The pressure mounted, building toward something immense and glorious. Tavia rode it with him, awash in amazement and the sudden, swelling bloom of yet another shattering release. He dropped his head beside hers, breath gusting over her enlivened skin and the exposed column of her neck. For the smallest moment, his mouth brushed against the sensitive curve of her shoulder. She waited to feel his lips close over her flesh. Held her breath as her pleasure began to crest its banks and the need to feel his fangs sink into her flesh became a deafening pound in her veins. "No," he rasped sharply. "Goddamn it. No."

And with a dark curse huffed against her ear, everything ended.

He withdrew, rolling away from her so abruptly she felt his absence strike her like a slap. His broad back flexed and rippled as he pivoted to his feet, unmistakable anger in his haste. He pulled up his pants in one ungentle tug and stalked away from where she lay, breathless and confused, oddly bereft. Not to mention humiliated.

Her cheeks flushed with a new kind of heat as she watched him enter the adjacent bathroom without so much as a backward glance. As though he couldn't get away from her fast enough. The door banged closed in his wake, not loud enough to muffle the low roar that erupted from behind the shut panel.

Tavia rose up from the floor in a mute, dazed silence.

Her body was still thrumming with sensation, slower to react to the rejection than the rest of her. Her veins still throbbed, her pulse hammering in a steady, strong beat that was now beginning to make her temples ache. And deep inside her, the power that had awakened within her had yet to ebb.

The burn scars that had covered her for as long as she could remember were pulsing and vibrant. Not the dusky color she was accustomed to seeing but the florid, changeable hues that defied all logic of what she'd been raised to believe about herself. They weren't scars. They couldn't be. Nothing about them - nothing about her body and this power coursing through her - was normal. She knew that now.

A miserable groan leaked from between her lips when she felt the sharp pressure of her teeth resting against her tongue. No, she corrected herself. Not her teeth - her fangs.

"Oh, God." She looked down at the blood smeared across her breasts and abdomen. His blood, dark and sticky from when she'd bitten him.

Between her legs was more blood, but those faint pink stains on her thighs didn't belong to him. Tavia moaned, feeling a twinge of panic beginning to creep up the back of her throat as the weight of what she'd done here - the stunning reality of all that had happened in the last couple of days - bore down on her.

The sex wasn't the worst part. God, not even close. She would likely spend the rest of her life trying to convince herself it was the stupidest thing she'd ever done - better yet, that it never happened at all. But right now, with her nerve endings crackling and the rest of her lifted in a floating, pleasant kind of bonelessness, she couldn't pretend the sex was anything less than incredible.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," she chided herself under her breath as she scrambled to put her clothes back on, keeping her eyes on the closed bathroom door as she pulled on her pants and righted her bra and zippered hoodie.

No, far more disturbing than throwing her virginity away with total, reckless abandon was biting the neck of a stranger in some fevered daze that had her convinced they both were ... Jesus, the word wouldn't even form in her mind, it seemed so ridiculous.

And yet, it wasn't ridiculous.

She tugged up her sleeve to stare at the scars that weren't scars, their colors still livid and churning, changing from the inky shades of violet and burgundy to a deep russet bronze before her eyes. In her mouth, the sharp points of her canines were still elongated, though not the same fierce presence they'd been before. Her vision was still tinged with amber, but that too was beginning to subside.

No, she thought, stricken and dismayed. Not ridiculous at all.

Her body knew that, even if logic and reason refused to accept it.

She tried to dismiss it all, but try as she might, she could not shake the feeling that she'd never been more aware or present in her entire life. Her body felt - finally - as if it belonged to her. As if a shroud had been lifted from her consciousness, she felt alive for the very first time. "No," she moaned softly, struggling to push the astonishing truth away.

None of this could be happening. She'd been very sick just hours ago. Maybe this was all an enormous hallucination. After all, Dr. Lewis had warned her time and again that a break in her medication - even as much as one skipped dose - could result in unpredictable, but very serious, complications.

Maybe that's what this was. Maybe none of it was real at all. Maybe her mind and body had conspired against her as soon as she missed those first pills. Maybe she was dying as she'd feared, had been dying from the moment he locked her in this room after grabbing her from the hotel. Better that than the disturbing alternative. Her mind and body were dying, working through some terrible fantasy that began with the nightmare that had awakened her in her bedroom at home with visions of blood and sex and a man who was no man at all.

She clung to that rationale with desperate need as she went to grab the pair of sneakers from the shoe box that sat next to the bed.

Not real, she told herself, tearing through tissue paper to retrieve the brand-new Nikes from the box. Not real. Just an uncannily tactile, detailed trick of her unmedicated, probably dying, mind.

"What are you doing?" He came out of the bathroom without her realizing it.

Not real, she reminded herself. There was no need to answer him, or even acknowledge his presence. Focusing wholly on untangling the laces from the pair of sneakers, she made a desperate attempt to ignore him.

He was no hallucination. He was flesh and bone, six-and-a-half feet of muscled, nearly naked male. He seemed calmer now, but there was no escaping the ember-bright glow of his eyes. Not to mention the razor-sharp tips of his fangs. Rising panic formed a bubble in the back of her throat.

"Tavia, we need to talk."

"No, we don't. We've done enough, I think." She slipped on the first shoe and quickly laced it up.

He came over to her, his tawny brows low over those inhuman eyes. "There are some things you need to understand. Jesus, there are things about you that I need to understand - "

"Shut up," she snapped, worry starting to burn even hotter than any embarrassment or confusion over his sudden departure a few moments ago. She rammed her foot into the other shoe and yanked the laces tight. "And if I were you? I'd plan on staying far away from me, or I promise you, I'll press charges. I can have every cop in the Commonwealth at your door in five minutes. A fleet of federal agents too."

He actually had the audacity to chuckle, although it held little humor. "Press charges? Call the cops on me? Sweetheart, I'm a problem that no human law enforcement officer is going to solve for you. After what just happened between us, it should be pretty obvious to you that we've both got big problems."

She stood up and met his grave look. "Don't try to find me. Don't come near me ever again. I just want to forget that any of this happened. I just want to go home."

She took a step to move around him, but he caught her by the arm. His fingers held her firmly, not letting go even when she tried to wrench loose. "Let go of me, damn it."

He shook his head, his eyes grim. "You have nowhere to go."

"I'm going home!" She pulled out of his grasp, outrage spiking like acid in her veins. It was building inside her, making her skin tingle with heat. She didn't have to see her scars - rather, the inexplicable marks on her chest and arms - to know that they were surging with more color now. Reacting to her temper like some kind of emotional barometer. She sidestepped him and headed for the open bedroom door. "Leave me the hell alone."

He stood in the threshold before she even reached it herself.

Tavia gaped, came up short mere inches away from his bare chest. "Get out of my way."

"You're not going anywhere." His face had become more than serious now. There was a threat in his otherworldly eyes, a warning that he would have no qualms about physically forcing her to stay for as long as he deemed necessary.

Tavia bristled at that threat. "I said move. I need to see my aunt. I need to call my doctor - why can't you understand that I'm not well?"

"Whatever you are," he murmured, his deep voice level, "it's not unwell. You're scared and confused. Hell, I'm not standing on totally firm ground myself at the moment. Whatever you've been through - whatever you are - we need answers, Tavia. I'm going to help you get them." She shook her head, unwilling to hear him. Still not able to reconcile any of what she was experiencing. "All I need is to go home. Right now."

When she tried to step past him again, he braced both arms up on the doorjambs, caging her inside the room with his body. "As soon as night falls, I'm going to take you somewhere safe. There are people I know who can help you make sense of everything. People far more suited to looking after you than I am."

"I don't need anyone looking after me. Least of all you or anyone you know."

He exhaled a scoff, dropped his arms, and started moving forward. Pushing her into a retreat with just his encroaching presence. "You don't trust me."

"That's probably smart, considering what nearly happened in here."

Nearly? She was concerned enough about what had happened. Tavia took a pace backward on her heels, less afraid of him than outraged. Her fury coiled in her belly, mingling with the remnants of the thrumming power that was still alive and racing through her veins. "I don't trust you because of everything you've done. Because of everything I've seen here. I'm not even sure I can trust myself anymore. None of this makes any sense to me."

"It does," he said evenly. "You just wish it didn't."

"Shut up." She shook her head vigorously, anger and fear pushing into her throat. "I don't want to hear any more. I just want to get the hell out of here."

"That's not going to happen, Tavia."

When he started to reach for her again, something exploded inside her. It was her fury and panic, erupting out of her in a physical reflex. Before she could think about it - before she was even aware that her arm was moving - she shoved him with all her might. He flew backward as if yanked on a tether, but a second later he had regained his footing.

In less than a blink he was back in her face, looming over her with nostrils flaring, eyes blazing. "Goddamn it, I'm not going to hurt you."

She didn't dare believe him. Nor did she wait to find out if she could. The instant she felt his fingers come to rest on her arm, she pulled back her other one and let her fist fly - connecting with a bone-jarring crack on the underside of his jaw.

To her complete amazement, he went down with the impact. His harsh curse as he staggered onto his knees rattled the broken glass of the crudely barred window behind them.

Tavia didn't hang around to go another round with him. As he tried to shake off the blow, she leapt around him. She tore out of the bedroom and through the large brownstone, across the inlaid marble foyer and out the front door to the morning bustle of the Back Bay residential area. She heard him bellow behind her, but only dared a fleeting glance in his direction as her feet flew over the snow-dusted sidewalk. He stood in the open doorway, his arm raised up to shield his eyes.

He stayed there, hanging back, watching her from within the shadowed shelter as she dashed into the street and frantically hailed a passing taxi. The yellow cab slowed to a halt and she climbed in, giving the driver her address in a breathless rush.

The car lurched back into traffic, belching a cloud of opaque steam and exhaust that billowed up like a veil, blotting out the brownstone and the man Tavia hoped to never see again.

SENATOR BOBBY CLARENCE had been a good Catholic apparently, but an even better politician. The church he'd shrewdly joined fresh off the bus from Bangor as a first-year law student at Harvard was only the largest, most prestigious in Boston. Some fifty years ago, this same church had mourned a parishioner who was more famously a beloved fallen human president, a fact that Dragos guessed had played a role in the ambitious young Clarence's decision to join its flock. Although the bachelor senator had no immediate family, outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross that cold early afternoon, police were directing traffic to accommodate the crowd of funeral attendees waiting to get one of the two thousand seats at his service. The line of mourners stretched from the pair of red double doors at the entrance, out to the bricked sidewalk and around the large corner lot on which the massive neo-Gothic cathedral sat.

Dragos sat inside his idling, chauffeured sedan about a block down the street, impatient for the service to begin. He was risking a great deal, venturing out during daylight hours. Even with the precautions he'd taken - UV-blocking wraparound sunglasses, a brimmed hat made of dense, boiled wool, and a generous length of knit scarf to shield his neck and head - his nearly pure Breed genes were a liability here. Being second generation of his kind, he could withstand less than a half hour in direct sunlight before his solarsensitive skin began to cook.

But some risks were to be expected.

Some things, he supposed, were worth a little pain.

He'd endured his share already, thanks to the Order. The killing of his Minion senator so soon after Dragos had turned him had been inconvenient to say the least. It still grated to have lost the human before his full potential could have been realized. But then again, Dragos's plans wouldn't have waited the handful of years it might have taken Bobby Clarence's political star to complete its natural, some might say inevitable, ascent to the White House.