Exchanging a taut, hopeful glance with Ashaya, Lara maintained her silence.
“Ashaya,” Sascha said almost half a minute later, her voice muted, as if her attention was elsewhere, “do you have more of the serum?”
“Yes, but a second shot could kill her.” Ashaya fiddled with the settings on the injector, paused for a second. “Amara’s confident we can safely give her another eighth of a dose.”
Recalling the other woman’s earlier warnings, Lara turned to her. “You trust her on that?”
“This is a challenge.” Ashaya’s answer held a clarity that said she saw her twin’s faults and flaws as well as her gifts. “Amara doesn’t like failing, and Alice’s death would constitute failure.”
“I can feel her struggling,” Sascha said, her fingers now locked so tightly with Alice’s that the warm honey of her skin was bloodless. “She knows she’s trapped—there’s panic, fear. God, it’s like she’s suffocating from the terror of being entombed inside her own body.”
Clearly shaken by the report, Ashaya put the injector to Alice’s neck. “Are you sure, Sascha?”
A press of Ashaya’s thumb and a one-eighth part of the serum blasted through the permeable barrier of Alice’s skin.
Alarms blared a second later, Alice’s body arching so severely off the bed that she almost bent herself in half before falling back onto the sheets in a jagged spasm. Scanning the alarms, Lara grabbed the oxygen mask and placed it over Alice’s mouth and nose. “Ashaya, stats!”
“Rapid spike in her mental activity. Irregular heartbeat, insufficient oxygen being absorbed.”
Slapping Sascha’s hand over the oxygen mask to keep it in place, Lara reached for another injector and pressed it to Alice’s upper arm. “Now?”
“Heartbeat is stabilizing.” Ashaya tapped the screen. “Oxygen levels reaching optimum. Brain activity continues to be erratic.”
“Alice,” Sascha’s gentle voice turned somehow ruthless, it was so intent. “Alice, you’re safe. Focus.”
That was when Lara looked down and realized that Alice Eldridge’s eyes, so rich a brown that pupil and iris were near impossible to differentiate, were wide open.
HAVING returned from the meeting with BlackSea to be told the news about Alice Eldridge, Riaz spent several minutes talking with Ashaya and Hawke. It wasn’t simply about the human woman that they spoke.
“I’ve been focused on Alice,” Ashaya said, “but what I’ve studied so far of the Alliance chip hasn’t raised any red flags. However, that’s not saying much—I’ll begin intensive work on it as soon as Alice is stable.”
Waiting until after the scientist had returned to the infirmary, Hawke said, “When’s Bo getting back to you about his liaison?”
“Next few days.” Riaz folded his arms. “What do you think about the BlackSea situation?” The secretive changeling group had finally shared why it was they needed SnowDancer as an ally.
Hawke’s expression was grim. “They’re a valuable group to have as friends. We help them as much as we can—Miane knows I won’t do anything that’d leave SnowDancer vulnerable.”
Riaz had had the same thoughts. “Do you want me to set up another meeting to finalize the alliance?”
Hawke took a second to think about it, shook his head. “I’ll talk directly to Miane, make sure there are no misunderstandings. Can you take some of Riley’s load? I figure he’s earned a rest … and some spare time to stalk Mercy.”
Riaz’s lips twitched. “Not a problem.” As a result of arranging things with Riley, as well as staying late to take several calls from the men and women in SnowDancer’s international network, Riaz didn’t get a chance to speak to Adria until after nightfall. Unable to find her in the den, he shifted and began to check out her favorite spots in the forests one by one.
He found her at the third location, the full moon a spotlight across the large clearing dotted with young saplings that had come up after a storm felled many of the mature trees a couple of years back. Silhouetted against the midnight blue of the night sky, their slender profiles added a haunting beauty to the scene.
And there was his empress walking through the saplings, her head lowered in thought.
He watched for a long, motionless moment, his hunger satisfied now that he’d found her. She was magnificent. Strong and lithe and lovely. And his. Even if she wasn’t quite certain she wanted to be—Adria thought he didn’t know about the apprehension that haunted her, but of course he knew. He noticed everything about her.
He’d been patient, but it was time she accepted he wasn’t ever letting her go.
ADRIA caught the woodsmoke and citrus of Riaz’s scent on the breeze, but it took her several seconds to locate him—in the end, it was those golden eyes that gave him away. If he closed them, he’d be a black shadow in the dark. When he brushed himself against her legs, she ran her fingers through his fur. “What are you doing here?”
He didn’t shift into human form, just pressed more heavily against her in silent demand. Comprehending, she continued to stroke him, his wolf more than big enough to reach halfway up her thigh. When he looked up, caught her gaze with the night-glow brightness of his own, she felt her heart stutter, kick-start in a faster rhythm.
That look, it was of the hunter.
And she knew this silent dance between them would be decided tonight, one way or the other. Either she tore down every one of her defenses and accepted his claim to the soul, or she walked away. Except she didn’t think the latter was an option.