Painful though his memories of Venice were, it was impossible not to be affected by the infectious depth of her joy. “You should see it during Carnevale.” It was just before the last Carnevale that he’d first seen Lisette, and he’d been unable to stop himself from seeking her out during the celebrations.
Standing in the shadows created by the alcove of a moss-covered building, his face concealed by a half mask, he’d watched her lithe figure swirl in her husband’s arms, both of them full of the wild energy that came from the beautiful chaos of the festival. She’d been dressed in red and black, a Spanish flamenco dancer transplanted onto Venetian soil, her sun gold hair dyed a vivid black.
“It’s on my list.” Adria’s slightly husky voice broke into his thoughts, so very different from Lisette’s French-accented soprano. “Along with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Inca Trail, the Taj Ma—” Her eyes connecting with his, she cut herself off midstream, a slight wash of color on her cheekbones. “Sorry, I’m talking your ear off.”
“No, tell me.” Struck once more by how much he didn’t know about her, he found himself fascinated.
“How about you tell me,” she said instead, cocking her head a little to the side as they detoured to drop their bags off at the hotel. “You were away for a long time. Tell me some of the places you visited, the things you saw.”
Riaz shoved a hand through his hair, thinking back. Though he had been based in Europe, he’d traveled through Asia and parts of Africa, had adventures that had thrilled and changed him in different ways. “I once got caught in the monsoon rains in India,” he said, choosing a memory he knew would make her laugh, because when Adria laughed … the edges inside him gentled, hurt less. “The human part of me loved it, but my wolf was not impressed.” He shuddered, as if flinging water off his fur.
Adria’s laughter held her own wolf’s amusement, the fine streaks of gold in her eyes glittering in the deep orange light of the setting sun. “I can imagine. Did you make it to Nepal, see Kathmandu?”
He shook his head. “I was on my way there when I was recalled to Rome to take care of some pack business.” He’d met Lisette not much later, and the ensuing months had torn him bloody, until he’d had to go home to the den deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he could lick his wounds surrounded by the warmth of his pack.
He still needed that warmth, that connection, but felt no lack today, though he was far from his heartland. It wasn’t hard to understand why, with Adria walking long-legged and happy beside him, her pleasure in Venice as open and as unhidden as the heart of her wolf.
No ties. No promises.
Yet, in spite of the vow they’d taken, ties were forming. Ties of friendship, of need, of respect. Whenever this relationship ended, those bonds would remain. Riaz’s wolf was pensive about that, but it didn’t reject the idea out of hand—Adria wasn’t just Pack now, wasn’t just a lover with whom he’d shared skin privileges. She’d become someone who mattered to both sides of his nature, part of his own personal “pack” of people.
His to protect.
BOWEN was waiting for them outside an unassuming seventeenth-century building half submerged by the rising waters that had permanently flooded the Venetian lagoon, the bridge that had once linked it to another, larger building long gone, leaving it an island at the end of the road, the shimmer of water beyond. The leader of the Human Alliance held out a hand. “Riaz, good to see you again.”
“Bo.” Shaking the proffered hand, he said, “This is Adria.”
Bowen’s smile changed, into the kind a man gives a woman who’d caught his attention. “Welcome to Venezia, Adria.”
The cool remoteness of her response made Riaz realize how long it had been since he’d heard that tone from her. His wolf’s smug pride had his lips tugging up at the corners.
“Come on in.” Bowen led them through the doors of the apparently small building that housed the Alliance offices, down the carpeted front hallway, and into an elevator.
Riaz spotted six security cameras, five obvious guards, and at least three concealed ones he discerned only because of his sense of smell. That was on top of a laser-alarm system and the prettily dressed receptionist with the eyes of an assassin. He didn’t even think before positioning himself so that Adria was protected by the heavy bulk of his body. He saw her sharp look, caught the tiny nod. Rather than fighting his subtly protective stance, she focused her own attention on covering his blind spots.
“Expecting company?” he asked Bo once they were in the elevator.
The other man leaned back against the wall, folding his arms over a black T-shirt that said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The quote was amusing, the way he bared his teeth less a smile than a feral display akin to that of a wolf. “Something like that. We’ll talk inside,” he said as the elevator doors opened. “I had some food brought in.”
Stepping out into the biosphere-protected part of Venice made Adria’s shoulders slump in disappointment, though her eyes never lost their alert watchfulness. “It’s no different from the aboveground city,” she whispered in a sub-vocal murmur he had to lean down to hear, her breath a caress across his jaw.
“Be patient.” He knew what was coming, his wolf quivering in anticipation as it waited to see her response.
“In here.” Bo pushed open a door.