Instead of Nikita's sheet of shimmering blue-black, she had rich ebony hair that absorbed light like ink and curled so wildly she was forced to pull it back into a severe plait every morning. Her skin was a dark honey rather than ivory, evidence of her unknown father's genes. Sascha's birth records had listed him as being of Anglo-Indian descent.
She dropped back a little as the door to the meeting room drew closer. She hated encounters with changelings and not because of the general Psy revulsion to their open emotionalism. It seemed to her that they knew. Somehow they could sense that she wasn't like the others, that she was flawed.
She looked up at the sound of her mother's voice. And found herself within touching distance of the most dangerous male she'd ever seen. There was no other word to describe him. Well over six feet tall, he was built like the fighting machine he was in the wild, pure lean muscle and tensile strength.
His black hair brushed his shoulders but there was nothing soft about it. Instead, it hinted at unrestrained passion and the dark hunger of the leopard below the skin. She had no doubt she was in the presence of a predator.
Then he turned his head and she saw the right side of his face. Four jagged lines, reminiscent of the claw marks of some great beast, scored the muted gold of his skin. His eyes were a hypnotic green but it was those slashing markings that grabbed her attention. She'd never been this close to one of the changeling Hunters before.
"Ms. Duncan." His voice was low and a little rough, as if caught on the edge of a growl.
"This is my daughter, Sascha. She'll be the liaison for this project."
"A pleasure, Sascha." He tipped his head toward her, eyes lingering for a second longer than necessary.
"Likewise." Could he hear the jagged beat of her pulse? Was it true that changeling senses were far superior to those of any other race?
"Please." He gestured for them to take seats at the glass-topped table and remained standing until they'd done so. Then he chose a chair exactly opposite Sascha.
She forced herself to return his gaze, not fooled by the chivalry into dropping her guard. Hunters were trained to sniff out vulnerable prey. "We've looked at your offer," she began.
"What do you think?" His eyes were remarkably clear, as calm as the deepest ocean. But there was nothing cold or practical about him, nothing that belied her first impression of him as something wild barely leashed.
"You must know that Psy-changeling business alliances rarely work. Competing priorities." Nikita's voice sounded utterly toneless in comparison to Lucas's.
His responsive smile was so wicked, Sascha couldn't look away. "In this case, I think we have the same ones. You need help to plan and execute housing that'll appeal to changelings. I want an inside track on new Psy projects."
Sascha knew that that couldn't be all of it. They needed him but he didn't need them, not when DarkRiver's business interests were extensive enough to rival their own. The world was changing under the noses of the Psy, the human and changeling races no longer content to be second best. It was a measure of their arrogance that most of her people continued to ignore the slow shift in power.
Sitting so close to the contained fury that was Lucas Hunter, she wondered at the blindness of her brethren. "If we deal with you, we'll expect the same level of reliability that we'd get if we went with a Psy construction and design firm."
Lucas looked across at the icy perfection of Sascha Duncan and wished he knew what it was about her that was bugging the hell out of him. His beast was snarling and pacing the cage of his mind, ready to pounce out and sniff at her sedate dark gray pantsuit. "Of course," he said, fascinated by the tiny flickers of white light that came and went in the darkness of her eyes.
He'd seldom been this close to a cardinal Psy. They were rare enough that they didn't mingle with the masses, being given high posts in the Psy Council as soon as they reached any kind of mature age. Sascha was young but there was nothing untried about her. She looked as ruthless as the rest of her race, as unfeeling and as cold.
She could be abetting killer.
Any one of them could be. It was why DarkRiver had been stalking high-level Psy for months, looking for a way to penetrate their defenses. The Duncan project was an unbelievable chance. Not only was Nikita powerful in her own right, she was a member of the innermost circle - the Psy Council. Once Lucas was in, it would be his job to find out the identity of the sadistic Psy who'd stolen the life of one of DarkRiver's women... and execute him.
No mercy. No forgiveness.
In front of him, Sascha glanced at the slim organizer she held. "We're willing to offer seven million."
He'd take a penny if it would get him inside the secretive corridors of the Psy world but he couldn't afford to make them suspicious. "Ladies." He filled the single word with the sensuality that was as much a part of him as his beast.
Most changelings and humans would've reacted to the promise of pleasure implicit in his tones, but these two remained unmoved. "We both know the contract is worth nothing less than ten million. Let's not waste time." He could've sworn a light sparked in Sascha's night-sky eyes, a light that spoke of a challenge accepted. The panther inside him growled softly in response.
"Eight. And we want rights to approve each stage of the work from concept to construction."
"Ten." He kept his tone silky smooth. "Your request will cause considerable delay. I can't work efficiently if I have to traipse up here every time I want to make a minor change." Perhaps multiple visits might allow him to glean some information on the murderer's cold trail, but it was doubtful. Nikita was hardly likely to leave sensitive Council documents lying around.