Beat of Temptation Scene 1| Beat of Temptation Scene 2 | The Shower| Miss Leozandra's The Party | Kiss of Snow Scene 1 | Kiss of Snow Scene 2 | Kiss of Snow Scene 3 | Kiss of Snow Scene 4 | Kiss of Snow Scene 5 | Kiss of Snow Scene 6 | Kiss of Snow Scene 7 | Tangle of Need Scene 1 | Tangle of Need Scene 2 | Heart of Obsidian Scene 1 | Heart of Obsidian Scene 2 | Shield of Winter Scene 1 | Shield of Winter Scene 2 | Shield of Winter Scene 3 | Shield of Winter Scene 4 | Shield of Winter Scene 5 | Shield of Winter Scene 6
Below are two deleted scenes from Beat of Temptation, my contribution to the An Enchanted Season anthology.
Scene 1 was supposed to be a prologue, while scene 2 was originally part of the ending.
Scene 1 didn't make it into the novella because I decided that with the shorter wordcount, we needed to jump straight into Nate and Tammy's story, rather than going from the present, to the past. Plus, I was indulging myself with the other characters and with a novella, you need a much tighter focus.
Scene 2 didn't make it in because the information--that the pack cared enough to intervene--had already been given. It's a fun little bit though, so enjoy! Times two!
"The Psy who Stole Christmas," Sascha read out the title, a frown creasing her forehead. "I'm not sure I'm going to like this book."
Tamsyn laughed. "Oh dear, it's probably not very friendly to leave that lying around now that I have Psy packmates."
Faith took the book from Sascha and read the back. "The terrifying, scarifying, mystifying true story of how Christmas was almost outlawed."
"You're not offended are you?" Tamsyn suddenly realized how bad the book might look to her friends. "It's just a fun book. The kids like the rhymes. I'd never--"
"We're not offended." Sascha sneaked a bite of chocolate from the pieces Tamsyn had cut for the cookies. "It simply relates a factual event in a way small children can understand."
"Yes." Faith opened the book to the first page. "I believe the newly powerful Psy Council was trying out its new wings during that time period. This was not one of their success stories."
Tamsyn laughed, glad for Sascha and Faith's imminently logical outlook on life. "No, I'd say not. I don't think they've been defeated like that ever again."
Sascha nibbled on another piece of chocolate as she picked up a beautiful ornament from the box on the table. "Isn't it a bit early for Christmas decorations?"
"It's a family thing." Tamsyn felt her heart catch at the memory. "A tradition you could say."
Faith's eyes lingered on the hand-painted ball in Sascha's hand. "I see the future, but I think it would be nice to have a past full of enough joy that you celebrate it."
Tamsyn smiled at the foreseer. "I'm sure you're making some great memories with Vaughn."
"Yes." Her eyes softened. "He carved a sculpture of me."
"Can we see it?" Sascha asked.
Faith shook her head. "No, I don't think so. He's quite possessive about it."
"Just like he is with you." Seeing movement out of the corner of her eye, Tamsyn grabbed the chocolate bowl before Sascha could demolish it. "How much chocolate do you go through in a week anyway?"
Sascha's night-sky eyes, pinpricks of white on black velvet, crinkled at the corners as she winced. "I think we should change the subject. Let's talk more about Faith and Vaughn."
Lucas stuck his head around the corner from the living room. "She ate an entire bar after dinner last night. Good thing I make sure she gets regular exercise." He ducked back out before the apple Sascha had thrown at him reached the door, his sensual grin leaving no doubt as to what kind of 'exercise' the two had been indulging in.
"I swear I'm going to--" Sascha kept the apple in the air using telekinesis and brought it back to the bowl. "He bought me that damn chocolate bar."
Tamsyn bit her lower lip to stop from laughing at Sascha's blush. "Of course he did. He adores you."
"And I foresee many more chocolate bars in your future."
Tamsyn and Sascha both looked at Faith. The F-Psy was gifted with the ability to see the future and when she said something like that, it was usually correct to give it a literal interpretation.
"Do you also see lots of exercise?" Tamsyn asked.
Sascha swiveled to stare at her. "Tammy!"
"Oh yes." Faith grinned impishly, the smile rare. She'd been out of the PsyNet for several months but some things took time. Tamsyn knew the redhead was still getting used to interacting with her new packmates. "Chocolate and exercise are intimately connected in your future."
Sascha put her hands on her hips, looking from one to the other. Then her lips quirked. The laugh when it came was infectious. They were all holding onto their sides when Nate walked into the kitchen from the backyard. "What did I miss?" He was holding a bunch of flowers.
Stupidly expensive, incredibly beautiful and softly delicate.
Tamsyn stopped laughing. "You idiot." But she was walking into his arms, tears in her eyes, barely aware of Sascha and Faith slipping out of the room.
He hugged her with one arm, flowers in the other. "Happy Anniversary, my darling cat."
She sniffed. "It's not until Christmas Day."
"No it isn't."
No, it wasn't. That might be when they'd had the ceremony in the Pack Circle to celebrate their mating bond, to share their joy with packmates, but it was on this day eighteen years ago that they'd truly become one, without barriers or fears. The first day he'd ever given her orchids. "I should put them in water."
He was nuzzling at her neck. "Later. Right now, you should come upstairs and put me out of my misery."
" Nate!" she whispered, well aware of the others only a wall away. In particular, their two cubs, Julian and Roman--the boys had preternatural hearing when it came to their daddy. "The kids, Lucas and Sascha and--"
"They'll take care of the kids." Teeth nibbling on her skin. "I'll be very quiet."
Things were melting low in her stomach as the scent of him wove around her. "Liar." God she was mush where this man was concerned. Especially when he gave her orchids. "I want to be on top."
Putting the orchids on the table behind him, he scooped her up into his arms. Like all healers, she was a practical woman, but he'd always made her feel utterly feminine. Now he grinned. "No you don't. I have plans for you."
She nipped at his lower lip. "Going dominant on me, Nathan Ryder?"
He gave her a full-blooded kiss. "Remember that time in the cabin, Mrs Ryder?" He whispered a more intimate description in her ear.
"Oh." Damp heat between her legs. "You're right, I don't want to be on top." The things he'd done to her in that cabin...it was no wonder she'd agreed to be his mate. But their story had begun long before that final showdown.
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Twelve hours later, Nate nuzzled at Tamsyn's neck, his beast still not convinced she was going to stay. "You left but you stayed close." She'd meant him to find her.
"Actually, I wanted to go to New Zealand."
He jerked up his head to stare down into her face. "What?!"
She gave a small feminine shrug. "It hurt, dammit. Being near you and not being able to do this." She stroked her hands up his arms. "Or this." A kiss pressed to his chest. "Or this." Her leg curved over his and rubbed, as if she liked the feel of his hair-roughened skin against her smoothness.
"So you were going to New Zealand ?" He was not pleased. "Do you even know where that is?"
She slapped his shoulder. "Stop with the growling."
It was only then he realized his beast was starting to surface. "So what convinced you to stay in Tahoe?"
Nate blinked. "Juanita?"
She nodded. "I told her what I was planning and she said maybe I should take things a little bit slower to give my mother time to adjust."
"Your mother?" He was starting to feel like a parrot. "She seemed fine when she dug her claws into me."
"Really?" Tamsyn frowned. "She was in tears when she called me. So I said I'd stay here for a month and let her come visit, get used to the idea."
The idea of Sadie in tears just did not sound right.
"And," she added, "Lucas said he wasn't psychologically ready to handle my leaving."
Okay, that did it. "They damn well set us up."
"All three of them refused to tell me where you were--lied right to my face." He scowled. "They played us."
Tamsyn's lips twitched. "I did think it was odd that my mom was suddenly so emotional. And well, they did get us to this bed. And the wall. And the table."
Nate found his lips curving to mirror hers. "I guess I won't shred them into a thousand small pieces then."
"I think that would be a very good idea." She pressed kisses up his chest. "If they hadn't convinced me to stay, you'd be in New Zealand right now."
He caught the small hint of uncertainty. "Damn right I would," he said, thrusting his hand in her hair and pulling back her head so he could look into her eyes. "I'd have hunted you down to the ends of the Earth so remember that the next time you decide to pack up and leave."
"Nathan, you romantic." Then she smiled. "I think you should make love to me."
"Best idea you've had all morning."
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This small scene comes from early on in Lucas and Sascha’s relationship, perhaps a couple of months after Slave to Sensation.
“Lucas!” Sascha skidded to a halt at the edge of the aerie’s balcony and looked down to where her mate was working out, his body slick with sweat.
He glanced up. “You need me, kitten?”
Always, she thought, she always needed him. “There’s something wrong with the shower.” She held the towel more firmly between her breasts. “The water’s down to a trickle.”
He grinned, looking very much the panther he was. “Are you naked?”
“No.” Technically correct. “This towel is very big.”
He stayed in place, hands on his hips, a look in his eyes she didn’t trust. “Say I fix the shower, what do I get in return?”
She bit her lower lip. Playing with Lucas was fast becoming second-nature, but the cat had a head start on her when it came to these kinds of games. “A home-cooked meal.”
He shuddered. “No thanks. Your idea of a home-cooked meal is chocolate cake with hot chocolate, and then chocolate fudge for desert.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s not man food.”
She smiled, looked him up and down. “My man.”
“Nu-huh.” He shook his head, hair brushing his shoulders. “I’m not falling for that. Come on, deal. Make it interesting.”
“I’ll brush you until your fur is all shiny.”
He scowled. “My fur is shiny enough thank you. I think you’re wanting to stay dirty.”
“Hmm.” She leaned on her railing. “If you come fix the shower, I’ll let you share it with me.”
He grinned but shook his head again.
“Okay, fine.” She sighed as if giving in. “I’ll recite the list of sexual positions I memorized as part of a mental training exercise.”
That list had been one of her small rebellions in the PsyNet, a tiny way to gratify the needs she couldn’t acknowledge.
“You’ll recite it while I’m soaping your delicious body.” Claws slashing out, he began to scale the tree to the aerie.
“That might interfere with my concentration.”
He landed on his feet in front of her, an alpha panther with sensual play in his eyes. “Come on now, recite. You know how that turns me on.”
“You haven’t fixed the shower yet.” Her eyes narrowed as she caught the glint of cat smugness on his mind. “Did you break it on purpose?”
“Why would I do that?” All innocence.
Her mouth fell open. “You’re…shameless!”
“No, I just know how to negotiate.” Reaching forward, he began to tug at her towel.
She gripped it tight, pushed him back with a burst of Tk. “Cheater.”
Grunting from the impact of the telekinesis, he simply tugged harder. “Sore loser.”
She released the towel without warning. He froze in place. Swiveling on her heel, she walked into the aerie…and shut the door in his face. “Now who’s the loser?”
Dropping the towel, he gave her a dark male look. “I am not pleased.”
She knew very well he was mimicking what she sometimes said to him. “And I don’t care.” Turning, well aware he had a perfect view of her retreating backside, she waggled her fingers and walked into the bedroom and then into the shower cubicle. Now that she knew he’d sabotaged it, she had it fixed in short order...just in time to spray Lucas with the detachable head as he walked in.
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This text was originally written as a continuation of the scene that ended on page 166 of Caressed by Ice with Brenna saying: “Miss Leozandra’s” to Vaughn.
Why didn’t it make it into the book? First, there was a small timing issue that meant not everyone who was in the scene could be there, so keep that in mind as you read this. The timeline will not merge perfectly with the book – instead, I’d advise you to read this as a completely separate scene.
Another reason this scene didn’t end up in the book was that I didn’t feel it gave the reader any new information – but it was just so darn fun to write I couldn’t stop myself. I hope you enjoy!
The smile turned into a dark scowl. “What is it with that place?”
She didn’t understand his comment until she walked into the beauty parlor. Tamsyn, Sascha and Faith were lined up getting pedicures. Vaughn had chosen to wait outside. “Hey, I didn’t expect to see you here.” She’d just wanted to feel normal today, but Sascha might want to continue the discussion they’d been having this morning.
Faith was the first to speak. “Hello, Brenna.” A soft smile that belied the strain in her eyes.
“Hi.” Brenna wanted to ask what was wrong but then saw Sascha place a hand over the other woman’s and something clicked in her mind. “It must be strange for you, being out here in the middle of so many people.” She didn’t know everything, but the rumor was that Faith had grown up pretty isolated.
The F-Psy took a deep breath. “Yes, but I’m determined to not be a recluse. So, have you come to join us in this ritual of female bonding? I was skeptical at first but I do believe I like having “Coral Crush” paint on my toenails.” She wiggled one completed foot.
Sascha laughed. “We’re taking her lingerie shopping next.” Her eyes told Brenna not to worry.
“Mean, mean.” Brenna grinned, glad for Sascha’s empathic gifts at this moment. “Torturing your mate that way.”
Faith’s smile widened. “Oh, I think a little torture is good for my kitty-cat.”
The door opened an inch. “I heard that.” A low male growl.
“Stop eavesdropping,” Tamsyn ordered. “We want to talk girl stuff. Promise to scream if we need you.”
Tamsyn’s comment was followed by a negotiation where Vaughn eventually agreed to wait on the other side of the street, where he could still see them, but not hear their conversation.
“Wonder who else is out there shadowing us?” Sascha murmured.
“Oh, let’s see,” Tamsyn leaned back in her recliner, “two of us are mated to sentinels and then there’s you and Lucas. Wanna play “who’s more protective?”
“I win.” Brenna raised her hand. “Two brothers, a pack alpha, the cats and my own man.”
The other three glanced at her, then nodded unanimously. “You win.”
Miss Leozandra swanned out of the back room at that instant, a vision in a purple caftan patterned with shimmering gold leaf.
“Brenna, my dear!” She air-kissed both of Brenna’s cheeks, her manner as flamboyant as her hair—a deep rose, the short strands spiked up and frosted sapphire blue at the tips. “Who did your hair darling?” A disapproving look. “It’s—” She waved her hands in dismay.
Brenna caught the others’ concerned looks but they needn’t have worried. Miss Leozandra was treating her exactly as she wanted to be treated. “Isn’t it hideous?” She grinned. “Can you fix it?”
The older woman tapped at her cheek with one gold-flecked nail. “Well, I suppose a nicer cut—”
“No.” Brenna had made up her mind yesterday. “Extensions. High end.” She could afford it and this was one thing she could fix.
“Oooh.” Miss Leozandra clapped her hands. “Come on.”
So it was that Brenna got down to business with Miss Leozandra herself rather than one of her assistants, accompanied by Tamsyn’s vocal opinions and Sascha’s quieter words.
“I’m using gen-synth strands.” The hairstylist laid several strands across Brenna’s palm as she sat in the styling chair.
“They’re white…no, transparent.” She could barely see them and her sight was very sharp.
“But the second they bond to your hair, they’ll start taking on its color and texture. Smart.”
Brenna was impressed. “The bonding—glue?”
Miss Leozandra sniffed. “Out decades ago. We use a laser bonder that literally sews the molecules of the strands together. When I’m done, no one—not even you—will be able to tell where your hair ends and the extensions begin.”
“How long will they last?”
“Until you cut them off.” Miss Leozandra began smoothing Brenna’s hair down with some sort of gel. “Helps the bonding. I’m going to go shoulder length with you. The gen-synth fibers are light but no sense overloading it. We can always add more in later if you want.”
Brenna’s was smiling so hard her face ached. “Let’s do it.”
The process was slow. Very slow. The DarkRiver women left partway to do their shopping, popped in an hour later to check on her and eat lunch—supplied by Miss Leozandra’s personal chef, then returned again just as Miss Leozandra whipped off the styling cape and spun the chair around to face the mirror. “Ta-dah!”
Brenna’s eyes widened. “I have bangs!” Delighted, she ran her fingers through the length of her hair. Smooth, perfect—Miss Leozandra hadn’t been exaggerating. Brenna could feel nothing which might’ve denoted a join. “This stuff is amazing!”
“And it’s on the house.” The stylist squeezed her shoulders.
Brenna felt her joy go flat—did the other woman know? “That’s not—”
Miss Leozandra waved a hand, nails flashing. “Miss Leozandra never forgets a favor. That computer you sorted out last time is working so well we won’t need a replacement for years. And the improvement you made to the automatic answering service is getting me compliments from across town. All of which is worth a whole lot more than what I did for you today. So take it and no lip.”
Brenna smiled, joy returning. “In that case, I accept.”
“Good. Because I have a feeling I’m going to need that clever brain of yours again soon—we’re thinking of installing a security bot after hours.” She smiled at Sascha. “Your people are good with keeping us safe but I like to look after my own patch.”
Robotics wasn’t Brenna’s field, but she could do basic maintenance, and if necessary, hook the stylist up with a friend from college who was a genius in the area. Looking into the mirror, she met the eyes of the other three women. “So?”
“Gorgeous.” Tamsyn grinned. “Not fair.”
“I’m glad my work is appreciated.” A beaming Miss Leozandra gave her hair a final look, then went to supervise one of her assistants.
Brenna was about to reply when something bit at her ankle. Yelping, she raised up her legs. Two small leopard cubs scooted out from under her and ran to hide behind Tamsyn. “How did they—?”
Laughing so hard she couldn’t speak, Tamsyn reached down and grabbed her twins. “S-s-sorry.” She waved at Sascha.
The Psy grinned. “Clay was keeping an eye on them while we shopped. They spent a whole day with sentinels and soldiers. I’m afraid you’ve been the target of one of their hunts. Actually I think you just got eaten.”
Brenna laughed, her heartbeat slowing down. She was used to wolf pups trying out their stalking skills on unprepared adults. “They’re very good.” The adorable twosome peered at her from their mother’s arms, their eyes a beautiful green-gold not found in wolves.
Sascha took one of the cubs when he wiggled and jumped toward her. “Julian thinks you look pretty, even if you are a wolf. Your hair’s not as dark as his coat but he likes it anyway.”
“Thank you, Julian,” she said solemnly.
“And I think you feel lovely, too.” Sascha’s smile was gentle.
Faith had remained silent to that point, watchful. “Now you see the woman you’ve always been.”
“I just needed the physical validation, you know?”
“I know.” Faith’s night-sky eyes flashed black for a second. “Maybe it’s time you got back. We all should go back.”
When a foreseer spoke in that eerie tone, everyone listened.
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I absolutely love this deleted scene from Branded By Fire! The reason it didn't make it into the book is that while it's heaps of fun, the reason for it - to show how close Mercy is to her pack - was something that was already apparent through the rest of the story.
I hope you all enjoy!
Mercy felt so deliciously loose and relaxed after her encounter with Riley that she had the urge to turn leopard and just curl up somewhere. It was as well that she had a standing date with the women of the pack that night.
Showering and sprucing up after her return from the den, she made it to the gathering half an hour late. It was being held at Annie and Zach’s house this time around—though Zach had been kicked out for the duration. Attendance fluctuated depending on work-shifts and the general mood of the pack, and tonight, after Nash’s successful return, there were well over twenty-five women in the small house filled with the delicious smells of chocolate, cocktails and friendship.
“Mercy!” Anu all but dragged her to a seat on the sofa. “I have something for you. Show me your toes.”
Grinning, Mercy did as bid. Ten minutes later, her toenails had been painted a vivid silver-blue that glinted in the light. “I like it,” she said definitively. Anu was one of her favorite people, being so infectiously good-natured that it was impossible to be in a bad mood around her. “How’s the baby?”
“Gorgeous. See?” The proud mommy pulled out a phone with an array of new photos.
Genuinely interested, Mercy spent several minutes looking at them. “She’s growing fast. Feels like only last week I held her and she was the size of a tadpole.”
“Tell me about it.” Anu turned to put her phone back into her purse. “Make sure you take home the rest of the polish for touch-ups.”
“Thanks.” Admiring her toes and feeling distinctly feline in her pleasure, Mercy nudged Anu.
“Here.” A margarita was put into her hand. “Anu?”
“Better not—breastfeeding. Gimme that pineapple juice.” Taking a glass, she picked up her bag of tricks. “Time for my next victim.”
Mercy glanced up at Annie as Anu arrowed her way toward Poppy. “You know how to throw a party.”
Annie grinned. “I think Zach’s having visions of coming home to find drunken naked women all over his lawn. Actually, I think he’s hoping for it. Except for his sisters, of course—I have strict instructions to save him from that trauma by warning him to stay the hell away.”
Laughing, Mercy took a sip of her margarita and watched as Annie moved to put the rest of the drinks on the low table a couple of feet away. The small brunette was immediately shanghaied by her sister-in-law, Jess, and Sascha, into a heated debate that pitted Mr. Darcy against Heathcliff. Mercy was leaning forward to listen to Annie’s take on things when Tammy waved to her from the other side of the room, where she was being offered something that had her red-faced and laughing. Curious, Mercy made her way over.
Her eyes almost crossed when she saw the array of objects on the table in front of the healer. “Tammy!”
“Hey, don’t blame me.” Tammy wiped tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes. “This is all Faith’s fault.”
The F-Psy looked incredibly demure when she answered the charge. “How was I to know what Lurrrve Motion produced? When they said they were sending me samples to help me tune my mind for forecasts, I said fine.” She glanced at long, green and very...flexible, Lurrrve Toy, her eyes dancing with laughter. “I never had to worry about things like this when I was working exclusively for Psy companies.”
Mercy was trying to figure out how another toy worked when it came buzzing to life in her hands, turning six different colors in as many seconds before bouncing out of her grasp and across the table to fall into Talin’s lap. Tally took one look at it and said, “Do you think Clay would know what this was if I took it home and gave it to him as a present?”
Seriously naughty suggestions came from all sides, and by the time it was over, Mercy was laughing so hard, her stomach muscles protested. This, she thought, was life, was joy. She couldn’t imagine a future in which her pack didn’t play an integral role. DarkRiver was part of her soul through her blood-bond to Lucas, but her packmates were part of the very fabric of her heart.
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Author’s note: I love the intimacy of this scene, but, I felt the information conveyed here about Sienna had come through in other parts of the book. This scene also offers another glimpse into Judd and Brenna’s relationship, but as they already had one fairly major scene, I decided to delete this one (much as it hurt!).
Judd arrived home to find his mate curled up in wolf form on a plush rug in the living area of their quarters. Going down on one knee beside her, he ran his hand over her back, her fur gloriously soft beneath the roughness of the guard hairs. Her eyes flicked open in a burst of wild welcome, and then the air was colored in the brilliant sparks that denoted a shift.
Even after all this time, it still stunned his heart when she did that, when she allowed herself to be so very, very vulnerable to a Tk who could conceivably disrupt the shift on a fatal level. The fact he’d cut out his heart before doing that wasn’t the point, not when Brenna had once been terrorized by a telekinetic.
As soon as she was kneeling warm and naked in front of him, he slid his arms around the sweet curves of her body and bent to rest his forehead against hers. Everything in him sighed in relief, in surrender. Home. He was home.
Brenna ran her fingers through his hair, over his shoulders, again and again. Petting him. Never had he imagined he’d experience such intense emotion, this wild joy that made him feel as if he had a wolf inside him, too. It was that emotion that had him speaking his heart as he looked down into eyes of brown cut with shards of blue.
Of a survivor.
Of his mate.
“I want this for her,” he said, his voice harsh. “I want her to know this kind of happiness.” Like a telekinetic Arrow, an X lived a life defined by the violence of her gift. Softness, tenderness…those weren’t things they ever dared to dream could be theirs.
Brenna cupped his face, her hands warm and silken. “He’s a good man, Judd. If they get together, you never have to worry he’ll misuse her in any way.”
“I know.” Judd’s trust in Hawke was that of a lieutenant in his alpha—absolute and without reserve. “But it hurts her, what she feels. I hate seeing that.” He’d tried to protect Sienna as an Arrow, teleporting in to see her without Ming’s knowledge, but in the end, she’d always been alone in the dark with a monster. “I wish I could save her the pain.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Kisses on his jaw. “We didn’t exactly have an easy courtship.” Cupping his face again, she claimed his mouth, sweet and hot and wet. “Anything worth winning, is worth fighting for.”
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Author’s note: This was originally written as a continuation of the date scene in Chapter 47. While it no longer lines up perfectly with the final scene, it offers a small glimpse of what went on that night between Walker and Lara.
Lara is seated on Walker’s lap on the sofa as the scene begins.
A change in those pale green eyes. “No rushing, Lara.”
She brought her hand up to stroke his jawline. “I thought you didn’t know what you were doing?”
“You’re teaching me.” Turning his head when her fingers brushed his lips, he sucked one gently into his mouth for a slow, hot second.
It made her whimper.
In response, he leaned forward to nuzzle a kiss to her throat. “You smell…” The sound he made was beyond masculine, low and deep and so very Walker.
“Teach me what else you like.” That big hand stroked up to the back of her thigh, higher. The instant she quivered, he repeated the stroke on the exact right spot.
Another kiss on her throat, his jaw brushing against her. He’d shaved before he’d come to her, she thought, his skin smooth under her touch as she wove her fingers into his hair. She loved the feel of his stubbled jaw against her, but the small sign of care, of tenderness, undid her.
Leaning down, she nipped the top of his ear.
His hand clenched on her thigh. “Again.”
She did as he demanded, tugging lightly with her teeth before letting go. On her thigh, his hand squeezed once more before relaxing, the roughness of his skin an exquisite caress. “Do you like that, too?”
“Yes,” she whispered, because this moment, it was quiet. Secret.
When he lifted his hand from her thigh, she wanted to moan in disappointment, but then he ran it over her breast and she clenched her fingers in his hair, the thick strands raw silk against her palm.
Walker had never thought he would one day have a lapful of warm, curvy woman in his arms. And that it was Lara… Unable to quite process the depth of what she aroused in him, he stroked his hand down her ribs, to the sensual swell of her hips.
Any and all skin privileges you want.
The wolves, for all their liking for touch, didn’t offer such a thing lightly. It spoke of complete trust on Lara’s part. Moving his hand back up, he curved it under her breast. Her nails dug into his nape, a tiny bite he hungered to experience on other parts of his body, sensual touch a new territory—one he planned to explore only with this woman. “I want to see your naked breasts.”
Heat flushed over her skin, but she didn’t say a word as he moved his hand to the top of her dress and tugged, pulling the fabric aside to reveal a lacy black bra that barely covered her nipple. His pants, already tight, were suddenly highly uncomfortable. “Show me.” It came out hard, almost cold as he fought the force of his need, but Lara, this woman who understood him, didn’t seem to mind.
Lifting a hand to her bra, she tugged down the cup so it framed her breast, offering herself to him. He bent his head and took. Tasted. Indulged. The sound she made when he sucked and rolled her nipple over his tongue, had his hand returning to push up under her dress to close around the sleek softness of her inner thigh.
“The other one,” he murmured, then realized she’d gone still. “You’re uncomfortable.”
A husky laugh. “No, just the way you look at me…” Raising her hands with those whispered words, her body soft with welcome, she pulled away the dress and the bra, until he could lick his way around her nipple before tugging it between his teeth. Her thighs clenched on the hand he had between them, squeezing tight. Listening to her body, he shifted that hand until his knuckles brushed against the delicate lace of her panties.
A little cry that did unknowable things to him.
Increasing the pressure, he felt her body tighten and then she was tugging up his head with her hands in his hair, her lips seeking his in feminine desperation. He kissed her the way he’d learned made her melt, licking into her mouth as he pressed her closer to him with the hand he’d braced on her lower back.
She shuddered, pressed hard against his knuckles. “Walker…”
He was no expert lover, but he knew how to listen, how to put together pieces of data—so he rubbed his knuckles against her. When she whimpered and strained impossibly closer, he deepened the pressure once more. Her cry was gasped out, her body quivering as she fell into him.
Trust. Such absolute trust.
Shifting his hand down to her thigh, he smoothed it over her knee, then back up. And since it was so easy, he leaned down and bit her ear like she’d bitten his. She jerked, smiled against his neck.
“No fair.” A soft, intimate murmur. “I’m helpless.”
He kissed the line of her throat, running his mouth up to tug at her earlobe with his teeth…and felt the ripple of shocked pleasure that rocked her. “Is this what the juveniles call ‘making out’?”
“Yes.” Gasping in a breath, she laughed. “What do you think?”
“There’s a high level of frustration involved.” His erection felt as if it would snap in half.
“That’s part of the fun.” Nuzzling at him, she said, “I can do something about that frustration,” and it was an offer both intimate and warm.
Every muscle in his body went tense—he’d fathered a child, but until Lara he’d never before touched a woman…been touched by her. Yet now he held a beautiful, sensual woman in his arms and he wondered how he had ever survived without her touch. “Show me,” he said, his voice lower, rougher than he’d ever heard it.
A fox-bright gaze, small tempting kisses. “I love your voice.” Sliding her hand down his chest, she tugged at his belt. She’d just undone the top button of his pants and was unzipping him when his erection jumped at the brush of her hand. Walker grit his teeth, but it was too late. The single touch after a lifetime in the cold shattered him, ripping pleasure through every cell of his body.
Perhaps he should’ve been embarrassed, but with Lara petting and kissing him, all he felt was… He didn’t have the word, but he knew that no one had ever made him feel like this. “Sorry,” he murmured, luxuriating in her caresses.
“Now that we’re both relaxed”—a wicked smile—“want to do it again?”
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Author’s note: This was how the second scene in chapter 16 originally ended. However, much as I enjoyed seeing Drew again, I decided the pace of the story was better served by a shorter, tighter scene that ended with Sienna’s memory of her first meeting with Hawke.
“Do it.” A hand on her head, snapping the thread of memory.
“Morning, sugarpie.” Reaching over, he snagged another muffin for her.
“Stop with that nickname.” In spite of her scowl, she had no resistance to his smile—or the blueberry and white chocolate treat he held out. “Thanks.”
Pouring himself a big cup of coffee, Drew grabbed a muffin for himself before sitting down across from her. Freshly showered, his brown hair looking closer to black, he was clearly wide awake. “Do you have an early shift?” she asked.
“Indy did,” he said. “While I’m intellectually and physically opposed to getting up before the civilized hour of noon, sneaking kisses while I walked her to her post was too tempting to resist.”
Sienna felt a pang of longing, wondered what it would be like to be adored with such open joy.
“What’re you doing in this section?” she asked, hoping Drew wouldn’t pick up on her desolate mood. “You’re one of the smug-mateds now you know.”
Grinning, he tapped her on the nose. “Came to see someone else, caught your scent.”
Her responding smile was genuine. “I better go.” She polished off her milk. “Have to get down to the Eastern perimeter.”
Drew rose as well. “Want some company?”
“You have time?”
“For you”—an arm flung around her shoulders—“all the time in the world.”
Her usually infallible antennae didn’t start to twitch until they’d reached her watch position. “So,” Drew said, leaning against the proud might of an ancient fir that brushed the dawn-streaked sky, “it seems I’m going to have to kick Hawke’s ass for whatever he did to put that look in your eyes.”
That was when she remembered Drew wasn’t only playful and affectionate, he was also—according to the scuttlebutt she’d picked up—the pack’s tracker. “He’ll wipe the floor with you,” she said instead of answering the implied question.
“Only if I fight fair. You know sneaky is my preferred method. Plus I know a certain former Arrow who’d be more than happy to provide back-up.”
Sienna began to walk the perimeter, hoping if she kept this light, he’d drop it. “No need to do any violence on my behalf.”
“Oh, I disagree.” Easy words as he fell into step beside her. “Little sisters have to be looked after.”
Halting, she stared at that handsome face with its lake blue eyes so bright and shrewd. “Don’t you dare pull the overprotective big brother act with me.” Having witnessed him and Riley with Brenna, she was well warned.
“It’s not an act.” A teasing smile but there was an edge to it. “He hurt you.”
“Drew.” Walking over, she touched her hand to his heart. “Don’t do anything, please. It would be...” Agonizing. “Just don’t. Please.”
Drew closed his hand over her own. “Hey, of course I won’t do anything if you feel that way about it.” Shadows darkening the lake blue. “But you know you can come to me, right? Anytime?”
She nodded, but this was the one thing she couldn’t talk about with anyone. Not without tearing open her heart, exposing vulnerabilities so deep, they held the potential to destroy her.
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Author’s note: This conversation is from one of my earlier drafts of Kiss of Snow. Because of changes in the ensuing drafts, it doesn’t slot neatly into a particular chapter. However, as you’ll see, a certain aspect of this scene did make it into the book in the form of the conversation Lara has with Marlee in chapter 48.
It was his daughter with her gap-toothed smile who took him to task. “Daddy?”
“Yes?” He carefully sanded the edge of a tiny table, a piece of furniture for Marlee’s dollhouse—her dolls had apparently decided they “must” have a dining room.
“How come”—a crunchy bite of pear—“you don’t kiss Lara like Uncle Judd kisses Aunt Brenna?”
Walker froze. He knew full well his daughter was intelligent, but this—“Why are you asking me that question?”
She swung her legs from her seat on his workbench, and took another bite of her fruit before answering. “‘Cause Ben says you smell of Lara and grown-ups only smell like that when there’s kissing.” A breath. “But I said you weren’t kissing her and he said you probably were in secret, so I was wondering how come”—a second breath—“you didn’t just kiss her like normal?”
A little dazed, Walker leaned against the bench beside his daughter, the miniature dining table forgotten. He didn’t tell her that Ben was wrong. There had been no kissing—but he’d clearly spent enough time with Lara that their scents had become intertwined on some level. So, he asked a question he’d never thought he’d ask his child. “Does my spending time with Lara bother you?”
Toby, the boy he considered his son, was an empath, would instinctively understand that Walker needed Lara in a way he might never be able to articulate even if he accepted it, but Marlee had always been a “daddy’s girl.”
Now, she frowned. “Why would I?” She offered him her pear.
He took a bite, gave the rest back to her. “I never want you to feel as if I’m not paying attention to you.”
Marlee beamed. “Yeah, but if you mate with Lara, then I’ll have a mom like Ben does!”
His heart stopped. “You miss having a mom?”
“I guess, a little.” She kicked off her shoes before leaning into him when he put his arm around her.
“The mom I had before, she wasn’t a real mom. I think Lara would be—we’re not her kids, but she cuddles me and Toby and Ben and the other pups. Sometimes she tells us off if we’re naughty.” A guilty glance up from under her lashes. “But she’s nice.”
None of that, he thought, was a surprise, because Lara’s heart was as big as the Sierra. “I’m not sure if I’m what she needs.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until Marlee said, “Ben says his mom likes it when his dad brings her flowers. Did you get Lara flowers?”
No, he hadn’t. And still she gave so much of herself to him, had become the one person with whom he could speak of anything. A friend, he called her, knowing he was tying her to him, keeping her from forming relationships with other men.
But he also knew he wouldn’t step back, wouldn’t set her free. Because sweet, competent Lara had made long-dormant parts of him come to painful, brittle life.
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Author’s note: In Play of Passion, Indigo makes a promise to herself that she’ll warn the woman who becomes Hawke’s prey. This scene, intended for one of the early chapters, was written as a fulfillment of that promise. In the end, I decided the book worked better if Indigo’s support of Sienna came through in a more subtle way, but this scene (though it doesn't slot neatly into the final book), shows just how strongly Indigo cares for the young woman Sienna has become.
Sienna was on her way out of the den that night, having put Toby and Marlee to bed after helping both with their homework, when Indigo walked up to her. “Going somewhere?”
“I just needed to get out.” Her skin felt too tight, too full, her psychic energy shoving to escape—something Walker had spotted as soon as he returned home a few minutes earlier.
“Thought I’d go for a walk.” When she was alone, far from the den, she’d earth herself, expending the build-up of power the only way she knew how.
“I’ll join you.”
Sienna nodded. In spite of her edgy state, she wasn’t yet ready to free the monster within. “The waterfall?” It was a little further than the lake that was her usual spot of choice, but more likely to be empty.
Neither of them spoke again until they reached the rocky edge of the waterfall. Sienna took a seat with her legs hanging over the side, her face kissed by the occasional cool spray carried by the wind.
The water was inky black today, except for where it foamed at the bottom, the roar of the fall another piece of the tapestry that made the Sierra Nevada so very magnificent. There was peace here. Sienna knew that. She just couldn’t quite capture it, couldn’t quite make it affect her the way it should. Always, inside her, there was chaos, a tumult of energy that hungered to live, to experience, to explore.
“So,” Indigo said, coming down to sit on her left, long legs hanging over the edge beside Sienna’s, “listen up.”
Sienna knew that tone of voice. “What did I do now?”
Indigo’s lips quirked. “Nothing. Believe me, that surprises me, too.”
Sienna should’ve been offended—maybe a year ago, she would’ve blown up at the wry comment. But she’d grown up in that year. “I wasn’t that bad.”
“Puh-leeze, you’re still the reigning champ of trouble with the trick you pulled that turned every drop of water in the den bright purple.”
“Non toxic dye,” Sienna said, making a mental note to share Indigo’s assessment with her accomplice, Evie. “And the kids thought it was awesome.” She’d never have done anything that would’ve scared them.
“Uh-huh. Then there was the time you told all the juveniles you could read their minds and that you were spying on them for Hawke.”
“That wasn’t such a good idea in the end,” Sienna admitted. “I think some of them are still wary around me.”
Indigo snorted. “You have your group of troublemaker friends. Tai I can understand, but how the hell did you rope in Evie?”
“Mind control. Obviously.” Sienna met the lieutenant’s laughing gaze, told a quiet truth. “Your sister’s heart is so full of goodness, it makes me scared for her.” Like Toby, Evie had no badness in her.
Indigo’s expression gentled. “Yeah, me, too. Which is why I’ll kick Tai’s ass bloody if he hurts her in any way, shape or form.”
Sienna thought of what Tai had said to her about Evie, knew Indigo wouldn’t have to make good on that promise. “Did you want to talk to me about how I messed up by stepping off watch?” Her stomach knotted because Indigo was someone who mattered, whose opinion Sienna deeply respected.
“I trained you, Sienna. I know you’ll have been beating yourself up about that since the night it happened.” Indigo leaned forward, turning her face into the fine mist coming off the waterfall. “You were always harder on yourself than I was.”
I have to be. Failure was simply not an option, not for an X. “I’m sorry,” she said, not voicing the harsh truth she’d learned to live with over the past year. Before that, she’d let it strangle her, and her resulting anger had further accelerated her rate of decline. No more. “I know it reflects badly on you if I stuff up.”
Indigo put a hand on her shoulder, squeezed. “We all make mistakes. And you’re paying your dues—far as I’m concerned, it’s done with. When do you finish in the kitchens?”
“Two more days.”
Indigo nodded. “The thing I wanted to discuss with you has to do with Hawke. Specifically”—the lieutenant met her gaze—“you and Hawke.”
Sienna stopped breathing, her mind catapulting her to the shocking heat of his touch that night before he left the den. All that maleness so close to her, all that barely contained power. “What about me and Hawke?” she managed to say.
Indigo’s unbound hair whipped off her face in the wind generated by the waterfall, baring the clean, strong lines of her face. “I promised myself I’d warn the woman who became his prey.”
Sienna gripped the wrist of one hand with the other. “I’m not.”
“No,” Indigo agreed and it was a stab to Sienna’s heart. “Not yet.”
Sienna jerked up her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you have a problem, sweetheart.” The term of affection was accompanied by a shake of her head. “That big, gorgeous wolf is going to shut you down the instant you step out of line—because he can.”
“There’s not much I can do about that, Indigo. He’s alpha.” The ultimate law.
Indigo’s jaw firmed. “Find a way.” A cool statement as she reached out to tap Sienna’s temple.
“That brain has gotten you into more trouble than most of the other young ones combined. Put it to work on the problem.”
Sienna rubbed her fingers over her wrist. “But—”
“Quiet. Listen.” Angling her body, Indigo spoke directly to her, those brilliant eyes night-glow in the dark. “He sees you. Maybe it pisses him off—”
Sienna sucked in a breath.
“—but you want him pissed off.”
“I don’t think so,” Sienna muttered, thinking of how lethal Hawke could be in that kind of a mood.
She was still smarting from the way he’d torn a strip off her hide after that idiotic fight with Maria.
Indigo ignored her. “When he does come after you, fight. Fight for everything.”
Sienna closed her hand over the jagged edge of the rocks. “He touched me the night before he left for the mountains.” The secret spilled out of her.
“No.” Unclenching her hands from the cold bite of the rocks, she went to shove her hands into her hair before remembering she’d braided it. “He hasn’t made even a token effort to find me since then.”
Indigo frowned. “Look, I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but what heck—you’re going to need all the help you can get.”
A sick feeling bloomed in her abdomen at the warning in Indigo’s tone. “What?”
“He’s sexually hungry,” Indigo said bluntly. “And since he’s a stubborn bastard, he might try to work it off with another female.”
Sienna felt a cold, cold rage burn within her, an icy thing that had her heart turning rigid in her chest. It took conscious effort to wrench back the fury, to quiet the responding violence of her ability.
“Makes you mad enough to kill, doesn’t it?” Smiling, Indigo pulled back several strands of hair dancing across her face. “Then make sure he doesn’t have the chance to see anyone but you. However, that’s not the issue.”
“No?” It came out almost soundless, her brain hazed by darkest red.
“Have you been with a man, Sienna?”
A whip of heat slicing clean through the cold rage. “It’s not—I’m not—I—” She clamped her mouth shut, tried again. “It’s different for Psy.” She’d been trained against all physical contact. It had taken her years to get to the point where she was able to allow someone she trusted close enough for a kiss.
“I know. That’s why I’m asking, and you just gave me your answer.” Indigo blew out a breath. “I think it’s time we had a birds and bees talk.”
Sienna wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it. Scrape the dirt over herself for good measure. “I had that in my first year of health class.”
“Not that talk. The talk about how predatory changeling males can get when they’re on the edge. You, of course, will have to multiply that by ten since Hawke is alpha and hasn’t had sex in months—at the very least. So listen up, and take notes.”
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This scene, from one of my earlier drafts, tells you a bit more about Zia, the empath mentioned in chapter 13. It also reveals more information about Hawke’s father, the majority of which was later rewritten into other scenes in Kiss of Snow, so this particular scene wasn’t so much totally deleted as redistributed throughout the book.
Sienna and Hawke are lying in bed as the scene opens, Sienna’s arms braced on Hawke’s chest as she looks up at him.
“Zia was one hundred and twenty-seven years old.” The woman had been as wrinkled as a raisin and as tiny as a child, but he’d never seen her sit still. “I didn’t understand what she was when I was growing up—I knew she was Psy, from before Silence, but I never really thought about it.” He’d been a boy, with a boy’s happy self-absorption. “I just figured she was a telepath if I ever did think about it.”
“She would’ve been an adult when Silence was implemented.” Sienna’s tone held pure fascination.
“The things, the changes she had to have witnessed.”
A thoughtful frown before she lay her head back down on his chest. “Her life must’ve held such sadness.”
“I realized that when I grew older,” he said, “but at the time, she was one of the elders and I was a kid.” A kid with two loving parents and a girl who was his best friend. Then Rissa had died and his father had started to act in ways that had scared Hawke’s wolf on an elemental level. “Zia,” he continued, “was the first person who actually sensed that something was very wrong in the pack. At first, I don’t think anyone really paid her too much attention.” If they had…but the clock could never be turned back.
Sienna nuzzled at his neck, as if she knew how the memories clawed at him. Cuddling her closer, he continued. “But then a number of the pack—including my father—started to behave so erratically it was dangerous, and Garrick began to listen to Zia. It was too late by then though.” His father’s bloody rampage as he cut down the others who’d been compromised, had already begun.
“I’m sorry, Hawke.”
“I’ve come to terms with what happened. It helps that my father fought to the bitter end. He couldn’t stop himself from harming Garrick, but he stepped in the path of a bullet for him.” His angry pain had been tempered with time, until he could remember the man who’d loved him with such fierce loyalty, and forgive the one who’d broken.
“He died in my mother’s arms. Zia told us later that his mental shields had been so compromised, they’d collapsed—as if his brain was lying cracked open to the elements, his skull gone.” He thought of the pain his father must’ve suffered as he tried to fight the compulsions, the horror of knowing he was acting without honor, but being unable to stop it. “All in all…we lost a quarter of the population in the den before the bloodshed ended.”
Wet heat on his chest and he realized his tough, unbreakable Psy was crying. “Ah, baby,” he said, shifting until he was braced over her. “It wasn’t you,” he said, able to read her thoughts for all that he was no telepath. “It could never be you.”
She shook her head. “I could’ve been one of them.”
“Never. You have your mother’s heart.” He kissed her cheeks, sipping at the salt of her tears. “We survived.” The remaining seniors and elders had held SnowDancer together until he turned fifteen.
They hadn’t been able to give him any more time—because a wolf pack without an alpha could not grow strong, could not heal. “I’m going to love you now, Sienna.”
A smile that held too many years, too much knowledge. “Not as much as I love you.”
It began with a kiss and ended with him holding her as dawn lit the sky, knowing that he couldn’t hold back the coming of the day.
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Author’s note: While this scene is powerful, I deleted it because I felt Judd’s need to help Sienna, his commitment to doing everything he could for his niece, was already clear. The timeline of this scene doesn’t tie perfectly into the final book, so keep that in mind as you read.
Ten hours after Judd had brought Alice Eldridge into the den, she showed not the faintest sign of consciousness. He met Lara’s eyes across the woman’s unresponsive body. “I can attempt to breach her mind.”
Lara expression grew troubled. “Even if you're able to do it without hurting her, I can’t allow you to invade her privacy that way.”
Judd had no such compunctions, because if they couldn’t stop the cascade of Sienna’s power, he would have to put a bullet through her heart, end her life. They’d decided on that the day they defected, and it was a promise he’d hoped never to have to keep. “It’s Sienna’s life on the line.”
“And you’d do anything for her.” Lines around Lara’s mouth, pain in her words. “So would I. But Judd, to violate one woman to save another?”
Judd knew she was right—but he also knew he’d cross far worse lines to save his sister’s child. But Sienna wouldn’t buy her life at the cost of Alice’s, and so he couldn’t act on the dark impulse.
“Sascha,” he said, his mind clearing for a second. “She may be able to sense something without causing harm. I’ll get her.”
Lucas almost killed him when he teleported directly into the cabin, the DarkRiver alpha’s claws a bare quarter of an inch from his throat. “Shit.” Judd froze.
“I should gut you,” Lucas said, the leopard very much in his gaze. “Jesus fucking Christ man!”
Judd didn’t dare move until the other man dropped his hand. “I apologize.” He should’ve never entered the cabin—if he’d been thinking straight, he wouldn’t even have come close. “I came for Sascha.”
The empath walked out of the bedroom, Naya—so small, so vulnerable—cradled in her arms. “What do you need?”
When he told her, her eyes turned to pure midnight. “It’s really her?”
“Yes.” Alice Eldridge’s research had been erased from the web, but there were still a few scattered photos of her, mostly on dusty sites kept by conspiracy theorists—but not even their theories came close to the reality of the strange life and “death” of Alice Eldridge. “Will you come?”
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Author’s note: This scene didn’t make it to the final draft as it didn’t contribute directly to the main storyline, but I think it’s a lot of fun. I adored seeing the whole family together, and I hope you do too!
“Yeehaw!” Bastien picked Mercy up in a bear hug the instant after she and Riley announced the news of the pregnancy to their siblings, and their mates, as well as Dorian and Ashaya.
Her parents, whom they’d told before everyone else arrived, and their respective alphas—who had both guessed the instant they saw Mercy this morning—were also present in the living room of her parents’ home. With the other sentinels and lieutenants scattered over various areas and duties, Mercy and Riley planned to contact them one by one after the breakfast Mercy’s mom had put together.
“Hot damn, Merce,” Bastien said, “you’re having a freaking baby!”
Sage shoved him aside to snatch her away—though neither male was as rough as he’d usually be with a sister long considered an honorary boy. “How about Sage II for a name?” he said, squeezing her tight. “Has a nice ring to it don’t you think?”
She didn’t even get a chance to roll her eyes before her youngest brother, Grey, demanded his turn, his embrace warm, his grin mischievous. “I bet your cub likes me best.”
“Get in line, shrimp,” Drew said, kissing her on the cheek as Indigo grinned and wrapped her in a delighted hug. “He’s going to be a wolf.”
“Hell yes,” Hawke muttered from where he was standing shoulder to shoulder with her father, a quietly amused Judd leaning on the wall beside them.
Lucas snorted from the other side of the room. “Kid’s going to have the good sense to shift into a cat.”
“Damn straight.” Dorian pushed through to take her into his arms. “You did okay for a skinny redhead, Bikini Babe.”
Smiling at the quiet murmur, she cupped his face, nodding to where Ashaya and Keenan stood with Bastien. As she watched, her brother swung the laughing boy up onto his back, Keenan familiar with the entire family as a result of Mercy and Dorian’s friendship. “You didn’t do so bad yourself, Boy Genius,” she said as Ashaya walked over, her tight curls electric around her head.
“I’m so happy for you, Mercy.” The other woman took her hands, squeezed, her joy apparent no matter if she was more reserved than their exuberant packmates.
Snagging his mate to his side, Dorian grinned and held out a hand to shake Riley’s. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or pity you the gray hairs you’re about to gain.”
Mercy threatened to kick him, to his unrepentant laugh, just as Brenna came over to throw her arms round Mercy and Riley both. “Thanks in advance for my first niece or nephew, who I plan to spoil until you want to muzzle me.”
And it hit Mercy all over again.
I’m going to have a baby!
The thought was stunning and beautiful and so wonderful she could hardly breathe. Hugging Brenna back, she said, “I’ve got it covered. I ordered a family set of muzzles.” As the first child born into either the Kincaid or Smith families, their baby was going to be surrounded by doting aunts and uncles.
Brenna laughed and released her just as Mercy spied someone else walking toward them. Leaving Riley and Brenna with Sage—who’d swung by with glasses of celebratory grape juice rather than wine in deference to Mercy’s pregnancy—she walked over to meet Sascha in the middle of the room.
Naya, cradled in her mother’s arms, batted a fisted hand at Mercy with playful intent. Mercy grinned, letting one of those soft, fragile hands close over her finger. When Naya brought it to her mouth to gum on it, Mercy reached out to rub that tiny nose. “You’re going to have a little friend in not too many more months, Miss Naya.”
Leaning in close, Sascha murmured, “Maybe our children will mate with one another,” in a considering tone of voice.
“Don’t give Luc and Hawke ideas,” Mercy cautioned, sotto voce, “or they’ll be drawing up an arranged marriage contract before you know it.”
Sascha’s eyes sparkled with laughter just as Sienna appeared at her elbow. “I think Naya wants to come play with me,” the young Psy woman said and made away with the baby.
“Hey!” Mercy protested.
“You’ll have your own soon enough!” Sienna called out, making a beeline for Lucas.
“Smart girl.” If Sienna had gone toward her own mate, Lucas would’ve reclaimed Naya an instant later. It wasn’t something he could control, his protective instincts too powerful, regardless of the fact that every person in this room knew Hawke would spill blood to keep a child safe. The wolf alpha clearly understood—in spite of his own primal urges as a newly mated male, he didn’t prowl over to join Sienna while she had Naya in her arms. “What does your kitten think of all this commotion?”
“She’s a changeling. She loves being around Pack.” Sascha’s affectionate gaze took in the happy chaos inside the room. “As for the wolves, I think she’s still a bit confused about them, but she definitely likes Sienna.”
Glancing across to where Sienna stood with the baby, Mercy saw Naya kicking her legs in delight as Sascha added, “Sienna had me show her the telepathic games I play with Naya to teach her the basics of shielding. She’s really patient and she enjoys the games as much as Naya, and I think Naya can sense that.”
Mercy nodded, then checked to make sure no one else was too close before asking, “How are you doing with the whole baby thing? Tell me it’s instinctive.”
“Some of it is. The rest of the time, I just hound Tammy for advice.” A pause. “I had a mini breakdown the other day when Naya refused to feed and wouldn’t stop crying. I decided I was the worst mother on the planet.” Sascha made a self-deprecating face. “Tammy talked me down from the ledge.”
“Thanks for the sympathy.”
“Hey, I was scared you’d say you knew everything from day one.” Mercy took a deep breath to settle her stomach. “I’m terrified half the time and delighted the other half.”
“Normal.” Sascha’s face was suddenly wreathed in a smile that could only be described as goofy.
“Naya just reached out to check I’m still here. Lucas said changeling children do the same thing, but they do it by demanding physical contact. She does that with him, won’t sleep until he places her against his chest, where she can hear his heartbeat.”
“I remember when Grey was a baby. My parents carried him skin to skin as much as possible.” Smiling at the idea of her child up against her heart, against her Riley’s heart, she felt her eyes burn. “Crap. I’m not supposed to get emotional for a few months.”
The scent of warmth, of home, her mother’s arm sliding around her waist. “Well I don’t care about crying.” A beaming smile from red-rimmed eyes. “I’m finally getting a grandbaby.” Lia held out a cellphone with a video call already in progress. “Now that your grandmother and grandfather have told every single person they could find, they’d like to talk to you about maybe coming for a visit, say for nine months.”
Mercy glanced down at her mother’s suspiciously bland expression. “No throwing me on Gran’s mercy while I’m in a delicate condition.”
Lia’s eyes teared up—with laughter this time. “God, sweetheart, you’ll probably be running patrols into your eighth month. Delicate!” Still laughing, she started to relay the conversation to Mercy’s alpha grandmother.
As the sound of her voice merged with the other conversations in the room, Mercy sought out and found Riley standing solid and calm in the eye of the storm. Sliding into his arms, she said, “Our baby will have a great family.” Blood and pack.
Riley’s smile was slow and deep, the one he saved just for her. “Kid’s already got a head start with you for a mother.”
Of course then, she had to kiss him. Catcalls from her hellion brothers or not.
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Author’s note: This small scene was edited out of a larger one featuring Hawke and Sienna.
“Smartass.” Moving his hands down to that ass, he slid them into the back pockets of her jeans and suckled her upper lip into his mouth.
Breasts pressed up against him, she demanded more, got a nip on her lower lip, followed by a wet, hot open-mouthed tangle of a kiss that had her tunneling her fingers into his hair even as she tried to become tall enough to cradle the erection she could feel against her abdomen.
Chuckling at her frustration, Hawke shifted his hold to the backs of her thighs and lifted so she could wrap her legs around him. He took a couple of steps until her back touched the trunk of an old pine. “Better?”
Her hands roamed possessively over his shoulders and chest as their mouths met again, while he braced one of his palm-down beside her head, his other on her thigh.
Hard and dominant though he might be, she thought, surrendering to the lazy caress of a kiss he laid on her, her mate had a vein of tenderness she was certain no one else, except perhaps the pups, ever saw.
She’d been exhausted the other day, lying limp in bed, when he’d come in. Prowling up over her, he’d nudged her onto her front, and given her the most luxuriant massage of her life, all hot, slow strokes, and strong fingers.
She’d been jelly by the time it ended, her bones melted.
And then he’d done her front.
Thighs clenching around him at the memory of how that massage had ended, his fingers and his mouth playing her like the most delicate of instruments, she sucked on his tongue, delighting in the taste of him. When they drew apart, it was only to gasp in a breath.
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Author’s Note: The following two scenes were mentioned in the story, but didn’t slot easily into the final book. I’m very happy to share them here. I hope you enjoy!
“Do you want to go climb some trees?”
Kaleb looked at the small girl who was his friend. “Why?”
A shrug. “Just because.”
“You’re meant to be working on not shrugging.” If the wrong person saw her doing the betraying movement, she’d be placed into intensive conditioning classes or worse.
Sahara dropped her chin in her hands, elbows braced on her knees. “I’m trying.”
He’d begun to learn how her mind worked, and so now attempted to figure out a solution to her problem. “Perhaps you can turn your shrug into a less visible movement that won’t give you away.”
“What?” Deep blue eyes looking up at him.
“Each time you want to shrug, do something else instead, like curl your toes. No one will see that inside your shoes.” She was barefoot now, as she was most of the time he met her in the back yard of the home she shared with her father, but she always wore shoes in more formal surroundings.
Sahara seemed to think about it. “Okay, I’ll try. Now, do you want to climb some trees?”
He didn’t understand why she wanted to do that act, but since she did, said, “All right.”
Her face lit up in that way that always made him feel as if he was important to her. “I know where we can do it without being caught.” Jumping off the tree stump on which they sat, she led him into the wooded area behind her home. On the very edge of the NightStar compound, it was deserted.
“How many trees have you climbed?”
“None.” He’d never needed to climb a tree for any rational reason.
“What?” Gasping, she put her hands on her hips, then frowned. “Okay, we’ll start with that one.” She pointed to a relatively short tree. “Come on, I’ll teach you.”
Walking over with her, he considered the branches. As a telekinetic, his physical abilities were better than that of most Psy, but he still needed to learn how to move in different situations. “What’s the process?”
Sahara thought about it. “You have to go in small steps—sometimes, it looks like it’ll be easier to do a big jump, but mostly you fall down if you do that.” She went and pulled herself onto the lowest branch. “Like that.”
Kaleb copied her movement on the other side of the tree, the thick limb steady under his feet. “And now?”
“You have to look for the next best branch—it can’t be too thin or it’ll break.”
Kaleb did as ordered, located a branch some distance away. He knew he could easily make it using his telekinetic skill, but had the sense this was meant to be a challenge completed without recourse to such abilities. So he lowered his sights and went for an easier grip and hold.
“That’s it!” Sahara beamed at him from above, where she’d climbed far faster than he could’ve imagined. “You’re getting really good.”
He was halfway up when she said, “Do you know the answer to this quadratic equation?” She called out the equation from where she perched on a branch.
A waiting pause. “Kaleb!” she said when he didn’t add anything. “You’re supposed to tell me! We’re friends, remember?”
He’d never had a friend before Sahara, but he’d begun to learn that she wasn’t always right about friendship. “I told you the answer last time, and as a result, you didn’t learn how to do the problem yourself. I’ll teach you the method instead.”
A huge sigh. “I hate math.”
“I know.” His hand slid off a branch, and he almost slipped and fell. Catching himself in time, he looked up at Sahara. “I understand now—about climbing trees.” His heartbeat was under control because he’d learned to keep it that way under far more strenuous circumstances, but there was something about being able to master this simple, illogical act that had his entire attention.
“It’s fun, right?” Grinning, she scrambled down to stand on the same tree limb as Kaleb.
“Yes,” he said, though he didn’t really understand what “fun” was. If it was this feeling he got while being with Sahara, doing inexplicable things like climbing trees, then it was a concept he could embrace.
“I’ll teach you how to climb the big ones, too.” She touched his arm to steady herself as she climbed down, and he held still. Sahara was the only person he chose to allow to touch him. Everyone else took that right, and while he couldn’t stop them now, he would one day. Only Sahara, his friend, would always have that right.
Sahara finished rubbing the sandpaper over the award she’d made for Kaleb and blew away the dust. She’d found the sandpaper in one of the sheds used by the crews that maintained the NightStar compound. Technically, she wasn’t meant to be in those sheds, but she’d been very careful and she’d only taken the sandpaper because it had been covered in dust and clearly forgotten in a corner. The crews mostly used machines.
Now, she folded and put it into her pocket, for later use, Kaleb’s award complete. Placing it carefully into the other pocket of her cargo pants, she picked up the datapad on her desk and poked her head into her father’s study. “I’m going outside to do my homework.” It wasn’t a lie, her science homework loaded onto the datapad.
Her father looked up from his papers with a distracted air. “Did you have your after-school nutrition?”
“Wear a sweater. And don’t forget your shoes. The temperature’s dropped.”
She made her way outside after shrugging into a sweater and pulling on her old boots, and was glad she had—despite the sun, the cold bit at her cheeks, made her hunch her shoulders into herself as she took a seat on the stump outside, but she’d still rather be outside than inside. Kaleb came inside sometimes, but only if she invited him first, even though he had the image of her room after she’d snuck him in the first time.
He said everyone should have privacy, and she could tell that really meant a lot to him. So she shivered and did her homework until she felt the prickle over her skin that told her he’d arrived.
“Hey!” Jumping off the stump, she grabbed his hand after a quick glance to check that he wasn’t injured today. “Come on.”
Not arguing, he followed her into the woods. “Do you want to climb trees?” he asked when they stopped.
“Maybe later.” Right now, she had a far more important thing to do. “I made you something.”
He went still. “What is it?”
Kaleb’s Silence was so good, so much better than hers. He never looked excited or happy or curious, but she knew he was. And though she’d been really excited to give him the award, now she found herself feeling shy. “It’s only plain,” she said, scuffing her booted foot on the grass. “I didn’t know how to do a fancy one.”
“Can I have it?” Kaleb asked quietly, and she knew he didn’t care that it wasn’t fancy, only that it was for him.
Smiling, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the piece of wood on which she’d spent hours carving a tree and his name. “Hold out both your hands,” she said, because that was how she’d seen other people get awards.
When he obeyed, she placed the piece of wood on his palms. “In comme—com—”
“Yes, that, of your climb of the biggest tree in the compound.” Watching his face as he examined the award, she didn’t see a smile. All she saw was an intense focus on the award.
“Thank you,” he said at last, his voice quiet and his eyes without stars. “Will you keep it for me until I can find a hiding place?”
Sahara nodded and took it to put back into her pocket. She had no need to ask if he liked it—Kaleb only put really important things in his hiding places. “Want to do your Tk exercises?”
Then, without warning, she was up in the air. Slapping a hand over her mouth to stifle her cry of delight, she pretended she was a bird, flying her way up to the top branch of a tree. She took a seat on the branch when he lowered her, and it was so gentle she hardly felt it, his control of his telekinesis much better than the first time they’d tried this.
Kaleb had once told her that he hardly got to practise the more subtle uses of his Tk, because his trainer wanted him to focus on the “destructive aspects”. Sahara hadn’t liked the way he’d looked when he’d said that, so she’d listened to her Tk classmates and come up with some other exercises for him. Like picking up paper-fine flashcards from the ground in correct order, and moving her without hurting her.
Now, he lowered her back to the ground. Putting on a thinking face, she folded her arms and nodded seriously. “A plus.”
He didn’t smile. Kaleb never smiled. But she knew he was happy. Like she was happy when he asked her if he could look at his award again before he left.
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Author’s Note: Sometimes readers ask me why a scene was deleted. It usually has to do with the rhythm of the overall story—a scene might be awesome on its own, but putting it in would interrupt that rhythm. However, it’s never an easy decision to delete an entire scene, which is why I’m delighted I can share some of them with you.
Laughter: A very short partial scene that always makes me smile.
The Sun Lounger: Like, Laughter, this is a short scene, but one that says so much about the characters.
Ivy’s Conversation with Eben: This scene gives us another small insight into both Ivy and the young empath, Eben.
Kaleb and Sahara’s meeting with Lucas: If left in the book, this scene would’ve slotted in during Chapter 7.
Ivy’s First Conversation with Sascha: This scene describes the conversation Ivy recalls at the start of Chapter 8.
And last but not least, A Moment of Peace is exactly that, Vasic and Ivy and Rabbit in an instant apart from the chaos around them.
Some of these scenes no longer fit smoothly into the timeline, and should be read as separate pieces, while others illuminate hidden moments from the book.
I’m happy to share them all and I hope you enjoy! ~ Nalini
(Ivy is on the street, looking toward a building in the distance. She can see Vasic on the roof of that building—where he’s standing watch.)
Ivy. A delicious bite of ice in her mind as Vasic turned, the wind rippling through his hair. What are you and Aden doing?
She raised a hand in a wave and, after a little thinking, figured out how to loop Aden into the conversation. We’re standing here listing your faults, she said, playing with him because he needed play as much as she did. Aren’t we, Aden?
The telepath next to her gave her an unreadable look. Was that what we were doing?
Ivy squeaked as the world went out of phase for an instant and then she was on the roof with Vasic.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” A remote teleport was rumored to be viciously difficult.
“I’m a born teleporter—it’s a simple exercise.” His eyes went from her to Aden. “Do I have many faults?”
Laughing, Ivy slipped her hand into his.
Kaleb walked out to where Sahara was sitting on her sun lounger on the terrace, the large umbrella beside it shading her face but leaving the rest of her bared to the sun. Given that fall had surrendered to a Russian winter, the sunlight weak, he didn’t nudge the umbrella to change the ratio of shade to sun.
Instead, crossing the terrace he’d cleared of snow, he sat down on the lounger with his back to her reclining body…and he waited. Her arms wrapped around his neck as she kneeled behind him moments later. Her breath was soft against his skin and her body warm. “Have I ever told you that you do incredible things to a suit?”
The creature in the void, the part of him that was the darkness, stretched under the caress of words. “This morning, when you picked out this one.” It was a gray so deep it verged on black, paired with a steel-blue shirt. He’d discarded the jacket after returning from the meeting with Vasic and Ivy Jane, now tugged on the tie—an identical color to the suit—to loosen it.
He was home, no longer needed to wear the mask.
Kissing his jaw, Sahara said, “I wouldn’t want you to forget.” Her fingers shifted to unbutton his shirt a fraction once he’d removed the tie “How did it go?”
Leaning back against her after dropping the strip of silk beside them on the lounger, he closed his eyes, with the one person he trusted never to cause him harm under any circumstances. “Ivy Jane is strong enough to push back against an Arrow.”
“Empaths might be gentle, but they can’t be weak,” Sahara said, her voice thoughtful. “Imagine handling other people’s pain day after day.”
Kaleb couldn’t; empathy wasn’t his strong suit. “Did you have time to go through the data?” He turned to curve an arm around her waist, shift her to sit astride him, the dark blue of her eyes the center of his universe.
A nod. “I also did a little digging of my own.”
“What did you discover?” Sahara, he reminded himself, was no longer hurt and broken as she’d been when he’d found her. And her shields were adamantine—he’d made certain of that.
Ivy woke to the feel of Rabbit’s cold nose against her neck. Laughing, she reached up and rubbed his furry head. “What are you doing here, you silly goof?”
He woofed and licked her, swiping the roughness of his tongue up her cheek. Play fighting with him, she sat up, the blanket falling away. Jaya and one of the others must’ve gotten her to the bed, she thought, but Vasic had been here, too. Her Arrow with his eyes of winter frost and his armor of protective black.
“Where’s Eben?” she asked Rabbit, wishing Vasic had stayed; she’d have crawled into his arms, rubbed her cheek against his, just soaked him in.
“I’m in the kitchen!”
Getting up at the yell, she walked around the screen to see the teenager was making a sandwich.
“Would you like one, too?” he asked with disarming sweetness.
“Actually yes.” Psychic energy burned calories, and she felt as if she’d used up even her reserves. “A big sandwich.”
“Was you nap nice?” Eben’s gaze scanned her face. “Vasic said not to disturb you.”
“Yes.” Though the harsh echo of the boy’s emotions continued to swim through her veins, she smiled to ease his concern. “I was out cold until the Rabbit alarm.” Petting the dog, she gave him one of his special treats. Rabbit had done as much to help Eben as she had.
He woofed excitedly and sat down to chew away. “Did you have fun with him?” she asked Eben.
He nodded, putting together the sandwich she’d requested. “He’s fast.”
Ivy agreed with a laugh and they talked easily through the meal. It was toward the end that Eben said, “You took away my hurt.”
Ivy considered her next words with care. “I have a gift,” she said at last, reaching out to touch her fingers to the hand he had on the table. “I think you might have it, too.”
Instead of shock or startlement, Eben bit down on his lower lip. “I’ve always felt things from people—even other Psy,” he admitted softly. “But I never told, never turned them in. It seemed wrong.”
“You did the right thing.” She squeezed his hand. “The honorable thing.”
Sascha was both surprised and not when Kaleb accepted her request for a meeting. From what she knew of the powerful cardinal, he’d do anything to get what he wanted, and in this case, what he wanted was the cooperation of both DarkRiver and SnowDancer. However, he was also extremely protective of Sahara. Now, the other woman returned Sascha’s hug without hesitation.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Sascha said when they drew back, having come to know Sahara well during her time in DarkRiver.
“I hope to visit more soon”—eyes of an intense, deep blue, an unhidden warmth in their depths—“but, with the current situation in the PsyNet, it’s difficult to get away.”
Sascha nodded in understanding as they both took their seats on either side of the small meeting table, Kaleb and Lucas acknowledging one another with a glance before taking their own seats—Kaleb beside Sahara and Lucas beside Sascha.
“Do your packmates have orders to shoot to kill if I step out of line?” was Kaleb’s opening volley in that cool tone that never altered, his words causing Sahara to frown and look over her shoulder at the closed door into the room.
Leaning back in his chair, his arm along the back of Sascha’s, Lucas shook his head. “No—you put your life at deadly risk to protect this city. It’s not something the pack will ever forget.” His eyes never broke contact with the star-filled black of Kaleb’s cardinal gaze. “In point of fact, my mate thinks we should be friends.”
It wasn’t quite what Sascha had said, but she watched in interest for Kaleb’s response. It wasn’t, however, the cardinal who answered. “Of course you should be friends.” Sahara’s smile was dazzling. “Otherwise, it’ll make my visits to DarkRiver very uncomfortable.”
“There,” Kaleb murmured, an ice-cold shark in his black on black suit, “the decision is made.”
Blowing out a breath, Sahara turned toward Kaleb, and his attention shifted immediately to her, though Sascha was in no doubt that he remained aware of all possible threats in the vicinity. Not a word was spoken, but when Lucas tapped Sascha lightly on the shoulder, she knew he’d sensed telepathic communication. A Psy ancestor had left him with that unusual and useful little gift. This time, however, Sascha didn’t need it—she could tell the two were having a disagreement from the way Sahara had narrowed her eyes.
When Kaleb spoke again, his tone hadn’t changed, but his words hinted at a personality beyond the ruthless political creature he was to the world. “I’ve been told to be more diplomatic,” he said, his gaze locking with Lucas’s once again. “And to not provoke you.”
Sascha hid her smile when Sahara groaned and dropped her head against Kaleb’s shoulder, while Lucas shrugged, muscles rippling under the white of his shirt. “I’m not that easily provoked. Shall we get down to business?”
That was Sascha’s cue. “We wanted to discuss your request.”
“No, you didn’t.” Expression holding an affection directed at Sascha, Sahara sat fully upright again, though Sascha guessed she had her hand entwined with Kaleb’s under the table. “You wanted to see if Kaleb and I are faking it.”
“Perhaps,” Sascha said with a twitch of her lips, “someone should tell you not to be provoking.”
Humor lighting up her face, Sahara leaned into Kaleb, the act natural in a way no one could fake, much less a woman who’d spent the past seven years in a cage. Her lips curved as she looked up at the man everyone in the world considered a deadly predator and, when Kaleb glanced down, his lashes shadowing his expression, that smile only deepened—though his facial muscles didn’t seem to have moved at all.
The cardinal Tk shifted his gaze to Sascha, as if aware of her fascinated scrutiny. “Do you need us to drop our shields?” he asked, and Sascha knew in her gut that he’d draw the line at the request.
It didn’t matter; she didn’t need anything further—she’d picked up Kaleb and Sahara’s connection the instant the couple walked into the room. It was as much a part of both as a limb or an organ; to attempt to excise it would cause a mortal wound. “There’s no need.”
A moment of piercing eye-contact, as if Kaleb was evaluating her abilities.
The hairs rose on Sascha’s neck. However, Kaleb didn’t pursue the subject, the other couple leaving soon afterward.
“He’d do anything for her, I think.” Whatever Sascha had expected to feel from Kaleb, it hadn’t been that raw violence of love. “She’s the same.” The two were as tightly bonded as changeling mates. “It makes Kaleb more dangerous now than he’s ever been.”
Lucas’s green eyes gleamed, telling her his panther was very much part of this discussion. “He has a vulnerability now, and if anyone is ever stupid enough to hurt Sahara, they won’t live long enough to regret it. Sounds normal to me.”
Rolling her eyes, Sascha said, “Of course it sounds normal to you. You’re just as feral.”
A sharp grin. Hand tightening on her nape, he hauled her in for a hot, wet tangle of a kiss, nipping at her lower lip at the end. “You like me feral.” His chest vibrated in a purr under her hands, his lips returning for another lazier, more feline taste. All licks and coaxing seduction.
“Maybe,” she teased, her toes well and truly curled. “Now, let’s go talk to your other feral friend.”
Lucas growled, the sound so deep it filled the room. “Stop calling Hawke my friend. He’s a wolf. It’s against the laws of nature.”
Shoulders shaking, Sascha kissed him again...and thought of a time past when such joy had been beyond her reach, her soul in a box without light.
As it was, that wasn’t the only time that day that Kaleb Krychek entered Sascha and Lucas’s life. Sascha was rocking a fretful Naya to sleep when the call came in, her poor baby having caught a cold. She’d taken Naya to Tamsyn as soon as she’d realized something was wrong, but the healer had advised Sascha to allow the illness to run its course.
“It’s only a tiny one,” she’d said, her gentle hands soothing Naya’s tear-reddened face. “Nothing dangerous, and it’ll help strengthen her immune system.”
Knowing Tamsyn would never give her bad advice, Sascha swallowed her admittedly overprotective instincts, handled Lucas’s, and whispered to her baby girl that she’d be all better soon. “Who was it?” she asked her mate when he wandered back into the front room of the aerie, having taken the call in the bedroom so as not to disturb Naya.
They’d lived in a ground floor cabin during her pregnancy and for the early weeks of Naya’s life, but that cabin was now gone. Sascha much preferred the safety of the trees, though it had taken her some time to convince Lucas she’d recovered enough from the birth to traverse the rope ladder.
Funnily enough, he hadn’t worried about Naya.
“She’s a baby cat,” he’d said, tapping said baby cat on the nose. “She’ll enjoy traveling up and down, and she’ll be able to jump and climb soon enough.”
Sascha tried very hard not to worry about the fact that at around one year of age, her baby would learn to shift—and cubs were far more mobile than changelings in their human form. The idea of Naya jumping off the balcony... Yes, she’d deal with that only when she absolutely had to.
“The pack had a message come in through our general inquiries number.” Lucas’s voice was a low growl as he rubbed his knuckle against Naya’s cheek, his cat prowling beneath his skin. “Shh, princess. We’ve got you.”
Naya continued to whimper. “The one meant for other changelings who want to enter the territory?” she asked, wishing she could make everything better for their baby.
A nod, followed by nothing she could’ve expected. “This message was for you.” He purred low in his throat when Naya’s whimpers threatened to escalate to tears.
“I think she’ll do better cuddled up against your skin.” Skin privileges were an accepted part of changeling life, but cubs needed tactile contact even more than adults.
Tugging off his T-shirt, Lucas dropped it on one of the large flat cushions on the living room floor and held out his arms. Naya quieted the instant he cradled her against him, snuffling as she put her tiny fist against her daddy’s skin.
My mate. Our child. How did I ever get this lucky? This blessed?
Throat thick and heart aching, Sascha cupped the back of Naya’s head, the silken black strands of their cub’s hair soft against her palm. “I think I’m jealous of how fast that worked.”
Lucas chuckled. “Of course my girl likes this. She’s her mother’s daughter.” One big hand cradling Naya under her diaper-clad bottom, he drew Sascha closer with the other. “I seem to recall waking up this morning with you cuddled up against my chest.”
“I concede the point.” Wrapping her arms around him, their daughter between them, she felt the vibration of his purr. “Who wants to talk to me?”
“A Psy who says you were given as a contact to corroborate certain information.”
Sascha blinked, her brain making the connection at once. “Oh, he’s smart.”
“That’s what I thought. Krychek’s trying to outfox us by making things personal.”
“I have a feeling it’ll work.” Sascha pressed a kiss to Naya’s fist, felt the baby’s drowsy contentment in her mind, a sweet psychic kiss. “Where’s the return number?”
“Cued up on the comm, under Ivy Jane.”
Aware of him shifting to stay out of the line of sight of the comm, she input the call and waited. It was answered within seconds, extraordinary eyes of copper-gold meeting her own.
“You responded.” Hesitant words. “I wasn’t certain you would.”
“Hello Ivy.” Sascha kept her tone gentle, able to read the tension and confusion on the younger woman’s face. “What is it you need me to corroborate?” It could only be one thing.
Ivy took a long time to respond, almost as if she didn’t want to know the answer to the question she’d called to ask. “Designation E,” she said so softly it was a bare whisper of sound. “Does it exist?”
“Yes.” Sascha wasn’t surprised by Ivy’s lack of knowledge. Sascha hadn’t known of the buried designation for most of her life, and she’d been a Councilor’s daughter. The post-Silence Councils had done a near-perfect job of erasing the E designation from the collective memory of the world. “Those of designation E are empaths.”
Ivy swallowed. “Am I one? Can you tell?”
“I may be able to—I’ll need to talk to you a little more, hear what you’ve been experiencing.” Thinking back to what it had been like when her own shields began to fragment, she wished she could reach out and draw Ivy into a hug. “There’s nothing to fear if you are an E,” she said softly.
“The emotions…” Ivy halted, took another breath. “They’re so overwhelming.”
“It feels that way at the start.” A roar against the senses. “But we’re designed specifically to deal with emotion.”
“Sensing them almost killed me,” Ivy whispered and, swallowing, shared the horror of her reconditioning, the words coming in fits and starts. “Vasic says it was because my shields exploded under the built-up pressure.”
Sascha’s eyes burned. “From the details you’ve given,” she said, her throat thick, “I have no doubt you’re empathic.” Deeply empathic. “I know it must’ve been terrifying”—she touched her fingers to the screen in an attempt to comfort—“but once you learn to control it, you’ll feel...whole.” It was the only word she had to describe the joy of what she’d felt the day she understood who she was, who she was meant to be.
“I just...” Ivy thrust a hand through her hair, her soft curls burnished by the golden light of the lamp beside her. “What’s the point? What do we do?”
Sascha wanted to slap herself. She’d simply assumed a certain level of knowledge—the same thing that drove her crazy about the Eldridge book. “We heal the mind and the heart. Sorrow, fear, pain, we help people navigate their way out of darkness.”
Ivy glanced up at Vasic, the strong line of his jaw making her want to kiss. “Will you be happy in the apple orchard?”
“I only need to be where you are,” was the quiet, compelling answer.
He had a way of saying things that broke her, destroyed her, only for the pieces to fit back together even stronger and more whole. “I love you. Until it’s a part of my very being.”
Vasic touched the side of her face. “Ivy.”
“It’s okay.” Voice husky, she rubbed her cheek against his hand. “You don’t have to find the words.” She could feel his emotions as clearly as if he was speaking to her.
Enfolding her in his arms, he held her close.
It was several long, quiet minutes later that Rabbit ran over, stick in mouth and tail wagging. Not smiling was an impossibility. “I think someone wants attention,” she said as he dropped the stick at Vasic’s feet.
Vasic glanced down and suddenly, Rabbit was rising up toward them. Their pet didn’t look impressed by his newly found levitating ability. Putting him down with care, Vasic picked up and threw the stick after Ivy fully unclipped Rabbit’s leash so he could play.
It was a simple moment, but it was one Ivy would always remember—seeing her Arrow bending down to praise Rabbit as he ran back with the stick, their pet’s eyes bright and excited, and Vasic’s expression holding no strain, no darkness.
A moment of peace in the chaos.
A moment of quiet happiness.
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