"These are real dermaglyphs," said the first boy, his hazel gaze suspicious under the fall of his drooping bronze hair. "So, you're really Breed, then?"
Mira rolled her violet-hued eyes. "I told you so, Kellan. He didn't believe me."
The boy shot her a sullen look. "I wanted to see it for myself, that's all."
"You said you needed proof, like you thought I was trying to trick you or something." There was a note of hurt in her tone. "How come you never believe anything I say?"
Kellan looked uncomfortable under the public accusation. When he finally spoke, his voice was quietly defensive. "It's stupid to take anyone on faith alone."
He didn't answer, and while their argument faded into a silent standoff, the other boy, who was still studying Tavia's glyphs, moved closer. He had pushed up his own sleeve, revealing a similar pattern that swept around the lean muscles and tendons of his forearm.
His name was Nathan, and aside from his introduction as Corinne's son, the inscrutable young teen was a mystery. Tavia watched his long-lashed eyes take in her skin markings, cataloging them, one by one. He was serious and strangely detached, seeming vastly older than his years and nothing like any other boy she'd ever seen before.
When he glanced up at her, head cocked to the side, his blue-green eyes pierced her with the cool dispassion of a blade. "You are Gen One. Born in Dragos's laboratory."
The softly voiced confession sparked an instant kinship in her, and Tavia felt the absurd urge to hug the child who'd also been a victim of Dragos's evil. She wanted to talk with Nathan some more, ask him about his experience with the monster who created them, but the hauntedness of his gaze deepened, then was shuttered behind his dark lashes and gone altogether when he looked up at her again.
At that same moment, from a room down the corridor, Tegan and another warrior emerged and strode into the gathering in the foyer. Simply by breathing, the dark-haired male with Tegan commanded attention and respect, and there was no question that he was the leader of the Order, even before Tegan introduced him as such.
She accepted the warrior's large hand and felt herself immersed in the stormy scrutiny of Lucan's shrewd gray eyes as he clasped her fingers in a firm, callused hold. "Mathias Rowan has filled us in on the basics, but I'm sure you understand we'll have questions for you now that you're here."
"Of course. Whatever I can do," she replied. "I need some answers myself."
He gave her a grim nod as he released her hand. "Until then, you'll be staying here, under the Order's protection. That means you remain on the grounds of this property at all times, and you make contact with no one beyond these walls without my express permission."
"Okay." It sounded a lot like imprisonment, but it was hard to balk at the offer when she had so few other options. Besides, she'd lived the first part of her life in one form of prison; now at least she had the truth. And she had Chase too. She felt him near her now, his presence behind her a warm comfort despite his radiating tension like a furnace.
Lucan sent a measuring look over her shoulder at him. "Unfortunately, we're in tight quarters and down to the last unclaimed room - "
"I don't need it." Chase's reply was dark and defensive, despite the negligent shrug that accompanied it. "I'm sure there's a locked cell with my name on it somewhere in here." "That'll depend on you, Harvard."
"And we can figure all of this out later." The smooth female voice came from behind the group in the foyer, turning all heads her way. Tavia glanced at the auburn-haired beauty whose soulful brown eyes were fixed on Lucan alone. She was his mate; the palpable energy connecting the pair left no doubt. "You must be Tavia," she said, stepping forward to greet her with a welcoming smile. "I'm Gabrielle."
Gabrielle moved over to Lucan and twined her fingers through his. "Tess and Dante are waiting in the sanctuary with the others. Are you coming?"
Lucan inclined his head, brushing the back of his hand gently along the slope of her cheek. Such a simple gesture, and yet there was so much devotion in his eyes, it stole Tavia's breath. "Whatever you want, love. I mean that. As you just said, we can figure the rest out later." She stared up into his gaze for a long moment, a question hanging between them unspoken. Then a tender smile broke across her face, warm and joyful and meant for him alone. As they embraced quietly, Mira came over and took Tavia's hand in hers. "Come on. You have to meet the baby."
"The baby?" Tavia glanced to the rest of the women for explanation.
"Tess and Dante's newborn son, Xander Raphael," Renata replied. "He's not quite a week old now, and tonight he's being officially presented to his godparents. It's a tradition within the Breed."
"You're welcome to attend," Gabrielle said. "But I'm sure you must be exhausted too, so if you'd rather rest - "
"Not at all." Amazingly, she was anything but tired, even after all she'd been through lately. Her body felt stronger, more vital than ever, no doubt thanks to her otherworldly genes and the lack of medicines keeping that part of her suppressed. She had to admit, she was more than a little curious about this new side of her, including the rituals that were part of the strange new world in which she was suddenly submerged. "If you don't think anyone would mind me being there, I'd love to attend."
"Come on, then, let's go!" Mira gave her hand an eager tug, already charging ahead of the group as they started to move out of the foyer.
Yet despite Tavia's own interest in these people and the generous welcome they were extending her, she couldn't help noticing how Chase hung back. In fact, if anything, he seemed more uncomfortable now than he had on the drive north. His unease prickled through her veins like tiny needles under her own skin.
She paused and turned to look at him, waiting for him to join her. She couldn't leave him there alone when everyone else was moving into the other room - even if it appeared to be exactly what he wanted her to do. When he finally took the first step toward her, it was with the slow gait of a man making his way toward the gallows.
IT WAS THE LAST PLACE he wanted to be.
The fucking last thing he wanted to do was stand around like the interloper he was and watch as Dante and Tess presented their son to Gideon, his appointed godfather. Not that Chase begrudged the choice. It was the right thing to do for their child, the best thing. Should anything happen to Xander's parents before he reached adulthood, the Breed youth would want for nothing. Gideon and Savannah would provide him with all the love and care he could possibly need.
Dante had been insane to suppose that Chase could ever fill that role. Fortunately for him and Tess, Chase had shown them what a poor choice he was before their child took his first breath. And now he would stand by and try to feel unaffected - to feel nothing but relief - as the honor was bestowed instead on Gideon.
All the worse that Tavia would be there to witness it too.
She didn't know the tradition or politics of the ritual, or the amount of fuck-ups and disappointments it took for Chase to have lost the privilege of being the infant's appointed guardian. But as they all entered the prepared sanctuary to take their seats in the wooden pews, he knew she could feel his shame, and that was enough.
Or so he thought, until Tavia's gaze lit on Elise across the candlelit room.
She held her surprise, but he felt her go a bit still beside him as she looked at the woman who had once been part of his family. Part of his life's deepest shame.
Elise stood at the front of the little sanctuary room with Gideon and Savannah and Dante, Tess and the baby. She'd been assisting with the silks to be used in the ceremony, but when her pale lavender gaze lit on Chase and Tavia, she whispered something to the waiting couples and started walking over. Tegan intercepted her halfway, wrapping a protective arm around her as he escorted her toward them. His expression was guarded and watchful, a male prepared to spill another's lifeblood right in the middle of the holy space if it meant keeping his mate safe from harm.
And little wonder he felt that way where Chase was concerned. Chase could still feel Elise's open hand cracking across his face from the last time he saw her. A strike he'd more than deserved for what he'd said to her in the days leading up to his separation from the Order. But this was something different.
He watched the mated couple come toward him - Elise beatific and radiant, Tegan glowering and possessive - and he suddenly knew.
It should have hit him harder than it did. Maybe it would have, had Tavia not been standing beside him, her calm, nonjudging gaze watching him in quiet understanding as the couple approached. She was steady and serene, tranquil waters when he'd grown so accustomed to riding out his storms alone.
"Sterling," Elise whispered as she paused in front of him. She started to reach out to him, then seemed to think better of it, clasping her hands in front of her. "I'm so relieved that you're all right. The way you left us in Boston the other morning ... we've all been fearing the worst." "I'm sorry for the worry," he murmured. "That wasn't my intent."
"No," she said. "You intended to save us that day. And you did. What you did for all of us in that moment was - "
"Honorable," Tegan finished for her. "Fucking suicidal too, but that's beside the point." Chase gave a vague lift of his shoulder, dismissing their gratitude. One noble gesture couldn't earn back everything he'd thrown away, no matter how badly he suddenly wanted to think it could. It would take time to prove himself fully to his brethren again. Time he wasn't sure he had when hunger was gnawing at him from far within the pit of his soul.
His hands were twitchy at his sides, his veins beginning to jangle, giving him the sudden, rising urge to hightail it out of the place and run deep and long into the night. As the dark impulse built inside him, he felt Tavia's fingers brush lightly against his. She knew what he was feeling, and her offered hand was just the mooring he needed. Their fingers twined, he cleared his throat and made the introductions.
"I'm also Sterling's former sister-in-law," she said, smiling with genuine kindness. "Yes, I know," Tavia replied. "It's good to meet you."
"Likewise." Elise's gaze drifted down to their joined hands and a tender light came into her eyes. "Maybe after the ceremony, I can show you around the house and grounds?"
Tavia smiled. "Sure, I'd like that."
"I should go back and take a seat now. We were just about to begin."
As she and Tegan started to turn away, Chase reached out to take a light hold of Elise's arm. "Wait."
Tegan's answering growl was low and dark, well within his rights. His eyes flashed with amber sparks. Chase let go and blew out a hasty apology. "I just wanted to say congratulations. To both of you. About the baby. I'm happy for you both."
Elise beamed up at Tegan, then turned her joy on Chase. "Thank you. That means a lot to me, Sterling. It means a lot to both of us."
Tegan grunted and took Chase's offered hand in a firm shake. The blond warrior's hold hesitated, no doubt reading the emotional truth of Chase's words with the power of his touch. Chase didn't recoil under the extrasensory probe; he truly had nothing to hide. Tegan nodded, then drew his hand away and clapped Chase's shoulder. "Good to have you back, Harvard." The pair walked off to take their seats near the front of the small sanctuary.
Chase turned back to Tavia. "She and Tegan have been mated for just over a year. I should've told you she was part of the Order now."
"It's all right. I was surprised to see her, but it's okay." She held his gaze, not with jealousy or anger, but with genuine care and concern. "What about you? Are you okay with Elise being here, and being mated to one of your friends?"
"Yeah, I am." He nodded, rubbing the pad of his thumb over the back of Tavia's hand, their fingers still entwined. "She's mated well. They both have."
For one insane moment, he pictured himself mated as happily as Tegan and Elise. It wasn't something he'd ever wished for himself, but now, with Tavia's hand enveloped in his, his mind was swamped with imaginings of what his future might hold if she were his blood-bonded mate. Impossible dreams.
His hope for any kind of future with Tavia would expire the first time he let his thirst rule him. He told himself it didn't matter as the ceremony got under way and he and Tavia found their places by themselves in the last row of pews.
With Gabrielle holding the baby at the front of the room now, Elise and the other Breedmates lit eight white candles arranged in a large circle around Dante, Tess, Gideon, and Savannah - an infinite ring connecting them in this moment. There were no white-hooded tunics for the four of them; it was doubtful there'd been time to gather much of what they needed between the evacuation of the Boston compound and the ceremony tonight. But they had the eight thin lengths of virgin white silk, and as the candles were being lit all around them, Dante, Tess, Gideon, and Savannah braided the pieces together into a woven cradle they held suspended between them, a symbolic link between parent and guardian.
Lucan stood front and center, sober in his duty as officiant of the ceremony. "Who brings this child before us tonight?"