He dropped his forehead against hers in unspoken affection. Stroking her hand through his hair, she decided that was enough for one night. But she didn't want him to fall asleep with such solemn thoughts on his mind - she wanted to give him a smile, guarantee his dreams would be pleasant. "Still want to know about the Bikini Babe contest?"
Chocolate brown eyes that were suddenly alert. "Hell, yes."
She came so close their breaths mingled as they spoke. "Needless to say, you repeat this, I'll sharpen my claws on your ribs."
A slow blink. "It won't leave the room."
"Okay," she said, taking a deep breath. "When I was fifteen and very stupid, I had a crush on this other cat."
"Not important. And I mean that," she added to make sure he'd drop it. "I was already stronger and faster than most boys my age. I thought this boy could handle that - he certainly seemed confident. Turned out he was a snotty-nosed twerp."
"You going to tell me what he did?"
"If you stop growling."
A startled pause. "Sorry."
"It wasn't that big a deal," she said with the maturity of age, though it had devastated her at the time. "I gave him a Valentine's Day card - he opened it in front of his friends, and made sure my friends and I were nearby, too. He laughed after he read it out, said he'd never go out with another boy." The insult had spread through the school like wildfire, savaging Mercy's fledgling feminine confidence.
"I'll kill him."
She nipped at the wolf growling in her bed. "No need. I took care of it."
A gleam of interest.
"At first I was humiliated." She'd cried on her mom's shoulder until Bas and Dorian had both been ready to do murder. "Then I got mad. I decided to show him exactly what he'd missed out on."
Amusement had his mouth curving. "I'm liking this story."
"Knew you would." It released the tension in her soul to see laughter in him again. "You can guess this part - there was a Bikini Babe contest that summer to publicize this new line of swimwear for teens. You had to be sixteen to enter and then only if you had parental permission - I was a few weeks too young, but Dorian hacked into the computers to get me entry."
She couldn't help the truly gleeful smile that spread across her face. "After I won, I printed up this poster of me wearing the winner's sash - and a truly tiny bikini - and pasted it on the twerp's locker, with the words 'Dickless wonders need not apply' at the bottom."
Riley burst out laughing. "You're f**king amazing."
"Thank you. I was also grounded for months, along with Dorian. And I got detention for the poster prank, too." She grinned. "I didn't care. I was the hottest property on campus. You've never seen a more miserable face than the twerp's - he looked like he was about to cry every time he saw me at the beach that summer. And I made sure to be at the beach a lot."
Riley's smile hadn't faded. "Why don't you like people knowing about this? He messed with your cat, you took care of business. Where's the shame in that?"
"I was an idiot, Riley - I let that moron influence how I saw myself. I lost interest in tormenting him pretty fast once I saw how weak he was. Then I was mad at myself." A pause, and without warning, the wickedness in her took over. "You know, I can still fit into the winning bikini . . . though it's gone from tiny to microscopic."
"You're tormenting me now."
Chuckling, she kissed him. "Sweet dreams, wolf."
The Information Merchant walked to his meeting in a deserted boathouse off a private marina with steady steps. Perhaps other men might have had concerns about coming to such an isolated area to meet individuals who'd already proved willing and able to kill, but he was a high-level telepath. He could and had crushed human minds with a single focused thought.
And, he was an information seller. That was his trade, and people paid him well for it. Clients seldom wanted to kill the golden goose. If they did, they'd discover their mistake. Reminded, he pressed a preprogrammed code on his organizer, utilizing the wireless link to his home computers, then slid it into his pocket.
Taking a last look around the dark, fog-shrouded street, he opened the small side door and walked in.
The bullet hit him hard, shoving him against the wall.
Staring down in disbelief at the . . . dart lodged in his chest, he attempted to gather his psychic resources for a deadly blast.
Only to find his mind mired in ice.
"Consider the experiment successful, gentlemen." A voice from the shadows. "We're all still alive."
The Information Merchant gripped the dart and tugged it out. "Why?" The agony of the loss speared down his spinal column, spread through his nervous system.
"You know the answer - information. Unfortunately, you know too much."
Steps coming in his direction.
Then a burst of pain inside his heart and everything stopped.
Just after nine the next morning found a sleep-deprived but otherwise happy Mercy sitting across from Hamilton, the SilverBlade sentinel she'd had some fun with many, many moons ago. Staring at him, she suddenly realized he was a very good-looking man. Okay, she'd known that already, but only as an adjunct to his strength and speed. But today, she really saw his face - the chiseled planes, the luscious sun-kissed skin that had come by way of a Mediterranean ancestor, the vivid topaz eyes and jet-black hair.
"Why are you looking at me like I'm a bug?" he asked, passing her the files he could've as easily e-mailed.
It was a big, giant hint. But he hadn't acted on it, which made Mercy suspicious. "I just realized how beautiful you are."