"Yes," Elise agreed. "I think he needs you too."
Tavia shook her head, wishing that was true. "I have to go."
"Stay for breakfast, at least," Elise offered. "The warriors and Renata will be here before sunrise. Perhaps Sterling will be back by then too."
"I can't," Tavia replied. She glanced past Elise as Dylan popped her fiery red head out from the dining room.
"Are we setting another place at the table?"
"That's what we're discuss - " Elise's words were left unfinished.
Because in the time it took for her to swivel her blond head around to answer Dylan, Tavia had summoned the speed given to her by her Breed genetics and had disappeared out the front door.
HE WAS AN IDIOT.
It had taken him several hours to arrive at that realization. Several dozen miles of running like a wild animal through the cold, dark wilderness to understand he would never be able to get far enough away from his biggest problem: himself.
He had to face his demons, not hope he could outpace them or deny them.
Tavia had been teaching him that by example from the moment he first laid eyes on her. He'd just been too thick-headed to grasp the concept.
He'd hurt her earlier, scared her, and he needed to repair that damage - if she'd let him. He didn't know how to live with someone, how to love someone the way a special female like Tavia deserved, but he wanted to try. As unsure as he was about proving himself worthy of her, he could not imagine his life without her.
He loved her, and if it took locking himself up below the Order's new compound to starve the Bloodlust out of him, then he was damn well good and ready to get started.
His bare feet flew over the snow and ice of the forest floor. He felt none of the cold, only the warm promise of a future he hoped to convince Tavia to share with him as his mate.
But as the sprawling bulk of the stone-and-timber compound appeared in the distance ahead of him, Chase realized she was gone.
He felt her absence even before he climbed back in through the window she'd left open in the bedroom where they'd made love. Where he'd fallen on her like the animal he was and fed until she was weeping and terrified. His blood told him she was nowhere near now.
By the vacant chill of his veins, he guessed that she was easily miles away. He'd lost her, probably forever.
He should be relieved, for her, if not himself. She'd made the decision for him. The safest one. The only one that wouldn't put her life at risk every time she got near him.
He sat down on the edge of the empty bed, naked, bereft.
Dawn was rising, sending slivers of pale pink light down through the thick canopy of pines outside. He watched it for a moment, unable to summon the desire to close the shutters. The house's electronic security took care of it for him, automated steel louvers locking tight, blotting out the morning.
He didn't know how long he sat there. When the hard rap sounded on the door behind him, his voice was a rusty sound in the back of his parched throat. "Yeah."
"Harvard." Dante spoke through the closed slab of hand-hewn wood. "You two decent in there, man?"
The door opened and Dante stepped inside. "Jesus, it's freezing in here. What do you mean, she's gone?"
Chase pivoted his head to meet his old friend's confused frown, turning amber high beams on him. The warrior lifted his chin, dark brows rising as he took in Chase's feral appearance. "Ah, shit. You didn't - "
"I drank from her," Chase admitted. "Things got ... out of hand. I scared her pretty bad. I hurt her, and now she's gone."
Dante stared at him for a long moment, studying him. "You care about this female."
"I love her. That should be reason enough for me to let her go, right?" He slowly shook his head, considering how much better off she'd be without him. "I'm the last thing she needs in her life."
"More than likely," Dante replied, grave. No mercy in his voice or in the sober eyes that held Chase's amber-swamped gaze. "She doesn't need you in her life like this, my friend. Nobody who cares about you wants to be there to watch when you crash and burn. I'd say least of all her. I don't mean to be harsh. You're trying to get your shit together, I can see that."
"Yeah," Chase agreed. "I have to. I want to prove to her that I can beat this."
Dante shook his head. "No, man. First, you have to want to prove it to yourself."
DAWN WAS COLD and brittle, clouding Tavia's breath as she stood on the stoop of the little house she'd called home until roughly a week ago. Yellow crime scene tape sealed the front door, which was still festooned with a ribboned Christmas wreath and sleigh bells that jangled as she broke the tape and stepped inside.
The house was silent, tomblike. A shell that now felt as empty and foreign to her as the life she'd been living inside its walls.
Tavia moved through the place with a sense of detachment. None of what was here belonged to her. Not the homespun furniture or cheery fixtures. Not even the photographs on the walls - snapshot collages of another time, a scattered chronology of her childhood and teenage years. Time that had been carefully monitored and manufactured, constructed of countless falsehoods and betrayals.
These mementos of her past had seemed so real once. Her life had seemed so normal until a week ago. She'd been happy for the most part, enjoying her home life and her career, accepting that the world she lived in was the one in which she belonged. How could it have seemed so real for so long, yet been nothing more than a monstrous lie?
She let all of it go, here and now.
There was no bitterness as she looked around her, nothing but calm acceptance as her gaze panned the kitchen, its cream-colored floor marred by a ghastly brown bloodstain where the Minion pretending to be her aunt had fallen after taking her own life at Dragos's command. It was only when she thought of him - Dragos, the chief orchestrator of her betrayal, who'd ruined or taken so many other lives through his unconscionable actions - that Tavia felt a flare of rage ignite in her gut. For what he did to her and the others like her, for what he'd done to the Order during their quest to defeat him, for the evil he was certain to be perpetrating even now, she hoped his end was coming soon.
A dark part of her - a powerful, predatory part of her that was becoming more familiar to her than one she'd known for the past twenty-seven years - wanted to be there the day that Dragos took his last breath. She growled with the need for bloody, final vengeance, her glyphs churning with palpable fury beneath her clothes.
But as much as she wanted a hand in Dragos's demise, she couldn't let a personal need for retaliation get in the way of the Order. This was their battle, not hers. The same way Chase's battle with Bloodlust was his to fight. He hadn't invited her help, nor did he want it. A point he'd made abundantly, heartbreakingly clear to her.
She wasn't a part of Chase's world or the Order's, no more than she was a part of the one surrounding her in the cramped confines of this dead Minion's house.
She needed to find her own place of belonging now, wherever that might be. The problem was, no matter how she tried to picture her life going forward, it was Chase's handsome, haunted face she saw in front of her.
She loved him. She belonged to him in every way, and she would for always.
Even if his disease never let him go.
A DEEP FOREBODING had settled over the compound as the morning crept by. The news of Chase and Tavia's conflict and her subsequent departure earlier that day was only another complication in a situation that had everyone sober and on edge.
No one could be sure just what he had in store, but the Order's interrogation of one of his lieutenants in Boston last night had left all of the warriors in a state of grim expectation. It didn't help matters that, at barely ten A.M., daylight would keep the Order hostage indoors for the next five or six hours.
While most of them were gathered elsewhere to run through intel and patrol tactics with Lucan, Gideon and Lazaro Archer sat in the makeshift tech lab along with Dylan and Jenna. At roughly a thousand years old, Archer was one of the eldest of his race, older even than Lucan. Not that anyone would guess the handsome, jet-haired Breed male with the midnight blue eyes was more than a day over thirty.
It was only when he spoke of witnessing the Norman Conquest of England and the Christian Crusades as though they happened last year that the disparity between his staggering life experience and youthful appearance made Jenna's mind boggle.
"So, you think it's possible that the Ancients might've been actively hunting a race that wasn't quite human?" she asked him.
Archer considered for a moment. "Anything is possible. It might help explain the many times my own father - one of the original eight otherworlders - would disappear for months on end when I was a boy. He spoke from time to time of gatherings with his brethren. They could have easily been hunting operations as you saw in the dream."
"Why kill them?" Jenna wondered aloud. "I mean, what was the problem between them?"
Archer lifted one bulky shoulder. "The Ancients were a conquering race. We've seen that in your journals, in the history we've collected from your other dreams. My father and his kind had no humanity in them, even less mercy."
"He's right," Gideon put in from across the room, where he was typing on his computer keyboards, hacking through what had to be thousands of records recovered from Dragos's dead lieutenant in New Orleans. "Before the Order took them down, the Ancients blew through human settlements like locusts. They fed, they raped, they slaughtered. Resist their will, and they would annihilate you."
Jenna nodded, recalling the nightmare of the wave that consumed an entire population. The mention of the escaped queen who'd refused to surrender to the Ancients. Her city had been toppled in response. Her legion pursued with a dogged purpose.
"Let's say all of this is true," Dylan added now, swiveling around in her chair. "Even if there was another nonhuman race of beings on this planet and some kind of supernatural grudge match between them and the fathers of the Breed, that still doesn't mean every Breedmate has an Atlantean father hiding in her closet."
Gideon smirked. "Speaking of which, how'd that hack I wrote for Gabrielle with Department of Children and Families work out?"
"She accessed her records, but there wasn't much to discover," Jenna replied. "Both parents are listed as J. Does. Her teenage mom was too far gone mentally to provide any specific detail when she was committed. As for Gabrielle's father, it's anyone's guess. Her mom mentioned a boyfriend, a seasonal worker who disappeared soon after she became pregnant."
Gideon's brows lifted, his blue eyes intrigued. "Male of unknown origins who disappeared after getting a young woman pregnant?"
"Oh, come on," Dylan interjected. "Don't tell me you actually think this is possible too? Of everyone, I expected you to be the voice of reason."
"There is logic in the notion." He lifted his hands in surrender. "I'm just saying."
"Claire is looking into details about her parents' deaths in Africa," Jenna added. "It's been some fifty years now, but the relief group her mother worked for kept pretty good accounts. She thinks she might have answers in a couple of days."
Dylan stared, still skeptical. "And there's the matter of Tess's father. Dying in a car accident is a pretty mortal way to go."
Jenna shrugged. "I know. I need to get some more information from her about that before I can rule anything out."
Dylan gave a shake of her thick red hair. "Meanwhile, it makes perfect sense to you all that these immortal warriors - this Atlantean legion that serves an exiled queen - have been walking around the planet undetected for thousands of years."
Everyone glanced her way now, three pairs of eyebrows lifted in question. She blew out an exasperated gust of air and threw up her hands. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But the Breed is different. The Breed banded together, colonized. They protect their own. If there's some kind of immortal race out there who's fathering offspring and walking away without ever looking back, then I want no part of it."
"Maybe it's safer for them if they leave," Jenna guessed.
"No," Lazaro Archer replied. "Safer for their daughters if they never know who their true fathers are. At least until the last of the immortals' sworn enemies is dead."
Jenna looked at him. "The last of the Ancients may be dead, but his memories and history are still alive and well inside me. Possibly somewhere close to forever, if Gideon's right about my longevity odds."
"Maybe that was the point." Archer's ageless eyes glimmered with shrewd intellect. "He was the last of his kind on this planet. For all he knew, he could have been the last of his entire race. If the Ancient understood his death was coming, ego may have made him seek out some way to keep a part of him alive."
"So, why would he make me choose if I wanted to be his walking, talking memory box?" Jenna asked. "He gave me a choice between life or death that night. What did he mean by that?" Archer grew more serious, grimly so. "Maybe we have much to learn about these immortals. And through you, the Ancient has given us that chance."
As that statement hung over the room, one of Gideon's computers beeped. He swung around and typed a flurry of keystrokes. "You gotta be kidding me. Can it actually be that easy?" While Jenna and the others watched, he jogged over to a table containing half a dozen thick black collars. Ultraviolet obedience collars engineered by Dragos's operation and outfitted on all of his laboratory-raised Gen One assassins. Hunter and Nathan had both worn them while they served Dragos, and they'd both been damn lucky to be free of them without having lost their heads in the process.