gave him a look that he found difficult to read.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing." A brief smile touched her lips as she gave a small shake of her head. "I'm just surprised to hear that, is all. Most of the men I've ever been around in the workplace--hell, even my own father and brother--would have rather eaten their badges than admit they were better off for teaming up with a woman."

"I don't carry a badge," he said, returning her smile. "And I'm not most men."

She laughed softly but didn't turn away from his gaze. "No, no, you're not. Yet you're one of the few here who doesn't have a Breedmate."

He considered the comment, more than a little intrigued that she was curious about him on a personal level. "Business is one thing. Taking a blood-bonded mate is something else. It's a forever kind of deal, and I'm allergic to long-term relationships."

Her intelligent eyes held him, assessing. "Why is that?"

It would have been easy to give her a charmingly meaningless reply, the kind of glib crap he was used to dealing out to Kade and the other guys whenever the subject of Breedmates and emotional entanglements came up.

But he couldn't look at Jenna and be anything but honest, no matter how it might make him appear to her. "Long-term means too many chances for me to let someone down. So, I make an effort to steer clear."

She didn't say anything for a long minute or two. Just faced him in silence, her arms still wrapped around herself, a hundred unspoken emotions deepening the color of her eyes. "Yeah, I know what you mean," she said finally, her voice a bit raspy, hardly above a whisper. "I know all about letting people down."

"No way am I going to believe that." He couldn't see the capable, confident woman failing at anything she set out to do.

"Trust me," she said soberly, then pivoted away from him and walked to the other wall, where a handful of sketches had been posted alongside case notes and printed maps. When she spoke again, there was a casualness to her voice that seemed forced. "So, is this allergy to long-term relationships something new for you, or have you always avoided commitment?"

He got an instant mental image of sparkling dark eyes and a mischievous, musical laugh that he still heard sometimes, like a ghost hiding in the far corners of his memories. "There was someone once. Well ... there could have been someone. She died a long time ago."

Jenna's expression went slack with remorse. "Brock, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make light--"

He shrugged. "No apology necessary. It's ancient history. A hundred years ago." Almost literally, he realized, stunned by the fact that so much time had come and gone since his carelessness had cost the life of someone he was supposed to protect.

Jenna drifted back toward him then and seated herself on the edge of the long table near him. "What happened to her?"

"She was murdered. I was working as a bodyguard at the time for her family's Darkhaven in Detroit. It was my responsibility to keep her safe, but I screwed up. She vanished on my watch. Her body turned up months later, brutalized beyond recognition and thrown in a filthy stretch of river."

"Oh, my God." Jenna's voice was soft, her brow creased with sympathy. "That's awful."

"Yeah, it was," he said, recalling all too well the horror of what had been done to her, before and after she'd been killed. Three months in the water hadn't made what was left of her any easier to look at.

"I'm sorry," Jenna said again, and reached out to rest her palm against the bulk of his biceps.

He tried to ignore the sudden flare of awareness that blazed through him at the contact. But attempting to tune out his attraction to her was like telling fire to not be hot. Touch it, and you still got burned. As he was burning now, when he glanced down to where Jenna's pale hand lingered over his darker skin.

When he lifted his gaze back to hers, he could tell by her subtle, indrawn breath that his eyes were likely alive with sparks of amber light, their transformation betraying his desire for her. She swallowed but didn't look away.


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