The unloading of the airjet went like clockwork. Cruz and his minders were in a vehicle by the time Dev descended with Katya. DarkRiver had sent a welcoming party of four, with two all-wheel drives.
A tall male with distinctive blond hair tied back in a queue stepped forward. "Vaughn," he said, extending a hand.
"Dev." As they shook, Dev saw Vaughn's eyes flick to Katya, then back. Aware the man was a sentinel, one of the highest-ranking men in Lucas's pack, Dev figured Vaughn knew exactly who she was, but he made the introduction anyway. "This is Katya."
Vaughn didn't offer her his hand - a courtesy, since most Psy in the Net preferred not to be touched. "Ashaya's looking forward to talking with you."
"I'm not sure how safe that'll be," Katya said, face drawn.
Vaughn didn't seem worried. "We've got reinforcements. Come on - you two can ride with me and Cory. You met Mercy?"
Dev shook his head. "I heard you mated with a wolf," he said to the beautiful redhead who lifted her hand in a small wave.
"The trauma's just starting to wear off." A deadpan voice, but her eyes sparkled. "I'll be driving the others. This is Jamie." She jerked her thumb at the male beside her, his hair dyed a bright butterscotch yellow streaked with cobalt. "He's riding shotgun."
Vaughn waited until the first vehicle had pulled out before following. He offered Dev the front passenger seat, but Dev chose to sit in back with Katya. The drive passed in easy silence - for the front-seat passengers in any case. Dev was supremely aware of the rigid line of Katya's spine, the knife-edged question that still hung between them.
He wanted to grab her nape, make her turn to face him instead of staring out the window. Battling the urge gave him one hell of a headache. As a result, he was in a shit of a mood by the time they arrived at the location DarkRiver had chosen for the meeting with Sascha.
"Nice place," Dev said. Set on a large plot of land that gave it privacy from neighbors, the single-level house was big enough for all of them. The others had already settled in according to the text message he'd received from Tiara. "How far are we from the city?"
"Fifteen minutes," Vaughn answered. "We'll leave you one of the vehicles - and we can get you another if you think it's necessary."
Dev took a moment to think about it, very aware of Katya standing silently on the other side of the engine. "One more would be good in case we have to split up for some reason. I want both coded to recognize me, Tag, and Tiara."
Katya's hand curled into a fist on the hood.
"Only take half an hour or so," Vaughn said. "Cory'll code you into this one - then you can do your other people."
As the young male leopard worked with the car's computronic system, Dev saw Katya step around to stand near Vaughn. "Is Ashaya well?"
"Yes." The sentinel raised an eyebrow. "Thought she came to see you."
"I wasn't in the best frame of mind then. We didn't talk much."
"She's happy," Vaughn said simply. "Dorian, her, and the cub, they make a good family."
Cory asked Dev to input his thumbprint then so he missed the next few comments. When he turned back around, Vaughn was showing Katya something on his phone, the two of them so close, they were almost touching. If it had been Tag . . . but it wasn't. Dev didn't know Vaughn, didn't trust him. His entire body went taut, ready to strike.
The front door of the house opened in the middle of his fight with a burst of jealousy unlike anything he'd ever before experienced. Mercy and Jamie walked out onto the porch, catching Vaughn's attention. The sentinel put away his phone. "All set?"
Mercy nodded before turning to Dev. "Sascha'll be by this afternoon."
"Thanks." It came out sounding civilized, though he felt anything but.
"Hope she can help the - " The redhead snapped her mouth shut at the swift shake of Dev's head.
Even as Mercy followed Dev's cue, Katya stiffened. An instant later, that stiffness was gone, leached out of her like so much air, her shoulders slumping. He couldn't bear to see her that way. Leaving Cory to complete the verification process, he walked to stand at her side, then thought to hell with it and put his arm around her waist, tugging her into the heat of his body.
She didn't soften for him . . . but neither did she pull away.
"Cory," Vaughn called out, making no comment on Dev's actions, "you done?"
Mercy, however, gave Dev a hard glance. The truth hit him like a lightning bolt - if Katya refused to return to New York with him, the leopards would find some way for her to stay. After all, not only was Ashaya a phenomenally gifted M-Psy, the leopards also had two cardinals in their pack.
He met Mercy's gaze, held it. After a while, she gave the slightest of smiles. "Guess we'll be heading off. See you later, Dev. Katya, here's my number." She handed over a card. "Call if you need me."
Dev waited until the cats had left to say, "You going to call her?"
"No." Rubbing one edge with her fingertips, she slid the card into a pocket. "Ashaya's a good person, but she doesn't understand how badly he changed me. I see him now, you know - Ming - that birthmark on his face is unmistakable. His expression never changed," she murmured, "no matter what he did or how much I begged."
Rage, sudden and uncontrollable, wrapped around his throat as he shifted their stance so that he could look down into her face. But she didn't give him the chance to speak, putting her hands on his chest and pushing. "Why are you holding me?"
"Because you looked like you needed it."