Taken by Midnight (Chapter Eight)

I hope everyone's hungry," Alex said, emerging from the swinging door of the estate's mansion kitchen, a large bowl of fresh-cut fruit in one hand, a basket of steaming, aromatic herbed biscuits in the other.

She placed both on the dining room table in front of Jenna and Tess, who'd been instructed by Alex and the other women of the compound to sit back and allow themselves to be served breakfast.

"How are you doing, Jen?" Alex asked. "Do you need anything? If you need to prop up your leg, I can bring in an ottoman from the other room."

Jenna shook her head. "I'm fine." Her leg was feeling much better since her surgery last night, and she wasn't in any great deal of pain. It was only at Tess's insistence that she was using a cane to get around. "There's really no need to fuss over me."

"That's my best friend the bush cop for you," Alex said, directing a wry eye-roll toward Tess and giving a dismissive wave of her hand. "Just a little gunshot wound, no need for concern."

Jenna scoffed lightly. "Compared to the week I've had already, a bullet hole in my thigh is probably the least of my worries."

She wasn't looking for sympathy, just stating a fact.

Tess's hand came down gently on her wrist, startling Jenna with its warmth and the genuine caring that shone in the young woman's eyes. "None of us can even pretend to know what you've been through, Jenna, but I hope you understand that we are here for you now. You're among friends–all of us."

Jenna resisted the pull of comfort that Tess's words had on her. She didn't want to feel relaxed in this place, among Alex and these seemingly kind strangers.

Nor with Brock.

Least of all with him.

Her mind was still reeling from his unexpected rescue of her in the city. It had been a mistake to take off as she had, ill-prepared and emotionally unhinged. She hadn't been so long resigned from police work that she didn't remember the surest way to get one's ass caught in a sling was to run off half cocked into unfamiliar territory. All she'd known in that split second before she'd bolted from the compound was a desperation to escape her dark new reality.

She'd made a classic rookie error in judgment, fueled by pure emotion, and ended up needing backup to drag her ass to safety. That her backup had come in the form of a formidable, scary-as-hell vampire was something she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to wrap her brain around.

Deep down, she knew Brock had saved her life last night. Part of her wished he hadn't done it. She didn't want to owe him anything. She didn't like being indebted to anyone, and most certainly not to a man who couldn't even be classified as human.

God, what a messed-up turn her life had taken.

Her thoughts growing progressively darker, Jenna drew her hand away from Tess's light grasp and settled back into her chair.

Tess didn't push her to talk, simply leaned over the table and breathed in some of the drifting steam from the biscuits.

"Mmm," she moaned, her slender arm cradling the swell of her large baby bump. "Is this Dylan's basil and cheddar recipe?"

"By popular request," Alex replied brightly. "There's more where this came from, including Savannah's incredible creme brulee French toast.

Speaking of which, I'd better go fetch some more of the feast."

As Alex pivoted around and disappeared back into the kitchen, Tess cast Jenna a sly look. "You haven't lived until you've had Dylan's biscuits and Savannah's French toast. Trust me, absolute heaven."

Jenna offered a polite smile. "Sounds good. I was never much of a cook. My biggest claim to fame in the kitchen was a smoked moose-meat omelet with Swiss cheese, spinach, and redskin potatoes."

"Moose meat?" Tess laughed. "Well, I can guarantee you none of us have ever had anything like that. Maybe you can make it for us sometime."

"Maybe," Jenna said noncommittally, lifting her shoulder in a slight shrug.

If not for the disturbing bit of foreign material embedded in her upper spine, and, now, the gunshot wound that had grounded her for God only knew how long, she'd be gone from this place already. She wasn't sure how much longer she would be made to stay, but as soon as she was able to walk out of there again, she'd be history. Never mind what the Order thought they needed from her; she had no interest in sticking around to be their guinea pig.

It was still beyond strange to think she was actually sitting there–in a secret, military-grade headquarters populated by a team of vampire warriors and the seemingly sane, perfectly likable women who appeared to be happy and comfortably at home among them.

The surrealism of the whole thing got even stronger when Alex and the rest of the Order's females–five youthful, stunningly beautiful women and the blond little girl named Mira–filed out of the kitchen with the rest of breakfast. They chatted companionably, as relaxed among one another as if they'd been together all their lives.

They were a family–Alex included, even though she'd just arrived a week ago, along with Jenna.

An easy rhythm settled over the dining room as gold-rimmed plates were passed around and heaped with all manner of delicious things. Crystal juice glasses were filled to their sparkling brims, and delicate, bone china cups soon steamed with fragrant dark roast coffee.

Jenna watched in studious silence as the meal got under way. Warm maple syrup and soft pads of butter made the rounds of the table, stopping for the longest time with little Mira, who soaked her French toast in sticky sweetness and globbed butter onto her biscuit as though it were frosting.

Mira wolfed down the biscuit in two big bites, then attacked the rest of her meal with the same unbridled gusto.

Jenna smiled in spite of herself at the child's ravenous appetite, feeling a pang of melancholy, if not guilt, when she thought about her own daughter. Libby had been such a cautious little girl, self-disciplined and serious, even as a toddler.

God, what she wouldn't give now to be able to watch Libby enjoying something as simple as breakfast across the table from her.

With sugar-coated fingers, Mira reached for her glass of orange juice and took a big gulp. She sighed contentedly as she set the glass back down with a soft thump. "May I have some whipped cream for my peaches?" she asked, pinning Jenna with her uncanny violet eyes.

For a moment, Jenna felt trapped in that gaze. She shook off the sensation and reached for the china bowl that sat halfway between her own plate and Mira's across the table.

"May I please have some whipped cream," Renata corrected from her seat to the right of the little girl. The tough-looking brunette gave Mira a decidedly maternal, affectionate wink as she reached out to intercept the bowl that Jenna passed her.

"May I please," Mira amended, looking anything but chided.

Jenna sliced into the decadent French toast and popped a bite into her mouth. It was just as Tess had promised–heavenly. She could hardly keep from moaning out loud as she savored the creamy, vanilla taste of it.

"You like?" asked Savannah, who was seated at one end of the long dining room table.

"It's delicious," Jenna murmured, her taste buds still vibrating with bliss. She sent a brief, encompassing glance around to everyone gathered there. "Thank you for letting me share all of this with you. I've never seen so much food in my life."

"Did you think we were going to make you starve?" Gabrielle asked from the opposite end of the table. Her smile was friendly, inviting.

"I'm not sure what I thought," Jenna answered truthfully. "To be honest, I don't know how to process any of this just yet."

Gabrielle inclined her head in a slow nod, looking sage and regally serene, even though she was no doubt a few years younger than Jenna's age of thirty-three. "That's understandable. You've been through a lot, and your situation is unique to us all."

"My situation," Jenna said, idly pushing a piece of syrup-soaked bread around her plate. "Meaning the unidentified object that's lodged at the base of my skull?"

"Yes, that," Gabrielle acknowledged, a gentle note to her voice. "And the fact that you were fortunate enough to escape the Ancient with your life.

The fact that he fed from you and let you live is–"

"Unheard of," piped in another of the women from her seat next to Gabrielle. She had a mane of fiery red hair, her pretty face dotted with peachy freckles. "If you knew what he was capable of–if you had any idea what's happened to so many others …" Her voice trailed off, a small shudder making her fingers tremble around the fork she held. "It's nothing short of a miracle that you're still alive, Jenna."

"Dylan's right," Tess agreed. "Since roughly a year ago, when the Order first discovered the Ancient had been awakened, we've been trying to locate him and Dragos, the son of a bitch responsible for bringing that kind of dangerous being back into the world."

"I'm not sure which of them is the worse evil," Renata interjected.

"The Ancient has claimed a lot of innocent lives, but it's Dragos, the Ancient's sadistic grandson, who's been pulling all the strings."

"You mean to tell me that creature has offspring?" Jenna asked, unable to contain her revulsion.

Gabrielle took a sip of her coffee, then carefully set the cup down in its saucer. "That creature and several others like him fathered the entire Breed race on Earth."

"On Earth?" Jenna barked out a disbelieving laugh. "Are you talking about aliens now? That vampire who attacked me–"

"Was not from this world," Savannah finished for her. "It's true. No harder to believe than the existence of vampires themselves, if you ask me, but it's the God's honest truth. The Ancients raped and conquered after crash-landing here some thousands of years ago. Over time, a few of their victims became pregnant with what would become the first generation of the Breed."

"This actually makes sense to all of you?" Jenna asked, still incredulous. She glanced over at Alex beside her. "You believe this, too?"

Alex nodded. "Having come to know Kade and everyone else here at the compound, how could I not believe it? I also saw the Ancient with my own eyes, in the moments before he was killed on a cliff outside Harmony."

"And what about this other person–Dragos?" Jenna asked, unwillingly curious to make all of the pieces of this astonishing puzzle fit together somehow. "Where does he come in?"

Dylan was the first to answer. "As it turns out, Dragos woke the Ancient much earlier than we had guessed. Decades earlier, in fact. He held him in secret, and used him for creating a whole new generation of Gen Ones–the strongest members of the Breed, being that they are directly descended from the Ancient's bloodline and not genetically diluted, as the later generations are."

"Dragos has been breeding a personal army of the most powerful, most deadly members of the race," Renata added. "They are raised under his watch, trained to be ruthless killers. Dragos's private assassins whom he can call out at any time to do his bidding."

Gabrielle nodded. "And in order to create those first-generation offspring, Dragos also needed a stock of fertile women on which to breed the Ancient."

"Breedmates," Alex said.

Jenna glanced at her. "And what are they?"

"Women who are born with unique DNA and blood properties that make them capable of sharing a life bond with members of the Breed and bearing their young," Tess said, her hand idly roaming over the top of her pregnant belly. "Women like all of us gathered around this table right now."

Shock and horror clenched Jenna's gut. "Are you saying that I–"

"No," Tess said, shaking her head. "You're mortal, not a Breedmate.

Your blood work is normal, and you don't have the mark that the rest of us do."

At her frown, Tess held out her right hand, which bore a small red mark between her thumb and forefinger. It was a tiny crescent moon with what looked to be a teardrop, falling into its center. "All of you have this same tattoo?"

"It's not a tattoo," Alex said. "It's a birthmark, Jenna. All Breedmates are born with one somewhere on their bodies. Mine is on my hip."

"There aren't a lot of us in the world," Savannah said. "The Breed considers all Breedmates to be sacred, but not Dragos. He's been collecting women for years, holding them captive, we assume for the sole purpose of birthing his Gen One assassins. A lot of them have been killed, either by Dragos himself or the Ancient."

"How do you know that?" Jenna asked, horrified by what she was hearing.

Down the table from her, Dylan cleared her throat. "I've seen them.

The dead, that is."

The cop part of Jenna perked to full attention. "If you've got dead bodies, you've got hard evidence, and probable cause to turn this asshole, Dragos, in to the authorities."

Dylan was shaking her head. "I haven't seen the bodies. I've seen the dead. They … appear to me sometimes. Sometimes they speak to me."

Jenna didn't know whether to burst out laughing or hang her head in defeat. "You see dead people?"

"Every Breedmate has a particular talent or ability that makes her unique from any other," Tess explained. "For Dylan, that ability is a connection to other Breedmates who have died."

Renata leaned in, bracing her forearms on the edge of the table.

"Through Dylan's talent, we know for certain that Dragos is responsible for numerous Breedmate deaths. And through another friend of the Order, Claire Reichen, whose talent led us to actually locate Dragos's base of operation a couple months ago, we know that he is holding many more Breedmates prisoner. Since then, Dragos's operation has gone to ground.

Now the Order's primary mission–aside from taking the bastard out ASAP–

is to find his new headquarters and bring his victims to safety."

"We've been helping wherever we can, but it's hard to nail a moving target," Dylan said. "We can search missing persons reports online, looking for faces I recognize. And we run day missions to women's shelters, orphanages, flophouses … anywhere we might get a lead on vanished young women."

Renata nodded. "Particularly those with possible ESP skills or other unusual capabilities that might hint at a potential Breedmate."

"We do what we can," Gabrielle said. "But we haven't caught a real break yet. It's like we're missing the key that will unlock the whole thing, and until we find that, all we're doing is chasing our own tails."

"Well, hang in there," Jenna said, that rusty old cop side of her sympathizing with the frustration of following go-nowhere leads.

"Persistence is often a detective's greatest ally."

"At least we don't have to worry about the Ancient anymore,"

Savannah said. "That's one less battle to be fought."

Around the breakfast gathering, a chorus of agreeing voices answered the statement.

"Why did the Ancient let you live, Jenna?"

The question came from Elise, the petite short-haired blonde on the other side of Tess. The reticent one of the group who looked like a fragile flower but had the frank, unwavering gaze of a warrior. She probably needed that inner steel, considering the company she and the other women in the compound were keeping.

Jenna glanced down at her plate and considered her answer. It took her a long moment to form the words. "He made me choose."

"What do you mean?" Savannah asked, her brow furrowing in question.

What will it be, Jenna Tucker-Darrow?

Life … or death?

Jenna felt every pair of eyes rooted on her in the quiet. Forcing herself to meet the unspoken questions that hung like a weight in the air, she looked up. She squared her chin matter-of-factly and spoke the words succinctly, if quickly. "I wanted to die. It's what I would have preferred–at that moment, especially. He knew that, I'm certain of it. But for some reason, he seemed to want to toy with me, so he made me decide whether or not he would kill me that night."

"Oh, Jen, that's awful." Alex's voice hitched a little. Her arm came around Jenna's shoulders in a sheltering embrace. "That cruel son of a bitch."

"So," Elise prompted, "you told the Ancient to let you live and he did–just like that?"

Recalling the moment with harsh clarity now, Jenna gave a deliberate shake of her head. "I told him I wanted to live, and the last thing I remember is him slicing open his arm and removing that thing–that tiny bit of God-knows-what–that's now embedded inside of me."

She felt, rather than saw, the subtly exchanged glances that traveled around the table.

"Do you think that might be significant?" she asked, directing the question to the group as one. She tried to tamp down the sudden twinge of fear that was suddenly reverberating in her chest. "Do you think him placing that object inside me has something to do with whether I live or die?"

Alex took her hand in a reassuring grasp, but it was Tess who spoke before anyone else. "Maybe Gideon can run a few more tests and help us figure that out."

Jenna swallowed, then nodded.

Her plate of food sat untouched for the duration of the meal.

In a shadowed corner of an expansive luxury hotel suite in Boston, heavy drapes securely closed to block even the slightest ray of morning sunshine, the Breed male called Dragos sat in a silk-upholstered chair and drummed his fingernails on the mahogany lamp table beside him. Tardiness made him impatient, and impatience made him deadly.

"If he doesn't arrive in the next sixty seconds, one of you needs to kill him," he said to the pair of Gen One assassins who flanked him like muscled, six-and-a-half-foot hellhounds.

No sooner had he said it than, out in the foyer of the presidential suite, the private elevator gave a soft electronic chime, announcing an arriving guest. Dragos didn't move from his seat in the other room, waiting in irritated silence as another of his homegrown, personal guards escorted a civilian Breed male–a lieutenant in Dragos's secret operation–into the suite for his private audience.

The vampire had the good sense to bow his head the instant his gaze lit on Dragos. "Apologies for keeping you waiting, sire. The city is teeming with humans. Holiday shoppers and tourists," he said, disdain in every cultured syllable. He peeled off his black leather gloves and tucked them into the pocket of his cashmere coat. "My driver had to circle the hotel a dozen times before we were able to get close to the service doors below street level."

Dragos continued to drum his fingers on the table. "Something wrong with the lobby entrance?"

His lieutenant, born second-generation Breed like Dragos himself, blanched slightly. "It's the middle of the day, sire. In that much sunlight, I would burn to a crisp in minutes."

Dragos merely stared, unfazed. He wasn't happy with the inconvenience of their meeting location, either. He would much rather be enjoying the comfort and security of his own residence. But that wasn't possible anymore. Not since the Order had interfered in his operation and sent him scrambling for cover.

Out of fear of discovery, he no longer permitted any of his civilian associates to know where his new headquarters was located. As a further precaution, none of them knew the locations of his other sites and personnel, either. He couldn't run the risk that any of his lieutenants might fall into the Order's hands and end up compromising Dragos in the hopes of sparing themselves from Lucan's wrath.

Just the thought of Lucan Thorne and his self-styled warrior knights put a bitter taste in Dragos's mouth. Everything he'd been working toward–

his vision of a future he could hardly wait to catch in his ready hands–had been spoiled by the actions of the Order. They'd forced him to turn tail and run. Forced him to destroy the very nerve center of his operation–a scientific research super-laboratory, which had cost him hundreds of millions of dollars and several decades of effort to perfect.

All of it gone now, nothing but cinder and shrapnel in the middle of a thick Connecticut forest.

Now the power and privilege that Dragos had been accustomed to for centuries had been replaced by skulking in the shadows and constantly watching over his shoulder to make certain his enemies weren't closing in on him. The Order had made him flee and cower like a rabbit desperate to evade the hunter's snare, and he liked it not one damned bit.

The latest irritation had taken place in Alaska, with the escape of the Ancient, Dragos's most valuable, irreplaceable tool in his quest for ultimate domination. Bad enough that the Ancient had broken free during transport to his new holding tank. But the disaster was made all the worse when the Order somehow managed to find not only the Alaskan lab but the fugitive otherworlder, as well.

Dragos had lost both of those important pieces to the warriors. He wasn't about to forfeit another damned thing to them.

"I want to hear good news," he told his lieutenant, glaring up at the male from under the furrow of his scowl. "How are you progressing with your assigned task?"

"Everything is in place, sire. The target and his immediate family members have just returned to the States this week from holiday abroad."

Dragos grunted in acknowledgment. The target in question was a Breed elder, nearly a thousand years old–Gen One, in fact–which was precisely why Dragos had him in his sights. In addition to wanting Lucan Thorne and his band of warriors put out of business, Dragos had also returned to one of his initial mission objectives: the systematic and total extinction of every Gen One Breed on the planet.

That Lucan himself and another of the Order's founding members, Tegan, were both Gen Ones only made that goal all the sweeter. And all the more imperative. By removing all of the Gen Ones–save the crop of assassins bred and trained to serve him unquestioningly–Dragos and the other second-generation members of the race would become, by default, the most powerful vampires in existence.

And if, or, rather, when Dragos tired of sharing the future he alone had envisioned and ensured was brought to fruition, then he would call upon his personal army of assassins to remove every second-generation contemporary, as well.

He sat in contemplative, if bored, silence as his lieutenant rushed to review the finer points of the plan that Dragos himself had masterminded just a few days earlier. Step by step, tactic by tactic, the other Breed male laid everything out, assuring him that nothing had been left to chance.

"The Gen One and his family have been under our surveillance round the clock since their arrival back home," the lieutenant said. "We are ready to pull the trigger on the operation on your command, sire."

Dragos inclined his head in a vague nod. "Make it happen."

"Yes, sire."

The lieutenant's deep bow and scraping retreat was almost as pleasing to Dragos as the notion that this pending offensive strike would make it clear to the Order that he might be down, but he was far from out.

In fact, his presence at the swank Boston hotel–and one of several important introductory meetings that had taken weeks to arrange between him and a hand-picked group of influential humans–would solidify Dragos's position on the ladder toward his ultimate glory. He could practically taste success already.

"Oh, one more thing," Dragos called out to his departing associate.

"Yes, sire?"

"If you fail me in this," he said pleasantly, "be prepared for me to feed you your own heart."

The male's face bleached as white as the carpet that blanketed the floor like snow. "I will not fail you, sire."

Dragos smiled, baring both teeth and fangs. "See that you don't."