Scooting forward on little baby paws, one of the cubs licked the tip of her nose in a quick movement. She was so startled that she blurted out, "What does that mean?"
"It means he likes you." Lucas tugged at her plait. "But that doesn't matter to you, does it?"
"No." She wished he'd stop touching her. Not because she didn't like it but because she liked it far too much. It made her hunger for things that could never be hers. And if someone went hungry for too long, they started to starve. Started to hurt.
"Gotcha!" Tamsyn reached out and scooped up the cubs in her arms. They turned to nip playfully at her skin. "I love you, too, babies. But Uncle Lucas and your new friend have to eat so you have to stay on the floor." She put them down after a cuddle.
The cubs scooted under the table, one of them curling himself up on Sascha's leather-synth boots. The heavy warmth brought tears to her eyes. In an effort to hide her reaction, she looked down at the table and focused on the way Lucas continued to hold her plait.
He was sliding his fingers up and down, as though he liked the feel of the strands against his fingertips. The smooth, repetitive motion was oddly arousing - would he stroke other body parts with such exquisite care?
Her thoughts could get her interned at the Center but she didn't care. She'd experienced more sensations in the space of the last few hours than she had in the rest of her lifetime combined. It terrified her and yet she knew she'd be back tomorrow. She'd be back until someone found out.
And then she'd fight to the death. She would not be rehabilitated, would not allow her mind to be turned into a mockery of who she was.
"Here you go." Tamsyn laid plates in front of them. "Nothing special but it'll keep you going."
Sascha looked at her plate. "Pita pockets." She knew the names of many things. Like most, she used mental exercises to keep herself strong. One exercise involved memorizing items - it had been one of her guilty pleasures to choose lists that spoke to her senses. Food was one. Her other favorite list had been compiled by the computer from an ancient book of sexual positions.
"It's my special 'Hot Lips' type." Tamsyn winked. "A little chili never hurt anybody."
Lucas tugged on the plait he had yet to release.
"Yes?" What would he do if she threw caution to the winds and started touching him in return? Male that he was, he'd probably ask for more.
"It might hurt if you're not used to it."
Stubbornness had always been her Achilles' heal. "I'll survive. Thank you, Tamsyn."
"You're welcome." The other woman pulled up a chair. "Eat!"
Sascha picked up her pita pocket and took a bite. It nearly took off her skull. However, thanks to her training, nobody looking at her would've guessed at her discomfort. Lucas had finally stopped playing with her hair and was demolishing his own meal in short order.
"So," Tamsyn asked, "could you really turn my cubs into rats?"
Sascha thought Tamsyn was being serious until she caught the twinkle in those caramel-colored eyes. "I could've made them think they were rats."
"Really?" The brunette leaned forward. "I thought Psy found changeling minds too hard to work with."
Too hard to manipulate was the right statement. "Your thought patterns are so unusual that yes, they're difficult to work with. Difficult, not impossible. But the amount of energy required to control you generally isn't worth the outcome." At least that was what she'd heard, having never been in a situation where she was trying to handle a changeling mind.
"Good thing we're so hard to take under or the Psy would be ruling the planet." Lucas's tone was lazily satisfied as he leaned back, one arm stretched over the back of her chair. Territorial didn't begin to describe him.
"We do rule the world."
"You might be high up in politics and business but that's not the world."
She took another bite of the pita, having discovered she quite liked the feeling of having her head taken off. "No," she agreed after swallowing.
At the same moment, she became aware of baby leopard teeth nibbling at the toe of her boot.
Sascha knew she should reach down and dislodge the cub but she didn't want to. Drowning in sensation was far preferable to being conditioned to numbness. A discreet chime interrupted her in midthought.
It took a second for her to realize it was her organizer. Reaching into the inner pocket of her jacket, she checked the caller ID and then linked to the other Psy, who was close enough for simple telepathic contact.
"Aren't you going to answer it?" Tamsyn asked when she put the slim electronic tablet back into her pocket.
"I am answering it." Answering in such a way took less than 10 percent of her concentration. If she'd been a true cardinal, it would've taken less than a tenth of a percent.
"I don't get it." Tamsyn frowned. "If you can communicate mentally anyway, why the actual call in the first place?"
"Boundaries." She finished her meal. "It's like knocking before you enter a house. Only certain people have the right to initiate mental contact with me." People like her mother and the Council.
Lucas touched her shoulder with the fingers of the hand he had across the back of her chair. "I thought the PsyNet meant you were all in constant contact."
The PsyNet wasn't a secret but neither was it to be talked about in detail. She'd failed part of her conditioning but this had held. Her mouth opened and she said, "Perhaps we should be leaving for our meeting."
She felt his entire body go so motionless, it was like he'd turned into the lethal beast he carried within. Lucas Hunter wasn't used to being told no. "Of course."