Lucan put his hand on Hunter's massive shoulder. "I hope to hell you're not mistaken about this, my man. For her sake, and the boy's."

"I do not make mistakes," he replied, the level, almost robotic statement showing a glimpse of the flawless soldier he'd been born and bred to be. But when he met Lucan's gaze, his eyes held a determination that was nothing if not personal. "I stake my own life on this decision, Lucan. I will not let you down. Neither will Nathan."

A tendon ticked in Lucan's jaw as he considered the myriad potential risks, and the trust Hunter was asking from him. Finally, he gave a firm nod. "Bring the boy over."

In moments, Hunter had ushered him forward, his large hand resting on the lean, athletic shoulder of the young killer to steer him toward where Lucan waited, apart from the activity still going on around them in the room.

"Nathan. This is Lucan. He is leader and founder of the Order."

The boy's eyes were blank, unblinking as he stood there mutely. Lucan offered his hand.

"Nathan," he said, tipping his head in greeting as he waited for the boy to respond. He thought his hand would go unaccepted, but then, at the last second, Nathan extended his as well. There was uncertainty in the move, the boy's gesture more a mimic of Lucan's than understanding of what was expected of him. But it was a start. Lucan briefly clasped the cool, startlingly strong fingers in his grasp. "You are safe here, son. You are welcome here."

Eyes seeming to stare right through him, Nathan retracted his hand and fisted it at his side. "Hunter!" squealed a little girl's voice amid a chaotic clamber as she burst into the room, her fine blond hair bouncing. "Hunter, you finally made it back!"

Mira tore into the middle of the gathering like a minicyclone, energetic and loud, totally uninhibited in her joy. She threw herself into the big Gen One's arms, giggling as he hoisted her up and held Mira so her face was level with his own. His smile was affectionate, more patient than most might give the lethal male credit for.

Then again, it had been Mira who'd been instrumental in bringing Hunter into the Order's fold. Since that time, the two had become genuine, if unlikely, friends.

"Do you realize you almost missed Christmas?" she informed him, part scold, part girlish incredulity. Her attention diverted just as quickly as it had arrived, her petite face swiveled around to study the newcomer in their midst. "Who's that?"

"Corinne's son," Hunter replied. Then, with a meaningful pause: "His name is Nathan." She scrambled out of Hunter's arms and went right up to the teenage assassin. "Hi, Nathan. I'm Mira."

He didn't say anything, just stared at her as though she were some strange new species he'd never encountered before. Lucan wondered if the boy had ever been that close to a female besides his mother, even a pint-size one like Mira. The poor kid wasn't going to know what hit him if she decided to make him one of her personal projects as she seemed to have done with Kellan Archer.

Leaving the kids to their awkward introductions, Lucan motioned for Hunter to follow him as he strode over to join the conversation taking place around the recovered lab intel. "Let's get some juice on these cryo tanks before their backup batteries die. Hunter, there're a couple of unclaimed bedrooms, so if you and Corinne want to take your pick and settle in, go ahead."

He glanced over to where Nathan was currently being shown the huge evergreen near the fireplace, Mira excitedly explaining that she was making decorations for it and would enjoy his help when the time came to hang them. Lucan shook his head and exhaled a sympathetic chuckle. To Hunter he added, "Have Mira show Nathan to Kellan's room. The two boys can bunk together."

MORNING HIT HIM like a hammer cracking into the top of his skull.

Chase's eyelids blinked open, every fiber of his body on instant, full alarm. Something wasn't right in the house.

It was too damned quiet. As quiet as a tomb.

Fuck. How long had he been out? Bloodlust had ridden him during the night, but he'd resisted the urge to leave the Darkhaven and hunt. The last thing he remembered was fighting off that hunger, a battle he'd only narrowly won. Now he got to his feet in the study, mentally shaking off the niggling twitch of his blood thirst and the dull ache of his bones from having crashed on the bare floor. Every blood-starved muscle screamed in protest as he made a swift but heavy-footed trek toward the closed door of the bedroom.

Not a sound on the other side of that locked slab of hundred-year-old wood.

She'd been in bad shape last night. When he'd gone in to check on her, easily several hours ago now, she told him she thought she was dying. He'd doubted it, but she seemed so miserable he had almost taken her out of there as she'd begged him. Her pain appealed to him on a level he wasn't prepared to acknowledge, let alone submit to.

But now he wondered if he'd been wrong about how ill she'd been.

"Tavia?" His voice was gravel in his dry throat. He didn't bother knocking, just willed the lock open and pushed the door wide. He stepped into the room.

The drapery cords he'd used to restrain her lay in a frayed tangle on the bed. Tavia was nowhere to be seen.

"Holy hell." Chase flicked a glance at the window, still boarded up with pieces of the desk he'd smashed apart to bar the cracked window and prevent her escape. He stalked farther inside.

And then he heard her.

A soft, rapid panting, like that of a small, frightened animal, coming from the other side of the big bed.

"Tavia." She was hunched on her heels in a tight ball, head drooped low. She didn't respond to his voice, just sat there breathing in a shallow, fast tempo. Her body trembled all over. Sweat dampened her limp hair and made the fabric of her black track suit cling to the curved arch of her spine. "Christ ... Tavia, are you all right?"

He reached out, placing his hand lightly on her back. She flinched away on contact, a violent lunge that put two feet between them. Her head swung around, hair drooping in a thick curtain over her face ... though not enough to hide the bright amber glow of her eyes.

Ah, fuck. The reality of what Chase was seeing made his blood chill in his veins. This couldn't be.

He could only stare as her lips curled back on a wild snarl. She drew in a ragged breath, then gave a fierce hiss through her teeth and the sharp lengths of her gleaming fangs.

Even though he had suspected she was something more than what she seemed, seeing it for a fact now took him totally aback.

Little wonder the restraints didn't hold her. They were no more effective than thread on one of his kind. Which this female clearly was.

Crouched low and seething, she held him in a glower that was at once startling and amazing in its fury. Her narrowed pupils were thinnest slits, swamped by the fiery embers of her irises. She growled at him, head cocked slightly, a deadly she-beast sizing up her prey.

It was the only warning he had before she sprang off her heels and took him down in a swift, vicious strike.

They landed hard, Chase's spine crashing onto the floor under their combined weight. His breath went out of him in a gust and a groan, Tavia's banshee cry echoing in his skull. She started fighting as soon as they hit the hardwood. Fast and strong, she clawed at him, shrieking and growling as he tried to ward off her frenzied assault.

The zippered front of her track suit hoodie was open just enough to give him a decent look at the web of dermaglyphs that spread in a flourish across her chest and up onto her throat. He had no doubt now that that's what they were: The Breed skin markings were flooded with color, variegating hues of deep purple, blood wine, and black. She was furious and pained from starvation, her glyphs told him that much on sight.

How had the genetic markings lain dormant until now?

What the hell had been done to her to keep her true nature suppressed?

Chase didn't have long to wonder about it. Tavia pulled her arm back and swung a fist toward his face. He dodged the blow, faster than her only because of experience and training. She was unschooled and out of control, a raw, natural power unleashed for what was clearly the first time. She was ferocious Breed might in a sleek, feminine form.

And goddamn if Chase had ever known anything hotter in his whole life.

She struggled against him some more, grunting as he deflected her every strike, roaring and snarling when he finally grabbed hold of her by the wrists and splayed her arms above him. Her pulse beat hard and steady in the sides of her slender neck. He could feel it banging against his fingertips where he held her strong wrists. And he could feel that solid, thumping throb along the insides of her thighs too, which gripped him like iron bands around his waist, pinning him beneath her with astonishing force.

She panted and heaved, those bright amber eyes and bared fangs telling him the fight wasn't drained out of her yet.

"Tavia, listen to me." Her muscles twitched with a warning that she was about to strike. Chase spat a curse, teeth gritted with the effort to keep his hold on her tense arms. "Tavia, for fuck's sake, you need to calm - "

She roared over his attempt to reason with her, but she didn't try to break free of his hold. No, she bit him.

Chase spewed a wordless shout as her fangs sank deep into the flesh and tendons of his left wrist. It wasn't the pain of the bite that shook him but the sudden, alarming realization that his blood was gushing freely into her mouth.

He tried to speak her name - warn her to stop - but the only thing that came out of his mouth was a strangled moan. The pleasure and pain of her bite speared through him, like a jolt of current shot into every fiber of his being.

Too good, especially when he wasn't even sure what his blood would do to her. She was somehow Breed; he understood that now. But how would her body react to his red cells pouring into her?

He had that answer not even a second later.

Tavia released him on a guttural cry. Her eyes burned brighter now, throwing off amber light as hot as smoldering coals. Her fangs dripped blood - his blood - down onto her chin and the heaving swell of her chest. Her glyphs pulsed, alive and changeable, sexy as hell against the smooth cream of her skin.

As he brought his punctured wrist to his mouth to seal the wounds, Tavia avidly watched him. She licked her lips, her dark pink tongue lapping up every drop of his spilled blood that lingered on her mouth. Tipping her head back for a moment, her hands moved absently up to her neck, then over the top of her zippered hoodie to caress the curve of her breasts. It was a sensual move, unconsciously so, an instinctual reaction to the blood that was now feeding her cells. When she looked at him again, her smoldering gaze rooted on his throat. Her breathing was still hard and frenzied, her body still vibrating with coiled aggression.

And she was hot. Chase could feel her body radiating into his where they connected, her nylon-clad hips straddling his naked abdomen. His own pants felt too confining, his erection rising where her backside rubbed too pleasantly against his groin.

God, she was magnificent. Beyond beautiful.

And everything male in him was responding with swift, unwanted - quite obvious - interest.

He didn't have the chance to summon the will to push her away before she fell on him again, swifter than before, moving so fast he could hardly track her. Her bite was harder this time. A dead-aim strike at his carotid.

Chase's body arced violently, every muscle and tendon going taut as cables when her fangs pierced his neck and sank deep. She suckled him hard, drawing in a long pull at his vein that made his cock surge so tight, he thought he would explode on the spot.

He didn't want to acknowledge the pleasure he was experiencing, but he was damned if he could deny it. His raging hard-on was evidence enough, but already he could feel his glyphs lighting up with approval as Tavia sucked in another mouthful of his blood.

"Christ," he hissed, unable to do anything but comply with the demand of her mouth on his throat. The sensation was unlike anything he'd ever known.

Unmated, he'd fed exclusively on humans all his life. And never had he permitted a blood Host to drink from him. Not that blunt little teeth could compare to the razor-sharp pleasure of Tavia's fangs, holding him tight against her mouth as she greedily fed from his vein. With every beat of his heart, he felt his energy being drawn from within him, from limbs and core and senses, flowing into her. Nourishing her. He could feel her power growing. Her hunger deepened with every hard tug at his wounds. She moaned against his skin as she drank some more, the hum of her pleasure ratcheting his own desire ever tighter.

Tavia's hips began to move, grinding against him. He knew she was feeling the same arousal he was. He could see it in the liquid churn of her body. Could taste the fragrance of her desire in every hard breath he sucked into his lungs.

His cock was hard as stone beneath her undulating hips. The ache of his want was brutal, a pure, delicious agony.

And if his need was unbearable, hers could only be worse.

Genetically enhanced with qualities meant to make a Host more pliable when bitten, Breed blood was even more potent when ingested. To a female born a Breedmate, it was arousal in its most primal form.

He couldn't know. His only answer came in the form of her hips grinding more demandingly on his. He brought his hands up to rest along her back, on the verge of madness as she slid herself lower on his body, aligning the heat of her core to the hard ridge of his groin. He knew he should stop this before it went any further. But any thought of denying her was losing ground quickly under the sensual assault being waged on his already tarnished honor. "Tavia," he muttered thickly, feeling the jab of his own fangs pressing into the soft flesh of his tongue as his body gave itself over to the dark nature of what he truly was. "Ah, fuck ..."