Slave to Sensation(Psy-Changelings, Book 1)
Author:Nalini Singh

Chapter 4

"Gotcha!" Tamsyn reached out and scooped up the cubs in her arms. They turned to nip playfully at her skin. "I love you, too, babies. But Uncle Lucas and your new friend have to eat so you have to stay on the floor." She put them down after a cuddle.

The cubs scooted under the table, one of them curling himself up on Sascha's leather-synth boots. The heavy warmth brought tears to her eyes. In an effort to hide her reaction, she looked down at the table and focused on the way Lucas continued to hold her plait.

He was sliding his fingers up and down, as though he liked the feel of the strands against his fingertips. The smooth, repetitive motion was oddly arousing - would he stroke other body parts with such exquisite care?

Her thoughts could get her interned at the Center but she didn't care. She'd experienced more sensations in the space of the last few hours than she had in the rest of her lifetime combined. It terrified her and yet she knew she'd be back tomorrow. She'd be back until someone found out.

And then she'd fight to the death. She would not be rehabilitated, would not allow her mind to be turned into a mockery of who she was.

"Here you go." Tamsyn laid plates in front of them. "Nothing special but it'll keep you going."

Sascha looked at her plate. "Pita pockets." She knew the names of many things. Like most, she used mental exercises to keep herself strong. One exercise involved memorizing items - it had been one of her guilty pleasures to choose lists that spoke to her senses. Food was one. Her other favorite list had been compiled by the computer from an ancient book of sexual positions.

"It's my special 'Hot Lips' type." Tamsyn winked. "A little chili never hurt anybody."

Lucas tugged on the plait he had yet to release.

"Yes?" What would he do if she threw caution to the winds and started touching him in return? Male that he was, he'd probably ask for more.

"It might hurt if you're not used to it."

Stubbornness had always been her Achilles' heal. "I'll survive. Thank you, Tamsyn."

"You're welcome." The other woman pulled up a chair. "Eat!"

Sascha picked up her pita pocket and took a bite. It nearly took off her skull. However, thanks to her training, nobody looking at her would've guessed at her discomfort. Lucas had finally stopped playing with her hair and was demolishing his own meal in short order.

"So," Tamsyn asked, "could you really turn my cubs into rats?"

Sascha thought Tamsyn was being serious until she caught the twinkle in those caramel-colored eyes. "I could've made them think they were rats."

"Really?" The brunette leaned forward. "I thought Psy found changeling minds too hard to work with."

Too hard to manipulate was the right statement. "Your thought patterns are so unusual that yes, they're difficult to work with. Difficult, not impossible. But the amount of energy required to control you generally isn't worth the outcome." At least that was what she'd heard, having never been in a situation where she was trying to handle a changeling mind.

"Good thing we're so hard to take under or the Psy would be ruling the planet." Lucas's tone was lazily satisfied as he leaned back, one arm stretched over the back of her chair. Territorial didn't begin to describe him.

"We do rule the world."

"You might be high up in politics and business but that's not the world."

She took another bite of the pita, having discovered she quite liked the feeling of having her head taken off. "No," she agreed after swallowing.

At the same moment, she became aware of baby leopard teeth nibbling at the toe of her boot.

Sascha knew she should reach down and dislodge the cub but she didn't want to. Drowning in sensation was far preferable to being conditioned to numbness. A discreet chime interrupted her in midthought.

It took a second for her to realize it was her organizer. Reaching into the inner pocket of her jacket, she checked the caller ID and then linked to the other Psy, who was close enough for simple telepathic contact.

"Aren't you going to answer it?" Tamsyn asked when she put the slim electronic tablet back into her pocket.

"I am answering it." Answering in such a way took less than 10 percent of her concentration. If she'd been a true cardinal, it would've taken less than a tenth of a percent.

"I don't get it." Tamsyn frowned. "If you can communicate mentally anyway, why the actual call in the first place?"

"Boundaries." She finished her meal. "It's like knocking before you enter a house. Only certain people have the right to initiate mental contact with me." People like her mother and the Council.

Lucas touched her shoulder with the fingers of the hand he had across the back of her chair. "I thought the PsyNet meant you were all in constant contact."

The PsyNet wasn't a secret but neither was it to be talked about in detail. She'd failed part of her conditioning but this had held. Her mouth opened and she said, "Perhaps we should be leaving for our meeting."

She felt his entire body go so motionless, it was like he'd turned into the lethal beast he carried within. Lucas Hunter wasn't used to being told no. "Of course."

She should've feared this side of his nature, but found herself fascinated. "Thank you for lunch," she said to Tamsyn, wriggling her foot so the cub would let go. She didn't want to hurt him or get him in trouble. He clung.

Lucas pushed back his chair and stood. "Tell Nate I dropped by."

Tamsyn began to stand. Aware that she couldn't remain sitting, Sascha decided to take a risk. Sending out a narrow telepathic beam, she spoke to the cub. Let go, baby, or you'll get in trouble. She'd expected to have difficulty contacting him but the link was made in an instant, as if she were talking to a child Psy. The find was something she should've immediately fed into the PsyNet but she didn't. It felt like betrayal.

The cub - Julian - couldn't answer, but he let go. He was pleased she hadn't told on him because he wasn't supposed to be chewing on shoes anymore. He was a big boy. Trying not to smile, she rose to her feet. It was difficult to keep her boot out of sight as she walked to the door but she maneuvered so that Lucas's big frame was between her and Tamsyn.

"Drop by anytime," Tamsyn said. Putting her hands on Sascha's arms, the other woman kissed her cheek.

Sascha had frozen the instant Tamsyn touched her, feeling such overwhelming kindness from the brunette that she could do nothing else. She'd always imagined she could read the emotions of others but her delusions had never been this bad - there was simply no raw material in the Psy world to feed the fantasies of her fractured mind.

"Thank you." The second Tamsyn let go, she stepped back and walked out the door to the waiting vehicle. It was too difficult to be in that room full of laughter and touch, warmth and temptation, and not hunger for more... for everything.

"Oh dear," Tamsyn said, watching Sascha retreat. "I shouldn't have touched her."

Lucas hugged her to him. "Of course you should have. Just because she's Psy doesn't mean we are."

Tamsyn laughed. "Did you see her boot?"

"Yes." Lucas was the alpha of DarkRiver - he'd known exactly what was going on with Julian. What he couldn't understand was why Sascha had let it happen. And there had been that moment when Psy energy had flared extra bright. Perhaps her telepathic call had gotten heated, or perhaps she'd been doing something else. Like talking to a cub.

"I never expected a Psy to be so good with children." Tamsyn laid her head against his chest.

"Neither did I." Quite simply, she shouldn't have been. The Psy would never allow a child to nibble on their shoes. There was no reason behind it, no efficiency. Yet this Psy had. "Tell me if the cubs say anything interesting."

The healer of DarkRiver was no fool. "Still nothing?"

"Not yet." Dropping a kiss on her hair, he said good-bye and headed out.

Sascha was already in the vehicle when he took the driver's seat. "Your first time with changeling children?"

"Yes." She tucked the chewed toe behind her leg and right then and there, Lucas knew he was in trouble. "Are you always in animal form as children?"

"No." Backing slowly out of Tamsyn's long driveway, he turned onto the street, the passage of air smooth and swift under the vehicle. "We gain the ability to shift forms a year or so after birth. It's as simple as breathing to us."

She was silent for the next stretch of road, as if thinking over what he'd said. "What about clothing? What happens to it when you change?"

"It disintegrates. We prefer to change while naked." He paid close attention to the energy in the air as he spoke and detected a definite spike - Sascha Duncan reacted to the thought of him naked.

Both sides of his nature liked the idea of disturbing this intriguing female on a sensual level, but as alpha, he had to consider the deeper ramifications of what he'd learned... and how it could be used against her.

"Tamsyn - what role does she occupy in your pack?" she said, changing the subject so quickly that he knew he'd been right. "I know you're hierarchical."

"Exactly like the Psy. You show me yours and I'll show you mine." If she clammed up to such a simple request, then he was going to have to rethink his strategy. He needed to get inside a Psy mind to get into the PsyNet. There was no other way to track the killer, not if the Psy Council was covering for him.

"Our overall leadership is in the Council."

He tried to keep his exhilaration under control. "We have no overall leadership. Each pack is autonomous."

"Within the overall structure we're organized by family groups."

They hadn't known that for sure because to the outside world, the Psy concept of family looked like any other business relationship. "Family ties exist within the pack but ultimate loyalty is to the pack itself."

"What about mated pairs?" she asked, displaying an insight into the changeling mind that startled him. "Surely their loyalty is to each other first."

"That's the one caveat. Leopard changelings mate for life so no other option is workable." He wondered what she'd make of that, this woman who'd been created by medicine not passion. "What about the Psy? Where is your loyalty?"

"The good of our people," she said. "We're allowed to compete with other families for business, but that's on the inside. Against outsiders we have only one loyalty."

"To ensure the continuation of the Psy race."

"Yes." Shifting in her seat, she asked him another question he wasn't expecting. "Mating for life? Is that a choice like human marriage?"

"Actually, changelings and humans can mate. Several of my pack are mated to humans." Children from such matches always had the ability to change forms.

"I've heard that Psy-changeling unions occurred in the past."

"My great-great-grandmother was Psy." He glanced at her. "Do you think I would've made a good Psy?"

She stared at him for a second before saying, "Perhaps you should watch the road." Cool, practical, and without feeling. Except for the fact that the toe of her boot had been chewed by baby leopard teeth.

He obeyed her this once. "To answer your question, no, it's not a choice like marriage - at least not for the leopards. Once we find our mate, the only choice we have is whether or not to take the final step. There's no walking away after that's done."

"What's the final step?"

"Tell me about the PsyNet."

She paused. "It is secret?"

"It is private."

"How do you find your mate? How do you know that he or she is the one?" Her tone was neutral but her questions held hints of the deepest curiosity.

He wondered if she'd be this inquisitive in all aspects of life. A curious lover was the ultimate lure to his panther soul. "I can't answer that - I'm not mated." He'd seen his father's heart shredded by his mother's death. Part of him didn't want to be that vulnerable to anyone.

It was one of the reasons he'd never nurtured a long-term relationship with any female, human or changeling. Mating couldn't be so easily influenced, but he'd done his damnedest to limit the chances of his mate finding him.

If she did hunt him down despite that, he'd accept her and then he'd never let her out of his sight. Forget about freedom - his mate was going to be protected every moment of her life. Pulling to a stop in the parking lot of the DarkRiver building, he switched off the engine and slid up the door of the car.

"Do you want to be?"

The question had him turning to face those night-sky eyes. No Psy should've ever asked that. No Psy should've ever heard the ambivalence in his voice. "Do you?"

"Is it private?" She tipped her head slightly to the side. It was a tiny movement but it wasn't in the nature of her race to make such movements.

He reached out and stroked a finger down her face, wanting to see what she'd do. "I'll tell you the answer to that once you have skin privileges."

She froze at his touch and then jerked away to exit the car. When he joined her on the other side, she kept at least a foot of distance between them. He wanted to close that distance badly enough to scare himself. The enemy was starting to look far too enticing. The feel of her skin had been a jolt to the senses, the dark honey like warm gold brushed with velvet, sensuous and luscious.

The panther in him craved more, while the man... the man was starting to think that Sascha Duncan was unique, a Psy unlike any other. Whether that made her less dangerous or more remained to be seen. What was clear was that both panther and man were captivated by her.

Kit was waiting for them in the meeting room. "Hi, Lucas." At a fraction under six feet, the boy was tall but hadn't yet filled out. Not that it mattered at his age. With his rich auburn hair and dark blue eyes, he was never short of female company. But Lucas knew the juvenile was more than good looks - he had the scent of a future alpha.

"Sascha Duncan, meet Kit Monaghan."

Kit smiled in that way he'd already learned brought most women to their knees, all slow burn and promises of delight. "A pleasure."

Sascha nodded. "Do you have the designs?"

Lucas wanted to laugh at the crestfallen look on the boy's face. "Kit works part-time as a general assistant. Zara is the designer." He shrugged out of his jacket.

As he spoke her name, a small female with mocha skin and cloud gray eyes walked in through the door behind them. Sascha immediately shifted to avoid contact but the move was so unobtrusive that neither Zara nor Kit noticed.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Zara said. "The copying machine got stuck." She was holding rolled-up copies of several designs in her arms. Lucas helped her put them on the circular table and gestured for everyone to be seated.

Sascha took a seat to his left, with Zara to her left and Kit beside the designer. Lucas had noticed Sascha glance at Zara several times since she'd entered the room and so, apparently, had Zara. "If you have a problem working with me, tell me now." The petite woman wasn't one to keep silent.

Sascha didn't react in any physical way but he was sure he smelled confusion. "Why would I have trouble working with you? Are you unable to do your job?"

"I can do my job fine," Zara bit out. "Some people just don't like the fact that I'm a darker shade of brown."

"That reaction is based on nothing but human emotion. I'm not human." Sascha pushed up her jacket sleeve. "If it soothes you then please see that I'm also a... darker shade of brown." The beautiful rich honey of her skin seemed to glow even in the artificial light.

Lucas felt Kit's beast buck at the reins and couldn't blame the boy for wanting to touch. Sascha's skin was an invitation to the senses and now that he'd stroked it once, he found himself starving for more.

Zara laughed. "If you're not bothered by color, then why are you staring at me?"

"I'm not sure, but you don't appear to be a leopard."

Lucas froze. There was no way a Psy should've picked up on that. No way. Scenting another animal was a changeling trait. Precisely what the hell kind of Psy was Sascha? Had he brought a spy into his world while trying to infiltrate hers?

Zara didn't answer until he gave her a subtle nod. "I'm not. I'm a distant cousin - wildcat."

"Then why are you working in a leopard business?"

"Because she's the best there is." Lucas drew Sascha's attention back to him. Part of it was because he thought her far too dangerous to leave to anyone else. But part of it was because he didn't like her being fascinated by anyone or anything except him. Given his possessive nature, that could turn out to be a problem. A big one.

"Did you have to give her permission to work here?"

There was a reason changelings didn't give away information to the Psy - it had to do with survival. However, this tidbit was common knowledge. "Once I'd enticed her to join us, I had to ensure her safety." To guarantee that, he'd "adopted" her into DarkRiver for the duration of her stay. She was marked by the scent of him and his sentinels so that enemies and friends alike knew who she belonged to.

If she hadn't been... There was a reason predatory changelings were very careful about straying into areas controlled by other predators. Enforcement officers had no jurisdiction in intra-changeling disputes, and the changeling way of settling things could be savage.

It occasionally put them on the back foot in terms of business because the Psy could move much faster. But it balanced out in the end - unlike the Psy, they had an open-and-shut friend-enemy line. There was no backstabbing. His race preferred to go straight for the throat.

"Let's see the designs, Zara," he said, wanting Sascha off this topic. Most of her race thought of changelings as lesser beings who'd somehow clawed their way to enough power to hold back the Psy. He'd never before met one who seemed to respect their ways enough to want to learn them. Was she merely curious by nature or was she the advance guard of a subtle invasion, feeding everything she learned into the PsyNet?

Zara rolled out one plan. "This is the design for the first home."

"The first?" Sascha asked. "They aren't all going to be the same?"

Kit stared. "Of course not. Who'd want to live in something that sterile? It'd be like a stack of those coffins the Psy live - " Suddenly appearing to realize who he was talking to, he turned bright red.

"Take your foot out of your mouth." Lucas tried not grin. "Changelings are different from the Psy, Sascha. We like things that are ours alone, things that are unique." His eyes met the night-sky glimmer of hers and he wondered if she felt what he did. It was as if a thin wire connected them, vibrating with their unacknowledged awareness of each other. "We don't share well." Lucas was the worst of the lot. What was his, was his.

"I see." She paused for a moment. "Will this delay the completion date?"

"No. We've factored that into account." He nodded at Zara to continue.

"Since this area is controlled by leopards and wolves, I've designed the houses mostly for them." Zara pointed out the wide-open living spaces and the easy access whether on human or animal feet. "But I've got a few plans for the non-predatory species."

"How likely are they to want to settle in with the cats and the wolves?" Once again, her question displayed disturbing insight.

"That's the thing," Zara said. "They're not very likely to. I mean, we don't attack non-predatory changelings without provocation, but if you were a deer, would you want to live next door to a leopard who might get peckish one night?" It was the blackest of changeling humor.

Kit grinned. "Yum, yum. I love deer shish kebab."

Sascha looked at him as if examining a bug. To his credit the juvenile didn't fidget and even tried out his smile again. Sascha's response was to shut her eyes for three seconds. When she opened them, she said, "I've been given the authority to veto or accept designs. Please show me the ones you think will work the best."

Before Zara could speak, Sascha asked another question. "How likely are the wolves and the leopards to coexist peacefully? I don't want to waste money building for the wolves if they're not going to go near the leopards and vice versa."

This was beyond unusual. Lucas knew he had to start looking very carefully at this slender Psy who thought disturbingly like a changeling. He said, "We've declared a truce that allows us to live together without major bloodshed. The bulk of the residents will be leopards but there'll be enough wolves for it to be worth planning for them. There's a shortage of homes for both species."

This was because the Psy owned a lot of building enterprises and they built the coffins Kit had mentioned - small, compact homes no self-respecting predator would go for. The Duncan family had been the first to grasp the need for changeling involvement in the initial phases of a development. In order to lure the hunters, the beasts of prey, you had to think like them.

Zara chose that moment to speak. "This is the design I like for the cats and this for the wolves." She put two fairly basic plans on the table. "I'm going to customize from there to take the land, the views, and the available runs into account. For a few homes, I'll begin from scratch in order to match the client's personality."

Sascha studied the designs. "To do that you'd have to know who was going to be the purchaser."

"We've already got a waiting list of prospective buyers. Their money is sitting in our trust account." Lucas watched Sascha's eyes as she looked up and caught the momentary flicker in the stars that lit them from within. Surprise, baby, he felt like saying.


"It's the first new development that's being designed and built by changelings." He shrugged, fully aware it made the musculature of his shoulders stand out under his T-shirt. Like any cat, he liked to be admired, but this time it was a deliberate attempt to make Sascha react.

She looked away. "So you already knew you'd fulfill your part of the bargain when you negotiated the bonus."

"Of course."

"I consider myself bested." But when she glanced at him, he saw anything but meek acceptance.

Good thing he'd never liked easy prey.