SIENNA scrubbed the large pot used in the communal kitchen that fed most of the unmated adult wolves in the den, her energetic movements driven by aggravation. “We have high-tech abilities,” she muttered. “Why do we need to blacken pots?” Three days into the third week of her punishment and she was building serious muscle from the hard labor.
“Because,” Tai said from beside her, where he was stacking plates, “some things only taste right when cooked in a pot. So says Aisha and her word is law.” Unlike her, Tai wasn’t in trouble, simply doing his shift in the kitchens, which was why he was so annoyingly cheerful.
“Four more days and I’m free,” she said under her breath, focusing on the manual task in an effort to fight the memory of Hawke’s hands on her skin, his breath so hot against her temple, her neck.
She’d spent the day following their encounter in a knot of anticipation . . . only to find that he’d left the den. Her hands moved harder on the pot, the force of it turning the scourer black. She wasn’t wolf, but she understood exactly what he was doing. That night in the training room would not be repeated—he’d have considered it a lapse of judgment on his part, conduct unbecoming an alpha. Sienna Lauren was not a suitable lover for the man who was the heart of SnowDancer.
Her knuckles scraped against the inside of the pot, but she hardly noticed, her chest ached from so deep within. Once, the intensity of her response would have set off a wave of dissonance, shards of agony designed to remind her of the need to maintain Silence, but Judd had helped her remove the final emotion triggers six months ago.
Sienna had resisted taking that step for almost a year—since Judd first worked out how to disable the pain protocols. The only reason she’d finally agreed to the removal had been because of the increasing strength of the dissonance. There had been a risk it could begin to cause permanent and irreversible brain injury. Now Sienna was free to feel everything . . . including the bone-deep terror that the X-marker might yet make her a mass murderer.
“Hey.” A nudge from Tai.
“What?” she asked, rinsing off the pot.
“You shouldn’t take it so hard, you know.” His muscled body was warm against hers as he leaned into her for a second. “I got busted off my sentry duties one time after I did something stupid. It happens.”
Touched by his attempt to make her feel better, she pushed away the knot of frustrated anger, which never seemed to go away. “I heard you went out with Evie again.” Putting the pot on the drying board, she started on the next one.
Tai pushed himself up to perch on the counter, long legs almost touching the floor. His shoulders had filled out in the past year, and he had, she realized, become a big man, almost as big as Hawke—
No. She would not think about him. He certainly hadn’t had any problem walking away from her. “So?”
“If you tell anyone I admitted this,” Tai said, “I’ll call you a liar without any compunction whatsoever.” Throwing the dish towel over his shoulder, he pinned her with a scowl that did nothing to detract from the exotic lines of his face.
“I’m good at keeping secrets.” It was a survival skill. No one, she’d realized at an early age, wanted to know a monster.
“I want to write goddamn poetry to her”—Tai’s embarrassed voice, breaking into her thoughts—“fucking serenade her and steal a kiss under moonlight, cover her room in candlelight just to see her smile, hold her all night long so I can breathe in her scent as I wake.”
Sienna’s hands had stopped moving with his first startling statement. “That’s beautiful.” Her heart pulsed with a fragile need she hadn’t even known she had until that moment.
Tai’s slightly uptilted eyes were sheepish when he said, “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Swallowing the strange, incomprehensible softness inside of her, she added, “Maybe not all of it at once, though.”
“If I survive Indigo,” Tai muttered. “She’s so freaking protective, it’s like running a gauntlet each time I dare ask Evie out.”
“Can you blame her? Evie’s so gentle.” Sienna had been certain Evie would be horrified by her when Indigo insisted on introducing Sienna to her sister—but in spite of her too-kind heart, Evie had a well-hidden streak of mischief. It had made them fast friends and, once upon a time, accomplices in some of the most spectacular stunts ever pulled in the den.
Tai nodded. “I think that pot’s done.”
Handing it over so he could dry and put it away, she wiped down the sink and made a quick getaway. It wasn’t until she was outside in the dark green shadow of the forest giants that she realized how much she’d missed the crisp air of the Sierra during her hours in the kitchens. Before defecting to SnowDancer, she’d spent her days inside high-rise buildings, in the middle of a city, and known no different. Now she’d tasted not only the wild, rugged beauty of the mountains, but learned what it was to have friends, to have family in more than just blood.
“I’ve made my decision,” she said to the man who’d come to stand beside her with an assassin’s quiet grace. “No matter what, I won’t return to the PsyNet, to Silence.” It had been an option she’d been forced to consider when it appeared her abilities were spiraling out into chaos and destruction.
“How good,” Judd said instead of responding to her statement, “is your control?”
“Strong as steel.” Her time away from the den, in the care of other defectors, including one who was a genius at shield construction, had given her a second chance. She would never forget the death that lived within her, but—“I’m going to make it, Judd. I’m going to spit in the face of that bastard who sentenced us all to die.”