“It’s the underlying order of it,” the young woman had said. “I like the fact the entire art is built on a base of hundreds of set moves that the fighter puts together in unexpected ways.”
It was Sienna she’d been chatting with when Riaz appeared on the edge of the outdoor training area. “I managed to get two tickets on the high-speed train to San Diego,” he’d said when the younger woman had taken her leave. “Departing in two hours.”
Startled, it had taken her a moment to figure out what he meant. “We can’t take off again so soon after Venice,” she’d said, heart in her throat.
“Return trip tonight—we’ll get back into the den around two a.m. You’re done for the day, right?”
“Yes, but I was planning to catch up on some paperwork.” Like all dominants in charge of minors, she made sure to keep their parents updated with weekly reports.
“Do it on the train.” He’d tapped her cheek with his finger. “Come on, Empress. I want you to meet my family.”
She’d been hit sideways by the emotional import of the request—the fact Riaz had invited her so close to the heart of his personal pack … it made a thousand butterflies awaken in her stomach.
“The gardens are stunning,” she commented now as they stepped out of the taxi, one hand unobtrusively on her abdomen in an effort to soothe the fluttering within.
“You have wonderful taste, dear!” The same small, curvy woman she’d seen at Hawke and Sienna’s mating ceremony appeared unexpectedly from around the side of a sprawling rosebush, hands held out and a huge smile wreathing her face. “I’m so glad to meet you, Adria.”
Adria leaned down to accept Abigail Delgado’s hug, the scent of her a mix of spices she couldn’t name and a sweet floral note. “Me, too,” she said, suddenly tongue-tied.
When Abigail stepped back, Adria looked up to see Riaz, dressed in jeans and a chocolate dark shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, being hugged by a tall man who had such strikingly similar features it was clear they were father and son. The only difference was that the thick black of Jorge Delgado’s hair was faintly threaded with silver, the fine lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth adding a quiet depth of character. “God,” she said without thinking, “Riaz is going to get even more beautiful as he grows older.”
Abigail’s delighted laugh made Adria color, but Riaz’s mother tucked Adria’s arm into her own and squeezed. “It’s a terrible cross we have to bear, sweetheart.”
Meeting those twinkling eyes at the whisper, Adria burst out laughing, the butterflies taking flight to leave her wolf happy on an elemental level. Later that night, when Riaz tucked her to his side as the train punched through the opaque veil of night, she knew the dinner had been akin to the possessive dominance of his loving after Venice—her lone wolf was claiming her in his own quiet, determined, and inexorable way.
Her heart stuttered, jubilant and terrified in equal measures.
KALEB FOUND HIMSELF at a dead end in the Net, but instead of backing away and attempting to navigate around the section, he examined every aspect of the blockade. It was a black wall. No fractures, no data. Dead space, the Net truncated.
Such barricades formed naturally in areas with low population densities. The NetMind shunted the individuals in the zone into the nearest active channel in an exercise in efficiency most people never realized—because the NetMind augmented the Net link of the affected to ensure those men and women felt no strain at being psychically positioned outside their geographic area.
The problem with this truncated section was that it was almost but not quite far enough away from a relatively dense population matrix. Any gain in efficiency resulting from shifting the minds in this sector wouldn’t have been enough to justify the NetMind’s output.
Which meant the neosentient entity hadn’t created this roadblock.
It took him three hours to wedge open a small doorway in the wall of black without tripping the inbuilt alarms. Slipping through, he closed it behind himself, concealing the doorway for later access. The barricade proved to have been nothing but a firewall meant to discourage anyone from continuing to follow the trail—because it was hot again on this side.
Even as he swept through the slipstream in search of his target, part of his brain continued to sift and sort the millions of pieces of random data that floated past. Rumors, whispers, business information, snippets of fading conversation, it was all filtered out so it wouldn’t clog his mind. Until a single fragment made him pause.
…pushed the anchor down the steps, but his death…
Not halting his psychic pursuit, he touched the NetMind’s curious presence, asked it to follow the fragment. The vast neosentience returned to him in a split second with the report that the fragment was all that remained. The rest of the conversation had degraded, its energy absorbed back into the Net.
Regardless, only one anchor had died in that manner in the preceding weeks. And since the mode of his death had not been made public, the fragment appeared to infer the male had been murdered. What Kaleb couldn’t reason out was why. As he and Aden had discussed, the death of an anchor offered no one in the Net any advantage.
Following that logic, it was likely the murder was tied to something that had nothing to do with the victim’s position as an anchor. That other reason was often cold, rational money—the anchor’s heirs might simply have wanted to hasten the speed of their inheritance.