The fourth book in the Psy-Changelings series, 2008
For my dad, Vijay, for all that you do,
but most of all, for the laughter.
When the Psy Council proposed, in the year 1969, to instigate the Silence Protocol, a protocol that would wipe all emotion from the Psy, they were faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem-a lack of racial uniformity.
Unlike the cold, isolated Psy of today, the Psy then were an integral and entangled part of the fabric of the world. They dreamed, they cried, and they loved. Sometimes, as was only natural, those they loved came from a race other than their own.
Psy mated with changelings, married humans, bore children of mixed blood. Predictably, these racially impure Psy were among the most virulent opponents of the Silence Protocol. They understood what drove their brethren to denounce emotion-the fear of vicious insanity, of losing their children to the madness sweeping through their ranks in an inexorable tide-but they also understood that in embracing Silence, they would lose everything and everyone they loved. Forever.
By the year 1973, the two factions were at an impasse. Negotiations ensued, but neither side was willing to compromise and the Psy broke in two. The majority chose to remain in the PsyNet and give their minds to the emotionless chill of absolute Silence.
The fate of the minority, some with mixed blood themselves, others with human and changeling mates, is not so clear. Most believe they were eliminated by Council assassins. Silence was too important-the Psy race’s last hope-to chance disruption by a rebellious few.
There is also a rumor that the rebels died in a mass suicide. The final theory states that those long-ago rebels were the first patients of involuntary “rehabilitation” at the newly christened Center, their minds wiped, their personalities destroyed. Since the Center’s methods were experimental back then, any surviving patients would have come out in a vegetative state.
Now, as spring dawns over a hundred years later, in the year 2080, there is only one consensus: the rebels were neutralized in the most final way.
The Psy Council does not allow dissent.
Talin McKade told herself that twenty-eight-year-old women-especially twenty-eight-year-old women who had seen and survived what she had-did not fear anything as simple as walking across the road and into a bar to pick up a man.
Except, of course, this was no ordinary man. And a bar was the last place she’d expected to find Clay, given what she had learned about him in the two weeks since she’d first tracked him down. It didn’t bode well that it had taken her that long to screw up the courage to come to him. But she had had to be sure.
What she had discovered was that the Clay she’d known, the tall, angry, powerful boy, had become some kind of high-ranking enforcer for the dominant leopard pack in San Francisco. DarkRiver was extremely well respected, so Clay’s position spoke of trust and loyalty. The last word stabbed a blade deep into her heart.
Clay had always been loyal to her. Even when she didn’t deserve it. Swallowing, she shoved away the memories, knowing she couldn’t allow them to distract her. The old Clay was gone. This Clay…she didn’t know him. All she knew was that he hadn’t had any run-ins with the law after being released from the juvenile facility where he had been incarcerated at the age of fourteen-for the brutal slaying of one Orrin Henderson.
Talin’s hands clamped down on the steering wheel with white-knuckled force. She could feel blood rising to flood her cheeks as her heart thudded in remembered fear. Parts of Orrin, soft and wet things that should have never been exposed to the air, flecking her as she cowered in the corner while Clay-
She couldn’t think about that, couldn’t go there. It was enough that the nightmare images-full of the thick, cloying smell of raw meat gone bad-haunted her sleep night after night. She would not surrender her daytime hours, too.
Flashing blue and white lights caught her attention as another Enforcement vehicle pulled into the bar’s small front parking lot. That made two armored vehicles and four very well-armed cops, but though they had all gotten out, none of the four made any move to enter the bar. Unsure what was going on, she stayed inside her Jeep, parked in the secondary lot on the other side of the wide street.
Sweat trickled down her spine at the sight of the cop cars. Her brain had learned young to associate their presence with violence. Every instinct in her urged her to get the hell out. But she had to wait, to see. If Clay hadn’t changed, if he had grown worse…Uncurling one hand from the wheel, she fisted it against a stomach filled with roiling, twisting despair. He was her last hope.
The bar door flew open at that second, making her heart jump. Two bodies came flying out. To her surprise, the cops simply got out of the way before folding their arms and leveling disapproving frowns at the ejected pair. The two dazed young men staggered to their feet…only to go down again when two more boys landed on top of them.
They were teenagers-eighteen or nineteen, from the looks of it. All were obviously drunk as hell. While the four lay there, probably moaning and wishing for death, another male walked out on his own two feet. He was older and even from this distance, she could feel his fury as he picked up two of the boys and threw them into the open bed of a parked truck, his pure blond hair waving in the early evening breeze.
He said something to the cops that made them relax. One laughed. Having gotten rid of the first two, the blond man grabbed the other two boys by the scruffs of their necks and began to drag them back to the truck, uncaring of the gravel that had to be sandpapering skin off the exposed parts of their bodies.
Those unfortunate-and likely misbehaving-boys would feel the bruises and cuts tomorrow, along with sore heads. Then the door banged open again and she forgot everything and everyone but the man framed by the light inside the bar. He had one boy slung over his shoulder and was dragging another in the same way the blond had.
“Clay.” It was a whisper that came out on a dark rush of need, anger, and fear. He’d grown taller, was close to six four. And his body-he had more than fulfilled the promise of raw power that had always been in him. Over that muscular frame, his skin shone a rich, luscious brown with an undertone of gold.
Isla’s blood, Talin thought, the exotic beauty of Clay’s Egyptian mother vivid in her mind even after all these years. Isla’s skin had been smooth black coffee, her eyes bitter chocolate, but she had only contributed half of Clay’s genes.
Talin couldn’t see Clay’s own eyes from this distance, but she knew they were a striking green, the eyes of a jungle cat-an unmistakable legacy from his changeling father. Set off by his skin and pitch-black hair, those eyes had dominated the face of the boy he had been. She had a feeling they still did but in a far different way.
His every move screamed tough male confidence. He didn’t even seem to feel the weight of the two boys as he threw them into the pile already in the back of the truck. She imagined the flex of muscle, of power, and shivered…in absolute, unquenchable fear.
Logic, intellect, sense, it all broke under the unadulterated flow of memory. Blood and flesh, screams that wouldn’t end, the wet, sucking sounds of death. And she knew she couldn’t do this. Because if Clay had scared her as a child, he terrified her now.
Shoving a hand into her mouth, she bit back a cry.
That was when he froze, his head jerking up.
Dumping Cory and Jason into the truck, Clay was about to turn to say something to Dorian when he caught an almost-sound on the breeze. His beast went hunting-still, then pounced out with the incredibly fine senses of a leopard, while the man scanned the area with his eyes.
He knew that sound, that female voice. It was that of a dead woman. He didn’t care. He had accepted his madness a long time ago. So now he looked, looked and searched.
There were too many cars in the lot across the wide road, too many places where Talin’s ghost could hide. Good thing he knew how to hunt. He’d taken one step in that direction when Dorian slapped him on the back and stepped into his line of sight. “Ready to hit the road?”
Clay felt a growl building in his throat and the reaction was irrational enough to snap some sanity into his mind. “Cops?” He shifted to regain his view of the opposing lot. “They gonna give us trouble?”
Dorian shook his head, blond hair gleaming in the glow of the streetlights that had begun flicking on as built-in sensors detected the fading light. “They’ll cede authority since it’s only changeling kids involved. They don’t have any right to interfere with internal pack stuff anyway.”
“Who called them?”
“Not Joe.” He named the bar owner-a fellow member of DarkRiver. “He called us, so it must’ve been someone else they messed with. Hell, I’m glad Kit and Cory have worked their little pissing contest out, but I never thought they’d become best-fucking-friends and drive us all insane.”
“If we weren’t having these problems with the Psy Council trying to hurt the pack,” Clay said, “I wouldn’t mind dumping them in jail for the night.”
Dorian grunted in assent. “Joe’ll send through a bill. He knows the pack will cover the damage.”
“And take it out of these six’s hides.” Clay thumped Cory back down when the drunk and confused kid tried to rise. “They’ll be working off their debt till they graduate.”
Dorian grinned. “I seem to recall raising some hell myself in this bar and getting my ass kicked by you.”
Clay scowled at the younger sentinel, though his attention never left the parking area across the road. Nothing moved over there except the dust, but he knew that, sometimes, prey hid in plain sight. Playing statue was one way to fool a predator. But Clay was no mindless beast-he was an experienced and blooded DarkRiver sentinel. “You were worse than this lot. Fucking tried to take me out with your ninja shit.”
Dorian said something in response, but Clay missed it as a small Jeep peeled rapidly out of the lot that held his attention. “Kids are yours!” With that, he took off after his escaping quarry on foot.
If he had been human, the chase would’ve been a stupid act. Even for a leopard changeling, it made little sense. He was fast, but not fast enough to keep up with that vehicle if the driver floored it. As she-definitely she-now did.
Instead of swearing in defeat, Clay bared his teeth in a ruthless grin, knowing something the driver didn’t, something that turned his pursuit from stupid to sensible. The leopard might react on instinct, but the human side of Clay’s mind was functioning just fine. As the driver would be discovering right about…now!
The Jeep screeched to a halt, probably avoiding the rubble blocking the road by bare centimeters. The landslide had occurred only forty-five minutes ago. Usually DarkRiver would have already taken care of it, but because another small landslide had occurred in almost the exact same spot two days ago, this one had been left until it-and the affected slope-could be assessed by experts. If she’d been inside the bar, she’d have heard the announcement and known to take a detour.
But she hadn’t been in the bar. She’d been hiding outside.
By the time he reached the spot, the driver was trying to back out. But she kept stalling, her panic causing her to overload the computronics that controlled the vehicle. He could smell the sharp, clean bite of her fear, but it was the oddly familiar yet indefinably wrong scent under the fear mask that had him determined to see her face.
Breathing hard but not truly winded, he came to a stop in the middle of the road behind her, daring her to run him over. Because he wasn’t letting her get away. He didn’t know who the hell she was, but she smelled disturbingly like Tally and he wanted to know why.
Five minutes later, the driver stopped trying to restart the car. Dust settled, revealing the vehicle’s rental plates. The birds started singing again. Still he waited…until, at last, the door slid open and back. A slender leg covered in dark blue denim and a black ankle-length boot touched the ground.
His beast went preternaturally quiet as a hand emerged to close over the door and slide it even farther back. Freckled skin, the barest hint of a tan. A small female form unfolding itself out of the Jeep. Even fully out, she stood with her back to him for several long minutes. He didn’t do anything to force her to turn, didn’t make any aggressive sounds. Instead, he took the chance to drink in the sight of her.
She was unquestionably small, but not fragile, not easily breakable. There was strength in the straight line of her spine, but also a softness that promised a cushion for a hard male body. The woman had curves. Lush, sweet, curves. Her butt filled out the seat of her jeans perfectly, arousing the deeply sexual instincts of both man and cat. He wanted to bite, to shape, to pet.
Clenching his fists, he stayed in place and forced his gaze upward. It would, he thought, be easy to lift her up by the waist so he could kiss her without getting a crick in his neck. And he planned to kiss this woman who smelled like Talin. His beast kept growling that she was his and, right this second, he wasn’t feeling civilized enough to argue. That would come later, after he had discovered the truth about this ghost. Until then, he would drown in the rush of wild sexuality, in the familiar-yet-not scent of her.
Even her hair was that same unusual shade as Talin’s-a deep, tawny gold streaked with chocolate brown. A mane, he’d always called it. Akin to the incredible variations of color in a leopard’s fur, something that outsiders often missed. To a fellow leopard, however, those variations were as obvious as spotlights. As was this woman’s hair. Beautiful. Thick. Unique.
“Talin,” he said softly, surrendering completely to the madness.
Her spine stiffened, but at last, she turned.
And the entire world stopped breathing.
Air rushed back into his body with the force of a body blow. A roar built in his throat, but he didn’t release it, violently aware of the acrid fear scent coming off her in waves.
Son of a bitch! Tally was scared of him. She might as well have taken a knife to his heart. “Come here, Tally.”
She rubbed her hands on her thighs, shook her head. “I came to talk to you, that’s all.”