It had been instinct for Riaz to come up into the mountains. Man and wolf, they were both used to aloneness, often needed solitude, especially after a social event, but over the past minutes, he’d realized this aloneness was of a different kind.
A dull, throbbing ache, the pain was centered in the place where the mating bond should’ve been, as if he had an open wound deep inside him. The joy and warmth of his packmates had muted the ache over the night, but surrounded by nothing but the chill air of the Sierras, the sky a crimson-orange cauldron, he could no longer avoid the truth. He’d come home to heal … but the wound, it bled darkest red.
The echo of a male voice.
Catching the unexpected sound on the wind, he looked across the lake to glimpse a small, sleek wolf padding beside a tall male dressed in black. The wolf’s body brushed the man’s as they walked along the misty earth, the man’s fingers trailing through the animal’s fur when he bent as if to speak to her.
Riaz’s hand fisted, a corrosive bitterness flooding his senses.
The ugliness of it was a cold slap.
Breathless, chest pounding in shock, he looked up in time to see Brenna and Judd disappear into the mist. However, his mind was no longer on the other couple, but on the staggering insight into who he was becoming, who he was allowing himself to become: a bitter, angry man filled with the acid of envy.
That wasn’t who he wanted to be, wasn’t who he’d ever been. Just like he hadn’t ever been a man who liked to hurt women on any level.
An image of Adria’s stunning eyes, the icy whip of her anger, the sway of her h*ps as she walked away from him.
God, he’d been a shit to her. Shame was leaden in his gut. Nothing excused the way he’d treated her, the way he’d tried to use her. Adria was right. She deserved more than a man who had permitted his anger at fate to eat away at him until he almost didn’t recognize who he was anymore. His wolf, always so proud, lowered its head, its tail limp, but both parts of him knew this silent penance wasn’t enough. The man he wanted to be, the man he’d been before Lisette, blamed no one else for his own faults, and faced up to his mistakes.
The sun touched him with golden fingers but did nothing to ease the ice in his soul.
MING EXAMINED THE satellite images captured when Sienna Lauren had allowed her cold fire to feed. Though taken in the night-darkness of the battle, there was no absence of light, the red and yellow of the deadly fire an inferno.
Setting those images aside, he looked at the ones taken directly after the battle. The carnage was absolute, the forest a wasteland. No sign remained of the Pure Psy army.
An incredible weapon.
One Ming had been certain he wanted destroyed if she had survived, because she could not be controlled. Except … His eye went to the small steel box on his desk. It held within it a single chip, the last remaining prototype from Ashaya Aleine’s aborted project to instigate Silence on a biological level.
That chip could also be utilized as a leash.
The problem with using it in such a fashion had always been twofold. One, the chip was unstable. Two, Ming would need to have a controller chip implanted to interface with Sienna’s, and even had he considered the risk acceptable, this was the single surviving chip of which he had per-sonal knowledge. He’d had it excised from one of the victims the Scotts had implanted, after the male’s suicide. Neither Henry nor Shoshanna had ever realized he knew of their unauthorized experimentation. Ming’s scientists hadn’t been able to reverse engineer the chip, however, one had just informed him that there was a very slight chance it could be altered to allow control via a remote device.
“Do it,” he said into the intercom.
If the device worked, he would own an X. If it failed, Sienna Lauren would die in an implosion of brain cells.
A perfect solution.
HAVING HAD A message that the senior lieutenant wanted to see her, Adria knocked on the door to Riley’s office three days after the mating ceremony, found herself being waved in though he held a phone to his ear. “Grab a seat,” he said. “This’ll only take a sec.”
As she waited, she took in his office. It was—and wasn’t—what she would’ve expected. Ordered and clean, it was free of clutter. That fit the lieutenant’s rock-solid, calm nature. What didn’t fit was the framed poster behind his desk—of the kaleidoscope of color, flesh, feathers, sequins, and more that was Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.
Or perhaps it did fit, she thought with an inward smile. After all, pragmatic, sensible Riley had crossed dangerous pack lines to claim a leopard sentinel as his mate. No one, she reminded herself, was one-dimensional … not even the angry man who’d had his hands so hot and rough on her skin. “Have you been?” she asked Riley when he hung up the phone, shoving the raw memories away before they could derail her all over again.
Following her gaze to the poster, he nodded. “Survived it, too.” A smile that had a story behind it. “How was the outer-perimeter shift? You got back this morning?”
“Yes, it was good. Peaceful.” She’d left the afternoon after the mating ceremony, taking over from one of the leopards. “I’m happy to do extra shifts up there.”
Instead of accepting the offer, Riley leaned back in his chair, dark eyes intent. “You’re a highly experienced senior soldier, Adria—running patrol will frustrate you if you don’t have other outlets for your skill. Matthias tells me you were in charge of training the novices in his region.”