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



Chapter 6

Sascha was having trouble meeting Lucas's gaze, scared he'd be able to see the erotic images flashing through her mind like a full-motion picture. What was happening to her? She'd spent last night lost in the most seductive dreams of her life, had woken gasping for release, her skin wet with perspiration.

And Lucas had been the star figure in her fantasies.

The plan had been to get him out of her system by programming her brain to dream about him. She'd intended to let her senses run wild in the safety of her mind and indulge until she was sated. It had backfired horribly. She'd had her taste and now found she wanted even more. Like an addict, she craved the sensations he'd shown her.

"I'll be taking you to meet Clay Bennett, our construction supervisor, in about twenty minutes. After that I want to show you the materials we'll be using for construction, since you want to double-check every nut and bolt." Those piercing green eyes were tinted with hints of mocking amusement.

She couldn't help but remember how those same eyes had looked as she'd used her mouth to suck him to orgasm. That word brought her to her senses. Her shields were cracking again and he was the catalyst.

"Thank you for telling me." She tried to note down the details on her organizer but could barely see through the buzzing in her head. This was bad, very bad. Instead of containing them, the dreams appeared to have strengthened the creeping fingers of insanity.

"You don't look like you slept well."

Was there a subtle innuendo in that sentence? No, she told herself. How could there be? She was the one who'd had the dreams. Lucas surely had no need for release found in fantasy - shee'd seen the way women looked at him. And why not? He was a man who made no bones about his sexuality and even she understood the kind of primal heat a male like that could produce.

Once again, her mind threatened to run away with her sanity. Shoving up shield after mental shield, she said, "My rest was disturbed but I'm perfectly capable of functioning." As soon as she got control of her runaway thoughts.

"Bad dreams?" He watched her with the concentration of a hunter stalking prey.

"The Psy don't dream." It was the accepted wisdom. If that was a lie, she thought, what other lies had she been fed? Or was it true for all other Psy? Did they not live even in their dreams?

"A pity," Lucas said, that rough-edged voice smoothing into a drawl. "Dreams can be very... pleasurable."

Wet heat flared. She pressed her thighs tight, terrifyingly aware that her body had reacted in a way a changeling might detect. Panic had her shoving everything deep into the secret compartments of her mind.

The panther inside Lucas crouched low, tracking Sascha's every movement. Man and beast were both puzzled - what was it about her that had triggered the sensual eroticism of that dream? In life she was as cold as ice, as touchable as a hunk of metal. Aside from the hint of fire in those cardinal eyes that he refused to believe was a figment of his imagination.

He froze as he picked up the faintest traces of female arousal. The panther lunged at the walls of his mind, telling him to take her, that she was ready. The man wasn't so certain. What if it was a Psy trick - the ultimate back door into his mind? Until he knew for sure, he wouldn't be stroking Sascha except in his dreams.

"The Psy know nothing about pleasure," she commented, looking down at her little computerized tablet. "And we intend to keep it that way. Shall we be on our way to see your construction supervisor?"

"After you." He stood and waved toward the doorway. "How's your mother?" It was time to start digging. The reason for this charade could never be forgotten.

"Fine." Sascha reached the glass-enclosed elevator and waited for it to rise up to their level.

"She's an extraordinary woman," he commented. "I heard that she became a Councilor at forty. Isn't that very young to reach such a high post?"

She nodded. "But Tatiana Rika-Smythe was younger at the time of her ascension. She's only thirty-five now."

"The Rika-Smythes are your primary business rivals?"

"You know that already."

He shrugged and gestured for her to enter the elevator ahead of him. "Never hurts to make sure."

In the closed atmosphere, the scent of her was intoxicating to his animal senses. She was pure woman, lush and barely awakened, and he was very interested, the panther in him arrogantly convinced that her reaction was without trickery. He had to force down the low growl that gathered at the back of his throat. Now was not the time to stalk this particular prey.

"It's well known that the Rika-Smythes and the Duncans have some of the same business interests."

"How can your mother work with Tatiana when they're rivals?" The doors opened on the first floor.

Sascha walked out beside him, graceful and eerily beautiful with those eyes that kept startling people who came up on them. Cardinals were not often seen outside the rarefied walls of the Psy headquarters. It was critical he find out why he'd been honored with Sascha Duncan.

"Their responsibilities in the Council are separate from their business loyalties."

"Some of it must bleed over. Every administration has its cliques." Which might mean that the Councilors could be keeping secrets from each other.

Sascha gave him a sharp glance. "You're very interested in the Council."

"Do you blame me?" He pushed open a manual glass door. "I'm hardly likely to get another chance to talk to a Psy so high up in the hierarchy."

She walked through the doorway before speaking. "I may be a cardinal but I'm not as high up as you seem to believe. Simply because my mother is Council doesn't mean I'm in the inner circle. I'm just another Psy."

"No cardinal is ever ordinary." Why was she protesting so much? What was it that she was hiding? Blood and death or something else?

"There is an exception to every rule." It struck Sascha that the intensity with which Lucas was pursuing this line of inquiry probably wasn't due to simple curiosity. Wariness kicked in but it was too late - she'd already betrayed her abnormal status within the Psy.

She had to start remembering that Lucas's last name wasn't merely a name - it was a designation. "May I ask you a question?" she said before she could talk herself out of it. Notwithstanding her awareness of his nature, her interest in him continued to heighten. And each time she gave in to the need, it created another chip in the already fragile wall of her sanity. Yet, she couldn't stop herself.

He paused in front of the door that likely led to the construction supervisor's workspace. "Ask."

"What does a Hunter do?" She'd heard rumors on the PsyNet but changelings were very closemouthed about some things.

"I'm afraid you're going to have to barter something special to get that information."

The slow curve of his smile shot her composure to pieces. "What would you like to know?"

He answered almost on top of her words. "What's the incidence of violence in the Psy population?"

She hadn't expected the question but the answer was easy and well known. "Close to zero."

"Are you sure?" The question echoed in the air. "As for what Hunters do, we hunt down rogues."

"Rogues?"

"Sorry, darling. You only paid for one answer." He pushed open the door.

Frustrated, she walked in and found herself standing a heartbeat away from a dark-skinned man with eyes a deeper shade of green than Lucas's. Something about him made her want to take a step back... and run.

"Meet Clay Bennett, our construction supervisor."

Sascha knew the changeling in front of her was much more than that. "Mr. Bennett." The man's eyes were so calm that she should've felt at home with him. Instead he reminded her of a cobra lulling his prey into a false sense of security - the second she lowered her guard, he'd instigate a deadly strike.

"Ms. Duncan. I'm the man you come to if you have any problems with the materials used during construction, the workers, anything like that."

"I've noted that." She looked around the huge office space, which housed a number of desks. Glass doors made up the facing wall but she could see Zara to the left and an unknown blond male at a desk to the right. He wasn't looking at her, but somehow she knew that he was completely attuned to their conversation. "Do those doors open?"

"Of course," Lucas drawled. "We're animals under the skin - we can't stand being caged." She knew he was mocking the simplistic Psy view of changelings, mocking her. The urge to give back as good as she got was a devil on her shoulder - a mad part of her thought it might almost be worth it simply to see the look on his face.

"What about the higher floors?" She answered her own question the second she looked outside. "The trees. Leopards are excellent climbers."

Lucas went unnaturally still beside her. "You've done your research."

"Of course. I'm Psy."

A few minutes later, Sascha closed the door of the lavatory, put down the lid, and sat. Her whole body shuddered. What a joke. She was no Psy. She was a woman close to the edge of insanity, reduced to hiding in toilets in order to repair the fractured walls of her mind.

Her organizer chimed before she'd done more than gather together the ragged edges of her psyche. It was Santano Enrique, requesting a conference on the PsyNet. The inside of her mouth suddenly felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton wool.

Enrique was too powerful a Psy, had had too many years of experience at spotting mistakes. She didn't want him connected to her in any way. None of the other Councilors had ever approached her telepathically or on the PsyNet - they preferred to talk face-to-face if necessary. She knew why, of course. They weren't sure that she hadn't inherited her mother's deadly little ability.

Refusing Enrique's call wasn't an option. Hurriedly completing the repairs on her shields, she closed her eyes and took a step into darkness. The glittering plane of the PsyNet opened before her, filled with the endless stars, bright and faded, large and small, that represented the minds of the Psy. Enrique blazed and so did she. They were both cardinals. The crucial difference was, she had no real power, while he could pulverize her with a thought.

His consciousness was waiting for her. "Thank you for coming, Sascha."

"I can't stay long, sir. I'm in the midst of a delicate situation for which I need my full attention." While in the Net, she couldn't even allow herself to think that what she was saying was a lie. She had to believe absolutely.

"The deal with the changelings."

It wasn't a question so she didn't answer.

"An interesting choice. Unusual. Why did you decide to do what the rest of the families haven't?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I'm not permitted to discuss our business practices. Please speak to my mother - she's the head of our household." Nikita had officially achieved that pinnacle in 2075 when Sascha's grandmother, Reina, had died. In truth, Nikita had been the power behind the throne for almost ten years prior to that.

"I had the impression you'd been granted more independence."

If they'd come from anyone but a Psy, she would've said that the words were meant to prick her pride and make her speak without thinking. Unless, of course, that was his plan. Was that why he was paying her so much attention suddenly - because he suspected she was flawed?

All these frantic thoughts buzzed in a small, secret part of her. It was the same place where she hid the core of her self - the shining rainbow of her mind. Layered in multiple shields she continually reinforced, it couldn't be breached by anyone without using such brutal force that it would kill her.

"Would you like me to link you to my mother?"

"No, Sascha. I wanted to ask you a favor."

Fear spiked in that small, secret heart. "What, sir?" This had to be a trap. Why would a Councilor, a cardinal with off-the-scale Tk powers, be asking her for a favor?

"You'll be coming into a lot of contact with changelings during this project. I'd like you to pass me any new information you discover about them."

It was the last thing she'd expected. "I'd be happy to do so, sir, but - "

"Think carefully, Sascha. There could be... benefits for you. Some of us are starting to think it's past time we utilized you properly."

It was a bribe, pure and simple. Her hunger to finally be accepted and valued as a cardinal urged her to accept the offer and not look back. Conversely, that very hunger also made her aware that no matter how much she tried, she'd never be normal. Getting closer to the Council would only increase her chances of being exposed.

The ashes of lost dreams floated to her feet and in the deepest, most hidden core of her soul, she cried. Only years of Psy training and a desperate desire to hide the truth of her broken mind had her answering logically. "They're understandably cautious around me. I'm not sure I'll discover anything." It was a lie. Already she knew so much no Psy had ever known, but she found herself unable to give up their secrets... Lucas's secrets.

"They're animals. Treat them well and they'll start to trust you." It was evident he thought trust a weakness.

Sascha saw it as a gift. "I'd be happy to cooperate but first I have to - "

"I've already cleared this with Nikita." Enrique neatly cut her off.

"Then I'll get the information to you."

"I'd like to meet you once a day for briefings."

Sascha was beyond scared now. She didn't want Enrique evaluating her daily. "I'm sorry, sir. That could interfere with my work and I'm sure Mother wouldn't like that. I'll contact you as soon as I have anything worth sharing." It was a daring statement and if she'd allowed herself to feel, she would've been trembling.

Enrique's presence on the PsyNet was a pure white star, so cold that she wanted to shiver. "Don't wait too long."

"Is that all, sir?"

"For now."

Sascha dropped out of the PsyNet and immediately contacted the head of her household as any good Psy would do. She could telepath without problem at this range, which at least gave her relief from keeping constant vigilance over her consciousness. During telepathic communications, neither party could "see" the other.

As soon as Nikita answered, she outlined Enrique's requests, hugging her arms so tight around her body that she almost bruised her own ribs. If her mother told her to keep those daily meetings...

Enrique has overstepped his bounds. Nikita's mental voice was frigid. I gave him permission to solicit information, not tie you to a schedule.

Relief threatened to turn her limbs to jelly. Mother, I think it would be preferable if I gave you any pertinent information and you... shared it with Enrique. The pause was calculated. Nikita enjoyed being in a position of power. You're the head of the household - I should be reporting to you first in any case.

Nikita was silent for a couple of seconds. I'd already considered that. Unfortunately, Enrique is too strong to defy without consequences. And he wants to talk to you.

Perhaps, Sascha said, thinking desperately, you could imply to him that I find dealing with his powerful presence too much on top of my first independent project.

Now you're thinking like a Duncan. Nikita was clearly pleased. He can't argue with me for trying to protect the deal.

The deal, Sascha thought, not her daughter. Even though she should've been used to the heartlessness of the Psy after a lifetime of living with them, she felt a sharp stab of hurt. Then I'm free to concentrate on the development and keep you up to speed?

Yes.

With that, Nikita was gone. Sascha allowed herself a huge sigh of relief and dropped her head into her hands. Something was wrong. It wasn't paranoia. Why was Enrique suddenly so concerned with a failed cardinal most of the Psy ignored? Doubly troubling was the extent of Nikita's cooperation with the other Councilor.

Her gut twisted. She had a feeling she was being used as a pawn in a game for which she didn't know the rules. What worried her even more was that she didn't know the consequences of checkmate... or how to stop it.

Suddenly realizing she'd been sitting there staring into nothingness, she stood up and only then did the ridiculousness of her situation strike her. She'd just had conversations with two members of the Council while sitting on the closed lid of a toilet. The thought had her stifling giggles as she lifted the lid and opened the door.

When she checked her appearance in the mirror above the basin, she was surprised to find that nothing betrayed her slight case of hysteria. Her physical masks were holding, even as the mental ones broke down piece by piece. Glancing at her timepiece, she saw that she'd been in here for almost thirty minutes. The changelings would be full of questions and she'd better have answers for them.

Before heading out, she ensured that she looked exactly as she should - every hair on her head smoothed into a tight braid, the cuffs of her dark gray suit perfectly aligned, and her face so calm that she almost convinced herself her stomach wasn't tied up in knots.

Nobody was in the corridor but heads turned the instant she walked back into the room used by Clay Bennett and the others. One particular pair of green eyes tracked her every move. "I apologize for keeping you waiting," she said, before anyone could speak. "I was called into conference."

Lucas tapped at the side of his head with a finger. "That kind of conference?" His lips curved.

She wanted to tease him back so badly. "Yes."

"Strange place for one," Kit remarked, tongue in cheek. It was a measure of her distraction that it took the comment for her to notice the young male who'd entered the room in her absence.

She couldn't help herself. "In what way?"

Kit stopped looking through some papers on Clay's desk and stared at her. When she calmly stared back, he started to turn red, looking as young and adorable as the two cubs she'd been allowed to touch. "Um, well... d-don't you... I have to get these upstairs." He grabbed what looked like a random pile of papers and almost ran from the room.

"You should be more merciful - he's only recently grown out of being a cub." Lucas's chuckle held real amusement.

She fought not to let her lips twitch. "I was merely asking a question."

His eyes narrowed. "Sure you were."

"When do you consider your children full grown?" she asked, trying to get him to stop thinking about her impulsive decision to tease Kit.

An odd tension seemed to infiltrate the room.

"Sugar for sugar, darling." The Hunter marks were starkly beautiful against the stillness of his expression.

"We're considered adults when we turn twenty." Conditioning was officially complete at eighteen, though in reality, most Psy were fully conditioned by sixteen. Two more years were given to allow any slip-ups to come to light.

"There's quite a difference between being considered adult and being adult."

"You don't think twenty is old enough?"

"Our juveniles have to prove their maturity before they're accorded adult status." Lucas was convinced Sascha had meant to tease Kit. Her expression betrayed nothing, but he wasn't Psy and he didn't disregard his feelings.

As he'd suspected from the start, this Psy was different, very different. Different enough to be dangerous... unless her own people hadn't picked up on her uniqueness. It wasn't impossible - in some matters the Psy were quite blind, blinkered by their belief in their own superiority.

Lucas's gut said that Sascha was the key to everything. If he solved the mystery of her, he might come close to shattering the closed walls of the most inhuman of races.

"A harsh law," she said.

"Our world is harsh." Especially with the Psy in charge. Without changeling heart and human spirit, the world would've been hell.

Lucas called Clay into his office after Sascha had returned to Duncan headquarters. "What did you think?"

"She's smart. Those eyes miss nothing."

"That's a given with cardinals."

To his surprise, Clay shook his head. "Some of them are so cerebral that they barely notice anything physical."

"You've had contact with them." It was a statement, not a request for information. Clay's past was shrouded in mystery but Lucas trusted the leopard to tell him anything he needed to know.

"Some," Clay confirmed. "I'm no expert but the one thing I can tell you for sure is that something about Sascha doesn't fit."

The confirmation of his own instincts added impetus to his determination to solve the mystery that was Sascha. "What did the background check turn up?"

"She's what she seems - a cardinal Psy who hasn't been co-opted into their power structure." Clay rubbed at the stubble on his jaw. "That in itself's weird enough to make her stand out. Every other adult cardinal we've tracked works for the Council in some way."

Lucas rocked back on his heels, thinking. "Which means it's either all a front and she's a Council spy..."

"... or there's something wrong with her," Clay finished, verbalizing what Lucas didn't want to admit. "If she's been shoved out of the inner circle, she's of no use to us."

The panther inside Lucas flexed its claws - there was nothing wrong with the female who'd caught its attention. "Let's give it a few more days," he said, fighting the animal. "We don't have any other option at this point. The other Psy won't even talk deals with us."

"We could let the SnowDancers do what they want."

"If they start taking out high-level Psy, any hope of ending this without massive loss of life goes out the window." The SnowDancers wanted to torture information out of those they blamed for condoning the killings, including Nikita Duncan. "The Psy will retaliate against all of us and they won't spare the cubs."

Clay nodded. They'd been through this before and the same thing had swayed them back then. DarkRiver was a powerful but young pack. They had a lot of cubs and juveniles under their protection. If the Psy struck back after a SnowDancer attack, the entire next generation could be wiped out in one bloody wave. Even Dorian's thirst for vengeance had been overpowered by his deep-rooted need to keep their young safe.

"Setting the wolves loose has to be our last choice." It was a choice he hoped he never had to make but he wasn't naive enough to believe that it wouldn't end in violence. Too many changeling women had died and they were all out for blood. Psy blood.
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