Manual strangulation. 15

"You can drop out the second your shields fail. I'll catch you." He'd already caught her, but she wasn't ready to accept the depth of their connection.

"Then I'll wait until it becomes unavoidable," she whispered, "I have things to do.

He smiled, using sex to banish the taint of sadness. "Yes, you do. Kiss me.

"I think that's an excellent idea." She braced her hands palms down beside his head and placed her mouth over his. It was an utterly feminine kiss, gentle and exploratory, not ravaging but coaxing. To his shock, Vaughn found he enjoyed being coaxed. The cat settled, too, pleased. It liked being petted and this was the most intimate kind of petting.

When her tongue whispered across his lips, he opened his mouth and allowed her to taste him as he tasted her. He could feel her knee against his side, but she remained out of reach, her breasts not pressing against his chest where he wanted them. He imagined her kissing him naked, her body pasted along his, a sizzlingly intimate meeting of mouths that might short-circuit all of her nerves.

Gasping into the kiss, she broke it. Her eyes were filled with white lightning, her lips moist from his kiss, her skin flushed with a soft glow that signaled arousal. He took pleasure in the markers though he didn't need themthe scent of her acted like a drug to his senses. Breathing deep, he fed the hunger, stoked the fire, and waited.


Faith's whole bodyfelt tight, as if her skin had been stretched too thin and was close to bursting. She wanted to rub herself up against the beauty of the male in front of her. He was a stunningly sensual creature, an invitation to every one of her starved senses. Her conditioning warned that too much sensation after a lifetime of numbness could cause the most brutal kind of mental cascade, but she wasn't listening.

Licking her tongue over her lips, she put one hand flat on his chest. A shudder shook his powerful frame. Startled, she looked up to find his eyes closed. He was making no effort to hide his pleasure in her caresses and his unflinching surrender gave her the confidence she'd lacked to this point.

Removing her hand, she ignored the low growl that came from his throat and put her hands to the bottom of her T-shirt. The growl cut off. His intense focus was a physical touch as she lifted the soft material over her head and threw it to the floor. Her bra might've been practical white cotton, but the look in Vaughn's eyes made her feel as if she were encased in something designed to bring a male the most exquisite pleasure.

He jerked at the bindings without warning. "I want a taste. Come here.

Wondering at his meaning, she leaned over, her lips brushing his as they spoke. It was deliberate on her part she liked kisses with Vaughn. "What do you want to taste?

He caught her lower lip between his teeth in a playful bite and she shivered. "Your pretty breasts.

"I'm still wearing my bra.

"Take it off." It was a demand.

Faith's reaction to his attempt to exert dominance in bed surprised her. There was no fear and more than a frisson of sexual pleasure, a dramatic contrast to her negative response to his attempts to dominate her in other situations.

It was an interesting dichotomy and if she'd been thinking with the cerebral discipline of her race, she might've explored it further. But the fact was, she was thinking with her body. And she was coping. More than coping. She was enjoying. Much more of her conditioning had failed than she'd initially estimated. She didn't care.

Sitting back up, she reached behind her to unhook the bra and slide it down her arms and off her fingertips. Knowing that Vaughn couldn't touch her, couldn't push her, gave her courage, but it also increased the heat. There was something highly erotic about what they were doing and Faith knew it had to do with trust and intimate secrets. Vaughn would never let anyone else tie him down as she'd done.

He growled again and this time she could hear the difference. The deep rumble wasn't a threat but a demand. Flicking aside the discarded bra, she straddled him, blindingly aware of the pulsing length of his erection. If she slid back a bare few inches, she'd be able to rub over him with the hot, swollen flesh between her legs.


The temptation was intense but she remained rational enough to know she couldn't overload her senses that quickly. She hadn't reached her limit. It was simply a question of speed.

Letting her hair cascade around them, she leaned down, but kept her breasts out of reach of his mouth. She had no idea why she was teasing him like this, hadn't even known she had the ability to tease, yet she was certain it was bringing him pleasure. Her jaguar might demand, but not having his demands fulfilled at once didn't anger him. It only heightened the sensations.

Not really caring how she knew that, she used her finger to trace his mouth and when he threatened to bite, she acquiesced to him, taking that wandering finger into his mouth. He sucked so hard she thought she could feel it in her womb.

The sensation was rich, heady, and had an unexpected effect. "My breasts hurt." Such a private complaint.

He allowed her to withdraw her finger. "Come here.

More than willing to oblige him this time, she watched as his mouth closed over her nipple. Her mind blanked at the instant of contact and then restarted in a shock wave of desire. She clawed the sheets beside his shoulders but didn't move away. Because she was desperate for more, her addiction to Vaughn was growing with alarming speed.

A scream locked in her throat as he switched his attention to her neglected nipple. When he tugged with careful teeth, she bent even closer, her hair a dark red curtain that focused the intimacy to an excruciating pitch. Silver shot through her mind. Sanity broke piece by piece. She didn't care.

Shifting focus, Vaughn let go of her nipple to scrape his teeth along the vulnerable underside of her breast. Her heart seemed to stop beating.

Giving an incoherent cry, she jerked down his body in a ragged movement. She might've kept going had Vaughn's roar not split the soft darkness into two. Her entire body froze. That was when she realized her jean-clad form was rubbing over the head of his erection. Vaughn jerked at the restraints, the veins on his arms and shoulders pumped with blood. And she became conscious of the fact that he could break the bindings with his strength alone.

But there was no danger, not yet. Heart still not back in the right rhythm, she slid farther down, freeing the hot, hard length of his arousal. He didn't care for that. "Get back." It was a snapped command in a voice coated with the thick animal sexuality of the changeling he was.

Shaking her head, she used her hand to claim him as she'd done at the cottage. His body bucked upward, powerful muscle and gleaming flesh.

"You're so hot," she whispered, breath coming in pants, "so silky." She loved touching him.

He growled and it was very close to the edge. "Enough.

"No." She wasn't going to let go until she was finished if the conditioned pain crippled her, this chance might never come again. And there were lots of things she wanted to do to this magnificent male at her mercy.

"It'll feel better if you take off the jeans.

She blinked, surprised to see that she'd changed position so she could grind the ache between her legs against one muscular thigh. Her hand tightened on him.

His breath hissed out. "Off," he ordered. "Take those damn jeans off!

"But to do that I'd have to stop," she muttered.

Vaughn's eyes went even more cat, if that was possible. "Imagine how good it'll feel.

Explicit images crashed into her mind, scenes of her naked and wild above him as she ground her moist heat in slow circles against his thigh. The images were so rich in detail, so sexual, she could almost smell the scent of her need. Then she realized that the musky scent was real. It was her. And it appeared to be driving Vaughn over the edge.

His nostrils flared. "Those jeans are coming off right now if I have to tear them off." Claws sliced through his skin but he didn't try to break the bindings.

Something still sane in her said that this was dangerous, that too much skin-to-skin contact could trigger a catastrophic mental backlash, but she was in no mood to listen. If she'd stopped thinking, then so had Vaughn, neither cognizant of the one huge risk they'd forgotten to speak about.

"Do it!

Releasing the silky hot flesh in her grasp, she rose to stand above him and shimmied out of her jeans and panties. She caught Vaughn's expression as she threw the clothing asidehe was pure starving male, a very hungry jaguar. His eyes lingered over her breasts before dropping to the curls at the apex of her thighs. And she knew.

He wanted to devour her.

But she was in charge of this intimate game and she wanted him first. Going back down onto her knees, she fisted her hand around him again. His whole body became solid muscle as he waited to see what she'd do. She wasn't sure herself. So much contact, so much sensation, so much need had smashed into her mind that she was no longer sure of anything.

"But you're mine to play with." It was a stubborn, possessive declaration.

The thick heat of him pulsed in her hand as a roar erupted from his throat. She was fascinated by his untamed fury, overwhelmed by the answering wildness in her, wild-ness that had been contained for a lifetime and now wanted to tear loose.

She ran her nails down his chest. Hard.

His hands jerked at the bindings and the eyes that looked back at her were on the wrong side of feral. "More.

Awash in uncensored images of what he wanted, she dipped her head to his neck and bit the skin above his pulse. This time she was gentle, teasing, taking, tasting. His body pushed up and hers pressed down. Shocking heat, raw pleasure. Whimpering, she rubbed her damp need against him to the point where both of them were so out of control, thought was something they'd done in another lifetime.

Neither of them spoke as she sat up and used her hand to guide him inside her. He was thick. She should've gone slow, but she'd moved way beyond doing what she should. The biting pain of a sudden sharp tear inside her didn't snap her out of the passion-darkness. It was far too late for that. She'd been conquered by the most primal core of her self.

Mind cascading around her, she began to ride him. He bucked and slammed into her despite his bonds as she slid downward over the near painful thickness of him. Screaming, she did it again. And again. And again.

Until lightning was all she was and her mind ceased to exist.

Faith was surroundedby fire. Rough, yet deliriously smooth, the contrasting textures enticed her to open her eyes. Gleaming skin lay under her cheek and her fingers were stroking through dark-gold chest hair as if petting a great big cat. The last word opened the floodbanks of memory and she woke fully with a gasp.

"Shh." One of Vaughn's hands stroked down her spine while the other pushed damp hair off her forehead.

"You're free." The bindings were shreds on the headboard.

"Hmm." He moved so she was half under him and he could kiss the line of her neck.

"I survived." She was remembering that explosion in her mind, when everything she was and everything she'd ever been had seemed to be wiped out.

His teeth scraped her skin and she shivered. Lightning danced along her bloodstream, nerve endings already sensitized to the extreme.

"You taste good, Red.

Her body was loose, her limbs heavy and sated. "Vaughn. I felt too much." Yet she was still here, still functioning. She checked her shields. To her shock, the ones against the PsyNet were holding strong, as if anchored by a source outside of her overloaded mind. Impossible.

All her other shields were gone.

She clenched her fingers, only then realizing she'd sunk them into Vaughn's hair. "My shields.

"Mmm." He was licking at her pulse, quick flicks that tugged at something low in her, something rich and dark and hungry. So hungry.

"The ones that help me hold out the world, they're gone." Burned out.

"Rebuild them. Later." Moving down her body, he ran his teeth over the upper slopes of her breasts.

Swallowing, she tried to think. She was safe against other Psy. There was no one out here but Vaughn. And he'd already been everywhere inside of her, gone so deep that she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to push him out, or that she'd even want to. One large hand stroked down her side and lingered in the hollow where waist flared into hip.

She found herself holding her breath in anticipation, her mind emptying of thoughts of shields and protection. She was a novice at emotion caught in the claws of the most powerful of themso much so that she failed to check the vision channels for damage.

Vaughn nuzzled between her breasts and made his way down her tensed stomach, dropping kisses on every inch of exposed skin until he reached the curls at the apex of her thighs. One hand closing over her thigh, he dropped a kiss on those curls. Her back arched. "Not yet.

He finally looked up. Those cat eyes were sated, golden and pleasured. "Why?" It wasn't a demand, but as close to a purr as she'd ever heard a human being sound.

"I need to calm down a little." She tugged at his hair and to her surprise, he came without argument, kissing his way back up her body. A body that had been well used and was already aching for more. It was her mind that wasn't ready.

When he was braced over her once more, she ran her hand down his jaw and found herself unable to stop nuzzling at his throat, dropping kisses on his pulse. "Why can't I stop touching you? I might've broken conditioning, but I'm still Psy." Still from a race where touch was infrequent and cold. "I shouldn't be so needy for touch.

"You're hungry." He ran one hand up to close over her breast in a gesture that screamed possessiveness. "You've been starving for decades.

"But..." She licked salt from the skin of his shoulder and curved a leg over his waist.

"The shield holding you back burned out.

How did he know that? Not that it mattered to her. "Does that mean I'm mad?" Right this moment, she didn't care.

"No. It means you're free.

"Mmm." Pulling herself up using his shoulders, she drew his head down in a kiss that was so luscious, she melted. He was all slow heat and seduction against her mouth while his hand gently massaged her breast.

When his thumb rubbed over her nipple, she moaned into the kiss, but this time it wasn't lightning that flickered through her bloodstream but a thicker, richer vein of fire. It spread with languorous ease and she was filled with it before she could even think to fight. Pleasurably overwhelmed, she wrapped her arms around him and curved her other leg over his back.

When he slipped inside of her again, it felt like perfection. He moved in a slow, sensual rhythm, a sated predator giving his woman everything she wanted. The hand on her breast slid down her body to cup her buttocks and hold her at the tiniest angle, but one that let him touch things in her that turned the slow-moving river of lava into a boiling inferno. But still it didn't overwhelm.

She rode the waves of pleasure that lapped at her as he rode her, his lips on her mouth, his tongue dancing with hers. And when he finally pushed her over, she didn't crash. Instead the heavy fire inside of her turned into a shimmering mass of sensation. Rich and lush and addictive, it took her under and she went with a smile.

Faith let the spray of the waterfall that was Vaughn's shower wash over her, hardly able to stand upright. Not that she had to. A certain changeling was more than ready to help.

He nipped at her neck. "Stop thinking.

'Too late." She turned in his arms and wrapped her own around his torso. He was so beautiful, so deliciously male that it kept surprising her. Her self-restraint where he was concerned was close to zero. But in spite of her lack of impulse control, her mind remained sane.

"I think we're clean enough." His hands were big and warm on her skin. "Come on.

She followed him out onto the drying platform and let him rub her down with a huge fluffy towel. "Silk sheets and plush towels," she said with a sigh, unaccustomed to such hedonistic pleasures. "You like comfort.

"I'm a cat. Soft silky things make me purr." He nipped at the vulnerable skin of her thigh and smiled at her shudder. "Sometimes, though, they make me want to bite." Rising from his kneeling position to tuck the towel around her body, he caught her rusty attempt at a smile.

"What?" One eyebrow rose.

She shook her head. "You're a pussycat.

Nothing could have prepared her for the blush that streaked across his cheekbones. Grabbing a towel, he began to dry himself, but the full-bodied grin across his face was so gorgeous and rare that she stared. "Yeah, well, you sucked all the meanness right out of me.

She found her own smile growing wider, an unfamiliar action that was suddenly natural. "How long will this transformation last?

"Until I get hungry for you again." He wrapped the towel around his hips. "Which could be anytime soon.

His delectably slow kiss was welcome. "You're insatiable.

"Just for you." He tapped his finger on her nose and the gesture was so silly, so tender, so unbelievably heartbreaking.

"Why don't you smile more?" She liked his smile, liked seeing such uncomplicated happiness on his face.

"Never had much to smile about.

Looking into that smile, Faith gave up her last hazy dream of somehow returning to the only world she'd ever known. "I'm never going back.

The smile faded and something darker whispered into his eyes, something wild and savagely possessive. "Good. Because I wasn't planning on letting you go.

She laughed and it was the first time in her life she hadn't been afraid. Silence had numbed her, but what she finally understood was that it was a numbness caused by fear. Her race was so afraid of their own talents, their own unique minds, they'd crippled themselves. But she was no longer in bondage.

Throwing her arms around Vaughn's neck, she let him pick her up and spin her around in a circle. They'd talk about his stubbornness, his liking for getting his own way, but not now. Not in this perfect moment.

Perhaps her newfoundhappiness was why she made the mistake, why she forgot that there were things hunting her that didn't live on the PsyNet, things that had direct access to her mind. She went to sleep in Vaughn's arms, but woke to find herself in the grip of malignant darkness. She knew she could move, could alert Vaughn, and he'd probably be able to bring her out of it.

But with the fire of Vaughn's chest pressed to her back, she knew where she was, when she was. Her shields against the visions might've burned out, but her emotions were wide awake. And though those emotional muscles were unfamiliar, she was confident she could use them if the need arose they were as natural a part of her as Silence had been unnatural. It would be hard, but not impossible to break out of this vision.

Decision made, she let the vision sweep her under in an ebony wave of malevolence, let it swirl around her, let it show her.

Vaughn knew Faithwas having a vision. Beneath closed eyelids, he could see her eyes flickering in rapid movements that were not those of deep sleep. He'd awakened when the cat had sensed a change in the rhythm of her heart rate. Now her scent, too, changed.

There was something not quite right about it, a sick miasma that made it seem as if she'd been infected by something vile. The beast raged to tear her from the grip of the vision, but Vaughn forced himself to think. Maybe Faith didn't want it to stophe'd thought she'd been awake and aware when it started. Able to make a choice.

He never wanted to stifle her gift as Silence had, but fighting the beast was hard, especially when the man had the same protective instincts. The urge to shake her awake intensified when he glimpsed the hovering edges of a physical darkness above her. It couldn't get in, but circled like a vulture just waiting for a vulnerable spot.

Growling low in his throat, he held Faith closer. But ironically the sight also calmed himit hadn't fully clawed into Faith, which meant she could break out on her own. If he made the decision for her, he might steal from her a chance to avenge her sister's death. And the need for vengeance was something both parts of his self understood.

"I'm here," he whispered in her ear. Then he settled down to keep watch over her and hold back the darkness. It didn't matter that a psychic phenomenon should have had no physical form. He knew it existed, he saw it. And he would not let it touch Faith.

Even inthedepths of the vision, Faith was aware of Vaughn beside her, a wall of pure fire between her and the ugly menace that awaited. That was unusual enough to have broken her concentration had she not already made the decision to complete this. The darkness would never again steal a life.

Even if Faith had to end his.

The vision began to change from the unclear mix of emotion that had first roiled around her, the curtains of darkness parting to once again show her the face of the woman he meant to kill. The scene was cleanpart of the stalk, not the killwhich left her free to concentrate on details that might identify the target rather than battling her own fear responses. By the time the vision faded, she thought she had what she needed. She was about to pull out when she felt a tug that signaled more was to come.

Calm from the lack of brutality in the opening scenes, she let the next phase roll over her. Blood dripped down pale green walls, soaked into the slightly darker carpet, splattered the comm console. A charnel house she could smellhints of putrid death hidden in the iron-rich taint of blood. Revolted, she could do nothing as he walked farther into the room, placing his feet in the dark red liquid that had once run in a living being's veins. The blood in the bathroom had had nothing to soak into. His feet slapped into it with a splash.

Her mind shuddered under the overload. The carnage, the smell, the sporadic flashes of backsight that had her hearing screams of such terror that her bones chilled, it all smashed into her with the force of a truck going a hundred miles an hour. That was when she realized she hadn't survived the sexual heat with Vaughn.

The earlier cascade had fractured her mind on the deepest level. It had no ability to withstand the fury of this blood-soaked vision. She felt herself start to cascade again but this time, it was nothing survivablethe Cassandra Spiral. A silent scream tore free from her psyche. The Cassandra Spiral was the worst grade of cascade, turning victims into mute vegetables without reason or sentience.

No one survived without rapid M-Psy intervention.

But there were no M-Psy here and she was drowning, sinking so fast that soon she wouldn't be able to breathe. The blood was creeping up her body, coating her feet, her legs. . . .



It was a shout from a section of her mind she'd never before seen. Stubborn and rebellious, it slapped her back to her senses and told her to pull out. Now! If she didn't, the Council, the M-Psy, the PsyClan, they all won.

The violence worked. Her mind's eye watering with the strength of the emotional slap, she shook off her panic and began to find reason again. She refused to let them win, refused to have Vaughn feel that he'd taken a weak woman as his lover, someone who'd constantly need rescue.

Layered in determination born out of a lifetime of withheld rage, she threw a solid psychic block across the cascade. The Cassandra Spiral wasn't so easily escaped. It shoved at the block with such force that the wall bulged outward. But it didn't breakshe had an excruciatingly small window before the avalanche hit. Not allowing herself to focus on that, she began to repair the cracks that had led to the cascade in the first place.

The work was hard.

Very, very hard.

Her mind felt as if it was caught in a vise. Only her unpolished, ungovernable emotional reaction, her fury at the darkness, and her hunger for vengeance kept her going. That and the need she had to make Vaughn proud of her, to be a woman worthy of a jaguar. Without that wild cauldron of emotional fire, she would've been crippled as she had been for so many years, dependent on others to pull her out.

However, none of her previous cascadestriggered by strong business visionshad ever been this severe. Never had she even touched the periphery of a Cassandra Spiral. A trial by fire, it threatened to engulf her in flames of poison, but Faith had no intention of being burned.

She worked with single-minded determination, and as each fracture healed, the psychic block bulged a little less. Oddly, it was her training for commercial forecasts that came to her aid at a critical moment, when exhaustion was starting to dull her mental muscles and she was in danger of making a fatal error. She fell back on the trick of locking her neurons into certain repeating patterns, a step by mechanical step use of her mind that required no conscious thought.

Leaving that pattern to repair the "easy" fractures, she focused her thinking self on fixing the almost invisible breaks in her innermost core. The next time she looked up, it was after she'd successfully rebuilt the core. The surface of her mind was peaceful, the darkness banished, the cascade subjugated. Tired but triumphant, she took a step back from the psychic plane and opened her eyes. She discovered herself cradled tight against Vaughn, the arms wrapped around her front pure immovable muscle.

"You were in trouble." A rough accusation. "I could smell it.

She tilted her head to look up at him. "I got myself out.

His eyes were jaguar, but he wasn't completely gone. "I knew you could." Shifting to lie flat on his back, he curved one hand over her bottom as she rearranged herself to lean up against his chest.

"Why didn't you break it?

"You knew what you were doing.

Vaughn, she realized, would never let her shortchange herself. He'd always demand that she be all the woman she could be, even if that woman promised to make life more difficult for him. A stark contrast to the people she'd called family for so long.

Heart aching in an inexplicable way, she ran her palm over a jaw roughened by stubble. "Vaughn, when my mind was pure quiet at the end, I saw something." Something so impossible that she wasn't quite ready to believe. And yet...

"What?" His hand smoothed up her spine and little slivers of lightning danced through her bloodstream, sparked in her mind.

"Another bond." She slid her hand down to lie against his shoulder. 'Technically similar to the PsyNet link, but different in every other way. It's wild. Like you." Though she was no changeling to scent things, that bond had held Vaughn's mental scent, a scent as familiar to her as her own, though she had no recollection of ever being in his mind. "What is it?

"It ties you to me. Forever," he said, his tone absolute. "You're my mate.

"Mate," she whispered, considering everything she knew about changeling society, which wasn't much. "Like Sascha and Lucas?


She could barely breathe. "Really?

"Yes. It's done. You can't get out." His fingers tightened on her hip.

"Get out?" She wanted to laugh, but couldn't find enough air to make the sound. "Vaughn, I was scared I was imagining it because I wanted it so much.

His fingers relaxed. "Good.

"How does it work?

"I don't know. It's the first time for me, too.

"Oh." That strange ache inside of her intensified.

"But I do know it'll keep you alive after you drop out of the PsyNet.

"One changeling mind can't give a Psy brain the feedback it needs. Experiments have proven that conclusively." She shook her head, nails digging into his skin. "I won't kill you to keep myself alive.

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