"It wasn't you that we served."

The admission opened a cold pit in Tavia's chest. "What are you talking about? Who do you serve?"

"Our Master." Sarah turned to face her again. She had a butcher knife in her hand.

Dread and sorrow crept up Tavia's spine. "You would actually kill me?"

Sarah gave a small shake of her head. "Whether you live is up to him to decide. He owns you too. He's owned you from the very beginning, child."

"Him, who?" Tavia asked, but already a sickening thought was cleaving into her brain, as cutting as the edge of Sarah's knife. "Dragos."

She thought about Senator Clarence and what Sterling Chase had said about him. That Dragos already owned him. Now Aunt Sarah and Dr. Lewis too?

"Tell me what's going on," she demanded of the old woman. She moved forward, prepared to rattle the truth out of her if she had to.

"I have my instructions," Sarah replied evenly. And with that, with not even the slightest hesitation, she sliced the blade across her own throat.

Her body dropped to the creamy linoleum floor in a lifeless heap, blood pooling in a dark red slick beneath it.

Tavia stood there, numb and shaking, staring down at the corpse of the woman she'd never really known in truth. She felt bereft anyway. She'd just lost the only family she'd ever had. She also knew her house was no longer safe for her. Dr. Lewis and Aunt Sarah were dead, but there had to be others. Others who served this evil named Dragos.

He owns you too.

He's owned you from the very beginning, child.

Tavia shook off the debilitating feeling that rose on the wake of that thought.

She ran out of the house without looking back.

Everything had changed now, and she could never go back. Not to this house that had been the only home she'd ever had, nor to the life she'd been living for all of her twenty-seven years. A life that had been nothing but a terrible, monstrous lie.

The Enforcement Agency director had been shocked to hear from Chase earlier that afternoon when he'd called Rowan from the long-unused landline in Chase's empty Darkhaven.

Nevertheless, to his credit, Rowan had agreed to make the trip over to the Back Bay as soon as the sun set. But now it was dusk and no sign of him yet.

Chase was dressed for battle, having pulled out black jeans, lug-soled boots, and a black long-sleeved knit shirt from the back of his old wardrobe. His holstered Agency-issued pistol felt insubstantial compared to the pair of 9-mm semiautos he was used to carrying as a member of the Order.

He didn't care to admit just how much it stung to realize he would likely never ride out on another patrol with Dante or the other warriors. He'd let that honor slip through his fingers, too busy grasping at selfish indulgences to realize what he stood to lose. Now it was too late to call it all back, no matter how much he wanted to prove himself worthy of their trust. Assuming he wasn't already too far gone to try.

With darkness settling outside, Chase's veins were lit up with the urge to hunt, and it was taking a hell of a lot of effort to resist the feral pull of his hunger. Instead he began a tight prowl of his vacant quarters, pacing the study and trying to ignore the insidious whisper of his blood thirst, tempting him to step outside and let the cool wash of wintry night air soothe some of the fever from his senses.

It was a siren's call and he knew it. A beckon toward disaster.

If his blood thirst didn't seize him the moment he stepped outside into the dark, there was a damn good chance human law enforcement would. Chase didn't want to risk either scenario, least of all letting his current notoriety inadvertently lead the cops or feds to Mathias Rowan's Darkhaven across town.

God knew his careless actions had jeopardized enough people he cared about lately. He wasn't about to add Rowan and his kin to that list.

She'd been the whole reason for calling in this favor with Rowan. He would know what to do with her. He, better than Chase, would be the best one to retrieve her and bring her to the Order where she'd be protected from Dragos and his servants and allies.

Safe from Chase himself too.

"Christ," he muttered, raking a hand over his head as he made another circuit of the study. She hadn't left his mind since the moment she'd run out, and even now he couldn't help wondering where she was, whom she was with ... whether she was safe.

Part of him wanted to go after her, even more than he wanted to feed.

Part of him simply wanted her, and that was not good news at all.

Not in the dangerous shape he was in. Not when Dragos was still out there, making his Minions and plotting his next strike against the Order.

Maybe against the world as a whole.

That thought alone was enough to wrench his head back on track. Chase had no business worrying about the safety of one female - even a female as extraordinary as Tavia Fairchild. His life was already near to forfeit. Hell, he'd been willing to throw it away numerous times in the past few months. If he could get close enough to Dragos to take the bastard out, he'd gladly spend his last breath to make it happen.

But first he needed to be sure that Tavia wouldn't get caught in the crossfire. And that meant getting her under the Order's protection.

Where the fuck was Rowan?

When the rap of the brass knocker on the brownstone's front door sounded a moment later, Chase opened the heavy oak panel on a growled curse. "About damn time you - "

It wasn't Mathias Rowan standing there. It was Tavia. She waited on the stoop in the dark, shivering in just a turtleneck sweater, loose jeans, and leather flats. "I've been walking for hours. I ... didn't know where to go." She took a breath. It was a ragged, shaky inhalation. She blew it out on a steaming gust that sounded very close to a sob. "I killed someone today." "Jesus Christ." Everything else fell away as he stared at Tavia's stricken expression. Chase stepped out and wrapped his arm around her trembling shoulders. "Come inside."

She felt wooden as he guided her into the foyer, moving with robotic stiffness. Shock, he guessed, looking at her unfocused gaze and the slack lines of her face. "Are you all right? Are you hurt anywhere?"

She gave a weak shake of her head. "He tried to kill me. I think he was going to poison me with something. He said it would make me feel better, but I knew he was lying. There was something very wrong about him. I just sensed it, even before he attacked me. I killed him. I killed Dr. Lewis." She took another hitching breath as a shudder ran through her from head to foot. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know where to go or whom I could trust. Somehow, I ended up here."

"It's okay," he said. "Come on, let's get you warm."

He brought her into the study and sat her down on the shrouded chair. He crouched in front of her and took her hands between his to rub some heat into them. When he looked up at her, there were tears welling in her eyes. "My aunt Sarah," she murmured. "She's dead too. She cut her own throat, right in front of me."

"I'm sorry," Chase said, hearing the pain and confusion in her broken voice.

"I don't understand how they could both lie to me. All my life, they'd been lying to me." She frowned, gave a slow shake of her head. "And their eyes. I never noticed how cold their eyes were. Dr. Lewis and Aunt Sarah - they'd changed somehow."

"No, Tavia. It was you who changed." He held her confused gaze. "You wouldn't have noticed anything unusual because until today you were living as a human. Your true nature was being suppressed, no doubt by the same medicines you thought were helping you. I don't think you were ever sick."

She listened in silence for a long moment, absorbing his words. "They betrayed me. They never cared about me, did they? I saw that today, when each of them looked at me. There was such a terrible emptiness in their eyes. Like a shark's eyes."

Chase grunted, knowing that look well. "They were Minions. All of them have that same dead glint in their eyes. You'll know it right away when you see them."

He nodded. "Humans bled to the brink of death and turned mind slaves by a powerful member of my kind." He traced his thumb over the tangled pattern of dermaglyphs that swept along the underside of her wrist. "Our kind."

She drew her hands out of his grasp. "Vampires." She swallowed, fine brows knit together. "Is that what I am - a vampire? I know that's what you are. Isn't it?"

"Then what, exactly?" she demanded, shooting up from the chair, her voice climbing toward panic. "What the hell is happening to me? Tell me what's going on!"

He stood along with her. "I'm not sure what you are, Tavia. Or how you can be what you seem to be. I've never seen anything like you. No one has. What you are is ... impossible." "Great." She made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. "So, I'm a monster. Even by your standards."

Ah, Christ. He was not the person to explain all of this to her. His days of diplomacy and gentle conversation were long gone. Better that she learn what she needed to know from Mathias Rowan, someone still a part of Darkhaven culture who could ease her into the truth. But even as he thought it, Chase bristled a bit at the idea of Tavia being schooled by someone else. Particularly someone as noble and charming and smoothly mannered as Mathias Rowan.

Not that Tavia Fairchild seemed like a woman who needed handling with kid gloves.

And for better or worse, at the moment, Chase was all she had.

"What you are, Tavia, is Breed. Human folklore would call us vampires, but those stories exaggerate the truth. Like me, like the rest of the Breed, you are a living, breathing, very powerful being. Those of our kind live for a long time, centuries at least. Some of us have lived for more than a thousand years. And yes, we subsist by drinking human blood from an open vein."

"No," she interjected. "That's not right. Not me. For twenty-seven years, I've eaten normal food. I drink normal things, like any other human being. I've never even tasted a drop of blood, let alone drank it from someone's vein. Until ..."

He watched her face go a little red. "Until you fed from me earlier today. And that was after your body had a chance to purge some of the drugs that were keeping the part of you that isn't human - the part of you that's Breed - on some kind of medically induced leash."

"I'm not like you. I can't be." She moved away from him, taking several paces across the room and giving him her back. "I don't want to be part of this ... this nightmare."

"It's reality, Tavia." He walked up behind her and brought his hands down lightly on her shoulders. She didn't resist when he turned her around to face him. "You don't have the choice to be part of this or not. Like it or not, you're living it now."

"Well, I don't like it." He could see her struggling to accept all that she was hearing. Her bright green eyes were still moist from unshed tears, but not a single one fell. She radiated a steely strength, chin held rigid and high, staring at him with a stubborn, unbreakable look that was more Breed than she would care to admit. "I don't like it at all, but if this is the truth, then I'm not going to run from it."

He nodded once, acknowledgment of her courage. "I won't lie to you. That much I can promise."

He didn't tell her there was little else of worth he had to give. If she spent any more time near him, she'd figure that out soon enough on her own.

"Tell me about Dragos." Her gaze was unflinching as it held his. "At the police station that night, you said Senator Clarence belonged to him. That Dragos owned him."

"Yes," Chase said. "The senator was one of Dragos's Minions. The cop in your hotel suite was also Minion. As were your aunt and doctor. They all belonged to Dragos. We can't be sure how many more mind slaves he has under his command. After all the years he's been at it, there could be thousands."

Tavia frowned. "So, where do I fit into this? Aunt Sarah said he owns me too. That he's owned me from the beginning - that's how she phrased it. I'm not one of his Minions."

"No," Chase said. "But based on what you are, there's no question that Dragos is involved. Until you, Tavia, there has never been a female Breed. Not one, not ever. Our race began thousands of years ago, when a ship carrying a group of biologically advanced otherworlders crash-landed on this planet. They killed and they raped, and sometimes they left certain females - genetically unique females known as Breedmates - pregnant with their young."

He couldn't read her expression now. It seemed one part quiet understanding, one part bald skepticism. "You're telling me that aliens and humans mated thousands of years ago and produced vampire babies?" She scoffed. "That's ridiculous. Do you know how crazy that makes you sound?"

"You should know by now that I'm not crazy." When she tried to look away from him, he steered her gaze back with his fingertips under her stubborn chin. He told her he wouldn't lie to her, so he decided to give her the unvarnished truth. "Our Ancient forefathers were not of this world, that's true. They were blood-drinking warrior savages who slaughtered entire civilizations at a time. The Ancients are all dead now, but until just a few weeks ago, one remained. Dragos kept him contained in his labs for decades, until the Ancient escaped to Alaska and the Order eventually killed him. But until then, Dragos used this captive Ancient for various genetic experimentations and to create an army of Breed assassins, the most powerful army this planet will ever know. If Dragos decides to unleash them, there's no telling how much havoc he can wreak."