"It is." His thumb stroked absently over her skin. She cut off the physical reaction before it began. If her body felt, then soon her mind would want to experience emotion and that was unacceptable.
"You're not with DarkRiver?" Had she been fooled into trusting the wrong cat?
"I didn't say that."
"Why are you refusing to tell me anything?"
"For all I know, you're a spy or an assassin."
The logic of his statement couldn't be refuted. "I only want to speak to Sascha and leave. The Council would mete out severe punishment if they knew."
"So you say."
She became aware that he smelled of the earth and the forest, of a kind of animal energy that was alien to her. Alien, but not unpleasant. If she'd felt things like that, she might even have admitted that she ... appreciated the scent of him. "Jaguar," she said almost before the thought fired through her neurons. "Panthera onca."
His hand stroked her neck. "Very good."
"I read a book approximately two months ago about different cat species." At the time she'd thought it a strange choice, but had been compelled to finish it nonetheless. "You can't blame me for not knowing immediately. Leopards and jaguars have very similar markings."
"I can blame you for whatever I like."
She was starting to feel like cornered prey. "Let me go."
Almost at the point where she was considering doing something psychic, no matter that she'd never been trained in offensive maneuvers, she heard the whisper of a vehicle. "Sascha?"
"Don't thank me. If you so much as breathe wrong, I'll kill you."
She believed him. "Maybe you should release me now and change back to your jaguar form."
"They'll have brought me clothes. If not, who cares?"
"Oh." Her eyes went to the trees in front of her. Another male stepped out. He was dressed ordinarily enough in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, but his face bore some savagely primitive markings - as if he'd been mauled by some great beast and come out the winner. Now she was trapped between two predators, both primed to kill.
Then a slender female form moved out from behind the new male. Cardinal eyes met hers. "Hello."
"Sascha Duncan." She would've moved, but the jaguar continued to hold her by the throat. "Can you make him let go?"
The other woman tilted her head to the side. "Nobody can make Vaughn do anything he doesn't want, but I can ask. Vaughn?" Lifting a hand, she threw a pair of jeans in their direction.
A muscular arm shot out from beside Faith's head. The jaguar named Vaughn caught the material at the same instant that he released her. She knew better than to move.
"My name is Faith NightStar," she said, able to hear Vaughn pulling on the jeans.
Sascha tried to step closer, but the male with her used his back to keep her in place. His eyes never stopped tracking Faith.
"Why are you here?" Sascha asked.
"I need to speak to you."
"So speak." This time, it was the marked male who responded. Faith knew he had to be the DarkRiver alpha, the man Sascha Duncan had emotionally partnered with. Faith couldn't imagine how - there was nothing human in the eyes looking back at her.
"And be careful what you say," Vaughn whispered in her ear, his arm coming in front and around her shoulders to pull her against him.
This time, she struggled. "I can't process that much touch." It was a blunt statement. "You should let go unless you want me to have a seizure." Touch set off her senses and she couldn't handle the overload. It was something the M-Psy had warned her about repeatedly. After seeing images of other F-Psy going through the same thing, she had no desire to do so herself.
"Vaughn, she can hardly attack me with both you and Lucas here." Sascha Duncan looked at the man who was threatening Faith on a level she'd never before experienced, and had no idea how to deal with. "I'll let you know if she makes any moves on the psychic plane."
Vaughn's arm slid away after a slight hesitation. But she could still feel him at her back. The urge to turn around and see his face was so powerful it shook the foundations of her confidence in her ability to survive the outside world. Already, it was influencing her, making her act in ways that she couldn't afford to, not if she were to remain sane.
"What did you want to talk to me about?"
Faith noticed the way Sascha placed her hand on the shoulder of the DarkRiver male called Lucas. It was shocking to her. Her skin tingled from where Vaughn had held her - she couldn't understand how Sascha bore the overwhelming influx of sensory input. But that thought was hardly relevant to her situation.
"I heard that you were no longer part of the PsyNet," she began.
"I need some information."
"What kind of information?"
Faith glanced at the man in front of her, but suddenly realized it was Vaughn who was the more dangerous. Sascha was connected to Lucas so the alpha had to have some sense of civility. But the jaguar whose human face remained a mystery? He was nothing but pure wild animal. "Could we discuss this alone?" She sent out a telepathic feeler, a polite request for mental contact.
"Stop." Even as Lucas moved to block Faith's view of Sascha, Vaughn stepped close enough that the heat of him threatened to sear her through her clothing. "You don't have mind privileges with Sascha."
She held herself immobile. How had the changeling known what she was doing? "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any rudeness." Telepathic communication was de rigueur among her race. And living as she did, she'd already conversed aloud more tonight than she had in the past week.