"Why?" She was still angry for the put-down he'd delivered to the girl. It felt too much like what people had done to her - not good enough to be a cardinal, not powerful enough, not anything enough to matter. "Aren't you supposed to be a family?"
"Families have hierarchy." He pulled her into his embrace with such speed that she couldn't escape. She froze, wondering if this was a good time to show him that she had a few tricks he didn't know about. "The safety of the entire family depends upon that hierarchy being followed."
His words made her think. "If she questions you and you let it go, then she might not do as you ask when it's necessary." Against her cheek his heart beat strong and powerful, another indication of his physical strength.
Some of the anger in his voice lessened. "Yes. Today, she walked off her watch. That could've meant death for some of us if anyone unfriendly was out there." He dropped his chin on her hair. "The newly mature males and females who are strong and independent enough to make good soldiers are also the hardest to control. If I let them have their way, they'd cause chaos."
"You were so harsh." She gave in to her own need and slipped her arms around the heat of his body. For the first time in her life, she didn't have to worry about revealing herself. Lucas knew. The wonderful thing was, he didn't think her flaw a flaw at all.
"I've treated Rina gently in the past because I thought it would harm her to do otherwise. But she's old enough to handle real discipline. If she can't, then she's not soldier material and we'll have to drop her rank."
The simple practicality shook her. "I guess you're not so different from the Psy - only the strong survive."
"No, Sascha darling." He ran his hand over her hair. "We're very different."
The endearment felt like another caress. "How?"
"We don't kick out our weak," he said. "We don't destroy those who are different. It's true that soldiers have high rank, but Tammy's rank is even higher, as high as a sentinel's. In some circumstances, she has the power to give the orders."
Sascha hadn't known that. "Sentinels?"
"My seconds in command."
"Dorian, Nate... Clay?" she guessed. There was a sense of power around the three men that set them apart. Even Dorian's pain didn't dim his internal strength.
"Yes. You haven't met Vaughn or Mercy yet."
"Are there other ranks?"
"Yes. For example, certain of the maternal females also hold extremely high rank, because without them, the soldiers would have no family to protect."
"I see." If she'd been born part of this race, she might not have been driven to madness.
"Our laws might seem harsh but we're not inhuman. We treasure every unique individual. We make room for difference."
And that was the one thing the Psy would never do.
Lucas watched Sascha walk out to the yard. She was creating her mask of Psy uniformity even as she moved. And though it enraged his beast to see her shutting him out, he knew he had to let her protect herself her way. It rubbed him raw that he couldn't keep her safe, yet he was also proud of the strength in the fragile body of his mate.
"Rina?" he asked Dorian, who was standing on the verandah.
"She'll be fine."
"I was serious, Dorian. Don't sleep with her." Like many of the leopard females who'd recently achieved maturity, Rina was very sexual. Her scent was compelling to males and he couldn't fault Barker for falling. "The second you do, she'll try leading you around by the balls."
Dorian raised a brow. "And I meant what I said. She's too young and too soft."
Lucas looked at his friend. "Sascha's worried about you." So was he. Dorian was growing harder and harder to reach, in spite of the way he'd recovered after they'd found out about Brenna's abduction.
"I can take care of myself."
"You're Pack - you don't have to face the loss alone. Kylie was ours, too." She'd been like Rina - a little wild, a little rebellious, and utterly loved. That was why Lucas had put Rina under the sentinel's control. Dorian might be a hard taskmaster but he'd never do her any real harm.
"I need to feel his blood run from my teeth." Dorian looked out to where Sascha stood by the car. "She doesn't understand our need for vengeance."
"I think she understands a lot more than we give her credit for." He'd seen a depth of compassion in those night-sky eyes that he'd never felt from any other being. "I'll be back in a few hours."
"I'll keep them safe."
Lucas dropped Sascha off around the corner from her apartment. "How are you going to explain the absence of your car?"
"I'll say it was stolen when I parked it near a changeling area. I didn't bother filing a report because the area is populated by DarkRiver leopards and I decided the car's value wasn't worth antagonizing you."
"They'll believe that?"
"Most of the Psy consider changelings to be a lower species, so yes. I'll have a new car within a few hours." Her crisp tones held no hint of the woman who'd wrapped her arms around him. "Is there any information I can share without making you vulnerable?"
He tapped the wheel with his finger. "I can't know what they might use the information for."
"Is that safe?"
"I don't expect to be around long enough for them to get impatient. A couple more days might irritate Enrique but I can't see it escalating into anything major."
He caught the edge of something in her voice that he couldn't quite understand, but she was already opening the door. "Stay safe, Sascha darling."