Taken by Midnight (Chapter Sixteen)

A couple hours after dinner with Alex, Jenna was seated in the Breedmates' war room, at the very conference table where she and Brock had opened a door that likely neither one of them had been prepared to walk through. But she tried not to think about that. She tried not to think about Brock's sensual mouth on hers, or his skilled hands, which had given such intense pleasure even as he drew away her grief and inhibitions.

Instead, she rooted her attention on the discussion taking place between the women of the Order who were gathered in the room to review the status of their mission to locate the captives being held by Dragos. Only Tess was absent from the meeting, the pregnant Breedmate having apparently begged off to rest in her and Dante's quarters while keeping little Mira company, as well.

"She's not feeling ill, is she?" Alex asked. "You don't think the baby might be coming early?"

Savannah gave a mild shake of her head as she rested her elbows on the table. "Tess says she feels great, just a little tired. It's understandable.

She's down to just a few weeks now."

There was the faintest hesitation in her voice, then her gaze drifted subtly toward Jenna. A silent curiosity lingered in her eyes. At that moment, Jenna noticed that Savannah's palms were pressed against the table. Her slim black brows lifted slightly, and it was obvious from the partial quirk of her mouth that her Breedmate talent for reading objects with a touch had just told her–no doubt, in vivid detail–of the passionate kiss Jenna and Brock had shared on that very surface.

When embarrassment started to make Jenna look away, Savannah merely smiled in serene amusement and gave her a small nod as if to say she approved.

"You know, Dante's got a pool going on the delivery date," Dylan piped in. "Rio and I have our money on a Christmas baby."

Renata shook her head, the blunt ends of her dark hair swinging around her chin. "New Year's Eve, you wait and see. Dante's son would never miss an excuse for a party."

At the far end of the table, Gabrielle laughed. "Lucan will never admit that he's looking forward to having a baby in the compound, but I have it on good authority that five bucks was placed on December twentieth recently."

"Is there something special about that date?" Jenna asked, caught up in the excitement and genuinely curious to know.

"It's Lucan's birthday," Elise said, sharing Gabrielle's humor. "And Tegan put a hundred dollars on February fourth, knowing full well it was much too late to be in the running."

"February fourth," Savannah said, nodding with serene understanding.

Elise's smile was tender with memories, bittersweet. "The night that Tegan found me hunting Rogues in Boston and tried to put a stop to it."

Dylan reached out and squeezed the other Breedmate's hand. "And the rest, as they say, is history."

As the chatter of small, everyday things gave way to more serious talk of pursuing leads and formulating new mission strategies, Jenna felt her respect growing for the smart, determined mates of the Order's warriors.

And despite the earlier assurances that Tess's exhaustion was nothing to worry about, she found herself concerned about her, too, feeling as though the fabric of the gathering was missing one of its most vibrant threads.

A thought struck Jenna as she quietly observed, taking in the faces of the other women in the room: Somehow, she had begun to consider all of them her friends. These women mattered to her, and so did their goals. As adamant as she was that she didn't belong in this place, among these people, she realized that she wanted to see them succeed.

She wanted to see the Order defeat Dragos, and there was a part of her–a very determined part–that wanted to have a hand in making that happen.

Jenna eagerly listened as Elise discussed the status of the new sketches she and Claire Reichen had been working on with Elise's artist contact in the local Darkhaven. "It should only be another couple of days before we have finished sketches to work with. Claire has been amazing, making sure every detail is just as she recalls it from her dreamwalk into Dragos's lab. She's got meticulous notes, and her memory is incredible."

"That's good," Renata said. "We're going to need all the help we can get. Unfortunately, Dylan and I have run into a slight snag on Sister Margaret."

"She's living in a home for retired nuns down in Gloucester," Dylan interjected. "I spoke to the administrator, and told her that my mom and Sister Margaret used to work together at the women's shelter in New York. I didn't mention what we were really looking for, of course. Instead I set it up as a personal call, and asked if it would be possible to visit with the sister sometime and chat about her years of volunteer work–maybe reminisce a bit about my mom. The good news is, Sister Margaret loves having company."

"So, what's the snag?" Jenna asked, unable to keep from jumping on this new intel trail herself.

"Dementia," Renata replied.

Dylan nodded. "Sister Margaret's been suffering from it for the past couple of years. The house admin said there's a good chance she might not remember much about my mom or her work at the shelter."

"But it's still worth a try, right?" Jenna glanced around at the other women. "I mean, any lead is a good one at this point. There are lives on the line here, so we have to make use of everything we can. Whatever it takes to find those women and bring them home."

More than one head turned with surprise in her direction. If any of the Order's women thought it strange that she was including herself in their efforts to locate the missing Breedmates, none of them said a word about it.

Savannah's gaze lingered on her the longest, a look of gratitude–of friendship and acceptance–shining in her gentle eyes.

It was that easy acceptance, that sense of kindness and community she'd felt from each of these special women from the first day she awoke, that put a knot of emotion in Jenna's throat now. It overwhelmed her, nearly choking her up to feel even for a second that she could be part of something as tight knit and comfortable as the extraordinary extended family that lived and worked in this place.

"All right. Let's get to work," Dylan said after a moment. "There's a lot to be done."

One by one, they all went back to their tasks, some reviewing open file folders, others taking up positions in front of the war room's many computer workstations. Jenna drifted over to one of the unused PCs and fired up an Internet browser.

She had almost forgotten her message to her friend in the FBI pision Office in Anchorage, but as soon as she accessed the email site, she saw the reply waiting in her in box. She clicked the message and quickly scanned what it said.

"Uh, you guys," she said, feeling a little jolt of excitement and triumph as she read her friend's reply. "You know how you've been trying to get some intel on TerraGlobal Partners?"

"Dragos's corporate front," Dylan said, already coming over to see what Jenna had.

Alex and the other women were close behind her. "What's going on, Jen?"

"We're not the only ones interested in TerraGlobal." Jenna glanced up at the eager faces gathered around her. "An old buddy of mine in Anchorage ran a basic inquiry for me. He got a hit."

Savannah blew out a disbelieving laugh as she read the email message displayed on the monitor. "The FBI has an open investigation on TerraGlobal?"

"According to my friend, it's a relatively new one. It's being headed up by someone in their New York office."

Gabrielle gave Jenna an approving smile. "Nice work. We'd better go inform Lucan of what you've found."

The evening was only half over, but already he considered it a triumphant success.

In the dark of his private helicopter, Dragos smiled with deep satisfaction as his pilot guided the sleek aircraft away from the twinkling winter landscape of the busy capital city below and out over the dark water of the Atlantic, heading north, toward the second of his scheduled appearances tonight. He could hardly wait to arrive, anticipation for still another victory making his blood run faster in his veins.

For some time now, he had been cultivating his most useful allies, gathering his assets in preparation for the war he intended to wage, not only against his own kind–complacent, impotent cowards who deserved to be trampled under his boot–but also against the world at large.

Tonight's private receptions were crucial to his goals, and only the beginning of what would be a staggering offensive strike that he was preparing to deliver on both the Breed and humankind alike. If the Order feared that his grasp extended dangerously deep into the power brokers of the vampire race alone, they were in for a very rude awakening. And soon.

Very soon, he thought, chuckling to himself with eager glee.

"How long before we touch down in Manhattan?" he asked his Minion pilot.

"Fifty-two minutes, Master. We are right on schedule."

Dragos grunted his approval and relaxed into his seat for the remainder of the flight. He might have been tempted to call the evening flawless, if not for one small aggravation that stuck stubbornly in his craw–a bit of annoying news that had reached him earlier in the day.

Evidently some lowly desk jockey working for the Feds in Alaska was sniffing around in his business affairs, making inquiries about TerraGlobal Partners. For that, he blamed the Order. No doubt, it wasn't every day that a mining company–fake or otherwise–went up in a hellish ball of flames, as his little operation in the Alaskan interior had done at the hands of Lucan's warriors.

Now Dragos had the added irritation of having to contend with some public servant gas bag or environmental do-gooder trying to advance a career by going after a villainous corporation for God knew what offense.

Let them dig, he thought, smugly secure that he was free from any potential fallout. There were enough layers between himself and TerraGlobal to keep him insulated from nosy human law enforcement or interfering backwoods politicians. Failing that, he had assets in place who would ensure that his interests were protected. And, in the grander scheme, it didn't matter.

He was untouchable, more so every day.

Before long, he would be unstoppable.

That knowledge kept the edge out of his voice when his cell phone rang with a call from one of his key lieutenants. "Tell me where the operation stands."

"Everything is in order, sire. My men are embedded in positions as we discussed and ready to move forward with the plan for tomorrow at sundown."

"Excellent," Dragos replied. "Inform me when it is done."

"Of course, sire."

Dragos clapped the phone closed and slipped it back into his coat pocket. Tonight was a triumphant step toward attaining the golden future he had designed so long ago. But tomorrow's move against the Order–the viper's bite they would never see coming–was going to be an even sweeter victory.

Dragos let the thought settle over him as he tipped his head back and closed his eyes, savoring the promise of the Order's imminent, final defeat.