"It's a date." He let the memory of their earlier pleasure color the air.
Grinning, he nudged her upstairs. "Go on - Keenan's probably wondering what's keeping you. I'll come up after I talk to Nate."
When he finally did get upstairs, it was to find both mother and child asleep despite the early hour - Keenan lay tucked against Ashaya, her arms holding him tight.
The sight was a violent kick to his heart.
And he knew.
No more dancing around the truth. No more suspicions. He knew.
Chest brutally tight, he walked out into the hall, leaving the door ajar. The staggering weight of the realization had him shaking. Ashaya was his mate. That was why his leopard had gone so crazy around her from the start. It had known. But the man had been too angry to listen. So the cat had shoved all that need, all that hunger, into the most vicious sexual need. "Christ, I'm blind." And he knew the blindness had been at least partly willful. He hadn't wanted to feel such excruciating tenderness for the enemy.
It was so much easier to hate.
Ten minutes later, when he could breathe again, he walked back into the room and closed the door behind himself. As he slid down the back of it to sit on the floor, his eyes on the bed, he saw that his hands were shaking.
The tenderness was there deep inside, mingled with a feral protectiveness. But it was need that had him in its claws. Raw, visceral, painful. Their play this afternoon had already ratcheted up the level of his hunger, and now that he consciously knew the truth of what she was to him, the drive to possess her was close to crushing.
But he wasn't an animal, so he wrenched the hunger back under control and kept watch as they slept. That sleep was of the truly exhausted - deep and intense - as if they finally felt safe. Realizing that calmed the leopard enough that he could think - given the current hour and the fact they were missing a meal, chances were high that his mate and child would wake during the night. He had to be alert when they did.
Whispering the situation to Tammy when she came upstairs to grab them for dinner, he ignored the red gold glow of evening sunlight and forced himself into the light doze all soldiers used when necessary. The scream had him jackknifing to a standing position what felt like an instant later - however, one glance at his watch told him it was ten after nine. The house was quiet, peaceful. But for the rapid breathing of a frightened child, and a woman's soothing murmurs.
"Nightmare?" he asked, after running an automatic security sweep - and letting Nate know things were under control when the other sentinel ran in. As Nate left, Dorian turned back to the room. "Shaya?"
"Yes, a nightmare." She looked to him with a quiet need in her eyes. He could no more have stopped himself from walking across the room to sink down on the bed beside her than he could've stopped breathing. "You want to talk about the dream, K-Man?"
Keenan cuddled deeper into his mom, but nodded. "She's looking for me."
"Who?" Dorian asked, though he already knew the answer.
Dorian saw Ashaya go pale under her dark honey and sunlight skin. "Your mother's right here."
"No." Scowling, the kid shook his head. "My mommy's right here, but my mother is looking for me." He emphasized the word very carefully. "She's doesn't like me, not like Mommy."
Dorian figured the boy had confused Amara and Ashaya in his mind, but that didn't explain the terror emanating from Ashaya. "How do you know she's looking for you?"
"I can feel her poking at my head." He frowned. "She can't come inside me because I'm in your net. But I think she's seen Mommy." A jaw-cracking yawn.
"Sleep, baby," Ashaya whispered. "We'll keep you safe." The promise was fierce.
"I know." A childish smile, but the eyes remained those of an old man. "Dorian?"
"Yeah, kiddo?" He took the hand Keenan held out. It was warm, fragile, a precious indication of trust.
The boy fought the wings of sleep to say, "Don't let her hurt my mommy."
"I won't." His heart a knot in his throat, he held that tiny hand as Ashaya stroked Keenan back into an easy sleep. "So what aren't you telling me?" he said when he was certain Keenan was well and truly out for the count. Her fear had been too piercing for this to have been a mere dream.
Ashaya's face was stark with dread when she looked up. "He called her his mother, Dorian."
"You're identical twins and he's not even five."
"He shouldn't know that she's his mother." Ashaya's breath grew choppy. "I've raised him from the day, the hour, he was born. Me, always me."
She might as well have slammed a brick into his chest. He couldn't speak.
"That means she isn't just poking at his mind, Dorian. It means she's talking to him." Her voice rose. "Who knows how long it's been going on? She could've been telling him anything, influencing him - "
Having regained control, he pressed a finger to her lips. "Shh, don't wake him." He saw her struggle to master her panic as he dropped his hand. "I think you've been keeping more secrets." He was furious, but attempting to come across as calm. "But we'll talk about that later. Right now, you need to tell me if we should move Keenan."
"I don't want to be separated from him." Her voice trembled. "But you're right, we can't be together, not until Amara's been... contained. Even if she has a lock on him, she'll come to me first - the farther away he is from me, the safer he'll be."
Dorian had figured as much. "I'll have - "
"Don't tell me where he'll be." A tight order. "I could still be compromised."