Breedmates, a rarity among their mortal sisters, were identifiable by their unique ESP talents and personal blood scent, as well as a small scarlet birthmark somewhere on their bodies in the shape of a teardrop falling into the cradle of a crescent moon.

Although Jenna had been born human, to call her mortal now would not be quite accurate. "Gideon tells me your latest blood work looks good. A few fluctuations in cell counts, but no more big surprises."

The tall brunette gave a sardonic laugh. "Nothing too unusual. Still a cyborg freak in progress."

"Freakin' hot, if you ask me," added her mate, Brock. The huge black warrior flashed her a broad smile that held a hint of fangs. "I kinda dig having my own personal RoboCop."

"Oh, yeah," she replied, smiling along with him. "I'll remind you of that the day I'm strong enough to kick your vampire butt."

Brock exhaled an exaggerated sigh. "Damn, woman. You already have me on my knees where you're concerned. Now you want me on my ass?"

Across the room, Nikolai laughed. "Hey, welcome to my world, man."

The jibe earned him a playful cuff in the shoulder from Renata. She reached over to Mira and covered the girl's ears before adding quietly "On their ass or on their back, it's all good. Right, Jen?"

At Jenna's chuckling agreement, Brock drew her close and planted a kiss on her mouth. He wrapped his palm around the back of her neck, possessive but tender as he gazed into his mate's brown eyes. "She knows she's got me, any way she wants me. Forever, if I have anything to say about it."

Where his fingers rested at Jenna's nape was a rice-size bit of alien biotech matter embedded beneath her skin. An unwanted souvenir she'd woken up with following a recent, prolonged attack by an Ancient, the last of the eight vampiric otherworlders who'd fathered the first generation of the Breed on Earth. Jenna emerged from that ordeal miraculously alive, but changed in many ways. She was still changing, evolving both physically and genetically.

Her body was able to heal itself from injury, something Gideon described as adaptive regeneration - similar to the way the Breed healed, except in Jenna's case, she didn't require ingested blood to aid the process. She didn't have fangs or blood thirst, but she was stronger and faster than any human, as supernaturally agile as any of the Breed. Gideon wasn't entirely certain, but early tests seemed to indicate that some of the Ancient's DNA contained within the biotech chip was integrating with Jenna's genetic structure. Overtaking it, on several levels. Part of that was obvious, even to the casual observer.

Curling around to her shoulders from the back of her neck, where the implant resided, were the swirling arcs and flourishes of a growing dermaglyph. The skin markings were unique to Lucan's kind and the otherworlders who fathered them, yet this human woman now bore her own. Jenna's glyph had never changed colors or pulsed as Lucan and his Breed brethren's did in moments of extreme emotion or hunger. Her glyph's color remained static, just a shade darker than her fair skin.

And then there was the matter of Jenna's tendency to speak in the Ancients' language while she was asleep. The nightmares were a new development, having come on strong in just the last couple of days. Violent dreams of combat and catastrophe.

The Order was still trying to make sense of everything Jenna was becoming, and it seemed that one key to solving that question might be found in deciphering the alien words and images that plagued her unconscious mind. Lazaro Archer had enlisted himself to assist on that front. At somewhere near a thousand years old and a first-generation Breed like Lucan and Tegan, Archer also brought the useful experience of having spent more time than most in the company of his Ancient sire. Relying on his memory of the otherworlders' language, Archer was helping Jenna to journal all that she could in the hopes that the writings would offer some answers.

Lucan was about to ask for a quick update when the sound of his own mate's voice behind him snagged his full attention. "I hope you weren't planning on decorating that Christmas tree without us."

Gabrielle snaked her arm around his waist and smiled up at him as he wrapped her in the shelter of his arm. Just the feel of her close to him, her soft brown eyes like melted chocolate, made his pulse kick into a harder rhythm.

"Ohh, it's beautiful," said Dante's mate, Tess, who'd come into the room as well now. She held their three-day-old infant son in her arms, a pink-skinned, swaddled bundle that cooed and gurgled within the pale blue blanket that surrounded his tiny form. She lowered her voice to a tender whisper as she dipped her face toward her child. "Look at this, Xander. Your very first Christmas tree."

As she spoke, Gideon's longtime mate, Savannah, and Elise, who'd been mated to Tegan for only the past year, entered the great room too. It didn't take more than a moment for all of the women, Mira included, to cluster around Tess and the baby. Not even Gabrielle was immune. She ditched Lucan without a word, apparently drawn like the others by some invisible, female- mesmerizing beacon to the presence of such a little package of innocent life.

Lucan spared the baby and his admirers only a passing notice, and begrudging at that. He'd long felt that the Order's base of operations was no place for children, let alone helpless infants. Then again, until he'd met and fallen in love with Gabrielle, he hadn't been too keen on females underfoot at the compound either.

Not that this was a compound, exactly. Or anything close to a viable command base, least of all now, when the Order needed every tactical advantage it could get in this war with Dragos. He looked around him, at the borrowed Darkhaven in the middle of a secluded forest, the cozy great room with its fireplace and soaring rafters and the enormous pine that stretched up toward them, fragrant with the evergreen scent of the outdoors. He looked at the people who stood around him there, most of his brothers in arms and their beloved mates. The family he'd never wanted but had somehow ended up having anyway.

And then he looked at Gabrielle.

She was his irresistible beacon. His greatest strength, and his most vulnerable weakness. She was his heart. And it was there that he felt a tightness growing as he watched her stroke the velvety cheek of the baby in Tess's arms. She leaned her face down and kissed the infant's delicately rounded brow, and the pure beauty in that single instant made the fist around Lucan's heart squeeze even tighter.

He didn't want to acknowledge this thing that was infiltrating his body. This queer ache deep inside him that could mean no good, especially now.

It was a relief to hear the sudden, long stride of boots pounding in the hallway. The urgent beat thrust him into battle mode in an instant, even before Tegan appeared, trouble written across the warrior's stern face. "More bad news out of Boston."

"Chase?" Lucan asked, dreading the answer as the rest of the room fell into an equally grave silence.

Tegan nodded. "Gideon just got wind of it on an Internet news-feed. Senator Clarence is dead, Lucan. Brutally attacked and killed in his home, along with several of his security detail. And guess who vanished without a trace from the police station last night?"

Lucan's veins erupted with fury. "Son of a bitch. What the fuck is wrong with Harvard?" But he didn't really need to ask that, and Tegan didn't bother to answer. They'd both brushed shoulders with the addiction that Chase was suffering from now. And if it turned out that Bloodlust had driven him to kill - especially so blatantly, and such a highly visible individual whose death could have irrevocable consequences for all of the Breed nation - then Chase had effectively just signed his own death warrant.

CHASE FLICKED UP the collar of his coat as he rounded a corner off a dark side street in the city and headed deeper into the evening crush of pedestrians and rush-hour commuters. His gunshot wounds were bleeding again. He could feel the liquid heat of his own blood seeping through the fabric of the baggy jeans and lumberjack flannel shirt he'd pinched from a church thrift shop box overflowing with holiday donations. His tan construction boots were too tight by a full size and the dark wool-blend coat carried the faint smell of mothballs, but he was warm. Too warm, in fact. His skin felt fiery, stretched too tight around him.

He knew it was the hunger calling him.

It had started as a prickling annoyance about an hour ago, his body's way of telling him that night was falling and it was time to feed.

Head pounding, veins jangling more insistently than an alarm clock, he'd woken up in an abandoned mill in Malden, where he'd gone after paying his unannounced visit to the Minion senator's house. He'd been lucky to find the shelter last night. Luckier still that his exhaustion had overwhelmed his addiction's greed. He wouldn't be the first of his kind to get stupid from Bloodlust and end up ashing himself in the morning.

But he hadn't fallen into that abyss yet.

The way his stomach was twisting on itself, he had to wonder if the plunge into blood madness wasn't actually a relief in the end. God knew, fighting it off every waking second was its own brand of hell.

The blood he'd taken from the nurse had given him the boost he needed to escape the infirmary and take care of Dragos's mind slave, but he was paying the price for it now. Like a neglected lover suddenly shown a brief but passing interest, his blood thirst demanded all of his undivided attention. It sent him prowling the street, back into the bustle of the city more out of selfish, slavish need than out of any sense of righteous purpose or duty.

His hooded gaze slid from one human to another, temptation everywhere as he strode among them like a wraith. Without intending to, he found himself falling in behind a group of young women toting shopping bags and long rolls of wrapping paper. He casually followed them as they made their way up the street, chattering and laughing with one another. While his hunger urged them to head for the poorly lit parking lot at the end of the block, the women instead hung an abrupt right and entered the din of an Irish pub.

As they disappeared into the crowded establishment, Chase slowed his pace outside. His fangs were sharp against his tongue, and under the low tilt of his head, he could see the faint glow from twin points of amber reflecting his gaze back at him in the pub's garland-draped, light-festooned window.

He had to get a grip, get this thing under control. He knew where it was leading him, of course. He'd seen it happen to better men than he. Had seen it all too recently in his own family, in a promising young kid with the whole world ahead of him. Lost to Bloodlust and taken for good in a single, damning action that had haunted Chase ever since.

Jesus, had it really been more than a year since his nephew's death?

It felt like a matter of days sometimes. Other times, like now, with his own feral reflection staring back at him, it felt like centuries had passed.

And he could hardly afford to stand around rehashing the past. Keep moving; that's the best thing he could do. And if he wanted a snowball's chance of beating back his hunger tonight, he'd better get his ass away from the general human population and find someplace to sweat it out alone. The way he was hurting - and the way his wounds were lingering, his body's healing in need of fresh red cells - it wasn't wise for him to be anywhere public.

Chase started to turn away, but through the pub windows, a flash of movement on one of the wall-mounted TV screens caught his eye. Behind a yammering blond news reporter covering a story from earlier that day, he caught a glimpse of silky caramel brown hair and a pretty face he recognized instantly.

Tavia Fairchild, being escorted out of a Boston office building by several police officers and federal agents sometime that morning.

Chase stared at her image on the screen. Her cheeks were slack, gaze stricken with shock and grief as law enforcement hurried her toward a waiting vehicle outside the government building. A ticker at the bottom of the news video confirmed the senator's killing and a suspect still at large. The video went split screen to show his mug shot, but Chase only glanced at it. His attention was fixed on something else - something that made his blood run cold in his veins. He peered closer at one of the cops who was taking Tavia out of the building. Not the detective from the station but another man - a uniformed officer with dark hair and the flat gaze of a mind slave. Holy hell. Just how deep did Dragos's reach go?

And what did it mean for Tavia Fairchild if his Minions were keeping her close in their sights?

Chase's fury spiked as he watched the Minion cop put his hands on her to assist her into the vehicle - the same way it had spiked when he'd seen her stand next to Senator Clarence in the police station viewing room. Although he was far from being anyone's hero, Chase felt the tarnished inklings of his old sense of honor grind to life inside him when he thought of her being anywhere near Dragos or his legion of soulless servants.

The morning news report was easily eight hours old. Potentially eight hours that Tavia had been breathing the same air as the Minion cop who climbed into the car with her and the police detective and drove off. If Dragos had wanted to harm the woman, he'd had plenty of time to get it done. Not that Chase should be the one to save her. Hell, when it came right down to it, he doubted he could even save himself.

But that didn't keep his blood from surging with new purpose.

It didn't keep his feet from moving, stepping away from the pub and heading across the street for the shadows. He vanished into the gloom, all of his predatory focus rooted to a single goal: finding Tavia Fairchild.

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, Chase was crouched like a gargoyle at the edge of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department rooftop, his eye trained on the employee parking lot below. After an end- of-shift parade of uniformed officers and shuffling office types trickled down to nil, his patience was strained and he was about two seconds away from storming the place to find the cop he was looking for. But then, at last, pay dirt. He recognized the middle-age police detective as soon as the human exited the building.