The question caused an emotional rock to lodge in her throat. "Will you let me go?"
His answer was to stroke his thumb over her skin.
"Clay." When his eyes focused on her this time, she sucked in a breath. The cat was clearly in charge. Irrational fear spiked, but she refused to buckle under again. "Intimidation never worked with me."
He growled low in his throat. "Answer the f**king question."
"I did it so I'd feel something," she snapped, wanting to growl back at him. "I went through life feeling nothing. I couldn't love the Larkspurs, I couldn't make friends, I couldn't do anything but pretend!"
"And did you?" His hand tightened on her neck.
Cold sweat broke out over her body but she stayed. "No. I've never felt as dead as I did when I was in those beds. I went into my mind like I used to do as a child - so I wouldn't be present while my body was used."
His eyes shifted back to human, as if she'd caught him by surprise. "Then why keep doing it?"
"Because I thought that that was all I was good for." A blunt response and the utter truth. "I was messed up, Clay. What Orrin did to me - it twisted me up on the inside. I couldn't get past all that poison he put into my head. I kept hearing his voice telling me that I was nothing but a whore."
"I'm glad I killed him," Clay said, his tone so quiet it was a blade. "I only wish I'd been more patient. I should've ripped off his dick first, made him eat it."
Her gorge rose but she was so damn tired of running, of disappointing Clay. Maybe she was weak, broken, human, but she was no coward. Not anymore. Making a small move, she put her hand on his knee. He seemed to come back to her at the contact.
"Let it go," she whispered, eyes tracing over the harsh masculine lines of his face. "Don't let him poison you, too. I've finally broken free."
"I haven't chosen to share a man's bed in eight years. That's why the fugues hurt so much," she admitted. The time for lies had passed. "I know I'm worth more now. The therapist I went to for a while helped me see that. But it was the kids at Shine who really saved me - they're the reason I decided I couldn't keep going as I had been."
He watched her, a cool, dangerous predator with rage coating him in a seemingly impenetrable shield.
"So many of them come from the same place we did or worse, and they keep going, keep fighting. How could I possibly think to help them, lead them, if I wasn't strong enough to do the same?" She swallowed. "They have courage and heart and they're mine. I can't let any more of them die, Clay. I can't."
"I told you - I'll find this boy, Jon, for you."
"I know you will." Her trust in him was rooted not only in childhood memory but in her growing knowledge of the man he'd become. Strong. Protective. Beautiful. And more than a little wild. "I trust you." A confession that took more courage than she knew she had.
Flames in the depths of his eyes. "You going back to bed?"
"No." She tensed, wondering where this was leading. She might not be changeling, but she knew how to read desire in a man's eyes.
As if he'd heard her unspoken fear, he rose to his feet, held out his hand. "Come on, then. I'll show you some of my forest. I need to get out of here."
Her heart smiled, that defiant hope spreading across her soul in an unstoppable inferno. "I'd like that."
Ashaya looked at the holographic map projected above her desk. It showed the location of her lab in relation to nearby towns and farms. "You're sure the lab won't be discovered?" she asked the man on the other side of the transparent wall of light particles.
Councilor Ming LeBon nodded. "You're surrounded by acres of cornfields, with only a single, apparently unused, access road. From above, the lab looks like a crumbling farmhouse."
"Forgive me if my confidence doesn't mirror yours." She terminated the projection. "You assured me the previous lab was secure. The saboteurs had no trouble getting in, detonating their bombs, and destroying the original prototype. Not to mention the targeted psychic strike that killed several of my top scientists."
"That was an unfortunate mistake on my part," Ming admitted with the emotionless confidence of a man so deadly, most people spoke his name in a whisper. Psy might not feel emotions, Ashaya thought, but even those of her clinical race valued their lives.
"That mistake," Ming continued, "will not be repeated." His eyes were those of a cardinal but unique in that Ming's had less white stars than most. Liquid black filled his eyes, broken only by one or two pinpricks of light.
The uniqueness of his eyes wasn't a well-known fact - most people had no idea of Ming LeBon's physical appearance. He was a true shadow in the PsyNet. Ashaya was well aware that the sole reason he'd allowed her to see him was because he knew the Council had her totally under their control.
It might have made a human or changeling angry to be so manipulated. Ashaya wasn't human or changeling. She didn't feel fear, anger, any negative emotion. But that didn't mean she agreed with the Councilor. "Explain the security features to me," she said.
"Your job is on the inside. My officers will take care of security."
"With respect, I disagree." If she backed down now, it was all over. "I need to know the options in case of emergency - you have no way to accurately factor in the variables I'd be working with to stabilize safe transport of the prototypes. A fire would require a different response than an earthquake."
Ming watched her, unblinking. His presence filled the room, though he wasn't a large man. The word that came to mind was compact. Compact and sleek, like the assassin he'd been before he became Council. "You're suddenly very interested in security."