She decided she'd have to research leopards, learn more about their behavior. But one thing she knew - they were highly intelligent. "I want the blood first." She didn't allow herself to think about her end of the bargain.
"Don't trust me?"
Another sharp grin and then, to her shock, a knife was in his hand. He pricked a finger and held it over the slide she hurriedly readied. A single drop and she closed it. To take the mental snap-shot, she'd have to focus on the drop for a long period of time, until her brain saw through the cell walls to the nuclei, to the strands of DNA twisting within.
Dorian let her put the slide back into the tool kit and close the lid before he said, "Now, pay up."
Her heart thudded, her shields began to unravel... and Amara's presence pushed heavily against the psychic walls of her mind. But she didn't tell him to stop.
His lips pressed over hers.
And her rotting foundations collapsed around her feet. For a second, she thought Amara was in her mind again, but no, this chaos was acting as another kind of anchor, another kind of wall - her twin was being held back, shoved out. A flash fire second of thought and then even thought was lost.
His taste was inside her mouth, a dark and richly masculine thing at odds with the sheer beauty of him. Protected by the strange, twisting, chaotic shield that blocked Amara, she broke every rule and savored the experience. When his tongue swept against hers, she felt her throat lock. He did it again. Shuddering, she dared explore him in return. His growl poured into her mouth, making her nerve endings sizzle.
He was the one who broke the kiss. Blinking, she tried to steady her breathing. But his taste lingered on her lips and all she could think was that she wanted more.
"I can smell something." His face went quiet, hunting still. "An intruder."
Ashaya, what are you doing? Why can't I see it?
The words snapped her back to full awareness. The instant Dorian had stopped touching her, whatever it was that had protected her from Amara had disappeared. The shields against the PsyNet were holding - how or why, she didn't know - but she didn't have time to consider that miracle, because Amara had broken through again. Her twin fought to retain control, but, her recent slew of emotion-induced mistakes aside, Ashaya had been doing this for years. And now she had Keenan to protect.
No one would hurt her son.
Powered by that absolute vow, she got her sister out, though it left her mentally bloody.
Dorian's growl raised the hairs on her arms. "It's gone. What the f**k was in the room with us, Ashaya?"
This was one secret she couldn't share. "Nothing."
His nostrils flared. "That nothing came through you. Are you a spy, Ms. Aleine?" His eyes held a knife-edge gleam. "Your scent changed."
The accuracy of his changeling senses staggered her. "What kind of change?"
"A lot of Psy" - he sniffed at the curve of her shoulder in a way that was definitely not human - "have this ugly metallic edge to their scent changelings can't stand. You don't. But whatever it was, it was close."
Perhaps she should've been considering the ramifications of the scent and what it denoted about Amara's increasing strength, but she found herself stuck on the first part of his comment. "That's good, isn't it? That I don't stink." She stared out at the water as day grew lighter. "It would make it impossible for you to guard me otherwise."
Dorian didn't like the metallic taint he could still feel on his tongue. Reaching forward, he slanted his open mouth across Ashaya's, knowing he'd taken her by surprise. Heat and ice, honey and spice, the taste of her flooded his mouth. "That's better," he said, retreating before the urge to move his mouth to lower, hotter places became irresistible.
Ashaya stared at him, lips kiss-swollen. "That wasn't part of the deal."
"I decided to demand an interest payment." The trapped leopard inside him reached out with claws that could never become real. Instead, the echo of them scraped along the insides of his skin, finding grooves laid by a lifetime of futile stretching. The movements of his beast hurt, as if skin were being torn apart. It had always hurt. And Dorian had never told anyone that it did.
Pity was the one thing he'd never accept or allow.
Now, the changeling heart of him had him moving his hand to brush over the smooth curve of Ashaya's shoulder. Hot chocolate and cream, warm and vibrant, the feel of her soaked through his fingertips and into his blood. There was no fear or panic in the profile she showed him, but he felt the faintest of tremors deep within her skin. "How bad are the fractures in your conditioning, Shaya?"
For the longest time, she said nothing. He closed his hand over her arm, and slid it down, indulging himself in the feel of her even as he pushed her to react. That deep-seated tremor didn't ebb, and then he saw her swallow.
"Bad," she whispered. "The foundation was swept away a long time ago."
He hadn't expected the admission. "And you consider that a flaw."
"No," she said, surprising him a second time. "Psy were always meant to feel. Silence is the interloper. It cripples us even as it saves us."
He stopped his stroking of her arm. "Then why not break it fully? Why cling to it?"
"Because" - her eyes locked with his, eerie in their crystal clarity - "Silence keeps the monsters at bay."
"Are you one?" He found he'd moved closer, the exotic scent of her - thick honey and wild roses - seeping into his skin, curling around his senses.
"Yes." An absolute whisper. "I'm one of the worst."