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The Cannibal Princess
“Sascha, darling!” Sascha felt her lips twitch at that childish shout. “All your fault,” she said to Lucas as he did a not very good job of hiding his grin.
“What can I say?” He spread out his arms. “Kid has good taste, not to mention excellent language skills.” Ignoring her mate as he trailed her out of Tamsyn’s huge kitchen and to the living room, she made her way to where Julian and Roman sat side by side on the sofa. “You called, your highnesses?”
The cubs giggled, then shifted apart. Julian patted the space in between and Sascha sat. They immediately snuggled up to her, small and warm and so precious. Every time she held these two, she wondered about what the future held for her and Lucas. Her eyes lifted and clashed with his as he sat down on the edge of the coffee-table in front of her. The beautiful green of his gaze held the most intense kind of promise. Her heart jerked. Impossible, her Psy mind told her. But she knew it was possible. Emotion had a strength most of the Psy had forgotten. It could hurt and it could give such joy it was beyond anything she had ever imagined possible. A small hand patted her left arm. Roman, she thought, turning to press a kiss over the top of his head. He was the quieter of the pair, but together, they were Trouble on four legs–eight if they had shifted into their animal forms. “Missing your Mom?” she asked.
Roman nodded. On her other side, Julian asked, “Back tonight?” His voice was uncharacteristically plaintive.
“Yes, back tonight.” Tammy and Nate had had to make a quick trip out of state, leaving their cubs in Sascha and Lucas’s care.
Sascha adored the pair–it kept surprising her that the adoration seemed mutual. Now she looked at both in turn. “I’ll make sure to tell her how good you two have been.”
That earned her a smile from Julian and a kiss on the cheek from Roman. Lucas watched, teasing her with his eyes. He knew she was a sucker for the kids. She made a face back at him.
Sascha froze at Julian’s question. Even after months with DarkRiver, she kept getting caught flat-footed by things she hadn’t thought to prepare for. “You want to hear a story?”
Two nods, two pairs of shiny eyes looking to her in anticipation.
Lost, she glanced at Lucas. She didn’t know how to tell stories. Her childhood had been spent squeezing emotion out of her soul.
No one had ever told her any story but ones that warned her to keep emotion locked away, where it couldn’t destroy her. Her mother had whispered to her of the rehabilitated, the nightmare creatures who were nothing more than walking vegetables, their life drained away.
Her most powerful childhood memory was of standing inside the Center, watching the rehabilitated shuffle from one end of the room to the other, their features blank, their eyes empty of any but the most faded remnants of humanity.
The darkness of memory threatened to claw into her, but then a wave of love traveled down the twisting threads of the bond inside of her, this magical thing that tied her to the panther perched on the coffee-table opposite, his long legs spread to bracket her own. “I have a story,” he said, catching the twins’ attention. “But it’s scary.”
“Really?” Julian leaned forward in excitement.
“We’re not babies,” Roman added.
Lucas made a face. “I don’t know. Your Mom might get mad.”
“Please, Uncle Lucas!”
Lucas gave a solemn sigh and leaned forward a little, forearms braced on his thighs. “Okay, but I did warn you. If you have nightmares, don’t come complaining to me.” Looking at him right then, his face indulgent, his voice gentle, no one would have pegged him as one of the most dangerous predators in the area, a panther who could tear enemies to shreds with his bare hands.
But, Sascha thought, he was still DarkRiver’s alpha. Except this time, he was seeing to the needs of two of the pack’s youngest members. And her. He was looking after her, too, with a quiet support that let her know he was there to help her as she figured out this new life, this new world.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a princess–“
“A princess!” Julian’s disgusted shout, followed by Roman’s scowling nod.
Lucas growled low in his throat, making both cubs quiet and snuggle against Sascha with fearful shivers. She knew it was all for show but she hugged them anyway.
“As I was saying, there was a princess. She lived in a tower in the middle of a forest and she had seven servants.”
“Seven?” Julian dared whisper.
“One for each day of the week,” Lucas said. “You see, each day, one servant would go out to the nearby village and–“
“And?” Roman this time.
“I don’t know.” Lucas frowned. “This is the really scary part. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
Two very fast nods.
Nodding, Lucas leaned closer, his voice a whisper. “You see, the Princess had really big teeth, sharp as knives.”
Roman gasped but didn’t interrupt. Julian wasn’t so quiet. “Like wolves?”
Lucas’s lips curved. “Exactly like the wolves.”
She threw him a scowl. The wolves were supposed to be their allies now. Unrepentant laughter danced in his eyes as he continued the story. “The princess could cut through anything with those sharp wolf teeth–flesh and bone, wood and metal, even…little boys’ bedroom doors.”
As the cubs shivered again, Lucas looked up to catch Sascha’s wide-eyed look. She appeared as innocent as Julian and Roman at that moment, a child surrendering to the magic of story for the first time. A tearing rush of tenderness filled his heart, but with it came a steely determination. No one was ever going to hurt her again, not in his lifetime.
“Now, down in the village–the village that the servants went to every day,” he continued, spinning the story as he went, “there lived a little boy. Every night, he went to sleep after locking all the windows and doors in his house.”
“Why?” Sascha asked.
“So the princess’s servants wouldn’t get him,” he said, as if that should have been obvious.
“But why?” his analytical Psy mate persisted.
“Because,” he paused, let the tension build, then growled out the last words “the Cannibal Princess liked to eat little boys for dinner.”
His audience–all three of them–gripped each other. He almost laughed at the look of shock on Sascha’s face. She was probably wondering what he was doing telling such a bloodthirsty tale to two such small leopards. His darling kitten hadn’t yet realized that children were far more feral than grownups.
“Her favorite dish was roasted little boy with honey glazing and pineapple slices.”
“Lucas, maybe–” Sascha began
“Shh.” Two small voices, four hands clutching at her waist. “More, Uncle Lucas.”
“Well, sometimes she liked them nicely fattened up so she’d keep them in her special little pantry and feed them cake and pie and–“
“–sausage!” Roman added.
“Yes,” Lucas agreed with a solemn nod. “And that pantry–full of cake and pie and sausage, was where she put the little boy from the village. She told him to eat, eat…so she could eat him.” As he sat there and told a deliciously dark tale of how the smart little boy defeated the Cannibal Princess with his wits alone, he watched Sascha, felt her love for him, for the boys, surround them in a silken wave. She didn’t realize how extraordinary she was, how being in a room with her made people feel better about life, about hope, about everything.
And she was his.
The panther within him pleased by that thought, he smiled, bared his teeth and finished the tale with a growling grab at the twins and Sascha. All three screamed and then giggled. Julian and Roman pretended to bite him, while Sascha was a rainbow inside his mind. In front of him, her face streaked with laughter as the cubs turned, looked at each other and decided to make her their next victim.
Ten minutes of mock-wrestling later, she held up her hands in laughing surrender and declared herself “eaten.”
That night in bed, she turned to him and said, “Tell me a story, Lucas. No cannibals.”
He sighed, stroked a hand down her back. “I only know cannibal stories,” he teased.
“Please,” she said, in imitation of the twins. “Please, please!”
He kissed her, remembering how very restrained she’d been when they had first met. But even then, he had sensed the wildness in her. “If I can’t have cannibals, can I have deranged monkeys?”
Her eyes went wide and she nodded.
“Before I start–when are you going to tell me a story?”
She paused, thinking. “I need to do some more research.” Her hand laid against his chest. “Teach me.”
The panther purred in approval–this was a woman fit for a mate, this woman who didn’t give up, no matter what the obstacle. “How about”–he began to undo her braid–“we tell this story together.”
A slow, sweet, perfect smile warmed up her eyes. “Once upon a time,” she whispered, “there was a princess and she lived with a panther.”
Two days later, Lucas got a call from Tamsyn during which he was asked to explain how her cubs now knew the meaning of the word “cannibal.”
A Gift for Kit
Kit pulled a pillow over his head.
A wave of crackling energy and then the pillow was being yanked off his head. “Up and at ’em, little brother.”
He snarled at Rina. “Do you have to be a morning person?”
“Do you have to be a pain in the ass?” Perching on his bed, she reached over to muss up his hair.
“Cut it out, I’m a soldier now.” But he didn’t move away.
Rina grinned. “My baby brother, a soldier. My heart’s all aflutter.”
“I’m going to bite you—after my nap. Go away.”
Instead, Rina leaned over to give him a smacking kiss on the cheek. “Naw, you love me too much. Now get your lazy butt out of bed,” she said as she left the room.
“Why? I’m off-shift.” And he was feline enough to enjoy lazing in bed. Especially since it was only—stirring himself a fraction, he focused on the wall clock—seven o’clock on a Saturday morning.
“I have a surprise for you,” she called out from the kitchen.
Curiosity spiked. Kit’s leopard wasn’t as inquisitive as some, but the word “surprise” definitely acted like catnip. As Rina well knew. “Is it a troop of naked dancing girls?”
“Maybe. And I’m making you breakfast, so hurry before it gets cold.”
His eyebrows rose. Rina was a tough-ass to the rest of the world, but she really did treat him as her baby brother—he’d always known she’d be there for him through hell itself. But despite that bond, she’d never coddled him. So the breakfast was a rare thing. Rare enough to have him seriously intrigued.
Wide awake now, he got up, showered quickly, then dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. Running a comb through his hair, he decided he was done and walked out to the smell of banana chocolate-chip pancakes. “Oh man,” he said, making a beeline for the plate Rina was putting on the table. “Whatever I did to make you happy, I promise to do it again every week.”
She grinned, looking about fifteen with her long blonde hair tied up in a loose ponytail. “You tell anyone I was this nice, and I’ll put spiders in your bed.”
“Hah.” He swallowed the mouthful he had. “I’m not scared of spiders.”
“Yeah, yeah, tough guy.” Sliding into a seat across from him, she made quick work of her own breakfast. “You done?”
He nodded. “I’ll clean up since you cooked.”
“Leave it for now.” Jerking her head toward the door, she got up. “Let’s go for a drive, handsome.”
Wondering at her mood, he laced up his boots and followed. When he went to the driver’s side door, she rolled her eyes and got into the passenger seat. He hated being driven, and though Rina was a dominant, too, this was one thing she’d learned wasn’t worth fighting over. “Where to?”
Smiling at the thought of the beautiful patch of forest they’d named as children, he settled in and took the manual controls.
“So,” he said as they drove through the early-morning fog, “how’s it going with the cub who has a crush on you?”
She groaned. “Shut up.”
“You guys would make a cute couple—you’d probably have to teach him some moves though.”
“Keep it up, hotshot.” Her cat came through loud and clear in her voice.
Laughing, he continued to drive through the beautiful Yosemite valley, the trees softened by whispers of mist. “So, you still reporting to Dorian?”
“How’s it going?” He knew she’d had problems with Barker—the guy had fallen for her, and Rina was too strong to accept direction from a man who’d let her take the reins in another area of life.
She made a humming sound of contentment. “He busts my balls on a regular basis.”
“Er, Reen? You don’t have those.”
“According to some, I do. Big brass ones.” She grinned. “Dorian’s okay. He knows his stuff. If I could shoot like him…”
“You don’t have the patience.” A cool, analytical part of his brain knew the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in DarkRiver. “But you have the skill and aptitude to be an exceptional front-line fighter.”
“That’s what Dorian said.” She shot him a piercing look. “You’re growing up Kit-ten.”
Smiling, she leaned back in her seat. “You wouldn’t have said something like that a year ago.”
“A year ago, I thought I was hot shit.” Pulling up to the designated parking area, he got out and they took the familiar trail. “I love this, being out here.” His leopard stretched out, happy, playful. “Want to go for a run after?”
“Yeah.” This time, her smile held an edge of sadness.
He put an arm around her. “Hey, what’s up?”
They walked in silence until they reached the fallen log that was their personal marker. From there, they could see out over the entire valley, shrouded in mist and beauty.
“When you were a sprout,” Rina said, sitting beside him on the log, “and I was twelve, Dad told me something.”
“Yeah?” Kit’s chest tightened at the memory of his father’s grizzled face.
“He said he knew there was a chance he and mom wouldn’t be around to see you grow into an adult.”
Kit nodded. These days, most people lived to well over a century, but his and Rina’s mom had not only had them late in life, she’d been born with a genetic illness not even late twenty-first century science could cure. Kit had had her until he was fourteen. His father had only lived a couple more years after that—just long enough for Rina to turn eighteen, for Lucas to promise that Kit and Rina would never lack for anything.
“I miss them like hell,” he said. “I wish Dad was here to see me, you know? He’d be so proud I made soldier. And Mom, she’d spoil us like crazy, no matter how old we got.”
Rina touched his cheek. “They had absolute faith in you.” Reaching into a pocket, she pulled out a pair of silver dog tags.
He stared as she put them in his hands.
“I was supposed to give them to you when you made soldier.”
Emotion crashed into him as he read the inscription on the first tag. “We’re so proud of you, son. Mom and Dad.” The second tag blurred and he had to blink to swallow the rush of feeling so he could read what it said. This one had his name, his rank as a DarkRiver soldier, and on the back, the names of his mom, dad and Rina. His hand clenched around them.
When Rina rose to walk a little distance from the log, he knew she was giving him the privacy to mourn, to remember, to cherish the gift. “Thanks,” he whispered up to the heavens.
A gentle flurry of leaves fell over his shoulders, as if in answer. Smiling, he swung the tags over his head and rose to walk over to Rina. “You’re a good sister, Reen.”
She elbowed him. “Shh.”
Laughing, he held up a hand. “I won’t tell. Promise.” But, he thought privately, the man who was able to win her wild heart would be one hell of a lucky guy.
“Come on bratlet, let’s go for that run.”
Kit hesitated. “Can we do it in human form?”
Rina’s eyes went to the dog tags. “Sure.”
He couldn’t wear them always—they were too precious to chance losing in a shift, but for today, he would…and feel his parents’ love in every clink the metal made as they swung against each other.
This takes place some time after Mine to Possess.
Teijan sucked back a beer and glanced at Zane, the sand warm against his bare feet. “Aneca’s growing up fast.”
The other man leaned against the rocks and shook his head. “I blink and she’s bigger. I’m almost scared to look away.”
“Never thought you’d make a doting daddy.” His fellow Rat had been as feral as they came, an animal barely contained in human skin. Until he’d found his mate. “Thank God for Rissa.”
Zane clinked his bottle to Teijan’s. “She makes me want to be the man she sees in me.”
“You’re succeeding.” Zane had gone from being a problem to Teijan’s right hand.
“So, this alliance with the cats…”
Zane’s eyes gleamed in the night. “Not what we expected.”
“No.” The truth was, no Rat had expected anything much from the alliance with DarkRiver. Teijan had made the promise in good faith, knowing that if he didn’t, DarkRiver would eliminate the Rats from the city. A harsh law, but one that maintained peace among predatory changelings. “They kept their word on the tunnels.”
“Yes.” A pause. “First time we’ve ever had a place that’s truly ours.”
Teijan understood. Despite the fact that they’d been in San Francisco longer than the cats, they’d never had the power to hold the entire city. As such, their residence had been precarious, all of them conscious that a bigger predator could come in and run them out without warning. “A permanent home—has a nice ring to it.”
His Rats, of whom only four were actually changeling, had only ever known chaos and disdain. The human Rats had come Down Below because the world Above treated them like trash. He’d held them together, turned them into a unit, kept them alive. But he’d never expected that the alliance he’d made to keep them safe would change so many things. “Did you see that fax yesterday?”
“Since when do we have a fax machine Down Below?”
A snort. “I saw it. They serious?”
“Money’s in the account.”
They both stared at the stars for a while.
“Well,” Zane finally said, “if they’re serious, it’s going to be enough to send some of the kids Above for training we wouldn’t normally be able to afford.”
“More than enough.” Teijan had already worked it out. “We’ll have enough left over this time around to expand the living quarters Down Below.”
“This time around?” Zane all but choked. “What?”
“You didn’t read the whole fax, did you?”
“Aneca wanted to play tag.”
Grinning at the image of tough, wild Zane patiently letting his baby girl catch him, Teijan filled him in. “Fax said they’re passing on a percentage of profits from deals that come about because of our intel. As long as those deals keep generating income, we keep getting a percentage. And if there are new deals…”
Zane blew out a breath. “DarkRiver brings in serious money.”
“And we helped make some of it.” Teijan’s pride in his people flowed through his veins. “We’re their eyes and ears on the ground. We hear of opportunities before anyone else. It’s only right they share the profits.”
“But I bet you never thought they would.”
Teijan shook his head. “Honestly? I never gave the idea any thought. I figured if they left us alone, then it was a good deal.” His people had been hurt and brutalized more than enough.
“Guess the cats surprised us all.” Zane leaned back on the rock, looking up at the stars. “They all walk taller now, even those most afraid of going Above.”
“We see ourselves as part of something bigger.” He’d saved so many, but to do so, he’d had to hide them, turn the Rats into a closed society. Now it was opening up, and the air was sweet, beautiful, full of hope. “There’s danger in that.”
“If they go to war, so do we.” Zane’s tone was solemn. “I want to fight for my baby’s right to live, my mate’s right to survive.”
“That was always true,” Teijan said. “But now the others, the ones without mates or children, even they’re ready.”
“It’s not just about protecting our home,” Zane said quietly. “It’s about protecting the place we’re making for ourselves.”
Teijan nodded. His Rats were more than the dregs of society now. They were turning into one of the most well-informed and well-organized spy networks in the country. Any alpha would be proud to call them his own.
“Who woulda thought a pack of cats would keep their word to a bunch of Rats?” Zane mused.
Teijan smiled. “I guess we won’t be needing those cat-traps after all.”
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.
This stand-alone short story was originally written for the February 2008 edition of Germany’s Love Letter magazine.
The first time Mac Tanner saw Cass Hamilton, he was six years old and she was ten.
“Mama,” he said, “I’m going to marry that girl.”
“Well, my dear,” was his mother’s startled response. “I know Tanner men make up their minds early, but you’re barely in school. It’s a tad soon to be talking about marriage, don’t you think? Especially with…that girl, even if they are our neighbors.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
His mother didn’t answer him that day, but he was a smart boy. He listened and learned. By the time he was eight years old, he’d figured out that Cass Hamilton was one of the mixed breed. Her father had been touched by the Keepers while he’d been up in space. He’d come back a little more than human. And when Cass was born, she proved to have inherited the Keepers’ gift.
Cass Hamilton had skin like gold, eyes as rich as chocolate, and a voice so pure, it made Mac’s chest tight with the best kind of hurt. Cass Hamilton was also a Dreamer. If she focused very hard on a dream, she could make it come true. People didn’t like that. It was a bit too strange. And so, whenever something bad happened in town, the police would come knock on Cass’s grandparents’ door and ask if she’d been Dreaming.
Like when Jim-Bob vanished and folks found out he’d been teasing Cass for being a freak.
Or when Maisie’s long blonde hair turned into stubble overnight, and she screamed that Cass was jealous because Cass only had that soft black fur on her head.
Mac didn’t understand why the police believed Maisie. She was a liar. Anyone could see that Cass didn’t have fur on her head. She just had really soft hair, like on a baby. It was pretty. In the sun, it shone blue. And, Mac thought, even if she had disappeared that stuck-up Maisie’s hair, it was no worse than a toothpaste prank.
As for Jim-Bob, he was discovered five days later, having decided to run away from home. He’d only gotten as far as the next town before realizing that he had no clean clothes, and he missed his computer games.
After Jim-Bob’s return, Mac waited for the police to come say sorry to Cass, but they didn’t. It bothered him. Tanner men knew what was right and what was wrong. And saying sorry to Cass was the right thing to do. Deciding that he might as well make up for the police’s rudeness, he climbed over the fence and up the trellis to Cass’s window. For, unbeknownst to his parents, not only had he not changed his mind about marrying Cass, he’d spoken to her. Not once. Not twice. Every night since the day he’d first been able to get up the trellis. But as he went to knock on her window that night, he saw something that made his hand freeze.
Cass was asleep and she was Dreaming. Something appeared on her bedside table as she slept. It was a card. Chocolates joined the card a few minutes later. It didn’t take long for Mac to put two and two together. His mother had been humming softly all night because his father had gotten her flowers. And his sister had come home squealing because a boy at school had given her a Valentine—a stupid card that played tinny music over and over and over again. It had made Mac so crazy, he’d wanted to jump up and down on it until it stopped. He hadn’t, of course. Ginny was a pretty good sister, and he liked it when she smiled.
But it wasn’t Ginny on his mind on that moonlit night outside Cass’s window. He wondered why Cass had to Dream her presents. She was the prettiest, most wonderful girl in town. Surely boys had given her things? He made a face. Mac didn’t like the idea of other boys giving her presents, but he knew he was only eight. He couldn’t expect Cass to know that she was going to be his wife soon as he finished growing up. As long as those boys didn’t kiss her, he’d decided it would be okay for them to give her presents.
But they hadn’t.
“You’re a sweet boy to think of her,” his mother said when he asked her about it the next day. “And I have to admit, I might not have been as kind to her as I should’ve been at the start, but I’m not liking how that girl’s being picked on. By the police no less.” There was a thread of anger in his mother’s voice that he knew spelled trouble. “I don’t know what her parents were thinking to leave her in this town where she’s one of a kind. Better to have put her in boarding school in some big city. I have a mind to write them and—”
“Sorry, m’dear. It just makes me so furious. I think the reason Cass didn’t get any Valentines is that people are scared of her. They can’t see beauty in what they fear.”
Mac thought about that. He wasn’t scared of Cass.
That was the first year Mac Tanner gave Cass Hamilton a Valentine’s Day rose. “I picked it from my mother’s garden,” he whispered from where he sat outside her bedroom window. “It’s only a day late.”
Cass smiled so bright and true, he thought he might burn up in the glow of it. “Oh, Mac, you make me believe in hope again.”
He couldn’t keep his secret in his heart any longer. “I’m gonna marry you, Cass.”
“I know.” Then she leaned out the window and kissed him on the cheek.
He didn’t wash his face for a week.
The next year, she kissed his other cheek. “If only you were older,” she said with a laugh. But he noticed she hadn’t Dreamed herself a Valentine. She’d waited for his rose.
The third year, he asked her to kiss him on both cheeks. Eyes sparkling, she did.
The fourth year, she had something wonderful for him. It was a stamp with a postmark from the space station. “I thought you’d like this more than a rose. My parents sent me a letter.”
“Cass, this is…” He couldn’t finish his sentence, he was so thrilled. But even in his joy, he heard her pain. “You miss your mom and dad, huh?”
She sat on the windowsill and shrugged. “I don’t really know them. I love my grandma and poppa and I know they love me. My parents—I have a feeling they don’t know quite what to make of me.”
He dared to reach out and take her hand. When she let him, he felt as if his heart would burst. “Next year, I’ll be twelve and then I can tell you I love you, too.”
Stars shone in her eyes as she leaned closer. “Why twelve?”
“Because that’s when I’ll start becoming a man.” He didn’t have time to waste. “And when I’m sixteen, we’ll get married.”
A long silence as she watched him with that Dreamer’s gaze. “You’re already more a man than most in this town, Mac. I think being your wife will be a wonderful thing. I’ll be waiting to hear you love me, and next year, I won’t be kissing you on the cheek.”
But the next year, the year Mac turned twelve, Cass was no longer there to receive his rose and kiss him on the lips at last. The Keepers had come five months previously and taken her. She was too much like them, they said. Earth wasn’t ready for the beauty and wonder of Cass’s Dreams. Mac’s mother picked him up from school that day, even though they only lived a few minutes away. She took him to a field full of wildflowers, and then she told him Cass was gone.
His heart broke, but he didn’t cry. “Then I’ll just have to become an astronaut, Mom. So I can find her again.”
“Oh, Mac.” Tears glittered in his mother’s eyes. “I’ve never said you can’t do anything you put your mind to, but my darling boy, you’re too sick.”
The leukemia had been eating him alive for years, making him race with life. But that day, in that field bursting with life and color, Mac knew Cass had left him one last gift. “I’ll be okay, Mom. I promise.”
His mother didn’t believe him, but two years later, he had no trace of cancer in his system. “I bet Cass had to sleep a long time to do that.” He imagined her in a floating bed out in space, or maybe on the Keepers’ mysterious homeworld, sleeping, Dreaming . To give him a healthy body, Cass had slept two long years.
Time passed. Every Valentine’s Day, Mac would pick a rose and throw the petals to the winds. There were winds in space, he thought. Perhaps the petals would reach Cass.
When he was twenty, his mother sat him down for a talk. “My boy, I know Tanner men make up their minds early and never falter, but she’s gone. She’s a Keeper now. They care for humans but they don’t marry us. They’re too powerful, too extraordinary.”
Mac didn’t mind being ordinary. He never had. He didn’t think Cass had minded that about him either—after all, she’d promised to be his wife. “She was all those things when I fell in love with her.”
“You fell in love with a child, not the truth of what she is. Give real women a chance!”
For his mother, Mac agreed to go on a date or two. The women were quite lovely, and one of them even made him laugh. But come Valentine’s Day, he spent it studying for aeronautics exams. He didn’t forget the rose. He kept it beside him as he studied. And just before midnight, he found a good strong wind and sent the petals Cass’s way.
On the base, they called him Mad Mac, the only man to ever fall in love with a Keeper. But when it came time to pick training crews, they always chose Mac first. He was an engineer a pilot could trust, because Mac crossed every t and dotted every i. He couldn’t afford to make mistakes, not if he was going to reach Cass in time.
Because now, he was racing a different kind of clock.
One day, a long time after he first began, the training mission became a real one. Mac was sent up into the vast night that surrounded the Earth, to the space station where it had all begun. The touch of the Keepers was everywhere—in the clean air, in the trees that grew in zero gravity, in the blue skies that mimicked those of Earth—but there were none of the ancient race to be seen.
“They only drop by every few decades,” he was told. “Probably won’t be coming round again for another three at least.”
Mac felt the blow as if it was a physical hit. Too long, it was too long…because Mac was human, with a human lifespan. For the first time since he was six years old, he considered the possibility that perhaps he wouldn’t marry Cass Hamilton after all. Not in this lifetime.
That night, he dreamed. Cass was sitting on the edge of a white marble balcony, her legs crossed at the ankles, her eyes sparkling bright. She was older, even more beautiful. And her pretty soft hair had grown until it curled under her ears. He’d always known it would—she’d just needed a little more time.
“Well, Mac,” she said.
He knew she was a Keeper but he reached forward to cup her cheek in his hand. “I miss you.” She was in his blood, in his every breath. It didn’t matter that he’d loved her as a child. His love had been true, his devotion endless. Tanner men made up their minds early and never faltered.
Her hand closed over his, and her gaze grew troubled. “I can’t Dream you to me. I’m too young.”
All doubt disappeared. “I’m going to marry you, Cass.”
“I know.” Her smile grew until it eclipsed the sun. “Mac, you’ve got silver in your hair!”
He laughed as she stood and ran her fingers through it. “Finally, I’m older than you. Getting older every day.” While she remained ageless, a Keeper. “Will you still marry me now that I’m so decrepit?”
“I’d marry you if you were the oldest man on Earth.” This time, the kiss was a melding of mouths. She was so soft, so beautifully female under his hands. He’d waited a lifetime to hold her but the dream flickered and whispered and then was gone.
He got up, stared at his scarred engineer’s hands, and knew that one day soon, those hands would be too wrinkled for the agency to send them back up into space. But if he stole a shuttle and headed out into the unknown, Cass might gray herself trying to bring him home to her. Even a Keeper could hurt and graying was the worst kind of pain. He couldn’t bear to think of Cass graying. Not his vibrant, laughing Cass.
Before he left the space station that time, he threw petals into space, blown by the whisper of his kiss. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Cass.”
There were five more missions. And still the Keepers didn’t come. On the fifth, Mac watched the rose petals float out into space, and knew this was his last trip. Even Mad Mac, the perfect engineer, couldn’t go on forever. His hands were getting tired, his eyes less acute. But when he closed those eyes and dreamed, he saw in perfect clarity.
Cass, so beautiful, still a woman of barely twenty. She could only Dream to him when he was in space. Surrounded by the endless starlight of the cosmos, the kiss became a touch, the touch so much more. She was getting stronger, learning to hold on longer to the dreams. But she was only a baby Keeper. Thousands of years would have to pass before she gained the strength to Dream him home.
Thousands of years after his mortal body turned to dust.
For the last time, he considered stealing a ship and heading out into space. But no, he couldn’t do that to Cass. If she grayed, her pain would last eons. Better that he turn to dust and become a memory. As she grew ever more beautiful, his Keeper would remember Mac Tanner, the human who had loved her a long time ago on a blue-green world called Earth. “Ah, but who will give you roses, my darling?” It was a bittersweet whisper, borne on the icy winds of space to a world so far from Earth, it was beyond the edges of the universe.
“Sometimes,” a stranger’s voice said, “even a Keeper must surrender to human stubbornness.”
Mac turned, looked into ageless eyes set in a face with skin the color of beaten gold. “About time you got here.” Exhilaration raced through his bloodstream like liquid fire.
The Keeper laughed. “Do you know, when Cass was determined to sleep long enough to heal your childish body, we thought it a waste. She was a fledgling Keeper, born for greater things. You were a mortal, would forget her in a heartbeat.” Those dark, dark eyes grew sun-bright. “But you never forgot. So, mortal, are you ready to be touched by a Keeper? You’ll be immortal, but you will be no Dreamer.”
“The only Dream I ever wanted was Cass.” He held up a hand when the Keeper approached. “Wait. I have to get something.”
The Keeper was curious enough to give him the time. When he saw what it was, he laughed. “You will be a strange child.”
Mac couldn’t imagine being a boy once more. “Am I going to be younger than Cass again?” Damn it, he was ready to stroke her with the kiss of a man, not a boy.
“Yes.” The Keeper laughed and touched Mac.
It was an indescribable sensation. Death and rebirth, everything in flux. But when Mac opened his eyes, he found that he was following the Keeper home through the darkness of space. He was only a fledgling himself, so the older one was doing the work, feeding him the strength to continue. All Mac had to do was keep his gift safe.
Who knows how long it took? Keepers live eons, years are their seconds. The length of the journey mattered little—when they reached the Keepers’ homeland of mountain and sunshine, forest and water, Mac asked only one question. “Which way to her?”
She was standing on her white marble balcony when he found her, a beautiful woman with a waist-length mane of curling black hair.
Her back stiffened and she turned. There were tears in her eyes, but when her gaze fell to what he held, she smiled. “Your delivery is about six decades late this time.” Taking the rose, she slid the thornless stem behind her ear. “Did you pick it from your mother’s garden?”
“This one’s from my own garden.” From the wild roses he’d planted for her. “I’ve come to collect what’s owed me.” He walked closer, put his finger under her chin and kissed her. Lush velvet and moonlight, eternity and forever, that was Cass. “Damn Keeper told me I’d be younger than you again.” Who knew immortal beings had a sense of humor?
“You are,” she whispered against his lips and reached up to touch his soft, so soft hair, “but you’re also a man. Will you marry me now, Mac?”
“Are you sure we’re not too young?” Laughter against his mouth, Cass under his hands.
And a whisper against his ear. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Mac.”
This scene was originally written as part of Play of Passion, but I think it works quite well as a fun short story. I hope you enjoy!
A few hours after her discussion with Hawke, Indigo glanced around the clearing and felt her heart warm with pride. The young soldiers lounging in a rough semi-circle, their legs stretched out and backs against the trees, were all strong, smart and honorable. She’d be happy to have any of them at her side in a fight.
“Tactics,” she said after they’d settled in. “I know most of you want to—” Pausing, she cocked her head and frowned, hearing something unexpected on the breeze. It sounded like a child—and this area was off-limits to children unless they were with an adult.
Glancing at Tai, she nodded at him to begin the discussion while she went to check out the noise. The young male did so with a confidence that made it clear he was almost ready to be promoted to full soldier status. Making a mental note to discuss the situation with Riley, she thought about which of the others might be near to “graduation”. Charlie was right on the edge, but the girl had a temper problem. Then again, so had Jem once upon a time—channeled right, that temper could become strength.
The wicked temptation of Drew’s scent whispered over her before she saw him crouching beside a small wolf pup, the boy’s fur soft, his scent innocent. Ben, she realized at once. Though Drew had to have scented her, he didn’t look in her direction, so she stood with her shoulder against a tree and watched, trying to figure what in the world they were doing.
Ben angled his head upward, drew in a breath and then made a sharp whistling noise.
The look of embarrassment on his face threatened to make Indigo smile but she caught it. Yes, he was a baby male, but he was still a male. Pride was something that seemed to come hardwired in the Y chromosome.
“That’s better,” Drew said, one hand on the pup’s back, “but you need to bring the sound from lower down.” Lifting his own head, he took in a deep breath and let it out.
The haunting music of a wolf’s howl echoed over the trees.
It wasn’t as strong as the sound that came from the wolf’s throat, but it was powerful enough. Several packmates responded from far and wide and it made the hairs on Indigo’s neck rise, her wolf immediately ready to join in the joyful singing. But understanding that this was a lesson, it agreed with her silence.
“See?” Drew said, eyes locked with Ben’s. “Bring it from your heart. Be your wolf.”
Ben took another deep breath, held it, then raised his head.
The howl that came out was cut off summarily as the pup stopped with a yip, having apparently startled himself. Drew began to laugh even as packmates responded again, a concerned question in their tones this time. As she watched, Drew replied, telling them all was well.
Ben wiggled out from under Drew’s hand at that moment and ran over to Indigo, his body bursting with pride and excitement. She bent down to stroke back his ears. “Well done, Ben.”
Butting up under her hand, he lifted his head and showed her his throat. It was a gesture of active submission, a sign that he wanted to play. Leaning down, she touched noses with him in open affection. “I have to go work, but we’ll play later, okay?”
Drew picked the pup up as she rose to her feet. “Don’t let him fool you—he’s already got a play date with Marlee.”
As Ben hid his face against Drew’s chest, Indigo began to smile. That was when Drew streaked out a hand, pulled her close and kissed her with such heated thoroughness that steam came out her ears.
“Hello, Lieutenant,” he said afterward.
A glimpse into Judd and Brenna’s life when they have a night to themselves, no Pack business to handle and no enemies at the door. This story slots in a few months after Caressed By Ice ( not long before Branded By Fire).
“Do you want to go out for dinner?”
Brenna hid a smile at the question she knew Judd had asked only because he was trying to be a good mate. He hated eating in restaurants. Regardless of the fact that he was a master of subtle disguise, he spent the whole time tensed up, on alert for threats. “No,” she said, “let’s stay in and watch a movie. I have a couple of frozen pizzas I can throw in the oven, and the salad won’t take long.”
His smile was slow, quiet, wonderful. “Which movie do you want to watch?”
It made her heart ache that he hid nothing from her, though he was a man who’d been taught never to trust anyone. “You pick.”
“You like the dramatic romances that make you cry.” The last words were slightly puzzled.
Pulling out the pizzas and setting them on the counter, she shook her head. “No, I want you to choose something you like.” A small, many would say inconsequential thing, but those people didn’t understand that her mate had lived his life in the shadows, been forced to submerge his personality under a layer of ice—that ice had melted for her, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t left scars. Fun was still a new concept for Judd.
Now, not saying a word, he went to the comm panel and pulled up a list of recent releases. He was so serious, she wanted to reach out and kiss him stupid. Which would get her naked very quickly. Because in one arena, Judd definitely had the idea of fun down to an art—though he still refused to divulge his research sources.
“Here.” He input a choice on the large comm screen he’d moved so it hung on the wall in front of the couch.
Walking over, she put her hands on her hips. “Really? You want to watch a tearjerker romance set in the time of the Territorial Wars?”
“Liar.” He’d just chosen something he thought she would enjoy. “It has to be your choice.”
“How do you know I don’t like the same movies as you?”
He was digging his heels in. She knew him in this mood. If she pushed him wrong, he would flat-out refuse to change his mind—that was the thing with Judd. He was sexy, strong, loved her until she felt the power of it in every cell of her body, but the man had a core of intractable stubborn.
“Sweetheart, come here.” Cupping his face in her hands, she met the bitter chocolate of his gaze, the flecks of gold pieces of sunlight. “I want you to enjoy this.”
A softening in his expression, his hand coming to settle on her waist. “I enjoy being with you.”
“I know.” Woman and wolf, both parts of her adored being cuddled up next to him, too. “I guess I want to see what you like as well.” Discover another hidden facet of the beautiful, complex man who was hers.
Judd paused. “I don’t know what I like.”
“That’s okay.” Sliding her hands down to his chest, she stole a small kiss before she went to the screen and pulled up a sub-menu. “These are considered boy movies. As you are a boy, choose one you think looks interesting.”
A glint in his eye, he went to the screen, went carefully through the choices. “This one.”
The promotional image was of a guy in a rainforest, with a machete, and a snake coiled around his arm like some kind of macho armband.
Brenna laughed. “Right, that’s the one.”
The movie was terrible. Awful. Everything that could go wrong did in terms of the direction, the production, the setting, the acting—though the leads weren’t helped by atrocious lines such as,
“I’ve got to suck out the venom from the bite on your breast, doll. It’s your only chance of survival, so just lie back and let the expert get to work.”
Even the snakes couldn’t save it. According to Judd, and she didn’t know how he knew this, the reptiles being used as the super scary monsters weren’t the least bit poisonous. She had a stitch in her side by the time the movie was over. “At least he had beautiful abs,” she said, wiping away her tears as the credits rolled.
A slight raising of eyebrows from the man who sprawled on the sofa next to her—a sofa that had somehow survived his Tk. She knew that look, too. It said: Why are you admiring another man’s body?
“Oh come on,” she teased. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice the rack on his co-star?” A co-star whose primary job had been to fall out of her indecent bikini—why she was wearing a bikini in the Amazon was another thing—and scream like a banshee. “Especially when he had to ‘save’ her by heroically sucking on her boobs.”
“I noticed her rack never moved,” Judd said in a cool tone. “There’s no excuse for that with the low-cost cosmetic procedures currently available.”
She choked on the wine she’d just sipped. Her mate, eyes laughing, though his lips were only faintly curved, patted her gently on the back until she could breathe again. Pointing at him, she said,
“That was a funny, Judd Lauren.” And some people thought he had no sense of humor. Hah!
Reaching for the remote, he tugged her to his side so she could snuggle close, and began to go through the menu again. “This one.”
“Oh God,” Brenna muttered in mock-horror when she saw the same guy they’d just watched fend off “deadly” mutant snakes, this time baring his teeth against—improbably—a saber-tooth tiger. “I’ve created a monster.”
Judd kissed her hot and hard. “You know you want to.”
She shamelessly arched her neck for another kiss. “Yes, I do.” Snagging the remote, she started the movie and settled in, one hand spread over his heart. There was no place she’d rather be, and no one else she’d rather be with.
Hawke walked down the corridor, well aware he was being followed by stealthy little wolf paws—or paws that were trying to be stealthy in any case. Inside him, the wild predator who was his other half opened its mouth in a wolfish grin.
Halting at the open doorway to Riley’s office, he poked his head inside. “Did you get the report?”
A nod from his senior lieutenant. “You want to talk about it now?”
“No. Let’s do it tonight—you still up for that?”
“Absolutely.” Riley saluted him with his coffee mug. “Mercy is calling it Testosterone Night by the way.”
“She’s just jealous because girls aren’t invited.” Grinning, he continued down the corridor, accompanied by the clicking of tiny claws on the stone of the den floor. They hesitated when he turned toward his own office and he could almost feel the keen disappointment that colored the air.
Popping in quickly, he grabbed his sleek black sat phone and walked out again, careful to keep his back to the tracker on his trail.The little paws scampered to keep up with him, stopping only when he ran into Riaz.
The dark-haired lieutenant raised an eyebrow. “You realize you have a tail?”
“He’s not bad. Just needs a bit more seasoning.”
Riaz’s eyes, a dark gold, filled with affectionate laughter. “Along with a few feet of growth.”
Lips tugging up at the corners, Hawke said, “Pretend you don’t see him.”
As they talked Pack business, Hawke was very aware of sharp little wolf ears listening in. Once he and Riaz were done, he carried on down the corridor and to one of the exits into the White Zone, the safe play area directly outside the den. Heading to the trees, he stashed his phone in his jeans, stripped, and shifted into his wolf form.
The paws behind him ran to follow as he shook his body to settle his new skin, the silver-gold of his fur rippling, then loped deeper into the forest. Aware the little tracker wouldn’t be able to keep up with even a fraction of his adult speed, he kept his pace at one the other wolf could maintain.
Stopping at the edge of the waterfall nearest the den, he looked down at the froth of water, and after a moment, the owner of the stealthy paws padded up to stand beside him. The pup hadn’t yet gained his adult color, was still a soft brown as he leaned his body against Hawke’s, his small heart beating faster than an adult’s.
Hawke growled a greeting before returning his gaze to the water.
When he turned away from the crashing fall after several minutes, the pup fell in with him as they ran the short distance back to the den. Shifting to human form, Hawke pulled on his jeans and watched the pup change in a show of light and color. A little boy stood in front of him seconds later.
“Did you see me?” Ben asked, pure delight in eyes that were still wolf-amber. “I stalkeded you!”
“You did very well.” Hawke crouched down in front of the boy. “You’re an excellent tracker.” He wasn’t lying—for his age, Ben was very, very good. In point of fact, he was better than many older children. “Have you been practicing?”
“Yes! I stalkeded Mama and Papa and even Uncle Judd!”
Hawke ruffled the boy’s hair. “That’s what I used to do when I was younger. I’d follow my father all around the den.” His father had allowed him to believe he was getting away with it, as Hawke had just done with Ben—he wouldn’t be much of an alpha if he didn’t help raise the boy’s confidence in his own skills. “But you know you can’t try to stalk people out of the safe areas?”
Ben nodded again. “And when they’re kissing. That’s boring.”
Hawke bit back a laugh. “Yeah, kissing is pretty boring,” he agreed solemnly. “Go on back inside now. I have to head out of the White Zone.”
“Okay. ‘Bye!” Waving vigorously, Ben ran toward the doorway to the den, shifting halfway through into his pup form. Hawke’s smile grew deeper. No doubt, someone else would soon find themselves “stalkeded”.
Christmas in the Kitchen
Timeline: This story slots in before Bonds of Justice, and is part of my informal series that explores the everyday lives of the characters, away from politics and turmoil and tension. These are the stories of the hidden moments, glimpses through the window of their continuing lives.
I love writing these, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading them. (This particular story ended up being a bit longer than my usual shorts, but I didn’t want to split it into two parts and hey, it’s the holidays. So find a comfortable spot and settle in. )
For those of you unfamiliar with the Psy-Changeling series, this story features several members of the DarkRiver leopard pack, including two sentinels (the most senior members of the pack aside from the alpha).
Dorian was a highly trained architect with a magical ability on computers, and a license to fly. He was also a sniper who could shoot with cold-blooded accuracy, had a former Psy assassin as his sparring partner, and had been called an overachiever by more than one person.
None of those people had ever seen him trying to deal with the plumbing.
“Crap,” he muttered for the third time in a row as the pipe dripped onto his face.
“I think that still counts as a bad word,” his son said from where he crouched in front of
the sink, shining a torch into the dark space beneath.
Wiping away the water and shoving the white-blond of his hair out of his eyes at the same time, Dorian twisted the wrench again. “Are you going to nark on me?” It was a whisper.
“Nu-huh.” Keenan shook his head as he whispered back. “Men stick together.”
Dorian’s leopard grinned at the boy who was his in every way but for genetics, and the latter mattered nothing to his cat. It knew only that this cub was its own to protect and to nurture.
“That’s right.” Lowering the wrench, he waited for another drip.
“Quick, let’s make our getaway before it decides to stop behaving.” Scooting out of the space, he stood up and in spite of his words, double-checked everything was functioning as it should.
“Excellent work partner,” he said, rubbing his hand over Keenan’s head, the silky dark of his son’s hair sliding through his fingers. “I think we deserve cookies.”
Ashaya looked up from where she was icing said cookies at the counter opposite the sink, the lush brown of her skin luminous in the early afternoon light. “I think Keenan deserves one but I don’t know about you, Boy Genius.”
He bared his teeth at his mate in a playful growl. “Don’t make me bite you, Shaya.”
“My terror knows no bounds.” Striking eyes of pale blue-gray bright with laughter, she bent down to cuddle a grinning Keenan.
“Traitor.” Grabbing the boy up into a hug when Ashaya rose back up, Dorian deposited him on the counter beside the tray of cookies.
“Dirty hands,” Ashaya said, and cleaned Keenan up with a wet wipe before allowing him to choose a cookie.
Dorian, having washed up at the sink he’d just fixed, came over to wrap his arms around Ashaya from behind, nuzzling at her curls until they started to escape the bun she’d put them in earlier that morning. He’d watched her do so as he lay sprawled in their bed, watching cartoons with a pajama-clad Keenan. And even then, he’d plotted to unravel the neat creation.
Now she cried, “Dorian!” in laughing rebuke.
Unrepentant, he used one hand to pull the entire mass free, wild curls going every which way.
“Pretty,” he said, pressing his jaw to her temple, his leopard endlessly fascinated by the vibrant life of her hair. Sometimes when he was in leopard form and she was lying beside him in front of the laz fire, he batted at it, just to see it bounce.
“Now give me my cookie.” He squeezed her to show her he meant business, nipping at
her neck at the same time.
“Sugar fiend.” Handing over a heavily iced chocolate cookie, she said, “It’s the perfect balance of nutrients and junk. I made sure to use vitamin enriched flour and vegetable protein.” Catching his dubious look, she laughed. “Don’t worry—you can’t taste anything but the chocolate, sugar, and fat.”
Taking a bite, he verified that was true. “I won’t take away your baking license,” he said with mock solemnity, surprised his scientist mate had taken to the domestic activity with such enthusiasm.
“Why do you enjoy cooking so much?” he asked, tugging gently on a curl as Keenan kicked his legs and licked the icing off his cookie.
“It’s a creative pursuit,” Ashaya said, “and it’s good for me to stretch myself in that way.” An unconscious reminder that she’d been permitted no such play while in the icy trap of the PsyNet.
“But,” she continued, “this is a creative endeavor with order—recipes have set ingredients, and while experimentation is permitted and encouraged, results are easy to judge. It calms me, makes me happy.”
“Lucky for me and Keenan.” And the occasional packmate who sniffed out the menu. Funny how often that happened.
Taking a second cookie, he kissed her cheek and stepped away to lean on the counter beside Keenan’s seated form. “Your cookies are even better than Tamsyn’s,” he said, naming the pack’s healer.
“Charmer.” A delighted smile. “Wait until you see what I made while you two were watching cartoons.”
Both he and Keenan waited curiously as she slid up the cover of the storage space on one end of the counter, and pulled out a tray holding a multi-hued array of cupcakes. Picking up two, she gave them one each, along with a kiss on the cheek for Keenan and the same for Dorian. “For my strong, capable men.”
Dorian was about to tug her into a much more adult kiss when a familiar face appeared in the rectangle of light that was the open back door. “Do I smell cookies?” Kit sauntered in, eyes fixed on the baking.
Ashaya pointed a finger at the muscled young male, halting him in his tracks. “One cookie, one cupcake.”
“I’ll take it.” Grabbing the items, he reached over to ruffle Keenan’s hair, his own dark auburn strands wind-tousled. “Hey, little man. Why’s your mama hoarding the cookies?”
“They’re for the pack’s Christmas party tomorrow,” Ashaya told him, her stern expression belied by the affection in her eyes. “I’m starting to understand why Tammy told me to bake twice what I intended to bring along.”
Hitching himself up on the counter attached to the sink, Kit finished off the cupcake in two bites. Not that long ago, Dorian had literally thrown the novice soldier out of a bar, Kit had been so drunk. Before that, Dorian and another sentinel had busted up a fight in which Kit had bloodied a packmate. But the youth had grown in many ways in the intervening time and was now one of the steadiest young soldiers in the pack, his strength not just in his body, but in his will and his loyalty.
“I like your hobby,” Kit said to Ashaya now, biting into the cookie and trying out a slow smile Dorian knew full well had coaxed more than one girl to follow him into the trees. “This cookie is amazing.”
“Forget it,” Ashaya said with a laugh. “I live with a cat, remember? I know all about sneaky charm.”
Looking disgruntled, Kit scowled at Dorian. “Way to ruin it for the rest of us.”
“Find your own woman, kitten.”
Keenan laughed, sweet and mischievous at Kit’s growl, a drop of icing stuck on his nose. Wrapping his arm around the boy’s neck, Dorian was about to pretend to steal Keenan’s half-eaten cupcake when he caught several familiar scents, followed by the sound of little feet running on the fallen pine-needles outside.
Releasing Keenan to grab Noor in his arms as she raced into the house, her pigtails bound up with bright orange ribbons, he smacked a kiss on the little girl’s cheek before perching her next to Keenan on the counter. His son’s best friend beamed, her beautiful dark eyes open and without guile.
“You want some?” Keenan asked, offering Noor a bite of his cupcake.
Nodding, she bit in, getting crumbs on the denim overalls she wore over a pretty blue sweater.
“Yummy.” When Shaya passed her a purple frosted cupcake, she said a happy, “Thank you,” and turning immediately to Keenan, offered it to him for a bite. “Your one was green. This one will taste different.”
“Do you think so?” Keenan asked, and at Noor’s nod, took a bite. “It’s like grapes!”
Dorian met Ashaya’s gaze over the two little heads, and he knew she was thinking the same thing he was: That it was good to see the children, extraordinary and unique, act exactly like the babies they were. It was the pack’s honor and their privilege to make sure Keenan and Noor had the chance to grow up loved and cared for, their incredible gift allowed to develop at its natural pace.
“Hey,” came another male voice from the doorway, “how come short stuff get cake?” Jon’s intense violet eyes, a startling contrast to the white-gold of his hair, held a scowl. “Did you get cake?” the teenager asked Kit.
Kit gave him a smug smile, just as Talin and Clay appeared behind the boy. Dorian’s fellow sentinel and his mate followed Jon into the kitchen, the two of them going around the counter to grab the stools on the other side, while Jon leaned up against the sink next to Kit.
When Noor offered to share her cupcake, the boy smiled an unexpectedly sweet smile and said, “It’s okay, Princess. That one’s yours.”
Dorian caught Clay’s gaze. “Good to see you.”
The green-eyed sentinel returned his fist bump.
“I tried to bake a cake for the party,” Talin was saying to Ashaya, “but it collapsed in the middle. It was so bad, I was going to throw it out—”
Kit made strangled sounds.
“—but Jon ran off with it.” A laughing glance at the teenage boy the couple had adopted into their family.
As Ashaya turned to look at Jon, Clay stole two cupcakes with feline stealth and threw one over to the teenager. Pretending innocence when Ashaya turned back, the dark-skinned sentinel stared at the cupcake sitting in front of him as if he had no idea how it had appeared.
Dorian stifled a laugh. Clay had always been too serious, too close to his leopard in a dangerous way, until they’d all worried he wouldn’t come out of the darkness—to see him play made Dorian’s own leopard drop its jaw in a grin full of gleaming white teeth.
Ashaya’s lips twitched and then she threw up her hands. “If you’re all going to demolish my cupcakes and cookies, you have to help me ice the spare set.”
Noor and Keenan, having been chatting to each other in their own language, which was all but incomprehensible to adults, clapped at the idea, and pretty soon, the kitchen was filled with laughter and color and sugar. Jon and Kit sat down good-naturedly at the kitchen table to help Keenan and Noor with their creations—though half the baked items ended up in the young males’ bottomless stomachs, while Ashaya offered to help Talin mix up a cake she assured the other woman wouldn’t collapse.
“I’ve experimented with it multiple times,” she was saying as she brought out the recipe.
Talin rolled her shoulders, her tawny hair pulled back with the same color ribbon as Noor’s—though Talin’s bow was wobbly, as if tied by little hands. “Okay,” she said. “Show me what to do.”
As Ashaya and Talin continued to talk, Dorian grabbed some coffee for himself and Clay, and walked around the counter to slide onto the stool next to the other sentinel. “Couple of years ago,” he murmured in a sub-vocal tone that would reach Clay alone, “could you have predicted this?”
The sentinel’s eyes lingered on the woman who was his mate. “I don’t think I even knew to dream this big.”
“Yeah.” In his wildest dreams, Dorian couldn’t have imagined that he’d be loved until it was a quiet, intense pulse inside him, his Shaya’s heart locked with his own. And Keenan—how could he have ever known what it would mean to him to be a father, to hold the trust of an innocent in his hand? It still rocked him at times, the gifts he’d been given.
“Did Tamsyn ring you up about the tree?” Clay asked into the companionable silence between them.
Dorian grinned. “She said her twins chewed through the wires last year, so she asked me to pick up a new batch of lights.” The pack’s healer had begun the tradition of a giant pack Christmas tree two decades ago, and that tradition had held through pain and loss and time.
As Clay shook his head in affectionate amusement, Dorian nodded subtly at Jon. “How’s he doing?” The boy had been through things that would’ve broken grown men.
“He’s settled in, made some rock-solid friendships.” Clay’s tone held a quiet, deep pride. “And he’s great with Noor—as far as she’s concerned, he’s her big brother and that’s that. He even sits through tea parties with her dolls in the miniature tree house I built for her, even though he has to squeeze inside.”
Dorian chuckled, as proud of the boy as Clay was. After what Jon had survived, no one would’ve blamed him for being too scarred to take care with the vulnerable heart of a child. That he’d overcome the ugliness of what had happened to him, learned to laugh again, it spoke of a strength that would hold him in good stead in the years to come.
“Kylie used to make me do the same thing,” he said, able at last to speak of his lost sister without being overwhelmed by rage at her stolen life. Her loss still hurt, but he tried to remember the good times now, tried to think about how much she would’ve adored being an aunt to Keenan and sister-in-law to Shaya. “Then she’d let me choose the game and I’d send her dolls into the jungles with my action figures.” His sister’s poor dolls had always met terrible fates at the hands of alligators and anacondas, only to arise anew for the next adventure.
“Know something?” Clay’s expression held surprise. “I’d forgotten until now, but I used to drink tiny cups of tea with Tally when we were kids. She had this rag doll and she used to be so strict about my not sipping my tea until the doll had hers.”
It made Dorian laugh, the thought of big, often silent Clay waiting patiently for a doll to have her tea. “Women—the things we do for them.”
“Talking about women”—Clay lowered his voice even further—“I meant to talk to you about Jon. He has a thing for Rina, so he might turn up while you’re training with her. Don’t be too hard on him.”
Dorian winced. Rina was Kit’s older sister, and one of the strongest, most headstrong female soldiers in the pack. “Even if he was a grown man, and not a juvenile, she’d eat him alive.”
“I think he’d die happy.” Clay’s cat prowled in his eyes, huffing with laughter. “Truth is, she’s being gentle with him.”
“Rina? Gentle?” Dorian was Rina’s trainer and supervisor, the task falling to him after the young woman wrapped her previous trainer around her finger. He liked her, and was dead certain she’d become one of the backbone pieces of the pack as she grew further into her strength, but gentleness was not Rina’s style. Like all adult leopard females who were dominant, she was more apt to challenge a suitor than to pet him. “You think she knows he’s into her?”
Clay nodded. “I figure she’s trying to let him down easy, since he’s just a kid—but my money’s on Jon. Give him a few more years and age difference or not, I bet you he goes after her.”
“Big call, man.” Dorian whistled softly. “But I tell you what—if you’re right, I will bake you a cake, complete with frilly pink icing.”
Ashaya came around the counter to lean against Dorian, the hair he’d messed up once more neatly in its bun. “What are you two talking about?” she asked as he resisted the wicked urge to undo her work all over again, his cat rubbing against his skin at having her so close, the feel of fur sliding underneath his skin no longer painful now that he could shift into his leopard form.
“You’re hatching something,” his mate added in a distinctly suspicious tone.
Grinning, Dorian did what he’d wanted to earlier and hauled her into him for a long, luscious kiss that had her fingers fisting in his T-shirt, the sound of the children’s delight swirling around them.
“We’re talking,” he murmured afterward, “about baking cakes.”
Ashaya, her lips swollen from the nips he’d taken during the kiss, and her voice a little husky, said,
“Didn’t you tell me you could make the best banana cake? I have some ripe bananas.”
“In fact,” Talin said from the other side of the counter, reaching out to tap Clay on the nose with her mixing spoon, “how about a contest? Dorian versus Clay.”
Kit and Jon, having turned to listen, gave the thumbs up. “We volunteer to judge,” they said magnanimously.
“You think I can’t bake a cake?” Clay said to his mate, a glint in his eye.
Talin’s cheeks creased, the freckles on the golden skin of her face adding to the mischief in her expression. “I think you’ll kick Dorian’s pretty butt.” She blew Clay a kiss that had the other sentinel’s lips curving.
“While I agree with your assessment of Dorian’s body,” Ashaya said mock-solemnly as she played her fingers through Dorian’s hair in a way that made a purr vibrate in his chest, “I must disagree with the rest of your statement.” His scientist leaned in close, all soft curves and warm femininity.
“My mate will leave yours in his baking dust.”
“I think that’s a challenge,” Kit said, a little bit of the hellion he’d been back in his voice.
“Way I hear it,” Jon added, “sentinels never back down from a challenge.”
Three hours later, Dorian clinked beer bottles with Clay as they stood outside the house, and said, “It wasn’t too rubbery. Truly.”
“And yours didn’t have too much salt,” Clay replied, loyal to the bone.
Looking at one another, they started to laugh, the sound carrying through the air to where the children played and their mates sat talking. Kit and Jon were gone—Kit had taken the boy with him as he continued on to his watch position, the teenager looking up to the young soldier, but they’d promised to return for dinner.
“I think,” Dorian said when he could breathe again, “we should give the judges big slices for dessert.”
“Serve the smartasses right for egging us on.” Clay took a drink of his beer. “That was a cruel and unusual death for those bananas.”
“You’re one to talk—what the hell did you do to the chocolate? I think Shaya and Talin are still in mourning.”
That sat them off again, until they ended up sitting on the ground, beers hanging from their fingertips.
When Ashaya turned to smile at him over her shoulder, the mating bond a wild brilliance inside him, Dorian knew that while baking and plumbing might not be on his resume, in one thing he was and would always be an expert: Loving Shaya
© Copyright 2012 by Nalini Singh
Clean and Dirty
This story is an entry in my ongoing series of vignettes exploring the everyday lives of the Psy-Changeling characters – glimpses through the windows of their day to day world.
Clean and Dirty features Vaughn and Faith. For those new to the series, Vaughn is a jaguar changeling and a sentinel in the DarkRiver pack, while his mate, Faith, is a cardinal F-Psy or foreseer (born with the often painful ability to see the future…though she also has a more fun ability, as you’ll see in this story).
Timeline: This story happens around the same time as Play of Passion, but it stands totally on its own.
I hope you enjoy!
Faith thought Vaughn was the most talented sculptor she’d ever seen, his works vibrant with life and fluid with energy There was just one problem. “I don’t understand how marble dust can take over our entire living space when your studio is in another area.” She wiped her hand along the edge of a table and it came away white.
Vaughn, the amber-gold of his hair dulled by the same dust, gave her a smile that was pure cat. “You look really clean.”
“No. Absolutely not.” Laughing, she held out a hand in an attempt to halt the jaguar in human form who’d begun to stalk her, slow and silent. “I mean it, Vaughn!” She ran around the sofa when he continued to prowl toward her with unhidden intent.
“What?” Pure innocence in his expression as he came to a stop. “I just wanted this datapad.”
Eyes narrowed, she watched him flick through the magazine she’d downloaded on the thin device but hadn’t had a chance to fully read. “We really have to clean the house.” Though it wasn’t technically a house, but a set of connected caves made both functional and lush by Vaughn’s artistic eye. It still stunned her, the beauty he created from hunks of cold marble and stone.
“Okay.” Apparently absorbed in an article, he tapped the screen to turn the page. “Did you see this? It’s about the world’s most expensive coffee.”
Her ears perked up. “I like coffee.”
“Huh, I don’t think you’d like this coffee.”
“Why?” Since he appeared genuinely involved in the article, she began to pick up the cushions from the sofa and stack them on a nearby armchair, thinking they could dust that off last.
“This coffee,” Vaughn said, “is made from animal droppings.”
“Very funny. I’m not that gullible.”
“I’m serious. It says civets eat the coffee berries, then the coffee makers collect their droppings and pick out the beans.” A small pause, another tap. “They used to farm the civets”—a growl low in his throat—“but that was banned decades ago and now the coffee is even more expensive because the coffee makers have to hunt wild civet droppings.”
Staring at him, a cushion in her hands, she shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Here.” He held out the datapad…and would’ve pounced when she reached for it if she hadn’t caught the gleam in his eye and run backward and around the other sofa.
“Vaughn.” Her attempt to sound stern was utterly ruined by the laughter that overtook her body.
Trying again when he put down the datapad and resumed his stalking, she pointed a finger. “House! Cleaning!”
“I’d rather make you dirty, Ms. Faith NightStar.” Jumping over the sofa with feline ease, he chased her into the bedroom.
At a dead end, she used a minor psychic ability to create a solid illusion of tall sunflowers between them. It was meant to surprise him enough to give her time to get over the bed and down the other side, but she found herself watching delightedly as he tried to touch the leaves with a wondering hand.
“I still can’t work out how you do this,” he said as she peppered the illusion with impossibly tall poppies. “Do an elephant.”
“An elephant?” Intrigued at the challenge, she visualized the animal in her mind…and the flowers winked out to be replaced by a miniature pachyderm.
Vaughn grinned and ran his hand over the elephant’s big, floppy ears, as if he could almost touch the motes of light and shadow. “This one’s the best you’ve done yet.” He pounced with a jaguar’s feral grace before she realized his intent. “You’re mine now, Red.” Holding her hostage, he shook his head to cover her in marble dust.
Her escape attempts foiled by laughter, she gave in and grabbing his dusty face in her hands, kissed him, both of them laughing the entire time. Vaughn was reserved with those he didn’t trust down to the bone, but with her, he could be as playful as any cat. It melted her each and every time he got like this.
Nuzzling him, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “You are so pretty.”
He nipped at her lower lip. “Watch it.” Still grinning, he said, “Maybe we can borrow Judd for an hour and he can telekinetically magic away the dust.”
She giggled, and it was a silly, girlish sound. A sound she’d never made as a girl or as a young woman, trained as she’d been to be Silent, without emotion, her every action monitored for signs of mental degradation. Even now, she only ever did it in Vaughn’s presence. “What if I wear a French maid’s outfit and use a feather duster?”
A gleam in the near-gold of his eyes. “All at once, I’m inspired.”
An hour later—and despite the fact that she didn’t have a French maid’s outfit handy—their living space was sparkling clean, and so were they. Wrapping a towel around her body after stepping from the beautiful waterfall shower that Vaughn had built by hand, she let down the hair she’d pinned up, and turned to watch him finish rinsing off the soap on that golden-skinned body rippling with the lithe muscle of a predator.
Never, she thought, would she get enough of her mate. His touch, his scent, the sound of his voice, his laughter, his teasing, the untamed jaguar at the heart of his nature, each and every part was forever intertwined into the fabric of her life.
Stepping out, he turned off the shower and crooked a finger. It didn’t take Faith even a second’s thought to obey the sensual command; grabbing another towel, she patted him dry, her lips moving over his spine as she indulged in her need to be close to her mate. “You made that up about the coffee, didn’t you?”
Taking the towel from her to hitch it around his hips, he turned and demanded a kiss that threatened to make her forget her own name, before saying, “No,” and tugging her to the living room. Datapad in hand, he sat down on the sofa with her curled up on his lap. “Read this page.”
Still suspicious, Faith began to scan the article…and felt her eyes widen. “What?! Who—I mean why would— No, it’s completely beyond my comprehension.” Exiting the article with a firm tap to her jaguar’s purring smile, she leaned her head back as he kissed her throat, one of her arms wrapped around his neck, the damp strands of his hair brushing her skin.
“So,” he said with another lazy kiss, “no go to that coffee as a birthday present?”
“You do that and I’ll give you the most ugly sculpture I can find, and make you keep it in your workspace.”
“You bargain tough, Red.” He ran his hand down her ribcage and to the dip of her waist, then slid lower to cup her hip with a raw possession she loved. “After all that manual labor, I’m starving.”
“We have a half hour until we have to leave to meet the others for dinner,” she said, deciding not to confess that she’d had him move a few pieces of furniture multiple times simply to watch the muscles flex in his arms and naked upper body. A woman, she thought with an inward smile, was permitted a sinful secret or two when it came to a man as rawly sexy as Vaughn. “Do you want a sandwich?”
“No.” A second later and she found herself trapped underneath a grinning jaguar who ripped off her towel and said, “I think I’ll just snack on you instead.” A growling bite at the curve of her neck, his teeth very, very careful not to hurt.
Instead of shying, Faith wrapped her arms around him. She was no longer the woman she’d been when they first met, a woman who believed herself weak and easily breakable. Now, she was the woman who loved and was loved by a jaguar…and who knew how to take bites of her own.
Vaughn jerked up his head when her teeth sank into his shoulder. Then he grinned, and tumbled her on top of him and she knew they were going to be very, very, very late for dinner.
© Copyright 2013 by Nalini Singh
For those of you unfamiliar with the Guild Hunter series, this story features Galen, Weaponsmaster to the Archangel Raphael, and Jessamy, Historian of the angelic race and teacher of their young.
For Guild Hunter fans, this story takes place during Archangel’s Kiss, after Galen has just completed a training session with Elena.
Jessamy followed Galen into the weapons salle after he dismissed Elena for the day. The hunter had walked away from the training ring with more than a few bruises, her wingtips dragging along the earth like one of Jessamy’s young charges—but not before she’d drawn some of Galen’s blood.
“Let me look at the wound,” Jessamy said, closing the door of the weapons salle behind her, her simple gown a whisper of delicate blue around her ankles. When she turned back to the huge space used for indoor training, it was to see Galen putting the training swords on a scarred wooden table, a cleaning cloth already in his hand and a scowl on his face.
“It’s nothing, a scratch.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The scowl didn’t disappear but her big, heavily muscled lover stood in place, wings folded neatly to his back, as she used a clean handkerchief to wipe away the blood and saw that he was right. The wound was already close to healed, a silent symbol of Galen’s strength. “You were very hard on Elena.” As an angel new-Made, Raphael’s consort would be wearing her bruises for far longer.
Galen returned to the swords, and to the cleaning process he always completed, no matter how tired he was after a session. She knew today hadn’t strained him at all, Elena a novice with long blades—not to mention her lack of experience fighting with the winged body that was now her own.
“She could get Raphael killed,” Galen said, running the cloth along the first blade.
It was an irrefutable truth. Elena was now Raphael’s greatest weakness, a living, breathing piece of his heart, but with none of the brutal strength at the archangel’s own command.
However, that was wasn’t the only truth. “She is good for him.” Jessamy welcomed the subtle changes in Raphael. Before Elena, she had watched him become harder, colder, more remote as the centuries passed—until she could barely see the young archangel who had once told her there would always be room at his Tower for her. “She makes him happy.”
Galen snorted, saying nothing, but she’d been with her barbarian lover for over four hundred years, wasn’t so easily put off. Ducking under his arm to force him to stop the cleaning process, she said, “Just like I make you happy,” his naked upper body warm against her. “And I’m not exactly the strongest person in the Refuge.”
“There is no comparison,” was Galen’s growling response, eyebrows drawn together over eyes of a stunning pale green she found ever more beautiful as the years passed. “You are Teacher and Historian, an integral and irreplaceable part of our people. She is a mortal with wings—what does she contribute?”
Jessamy poked him in the hard ridges of his abdomen. To hear him speak, you’d think he had no heart, when she knew her Galen had the biggest heart in the world—and the most loyal. “You,” she said when he winced, “were once a babe who wobbled when he flew—”
“No,” he interrupted with a thoughtful frown, “I do not think so. According to the weaponsmaster with whom I trained, I came out of the womb with a knife in one hand and a crossbow in the other.”
Lips twitching, Jessamy ran her fingers over the silken inner surface of his right wing, the caress one she knew he’d allow no other. “You must give her a chance to grow, to become who she is meant to be. You know Raphael would not take a weak woman as his consort.”
“Simply because she was a skilled hunter does not make her ready for life at an archangel’s side.”
Galen did not lightly use the word “skilled”. Realization dawning in her veins, Jessamy leaned back against his arm so she could look into his face. “You think she has real potential. That’s why you’re being so tough on her.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “In fact, I think you might even like her a little.”
Another scowl, strong hands on her waist as he set her bodily aside to pick up the sword he hadn’t finished cleaning. “She shot Raphael.”
“I once threw an inkwell at your head.”
Sword cleaned, he slid it away in its bracket on the wall, then did the same with the other weapons on the table. “You missed.”
“So if I had hit you, you would still be carrying a grudge?” she asked, watching his body flex and move as he put the weapons in place.
“Do you believe I am not?”
Laughing, she cupped his face to draw him down into a sweet kiss that rapidly turned wild and hot as Galen took control, his big hands pressing her against his aroused body, his mouth demanding she open her own.
“If that is how you carry a grudge against me,” she said, chest heaving when he finally set her free, “I will have to remind you of the inkwell incident more often.”
His smile was quiet, the glint in his eye very Galen. “Let’s go dancing.”
She knew exactly what he was talking about, and it had nothing to do with the kind of dancing one did on the earth. “I have less than an hour,” she murmured, rising on tiptoe to kiss the hard line of his jaw.
“I can be quick.” He dragged her out of the weapons salle by the hand. “I’ll take care of you tonight. Really, really slowly.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck as, one muscular arm tight around her waist, he rose into the air with a single beat of his powerful wings. “You are a terrible man,” she said, kissing the temptation of his throat as soon as they were high enough up to be private. “You know what it does to me when you say things like that.” Earthy and raw, he had the ability to curl her toes and make her feel a sensual temptress both.
Galen’s responding laugh was wicked, the dive he plunged them into breathtaking. Screaming with the wild pleasure of it, Jessamy tumbled with him into the gorge that cut through the Refuge, rose back up. They passed a flash of distinctive blue on the updraft that had to be Illium…and then they were falling in another steep dive, Galen peeling off into a small fissure that was a fracture emanating from the main gorge, before winging his way to the sky once more, the Refuge lost in the distance.
Her hair whipping across her face and her skirts tangled around her legs as he flew with a power and a confidence that had her holding on with only one arm, certain of her safety, Jessamy ran the knuckles of her free hand down his abdomen. “Where will we dance?” Privacy wasn’t hard to find in these mountains, the behemoths that surrounded the Refuge often shrouded in curtains of thick mist. Below, there was nothing, no sign of civilization, no villages, the mountainous land having belonged to angelkind for an eon.
“Right here,” he said, and they dropped without warning into a massive gorge so dark and deep that no light penetrated in the place where they danced.
Each touch was magnified in the darkness, each whisper a rough caress. Galen was as fast as he’d promised—but he took very good care of her. He always did, her lover who knew her body as well as any weapon in his arsenal. As she knew his.
“Admit it,” she said afterward as they lay in the dark at the very bottom of the gorge, the softest sand beneath their bodies and the nearby sound of water over rocks a quiet music.
One arm wrapped around her as she lay half-on, half-off his body, her left wing brushing his chest , Galen said, “What?”
When he began to caress her wing, she just snuggled in deeper into him. Once, at the dawn of their courtship, she’d been shy of such a touch when it came to her twisted wing, but it was impossible to be shy about anything with Galen; he made no bones about loving her exactly as she was. After four centuries, centuries that had passed in a heartbeat, she knew she could come to him broken in every way, and be certain of his love. Though he would no doubt also yell at her for getting herself hurt.
“That you see potential in Elena,” she said with a smile. It was his protectiveness that had sent that inkwell sailing at his head. Not that the lesson had had any effect.
“She didn’t crumble today. She’s not pathetic,” was the harsh response. “I may be able to beat her into shape as a passable fighter.”
Coming from Galen, that was high praise indeed. “I should warn you, I think Elena and I are going to become friends.”
“Don’t ask me to go easy on her.”
“I won’t.” She understood what so many didn’t, what Elena herself might not yet understand—that Raphael’s consort needed to realize her potential as quickly as she could to survive in the immortal world into which she’d been thrust. “I know you can give her tools that’ll help her live long enough to become who she’s meant to be.”
Sitting up after another caress, and taking her with him, Galen said, “Let me get you back to the aerie so you can change before your class.”
As they landed on the stone pavings in front of their clifftop home, the edges overflowing with flower pots rife with color and scent, he said, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten you missed your defensive training class yesterday. We’ll be doing it tonight.”
Kissing him until his hands slid down to squeeze her lower curves, she murmured, “Let’s skip the lesson tonight.” He was as tough on her as he was on any one of his students; the only difference being that their lessons were always held in private—and she could sometimes distract the weaponsmaster in ways unavailable to others.
“Jess,” he murmured, eyes gleaming, “we’ve been training together for many years. When was the last time you talked me out of a lesson?”
“A decade ago,” she said immediately, “after I met you at the door wearing nothing but one of your feathers on a tie around my neck.”
His body responded to the reminder, but his eyes narrowed. “Don’t even think about it. I want you to keep your skills fresh—the world has always been a dangerous place, but it’s becoming even more so.”
Jessamy, too, had felt the gathering shift. It had been heralded by an angel with a mortal heart and where it would go, no one knew. The only thing of which Jessamy was certain was that whatever the future held, she’d walk into it with her weaponsmaster by her side—and, since he’d made sure she was an expert in it—a crossbow in her hand.
Timeline: A shorter version of this story was originally a scene in “Texture of Intimacy” and features SnowDancer healer Lara and her Psy mate Walker.
Lara rose to an empty space in the bed beside her and the smell of something delicious wafting in the air. “Mmm.” Pulling on a pair of loose yoga pants and a T-shirt, she sighed at her crazy morning curls and decided since Walker had already seen the wild mess more than once, she might as well just run with it.
Walking out, she found she was the last one up, the children digging into pancakes. Her mate was at the stove, wearing only those sexy pajama bottoms she liked to tease him about, tied with a string tie low on his hips. The lean muscles of his body made her mouth water—especially when her own body twinged in happy memory of the way he’d played with her this morning.
She tousled Toby’s hair and smiled at Marlee, then wrapped her arms around Walker from behind. “You should be wearing an apron—what if you get a burn on your chest, hmm?”
Twisting to look over his shoulder, her mate smiled slow and gorgeous. “Then I’ll get my personal healer to kiss and make it better. ”
Lara rose on tiptoe, stole a kiss before letting him concentrate on the pancakes. Pouring coffee from the fresh pot, she sat down at the table, talking about nothing in particular with the children, her wolf utterly content.
Chocolate sauce around her mouth, Marlee ate the last bite on her plate. “Can I have another pancake please?”
“On its way,” Walker said with a gentleness she’d only heard him use with the youngest in the pack.
“Toby, you, too?”
“Can I have five more?”
Lara’s lips twitched. Poor Toby. He’d hit the “hollow leg” phase of growth, was showing distinct signs of having inherited his height from the maternal side of his family—meaning he’d hit six feet plus like Walker and Judd. Right now though, he was all bones and tangled limbs. And stomach.
Marlee scrambled off her chair at her father’s call, taking her plate to the counter to receive the fresh pancake. “Thanks, Daddy.”
It was crystal clear to Lara that whatever hurts Marlee had survived in the Net, whatever scars she bore, about one thing she was dead certain—her father’s love for her. Toby was the same. Regardless of the fact that Lara had never heard Walker use so much as a pet name, much less an endearment for either child.
Lara understood exactly how they felt—Walker’s love was a steady, enduring flame, surrounding them all. No matter the storm, that flame would never flicker. “Want me to help syrup it up for you?” she asked Marlee, after the girl had made her selection from the toppings available.
“Yes, please.” A cheeky smile that told Lara the boys would have their hands full when Marlee grew up.
She squeezed maple syrup over the pancakes while Marlee helped herself to some of the strawberries Lara had cut up, and Toby’s stomach growled. Laughing, Lara reached over and tapped his nose. “Did you eat the fruit I left out for you last night?”
“Yes. And the box of crackers.” He jumped up the instant Walker moved to lift out the first large pancake, had half of it in his mouth before the chocolate sauce hit it.
Licking up a bit of maple syrup that had gotten onto her finger, Lara glanced at Marlee. “We should invite Ben if he’s up.”
Marlee’s face turned mutinous. “No.”
Blinking, Lara glanced at Walker, raised an eyebrow. He shook his head, his gaze intent. Next, she looked at Toby—who stopped inhaling his food long enough to say, “They had a fight.”
Toby shrugged. “Sorry Marlee-Barley, it’s not like it’s a secret you and Ben aren’t speaking to each other.”
Still glaring at her cousin, Marlee took a bite of her pancake. And refused to say another word on the topic to anyone, no matter how gently Lara asked. Deciding to let it go for now, since Marlee clearly felt antagonized, she glanced at Walker as he put more pancakes on Toby’s plate, sent him a message with her eyes, received a slight nod in return. They’d wait until Marlee was ready to talk.
A few minutes later, her mate put two pancakes on her plate. “Banana and walnut, as ordered.”
Blowing him a kiss, she doused the pancakes in syrup, added some strawberries, and stood to top up everyone’s drinks as Walker sat down with his toast. She tempted him into trying a bite of her pancake, but he wasn’t impressed.
“It tastes like chocolate syrup.”
“Your palate is obviously unrefined.”
Marlee giggled, Toby grinned, and it was a wonderful weekend morning with her family.
© Copyright 2013 by Nalini Singh
Seated at the breakfast counter, Mercy chopped a carrot, eating half in the process. “I never knew I liked carrots so much.”
Riley grinned from where he stood on the opposite side of the counter, and passed her another. “So, the pupcubs like their vegetables.”
Laughing at the word he insisted on using for their unborn children, she began to chop again, while Riley sliced the sweet green peppers she loved. “I have a belly now, did you notice?” she asked the wolf who was her mate.
“I examine you very carefully every day, kitty cat”—gleaming eyes of chocolate brown—“and the belly hasn’t yet appeared.”
Mercy scowled and got up, walking around to his side of the counter. Lifting up her T-shirt, she patted the slight curve of her abdomen. “See?”
Kneeling down, Riley closed his hands over her hips and pressed a kiss to her stomach. “Your mama’s seeing things, but I love her anyway.”
She pulled playfully at his hair, tugging him to her when he rose. “Smartass.” Nipping at his lower lip, she pushed him back to the counter. “I want my soup.”
“Demanding cat.” Tapping her lightly on the butt, he continued to chop and slice as she stood beside him. “Why don’t you take off your clothes so I can judge this non-existent belly of yours?”
Stealing a stick of celery, she munched. “Let’s see how good your soup is first.” She shifted to wrap her arms around him from behind, leaning her chin on his shoulder. Solid and strong and gorgeous, that was her Riley.
A kiss to the side of his neck. “I love you.”
Turning, he smiled that slow Riley smile that was just for her. “I—” He paused and looked to the door, the smile for her changing into one full of affection. “We’re about to have visitors.”
Mercy didn’t change her position. “Go away!” she called out when heavy steps sounded on the verandah.
“Aw, sis,” Sage said, shouldering his way through the door, “don’t be like that. We bought dessert.” He held up a box from a gourmet bakery in town. “Upside down pineapple cake.”
Mercy’s stomach growled. “Okay, you can come in.” The demons knew all her weaknesses. “Boots off, all three of you.”
Bastien and Sage groaned, bent down, but Grey winked and walked in. “I already took them off.”
“That’s why you’re my favorite brother.”
“Hey!” Two disgruntled male voices.
Riley’s chest rumbled as he chuckled. “Grey, you’re on potato peeling duty. We weren’t cooking for six extra people.”
“Ha ha.” Bastien walked over. “I’ll make a potato bake. You have bacon?” He was already opening the cooler. “Cheese, onions…milk.” The ingredients gathered, he made a space for himself beside Grey. “Thin slices, Shadow,” he said, using their baby brother’s nickname. “Yo, Herb, grate the cheese.”
Sage gave Bastien the finger for using that hated nickname, but got to work. Looking over at Mercy, her middle brother jerked up his chin. “Why do you get off kitchen duty?”
“Because I can trade it for sexual favors.”
“La-la-la-la,” Grey sang. “I do not hear anything. My sister does not have sex. Ever. She doesn’t even know what it is.”
Rolling her eyes, Mercy kissed a grinning Riley’s neck again, then walked around to retake her seat on the counter stool, beside where Sage stood. “So,” she said to Bas, “you’re dating someone new.”
Bastien pointed a knife at her. “No, just no. You do not go near her.”
Glancing at Sage, Mercy waited. He grinned and took his revenge on Bas. “She’s a kindergarten teacher, drawl like molasses, smart as heck.”
“Hmm, sounds like I need to meet her.”
Bastien gave her the death glare. “I swear to God, Mercy, if you scare her away, I will teach your pupcubs the worst tricks I know.”
Mercy just smiled. She had no intention of scaring Bastien’s girl away—if the other woman turned out to be legit. Her brothers might be demons, but they were wonderful demons who deserved to be loved. “Riley, darling, put some chillies in the soup. I want it hot.”
Her mate shot her a narrow-eyed look. “Stop baiting, Bas, kitty-cat.” A slow smile. “You know he’s sensitive about his kitten-defurring tools.”
Mercy, Sage, and Grey hooted with laughter at the reference to the trick Mercy had played on Bastien’s last would-be-girlfriend, while Bas gritted his teeth and chopped onions with the speed of a professional chef. “Why?” he asked. “Why did I have to be stuck with such loving family members?”
Having pity on him, Mercy walked around to hug him from the side and press a kiss to his unshaven cheek, the bristles rough against her lips. “I promise to be nice.”
Bastien wrapped an arm around her waist and snorted. “She can handle you, so do your worst, Carrot Top.”
Mercy elbowed him to get away, reaching up to pull at his own dark red hair. However, she was intrigued and encouraged by the fact he thought his girl was tough enough to handle her—the fact was, anyone who couldn’t handle Mercy couldn’t handle Bastien. Her brother might not be a lieutenant, but he had a steel core. They called him a shark in the financial world; he was the reason DarkRiver had such a good investment portfolio.
Stealing a piece of cheese, she walked over to ruffle Grey’s hair. “What’s up with you, baby brother?”
Grey, who despite his wicked eyes was the sweetest of her brothers, smiled and pecked her on the cheek. “Studying, training, chasing girls when I get the time—which isn’t often. Emmett’s busting my ass.”
She knew Emmett was pushing Grey, and she knew why. Her gorgeous little brother was a very strong dominant with aggressive tendencies that made him perfect soldier material. Only the thing was, most people didn’t realize it, he was such a sweetheart—and because his strength had developed later on in his teens than it did in most changelings. But it had become crystal clear to every one of the senior people in the pack that Grey was built to protect, built to be one of the cornerstones of the pack.
Not only that, he had the right personality and temperament to be in the highest level of the pack’s hierarchy. “Don’t worry, Shadow,” she said. “You can handle Emmett.”
Her eyes met Riley’s as she walked over to let him wrap her in his arms, the soup she’d asked him to make for her bubbling on the stove while her brothers stuck the bake in the oven and argued over whether or not to make the entire box of chicken schnitzel they’d discovered in the freezer.
Leaning up, she whispered, “See, I was worried about having multiples, but then I realized I’ve been riding herd on three hooligans most of my life.”
The hooligans protested as Riley grinned and drew her in for a kiss. When he released her, her heart was threatening to thud out of her ribcage, her claws pricking at the warm wall of his chest as her leopard rubbed against the insides of her skin. Had they been alone, she’d have dragged him to bed and spent an hour kissing and nibbling her way across his muscled body.
Eyes telling her he was reading her mind, Riley ran a finger down her nose and to her lips. She nipped at it, made his smile deepen.
“Tut, tut, that’s what got you into this situation in the first place,” Sage said in a sonorous tone. “Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”
Turning to lean her back against her mate’s wide chest, Mercy smiled at her brother, in charity with the world. Riley’s touch had a way of doing that to her. “So, what’s the betting pool saying today?” Everyone was trying to figure out (1) how many babies she was carrying and (2) whether the babies would shift into leopard or wolf form.
“What betting pool?” Total innocence from Bastien, the ring leader and treasurer of said betting pool.
Knowing that look, Mercy knew she’d get nothing. Bas could be a Sphinx when he wanted to be. “Come for a walk,” she said to Riley instead. “The demons will finish making dinner.” Pointing at Bas, she said, “Don’t ruin the soup.”
As Riley walked outside with her, their fingers tangled, she drew in a deep breath of the crisp air. Forgoing shoes, they strolled lazily to a spot that overlooked a meadow bursting with wildflowers, and stood with their arms around one another, watching the sun set.
It was a beautiful, romantic moment, but for Mercy, the greatest romance was in the way Riley unconsciously angled his body to protect her from a light wind. That was her wolf, protective to the core. They’d butted heads about it, would undoubtedly do so again in the future, but she knew some things were instinct. Asking him not to take care of her in such a way would be akin to asking him to change the very core of his being.
And she wanted to change nothing about Riley. “You’re going to be an amazing father, you know that?”
A startled look, pleasure in eyes gone wolf. “I think we should spike the betting pool so we take it.”
Mercy’s leopard prowled forward in interest. “How?”
When he told her his plan, she threw back her head and laughed in delight. And when he nibbled on her ear, curling her toes, she hauled him in for a kiss as hot as her blood. The last rays of the setting sun hit the wild amber of his eyes as their lips parted, the beauty in them haunting.
Fascinated, her leopard rose to the surface of her own mind.
He growled playfully at her, said, “Run.”
Backing away, she gave him a teasing little wave… then she ran, joy in her every step. Riley might be protective, but he hadn’t forgotten who he’d mated, hadn’t forgotten that she was a sentinel with fire in her heart and the hunt in her soul. God, but she loved her amber-eyed wolf.
Forty-five minutes later, the three demons who were her brothers—suddenly pious as monks—took great pleasure in pointing out that she had twigs and leaves in her hair, while Riley’s clothing bore grass stains.
Sunday—you and me. No cell phones, no messages, no world-altering events. If anyone needs either one of us, they can damn well come to the apartment. At which point, we’ll have trouble hearing them. Better yet, I’ll cut the power to the doorbell. —Note from Max to Sophie
Dear husband: A cunning plan, but alas I am a telepath. —Note from Sophie to Max
No alas about it. You’re perfect. And you’re all mine this Sunday. —Note from Max to Sophie
Sophia sat in the living room window seat of her and Max’s apartment on the Embarcadero, her fingers in Morpheus’s fur where the big black cat curled up in her lap, and her eyes on the street below. “There he is, Morpheus.” Her heart ached in a joy pure and wild as she glimpsed her lover and husband jogging across the street.
As if sensing her scrutiny, he looked up and grinned, before disappearing from sight.
Dropping a loudly complaining Morpheus to the floor, she laughed and knelt down to scratch the temperamental cat under his chin, the tails of the large white shirt she wore brushing the backs of her thighs. “I’ll pet you some more later.” When she rose, Morpheus padded after her, standing sentinel with her in the doorway until Max appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Hello, beautiful,” he said, the slanted near-black of his eyes warm with a look she’d learned was for her alone.
Even though she’d only seen him fifteen minutes earlier, when he’d run downstairs and across to the pier to pick up the baked goods she’d mentioned yesterday, she felt her heart kick. Max’s smile…there was nothing in the world like it. “Hello, handsome.”
The lean dimple in his left cheek a playful temptation, he stroked his hand to close over her nape, touched his mouth to her own. Teasing, coaxing, loving. They could be free here, the corridor stripped of surveillance, the two other couples who shared their floor both human. Neither would see anything wrong in a husband kissing his wife on the doorstep while their cat wove between their legs.
Releasing her after a soft suckle of her lower lip, Max nudged her back into the apartment, Morpheus bounding off to jump onto the window seat and curl up in the sun, his head turned pointedly away. “I think he was expecting tuna,” Sophia said in a soft tone, familiar with their pet’s moods.
“Now he’ll sulk all day.” Kicking the door shut, Max took the bakery box to the table. “Come sit in my lap, Miss Sophie.” He sprawled in a chair, patted one muscled thigh.
Never in her life before Max had Sophia imagined she’d one day sit in a man’s lap dressed in nothing but one of his shirts, her hair wild around her shoulders from the way he’d loved her this morning, and her skin intimately abraded from his unshaven jaw. “What did you get?” she asked, pressing her lips to that jaw.
There was nothing in the world she loved so much as touching Max.
Leaning back, one arm wrapped around her, he groaned when she found the spot on his throat that always made him shudder. “There you go, rushing me again.” It was a husky complaint, his hand fisting in her hair to tug up her head. “Even after I made the supreme sacrifice of getting out of bed on a Sunday morning”—his free hand stroking her thigh—“to get breakfast for my wife.”
Sophie loved how possessive he was, the directness with which he made it clear what he felt for her. Never had Max played those games with her, the ones that confused and made her feel lost. No, the only games Max and Sophia played were ones that delighted them both. “I’ll behave,” she said, then immediately stole another kiss.
“You’re a terrible influence,” Max murmured some time later, having undone half the buttons on the shirt, his hand splayed on her ribs, his shoulders living silk under her touch because she’d managed to tug off his tee. “But I can hear your stomach growling, and I don’t like my Sophie going hungry.”
Buttoning the shirt with that firm statement, he opened the box to expose a delightful array of pastries. “I went to a new place; got you the croissants you wanted, plus a couple of other things.” One big, warm hand dropping back to her thigh. “I figure you should try a bite of each. Best way to work out your favorites for next time.”
“I know my favorite,” Sophia said, feeling mischievous as she only ever did with Max, her beautiful cop.
He looked up. “What?”
“This.” Sliding her fingers into the silky black of his hair, she surprised him by claiming his mouth again. Once, touch had meant pain, meant violation. With Max, it equaled only pleasure, that pleasure far beyond the physical. The way he shared his soul with her, no secrets between them, the way he treated her as his partner, the way he saw beauty and strength in the fine tracery of scars that marked her face…it made her his. Utterly and absolutely.
“God, you are so in trouble.” His breath uneven, Max slid the hand on her leg to between her thighs, callused fingers spreading against skin so sensitive, the mere brush of his jaw over it earlier that morning had made her tremble.
She shivered now, angled her neck to give him better access as he kissed her, but she should’ve known her husband wouldn’t be so easily dissuaded from his goal. A quick bite, a sensual stroke of his tongue, and he was drawing back, though his chest rose and fell in a rhythm that told her he was violently aroused, his body rock hard. “Eat first.” Narrowed eyes, tone resolute. “I don’t like you skipping meals.”
Max was the only person in the whole world who had ever looked after her, and Sophia had no shields against him when he got like this. Melting in his arms, she reached for a pastry. It was a fruit tart of some kind, with what looked like a sugared coating. Tasting it as he took a sip of the coffee she’d put out on the table in anticipation of his return, she made a face. “Too sweet.”
Max shook his head when she offered it to him, biting into a bagel instead. “I tried that one when River showed me the place.”
A wave of affection in her blood as she took a nibble of his bagel. “How is it your brother knows so much about the city after only being in it a short time?” River Shannon was the third member of their tiny but strong family unit, Max and his younger sibling unflinchingly loyal to one another even after years of separation. As for Sophia, she and River had liked each other from the start, united in their love for Max.
It wasn’t always easy—the scars of River’s past meant there were setbacks, moments of grief and anger, pain and fury, but this time, River was with them, not out alone in the world. No matter how rough the road, the three of them were navigating it together, and each time they cleared another bit of jagged rubble, River’s smile became deeper, brighter.
“He’s made friends with the Rats,” Max told her now, choosing another pastry from the box after she took a sip of his coffee. “Teijan and his people know everything that goes on in San Francisco.”
A perfect fit for smart, resourceful River. “Didn’t I hear him say he was going to come by today?” she teased Max, recalling how River had yelled out the grinning threat as he left the apartment on Saturday morning, having spent Friday night in the spare bedroom Max and Sophia had set aside specifically for him—and where he ended up several nights a week, regardless of the fact he had his own place.
Max lifted a small pie to her lips, his tone dark as he spoke. “I love my brother, but I’ve warned him that if he dares interrupt us today, I’ll wait until he’s asleep one night then shave off all that blond hair the girls love.”
Laughing, she took a bite of the pie, felt her eyes widen. “Apples. And…cinnamon…other spices.”
Enjoying the burst of flavor against her tongue, rich without being too sharp, she fed him a bite. “Let’s get this again.”
Morpheus, tail in the air, deigned to come over and hop onto the opposite chair. Where he then proceeded to ignore them, intent on licking his paw. Sophia turned to Max. “Can I give him—”
“No.” A scowl. “That cat scams you at least three times a week. He’s not the least bit hungry, just greedy.”
“But we’re getting treats,” Sophia argued. “He should get a treat too.”
“He had fresh fish yesterday, remember?” Max fed her a bite of deliciously buttery croissant when she parted her lips to speak. “He won’t thank you if he becomes too tubby to sneak around doing whatever it is ex-alley cats do while the rest of us sleep.”
Chewing and swallowing the bite, Sophia had to concede that point. “You’re right, he does love sneaking about—and I still don’t understand how he gets to the ground floor from here.” They’d moved into the fourth floor water-view apartment just before their small, private wedding in this very room; Morpheus had figured out an escape route the first night.
“If he told us, Morpheus would have to kill us. Code of cats.” Feeding her the rest of the croissant piece by piece, Max buried his nose in the curve of her neck, chest rising as he drew in her scent.
Heart a beautiful tightness, and his own scent—soap, warmth, Max—in her lungs, she went to get the carafe on the counter, but her husband continued to hold her close.
Meeting the bitter chocolate of his gaze, she wasn’t expecting the intensity of his expression, his fingers clenching on her thigh. “What is it?” She touched his cheekbone, unable to keep her distance when her Max was near.
“I’m looking at my wife—and trying to convince myself I’m not dreaming. My sweet, sexy Sophie.”
Painful as her past had been, Sophia wouldn’t change a single second of it. Because the journey had led to this instant, to this man. “I love being yours…and having you be mine.”
His lips curved, his hand sliding to her throat to draw her down to his mouth…just as a telepathic message pinged in her mind. “Someone’s trying to contact me,” she whispered, as if the other party was in the room.
Max brushed her ear with his lips, his thumb stroking over the skin of her inner thigh. “I hear there’s been an inexplicable epidemic of telepathic interference in this area recently.”
Shoulders shaking and eyes tearing up, she spoke through her bubbling laughter. “Must have something to do with the changes in the PsyNet.” Deliberately fading out the telepathic connection before it could take hold, she did the same thing two more times before the person on the other end gave up. “Is this what’s called playing hooky?”
“It’s called having a damn day off,” her husband muttered. “It’s also called having a lazy Sunday in bed. The last part is important.” Rising, Sophia going with him, he swept her up in his arms. “Very important.”
Morpheus took the opportunity to hop onto the table and poke his nose into the box that held the remnants of the pastries. Where he sneezed and jerked back, his bi-colored eyes hot with insult.
Sophia bit back her grin, certain Morpheus would not be amused. “I guess he doesn’t like the tart, either.”
The deep, warm sound of Max’s laughter wrapped around her as he tumbled her into bed, where they lost themselves in one another, touching and talking and playing and being lazy.
No matter what happened in the days to come, she thought as she watched Max sleep that night, so long as he was by her side, she’d stand strong against any challenge, any change. The Net might be on a dangerous precipice, the world holding its breath, but Sophia remained firmly anchored by a connection that she could feel in every pulse of her heart, a connection that tasted of Max and of a love fierce and beautiful.
Settling her head against his shoulder, his arm a protective weight around her, she closed her eyes…and smiled as she felt Morpheus prowl into the room to jump onto the bed and curl up against her back.
Naya’s Most Important Visitors
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t yet read Kiss of Snow, you might want to save this short story to read later.
This is part of my series of shorts focusing on the everyday lives of the characters, away from politics and danger. Set soon after Naya’s birth, this short story features…well, I’ll let you read it for yourself! I hope you enjoy.
“Naya’s most important visitors are about to arrive.”
Sascha smiled at that pronouncement from the panther in human form lounging in the bedroom doorway, his black hair tousled from the way she’d run her hands through it earlier. “I wondered how long they’d last.” Julian and Roman had been talking to the baby in her womb for months, telling her all the things they were planning to teach and show her.
“I’m surprised it’s three days later,” Lucas said, his skin bronzed from the sun against the deep green of his favorite T-shirt. “I expected them here in twenty-four hours or less.”
“Tammy probably didn’t tell them.” Sascha folded away a soft one-piece in sky-blue that had been a gift from one of the elders in the pack. “I think she was worried I was getting overwhelmed.”
“Are you?” Lucas came over to massage her nape. “We’ve had a lot of visitors since the birth.”
“No.” She turned into his body, drawing the quintessentially male scent of him into her lungs. Always she’d loved him for the man he was. Now, she loved him for the father he had become, a predatory changeling alpha who made no bones about adoring his child. “It’s wonderful to have everyone so excited about the baby.” To live in a pack that showed affection with wild openness.
Lucas nuzzled a kiss against her ear and allowed her to turn to face the crib—located in the bedroom because neither one of them could bear to be parted from Naya.
Reaching into it, she gently touched their sleeping baby’s cheek with a careful fingertip. “I still can’t believe she’s ours.”
Chin propped on her shoulder and arms around her, Lucas said, “What are you talking about? She belongs to Rome and Jules. They were very clear on that.”
Sascha was still laughing at that affectionately feline comment when the twins tiptoed into the house, whispering, “Sascha darling,” as they came in, instead of yelling it like they usually did, cheeky grins on their faces.
Mystified, she crouched down to their level. “Why are you whispering?” she whispered.
They bent identical heads toward her, all hair of dark brown and eyes of midnight blue. “Because,” Julian replied, “Mommy said we had to be quiet because the cub was very small.”
“Really, really small,” Roman put in, forgetting to whisper until the last word.
Heart filled with love for these two babies who weren’t her own but who belonged to her as Naya belonged to the rest of the pack, she cuddled them close. “Want to meet her?”
Tamsyn appeared in the doorway a second later, Nate beside her. “Sorry about that,” she said with a smile as warm as the twins was infectious. “They escaped soon as we got within sight of the cabin.”
“They were quiet,” Sascha told Tamsyn solemnly.
The twins beamed, neat little angels in their checked shirts—red for Roman and yellow for Julian—paired with jeans.
Sascha wanted to pick them up, but her body wasn’t quite ready. Rising, she held out her hands and the boys took one each. Once in the bedroom, she had them sit on the bed. Then, reaching inside the crib, she lifted Naya and came to sit between the two, conscious of Lucas returning to the bedroom after greeting Tammy and Nate. “This is Naya.”
“She is small,” Roman pronounced after staring carefully at the baby. “Does she have a long name, too, like me and Jules? Like I’m Roman.”
“Her long name is Nadiya.” She smiled as Julian touched the baby’s fisted hand with a little finger of his own.
Roman petted her silky cheek.
Naya yawned in her sleep.
Giggling, Roman said, “She smells all soft.”
“Is that going to be her real smell?” Jules didn’t sound too enthused about the baby scent that made every maternal instinct in Sascha’s body sigh in wonder.
She glanced at Lucas for help. Her panther came over to grab a laughing Roman in a growling hug before setting him down on the bed again. “No, that’s her scent for now. She’ll develop a deeper scent as she grows.”
“Oh, good.” Jules sighed. “’Cause she really smells like a girl right now.”
Sascha’s shoulders shook at the mournful statement. Tightening her stomach to hold in the laugh, she said, “She is a girl, you know. Will you still play with her?”
“Yes. She’s our baby,” Roman said, eyebrows drawn together and arms folded.
Julian’s nod was just as serious. “We even made her a present.”
They scrambled off the bed together. Rising, Sascha walked into the living/kitchen area with Lucas to find Tamsyn preparing coffee, the healer as at home here as Sascha was at Tamsyn’s house. A tin sat on the counter, likely something delicious Tamsyn had baked that morning.
“Dad.” Julian tugged on his father’s hand where Nate leaned against the wall nearest the kitchen area. “We want to give Naya her present.”
Nate reached into the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and brought out a gaily wrapped package.
Taking it, Julian grabbed his brother’s hand and they ran over. “This is for Naya.”
Lucas accepted it on the baby’s behalf. “Thank you. Shall we open it?”
Two identical nods.
The package was closed up with so much tape and sparkly paper that Lucas had to slice out his claws to cut it open. “Ready?” he said to everyone.
“Yes!” Eyes bright, the boys were all but hopping up and down.
Lucas upended the open package and into his palm dropped a surprisingly pretty necklace made of multihued beads.
“That’s beautiful,” Sascha said, knowing she’d keep the gift safe until Naya was old enough to appreciate it.
“They chose all the beads themselves,” Tamsyn told her with open pride.
“Dad helped us put them together.” Julian went over to lean against his father’s leg.
Reaching down, Nate ruffled his hair. “Tell Sascha and Lucas what the beads mean.” The senior sentinel glanced at them. “They came up with that on their own, too.”
Sascha settled down into a large cozy armchair with Naya, the twins snuggling in on either side of her. Then Roman took the beads. “This is for Sascha darling,” he said, pointing to the black and white beads at the center.
“For your eyes,” Julian elaborated, then pointed to a green bead next to the black. “And this is for Lucas.”
“But the black one is kind of for him too, since he’s a panther,” Roman said, while Sascha listened, astonished. “So you have to share that one.”
“What about the brown ones streaked with gold?” They bracketed the green, white, and black.
“That’s us!” the twins said in unison. “Didn’t you know?”
“Well that makes sense,” Lucas said, having come around to lean on the back of the armchair. “Since Naya’s your baby.”
Roman gave a satisfied nod. “And this one is Mommy and this one is Daddy.” Both beads were a gorgeous cerulean blue. “Because Mom makes everyone happy and Dad likes it when Mom is happy, and it’s like when the sky is sunny and bright.”
Sascha’s eyes burned. Sensing it, Lucas ran the knuckles of one hand over her cheek and said, “Have you got everyone from the pack on there?”
That caused Julian to slap his forehead. “No! There are too many people!”
“It would be this long.” Roman threw his arms wide apart. “We’ll make her one for her birthday next year with more people.” Then they named the other packmates represented on this first necklace.
By the time they were done, Sascha was utterly undone. Kissing them each on the cheek, she said, “You’re wonderful. Naya is so lucky she’s your baby.”
Suddenly shy, they ducked their heads against her.
“Here.” Tamsyn held out her arms. “Let me cuddle Naya for a second. I think my monsters want a hug from you.”
Sascha passed Naya to the caring arms of the woman who’d helped her and Lucas’s precious baby be born. Her lap was immediately filled with little boy. Smiling, she cuddled them close. The moment lasted half a minute before they scrambled off to run outside to play in the trees. When they ran back in five minutes later, while the adults were having coffee, Naya cradled in the crook of Lucas’s arm, both were in leopard cub form.
“Boys.” Nate’s tone made them freeze, Roman with one paw raised off the wooden floor, Julian with his tail arched. “Did you take off your clothes before you shifted?”
Identical guilty looks, their eyes a stunning green-gold in this form.
Groaning, Tamsyn said, “There go two pairs of brand new jeans.” She scowled but it held no heat. “I ought to dress you both in potato sacks.”
Apparently realizing they weren’t in too much trouble today, the cubs ran over to jump up on the sofa and nuzzle their mom in apology. Tamsyn kissed their furry faces, while Nate shook his head, amused affection in his eyes. “You’ll have to go through this, too,” he said to Lucas and Sascha. “They’re so good about learning other things, but the clothes keep catching them out.”
Sascha grinned at Lucas. “I can’t wait to see Naya shift.” It wouldn’t happen until she was around one year of age.
“Me too.” Lucas’s grin was as deep as her own. “I have a feeling she’ll be a panther, too.”
Having had a play-fight with their father in the interim, the twins ran over to jump up on the arms of the chair where Lucas sat. Perching carefully, they sniffed at Naya, patted her with their paws—claws carefully sheathed—then jumped back down to curl up beside their parents.
Where Julian shifted in wild sparks of color, his face a scowl. “She’s still sleeping!”
“I’m afraid she’ll sleep a lot for a while,” Sascha told him, the love she felt for these two boys who’d shown her joy before she’d ever imagined she might have a right to it, an ache in her heart. “You’ll have to be patient.”
Cuddled up against Tamsyn, Julian looked at his brother. Roman made a small growling sound. Julian growled back, then turned to Sascha, conversation apparently completed. But before he could tell her what had been decided, Naya opened her mouth on what sounded like a tiny, tiny baby growl.
Instantly on alert, Rome ran over to jump on the chair arm while Julian shifted before joining his brother. Where two pairs of green-gold leopard eyes looked into one pair of bright green, the moment frozen in time. Then Julian patted at Naya’s fisted hand with a careful paw. The baby reached out, clutched at him.
Julian huffed in laughter as Roman nuzzled the baby’s face. Naya sneezed, making Julian laugh so hard he fell off the chair arm, while his brother jerked back…then touched her with his paw. This time, the baby got a bit of his fur in her tiny grip. He could’ve easily pulled away, but he didn’t, curling up against Lucas instead.
Scrambling up to his former position, Julian licked at the baby’s other hand. Instead of being frightened, Naya’s lips curved in a baby smile. Linked as she was to their child on the mental plane, Sascha could feel her contentment, her sense of safety. Naya knew she was with Pack.
Tamsyn shook her head. “Watch out,” she warned. “Your Naya is going to be led off the straight and narrow as soon as she can crawl.”
Nate took his mate’s hand, brought it to his mouth and pretended to bite. “Careful what you say about my cubs.”
Leaning into his embrace, Tamsyn said, “Where do you think our children got it from, Nathan Ryder? Hmm?”
Nate squeezed her. “In that case, Naya won’t need any help. Luc pulled some pretty spectacular stunts of his own as a kid.” A raised eyebrow. “Didn’t I once have to fish you naked out of a mud pool?”
Lucas scowled. “I was eight! And it was a very nice mud pool. I don’t know why you had to steal my fun.”
Delighted at this new glimpse into Lucas’s past, Sascha went to ask Nate to elaborate when she became aware of two sets of pricked ears. The others realized it at the same time. Tammy poked Nate in the ribs. “Get the hose ready. I see more mud-bathing in a certain twosome’s future.”
Nate pretended to wince…and winked at his boys. “I’ll show you the best spot.”
“What do you know about the best spot?” Lucas countered. “I know the best spot.”
The twins heads went from one to the other, eyes bright. And Sascha wanted to pounce on everyone, enclosing them in a huge hug. Naya would grow up loved and a little wild, with two friends who’d teach her to be naughty and to play and Sascha couldn’t wait to experience it all. Complete with a mud-coated cub who had her daddy’s green eyes.
Spoiler Warning: This short story is set after Archangel’s Legion (Guild Hunter #6), and contains spoilers for that book, so if you haven’t yet read it, save this story to read afterward.
“Zoe’s Workshop” is part of my ongoing series of shorts about the everyday lives of my characters, away from the darkness and intensity of the main storylines. I love visiting with them, and I hope you do, too.
Characters: Sara (former hunter, now Guild Director), Deacon (formerly a hunter charged with bringing down rogue hunters, now weapons-maker to mortals and immortals both), Zoe Elena (Sara and Deacon’s daughter).
Sara stretched awake cocooned in luxuriant warmth. Stretching out her hand toward Deacon’s side of the bed, she found the sheets cold. Her heart skipped a beat, her mind jerking to full consciousness as her lashes snapped open. For a single, terrible second, fear tried to grab hold of her in its ravenous teeth, but she fought the darkness with the practice that came with two weeks of doing the same.
The war was over. Her family was safe, happy, back together in their home.
Heart rate slowing, she took a deep breath…and felt her smile reappear, little bubbles of starlight in her veins. She could smell the bitter, delicious promise of coffee in the air. Below it lingered the buttery scent of the waffles Zoe loved, waffles that Deacon alone could make to Zoe’s satisfaction. Sara had tried once, received a terrible review. Laughing at the memory of their little girl’s face as she took her first bite, Sara pushed off the feather comforter Deacon must’ve pulled over her when he left to take care of Zoe.
Otherwise, the munchkin would’ve jumped on the bed to wake them both.
Sara’s smile widened at the thought of how their baby would often squirm between them for a snuggle, happy to play with her treasured doll while her parents dozed for a few more minutes.
Grabbing the kimono-style robe that Deacon had bought her for their wedding anniversary, she pulled it on over her pajama pants and tank top. The red silk fabric, patterned with cherry blossoms in black, was so liquid soft that she couldn’t resist running her hand over it as she padded into the attached bathroom.
A few minutes later, she walked out of their bedroom and down the stairs.
The wide open space of the lower floor was drenched in the snow-reflected sunlight of early morning, the windows dazzling in their clarity. Running her fingers through her hair, she yawned and kept an ear open for the sounds of Deacon’s and Zoe’s voices. The soundproofing in Deacon’s basement workshop was top notch, but he’d left the door open as he always did in the morning if he woke before her and needed to get some work done.
She smiled at the faint sound of Zoe’s rapid-fire childish patter. Deacon usually only spoke one word to their baby’s hundred, and they both seemed content with that. Pouring herself a cup of coffee from the pot Deacon had left perking, she took a sip as she made her way to the workshop through the internal staircase. She had the day off today, her deputy, Abel, in charge—though of course, she remained on call.
Being Guild Director wasn’t only a position, it was a promise to every hunter under her command.
Zoe’s excited voice grew louder as Sara descended the steps into the well lit space that included the basement areas of the two brownstones they’d merged into one. That lighting was a mix of sunlight—thanks to a number of narrow windows along the top—and the softer overhead bulbs Deacon had put in for when he didn’t need the bright work lights he had directly over his workbench.
He was at that workbench now, dressed in a pair of disreputable jeans with a tear partway down his left thigh and frayed cuffs, the well-washed denim hugging his butt. Sara loved those jeans. On top, he wore an old black T-shirt with Zoe’s handprints in front. Back when Sara and Deacon had been painting their living room after first merging the brownstones, their smart, fast daughter had decided to do some painting of her own.
Sara could still hear Zoe’s mischievous giggles as she ran from them on chubby baby legs, the paint-covered hands that proclaimed her guilt held out in front. She’d run right into her daddy’s ambush, her tiny palms connecting with Deacon’s T-shirt. He’d worn that tee so much in the interim that it was getting to be as disreputable as his jeans, but Sara knew neither one of them would ever throw it out. When the fabric became so thin it threatened to tear, Sara planned to have it framed for him.
The artist behind the treasured piece of clothing was currently hard at work at the miniature workbench that Deacon had built for her at one end of the workshop. Beside her sat their big black dog, Slayer. He woofed a greeting at Sara before going back to his adoration of his favorite human being in the whole wide world.
Banging her small pink toy hammer on a piece of wood Deacon must’ve given her, Zoe said, “Mommy! Look!”
Sara went over and admired the abused piece of wood. “Wow, baby.”
“Yeah, Mommy, wow!” Happy, Zoe went back to her hammering.
Overcome by love, Sara put down her coffee and grabbed Zoe into a snuggle. Her daughter kissed her cheek, then pushed away. “Busy, Mommy. Zoe, busy.”
“In that case,” Sara said, her heart overflowing, “I better go bother your daddy.”
Deacon raised an arm as she reached him. “Hello, sleepyhead.”
Held against the warm, solid strength of him, she sighed, every cell in her body at peace. She was a blooded hunter, could handle any weapon in this workshop, had walked into trouble right by Deacon’s side, but her husband made her feel so safe. It had nothing to do with skill or size, and everything to do with trust. She knew no matter what, Deacon would always be there.
Touching her fingers to his stubbled jaw, she said, “I love you.”
As he bent his head toward her, the dark, dark green of his eyes holding his heart, she felt her body ignite as passionately as it had during their first kiss. No, that was wrong, she thought before he scrambled her brain cells. Everything was deeper now, richer, even sexier.
Zoe’s voice penetrated the air. “Mwah, mwah,” she said, making the kissing noises with unhidden glee.
Sara smiled against Deacon’s mouth. “Where do you think she learned that?”
Her gorgeous, talented husband stroked his hand down to her butt, squeezed as he demanded another kiss. “Nursery school, I bet,” he said afterward. “It’s a hotbed of sin.”
Sara’s shoulders shook. Nibbling on his jaw, the scent of him hot and masculine and addictive, she said, “When do you think she’ll be ready to move on to real tools?” Sara was all for Zoe becoming a weapons-maker. It would keep her out of trouble—unlike if she followed her parents into the Guild.
“Couple of years at most,” Deacon said, both of them turning to look at their daughter. “But she also really likes to shoot her crossbow.”
Sara knew that. She’d been hit by multiple sponge-headed bolts the past week. At once proud of and terrified for her daughter, she slid her hand into one of Deacon’s back pockets. “You know what? I’m not going to worry about it until she’s a teenager at least.”
Deacon just gave her a look. Sara groaned and dropped her head against his chest. “Yeah, as if.”
Kissing the top of her head, Deacon massaged her nape. “At least she won’t have boyfriend troubles. Since I’ll decapitate anyone who lays a finger on her.”
Sara burst out laughing. “God, we’re a pair. Our poor baby.”
“Don’t worry.” Deacon’s eyes glinted. “I have a feeling Zoe Elena is going to grow up plenty tough enough to take on two overprotective parents.”
Zoe hammered once more, then put down her plastic hammer. “Daddy, finish!” Picking up her masterpiece, she brought it over for Deacon to scrutinize.
Sara watched as her big, muscular husband went down on his haunches in front of their tiny girl and took the piece of wood. Examining it seriously, he nodded. “Good work, Zoe.”
Zoe beamed and threw her arms around her daddy’s neck. Cradling her body in one arm, Deacon rose to his feet and walked over to place the piece of wood with Zoe’s other creations on the shelf Zoe and Sara had painted a hot orange and decorated with golden stars.
“You did such a good job, baby.” Sara helped Zoe choose the perfect space on the shelf.
“Waffles?” Deacon asked afterward, having snagged her forgotten coffee for himself.
“I’ll never say no to your waffles.” Taking Zoe when she stretched out her arms toward her, Sara smothered their daughter’s adorable face in kisses, then let her down so she could climb up the stairs in front of them. Deacon was right about Zoe’s strength—because cuddly and snuggly as she was, their baby was also showing signs of a strong independent streak. Hardly surprising, given her parentage.
Tail wagging, Slayer joined Zoe.
Sara went next, Deacon bringing up the rear.
His wolf whistle made her grin. The world might be in chaos, the archangels caught in a battle for supremacy and Manhattan still recovering from the recent violence, but here in this house, life was good and Sara wasn’t going to allow fear of the unknown future to steal the happiness of today. As she’d told Ellie, Zoe’s innocent zest for life had taught her to enjoy the now, to live every moment of the joy. And there was so much joy in her life.
Zoe jumped up the last step into the kitchen and scrambled into the chair that was hers, clearly ready for a second helping of waffles. On the chair next to her sat her doll, while Slayer sprawled hopeful and eager on the floor at her other side. “Mommy, Sley?”
Wise to their daughter’s love for her canine playmate, Sara looked to Deacon to check if he’d fed their pet. “Slayer’s already had his breakfast, Zoe,” he responded, the affection and love in his tone no less powerful for not being showy or ostentatious.
Zoe sighed and turned to solemnly shake her head at Slayer. “You can have half my waffle,” she whispered after ducking under the table.
Hiding a laugh behind her hand, Sara met Deacon’s eyes. The deep green was lit with the same humor. Walking over to wrap her arms around his waist, she rose on tiptoe and just smiled at him. He smiled back at her, as in the background, their daughter carried on an animated conversation with her doll and Slayer.
It was the perfect start to the day.