"The Order," Jenna repeated, finding that Alex's explanation was raising more questions about the place than it answered. She'd never been anywhere like this before. It was alien in its high-tech design, a far cry from anything she'd ever seen in rural Alaska or any of the places she'd been in the Lower Forty-eight.


Adding to the strangeness, beneath her slippered feet, the polished white marble was inlaid with glossy black stone that made a running pattern of odd symbols along the floor--arcing flourishes and complex geometric shapes that somewhat resembled tribal tattoos.


Dermaglyphs.


The word leapt into her thoughts out of nowhere, an answer to a question she didn't even know to ask. It was an unfamiliar word, as unfamiliar as everything about this place and the people who apparently lived here. And yet the certainty with which her mind supplied the term made it feel as though she must have thought or said it thousands of times.


Impossible.


"Jenna, are you all right?" Alex paused in the corridor a couple of steps ahead of where Jenna's own feet had ceased moving. "Are you tired?


We can rest for a minute, if you need to."


"No. I'm okay." She felt a frown creasing her forehead as she glanced up from the intricate design on the smooth floor. "I'm just ... confused."


And that was due to more than just the peculiarity of where she found herself now. Everything felt different to her, even her own body. Some part of her intellect knew that after five days unconscious in a sickbed, she probably should be exhausted from even the short distance she'd just walked.


Muscles didn't naturally rebound from that kind of inactivity without a bit of pain and retraining. She knew that from her own personal experience, from the accident four years ago that had put her in the hospital ICU in Fairbanks. The same accident that had killed her husband and young daughter.


Jenna remembered all too well the weeks of hard rehabilitation it had taken to get her back on her feet and walking again. And yet now, after the ordeal she'd just awakened from, her limbs felt steady and nimble.


Completely unaffected by the prolonged lack of use.


Her body felt oddly revived. Stronger, yet, somehow not quite her own.


"None of this makes sense to me," she murmured, as she and Alex continued their progress down the long corridor.


"Oh, Jen." Alex touched her shoulder with a gentle hand. "I know about the confusion you must be feeling right now. Believe me, I know. I wish none of this had happened to you. I wish there was some way to take back what you've gone through."


Jenna blinked slowly, registering the depth of her friend's regret. She had questions--so many questions--but as they walked deeper into the maze of corridors, the mingled sounds of voices carried out from a glass-walled room up ahead. She heard Brock's deep, rolling baritone and the lighter, quickly spoken, British-tinged syllables of the man named Gideon.


As she and Alex neared the meeting room, she saw that the one called Lucan was there, too, as were Kade and two others who only fortified the large-and-lethal vibe that these guys seemed to wear as casually as their black fatigues and well-stocked weapons belts.


"This is the tech lab," Alex explained to her. "All the computer equipment you see in there is Gideon's domain. Kade says he's some kind of genius when it comes to technology. Probably a genius when it comes to just about everything."


As they paused in the passageway, Kade glanced up and gave Alex a lingering look through the glass. Electricity crackled in his silver eyes, and Jenna would have to be unconscious in her sickbed not to feel the shared heat between Alex and her man.


Jenna got her own share of looks from the others gathered in the glass-enclosed room. Lucan and Gideon both turned her way, as did two other big men who were not familiar to her. One of them a severe-looking, golden-eyed blond whose stare felt as cold and unfeeling as a blade, the other an olive-skinned man with a thick crown of chocolate-brown waves that accentuated his long-lashed topaz eyes and an unfortunate mass of scars that riddled the left side of his otherwise flawless face. There was curiosity in the men's frank stares, maybe a bit of suspicion, too.


"That's Hunter and Rio," Alex said, indicating the menacing blond and the scarred brunet respectively. "They're members of the Order, too."


Jenna gave a vague nod of acknowledgment, feeling as conspicuous in front of these men as she had her first day on the job with the Alaska State Troopers, a fresh-from-the-academy rookie and a female besides. But here, the feeling wasn't so much about gender discrimination or petty male insecurities. She'd known enough of that bullshit during her tenure with the Staties to realize this was something different. Something a whole lot deeper.


Here, she felt that by virtue of her mere presence, she was treading on sacred ground. In some unspoken way, she got the sense from the five pairs of eyes studying her that in this place, among these people, she was somehow the ultimate outsider.


Even Brock's dark, absorbing gaze settled on her with a weighty appraisal that seemed to say he wasn't sure he liked seeing her there, regardless of the care and kindness he'd shown her back in the infirmary.


Jenna wouldn't have argued that point for a second. She tended to agree with the vibe she was getting through the glass walls of the tech lab.


She didn't belong here. These were not her people.


No, something about each of the hard, unreadable faces fixed on her told her that they were not her kind at all. They were something else ...


something other.


But after what she'd been through in her cabin in Alaska--after what she'd seen of herself in the infirmary room--could she even be certain of what she was now?


The question chilled her to her bones.


She didn't want to think about it. Could hardly bear to accept that she'd been fed upon by something as monstrous and terrifying as the creature that had held her prisoner in her own home all those hours. The same creature that had implanted the bit of foreign matter in her body and turned her life--what little had been left of it--inside out.


What was to become of her now?


How would she ever get back to the woman she was before?


Jenna nearly sagged under the weight of more questions she wasn't ready to consider.


Making it worse, the sense of confusion that had followed her through the corridors of the compound rose up on her again, stronger now.


Everything seemed to amplify around her, from the soft buzz of the fluorescent lights over her head--lights that glared too bright for her sensitive eyes--to the accelerating drum of her heartbeat that seemed to be heading for overdrive, pushing too much blood through her veins. Her skin felt too tight, wrapped around a body that was quickening with some strange new awareness. She had felt its stirrings from the moment she'd opened her eyes in the infirmary, and instead of leveling out, it was getting worse.


Some strange new power seemed to be growing inside her.


Stretching out, awakening ...


"I'm feeling kind of weird," she said to Alex, as her temples ticked with the pound of her pulse, her palms going moist where they remained fisted deep inside the pockets of her robe. "I think I need to get out of here, get some air."


Alex reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Jenna's face.


"Kade's and my quarters are just up this way. You're going to feel much better after a hot shower, I'm sure."


"Okay," Jenna murmured, allowing herself to be guided away from the glass wall of the tech lab and the unnerving stares that followed her.


Several yards ahead in the curving hallway, a pair of elevator doors slid open. Three women walked out wearing snow-dusted winter parkas and wet boots. They were followed by a similarly bundled-up young girl who held a pair of dogs on leashes--a small, exuberant mutt terrier and Alex's regal gray-and-white wolfdog, Luna, which had apparently also made the recent move from Alaska to Boston.


As soon as Luna's sharp blue eyes lit on Alex and Jenna, she lunged forward. The girl who held the leash let out a little yelp, more giggle than anything, her parka hood falling back and freeing a mop of blond hair to bounce around her delicate face.


"Hi, Alex!" she said, laughing as Luna pulled her along the corridor in her wake. "We just got back from a walk outside. It's freezing up there!"


Reaching out to pet Luna's big head and neck, Alex gave the child a welcoming smile. "Thanks for taking her. I know she likes being with you, Mira."


The little girl bobbed her head enthusiastically. "I like Luna, too. So does Harvard."


Whether in protest or agreement, the scrappy-looking terrier barked once and danced frenetically around the larger dog's legs, stubby tail wagging about sixty miles an hour.


"Hello," said one of the three women. "I'm Gabrielle. It's good to see you up and around, Jenna."


"I'm sorry," Alex interjected, rising to make quick introductions.


"Jenna, Gabrielle is Lucan's Breedmate."


"Hi." Jenna brought her hand out of her robe pocket and extended it in greeting to the pretty auburn-haired young woman. Beside Gabrielle, a striking African-American woman offered a warm smile as she extended her hand in welcome.


"I'm Savannah," she said, her voice like velvet and cream, instantly making Jenna feel at home. "I'm sure you've already met Gideon, my mate."


Jenna nodded, feeling ill-equipped for pleasantries despite the warmth of the other women.


"And this is Tess," Alex added, indicating the last of the trio, a heavily pregnant blonde with tranquil, sea-green eyes that seemed wise beyond their years. "She and her mate, Dante, are expecting their son very soon."


"Just a few more weeks," Tess said as she briefly clasped Jenna's hand, her other coming to rest lightly on the large swell of her belly. "We've all been very concerned about you since you arrived here, Jenna. Do you need anything? If there's something we can do for you, I hope you'll let us know."


"Can you zap me back in time about a week?" Jenna asked, only half joking. "I'd really love to erase the past several days and go back to my life in Alaska. Can anyone here do that for me?"


An uneasy look passed between the women.


"I'm afraid that's not possible," Gabrielle said. Although regret softened her expression, Lucan's mate spoke with the serene confidence of a woman cognizant of her own authority but disinclined to abuse it. "What you've been through is terrible, Jenna, but the only way through it is forward. I am sorry."


"No sorrier than me," Jenna said quietly.


Alex murmured a few hushed words of good-bye to the other women.


Then she scratched Luna behind the ears and gave the wolfdog a quick kiss on the snout before navigating Jenna back toward their trek up the passageway. Somewhere in the distance, Jenna picked up the harsh grate of metal striking metal, and the muffled sounds of laughter amid a spirited conversation--by the tone of it, a good, old-fashioned pissing contest--


between at least one woman and no less than three men.


Jenna shuffled alongside Alex as they turned a corner in the corridor and the din of voices and weaponry faded away. "How many people live here?"


Alex cocked her head, considering. "The Order has ten members right now who live here at the compound. All but Brock, Hunter, and Chase are mated, so that makes seven of us Breedmates, plus Mira."


"Eighteen people in total," Jenna said, absently counting them off in her mind.


"Nineteen now," Alex corrected, as she slanted a gauging look over her shoulder.


"I'm temporary," Jenna said, walking along, up another length of marble hallway, then pausing behind Alex as she slowed in front of an unmarked door. "As soon as one of your new secret agent pals figures out how to get rid of the thing in my neck, I'll be leaving. I don't belong here, Alex. My life is in Alaska."


The way Alex's sympathetic smile wavered on her lips put a lurch in Jenna's pulse.


"Well, here we are." She opened the door to a private apartment and motioned Jenna inside. She walked ahead of her and turned on a table lamp, filling the spacious quarters with a muted glow. Alex seemed anxious somehow, walking through the place like a whirlwind and talking too fast. "I want you to make yourself at home, Jen. Relax for a minute in the living room, if you like. I'll get you some fresh clothes and start the shower for you. Unless you'd rather close your eyes for a little while? I could give you one of Kade's T-shirts to sleep in and turn down the bed for you."


"Alex."


She disappeared into the adjacent bedroom, still talking a mile a minute. "Are you hungry? Would you like me to fix you something to eat?"


Jenna walked over to the open doorway. "Tell me what's going on here. I mean, what's really going on."


Finally, Alex paused.


She pivoted her head around and just stared for what felt like a full minute of silence.


"I want to know," Jenna said. "Damn it, I need to know. Please, Alex, as my friend. Tell me the truth."


Alex stared at her, let out a long exhalation as she slowly shook her head. "Oh, Jen. There's so much you don't know. Things I didn't know myself until just a couple of weeks ago, after Kade showed up in Harmony."


Jenna stood there, watching her normally frank and forthright friend struggle for words. "Tell me, Alex. What is this all about?"


"Vampires, Jen." The word was whispered, but Alex's gaze didn't waver. "You know they're real now. You saw that for yourself. But what you don't know is that they're not like we've been taught to believe from movies and horror novels."


Jenna scoffed. "That thing that attacked me was pretty horrific."

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