Niko awkwardly cleared his throat. "Sorry to interrupt, man, but we need to get moving. The Rover is almost full, and Rio's called the compound for a couple more vehicles to pick up the rest of the females. Chase and Hunter are already en route with additional transport."
Brock nodded. "They're going to need shelter somewhere."
"Andreas and Claire have offered to open their house in Newport for all of the captives," Renata replied. "Rio's going to drive the other SUV
down there now."
"Right," Niko added. "Kade and I will stay here with Renata and Alex to clean up the scene and wait for Chase and Hunter to arrive with an extra vehicle for the remaining women and one for our return to the compound."
"We need someone to drive the Rover to Newport," Renata said.
Brock was ready to volunteer, but he could hardly stand the thought of being taken away from Jenna, even for a few hours to make the run.
Torn, he glanced at her.
"Go on," she said softly.
He wanted to drag her into his arms and never let her go again. "Will you be all right until I get back?"
"Yes. I'm going to be fine, Brock." Her smile was somehow sorrowful. Her hands trembled as she reached out to take light hold of his.
She kissed him, a fleeting graze of her lips across his. "You don't have to worry about me now. Do what you need to do."
"We have to get rolling," Niko pressed. "This place needs to be cleared before any curious humans start sniffing around."
Brock reluctantly agreed, stepping back from Jenna. She gave him a faint nod as he drew away another step.
He turned and strode toward the waiting Rover. As he got behind the wheel and started backing out to follow Rio in the other vehicle, part of him couldn't help feeling as though the chaste kiss Jenna had given him was something more than good-bye.
It took Jenna and the others better than an hour to dispatch the dead Minions and clear the big old house of all traces of the battle that had occurred there. Hunter and Chase had since come and gone with the last of the rescued captives, leaving one of the Order's SUVs for the cleanup team to drive back to the compound.
Jenna had worked in heavy silence, feeling tired and exhausted--
emotionally drained--as she helped Alex roll up one of the bloodstained rugs and carry it out to the back of the Order's vehicle.
She couldn't stop thinking about Brock. Couldn't stop dreading that she'd made a terrible mistake in letting him go to Newport with Corinne.
She wanted desperately to call him and urge him to come back.
But as much as she wanted to claim him for herself, she couldn't be that unfair to him.
He had been granted a miracle tonight, and she would never dream of trying to take that away from him.
How often had she prayed for a second chance with Mitch and Libby after she'd lost them? How often had she wished their deaths had just been a cosmic mistake that could somehow be righted? How many times had she hoped beyond all hope for some impossible twist of fate that would bring back the love she'd lost?
She wondered now if she would still be able to make those prayers and wishes. She knew she couldn't. To do so would be to negate all she felt for Brock, something that seemed even more impossible to her than a miraculous reversal of death.
But at the same time, she couldn't ask Brock to make that kind of choice.
Even if it shattered her heart to let him go.
A wave of sadness rushed over her with the thought. She grabbed for the side of the Rover, her legs all but swept out from beneath her.
Alex was at her side in an instant. "Jen, are you okay?"
She nodded weakly, feeling suddenly more than empty inside. Her head spun, vision beginning to blur.
"Jenna?" Alex moved in front of her and sucked in a sharp breath.
"Oh, my God. Jenna, you're wounded."
Dazed, she glanced down to where Alex was now unfastening her bloodstained coat. As the thick wool parted, she saw the terrible truth of what had her friend's face turning white as a sheet.
Jenna's mind flashed back to the Minion who'd crashed into her from out of the shadows in the cellar. She recalled the glint of something metallic in his hand. A knife, she guessed now, staring at the slick red blood that soaked her shirt and ran all the way down the side of her leg, dripping a dark pool in the snow beneath her feet.
"Kade, hurry!" Alex shouted, panic climbing into her voice. "Renata, Niko--somebody, please. Jenna's been hurt!"
As the others rushed out of the house in response, Jenna's world began to fade around her. She heard her friends speaking anxiously around her, but she couldn't keep her eyes open. Couldn't keep her legs from crumpling beneath her.
She let go of the vehicle and the heavy darkness pulled her under.
Andreas and Claire Reichen's house in Newport was a hive of anxious activity as the rescued Breedmates arrived that evening and began to settle into the large estate on Narragansett Bay. Brock and Rio had been the first to get there. Hunter and Chase had arrived moments ago with the rest of the former captives and were in the process of bringing them inside.
"Unbelievable," Reichen said, standing with Brock in the second-floor hallway of the seaside mansion. The German vampire and his New England-born Breedmate had been living in the house for only a few months, the newly mated couple having relocated to the States after surviving their own ordeal at the hands of Dragos and his dangerous allies. "Claire's been haunted all this time by what she glimpsed during her dreamwalk through Dragos's laboratory, but to actually see these women now, alive and out of danger after all this time ... Christ, it's overwhelming."
Brock nodded, still in disbelief himself. "It was good of you and Claire to take them in."
"We wouldn't have it any other way."
Both males turned as Claire came out of a bedroom carrying an armload of folded towels. Petite and beautiful, the dark-haired female had a glow about her as she strode into the hallway and met the approving gaze of her mate.
"I've been praying this day would come for a long time," she said, her deep brown eyes shifting from Reichen to Brock. "I almost didn't dare hope that we might actually succeed."
"The work you and the rest of the Order's women have done is beyond admirable," he replied, certain that he would never forget the image of Jenna and the others guiding the freed captives out of the cheery-looking house that had been their most recent prison.
God, Jenna, he thought. She'd been on his mind the entire time. The only place he wanted to be right now was with her--to feel her safe and warm in his arms.
She'd been the reason he'd driven in silence from Gloucester to Rhode Island, tormented by the fact that Corinne had been dozing in the passenger seat beside him--impossibly alive, after so many years--yet every fiber of his being felt pulled inextricably back toward Boston.
Back to Jenna.
But he couldn't just walk away from Corinne. He owed her more than that. Because of him, because of his carelessness in protecting her, she'd been yanked away from everything she knew, forced to endure unspeakable torture at Dragos's hands. Because of him, her life had been shattered.
How could he simply ignore all of that and go back to the happiness he'd found with Jenna?
As if conjured by the weight of his dark thoughts alone, he felt Corinne's presence behind him.
Reichen and Claire said nothing as they both glanced past him, then turned to walk away together, leaving him alone to face the ghost of his past failures.
She was bathed and dressed in clean clothing. But God, she was still so small and fragile. The long-sleeved fleece top and yoga pants hung loosely off her tiny frame. Her cheeks were pale and gaunt. Dark circles rose beneath her once-sparkling, almond-shaped eyes.
With her raven hair pulled back in a long ponytail, he could see that she had aged since he'd last seen her at eighteen. Although the passage of years would put her in her nineties now, Corinne looked closer to thirty.
Only the regular ingestion of Breed blood would have preserved her youth, and Brock was appalled to imagine the circumstances of how those feedings might have occurred while she was in Dragos's terrible labs.
"Jesus, Corinne," he murmured, moving toward her when she remained frozen and silent a few feet away from him in the upstairs hall. "I don't even know where to begin."
Small nicks and scars blemished the face that had been so flawless in his memory. Her eyes were still exotic, still bold enough that they didn't flinch--not even under his stricken scrutiny--but there was an edge to her gaze now. Gone was the playful imp, the sweet innocent. In her place stood a quiet, calculating survivor.
He reached out to touch her, but she backed away with a small shake of her head. He let his hand drop, fist hanging at his side. "Ah, Christ, Corinne. Can you ever forgive me?"
Her slim brows knitted slightly. "No ..."
Her softly voiced denial blasted him deeply. He deserved it, he knew, and he could hardly say a word in his own defense. He'd failed her. Perhaps more than if she had died all those years ago. Death would have been better than what she'd likely endured while imprisoned by a sick bastard like Dragos.
"I am sorry," he murmured, determined to get the words out even though she was mutely shaking her head, her frown deepening. "I know my apology doesn't mean anything now. It doesn't change a damned thing for you, Corinne ... but I want you to know that a day hasn't gone by that I didn't think about you and wish that I had been there. I wish I could have traded places with you, my life instead of yours--"
"No," she said, her voice stronger than before. "No, Brock. Is that what you thought? That I blamed you for what happened to me?"
He stared, astounded by the lack of anger in her eyes. "You have every right to blame me. I was supposed to protect you."
Her dark gaze went a little sad now. "You did. No matter how impossible I was, you always kept me safe."
"Not that night," he reminded her grimly.
"That night, I don't know what happened," she murmured. "I don't know who took me, but there was nothing you could do, Brock. You were never to blame. I never wanted you to think that."
"I looked everywhere for you, Corinne. For weeks, months ... years after they pulled the body from the river--your body, I thought--I kept looking for you." He sucked in a sharp breath. "I never should have let you out of my sight that night, not even for a second. I failed--"
"No," she said, shaking her head slowly, her face devoid of any recrimination, utterly forgiving. "You never failed me. You sent me back inside the club that night because you thought I would be safer there. How could you have known I would be taken? You always did everything right for me, Brock."
He shook his head, astonished by her absolution, humbled by the resolve in her voice. She didn't blame him, and some of the leaden guilt he'd been carrying for so long simply broke away.
In the wash of relief that poured over him, he thought of Jenna, and the life he wanted to begin with her.
"You are involved with someone," Corinne said, studying him in his silence. "The woman who helped save all of us today."
He nodded, pride swelling inside him despite the dull ache of regret that still held him when he looked at the young girl--now the frail, serious woman--that Corinne had become during her years of imprisonment with Dragos.
"You're in love?" she asked.
He couldn't deny it, not even for her. "Yeah, I am. Her name is Jenna."
Corinne smiled sadly. "She's a lucky woman. I am pleased that you're happy, Brock."
Overwhelmed with gratitude and hope, he couldn't help himself from reaching out to Corinne and pulling her into a tight embrace. She was stiff in his arms at first, her small body flinching as if the contact startled her. But then she loosened slightly, her hands coming to rest lightly on his back.
He let go after a moment and drew away from her. "What about you?
Will you be all right, Corinne?"
She gave him a weak smile as she lifted one frail shoulder. "All I need now is to go home." Something empty and raw, something that seemed to bleed inside her like an open wound, shadowed her gaze. "All I need now is to be with my family."
Dragos's lieutenant trembled as he broke the day's bad news.
All of the females Dragos had collected over the past several decades for his private laboratory--the ones who'd survived his prolonged experimentations and breeding requirements, that is--had been discovered and released by the Order.
Even worse, it had been the Order's women, not Lucan or his warriors, who made the discovery earlier that day. The Minion nun who'd served him, first as a shelter worker who had assisted him in locating Breedmates for his cause, then, more recently, as the warden of his little prison by the sea, had failed to protect his interests. The useless cow was dead, but not before she'd cost him the roughly twenty females in her care.
And now the Order had managed to chip away at another brick in the bedrock of his operation.
First, they took his autonomy, ending his years of unchecked power as a director within the Enforcement Agency. Then they took his secret lab, raiding his headquarters and forcing him to ground. Next, they killed the Ancient, although Dragos likely would have put the creature down sooner than later himself.
And now this.
Standing just inside the vestibule of Dragos's hotel suite in Boston, his lieutenant fidgeted with his hat, wringing it in front of him like a wet rag. "I don't know how they managed to find the captives' location, sire. Perhaps they'd been watching the house for some reason. Perhaps it was pure luck that brought them there and they--"
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