"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.