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Manual strangulation. 10



Only Vaughn could do that, and she wondered why he bothered. If the foreseers hadn't withdrawn into Silence, perhaps his sister, too, would have lived.

CHAPTER 14

"What do youfeel during these visions?" Sascha asked, not forcing her to face the issue as Vaughn would've done. "There's no one here but us.

"And a cat with very good hearing." Faith couldn't see him, but she knew he was out there pacing, protecting.

"Actually two," Sascha corrected. "A result of Lucas being overprotective is my guess, though I wouldn't put it past the sentinels to do it on their own." Her laugh was both amused and exasperated.

"Two?" She could bear Vaughn hearing her confession, because no matter what she'd said in the car, she trusted him. But another cat?

"Don't worry. Vaughn would never allow him within hearing range.

Something in the other woman's tone made Faith go still. "What?

Sascha smiled. "Nothing. So, what do you feel?

"Rage, pain, malice, fury, bloodlust." She couldn't bring herself to list the sick pleasure felt by the sadistic sexuality of that raping mind. Because during the visions, she was him and the pleasure was her own.

It made her want to vomit, to tear out her own mind. No wonder F-Psy had chosen the coward's way out and surrendered to the clean commerce of Silence.

'The worst possible way to snap out of the Protocol." The renegade cardinal's face softened. "I think emotions are the key to why your shields are failing. Psy in the past would probably have fought fire with fire, shoving up blocks powered by the depth of their horror at the acts.

Faith was startled by the echo of Vaughn's earlier comments. "Go on.

"It's speculation on my part, but I know my shields cracked because I was crushing emotion when emotion was my strength.

Faith didn't ask more about Sascha's abilities. Faith was linked to the Net. The PsyClan did monitor her. On top of that, the Council was now paying her an unusual amount of attention. "But my ability isn't based on emotion.

"I think you're wrong. If emotion wasn't at the heart of foresight, F-Psy would never have seen the things they once did, never have seen murder and disaster. They saw those things because they were people who cared about others, who were driven to try to stop the evil.

Faith couldn't begin to imagine the strength it must've taken to be a foreseer in the time before Silence, to see death and pain in an endless sequence of what could be. "You're saying it's possible that Silence left the section of my mind that has the capacity to see darkness, the emotional center, unprotected. To even accept the existence of such a center would go against the conditioning. Following that logic, I can't shield that which doesn't exist." Leaving her totally exposed to the malicious power of a killer in need of an audience.



"Exactly." Sascha's eyes flashed bright and Faith almost imagined she saw colors. Impossible. "I think that's why Vaughn can pull you outhis touch awakens that buried center.

Faith's stomach clenched at the mention of the cat who'd somehow become integral to her life. "Even if you're right and I find that area of my brain and reinitiate the protections, it won't stop the visions, just make them easier to escape, correct?

"Faith." Sascha sighed. "If you continue to try to block your gift as it's been blocked for twenty-four years, you'll destroy yourself from the inside out.

And go insane, Faith finished silently, hands clenching into rigid balls under her thighs. "If I accept these visions, it'll be the same as accepting emotion and I won't be able to hide that for long. I'm too closely watched. The end result will be the sameincarceration in a mental health facility." Another trap with no way out.

"You always have choices. The question is, are you willing to see them?

Or are you a coward hiding behind the convenient shield of Silence?

Words Sascha would never say, but Vaughn would in a heartbeat. He wasn't gentle like the cardinal beside her. He was a predator and he went for the throat. And she watched the forest for him until he appeared for her in a flash of gold and blacka jaguar circling her, protecting her, perhaps caging her. She should try to run, try to escape, but of course, there was nowhere to go.

Not when the real threat was inside her own mind.

Vaughn didanother sweep of his range and confirmed that the second sentinel in the area, Dorian, was keeping to the outer boundary. Only Vaughn was allowed so close to Faith. Even having Dorian in the same wide range made him want to react with brutal violence. The jaguar suddenly understood the extreme possessiveness that gripped DarkRiver males during the mating dance, understood why some of them turned close to feral.

Because the same violent fury was riding him now.

He roared and everything in the forest went silent. Brooding but ever watchful, he began to once again consider how to seduce the object of his hunger. He wasn't a fool. He knew sex would amp up the electricity between them, not turn it down. But if he didn't have her soon, he might gnaw off a paw.

The cat was frustrated with the man. Take her, it said; pleasure will crush her fear. The man wanted to agree. It would be so easy. Except that it would be a lie. No one raised as Faith had been, in the privacy-less box she called a home, would so quickly be able to adapt to the ferocity of his needs. And a Psy? Impossible.

Sex might actually send her into the very seizures she'd been conditioned to expect.

But she felt him on the psychic level, an intimacy he'd never expected. That she could pick up only his most erotic thoughts delighted him. It gave him the best of both worldshis privacy and the ability to seduce her without subjecting her to touch, which might send her over the edge.

Sensual hunger beating in every surge of blood, he began to think of Faith and all the ways in which he wanted to take her. The jaguar, being a jaguar, wanted to enter her from behind. A view nothing could match, the man agreed. So much to explore, to stroke, while she lay helpless. His body reminded him of the sharp bite of pain that had been her response to his earlier provocation. Maybe not so helpless, he grinned inside. But this was his fantasy and here she was hissubmitting, asking to be touched, to be kissed, to be mounted.

Something "pinged" against his mind.

He went predator-quiet as he tasted the touch. Ever since Sascha had discovered the Web of Stars that linked the sentinels to their alpha, they'd been experimenting with its tactical uses. Sascha alone had so far been able to send languageto Lucasbut both Vaughn and Clay had proved able to "knock" in a crude sense.

Vaughn could also sense emotion sent by Sascha but he'd never before "heard" anything else. Sascha remained the sole person who could receive everyone, though it looked like Lucas might be able to train his mind to do the same. As a result of their work with the Web, Vaughn had learned that his packmates' mental scents were the same as their physical ones. And he knew what they all tasted like.

Definitely not woman and hunger, need and fear, passion and musk.

The cat wanted to purr. Encouraged, he continued with his erotic fantasies, playing with a woman he'd decided was his. Faith might not agree, but Vaughn had never lost marked prey. Now he imagined curving his hands over her hips, stroking that tempting cream and gold skin, the warmth and woman-softness of her. He'd pet her first, he thought, gentle her as he might a stubborn feline. Then he'd lean down and lick his way to her neck, indulging his desire to taste her skin until he reached the savage beat of her pulse.

Another mental push. Much harder. He took it with an inward growl of pleasure. He wasn't underestimating Faitha cardinal might not be able to easily manipulate a changeling mind, but she could rip it open and kill him. However, he knew she wouldn't, knew something she wasn't yet ready to accept. The consequence of that truth was that Faith couldn't hurt him.

In his fantasy, he closed his teeth over her pulse. He could maul her very badly, but that he never would, gave her the power. That was something she had yet to learn. As his hand closed over her breast and his fingers found her nipple, he bit down a tiny fraction harder, just enough to mark, to brand.

The next shove at his mind was tinged with desperation. Aware he'd pushed her too far, though it wasn't anywhere near far enough for him, he let her body fade from his mind and forced himself to think thoughts she couldn't see. Not knowing the reason for their connection was probably driving Faith nuts. Good. She needed to experience the unruliness of the wild or she'd never break free of Silence. And she had to smash through those walls. She no longer had a choice.

Lucas arrivedto pick up Sascha sometime after two in the morning. Watching the vehicle disappear into the darkness, Faith began waiting for Vaughn. She could feel him inside her where no one should've been able to go, knew he was close by. She was proven right. He walked out of the forest on human feet a split second after the last whisper of sound from the departing car.

He was naked.

Her fingers clenched on the porch support post, her whole body filled with jagged bursts of lightning screaming for escape. It had been her intention to tell him to stop thinking of her with such brazen heat, to stand her ground against this predator who considered her body his in a way she barely understood.

But all she could do was watch him walk to her. There was nothing but lethal grace to him, his every move declaring that he was not human, not Psy, not anything civilized. His hair was loose around his shoulders, setting off those wild, not quite human eyes, and his body was pure lithe muscle.

Her own eyes refused to obey her commands and continued to skate down his body when she knew it was a mistake. He'd see it as an invitation. But still she lingered over the fine hair that dusted his chest and reappeared in a darker shade at his navel. That thin line led downward in flagrant challengeshe told herself to look away but it was already too late. He jutted out thick and hard.

A whimper exiting her throat, her hand spasmed around the post. He was magnificent. Never before had she seen a man so unapologetically nude and at ease. Her heart thudded violently enough to hurt. She had to run. She had to watch. Then he was standing a step below her and even then he was taller, stronger, fundamentally, irrevocably male.

Those half-human eyes captured her own. "What do you want?

"I don't know." The answer was raw, ripped from the secret core of her, the unknown part that had the capacity for both chilling horror and the most exquisite hunger.

"You can touch." His voice was a purr that rolled over her like the softest, most sensual stroke of living fur. "I've touched youthis is your chance to get even.

Touch?

It was a very bad idea. Would in all probability completely fragment her mind and leave her a splintered mess. "I can't.

"Only as far as you want," he coaxed. "I'll give you free rein." Raising his arms, he closed his fingers over the edge of the overhang that protected the porch. "Promise.

Trust a cat? She'd have to be crazy. "I have to go back," she whispered, but her eyes were on the sensual fullness of his lips, her mind awash with echoes of his erotic thoughts.

"Not for a few hours. Plenty of time to play.

Time enough to repair her shields? The ones against the PsyNet were holding, but despite everything she'd learned tonight, she hadn't yet ascertained a method to protect against the darkness and remain safe from punishment for having broken Silence. It didn't matter. She was already mad. Because she was going to accept Vaughn's invitation. And she was going to enjoy it. The lightning in her bloodstream was a heated caress, the pulse between her legs an unsettling but exquisite pleasure.

She felt.

Raising the hand not gripping the post, she hesitated, mindful of his animal nature. "Promise?

He snapped playfully at the fingers hovering so close to his mouth. "Promise.

"Even if I..." She didn't know how to say what it was she wanted to say.

"Even if you suck on me and leave me without an orgasm. Even then.

A wave of red fire swept across her vision at the idea of playing with him that way, a way so scandalously intimate she'd never before been able to understand the attraction it held for human and changeling women. What satisfaction could a female get from the act? Now she knew. The thought of having him that much at her mercy, of giving him that much pleasure, was a drug in itself. Maybe too powerful a drug. "I may have an adverse reaction." To anything they tried.

"I'll stop you before you go too far. I won't let you be helpless.

"Too far" was no longer the solid line it had once been. "I have to trust you.

"Yes." No obfuscation, nothing but blunt truth.

Her fingers brushed his lips as he finished speaking and she waited for the rush of fear. Of pain. It came, the conditioned shell of her mind recoiling from the act. Instead of withdrawing, she gave the lightning full rein. It was so extreme, so raw, that it buried the fear and pain under an avalanche of pure sensation. And she was free.

She pressed against his lips and he parted them to allow her to slide a single finger inside. The suction of his mouth went straight through to the pulsing flesh between her legs. "How?" Shaken by the intensity inspired by such a simple act, she began to pull her finger out.

His teeth threatened to bite, but released her after a painless graze. "Because it's me.

She wanted to take issue with the arrogance of his response, but there was something about the look in his eyes, something that felt like truth. Sucking in a jagged breath, she followed her fingers as they whispered hesitantly over his shoulders.

He blazed, as if his body burned for hers, as if he'd keep her warm on the coldest night. Startled by the seduction of the idea, she almost jerked back her hand, but she wanted too much to let go so easily. "I am strong," she said, unaware she'd spoken aloud until Vaughn replied, "Yes, you are.

Her fingers spread through the golden hair on his chest and she felt the beat of his heart under her palm, strong, steady, a little fast. He was as affected by this wild hunger as she was, but he wasn't scared. Because he, too, was wild.

Her own pulse was everywhere. In her head, in her mouth, in her chest, in the heat between her legs, in every inch of her perspiration-damp skin. She knew she was pushing herself and she didn't care. Her mind filled with the earthy scent of Vaughn as she leaned toward him and breathed deep. It was a rush, an addiction she hadn't even been aware of having. Her nipples had tightened long ago, but now they seemed to bum hot, rubbing against her bra as if her breasts had swollen and there was too much pressure.

She had the urge to squeeze her own flesh and ease the ache. Under her palm, Vaughn's pulse kicked hard. She looked up to find his eyes glowing from within, dark knowledge in their depths. "Let me," he growled, and it was a growl. She should've been afraid of the animal so thinly covered by his human skin, but she was long past doing what she should.

"No." If he touched her, it was all over.

He growled again, low in his throat, but didn't break his word. The muscles of his upper arms stood out in sharp relief as he gripped the roof edge even harder. So much strength and it was at her command. The power was heady, or was that desire turning her blood to fire?

Returning her attention to his body, she finally released the death grip she had on the post and slid both hands down his chest. He made her want to lick her lips. Lick him. Nothing, no one, had ever prompted such hunger in her.

"Do it," he ordered.

She knew what he wantedthe thick length of him was furious with blood. It was her own hunger that surprised. But not enough to stop her. Unconsciously moving closer, she left one hand on his ribs while the other slid down to skim lightly along his erection.

He sucked in a sharp breath, his body thrumming with tension. Captivated, she repeated the movement.

"Don't. Tease.

She barely heard him through the blood fury of pure sensation as she traced the proud evidence of his maleness one more time. His body bucked. And she curled her exploring fingers to hold him.

CHAPTER 15

Faith found herselfunable to close her fingers completely around him. How could anything so thick fit in her body? And why was she consumed with the curiosity to find out?

He hadn't said a word since that last barked command, his entire body supple stone that beat for her alone. In her hand he was almost unbearably silky, the skin covering his hardness delicate, surprising her. She hadn't thought her jaguar would be delicate anywhere. That was the last coherent thought she had.

She ran her closed fist up and down his engorged length, indulging the animal inside her, the primal being that knew only hunger, need, and sex. Her breasts hurt so badly that she ached to rip off her clothing and rub herself against his chest, but that would mean releasing him and she didn't want to. All she wanted was to squeeze and stroke over and over. And over again.

"Stop, Faith.

She shook off the unwelcome interruption and thought of the million other things she wanted to do to him. First, she'd place her mouth over the dark gold of his chest and taste the sweat and heat so temptingly close. Maybe she'd even take off her own clothes as a prelude to pasting her body flush against his.

"Baby, stop." A hand knotted in her hair.

She tried to pull away, but he was too strong. Then another big male hand covered the fingers she had around his erection and attempted to ease her off. She reacted by digging the nails of her free hand into his chest while squeezing his erection harder.

His snarl raised every hair on her body. She expected him to bite her. That was fine with her. What she didn't expect was for him to tighten the hand he'd placed over hers, pressing until she thought he'd cause her to hurt him.

"No!" She let go.

He stepped out of reach with jaguar speed, so quick that she had to grab the post to keep herself upright. Her head swam. She found her free hand reaching out for him. "Vaughn." It was nearly a sob. "Please.

"Shh." He was behind her before she even saw him move. "Let me ease you down.

"Down?" Need crawled over her skin, pushed at the walls of her mind. But when she would've turned, he used his hands to hold her in place. Struggling with the frenzied rage of a wild thing, she twisted and kicked, her mind having no memory of its offensive capabilities. Right then, she was a wholly physical creature and in that arena, he was far too strong.

"No! No!" Turbulent clouds of anger gathered over the lightning.

Vaughn continued to hold Faith in place with his grip on her upper arms, while ensuring that no other part of his body touched hers. "Put up your walls, baby." The jaguar fought his choice, but a promise was a promise.

"No!

The word was so violently obstinate, he knew that whatever was driving her wasn't quite sane. "See the forest in front of you?

A sullen silence. Then, "Yes.

"There are others there who might see us.

"Others?

"Yes. Do you want others to see me?" He spoke to a part of her she didn't know existed when it was that very part that was exacerbating her hunger.

The answer came without pause. "No.

"Then put up your shields." If she'd been fully aware, she might've challenged him that they could just as easily step inside the cabin. But of course, she wasn't anywhere close to being aware.

Her body shuddered, but she stopped arguing. It took a long time for her to say, "You should stop touching me now. And please put on some clothes.

He didn't push her this time, did exactly as she'd asked. It half killed him to walk away from the promise of what might've been.

It appeared asif the sensual overload had short-circuited some of the other lines of conditioning. An hour after skating on the thin edge of madness, Faith sat on the swing finishing a cup of coffee, Vaughn a larger-than-life presence against the railing across from her. Yet her mind was on someone else.

"My sister's name was Marine." It was a deliberate step into trust. "She was only twenty-two years old, but already integral to the PsyClan's business unit.

Vaughn didn't say a word. Maybe he knew she simply needed his presence, needed to know he'd be there to catch her if she fell. After all he, too, had lost a sister.

"We were less than acquaintancesI saw her maybe once or twice a year, if that. But I used to keep track of her.

I always justified it as staying up to date with the PsyClan as a whole, but that was a lie. I wanted to know my sister." She'd saved every school report, every training log. "She was a cardinal telepath." She glanced up to see if he understood.

His eyes didn't glow, but they pierced the soft black of the night nonetheless. "Extremely powerful.

"Yes." She drank some of the coffee. It warmed her body, but did nothing for the chill inside of her. "Most telepaths are specialized in some way, but Marine was a pure telepath she could send and receive over distances you can't even imagine." She wanted him to understand the beauty of Marine's exquisite mind.

"Why was that such an asset if you have the PsyNet?

"It's true that the Net allows us to communicate and meet regardless of our physical location, but it also involves a level of vulnerability. Our minds can be hacked while on the Net. Plus anything said on the Net, even words spoken behind the thickest of mental vaults, becomes in some way a part of the Net. No one may be able to access it, but the data is there. 'Pathing cuts out both those factors. No chance of being hacked. No records of any kind.

"Perfect security," Vaughn mused. "Her services must have been in high demand.

"Yes." But she'd taken time out of her busy schedule to train as a blocker for the day when Faith's mind broke.

"Did she look like you?

Faith shook her head. "Our maternal DNA was different. After my birth, the PsyClan decided not to risk producing another F cardinal. We're valued because we're rare and they didn't want to glut the market." That cold reasoning had been explained to her long ago, no one seeming to consider the psychological impact it might have on a child to realize she was nothing but a product manufactured for a very specific purpose.

"So the M-Psy selected a number of maternal candidates whose genetic history lacked any foreseers." They'd also chosen highly telepathic women, for the very reason that one day Faith would need a keeper, and her father preferred to retain power in the hands of the immediate family. "It worked. Marine was a Tp cardinal with no hint of F designation abilities. She had skin like ... like milk coffee, and a mental voice so clear, it had the resonance of a perfectly tuned bell. Her mother was from the Caribbean.

"But she lived with your PsyClan?

"That was part of the reproduction contract. The maternal side of her family was interested in seeing if they could produce an F-Psy, so my father allowed them to use his genetic material on another female in their line.

"The resulting male offspring has never been considered part of NightStar, as Marine was never considered a member of the Caribbean family." She paused at the look on his face. "You don't understand. Neither do I. I don't think I ever did. If I had, I wouldn't have been so hungry for knowledge of Marine.

"I used to imagine playing with her as a childbefore that kind of imagination was conditioned out of me. She was this fantasy and everything I needed in a friend." But never in reality had there been any hint of friendship in their dealings with each other, two perfect Psy with ice water running in their veins. "Now I won't ever have the chance to know her. She's gone." For always.

She stared fixedly at a point past Vaughn's shoulder. When he moved to stand beside her, his hand stroking her unbound hair, she didn't tell him to move away. She needed to know that he'd heard her silent sorrow, that he knew about Marine. Someone had to know, someone had to remember in case Faith didn't make it.

A single tear streaked down her face and it was the first time such a thing had happened in her memory. It was liquid fire across her skin, so hot, so pure. "She was killed to satisfy bloodlust, her life snuffed out because the darkness was hungry for pain and torture. And I was too weak to stop it." She uncurled the fingers of one hand and rubbed it across her heart, trying to ease the guilt that had twisted a knot inside of her.

"You didn't have the skills." Vaughn's voice was so consciously gentle it hurt.

"Didn't I? Or maybe I didn't want to see what the visions were trying to tell me, was too much of a coward.

"The guilt won't ever go away," he told her with changeling frankness, "but you can stop it from being so corrosive.

"How?

"By doing something that balances the scales, by saving someone else's daughter or sister." The sharp blade of knowledge cut every word.

She looked up into his face, unsurprised to find his eyes gone utterly cat. "Will you tell me about her?" Already she knew this jaguar walked alone. But she wanted him to trust her this much at least.

His hand stilled on her hair. "My sister starved to death because I was too young and weak to find enough food to keep her alive. And I miss her every day of my life.

Faith reached out in an effort to give comfort, the first time she'd done so. The hand she put on his thigh was tentative, but it held so much and, though he said nothing to acknowledge the act, he began to stroke her hair again.

"What was her name?

"Skye." His voice dropped until it was more growl than human. "Our parents abandoned us in predator territory with nothing but the clothes on our backs.

"But they were changelings.

"Being animal is no guarantee against evil." Vaughn's thigh turned rock-hard under her hand. "My parents weren't evil, butthey were caught up in itI have to think that to keep myself sane.

She stayed silent, trying to give him what he'd given her.

"My parents were very young and unmarried when they had memost jaguars don't follow human customs. Skye was bom three years later. When she was two and a half, they joined a new church and got married. Soon afterward, they gave up their worldly possessions and we began living in a commune." His voice was hard. 'That wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't begun to notice the way some of the 'elders' looked at Skye. She was a baby and they wanted to put their hands on her.

Faith couldn't imagine anything so horrendous. "You protected her.

"I got her killed." Vaughn had lived with that knowledge for over two decades. "I was always with herI refused to allow them near. I was labeled a problem child and my parents had to discipline me according to their new religion." Hours of beatings, of isolation, of being told he was "full of sin.

It had terrified him that they'd get to Skye while he was locked up, but his parents must not have been completely lost because they'd always kept Skye close while he was being punished. "When it became clear that I wasn't going to relent and that I'd taught the other kids to be wary of the elders, too, they began a campaign to get rid of us. They told our parents to prove their devotion to their new God by giving up the 'fruits of sin,' the children they'd borne out of wedlock.

"How could ... ?" Faith shook her head in bewilderment and he realized how hard he'd clenched his hand in her hair.





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