Sometimes, while I’m working away on something else, I start to wonder how Sascha and Lucas from Slave to Sensation are doing. What generally happens then is that I write a scene from their lives. Since these scenes don’t really connect in the sense of being complete stories – they’re usually fleeting glimpses, like you’d see through a window, (maybe a page or so long), I generally don’t post them up. But this particular scene ended up being close to a short story, so I thought you might enjoy seeing it.
Timewise, this story is set after Slave to Sensation and before Visions of Heat. Enjoy!
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."
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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.
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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.”
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I absolutely love this deleted scene from Branded By Fire! The reason it didn't make it into the book is that while it's heaps of fun, the reason for it - to show how close Mercy is to her pack - was something that was already apparent through the rest of the story.
I hope you all enjoy!
Mercy felt so deliciously loose and relaxed after her encounter with Riley that she had the urge to turn leopard and just curl up somewhere. It was as well that she had a standing date with the women of the pack that night.
Showering and sprucing up after her return from the den, she made it to the gathering half an hour late. It was being held at Annie and Zach’s house this time around—though Zach had been kicked out for the duration. Attendance fluctuated depending on work-shifts and the general mood of the pack, and tonight, after Nash’s successful return, there were well over twenty-five women in the small house filled with the delicious smells of chocolate, cocktails and friendship.
“Mercy!” Anu all but dragged her to a seat on the sofa. “I have something for you. Show me your toes.”
Grinning, Mercy did as bid. Ten minutes later, her toenails had been painted a vivid silver-blue that glinted in the light. “I like it,” she said definitively. Anu was one of her favorite people, being so infectiously good-natured that it was impossible to be in a bad mood around her. “How’s the baby?”
“Gorgeous. See?” The proud mommy pulled out a phone with an array of new photos.
Genuinely interested, Mercy spent several minutes looking at them. “She’s growing fast. Feels like only last week I held her and she was the size of a tadpole.”
“Tell me about it.” Anu turned to put her phone back into her purse. “Make sure you take home the rest of the polish for touch-ups.”
“Thanks.” Admiring her toes and feeling distinctly feline in her pleasure, Mercy nudged Anu.
“Here.” A margarita was put into her hand. “Anu?”
“Better not—breastfeeding. Gimme that pineapple juice.” Taking a glass, she picked up her bag of tricks. “Time for my next victim.”
Mercy glanced up at Annie as Anu arrowed her way toward Poppy. “You know how to throw a party.”
Annie grinned. “I think Zach’s having visions of coming home to find drunken naked women all over his lawn. Actually, I think he’s hoping for it. Except for his sisters, of course—I have strict instructions to save him from that trauma by warning him to stay the hell away.”
Laughing, Mercy took a sip of her margarita and watched as Annie moved to put the rest of the drinks on the low table a couple of feet away. The small brunette was immediately shanghaied by her sister-in-law, Jess, and Sascha, into a heated debate that pitted Mr. Darcy against Heathcliff. Mercy was leaning forward to listen to Annie’s take on things when Tammy waved to her from the other side of the room, where she was being offered something that had her red-faced and laughing. Curious, Mercy made her way over.
Her eyes almost crossed when she saw the array of objects on the table in front of the healer. “Tammy!”
“Hey, don’t blame me.” Tammy wiped tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes. “This is all Faith’s fault.”
The F-Psy looked incredibly demure when she answered the charge. “How was I to know what Lurrrve Motion produced? When they said they were sending me samples to help me tune my mind for forecasts, I said fine.” She glanced at long, green and very...flexible, Lurrrve Toy, her eyes dancing with laughter. “I never had to worry about things like this when I was working exclusively for Psy companies.”
Mercy was trying to figure out how another toy worked when it came buzzing to life in her hands, turning six different colors in as many seconds before bouncing out of her grasp and across the table to fall into Talin’s lap. Tally took one look at it and said, “Do you think Clay would know what this was if I took it home and gave it to him as a present?”
Seriously naughty suggestions came from all sides, and by the time it was over, Mercy was laughing so hard, her stomach muscles protested. This, she thought, was life, was joy. She couldn’t imagine a future in which her pack didn’t play an integral role. DarkRiver was part of her soul through her blood-bond to Lucas, but her packmates were part of the very fabric of her heart.
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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.
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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.
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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".
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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.
(c) Copyright 2012 by Nalini Singh
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