Ironic that he should find her now, when the last thing he wanted - the very last thing he deserved - was a woman as extraordinary as Tavia Fairchild.

Whether or not he deserved her, Chase couldn't keep from wrapping his palm around her nape and pulling her close for his kiss. She tasted so sweet against his mouth. Felt so good and warm against him as she leaned into his embrace and parted her lips to accept the sweep of his tongue into her mouth.

He could have kissed her all night. Might have, if not for the sudden whoop and shouts of children racing out of the house to play in the snow. Chase pivoted his head to watch Mira, Kellan, and Nathan bound off the deck and into the pine-ringed yard with the compound's two canines - Alexandra's majestic Alaskan gray-and-white wolf dog and a scrappy brownish mutt terrier that belonged to Dante and Tess.

The kids tore right past, barely pausing to notice Chase and Tavia wrapped in each other's arms. Kellan stooped to grab a handful of snow and packed it into a ball. He lobbed it at Mira, missing her by mere inches as she dodged right and retaliated with a projectile of her own. The snowball nailed the teen dead center in the chest.

"Good arm," Chase called to her, which earned him a big grin from the pint-size blond imp. More volleys were exchanged between Mira and the two boys, until suddenly Chase and Tavia found themselves under fire from the trio. They scrambled to their feet, Tavia laughing as Chase tried to pull her to safety behind the trunk of a thick pine. One of Nathan's snowballs smashed into the back of his head, raining icy powder down the nape of his neck and into the collar of his shirt.

"This means war," Chase shouted, grabbing a handful of snow and sending a ball shooting toward the kids and the dogs barking and jumping all around them.

Tavia's giggles were the most miraculous thing he'd ever heard. He wheeled around on her, full of empty bluster. "You think this is funny, female?" Her smile went wider, but her eyes glimmered with as much heat as humor. He stalked toward her, grinning now. Hotter than he should be, with the kids playing behind them in the woods. "You sure you want to take me on?" Tavia's answering look was devastatingly inviting. "Think you can handle it?"

"Try me." He hauled her close and kissed her like there was no tomorrow.

DEEP IN THE WOODS NOW, Kellan, laughing, cheeks stinging with the cold, scooped up a handful of snow with his gloves and swung around to volley it at Nathan.

The kid was gone.

Mira's giggles trailed from several yards to his left, the barks of the two dogs following her farther into the cover of the dense forest. Kellan paused, silent, listening. Searching the dark for Nathan, anticipating the sudden cold explosion of incoming enemy snowball fire.

This was only mock warfare; Kellan knew that. But there was a spark of competitiveness inside him - a needling urge to prove himself a capable opponent, especially against this strange newcomer who'd been raised and trained by the villain responsible for the murders of Kellan's family.

His senses quirked with the faint stirring of the air. Nathan was moving through the trees now. Kellan's instincts prickled, sending him into a low, stealthy jog toward the subtle disruption of the boy's movement up ahead.

He found Nathan, stalking up on Mira in silence as she played with the dogs. Nathan held a snowball in his hand. In that next instant, he let it fly at Mira.

It shot toward her like a bullet, hitting her square in the back.

She went down as though it had been gunfire, letting out a surprised cry as the force of the impact knocked her flat on her face in a drift.

"Mira!" Kellan shouted, leaping out from his cover in the pines.

He saw the look of surprise on Nathan's face. He hadn't intended to hurt her. But that made no difference to Kellan's instincts. They lit up like a Roman candle, a confusing flood of concern and aggression coursing through his veins in an instant. With a roar, he lobbed his missile at Nathan, pelting the snowball at Mira's attacker with deliberate force.

Nathan dodged the assault and cocked his head in question. Then he reached down and returned fire. He launched one snowball after the other, a relentless hail that drove Kellan back with the force of a hundred fists.

Kellan's anger spiked. His sense of powerlessness kindled a raging fury inside him that exploded out of his mouth in a hoarse bellow. He got up and vaulted at Nathan, meaning to drive his fist into the stoic little killer's face.

Nathan coolly deflected. He moved so fast, Kellan didn't even see the defensive move coming until he found himself hitting the ground on his back, all the air leaving his lungs on a giant wheeze.

A cold, wet hand was clamped around Kellan's throat, a mere second away from crushing his larynx. Kellan couldn't breathe.

"Stop!" Mira cried. She raced over to them, eyes wild. She tugged at Nathan's arms, but his hold stayed firm and steady on Kellan's neck. "Nathan, please stop! You'll kill him!" Her interference burned Kellan somehow. Embarrassment and humiliation, impotent outrage, rushed into his head as the pressure on his throat eased.

Nathan released him without apology. He stood up, watching without remorse as Kellan coughed and gasped, sucking in air. Mira's face was awash in worry as she hunkered down beside him and placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. Kellan brushed her off, hating that she should witness his degradation.

He dragged his gaze up to meet the silent, placid expression of the boy who had likely killed a dozen men, any one of them far more challenging an opponent than Kellan could ever hope to be. Kellan admired that kind of lethal ability. He'd need it, if he meant to survive in this world Dragos's evil had created. If he meant to avenge the deaths of his kin, as a warrior of the Order one day or on his own, he would need that same cold talent - that same emotional detachment - that he saw reflecting down on him in Nathan's unblinking eyes.

Kellan rubbed his injured throat. Summoned his voice past the acid burn of his humiliation in front of Mira and looked up at the boy who dealt so efficiently in death. "Teach me everything you know."

TAVIA LAY in a pleasure-drowned daze, her limbs tangled with Chase's in the middle of the king- size bed in their room at the Order's compound. She'd lost track of how many times they'd made love. They'd started after the snowball fight of the night before, then picked up again after spending most of the day apart - Tavia with Elise and some of the other Breedmates, sharing meals and pleasant conversation; Chase sequestered in private meetings with Lucan, Gideon, Tegan, and the rest of the warriors.

Now another night was inching toward dawn on the other side of the shuttered windows and Tavia was blissfully, thoroughly spent.

Eyes closed, caught in a lazy, sated doze, she felt him shift slightly beside her on the bed. He kissed her eyelids, one then the other, his lips gentle even as his arousal nudged her hip in blatant demand.

"Mmm," she moaned, her mouth curving as she lifted her heavy lids. "Good morning. You're up early."

"If you're anywhere near me, guaranteed, I'm always going to be up."

She looked into his dark blue gaze and smiled. "Good thing I have Breed genetics too. Otherwise I'd never be able to keep up with you."

"Yeah, but I'd make sure you had fun trying." He kissed her, long and slow, rousing her senses into a heated rush of wakefulness. "Merry Christmas, beauty."

"Christmas?" She thought back on the days and realized it really was. "Never in a million years could I have guessed I'd wake up naked in a vampire's arms on Christmas morning." He grinned. "Santa Claus has already been here and everything. Want to see what he brought for you?"

She laughed. "Is it a big present?"

His eyes gleamed devilishly, lit with amber sparks. "Very big." "With a big red bow on it?"

He glanced down and shrugged, his mouth quirked in a sardonic smile that showed just the barest tips of his fangs. "How about a jaunty cap instead?"

She was still giggling as he kissed her again. When he slid into the wet cleft of her body, her giggles turned to sighs and then to moans of pleasure. He'd learned how to play every inch of her by now, and he was ruthless in his seduction. She surrendered to him wholly, crying out as he brought her to a swift, fevered orgasm.

"My God," she panted, her own fangs filling her mouth as he stoked her toward another shattering release. "Merry Christmas to me."

His answering growl was one of pure masculine pride. "You should see what I do for birthdays."

She laughed drowsily and gazed up at him. The sight of him this close and intimate felt so familiar now, so right. The feel of his naked body pressed against hers was as natural to her as her own breath, her own heartbeat.

And the warm knot that squeezed so tightly in her breast, and traveled lower still, into her very core, was an ache she hoped never to lose.

Deep down, she wondered if she should be afraid.

Because somehow, she realized she had fallen in love with Sterling Chase.

THE DREAM ROARED UP on Jenna from out of nowhere.

Asleep in Brock's arms, she'd been in and out of awareness, drifting from one fragile dreamscape to another.

Then came the blanket of dark gray fog. It swept her away without warning, taking her far from her conscious mind, into that of another being.

The alien part of her that was merging with her humanity, strengthening the part of her that had once been mortal. Creating something ... other.

It was this part of her that commanded her mind's eye now, as the thick fog carried her deeper into the realm of his memories. She rode it into the twilit shade of a dense primeval forest surrounded by jagged pinnacles of soaring sandstone rock. In the distance, great fires burned, choking the landscape with smoke and swirling ash.

She ran toward it, metal armor strapped to her glyph-covered chest and thighs, jangling with every long stride of her bare, blood-spattered feet. Clutched in her hand was a long sword, a crude implement of mankind's world, with its hammered iron blade and leather-wrapped hilt. But it would suffice. It had bitten off more than one enemy's head tonight.

In a few moments, it would feed again.

Loose earth crunched beneath her feet as she ran toward the smoke of a burning encampment. Some of her brethren were there already, locked in combat with the legion they'd been hunting across continents and many long centuries.

Jenna's unearthly battle cry shook the spindly pines and basalt towers as she charged forward, through the curtain of thick black smoke and the bloodied carnage scattered on the ground.

In response, the massive silhouette of an enemy warrior came out of a crouch over one of the fallen. He pivoted to face her as she cleaved her sword in a powerful, killing arc. Long blond hair, gathered in thin braids that were stiff with drying blood and sweat, swung away from his face as he wheeled around to meet the threat she brought.

He wore no plates of armor over his bare chest, only hammered metal cuffs on his muscled forearms. Loose white sentry's pants were filthy with blood and gore and dirt, hanging in ragged tatters above his sandaled feet.

Jenna's inelegant blade descended on him, a blow he blocked with a swift, double-fisted twist of his polished spear. The weapons sparked off each other, the sword shrieking a metallic protest as the staff deflected its path and sent it sweeping downward.

Jenna felt her mouth move, the voice that wasn't hers speaking words in a long-dead language that didn't belong to the Ancient either. "Your queen cannot hide forever, Atlantean."

"No," the warrior replied, fierce eyes narrowed with fury. "But she doesn't need forever. She need only outlive you and your savage kind. And she will."

He brought up the long staff and, in the glow of flames licking skyward all around them, firelight glinted off the symbol that adorned the spear's hilt and the shining metal cuffs on his arms: It was a crescent moon, poised to catch the falling teardrop that hovered above its cradle. The same symbol that every Breedmate bore as a birthmark somewhere on her body. Jenna had no time to process the uncanny revelation or the stunning implications of what it could mean.

Her arm came up, sword raised high.

She swung, using all of the preternatural power at her command. Her enemy dodged. A mere fraction too late.

The iron blade cleaved into flesh and bone and sinew, a punishing hit to his shoulder. Blood surged like a fountain from where the sentry's arm dangled uselessly at his side, all but severed. In the cradle of his palm, a bright light began to glow in the shape of the same symbol he wore on his weaponry and armor. He was injured and weakened now, but it would take more than a lost limb to end the warrior's immortal existence.

Jenna breathed in the scent of spilling enemy lifeblood and felt the rush of a savage exhilaration race through her.

She roared with it, victorious. Conquering.

She hauled back on the blade again and let it swing, burying it deep in her enemy's neck. Light erupted as his head broke away from his body. The glare of it was blinding, as pure and milky white as the full moon hanging in the night sky.

The beam flared brighter, impossibly so ... and then it was gone.

An immortal flame snuffed forever by the sword she held in her alien hand.

"Jenna!" The deep voice called to her through the billowing soot and the clash of weapons not far from where she stood. Strong hands took hold of her, shook her hard. "Jenna, can you hear me? Jenna, damn it, wake up!"

She came out of the dream gasping, clutching onto Brock, who was now sitting up on the bed beside her. His eyes were wide and worried. His big hands roamed over her face, brushing aside the strands of hair that clung to her damp brow.