Mercy shifted in front of Riley as he exited the SUV and walked over. "Don't irritate us," she said to Bowen. The Alliance man might be a tough son of a bitch, but Riley was a very experienced wolf in a cold rage.
Jet-black eyes went from one to the other. "Something's going on that I clearly don't know about."
"The last time our people were abducted, one ended up dead and the other was tortured so badly most people thought she'd never recover," she said, letting him glimpse the leopard's need to hurt, to punish. "So your chances of convincing us of anything are about zero."
Bowen swore. "Our intel was wrong. We'd never have done it this way if we'd known."
"Excuse me if I don't sympathize." Mercy could all but feel Riley's wolf, a hot, angry breath against her nape. It was as well that Dorian had left after doing the technical search. She didn't know if she'd have been able to keep Bowen safe from two men who continued to bear the vicious wounds of their sisters' abductions.
It didn't matter that Willow was young, it didn't even matter that she was female and Nash male - the girl had been traumatized by being unable to help her brother, her fledgling confidence dented. Mercy knew that if she wasn't handled right, little Willow would stop sneaking out at night. And for a changeling to curl up like that . . .
She turned. "Indigo?"
"I've got him."
Letting the SnowDancer lieutenant escort Bowen into position, Mercy shifted to face Riley. "I need you to deal."
Amber glittered in his eyes but he didn't argue. "I'll hang back. Tougher to rip the bastard's head off from here." With that, he took a position close to the outer perimeter of the protective semi-circle around Lucas and Hawke.
Of the two alphas, Lucas was the more calm. Part of it was because he was built that way. But mostly it was because he had a mate who grounded him. Hawke, on the other hand . . . his ice blue eyes were those of a wolf, his hair the silver-gold of his pelt in his animal form. He looked exactly what he was - a predator uncontained by any loyalty save that to his pack. And by threatening SnowDancer's biggest ally, Bowen had threatened that pack.
The wolf alpha's eyes met Mercy's as she came up beside Bowen, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Hawke was fully capable of killing Bowen then and there. Glancing at Lucas, she saw him spear the Alliance man with a green-eyed look that spoke of the panther within. "You wanted to talk, so talk."
Yeah, Lucas could put on the civilized act much better than Hawke, but when you got down to it, he was as lethal as the wolf. "Why did you take one of us?"
"Because Nash was in danger of being captured by the paramilitary arm of the Alliance."
"Seems like that would be a stupid move on the Alliance's part," Mercy said. "After what happened to the last group that tried to come after one of us." Every single intruder had died, some falling prey to a sniper's rifle, the others to claws and teeth.
"You'd think so." Bowen's tone was bitter. "The men who died in your territory were my friends, my fellow soldiers."
"You're not going to get sympathy here," Indigo said from her position to his right, her voice icy.
"I didn't expect any." Bowen held Lucas's gaze. "They said Ashaya Aleine would help the Human Alliance take its rightful position in the world. We believed the rhetoric coming from the top. We thought they had only our future in mind."
Leaves rustled in the midmorning breeze, but even the gulls had gone quiet.
"Later . . . it was obvious we were inviting war." Bowen's voice grew rigid with withheld anger. "That wasn't what I signed on for. The leadership seemed to realize that at the same time and we were told to go quiet. But two days ago, we heard there'd been a decision to snatch Nash." He went to raise his cuffed hands but dropped them midway. "Look at the back of my neck."
Mercy nodded at Indigo to push down Bowen's collar, while she covered the SnowDancer lieutenant. "He's got a scar where the chip should be."
"We all got them, all the Alliance soldiers." Bowen lifted up his head. "They told us it would help protect us - we figured it had to do with shielding us against Psy interference."
Interest spiked in Mercy. Humans were the most vulnerable to Psy intrusions - changelings had rock-solid natural shields. "Did it?"
"Never tested." He shrugged. "One thing it did do was allow the leadership to track us. Like we were f**king GPS-chipped."
"We found one of those things in Nash's house."
"That lynx had sharp claws," Bowen said. "Three went in, but only one of us had the chip by that stage - so the Alliance would know who'd taken the boy, but not where. Nash saved us the trouble of removing the chip after the op."
"You telling us you flipped off the leadership?" Hawke asked point-blank.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Why not just warn us so we could protect Nash?" Mercy asked.
"One - there wasn't enough time. Two - because we wanted you aware of what we can do," came the unflinching response. "We aren't easy prey, so don't mistake us for it."
"You're in our city," Lucas said softly. "We'll get each and every one of you sooner or later. Name Lily ring a bell? Sloppy of you to leave her alone on watch at your hideout."
Bowen froze. "Hurt her and we'll strike back. Your people will die for no reason."
Mercy guessed the intel about the hideout had come in while she was negotiating with Bowen. Likely, the Alliance people had given themselves away when they moved to protect Bowen's back - a fresh trail made all the difference.