"Riley!" It was Indigo's voice.
He turned to wait for her, Mercy's words whispering through his mind. He hadn't lied. He respected Indigo a hell of a lot. She was one of the top-ranking people in SnowDancer - there wasn't anything he wouldn't trust her to handle. It irritated him that Mercy had questioned that trust. What irritated him more was that she'd made him question his personal preferences - was it so wrong to wish for a mate who'd stay at home rather than be out there facing God-knows-what?
Safe, he thought, a maternal female would be safe, protected within the domestic sphere that was her domain.
Unlike Brenna. Unlike his mother.
"What is it?" he asked, shutting the lid on those memories.
Indigo put her hands on her hips, namesake eyes bright with intelligence, black hair pulled back in a high ponytail. It reminded him of how Mercy did her hair. Both women were no fuss, no mess. But only one drew him with an intensity that was a claw in his gut, a fist around his throat.
Mercy would never play it safe, never allow him to shield her.
"Where were you yesterday?" Indigo asked, nostrils flaring as she tried to guess.
He wasn't worried. Because Mercy wasn't bound to him in any way, her scent wasn't embedded in his skin. As his wasn't on hers. Which meant no one knew of his claim - including the two South American sentinels who continued to sniff around her. His hand fisted.
"Checking on the bears," he answered, forcing himself to release that fist. "Were you trying to reach me?"
"Yeah - Rats say Alliance mercenaries are moving in the city. No specifics yet."
"Then the surveillance isn't having an effect."
"Wouldn't say that - they're having to dodge us to do anything. That's got to be hurting."
"Let's hope it hurts enough that they pack up and get out." He glimpsed a small, cardinal-eyed boy walking up the corridor. "Hello, Toby."
Judd Lauren's nephew gave him a sweet, shy smile, one that made him want to smile in return. The kid had that effect on people. "Hi, Riley. Hi, Indigo."
"Hi, kiddo." Indigo ruffled his hair.
Toby bore the indignity in silence. "I'm going to wait for Sascha."
"Sascha's coming up?" Indigo asked, one hand on the boy's shoulder.
Toby nodded. "She's gonna help me with some stuff." He tapped the side of his head to indicate that "stuff" was mental, probably an aspect of his psychic abilities.
"Go on," Riley said. "You don't want to be late."
Toby smiled again. "Okay." But before he left, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in brown paper. "This is for you." He put it in Riley's surprised hand and ran off before Riley could ask him what it was.
"Hey," Indigo said, voice amused, "I don't rate a present."
"I'm his uncle." The relationship was through Brenna's mate, Judd, but Riley didn't stand on such restrictions much. "I wonder what it is."
"Open it." Indigo made no move to leave.
"Ever heard of privacy?"
A smile tugged at his lips. "You've been hanging out with Mercy."
"We talk some," she admitted. "It's . . . not hard, but different, being a powerful female among this many men."
He looked up in surprise. "But you're not alone. We've got Jem - "
"Yeah, she's a lieutenant but posted out way over in the L.A. region," Indigo said. "Mercy's the only one nearby who understands these things."
"Well, if you could understand them," she said with exaggerated patience, "I wouldn't be talking to a cat, would I?"
He didn't back down. They didn't call him the Wall for nothing. "Do you think the pack's leadership structure is unbalanced?" Changelings weren't human or Psy. Female dominants were an expected part of the pack. But now that Indigo had pointed it out, he realized that of the ten SnowDancer lieutenants, only two were female.
"Nah." She waved her hand. "It just turned out that way this generation. Remember - when your mom was lieutenant, it was six-four in favor of the females."
It was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that someone had mentioned his mother. If he'd been the superstitious type, it might've concerned him. But he wasn't. And it didn't. "True," he said, and unwrapped the package.
"Oooh." Indigo picked up the tiny, interlocking wooden puzzle and ran her fingers over it. "This work is too smooth for a child."
"Walker probably helped him." Judd's brother was very good with his hands, something that seemed to surprise him as much as anyone. "It's a wolf."
Indigo gave it back to him. "Yeah, stylized but discernible."
Riley played with the pieces, thinking Mercy would probably enjoy this. He'd jumble it up and give it to her, just to see the look of feline concentration on her face.
A hand waved in front of his eyes. "Earth to Riley."
"I asked how come you got a present." She looked suspicious of his lapse in focus.
He thought about it. "I've been spending a bit of time with him, teaching him tracking, things like that."
"You're good at that."
"Being a big brother." A smile. "And uncle now. Brenna and Drew are lucky to have you."
As she walked away, he wondered if his siblings thought that. Raising them, with the pack's help of course, wasn't anything he'd ever resented - he was who he was. Solid. Rooted in earth. But now he wondered - was he too solid, too practical, to continue to captivate a woman as wild and as bright as Mercy?