Given BlackSea’s preference to stay under the radar, he and Nate had even rigged up a temporary boathouse, ensuring Miane’s group could go straight from their boat to the pier. Nate had suggested BlackSea might simply swim in, but Riaz didn’t think they’d be anything but besuited, polished professionals.
He was proven right.
“Here they come.” The sleek craft cut through the water with the grace of a dancer, its engine near silent. Unsurprising—BlackSea’s shipbuilding arm was considered to be peerless, its craftsmen and craftswomen artists.
The vessel slipped into the temporary boathouse and docked. And then Miane Levèque was stepping onto the pier with two unfamiliar men and Emani. Dressed in a neat skirt suit of deep green, Miane was a woman of medium height with translucent hazel eyes uptilted a fraction at the corners and stick-straight hair of ebony, the black too soft to be called jet.
That hair was cut into a blunt fringe above her eyes, throwing them into sharp relief. Her skin was a shade that placed her ancestry in Northern Africa or the Middle East, or possibly part of South America. Riaz didn’t have to guess—he’d done his research, knew she’d been born in the port of Cairo to an Algerian mother and an Egyptian father.
“Hawke.” She held out a hand that bore scars from more than a few nicks and cuts, though her nails were manicured and polished a glossy shade Riaz thought might be called oyster.
Hawke shook it, holding her cool, almost cold gaze. Riley introduced himself a second later, giving Miane a reason to look away. It was an almost ritualistic dance when two alphas met for the first time. Left to their own devices, they’d stare until one of them either backed down or drew first blood.
Riaz remained in the background with Kenji, his attention on the men who’d come with the BlackSea alpha, both clearly there for her protection, regardless of any status they held in the Conclave. That wasn’t an insult—he and the other lieutenants were here for Hawke’s protection. None of them would drop their guard at any time, in case this was a giant double-cross and BlackSea was aiming for the assassination of the most powerful alpha in the country.
“Please,” Miane said, taking a small step back, her feet encased in black leather-synth heels that made a clipping sound on the plascrete, “join me on my vessel. The stateroom is more than adequate for this meeting.”
A gracious offer meant to put them off their game, their wolves having a strong dislike for the motion of the sea. They could bear it, but it would fray tempers, reduce concentration.
“Thanks, but I’ll decline.” Hawke bared his teeth in a smile that was a silent warning. “If you prefer not to enter the warehouse, we can talk here.”
Miane considered it, one of her men whispering in her ear at a sub-vocal level. “Malachai says it will be easier to spy on us outdoors, use audio equipment to pick up our voices. The most secure place would be out at sea.”
Hawke just waited. He’d made his intentions clear, and now it was up to Miane to accept or walk away. After a tense pause and another muted discussion with the hard-eyed male named Malachai, the leader of the BlackSea Conclave inclined her head, and Riaz knew she’d decided to trust them this much at least. “Let’s proceed inside.”
Riaz left the doors open behind them. Intercepting a glance from Emani, he said, “We can use audio disrupters to make certain the conversation remains private,” and produced the small, round devices from a flat case in the back pocket of his jeans.
Emani checked the disrupters with a handheld scanner and nodded. Together, they set out and activated four of them, one in each corner of the warehouse. No one spoke until they’d returned to stand behind their respective alphas.
“We,” Miane said, “have been pleased with SnowDancer’s willingness to work with us on an agreement.”
Hawke watched her without blinking. “Let’s cut to the chase—the only remaining questions are whether we can work together on the ground, and the real reason why you’re suddenly so keen on an alliance.”
A slight widening of her eyes was the sole indication of Miane’s surprise. “Blunt.”
“We worked with you on the contract because it made sense with your people being so spread out,” Hawke said, “but that’s not who we are, and that’s not how we function. Better you know that now than be surprised by it later.”
A faint hint of warmth in the cold intelligence of Miane’s eyes. “Did you know that changeling sharks are so rare,” she said, “they’re considered a myth even by some of the changelings in BlackSea?”
Hawke’s responding smile was razor sharp. “I’m guessing you don’t believe the same.”
“As to that, I’ll keep my own counsel, but I will say I understand predators.”
“In that case, let’s talk.”
HAVING BEEN ASSIGNED to a shift at the infirmary at the last minute, Adria lifted a questioning eyebrow at Elias when he joined her. “Last I checked,” she said, “we didn’t have any dangerous criminals in here.”
“They’re hoping to wake Alice Eldridge.” Elias kept his voice low. “Hawke wants extra security until Lara can get a read on her while she’s conscious—there’s no way to know what she was programmed to do before being put to sleep.”
Shifting slightly, Adria glanced into the patient room. While access to Alice was strictly controlled, Adria had seen the comatose woman in the aftermath of the battle, when she’d helped move Alice’s bed to the side to make room for injured SnowDancers. Alice lay as she had done then, ashen and motionless. Around her stood three women, each with a frown of concentration on her face, their voices overlapping as they talked over last-minute adjustments.