That was why he'd always frowned on warriors taking a mate, had all but forbidden any of them from starting a family while serving the Order. It was just two summers ago when his point had proven out tragically in the Boston compound when Conlan, a member of the Order for more than a hundred years, took a fatal blast of bomb shrapnel and C-4 explosives while on patrol pursuing a Minion. Conlan's grieving widow, Danika, had been forced to release her dead mate to the sun while pregnant with their firstborn. She'd decided to leave Boston soon afterward, devastated and bereft.

Not that the painful lesson had been warning enough to any of the other warriors to avoid emotional entanglements. Somehow, within the space of less than two years, they'd nearly all taken Breedmates - Lucan himself included. Things had only gotten more complicated when Niko and Renata brought eight-year-old Mira in with them as their own child when they'd paired up some six months ago, and now Dante and Tess had newborn Xander Raphael.

Lucan tilted his face up to glower at the pale gray wedge of a waning crescent moon peeking through the canopy of soaring pines overhead. He'd have to be a fool to think about adding another innocent life to the potential casualty list, should this situation with Dragos escalate into the catastrophe Lucan dreaded was coming.

He raked a hand through his damp hair and exhaled a curse into the frigid, dark night. "I didn't realize you'd come back already."

Gabrielle's warm voice jolted him to attention. He turned to face her and was struck, as always, by how beautiful she was. Tonight her long auburn hair was swept up off her delicate nape in a loose twist, curling tendrils framing her pretty face and soothing brown eyes. She was dressed all in black - not the soft colors and easy lines she normally wore, but a low-cut silk blouse unbuttoned to just between her breasts. The fabric was filmy, skating over her alabaster skin and lacy black bra. Her skirt was fitted and clinging to her every curve, hinting at the flare of her hips and her long, lean legs. Sharp-toed, glossy leather boots lifted her a good five inches on thin stiletto heels.

No wonder he'd been doomed from the moment he first laid eyes on her.

Lucan cleared his throat. "I got back about an hour ago. You look amazing."

She smiled and walked out to meet him, crossing her arms around herself to rub at the cold. Her breath puffed in a light cloud as she spoke. "You've been home for an hour? What are you doing out here?"

Lucan shrugged and brought her under the warmth of his sheltering arm. "Just getting some air."

"It's freezing," she pointed out. "And you're naked."

He put his mouth to her temple. "Suddenly I wish you were too."

Her quiet laugh didn't seem as light as it sounded. "How did it go with Kellan tonight?" "He hunted," Lucan replied. "He fed."

Lucan grunted. "It'll be good news when he doesn't need to be told to do it or require an escort to make sure it happens."

"He's been through a lot," Gabrielle reminded him. "And he's just a boy. Give him time." Lucan nodded, guessing she had a point. Kellan had been none too pleased to discover Lucan had been serious about taking him out personally to find a blood Host that night if Lazaro hadn't already made firm plans to see the task done. At nightfall, Lucan had found the youth in the Order's makeshift weapons room, engaged in solo mock combat, wielding a pair of long daggers. He wasn't very good - all gangly arms and lanky, uncooperative legs - but he wouldn't have had much practice at battle while living in the Darkhavens. He'd almost cut off his foot with a fumbled blade when Lucan announced they were going hunting right then, just the two of them, together.

Lazaro Archer would have been perfectly capable and ready to take the boy himself, but Lucan had been curious. He'd taken Kellan to Bangor, the nearest city with a decent population and enough public gathering places to select from without being noticed as anything more than tourists from "away."

Kellan had chosen an old drunk sleeping off a bender in the downtown park - easy prey, but the exercise tonight hadn't been about challenge or technique. Lucan had stood back while the boy quickly fed, then left his blood Host in a peaceful, trance-induced drowse. Kellan didn't say two words to him on the drive back to headquarters, but his eyes had lost their dark circles and his skin color was flushed a ruddy, healthy pink from the feeding.

Gabrielle turned a questioning look on him. "You've been back all this time, but you didn't come to find me and let me know? That's not like you."

He kissed her furrowed brow. "You were with Tess. I didn't want to disturb, in case they were resting. Besides, I'd asked Gideon for a systems check earlier today and he'd been waiting for me to return."

Gabrielle's inquisitiveness took on a suspicious edge. "If I didn't know better, I might think you were trying to avoid me."

He scoffed at the idea, but part of him wondered if she could be right. He cast a dark glance up at the night sky and that damned sliver of a moon suspended within it. This was the fertile time for Gabrielle, and for every Breedmate who shared a blood bond with one of Lucan's kind. It took blood and seed given together, a mutual feeding at the moment of release - during the cycle of a crescent moon - to create the spark of new Breed life.

The act was sacred, not to be entered into with any trace of doubt.

Gabrielle stared at him in his silence. She took a small step forward, moving out from under his arm to gaze up at the black velvet sky herself. She released a small sigh, wordless but rife with understanding. She gave her back to the moon and faced him, leaning against the waist-high railing of the deck. "I hear there's been word from Hunter tonight. He and Corinne are on their way north?"

Lucan nodded, more than willing to take her offered detour in the conversation. "Had to wait out the daylight in Pennsylvania, but they're on the road again tonight. They expect to make New England before daybreak, arriving here tomorrow night."

It still seemed strange sometimes to think of Hunter as part of the Order, but the lethal Gen One who'd once served as assassin for Dragos had proven himself to be a vital asset in the short time he'd been with the warriors. Now he was returning from a mission in New Orleans - one that had netted the Order valuable intel from a key area of Dragos's operation. Hunter was bringing that intel with him.

He was bringing something else too: Corinne, his new mate, and the boy she'd given birth to some thirteen years ago, while she'd been held captive in one of Dragos's genetics labs. "I can't say I'm surprised that Hunter and Corinne are together," Gabrielle remarked, as if she were tuned into Lucan's thoughts as much as her blood bond to him had connected them emotionally. "They're both survivors of Dragos's evil. Now they have a fresh start, together. Nathan too, that poor child."

Lucan considered Corinne's Breed son, one of many sired on scores of imprisoned Breedmates whom Dragos had used to create his own private army of first generation Breed assassins. Those Gen One offspring all shared the same paternal DNA - taken from the Ancient that Dragos had kept hidden and secret for centuries, enslaved to do his bidding until the otherworlder escaped to the wilds of Alaska. That Ancient was dead now, killed by the Order after cutting a bloody swath through a number of settlements up there before the attack on Jenna that had left her changed forever.

But his laboratory-bred progeny lived on, raised in solitude by Minions and schooled by Dragos in the art of killing. They were called Hunters, stripped of their identities and all humanity from the time they were born. Boys like Corinne's son, Nathan. And the Order's own Hunter, whose imprisoned Breedmate mother hadn't lived long enough to see freedom from her captivity or been given the opportunity to search for her lost child the way Corinne recently had. Thanks to the dogged efforts of Gabrielle and the other women of the Order, Corinne and the few remaining Breedmate survivors had been located in their secret prison and set free to try to begin their lives again.

"How many boys like Nathan do you think there are?" Gabrielle asked.

Lucan shook his head. "Too many. Dragos has been breeding his assassins for decades, beginning with Hunter, fifty-odd years ago."

"And I suppose we shouldn't expect that Dragos's experiments were limited to his breeding labs," she added, her tone grave. "God only knows the extent of his sick work." "With any luck," Lucan said, "the lab intel that Hunter's bringing back with him from New Orleans will give us some idea about that."

Gabrielle's mouth curved. "I'm sure Gideon can't wait to get his hands on the computer files. Not to mention the genetic samples Dragos had been keeping in cold storage."

Lucan nodded. "I've been hearing about it from Gideon ever since Hunter first contacted us, saying he had the cryo tanks and lab records and would soon be heading our way."

The recovery of the laboratory intel was only the latest blow the Order had dealt Dragos's operation. It was also very likely the thing that had pushed him to the edge, made him desperate enough to pull the trigger on the bombing of the building in Boston and deliver human law enforcement right to the Order's front door.

"This thing with Dragos is far from over," Lucan said, sharing his troubling thoughts with Gabrielle. "He's not finished, not by a long shot. He's going to do something that can't be fixed. I can feel it in my bones. We're never going to be able to go back to the way things were." Gabrielle stepped toward him. She wrapped her arms around his naked waist, her cheek coming to rest warmly against his chest. "You're doing all you can. We all are, Lucan. Put Dragos out of your head for now."

He ground his molars together, ready to tell her there was no way to put the bastard out of his mind. Dragos lived inside him like a ghost now, mocking and foul, oily with menace.

Gabrielle reached up and took his tense jaw in her tender hands. She brought his mouth down to hers, pressing a slow kiss to his lips. "Try to forget him for a little while," she said. Her eyes shone up at him with a hint of mischief. "It is your birthday, after all. Or did you forget?" He grunted, surprised at the reminder. "I never give the day much thought," he said as he stroked his fingertips along the graceful line of her throat.

"Well, I do," she said. "And I have something for you."

She drew out of his arms and walked back into their bedroom. He followed behind her, unable to take his eyes from the sway of her perfect ass that looked even more incredible with every long stride she took in those spiked black heels. She pulled something from out of a bureau drawer on the other side of the room and held it behind her as she turned to face him. "It's not much, just something I thought you'd like to have."

"You didn't have to get me anything," he replied, voice a bit thick now that his fangs were erupting out of his gums in desire for his woman. He wanted to peel her out of that clingy skirt and lick her from the toe of her glossy boots to the peachy tips of the nipples that were pressing through the lacy black bra and gauzy silk of her blouse. "I already have everything I could possibly want."

She brought the gift around, a large, folded square of fabric tied with a red satin ribbon. Gabrielle placed it in his hands. "Open it."

He tugged the bow loose and untied the ribbon. As he began to unfold the embroidered swatch, he realized at once what it was. The tapestry was old - centuries old, a medieval depiction of a dark knight on horseback, a hilltop castle smoldering in the distance behind him. Lucan remembered that moment very well; he'd lived it. He had commissioned the tapestry not long after he'd founded the Order, never suspecting the secrets it would hold within its design, or for how long it would keep them.

The tapestry was important to him for many reasons, but mostly now because his Breedmate had seen to it that the piece made it safely out of Boston.

"You were so busy gathering up combat gear and equipment, I decided to bring a few things of yours from before."

Lucan glanced up to meet his beloved's gaze. "Thank you. I've never had a nicer gift." He put the tapestry down on the bed nearby and pulled Gabrielle into his arms. Their mouths met in a deep kiss, unhurried, sensual. Lucan soaked her in, felt the heat of her body pressed against his naked skin, silk sliding between them as he drew her close and ran his tongue along the wet softness of her lips, desire stirring like a flame meeting gasoline inside him. His breath escaped on a rough growl as he skated his hands along the elegant line of her spine, then down to the strong curve of her backside. She moaned as he caressed and kissed her, the slick tip of her tongue pushing past his teeth and fangs to enter his mouth. Her fingers found his cock and took him in a firm grasp. He was already hard as granite, but her touch sent his blood surging southward, building toward an impossible ache. Mouth locked with his, she toyed with him, lightly stroking his shaft, teasing his balls with just the tips of her fingers.

Lucan brought his hand up between them and palmed her breast, flicking his thumb over the pebbled bead of a nipple that strained against the lace and silk that confined it. He made quick work of the tiny buttons on her blouse, then eased it off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor at their feet. When he started to reach for the front closure on the skimpy bra, Gabrielle took his hand and guided him to her hips.

"Touch me," she whispered around heady kisses. "Feel how much I want you."

He obeyed at once, lifting the long drape of her skirt until he could slide his hand beneath. Her firm thighs were encased in silk stockings that rasped against his roughened fingertips as he stroked up the length of them. The silk ended abruptly, topped off by a band of grippy lace. Her hips and ass were bare.