"I can handle it."
"But does she want to be handled?" A question that cut out the bullshit. "Doesn't look like she's going to hop into bed with you anytime soon - and from what I saw on that balcony, that's what your cat wants. You're getting belligerent because you're frustrated." Blunt words from one man to another, a warning from an alpha to a sentinel. "I don't care if she is the enemy - you don't touch her unless she agrees."
Dorian felt his leopard thrust its claws out under his skin. "That's a f**king insult."
"Then tone it down." Lucas's markings stood out starkly against his skin. "Or I'm pulling you off protection detail."
"Try it." Dorian made his tone sniper flat.
"Damn it, Dorian, stop being so f**king pigheaded. We both know you're not rational where Psy are concerned."
"Yeah? I seem to get along fine with Sascha."
"She's Pack, and so is Faith. Judd's close to Pack." Lucas shook his head. "Any Psy outside the tight circle of what you consider family is automatically an enemy in your eyes. That makes you the worst person to guard Ashaya."
Dorian fisted his hands. "Back off, Luc. I don't know what the f**k is going on with me and Ashaya, but I'll sort it out. Bloody hell, you know me better than to think I'd ever force a woman, no matter who she is."
Lucas stared at him for several minutes before giving a slow nod. "She might never be willing - the first time you met her, you told us she was so cold you got frostbite."
"I was wrong." He'd seen the desperate flashes of love in her eyes when she spoke of Keenan, felt her hand tremble as she realized her colleagues were dead. "She's not who I thought she was." He just had to coax the real Ashaya Aleine out of hiding.
"Doesn't matter." Lucas glanced at the car. "She doesn't seem to like you any."
"I've been less than charming." He gritted his teeth. "I'll work on that. She'll thaw out." She had to, because he sure as hell wasn't going to walk around with blue balls for the rest of his life. The sexual nature of the thought was a deliberate attempt to offset a more worrisome emotion - it disturbed him how protective he'd begun to feel toward her.
Lucas's eyes gleamed with feline humor. "Can you lay on the charm and protect her at the same time?"
"Keep insulting me, and I'll forget you're my alpha." It was said without heat, both their beasts having retreated from the razor-sharp edge of violence. "What's the security plan?"
"You're her shadow," Lucas said, humor replaced by the keen intelligence that made him an alpha who commanded respect as well as obedience. "Anthony doesn't want her dead and he's not an ally we can afford to lose."
"What about his own resources?"
"They're at our disposal, but things are a little hot for him right now - he doesn't want to tip his hand if we're willing to cover."
Dorian nodded. "Council needs at least one sane member."
"Yeah." A grim look. "Our job is to keep Ashaya alive. Nothing else. Anthony might be family through Faith, but I won't put my pack in the middle of an internal Psy war."
Dorian raised an eyebrow. "That's a load of shit. We've been involved from day one."
Lucas looked at the woman sitting in the car. "You're right. But this particular storm is all about them. We facilitate the transmissions - "
"That's not involvement?"
"It's the scoop of the century." He shrugged. "It's business."
Dorian saw his point. "The fact that we get to irritate them is a nice bonus, but not one that'll put us on their shit list." Psy understood business.
"This time, they're looking at their own."
"She's not theirs anymore." The denial came out without thought, from the heart of the cat he was.
Lucas glanced at him. "Are you sure? From what I've seen, she's got the balls to pull off a double cross."
Deep in the heart of the sunken city of Venice, six men and five women sat around a long, oval table. They were silent, their attention on a holographic recording playing in the center of the table. Patched together from a number of different sources, the recording was neither smooth nor continuous, but it provided the information they needed.
When it ended in a rush of white noise, the man at the head of the table switched it off, his cuff links glinting rose-gold in the artificial light. "I don't think I need to explain our interest in Ms. Aleine."
"She made a point of saying she destroyed the data."
"She's a scientist. They never destroy their work."
Silence as they considered their options.
"We don't need her, simply the data itself," one of the women said. "The Psy might consider themselves the best at research and development, but we have people fully capable of utilizing the information."
"Exactly my thoughts," the man at the head of the table said. "Then I assume there's no opposition to my motion - to send out a team to question Ms. Aleine?"
"She's being protected." A new female voice, liquid soft vowels and drawn-out syllables. "No one knows by whom, but they've hidden her."
"The broadcast originated from a CTX transmitter in San Francisco." The man with the cuff links leaned back, his gaze on the water that lapped at the edges of the mostly undersea habitat. "Could be DarkRiver and SnowDancer gave her a platform because they like to get in the Council's face, or could be they're the ones protecting her. But if she's still in the city, we'll know within a few hours."