Tavia put her head under the warm spray and worked a dollop of shampoo into her long hair.
She scrubbed her scalp, feeling the nearly imperceptible outlines of the curved tangle of old scars that tracked up the back of her nape and into her hairline. She rinsed away the soap, then squirted some of the conditioner into her palms and smoothed it on.
In the other room of the suite, a game horn sounded on the television, marking the end of a shot clock. The men's voices carried as they argued the last play and made cutting remarks about the out-of-town team.
Tavia took her time rinsing off, dousing her hair and body, reluctant to let go of the warm, wet peace she was enjoying. But with her stomach starting to growl and the men waiting to order dinner for themselves until she was ready to eat too, she finally reached out to crank the lever on the tub and shower's water supply. It cut off with a squeak.
Naked and dripping, she peeked out from behind the plastic curtain. Listened for a long moment.
Nothing but quiet - not even the sound of the television running now.
She stepped out onto the bath mat. No time to bother with a towel, she grabbed the terry hotel robe from its hook on the back of the door and wrapped it around herself. Wet strands of hair drooped into her face as she hastily tied the belt at her waist and crept forward to put her hand on the doorknob.
Something was wrong. Very wrong. She could feel it in every fiber of her being, nerve endings jolting with sudden, certain alarm.
She slipped out to the empty bedroom and padded silently toward the closed door that led to the suite's living quarters just down the hall.
As she neared, a muffled groan cut short in the other room, followed by a hard thump that vibrated the floor beneath her bare soles.
She didn't need to open the door to know that death waited on the other side, but she couldn't keep her hand from quietly turning the knob. She peered out through the smallest wedge of space she dared. Her eyes met the unseeing gaze of Officer Murphy, lying motionless at the other end of the hallway. A big man, yet his neck was twisted and broken like a doll's, his head turned at a morbid angle on the floor.
Had the intruder killed them all?
It was him, she knew it with a visceral certainty that throbbed in her veins.
Her instincts screamed for her to get out of there now. She spun on her heel and hurried to the curtained slider on the far side of the bed. Fumbling with the lever lock on the handle, she finally wrenched the glass door and screen open. A wintry gust swept inside, blowing fine icy snowflakes into her eyes. Two steps out onto the frigid concrete balcony, she stopped short and exhaled a hissed curse.
The room was ten stories above the street.
No way out, not from here. Whatever was going on in the suite outside her bedroom, she was trapped in the middle of it.
"Shit." Tavia backed away from the open slider. She turned around ... and came up short with a gasp.
The man from her nightmares - the deranged psychopath who'd murdered Senator Clarence in cold blood and undoubtedly now wanted to finish her off too - stood less than two inches from her face.
She opened her mouth to scream but didn't manage even the smallest sound before he clamped one hand around the back of her neck and the other came down swiftly across her lips. His grip was strong, unbreakable. Wild-eyed, terrified, she reached up to grab at his fingers, but they resisted like iron.
"Be still," he rasped, a curt command. His voice was rough and deep, far more powerful up close than it had been last night at the police station. There was something fuller about the grim set of his mouth too, and something not quite right at all about his eyes.
At first she dismissed their odd emberlike glow as a trick of her panicked mind. The pupils seemed distorted somehow, stretched thin and narrow in the center of his burning irises. Impossible that it could be anything but imagined.
But no ... it wasn't distress that made her see it. This was real. As real as the unrelenting heat of his hands on her, fingers searing her nape and pressing hotly against her mouth.
As real as the sharp, elongated white tips of his teeth, which glinted as he parted his lips to speak once more. "I'm not going to hurt you, Tavia."
Here was her nightmare, standing before her in real life.
He wasn't human; he couldn't be. Her mind rejected the word that leapt at her from out of the horror stories and dark fiction Aunt Sarah had chided her for reading when she was a child.
Tavia wasn't sure what he was, but she didn't believe even for a second that he wasn't going to kill her in that next instant like he had the senator and the men in the other room. She struggled against him with all she had now, attempting to twist and fight her way free. But she couldn't budge him off her.
He was strong - as strong as any monster should be.
And with the sudden surge of adrenaline into her bloodstream, Tavia felt her body begin to rebel beneath the forced calm that her medicines provided. Her heart rate jackhammered, sending her pulse throbbing in her temples. She groaned against the fingers that held her mouth closed, all the while trying to will herself out of an anxiety tailspin.
He maneuvered her around and pushed her down onto the bed.
"No!" her mind screamed, the physical cry snuffed in her throat.
She was on her back and struggling uselessly, his hand still flat on her lips. The other had come around swiftly from behind her neck, only to rest across her brow. Here he touched her lightly, the warmth of his broad palm barely skimming the surface of her skin.
"Relax, Tavia," he said, that low, graveled growl not so much menacing now as coaxing. "Close your eyes."
She bucked, thrashing her head beneath the odd comfort of his words. He seemed confused that she wouldn't comply. Those inhuman eyes narrowed, pinning her in a scathing amber glow. "Sleep." It was a command this time, his hand still held to her forehead.
She glared up at him in defiance, letting him read her fury in her own seething gaze. Fighting with her legs, slamming her fists futilely against the rock-solid muscles of his back and shoulders, she made another desperate attempt to break free.
As she shifted and fought, she felt cool air hit the naked skin of her chest. Her hotel robe gaped open in a wide downward V, baring her to his gaze from throat to navel. Baring the worst of her skin's flaws.
Tavia moaned, humiliation making her fright compound into something even more terrible. It was awful enough to be assaulted and in fear of her life. Now this astonishingly inhuman being gaped at her as though she were the freak.
The press of his palm against her mouth fell away on another, more vivid curse. Head cocked in an animalistic angle, his wild amber eyes came back up to her face in obvious disbelief. "What the fuck is this?"
HE WAS HALLUCINATING. Had to be.
Chase knew what Bloodlust could do to one of his kind. He understood how the disease could corrode logic, rob the senses and reason until nothing remained of even the soundest mind. He'd sure as hell felt it nipping at his own sanity in recent days.
Bloodlust had been raking him hard after he left the detective back at the police station parking lot. The hand-to-hand combat with the two unconscious feds and the dead Minion lying in the other room had made it even worse. He was in a bad way, he knew, but never had his affliction manifested in such a crazed mental trick as it did now.
Because what he thought he was seeing on Tavia Fairchild's bared skin was impossible. A pattern of dense but delicate markings tracked her body from neck to torso. They were light-colored, a faint mauve barely darker than her fair skin tone. To his impaired vision, swamped in the amber light of his hunger, the webwork of interconnecting flourishes and twining swirls looked like something he was intimately familiar with.
The markings looked very much like Breed dermaglyphs.
"Impossible," he said, hearing his own confusion in the feral growl of his voice.
Skin designs like these occurred only on his kind. And courtesy of a genetic anomaly of the race, beginning when the Ancients sired their young on Breedmates and created the Breed, all of Chase's kind - for all the thousands of years they'd existed on this planet - were born male. Through the fog of his questionable reason, he was reminded of Jenna Darrow, the woman who'd recently come to the Order from Alaska following an assault by the last of the Ancients. Brock's human mate had marks like these now, but they were minor in comparison and caused by the alien DNA contained in the rice-size bit of biotechnology the Ancient had implanted in her during her ordeal.
This was something altogether different.
Where the thick terry robe was still loosely fastened at Tavia's waist, the intricate skin pattern disappeared beneath the folds of the fabric. He caught a glimpse of more on her hip as she tried to scramble away from him on the bed.
Jesus, how far did they extend?
He reached for the belted tie, about to yank it open.
"No!" she cried, eyes fixed on him in abject horror as she drew the edges closed in trembling fists. "Get away! Don't touch me!"
Her fear jolted him from the insane tack his mind was taking. He hadn't come there to terrify her. His objective had been to see her safe, to make certain the Minion cop accompanying her didn't harm her. At the same time, he'd been damned curious why Dragos would enlist one of his mind slaves to act as her guard.
That question burned more fiercely as he stared down at her white-knuckled hands that gripped the robe closed over her body like her life depended on it.
Chase laid his palm to her forehead once more, another attempt to trance her, but she had a strong mind that didn't want to go down easy. She fought the lull that should have put her under in just a few moments and would have made it easier for him to decide what to do with her next. She pushed and fought, refusing to surrender despite the fear that he could feel rolling off her tall, deceptively athletic body in waves.
And he had other problems stirring now.
In the room outside, one of the federal agents Chase'd knocked unconscious was starting to rouse. If either of them woke and saw him there, eyes throwing off amber sparks and fangs extended to razor-sharp points, his mind scrub on them a few minutes ago would have been for nothing. And he didn't have time for a do-over.
"Stand up," he growled at Tavia Fairchild. He took off his stolen coat and covered her with it, robe and all. Then he fisted his hand in the woolen lapels and hauled her up off the bed. "Come with me."
He gave her little choice. Pulling her along the short hallway to the living room of the hotel suite, he ignored her choked gasp as she saw the signs of the struggle and the three large law enforcement personnel lying in crumpled heaps on the floor. Her breath was coming fast and hard now, on the verge of hyperventilation.
"You killed them," she cried. "Oh, God ... let me go!"
"I only killed the one who needed killing," he said as he dragged her through the room, past the dead Minion. One of the feds moaned, started to move where he lay on the floor nearby. It would only be seconds before he came to, and Chase needed to be gone before that happened. "Please," Tavia choked. "Please, don't do this. Tell me what you want from me!"
God help him, he wasn't sure how to answer that now. All he knew was he had to get out of there and he couldn't leave her behind. So she was coming with him.
When she sucked in a breath and he felt her prepare to let it loose in a scream, he brought the Minion cop's gun around from the back waistband of his pants where he'd stashed it after the scuffle. All it took was one look at the weapon and she got quiet. He never would have used it on her; he was Breed, and that gave him about a dozen other ways he could have threatened her into silence. But the pistol spoke the most convincingly to her mortal sensibilities. "This way," he ordered her. "Quickly."
Shocked and confused, she didn't resist. Chase pushed her into the empty hotel corridor outside the suite, then hustled her toward the back stairwell.
FRESH FROM A SHOWER, Lucan stepped out the French doors of his and Gabrielle's private bedroom at the Maine compound and stood alone on the timber deck. He was naked, beads of water still clinging to his skin, which steamed in tendrils all around him as he walked into the brittle night air. It was cold this far north and this deep into winter, punishingly so. He breathed it in, let it clear his mind and crystallize his thoughts around mission goals and duty. The things he knew best - the burdens he had elected to carry on his shoulders alone when he founded the Order all those centuries ago.
He'd never resented that choice, and he'd be damned if he let himself start doing so now. On a muttered curse, he inhaled another lungful of bracing cold and pushed it deep down, determined to smother the strange ache that had been troubling him all day. It had plagued him longer than that, he had to admit, although it had taken seeing Gabrielle with Dante and Tess's baby before the disturbing ache - the unwanted void - had given itself a name.
Christ, he was sick with it.
He saw his beloved mate near the small Breed infant and knew an instant, intense yearning to see her swell with his own sons. Everything male in him had roared with the need to claim her in that most primal, basic way. In that moment earlier today, he had wanted it more than anything he'd ever known.
And that was something he could not afford to feel right now.
Not when their world was in the midst of war with Dragos and everyone was looking to Lucan to lead. Bad enough he worried for Gabrielle every time he left her behind to walk into combat. He couldn't bear to think of possibly leaving her to raise his child alone.