"What?" Lucas asked disingenuously as Nathan began to herd the sobbing family inside. "Come on. Playtime's over."
Mercy hung back a little as Lucas went in. "Keep your shirt on next time," she muttered to Riley, realizing the implication of her statement an instant too late.
"Keep your claws in . . . no, don't. I liked it." A pause. "Kitty."
She felt those same claws release. It took serious effort of will to put them back in. "What am I worried about?" she said instead, drawing blood in a much more effective way. If Riley wanted to mess with a cat, he'd better invest in armor. "I'm never again going to let myself get that desperate - I mean, a wolf? Do you know how many years it'll take me to live that down?" The words were almost subvocal, designed to carry to his ears alone. She felt him bristle, but all amusement died the instant she saw the way Willow's mom was clutching her.
"My baby," she was saying, kissing Willow's cheek, "my baby." Another kiss. Willow clung to her like a little monkey. Her father was sitting beside them, touching his child and his mate anywhere he could reach. The love, the connection between the three was a physical thing. Her chest grew tight with the force of it.
Then she felt Riley enter behind her, and the heat of him was a wash of wildfire on her back. "Iain," she said, feeling that fire snake into her very veins, "we need to talk to you." The sooner, the better. "And Enid, too."
Sascha came into the room from the kitchen right then. "Willow, why don't you come play with Rome and Jules for a while. They're starting to drive their mother crazy." A smile, but the eyes - the white stars on black velvet of a cardinal, the most powerful grade of Psy - were directed at the lynx girl's parents.
Mercy felt a sense of calm, of warmth, soften the stark edge of fear and desperation in Iain's and Enid's scent. It was no surprise - Sascha was an empath, a woman born with the ability to soothe emotional wounds. Now she'd taken a piece of the Bakers' pain, absorbing it into herself. Mercy wondered if doing that hurt Sascha, but knew her alpha's mate would never back off, no matter if it did.
Iain and Enid finally let Willow go with Sascha five minutes later. "She'll be fine," Mercy reassured them, taking a seat in front of the couple while Lucas and Nathan remained standing against the walls.
Riley, however, came to sit beside her, swinging around a chair to put his arms on the back. "She's a strong kid," he told them in his direct, no-nonsense way. "Escaped and hid out with a group of wild lynx."
Iain smiled, his pride open. "We thought they'd taken her, too."
"Did you see who came into your home?" Mercy asked, trying to ignore the fact that Riley's thigh was pressing against hers, the rough masculine heat burning through her jeans to incite her leopard to voracious sexual want. It was on purpose. Definitely on purpose. The wolf was getting back at her for implying he'd been nothing but a convenience. "Even a hint would help."
The Bakers shook their heads. "We were asleep," Enid said, voice husky from crying. "But usually, we'd wake up the instant an intruder even entered the yard. But this time . . . it was like we were drugged right from the start."
"Enid's right." Iain frowned. "I remember fighting to wake up, sure something was wrong, but I couldn't. I saw a black shadow bend over me, felt a push in my . . ." He shoved up his sleeve as if searching for something. "I felt it right here." He pressed a spot on his forearm. "Like a pressure injector. Next thing I know, I'm waking up and the house smells wrong, and I know the children are gone."
"Could've been some kind of gas," Nate suggested. "We'll have to check to see how they got it into the house."
Enid sat up, eyes distraught. "We had some work done under the house a few days ago - I was being paranoid, wanting to make sure everything was solid because Willow's always crawling under there. But they could've set something up then. If I hadn't - "
"Shh." Iain bussed the top of her head. "The only ones at fault are the bastards who did this."
Mercy wished she could give the Bakers more time to come to terms with everything that had happened, but finding Nash had to be the priority. "If it was a gas, how did Willow escape?"
Enid laughed, a choked-up sound. "She's been misbehaving lately. Sneaking out to go play in the woods at night. Drives me crazy. Probably saved her life." She clapped a hand over her mouth. "I didn't mean to say that. Nash's fine. He has to be fine."
"I'm sure he is." Iain's tone was so certain, everyone looked at him. "It's his work," he told them. "Somebody wanted him for his skills - my son's mind, it's brilliant."
Mercy's cat came to attention, seeing a parallel that might simply be an illusion. But if it wasn't . . . "I thought he was a student."
"Not an ordinary one - he started taking college classes at thirteen." Iain's pride was apparent even through his worry. "He's been working on his own projects for years now."
"All to do with nanotech," Enid said, and a bell rang loud and clear in Mercy's head. Beside her, Riley's thigh turned rock hard, and she knew their thoughts were running on identical tracks - three months back, Dorian's mate had been the subject of a kidnapping attempt by the Human Alliance. Though none of Ashaya's attackers had survived to confirm it, it had been clear they'd wanted her for her knowledge of a lethal virus. Depending on the nature of Nash's work, this seemed very much like the kind of operation the Alliance would run.
"Do you have details of your son's research?" Mercy asked, knowing the payoff had to be major for the kidnappers to chance reprisal by DarkRiver - because while in their territory, the Bakers were Pack. And DarkRiver never forgot its own.